(This article appeared in the online magazine the New Pantagruel, unfortunately no longer in existence).
Resurrecting Caelum et Terra
It is difficult, in retrospect, not to think of the end of the Cold War as a missed opportunity for orthodox Catholicism in America. The dominant school of Catholic political and cultural reflection since the collapse of the Iron Curtain has been of a neoconservative or neoliberal cast, orthodox in doctrinal and moral matters, progressive in most economic and some political ones (no matter that this progressivism is known as conservatism). Tracey Rowland, in her recent Culture and the Thomist Tradition, helpfully affixes the label “Whig Thomism” to this school. The adjective captures its flavor, politics, and perhaps even its intellectual antecedents nicely, even if the noun may credit its program with a philosophical precision to which it rarely ascends.
One way to characterize the defects of the Whig Thomist project is to understand it as a failure to transcend the dichotomous categories of the Cold War, during which we were regularly reminded—by intellectuals and politicians alike—that our choice was simple: freedom or totalitarianism, capitalism or socialism, statism or individualism. Thus, though its first issue appeared in February 1990, not long after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, First Things, the flagship journal of the Whig Thomism, has nevertheless drawn on the dominant anticommunist narrative of the Cold War which holds that the Soviet defeat meant, necessarily, the triumph of liberal democracy–emphasis on liberal. On this reading, even John Paul II (as Richard John Neuhaus has argued) is a liberal, or at least sympathetic to liberalism properly understood, and the importance of his pontificate has been to prepare the way for a rapprochement between Catholicism and the liberal tradition.i For Neuhaus and his fellow Whig Thomists, there is no going back from this liberalism, no viable alternative.ii There is only an argument—a vitally important one, to be sure—as to what precisely this victory of liberalism means, especially for religion.
The Whig Thomists have, to their credit, voiced a number of misgivings about contemporary culture. But they have simultaneously refrained from undertaking any sort of deep critique of Western liberalism, arguing instead that the rejuvenation of religious faith can leaven liberal democracy sufficiently for its institutions and assumptions to allow for Christian flourishing. The important thing is that there not be a “naked public square” (Neuhaus’s coinage) denuded of specifically religious content. As for the basic tenets of liberalism and its economic manifestation, capitalism, the Whig Thomists have had few qualms. In fact, they have typically argued that the American system of “democratic capitalism” is best for all concerned, including the Church, which can thrive in the new dispensation as it never could have under the only truly thinkable alternative, state socialism. Indeed, the liberal state acts as a guarantor against the Church’s committing again the authoritarian blunders that stain its past.
Unfortunately, the Whig Thomists’ understanding of liberal democracy as a praeparitio evangelii has meant that they have had to leave a range of issues essentially unexplored. Thus, First Things has usually responded dismissively—or else with implausible optimism—to critics of technology, consumerism, mass society, modern warfare, and environmental degradation, especially when those critics have insisted on linking their concerns to the intrinsic logic of liberal capitalism. This response is understandable, for to the extent that such critics have sought to articulate fundamental critiques of liberalism, they hack at the root of the only genuine, historically available option for Christians today. If they are not cranks, they are knaves or fools.
For instance, the Acton Institute’s Fr. Robert Sirico—the Whig Thomist par excellence, just as his organization’s namesake was the quintessential Whig historian—wrote recently that his organization’s “prayer” for the “holiday season” was for the continued “integration of the world economy,” since, after all, “free economies are the God-given means to help us all peacefully fulfill the ideal”—of what?—of “the division of labor.” Some may see the Americanization of the entire world as lamentable, even imperialistic, but Sirico assures us that “until the Golden Arches in Paris or the Wal-Mart in Beijing closes because enough people choose not to go there, they will exist because of consent and will continue to bring jobs and prosperity to places in need.”iii The much more thoughtful Neuhaus, conceding that there is an “element of truth” in complaints about Americans’ “consumerism,” nevertheless finds these complaints tiresome and overblown, applying to contemporary spending habits Johnson’s dictum that “a man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is busy making money.”iv The theologizing of corporate capitalism comes easily to Michael Novak, who tells us that “solidarity is another way of saying globalization.” He means it: “People find it increasingly hard to think only about local conditions. Is this not a major step in the direction of the realities of solidarity? Are human beings not planetary creatures, one another’s brothers and sisters, members of one same body, every part serving every other part? These are the best of times for those committed to solidarity. . . .”v
In adopting positions such as these, Sirico, Neuhaus, and Novak are only giving voice to the neoliberal, Americanist prejudices widely shared among U.S. Catholics, high-, middle-, and lowbrow alike. The Whig Thomists have probably done less to shape those prejudices than they have to solidify them by providing intellectual ballast and cultural respectability. And to most committed Catholics they seem to be the only game in town in this post–Cold War era. After all, when the Berlin Wall fell, so also did the doctrinally unreliable, politically liberal “Commonweal Catholic” project and its interpretation of the proper relationship between America and the Church. For when it came to the question, “Where did you stand during the Cold War?” the Reaganite anticommunist intellectuals grouped around First Things have much the better claim to have been on the right side of history.
