The Public Square
(February 1999)

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 90 (February1999): 68-80.

The House of Human Dignity

Almost everything short of the Kingdom of God can be improved, but some things are so very good that it seems churlish to wish they were better. Such a thing is the statement adopted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics." The bishops anticipate that they will once again be accused of imposing their convictions on others, and the usual suspects will engage in dark editorial murmurings about the bishops violating the separation of church and state. The statement cites the Second Vatican Council: "The political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields. Nevertheless, both are devoted to the personal vocation of man, though under different titles. . . . [Yet] at all times and in all places, the Church should have the true freedom to teach the faith, to proclaim its teaching about society, to carry out its task among men without hindrance, and to pass moral judgment even in matters relating to politics whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it" (Gaudium et Spes, 76).

"Living the Gospel of Life" is about both the fundamental rights of man and the salvation of souls, notably the salvation of the souls of those who violate or support the violation of the most fundamental right to life. In recent years the bishops have frequently been criticized, with some justice, for issuing statements on political, economic, and military matters that exceed their competence (competence here meaning both understanding and authority). In the present instance, they are solidly grounded in what is indisputably Catholic doctrine and their equally indisputable pastoral obligation for the care of souls.

Of course the statement says nothing new about great evils such as abortion and euthanasia, but it speaks the truth with bracing forthrightness. It is noted that respect for human dignity involves a wide spectrum of issues, and good people can disagree about which problems need to be addressed and how. "But for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in His image."

The most significant aspect of the statement is that, for the first time, it confronts firmly and unequivocally a problem that has bedeviled Catholic witness on the life questions for the last decade and more. That problem is the abuse of the metaphor of "the seamless garment" and of the principle expressed in a "consistent ethic of life." The abuse was to relativize the enormity of taking innocent human life by making it but one item on a long list of concerns in the service of human dignity. Numerous Catholic politicians attempted to excuse their pro–abortion stance by pointing out that they were "right" on other issues supported by the Church. In this ploy they were frequently aided by key staff members of the NCCB, by moral theologians of doubtful fidelity to the Church’s teaching, and, sad to say, by not a few bishops—all of whom timorously fretted about the Church being outside the "mainstream" and publicly associated with "one–issue politics."

"Living the Gospel of Life" readily allows that there are many issues—e.g., racism, poverty, employment, education, housing, health care—pertinent to protecting human dignity. "But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. . . . If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’—the living house of God—then these [other] issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation." Crucial here is what might be called a metaphor shift, from "seamless garment" and an abstract "consistent ethic" to the house of human dignity whose foundation is the right to life. Neglecting the right to life, the statement contends, is equivalent to building that house on sand.

We are all responsible, the bishops say, for maintaining the house of human dignity, and those who hold public office bear a most particular responsibility. The passage most picked up in news reports is this: "We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. . . . No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life." An earlier draft spoke about such public officials imperiling their soul’s salvation, but the substantive truth still comes through clearly enough. One might have wished for an additional passage in which bishops reminded themselves that they, too, can cause grave scandal, however inadvertently, when they are not seen to be challenging pro–abortion politicians who are in their pastoral care. There are other things one might wish, but I quickly step back from sounding churlish lest it detract from the great gift that is "Living the Gospel of Life."

In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II writes, "The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes." That is precisely what the bishops are doing. They are proposing the truth about human dignity as taught by the Church, affirmed in the American founding, presupposed by the cause of human rights, and supported by clear reason. What people do with that proposal is their own responsibility. But it is now made certain beyond dispute that Catholics who reject that proposal cannot claim to be faithful Catholics. The bishops have committed themselves to work with such persons in a spirit of heightened pastoral urgency. It is perhaps just as well that the statement does not mention excommunication or other sanctions. If it did, there would be a terrible media row about the bishops "threatening" Catholics in positions of public influence.

Not generally understood is the fact that excommunication is always a matter of self–excommunication. A sentence of excommunication is only a formal acknowledgment of what people have done to themselves. And even then the goal of such a measure is not to punish but to lead to repentance and reconciliation. "Living the Gospel of Life" leaves no doubt that those who knowingly, willingly, and persistently violate the foundational truth of the right to life are, in that respect, placing themselves outside communion with the Catholic Church. It is more than possible that at some point some bishops will, reluctantly and sadly, have to formally declare what it is that some Catholics have done to themselves. But nobody should hope for that to happen. The purpose of this admirable statement is not excommunication but conversion to the Gospel of Life, which is, quite simply, the Gospel.

Yeah, But What Was in It for Mother Teresa?

