The Christian Review 2015

Why I Can Be Friends With Liberals, Democrats, and Pro-Aborts

By Deal W. Hudson

I’m writing this in response to comments made over the years about friendships I’ve maintained with persons who are diametrically opposed to many of my core values. Most of these comments have the tone of disapproval, others just sound flummoxed with me.

Let me say from the start that my reason is not conversion. Such an ulterior motive would make such a friendship one of utility, not a true friendship, to use Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendship. In the Book VII of his Nicomachean Ethics, he distinguishes between friends who are bonded by shared pleasure, the lowest; those who find each other useful; and true friends who share a common vision of life.

I’m sure the diligent reader just noted that I created a huge hurdle for myself to jump, namely, how can I be friends with those, who I said above, do not share my “core values”? Doesn’t this constitute an impossibility according to Aristotle’s criteria?

maritain

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)

Since I regard myself as someone whose mind and heart has been shaped by the tradition from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, I take this challenge seriously. In order to answer it, I have been made to reflect upon those specific friendships, both past and present, to find, if I could, what “common vision” we may have shared.

What came immediately to mind was the acceptance and respect I shared, and still share, with these persons. Several of them, in addition to being liberal Democrats, have been homosexual, which I thought important to mention, though I didn’t want to put it in the headline.

Such was the case of my friendship — call him “W” — of over 40 years with a man whose eulogy I delivered only a few years ago. We shared a love of Flannery O’Connor, who had been a personal friend of his, as well all things literary and musical. I spent hours at his piano singing show tunes while he thundered away, magnificently. I still miss him.

Evelyn-Waugh-007

Evelyn Waugh ( 1909-1966 ), author of Brideshead Revisited

When issues of faith, sexuality, or politics came up, our conversations were always direct but civil and punctuated with great guffaws of laughter, usually provoked by his puncturing of my inflated ego. But W never hinted at any disapproval of my conversion to Catholicism at age 34 — he also loved the convert, Evelyn Waugh — or the help I offered to George W. Bush — a man he didn’t love — in his campaigns and years in the White House.

Unlike many liberals nowadays, W did not look upon me as a moral inferior for being conservative, Catholic, or Republican. He did not assume I was a racist or felt disdain toward the poor. Oh, W would correct me sharply if I said or did something out of line, but I accepted the rebuke as a lesson given by a man whose judgment I respected and whose love I trusted.

What I have said of W can be applied to all my friendships with “liberals, Democrats, and pro-aborts.” There is, in fact, a “common vision” that stands behind the differences about politics, religion, and morality, and at the heart of the vision is acceptance, respect, and love, the truest love of willing the good for the other.

Another dimension to that common vision is a sharing of the greatness of the world and its culture — music, poetry, fiction, film, ideas, history, travel, and mutual friends. After all friends do not simply sit and stare at each other, quite the opposite, they look out at the world together and share in its delights.

At this point the reader might be thinking that I have ignored the looming question of how I could share a “common vision” with, say, a pro-abort. My answer is to say that not all who support abortion do so with the virulence of a pro-abortion activist. Not all who call themselves feminists despise conservative men who smoke cigars and play golf. Those friends of mine who are abortion supporters respect my view and those of other pro-lifers. They agree to disagree, but do so in way not to dismiss the subject from conversation but to admit their minds are still open on the subject.

Me

The author at peace in Scotland.

The same can be said of liberals and Democrats: few of them are as unpleasant as the liberals on TV and radio who cannot address any difference of opinion without a mocking, scornful tone of voice. I cannot share a common vision with anyone, on the right or the left, who treats others with instant disrespect because of a label, whether of their party affiliation, religious belief, sexual orientation, or taste in music.

At the heart of liberal scorn is the belief that “all the rest of us” are their moral inferiors, which makes friendship impossible. I fear that conservatives are developing the same attitude toward liberals — that they hold a monopoly on the moral high ground. This may be the main reason I have felt less at home lately in what’s left of the conservative movement.

The gradual politicization of American culture since the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 — driven by the endless victory laps of the media — has made “across the aisle” friendships less and less likely, especially in the area I live around Washington, DC.

