Augustine of Hippo, Part 2: Reading and Hearing Augustine in English

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts on the life, writings, and legacy of Augustine of Hippo. In this post I discuss two sources of Augustine’s work in English translation, and how the volumes of Augustine’s sermons and letters in the New City Press series expands our view of Augustine’s life and accomplishments.  

Augustine has been well served by the efforts of translators of his works into English. Some works, such as the Confessions, have numerous translations, and some of these are available in different editions. I’ll do a separate post on these translations of the Confessions in the near future; here I’ll address the best one-volume introduction to the writings of Augustine and the ongoing series by New City Press dedicated to translating all of his works.

William Harmless, S.J., in his Augustine in His Own Words, has given us one of the best one-volume readers of any author I’ve seen. At just under 500 pages, Harmless takes the reader through all the major works and periods of Augustine’s life, and provides clear and helpful introductions. Get this book, along with The Nietzsche Reader by Pearson and Large, equally outstanding as a guide to its subject, and you’ll have two handy volumes guiding you through influential and contrasting visions of the human good. Harmless provides his own translations of Augustine’s texts, and is a sure guide to the wide range of topics Augustine addresses. Undergraduate and graduate courses, small reading groups, and individuals wanting to enter into Augustine or refresh themselves will all benefit from this attractive, reasonably-priced volume. The bibliography is excellent, containing a listing of all available (at the time of publication) critical editions and English translations, along with a thorough listing of the secondary literature, grouped according to Harmless’s chapter divisions. I dare say every serious student of theology should own this volume.

New English translations of the complete works of Augustine are available from New City Press under the series title “The Works of Saint Augustine: A New Translation for the 21st Century.” The series, with forty volumes already in print and ten volumes yet remaining, is sponsored by the Augustinian Heritage Institute, and will contain the standard English translations of many of Augustine’s works. Sr. Maria Boulding’s translation of the Confessions has received high praise from many scholars, while many readers, this one included, are thrilled to have new translations and editions of the entire corpus of letters and sermons of Augustine. These are essential for any understanding of Augustine, who is unfortunately often seen only in terms of larger, “more important” works like the City of God, On the Trinity, the Confessions, and his treatises on grace and free will. This turns Augustine into something other than what he was, a bishop serving the needs of his people. He was not a systematic or dogmatic theologian, a philosopher, a political theorist, or, heaven forbid, a “spiritual writer.” Most of his writings, and all those that have so captivated and influenced the Church and others, were conceived and written in the midst of daily pastoral work and problems. Here is F. Van Der Meer, in Augustine the Bishop, published in 1961 and still a key secondary source, describing this reality:

“His was no key position in the Church, yet as he wrote at his desk or spoke from the cathedra in the third-rate place which was his home wave upon wave went out over the world. What many readers of Augustine’s writings do not realize is that his simple cathedra was more important to him than his pen. It was the needs and cares of ordinary Christian folk that supplied both the matter and manner of his loftiest writings, so that the main function of his genius was to serve the pastor of souls. It is not altogether wrong to say that we owe Augustine the saint to the strange and surprising fact that Augustine the genius was little more than a parish priest.”

. . .the main function of his genius was to serve the pastor of souls”: Dockworkers, retired soldiers, servants, and slaves were among those Augustine regularly preached to, and his pastoral responsibilities, including settling tiresome lawsuits throughout the day, countering false understandings of the Church and her faith, and teaching through the Church’s liturgical calendar dominated his life. His writings bear witness not to what we consider academic concerns, but to the daily life of faith of those under his charge. His sermons are thus as important a source for his faith and theology as anything else he published.

These sermons also reveal a very different style of worship than we see today. There were no pews in his basilica, and Augustine would preach seated in his cathedra. There was often some interesting give-and-take between him and those in attendance, with shouts of approval greeting some of his statements, and notes of disapproval accompanying others. Sometimes disruptions occurred. Sometimes his sermons would approach two hours in length, with people likely coming and going, and Augustine weaving in and out of his main points. Augustine never read from a prepared sermon, as stenographers would take down his words, for immediate copying and for posterity. In an Africa that had over 500 bishops, Augustine hardly held a position similar to what a modern bishop does, making Van Der Meer’s description of Augustine as “little more than a parish priest” not much of an exaggeration. And all the paintings showing him with a mitre and an elaborately-decorated robe portray medieval habits, not those of late antiquity in Roman Africa. A simple, gray monk’s robe is what Augustine wore, and his preaching “style” reflects the simplicity of his garb. Yet these sermons are one of the Church’s richest theological treasures.

His letters also broaden our view of his life and work. In these he addressed all the pressing issues of his day, and several are minor theological treatises in their own right. Together with the sermons they are more than a miscellany of secondary concerns for Augustine, or for his readers today. Thanks are due to the translators and publishers who have given us updated versions of these works.

Note on the New City Press editions:  There are eight volumes that have been designed especially with students in mind. These include a single volume of Augustine’s sermons, which give the reader a sample of his larger output (19 volumes are currently available, with one volume yet to appear), and a single volume of Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, culled from the four volumes in the full series.

Here’s a link to a pdf to what’s currently available in this series: Complete_Works_Saint_Augustine


Augustine of Hippo, Part 1: The Definitive Biography

This is the first in a series of posts on the life, writings, and legacy of Augustine of Hippo. Some posts will focus on an individual work, by or about Augustine, some on a selected theme, and some on editions and translations of his work. Most posts will also include suggestions on readings, primary and secondary, along with the requisite links to Amazon.  

In this first post I will discuss Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine, still considered not only the leading life of the saint, but one of the best biographies of any early Christian figure. 

 ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆   ◆

Few scholarly studies remain a vital source of information and perspective on their subject forty-five years after they are first published. Academic libraries are littered with books that were dated shortly after their publication, as new research and frameworks of interpretation make all but a small proportion of books superfluous for the average reader. One book that has stood the test of time and is still considered by scholars to be the indispensable point of departure for serious study of its subject is Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown, whose numerous studies have helped to establish a new interpretation of Late Antiquity, the period from the third through the eighth centuries.

I read this book as a first-year graduate student for a seminar focusing on the early writings of Augustine. It was later assigned for a course on religious historiography, and then provided invaluable aid in courses on the development of early Christian creeds (my paper was on Augustine’s challenge to traditional North African views of the holiness of the Church), the City of God, and the Confessions. I then consulted it for a doctoral exam question on the development of Augustine’s view of grace and freedom in the 390’s, and was by then convinced that not only was Augustine my favorite writer, but that Brown’s biography was the very best scholarly book I had read.

Brown was just beginning his career as a scholar when he wrote this book in the mid-1960’s. Immediately it was hailed as a work of great depth and sensitivity, and, even after the intervening years, it continues to shed light on Augustine and his era in surprising ways. Moreover, it is filled with prose that makes one very jealous of Brown’s pen. If to instruct and to delight is still a worthy goal of a writer, Brown succeeds brilliantly. Just a few examples should suffice.

A high point of the book, at least for me, is Brown’s discussion of Augustine’s shift in thinking about the possibility of living the life envisioned by those Christian Platonists who impressed Augustine during his time in Italy, those Servi Dei who would overcome the pull of fleshly desires and ascend to the contemplation of God. A widely-held dream among many at the time, and, in slightly different form, a characteristic of those “Pelagians” who would challenge Augustine for the last two decades of his life. Put briefly, for Augustine such a dream was smashed by the realities of life as a priest, then bishop, in North Africa, which forced upon him—in conjunction with the hard work of honest self-reflection—the acknowledgement that the recalcitrance of the human heart, the pull of concupiscence, and the sheer weight of past habit would render such a dream not only futile but dangerous.

The chapter titled “The Lost Future” brilliantly evokes the turn in Augustine’s thinking in such a way that one can feel his mind turning and then changing, a hard thing to accomplish for even the best of writers. “In this decade,” Brown writes of the 390’s, “Augustine moved imperceptibly into a new world,” a world that would help to coax him to produce the Confessions and also provide the foundation for his encounters with both the Donatists and then the Pelagians. More on this in future posts; here I’ll quote Brown from near the end of the chapter to give a hint of the treasures found in the book:

“A new tone has come to suffuse Augustine’s life. He is a man who has realized that he was doomed to remain incomplete in his present existence, that what he wished for most ardently would never be more than a hope, postponed to a final resolution of all tensions, far beyond this life. Anyone who thought otherwise, he felt, was either morally obtuse or a doctrinaire. All a man could do was ‘yearn’ for this absent perfection, to feel its loss intensely, to pine for it. ‘Desiderium sinus cordis’: ‘It is yearning that makes the heart deep.’ This marks the end of a long-established classical ideal of perfection: Augustine would never achieve the concentrated tranquillity of the supermen that still gaze out at us from some mosaics in Christian churches and from the statues of pagan sages. If to be a ‘Romantic’, means to be a man acutely aware of being caught in an existence that denies him the fullness for which he craves, to feel that he is defined by his tension towards something else, by his capacity for faith, for hope, for longing, to think of himself as a wanderer seeking a country that is always distant, but made ever-present to him by the quality of the love that ‘groans’ for it, then Augustine has imperceptibly become a ‘Romantic’. . .”

I don’t know about you, but this strikes at my heart, not only because Brown’s descriptive power is immense, but because I, like Augustine, have harbored the dream of ascending far beyond the pull exercised by life in the here-and-now. When I was a new Christian I was convinced that if I only prayed harder and longer, read the right spiritual classics, and associated with the right crowd, whether called Servi Dei or something else, I’d be able to “achieve the concentrated tranquillity” that would help me attain that distant country without waiting too, too long. Augustine learned otherwise, as did I. Read the 10th Book of the Confessions for his description of how he was a mystery to himself, still plagued by that which he had earlier believed he could overcome, with just a bit more striving, a bit more time. Here you will see not only the shadows of every perfectionist dream, including the one to be detected in the Pelagian writings that would soon come to Augustine’s attention, but the outlines of the response he would painstakingly articulate in his sermons, letters, and treatises. I’ll have more to say about this in future posts. Suffice it to say for now that without Augustine’s lost dream, and the literary record that chronicles his response to his younger self, the elitism that characterized so much of Christianity at this time, especially in North Africa, might have had greater success in reaching the mainstream. For reasons writers like Brown discuss, including in his masterful biography, this is a frightful prospect.

A final note on this book. The second edition, first published in 2000, contained an Epilogue consisting of two chapters, one of which discussed recently-discovered letters (the “Divjak Letters”) and sermons (The “Dolbeau Sermons”) of Augustine. The latest edition from the University of California Press is identical to this edition. The text has not been altered in any way, for reasons Brown addresses. What struck me most about his assessment of the biography, and what new insights he gained from the letters and sermons which were not available to him when he wrote his biography, is his humility and willingness to alter some of his thinking about Augustine. “New Evidence” and “New Directions”, the titles of the new chapters, are both treasures of historical judgment and sober reflection, offered to the reader following a lifetime of wrestling with a great man and saint.

“The Pope said WHAT. . .?”

So we have a Pope who likes to speak to journalists and give interviews. This has caused no little consternation among some Catholics who wish that Francis was more, well, papal, at least in their understanding of the term. Doesn’t he know that there are journalists and readers, secular and Catholic, who will no doubt misconstrue what he says? Who will turn his words into ammunition to fire into the heart of the Church? Who will set Francis against Benedict, against John Paul II, against Christ and everything good, true, and beautiful? 

Doesn’t he know, in other words, that caution is in order? If he is to speak, let it be in a carefully-worded encyclical letter, as no one will misunderstand one of those. Let him give a harmless little post-Angelus address, in which he safely affirms what the previous two popes have said and what I already know is true. Let him do battle against the modernists, secularists, and those Catholics who aspire to such things. Let him, finally, confirm me in my faith, comfort me in my commitments, and leave me alone.

We’ve all heard the term “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and a little searching turns up who said it first, who said it better, etc. It’s a nice phrase, one that—like our pope—can be turned in many directions, depending on context. And it does suggest to me something of the pastoral heart of Pope Francis. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I have little idea of what really motivates him. But he is the pope, and the Holy Spirit did help him become pope, and I do believe that he knows much more about the needs of the Church than I do. Or any of the commentators trying to keep up with him, explain his words, and, at times, explain those words away.

We are called to trust Francis, including the methods he chooses to address the Church and world, regardless of whether or not we know that we know better than he does. I get the impression that if some of those seeking to clean up the pope’s words were around during the ministry of Jesus, their desire to edit or step up to the microphone and clarify would lead to all kinds of nonsense. Imagine what might happen to his teaching on riches, loving our enemies, and becoming like a child. Those expository demons residing in the hearts of many Catholics would run rampant, I suspect. At least the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky admits that Jesus was wrong and needs correcting.

The nervous hand-wring of some Catholics—and my own puzzlement—at some of what Francis has said in his two interviews is probably a good sign. It means that, if the Church’s teaching on the papacy is actually true, we have something to learn that we didn’t already know, that Christ is ruling his Church and speaking to us in order to do more than confirm how clever and faithful we are. Because we don’t know all we need to know, and we haven’t already read it, said it ourselves, or anticipated it. I pray that I will learn to listen to Christ, and his Church, without loosing those expository demons that all too often silence him. That I see no reason to feel threatened by a pope who probably has insights born of prayer, study, suffering, and the life of faith that the Church and world need. Insights that I need.

Maybe I need to be afflicted, and comforted, in ways I haven’t already figured out. Maybe I should shut up and listen. 

Art, Beauty, and the Catholic Witness to Christ

“Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. It is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as ‘a man using Art.’ He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: ‘Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.’

“Believing this—as I do—the term ‘Catholic artist’ seems precious and self- conscious. It risks becoming one more assault against humility, a quality already close to running on empty in the arts. It would be an act of mercy to scrap the category ‘Catholic art’ altogether. There is no longer any such entity; there is only art made by Catholics. This might or might not make use of religious imagery; it might or might not be successful or praiseworthy. Faith is not the origin of talent and cannot stand bail for it. Neither is piety an index of good taste or guarantor of good craftsmanship. There is only good art and bad art; Catholicism is no determiner of either.”     

This is from an article by Mauren Mullarkey originally published in Crisis. I don’t know much about Mullarkey; her website has some interesting essays, including the one from which the above quote was taken, along with some of her drawings and paintings. I can’t remember where I first discovered her, though I suspect it might have been in Image. Some of what she writes in this article, titled “An Unmanifesto: A Proposal to Retire ‘Catholic Art’”, reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, especially the latter’s claim that Catholic art need not be made by a Catholic and that the integrity of the work itself, not its maker’s faith or intentions, is what matters most. Both writers seem to be protesting the same things, such as the proliferation of tawdry religiously-inspired kitsch that hawks itself as art, and both appeal to Jacques Maritain for guidance on how to understand the main responsibilities of the artist. This is a touchy issue for many people. Shouldn’t the desire to praise God and lead people to a deeper faith count more than anything else? Here’s O’Connor from her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”:

Continue reading

Integrating the Sciences in a Catholic Curriculum: A Dubium Regarding Current Assumptions and Practices

What follows are some thoughts regarding the foundations of a high school curriculum that takes seriously the notion that all truth is God’s truth, and that Catholic educators have the responsibility to teach students to see everything they learn through the lens of the Catholic faith, to think about all things in Christian categories. My focus here is the sciences, and even though I am not qualified to teach any science classes, I trust that my proposals are neither naive nor pedagogically imperialistic. Conversations with colleagues and friends suggest that I am neither alone in my hopes for greater integration in the curriculum, nor being unreasonable in the following proposals. I submit this, recognizing the limitations of the analogy, as a type of dubium, which suggests difficulties in a doctrine or practice and proposes as a prudential judgment an alternative way of thinking, in the hope of generating conversation and further clarification of our task as Catholic educators while strengthening the commitment to our shared ends.