A couple of years ago physicist Alan Sokal published an article in Social Text arguing in the most abstruse postmodernistic jargon that gravity, among other things, is a social construct. It was a hoax, of course, and when Sokol publicly revealed the fact it caused quite a sensation, heaping embarrassment upon the editors and their academic colleagues who had long since lost the capacity to discern the difference between rational discourse and their trendy gibberish. The academy was not amused.

One might expect at first that Susan Kwilecki of the religious studies department and Loretta S. Wilson of economics at Radford University, Virginia, are up to a Sokal–like prank. Their article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the lead article no less, is titled "Was Mother Teresa Maximizing Her Utility? An Idiographic Application of Rational Choice Theory." There is, alas, not the slightest hint that the authors are anything less than serious, and solemnly so.

It is a long and tedious article, and I will not bore you with the details. It builds on the work of Laurence Iannaccone, who has been pushing the "rational choice" theory of religion for some time, also in the pages of JSSR. The idea is to "approach God as a commodity" and to understand that religious believers are "consumers" rationally calculating their "investment" in a "product" such as salvation supplied by "entrepreneurs" who establish religious "firms." The theory is another in a long history of efforts to turn the study of religion into a "science," as that reductionist god is defined by modernity. Since there is no Nobel Prize in religion, some in religious studies, it seems, are trying to compete in the field of economics.

A rational choice reading of Mother Teresa helps us understand that her vaunted love for the poor had another purpose: "Aiding the poor purchased direct contact with Christ. . . . Closeness to God, not the alleviation of human pain in itself, was the preferred religious product." "Thus from a rational choice perspective, essential facets of Mother Teresa’s world–famous mission to the poor reflected her preference for an expensive religious commodity—close proximity to God, or holiness." For Mother Teresa, worship, the sacramental life, and the pursuit of holiness took priority even over helping people in need. "The rational choice reading of holiness as Mother Teresa’s ranking preference explains this otherwise puzzling lapse of compassion for the sick as calculated utility maximization."

Considering Mother Teresa "as the owner of a successful religious firm," it becomes obvious that the Missionaries of Charity order "produces a product mix of charity linked with spiritual awareness and Christian salvation." The "product mix" helps explain her "entrepreneurial success." "On the one hand, fostering nearness to God, Mother Teresa sold traditional Catholic products—the sacraments, the condemnation of abortion, and reverence for Church authority. On the other hand, with charity as her chief commodity, the firm simultaneously marketed a sideline of nonsectarian humanitarian values—the obligation to help others, a recognition of the sacredness of all life—that appealed to liberal, non–Catholic consumers."

While Mother Teresa’s "professions of self–abnegating surrender to God are difficult to comprehend within the rational choice framework," a more careful examination leads to the conclusion that she "is a calculating, profit–seeking religious entrepreneur." Her claims to rely entirely upon God and to refuse financial support that might compromise her vision, "although irrational from a materialistic standpoint, from the point of view of the charismatic, who answers directly to God—the ultimate head of the firm—" reflect "means–to–end thinking." The authors allow that rational choice theory is unlikely to explain a phenomenon such as Mother Teresa in "all its fullness," but they conclude that, "While not sufficient by itself and certainly not the only interpretation the data will bear, rational choice theory provides a valuable addition to the arsenal of analytic approaches to religion."

Perhaps the arsenal will be put to work in a forthcoming article in JSSR, "Was Jesus’ Investment in the Cross Maximizing His Utility?" Actually, one does not have to imagine that, for these are precisely the kinds of questions discussed at length by rational choice religion scholars such as Iannaccone, Lawrence Young, Mark Chaves, and others. When I was a pastor in a black parish in Brooklyn many years ago, twelve–year–old Michael asked in catechism class, "If Jesus was doing what he really wanted to do, why was it a sacrifice?" It was a good question, asked in honest wonder and opening the door to reflections of great spiritual and intellectual interest. As applied to religion, rational choice theory is not even one small intellectual step beyond young Michael’s perceptive question. And, of course, in presuming to scientifically "explain" the phenomenon of holiness, it closes doors. Far from being sophisticated, it is every bit as vulgar as those Christian business boosters who promote Jesus as "history’s greatest salesman." Or the psychobabble counterpart to rational choice that claims to explain religion in terms of dependency, wish projection, and other tools in the analytical arsenal of the intellectually and spiritually stunted project that is academic religious studies.