Fortunately, even excepting those still clinging to the exhausted liberal Catholic project (who sometimes seem to be the only opponents that the Whig Thomists are willing to acknowledge), the Whig Thomist cultural project has been challenged in different ways by various Catholic thinkers during the last couple of decades. In her study, Rowland outlines the alternatives offered by David Schindler, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, among others. The New Pantagruel itself is impossible to understand except as a reaction to the dominance exercised by Whig Thomist assumptions and ideas not only in Catholic circles but among doctrinally orthodox Christian thinkers generally. It is worth noting, then, that a decade ago there was a short-lived magazine that also sought to challenge the hegemony of the Whig Thomist school: Caelum et Terra (1991–96), an uneven but vigorous and often wise lay magazine which pursued a brand of traditionalist radicalism that allowed it to see through the ahistorical Whig prejudices of Cold War Catholicism.
Caelum et Terra had the courage to claim, against the grain, that the necessary project was not the Catholicizing of liberalism, but rather the articulation and creation of a traditionalism that was truly American while also authentically and fully Catholic. And it was a genuinely countercultural and communal magazine that embodied the principles for which it stood and profoundly affected the lives of at least a few dozen—which is to say, a startlingly high proportion—of its editors, contributors, and readers. Never well known, and now almost totally forgotten, Caelum et Terra deserves to be remembered.
Caelum et Terra was not marked by theoretic brilliance. It compensated with frankness, simplicity, and moral clarity. Founded by Daniel Nichols and Maclin and Karen Horton in 1991, C&T was for the most part written and edited by earnest, literate, and intelligent laymen removed from political power centers, academe, and the Church bureaucracy. Its contributors were not well known: only Juli Loesch Wiley, Thomas Storck, and Allan Carlson (one article) might be known to tNP readers. For the most part, C&T’s writers consisted of stay-at-home mothers, adventurers, ranchers, activists, librarians, and, in the person of Daniel Nichols, one artist/mailman. Few religious wrote for the magazine, even fewer scholars. The east and west coasts were poorly represented; on the other hand, because its first issue was mailed to graduates of John Senior’s famous Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, the magazine attracted many writers and readers from the plains states. Nichols, originally from Fenton, Michigan, was living in northern Virginia when he founded the magazine but moved to Wooster, Ohio, in 1994. The Hortons lived on Alabama’s gulf coast. No one was using C&T to advance his career, least of all the editors. The result was a magazine brimming with honesty and directness, if not always originality.
That honesty and directness was the fruit of Nichols’s editorial guidance. Caelum et Terra embodied his ethos as much as First Things has embodied that of Neuhaus. As it did most issues, Nichols’s art adorned the first number of C&T, published in summer 1991. Done in black-and-white, that issue’s cover features a pen-and-ink drawing by Nichols: a church in a pastoral setting, while receiving divine grace from the hand of God reaching down from a cloud, is surrounded by a ring of anthropomorphized figures of the sun and moon as well as fish and doves. The image is both New Agey and wholly typical of the art to be found in each issue. The magazine’s name was helpfully translated for the Latin illiterate as “heaven and earth,” while at the bottom of the cover there appeared three pairs of words: “Grace and Nature,” “Christ and Culture,” and “Tradition and Renewal.” The back cover contained only a simple, broadly drawn sketch of the back of a large, caped man followed by a much smaller cow. It was labeled “Three Acres and a Cow (after G. K. Chesterton).”
