The Public Square
Yes, much of the misunderstanding was willful. But the fact is that the media coverage of the declaration Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus), issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in September, was almost uniformly negative, as was the reaction of the several communities engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church. It was alleged that Rome is now saying, among other things, that only Catholics can be saved and that non-Catholics are, at best, second-rate Christians. That is emphatically not true. Dominus Iesus is nothing more than a clear restatement of long-established Catholic teaching, and I agree with every word of it. But one may be forgiven for thinking it is missing other words that might have avoided misunderstandings and would have made it more difficult for those bent on misrepresenting Catholic teaching.
In response to the pervasive relativism in contemporary culture, and the form of relativism that is called religious syncretism in the dialogue between religions—a problem that came in for special attention at a recent Synod for Asia—CDF, with the Pope’s express support, is reiterating the Church’s faith that Jesus is, as he said of himself, the way, the truth, and the life. He is not one way among other ways or one truth among other truths. He is Lord of all or he is lord not at all. God denies no one grace sufficient to be saved, but whoever is saved is saved because of the redemption effected through Jesus Christ, whether or not they have ever heard of Jesus Christ. Because there is only one God and one revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who is true man and true God, there can be, as the declaration puts it, “only one economy of salvation.”
This argument, and the missionary imperative inherent in the argument, is set forth at greater length and, one may be permitted to suggest, with greater felicity in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer). The ecclesiological dimension of the argument, which necessarily engages ecumenism, is marvelously expressed in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). The claim that the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists in”—is most fully and rightly ordered in—the Catholic Church is a presupposition of Catholic engagement with other Christians who are “truly but imperfectly” in communion with the Catholic Church. As I say, the new declaration says nothing that is not said in other magisterial documents, particularly in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and it is always necessary to restate these important truths.
It should not be thought that the response to Dominus Iesus by non-Catholics has been uniformly negative. Dr. Timothy George is Dean of Beeson Divinity School and a very influential evangelical Protestant theologian. He is also executive editor of Christianity Today and a key participant in the project “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” He had this to say about the declaration:
“As an evangelical theologian committed to Christian unity, I welcome this new statement as an encouragement to the kind of ecumenism we ought to be engaged in. In some ecumenical circles, the barometer of conviction has fallen so low that it no longer registers the temperature of truth. In the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement, both sides are equally committed to an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do no service to the cause of Christ by smudging the serious theological differences that still divide our two traditions. From an evangelical perspective, we must say to the Church of Rome the same thing that this documents says to non-Catholic Christians: serious defects remain in Catholic teaching and piety and we call the Church of Rome, as we call our own churches, to further reformation on the basis of the Word of God.
“Seventy-five years ago evangelical leader J. Gresham Machen observed that Bible-believing Protestants and faithful Roman Catholics shared more in common with one another than they did with others who denied the deity of Christ, the miracles of Jesus, the Holy Trinity, or the second coming of Christ. That is still true today and we must continue to work for greater mutual understanding on the basis of a shared commitment to the core of orthodox Christian belief. Evangelicals who care about the gospel should welcome the Vatican’s spurning of religious relativism and its reassertion that Jesus Christ is the one and only Redeemer for all peoples everywhere.
“We certainly do not agree on the role of the papacy and this remains a barrier to full Christian unity as Pope John Paul II himself has acknowledged. But evangelicals believe that God is able to work in, with, and under faulty church structures to bring lost men and women into a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. While only God can read anyone’s hearts, I dare to say that there are countless Roman Catholics who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, just as there are no doubt (in my denomination) many Southern Baptists who have been duly dunked but are still spiritually dead. There is no place for either Catholic-baiting or Baptist-bashing among true believers in Jesus.”
The message of Dominus Iesus is that to say that Jesus is Lord is necessarily to say that no one else and nothing else is lord. This has been and always will be “controversial,” and is thought outrageously offensive in a culture whose highest truth is tolerance, with tolerance understood to mean that all truths are equal, which is another way of saying there is no truth. In ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, as also in encounters with those of no religion, all participants are of equal human dignity but their beliefs are not equally true. If our different understandings of the truth made no difference, there would be no point in dialogue. In the sometimes difficult hours of interviews and conversations I have had about Dominus Iesus, there have been glimmers of hope that more people are coming to recognize the crucial distinction between tolerance and truth, and even that tolerance is most securely grounded in the truth that we are all made in the image of the one God who, Christians claim, has revealed Himself in Jesus the Lord, who alone is true God and true man. If the declaration contributes to more people arriving at that understanding, then I suppose it will achieve what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had in mind.
From the Northern Front
Allumette Island, Quebec. August 2000-I admit it, I have cheated this year. The National Post made me do it. And, to a lesser extent, the Ottawa Citizen, where my friend Raymond de Souza, a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, is reporting on the magnificent World Youth Day being held there. As regular readers know, the time at the family cottage here in Quebec is also a vacation from newspapers. Instead of breakfast with the insufferable New York Times, each day over coffee I read and reread the venerable eleventh edition of the Britannica. I am doing that this year, too, but I confess that I have also been driving four miles to the crossroads store at Demers Centre, just south of Chapeau (which, with a population of about two hundred, is the metropolitan center of L’ile aux Allumettes) to pick up the papers.
Except for the occasional PBS documentary on “Our Neighbors to the North,” and maybe for that as well, most Americans evidence a nearly imperturbable indifference to what is happening in Canada. On behalf of our Canadian subscribers, I resent that. And on my own behalf, too, for I continue to be very fond of the Ottawa Valley where I was born and reared. It is not just my personal predilection, however, that makes me think attention should be paid. Things of interest sometimes happen in Canada. There is, for instance, the Alliance Party, which is uniting conservatives under the leadership of Stockwell Day. Alliance is now the official opposition and bids fair to turn out the Liberals in elections within the coming year. Day is an impressive leader, which is what I am inclined to say about any politician who is given to quoting me favorably on the role of religion and moral judgment in public life. With the stunning victory of Vicente Fox as president of Mexico, the possibility of Bush’s election in the U.S., and the prospect of Day as Prime Minister of Canada, the politics of North America could very soon look very different. Yes, I know, and I cite it all the time: “Put not your trust in princes” (Psalm 146). Yet some princes provide more reason for tempered hope than others.
Admittedly, some things of interest that happen in Canada are not so promising. Frequently they are downright crazy. The Canadian version of political correctness under the long-running Liberal regime makes the thought police in the U.S. appear libertarian by comparison. For example, the Canadian government seems bent on bankrupting the churches of the country. The churches of Canada are mainly Catholic, Anglican, and United, the last being a 1920s merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, and most Presbyterians. In the early twentieth century, the government set up Indian schools on reservations and asked the churches to run them, which they did. Policy changes with the winds of fashion, and now the First Nations, as native Canadians are called, are driving home the truth that no good deed goes unpunished.
Of course, there were bad deeds, too, and some of the more than seven thousand lawsuits make the usual allegations about sexual and other abuses. But the great crime of which the churches are accused is “cultural genocide.” Not only did they interfere with native religions, but they taught the kids English and generally did their best to prepare them for assimilation into the majority culture. Assimilation was then; First Nations Identity is now. The government has already acknowledged its culpability and has put a first installment of $35
0 million into a “healing fund” for the settlement of the law suits. The minister of Indian affairs has said that the churches must “feel some pain” in doing their share, which is likely to be a much larger sum in a final settlement or—even if the churches win at trial—in the cost of litigating the thousands of suits. The Anglicans have already announced drastic cuts in their national staff and are discussing selling off sundry properties or declaring bankruptcy. At its August convention, the United Church passed a resolution promising the Anglicans its prayers and solidarity in these difficult times, but then immediately rescinded the resolution at the insistence of delegates from bands (formerly called tribes) of First Nations. This may be the first time that a church officially withdrew a promise to pray for fellow Christians.
With a few exceptions, leaders of all three churches appear to be eagerly and predictably supine in confessing their genocidal sins. The United Church, whose politics lean sharply leftward, is demonstrating its good faith by demonstrating it has little faith in its clergy. They, along with other church staff, will be subjected to a criminal check by the police every three years in order to catch potential child abusers. This is the same church that is on record warning against the police state that Canada is supposedly becoming. As for a going-out-of-business sale, the Post has editorially reminded the leaders that the churches are not theirs to squander in a spasm of guilt concocted to improve their public image. Columnist David Frum adds, “If the church leaders have lost faith in the value of their churches’ missions, it is their obligation to resign from their positions of leadership, not to cooperate in their churches’ dissolution.” He notes that the government can always tax in order to raise money, but, with demands for hundreds of millions of dollars, “the churches will be forced to liquidate.” “There are precedents,” he writes, “for such a massive forced sale of religious property in Russia, in Mexico, and in Spain. But nothing like it has occurred in an English-speaking country since Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries 500 years ago.” (An English-speaking country? In Canada, that clearly shows Frum to be a hopeless right-winger.)