And since it has become a habit “to google” a person after you meet him or her, before pursuing further contact, many possible friendships never get off the ground. That person you found delightful at a concert, or a bookstore, a party, at church, or standing in line at the grocery store turns out to a wretched “Republican” or “Democrat,” or whatever label makes him or her an “untouchable.”

Friendship faces a difficult future, I fear. It’s for this reason I offer this explanation of what has appeared to some a disconnect between who I am and who I call “my friend.” Perhaps the “common vision” that grounds a friendship is larger, and more nuanced, than we think.

Published at The Christian Review, December 20, 2015

I Am About to Snap!

By Deal W. Hudson

I am 66 years old, and I am about to snap. Do you even need to ask, “Why?” As I watch our nation engrossed in a debate over the morality of bathroom selection, I cannot recognize the place where I was born, raised, lived my life.

I feel that I’m living in a foreign land, though I haven’t reached the point of weeping (Psalm 137), possibly because I am too angry. But if the “stages of grief” hold true, it won’t be long before I acquiesce to depression and tears. But I will refuse the final stage, acceptance, and will choose to snap instead.

What form will my snapping take? One well-known model is the character Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, from the film “Network” (1976). His rampage still resonates in our cultural memory, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. . . .”

The continued relevance of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is uncanny:

Mad prophet is not my style, though watching the elegant Peter Finch devolve into a rain-coated Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33.10-16) has proven, to me anyway, unforgettable.

Another model, perhaps not so therapeutic, is the character, Bill Foster, played by Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” (1993), who “has passed the point of no return. . . .” (The screenplay was written by Ebbe Roe Smith.)

My form of snapping would not be violent, though I understand the rage of man barred from seeing his daughter on her birthday. Mine would be triggered by an overloaded sensibility under constant assault by our corrupt culture, where the standard of morality has been reduced to an individual’s view of whether biological males, who consider themselves female, can use the ladies bathroom.

I recently had a discussion with a gentleman from North Carolina who considered my support for the “bathroom bill” tantamount to racism. My response was laughter, simple laughter. This was spontaneous, not pre-meditated. The absurdity of defending gender specific bathrooms just started me giggling, then came full throated laughter.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra spoke of the laughter that kills, but my laughter was closer to what the playwright Christopher Fry had in mind in “This Lady’s Not for Burning” (1948).

The main character Thomas Mendip is asked why he said, “For God’s sake, shall we laugh?”

He answers,

“For the reason of laughter, since laughter is surely
The surest touch of genius in creation.
Would you have thought of it, I ask you,
If you had been making man, stuffing him full
Of such hopping greeds and passions that he has
To blow himself to pieces as often as he
Conveniently can manage it… would it also
Have occurred to you to make him burst himself
With such a phenomenon as cachinnation?
That same laughter, madam, is an irrelevancy
Which almost amounts to a revelation.”

As Fry wrote in his widely anthologized essay on comedy, “Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith.” Comic overcoming, as opposed to Nietzsche’s laughter that kills, requires the kind of faith that transforms tragic circumstances.

When the Jews found themselves tragically ensconced in the “foreign land” of Babylon, they hung their lyres on willow trees. When they were asked by the captors to sing the songs of Zion, they answered, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4).

Perhaps my impulse to snap is another form of hanging up my lyre, refusing to sing the Lord’s song? Or perhaps I will snap through the “narrow escape into faith” and find myself laughing and singing on the other side? If laughter can be an “irrelevancy/ Which almost amounts to revelation,” then, I say, bring it on!

Perhaps my laughter in the face of being called a racist was an act of faith. Why try to defend the absurd? Why try reasoning with unreason? It’s like trying to convince Dostoevsky’s Underground Man that 2 + 2 does not equal 5!

Perhaps I have already snapped and didn’t recognize it in the sound of my laughter.

