Columns in

1) English Essays,” in The Saint Austin Review, (296 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2RA, England).

2) Wit and Wonder,” in Excelsis, (PO Box 3405 Granud Central Station, New York, N. Y., 10163-3405.

3) On Essays and Letters,” in the University Bookman, (PO Box 4, Mecosta, Michigan, 49332).

4) General columns in The National Catholic Register.

5) Various On-Line Essays

            These columns have all begun relatively recently and I will include some essays from each series. They are short essays, usually around four double-spaced pages or often less. They are to be read mindful of the other series, “Sense and Nonsense,’ in Crisis and “Schall on Chesterton,” in Gilbert! (See Index), as well as books such as Idylls and Rambles, The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches,’ Schall on Chesterton, Another Sort of Learning, What Is God Like?, The Unseriousness of Human Affairs, and Unexpected Meditations Late in the XXth Century.

            1) The”English Essays” generally have some origin in or reference to English letters.

            2) “Wit and Wonder” essays are generally philosophic and religious in tone.

            3) “On Letters and Essays” are my efforts to call attention to and remind us of the vast and wonder store of letters and essays as itself a literary form of great power.

            4) The columns from the National Catholic Register are usually of some current interest but often touch on permanent issues.

            5) Various On-Line Essays

            1a) The following essays from The Saint Austin Review are: 1) “Acknowledged Vanities,” 2) “Lord Acton in America, 1853,” 3) “Belloc’s Mrs. Markham on the Americans,” 4) “The Birth of Our Lord,” 5) “The ‘Credulity of Boswell’s Ghosts,’” 6) “Do We Still See>” 7) On ‘Instruction Seasoned with Pleasantness,’” 8) “On Hazlitt’s ‘Going,’” 9) “Light,” 10) “‘Korban,’” 11) “The ‘Crazed Flagellant,’” 12) “On ‘The Desire to Be Gods,’” 13) “‘No Fool Like a Learned Fool,’” 14) “‘In a Manner Pleasing to Himself,’” 15)n”On Re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.”

            2a) The following essays from Excelsis are: 1) “”’On the Truth of Things,’” 2) “‘The Beauty of God,’” 3) “Population,” 4) “On Losing the Faith,” 5) “Groanings,” 6) “The Enormity of the Gift,” 7) “The Language of Sin,” 8) Mass ‘Participation,’” 9) “‘Collaborator of Truth,” 10) “Aquinas and Modernity,” 11) “On Apocatastasis (Salvation),” 12) “On Fame and Envy,” 13) “On Funerals,” 14) “Liturgy,” 15) “On the Reinvention of Sanity,” 16) “On the Basis of Scientific Research,” 17) “On Knowing and Doing,” 18) “On Whom to Believe.”

            3a) The following essays from the University Bookman: 1) “On Cicero’s Pro Archia,” 2) “The Great Art o’ Letter Writin’,” 3) “The Desire of Distinction,” 4) “On the Contemplation of the Heavens,” 5) “The One Good Thing to Do with Money,” 6) “On Travel,” 7) “To Go and Look at the Roman Road.”

            4a) Columns from the National Catholic Register: 1) “Is It All Right to Become a Catholic?” 2) “The Ghost of Christmases Past,” 3) “The University as an Occasion of Sin,” 4) “Diversity as an Ideology,” 5) “The New Millennium,” 6) “On Saving the Earth,” 7) “So Long, Charlie Brown,” 8) “Pius XII and the Holocaust – Again,” 9) “Strange ‘Rights’,” 10) “The Serbian War Memorial.”

            11) “Six Billion of Us,” 12) “On Reaching the Third Millennium,” 13) “On Giving Bad Instructions,” 14) “The Constitution Prevails,” 15) “The First Canon of the Mass,” 16) “”The Most Beautiful Voice,” 17) “On Helping the Poor,” 18) “Population: Too Many of Them,” 19) “On Soft Catholicism,” 20) “The Trial of Christ.”

            21) “Two Ways of Seeing the World,” 22) “On Curbing Drunkenness – Collegiate Style,” 23) “On the Duty of a Nation to Its People,” 24) “The Death Penalty,” 25) “Energy,” 26) “The New Washington,” 27) “On Proselytism,” 28) “‘Terrified by the Truth,’” 29) “The St. Ignatius Institute,” 30) “Unqualified Citizens,” 31) “Choice: Pro- and Otherwise,” 32) “‘We Loonies,’” 33) “The State of the Union,” 34) “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” 35) “A Moment of Grace.”

            5a) Various on-line sources. Here will be places a number of essays that appeared also on line: 1) “The Newest Old Political Morality,” 2) “The Purpose of Mind,” 3) “Manicheanism,” 4) “Is the World Falling Apart?



1a) Columns from “English Essays,” The Saint Austin Review.

1) Published in The Saint Austin Review, 1 (September, 2001), 12-13.


            On Monday, March 27, 1775, Boswell tells us that he “breakfasted” with Samuel Johnson at Mr. Strahan’s. That same evening, Johnson told the ever alert Boswell, that he was “engaged” to go to Mrs. Abington’s benefit. Johnson added, that “she was visiting some ladies whom I was visiting, and begged me that I would come to her benefit. I told her that I could not hear: but she insisted so much on my coming, that it would have been brutal to have refused her.” We can just see Boswell reflecting on this account. “This was a speech quite characteristical,” Boswell observes. “He loved to bring forward his having been in the gay circles of life; and he was, perhaps, a little vain of the solicitations of the elegant and fashionable actress.” Who can fail but be delighted at this account of Johnson’s charming vanity and Boswell’s cool pointing it out?

            Let me introduce this, can I say, column that I shall call, to pardon the presumption of an American, simply “English Essays.” Though I have spent a total of perhaps ten weeks in England in my days, and though I recognize that “American” and “English” are not quite the same, still since this is an English publication, let me call what I shall write here simply “English Essays.” Perhaps “My English Essays” might be preferable but I think the shorter form is better.

            I do not claim to “know” England, but from what I do know about it, there is much that I love. Some readers may recall a book of mine with the rather odd title, “The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men,” a book published in 1978, by St. Publications in Slough, my “English Book,” as I call it. Others may know my Schall on Chesterton (CUAPress, 2000). We are wont to say that no one was more English than Chesterton. I add that there is no one more metaphysical than Chesterton either, though I know that the English are often held to be a very “un-metaphysical” people.

            Thus I will simply call this series “English Essays.” I shall entitle my first essay, “Acknowledged Vanities.” It is indeed a bit vain to presume to write English in an English journal, however much it will sound like American to the true inhabitant of Britannia. So be it. I read Boswell almost on a daily basis. If he can chuckle over Johnson’s slight vanity before the “elegant and fashionable actress,” I trust that the readers of this column will find their own amusements in what I have to say.

            As a matter of fact, I have written essays in English journals like The Month, The Clergy Review, The Downside Review. The one I am most proud of, as I told Joseph Pearce, appeared in The Month for November, 1968, entitled, “What Is at Stake?: Long Term Consequences of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae.” Vanity prevents me from saying that things have happened pretty much as I thought at that time, but they did. Too, in the December 1969 issue of the same journal (I was teaching at the Gregorian University in Rome in those days), I did an essay entitled, “The Papacy and Humor.” On looking it over again, I am delighted to note that in it I cited, from Belloc’s The Path to Rome, the wonderful passage about why we should attend Mass each morning. No one has said it better even yet. Belloc thought that the greatest spiritual invention was the twenty minute Mass! I recall this passage here, for this year, 2001, is exactly one hundred years after Belloc’s famous walk from Toul to Rome, a walk not to be missed in any century.

            My memories of being in England are fond. One Christmas when I was in Belgium, I spent Christmas and Boxing Day at a parish along the Thames, down beyond Tilbury toward Southend, but I cannot recall its name. There was a convent attached to this particular parish in which there was a priest guest room. It was a very cold night when I arrived. I had not really seen how to get to the room through a garden. In any case, in the dark, I finally managed to find the room from the parish house. I hurried into my pajamas and jumped into bed to keep warm. But as I pushed my feet under the blankets, I encountered something in the bed that felt like a warm, wet dog. I almost yelled out in terror until I realized that the good nuns had kindly put a hot water bottle in the bed so that I would not freeze to death!

            At another time, I was at a parish on High Street in Bloxwich, near Walsall. This parish had an “infants’ school,” a grammar school to us. I used to love to go into the playground at recess to talk to the children. They each had the most marvelous accent. I would simply get them to talk. Listening was a complete delight. Naturally, these children thought my accent was very atrocious. They struggled bravely to understand what I was talking about. As I think that most Americans are called in England, I was simply referred as “the Yank.” This is the only time in my life that I have ever been known to have, not a flat Iowa accent, but a Yankee one!

            So these are, in the beginning, my “acknowledged vanities.” I am not a Lockean in epistemology. That is, what I know is what is, a phrase you will often hear from me. It is a phrase from St. Thomas, though, as I have learned, we can find it in Plato. And I am a Roman Catholic. I too with Belloc have been to Mass in St. Peter’s, though not on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. The present Polish Pope, I confess, is a hero of mine. He should be listened to, read regularly, carefully, but most of all, I think, he should be watched. There has been no man like him in the history of our kind.

            And too, there is Chesterton. I have been to Top Meadow. I maintain that the greatest book of the 20th Century was Orthodoxy. My only trouble with this position is that every thing Chesterton wrote is a rival to anything he wrote. So, the reader can take these musings as he will. As Chesterton said, there is nothing wrong when the truth also contains laughter. This too is where I stand.

2) Published in The Saint Austin Review


            Lord Acton – John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (b. Naples, 1834) – died on June 19, 1902. It is fitting to recall him one hundred years after his death. Professor J. Rufus Fears edited three volumes of Acton writings in 1986. (LibertyClassics). Acton was one of the most extraordinary men of the last half of the 19th Century. His grandfather was prime minister of the Kingdom of Naples. He came from a long line of Shropshire baronets. He was related to many important English, Italian, and German families. His step-father was Earl Grenville, a Liberal leader in the House of Lords. Acton was a Catholic, famous for his critical position on papal infallibility in Vatican I. He was Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, founder and contributor to many leading English and Continental journals.

            Acton, sympathetic to the Southern cause, corresponded with General Robert E. Lee. The great historian of liberty thought that liberty would have been better served by secession and emancipation than by the war. “I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy.” Much prophecy is found in these aware-of-Rousseau words “check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will.”

            From Bologna on November 4, 1866 (I, 363), Acton wrote to Lee: “I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” Lee replied from Lexington, Virginia, on December 15, 1866 that “although the South would have preferred any honorable compromise to the fratricidal war which has taken place, she now accepts in good faith its constitutional results...” (I, 366).

            In his letter to Lee, Acton spoke of having previously “travelled in America.” Acton was invited to attend the New York Industrial Exhibition in 1853. The diary of this trip is found in the Acton Essays (I, 377-88). Acton visited South Carolina, New York, and Boston. He was accompanying Lord Ellesmere, the chief British Commissioner to the Exhibition. Ellesmere was a cousin of Acton’s step-father. Acton had letters of introduction to many American statesmen and scholars. His remarks are often trenchant and amusing.

            Acton thus visited a Mrs. March, “a Catholic lady,” who owned the largest plantation in South Carolina. Acton thought Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “the best picture of the Negro life that has ever been drawn.” He noted that there is no “primogeniture in America,” but that the effects are different in America than in France. He found a large population of small property owners in America, who were “far better fitted for self-government than the German and Irish emigrants.”

            Acton liked Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune which, “on a somewhat minor scale,” corresponds to The Times. However, Acton was not sure of the Tribune’s independence of mind: “It discovers which way public opinion will turn, and by bending its course accordingly appears to direct where it really only follows.” So much for advanced colonial journalism!

            The Exhibition was in a “very handsome building,” still “the locality was bad.” The organizers hoped that it “would raise the feelings of the people for the beautiful in art. They know now only of the beautiful in use.” Moreover, “great people do not live in Broadway.... Formerly, the ladies used to frequent it, but the progress of traffic has driven them to one end of it..... Great people live in 5th Avenue, which is a very fine, quiet street. There is little to be seen in New York; it is not a fine city.” The “Great White Way” and Fifth Avenue were of the unknown future.

            Acton could spot Yankees. “I recognized numerous specimens of the real Yankee type of countenance. Numbers of faces might have been cast in the same mould. It is not a very intelligent face, and a selfish face. They are generally thin, and their hair turns white early, perhaps partly from the quantity of drink and profuse perspiration. They are seldom fine men, but tall. They are fond of wearing hair all around their chins, or else a goat’s beard.” We still spot them in D. C.

            Acton arrived in Boston on July 6, 1853. He crossed a long causeway in an omnibus to Cambridge. “Surrounded with a few trees appear a couple of red brick buildings of rather tumbledown appearance, and two small edifices of stone. This is Harvard College, the oldest and principal University in the United States, having been founded in King Charles I’s time.” Acton then gives a description of the courses available at Harvard. He himself had been denied the opportunity to study at Oxford or Cambridge evidently because he was a Catholic. Instead he went to Munich. Acton was definitely unimpressed with Harvard. “Nothing is studied for its own sake, but only as it will be useful in making a practical man....”

            At Harvard, Acton was invited to sit in on a German examination. Present was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The subject was Wilhelm Tell. “The students pronounced the German very badly one and all. Sometimes they translated with some elegance. Sometimes again they gave a word a meaning utterly wrong. Still this was often allowed to pass or mildly corrected.” Acton is afterwards invited to dine with Longfellow.

            On the way to the inn, Acton remarked that in America “antiquity began after 100 years.” The German committee also dined with them. “Most of these (the committee) were tiresome old gentlemen, not belonging to the University. One of them said a tedious grace. Longfellow presided; I was at his right hand. ... No wine is allowed by the College. The dinner was rather copious than good. Longfellow’s conversation was less interesting than I expected.” After dinner, they retired to Longfellow’s handsome house which was once Washington’s headquarters. Longfellow’s second wife possessed a fortune; she “is rather good-looking but languid.” Some smoked in the garden, others sat. “Nothing interesting was said. Indeed I learned singularly little from Longfellow’s conversation.”

            Acton met Richard Henry Dana (Two Years before the Mast). “Dana is a Pusyite, his sister is a Catholic.” A constitutional convention was in session of which Dana was the president. Again Acton was amused. “These are the men, he (Dana) says, who made the Revolution. A shoemaker who has made 100,000 dollars was heard with attention though a bad speaker, for he has some influence as a man of business: one half-madman made a loud speech for equality of all things.”

            Senator Charles Sumner was a man Acton liked. “His conversation was the best I have heard, though not so free from Americanisms as some others.” Next Acton went to Little and Brown to find as great a collection of English books as in England. Acton mentioned the famous American Catholic publicist Orestes Brownson but no one knew of him. Lastly, Acton went to the largest book seller in Boston, Burnham’s, with its great collection, cheap, but “no catalogue.” The owner was “a complete Infidel.” They speak of Parkman’s History of the Indian War. Acton had visited Burnham’s book store before. He bought there “Sparks’ Washington and Griswald’s American Authors.” This ends Acton’s diary of his American visit in 1853, a delightfully wry account to be savored one hundred years after the death of the First Baron Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton – Acton’s full name I never tire of repeating.


3) Published in The Saint Austin Review


            In 1986, Loyola University of Chicago Press published GK’s Weekly: A Sampler. This volume collected thirty sundry reprints of GK’s Weekly, from the first one of March 21, 1925 to the one, dated June 18, 1936, following Chesterton’s death. Evidently, a total of 588 issues of GK’s Weekly were published. Each issue was full of the seriousness, spoof, irony, sanity, information, philosophy, and wit that we associate with Chesterton and his friends.

            Along the way, Belloc had a series featuring a mother, Mrs. Markham, who would “explain” the facts of life, political and otherwise, to her two very precious and pert children, Tommy and Mary. In some anthology I once read, this same Mrs. Markham explained “policemen” to her offspring. I remember reading it on the local “Metro” (underground). I cried because it was so funny. So I was pleased to notice several of these “Mrs. Markam teachings” in GK’s Sampler -- explanations of “lawyers,” “newspapers,” and “the history of England.”

            Mary frequently wants Mamma to explain “Kangaroos.” But Mamma thinks that explaining the police is a more useful enterprise “because people who make mistakes about Policemen suffer terribly in later life.” The children seem to be about nine or ten, both blessed with acid tongues, plus wit far beyond their years. They are always ironically grateful to their mother for setting them straight about what goes on in life.

            The satiric flavor of these wonderful “teachings” can be garnered from Mrs. Markham’s explanation of “Americans” (June 23, 1928 – written about five months after Schall is born in Iowa, USA). Mary asks, since they now know of elephants, if Mamma will not “speak of Americans.” Tommy is likewise enthusiastic, “Yes, Mamma, you promised me to talk about these fascinating beings.” The idea that Americans might be, in the eyes of her children, “fascinating beings” was a bit much for Mrs. Markham. She suspects her son of untoward insinuations. “The phrase ‘Fascinating beings,’” she continues, “seems to me, my dear Tommy, inappropriate, and (looking at him severely) I am not quite sure that your intention....”

            Tommy is up to his mother’s level; he is in fact “eager.” “I assure you, dear Mamma, the words were used in a flattering sense, and my eagerness for information perhaps outstripped my discretion.” One is never quite sure if little Tommy is a budding genius or an inchoate monster, probably both.

            Mrs. Markham accepts this explanation cautiously but adds, “Well then, I must first inform you that the Americans are our cousins....” At this point, we realize that Mrs. Markham has already instructed her own logical children on other topics. Thus, young Miss Mary interrupts the conversation, “You told us that long ago, Mamma, when you were talking about Evolution.” What can a helpless American do with such bright children! Mary suddenly understands that, as the Englishman’s “distant cousins,” the Americans were the same ancestry, according to another lesson, that started Evolution in the first place. Belloc makes no effort to clarify this implicit ambiguity of whether the American “cousins” were identical with those other “cousins,” namely, the apes, who were, in 1925, held to be the origin of human life. Will Cuppy once wrote a book with the title, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, a title that flourished on the same amusing ancestral ambiguity.

            Mrs. Markham “sharply” corrects Mary. She explains that she meant not what Mary implied but that the English themselves had descended from folks of Anglia and Saxonia. The English were really Germans! But Tommy next wants to know why did the Americans “branch off from us?”

            Mrs. Markham is up to this question: “In the 17th century, my dear; that is three hundred years ago, for you must know that at this time the Government was so wicked that they would not allow people to worship God according as they felt inclined, on which account a number of noble men and women got into a boat called ‘The Mayflower’ and sailed away for a distant land where they might pray in the fullness of their hearts.” But at this exalted explanation, Tommy only wants to know who “paid for the boat?” Mrs. Markham replies that they paid for it themselves. At which Mary observes that they must have been “very rich. Could you and Papa pay for a boat to take you over to America.” Mrs. Markham “hurriedly” changes the subject.

            This wonderful history lesson about the origins of the Americans continues through the Pilgrims, slavery, the civil war, immigration, democracy, and the presidency. Mary inquires about the name of “the Governor of the whole United States.” Mamma replies, “He is called President, my dear. Sometimes he is called one thing and sometimes another. The one who is president today is called Calvin.” To which Mary replies, with obvious theological overtones, “Then I am sure he must be a good man.” “You are right, my dear,” Mrs. Markham reaffirms the virtue of Mr. Coolidge.

            Since it is during the late twenties, the subject of prohibition enters Mrs. Markham discourse to her eager children. After explaining all the wonderful virtues of the Americans, Mary replies, “Really, Mamma, these people seem to have all the good qualities that anyone can possess.” Mamma thinks it is time to explain to the children just how far American virtue extends. “But I have not yet exhausted the list (of American virtues); for you must know that they have forbidden drinking wine or beer or any kind of thing on which anybody could get drunk, so that now no one in American knows even what Drunkenness is. And not only that, but they are now going to outlaw war, so that there will never more be war anywhere in the world, and no more shooting at people or dropping bombs on them from the air, or making them unhappy in any way.” How devastatingly amusing Belloc can be! On hearing of the arrival of this perfect world via the Americans, little Mary “(dissolving into tears) [says] ‘Oh, Mamma, surely this is too good to be true’!!” And she “sobs” again.

            From this exalted League of Nations mentality, things descends rapidly. Tommy wants to know why other nations do not copy “the noble example of the United States?” His mother explains, “It is in the mysterious designs of Providence; but you know, Tommy, that the world gets better and better, and therefore we may expect it to be as perfect as America is to-day.” After this remarkable explanation, Belloc notes “a Pause.” Mary next wants her mother to name “the principal American Poets, Sculptors, Architects, and Theologians.” Mary got the question from a book about Czecho-Slovakia. Mamma mentions a sculptor named Hiram Power. The poet is Longfellow. The principal theologian is “a lady called Mrs. Eddy.” Do we detect a lacuna in perfection here?

            Tommy’s final question is noble: “does everyone love America.” His mother has to tell the little lad that in truth only the English really love America. Other people “pretend” to love them, “notably the degraded French.” The sign of this English love is that after all the money that the Americans doled out in the Great War, only the English are paying them back. This ingratitude of other nations infuriates Mary. “Then I hope, dear Mamma, the Americans will make war on all those wicked people and make them pay heavy interest as well!” Tommy adds sympathetically “Yep! Blow ‘em out of the World!”

            But Mamma reproves this bellicose sentiment against the lovely Americans who have made the world so perfect and who are their “cousins.” “Nay! My dear children, these are not sentiments the Americans themselves would approve.” They only use “peaceful forms of pressure such as those suggested by Mr. Otto Kahm.” The obscure reference to Otto Kahm (Kahn), of course, is the final irony. He was an international financier whose “methods” Mrs. Markham probably thought to be worse than Mary’s make war “on wicked people” or Tommy’s “Blow ‘em out of the World.”

            Such is the story of the “Americans,” the “cousins” of the English, distant cousins of the Angles and the Saxons, if not further down the evolutionary ladder. Yes, as Mrs. Markham said, “the world gets better and better every day” and someday all can hope to be as “perfect” as the Americans are “to-day,” i.e., in 1928, when drink and war were both happily prohibited. Today, in 2002, we prohibit smoking. We pursue a war. Some still demand “perfect peace.” Oftentimes, I think Belloc’s bemused parodies are not a little prophetic.

4) Published in The Saint Austin Review, 1 (December, 2001), 15-26.


            Walking across the campus the other day, I ran into a young student who had spend the past semester at one of the great English universities. This young woman was of Hindu origin, but born in Hong Kong, studying in the United States. She mentioned in passing that none of the English students she met on her stay there went to Church. They were “matter of fact,” she explained, “but did not seem to believe in anything, somewhat apologetic about it.” I think I had mentioned to her reading Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s recent address at Leeds on this same topic.

            Meantime, another former student of mine, this time at a Scottish university, told me the first book assigned to her was a well-known tome in ethics entitled “inventing right and wrong.” We can almost hear Nietzsche laugh at the absurdity of it. We think of bin Laden telling us that there is no distinction between “innocent and guilty,” his own invention, no doubt as good as any other on such philosophical hypotheses.

            “There is an indifference to Christian values and to the Church among many young people,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor remarked, “and, indeed, not only the young. If you couple that with the sketch of the culture in which we live, you see quite a demoralised society, one where the only good is what I want, the only rights are my own and the only life with any meaning or value is the life I want for myself.” This “only good is what I want” is but another way of “inventing right and wrong,” another echo of the ancient sophists who would tell us how best to do what we wanted, whatever it was that we wanted.

            Such sentiment, of course, was before the New York and Washington air bombings, after which, at least in the States, in spite of our vaunted separation of church and state, many, including the members of government, were in church. It was not just because they could think of no where else to go. Ironically, they were in church because another religion’s extremists had attacked them, ostensibly for the latter’s own religious reasons. Suddenly, while we have worried about communism, secularism, liberalism, consumerism, and environmentalism, we are shocked to recall the words of Hilaire Belloc in 1938, in The Great Heresies, “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandson would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent” (126-27). In the light of the secularization of the West, one can wonder whether a resurgent Islam will in fact find that its opponent is really “the Christian culture,” now so tenuous in so many hearts.

            On the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1950, on the BBC Third Programme, Msgr. Ronald Knox delivered a sermon entitled, “The Birth of Our Lord” (Pastoral Sermons, Sheed & Ward, 1960, 354-58). He began by wondering whether all the old tales of Genesis and the Bible were so improbable even if they were not taken so seriously anymore. Knox contrasted the birth of Eve’s first son, Cain, with the birth of Christ of the Virgin, Mary. Knox was fascinated with the classic phrases associated with each birth, Eve’s “I have gotten a man of the Lord,” and the ringing “Unto us a Child is born.”

            Knox was especially struck by the fact that the early heresies did not deny Christ’s divinity, but His humanity. It was more difficult to believe Christ was really a human person than it was to believe He was the Son of God. Contemporary heresy tends to go in the opposite direction, I suppose; Christ’s humanity overshadows, when it does not absorb, his divinity. The fact is that revelation includes both, true God and true man, something no doubt more difficult, though more consoling, than either of the two contrary heresies. We notice that today it is not merely the manhood of Christ that is in doubt, but the manhood of any man. We have been in the process, as C. S. Lewis wrote, of “abolishing man.” One thing God could not have “become” no doubt would be an “abolished man.” The “invention of good and evil” entails the invention of a “man,” a “new man,” unlike any man we have ever seen before in our history. And it is the actual men who have existed in our history and in our time who long for the redemption precisely of themselves.

            In thinking about Christmas, Knox thought, we have to understand how this birth of Christ is both like and unlike any other birth. “The child who was born at Bethlehem had, for nine months, been carried in the womb at Nazareth, just like any other child; this is our guarantee that, although God, he was yet truly man. God did not deceive us by taking on the mere appearance of humanity....” Knox saw the Christmas Crib before which we kneel to be a help by which “we get into our heads ... the human reality of it all; God is actually here among his creatures.”

            Yet, Christ’s birth was also quite different from any other human birth. The Mother of Christ “was and remains a virgin.” But if only a “phantom” was born, then what suffered on the Cross was an illusion. Yet, Christ’s mother was there, at the same Cross; she saw her Son. Knox added here a remark that is found also, I think in Orthodoxy, about the peculiarity of Christian truth: “Always Christian people had the instinct that your theology was safe when your opponents accused you of holding two doctrines that flatly contradicted one another. You were most likely to be right.” Mary was Mother of God and mother of man. Both.

            Eve bore the first man. “The long history of woman’s child-bearing had begun; the process had been set in motion which was to give existence, all those centuries afterwards, to you and me.” In reading these words today, some half a century after Knox spoke them on the BBC, we cannot help but think of scientific projects that seek to change the conditions of human birthing, cloning that will give birth not to you and me but the “creation” of you and you and of me and me, as if that is anything but a disaster both to you and me and to the you and me supposedly to be formed. God’s inventions remain superior in wonder to man’s, the first thing a man must know even to be what he is.

            For Knox, Christmas remained a holiday, but only if we remembered what it was to be happy and holy about. “We pay our visit to the Christmas crib. We are going back to the nursery where life, supernatural life, first dawned for us.... You, too, have been born into the family of grace, and this is the cradle of it. Unto us a Child is born...”

            Christmas, 1950, I was at the Jesuit House at Los Gatos, California. I did not hear the BBC that day, of course, but we had a crib certainly whereby we were reminded of where supernatural life first dawned for us. Indeed, “unto us a child is born.” The word us was italicized in Knox’s original text and I suppose indicated by the emphasis of his voice (a recording of this talk may still exist somewhere in the bowls of the BBC). This Child was already true God become true man not for God’s sake, but for ours.

5) Published in The Saint Austin Review, 2 (February, 2002), 29.


            Several years ago, a friend gave me several volumes of Lillian de la Torre’s The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector. I had not much thought of these exploits recently until I happened to be reading Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, 2000). In fact, I was reading Sisman’s charming book while on an Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Washington, after a visit with a nephew and family.

            As I read, I came across Sisman’s discussion of Boswell’s activities immediately after the death of Johnson, December 13, 1784. The following February, Boswell claims that he saw Johnson’s ghost. The ghost reported to Boswell, who evidently was miffed that Johnson had left him nothing from his library in his will, that at his death, his library had been a bit disordered. Sisman explains what he considered to be behind this encounter of Boswell with Johnson’s ghost in this manner:


To the credulous Boswell, who was frightened of ghosts and who believed in second sight, dreams were significant: not as vehicles for the dreamer’s subconscious thoughts, but as literal manifestations of the spirit world. To the modern reader, Boswell’s dreams of Johnson suggest that he (rather than Johnson’s spirit) was unsettled.... (75-76).

When I read this remarkable passage, I put the book down. Somehow it reminded me of a passage in Chesterton about modern man’s problems with miracles. At first, I was not able to put my finger on the problem.

            I had remembered that de la Torre someplace had a short story on Boswell, Johnson, and ghosts. In a story entitled, “The Westcomb Witch,” we find Johnson and Boswell dealing with a beautiful and rich young lady by the name of Fanny who somehow had a “coven” of admirers around her. This is how Boswell is pictured at the end of the story:


“You can not,” said my husband the Professor severely, “have Doctor Johnson attending a Black Mass.”

“No,” I replied but Boswell can.

Boswell, I reminded him, liked to savor – and record – all his emotions, including his fears and terrors, and sometimes he courted such Gothic feelings. I am sure he would have been delighted to attend a Black Mass and tremble at its horrors. (39-40).

This willingness to experience the occult and actually to enjoy its terrors is not exactly Sisman’s point since Boswell is pictured as actually believing in ghosts. He is not a mere modern who enjoys being frightened so that he can record his emotions for posterity.

            On returning to Georgetown on December 19, I said Mass, the normal kind. In the Gospel of Luke reading for that day, I found an account of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. The scene is of Zecharaiah going into the holy sanctuary to offer sacrifice in his turn. There he was met by an angel who told him that his wife would conceive in her old age. Because he quizzed the good angel, Zecharaiah is struck dumb until after John is born and named with this unusual name which none of his relatives had.

            Let’s suppose now that we apply to the Lucan account the same “logic” that Sisman used to inform us of Boswell’s real experience and not what he (Boswell) thought it was. Since we are “modern readers,” we cannot think that Zechariah actually saw an angel who reported to the good news that he and his wife had hoped for, namely a son. For he and his wife Elizabeth were already into old age. Thus what happened, as we “modern readers” must know, is that normal husband/wife relations took place. Somehow Elizabeth was not as old as she thought. Thus nothing unusual happened. We surely do not have to take seriously this “angel” business as we can explain it our modern way..

            Now, I am not necessarily a believer in ghosts, but then I never encountered one either. If I did, I’d believe it. What is wrong with Sisman’s position is that he, in effect, substitutes one myth for another. He considers that ghosts do not exist, presumably on some scientific evidence. Thus, when Boswell, the “credulous Boswell,” reports encountering the ghostly Johnson, it cannot be maintained. What we must do rather is to bow before a modern myth developed by the psychological sciences that purport to explain what really happened to poor Boswell. He might have had a dream. But the dream was caused by Boswell’s own spirit disappointed at not receiving any recognition from Johnson’s will. The positive dream explained that it was merely an oversight on Johnson’s part as he was too busy dying to remember which books were to have gone to Boswell.

            What is the point of all this? There may or may not in principle be ghosts or angels or witches or miracles. If I have an a priori position that any of these is impossible, then I cannot be open to any evidence that such might exist. When I encounter evidence or testimony, I must seek another explanation that apparently explains it. I have to conclude that the original witness and his evidence were erroneous. I accept the “theory” in its place and discount the testimony and indeed good sense of actual witnesses.

            Who indeed is credulous? If I am a “modern man” and have a “theory” that does not allow me to accept angels or ghosts, I certainly can never be realist enough to judge whether any evidence against my theory exists. I go away feeling very “modern” while in its name I cut myself off from the realities that might be broader than my own subjective ideas. The “modern” reader explains all problems that arise from the world out there as manifestations of things that his subconscious desired. How droll! The danger of being a modern man is, on its own premises, that of likewise being a very narrow man in a very vast world.

6) Published in The Saint Austin Review 1 (November, 2001), 15.


            A few days after the initial destruction in New York and then across the Potomac in Washington, someone sent me a reference to C. S. Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War Time.” This title seemed especially appropriate as we had a campus full of students who sensed that we were at war, who were not sure what that might mean. They wondered whether they should be in the university any longer, though few rushed out to join the army or intelligence services.

            I had not heard of this famous Lewis consideration. On second thought, as I see by my own underlinings in the book, I had read it in Weight of Glory but forgotten it. One might say that war is a time in which we can learn things that we would not otherwise learn. Once at war, “we see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it,” Lewis wrote. “If we had foolish unChristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying he soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon” (32). These words are all the more pertinent today when fewer and fewer people have devoted much time or effort to anything but this world, now shaken by events they might have anticipated, if only by knowing St. Augustine.

            A colleague of mine was especially concerned about references claiming that we were going to remove the “evil” that caused this atrocity from the face of the earth. Not likely. This sentiment is indeed the famous utopian heresy that somehow, some way, we can identify the cause of evil in this world, locate it in a group, class, or race, eliminate it by our own hand. As a result, suddenly things will be perfect. We are shocked, or should be, as Christians, to hear any claim that we can get rid of evil in such an efficient manner. Probably there is no more bloody and dangerous political idea than the one that promises to rid ourselves of evil by political or economic means

            Wiser heads from Plato on will realize that the origin of evil is potentially in the soul of each of us. If it is there, it is only there because we put it there. It is not outside of us in some class or group. The resolution of evil and good is not ours to decide ultimately and this resolution will not take place in this world. War, Lewis thought, was a sobering consideration of the fact that we must be prepared, a reminder that we have here no lasting city. War does not mean, further, that the good win and the evil lose. Each prevails, at least for a time. The idea that we can eradicate evil is not a Christian idea. It is, if anything, Manichean, though even they had to invent a permanent god of evil.. Ironically, it is only by denying that we can produce a perfect world, with no evil in it, that we can do something about actual evil, however little it might prove to be.

            By chance I have been reading Arnold Lunn’s Now I See. This once well-known book was published by Sheed & Ward in 1938. It is, if anything, a feisty book. It is an autobiography. It is a polemic. Lunn, the famous skier, had entered the Catholic Church, which meant, in what I consider a most healthy reaction, that he had to explain why this act was not mad, was not absurd. It meant systematically confronting all the arguments against the validity of the Church and indeed against the validity of reason itself.

            Lunn, as we say, took no prisoners. He was able to do something before World War II that we are little capable of today, namely, explain why some aspect of Protestantism or other religion or philosophy was objectively wrong. Lunn did the very unkind thing of taking people’s ideas seriously, of examining them to see if they made sense. We are wont today to see the “good” things in others. This is not a bad initial step, but it often prevents us from clearly seeing that erroneous things do exist and must be accounted for. There was, I found, a certain refreshing grittiness in Lunn.

            “It is, I am convinced, a great mistake to sweep away as irrelevant and unimportant the reasoned arguments for Christianity, and to concentrate on urging people to find Christ with all possible speed,” Lunn wrote. “It is no use imploring people to try the Christian way of life until you have convinced them that Christianity is true. The attractions of this way of life are not self-evident. The Christian way of life is a way of self-denial and self-discipline, which are worth while if, and only if, Christianity is true” (16). If we don’t think a thing is true, we won’t try it; in fact, we should not try it. And if it is true, we have to show some corroborating reason why it is true. Faith always points to reason. Reason cannot ever answer all its own questions.

            Lunn’s autobiography was blunt, as I am sure he was. He deliberately engaged many of the most famous agnostics of his time. He thought that the truth of Christianity could be defended, not of course “proved” by reason, for that would take a divine power, but defended by it. He could show that the arguments against Christianity were not reasonable. We forget how important this often unpleasant yet humorous work of intellectual analysis is. We have neglected to see. Sometimes it takes a sermon of C. S. Lewis or a book of Arnold Lunn to cause us to awaken us. This is, I think, the main “catholic” virtue of English letters, this acknowledgment that we are made for light, not darkness, for glory and not for insipidness. We “see” in the “now.” It is the “I” that “sees,” when it sees. Lunn had it about right.

7) Published in the Saint Austin Review, 2 (April, 2002), 11-12.


            Back in 1992, for Christmas, my friends the Anne and Bill Burleigh gave me a copy of George Herbert: The Country Parson, The Temple. George Herbert was a noted Anglican Priest (1593-1633). He was from Montgomeryshire, bordering on Wales. He went to Cambridge University and was even briefly in Parliament. Ordained in the beautiful Salisbury Cathedral, he became the Rector of the parish church at Fugglestone St. Peter -- a name, like so many English place names, impossible to make up or to forget. He served also as Rector of a chapel at Bemerton St. Andrew from 1630-33. He died at this chapel on March 1, 1633. When I checked on Internet, I found a photo of the lovely Church of St. Peter at Fugglestone, just north and west of Salisbury, in Wiltshire. The Bemerton St. Andrew church can also be found with the grave of Herbert himself.

            The Country Parson was published after Herbert died. It contains numerous short chapters with such edifying titles as “The Parson Praying,” “The Parson Punishing,” “The Parson in Journey,” “The Parson’s State of Live,” and “The Parson Comforting.”

            I should like to comment here on a very short chapter entitled, “The Parson in Mirth.” The word, “mirth,” is one I am particularly fond of as it is the last thing about which Chesterton, at the end of Orthodoxy, reminds us, namely, “God’s mirth,” which, as Chesterton said, is largely concealed from us, lest, on knowing it, we despair that we did not have it. Again we are reminded that the existence of “mirth” or “joy” in our lives, or in the universe, is much more difficult to explain than sadness or suffering.

            Herbert begins his own chapter in a very sober fashion. “The Country Parson is generally sad because he knows nothing but the Cross of Christ, his mind being defixed on it.” This is St. Paul, of course. The Parson notes the nails of the Cross as the objects of his “defixation,” his concentration.. And if he looks up from these nails, what does he see all around him? Two “most sad spectacles: Sin and Misery.” The scene is not encouraging. God is not honored among us. Men are “afflicted.” It is not a pretty sight.

            Yet, any Parson must sometimes “refresh himself.” Nature, the Parson tells us, will not long tolerate such “everlasting droopings.” That is a wonderful phrase of course – “everlasting droopings.” I almost used it for the title of this essay – “On ‘Everlasting Droopings’” – but I was afraid that the word “drooping” is too open to mis-understanding or mis-pronunciations or to the reconfiguration of its letters -- “On ‘Everlasting Droppings’” would never do!

            Dogs’ ears “droop.” There is even a basset hound cartoon called “Droopy.” “To droop” means to “hang down” or to “sag,” especially in spirit. Vaguely, I recall that certain musical versions of verse 3 of the 23d Psalm, talk about reviving “my drooping spirit.” So Herbert was aware that too much concentration on the realistic or sinful side of the faith could cause a certain oppressive “droopiness.”

            In contrast, Herbert realized that “pleasantness of disposition is a great key to do good.” This position reflects Aristotle’s notion that pleasure is intended to assist us precisely to do the good that is in our actions, or at least ought to be there. Men shun the “company of perpetual severity.” When they are “in company,” what they enjoy is “instruction seasoned with pleasantness.”

            Thus, knowing these things about human “frailty,” in himself and others, what does the Country Parson advocate? Why, he proceeds to “intermingle some mirth in his discourses” – but just “occasionally, according to the pulse of his hearers.” The Country Parson is not to become a sort of clerical entertainer or what Aristotle called a “buffoon,” someone who does just anything to get a laugh, however good laughter in itself might be. The “pulse of his hearers”means that there is a time and a place for these pleasantries.

            Writing from Bolt-court on August 30, 1780, some century and a half after Herbert, Samuel Johnson was explaining to a young clergyman how to compose a sermon. Johnson had a “learned” friend by the name of Dr. Wheeler at Oxford. When Wheeler was a young clergyman, he had the care of a near-by parish for “fifteen pounds a year.” It seems that the parish never paid him the fifteen pounds but, loyal cleric that he was, he kept giving weekly sermons there anyhow.

            Wheeler was having difficulty moving the soul of one lady in the parish who, on inquiry, told Wheeler that “she was no scholar,” meaning, I suppose, that she could not understand what the Oxford don was talking about. Someone advised him to find a good member of the parish to talk to her in less erudite terms, which he did. “Such honest, I may call them holy artifices,” Johnson continued, “must be practiced by every clergyman; for all means must be tried by which souls may be saved.” It is nice to come across such a phrase these days – that a clergyman should be interested in finding means by which “souls may be saved.”

            So, I suppose if we combine Herbert’s “mirth” with Johnson’s “holy artifices,” we can manage to present both the Cross and the joy anywhere from Fugglestone St. Peter to the ends of the world. After all, the Cross, by being what it is, namely, our redemption, always points to the joy of Resurrection. Men “shun the company of perpetual severity.” Instruction should be “seasoned with pleasantness.” “All means must be tried by which souls may be saved.” “Pleasantness of disposition is a great key to do good.” A clergyman should occasionally mingle a little “mirth in his discourses.”

8) Published in The Saint Austin Revies, 2 (March, 20020, 33-34.


            Several yeas ago, I had a student by the name of Joe Flahive. For such a young man, he was an amazing linguist, knew the classical tongues, knew theology, philosophy. I suspect his teachers were somewhat afraid of him. He told me he played baseball in high school in Connecticut, and he could play the piano. He told me that his grandmother played ragtime piano some place, but he also knew classical piano. As I had never heard the music that is in Belloc’s A Path to Rome played or sung before, I asked him one afternoon if he would mind playing it and singing it for me. He was delighted to do so. We have a piano in one of our parlors where he finally let Schall hear what Belloc sang.

            This young man one summer joined a program in Rome with the Pope’s Latinist. I believe they were dealing with Veritatis Splendor. After a summer in Latin studies at the Vatican, I recall, he flew to Inverness in Scotland. From there, having somehow secured boots, he proceeded to walk to the North Sea and back to Inverness before he returned to the States. He evidently stayed in Inns or slept out of doors, ate from local fare. I forget now how long it took him, maybe twelve days. He walked by himself.

            One of the most famous, if not the most famous English walking essay is that of William Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey,” published in The New Monthly Magazine, January, 1822. Hazlitt (1780-1830) was the son of a Unitarian minister. After a try, he did not follow his father’s profession but became basically a journalist and writer.

            Today, one hesitates to think there are those who have not read this most charming essay. Indeed, on rereading it, it is so familiar that one is tempted to think it full of cliches, so much of what Hazlitt wrote has become part of the language and the sentiment of walking. The very first thing that one notices about the essay is that the title lacks a preposition. The title is not “On Going on a Journey,” but simply “On Going a Journey.” I hesitate making a big issue of this terminology, but somehow the lack of the preposition makes the mood of the essay more immediate, more personal.

            Hazlitt distinguishes between walking in one’s native places and walking in foreign lands. For the first we do not want anyone else but ourselves. For the latter we need a companion. Hazlitt does not mention political conditions – that is, not every polity welcomes our walking around by ourselves. Robbery of hapless walkers is not unknown in this century, or any century. There are some places, however, where the walker is still welcome. I write these lines conscious that Belloc’s The Path to Rome was set in the year 1901, while his Four Men in 1902, both magnificent walking books.

            Hazlitt, moreover, does not, besides politics, mention dogs! I presume he had a sturdy stick and was capable of wielding it, if necessary. I have always found that the most uncomfortable part of any country-side, or city-side for that matter, walk, even in friendly climes, was the furiously barking dog racing to catch my fleeing heels. I have never met the owner of a vicious dog who admitted that it would bite. This experience has always served to undermine any confidence in the observational powers of dog-owners. Basically, do not believe them, or, if you do, keep yourself well supplied with rabies injections.

.           The main part of Hazlitt’s essay is really devoted to teaching us a kind of active contemplation. “I can enjoy society in a room,” Hazlitt tells us, “but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am never less alone than when I am alone.” Hazlitt does not put this last sentence in quotation marks. But at the beginning of Part III of Cicero’s De Officiis, we read: “Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of that family to be called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle than when he had nothing to do, and never less lonely than when he was by himself.” The sentiment stands at the core of our personal existence 

            “The soul of a journey is liberty,” Hazlitt continues, “perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.” Presumably, Hazlitt does not mean here a Machiavellian liberty, the exhilarating freedom to do wrong if it aids one’s success. We have the impression that the man is getting out of his routine, taking a look at things he has never seen before, though there is nothing wrong with seeing, on our walks, the same things again and again.

            Yet, Hazlitt recognizes that the walker must dine. In fact, the more he walks, the more the anticipation of food at the end of the day entices him. “I grant there is one subject on which it is pleasant to talk on a journey, and that is, what one shall eat for supper when we get to our inn at night.” Hazlitt has a place for what he calls, evidently following Luther, “Table-Talk.” But that is reserved for indoors. How charming is Hazlitt! “How fine it is to enter some old town, walled and turreted, just at approach of nightfall, or to come to some straggling village, with the lights streaming through the surrounding gloom; and then, after inquiring for the best entertainment that the place affords, to ‘take one’s ease at one’s inn.’!”

            I had noted that the phrase “take one’s ease at one’s inn” was in quotation marks. It is given in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as from Henry IV, P. I, iii. iii, 91 (77). How remarkable it is that the English language can so associate a man walking by himself with the coming to an inn that recalls Falstaff and Henry, though I should add that in this inn, Falstaff is complaining about getting his pocket picked!

            Hazlitt is content to pass time in the inn. “It was on the 10th of April, 1798, that I sat down to a volume of the New Eloise, at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken.” Somehow, I confess a less than gluttonous desire for such a dietary combination at any inn. But a man reveals himself more by what he reads, when he is free, than by what he eats after a long-day’s walk, though he reveals himself in both.

            “We change of place, we change our ideas; nay, our opinions and feelings.” It is indeed difficult, I think, to be in a foreign land.

            “We measure the universe by ourselves, and even comprehend the texture of our own being only piecemeal.” Hazlitt relented somewhat on his strictures about foreign travel when he went to Calais in France. He did think we are somehow different people outside out own lands. Ultimately, he tries to have the best of both worlds: “We can be said only to fill our destiny in the place that gave us birth. I should on this account like well enough to spend the whole of my life in travelling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home.”

            Somehow this passage makes me think of Cobbett’s Rural Rides, a book, as I recall, full of accounts of people who never get but a few miles from their place of birth. Hazlitt actually cites Cobbett: “He thought it a bad French custom to drink our wine with our meals, and that an Englishman ought to do only one thing at a time.” I was born on a farm near Pocahontas, Iowa. Almost all the barns, sheds, houses, and outbuildings that I recall from youth are now destroyed, the plots are now all farm land. As far as I know, few walk there, though all states have walking trails. What indeed is “our destiny in the place that gave us birth?”.

9) Published in The Saint Austin Review,



            “Theologians,” George MacDonald amusingly wrote, “have done more to hide the gospel of Christ than any of its adversaries.” This opinion, I presume, is not designed to minimize the damage of the adversaries!

            George MacDonald was born in the Scottish highlands in 1824 and died in Italy in 1905. He was a Protestant minister, father of eleven children, a novelist, a theologian trying to “un-hide” things. He inspired much of the “fantasy” literature in English Christian letters. He is, in the good sense, something of a “cult” figure, though Dennis Quinn, in his excellent new book, Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder, finds a tendency to Gnosticism in MacDonald. His fantasies sometimes seem like an independent sub-creation, though I think they are ordered to clarify what real creation is about.

            I have an edition of MacDonald’s sermons called Creation in Christ. The fourth Sermon is entitled “Light,” based on the symbolism of light in the Epistles and Gospel of St. John. MacDonald wonders just why we call the Gospel “good news?” “Is it good news that He came to His own, and His own received Him not? What makes it fit, I repeat, to call the tale good news?” It is perhaps significant that MacDonald called the Gospel “a tale.” If we consulted this or that theologian, MacDonald adds, he would give his reason why it was good news to him, “though it might involve what would be anything but “good news” to some of us” (Howard Shaw Publisher, 1976, 38).

            God, for instance, is called just. MacDonald is concerned with the Calvinist understanding of God, with the Old Testament stories wherein God seems to command unjust things. “True, they call Him just, but say He does that which seems to the best in me the essence of injustice.” MacDonald did not think the full answer could be found in the synoptic gospels, but it could be found in John who says that “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” He exclaims, “Away with your iron cages of false metaphysics! I am saved – for God is light!”

            MacDonald is also aware that the capacity of seeing the truth of God has something to do with us.


To the wicked “the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light;” but is that because the conscience of the wicked man judges of good and evil oppositely to the conscience of the good man? When he (the wicked) says “Evil, be my good,” he means by evil what God means by evil, and by good he means pleasure. He cannot make the meaning change places. To say that what our deepest conscience calls darkness may be light to God, is blasphemy; to say light in God and light in man are of different kinds, is to speak against the spirit of light (40).

MacDonald maintains that the very effort to make what is evil to be good will not succeed. The best we can do is to is make pleasure to be a good, which it is. We can shift focus, but not definition.

            Behind MacDonald’s concern about the proper calling of good “good” and evil “evil” lies our capacity to delight in what God teaches. “God means us to be jubilant in the fact that He is light.” That is such a striking sentence! We are to be jubilant in the light. “There is no loveliness, nothing that makes man dear to his fellow man, that is not in God, only it is infinitely better in God.”

            Thus, if we do not see or wish to see what is contained in this divine light, God is still patient with us. “There are good things that God must delay giving until His child has a pocket to hold them... He must first make him fit to receive and to have. There is no part of our nature that shall not be satisfied – and that not by lessening it, but by enlarging it to embrace an ever-enlarging enough” (41). We are given more than what is due, but we must be prepared to receive a gift, that is, to admit that what is to be given to us is more than what is “due” to us.

            MacDonald was particularly concerned about those who refuse the light, “the unforgivable sin.” The “refusal” of grace, this refusal to repent sin has “no excuse” (45). MacDonald recognizes that in fact, “God passes by all (sins) He can. He passes by and forgets a thousand sins, yea, tens of thousands, forgiving them all – only we must begin to be good, begin to do evil no more.” God is, as it were, bound by our own freedom.

            What about someone who refuses in principle, as it were? Here MacDonald has what at first sight sounds like a tough doctrine. Indeed, he ends up inventing or implying the doctrine of Purgatory. But this is as insightful a comment on the need of punishment that I have seen. Plato said much the same thing when he held that if we err, we should want to be punished as a sign that we reaffirm and understand the law that we transgressed. The only alternative would be to make what is darkness to be light, what is sin to be good, which cannot be done.

            Notice the emphasis on our own understanding of the nature of our acts that is found in MacDonald:


He who refuses (repentance) must be punished and punished – punished through all the ages – punished until he give way, yields, and comes to the light, that his deeds may be seen by himself to be what they are, and be by himself reproved, and the Father at least have His child again. For the man who in this world resists to the full, there may be, perhaps, a whole age or era in the history of the universe during which his sin shall not be forgiven; but never can it be forgiven, save in the sense that God does and will do all He can to make them repent? Who knows but such sin may need for its cure the continuous punishment of an aeon? (46).

There may be a touch of Origin here, a denial of the particular judgment. In fact, it was this view that our time of trial did not end with death that forced MacDonald to resign from Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel, in 1853. But he must, in any system, “reprove” the wrongness in his own deeds.

