The article on Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde’s spiritual struggle to reconcile his Catholic convictions about abortion with the demands of his public legal responsibilities (“A Christian in the Office of Constitutional Judge,” January) calls to mind the parallel struggle of many German bishops and citizens to make sense out of the 1992 German law concerning abortion and the Vatican reaction to their participation in the public program. The law allows a woman to have a legal abortion in Germany within three months of conception if she can produce a certificate to show that she has received counseling at one of the country’s 1,600 pregnancy centers. More than two hundred of these centers were run by the Catholic Church, which allowed the opportunity to offer those seeking abortion not only information but also physical, psychological, occupational, and financial help. The certificates made abortion penalty-free, but they did not cause or persuade any woman to have an abortion. Some Catholics rejected this interpretation despite the claim of many bishops that 25 percent of the women counseled in their centers decided to continue their pregnancies.

Notwithstanding the resistance of these bishops, Pope John Paul II ordered German bishops to close all centers run by Catholics where certificates were issued. Bishop Franz Kamphaus was the only bishop to get permission to continue his counseling center where more than half of the women seeking abortions decided to continue their pregnancies.

In reaction to the Vatican prohibition, the Association of Donum Vitae (“Gift of Life”) was formed in 1999 with its own leadership and support. The pro-life effects were noteworthy, yet the Vatican continues to impede their actions.

The pastoral intervention of the bishops and later by Donum Vitae complemented Böckenförde’s efforts. At these Catholic centers, a woman and her “fertilized ovum” acknowledged by Böckenförde could receive compassion and respect. Here their dignity became real and practical and no less spiritual. Love transcends the law.

William Paul Haas
Glastonbury, Conn.



Paul Baumann did a disservice to your readers who have yet to read former President Barack Obama’s memoir (“Looking Down from the High Ground,” February). The reviewer labels this book “a very tough read.” Hardly. The book is fabulous, an easy read with great details and background on many of the challenges in Obama’s first term. Not only is the book complete with details on issues, but Obama also shows a consistent respect for everyone who assisted him in the issues he faced; he even pays respect to the White House butler who clears his table.

The book deserves a better review. It’s hard work to write a book of this caliber; it’s easier yet to be a critic.

Jane Galvin



Susan Bigelow Reynolds makes many excellent points on the vague and often flawed framing of the pandemic in the language of war (“A People, Not an Army,” February). Yet there is some overlap. The Defense Production Act, which the former president avoided fully enacting, could have saved countless lives. The casualty rates, as in most wars, disproportionately affected people of color. But unlike war, galvanizing cathartic events that acknowledge the scale of the loss and suffering have been largely absent. And most tragically, perhaps, social cohesion and resolve in facing a common enemy was relentlessly subverted for political advantage. As the Romans noted, “The first casualty of war is truth.” And now, a pandemic-ravaged country must crawl out from the pall of manufactured untruth.

R. Jay Allain
Orleans, Mass.



What a rich harvest have been your winter issues! Denys Turner’s treatment of Julian of Norwich (“All Will Be Well,” February) does more than respectfully read Hume and put Plantagina in his place. If the (accumulating) Christian story enables its believers to make coherent sense and meaning of their world and life, as do traditional peoples’ origin stories, then they (and all Abrahamic faithful) can thank God for such grace without feeling the need to claim even more for their revelations.

This magnifies Luke Timothy Johnson’s reviews of Christian Smith on atheism and Robert C. Koerpel on Maurice Blondel (“Religion Booknotes,” January). Of course atheistic humanists realistically need something like the Abrahamic (or Vedantic) story for a grounding premise, but hardly need to apologize for that. As Morten Høi Jensen’s Camus says (“Without God or Reason,” January), “the mind, when it reaches its limits, must make a judgment and choose its conclusions,” even if it chooses values from its own (or other) origin stories. Christian Smith’s “yes” to humans’ having a natural capacity for religion recognizes our inclination toward understanding ourselves in some coherent narrative, combined with an aptitude for ritual community. Younger generations seem ready to appreciate even their own traditions’ still-resonant stories and symbols.

The (Christian) dynamism of ritual community is wonderfully wrought by Jeff Reimer’s treatment of For the Time Being (“What Comes After,” December). I read his Auden as urging believers “neither to abandon” their story “nor to seek to re-enter it” via forced factualism—an escapist “denial of our contingency”—but to account for the world “as it is.” Thus, with Julian, we can be grateful for our origin story’s continuing power “in the meantime.”

Thank you, Commonweal, for sustained nourishment in retirement!

Stephen M. Johnson
Verona, N.J.



Denys Turner’s masterful piece on the problem of evil (“All Will Be Well,” February) challenged me to consider my position. I ruminated on Kant, Eckhardt, Barth, Camus—you name it. Then a single line from my wife’s Little Book of Zen leapt out at me: “Barn’s burned down. Now I can see the moon.”

I don’t know why there is pain and suffering and evil in the world, but I do know—if we’re quiet enough and patient enough with it—there is opportunity there. And therein, I think, lies God.

Philip Taft
Hopewell, N.J.



I started to read John Paul Rollert’s article to see what I might learn about empathy (“Going to Extremes,” February). But his account of the Stanislavsky-Meisner approach to acting sent me to a rather different place. When he quoted Meisner’s description of acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” I recognized the challenge I face every day when presiding at liturgy. Ideally, when celebrating Mass, I should be fully present to God and to his people. In reality, it is rarely so. So daily I struggle to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances”—not merely to recite my lines, but to deliver them as if I were really where I am not. This may be one appeal of the Tridentine liturgy for both priests and people: the style of the celebration conceals from the people (and perhaps from the celebrant himself) the gap between where we are and where we are pretending to be (without any intent to deceive). Maybe acting should be a required course in the seminary, so that we might better and more honestly play our part as presiders in liturgy. Here, the danger of entering too fully into the role one is playing might actually be a blessing.

Fr. Dohrman Byers
Mount Orab, Ohio

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Published in the April 2021 issue: View Contents
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