I rather doubt that the churches in Canada will go out of business. Especially with the Catholic Church, and to a lesser extent with the others, ownership of property is dispersed in a way that reduces legal liability. On the other hand, “terminal niceness” is a phrase that I am told was invented for Canadians. Maybe Prime Minister Stockwell Day will come to the rescue before the thousands of claims go to trial. If he cannot exorcise the nonsense of “cultural genocide,” it can at least be recognized that the churches ran the native schools at the request of, and under contract with, the government. The policy may now be thought wrongheaded—and setting up residential schools that forcibly separated children from their families was certainly wrong—but it was from start to finish a government policy, and the government should ante up for what it declares to be its mistaken course.
So interesting things do happen in Canada. But now I see that writing this item has taken up a good part of the morning. That’s what I get for reading the papers. I cannot promise not to do it again. But for now it’s back to the eleventh Britannica and that thoughtful entry on why there is not a hint of the autobiographical in the perversely grand speeches that Milton gives Satan in Paradise Lost. And then a dip down at the point, or maybe we’ll take the boat out, if the Ottawa River calms down a bit. (My godson Stephen Paul—son of George and Joan Weigel—is sure it’s calm enough already. But I have learned that he’s inclined to think circumstances ideal for whatever he wants to do at the moment.) And after that? Whatever. Whatever is what a cottage is for. As I’ll tell myself tomorrow morning when resisting the lure of Demers Centre and news from the big world elsewhere.
The Extreme of Excellence
Nobody wants to be called an extremist, but there is undeniably something extreme about human excellence. That is the argument of a bracing new book by R. R. Reno and Brian S. Hook, Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence (Westminster/ John Knox, 249 pages,, $23.95 paper). They trace the understanding of the heroic life from Homer to Virgil to the New Testament to Augustine to Milton to Bonhoeffer, and up to the present day in America—except, when we get to the present, we seem to have run out of heroes and heroines. Our unhappy circumstance is the result of, inter alia, our having learned too well Max Weber’s lessons about “the disenchantment of the world.” We have learned to be prudent, skeptical, and disinterested. “The only possible heroism is to resist the temptations of heroism,” according to the authors. There are no intensities, and certainly nothing touched by the suspicion of being extreme. The culture described by Reno and Hook is very like the culture depicted in David Brooks’ recent Bobos in Paradise.
The prevailing prudence and disinterest, say Reno and Hook, is better understood as “supine indolence.” “Prudence triumphs over the risks of excellence, and this, we believe, more than anything else, undermines our capacity to see and admire the heroic, in ourselves or others. Parents urge their children to work hard in school, to fill their resumés with just the right sorts of activities, to get good job experience. But this advice has not a tinge of real ambition. We need to lay up a treasure of skills and credentials in order to protect ourselves against a dangerous world. The labor et virtus of our time—and surely we live in an age of intense self-discipline, long hours at work, and seemingly boundless activity—does not strive toward the founding of a new city. We compact our souls; we pour ourselves into jobs and projects—but with a defensive purpose. Our achievements are little more than an electric fence we erect around our egos, our families, and our retirements. We do not extend ourselves in the risks of ambition governed only by the lure of excellence and blind to the dangers of failure. The so-called risk takers—the entrepreneurs, the wealthy middle-aged professionals who try to climb Mount Everest, the artists who pose against the background of transgression—are nothing more than gamblers looking for a big payoff. They want to add to their personal account—their bank accounts and their ego accounts. They simply calculate in larger sums than most of us.”
In such a world, intensities of talent or aspiration must be safely contained. “Prudence mounts constant assaults on our imprudent and often uncontrollable desire for excellence. For example, we worry about the fate of gifted children. Such a child should not ‘feel’ different from his or her peers. The concern is not to inculcate Christian humility, for that entails driving the gifted beyond the horizons of their surpassing abilities toward the vision of an achievement higher still. Rather, we worry about talented children because of our collective preoccupation with plain vanilla happiness. Precocious children must be properly socialized; they need to enjoy the playground. As they grow older, they need to feel comfortable in the pinched world of adolescent isolation. They need to fall under the sway of anxieties about fitting into their peer group, about whether or not they have the right clothes, the right car, and the right date for the prom. God forbid that a talented child miss out on normalcy; otherwise, she or he will never ‘fit in.’ If talented children are recognized, then they will feel the endless lash of expectation and ambition. Faced with Achilles’ choice of returning to his family and enjoying the home and hearth, or the cold and isolating steel of battle, they might, like him, be unable to embrace mediocrity and its soft pleasures. Buffeted with anxieties about our own happiness and numbed by the comforts of postindustrial plenty, we think such a fate terrible. Better to encourage a ‘normal childhood.’”
The heroism of true discipleship is threatening. “The Virgin Mary seems a strange and disturbing figure because she signals dangerous territory where we fear our psyches cannot survive. The very idea of virginity is terrifying. It is so . . . abnormal. Could I really endure such renunciation? Could I survive being so different from ordinary folks? And toward what end? What are, thinks our calculating prudence, the compensations? But within the patterns of heroic discipleship, chastity is no more than the urgent physical center of any number of rings of risky renunciation: property, family, and communal loyalty. At every turn, the intense ambition of Christian discipleship challenges our sense of what is reasonable, humane, even possible. Abraham is not a threat to our reason or our freedom of self-expression. Most of us have little loyalty to argument and evidence; inconvenient facts and inferences are repressed. We have little confidence in our personal genius, and we are more concerned about ‘finding our voice’ than speaking our minds. Nor is Abraham a threat because he is obedient. We are largely followers rather than leaders, and prudence dictates conformity and submission most of the time. Rather, Abraham is terrible because his obedience is so singular, so extreme, so heroic.”
There are, of course, dangers in the heroic life, especially the dangers of spiritual pride, but Reno and Hook insist that the antidote to pride cannot be the egalitarian piety or the cynicism that makes heroism appear as scandalously elitist or hopelessly naive. The alternative to both pride and mediocrity is provided in, for instance, Milton’s treatment of Abraham’s testing and Athanasius’ telling of the trials of Anthony in the desert. “Athanasius wants us to marvel at Anthony and his achievements, and in order to fall victim to Athanasius’ intentions, we must train and stretch our imaginations beyond the pinched confines of egalitarian piety and cynical suspicion, and we must certainly free our souls from the many chains of supine indolence. Spenser wishes to incite us toward an active faith that quests toward high goals, and in order to follow his poetic arguments, not just analytically but personally, we need to develop a living vocabulary of the heroic. At each point, these Christian writers have not renounced heroism. They have not rejected excellence. They have reclaimed heroism and excellence on behalf of the highest good.”
Along the way, the authors offer suggestive analyses of how Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood heroism. Bonhoeffer, they contend, associated the heroic ideal with Nazism and its leadership cult, setting against it the “antiheroism” of unqualified obedience to the Leader, Jesus Christ. He did not resist the Nazis; they resisted Christ. “They were active, Bonhoeffer was passive. He was made martyr; he did not choose or make himself a martyr. But of course, that is precisely the way in which the Christian tradition has understood that strange power that Paul thought to be the inheritance of the baptized. Not I, but Christ in me.” I am not sure that Reno and Hook are right in their reading of The Cost of Discipleship and other Bonhoeffer texts. He understood human excellence, including the excellence of radical discipleship, but was relentless in attributing every excellence in the life of obedience to the One obeyed. This is not, I think, “antiheroism.” It is heroism radically ordered to the One who calls us to, and equips us for, martyrdom. But that is an argument for another day. Enough for now to warmly recommend Heroism and the Christian Life. Not because I am in complete agreement with the argument, but because it is a bracing corrective to the false virtue of mediocrity so pervasive in our society, and not least in our churches.
Contract, Covenant, and the Beginning of “The American Century”
It is a commonplace, but it is a commonplace because it has so often been found true, that we suffer both from thinking too much of ourselves and from thinking too little of ourselves. This is undoubtedly the case also in our thinking about the American experiment. James Madison observed that beasts are not capable of government and angels do not need government. In conversation with a historian of the American experiment some years ago, I was struck by his passing remark that the American founding took place in a “relatively brief window of secular opportunity.” By that he meant that, had the founding happened before about 1770 or after 1805, the controlling texts of our constitutional order would have been much more explicitly Christian in character. As it happened, the texts reflect a relatively brief period of the dominance of a variation of Enlightenment thought—although, to be sure, those texts must be understood, as the framers certainly did understand them, against the background assumptions of what in fact was a Christian society and culture.