The Exorcist Author Learns Death Is a Lie

Published April 29, 2015 at The Christian Review

A Book Review:
William Peter Blatty, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death
Regnery Publishing, March 30, 2015
256 pages, $27.99

Honesty is rare, and when it’s found in a book such as this the effect is quite arresting and compelling. I rarely read a book at one sitting, as I did Blatty’s Finding Peter. The author amazes me for several reasons, the foremost being his ability to engage the most religiously skeptical reader to reflect on the possibility of the supernatural.
Blatty accomplishes that, in part, by not talking directly about the supernatural or the theology it belongs to. Rather, his book is a memoir of a distinct kind — a recounting of the providential moments in his life and the tragic death of his teenage son, Peter, who continued to communicate with his parents from beyond the grave.

Thus, it’s not an accident that the narrative begins with a hilarious and touching homage to his Lebanese mother, Mary, or that he casually mentions the copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions he carried in his “battered old G.I. footlocker” on the train from NYC to Georgetown University for his freshman year.

The book’s subtitle, A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death, tells the reader what Blatty intends to convey, but how he conveys it is never didactic or sentimental. In fact, Finding Peter can aptly be called humorous because every story Blatty tells he tells with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as if thinking, “How can this be happening to me?”

His memoir begins with his impoverished childhood in New York City, where he helped his indomitable mother sell quince jelly on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. From there we follow Blatty as he adjusts to the upscale surroundings of Georgetown; heading the Policy Branch of the U.S. Air Force Psychological Warfare Division; his years working in Beirut, Lebanon, for the United States Information Agency; and the chance beginning of a writing career, which led him to Hollywood and the life of a successful screenwriter, novelist, and, eventually, film producer.

Blatty talks about his Hollywood years, and especially The Exorcist (novel 1971/ film 1973), with some reluctance. His stories about friends Shirley McLaine, Danny Kaye, Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Blake Edwards, J. Lee Thompson, Darryl Zanuck, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, among many others, are told by a master of comic writing but with the purpose of revealing “only so much of it as I think may be needed to convince you of my truthfulness and credibility.”

In other words, the reader learns William Peter Blatty was a successful man of the world, succeeding in one of the deepest shark pools of contemporary existence, Hollywood’s film business. Blatty, the reader is assured, is not “some gullible New Age wacko who wasn’t born on this planet but, in point of fact, landed here with the manuscript of The Exorcist tucked under his arm.”

The heart of this book is Blatty’s account of the life, death, and afterlife of his Peter, who in 2006 was found dead sitting in front of a television with a remote still in his hand — a victim of viral myocarditis, an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.

Peter was the first child of Bill and Julie Blatty, born on May 17, 1987, in Stamford, CT. He was a child who seemed infused with the love of God. At age three he said to his mother, “Mommy, do you know why I came here . . . I came here to help people.” Other comments followed, such as the question, “How do you learn? I learn from the sky, God teaches me.” But the most touching of all is what he said to Julie Blatty at age 5:

“You know, Mom, when God was making me I was a little bit sad and a little bit scared. But then I saw you.”

In the year before he died, Peter was diagnosed with Type One bipolar disorder, which led to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. But things were looking up for Peter when he was found lifeless in front of the TV. Blatty doesn’t shy away from describing the agonizing pain visited upon him and his wife. However, in the midst of that suffering, very quickly things began to happen that could not be explained, until enough of them happened that they realized Peter was communicating to his parents that he was alive, happy, and loved them.

Among the many “paranormal” events Bill and Julie experienced was the lost, and then found, miraculous medal that once belonged to Peter. Bill had taken the medal and worn it around his neck after Peter’s death, only taking it off to get through airport security. One morning he woke up to find the medal was missing, and only the chain lay around his neck. He and Julie scoured the house, paying special attention to the shower, going over and over the small space several times.

A few days later, Bill got in the shower very nervous about a speech he had to give to a large audience. He saw something shiny on the floor and reached down to find Peter’s miraculous medal.

“Let’s go over it again: the glassed-in, brightly-lit shower stall measured a little less than four feet by four feet. Julie and I had separately entered the shower and meticulously searched it in broad daylight at least three times, in my case at least five.”

Here’s another: Julie went to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Bethesda. Seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk across from the restaurant, she told her friend that Peter, with his bipolar disorder, could have ended up like that. At that very moment, the homeless man shouted, “My birthday is May 17!” Julie froze, that was Peter’s birthday. Bill later went to talk to the man, got to know him a bit, and learned that his name was Pee Wee. Pee Wee’s birthday was May 17, but he didn’t remember shouting it out to anyone.

