An Apology for the English Department

posted in: Literature | 4

By Katelyn Villa

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.” ~Nelson Mandela

The essential art of language, so necessary to our daily interactions and cultural connections, has been slowly pushed aside to allow for the “more important” studies, those allowing for instant success. We forget the necessity of language, as the principal means to satisfaction of the basic human need, for contact, for relationship, for community.

Language is our mediator. One of the first tasks given to Adam in the garden was the task of naming. While the other elements of creation experienced organic harmony, man had to establish a different kind of harmony—one more intentional, based not on a mechanical relationship of doing, but on a relationship of being achieved through language. Later, man’s rupture with God took place as a consequence of the misuse of language, as God’s simple commands, in Eve’s conversation with the serpent, became twisted and misrepresented. And even later, the relationship is restored when God reconnects with man through His gift of the Word—and maintains that relationship through the words of the priest, whose speech brings God to earth.

What is true supernaturally is of course reflected in natural forms. Civil societies are based on the words of charters, constitutions, or even on simple oral traditions. Economic relationships are built on treaties and agreements; the life of labor is built on sound contracts. When we look at more intensely inter-personal relationships, relationships of friendship or love, only through language may one probe the mystery of another human identity.

What happens, though, if our words begin to disintegrate? At this point in the development of our language, we have begun to lose the meaning of more complex words. Once, a person could have talked about a reality with simple and definite words; now everything is spoken of in relative, debatable, ambiguous terms. And if nothing can be defined, if everything is based on a personal opinion, if each piece of information changes in the transmission, because the understanding of each word varies so completely between each separate context—between each person—how can we possibly expect to communicate with accuracy and truth, or to be understood, on any level, by any other person?

For example, the word “love” is given as a description of any close relationship between two people; it is either made into something careless and common, or something so rare as never to be found. The understanding of this word is so varied that the use of it is often avoided, and when questioned, a person often will be unable to define it well. The same has happened to the word “freedom”; it is commonly thought of as the condition of not being held down, held back, or being prevented from doing as one likes—in this case, though, when desire is left as the only motive for action, what is left of freedom?

Even in such an important area as catechesis, language is loosening its grip and letting go of its essential precision. These studies often depend on stock phrases, falling back on them when it is easiest to do so. For example, the catechist might explain that “baptism is rebirth,” which gives not even the bare bones definition of what it is, only its result. The catechized student might learn also that conscience is “the little voice in your head that tells right or wrong.” However, many could argue they’ve never heard that voice, because it isn’t a voice—it’s knowledge. The catechist will also teach that “Jesus opened the gates of heaven,” a completely ambiguous idea, simply used as a filler to explain a conception of Jesus’ death. It avoids most of the truth of Jesus’ death—that he died to conquer death, having been satisfied by infinite life, that no other human would have to suffer the true death of both body and spirit. When stock phrases in catechesis are used to avoid the task of explaining a religion of infinite depth, they end up only making the reality of the concept harder to grasp. In the case of this stock phrase, one is left with such questions as what the gates of heaven are, why they weren’t previously open, and various others.

Despite all its modern ambiguity, language remains necessary to the human community, for its welfare and development. Language is the way each of us expresses and understands a reality that we have not experienced, and the way we can communicate an abstract idea with the concrete place-holders of words. We can know of and, to some extent, understand the experience and perspective of another person without directly having had or shared such an experience or perspective. In this manner does language become our bridge to all realities outside of ourselves.

So, if language is lost, our bridge is lost; we have no access to anything but what may be found within ourselves. We have nothing to focus on but ourselves. That which is not part of us, we do not, and cannot, know. We become lost within ourselves, separated from the rest of humanity, completely isolated. Is it possible, then, that if one cannot understand another, one cannot sympathize with the other, and each action of the other becomes a threat to one’s own existence. Is there a connection, then, between our grasp of language and our treatment of others? The relationship is easy to grasp when one remembers the simple truth that at the heart of ethics is the basic ability to recognize the reality of another. However, while language is reduced to texts and tweets, and while every critical comment is prefaced with, “Ya know, I just feel like…. ”—simultaneously we live in the most violent time of history.