Stirring a Storm

"Her canonization has created a storm of controversy in the Jewish community, affecting the Catholic–Jewish dialogue." That at least is the claim of Abraham Foxman, national director, and Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs, of the Anti–Defamation League (ADL). Certainly they are doing their best to stir a storm of controversy, although—to judge by the general media and the Jewish press—with limited success. Their press release attacking the canonization of Edith Stein (Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross) was issued almost simultaneously with the twentieth anniversary of this pontificate and the publication of ADL’s full–page advertisement in the New York Times praising John Paul II’s contributions to Jewish–Christian relations. But ADL cannot have it both ways.

The ADL press release complains about "certain Church figures" who are responsible for the "Christianization of the Holocaust," citing the canonization of Edith Stein and, earlier, of the heroic Father Maximilian Kolbe who, in a drive–by smear, the ADL implies was an anti–Semite. The canonization of Edith Stein is, we are told, "a Jewish text for a Christian pretext, an excuse whereby the Church can claim the same victimization which its own anti–Jewish practices foisted on innocent Jewish lives." The suggestion that her canonization will help interfaith dialogue is, says the ADL, "pure fantasy." The "certain Church figures" who have done and suggested what ADL deplores are Edith Stein and John Paul II. Rabbi Klenicki has elsewhere said that it was the duty of Edith Stein "to remain a good Jew and use her influence to urge other Jews to observe their faith." It is understandable that he holds that view, but it is a complaint he should take up with Edith Stein, which, one may be permitted to suggest, is not best done through a press release attacking the Catholic Church that she embraced. And, if ADL is interested in Jewish–Christian dialogue, it is not helpful to claim that the Holocaust was "the expression of a total pagan anti–Semitism nurtured by two thousand years of Christian teaching of contempt."

Rabbi Klenicki has over the years made important contributions to Christian–Jewish understanding. Ten years ago I was pleased to write a book with him, Believing Today: Jew and Christian in Conversation (Eerdmans). It is most regrettable that he allows himself to become party to a polemic against Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, John Paul II, and the Catholic Church. And it is most unseemly that ADL treats the Holocaust as a dispute over a piece of merchandise. ADL declares that the Holocaust is an "essentially Jewish event"—as though millions of Christians were not also killed, as though Hitler were not also set upon the destruction of Christianity, in large part because of its Jewish origins. Rabbi David Novak, head of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, says of the ADL statement: "What it says in effect is that the Catholic Church killed Edith Stein and is now trying to cover up its guilt by making her a saint. It is an obscene statement."

At the canonization of Edith Stein, the Pope spoke movingly about Christians and Jews standing in solidarity against the paganism of that time and all times. To which the ADL contemptuously responds that this is no more than the use of "a Jewish text for a Christian pretext" in an attempt to excuse the Church’s responsibility for the Holocaust. The ADL notwithstanding, Jews and Christians who are interested in serious dialogue will respect the conscientious decisions made by the heroes and heroines of both communities, and will respect how those communities honor their own. They will refrain from distorting history for partisan or institutional purposes that obscure the mystery of our providential entanglement in different understandings of what it means to be faithful to the God of Israel, who is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. And of Abraham Foxman, Leon Klenicki, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, and John Paul II.

John Paul the Great

I wrote the following, which was published in the Wall Street Journal, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II. Perhaps it will be of interest to those who are not readers of that estimable newspaper.

"Be not afraid!" That was the theme of Karol Wojtyla’s first homily after he became Pope John Paul II. The theme has been repeated like a triphammer throughout his pontificate, which began twenty years ago on October 16, 1978. "Be not afraid!" was addressed to his fellow Poles and others behind what was then called the Iron Curtain, and it marked the beginning of the end for what it is no longer "controversial" to call the Evil Empire. Historians of a secular bent will no doubt celebrate this Pope chiefly for his indispensable part in the collapse of communism, and that is surely no little contribution to world history. But it does not capture the deeper reasons why, as with Pope Leo of the fifth century and Pope Gregory of the sixth century, Pope John Paul will, I believe, be known to history as John Paul the Great.

In 1978 and today at the threshold of the third millennium his cry "Be not afraid!" is addressed not only to persecuted believers, and not only to Christians, but to the entire human community. The message is one of radical humanism. In the future, as in the past, the human project will be threatened, assailed, and brutally battered, but the human project cannot fail. Not finally. The human project cannot fail because, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has invested himself in the human project, and God will not fail. To understand that claim and all its ramifications—moral, cultural, economic, scientific, and political—is to understand the distinctive genius of the pontificate of John Paul II.

