Nature and Grace
by Eugene Genovese
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a prominent historian, feminist and author of works on the South and women’s history, was a convert to the Catholic faith. In 2003 she received from President Bush the National Humanities Medal, which recognized her as “defender of reason and servant of faith”. She was a member of the editorial board of Voices until her death on January 2, 2007, at age sixty-five. Her husband, Eugene Genovese, equally well-known professor of history at Emory University and author of books on the history of slavery in the South, recently published a personal reminiscence of his beloved wife, titled Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2009.) Chapter 3, “Nature and Grace”, details her conversion to Catholicism. Dr. Genovese has very graciously granted permission to reprint a slightly edited version of this chapter in Voices.
Her will became pliant material for the divine will, and guided by this will, it could set about taming and curtailing her nature to channel the inner form. Her will could also find an outer form suitable to its inner one and a form into which she could grow without losing her natural direction. And so she rose to that perfected humanity, the pure consequence of a nature freed and clarified by the power of grace. On these heights it is safe to follow the impulses of one’s heart because one’s own heart is united with the divine heart and beats with its pulse and rhythm.
Edith Stein [Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross]
from “The Spirit of St. Elizabeth [of Hungary]
as It Informed Her Life”
Betsey’s parents were nonbelievers and reared her accordingly. She entered the Catholic Church in her early fifties. Previously, she had never professed a religious faith, although she wished she could have. Despite her professed materialism, she yearned for spiritual communion in a church that she could enter in good conscience. She had been unable to bring herself to believe in God, but she never felt at peace with her unbelief. She disregarded agnosticism as a hopeless evasion, agreeing with Friedrich Engels’s characterization of it as “shamefaced materialism”. Betsey was a decisive woman: There was nothing shamefaced about her. For most of her life she chose materialism over alternatives, albeit with misgivings.
I, too, had sought spiritual communion, but in a different kind of church the Communist Party. After my expulsion from the Party in 1950, I remained a Marxist and a supporter of the “movement”. Betsey and I had embraced Marxism by different routes. Some small ironies here. Her atheist father imbibed the materialism of the French Enlightenment what Marxists call “mechanical materialism”, in contradistinction to the “dialectical materialism” that Marx extracted from Hegel’s dialectical idealism. A man of the New Deal Left, Ed Fox had been appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the State Department, serving briefly as Assistant Secretary of State for policy analysis under Harry Truman. He was a firm Cold War anti-communist liberal. His daughter’s embrace of Marxism and sympathy for Marxist political movements made him uneasy.
Betsey respected a number of American left-wing radicals but not the great majority. Her sympathies, like those of her parents, lay with working people. Like her husband, she abhorred the cultural radicalism of the New Left of the 1960s, with its open contempt for the working class. During the war in Vietnam, the pampered bourgeois students who were ready to burn down campuses to avoid the draft denounced prowar workers as “sellouts” and “pigs”.
Betsey had a larger problem. An acute student of Marx and Marxism, she found the American Left intellectually shoddy and, worse, devoid of moral and ethical criteria. She and I agreed on the intellectual shoddiness and discussed the moral problem many times, always returning to Dostoyevsky’s haunting statement: “If God does not exist, then all is lawful.” The more Betsey studied, the more convinced she became that the Left had no moral grounding. But without belief in God, she could not respond, in good conscience, to the sense of community our churchgoing friends had. Not that she and I were not subject to temptations. Almost from the beginning of our marriage, Episcopalians, Unitarians, and communicants of other churches invited us to join. When we explained that we were atheists, they assured us that belief in God was unnecessary. We paraphrased Groucho Marx: We would not think of entering a church that would have us.
Flippancy aside, I knew that Betsey was searching for more than earthly community. We used to joke that we may have been the only American Marxists who believed in original sin and human depravity. It was no joke, but neither was it necessarily accurate. We did believe in the essentials of original sin, as we understood them, but could not square it with our materialism. I am reminded of the outburst of a fellow Marxist and atheist, a superior historian from a Jewish family. We were having a cup of coffee with several Marxist graduate students, who seemed confused by our professed belief in original sin. After a while, they turned to our colleague and asked if he agreed with us. He scowled: “I don’t know anything about Christian theology or original sin or anything else they are talking about. But this I do know: People are rotten.” I should add that although I may have agreed with him on the rottenness of people I plead the Fifth Betsey did not. She was not yet close to conversion, but she had an intuitive grasp of the Resurrection and redemption.