Some reflection on all this would have revealed to the attentive reader much about this new magazine. First, as the masthead confirmed, C&T seemed to be, and was, a low-budget, cottage enterprise run by just three persons: editor Nichols, assistant editor Maclin Horton, and technical editor Karen Horton. It regarded art as essential to its mission; Nichols’s distinctive, dreamy drawings and scratchboard prints—a sort of countrified iconography—would appear in virtually every issue. And it embraced an earthy, neo-hippie sacramentality that would continually perplex those of its readers who were certain that the flower children of the utopian Sixties had ruined everything.
About all this, Caelum et Terra was quite up front. The editors’ opening editorial, which they would later call with ironic self-consciousness their “manifesto,” began with their claim, quoting Ratzinger, that the current era is best described as “an anti-culture of death.” “Indeed, the shadow of death looms starkly over this society,” wrote the editors,
where few can remember a time when the innocent have not been targeted by the arsenals of mass destruction or the more selective weapon of the suction machine. And this shadow also extends its reach in more subtle and even seductive ways into all our lives: in the frenzy of consumerism, in the hurried pace which robs us of reflection, in the soul-numbing artificiality of the technological hum which pervades our days.
Yet, paradoxically, the moment seems one of promise. There is a hunger in the heart of humanity and we as Catholics are heirs of the Wisdom and sharers in the Grace which humanity seeks—though most of us have proven unworthy servants.
The editors attempted to carve out for themselves a cultural space not adequately represented by either the contemporary political Left or Right, claiming that the “whole Catholic, it seems to us, . . . would not consider the terms Catholic and radical or orthodox and prophetic to be mutually exclusive.” Their new magazine’s vision, they announced, would be guided principally by the great “personalist and distributist thinkers, saints, artists, poets and activists,” a tradition of Catholic thought with which the editors saw their project “in creative continuity.”
Nichols and the Hortons also emphasized that their magazine would strive to be highly practical, seeking to flesh out the concrete ways in which the Christian life might be lived and authentic community be built. They made good on their promise “to publish articles on home schooling, family prayer and ritual, gardening, cooperative enterprise, and other very down-to-earth matters.” Nor did they stray from their stated goal of attempting to once again make clear the indispensable relationship between the divine and the natural—between heaven and earth, with the latter term understood as necessarily including the land itself.
We expect that the magazine will show a deep interest in the agrarianism which was prophetically recommended by Catholic and other thinkers in the earlier part of this century and which re-emerged as a conscious and practicing movement in the 1960s. At the same time, we believe that a well-ordered commonwealth includes both town and country and want to explore means of humanizing city life. We would also like to affirm the worth and examine the present state of that often-mocked but very valuable part of American life, the small town.
These concerns, they noted, were of little interest to the politicians and pundits of mainstream liberalism and conservatism, and in turn, claimed the editors, these -isms were of little interest to C&T, since to their way of thinking both were ultimately committed to the assumptions of Enlightenment modernity.
Although they claimed to seek nothing less than “personal, familial, and cultural transformation,” the editors’ expectations for their project were modest; they worried that “[t]here may not be much of an audience for this venture.” That may have been true. But Caelum et Terra nevertheless helped to create a larger audience for their venture than many might have imagined possible.
There is one more thing to note about that first issue of Caelum et Terra, and that is that the first two books reviewed in the magazine together identified the “left” and right” poles of decentralist traditionalism between and around which the C&T discussion would continue. Maclin Horton’s review of a reissue of Russell Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives faulted Kirk for promoting “the fitness of class as a natural ordering of society.” But for the most part Horton found in Kirk a thinker whose conservatism could be built on. Kirk’s “concern for community, for place, for order; the bias against the machine, the giant corporation and the giant state; the conviction that the severing of the person from nature will end in disaster; the desire, in general, to conserve, to re-establish the permanent things which have been displaced by industrialism,” marked him as a penetrating cultural critic whose work could be used to build a bridge to the “erratically and selectively traditionalist left.” Daniel Nichols, on the other hand, in his review of Wendell Berry’s What Are People For? noted that Berry, though having an audience primarily at the “Green/Left/New Age end of the spectrum,” was clearly “friendly to the western and biblical tradition.” Berry’s “critique of contemporary society,” wrote Nichols, “is rooted in love of family, region and land and a hearty respect for what Buddhists call ‘right livelihood.’ . . . His criticisms of unbridled capitalism and consumerism, his respect for small land ownership and his embracing of the principle of subsidiarity (though he does not use the word) all echo the great Catholic tradition of social thought.”