Yes, there are many other distinctions often remarked. His visiting 119 countries in more than eighty foreign trips; his mastery of the media and communicating through best–selling books; his World Youth Days in various parts of the world, gathering millions of young people yearning for lives of moral and spiritual grandeur; his determined efforts to "heal the memories" of history in Jewish–Christian relations and other connections where the pain of the past persists. All these facets of the pontificate, however, are part and parcel of the radical humanism of John Paul II. His is an emphatically Christian humanism, but it is no less universal for that. It is precisely because Christ is understood as the Word or logos informing all reality that the message of "Be not afraid!" comprehends everyone and everything.

Of course this teaching is not new. A pope can only help develop and expand upon truths contained in the Jewish–Christian story of salvation as recorded in the Bible and preserved in what is believed to be the divinely guided tradition of the Church. But in the two–thousand–year history of the Church, there have been few pontificates so energetic in the exercise of the teaching ministry. Consider the subjects treated in just some of John Paul’s thirteen encyclicals: on Christian evangelization and world religions (Redemptoris Missio, 1990); on the dignity of the human person and the free economy in the free society (Centesimus Annus, 1991); on the nature of moral truth in a relativistic world (Veritatis Splendor, 1993); on "the culture of life" and threats to human dignity (Evangelium Vitae, 1995); on the unity of the Church and the unity of the world (Ut Unum Sint, 1995). And, of course, while the encyclicals are central, they are but a small part of the many other teaching initiatives of this pontificate, including the production of the monumental Catechism of the Catholic Church.

This past October, the Pope issued a new encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), with this basic message: Be not afraid of human reason. The extended and rigorously reasoned argument is a ringing defense of philosophy and science. The document forcefully reiterates the Catholic position that there can be no conflict between faith and reason; all truths are finally one because God is one. This argument is posited against "postmodernism" and other philosophical fashions that deny the universality of truth, and against all forms of religious "fideism" that pit faith against reason or revelation against philosophy. John Paul calls on theologians to respect the rightful autonomy of philosophy, and upon philosophers to regain their nerve in addressing the ultimate questions of meaning—questions that in recent history have too often been consigned to the presumably nonrational realm of "religion." Only in this way, he contends, can science and technology, which threaten to turn against the human project, be brought back into the conversational circle of authentic humanism.

In these many teaching initiatives, John Paul has demonstrated himself to be "a man of the Council." His liberal critics, of whom there are many, have over the years accused of him of trying to roll back the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). In fact, he is one of the few surviving participants in the Council. He was there and knows what it was about. Some claim that the Council called for a revolution of Catholicism in accommodating to the modern world. John Paul believes the Council calls for a renewal of Catholicism in challenging the modern world. Liberal dissenters will be with us for a while yet, but I believe that the twenty years of this pontificate ensure that the second position is prevailing and will prevail.

Shortly before he died in 1976, André Malraux said that the twenty–first century will be religious or it will not be at all. I believe that, at the edge of the third millennium, we are witnessing the desecularization of world history. I have been privileged over the years to get to know the Pope personally. Protocol requires that you not make public what you discuss with the Pope in private, but I asked for and received permission to tell this story.

Once over dinner we were discussing the surprising turns in history. We talked about how Voltaire, Diderot, and the philosophes of the militantly secular Enlightenment would be astonished at what is happening. They were dogmatically convinced that religion, and Catholicism most particularly, was the preeminent obstacle to enlightenment and progress. According to their creed, as people became more enlightened religion would inevitably wither away. And here we are two hundred years later, after the bloody utopias of militant secularism have been, as Marx might say, consigned to the dustbin of history, and the most comprehensive, coherent, and compelling vision of the human future—carrying the light of Israel to the nations—is proposed by the Catholic Church.

"Let’s face it, Holy Father," I said half jokingly, "You are ahead of the curve of history." After some discussion of what is meant by "the curve of history," the Pope laughed and said, "Yes, yes, I am ahead of the curve of history. I was going so fast I broke my leg." After giving me permission to tell the story, he added in a more serious tone, "But you must tell them I will keep on going, and they must, too." I suppose it is possible that generations from now stories such as this might be told when, in a world less afraid, people recall humanity’s debt to John Paul the Great.

A Salutary Reminder

We have often noted here Dr. Johnson’s maxim that people need not so much to be instructed as to be reminded. Judge James L. Graham of the United States District Court recently reminded the ACLU, which certainly was in great need of reminding, of our government’s deeply religious roots. In American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, the nation’s loudest antireligious agitator, along with the help of a Presbyterian minister, once again fled to the protective bosom of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment. This time the particular offense was the inscription of Ohio’s state motto, "With God All Things Are Possible," within the state seal that had been engraved in the granite Capitol Plaza in Columbus, Ohio.

