The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus
(c) 1996 First Things 66 (October 1996): 74-96.
In this issue:
I am impressed by how often it happens; when I lecture on religion in
American life someone will urgently point out during the Q & A that
our society is now religiously "pluralistic" and it is therefore
misleading to speak of religion in mainly Christian and Jewish terms. Then
someone almost inevitably refers to Islam, frequently adding that it is
the "fastest growing" sector of American religion. The someone
is usually a secularist for whom the appeal to pluralism is one way of
diluting the idea of a predominantly Christian presence in society, and
of warding off the notion that ours is in any sense, even demographically,
a "Christian nation."
One can well understand the fears associated with talk about "Christian
America." But the claim that America does not continue to be a predominantly
Christian society, in any sociologically meaningful sense of the term,
runs counter to the facts. The appeal to the growth of Islam is especially
misplaced. The numbers crunchers have arguments among themselves, but the
best survey research puts the number of Muslims in the U.S. somewhere between
1.5 million (with half of those being American-born blacks) and four million.
Of course, Muslim organizations, for understandable reasons, claim many
more, but provide no credible data in support of their claims. Moreover,
a distinctively Muslim public voice in American life-except on questions
of Middle Eastern politics-is virtually nonexistent. With respect to American
culture and domestic politics, the various Muslim organizations demonstrate
that they are good Americans by reinforcing the Judeo- Christian moral
tradition that is thought to be the baseline of our common life. (As for
the fastest growing sector of American religion, that is, far and away,
As in the U.S., so also on the world scene. I have frequently suggested
that, at the edge of the Third Millennium, Christianity-with the Catholic
Church and evangelical Protestantism in the lead-is uniquely situated to
be the culture-forming dynamic in world history. After the end of Marxism,
Christianity provides the only coherent, comprehensive, compelling, and
promising vision of the human future. This vision has been most persuasively
set forth by this pontificate in encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus
(on the free society), Veritatis Splendor (on the universality of
truth), Evangelium Vitae (on the culture of life), and Ut Unum
Sint (on Christian unity as a sign of human unity). In addition,
there is the factor of the sheer magnitude of the growth of Christianity,
which is highlighted in Redemptoris Missio's view of the Third Millennium
as "the springtime of world evangelization."
Of course this line of argument runs the danger of flirting with the
unpleasantnesses associated with "triumphalism." Given the choice
between triumphalism and defeatism, I'll take triumphalism any day, but
that is not to deny that there are indeed real dangers in what is meant
by triumphalism. In this connection, too, one encounters the claim that
Islam represents a comparable or even greater world force to be reckoned
with. There is much to be said for that claim. The history of the next
century will in large part be shaped by the encounter between Islam and
Christianity. Not for nothing has John Paul II very assiduously cultivated
relations with various Islamic leaderships, as difficult as that is. And
of course there are other world religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism.
But, unlike Christianity and Islam, they do not have and are not likely
to develop assertive, culture-forming ambitions on a world scale. Shortly
before his death in 1986, the French intellectual Andre Malraux is reported
to have said, "The twenty-first century will be religious or it will
not be at all." To the extent that is true, the drama will mainly
be played out between Christianity and Islam.
On the Far Side of Modernity
Prescinding for the moment from the question of theological truth (which
is, of course, the decisive question), in that drama Christianity most
decidedly has the upper hand. Relative numbers are only part of the story.
There are almost two billion Christians in the world (one billion of whom
are Roman Catholics) and somewhat under a billion Muslims. More important
than numbers is the fact that Christianity, unlike Islam, is positioned
on the far side of modernity's secular alternatives to religion. Put differently,
Islam has missed out on the last several centuries of world-formative history.
Today it views itself, with considerable justice, as the "object"
rather than the acting "subject" of world history.
These realities are helpfully laid out in a marvelous new book by Bernard
Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (Scribners,
433 pp., $30). Of course Islam is not limited to the Middle East, but,
as Lewis notes, the Middle East is the birthplace of Islam and it is there
that the consciousness of Islam continues to be effectively defined. In
its first centuries, Islam had little to learn from the West ("Christendom")
of the Middle Ages, being much farther advanced in most respects than the
countries of Europe. But soon the West would pull far ahead in almost every
field. The Ottoman Empire borrowed military techniques and cartographic
information from the West, "but this information seems to have had
little or no impact on intellectual life."
Lewis, the doyen of Western scholars of Islam, writes: "The literature
available [to Muslims] on European history was minimal, and its impact
infinitesimal. Such major movements as the Renaissance, the Reformation,
the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution passed unnoticed and without
effect. Islam had its own Renaissance some centuries earlier, with significant
effects even in Europe. There was no response to the European Renaissance,
and no Reformation. All these ideas and others that followed them were
seen as Christian and discounted accordingly. They were simply irrelevant-of
no interest and no concern to Muslims."
There was one exception: "The French Revolution was the first
movement of ideas in Europe which had a significant impact on the Middle
East, and which began to change the processes of thought and action of
its peoples. One reason for this is obvious. This was the first major upheaval
in Europe that did not express its ideas in Christian terms, and that was
even presented by some of its exponents as anti-Christian. Secularism as
such had no appeal to Muslims; if anything, the reverse. But a movement
free from the taint of a rival and superseded religion, and opposed by
all the traditional enemies of the Ottomans in Europe, was another matter.
It could at least be looked at on its merits, and might even yield the
elusive secret of Western power and wealth, about which Muslims were becoming
In 1699, Islam made its last major assault on Christendom, crawling
away from Vienna in defeat and disarray. A little over a century later,
Napoleon would establish himself in Egypt, and from then on, French, English,
German, Italian, Russian, and American forces would humiliate Islam by
demonstrating that the Middle East was more or less their object to be
fitted to their designs. Christianity moves into the Third Millennium having
transcended modernity in many respects, while Islam feels threatened by
the consequences of the three centuries and more of world history that
it missed. Islam, especially militant Islam, suffers from a profound inferiority
complex that is not unrelated to its being inferior in the intellectual,
cultural, scientific, and technological achievements that now, and will
likely continue to, shape the future.
Lewis emphasizes that, while many in the West speak simply of "the
West" and think of it in secular terms, to most Muslims there is no
doubt that the West means Christianity. The crisis they face is understood
as, above all, a religious crisis. When, for example, the Iranians speak
of the United States as the "Great Satan," the reference is not
primarily to military or economic power but to the Quran's description
of Satan as "the insidious whisperer who whispers in the hearts of
men." The perceived threat is not chiefly that of conquest or colonial
domination but of apostasy. Western journalists conventionally talk about
the Muslim fear of Western "secularization," and there is something
to that, but, according to Lewis, in Muslim eyes even secularization is
but another guise of Christendom's ascendancy.
And so at the edge of the Third Millennium, Christianity-with Catholicism
and evangelical Protestantism in the lead-is positioned to be the chief
culture-forming vision in world history. There are arguments against that
proposition, the most impressive being that the global market, joined to
technology, consumerism, and a debased (mainly American) popular culture,
is shaping the future. And, of course, only the future will tell. But I
think one thing is clear: If Malraux is right about the next century being
religious, and I suspect he is, Islam is largely irrelevant to the American
scene and is severely disadvantaged on the world scene. All this is no
occasion for Christian triumphalism. An Islam that feels hopelessly cornered
could be extremely dangerous. Therefore the cultivation of authentic dialogue
with Islam is a matter of greatest urgency. Unfortunately, such a dialogue
is almost entirely nonexistent today. Why that should be the case is a
story for another time.
Inhaling Second-Hand Fanaticism
Here they come again. The article is about addiction (to which, lest
there be any misunderstanding, I am opposed). But then come the standard
statistics about the cause of deaths: "In 1995 illegal drugs killed
20,000 Americans. Tobacco was responsible for 450,000 deaths; alcohol for
more than 100,000." I am always bothered by these assertions, and
not only because I like a good cigar and a Dewar's before dinner.
I know what it means to say that driving accidents kill 45,000 Americans
per year. It means that, except for those who were terminally ill at the
time, 45,000 people who otherwise probably had a long time to live were
killed in driving accidents. Similarly with shootings, falls off high buildings,
and electrocutions in the bathtub. But tobacco kills 450,000 people per
year? Are we to suppose that they otherwise would have lived forever? There
would seem to be no doubt that tobacco-more precisely, cigarettes-is not
good for your health. Nor is being overweight, sexual promiscuity, jogging
till you drop, or obsessive anxiety about your state of health. It may
well be that in x number of cases cigarettes contribute, more or
less, to the clinically determined cause of death. It may be that y
number of people would have lived two or five or twenty years longer had
they not smoked cigarettes. But that is very different from saying that
cigarettes kill 450,000 people per year.
In his best-selling book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland says we
all die from the same cause: lack of oxygen to the brain. A thousand circumstances
can contribute to that end, and innumerable, and often unknown, factors
can contribute to each of those thousand circumstances. But the fact remains
that-with or without cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs-the mortality rate
is and will continue to be 100 percent. Understandably, people have a hard
time accepting that. This is not a brief for adopting habits that are injurious
to one's health and general well-being. There is a moral obligation to
be a good steward of the physical self. But we should stop invoking statistics
in a way that suggests we would naturally live forever unless "killed"
by one bad habit or another.
It's bad enough that young people think they are exempt from the 100
percent mortality rule, but it's intolerable when a whole society turns
so puerile. A seventy-six-year-old friend who is a chain smoker cites studies
allegedly showing that cigarette smokers are significantly less likely
to get Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. He says he would rather die of lung
cancer, and hopes he is prepared to die of whatever finally does him in.
Not dying at all is not an option. Maybe you have an argument against his
view. I'm not sure I do.
Please. Spare me those letters pointing out that cigarettes, alcohol,
and drugs can do great damage. I know, I know. My point here is about how
we think about death, and how delusions of immortality can do great damage
to our minds and souls. The pushiness of the health purists, including
their manipulative use of statistics, pollutes the spiritual air, and is,
I am sure, bad for our health. We should protest our having to inhale their
second-hand fanaticism. I do not say it will kill us, but it can't be good
for us. My point is not that we should light up, but, having come to terms
with the constancy of the mortality rate, we would do well to lighten up.
The Testing of Trust
Across the country this fall the Catholic people will once again be
asked to give money for the Campaign for Human Development (CHD). And they
will no doubt respond generously, once again. Not because they know much
or anything about CHD, but because the Church asks them to and they trust
the Church. CHD was established in 1970 at the height of the "radicalizing"
of Christian "social consciousness." Most of the liberal Protestant
churches had similar programs at the time, but they have for the most part
withered away as church members were alienated by the oldline bureaucracies
of professional prophecy. Not so with CHD.
Since its inception, $230 million has been donated to CHD. The literature
handed out in the parishes suggests that it is a mother-and- apple-pie
affair, "helping poor people to help themselves." It sounds downright
conservative. In fact, CHD is the last slush fund for unreconstructed 1960s
radicalism. Its theme is radical community organizing in the tradition
of the late Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)
and author of Rules for Radicals. Alinsky's credo was, and that
of numerous groups funded by CHD is, "To hell with charity; the only
thing you'll get is what you're strong enough to get." The irony is,
of course, that this credo of total confrontation is totally dependent
upon the charity of the Catholic people. In fact, some IAF projects today
are much less confrontational than Alinsky would have liked. Indeed, IAF,
which has received many millions from CHD over the years, is almost moderate
compared with other groups that are funded.
At the twenty-fifth anniversary of CHD last year in Chicago, two thousand
activists gathered to cheer on the incitements of, for instance, Cornel
West of Harvard, who said in his keynote address: "We are living in
one of the most frightening and terrifying moments in the history of the
nation. . . . And believe you me, there will never be enough police and
prisons to deal with the avalanche of despair. . . . There's no serious
talk about the fact that 1 percent of the population owns 48 percent of
the financial wealth. That sounds oligarchic, plutocratic, pigmentocratic.
. . . The ultimate logic of a market economy is the gangsterization of
culture. The marketplace is an extension of the laissez-white supremacy.