The differences between the Whig Thomist and traditionalist narratives of the relationship between American “democratic capitalism” and the Church were brought most clearly to the fore in the debate that arose between the two camps in response to John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA), which was promulgated in May 1991. Not a few American neoconservatives responded to this encyclical by choosing to interpret it as a papal affirmation of their political and economic views—in short, of the Whig Thomist project. Neuhaus, for one, understood that the encyclical had been written “with specific reference to the world-historical experiences of this century”—that is, that the pope was attempting to delineate the Church’s historic mission and prophetic role in the new, post–Cold War era. Yet he also saw it as a cautious and nuanced affirmation of the triumphant Western liberal democratic tradition, including its economic system. Novak went further in his discussion of the document, in which, somewhat oddly, John Paul emerges as a theorist of capital creation and convinced defender of modern corporate practice. In CA, Novak writes, “the pope sees that the market is, above all, a social instrument” and that “market systems shed practical light on Christian truth and advance human welfare.” In Novak’s account, the pope also argues “that markets generate new and important kinds of community, while expressing the social nature of human beings in rich and complex ways.”
The editors of Caelum et Terra, in contrast, were part of an orthodox Catholic coalition which came together to challenge this interpretation. Fifteen editors and writers—including David L. Schindler of Communio, Fr. Ian Boyd and Stratford Caldecott of the Chesterton Review, and Michael O’Brien of Nazareth—affiliated with nine different periodicals signed and published in their own pages a full-page response titled “The Civilization of Love: The Pope’s Call to the West.” Their statement, admirable but—like Caelum et Terra itself—now seemingly forgotten, deserves to be quoted in full:
The collapse of international communism has destroyed one of the most obvious enemies of human freedom, but it has left the starving of the Third World in their misery, even while the moral anarchy of a mass popular culture prevails in the affluent West—destroying those “common things” (G. K. Chesterton) that lie at the root of social order and organic community. In the long run, communism itself may have had less power to destroy traditional morality and historic cultures than the disintegrative consumerism of the West.
And so, when Pope John Paul II criticizes the complacency of the developed nations, and looks to them to make “important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources” (Centesimus Annus, n. 52), this is no mere “vestigial rhetorical fragment that somehow wandered into the text . . . notable chiefly for its incongruity with the argument that Pope is otherwise making” (as one leading neo-conservative theologian has asserted). The Pope is setting out one of the most fundamental requirements of the new evangelization.
The universal call to holiness, made concrete in the promotion of justice and leading towards a civilization of love, demands nothing less than a change of life-styles. The Pope goes so far as to question the “models of production and consumption” that dominate present-day economic theory, and even the “established structures of power which today govern societies” (ibid., n. 58). The need to respond to this call could not be more urgent. “Everyone should put his hand to the work which falls to his share, and that at once and straightaway, lest the evil which is already so great become through delay absolutely beyond remedy” (ibid., n. 56, citing Rerum Novarum).
No one wrote more persuasively against the neoconservatives’ tendentious interpretation of Centesimus Annus than did Daniel Nichols. Nichols first noted that American neoconservatives had chosen to interpret CA as “both a profound break with previous Catholic social teaching and a ringing endorsement of the American economic system and contemporary capitalism in general.” He cited Novak’s remarkable assertion that the pope’s “vision of a free economy . . . is American in spirit and definition.” But this sort of reading was as ideological as had been previous attempts of the Catholic Left to appropriate papal teaching for their own political ends. John Paul II’s teaching on economics in CA was no different than that which he had promulgated in two previous encyclicals, Laborem Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, observed Nichols. The pope, in fact, had even said in an interview on September 9, 1993, that the Church “has always distanced herself from capitalist ideology, holding it responsible for grave social injustices.”
