(April 2000)

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 2-8.

Are Women Inferior?

It appears that Marie I. George, in "What Aquinas Really Said About Women" (December 1999), agrees with Thomas’ belief in females’ lesser intelligence relative to males. The concluding sentence says we women "must avoid yielding to impulses of envy, but strive to love whatever littleness we may have due to our sex, as God loves it." Professor George sounds positively Freudian. I think it is good that this brand of Christianity is finally coming out of the closet on the issue. Some organizations have tried to cloud the facts. The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, for example, while advocating very strict gender roles (which would probably preclude the female author of this article from being a tenured professor), claims that submission does not imply inferiority of intelligence, only of status and priority.

Since Prof. George does not take exception to any of Aquinas’ arguments, I will. First, Aquinas says women are inferior in body, intelligence, and soul. Of course women live longer, so physical weakness depends on what type of bodily strength one is talking about. However, the main issue is woman’s intelligence. Aquinas claims that since men are called to be authority figures over women (particularly in marriage), males must be more intelligent. In addition, women are "inferior in form."

Lastly, Aquinas must not have thought motherhood requires much intelligence, since it is performed solely by women. This journal and others like it routinely criticize feminists for supposedly saying only stupid women are stay–at–home mothers. Apparently these radical feminists have allies in conservative Christians and Thomas Aquinas.

Tracey Kyckelhahn
Austin, Texas

I had to read Marie I. George’s article twice. Surely, I thought, she was joking. Nope. She meant it. She closes her article by saying: "God wants inequalities in rational beings, and if we love God, we should conform our will to His."

St. Paul thought women were inferior; Aristotle thought women were the "imperfect" principle in reproduction; and St. Thomas Aquinas "took female intellectual inferiority to be plain enough from experience." And Marie George feels we can learn something about God from this.

I’m sorry, Professor George. What I learn from this is simple: Aristotle and Paul and Thomas—they were all wrong! Flat out. Don’t make excuses for them. They were male chauvinistic creatures of their day. (Yes, even St. Paul.) All three were brilliant in other areas, but when it comes to women, they flunk.

Women are not—de facto—inferior. Count on it. (Ask my wife!)

Bill Cummings
Forsyth, Georgia

Marie I. George replies:

Aquinas maintains that women taken as a group are less intelligent than men. One cannot logically infer from this that he necessarily thinks that being a good mother requires but little intelligence. And in fact he never maintains that women or mothers are dumb.

I do not know exactly what Tracey Kyckelhahn means when she says that my exposition of Aquinas sounds Freudian. I do know that one of the female doctors of the Catholic Church expresses the same view as Aquinas concerning the inequality of creatures (the quotation might also be of interest to Bill Cummings):

For a long time I asked myself why the good Lord had preferences, why all souls did not receive an equal degree of graces. . . . Jesus deigned to instruct me about this mystery. He put before my eyes the book of nature and I understood that all the flowers that he created are beautiful, and that the éclat of the rose and the whiteness of the lily did not detract from the perfume of the little violet and the ravishing simplicity of the daisy. . . . I understood that if all the little flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose its spring adornment, and the fields would no longer be dotted with little flowers. . . . So also is it in the world of souls that is the garden of Jesus. He wanted to create great saints who could be compared to lilies and to roses; but he also created smaller ones who should be content to be daisies or violets destined to rejoice the good Lord when He lowers his gaze towards His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, to be what He wants us to be (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manuscrits autobiographiques, Introduction).

The World of Harry Potter

Kudos to Alan Jacobs on his fine analysis of the Harry Potter books and phenomenon ("Harry Potter’s Magic," January). His discussion of magic versus science, and the observation that they were originally much closer in concept and were both attempts to control our environment is, to my mind, spot on. I would question only his observation that Rowling resembles J. R. R. Tolkien as a literary artist.

A resemblance, perhaps. But the chasm between their skill is vast. Tolkien’s achievement almost beggars description, and I’ve long thought that as much loved as he is today, it will be a long time before the enormity of his accomplishment is fully appreciated. Rowling tells an excellent story—a prime requisite for a successful author—and has that indefinable and unpredictable ability to captivate readers both young and old. But her inventions in her secondary world cannot compare to Tolkien’s, who begins with a creation story (the beautiful "Ainulindale" of The Silmarillion), and then proceeds to people his creation with beings of different kinds, entire languages, an entire geography, detailed histories, and on and on.

The invention in Rowling cannot compare with this. Here is, for me at any rate, the acid test. I would and do reread Tolkien again and again. I have not, and almost certainly will not, reread Rowling.

