A Catholic’s Lutheran Obsession

By Christopher Zehnder

What follows is the Foreword (or “what gentlemen call a Preface,” in the words of Hilaire Belloc) to my trilogy of novels, A Song for Else, set in the opening years of the Reformation in Germany, explaining some of the influences that inspired me to write the work. The first two of the volumes (The Vow and The Overthrow) are available from Arouca Press. The third will hopefully soon be available.

This novel, A Song for Else, has in a sense been some 38 years in the making. The first germs of it were planted in my mind when I was 19 years old, soon after my conversion to the Catholic Church. Coming from a family that has been Lutheran since Martin Luther and had, moreover, helped found the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, I had as a child and a young adult a keen sense of the religious heritage in which I first learned the name of Christ. One does not inherit such a tradition without it deeply affecting him. Indeed, the Jesuit priest who brought me into the Church said of me in those far-off days, “You can take the boy out of the Missouri Synod, but you cannot take the Missouri Synod out of the boy.” Looking back on those days, I think he was right.

I trust that I am far less culturally Lutheran than I was 38 years ago; yet, as Dorothy Day once said (and I paraphrase), “the bottle never stops smelling of the liquor it held.” Perhaps it was to understand myself, what made me who I am, that the thought never left me of writing a novel – in this case, a trilogy – set in the period of the German Reformation. There is much that is personal in it. The action of the plot centers around the storied city of Nürnberg, from whose environs my family came. The name of the main character, Lorenz List, has personal references. I was born on the feast of St. Lawrence (Lorenz) the Martyr, and List is taken from my greatgreatgrandfather, Johann List, who came from MittelFranken in Bavaria to America in 1845.


This novel, however, is not an exercise in self-awareness therapy. It is not about the author. It tells the story of Lorenz List, an intellectual and sensitive young man who, through fortuitous circumstances, finds himself cast into a society very unlike the peasant culture in which he was born and raised. It is a story of love, both love for God and love of a woman, and how these loves influenced and shaped the protagonist. It is a story of a society, fundamentally Christian and Catholic, but shot through with religious and philosophical confusion and seething with revolutionary feeling. It is a tale of a young man coming of age in a time where old certainties are probed and questioned, faith is challenged, and men’s minds are troubled by apocalyptic foreboding. It is, in short, a story of an age not entirely unlike our own, for in it the seeds of our time were planted.

Continue reading


Vatican II, Tradition, and Religious Liberty: Some Thoughts on a Contentious Issue

What follows cannot be dignified with the title of “essay.” It is more of a note, expressing some thoughts inspired by an interesting essay by Dr. Larry Chapp, in which he addresses probably the most controversial document of Vatican II: the declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, On the Right of Persons and Communities to Social and Religious Freedom in Matters Religious. I agree with many of the points Dr. Chapp makes in his essay, though not all. In particular, it is not clear to me that Dignitatis Humanae (despite appearances) jettisons any of the tradition expressed in pre-Vatican II magisterial teaching on religious liberty. I say, “despite appearances,” for I think the declaration fails to show how the “new things” it proposes “are in harmony with things that are old” (DH 1) or how it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (DH 1). The reader can be led to believe that it does anything but.

Pope St. Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council

In a nutshell, religious freedom has had in traditional Catholic thought a rather narrow purview. If there is a “right” to religious freedom, it belongs properly to the Church, for error in itself has no rights. All things being equal, the civitas (state or polis), which is bound to recognize the true religion, to protect it and promote it, should (under the guidance of the Church) restrict the public expression of ideas or practices contrary to the Catholic faith in order to protect the simple and ignorant from deception and to undergird the moral and religious foundations of society. Of course, any restriction directed to coercing the individual conscience must always be eschewed. Public order and civil peace, too, may demand tolerance of the public expression of religion when its restriction would elicit grave evils. Otherwise, the common good demands that the state should restrict the expression of error in the public sphere. So runs the traditional Catholic understanding of religious liberty. [Go to page 2]

The Humility, and Glory, of Water: Thoughts on the Baptism of Christ

By Christopher Zehnder

“I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3.14)

Thus, John the Baptist, when Our Lord sought baptism from him. It is no wonder that John should shrink from this act; it so ill accorded with this man, whom John had proclaimed the one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” For John’s ministry had been toward sinners — a mere symbolic washing with water, an earnest of mercy and forgiveness. This One, however, would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

“I need to be baptized by you…”

Continue reading

Pity and Indignation in Dante’s Inferno

By Christopher Zehnder

A profound tension between the movements of the heart and the demands of reason marks Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This tension is felt in passages describing the pity Dante feels for the damned in Hell. Should Dante feel such pity? In one passage in Canto XX of the Inferno, the answer to this question seems to be a definite no. Dante has passed into the Fourth Bolgia of the fraudulent, where the shades of fortune tellers and diviners appear to him “hideously distorted,” their faces so twisted on their necks that “the tears that burst from their eyes ran down the cleft of the buttocks.” Seeing “the image of our humanity distorted,” Dante is overcome with weeping, for which Virgil rebukes him.

