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The Strange Conversion of Wallace Stevens

things slow for summer, I’ve been back at writing the sequel to my book A Deeper Vision. That work dealt with the modern Catholic intellectual tradition, mostly outside of America. I’ve already written several hundred pages of the second volume, which will survey Americanphilosophers, theologians, historians, writers, and artists with a Catholic connection. Besides the obvious names, there are famous figures little-known for their Catholicism (often because they were late converts or had lover’s quarrels with the Church): Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Gary Cooper,  John Wayne, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, etc. I’ve been trying to understand how what I would call a failure of creativity and imagination has hindered the American reception of otherwise strong theological and philosophical arguments, and thereby contributed to our apostasies.

Relevant to all that is the strange conversion story of Wallace Stevens. Stevens was born in Pennsylvania, attended Harvard, became a lawyer, and then an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. He’s probably the greatest American poet of the twentieth century, maybe ever (Pulitzer 1955, when it still meant something.)

I’m from Connecticut, but you don’t have to be in order to appreciate the sheer brilliance of “The River of Rivers in Connecticut”:

There is a great river this side of Stygia
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,

No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction. . .
Call it, one more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

It’s uncanny how Stevens can take a natural feature – here the Connecticut River – and link it to fresh metaphysical insights.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .


The other day, Herself and I decided to beat the sweltering New York heat by going to see (in an air-conditioned theater!) a movie about New York over three days during an even greater heatwave – so hot, in fact, that the city loses power.

I remember the Northeast blackout of 2003. Before cellphone service was overwhelmed by everybody from Cincinnati to Montreal trying to call home, my wife and I managed to connect and meet on Avenue of the Americas, the entire expanse of which – from Central Park to Greenwich Village – was a river of people flooding out of the skyscrapers. It was fun. There was a kind of festival quality about it.

But it was not as enjoyable as director Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, based on the 2005 stage play written by Quiara Alegría Hudes with music and lyrics by (and I do not hesitate to call him “the great”) Lin-Manuel Miranda – he of Hamilton fame. The film’s choreographer is Christopher Scott.

I suffered through Mr. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which I did not enjoy, but In the Heights shows him as competent with the musical format as any director since Robert Wise, whose West Side Story (1961) took that Broadway sensation to new heights.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column . . .

Liberty, License, Gratitude

On the Fourth of July (even “as celebrated” on the 5th, as today), we all ought to be grateful for the freedoms of our American Revolution, imperfect though our history has been. Those freedoms have a certain shape: religion, speech, property, assembly, equality before the law, the right to bear arms – the stuff of the first Constitutional amendments and of older high-school civics classes. They made this country great, and can again.

The Founders were no fools, however, and warned frequently, lest “liberty” degenerate into “license.” Given human nature, that has happened over time, and to no small degree. But recently we’ve witnessed a shift to something much more subtle and radical. It’s not only ideologies like Critical Race Theory (CRT). We’ve replaced the old focal points of liberty – personal integrity, faith, family, community – with a trinity of postmodern substitutes: race, class, and gender.

Why, you might ask, did the Supreme Court in Fulton have to get involved a few weeks ago in a Catholic adoption agency’s following its own moral principles instead of bowing to LGBT dogma? After all, religious liberty appears in the First Amendment. It’s because many people now have been indoctrinated into thinking that sexual self-assertion is more fundamental than religious liberty, i.e., than beliefs about our duties to the Creator.

Or that a “woman’s right to choose” is more sacred than human life. Viewed clearly, such pretensions are implausible, to say the least. Their widespread acceptance reveals how powerful and pervasive the indoctrination has been while most of us were not paying attention.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

A Little Clarity on Some Big Questions

The Pew Research Center, a reliable source on American attitudes about religion, found in 2019 that 43 percent of American Catholics were “unaware” of Church teaching about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Twenty-two percent said they knew, but didn’t believe it. Only 28 percent both knew and believed the teaching. And this, as we’re often hearing these days, about what Vatican II called the “source and summit” of Christian life. (Lumen Gentium 11) No wonder that on many other matters, Catholics – even educated and publicly visible Catholics – also display a stunning casualness and ignorance about the Faith.

Take abortion. A senator from my own state of Virginia, Tim Kaine, wrote recently:

a decision by U.S. bishops to elevate issues of human sexuality, however important, above all others seems contrary to the Gospel. No reading of the life of Jesus would suggest these issues as his primary, or even secondary, concern. His towering message is about love of neighbor as oneself with a special focus on the poor, sick, hungry, marginalized.

Kaine spent time in Honduras as a young man with a Jesuit mission, so he can’t be entirely faulted (as many other Catholic politicians can be) for thinking that Jesus’ concern for others only means voting for ever-larger government spending on social “programs.” But Kaine can be tasked – again like many others – for not knowing what he’s talking about.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

That Ceiling in Rome

That one in the Sistine Chapel, obviously – the Volta della Cappella Sistina.

The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1480 during the papacy of Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere), after a three-year construction. The chapel is named after Sixtus, whose papal name is Sisto in Italian.

But the thing that makes the Chapel famous (artistically, culturally, historically) is principally its decoration by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was not the only artist who painted in the Chapel, but his work – the ceiling and his “The Last Judgment” painted behind the altar – dominates the space.

Seeing is believing, but when you see it, when you stand in that great space and look up at the ceiling, you almost can’t believe it. When Goethe visited Rome in the 1780s, he wrote, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor (“David,” “Pietà,” “Moses”) – maybe the best who ever worked in marble – and he was reluctant to take on the commission from Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere). In fact, he thought – and it may have been true – that some of his rivals had promoted him for the Sistine Chapel work in hopes he would fail, because working on so vast and difficult a project in a medium that was not his forte might well become a fool’s errand.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column . . .