“Christian America,” as both fact and idea, has at times been prone to a vaulting idealism, as though we were angels quite untouched by the needs and impulses that afflict lesser beings. When rudely awakened by the experience of ideals betrayed, we, in our disillusionment, may mistake ourselves for fallen angels or even beasts. Beasts and angels—the two delusions feed each other. Both obscure the fact that we are simply, and ever so complicatedly, human—with all the possibilities and limitations that that entails. Americans have at times “theologized” their history, seeing this experiment as an instrument—maybe even the instrument—of God’s unfolding purposes. That way of thinking has been out of fashion for some time now. When it was in vogue, it was sometimes attended by a doctrine of American “exceptionalism” so exaggerated that American purposes were depicted in angelic hues, untouched by the ambiguities, corruptions, and lust for power associated with mere mortals. Ernest Lee Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation is a caution against that way of telling the American story. The caution is always in order. Those who think of themselves as angels may end up by giving themselves license to do things that are, in fact, quite beastly.
One reason American history is no longer told in terms of redemptive purpose is that we no longer think of history itself as having a purpose. History is a matter of this happening and then that happening and then the other thing happening, and who is to say what it all means? As the man said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” The very idea that history should have a meaning strikes many of our contemporaries as highly improbable, maybe even nonsensical. If there is no purpose, there is no meaning. There is, although perhaps only on the surface, something attractively modest about this way of thinking. Especially when it is contrasted with the pride, presumption, and delusions of divinely ordained power that sometimes attended talk about “Christian America.”
Admittedly, it is not so attractive when the apparent modesty disguises a self-denigration that is almost tantamount to self-hatred, as is sometimes evident in current forms of “multiculturalism.” Among Christians committed to ecumenism there is a type that is aptly described as an ecumaniac. An ecumaniac is defined as someone who loves every church but his own. So it is that multiculturalists are forever discovering superiorities in other cultures, oblivious to the fact that, in the larger human story, Western culture is singular in its eagerness to praise and learn from other cultures. One is never more distinctively Western than when criticizing what is distinctively Western. The same holds for being American. In our multiculturalism we display our superiority by demonstrating our ability to see through what others—mistakenly, we say—admire in our culture. So maybe this new and self-denigrating way of telling the American story is not so modest after all.
The Tie That Binds
Whatever were the problems with “theologizing” the American experiment, the near disappearance of that tradition may reflect a failure of nerve and imagination, a loss of confidence in providential purpose, a refusal to accept the responsibility that attends the reality of Christian America. It is surely easier to treat Christianity as a purely private matter of individual salvation or, as it is more commonly said these days, of personal spirituality. A great advantage of privatized religion is that it does not risk giving offense in a “religiously pluralistic society.” Nor, since it is tailored to our “felt needs,” does it place inconvenient demands upon us.
Yet even the boldest among us might not be quite prepared to embrace the vision of Governor John Winthrop as he spoke to those who were, more than 350 years ago, preparing to establish the Holy Commonwealth in the New World. “Thus stands the cause between God and us,” he declared while still aboard the Arbella. “We are entered into covenant with Him for this work; we have taken out a commission, the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. . . . We shall find that the God of Israel is among us. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” President Ronald Reagan was the last major public figure to speak of America as a city upon a hill, and his allusions to that venerable tradition were derided as a gross instance of either naiveté or hubris, or maybe both. But most of the American people seemed to like it well enough. Maybe because it spoke to their sense of pride and, just possibly, their sense of responsibility. Upon his election in 1992, President Bill Clinton also spoke of a “New Covenant,” but the image did not catch on—perhaps because it ran into the conspicuously uncovenantal practices of the Clinton presidency—and it was soon dropped.
The constituting idea of the American experiment was that we are bound together not simply by a social contract but by a covenant. The biblical idea of covenant embraced by earlier Americans is something deeper and more profound and more binding than a contract; it also engages another party, a party who transcends the agreements that we strike among ourselves. The other party, of course, is God. The idea of covenant is almost entirely absent from our public discourse today. Many educated Americans have never heard of it. Those who are familiar with it were taught that it was discredited because of the abuses to which it led, or simply because it was part of the religious baggage that a thoroughly secular society, such as ours presumably is, must leave behind.
The myth of a covenant, we are told, is simply no longer believable. From Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century through John Rawls in the twentieth, it was replaced by the myth of the social contract. I expect people counted the myth of the social contract more believable because it was a myth of their own creation. It was a fiction pure and simple, but it had the attraction of being our fiction. According to this story, human beings emerged from a “state of nature” in order to constitute society. Or, in the case of John Rawls, they are behind a pre-social “veil of ignorance” making deals with one another according to their calculated self-interest and thus bringing “society,” with its key idea of justice, into being. No matter how sophisticated, or at least complicated, theories of social contract may be, they are as thoroughly made up as nursery tales. In fact, there are not and never have been human beings apart from societies. The individual person does not emerge from isolation into society but from society. Some societies are called primitive and some are called advanced, but society is the constant in the human story. The “state of nature” and “veil of ignorance” are fables; nobody has ever encountered, nor can we even plausibly hypothesize, persons apart from society.
All societies that we know of have myths of origin, usually involving God or the gods. The cultures to which they give rise, whether we call them primitive or advanced, are grounded in cult. The same must be true of any society we can imagine. A society must, in order to be sustained, have a story about itself, and stories must have a beginning. After the terrible experience of the European wars of religion occasioned by the sixteenth-century Reformation, many of the brightest and best, including many thoughtful Christians, decided that God and the gods could have no place in the public telling of the myth of origins. Hence the attractiveness of the new myth of the social contract.
Of course the contract is in the mode of “let’s pretend,” but it is our pretending. And some fictions can be eminently useful, if we can persuade ourselves to pretend. According to some versions of the American founding, John Locke was the original teller of the contractual tale. But that version has never enjoyed a monopoly. Hovering in the background—and sometimes pressing to front stage center—is the other story, the story of John Winthrop’s covenant. In the beginning, and all along the way, America is the product of a Puritan-Lockean synthesis, and sometimes the synthesis has looked more like an inherently contradictory muddle.
By What Authority?
The classic text of this American synthesis is, of course, the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration begins with contract-sounding language. The American people had decided to change the terms of a prior agreement. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .” But the Declaration then quickly moves, in the very same sentence, to the question of by what right or by what authority such a change is to be made. The authority invoked is “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Far from pretending to be constituting a world ex nihilo, the framers appeal to “self-evident truths” such as the assumed fact that all are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Throughout our history, there is an oscillation—some call it a tension or even a conflict—between contract and covenant. It is conventionally, but much too simply, thought that the Enlightenment is on the contract side and “Christian America” on the covenant side. The truth is that, as, for instance, in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, contract thinking engages ideas of promise and obligation that take on at least the appearance of being covenantal. At the same time, Christianity provides an anthropology of persons created in the image of God that is the notion of human dignity undergirding presumably “contractual” ideas such as the Declaration’s claim that just government derives from the consent of the governed. Such is the confused and confusing oscillation—and perhaps mutual dependence—of Enlightenment contract and “Christian America.”
There is no denying that the idea of “Christian America” has been abused at times. Among the abuses was the notion that America had a “manifest destiny” to redeem the world. Speaking at the turn of the last century in the United States Senate, the politician-historian Albert J. Beveridge set forth what was then a widely held view. “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration,” Beveridge declared.
No. He made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.
Such sentiments would today be condemned, and not without justice, as racist, chauvinist, imperialist, and a half dozen other anathemas that come readily to mind. President Woodrow Wilson spoke in terms more moderate and it is still possible to quote him, as it is not possible to quote Beveridge, in polite company. Wilson had no doubt that America was God’s instrument in making the world “safe for democracy.” Decisively formed as he was by a Calvinist understanding of covenant and history, Wilson thought he knew that “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” What we might call free-standing Wilsonianism—Wilsonianism removed from its religious and theological foundation—is still a respectable view among those who write about the need for a compelling “national purpose.” When President Reagan spoke about American purpose in opposing “the evil empire” of Soviet Communism, he spoke in terms that his predecessor eleven times removed would likely have found unexceptionable. The criticism of Reagan at the time was that, by referring to “evil,” he was reintroducing to public discourse a moral category that is dangerously close to the language of religion and divine destiny that America had long since outgrown. It was, in fact, the language of Wilson, and the dominant language of American leadership from the founding until fairly recently.
