Léon Bloy, the peril of pluralism

Prickly Pauper

No one who has read Léon Bloy would dispute what Harold Bordwell writes in his article “A Beggar to the End” (November 9). The article reflects what most of Bloy’s contemporaries, both inside and outside the church, thought of him. Given Bloy’s hyperbolic style, his vicious denunciations, his lack of “respect” and nuance, and his reputation as pamphleteer, one might ask why this self-taught and eccentric pauper had such a tremendous influence on the people who would spark the intellectual and spiritual revival of the French church in the early twentieth century. Bloy had a sense that the uniqueness of his vocation was important to the church and the world; it might also be asked whether this sense was not, in many ways, mysteriously confirmed. Bordwell, however, makes no attempt to answer these questions, or even to pose them.

Bloy was a lonely “fool for Christ,” recognized and respected as such by the Russian immigrants who arrived in France after the Revolution; he was a pilgrim of the absolute in spite of himself, intolerant of mediocrity and phoniness in all their forms, a very imperfect prophet who reminds us of the terrible seriousness of the Christian vocation whether we like it or not. For very many, Bloy was an instrument of the Holy Spirit whose wisdom often manifests itself in the middle of a dung heap. As for the “certainty of his predestination” which Bordwell reads into one of Bloy’s most quoted lines—“There is only one sadness; not to be a saint”—it suffices to recall that Bloy was terribly, even chronically, sad and felt as though he had misused his gifts. He was very much afraid of how God would judge him.         

Jerry Ryan

Winthrop, Mass.

Wrong Baseline

Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms” (November 23) is a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. The fact that Commonweal published it speaks to Catholicism’s ability to examine its core beliefs, premises, and objectives.

That said, I also have serious theological and philosophical differences with the writer. For one thing, the fact that “we don’t all agree on the conception of human nature that freedom is supposed to foster” cannot serve as a baseline for arguments about the church’s role in contemporary America. It’s true that as a society, we do not share a common conception of the human person; the writers whose works are subjected to such withering and incisive critique in McCarraher’s article recognize this fact. Yet this would be the great desideratum of our time: to do everything in our power as a Catholic community to help our society reacquire a fully articulated, coherent, normative understanding of the human person. Without such a conception, our conversation about individual and collective flourishing, about rights, obligations, or notions of the just and the good will never be able to advance but will founder because of the radical incommensurability of the premises from which individuals develop their arguments. In short, pluralism is a fact of modern life. Yet to embrace this fact as irreversible would be to embark on a course toward mere indifferentism. It would leave us progressively stunted and inarticulate when trying to reason through the many moral questions—consumer capitalism, militarism, human sexuality, etc.—that will always impinge on us.

Thomas Pfau

Durham, N.C.

Published in the 2012-12-07 issue: 
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