            Technically, purgatory, in its orthodox understanding, is not to “make us repent,” that is already done. But MacDonald’s vivid imagery stresses the fact that not even God, being loyal to His own rules, can change our minds or wills without our cooperation. Punishment might help and thus may be a useful thing, but it may not help either. And in the latter case, we have hell and Lucifer. But in all of this effort to clarify what the faith teaches, MacDonald is right – “God means us to be jubilant in the fact that He is light.” This is indeed the “good news,” when “un-hidden” even to adversaries and theologians.

10) Published in The Saint Austin Review, 2 (January, 2002), 40-41.


            Somehow, I happen to have on my shelves a copy of H. V. Morton’s Through the Lands of the Bible. I do not quite remember how I acquired it. The name of Father Gerald Yates, S.J. is printed on its first page. He died some twenty years ago, so I probably found it among his books. This edition was published by Dodd, Mead in 1958. The original publication date was 1938 -- on Internet I even found the colorful dust-jacket of the original Dodd, Mead edition. The recent papal trip to Greece, Syria, and Malta, had reminded me of Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul, steps the Holy Father had been explicitly following. During a Jubilee Year visit, the Pope had also visited the famous Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, a place to which Morton also recounts going in Through the Lands of the Bible.

            Morton has always had a warm place in my heart. Few are more fascinated by the places where men have dwelt. During the years I spent there, his Traveller in Rome remained, even long after he published it in 1957, the best way to begin to “see” Rome. Somehow, Rome to me came alive through the English eyes of H. V. Morton. The book was a kind of mini-history of the English in Rome. Even today, if one looks up the name H. V. Morton on a web search engine, he will find reference after reference to Morton, to places where one can find copies of his books, new and used, to remembrances of his life and journeys. One web site calls him, correctly, “the world’s greatest travel writer.”  

            Morton (1892-1979) became famous as a young reporter for the Daily Express for his 1923 coverage of the opening, after 3,000 years, of tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun, with all its treasures and all the politics that went with the event. Morton was in the Great War. He became a master of this sub-field of literature -- the travel book. Many of his books bear the title of “In Search of...” “In the Steps of...” “A Stranger in...” “Finding....” His various travel books cover London, even the Ghosts of London, Spain, Italy, France, Rome, the Fountains of Rome, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, South Africa – he finally settled in Capetown in 1960 and became a South African citizen. He was always particularly interested in Christian places.

                In the fourth chapter of Through the Lands of the Bible, Morton tells of traveling from Alexandria in Egypt to Cairo. He was fascinated by the Copts in Cairo, those Christians whose rite and tradition are perhaps the oldest and most unchanged of all the Christian churches. Morton was impressed by the way the Copts survived as an isolated and still persecuted enclave in Egypt. Morton even in the 1930's already had a sense of what Christians were historically up against in Egypt. “This, I could see, was a Christian ghetto. It had all the signs: poverty, silence, and, although the Copts have not been persecuted for many a long year, fear. The terror of past centuries lives still in these furtive lanes, where the houses nod together, not sleepily or from old age, but as if huddled together in fright.” Much of this fear and terror, I suspect, has returned to the Copts in Cairo.

            For protection, the Coptic churches, as I myself had discovered on a visit to Cairo in the middle 1970's, are found in semi-hidden, out-of-the-way places. These churches are Monophysite in theology, something dating back to 451 A. D. and the Council of Calcedon. The issue is over the two natures in Christ, over how properly to understand the divinity and humanity of Christ, adequately protecting both His humanity and divinity as well as His unity of as a divine person..

            Morton tells of visiting the Coptic churches. It is a charming account. “The Eucharistic bread of the Coptic church must always be freshly baked on church premises on the morning of the Mass.... Every church has its own little bake-house where the bread, made from the finest flour, is carefully prepared on Sunday morning and stamped with a device of crosses. This is called the Korbân, a word the Copts also apply to the Mass itself..”

            As in Muslim mosques, one takes off his shoes in Coptic churches. However, the reason for this in Coptic tradition, as indeed it may among the Muslims, goes back to the Lord’s command to Moses from the Burning Bush, “Put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” The larger Coptic church Morton visited, Abu Sarga (St. Sergius), had twelve pillars, eleven the same color and the other a kind of reddish marble. It turns out that they recall the twelve apostles with the singular place of Judas still there as a reminder. All Coptic churches likewise have three altars, each free standing, because their rite does not allow more than one Mass, one Korbân, to be said at the same altar on the same day.

            Morton is invited to a wedding, a rather elegant wedding. He was seated in a place of honor in the sanctuary so he could see the whole service. The couple sat in red and gilt chairs. This wedding was performed by a bishop, by three bishops, in fact. There ass a choir, much chanting and singing. Morton’s description is memorable:


The choir were singing an anthem in the tongue of the Pharaohs, the bridegroom wore a head-dress which suggested Mohammedanism, with a cope that might have been worn by St. Athanasius, and the evening dress of modern civilization, with a pair of glasses that at once suggested America. The bridesmaids, on the other hand, were as near Paris as they could be. And it was upon this fantasy in origins that the saints and fathers of the Egyptian Church gazed from their aged ikons thorough an ascending mist of incense.

The couple were anointed with oil. On the heads of the bride and groom were placed two golden crowns. The bishop says in Arabic: “A Crown of good and invincible faith. Amen. And bless all their actions, for Thou art the giver of all good things, O Christ our God.” The bishop placed the ring on the fingers of the groom and bride. And after the wedding each guest was given some sugared almonds, others of which were also flung at the couple. Morton adds, “it is obvious that our confetti and rice are variation of this old custom, though real confetti is, as the name tells us, a sweetmeat.”

            Morton was particularly interested in the pride of Christian Cairo, namely, the visit of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the famous “Flight into Egypt,” as so many artists have depicted it. Morton examines the places where the Holy Family might have stayed, with whom, whether the story was probable. “The Egypt which the Holy Family entered stands in the clear light of history.” Again, one always has that incarnational sense of immediate reality on reading Morton, a man who went and saw and was there. Morton was truly a homo viator, a man who traveled and, to our delight, told us in a most memorable way what he saw. Seeing is not necessarily believing. But seeing is seeing, especially through the eyes and words of H. V. Morton.

11) Published in The Saint Austin Review


            In 1969, I recall returning from Rome, where I had been teaching, to the States via Heathrow. The scene still flashes in my mind. I had some time before the flight and presumably some British money. Looking through a book rack, I saw a Fontana Original of Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus Rediscovered. As I had often purchased Punch to read Muggeridge, I was especially interested in what he had to say about the Lord Jesus. This was the year following Humanae Vitae, a document I thought at the time, contrary to popular opinion, to have made considerable sense (“What Is at Stale?” The Month, October, 1968). I had read someplace that Muggeridge, of all people, was rather acid in his critique of the practitioners of contraceptives, and even more so of its clerical advocates.

            The book, of course, was highly entertaining. I must have read it on the flight back across the Atlantic. Here, I want to say something about Muggeridge’s “Foreword” to this collection of sermons, essays, interviews, and columns. Muggeridge was not yet a Catholic, but rumors that he was a crypto-Roman kept arising. He had been invited to comment on a BBC series about the Holy Land where he discovered that the life of Christ was highly plausible. But Muggeridge has no love of Theology, which he considered to be “one of those subjects, like algebra and thermodynamics, in which I have never been able to interest myself.” He had heard of saintly men who died heroically for the wordings of the Trinity or the Virgin Birth. He rather liked Genesis, however. “All I can find to say for the Genesis version (of creation) is that it strikes me as more plausible than Professor Hoyle’s, and I certainly find the Virgin Birth as a notion more sympathetic than, say, family planning.” How amusing Muggeridge could be! Imagine the gall of a man who would tell the modern world that the Virgin Birth made more sense than “family planning.”

            His stay in the Holy Land convinced him that “the Resurrection is historical; Jesus is alive and very truth. The Cross is where history and life, legend and reality, time and eternity, intersect. There, Jesus is nailed for ever to show us how God could become a man and man become a God.” This is the same Holy Land about which we read in the papers each days, with tanks in Bethlehem peace-talks with no peace, and dark talks of Armageddon.

            When asked at that time about whether he was a Roman Catholic, he found that the more he came close to Christ, the further away he felt from “all institutional Christianity – especially this particular Church.” In these days of high ecclesiastical crisis, Muggeridge’s reason of 1969 is worth reflection. He considered the Catholic church, from all appearances, to be “racing at breakneck speed to reproduce all the follies and fatuities of Protestantism, and will surely before long arrive at the same plight, with crazed clergy, empty churches and total doctrinal confusion.” Such a passage gives one pause.

            Muggeridge, for all his pains to defend the central themes of Christianity, as he tells us, took much “withering” clerical criticism of his new found views. Evidently, the Archbishop of York took pains to criticize Muggeridge for suggesting that there was some Christian objection to Dr. Christian Barnard’s first heart transplantation. And even worse, Muggeridge tells us, “the Roman Catholic chaplain of Edinburgh University rebuked me for suggesting that the free distribution of contraceptives to students was conducive to sexual promiscuity.” This instance reminds me of a comment Muggeridge once made in Punch to the effect that it was difficult to be a professional humorist with such unfair competition like that coming from the clerical dons.

            The gentleman who succeeded Muggeridge as the Rector of Edinburgh University simply described Muggeridge as a “crazed flagellant.” And another friend whom he liked simply described Muggeridge as “mad.” Some thought Muggeridge had succumbed to the Establishment others that he had become a “bore,” the last thing Muggeridge ever was. But he did receive fan mail of a more sympathetic sort. He received a touching letter from a monk, who wrote simply, “Every morning at 5 a.m. before I go to offer the Holy Sacrifice, as a small token of my gratitude to you, I ask our beloved Saviour to be good to you and to those dear to you. I will continue to do that for whatever short time remains before I meet Him face to face.” To this, Muggeridge remarked, “No one human being could possibly do another a more precious favor than this....”

            Muggeridge devoted several paragraphs to the death of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Boenhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. The contrast between political hopes and eternal ones is part of Muggeridge’s make up. Ever since his socialist upbringing taught him the futility of any utopianism, he was leery of promises to solve all our problems by politics or economics. “Freedom, or democracy, or a steadily rising Gross National Product” will not hack it.

            The most graphic passage in Muggeridge’s “Foreword,” with which I shall end these reflections, had to do with the manifest spiritual hunger that he found in those who responded to his interest in Christ. Muggeridge again was devastating on shepherds who did not feed their sheep:

Such letters reveal


the extraordinary spiritual hunger which prevails today among all classes and conditions of people, from the most illiterate to the most educated, from the most lowly to the most eminent. The various moral and theological and sociological disputes of the day, however progressively resolved with ecclesiastical connivance, have nothing to say to this spiritual hunger, which is not assuaged by legalized abortion and homosexuality, solaced by contraception, or relieved by majority rule. Nor will it take comfort in the thought that God is dead, or that mankind has come of age....”

These are, again, amusing and sober words. The moral, technological, and political alternatives to living the life have not been what our spiritual hunger was about. “The only hope for the future lies in the triumph over death. There can never be any other victory or any other hope. This is what I am trying, so inadequately, to say.”

              If these be the words of a “crazed flagellant” or a “mad” man or a “bore,” they remain extremely prophetic. We can only say, more than thirty years later, after Muggeridge’s conversion, after Muggeridge’s death, that we have seen too much of the “crazed clergy, the empty churches, and total doctrinal confusion.” The University of Edinburgh Roman Catholic chaplain, ironically, after advocating the distribution of free contraceptives to “reduce promiscuity” among the students, wrote, “the plain fact is that we do not find elderly journalists with a gift of invective useful allies in presenting Christian standards.” I must confess that, in retrospect, I still find the “elderly journalist with the gift for invective,” the “crazed flagellant,” the “mad” man, to be among the few who saw both the humor of “crazed clerics” and the sanity of the faith, saw them at the same time and for the same reason.

12) Published in The Saint Austin Review, 2 (May, 2002), 7/44.


            The last sermon in Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, was written for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Footnote It bears the title, “The Ignorance of Evil.” Newman began the sermon (how refreshing to read a sermon and not a “homily”!) with the famous words from Genesis 3:12: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil.” Newman states that “God does know evil as well as good.”

            Newman in fact has some unexpected things to say in this Sermon. I have always understood the temptation of Adam and Eve to “be as gods” to mean that they desired the power to cause the distinction of good and evil. The “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,” with its famous fruit, be it pear, apple, or pomegranate, tempted Adam and Eve because they wanted themselves, not God, to make what is good to be good and what is evil to be evil. Of course, the distinction between good and evil is not arbitrary. Even God could not make what it is to be evil to be good, as if He were some arbitrary will who makes this distinction at His whim.

            “One of the attributes of God to know evil without experiencing it,” Newman states. The knowledge of evil as such is not evil. Christ admonished us not merely not to murder or commit adultery but not even to think of them. He was not recommending here that we should not know what either was. He was rather telling us not to “plot” them, not to conceive a plan to carry them out. Clearly, if we are not to murder or commit adultery, we need to know what each is if only to avoid it. Thus it seems to be an attribute not just of God but of any intellectual creature to know evil without experiencing it. Indeed, it seems to be a perfection of the rational being to know what evil is without doing it, to know of evil, why it is evil. This does not deny that descriptions of murder, adultery, or other sins can be alluring, enticing. Indeed, Newman’s sermon is a good reminder to us that evil can attract us, draw us, lead us on, if we are not careful about what is at stake.

            Classical theology and philosophy hold that God does not “cause” evil or sin, even if He foreknows its occurrence in us. Any knowledge of evil includes the element of freedom that constitutes its essence. Thus, God is said to “permit” evil, but again, following Augustine, only if this permission contributes to some ordered and greater good. Moreover, evil is not a “thing.” No “god” of evil exists. No thing as such is evil. Omne ens est bomun. Evil is always pictured as “non-being.” God does not “create” it because it is not being, which latter is the only thing that God creates.

            Where does this take us? Evil is said to “exist” in something good. In what is good, something is lacking. This lack of what “ought” to be there has a pronounced effect on the world. Something good might depend on what is not there. If we “cause” this lack, as we can, we are said to err or sin. But the lacking thing, in so far as it remains in reality, retains the goodness of existence within it. And it is from this goodness that “good” can come out of evil. It is not proper to say, I think, that God brings “good” precisely out of “evil.” That would imply that “evil” is really a “thing.” God does not know evil to be anything but evil. Rather, He brings good out of the good that remains within anything or action that lacks something it ought to have.

            “It is, I say, God’s incommunicable attribute,” Newman reflected, “as He did not create, so not to experience sin – and as He permits it, so also to know it; to permit it without creating it, to know it without experiencing it – a wonderful and incomprehensible attribute truly, yet involved, perhaps, in the very circumstance that He permits it. For He is every where and in all, and nothing exists except in and through Him.” Newman’s point here is illuminating. The “mysteriousness” that we attribute to evil, its almost personal presence that we associate with the devil and damned, involves God’s keeping what He created in existence and therefore keening the evil in existence because He sustains the good in which it adheres. “Being the sustaining cause of all spirits, whether they be good or evil, He is intimately present with evil....” Thus, God knows the havoc it causes in a most intimate fashion; He is present with it.

            The sin of the First Parents, in Newman’s view, was to know evil without “experiencing” it, that is, to be “like gods.” Indeed, Newman argued that certain kinds of knowledge we should not seek, astrology, for instance. Adam and Eve, however, did gain a knowledge of evil , something they were not intended to know and need not have known had them been obedient. They lost God’s presence and they “gained a conscience.” What might this mean? “Beings like ourselves, fallen beings, fallen yet not cast away, know good and evil; evil not external to them, not yet one with them; but in them, yet not simply of them. Such was the fruit of the forbidden tree, as it remains in us to this day.” God can know evil without experience what it is; human beings cannot.

            Newman knows that the knowledge of evil is alluring and can easily lead to action. “Evil curiosity ... stimulates young persons to intrude into things of which it is their blessedness to be ignorant. Satan gains our souls step by step; and his first allurement is the knowledge of what is wrong. He first tempts them to the knowledge, and then to the commission of the sin.” One cannot help thinking that what one sees or knows from television and education often fosters sin under the illusion that certain things must be known. Most justification of sinful practice begins with a plea for detailed knowledge of sinful acts as a public good with no acknowledged awareness of its tendencies.

            One final point from Newman’s analysis is striking. Many “boast” of their knowledge of the world. “There are men, alas not a few, who look upon acquaintance with evil as if a part of their education. Instead of shunning vice and sin, they try it, if for no other reason, simply for this – that they may have a knowledge of it.” But this knowledge is not neutral; it now includes the act. It is no longer simply “knowledge” but the cunning knowing that results from sin. Such sin makes unable to see ourselves or to see the truth. “And having given in to sin themselves, they have no higher principles within them to counteract the effect of what they see without; and their notions of man’s nature, capabilities, and destinies, are derived from, and are measured by, what goes on in the world, and accordingly they apply all their knowledge to bad purposes.” The sin lowers the sights.

            Newman is surprisingly attentive to the dangers implicit in certain kinds of knowing. He is quite concerned about an overly detailed study of heresy, or about those whose concept of Christianity consists in a minute description of their personal sins. “But these men, far from rising to the aspiration after perfection, do not advance in their notion of spiritual religion beyond the idea of declaring and lamenting their want of it. Confession is with them perfection; nay, it is almost the test of a Christian, to be able to discourse upon his inward corruption.” I doubt if this passage is an implicit attack on Augustine’s Confessions, the very purpose of which was not to dwell on themselves but to aspire after perfection. But it is a reminder that Christianity is only indirectly about sin and evil. Too much “confession,” too much attention to the sequence of disorder in the soul too often becomes a handbook for “how to sin.” Newman does remind us that to be “ignorant of evil,” something that at first sight sounds so undramatic, is in fact the way were and are intended to live. In the end, what is really interesting is not sin, but what is, what is good.

13) Published in The Saint Austin Review


            At the bottom of a pile of books on one of my shelves, I have had for a number of years – how many, I no longer know – a now faded, brownish xerox copy of F. J. Sheed’s thirty page booklet, Ground Plan for Catholic Reading. What I have is a Sheed & Ward edition, published in New York. I presume there was an earlier English version. I cannot find the date listed anywhere, but there is a note signed “F.J.S.” It indicates that what I have is the “seventh edition” in which Sheed explains that several of the books he originally recommended are now out of print but that he will list them anyhow “because I have not found other books to take their place....”.

            On the cover, the price is listed as fifty cents. – a bold step that publishers could take in a more stable time. Today, publishers never list prices on the book itself, presumably because the price is changed so rapidly. I would judge my version is around 1955 – but our library has an earlier edition listed as 1937. I recall having this xeroxed packet sitting around untouched for many years. I surmise too that I had probably never read it before as there are no underlinings, as is my wont in reading a book.

            In the beginning of the booklet, Sheed wrote remarkably good essay called, “A Note on Reading and Education.” It is this essay about which I wish to write here. Let me say first, however, that I heard Frank Sheed speak twice, once at the University of San Francisco in about the 1970's and once at the Catholic University of America in the late 1950's. He was the best of speakers – witty, profound, engaging, challenging. His Theology and Sanity remains the best introduction to both subjects. And that combination of precisely “theology” and “sanity” recalls that association of reason and revelation that make English Catholic letters at their best so much worth reading. I realize, of course, that Sheed was an Australian, though he is seldom thought of without mention of his wife, Masie Ward, who came from a distinguished English Catholic family. In any case, the fact that I have actually seen and heard Sheed, however briefly, serves to cross that mysterious barrier that stands between most readers and writers. But I do not want to make too much of this separation, for many of my favorite authors have been long dead. I do not hold it against them when I delight in reading them, lo, these many decades later.

            Sheed begins by pointing out the difference between what he calls “serious reading” and the mere ability to read in the sense of literacy. He did not necessarily think that a society in which 95% of the population could read and write was much better off than a population in which only five percent could read and write. It all depends on what they read and write. Sheed also distinguishes between the capacity for serious reading and scholarship. He was not opposed to scholarship, “but what a man reads is a surer measure of his education than any number of degrees.”

            In the meantime, what about reading as a mere pastime? “Men hate having anything to do. But men also hate having nothing to do. The human race therefore has always been fertile in the invention of things to do which are equivalent to nothing – things which pass the time. This accounts for most of our reading....” Sheed could be most amusing. He was not absolutely opposed to pastime reading, but “the question is how much time can one afford to pass? The question is pressing for this reason also, that a man tends to become what he reads.” I added the italics in this last phrase – we become what we read.

            What is important in an educated man is a knowledge of the whole, of where things fit, of what is the order of things. “An educated man is one whose mind is responsive to being, to everything that is.” St. Thomas could not have said it better. I would re-write that same sentence in this way: “an educated man is one whose mind is responsive to being, to everything that is.” Sheed elaborates this idea. Education requires two elements. “First the mind must see the universe of being as a totality, with all its constituents in right relation to one another; it does not know everything but it does know where everything is. Second, there must be the study of individual things.” Sheed is aware that we forget many things that we once knew, but that is not all loss.

            “The object of the mind is to know what is....” This education happens in the mind. But it is not just a mass of facts, like a bag full of unread books. Sheed decides that he must warn the young about something they will unaccountably run into: “very learned people are often utter fools.” Learning and foolishness often go together, or are at least often found in the same person. “There is no fool like a learned fool.” Knowledge of particular facts is important; we are to know the particular but we will not even know that unless we know where it fits into the whole.

            Finally, Sheed maintains that we must know what we can of God. He recounts his mentioning this in a lecture at some teachers college, only to discover that the teachers who invited him were “disappointed” in him. God did not have anything to do with “education” as they understood it. Sheed maintained, however, that God is what held it all together and not to know what we could, from both reason and revelation, was a kind of refusal to be educated.

            Sheed had no particular objection to learning about “falsehood.” “Every falsehood contains truth or suggests it; and this truth, too, the mind makes its own.” Sheed simply refused to admit that an academic institution that paid no attention to God and what we knew of God was a real academic institution. It neglected to know about the most important thing that served to explain everything else. This principle, no doubt, disenfranchises many an academic institution.

            I shall not here go into the books that Frank Sheed recommended in 1937, except to say that each of them is still worth reading today. The second book he recommended in his “Summary of Reading Courses” was Lunn’s Now I See, a book I mentioned in my STAR November column. The first book he mention is Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, still, I think, the most important book of the twentieth century and, so far, of the twenty-first. But, someone might object, “Father Schall, very few scholars or intellectuals would maintain that position today.” And to this, I repeat, with Sheed, “there is no fool like a learned fool,” a principle, I know that can work either way. But this sentiment is, after all, pretty much what St. Paul wrote in the beginning of 1 Corinthians about the wise and the foolish. Finally, to repeat Sheed, “What a man reads is a surer indication of his education than any number of his degrees.” An educated man is one whose mind is responsive to being, to everything that is.

14) Published in The Saint Austin Review, 2 (June, 2002), 8-9.


            During World War II, Dorothy Sayers rewrote the Life and Death of Christ as a series of plays for the BBC. The text was entitled, The Man Born to Be King. The sub-title is “A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Miss Sayers wrote an introduction to this text (Ignatius Press, [1943] 1990) in which she remarked on the difficulty many of us have envisioning the graphic seriousness of the Passion of Christ. “If you show people (the bloody death of Christ), they are shocked. So they should be. If that does not shock them, nothing can. If the mere representation of it has an air of irreverence, what is to be said about the deed? It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear the story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.” We live in a civilization in which “holy innocents” are killed every day. Shocking things do not shock us – a fact that often seems to define our civilization.

            Miss Sayers’ thesis is, of course, that ironically the classical ideas of drama were carried out and, in a way, completed or even overturned by the actual events of Christ’s life and death. Art somehow anticipated reality. Yet, she wonders, can there even be a Christian “tragedy” in the classical sense? Surely Shakespeare was a Christian and he wrote tragedies? Yet, the theological difference between the Greeks and the Christians makes us wonder.


Short of damnation, it seems, there can be no Christian tragedy. Indeed, if a man is going to write a tragedy of the classical type, he must be careful to keep Christianity out of it. At least, it will not do to introduce a complete Catholic theology; where Christ is, cheerfulness will keep breaking in. Marlow the atheist did indeed write a Christian tragedy, and by a just instinct chose the only possible subject for unrelieved Christian gloom: Dr. Faustus is a tragedy of damnation. But it is not classical. Faustus is not the victim of fate: he has what he chooses; his hell is bought and paid for. Moreover, it is an individual catastrophe; his damnation is not shown in any relation to the Divine Economy; whereas the sin of Judas played its part in the great Comedy of Redemption, and if he damned himself, it was because he did not choose to wait for the last act (21).

There is no “ambiguity” to damnation. Either something is chosen or it is not. The “fates” do not rule us.

            What I find striking about Miss Sayers’ analysis is what she says about the relation of the “drama” of the death of Christ as it relates to other religions and to the sayings of the ancients. First, she says that whenever there is a “suffering God,” the futility of classic tragedy is overcome and values are, to use a famous Nietzschean word, “transvalued.” “To this conclusion many races of men were guided by that Spirit qui et semper aderat generi humano – if it could be thus, they felt, all would yet be well.” Once the Resurrection took place, the disciples changed. Who died was “the being of all being.” The “Divine Comedy” was proclaimed. Joy is our end,

            “Under Pontius Pilate, the prophecies of the poets have become furnished with a name, a date, and an address,” Miss Sayers wrote (22). Glaucon, if I might recall a famous passage in The Republic affirms that if a just man appeared in any existing city, what do most people think would happen to him? “A just person in such circumstances will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with fire, and, at the end, when he has suffered every kind of evil, he’ll be impaled...” (362e).

            In the light of this classic poetry and actual Christian history, Dorothy’s reflection is most astonishing:


All the prophecies were fulfilled. Those who made a reproach to Christianity that it taught no new morality and invented no new kind of Deity could not be more laughably wide of the mark. What it did was to guarantee that the old morality was actually valid, and that the old beliefs literally true. “Ye worship ye know not what, but we know what we worship”, “that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands have handled” – “He suffered under Pontius Pilate”. God died – not in a legend, not in a symbol, not in a distant past not in a realm unknown, but here, a few weeks ago – you saw it happen; the whole great cloudy castle of natural religion and poetic prophecy is brought down to earth and firmly cemented upon that angular and solid cornerstone.

Here, I think, Dorothy Sayers has anticipated Dominus Jesus, with all its proper distinctions, by more than half a century. Mankind searches for its origins and its destiny without ceasing, but all such searching must eventually lead to a reality that happened.

            In Josef Pieper’s discussion of tradition, he defends Plato’s use of the sayings of the ancients. “I do not believe, any more than Plato did,” Pieper writes,


“that the truth is always intimately bound up the old”, or that the mere fact that something has been said “since time immemorial”, or that the mere fact that something has been said “since time immemorial” represents a “certification of truth”. The “wisdom of the ancients” can be certified as “true”only if it was derived from a divine source. Plato too made this fact perfectly clear” (Josef Pieper – an Anthology, 216).

Yet Pieper held it possible that there was midst mankind an “echo or reminiscence of a primordial revelation which took place at the beginning of human history.” This position cannot be used to suggest, as certain theologies of hope imply, that no subsequent revelation to mankind was possible. But most of the tales seem to agree on certain points: “knowledge of how the world was born out of the ungrudging goodness of the Creator, knowledge of the perfection and fall of the primordial human being, knowledge of the judgment which awaits us at the other side of death...” (217).

            Pieper did not think that Plato or anyone else had an actual anticipation of the specifics of Christ’s work, neither the Incarnation, the Passion, nor the Resurrection. Yet it is precisely that work which made the tales true in their way. Pieper then suggests how this ancient revelation somehow present in men might look to and be fulfilled in what actually happened. “A man of the stature of Thomas Aquinas did not hesitate to say that even people who had not actually been exposed, in an explicit form, to the revelation of Christ might be capable of belief ‘that God would redeem mankind in a manner pleasing to himself’, which in effect involves the concept of implicit faith in Christ, of believing with a fide implicita” (218 ). In this sense Pieper saw some possible connection with the ancient stories and tales, especially those of Plato, with the concrete facts of Christian revelation. “Both traditions tell us that God himself stands warranty for the meaning of the world and for man’s salvation.”

            In her famous essay, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” Miss Sayers trenchantly observed that “dogma is not dull.” Rather, “it is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama” (The Whimsical Christian, 11). I often go back to Glaucon’s account of what would happen in any existing city if the truly just man would appear in it. It is Dorothy Sayers’ thesis that what was anticipated happened. It is also her thesis that this death and resurrection destroyed tragedy and introduced joy into our midst. Thomas Aquinas, as usual, had it right. God “did redeem mankind in a manner pleasing to Himself.”

15) Published in The Saint Austin Review,


            About a decade or so ago, I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. I was quite moved by it, but, at the time, I was not sure why. The trilogy did not yet exist when I was a youth and I am not sure anyone would have told me about it if it had. We are lucky if we know good books when we are young, or old. I just completed re-reading this trilogy. When the movie came out, I decided that I would rather read it again than see it, largely because I was worried that “seeing” it would too much cloud or distort my reading it. I will not fault those who say that the movie reinforces the book, or vice versa. But just as good wine or liquor should be taken “straight,” so, I think, should Tolkien.

            It took me about three months to re-read the whole of Lord of the Rings. It needs savoring all along. I originally had the three volume Act Books edition, which does not have any date on it. Half way through the first volume, I left my marked-up copy in the seat pocket in some airplane or train, I forget which. It never came back. I was quite annoyed, but managed, in a local book store, to find the same volume, this time published by Ballantine. I am not well-read in the lore Tolkien deals with. I have read the Silmarillion, the Unfinished Tales, the Tolkien Reader, and the Letters collected by his son. Each of these books have awed me.

            The nature and relationship of wizards, elves, hobbits, dwarves, orcs, and men are often in need of explication. What is essential to remember is that each class of creature, from the highest wizard to the lowliest hobbit can do either something noble or something terrible. The division of good and evil is real and is always, as such, caused by choice, not being. The various ages of the world need to be kept straight. The maps of Middle-Earth, the Shire, Gondor, Mordor, are all helpful. So are the genealogy tables and the explications of the languages.

            One is struck, on re-reading the Lord of the Rings, about the beauty and attractiveness of the women heroines in these pages. I am particularly fond of the passage near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo Baggins, the hobbit, is speaking to the great Elfin Princess Galadriel. Frodo is now appointed to be the Ring-Bearer, while Galadriel herself has one of the original Rings. The Eye of Evil in Mordor suspects something is amiss, “but he does not know.” Galadriel continues,


“Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet, if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien (Elven homeland) will fade, and the Tides of time will sweep it away....”

Frodo bent his head, “And what do you wish?” he said at last.

“That what should be shall be,” she answered. “The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged. Yet they will cast all away rather than submit to Sauron: for they know him now. For the fate of Lothlórien you are not answerable, but only for the doing of your own task.”

Elves too fall within the order of Providence. The fate of the world gradually falls to men. But the Prince of this world, Sauron, possesses a wizard/angelic intellect and will. He must be resisted.

            The obscure race of hobbits, to which Bilbo and his nephew Frodo Baggins belong, is caught up into the drama of the worlds. And indeed it is precisely their obscurity and smallness that is used to save the rest, if but one or two of them like Frodo and Bilbo do their duty, however painful. This is the great Incarnational theme, of course, that the world is not redeemed by the great Romans or the Greeks, but from some obscure place like Nazareth where most folk reject the One who is sent.

            What Tolkien understands is how the mind, be it angel, wizard, elf, man, or hobbit, of one who chooses works, how it justifies itself. I had forgotten at the end of the third book, after the triumphant hobbits returned home only to find the work of Mordor through Saruman, alias Sharkey, still at work in the Shire. He still seeks to poison the hobbits against Gandalf whom Saruman claims looks out only for himself. Yet, Frodo to the end prevents Saurman’s killing. Frodo seeks to tell him that he can still turn around, mend his ways. “I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

            To this challenge to him, Saruman – the next worst figure to Sauron in the trilogy – compliments Frodo on gaining some unexpected wisdom But he adds, “you (Frodo) are wise and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!” Notice that mercy robs revenge of its “sweetness.” The hateful thing for one who does what is evil is to be shown mercy in the very act of being reminded of his own free will that he refuses to change. He has defined himself by his choice and, even knowing it is wrong, refuses to accept mercy, for that is beyond his control

            Two final things struck me in particular. The first had to do with the reaction of the ordinary hobbits when Frodo, Pippin, Merry, and Sam unexpectedly return to the Shire. The local hobbits are in general not able to comprehend the great world, the scope of the journey and its significance that the hobbits have known. The hobbit’s burden in bearing the ring is of such a scale that those back home cannot understand it. We know that tales will be sung of their deeds, but what those who are at home want is just to know of the small things in which they themselves have participated. They want the Shire to return to normal, which is of course what the great hobbits wish also. Indeed, this is one of the abiding themes of the Lord of the Rings, the comfort of home even when duty may call us to lose it.

            The second point that struck me with great force was how much the theme of joy undergirds this trilogy. A superficial reading makes it a tale of dragons, orcs, all sorts of hateful creatures coming and going in some preposterous land. Evil seems mostly to have the upper-hand. Yet, the underlying sense is that this world is created in joy. It cannot always be realized because it must be chosen and defended. And there are those who refuse, even great ones. Gandalf and the elves who choose to resist this evil realize the power they are up against.

            The longing for home is part of this joy, yet all the races, even the immortal ones, have their own doom – which leads us to understand that they do not themselves decide that to which they are called. The call comes into the ages of the world where the struggle of good and evil works its way out both within the hearts of little ones like the hobbits and the great ones like Gandalf and Sauron.

             In the chapter in the third book entitled “The Siege of Gondor,” there is an interlude when Pippin, the hobbit, is being sworn into the service of the King of Gondor, who wants to know if Pippin can sing? He answers:


“Well yes, well enough for my own people. But we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord. We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind or rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course.”

“And why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these? We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echos from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.”

This is a tale in which good men and good causes are sometimes, even often defeated. Yet, it is a book of loyalty and duty, and yes of eating, singing, and drinking. Underneath it all is the profound sense that we are created in joy, that even those who reject the good contribute to it and the ones who are “un-thanked” in the end are too made for gladness.

2a) Columns “Wit and Wonder,” from Excelsis.

1) Published in Excelsis, #15, November, 1999, 4.



            The remark of Catherine Pickstock that the Roman Rite let the same things be said in different ways seems insightful. A certain exaltedness of expression is essential to what it is at issue in the ritual praise of God. Somehow, this heeding of liturgical expression caused me to pay attention to wordings and phrasing at which I otherwise might not have carefully looked..

            During what is now called the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time, the collects for the Sunday Mass are repeated several times during the weekly Masses. On the Friday of that week, I said Mass about six-thirty in the morning. I was using the Latin text of the Novus Ordo (Missale Romanum, 1970). As I came to the prayer after Communion, I was struck that the prayer contained the words “rerum veritate” – in the truth of things. This is a favorite phrase of Josef Pieper. The “truth of all things” means that created things have their own reality. When we know them, we really encounter something that is, something other than ourselves, something that does not have its total origin in itself or in ourselves.

            After Mass, this phrase, “rerum veritate,” caused me to go back and take another look at the whole post-Communion prayer in which it was contained. It read: “Perficiant in nobis, Domine, quaesumus, tua sacramenta quod continent, ut, quae nunc specie gerimus, rerum veritate capiamus.” My translation would be, roughly, “Oh, Lord, we beseech Thee, that Thy sacraments perfect in us what they contain, in order that what we now confront in species, we may (finally) grasp in the truth of things.” The word “sacramenta” is plural. “Species” is the technical word about the Eucharist. All the sacraments are ordered to and perfected in the Eucharist.

            Near by on the vestment cabinet was an English missal with the 1985 ICEL translation of this same passage. It read: “Lord, bring to perfection within us the communion we share in this sacrament. May our celebration have an effect on our lives.” The word “communion” was not in the Latin text. Nor was there anything about “the truth of things” in this translation. In fact, the whole translation was, by comparison with the Latin, vapid, to say the least. The point was not that this “celebration” should effect our lives in some “interior” or “exterior” fashion, but that we confront the Lord Himself Whom we see in the Host, in the Species. And the Lord is the Word, the Word made flesh, in Whom all things are made. The whole majestic scope of this post-Communion prayer is left out.

            The perfection is to be “within us.” Yet, the Eucharistic Celebration is not merely “to have an effect on our lives,” but it is the Lord Himself Whom we seek to grasp in the truth of things, in the truth of what the Eucharist is, the Body and Blood of the Lord. Before it is “inward,” it is, as it were, “outward .” It can only be “inward” if the “truth of things,” if the truth of this Thing, this “Species” we see, is there, is valid. The inward looks not to the inward but to the outward, to the Lord, in truth.

            This jejune English translation made me wonder if the Latin of the Novus Ordo was original with it or if it was in the old Tridentine Roman Missal? There was an older (1952) Missale Romanum in the chapel where I say Mass. At first, I could not locate this particular Communion prayer. In the older Mass format, the Sundays are listed as “after Pentecost.” There were only twenty-four of them, instead of the thirty-four in the present arrangement. I tried calculating back from the end of the year to the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. Not there. Checking around from the 18th to the 23d Sundays after Pentecost, however, I came across the Mass for the Saturday of the September Ember Days. Sure enough, there was the Latin post-Communion prayer, word for word, the one now transferred to the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The Novus Ordo did not make it up.

            One can wonder about this particular English rendition – it does not really seem like a “translation.” Why is “species” not mentioned, nor the “truth of things?” Why is there stress on inwardness and not on the objective reality of the Sacrament? The focus of the “communion” is in us. No doubt, the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, are to change us, order us. The “Lord” is to bring to “perfection” in us “the communion we have received” in this “sacrament.” This “sacrament,” however, is the “Lord.” We do not merely want to perfect ourselves. We want to confront the “truth of things” that we now meet in “species.” What we want is, in fact, the Lord, in His truth, in His reality. 

2) Published in Excelsis,

Wit and Wonder                                                                                              James V. Schall, S. J.


            St. Basil the Great (329-79 A. D) wrote a thing called “Detailed Rules for Monks.” A passage from it comes up in the Roman Breviary for Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time. What, we might ask, are these “detailed rules” that St. Basil has propounded for his monks? Surely, such advice is not for us. But Basil has some heady advice for us, monks or not.

            Basil begins by telling us that “love of God is not something that can be taught.” “Why not?” we wonder. Basil’s answer to this question is rather snappy. We did not have to learn from someone else “how to rejoice in light” or that we “want to live.” These are things that simply come to us without being taught, so too “the love of our parents.” Nobody had to “teach” this love to us, as if there were something more obvious.

            The love of God, Basil thinks, is akin to these latter experiences. In a passage mindful of Augustine, Basil tells us: “As soon as the living creature (that is, man) comes to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love.” This is what we are, beings whose very existence and orientation are toward something they are not themselves. We do not give ourselves our own life or being; we receive both. We are what we receive. Our hearts are from the beginning “restless,” as Augustine says, because we spend our lives seeking that object which is proper to what we are given to be. Our very being will not let us settle on anything less than that for which we exist in the first place.

            Basil does not deny that, once we realize what our being is about, we seek the object of this love. “When the school of God’s law admits this power of reason, it cultivates it diligently, skillfully nurtures it, and with God’s help brings it to perfection.” That is an unusual expression, “the school of God’s law admits the power of reason.” I take this to mean that what we are given in our being, in our reason, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, is intended for us to understand what has been given to us. This is the key to the drama that is implicit in the lives of each of us. And notice that we do not achieve that end for which we exist by our own powers, though they are involved.

            We can and often do use our powers of reason badly, of course. Listen to Basil: “This is the definition of sin: the misuse of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God’s commandments.” Pretty blunt. I have seen few more succinct definitions of sin. We exist, we have powers by which we act. These are given to us for doing good, but we can deflect them from this good. We can do this deflecting in our own souls. This deviant capacity is in our own power. The Commandments are given to us so that we will know what is not good. We are doubly warned, by our reason, by the Commandments.

            Basil tells us that we do not really need to look “outside of ourselves” to figure out this possibility of sin. We know that things are pleasing to us, even though we did not give ourselves the power to be pleased or the object that is out there that might in fact please us. Again, there are things we do not have to be taught. We simply know them.

            Then Basil comes to the point he is driving at all along. “‘What,’ I ask, ‘is more wonderful than the beauty of God?’” What an astounding question? What Basil implies, of course, is that if we behold this divine beauty, we will live it, praise it. That is why we are made to be as we are. We, on seeing what is this beauty, do not put ourselves into some kind of questioning mode to decide whether we love this object that is God or not. To be sure, by our sins, we may never get to a point where this beauty is open to us, but in itself, it is what we want, what astonishes us.

            “The radiance of the divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.” But it is that very divine beauty that was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. Our human word is not sufficient, yet that should not prevent us from seeking to praise God with our words, our songs, however imperfect. The divine Word, on the other hand, that which expresses the glory and radiance of the Father is capable of describing this Beauty.

            We live in the era of revelation. That is, we do not have at our disposal our own words alone, however powerful they can be. God did not leave it up to us to decide how He is to be worshiped, how His beauty is to be received. We exist to behold the divine beauty. We exist to respond to it. This is what the Mass is about, anything else is secondary. What indeed is more “wonderful” than the beauty of God!

3) Published in Excelsis,

Wit and Wonder                                                                                              James V. Schall, S. J.


            Several years ago, I addressed the St. Agnes Forum on the unlikely topic of “The Large Family: The Ultimate Counter-Cultural Position.” (Social Justice Review, May-June, 1994). At that time, I was not particularly concerned with the broader question of total human numbers but with what it means to a civil society not to have any actual experience of brothers and sisters within it. One and two children families portend a kind loneliness not experienced by those who have numerous brothers and sisters. We need also uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, and cousins of various degrees of kindred. In tiny families, there are no “older sisters” or “younger bothers,” no middle brothers, no fifth sister in the family, no five brothers, or only girls. The experience of a child for whom its only near relatives are its ancestors seemed not merely the logical conclusion of many zero-growth population theories but also a kind of personal and societal tragedy.

            Plato had already spoken, perhaps in warning, of a society in which there would be no familial distinctions, wherein everyone was equally “father” and “mother,” “brother and sister.” This system was too a project of what can only be called today “genetic engineering.” It gave rise to Aristotle’s famous witticism that he would rather be “Plato’s actual cousin than his ‘brother.’” If everyone is one’s brother or sister, then there can be no concentration of affection and hence no real importance to the distinction of persons as such. This communal proposal, be it noted, was the product of a “theory” about equality, about reducing greed and envy by eliminating property and family.

            The word “population” is an abstraction. What exists are individual human persons in all stages of life from conception to death when they cease to be members of a living “population” of this world. However at that point, they become, depending on their choice, members of what Augustine called “the City of God,” or “the City of Man” in a final transcendent sense. The same people belong to both “populations,” in this sense. Here, I will speak of living populations during the time of their mortality. I am concerned to ask, “why are populations of prosperous countries declining and dying?” Is it related to any theological issue such as the decline in belief in immortality and eternal life itself so that the only possible meaning of human life is what can be found in this world?

            For many decades we had been warned about rapidly “increasing” populations. Though population growth had long been seen in modern literature as itself a cause of expansion and incentive, suddenly, in approximately the early ‘70's, with what appeared to be a failure of growth in certain parts of the world, a kind of intellectual panic set in. Population was seen to be the cause of human poverty and later of ruin of the earthly ecology. Control of population growth became the formula for all sorts of success, including moral success. Immoral practices became moral for its end.

            Just how accurate is our count of world population is open to some doubt. But the most striking thing about population numbers in recent years is not population growth, but population decline, especially in those areas that seem most capable of supporting rising population. It was almost as if some sort of “death-wish” had suddenly engulfed the rich of this world. They themselves, on a wide scale, began to use those very instruments of death or emptiness that their own scientists had devised to control alien populations – contraceptives, abortion, sterilization, even infanticide. Population numbers in most of Europe and in much of the so-called developed societies are falling well below replacement rates. This decline on the infant level is being paralleled on the old-age level wherein death by official or unofficial euthanasia is growing in frequency.

            This population decline does not indicate, however, any decline in the need of labor or manpower. Just the opposite, in fact. Aging populations or populations with few children evidently need more, not fewer, working forces. Where are they to obtain this labor if not from their own children in increasing populations? Since their own children have been, prevented, aborted, or too few, societies have to acquire population from other countries, those usually with large population growth and most often inferior or corrupt political and economic structures. This means that all supposedly stable nations are increasingly being “invaded,” if that is the right term, by populations that originate in different religious, national, or cultural backgrounds. Much of the civil strife in the world today can be traced to this cause. It has in fact encouraged thinkers in Islam and other areas to see this population rate differential to be an opportunity to achieve more ancient political goals.

            Some think the solution is a uniform world state in which there are no restrictions on abortion, euthanasia, any sort of sexual practice or purpose. Artificial breeding, whether cloning or surrogates, is to be encouraged, as are divorce and homosexuality, anything to stop these “neo-barbarians.” Human beings can be engineered. Family and definite parenthood are not necessary; in fact, they are a dangerous to such lower population ideals. Anyone opposed to such principles and laws will be alien from “modern” society. This alternative is literally the destruction of what it is to be human.

            The other option is to recognize that the problem originates in a theory that denies that human beings have a definite structure or form from nature, that permanent monogamy is the best environment for children and adults. Any “alternative” to the family must be in conformity with what a family is. Failures will happen among sinful men and women. Killing “mistakes” is no legitimate alternative, but adoption is. We live in a time when the wisdom of the central teaching of Christianity about family and children is proved correct on every side by the failures of the alternatives to work. The reason we will not see this is because we choose not admit that we, as a society, have erred on such a massive scale. The massive evidence is, however, that we have so erred and it is killing us.

4) Published in Excelsis, December, 2001.


            Hadley Arkes in one of his books recalls, as a young man, working one summer at a police precinct headquarters in Chicago. He noticed the odd reasons given on police blotters for murder in that city on an average Saturday night. The one he remembers most was, “because he ate the last pizza.” Number two was “he wouldn’t shut off the radio.” Naturally, when we first hear such trite excuses, we laugh. Arkes used this bemused reaction to suggest that we already have a natural law in our souls that instinctively recognizes proportion and disproportion of punishment of things right and wrong. To execute a man for smoking in public is the opposite of killing a man because he ate the last pizza.

            The reasons for losing one’s faith are often equally flimsy. “Sister rapped me on the knuckles in grammar school.” “Father would not give communion to my divorced brother.” “The Inquisition.” “I married a Mormon.” And on and on. Now, losing the faith is something of a mystery, rather like falling out of live. It is difficult to put one’s finger precisely on the issue. But I think there is such a phenomenon as losing one’s faith. And whenever it occurs, I also think there is a drama there, a divine encounter that needs to be attended to.

            Often, the worst critics and even persecutors of the Church are those who have “fallen away” from the faith. That is a curious expression – “fallen away.” It is what a parachutist does after jumping out of the plane. It is a neutral, non-causal word, like “falling off a log,” which is said to be “easy as.” The expression obscures the question of personal responsibility in the falling away. If I slip and fall on the ice, that is an accident. But if I step off the cliff, knowing I am at the edge, I am responsible. The assumption, assuming no mitigating circumstances, is that I intended to step off.

            The United States and most European nations are full of fallen away Catholics. Some, no doubt, were invincibly ignorant. But most were not. One can distinguish, I suppose, between those who do not bother much about Church obligations and beliefs, but they do not positively reject them. This is not a particularly healthy state to be in, but it exists. Others take up another faith – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, one or other Protestant branch, or what have you. Not a few have embraced a form of secularism that, for all practical purposes, functions as a religion in their lives. They have a belief system and a series of practices that flow from it that they maintain explain the real world and how to live in it.

            John Henry Newman famously pointed out that critically wondering exactly what the Church teaches on a particular point or doubting this or that doctrine because we do not see its point, is not itself a problem of losing the faith. Indeed, we should have problems and questions about what the Church teaches and how it relates to our own particular understanding. To have no doubts or problems means that we are not really thinking seriously about what it is that the Church teaches concerning the ultimate things. Generally speaking, I would maintain that whatever one’s objection or problem is with the faith, there is a reasonable, generally satisfying response to it. But this response does not come out of the clear blue sky. One has to look for it, consult about it, read about, formulate it properly.

            Moreover, in these days when Islam is so much in the news, we see a faith that in practice permits little or no “falling away” from its system. There are some converts to Islam but almost none from Islam. Both the cultural pressures and the threat of punishment or even death are very much factors in this strange record. From this angle, the possibility of “falling away,” of “losing one’s faith,” is not such a bad thing. It is not merely a sign of “tolerance” but of the fact that faith must be free. A closed culture composed of members who cannot escape it is not a Christian or free culture. A world filled with people who are locked into their “faith” would be the very opposite of a world composed at every step of those who live and believe freely and intelligently.

            Faith is a gift, a grace. We cannot claim it by right. Yet, we suspect that when we lose it, the initiative in this loss does not come from the faith but from something in us. If faith is a gift, it is a serious gift. If someone is given, say, the Congressional Medial of Honor and years later decides to burn it as a protest for something or other, this act implies something more than merely returning a Christmas present because the size was too large. The loss of faith is a function of how we live and how we think. If the reception of faith is a free act, likewise is its loss. But the loss can be gradual, the result of the accumulation of little neglects, of seemingly minor decisions about how we understand good and evil, about how we act on them.

            Belloc once remarked that it is a good thing never to have to return to the faith. This position does not deny that it is also a good to return to it after we leave it and realize our error. Though I think there can be genuine intellectual perplexities about the truth of faith, things that need to be worked out and usually have been in the history of Christian thought, I also think that most of what is called “falling away” from the faith stems from how we are living. Our minds are generally sharp enough, on reflection, to realize that reason and faith teach something other than what we are doing. If we are challenged to justify our living, what we must do is develop an “alternate” theory of Christianity or morality that justifies our way of living. This is the first and essential act in falling away. This initial step forces us by our own logic to justify what is contrary to the essential core of reason and revelation. Once this step is taken, like falling off the cliff, the rest is simply down hill and no longer free.

5) Published in Excelsis, October, 2001.


             A “groaner” turns out to be, as I found out on the Internet, a bad joke. Well, I mean it is a good joke but rather unsophisticated, rather awful, something that is too simple to be funny, but doubly funny for all that. The story is told of the handsome lady who goes to Scotland to have herself cloned, like Dolly, the sheep. After the procedure, immoral though it be, the two look-exactly-alikes go back to Chicago. But in the Windy City, the lovely clone, unlike her pious source, turns out to be rather a risque type who embarrasses the original model. So the original gets the clone to take a trek with her up into the wild hills of Wisconsin, during the course of which she manages to push the undisciplined second lady off the cliff. She figures that now she has solved her problem, since no one call tell that the second one is not the first one. But unfortunately some hiker happened to see the crime and reported it. The headlines in the Chicago Tribune the next morning read: “Obscene Clone Falls.” That, ugh, is a “groaner,” the reaction to which is usually a deep unarticulated moan or sigh, a groan. Most “dumb blond” jokes are groaners, as are most lawyer jokes, and all “Jesuit-Dominican” jokes, especially those in which the Jesuit comes out the loser.

            Bing Crosby was once known affectionately as “The Old Groaner.” So the word groan can have a number of connotations. Usually, a groan is not an articulated sound, so, in Crosby’s case, he probably got the name from his humming or his “boo-be-do” sort of sounds -- groans.

