My editorial career has brought me into close contact with quite a few impressive thinkers. I have worked with famous authors, with noted theologians and philosophers, with canny political strategists, with at least a half-dozen Nobel Prize winners. Among them all, for sheer full-spectrum intellectual wattage, none was more brilliant than my friend, Father Paul Mankowski, who died suddenly this week.
You may well ask: If he was such a world-class genius, why wasn’t his death front-page news? Why wasn’t he a celebrity? Why is the only book available under his name an obscure work on Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew? Those are good questions. The answers make his life story all the more interesting.
That he was a prodigious intellect is beyond dispute. He earned advanced degrees at Harvard and Oxford. He was fluent in multiple languages. He advised Vatican prelates, and more than once I detected a familiar style of prose in an official document from the Holy See. He taught Biblical languages at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He maintained a lively correspondence with philosophers and political leaders. And if you have read The Tragedy of Macdeth, which he wrote just for fun under a pseudonym, you know that you are not dealing with an ordinary mind.
Born into a middle-class family, Paul worked in steel mills to help pay his college tuition, and never abandoned his blue-collar approach to work. He was unimpressed with academic colleagues who, he chuckled in wonderment, “wouldn’t even know how to change a shock absorber.” Then again he was also unimpressed with his own academic achievements, and congenitally incapable of self-promotion.
As a young man Paul Mankowski developed a deep admiration for the Society of Jesus. He noticed, in his readings of history, that the Jesuits always turned up in crucial battles, defending the Catholic faith “where the fighting was fiercest.” Determined to do the same, he joined the Jesuits after graduating from the University of Chicago. He did not foresee that in our days the fiercest fighting would take place inside the Church and inside the Society of Jesus, and that—at least during his lifetime—he would be on the losing side.
For years Paul worked under constraints imposed by his Jesuit superiors. Having ruffled feathers with his unapologetic defense of traditional Catholic teaching, he was directed to avoid public controversies. Faithful to his vow of obedience, he hewed to the order he was given. When told that he could not write under his own name without censorship, he used pseudonyms. When told that he could not write under a pseudonym, he stopped. And so the Catholic world was denied what might have been a treasure-trove of lively and insightful prose. Do not be surprised if some memorable work now leaks out posthumously.
At this point there is no reason to maintain what is already an ill-kept secret: that Father Mankowski, writing as “Diogenes,” was the guiding light of the “Off the Record” feature that long delighted readers on this Catholic Culture site. He was not the only contributor—others wrote under the “Diogenes” byline—but he was the most prolific and easily the best. When he withdrew, the quality and quantity of Diogenes’ work took a nosedive, and we chose to discontinue the feature.
“Diogenes” was not universally popular. Father Mankowski had a special gift for satire, and—appropriately for a man who had been a boxer in student days—never pulled his punches. Perhaps at times he went too far, and as his editor I should have toned down his posts. But as it happens I too am a former boxer. Certainly Diogenes was often acerbic. At times his work was also hilariously funny, and Catholic Culture readers learned not to take a sip of hot coffee before reading “Off the Record.” Maybe it wasn’t always as charitable as it should have been. But it sure was fun.
We were friends for so long, I honestly don’t recall how we became acquainted. We had many mutual friends while he was studying at Harvard and I was working in Boston, but I think our first face-to-face meeting was in jail in Brookline, Massachusetts, after we had both been arrested during an Operation Rescue blockade of an abortion clinic. We quickly became friends, stayed in touch when he moved to Rome to teach at the Biblicum, and developed a regular pattern of exchanging ideas and suggestions and observations by email.
In the past 20 years or so, my wife Leila and I have counted on these email exchanges with Paul and a few other friends for analysis, advice, and perspective—as well as for comedy and commiseration. They have helped furnish the material for dozens of columns and a couple of books. We recognized Father Mankowski as a demanding yet constructive critic. If I sent him a draft of something I was writing, I would almost invariably make the changes he suggested; if he wrote with an “attaboy” about something I had posted, it made my day.
(How often were we in touch? I asked myself that question yesterday, and counted the number of emails that I had sent to Paul in the month before his death. I found 56—but then he had been on retreat for a week during that time.)
But now I wonder whether I am painting an inaccurate picture of my friend, because I am portraying a scholar and a counselor but not necessarily a Catholic priest. Father Mankowski’s feisty defense of the faith was motivated by a deep and rock-solid personal conviction. As Leila observed in her own tribute, he was granite. Yet he could and did empathize with confused teenagers and elderly dementia patients and the many ordinary parishioners whose confessions he heard as a “supply priest” on weekends.
