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Notes from readers.


I was delighted to see an article on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (“No Angel,” Christmas 2023). The characterization of Pico therein disappointed me. Renaissance theology is an understudied corner of our Catholic patrimony, filling the typical lacuna between Thomas Aquinas and Trent. The author might have used Pico to clear away the cobwebs and introduce readers to this movement by means of its most exciting representative. Instead, we were warned to ignore the starry-eyed twenty-something. Pious ears must not be made to suffer the Kabbalah and other gobbledygook.

There may be a place for prudish sanctimony, but historical analysis is not it. In the case of poor Pico, its wages are particularly occlusive. Working through Boparai’s damnatio memoriae, the reader will not discover, for instance, Pico’s passion for Aquinas and the fundamentally scholastic orientation of his “esotericism.” Unnoticed too will be the Christocentric anthropology of his Oration as well as the Heptaplus, Pico’s commentary on Genesis. One may attribute these omissions to necessary abbreviation of a complex subject. Less forgivable is the absence of Pico’s achievements for early modern Jewish erudition. He was the first major Renaissance Christian to study Hebrew and its mystical traditions seriously, inspiring several generations of theologians to do likewise (his most famous German disciple, Johann Reuchlin, protested public burnings of the Talmud). The Kabbalistic fixation was less laughable syncretism and more recognition of a hitherto marginalized corpus.

These details can, I hope, round out your readers’ impression of the Mirandolan. On a more positive note, I can wholeheartedly endorse Boparai’s association of Pico with de Lubac. He is not the first to identify Renaissance theology with ressourcement, yet the comparison merits repetition. Like Joseph Ratzinger and other intellectual lightweights, Pico naïvely hoped that a symphony of sources could do some service to the Church. Scandalous indeed.

Samuel Roberts
South Bend, Indiana

The author replies:

The life of a Ph.D. student is at once uneventful and weirdly stressful; one comes up with all sorts of ways to blow off steam. I remember how much fun it used to seem to play-act as an old-fashioned scholar, and speak in antiquated language with elaborate circumlocutions, and pretend that a bishop had just harrumphed so hard that he spilled port on my tweed jacket in the Senior Common Room after High Table.

That entire world is obviously dead, and we should probably be glad that it is: universities shouldn’t be playgrounds for babyish old men, or the young men who aspire to be like that. Even so, when I was a postgraduate there was a weird consolation in lying to myself that such a world still existed, especially when I was sitting at my laptop in unclean pajamas, not having left my bedroom in three days, and wondering why something somewhere smelled strangely of cheese. The fantasy and make-believe were comforting, in their way. Things have changed since then. I really hope they have.

I also enjoyed pedantry in those days; it gave me a rare feeling of power and control. The best pedants were all play-actors, of course. Perhaps the finest were in schools, not universities. One of my old history teachers, who is alas now dead, was a master of the art. Once he randomly brought up the term “damnatio memoriae” for no obvious reason. Of course I had to ask him what it meant. He not only told me; he also provided an elaborate disquisition on the origins of the term.

Some years later I was compelled to read all of Tacitus and Suetonius in Latin, and belatedly found out that most of my teacher’s disquisition was B.S. The term “damnatio memoriae” is nowhere to be found in ancient Roman historians. Not the ones I’ve read anyway. But my teacher spoke with such authority that I took his words on trust.

I’d like to claim that I found out the full truth in some impressive, intellectually prestigious manner. Really I just checked Wikipedia, the way everybody else does. “Damnatio memoriae” turns out to be a relatively modern term, invented by some scholar I’ve never heard of (or “of whom I have not heard,” if you prefer). It turns out that my teacher was correct in his definition after all. Or at least he agreed with Wikipedia.

But Samuel Roberts must be using a different version of Wikipedia. Surely I make clear that Pico della Mirandola was authentically a genius, and was universally beloved at one of the most splendid princely courts in history, and wrote stylish (indeed exemplary) Latin, and deserves to be the subject of a full English-language biography. I also ask readers to pray for his soul. If all that counts as “damnatio memoriae,” then someone must have silently altered Wikipedia since I last checked it.