            But this word “groan” is a rather interesting one. In 2 Corinthians 5, we read: “We groan while we are here (in this world), even as we yearn to have our heavenly habitation envelop us.” The Latin of this text reads, “Nam et in hoc ingemiscimus, habitationem nostram, quae de caelo est, superindui cupientes....” The two corresponding Greek words are “στεναζομεν” and “επιποθουντες..” These words can have slightly different connotations in different languages and usages. The Latin word can refer to the sound of the ocean or of a lion. The word yearning has a touch of tenderness to it. Groan has the note of a burden one must bear, a pain or anguish, but inarticulated.

            In Romans 8:23, moreover, St. Paul speaks of the whole creation “groaning” as it waits to give birth to God’s plan for it. (Omnis creatura ingemiscit” -- “συστενάζει”). Obviously, the word takes on a profound and vast meaning in this context. St. Paul can use the same word to refer to human “groaning” and to that of creation itself. Obviously, in the case of creation, we cannot think of it, apart from us, consciously making a sound, though one of the meanings of gemitus is the “creaking” of a house, a strange noise that seems to have an expectant meaning as if something were present. Creatures “await,” “yearn.”

            And, we are informed, our proper habitation is in heaven, which, if so, would seem to explain our unsettlement with our present condition. It seems natural that we express our longing with noise, even inarticulate noise, groaning. Words are sometimes inadequate. The fact is that we probably have no idea how to “articulate” that for which we are created. Thus, “groaning” turns out to be a good word for the sense of awaiting some completion, the sense of sadness or unsettlement or even pain that we do not yet possess it.

            There is a first principle in Thomas Aquinas that we cannot prove the existence of a thing, particularly God, simply because we might long for it, or “groan” for it. The thing we want may not exist, at least on the basis of our mere wanting it. We always have to begin with what is, which, if we do, might well make our groanings more poignant, more profound. On the other hand, if creation is full of these “groanings,” if we ourselves “groan” because we are not complete, it cannot fail to indicate something about what such groaning things are. Everywhere we go we find an incompleteness midst any completeness we may achieve. This is strange, when we think of it. Aristotle had remarked that things do not appear to be made “in vain.” Indeed, if something is properly “in vain,” that is, without purpose, it probably could not have existed in the first place. So our “groanings” indicate something about our imperfect condition, something that we cannot complete by ourselves.

            We “groan” at bad jokes. We sometimes “groan” when we sing. We also “groan” because of our obvious incompleteness – which keeps us wondering about our completeness, what it might be. We laugh because we can see connections.

            Teacher: “If you had seven apples and I asked you for two, how many would you have left?”

            Johnny: “Seven.”

That is again a “groaner.” Just behind the surface of things there seems to be laughter. “Groaning” may not indicate something sad, except that something due to us, something promised to us, is not yet ours. And to be ours, we still must choose it. We “groan” about the difficulty of our choices, about how we have to go against ourselves to have what we really want. These words – to groan, to moan, to desire, to long, to yearn – they all indicate to us that whatever it is that we were created for is not yet ours. We are unsettled. There is no joy without some waiting, much yearning and groaning. St. Paul was right to see this groaning both in creation itself and in our hearts. He did not want us to settle for anything less than that for which we existed in the first place.

6) Published in Excelsis, September, 2001.


            Usually, in my opinion, we can find more philosophy, religion, morality, and good sense on the sports page than in any other part of the paper. Sports players and those who write about them usually retain a common sense appreciation of ultimate things that is simply spontaneous and genuine. I do not doubt that there are things wrong in sports, but on the whole, reality is never too far away from athletes – even those apparently in the best of condition like Kory Springer die on practice fields.

            What struck my eye the other day was the account in the Post by Dave Sheinin of the birth of quintuplets to the wife of the Baltimore Orioles’ Venezuelan center fielder, Melvin Mora. The babies were quite tiny of course – “they were too small to hold ... but they recognize our voices.” Depending on the sex of the first child, there were two girls and two boys. I hesitate on the first-born because its name was given as “Genesis,” who weighed 1.51 pounds. One almost has to smile at the idea of the first of quintuplets being named “Genesis.” I presume it was a girl.

            As we just had the birth of septuplets at the Georgetown Hospital recently, quintuplets does not sound so awesome as it once did, in the Dionne days. However, Mora was right, it was “incredible.” He acknowledged “God’s blessing.” The Baltimore manager told Mora that he is going to have to give each member of the team five cigars, not one. He probably will.

            But what struck me most about this blessed event, or these five blessed events, were the following remarks of Sheinin: “[Mora] had seen the babies with his own eyes – five living, breathing people each barely the size of his fist – and it wasn’t until then that the enormity of the gift given to him and his wife [Gisel] became clear.” In these culture of death days, we will go a long way in the average newspaper today before we hear such births described as precisely “gifts.” This is precisely what they were, in spite of the fact that these little gifts at two and a half months premature will need a lot of science and good care of hospital and parents before they reach their first birthday.

            Too often today we hear the expression that some individual has a “right” to a child, as if a child had some sort of duty to be born to someone for no other reason than that one or other parent “wanted” it. The Church has always insisted that the child is precisely what Sheinin and Mora thought it was, “an enormous gift.” A man and a woman have a right to marry. The state cannot deny this to them. Out of this marriage, there may or may not be born to them a child. If there is, the child is not something they created or made. It is from the moment of conception itself but the child is related to the parents’ own relationship, in need of them, but not something they can say they have a “right” to have. The child, on the other hand, has a “right” to two parents, even when it does not have them through some natural or human failing or fault.

            It was thus extremely gratifying to see, on the sports page, the birth of children exactly describes as what it was, a “gift.” As such it is something in its own dignity, something that in changing the lives of the parents, that will in its own way change the world because each child if from God, unrepeatable, destined for eternal life.

            Anyone who reads the Holy Father for very long will have come across the name of the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid. On the 180th anniversary of his birth (July 1, 2001), John Paul II gave a remarkable reflection on Norwid’s works to members of the Polish National Patrimony. The Pope recalled how much Norwid’s poems had meant to him as a young man. Among the many striking passages in the Pope’s address, I was especially struck by the following one in which John Paul II explained the essence of Norwid’s insight: “Man journeys on as a pilgrim towards the ideal, but he receives it as a gift” (L’Osservatore Romano, July 25, 2001). That is a sentence of remarkable profundity. It implies, I think, what is actually the truth, that what we are created for can be achieved but not by our own powers.

            The world is really a world of gifts, not rights, even such “rights” as can be defended are, in essence, gifts. This does not make them any less important, as the Pope hinted, but it does make us realize that our existence is not our own. When parents cooperate in giving life, the life that is brought forth, as they know, is a gift to them. Somehow, I am not surprised that a baseball player and a reporter commenting on the birth of the player’s quintuplets would see them for what they are, gifts. And they named the first one, “Genesis” – in the beginning was the word, the word in which we are all created, even little “Genesis.”

7) Published in Excelsis, March, 2002, 6.


            Socrates is famous for proposing that when something goes wrong, the reason for this “going wrong” is due to ignorance. If we just “knew” enough, we would not do anything wrong. Education will literally “save” us. Criminals do not need to be detained or punished, but “re-educated.” The more we “know,” the more virtuous we will be. The Aristotelian tradition did not follow Socrates in this position, though it did agree that there is a knowledge component in every sin. Aristotle was a practical man. He noted that, when things go wrong, ignorance does not explain everything. Perfectly intelligent people do abominable things. Something else is going on. If everything is more or less perfect, we can still have sin. How so?

            Besides “sin,” what words do we use when something goes wrong because of some personal agency? We hear of “deviant” behavior, which would mean something like going “off the track,” or off the road.” Words like trespass, violate, wicked come to mind. To sin technically means to break divine law, a law that would include commandments, or how we stand to one another. The “Confiteor” at the beginning of Mass repeats, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” This thrice repeated phrase acknowledges that what was wrong was in fact the result of specific human agency.

            We can, however, speak of “fault” lines in an earthquake zone. Thus, a “fault” need not always be morally culpable, whereas a sin does. A “double fault” in tennis is a violation of the rules of the game. A penalty is immediately imposed. A “double fault” is no sin, of course, but it does bear the sense of a breaking of a rule, a norm, something properly found in sin. The knowledge element in any sin or fault, in this sense, demands that we know the norm or measure against which to compare our actions. The sin is not the norm itself but choosing to go against it, knowing what it is.

            In explaining the Rams’ 2002 Super Bowl loss, I read the following remark of Kurt Warner, the Rams’ quarterback: “I don’t think we were overconfident. I think we played hard and well most of the game. It was just those mistakes that we made that ended up in points for them” (Washington Post, Feb. 4). Here is found the word – “mistakes.” Now such a game is not, as such, a matter of eternal life and death, though it has a certain importance. There are plays that should not have been called by the coach. Some plays are executed badly by the quarterback. Within the structure of the game, we might say that it is not my “fault” that no one blocked the blitz. Yet, we suspect that what goes wrong in games is not just a question of “mistakes.” Some players did not do what they were supposed to do. If I make a “mistake” in adding up a sum, generally that is all it is, a “mistake,” no moral fault implied. If I make a “mistake” on a football field, it may well be that I ought to have known better. I lost the game because of my “mistake.”

            Though it often delights in exposing “sinful” Catholics, that is, those who do not live up in public to what they preach, the modern world prefers to change the very language of sin into the language of mistakes or harmless faults, mere errors of calculation, lapses of proper education. Nothing that we do is really “serious.”

            The “Our Father” asks us to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Some translations follow the Latin use, “forgive us our debts,” a more neutral word. “Trespass” is a word of legal origins, another word for sin. At Matthew 6:12, the Greek word for “trespass” or “debts” is οφειλετηϛ, which means someone of whom God can demand a punishment, a sinner. Neither we nor god can forgive what is not wrong. Indeed, we cannot forgive anything unless the fault or sin is directed against us and acknowledged by its perpetrator. No none can “forgive” unacknowledged sins.. We cannot forgive someone else’s sins without their admission of fault or guilt. Our forgiveness, by itself, does not constitute the correction of the problem, though it may occasion a change of heart and is something we should probably do even if the sin is not acknowledged. Certainly God in Christ’s sacrifice has “forgiven” the sins of the world, but the drama of the world still contains our acknowledgment of this forgiveness.

            What is the reason for this modern reluctance to call sin by its right name? A good part of the reason is that if we call sins by their right names, this accuracy of wording would mean that we must do something about them. But if we call sins “rights,” for example, we are less likely to see any problem with them. If we have a “right” to abortion, say, then the exercise of this “right” is merely a carrying out of something that we can legally do. On this hypothesis, we do not have to judge whether this same action might not be a destruction of either our own (i.e., a sin) or someone else’s good.

            At the beginning of Mass, the initial prayers are again a “confession.” The Latin words read, “Fratres, agnoscamus peccata nostra....” The English gives three ways to translate or paraphrase this invocation. The first one says , “let us acknowledge our failures....” Here the word for sin (peccatum) becomes a “failure.” The notion of sin does have a sense of missing or failing to hit the mark. But we might very well “fail” a course in college with no sin or moral fault involved. In the second version, we merely ask for “forgiveness” without specifying what it is on our part that might need to be forgiven. Presumably, we have done something requiring forgiveness. The third version actually asks us “to call to mind out sins.”

            Evidently, sins ought to be “called to mind.” The purpose of calling sins to mind is, ultimately, to forget them through their being forgiven. In this sense, heaven is a place of forgotten sins. There is, however, something dangerous about brooding too much over forgiven sins. We can think that we are too good to be forgiven. We can even think that we are too sinful to be forgiven. We do not forgive ourselves or set up the mechanism where by we are forgiven, though we do initiate the forgiveness process. It cannot begin outside of us. Nor do we establish what are the sinful things -that need to be forgiven. If we make our own commandments, we ipso facto commit the worst sin, that of pride, that of declaring ourselves to constitute the distinctions between good and evil. We do not obey the commandments, we make them to our own liking.

            What concerns me, in conclusion, is any use of language that would make a sin to appear to be something in the order of necessity or unfreedom. We thus subscribe to the doctrines that all sins are caused by ignorance, or psychological forces, or the stars, or anything but ourselves. The vocabulary of sin, I suppose, is an unpleasant one. The only thing more unpleasant is a vocabulary in which the word never appears as if the reality never happens.

            The Christian vocabulary includes it – “Fratres, agnoscamus peccata nostra....    

8) Published in Excelsis


            Recently, I listened to a sermon at a Sunday morning Mass. The guest preacher was very engaging. He had been in a foreign land and spoke charmingly of his experiences there. He began his sermon by pointing to the now non-existent altar-rail in the church. He reminded the ancient among the congregation that this said altar rail was designed to “separate” the clergy and the laity. I always thought the altar rail was designed so that people could reverently kneel to receive communion. What “separation” there was, was really designed as a symbolic distinction so that the order of parts of the whole Church would be evident. Before Vatican II, the priest continued, the people were not allowed to “participate” in the Mass. The remainder of his sermon told how in his distant church people were brought to “participate” in the Mass by various forms of “separation-breaking” moves.

            Needless to say, this sermon somewhat distracted me. Any more in a given parish, I suppose, no one under 57 or so will remember what a Mass before Vatican II was actually like. Even less do they recall what might be called the “theory” of what the Mass is. Suffice it to say, that if the Mass as celebrated before Vatican II and the Mass as celebrated on any given Sunday in today’s parishes is radically different in essentials, then we moderns are heretics and have broken from the worship that was to be handed down in the Church. If we think this, we should not be there at all. If anything essential is indeed changed (and some modern formulae and practices do cause us to wonder at times), we need to look for another religion since the one we now attend cannot be true on its own principles.

            Moreover, it seems rather astonishing to be informed that the people who attended the Masses in the almost two millennia before Vatican II did not “participate” in the Mass. Recently, a nephew of mine and his wife went to a solemn High Latin Mass in Notre Dame in Paris. He said it was one of the most glorious things he ever attended. Did he not “participate” in this Mass? Did my grandfathers and grandmothers miss out on the “real” Mass all the decades of their lives? I often have the impression that in fact they “participated” in Mass much more effectively than we do today.

            The folks who emphasize the notion of “participation” frequently have a very one-sided notion of what it means to “participate.” Indeed, most of the “participation” theorists that I have read or witnessed cause us to suspect that “participation” is more important than Mass itself. Part of this emphasis, I think, is the result of the famous “turning the Altar around” with the constant repetition that Mass is a celebratory “meal” with little reference to the same Sacrifice of Christ presented to us in the form of the Last Supper. As Cardinal Ratzinger said that what is needed today is for the priest to “decrease” and the Sacrifice to “increase,” to follow the wording of John the Baptist. The priest and the congregation do not “face” each other. They all, priest and congregation, should face the Lord, the East. All should face the Father, as Christ Himself did. We are not at Mass to gaze into each other’s eyes.

            The central problem, I think, has to do with the question, “what causes the congregation to be a congregation?” In the history of religion and politics, a community or a group does not come before that objective thing that causes it to form itself in the first place. This is especially true of the Mass. The Mass is not the “result” of a congregation’s coming together, but the cause of it. The congregation is, in this sense, an afterthought to something much more important, namely the real presence of the Memorial of Christ’s Passion and Death made present before us in the Church. The priest’s charming personality is not a major factor.

            The two major “parts” of the Mass, the listening to the Word and the participation in the Sacrifice, both emphasize the fact that we are first receivers. I know this is shocking, but I think that there was much more “participation” in pre-Vatican II Masses in which a strict silence was observed until we went outside the Church itself than in these present familiar surroundings in which we are talking much of the time. A silent reverence and active, prayerful attention to what the Mass is as it goes on, even though it does not visibly have clapping or talking, strikes me as a deeper “participation” that reaches each individual soul in an awe before the Divine Mystery.

            If we have evangelical brotherhood among ourselves, it is the result of the same understanding and belief in what the Mass is. Without this, we are not really specifically Christian brethren among ourselves. We could get the same feeling in a good meeting of the Rotary Club if all we were concerned with was participation – not that there is anything wrong with a good day at the Rotary Club.

            In brief, the altar rail was not designed to “separate” clergy and laity. Catholics for two thousand years did “participate” in the Mass. A congregation is the result of a belief and a divine action that makes us present in the same Sacrifice of the Cross. If we have our priorities right our congregations, I suspect, will be less noisy and more reverent because we understand at the depths of each of our souls, the primacy of adoration. “We adore Thee O Christ and we bless Thee.”.

9) Published in Excelsis,


            On April 20, 2002, the Holy Father received in special audience Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, together with staff members of the Pontifical Commission on the Doctrine of the Faith, which Ratzinger heads (L’Osservatore Romano, English, May 1, 2002). The occasion was Ratzinger’s 75th birthday (April 16) and the 25th anniversary of his becoming a bishop. Also present were some five hundred guests from Ratzinger’s native Bavaria. In the photo in L’Osservatore Romano, standing just behind the Holy Father and the Cardinal in the Apostolic Palace, was a contingent of Bavarian Riflemen, evidently their band, as I can pick out a tuba and what looks like a trumpet. I could see no rifles, Bavarian or otherwise, however. So I am sure the gathering was entertained with good Bavarian music. Of whether Munich beer or schnapps was served, nothing is mentioned.

            “Dear brothers and sisters,” the Pope remarked, “Cardinal Ratzinger received as his mission in life that of being a ‘collaborator of the truth’, after the model of many wonderful pastors of Christ’s holy Church.” In his memoirs, Milestones (Ignatius, 1998), if found a reproduction of Ratzinger’s episcopal coat of arms. At the bottom of the Coat of Arms are the Latin words: “Cooperatores Veritatis.” cooperators of the truth, to which words the Holy Father obviously referred.

            Josef Ratzinger has long been a hero of mine. I think that the best thing any one can do today is sit right down and read his The Spirit of the Liturgy.” Until the liturgy is adequately restored and reestablished as the proper worship of God, in the manner that Christ instructed that this worship appear among men, that is, as the Sacrifice of the Cross under form of the Last Supper’s anticipation of this Sacrifice, we will be in trouble in all other areas of religious life. 

            But Josef Ratzinger is a man of many parts. He is frank, engaging, learned. Besides his memoirs, he has published at least two other books of “interviews” that reveal his personality. One is the famous Ratzinger Report (1985); the second is the Salt of the Earth, (Ignatius, 1997), an interview with Peter Seewald, who tells us in his “Introduction” that he himself had “left the Church,” claiming “plenty of reasons.” He even maintained that is “difficult to return,” but noted that the Cardinal did not go into his background but did answer his questions as posed.

            One of my favorite comments of Cardinal Ratzinger is in this Seewald interview. Evidently, Ratzinger had remarked someplace that the problem with modern life was not the loss of a capacity to “mourn,” but of a capacity to “rejoice.” This has long been my own impression, so it is with much comfort that I read the following in the German Cardinal:


Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens.... When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with many people who suffer.... I can understand that. There is a moral attitude at work here. But this attitude is nonetheless wrong. The loss of joy does not make the world better – and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good. (36).

We are not made for mourning, even when we do mourn for real losses of what is good. We do not help those who suffer by pretending that joy does not exist or that we know nothing of it.

            Another side of this same point, which connects joy with Ratzinger’s concern about liturgy, can be seen in his too little known address to the Italian Eucharistic Congress in Bologna in 1997 Ratzinger recounted the story of Prince Vladimir of Kiev who was, it is said, searching for the “true religion.” The Prince listened to Islamic representatives from Bulgaria, to papal representatives from Germany, to Jewish representatives. Each proposed his faith as the best. The Prince however had also sent representatives to Santa Sofia in Constantinople, the Byzantine center. The envoys reported: “When we came to the country of the Greeks, we were brought to where they celebrate the liturgy for their God.... We do not know if we were in heaven or on earth.... We experienced that there God dwells among men....”

            Whether this story be true or not, Ratzinger made the following point that is crucial to our time:


What persuaded the envoys of the Russian Prince that the faith celebrated in the Orthodox liturgy was true was not a type of missionary argumentation whose elements appeared more enlightening to listeners than those of other religions. Rather, what struck them was the mystery as such, the mystery which, precisely by going beyond all discussion, caused the power of the truth to shine forth to the reason. Put in a different way, the Byzantine liturgy was not a way to teaching doctrine and was not intended to be. It was not a display of the Christian faith in a way acceptable or attractive to onlookers. What impressed onlookers about the liturgy was precisely its utter lack of an ulterior purpose, the fact that it was celebrated for God and not for spectators, that its sole intent was to be before God and for God... (Inside the Vatican, January, 1998).

It is this sense of the proper priorities that marks the mind of Joseph Ratzinger.

            One last point about this great Cardinal. On November 6, 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger was inducted into the French Academy of Moral and Political Science, a great honor for a German cleric. He was to take the place in the Academy of the recently deceased and famous Soviet scientist, Andrei Sakharov. In this distinguished address (L’Osservatore Romano, February 10, 1993), Cardinal Ratzinger revealed, as he often does, his keen understanding of the intellectual principles of the modern mind and its problems. It is in this lecture that I first came across the fact that the Church at its highest levels was indeed concerned with the intellectual premises on which modern democracy bases itself. They are not always innocent. “It is difficult to see how democracy, which rests on the principle of majority rule, can enforce moral values that are not recognized by a majority without introducing a dogmatism which is foreign to its nature.” If what is right and wrong is to be decided simply by majority rule, then it will itself be a “dogmatism” with no other justification for its position than will, which itself can change to anything else also willed.

            As his motto intimates, Cardinal Ratzinger has ordered his life to pursue the truth, to collaborate with it when it is known. He presents it in reasonable, calm terms, but he is forceful. He does not suffer fools gladly. He does not think any favor is done by not stating clearly what both reason and faith teach. He has followed carefully new and old religions, new and old ideologies. He knows what is held in other systems and beliefs. Ratzinger is, perhaps, more of an Augustinian than a Thomist, while, like all good Christian men, being something of both. “Faith is not the resignation of reason in view of the limits of our knowledge,” he wrote in a lecture given at the Sapienza University in Rome, on February 13, 1990, on the occasion of the 1400th anniversary of the Council of Toledo. “It does not retreat into the irrational in view of the dangers of a merely instrumental reason.... But the mysterium, as faith sees it, is not the irrational but rather the uttermost depths to the divine reason, which our weak eyes are no longer able to penetrate” (Turning Point for Europe, Ignatius, 1994,104). If we all have “weak eyes” in the pursuit of truth, we are glad that Cardinal Ratzinger’s eyes are still stronger than most. He does collaborate with precisely “the truth.”

10) Published in Excelsis, #16, March/April, 2000, 4.


            After Vatican II, the modern Catholic wanted finally to be reconciled with the good things that were said to have come about because of “modernity” or the “modern mind,” or “modern technology.” Aquinas (d. 1274), to be sure, is famous for his ability to see the good that is contained in the remaining “being” of anything that lacks its complete good. Aquinas, the most respected of Catholic thinkers, is thus pictured as saving the good things of modern times from the backwardness of those not open enough or liberal enough to accept modern science or thought. Faith is “true” only in so far as it accepts science. It has no independent ground to question science’s or reason’s affirmations.

            If this essay were entitled, “The Modernity of Aquinas,” moreover, it would imply that Aquinas already knew what this world had itself later discovered. In this case, Aquinas would be seen as a prophet. It could, however, also imply that something was lost or never yet discovered in Aquinas that could now provide a remedy to this modernity that increasingly shows incompleteness, if not downright derangement. In this latter case, we would find in Aquinas something found no place else, something vital for our well being..

            In reading St. Thomas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I was struck by the number of times in this text that sentences began with the words, “The truth is that...,” or, “the truth of the mattes is....” These words are mindful of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. They indicate that the purpose of our mind is not “doubt” but precisely truth. The mind is capable, after its own manner, of knowing “all things.” What is not ourselves becomes ours through our power of knowing. We do not directly know ourselves. We begin to know by confronting what is not ourselves, beginning with any particular, sensible, ordinary thing.

            We live in an age that, except, ironically, for that affirmation itself, claims not to know the truth. It does not think truth is possible. The modern mind has lost its confidence precisely as mind. The result is that we speak, and are allowed to speak, of truth only in the context of “toleration.” That is, we must cover all our affirmations with the gloss of doubt. All thought is equal. All ideas have the same validity. Therefore, we cannot “impose” our truth. Truth is not one, but multiple. That is, it does not exist. Contradictory truths are not only possible, but politically mandatory. As Hume said, the opposite of every matter of fact is possible. That is, if I say you sit before me, and you do sit before me, it is possible, on this supposition, that you do not so sit. Minds don’t reach realities.

            What is the essence of modernity? It is that there is no “objective” order, either in our souls or in the universe. The mind is “conscious.” But it knows nothing but itself. Therefore, the external world, including the inwardness of others of our kind, is not something we discover but something we project and enforce. We do now “know” the same “truths.” We do not live in common in the same reality whereby we can mutually check the validity of our knowing. Rather we will to live in whatever world we “will.” Choice creates reality; it does not select it. We are autonomous. We are free to be anything except what we are. We thus do not allow “fanaticism.” That is, we marginalize, ostracize, ignore any claim to know the truth, to say that “the truth is....” In a world of doubt, the only fanaticism is, to recall Plato, “to say of what is that it is, to say of what is not, that it is not.”

            Thomas Aquinas read Aristotle (d.322 B.C.) carefully. He read Scripture, Augustine, and the philosophers, again carefully. He began with things, with what is. He reflectively examined our knowing powers. He wanted to know the order of things, including human things, divine things. He did not think that if something was true in his time, it could not be true in some other, say, our time. He was not a cultural relativist or an historicist, that is, someone who confined truth to culture or time. On the contrary, if something is indeed true in one time, it is true in every time and indeed in every place.

            Aquinas, furthermore, did not think that revelation was “private,” nor did he think it was “subjective.” Rather he thought that it was directed to our very minds. The basic truths of revelation -- Creation, Incarnation, Redemption – could be intellectually recognized, however, only if we already, from reason and experience, had formulated in our minds the questions to which what is revealed was the answer. Aquinas, in other words, did not think that the content of revelation was purely subjective faith. He thought that if it was in fact an answer to questions that men wondered about in every age and nation, ones they constantly asked themselves about, such revelational answers could not be excluded from consideration.

            Indeed, Aquinas thought that revelation made it possible to think better. We hear it said that if something comes from “faith,” it is of no use or interest to those who do not or cannot believe. Aquinas did not think this. He thought that if revelation answered some query or enigma that reason formulated but could not answer, it must mean that there was a strange coherence or unity in the universe. Things built on things. One truth led to another. Grace built on nature.

            Autonomous modernity does not listen to Aquinas because it as refuted him. It does not listen to him because it chooses not to listen to its own mind, to its own questions that arise from what is. Aquinas is not a modern man because he does not know modern truth. He is not a modern man because modern men choose not to know either the truth itself or the truth about themselves.

11) Published in Excelsis, #18, November, 2000, 6.



            Normally, my conversations do not begin with a Greek word. At breakfast, a young Spaniard across from me asked what I was doing. “I was thinking about Jacques Maritain’s thesis about the possible salvation of the Devil,” I told him. The young man immediately replied, “Oh, yes, Origen, apocatastasis.” This Greek word means “restoration,” or “re-establishment.” Origen, the third century theologian, it seems, wanted to save everyone, including the devils. He figured that God in His mercy and omnipotence could find a way. One way would be to forget the sins of any rational creature and “restore” him to his original created condition. An all powerful God, evidently, could manage this feat. Modern theologians like von Balthasar and Rahner speculated about this problem of “universal salvation.” They sought to do this without denying any of the Church’s teaching about the reality of Hell, the centrality of the free will, the Fall, or the heinousness of sin. Whether it can be done is a problem

            To speculate about obscure issues is not wrong. What is revealed to us is a stimulant for precise thinking about its meaning. Actually, issues surrounding this proposal of universal salvation are not so unfamiliar. In today’s culture, practically everyone holds, in theory or in practice, that everyone is saved. Few imagine that anything that they or anyone else can do would result in eternal damnation. If no one is damned, everyone is saved, presumably. So Origen is quite up-to-date. In other terms, everyone holds that his own will constitutes what is right and wrong, not some alien “commandment” or “natural law.” Since it is impossible that we do not will what we will, what we will is good. Therefore, whatever we do, is good because that is what we will.  

            The Church, of course, is careful with this proposal. Looked at from our point of view, in via, the proposition of universal salvation seems to make concern about moral life, about how we live, quite useless. If everyone is going to be saved, no matter what he does, then he may do whatever he wants and not give it a second thought. Indeed, this is what our therapeutic and non-alienated culture tells us is the only way for us to live. We have to tolerate whatever anyone does because no other criterion of action exists but what we choose.

            We can, no doubt, look at our situation from God’s point of view. We do know that this order of redemption in which we now live is itself a plan of God to restore us to the original vocation to accept the inner life of the Trinitarian God as our own personal purpose or end. Sins can be forgiven. The vexing problem is with the sin of pride (a sin against the Holy Spirit) – the claim that we are the cause of all things, including the distinction between good and evil. If we freely choose to make this self-definition to be our purpose in life, God cannot arbitrarily change our wills for us unless He interferes with the very freedom in which He created us so that we could, as free and independent beings, choose Him as the real good of our existence.

            Evidently, many find it attractive to maintain that it would be “nice” or “fit” if this all-powerful and knowing God could get around to saving everyone. This is, indeed, precisely what God has been doing since creation. Do we want, then, to say that God is somehow deficient, that some things He cannot manage? Strictly speaking, we do not know if everybody is saved, or if a large number are saved, or if only a few are saved, as St. Augustine, on the basis of observation, seemed to think. Karl Rahner, in an early article, thought that Hell’s essential “punishment” was not “fire” or anything like that, but the finite creature’s choice to prefer his own law. The suffering consists in knowing that a much higher way was intended for him.

            What is important to recognize is that God by His power is not going to “restore” things to where they were in the beginning. He is not going to eradicate actual history. Rather, He is going to achieve the end for which He created the universe and us rational beings within it. Should we choose against God, as we surely can, even ultimately, we will be left with our choices. We call this “being left” Hell, however fully or sparsely we want to populate it. God’s mercy has to operate through God’s creation of free and rational beings whose proper activity in grace is the most important thing in the finite universe.

            In his Pentecost, 2000, sermon, John Paul II remarked: “The Gospel must not be imposed but proposed, because it can only be effective if it is freely accepted and lovingly embraced.” Surely in today’s world, this principle means that many reject this “Gospel proposition.” We then can seek in theory to save them by other means – baptism of desire, good will, ignorance, implicit sorrow, rites of other religions, natural reason. The Church does hold that God will not deny anyone who, through no fault of his own, does not know or understand the proffered means of salvation.

            The apocatastasis, the assurance that God will save all, is, then, a delicate issue. I bring it up because, as a friend of mine told me, practically all students and most of the general public implicitly believe that God saves everyone. Therefore it matters little what anyone does. Nothing any human or angelic will can do will make any difference. God is all in all. Yet, when we see this thesis so spelled out, it seems dubious, doesn’t it? The very possibility of a real human life in which it does make a difference what we think, say, and do is undermined. Plato, Christian tradition, and Scripture itself tend rather to present a less rosy picture, if indeed it is “rosy” to deprive our acts of any ultimate seriousness.

12) Published in Excelsis, #19, December, 2000, 4-5.


            In the literature, we run into a sin called, in Latin, invidia clericorum. This vice refers to the envy, invidia, manifested by clerics, both lay and religious, over the true accomplishments of others. It is a subtle, dangerous vice. Except for pride, it is the most dangerous vice of them all. Why? Often, we think that greed or misuse of pleasure is the most dangerous vice. Indeed, in Christianity, the most dangerous vice is pride, superbia. In its essence, pride means using our admitted freedom to make ourselves, not God, the center of reality. Pride means to make our selves the cause of the distinction of good and evil so that what is evil or what is good depends on our own definition of it. This places us at the center of things. Pride is the vice of a very few; it is an aristocratic vice.

            Envy and vanity are two more or less related vices. Envy is certainly more dangerous than vanity, though not so perilous as pride. Both envy and vanity are concerned with others; pride is only concerned with the self. Chesterton once remarked that vanity is a rather “healthy” vice since it is located, unlike pride, outside of ourselves. Vanity is concern about how we look to others. How we look to others is not under our control. Yet, to wonder how we look to others is not wrong. Vanity is a mild vice because it tends to prefer how we look to others to whether we are truly good. If we are good but do not seem so to others, it should not matter. But it is not a vice to strive to look well to others.

            Envy refers to our giving or withholding honor to others. Fame means that we not only look good to others, but that our abilities or looks or accomplishments are indeed acknowledged by others. Fame has the connotation of great notoriety; it need not be a vice unless it is sought for its own sake apart from some objective accomplishment. Envy, however, always has the element of something disordered, something distorted. Envy means that we withhold honor that is due. Envy is thus a more spiritual thing than, say, greed, which refers to material possessions. Envy deals with spiritual goods. It is sometimes difficult to understand that things that are worthy of honor should be honored. Honor means that some human being positively acknowledges something good in what another has done or what he is. “Honor” thy father and mother thus does not mean to give them material goods. It means to acknowledge in an appropriate way what they are and have done.

            How does envy work? We know it is one of the capital sins. That is, it is a source of other sins. Aristotle had already pointed out that “honor” can be one of the proposed definitions of happiness. Many people locate happiness in honor, which is more political in context. Politicians are often tempted by honor rather than by riches or pleasures. But the reason that honor cannot be the definition of happiness is that it does not depend on us. It depends on the free acknowledgment of others of whatever talents or accomplishments we might have.

            But let me explain why envy is a vice. When someone we do not like does something that is truly worthy, we know that we are envious if we are reluctant to congratulate the accomplishment of the other person. If someone is appointed to a job or receives a reward that is truly deserved, we “owe” honor or praise for that accomplishment. The other person cannot “demand” it of us. So it must come out of our free will to recognize something worthy in another. Thus, envy falls into a world in which human beings are supposed to respond. They are called to acknowledge something worthy in the words or deeds of another. We are not talking here of anything false or phony. We are talking of real accomplishments that ought to be recognized and acknowledged. Envy, in this sense, remains within us, even though it is obvious to others that we do not respond objectively to the works or artistry of another.

            I do not wish to identify fame with envy. The praise of others is no doubt exhilarating whether it be in a beauty contest, an election to the cardinalate or senate, the winning of a game, or election to the board of directors of a major corporation. The principle of justice intimates that something which cannot be repaid exactly in kind, as is impossible in spiritual things, still needs some manifestation. Fame is beyond justice. It is what must be given when financial considerations are already met. Moreover, the fame of one can occasion the envy of another. It takes a clear eye to see the presence of envy in our souls. But fame is, or ought to be, the way we know what we consider worthy, what we consider right. Fame means that something worthy has been accomplished by one of our kind. No doubt, fame can be notorious. Fame is also given to unworthy things.

            Tell me what you praise and I will tell you what you are. This sentiment is parallel to tell me what you envy and I will tell you what you are. In either case, we are close to the heart of the spiritual things that motivate us. Both fame and envy point to what is worthy of praise and whether we possess it in ourselves. Aristotle talks of the famous magnanimous man, the man who is noble and knows he is noble. His worthiness is not a lie. It acknowledges what one is. We ought to strive to be worthy of proper praise. We are to let our lights shine before man (Luke, 8:18). We ought also to strive to keep our eyes and hearts on things worthy of praise. We ought never to separate the praise from what is worthy of praise.

            In the end, we are to praise God, who is worthy of our praise. That is to say, we ought to recognize what we are. We are not the maker of things. We are receivers. We are given something worthy in our very being. We see that what is worthy comes from others. Our fame points to a fame that is not ours to have, but only ours to acknowledge. This is why our highest act is of celebration and praise, of acknowledging, not envying, what is not ours but what is given to us by what is.

13) Published in Excelsis, August, 2001, 6.


            In the Ninth Book of Aristotle’s Ethics, he remarks that “we should not give the same thing to everyone, and we should not give our fathers everything, just as we should not make all our sacrifices to Zeus. And since different things should be given to parents, brothers, companions, and benefactors, we should accord to each what is proper and suitable.” These are councils of prudence within Aristotle’s remarkable discussion of friendship. What Aristotle is getting at is that something is always objectively appropriate or “right” in our relations to others. The differences count. Though princes and paupers are equal before God in their ultimate destiny, if they so choose, we do not give a prince a dollar for a cup of coffee, nor do we give a pauper a new Mercedes-Benz when he really needs a shave.

            Aristotle goes on to give two examples of what he means. “Kinfolk are the people invited to a wedding, since they share the same family, and hence share in actions that concern it; and for the same reason it is thought that kinfolk more than anyone must come to funerals.” And Aristotle would say too that the elegance of a wedding or the flowers at a funeral should be different depending on whether the one involved is rich or poor. We owe something proportionate to each. Not everyone needs a gold casket but we all need rites at our death.

            Al McGuire, the famous Marquette University basketball coach and sports announcer, died in a Milwaukee hospice on January 26, 2001. He was a remarkable man. Leonard Shapiro, the Staff Writer on the Washington Post sports page, had known McGuire since Shapiro was a young college cub-reporter at the University of Wisconsin, when McGuire, much to Shapiro’s surprise, let the young man interview the famous coach. So Shapiro followed McGuire’s colorful career and, on his death, wrote one of the finest, most touching obituaries I have seen (Post, 27 J. 2001).

            But I bring this matter up because Shapiro cites several very telling things about McGuire and the reality of death. The first was McGuire’s consciousness of the tender care of the hospice staff for himself and the others there. Another of McGuire’s friends visited him in the hospice room, which he shared with an old man. McGuire suddenly remarked to his friend, “Listen to how gentle the nurse is with this old man next door. I’ve seen kindnesses in this building I never knew anything about.” Those words are not merely heartwarming but revealing of how we often can live our lives, very famous lives, and miss some of the most important things about what life is. But McGuire, even himself dying, was open to something, a “kindness,” he did not himself “know anything about.” Here are two of the deepest lessons we can have, both that it is never too late and that, in our living, we may not have noticed the best things about us.

            This column, though, is entitled, “On Funerals.” And the title comes from another remark that Shapiro cites from the many witty ones that McGuire, in his New York accent, is legendary for. McGuire had noted that many in his family who visited him kept telling him he looked good. But he did not deceive himself. “It’s like there’s this huge gray elephant in the room and no one wants to acknowledge he’s there.” But he did talk about it with his friend. There was a certain courage about him in the face of death that did not want to blind him from the reality of “the huge gray elephant in the room.”

            Evidently, McGuire once told Rick Majerus, the Utah coach who used to be McGuire’s assistant at Marquette, “”I don’t go to the funerals because I bought you a drink while you were alive. Anyway, the crowd at a funeral is always governed by the weather.” You just have to laugh at that remark. Shapiro, of course, noted that McGuire’s funeral would be huge no matter what the weather. But I find it most amusing that McGuire, in his own common sense way, said about the same thing that Aristotle did about funerals. That is, if I buy you a drink while you are alive, we are probably not the friends or kinfolk that informs us about what wedding or what funeral we should attend.

            With the advent of cremation on a large scale, often far out-stripping in numbers the older garden-style funerals, the mood of funerals and what they stand for has changed. We have “memorial services,” not funerals. These services, even with Mass, often turn out to be a series of eulogies, something the Church does not particularly recommend. The classical tradition of a funeral was to pray for the dead, with some appreciation of the fact that he might need it, to remind those “kinfolk” and those for whom we once “bought a drink while we were alive,” that they too should surely follow, to remind us all of death and resurrection.

             Funerals today often remind us only of resurrection and of our good and cheery deeds. That we die, but once, as sinners, that we die at all, are not much mentioned. As I have written before, the implicit modern cultural assumption today often is that all are saved no matter what they do or what they believe (Excelsis, Nov., 2000). The Church has rather maintained that what saves is the grace of God that does not abolish our freedom. Thus, what we do with what we are given and what we hold about God make all the difference in the world about how we die and what is to be our eternal destiny.

            But I am the kind of a person who would very much like that my kinfolk and my drinking friends, not to mention myself, be saved. To help accomplish this no small feat, the Catholic tradition has always seen our funerals to be places of teaching not just about eternal life but about the penitential and sacramental way to arrive there. Our kinfolk and our drinking friends need to know both about the “huge gray elephant” and about belief, sin, and repentance.

            Shapiro said that “To Al, everyday was a circus. He’s the only true free spirit I’ve ever met in my life. He’s always tell me, ‘Enjoy the simple things.’” That is to say, we indeed die as true free spirits. The philosophers say that death is also a choice. Our funerals should recall this choice and not pretend that whatever we do in life makes no difference to our destiny.

14) Published in Excelsis, June, 2001, 6.


            After protesting that certain clerical professors should buy their own books, Fr. Joseph Fessio S. J. at Ignatius Press gave me a copy of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. This present column is not a “review” of this incisive book, except to say that it is not to be missed. The book, I might add, is at times quite amusing: “Moving the Altar Cross aside to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the most absurd phenomena of recent decades” (84). Indeed.

            A further thesis of this book is that the personality of the priest should decrease so that central attention to the Lord and His sacrifice can increase. The priest is not an actor, nor is he a talk-show host, however much we are often hard pressed to tell the difference. A “clericalization,” even of the laity, has arisen in much contemporary liturgical practice. “Now the priest – the ‘presider’, as they now prefer to call him – becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes.


Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the “creative” planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, “make their own contributions”. Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a “pre-determined patter.” The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle (80).

That is a pungent phrase, the community as “a self-enclosed circle.” The community, however, does not “cause” the Sacrifice, but rather is first caused by it. The Mass does not “close in” but opens out, not to one another nor to the world, but to God the Father . The way we are to worship has been revealed to us. We do not worship one another or the world. Nor, like the classical philosophers, do we speculate about the First Movers.

            Chesterton once responded to a newspaper query about “what’s wrong with the world?” His pithy answer, “Dear Sir, I am,” evokes the presence of original sin in all of us. No “external” cause can be located for the world’s disorders. Chesterton’s remark remains an acute reminder of where we must start any thinking on the problems of this world. We begin not with “social structures,” nor with malformed institutions, but with something disoriented in our own souls. If we do not see that we must begin here, we are dangerous both to ourselves and to the world we claim to “reform.”

            Yet, Ratzinger’s book makes me think that Chesterton’s answer needs an addendum, an addendum that Chesterton would have approved. Our liturgy arises out of Christ’s atonement on the Cross for our sins. “What’s wrong with the world” is paradoxically that it does not worship God as God has established that He is to be worshiped. This proper worship, I think, comes before not after we decide to live virtuously, to live as we ought. Worship is the first thing, not the last thing.

            The Mass at its core is not a human creation. By ourselves, we are not free either to define what it is or to change it to something other than what was handed down to us. Worshiping God in the way that God indicated to us in revelation is not an indifferent matter. True, the word “religion” refers to our natural or rational response to God. In this sense, many “religions” are possible. This is why Christianity is not, properly speaking, a “religion.” It is not just another way of doing what other religions are doing, of making some kind of human response to what God is perceived to be.

             Men can, moreover, refuse to accept that a positive revelation has in fact taken place, one that obliges those who receive it to state precisely what it is and means. But those who receive this revelation and believe what it tells us to do – “Do this in memory of me” – are not free and should not think themselves free to interfere with the freedom of God in guiding us to what it is we most need, most want.

            Aidan Nichols, O.P, writes, in his Christendom Awake, that the “‘re-enchantment’ of the Catholic Liturgy is the single most urgent ecclesial need of our time” (21). The Spirit of the Liturgy spells out this need, this “re-enchantment,” in detail.

15) Published in Excelsis


            In an old New Yorker cartoon by someone whose signature looks like “Handel Ryan,” we find ourselves in heaven. Two balding, resurrected, human male types, appropriately equipped with robes, halos, and angel-wings, are admiring from a neighboring cloud a third gentleman. This man is also haloed; on his lap, he has a large piece of paper on which he is writing with a quill. This latter gentleman, who seems familiar, has a rather grim, determined look on his face. One of the admirers remarks happily to the other, “Beethoven is working on his Eight-Hundred-and-Forty-seventh Symphony, but I still prefer the Ninth.” What this cartoon implicitly tells us is that there are limits to our condition, that we can have too much of a good thing, that some things we would not want even if we could have them. Nine are enough.

            A lady I know was recently interviewed concerning the possibility of her being appointed to a federal judgeship. She was warned ahead of time that the questions asked of her would be very frank and often delicate. The questioners wanted to know, of course, among other things, whether she had hired help and whether she paid their proper taxes. Was she prejudiced in any way against any conceivable category of diversity? She was asked if she ever had an “affair” of any kind or of any combination. When all the questions were added together, she was implicitly asked, in other words, whether she observed the Commandments. It was not a question of piety, to be sure, but of practicality, though one might objectively wonder why violating the Commandments, when brought to light, still brings public shame. Is it totally accidental?.

            Experience had proved, in any case, that political appointees and elected officials with shady records cause great grief in the public forum, especially for those who appoint them. In retrospect, to recall only the most famous case, Mr. Clinton’s checkered record was not totally unknown. The read on him is that by leaving with the White House silverware, soliciting Chinese money, and other well-publicized escapades, he was finally “done in” at least reputation-wise. This is true even in an overindulgent society that oftentimes seemed to cheer him on and delight in and imitate his every shady deed. We have heard the witticism that “no good deed goes unpunished.” My thesis here is that in fact, even in this world, errors and sins are rectified and punished. The main punishment of sin is the sin itself, the living with what we have done and ourselves seeing, however reluctantly, its consequences.

            I heard of a detailed report that concluded that children in day-care centers, no matter what their background, manifest boorish and aggressive tendencies to a greater degree than children brought up by a mother and a father in a normal home. In other words, if we are really interested in children, we ought to have mothers at home and fathers, the combination of which has a good chance to bring up a child wisely and safely in this world. The alternates to sanity, like day-care centers, do not work, no matter how much we “want” them to work..

            And after decades of being told what we were going to be overpopulated, we find ourselves greying and dying-out for lack of children. We believed our own propaganda so we are disappearing. We have to import other people’s children to do our laundry and clean our streets. People are even beginning to write that, on empirical grounds, Paul VI was right on the contraceptive issue. Everything he warned about in Humanae Vitae has come to be pass. How come he understood this possibility when the learned and the wise of his time did not?

            Several years ago, I read a report that concluded that in those states that allow citizens legally to carry concealed weapons, the crime rate is considerably lower than in states that forbid weapons altogether. No one really bothered to ask why this lower crime rate prevailed. It was obvious that the crooks understood that it was rather dangerous to rob someone who might be carrying his own weapon. Of course, this position presupposed a view that robbing was wrong and defending oneself was both a right and a duty. It was not necessary to give over our money just because someone demanded it with a knife or gun. It also presupposes that criminals are not automatons, products of some sociological class, but human beings who choose to do what they do. Guns do not cause crime. Human beings do. Fortunately, at least the criminals understand this simple insight.

            All this leads me to what I call “Schall’s Natural Law of Social Rectification.” Roughly, it would mean that if Professor Peter Singer at Princeton now tells us that bestiality, that is sex between humans and animals, is quite proper, as he did tell us in a recent comment, in five years we can expect wide-spread diseases that could only happen if humans and animals indulged in such improbable activities. The same result would also lead to animal rights’ groups trying to prevent such untoward attacks on innocent animals on the basis that they are “unnatural.”

            In the case of something like AIDS, practical wisdom says that if the acts that are known to cause it are not indulged in, there will be no AIDS. “Thou shalt not” makes considerable sense in this controverted area. If, on the other hand, the acts in which AIDS are known to be spread are what are now called “natural rights,” then the medical profession will be charged with finding a solution that will allow the activity without the disease. If the researchers do not find this solution, they, not nature or the ones voluntarily engaged in the acts, will be blamed. For every problem, there must be a solution, since “rights” have a “right” to be exercised untrammeled.

            Someplace in each of these examples we can find, I think, the problem of Beethoven’s Eight Hundred-and-Forty-seventh Symphony and “Schall’s Natural Law of Social Rectification.” That is, briefly, the alternatives to the Commandments do not work. Their consequences come back to haunt us. When we go ahead and test them out in spite of the warning, we inevitably and eventually find ourselves both in an intellectually absurd position and usually with some manifest disorder of soul or body or both, a disorder that some enterprising researcher will eventually connect with the Commandment. I used to believe that we needed Hell to punish those sins and crimes that went unpunished in this world. I am beginning to believe that the Lord actually so arranged it that we usually get punished in both places if we do not take the Commandments seriously, that is, if we do not obey them or repent our deeds if we do not.

16) Published in Excelsis, #17, July/August, 2000, 4/6.


            During the Jubilee Year Celebrations on May 25, the Holy Father addressed the World of Learning. The photo in L’Osservatore Romano shows John Paul II sitting in front of the Bernini Baldacchino. Below him are alb-clad bishops and priests along the rails around steps that go down under St. Peter’s. Behind the clergy, in the nave, are numerous scholars, men and women. The number given is three hundred, but more seem present. The Holy Father, it is always amusing to note, gave the address “in French, English, Spanish and Italian.” The average German or Polish professor, I presume, did not feel left out because he too speaks French, English, Spanish, and Italian.


What did the Pontiff say to these academics? Everyone present at that gathering, of course, knew that the man in white before them was himself a philosopher and an academic, and, yes, a hundred other things they were not. But his discourse this evening was not “academic.” Yet, the Pope understands professorial temptations, as his opening words make clear.


In past centuries, science, whose discoveries are fascinating, has held a dominant place and at times was considered the only criterion of truth or way to happiness. A reflection based exclusively on scientific elements tried to accustom us to a culture of suspicion and doubt. It refused to consider the existence of God or to view man in the mystery of his origin and his end, as if this perspective might call science itself into question. It sometimes saw God merely as a mental construct which would not stand up to scientific knowledge. These attitudes have estranged science form man and from the service it is called to offer him (#1. O.R. 31 May).

This paragraph is remarkably concise and insightful. I have italicized certain words in it.

            The discoveries of science are called precisely “fascinating.” They call our attention to themselves. The remote origin of the word “fascinating” is possibly the Latin word fas, meaning “something spoken,” hence “divine law and right.” It comes to mean that which is allowed; its negative, nefas, means that which is forbidden. The verb fascinare means to enchant or bewitch; it may even be connected with the famous “evil eye.” So this word carries a multitude of curious overtones – a voice that is not ours, something we receive, a law or order, something that bewitches us. Even the old distinction between black and white magic is intimated. Black magic means that someone obtains a golden treasure chest if he pronounces the secret words backwards while standing on his head with his toes pointing north. White magic means that we can produce this same golden chest in a laboratory if we figure out certain scientific formulae producing the same chest.

            The next papal step reminds scholars that “science “ is not the “only” way to “truth” or the only criterion of “happiness.” The word used is “only.” That is, science is one criterion; it does deal with truth and happiness. It may not be everything. Modern thought did try to claim its method was the “only” way to truth. Reality was not reality, it was said, unless examined under certain methods with their own presuppositions. This mentality led to a culture of “suspicion and doubt.” Clearly, the Pope here refers to Descartes, to his famous method of doubting all things, of excluding anything that could not be known under this system. Since the most important things could not be known this way, the whole culture was infected with doubt, with uncertainty.

