Untethered τέχνη

By James Chaisson

The polls tell us that we as a collective whole are becoming less religious and less concerned about sacred and holy things, at least in the Western world.

At the same time we are becoming more and more entranced with science and technology, what the ancient Greeks called τέχνη (Techne).

Most people walk around with a fairly advanced computer that we call a smart phone. We drive “smart cars” that have all the latest gadgets. Medical advances assist the human family in living longer and healthier, and for most people science and technology are usually seen as “good.”

Few seem to be concerned with the technological advances that are on the horizon; but is science and technology always something “good?” And more to the point, should scientific advances, in any area, be severed from the holy?

For the most part, science and technology have gone unrestrained and unchecked for decades. In the modern West, because of our separation and denial of anything transcendent and holy, at least in a practical way, we seem to have few, if any, limits or restraints upon our use and advancement of science and technology.

In a very real sense it feels as if scientific progress has become untethered and is allowed to float free.

The proof, I think, is undeniable; take for example what the Nazi’s did in the name of science and progress in the early twentieth century.

Richard Stockton explains, “At Auschwitz, Dr. Josef Mengele injected dye into the eyes of children to see if he could permanently change their color. He also famously tried to create conjoined twins by stitching his patients together.”1

But it wasn’t just Nazi’s that did horrific things to humans in the name of science and technological advancement. During the 50s and 60s American scientists subjected unsuspecting soldiers and patients to plutonium to see what would happen.2

In more recent times we have had the cloning of animals and the tampering with DNA. There are even scientists today who think that the next great advance will be the placing of microchips into our brains so that we can control our computers and TVs without keyboards and remotes.3

Other examples could be multiplied, but the fact is that we have continued to remove barriers to the progress of technology, the main barrier or tether is the sacred.

If we look to the ancients and question them concerning τέχνη, what do they have to say on the subject?

In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, we are presented with the question of whether or not man should have unhindered access to science.

The play provokes us to ask, “Are there things that man should not know? Is there such a thing as forbidden knowledge, and if man does acquire such prohibited knowledge will he destroy himself with it?”

Dr. Warren Gage, in his lectures on the classics, makes the point that only a reverence for the holy will restrain man from going beyond what they ought to in the realm of science and technology.4 The point is that there are certain things man should not know.

Right away, the modern man cringe at the idea that there is anything that should be out of bounds for us, but Milton corroborates Dr. Gages’ assertion in his epic poem, Paradise Lost:

From the beginning, that posterity, Informed by thee, might know. If else thou seek’st Aught, not surpassing human measure, say.5

Noted classicist, Victor David Hanson, states that

“To Sophocles… there is always a price to be paid for relentless human progress that, in Euripides’ words, makes ‘us arrogant in claiming that we are better than the Gods.’”6

We in the modern world have made extraordinary leaps in fields of science and technology, and as a result, we have computers, smart cars and phones, etc.

But we also have bigger bombs, the ability to post live videos of rapes, tortures, and murders, so thousands and even millions of people can see in real time the depravity of humanity.

Of course it isn’t as though humans wouldn’t be doing these wicked things if the technology wasn’t available.

We would still have murderers, rapists, and tyrants, wars, and the like.

The fact is that sinful humanity – living in a broken and sin cursed world – tends towards evil, but with unrestrained technology, he tends to do much more damage by carrying out those evils on a larger scale.

My main goal in writing this post is not to demonize science and technology, but rather to get us to think biblically and classically about it.

Scientific and technological advances should be used to build up the human family and to better society, and certainly there have been those advances that have helped us.

But technological advances should always be tethered to and restrain by a reverence for the sacred.

When it comes to future advances in τέχνη, I submit a better way forward is to stop asking “can we” and instead ask “should we?”


1 – http://all-that-is-interesting.com/evil-science-experiments/2

2- http://all-that-is-interesting.com/evil-science-experiments/5

3 – http://www.computerworld.com/article/2521888/app-development/intel–chips-in-brains-will-control-computers-by-2020.html

4 – Gage, Warren. CC604 Dante and Milton, Lesson 20.

5 –  John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 246.

6 – http://www.nationalreview.com/author/victor-davis-hanson


On Speaking Well


by Christine Norvell

In recent years, speaking well has become an educational ideal for graduates at many institutions.

