Defending the indefensible is never pretty. Or so we’re reminded by recent attempts from the portside of the Catholic commentariat to defend the madcap analysis of America’s alleged “ecumenism of hate” that appeared last month in the Italian Catholic journal, La Civiltà Cattolica (edited by the Jesuits of Rome and published after vetting by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See).
IT’S A SAFE bet that 99.95 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics have never heard of La Civiltà Cattolica [Catholic Civilization], a journal founded in 1850 by Jesuits of Rome to combat evils of the age (then taken to be secularist liberalism and freemasonry). Its current circulation is perhaps half that of First Things, and while it’s recently made attempts to broaden readership by publishing English, Spanish, French and Korean editions, it’s also a safe bet that Civiltà Cattolica will remain a small-circulation magazine with a readership confined to what we might call “Catholic professionals:” clergy of various ranks; papal diplomats; officials of the Roman Curia; academics and pundits.
WHEN I FIRST visited Israel in 1988, my friend, Professor Menahem Milson, a distinguished Arabist at Hebrew University who was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s military aide during Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, told me that “you have to meet my friend, Colonel Yigal Carmon.”
THE CLAIM THAT “the Cold War is over” and that the West needs a “new paradigm” for relations with Russia has become an antiphon in some conservative political circles, not least conservative Christian circles. The call for serious and creative thinking about Russia is welcome and sensible. The claim that the Cold War is over is not, because Vladimir Putin never got that memo. Ignoring that reality means danger in devising any new paradigm.
Asked to name books that gave me the greatest intellectual jolt in recent decades, I’d quickly cite two.
Precisely 50 years ago this month, a tall, gangly Aussie named George Pell entered my life. By the end of August 1967, he had become a fast friend of my family. Today, the friendship is even closer and it is one of the great blessings of my life.
I RECENTLY MET the good people of St. Benedict Elementary School in South Natick, Mass., which offers classical Catholic education to some very fortunate youngsters. The extensive summer reading lists the school suggests to those kids’ parents put me in mind of my high school English teacher, the late Father W. Vincent Bechtel – who did not, however, do suggestions, and made sure that his charges kept their noses to the grindstone from June through August by assigning us at least a half-dozen novels every summer. Some of them, like Paul Horgan’s “Things As They Are,” I still re-read with pleasure, a half-century later.
Given the intellectual flimsiness of their work, it’s best to look for cultural causes to explain the “New Atheists” popularity. And surely one factor here is the now-canonical notion in Western high culture that biblical religion is incompatible with modern natural science: an idea rooted in the notion that the “scientific method” is the only way to get at the truth. (William Shakespeare, call your office.)
PHOTOGRAPHS CAN capture exceptional moments in an iconic way, making the original experience “present” emotionally as well as pictorially. The photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi “means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years,” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said in 1945. The image of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s boyish salute as his father’s casket left Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral in 1963 helped cement the “Camelot” myth into its seemingly impregnable place in American public life. The “Earthscape” pictures shot by Apollo 8 astronauts at Christmas, 1968, continue to play a not-insignificant role in today’s environmental movement.
THE EVENING OF Sept. 12, 2006, was, in a word, memorable. My wife and I were having dinner in Cracow with two of John Paul II’s oldest friends when my mobile phone rang and an agitated Italian journalist started hollering in my ear, “Have you zeen zees crazee speech zee Pope has given about zee Muslims? What do you zay about it?”