The ACLU charged that this was clearly a prohibited endorsement of the Christian religion; the odd thing is, only the ACLU seemed to be aware of this fact. Newspaper reports from 1959, the year the motto was adopted, indicate that it was taken from Matthew 19:26, but its source was never cited in the legislative documents and is not displayed on the seal. Several "objective and reasonably informed" observers testified in court about the motto. A local senior rabbi could only say that the motto "sounded vaguely familiar"—not surprising, considering that a number of similar statements can be found in the Hebrew Bible (and the Quran too, for that matter). A professor of religious studies at Capital University testified that average college students would probably not be able to identify the motto’s source, either. If average citizens in Columbus, Ohio, now recognize the motto as the words of Jesus, it is no doubt thanks to the fine work of the ACLU. Otherwise, there is obviously no cause for alarm about religiously preferential statements in public: the public is too religiously illiterate to pick up on them anyway.

Although the court ruled that the motto is compatible with any theistic religion, the state’s apparent preference of religion to nonreligion constituted a further constitutional violation, according to the ACLU. But the court wisely ruled that acknowledging religion as a part of the fabric of society is a far cry from establishing a state religion and monitoring the citizens’ adherence to it. Still, the dilemma of interpreting a Constitution rooted in both Christian and Enlightenment principles in a society that two hundred years later is increasingly religiously pluralistic presents no easy answers. Judge Graham expresses in his decision thoughts that by now should be quite familiar to our readers:

"The Justices of the Supreme Court disagree among themselves on the proper role of religion in public life and the extent of the Court’s authority to decide these issues under the Establishment Clause. This debate is not merely an academic exercise. Indeed, the fundamental question is just what values may properly inform and mold the public policy of the nation. Will they be exclusively secular or will they include the values embodied in the nation’s religious heritage? Some argue that the government’s position must be one of strict neutrality. Others argue that in the realm of values, there is no such thing as neutrality. Indeed, it seems indisputable that the laws of every society reflect certain moral presuppositions. The law prohibits, allows, or promotes certain behaviors based upon what that society deems right or wrong. In America today, both sides of the debate on such divisive public issues as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and pornography are taking a distinct moral stance. Thus, the issue of the role of religion in public life is an important one which deserves the public’s attention."

Those who doubt the essentially religious nature of the founding fathers and documents of the United States need only peruse the history surrounding them to discover otherwise. Judge Graham notes that the Declaration of Independence makes explict reference to a Creator (who is, ironically, the source of people’s rights not to believe in him if they so choose). President Washington made a point of including prayer in his first inaugural address. The first Congress encouraged him also to declare "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God"—and this on the very day that the language of the First Amendment was approved. This same Congress, in one of its earliest actions, chose chaplains for both houses to be paid out of public funds. The national motto, "In God We Trust," is engraved on the wall in the House of Representatives, and the Capitol building has a room reserved just for prayer. Since the founding of the nation, it has been customary for both national and state legislatures to open their sessions with prayer, and the oaths taken in court and by judges end with the words, "So help me God." Presidents have made a practice of calling the country to a National Day of Prayer each year, and the national anthem gives thanks for the nation’s preservation by the hand of God. The list goes on and on. John Adams, the second President, said it best: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Dr. Johnson was right about the importance of being reminded, and it is most welcome when the reminding comes from a federal judge who obviously understands that what should be obvious is today news to many.

While We’re At It

Sources: Susan Kwilecki and Loretta S. Wilson on Mother Teresa, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, June 1998. Anti–Defamation League press release on canonization of Edith Stein, September 1998.

While We’re At It: John F. Quinn on the "dramatic change of direction" among neoconservative Catholics, New Oxford Review, October 1998. On Evangelicals and Catholics Together in Ireland, National Christian Reporter, September 11, 1998. Laurie Goodstein article "Christians Gain Support in Fight on ‘Persecution,’" New York Times, November 9, 1998. Peter Singer’s appointment at Princeton, Wall Street Journal, September 25, 1998. On women in politics, New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998. On the economies of euthanasia, New England Journal of Medicine, July 16, 1998. "The Course of True Love: Marriage in High School Textbooks" published by the Institute for American Values, Fall 1998. Stanley Fish quoted on abortion, Our Sunday Visitor, October 25, 1998. Nicholas Eberstadt on population trends in East Asia, National Interest, Fall 1998. Headline about Pope John Paul II, Rockland Journal News, October 17, 1998. On Christmas parade controversy in Montreal, Catholic New York, November 5, 1998. "Going Down Screaming" by Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Magazine, October 11, 1998. Alvin Plantinga on religion and science, Faith and Philosophy, April 1998 (quoting Richard Lewontin in New York Review of Books, January 7, 1997).