Able speakers can convey their thoughts and intents with both ease and confidence. Isocrates, the pre-socratic rhetorician, terms it “assurance.”

Unfortunately, courses in rhetoric and speech aren’t always required, and a number of graduates would find it difficult to present, let alone dialogue, on a public platform.

Isocrates found this to be true in ancient Athens as well, for he did not believe that just anyone could be taught. He felt training in speech was necessary for many, but not for all.

One of the reasons Isocrates addresses the issue of speaking well is because he felt it his duty to educate the youth of Athens: “the government of the state is handed on by the older men to the youth . . . succession goes on without end . . . [it] will be the fortune of the state.”

He saw that for posterity, even the legacy of Athens, to be preserved, new leaders must be trained.

Isocrates however did appear to believe that a natural gift of speaking was necessary.

Potential students had to have three things: a natural aptitude, the ability to submit to training and to master the subject’s knowledge, and then to be versed and practiced in the use and application of their art.

One exception were those who had not received training but were “well-endowed by nature and . . .  schooled by practical experience.”

Isocrates also purported that the power of speech could improve the quality of life. This concept is rare, if not of unheard of today.

He wrote, “People can become better and worthier if they conceive an ambition to speak well, if they become possessed of the desire to be able to persuade their hearers.” Yet he failed to explain how one was to acquire that motivation.

In addition, Isocrates felt a prepared speaker would speak to the best and most virtuous topics, thereby edifying himself and others at the same time.

The more a student studied and prepared to speak on the noblest virtues, then the more the quality of his studies would affect his character positively. This was such an ideal that Isocrates assumed others would envy the virtue of the best speakers because men envy what they don’t have.

Isocrates claimed, “I am of the opinion that while all those who are envious of my success covet the ability to think and speak well, yet they themselves neglect to cultivate it . . . they grow irritated, jealous, perturbed in spirit.”

In his pride, he also argued that those same men would come seek him and others who spoke well when any city crisis arose.

Though his arguments weren’t always tactful, Isocrates left us a number of ideals regarding the power of speech.

A motivated student could be trained to master the art of speaking, and in that discipline of training, he could potentially elevate his moral character.

By ennobling his character, Isocrates encourages us that “the power to speak well and think right will reward the man who approaches the art of discourse with love of wisdom and love of honour.”

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Patriotism or Peace? Part 5 (Finale)

[specialbox]By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 5, the finale, of the serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. You can read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 here. To receive more articles like this delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.[/specialbox]

Ut Omnes Unum Sint

When seventy-seven-year-old Angelo Roncalli, formerly the Patriarch of Venice, was elected pope in 1958, he raised eyebrows among this electors who must have startled at this choice of names: Vocobar Johannes – “I will be called John.”

The last pope to use that name had been an imposter, an antipope, and the one before had ruled from Avignon, not Rome, a reminder of a less than glorious époque in the Church’s history. Most cardinals had hoped to keep the name in permanent moratorium.

But Roncalli was not a member of the old guard. The decades leading to his appointment as pope had been marked by challenges to the by-the-book orthopraxy.

Upon his appointment as bishop, he was sent to serve the Bulgarian Uniate Christians, an oddball group of Slavic peoples who existed on the margins of Catholic identity.

Despised by both Eastern Orthodox Christians who found their allegiance to Rome treasonous, the Uniates found friendship with Roncalli, who permitted them to continue worshipping in the Eastern rite, and he even joined them.

It was an experience through which, “I began to feel myself more catholic [note the small c], more universal,” he later wrote. The same ecumenism informed his next appointment in Istanbul, where he served a small and persecuted community of Catholics in Ataturk’s secular republic.

“The wall between East and West was formidable,” he noted, “but I try to pull out a brick here and there.” As with the Uniates, Roncalli adapted the Church’s liturgy to suit Eastern tastes by saying the portions not explicitly required to be said in Latin – the reading of the Gospel, the “Blessed be God,” and the intercessory prayers – in the people’s Turkish.

John XXIII’s pontificate was an extension of his ministry.

In 1962, he called the Second Vatican Council seemingly out of the blue.  Its purpose, he said, was to reach out to the modern world and to heal some of the rifts that had developed over the centuries.