I see near the heart of the matter an inability to recognize the reality of otherness—that is, a reality outside of self. It sounds extreme to more or less suggest that the modern mind wouldn’t recognize a barn door if it walked into one; but when a woman wakes up day after day with morning sickness, has swollen breasts, craves all sorts of weird food at weird hours, and has been told in multiple ways that a little someone has moved in and is making demands of her, what then accounts for her ability to walk into the local clinic and request that the little someone be chopped up and thrown out? The baby is not real to her. The baby is even less real to the person who will chop up twenty to thirty little folk on the same day.

This, then, is what we must do. We have to go back to the English departments and make them the center of our curriculums. English departments hang on by a thread, allowed to exist only for the ways in which they can supplement other departments. We read To Kill a Mockingbird in order to understand racism in the South. We read All Quiet on the Western Front to give us more insight to the struggles of the common soldier on the front in WWI. We read poetry as an opportunity for self-expression. Themes and topics are sliced out, and the literature, as literature, the beauty of the word, is the ransacked corpse left on the table.

Katelyn Villa is a freshman at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Heinrich Rommen on the Community and the State

Heinrich Rommen on the Community and the State

Our Advisory Board Member Bruce Frohnen recently published this post on the Nomocracy in Politics blog. Because Bruce talks about our recent republication of The State in Catholic Thought and because it’s worth reading, we are re-posting it here.

Heinrich Rommen was among the most important political thinkers of the twentieth century. Yet most people, including most scholars, have never heard of him. This is because Rommen was an explicitly Catholic thinker whose work was a sustained rejection of the prevailing ideology of the era. Where most political thinkers of his age—and ours—argue over how best to shape and put into action “the will of the people” (however defined), Rommen sought to think through how political institutions might serve the common good. And that common good, Rommen consistently showed, had less to do with grand ideological programs than with maintaining “an order of tranquility, justice, and peace.”

These thoughts come to mind because Rommen’s magnum opus, The State in Catholic Thought, finally has been brought back into print. While I had something to do with bringing this about (I sit on the advisory board of Cluny Media, the publisher, and wrote the introduction), I have no compunction about celebrating the event because of the importance of the book, the author, and the political philosophy it so well embodies. The form of political philosophy once could be called simply natural law thought, but today that would be confusing because so many on the statist left have adopted a corrupt version of natural law as their chosen form of political justification. It might be termed Catholic political philosophy, except that it shares essential characteristics with Calvinist and other forms of Christian thought. Rommen’s thinking might best, I think, be termed Christian pluralism to indicate its insistence on the variety of institutions and associations that make up any good life, institutions with which the state must cooperate to maintain an order of tranquility, justice, and peace in the manner and to the extent possible in this life.

How does Rommen’s thought, and Christian pluralism more generally, differ from most modern political philosophy? First, Rommen begins by acknowledging the importance of human nature, rather than seeking to change or empty it through ideological tools. Thus, for example, the prominent liberal philosopher John Rawls describes the formation of a “just” regime as taking place behind a mythical “veil of ignorance.” Rawls’s contention is that people will seek to be “fair” to the extent that they are ignorant of their interests, their attachments, and their capabilities, as well as their race and gender. Rommen, meanwhile, not only accepts but builds on the person’s character as an inherently relational being. We do not come together into society seeking to achieve or prevent particular advantages, in Rommen’s view. Rather, we exist, primordially, as parts of associations (most especially families) and participate in larger societies on the basis of characteristics, goals, and norms rooted in these organic communities.

A second, related difference between Rommen’s thought and that of modern liberal thinkers: where those such as Rawls would build society as a means of achieving some particular goal (generally of an ideological cast) Rommen recognizes that a nation is a “community of communities.” And this means that the state’s primary goal is to mediate among more local associations, rather than to transform them in its own image. Keeping the peace, maintaining decent social relations, and providing an order in which people’s reasonable expectations are protected against those who would break their promises or take advantage of customary usages are primary goals of the state, not forcing society into a predetermined shape.

Our social nature gives rise to what Rommen described as “a plurality of social forms and . . . co-operative spheres that . . . serve independent ends in the order of the common good.” These forms either grow directly from our social nature or “are produced by the initiative of free persons for the more perfect realization of their ends and purposes.” They are not formed by the state. And this means that these associations are not merely administrative units that carry out the will of the state. They are “original entities and original social organizations” with their own rights, responsibilities, and roles in any good life.