After noting that in fact the pope had called for nothing less than conversion, Nichols zeroed in on the response of Neuhaus, who had claimed that John Paul’s call for “important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all the peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources” had “all the appearances of being a throwaway line” and was “most likely a vestigial rhetorical fragment that somehow wandered into the text.” In other words, such an attack on consumer capitalism was not to be taken seriously; the subtext of Neuhaus’s complaint seemed to be that it was inconceivable that the pope might think authentic freedom could exist outside such an economic context in the modern world.
In fact, charged Nichols, both Neuhaus and George Weigel had included misleadingly edited versions of CA in books they had published. Their versions, for example, did not include the pope’s statement on the injustices of capitalism: “Would that these words, written at a time when what has been called ‘unbridled capitalism’ was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today with the same severity.” Nor would the reader of the Neuhaus/Weigel versions have known that, after first praising worker cooperatives, the pope had written that “the worker movement is part of a more general movement among workers and other people of good will for the liberation of the human person and for the affirmation of human rights.” A reader would not know that the pope had quoted Aquinas to the effect that “the Church replies without hesitation that man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all,” nor that “the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing.”
In addition, a lengthy section condemning economic oppression was omitted from the Neuhaus/Weigel versions of Centesimus Annus which is actually quite useful in understanding the pope’s position:
Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people. Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.
Finally, Nichols noted that whereas the pope had written, “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization,” the Neuhaus/Weigel version read, “It is unacceptable to say that the defeat of ‘real socialism’ leaves [the present operation of capitalism] as the only model of economic organization.” This edit was no accident, for Nichols went on to quote Neuhaus as writing that “despite [the pope’s] disclaimer, capitalism is ‘the only model of economic organization.’” Apparently John Paul was too open-minded.
Nichols’s reading of the encyclical, on the contrary, was as a cautionary document. For unlike his neoconservative interlocutors, he instinctively realized that to maintain a credible witness in the world the Church must not be seen as blessing, or of being blind to, the “destruction of the world’s economies, ecologies and cultures” that had been the fruit (if not the only fruit) of Western cultural dominance. “Americans must hear the prophetic word the Holy Father speaks to us,” wrote Nichols,
a word that calls us to conversion, conversion that remains incomplete until it includes a social dimension. A failure to recognize that existing social structures are in need of radical reform would be but another expression of the separation of faith from culture decried by successive popes as ‘the great tragedy of our times.’ Let us embrace the call to build the civilization of love, and let us return to an honest and faithful reading of the whole of Catholic doctrine, which continues to be a ‘sign of contradiction’ and a call to reform, both personal and social.
Caelum et Terra found itself in conflict with conventional American Catholic prejudices on much more than the economic questions that emerged with regard to the Pope’s teaching in Centesimus Annus. On questions of war, in particular, Nichols was just short of being a pacifist; not believing much, if at all, in the moral superiority of the goals or ideals of Christian America, he saw little justification for what other Christians would describe as necessary military measures in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Dresden, or especially in Baghdad. Nichols and a number of contributors tried also to articulate what a realistic but meaningful Catholic response to modern technology might look like. After one gathering of a C&T reading group had examined Neil Postman’s Technopoly, Nichols stated the group’s cardinal principle, which was that the thoughtful Catholic ought to consider criteria other than mere efficiency, including ecological, social, and aesthetic criteria, when deciding whether to adopt a new technology. A not impractical approach, but a pretty radical one nonetheless.
For many conservative Catholics then, as now, the Greens were merely the new Reds. Caelum et Terra, however, consistently published good articles on conservation, environmentalism, and the natural world. How wonderful to discover Will Hoyt’s sensitive and intelligent article on the intense religiosity of John Muir’s journey and vision. With the publication of such articles Caelum et Terra’s editors demonstrated that they understood that the American nature writing tradition had been unjustly neglected by the Christian community, not to mention self-identified conservatives, for mostly superficial reasons. Muir, Sigurd Olson, Helen Hoover, Aldo Leopold, and the other masters of the genre may not have been orthodox believers, but they recall us, often with lovely and evocative prose, to the natural world that is the source of our religious longings. In this sense, Wendell Berry has written, even the anarchist Edward Abbey was a traditionalist, one whose reverence for nature made him the most religious of agnostics.vi Caelum et Terra possessed the same insight.