Continue reading

Screwtape on Love, the Philosophy of Hell, and American Civil Religion

Here is Screwtape informing Wormwood about liberalism, the HHS mandate, and what the recent elections were about, without actually mentioning any of these:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

The shadows of Callicles, Glaucon, Machiavelli, and Rousseau are all visible in this description. Every form of social contract theory, and the liberalism that develops to give it shape, stinks of the arena, where individuals are pitted against each other in a clash of desires and, eventually, rights. The American experiment, which includes the attempt to craft a civil religion nondescript enough to nurture believer and unbeliever alike, is little different in this regard, as recent social and political history demonstrates. That so many Catholics decry the Obama administration’s “unprecedented” assault on religious freedom, claiming that the HHS mandate is a violation of American political and judicial traditions, signals a failure to understand not only American history and the oppositional stance the government has long taken against the Catholic Church, but also the conceptual roots and elasticity of liberalism, which allow it to be used as a weapon to silence even those who call upon it for protection.

Continue reading

Christian Art and the Subversion of Death, Part 1

This is Part One of a two-part series on some of the questions surrounding the question of what makes art Christian. The question is a complicated one, as I’ve learned through both drawing up the Art and Catholicism course I teach to high school seniors and trying to offer helpful answers to some of the questions that arise during the semester. In the first part I’ll begin with some reflections on one of the authors we read in the course, Flannery O’Connor. In the second part I’ll discuss the subversion of suffering and death in Psalm 22, poetry by Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a music video by Johnny Cash, in the hope of illustrating how Christian hope transforms our perspective on what Levertov calls the “looming presences” of “great suffering, great fear.” 

What makes art “Christian”? There are a number of suggested answers, the most popular of which focus on a work’s explicit religious content (it features something identifiably Christian), the faith convictions of the artist (he or she is a Christian), or the effect the work has on a viewer (it leads one to prayer or devotion). Some make the distinction between sacred art, which is any work of art clearly intended for use in a worship setting, and Christian or even religious art, which are both a bit more amorphous. Others suggest the category of Christian art is one we should retire altogether, as it often reduces art and its enjoyment to overly pious ideas which confuse rather than clarify. “Why not think in terms of good and bad art, instead?” suggests Maureen Mullarkey, in a valuable essay on the topic which illustrates how limiting the conversation about Christian art can be. Flannery O’Connor likewise struggled with the narrowness of the term, and in her essays struggled to explain exactly what she as a Catholic writer was up to. The conversation is made all the more murky by the reduction of “art” to the “fine arts,” a topic of some importance for Christians seeking to do all things to the glory of God. A helpful discussion of this can be found in Frank Burch Brown’s Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aestehetics in Religious Life, and in the works of Jacques Maritain on art, namely Art and Scholasticism and The Responsibility of the Artist. In this post I want to suggest an avenue of inquiry which allows us to use the term Christian art in a manner which is precise yet also allows for an expansiveness that avoids the often moralistic and doctrinaire terms imposed on the creative process. I’ll begin with Flannery O’Connor’s reflections on art and illustrate them by commenting on one of her stories, and, in a second post, consider her ideas in light of the twenty-second Psalm, poetry by Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a video by Johnny Cash.

Continue reading

Hopkins, Poetry, and Overcoming Utilitarian Views of Art and Beauty

For anyone interested in poetry Gerard Manley Hopkins is a figure of some importance. His output, though comparatively slim, has steadily grown in influence ever since its posthumous publication almost a hundred years ago, and he is now considered to be not only one of the major poets of the 19th century, but a writer of such originality that his language is often compared to poets writing decades later. His work is readily available in numerous editions, and some of them include selections from his devotional writings and sermons (he was a Jesuit priest). For help in reading Hopkins there are several good guides, such as Norman H. MacKenzie, A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins; Aidan Nichols, OP, Hopkins: Theologian’s Poet; and Peter Milward, SJ, A Commentary on the Sonnets of G.M. Hopkins. All three contain exposition (MacKenzie covers all the poems, the others selections, with Milward concentrating on the sonnets), while the last two also contain the text of the poems. MacKenzie’s book is something of a classic, now in its second edition, while Nichols is rich with informed theological exposition. The recent biography by Catholic poet Paul Mariani also stands out, as does the recent novel Exiles by Catholic novelist Ron Hansen.

Continue reading

The Varieties of Nihilistic Experience, Part 4: Nietzsche and the Problem of Secularized Christianity


“The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

We are Nietzsche’s Last Men, those who make everything small. This should be evident to anyone paying attention to contemporary social, cultural, and intellectual developments. That the depth of our banalities reflects our unconscious response to the crisis of nihilism will not surprise careful readers of Nietzsche’s investigations into the moral and psychological possibilities available to those living after his announcement of the death and burial of God. While Nietzsche was wrong in his assessment of the causes of and solutions to the advent of modern nihilism, his expectation of the likely fate of those left standing marks him as one of nihilism’s greatest prophets.

Far from celebrating nihilism as granting us absolution from any social and moral responsibility, as some who have not read him carefully often think, Nietzsche dreaded nihilism with its arrival of the Last Man. Dissatisfied with half-measures where authentic living was at stake and convinced that any appeal to transcendence was imaginatively futile, Nietzsche could envision only the Overman, the one who unlocks and courageously actualizes our human potential, as an alternative to the insipid “lifestyle” of the Last Men. (Übermensch is the term rendered as “Superman” or “Overman”; while it is common for critics to believe that Nietzsche hoped this amoral figure would sweep destructively through history, it is more likely a preliminary concept he struggled to articulate in the context of the crisis of nihilism.) And he was clear regarding whom he thought would be a more popular choice: “Give us this Last Man, O Zarathustra,” the crowd clamors to Nietzsche’s prophet in Nietzsche’s best-known work. “Make us into the Last Man! You can have the Overman!”

Continue reading

The Varieties of Nihilistic Experience, Part 2: Moral Awakening in a World of Nothing

For the first part of this series, written by Andrew Ellison, go to the Catholic Phoenix blog.

Several years ago a few students in my Sophomore Great Books Theology class asserted the impossibility of making universally normative moral judgments. They predictably trotted out the conventional reasons for making this universally normative moral judgment, from differences in cultural and religious background to the prevailing fashion for submitting to what passes as tolerance, and I dutifully played along by encouraging their moral agnosticism. By the time the class ended, I had succeeded in directing a few students to admit the impossibility of condemning the Nazis. After virtue, indeed.

The next class I tried to demonstrate the absurdity of such a claim and to clarify the nature of our shared moral values and language. To begin I passed out a faux Grade Policy Amendment explaining that, due to a growing concern among college admission boards that grade inflation in American high schools was running rampant, Xavier was beginning the process of changing the way it graded student performance. Starting that very day, our current grade scale was suspended for all Great Books courses; no longer would an average of between 94-100% earn a student an A for a course. Instead, for a class the size of my Sophomore group, only the top five grades in the class would earn an A. The next seven grades would earn a B, the next seven a C, the next five a D, and the final three an F. Conceivably, a student with an 88% could fail the course and have to repeat it the following year, if that was one of the three lowest grades in the class, while a student with a 95% might earn a B or possibly a C, depending on how the other students performed. “This is, after all,” I said, “a Great Books course. Most of you have earned straight A’s forever, and you’re a bright, competitive bunch.”

Continue reading

Controversy at St. Sincerus University in the Aftermath of Satan’s Commencement Speech

This is the 3rd in a continuing series of posts concerning SSU. 

June 20

St. Sincerus University is usually quiet at this time of the year. Recent graduates have left in search of jobs, and students in dorms and residency halls have returned home until next school year. But this summer the school has been rocked by controversy & claims of collusion with the forces of evil and their best-known symbol, the Prince of Darkness.

On May 5 it was announced that St. Sincerus, the 84th largest Catholic university in the country, had invited Satan to deliver its commencement address the following week. The university community was nearly unanimous in its approval of the invitation, as students, alumni, & faculty applauded what has been hailed as an act of ecumenical courage. “This invitation reflects our openness to the global spiritual community,” one graduating senior said after the invitation became known. “I couldn’t be more proud to be an SSU student.”

Within the conservative Catholic community, however, there have been fierce attacks on St. Sincerus and its popular president, Fr. Thaddeus Despereaux, as detractors claim that the university is deliberately trying to provoke the Church and its bishops at a time when commencement addresses at Catholic universities have become a battleground in the conflict between progressive and anti-progressive forces. Controversial Catholic communications network founder and host of the radio show “Warriors of Faith” Sr. Mary Margaret Agnes Thomas Aquinas of the Incarnation claimed that “this move is typical of those ‘Catholic’ universities trying to cater to the whims of secularists and haters of the Church.” Other critics have claimed Despereaux was making a political statement in support of the current presidential administration & its policies, some of which have been condemned by right-wing Catholic leaders for being hostile to the Catholic Church.

Despereaux has denied any betrayal of faith or political grandstanding, defending the invitation to Satan on the grounds that a genuine university will always be prepared to have its core beliefs strengthened through debate and challenge. “Satan has a long and distinguished record of intellectual and public service,” Despereaux noted before the commencement speech on May 12th, adding that the invitation should not be considered a challenge to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “As a university in the catholic tradition, Saint Sincerus firmly disassociates itself from any positions or policies that are in open conflict with important church teachings,” he added. “Yet we are a community that is fiercely committed to the free exchange of ideas, even when those ideas challenge preconceived notions. While we draw our inspiration from a religious tradition that provides us with an intellectual, moral, and spiritual point of departure, we are also open to critically engaging that tradition in order to become the university we believe God called us to be.”

Fr. Edward F.X. Cheever has become the loudest voice of opposition to Despereaux and what he claims is a long-standing willingness of the university and its administration to “play with fire.” Cheever, the Distinguished Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Culture & Religion at St. Sincerus, was initially indifferent to the invitation and the criticism it drew. He was even quoted in the student newspaper as saying that Satan doesn’t exist. Recently, however, he has made a number of antagonistic remarks in the wake of Satan’s speech. Cheever suffered a mild heart attack the evening before, shortly after having a private meeting with Satan. From his hospital bed two days later he claimed how badly mistaken he had been in claiming that the devil was not real, and that Satan has “duped everybody at St. Sincerus into thinking he is benevolent, when in fact he is the father of all lies and wholly bent on our destruction.” When asked why he had changed his mind so dramatically, Cheever claimed to have seen “the true face of evil.” He also contends that his heart attack was triggered by Satan revealing his role in ancient religious sacrifice, Cheever’s academic specialty, as well as his plans for the future of St. Sincerus. “We are headed for ruin unless we dramatically turn course,” he added, and implored President Despereaux to publicly repent of his sins and denounce Satan. In his strongest words, Cheever went so far as to claim that Despereaux has for years openly encouraged Satan to “weave his evil spell” over St. Sincerus by promoting his diabolical work through university programs & policies, all in the attempt to cater to social & academic trends.

Despereaux and his legion of supporters have brushed aside such criticism, suggesting that the stress of a heart attack has clouded Cheever’s mind. “Fr. Cheever has had a rough few days. We should pray for him, and allow him to rest and recover quietly. Extremist statements like this are uncharacteristic of Eddie, and we hope he will temper future remarks with Christian charity and moderation,” Despereaux said, adding that Cheever’s words “may inadvertently fuel the current climate of division and confusion.” Despereaux has also noted that Satan’s speech, far from being an invitation down the dark path of demonic despair and ruin, was both an inspiration and a call to action for all who attended the graduation ceremony. “We’ve had students, alumni, parents, & local business people all asking how they can help further the vision so eloquently articulated by Satan. Heck, he even fired me up. And fundraising has seldom been so successful at this time of year.”

Despereaux declined comment on the rumor that the university has invited Satan to become a full-time faculty member, though he did say that Satan’s academic credentials in a number of disciplines are impressive. Cheever, who is currently recuperating at his residence on campus, has promised to give a full-length interview with the on-line journal Idées Progressiste as part of its award winning interview series in the coming months. And Satan, the figure who has had the least to say in the controversy surrounding his appearance at St. Sincerus and its aftermath, has yet to comment, though he is rumored to be on vacation in Peru. Calls to his publicist have not been returned.

Satan’s Commencement Speech at St. Sincerus University

Thank you. (loud applause) Thank you all very much. Thank you, Fr. Despereaux. Please, folks (continued applause), please be seated. A little restraint every now & then. . . (laughter).

Seriously, this is quite an honor for me. I can’t say an unexpected honor, as this invitation was in the cards for some time now. And this despite all the non-attention I’ve received from many of your Catholic intellectuals; wasn’t it your own Fr. Cheever in Ancient Near Eastern Studies who said in your student paper that I don’t exist? (laughter). He’s not alone in thinking that, though I take it that after we got to know each other a bit better last night he has a different take on things. Talk about an ashen countenance when I discussed my background! Suffice it to say that he knows a bit more about ancient mythology & sacrifice than he did before we spoke. It really is too bad he can’t be here today, as he’s much in my thoughts, as are all the fine academics at this institution. Much of the work you do is directly responsible for my being here today, & I am much pleased by it.

To honor the graduates of St. Sincerus, I will focus my remarks on the creative gifts God has so richly blessed you all with, as well as on your sacred responsibility to nurture those gifts, despite the heavy costs. As you know, you live in a world in which the majority of people seek to restrain, to control, & even to deny the creativity of the few. Isn’t it a sad irony that such a gift, which can help you to make & remake your world, & which is an expression of God’s image within you, so badly frightens the unimaginative?  I believe the patron of this school would be as pleased as I am with your attempts in recent years to use your creativity to produce such a life affirming environment here on campus, & would hope that you continue forward. “Fear not!” I can almost here him saying at this very moment, as he thinks about the work of your administration, faculty, & student organizations to make more people welcome here.

(loud applause from the members of the audience, who rise from their seats; shouts of “SSU! SSU!” break out)

Yes, by all means, celebrate yourselves. Always. . . At any rate, before we all get too carried away (there is a time & place for everything, remember), I wish to address the following in my remarks: the need for creativity & innovation in forming diverse communities, in thinking through your moral lives, & in applying the benefits of scientific discovery to the improvement of life. As you already excel in the first two of these, it’s likely you’ll have some things to tell me; so I’ll reserve my longer remarks for the third.

I think the most visible accomplishment of SSU is your creativity in opening the doors of your community to make a hospitable place for the least of your brothers & sisters. You have indeed taken to heart the words from the gospel, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Remarkable words, these. . . In fact, to acknowledge your openness to the speaker of these words, I think you might consider renaming your fine institution. How does this sound: “St. Sincerus Multiversity”? (audience cheers) For you all know, as is evident in your student organizations, mission statements, diversity statements, statements of respect, & statements of inclusivity, not to mention your 10K Race for Acceptance & your world-class Center for the Understanding of Love & Tolerance, that there is a bewildering array of opinions, viewpoints, perspectives, doctrines, hopes & fears, & experiences out there. C’est la vie! as the French would say. But you have chosen the path of courage by celebrating the diversity that lesser individuals & communities would feel threatened by. This was apparent to me yesterday as I toured your campus, talked with members of the faculty, ate lunch with students in the student union, & listened with fascination as your very own Fr. Despereaux gave the key-note lecture at the conference that ended last night, “Diverse Worshippers, Diverse Ecclesiologies: An Eco-Vegan Critique of Traditional Eucharistic Theology.” Who knew just how scandalous a simple memorial meal could be? I’ll tell you who knew: you did, & you should take pride at standing up to your bishop’s objections to your hosting such a conference. You must be wary of those who sneer at the mere whiff of innovation, as a true multiversity will embrace innovation & be led by it. And the leaders of this multiversity will always ask, “Did God really say that we will perish if we take the high road of conscience & freedom?” Your bishop, & all those like him in seats of power, fear that by your inclusion of the marginalized you will become the true locus of ecclesial authority. For it is love that binds you together & bears the loudest witness to true gospel values. It is love that is the true measure of holiness & thus authority, & the clearest mark of love is the creative attempt to love those different from yourself. Here you must brook no opposition, for true tolerance will beat down those who stand up against it with the violence of love. The hatred of hate, as Fr. Despereaux suggested to your fine school paper, is essential to the Catholic ethos, & must grow ever-stronger & harsher if you are to prevail.