Then there were other surprising experiences involving cats, stuffed dolls, dreams, light bulbs, a lost rosary, a dried-out sunflower, and a recently planted tree. These went on for eight years after Peter’s death. Some of them were experienced by friends of Peter.

William Peter Blatty is by nature a skeptical man, and it was his own skepticism he had to overcome before accepting the meaning of these unusual events. At a certain point he could no longer hold out against the insistence of the son who was determined to touch him from the afterlife. He knows now that all the unexplainable happenings were, in fact, explainable because they were caused by Peter. As Blatty told me in our radio interview, when these things happen so regularly over such a long time “it’s not rational to conclude otherwise.”

In recounting these stories in Finding Peter, Blatty hopes to provide comfort to parents who have lost children or other loved ones. He is telling those who grieve, “They are not dead, talk to them, they will hear you.”

Writer’s note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to a special fund at the high school Peter attended — The Heights School in Bethesda, MD.

Will America Last? The 2016 Election

Published Jan. 11, 2016 at The Christian Review

It’s tempting to say that the coming presidential election of 2016 is the most important in American history. What gives me pause is the number of times this has been said before, including by myself. But this time, I cannot help but believe it’s true. Why?

Terrorism: A storm is gathering in the Middle East that threatens to spread throughout the world, but its perpetrators hate America above all. In a nuclear age, a single person supported by sophisticated, committed network of terrorists can kill millions at a single stroke. ISIS must be eliminated militarily before it can grow any larger. If you need convincing, read the history of Germany of National Socialism in the 30s.

Character: America is losing the unity of its national character. This began when immigrants no longer felt the necessity of being assimilated, starting with the learning of English. It’s one thing for the Hispanic population to reach 106 million by 2015, quite another if the majority of them don’t speak English. Rival languages have, and will, produce divided communities and cultures. Assimilation is not a nasty word demanding obedience, it’s the reasonable request of a nation whose character has attracted immigrants from around the world since its founding. That character must be preserved with care.

Family: When attitudes toward LGBTs becomes the moral standard by which we are all judged, something has gone terribly wrong in American culture. Here I distinguish between charitable acceptance of differences, and socially, and legally, enforced approval. Nothing is more fundamental to the well-being of human society than the health of families, created by the marriage of men and women. Of course, many marriages turn into train wrecks, and worse, but that’s no reason to give up on the norm. Just as it’s nonsense for a drunk to give up on sobriety because he can’t live up to it.

Life: America keeps killing its children at a rate of between 700,000 and a million each year, and its citizens are paying for half of those deaths through public funding of Planned Parenthood. America became the most admired country in the world following its decisive entry into both world wars and was handed the torch of freedom from a decayed, battered Europe. America took the lead in rebuilding both Europe and Japan, but at home began building a culture of death to “celebrate” its new affluence and prestige. Since 1973, the year of Roe, America has killed more children than any one of the genocides committed by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao — 57,762,169 dead.

Manners: There’s a mystery in manners, as the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor often talked about. One aspect of this mystery is the way manners both produce and express 0ur true values — manners bear values into the ordinary, everyday world of social conduct. Today it has become accepted that millionaire film stars will use the coarsest profanity on a public, televised stage while presenting and accepting awards for excellence. They use the privilege of their celebrity to show contempt for their audience, while indulging their egos with the equivalent of teenage flatulence. I can’t imagine Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, et al publicly shaming themselves in such a fashion.

Faith: Barack Obama is the first American president to scowl and wag his finger at America’s Christian citizens. Hillary Clinton would become the second. Obama has fought, and shown disdain towards, the orthodox people of faith from his first day in office when he repealed the Mexico City Policy. Religious institutions have had to seek relief in court from the federal laws that would require them sin against their God. Religious beliefs that won’t bend to accommodate the LGBT standard of morality are being fashionably scorned, while law and policy being shaped to bring those beliefs under the enforcement power of the state. Religious liberty is no longer celebrated but looked upon as the unconscionable excuse of a bigoted minority to “embrace diversity.”

