The Public Square
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, Roman Catholicism.)
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.
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 increasingly concerned.”
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.
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.
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, $23
0 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 way.
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.
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 $23
0 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.
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.
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 Marty).
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 Century.
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.
“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 all.
“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.
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 has grown.”
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 death.
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.
“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 Scholars (FCS).
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 wish.
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.
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 and practical.”
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 become meaningless.
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 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.
• 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 him.”
• 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 again.
• “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 paradigms, anyone?
• 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 to follow.
• 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 persuasive.
• 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 attentio