I read “Writers Blocked?” by Kaya Oakes (4/28), about Catholic writing today, with some bewilderment. While I agree with much of what she says, Ms. Oakes makes a number of odd or erroneous statements about my literary and cultural views. The oddest of all: “Gioia calls for a more centralized Catholic literary culture from the position of being the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a tenured professor at the University of Southern California.” What can this tangled assertion possibly mean?
First, as a poet, critic and anthologist, I have consistently championed a decentralized view of American literary culture. Much of my critical writing has analyzed the bias against regional, religious and divergent voices.
Second, my tenure at the N.E.A. was openly characterized by its commitment to decentralization. For the first time in its history, N.E.A. funding reached every community in the United States. Likewise our N.E.A. panels carefully represented regional, cultural, ethnic and aesthetic diversity.
Third, in my essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” can Ms. Oakes find a single paragraph or single sentence that calls for “a more centralized” literary culture? The very idea of cultural centralization is anathema to me.
Finally, I am not a tenured faculty member at U.S.C. I’m not even a full-time professor. I teach only half of each year on a contract basis. I didn’t start teaching till I turned 60, and I valued my independence too much to go full-time. I felt it would be good discipline to spend half of the year as a freelance writer.
Complaints aside, I sympathize with Ms. Oakes. It is hard for a young writer to make his or her way in the world today. In fact, it isn’t always easy for older writers.
He Is Unqualified
In “Unfriendly Fire” (Current Comment, 4/7), the editors express disapproval of the N.R.A.’s “vicious attacks” on Dr. Vivek H. Murthy’s nomination to be surgeon general, and criticize “the timidity of the senators who genuflect to the N.R.A.”
Under his qualifications for why he might be appropriate for this position, the editors underemphasize the five most important words: “he is regrettably pro-choice” (vicious attacks on the defenseless unborn). I am no supporter of the N.R.A., but I am a supporter of life. It is alarming that someone charged to be guardian of our health is in the position to choose whose health the office will guard. The fact that he is pro-choice makes him unqualified for the office.
In the very next comment, “Saving Graces,” the editors say that the trend of youth suicide deserves more attention. Yet is this not a form of pro-choice? This inconsistency does not help young people or anyone see the value of their God-given life. We need to be consistent. All life is important.
I appreciated “Witness in Rwanda,” (Vantage Point, 4/7), with its thumbnail sketches of the Jesuits who died in the genocide in 1994. I was a classmate of the oldest, Chrysologus Mahame, the first Rwandan Jesuit. We studied theology in Belgium from 1958 to 1962 and were ordained together.
I remember him as amiable but shy, and very intelligent. How did he become the courageous leader described in the article? He himself gave the explanation, an African Jesuit told me. Father Mahame said, “The people taught me how to be a priest.” I venerate him as a martyr.
Continuity and Development
For me, ordained in the wake of Vatican II, who valued the role of Yves Congar, O.P., and the other periti, the article “When Not in Rome,” by Paul Philibert, O.P. (3/24), was heartening. Viewing church life through the lens of center-periphery interaction allows for a dynamic and energized church.
Vatican II promised an open, listening church sensitive to the diversities of our world, unafraid to risk and capable of responding to the needs and opportunities of our time. That church has yet to be fully realized, but Pope Francis seems poised to bring us along that road.
The treatment of Father Congar’s principle that the church has organs of development and organs of continuity is a fundamental one for ongoing reform and renewal. It applies to the relationship between Rome and the local churches. I suggest that it applies even more broadly, especially to the relationship between a bishop and the pastoral units of the diocese.
Father Congar’s wisdom and the vision of Vatican II provide us with promising direction for the church, both global and local.
Many things make me proud to be an American. Our criminal justice system, however, is an embarrassment to me. “On the Run,” by B. G. Kelley (3/24), serves as an excellent example of its extreme rigidity and obsessiveness. After reading about the transformation of Stan Rosenthal during his 26 years of imprisonment, I could not help but ask: Why does this man have to remain in prison for the rest of his life? At the very least, it is a waste of taxpayers’ money to keep him incarcerated. If free, he would be a model citizen.
Some 40 years ago I met a young man who later committed murder at age 19. He was initially on death row in North Carolina, but because of a Supreme Court decision, his sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole. During his 34 years in prison, I saw a transformation not unlike Mr. Rosenthal’s. Fortunately, he was paroled in 2009. Some things have been difficult for him, but his parole officers have made it clear that he has truly turned his life around.
It is my sincere hope that Stan Rosenthal and many others like him will be able to savor the same freedom as my friend.
In “Open to All” (3/17), Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., writes that many of Pope Francis’ early actions convey more than simply “tone and manner.” She writes about his “benevolent and respectful attitude” and his “attitude of humility.” This directly opposes those members of the hierarchy who would have us believe that Francis is only talking about tone and manner.
Attitude, not tone or manner, is what Francis is asking us to change. He is showing us by his actions how we can change the church by our actions, if we only will.
Saint for Our Times
John W. Padberg, S.J., deserves commendation for two fascinating articles in America about the newly canonized Peter Faber, S.J.: “A Genius for Friendship” (3/10) and “A Saint Too Little Known” (7/17/2006).
Why did it take almost 500 years for Faber to be recognized as were Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, his roommates at the University of Paris? For the answer, we turn to John C. H. Wu, China’s minister to the Holy See under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1954, Dr. Wu spoke to the Jesuits in formation in Weston, Mass., and noted the growth of an amazing interest in Jesus Christ throughout Asia immediately after World War II. In response to the obvious question of why it took so long, he said, “Perhaps Jesus wanted to save the best for the last.”
As our church renews itself, Peter Faber, S.J., is the saint for our times.
Body and Soul
In his review ofIcons of Hope (1/6), Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., points out that both Pope Benedict and John E. Thiel, the book’s author, “reject the idea of resurrection at the time of death.”
How do Professor Thiel and Pope Benedict account for the traditional, metaphysical claim that body and soul together constitute one acting and responsible agent, one person? Catholic teaching holds that at death the soul leaves the body, immediately undergoes the particular judgment and is consigned to purgatory, heaven or hell. It is the soul, then, not the person, that is judged and exists in one of these states. When the soul’s temporal punishment is completed, it “goes” to heaven. The body, then, has escaped the punishment of purgatory even though it participated in the acts that merited it.
Father Rausch writes that Professor Thiel holds that the blessed dead are “involved in the ongoing work of forgiveness, healing rifts that exist in the communion of saints.” Couldn’t body and soul together engage in that work until it is completed in the general judgment? The general judgment is not just about bodily resurrection; it also confirms each person’s life either in heaven or hell.
The following is an excerpt from “Jesuits and Women: Helen Alvaré to America!” by Elizabeth Scalia, the Anchoress, at patheos.com (4/10).
This is, by any estimation, “a good get” for America; it demonstrates the commitment of Editor-in-Chief Matt Malone to move away from the bubbles, labels and the intellectual/ideological ghettos that we Catholics too often build amidst all the beauty. The move emphasizes a desire to more forcefully and inclusively engage with the world, and to pursue the truth in love.
I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is declaring that Alvaré has gone over to the dark side by aligning herself with Jesuits; I’m equally certain that in another corner someone is muttering that America is selling out by bringing in a voice guaranteed to mention abortion and contraception more than is “seemly.”
Both must be disabused of their illusions. This is just people of faith coming together, probably not in precise lockstep (they are, after all, Catholic, so there will be noise and messes) yet nevertheless talking, teaching, exploring and sharing their faith from disparate perspectives, because the nature of the church is catholic.