In keeping with John’s directive, the Council formerly withdrew its excommunication on the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had stood since 1054, and invited its delegates, along with representatives of the various Protestants churches, to attend the Council as observers.

About the Protestants, John insisted that the Church exchange the term “schismatics,” for the softer, more inclusive, “separated brethren,” with whom reunification was not only possible, but earnestly desired.

The churches within the Anglican Communion, which had so annoyed Merton, received the special distinction of “sister churches.”

The pope even reached across the Iron Curtain to invite representatives of the Soviet Union to be present, believing that the Church had a role to play as peacemaker in the Cold War.

Whereas his predecessor had been so intransigently anti-communist as to earn the name, “Pope of the Atlantic Alliance,” John refused to play partisan politics. Like Merton he insisted that those locked within Soviet totalitarianism – both the prisoners and the jailers – were human beings who needed above all, to be welcomed back into the human family, from which they were sadly estranged.

But lest he forget the evils of the totalitarian system, John prayed for its victims over a map of the Soviet Union marked with the location of each known gulag.

The great summary statement of the Church’s achievements at the Council, Pacem in Terris, or “Peace on Earth,” was published during Holy Week of 1963. Unlike other papal encyclicals, which are customarily addressed to the Church’s bishops, Pacem was addressed by John’s own hand, and included an address “to all men and women of good will.”

The Holy Father chose to publish Pacem on Maundy Thursday because it was the day on which the Church prays, as Jesus had prayed, ut omnes unam sint – that they all may be one.

Pacem reflected much of the modern spirit that characterized the age. For the first time in Church history, political participation was not only permitted, but encouraged. Human rights, economic liberalism (within limits), and the rights of women were all affirmed. Even John Courtney Murray, who, like Merton, had come up against ecclesiastical censorship for his views on religious pluralism, was at last vindicated.

The encyclical ends with its most groundbreaking statement: an impassioned plea for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. “The arms race should cease, and nuclear weapons be banned,” the pope wrote without mincing words, “and it is now meaningless to imagine that war could be a fitting instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”

The Council likewise asked governments to make “human provision for those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms,” provided they substitute violence with some other form of service.

After Pope John’s death in June 1963, his successor, Paul VI brought the Council to completion. In 1965 the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World published its Gaudium et Spes, a definitive statement on the Church’s positions on the various social, economic, and moral questions faced in the twentieth century, including its stand on war:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

And here is a passage from Merton’s Peace in the Post Christian Era:

All nuclear war, and indeed massive destruction of cities, populations, nations, and cultures by any means whatever is a most serious crime which is forbidden to us not only by Christian ethics but by every sane and serious moral code.

Was Merton an indirect author of the Vatican Council’s statement on nuclear war? Noting the similarities between the two passages above, several scholars and observers, some of whom knew Merton personally, have concluded that he was.

The abundance of circumstantial evidence is compelling: Merton’s personal contacts with the papacy, the intercession of Bishop Wright with the Council curia, and the textual similarities between Peace and Gaudium all strongly bear the imprint of Merton’s hand.

Adding to this, Merton was awarded the Church’s Pax Medal in 1963, an occasion on which he praised the Vatican Council, proclaiming Pacem in Terris a “magnificent document,” and fully crediting John XXIII.

“For my part,” he added, “I have said nothing that Pope John did not say. If I said it before Pacem in Terris that sill does not make me terribly original because the same things were said long ago by Popes before Pope John, and Theologians, and by the Fathers of the Church, and by the Gospels themselves.”

How could Merton have said more? It hardly would have been in keeping with monastic humility to stand up and declare, “It was me! It was me!” After all, was he not still under the Church’s official censure?

Whatever the case, Merton could not restrain himself from getting in one good jab at his abbot: “Fortunately, the pope does not need to be approved by the censors in the Order in America, for they said very energetically last year that this thesis, when I proposed it myself, was wrong, scandalous, and I didn’t know what more.”

He was, in effect, asking the Church to allow Peace in the Post Christian Era to be published. It did not happen until 2004.

What lessons can we take from this largely unknown, yet potentially earth-saving episode in American history?

Merton, who died in 1968, never knew the full impact of this work. Perhaps none of us will.

