Month: November 2008

Too many people who argue that there is a beneficial role for the government to play in the economy glide swiftly from that to the conclusion that the government will in fact confine itself to playing such a role.

Thomas Sowell

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Jews targeted by Mumbai Terrorists

Five hostages have been found murdered at the Chabad House in Mumbai, including Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, and his wife, Rivka (New York Times November 28, 2008):

In a news conference broadcast Friday on Israeli radio, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister said: “We know that the targets there that were sought out by the terrorists were Jewish and Israeli targets as well as targets that are perceived as Western targets — American and British.”

She added: “We need to understand that there’s a world here, our world, that has been attacked. And it doesn’t matter if it’s happened in India or somewhere else. We have here radical Islamic elements who do not accept either our existence or the values of the Western world. And only when incidents of this sort occur is it suddenly understood from conversations with leaders from around the entire world that we are actually party to the same battle.”

A doctor examining the bodies of the hostages remarked “It was apparent that most of the dead were tortured. What shocked me were the telltale signs showing clearly how the hostages were executed in cold blood”:

“Of all the bodies, the Israeli victims bore the maximum torture marks. It was clear that they were killed on the 26th itself. It was obvious that they were tied up and tortured before they were killed. It was so bad that I do not want to go over the details even in my head again,” he said.

Corroborating the doctors’ claims about torture was the information that the Intelligence Bureau had about the terror plan. “During his interrogation, Ajmal Kamal said they were specifically asked to target the foreigners, especially the Israelis,” an IB source said.

It is also said that the Israeli hostages were killed on the first day as keeping them hostage for too long would have focused too much international attention. “They also might have feared the chances of Israeli security agencies taking over the operations at the Nariman House,” he reasoned.

  • Slain Rabbi’s only concern was helping Jews away from home Reuters. November 28, 2008:

    “After he got married he was looking to make an impact in the world, in the Jewish world, and in his case reach out to people who are really, really far away both literally and spiritually from their roots,” said Rabbi Berel Wolvovsky of Maryland, a childhood friend of Gavriel Holtzberg.

    “His fears were not fears of terrorism. His fears were of maybe not being able to help as many people as he’d like.”

  • ‘They made the ultimate sacrifice’, by Allison Hoffman Jerusalem Post November 28, 2008.

Mumbai’s 9/11 and the "Long War"

On Wednesday, November 26, the city of Mumbai suffered a terrorist attack — what Bill Roggio aptly describes as an Indian equivalent to 9/11:

The terrorists launched a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack into a city of 18 million residents. This requires planning, training, funding, and detailed reconnaissance. The targets were chosen carefully to achieve maximum effect. The terrorists hit hotels, a train station, a movie house, a residential complex, and a hospital–all soft targets. They also were able to plant bombs in taxis as well as capture a police van, which was then used in a drive-by shooting spree.

The assault teams–there is no other way to describe them–coordinated and synchronized their attacks to overwhelm Mumbai security. The terrorists were able to take a significant number of hostages. They knew where to find foreigners and wealthy Indians–at the five star hotels.

Past attacks in Indian cities and in other parts of the world may have had higher death tolls, but they failed to achieve the results of Mumbai. The city has been completely shut down for two days, while the Hindustan Times said the country is gripped by a “fear psychosis.” India’s government has long treated the terrorist problem as a secondary issue. This will change.

Times Online has a timeline of the attacks, and BarcePundit provides extensive, ongoing roundup of news and reports.

The United States stepped up security as well, after the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released “a plausible but unsubstantiated report indicating that Al Qaeda terrorists in late September may have discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City.”

In Clear and Present Danger (Long War Journal November 22, 2008), Thomas Jocelyn notes that as Barack Obama prepares to take office,

“the new administration will soon discover from its review of the Guantánamo files what motivated its predecessor: The scope of the terrorist threat was far greater than anyone knew on September 11, 2001. But for the Bush administration’s efforts, many more Americans surely would have perished.

Whether from an international network like Al Qaeda or a local “homegrown” variety, one thing is clear: the threat of militant Islamicism is global and pervasive, and if citizens of United States have escaped the fate of Mumbai, it is not for want of trying.