The case is quite different for thinkers, such as Rawls, who believe that justice or some other abstract goal demands that associations be governed on universal, state-enforced principles. Rawls uses, for example, the “maximin” principle as the measure of a society’s justice, arguing that society’s “basic structure is just throughout when the advantages of the more fortunate promote the well-being of the least fortunate, that is, when a decrease in their advantages would make the least fortunate even worse off than they are. The basic structure is perfectly just when the prospects of the least fortunate are as great as they can be.” This Rawlsian principle derives from his determination that society be shaped in all its aspects by the drive for “justice as fairness,” meaning, essentially, material equality.

This rather childish view of justice is particularly debilitating. But any abstract principle, including individual liberty or antidiscrimination, might just as well be used by the state to transform society. If this principle—instead of the flourishing of actual persons within self-governing communities—is considered primary, the result is a society dominated by that state. State actors will use their power and authority to make society conform to their vision of the good.

A third area of important difference concerns attitudes toward power. The understanding that power tends to corrupt did not originate with Lord Acton. It is an essential part of Christian pluralism. From early on, Christian thinkers have recognized that secular rulers must be guided by spiritual thought and institutions, at the same time that these forces must themselves be primarily concerned with the person’s spiritual needs. Thus, the “two swords” theory resulted in, among other things, the insistence of popes during the early Middle Ages on naming their own bishops and so maintaining a jurisdiction and administrative machinery separate from that of secular rulers.

This separate jurisdiction allowed for the checking of royal power. Its logic leads Rommen to argue that the state should as much as possible avoid direct rule over people’s lives. According to Rommen, “man lives for his final transcendent destiny” not merely in and through the state but as part of “family, home, neighborhood, town, homeland,” and a variety of “vocational, profession, educational and religious institutions.” The state must protect these associations, not subsume them in itself and use them for its own ends. It must recognize that these associations have their own specific ends which, like themselves, are “irreplaceable.”

Rommen recognized the complexity of human life and society, as well as the requirements of human flourishing. He also recognized each person’s need to pursue his good through a variety of relationships and vocations. Combined, these insights helped him formulate a conception of the state that rooted its dignity in its proper function—that of protecting and maintaining peace, order, and justice among the largely self-governing associations in which people naturally pursue good lives.

“Heinrich Rommen on the Community and the State,” By Bruce Frohnen



24 Thrilling Sci-Fi Masterpieces That Won’t Warp Your Soul

24 Thrilling Sci-Fi Masterpieces That Won’t Warp Your Soul

posted in: Culture, Literature, Science | 0
[Stephen Mirarchi, Ph.D., an English professor at Benedictine College, a member of the Cluny Advisory Board, and a Cluny Series Editor, recently published this post on]

Literary science fiction is more popular than ever. The success of films like The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, is only helping the genre gain a wider audience.

Bishop Barron had positive things to say about the film version of The Martian. Indeed, many folks familiar with their Catechism could find the good, the true, and the beautiful in Asimov’s Foundation series, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and other acknowledged landmarks in science fiction without being duped into pantheism, secular humanism, scientific materialism, or the like.

But are there others? Are there more science fiction books that not only have serious literary chops but are good for a Christian’s faith, especially in their ability to ask difficult, speculative questions about the human condition and confront them head-on with reasonable answers?

There are—and here’s a selection of them (I’m saving typical “young adult” authors like Madeleine L’Engle for another time). Because literary science fiction tends to be unflinching in the face of the full human experience, I’m dividing these books into three groups: Just a Bit Edgy, Somewhat Gritty, and Downright Controversial. Choose your own comfort level and dive in.

Just a Bit Edgy

1. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)

Long considered a classic, Miller’s novel imagines a future where humanity has to learn how to read and write all over again—and can do so only because of the efforts of monks who have long practiced the art of preserving books. With a formidable knowledge of Catholic liturgy, theology, and monasticism, Miller fills his story with eccentric yet likeable characters, political intrigue, and offbeat humor. Though some find the book a bit austere—there are scenes of deep sadness—others find it wide awake with hope. Besides, there’s a scene that will make just about anybody a fan of “punch a heretic day.”