Philip B. Rose
Department of Mathematics
Carroll College
Helena, Montana

Everything positive that Alan Jacobs said in his review of the Harry Potter series was true, but I’m surprised he missed the main problem.

He posits that, historically, magic and science were parallel efforts to control the physical realm, the correct answer becoming apparent only in retrospect. An interesting point, but one that relies heavily on a discussion of medieval alchemy, not what most modern young readers are likely to think of when they read "magic"—precisely because alchemy (in the benign sense of a nonscientific process that did not involve the summoning of supernatural forces) did not work.

In dismissing the Christian objections to the series, Professor Jacobs fails to engage the view of magic repeatedly expressed in the Bible, that there are two, and only two, sources of supernatural (i.e., nonscientific) power: God and demons. "Magic" is the word used to describe supernatural power that does not come from God—if it is of God we call it a "miracle." Ancient texts indicate that magic was performed by invoking the secret personal name of the god: even in the Bible, no miracle (except creation) occurs before God reveals His personal name ("I Am Who I Am") to Moses. Thus Rowling’s unpronounceable incantations would be, in ancient terms, (partly) the secret name of a god (or demon).

There is also the purpose for which supernatural forces are used: it is interesting to contrast Jesus’ temptations in the desert to use the supernatural for personal purposes with the world of magic that Rowling creates. Jesus rejected Satan’s suggestion to create food; Rowling (apparently) has all food created through magic—and dishes are washed by magic too! Jesus declined the opportunity to fly (by jumping off the Temple and being borne up by angels); Rowling’s witches and wizards fly on brooms for sport. Jesus would not have created self–shuffling cards. In Rowling’s world, the supernatural is used for both good and evil to be sure, but mostly it is used for personal convenience and pleasure.

When I read the first two books to my children, I realized that they created in me a strong desire to go to Hogwarts School of Magic—not to glorify God and further His ends, but rather to make supernatural power my own for my own gratification. The original sin was committed for the motive of wanting to become like a god.

Brock Fowler
Rockville, Maryland

Alan Jacobs’ review of the Harry Potter stories attempts to reassure wary Christian readers that, despite the potentially serious concerns about the central role of witchcraft in the stories, the adventures of Harry Potter are really just good fun. While Professor Jacobs makes a number of valid points, I must say that I am not entirely reassured by his argument. I agree that Joanne Rowling has crafted an entertaining story that addresses real (if somewhat fantastically presented) moral choices. I further agree that the presentation of witchcraft in the story is far from sinister. In contrast to Prof. Jacobs, however, I believe that the books still raise significant issues of concern for Christian parents—not because of a glorification of witchcraft but because of a glorification of elitism that is fundamentally in opposition to the Christian worldview.

In the Harry Potter stories, Rowling has not, as Prof. Jacobs suggests, created a fantasy world with its own rules and history, but rather embedded a fantasy world in our own world. The real world, the world in which we all actually live and make choices, is the world of the "Muggles" that coexists with the world of the wizards. Rowling presents Muggles in the most negative possible light. Harry’s Muggle relatives (the Dursleys) are oafish, cruel, stupid, and so completely devoid of human compassion that they are easily dismissed as pathetic and irrelevant. In contrast, Rowling’s wizard characters exhibit the full range of human personalities from good to evil, simple to complex, humble to proud, wise to foolish. Readers naturally identify with Harry and with the wizard–world, not because wizards represent anything particularly virtuous, but because they are depicted as the "real people" against which the Dursleys of the Muggle–world can only be seen as two–dimensional and unpleasant caricatures. Rowling also presents the wizard–world as a far more interesting place than that of ordinary Muggles. Wizards have magic. They can do things that the Muggles cannot understand or accept. Muggles fear magic, even good magic, because they are too stupid and small–minded to understand wizard ways.

The idea of a secret world of magic appeals to our sense of status and distinction. We all long, in some way, to be part of an elite group. This longing is particularly strong for children, who often revel in the notion that they are so special they cannot possibly be understood by anyone—least of all by their Muggle parents. While separating people into Muggles and wizards is a well–trodden path in the human psyche, it is a path that is fraught with the risk of elitism. One can almost hear the condescending wizardly sniff that "Muggles are simply not our kind of people."

M. L. Condic
Salt Lake City, Utah

Alan Jacobs replies:

My thanks to Philip B. Rose for his compliments, but I would have him note that I did not compare Rowling to Tolkien in terms of aesthetic (or moral) excellence; I merely noted a likeness in imaginative purpose.