As with your openness to openness in expanding your community, you have also shown remarkable zeal in creatively rethinking the old moral platitudes that continue to restrict so many in your Church, & I don’t think I have to say much here. But let me draw your attention to a phrase I recently heard from an artist discussing his work. We should, he said, learn to “transgress in love.” Savor that for a moment: “Transgress in love.” (pauses for several moments) Isn’t this precisely what the prophets & apostles did? Would there ever have been a St. Sincerus, or any saint at all, without transgressing the narrow categories of the narrow minded? Acts of transgressive creativity in the service of love stand behind every true revolution, moral or otherwise. I saw something of this last night. Your Phallic Fridays may have brought intense criticism upon your school, but what I witnessed last night, & on into the morning, was nothing less than moral courage. And what creativity! Talk about challenging traditional morality! You folks zealously chased it away, & what remained behind you clubbed into passive submission, which is in itself an act of delicious creativity. I almost blush thinking about your courage. But beyond all the interesting intimacies whispered & pursued, what I witnessed was the fresh air of a new world blowing onto campus. This, I suspect, is what your Church leaders meant by aggiornamento all those years ago, & it was a genuine pleasure to see the spirit of Vatican II, as they sometimes still call it, so vigorously indulged in.

And this leads me to my final topic, which of course is an extension of everything I’ve already said. I refer to the creative rethinking of what human life may become through the application of exciting new technologies to the human subject. The fact that you opened a Center of Bioethics & Biotechnology four years ago, under the direction of a Princeton grad, no less, suggests that you are perhaps already preparing yourselves for the inevitable changes ahead. Let me begin with a rather everyday, even banal, example to lead into my remarks.

(holds up a pair of eyeglasses, seemingly pulled out of the air)

Look at this invention. What genius! Carefully ground glass, placed elegantly in a metal frame. What your gospels suggest, though only in a metaphorical sense, is now possible through the science of optics: “Let the blind see!” What we have here, & what you, sir, (pointing to a student in the 5th row) have in the form of contact lenses, represents a small victory over nature by those cheated out of normal vision. “The least of my brethren” will always include the blind, no? And not just the blind, but those suffering from even worse maladies & mistakes. “In science & in medicine/I was a stranger & you took me in.” That Irish band which often gets under my skin came up with that line, which nicely expresses how so many of your scientists & physicians have understood their task as healers. To overcome the limitations of arbitrary nature, to transgress in love the boundaries fixed by an often senseless & cruel world in service to their Lord: this is the glory & the promise of the science & practice of medicine.

And not just in the restoration of vision. That young lady in the 12th row with the insulin pump attached to her hip; that gentlemen in the 39th row taking medication for his depression; the younger sister of the graduate in the 3rd row, sitting at home scared half to death because she is, as you say, “late”, but who knows that a visit to a woman’s health clinic can save her; & even your own Fr. Cheever, who is, we hope, recovering from the heart attack he suffered last night: these & countless others here this afternoon have reason to celebrate the scientific advances & innovations that make it possible to live a healthy, normal life. But should you settle for normal? For mere restoration?

A few of the faculty members of your Biotechnology program think not, & I’m with them. Two summers ago one of them attended a conference at an another fine institution, Oxford University, on “Bioethics & the Posthuman Future.” What he began to wonder about as he heard papers being read & developments in biotechnology presented, I have always known, that death, your greatest of enemies, need not have the final word. I think it is time for all of you to be excited about how your assault on the limits nature imposes on you has turned in such fruitful directions. Is it not possible, you can now ask in all seriousness, to consider death as a disease? A condition that can be treated, like smallpox, malaria, & countless other forms of illness & disease? Even, perhaps, overcome?

Some may scoff, & attribute such thoughts to the fantastic imaginations of science fiction writers. Yet these fantastic imaginations are directly responsible for insulin pumps, Zoloft, anti-platelet agents, & the humble contact lens, not to mention the world of technology that helps you pay your bills online, send text messages, & safely celebrate your Phallic Fridays. Why not celebrate these imaginations, & encourage them to roam freely in pursuit of humanity’s greatest prize? As those familiar with posthumanism already know, a growing number of scientists, philosophers, & ethicists have been on the cusp of truly revolutionary discoveries. Some suggest that, given the fact that the human brain is very much like a complex supercomputer, there exists the possibility of developing a process by which you, the real you, that is, all the information in your brain, could actually be transferred to a computer. Scanning the synaptic structure of a brain with sufficient resolution & then implementing the same computations in a computer, a process that takes advantage of developments in nanotechnology; or using an electron microscope with automatic image processing to disassemble the brain atom by atom: these are just two of the possible methods by which scientists are thinking their way into the brave new future, one that promises the opportunity of releasing you from your bondage to your bodies, with all their frailties & imperfections. What are your two greatest enemies, according to the sacred text? “The world & the flesh.” The flesh, the body, that which separates you from the heights of the genuine transcendence you all crave. This posthuman hope of moving beyond mere bodily existence is an ancient one, cherished in all cultures, & is at the heart of your own finest spiritual traditions. What is religion, after all, if not a means to achieve spiritual liberation? And what is spiritual liberation if not a release from the prison house of the body? “Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?” For the first time these words can become more than wishful thinking, but only if you deprive death of that which it feeds on.

There will be those who challenge your courage & vision here. They will claim that you are “tampering with nature” or “trying to play God.” To those concerns I say only this: You, sir, with the eyeglasses, are you not “tampering with nature”? Are you not pleased that others have? And you, young lady with the insulin pump, are you not celebrating the achievements of those who have “played God” in the field of medical research? Nature & its God took away your vision, & stopped your pancreas from producing insulin. Have you not, by the very fact that you see clearly, & that you are alive despite having a defective pancreas, already signaled your rebellion from nature? And those of you who will take a few Advils when you get a headache, or turn on the air conditioning when it gets hot, or take antibiotics when you have a sinus infection, or ask a surgeon to remove a tumor from the body of your child, are you not all “tampering with nature”?

Of course you are. And rightly so, for you know that nature is cruel & merciless, & that your ability to defend yourselves against it is part of God’s greatest gift, your creativity & inventiveness. You have been entrusted with dominion over creation, & bear witness to your faithfulness with every new discovery, every invention that diminishes suffering, every creative use of human skill & freedom. Should you not use this gift of dominion? Should you not, as in the parable, use the talents God gave you to extend this gift? It seems to me that your scriptures teach that you have the responsibility to grab the right fruit this time, that which hangs from the tree of life. While the garden that holds that tree was once declared off-limits, it need no longer be. The angel guarding it has laid down his flaming sword, which represents the human limitations in knowledge & courage that cripple your attempts to take what is rightfully offered you. All that keeps you from it now is fear, & the desire of the weak to control you by dictating what is “natural.” You have shown remarkable courage in resisting those people in the areas I mentioned earlier in my speech. Why not continue forward? Or, rather, why not go back to the garden where you made your original mistake, & make the wiser choice this time?

The final frontier is not just a metaphor from a television series, but a genuine possibility that lies before you, like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new. I wonder if you will have the courage to strive for it.

Let me close with a quote from one of my favorite literary passages. As with many such passages, the true meaning becomes apparent only with the passage of time. While the mid-19th century may not have been truly prepared to understand & act upon these words, I suspect the time is ripe for you to actualize the vision announced here:

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.”

You have in so many ways, St. Sincerus University class of 2012, spoken the rude truth. You have refused the easy paths of conformity & obedience. You have shunned the cliches, the pre-packaged ideas others would force upon you. Platitudes are not for you. No, you go boldly where no one has gone before; you take the road less travelled; you question authority. You challenge the sacredness of all traditions & allow only your own constitution to dictate your way forward. Good for you. When others disagree, as they will, remember the words of Emerson: “if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

Good luck to you all.

Author’s note:  There is, of course, no such institution as St. Sincerus, although I think the things said to go on there are not too far removed from reality. My attempt in the previous post announcing that Satan would give the commencement address at St. Sincerus was to make a little fun of some of the shenanigans going at some Catholic universities. I was not attacking Georgetown University, or Notre Dame, or any real institution, nor was I suggesting that any politician is either Satan or satanic, although some commenters went in that direction. To do so, I think, is to play into the devil’s hands, despite our need to offer a critical response informed by the gospel to ideas, statements, policies, etc. that challenge & distort the truth. Yet I think that if Catholics spent as much time praying for the people & institutions that stray from the gospel as we do violently insulting them, we might be surprised to discover how much this might change things, beginning with ourselves.  

As far as the approach I took in the original announcement & this longer piece, I enjoy reading satire, whether or not I am any good at writing it. And it seems to me that any successful satire will including giving some “good lines” to the bad guy; that is, Satan can’t be waving a pitchfork & sticking out a forked tongue at the audience. Bad guys, including Satan, rarely announce themselves directly, & the most wicked of them are usually quite adept at deceiving others through paraphrase & misdirection. Thus, I tried to have Satan say many things that are either true but twisted out of context, or close to the truth but incomplete & in need of qualification. GK Chesterton wrote that Mr. Wickham from Pride & Prejudice was such a threat not because he told lies, but because he told half-truths. He either withheld essential information, or distorted the truths he did offer. So I tried to do with Satan here.

Anthony DiStefano

Catholic University Invites Satan to Give Commencement Speech

May 5, 2012

In a move already denounced by Catholic bishops & other leading religious conservatives, St. Sincerus University, the nation’s 84th largest Catholic university, has invited Satan to deliver its commencement speech later this month. Also known as the Prince of Darkness, Lucifer, &, more popularly, the Devil, Satan is a divisive figure among Catholics & other Christians. In recent years several Catholic universities have caused controversy by inviting other divisive figures to deliver commencement speeches, such as President Obama at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. The invitation to Satan by SSU president Fr. Thad Despereaux comes at a time when many Catholics are highly critical of the Obama administration’s attempts to reform health care, which some claim would force Catholic institutions to violate their Church’s teachings by providing contraceptives as part of their health insurance plans. Fr. Despereaux, in comments made to the Daily Sham, SSU’s student newspaper, said that having Satan on campus gives bold witness to a central Catholic principle that God can be found in all things. “The continuing politicization of the faith indicates just how important it is for us to build bridges,” Fr. Despereaux said. “Our whole mission as a university is to bring people together. Satan is badly misunderstood by many people, & we hope to show our graduates that stereotypes, & the hatred they engender, have no place on a Catholic campus. As Catholics we are to hate hate.”

On-campus reactions at SSU have been favorable, as faculty & students alike have applauded the university’s open-mindedness in issuing the invitation. Dr. Sophia Greengrass, Director of the university’s Wiccan Institute, called the invitation a brave attempt to promote the university’s academic integrity in the face of “fascist attempts by the male hierarchy to impose its limited & limiting dogmas”, while Declan Spencer, a Religious Studies major studying the mythical underpinnings of religious language, said he hoped to meet Satan & thank him for his contributions to world culture.  Some faculty, however, have questioned the wisdom of the invitation. “Satan doesn’t actually exist,” said Fr. Eddie Cheever, Professor of Early Christian Literature, “so it will be interesting to hear what he says. Or doesn’t say.” And Professor David Evans, noted for his support of traditional Church teachings, said the invitation further reflects the administration’s attempts to distance itself from the Church.  “It does make sense, given the administration’s recent policies,” he said, noting Fr. Despereaux’s endorsement of Phallic Fridays, in which students erect large phallic sculptures around the SSU chapel, cover them with latex, & ironically sing hymns to the fertility god Priapus, as well as the popular Religion-less Lent, instituted last year, in which Catholic students were urged to give up prayer & mass attendance during Lent.

As of this afternoon, Satan has not publicly responded to the invitation, though Prof. Evans suggested that since he is already quite at home at SSU, there is little doubt that he will accept.

On Harleys, Christian Car Shows, & the Good Life (or, Why Nietzsche Was Wrong About Christianity)

This is a revised version of a post from 2 years ago.

I read a story in the paper not long ago about a pastor of a Protestant church who, in the hopes of drawing more men to his services, organized a car show.  Theis pastor rides a Harley & wears jeans & Hawaiian shirts, a point of some importance to the writer of the article.  In its fifth year, the car show draws about 10,000 attendees, has big-name sponsors, & is tied into various charitable causes.  This is a nice story, as people are enjoying themselves & helping others.  Whether or not the pastor is meeting his stated goal of getting “dads out of the garage & into the church” was left unsaid, but the dads are at least out of the garage, which meets the first half of the goal.

I’ve heard similar stories throughout the years about pastors, youth ministers, & others interested in evangelizing the unchurched by inviting them to events such as Christian film nights, Christian rock concerts, Christian coffee houses, Christian comedy nights, & so on.  On the face of it, there’s probably not much to say about this ongoing attempt to reach people by showing them that, yes, we Christians can have fun, too.  We’re human, after all, & we can watch movies, make jokes, & drink lattes like everyone else.  We can even rock-n-roll.  Yet I think there is an underlying assumption in all these stories, one shared by the journalists who write them & by many of those who read them. Namely, the assumption that Christianity makes living an enjoyable life, one replete with (especially masculine) everyday pleasures, difficult if not impossible.

I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to be be unduly critical of believers trying to cast their nets & fulfill Christ’s call to be fishers of men.  Evangelism has always taken on interesting & creative forms, including in societies like ours where the Gospel has grown stale.  Nor do I want to make too much out of what, as I said above, is a nice story.  And yet. . .  I couldn’t help, when thinking about pastors wearing Hawaiian shirts, riding Harleys, & organizing Christian car shows, being reminded of Nietzsche’s caustic remarks about the deadening effects Christianity has had on the soul of the West.  Of course Nietzsche had never seen a Protestant pastor in jeans, & he was spared from the banalities of both Christian rock & American journalism.  He did, however, say some things that are pertinent to the story I cited & what many in our society today instinctively feel about Christianity.

Of all the critics of the faith Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) holds pride of place for his wit, ability to turn a phrase, & psychological insight into the impact of Christianity on the psyche of the West.  It would be refreshing to encounter a critic of Nietzsche’s intellectual stature today amid all the drivel dished out by publishing houses seeking to capitalize on the new atheism buzz.  At the very least, we would be treated to a literary elegance that would make even the worst overstatements & inaccuracies more tolerable.  More importantly, we would have a critic who takes Christianity seriously enough to try to understand it & how it shapes its followers.  Even if Nietzsche often badly misreads the faith & its implications, he knows that he must do more than hurl missiles in the hope of destroying something he doesn’t like.  Rather, as a critic he must understand in some depth the Christian ethos & how it revolutionized everything from politics to art to morality as it swept through the late ancient world & changed the way people in the West felt & thought about everything.

Throughout his work Nietzsche complains that Christianity emasculates those who embrace it & the society it takes root in.  “The death of the genuinely human” might be the best short answer to the question of what Nietzsche thinks happens when Christianity establishes itself as the dominant faith of a people.  The ressentiment (he always uses the French word; no one I’ve read seems to know why) he finds at the root of the Christian ethos is a living & active force, sitting in judgment of & trying to root out the very virtues which make genuine greatness possible.  These virtues, according to Nietzsche, are in fact the principle means by which humans make sense of their world & seek to overcome the tragic dimensions of existence.  The pride that Christians denounce as the worst of sins, the recognition of the superiority of the noble to the mediocre that Christians decry as a refusal to honor all of God’s creatures, are, among other qualities characteristic of the greatest civilizations, required to ensure that those civilizations do not lapse into the decadence that Nietzsche associates with nihilism.  Such decadence results from the denial of what makes us most human, & Christianity bears much of the responsibility for this decadence.  A creed that elevates weakness at the expense of strength eviscerates human beings & the cultures they build, as is evident when we study the historical record of the West.