            The next word that the Pope uses is “refused.” It is a “will” word, a word that comes ultimately out of Genesis and the Fall. Thus, the “existence” of God was not examined, the “mysterious” origin and end of man was not looked into. Science has not explained them. John Paul II adds an interesting comment to this “refusal.” Why were the existence of God and the mystery of origin and end not examined? After all, Aristotle and St. Thomas had considered these very topics. Their discussions still had force. But sometimes we do not want to look at certain questions because we suspect where they would lead us if we did. We do not want to go there, ie, we “refuse” in advance. This situation seems to be what the Pope has in mind here.

            In an attempt to explain the “phenomenon” of God, science proposed certain “mental constructs.” They did not work, even scientifically. They reflected not God but their constructors. St. Thomas was careful to begin with things outside himself, with existing things. His God was precisely not a “mental construct,” even though God’s existence required careful reasoning and reflection on what is. The result of all this “science” is a certain “estrangement.” Science does not know man, hence it cannot really know how it is capable of serving and helping him, though this is it s true vocation.

            John Paul II uses the words “wonderment” and “humility” together to indicate the human condition before the vastness of reality. We are to be curious about it, but we are of earth, we are not its cause. Humility means that we can accept that our science only discovers, it does not make what is. This frees us from the burden of being our own gods. Science is the result of something. What it works on is already there, as is the man working on it. Moreover what it finds in some obscure place is to be valid everywhere. “Scientific research is also based on the capacity of the human mind to discover what is universal” (#2). What the Cartesian doubt proposed that undermined its whole effort was to doubt that it knew. We have become so humble that we cannot acknowledge that we have a capacity to know and to know the truth.

            The scholarly Pope from Krakow includes, in his brief discourse, a gentle reminder that something of God can be known. “By increasing his knowledge of the universe, and in particular of the human being, who is at its center, man has a veiled perception, as it were, of the presence of God, a presence which he is able to discern in the ‘silent manuscript’ written by the creator in creation, the reflection of his glory and grandeur” (#3). Here again, we notice what is the center of the created universe. It is man. The anthropomorphic principle has long suspected that the order of the cosmos has something to do with this peculiar rational creature and his ability to know and yes praise God.

17) Published “Wit and Wonder,” Excelsis, #16, May/June. 2000, 4



            Does our “doing” require our “knowing” the truth? I asked a student in class, “what is the first thing you need to make a chair?” “Get some wood,” he replied. “No, that is perhaps a second or third thing. The first thing you must know is simply ‘what is a chair.’” You cannot make a chair unless you know what it is.

            The most undervalued thing about us, I often think, is our mind. Our minds, indeed, instruments to guide us in doing things. This is one of the things the mind is for. But it has its own proper “act” – simply to know what is. Aristotle says that there are certain things we would want to do even if there were no pleasure connected to them – he mentions seeing. Seeing is the great symbol of knowing. “Sight of the eyes” illustrates “sight” of the mind. Ultimately, we are made to “know.” We are made that what is not ourselves becomes ourselves in our knowing it.

            We will often be judged by our acts. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But it is also by our thoughts that we will be known for what we are. Why do we recite the Creed together at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days? Whenever I am in a parish in which the priest does not bother to say the Creed with the Congregation, I know that I am in a parish in which the priest does not understand the importance of mind to Catholicism. Of all the parts of the Mass, it is the Creed that is directed to our intelligence, as if to say, that what you “hold,” what you know of the teachings of the Church, makes a difference. Indeed, what we know about God, makes an ultimate difference, however little or great that is. There are false gods.

            A witty friend of mine, who knows what the Church instructs on this score, told me that a priest at her parish sits while “the plumbers and hair dressers distribute Communion.” She has nothing against the plumbers and hair dressers of the parish, of course, who are doing what they are told. But she also knows that, in the mind of the Church, it is a primary task of the priest himself to distribute Communion. When others do so, as they can sometimes, it retains the note of extraordinary assistance.

            What does this discussion have to do with knowing and doing? Most people in most parishes today can read. They have the Catechism. They can read the Code of Canon Law. They have access to journals and on-line sources that tell then the correct directions. When they know that something is not done properly, they rightly wonder why? Even if he needs help, why does not the priest give out Communion? He is not in a wheelchair or on crutches. Does he have some theory about how the Church ought to be run differently were he in charge? Does he think Church legislation about Communion and its meaning is an optional instruction awaiting his superior insight? Is that why he is sitting there?

            But these, you say, are “minor” things. What about the “big questions”? The biggest question, perhaps, is this: can we “do” rightly if we do not “think” rightly? This seems especially true when it comes to the truth of faith. Catholicism is a distinctly intellectual religion. It takes truth seriously. It makes a difference what we believe and know about God, man, and the world. Catholicism pays attention to mind. The “what” is believed shapes our “actions” in the world.

            Sometimes the Creed is explained as merely what the Church teaches. We repeat it as any scholar or historian would, as an accurate statement of what some long-ago bishops concocted. The whole point of reciting the Creed, however, is that what the Church teaches is to pass through our minds. The Creed is what the Church teaches – “we believe.” Other Creeds are -- “I believe.” Even the “we believe” is intended to manifest what I myself, in my mind, hold. If we do not know and believe rightly, we will not act rightly. And the opposite is probably true also, if we do not act rightly, we will soon begin not to think rightly. Now it is true that we may act wrongly even if we believe rightly, at least for a time. But the Church intends that our understanding of truth and our doing correspond. Moreover, it thinks that the mind itself is open to the order of things, including divine things insofar as we can know them. We are not gods, but we can know what God has revealed.

            The Church has no interest in “coercing” our knowledge of the truth of things. Our wills and our minds should correspond. But this correspondence must be because we do see why our thoughts about truth guide our actions about doing the truth. The hypocrite and the Pharisee have been odious because their actions and their thought did not correspond. Paradoxically, someone whose thoughts and actions do correspond may be a very dangerous character. Some of the most dangerous figures in our history are those who did what they believed, when what they believed was simply wrong. Sincerity or consistency is not necessarily a guarantee of right order. This, again, is why we recite the Creed, to know that there is a right order.

            We are told that the claim to think truly is dangerous. The world right now rejects one after another of the truths that are proposed to us. Christianity was given to us that we might think truth and live well. The alternative is not a “better” order, but a reappearance of the aberrations of soul and mind that we attribute to the Fall and to the subsequent rejection of grace and redemption. Thought is not neutral. Every action depends on its being rightly thought.

18) Published in Excelsis, March, 2000, 6.


            In a class recently, I remarked to the students that a vast literature exists on Plato in all modern and indeed in ancient languages – in German especially, in French, Italian, and English, in Latin and Greek. After class, a very nice young lady from El Paso wondered why I did not mention any books on Plato in Spanish? I hastened to assure her that the Spanish were by no means negligent in writing on Plato, nor were the Poles, Japanese, or Czechs for that matter. This incident caused me to check my own book reserves to see what books I had by Spanish authors. In the back of my mind, I remembered a book by the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno. After some exploration of my shelves, I found his Agony of Christianity, a book actually written in Paris, in 1925.

            Unamuno did not, in fact, have much to say about Plato, but I was amused by the following passage from Unamuno’s chapter on Pascal: “When someone tells you of a Jesuit – I repeat again: in particular of a Spanish Jesuit – who is supposed to have studied and learned a great deal, don’t believe it” (New York: Ungar, 1960, 123). Needless to say, I took this admonition to heart. I wondered if it explained the odd look I sometimes see in students’ eyes after I have explained an abstruse point with what I consider to be absolute lucidity. One might reply, of course, that it was Socrates himself who said that the only thing that he was certain of was that he knew nothing. Not bad company. This Socratic certainty at least put him in a better position than those who claimed to know something but who in fact, on examination, knew “little or nothing.”

            This same Blase Pascal was famous for his disputes with the early Jesuits. In his first Provincial Letter, dated January 23, 1656, he remarked, “The truth is, the world has become sceptical of late, and will not believe things till it sees them.” “Seeing is believing,” however, has something healthy about. It was only in the now closed 20th Century, as Chesterton remarked, that the “blessed” turned out to those who had faith enough to see the things we actually see. We have produced a whole culture that actually sees human babies and doubts what they are. Modern philosophy thus had “developed” to such an extent that one doubted the existence of the world. Even more, it doubted our powers to know anything outside of ourselves. It turns out that it is primarily the faith that defends reason in the contemporary world, as we see in Fides et Ratio.

            The world became in recent centuries not something we knew through our senses and intellect but something we postulated from our own minds. We had to argue to the existence of a world. We had to “prove” that rabbits existed. Even worse, we had to prove that we invented what-it-is-to-be-a-rabbit. Indeed, we became afraid that if there were in fact a “world” out there, with its own order, this might imply that we were not alone, that we might in fact, in knowing what is, discover that what we are was not something of our own making. This in turn might imply that there was a right way of living, that to live as we wanted was not te same as to live as we ought.

            The fourth entry in Pascal’s Pensées reads: “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

            Lucy is bent over inspecting something on the ground. Obviously annoyed, Linus, looks down at her. He begins, “You’re so worried about trying to understand those stupid bugs....” In the next scene Linus becomes even angrier. He yells at her while Lucy continues unperturbedly with the bugs, “Why don’t you try to understand ME? I’m your BROTHER, aren’t I worth more than a BUG?” This, of course, was a dangerous question. Lucy, saying nothing in response, suddenly looks up. She stares directly into Linus’ face as if he had absolutely no existence. In the final scene, Linus walks away dejectedly, muttering to himself, “I should have known better that to ask things like that.”

            This is the crucial question, isn’t it? The questions we know we should ask ourselves. Clearly, Linus question – “am I not worth more than a bug?” – recalls the passage in scripture about the Father knowing that we are of more worth than the sparrows of the air – or the bugs of the ground which fascinate the Lucy’s of this world. No doubt, for many who study the earth, who preserve bugs and fishes, our human kind is an accident, even a threat to the ongoing existence of the earth down the ages.

            Now, the reader may have heard that Schall, though alas not Spanish, has studied and learned a great deal. Don’t believe it! I do not worry about “understanding stupid bugs.” I do worry about understanding my brother. That is a good question – both why is it that there are brothers to understand and what-it-is-to-be-a-brother. The essence of civilization is contained in this one saying – “I am your brother, am I not worth more than a stupid bug?” And even the “stupid bug” can, with Lucy, be looked at. Why is it? Why is it not? Why is it alive? Why is it that I can ask these questions of the bug, but it cannot ask them of me?

            In conclusion, let me recall that other famous “brother” question in scripture – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” What happens, that is, what happens to us, if we answer this question negatively, “No, I am not?” “Who is my brother?” Actually, I like bugs and brothers and souls that wonder about such things as “why are there bugs?” “Why are there brothers?” When we read population projections, it proposes a world of one-child families, a world of no brothers. Are the bugs winning? I remember going to the Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian one day. I recall the attendant said that 60% of the weight of living things on earth are bugs. Who are we to believe? What are we to believe? Such questions should, if we are not bugs, bother us. But I make light of philosophy.

            “When someone tells you of a Jesuit ... who is supposed to have studied and learned a great deal, don’t you believe it....”

3a) Essays, “On Letters and Essays,” in the University Bookman.

1) Published in the University Bookman, 40 (#1/2, 2000), 42-44.


            In proposing this regular column, “On Essays and Letters,” to Jeffrey Nelson at University Bookman, I remarked that nothing is more undervalued today than letters and essays. But I happen to like both better than almost any other literary form. By letters, I mean personal letters that have come to be published and also the broader belles lettres, the elegance of our language, of any language, dealing with the truth of human and divine things. By essays, I mean the classic short essay in which almost anything can be written simply because someone thought it worth recording.

            This series, however, will not be a rigid academic survey about these vast resources. Rather it will simply deal with things that Schall likes. If you will, as must be the case, Schall will be revealed in what he likes. Fair enough. I am indeed particularly fond of books of mine that are, essentially, collections of essays – Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays; Another Sort of Learning; The Distinctiveness of Christianity; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes, and, lest you think me overly pious, The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men. Religion, Wealth, and Poverty contains what is perhaps the essay of my own that I like best, “On Sharing and Giving.”

            To confound what I have just said, however, I will begin not with my favorite essayist, Hilaire Belloc, but with a classic speech of Cicero, his famous Pro Archia, “In Defense of the Poet Aulus Licinius Archias.” This celebrated speech surely is a literary essay. It is indeed a defense of letters themselves. The occasion of the speech was an effort to expel the Greek poet Archias from Rome on the grounds that he was not legally a Roman citizen. With the liberty that Roman lawyers evidently had of speaking to a much broader range of human concerns than modern lawyers have, Cicero justified the case of Archias not on narrow legal terms but on the broader grounds of the contribution of poets to civilization.

            Cicero, unlike Plato, is not concerned so much with the possible dire effect that certain poets, notably Homer, have on the souls of readers. On my shelves, I have Harper “Colophon” books. I often wondered to what this “Colophon” referred. In his defense, Cicero brings up this very city. Colophon was an ancient city in Asia Minor reputed to be the birthplace of Homer. Hence its fame – though several other cities also claimed Homer. Cicero could not understand why, if many cities wanted to claim Homer, Rome would want to expel another poet that brought it so much glory?

            Indeed, Cicero attributes his own introduction to letters to Archias. “As far as I can recollect the earliest years of my boyhood, the picture of the past that takes shape reveals that it was he [Archias] who first inspired my determination to embark upon these studies.” In his exordium, Cicero reminds us that “all branches of culture are closely related and linked together with one another.” He hints that, without this classical education, a lawyer lacks the equipment to understand what he is doing or the ability to do it well. The poet “provides my mind with refreshment after this din of the courts; he soothes my ears to rest when they are wearied by angry disputes. How could I find material, do you suppose, for speeches I make every day on such a variety of subjects, unless I steeped my mind in learning?”

            Cicero next brings up the case of Alexander the Great whose famous deeds would not have been known to posterity were it not for the “great number of authors engaged in writing about his achievement.” Yet, even Alexander found something missing. For, as Cicero recalls, when “he stood beside the tomb of Achilles at Sigeum, he uttered these words: ‘Fortunate youth, who found Homer to proclaim your valour!’” It is the thesis of the Pro Archia, that great virtues and great events need the poet and the writer to recall them.

            Modern students often have a rather perplexed attitude to Cicero and, in this sense, to the Romans in general. They do not understanding their constant concern for glory, including their own glory. You have to ask them to think Christianity out of existence and to recall Aristotle’s magnanimous man, to get some idea of a man who seeks to state his own virtues without it necessarily being a fault against humility. Cicero himself goes into this question. He recalls the case of Metellus who “was eager to have his own actions recorded.” But Cicero admitted, we “all like to be praised! The better the man the greater his desire for celebrity. The philosophers who bid us despise ambition do not forget to affix their names to their own books!” Cicero can be most amusing.

            We live in an on-line world. Cicero is today on-line. Cicero is indeed translated into many languages. His works are still available. No one should miss reading his De Senectute and his De Amicitia. His De Officiis still reminds us of a world of duty and honor that we do not practice. The study of his works was once considered education itself. We are hard pressed sometimes to think we have done well by trying some other way.

            The Romans, like ourselves perhaps, always wanted to know whether these literary studies had any value? But Cicero also wanted to bring Greek learning to the Romans: “Let us leave aside for a moment any practical advantage that literary studies may bring. For even if their aim were pure enjoyment and nothing else, you would still, I am sure, feel obliged to agree that no other activity of mind could possibly have such a broadening and enlightening effect. For there is no other occupation upon earth which is so appropriate to every time and every age and every place.” No one since has said it better.

2) Published in University Bookman, 41 (#3/4, 2001), 45-47.


            Chapter XXXIII of The Pickwick Papers bears the following title: “Mr. Weller the elder delivers some critical sentiments respecting literary composition; and, assisted by his son, Samuel, pays a small instalment of retaliation to the account of the reverend gentleman with the red nose.” In the course of this fascinating chapter, the younger Mr. Weller is engaged in the happy task of writing a Valentine letter to “Mary, Housemaid, at. Mr. Nupkin’s, Mayor’s, Ipswich, Suffolk,” whom he has seem but once. This Valentine was to be put into the General Post.

            This particular Valentine letter, however, occasioned the presenting certain principles of letter writing that no one ought to overlook. Recently, I chanced to discuss briefly with a student from Venezuela, of all places, the influence of E-mail on the ancient tradition of letter writing. The instantaneousness of it is perplexing. The old post took time. It allowed a certain savoring, a certain rumination. By contrast, E-mail seems so ephemeral -- a blip on a screen. Moreover, any E-mail letter can be forwarded to someone else or saved in some hard disc. It is difficult to know what happens to it. Unlike the letter sent by General Post, however, unless printed out, the E-mail letter exists only electronically. And there is something dramatically different between a printed out E-mail letter and a hand-written letter received in the mail.

            “To ladies and gentlemen not in the habit of devoting themselves practically to the science of penmanship,” we read in The Pickwick Papers, “writing a letter is no very easy task; it being always considered necessary in such cases for the writer to recline his head on his left arm, so as to place his eyes as nearly as possible on a level with the paper....” The very notion of “penmanship” is made unnecessary with E-mail, or even more so by talk E-mail. But one wonders just what sort of writing was possible with one’s head on his left arm with eyes on the level with the paper?

            The importance of this topic of writing a letter is made clearer by what follows in The Pickwick Papers. The elder Mr. Samuel Weller was anxious that his son Samuel did not do anything rash in writing his Valentine. It was a dangerous business.


“I’ve done now,” said Sam with a slight embarrassment; “I’ve been a writin’.” “So I see,” replied (the elder) Mr. Weller. “Not to any young ‘ooman, I hope, Sammy?” “Why, it’s no use a sayin’ it ain’t,” replied Sam. “It’s a walentine.” “A what!” exclaimed Mr. Weller, apparently horror-stricken by the word. “Samuel, Samuel,” said Mr. Weller, in reproachful accents, “I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it. Arter the warnin’ you’ve had o’ your father’s wicious propensities....”

The elder Mr. Weller was worried that Sam would be married. But Sam assured him that this was not his intention, even though he was sending the Valentine to Mary, in Ipswich.

            So young Sam read a bit of the letter to his father. They have some brandy to help the composition. The father warns Samuel not to write any poetry, which is “unnat’ral.” The pen keeps leaking and it is necessary to blot the paper. “Go on, Sammy.” He does:


“Feel ashamed and completely circumscribed in addressin’ of you, for you are a nice gal and nothin’ but it.” ‘That’s a wery pretty sentiment,” said the elder Mr. Weller, removing his pipe to make way for the remark. “Yes, I think it is rayther good,” observed Sam, highly flattered. “Wot I like in that ‘ere style of writin’,” said the elder Mr. Weller, “is that there ain’t no callin’ names in it – no Weneses, or nothin’ o’ that kind. Wot’s the good o’callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel, Sammy?” “Ah, what, indeed?” replied Sam.

Sam, Jr. clearly is not totally convinced of his father’s wisdom here.

            Sam, Jr. proceeds to explain in his Valentine to Mary that “‘Afore I see you, I thought all women was alike.” The father quite agrees with this observation. But Sam, Jr. has found his voice. He tells Mary that the first and only time he saw her his heart beat faster. On hearing this human weakness, the elder Mr. Weller replies, “I am afeerd that werges on the poetical, Sammy,” Young Sam denies it. But this is how he concludes the letter to Mary, at Mr. Nupkin. “‘Except of me Mary my dear as your walentine and think over what I’ve said. My dear Mary, I will now conclude,’ That’s all,’ said Sam.” The elder Mr. Weller inquired, “That’s rather a sudden pull up, ain’t it, Sammy?” And then comes the line that I first occasioned these reflections: “‘Not a bit on it,’ said Sam; ‘she’ll vish there was more, and that’s the great art o’ letter writin’.”

            The great art of letter writing is that the recipient would wish for more. Of course, I must add, that the question came up between the two Wellers about signing this particular letter. Young Sam wanted to end in verses but did not want to sign his own name. The elder gentleman did not like the verses. The young Weller affirmed, “never sign a walentine with your own name.” So the elder Weller suggested that he sign it “Pickwick,” and he does, “Your love-sick, Pickwick.” Needless to say, this solution will cause no end of confusion.

            We have it all here, letter-writing and penmanship, letter writing and sentiment, letter writing and proportion. We are finite beings. It takes time to disclose ourselves. Things need time to settle, especially written things. And while something anonymous hovers about the classical Valentine, the essence of letter-writing is that it is person to person without the medium of the world except for the paper and the penmanship. Samuel Weller is right, there is an art of letter writing, a fine art, indeed.

3) Published in the University Bookman, 40 (#3/4, 2000), 46-48.


            On December 8, 1763, Samuel Johnson wrote to James Boswell, who was at the time staying at La Cour de l’Empereur, an inn in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Footnote At the end of his letter, Johnson asked the young Boswell for two “favours”: 1) “any books in the Frisick language,” and 2) “how the poor are maintained in the Seven Provinces.” Such questions reveal the soul and the mind of Samuel Johnson.

            Johnson begins the letter by explaining why he hates to write letters. “I love to see my friends, to hear from them, to talk to them, and to talk of them; but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write.” Writing letters requires a particular effort. Johnson admits his own “indolence” on this score, but he will not let it interfere with any “duty” or “office of real kindness.”

            Most letters, Johnson thought, were filled with useless bits of information – whether the writer has or has not been “in the country,” whether he drank to the correspondent’s “health in the room in which [they] last sat together,” whether “friends continue to speak well of us.” Such letters are composed “for the sake of writing,” not worth “communicating.” But he would gladly write to “calm any harassing disquiet” or “excite virtuous desire” or “fortify generous resolutions.”

            Johnson calculated that he could return one letter for every two that Boswell sent him. The first of Boswell’s letters, however, gave “an account so hopeless of the state of your mind” that it hardly deserved answer. However, the second, more pleasing, letter concerned Boswell’s studies. Boswell wanted to know what study he [Johnson] would recommend. His initial answer is, to us, surprising, but no less searching. “I shall not speak of theology,” Johnson tells him, “because it ought not to be considered as a question whether you shall endeavour to know the will of God.” If it is not our concern to “know” what we can of “the will of God,” we might well wonder what other “question” is worth asking?

            Thus, Johnson will only consider “such studies as we are at liberty to pursue or to neglect.” Johnson agrees that Boswell should study the “civil law,” as Boswell’s father had likewise suggested. Johnson added that Boswell needed to study “the ancient languages” when he had any “settled residence.” The resolution to spend a certain number of hours each days on “your books” was essential. Johnson understood the young man’s need for discipline.

            Boswell evidently had complained to Johnson of a certain “dissipation of thought.” Johnson explained that this condition was caused by “nothing more than the vacillation of a mind suspended between different motives.” Boswell kept going now one way, now another. The problem was not a lack of time but a lack of resolution.

            Johnson is quick to locate the root of Boswell’s problem. The young Laird did not lack talent. He did lack will and self-discipline. Johnson knows the human soul. “There lurks ... in every human heart a desire of distinction, which inclines every man first to hope, and then to believe, that Nature has given him something peculiar to himself.” Johnson calls this “desire of distinction” a “vanity.” It affects each person in a different way. It is mindful of Plato’s description of the young democrat who has no principle of order in his soul, who on hearing the soldier praised, wants to be a general, on seeing a sportsman, wants to win the Olympics, on hearing a philosopher, wants to compose immortal tractates. Johnson is really describing Boswell himself in his constant change of purpose with its consequent feeling of disquietude.

            “Depravity,” Johnson tells the young man, “is not very easily overcome.” Johnson is aware of some of Boswell’s less than pious escapades on his foreign journeys. He tells him, as a counter to his vacillations, to “resolve, and keep your resolutions; choose, and pursue your choice.” If Boswell studies one day, it will be easier the next. Oh, Johnson knows that “resolution will sometimes relax,” but such failure should not lead a man to “despondency” or prevent him from continuing his proper study. “Consider these failings as incident to all mankind. Begin again where you left off.” Johnson suspects that, in fact, Boswell is made for “distinction” but not if he cannot settle down and work diligently at what he proposes for himself. Johnson tells him, advice that will make Boswell indeed famous, “to continue your journal.” He is to enrich it with “many observations upon the country in which you reside.”

            If we go back and think of Boswell at La Cour de l’Empereur, in Utrecht, in 1763, we know that there did “lurk” in his human heart a “desire of distinction.” It was no doubt also a vanity. This young man eventually did take Johnson’s advice sufficiently seriously to copy down not just what he saw in Holland but what he saw every time he was with Johnson. Whether Johnson himself was “vain” enough to think that by so encouraging Boswell to “continue his journal” that he too would reach a level of distinction that few, if any, can match, we do not know. This “desire of distinction,” of course, can often become a seed of corruption in any soul.

            And yet there is a further truth here. “Nature” has indeed given each of us “something peculiar” to ourselves. Whether this ultimate distinctiveness can, ultimately, be recognized for what it is this side of eternity, we may well doubt. This is, perhaps, why Johnson remarked that the study of theology should, among our studies, be “without question.” This is also why the content of this latter study is described by Johnson as “the endeavour to know the will of God.” This would indeed be the real ground for any distinction or its desire.

4) Published in the University Bookman, 42 (#2, 2002), 44-46.


            The fourth discipline of the medieval educational quadrivium was astronomy. It was the mathematical study of things in motion in space and time. Socrates is said to have turned from the study of astronomy and the heavens out of a certain frustration at the impasse he reached there. He then turned to study of human things. But an argument can be made that human things are more complicated than natural and astronomical things, which, throughout the universe, have the same laws. Human things are variable, the things that can be otherwise. Moreover, human beings are free and their actions do not proceed from a necessary cause except for their end, which is to seek happiness or the what is good.

            I bring such reflections up because I chanced to read an essay of Camille Flammarion, (1845-1925), the founder of the Astronomical Society of France. Flammarion was evidently the first to popularize the notion that the “canals” on Mars were signs of human-like intelligence. He thought that there was “reddish” vegetation on Mars. He figured that there was life on Venus and the other planets. He wrote a book called The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds in which he developed this heady thesis of life throughout the universe.

            Of course, we are still not sure that there are other planets in the universe that contain rational life. Some read the statistics of the number of stars and planets in the universe, extrapolate a theory of time and evolution into this, to conclude that there must be much such life in the universe. For others, we still recall Pascal’s “silent, infinite spaces,” and wonder if we are alone. C. S. Lewis in his space trilogy suggested that the universe is full of rational life; what is unique about us is that we are the “silent planet,” he only one in which our ancestors chose to reject God’s plan in the Garden.

            Flammarion evidently started life intending to be a priest, but his interest in astronomy soon shifted to this field. Why I am writing of him here is because I happen to have a collection of essays published by the Colonial Press in New York in 1899. The last essay (pp. 541-45) in this collection of French, German, and Italian essays is entitled, “The Contemplation of the Heavens,” by this same Flammarion. It is a distinctly flowery piece. Flammarion in his astronomical enthusiasm seeks to unify us by concentrating our gaze on the heavens, not unlike the ancient wonder from which philosophy first began. “How beautiful and worthy of the human mind is this contemplation of the visible splendors of creation!” Flammarion begins his essay.

            “Worldly life,” Flammarion tells us, “is a real exile for the soul.” Aristotle would say that the worldly life is our normal or natural live but that in so far as we are ordained to contemplate what is higher in being than we are, this is a more “divine” life. “When we give our minds to these high and magnificent studies (astronomy),” Flammarion explains, “we soon feel the great harmony, the admirable unity in which all things are bound together; we feel that all creation is one, that we form a constituent part of it, and that an immense life, scarcely guessed at, envelops us.” Flammarion’s words still retain the notion of cosmic order, an order that implies a single source.

            Flammarion cannot resist inserting a little politics. “Here are our mortals, with their absurd frontiers!” The astronomer gets far enough away from earth not to notice the frontiers by which we have separated ourselves. He was a “globalizer” before his time. Yet, frontiers belong to that part of the universe that is more complicated than the physical cosmos, that is, to the human universe. Frontiers make it possible for certain truths to be protected. It is by no means clear that no frontiers mean greater openness to or protection for the higher things. Yet we hear our great French astronomer cry, “Oh, how little is man if he does not rise above human things!” Aristotle, in fact, used similar words in the tenth book of his Ethics. “Do not listen those who tell us, being mortal, to study mortal things.” No doubt that Aristotle had something in mind other than, though not necessarily exclusive of, astronomy. The universe is not necessarily more important than the destiny and drama of the rational creature within it. Indeed, the universe seems to exist for the latter, not vice versa. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Flammarion continues citing Scripture and the Philosopher, “he requires thought.” Thought about what?

            What sort of a man was this Camille Flammarion who calls the order of the heavens to our attention? On May 28. 1893, the old San Francisco Call published an article by Robert Skerard, who was visiting Paris at the time, entitled “Camille Flammarion at Home.” Skerard evidently had visited with Flammarion’s wife Sylvie to get the low-down on the great astronomer’s daily habits. This is Sylvie Flammarion’s charming report:


Flam is extremely methodical. He gets up regularly every morning at 7 o’clock and spends quite a long time at his toilet. Savants as a rule are a very untidy set, and Flam is an exception to the rule.... At a quarter to 8 every morning he has his breakfast, with which he always eats two eggs. From 8 to 12 he works. At noon he has his déjeuner, over which he spends a long time. He is a very slow eater. From 1 to 2, he receives visitors, and he is constantly being consulted on all sorts of questions by Parisian reporters; he is usually kept very busy during this hour. From 2 to 3, he dictates letters to me. At 3 o’clock, he goes out and attends his business as editor of the monthly magazine he founded and his duties as a member of various societies. He is back home again at 7:30, when he has dinner and spends the rest of evening reading. He is a great reader, and tries to keep himself au courant with all that is said on important topics of the day. At 10 o’clock he goes to bed. He is a great sleeper.

The great astronomer, by this account, seems to be sleeping nine hours a night during what presumably fall the prime gazing hours.

            Flammarion arises at seven every morning. He is fastidious, enjoys two eggs for breakfast, lingers at lunch, dictates letters to his wife, attends to his business, returns for dinner at seven-thirty, retires at ten, a “great sleeper.” There is something appealing about this juxtaposition of the great Frenchman who tells us to look at the stars and contemplate the order of things, even life on other planets, while he himself spends a very ordinary French day, with its own pleasures and occupations.

 Aristotle, who probably himself spent a Greek version of this ordinary French day, would, after telling us to pass from astronomy to metaphysics, have been likewise amused.

5) Published in the University Bookman,


            Collections of letters can be charming. One of the things I like best about them, and I like this about journals and essay collections also, is that they can be so random. One’s day is not usually an organized treatise in which one thing flows directly from another in some logical patter. I have nothing against logic or organization, but I rather like to live in a world in which I am not quite sure what will happen next. I like it when folks can just “drop by.” The end of my world will come when weather forecasting becomes an exact science.

            Such thoughts occurred to me in reading The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, which I believe Scott Walter gave to me several years ago. Footnote In a letter to Percy, dated April 5, 1975, from Memphis, Foote explains that he had just returned from New York City. On return, he finds on his desk The Mississippi Quarterly with reviews of books by both himself and Percy. But he is anxious to tell Percy what he did in the Big City. “We did as I said we would in NY,” he explains, “ate our heads off – Lutece, La Fayette, San Marco, Caravelle, we did them all in style and at incredible expense without regret. Finally found one good thing to do with money: eat it, preferably with sauce Bercy and heavy drafts of Chateau Palmer or Gevry-Chambertin. You only go round once, they say, but we went round several times in just four days” (203). The one good thing to do with money -- eat it! Obviously, Foote knew what to eat, however “incredibly expensive.” But if one is going to splurge this way in style, there can be “no regrets.” Foote is right. It is not quite true that we go round only once – several times in four days. With the names of classy restaurants in New York and fine French wines given for our edification, we cannot but be amused by such delight with life itself. This lightsomeness is the way of friends with one another.

            Several days later, April 8, Percy replies. He expects Foote to receive the Pulitzer Prize, but he never heard of The Mississippi Review. He tells Foote that he does not mind criticism, which Foote had noted in The Mississippi Review. “Praise always makes me feel vaguely guilty, as well as bored.” Percy had been teaching courses in college. In a year he would be sixty and Foote would be sixty-one. This fact precipitated reflection on retirement, on ultimate things. “So what now? It is a question of desire, what one wants to do – write something better or run off with two girls to the islands. Having delivered the last word on the nature of man, I am in a quandary.” How amusing is this passage from the author of Lost in the Cosmos. The irony of reaching retirement is to wonder what to do next, as if there were a “next.” How could one who has “delivered the last word on the nature of man” still be in a “quandary?” What of the last word is that there is no last word – what then? Write some more? Run off to the islands? Do these alternatives solve the “quandary” about the “nature of man?” They never did before. Percy laughs at his own irony.

            On May 5, Foote writes back to Percy. He talks about his reading of Dante. “What amazed me was my reaction once I put the Inferno behind me. I had thought that once he got out of hell the story would sag into banality. I couldnt (sic) have been wronger (sic). The Purgatory was exciting beyond belief – and, though I couldnt really compass it without the theological background, I could see that the Paradise would be the best of all for someone prepared to appreciate it” (209). Foote and Percy at times “spell” somewhat Southern to each other, of course – “couldnt,” “wronger.” This passage again tells of the surprise that joy is more riveting than gore and horror. He tells Percy that he can find the book and commentaries in the LSU Library. “All Dante ever wrote about was Love, and once you understand that, you will read him with an immediacy that outdoes Faulkner or Hopkins or anyone else on the list...” (210). This is right, I think, the excitement of the good far surpasses the attraction of evil.

            Evidently, in a previous letter, Percy has cryptically said something to Foote about the ultimate consequences of his not being a Catholic. Foote’s response is most witty. “I’m sorry to learn from your letter that you and F. (Flannery) O’Connor wont be joining me in heaven – I presume thats what you meant when you said that two of us three wouldnt be making it” (211). In these celestial calculations, a barb can cut both ways. Foote implies that, not Flannery or Percy, but he himself will miss them both when he is in this happy place that Dante describes so well.

            Foote keeps returning to Dante. He compares him to James Joyce in a curious manner. He does not think Joyce up to the level of Dante, though “he’s (Joyce) just the best we’ve got” – presumably in English. However, both Joyce and Dante have something in common. “Fierce haters, both, great payers-off of scores and both with ice water in their veins when they wanted to score the wicked who had crossed them.” The Inferno is liberally populated with the powerful of church and world. The ice water is needed as retaliation can be expected to be swift.

            In a letter of June 30, Foote is still thinking of Dante. He has Percy now also reading Dante. Foote found bits of the Inferno and Purgatorio in Faulkner and Celine. He understood those lower scenes quite well -- “the meaning of life amidst the squalor” (214). It was the Comedy itself that was the new form of literature. This is not what he was prepared for. “Only in the Paradise did I get a feeling of being out of my depth, and even there I had an overwhelming feeling of being involved in the very greatest conception of them all; the windup mystical rose, the love that moves the stars, all that.” It is not stars that move stars, nor is it ultimately only the forces of nature that move us. At the roots of all motion lies a reality that moves by loving, that moves by being loved.

            Finally, on July 26, Foote figures that Percy is about half-way through his reading of the Inferno. He warns him not to stop in the fourth terrace of Hell wherein the sin of sloth is punished. Then Foote adds, surprisingly, a comment from Thomas Aquinas – “Aquinas identifies sloth as a form of sadness” (215). The word sadness is in italics, to emphasize its importance.

            Josef Pieper has also made much of this word acedia, sloth. It does not mean, as we might expect, laziness. Rather it means that we refuse seriously to examine what we are, what kind of being we are, because we do not want to know, lest we have to face the conduct of our lives in terms of what is, and not just what we would like. Perhaps, Foote is humorously telling Percy and F. O’Connor that if they want to join him in heaven, they best be moving through to the Comedy that is Divine.


This exhortation on love in Dante does not deny that the best thing we can do with money is, as Foote says, to “eat it,” especially in style at “incredibly expensive” restaurants in New York, with exceptional French wine, but emphatically “no regrets.” We are to enjoy what exists to be enjoyed. Still, it does remind us, in the course of ordinary letter writing, that we can come across astonishing things there, that paradise is much more astonishing than hell or purgatory ever thought to be. Having “delivered the last word on the nature of man” and not taken off to the islands, perhaps we need not be in so much of a “quandary,” when we realize, as Dante tells us, that “it is love that moves the stars, all that.” Of such things, we come across in books of letters.

6) Published in the University Bookman, 42 (#1, 2002), 45-47.


            Francis Bacon (1561-1600) wrote a famous essay, “On Travel.” It begins with the words, “travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. He that travelleth into a country before he has some entrance into the language, goeth to school, not to travel.” Experience is what happens to us when we encounter something that actually exists, something we could not know about in any other way but, as it were, by being there. This “experience” is supported by, kept by our memory so that we know that this thing did happen.

            Travel, no doubt, is a world-wide industry, though somewhat crippled and certainly made less comfortable by today’s security in air travel. Bacon, no doubt, lived in days before simultaneous translations and widespread knowledge of other languages in the land into which we travel. “English spoken here” is no doubt a sign in any major hotel or store almost anywhere in the world. But it is true that we can have little “experience” without the “language.” We can, to be sure, see Mt. Fuji in all its beauty without knowing Japanese. But we can hardly know what it means to the Japanese without Japanese.

            Bacon assumed that when we go to another country, we would actually meet someone there with whom we would wish to continue acquaintance. “When a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries where he hath travelled altogether behind him, but maintain a correspondence by letters with those of his acquaintance which are of more worth ....” Bacon thought that purchasing a beret in France or lederhosen in Germany or an outback hat in Australia would not do it. Real acquaintance meant real letters. And suddenly employing some foreign phrases or gestures will seem odd to his own friends on his return. Bacon is not against incorporating some foreign things into one’s local habits or language, but he thinks they should only be choice “flowers.”

            When I again came across this essay of Bacon “On Travel,” I had a nagging memory of another phrase – “travel narrows the mind.” Aristotle had said that some acquaintance with foreign manners and habits would prevent us from being too much concentrated on ourselves. Travel, he thought, will enable us to be more judicious and understanding of what goes on in human nature.

            I was pretty sure that the expression “travel narrows a mind” was from Chesterton, but I was not sure. So I looked it up on a search engine. Sure enough, it is found in the first paragraph of an essay, “What Is America?” in his What I Saw in America. Chesterton did not think that travel was all that educative. Indeed, he thought the average Englishman in his suburb of Hampstead or Surbiton had more sympathy for the Laplanders, Chinamen, and Patagonians of this world if he stayed at home than if he travelled and actually met one or other of these distinguished gentlemen or gentle ladies.

            When we are at home, Chesterton thought, we feel a certain bond for other human beings in distant lands.


Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any man. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labor and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality, that is the moment of supreme danger – the moment when they meet.

Notice that Chesterton, for his part, says exactly the opposite of what we would expect. We long, so we think, to know real men in their concrete circumstances but when we first encounter the odd ways in which they do things, when we do not know their language, we initially suspect that they are barely human. Abstractions, on the other hand, are often more real than reality. Indeed, as Aristotle had said long ago in his ongoing conversation with Plato, we derive the abstractions from the widely differing, but somehow recognizable, uniformities or forms in the realities we encounter in our travels.

            Chesterton thinks that seeing the world narrowed us, though even he writes this while traveling in America. “Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction,” Chesterton continues; “but most travelers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese.” Notice, however, that Chesterton sees nothing impossible in gaining “experience,” to use Bacon’s term, or “instruction,” to use his own term, while at the same time being amused at what we see.

            Bacon thinks that on going a journey, we should go with a tutor who knows his way around so that we do not have to waste time on finding out what is important to see. The only trouble with this view, however, as far as I can see, is that very often the best insights we get into people and places when we are outside of what is considered most important to see. With a tutor, we will never, I suspect, be too surprised. It is perfectly natural being amused by a Dutchman being Dutch.

            Bacon also thinks that it was odd that when people traveled by sea, they kept diaries where there was nothing to observe but water, but when they traveled by land, which was full of things to observe, “for the most part they omit” writing down what they encounter.

            Chesterton is able to see the essentials of life from one’s own home in Hamstead or Surbiton – not that Chesterton did not himself travel. He warns, in another place, of the Englishman who, when he travels to Rome, sees only what he saw at home. That is, he is mindful of the Japanese traveler who will only eat in Japanese restaurants when he is in San Francisco or Hamburg, or the American who dines exclusively at McDonald’s in Paris. But Chesterton knows, that in spite of the wildness of gesture and dress and habit, underneath everything are birth and love, work and death, no matter what they might look like on the outside. If we see the outside and miss the inside, we will likely think that all foreigners are a bunch of Hottentots or even men from Mars.

            Finally, to return to Bacon, what should we look at when we travel? “The things to be seen and observed are,” Bacon observed – and I will add numbers to them, just to stress their variety:


1) courts of princes, especially when they give audiences to ambassadors; 2) the courts of justice, while they sit and hear causes; 3) and so of consistories ecclesiastic; 4) the churches and the monasteries, with monuments which are therein extant; 5) the walls and fortifications of cities and towns; 6) and so the havens and harbours, 7) antiquities and ruins, 8) libraries, 9) colleges, 10) disputations, 11) and lectures, where any are; 12) shipping and navies; 13) houses and gardens of state and pleasure, near great cities; 14) armories, 15) arsenals, 16) magazines, 17) exchanges, 18) burses, 19) warehouses, 20) exercises of horsemanship, 21) fencing, 22) training of soldiers, and the like; 23) comedies, such whereunto the better sort of persons do resort, 24) treasuries of jewels and robes’ 25) cabinets and rarities; 26) and, to conclude, whatsoever is memorable in the places where they go.

Needless to say, this is quite a list. But it is not quite all, “as for triumphs, masks, feasts, weddings, funerals, capital executions, and such shows, men need not to be put in mind of them: yet are they not to be neglected.”

            Thus, travel can “narrow the mind” if we only see the outside of things. We need not be “put in mind,” as Bacon put it, of certain “shows” – like funerals and capital executions, though they too are not to be “neglected.” We may in our travel be amused by the comedies “whereunto the better sort of persons do resort.” Many modern internationalists naively talk as if men of different nationalities had only “to met and mix”to understand each other. We travel when young to know the language, to be educated. We travel as elders for experience. Man is “inside all men.” The fundamental truth of all men is that they “labor and love their children and die.”

7) Published in the University Bookman, 41 (#3/4, 2001), 46-48.


            Belloc is the greatest essayist in the English language. He hated pedants. The Year 2001, indeed, is the Centenary of his famous walk from Toul in France to arrive in Rome at the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This walk to Rome, this “path” to Rome, as he called it, reminds me of the Roman Road by his “little farm” in Sussex. His going over to see this ancient road is recounted in his essay, “The Roman Road,” contained in his wonderful collection, The Hills and the Sea (1906). This is “The Street,” as the locals called it. It was built by the Romans while they were in England. Its existence was once doubted by certain modern professors, the same gentlemen who are known, in their day, to have denied the existence of about everything else, including oftentimes themselves.

            Belloc one morning decided to take a walk to the Roman road, alone, through a forest near his home. On his way out, he passed by his horse, Monster, who was, as Belloc tells us, just standing there “regarding nothingness.” A horse that “regards nothingness” is, no doubt, a very metaphysical animal, obviously anticipating the arrival of Heidegger on the intellectual scene. Not to deprive his horse of this “pleasure” of a walk in the forest, Belloc saddled him up “to go and look at the Roman road.” The forest was mainly of beech. “No one has cut it or fenced it or thought about it (except to love it), since the parts of my village took their names: Gamber and Fairmile Bay Combe, the Nore, and the stretch called No Man’s Land.” These are places familiar to us in Belloc’s Four Men, his 1902 walk in his native Sussex. What strikes me about the above sentence, however, is the notion that a forest of beech can be “loved,” can be beautiful with no necessary pragmatic purpose to it. I suspect that all of creation is like this, especially our kind, unless we choose to make ourselves “unlovable,” as, alas, we can.

            As he rides along, Belloc begins to wonder about Monster, his horse. He did not know whether autumn was as pleasant to his horse as to himself. Perhaps horses have some sort of soul, but there is no “bridge between two souls,” a theme to which Belloc often returns during his rides, walks, and sailings on the North Sea. The bridge between two souls is not only a problem of man and his horse but, more poignantly, of man and his fellow man.. But he was sure that his horse could see things in the dark and that he was likewise “cognizant of evil.”

            When he arrived at the ancient road, Belloc rode up to the crest so that he could get a better view of its lay-out. The Romans drove roads straight. They knew how to build. They placed their stones carefully. They made the road level when they could. Any fool could recognize their handiwork, except, in Belloc’s acid view, some professors who could not spot the mark of the Roman plumb lines. “Here then was a feast for the learned since certainly the more obvious a thing is, the more glory there must be in denying it. And deny it they did (or at least, so I am told) just as they will deny Thomas à Beckett was a Papist, or that Austerlitz was fought in spite of Trafalgar, or that the Gospel of St. John is the Gospel of St. John.” Belloc is most amusing. No doubt in the history of biblical studies, some pedant did propose that the Gospel of St. John was written by Tertullian or some other unlikely suspect. The oldest tales are the truest.

            Belloc began to think of the professors. He calculated that he could freely think on this topic because the nearest Don was about “twenty-three miles away.” He was glad of this distance for it permitted him to “contemplate the road with common sense and with Faith, which is Common Sense transfigured, and I could see the Legionnaires climbing the hill.” I have never seen faith described as “Common Sense transfigured,” but it is a good insight. Notice it is not “common sense denied,” but transfigured. In the end, in the end times, as Chesterton also observed, it will take faith even to see the things before our very eyes.

            The Roman road ran straight to the walls and the Cathedral in the city. Belloc has seen this plan almost everywhere he had walked in Europe and in “the Algerian sands,” where the Romans once were also. Almost everything that the Romans did, Belloc thought, was “something of a monument.” The Romans could see beyond their own time. They had a sense of the future. “In all their work they were conscious of some business other than that immediately to hand.” Their ruins survived the Middle Ages and probably they will survive our own age. In the end, the “business other than that immediately to hand” is the most important thing about us, even when we build roads in our world.

            As he looked down the summit to the Roman road, Belloc entertained the “delicious” thought, as he calls it, that “learned men, laborious and heavily endowed, had denied the existence of this Roman road.” Belloc took a sort of occult pleasure in the idea that faddish scholars looked at something before their eyes but they did not see it. In even obvious things, often, even those who see are the blind ones, the spiritual paradox.

            This denial of the existence of the Roman road, the road on which he had ridden his horse Monster, revealed “a piece of pedantry and scepticism, which might make some men weep and some men stamp with irritation, and some men, from sheer boredom, fall asleep, but which fed in my own spirit a fountain of pure joy, as I considered carefully what kind of man it is who denies these things, the kind of way he walks, the kind of face he has....” If there is ever a sadness in Belloc, there is also a bite. He can imagine the Legionnaires climbing the hills about his home. He can still behold in his mind’s eye, in “pure joy,” the Dons who will not see.

            Thinking of these righteous thoughts, Belloc leaps up and onto his horse Monster to “gallop home.” Belloc was a man of home. “What man would live upon a high road who could go through a gate right off the turf to his own steading and let the world go hang?” The ultimate things are not public things though they are open to all. That these reflections are autobiographical we realize in the end. They are part of Belloc’s own life-story, the way he was denied a post in the same universities. In the evening he was more mellow. They brought him “beer and bacon,” his favorite repast. He “toasted the memory of things past. I said to myself: ‘Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, and Durham – you four great universities -- you terrors of Europe – that road is older than you: and meanwhile I drink to your continued health, but let us have a little room ... air, there give us air, good people. I stifle when I think of you.” There are things one cannot see in the universities, air that cannot be found there. It is not only Belloc’s house Monster that “contemplates nothingness.” “The memory of things past” – the Romans built monuments. They were conscious of some “business” that was not immediately at hand. This is what Belloc saw on the Roman road near by his “little farm” in Sussex.

4b) Columns from the National Catholic Register.

1) Published in the National Catholic Register, October 10, 1999.


            Some friends of mine are taking instructions to enter the Church. This process always makes me nervous. In pessimistic moments, I envision them immediately getting caught in a parish in which the priest makes up most of his own Mass, in which the music is awful, in which the instruction is little better than watered down liberalism, in which the commandments are presented as sort of optional, if not downright wrong, in which, in short, nothing much is really given to those being instructed that would make sense of the supernatural faith. No doubt, I also believe in a Church composed largely of sinners, though one that gently hints, sometimes yells, that sinners we should not be, and, further, given grace, need not be. We are not determinists, however much we are made wary of our fallen nature by the doctrine and reality of original sin.

            Another friend of mine, a born-Catholic, has recently discovered C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, no doubt still a masterpiece. Like many a good book, my friend reported to me that it was an eye-opener, so good that one hated to see it end, even if it is such a short book. Of course, C. S. Lewis was not a Catholic. In fact, Christopher Derrick wrote a little book called, precisely, Comment C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome, that dealt with this question, one that always intrigues Catholics, about why Lewis was not a Catholic.

            This question is often asked about Lewis in the light of Chesterton, whom Lewis admired. Chesterton’s two books The Thing and The Catholic Church and Conversion explained his reasons for becoming Catholic. They remain marvelous books, as does Orthodoxy, a book written long before Chesterton became a Catholic. One suspects that the Lord often leads us gradually, even when He can do so suddenly, as He sometimes does, as in the case of St. Paul.

            But we should never underestimate the value of C. S. Lewis to Catholics, my friend is right in being fascinated by him. Peter Kreeft’s book, C. S. Lewis and the Third Millennium is perhaps the best exposition of the abiding importance of Lewis’ thought in coming years. In any case, Lewis and Chesterton are writers who, perhaps more than any, explain to us why being Christian and Catholic makes sense. It is not some irrational act. It is not silly. It is in fact something that is intelligible at every level, including at the level of science, which used to be the main problem or objection to Christianity – that it, that somehow faith is against “science.” This so-called opposition is a much less tenable today, since scholarship has shown that indeed many a scientific position is possible only because of some understanding of cosmic order and secondary causality that was not understood without Christianity.

            Of course, I am fond of recalling, in this context of becoming Catholic, Walker Percy’s famous quip. On being asked why he was a Catholic, Percy replied, “what else is there?” No doubt, this is a good, as well as a humorous, response. What else indeed is there? Contrary to what might be popularly assumed, but quite in conformity with the experience of anyone who has read an Augustine or Aquinas, Catholicism wants to know just what else is there? Aquinas is rightly famous for being able to explain fundamental objections to the faith better than could those who object to it. It is of the essence of Catholicism to know what religions, philosophies, movements, politics, or what have you, oppose it or give other ways of life purportedly superior to it. Catholicism likes Aristotle’s remark that the ability to explain the objection to something, including itself, reassures us about the truth of what we uphold.

            If I can put it this way, the Catholic mind wants, for instance, to know the Buddhist mind. The Holy Father was excoriated when he was in Sri Lanka, I believed, because he said something about Buddhism which, as far as I can see, Buddhism says about itself. Catholics in general do not mind being corrected when they misunderstand other philosophies or religions. But they are quite annoyed when they are blamed for stating the position of some other system correctly and then, on reasonable grounds, objecting to it, after finding, like Aquinas, what good there is in it. The Catholic mind has no interest in mis-stating what others think to be true. The whole ecumenical movement that John Paul II has “engineered,” and together with his formal dialogues with other religions and philosophies, as far as I can tell, is based on the idea that the first step is to get a clear idea of what each variety of Christianity does hold, of what each religion and philosophy maintains about itself. Without this initial effort, no progress can be made.