Getting Thanksgiving Right

A temptation lurks here, however, that has recurred historically. If you don’t believe – and strongly at that – in a God Who transcends and needs to save the world, you will be strongly tempted to believe in some lesser god substitute. A nation is a perpetually plausible alternative because it participates in divine attributes. Authority over other men and, at times, power over life and death, are not just another set of practical arrangements within a commercial republic. The mysterious ways that a regime and its laws and lands, peoples and history, grow into a living human society, though by no means divine, reflect something at work in history beyond us. For that very reason, if Christianity does not remain faithful to itself, it can quickly be absorbed into a kind of divinized politics. This is true whether you believe in Americanism as a religion or in some anti-American liberation theology.

Among the things it is good for a Catholic to remember today, because they anchor us in a reality outside the quite proper human fellowship we will be celebrating, is the Eucharist, which means, literally in Greek, giving thanks. St. Paul says “give thanks (eucharisteite) always” (1 Thess 5:13) and reports that Jesus Himself even “on the night he was betrayed” gave thanks. (1 Corinthians 11:23). Catholics can bring to the American mix precisely this sense of a gratitude that extends beyond the good things of life as most people understand good, to something much greater, even in the midst of immediate evils, something that exists on an entirely different plane than the greatest regimes, however much we are grateful for them in our human way.

Getting Thanksgiving Right, by Robert Royal.
The Catholic Thing November 27. 2008.

Open Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama (from Catholics concerned for the Future of America)

President-elect Barack Obama,

As American Catholics, we, the undersigned, would like to reiterate the congratulations given to you by Pope Benedict XVI. We will be praying for you as you undertake the office of President of the United States.

Wishing you much good will, we hope we will be able to work with you, your administration, and our fellow citizens to move beyond the gridlock which has often harmed our great nation in recent years. Too often, partisan politics has hampered our response to disaster and misfortune. As a result of this, many Americans have become resentful, blaming others for what happens instead of realizing our own responsibilities. We face serious problems as a people, and if we hope to overcome the crises we face in today’s world, we should make a serious effort to set aside the bitterness in our hearts, to listen to one another, and to work with one another

One of the praiseworthy elements of your campaign has been the call to end such partisanship. You have stated a desire to engage others in dialogue. With you, we believe that real achievement comes not through the defamation of one’s opponents, nor by amassing power and using it merely as a tool for one’s own individual will. We also believe dialogue is essential. We too wish to appeal to the better nature of the nation. We want to encourage people to work together for the common good. Such action can and will engender trust. It may change the hearts of many, and it might alter the path of our nation, shifting to a road leading to a better America. We hope this theme of your campaign is realized in the years ahead.

One of the critical issues which currently divides our nation is abortion. As you have said, no one is for abortion, and you would agree to limit late-term abortions as long as any bill which comes your way allows for exceptions to those limits, such as when the health of the mother is in jeopardy. You have also said you would like to work on those social issues which cause women to feel as if they have a need for an abortion, so as to reduce the actual number of abortions being performed in the United States.

Indeed, you said in your third presidential debate, “But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, ‘We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.’”

As men and women who oppose abortion and embrace a pro-life ethic, we want to commend your willingness to engage us in dialogue, and we ask that you live up to your promise, and engage us on this issue.

There is much we can do together. There is much that we can do to help women who find themselves in difficult situations so they will not see abortion as their only option. There is much which we can do to help eliminate those unwanted pregnancies which lead to abortion.

One of your campaign promises is of grave concern to many pro-life citizens. On January 22, 2008, the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, when speaking of the current right of women in America to have abortions, you said, “And I will continue to defend this right by passing the Freedom of Choice Act as president.”

The Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) might well undermine your engagement of pro-life Americans on the question of abortion. It might hamper any effort on your part to work with us to limit late-term abortions. We believe FOCA does more than allow for choice. It may force the choice of a woman upon others, and make them morally complicit in such choice. One concern is that it would force doctors and hospitals which would otherwise choose not to perform abortions to do so, even if it went against their sacred beliefs. Such a law would undermine choice, and might begin the process by which abortion is enforced as a preferred option, instead of being one possible choice for a doctor to practice.

It is because of such concern we write. We urge you to engage us, and to dialogue with us, and to do so before you consider signing this legislation. Let us reason together and search out the implications of FOCA. Let us carefully review it and search for contradictions of those positions which we hold in common.