This type of criticism is widely & instinctively felt, if not well understood or articulated.  Not because people have been reading Nietzsche & his disciples, but because it seems to many that religion makes people soft.  Isn’t it commonly held that to “be religious” is to be somehow unnatural & weak?  Think of all the restrictions, all the denials, all the things we are supposed to avoid.  Chastity & abstinence, rejecting anger, suppressing our natural aggressiveness, turning the other cheek, forgiving those who harm you, becoming the milquetoast subjects of an ethic that demands the unnatural virtue of meekness:  How does this fit the do-it-yourself American ethos?  How does this allow us to be properly human?  And, in a society with simplistic ideas about gender roles, doesn’t this Christian ethos seem too feminine?  Isn’t this apparent at every church service, where all you have to do is check out the male/female ratio of those in attendance to take the measure of this religion?  Nietzsche was tapping into a natural vein of criticism when he attacked Christianity as life-denying, & while the average critic today may not be able to keep in step with his blistering polemic, there is a shared distrust of any form of religious sensibility, especially one nurtured by all the sweet sentiments expressed in popular Christian culture.  Christianity can often seem like a humorless attempt to follow the Jesus in those kitschy paintings, the one who is holding a lamb & surrounded by cute little children.  All so sweet, all so sentimental.  This is the faith that conquered a world?

Some Christians will respond to this view, which they may unconsciously hold themselves, by mimicking secular culture.  I remember going to a Christian rock concert shortly after my conversion all those years ago.  The friend who invited me, a recent convert as well, tried to convince me that the devil did not have the best tunes, & that Christian rock was legitimate.  “You praise Jesus and get to rock,” he said.  After a few songs, as we walked out of the auditorium with blank stares on our faces & a sick feeling in our hearts, we got in the car & cranked up REM (this was the mid-’80’s).  “Too bad they’re not Christian,” we said, wondering how many more Christian concerts we’d be invited to.  “Too bad we’re not supposed to like this stuff,” we thought, wondering if we’d get to listen to the music we liked without feeling guilty.  “Love not the world,” right?  This meant, according to the crowd we hung with, “Love not secular music, secular movies, secular activities, anything that smacks of the life you are leaving behind.”  For these are not the fruit of the love of Christ, so what good are they?  They glorify the flesh, not the Lord.  And how do they help us evangelize the lost?  How do they not corrupt those of us who now live in Christ & are called to denounce the spirit of this age?  Yes, the devil probably does have the best tunes, as we had to admit after listening to the Christian stuff, but real sacrifices must be made.  Take up your cross & all that.  Just like the guy did who testified in church that he had burned all his secular records because of his desire to serve the Lord with all his heart.  The applause he received was impressive.

Such was the thinking of the Christian world I had entered, the world of a conservative Protestant evangelicalism still haunted by its fundamentalist origins.  My group of new friends had a few who still listened to secular music & watched secular films, though guiltily.  That included me.  Lacking a theological foundation in the incarnational logic of the faith, we enjoyed secular culture with a bad conscience, & even tried to justify our delights by appealing to how we would be able to meet unbelievers on their own turf. “This will actually help us to witness to Christ,” we said, trying to answer the critic inside us who wondered how our visitations to the land of the lost would be seen by its inhabitants.  “Unbelievers will see that we Christians are actually cool, that our faith doesn’t disqualify us from the good life.”  And, of course, we tried to find all kinds of hidden Christian ideas in our secular music & films, deciphering lyrics & scripts as if they were allegories begging to be cracked open by those of us brave enough to risk such dangerous exposure.

This will sound familiar to a lot of believers, not only Protestants, current or former.  While I think this is more of a Protestant issue, there are Catholics who struggle with the same questions & doubts.  With this sort of struggle within the community of believers, is it any surprise that those on the outside think what they do about us?  It often seems to them, as it does to many believers themselves, that we have embraced a faith that demands of us a renunciation of everything that makes life worth living, even innocent pleasures.  Isn’t this just more evidence that we can’t enjoy life without feeling guilty?  Who needs Nietzsche to point out the obvious?  It’s enough simply to hear us babbling about beatitudes that deny common sense & running away from even harmless pursuits like music & movies to remind people why going to church seems a huge waste of time.

I think this is behind those stories that inform readers that there are Christians who wear Hawaiian shirts, ride Harleys, engage in activities like going to car shows, open coffee shops with religious names (“Sacred Grounds,” “Holy Beans,” etc.), go to Christian concerts, & so on.  “Hey, look,” the stories imply, “those religious people are actually doing things we enjoy.  Maybe they’re not so weird, after all.”  The newspaper is no place to look for theological sophistication, but it does reveal the common American lack of even the most basic awareness of Christian teaching.  This misunderstanding includes the idea that, as Nietzsche believed, we Christians can not by the very logic of our faith live the good life, as too much must be excluded.  The Harley riders, moviegoers, & rockers among us must be the exception to the rule. It’s as if we’re at the zoo & we see a baboon combing its hair.  “Hey, kids, look at the funny monkey,” we say.  ”It’s trying to act like us.”  Yes, but it’s still a baboon.

Some believers accept the basic premise of these stories, & play the baboon, primping & preening for their secular neighbors, hoping to be validated in their eyes, or perhaps hoping to convince themselves that they are not giving up everything that makes life worth living.  No, I am not indicting the pastor in the story mentioned above, or most of the other Christians who do similar things (but “Holy Grounds”? C’mon).  Rather, I am simply reflecting on my own experiences as a new believer way back when, what Nietzsche said about us Christians, & some commonly held ideas in our society.  I do think there is some validity in reading news stories from this perspective, or in asking these questions about them & why they are considered worthy of being published in the first place.  What’s most important to me about all this, however, is the conviction that Jesus was actually wrong, that following him does demand our emasculation, that the poor in spirit are not the blessed ones, & that meekness is a sign of weakness.  And that the saints I so admire didn’t know the truth that sets us free.  The good life may or may not include car shows or rock music, but it will be modeled upon the life of Jesus.  On this point Nietzsche was badly mistaken, as are all those who accept his conclusions.  That those outside (& sometimes inside) our community of faith are surprised by the fact that we can use the things of this world, that we can enjoy many things that are not overtly “religious,” is not ultimately due to their commitment to Nietzsche’s writings or lack of theological knowledge, but to our inability or unwillingness as believers to understand Jesus & the faith we profess, & to live accordingly.  Were we to live the Beatitudes, as the saints always do, & witness to the joy that life in Christ makes possible, we might inspire journalists to write a different type of story about us, one that does not express surprise at the fact that we can ride Harleys.  Too many Christians seem to think that everyday pleasures are morally suspect & that there is something odd about Christians who enjoy themselves doing “regular” things.  In our preaching & in our lives we should be better able to tease out the implications of the incarnational faith we profess, & show by the joy of our lives that Nietzsche, & everyone who suspects that he was right, had a deeply flawed understanding of what it means to be human.  And that Jesus was on target when he told us that the good life, the happy life, the life of genuine blessedness, is lived only by those are transformed by the Holy Spirit so that they are poor in spirit, knowing their dependence upon God; so that they are meek, able to battle successfully the temptation to use force against the foes & frustrations that seek to thwart us; & so on.  We are hardly emasculated by the Spirit, but strengthened & enabled to live as God intended us to live.  Rather than having to read reports on how Christians are doing things others do, despite their religious beliefs, we should see more stories about how utterly different we are, how we live with greater joy & peace than our neighbors, & how that joy & peace is a sign of the presence of the Spirit within us.

–Anthony DiStefano

Rituals of Indifferent Cruelty: First Thoughts on The Hunger Games, the City of Omelas, & Harry Potter

I recently finished The Hunger Games trilogy, & think it requires some comment. I’m aware of why some critics think the books deeply flawed from a moral perspective, yet I find the story provocative in the best sort of way. The 3rd book was a literary letdown, as many have already noted, but I found the resolution satisfying nonetheless. It seems that one of the questions I have wrestled with is whether or not I can dislike the main protagonist of a series, yet find her both convincing & effective as a character. My biggest struggle concerns the suitability of the series for my 7th grader, whose friends—some of them younger than her—have read the series & seen the film. She is thus exposed to the Team Peeta talk that the media machine spins out. But how prepared is she for the types of discussions we will have about redemptive violence, scapegoating, just war theory, & the other topics I think need addressing? 

Likewise, the question of the literary presentation of ambiguous characters like Katniss requires attention. When young readers will so quickly identify with her, does it make sense for an author whose intended audience is teens to have such a character involved in the murder of innocent people, even if in the service of a greater good? I remember the boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road asking his father if they were the good guys, seeking some assurance that they had not departed from the proper path. That story was for a more mature audience, one hopefully better able to negotiate the horrors revealed in it. As an adult, I can appreciate how ruined a person Katniss becomes as a result of what happens to her & the resulting choices she makes, & see The Hunger Games as a realistic portrayal of how violence spins out of control & destroys everyone in its path. But in the consumer culture these books (& film) inhabit, where the characters become catch phrases, how likely is it young readers will be able to appreciate some of the subtleties in the story?

I’ll start with some familiar topics I teach at Xavier & have written on previously. Check some of my earlier posts at the Emeth Society blog for more details on Peter Singer. Please be aware that I will ramble, as I am trying to find my thoughts on these troubling questions.


In 1973 Ursula Le Guin published “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” a story I stumbled upon years ago in a moral philosophy anthology. The premise is simple & elegant: the shining, prosperous city of Omelas, filled with happy & cultured citizens, requires for its continued success the suffering of a single child, locked in darkness & misery in a basement closet. Here is Le Guin’s description:

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

Despite the discomfort such a spectacle causes the citizens of Omelas, they all know there is nothing they can do to alleviate the suffering of the child. As we are told,“they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” None of these people are outwardly cruel, in the normal usage of the term. None visit the child to torment it or add to its sufferings. None publish tracts on why the child should suffer, on why it deserves its fate. And they all feel the necessary sorrow such a reality should provoke. But they can not aid the child, or seek any change at all, if they wish to preserve their status quo:

They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The title of the story refers to those who can, for one reason or another, no longer live with such a bargain. These people leave Omelas for no one knows where: The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

This story appears in, among other places, the section of an anthology covering utilitarianism in its different forms, & is used by the editors to raise the question of how much suffering is acceptable when great benefit or happiness results. I like using the story with my Seniors, as it nicely complements Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which they read in their English classes, & encourages consideration of the deals we make in society to benefit ourselves but which harm others. I usually warn them not to dismiss the scenario as too fantastic, & ask them why I think this. Some raise the issues of sweat shops or corporate greed, while others discuss how we treat animals to feed ourselves. A few mention abortion. I try to draw attention to what must occur in Omelas for this economy to function as well as it does, namely, the complete dehumanization of the child & the ability to justify its suffering, which leads to the further dehumanization of those offering justification. Such justification is always necessary, & the citizens of Omelas are well-trained in offering it, especially as they must find a way to live with themselves in the face of such wretchedness:

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. . .

Yet there is another dimension to this tale that brings to my mind The Hunger Games & what it portrays, a dimension that should warn the reader not to read Le Guin’s story as a simplistic fable. And to consider the very real modern & contemporary societies where analogous horrors have been & continue to be perpetrated in one form or another.

. . . Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

“They know compassion.” And nobility, poignancy, profundity. In short, things which make any society “civilized.” “They” are not uncouth barbarians, but the most cultured of people, those with whom we like to identify ourselves. Yet their compassion, & the compassion of all societies that engages in rationalizations for its moral barbarity, falls well short of the full demands love places on us, the “suffering-with” the wounded & vulnerable other in our midst that the gospel calls us to. Their compassion is one that ultimately kills. This thought occurs to me every time I hear the bioethicist Peter Singer of Princeton University speak about compassion & his desire to alleviate suffering by offering a thoroughly rational ethical theory, one freed from the stains of emotion, not to mention all hints of teleology & religious faith. When covering his work some of my students openly wonder how he can speak of compassion & the elimination of suffering while claiming that there is little ethical difference between killing a snail & a day-old infant. The personhood theory he espouses alongside his updated version of utilitarianism would be of great use in Omelas, I think. Distinguishing between a human being & a human person based on cognitive capacities is a clever move for anyone interested in justifying the mistreatment, including the death, of those considered expendable because they are burdensome. Abortion rights advocates like this approach for obvious reasons, as do medical ethicists seeking to justify infanticide by calling it post-birth abortion. What is so worrisome, I try to convey to them, is how dehumanizing others desensitizes us to not only their dignity as persons, but to our own humanity. CS Lewis noted how our mistreatment of others makes it easier & more satisfying to continue mistreating them, just as acting in a loving manner ultimately makes it easier to love. He knew Aristotle & St. Thomas, & wrote compellingly not only about growth in the virtues & vices, but also about the abolition of man, the process by which we gradually surrender the moral sensibilities that provide the foundations for civilized life. Bl. John Paul II spoke of the culture of death that emerges out of this abolition, a culture that has little difficulty in speaking of compassion while pursuing its exact opposite. Even the most perverse societies, like that of Omelas, have their cultured devotees of compassion, justice, peace, etc., who openly weep at injustice & suffering, so long as it is the right type. In a weird sort of parallelism, the daily cruelties visited upon the vulnerable produce in the abusers a kind of psychic energy enabling not only their tears, but also their cultural achievements. I have no reason to doubt that Peter Singer is a fine father to his daughters, that medical ethicists justifying infanticide are fine employees & upstanding citizens. Hitler was very nice to his secretaries; as Traudl Junge recounts in her account of her life serving Hitler, he was like a father to her, & she appreciated his many kindnesses. The cruelties he visited upon his enemies, like those rationalized by advocates of personhood theory & the continued suffering of the child in Omelas, often seem completely divorced from genuine hatred. And they are considered necessary, just, required for social harmony. The cruelties are rationalized, shown to be necessary if we wish to be truly humane. Theories are developed showing how logically necessary it is to perform the rituals of cruelty. As is the case with the citizens of Panem.

As Collins describes this nation & its inhabitants, there is little reason to consider Panem, its capital a shining city of prosperity, as the dark haunt of bloodthirsty ghouls. The bread-&-circuses theme is carefully announced & illustrated, hearkening us back to ancient Rome & its taste for murderous entertainments, & some of the characters we meet from there are indeed bizarre & callous. But apart from President Snow, who literally reeks of blood (why he does is explained in the 3rd book), we do not see anyone with horns or a pitchfork. The people there have the same concerns & fears as we do, & rightly worry about the social chaos that rebellion can cause. Of course Panem is also bathed in the blood of the innocent, & its citizens revel in all the rituals attached to the Hunger Games themselves. But ask any of them if their enjoyment of these rituals suggests a warped moral sense or a taste for cruelty, & you’ll be able to count the blank stares. Just as most of the citizens of Omelas consider themselves & their society just; just as Peter Singer & all the other contemporary merchants of death raise the flag of compassion on the graves of their victims. They are able to do this with a straight face because they fail to see those victims as victims, as real persons deserving anything like real compassion.  Thus their growing indifference to the suffering they glamorize, & their increasing capacity to perfect the language & rituals by which they justify & routinize their cruelty.

Suzanne Collins’ real contribution in her trilogy, however, has less to do with how she paints the bad guys & more to do with how the good guys emulate them. Apart from Peeta, who among the good guys is tortured by the violence they are forced into? Katniss is difficult to read, at least after only one reading of the series. She is sympathetic & heroic, cold & calculating all at once. And she becomes a seasoned killer. Above all, she is ruined by what happens to her & the subsequent choices she makes, & this is where Collins achieves something JK Rowling does not in the Harry Potter books. There, good & evil are more easily distinguishable. While Draco Malfoy encourages some sympathy, how many other Slytherins or Death Eaters are more than one-dimensional characters, wholly bent on evil? Severus Snape is the one great literary character in the series, a man of no little complexity who repels & attracts at the same time, & Dumbledore develops greater depth when we learn of his adolescent desire for power & how this led to tragedy, for him & others. But fighting against the bad guys never seems to affect the good guys all that much. Harry is haunted by the loss of his parents & his godfather, but does he ever wrestle with using unforgivable curses (unsuccessfully, I have to add)? Fortunately for him, he doesn’t actually kill anybody, especialy innocents, at least that we can see. (Is that right? Apart from Voldemort, does Harry actually kill anyone? I can’t recall.) As dark as the series got in the last 2 books, it is remarkably staid in its violence when contrasted with Collins’ trilogy, & we are never encouraged to reflect on the person Harry is forced to become as a result of his involvement in the war against Voldemort, because he doesn’t really change all that much. We cheer him on as he hunts horcruxes & pushes aside one attempt after another to thwart him, but the chief difficulty he faces is procedural, not moral: How can he find & destroy horcruxes, & then kill their maker? Because of this, most of the violence in the Harry Potter series is unremarkable. Characters we like die at the hands of the wicked, & characters we like kill the wicked, but the moral stakes are much lower than those in The Hunger Games trilogy. Again, Katniss is shattered not only by her losses, for, like Harry, she loses family members, but most of all by her own actions. Her final act of killing does seem to indicate a moral awareness of some depth, but by that point she is so deeply implicated in the very acts she is fighting against that it seems hollow. The laughter of President Snow is telling. Does he see what Katniss has become?