            Chesterton, in The Thing, was quite amused in his dealings with Protestant positions to find that very few of the classical reasons given for the Reformation in the first place were still held by the descendants of the sects of Christianity. Many of us today, thus, find that Catholics are much closer to evangelicals or fundamentalists than they are to so-called main-line Protestants because in fact the evangelicals hold more of what Catholics hold than do the once dominant Protestant churches. Paul Seabury once wrote a famous essay about varied teachings of his church, the Episcopal Church, I believe, called “Trendier Than Thou.” Aside from being amusing, it underscored the problem of modern Christianity, not excluding certain movements within Catholicism, of taking its cues first from the culture and not from the doctrine of the faith.

            We live in a time when perhaps the greatest defender of reason is not a philosopher, but, in Fides et Ratio, the Pope of Rome, who is, to be sure, himself a philosopher. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Church today is that at its head, both in the Holy Father and in Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, we have minds greatly superior to those in the rest of the Church. No doubt there is some irony here, probably divine irony. So, when it comes to the question -- “is it all right to become a Catholic?” – I confess that I think it is quite all right. It is all right intellectually. It is all right historically. It is all right in the Third Millennium.

            The real question that might be most bothersome is why is there such opposition to the basic tenets and practices of the Church even within the Church, not a little coming from certain bishops? Here one must, I suspect, look to more personal and moral reasons. Aristotle had long warned us that we would not see the truth of things if our personal lives were disordered. The main opposition to the Church today is not from science, nor is it from intelligence. It is at bottom, I think, from the unwillingness to live and believe as the Church has handed down its teachings from its founding. Whole systems, themselves gradually shown to be of doubtful validity, have been and continue to be designed to justify the ways that seek to make of Christianity and Catholicism something other than they are.

            In short, what else is there? There is really nothing else. This answer used to be called “trimphalism,” but it is nothing of the sort. It is a minority position that in fact explains all that is.

2) Published in the National Catholic Register, November 7, 1999.


            Last year, I saw a letter to the editor in one of the Washington papers about abolishing Christmas as a public holiday. This letter was not a crank letter. The lady who wrote it argued that the public display of Christmas has been so distorted that it would be far better not to have a public holiday that has become so secularized. You cannot mention “merry Christmas” on Christmas, nor display Christmas cribs on the Nativity. Christians who wanted to celebrate the day, the lady thought, should do so on a wholly private basis. This proposal would have the advantage of removing all the glitz from our streets and stores, while forcing Christians to attend to the holiday as it was intended to be commemorated in the privacy of their own homes wherein the true meaning could be manifested. Everyone else could work. You cannot celebrate Christmas unless you know what it is.

            Essentially, Christmas this year, allowing for calendar changes, is the 1999th commemoration of the actual birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Christ was not born in Australia, where it is summer, but the feast is celebrated there still in all its glory. The association of Christmas with ice, snow, and reindeer, is something northern. That northern sort of Christmas is what I recall from my Iowa youth. There was a certain coziness about it; everything seemed to conspire to keep everyone inside. We associate Christmas with fire places, long evenings, snow, the gloriousness of winter. We delight to see our uncle or cousin come inside with his greetings, to see our aunt in fur and laughing with the cold. Christmas is the one day we cannot abide by ourselves alone; it demands those we love, even if they are distant. The telephone is busy that day.

            Since my family has lived in California for many decades, the older Iowa image of ice and snow, frost, evergreen has somewhat faded in my memory. In Santa Cruz, we walked on the beach on Christmas Day. Still, the ghost of Christmas past remains. Christmas, as Chesterton said, was always meant to be a family feast. It is the family feast, in fact. It is impossible to imagine Christmas without children, or, to be sure, without those who recall that they too were once children. Even when we are in families in which the children are all grown, when no grand or great grandchildren are present, still Christmas is the child. It is the Christ Child. Christmas is the unexpected response of God to our sins. ‘Tis the Innocent who saves the guilty. Grace upon grace.

            Catholics are aware that the proper feast of the Incarnation is not Christmas but the Annunciation nine months before in March. Yet, the glory of the Lord shines forth with particular brightness at the Birth of Christ. The shepherds sang; the angels sang. The greatest of things also begin in small, obscure places, like Bethlehem and Nazareth. It is an illusion to think that the big changes in the world, for better or worse, must commence in London, or Washington, or Tokyo, or Rio. But to commence, some actual thing must happen, be present. The birth of Christ “makes present” to us something of the very inner life of the Godhead. “He who has known me has known the Father.”

            The one thing that we must always recall at Christmas is that it represents a new beginning. It is not something that has no preparation, but that preparation is not of our making. Yet this preparation was difficult to see. Israel still does not see. However “logical” might be the idea that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, the fact is that no one really expected it. We are thus surprised by it. We know in retrospect, not in prospect. The greatest argument against the Incarnation and Birth of Christ is that we ourselves would never have thought of it. Therefore, it could not be. I always like to think of how amused God must be that we did not anticipate His glorious deed. Though He came anticipating sorrow, He came to redeem us. His purpose was precisely “joy to the world.”

            The Communion Antiphon for the Midnight Mass of Christmas reads: “Revelabitur gloria Domini, et videbit omnis caro salutare Dei nostri.” Christianity seeks visibility. Glory is to be precisely “revealed.” All flesh will see the salvation of our God. It will see it in the form of a child. It should be no mystery to us, no astonishment to us that our culture, in rejecting the child, rejects the way to salvation that the Christ Child was born into this world to manifest. It cannot be otherwise.

            But the birth of Christ in a crib in Bethlehem cannot be thought out of existence. Nothing is the same because of this Birth. The “ghosts of Christmases past,” to borrow a famous phrase from Dickens, still haunt us. Christmas without the reason for Christmas is no Christmas. We live in a time that wants Christmas without what Christmas means. We live in a time that has lost its soul because it thought the child, not merely the Christ Child, to be the cause of its problems. What haunts us about Christmas is precisely what it is, the one cause of joy given to our kind that it could not, and did not, expect. We cannot keep the joy without the cause of our joy, “causa nostrae laetitae,” as the Litany called the Mother of the Redeemer. Nostra Laetitia – this is what Christmas is ultimately about, even in the smallest corner of the world. 


3) Published in the National Catholic Register, September 5, 1999.


            Most colleges and universities begin again sometime from late August to late September. Last Spring when classes were over, I walked by one father dutifully loading his co-ed daughter’s worldly goods back into a van to return home for the summer. “She is carrying considerably more back than she came with?” I kidded him. “You bet,” he laughed.

            Jennifer Roback Morse wrote an essay entitled “The Modern State as an Occasion of Sin.” Thus far, I do not know anyone who has duplicated this admonition for the universities, though Jay Budziszewski’ helpful little book How to Stay Christian in College (Colorado Springs: NAV Press, 1999) comes pretty close. On second thought, when was the last time you heard anyone speak of sin, let alone an “occasion of sin?” From what we can tell, just being in most institutions today from the army to the White House to just watching television is an occasion of sin. The pessimists would say that the world itself is an occasion of sin, but this is going much too far. The origin of sin does not lie in the world but in ourselves.

            College today, whether public or private, can be quite expensive. I will not repeat what it costs parents to send their offspring to four years of university life at the place where I myself teach for fear that the reader will confuse the total with the national debt. Either you pay the money in tuition or in taxes or both. The aberration of the modern state is to control all institutions, especially educational ones, so that only it knows the real cost in exchange for real control. I once saw a quip that went, “Has your son’s college education been of any value?” The answer was, “Oh, yes, it cured his mother of bragging about him.” This cure may be more general than we are wont to admit.

            The press is full of articles about how bad schools are, about why universities have to be so expensive, about students who complete in five or six years what used to be finished in four. Political correctness is said to be the dominant major in most universities, or better, to dominate all the majors in college. Basketball players are going pro before they even get to Duke. The Duke coach said that the lure of pro money has made the players think more about themselves and their potential than about the team and winning for good old Blue Devils. Much of what is really true and important in life is hardly touched on in many universities.

            The question of “Catholic” universities is on the table. It is said that the bishops at their Fall conference will finally come up with something workable. Till they do, it is prudent not to bet on it. I am a fan of many smaller colleges. I also have a friend who went to the University of Illinois, where she claims to have been, during football half-time card shows, the black dot over the third “i” in “Illini” during four years at “Chambana,” as she called it. I have also heard that the Newman Club at this same “Chambana” is quite good.

            I am writing this piece on the Feast of Saint Claire, that is, Santa Clara. I started to college at Santa Clara when the total student body was 115, just after World War II. I am often asked if I think students today are better than students were ages ago when I began college or when I began teaching. I actually have to say, “well, basically, no.” From many points of view, nineteen or twenty year old students are just beginning to think, just beginning to realize that they can think. Most good students, on really encountering Plato or Aristotle or St. Thomas, find it difficult to believe that we have advanced much.

            Likewise, I am fond of citing Allan Bloom’s famous remark that the most unhappy students in our society are those at the twenty so-called best and most expensive universities. Bloom thought they were unhappy because they smart enough t realize that what they were getting in college was really spurious. But they did not know where to turn to prove it. Hence, they despaired since they thought they were already at the place that could deal with their problems. Once I came across a student at Harvard, I think, to whom, in the course of a conversation, I cited this passage from Bloom. He replied, “I am not unhappy.” I laughed. There is something amusing about a twenty-year old who says he is not unhappy, if not about himself, at least about reality. Chesterton said that the one thing that most youth lack is precisely hope, for they do not have experience enough to know yet that things may work out.

            Budziszewski’s title is provocative. “How to keep the faith in college.” One must simply be prepared for the fact that, for most college students, their faith will be under attack during their college years. They will have few places to turn for assistance. Even if they be Christians, they will find few places to be of real help. But no one would claim that the Catholic Church, with a few notable exceptions, does a good job in caring intellectually and morally for its college students.

            I have often remarked that today much of our college education, or better much of our learning about the highest things, must be a kind of self-help project. One needs enough common sense to realize that there are reasonable responses to arguments, moral, historical, or philosophical, against their faith. Few students can win arguments against sophisticated professors or lax or articulate companions. But as Chesterton again said, all arguments that have a time limit, a class or academic limit, are unfair. We need the time to look into things, reflect on them. We need to the occasion, the leisure, and the curiosity to do so. It is no doubt true that many of the best educated Catholics today are those who are brought up in environments quite hostile to the faith. They realized early on that they would have to learn much by themselves. But there are places of true Catholic learning, if we look for them.

            But going to college is often precisely an “occasion of sin.” The student away from home finds he does not take the trouble to go to Mass on Sundays. He does not find out where he might discover reasonable books and discussions of the faith or the philosophy on which it is built. He is tempted to many sins that are in fact, like the old teachers remarked, addicting, that lock him into what C. S. Lewis called “a pattern of evil.” Before he knows it, he is involved in something much more serious and destructive than mere “occasions of sin.” In retrospect, the old common sense notions of self-discipline, sacraments, good companionship, some care with our time and some effort to find out the truth, such are the things that get us through college having actually learned something worthwhile, including something about the faith.

4) Published in the National Catholic Register, September 19, 1999.


            A friend of mine explained to me that at his university, the administration mandated that every department must provide classes in “multi-culturalism” or “diversity.” As far as I know, there was no mandate that every department examine the intellectual validity of this same diversity theory. The reason for this failure to examine the roots of an academic policy on diversity is obvious. The policy itself avoids the question of whether a universal culture exists, one that includes the examination of diversity and the presumptions on which it is promoted.

            “Diversity,” in fact, has replaced philosophy. Its presuppositions make philosophy impossible or irrelevant. Philosophy wants to know about the whole, about how things are related to each other. If diversity theory is true, all philosophy can be is a description of differing ways, no matter what they are. Diversity in effect means that there are no universal ways or norms; hence it does not matter what is taught, just so it is different. Such a theory has to assume that no really important things exist about which we disagree. No disagreement can exist, only differences All that exists are different things about which we cannot disagree because no foundation can be found upon which disagreement might in principle rest. We have arrived at a form of what used to be called nominalism. The only enemy is the claim to truth and right order.

            Diversity studies are not the same as courses in “comparative government” or “comparative literature,” usually ordinary programs in political science or language departments. I do not seem to have heard of a “comparative history” sub-section and certainly not a “comparative science’ department, unless it be in the alternate medicine field. Presumably, as they say, water boils in all cultures at the same temperature at the same level above the sea. The reason the Chinese are busy stealing or buying or being given our military technology is because the stuff also works in China even though it was not invented there. If all that mattered was diversity of culture, the Chinese would be content with the weapons of the old war lords.

            But diversity studies are pursued with a certain uncompromising zeal that seems odd. No one in principle, I think, can object to knowing how other folks live and think. The problem is as old as Herodotus who, in his travels, noticed the differing burial and mating rites around the Mediterranean. Tacitus in a famous passage cited by St. Thomas, was struck by the Germans who thought thievery was all right. For a long time, piracy was considered a form of free enterprise, reflecting more than anything the lack of order on the high seas. The Germans thought that they were doing the right thing – except, I suppose, when thieving was leveled against them. Pirates did not like to be pirated upon, as it were.

              Today, of course, “diversity” studies are not a matter of the quaint customs of the Easter Islanders, except when these customs can be used against some moral institution in traditional Western society. The case of Margaret Meade, the famous anthropologist, was notorious for this. She seems to have discover South Sea Islanders doing what she would have preferred to do at home. Her investigation seems to have been directed by her theories and not vice versa.

            Diversity studies are touted to be “non-judgmental.” If people do things, anything practically, that is just because they do them. Look at what people “do” do, as Machiavelli taught. Now, classical theory had no problem with the fact that all sorts of ways of doing things were found throughout the world. It still wanted, on knowing what was done, to ask whether what was done met some standard? Or was there no natural norm so that we should be content with native and civilized customs, no matter what, just because someone did them?

            I present my students the following hypothetical case: Suppose you are, at the same time, a moral relativist, a multi-culturalist, but you are also the British Raj in India in the 19th Century. There, let us say, the local custom was for Hindu widows, on the death of their husband, to throw themselves on his funeral pyre. Suppose you want to be consistent with your personal theory and not “impose” your values on the Indians. A widow is just about to jump on the pyre before your eyes. You have a contingent of troops and could stop her. What should you, being a good diversity specialist and personally a moral relativist, do? Usually some bright student pipes up: “Let her jump.” “Right,” I respond.

            The only reason the British officer would not stop her would be that there are certain universal norms, held either by him or his laws, that judge all cultures in their rites, customs, and theories. These norms, in fact, rose in the Greek culture but are not simply Greek, even in Greek culture. They arose in Jerusalem and Rome but are not simply Hebrew, Christian, or Roman. Diversity studies, in so far as they are intellectually grounded, profess to reject this universal culture. Thus universities ruled by advanced diversity curriculum will downplay or eliminate any examination of the universal tradition. And this is not merely a question of different languages or ways of doing things, which may be perfectly normal, but of ways of life and what are called life-styles that must be judged, academically or politically, to be indifferent, above criticism or examination, by any standards not found in a given “multi-culture.”.

            Diversity education thus is not merely in practice a curiosity about differing ways of doing things, of ruling and being ruled. It is a proclamation on how we will live. Logically, if all the cultures become incorporated into one country, that country will end up unable to do anything but protect the cultures from which people came. Diversity theory’s first adversary is any claim that there are right and wrong ways of living. Since the logical conclusion of this teaching is that it does not really make any difference how we live, we are left with universities whose concept of themselves is one both of enforcement of this diversity – that is, no examination of its premises – and the abandonment of any consideration of the classic question of how to live, of what man is, no matter in what nation or culture.

5) Unpublished..


            The human race, in some more or less articulate capacity, has now been around more than five or six millennia. Some say that we have “evolved,” which is reported to mean that we are better than we were yesterday or a thousand years ago. Yet, when we read books written a thousand, two thousand years ago, we recognize ourselves. Often, in fact, the ancients seem better. Moreover, we wonder why we are here, wherever it is, cosmically speaking, we are. We know we neither caused ourselves to be or to be what we are. Yet, in this cosmological age, we think we “should” be here, as if there is a purpose or point to it, even though “science” often seems to declare that the whole mess, including ourselves, is purposeless.

            We do not like to ask if we could or should be someplace else mainly because we cannot imagine any real improvement elsewhere, even if we are unhappy here. We suspect that “some place else” does not have to be more to our liking. If things could be “better,” then by the same logic they could be worse. In other words, Hell is “thinkable.” Without it, our deeds tend to triviality, to unimportance. With no final sanctions, nothing we do makes much difference. We like to think that what we do is “important,” not just “interesting.” Are we naive?

            We think there are a lot of us, say six or so billion of us, on this planet. The American Continent was said to have been “overpopulated” when only the Indians were here. It is still mostly empty space. Most of us have never met each other. We wonder if this unknowingness is a defect in ourselves or in the universe. Perhaps it isn’t a defect at all. We are given only a certain amount of time, four score and ten if we are lucky. We notice that we are better off if there are more of us rather than fewer. We are the mortals; we know we die.

            If some have more, curiously enough, others do not necessarily have less. A multiplicity of creative intelligences exist in the universe. Population numbers are not all bad. If someone has more, someone else can have even more. No one is deprived if everyone has more. The world is not parsimonious. Wealth is ultimately spiritual, not material. Wealth is brains, not money or goods. We begin the New Millennium knowing the truth about the “spirituality” of material things. Like all truth, we can choose to reject it. We are urged to reject it by those who refuse to believe that the world, with the help of our brains and virtue, is made for generosity and abundance.

            In an old skit of Bob and Ray, the announcer concludes the narration in this way: “And so another milestone in medicine is reached. Join us again soon when the United States Mint, makers and distributors of money, bring you more exciting drama from the files of The Emergency Ward.” What makes money is not mints, but intelligence. What makes us laugh is the incongruity that the United States Mint, “makers and distributors of money,” sponsors anything. Actually the U. S. Mint does not “make” money. It prints it, stamps it. Money is made by brains.

            We want to be cheery about the year 2000 and beyond however much apocalypse is in the air. We do not like to hear “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire”applied to us. Yet there is little in the line of corruption that the Romans did that we do not ourselves do, often on the media, usually legally. Things, it is said, are “better” than they were a thousand, two thousand years ago. We have garbage trucks and sewage systems, institutions that have probably saved more lives than almost any thing else we have perfected. Many religious leaders in the last decades of the 20th century thought that we would blow ourselves up. We didn’t. We are told by people in high office that there are too many of us. There aren’t.

            The Washington Post recently (Nov. 28)did a long investigation into the “popular series by Evangelical Christian Authors re-telling the Book of Revelation.” Many seem to hold a theory about Christ’s coming, the so-called “raptus,” in which the blessed will be snatched out of their lives only to leave the rest of us hapless sinners here to suffer the consequences of our own unrepentant sins. In one of these accounts in the Post, a repentant Christian group called the “Tribulation Force” is given a second chance after after having missed the first “raptus.”. “Enduring plagues and a devastating earthquake, they battle the Antichrist, a suave, smooth-talking figure who becomes head of the United Nations. His one-world government and ‘Global Community’ security forces finally lead to Armageddon before Christ returns to reign for 1,000 years.” This is heady stuff.

            Meantime, the Holy Father guides us to the Third Millennium in quite a different spirit. He directs us to the Godhead, to the Trinity, to the truth about God as God has revealed His inner life to us. In an Address to the Pontifical Council on Culture (19 Nov.), John Paul wrote that the “Great Jubilee of the Year 2000" is


a time of exceptional grace. The mission of proclaiming Christ becomes more urgent; many of our contemporaries, specially young people, are overwhelmed and disoriented by the multiplicity of ideas about the human person, about life and death, about the world and its meaning, and have great difficulty in perceiving who they truly are. Too often the ideas about man conveyed by modern society have become real systems of thought that have a tendency to deviate from the truth and to exclude God, believing that this is the way to assert man’s primacy in the name of his alleged freedom and his full, free development....

These beliefs have, as their main result, the depriving man of what he is, that is, “a person created in the image and likeness of God.” Autonomous man receives his own reward, self-chosen aloneness. The revelation of the Trinity, the dawn of the Third Millennium, is the ultimate teaching that God is not alone, and if not God, neither are we. 

6) Published in the National Catholic Register, April 23, 2000.


            Recently, I was at a conference on the West Coast held at a local Radisson Hotel, nice place actually. A card on the stand next to the bed caught my eye. “Save Our Earth,” it encouraged me. Unfortunately, my internal warning system goes on red alert whenever somebody tells me to assist them to “save” the Earth. “From what? For what?” I wonder. Theologically, I thought the Earth was already saved. I suspect undisclosed theological overtones whenever I see such enigmatic signs.

            Actually, today you can find out a lot about someone if he is worried about saving the Earth. One becomes doubly suspicious when a prominent hotel chain is asking its customers to help it “save our Earth.” For many moderns, the “Earth” is all there is. The closest they come to anything transcendent is to imagine the Earth as is now is, or presumably as it was before human beings appeared to pollute it, floating on down the ages with no one doing anything to use or disturb its drift through the eternal pathways.

            The plastic card, I was informed, is to be put on the pillow if you are interested in “saving our Earth.” If you are a clod, however, by implication, you will leave it on the desk. The card reads: “In an effort to conserve water and energy, and to minimize the release of detergents into the environment, we invite you to participate in our conservation program.” Then it adds, in italics, no less, “You can make a difference!” You perk up reading this imposing claim that you can fulfill in a Radisson hotel room, no less. Who doesn’t want to make a difference to the Earth?

            The card goes on: “Please Understand... – As a new guest, your bed linens are freshly laundered. – As part of our commitment to the environment we offer you the option of reusing your bed linens.” So the burden of “saving our Earth” is not really on Radisson’s shoulders, but on yours. So, true to the “choice” language of our time, “You Decide... – If you place this card on a pillow, we will remake your bed but not change your bed linens. – Otherwise we will gladly change your bed linens daily.”

            The card ends with these noble words: “Thank You for helping us conserve our natural resources.” A similar card appears in the bath room about the towels.

            If one examines this same card from the point of view of the free market, however, it sounds something like this. A small portion of the bill for a room in any hotel is set aside for laundry. Let’s say, five dollars, for the sake of argument. According to the Radisson offer, I can request clean towels and linens, in which case the hotel will “happily” provide them. The hotel does the laundry and pollutes the Earth according to my choice. Or I can reuse old towels and linens. In this latter case, the hotel presumably saves the amount of money that I would otherwise have had to pay for this service, which is not free.

            If this analysis is valid, then, what Radisson should have done is to place a sign on my pillow to say that if I did not want my linens and towels washed, the hotel would offer a five dollar rebate on my bill. Or conversely, when I checked in to the hotel, the clerk could propose that the room cost $100 with fresh linens but $95 without. I would have had an economic choice that meant something, not a cosmological choice that had no real tangibility. Since the hotel chooses to present the case in terms of “saving our Earth,” I am not exactly clear how not doing the laundry “saves our Earth,” while I am quite sure that Radisson pockets the savings if I sleep in slightly used sheets.

            The logic of the “save the Earth” thesis would, I suppose, be that the fewer showers I take or the fewer times I change bed linens, the better off the Earth would be. I need not carry on this logic to its extreme wherein we have no bed linens or towels but a healthy environment.

            If in fact doing the laundry contributes to polluting the Earth, the best way to solve the problem would be to invent a soap or detergent or some fabric that did not have the dilatory effects. If there is no “demand” for such a product, probably no one will invent it. If Radisson tells the soap inventors, for example, “don’t bother men, we do not need so much soap because our guests are saving the Earth,“ then the problem, if there is a problem, will continue in presumably attenuated form.

            In short, I doubt if the way to “save the Earth” is cut down on fresh laundry. If that is in fact a problem, I suggest that the best way to solve it is to inaugurate a price incentive into the cost of a hotel room. I also suggest that the good folks at Radisson read, for their amusement, Julian Simon’s last book, Ultimate Resource II. The ultimate resource is the human brain. The Earth will be saved by using it, not by drying ourselves with three-day old towels.

7) Published in the National Catholic Register, January 2, 2000.


            Basically, “Peanuts” – to wit, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Sally, Marcia, even Snoopy, the only dog in history to make this list – is immortal. Charles Schulz, who has drawn this world-famous cartoon since 1950, the man who put Petaluma on the map, is mortal. The news of his cancer and of his ceasing to write ‘Peanuts” rightly made headlines all over the world. Who cannot personally feel the loss of that daily voice that was Peanuts? It is not merely the flow of humor that is ceasing among us, though we will continue to read Peanuts – it will never age – but also what ceases is a source that seems somehow connected with the very font of Wisdom itself.

            In a 1991 strip, Charlie Brown is on the phone with a very serious look on his face. He replies, “Well, yes, Mam. I guess we could try. Thank you.” In the next scene, Charlie finds Sally comfortably lying on her back on the bean bag watching television. He informs her, “They want you and me to teach at Bible School.” Sally looks around as if hit by a hammer. “Teach who?” she yells. Then in the final scene, looking at a perplexed Charlie Brown, she continues with one of the great evangelical problems of the modern era, “You mean there are people around who know less than I do?” No one has put the religious ignorance of modern times better than Charles Schulz. Nor has anyone given more insight into the religious mind than his little band of bumbling friends.

            No one can present ultimate questions like Charlie Brown; no one can sober a man up like Lucy, if not with her fist, then with her tongue. It is an even trade. The last cartoon depicted in Robert Short’s famous The Gospel according to Peanuts, itself a very scholarly and profound analysis of a rather happy Protestant version of Peanuts, we see Charlie talking to Lucy on a starry, starry night. In the next scene, while she continues to gaze at the myriads of stars, Charlie, hand on chin like a philosopher, muses out-loud, “I think that there must be a tiny star out there that is my star.” Lucy looks at him incredulously, as Charlie, fluently, continues, “And as I am all alone on earth among millions of people that tiny star is out there alone among millions and millions of stars.” Next, we see the starry night in a vast black background, while both Charlie and Lucy behold it silently, in awe. Charley, rather triumphant at his own eloquence, asks Lucy earnestly, “Does that make any sense, Lucy? Do you think it means anything?” Looking directly at him, though we sense some forebodingness, Lucy answers, “Certainly.” In the last scene, still against the stars at night, we see Lucy’s back receding from us, with Charlie, facing us, completely deflated. For she says to him, “It means you’re cracking up, Charlie Brown.”

            Here we have it, do we not? The sense of grandeur. The isolation of modern man. The hope of some sidereal companionship to prove we are not alone in the universe. And all of this is combined with Lucy’s utterly practical, down-to-earth skepticism. “It means you’re cracking up, Charlie Brown.” Yet, we feel Charlie is on to something while we laugh at him. Are we alone? After all the “tiny star, my star,” is little other than what we think about our guardian angels, about divine providence. We too suspect that we are not, in the end, alone.

            Each year, for a number of years, my friend Bill Burleigh at Scripps-Howard, when they had the copyright for Peanuts, would send me an annual collection from Topper Books. The 1987 version was called, Dogs Don’t Eat Dessert – nothing proves the distinction betweem man and animal more graphically than this title! The very first strip in this book contains two of my favorite Peanuts characters, namely Marcie and Peppermint Patty. I have always found something so poignant in Peppermint Patty that I can hardly bear it. Marcie is the good intellectual. The scene begins with Marcie looking at Patty, who, with a big smile on her face, is calling Charlie Brown on the phone. “Hi, Chuck,” she says, “We just called to wish you a happy New Year.” Marcie, smiling, now looks directly at Patty who continues, “Do you still love me, Chuck?” In the next frame, Marcie has a very satisfied look on her face, while Patty tells him, “Marcie wants to know if you still love her, too, Chuck....” In the last scene, we see on his phone a thoroughly perplexed, in too-deep, Charlie Brown, totally overwhelmed by the ultimate question of whom he loves. He knows there is no way out. He slightly crosses his eyes and replies desperately, “I’m sorry ...I’m not here any more.... I’ve suddenly become a recording.” When we recall Charlie’s many loves that never panned out, Marcie’s intellectualism, and Patty’s worry that she was not loveable, we cannot help but be touched by this moving tableau.

            I suppose I have cited in lectures or essays at least half of the scenes in And the Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together: The Theology of Peanuts (1984). This was a series of frankly religious-oriented sketches of the theological perplexities of the Peanuts family. The last scene in the book shows Linus following Charlie Brown down the steps of their home. It is raining heavily, both have on hats and raincoats. After a couple of steps in the downpour, Charlie cites Scripture to Linus, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” They continue on in the heavy rain. Linus is pondering this statement. Finally, still marching behind Charlie as a good little brother, he replies to him, “That’s a good system.”

            What is striking about this scene, and what I want finally to say about Charles Schulz ceasing to write Peanuts, is that nobody is surprised by the “good system.” What does surprise us modern men is to be reminded that, in this world, there are indeed the just and the unjust. Furthermore, they are not the same. You cannot read Peanuts unless you are prepared to be reminded of the ultimate things and how you stand towards them. This, at least, is how Peanuts looks to Schall. My only consolation is that I have not even begun to read all the myriads of confrontations with reality that Charles Schulz has provided us over the last half of the Twentieth Century.

8) Published in the National Catholic Register, October 17, 1999.


            After the recent publication of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, we witness another spate of editorials, book reviews, and essays on the topic of Pius XII’s policies before and during World War II. Beginning with Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, we have had an almost constant academic and popular discussion of this curious issue. The title of Cornwell’s book seems deliberately, to use the harshest word, slanderous with its implication that Pope Pacelli was under Hitler’s wings. Cornwell thinks that he has found the “secret” history of this sordid relationship. Generally, such provoking books gain much initial publicity. Meanwhile, later scholars patiently sift the facts, put them into a much less shocking context, and correct the exaggerations and errors of judgment or fact on which they are based. When this corrective work is completed, the published results rarely are seen by those most ready to believe the initial new “secret” history.

            In the Irish journal Studies (Summer 1968), I wrote an essay entitled “The Modern Church and the Totalitarian State.” It strikes me that little new is found in this recent controversy. Indeed, I read the Interview in the National Catholic Register (September 19, 1999), with Father Pier Blet, S. J., on the Cornwall book. I also read Owen Chadwick’s calm analysis in The Tablet (September 24, 1999). The Washington Times, on 26 September 1999, ran an Editorial entitled “The Vatican and the Holocaust,” while the National Catholic Register wrote its own Editorial (September 19), “Pius XII’s ‘Smoking Gun.’” This latest bashing of Pius XII, as these sources suggest, needs serious qualifications that are not easy to find in the more sensational popular and scholarly accounts.

            I was in Rome when Fathers Robert Graham, Pier Blet, Burkhardt Schneider, and others were publishing the Vatican documents on the history of this case. I have Father Graham’s booklet, published by the Catholic League, “Pius XII”s Defense of Jews and Others: 1944-45.” The two essays in the Social Justice Review (July, 1999), by Sister Margherita Marchione, “Jews, Catholics, and Pope Pius XII,” and Arthur G. Quinn, “Nazi Policy of Retaliation and Church Policy,” are also good. The literature on this topic is enormous. I do not propose to review it here. But I do recall Father Graham once telling me that he spent World War II reading the New York Times every day and never noticing much mention of the extermination of the Jews. My colleague Jan Karski, the Polish diplomat and scholar, tells us that during the War, he reported to Franklin Roosevelt, before important American officials, what he knew and saw of the plight of the Jews. Karski recalls Felix Frankfurter saying to him, on hearing this accurate report, that he understood his words but could hardly comprehend their scope or meaning, so horrendous they were.

            What I wonder here is this: Is there some general context that ordinary Catholics might use in which to put in place these recurring accusations that make the Pope sound responsible for the plight of the Jews during World War II? Are there any principles or observations that should always be kept in mind when reading the latest sensational “documentation” that claims to have made this good Pope a willing ally or unwilling dupe of this awful figure in the history of his times?

            The Church itself has sought to publish as fully as possible the complete documentation on this topic. It thinks it has nothing to hide, even though opinions differ on what ought to have been done. We hear rumors that somehow “secret” files exist that the Vatican is desperately trying to hide. It is difficult simply to deny outright this sort of accusation. After all, if the documents are “secret” and if the Vatican is as sly as its detractors claim it is, then who are we simple faithful to deny the existence of something we could never find out by ourselves? On the other hand, if the “secret” history becomes known, as in part this case with documents from the Serbia crisis of 1915, we too can read the evidence. As Owen Chadwick has pointed out, Eugenio Pacelli was present at these diplomatic sessions. He was evidently the recording secretary, but he was personally not directly responsible for their conclusions, even granting that they were bad policy. Evidently, Cornwell almost ends up making Pius XII responsible for both World Wars I and II, no mean feat.  

            Generally speaking, during and immediately after World War II itself, Pius XII was looked upon as someone who, in a very cautious and quiet way, did very much to help thousands of individual Jews. Many Jewish leaders in the period following the War acknowledged this fact. If we ask, “could he have done more?” it would be the same as asking Roosevelt or Churchill if either of them could have done more. All three would probably answer, “Yes, of course, we could and should have done more.” What they did is what seemed prudent and feasible at the time. We know many things now that they did not know or know well a the time, including the scope of the Nazi policy. The real question is why the pejorative accounts of Pius XII did not come up till years after the War?

            As I wrote in my 1968 essay, the real and only problem here has to do with the thesis, made first in the Hochhuth play, that Pius XII was at fault because he did not publicize the Holocaust and call the world to its attention. He is not accused of lacking an army. Those with armies, Churchill and Roosevelt, do fight the war, but even they do not realize the scope of the Holocaust until after the war. No doubt, the same failure to publicize could be said of Churchill and Roosevelt and any number of political and religious leaders of the time. Since the 1960's, we have come to believe that publicity is the first thing we should look to in these circumstances. We believe in its almost mystical effectiveness. It is the weapon of publicists and ideologues, not of soldiers and practical politicians.

            We are willing to say that the Pope should have sacrificed prudence. Even at the cost of his life or the lives of numerous others, especially Catholics, he should have thrown caution to the wind and condemned Hitler. All of this is very high sounding. It is always at the heart of the accusation that Cornwell or Hochhuth or others have made. Is this a valid supposition? In other words, are Pius XII and other diplomats and politicians responsible for their proposals? We know that the quiet efforts of Pius XII saved a significant number of Jews who otherwise would have been lost. We know too that when the Dutch bishops did protest, Nazi polity was immediately to put even Jewish-Christian converts to death. Pius XII, in other words, had to ask himself whether his protest could have made things worse? His choice was between lesser and greater evils. Only if we consider that Hitler, like Stalin, might have killed twenty million instead of six, can we see his problem

            In the end, I think that the key issue for those like Hochhuth and Cornwell is this. Suppose that Pius XII had followed their implied advice and protested as they suggest. What would have happened and what would these same men, granted their characters, have subsequently written? Many more would have been immediately killed because of public protests. And some few years after the war, we would see the Hochhuths and Cornwells write books and plays accusing Pius XII of being responsible for the death of millions and millions because he had the silly notion that “protesting” would stop Hitler. With this mentality, Pius XII is guilty no matter what he does. What he did do was cautious, prudent, agonizing, brave. To reduce the Holocaust to a problem of Pius XII is to make the truth of what he did do get lost in the vagaries of what he might have done. What he might have done is make things considerably worse. He did not do this. Had he done so, he would receive the same blame that he is now receiving. His protests would not have stopped Hitler. The theory that says they would are just that, theories.           At least the continuing attention on the Pope and Israel serves to keep our attention on the mysterious connections between these two supernatural realities within this world. 

9) Published in the National Catholic Register, June 27, 1999.


            A news article in the Washington Times (June 2) recounted the case of a Catholic lady in Lewiston, Maine, who ran a foster home for mentally-retarded adults. She forbids the presence of pornography and sexual activity in her establishment. However, it seems that “state rules say people with mental retardation and autism in group house have a ‘right’ to participate in activities of choice, which include using pornographic materials and sexual acts, such as masturbation and consensual sex..” The Lewiston lady will have to get out of this business if the state removes her license on these grounds of depriving the retarded of their “rights.”. Surely, this is one more case where a good Christian cannot simply “obey” the positive law.

            I do not intend to go into this particular case except to emphasize something that should be obvious to Catholics by now but it is evidently not much attended to; namely, that the word “right” is not unequivocally a neutral or positive word in today’s usage. What is left of Christian morality is being step by step eliminated in the name of human “rights. “Rights” is the word most used to protect and justify deviant and sinful behavior in the public order as perfectly legitimate and “normal.” Once we begin to talk of “rights,” we suddenly begin to realize that all those things that we most ought to oppose are found protected and promoted in the law under the name of “rights,” usually “human rights” or “civil rights.”

            Notice that in Maine, and presumably elsewhere, these “rights” come from rules of the state. government They have legal sanction. These rights are stated or implied in positive law. That is, these human rights are invented by the legislative and executive processes of government and protected by the courts. If we begin simply to list the things that are presently called “rights” – abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, privacy, income, happiness, and a thousand other “rights” – we can see that something is radically wrong with this word. It is simply not a benign word and cannot be used as if it is without causing great confusion and disruption of morality.

            Yet, the Holy Father uses the word “rights” all the time as if it were perfectly appropriate. The Declaration of Independence uses it. The United Nations use it. It is used all over the place as the fundamental tool by which democracy and human dignity are to be protected. A number of philosophers, George Orwell, for instance, imply, however, that the initial wars of a culture are wars over the meaning of words. If we can change the meaning of words without changing the words themselves, we can more easily get what we want. Thus, if the word “right” comes to mean something quite different from the way the word is originally intended, then we can more easily change the public order without changing its traditional wordings.

            In the original sense, “rights” were held to derive from certain truths that were said to be “self-evident.” They had some grounding not simply in themselves or in human formulation. Beginning approximately with Hobbes in the 17th Century, the word “right” took on a new meaning which is always implied in modern usage. It did not mean something rooted in an ordered nature to which our minds were subject for knowing what we are. Rights were explained instead as absolutely dependent on human desire or will. “Rights” in this sense is a modern, not medieval or classical word. We had a “right” literally to everything. “Rights” were not opposed to “obligations” or “duties.” As this situation of a multiplicity of unlimited “rights” was seen to be chaotic and dangerous, all our rights were turned over to the Leviathan, the state. They became what the state willed and enforced simply because the state enforced them and defined them.

            Have you ever wondered why it was so easy to speak of a “right to choice” or a “right to abortion” or a “right to die”? It does little good to say these are “pseudo-rights” or “false rights,” because they in fact conform to the modern usage of the word. These usages do not “abuse” the word “right.” They are in fact using it properly as in the modern understanding. There is nothing to stand against the “rights” as defined and willed by individuals or the state. There is no natural law. The only “natural law” modern rights presuppose is that which says that we can do whatever we want to protect our lives, no limits. There is no God who has anything different to say about what it is we have a “right” to but that which we propose and enforce.

            Thus, when Catholics find themselves speaking eloquently today about “protecting” and “fostering” human “rights,” they suddenly find themselves having to backtrack when someone puts up his hand to inquire what is the difference between a “right” to life and a “right” to abortion. The only thing that justifies either is what we will. If we will to give ourselves a “right’ to abortion, it is no different than if we give ourselves a “right” to life. Both are equally arbitrary. Both are “rights,” if they are willed. Both are established by the state.

            What is the problem? By insisting that his is a “rights” position, grounded like other “rights,” the Catholic suddenly finds himself being accused of violating someone’s “rights” by denying the “right” to abortion. One can talk till he is blue in the face about the corresponding “right” of the unborn baby to his life, but the case in rhetoric is already lost when we use the word “right.”. The “rights” position looks to be arbitrary, which of course it is from Hobbes on. “Rights” become simply what the state enforces.

            Thus when the State of Maine tells nursing homes that its clients have a “right” to sexual activity and pornography, it is almost impossible to reply that they have no such “right” in the name of natural law or the commandments. The only thing that counts is what the state says and enforces. If it has established a “right,” nothing is higher than the state, except perhaps a higher civil jurisdiction, which can change it. It is equally arbitrarily say that there is no such “right.”

            Sometimes, in L’Osservatore Romano, for instance, these new “modern” rights are called “will-rights,” meaning rights that were simply legislated by the state and have no other standing. Sometimes this is legitimate. The state can make positive law. But if there is nothing higher than the state, something that we generally accept at least legally and in practice in this country, them the “will-rights,” whatever they are, stand as law. Anyone who opposes them is violating someone else’s “rights.”

            Notice that in a home for retarded adults, a worker who harassed or abused one of the patients without consent would be put in jail. Why? Because it is wrong? No, it is because it violated another interest defined as a “right.” But to consensual sex, there is a “right” in the State of Maine.

            What has happened here? By subtle use of the word “right,” we have passed through the following stages: 1) sexual acts outside of marriage are sinful. 2) sexual acts outside of marriage, though sinful, are to be tolerated. 3) It is wrong to judge people who participate in sexual acts outside of marriage. 4) We should have compassion on those who perform sexual acts outside of marriage. 5) People have a “right” to sexual acts outside of marriage. 6) People who prevent the exercise of sexual “rights” outside of marriage are guilty of violating “rights.” The only “crime” is committed by the lady in Lewiston, Maine, in violating someone else’s “rights.” Circle completed. Culture corrupted.

10) Published in the National Catholic Register, July 16, 1999.


            Washington is full of war memorials. The first thing a war memorial brings to mind is a nation’s effort to honor its dead who fought for some historic cause. We assume our cause is just. A colleague of mine and I, with some amusement, have been wondering what an appropriate Memorial to the recent Serbian War might be like. The philosophy and conduct of this recent war is something quite new, even radical, in the annals of warfare. The design and positioning of this Serbian War Memorial should, in my view, quite literally, “reflect” or “illuminate” these world-historic changes.

            The Serbian War engaged most of Europe (NATO) and the United States. It combined their forces (our 80% to their 20%) to attack a small country about the size and population of a moderate American or European state. Most often, the initial justification given for this war was to “stop” a future Hitler. Just how a tiny power with no similar world-conquering philosophy could accomplish this feat is not altogether clear. Such is the “cunning” of history, as Hegel called it, that Hitler seems to be producing considerable mischief more than a half century after his death. Ironically, Hitler has become the justification for all future wars, no matter what their circumstances.

            After about seventy-five days of incremental bombing with the most sophisticated air weaponry, originally designed to deter the Soviets, we “won.” Moreover, no airmen or military personnel were killed in combat. The only casualties were those sustained by the “enemy.” It is said that some two thousand Serbian civilians were killed and perhaps five thousand soldiers, but the latter is not clear. The air attacks did not noticeably impede the Serbian army. It was only when the philosophy of war changed from attacking military targets to attacking societal infrastructure that the Serbs decided to give up, this plus the increasing ground forces of the KLA. I am tempted to call this policy “incremental Dresden,” that is, a policy gradually to destroy the basis of a society if it did not accede to our will. In any case, the Serb leadership seems to have attained many of its goals easier because we bombed. We did not “declare” war. Wars are now the results not of formal legislative and societal reflection but result from uncontrolled leadership policies.

            The enemy, though he proposed no military or economic threat to our nation, was a rather nasty fellow. We are still trying to figure out just how nasty he was. The nastier we can make him out to be, the more noble is our cause. He seems to have been vastly underestimated by our political and military leaders. Indeed, much of the damage that he inflicted was made possible by our policies. We went to war to protect a minority but were unable to accomplish our immediate objective. We have agreed to repair, at great cost, the damage that our policies and bombs have inflicted. We pay both for the bombs and the reconstruction. A new aspects of war is that if we have to destroy you to stop you, we will rebuild you, after you become like us.

            We insisted all along that the war was not against the Serbian people, only against its leaders. We do not see why people cannot get along with each other or why they do not toss out bad guys and be just like us. One of the new objects of war is to impose a political philosophy in which getting along is mandatory, not ethnic cleansing but ethnic assimilation. This policy has something to do with the new theory of “human rights,” of which I spoke in a previous column. We will define the “rights” and enforce them. If you do not agree, we will bomb your infrastructure until you come around. No part of the world can be left to itself. We are responsible for everyone. There are no hiding places.

            In any case, my own proposal for the Memorial is this: We should construct a huge clear glass sphere, of approximately four hundred yards in diameter (if that is possible), to be mounted on a laser beam holding it up. Since there were no war dead, this sphere will not contain, like the Unknown Soldier, any body, nor, like the Vietnam Memorial, any names. It will commemorate the first historic war in which no soldiers, by explicit government policy, were killed. I would propose to place this Monument between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool on the Mall. Both the Lincoln and the Washington Memorials will remain visible through the Sphere. It would have no marching troops beside it. Rather it would represent the ideal of modern warfare in which it is civilians and enemies, not one’s own troops, who are killed.

            It was argued in previous war theory that the only legitimate objects of warfare were enemy soldiers and military forces. Civilians were innocent and in principle, except for indirect effect, to be off limits. War prisoners were to be treated humanely. Since this new theory represents “Enlightenment,” in whose aftermath it has been developed, I also propose that the Sphere be illuminated at night with a clear light from within coming from the laser beam, a sort of new high-tech “eternal flame.”.

            The new “doctrine” that sustains this war, which I have called the “last of the just wars” and the first of the “humanitarian wars,” is the thesis now known as the “Clinton Doctrine.” According to this doctrine, if I understand it correctly, the whole world is now under the suzerainty of those powers that have all the advanced weapons, especially the one that has 80%. The Serbian War has called attention to certain glaring inconsistencies in previous Administration policy in which it ignored other forms of genocide, in other lands, like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This neglect happened because of domestic issues, too narrowly focused on itself.

            To repair this lack, the new doctrine allows us to range freely over foreign boundaries and frontiers which, with globalization, mean little anyhow. Wherever we decide that a violation of “human rights” is taking place, we now have a reason and precedent to interfere with our air power in the name of mankind, whom we represent. Likewise, air power is now the mainstay of the services. Armies and navies are designed only to supply occupying forces or to provide auxilary aircraft.

            Joseph Sobran, I believe, remarked that the first lesson of the Serbian War was to teach other small countries that the first thing they must develop is usable nuclear weapons, even one might be enough. We never would have attacked Serbia as we did if they had nuclear weapons aimed at, say, Vienna or Munich. So if a country wants to protect itself from this new doctrine, its only alternative today is to maintain its own nuclear delivery capacity.

            Larger countries, like China, its own Embassy bombed during this same war, have long realized that to protect themselves and expand their own ideas of society, they had to acquire by purchase, diplomacy, and especially espionage the means used in the Serbian War to impose the will of one country on another. Another way to accomplish the same purpose is to send one’s young scientists to learn how to make this weaponry in American graduate schools. I believe over half of the science students in U.S. schools are now from abroad, with China leading the way. China has been fortunate to have had a cozy relation with the chief developer of this new doctrine. Its capacity to participate in this new world-wide war doctrine would be less dangerous if it had not obtained from us much information about new weaponry and delivery systems.

            It is important to note that all this new doctrine is done in the name of “democracy,” “human rights,” “equality,” “freedom.” Once we gain control of the definitions of these terms, it becomes possible to interfere in any place on the globe that does not conform to the content we put into these abstract ideas. By definition, in modern theory, they have no set meaning. It may become necessary to interfere in countries wherein, say, population is growing too rapidly, or where certain religious ideas are interfering with the widespread acceptance of “new rights.”

            In any case, this Serbian War Memorial is an idea whose time has come. My only problem is that since the war was not “declared,” it might not be called a “war” memorial. Perhaps a “Serbian Hostilities Memorial” would do it. But it is definitely a victory. It remains to be seen for what.

11) Unpublished


            One of the abiding, persistent myths in the modern world is that there are too many of us -- often meaning too many of “them,” not us. No “thems,” as far as I know, think they ought not to exist. But that is another matter. The world is full of people, usually well-off people, who have classified certain other categories of human beings as belonging to the “ought-not-to-exist” groupings. In a certain sense, however, it does not matter how many of us or “thems” there are. Whatever the number, some expert from Malthus in the last century on, will, in panic, claim that there are too many. It does seem odd that as the world increases in population -- we are said to have reached six billion on October 15, 1999 – we appear to be more capable of taking care of ourselves than was the case when there were say half a billion, or even two or four billion. People like Rousseau used to think that population increase was rather a good sign, not something to be frightened about. More people mean more brains – the ultimate source of wealth.

            In many usually intellectual circles today, most, if not all, of our problems are thought to be caused by people, particularly too many people. The modern “original sin” ironically is simply having children. This is an amusing parody on the much scoffed-at doctrine of original sin that was said to be transmitted through human generation. If we reduce or stabilize the population of the world, by whatever means, at whatever number, this act alone is said to guarantee that the human problems of crime and poverty will dwindle, if not entirely disappear. It won’t happen, of course. The origins of our disorders are in our wills, not in our numbers. But it is refreshing to see the zeal of those who think that eliminating a significant number of human births or hastening a certain elevated number of deaths is the answer to human problems.

            Few there are, certainly not the Church, who want more human beings just to have more. The scientists evidently are working on cloning our kind so that we can have as many clone-slaves as we want. How many do we want? I think that few really want any cloned human beings who are totally the product of scientific manipulation with no definite human origin in a natural human relationship, however ordered or disordered. The question remains, no doubt, what will we do with cloned-human types when we produce them? Will they have all the “human rights” as others? Will there be a two-tiered human race, those with real parents and those with none? But my point here is that we can produce myriads of such beings, again, if we want. It is not a “scientific” question, but a reasonable and moral one. Ought we, if we can? But if the fear of increased population is as real as they say, why on earth are we doing such experiments?

            We are not actually sure how many human beings are on earth. The French demographer Pierre Chaunu has pointed out that the loss of fifty million people in Soviet gulags never appeared in population statistics. He estimates that the population of Africa is overestimated by as much as one hundred million (Zenit, Oct. 6). The population of China is always questionable. The fact is that belief in over-population has a political purpose. It serves to introduce and justify population control measures. The world-wide industry of population control could not survive if “over-population” were not presented as a threat to national or world well-being. This threat also justifies not only the support for the organizations promoting birth and population control systems, but it also serves to enhance the power of government over the population.

            Over-population scares are used particularly against the Catholic Church which is not hostile to human life and positively optimistic about human potential do deal with its own problems. Abortion and birth-control practices that the Church has rightly objected to on personal and moral grounds are said, in the population-control circles, to be against the human good of a limited population. If the Church is wrong on this one thing upon which it has insisted upon over the decades, then, by its own terms, it cannot be true, because it cannot err even in one area. The question is, of course, whether the Church is in error? Actually, the evidence is looking more and more like it is not.

            We should be clear on just what it is that the Church holds. It is against cloning. In this sense, it is for “controlling” human numbers, against adding such beings to our numbers. It is “for” those births only that take place within a stable family. The Church is not “for” illegitimate births or for irresponsible births in disordered families or individuals. She is against them, thinks they ought not to happen. If we had a decent and responsible moral life in families, where children are to be born and nurtured, the problem of “too many” births would not really arise.

            Of course, the Church does not de-legitimize human beings if they are not born in a stable family. Human life as such is sacred, even cloned life, if that is possible. The Church says, basically, it is absurd to have human births in any but the best circumstances. In this sense, the Church is the most romantic institution in the modern world. But if human beings go ahead and abuse their responsibility, it will do the best it can to care for those who are abandoned by actual parents. It rejects the idea that those who are “unwanted” are therefore to be eliminated. But it agrees with the idea that children should be wanted, but wanted in circumstances wherein they can flourish.