In all this, C&T was trying to resuscitate the intellectual trajectory of the prewar Catholic revival and its “unclassifiable political equation” (a phrase used by historian Christopher Lasch to describe his own brand of heterodox radicalism). With the advent of the Cold War, this revival had become replaced, or conflated, among American Catholics with a spiritually flaccid, flag-waving nationalism. (The historian John Lukacs reports that “when in the 1950s I asked my then orthodox and rigidly catechized American Catholic students, ‘Are you an American who happens to be a Catholic, or are you a Catholic who happens to be an American?’ all of them chose the former, not the latter.”)vii Caelum et Terra drew on and was inspired by a number of prewar Catholic thinkers, including Dorothy Day, Vincent McNabb, Eric Gill, E. F. Schumacher, Peter Maurin, Fr. Conrad Pepler, Christopher Dawson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Chesterton, Romano Guardini, Tolkien, Peguy, and Belloc.viii C&T even reprinted pieces of McNabb’s in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of his death in its winter and spring 1993 issues.
But the writer that the magazine did more to recover than anyone else was Graham Carey, cofounder of the Catholic Art Association, whose articles were reprinted for eight consecutive issues beginning with the spring 1994 number. Carey had been the editor of an obscure Catholic journal himself some decades earlier, the association’s Christian Social Art Quarterly, which eventually became Good Work. Boasting Gill, Dawson, Schumacher, and Thomas Merton among its contributors, Carey’s periodical sought to overcome Fr. Sirico’s vaunted division of labor by, in Nichols’s words, “bridging the modern chasm between artist and workman.” Traditionalist but not imitative, Carey’s attempt to recover wholeness through the renewed integration of art and work, thought and life, strongly resonated with Nichols’s vision for Caelum et Terra. And Carey understood well the nature of the challenge that American culture posed for Catholics. “In every way not actually forbidden by faith and morals,” he had written in 1954 in the first piece of his to be reprinted in C&T,
we accept the cultural forms of the secularism around us. We do this not maliciously, but because our education does not enable us to see the cultural forms of secularism for what they are—logical expressions of the secular ideology. This is not a stable situation. Either the Catholic body will prove unable to withstand the pressure of its cultural environment, and will be gradually absorbed by secularism; or it will build a cultural environment of its own, worthy of its inner principles.
Doubtless it was largely because of Caelum et Terra’s refusal to identify the victory of liberal democracy with the victory of Catholic truth (while simultaneously rejecting collectivism) that a community of desperate souls was almost immediately attracted to the journal. The letters to the editor and the advertisements placed in C&T’s classifieds section ranged entertainingly, and satisfyingly, along the hazy borderlands between mysticism and kookiness, orthodoxy and fanaticism, ground that most journals quite understandingly fear to tread. C&T never refused to publish a letter that was even partially coherent. A total of seventeen letters were printed in the second issue, for instance, including one from a collapsed Catholic who took the opportunity to vent some rage (“Sorry, but I fled the Catholic faith and the ‘Mother Church’ years ago”), and one from a reader from Richmond, Virginia, who advised the editors to “loosen up, baby.”
Indeed, for the editor of a journal that was trying to establish itself, Nichols was remarkably unafraid to print correspondence from his more hostile and possibly clinically insane readers. Among the more lucid correspondents in this latter category was one from Virginia who thought it his duty to write a letter after every issue, for which C&T charitably provided him space until he finally took his leave, with a flourish, in 1995. Fortunately, another exercised reader, this time from the Pacific Northwest, emerged soon afterwards. “An old friend passed through and left behind a fat stack of Caelum et Terra. Like wow man, so groovy! . . . All the uplifting chatter about Farming and Soul and Marriage and Worship etc. etc. etc. makes me want to puke. . . . If only you all would basically mind your own (pathetic) business.”
Every now and then a blue-stocking would write to express her moral objections. “I did not like your cover representation of St. Francis,” scolded one such from Columbus, Ohio, troubled by the saint’s scruffiness. “Your description of him made him look like one of the weird people one sees on the streets. He is one of our greatest saints and should be treated with reverence.” (Please, Mr. Nichols, put St. Francis in a proper suit and tie next time, or at least a golf shirt and khakis.) And the prudes were not infrequently offended: “that nude drawing of Eve without even a fig leaf” troubled one from Wisconsin.
