Letters | Darwin’s sins, Catholicism & philosophy, parish ministry, etc.

 

DARWIN’S SINS

John P. Slattery is right to credit Charles Darwin’s role in creating a scientific understanding of the mechanism of natural selection (“Evolution and Racism,” March). As Slattery points out, Darwin “believed that humans shared a common descent” and “were one species.” Yet, according to Darwin, while all races descend from the same ancestor, some are more descended than others. In The Descent of Man, he predicts a grim future for those at the bottom: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropological apes...will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state...and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

While Darwin didn’t invent the term “survival of the fittest,” he endorsed Herbert Spencer’s formulation of “social Darwinism” as well as the eugenic theory of his cousin Francis Galton. Darwin was a man of his time. Honoring the greatness of his scientific achievement doesn’t require ignoring the upper-class Victorian convictions he shared (and reinforced) about the poor as the cause of their own plight, and his colonialist indifference to the destruction of the “sub-species” occupying the space between Anglo-Saxons and apes. (My article, “The Gentle Darwinians,” which contains a fuller discussion of this issue, appeared in the March 5, 2007 issue of Commonweal.)

Peter Quinn
Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

 

INSTITUTIONS MATTER

It is surprising that in Sarah Shortall’s otherwise informative review of Edward Baring’s Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (“God of the Continental Philosophers,” March) there is no mention of the University of Louvain and its role in the development of continental philosophy since 1880.

According to Baring, the recent resurgence of interest in religion among many hitherto secular European philosophers may be accounted for at least in part by the fact that they work in the tradition of continental philosophy, and this tradition “was forged in important respects by Catholics in the early decades of the twentieth century.” In particular, non-Catholic and Catholic philosophers shared “an engagement with phenomenology...that gave birth to a truly continental philosophic tradition. And it did so largely because of Catholic philosophers, who transported these ideas from their German birthplace” to many other countries.

No mention of the fact that in 1938, Herman Van Breda, then a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student from Louvain working on his doctoral dissertation on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl in Freiburg im Breisgau, recognized the extreme danger the Nazis posed to Husserl’s work. In a matter of months he was able to get Husserl’s unpublished papers (over 40,000 pages), Husserl’s entire library, and Husserl’s widow out of Germany to Louvain, where Van Breda and his colleagues hid those works from the Nazis until the end of World War II. They became the Husserl Archives, which have remained the principal center for phenomenological research and publication ever since. One of the first visitors to the Husserl Archives, as early as 1938, was Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

A second, but also surprising, omission: Shortall points out that “Before phenomenology came into its own, the closest thing to a continental philosophy at the time was a Catholic one: neo-scholasticism.” In his 1879 encyclical Aeterni patris, Pope Leo XIII had called for a restoration of Thomistic philosophy in Catholic seminaries and institutions: whence “neo-scholasticism.”

Nowhere was this project engaged more fully than at the University of Louvain. Leo XIII himself requested that Louvain institute a program in Thomistic philosophy and in 1882 Désiré-Joseph (later Cardinal) Mercier was named to the first chair of Thomistic philosophy. Several years later Mercier founded the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, which since its founding has been a leading center of Thomistic philosophy in dialogue with contemporary philosophy and with the natural and human sciences. No mention of the University of Louvain in this regard either.

These are two surprising absences in a book of which the reviewer states, ironically, that “The other tremendous benefit of [Baring’s] work is to show how and why institutions matter for the history of ideas.”

Thomas Ewens
Middletown, R.I.

 

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?

The religious-liberty issue, as framed by Dolan and DiMarzio in this region of the United States, is confined to issues below the waist (“Rethinking Religious Liberty,” John Gehring interviews Melissa Rogers, February). Why can’t DiMarzio, Dolan, et al. seek a religious exemption for Catholics who object to paying taxes for U.S. military actions that kill children, immigrant-detention policies that imprison families, or laws that support the death penalty? A fortnight-for-religious-freedom campaign would have more credibility if it included a consistent prolife agenda. Until then, it won’t get support from me.

Gene Roman
Bronx, N.Y.

 

A LARGE GROUP

Tia Noelle Pratt’s recent article was very interesting (“Authentically Black, Truly Catholic,” April). I’m so glad as a Black Catholic to hear that work is currently being done to highlight our spirituality and faith in the broader sense. I must suggest that while focusing on African Americans, we should not forget the largest group of Black Catholics (Haitians), as well as Nigerians, Catholics from other parts of the Caribbean and Africa, and those who identify as Afro-Latino. There are many parishes within the Diocese of Brooklyn that could be part of your study.

Peter Damour
Queens, N.Y.

 

LAYWOMEN AS MINISTERS

I am pleased with the insights into how to read this latest document from Francis in Austen Ivereigh’s article “New Wine, New Wineskins” (April). Yet there is one point that greatly disappoints me. One of the great failures of the post–Vatican II reforms was how the redoing of the “minor orders” turned out. Though people were no longer to be “ordained” to these orders but rather “installed,” the vision was empowering. Readers were also to be catechists of the Word and not just proclaimers. Acolytes were to be more than “altar boys,” but entrusted with outreach, especially through a parish-communion ministry. Indeed, it is even suggested that conferences of bishops could propose another ministry for recognition.

The one glitch: Paul VI restricted installation to males. And so decades later the only laypeople with an officially recognized ministry are seminarians—a ludicrous situation given the decades of service to these ministries given by laywomen. Perhaps the idea of women deacons would not seem so scary to many if we had already had women in other official ministries for decades. And perhaps Francis would not be saying that the greatest challenge to the future of the church was clericalism.

Michael H. Marchal
Cincinnati, Ohio

Published in the May 2020 issue: 
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