Still, as we look across our world, which C.S. Lewis first called “post-Christian,” for its apparent indifference to the Gospel of Christ, we can certainly find cause to agree. Merton did. He wrote that Christianity, wherever one looks, is “yielding to the hegemony of naked power.” Indeed.

Today, the voices within the Church calling for peace are growing faint, while those demanding power, arms, and unrelenting strength are growling distressingly loud.

It is for us,” wrote Merton in Peace in the Post Christian Era, to decide whether we are going to give in to hatred, terror and blind love of power for its own sake, and thus plunge our world into the abyss, or whether, restraining our savagery, we can patiently and humanely work together for interests which transcend the limits of any national or ideological community.

Indeed. It is up to us.

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Patriotism or Peace? Part 4

[specialbox]By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 4 of a serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. You can read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3 here. To get the remainder of the series delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.[/specialbox]

Beati Pacifici

The Roman Catholic position, as articulated by CAIP, John Courtney Murray, and (at least to Murray’s satisfaction), the pope, supported the use of nuclear weapons so long as they were employed within the strictures of the Just War Theory, and were ostensibly “limited” in their destructive capacity.

Not everyone felt this way.

Minority voices existed that expressed opinions outside of the mainstream Catholic, as well as Christian consensus. Their ranks included, according to Thomas Merton, “a few priests, no bishops, and hardly any of the laity.”

One of these dissenters was Dorothy Day, the founder of the New York based Catholic Worker movement, whose members devoted themselves to the service of the city’s homeless and destitute.

She came to the Church as an adult convert, unimpressed with the Church’s magisterial display of power, but drawn nonetheless to its tradition of humility and solidarity with poor and marginalized. The purpose of the Gospel, she famously insisted, was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Many of the comfortable American Catholics took issue with Day almost immediately. Who was this busybody – a convert of all things – come to instruct us in the Faith? Day’s resume raised more than a few red flags.

First, in a time at which Catholics were dependably hawkish, Day was a dove. “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, she published in the Catholic Worker as the United States prepared to enter the Second World War, “which means that we will try to be peacemakers.”

The workers not only rejected military service, but also refused their labor to industries that built munitions or purchased war bonds. For her uncompromising pacifism, Day war harshly criticized.

The Catholic Worker, after all, sounded suspiciously Marxist. And furthermore, it was widely rumored that Day had participated in radical circles before joining the Church.

In any event, Day was a confirmed critic of winner-take-all capitalism – a blot on her record that has stood in the way of her beatification to this day.

As if Day’s political radicalism were not enough, she was known to oppose the arms race, and she refused to take part in air raid drills, for which she spent time in jail for her trouble. The advent of the atomic bomb, she wrote in the Worker, surely meant the end of supposedly just wars.

The “colossal slaughter of innocents” on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to her mind, outweighed any conceivable benefit.

Day was part of a small but growing movement unofficially chaired by Thomas Merton, one of America’s most widely read writers on Christian spirituality.

Orphaned as a teenager, Merton converted to Catholicism in 1941 and renounced every earthly possession as he joined the Trappist order at Our Lady of Gethsemani in the hills of Kentucky. Although he intended to live a life of contemplation and prayer, Merton’s natural draw to sociability made keeping his vows problematic.

His abbot suggested – ordered, in fact – Merton to write and publish his memoirs, which he reluctantly did in 1948. To everyone’s surprise, the Seven Story Mountain became a bestseller, and Merton, who had shunned the world’s attention, found himself in unlikely role as a monastic superstar.

Merton’s book was a tell-all autobiography; he confessed everything from his stormy relationship with his father to his hard-drinking days while a college student at Columbia, his longing to join the Church, and then a religious order, and his rejection from the Franciscans when they learned of his sordid past.

The Seven Story Mountain would have likely made for an even more compelling read had his abbot not excised form the first draft Merton’s account of his shameful affair with an anonymous young English woman, who he impregnated and unceremonious dismissed.

Merton’s autobiography brought the monastery uninvited attention, and many of his more pious brothers resented Merton’s presence.  Yet with the support of his abbot, Merton continued to publish. He wrote voluminously on prayer, the sacraments, and on monasticism.