Same as those with homophobia, keeping trapped the humanity of gay brothers
and lesbian sisters." Mr. West gets very excited as he goes on that
Pablo Eisenberg runs the Center for Community Change in Washington,
D.C., a life-support system for radicalisms past. He described conservatives
in Congress as "anti-American, anti-people, anti- democratic, anti-Christian,
and anti-faith; intolerant, bigoted." CHD, he said, is "an attack
on all the conservative values the Christian coalition claims it has."
Without CHD funds, he observed, "more than half of the organizing
in this country would not be taking place." No doubt he exaggerates
somewhat. Even those who think that radical community organizing is a very
good thing might pause over the fact that CHD also funds organizations
that make no secret of their agitation for "abortion rights"
along with gay and lesbian "liberation." Over the years, and
again at the Chicago conference, activists expressed amazement at the fact
that they were funded by the Catholic Church, as well they might.
Ignoring the Good Things
We raised the CHD problem several years ago in these pages, and the
bishop then in charge of the program protested vigorously. Our criticism,
he said, concentrated on the controversial and ignored the unquestionably
good things funded by CHD. Well yes, of course. There are very few programs
that don't do some good. Nobody suggests that CHD has given $230 million
exclusively to efforts that directly contravene Catholic teaching or assault
the sensibilities of the great majority of the Catholic people. The question
is, Why does CHD give any money at all to such efforts? The answer comes
back that, when CHD gives money to an organization, it is funding selectively-supporting
only those activities that are in accord with Catholic teaching. But this
is quite unconvincing. The elementary fact is that money is fungible. When
an organization does not have to spend its own money on one part of its
program, that money is freed up for another part.
To take but one example, Grassroots Leadership in North Carolina describes
itself (in literature distributed at the CHD conference) as an organization
that "works closely with all major southern movements and organizations,
including civil rights, women, labor, lesbian and gay, environment, peace,
and religious action." Some might say that its CHD grant of $25,000
is a small amount, but others might wonder why Grassroots Leadership should
be helped at all in promoting abortion and gay liberation. Paraphrasing
Senator Dirksen, $25,000 here and $25,000 there, and pretty soon we're
talking real money. Apologists for CHD can insist until the cows come home
that they are only funding morally unobjectionable activities, but the
reality is that all those activists gathered in Chicago certainly thought
they were being funded by CHD. And they are. The good bishop to the contrary,
you cannot fund only the one half of an activist's time when he is not
working to maintain abortion on demand.
The most solemn question is the exploitation of the trust of the Catholic
people. It is almost certain that, if they knew what CHD monies supported,
they would not support CHD. They should know. And even if some Catholics
who reject Church teachings on moral questions would continue to support
CHD, why on earth should the bishops? CHD itself needs to be radically
reorganized. Or terminated. Meanwhile, when the basket is passed for the
second collection on CHD Sunday, those Catholics who do know will want
to exercise their own good judgment.
Chronicler of the Conversation
Over four decades of remarkable industry, Martin E. Marty has established
himself as the most influential of historians of American religion. Coming
out of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Marty early declared his allegiance
to the Protestant mainstream, and from his post at the University of Chicago
he has virtually redefined the academic field of modern American religious
history. The third volume of his Modern American Religion is just
out from the University of Chicago (528 pp., $34.95). The second was discussed
extensively here ("Political Religion: Reporting on the Reporters,"
August/September 1991), and its sequel should not go without notice.
The third volume covers the years 1941-1960. The thesis is that, while
the previous two decades marked the centrifugal dynamics of American culture
and religion, 1941-1960 accented the centripetal. In these decades, the
fundamentalist-modernist controversy and other sectarian strivings gave
way to religion as a unifying national force during World War II and prepared
the way for the "religious boom" of the fifties marked by a civil
religion of the American Way of Life. In the final chapter of the third
volume, Marty sets the stage for the conflicts of the 1960s and another
cycle of the centrifugal.
As in the earlier volumes, Marty takes the standard account of national
history, especially political history, as the established story line, and
then supplies the ways in which "the religious situation" reacted
to, interacted with, and sometimes helped shape that story line. At center
stage is "the national culture, where radio and television, films,
magazines, and books" depict the American reality. The national culture
is Marty's vital center, and at the end of the 1950s the vital center of
the national culture was the liberalism described by Arthur Schlesinger's
The Vital Center. In the ancillary religious story, Marty
situates himself at the vital center of mainline Protestantism, which,
as he points out, was even then no longer so very vital.
Marty and his research assistants, whom he generously acknowledges,
are assiduous readers, and these more than five hundred pages are in large
part an extended report on that reading. He strings together precis of
books and major articles, devoting page after page to summarizing what
was said by people as various as Arthur Cohen, Walter J. Ong, Will Herberg,
James DeForest Murch, or Carl Henry. He says he is not writing a history
of ideas, and that is probably right. It is more like a florilegium of
other writers' commentaries on the religious situation, with Marty keeping
his own commentary on the commentaries under tight rein. Apart from the
centrifugal/centripetal thesis mentioned above, the volume offers no major
argument, nor does it challenge the conventionally liberal reading of American
culture in the forties and fifties.
The Importance of Being Reminded
That is not necessarily a criticism. As Dr. Johnson observed, we have
a greater need to be reminded than to be instructed, and Marty's compilation
of book reports and literary gleanings from the discussions of the time
are a most instructive reminder. What is lacking in analysis or in the
dramatic unfolding of a story is compensated for, at least in part, by
Marty's providing us with a treasure trove of quotations. Readers of Marty's
newsletter, Context, know how skilled he is in picking out the apt
paragraph or article excerpt that illustrates what is being discussed in
sundry forums. Modern American Religion is in some ways a multivolume
Context, except that it more specifically focuses on what was said
about "the religious situation" (the title of an early book by
The relative absence of women, blacks, Native Americans, and other
minorities in his account is apparently a great embarrassment for Marty.
He apologizes for the omission several times, and at length, but he notes
that he can only report on who at the time was doing the public talking,
namely, white males. One is struck also by the clarity of Marty's recognition
that the Protestant mainline with which he identifies was already in dramatic
decline by the end of World War II. The present volume provides the obsequies
for the last vestiges of Protestantism as the national religion. With the
resurgence of fundamentalism, now called evangelicalism, the mainline or
ecumenical groups represented only a part, and that an increasingly dispirited
part, of Protestantism. Moreover, Protestants of all varieties lived in
fear of what they perceived as the threat of a rapidly growing Catholicism.
Marty very effectively demonstrates the pervasiveness and intensity of
anti-Catholic prejudice, and on that score and others he does not spare
the magazine with which he has been associated for many years, the Christian
In 1960 John Kenneth Galbraith published The Liberal Hour. That
was the time in which Martin E. Marty had very much come into his own as
a leading commentator, if not the leading commentator, on the religious
dimension of an apparently ascendant liberalism. His liberalism was tempered,
however, by his ineradicable formation as a Missouri Synod Lutheran, with
the theological skepticism about liberal progress that attends that formation.
By the end of volume three, he can scarcely contain his scorn for the mindless
optimism that had seized liberal Protestantism in the form of William Hamilton's
"death of God theology" and Harvey Cox's celebration of "the
secular city." And yet, if he takes his stand anywhere, it is still,
and despite all, with "the vital center."
That center is shrinking and is now obviously off-center, but where
else is one to stand? In Modern American Religion, evangelicalism,
Catholicism, and, of course, Judaism are all "them," and it is
to Marty's credit that he does not presume that academic history provides
a vantage point of neutrality untouchably above the fray. So the faithful
chronicler will stay by his chosen station. By the final chapter of this
third volume he sees the icebergs ahead, but he is determined to stay on,
recording what people said, writing down what people wrote, until the very
end. Of course, Marty knows that it isn't over until it's over, and the
story of American religion, including the story of the liberal mainline,
is certainly not over yet. I expect and hope that, with or without what
once was thought to be the vital center, Martin E. Marty will continue
to chronicle the conversation about the religious situation. The instruction
is in being reminded.
Facing Up to Censorship
"Mendacity. I am surrounded by mendacity," declares cancer-ridden
Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The same might be said about
the brouhaha over St. Martin's Press and the cancellation of its contract
with David Irving to publish his Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich.
All I know about the author and his book is what I read in the Times,
and there is no reason to trust that. They claim Irving belongs to the
odious company of Holocaust deniers and, if true, that is very bad indeed.
My interest is in the several accounts given of the controversy, including
the most recent in the Sunday book review by Tina Rosenberg, author of
a tendentiously leftist book on post-Communist Europe.
When word got out that it planned to publish Goebbels, St. Martin's
was attacked in news reports and columns, and was deluged with protests,
including death threats. Rosenberg writes: "Before the reversal by
St. Martin's, Thomas Dunne [the editor who had acquired the book] released
a statement arguing that books should not be rejected because they are
offensive to certain groups in society or because their authors' lives
are not admirable ones. He is right, of course, but this is a disingenuous
argument in this case." Ms. Rosenberg is a principled opponent of
censorship, of course. If Mr. Irving is determined to get a hearing for
his perverse views, she says, he can always self-publish. Offensive books
are published all the time, she notes, citing books by Howard Stern and
O. J. Simpson. She even approves of the recent publication of a book by
a Robert W. Thurston which claims that Stalin wasn't such a bad guy after
"But again," she writes, "Goebbels is different-and
not just because of the sensitivity of its subject and the influence of
its critics. Mr. Thurston may be a bad historian, but at least he is an
honest one. David Irving, by contrast, is not just wrong, he appears to
be engaging in deliberate distortion. Worse, he is a sneak: the uncautioned
reader will absorb a version of history exonerating Hitler and minimizing
the evil of the Holocaust without knowing it." This is incoherence
and disingenuousness of a high order. It is "honest" history
to exonerate Stalin. What is impermissible is an author who "appears"
to be distorting the history of Hitler and the Holocaust. It is the duty
of Ms. Rosenberg and others to protect unsuspecting readers who might otherwise
"absorb" an account that misrepresents the facts. In fulfilling
that duty, there is no criticism of the means employed, including death
threats against editors. (Compare the almost universal outcry when Muslims
threatened Salman Rushdie with death for his Satanic Verses.)
The truth is that in New York publishing there is an effective taboo
against anything that smacks of Holocaust revisionism or denial. As it
happens, I am all for taboos. It would be a very good thing were publishers
prevented by public opprobrium (not including death threats) from trafficking
in pornography, incitements to criminal behavior, and pseudo-scholarly
exonerations of such as Hitler or Stalin. Whether or not it is backed by
law, that is called censorship. The mendacity of the Times and of
its apologists such as Tina Rosenberg is in censoring David Irving while
claiming to be principled opponents of censorship. If Mr. Irving's
book denies or belittles the Holocaust, I am glad that St. Martin's is
not publishing it. The dissemination of such literature should be confined
to the fever swamps where it belongs.
The sadness and dishonesty revealed by this episode, however, is a publishing
world that defends and even celebrates the promotion of almost every real
and imaginable evil, except when it comes to the evil of the Holocaust.
The cultural consequence is Weimar on the Hudson, a world without censorship,
except for one last and increasingly fragile taboo. Increasingly fragile
because those who enforce the taboo declare themselves to be principled
opponents of enforcing taboos, thus making their behavior appear arbitrary,
irrational, and, by their own libertarian ethics, immoral. Holocaust denial
should be beyond the pale. As should much else. Absent the nerve and wit
required for an honest discussion of the perils and necessity of censorship,
we will continue to be surrounded by mendacity.
Confusing Culture and Counterculture
Author Richard Rodriguez, writing in the National Catholic Reporter,
attacks Justice Antonin Scalia for saying in his dissent from the Colorado
Amendment 2 case that homosexuals as a group have "disproportionate
political power," "high disposable income," and "enormous
influence in the American media." Scalia, says Rodriguez, is part
of a backlash or "countermovement" against the acceptance of
homosexuality. Writing "as a homosexual man," Rodriguez says
he is confident his side is winning. "What I see is an astonishing
change. I meet homosexual men and women now in every corner of American
life. . . . I think of two Catholic families in California. They have been
united in recent years by the love of two dying men-lovers dying of AIDS.