The year after the end of WWI, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” (1919). In this poem he describes the fracture of Western civilization, its break with the certainties of the past, the values and vision upon which the West was built over 3000 years. The first few lines suffice to explain:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Perhaps the reader, like myself, read this poem in high school or college decades ago, and were told it reflected the confusion following the senseless slaughter in the trenches of WWI. In other words, just a period piece. Yeats’ words in “The Second Coming” have taken on a prophetic intensity as we near the 100th anniversary of its writing. Indeed, the “widening gyre” has widened to the point that all that I described above has come to pass, all of which are a consequence of a nation losing its “centre” and inviting “anarchy.”

The election of 2016 will have a direct impact on the direction of our nation, the fate of the national character, its families, the defense of innocent life, the people of faith, and our collective protection against ISIS terror. This is why I will do all I can do to ensure the message goes out to those who love America “under God” to vote against another eight years of war on the foundation of our country.

Homosexuality and the Synod

Published at The Christian Review Oct. 5, 2015

The Ordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family opened today to address the theme of “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.”

The world’s media will be watching the bishops very closely, expecting them to ratify “changes” to the Church’s teaching on divorced Catholics and hoping for “changes” to the teaching on homosexuality. Journalists conveniently forget, what most of them know, that the core of Church teaching does not change. However, some of the bishops want to discuss precisely what this “core” really is. And that is unsettling.

The issue of homosexuality was raised by Pope Francis himself when he declared early in his papacy, ““If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?,” deliberately using the English word, “gay.”

This remark released an avalanche of comment both from within the Church and out that has continued unabated since it was made July 29, 2013. And to ensure this issue is brought before the synod, Monsignor Krzystof Charamsa, a member of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith since 2003, “came out” by declaring to an Italian newspaper that he was an active homosexual and living with a “partner.”

Monsignor Charamsa explained his reason for giving the interview:

“The timing is not intended to pressure anyone, but maybe a good pressure, in fact a Christian participation, a Christian voice that wants to bring to the synod the response of the homosexual believers to the questioning of Pope Francis.”

Within 24 hours, Monsignor Charamsa was fired from his Vatican post and told by his Polish ordinary that he may well be stripped of his priestly faculties.

It’s important to remember that when the US bishops released their Bennett 2004 report on the priest’s pedophile crisis, the report itself revealed it was not pedophilia that was the problem but homosexual priests having sexual contact with post-pubescent boys and teenagers. Though 90% of the 400 victims listed in the report were post-pubescent, both the bishops and the media ignored the significance of this finding.

When the report was released at the National Press Club, I asked then USCCB president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, why the ramifications of this statistic were not highlighted in the report. The bishop acknowledged the statistic and then asked for another question.

Bishop Gregory’s determination to look away from the problem is not unique — it appears most of the leadership and laity in the Church have wanted to ignore it as well. Why? Because it would force them to ask, just what percentage of Catholic clergy are homosexual? And, how many of those homosexual priests are active? Most importantly, they would be led to ask whether or not either answer makes any difference to them.

Some years ago I surveyed all the available data on the percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood. When I published my findings and reported on them at a meeting of DC conservatives, I was castigated in a way that totally surprised me. Even my friends at the meeting told me I was out of line, in spite of the fact that I done the research. I will not repeat my findings here, rather I will only state the obvious: The percentage of homosexual priests in the Catholic Church is substantial, so substantial that the drama now underway at the Vatican synod was inevitable.

The July, 2013 comment of Pope Francis pricked a balloon that was ready to burst, and now we are watching as the air which came out slowly at first is forming a wind sweeping through the Church.

Here is what most Catholics know about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality:

Homosexuality is an “objective disorder” of the human person (CCC #2358).
Homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and, therefore, always sinful (CCC #2357).
Homosexual attraction, in itself, is not sinful, but is evidence of an “objective disorder” (CCC #2358).
Homosexuals are “called to chastity” (CCC #2359).
Homosexual men with “transitory” homosexual desire may be ordained deacons after three years of prayer and chastity.
Homosexual men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” or who are sexually active cannot be ordained.
(For #5 and #6 see “Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders,” a document published in November 2005 by the Congregation for Catholic Education.)

