David Mills’s latest article for Ethika Politika, “Speaking Truth,” is worthy of serious attention, particularly with regard to his suggestion (admonishment?) that we “read less that makes us comfortable in our ideas and to read more that challenges us.” While Mills uses the example of a Lefty reading Hayek and a Righty reading Polanyi, numerous others spring instantly to mind. How many “Thomists of The Strict Observance” does anyone know who has read St. Gregory Palamas’s Triads or neo-Palamites that have any familiarity at all with St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa? I know more than a few folks who claim to detest “Straussianism” but have never read a single work by Seth Benardete, Allan Bloom, Thomas Pangle or, for that matter, Leo Strauss. Of course, I must admit that I also have come across more than a couple of “Straussians” (or wannabe “Straussians”) who dismiss a priori thinkers like Eric Voegelin and Werner Jaeger because their respective approaches to classical philosophy does not fit within Strauss’s ahistorical paradigm. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
The unwillingness, or perhaps I should say the inability, of Christians to take one step beyond their personal comfort zones may be a symptom of the fortress mentality that has developed in response to the serious, even violent, intellectual upheavals that have rocked Christendom—East and West—since the 18th Century, if not sooner. Having seen the disastrous effects “open minds” have had on both the Church and society, there now exists sincere trepidation over exposing oneself (or allowing others to be exposed) to what one might simply call “bad ideas.” There are limits after all, or at least some argue that there should be, including St. Alphonsus Liguori.
In an appendix to his magisterial Theologia Moralis, St. Alphonsus demonstrates that not only is there a necessity to prohibiting harmful books, but that this necessity arises from both ecclesiastical history and immemorial custom. Here is an excerpt from the saint’s work, graciously made available by The Josias:
If religion and public order cannot be maintained while wicked men are allowed to spread false doctrines or circulate dangerous opinions contrary to accepted norms of morality . . . [,] how much more will they be threatened if worthless rascals such as these are permitted to disseminate these same opinions even more widely in writing, and make them more compelling with cunning arguments that are more dangerous when read than heard? For whatever we read makes a stronger impression on our minds and more easily slips into our hearts. Just as holy reading can foster virtue, perverse reading urges us into vice; and more strongly so, since men are more naturally inclined to vice than to virtue. St. Basil was right to call books the food of the soul; because just as food is pleasurable while we eat it, and goes on to become human blood, so a book pleases when read—for who reads unwillingly?—and thus is more quickly digested.
Further, a reader gives himself like a student to the author he reads, offering him a docile and benevolent heart, and thus leaves himself vulnerable to deception. For it is very difficult not have some affection toward an author, from which it easily comes about that the impiety and error latent in the text is absorbed insensibly, and later tenaciously retained.
Now, I am in no way implying that Mills’s piece—which leans heavily on suggestions drawn from C.S. Lewis—is by design antithetical to the Doctor of Moral Theology’s thought or ought to be discarded because it suggests an openness to alternative ideas, some of which may be quite pernicious (though many of which won’t be necessarily). At some level it is meet and right that certain individuals engage false ideas in order to combat them. And within the wide circle of Christian learning (even learning which only lightly touches on Christianity), there is ample room for charitable, and ultimately beneficial, disagreement. People make mistakes; not everything wrong is pernicious.
What is most concerning, however, is when books which are, intentionally or not, pitted directly against Church teaching are placed over and above that teaching by those entrusted with the care of souls. To return to the example Mills used in his article, recommending Hayek to a faithful Catholic may seem innocuous enough, but given the concentrated effort which has been made by some notable Catholics (and their think tanks) to fuse, nay, corrupt Catholic social thought with free-market ideology over the past quarter-century, it is difficult to perceive that recommendation as anything more than a gateway to error. Maybe what is needed, beyond an understandable call for more intellectual openness and less ideological wagon circling, is a more nuanced theory of when it is appropriate to read works with which we disagree, but under what sort of conditions and guidance. Pity the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and its attendant regulations exist no more.