A Catholic “must read”: an apologia for a “deeply repulsive” thinker

Benjamin Wiker has penned a column for the National Catholic Register called “The Paul Ryan-Ayn Rand Connection: What’s a Catholic to Think?”, and The Catholic World Report has dubbed it a “must read.”

Wiker (among whose books is 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read) goes to great lengths to make the point that yes, there is indeed some nasty stuff in the work of Ayn Rand — in fact, he admits to finding her “to be deeply repulsive” — and yet “there are good things in Rand, things that have attracted many, many readers, who, like Ryan, want to extract the good from the bad.”

Wiker even asks his readers: “Please think about this point: When we come across someone as popular as Ayn Rand — selling millions and millions of books — there’s likely to be something worthy, something right, something of merit.”

What, among the ideas of this “deeply repulsive” thinker, is meritorious?  Wiker lists aspects of Rand’s work that we can applaud, and every one of them is her rejection of something: subjectivism, moral relativism, “statism and collectivism,” materialism, and Marxism. (It’s highly worth noting that in seeking to point out what is good in Rand’s work, Wiker finds not one positive idea or assertion of hers to mention.)

It left me considering a parallel scenario.  Suppose for a moment that a Mass-going Catholic politician rose to great prominence today while making frequent public reference to Hugh Heffner as his inspiration and intellectual model and insisting that his staff subscribe to Heff’s publications; and suppose that the same politician promoted dramatic new policies that were clearly rooted in Heffner’s thought while insisting that said policy is supported by Catholic doctrine; and suppose that, amid loud objections to such policies by Catholic bishops, priests, sisters, and intellectual leaders within the Church, I penned an apologia, a defense of Heffner, though perhaps a half-hearted one, acknowledging that Heffner’s thinking is indeed deeply repulsive to me, but that there is good mixed in with the bad.

After all, I might say (remember, we’re still supposing here), he rejects totalitarian and repressive laws about free speech, the denial of a healthy sex life for couples, and the restriction of opportunities to women. (Sorry, three was hard enough; I couldn’t find five!) And I might point out, cementing the forcefulness of my argument, “Please think about this point: When we come across someone as popular as Hugh Heffner — selling millions and millions of magazines — there’s likely to be something worthy, something right, something of merit.”

While we’re supposing, do you suppose the National Catholic Register would publish this column of mine? And The Catholic World Report link it as a “must read”?

Or might these publications be more inclined to question the judgment of the politician who finds such singular inspiration in Heffner rather than in some other intellectual force who might manage to reject those same things Heffner does, but who at the same time avoids embracing as central to their worldview ideas that are contrary to the most fundamental Catholic convictions about human dignity, freedom, and the sacredness of sexuality — say for example, Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Dorothy Day, or any number of others?

Wouldn’t these Catholic publications even be inclined to say, “Heck, take the Dalai Lama or even Oprah as your inspiration, but Hugh Heffner?  And at the same time present yourself as a Catholic in the public square? Are you kidding us?”


God bless and keep Nellie Gray

Nellie Gray, founder of the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, died yesterday. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for her amazing work and for the important impact that it has had in my own life, in the lives of countless other people, and in our nation. The battle is not yet won, but when it is and the history of the struggle for the right to life of unborn people is told, she will have an honored place in the telling.

A clip from the report at LifeSiteNews:

Gray founded the march in 1974, and guided its development into a massive annual movement that has inspired copycat events not only in cities across the U.S., but around the world, striking fear into the heart of pro-abortion activists in the process. In 2010, outgoing NARAL President Nancy Keenan recalled her dismay at stumbling on the March for Life after coming out of Union Station. “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan said. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.”

Marking a Year of St. Clare

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the religious consecration of St. Clare before St. Francis of Assisi.  The diocese in which Assisi sits is celebrating a special “Claretian Year” to mark it, and Pope Benedict recently sent the bishop of the diocese of letter on the occasion.

An article I wrote marking the anniversary appears in the new issue of Our Sunday Visitor.  Here’s a snippet:

The decisive moment of her life came on Palm Sunday in 1212, when Clare was 18. After observing the holy day with her family, she sneaked out of her house at night and hurried to the little church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula. Several friars waited with torches and led her into the church. Inside, she presented herself formally to Francis, who cut her hair in a rite of tonsure, symbolizing her renunciation of the world and consecration to God. It was an extraordinary moment, because tonsure was normally performed by bishops. Francis was not even a priest, and yet he took it upon himself to do it.