            In reading news items on the world population of six billion, it is almost eerie to see the emphasis placed on wanting to get “control” of all the factors of human life and environment so that nothing unexpected or surprising, like a new birth, can happen among us. We seem to want a cyclical, static world in which a revolving circle of the same numbers repeats itself down the ages. We are loathe to think that perhaps our human well-being and destiny might very well mean that the population of the earth should be considerably larger. It is quite possible that the larger it gets, the more we will be able to take care of it because we will have the brains and incentive to do so.

            Great emphasis is also placed in articles on population about the fact that most of the new births are taking place in “poorer” countries. There is some mention that in fact the people in the highly developed countries are in fact aging to such an extent that they will be lucky to survive the coming generations. Ironically, the sophisticated people in the first world have believed their own propaganda and are busy eliminating themselves via their culture of death. Far from feeling sorry for those born in the poorer sections of the world, we should take note that they are the ones who are taking the places of those not born in the developed world. The labor force and the university graduate schools are being filled not by the few children of those from the developed world, but from the underdeveloped world. These are the entrepreneurs, the ones taking a chance on producing a world fit for the many they know who are already born.

            When I look at the Cassandras gathered about the six billion human beings on this earth telling us how bad it is, I think they must have a special form of madness. There is nothing in the sheer numbers of human beings on this earth that would indicate that we do not have enough food or resources to handle far more than we presently have. Furthermore, if we take the Church seriously about the centrality of a responsible and moral family life, together with its teaching about the importance of human intelligence, we are hard put to think that population-control fears are little more than the despair of those technocrats, scientists, and moralists who never knew the unique importance and dignity of each human person, not only in his given life, but in the life he ought to have. Population in so far as it is a problem is not a problem of too many but of too little appreciation of what reason and the commandments tell us about how to live.

12) Published in the National Catholic Register, February 13, 2000.


            Actually, it was a close call, but I made it. Likewise, I was glad to see the Pope made it also. A small industry of expecting him quickly to pass from the scene has recently developed. This odd business is composed almost totally of those whose understanding of the Church and the world is, in their view, superior to his. Most of us would just as soon see the Holy Father stick around a bit longer, though we all know, as he knows, that we are each of us mortal, beings who die and know that they die. When God decided that John Paul II was to be pope this round, He displayed considerable humor. He chose a pope who was smarter and more humanly attractive than any of his critics. These latter never forgave either God or pope. This curious refusal to acknowledge what is good explains more of the dark side of our time than I care to contemplate.

            Furthermore, neither Y2K, nor the End of the World, nor the Rapture, happened, but we cannot relax our vigil. Michael Novak remarked, in an article that I saw in the San Diego paper, that we rarely heard in the media just what event the Year Two Thousand was “after.” It was kept pretty quiet. We are too sensitive to mention the name of Christ in most public contexts. We are reluctant to know whether Christianity did any “good” in the world for fear it might compromise us. Chesterton used to say that it was a good idea to try to think Christianity out of the world, just to see what the alternative might be like. It is not a pretty picture. Our future may well be our past.

            In a previous column (NCR, 2 Jan.), I remarked on the end of Peanuts. Jennifer Roback Morse, in the meantime, sent me a column from the Santa Rosa, California, newspaper (12-15-99), by Chris Coursey in which he wrote that “readers’ polls show that comic strips with a harder humor (than Schulz) are more popular today.” One wonders about this estimate. It would be difficult to find a “harder” humor than Lucy’s. The universities today are full of professors and students who think that the world can be “improved” almost infinitely and quickly, if a) most of us go to law school and if b) we all try harder. The notion of grace is practically unknown except in the form of “benevolence” which is supposedly under our control. We are, to recall Eric Voegelin, mainly “gnostics,” that is, we think that some special form of knowledge and some sort of volitional eagerness will do it all. Lucy was more realistic about our lot than these incipient utopians.

            Lucy van Pelt was also closer to the truth of things, especially to the reality of the Fall. In a 1959 Fawcett collection entitled Let’s Face It, Charlie Brown!, we see Charlie Brown with a very concerned, vague face standing with his hands in his pockets. He is listening to Lucy tell him -- in a passage that we only need to substitute the word “millennium” for the word “year” to see how pertinent it is – “Charlie Brown, I think you should resolve to be perfect during the coming year.” In the next scene, Charlie, reasonable man that he is, at first objects to this utopianism, “Good grief! Nobody’s perfect! What do you expect of me?” Lucy, of course, with apparent sincerity, replies, “I think you CAN be if you really try ... I really do!” With Lucy looking on with a certain sly “hardness” of her own, Charlie buys this exhortation: “All right, Lucy, if you have that much faith in me, I’ll try! I hereby resolve to be perfect during the next year.” The last scene shows an utterly dejected, fooled-again Charlie Brown enduring Lucy laughing at him uproariously, “YOU? PERFECT? HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”

            But there is little doubt that at the heart of so many of our problems lies the desire to be perfect, not so much as “our Heavenly Father is perfect,” but as we choose to be perfect on our own terms. Each year after Christmas, we read at Mass the First Letter of John.. It is sometimes amazing how the Scripture we read is addressed to our very pretensions. On December 29th, we read, “We can say that we know Jesus only by keeping his commandments. Anyone who says ‘I know him’ and does not keep his commandments, is a liar.” The growth industry of our time is surely in the “not keeping the commandments.” Not only the “not keeping the commandments” but the redefining them so that what Scripture calls evil is now called good. We are more and more reluctant to say anything of any action that it is clearly “against the commandments.” And when we do not “speak,” we soon do not hesitate to do. It is, in fact, most curious how closely the language and the deeds follow each other.

            Now, of course, it is just possible that the end-time did arrive with the Third Millennium’s inception. We are told that we know not the hour, nor are we given any real assurance that we will be able correctly to read the famous “signs of the times” when they appear. I have just finished reading George Weigel’s good book on John Paul II. It is astonishing that this Pope’s very first words come back again and again, “Be not afraid.” These words, no doubt, are not said of him who tells us “‘I know him’ and does not keep his commandments.” Scripture uses tough words – tougher than we ever hear any more from our pulpits or popular media. The word “liar” is a striking, almost shocking word. It means that we knowingly say something that we know is not true or that we know to be the opposite of the truth. It is a very contemporary word.

            The Fall is not the last word. But it is a word that we cannot afford to neglect. There is something touching about Charlie’s putting his “faith” in Lucy’s word, just as there is something cheering in our calling what is sin to be a “right” or a “duty.” But the fact that Charlie, and hence each of us, is not “perfect” is itself the truth. Lucy’s humor is much more “hard” than anything we find in the comic strips today. She does not tell us we can escape our condition, which, as far as I can ascertain, was the main theme in the media I watched “on reaching the Third Millennium.”

13) Published in the National Catholic Register, March 12, 2000.


            St. Augustine wrote: “They (men who are made vain) take pleasure not only in bad things

as if they were good, but in your good things as if they were their own...” (Conf., X, 38).

            A friend of mine sent the following information. I will describe it in the abstract, no names or places. A couple with several children were taking RCIA instructions in their local parish in preparation for coming into the Church.

            The couple in question, in good faith, came from a practicing Protestant background. They were educated, informed about what the Catholic Church taught. I believe they had the General Catechism of the Catholic Church, with no problem about basic Catholic teachings. The truth of these teachings was what convinced them to join the Church. This official teaching of the Church is what they expected to hear in the baptismal preparations.

            The local parish required a series of catechetical or instructional meetings before reception into the Church at Easter. Midway through the instructions, a guest priest was invited to present the marriage material. In his official instruction to people who intended to enter the Catholic Church, evidently with no objection from the local pastor, the priest explained that it was legitimate for a couple to practice birth control after they had three children. He knowingly told them, thinking to win sympathy, that the Church was old-fashioned and did not understand the modern needs.

            The couple obviously knew that this opinion was not what the Church or the Holy Father taught. They were well informed. They accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae as a better way. They understood what was at stake. Needless to say, they were quite bothered -- though they were not naive – that a priest, in an official capacity, unavoidably knowing what the Church did teach, told them the opposite in so serious a forum as preparation for admittance into the Roman Catholic Church. Not only were they not looking for this “out” that the priest thought he was providing, but they were concerned about their obligation to inform proper authorities about this erroneous teaching.

            What we are dealing with here, of course, is something not at all uncommon in today’s Church, namely, what do we do when a priest (or I suppose a bishop), on a given topic, teaches something contrary to the known position of the Church? The Catechism and Canon Law establish any Catholic’s right and duty to bring to the attention of local or Roman authorities teachings that are contrary to the known and public teaching of the Church. Notice in this case, it is not just a question of an individual priest’s private opinion, but of his officially teaching about what the Church holds on a given topic.

            The couple who heard the instructions did not, in fact, disagree with the Church’s teachings. They were content with it. But even if they were not, they understood clearly that what was being taught was not what the Church held. This is the question I want to reflect on. That is, not merely what to do about such a situation, but to understand clearly what is happening. This is why I began with the citation from Augustine about teaching what is false to be true and what is good to be bad. This is the ultimate disorder of soul, especially when taught by a person in an official teaching capacity. In the Ninth Chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we are reminded of “the man who is the cause of stumbling to one of these little ones....” I might add, or to “one of those who are quite intelligent and well aware of what the Church does in truth teach.”

            No priest today can fail to know that this priest’s teaching on the licitness of birth control is contrary to the official position of the Church. No matter what he may think of the Church or of its teachings, the fact is that priests are official representatives of the Church. They are to be what they are. They are not there to expound their own opinions. In the case of instructing people who are entering the Church, priests do not speak for themselves or their own wondrous theories. What a priest is obliged to teach is not what he thinks, not his, in this case, erroneous insights, but the vast wisdom of the Church. His very being announces to the world and to those before him that devotion to this official teaching is what justifies his existence. Why else be there?

            If the priest (or catechist or whoever) does not choose to explain what the Church teaches, fine. But, in this case, he should simply not put himself forward as an ordained, official teacher. No priest today, as I said, can be ignorant of this teaching, though I admit that some theologians may have confused him, but even there he knows what the Church maintains. He is aware that the Church does not teach what he is telling the people before him. These people are preparing in good faith to enter the Church. They are willing and eager to know what it teaches them. If they are falsely instructed, it is not just a cause of serious scandal, but of a betrayal of an office.

            What should the faithful do on hearing such instructions? Very carefully, very accurately, very simply, they should write to the local Ordinary what they heard, no more, no less. They should ask him directly if this instruction that they heard is what the Church teaches, since this is not what it teaches in the Catechism. The bishop will be slow to act or even investigate. But at that point it becomes a problem of his conscience and his duty to teach.

            The bishop should at least reply and clearly indicate what the Church teaches on receiving the letter:


“Father Smith, of your diocese, in this parish, on the night of Tuesday last, in an RCIA program in preparation to enter the Church, taught, as I have confirmed with others there, that ‘birth control is all right after three children.’ Your Excellency, is this what the Church teaches?” Signed, John Jones.

A bishop who does not answer such a frank letter is irresponsible. This is what freedom in the Church means. The faithful are free to practice it. The bishops are not free not to know what is being taught in their parishes. Converts have every right to hear what the Church in fact teaches. If they do not like it, they can go away. If they are deceived, everyone is cheated.

14) Unpublished.


            In his speech in the Texas House of Representatives, George W. Bush said, after the election was finally cleared up, “I believe that everything happens for a reason....”

            The Supreme Court decisions on the Florida cases, with the final result that Mr. Bush is the duly elected President of the United States, could not, in the end, have turned out better. At first sight, the prolonged efforts of Mr. Gore to use every legal and often dubious constitutional means to obtain the presidency was unfortunate. Most agree it would have been better for him to follow the example of Mr. Nixon in 1960 and concede the election rather than bring the very basis of the Constitutional system into jeopardy. However, revealing rather too much about his character in the process, Mr. Gore chose to follow another path. His choice has served in retrospect to reaffirm a number of basic political and constitutional issues that have long needed clarifying.

            The first and most important of these issues is that the Constitution of the United States remains the basic law of this land and governs controversies arising under it. Without this framework adhered to in its letter and spirit, we are not a self-governing people under law. According to the Constitution, we are a Republic, not a democracy. We are not a mob, not a mass of undifferentiated voters. If we want to say that the form of our “democratic” system is a Republic, so be it. The point is that we do not elect our leaders by counting up the total number of votes to give office to the one with the most votes, whether plurality or majority.

            We are rather a people organized in separate states each with a defined, legally ascertained number of electoral votes. We vote as citizens of a local place. This structure of rule is known before the election. The rules that govern elections are made up before, not after the election. The efforts to count different ballots by different methods by partisan rules is, as it turned out, clearly unconstitutional. How could anyone have ever thought it could be otherwise?

            These electoral votes in turn are awarded to the candidate with the most votes in a state, or by the state legislature in case of any problem. No other political body is authorized by the Constitution to perform this task, certainly not the State Court. The State Court cannot do what the State Legislature cannot do, nor can it substitute itself for the State Legislature, as in effect, the Florida Supreme Court tried to do not once but twice. The court itself is bound by the Constitution both of the State and the Federal Government.

            Moreover, Mr. Gore’s famous pleas that “all the ballots be counted” falls on unsettled ears. He really did not want “all” ballots counted, certainly not military ballots, nor ballots of Cuban-Americans. He only wanted ballots counted that would help him and he was willing to do almost anything to get them. His inconsistency on this issue was sobering. The oft-repeated mantra, heard especially from the Mayor of Chicago, that Mr. Gore “won” the popular vote and that this alone gives him some sort of title to gain office, is itself a claim to overturn our constitution and replace it with a direct democracy. There is absolutely no authority or Constitutional provision to do such a thing. The frequency that this dubious proposition went unchallenged is itself a sign that many neither understand the genius of our own presidential system nor show much willingness to follow it.

            Estimates vary, of course, but there were probably in this election nationally a million and a half “uncounted” ballots – a similar figure happens in almost every election. Again, the law tries to make as clear as possible that only correctly punched or levered ballots are legal. This provision must be the uniform rule. The effort to read “intention” into ballots that were imperfectly marked is suspicious from the beginning. The clarity of law must say that, for whatever reason – ignorance, confusion, inattention – a ballot that is not correctly marked has no right to be called a legal ballot to be counted in an election. No one really knows for whom those million and a half improperly marked were intended. To use these improperly marked ballots after the election and contrary to the rules established previous to the election to resolve this uncertainty is clearly unconstitutional.

            With this final clarification, Mr. Bush can rightfully and objectively say, “I am elected President of the United States according to its laws and constitutional procedures. My election is both legal and legitimate.” Whenever asked or taunted about his electoral support, this and only this is what he should always respond. Mr. Gore did not “win” the election. As elections are established in this country, he was not “elected,” even if he received a “plurality” of votes, though whether he did is not at all certain. What elects are electoral, not popular, votes. There is nothing wrong with our system and everything right about it. The Supreme Court has saved its essence.

            As a proportion of popular vote, Mr. Bush received more votes than Mr. Clinton in either of his elections. The Nader, Buchanan, and Libertarian votes (six or seven million) mean that neither major candidate has a “majority” of all those who legally voted. What decides presidents in this country is the Electoral College, itself set up by our prudent Founding Fathers to avoid the terrible problems associated with direct democracy.

            This election, as it worked itself out, precisely because Mr. Gore insisted that he won the election and took a number of dubious legal measures to test it, finally confronted head-on the judicial activism that has held this country at bay for several decades. It is worth recalling that the Supreme Court itself is one of the prime sinners in the area of judicial activism that sees the Constitution to mean not what it provides but what the Judges say it is. Never let us forget that Roe v Wade decision was a 5-4 judicial activist decision that took the abortion out of the hands of the states by inventing legalese not in the constitution gave a veneer of legitimacy to this very faulty decision.

            The Florida Supreme Court, which should have been itself bound by federal and constitutional laws, tried to make its own rules in violation of Constitutional provisions of fair election procedures. One might hope that since Florida can recall its judges that the people of Florida will take a hard look at those justices who were not willing or able to see the basic features of the law of the land. In the meantime, there is, as Mr. Bush said, a reason for things happening. We have learned much about the centrality of our Constitution, about how it defends our liberties if we let it, about the chaos that happens when we try to alter our system to conform to our political ambitions that go against the law itself. The Supreme Court saved the essence of the founding system. It was a great day.

15) Unpublished.


            For some fifteen hundred years, the Roman Canon of the Latin Rite Mass was celebrated in all churches within this jurisdiction. Current missals, when such exist, call a Canon a “Eucharistic Prayer.” In what now looks, in retrospect, like a confused and disorderly process of almost continual language changes, additional canons, improvisations, un-clarity of liturgical law, this first or Roman Canon has almost, in practice, fallen into desuetude. Few use it. No doubt, Paul VI, after Vatican II, did not intend that this Canon would fall by the wayside. The initiators of widespread liturgical changes seem to have been the Dutch, then the liturgists, not the people. Of course, the Roman Canon is still a proper Canon. It can be used at any time, if a priest or bishop so chooses.

            Recently, in visiting a parish where I con-celebrated Sunday Mass, I asked the pastor about the Canons. During the week, he told me, he used the second shorter Canon and on Sunday the third Canon. Evidently, his parishioners rarely hear the classic Canon. I have seldom seen the fourth Canon used. Last Summer, I was at a parish Sunday Mass where the celebrant used a Canon I had never seen before. Just what it was, I never did figure out. Evidently in some liturgical book, it may have been one of the Penitential or Children’s Canons, but I don’t think so.

            In my own private Masses, I practically always use the Novus Ordo Latin text of the Roman Canon. The translation of this first Eucharistic Prayer into English leaves much to be desired. Evidently, not a few bishops in the Church are beginning to think that this is an imperfect translation, though I shudder to think of yet another change.

            With all the permitted and un-permitted changes, with the rarity of its use, one can hardly expect the average congregation to know the first Canon at all. This is a pity. A common tradition in which everyone knows the same Mass from childhood, in all parts of the world, in all ages, is almost completely gone. The Latin text of the first Canon is substantially the same as that of the Tridentine Mass. John XXIII added St. Joseph to the list of saints, while the phrase, mysterium fidei, that used to be in the consecration ended up as the acclamation prayer just after the consecration of the wine in the Latin Novus Ordo. The words “which will be given up for you,” were added to the Consecration of the Bread.

            The first order of business of the Church today is to restore dignity, a sense of “awesome” transcendence, and a common form to the Liturgy. Aidan Nichols, O. P., in his Christendom Awake! (Eerdmans, 1999), makes two remarks: 1) “The ‘re-enchantment’ of the Liturgy is the single must urgent ecclesial need of our time.” 2) “The single most important act of ‘reforming the reform’ will doubtless be the restoration of the Eastward position for celebrating Mass.”

            The liturgy as most people know it has lost much of its sense of transcendence, of the primacy of worship. It has become “horizontal,” not “vertical.” The community gathers together not for the sake of the community itself but for the sake of the Father, who art in heaven. The Mass “facing the people” is a misunderstanding of what was going on. The new Mass tends to make the priest-celebrant an actor, whereas he and all the people face beyond themselves. The back is not “to the people” but everyone, priest and congregation, “faces the Father.”

            What I say here is an opinion. I think that it is imperative to restore the Roman Canon to its primary position as the one most often heard in the Church. To say a Canon because it is “short” seems no reason at all if we are to praise the Lord properly. The Roman Canon is not, in fact, very long, compared, say, to the Byzantine Liturgy. Both have their sacred inner spirits. Catherine Pickstock has remarked that the Roman Canon is the most perfect praise ever composed by men to worship God. She is right. This is why it is doubly astonishing that, voluntarily, not by persecution, we gave it up in practice.

            The translators of the Roman Canon into English sometimes seemed to have played down the awesome mystery of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Take the brief prayer in the Roman Canon, just before the Consecration. The priest holds his hands outstretched over the chalice. The Latin reads, “Quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus, quaesumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris: ut nobis Corpus et Sanguis fiat dilectissimi Fili tui, Domini nostri Jesu Christi.” The present translation of this passage reads: “Bless and approve our offering, make it acceptable to you, an offering in spirit and in truth. Let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord.” The English, in this case, is more brief than the Latin, which is normally a more succinct language than English. We find no “deigning,” or “beseeching,” or “asking.”

            Notice that “oblatio” becomes in English merely “offering,” not oblation. This oblation in Latin is given five modifying adjectives – blessed, ascribed, confirmed, reasonable, and acceptable. In English it becomes merely “acceptable.” This offering is said to be in “spirit and truth,” neither of which appear in the Latin text, which emphasizes rather the “being” of the Body and Blood of Christ..

            Cardinal Ratzinger, who has been the leader in this renewed awareness of the need of a proper Liturgy, wrote in his Regensburg lecture, “The whole Church, heaven and earth, God and man take part in every liturgical celebration – and that not just in theory, but in actual fact.” I do not doubt that if the Church affirms the use of other Canons, that they are valid. But what strikes me is that the classical Roman Canon contains so much more in the way of worship and explication that its not being used in ordinary parish life represents a huge loss for the Church.

            This is the Canon that by its very wording is connected not just with the present but with the whole of the past in which popes, saints, and martyrs are present in every Mass defining for us what we are and what we are doing. We should identify ourselves not only with Mary and Joseph and the Apostles, but with Linus, Cletus, Clement, and Cornelius, with Abel and Abraham, with the martyrs, Barnabas, Ignatius, Agatha, and Lucy. The rediscovery of the First Canon, I think, is the first step in a much needed liturgical “re-renewal.”  

16) Published in the National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2000.


            The NC Register (Aug. 20) report on the death of Sir Alex Guiness recounts his comment, after listening to John Paul II’s voice at Morning Mass on Easter of 1994 – “I decided that his voice is the most beautiful and dignified speaking voice I have ever heard.” I have often thought that the Pope is also the most photogenic man of our time. Yet, probably two million youth would not gather in Rome or Denver or Manila or Paris merely to see a noble face or to hear a beautiful voice -- if it had nothing to say. I confess that I lack even pity for those incredibly obtuse types who pretend that they are more intelligent or more philosophical than this Pope. Moreover, as Archbishop Stafford said in the same NCR issue, the Pope is seen by the youth as a “man who is thoroughly authentic in the living out of the Gospel. They know his background, even as a young man, when he was their age.” Indeed.

            Every World Youth Day, sponsored by the Pope, at which massive numbers of young attend, confounds local intellectuals. Their world is too narrow to see what is there. They have no “tools” to explain what is going on, other than their own pat, and wrong, theses about right and left, about modernity and relativism, none of which apply. The local media, meanwhile, seek images to explain what is going on. They compare World Youth Days with something else, like Woodstock or a rock concert or a “love-fest.” These latter in fact are not going on, but, if they were, they think that they would help the perplexed media and intellectuals to understand what is going on, even though what is going on is not what they want to think is going on. Follow me?

            By maintaining that the meeting with the Pope is “like” something else, we do not have to zero in on what it in fact is. This is a relief, because we do not really want so many youth corrupted by what the media often thinks and indeed says is a backward Pole. The backward Pole, at eighty, is so far ahead of most people, including bishops, clerics, and academics, that it is mind-boggling.

            The Pope loves all of this youthful presence, of course, not the show, but the individual youth who come to see him. And he tells them the truth. Who else does? If we have to travel half-way around the globe to hear the truth, why not go? It is the great adventure, after all. We can rest assured that in the souls of millions of youth we will find the memory of their being with John Paul II in Paris, or Manila, or Denver, or Rome. In future years, we will find reminiscences, novels, memorials, probably films and videos, about having been there.

            The Wall Street Journal (22 Aug.), as is its wont, had an editorial on the perplexity of intellectuals who “don’t get it.” “Many in the media seem uncomfortable with the idea that there are plenty of people in the world, young people especially, who are genuinely religious.... That it may have been the largest pilgrimage in Roman history seems only to have added to the confusion and skepticism of commentators.” It would never occur to many influential types that they might themselves be “out of touch with reality.” That is, there is a reality that, by their own lives, they have excluded. They are indeed “pro-choice”; they choose not to know. They cannot recognize it when it is before them. To see what is good and true, you have to be prepared to see it, yes, choose it. If you are not prepared, you will more than likely reject it, calling is vile names or comparing it with something that has little to do with what is going on when what is going on is limited to your own narrow vision..

            The Pope in Rome often recalled to these young people the idea of a responsibility to reality, of moral probity. They do not often hear anything like this from their mentors or cultural and political guides. It is sort of a voice in the wilderness. It is the only truly “new” thing they will be likely to hear midst a culture and academia that, at every turn, preaches and practices irresponsibility jazzed up with scientific-sounding names. “Personal salvation,” the Journal, somewhat dubiously added, “is an issue best left to each individual in communion with his own beliefs. But liberty seldom prevails in an atmosphere where responsibility is abjured. In the long run, it can’t.”

            I am not quite sure just what such “personal salvation” might mean. Certainly if we could find it huddled up in “communion with our own beliefs,” we would not have to go to Rome. The trouble is that salvation is not of ourselves. That is what the Pope keeps telling the youth. They know he is right. But certainly it is correct to maintain that liberty, the freedom to act even against our impulses and temptations, the liberty to rule ourselves in the name of objective principle, cannot exist without responsibility. But again, responsibility is always to a something. It is not its own end.

            What is the “secret of this Pope that so many of the wise and mighty do not want to hear? At the Angelus on July 30, at Castel Gandolfo, in a brief passage that contains reflection most of modern philosophical problems, John Paul II explained a philosophical truth that itself explained why youth understand him, why they are there. “The Church has understood more and more clearly, in the course of sometimes tragic events of past decades, that her task is care and responsibility for man, not ‘abstract’ man, but real, ‘concrete,’ ‘historical’ man, to whom she constantly offers Christ, his only Redeemer. For only in Christ ... can human beings find the full, true meaning of their existence. Christianity therefore cannot be reduced to a doctrine, or to mere principles, because Christ, the centre of Christianity, is alive and his presence constitutes the event which continually renews human creatures and the cosmos.”

            In such a compact paragraph, spoken on an Italian hillside, we can hear Kant and Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hussrel, the existentialists and deconstructionists, and even Strauss and Voegelin, along with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. “It is one of the ironies of this whole (World Youth Day) story,” the Journal concluded, “that the call for personal responsibility and a change from a cultural drift toward hedonism would come, again, in Rome.” When watching the face of this great Pope, when listening to his gentle voice, it is not merely an “irony,” but mostly a “delight,” if we choose to see and listen and, yes, think and pray.

17) Published in the National Catholic Register, June 9, 2000.


            Every year, thousands of American high school and university students are involved in programs devoted to public service in one form or another. Some states are in fact considering making this type of service mandatory for graduation -- “coerced compassion,” its critics call it. We are used to peace corps and various forms of private organization that arrange for students to help in various lands or parts of this country that are considered poor. The programs evidently have multi-fold purposes.

            First such programs defend academia against the accusation that it is useless, only “ivory tower” living for rich kids. Secondly, they actually seek to accomplish some concrete thing, perhaps build a house or help on a farm or teach kids how to play soccer or learn math. These are often low-budget operations. Finally, they attempt to form among student participants habits of generosity or at least awareness of real problems outside of one’s own ken. If the programs have Christian sponsorship, there is often the added notion of service to the poor, not so much in the Franciscan tradition of actually choosing such a life, but in an awareness that such problems exist and ought not to be neglected.

            On looking over such programs, who could have any problem with them? Some obvious cautions, however, ought to be considered. The first has to do with whether such programs really are substitute for academic study. Almost invariably the agenda guiding the program takes time to figure out. The question of what does in fact help the poor is not as obvious as it might at first seem. No matter how pragmatically the effort is considered to be – that it is good to build something rather than nothing – still there are principles that need to be clarified.

            Take for instance this story I heard from a student of mine several years ago. Somewhere near the end of the school year, I ran across her on campus and inquired what she had bee n doing. Among other things, she told me, she had signed up for a program that involved working in a soup kitchen once a week. I asked her how it went. She told me that in the beginning, she was very enthusiastic about it. She seemed really to be doing something. But later on she began to have doubts. She began to notice that the very same people kept coming back week after week. She had assumed that a soup kitchen was designed for those temporarily in need, not something that simply fed people no matter what they did. “Now,” I told her, “you are beginning your real education.”

            An ex-student of mine wrote to me that he accompanied twenty high school students to work for a couple of weeks in an inner-city situation in another town. The students would go into the problem areas and do what they could do during the day. They came back in the evening to a center and were asked by a director whom they did not know to “reflect” on their experience. My young friend noticed something rather peculiar in the staff-person’s handling of the analysis. Never was any question asked that intimated that the condition in any inner-city had anything to do with the fault or lack of virtue or will of the citizens there. It was always the culpability of “social structures,” or of “the rich,” or of “business.” Never was there ever any hint that questions of virtue or personal responsibility were involved in the dire situation. From students involved in similar foreign projects, I often hear that it is the government that is corrupt, or the landlords. The poor have a kind of helplessness and innocence about them; they can do nothing wrong. Things must be done “for” them; that is why these programs exist. In the students’ eyes, the only solution to such problems is presented as some drastic form of revolution or revolt, a redistribution of property or some such radical program.

              An argument could be made that it is not really a good idea to send students out into these programs until certain intellectual questions are first resolved. Students do not realize that often the very program, for which they are volunteering, has its own dubious agenda, whether it be population control, economic radicalism, socialism of some sort, or a theological denial of personal freedom and responsibility on the part of the poor themselves. For many people today, aid to the poor is a kind of substitute for God. We “help” the poor who cannot “help” themselves by showing “sympathy” for their plight and carrying the “blame” on our shoulders. I suspect the poor themselves are often very dubious about this sort of project. They recognize pretty rapidly when the purpose of the program is to try out yet another Western do-good thesis or to test another theory that really does not work.

            Now, one can hardly say that all these efforts are useless or spiritually dangerous. But, I suspect, not a few are. What I am most interested in here, however, are the dangers, both to the poor and to the volunteers, that follow from teaching, implicitly or explicitly, that the problems are all due to someone else, to structures or to institutions, not to wills and personal choices. The primary purpose of any Christian oriented help agency, in so far as it is Christian, has to be based on the idea of personal freedom and responsibility even midst the worst of circumstances. We may have our priorities wrong, in fact. The greatest need is not material but intellectual and spiritual even for the poor, especially for the poor. The basic principle, I have often thought, is this: not every effort claiming to do good, does good. Human nature, I think, is unforgiving; it does not make into good what is not good.

18) Published in the National Catholic Register, December 3, 2000.


            The world population was supposed to have reached six billions on October 12, 1999, time of day, not specified. The anti-growth school of thought assumed that this six billionth child, fortunately a little tyke who managed to escape the abortion industry, was born unwanted in some hovel in the fourth world. The fact is the child may well have been born in Kansas City or Bordeaux or Tokyo in quite comfortable circumstances amid people who are slowly beginning to realize that they need population if they are to survive as a people in the coming decades. Moreover, most children actually born in poor countries have the inestimable advantage of being “wanted.” Was this six-billionth birth a blessing? Was it a disaster? It takes a good deal of bad will and intellectual brainwashing to transform things, like human births meant to be gifts, into unmitigated calamities. The fact is there is absolutely nothing “disastrous” about having six billion people on this planet.

            About a quarter of century ago, I wrote an essay in the Scottish Journal of Theology entitled, “Apocalypse as a Secular Enterprise.” What I had in mind even then was the curious phenomenon that outcries about “the end of the world” are today coming not from religious sources but from secular ones. More groans about human catastrophes come out of certain elements in the United Nations and population lobbies than out of the Vatican. The chief source of secular apocalypse, of predictions of cataclysm for mankind, come from environmentalist and population sources. They often seem to think that the earth was not designed to be inhabited by rational beings but would best be allowed to float in circular space untouched by human hands. The Vatican is rather telling us that human problems, even in this world, can be met but only if we acknowledge what we are. We are not the measure of our own being. We are meant for purposes we did not first give ourselves.

            The United Nations, under the terms “rights of children” or “reproductive rights” propose solutions to what they consider to be population “problems,” that attack the central place of the family and the primacy the child own dignity in its coming to be. However, the ultimate source of wealth remains in fact the human brain, not “environment” or “natural resources.” Without the human brain, these latter are mostly useless. It by no means is self-evident that more brains will a debacle. They may well mean more human wealth and prosperity. The fear of human numbers is probably the primary reason why human beings will not be adequately cared for and fostered.

            “The Convention on the Rights of the Child is now being interpreted,” the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute reports (18 September),


as giving children complete religious freedom from their parents. The Gautam report (Kul Gautam, UNICEF executive director, preparing for next Fall’s UN General Assembly on children) says ‘children have been most effected ... by traditional attitudes under which their status as rights bearers is undermined.’ ‘Traditional attitudes’ is considered by some as a criticism of religion. The report claims that the school should be at the ‘center of society,’ not the family and not the Church.

Since the UN also evidently considers childhood to end at ten, the very age Plato gave for the elimination of all adult authority, it seems quite eerie that there is also a desire to use the school and day care to replace the family, a proposal also found in Plato.

            Plato is not necessarily the villain here. He may have been ironically spelling these proposals out as a warning to us not to employ them in actual cities. Still it is quite remarkable the degree to which his proposals for his “city in speech” – elimination of the family, elimination of Eros from human begetting, genetic breeding of humans under state control, exposure of unwanted infants – have come to be the proposals that we find these new “rights” of children to be implying.

            We can add more radically modern things like cloning, efforts to make males capable of bearing children, artificial insemination, surrogate parenthood, use of aborted human parts for the welfare of others, and other attempts to bypass the dignity of the individual person and the family. Our age seems bent on carrying out the logical consequences of denying the normative relation between human marriage and human children. More and more there is a separation between sex and begetting. Sex is merely an activity with no consequences provided we do not catch some sort of disease transmitted by it. Begetting, care of children, and education are to be in the hands of the state which uses tax and other powers to gain control of what children it allows – we even hear of licensing parenthood – to be born.

            Yet, what is evident in population literature is a growing awareness that our frantic efforts to limit population are resulting in a rapid decline of population and hence a far-reaching shift in world political power. What started out as a theory of “too many of them” is ending up in a reality of “too few of us.” We bought our own theories and we are dying of them. It is not the poor but the rich who are most radically effected by their own uncritically accepted theories. Sterile or one-child marriages are not neutral phenomenon. They result in a population with many more elderly and adults than children. Economic demand declines. Few new sources of life appear. The children who are begotten are not only spoiled and often mainly males. They lack brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. They will only have ancestors in the direct line. And if they are “engineered” by artificial insemination, they may have no one directly responsible for them. No one will be related to anyone. No one will be begotten of any true human act.

            We can have little doubt that direct hatred of human life, especially human life in its most tender and innocent form, carries something of the diabolical with it. The “culture of death” is perhaps much too mild a term to explain it, though it is graphic enough. We wonder especially how the United Nations itself ever became the locus of such understandings of “rights” that they end up in promoting institutions and practices that are most inimical to what it is to be truly human? Yet, we should not be surprised that ideas that are most detrimental to mankind will appear with considerable force in the most prestigious and exalted of cultural and political places. The children of light and the children of darkness are still facing each other in a most direct fashion. Human numbers will always be a problem if we begin by denying human dignity of all of our kind. Yet, to recall another Platonic principle, if we are unwilling to control ourselves, we should not be too surprised if the state ends up controlling us “for our own good.”. The struggle over the “rights of children” is really a struggle over the souls of all of us both in and out of the United Nations.

19) Published in the National Catholic Register, June 11, 2000.


            Recently, a friend of mine told me that on Palm Sunday, the local Pastor explicitly told the congregation to sit during the reading of the Passion. My friend thought that at least during the Passion the people could exercise some mortification by standing, as custom indicates. The weak or sick could always sit during a long reading (it is not that long). But the normal able bodied person can stand; he does it every day. In retrospect, I think, in this regard, the giving up of Friday abstinence was of more than passing significance. Symbolically, it brought us into an era of what I call “soft Catholicism.” Nothing is required. Nothing is asked. Nothing happens.

            A thing is not true, of course, in proportion to its difficulty, as Kant seemed to think. Nevertheless, the Church exists in the world in order that what Christ taught in the beginning is still actively, explicitly taught in the now. A parish is a local place wherein all the basic moral and doctrinal teachings of the Church are to be systematically heard and explained, even if they are unpopular or difficult. A bishop exists in part to see that this teaching is carried out; indeed to carry it our himself, as the Pope does. If we hear nothing in our churches that makes us “uncomfortable,” that causes us to examine our lives in other than superficial or politically correct terms, we can be sure that we are not hearing all of what Christ had to say to us.

            Thus, we need to hear that the drama of salvation crosses each of our souls, that Christ came to save precisely sinners, that we know, in detail, what it is to sin. We must call things by their right names. Knowing how we stand before God, even in our sins, is not “morbid.” If we look at confession and communion lines, it does appear as if we live in a world in which we are all, apparently, immaculately conceived. The trouble is, we aren’t. The greatest work of the devil is to convince us that we need no redemption, more specifically that we have no need of the principles and mechanisms of the redemption that we received in Christ.

            Father Francis Canavan, S. J. once amusingly described just how the “hard” teachings disappear from a parish (or college, or seminary, or religious order). He called it “preaching by silence.” A pastor friend of mine told me not too long ago that it is incumbent on priests to hear confessions of those in their parish. But parishioners won’t go to confession if they do not know that they should or if they do not know or acknowledge that what they are doing is sinful. They must be taught, “in season and out.” No one likes to hear the “negative” side of our faith. But if we never hear it, we soon forget what it is. Moreover, if the full content of the faith, that which is found, say, in the whole Catechism, is not heard, outsiders will really have no reason to go to a Church in which nothing “difficult” or new is really heard or required.

            The parishes and pulpits in which we never hear of “sin, death, judgment, heaven and hell,” Canavan remarked, present a “word ... shorn of all pre-modern, historically conditioned, and mythological elements. One will find in this gospel no virgin birth, or physical resurrection from the dead, or real presence in the Eucharist. Whether we can believe in the incarnation of God the Son or whether there is a Son distinguished from the Father and the Holy Spirit is left vague. None of these things will be explicitly denied.... If enough preachers refuse to talk about them, they will die of inanition and will fade away.”

            Christianity is a joyful religion, but it is not a “soft” one. It is not primarily concerned that “we feel good about ourselves.” It is in fact concerned with the truth of what is, including the truth of mysterious disorder we find actively in our souls from which we cannot ourselves cure, in spite of our many psychological, sociological, economic, and political theses. Christianity wants us to know ourselves to be capable of sin and of wanting to be rid of it when we do. Nor is it designed to call what is evil “good.”

            This latter tendency is, no doubt, one of the major results of not teaching the prohibitions of the commandments and reminding ourselves of the warnings of the New Law. We seek every means possible to maintain that our sins are not sins, but “rights” or “virtues.” We will allow ourselves to deceive and be deceived about ourselves. What is very difficult for many of us to realize is how close we are to defining Christianity out of existence in civil law because we do not talk about our vices or seek to change our ways through repentance. The greatest need of missionaries in the modern world is found those parishes or communities – they are not just in our land – in which the commandments are not taught, in which sins are not explained as the Church has explained them from its foundation, in which the forgiveness, not covering over, of sins is a major preparation for understanding and participating in the joy that is revealed to us.

            We hear at Mass, or should hear, the Agnus Dei; we are to “behold” the Lamb of God who “taketh away the sins of the world.” But He does not do so, He cannot do so, if we do not know or acknowledge that we are sinners, if no one preaches to us, if no one teaches us. Moreover, it is not true that a clergy or congregation full of unforgiven and unacknowledged sins can be the happy one that we are promised if we speak only of “soft Catholicism.” We will never “convert” the world if we do not think there is anything to be converted to. We will never change our souls if we do not think there is nothing in them that needs changing. The great revolution that is Christianity can only be “silenced” if we accept as true that no norms exist and that we already feel good about ourselves.

20) Published in the National Catholic Register, April 16, 2000.


            The Trial of Christ in the Gospel of John is a good text to assign students thinking about the nature and limits of political authority. The Holy Father in several places has mentioned the similarities and dissimilarities in the Trials of Christ and Socrates. Certain resonances exist between the Trial of Christ and the famous speech “Against Verres,” that Cicero directed against a Roman Governor in Sicily. Cicero used this trial to reform the Senate accused of itself being corrupt and open to bribery. Cicero had himself been a Governor on Sicily. He and Verres occupied a position equivalent to that of Pontius Pilate in Roman Palestine. Cicero, like Christ, assumed that it was both right and possible for a Roman Governor to govern justly.

            The Trial of Christ, like Socrates’ trial, was formally legal. The states conducting the trials were, by comparison, rather good states, by no means the worst states of their time. However, we can have a trial that is formally “legal” but still somehow unjust. Students often think that because a political action is “democratic,” that fact alone is sufficient to decide whether the action under the democracy’s jurisdiction is just.

            A student, commenting on the Trial of Christ, argued that Pilate, in giving the people a democratic choice between Barabbas and Christ, did what he had to do in executing Christ. That is what the people “wanted.” Alas. Most people, in reading of Pilate’s famous alternative, realize that Pilate himself was weak. A Roman governor had the power of clemency to pardon the guilty. Custom allowed, on certain occasions, that the people could choose who was to be pardoned. In principle, of course, no choice exists between someone guilty of crime and someone who is not. Pilate’s very presentation of this choice was itself a violation of his duty, even in Roman law.

            Pilate and Christ have a famous discussion about the nature and origin of authority. Christ does not deny that Pilate, a Roman governor, has authority over him. Civil authority is itself legitimate. Pilate and Christ do not discuss the morality of capital punishment. Christ does not say, “Look here, Pilate, don’t you know that capital punishment is wrong?” Rather, Christ indicates that all authority, including that of a Roman governor, is ultimately from God. At a minimum, this source means that Roman political authority, all political authority, is limited to its immediate purpose. Pilate is not rebuked for being a Governor or for exercising the authority of a governor.

            Romans, moreover, teaches that we are to be “obedient” to the Emperor. Some readers think that in accepting Pilate’s permission of His Crucifixion, that Christ is simply being obedient to civil authority. But this approach avoids the sticky question of obedience to unjust laws. Christ, forgetting for a moment the Band of Angels He could send, had little choice but to follow the physical coercion of Pilate’s troops in charge of His execution.

            Pilate himself initially worried that Christ might in fact be a petty revolutionary. On examination, he found that Christ did not aspire to any political office. His Kingdom was not “of this world.” While grasping this distinction, however little he may have pictured the whole of Christ’s teachings, Pilate understood that this Man was not guilty of the crime of which He was accused, of making Himself a political “King of the Jews.” “I found no case against Him,” John records Pilate telling the crowds.

            Under the surface, of course, Pilate knows that Christ is brought before him because of problems having to do with Jewish, not Roman, politics. Pilate tried every way he could think of to extricate himself from this mess. His very awareness – his washing of his hands, his wife’s warnings – indicated that he knew Christ was not guilty. At this point, the distinction between “authority” and its “exercise” comes in. In acknowledging that Pilate had “authority,” even “from His Father,” Christ is not approving the manner in which Pilate proceeded. Quite clearly, Pilate should have cleared Him, not washed his hands or delivered him over to Roman, not Jewish, punishment, that is, to Crucifixion, not stoning.

            Pilate is not the most guilty party in all this sordid procedure. He just happened to be the man in charge. He could not disentangle himself from it. Still he bore considerable guilt. The several Jewish officials, not the whole people, then or now, that managed the whole affair thought Christ was a threat. The crowds are even reported as saying “We have no King but Caesar,” which, in other circumstances, few Jews seriously would have shouted.

            When we step back a bit from the immediate, graphic circumstances of the Trial of Christ, we see it as part of the drama sin and of our Redemption. Christ was the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. He was true God and true Man. Those few individual Jewish officials of the time who pressed Pilate were the ones who bore guilt. The principle that “it is better that one die than that the people perish” has become infamous as a cover for political leaders sacrificing the innocent. Surely, neither Pilate nor the Jewish officials involved recognized Christ for what He was, a “Son of God,” as the Roman centurion put it after He was dead. All involved are guilty of sacrificing a good man, no matter who he was, for political purposes. And our sins make all of us present.

            But the being of the Person sacrificed remains. Christ was “obedient,” obedient to death, even to the death of the Cross. The Emperor, the Governor, Barabbas, the local officials, the crowd played their part in a drama the depths of which they had no real idea. “So in the end Pilate handed Him over to them to be crucified. They then took charge of Jesus, and carrying His own cross, He went out of the city....” It was Dostoyevsky who suggested that had Christ appeared in any other polity, in any other time, the same thing would have happened to Him. We don’t like to believe it. In any case, we know what did happen to Christ. We do know, even till now, who He is.

21) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            We find two contemporary ways to view the world with man’s relationship to it. Each view is, in an odd way, both pessimistic and optimistic; both present statistics in its favor. In its simplest terms, one view maintains that the world is in a very dire condition. If something is not done about ecology, population, and resources, quickly and on a large scale, we will destroy ourselves, even without nuclear weapons. The other view argues that, in fact, the material substrate of the earth is more than adequate for any number of human beings that we might realistically anticipate. Further, within the human mind we can find more than sufficient talents to develop and provide for any possible need that might arise among us. If we destroy the world, it will not be because we do not know how to avoid it, but because we refuse to put into place the means whereby we can live as we ought.

            Ironically, the first view, the view that things are getting desperate, is the one that argues most forcefully for a one world government with coercive authority, a kind of world marshal law view. Indeed, as I would contend, it undergirds what may well be the most dangerous totalitarian position ever posed to mankind. It wants to subsume all nation states into a broader governmental control so that there are no loop-holes in the “rational” order that will guarantee a limited population.

            Being born and dying are to fall under the control of this international entity. Even though this system is proposed as a world-wide welfare democracy in which all poverty and ignorance are eliminated, it will demand, in the name of its own pre-defined goals, absolute obedience. Having children will be licensed; death will be mandatory when the time comes that the new welfare mechanisms no longer will support life. These innovations will be called “rights” to live and die. Many of the mechanisms for this world-wide system, argued certainly in the name of humanity, necessity, and the common good, are already in place, particularly the theoretical rationale for it. We hear more of this thinking in the United Nations than anywhere else, except perhaps in the universities.

            The other view, that does not necessarily exclude some world order, holds that the focus on world problems ought not to be on resources, calculated in terms of current estimates, but on the remarkable capacity of the human brain, itself connected to human-know how through the human hand. As a rule, we do not know the answers to our problems until the problems arise. When they arise, if we are free and understand what the human being is, we can figure out what is advisable. The panicky descriptions of how bad things are need not mesmerize us. Indeed, as the human problems have apparently increased, so likewise has our ability to solve them. We do not first have solutions then discover the problems.  

            Moreover, the primary way to meet problems is through a free intelligence based on what is, that makes it worthwhile for myriads of individuals to know and learn how to meet any given situation. There is another kind of universalism to this approach. It proposes governing the world through a multiplicity of centers of free life and initiative, but one that does not forget what we have already learned. Not everything is new. Many of the most important things to know were learned long before our time. If it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, neither is it now necessary to reinvent how we ought to live. We have not lived as we ought to live. This is the real source of our problems.

            There is to be no “new man.” Things like virtue and discipline remain central to everyone. The reason why we have problems is largely due, not to lack of resources or possible solutions, but to the moral will to live a good and rightly ordered life. The great problems in human living are caused by individual, personal disorders. We all look askance, for instance, at the scriptural prohibition of divorce. Yet, any honest analysis of the disorders in the modern world cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that divorce is a major source not only of human unhappiness, but of societal and personal disruption. There are certain “rights,” in other words, that we ought not to exercise if we would live sanely and well. But this “right” is just a beginning of “rights” we ought not to exercise if we would be well and be well governed.

            The first theory affirms that if we are going to solve our problems, certain things once called “evils” are going to have to be declared to be “good,” to be “rights,” Thus, innocent human life is not always to be protected. We may need a labor force from cloning. Indeed, we may need to produce more “perfect” human beings by methods other than what was once called begetting. We may need to break the link between parents and children. The state needs the power to protect us from the “vices” of the population. One of these vices is the position that children belong first to their parents. Once this link is broken, the state can condition and develop children with no interference from outmoded institutions.

            But I do not intend here to list all the proposals, mostly already on the books, whereby human beings fall under the complete control of the world state. What needs emphasis, rather, is the idea that such dire proposals are not necessary. Whatever human problems that do arise can be met best by means that accept the moral limits of human action. The earth is given to man for man. He has an intellect and will capable of meeting any problem that arise, provided that we be free and allowed to develop and indeed to be rewarded for our endeavors.

22) Published in the National Catholic Register, June 3, 2001.


            An twelve-line entry, “College Baseball,” in the Washington Post’s sports page (April 8) caught my eye. Eight players of the Eastern Nazarene College baseball team were caught drinking against school conduct rules. As the team only had seventeen players and one was ill, the school canceled the rest of the season’s schedule. Presumably, all students at the college, not just the baseball players, promise not to drink. The ball players violated two rules: the religious rule not to drink and the free promise about general conduct. The players were caught. The university enforced its own rules. Whether the original rule not to drink is a good one is not a question. You don’t have to go to Eastern Nazarene.

            Few students at Georgetown, George Washington, or the University of Maryland are Nazarenes, eastern or western, but students at these schools have received considerable local and national notoriety recently for drinking habits and subsequent incommodious actions. As Amy Argetsinger reported in the Post (April 7), a District Zoning panel refused Georgetown’s requests for expansion of the student numbers because of complaints by area residents that “immature students have filled their neglected rental homes with noise and streets with trash.” Residents complained that the university, unlike Eastern Nazarene, never did anything to students causing such disturbances. “The Board of Zoning Adjustment also ordered the university to take several steps aimed at curbing drunkenness, noise and rowdiness of off-campus students – such as staffing a daily, 24 hour hot line for neighbors’ complaints....” The university, in other words, is still obliged to be in loco parentis, even with legally emancipated students. The students can be blind drunk on campus so long as they don’t make any noise. Presumably, the university does not take a stronger position because students have “rights.”

            After losing to Duke in the Final Four Basketball Tournament, hundreds of University of Maryland students rioted in near-by College Park. They caused some five hundred thousand dollars in damages due to fires they lighted and vandalism. The local police were appalled. The Chief blamed the students; he censured “the few hundred drunken hooligans who came off campus with no self-control and basically did what they wanted to do.” This statement is a parody of modern ethical science! Since when are we to be “self-controlled” and not do “what we want to do?” The Washington Post, in its Maryland Editorial (April 7), remarked, on the “sad and terrible postscript to a memorable basketball season.” The riots will be more remembered than the basketball team!

            One arrested Maryland students arrested was a wrestler. He was charged, with “first-degree and second-degree malicious burning and six counts of reckless endangerment.” These are new crimes to me. “Burning” and “endangerment” are fine, but please, let them not be “malicious” or “reckless”! Student drinking and boisterousness, no doubt, are as old as universities and the towns in which they are found -- towns and gowns. The towns are often accused of quietly and quickly taking the students’ silver, then they tell them to shut up and get out of sight. The towns see the students as inebriates and potential rioters who can explode at any moment, after a game, in the spring-time, for any irrational reason that pops into their undisciplined heads. The students see the town as an ungrateful cabal of tight-wad old biddies and clods who get upset if anyone so much as belches out loud in their precious streets at two o’clock in the morning.