I cannot think of an appropriate reply to Brock Fowler’s letter. I suppose I could point out that what he calls "Rowling’s unpronounceable incantations" are in fact readily pronounceable Latin, or Latin–derived, words ("Expelliarmus," "Lumos") and are mere grammatical imperatives, rather than the secret names of demons; but perhaps that would not address his main point. Let me confine myself to saying that Mr. Fowler’s censures are driven by an underlying principle—i.e., what Jesus did not do must not be represented positively in books—that would cause us to repudiate not only Joanne Rowling’s books, but the entire literature of fantasy (including of course Tolkien), and perhaps literary fiction tout court. Indeed, I’m not sure whether any of the arts would easily survive so fierce a stricture. However, the proposition that "Jesus would not have created self–shuffling [playing] cards" surely calls for serious theological debate.

M. L. Condic writes that "One can almost hear the condescending wizardly sniff that ‘Muggles are simply not our kind of people.’" I would amend that sentence by striking the "almost," since one hears that idea quite clearly expressed in the Harry Potter books—but not by Harry or by Joanne Rowling. Instead, those are the very sentiments expressed by the loathsome Draco Malfoy (translation: "Dragon Bad–Faith"), Harry’s nemesis, and by Malfoy’s father. Both of them regularly proclaim their contempt for Muggles and for wizards descended from Muggles, including Harry’s friend Hermione Granger (whose parents are thoroughly unmagical dentists) and Harry himself (whose mother’s parents were Muggles). Far from encouraging elitism, Rowling strongly condemns it by associating it with some of the nastiest characters in her books.

The Pope and the Jews

Having read William D. Rubinstein’s brilliant work The Myth of Rescue, I couldn’t wait to read his review of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (January). I was not disappointed: unlike most other reviewers of Cornwell, Professor Rubinstein knows fact from fiction and doesn’t hesitate to detail Cornwell’s errors. Though some might think it harsh to label the book a "malign exercise in defamation and character assassination," this is really an understatement.

In the fall of 1999, when Hitler’s Pope came out, all we heard was that Cornwell was a "devout Catholic." Yet on the book jacket of Cornwell’s The Hiding Places of God, published in 1991, he was touted as "a lapsed Catholic." Indeed, on page twenty–six of this book, Cornwell writes how he has become "increasingly convinced that human beings were morally, psychologically, and materially better off without a belief in God." But the clincher is this: "As I entered middle age nothing short of a miracle could have shaken these firm convictions."

If Cornwell is to be believed, then he experienced a miracle in the mid–nineties and never told a soul about this momentous event. Either that or he is a pathological liar who hates the papacy and is hell–bent on destroying the honorable legacy of Pope Pius XII.

William A. Donohue
Catholic League
New York, New York

I am glad Professor William D. Rubinstein challenges some stereotypes concerning Catholics and Jews in his review of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. He does, however, perpetuate some others by stating that Poland was a land of "intense anti–Semitism."

The alleged intensity of anti–Semitism in Poland had much to do with the logic of numbers. In prewar Poland, one in ten citizens was Jewish (3.1 million Jews in a population of 32 million). In Belgium and Holland (two countries that Rubenstein mentions), there was one Jew per ninety–three inhabitants (Belgium) or one Jew per seventy inhabitants (Holland).

The comparative density of the Jewish population in Poland created incomparably more opportunities for conflict, for Jewish bitterness, and for Catholic bitterness as well. Additionally, it was much easier to protect one citizen out of seventy or ninety–three than it was to shelter one out of ten.

It should also be remembered that the Holocaust began after two full years of World War II on the Eastern front. In Poland during those early years it was not Jews but Catholics who were the target of Nazi and Soviet murderous policies.

Ewa M. Thompson
Department of Slavic Studies
Rice University
Houston, Texas

William D. Rubinstein’s review of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope is more polemic than it is review. Cornwell’s work is characterized as a "malign exercise in defamation and character assassination." Further, as an academic expert in modern history, Rubinstein finds that Cornwell "misread and misunderstood Pacelli’s actions." But for a reviewer with a Jewish–sounding name who cites "authorities" who disagree with Cornwell, a Catholic critic of the Church, this is disingenuous. It is one thing to argue that the Pope had defenders. This fact does not per se make the defenders or the critics correct. (Pinchas Lapide, for example, is an idiosyncratic, ideologically driven scholar.) A full assessment of the Church’s role in the Holocaust can take place only after a full disclosure of the relevant evidence, and the Church has failed to make such a disclosure.