In 1994, at age fifty-three, Betsey announced her conversion. I was not taken by surprise since I always knew she had a marked spiritual side. Contrary to the nonsense spewed across the academic rumor mill, her decision had nothing to do with politics. I asked what church she was planning to enter, assuming that it would be the Presbyterian. In Atlanta we had occasionally attended Peachtree Presbyterian Church to hear excellent preaching, which eschewed feel-good pap for “Christ and Him crucified”. Then too, Betsey’s father’s family had Calvinist roots. Betsey answered, intending no disrespect for the Presbyterian Church or any other: “You have lived with me for about a quarter of a century, and you take me for an evangelical Protestant?”
She explained that she was inquiring about instruction to enter the Catholic Church. I was relieved. Although not prepared to reenter the Church, I had started to think about it and did return in 1995. Betsey later confessed only a bit tongue-in-cheek that she had another reason for her choice: “I knew that sooner or later you would return to the Catholic Church and thought we should worship together.”
Betsey had long prepared herself to enter the Catholic Church, albeit not consciously. Her nonbelieving parents had sent her and her siblings to Sabbath school wherever they lived. Historians themselves, they understood that, although their children did not have to become historians, they did have to know history.
Ed and Betty Fox did not have to be told that Western civilization could not be understood as other than a Christian civilization, and that Christianity could not be understood apart from its roots in Judaism. An understanding and appreciation of Western literature depends heavily on knowledge of its countless biblical allusions. The Foxes sent their children to a Protestant Sabbath school of any denomination, so long as it offered the best Bible study available. They also sent their children to schools in France and Switzerland. Betsey attended a renowned Huguenot school in a small town in the Midi, the inhabitants of which had saved the lives of thousands of Jews from the Nazis at the risk of their own. For the rest, she had studied in-depth medieval history, a subject she loved.
Beneath these practical experiences lay a spiritual journey, the outcome of which appeared in a notebook she kept on an Opus Dei retreat at Murray Hill Seminary in Boston, May 24, 2002. She asked herself what image she had of God. Conjuring up the Old Testament projection of a tyrant, she wrote, “Those who have that image have not learned the lesson of N.T. [New Testament]: God is our father. Only in Jesus Christ do we come to know ourselves.” She quoted Saint Anselm: “Lord, teach my heart where & how to seek you.”
In 1994, Betsey called Mary Alice O’Connor in New Haven to inquire about getting the right instructor in Atlanta. Mary Alice, mother of Betsey’s beloved graduate student Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose, recommended Father Richard Lopez. It was a match made in heaven. Betsey told the story of her conversion in two essays, “Caught in the Web of Grace” (published in Crisis) [Ed. note: This article was reprinted in Voices, and is available on our web site at www.wf-f.org/07-1-ElizabethFoxGenovese.html], and “Conversion Story” (published in First Things). Monsignor Lopez told the story of their meeting in his magnificent sermon at Betsey’s funeral, which will appear as an appendix in a forthcoming collection of her religious writings.
When Betsey entered the Church, she had no illusion that her quest for salvation would be easy. To the contrary, she understood faith as hard work. She much admired Saint Thomas Aquinas, but identified not with his “I know so that I can believe”, but with Saint Augustine’s “I believe so that I can know”. A year or two after she entered the Church, she wrote in her notebook:
I cannot put what I believe into words other than “I believe in God the Father ... His only son, our Lord ... the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins....” And those I do believe in, but putting substance on them is gradual. The Gospel helps, Mass helps, prayer helps. That I can even write this tells me I trust my belief. But I know also that I want it stronger.
In matters of faith, as in much else, Betsey had a treasure trove of sympathy, empathy, and a touch of Dorothy Day’s “tough love”. Sensitivity she had in abundance, sentimentality none. She never was as hard on anyone as on herself.
Not until Betsey entered the Church and I returned to it did we compare notes on our respective spiritual journeys. We usually had lunch together at home, at which time we read the newspapers, with a few exchanges on the stories of the day. Domestic trouble: She wanted to read the newspapers quietly at lunch; I preferred to chat. She wanted to chat at dinner; I adhered to the silence my father imposed at the dinner table when I was a boy. We compromised. I tried with minimal success to keep quiet at lunch; she did most of the talking at dinner. But when we went out to lunch every week or two, we usually discussed our scholarly work. Our principal subjects were southern religious history and Christian theology. In particular, we extensively discussed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and Federal Theory of original sin, which intrigued us. Looking back, we agreed that something strange had occurred. For the six months or so before Betsey’s conversion and my reconsideration of professed atheism, we never talked about religion or theology. Our mutual silence stood in contrast to our usual sharing of thoughts and experiences. Apparently, we had found it difficult to talk about our spiritual tension even to each other until we could settle our thoughts and feelings.