There they all were-fifty smiling faces in a Christmas photograph. Three
or four generations, standing alongside the two thinning men. That is the
way the sexual revolution is taking place-by the Christmas tree, within
the very family that Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson invoke for their own
purposes as unchanging and rigid. It is, paradoxically, because so many
Americans are growing unafraid of homosexuality that the countermovement
There is something strange, and maybe paradoxical, here, but it is not
as Mr. Rodriguez would have it. The acceptance of two men dying of AIDS
may be a testament to love and forgiveness, but it is hardly evidence of
people being "unafraid of homosexuality." Studies indicating
that, for men actively engaged in the homosexual subculture, the average
age of death is forty-two (a little more than half the life expectancy
of an average American male) gives most parents good reason to fear that
their sons will be homosexual. Gay propagandists-who do indeed have "enormous
influence in the American media"-depict those with AIDS as wounded
heroes returning from the front lines of the sexual revolution. We should
be thankful for the innumerable families that, while they reject that depiction,
care for their dying loved ones. And we should be thankful for judges such
as Scalia who refuse to override by judicial fiat the democratically expressed
rejection of a way of life that is, with good reason, viewed as a way of
Mr. Rodriguez says gay activists tend to portray their movement as "countercultural"
when in fact it is the opponents of the movement who "have become
the counterculture." "And they know it," Rodriguez adds.
"That was partly what Scalia meant to imply: Homosexuals have power."
Justice Scalia and Mr. Rodriguez would seem to agree on that, then. He
is still outraged that Scalia says it, however, and one suspects the reason
is that, for all his bravado, Mr. Rodriguez knows that gay power is not
carrying the day against the moral sentiments and common sense of the American
people. The only hope is to silence popular sentiments and sense by anathematizing
them as bigotry and irrational prejudice. Which, regrettably, is what a
majority of Justice Scalia's colleagues on the Court did in overruling
Colorado's Amendment Two.
Here Comes Everybody
"Two papal potboilers offer a disturbing glimpse of the polarization
of American Catholicism." That's the heading of Peter Steinfels' reflection
in the New York Times on new books by Andrew Greeley and Malachi
Martin. Greeley's White Smoke, published by Forge Books, is about
the wicked machinations of conservatives (i.e., reactionaries) in the election
of a successor to John Paul II, while Martin's Windswept House,
published by Doubleday, reveals that liberal (i.e., apostate) forces joined
by Satanists and Masons are conniving to force the resignation of John
Paul II. Such sensationalist fantasies at the polar extremities, says Steinfels,
provide "a disturbing glimpse into the overheated id of Catholicism
today." A constant reason for concern, no doubt, but not, at least
not finally, all that disturbing.
The origin of the statement is in dispute, but somebody (maybe James
Joyce) first said that Catholicism is "Here comes everybody."
More than a billion people worldwide and sixty million in the U.S. cannot
help but produce a maddeningly confused array of positions in contention.
On the one hand, there is "We Are Church," a jerry-built coalition
of more than twenty groups trying to get a million signatures in the U.S.
for a referendum that calls for women's ordination, married priests, the
popular election of bishops, and other changes favored by the left. The
credibility of the coalition is not enhanced by the inclusion of Catholics
for a Free Choice, a pro-abortion letterhead organization that the bishops
conference has declared has no right whatever to call itself Catholic.
Nor, I expect, will any sensible person be much impressed by a year's campaign
that produces only a million signatures. Even if all those signing are
Catholics (a point much disputed in a similar referendum in Germany and
Austria), it will invite the inference that over 98 percent of Catholics
in the U.S. do not agree with the positions espoused by "We Are Church."
At the other end, so to speak, are various traditionalist groups claiming
that a de facto schism already exists in the Church in the U.S. It is frequently
said that there are two Catholic churches, the magisterial and the dissenting,
an assertion quite remarkable when coming from supposed champions of orthodoxy.
Such an assertion flies in the face of the most elementary Catholic ecclesiology
that affirms that all those are in communion with one another who are in
communion with the bishops who are in communion with the bishop of Rome,
who is Peter among us, and through whom Christ governs His one Church.
Those who do not persevere in charity are part of the Church only "in
body" and not "in heart," but they are still part of the
one Church (Catechism, 837). Moreover, it is by no means
evident that perseverance or non-perseverance in charity falls neatly along
the left/right divide. I have traditionalist friends who urge that we should
be more candid in distinguishing between "true" Catholics and
"false" Catholics. We should not say that there are sixty million
Catholics in the U.S. but only six or, at the most, ten million real
Catholics. My response to that sectarian way of thinking is that I
did not become a Catholic in order to be a Protestant.
Given the size, influence, and moral stature of the Catholic Church
in the world, it is hardly surprising that, between the extremities of
Greeley and Martin, there is much jockeying and posturing aimed at laying
claim to the "authentic center" of Catholicism. Consider the
response to Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, a very
useful book edited by Mary Jo Weaver and R. Scott Appleby. We thought it
would be interesting to have it reviewed by an intelligently moderate person
on the liberal side of the aisle and so we asked Paul Baumann, associate
editor of Commonweal. His review implicitly defined the center as
including George Weigel and the wonderful people (the Catholic ones, at
least) associated with FT, while marginalizing, if not excluding, groups
such as Women for Faith and Family (WFF) and the Fellowship of Catholic
Baumann referred to "the busy household" of James and Helen
Hitchcock, which I took to be a compliment, even if he did not intend it
that way. Helen heads up WFF and Jim is a founder of FCS, of which I am
pleased to be a member. Immediately cries were heard from the conservative
side of the aisle that FT had declared the Hitchcocks to be outside the
charmed circle of the Catholic "center." Dear me. It is perversely
flattering to learn that some people think FT is controlling the correlation
of forces in American Catholicism, and even manipulating the hierarchy
and the Holy Father himself, but of course it is utter nonsense. (The conspiratorially
minded will respond: Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?)
Paul Baumann apparently thinks WFF and FCS are on the fringes. I am
always surprised when readers are surprised that the editors do not necessarily
agree with our authors on everything. Baumann notes that WFF says it endorses
"all" Catholic teaching, and FCS claims to embrace "the
entire faith of the Catholic Church." He comments, "All
and entire are favorite modifiers for many conservatives."
I suppose he's right about that. But, if the alternatives are "piecemeal"
and "selective," I'll go with "all" and "entire"
any day. All and entire, as in "catholic," which means "according
to the totality" or "in keeping with the whole" (Catechism,
830). As, also, in "Here comes everybody." Which includes
a good many people who are not as Catholic, or as catholic, as one might
St. Augustine observed that God has many whom the Church does not have,
and the Church has many whom God does not have. And no doubt the Church
has many whom we might think she shouldn't have. But the embrace of her
love is as promiscuous as is the love of Christ, whose body she is. In
the end He will see to the sorting out of the sheep from the goats, the
wheat from the tares. Short of the end time, some will separate themselves
from the communion, and it is a good thing when the Church excommunicates
such, which is really a matter of putting them on loving notice as to what
they have done to themselves. But, so far as I know, the busy Hitchcock
household, the editors of Commonweal, Andrew Greeley, and Malachi
Martin are all in communion with the "center" that is Christ
and His Church. Admittedly, in some cases it is a bit of a stretch, but
that's the way it is with the grace of God. For which we all have reason
to be grateful.
Ecumenism as Consolidating Divisions
Some five hundred participants from the U.S. and Canada heard Michael
Root of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, address
the annual gathering of the National Workshop on Christian Unity in Richmond,
Virginia. Root spoke on "A Striking Convergence in American Ecumenism,"
referring to three proposals that are on the table for a variety of oldline
Protestant denominations. There is the Consultation on Church Union (COCU),
which was launched in 1970 and has subsequently had a rocky history. Then
there is the proposed "concordat" between ELCA Lutherans and
Episcopalians, which would establish full communion between those two bodies.
As would the "formula of agreement" among the ELCA, the Reformed
Church in America (RCA), the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), and the United
Church of Christ (UCC). Root mentions in passing a fourth proposal on the
world level for a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification between
the Catholic Church and the churches of the Lutheran World Federation.
None of the American proposals aims at merging national denominations
in the way that in recent history produced PCUSA, the United Methodist
Church, and the ELCA. Originally, COCU was supposed to do that, but it
has now retreated to a vaguer communion of worship, witness, and service
in which the several bodies retain their "distinct ecclesiastical
systems." "For lack of a better name," says Root, "one
might call the shared model of the present proposals denominational
communion." COCU, along with the ELCA-Episcopal and ELCA-Reformed
proposals, have built-in ambiguities. In the second there is admitted ambiguity
about the necessity of bishops in episcopal succession (and whether or
how Episcopalians are bestowing that on Lutherans), and in the third there
is admitted ambiguity about the Real Presence in the Eucharist (a historic
difference between Lutherans and Reformed).
The proposals avoid debates that are going on within the bodies involved.
They declare "communion in faith" while leaving unclear what
that faith might be. Says Root: "Within all of the involved churches,
debates are proceeding about what some see as fundamental issues of faith,
e.g., Trinitarian language, and about sensitive areas of ethics, e.g.,
sexuality. If the ecumenical proposals are truly received by the churches
and a common life follows, then we cannot expect to insulate our ecumenical
relations from these debates." The proposals also declare a common
ministry, but, if the bodies involved have "differing policies on
the ordination of homosexual persons, then the interchangeability of ordained
ministers will be limited by a regulation that is more than merely administrative
While he does not quite say so, Root is skeptical about these proposals
for "denominational communion." "I seriously doubt,"
he asserts, "that the continued divisions of our churches are today
extensively experienced at the local level as barriers that divide Christians
from one another. Survey data demonstrate that deep shifts in opinion have
taken place. Especially among the Protestant churches (including here Episcopalians),
the division of our churches has become rather painless." The danger,
he says, is that these proposals are no more than "status quo ecumenism."
"I am increasingly unconvinced ecclesiologically," says Root,
"that the unity we are seeking is finally compatible with the long-term
continuing existence in the same place of differing denominations with
virtually unlimited autonomy." He concludes: "We need to keep
in mind the larger movement within which these proposals might be significant
steps, but still only steps along a path where we trust the Spirit will
lead us further."
For some readers, this discussion of rearrangements among oldline Protestants
will inevitably bring to mind the jape about deck chairs on the Titanic.
The chairs are stenciled with a bewildering variety of proprietorial initials:
COCU, ELCA, RCA, PCUSA, UCC, and on and on. It is true that the bodies
involved represent a declining and dispirited sector of Protestantism in
America, and yet they still have millions of committed members and many
vibrant local churches. It is hard to see, however, any real advance for
Christian unity in these proposals for "denominational communion."
As Root notes, in the experienced life of liberal Protestantism, the existence
of separate denominations has become rather painless, because they have
And the present proposals might reinforce the much more significant
division, which is between liberal Protestantism, on the one hand, and
the robust and growing sector that goes by the name of evangelical Protestantism.
Evangelicalism, in turn, includes not only groups such as the Southern
Baptists and Assemblies of God, but also substantial numbers of more conservative
members in the oldline groups who are increasingly alienated from their
denominations. The churnings of American religion defy neat classifications.
ELCA Lutherans are key to two of the current proposals. It is expected
that they will come before the ELCA for action in the next year. The formula
for communion with the Reformed, including the very liberal United Church
of Christ, would move the ELCA in a decidedly Protestant direction. The
concordat with the Episcopalians, according to some, would move the ELCA
in a more "catholic" and maybe even Catholic (meaning Roman Catholic
and Orthodox) direction. But the Episcopalians (and the Anglican communion
generally) began burning bridges with Orthodoxy and Rome by unilaterally
ordaining women-a demolition that may be completed with this year's de
facto approval, and perhaps next year's de jure approval, of the ordination
of active homosexuals.
Whatever else is involved, the proposals would certainly mean a further
dilution of whatever distinctively Lutheran theological identity remains
in the ELCA. They would finalize the break with other Lutheran bodies in
this country such as the Missouri and Wisconsin synods, bringing to a definitive
end the century-long search for Lutheran unity. But that may in fact have
happened with the formation of the ELCA in 1987, in which case the current
proposals are but a further unfolding of the step that was, willy-nilly,
taken then. At the same time, one notes that the large Missouri Synod has
in recent years shown signs of drifting, in a most un-Lutheran way, into
the camp of evangelical Protestantism. The result may be that there are
ten million Lutherans in the U.S. but no presence that is distinctively
Lutheran. Others can judge whether that is a great loss.