A decade ago, Francis Fukuyama launched a very lively public discussion about “the end of history.” It is not entirely fair to Fukuyama’s argument, but it was widely assumed that, after the end of Communist totalitarianism, “the end of history” meant that the alternatives to liberal democracy had been exhausted. In this construal, the end of history—meaning, more or less, the globalization of our kind of political and economic order—depended neither upon social contracts nor upon the promise of covenantal purpose. It was, so to speak, just how history is turning out. This does not satisfy some in our time who call for a new and grand and compelling assertion of “national purpose.” Henry Luce of Time was premature. It is the twenty-first century that must be “the American century.” This is what I call free-standing Wilsonianism—Wilsonianism without Wilson’s understanding of the Puritan-Lockean synthesis. It is a highly dubious and potentially dangerous position.
It seems to be the case that America is, and probably will be as far as we can see, the “lead society” of world-historical change. God knows, the world deserves a better lead society than the United States, but it’s the only one around at present. The role of lead society requires moral definition, and there is, I believe, no adequate moral definition without reference to historical purpose. Which means that at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are, if we would reconstitute the experiment, returned to the founding dialectic between contract and covenant.
While We’re At It
• In this issue, we once again take on, as we have many times in recent years, the always changing debate over evolution as science, philosophy, and, if we are to believe some of its more ardent proponents, as quasi-religion. Readers tend to have strong opinions on this subject, and some express impatience with us because we continue to publish alternative, and sometimes conflicting, arguments. “Whose side are you on, anyway?” I am asked. I am definitely on the side of those who debunk the promotion of mindless materialism and determinism under the guise of a scientific theory of evolution. And I am very much on the side of those scientists who, unintimidated by evolutionary dogma, try to provide more adequate explanations of reality as it can be known. At the same time, I am in the company of those who want to enhance collaboration between science and theology, and to avoid any risk of resuscitating that nineteenth-century intellectual fossil, the “war” between science and religion. The rock-bottom presumption is that all truth is one because the source of all that is is one. “Design theory” and other probings hold the promise of opening up space through which we can move beyond the gridlock in which debates about creation, origins, and development have been trapped for a wearyingly long time. The editors have no delusions that there is going to be a definitive resolution of these debates any time soon. But the scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments are being reconfigured in interesting ways, and our continuing intention is to help the educated but nonspecialist reader to understand that—if I may be permitted the term—evolution. So, in answer to those who have asked, that’s the side we’re on.
• Apologies to the Institute for Economic Affairs, London, for forgetting to acknowledge their kind permission to publish Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ article “Markets and Morals” in the August/September issue. An earlier version of that piece was given as a lecture at IEA and reprinted in a booklet entitled Morals and Markets.
• The municipal council of Gamle in Oslo, Norway, has authorized the Islamic muezzin’s public call to prayer for three minutes at noon on Fridays. In response, the “Norwegian Association of Pagans” has requested permission to make the public call, “God does not exist. Come to our meetings.” Having once agreed upon the premise, to do what?
• Senator Joseph Lieberman is “defining Orthodoxy down,” says Jews for Morality, an Orthodox group. “Lieberman is going all around the United States sounding every bit like the caricature of a Bible-thumping old-time Fundamentalist preacher,” the release continues. “It’s insincere! It’s totally based on polling and focus group research. It’s a desecration of true religious faith!” Many Washington insiders are more temperate in expressing their view that Lieberman is something of a moral poseur. Says one friend, “He’s always ‘wrestling with his conscience,’ but I’d be more impressed if his conscience won a match from time to time.” Says another, “He’s all yarmulke and no Torah.” I don’t think we need get into the question of the Senator’s sincerity. Although he and other candidates should not be making their campaign pitches from Protestant and synagogue pulpits, it is, all in all, a good thing that the Senator is asserting the legitimacy of making connections between politics, moral judgment, and religious faith. And I am not untouched—nor, I hope, am I unduly influenced—by his quoting my work in his public statements. That the argument is being made by a Jew has muted somewhat the criticisms of the usual proponents of the naked public square. Although it is a nice touch that the Anti-Defamation League is charging that Lieberman is “alienating the American people,” which would seem to imply a dramatic broadening of ADL’s understanding of its constituency. Only in America, as it is said. Yet how can an Orthodox Jew support the unlimited abortion license of Roe v. Wade, oppose the ban on infanticide (a.k.a. partial-birth abortion), and vote for making homosexuality a constitutionally privileged way of life? I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that Lieberman believes that these are facts of American life that the law can do little to remedy. This would put him in the “personally opposed, but . . .” camp, but even to express his personal opposition might be seen as a criticism of the Vice President (who seems positively enthusiastic about abortion, infanticide, and homosexuality) and encourage those who are engaged in what Lieberman views as a futile and divisive effort to “turn back the clock.” The fact, of course, is that even one or two appointments to the Supreme Court could effectively reverse Roe v. Wade and redress other malfeasances of a wayward judiciary. That fact makes the Supreme Court perhaps the most important single issue in the current election. It is neither necessary nor nice to impugn Senator Lieberman’s sincerity. It is enough that he is wrong. Very wrong.
• Here is a dustup that will, I expect, soon pass, but it raises questions about science and ideology that will likely be with us for a long time. When Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer published A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, it was not only feminists who reacted with rage to the argument that rape is somehow biologically natural for human males who have limited access to women. The argument is an exercise in “evolutionary psychology,” which used to be called sociobiology. Jerry A. Coyne teaches evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, and he says that evolutionary psychology is certainly not a science (because it is not testable or falsifiable) and is mostly bunkum. “If evolutionary biology is a soft science,” he writes, “then evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly.” He continues: “But the public can be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary biology is equivalent to evolutionary psychology. Books by Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker have sold briskly, and evolutionary psychology dominates the media coverage of the science of evolution. (It has figured also in the media’s treatment of politics, as when the lustful activity of Bill Clinton was explained—or explained away—by various evolutionary psychologists as the behavior of an ‘alpha male.’) In view of the scientific shakiness of much of the work, its popularity must rest partly on some desire for a comprehensive ‘scientific’ explanation of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology satisfies the post-ideological hunger for a totalistic explanation of human life, for a theory of inevitability that will remove many of the ambiguities and the uncertainties of emotional and moral life. Freud is no longer the preferred behavioral paradigm. Now Darwin is ascendant. Blame your genes, not your mother.” Coyne offers a detailed and devastating critique of the dubious, and sometimes downright false, claims of scientific evidence adduced by Thornhill and Palmer, but he notes that, in their minds, their position is impregnable. That is because they believe that resistance to their theories about the evolutionary naturalness of rape or anything else is itself a product of evolution. If you do not believe in evolution as an all-encompassing explanation of everything, it is because evolutionary psychology has programmed you not to believe it. “This,” writes Coyne, “is one of the ways in which the new evolutionary psychologists resemble the old Marxists: there is no place to stand outside their system of meaning, except for the privileged place where they themselves stand.” This is the famous Marxist “dialectic” by which contradictions are agreements, and vice versa. So why are the media and much of the public enamored of the doctrinaire pronouncements of evolutionary psychology? Coyne answers: “They enjoy the advantage that people seem to like scientific explanations for their behavior, and the certainty that such explanations provide. It is reassuring to impute our traumas and our misdeeds to our savanna-dwelling ancestors. It lessens the moral pressure on our lives. And so the disciplinary hubris of evolutionary psychology and the longing for certainty of ordinary men and women have combined to create a kind of scientistic cargo cult, with everyone waiting in vain for evolutionary psychology to deliver the goods that it doesn’t have.” Coyne’s critique is persuasive, but one keeps in mind that he has a vested interest in separating his “soft science” of evolutionary biology from the wackiness of evolutionary psychology. Otherwise, more people might become skeptical of the evolutionary faith itself.