Strange Steps on the Road to Rome
Betsey and I had a few jolts before our spiritual journeys led us to Rome. In the early 1970s, the Catholic chaplains at the University of Rochester invited us to a public exchange of views with two Catholic colleagues of the radical Left. Liberation theology and other irrationalities were in vogue. It seemed as if some people expected us to light Marxist candles to the blessedness of radical Catholicism. What followed cried out for a Jonathan Swift.
We said that, as Marxists and supporters of the international Left, we welcomed a political alliance with radical Catholics but considered an ideological blending of materialist Marxism and Christianity an absurdity. I shall pass over the gruesome details of the exchange. In the end, we were driven to defend Catholic theology against “dissident Catholics” who had no time for the fundamentals of Catholic theology, Church doctrine, and the teachings of the Vatican. So there we were, nonbelievers and committed Marxists, fervently defending the doctrines of original sin and human depravity against professed Catholics who replaced the ostensibly dated teachings of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Saint Thomas Aquinas with those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Karl Marx of the Utopian Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts the jejune “early Marx” whom neither Betsey nor I ever took seriously.
Having begun on that high note, the “exchange” tumbled downhill. I fumed at the arrant nonsense we were being subjected to. I am a fairly able debater who can get rough and has been known to overdo it. Betsey rarely fumed or got rough. Patiently, she took up our colleagues’ apostate twaddle, answering point by point from both Catholic and Marxist doctrine to demonstrate their incompatibility. Although one of them had received training in theology at the University of Notre Dame, Betsey rent him on the teachings of his own Church. As for their flirtation with Marxism, I subsequently had to rebuke her for shooting ducks on a pond. Betsey had a great advantage. Whereas they quickly revealed that they did not know what they were talking about, she read carefully as well as broadly, forgetting little of what she read. She did not have a “photographic memory” or “total recall”, but she did have an extraordinary capacity to absorb and sort out information. Whether the subject was Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, or Rousseau and Marx, opponents had a hard time matching her command of chapter and verse.
Betsey by no means scorned all Catholic radicals who espoused liberation theology. She came away from an international conference with respect for many of the Latin American adherents. Despite deep disagreements, she valued their intellectual and moral gravitas. But she had little tolerance for the fuzzy-minded outbursts of their American imitators.
The Christian sensibility that Betsey exhibited well before her conversion had its wry side. In 1975, the national Unitarian Church honored me with an award for my book Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Shortly thereafter the Unitarians in Rochester, where we lived, invited me to speak at their Sunday service on the religion of the slaves. I agreed, expecting Betsey to accompany me, as she usually did. She found some flaccid excuse not to.
Now, Betsey knew a good deal about the current Unitarian Church, whereas my knowledge was restricted to its early nineteenth-century history. Having been brought up on Catholic Masses, nothing prepared me for what followed: a large room that resembled a high-school gymnasium; a pleasant woman pastor who opened the proceedings with dignity but without mention of God; a series of announcements from the floor on the scheduled picketing of local businesses for racism or something and requests for signatures on petitions against injustice, oppression, and persons’ unpersonhood to persons. I thought I was at a political meeting, and I was.
In my talk, I spoke respectfully of religion but identified myself as an atheist who found the evidence of black spirituality in slavery a surprise. The congregation received my presentation warmly, for which I was grateful. But afterwards at a coffee circle, kind people invited me to join their church. I reminded them that I was an atheist. They assured me that their church welcomed atheists and that most of the congregants did not believe in God. Apparently with the intention of putting me at ease, someone asked how anyone could believe in God in view of the constant horrors across the world. Would He have permitted the recent terrible earthquake in Nicaragua, in the aftermath of which the great Roberto Clemente lost his life in an attempt to bring relief to its victims? “Would a good God permit such evil?”
I gasped. How could well-educated and intelligent people talk such rubbish? Stunned and momentarily forgetting my atheism, I responded with an impassioned defense of Christian theology. I may not have believed in God, but I considered their objections an insult to my intelligence. I interpreted their remarks as meaning that God, to be worthy of worship, had to do whatever they wanted Him to that God had to follow the dictates of their various consciences. I reminded my Unitarian hosts of the words of Genesis 23:50: “The thing proceedeth from the Lord. We cannot speak unto you bad and good.” I returned home shell-shocked. A “church” of unbelievers! How could my wife have sent me off unprepared, uninformed, and unprotected? Had I married a sadist? Betsey greeted me with a grin not a smile, a grin. Her right hand was behind her back. Before I could say a word, she thrust it forward, handing me a stiff double martini: “I think you need this.”