“Still? Still like the other fools,” says the stern Mantuan poet, the personification of reason:

“… There is no place

for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?”

To Virgil, Dante’s fault is nothing small. He is not merely guilty of some little weakness but of the impiety of questioning God’s justice. Virgil does not say how Dante should respond to the sufferings of the damned. Should he rejoice at their sufferings or simply look on with indifference? Yet, it seems, for Virgil, pity has no place in Hell.

Virgil’s rebuke  would seem to settle the question of the propriety of feeling pity for the damned. But only a few lines before Virgil’s rebuke, Dante appeals to the reader for understanding:

Reader, so may God grant you to understand
my poem and profit from it, ask yourself
how could I check my tears…

This is not the only place in the Inferno where Dante feels pity for the damned, nor where Virgil at least seems to countenance a more rigorous response. Yet, no where else does Virgil rebuke Dante for his pity; indeed, elsewhere in Hell, the Master not only commends attitudes consonant with pity but himself seemingly acts out of pity for the suffering souls.

That we may profit from Dante’s verse, it behoves us to seek a resolution to the dilemma — whether Dante’s responses of pity toward those suffering justly by God’s will were always or never proper. Or, perhaps they were proper sometimes but, other times, not? The question of pity here, however, resolves itself into a larger question. One may feel other emotions that seemingly suggest a desire contrary to God’s will — sorrow, for instance, when a loved one dies or fear in the face of certain suffering, or a longing to escape it. Thus, we are led to ask a broader question — do we show impiety when, in the face of God’s certain providence, we feel anything else but joy, or, at least, indifference?

To answer this question with the goal, hopefully, of understanding the Divine Comedy better by answering it, we shall examine what Thomas Aquinas teaches about the proper relation of the passions to the will, and of both to reason. We shall ask whether Aquinas’ account resolves the dilemma posed by the Divine Comedy. We shall also look at an account of the relation of the emotions to the intellect and the will given by the 20th century philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, as a possible way of understanding the problem posed by Virgil’s stern “how dare you” and Dante’s plaintive “how could I not?”

Continue reading

Were Medieval Germans Secret Pagans?

By Christopher Zehnder

Many years ago I read, in a “History of the Holy Roman Empire” (I think it was Friedrich Heer’s work by that name) a startling claim — that medieval Germans of Saxony had never abandoned paganism, and that it was their fidelity to paganism that was the source of their infidelity to the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

According to Heer (if Heer it was), the conversion of the Saxons to the Christian Faith had never really taken. In the centuries after Charlemagne had made them pass through the water, Saxon fathers had passed on to Saxon sons the secret of where the ancient idols lay hidden, deep in the forest. Along with this lore, they had instilled in their boys a profound disdain for the Catholic Church, the religion they had been forced to embrace. So, when Luther came along, they were quite willing to cast off the old religion for the sake of the new.

Thus went the argument.

Continue reading

The missionary council — what Vatican II was about


By Christopher Zehnder

The following article was first published in New Oxford Review. I republish it here as a response to recent criticisms, leveled by Traditionalists, of Vatican II.  

Many are the opinions about the Second Vatican Council and its effects on the Church – some Catholics praising them and others deploring them. But, while many have discussed and debated what the council did, few seem to take interest in what the council said, and what it intended to accomplish.

Council Fathers

It is commonly said that the council set out to “update” the Church – and this is true, but not in the crude sense it which it sometimes is taken. The intent of the Second Vatican Council was to outfit the Church so that she could better promote and cultivate communion – a more intense communion among the members of Christ’s body, the Church, and between the Church and the world. In seeking communion with the world, the council called for some accommodation on the part of the Church, but not to confound the Church with the world; rather, the council wanted to better equip the Church to draw the world to herself, and through herself, to Christ. The council had an essentially missionary, evangelical thrust. Its inspiration was the Great Commission, not the craven and abject spirit of capitulation. This I shall try to demonstrate in what follows.

Continue reading

We’re Not in This Alone: The Common Good, Community, and the Image of God: Part 2

By Christopher Zehnder

The following the second part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You may read the first part here.

The Common Good and Community

Thus we arrive at the common good, which we can define as that matrix of goods that is productive of happiness for man as man. In other words, the common good is good for everyone, no matter who he or she is. Yet, there is another sense in which we can speak of the common good as common. The common good is common, not simply because we all seek it, but because we can only achieve it together, in community. Despite the ideal of the self-sufficient, self-made man, the fellow who can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, each of us is really dependent on each other to attain even to the least of the common goods.