There is a great sorting out going on in the developments surveyed
by Michael Root. Not too many years ago, "liberal religion" meant
groups such as the Unitarians. Today they have lost their market niche
and almost disappeared, having been displaced by the further liberalizing
of what used to be called mainline Protestantism. It is very unlikely that
a minister who is a unitarian-meaning someone who rejects the dogma of
the Trinity-would be made to feel uncomfortable in, say, the United Church
of Christ. The net result of the proposals addressed by Root would bring
about two major accessions to liberal Protestantism-the Episcopalians and
the ELCA Lutherans.
The "Anglo-Catholics" among the former and the "evangelical
catholics" among the latter are ambivalent about being Protestant
and emphatic about not being theologically liberal, but both parties have
now been effectively marginalized within their denominations. Episcopalians
and Lutherans of catholic sensibility and conviction must either seek another
ecclesial home or hunker down in local enclaves in the hope that their
denominations will let them be-a form of radical congregationalism that
hardly accords with a belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
It is a bitter turn of events for those Lutherans and Anglicans who not
too long ago thought there was a reasonable hope of ecclesial reconciliation
with Rome and, in time, with Orthodoxy.
The Larger Movement
The ecumenical vision is strikingly narrowed in Michael Root's "A
Striking Convergence in American Ecumenism." What he calls "denominational
ecumenism" amounts to a hardening of the ecumenical isolation of liberal
Protestantism. He is right to be unhappy with what he describes. It is
worse than "status quo ecumenism." Root points to "the larger
movement within which these proposals might be significant steps."
It seems more likely that these proposals are not steps within that larger
movement but against that larger movement. The larger movement that is
worthy of being called ecumenical must surely include all Christians-oldline,
evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox.
An invitation to that larger movement is issued in John Paul II's 1995
encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). The invitation
is premised upon the truth declared by Vatican II that all who are baptized
and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior are truly but imperfectly in communion.
Ecumenism is not a matter of creating unity but of bringing to fulfillment
the unity that already exists. It is not a simple matter of "coming
home to Rome," although full communion does require communion in the
Petrine ministry that is exercised by the bishop of Rome. One of the more
striking features of Ut Unum Sint is the way that John Paul put
on the table for ecumenical discussion how that ministry of Peter might
be exercised differently in order better to serve Christian unity. Unfortunately,
that offer has received slight response from other Christians to date.
Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has made unmistakably clear that its
commitment to Christian unity is irrevocable. Ut Unum Sint repeatedly
affirms that ecumenism is not "optional," it is not an "appendix,"
but is essential to the Church's life and mission. It is in the very nature
of being Church. The encyclical lays out a clear agenda of steps toward
ecclesial reconciliation with both Orthodoxy and the various sectors of
Protestantism. The Catholic Church alone is devoted to sustained, intense,
and disciplined ecumenical conversation with all Christians. Its commitment
is not contingent upon ecumenical schedules or schemes of reorganization.
It is in this for the duration, until Our Lord returns in glory. This is
the larger and more promising movement. By comparison with this movement,
oldline Protestant proposals for "ecumenical convergence" are
revealed as little more than the consolidation of existing divisions.
While We're At It
- Herbert C. of Cleveland put his very bright niece on his list, and
we sent her a sample issue of FT. Now a very satisfied subscriber, she
says she had never suspected her uncle of going in for such high-class
reading. It is the kind of thing that can happen when you send us your
list of family members, friends, and associates who should be reading FT.
Why not do so right away?
- Here's a new book by a Deborah G. Felder, The 100 Most Influential
Women of All Time (Citadel Press). In compiling her list, Ms. Felder
sent out a questionnaire to one hundred (presumably the most influential)
heads of women's studies departments, asking them to nominate their top
ten. After tallying the results, she came up with "the women who have
had the greatest and longest-lasting historical and cultural impact."
Number one is Eleanor Roosevelt and hundredth on the list is Lucille Ball.
Others are Golda Meir (36), Coco Chanel (50), Marian Anderson (65), and
Cleopatra (84). The Virgin Mary is listed tenth. I don't know why, but
it seems one would have to list the Blessed Virgin first or not at all.
Ms. Felder allows that Mary is "undoubtedly the most famous woman
of all time [but] she is more a myth and an article of faith than a flesh-and-blood
woman." In any event, those who come before Mary and after Mrs. Roosevelt
are: Marie Curie, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, Jane Addams, Mary Wollstonecraft,
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Tubman. Of her project
Ms. Felder says, "I expect a lot of controversy." That is no
doubt what she hopes for, but sympathy is the more appropriate response.
Ms. Felder is a former editor at Scholastic magazine, which may
help explain what your children are being told in school. One imagines
that a young girl of a feminist bent would find it profoundly discouraging
that, in order to come up with a hundred women who have most influenced
world history, one has to reach for the likes of: Frances Perkins (12),
Melanie Klein (23), Angela Grimke (24), Elizabeth Blackwell (26), Karen
Horney (34), Zora Neale Hurston (40), Jane Goodall (48), Dorothea Lange
(59), Mary Cassatt (69), Hillary Rodham Clinton (75), Frida Kahlo (78),
Diane Arbus (88), and Edith Head (98). Now to find a hundred reasonably
well-educated Americans, men or women, who could identify more than half
of the figures on Ms. Felder's list. I do not for a minute credit this
book's slur against the influence of women in world history.
- Render Unto Caesar . . . and Unto God is a ninety-two-page
report issued after several years of study by the Commission on Theology
and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod (LCMS). Subtitled
A Lutheran View of Church and State, it is a refreshingly thoughtful
document that should be of interest far beyond Lutheran circles. Guided
by the distinctively Lutheran Law/Gospel dialectic and the concept of the
"twofold kingdom of God," the LCMS has been notably cautious
about political engagement, except on issues such as abortion and parental
responsibility in education where it believes it is acting in obedience
to a clear word of Scripture. Among the conclusions of the report is this:
"It may very well be that, in such a cumbersome process, the institutional
church will miss many opportunities to say important things. But the day-to-day
political process does not depend upon the church. If the Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod is to avoid the failures of those church bodies where
the advocacy agenda is so full that their voices are simply dulled by overuse,
it must be willing to accept such limited speaking and the cumbersome process
of checks and balances that produces it." The careful approach of
the LCMS is premised upon a highly spiritual (some would say spiritualized)
idea of the Church. Reformed (Calvinist), Roman Catholic, and Orthodox
communities have very different ecclesiologies which make possible and
even necessary a concept of "social doctrine" that is alien to
most Lutherans and to Protestants in free-church traditions. Nonetheless,
both theologically and in terms of practical judgment, Render Unto Caesar
. . . and Unto God contains much wisdom that can benefit all Christians.
Given the pervasive theological and practical confusions that mark today's
entanglements between religion and politics, clear thinking from any quarter
should be warmly welcomed. (For more information, write LCMS, 1333 South
Kirkwood Rd., St. Louis, MO 63122.)
- A reader excoriates us for publishing an article a while back that
seemed to accept one version of "theistic evolution." Didn't
we agree with C. S. Lewis that evolutionary theory in all its possible
variations is incompatible with Christianity? There's a bit more to it
than that, it seems. The March 1996 issue of Perspectives on Science
and Christian Faith, a journal of evangelical persuasion, has an article
that examines Lewis' correspondence with Bernard Acworth from 1944 to 1960
on precisely this subject. The authors conclude: "It is doubtful that
Lewis would have felt comfortable espousing the views of present-day creationists.
He always carefully indicated that he opposed evolutionism as a philosophy,
not evolution as a biological theory. At the same time his correspondence
with Bernard Acworth suggests that he had come in his later years to entertain
more doubts about the claims made for organic evolution than his published
works indicate." Of course Lewis is not the final word, but those
Christians who sometimes seem to think he is might take note. We tend to
sympathize with the argument of our own Phillip Johnson that it is frequently
very difficult to distinguish, never mind separate, evolution as scientific
theory from evolution as materialist philosophy.
- Promise Keepers goes from strength to strength, gathering hundreds
of thousands of men to pledge themselves to moral and spiritual renewal
as husbands and fathers. In 1997, Promise Keepers plans to bring a million
men to Washington. Founder Bill McCartney is placing increasing emphasis
on the multiracial character of the movement. The sixth of seven promises
men are asked to keep is to be "committed to reaching beyond any racial
and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity."
Of course everything bright and beautiful has its cavilers. Randall Bailey
of the International Theological Center in Atlanta says it's all very nice
for Promise Keepers to talk about racial reconciliation but that doesn't
address the systemic root causes of racism, and so forth and so on. According
to this report, "Bailey said leaders of another large gathering of
men, the Million Man March in Washington last October, had been more committed
to 'systemic dismantling' of racism." That's one way of describing
Minister Farrakhan's racist program of black separatism.
- Inspired by Roger Rosenblatt, our friend Jim Wall, editor of the liberal
Christian Century, deplores the opprobrium surrounding the L-word.
Noting the rigidly quota-ized structure of the Democratic Party, he even
speaks of "liberal fundamentalism." He recognizes that abortion
is somehow related to the decline of liberalism. Like Rosenblatt, Wall
favors the current abortion license but complains that liberals have not
been appropriately sensitive to "the deeply held convictions of those
who find abortion morally unacceptable." What is to be done about
the fact that the law permits abortion at any time for any reason during
the course of pregnancy, that more than thirty million babies have been
killed in this country alone since the 1973 Roe decision, that four
thousand innocent human beings are slaughtered daily, that many thoughtful
Americans believe the country is engaged in a moral struggle as great as
that over the emancipation of slaves? Wall's answer: "Abortion is
a complex moral issue which demands constant and thoughtful discussion."
One need go no farther than that non-answer to discover why liberalism
has become for so many a term of opprobrium.
- Many pleasant things have been said, and deservedly so, about Irving
Kristol's Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, but perhaps
nobody has put the heart of the matter so well as FT author Wilfred M.
McClay, who reviews the book in Commentary: "Perhaps, then,
there is another sense in which Kristol deserves the appellation of 'godfather.'
Ever since the appearance of Mario Puzo's book of that title, there has
been a tendency to think of a godfather as nothing but a power broker.
But in the word's original meaning, a godfather is one who sponsors a child
at baptism and thereafter is expected to take a leading role in his spiritual
instruction within the community of faith. To be sure, there is something
odd in crediting this 'neo-orthodox' nonobservant Jew with a status so
closely associated with Christian practice. But Kristol may have turned
out to be just the right kind of godfather for an intellectual and political
movement, neoconservatism, that began its life without much regard for
spiritual things. In the process of seeking to preserve the genuine achievements
of modernity, many of us, neoconservative or not, have come to acknowledge
modernity's manifold failures and sicknesses-only to find that Irving Kristol
has already been saying such things for a long time, and saying as well
that our view of political and social life, and the moral calculus by which
we shape our individual and social lives, derive from what we believe about
ultimate matters. Slowly but surely, the rest of us are catching up with
- More attention will be paid in these pages to Christopher Shannon's
marvelously lucid Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual,
and Culture in American Social Thought from Veblen to Mills (Johns
Hopkins University Press), but, simply to whet your appetite, this from
the conclusion: "Finally, the recovery of the formal spheres of freedom
and necessity should bring with it a respect for the informal realm that
exists to some degree in both of these spheres. This informal world I take
to be the ordinary life of work and love. Respect for this world entails
a rejection of the modern 'affirmation' that rationalized ordinary life
into a locus of meaning; it entails a much humbler 'acceptance' of ordinary
life in all its ordinariness and informality. The world of friendship-of
drinking and talking, working and playing, loving and hating-may bring
happiness or it may not; in neither case does it bring 'meaning.' It is
no less important for being, in a sense, meaningless. Our modern spiritual
efficiency experts, including many social historians, tremble at the prospect
of some ordinary experience failing to produce meaning. Acceptance of ordinary
life requires an acceptance of waste still anathema to most people in our
work-obsessed culture. All things do not exist to be read. Experience does
not have to be written to be valid. The informal must be left informal.