If FOCA can be postponed for the present, and serious dialogue begun with us, as well as with those who disagree with us, you will demonstrate that your administration will indeed be one that rises above partisanship, and will be one of change. This might well be the first step toward resolving an issue which tears at the fabric of our churches, our political process, our families, our very society, and that causes so much hardship and heartache in pregnant women.

Likewise, you have also recently stated you might over-ride some of President G.W. Bush’s executive orders. This is also a concern to us. We believe doing so without having a dialogue with the American people would undermine the political environment you would like to establish. Among those issues which concern us are those which would use taxpayer money to support actions we find to be morally questionable, such as embryonic stem cell research, or to fund international organizations that would counsel women to have an abortion (this would make abortion to be more than a mere choice, but an encouraged activity).

Consider, sir, your general promise to the American people and set aside particular promises to a part of your constituency. This would indicate that you plan to reject politics as usual. This would indeed be a change we need.

Deal W. Hudson
Marjorie Campbell
Rev. James A. Nowack
Susan DeBoisblanc
Joshua D. Brumfield
Michael J. Iafrate
Matthew Talbot
Henry C Karlson III
Adam P Verslype
Michael J. Deem
Natalie Mixa
Anthony M. Annett
Veronica Greenwell
Robert C. Koerpel
Christopher Blosser
Mark J. Coughlan
Craig D. Baker
Megan Stout
Ashley M. Brumfield
Natalie Navarro
Paul Mitchell
Josiah Neeley
Katerina M. Deem
Henry Newman
Mickey Jackson
Thomas Greenwell PhD
Nate Wildermuth
New Online Signatures
Mary Ruebelmann-Benavides
Jesus Benavides
Steve Dillard
Toby Danna
William Eunice
Mark Shea
Fr. Phil Bloom
Christopher Gant
Robert King, OP.
Peter Halabu
Kelly Clark
Mark Gordon
Linda Schuldt
Michael Mlekoday
Andrea Brown
Allan Hebert
Brandon Charles Markey
Chris Altieri
Nick van Zee
Chad Toney
Michael Enright
Susan Windley-Daoust
Lisa Pieson
Lisa Commerford
Erica Ford
David Nickol
John Elfering
Paul Zummo
Alena Chovanec
Brian T. Coughlin
Darren Krakowski
Anthony F. Miller
Joe Schriner
Clayton Emmer
Thomas L. McDonald
Justin Nickelsen
Joseph S. Arena
Nicholas J. Hardesty
Bryan McLaughlin
Victoria Hoffman
Jonathan Jones
Jim Janknegt
Marcel LeJeune
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf
Ken Hallenius III
Zach Gietl
Megan Bless
Kathy Myers
Timothy M. Mason
Kevin Koster
John Anthony D’Arpino
Brian Desmarais
Mary C. Borneman
Sylwia Matlosz
Stephen Lewis
Susan Boedefeld
David Turner
Fr. Loren W. Gonzales
Barbara Emge
Adam Mateo Fierro
Matthew Hardesty
Mark DeFrancisis
Heather Barrett
Sally Hultgren
Esther C. Gefroh
Brian Murphy
Joe A. Potillor, Jr.
Daniel H. Conway

Originally posted by Henry Karlson at Vox Nova.

Thomas Merton, American Catholic

By way of Carl Olson comes Can You Trust Thomas Merton? – an evaluation of the Trappist monk and contemplative Thomas Merton which appears in This Rock, by Dr. Anthony E. Clark.

As with most critical evaluations of Merton, Clark mentions some by-now-familiar pieces of controversy in Merton’s life — His fathering a child during his hedonistic and womanizing years in Cambridge, where to quote him directly, he “labored to enslave myself in the bonds of my own intolerable disgust” and his on-again, off-again relationship with his superior, abbot Dom James Fox.

But it is not so much Merton’s “sins of the flesh” which are perceived as a danger (something which even the greatest saints were certainly not immune — is it more than coincidence that Merton’s Hindu friend Brahmachari would recommend Augustine’s Confessions?) as his exploration of the world’s religions, particularly Buddhism, the character of which, according to Dr. Clark, “often appears more like replacement than rapprochement.”