Rarely did he move into topics that one would find surprising from the pen of a monk. Readers were therefore quite unprepared when in 1961, Merton’s writings began to appear in the Catholic Worker.

One of Merton’s contributions, “The Root of War,” struck a raw nerve. He openly argued, against the opinions of Murray, or Niebuhr, or the evangelicals, that the Cold War was not the result of an expansive, monolithic, and unreasonable evil that could only be dealt with through overwhelming force:

When I pray for peace I pray God to pacify not on the Russians and the Chinese but above all my own nation and myself. When I pray for peace I pray to be protected not only from the Reds but also from the folly and blindness of my own country.

Was it was possible, as Merton strongly suggested, that the enmity between the United States and the Soviets is the result of both parties? The prevailing wisdom said that “they,” the godless Reds, were different from “us,” the good people of the Christian West.

Merton took a dim view of such a worldview, especially when espoused by his own country.

How is it that the United States postmarks its mail with van exhortations to “pray for peace,” he asked, while at the same time spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles? “This, I think,” wrote Merton through clenched teeth, “would certainly be what the New Testament calls ‘mocking God’ – and mocking him far more effectively than the Soviets do.  

He wrote to Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert Kennedy, “The great illusion is to assume that we are perfectly innocent, peace-loving, and right while the communists are devils incarnate.”

To fully understand Merton’s perspective, one must know something of his theology.

Despite his broad appeal, he comes off as quite parochial in the Seven Story Mountain. He is dismissive of non-Catholic faiths, especially Anglicans, whose “insubstantiality,” he finds insufferable. But as he spends more time with the Trappists, his narrow vision widened to see the goodness in every human being.

The pinnacle of his experience came to him as he observed ordinary people on an ordinary day on an ordinary corner now famously known as “Fourth and Walnut.”

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes so many mistakes; yet, with all that God himself glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

With this realization, Merton was never the same. The “us” and “them” categories fell quickly away until all that was left was a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” as one of Merton’s favorite poets put it.

In his exegesis of the Good Samaritan, a parable exclusive to the Gospel of Luke, Merton reflects on the story’s hero – an unclear outsider, despised and rejected by the Jews, and yet, the only character in the story who shows genuine compassion:

If a man has to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, than I cannot truly love him … if a man must be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, than I cannot truly love him … if he has to belong to my political party or social group or wear my uniform before I can love him, than I cannot truly love him.

One can hear the clear echoes of William Blake, the English poet, mystic, and Merton’s spiritual mentor who wrote:

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

Merton must have thought: does all this inclusive love extent to the communists? He had to admit yes, the divine image did in fact encompass all. And therefore, he reasoned, a nuclear attack was an unjust attack on one’s fellow man, which is no less than Christ himself.

“Can we not see,” he wrote in Worker, “that to risk the destruction of man for the supposed glory of Christ is to crucify Christ over again in his members?

Merton discerned that a moral and psychological paralysis had gripped America, especially its Christians, who seemed hell-bent on destroying the planet for Jesus. In their moral numbness, their “pseudo-Christian obedience,” he wrote, they offered God the dull “obedience of an Eichmann.

In numerous publications he despaired over the American, and especially the Catholic population that seemed insensible to the problem posed by nuclear war, or worse, resigned to the attitude that “since Communism is evil we can do anything we like to wipe it out and thus prevent it from gaining and overwhelming us.”

Against the grain, he attacked Murray’s popular understanding of Pope Pious XII’s Christmas message: he insisted that “no theologian, no matter how broad, how lax, would insist that one was bound in conscience to participate in a war that was evidently leading to global suicide.”

Merton’s abbot must have begun to consider the wisdom of his orders. Merton was the public face of the Church, which was one America’s most dependably patriotic institutions. And the more he published, the more unwanted attention he brought to both Gethsemani and the Church at large.

It appeared to many as if the Church had granted sanctuary to a communist who furiously denounced the United States from his cloister. He was denounced as disloyal and a communist sympathizer.

Consequently, Merton found that much of his work, which he dutifully submitted to his ecclesiastical editors, was being returned to him with portions edited, politely re-written, or altogether excised.

On April 27, 1962, as Merton prepared the final draft of his Peace in the Post Christian Era – the summa theologica of his thought on nuclear war – his abbot handed him a letter: Peace would not see the light of day. Merton had been officially silenced on matters pertaining to war and peace.