(Rabbi) Alan J. Yuter
Congregation Israel
Springfield, New Jersey

William D. Rubinstein replies:

Given the controversial nature of this subject, I am not surprised at the range of responses. I agree with much that Professor Ewa M.Thompson says. Polish anti–Semitism (and all other forms) is an extremely complicated subject. As she suggests, it is often viewed in a narrow way that acts as a barrier to understanding. Poles (along with others in Central and Eastern Europe) regarded Jews as comprising a grossly disproportionate share of the economic and professional elites of their backward country, and as being disproportionately involved in radical and modernist political and cultural movements. This perception was, almost certainly, the main reason for the endemic nature of hostility to the Jews in inter–war Eastern Europe, so often described as the "zone of anti–Semitism." As all Zionist theorists of the time readily admitted, this critique contained a major element of truth whose enunciation, post–Holocaust, has become virtually taboo. However much the Jewish situation was unique, this form of anti–Semitism was strikingly similar to other forms of hostility to "entrepreneurial minorities" in societies where there are no Jews—for instance the treatment of Indians in East Africa in the 1970s or of the Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia today. Jewish population statistics do coincide, albeit loosely, with the amount and virulence of anti–Semitism in the inter–war period, although cultural and economic factors were in my view more important.

I agree with Rabbi Alan J. Yuter that the Vatican should make available all of its documents relating to the Holocaust, and that its secrecy has been counterproductive to its own interests. Nevertheless, the salient and central point—whether it would have been realistically possible, by pursuing a different strategy, for Pius XII or the Catholic Church to have saved more Jews from the Nazi death machine—does not depend on the release of new documents. My contention was that the Vatican’s policies may well have saved as many Jews as it was possible to have done, and that a radically different policy might well have cost more Jewish lives. I fail to see what having a "Jewish–sounding name" has to do with the accuracy of this contention.

I am grateful to William A. Donohue for his kind remarks. Cornwell has obviously trawled the archives for everything and anything negative he could find on Pacelli, with little or no balance, and "character assassination" is not too strong a term for the result. To reiterate a point I made in my review, Cornwell has virtually nothing to say, for instance, on Pacelli’s championing of the Christian Democratic movement in post–1945 Europe. Strangely for "Hitler’s Pope," this was the first mass conservative political movement in the history of continental Europe to be totally committed to democracy and to lack any hint whatever of authoritarianism, ultra–nationalism, or anti–Semitism.

Millennial Hope

The Millennium Symposium, "What Can We Reasonably Hope For?" (January), made for instructive reading. So, too, did Richard John Neuhaus’ "American History and Theological Nerve," the brief Public Square article in the same issue. Father Neuhaus’ article touched on an issue that was largely missing from the symposium: postmillennial theology.

Fr. Neuhaus noted that postmillennial expectations (and chutzpah?) played a major part in the early and middle years of American history. He also noted that postmillennial expectations, somewhat like Christianity itself, have receded dramatically in recent decades. This was clear in the Symposium, where only one participant touched upon a potential place for postmillennial thought.

Peter J. Leithart wrote that "surely good things can come from Kenya and South Korea." Exactly. In fact, one might well add China. Twenty years, fifty years, a century from now, more Christians will speak Chinese than English. It may already be so.

The work of the Holy Spirit throughout history is dedicated to bringing the blessings of Christian thought and life to the nations. Not just to the Western Church. And not just to, or through, the United States. The Holy Spirit may well discard the U.S., like a spent arrow, in the conflict of the ages.

We should not be so worldly minded as to think that in the new millennium the Holy Spirit will do little, and that not well. Quite the contrary. We should expect God to continue to move mountains (if slowly) to bring glory to His Son. That is postmillennial theology, in a nutshell.

Warren Ted Hinds
Maysville, Georgia

I was disappointed that none of the participants in the Millennium Symposium made clear the first thing every Christian can hope for—the everlasting nature of the gospel promises! "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31). "Behold, I am with you even to the end of the world" (Matthew 28:20). The gospel message is, was, and will be the first thing we who are called to follow Christ can "reasonably hope for." All else, all gloomy prognostications, all church reformation, all political orders, takes second place—amounting to little more than the temporal clothes the Bride may have to wear before her wedding. Our Bridegroom, we may be sure, will provide us appropriate garments in due season.

Jan Peter Dembinski
North Pomfret, Vermont
Unfair Review

Your unsigned review of my book, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld (Spence, 1999), seems to have been based on a brief perusal of the introduction and the table of contents (Briefly Noted, December 1999). While the review claims that the book is too short to establish its conclusion, it seems to have been much too long a read for the attention span of the reviewer. Furthermore, I do not hold the position, falsely attributed to me by the reviewer, that nihilism arises from "liberal democracy" but rather from a certain form of liberal democracy. I could elaborate on this and other points but I already did that—in the book.