• On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School spoke at a Jubilee Day for Women in Washington. She reflected on the life of Dorothy Day, who died in 1980 and is now a candidate for beatification. It is no secret that many Catholics have a deep ambivalence toward Dorothy Day, admiring her orthodoxy and personal piety while deploring her doctrine of economics, or vice versa. As Joseph Pearce reports in his recent Literary Converts (Ignatius), Evelyn Waugh visited Day in the 1950s, finding her to be “an imperious woman who thinks we would be better off if we were all poor.” Waugh was not persuaded. Professor Glendon, however, directs our attention to why many others think Dorothy Day should be raised to the honor of the altar. “In the roaring ‘20s, when Dorothy Day was in her 20s, she lived a life that she later described as ‘drifting.’ She had numerous love affairs; a short marriage; a longer cohabitation; a child born out of wedlock; and an abortion followed by the pain of being abandoned by the father of the child she had aborted. Significantly, she titled her autobiographical account of those years The Long Loneliness. Not long after the birth of her daughter Tamar, Dorothy became a Catholic. Thereafter, she lived a life of voluntary poverty, devoting herself to raising her child and to caring for the poor and homeless. Together with Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker movement. What accounted for the dramatic change in Dorothy’s life? The grace of God to be sure. But Dorothy Day was prompted to open her heart to that grace by the witness of other human beings—especially by the religious sisters whom she saw day in and day out feeding the poor in the depths of the Depression era. Dorothy began lending a hand to these women, and she began to question them. Throughout her life, she did ‘not cease to put questions to Christ.’ In the film based on her life, Entertaining Angels, one moving scene shows Dorothy storming into church after a day of dreadful disappointments, standing before the crucifix and asking, ‘What do you want from me?’ The answer, she comes to understand, is ‘Everything.’ Whatever the outcome of the proceedings in Rome, Dorothy’s story speaks powerfully to young women today. For, unfortunately, the bohemian lifestyle of artists and intellectuals in the 1920s has spread to all corners of our society. It has taken a terrible toll, especially on women and children. How fortunate we are this morning, then, to be sustained by our shared faith and fellowship. As we thank God for the inestimable privilege of those gifts, let us give thanks for the life of Dorothy Day and pray that her example will lead ever more women out of their ‘long loneliness’ into the love of God. And let us not forget to give thanks for those wonderful sisters whose Christian witness helped to open Dorothy’s heart to grace. I would like to think that perhaps we here might even follow their example. Could not each one of us resolve to reach out to the Dorothys we may know who are still lonely and drifting—that their voices too may be heard in a mighty chorus of yes to God.”
• In our seminar in Krakow, Poland, now in its ninth year, I have regularly urged young people to write the stories of what happened during the years under the Soviet empire. This often meets with resistance. One reason given is that they want to put that time behind them. Another reason given, which is not untouched by honor, is that they do not want to embarrass their parents. A third reason is documented by the Vienna-based Pastoral Forum in a project called “God After Communism.” Several volumes of research published by the Forum indicate that a majority of people in Central and Eastern Europe think that there was no persecution of the Church under communism. The more thoroughly secularized the population—the former East Germany is a notable instance—the stronger is the opinion that the Communist regimes imposed nothing but a reasonable regulation of religion. A Forum researcher explains that most people have been effectively instructed by intellectuals and media leaders who are not Christians, since Christians under communism were excluded from university education and positions of influence. “The great task at present,” he says, “is the formation of a new Christian intellectual class, including professionals, academics, and journalists, who will be able to carry the gospel message to the highest levels of society.” And who will be disposed to tell the truth about the evil empire.
• So where, amidst all the categories by which academics slot thinkers, should we locate the monumental achievement of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg? In an appreciative evaluation of his work, George Sumner of Wycliffe College, Toronto, says the wineskins of the old categories may not be adequate for the new wine. “But in the end, arguments over the ‘post’ position are tiresome and unhelpful. Is Pannenberg a modernist or postmodern, a ‘foundationalist’ or ‘postfoundationalist,’ a ‘liberal’ or a ‘postliberal’? The question that matters is whether one’s theological reflection consists of explicating God’s Word read according to the rule of faith, or whether one is inhibited from doing so. Call it what you will, that is the place where the roads part. The most telltale sign of inhibition may be the endless obsession with method, no matter what the cause to which it is mustered. Volume 3 [of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology] suffers from no such block, but deals with substantive theological issues on the realistic assumption of the presence of the risen Christ. That is what truly locates Pannenberg as a theologian for the long haul. Still, it is worth noting that Volume 3, and so Systematic Theology as a whole, succeeds with little need of help from, and only occasional references to, all those heavy methodological lifting machines from earlier in his career. In a theologian who spent two decades devoted to building and operating those machines, their absence does seem strange. To the postliberal, that absence, and its attendant freedom, are telling and reassuring facts after all.”
• Among the several organizations that have in recent years adopted sincerely flattering names is the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, based at Trinity College, Hartford, and funded by the Pew foundation. They publish a useful little quarterly, Religion in the News, that intends to encourage better media coverage of religion. The editors might themselves need a little encouragement on that score. Here is an article on the “near-death experience” of the National Council of Churches, in which the author suggests that the Council might be revitalized by promoting the “charitable choice” provision of the 1996 welfare reform, a provision that, as the author notes, the Council opposed “with maximal fervor.” In the course of an interesting article, there is this: “Unlike evangelical Protestants, mainline and liberal Protestants have a tradition of social service provision and a substantial inclination to reach out to others through service.” Really? Perhaps our friends at Hartford might undertake a study of how many liberal and how many evangelical programs there are reaching out to people in need. My hunch is that the evangelical list would be more impressive, especially were one to control for programs that are unabashedly Christian in motivation and substance. It would be a worthy project for an organization that calls itself the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.
• Sursum Corda is the newsletter of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. On the front page of every issue is prominently printed its motto from Psalm 115, Non nobis, Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam (Not to us, Lord, but to your name give the glory). Perhaps I am wrong in thinking there is something a bit odd about that in a newsletter devoted to relentless boosterism on behalf of the Charismatic Episcopal Church.
• Teachers, from grade school through graduate school, are the largest single category of FT subscribers, and they may be especially interested in “History Textbooks at the New Century” by Gilbert T. Sewall, a report of the American Textbook Council. The forty-page report examines history texts used in elementary and secondary schools and concludes, if I may put it somewhat too simply, that American and world history is being “problematized” to death. For a copy of the report, send $10 (postage included) to the Council at 475 Riverside Drive, Room 448, New York, New York 10115.
• As an alternative for those who are not “ready” for marriage, the French have instituted what is called Pacte civil de solidarité, otherwise known as PACS. It’s a contract of sorts, with a lot of outs. That feisty newsletter catholic eye observes that it took the Church many centuries to domesticate wild libidinal urges in the institution of marriage, and that work is now being undone with stunning rapidity. “We tend to think that the good can take an awful lot of punishment. The occasional bohemian artist a century or two ago, throwing rocks at the edifice of traditional morality in the name of liberty of conscience or artistic freedom or free love, would probably be astonished to view the rubble heap he and those like him have made of it. Many of those young French couples cowering from the commitment of till-death-do-us-part or the responsibilities of parenthood vaguely intend to marry one day, but they want to be ‘sure’ and they want to be ‘ready.’ When that time comes they will poke around amid the debris of the modern era, hunting for an unbroken block of stone marked ‘marriage.’“
• My former associate here at the institute, Paul Stallsworth, is a Methodist minister in North Carolina who simply never stops in his devotion to doing the right thing. His latest contribution is editing a booklet, Thinking Theologically About Abortion, with essays by Elizabeth Achtemeier, Carl Braaten, Leonard Klein, and your scribe. The booklet emerges from a conference of pro-life pastors that Paul helped organize and is being widely distributed among United Methodists and others. It is available from Bristol House at Post Office Box 4020, Anderson, Indiana 46013-0020 (1-800-451-READ) at a price of $6.95.
• “I believe the story of Adam and Eve is one of the most theologically and psychologically destructive stories ever written,” writes the pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Chicago’s Loop. It says here that he has also committed a book titled Fashioning a Healthier Religion. It figures. The loopiness, if I may be permitted the term, continues: “Humans became God’s scapegoat. Rather than blame our Maker we decided to blame ourselves. A tremendous burden of guilt and shame has overshadowed us since. . . . What a tremendous guilt trip we have undertaken! Rather than risk an imperfect Creator, we have fashioned ourselves as perpetually rebellious ingrates. . . . I believe we are the way we are precisely because God wanted us to be this way. . . . We have never ‘fallen’ from perfection. We have never been banned from paradise. We have never been exiled east of Eden.” It would seem to follow there that is no need for incarnation, redemption, repentance, or forgiveness—although on the last score he writes that “we should finally forgive our mythical first parents.” Such are the thoughts offered under the title of “Pastoral Musings” by a man who heads a staff of some thirty Franciscan Friars who run St. Peter’s. So why do I mention one out of innumerable available instances of theological silliness? Because an influential Protestant friend who is skeptical about the project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” came across the parish bulletin of St. Peter’s and asks me, “How can the Catholic Church justify such heresy?” The simple answer is that she doesn’t, but she does put up with a lot of nonsense. I’m not sure the pastor’s musings rise to the level of heresy. They are more in the nature of addle-brained feel-goodism that in a therapeutic culture produces a popular genre that might be called Positive Thinking for Dummies. Norman Vincent Peale would be embarrassed. But consider: Chicago is a tough place, and the Loop is the heart of Chicago. One imagines this poor priest being beaten down by trying to respond to the sins of a world radically out of whack, and then taking some whimsical time out to design a more agreeable religion. Why he would publish his musings in a form that might confuse his “healthier religion” with Christianity is another matter. Something should probably be done about that. There are remedies, such as theological education, spiritual formation, episcopal oversight—and conversion. All else failing, it may be that the best we can hope for is a more selective accentuation of the priest shortage. In response to my Protestant friend, however, we can know, some nonmythical priests notwithstanding, what it is that the Catholic Church teaches, which does not include fashioning a religion to our taste. Incidentally, I note from the bulletin that St. Peter’s has a very extensive schedule for confessions. That may, in charity, be taken as further evidence that the pastor could not possibly believe what he says he believes. Unless, of course, absolution and penance are replaced by a ritual agreement that God is to blame. But one tries hard to think that, even in the Loop, that is unthinkable.
