Interview with Cornell Society for a Good Time (2008)
Question: In your experience as a professor, what historical insight or set of historical facts have you generally found to be most surprising to your students, educated as they have largely been by teachers ignorant of, or hostile to, the Catholic faith and a Catholic understanding of history?
Quite frankly, most of the students whom I have taught over the past twenty nine years at St. John’s University have never expressed surprise or, for that matter, any opinion whatsoever regarding the material that I have presented to them. The most enlightening (and depressing) thing that I can tell you in this regard is that, even despite their terror concerning grades in my courses, almost all of my students completely ignore the pro-Catholic, record-straight-setting information I give them, and recite the dominant errors and mantras aimed against the Faith on tests. As far as I can determine, this is in no way due to deeply-rooted conviction on their part. Rather, it merely indicates the power of the propaganda fed them from practically every social channel since early youth. They simply cannot expel the erroneous and hostile words from their heads, just as I cannot purge the theme songs of situation comedies on television (like “Car Fifty Four”) remembered from my own youth.
The answer to your question is much easier with respect of more interested public audiences. The biggest surprise for them is that Catholic History exposes one to a critique of the Anglo-American socio-political system and Liberal (i.e., when speaking of the United States, Conservative) Capitalism. By far the biggest problem I have in my broader teaching capacity is that of convincing people that it is possible to criticize the American system, just as it is possible to criticize every other system in the history of the universe. The mere whisper of a criticism usually brings back the absurd response that I must, therefore, be a supporter of an anti-Catholic Divine Right Monarchism à la James I of Britain. Actually, the only people whom I know who have a Divine Right vision of a political order are those who think that everything the United States wants and does is blessed by God and ipso facto Catholic. Unfortunately, many Conservative and Traditionalist Catholics fit into this category of Americanists.
Question: If you were given the chance to provide one lecture's worth of historical material to every graduating college student, what would you think most profitable for them?
This, for me, is an easy one to answer. I would lecture on Werner Jaeger’s studies of Greek Paideia and its relationship with the new Christian dispensation, combining this with a discussion of Emile Mersch’s book, The Whole Christ. Such a lecture would enable me to speak of all the themes I consider to be most important for understanding life as a whole and human history: the fact that the message of the Incarnation demands that Catholic Christianity work with every solid natural insight in history, “transforming them in Christ” for the benefit of the salvation of the individual; the fact, also, that the individual is a social being, and cannot be saved outside of natural and supernatural society, in all its immense diversity.
Question: As a matter of practical politics, would you consider a campaign for reducing the size and scope of the US government, or a campaign to alter the philosophy animating the government, as a strategy more likely to succeed in bringing about a more Catholic political life in America? What single change, to put it more broadly, should a Catholic first pursue in the public ordering of American life?
The primary work of a Catholic qua Catholic is to work to return the Church to doctrinal and pastoral sanity. There is little of ultimate significance that we can do until the Papacy in particular is firmly on our side and the Church authorities in general do not undercut our efforts, once again, to “transform all things in Christ”.
Having said that, I would not want to discourage people who feel called to political activity to undertake such work. To my mind, however, decreasing or increasing the scope of governmental activity is secondary to a sense of what proper government is in the first place. There are aspects of life in America in which I think the government is much too much involved and others, especially concerning the economy in recent years, where it is too little involved for our own good. Until one grasps the main principles of a sound polis and, conversely, the main errors of our own, all specific political action remains action in a pointless vacuum. It would be like running a school without any clear sense of where the education offered therein was headed.
The principles of a sound polity, from a classical and Catholic standpoint taken as a whole, are not that hard to master. I outlined them above, and they are the gist of Catholic Social Teaching of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Government, in all its actions, must remember that man is both natural and supernatural, both individual and social in character. The Enlightenment in its varied manifestations, including the one ruling the United States, denies this. If one participates actively in American politics without an awareness of this basic contrast of views, then he will be sucked up into the existing system and becoming little other than a tool of whatever willful forces dominate it; i.e., under current conditions, that legion of moral and economic libertines and supporters of the Israel Lobby that, in different admixtures, controls both the Republican and Democratic Parties.