2-5. Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (1993 – 1996)

This four-book series or tetralogy starts with a character’s being “enlightened” by a god—an experience Wolfe depicts in the language of a Carmelite infusion, or a Jesuit consolation without cause, or a mystic’s vision. The thrust of the rest of the series is simple: the character in question—whose day job is to offer ritual sacrifice for his poor community—must do what this god has asked of him, for love of his people and to honor that god’s request. Wolfe, whose genius is nigh-universally recognized in the science fiction community, drops you into his richly realized world without explaining a thing; part of the fun is figuring out what in the heavens is going on.

6-8. The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis (1938 – 1945) What would it look like if several distinct, rational species on a faraway planet were each in different stages of bodily evolution, knew about each other, and hadn’t had their souls marred by original sin? That’s the provocative question that begins the odyssey of Lewis’s Space TrilogyOut of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, which concludes right back in 1940s Britain. Truly cosmic in scope, the series has long been celebrated for its spiritual insight, philological creativity, and reasonable apologetics. In fact, how Lewis depicts angels in the series is so convincing that Peter Kreeft quotes from the books in Angels (and Demons), his catechism on angelology.

Also worthy in this category:

  1. The Anubis Gatesby Tim Powers (1983)

Powers is well respected in the science fiction community for, among other things, his deft handling of time travel. Ignatius Press has a feature on him as part of their Insight series.

Somewhat Gritty

10-14. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)

His best-known and most celebrated series, Wolfe’s New Sun tetralogy (which has a fifth book as a “coda”) introduces us to a young man apprenticed to a guild of torturers, who administer punishments handed down to them. There’s one problem: our sort-of hero has a bit of a conscience. Wolfe brings this character, Severian, through adventures galore as the books unfold, where bizarre monsters, warped rituals, and strange imperial politics abound. As fans have discovered, Wolfe draws on Biblical, mythological, and Traditional sources (think rare martyrs) to undergird his intricate storyline, and even folks who have read the series multiple times admit there may be unsolved mysteries within. And yet Severian’s journey is oddly reminiscent of the call to embrace a royal vocation…

15-19. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (1952 – 1988)

A mastermind of the genre, “PKD” wrote short stories continuously; presses issue them in five-volume sets. Though he wrote many novels, his stories are well known because many have been made into Hollywood blockbusters: Total RecallMinority ReportPaycheck, and others. Dick’s tales, especially the early ones, could be pulpy, but the majority of them exhibit his labyrinthine, ingenious plotting; his wealth of insight into human nature; and his keen sense of prophecy. Contemporary readers often comment that, were it not for a telling detail or two (like an analog reel-to-reel machine), they’d guess the stories from half a century ago had been published yesterday.


20-22. The Golden Age Trilogy by John C. Wright (2002 – 2004)

Set millenia in the future, this trilogy imagines what would happen if the so-called “human perfection project” reached fruition: immortality for human beings, artificial intelligence that serves humanity, a utopian world for all. Except…someone isn’t happy, and there’s a crime afoot. Formerly an outspoken atheist, Wright made waves when he converted to Roman Catholicism (through Lutheranism), and he’s been all the more vocal about the compatibility of faith, logic, and science ever since. There’s an enlightening, in-depth interview with him over at Dappled Things.

Also in this category:

  1. Ender’s Gameby Orson Scott Card (1985)

It’s almost impossible to read this book without thinking of the contemporary video game situation. Jimmy Akin has written a detailed analysis of the whole Ender series.

Downright Controversial

  1. Duneby Frank Herbert (1965)

This space-opera saga of interstellar trade, politics, families, and religion is generally considered one of the top science fiction masterpieces of all time. Herbert followed his original Dune with a number of sequels, and the series has been carried on by his son and other collaborators.

Why so controversial? Herbert was raised Catholic but converted to Buddhism, and he all but rejected the truth claims of any particular religion, embracing the idea that all religions can essentially be merged into one (basically, syncretism). This thinking pervades the Dune series; there’s an older discussion thread about it on FishEaters.