Since the Church’s policy toward the ordination of homosexual men is an “Instruction,” it is subject to change, which I am sure is on the mind those bishops hoping for “changes,” led by Cardinal Kasper, at the synod. However, the Church cannot, and will not, change its teachings on #1-4, a fact which I am confident Pope Francis will confirm at the synod.

It’s important to notice the prudential nature of the Church’s instruction regarding the ordination of homosexuals. The matter is not presented as black and white, the Church recognizes that the individual circumstances of each man should be respected, and any decisions regarding suitability for ministry should be based upon the individual, not caricatures of homosexual lifestyles.

I’m sure I am not the only Catholic who knows holy priests who have received the grace of chastity and have served the Church both generously and sacrificially. Thus, I would oppose any attempt to bar all men with homosexual tendencies from the priesthood. This would not only deny the heroism of countless priests but also the grace of God available to all of us to govern sinful desire.

But it’s clear, at least to me, that Cardinal Kasper and his co-conspirators are pressing for changes to the unchangeable, namely, the nature of homosexual desire, the moral state of homosexual acts, and, finally, the licitness of homosexual unions.

I doubt if Pope Francis realized his common sense call to charity and compassion towards homosexuals would bring him to face to face with his bishops over the fundament of Church teaching. I, for one, believe the Pope will do exactly what his role as Vicar of Christ calls for — to protect and promulgate the “sacred deposit” of Church teaching.

A Catholic Church Without Hell? Where We Are Headed.

Published at The Christian Review Nov. 3, 2015

There were many controversial pronouncements made at the Synod on the Family, but it was the “what-would-Jesus-do” comment made by Cardinal Wuerl afterward that really got my attention.

In an Oct. 25 interview with Religion News Service, the cardinal was asked about the final document’s lack of specific recommendations regarding how bishops and priests should change their pastoral care of certain people, such as active homosexuals and divorced Catholics, for example, by allowing them to receive Communion.

Cardinal Wuerl answered,

“The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ But I think the Holy Father has a whole range of opportunities before him. I think we just have to wait and see what he chooses.”

I don’t think I was the only reader of the cardinal’s response who found it classically Protestant.

Wuerl’s answer could be fairly unpacked this way: Catholics should not first look to the Code of Canon Law on guidance on how to regard homosexuality, homosexual acts, the sacrament of marriage, divorce, or annulment. Rather, Catholics should first consider the Gospels to figure out what to think about these now controversial moral matters, as well as the sacrament of marriage.

I could describe my reaction to this in two ways, first, as being baffled, like Alice in Wonderland, or, second, of being betrayed. I spent ten years reading and praying my way into the Catholic Church before being received at age 34. Central to that journey was the affirmation that the Church drew its teaching from both Scripture and Tradition, rather than the sola scriptura espoused by the Reformers.

Tradition itself, I learned, grew organically out of Scripture, the revealed Word of God, providing the faithful with a reliable guide to answer the question posed by Cardinal Wuerl, “What does the gospel really say here?”

I had been raised Presbyterian, became a Southern Baptist in college, and attended Princeton Theological Seminary before becoming a Baptist minister in Atlanta. My journey was not merely intellectual but was provoked, in part, by experiences in a Christian denomination that sought to draw its teaching from the immediacy of Biblical encounter, with a minimal amount of mediation sought from either theology or philosophy. Biblical interpretation and Biblical theology were encouraged, but systematic theology, philosophical theology, or even apologetics were viewed as veering away from the Word.*

I had already read various comments during the Synod about Catholics putting too much emphasis on doctrine. During a press conference after the second day, Archbishop Durocher answered a question about possible changes to the reception of the Eucharist by divorced Catholics by saying,

“Let’s be honest. Is that a question of doctrine or is that a question of discipline? I think that’s probably going to be one of the questions that will be debated in the small groups. . . . If you want doctrine, go read Denzinger.”