My preference is for the creation on the part of those who understand the ideological lay of the land to form a Catholic Lobby that would act like a kind of “shadow government”. There are many precedents for this in the past, my favorite one being the Italian Opera dei Congressi of the nineteenth century. Still, I can understand that many young people might want to try a “hands on” approach politically. The one thing I would beg them under such circumstances is that they not become a cheerleading squad for either political party. I think that the pro-life movement in the United States has badly compromised itself by becoming just that---a cheering squad for the Republican Party under George Bush, thereby making itself look as though it has little or no concern for born life as well as unborn life; that it could care less about unjust warfare and an unjust economic order.
Question: Since several of us here are involved in one way or another in the academic world, we sometimes have conversations about the best way to handle being radically at odds with the assumptions and general tone of one's academic environment. Obviously for the purposes of getting promoted, it is best to hide one's Catholic convictions (or abandon them, if that were possible) but we are more interested in the best way to be a good soldier for Christ within a (hostile) academic sphere. Is it better to resign oneself to being an enfant terrible, on the argument that it's best to fly the colors proudly at any cost? Or is it good to play nicer with one's colleagues, in the hope that this will present opportunities to argue for Catholic positions with a chance of being taken seriously?
This is a difficult one for me to tackle. I have to confess that I have never even once had a problem at St. John’s University as a result of my being openly Catholic, either with the Administration or with my colleagues. This may be due to the fact that, gradually, as Dr. William Marra at Fordham used to say, anything has become acceptable at some universities…even the Truth. Still, it is the case that no one has ever stood in my way or even slightly bothered me for my views.
Obviously, I know other people who have suffered in this regard, both at liberal and conservative universities, depending upon the nature of the Catholic issues in question. I know people who have suffered from being pro-life and others who have suffered from not believing that the Catholic Church is superior to the American Constitution. From what I have seen and heard, I would simply have to say that the man on the spot has to judge the particular problems that he faces and act accordingly. I have known individuals at Columbia University who have spoken openly in the face of criticism of their views and been treated honorably. I have known others in openly orthodox institutions who have been pushed out for doing something similar. But, here, too, it may be a question of the personalities concerned, both those of the enemy of and our own. It is hard to know who is most to blame without awareness of the particulars of each case.
Perhaps the best policy is to be guarded and yet---dare I say---open-minded at one and the same time; guarded, because nasty enemies are indeed there, but open-minded also because much hostility is due to simple deeply-engrained ignorance regarding what Catholics (and especially Traditional Catholics) really think and love. Unnecessarily hard bitterness has to be avoided at all costs, because if we succeed in a bitter spirit we become part of that broader mystery of iniquity that goes far beyond the Catholic-Modernist battle.
Question: What, if you had to put it in a nutshell, is modernism?
Modernism is, of course, not simply what is modern as opposed to what is ancient or medieval. Modernism is the logical consequence of Enlightenment Naturalism. It is the willful, a-priori refusal even to contemplate, much less seriously discuss the possibility of there being anything above nature “as it is”, totally on its own terms; it is the willful, a-priori refusal to allow for God to be what a God must be and Christ to be what we are told He is. The result is that Modernism always must bring all things heavenly down to the purely natural level, without first proving that this is necessary. Moreover, Modernism spirals ever downwards in its understanding of the dignity of that natural world it seems to honor, the more it loses a sense of the the God who, in fact, created and redeemed it.
Question: In your articles in the Remnant, you've discussed the evils of the modernist, individualist understanding of "human rights." What would be the building blocks of a more correct, Catholic understanding of human rights? Or, in a rightly ordered Catholic society, would we not talk about human rights at all?
There would be no effective concept of human rights if it were not for Catholic Christianity. Our religion teaches the value of the human person, offering that supernatural completion and confirmation of similar arguments concerning human personality and dignity on the part of natural philosophers. More importantly still, it gave them the grace and the courage to believe in their own Reason.
A psychological problem rooted in the question of the hierarchy of values also should be noted here, and introduced with reference to current problems concerning the liturgy.The Mass is of supreme value to the individual, but not because it is primarily intended for this purpose. Its primary purpose is the due worship of God. It is because it is the supreme prayer that its supreme value for the individual is guaranteed. When reformers placed the human teaching value of the Mass before its primary function of worshipping God fittingly they wrecked both the worship and the efficacy of the teaching tool.
Human beings do possess the substance of what we popularly call “rights”, but these can be understood properly only when they flow from a proper grasp of divine and natural law. It is the law of God and of the nature that God created according to His sacred plan that compel other individuals to treat us in a proper, rightful, dignified fashion; as children of God with an eternal destiny. The language of rights has been an historical disaster. It has placed the emphasis, psychologically, on what is “owed me”. When one speaks, first and foremost of divine and natural law instead of personal rights, the emphasis is on what I owe to God and to my neighbor. I would rather place my hopes in a political and social discourse based on the latter foundation. The language of rights leads straight to a Triumph of the Will disguised as “the victory of freedom”.