            I usually begin my reflection on this topic of student drinking by recalling the first two chapters of Plato’s Laws. It puts the issue in order if we realize that training the young to drink prudently is a classical problem. Plato does not use the Eastern Nazarene solution of forbidding drinking at all. Nor does he approve of riots and drunken seances on the local streets. The notorious character Alcibiades is first seen as precisely a drunken and undisciplined young man, one of Socrates’s main failures. Yet, Socrates realized that we must learn to drink prudently, wisely. It can be done and ought to be. This learning process will require some watching over the youth and some careful judgment of character.

            The Georgetown-citizen proposed “hot-line” that tattles on any student caught yelling and disturbing the sleep of some resident congressman strikes me as little less than totalitarian, as do the efforts to force students out of local apartments and houses back onto the campus. Why students do not have a right to live where they want, once we grant them emancipation, is beyond me. Riotous students should be treated like anyone else. Why their behavior is a university and not mainly a civic, familial, or personal problem I don’t know. As a culture, we do everything we can to separate students from parents, then we end up, when they are not self-disciplined, blaming the schools which they attend.

            Of course, in thinking about this problem, we do not wonder if the philosophical content of what students study in college has anything to do with their behavior. God forbid! We teach them pragmatism, consequentialism, deconstructionism, little religion, and an ethics that can justify almost anything, then the locals, who probably hold about the same positions intellectually, complain of the results. No doubt, anyone who has three or four thousand young men and women in his neighborhood and expects complete peace and quiet in the streets is either hopelessly forgetful of his own youth or utterly naive about what human nature is composed of.

            In a letter to the Editor of the Post, Harry Kopp has this to say about the riots at Maryland, one after an earlier Duke game and one after the Final Four game: “A Maryland fraternity member, explaining the drunken rampage at College Park, said: ‘We beat Duke, we riot, and we lose to Duke, we riot. The police should accept it.’” Kopp adds wittily, “I guess it takes a child to raze a village.” Indeed.

            What is my conclusion, you ask, for all this public scandal caused by “uncured” drunkenness of college students? The day in 1978 when I flew from San Francisco to Washington to join the Georgetown faculty, I happened to notice in the airline magazine of that January date a column on college drinking. To my astonishment, Georgetown was then listed as one of the top ten “party” schools in the country. The poor Georgetown villagers have been at this for a very long time, it seems. I do not laugh at the problem. But I do walk the streets of Georgetown to notice the amount of wine and liquor bottles that appear in the resident early morning “waste management” run. If students are to learn to be sober and responsible drinkers, it strikes me that neither the Georgetown resident solution nor the Eastern Nazarene solution is the best..

            Frankly, I like the College Park police chief’s rhetoric, “hooligans.” He is more likely to scare sense into drunken students than any college authority. After all, it was Aristotle himself who told us at the end of his Ethics, that the main cause of a civil coercive power was due to a failure of the family to teach self-discipline to its youth. When that fails, police are going to do a better job in teaching the significance of sobriety than any university disciplinary body, suffused as it probably is with vague modern ideologies about what makes students tick.

            My youngest brother was ticketed on the night before his 21st birthday at a bar near the University of Santa Clara. Chances were a thousand to one. He would never deny that it was a good lesson, nor that his father could have made the same point more forcefully. In short, in the villages around universities, let us not drive the students into compounds and hotline them to death. Let them live among us if they will and suffer the consequences of their own acts. As long as we blame someone else in good Rousseauist fashion for their actions -- parents, churches, universities, fraternities – nothing much will be different. Let us respect the Eastern Nazarene solution, but in this case follow Aristotle and the police chief in both self-discipline and in coercion, when needed.

23) Published in the National Catholic Register, October 23, 2001.


            Many are, no doubt, surprised that the Vatican took the stance that it did on the right and duty of a nation under direct attack to defend itself and to remove a present and abiding threat to repeat the attack (S. 25). This is a return of the classic just war doctrine, a return even made simpler because no weapons but knives were used in the most bloody single day in American history. Recent anti-death penalty discussions in modern circumstances no longer seem apt. Those discussions about always using peaceful means suddenly seem almost naive in the light of a world unable to conceive that such widespread killing of non-combatants could happen right in our midst. It was actually planned by a definite and organized enemy working for years on the project. One real question is the “morality” of those who left us so unprepared, the policies of leaders who gutted our security and defense capabilities and sold surveillance equipment to Syria.

            Supposing, moreover, the capture or voluntary surrender of some of those who planned and carried out this attack – some are already dead but they are not the brains – what would be an “appropriate” sentence? Would “life in prison” uphold the “principle of life” when the lives being saved are precisely those who cause slaughter on such a horrendous scale? Moreover, if those who planned this attack intend to carry out more destruction, as they sought to do on September 11, is not their very existence a constant threat to innocent life? Many a revolution has been planned in a prison cell.

            The Pope, of course, did not give blanket retaliatory scope, not did President Bush advocate any such thing. The terms of both have been measured, precise, directed only at those leaders who planned and carried out the slaughter and those who protect them. It is difficult to see how objection can be raised to these positions, unless one really wants the destruction of America, something the plotters do want.

            The Holy Father still makes a distinction between “Islam” and “terrorists.” Recently, the Washington Times (S. 24) carried a full page ad signed by many American Muslim groups protesting that Islam is a religion of “peace.” Likewise, every day we see from around the world photos of many, many Muslims agreeing with those who destroyed the World Trade Center. Millions and millions seem to approve of this action and threaten dire consequences if we retaliate in any manner. Just where the “terrorists” come from, on the hypothesis that Islam is wholly “peaceful,” remains something of a mystery. As far as we can tell, the so-called “terrorists” themselves think that they come from Islamic doctrine and tradition, which they vow to protect unto death. This position is said to make them, whoever they are, “extremists” or “radicals” or “terrorists.” These same “terrorists,” however, are organized all over the world in numbers the size of which we have no accurate idea, but it is not small.

            In fact, a majority of Islamic peoples may well side with those we insist, wrongly, I think, on calling “terrorists” and not soldiers. The morning the Vatican reported that there was a legitimate right of self-defense in these circumstances (25 S.), bin Laden himself was quoted as planning a holy war against the “American crusade,” against “the great Satan.” That sector of Islam organized for what we call “terror” follows a very rational purpose, granted its fundamental aberration. The many men who follow it are men who have joined an army; they often have scientific or engineering or medical degrees. They have, in fact, formally declared war on us. We did not notice. Their theology and politics deny the distinction between guilty and innocent, combatants and non-combatants. They have defined in their minds that there is a single enemy, America, with its adjuncts in Israel, Europe, and elsewhere. Those Islamic governments supporting America in this situation will themselves be undermined by the same terrorist means unless stopped by direct force. It makes no sense to wring our hands or to deny the objective seriousness of the attack against us, or to think that there is some way to appease this movement by withdrawing completely from any Islamic country and or from Israel.

            Often we hear it said in this country that the enemy is modern free, secular power. There is a tendency to group all “fundamentalists” into the same “terrorist” categories. Indeed, religion itself is often included in this amalgam. But in the light of the numbers and vigor is Islamic militants, we cannot help but see that it is precisely our secularist views that have depopulated us, aged us. We may think that our technology will save us from their numbers. But the New York tragedy taught us that we can be destroyed by our own technology and by our own lack of numbers. Why are their militant Islamic cells allover Europe and the United States as well in many other countries? Is it not because we need labor due to our lack of our own children? Is this where our “rights” doctrines have led us?

            This initial attack was said to have been plotted in Hamburg, a German city whose police identify a thousand to fifteen hundred known terrorists among its large Islamic population. In other words, the world wide army poised against us is itself scattered all over the world because we have decided that we are overpopulated. If modern secularism includes orthodox Christianity itself as a fundamentalist “threat,” which it often does, we can begin at least to appreciate that the results of secularism’s own influence is what has given grounds and manpower to the new Islamic forces, self-appointed though they be, who seek our lives.

            No one wants to think Islam, at bottom, not to be peaceful. But the peaceful movements within it must begin to take charge, begin to ask themselves why they are so politically inhospitable to anyone but themselves, why Christians in so many of their lands suffer persecution. Pragmatic policies may require our overlooking many of these questions. We seek to keep things as limited as possible in terms of military action. But this attack has necessarily touched larger issues which we have not been courageous enough to face. After World War II, the Marshall Plan sought to rebuild Germany and Europe. Why have not Saudi Arabia or other Islamic states, with its oil millions, not immediately offered to rebuild the WTC? Is it because they claim to have nothing to do with these events, even when run by a man born within their midst? Or is it because of a broader cultural problem that looks only to itself and its glory, that looks upon us as, at best useful, at worst as enemies sooner or later to be eliminated? At least we can be sure that bin Laden, with his own millions made on our markets, will not offer to rebuild anything, will not deny that we are his enemy.

            Is this a small, isolated event, that, on the theory of turning the other cheek or causing worse damage, is best to ignore, to do nothing about? Or is this just the first step of a decades long war declared against us long ago and reaffirmed only recently with a superior organization and cleverness? Or, as many even of our own hold, is it our fault for what we are and for our inept foreign policy? All the good we thought we had done by foreign and humanitarian aid, often to Islamic lands, has come to naught. We are the enemy, but of what? Of an age old faith that did everything in its power to eliminate us in previous ages? Of modern psychotic rage with no rational basis whatsoever? Chesterton said that one of the reasons for war was to prevent opposing ideas from being imposed on us.

            If we do prevent our further destruction, we still have to ask what we stand for, what we are? The irony of these events is that we are hated not only for our vices, of which we have not a few, but for our virtues and our faith. I tend to think we would have a major problem even if we had no vices that might excuse our attackers. Some wars, in other words, are not merely moral, but theological, wars, wars of the world, wars yes caused by the distinction of good and evil and our understanding, often hazy, of which is which.

            In the short run, any retaliation will raise widespread civic unrest against us. Many Americans and Europeans will be arrested and probably many killed. More attempts will be made to destroy key centers of our culture. The President has determined to stop this assault by every responsible means possible. The Pope understands this pressing need. Jacques Maritain said, in Man and the State, that justice, brains, and strength are possible. The question now is whether we have the brains to use what strength we possess against those who would take our lives even in the name of Allah because we are “the great Satan.” 

24) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            Christoph Cardinal von Schönbron observed an “evolution” in papal thinking on the death penalty (Dossier, 9-10-98). The traditional Catholic view held that for the common good, states could, with reasonable grounds, execute criminals. The new position practically eliminates this alternative. Modern states, it is said, do not “need” this alternative to protect themselves from internal or external criminals. A prudential alternative, life in prison, exists.

            Moreover, “We should not have recourse to the death penalty lest we definitively deny the guilty one ‘the possibility of redeeming himself’ (see Evangelium Vitae, #27).” The older argument also held that the death penalty gave the criminal a chance to repent when he realized the consequences of his act. Today, a life-time in prison, from what I have read, looks to be an unlikely place to practice virtue. Often, terrible moral problems are found among prisoners. With due respect to conscientious prison ministries, the normal result of life in prison is not repentance, though sometimes it is.

            The U.S. Protestant Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1869) has “Prayers for Persons under sentence of death.” They begin: “Dearly beloved, it hath pleased Almighty God, in his justice, to bring you under the sentence of condemnation of the law. You are shortly to suffer death in such a manner that others, warned by your example, may be more afraid to offend; and we pray God, that you may make such use of your punishment in this world, that your soul may be saved in the world to come.” Such prayers are common to Christian traditions. They did call for repentance and, I suspect, had a more salutary effect than life imprisonment.

            The execution of Timothy McVeigh, even on closed-circuit TV for families of the victims, presents another kind of problem Does the number or nature of the killings perpetrated by an individual or group make any difference? Were the famous Nuremberg Trials and the executions that followed, pursued under natural law, also wrong in principle?

            Executions in history were often grand occasions, with drinking and public attention. Might not TV-ing executions bring back this atmosphere? Executions around the world could be featured nightly TV. The Wall Street Journal once featured the executioner in Saudi Arabia, where they behead criminals -- a procedure known to deter crime. We have executions by firing squads, electric chair, poison injections. Chesterton said that all male citizens should witness this punitive side of the law. All, not just governors, judges, and prison managers, are responsible.

            Cardinal von Schönbron also asks: “Why not just say that the death penalty is itself morally unacceptable? If it is very difficult to achieve certitude on this question on the level of natural law and right, the answer is quite clear on the level of the New Law and the Gospel.” Must the civil order, then, with its own laws and understanding, follow revelation in public law? The natural law leaves this question uncertain. Are non-Christian societies immoral that, after consideration, decide that the death penalty is preferred to lifetime imprisonment? Is not the Church here interfering with a civil matter?

            Might we say that revelation is trying to guide, instruct? A reasonable argument also exists for prohibiting the death penalty. But if abolishing it is necessary, the natural law would not be so “difficult,” to use von Schönbron’s word. Nevertheless, if the reason we do not execute criminals is because we know the prohibition from “the New Law and the Gospel,” are we not implicitly establishing the Church in this category as the civil legislator? Certainly, the Old Law sanctioned the death penalty as have most historical political societies, an argument that once indicated the jus gentium. I agree, however, that revelation can and ordinarily does make us more “reasonable” so that we do see arguments that we would not understand without it.

            Why has death penalty abolition become controverted? Has it had much effect on reducing abortions to have a “consistent theory of life?” I doubt it. I think the Holy Father and other reasonable Catholic thinkers are concerned about the popular difficulty in seeing that anti-abortion positions could not be grasped as valid unless they were attached to an anti-death penalty position. Certain politicians, under the “seamless garment” doctrine, proposed that they were “pro-life” because they were against the death penalty, even though they voted pro-abortion otherwise.

            Both Socrates and Christ were executed by rather good states, in a more or less “legal” process. Socrates tells us that it is “never right to do wrong.” But doing “wrong” in his case meant seeking to avoid the death penalty. We should suffer rather than do wrong. Socrates did this.

            In the Trial, Pilate asks Christ, “don’t you know that I have power of life and death over you?” Christ does not reply, “Look here, Pontius, my friend, no state has the right to kill anyone, guilty or innocent.” Rather Christ acknowledges Pilate’s “authority,” though He does not imply that Pilate himself was using it justly in His case. If capital punishment were by natural or divine law immoral in principle, it seems strange that neither of these historic figures mentioned the fact at the time of their respective executions.

            What was wrong with the trial of both Socrates and Christ was not “capital punishment,” but whether the law was being justly followed. Both should have been freed, by an honorable jury in Socrates’ case, by a courageous governor in Pilate’s case. If capital punishment is in principle “intrinsically” wrong, the deaths of Christ and Socrates take on a different meaning. For either they did not know its wrongness or they did know it but failed to teach us about it. Christ does not deny Pilate’s “authority,” even though he is the governor of an “occupying” power. He merely says that it came to Pilate from “His Father.” This implies that the normal functioning of civil power, which included the death penalty by all historic understanding, was legitimate.

            von Schönbron and the Holy Father point to the growing public opposition to the death penalty. This approach must be used gingerly by Catholics, because the same “growing public opinion” argument is used to justify euthanasia and abortion, an argument the Church rightly rejects I would have less problem with opposition to the death penalty if we did not live in a culture of death that seems indifferent to many aspects of human life in its most innocent and vulnerable states. We have two approaches, one utterly indifferent to death, even willing to experiment with it, and another that maintains that nothing anyone can do to other human beings could justify public execution. Holland, I believe, has euthanasia, abortion, and no death penalty.

            Criminals are now assured of a more lenient sanction (assuming that life in prison is not itself a greater horror than death). At the same time, we say to the abortionists of this world, who regularly kill thousands, that their deeds have no legal consequences. Thus, if we ban the death penalty, I think it unlikely that victims will be safer from attacks of criminals. Nor will abortionists be converted to a pro-life stand. I would like to be wrong here, but doubt if I am.

            Yet, Socrates is right. It is never right to do wrong. It is better to suffer evil than to do it. The Good Thief said to the other Thief, “but we suffer justly for our crimes.” Christ and Socrates were killed by good states not because these states had capital punishment but because they suffered the evil unjustly imposed on them. Abolishing the death penalty will not abolish all injustice from this world, but just force us to deal with it in another way. Whether “another way” will lessen injustice among us so that we pay more attention to the dignity of each existing life, particularly innocent life, remains to be seen. The Holy Father has several times related the death of Socrates to the death of Christ. No doubt these deaths, both by capital punishment, always bring us back to the most fundamental of truths of our human and supernatural existence.

25) Published in the National Catholic Register, July 24, 2001.


            An article in USA Today carried a number of comments of Germans about our energy problems. All said the same thing. It was like reading a broken record: “‘We are having these difficulties because the Americans are buying all the oil and wasting like crazy,’ says Christa Keim, 53, as she washes her Alfa Romeo 146, a small sedan, in downtown Berlin ‘Americans shouldn’t complain. All the world has to be careful about it now, because these resources won’t be here forever.’”

            This “explanation” -- and it is not just German -- is but one more “limits of growth” analysis about the shortages of gas and energy. “There are limited, ever decreasing supplies,” this thesis goes, “therefore we must ration them out for as long as possible” – they “won’t be here forever.” This position, in essence, maintains that we are running out of resources (population, useless waste), therefore their use has to be controlled, therefore governments must be empowered to force guzzlers and Americans who “waste energy like crazy” into line. Rolling blackouts in California and ever higher gas prices have serve to focus our attention on energy. Where does the energy problem lie? Is it mainly a problem of consumption? Do we live in a niggardly world?

            Not long ago, I saw a report of the latest scientific theory seeking to replace the “big bang,” itself a theory that replaced the wave theory of the universe’s origin, as the explanation for the origins of the universe. Now, it seems, the hypothesis argues that the so-called “big bang” was itself not out of nothing, but the result of two or more previous cosmic-like collisions of previous worlds. The world, in other words, is full of energy, so full we can hardly imagine its extent or range. The real question is not whether we will run our of energy, but whether we will allow our theories about energy supply to convince us into not to do what is necessary to make use of the infinite supplies available in various forms.

            Already we know that there are practically unlimited amounts of hydrogen that can be harnessed in various types of controlled environments. Nuclear power is also practically unlimited and in fact, if we do not imitate the Russian neglect, safe. Even coal is available in enormous supplies and can now be used in a relatively smokeless way. Wind and sea have something to add, we are not quite sure what. Moreover, ways of making oil and gas directly from plants are within sight. Indeed, we already do this; crops grown for fuel will probably become a regular part of the agricultural scene.. The need is to perfect the processes in a careful, human way.

            The major incentive to develop these things, besides curiosity, is, like most things, need and cost. The major disincentive to our having enough energy is in the order of theory, usually ecological of some sort. Various forms of ecological and stewardship theories seem to imply that we should sharply limit our energy use for the good of the on-going planet down the ages. This might be fine if the theory on which it is based were true. What we have here is a sort of universal common good speculation that presumes to take into account not only those living in the present century but those living in the year, say, 5,000 AD, and beyond. On this basis, having deftly assumed that nothing in the order of knowledge will change in the oncoming centuries, it seeks to deal with present energy policies as if supply were and even ought to be a static, indeed diminishing, item of calculation..

            The only trouble with this sort of thinking, which often borders on a new religion, is that it does not take into account the human brain, the ultimate source of knowledge and indeed of available energy. Thus, what is emphasized is not energy development and growth, but energy restriction. The German lady cited above is a typical example of this thinking; her anger is directed at consumers not at those who impede production and development.

            In the end, it would be ironic if the human race were to convince itself that it must limit its technology to that of a hundred years ago (not a very efficient technology, to be sure) or to today, and then slowly see the race deplete all its known energy sources as if nothing could be done about it. In the meantime, there is an infinite amount of energy available all around that those who think this way refuse either to use or to learn about sufficiently to know how to use it. This is part of the perennial Luddite temptation that cannot imagine how what is new can be also made into what is human.

            No doubt, an argument can be made for simpler technologies or more humanly induced labor. But that argument has little to do with whether or not energy supplies are available if we would but develop them. And here I do not just mean coal, gas and oil, the supplies we most know. We can pretty much count on the fact that, if left free to do so, we will easily meet every energy crisis with the development of energy sources and ways to use them far beyond anything we had previously known. The energy shortage, in other words, is primarily a political problem, not somehow a shortage in nature.

            When it comes to what we need to exist, the human race has not been short-changed by the collision of universes, the “big bang,” the wave theory, or the living God. The current problem is in large part due to governmental restrictions on nuclear, coal, and oil supply development, restrictions generally put into place through lobbies with a specific agenda about the limited nature of the universe and man’s place in it. But I suspect that these present resources will ultimately themselves be bypassed by newer technologies and capacities made possible by human intelligence.

            Does this mean that with this abundance of energy all our moral and spiritual problems will be solved? By no means. They will continue and be pretty much the same whether we have much or little energy. Not to realize this is to fail to locate the real site of human problems, that is, in our wills. But we still can and should will to use our intelligence, the great resource in the universe. Ultimately, this is where the energy problem lies, in what we will to do.

26) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            Inauguration Day was my birthday (my parents planned it that way, but the fates were against them). This was the first Inauguration in eight years, I realized, that did not depress me. I can recall the bitter cold of the Kennedy Inauguration and the blizzard of the Second Reagan Inauguration, both of which I braved. With all the Right-to-Life marchers, I was in the Ellipse behind the White House on January 22, 1993, two days after the Clinton Inauguration. It was precisely at this time that the new, elated president chose to signed an order permitting fetal experimentation and overseas abortions. On that afternoon, five of the American Cardinals could have been seen out the White House windows standing with the Right-to-Life folks. The affront was unforgivable and served to define in my mind what was in store for us. That moment frighteningly was prophetic.

            For the Bush [W] Inauguration (I remember watching with Kenneth Baker, S. J., the parade for the Bush [father] Inauguration), I decided not to tempt pneumonia in the rain and cold, not necessarily a noble decision, but perhaps, granted my wheezing, a prudent one. I went out to the warmth of my niece’s suburban home to watch the doings on television, like the rest of the nation. The presence of the new president and the new first lady simply made the whole city different. A sign of graciousness is in the land. I am still concerned that a corrupt people can reject honorable leaders and virtuous policies. But I also suspect that there are fewer corrupt people than I normally am inclined to think -- it is a close call and I do not necessarily exclude myself from these latter categories! One of Mr. Bush’s first acts was to restore the initial Clinton anti-life decrees of precisely eight years previous to status quo ante. A fine touch. If one could do it, so could the other. Besides, Mr. Bush had more votes than Mr. Clinton ever did. Mr. Bush does not seem to be afraid to decide.

            Speaking of a New Washington, even the Washington Post was appalled. An Editorial documented the amount (about $200,000) of personal and household “gifts” taken with them by the outgoing president and his elected-senator wife, to whom were directed many of these shady-side-of-the-law gifts. The nation is counting its spoons, as it were. The Post thought that it was too mild to describe the crating and carting away of such “gifts” and furniture as merely “shoddy.”. The conservatives in the New Washington are busy wondering why it has taken such sources so long to be outraged at such conduct, as if somehow they did not know the character of the possessors of two fine new houses, the financing of which will make an interesting book.

            About a week after the Inauguration, shades of the Depression, to go to a doctor I had to catch a bus at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Street in Georgetown. It was a clear, but cold day. The wind swept down Wisconsin from the National Cathedral Hill as if it were fresh from Canada. I had just missed a bus, so I knew there would be a wait. My ears were cold, so I put on my hood, missing the rain of the Inaugural did not save me from some illness.

            When I got to the bus stop, standing there, evidently also waiting for a bus, was a gentleman, rather well-dressed, with what looked like a broken arm in a semi-cast. I was in Roman collar. After about five minutes, the man walks over to me and inquired, “Father, would you mind if I ask you a rather personal question?” Naturally, all my jesuitical instincts were alert for some huge theological or moral problem. But what he asked was deflating, “Can you give me three dollars for a cup of coffee.” I could hardly believe my ears. I blurted out, “Three dollars for a cup of coffee?” The man calmly pointed to the “Daily Grind” restaurant in the Georgetown Inn across the street. He told me that coffee costs $2.50 there. I did not judge this to be a Good Samaritan case, though you never know.

            I told this story to my doctor before he took my blood pressure. He maintained that he refused to pay more than a dollar for a cup of coffee. He would rather go to the gas station or Seven-Eleven than pay more. But he admitted that his kids think nothing of paying five and a half bucks for a café mocha at Starbuck’s or some ritzy coffee shop. In the New Washington, it is not “Buddy, can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee,” but “Father, can you spare three dollars for a $2.50 cup of coffee at the Daily Grind?” Presumably, the other fifty cents is for the tip. It never occurred to me that panhandlers today include tip money in their requests -- true men of the people.

              In the New Washington, an amazing number of new buildings are being built or have just been completed. The major industry in DC seems to be constructing mostly government buildings, none of which, it seems, ever costs less than several trillion dollars. Millionaires abound and even billionaires are frequent visitors, even when not under investigation in the Congress. On the Georgetown Campus where I live, we find a monstrous hole in the old lower parking lot. It is a residence in preparation for moving students, against their constitutional rights to live where they want, out of Georgetown apartments so they won’t disturb the neighbors. The locals describe them, not altogether fairly, as a rowdy bunch. It is irrational to suppose that a twenty-year old male will always shut up. I believe even Aristotle would agree. I suppose it is equally irrational to expect a sedate Georgetown resident, with inflated land values, not to complain about student hollering.

            The Jesuits are also building a new residence down on the isolated end of the same parking lot. They will leave behind the historic, lovely, elegant buildings in the middle of the campus next to the chapel and in the graceful quadrangle formed by the gothic Healy Building, the Federal Old North, and our present residence buildings where I have lived for so long. When asked, which is rare, whether I think this move is a good idea, I respond nostalgicly, “No, it is an act of madness.” Though there is a rationale for it, I have yet to meet a layman or visiting friend who thinks the move a good one. The categories of place and time are real. It is a common good that Jesuits be in historic buildings in the center of the campus where they have been since time immemorial..

             But this too is the New Washington. They say you cannot stop progress. Chesterton, I believe, said that you cannot define it either. Or better, he said that you can only define progress if you have an end to which you are progressing. In any case, sooner or later, most folks come to Washington where they will see the New Washington, and the Old Washington too. The Old Washington has Greek and Roman temples dedicated to our heros, statues, noble vistas. The Old, that is former, President tells he will be back. This is something new for Old Presidents. But if politics is everything, you can’t go home again to Arkansas after you’ve seen D.C.

            The New President is now here. The air is already fresher. But the world is still there, as are our souls, the Fall, the Redemption, China, the Redskins, the economy. We even have a New Cardinal in Old St. Matthew’s Cathedral, on Rhode Island Avenue. Mr. Bush left the Texas State House with a tear, and he arrived for his Inaugural with the same tear. It is a good sign in the New Washington.

27) Published in the National Catholic Register, April 1, 2001.


            The Washington Post (20 F.) described a religious theme park in Orlando built by “Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew who became a Baptist minister.” The Park seems to be a replica of downtown Jerusalem in Christ’s time. It has an entry fee of $17 and evidently attracts mainly aging Christians. However, certain objections to the Park have arisen on the grounds that the Park’s theme attempts to “proselytize” Jews and, presumably, anyone else who voluntarily goes through it. I do not know if Catholics, say, object because it entices them to become Baptists. Much hassle was found in Latin America from Catholics about the proselytizing efforts of North American evangelical groups.

            Yet, to present Christianity as if it did not have a very specific Jewish background, a background the Christian holds as true, is difficult. To conceive Christianity without the Hebrew revelation is an old heresy called Marcionism. One cannot be a Christian and deny that Christ fulfilled the Law. Most Jews hold that, to be Jews, one cannot, at the same time, hold that Christ as the Word made flesh did fulfill the Old Testament promises. Hopefully, this logic does not mean that, for practical purposes, either the Jew or the Christian must deny what he holds. To acknowledge what each respectively maintains to be true cannot itself be considered an affront or a violation of freedom of religion or of philosophical authenticity.

            All of this anti-proselytism business, however, comes at a time when the Holy Father has been telling us that we are a missionary Church and that making the faith known to others is the first priority of business, something that has been rather neglected in recent decades. Cardinal Ratzinger’s document, Dominus Jesus, was in fact directed to the theoretical reasons for this very neglect. In his Audience of 25 January 2001, for example, the Pope remarked,


Many people, especially the young, ask what path they should take. In the storm of words that they endure every day, they ask: Where is the truth? How can we overcome the power of death with life? These are basic questions which express the reawakening in many of a longing for the spiritual dimension of life. These questions Jesus has already answered, when he affirmed: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The task of Christians today is to repropose this decisive proclamation with all the power of their witness.

Thus, if I maintain that Christ has “answered” all the basic questions and if I “repropose” this position “with all the power” of my witness, what am I doing but “proselyting?”

            The word “proselytize” comes from a Geek word meaning to approach, hence to be a newcomer, hence to convert or change one’s belief. The word emphasizes the active effort to engage someone in a serious consideration of life and how it ought to be lived. Today, the word has a rather pejorative connotation. It is considered bad taste, if not bad philosophy, to assume that anyone has anything to convert to. All philosophies and religions held to be equal so why bother? No firm “truth” exists. Thus, any claim to truth borders on “fanaticism” or “absolutism.” Besides, we have rights not to be pestered by such “fanatics” who want us to become something other than we are.

            Walking across our campus, in its main plaza, on the day I write this column is a TV set sponsored by the Muslim students, explaining what Islam is. They are “proselytizing,” trying to change views. The two most active “proselytizers” on campus, it strikes me, are not the Catholics and Baptists, but the Muslim students and various branches of feminism, including pro-choice types. They are covered by what is called free speech. Mormons and Jehovah Witness are often accused of politely badgering us. Why cannot the world stay just as it is? People resent any implication that what they already hold is not sufficient.

            The Holy See, for its part, has, in recent years, been officially engaged in a long series of “dialogues” with almost every religion and philosophy about what they hold and how one belief or position is related to Catholicism. Of course, this dialogue would not be called “proselytism” as the respective representatives are not engaged in a conversion context. They are simply explaining and clarifying their own position. Hopefully, the effort is directed to arriving at some agreement that would not involve radical change, that would find, when the words are clarified, that after all, much agreement already exists. Yet, behind this papal effort is the clear purpose of restoring unity to the Christian faith. To accomplish this, it is necessary to have proper understanding between differing religions and philosophies at least about what they claim themselves to be.

            The difficulty is, at bottom, that Catholicism in particular is also a doctrinal religion. This dogmatic side of it is no doubt part of its attraction and, in any case, essential to what it is. It has, as it were, an articulated intellectual content to it. There are some things it definitely does not say or hold about God or about itself. In a most enlightening address given in the Vatican on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the issuance of John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, Francis Cardinal George brought up this same issue.


John Paul II repeats the argument that the Church “proposes” – and does not “impose” – the Gospel to persons who are free to accept or reject it. The Church’s mission, in fact, promotes human freedom. The Church rejects the view that the call to conversion addressed to non-Christians is “proselytism”, for every single person has the right to hear the truth of the Gospel. It is not enough, as some would suggest, to limit one’s missionary service to promoting human development and helping people preserve their own religious traditions... (“L’Osservatore Ronano, English, January 31, 2001, 8).

We should not underestimate the extent to which these latter two ideas are held -- namely, that today the Christian mission consists solely in human political or economic development and that people are saved in whatever religious tradition they are in so that no effort to make Christianity known is needed.

            The Christian revelation is a “received” revelation. Christians did not invent it. This revelation contains a definite content that has the right and duty to be itself. At the same time, this revelation is not self-contained. It is not meant just for some, though how it reaches all we are not explicitly told, though we are asked to hand on what we have received. In today’s relativist climate of opinion, we often hate to think that what we hold is, in fact, true. It is “arrogance.” We are, by our very positions, “proselytizing.” Cardinal George repeats what we hold if we be Christian (9):


We affirm that Christ has united himself with every human being by his Incarnation, and that his Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in the paschal mystery. We reject the view that Christ is Mediator of salvation only for some, or that he reveals only some aspects of the truth about God and the truth about the human person. It is not possible to remove the “scandal” of the Christian claim that we are saved in “no other name” and remain a believer.

We are “free” to go our own way, but we are not free to maintain that Christianity is something other than what it is defined and declared to be in a revelation that it did not invent but only received. In no other name are we saved. The only greater scandal would be to deny this truth and call it Christian.

28) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            No doubt, one of the most interesting ecclesiastics in the world besides the Pope is the new Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, George Pell. I know people who greatly admire him. However, I have never myself met him, though I was once in Australia which seems to have recovered nicely. The NC Register’s recent account of his first days in Sydney (May 20) naturally focused on the various protests to his appointment. In a way, one hates to see what should normally be a happy and quiet civic and religious ceremony interrupted by people with their own agendas insisting that the rest of the world, particularly the Church, be like them. However, in the case of Pell, one evidently, in opposing him, risks having the Catholic position finally stated accurately and forcefully in public by a com-pell-ing figure (pun intended, though I would be sure that someone, someplace has already used it).

            What is of particular interest to me is the talk that Archbishop Pell gave at the University of Sydney during the time of his installation. He brought up an issue that has been with Catholicism almost from the beginning. What is the root of the radical opposition to it? It always seems exaggerated, more unfair, more immoderate than we might expect. There is something, if you will excuse the expression, “unnatural” about its opposition. It is remarkable in the New Testament how often we are told to expect such opposition, quite contrary to our preferences to a live-and-let-live policy. As the early Epistle to Diognetus said that Christians would like to live quietly under any sort of regime. But it seems that if we do try to live as Christians, and not as the “surrounding society,” to use Archbishop Pell’s words, we will be accused of being “un-civil” or of being “judgmental,” or trying to “impose” our views on others without their freedom.

            Such opposition to Catholicism will not let it be as it is. Archbishop Pell reflected, “I believe that if they are so irritated by it (Catholicism), it is a ... sign that they are terrified that we might have the truth.” Those are striking words. Applying them to the Australian situation, Pell added, “We are only 27 or 28% (of the population), and with any minority there is always a danger that we will be submerged semiconsciously by the views of the majority. Rome is aware of this. They are also aware we are capable of a bit of a fight-back.” One cannot but be amused by that latter phrase – “capable of a bit of a fight-back.” From what I know of Pell, he is capable of a bit more than a “bit” of “fight-back.”

            What interests me here in particular is the notion that the protests against the Catholic church bear a special animosity, a certain grudging, even at times violent hatred. It is difficult to call it anything else and still be accurate. And the true mark of this emotional opposition is ever the refusal to admit the truth about certain key points of doctrine and of how we are to live according to it. If we read the Gospels about what Christ instructed us to do and to hold, and the consequences of not doing so, there is, I suppose, a reason to be “terrified.” The New Testament, I think, is not as “compassionate” as we would like it to be. It contains “hard sayings.”

            Compassion, in fact, has come to be a subtle method of getting rid of the strictures found in the Gospels. We become so tender-hearted that we cannot believe there is anything wrong with either the sin or those who commit it. There is an ironic relation, it would seem, between the decline of confession and the rise of compassion. Compassion, indeed, has eradicated any need for confession as it has eradicated anything to confess.

            The way compassion works in practice is so to concentrate on the “humanness” or “weakness” or “ignorance” of the sinner that nothing he does could possibly be objectively “wrong,” and certainly not “sinful.” The next thing we know is that if there is nothing really wrong with what we have compassion for, what we sympathize with, then it must be all right to do what is said to be wrong. Who can say otherwise without being “judgmental?” The next step is to make a “right” of what is wrong. The next step is to politicize this right. The final step is to hate those who remind us that what the “right” is in its content is a sin and specifically rejected in the New Testament..

            So when Pell remarked on the “terror” that people feel about Catholicism, I think he struck the right reason. It is the, perhaps submerged, suspicion that what the Church teaches is in fact true, all reasons to the contrary notwithstanding. If this is the case, it follows that we will have to change our whole attitude, the way we live. We will have to admit that we have chosen a wrong path. If we refuse to acknowledge this truth, the only alternative left to us is really violent protest or hatred for what we suspect, but do not admit to ourselves, might indeed be true.

            What Archbishop Pell says at a university gathering in Sydney, I might add, is not simply true in Australia. Or, perhaps, if it is true in Australia, it is also true outside of Australia, or not true at all. Whatever we make of our own or Australia’s “culture,” neither are such that they can change, by practice or by will, the universal truths upon which any civilization stands. To be “terrified” by the truth, then, is not such a bad thing. It is a sure sign that something more is going on than meets the eye. It means that we can suspect the truth is true most radically when it is opposed in an exaggerated, irrational way.

29) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University



            The St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco was one of the many the brain-children of Fr. Joseph Fessio, S. J. Hammered out in 1976 after consultation with many faculty and staff around USF, it was a well-conceived endeavor to adapt a “Great Books Program” into a serious study of Catholic theology and philosophy in the tradition of John Paul II, St. Thomas, St. Augustine, and the central line of Catholic intellectual thought. It was academic but also designed to provide directly for the spiritual and moral education of its students with attention to Mass, retreats, and other aids to a full life in which everything contributed its own element. The program was a double major in which the students would take one fixed series of courses in the Institute and the other of their own choosing from the university’s general curriculum.

            In addition, the Institute had an extraordinary faculty. I never taught in the Institute which was just being formed when I left USF to come to Georgetown. I did know, however, over the years, most of the people involved with it (and against it!). In Raymond Dennehy, Erasmo Leiva, and Michael Torre, whom I have known particularly well, the Institute had first class minds of unusual insight, sanity, and gentility. For many years, the famous French theologian, Fr. Louis Bouyer, taught at the Institute, as did the English Jesuit social philosopher, Rodger Charles. The Institute also has a program at Oxford, in England.

            The new President of USF, Fr. John Privett, S. J., giving various reasons about reorganization, suppressed this famous Institute on January 19, 2001, after having, as far as the record shows, consulted no one either in the university or with any connection with the Institute. Proper and academic procedures do exist for these purposes which, by all accounts, seem to have been bypassed. Much of the documentation for these moves can be found on the Friends of the St. Ignatius Web Site ( This site includes the statements of the University Administration and the point-by-point response of the teaching faculty to its explications. In addition, many hundreds of former St. Ignatius Institute students and friends have added their critical comments to this whole -- what else can it be called? – “mess.”

            After the firing of the Institute’s present director, John Galten, the President and Dean have stated that they do not intend to change the Institute but merely to improve it. The implication is that the new SII will be exactly the same as what went before. Few, of course, buy this position. And it does seem what? odd? summarily to fire a most competent director, have its teaching faculty resign, and then publicly state that nothing has changed. What was at issue, of course, though never frankly mentioned in public, was the orthodoxy that the Institute freely and openly professed as part of its teaching mission. The Open Letters of the Institute Faculty go into this matter with sufficient clarity and history to leave little doubt on the matter.

            But it is not my purpose here to recount the sad history of the suppression of the St. Ignatius Institute. Even if the name somehow remains, it will not be the same reality, unless the present faculty and director are returned. The Institute has had, in the last fifteen years, mostly adversarial relations with the University Administration and Theology Department. Faculty, particular Jesuit faculty whom the Institute wanted to add to its roster, were not given permission to accept appointments. So the Institute was starved for manpower and administrative support all along. But the faculty and staff that it did have were amazingly inspirational and competent. The students of the Institute understood this. The graduates of the Institute over the years, about a thousand of them altogether, have spread out over the country. They are, in fact, the best advertisements for the University of San Francisco. I think too, once its became established on campus, many members of the administration, faculty, and student body came to respect and appreciate the Institute. The students were likeable, bright, enterprising, and interesting.

            When one looks at the pre-emptory closing of the Institute, the cutting off of its promise just when its genius is clear to objective observers, it is impossible not to reflect on good ideas that are somehow destroyed by those who do not see or appreciate them. Professor John Gueguen, commenting on this present closing, remarked that probably the Institute should never have associated itself with a University in today’s climate of academic control. It would have been better for it to have remained completely independent so that it could not be destroyed by a hostile administration or faculty. The examples of such places as Christendom College, St. Thomas More College, Thomas Aquinas College, and other small colleges seem to have been proved wise in the light of this case. Most modern Catholic universities will not allow a truly orthodox program even if it is small and has its own agenda, especially if it is successful in training students in the intelligibility of the faith. I would like to think this is not true, but the contrary examples are few and far between, though there are some.

            Part of the success and character of the St. Ignatius Institute was established by its adversaries. Over the years, it had to fight for everything it got. The Institute itself generated some of its own financial support, but had it been properly backed and defended by the University over the years, had it been imitated on other Catholic campuses, I think the model of this Institute would have changed the entire picture of Catholic higher education. In a sense, Ex Corde Ecclesias, even if it turns out to be more than a dead-letter, would not have been needed.

            The Wall Street Journal, in its bemused editorial account of the University President’s reasons for closing the Institute (February 9, 2001), points out that the one “diversity” that is denied to Catholics on a Catholic campus is a frankly and well-designed orthodox intellectual and moral program such as the St. Ignatius Institute. The most “diverse” thing at USF, as anyone who ever visited the place knows, was precisely this Institute.

            One might hope that the University President would recognize the serious mistake he made in closing the Institute and restore it to its own integrity with its original director and faculty. The SII faculty pointed out that this alternative was the most fair and proper action he could take especially if he practiced the “social justice” that he so often advocated. In any case, we had here a model of how best to revise the central core of Catholic University education from within, gradually, by allowing a genuinely Catholic program to flourish and set the example of what a Catholic intellectual education, in freedom, is like.

30) Published in the National Catholic Register, January 20, 2001.


            The headlines in The Washington Times (January 16, 2001), read as follows: “Senate Urged to Question Ashcroft on Whether His Faith Leads to Intolerance.” This questioning, it turns out, is “urged” by a group known as “The Interfaith Alliance,” an offshoot of the Democratic Party. Even though we live in under a Constitution that forbids religious tests for office, here we have one. Unless one is a secularist, he cannot hold office. What evidently bothers the group is Ashcoft’s “deep Christian faith.” Presumably if he had weak or corrupt Christian faith, he would fare better. Moreover, “intolerance” itself is here elevated into a kind of secular faith. Intolerance for what? These are the same people who insist that there be no “tolerance” for bigotry, or anti-Semitism, or racism, or any number of things. Intolerance has its own selectivities that seeks to impose a particular world-view on others, especially Christians, who, finding themselves more and more isolated, are deemed particularly suspect.

            Constitutional practice has long recognized a distinction between those who were “citizens” but who could not participate in the actual electoral or legislative process. Children, for example, are citizens but do not actively participate in public life. However, today the pressure to lower ever more the age at which children are emancipated comes often from peculiar sources such as those who think it unjust for homosexuals, since they have a “right” to their desires, to be prevented from relations with minors if that is what they choose. We hear of “abusive” parents; notorious cases exist, no doubt about it. Yet this “abuse” may be said to come parents who teach religion to their children, or paddle them lightly for disciplinary reasons. The separation of children from their families is looked upon in some circles as favorable to opening up society to newer practices and “values.” The family is an outmoded, even dangerous institution. A judge in Canada seems to think that Christianity is intrinsically discriminatory. Meanwhile, the Pope is considered to be hopeless since he thinks we should still evangelize, still teach what has been handed down to be taught.

            If we follow the curious progress of “rights” theory, we catch increasing glimmers of the idea that whoever does not “hold” the corpus of a certain brand of “rights” is no longer fit to participate actively in the workings of state affairs. A pro-life person, for instance, cannot hold positions that are considered “sensitive” to pro-abortion, anti-life doctrines. Such a citizen is automatically disqualified. One might hold such a pro-life view “privately,” but the “constitution” or whatever, it is claimed, does not allow such a person in the inner workings of the Republic. Though we are not quite there yet, anti-euthanasia proponents will soon be excluded from active participation in bureaucracies or offices that do not foster this way of death.

            No doubt, people who are thus excluded from active participation will still be required to pay taxes to finance the activities that they think immoral. Fathers who think it best that their sons or daughters not join say a Boy or Girl Scout troop with a gay director will be considered bigots, violators of rights of others to do what they want. After all, the scout master has a “right” to be what he is and hence to any position in the society. Common sense precautions are not allowed. Besides, since there is nothing legally wrong with homosexuality, any institution, such as the Church, which proposes that such active practices are wrong, will set itself against the public good and undermine its new constitutional status. Such groups are in principle “discriminatory,” currently almost the only sin left to us. Even though the main arguments against this practice are not, even in Church circles, religious, any organization holding the opposite will lose any funding or advantage in the public order, perhaps even the right to be in the public order. Some churches and elements in the Church, in a skewered view of self-defense, will begin to find nothing wrong with such practices, whatever the evidence.

            The public order is becoming a closed circle. Anyone who cannot subscribe to a list of rights including certain “rights” of unions, gays, death, support, and well-being will be defined as ineligible to participate in the public order. This is not just an American movement. It is rife in the United Nations and in many European countries. The modern public world is not defined by anything objective. It is defined by courts and legislatures and executives. Whatever is so defined, is right. Opposition on the ground of natural law, reason, science, or faith has no standing. Nothing limits such a state. It is itself, furthermore, “utopian,” that is, it intends to produce what it wants, what “rights” it holds, as it were.

            Anyone who does not “agree” with these positions is “intolerant.” He is an enemy of the new public order and as such has no “right” to participate in it. Any religion or philosophy that has a definite, well-argued position on right and wrong, one based in nature and experience, is an enemy to this new state. Its members can only participate in it by foreswearing in advance those tenets, religious or otherwise, that are contrary to the state. Not only this, but it is specifically immoral or unjust to work to change things by peaceful or constitutional methods. Hence every religious person must undergo a secular-religious test, as it were, before he can be allowed into the new government or state. It is a closed system and religion more and more is excluded by the rhetoric and practice of absolute rights defined arbitrarily by the state and its organs. No one needs more attention to these ideas than Christians themselves if they do now wish suddenly to find themselves unqualified citizens standing completely outside of public life. It has happened before.

31) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            It is good to spell out the language of choice. Someone told me of seeing a “pro-choice” set-piece on television, a sophisticated lady explaining that she was for “choice.” This was one “right” that she upheld. She did not seem aware that simply to affirm some right “to choose” did not by itself settle what she did with this power of choice when she used it. To say that I have a “power of choice” tells me nothing about what I do with this choice. What makes all the difference is what I choose to do with my power. That I have the power “to choose” says no more about my moral status than if I said that I have the power to walk with two legs. Both the will and the legs are given. I do not give them to myself but receive them. What matters concerning my character is to where I choose to walk, or what it is I choose to do with my power “to choose.”

            “To choose” is a verb. “Choice” is a noun form of that verb. All human beings have the power of free will or free choice given to them as part of their constitutive being. This power follows upon the capacity to know or understand. Free will means that we can choose means to an end, in this case, the end for which we will all that we choose, namely, happiness. We cannot not will to be happy, though we can give different definitions to what we mean by it. These different definitions, however, can and must be examined by our reason. Reason can examine the means that might be freely employed to achieve this end or purpose. The power of choice comes into play only as a consequence of our having some definition of happiness established within our understanding. This end is that to which we tend in all we do. If we make a mistake at this level, all our actions will follow that initial mistake in so far as they are logical.

            Again, “to choose” is a verb. If I say that I have the power of choice, I have not yet said anything about the exercise of this power. All I have done is point to its existence within me, something I can recognize in self-reflection. The fact that I possess this power to choose is not itself a product of choice. It is a given of my being or nature. I am not a being who makes myself to be the kind of being (human) that I am.

            When the will is in act, that is, when I put it into operation, I can perform two functions with is: I can choose to act or not act or I can choose to do this thing rather than that thing. To chose to act or not to act is itself a choice. “It is better to suffer evil than to do it,” as Socrates said. To choose this thing rather than that thing depends upon what it is that my mind or senses present to me as alternatives. The will does not present “what” it is I might do. The mind or intellect does this. I am responsible when I choose or do not choose; I am responsible when I choose this thing or that thing. The kind of being I make myself to be – good or bad – depends on the quality of these choices, themselves related to the end for which I do all that I do. I am praised or blamed for what I choose to do. If I choose badly, I can be punished. I can also ask for forgiveness. To choose to be punished is a sign that I understand that what I did was wrong. I want to restore order, the order that I violated in my choosing wrongly.

            What I cannot do, in spite of all modern rhetoric to the contrary, is simply “to choose.” I must choose this or that, to act or not to act. Thus, in the case of abortion, where this “to choose” is proposed as a justification, my choice is never just a “choice.” It is a choice to do this or that, to kill the child or not to kill it. There is no middle ground. This is what “to choose” means and must mean in this context. It is never neutral. In other words, the choice is always of something, to do or not to do, to do this, not that. It is simply contradictory to say that the power “to choose” is itself what decides the goodness or badness of the choice. What decides this goodness or badness is what we decide to do, what happens when the choice is made and carried out. Some deny that what is killed is a human being. The question then becomes, “is this true?” “is this sustainable?” Whatever is destroyed by the choice is in every case the product of human begetting, something that is always human and another being separate from the parents from its beginning. No choice or theory of choice can change this fact, this reality.

            “Pro-choice” can only mean that I have the power of choice. It cannot mean that whatever I chose to do with this power is all right because I have the power. Once I have the power to choose, given to me by whatever it is that causes me to be the sort of being I am, what counts is not the power but how I use it. In other words, what do I choose to do? I must chose this or that, or I must chose to act or not to act. What I do follows from what I choose in the light of what I am. If I “choose” to kill a human being, that is my own act. It does not become “good” because I choose it. It becomes good or bad because of what I choose. My active choice is dependent on the reality that is affected or changed by my choice. To be “pro-choice” does not and cannot mean that whatever it is I choose to do is all right because I do whatever I want. What it is I choose to do with my power of choice is what makes the difference.

            In conclusion, if I am given a choice to do evil or suffer it, I should choose to suffer it. If I am to choose to do this or that, I should choose to do what is objectively good. I do not make the good to be good, but I do choose the good or reject it. In this sense, I become what I choose. To refuse to know what it is that happens when I choose is but another way of saying that I choose to make myself a god, to make my own good and evil. To be “pro-choice” in this sense is simply another way of imitating Lucifer in my own life, a power that I can exercise, again, if I so choose.

32) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            Normally, I would not bother you with this somewhat out-dated report from Scotland (The London Tablet, April 15, 2000). But it is too good to miss. A cunning friend of mine in Europe sent a copy to me. He knew my weaknesses.

            It seems that a priest by the name of John Fitzsimmons has been stirring up a bit of a ruckus in the Lowlands and in the Highlands. He does not much like Thomas Cardinal Winning of Glasgow. “Cardinal Winning is ‘playing the game according to the Pope’s rules.’” Evidently, poor man, he should be playing it according to Fitzsimmons’ rules, the substance of which, though they can be guessed in advance, we will see in a moment.

            This good cleric was once the Rector of the Scots College in Rome. One would certainly like to know how that appointment was originally made. But the fact that he was duly assigned goes a long way to disprove Fr. Fitzsimmons’ own thesis about the so-called “backwardness” of Rome, since someone so advanced as himself was once placed at the head of the Scots College.

            Among other things, Fr. Fitzsimmons seems to dislike the Pope even more than Cardinal Winning. Naturally, this makes good copy in Scotland. Had it not happened, no one could have imagined its utter absurdity. Fitzsimmons thinks the hierarchy is too obedient to the Pope. Would that were the case! The graphic words of Fitzsimmons cause one to pause: “The problem with the hierarchy is that, without Rome’s permission, they won’t cough, sneeze or x#%&” (n.b., delicacy causes me to omit the printed word, the Latin translation of which is inflatio; Fitzsimmons himself, rather indelicately, I thought, spoke the more scatologically graphic English word).