Of course, distinctions between the formal and the informal, or freedom
and necessity, only make sense within specific traditions. The modern revolt
against God and nature has all but incapacitated the Western world's ability
to think within a tradition. The only hope for addressing the issues I
have raised in this conclusion lies in the great surviving traditions of
the premodern West: orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox churches,
and Islam. For those outside of these traditions, I can only offer the
words of C. Wright Mills to his liberal critics: 'I feel no need for, and
perhaps am incapable of arranging for you, a lyric upsurge, a cheerful
little pat on the moral back.' The bourgeois attempt to construct a rational
alternative to tradition has failed."
- "As I get older," a friend remarked over dinner, "being
Irish means more to me." I've known him for thirty years and I didn't
know it meant anything to him before. But then, it was the eve of St. Patrick's
Day, which in New York is a holy day up there with Easter and Christmas
and just a bit ahead of Pentecost, and he had just finished reading Tom
Cahill's masterful tale, How The Irish Saved Civilization, which
is all about how fifth-century Irish monks rescued the world from the barbarians.
Up at Radio City Music Hall, Riverdance was pulling in big crowds.
It's a show of Irish dance and music purporting to celebrate the essence
of Irish culture. Another friend says he was enjoying immensely this flamboyant
assertion of "Irish identity" until he realized halfway through
that there was not one single reference to anything Christian. Afterwards,
he joined the cast and their friends, and asked about this oddity. Oh yes,
he was told by one and all, Riverdance is very deliberately part
of a bigger artistic and intellectual endeavor to reconstitute Irish identity
on a solely Celtic and pagan basis, and very specifically against anything
Catholic. "The Church is finished," the smart set declared, "Nobody
under forty goes to Mass any more." Of course that is very far from
being the case, but it is further confirmation of the thesis advanced here
by David Quinn ("To Be a Conservative in Ireland: A Lament,"
November 1995) that the cultural grandees of Ireland are dead set on plunging
into the swamp of secularization from which some other societies are slowly
emerging. Ironic that what Ireland saved for the world it may now itself
be losing, but one expects that the time of the monks will come around
- "There is a newspaper that scratches where people itch, and I
am its editor." That's the opening line in a promotion letter from
Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). "NCR
goes after that itch. It does not take its stand with anybody's status
quo, political or denominational. It tries to look meaning in the eye."
I've been sitting here these last five minutes looking meaning in the eye,
and I think meaning just blinked.
- I'm sorry, but it does make you wonder whether these people are really
so dumb or whether they believe that others are so dumb. The Pilgrim Press
(United Church of Christ) has brought out a big thick book of forty-five
essays representing, they say, "an accessible, balanced presentation
of the abortion debate." Abortion: A Reader is edited by Lloyd
Steffen. Of the forty-five authors, four are noted as critics of abortion:
Pope Paul VI, Karl Barth, Father James T. Burtchaell, and Stanley Hauerwas,
and the first two of those are long since dead. The section representing
the "Roman Catholic" position has an essay by Daniel Callahan,
who is not a Roman Catholic, and former priest Daniel Maguire, who is among
the more shrill public opponents of the Church's teaching. The book is
little more than a bundle of pro- abortion tracts. Abortion: A Reader
is a deeply dishonest book. Unless, of course, the publisher and editor
really are that dumb. "Why this book?" asks the editor in the
preface. "If this volume can contribute to restoring through a balance
of thoughtful articles a sense of the moral complexity provoked by this
troubling, even dangerous issue-and highlight the role of religion in shaping
that complexity-then that complexity will, as an answer to the questions
asked, suffice." There you have it: The answer to the question of
the morality of abortion is that the question is complex. It follows, of
course, that people should be permitted to do what they want with respect
to abortion. One is not surprised that the book is propaganda but that
it is such transparent propaganda. Even from the viewpoint of a pro-choice
publisher, what purpose can that serve? The editor asks the right question,
"Why this book?" It might be charitable to try to believe that
the answer is more complex than our opening sentence suggests.
- The Catholic Alliance is a division of the Christian Coalition, but
an evangelical Protestant observer, Timothy Sherratt of Gordon College
in Massachusetts, says, "The child may eclipse its parent given half
the chance." Sherratt, a political scientist writing in the Calvinist-oriented
Public Justice Report, says: "For many Protestants whose own
denominations have left them with very thin offerings in the area of social
and political thought and action, much learning might profitably take place.
Of course, if Catholic social teachings were to make their way to the center
of the Coalition's mission, one wonders what reception will be accorded
them. It is too early to tell, but those of us evangelicals who affirm
the potential for the saints to make the best citizens should welcome this
effort by American Catholics to bring their well-developed social teachings
into the public debate."
- Forget for the moment whether the government should fund abortions.
The question is whether churches should do so. The Presbyterian Church
(USA) has been doing that for years through its medical benefits plan.
Ditto the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The editor of
the independent Lutheran Forum, Pastor Leonard Klein, writes: "The
Church Council of the ELCA voted to reject the Board of Pensions' carefully
worked out restrictions on payment for abortion. The ELCA will continue,
consciously and openly, to pay for a most grotesque mortal sin-using offerings
gathered at its most sacred assemblies to do so. Its readiness to pay for
this act far exceeds that of most states and of the federal government.
(And this same Board of Pensions is very stingy about elective surgery
and contraceptives and second-guesses all sorts of medical decisions of
its members both under its own plan and under Aetna's.) At the very time
when Congress was recoiling in horror from the so-called partial-birth
abortion, as liberal Senator Barbara Boxer was reduced to holding up pictures
of families to try to counter the more relevant pictures of late-term fetuses
from the other side, the ELCA voted to pay for it. The council looked squarely
at an opportunity to honor the fifth commandment and yawned. Faced with
a fundamental issue of faith and morals, they addressed it as a question
of rules and procedures. This is all bad; and merits as severe a judgment
as any the prophets ever called down on Israel and Judah." Klein notes
that the same meeting of the Church Council, in response to a torrent of
protest, "worried and fretted and took sorrowful actions over the
expulsion at long last of two rogue parishes in San Francisco" that
had installed actively homosexual pastors. "But there was no such
display of empathy for the faithful pastors and congregations whose consciences
will be racked not because they set out to flout Christian sexual ethics
but because they wish to honor the Torah, worship truly the Father of all
life, and embrace the Gospel of life. Real churches don't kill babies."
- "I think it is safe to say that Paul's enlistment in Jesus' cause
is one of the most brilliantly successful hires in the annals of human
organizational history," writes Bob Briner in The Management Methods
of Jesus (Nelson). Mr. Briner's little book is in the tradition of
Bruce Barton's best-selling book of the 1920s, The Man Nobody Knows,
which depicted Jesus as a Bill Gates with a really big talent for the vision
thing. Jesus was always responsive, says Briner. He never said, "I'll
get back to you," nor did he put anyone on hold. On the other hand,
he did warn his disciples against casting their pearls before swine, which,
according to Mr. Briner, is a lesson for "top executives who could
devote much of their time responding to questions, comments, and criticisms
that are really not worth the investment." So Jesus is inconsistent.
He is large, he contains multitudes. The Management Methods of Jesus
has a place in the long, broad stream of schlock inevitably produced by
a religion that is incorrigibly popular. Popular, we can never forget,
is inseparably related to vulgar. And there is a distressingly frequent
connection between schlock and saintliness. "What I was really trying
to do, and what I believe," says Mr. Briner, "is that Jesus'
teaching is relevant for all of life." Who can argue with that? The
pastoral response to the piously toxic is to barf in private and then gently
point the well-intended toward worthier understandings of Jesus' person
and message. That is not a management method. It is long-suffering love.
Very long. As in somewhere around number 323 out of seventy times seven.
Good pastors try not to keep count.
- It's a big to-do in human rights circles and is getting a lot of attention
in black talk shows and magazines, but the general public seems largely
indifferent. As Joseph R. Gregory reported in these pages ("African
Slavery 1996," May), human slavery is a booming business in parts
of Africa, and nowhere so blatantly as in the Sudan. Since gaining its
independence in 1956, the Islamic government in Khartoum has been waging
war against the black and mainly Christian south, routinely enslaving the
prisoners who are not killed. The current to-do is over Minister Louis
Farrakhan's visit to Sudan and other countries where he denied, as he has
denied since his return, the existence of slavery. Not so incidentally,
Farrakhan is reported to have been promised in excess of a billion dollars
from Libya and other crackpot regimes in the area. Farrakhan alleges that
the claims about slavery are part of a Zionist conspiracy to discredit
Islamic states and his Nation of Islam. His organization's international
representative, A. Akbar Muhammad, asserts: "Because Islam has gained
such a wide appeal among young black Americans and Minister Farrakhan has
penetrated into the Christian community with his Million Man March, what
would be better than to say to Christians and black people across the country,
don't get involved in this Islamic group; don't fall in love with a government
that supports enslavement of black Christians." Of course he's right.
Were this a Zionist conspiracy, that would be a smart thing to say. The
fact is, however, that the most respected human rights groups and the U.S.
State Department have amply documented the horrors of slavery in Sudan,
and organizations such as Randall Robinson's TransAfrica Forum have taken
the lead in calling Farrakhan to account. In the fall of 1995, many Americans,
both black and white, were appalled by what appeared to be the anointing
of Minister Farrakhan as the premier spokesman for black Americans. In
subsequent months, his greedy pandering to brutal dictators, his vulgar
displays of anti-Jewish and anti-Christian conviction, joined to his serving
as an apologist for slave regimes, have reduced his standing very considerably.
It is only the moral madness of our times that can explain why there is
still a debate over whether Louis Farrakhan should be viewed as a legitimate
player in American public life. Part of that maddening madness is that,
in the violent disarray of our inner cities, his Nation of Islam has taken
the lead in encouraging black men to accept responsibility for neighborhoods
and families. However morally perverse Farrakhan may be, he is playing
a positive role in provoking other black leadership, especially in the
churches, to break loose from the disabling delusion that they cannot take
charge of their own lives. That said, however, we should not lose sight
of the perversity.
- Preposterous. That's the word employed by Tom Sine who reviews The
Mainline Church's Funding Crisis (Eerdmans) in the Christian Century.
Sine deplores proposed cuts in spending on the welfare state and writes,
"Since declining giving has already forced many denominations to reduce
their urban ministry programs, to expect them to make up for the decrease
in government spending is preposterous." He's exactly right, of course,
and that is why nobody is expecting that. Since Lyndon Johnson's war on
poverty, the government has spent five trillion dollars on programs allegedly
helping poor people, with the result that there are more poor people in
a more desperate state of dependency than thirty years ago. The point is
not for churches and other voluntary institutions to replace the government
in funding those programs; the point is to replace those programs. New
- A new thing is Rerum Novarum, a publication of the Fordham Catholic
Law Students Association named after the 1891 encyclical of Leo XIII addressing
"new things." It is a handsomely produced journal with an intelligently
critical edge toward Catholic higher education in general and Fordham University
in particular. Fordham describes itself as a university "in the Jesuit
tradition," which makes the editors wonder why professors are appointed
and promoted who are very publicly opposed to Catholic teaching. They are
particularly puzzled by the appointment to the law school of a professor
who was formerly staff attorney for the National Organization for Women
(NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund, a major agitator of "abortion
rights." "Fordham Law School," say the editors, "is
no longer 'Jesuit' in even the most watered-down sense of the word."
Maybe so, but one wonders if the editors fully appreciate just how watered-down
"Jesuit" can get. For our part, we are still pushing for an expansion
of the ecumenical agenda to include a Jesuit-Catholic dialogue, a proposal
that has not met with the official approbation of the Society of Jesus,
among whose members, we hasten to add, we count some of our best friends.
For information about Rerum Novarum, write Catholic Law Students
Association, Fordham University School of Law, 140 West 62nd Street, New
York, NY 10023.
- Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we lay aside reason in search
of reasons. Building on Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, Evelyn
Pluhar has written a big book in search of reasons for favoring the rights
of animals over those of "marginal" human beings (Beyond Prejudice:
The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals, Duke University
Press). Reviewing the book in the New Republic, Colin McGinn finds
it "exceptionally thorough, expertly reasoned, and entirely convincing."
He writes: "Compare a normal chimpanzee to a severely retarded human
child unable to take care of itself or to speak or to reason. Given that
neither qualifies as a rational moral being, capable of asserting its rights,
why do we allow vivisection of the chimp but not of the child? Surely,
if moral significance attaches only to full persons, then the child should
be granted no more protection than the chimp, or the pig awaiting slaughter."