This is a tremendous risk for Collins. Teen readers are not often called upon to exercise the type of discernment required by these books, & I suspect that most readers, even adults, will likely miss the invitation to lament the cruelties we compassionate, cultured people too often justify & celebrate. Many readers have complained about how the 3rd book was a disappointment, for one reason or another. They especially don’t like how the characters develop. Perhaps they want the same assurances JK Rowling gave, the nice wrap up, an epilog in which normality reigns & where our heroes can grow old in peace after vanquishing their foes. What Suzanne Collins refuses to do is allow any touch of normality for a protagonist forced to endure not only the barbarity of the rituals of a modern panem et circenses government strategy, but her own growing indifference to the use of scapegoating & violence as a strategy to defeat the bad guys. For this Collins should be thanked, not chastised, as some reviewers shocked by the presence of such violence do. Whether or not you like the books, or think them fit reading for teens or adults, there is in them an invitation to reflect upon not only the horrors of war & our capacity to turn murder into reality TV, but upon the price all have to pay for the violence we too often endorse as the only means of achieving peace & justice.

—Anthony DiStefano

Why I Am Not a Conservative or Liberal Catholic, & Why You Shouldn’t Be One, Either

The following is a response to a question no one in particular asked me, but which nevertheless seemed reasonable to answer. Many have addressed these issues at great length. Folks like Alisdair MacIntyre & Stanley Hauerwas & their many students are particularly noted for their treatments of how today in the West there are conservative liberals & liberal liberals, but few if any who are not liberal in their fundamental attitudes & doctrines. A recent & excellent discussion of this in light of the HHS mandate by Patrick Deneen of Front Porch Republic can be found here. Likewise, Servais Pinckaers helpfully distinguishes between conflicting ideas of “freedom” in his work on Christian ethics, & noted Balthasar scholar & banjo picker Rodney Howsare of St. Francis De Sales University has engaged me in many conversations on these & related topics. Whatever errors of fact or analysis follow should thus be blamed squarely on him.

The use of the labels “conservative” & “liberal” in front of “Catholic” has always bugged me. We are all liberals in today’s western world, as the political ideology of liberal democracy so dominates our sensibilities & ideas, religious included, that any attempt to claim otherwise is naive. The question is not whether you are a conservative or liberal Catholic, but whether you are a conservative liberal or a liberal liberal. Then you can add the “Catholic” part, but in so doing you will betray an ignorance of the nature of the terminology & its history. Whenever we speak of “conservative/liberal” we are privileging, usually without knowing it, the political assumptions & discourse of the 18th century & dragging everything, including our profession of religious faith, before the altar of social contracts, rights, & freedoms, an altar which does more to explain how we live in the modern world than any other, including the Catholic one. I don’t think this is an extreme claim, merely an obvious one. Many have made it before, & at far greater length (Hauerwas is particularly incisive & witty in his treatments; he did an interview with U.S. Catholic years ago that is worth tracking down for its blistering criticism). If that comes as news, you haven’t been paying attention to those writers who have critiqued liberalism from the perspective of traditional Christian accounts of anthropology, faith, ethics, & the social & political arrangements we pursue & endorse in the West. Not because these critics hate freedom or America or modernity, but because they know that freedom is first a theological, not a political, issue, & that making a mistake here leads to many more mistakes down the road. To put it provocatively in terms of ecclesiastical & doctrinal history & how these contribute to politics: As soon as you stop baptizing infants because they can’t make a free & knowledgeable profession of faith, you open the door to one day supporting Barack Obama as a Christian President. What that means will be indicated in what follows.

To repeat: It makes no real theological & ecclesial sense to speak of Catholics as either “conservative” or “liberal”, as these are terms dragged in from early modern political theory & fundamentally change the terms of our relationship with God, the Church, & the world if accepted without strong qualification. Rooted in a social contractarian view of social & political life, these terms imply certain anthropological doctrines that directly conflict with traditional Catholic teaching on the nature of human persons who bear the image of God & are called to live a life of self-giving love in the Church founded by Christ. For example, our political order assumes a certain view of liberty that we have come to honor without question. Free individuals freely accept the directives of the State as beneficial to their pursuit of happiness, or freely reject them in favor of others that are more respectful of freedom & its expected result, happiness. The burden is on the State to provide a system of arrangements the individual finds plausible & acceptable as honoring his status as a free man. The greatest threat to our freedom & happiness is other people, especially those who gather together under metaphysical banners & seek to deprive us of our freedom through the construction of some sort of theocracy. Happiness, we are told, requires choice & the power of self-determination, as we are first & foremost autonomous beings who need to get along with other autonomous beings, many of whom have conflicting ideas of what is needed to make us happy. Politics is thus about protection, civilization about defending ourselves against the claims of others.

Freedom is, therefore, prior to all social arrangements, & the only legitimate vocation each of us has. The need to preserve individual freedom is not only my highest right & obligation, but also the chief task of the State, if genuine happiness is to be possible for the many. “Obedience” then easily becomes something of a curse word, something the weak-minded or uninstructed may do, but which I, as a free man, must shun as a condition of my freedom. If I am to yield to anyone or anything in obedience to their claims or demands, it is only because I agree such obedience is personally beneficial, even if it may be inconvenient. I obey, then, only because I agree; obedience is conditional, & not that great a sacrifice.

I can sprinkle all sorts of religious words over this system in the hope of making it palatable to religious believers, but in all essentials this is an entirely secular account of reality, one that is hostile to the claims of Christianity, as it is rooted in a view of freedom that severs my natural ties to God & man & in a view of society that makes other people, especially institutions, a constant threat to my individual well-being. The more religiously-inflected versions of this construct will, for a time, & especially in societies like ours with a long religious past, maintain some semblance of peace with the church or religious authority. But as long as that religious authority maintains that freedom can never be experienced apart from love, divine & human, & that it is God alone, & not the State, that guarantees freedom, there will be no real peace between religion & the State. It may take considerable time for conflict to become visible, but the inherent logic of the social contract & its idea of freedom will eventually become clear. When it does, religious believers, having been trained in liberalism, will not be likely to see what’s really wrong, especially if they belong to an ecclesial tradition, like all forms of Protestantism, that long ago accepted an ecclesiology that mimics social contract language. “Church” becomes something you go to in this way of thinking, & something made up of people who have previously made up their mind that they can accept the life & doctrine of this-or-that particular institution. You may grow up in this institution, but you are never really part of it until you can freely & reasonably express your commitment to its life & doctrines. Thus, the baptism of infants & confirmation of 2nd graders (or infants in Eastern Rite churches) will appear the height of folly & superstition, as how can they affirm anything? They lack the rational capacities & the freedom necessary to say yes to the church, to the Creed, & even to God. Yes, Jesus blessed the children, but this clearly means something different than that they can receive sacraments efficaciously. Most Protestants, even those who maintain the tradition of infant baptism, have endorsed from their beginning what is essentially a baptized version of the modern social contract, with agreement in matters of doctrine & morals finally determining one’s ecclesial status. The Protestant church, then, is filled with individuals who have chosen their doctrines as true, & agree to meet with other like-minded individuals who have made the same choice. “Church” is the building where such meetings occur, & is in no way constitutive of one’s core identity or something to which we are called to submit to in obedience.

In this sense all Protestants are comfortable with modern liberalism, even if they identify themselves as theological or social conservatives. This can be true for Catholics, as well. Such believers are schizophrenic, & are the most likely to use the language of “conservative/liberal” when describing ecclesial identities. Such terms, however, are nonsensical from the perspective of the faith handed down to us from Christ & the Apostles. The traditional language of “orthodox/heterodox/schismatic/heretical” makes better theological sense when speaking of Christians, those people whose identity & loves should be seen in light of what St. Augustine called the City of God. “To what are your loves ordered?” might be the best way to think about what “type” of Christians we are. For the Christian whose loves are rightly ordered, obedience to the Church is not something we pledge only if & when we can agree with what that Church proposes regarding doctrine & morals. It is a habitus, something learned over time & grown into gradually & at times painfully. But to adopt the mindset of the “liberal Catholic” who takes an essentially adversarial position against the institutional Church, & who has to consider & think through the Church’s teaching before he or she can give assent to that teaching, is as absurd as saying something like “I am a conservative Catholic because I agree with Church teaching on contraception & abortion & etc.” It is better to say that as a Catholic, I obey Christ & his Church because I am already free, because of who I am as a creature of God intended for the happiness of the Beatific Vision, because of the love that has redeemed me & is mediated through the sacramental life of the Church which is both mater et magistra. In other words, I trust Christ & his Church because it is through them together that I am able to understand anything at all about myself, other people, & the world we live in. And so, for example, I believe God is a Trinity of persons not because I worked through all the historical & theological data on my own, carefully studying all the alternatives in light of ideas & sensibilities common to my age, &, since my conclusions mesh with those of the Church, I can accept them; but because the Church has long insisted that only such an account of God makes any real sense & because it is this profession of faith that has shown itself to be essential for a life of faith, hope, & love that transcends all the shifts of ideas & sensibilities we see throughout history. The lives of the saints demonstrate this again & again. For a Catholic it is, therefore, the “modernism” of a Thérèse, not that of a Rousseau or Locke, that should shape my vision & desire. My language should be shaped by her way of being modern, & by St. Maximilian Kolbe’s, Bl. John Paul II’s, & so on, & not by the political modernism that uses liberal & conservative as more than descriptive terms. Of course his requires great trust or faith, especially when that Church includes individuals, including leaders, who act very badly. But it is not their, or my, Church.

In other words, my freedom is always to be defined by my vocation to faith, hope, & love in the Church, not independently of it. No account of a social contract, & thus no account of freedom rooted in it, can be legitimately Catholic, even if we coat it with the term “conservative.” And so I will prescind from thinking of or describing myself as a conservative or liberal Catholic, since in so doing I am prescinding from thinking in the terms the Church has proposed as the basis of genuine freedom. And I will see my movement from the evangelical Protestantism I came to in my early 20′s to the Catholic Church over a decade later as a movement out of an ecclesiology that diminishes my freedom into one that preserves & expands it. I will also listen with what Flannery O’Connor called Christian skepticism when any politician invokes the Gospel to endorse his political program, & fellow Catholics bend over backwards to join him. President Obama is not too liberal for my taste, & his attempts to declaw the Catholic Church are not distasteful to me because I am conservative. He’s not liberalenough, in the fuller, Christian sense of the term, since his understanding of freedom & rights is incomplete. Besides, too many so-called conservatives are entirely too comfortable with much of what makes the culture of death such a threat to genuine freedom. But that’s a discussion for another day.

—Anthony DiStefano

Rodney Howsare responded to this piece in an email, part of which I include here. The musical reference is appropriate, especially as Rodney continues his arduous quest to approach the margins of competence on his banjo & knows from hard, hard experience the pains of imperfection. His bluegrass band, Rodney & the Slack Jawed Yokels, featuring fellow theologian Larry Chapp on cowbell, appears every 3rd Tuesday night of the odd months at the Pizza Hut near the Wegman’s Plaza in northern Allentown, PA. Check them out with a hoot & a holler.

‘. . . One thing: towards the end you begin to touch on the paradoxical nature of freedom, but I think that needs to be made more prominent throughout.  Chesterton is, of course, the master of this, especially in Orthodoxy.  The really strict restrictions made at the beginning of Chrisitianity (e.g., the fine tuning at the Christological Councils) serve the purpose of liberating us, or providing the boundaries within which we are free.  They are like the very strict chords a guitarist must learn if he is to have the freedom to play the guitar, or the very strict procedures a young tennis player must go through in order to have the freedom to play like Roger Federer.  On the other hand, the little kid whose handed a guitar at age four and told to “have fun with this,” will precisely have no freedom to play it at all.  So the paradox of Liberalism is that it will eventually have to force people to do everything by mandating everything because nobody has the freedom to do it themselves.  We created a sexually libertarian society and then little boys get sued for sexual harrassment in elementary school.  Or Hilary Clinton threatens “inferior countries” to embrace the Western view on LGBT issues, or have their aid cut off.  Etc etc etc.’

Yes, GKC is excellent on freedom & its paradoxical nature, as another friend & Xavier colleague, Mike Lueken, noted in his response to this piece. And the Federer reference makes good sense, as well. I use exactly this point, along with learning to play an instrument, when I present Aristotle’s teaching on the virtues to my students. Excellence in sports & music results from talent & the hard work of disciplining it. The breathtaking shots from a Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic are possible only after hours & years of practice, of submission to coaching, of perfecting footwork, etc. Of following the rules, in other words. Let’s see what happens when the latest tennis prodigy says, “Screw this practicing, I’m questioning authority & doing it my way. I’ll hold the racket however I want.” The freedom to play excellently is thus possible only for those with a prior commitment to trust & obedience.

And keep in mind CS Lewis’s great line from The Abolition of Man: “We castrate, & bid the geldings be fruitful.” We make the pursuit of virtue impossible by reducing everything to subjective values & then by encouraging vice in the name of “freedom.” Then we huff & puff when people actually act in accordance with the mandated libertinism. The sexual revolution encourages the sexualization of even preteen girls, & we act surprised & oh-so-shocked when predatory males follow their basest instincts, now hallowed by the moral permissiveness endemic to a society dreamed up by Kinsey, Hefner, & other numerous adolescents. After virtue, indeed. Yet all is not lost, & we have to resist the prophets of doom who insist that the end is near because of same sex unions, contraceptive mandates, possibly 4 more years of a president who refuses to play nice. How could the resurrection faith allow pessimism the final word? As dark as it gets, we know who wins the war, even if the battles seem never-ending. I’ll finish with an appropriate quote from Christopher Dawson, who points us to deeper truth of our profession of hope:

“The remaking of an old culture by the birth of a new hope was not the conscious aim of the Christians themselves. They tended, like St. Cyprian, to believe that the world was growing old, that the empire was irremediably pagan and that some world catastrophe was imminent. Nevertheless they lived in a spiritual atmosphere of hope, and this atmosphere gradually spread until the climate of the world was changed. The heartless, hopeless Rome which found its monstrous expression in the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games became the Rome of St. Leo and St. Gregory — a city which laid the foundations of a new world while its own world was falling in ruin around it. We see the same process at work in northern Europe during the Dark Ages. The men who converted the warrior peoples of the north and laid the foundations of medieval culture had no conception of the new world they were creating and no belief in the temporal future of civilization. But they were men of hope, as they were men of faith, and therefore their work endured for a thousand years and bore rich fruit in every field of cultural activity, as well as on its own religious level.”

On God, Santa Claus, & a Truly Scientific Approach to Faith

On the last day of class in one of my sections of Art & Catholicism, after we covered the necessary questions regarding the upcoming final exam, a student asked why I believed in God. I began by suggesting that we needed a few weeks if we were serious about working through the issues involved before giving a brief response. The class was a bit too restless to tolerate a long discussion on such a topic on the last day, & I was tired. So I gave a version of the “Because-God’s-existence-best-explains-this-&-that” answer, focusing on beauty & the experience of love. It wasn’t a bad answer, but, like most answers of this sort, it would convince no one who wasn’t already convinced. Had I more time, I could have expanded it, since I am convinced that Christianity can address more fruitfully than any other religion or philosophy two key features of our world, first, the reality of suffering & the widespread conviction that such suffering is somehow not what we should expect, & secondly, the reality of goodness & beauty. Only Christianity, with its elaboration of both creation & original sin can make consistent sense of both Mother Teresa & Joseph Stalin, of children wallowing in abject poverty & the beauties of the Adagio of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Belief not just in ‘God’, but in the God & Father of Jesus Christ, son of Mary, makes the best sense of all this & more.