Question: Returning to the academic world . . . do you think it's better for society and the good of souls for traditional Catholics to infiltrate secular (and sometimes more prestigious) universities or to gather themselves in enclaves where their fellow professors are like-minded conservative, if not traditional, Catholics?
I would prefer a policy of doing both, again, depending upon one’s situation, personality, and specific opportunities that offer themselves. I see nothing wrong with teaching (or attending) the “best” universities, so long as one is honest with himself about whether he is selling-out to the Zeitgeist or not. One of the best ways that honesty can be maintained is simply by securing one’s lifeline to other intelligent Catholics in or around the university in question. Based on what I know of New York, this is not a particularly difficult enterprise. But, at the risk of beating a dead horse, I would still admit that the person on the spot would know better than I do what the local dangers or hopes are.
There are certain warnings that I would also post with respect to the idea of creating Traditionalist “enclaves”. This is especially true under present circumstances, when the official Church is not fully “with us” and we are still thrown back primarily on our own resources. It is all too easy to define oneself as something---counterrevolutionary, progressive, and, in this case, Traditionalist Catholic---and then free himself from the task of seeing whether he actually is (and perhaps even more importantly will remain in the future) what the “word” labels him as being.
Quite frankly, I have become more depressed over Traditionalist (or Conservative) Catholics deciding to escape into their little enclaves than over practically every other development in our movement. Many have fallen prey to all manner of non-Catholic thinking and behavior in consequence, none of which is investigated because, once again, the power of the name---Traditionalist Catholic---seems to stand surety for their ideas and actions. I have met all too many well-meaning Traditionalist Catholics who have retired to their “little houses on the prairie” and who, in everything from their dress to their intellectual life, have become nothing other than atomist modernists in Amish clothing. I have met some Traditionalist Catholic home schoolers whose loathing for serious thought and culture is more naturalist and revolutionary than that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I have met stern Traditionalists who out-Jeremy Bentham Jeremy Bentham. And, as noted in one way or another throughout this interview, I have met all too many Traditionalist and Conservative Catholics whose Church Fathers are really the Founding Fathers; good-willed people who, in practice, show that they really think the main event in Sacred History came not with the birth, death and Resurrection of Christ, but with 1776. One can see this even on the purely natural level. Many of the home schooling history texts produced by “our side” begin with America rather than Mesopotamia. I have even read statements by orthodox home schoolers which proclaim openly the need to reject as heresy any work that mentions a criticism of an American political tradition firmly rooted in one of the most dangerous of Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke. We accept too much long-standing Anglo-American “custom” as though it were the real Tradition of the Church and the duty of Traditionalist Catholics to protect. This is exactly the same problem St. Gregory VII complained of in trying to strike at the Caesaro-Papism of the Eleventh Century. Christ, as he noted, came to teach Truth, not custom. Many Catholics did not know the difference between the two.
In sum I am very much in favor of setting up fully Traditionalist schools. Still, I would put them at the heart of things, where everyone is confronted on a regular basis with the realities of contemporary life, and not in little houses on the prairie. If we establish our centers as enclaves in the middle of nowhere, we will: 1) emphasize that wrongheaded individualism of American society which already exercises too great an influence over all of us, whether consciously or unconsciously; 2) aggravate any tendency on our part to ignore a real study of the fullness of Church Tradition, with the justification that, having already declared ourselves to be the defenders of Tradition, nothing more need be done to make sure we are correct in our judgment; and, 3) give up our chance to meet and convert the ever increasing number of people who recognize that something is rotten in Denmark, put have no means of judging what that is, and are light sheep without a shepard.
Question: Do you feel as though you've been able to connect with the students at St. John's? That is, have any acknowledged to you that you were successful in steering them in a more traditional direction? Or does that aim even factor in to what you do in the classroom? What deeper goals or aims, if any, do you bring to the classroom as a (traditional) Catholic professor of history?
As far as I know, I have had an impact only on about six or seven students at St. John’s over nearly three decades. These have indeed all become Traditionalists and are close friends. Others may have been influenced but never told me so. I know that this possible, because one of those students who was so influenced only got back in contact with me after an absence of many years.