Merton’s life was tragically cut short during his Asian journey, but he died insisting that “Zen and Christianity are the future,” and that “if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are.”

According to Dr. Clark, while it be “would be unfair to call Merton an unfaithful Catholic, or to insist that he became a Buddhist before his death,” his ideas, particularly those expressed in later writings should be read with caution as they are likely to be “more confusing than helpful, for they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings.”

* * *

The writings of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day were both very influential in my own early college years as a budding Catholic (I was received into the Church my junior year). Like Dr. Clark I have little reservations about recommending his earlier, “orthodox” works, and adding a caution to his later ones. This is not to say that one may not benefit from the latter, but rather — to concur with Justin Nickelson’s comment on Olson’s post, “not everybody is in a position to, perhaps, separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in theological, spiritual, philosophical writings. Thus, perhaps being safe than sorry is a good thing.”

That said, some additional thoughts:

I do not think a Catholic interest in, and personal investigation of, Buddhism (or any other religion) is not in itself something that we should regard as inherently suspect. Not to infer this of the author of the present article (Dr. Clark reveals that he is presently “living in China doing, among other things, research on authentic Buddhist teaching” and has just recently returned from a residence in a Tibetan Buddhist village in the Himilayas) — but that this is the unfortunate impression received from certain commentators on Carl Olson’s post, suggesting that Merton’s investigation of Buddhism was an indication that he had “gone wobbly”:

He seems not to have placed full trust in Christ but instead to have gone off and looked for the truth elsewhere. How else can one explain his dalliance with Eastern religion?

I think this is a great injustice to Merton and again, concur with Justin: “if one hasn’t read any of Merton or other authors, or, worse, hasn’t read anything at all, they must be careful: Slander is applicable to ‘dead theologians’ as well.”

Those familiar with Merton’s writings will uncover passages even in his later works which call into question the assumption that he “strayed from the faith”. Let us consider but two passages — the first by way of Teófilo (Vivificat!), from 1965, which reveals Merton’s “Theo-centric and Christo-centric” approach in the midst of his Eastern investigations:

The Feast of the Sacred Heart was for me a day of grace and seriousness. Twenty years ago I was uncomfortable with this concept. Now I see the real meaning of it (quite apart from the externals). It is the center, the “heart” of the whole Christian mystery.

There is one thing more – I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc., but there can be no obscuring the essential difference – this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of all reality, as a source of grace and life. “God is love” may perhaps be clarified if one says that “God is void” and if the void one finds absolute indetermination and hence absolute freedom. (With freedom, the void becomes fulness and 0 = infinity). All that is “interesting” but none of it touches on the mystery of personality in God, and His personal love for me. Again, I am void too – and I have freedom, or am a kind of freedom, meaningless unless oriented to Him.

(Source: Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton (1953-1965).

Secondly, consider a passage from one of Merton’s books which bear This Rock‘s admonition to “read with caution” — one of my favorites, in fact: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968). Here, in the (what could be called feverish) climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism and openness, Thomas Merton offers a reflection on what his contemporaries were writing off as the defunct notion of “heresy“:

But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? Has our awareness of the duty of tolerance and charity toward the sincere conscience of others absolved us from the danger of the error ourselves? Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?
I think a Catholic is bound to remember that his faith is directed to the grasp of truths revealed by God, which are not mere opinions or “manners of speaking,” mere viewpoints which can be adopted and rejected at will — for otherwise the commitment of faith would lack not only totality but even seriousness. The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of “heretic” and “unbeliever” are generally confused. In point of fact the mass of “post-Christian” men in Western society can no longer be considered heretics and heresy is, for them, no problem. It is, however, a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their unbelief in order to “win them for Christ.”

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that “believing” zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of the faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a “choice” which, for human motives . . . selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the Church.

I think, then, that in our eagerness to go out to modern man and meet him on his own ground, accepting him as he is, we must also be truly what we are. If we come to him as Christians we can certainly understand and have compassion for his unbelief — his apparent incapacity to believe. But it would seem a bit absurd for us, precisely as Christians, to pat him on the arm and say “As a matter of fact I don’t find the Incarnation credible myself. Let’s just consider that Christ was a nice man who devoted himself to helping others!”