• Many textbooks and the literature from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller persist in raising alarums about a “population explosion.” The facts are to the contrary. This, for example, from the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute: “Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, has warned that by 2025 nearly a third of Europeans will be collecting pensions as a result of falling fertility rates and consequently aging populations. The United Nations has reported that sixty-one countries, including all of Europe, have fertility rates below replacement level and that this year another nineteen countries are expected to be added to the list. The average rate in Western Europe is now 1.6 children per woman, and in Eastern Europe it is even lower at 1.3. Italy’s population is on course to fall by 28 percent to only forty-one million before 2050.” What appears to be the death wish of entire societies gives new meaning to “the culture of death.” I know my bias is showing, but I’ve often thought that, were it necessary for one nation to rule the world, I hope it is the Italians. They have so admirably demonstrated how to get along without government. They will be sorely missed.
• I don’t know why his books are out of print. Years ago Elie Wiesel described Chaim Grade as “one of the greatest—if not the greatest—of living Yiddish novelists. Surely he is the most authentic.” There is in his writings none of the Fiddler on the Roof kitsch that is too often to be found in the stories of, for instance, Isaac Bashevis Singer with their wandering souls (dybbuks) and other contrivances that turn Eastern European shtetls into set pieces for the borscht circuit. There is cutting humor in Grade, but his gift is chiefly the uncompromising depiction of people caught up in the passions and conflicts of Lithuanian Jewry during the interwar period. Grade died in 1982, and among his books in English translation are The Well, The Yeshiva (two volumes), Rabbis and Wives, and a memoir, The Seven Little Lanes. “Laybe-Layzar’s Courtyard” is one of three stories in Rabbis and Wives (1982). Rabbi Yoel Weintraub has given up being rav of Zaskowicz because he cannot bring himself to tell his poor congregants that Jewish law forbids their doing so many things that seem relatively innocent. He moves to the big city and becomes a Porush, a reclusive Talmudic scholar who spends his days studying in a beth midrash and living off charity. His antagonist in the story is Reb Heskiah, a rigidly observant Jew who destroys his family and alienates his neighbors with his relentless piety. Weintraub argues that, by demanding total observance, the young are driven away from Judaism, figuring that, if they have broken one law, they might as well break them all. Heskiah counters that the young fall away because people like Weintraub propose an observance that is not entirely serious. It is a perennial argument that goes on, mutatis mutandis, among people of all religions. Here is Reb Heskiah on Yom Kippur: “As he knelt on his weary knees during the cantor’s recitation of the Temple Service for the Day of Atonement; as he shut his eyes tight and clenched his teeth during the ‘Hear O Israel’; as he stood long and frozen during the Silent Prayer, moving only to bow at the appropriate blessing and to beat his chest solemnly during the confessional, the ‘Al Hayt’—Reb Heskiah kept praying over and over for but one thing: ‘Lord of the Universe, give me the strength to remain stubborn!’ This generation was strange to him. His own children and even the supposedly pious Jews were strange to him. Everyone was looking for dispensations, interested only in finding out that they were permitted to do whatever they wished, desiring nothing more than to get by with the minimum of precepts in service to the Creator of the Universe and His Torah. Even a rabbi, the Porush, believed in bargaining with God. And that’s what the people wanted—witness the fact that the people of Zaskowicz had come to the Porush, Rabbi Yoel Weintraub, and begged him to return and become their Rav once again. It was a new world, a world of cutting corners, of bargaining and compromise: half for the Almighty and half for . . . But this was the Day of Judgment—he did not want to accuse his fellow Jews on this day. He spoke only for himself, and all he asked was that the Lord help him to live only for Him. He did not want to just get by, he wanted to accept stricter laws, to bend under a still heavier yoke of ritual and custom.” Chaim Grade’s sympathies are clearly, but not too clearly, with Rabbi Weintraub. But the power of his writing is in helping us understand the zeal of Reb Heskiah and so many others wracked by the possible impossibilities of fidelity to a covenant in a world radically at odds with its Creator. As I say, I don’t know why his books are out of print. It is a great pity, and should be remedied. Meanwhile, Chaim Grade is a name to keep in mind when visiting a library or browsing a used book store.
• It would be objectionable anywhere, but it is particularly striking to find in Worship, a publication of St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota, a recommendation of Princeton’s Peter Singer. The author, Nathan D. Mitchell, a former Benedictine, allows that Singer has “controversial” views on items such as population control, euthanasia, and family planning. He does not mention that Singer is today’s most prominent advocate of infanticide. (The five Supreme Court Justices in Stenberg v. Carhart do not advocate infanticide. They simply claim that the Constitution, as they construe it, forbids forbidding it.) What Mitchell finds “challenging” are Singer’s views on world poverty, which, readers may remember from earlier comment in this space, turn on his utilitarian calculus of what makes one a “decent” human being (a calculus by which, Singer admits, he is guilty of indecent selfishness). This is the first instance that has come to my attention in which Peter Singer is held up as a moral authority in a Catholic publication. There is no shortage of Catholic statements, official and personal, on world poverty. The choice of Peter Singer as an authority would seem to serve no purpose other than to try to legitimate him and his views. Mitchell learns from Singer that “the plain fact is that, in today’s world, moral problems are—more often than not—economic problems.” I don’t know where that leaves the cardinal sins, only one of which (greed) would seem to be mainly economic, or moral problems such as abortion, divorce, marital infidelity, and a host of criminal acts. Mitchell is a certified expert on sacramental theology. He concludes his article with this: “Perhaps the most profound modern comment ever made about the Eucharist came from the lips of the great Hindu pacifist Mohandas Ghandi: ‘I think that if Christ ever comes to India, he’d better come as bread.’“ If “modern” means, say, the last three hundred years, it is depressing to think how little that is profound has been said about the Eucharist. At least according to Mitchell. And, if Ghandi is right, Our Lord would be well advised upon his return to drop that business about man not living by bread alone. Happily, Mitchell is quite wrong. Many things immeasurably more profound have been said about the Eucharist. Some of them in the pages of Worship.
• The charges and counter-charges go on and on over what Pius XII did or did not do, should have done or should not have done, during World War II. One of the least persuasive claims is that the Holocaust, and maybe the war, would have ended if he had threatened to excommunicate Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom had long since excommunicated themselves. (An official statement of excommunication simply confirms what people have done to themselves.) This is brought to mind in reading a very useful little book by Joel S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery (Alba House). Beginning with Pope Eugene IV in 1435, when the Portuguese launched the modern slave trade in the Canary Islands, popes condemned slavery in no uncertain terms, decreeing excommunication for all who participated in the practice. Similar condemnations, typically citing earlier papal precedents, were issued by Paul III, Gregory XIV, Urban VIII, and on up through Pius IX and Leo XIII in the nineteenth century. Prior to the Civil War, in what Father Panzer aptly calls a form of American Gallicanism, bishops in the U.S., to their shame, claimed that the papal condemnations of slavery did not apply to the “peculiar circumstances” in this country. Whether in Germany in 1939 or America in 1850 and 2000, the threat of excommunication is only as powerful as is the priority that people accord to being in full communion with the Church. Yet it may be argued that the integrity of the Church and her teaching requires imposing the censure, even if it is not effective in changing what people do. That is an argument that some make today in connection with Catholic politicians who, in direct contradiction of magisterial teaching, support the unlimited abortion license of Roe v. Wade. It is an argument that needs to be engaged more forthrightly than it has been to date. At the same time, however, historical experience with, inter alia, slavery, anti-Semitism, and abortion lends little support to the stereotype that, when the Church speaks authoritatively, the Catholic people fall into line. Worth noting also is the fact that those who, in the case of Pius XII, claim that he should have fiercely wielded the supposed sword of excommunication are usually the same people who condemn what they view as papal authoritarianism. The reality is that, in the words of John Paul II in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), “The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes.” That being said, she can also, as in the instance of abortion, publicly censure those who claim to accept the proposal that she teaches God’s truth but manifestly have not.