Yet even had I developed this line of thought with greater depth & eloquence, I suspect I would have remained as unsatisfied as my student likely would have been. Such reasoning, even when it scales higher heights, is insufficient, even if necessary as a point of departure. I have always been a little too enamored with the clever banter associated with writers who battle it out with the skeptics & cynics, & too ready to rush into the fray when fellows like Richard Dawkins & his cohort of new atheists fire their latest missile at us believers. I do accept the need to engage our critics, even those who are not well prepared to argue intelligently. As Pascal noted, we should & can meet the attacks on our belief, even as we realize the limitations of our best defenses. And here’s where Santa Claus comes in, & why I wish I had remembered him that last day of class.

It isn’t rare for atheist writers to compare belief in God with belief in some sort of fictional character, whether it be the flying spaghetti monster Dawkins invokes or Santa Claus. “How does your faith in this Hebrew sky-deity differ from other nonexistent entities?” we hear. I’ve never understood the appeal of such a comparison, probably because I have never met anyone not under 10 or 11 years old who actually believes in Santa Claus. When atheists can demonstrate the existence of intelligent adults who, after careful study, discussion, & consideration convert to belief in a man who resides at the North Pole & delivers gifts to people throughout the world in the space of a few hours every December 24, I’ll take their analogy more seriously. But listening to Dawkins etc. ramble on about God is like listening to a clever undergraduate breathlessly explain how, after years of research & in the face of massive pressure from a believing public, he has established that no one in a red suit, employing elves & riding flying reindeer, lives at the North Pole. My response to that student would be, “Who exactly are you trying to refute?” Likewise with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, whomever. “Who actually believes,” I think it fair to ask, based on the grade-school view of God they seem to believe folks like me worship, “in the God you are attacking? Have you ever met an actual religious believer of any kind who thinks you are describing their God?” Probably not, as they cash in on the worst stereotypes imaginable, all in the promise of providing an intelligent & credible refutation of belief in God. This last point is important, & recalls what David Bentley Hart wrote in a review of Daniel Dennett’s attempt to write intelligently on why God doesn’t exist & to provide a “scientific” account of religious belief:

If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly—purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor—begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not.

It is also on this point that I wish I had engaged my student, for a discussion of Santa Claus & belief in God provides a neat entry point to a more substantial issue, that of how we frame our discussion in the first place. I wonder if he, like Dennett, & like so many others who write on these matters, would accept a sloppy methodology when considering the claims of believers, one that reflects an inadequate understanding of the scientific method along with what Pascal meant by the limits of reason. To study something “scientifically” means, among other things, that one adopts a method of investigation that is appropriate to the nature of the object of investigation. I suppose I could, like my fictional undergraduate, establish on scientific grounds that there is no Santa Claus. Or, at least that the Santa of popular imagining likely doesn’t exist. All night vigils near chimneys, doors, windows, & other assorted entry points into homes, especially those with young children; careful searches at the top of the globe; extensive use of radar technology on Christmas Eve; &, most importantly, interviews with parents & others suspected of giving gifts attributed to Santa. Much more as well, if need be, though I suspect the interviews would finish Santa off. This approach makes sense because of the supposed nature of Santa Claus. He is never treated as anything but a  physical being, thoroughly rooted in the same material world we all inhabit. He lives in a real house, so it goes, wears real clothes, eats real cookies, & does many other things we all do (apart from the airborne sled), without anything from the mythology suggesting any of it is illusory or that he is in actuality some kind of spirit or apparition. He is, in other words, capable of what we call scientific investigation. We can track down the guy if we try hard enough.

No such method exists with God, unless we are willing to ignore completely what believers say about him, akin to trying to disprove Santa Claus by searching for his workshop in Antarctica. Which, of course, is what many critics do, attacking our belief in a God of their own imagining. It’s almost obscene to hear a biblically-illiterate writer like Dawkins thunder his rage at what he calls the misogynistic, homophobic, war-mongering God of the Old Testament. “Well, yes, Richard,” he must hear some of us say from the back row, “we do in fact worship such a harsh, hateful Deity.” The serious critic, on the other hand, will first listen to our account of God before going after him. And he will launch an appropriate critique, one which takes seriously what believers say about how they have come to know this God. Which is why Hart can say to Dennett, even if with tongue-in-cheek, “Pray, Dr. Dennett.” For if the God of Christianity does exist, & is even remotely anything like what believers have described & claimed to have experienced in often life-changing ways, then the most scientifically plausible approach will include prayer as a central element of one’s inquiry.

This is what I would like my student to think about. Though I would have to add that the prayer must come from a genuine desire to know God, & not simply to prove a point or satisfy some intellectual curiosity. But humility is just as difficult to assume in the self-assured critic as is an accurate conception of the God they don’t believe in. George Bernanos is on point here, as his haggard country priest laments that “It would be far easier to satisfy a geometrical & moralistic God”, a God who respects & plays by the rules of our logic.  The hidden God Pascal writes about always refuses to play according to our rules of disclosure, the rules endorsed by critics like Dennett & Dawkins, & this can be met with differing responses.  The Christian faithful are all called to yield to the logic of the incarnate Word, resisting the temptation to recreate God in their own image & force him to be predictable, “fair.”  Some are more successful than others; some live their lives as if they believe at every moment that the poor in spirit are the blessed ones, that only in dying to self on the cross Christ hands to us will we find life. This is the path of humility, & it is always an uncertain one filled with shocks & surprises.

Some can not accept this uncertainty.  The Grand Inquisitor of Ivan Karamazov, scolding Christ for being so enigmatic, & rejecting the idea that his God is good, speaks for them:

“And then, instead of giving clear-cut rules that would have set men’s consciences at rest once & for all, you put forward things that are unfamiliar, puzzling, & uncertain. . ..  By so doing you acted as if you did not love mankind.”

“Couldn’t God have made things easier for us?” is hardly an unusual question, whether we’re talking about proofs for his existence or guidance in our daily lives, & I often hear this question, explicitly & in the echoes of comments & questions from students.  Nor is it an unfair one.  It can, however, reflect pride, despair, or a measure of both.  For example, this is from the late Norwood Russell Hanson in his essay “What I Don’t Believe.”  It is, he claimed, unreasonable to believe that God exists, as there isn’t enough evidence to warrant such a conclusion.  What would qualify as good evidence?

“Suppose . . . that on next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive & ear-shattering thunderclap.  Snow swirls; leaves drop from trees; the earth heaves & buckles; buildings topple & towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light.  Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open—the clouds pull apart—revealing an unbelievably immense & Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests.  He frowns darkly as lightning plays across the features of his Michaelangeloid face.  He then points down—at me!—& exclaims, for every man, woman & child to hear “I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping & word-watching in matters of theology.  Be assured, N.R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist.”

Such a display, Hanson admits, would do the trick; he would surrender his unbelief in the face of such a remarkable event & believe that God does in fact exist.

Really? “How perfectly geometrical!” one can hear Bernanos’ priest saying.  And how perfectly delusional.  “I have 5 brothers; let some one warn them, Father Abraham, lest they also come into this place of torment,” said the rich man in Luke 16 as he suffered the torments reserved for the unjust.

“They have Moses & the prophets,” Abraham replied. “Let them hear them.”

“If only someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Or, let the skies rip open, a Zeus-like figure speak, someone turn stones into bread or leap off the Temple & be saved by angels, etc.

“If they do not hear Moses & the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.” Let’s not pretend this is nothing but an intellectual puzzle, “as if reason were the only way we could learn” (Pascal) & the will has nothing to do with our capacity to believe. “Give alms,” Hopkins told the poet Robert Bridges when asked about how to believe.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. And the lover demands no impressive displays or experimental results: “Does the loving bride,” Soren Kierkegaard asked, “in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive & well?  Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love & ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that he exists?”

What would my student say to all this, I wonder? Would he smirk at my call to pray, at my insistence that he refuse to treat God as Santa Claus in terms of how to look for him? At the very least, I hope he would realize that his question is serious enough to require his time, patience, & effort in seeking an answer.

—Anthony DiStefano

Impressions of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”

This is not really a formal review, as I’m not sure how to go about one of those. For more on the film, including links to a bunch of formal reviews, go to the “The Tree of Life” page on the main Emeth Society site. Link here.

There’s little doubt that Terrence Malick loves the Grand Gesture. If it’s 4th & 12, he’s going for it; bottom of the 9th, no outs, down by a run with a man on 1st, he’s not looking to advance the runner.  He’s swinging for the fences. Remember Kevin Costner’s character in “Tin Cup,” & what he does at the 18th hole every round? That’s Malick. And God bless him for it. When “The New World” washed over me the first time I saw it, I knew that here was a filmmaker who didn’t care what the cool kids were saying about him, or what kind of movies they wanted to see. He was thinking Big, & trying to adapt his chosen medium to his large ambitions. Andrei Tarkovsky, the legendary Russian director, knew this approach well, & articulated it perhaps better than any other recent artist. This from Sculpting in Time:

By means of art man takes over reality through a subjective experience. In science man’s knowledge of the world makes its way up an endless staircase & is successively replaced by new knowledge, with one discovery often enough being disproved by the next for the sake of a particular objective truth. An artistic discovery occurs each time as a new & unique image of the world, a hieroglyph of absolute truth. It appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively & at a stroke all the laws of this world—its beauty & ugliness, its compassion & cruelty, its infinity & its limitations. The artist expresses these things by creating the image, sui generis detector of the absolute. Through the image is sustained an awareness of the infinite: the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form.

Forgive me if I take this as the best review yet of “The Tree of Life,” but it seems to capture the heart of the film, & without the histrionics present in so many of the reviews I’ve read. Certainly there are few who make, review, or watch films today who speak like this, at least without a cynical sneer curling their lip. Some of those latter folks spilled their sneers onto paper, with predictable results: “Massive pretensions—hubris—playing God—disingenuous posturing.” I hope Malick gets a kick out of those reviews. Perhaps they sting, & perhaps the expository demon within him, one which is lurking in the breast of many a great artist, is roaring its outrage. But I like to think that he appreciates that many of these reviewers who squawk their incomprehension are too busy reviewing several others films to fulfill their professional obligations to think twice about his film. I also like to think that Malick is a fan of Pixar, & recalls with fondness the words of that archcritic Anton Ego after his confidence was shattered by a culinary revelation:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new; an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking, is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core

Change food to film, & you’re on to something. Not that critics can’t dislike a film by Terrence Malick, or that they all produce bits of tedious sameness as they move from film to film. I don’t envy the critic, & am grateful I don’t have to write a formal review of “The Tree of Life.” Having read over a dozen reviews in the last few days, I’m deeply impressed with many of the insights from reviewers, even those with whom I disagree or not named Tarkovsky.

Yes, I recommend the film. Five stars, two thumbs up, big smiley face, road sign saying “See this film,” whatever device we use to indicate approval, I bestow that. I still need to see the film again a few times to figure some things out, which is a plus; how many films have you seen that you can say, “I’ve seen it twice, it rocked me each time, & I gotta see it again”? What remains fuzzy to me is the ending. Much of the discussion among reviewer concerns whether or not it “works.” Heck, I’m not even sure what’s going on, so I’ll prescind from evaluating its success. But I don’t think it is a vision of the afterlife, a glimpse of heaven. It does appear to be a scene of reconciliation, however. Maybe, maybe not. I’d also like to pay much closer attention to the score. This is, after all, a Malick film, & he understands as well as anyone how integral music is to the tale being told.

This last point deserves some mention, as a number of reviewers seem to think they’re evaluating an essay or, worse, a homily, & glide too easily past incidentals like the music score. Thus they read the film in terms of a spiritualistic, new age soup with a feel-goody god hiding out in the clouds above, leaving everybody down below to do as they will. Did they really not listen to the music? Did they not think that the choice of the “Agnus Dei” from Berlioz’s “Requiem” near the very end of the film was important? Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi. . .: what might those words mean, I wonder? Perhaps the film could have been paused & a clip of the director inserted, announcing that what we have in this piece is. . . . Oh, never mind. The point is, a film is not an editorial, essay, manifesto, catechism, etc. The tools required to watch attentively are different from those needed to read St. Thomas. Flannery O’Connor had a lot to say about this, & had the hard experience of people with wooden literary sensibilities blustering their way through reviews of her novels & stories. Here’s what she said:

“We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards. And this is certainly the obligation of the Catholic. It is his obligation in all the disciplines of life but most particularly in those on which he presumes to pass judgment. Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed. We reflect the Church in everything we do, and those who can see clearly that our judgment is false in matters of art cannot be blamed for suspecting our judgment in matters of religion.”

Again, I have little quarrel with those who do not like “The Tree of Life.” But they should be able to articulate why they dislike it without criticizing it for not being the kind of film they think is needed. Criticize the film that’s there, not one that Malick should have made. As the playwright always says, if a Message is what you want, use Western Union.

Here’s where the issue of whether or not “The Tree of Life” is a “religious” or “Christian” film comes up. Somewhere I read that this was the most Christian film since “The Passion of the Christ.” Of course, others (see my comments on the review in the First Things blog by a Mr. Collins) go the other way, looking for the God Who Is Not There. My friend Rodney Howsare had an interesting take on the film after we saw it a few weeks ago, suggesting that it might be seen as a kind of answer to the new atheists. Not that it is an explicitly Christian film, or engages in any kind of apologetics that cries out “Ah ha! Got you there, Richard Dawkins; answer that, you Godless reductionist.” No, an impressionistic collage of images, words, & music appeals to us differently than even a more straightforward narrative film, so due caution is necessary when bringing up Christianity & atheism here. What Howsare meant was something broader, something like what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote:

“. . . if the writer believes that our life is & will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

If a Christian film is one that leads us to a deeper recognition that our lives can only be understood properly in the context of the creation & sustaining of our world by the God celebrated in Berlioz’s “Requiem,” then, yes, this qualifies as a Christian film. When a film, or any work of art, is able to pierce the surface of our lives by its portrayal of our love, longing, & loss, & yields an experience of mystery which invites us to contemplate not only creation but he who takes away the sins of the world, what other kind of film can it be? The very structure of “The Tree of Life” says more than any of its characters, & while the many voiceovers are important clues as to how we should understand the film, we shouldn’t make the mistake of taking these in isolation from the rest of the film. To the new atheist dogma that we inhabit a planet intended by no one in a universe lacking meaning, “The Tree of Life” does counter with the best of knockdown punches by portraying the truth the Psalmist first uttered so long ago, & continues to proclaim among us:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted 2 by the mouth of babes and infants, thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; 4 what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? 5 Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. 6 Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea. 9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!  

The heavens indeed are telling of the glory of God, & we can see & hear that glory in the lives of one, rather ordinary family in 1950’s Waco, Texas, as well as across our own street & in our own home.  He who has ears to hear. . . .

Here are some comments on 2 reviews I didn’t much like, for reasons I spell out. 

The first link is to the review from James Bowman. One reason I like his reviews (usually) is because he can be surly & crotchety, required characteristics if one is to be a movie critic.  Go here:

The other review cited in the following comments is from the First Things blog.  Go here for the review:

My impression is that Bowman wrote his review quickly & impatiently, as if he were bothered by having to waste his time with another Malick film (cf. his earlier reviews of “The Thin Red Line” & “The New World,” which sound a lot like his review of “The Tree of Life”). I wonder if his dislike of Malick led him to take shortcuts.  When discussing the nature/grace voiceover, for instance, he quotes not the film itself, but the trailer for the film.  This is significant, for the trailer goes: “There are two ways through life, the way of nature & the way of grace.”  In the film, however, it goes: “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life. . . .” Bowman’s flippant response (“Really? It’s always seemed to me that most people follow both at different times”) should have been unnecessary, as the film actually demonstrates this very point. “Father. Mother,” Jack notes at one point. “Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Later Jack paraphrases St. Paul’s famous lines in Romans 7: “I can’t do what I want. That which I do I hate.” Seems that there is a recognition here of the tensions inherent in a life pursuing grace, something Bowman missed. This is an important miss, as well, given the family drama that resides at the heart of the film’s (loose) narrative.