Let us be thankful that there are Unitarians and Unitarians. I could cite the pious Jeannette Hopkins, our editor and friend. Then there are churches like the First Unitarian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which, in the wake of Betsey’s conversion to Catholicism, invited her in 1995 to present her views on women in contemporary society. The pastor and congregation received her warmly, and, like Jeannette, much impressed Betsey with their piety and intellectual seriousness.
One Sunday I awoke to find Betsey absent. She had left a message to say that she was off to Mass. When she returned, she found a perturbed husband who asked why she had not awakened him to accompany her. Wide-eyed, she answered that she had no idea I would want to accompany her to Mass and did not wish to impose. She knew very well that no (aspirant) southern gentleman, atheist or no, would fail to escort his lady to church. The next week I attended a Catholic Mass for the first time in about fifty years except for an occasional wedding or funeral.
The changes since Vatican II brought me up short, but, to my surprise, it was as if I had never left. For months we attended Mass together: she as a participant, I as a visitor. I did not cross myself with holy water, genuflect, kneel, or take Holy Communion. But I listened carefully and critically to the homilies. An amused Betsey said that her atheist husband probably paid closer attention to the homilies, outraged at doctrinal lapses, than the many devout Catholics at Mass. Fortunately, we heard doctrinally sound preaching at the Cathedral of Christ the King and at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, except from occasional visiting Jesuits, who were one more charming than the next polished, magnetic, and doctrinally appalling.
In particular, we were much pleased with the young priests, recently out of seminaries and testing their wings. At first I blanched. I thought their informal pulpit style worthy of hippies. Betsey saw more clearly. Their informality went hand-in-hand with doctrinal soundness and the fervor appropriate to it. They touched the young people at Mass without lapsing into bad doctrine. And I had to concede that they did not descend into bad taste.
When Betsey entered the Church, she asked me to have our marriage sanctified in effect, to have a second wedding. I had not yet returned to the Church but had no objection. When she introduced me to Father Lopez, I jubilantly told him that I considered a church wedding a great gift since, finally, Betsey would have to promise to obey me. Father Lopez has a good sense of humor, but I do not recall his ever laughing as heartily as he did then. No, the Church exacted no such promises. He recommended that I not try to foist it on Betsey of all people. I regretted to hear that Pope John Paul II and the Magisterium had sold out to the feminists. In a Christian spirit, Betsey and I compromised. She privately promised absolute obedience to the husband she acknowledged as her lord and master. I thereupon ordered her to do as she pleased no matter what I might insist she do. True to her honorable nature, she never violated her oath. In retrospect, I think she swindled me.
Our wedding Mass turned out to be memorable. It was at that Mass that I finally made my decision to return to the Church. Father Lopez preached a superb sermon. Betsey received four other sacraments that day, three at Mass: baptism, confirmation, confession, and Communion. At confirmation Betsey took the name Teresa, after the great Santa Teresa de Ávila. Her choice of a name was over-determined since she also much admired two other saints named Theresa. After Betsey entered the Church but before I returned she and Sheila exchanged endless praise of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at age twenty-four.
The ladies, holding their favorite atheist captive, went on about her while we were dining at Nino’s. I had never heard of Sainte Thérèse and had no wish to enlighten my ignorance. They had no intention of leaving me in peace to enjoy my vitello saltimbocca and valpolicella ripasso. To my growing irritation, the incorrigible proselytizers kept singing the virtues of Sainte Thérèse. I momentarily shut them up by announcing the imminent publication of my ten-volume masterpiece, The Sins of Sainte Thérèse.
But I could not shut them up about Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). Born a Jew in Breslau, Poland, in 1891, she died in a Nazi concentration camp. An accomplished philosopher, she studied with the great phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who held her in high esteem. She entered the Church in Cologne in 1922 and became a Carmelite nun in 1934. Pope John Paul II canonized her in Cologne in 1997. As Betsey appreciated, when Edith Stein read Teresa de Ávila’s autobiography, she said, “This is truth.” Betsey read Edith Stein’s works avidly, her fascination doubtless reinforced by their common Jewish roots. ….
Abortion had always made Betsey queasy. For years she remained sufficiently attached to the feminist movement to persuade herself to support “free choice” during the first trimester and with such limitations as parental consent and absolute denial of partial-birth abortion. She supported such “compromise” largely because she considered it the best politically available alternative to an incipient civil war. She gagged on abortion for a simple reason: She knew, as everyone knows, that an abortion kills a baby. Betsey responded with incredulity to the argument that the baby a woman carries in her womb is not a baby at all or, alternatively, that although it is a baby, her mother has a moral and constitutional right to kill her. And Betsey resented the denigration of women implicit in the “pro-choice” campaign. Years later, in the private journal she kept after she entered the Church, she wrote:
Paradox: intent of abortion has been to free women, but it has imprisoned them. Anima Christi: soul and body are one, not two. Abortion devalues and debases woman’s bodies strips them of their character as Temples of the Holy Spirit. Abortion has not heightened respect for woman’s bodies, but only confirmed their status as objects to be used.