He goes on: "Would you shoot retarded people because they are enroaching
on your food supply or messing up your back yard? Would you kill and eat
them because of the culinary pleasure to be derived? If your answer is
no, then you should return a similar answer in respect of animals."
"It is not just the welfare of animals that is at stake here. The
integrity of human reason is also on the line. Where is our intellectual
pride?" Where indeed? Pluhar and McGinn argue that rights are grounded
not in personhood, nor in sentience, nor in capacity for action, but in
"conation." (The notion that rights might be an endowment from
You Know Who is obviously beneath the consideration of those in thrall
to intellectual pride.) According to most dictionaries, conation is an
impulse or instinct that looks very much like purpose. But for Pluhar-McGinn
it is purposefulness itself, and all purposes are equal. "A dog's
desire to run free does not matter less to it than my desire to enjoy a
ballet performance matters to me." I have had many dogs in my life.
My last, the late lamented Sammy, had, so far as I could see, no desire-if
that is the right word-greater than to please me. (Which, of course, is
what makes dogs so singular and endearing.) A mere word or whistle, and
she would promptly break off from running free and eagerly come to get
a pat on the head. One very much doubts that the "conative" Mr.
McGinn can be comparably whistled away from his ballet, but perhaps I am
wrong. I do know that the people next door have a cat that has a conative
thing about catching mice. It appears that the mice have their own conations
and evidence no respect whatever for the cat's right to eat them. There
would seem to be something at work here that is very much like what used
to be called the order of nature, a concept that is, naturally, not acknowledged
in the tangled web of reasons woven by Pluhar-McGinn. In considering "the
moral significance of academic and nonacademic animals," we are morally
bound to recognize that the former have rights beyond what their literary
conations might suggest.
- Man, it would seem, is the only animal to make the argument that he
is not superior to other animals. Peter Singer and the animal rights sophists
do not say that other animals do claim to be superior, but they pay insufficient
attention to the fact that we human beings appear to be the only ones debating
the question of relative standings in the order (dare I say natural order?)
of things. The subject of our relationship to, and responsibility for,
other animals is of great importance, and we should not permit the discussion
of it to be discredited by the sophistries of Singer & Co. Frans de
Waal takes up some of these questions in Good Natured: The Origins of
Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Harvard University Press).
He expands on what Robert Trivers first called "reciprocal altruism,"
a phenomenon noted among chimpanzees and other animals who in certain circumstances
help one another when it does not appear to be in their immediate interest.
Derek Bickerton, who has written at length on these questions, says of
de Waal's argument: "Far from being half ape, half angel, torn between
a moral sense that strives upward and an eons-old bestial viciousness that
drags us down, he portrays us as inheritors of a basically moral view of
life that has evolved naturally over countless millenniums-not through
some fictitious social contract between self-sufficient individuals, but
through the inevitable give-and-take of communal living." Despite
its overconfidence about evolution, there is much that can be commended
in the idea of a natural moral view that is not unrelated to a natural
moral order. Especially if we understand that "communal living"
includes not only "others" but an "Other" that compels
us-and maybe, in ways that surpass our ken, also chimpanzees and puppy
dogs-to strive upward. It makes more sense, of course, if we understand
that the Other condescended downward, becoming our mediator and making
us mediators between the rest of creation and the Creator. But then, we
must not be too hard on Mr. de Waal and others who write on these subjects
for being so desperately short on Christology. The failure to explore more
systematically the theological questions that they engage is the result
of a secularist mindset that took centuries to entrench and will not be
remedied without great intellectual effort.
- There is the Catholic Alliance, and then the Interfaith Alliance, which
aims to counter what is done by groups such as the Catholic Alliance. And
now here is a release from the Atheist Alliance. They held their convention
in Minneapolis in April on the theme "Imagine a World Beyond Belief."
Apparently this has nothing to do with the feminist "RE- Imagining"
conference also held in Minneapolis a while back, a conference that provoked
such a storm in some oldline churches. There used to be American Atheists,
an organization started by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who old timers will remember
from the school prayer decisions in the early 1960s. American Atheists,
this release informs us, "is no longer viable." "The Atheist
Alliance differs substantially from American Atheists in its democratic
organization and decision-making, and its even-tempered, positive approach
to state-church separation conflicts." Democratic, even-tempered,
positive atheism? Oh, for the fights of yesteryear.
- Too many book reviews, readers occasionally complain. But most appreciate
the fact that FT covers books more thoroughly than any journal of its kind.
Yet, every once in a while, we miss one that should have been treated.
Sometimes because the review we get isn't up to par, sometimes because
we didn't think the book worthy of attention. The latter was the case with
Jack Miles' God: A Biography (Knopf) which, worthy of it or not,
got a great deal of attention. In fact, it won a Pulitzer Prize, which
is an award that writers of like mind give to one another. Dale Patrick
of Drake University in Iowa reviews it in Theology Today and confirms
our initial judgment. What Miles does, in effect, is "to put God on
the couch." He is helped in this, says Patrick, by his odd way of
reading the Hebrew Bible. "Miles proposes to read the sequence of
books in the order of the Jewish canon, the Tanakh. The Septuagint order,
followed by the Christian church, reads from creation to eschaton, but
the Hebrew Bible reflects the order of canonization, with a rather random
arrangement in the third and last section. Read seriatim according to Miles,
the Tanakh ends with God's dotage and humans taking charge of their own
affairs. This reading, however, is hardly congruent with Jewish tradition,
which weights the Torah (Pentateuch) more heavily than the other sections
and insists that it set the norm for all exegesis." Over the centuries,
Jews and Christians have read the Bible synthetically, showing how one
part complements and reinforces others. But Jack Miles is out to have fun.
"Miles reads against the grain of pious readings, traditional and
contemporary. The pious ascribe omnipotence to God, so Miles finds evidence
that God is dependent upon humans for self-consciousness and authority.
The pious ascribe omniscience to God, so Miles shows that God continually
discovers who God is and what God is about. The pious ascribe justice to
God, so Miles argues that God came by ethical concerns late and never could
quite control God's chaotic impulses. (Miles delights in telling those
bloody stories the pious bury in discrete silence.) The pious ascribe love
of humans, and especially Israel, to God, so Miles avers that God only
discovered love after losing Israel in the exile. The pious see God's purposes
as spiritual, so Miles finds evidence that God was originally driven by
reproductive anxieties. In order to puncture some contemporary apologetics,
Miles denies that Abraham had faith (versus existentialists), that the
Lord's deliverance of Israel from Egypt had anything to do with the oppressed
(versus liberationists), and that God had any feminine qualities in God's
personality until God was old and decrepit (versus feminists)." The
end result of God: A Biography, says Patrick, "is deconstruction
for the purpose of pleasing cultured despisers and discomfiting the pious."
We decided not to review the book because it seemed such an obvious piece
of clever catering to the contemptuous. Innocents that we are here at FT,
we underestimated the market for that sort of thing.
- He is not the only one, of course, but Russell Hittinger is among the
most impressive thinkers making the connections between theological reflection
and public discourse. Hittinger, who has been teaching at Catholic University
in Washington, was recently appointed to a newly established chair in Catholic
studies at the University of Tulsa. He had this to say at a recent Evangelical-Catholic
conference on natural law at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington:
"Today, especially in the United States, Evangelical Protestants find
themselves reconsidering the issue of natural law. Their interest seems
to be occasioned by two things. First, the political success of Evangelical
Protestantism has made it necessary to frame an appropriate language for
addressing civil politics and law. Second, the Evangelicals find themselves
having to dialogue with Catholics, with whom they share many common interests
in matters of culture and politics-interests which would seem amenable
to natural law discussion. Even though it is true that many Protestants
today are chiefly interested in the use of natural law ad extra, as a way
to speak to the 'world,' the lesson they might learn from recent Catholic
moral theology runs in the other direction. For assuming the legitimate
and persistent need of the Christian churches to address worldly issues
of justice and morality, it is easy to lose control of this discourse,
so that natural law makes moral theology superfluous, and even impossible."
Unlike some Thomists in the past and at present, Hittinger insists that
moral theology is really theology. Natural law is not a kind of
moral esperanto to which Christians add a theological accent. Natural law
is, rather, a participation in the divine law, which is to say it participates
in the mind of God, which is to say that natural law cannot be rightly
understood apart from the doctrine of God. Here Hittinger finds himself
in considerable sympathy with the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth,
who polemicized against what he viewed as a de-theologized version of natural
law espoused by some Catholic thinkers. All this may seem impossibly abstract,
but it has very practical implications for the ways in which Christians
of all stripes make moral arguments in public, and we can count on Russell
Hittinger to be unfolding those implications in a growing number of forums,
not least being this journal.
- A number of states have feticide laws that make it a criminal act to
kill a fetus, other than by abortion. Such laws make it clear that drunk
drivers and homicidal maniacs do not have the same privileges enjoyed by
abortionists. The Virginia House of Delegates, however, recently rejected
a feticide bill after heavy lobbying by pro-abortion groups. Ms. Karen
Raschke of Planned Parenthood told the legislators, "If you call a
fetus a person for the purpose of the homicide statute, it makes it arguable
that a fetus is a person for the purposes of abortion." It would seem
- There are no doubt readers who, in their pitiful naivete, assume that
some cultural artifacts are inherently superior to others. Continuing on
that risible assumption, they hold to the view that there is something
like a canon of cultural greatness-in literature, philosophy, music, painting,
and so forth. In the name of multiculturalism, the entirety of the progressive
academy has for some years now been earnestly engaged in discrediting such
outdated notions. Nonetheless, the academy's herd of independent minds
is still capable of producing a new wrinkle on regnant ideas. For instance,
Gary Taylor's new book Cultural Selection (Basic) goes into great
detail to demonstrate that presumed cultural superiority is the product
of political, military, and economic imperialism. In the course of his
argument, he avails himself of Darwinian theory and the scientific language
of biology. The result is sometimes striking. Many people, for example,
might think that the world recognized Shakespeare as great because he is
great. Mr. Taylor devastates such simplistic thinking. "Shakespeare
was like a local parasite-attached to a species that eventually dominated
its own niche and migrated out into others, taking the parasite along and
introducing it into new ecosystems that had, often, no defenses against
it." Wherever the English-speaking species has gone, the Shakespeare
parasite has conquered. In fact, the reality is even worse than that, for
the parasite has insinuated itself into numerous other languages suffering
from immune deficiency. It would seem that the only defense against it
is illiteracy, a defense greatly enhanced by the work of Mr. Taylor and
critics similarly devoted to destroying the parasite's host culture. Since
the parasite has so entrenched itself in other cultures victimized by the
English-speaking disease, however, it seems likely that a hundred years
from now an ascendant China, for instance, might reimpose Shakespeare upon
what is left of Western culture. The battle against greatness never ends.
It is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. As Burke might have said,
the only thing necessary for the triumph of greatness is for literary critics
to do nothing.
- One of the islands of sanity at the New York Times is Richard
Bernstein, who has held several posts and is now a book critic. I have
previously called attention to his 1994 book, Dictatorship of Virtue,
an incisive critique of all that runs under the banner of political correctness.
Some say the criticism of political correctness has been overdone, and
we have generally avoided the use of the term in these pages. But Bernstein
says, "It is still going strong and is becoming all-pervasive in a
quiet way, especially in textbooks and school systems and university training
courses and in press coverage. It's really becoming something of the official
ideology of the country, something taken for granted." A portent of
the future, he believes, is the Hans Christian Andersen School of Many
Voices, an experimental elementary school in Minneapolis. "I asked
the social studies staff, 'Well, when the children are finished here, whom
do they admire?' The answer was 'Well, they certainly don't admire white
people and they certainly don't admire Christians because of what Christians
have done to other people and because of what white people did to black
people.' Implicit in this whole thing is the repudiation of the West. There
is a sense that Christianity, especially, is culpable. Judaism gets off
the hook because Jews are in some respects still seen as a victim group
and it's just not chic to say nasty things about Judaism. We're still too
close to World War II and the problem of anti-Semitism for American educators
of whatever stripe to take that on. But Christianity, because it's the
majority religion, because this is still, in some sense, a Christian nation,
gets trashed. That's part of multiculturalist theory. I find that attitude
interesting because some of the important principles embodied in Christianity
have shaped this country: We are a free, prosperous, basically happy country
that gives lots of opportunities to people and we're tolerant of differences.