• The praise heaped on Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter (Walker) is, in my judgment, fully deserved. So the answer is No to a reader who suggests it is a thinly veiled polemic against the Catholic Church. On the contrary, Sobel, who is Jewish, is at pains to depict the complexity of seventeenth-century politics, religion, science, and art—all encompassed within vibrant Christian faith, and not least the vibrant faith of Galileo and his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. The story is built around the letters of Sr. Maria Celeste, who, confined to a convent near Florence, sustained her father through his every tribulation. I have some caveats, such as Sobel’s downplaying of how very difficult a character Galileo made himself, almost inviting warfare from those troubled by his ideas. This aspect of Galileo’s personality was more sharply conveyed by Galileo, A Life, the 1994 biography by James Reston, Jr. But it is a great strength of Sobel’s book that it exposes the simplistic telling of the story in terms of the lonely freethinker vs. an oppressive church. Not only does she underscore Galileo’s faith, but she portrays how divided was ecclesiastical opinion toward him, and how his chief enemies were in the academic establishment of philosophers who refused to accommodate his demonstration of the Copernican insight into the structure of the universe. But Galileo’s Daughter is chiefly the very human and humanizing story of Maria Celeste and her father, a moving account of adversity borne with grace. It is, all in all, a beautiful story beautifully told.
• The Roper Center surveys the many surveys that have been done over the years and concludes that 93 percent of Americans are “believers” and 7 percent are “nonbelievers.” More than half the nonbelievers might be called agnostics, subscribing to the statement, “I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out.” Three percent say, “I don’t believe in God.” I suppose a really hard-core atheist would say, “I believe there is no God.” In any event, 9 percent of the nonbelievers say they attend religious services at least once a month, and 5 percent attend once a week or more. That may indicate uncertainty, or seeking, or going along with the family, or whatever. Of the 93 percent who are believers, 35 percent say they are politically “conservative,” while 25 percent of the nonbelievers are conservative, which is not as big a difference as some studies would lead us to expect. Jews are 2 percent of believers and a little over 2 percent of the general population, but are 8 percent of the nonbelievers. Twenty percent of nonbelievers and 10 percent of believers have postgraduate education. Over 50 percent of nonbelievers indicate a “religious preference”—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Other. Go figure. The upshot of all this numbers crunching is to provide occasion to observe, once again, how remarkably constant is the American religious situation—at least insofar as it is susceptible to the methods of survey research. Of course, some people may have a more immediate interest in these findings. For instance, a politician who talks in public about his relationship with Jesus Christ may take note that 51 percent say that would make them more likely to vote for him, while only 26 percent say it would make them less likely. He may also note, however, that 42 percent say a politician “should be guided by religious principle,” while 46 percent say “religion and politics shouldn’t mix.” The trick, it would seem, is to be guided without mixing. The Roper survey, unsurprisingly, does not provide a formula for exactly how that might be done.
• At Harvard University, Jack Kevorkian, who is serving a 10-to-25-year sentence for second degree murder, received in absentia a Citizen Activist Award, sponsored by the Gleitsman Foundation. The panel that selected Kevorkian included actor Ted Danson, feminist Gloria Steinem, and Candace Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles was also on the panel but says he disagreed with the decision. Kevorkian will share the $100,000 award with Alabama attorney Bryan Stevenson, a crusader against the death penalty. Kevorkian has long advocated execution by lethal experiments or by removal of a prisoner’s vital organs. Also on the embrace of death front, Derek Humphry’s “how to” film on suicide, based on his book Final Exit, was shown on Hawaiian television, and was promptly followed by two people with a history of depression successfully following its instructions. Contacted in Eugene, Oregon, Humphry issued a statement: “The death of any person is deeply tragic, but if these people are intent on suicide and released themselves in a nonviolent way from their troubles, then I can live with that.” Well, that’s the important thing. Although one wonders about the notion of “nonviolent” killing, and whether Mr. Humphry has changed his mind and now believes that a desired exit from life is “tragic.” The embrace of death confounds both mind and language.
• Hardly a day goes by without good causes coming to our door in search of support. So what else is new? you might well ask, and you would be right. I’m sure we all try to do what we can, and sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out the word to those who might be able to do more. For instance, there is The Library of Early Christianity, a project launched by Catholic University of America that is as ambitious as it is important. The goal is to make available in English, with facing pages in the original language, hundreds of texts that are foundational to the Christian tradition and Western Civilization. The National Endowment for the Humanities has made a large challenge grant that has to be matched this year by $300,000. If you or anyone you know might be of help, please contact Ms. Maureen Macaleer at Catholic Mission and Programs, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 20064, phone (202) 319-6908, fax (202) 319-4330.
• This is in the great ripostes department. I was speaking to Lutheran educators in Minneapolis a while back. One could not help but notice that the fellow giving the invocation was very small. He could hardly see over the podium. “I am often asked,” he said, “‘Were your parents very short?’ To which I respond, ‘Were your parents very obnoxious?’“
• I was pleased to give the commencement address at Regent University (Pat Robertson, Chancellor) this spring. Afterwards a large number of people came up, each introducing himself or herself as “the token Catholic” at Regent. When about thirty people had done so, a faculty member who had been watching all this introduced himself, “I’m a Catholic, and I guess I’m no longer token.” As it happens, the President of Regent is also Catholic, and I am told there is a lively Newman Center on campus. Robertson and Regent have been very supportive of the project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” and I was impressed that this was one of many places where that project is impressively lived.
• Sherwin B. Nuland of Yale’s School of Medicine and author of the much praised How We Die is a strong proponent of physician-assisted suicide. His editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine takes note of Dutch reports on how many assisted suicides and direct acts of euthanasia are botched, causing additional pain to patients and distress to families. While he says he respects those who believe that doctors should not be in the business of killing people, “We are now hearing, if not a clear demand, a strong sentiment in favor of medical assistance in dying.” So, he says, doctors should be trained to meet what he thinks is the coming demand, “better sooner than later.” Then there is this noteworthy statement: “Many opponents of these practices point to the Hippocratic Oath and its prohibition on hastening death. But those who turn to the oath in an effort to shape or legitimize their ethical viewpoints must realize that the statement has been embraced over approximately the past two hundred years far more as a symbol of professional cohesion than for its content. Its pithy sentences cannot be used as all-encompassing maxims to avoid the personal responsibility inherent in the practice of medicine. Ultimately, a physician’s conduct at the bedside is a matter of individual conscience. The wisdom of past years and moments enters into the deliberation, but decision making in the present bears a burden that is unique to the particular transaction between the doctor and the individual patient who has come for help. To seek refuge in ancient aphorisms is to turn away from the unique needs of each of our patients who have entrusted themselves to our care.” And what is to inform the “individual conscience” when “ancient aphorisms” have been cast aside? Whatever the patient wants and, if it is not clear what the patient wants, whatever the doctor deems to be “the unique needs” of the patient. He is partly right about the status of the Hippocratic Oath today. Many medical schools no longer use it at graduation, and for at least one very understandable reason. I notice that the fifteenth edition of Bartlett’s quotations has a convenient ellipsis in place of the oath’s commitment not to aid in the killing of unborn children.
• This past May the much troubled National Council of Churches (NCC) voted to explore a major reorganization that could include its going out of business in favor of a new organization that would include all the major Christian groupings in the country. That would be a daunting project. The identity of evangelical and fundamentalist churches is, in large part, based in opposition to the “ecumenical” or “liberal” churches of the NCC. In addition, a huge part of evangelicalism is made up of local churches with no national affiliation that could relate to such a new organization. As for the Catholic Church, while there is no theological or canonical obstacle to such a cooperative relationship, its membership is far larger than the combined forty-five-plus million members of the NCC’s thirty-five denominations, thus creating the understandable concern that the Catholic presence would overwhelm all others. The possible demise of the NCC is itself an important development in American religious history. The organization never recovered from the critique launched in 1981 by the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a critique widely disseminated by popular media such as 60 Minutes and Reader’s Digest. In addition, various renewal movements within its major member denominations have increasingly alienated grassroots constituencies from what is perceived as the NCC’s leftist orientation, both theologically and politically. But the prospect of the NCC’s disappearance and the emergence of a more comprehensive organization should be of interest to all Christians. As Adam said to Eve on the way out of the garden, “My dear, we live in an age of transition.”