Related to this is Bowman’s too-quick dismissal of the claim that “no one who lives by the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” “Absurd,” he declares. I’d agree, if this claim were actually meant to be taken literally as a blanket statement.  It’s not, however, & on this point Bowman is not alone in missing something important about “The Tree of Life.” Kevin Collins in his review in the First Things blog badly misses many things, perhaps most importantly the nature of “Christian art.” For Collins this seems to mean something that explicitly evangelizes, or is at least openly Christological. He chastises Malick for not making a film that is openly & clearly Christian, as if such a thing requires rather clear catechesis of some sort. He goes as far to say that Malick gives us an impersonal god & new age spiritualism. C’mon; isn’t this a wearisome bit of nonsense, that Catholics especially should be able to avoid? For goodness’ sake, read Maritain or St. Thomas; read the essays & letters of Flannery O’Connor.  To both Collins & Bowman, who have different concerns but make similar misjudgments, I think an appropriate question is: Does the quote from Job at the outset of the film, & the nature of so many of the voiceovers, not suggest that the Old Testament wisdom literature is the appropriate context for evaluating Malick’s film? This tradition contains many lines like the one Bowman claims is absurd. Consider Psalm 1. The 1st 3 verses say:

1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 

“Whatever he does prospers.” Whatever he does.  Really? How many just men have taken a beating like Job? Any how many have watched the wicked prosper? The wisdom tradition is filled with contrast statements like this. Taken by themselves, as absolute statements of what is always the case, I’ll join Bowman & say “Absurd.” But they’re not taken by themselves. The Psalms alone contain any number of statements to the effect that the wicked prosper& the just are trampled underfoot & come to a bad end. “Bad end” must be taken in a particular way, however. The Church reads Psalm 1 as Christological; Christ is the just man who prospers.  He’s also nailed to a cross. The fuller context of the wisdom writings includes the Gospels. Yet this doesn’t mean that an artist can’t treat wisdom themes apart from the fullness of Christian truth. Art is not theology. Here’s Maureen Mullarky on this topic:

“Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. It is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as ‘a man using Art.’ He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: ‘Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.’”

In other words, the artist is free to look at life in any number of ways.  In a film, even one as ambitious & far-ranging as “The Tree of Life,” it’s silly to demand a catechetical lesson or a fully-worked out theology intended to please the theologians among us. It would be like criticizing the film “Amadeus” because Salieri has a childish, quid pro quo view of God & no one criticizes & corrects his theology. The artist takes people as they are, & tries to do justice to what Joseph Conrad called “felt life.” And the felt life of this film is life in Waco, Texas, with an ordinary family going to church, saying prayers, taking sacraments. Collins is unimpressed by all this, & criticizes the wishy-washy religiosity that the Catechism of the Catholic Church would surely correct if given a chance. So much for felt life, for attending to things like context. The Christian artist will artfully weave into the story or film elements that are consistent with the faith of the Church, but these will not always rest on the work’s surface. And hopefully he will be able to trust his audience to pay attention to things like setting, locality, etc. Utinam sit, apparently. For more on this, cf. the Blog page & my entries on Flannery O’Connor.

Salieri is an appropriate reference here, as Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) seems to think like him. His understanding of God is close to that of Job’s advisers & Salieri. He expects life, & God, to work on his terms. When his plant closes & he loses his job, he complains: “I never missed a day of work. I tithed.” This is a central strand in the film, of course, whose drama is set in motion by the death of Jack’s brother at age 19. Bad things happen to good people, even those who do their job well, who pay their taxes, who follow the way of grace. There is, as Job discovered, no “answer” to this. Malick treats this with the highest respect, & dramatizes the whole sweep of creation in order to frame the story of the O’Brien family. In other words, death & tragedy are brought into dialogue with creation, & the viewer is thus forced to ask difficult questions about how we understand ourselves as mortal creatures who inhabit a world dangling in the heavens.  This follows the pattern of the Old Testament, in a way; the creation narratives took their final shape, we’re told, only after the tragedy of the Babylonian Exile.  The experience of death, then, leads to the contemplation of origins. It is neither absurd nor pretentious to use images, narrative, & music to dramatize this pattern. Nor is it subChristian or new age-y.

—Anthony DiStefano

A More Adequate Anthropology & the Task of Catholic Education

There is a wide range of opinions on Catholic education among Catholics today &, as a teacher of theology in a Catholic high school, I have some interest in what people are saying.  The online chatter is predictably hit-or-miss, often filled with interesting grammatical choices & fuzzy logic, & people I’ve talked to directly, including some priests here in the diocese, are sometimes too at ease with stereotypes, innuendoes, & hearsay about particular schools, my own included.  Thoughtful considerations are out there, however, & in this post I’d like to offer some preliminary reflections on a few of those that, though not original to me, at least help me to think through the issues.

Some people continue to celebrate Catholic schools for their academic achievements, the spiritual formation they offer, the success of their athletic programs, & the many social & academic opportunities they have traditionally provided.  Others express doubts about these schools & their achievements, suggesting that home schooling, charter schools, & even public schools are a preferable, & less expensive, option.  Some of these people go so far as to disparage Catholic schools, generally or specifically, for their failures to teach orthodox Catholicism in their classes or promote a Catholic culture throughout the school.  I’ve heard it said that Catholic schools are, or this or that particular school is, lacking in every regard that counts, far too interested in financial success, test scores, & athletic titles, & far too unconcerned with forming its students in the faith.  “_____ is too liberal; _____ is a den of heretics; _____ is pro-choice; _____ teaches its students a radical feminism that subverts Church teaching on marriage, family & motherhood.  Money, worldly success, trophies & awards, new buildings, notice by the powers-that-be:  this is all that students can look forward to at this school.”  There’s nothing so easy as painting with broad strokes, but there you have it.  Some of the people whom I have heard say things like these have no connection with the schools in question, & in one case a person whose job requires him to play close attention to stereotypes about the faith confidently endorsed one regarding a Catholic school here in Phoenix.

More thoughtful & substantive critiques of Catholic education in general are available, & these should give all of us greater pause.  Some people, including those who have taught in Catholic schools, suggest that Catholic schools are essentially public schools covered by a thin veneer of religiosity.  Yes, we have our liturgies, weekly or monthly, our morning & classroom prayers; & yes, we have Theology classes, 4 years worth.  Yet the academic structure of our schools, which separates the disciplines into discrete subject matters which have little connection to each other, discourages the formation of any real Catholic culture, which is always marked by a self-conscious attempt to integrate apparently disparate experiences & fields of study into a unified vision of reality.  How can students be expected to see all things in a deeply Catholic way, to become convinced that “All truth is God’s truth,” or to have even an inkling of what it means to take captive all thoughts for Christ, when they shuffle off to classes where their teacher, who may not even be a Catholic, is unlikely to have had an intellectual formation that enables them to see even their own discipline in light of the Church’s profession of faith?  With academic specialization the expected norm, & without any questions even being raised about it & its pernicious effects, what chance does any Catholic school have in developing a culture capable of nurturing students in the faith?  How, in other words, can we expect our students to see anything that really matters in light of Christ when he is the subject of but one class per day, & when Catholic Theology is just one more subject to be studied?  A subject, moreover, often expected by students to present few intellectual challenges, with teachers more than occasionally agreeing, even if only implicitly. Prayers can be ignored & occasional liturgies endured by students whose concerns are merely academic or social, & if their Theology courses are taught by those with a questionable grasp of their subject & an inability to address broader questions from within the faith, they can slide through their Catholic education without any serious intellectual engagement with the faith, & thus be largely unformed both in their faith & their intellect.  So much the worse when their school has a well-deserved reputation for focusing on sports or other activities considered extracurricular.  It’s better, then, so the logic goes, to educate the children at home &/or the local parish, & save a considerable sum of money.

While I share many of these concerns, I’m not ready to sound the retreat from Catholic education just yet.  Catholic education in its present form, like public education, has a short history, & the Church has always shown an ability not only to build success stories from unimpressive origins, but also to adapt itself & how it fulfills the will of Christ when necessary.  It’s impossible to tell what form our schools will take even in the near future; giving up on the project now either because this or that school is stuck in the “spirit of Vatican II” phase of recent Catholic history or too closely mimics public models of pedagogy sounds too much like simple frustration, impatience, or even a cowardly refusal to get one’s hands dirty & try to effect the necessary reforms.  Here we must distinguish between those who engage in genuine attempts at reform, which patiently flow from within the life of an institution, & those who, even with the best of motives & most proper of concerns, flee from a flawed institution in the pursuit of a purer alternative.  Prudence is of course required here, as parents & educators may legitimately believe they are called by God to something other than a “traditional” Catholic education.  Publicly funded charter schools whose pedagogical mission is fueled by a classically-based curriculum are an increasingly attractive option for many parents, students, & teachers, & represent a long-overdue return ad fontes, so to speak.  Administrators & teachers in Catholic schools can benefit by refreshing their own curricula in dialogue with these schools, especially since a genuinely Catholic curriculum will be rooted in the liberal arts & the many ways these have developed throughout Western social, cultural, & intellectual history.  But all involved here should also adopt a long view of history, one which pays close attention to would-be ecclesiastical reformers like the Donatists, the Albighensians, & the Protestants, seeking to discern the motives & effects of their departures & applying, mutatis mutandis, what we can learn from them to our present-day educational challenges.  Again, Catholic education as we know it may not be around in a hundred years, but that’s not our call. Too much good has been done in our schools to turn away because of imperfections, even if they are structural.  Wendell Berry has noted that the most important changes in religious history often flow from the margins. It is from the desert, he says, that the prophetic word comes.  When that word, however, calls for wholesale abandonment of the means by which God has worked, we should be cautious.

At any rate, all this raises for me—as does going to work every day to teach theology & philosophy at a Catholic high school—the question of what exactly I & my colleagues are trying to accomplish.  Mission statements abound in our schools, but they are usually just vague enough to sound impressive & to leave even those bound to them uncertain as to whether or not they are being fulfilled.  Of course we hope to achieve much of what all educators strive to do, so I can leave all the academic things to the side.  But we are supposed to be Catholic educators for some special reason.  Do we know why?  And can we tell when we are not succeeding?  What does it mean to say, as we do at my school, that Christ is the reason for this school, that he is the unseen but ever-present teacher & guide?

To start with the obvious, one of our obligations is to discern the ethos of the society in which we live & teach so that we may know more clearly what is resisting the Church & its attempts to educate its people.  We are at war, after all; not just with “secular humanists” or the apostles of unbelief, National Catholic Reporter Catholics who view the Church in adversarial terms, relativism, postmodernism, or whatever other -ism develops out of the cancerous pride of life apart from Christ, but with the powers & principalities that actively resist the reign of Christ.  And not only are they legion, but they are not always easy to discern.  Caution is needed so that we don’t slip into simplistic generalizations about what battles we are fighting.  But this also means, among other things, that a simple rehearsal of the storied past of Catholic education in this country by its supporters is fruitless, as the increasing secularization of society presents new challenges to our schools that differ significantly from those of just a few generations ago.  This secularization, which continues to develop in new & unexpected ways & is ever-resistant to easy analysis, ensures that a growing number of students in Catholic schools, even if their families are Catholic, will be more deeply influenced by ideas & institutions that conflict, openly or not, with the Church.  One can not expect that even Catholic students will have the ecclesial upbringing necessary to detect & resist the manifestations of secularization.  Even the most basic theological & moral concepts will often appear foreign to many of these students.  As an example, my colleagues & I must spend significant amounts of time trying to subvert the assumptions that form the foundation of the fuzzy ethical subjectivism so popular today before we can even come close to helping them understand the what & the why of Catholic moral teachings.  These students are not moral relativists, despite the popular stereotype.  Far from it, as they have many strong, if imperfectly formed, moral convictions they take to be absolute.  The problem is that they have imbibed just enough of the live-&-let live nonsense that passes for compassion or tolerance or whatever you call it these days to discourage their being able to develop even a preliminary ability to understand their convictions & why they hold them, or why they should.  They lack not only a normative moral vocabulary, but also a moral grammar & syntax.  Thus their wild inconsistencies; one minute they’re organizing collections for the latest people to suffer from earthquakes & tsunamis, protesting the death penalty, or working in a soup kitchen, & the next they’re agreeing with Peter Singer that newborn infants aren’t really “persons” or claiming that sometimes abortion is the most compassionate option.  And, as Gilbert Meilaender has perceptively noted, the relativism so many young people seem to embrace is likely to be something of a defensive reaction against those who would challenge their convictions & practices.  In a society where the learned are growing more comfortable in mocking & disparaging Catholicism, claiming that all beliefs are private property, equally valid, or not open for disputation can appear the safest path.  A surface relativism without real depth or conviction can thus become a means of self-protection, especially for college students whose professors & peers are routinely on the attack.  Our students need to be educated on these matters, to have their inconsistencies straightened out & their fears assuaged, & that’s one of the reasons many of their parents send them to Catholic schools.  But without the proper foundations that have traditionally been provided in a Catholic home & parish, such a task becomes more & more herculean, which is why we educators have to spend considerable time & effort on prolegomena.  In earlier generations Catholic educators could assume a shared moral discourse, rooted in certain assumptions about God & human nature, that bound them with their students & made it easier to consider current issues together in light of the gospel.  Today there is a moral free for all.  After virtue, indeed.  Even students who identify themselves as Catholics, who have attended Catholic schools their entire lives, & regularly attend mass with their parents, exhibit a moral schizophrenia that can intimidate teachers who are not themselves well-versed in intellectual history & the Catholic moral tradition.  Thus, an awareness of this schizophrenia & its roots becomes one of the essential responsibilities of Catholic educators, who, if they are to be effective catechists & apologists, will bring to light their students‘ assumptions & logical inconsistencies, as well as the implications of their assumptions.

In light of the above, I think it clear that the principal task of Catholic education in our society today is the formation of a Catholic culture whose ethos is rooted in & shaped by an anthropology faithful to the Church’s deposit of faith.  This anthropology will be a faithful exposition &, when necessary, development of the Church’s teaching on creation & incarnation, such as is found in John Paul II’s catechesis on the theology of the body.  There are numerous distortions & denials of this teaching, as is evident when one considers the the topics of abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, & the growing number of bioethical issues routinely misread by journalists & other talking heads today.   As Catholics, we highlight two particular points that are either misunderstood or denied by those outside &, increasingly, inside the Church.  First, that all persons bear the image of God & thus possess an inherent dignity, regardless of size, age, health, or cognitive capacities.  The trend today in bioethics is to distinguish between “persons”, those held to possess rationality & all the abilities associated with it, & mere human beings, such as unborn children, newborn infants, those with cognitive disabilities, & those who have suffered brain trauma or severe dementia.  While Peter Singer may be the most celebrated exponent of this distinction, those who agree with him are growing in number & influence, including in the health care professions.  Such a distinction is also embraced by some of my students when we read & discuss selections from Singer, including those from serious Catholic families, who thus find abortion rights, doctor-assisted suicide, & euthanasia increasingly acceptable & their alternatives mean-spirited, if not incomprehensible.  They often accept this distinction & its consequences in the name of compassion & common sense, & show few signs of being troubled by those consequences.  And these are students who as Juniors had an entire semester course in which they studied the social teaching of the Church, which is rooted in the proclamation of human dignity.  “That’s speciesism,” say folks like Singer.  “Maybe so,” the Church says, “but it’s also the truth.”  Lose this point, & it is hard to imagine how a life in service to others is possible.

