A strange ambivalence haunts Terry Eagleton’s article (“Cast a Cold Eye,”  February 23). On the one hand, we are told that death is a condition for living and that submitting to it involves the most estimable way to live. But on the other hand, we are also told that death is an abomination, “violent, excessive, and unmannerly.” What Eagleton gives by way of illumination with one hand, he rudely takes away with the other.

While the article has the wide range of literary and historical references that one has come to expect from Eagleton, death as a spiritual reality seems to have overwhelmed his powers of perception and analysis, at least as judged by what he says here. Dialectician that he is, he is never quite able to resolve the tension at the heart of his reflections. The Marxist in him wants to cling to the notion that death is an entirely natural, this-worldly phenomenon, while the Christian in him is aware that death as an event in life also carries eschatological significance. Hence the grudging concession that ends his article: “If we ought freely to submit to its indignity, it is not because there is anything in the least tolerable about it, but because to do so involves the self-giving, which is also the most estimable way to live.”  

Eagleton is a literary critic, while I am a philosopher and theologian. Much of the philosophical literature from Socrates to Heidegger and theology from Augustine to Rahner suggests that death is not at all the indignity that Eagleton takes it to be, but the warp and woof of life itself. Death is woven into the very fabric of authentic life. Eagleton nods half-heartedly at this truth with his talk of sacrifice and self-giving, but these acts and attitudes do not come to prominence only at the end of life. The Rule of St. Benedict, for example, instructs us to have death before our eyes at all times, and Tibetan monks are taught to meditate from a very early age with human skulls placed before their altars.

Death is indeed, as Eagleton intimates, a structural condition of living. But if one not only accepts that fact theoretically, but also strives to make it one’s praxis in daily life, then it is possible, with God’s grace, that we may be able to face our deaths with greater equanimity than Eagleton evinces in this essay.

Joseph Prabhu
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
California State University, Los Angeles


One comment on a statement in David Cloutier’s contribution to the discussion on whether the church really needs clergy (“Imagine There’s No Clergy,”  January 26) made me question his fundamental stance on this question. In referring to the “old” liturgy and the “new,” he remarked that he appreciated their “stylistic diversity” founded upon different “sensibilities”—as if the fathers of Vatican II and the commissions that carried out the postconciliar mandates entrusted to them were merely engaged in some sort of aesthetic enterprise. I may be mistaken, but that comment seems to reduce liturgical questions to the level of whether one prefers representationalism to abstract expressionism or not.

But there were instead serious theological and spiritual questions at work behind the call by Vatican II for liturgical reform; as that word itself indicates, the council felt that something was wrong that needed to be set right before the church could experience a renewal that seemed necessary. It was the same mandate that the Council of Trent had given its follow-up commissions and which led to the “old” liturgy, but the post–Vatican II commissions had much better resources, both historical and theological, to work from, and could achieve that shared goal more authentically.

Probably the core difference between the two attempts at reform is that the Tridentine Missal’s basic paradigm for Mass was that the priest was really the sole liturgical actor. No matter how many other ministers might be collaborating in the celebration, his words and actions were the only ones of real importance since he alone accomplished the sacrifice, with the rest of those gathered being ultimately spectators. In the Missal of Paul VI the paradigm is that the whole community is composed of liturgical actors—each with their own role to play “fully, consciously, and actively,” and that all are thereby joined in offering the sacrifice because all are the “priestly people” of the new covenant. (The Roman Canon always speaks in the first person plural. It might be the right, duty, and privilege of the ordained to speak its words aloud, but they are clearly being spoken in a communal context.)

One of the best Jesuit teachers of the history of philosophy that I ever had could not make the transition from the “old” to the “new.” He could deal with the vernacular—in fact, he welcomed it. But, as one friend of mine phrased it, “He was still doing a Mass to the wall while facing the people.” He could not seem comfortably to interact with the congregation and lead us in prayer. Yet at least he was making the attempt and clearly knew that something had changed—not for aesthetic but for theological and historical reasons.

This appreciation of the locus and the depth of the shift between the “old” and the “new” seems to me foundational for any discussion of the ongoing need for clergy in our church.

Michael H. Marchal
Cincinnati, Ohio


I am also troubled by what happened in Chile (“A Time to Judge,”  February 23), and the pope’s tone deafness and failure to properly handle the situation there involving Karadima and Bishop Barros. However, I am having difficulty believing that Francis knowingly lied about not seeing any evidence of victims. He is not stupid. It would be bizarre, to say the least, if he made those statements knowing they were false. He would have known that he would be confronted with the fact of the letter given to him by Cardinal O’Malley. He would have known that he would be confronted with the findings of Chilean courts and the Vatican itself in 2011.

I think that examination of his style of leadership is important. The conundrum is that Pope Francis is rightly suspicious of the Vatican Curia and how it has failed popes and the church more generally for centuries. His desire to rely on a coterie of trusted advisers is, in one sense, wise. The Curia and their ways of handling things are among the main reasons we have a sexual-abuse crisis in the church in the first place. It is true that if the pope relies too heavily on the judgments and agendas of personal friends and trusted advisors, he is at the mercy of their biases and whims. On the other hand, if he attempts to avoid those pitfalls by relying on the “professional” protocols and processes of the Curia, he may be in even more danger. It is a real conundrum. The virulent clericalism in the Vatican likely would’ve also shielded him from properly handling the Karadima/Barros issue. Even with the involvement of an adviser as trusted as Cardinal O’Malley, the pope fell short. So, there are no guarantees.

Still, it makes me uneasy to say that the pope should use the professional processes and protocols of the Vatican. I think one reason he has done as much as he has on the sexual-abuse front is precisely because of the wise counsel of a personal friend and advisor like O’Malley. If you start to insulate the pope from such wise counsel—as all his predecessors have been insulated—you will, I believe, get an even worse result. The Vatican’s history is that corrupt prelates filtered the information to suit their own purposes.

Michael Burnett
Charlotte, N.C.


John Marty’s “Speed Up on Single Payer”  (February 9) drove me to a reread of J. Peter Nixon’s “Slow Down on Single Payer”  (November 21) because I believe that health care for all is the responsibility of a just society. Such care needs to be provided without the administrative nightmare that presently infects the U.S. system and without placing unreasonable financial burdens on the recipients of care. For these reasons, I find the plans proposed by Senator Sanders and John Marty very attractive.

But in reading the two articles I was struck by the fact that Marty does not really address the concerns expressed by Nixon. Nixon wants the Democrats to be in a position where they can get the best deal possible and that means that they must win elections that put them in the majority. Marty seems oblivious to this, going so far as to suggest that “Nixon’s alternatives are not acceptable” because they do not address the moral imperative of achieving justice in health care. Implying that the “slow down approach” is immoral does not convince me to overlook the very serious concerns that Nixon raises with respect to the “speed up approach” in achieving the goal of a just health-care system.

Neil Jensen
Baltimore, Md.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 23, 2018 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.