            Fr. Fitzsimmons, it seems, has discovered all by himself the problem with the modern Church – in brief, it is the Pope, with covert aid from Opus Dei. No Jesuits are involved. Fr. Fitzsimmons’ theological premises are, to say the least, quaint. “The Church must rid itself of the ‘baggage’ the Pope had brought. ‘I think the best things would be for the Church to die and then rise again, like Christ.’” To my knowledge, in the history of theological speculation, I do not ever recall anyone imagining the Church to be a sort of body that could die and rise again, “like Christ.” One wonders just how the Church would go about fulfilling the Fitzsimmons’ admonition, supposing it wanted to.

            “The real issue,” Fr. Fitzsimmons, not unsurprisingly, tells us, “is that the present Church has no time for democracy.” Evidently, Fr. Fitzsimmons did not have time to read Centesimus Annus or anything else the Pope has written on the topic. Nor does he seem to know what the Pope has said about the tyrannical dangers of a democracy based on a relativistic philosophy, his own position..

            Contrary to the impression most of us had on this topic, the Church, in Fr. Fitzsimmons’ opinion, was not given its own formal -- non-democratic, to be sure -- structure by Christ from the beginning. It has been hibernating for two thousand years just waiting for the chance to transform its own structures into those of modern democracy. Fr. Fitzsimmons himself has no problem with this little excursus. He has few problem with women’s ordination, homosexuality, divorce, abortion. Why are we not surprised at this?

            Take divorce. “Divorce and remarriage is (sic) is literally treated by the Church as a sin for which there is no forgiveness.” Without mentioning scripture here or any of the recent studies on the devastating societal consequences of divorce, Fr. Fitzsimmons compares it, wrongly, with murder. Murderers can be absolved. But a person “who is remarried would not be.” Fr. Fitzsimmons finds this “cruel.” Now, this question of prohibition of divorce was not the Church’s idea. The words are Christ’s. Perhaps that is where Fr. Fitzsimmons’ problems really lie. The difference between divorce and murder has to do with the “go and sin no more” likelihood intrinsic to each sin.

            Fr. Fitzsimmons is quite amusing on contraception. He tells us that he has been hearing confessions for twenty years and the problem never came up. “The Vatican is just stupid on this issue. Most Catholics have made up their minds and don’t see it as a problem.” Let me suppose for a moment that I was a member of Fr. Fitzsimmons’ parish (St. John Bosco, Erskine, in Paisley diocese). I have listened to his sermons for the past twenty years. I would assume that, if he believes what he says he does, in his parish, I would never have heard a sermon against abortion, fornication, adultery, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, or other undemocratic topics. If I had such sins on my soul and knew what the Church teaches from its beginnings on these topics, why would I go to his confessional? He does not think there are any sins to forgive. How could he possibly be surprised, in the Scottish press no less, that no one for twenty years confesses such sins to him?

            The Pope, Fr. Fitzsimmons tells us, has “utterly polarized the Church. The ‘loonies’ of the right have taken over.” Let’s get this straight. “The loonies” are those who hold what the Church has always taught and who see their freedom in the world to be dependent on the truth of this teaching. Real “democrats,” like Fr. Fitzsimmons, take their cue from pluralist “democracy” so that in the end the Church looks exactly like society. Indeed, this is Fr. Fitzsimmons’ real “god” – whatever the popular culture teaches is the norm of morality to be accepted by the Church no matter what Christ taught. I must confess, Fr. Fitzsimmons makes “looniness” look pretty attractive. In the end, we “Loonies” have to stick together lest we begin to sound like the former Rector of the Scots College. 

33) Published in the National Catholic Register, February 24, 2002.


            President Bush’s “State of the Union Address” of 29 January was remarkable in many ways. We sometimes forget the importance of words, words backed by content. We forget the need we have for public events to be explained to us, of our need to understand what is going on. We are a country that claims to live by persuasion, but we are also a country that needs to live by the truth of things. The temptation right now is to think that the incidents of September 11 were a kind of one shot affair. They will not happen again so that we can get back to our “normal” lives. But “time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer,” the President affirmed.

            The President has insisted that the danger continues, that the war will be long. One of the purposes of his address was to explain, in the light of what we now know after the Afghan war especially, just what these further dangers are. He lists them. There have been efforts or plans formulated against nuclear plants, water supply, embassies, and other public buildings. Thus far these have been prevented. Part of this prevention was the resolve that the President himself has shown in facing the wide scope of this danger. He has proved to be a man of action, of careful analysis of what causes the dangers and what must be done about them. He is a realist. He noted that the American people themselves seemed to change after September 11. Many unknown people came forward to display acts of generosity, courage, many died. We were beginning to think that we were decadent but the aftermath of the bombings revealed depths of character that we ignored or even disdained.

            The President was tender, poignant when it came to acknowledging those who really suffered, the wife of the Marine, the father of the two firefighter sons, the boy with the football to his lost father. He acknowledged his own gracious wife. We have a sense that we have here a man whose character is not out of proportion to the dignity of his office or the demands of the times. He shows a humble respect for the military and their accomplishments – something that we have had to wait too long to see. And he gives credit to others. “Our progress is a tribute to the spirit of the Afghan people, to the resolve of our coalition, and to the might of the United States military.”

            In his address to the Papal Diplomatic Corps on January 10, 2002, the Holy Father remarked: “The legitimate fight against terrorism, of which the abhorrent attacks of last 11 September are the most appalling expression, has once again let the sound of arms be heard.” The President has carefully tried to explain the range of this “legitimacy” to the world, however much many insist on thinking that we are arrogant or hypocritical in the process. Still, the President affirmed, “those of us who have lived through these challenging times have been changed by them. We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: evil is real, and it must be opposed.” If many elements of our culture try to teach us that evil is relative or does not exist, still we have a political leader willing to call things by their proper names.

            The President talked of the economy, the budget, homelands defense, all of which are now intimately tied up with the war, a very expensive war, as he noted. “We have spent more than a billion dollars a month, over $30 million a day....” He spoke of voluntary service and of the need to relate jobs and accomplishment. He did not relate this all to the condition of the family or a concept of the economy that placed the family more at the center of what we want or need. His comments on voluntarism are welcome. Whether government sponsored Freedom or Peace corps are the way to go might be wondered about. Nothing wrong with trying. “The time of adversity offers a unique moment of opportunity, a moment we must seize to change our culture. Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness, I know we can overcome evil with greater good.” These words, of course, stem primarily from our religious tradition, whose fruits we can talk about without mentioning their origins.

            One of the most remarkable passages in the Address was almost right out of Cicero or something we have read in various Encyclicals since Leo XII. Here the President touched upon the universal notion of human purpose that America has associated with itself from its beginnings, but a notion that goes back to our classical and revelational origins.


America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits of powers on the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance.

We might wonder whether we do all these things and whether what is meant by each might need to be spelled out, but the fact is that here, the President did associate himself with an ancient purpose.

             Let me cite, for comparison, Cicero’s famous statement about “true law,” if only to remind us that what the President affirmed has a long history.


True law if reason, right and natural, commanding pe0ople to fulfil their obligations and prohibiting and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is immutable and eternal. Its commands and prohibitions apply effectively to good men, and those uninfluenced by them are bad. Any attempt to supersede this law, to repeal any part of it, is sinful; to cancel it entirely is impossible. Neither the Senate nor the Assembly can exempt us from its demands; we need no interpreter nor expounder of it but ourselves. There will not be one law at Rome, one at Athens, or one now and one later, but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and everlasting law.

It is often said that the American founders were indeed influenced by this part of the Roman republican tradition.

            Finally, let me comment on the President’s awareness of the moral condition of the culture, something spelled in graphic detail, I think, in Patrick Buchanan’s book, The Decline of the West. The President seems to be aware of this issue though his approach to it is indirect.


None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on Sept. 11, yet after America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked in a mirror, and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do. For too long our culture has said, “If it feels good, do it.” Now American is embracing a new ethic a new creed: “Let’s roll.”

The “let’s roll,” of course, referred to the courage of the young businessman on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, the man who realized from a cell-phone call from his wife what the terrorists were up to and decided to do what he could.

            There is much to reflect on in President Bush’s State of the Union Message of 2002. It reveals an awareness of the condition of our culture, an awareness of the nature of real enemies. It is also a statement of principle and of persuasion. Words as well as deeds, lives, and buildings make a nation. These are noble words; we should, I think, acknowledge their power and good sense.

34) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University


            The headlines in yesterday’s Washington Post (July 5, 2002) had to do with the difficulties that bishops would have enforcing their new strict policies on pedophile priests. Today’s headline in the same paper spoke of the loss of credibility and a lowering of Catholic political “clout.”. During the first day of the June bishops’ conference in Dallas, I was listening to a radio talk show from Fresno, California. The young male caller identified himself as a Protestant. He said that he had read that one quarter of the Roman Catholic clergy were gay. He was shocked. He wanted to know if that were true. The host replied that he had heard the same thing.

            Actually, I could not bear to watch the Dallas bishops’ meeting on TV. They had been on national TV for the past 30 years. The topic of disorder in the seminaries and clergy never came up. They were not, in other words, officially paying attention to what would cause the Catholic Church the most drastic loss of prestige in American church history. We need not rehearse this sad tale. But not a few commentators have wondered out-loud why the bishops spoke of everything else but what was undermining their own reputations.

            What is unique about the present crisis of the Church, if I hear my lay friends correctly, is that it is something that arises strictly from within the Church. This is not some external slander. We all know of considerable anti-Catholic bias. But this crisis is not about anti-Catholicism in the normal sense of that term. It is not about lay Catholics not teaching or living like Catholics. The bishops have said practically nothing about Catholic politicians or academics who announce that they “disagree” with particular Catholic teachings. Nor is this about the strange record of the Kennedy’s, the Daschle’s, the Leahy’s or any other public figure. It is not about the validity of Catholic teachings as such, however curdious they might seem to be. Rather, it is almost an implicit affirmation of their validity. It is true that many Catholic figures announce that this or that Catholic “doctrine” or practice is “wrong,” that is, not in conformity with the culture. But it is not about that either. Practically no one is corrected for anything that is said about Catholicism except certain orthodox clergy who think something is wrong. Universities teach what they want. Every thing is “open.”

            Rather, this crisis is a totally internal problem about Catholic clergy and the episcopacy. Nor is it about whether the Catholic clergy contains sinners. It does. It would be heresy to think otherwise. Priests and bishops still have to save their own souls by confessing their own sins and amending their lives if necessary. Christ did not exempt the clergy from the ordinary sins of human nature. He hoped that they would sin less frequently, but Judas, Thomas, Peter, Paul, and Augustine are always there to remind us that the clergy can be composed of sinners, preferably not active ones, but ones who have sinned and acknowledged the same. Many elements in the present culture, however, tell us constantly that many “sins” are not “sins,” but “rights.” Yet, this confusion is not the immediate issue. Ironically, in this instance, the culture seems ready to accept Catholicism on its own terms. It says, in effect, if you Catholics say this is a sin, then why does it appear among you?

            The culture is, no doubt, playing a heady game with itself. It wants to hold that the gay culture is merely another “right,” that there is nothing wrong with it, no consequences. It wants to impose this position on the Church. Indeed, it wants to stigmatize any criticism of it as a “hate crime.” It wants to deprive anyone who holds, with natural law or the Bible, that there is anything wrong with its practice to be “anti-democratic.” The culture does not want to be challenged about its own consistency.

            But the culture does want to laugh at those hapless Catholic clergy who say in principle that something is wrong and then do nothing about it in their own terms. This is a dangerous game for it puts the culture in the odd position of maintaining that something is right, while at the same time it turns around and mocks someone who does what the culture approves even if he proclaims that it is not right. Hypocrisy has long been a deadly game. Someone who sins and repents his sin is not a hypocrite. Repentance upholds the law. Someone who sins and says it is really a virtue or a right undermines the whole system, as do those who do nothing about such confusions.

            The dominant feeling among many today is that, after all this exposure, after all this publicity, little or nothing is being done. A few obvious cases that should have been dealt with long ago are cleared. But no facing the deeper problem seems apparent. I have seem numerous analyses of why the bishops seem so timid and inept. Some say that most are compromised. Others say that they fear bad publicity. Others that they worry about further financial loss, already a major issue. Some even question their own faith and knowledge about the Church teaches. I can respect the need to go slowly, not to make things worse, not to do any injustice.

            The fact remains, however, that until the internal order of the American church is brought back in conformity with the teachings and practice of the Church, the possibility of restoring confidence will be dim. Cardinal Law has affirmed that he needs to clear up his own problems by himself. Some, however, think that until many of the present generation of bishops and superiors are replaced, confidence will not return. I remain a believer in self-reform and its possibility. The self-inflicted wounds of the American church will not be repaired until some more visible signs appear. Few, alas, think that anything fundamental has yet been done. It should take no courage whatsoever to deal with the relatively few cases of pedophilia. The real problem is yet to be faced.

35) Published in the National Catholic Register, June 2, 2002.


            L’Osservatore Romano, English, reports (May 1, 2002) the “Final Communique of the Interdisasterial Meeting of the American Cardinals and Leadership of the Bishops’ Conference.” The current crisis is here said to be “a moment of grace.” “How so?” From this scandal, something “good” comes? “Like what?”

            Recently, a young military officer wrote to me: “Have you written anything on pederasty in the priesthood? So many facets of this are very troubling for those of us who raise our families in the Church. Still, we must fight what seems to be a natural impulse to withdraw from the Church in an effort to shelter our children and ourselves.” “Very troubling facets” is putting it mildly. From those segments of the Church that are dangers, one should “shelter our children and ourselves.” We never suspected danger on that front.

            The above named bishops and cardinals add, showing it is not just a problem for the laity, “we know the heavy burden of sorrow and shame that you (priests) are bearing because some have betrayed the grace of Ordination by abusing those entrusted to their care.” Christ came to call sinners, including clerical sinners, perhaps them above all. The Holy Father has been careful, as a matter of principle, not to deny the basic Christian supposition that men are free, that they can repent,. Such a free way is the proper way in any sinful situation.

            But St. Thomas tells us that law can coerce those whose sins are more dangerous to others. Sin is broader than law. But law needs to be invoked a times. Part of the trouble is our confusion in the civil order about just what is right and wrong. Christ did not need to explain to us that such sins we read of are sins. Plato and Aristotle already told us this in their own ways. But Christ and the Church do reaffirm and strengthen that these are sins. We are not to be confused about that fact.

            A lady wrote, “I am not sure that convocation of red hats in Rome did a thing. I hope something concrete comes out of the Dallas meting in June. We need to see some higher ups GO. People are much more disturbed about the cover up than they are about the dreadful abuse.” This comment seems right. The puzzle about the current scandals is not that they happen – “woe to thee by whom they come” – but about the ineptitude in identifying them and facing them in time. Until the public scandal and legal costs, nothing much happened.

            The good thing about sins, oftentimes, is that they make us face facts. The Church is an institution designed to forgive sins. But it is also an institution formed, whether we like it or not, to spell out what exactly sins are. Active homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia, among other things, are being today called “human rights.” Meantime, the Church itself constantly affirms “human rights.” Not surprisingly, people are confused when the practice of certain “rights” is advocated or found within a Church that officially rejects them. In one sense, this crisis is also a crisis of the Church’s own loose usage of the term “rights,” something of less than pious origins in modern thought.

            The public astonishment at this un-clarity over whether the Church accepts “all” rights has long needed attention. The Wall Street Journal Editorial (April 26) had it right about the meaning of the problem:


So there is outrage in the pews.... Like the Pope, millions of American Catholics have been grievously wounded to learn that priests entrusted with the innocence of their children have betrayed them – and that their bishops used the collection plate to pay off millions in hush money to victims. There is, however, a parallel anger at work here, which proceeds from different motives. It represents a mind set that has long viewed the Catholic Church – correctly – as one of the last institutional voices objecting to anything-goes sexual morality. Think of the irony: A sex-drenched American media culture is now upbraiding the Catholic Church for being too forgiving toward licentious sexual behavior.... When we talk about hostility to the Catholic Church, we are talking about a culture that sees the Church as one of the few institutions willing to say no.

What particularly bothers many clerics and laity, I suspect, is the slowness of bishops and superiors to affirm this “no.” Many worry about a perceived failure to back up the theoretic suppositions of philosophy and theology that require them clearly to state this “no,” to explain effectively its meaning and justification. The Pope has often been left to do this all by himself.

            So, neither in Church nor culture, can we have it both ways. We cannot say, first, that homosexuality or pedophilia are “rights” and, secondly, that priests practicing the same “rights” are wrong. The obviousness of this contradiction has more recently effected a lessening of media interest in this troubled topic. We have, in the name of “rights,” chastised the military services and the Boy Scouts for being leery of active homosexuals within their structures. It turns out that there is good reason for this caution.

            Maggie Gallagher, writing also as a mother of two sons, (Washington Times, March 14, 2002), put it well:


The Catholic tradition teaches that men and women are made for each other. Any sexual union outside of marriage between a man and a woman is wrong. But all of us are subject to sexual temptations, and there is nothing in Catholic theology to suggest God is harder n same-sex sins than any other kind. I still believe that. But now certain sexual – not theological – truths seem apparent too: It is simply not practical for an all-male organization committed to celibacy to ordain men who are sexually attracted to males. Am I the only one who sees this?

Evidently, everyone is beginning to see it.

            We should not forget that there are those who do promote pedophilia as a “right.” The age of consent is pressured ever downward. As John Leo pointed out, there are advocates of pedophilia as just another “normal” practice, the only problem with it is, of course, those moralistic dullards who think something is wrong with it (“Pedophilia Going Mainstream?” The Washington Times, October 19, 2001).

            Some within the Church do publicly maintain, with little sanction, that if the Church had a married clergy, no restrictions on sexual practice, none of this anti-contraceptive or anti-abortion nonsense, all wold be well. What is the problem, it is said, is celibacy, if not the commandments themselves. Of course, if the Church were to buy this doctrine, there would be absolutely no reason for any sane person ever to belong to it, after years of its maintaining the opposite position. Consistency remains a Catholic virtue Philip Jenkins is right: “This is not a celibacy problem with frustrated priests being driven to perversion and molestation. It is, in the end, a fundamental cultural conflict, the outcome of which will script the future shape of American Catholicism” (The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2002).

            The “moment of grace” is present. In remaining the last institution to “say no,” the culture suddenly finds itself agreeing, perhaps unwillingly, with the Church. The civil culture has long said its “yes” but now finds itself agreeing that something is wrong with what is practiced. It is one thing to delight in the Church’s embarrassment over having arbitrary, even inhuman, “rules” about certain males in Orders, then seeing those same “arbitrary” Orders disobeyed. The temptation to cry “hypocrisy” is great.

            But the logic remains. If it is “right” for everyone, it cannot be “wrong” for the clergyman

without violating his fundamental “rights.” But if it is wrong for everyone, something is wrong with the culture. Even the culture recognizes this contradiction in a fleeting moment of leering delight at the consternation of the Church with men not observing both its own rules and the rules of what still must be called the laws of nature. In the end, for those who insist that homosexuality is a “right,” it is best to change the subject. It is too dangerous. The “moment of grace” is that the bishops also begin to see the necessity of upholding their own rules both in theory and practice.

5a) Various on-line essays.

1) Published in National Review-on-Line, September 1, 2001, 5 pp.



            In David McCullough’s book on John Adams, we read that Adams thought that “the happiness of the people was the purpose of government.” But he added that happiness itself was not just any preference, not any desire, but was “derived from virtue.” In addition, government should be “of laws, not men.” Men in the judiciary, Adams thought, should be men of “exemplary morals.” Everyone knew that those words included the way these men lived in their own families and neighborhood, in their private lives..

            These are famous ideas, of course. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and St. Thomas would have little trouble with them as they stand. They presuppose a realistic concept of human nature, its propensity to evil, its need for effort and habit to be virtuous, even grace. Likewise, as everyone understood, there were decidedly un-virtuous activities. We could, in our actions, make each other unhappy, to put it mildly. The coercive arm of law and rule was designed to restrain, as St. Thomas said, particularly those more heinous crimes without which there could be no common life. Empirical evidence in all societies indicated that some were more dangerous than others, more prone to commit crimes and perform unjust deeds. Self-defense, self-protection was an aspect of virtue and often an obligation towards others.

            As, in a moment of reflection, we watch the public and private lives of contemporary politicians, we chink of Kennedy, Clinton, and now Condit, to name but a few, we cannot help but wonder if we are not, in justifying their lives, proposed a new kind of morality that is radically different from anything John Adams might have understood, or at least accepted. Adams, on second thought, probably would have understood it.  

            John XXII, moreover, was famous for maintaining that we could not separate private and public morality. John Paul II often says the same thing. Indeed, Pope Roncalli was hailed as something of a revolutionary, especially by the left, for insisting on this relationship between private and public morality. Many an ideologue have long wanted an identification of public and private morality so that public morality would determine private morality, and not vice versa, as Plato thought. This latter idea, that public morality determines private morality, of course, was not exactly what John XXIII had in mind, but it is one of the underlying principles of much modern politics.

            The new morality, as I shall try to spell it out, is in fact rather old. It is found described in Plato and in Machiavelli. It posits that a publically moral life is technically a “legal” life, the will of the prince. The only thing that can matter in public is the letter of the law as enforced by the courts or police. The politician who “obeys” the law, in this sense, is “moral,” by definition. No conviction runs against him; therefore he is clean No one can claim otherwise.

            The older idea that personal sin was much broader than the law is thus abandoned. Nothing private can make a public difference. What makes a man “virtuous” in public life is not what he does or does not do “in private” but what cause or policy he advocates or promotes in public. The politician is like the artist. One can be a bad man and a good artist. Likewise, one can be a bad man in private but a good man in public. There is to be no acknowledged relation between the two lives. Moreover, it is immoral to propose that there is some relation between the two. We have “two bodies,” a private one and a public one. They circle different fields and never land on each other’s turf.

            Anyone who proposes that someone’s private life makes a public difference will be immediately investigated for his own private life, which is bound to be shady. We are all guilty. Scripture comes in handy here. It is religious dogma that affirms that we are all sinners and that “no one should toss the first stone.” Hence, no “judgment” can be made on “private” activities. Your private sins and my private sins reduce us both to utter silence. Judgmentalism is the great sin. Judge not and you shall not be judged. What counts is “sincerity” and especially “feeling sorry.” Since we can and should define our own “private” morality, there are not any “norms” or “standards” whereby we might estimate whether anything anyone does is right or wrong. Morality, public or private, is a matter of opinion and will-based law, always subject to change.

            We thus have a “right” to our public life against our private life. Those who think that our private lives indicate something about our public lives are terribly dangerous. In this system, it is wrong to think that what anyone does in “private” has anything to do with the integrity and legality of anything he does in public. In public figures, thus, the people see a reflection of their own lives, of what they “might,” with equal impunity, themselves do. If the private lives of public figures have no enforceable public consequences, not even at the ballot-boxes, then the people ought to be free to imitate the private lives of the public figure. When everybody “does it,” no one will be in a position to criticize anyone else. No “independent” standard will exist. Indeed, if the private lives of public figures have no consequences and we are not allowed to estimate the worthiness of a public figure on the basis of what we know of his private life, then we would be fools not to follow the examples of the public figures who, we see, exempt themselves from any guilt or consequences of what cannot officially be called their “wrong-doings.”

            Classical and Christian thought did maintain that public disorders arose in private thoughts. There was no doubt that the origin of public disorder arose from the lack of rule in individual souls, including the souls of politicians. It is true that only God can judge our internal disorders. But from this fact, it does not follow that the origin of public disorders is not what goes on inside of individual souls. Moreover, private disorders still need to be explained or explained away. The unfaithful man asks us to believe that he is only unfaithful in one area. We are asked to be naive. We are asked to overlook the most obvious external factors that might lead us to understand what a man or woman is really like, what each is likely to do. We are asked to trust without the normal grounds for trust.

            When Plato said that the condition of our city is based on the condition of our souls, when our second President said that virtue is related to happiness and to good law, and hence to good government, both implicitly rejected our current practice of denying that a man’s private actions reveal to us, almost more than anything else, his likely public integrity and actions. It is not that the current examples prove that public good comes from a source other than private virtue. If anything, as Aristotle also indicated, the private disorders of politicians will indicate the direction in which their public policies will go, if only to protect their continuance in their private vices. The corruption of the best and brightest has always been seen to lead to the worst crimes and confusions. The classics were not wrong.

            But what the private corruption of public figures reveals is not some glorious public order miraculously exempt from the private vices, but a public order designed to protect the possibility of the private vices. When the people, seeing this, imitate the examples of the public figures who are praised as if their private vices meant nothing, we have the beginning of a wide spread public, not just private, disorder and decline. The argument that private vices mean nothing with regard to public order is simply fatuous. This does not mean that there is no order of forgiveness or repentance, which would restore the order. But it does mean that the effect of the private vices on the public order must be acknowledged and this not merely as a private but as also a public problem.

            John Adams was right. Our public happiness is related to our virtue, not just to our deeds, whatever they are. “Exemplary morals” were expected of public figures because it was understood that what went on in the soul would eventually come forth to the increase or the destruction of the public happiness.

2) Unpublished. James V. Schall, S. J,, Georgetown University


            The classical definition of mind is that power that is capax omnium. The mind is potentially said to “be all things.” Yet, in the beginning it is only a mind, a power, otherwise empty. However, it is a “longing” power, something that wants to fill what seems to be lacking to it. It is not comfortable with its emptiness. What is lacking to it is content, not directly knowledge of itself, but of what is not itself, of what is. This knowing power, as such, does not change what it knows other than itself. Something changes when it knows, but it is not the other thing it knows. What changes is the mind itself. By knowing something not itself, it becomes more what it is. And in knowing what is not itself, we can reflect back on ourselves to know that we are knowing, to know that we are.

            A famous 19th Century political party called itself, or probably was called by its adversaries, “The Know-Nothing Party.” Now, strictly speaking, we cannot know precisely “nothing,” and even less can we have a “party” about knowing nothing. But we can celebrate knowing something – a graduation party, for instance. We only know “nothing” by knowing something that is and then mentally denying reality to it. Even to know “nothing,” we have first to know something, to have some “image” of what being-minus-existence signifies. Ex nihilo, nihil fit. From nothing, nothing comes forth. That proposition is self-evident. It cannot be “proved” from something clearer; for nothing is clearer. It can only be reflectively examined to see that it must be so. It is a “first thing,” a “first principle.” If we clearly “know” what is meant by “nothing,” our minds cannot but know that out of it, nothing, no thing, comes. This “nothing” then cannot be at the origin of any something.

            We all, if we think about it, understand what might be called the “Lucifer temptation,” the temptation of a creature, not God, to claim the powers only proper to God. Sometimes, it seems, as it were, “unjust” that we are not ourselves gods. We seldom stop to wonder whether the world would not be rather a narrow place if, with the actual powers we do have, we were really the only “gods” or minds in it. The first affirmation of the lover, Josef Pieper remarks, is that “it is good that you exist, that you stand outside of nothingness.” It is a good thing that another human being is himself, not a god, not some other thing, not some other person. Aristotle understood this. The world is full of a radically large number of “not-gods.” This is a rather happy fact but, at first sight, it seems to deprive us of so much, of what is not ourselves, the limits of which, of our finiteness, we are intimately aware.

            The world is full of a large number of things, among which is one creature that seems to have, while remaining itself, a special power to know what is not itself. All the discussions about animal, bird, and worm intelligence do not do it. Whatever sensory and perceptive powers these and other variegated creatures may have, they do not have a mind; they do not think. Yet, it is a good thing that they are and that we know them. What powers they may lack is not an evil or defect in them. They are not missing anything they ought to have. It is good that they are what they are. Seriously to want to attribute human powers to the animals (or plants) is another way of denying that they are what they are, of denying the kind of real being that they have. There is, after all, nothing wrong with a duck being a duck. There is something wrong with giving ducks non-duck-like powers as if they ought to have them.

            What is the purpose of mind, of the being with a power capable of all things? This is but another way of asking whether it is all right to be man, to be a human being? Socrates, the philosopher, was famous for affirming that he knew that he did not know. This was not a form of skepticism that doubted the power to know. The doubting of the power to know is the first step in locking us up into ourselves. The purpose of mind is precisely to unlock us from being contained solely within ourselves. Socrates, for his part, knew many things. He was a “lover” of wisdom. He was not wisdom itself. This meant that he had to seek knowledge wherever he could find it. He thought that perhaps this seeking continued even into immortality.

            Obviously, to have a mind capable of knowing all things but which in fact knows nothing is an imperfection of the mind. The purpose of the world, it seems, is that the mind of the finite being becomes filled with what it is not. This is why it is all right to be a human being. What is not itself can, in knowledge, in the mind, become known within this being that knows. The world, in this sense, is a communication of mind to mind. Each thing that is has its intelligibility, its own word, that makes it what it is and makes it be this thing, not that thing. Why is there something, not nothing? Why is this thing not that thing? These are first questions that cannot be avoided. The mind, moreover, is not a power that can be, as it were, overcrowded. It has, as such, no limits except those caused by its connection with a mortal body, a connection that is itself a good thing. It is good that finite beings with minds capable of knowing all things exist.

            Aristotle, in a famous passage, said that the beginning of our knowing is “wonder.” That is, it is not self-interest, or hunger, or some lack. When we have everything else, we still want to know just for the joy of knowing. Indeed, when we have everything else is when we want to know most intensely. We can and should use our minds for practical purposes, of course, to rule ourselves, to make things, all the things of art and prudence. But our minds also have their own function, simply to know what is. We rejoice in knowing. Plato said that the truth is saying of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. There is a delight of mind, a charm in knowing. Indeed, to know the truth is the most exquisite of pleasures, an activity proper to beings with minds. To know not only means knowing something that is, but also to know the order of things, how things stand to one another. It is not by accident, then, that we are called the “rational” beings. Nor is it any accident that we must choose to be what we are intended to be.

            Every thing that is can and should be fascinating to us, but we are to know them, indeed, to go out to them, according to what they are and to what we are. Our knowledge comes to us primarily as a gift, as something that we did not make but as something that we already discover to be what it is. We discover, in the end, the delight of what we are in knowing the things other than ourselves. We are intended to know them, hence to become all things. The ultimate purpose of the mind is that it is all right that we ourselves be not gods. It is all right to be receivers of what is. It is all right to know that from nothing, nothing comes, but that something is and we know it.

3) Published National Review-on-Line, NORWeekend, 2/3 June, 2001, 5 pp.


            Unlike old soldiers, old heresies do not just “fade away; they “keep coming back like a song,” to recall the words of an old tune. The fact that old heresies keep returning is not a bad thing as it reminds us that the same basic problems remain in every generation of our kind. Moreover, each “heresy,” a modern “cuss” word with usually a good point, is designed to answer a certain perplexity about the human condition. Manicheanism – a strange but useful word – seems to have originated in ancient Persia. However, Christians mostly associate it with the life of St. Augustine, who vividly describes his youthful attraction to it in his Confessions.

            Basically, manicheanism is a response to the inquiry about the origin of evil. And it is an attractive answer, which is why is continues to come back in forms that we must constantly uncover and define even in our own day. What it proposed, and this seems to be the thesis against which the account of creation in Genesis was written, is that evil was caused by a god of evil who made matter. Good, on the other hand, now identified in this dualist metaphysic as spirit, was caused by a god of good. Thus, if we wanted to be “spiritual,” as surely we do, the best thing to do would be to get away from matter as much as possible. The early Church had to confront this heresy because it implied, contrary to Christian teaching, that marriage, with its relation to matter, was therefore an evil.

            Genesis, by its account, seems deliberately to have made a point, in each of the days of creation, that matter was good. In other words, while it still had to account for the origin of evil, it rejected the idea that matter was, as such, evil. In the account of the Fall, the origin of evil is to be found in something good, but something that was not strictly speaking “matter.” The origin of evil was to be found in the free will of the rational creature, man or angel. That is to say, evil arose out of a good power in a good being, but not from God. The essential temptation of Adam and Eve was, following the name of the Forbidden Fruit Tree, to claim themselves, not God, as the origin of the distinction of good and evil. This claim was, in other words, a divine claim.

            At first sight, we will wonder about the “practicalness” of knowing about manicheanism and the revelational response to it. Augustine himself tells us, in a surprising way, how such a seemingly odd theory might turn out to be rather useful. If I am sinning or otherwise doing wrong, but do not want to admit it or take responsibility for it, it is useful to have a “theory” that explains that when I do wrong, it is not “me” that does it. Rather it is some necessary material “god” or necessary evolution outside my own control. Thus, paradoxically, I can go in either direction. That is, I can become an ascetic and cease to involve myself in evil matter or I can go on my merry way and do whatever I want, holding that the god of evil or matter itself caused it all. Thus what I do is not my own act. Therefore I can live a sort of double life, morally pure on the spiritual side and, without contradiction, quite indulgent on the material side.

            But, we might ask, what does this account, however quaint, have to do with us? Surely no one “believes” these things today. Whenever we hear this cant, “nobody believes this today,” we can be pretty sure that the thing is all around us and we do not recognize it. When do we see this manicheanism, or Gnosticism, as it is sometimes called, around us? We find it whenever we come across an explanation of the evils of our time that is not primarily located in a free choice of human beings but in necessary historical, material, economic, or scientific causes.

            What was peculiar about the Twentieth Century, I think, was its lethalness in terms of human life. In classical literature, it would be rare if we found a tyrant who killed more than ten or twenty people, most of whom he knew. But in the last century, we found many men responsible for the killing of thousands and even millions, none of whom they knew. What was peculiar about these “totalitarian” men is that they combined in themselves two offices, that of the philosopher and that of the politician. In this capacity, they sought to impose their “ideas” about good and evil on the world. All evil, even the worst, is pursued in the name of some good. Here the good was the effort to rid the world of its evils by some formula.

            The philosophical part of the philosopher-politician, I think of the Lenins, the Maos, the justifiers of abortion, is invariably a thesis about the cause of evil. And that cause is outside the will of the one defined as evil. Evil has to do with being, not personal will. Just eliminate that being which is evil and all will be well. There will be a perfect world if we impose our theory. What is common to these systems then is that the locus of the evil is shifted away from personal will, including the will of the politician, to some cause outside, to some group or class or condition that is defined as the cause of the disorder in the world.

            Once this thesis, and it is usually a complete system in the mind of the politician, is put into effect, the passion of the one with the thesis, normally called the “ideologue” in modern terminology, will be fired by the mission of eliminating evil or poverty, seen as the result of evil, from the world. The trouble with this thesis is that is dehumanizes everyone, not merely the victims of the thesis-action but also the one concocting the theory. The older classic and Christian thesis was that we will never find in this world an improvement of mankind that does not pass through the will and reasoning of individual persons. And no matter how good the circumstances we live in, it will always be possible and even likely that someone will chose himself over the objective good of others. Likewise, it will be possible in the worst regimes that good still appears in individual souls aware of the falseness of placing the cause of evil in things outside the control of human virtue and will. Manicheanism is still very much with us in diversity theory, in deconstruction, in post-modernism, in development theory. We even find it sometimes in religion. In short, this “heresy” still has much to teach us, especially if we do not see that the heart of evil also crosses our own souls.

4) Published in TCRNews on Line.0/29/2002, 7 pp., James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University



            While walking down Prospect Street just outside the campus here at Georgetown, a lady in jogging togs, someone I did not know, caught up with me, said hello. I said something like “it is a nice day.” But she said that she “could not enjoy it.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, I am so upset,” she replied. “I have been watching CNN News and the world seems to be falling apart.”

            I told her what the simplest solution to that problem was: “Don’t watch CNN news! It thrives on upsetting you; that is its business-plan.” Then I added that I could take her back through the centuries to show her someone in every century of our existence as a human race who thought “the world was falling apart.” It is not a new sentiment for our kind. Our education should prepare us for this fact of abiding turmoil. And if we add to that current political feeling of “things falling apart” the religious overtones of “the end of the world,” we can, perhaps, begin to put things in some better perspective.

            But connected to this feeling of the lady on Prospect Street, we have the students. I am asked, “how are the students taking all this?” The presumption seems to be that this situation is another internal American war or problem. The main enemy is ourselves. We can solve it at home. Indeed, some concern exists that these happenings will interrupt students’ life planning. We hear of masses of Arab young men rushing to join bin Laden forces, but we do not yet have many army recruiters on campus, though I hear that applications to the FBI, CIA, and the military services are sharply up.

            During the first days after the WTC and Pentagon attacks the authorities on campus saw fit to call in sundry psychologists to be available for students. The Jesuit rector suggested that priests, dressed in Roman Collar, be also seen on campus. An ex-student who had worked in the upper floors of the WTC, clearly upset, came by. He had been transferred to DC only two months previously. Evidently the whole New York headquarters of the company he worked for was wiped out.

            Another ex-student sent me an e-mail from New Jersey. He was an Indian (from India) young man, whose mother had called him on his cell phone just as he got to work on September 11. She informed him of the attack. He worked in the WTC. He told me that his best friend, a Muslim, was killed, so that the whole thing seemed doubly ironic to him.

            What troubled me initially, of course, was the “subjectivity” of many approaches, particularly the psychological one. That is, the problem was treated mainly as if the anguish or concern were independent of objective events in the world. Emotions and feelings were prime in the minds of too many. The question was not what was happening? Not was there a real cause of fear? Not what objectively do we do about it? The question was, “how do I feel about it?”

            As I was reading Aristotle with my class at that time, it is amazing how he was able to put things into perspective. Fears arise from what is out there attacking us. There are frightening things that happen in the world, in our world. Evil actions happen whether we like it or not. But we need to control our fears for our ends. Courage looks to our being, how we stand, in the face of death. It deals with the efforts to continue in existence in spite of real fears and pains. It is, in this sense, action-oriented to keep us in being.

            In the initial days of these events, I took the position that these men attacking us were not “terrorists.” They were soldiers in an army with its own goals and ethic. They were following orders. Begrudgingly, we had to admire them while deploring their deeds. My brother out in California, perhaps more realistic than I, rather thought that the attackers were cowards. No one openly took responsibility. They took full advantage of an unarmed people to attack and kill essentially innocent human beings. No matter what the attackers’ supposed justification, using the theory that in the West, “every one was guilty,” this act was profoundly corrupt.

            Once the men in the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh knew via cell phone what the hijackers were up to, not ransom or political demands but destruction of our centers, they too showed great courage. A young man, a former high school line backer, was cited in the paper (October 11) as saying that if he were in a plane and he sees someone attempt to get into a cockpit, he is “going after him.” I suspect no hijacker will ever have such an easy time again in this country. Their knives won’t do it. The pilots too will be allowed to defend themselves.


            But, even amidst these very unsettling events, “is the world falling apart?” Someone sent me

a column from Catholic San Francisco (September 21), with the headlines, “Dark Day in Human History.” The sub-headline read, university “students ... look for alternatives to war.” The block within the text read, “Persuasion rather than coercion and violence are the best tools for creating a world of justice and peace.” Notice that a just effort to defend onself is here called “violence and coercion” with no moral qualifications about the objective nature of the situation. Everyone, to be sure, would like an “alternative to war.” But that is the question, is there one here and now that still protects society? If not, talk of “alternatives” to war is not especially productive or anything more than escapism.

            Evidently, the “dark day in human history,” referred to in the article, meant not the attack itself but the subsequent “failure” to use “persuasion” as an alternative to war. That is, it seems actually to be believed that the men who flew into the WTC and those who planned the operation, including bin Laden himself, just needed some “persuasion” to be talked out of their equally “violent and coercive” deeds.. The days may be darker than we think if we know so little of what goes on in the human soul or what goes on in our time, or perhaps any time.

            But “is the world falling apart?” It helps to know something about the classics. What are we to make of the some six thousand who were killed? Were they just at the wrong place at the wrong time, as if some meteorite had just fallen on them? Should our security and political forces have seen this attack coming? Surely the killing of the six thousand people in itself was an act of injustice, however it might be subjectively “justified” by bin Laden’s self-proclaimed denial of a distinction between innocent and guilty. We certainly do not accept this distinction. Bin Laden conceives these days in terms of total war. Everything is justified. He actually wants a holy war and thinks he knows his chief enemy -- namely, us. We may not like this thinking, but we better come to terms with it.

            Our present philosophy often forbids us from imagining that such a man can exist. We think everyone can be bought off, that there are no vast and universal purposes carried out over time, however outlandish. Thus when a bin Laden comes along, we are unprepared, intellectually unprepared. This is how Herbert Deane sums up Augustine: “The heavy hand of the state and its dreadful instruments of repression are necessary because they are the only methods by which sinful men can be restrained; the fear of punishment is the only safeguard of general peace and security” (Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, 138). What seems to be new, even for Augustine, something President Bush seems to understand, is that here we encounter a movement in which neither the “fear of punishment” nor the fear of death restrains. I venture to say that very few university students in recent years are ever confronted with these possibilities that Augustine took for granted.

            Even Machiavelli, echoing a passage in Aristotle, wrote, “murders, ... which follow from the deliberations of an obstinate mind, cannot be avoided by princes; for anyone who does not care about losing his life can harm him (the ruler); but since such cases are extremely rare, it is well for the prince to have little fear of them.” How odd it is that even the most ruthlessly pragmatic and immoral of the political philosophers could not himself imagine that men willing to lose their lives in killing others would be rather common and available to modern Islamic forces.


            I mentioned the classics. I also had in mind, besides Augustine, something from Shakespeare and something from Aristotle. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry, the King, is among his men in disguise (IV, 126-75). The ordinary soldiers are discussing the upcoming battle. Who will be responsible for the souls of those who die? Surely, the soldier Bates says, that we are the kings subjects. “If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.” But Williams worries that the king may not have a just cause. In that case, “the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at a later day to cry out: ‘We died at such a place,’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them.... I am afeard that there few die well that die in a battle.” This result will not go well with the king.

            But Henry does not buy this line of thought that makes him responsible for even the souls of his men. “The king is not bound to answer (for the particular supernatural) endings of his soldiers.... Every subject’s duty is the king’s but every subject’s soul is his own.” These famous lines, plus the reading of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Re, are the first ones that I advise students to consider in these days, plus C. S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” in his Weight of Glory. Those six thousand who were killed by the terrorists died, as it were, “subject to the king,” that is, subject to our laws whose main purpose ought to have, but in this case wasn’t able, to prevent such actions. But their souls, including those of the hijackers, remained their own. The room and place of divine justice remains, without which our world is simply incoherent.  

            The immediate moral lesson that the seemingly arbitrary killing of six thousand people, including a Muslin friend of one of my former students, of the continued warnings of new attacks, is that we should look first to our every day lives, to how we live. We know not the day or hour, even as we take steps, following Augustine, to use “the dreadful instruments of coercion,” yes along with persuasion, to prevent further such attacks.

            And I think too of Aristotle. In the third book of his Rhetoric, he cites a passage, perhaps from Isocrates, which reads: “A country pays a heavy reckoning (moral burden) in being condemned by the judgment of mankind.” To this observation, Aristotle adds, “for a reckoning (condemnation of mankind) is a damage deservedly incurred” (1411b18-21). We think of our efforts, following a phrase in the Declaration of Independence, to appeal to the judgment of mankind, to make the moral heinousness of this attack morally clear and acknowledged by every nation, an effort bin Laden sought to parallel with his famous speech claiming us to be enemies of all of Islam. Aristotle’s notion that such condemnation itself constitutes “damage deservedly incurred” reflects the reality of an ability, on objective grounds, to distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. We are a culture that has almost forgotten the validity of such distinctions in everyday discourse and the objective grounds on which they are based. Ironically, we have bin Laden and his friends to thank for restoring some of our moral discourse to the heart of civil and university life.


            The first step in any “falling apart” of the world is an intellectual one. We must grasp the breakdown of the fundamental distinctions needed to describe what goes on in our souls, or those distinctions necessary even to know that we have souls. These attackers, these “terrorists,” as they are called, are dangerous enemies. We have underestimated them. We should understand that they are precisely “enemies” with their own view of reality and what constitutes it. We would be happy to change their minds on certain basic points by persuasion. But we have to be alive and free to persuade. Those who are to be persuaded need to listen and grasp what we say. They can refuse to hear.

            Those who insist on attacking us at the cost of their own lives can only be prevented by stopping them first. This is a grim law. We would prefer not to face it. But we avoid facing it at the cost of our lives. It is in this context in which we are asked to be brave. The world that will certainly fall apart, as my brother hinted, is the one that yields to cowards who use our laws and freedoms to kill innocent peoples by denying, in justification, that there are innocent peoples.


            We have before us two major kinds of worries. The first has to do with avoiding a greater war, if indeed it can be avoided, something that is not altogether clear. Better to do nothing, it is said, better to accept the blow than to instigate a war of religions or civilizations, even though this may well be what we already have. Bishop Caesare Mazzolari of Rambek in the Sudan remarked:


Islam has powerful forces and it wants to unleash a war to change the world – I hope Washington does not provide the opportunity. Fundamental Muslim groups play on the fact that the West is unfamiliar with Islam. World leaders must realize that this war could degenerate into a world war. Maximum prudence is necessary to prevent further tragedies (National Catholic Register, Oct. 21, 2001).

Of course, if Islam “wants to unleash a war,” it is difficult to see how doing something about its initial efforts to do so can be unjustified or imprudent. One needs to ask the question also whether it is better to put up a fight or passively to allow the world to succumb to such power. If we are “familiar with Islam,” what does “prudence” recommend? The first “worry” then might be “fear of a greater war,” or it might also be the worry of succumbing to a way of life that excludes the possibility of our own principles and culture on the grounds that we can morally do nothing to stop it.

            The second worry, no less serious, is what might be called “incremental” warfare within our borders and those of our allies. Thus far, the WTC and Pentagon bombings with the postal anthrax spread have proved to be astonishingly “economical” methods to engage in a war. The enemy has had no need of large armies, large expenditures, or secret or fancy weapons. Knives, commercial planes, and the mail system have worked to spread a havoc, confusion, and terror far beyond anything we have seen within the United States in its history. By now, trillions of dollars in business, buildings, and political and economic systems have been lost, enough to pay for any world humanitarian program that even the most optimistic governmental spender could imagine. As a cause of increased world poverty hardly any more damaging blow can be conceived. This attack was made in the name of perceived injustice.

            The Islamic attackers, let us admit it, have been geniuses at destruction. They have calmly surveyed a society lying between the Atlantic and Pacific. What did they see? A regime utterly unaware of its own vulnerability. Also, it was a society easily panicked. First the airline attack, then anthrax. What to expect next? More bacteria? Poisoning of water supply? Attacks on food and drug supply? On communications? Smashing of bridges and symbolic buildings? Small or particularly dirty nuclear weapons delivered by trucks or ships or missiles? There seems to be nothing in the minds or morals of those who planned the initial WTC and Pentagon attacks that would rule out any of these means. We must be prepared for them.

            A particularly cunning mind seems to be behind these initial attacks. While we were busy with other things during the past decade, this mind has carefully examined our infra-structure and realized its fragility. It has watched closely as we disarmed and neutered our defense and intelligence services. In this new war, no attacks on our army bases or air fields are needed. It is not necessary to fight battles. What is targeted is the civilian population with the lines of communication and trade on which it depends. Armies can be neutralized and crippled by impairing the industry that gives them their technological superiority and support.

            A bit outside this current attention to Islam, we see too the restlessness of China, India, and Russia, with populations more vast than ours. Islam sits on the frontiers of each one of these powers. Its members are well within the frontiers of Europe. Amir Taheri has written,


All but one of the world’s remaining military regimes are in Muslim countries. With the exception of Turkey and Bangladesh, there are no real elections in any Muslim country. Of the current 30 active conflicts in the world no fewer than 28 concern Muslim governments and/or communities. Two-thirds of the world’s political prisoners are held in Muslim countries, which also carry out 80% of all executions each year (Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2001).

All these blocs see the weakness of Western nations in terms of population and vigor.

            The idea that technological superiority alone will be the deciding factor is at least questioned in the light both of the non-sophisticated means with which the recent attacks are carried out and of the rules that the West has set for itself about what it can and cannot do to find and eradicate those attacking it, before they carry out further damage. No one has yet spoken of a “paper tiger” but the Russians, in the light of their own failed experience with this same bin Laden, are at least struck that it is in precisely Afghanistan at the beginning of winter that we are engaged in war. President Bush has warned of a long-term, carefully fought war wherever we find terrorist cells -- something that may include as many as sixty nations.

            The classical question of democracy has been the popular will to endure such a war. No doubt, this anticipated fickleness of the democracies too is what the enemies are betting on. It is not without interest that we are called “cowards” by our enemies and some of our own for our technological methods of retaliation. The terrorists can afford to be patient.


            “Is the world falling apart?” We certainly have wars and rumors of war. Things certainly can get worse. The question of our eternal destiny remains the same whether we be in war or at peace. It depends on how we live, what we hold. We have been quick to deny that our own civil moral condition had anything to do with our current situation. We call those “fanatics” who suggest that this relationship exists. Indeed, such people are often considered worse enemies than the Muslim “terrorists.” No doubt this is because we do not like to think there is a relation between how we live and our ability to know our enemy and defend ourselves.  

            To be sure, many have said that the attack ion New York and Washington has served to reestablish a sense of moral and historical seriousness to our lives. Both Victor Hansen and Peggy Noonan have remarked on the relative strength of common workers, firemen, and police for this endeavor than the more effete media and university classes. Moreover, few nations last, in the same form of polity, for more than a couple of hundred years. We are already the oldest continuous government in the world, assuming that the Constitution that governs us is really the same one which was signed in 1789, a proposition that many doubt.. Islam, though it goes back to he seventh century, is a power on the rise, a power at struggle with itself about what it is. On TV on October 27, Colin Powell pled with American Muslims to explain to the rest of the Muslim world what we are about, but it is not clear that the rest of the Muslim world would listen or consider Muslims here who praised America to be little more than traitors to Islam.

            The immediate purpose of the war, from our point of view, is to convince, if not coerce, Islam to be peaceful, as at least some of its apologists claim that it is, whatever its history. This “convincing” has, thus far, required the force of arms. But the purpose of the war from the viewpoint of our enemies, as bin Laden has maintained all along, is rather to convince Islam itself to be militant, to take full control of itself, to expel aliens from its territories and to continue to expand on its borders. Much of Islam understands “peace” in terms of everyone living under its own laws. This is why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to have reasonable discourse with it or find actual political tolerance within its borders.

            “Is the world falling apart?” No doubt radical changes in the configuration of nations and power is at hand. The world’s number one super-power seems vulnerable. In one sense, we have already to some degree fallen apart or this situation would not be forced upon us. “Eternal vigilance” has not been our watchword. The price has been the loss of real liberties that we have taken for granted. But we were genuinely surprised that we were so exposed.

            Of democracies, it is said, that they react slowly, but when they finally act, they are very stern. The Vice-President, Richard Cheney, at the Al Smith Banquet in New York, remarked that there are some people to whom one cannot talk because they will not listen. This situation is not as new as we think. And the world has never yet been fully put together. If it is falling apart, it is because we have here no lasting city, a lesson that needs to be learned, it seems, in every generation. But, what we can do, we should do. This too is a question of honor, courage, and prudence.