It's strange, this trashing of your own culture and your own identity.
Of course, it's a very Christian thing [to do] when you think about it.
Christianity, more than any other major religion, encourages a certain
self-criticism- the virtue of confession, the recognition of evil within
you. Buddhists don't have that particularly, I don't think. Moslems certainly
don't have much of a self-critical aspect. . . . But Christianity has that
internal critique element. Particularly Catholicism, with the centrality
of the confessional." The multiculturalist craze, says Bernstein,
is Christian self-criticism gone off the rails. "This self-flagellation,
it's like a new Victorianism. One of the consequences of multiculturalism
is that minor sins are blown up into major ones. Under the influence of
this ideology, normal abrasions of life are made into criminal offenses
that have to be prosecuted." Gertrude Himmelfarb might have something
to say about whether this should be called a new Victorianism, and most
historians of religion attribute exaggerated self-criticism to Protestantism
rather than Catholicism (remember Paul Tillich's "Protestant principle").
But Bernstein is undoubtedly right about everyday differences being turned
into felonies, as any smoker, wearer of a fur coat, or speaker of standard
("non-inclusive") English can attest. Especially insightful is
Bernstein's understanding of the problem created for Jewish identity. Escaping
p.c. wrath by claiming the role of victim and declaring one's hostility
to Western and Christian culture does not augur well for the future of
Jewish-Christian relations. Fortunately, there are a good many Jews who,
like Bernstein, understand the potential disaster inherent in that way
of constructing Jewish identity.
- When it rains . . . Big time embezzlement at the national office, fireworks
and trials over ordaining homosexuals, a Boston bishop involved in extramarital
affairs commits suicide. Now the Episcopal bishop of Maine takes a leave
of absence after confessing to an extramarital affair. A national spokesman
says church leaders are wondering whether "there isn't something increasingly
difficult in the role of the bishop." "Many bishops are feeling
the pressure to be all things to all people and are often seen as two-dimensional
authority figures rather than as living, breathing, whole human beings.
That doesn't excuse their actions, but I think the church has to begin
at some point of compassion." No doubt it's tough. The Presiding Bishop
"expressed his hope that healing could take place for both the diocese
of Maine and the bishop." During his leave, the bishop will be undergoing
therapy. Apparently the powerful desire to have sex with a woman other
than one's wife is a form of sickness. The spokesman is right. Things are
getting increasingly difficult.
- My, my, aren't those creative people-as folk in the entertainment industry
unselfconsciously refer to themselves-so very, well, creative. The Tragic
and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun has opened in the West Village.
It is a parody of the life of the late "singing nun," Jeanine
Deckers. The Times applauds it as a revival of "camp humor."
Sister Jeanine, who sang the 1960s hit song "Dominique," is portrayed
as a simpleton who discovers that she is really a lesbian and is encouraged
to act on her discovery by a man in drag (Sister Coco Callmeishmael-get
it?) and a cigarette smoking Mother Superior (described as a "pervert
fan") who presides over a convent named Our Lady of the Pernicious
and Pestilent Wounds. There is also simulated sex on a piano with a priest
who drops in. How creative can you get?
- It is simply too late to be worrying about decency. That is the gist
of the major argument employed by the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
in declaring unconstitutional the Communications Decency Act (CDA) overwhelmingly
passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. Chief Judge Dolores
K. Sloviter declares that it is "evident that even if 'indecent' is
read as parallel to 'patently offensive,' the terms would cover a broad
range of material from contemporary films, plays, and books showing or
describing sexual activities." The contention is that the possibility
of depriving adults of indecent materials is a greater danger than exposing
children to them. Moreover, it is noted that half of what appears on the
Internet is generated outside the U.S., and therefore the CDA would not
protect children from pornography and other items originating in, say,
Amsterdam. In other words, given evolving community "standards,"
on the one hand, and technological developments, on the other, it is too
late to worry about decency. In a concurring opinion, Judge Steward R.
Dalzell goes further. He says that free speech protected by the First Amendment
necessarily entails chaos and cacophony. "Just as the strength of
the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the
chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."
It is an interesting doctrine, standing in sharpest contrast to the repeatedly
emphasized claim of the founders that this political system can only be
sustained by "ordered liberty." That is the sentiment caught
in the second stanza of "America the Beautiful": "America!
America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy
liberty in law." That was then, this is now. The American Civil Liberties
Union pronounced itself surprised and pleased by the sweeping nature of
the Third Circuit's decision. As well it should be.
- "I was wrong to authorize taping that conversation. There are
some things which are legal and ethical but are simply not right."
That garbled apology came from Lane County district attorney Doug Harcleroad,
who was responsible for the taping of a confession in an Oregon jail and
had earlier announced that he might use it in the trial of the imprisoned
penitent. The Archdiocese of Portland accepted the apology, but demanded
"the destruction of the tape and the guarantee that never again will
such a violation occur in the state of Oregon." Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth
Steiner said, "Catholics believe, as a consequence of the death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ, that divine forgiveness is mediated sacramentally
through the Church. A sacrament is a visible means instituted by Christ
to communicate the power of God. Among the sacraments of the Church, the
sacrament of penance is a privileged moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.
By its very nature it must be secure and confidential." In a statement
to the Catholics of the Archdiocese, he added, "Canon law forbids
any confessor to betray a penitent by any means for any reason whatsoever.
A confessor who knowingly violates the confidentiality of a confession
incurs the penalty of automatic excommunication reserved to the Holy See.
This penalty applies regardless of the matter confessed. The confidentiality
of the sacrament of reconciliation is complete and absolute." (Reserved
to the Holy See means that only Rome can remove the excommunication.) Steiner
declared that the event constituted "a blatant violation of the sacrament"
and a "direct threat to the practice of our religion." Non- Catholics
joined in the protest against the infringement of priest- penitent, or
clergy-counselee, confidentiality, although not as vigorously as one might
have expected. Congressman Peter King of New York joined with others in
introducing federal legislation to protect the "sanctity" of
religious communication. But in the several religious communities and the
media there was slight evidence of the shock that the Oregon transgression
caused among Catholics. That is troubling. On the other hand, it is perhaps
encouraging that, while fewer Catholics are going to confession regularly
in recent years, they still know what it means and don't want anybody,
least of all the government, messing with it.
- A good deal of what others call "Eurocentrism" I rather like.
Western culture is our culture and-on balance and considering the alternatives-it
has been a good thing for us and for the world. One of the great strengths
of Western culture is its general respect for the cultures of others, a
twisted form of that respect being evident in the Western protest against
"Eurocentrism." A notable instance of lack of respect is the
journalistic habit of referring to Islamic "fundamentalism."
We've been railing against this for some time, with slight effect. Fundamentalism
is an American Protestant phenomenon with a very specific history, and
imputing it to militant Islam is simply a lazy extension of the teaching
of contempt with which fundamentalism has been treated here. But now the
Wall Street Journal columnist George Melloan takes a great leap
backward from there. "Since the ascendancy of the Ayatollah Khomeini
in the 1970s there has been no real dividing line between church and state.
The government's efforts to distance itself from evangelical terrorism
abroad are thus not particularly persuasive." Church and state? Evangelical
terrorism? Foreign affairs punditry that views the world through the prism
of domestic prejudices is, if I may be permitted to say so, not particularly
- After years of pointing out to Father Richard McBrien the problems
with his best-selling work, Catholicism, and asking in vain for
revisions, the doctrinal committee of the national bishops' conference
felt compelled to put out a carefully worded statement indicating that
the work is not a reliable guide to Catholic teaching and should not be
used in theological instruction. Of course McBrien protested, and colleagues
such as Fr. Richard McCormick rallied to his defense. One of the more remarkable
reactions is by Fr. Andrew Greeley, sociologist and novelist, in an open
letter to the archbishop who heads the doctrinal committee. The letter
was published in the National Catholic Reporter. If the bishops
had "the courage of [their] convictions," Greeley writes, they
would threaten McBrien with excommunication. "That's the way bishops
used to act in the old days when bishops were really bishops instead of
wishy-washy compromisers." Lest you think Greeley has gone over to
the Lefebvrist side, remember that he is protesting the bishops' criticism
of McBrien. Greeley continues, "This is not a very respectful letter,
Archbishop. But then, I don't have much respect for you or most other American
bishops." Lest you think Greeley is denying the authority of bishops,
note that he adds, "The office of bishop is extremely important in
the church." That is why he is outraged that "we are led in this
critical time by proud, arrogant time-servers and careerists, men who couldn't
care less about anything save their position in the Vatican political game,
men who don't do good things but rather do the things they do well. Like
issuing warnings and condemnations. You should be ashamed of yourselves."
Friends of Andrew Greeley might ask themselves whether they are doing him
any favor by publishing such outbursts from what appears to be his time
of deepening and splenetic debility.
- Paul Saito, an undergraduate with a 3.97 grade point average, was scheduled
to give a graduation speech at Penn State. A university committee withdrew
the invitation when Saito refused to remove from his speech this offending
sentence: "I thank God for who he is, what he does, and how he has
provided me strength and guidance in my life." President Clinton spoke
at the graduation and thanked God for who he is. (Who God is, that is.)
The rejection of Saito caused quite a stir in the university and the region.
The university president, Graham Spanier, called the committee decision
"flawed" and "unfortunate." But, according to this
release from the Thomas More Catholic Association, the same president was
responsible for banning a Christmas tree from the campus last December.
That leaves many students "wondering if his administration is truly
tolerant and understanding of religious thought." But of course you
can think what you want, so long as you keep it to yourself.
- What a to-do there was after it was revealed that Joe Klein of Newsweek
is "Anonymous," the author of Primary Colors, a less than
complimentary novel based on Clinton and his gang, including his media
groupies. Klein had repeatedly and emphatically denied that he was the
author, and at first was unapologetic when his cover was blown. "I'm
not a politician, I'm a journalist," he said. "We're dealing
with entertainment. Who's been hurt by this?" He added that "there
are a lot of people on their high horses today skewering me . . . a lot
of envious people out there." Soon, however, Newsweek was convening
reeducation sessions, and Klein, with six million in the bank from sales
of the book, was declaring himself ever so contrite. But his colleagues
were not in a forgiving mood, reaching new heights of media smarminess
in bemoaning Klein's sins. For instance, Sanford Ungar, dean of American
University's School of Communication, said that "journalists are constantly
measuring whether other people are telling the truth. I don't think a journalist
has a higher right to lie about his work. He's going to pay a terrific
penalty in terms of his credibility." Oh dear. Ken Auletta, the New
Yorker's media critic, declared himself to be "angry" because
"Joe fibbed, and that's not acceptable. He not only hurts himself,
he hurts the business of journalism. It grants a weapon to the enemies
of the press, the feeling that we're all seedy, slimy bums." Well,
"all" is taking it a bit too far. So what's going on here? There
is a long and venerable literary tradition of authors using false names
and no names, so that's not it. The simple fact is that Klein's media buddies
were upset that he put one over on them, and he did so with a book that
let down their side politically (92 percent of Washington journalists voted
for Clinton in 1992). One reporter says, "Our only stock in trade
is telling the truth, and Klein damaged that." It is to suppress a
laugh. Any given day's reading of the New York Times or Washington
Post provides abundant refutation of such pitiable journalistic conceits.
To cite but one example, David Shaw, media critic of the Los Angeles
Times, has written two remarkable series on media malfeasance, one
on the reporting of the abortion debate and another on media treatment
of John Paul II. He demonstrated, as though it needed demonstration, numerous
instances of consistent misrepresentation and outright prevarication by
the establishment media. This is a pattern of mendacity that has been going
on for years regarding questions of premier importance for our society
and the world. Yet not one of the major newspapers, networks, or media
journals has paid the slightest attention to Shaw's work. It is much more
uncomfortable to address the well-substantiated indictment of an industry
than to self-righteously pillory a talented colleague who broke the club
rules and, in the course of doing so, exposed the fatuities of hacks who
are poignantly eager to be taken as seriously as they take themselves.