What Dune does exceptionally well, however, is show the dangers of worldly messianism, when a leader takes advantage of a group in order to become its only hope, even the savior of the universe. Herbert’s expert world-building brings home the galaxy-shattering consequences of merely human messianism loud and clear. That via negativa message, along with Herbert’s considerable literary gifts, makes Dune very good reading.

Nota bene: David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation is a creative interpretation of the novel with serious departures from the text, while John Harrison’s 2000 mini-series is much more faithful and comprehensive.

And finally: some people think it’s a masterpiece, but I won’t recommend it:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)

It’s a bad sign when even the ecumenical-minded Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno has problems with the book. There’s an essay on it and a few other titles over at The Atlantic. If you know people who like the book, you might want to read it so you can respond to them with well-considered evidence.

6 Challenging Novels the Popes Want You to Tackle

6 Challenging Novels the Popes Want You to Tackle

posted in: Literature | 0
[Stephen Mirarchi, Ph.D., an English professor at Benedictine College, a member of the Cluny Advisory Board, and a Cluny Series Editor, recently published this post on]


How’s that reading list coming along? Read any fiction that was aesthetically accomplished, gave you a challenge, and was supportive of your faith?

The Popes have consistently recommended such rare books. These novels don’t pander to the audience with feel-good sentimentalism or religious propaganda. Rather, they confront the reader with trials, encourage growth in Christ, and all the while show off the literary skills of master writers.

Even if you’ve read many of the books on this list, the Popes are fond of rereads. Like all great literature, these novels are worth revisiting—even multiple times.

  1. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

Pope Francis has read this classic Italian romance three times and wants to read it again. The papal preacher, Fr. Cantalamessa, once quoted a line from it in a Good Friday homily. Pope John Paul II cited as exemplary its depiction of Gospel-inspired charity during the Milanese plague. Pope Paul VI wrote an official letter on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Manzoni’s death. And, rumor has it, pastors use the novel for marriage prep.  

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In an address last year to the Romano Guardini Foundation, Pope Francis focused on a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that helps us understand not only Guardini better, but God himself. Such has been the witness of many Popes to the great yet seemingly unwieldy literary classic that contains the famous “Grand Inquisitor” scene. Pope Benedict XVI mentions the novel in Spe Salvi as a counter-example to popular universalism. Pope John Paul II referred to it when answering a youth’s question about the suffering of innocents. To put it succinctly in the words of Pope Francis: “I love very much Dostoevsky.”

  1. Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

In a retreat he gave just a month ago, Pope Francis said that Bernanos’s novel, based loosely on the life of St. John Vianney, contains “beautiful paragraphs describing the [narrator’s] reflections” on unexpected trials. Pope Benedict XVI called Bernanos “a great French writer who was always fascinated by the idea of the Saints—he mentions many in his novels.” The book is a mainstay in Catholic fiction classes, and Bernanos himself continues to be a studied figure in politics, history, and literature, especially in his lively relationships with other great authors like François Mauriac.

  1. Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

At his papal inauguration, John Paul II called the novel a “magnificent literary expression” of Peter’s desire to escape Roman persecution. Twenty-three years later, a new Polish film version of the novel was made; it premiered at the Vatican with the Pope in attendance. “I only want to thank you for the careful way in which you produced it,” John Paul II said in his post-film address; “You respected Sienkiewicz’s masterpiece.” Indeed, Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.

  1. Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

Pope Francis mentioned this early 20th-century apocalyptic novel in one of his homilies. Benson, who converted to Catholicism and wrote another novel depicting martyrdom, starkly warns against impending apostasy in Lord of the World, “as though he envisioned what would happen” in the aftermath of the wars. A couple years later during an interview, Pope Francis was more direct: “I suggest you read it,” saying that the book was an effective antidote to ideologies like secularism. Benson’s novel, in other words, helps teach us that “we do not negotiate our fidelity to God.”

  1. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Okay, so this isn’t a direct papal endorsement, but Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has often spoken of how great literature helps us understand the dangers of technology divorced from the knowledge of religion. Cardinal Poupard finds We “a prophetic portrayal of human beings known by numbers rather than names, who had no awareness of belonging to each other or having any significance for each other.” The book set the stage for such dystopian classics as Orwell’s1984. “These novels reflect perfectly the experience of people subjected to the highly mechanized life of modern industry.”

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