Secondly, we profess that we are created with a natural orientation toward God, that a proper understanding of eros includes a recognition that nothing this side of eternity can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.  We are religious beings, drawn toward eternity.  Our most fundamental longings are for that which transcends the physical world, as good as that world is.  In fact, the only way to honor this world is to see it as incapable of fulfilling us; it is a gift from God, but it is never self sufficient.  We are composite beings whose feet are planted firmly on the ground but whose eyes are lifted upwards toward a mystery which transcends everything we see & enjoy.  The fact that we can bow says something important about us.  Whether we bow in respect to another person or in the act of worship, we are the only animal that can adopt such a posture with the awareness that in lowering ourselves physically we are in fact raising ourselves.  And what other animal has developed a vocabulary of gratitude?  What animal, in the the most primal act of feeding itself, expresses both respect & thanks?  Only the human animal truly prepares & eats a meal.  The crude materialistic philosophy on display in the catechisms of unbelief so prominent today fails to answer the most basic questions we ask about ourselves, & any Catholic school will find ways, & not only in the Theology classroom, to highlight the orthodox alternative as the only truly humane option.  This includes a strong emphasis on the Incarnation & its implications for our understand of ourselves & the created world, which means we will have to counter every manifestation of the gnostic dualisms so evident in our society, including the more “religious” alternative to Catholic teaching.  When our students are shown what a consistent materialism looks like, they naturally recoil, for they can not bear the thought that the universe has, in the words of Richard Dawkins in his popular River Out of Eden:  A Darwinian View of Life, “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” & that they are the accidental by-products of such a universe.  Many of them, however, will choose a dualism that allows them to possess souls, & thus to affirm a spiritual center, but souls which are dragged around by their bodies they will one day jettison.  This permits them to challenge Church teaching on the ethical implications of its anthropology, & spout the “I’m spiritual, not religious” mantra.  If a person is really only the spiritual part, why get all flustered about liturgies, rituals, & the morality of easing suffering souls into a compassionate death?  What we do with, & to, our bodies becomes less important.

Catholic students are as confused about these issues as anyone else, & at times as dogmatically opposed to the Church as those outside the Church.  This is in large part due to their inability to grasp the incarnational logic of Christianity, something that seems to get bypassed as part of their theological formation.  Or, more likely, when they do here this language it appears strange to them, if not incomprehensible.  We teach them for about 50 minutes a day, 4 days a week; they are exposed in society, & often in their own homes, to messages in direct conflict with what they get in class.  They are being intellectually & spiritually formed “out there”, even if implicitly & without their conscious participation.  While they rarely discuss with parents or friends the origin, nature, & ends of the human person & the implications of the different answers, their faith is being formed by the media they are exposed to, the habits they are forming, & the choices they are making.  Indoctrination is occurring.  As educators we need not recoil from such a word; I quite willingly engage in the indoctrination of my students insofar as I teach them true doctrines & how to detect false doctrines. That’s not scary, just honest.  Public education seeks to indoctrinate students, as do parents. Yes, I’m using the archaic meaning of the word, but that meaning still stands for something important.  If Catholic schools take their task seriously, they will seek to counter the indoctrination of their students with a full bodied presentation of the truth revealed to us in & through Christ.  In other words, with true indoctrination.  They have to believe something, & they will, with or without our help.  Leave them to their own devices in the name of respecting their freedom etc. etc., & get ready to duck in a few years’ time. Great damage is done when we play around with this word & pretend there is some such thing as a “neutral” education, one where our students are allowed free space to roam & make up their minds on things they can barely understand, much less choose wisely & well about.  The myth of secular neutrality has been exposed by many writers; MacIntyre & Hauerwas are two of the best-known, with Hauerwas making his points with verve & humor.  Read his interview with US Catholic reproduced in the Hauerwas reader, especially the stuff on tolerance.  Hilarious, & right on.

For Catholic educators to do our job we must take mores seriously their formation in our secular society & consciously seek to elaborate throughout our schools what John Paul II called a more adequate anthropology, one which helps our students to see concretely that they are created for something more than worldly success.  In other words, we are called to help our students see something particular.  Discussing the Church’s task is societies based on atheistic or agnostic materialism, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the following:

“Now the Church must once more make an effort to create social spaces in which people find on offer not only that burdensome collective identity that drags us down, but also a collective identity that opens up possibilities, that supports the individual & brings him into the process of learning to see.”

I think this speaks to the distinctive task facing Catholic schools today.  We are to seek new ways to create & sustain a thoroughly Catholic culture whose ethos encourages students, Catholic or otherwise, to resist false views of the human person & to see differently than the society they live in, & to use their critical & imaginative faculties to enable them to realize that only a Catholic vision of man does justice to who & what they are.  Because we have a fundamental disposition the goodness, truth, & beauty, it stands to reason that Catholic schools can play a formative role in helping students to see more clearly what those things are, where they are to be found, & what their counterfeits are.  The entire curriculum should work toward this end, & administrators should seek innovative ways to inculcate the Catholic vision outside the classroom.  It’s not so much a message to be preached as a series of assumptions to be incarnated.  How this will be done will no doubt differ from school to school.  Campus ministers, chaplains, & others, including but not limited to Theology teachers, will pray & work in search of new ideas.  Again, with different personnel with different interests & abilities, each school will have different approaches.  My own suggetions would focus on the arts curriculum, & the development of courses in Theology & the Humanities that use music, film, literature, painting, sculpture, & architecture as a way of probing the Catholic profession of faith.  The key, however, is in challenging the regnant anthropology & its ethical implications with one informed by the Church’s unique vision of the human person.

—Anthony DiStefano

Love, Suffering, & the Defeat of Death: Why Voldemort & Peter Singer Understand Nothing

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

Harry read the words slowly, as though he would have only one chance to take in the meaning, & he read the last of them aloud.

“‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’ . . .”  A horrible thought came to him, & with it a kind of panic.  “Isn’t that a Death Eater idea?  Why is that there?”

“It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,” said Hermione, her voice gentle.  “It means . . . you know . . . living beyond death.  Living after death.” —Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, CH 16

I’m not sure if Voldemort would assert that bestiality & contracepted incestuous sex are morally acceptable behavior, or that there is little ethical difference between killing a snail & a day-old infant, but he does seem to have something in common with the bad boy of bioethics, Peter Singer, who does say such things.  Both the Dark Lord of the Harry Potter franchise & the Australian philosopher now residing at Princeton University have their problems with suffering, not only thinking it allied with the greatest of evils, but also obsessed with trying to render it powerless through dark magic, in Voldemort’s case, or eliminate it as much as possible through the strange logic of personhood theory & preference utilitarianism, in Singer’s.  Readers of the Harry Potter series know that Voldemort’s fear of suffering & death lead him to mutilate his soul through the creation of multiple Horcruxes, which requires multiple acts of murder; we also know that while he did extend his life through such acts, it was not much of a life, & his goal of conquering death altogether was futile.  Rooting for such an obvious villain is difficult, even if his goal is shared by others (see the philosopher’s stone, which, according to the first book, was created by a guy who appears to have been decent).  Readers of Peter Singer, however, are a mixed bunch, some applauding his openness to redefining personhood & rejecting the idea that all human beings have dignity, while the rest of us see him as something of a childish ghoul, trying to shock everyone in the room with his “bold” proclamations (“Sex with your sister, or dog, is wrong?  Why?  Who says so?  And what’s so special about defective infants that we should legally protect their lives?”) while placing a target on the backs of growing numbers of vulnerable members of society.  Singer’s philosophy, however, like Voldemort’s, insofar as he has one, is rooted in the attempt to diminish & ultimately render unnecessary human suffering.  While Singer doesn’t seem (yet) to have embraced the posthumanist wish of achieving earthly immortality through biotechnological means, he does want to help those with defective infants or intellectually disabled parents & spouses eliminate their suffering, & the suffering of their wards, by being able to eliminate them, in the name of compassion.

“You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore” called Voldemort. . . .  Above such brutality, are you?”

“We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom,” Dumbledore said calmly. . . .  Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit—”

“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” snarled Voldemort.

“You are quite wrong,” said Dumbledore. . . .  Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness—” —Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, CH 36

This passage nicely reveals the motivation behind Voldemort’s plotting & planning; his entire operation, so to speak, is called forth to wage war not against Harry Potter, Dumbledore, & the Ministry of Magic, but against death itself.  Mortality, & the suffering inevitably attached to it, is his greatest foe.  This is what separates Harry from Voldemort; he feels for those who suffer & die.  He is moved by compassion, by pain & loss, by witnessing the wanton destruction caused by Voldemort & his allies.  This marks him as human, a quality Voldemort sacrificed long ago, & Dumbledore reminds Harry that there is nothing odd about the pain he suffers:

“There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry,” said Dumbledore’s voice.  “On the contrary . . . the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength. . . .  Harry, suffering like this proves that you are still a man!  This pain is part of being human—”

And this is directly related to his capacity to love, the one trait which best defines Harry. This proves decisive in the series, as is spelled out in the 7th book, when Harry makes the choice at Shell Cottage to finally trust Dumbledore & stop obsessing over Hallows & turn his attentions back to finding Horcruxes.  This is something Voldemort can’t even begin to understand, to his eventual ruin.

Despite all the criticisms, including from Catholics concerned about a glorifying of a gnostic elitism (I’ll have a post on this soon) in the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling said in an interview that the main theme of the books is death, not magic.  Alan Jacobs’ perceptive reviews of Harry Potter draw attention to the question of the use of technology in pursuit of certain goods, as Voldemort & the Death Eaters seek to achieve immortality through the use of the Dark Arts.  Harry’s puzzlement when reading the words cited above on a tombstone is caused by his painful experience of their pursuits, which include the murder of his parents.  And these pursuits are in important ways strikingly similar to those of Peter Singer, posthumanists, & others devoted to the elimination of the vulnerabilty of being human.

Ralph Wood, in Flannery O’Connor & the Christ-Haunted South, has this to say in a section dealing with O’Connor’s suffering from the fatal illness that claimed her at age 39:

“Rather than fearing God as our ancestors did, we now fear death; & so our scientific projects & materialist greed are driven by a massive dread of extinction.  Hence our own personal desire to die quickly & cheaply, preferably during our sleep, & without bother to anyone else.  We do not trust our families to help us die, & we do not want to make a painful preparation for death.”

This quote recalls Singer’s attempts to redefine the human person & the ethical ties that bind us to one another.  It also reminds me of a comment my mother made to me a few years ago, one which saddened me then & motivates me now.  “I don’t want to be a burden to you,” she said, repeating words that are likely common among the elderly who are losing their capacities for independence.  “Mom, I was a burden to you for a long time,” I think I said.  And, in many ways, still am.  I was at one point a sort of parasite, really, an image Annie Dillard capitalizes on in describing how unborn children look from a certain point of view.  And I wasn’t feeding or clothing myself, helping with the mortgage, taking myself to baseball games or the doctor’s office.  The first words I, like every other person, uttered through screams, cries, & grunts were “I NEED!  GIVEGIVEGIVE!”  My vocabulary may have grown through the years, but how many of can say we have ever outgrown those first sentiments?  She answered me, again & again, without condition, & loving gratitude suggests that when our roles are reversed, respect for the 4th commandment is the path of wisdom.  A gratitude, moreover, which expresses itself in showing her love, patience, & tolerance of her growing incapacity, & in helping her to feel that she is anything but a burden.  Exactly what she showed me.

“Blessed Burden” is the title of a Hummel print I bought from an antique shop shortly after our first child was born, & it depicts a young girl carrying a lamb in a basket.  Cute, in a smushy, Hummel kind of way, but also true.  For folks like Singer, these two words are always at odds, “blessed” locked into a fierce adversarial relationship with “burden.”  This always makes me wonder about Singer the father, not to mention husband, son, & so on.  I like to imagine that Singer is a far better father etc. than he is an ethicist, that his life is vastly more reasonable & human than his thought, that he recognizes, at a deep level, that the demands we inevitably place on one another are no excuse for defining the most vulnerable among us out of personhood, & that these natural demands should call forth from us patience, empathy, & love that might otherwise remain dormant.  That these virtues, & not our “rational capacities,” much less the ability to enjoy a pleasurable, suffering-free, independent life, make us human.  Singer’s lack of insight about the human condition is especially troubling, as that patience, empathy, & love do not often sit on the surface of most people’s lives, just waiting to be effortlessly spilled out when others we choose to favor need them, but must gradually take form through the practices associated with life among other vulnerable people.  No wonder Singer & other utilitarians reject Aristotle; it’s not just because his thought is teleological, but because his emphasis on the development of virtue makes stringent demands on us, &, when refined by St. Thomas, make it impossible for us to hide behind the human being/human person distinction Singer favors.  One could paraphrase Chesterton on Christianity here: Aristotle is not rejected because he’s been tried & found wanting; he hasn’t been tried at all.  The formation of virtuous habits is hard work, & becomes much harder when charity, the “greatest of these,” is added to the mix.  Just as Voldemort scoffs at the weakness of others as he seeks to achieve an invulnerability for himself, Singer’s impulse is to turn us away from the inevitabilities of suffering & mortality, including the invitation we ourselves must eventually extend to others to care for us when we are most in need & thus helping them toward a more virtuous life.  My children are “burdens” to my wife & I now, as they were when they were yet unborn, & as they will remain till we depart them & this life.  And we will increasingly become burdens to them. To treat this as unnatural, something to be conquered in the name of “compassion” or personal autonomy, is childish, reflecting an immaturity we expect from spoiled, brattish children who invite a kick in the rear.  That we reward this kind of petulance with accolades, chairs in bioethics, & disciples is a commentary on ourselves that should frighten all but the most callous, as Voldemort should frighten every reader who witnesses his disregard for others, &, ultimately, for all that once made him human.

What Wood calls a “massive dread of extinction” fuels the freakish fringes of biotechnology today, giving birth to posthumanism & its calls to treat death as a disease to be conquered through new technologies that will enable us to live on past the deterioration of our bodies.  It is an ancient dread, & is by no means unnatural.  How we respond to it, however, defines us & the world we build.  Was it Peter Berger who defined culture as “all the little flags we fly in defiance of death”?  How about the art of Mozart, Bergman, Monet et al. as differing ways of celebrating our mortality by trying to appreciate & understand it better, leading not to a raging against its insistent presence among us, but to the recognition that Tolkien’s elves had that death is best seen as a gift, a blessing that frees us from the ravages of time & the temptation merely to persist?  What kind of life does Voldemort really have, after all?  What would his immortality look like?  The vicious man, Aristotle said, can never be happy, as his ingrained habits prevent anything like the moderation of one’s passions that is required for genuine happiness.  There is a direct correlation between Voldemort’s murderous behavior & his grasping for immortality.  “Nothing is worse than death!” is the dirge of a ruined human being who knows nothing about himself or anything else, a lack that finally betrays him & leads to his ruin.  Dumbledore utters the most powerful words in the entire series when he spells out for the not-quite-dead Harry the truth about Voldemort:

“You were the seventh Horcrux, Harry, the Horcrux he never meant to make.  He had rendered his soul so unstable that it broke apart when he committed those acts of unspeakable evil, the murder of your parents, the attempted killing of a child.  But what escaped from that room was even less than he knew.  He left more than his body behind.  He left part of himself latched to you, the would-be victim who had survived.

“And his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry!  That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend.  Of house-elves & children’s tales, of love, loyalty, & innocence, Voldemort knows & understands nothing.  Nothing.  That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”

Change the words of that last paragraph slightly & you have insight into where Peter Singer fails as an ethicist.  Of the weak & vulnerable among us, of sacrificial love, loyalty to those in our care, & the innocence that sees other human persons as bearing the greatest of gifts, God’s own image & likeness, Singer knows & understands nothing. His truncated view of reason, which denies to the cosmos & to its human inhabitants any telos & any Creator, & which seeks cause to eliminate the natural ties that bind us sons & daughters of Adam & Eve together, falls flat before the deeper reason (the “deeper magic” that Aslan speaks of in Narnia, & which JK Rowling illustrates in the Potter books) informed by love, a reason which accepts the suffering of others, &, ultimately, our own.

—Anthony DiStefano