- A Republican "moderate" is moderate in relation to what is
viewed as the extremism of the Republican Party, and is almost by definition
pro-choice. Thus, for instance, Governors Whitman of New Jersey and Weld
of Massachusetts are routinely described as moderates. They supported the
President's veto of the infanticide ban (a.k.a. the partial-birth abortion
ban). All but fifteen of the Republicans in the House of Representatives
voted for the ban. Weld and Whitman are on the fringe of the Republican
Party. But it seems most journalists just can't get the hang of this. For
instance, in Illinois a little-known state representative, Al Salvi, was
an extremist (meaning he was uncompromisingly pro-life). He ran against
the very well-known Lieutenant Governor, Bob Kustra, for the Republican
nomination for the U.S. Senate and beat him quite solidly (48-43 percent).
Said Salvi, "I was told over and over again, 'Don't run, Al; this
is David and Goliath.' I think they forgot that David won."
- In the golden oldies department, HBO cable television on May 6 showed
Priestly Sins: Sex and the Catholic Church. Readers will remember Philip
Jenkins' treatment of this question ("The Uses of Clerical Scandal,"
February). Jenkins, author of Pedophiles and Priests (Oxford University
Press), says the HBO production "could have been done four years ago
at the height of the hysteria on this subject, and probably was."
The producers lined up the usual suspects, including ex-priest Richard
Sipe. Even his claims were misrepresented, however. The show implied that
Sipe claims that 3,000 out of 50,000 priests in the U.S. are sexual abusers,
when he in fact asserts that that number have such tendencies. As usual,
the program blamed celibacy, overlooking the fact that sexual abuse by
Catholic priests (between .2 to 1.7 percent) is lower than among noncelibate
Protestant clergy (between 2 to 3 percent). And there was good old Father
John McNeill, a gay activist and cofounder of the homosexual organization
Dignity, opining, as gay activists are wont to opine, that almost everybody
is a closet gay. "Moreover," says Bill Donohue of the Catholic
League in his criticism of the HBO program, "we hear nothing about
false accusations, tarnished careers, greedy lawyers, or obsequious therapists.
And there is nothing about anti-Catholic bigotry." So what else is
new? Well, there is this. Before the media bubble burst, Fr. Andrew Greeley
went on record with the view that priestly pedophilia was "the greatest
crisis in Catholicism since the Reformation." HBO makes Greeley a
piker, declaring it the greatest crisis since the fourth century. Why the
fourth century? The program did not say. I have always thought the eleventh
was a real bummer.
- There is a new note of urgency, even of solemnity, in statements by
Catholic bishops in the wake of recent developments around partial- birth
abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage. The language
of Evangelium Vitae about our being engaged in a contest between
"the culture of life" and "the culture of death" seems
to have struck a responsive chord, also in the general public. In recent
months, there has been a sharp drop in the number of Catholic statements
urging people to find a "balance" between the life questions
and other matters in public dispute, such as welfare reform or affirmative
action. President Clinton's veto of the ban against infanticide and court
rulings on euthanasia have changed the climate dramatically. Events conspire
to bring matters to a head. In a pastoral letter by Archbishop Francis
Stafford of Denver, for instance, there is this: "The dignity of human
life is being eclipsed for everyone. The marriage covenant is no longer
how our civil and media pace-setters interpret family, civilization, and
religious faith. The modern world is being drained of authentic life. The
absence of objective truth in the exercise of personal freedom opens the
door to the manipulative abuse of power and totalitarianism. Against our
will, a new kind of well-heeled, spin- controlled barbarism is being insinuated
into daily life, and into the fabric of our families." The Archbishop
declares, "The direction of the modern state is against the
dignity of human life. These spring decisions harbinger a dramatic intensifying
of the conflict between the Catholic Church and governing civil authorities."
That is not the voice of an immigrant group eager to demonstrate that it
"belongs" in America. It is the confident voice of a leadership
prepared to challenge the legitimacy of the governing authorities and,
if pushed far enough, to challenge the regime itself. I expect Clinton
badly miscalculated the consequences of his veto. Some pro-life activists
complain that the outrage over partial-birth abortion distracts attention
from the millions of other abortions. That is to miss the point. The partial-
birth abortion controversy has succeeded in alerting millions of Americans
to the current state of abortion law and practice. Despite more than two
decades of public dispute, nine out of ten Americans still think abortion
is permitted only in the first trimester, and then for rare circumstances.
The focus on partial-birth abortions is changing that. Coming in quick
succession, these three questions-infanticide, euthanasia, and same-sex
marriage-have galvanized many Protestant and Catholic leaders to speak
out with unwonted directness. One expects that their witness will be increasingly
specific with respect to electoral choices as bishops and others refuse
to be intimidated by the usual outcry about violating "the separation
of church and state." If anyone still thinks that talk about the culture
of death is just high papal rhetoric, it is time for him to return from
- Oops. If I've said it once, I've said it more than thirty-seven times:
Peter Steinfels of the Times is one of the best religion reporters
around. But there was a bit of confusion with a recent story on the Tridentine
Mass celebrated at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I'm quoted as thinking that
those who are enamored of the Tridentine rite believe that Vatican Council
II was an aberration in the Church's history and are radically out of step
with this pope. In fact, I discussed a number of reasons why many people
love the Tridentine Mass, some of them entirely legitimate, and then added
that there were also those of a Lefebvrist bent who view it as a
protest against the council. Although some of these folk think of themselves
as papal loyalists, they are very much out of step with John Paul II, who
is emphatically a man of the council. So please hold off on those letters
of protest. While I could not be there, I understand the celebration at
St. Patrick's was all-stops-pulled splendor. Cardinal O'Connor and ninety-nine
other bishops around the country do well, I think, to permit the celebration
of a rite that helps in bearing witness to the fullness of Catholic tradition.
At the same time, and in friendly disagreement with some Tridentine enthusiasts,
I believe the Mass can be celebrated in all its majesty, mystery, and splendor
using the current English rite. It takes some effort, of course, but that's
what worship is supposed to take.
- The July issue of Catholic World Report carried a devastating
article by St. Louis University historian James Hitchcock on the background
of Father Robert Drinan's political career. Interest in Fr. Drinan was
recently rekindled when he published on the op-ed page of the New York
Times an article supporting President Clinton's veto of the bill banning
partial-birth abortions. Elected to Congress in 1970 and serving several
terms, Drinan was a staunch supporter of the unlimited abortion license
and was routinely cited by other Catholic politicians as an authority who
justified their position of "personally opposed but . . ." During
his years in Congress, Jesuit authorities regularly declared that Drinan's
political career had the full support of the Society of Jesus, and even
critics of Drinan praised him when he decided not to run for reelection
after the Pope explicitly forbade priests to hold political office. Using
information obtained from the archives of the New England Province of the
Society, Hitchcock tells a very different story. It seems that Drinan and
his superiors strongly resisted the repeated directives of the Jesuit Father
General Pedro Arrupe in Rome that Drinan should not run for Congress and,
later, should not run for reelection. More precisely, the story is that
the New England Jesuits procrastinated, prevaricated, and, for all practical
purposes, defied the express wishes of Arrupe. This strikes some people
as remarkable behavior for an order that was originally defined by the
most rigorous obedience to the Pope and the Father General (the "black
pope"). Now the head of the New England Province, Fr. William A. Barry,
has circulated a letter in which he strongly attacks by name the Jesuit
who allegedly obtained the archival material used by Professor Hitchcock.
He says that he is "outraged that such documents could become public,"
but the letter does not contain even a suggestion that Hitchcock's article
is inaccurate. Fr. Barry concludes: "I am writing to you, my brother
Jesuits, because I believe that our life is founded on trust in one another
and, especially, on trust in our superiors. I am sure that you join me
in outrage and sadness that another Jesuit is said to have been the source
of this breach of trust." If Hitchcock's article is accurate, and
there is no reason to believe it is not, the breach of trust and insubordination
to superiors would seem to lie elsewhere.
- Consider the brouhaha over Mrs. Clinton's meetings with "Doctor"
Jean Houston, a New Age guru, which were made public by the Washington
Post's Bob Woodward. Ms. Houston, who turns out not to have the doctorate
in psychology from Columbia that she claimed, promotes the Greek goddess
Athena as a "spiritual archetype" and is otherwise expert at
helping people to "live more intensely." In response to the controversy,
Mrs. Clinton said, intensely, that she is a sincere believer in her Methodist
faith. She speaks of how her faith was formed by motive magazine,
a leftist Methodist publication that celebrated the drug culture and deplored
U.S. imperialism before it went out of business a long time ago. The Clintons
now attend Foundry United Methodist Church, whose pastor, J. Philip Wogaman,
is a prominent defender of gay rights and the abortion license. So it is
a Methodist faith, of sorts. Diane Knippers of the Institute on Religion
and Democracy says, "Her church has failed her. Like many Americans,
she has sadly sought spiritual meaning outside Christianity." The
United Methodist bishop of Arkansas, however, disagrees: "I think
it's marvelous that [Mrs. Clinton] is having experiences like this. She
is one of the most profound lay theologians in the United Methodist Church,"
said Bishop Richard Wilke. We are in no position to know whether the bishop
is right about the state of lay theology among Methodists, but his comment
would seem to underscore Mrs. Knippers' point.
- Each year the editors of Christianity Today ask a diverse panel
of scholars, clergy, writers, and the such to nominate the "Top 25"
books of the year. Of books published in 1995, Evangelicals and Catholics
Together, edited by Charles Colson and myself, came in second. That
is gratifying, of course. It is remarkable that a book of essays should
be rated so highly. More important, and in the words of the editors of
Christianity Today, this "constitutes a significant endorsement
of the aims of ECT by leading evangelical thinkers. Coverage of the evangelical
response to this historic statement, issued in March 1994, has tended to
focus on critics of ECT. Perhaps this emphasis has been misleading."
Perhaps? I hope it will not be thought indelicate if I suggest that the
editorial comment might apply also to coverage in Christianity Today.
- A "temper tantrum" is the way Bishop James McHugh of Camden,
New Jersey, describes President Clinton's reaction to Bob Dole's criticism
of his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. At the veto ceremony, Clinton
surrounded himself with five women who had had late-term abortions, although
apparently none had undergone the procedure the legislation banned. "It's
not simply his intemperance that troubles me," writes Bishop McHugh.
"It's the blatant insult to the Catholic Church and to every individual
Catholic. I am outraged that Mr. Clinton, President of the United States,
has singled out the religious identity of two of the five women-the two
he claims are Catholic. What is the meaning of this?" McHugh goes
on to say that the meaning is that the President of the United States is
interposing himself as a "judge on the moral validity of Catholic
teaching on abortion." In reaction to Dole's criticism Clinton said,
"The President is the only place in this system of ours where there's
only one person who can stand up for people with no voice, no power, who
are going to be eviscerated." McHugh notes that it is not Bill Clinton
who is standing up for the millions of unborn children who are eviscerated
by the abortion license. Nor is the office of the presidency authorized
to adjudicate moral and religious doctrine about our responsibility for
the helpless. Bishop McHugh concludes: "Up till now I have had many
questions about President Clinton. But after this episode and having seen
the irrational emotional outburst, I am truly frightened, not only for
unborn children, but for the religious freedom the Constitution promises
all of us." Strong words, those, and not unrepresentative of statements
issuing from bishops and other religious leaders who say that only in recent
months have they come to take the full measure of the arrogance and unscrupulousness
of the current occupant of the White House. For conservative Protestants
that knowledge came early and easily. For Catholics, including many bishops,
it means breaking with a century of "progressive" politics generally,
if confusedly, associated with the Democratic Party. November will tell
whether that break, which has been happening in stages over the last several
elections, is now definitive.
- Beginning with the January issue, FT will carry classified ads. (No
"personals," please.) We have been thinking about this for some
time. Of course, we expect it will be a modest source of additional income,
which is badly needed, but that's not the main thing. The main thing is
that, over our few years together, FT readers have become a large community
of shared interests, and classifieds are a convenient and economical way
of alerting people to conferences, projects, job openings, things for sale,
and whatever. To place your ad, contact Richard Vaughan at Publishing Management
Associates, 129 Phelps Avenue, Suite 312, Rockford, IL 61108. Phone: (815)
398-8569; Fax: (815) 398- 8579.
- It's all too easy to forget about that list of prospective subscribers.