The official reason given for Merton’s censure was that while his concerns were genuine, his abbot felt that he would serve a greater purpose addressing them in prayer (preferably silent prayer) than with the pen.

Yet one cannot notice that the theology that coalesced around Merton’s writings was astoundingly innovative. Merton claimed that he was no pacifist; and that he upheld the Just War Theory as had been traditionally expounded by the Church.

But unlike Murray, who attempted to apply the old doctrine to the atomic age, Merton found the two entirely incompatible. “In plain language, this is a new kind of war in which the old concept of the ‘just war” is irrelevant because the conditions for such a war no longer exists,” he wrote.

He criticized the Just War Theory for its “deficiencies” and its adherents as possessed by “excessive naiveté,” including Catholic theologians who continued to defend it. Furthermore, “one wonders at the modern Augustinians and their desperate maneuvers to preserve the doctrine of the just war from the museum or the junk pile.”

His superiors were understandably alarmed: the great Saint Augustine – in the junk pile? Dorothy Day may be forgiven for uttering such things; she was, after all, a lay person lacking in theological training. But Merton was an ordained priest, who in an unofficial capacity, communicated Church teaching to the faithful. Silencing the man seemed the appropriate action to take.

The extent to which Merton obeyed his censure is a matter of perspective.

In keeping with the letter of the order, he indeed withheld the book from publication. However, he was more flexible in his interpretation of the spirit of the censure.

Casually, he wrote to a friend that he planned to “run off a few copies anyway” so that his “friends can see it.” Merton’s list of friends was extensive.

Over the next several months, copies of Peace in the Post Christian Era ended up in the hands of Dorothy Day and Jim Forest of the Catholic Worker, Daniel Berrigan, a priest whose work in social issues was beginning to gain attention, the Catholic author and spiritualist Etta Gullick, Sister Emanuel de Souza de Silva, Charles Thompson, publisher of Pax Bulletin in England, and others, including the recently elected Pope John XXIII.

A few copies to friends,” Merton? Over the next year, contraband copies of Peace made the circulated through the ranks of the Church, making a mockery of the censure. Merton intended for his readers to forward the copies on to others.

In a letter to Ethel Kennedy he wrote, “I wrote a book on peace which the Superiors decided I ought to bury about ten feet deep behind the monastery someplace, but I still don’t think it is that bad … maybe the President might have five minutes to spare looking at it. If you think he would, I will even send him a copy.”

One reader who gave Merton’s book its due five minutes was John Wright, the bishop of Pittsburgh. He was so favorably impressed with Peace that he took it upon himself to run off a few copies, and carry them to Rome, where he placed them before the eyes of the fellow cardinal as they donned their red hats for the Second Vatican Council.

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Patriotism or Peace? Part 3

[specialbox]By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 3 of a serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. You can read Part 1, and Part 2. To get the remainder of the series delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.[/specialbox]

Ecclesia Militans

Inclusion in the new consensus was predicated upon being a committed cold warrior. Both the United States and the Soviet Union spend billions on the development of nuclear weapons.

Americans constructed bomb shelters in the backyards in preparation for the coming nuclear Armageddon. To suggest that a peaceful solution to the deepening conflict with the Soviets was even possible was to place one under suspicion of disloyalty.

Many Christian Evangelicals even discerned the hand of God guiding the arms race. Two days after Truman announced that the US had lost atomic monopoly, a revivalist preacher in Los Angeles declared his city to be among the primary targets of the Soviet Union. It was neither a strategic or political target, according to the preacher. Rather, God himself has earmarked the City of Angels as “meriting destruction as much as another Sodom and Gomorrah.”

And because God would soon judge the evil residents of L.A., any discussion of nuclear disarmament or limitation was tantamount to questioning God’s providence. “The emerging peace program is not God’s program,” scoffed one Baptist minister in 1947, “but only a variation of man’s international plans, which always come to naught.”

Some within the Evangelical camp not only shunned peace movements as nonsensical, but even seemed to welcome the fiery end-of-it-all, interpreting the onset of the atomic age as a sure sign of Jesus’ imminent return. If one carefully read the signs, paid attention to the headlines, and considered everything in light of the Bible’s teachings, God’s plan would become evident.