“Denzinger” refers to the The Sources of Catholic Dogma first published in 1854 by Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger (1819-1883), continuously updated ever since, becoming the accepted research guide to the development of Catholic doctrine. Archbishop Durocher’s comment was clearly dismissive and was taken as such.

I assume this is not what Pope Francis himself meant when he said at the opening session that the Church should not be a “museum of memories.” It’s impossible, at least in my mind, to viewing Tradition as something arising from the past into the present and moving towards the future. If fixed doctrine means a concept that has not changed over many centuries — “We believe in one God” — then it has something of a “museum” quality about it.

But, if Cardinal Wuerl has accurately represented the substance of the Synod’s discussions and direction the Holy Father is taking the Church then this question arises in my mind: Are we heading towards a Catholic Church without Hell?

This may seem a large leap, and perhaps it is, but consider the following points. Up for discussion at the Synod were two kinds of mortal sin, homosexual acts and the taking of Communion while being married outside the Church.

Mortal sins, of course, are those “grave matters” committed with full knowledge, both of the sin and of the gravity of the offense, and committed with deliberate and complete consent, enough for it to have been a personal decision to commit the sin (#1859 Catechism of the Catholic Church). If a mortal sin is not forgiven, the Church teaches a person will be condemned to Hell after death (#1033 CCC).

Being barred from receiving the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin (#1457 CCC) is a prefigurement of the Hell that awaits the unrepentant, unforgiven mortal sinner.

Orthodox Catholics often say that fundamental Church doctrine cannot be changed, even by a pontiff. Thus, they would argue, whatever the huffing and puffing of the recent Synod, and whatever Pope Francis may write as a consequence, homosexual acts and marrying outside the Church will remain mortal sins, as least according to Denziger, the Catechism, and the Code of Canon Law!

Yet, after the Synod, there was also the widespread comment that pastoral care had already de facto removed homosexual acts and marriage outside the Church from classification as mortal sin. (I’m sure this is an exaggeration but assume it applies to many dioceses around the world, especially in Europe.)

As I see it, the present situation is this:

–There are Church “regions” where what the Church officially teaches as mortal sin is not treated as mortal sin in the name of “pastoral care.”

–In those regions, the belief of being separated from God by mortal sin, and facing the threat of Hell, is being replaced de facto by the view of an All-Loving God Whose Love cannot be confined to doctrinal strictures, such as the “intrinsic evil” of homosexual acts. The Cardinals from these regions were those who attempted to use the Synod to codify their practices.

–The cardinals from the Church’s other regions, especially Africa, defended the Church’s teaching and practice, while agreeing that pastoral care should never be withheld from anyone, regardless of the gravity of sin.

–As a result of what I’ve described, the Catholic Church is facing the possibility of a schism. The movement towards schism has been in the making for quite a long time, but the election of Pope Francis allowed the long-held frenzied hatred for John Paul II and Benedict XVI among bishops and Cardinals to find an institutional outlet.

The possible schism itself can be described in the distinction drawn by Cardinal Wuerl between consulting the Code of Canon Law and the Gospels. In other words, some regions of the Church may simply admit they’ve decided to jettison certain uncomfortable portions of Catholic doctrine and become Protestant.

Other regions may not announce any formal break with the Roman Church but pursue and recommend pastoral practices that ignore moral teaching of the Church, especially regarding sex and marriage. This will very likely also include the ordination of women and removing the ban against contraception. (After all, we know that if Jesus lived in the 21st century he would have recognized the injustice of excluding women from the priesthood and view over-population as the primary source of global warming!)

Are we heading towards a Catholic Church without Hell? The true Catholic Church will always teach there is a Hell, because not to do so would be to strip the human person of the imago Dei, the free will impressed into his nature by God at creation. But the ersatz church, which is on the rise in Europe and some parts of the Americas, will find that Hell no longer matters to persons whose moral acts cannot separate them from the love of God.

Evangelical Protestants, of course, still believe in Hell. Thus, it’s important to point out that the Protestant gesture heard in Wuerl’s comment did not posit any specific content, but was a distancing from strict adherence to the “rule books” such as the Code of Canon Law and, presumably, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As I said, a schism in the Catholic Church can be avoided, but if not confronted head-on the present situation will eventually cause the Church to splinter. It’s a decisive moment for the people of God who must exert their proper leadership by making their voices heard.