A related matter went down hard with her. We hear all the time that retarded and deformed children should never have been born that their lives should have been snuffed out by parents and doctors sensitive to the “quality of life”. Betsey did not take well to people who claimed the privilege of judging who deserved to live and who ought to be put to death. Again, as a Jew aware of the underlying ideology of the Holocaust, she had no tolerance for people who claimed the right to dispose of human life in accordance with whatever sick creed they were espousing.
Over the years, she met a number of retarded and autistic children. None struck her as floating miserably in a life without pleasure. Betsey saw for herself that, however painful their daily experiences, they awoke every morning secure in the knowledge that their parents loved them, considering them gifts of God.
The radical feminists’ assertion that a woman has absolute property in her own body provoked mirth from those who, like Betsey, knew that the modern Left had arisen to oppose the bourgeois theory of absolute property in anything. Betsey steadily hardened her line against abortion while she maintained unsparing compassion for the unmarried young or poor pregnant women who felt trapped. She spent years as a volunteer in community groups that cared for pregnant teenagers, poor mothers and their children, and battered wives.
On these matters, as in others, she had special powers of persuasion. I caught a glimpse of her ability to touch an audience in January 2005 less than two years before she died. I attended her lecture on abortion at Hamilton College in New York. She had been invited by the small conservative student contingent, but she faced a large and largely skeptical audience. Once again, I thought she might have spoken in livelier fashion; once again, she refused to indulge in rhetorical tricks or cheap shots, much less talk down to students. She took up the major arguments, pro and con. Calmly, she reviewed moral, statistical, and other evidence and dug into the implications and ramifications of the slaughter of millions of infants.
I watched the students closely. Apparently, most did not support her pro-life position, yet they hung on her every word. She may not have convinced many, but she clearly made them thoughtful. And they responded respectfully. It was obvious that their radical feminist professors had not deigned to introduce them to the pro-life side, so that they “choose” between the alternatives. As the students left the hall, they did not disguise their admiration for Betsey’s presentation and replies to hard questions. They also made clear that they were not amused at their professors’ efforts to shut them out from an opportunity to consider pro-life views.
Betsey’s soft and indirect methods of persuading people to reconsider their positions illustrated her superior skills, and I am afraid that I did not help much. Professor Pamela Hall, speaking at Emory’s memorial meeting for her, captured the difference. Describing our dinners at Nino’s, she reported, “They both waged an affectionate battle to persuade me to rejoin the Catholic Church. Gene said ‘Perhaps the Holy Spirit put me here to ask you these questions.’ I must have looked desperate for a suitable response. Betsey intervened, ‘Well, that would be a most unexpected manifestation of the Spirit.’” …..
When the time came for Betsey to enter the Church, she had no problem with its structure, which she had studied thoroughly long before her conversion. “Liberal” and “progressive” religion held no attractions. She much admired Pope John Paul II, as did millions of Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world, and she wrote a good deal in support of his wise pronouncements on women and the Church. She also much admired Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Had she and I voted in the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger would unquestionably have been our first choice. She hoped her prayers for his election would be answered; I doubted that a man of his doctrinal firmness and frankness could make it. When the news came, I rushed to tell her, and we opened a special bottle of wine at dinner to toast His Holiness. I much regret that she did not live long enough to write about the new pope and his doctrinal pronouncements. Years before Betsey entered the Church, she recognized him as an exceptional theologian the finest in recent memory to grace the papacy.
Betsey read and wrote for her favorite religious journals. And she kept up with books on the current Church. She favored the “traditionalist” wing of the Church, although not as dogmatically as I. In particular, she refused to support my proposal to restore the Inquisition and the auto-da-fé. Betsey entered the Church in the same spirit as I returned to it, prepared to submit to the authority of its hierarchy. The Catholic Church is an elective monarchy, not a republic, much less a democracy. An honest Christian who cannot accept submission to the hierarchy is at liberty to join the Baptist Church or some other worthy Christian church. He is not at liberty to try to wreck our Church by pretending that it is or should be a “participatory democracy”. In any case, Betsey’s faith grew stronger year by year, and I have no doubt that she prayed as Jesus taught us: “Thy will be done.”
Eugene D. Genovese is the author of the groundbreaking classic Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, as well as many other books. Several were co-authored with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, including The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview and Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order.
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