Paul had recently volunteered to bring the sacraments to Covid patients, whatever the risks. That was predictable. While he was stationed in Rome, teaching, he would use school breaks to travel to different countries and work with the Missionaries of Charity. As editor of Catholic World Report I published his memorable, moving accounts of service to “the poorest of the poor”—written again pseudonymously, to deflect attention from himself—in Romania and Armenia. He lived very simply himself. Leila noticed his threadbare clerical shirts. Once when I visited Rome, and asked him to recommend a good restaurant, he couldn’t. Is there another priest who, after a few years in Rome, cannot tell a friend where to get a spectacular dinner?
In their obituary notice for their colleague, the Jesuits of the Midwest province unintentionally revealed something about themselves in their praise for Father Mankowski. “Paul was deeply devoted to the Mass and the sacraments,” the obituary noted. And again: “When men in formation would live at Woodlawn, Paul would offer to celebrate Mass for them.” Why would it be remarkable—indeed why would it be worthy of particular mention—that a Catholic priest was devoted to the Mass, and willing to say Mass for men in formation? Unfortunately Paul’s sort of active faith was remarkable in the Jesuit community to which he devoted his life. Nevertheless he persevered. He, at least, could certainly be found “where the fighting was fiercest.”
Was he wrong to fight so fiercely? Let me give my old friend (almost) the last word, by quoting in its entirely a piece that he posted as Diogenes back in 2003:
Among orthodox Catholics concerned about reform one can identify two main approaches to the job: nutrition and surgery.
Nutritionists believe that the Church’s ills can be cured by fresh air, moderate exercise, and green leafy vegetables. Surgeons believe the patient has an aggressive cancer that demands cutting and cautery—the sooner the better.
Both nutritionists and surgeons understand that Christ’s Church cannot die. We’ve all had a peek at the last chapter of The Book (see Rev 22:1ff) and know that she ultimately triumphs in the bottom of the eleventh inning. We realize too that there’s much suffering ahead of her in the interim.
The history of the Church shows that every crisis is confronted by nutritionists and surgeons. Sometimes the nutritionists are right, and the surgeons cause unnecessary damage by over-reacting and amputating still-healthy members. Sometimes the surgeons are right, and the nutritionists cause unnecessary damage by underestimating the virulence of the disease and delaying the needful intervention, so that once-savable limbs rot off.
With hindsight it’s easy to say when the nutritionists were wrong and when the surgeons were. But at the time of the crisis the evidence is almost always equivocal: some aspects of the Church appear healthy or on the mend, other aspects appear corrupt and progressively toxic to the entire organism. Today nutritionists point to signs of vitality found in thriving new congregations, excellent papal catechesis, the comparative orthodoxy of younger priests, and a documentary commitment to reform. Surgeons are more impressed by the nature and scale of clerical depravity, the incapacity of bishops to remove heretics and criminals from their own number (plus their apparent unwillingness to deal with any corruption except under pressures of public scandal), and the widening gap between the Holy See’s instruction on doctrine, morals, and liturgy and the actual efforts of bishops and priests, who defy this instruction with impunity.
Note too how even undisputed truths are ambiguous in interpretation; the fact that most bishops side with nutritionists and very few with the surgeons is taken by each side as corroborative of its own diagnosis.
Nutritionists and surgeons have the same goal: the full health of the patient. But each believes the other is almost willfully obtuse in ignoring the important symptoms and in talking up the marginal ones. Each believes the other impedes the cure by giving the patient bad advice. “Why do you discourage the faithful by publicizing scandal?” ask the nutritionists. “Why do you divert the Church’s eyes from her danger by minimizing it?” the surgeons reply. Each can point to innocent persons who have left the Church in disgust because of blundering by the other side. A certain mutual exasperation is inevitable.
Most Off The Record contributors are surgeons. In blogdom, at least, we (entirely predictably) provoke dismay and unfriendly comment among nutritionists. Speaking for myself, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. While I believe the surgeons are right and the nutritionists mistaken, I admit to fallibility in matters big and small, nor do I doubt that nutritionists want the Faith to prosper. They may not return the compliment, but that doesn’t especially bother me. Those who lance festering boils (or indulge in sarcasm when untreated boils burst of their own accord) must expect to be viewed with suspicion and alarm; it comes with the job.
A final point. The OTR surgeons of my acquaintance share this characteristic: we wish we were wrong. We would be ecstatic if it turned out that the apparent villainy we decry had an innocent explanation, that ecclesial corruption was a phantasm, that we had misread the signs and had a long list of apologies to make. Where the important matters are concerned, we would love to eat crow.
Maybe in the long run Church historians will conclude that Catholicism was not seriously corrupted in our time, that the intransigence of Father Mankowski was not warranted. I doubt it. When he is seated at the celestial banquet—soon, I pray—I don’t think he’ll be eating crow.
For those who are not familiar with Father Mankowski’s work, herewith a few samples:
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