This would, of course, be heresy in a Catholic whose faith is a radical and total commitment to the truth of the Incarnation and Redemption as revealed by God and taught by the Church. . . . What is the use of coming to modern man with the claim that you have a Christian mission — that you are sent in the name of Christ — if in the same breath you deny Him by whom you claim to be sent?

Strange that this very book — selections culled from Merton’s personal writings during the 1960’s and arranged by Merton himself in 1965 — was published in 1968, the same year that Merton embarked on his “Eastern journey” to Asia and “drifted” from Christianity.

Yes, Merton was open to new aspects and dimensions of the Catholic faith — he was eager to reach out to others, and his writings are a treasure of engagements with nonbelievers and believers of all religions: Christian and non-Christian. (Not as well known, but no less interesting, is Merton’s interest in Sufism — by way of his correspondence with the Franciscan scholar of Islam Louis Massignon and later, with the Pakistani Abdul Aziz).

But — at the cost of abandoning his Christian faith?

The suggestion that Merton would see fit to include a lengthy passage from his journals sharply critical of a spiritual relativism that denies the fundamental claims of Christianity . . . and then proceed a few years later to rush headlong towards the East — away from the Incarnated and Risen Christ — seems to me rather tenuous.

Finally, consider the testimony of Merton’s friend, Jim Forest:

Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists — casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton’s bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton’s life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton’s hermitage — he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, “When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think — Thomas Merton!” [“Thomas Merton, His Faith and His Time” lecture given at Boston College 13 November 1995]

There is no question that Merton’s years on this earth were as tumultuous as the times. He was a Trappist monk commmitted to the pursuit of solitude and contemplation, and at the same time a prolific writer (encouraged in part by his superiors) with an understandable interest in the issues occupying the world outside the monastery gates: the civil rights movement; the proliferation of nuclear arms; the Vietnam war. He was a hermit, residing in a toolshed in the Kentucky woods; and yet his life was replete with a perpetual stream of visitors (and an even greater flood of correspondence). He held these and many other facets of his life in constant tension. As Robert Royal says in The Several Storied Thomas Merton (First Things February 1997): “a kind of multiple personality disorder keeps turning up in writers—and writers with a religious bent seem particularly susceptible … of all the great modern religious writers, no one harbored within himself a larger cast of dramatis personae than Thomas Merton.”

I think this complexity — the interplay of dueling roles — is a significant reason for his appeal, particularly in modern-day America. When I examine my own life and the many roles which I occupy even on a daily basis (son, brother, husband, father, worker, friend … blogger) — and throughout, the struggle to keep my feet planted on the ground, spiritually speaking; to mirror Christ as best I can (oftentimes failing rather terribly) — I find myself deeply sympathetic to Merton’s lifelong ambition to stay the course; to pray, as he did:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

How many of us can relate to this prayer?

In closing, again, Robert Royal:

Merton’s true greatness lies in having engaged in person the whole range of challenges and trials of life in the late twentieth century and yet remaining essentially faithful to his Catholic inspiration. Many of those issues we still confront: poverty and war, the relationship of Eastern and Western thought, and especially how a deep religious life may be lived in contemporary conditions. As we near the end of the century, religion-even contemplative practices-have had a tremendous resurgence. Many of the paths religious people took during the 1960s are coming more and more to look like a dead end. But the attempt to bring a deeper spirituality to the public realm-to say nothing of recovering authentic spirituality-remains a burning necessity.

Merton is beyond doubt one of the great spiritual masters of our century. His personal turmoil and the misjudgments in his social thought notwithstanding, he is a forceful reminder that what may appear the most rarefied of contemplative speculations have powerful and concrete implications for the world. God dealt Thomas Merton a difficult hand. His greatness as a man lies not only in that he was able, more or less, to keep several different persons together in difficult times under the banner of “Thomas Merton,” but that he provides an enduring witness to all of us much less gifted seekers who have to shore up our own fragmentary lives in quest for the “hidden wholeness.”

* * *

Back in 2004 the USCCB decided to strike Thomas Merton from their National Adult Catechism, to the great protest of many American Catholics. I responded with Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton (Against The Grain January 2, 2005), which served as a basis for this current post.