All my lectures are connected with my Catholicism, either directly or indirectly; directly, either a presentation of a Catholic vision of history, and indirectly through a presentation of the truths of a natural order created and offered redemption by God. I am constantly attempting to drill into my students the three principles I have repeatedly enunciated above: that man is both natural and supernatural at one and the same time; that man is both and individual and a social being at one and the same time; that efforts to try to separate man’s earthly life from his eternal destiny are a disaster; that attempts to try to separate the individual from society, as with a materialist Liberal Capitalism or a materialist Marxist Socialism, are a disaster.
One other thing in this regard. I try to instill in my students a sense of the Drama of Truth. Drama involves the serious and the comic sides of life. Anyone who accepts the reality of existence as a Drama of Truth has to have both a sense of the magnificent heights to which God has called us, as well as a recognition of our failures in seeking to scale those heights. It is important to know that we slip on banana peels as we aim for heaven and treat that fact with a little patience and humor. Therefore, I teach my students to enjoy life and patiently recognize its comical character, striving all the more to reach God in the process. I think that that enters into what the Cornell Society for a Good Time has done and continues to do. That’s why I like to look at your website!
Question: What do you think about Bishop Williamson's remarks on the advisability of undergraduate education for women? Are they sound enough, but unfeasible today? (When one needs a Ph.D. just to work a cash register at MacDonald's.) Or of perennial applicability?
I am not certain that I know everything Bishop Williamson has said about education for women. Absurd qualifications have indeed entered into the demands of our time, and, combined with the fragility of marriage these days, I would not wish to throw any woman into the world without them. I have also very much benefited from and been dependent upon the aid of educated women. Moreover, I don’t know how any woman can take on the kind of responsibility home schooling involves without solid preparation for this extremely difficult labor.
If I have the money, and if they want to go on to college, both my sons and daughter will do so. Moreover, I would not give the preference to my sons over my daughter if it came to a battle among them; the better one would have to win. In any case, the question may be an academic one. At the moment, I cannot see how I am going to pay for anyone in my family, male or female, to go to college. I am the first one in my family to have attended a university, and this because of the peculiar circumstances of Americans, especially children of veterans, after the Second World War and the foundation of our unfortunate Empire. I may well be the last as well!
Question: What sort of ideas do you have about your own children's undergraduate education? Which universities might you encourage them attend and why?
I want them to get a good solid traditional liberal arts education, with the question of the career they might have coming second in their minds. I want them to enjoy themselves as they get this education. I do not believe that they have to mark themselves off in some peculiar way in order to function even in the corrupt world that we live in today. Like Pius XII, I think that they can dress and act modestly in 2008 without looking like they are from 1950 or living in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Therefore, I have no problems sending them to university in a city like my own. I have seen with my own eyes how, by choosing properly---and this among non-Catholic as well as Catholic teachers---they can still get a decent liberal arts education at St. John’s University, at Columbia University, and at Oxford University. I would, of course, be very happy to see them go to Oxford, which was the academic love of my life.
Question: Finally, what are some of the major advantages and disadvantages for traditional Catholics living in New York City?
The advantages are: 1) permanent contact with a very large number of like-minded New Yorkers and passing contact with a very large number of like-minded visitors from all over the globe. I would have been overwhelmed by acquaintance with the Catholics who have passed through our living room, from Dr. William Marra to Michael Davies to Bishop Williamson to Msgr. Wach and many, many others; and 2) the Classical-Catholic cultural influence available to them here, much of it for free.
The disadvantages are: 1) space. We have plenty of parks for the children to play in, but small, rent controlled apartments are not necessarily the best one-room schoolhouses for children of different ages. Hence, our desire, always, to find a decent elementary school for the children to attend, so far without success; 2) pretty obviously, the need to maneuver our children around the streets with public displays of pornography. This evil generally come to the children of suburbs and country through television or the internet (or other kids).
Having myself been raised in a suburban town which has now become a batch of strip malls with an aesthetic teaching deadly to the True, Good, and Beautiful, I would rather die than send my own offspring to a similar environment. I don’t run around saying this to people living under those circumstances. Unfortunately, I find that practically everyone from outside the city presumes a right to lecture me on the nature of the life that we live here. My neighborhood in New York was the first place in the United States where I encountered the warm community life that I do not see when life is led in cars on highways. And when I compare the rate of corruption and loss of the Faith among the children of friends here with friends elsewhere, I do not see the City Mouse coming off worse than the Country Mouse.
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