Thomas Hibbs
Department of Philosophy
Boston College

The Mystery of Being

As an unrepentant dualist, I think Richard John Neuhaus’ understandable exuberance in the face of Being’s awesome mystery has carried him a bit far in his hypothesized equating of Spirit and Matter ("Science, Matter, Spirit, and Three–Card Monte," January). The thought of a metaphysical "bridge too far" comes to mind.

The bottom line is that all material things, whether Bishop Berkeley refuting stones or quantum fluctuations, are characterized by the strictly limited intelligibility of entities that are only parts of the "Fullness of Being." In short, "A" can’t be both "A" and "B" at the same time unless we’re prepared to surrender the principle of noncontradiction and thereby legitimate newer versions of the game that substitute "blobs of tissue" for pre–born children.

It’s only because we have a nonmaterial or spiritual component, enabling us to somehow simultaneously become, in the act of knowing, both a stone as well as a blade of grass, that we can distinguish between them, as well as choose life over death in the really high stakes games that increasingly confront us.

Thomas J. Kleist
Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
Is America Pro–Choice?

Richard John Neuhaus notes (While We’re At It, January) a recent USA Today/Gallup poll reportedly showing that pro–choicers have declined to 48 percent. How, then, to explain why Maine voters turned out in record numbers last November 2 to defeat by 55 to 45 percent an initiative aimed at outlawing "partial–birth" abortions? The explanation, I think, is that whatever diverse opinions Americans hold about abortion under various circumstances, when push comes to shove most would rather have individual women, rather than government, making decisions regarding problem pregnancies.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Kansas City, Missouri

Fair Play for Witches

I have just read the item regarding Witches/Wiccans in the U.S. Army (While We’re At It, January).

While I have no problem with Richard John Neuhaus failing to see eye–to–eye with the Pagan community on theological issues, there were some things reported in the article that simply aren’t true. I am quite sure that Father Neuhaus was not intentionally spreading lies about another faith. If he had his facts straight about the Wiccan faith, and still disagreed with it/us, I would not be concerned. However, I feel it is imperative to correct the misconceptions he has about some things, so that further errors are not presented as fact to your readers.

Yes, Wicca (or Witchcraft, if you prefer), is now a nationally recognized religion. It is an earth–based faith, very similar to the Native American belief system, which honors the cycles of the seasons reflected in ourselves and the world around us. It teaches respect for oneself and others, spiritual growth, and tolerance. Pagans believe that there is no one "right" way to achieve spiritual enlightenment, or find a personal connection to the Creator—all people must find the path that speaks to their heart. Therefore, we do not seek to convert others to our faith, as we don’t believe in proselytizing. Cults usually have a very strong focus on converting others and keeping them "in the fold," so to speak. We do neither. Anyone who chooses to become a practicing Wiccan may do so, and those who find that this faith is not for them may leave and seek enlightenment elsewhere.

Heather Fairfield
Canton, Massachusetts

Who’s Responsible for Hell?

It doesn’t seem to me that Richard John Neuhaus is making much of an effort to understand what might be motivating Dr. R. Albert Mohler’s displeasure with the papal statement concerning responsibility for eternal damnation (While We’re At It, January). He even seems to be accusing Dr. Mohler of charging God Himself with evil. The gravity with which he warns Dr. Mohler to retract his remarks indicates as much. But it seems to me that nothing could have been further from Dr. Mohler’s mind.

Isn’t there a confusion here over what sort of responsibility one has in mind when one says that God is responsible for the eternal damnation of some human beings? If we are thinking of moral culpability when we say "responsible," then of course God is in no way responsible for anyone’s damnation, and I feel sure that Dr. Mohler would agree with this. But if we mean merely that God is in some sense active in this process, then it doesn’t seem problematic at all to say that He is responsible. A useful analogy can be made here to the case in which someone is jailed by the State. Moral responsibility rests entirely with the offending individual, but the State is active in sending the individual to jail, and it is reasonable to say that the State is in some sense responsible for the incarceration of that individual.

John T. Mullen
South Bend, Indiana

RJN replies:

The "gravity" of my admonition to Dr. R. Albert Mohler in response to his ludicrously hyperbolic assertion that statements of John Paul II "reverse nearly two thousand years of Christian teaching" was, at least partly, tongue in cheek. I assume that Dr. Mohler, along with all orthodox Christians, knows that God is not at fault for the damnation of anyone.


Oops. Eric Chevlen’s poem in the February issue was mistakenly titled "Marriage Anagram." It is not an anagram but an acrostic. The mistake was ours, and we apologize to readers who spent the past month trying to put the 403 letters of poem into a new order.