I’m sorry to seem a “prude” about Pico, of course. That certainly wasn’t the intention. I just thought that, since Pico was the most eligible bachelor in Italy, he had no need of trying to kidnap someone else’s lawful wife, and getting eighteen men killed in the process. This might only have seemed necessary if (say) he indeed looked like the Cristofano dell’Altissimo portrait. Yet perhaps I misunderstand the term “prudish sanctimony.” In any event I shall try to uncross my legs next time I talk about these things.

My knowledge of theology doesn’t go much further than the Baltimore Catechism. It would be foolish of me to try to pronounce authoritatively on Pico’s contributions to theology, except to say that he seems demonstrably much less important in this respect than Florentine contemporaries like Marsilio Ficino and Girolamo Savonarola. Of course, I’m willing to be corrected on this, as long as someone has read all of the relevant texts, and can take the time to show me where I’ve gone wrong.

At least I’m familiar with Pico’s Heptaplus. Perhaps I should have directed readers to Crofton Black’s 2006 study Pico’s Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics. But it’s sometimes a challenge even for graduate students. If I were to try to introduce the Heptaplus to beginners myself, I’d probably need around ten thousand words to do the job responsibly. There is a lot of ground to cover, and I’m not even sure it would be worth the effort, given how little interest I have in this aspect of Pico. Anyone else is welcome to try, of course.

As for Pico’s studies of the Cabala more generally: I can’t read a word of Hebrew, and know next to nothing of the Cabala. My Jewish friends would rightly be insulted if I took it upon myself to pose as an expert on these things. The best I can do is look at Pico’s Latin writings on the subject. There aren’t many of them. In any event I wasn’t impressed when I read them. Perhaps I could have been—or at least I could have been entertained—if I’d looked more closely at the hilariously unreliable Latin translations that his Hebrew teacher Flavius Mithridates made for him.

We shouldn’t exaggerate Pico’s command of Hebrew, or his grasp of such Cabalistic writings as he was able to read. Of course his enthusiasm was infectious. But in and of itself, enthusiasm isn’t an accomplishment. I say this without strong feelings one way or the other about Johannes Reuchlin, whose treatise De Arte Cabalistica didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Should it have done something for me? Perhaps I just don’t have the stomach for esotericism.

I used to place a high value on things like “recognition of a marginalized corpus” (although I myself probably wouldn’t use the term “marginalized” for that sort of thing—it sounds like dissertation language). Then I realized that, as the holder of a doctorate, I had the same level of linguistic skill, philological competence, and general culture of someone who’d passed through the same institutions I did fifty years ago but didn’t go higher than a B.A. You wake up quickly after a shock like that, and then your priorities change.

Naturally I celebrate the brilliance of Pope Benedict XVI as much as any other reader of The Lamp does. His late Holiness was one of the only Catholic thinkers or writers of the past half-century whose work consistently impresses even non-Catholics who are hostile to the faith. The same sadly can’t be said of most of the other “major” figures in modern Catholic culture whom we’re pressured to admire. Pope Benedict, by contrast, was the real thing.

Nobody can deny the late Holy Father’s clarity of mind or freshness of thought: it shows in the elegance of his writing. If he had a dominant fault, it might have been excessive niceness.

Six decades into the willful self-destruction of Christendom (if that’s not too pompous a phrase to describe all the disasters that have followed the Second Vatican Council) we probably need less niceness and more Saint Pius X. But this kind of speculation is above my pay grade. Anyway I think Pope Benedict was a little too courteous to people who needed more of a smackdown. Civility isn’t always a virtue.