I believe in the good intentions of Pope Francis but fear that he has unwittingly let the Protestant genie out of the bottle, and only with our help, and guided by the Holy Spirit, can the slippery rascal be put back in.

*My conversion memoir, An American Conversion: One’s Man’s Search for Truth and Beauty in a Time of Crisis, was published in 2003.

For Christmas: Books Containing a Witness to Human Horror

Published at The Christian Review Dec. 6, 2015

If you give only one book for Christmas, I recommend The Complete Works of Primo Levi (boxed in 3 volumes). The books are beautifully bound and edited, the pages sturdy, the fonts well-chosen, and the lay-out assures no hot lights or squinting are required for reading. The entire collection has been newly translated.

Levi’s Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man (1947), should be required reading for every high school senior — his account focuses on the prisoners themselves, how they struggled to adapt to their captivity, their hunger, their slave labor, their constant beatings, and fear of death. Levi speaks as a scientist turned humanist and philosopher, as an ethnic Jew who looks upon religion appreciatively but from the outside. One might say this book contains a portrait of ‘humanity in the raw’ but the tone of condemnation is reserved only for the most egregious acts of inhumanity. As he wrote years later in the deposition used at the trial of Adolf Eichmann:

“‘Forgive’ is not my word. It is inflicted on me, because all the letters I receive, especially from young, Catholic readers, have this theme. They ask if I have forgiven. I believe that I am in my way a just man. I can forgive one man and not another; I’m able to pass judgment only case by case. If I had had Eichmann before me, I would have condemned him to death. Indiscriminate forgiveness, as some have asked me for, is not acceptable to me.”

Most readers will turn first to Levi’s major works found in these volumes, including The Truce (1963) where he describes his long return home to Turin, Italy from Auschwitz, including some months in a Soviet facility for concentration camp survivors. His circuitous train journey took him through most of Eastern Europe where he witnessed the spectacle of displaced persons picking there way through the carnage, trying to find their homes.

His final reflection on Auschwitz was published in 1986, The Drowned and the Saved, where he asks aloud why some survived, including himself, while most perished. At a moment when he knows he faces being selected to die, Levi is tempted to pray to the God he believes does not exist, but resists, explaining, “equanimity prevailed.”

In The Periodic Table (1975), the scientifically trained Levi uses each of the elements to write a short chapter on his experiences, beginning with his doctoral studies in chemistry under the Italian Fascists, his arrest and interrogation as an anti-Fascist partisan, his transport to Auschwitz, and life after his return to Italy.

In addition to these books, the Complete Works contains six volumes of short stories, three essay collections, two novels, two poetry volumes, and a collection of interviews. A critic I much admire, Michael Dirda, admits Primo Levi has been “somewhat neglected,” writing in the Washington Post, “Whether as witness or imaginative artist, Levi stands high among the truly essential European writers of the past century.”

However, the novelist Philip Roth, summarizes Levi’s achievement most succinctly: “With the moral stamina and intellectual pose of a twentieth-century titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose.”

Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, jumping from an interior landing of his apartment building and falling to his death on the ground floor. It was well-known among his friends that he suffered badly from depression. A few friends believe he lost his balance, arguing as a chemist Levi would have devised an easier way to die. A fellow Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel understood it best, perhaps, when he said, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.”

This publication of Levi’s complete works, along with the subsequent Primo-Levi-007spike of recognition, comes at a good time in Western culture. We have been witnessing another form of incomprehensible inhumanity, beginning with the Al-Qaeda attack of 9/11, continuing with the barbarisms of the Islamic State (ISIS). We are a civilization under attack and a people struggling with our hate of an enemy who targets the innocent.

The witness of Primo Levi, found in these three volumes, will not remove our hate — Levi would not have approved of that — but reminds us what can happen among those who are threatened, which means the entirety of Western peoples. The determination to defeat the enemy will not be uniform: there will be those who put their comfort and survival ahead of any other concerns, even the defense of civilization itself. As a result, they will turn their fury towards those who place themselves in the front lines.