Letters | Anointing the Sick, a Callous Court, James Agee

What You Had to Say

HELP A BROTHER OUT

Rita Ferrone’s article (“Unction Dysfunction,” September 25, 2015) is right on target. I belong to the international order of Alexian Brothers. We are one of the oldest orders in the Catholic Church. We date back to the twelfth century (part of the mendicant movement, along with the Franciscans and Dominicans). However, we never became clerics. During the Bubonic Plague in the Rhineland (1348–1351) it was the Alexian Brothers, then known as the Beghards, who stayed in the cities to minister to the plague-stricken while priests and government officials fled the scene. There is no doubt that these brave brothers gave “extreme unction” to the dying and probably heard many a confession since there were no priests available. After the plague subsided we became the head of the burial guilds in the Rhineland.

Because of this history, in 1986 our General Chapter made a resolution to petition Rome to grant us permission to give the sacrament of anointing to those we care for in our hospitals and nursing homes. Unfortunately, Rome refused the request.

Yes, the spiritual needs of the sick and elderly are crying out to be met. Pope Francis—hear our prayer.

Br. Warren Longo, CFA
St. Louis, Mo.

 

NO PLACE FOR GRACE

Cathleen Kaveny (”Bring Back the Gallows?” September 11, 2015) tellingly exposes the callous blame-shifting in Glossip v. Gross, the Supreme Court decision affirming a state’s right to use a disputed lethal-injection protocol. Another aspect of the Court’s opinion is also disturbing. In an otherwise concise account of the case’s legal history, Justice Samuel Alito describes at surprising length the capital crimes of the four petitioning prisoners. Highlighting the most bone-chilling details of each murder, Alito seems almost to relish rehearsing the prisoners’ savagery.

How is his account of the petitioners’ viciousness relevant to an opinion about lethal injection protocols? Is Alito simply reminding justices opposed to the death penalty that some killers truly deserve to die? Given the substance of the Court’s decision, another explanation suggests itself.

Alito’s lurid narrative subtly reinforces the Court’s acceptance of a suboptimal execution protocol. Since the prisoners showed no mercy, we need not fret over any gratuitous agony an inferior drug cocktail might inflict as they die. The obligation to minimize their suffering is loosened because their crimes are heinous. Similar logic is often heard on the street. It should not be invoked or insinuated by the Supreme Court of the United States. It belies the Court’s insistence elsewhere that even the condemned must be treated with dignity.

David McCurdy
Elmhurst, Ill.

 

BEHIND THE MANUSCRIPT

I was thrilled to see Commonweal cover Melville House’s recent publication of Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, but I was disappointed that Gerald Russello’s review failed to educate the magazine’s readers about the history of the book, which concerns perhaps the real story at hand. The review states briefly, and in passing, that John Updike reviewed the original edition of these letters in 1962. I’m afraid readers might have missed that this book is, in fact, a re-release, and this new edition was published in 2014 as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library series, which "champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored." Why would this press reissue Agee’s letters more than fifty years later? In 2013, Melville House and the Baffler co-published Agee’s Cotton Tenants: Three Families, a piece of reporting from Agee and photographer Walker Evans’s trip to Alabama that gave us Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. With the reinvigorated interest in Agee surrounding Cotton Tenants, Melville House thought that Agee’s new fans would also appreciate his letters to his teacher-priest-friend, along with the original introduction by Robert Phelps, a cofounder of Grove Press. Phelps writes that Agee had “the gift of being able to give oneself freely…. He was interested, always, and unlike most gifted men, not prudent, nor selective, nor limited.” May Commonweal’s readers be as interested always as this man who gifted us stories of an overlooked America and his own.

Win Bassett
Nashville, Tenn.

Published in the October 23, 2015 issue: 

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