As noted above I can’t competently evaluate Henri de Lubac’s theology. That said, I can reasonably judge his work as a Latinist and an intellectual historian, and nothing that I’ve seen in these areas is obviously outstanding. In fact, some of his scholarship doesn’t seem to be of publishable standard, except maybe in a journal of “Creative Nonfiction”: it’s the sort of “literature” that every would-be poet wants to write, and nobody in the real world ever wants to read.

If you show Lubac’s book on Pico to a non-Catholic specialist, or The Drama of Atheist Humanism to an educated atheist, the result isn’t going to be applause, let alone a conversion. Instead, the questions inevitably arise: This is your “venerable” Catholic intellectual tradition? This is really the best you people can do?

Imagine preparing for a debate against a Nietzschean, and only using the arguments (such as they are) presented in The Drama of Atheist Humanism. Perhaps there’s some sort of moral or spiritual value in the total, utter humiliation that would result. I’m not a masochist, so I have no interest in finding out.

It may well be that Lubac’s theology is good enough to make up for the defects in the other works I’ve tried to read. After all, it would be a mistake to judge Saint John Henry Newman on the basis of his novels. At least I can show Cardinal Newman’s finest work to non-Catholic friends with justifiable pride, rather than excuses, apologies, special pleading, or simple embarrassment. If someone knows of anything by Henri de Lubac that would successfully pass such a test, please let me know, because after multiple attempts I’m still waiting to see that book.

✥ ✥ ✥

Matthew Walther calls the term “reconciliation” a “cloying neologism” (“Why Does Anyone Go to Mass?” Christmas 2023). Like felt banners, the Celtic Alleluia, and Marty Haugen, “reconciliation” is a frequent object of recreational execration by Catholics of traddish and conservative dispositions. Mindful that this off-handed diss makes no important contribution to the very fine essay in which it appears, I shall make four points in response.

1. “God and sinners” are said to be “reconciled” in a Christmas hymn beloved by all English-speaking Christians and sung by the children at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas—a television special that Mr. Walther once called “the greatest popular work of post-war American religious art.” Mr. Walther’s attack on “reconciliation” is thus an attack on Christmas, Peanuts, and his own artistic judgement.

2. Although the formula for absolution typically employed at Traditional Latin Mass parishes contains no form of reconcilio, the Novus Ordo formula for the same does. (Anglophone Catholics shriven at Novus Ordo parishes are accustomed to hearing that “God the Father of mercies . . . has reconciled [reconciliavit] the world to Himself.”) An attack on “reconciliation” is thus also an attack on the sacramental economy—deep down, Mr. Walther must be an atheist or a Baptist, and probably a Freemason too.

3. Perhaps Mr. Walther thinks “reconciliation” is a “cloying neologism” because it looks and sounds and can be imagined to mean as though it were cognate with “supercilious,” a term worthy of that epithet. I myself have been told, by people who seemed to be in possession of the relevant facts, that this is the case: just as a supercilious person is one who views you through his eyebrows (supercilia) or above (super) his eyelashes (cilia), to be reconciled with someone is to return to the same eyebrow or eyelash level as that person. But an (admittedly brief and amateurish) exploration of the matter on my part yielded the conclusion that although “reconciliation” derives partly from concilium, it isn’t linguistically related to cilia. So reconciliation turns out simply to be the return to a state of union, agreement, comity, or the like with another, not the return to another’s eye level. Thus “cloying neologism” seems inapt here. At any rate, the man whom Mr. Walther at least once regarded as “our greatest living essayist” wrote the following in an essay published some issues ago in The Lamp: “the ‘sublime’ is a style of majestic restraint, pitched ‘below the threshold’ (sub limine) of the temple” (David Bentley Hart, “How to Write English Prose,” Christmas 2022).

4. We should call confession “confession,” not “reconciliation,” for roughly the same reasons why we ordinarily call what you do at the gym “lifting weights” or “working out,” not (except when speaking humorously) “getting huge” or “getting jacked.”

Michael Rabenberg
Brockport, New York

The editor replies:

Mr. Rabenberg’s knowledge of my published writing is very impressive.

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