Our American Catholic Rubicon

Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. bishops (166-58) voted Friday to prepare a document about Catholics receiving Holy Communion. The draft will then be debated and voted on at their annual November meeting. The bishops’ conference doesn’t have authority to tell specific politicians such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi not to come forward at Mass (though individual bishops may). Which is unfortunate, because the Church has reached a kind of Rubicon in America.

The moment is unprecedented. Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, Oregon, had it exactly right: “We’ve never had a situation like this where the executive is a Catholic president opposed to the teaching of the church.” Several bishops – Gomez, Naumann, Daly, Hying, and others – also spoke up boldly. And SF Archbishop Cordileone (“lion-heart”) put it bluntly: “Our credibility is on the line. . . .The eyes of the whole country are on us right now.”

It’s no surprise that a clash has arisen over the reception and very nature of the Eucharist now that we have a progressive Catholic presidency. We already know that a majority of American Catholics think – if they think about it at all, since three-quarters never attend Mass – that the Eucharist is not the Body and Blood of Christ. Forces hostile to the Church are happy to cite that fact.

To allow leaders – at the highest levels of government now – who call themselves Catholics to continue to vigorously promote abortion (forget the “personally opposed” of days gone by), homosexuality, and curbs on religious liberty means that what little public influence the Church still retains is on a fast track to oblivion.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

Dear Bishops: Clear Your Minds of Cant – and Can’t

The American bishops will begin their regular June meeting (virtually) the day after tomorrow. High on the agenda: a “Catholic” president who not only flouts teachings on abortion, sex, and marriage but whose administration is hell-bent on curtailing religious liberty when it resists the sexual revolution. Or in formal language: the question of “Eucharistic coherence.” For the uninitiated, this abstract term raises a simple question: Should persons like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and hundreds of others who promote the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents yearly, and give grave public scandal, present themselves to receive Communion?

The answer is: No.

The term “Eucharistic coherence” was first used in a 2007 document issued by the Latin American bishops at Aparecida, Brazil. The chair of the drafting committee: Jorge Bergoglio, then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis. The Aparecida Document (click here) says clearly and forcefully:

We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility. Hence, in response to government laws and provisions that are unjust in the light of faith and reason, conscientious objection should be encouraged. We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals. (¶ 436)

What answer will our bishops give to this very question?

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

Every Man a Monk

The young curé of Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest (1937) ruminates about monks (Carthusian and Trappist):

What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!

The cloister has always separated us from such men (and women), but once upon a time, their presence was nonetheless powerful.

Writing of medieval monasticism, historian Friedrich Heer insists the monk’s pursuit of perfection was influential at all levels of society: “This is something of far-reaching political and social importance. . . .All the hopes, prayers and demands the medieval Christian set on the monks and the monasteries were centered on one expectation: that they would achieve the complete sanctity of a perfect Christian life.”

Of course, perfection is not given to any man. But an aspiration to perfection – to the highest possible standards in every aspect of life – is possible.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column . . .

This Day

The Catholic Thing was founded the week after Memorial Day in 2008, but in eight of the following dozen years, we’ve published a column, either by Robert Royal or me, about remembrance of those fallen in combat. This makes nine.

Our view, being Roman Catholic, is often global, but we are Americans, and we are patriotic. In a column I wrote last year (not on Memorial Day, but one week before), I quoted St. Thomas Aquinas in the context of faddish “woke” anti-Americanism (obviously not what Aquinas had in mind c. 1260 A.D.):

man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country. (ST IIa IIae, Q, 101, a.1)

That makes me recall the famous Arnold Friberg painting (The Prayer at Valley Forge) of Gen. George Washington kneeling, seeking God’s guidance in the making of America.

My first foray into writing about Memorial Day came in 2009, with a column I wrote concurrent with my older son’s graduation from West Point. Many readers wrote to me, with gentle reproof, that my column was inappropriate, given that the last Monday in May is devoted to remembering those fallen in battle and not to those who may be likely to head into battle – about the dead, in other words, not the living. Yes, but I had also written this about the last cadet parade before graduation:

The music played by the [Army] band echoed around the barracks arches, so that you thought you were hearing the answering sound of marches played by ghosts, welcoming the Class of 2009 into the Long Gray Line that reaches back to 1802 and beyond.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column . . .

Every Day Is Commencement Day

COVID-19 has taken its toll on all of us and there are things about it, as there are about many things in our lives, that we may never understand. But I keep reminding myself, and others, that God does things – even just allows things we find puzzling – for a purpose. He intends some good, probably many goods, to come out even from something as mysterious as a global pandemic.

So, the question arises: Why all that for us just now? Lots of people these days think that diseases are just part of the way things are. Or, even worse, that they are somehow our fault for alleged “sins against nature.”

Dr. Royal receives an honorary doctorate from Thomas More College

But pandemics and plagues have also, at different times in history, been related to the divine. If you have been to Rome, you have doubtless seen the statue of the Archangel Michael on top of Castel Sant’Angelo. In 590, Pope Gregory the Great, according to later legends, saw him sheathing his sword on top of the castle, a sign that – after many prayers and processions through the streets of Rome – the plague, which had been devastating the city and all of Europe, was coming to an end.

Whatever the truth of the legend, we know plainly from Scripture that such phenomena can, oddly, be a means of healing. God’s chastisements are not capricious or vindictive, but medicinal. The Tower of Babel was destroyed, and the people became divided in their speech, as a remedy for hubris, their arrogant belief that they could reach heaven, all on their own – the usual human temptation to think that we can become God, an illusion, that never goes away.

Click here to read the rest of Professor Royal’s column . . .