For sheer entertainment, nothing could eclipse the fireworks when the magazine fell into the hands of America-love-it-or-leave-it types. “I had somehow come under the impression that Caelum et Terra was a serious magazine prepared by responsible grown-ups for thoughtful and faithful Catholic Christians,” huffed one correspondent. “It appears, though, that Caelum et Terra is simply one more inane counterculture mouthpiece (albeit, one with an eclectic spiritual bent) published by and evidently for superannuated flower children. I had plenty of the ’60s in the ’60s, thank you.”
The first letter published by the magazine, in its second issue, came from John Senior, whose former IHP students composed a sizable proportion of the magazine’s subscribers and contributors. “How good to hear again those names from the Second Spring of Catholic England—Belloc, Chesterton, McNabb and Gill, sprung up again in Virginia and the South Bronx.” Senior’s former student Scott Bloch first wrote a letter and then became a contributor, a path followed by several others, whether or not their letters had been critical (Bloch had taken Horton to task, and none too subtly, for his free-verse poetry).
In fact, this was the path trod by Eric Brende, who would go on to become the author of the magazine’s most successful running column, “Homesteader’s Journal.” Brende’s first appearance in Caelum et Terra came in the third issue, when he wrote that he had been “overwhelmed when I (just now) read your summer issue.” Brende, who had graduated from Yale, was then a graduate student in MIT’s “Science, Technology, and Society” program. But what an odd sort of grad student he was, even by MIT standards. As he wrote in his letter, he was a Catholic convert who had been much influenced by both the Catholic Worker movement and the Amish, with whom he had worked during three summers and one fall. Furthermore, he was at MIT “to study the desirability and feasibility and philosophical credibility of alternatives to high-tech living. Some time soon (maybe this spring) I will leave Boston with my wife-to-be, and we tentatively plan to live near an Amish community I know, at least temporarily, so that we can learn more from and drink in the experience of their wonderfully wholesome (albeit a bit sectarian) way of life.”
Brende was serious, as Caelum et Terra readers would soon find out. His “Homesteader’s Journal” began to appear in the magazine’s second year and detailed the Brendes’ experiences homesteading among a Kentucky Amish community. Romantic, nostalgic, utopian: these are the usual charges leveled against such efforts. Brende was not entirely innocent on these counts, but he was sufficiently cognizant of such traps to at least partially avoid them. Often enough, romanticism, nostalgia, and utopianism were present in their proper measures, in which case they manifested themselves as virtues that allowed him to transcend cramped rationalism, temporal provincialism, and an unduly accommodationist realism.
With sharp and descriptive prose, Brende presented their life among the Amish as honestly as possible. The Brendes’ life was hard, often frustrating, uniquely rewarding—just as one would expect, which doesn’t make his accounts of their life any less fascinating: coping without electricity, their attempts to grow and sell produce, including pumpkins, sorghum molasses, and sweet potatoes; their twenty-six-mile round-trip commute to church, at first by bicycle, later by buggy; their often bemused but friendly Amish neighbors; their attendance at an Amish church service; the thousand-and-one things that go wrong when a Catholic couple from Boston tries to go Amish—like dropping the flashlight in the outhouse toilet. Nor is killing and cleaning a chicken as easy as it sounds.
Our pot of boiling water for dunking chickens before plucking them turned out to be too small. The first time I plunged a fresh-killed chicken into it, the water overflowed all over the stove. This made for a gooey and unappetizing slime. So I poured out some of the water. This left us too little. The remaining bath did not cover the chicken. And we didn’t have any more piping water on hand. So I tried ladling water from below the chicken over the feathers in hopes that this would loosen them. Mary, meanwhile, was becoming demoralized. Rivulets of lukewarm brown-bloody liquid coursing over the carcass of a zonked chicken—exuding a chicken death-smell—made her gag. Meanwhile, increasing death-rigors only added to the tenacity of the quill pores clutching the feathers. It was difficult enough fighting with the chicken when it was alive, and wanted to stay that way. Now that it was dead, the feathers were still hanging on.
Most disastrous was their attempt to establish a small Catholic community by inviting other Catholic families to join them. “Catholic couple seeks to draw others to Amish area to be neighbors and learn more about Amish living. . . .” “Seeking priest who is interested in future chaplaincy for Catholic agrarian community. Write to Eric Brende. . . .” These rather extraordinary classified ads were run by the Brendes in several issues of C&T. Two families did move to Kentucky to join the effort, so beguiling had his articles been. Things didn’t work out.