The mysterious “Gog” mentioned in the book of Ezekiel was readily identified with Russia since both are geographically situated “in the north” and both “possess a mighty army” And because Gog is destined to attack Israel (variously interpreted as a reference to either the modern nation state of Israel or simply a reference to God’s people) with such “fiery” ferocity, one must deduce that the Soviet Union would therefore launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

But God’s people need not fear: “Although Armageddon will be an awesome and terrifying experience for the world,” declared one pastor from Iowa, “it should be welcomed by the child of God as the day of vindication.”

According to one reading of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, the faithful would be “raptured” away above the clouds, where they would have a bird’s eye view of the righteous destruction of nonbelievers, atheists, and communists.*

Whether one expected to watch the exploding mushroom cloud from above the clouds with Jesus or below them with the rest of doomed humanity, was a point of theological minutia. The Christian was to be, quite literally, a foot solider in the ranks of the Ecclesia Militans – the militant church.

Americans, who stood for democracy and capitalism, stood on the side of God.

The Soviets, the “disciples of Lucifer,” as the famous evangelist Billy Graham described them, were bent on spreading their “satanic religion” to the utter destruction of both Christianity and the United States.  Graham declared that

Western culture and its fruits had its foundation in the bible, the word of God, and in the revivals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Communism, on the other hand, has decided against God, against Christ, against the bible and all religion.

Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism

Other thinkers, notably the Protestant theological Reinhold Niebuhr, took a more balanced approach. Born to German immigrant parents, Niebuhr studied theology at Union Theological Seminary where he gained a reputation as a socialist, a pacifist, and an advocate for the working poor.

But when confronted with the Soviet-Nazi “non-aggression” pact of 1941, as well as the postwar exposure of Stalin many atrocities, Niebuhr, like many other Leftists, became disillusioned with what he called his former “idealism.” Dismissing what he believed to be the naïve optimism of traditional Christianity, he framed an approach known as Christian Realism, which today, is one of the formative influences on mainstream Protestantism.

Realism denies that human indefectibility is possible, at least on this side of Heaven. Noting that even the best of intentions to perfect human society have often resulted in the reverse, Niebuhr wrote to a pacifist friend: “Your difficulty is that you want to try to live in history without sinning … our effort to set up the Kingdom of God on earth ends in a perverse preference for tyranny, simply because the peace of tyranny means, at least, the absence of war.”

For Niebuhr, the communist experiment in the Soviet Union only proved his point.

The Marxist’s greatest flaw was his promise to bring about perfection through an economic system. In this futile pursuit, its proponents had abandoned God and turned to science, which as Niebuhr pointed out, was easily manipulated in the hands of power-hungry totalitarians.

The Christian Realist, while hoping for the best, prepares for the worst.

Jesus had assured his disciples that his kingdom was “not of the world,” and therefore, Niebuhr thought, it was foolish expect anyone to behave as it if was. When sharing a planet with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, turning the other cheek was perhaps admirable, but unlikely to affect substantive change.

Nevertheless, nonviolence was an “asset for the Christian faith” because it reminded one of the greater ideal. One should always pray, as Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come,” but one need not hold one’s breath waiting for it.

The arms race was a gamble that in the end, was morally justifiable. “We have to risk a nuclear war in order to escape capitalization to Communism,” Niebuhr frankly told an interviewer in 1958. Yes, we hope. Yes, we pray. Yes, we keep the lines of communication open. But “we must, meanwhile,” he insisted, “keep our powder dry.”

Just War Theory

Neither the evangelical nor the Realist proposition easily fit into the Catholic scheme, which was burdened with the weight of tradition as well as Tradition, and which accepted reform only after years, if not decades, of studied contemplation.

If the use of atomic weapons was justified, it had to be reconciled with the Just War Theory, first articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century.

To wage a war within Christian parameters, Augustine taught, the combatants must represent a legitimate government; they must never intentionally target noncombatants; and the intended good must outweigh the intended harm.

While the doctrine contains enough loopholes through which have slipped armies of Crusaders, conquistadores, and colonizers – of both Catholic and Protestant persuasions – the Just War Theory remains a hallmark of Western intellectual thought.

