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A Very Young Council

It was good to read Thomas Albert Howard's very positive review of Massimo Faggioli's Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning in the March/April issue ["A Very Young Council"]. Unfortunately the review contains an extraordinary claim that should not go unchallenged.

As Howard accurately reports, Faggioli divides interpretations of Vatican II into two main camps, Thomist and Augustinian, the former generally grouped around the journal Concilium and the latter around Communio.

But Howard then adds: "Beyond the Thomists and the Augustinians are those we might label the hyper-progressives and the hyper-traditionalists. The former would include Hans Küng … and Karl Rahner …. By contrast, the hyper-traditionalists would include the so-called 'sedavacantists' [sic] (who claim the Holy See has not had a legitimate Pope since Pius XII) and the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the members of the secretive Saint Pius X Society."

Let's be clear that the "we" in this passage is reviewer Howard and not author Faggioli. Faggioli uses no such labels as "hyper-progressives" and "hyper-traditionalists." He does not treat Küng and Rahner as "hyper" anything but explicitly names them in the ranks of the Concilium writers.

The idea of creating a parallel between these two major theologians, on the one hand, and the sedevacantists and Lefebvrists, on the other, is absurd. The sedevacantists are full-bore conspiracy theorists and the Lefebvrists and Saint Pius X Society are in formal schism. Father Küng has voiced many criticisms of the last two papacies that needed voicing, even if he sometimes serves himself poorly by an unnecessarily strident tone. He is, moreover, a Catholic priest in good standing and a prolific and respected scholar and popularizer. As for Rahner, rather than some "hyper-progressive" equivalent of the sedevacantists and Lefebvrists, he is widely recognized as one of the great theological and spiritual minds of the 20th century.

What was Howard up to in creating such a false equivalency, one without basis in the book he was praising? Is this another gambit in Catholic culture-wars polemics? I hope not.

Peter Steinfels
University Professor Emeritus
Fordham University
New York City, N.Y.

Tal Howard replies:

I'll accept this as a fair criticism of my review. The "Secret Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is "hyper-traditionalist" in a manner that does not tidily present a parallel with the progressive and much-discussed theological views of Küng and Rahner. And the prefix is my own, not Faggioli's; it admittedly can be used to serve polemical purposes. Nonetheless, it was quite extraordinary for Küng to have his missio canonica (right to teach recognized Catholic theology) taken from him in 1979. If he was not "hyper-progressive," perhaps we can both admit that he was (and has been) pushing the envelope. And we agree that Faggioli has written an engaging book.

Tumbling Around Inside

Jane Zwart's chat with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer ["Those Things Tumbling Around Inside," January/February] left me with a laundry list of quotes to hang and press. A few I'm still sorting.

"I can't explain why it [images of reversal] interests me. But I find it very beautiful" and "art can't be more than life … because there is nothing more than life" evoked lines from Les Murray's poem "Animal Nativity" that seem like a nice match, "He … / who gets death forgiven /who puts the apple back," and reminded me what an ineffable work of art the Cross is. And although there is nothing more, there is certainly something less than life, a living death that it reverses.

"I am actually interested in the kind of religion that makes life harder rather than easier, as strange as that might sound. I'm not interested in a comforting religion": this is a stinging rebuke of much of the goings on called belief these days. (How odd that the gospel's marching orders of self denial should sound strange to its soldiers.) But "easy" and "comforting" are not the same thing; they are often near opposites. Religion that does not also offer comfort has pulled its punches and misdiagnosed the terrible problem.

"The framework for asking better questions or establishing better habits … that's my idea of religion …. I will never come around to the idea of an anthropomorphic God. It's not something that I have it in me to believe." But isn't it something already in us to believe—and what remains is whether we desire that He show Himself or prefer to give Him a striking personal resemblance.

Bruce Jespersen
Calgary, Alberta

Just-So Stories

In his review of two books on storytelling ["Just-So Stories," January/February], Alan Jacobs decries over-broad generalizations by those who rhapsodize over the power of story: "When people tell me that 'Story' does this or that for us, I always want to throw up my hands and cry, Which story? Haven't you noticed the astonishing variety of literary productions?" He's right, of course. Which makes it all the more ironic when Jacobs goes on … in the very next paragraph, no less … to make a breathtakingly over-broad generalization about Christians: "Christians have been guiltier than most of this tendency, arguing that people love stories because they are responding to the story God is telling through salvation history." How about "Some Christians"? Or "Certain Christians"?

Lacking any limiting modifier, the line as written indicts all Christians. Surely Jacobs would not risk an equally sweeping generalization about Muslims, Jews, women, or black people?

Marcus Webb
Chief Storytelling Officer
Stamford, Connecticut?
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