There were happier times, though, enough that it would be unfair to characterize the Brendes’ experiment as a failure. The experience of driving one’s own horse-and-buggy into town, with the accompanying leisure to take in the countryside; of coming to appreciate the gentle light of the kerosene lamp; of understanding the charitable egalitarianism that lies behind the seemingly incomprehensible Amish rules regarding dress and hemlines; of initially resisting but finally longing for and finding silence, real silence; of being corralled by a heretofore unknown family and compelled to eat a dinner of “the most delicious smoked grilled chicken breasts, buttered noodles, cole slaw, pickled beets, mashed potatoes and gravy, and, the piece de resistance, peach upside-down cake with whipped cream piled on top. . . .” Pleasures and insights that most of us will never know, not really. Brende’s accomplishment was to remind us of the goods, and the knowledge, that we moderns have lost. Or are losing.
The first indication that C&T would soon hoe its last row came in the summer 1996 issue. First, Nichols’s editorial reported that a major benefactor had announced that his funding had come to an end. Furthermore, renewals of subscriptions continued to be frustratingly low and the money that C&T had poured into advertising had brought little if any return. Nichols was hard pressed not to conclude that “we are trying to articulate something that not too many people want to hear,” words reminiscent of the fears expressed in the very first editorial back in summer 1991. But just as fateful was the ad that appeared on page forty-six, “snuck in by friends,” congratulating the bachelor Nichols for his impending nuptials to a certain Michelle.
Caelum et Terra would last only one more issue, and as much as finances, Nichols’s marriage was the reason. He had never been one to separate ideas from life itself, and after five years of promoting the goods of marriage and family, he was ready to go down that road himself and would not hold anything back (he already had a full-time job, after all, and his fiancé had a two-year-old child). The magazine’s readers, who had long since become aware not only of Nichols’s bachelorhood but also of his tenderness towards children, cannot have helped but to have mixed feelings about the event.
The genre of the Caelum et Terra story had not always been certain, but the matrimonial ending made it clear: a comedy, with the sort of honest hope for the world that comedy—despite and in the face of everything—always represents. Not only did Nichols, as the lead, get a wife and family, but supporting player Eric Brende got a book deal. His Better Off, which incorporates—without mentioning the magazine—rather loosely much of the material he first published in Caelum et Terra, was published by HarperCollins last July. Furthermore, there are signs, and not only here in the flourishing virtual environment of tNP, but even in the pages of First Things itself,ix that the hegemony of the Cold War–shaped Whig Thomist narrative among orthodox Christians will not go unchallenged. The verse from the Gospel of Mark that appeared on the masthead of each Caelum et Terra issue may have applied to the efforts of Nichols and the Hortons more than any of them had the right to expect: “The Kingdom of Heaven is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground and should sleep and rise day and night, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.”
i See Neuhaus’s essay “The Liberalism of John Paul II,” a slightly revised version of which is included in Doug Bandow and David L. Schindler, eds., Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003), 289–306. Unless otherwise specified, each of the Neuhaus quotes in this essay come from this article.
ii Neuhaus writes that “we have not the luxury of imagining the reconstitution of [our] social and political order on foundations other than the liberal tradition.”
iii All of these quotes are from Acton Notes: The Newsletter of the Acton Institute, December 2004, vol. 14, no. 12.
iv First Things, December 2004, 78.
v Michael Novak, “Catholic Social Teaching, Markets, and the Poor,” in Bandow and Schindler, eds., Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny, 55. Unless otherwise specified, all Novak quotes in this essay come from this chapter.
vi See Berry’s essay, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990).
vii The quote comes from chapter nine of Lukacs’s End of the Twentieth Century (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993).
viii Dietrich von Hildebrand, Balthasar, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and Walker Percy were important interwar writers to Caelum et Terra’s editors, while it is probable that no two living thinkers exerted more influence on the journal than did Wendell Berry and John Paul II. Neil Postman might be third.
ix See the articles by Chris Shannon (“Catholicism as the Other,” First Things, January 2004, 46–53) and Eric Miller (“Alone in the Academy,” First Things, February 2004), both contributing editors to tNP.