On the issue of war, even nuclear war, American Catholics appeared to differ little from their Protestant counterparts. The Church’s only recognized peace organization, the Catholic Association for International Peace (CAIP), founded in 1927, considered its chief duty the propagation of the Just War Theory among the faithful.

Given the political milieu, this meant offering uncompromising support to the effort to halt international communism. CAIP opposed pacifism and isolationism as contrary to Christian morality and papal teaching, supported NATO, and called for the United States to expand its nuclear capacity.

For readers of this article who have come of age since the Second Vatican Council, imagining most Catholics – or a majority of any kind of Christian for the same matter – behaving in such a way in unthinkable.

But Catholics, who in the early 1960s had just begun to tread onto the margins of social respectability, found it advantageous not to rock the boat. Many chose to either remain silent on issues that may be construed as pro-communist, or to quietly cast their lot with the Red-baiters.

Only a small minority of Catholic publications ever questioned the infamous McCarthy hearings or gave their readers any reason to believe they were anything but loyal.

The supercharged fidelity to God and country that characterized the postwar Church was not grounded in doctrinal certainty. It was about finally being welcomed to the table.

A Seat at the Table

No one epitomized the desire to fit in more than the Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray.

Arguably the most influential American Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Murray was a sort of Roman Catholic Henry Clay; he sought to expand the middle ground on which Protestants and Catholics now stood while maintaining a distinct Roman identity.

In his famous series of essays, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, Murray called for increased Catholic “participation in the American consensus, by retelling American history form the Puritans forward, with an emphasis on points on which Catholics agreed with what he considered the broader American “consensus.”

Much of his work was given to an analysis of communism, the arms race, and a justification for why Catholics must denounced the former and support the latter. Murray straddled the Augustinian and Niebuhrian positions creatively: because nuclear war was a very real possibility, adequate preparation was a necessity.

He gave no quarter to pacifists. What good would a Gandhi-like response be against an enemy who could annihilate his opponent instantly, thus robbing the resister of any chance of victory? For Murray, the eventual use of nuclear weapons was practically inevitable; the only remaining question was how and when.

Murray found support at the highest level. In his Christmas sermon of 1956, Pope Pius XII declared that during an international conflict, when all possible stages of mediation had passed, and a belligerent nation has issued a “threat to use atomic bombs,” the defending nation is obligated to defend itself with proportional force.

Although the pope never explicitly approved the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation, Murray concluded the absence of a prohibition where one would clearly (perhaps hopefully) expect one to appear, justified their use. Insofar as governments employ them within the framework of the Augustinian theory, nuclear weapons were fair game. Furthermore, and most ominously for pacifists, Pius refused the right of Catholics to “invoke his own conscience in order to refuse those duties which the law imposes.

Understood as such, nuclear weapons were, as John Foster Dulles put it, simply another weapon that one may employ in their war against communism. Murray agreed in principle: war is war and weapons are weapons. Even the pope said that should the Soviets strike first, the United States would be well within its rights to return their attack in kind.

Nuclear weapons are not, Murray insisted, mal in se, nor does their use present the enemy with an unprecedented or unique problem. As for conscientious objectors, Murray placed the burden of proof on them: they must demonstrate that the state’s case for war was unjust; otherwise, they must follow the law of the land.

Murray furthermore denounced as a “false dilemma” the proposition that nuclear war would necessarily lead to a “world catastrophe.” If controlled properly, nuclear war could be “limited,” that is, an attack could somehow be halted at some proscribed stopping point.

Murray added however, that although the Pope had authorized the right of nuclear self-defense, he certainly could not be called upon to justify everything that goes on at Cape Canaveral or Los Alamos.”

But what if deterrence fails? What if a nuclear exchange escalated beyond the “limits” originally intended?

To this question, Murray soberly replied, “we have no policy after that, except stubbornly maintain that it is up to the enemy, and not us, to surrender unconditionally.”


*The premillennial doctrine of the “rapture” is unknown to traditional Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran Christianity. Based on a particular reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, first articulated by the renegade Anglican priest John Darby around 1830, the idea that believers would be spared the final judgement quickly caught on in Protestant circles in America around the time of the Second Great Awakening (1820 – 1850) and has been gaining popularity among American Christians ever since.


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