After the ceremony, Francis and the friars brought Clare to the nearby monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse to stay. Clare’s family came after her and angrily insisted she return home, even trying to force her physically. But she refused.

Clare sold her goods and gave the money to local poor people. Clare scholar Marco Bartoli has written, in a book translated by Sister Downing, that since these goods would ordinarily have either gone back to her family or to the monastic community as a sort of dowry, Clare’s approach was a bold act of independence and defiance of both her family and the community that took her in.

The full article is here.

Sisters in America

Here’s an anniversary that generally passes unnoticed, though perhaps recent ecclesial developments demand that attention, this year, be paid. On August 6, 1727, a ship named La Gironde docked at New Orleans. Among the passengers who disembarked, after a difficult six-month journey from France, was a group of twelve Ursuline sisters: the very first Catholic religious sisters in “the New World.”

Be careful of the New Orleans you imagine. The village had been founded less than a decade earlier and was described by a visitor in 1721 as a collection of a hundred wretched hovels amidst a swampy land infested by alligators and snakes. Before the year was out, the sisters had founded a rudimentary school for girls. It would become Ursuline Academy, which is today the oldest continuously-operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. Before long, the sisters also established an orphanage and began holding classes for African slave and Native American girls. One of the original group, Sister Francis Xavier Hebert, became the first woman pharmacist on these shores.

Of course, the Ursulines would be joined in ministry by many other women of many other religious communities. The Ursulines are by no means the most numerous nor the most well-known of them. But their history and their work serves as a window into the American experience and as an indication of the place that women religious have held in American life and culture.

One of the most notorious expressions of the anti-Catholic nativism that held a grip on American society in the early nineteenth century has the Ursulines at center stage. On August 11, 1834, a crowd of angry citizens attacked the Ursuline convent in Charleston, Massachusetts, then a working class town across the harbor from Boston. Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) had recently passed through the area offering a series of fiery speeches about a papal plot to take control of America. As the sisters fled into the night, the mob set fire to the convent and cheered as it burned to the ground.

(The incident also, it might be noted, offers a picture of the tough and feisty side of many American sisters that many Catholics even today will recognize. An eyewitness account of the evening’s events reports that as the threatening crowds gathered around the convent, the mother superior appeared at one of the windows and warned, “The bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you’ll not quell them!”)

In the 1880’s Ursuline sisters joined Jesuit priests in Montana, in the Rocky Mountain Missions. Sometimes with the help of funding from Saint Katherine Drexel and her sister Elizabeth, they established churches and schools, many still in operation today, to reach and serve the native American population.

In 1980, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel was one of four American women raped and murdered in El Salvador by members of a military bent on extinguishing the work of the Church there. Dorothy had worked for six years in the country, teaching, catechizing, and doing ordinary parish work. When that nation’s civil war began in 1977, she offered support and comfort to war refugees and widows and mothers who had lost sons. To a family member who urged her to consider returning to the United States, she wrote, “I could not leave Salvador, especially now … I am committed to the persecuted Church here.”

Of course, throughout the nearly three centuries since those twelve sisters stepped off La Gironde, thousands of other Ursulines have engaged in ministries, mostly educational, that rarely gets recounted but has contributed richly to the Church and to society in America. Catholic Charities USA recognized it earlier this year by presenting the prioress of the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans, Sister Carla Dolce, OSU, with a Centennial Medal, recognizing her community’s important contributions to the reduction of poverty in the United States.

I saw it myself during two years living in Mingo County, West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian poverty, in the lives and ministries of Ursuline sisters Brendan Conlon and Janet Peterworth. They founded and directed two nonprofit agencies that have served, educated, and empowered residents there for nearly twenty years. The two women, now retired, reminded their staffs almost daily that the reason for the work they did was to serve Christ present in the poor, as he himself insisted we do.

Today the Ursulines in America struggle with dwindling numbers, dwindling income, and an aging community. In this way, too, they represent so many other American religious communities.

Though it’s unfortunate that the August 6 anniversary will pass unnoticed by most Americans, it’s not surprising. The work of religious sisters in America has been underappreciated and largely overlooked for nearly three centuries, even within the Church. The anniversary provides an apt moment to offer them—and the Lord—a big thank you.