The creation of Eve, from a late 15th century miniature by Nicolaus de Lyra Troyes

This becomes apparent when we consider our marvelous weakness as individuals. A naked human is a very vulnerable creature, and we are born naked. We do not come ready-made with any of those tools other animals have: we don’t have fur coats or feathers, the swift feet of a greyhound, wings to fly, claws for digging like a sloth or clawing like a cat, strong jaws for grinding like a goat.  There really is not much to us, on the physical level.  Unlike other animals, we are born into a state of utter weakness. As infants, we require the care of others for our very survival – the food, shelter, and warmth necessary for life, the most basic of the common goods. Young children, too, are very helpless. As we grow, we gain in knowledge, experience, and skills; yet, for all of these, we depend for the most part on others. Everything we learn, we learn from others – our parents, primarily, but other adults as well. By these means, we achieve various perfections in the mastery of our bodies and the education of our minds. Yet, even for that rather natural and, as it were, automatic biological perfection – our ability to reproduce ourselves – we must rely on another.  To reproduce another of our kind, a man needs a woman, a woman needs a man. Without the other, a man cannot be a father or a woman a mother. Continue reading

We’re Not in This Alone: the Common Good, Community, and the Image of God: Part 1

By Christopher Zehnder

The following is the first part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

The creation of Adam, from the Nürnberg Chronicle

In our concern for a more just and honorable world, we can easily get distracted by details. Week after week, news stories sting us to anger; or, like the gray skies of late November after the leaf-fall, oppress us with a sense of drear and world-weariness. It all never seems to end. Scandal follows scandal; injustice follows injustice. Rage and passion contend with each other like the wrathful in spirits in l’Inferno that, as the Dante says, in the black, muddy River Styx “smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.”  We long for renewal, for an awakened sense of justice, for the righting of present and past wrongs, and for love. But the world today offers none of this to us. Even the Church has hidden her mother’s face from us. Rather, we are forced to look on what seems utter and irrevocable collapse.

This is a cheerful way to begin a talk, no? Yet, though these are not happy words, they are, I think, a true description of the time. And we cannot hide from the truth. Yet, I don’t think these words are the last word; for, if each of us feels this sorrow and helplessness in the face of events, we can trust there are others who feel it, too. We in this room are not alone in seeking for better things – for justice, goodness, humane compassion, a human-scaled world that responds to human need, beauty in creation and art, a restored Christian devotion: in a word, a renewed creation. That others seek these things with us is a sign of hope. Late November does not have the last word. Spring, we can hope, will come.

Yet, if we are to discover where true hope lies, we must cease, as T. S. Eliot put it, to be distracted from distraction by distraction. We need to step out of the rush of events, at least for a little time, and think about what is constant and enduring, rather than what is passing. Only in what is can we, I think, discover the beginnings of a response to the ills that confront us today.

The root of our malaise today can in part be found in a decayed understanding of who we as human persons are and what our relationship is to society, our earth, and, finally, the cosmos itself. We are all seeking for happiness – in the maelstrom of the news cycle and the swirl of events, this remains a constant. We all want happiness, which we know can only be fulfilled by our appropriating the good – what is good for us – for no one desires evil for its own sake. Yet, if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot know what is good for ourselves and, therefore, what will make us happy. And by “us” here, I do not mean us primarily as individuals, but as members of the human family and, even, the wider community of the natural world. Continue reading

Of the Incarnation and Henry David Thoreau

By Christopher Zehnder

When I was younger, perhaps purer, but certainly more impressionable, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. What I read deeply stirred me, particularly Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau said he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Though I could not fully articulate what it meant to “reduce life to its lowest terms,” I knew it was something I wanted to do. I wanted my small house on Walden Pond. I longed to hoe my patch of beans.

Though a sensualist, I have always been attracted at least to the idea of simplicity. Thoreau thus bespoke my soul with his quest for “life” – by which he meant earthly life; the life which is the “liquid fire” of growing things, the shimmering, crystalline purity of water, the bellowing might of Ocean, the teeming, but silent, fecundity of soil, the driving impetus of autumnal winds. In the waste of our own lives, in the hurry and bustle of the world of men, we miss Life, said Thoreau. “We live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men, it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.”

It was my (secret) approval of Thoreau’ castigation of religion that gave me pause. I knew the words were, at least, near-blasphemous, but I gladly grudged the truth of  “most men” are “in a strange uncertainty” whether life is “of the devil or of God.” Such men, said Thoreau, have “somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” Like an impure image in the mind, which, though resisted, allures, this indictment of religion drew me even while I threw up every defense to impede it. Continue reading