• Whatever one’s view of the limits of free speech, or whether there should be any limits at all, it is understandable that Germany is acutely sensitive about anything referring to the Holocaust. Stringent laws forbid the denial, belittling, or relativizing of that horror by comparing it to lesser evils. There was therefore intense interest in the case of pro-life activists who demonstrated outside a German abortuary with a sign declaring “Holocaust then, Babycaust now.” A federal court ruled in favor of the protesters, saying that the slogan “expressed the opinions of the protesters that today’s practice of abortion is a mass extermination of life.” The judges said such demonstrations are “a contribution to forming opinion in a matter that is fundamental and moving to the public in which we have to deal with the protection of living rights of the unborn.”
• Here is some propaganda from The Catholic Task Force of the Republican National Committee. Its mission statement begins, “We are Republicans who are also Catholic.” First things first, anyone? Then there is a creed-like statement titled “I Am a Catholic Republican Because . . .” It professes faith in a market economy, racial justice, human freedom, family, and so forth. Very conspicuously, abortion is not mentioned. It concludes with this: “Finally, I believe as a Catholic Republican, it is the Republican Party which has always advocated and fostered those values closest to the teaching of the Catholic Church upon which America was built and to which America is now returning.” Always? The claim is as pretentiously partisan as it would be were it made of the other party. As a lifelong Democrat except, in recent years, when it comes to voting (you can’t go along with the party on everything), I declined the invitation to sign on with The Catholic Task Force.
• An Atlanta conference on “The Spiritual State of Black America” heard John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) warn that in the post-civil rights period blacks have been “damaged by excessive assimilation” into the spiritually corrupting core values—individualism, materialism, and ethical relativism—of late capitalist culture. The conference also noted that more Baptist pastors are now calling themselves bishops, especially “dynamic, entrepreneurial, neo-Pentecostal ministers who have developed megachurches and understand themselves to be reappropriating the clerical titles and styles of the New Testament.” Tension was evident at the conference between the two wings of Islam in black America that claim the legacy of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The son of Elijah Muhammad made clear that Sunni Islam could not recognize Minister Ava Muhammad, a woman appointed by the rival group headed by Louis Farrakhan, as a full-fledged imam. Amid changes both promising and troubling in the spiritual state of black America, there was general agreement at the conference that young people are increasingly disengaged from family, church, school, and work. It seems like a long, long way from the time when many hoped, not without reason, that the black church was taking the lead in something like a national awakening.
• Those who understand the communion of saints know that heroes and heroines come in hosts even when they appear to be just a handful. For instance, people like Austin Ruse and Jeanne Head who operate on a shoestring out of a little office over at the United Nations where they coordinate a growing number of volunteers, especially young people, who challenge the rule of moral globalizers pressing the agenda of the culture of death. To receive Ruse’s very informative “Friday Fax” with updates on UN developments, fax (212) 754-9291, or e-mail email@example.com.
• In this kind of world, one cannot afford to knock niceness. But niceness takes you only so far, and only so far is not far enough in really important relationships, such as the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Interfaith dialogue as a community relations exercise is not enough. The International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) is a coalition that includes ten secular and rabbinical groups and has been in regular conversation with the Holy See. But the Orthodox participants have vetoed any discussion of theology, what it is that Jews and Christians really believe as Jews and Christians. Such a crippling limitation on the dialogue has for a long time been a source of deep dissatisfaction to some of the Jews and Catholics involved. Now a new group has been put together, the Rabbinic Committee for Interreligious Dialogue (RCID), which includes also Orthodox rabbis. RCID recently held its first and very successful dialogue with Catholic theologians, including a representative of the Holy See. IJCIC chairman Seymour Reich is not pleased: “The decision of Vatican officials to meet with an independent group of rabbis who represent only themselves and not the main streams of Judaism and the organizations that speak for Jewish communal life introduces an element of ambiguity and confusion in Catholic-Jewish relations that cannot help but undermine our recently invigorated association.” It is to be feared that Mr. Reich does not understand. Apart from the fact that no one organization or coalition of organizations can plausibly claim to speak for “Jewish communal life,” nobody has a monopoly on the Holy See’s attention. Among Christians, Jews, and many others, Rome is engaged in numerous dialogues. It is in the nature of being universal, as in “catholic.” RCID recognizes, as IJCIC should recognize, that it is precisely the vigor and maturity of the dialogue that make it both possible and necessary to act on the maxim of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that interfaith dialogue begins with faith.
• I see that Christianity Today has weighed in with the books of the last century, “classics that have shaped contemporary religious thought.” Jaroslav Pelikan says that he despises such “beauty contests,” and despises them even more when he is not named among the winners. His scorn will be tempered by CT’s including his Jesus Through the Centuries, as I am pleased by the inclusion of The Naked Public Square. At the same time, any temptation to pride is checked by the editors’ notation that C. S. Lewis books were nominated so often that they finally had to say, “Enough is enough; give some other authors a chance.” So maybe we’re included in the top one hundred only because yet another book by Lewis was excluded. The list is thoroughly ecumenical. Among authors with a clear religious identity, eleven are evangelical Protestant, nineteen are Roman Catholic, two are Orthodox (that now includes Pelikan, who was a Lutheran), and five are Jewish. That mix qualifies the criticism of CT’s list in the same issue of the top ten books of 1999 for being less than ecumenical. Eight of the top ten are by evangelicals, and the list omits—inexplicably, in my judgment—George Weigel’s monumental biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. And now we’ll give literary beauty contests a rest for a while.
• Upon leaving seminary, I surprised some teachers and friends by not moving on to the track toward becoming a professional academic. Instead, I eagerly plunged into inner-city parish ministry, while writing and editing on the side. The writing, editing, and speaking have over the years commanded more and more of my energies, but I hope it is the case, and I think it is the case, that the priestly ministry most deeply defines who I am. I do not have an animus against the academic life. It really is the case that some, perhaps most, of my closer friends are distinguished academics, and the institute and the journal could certainly not get along without them. But I do have a deep ambivalence about the academy, born from early experience with friends and associates who are given to what I call “bibliographical discourse.” Their talk reflects less what they think or know than their success in navigating the books they have read, or claim to have read. This unseemly aspect of the academic life is nicely caught by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz in his engaging little book of pensées, Road-Side Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This excerpt is from an item entitled “Love of Knowledge.” (I hasten to add that the aforementioned friends are excepted from the following depiction.) “In his school years Victor considered himself superior to his classmates, for he took an interest in so-called serious problems. He tried to read difficult books, though he did not boast by mentioning their titles, afraid of being mocked; he persisted in that reading to impress only himself. Toward the end of high school, he even bought the Ethics of Spinoza, but put it down after a few pages, for he did not understand a word. At the university, he chose a branch of studies that he judged prestigious enough for an individual of exceptional qualities. Dropping nonchalantly the name of his specialty when asked would help him considerably to stay in a good frame of mind. We do not hesitate to assert that Victor was a snob, for, after all, what is snobbery if not adding a little to one’s height in one way or another? Some are proud of their ancestors, others of their wealth, whereas Victor saw himself in the robes of a scholar and strutted on the stilts of pretended wisdom. Whatever his ideas about himself, his diligence could not be doubted. Laboriously he plodded through abstruse books and, encountering unknown words, reached for dictionaries. Gradually the contents of those books, read attentively, were becoming clearer, and he acquired considerable competence, especially as he learned to use his time economically. We should add that he admired his own sharp intelligence, which justified, in his opinion, the high regard in which he held his own person, even if this was not kindly received by others. A certain inevitable discovery he made influenced his career; namely, he noticed that there was a gap between what one should know and what one can know. The quantity of theories, hypotheses, trends, names, papers, was so vertiginous that only a superhuman mind would have been able to cope with it. Thus, the initiated observed a tacit agreement: that they would not be held responsible for actually reading the works of celebrities whose names they like to invoke, and that the mention of these names meant that they had mastered a professional language. That language allowed them to move amid the plethora, in the same way that a man crosses a river by jumping from one ice floe to another. As Victor became aware of this, he stopped using his energy to collect information and concentrated on mastering the language. From that moment on, he advanced quickly.”
• In response to a gimlet-eyed reader: Yes, I did notice it, but, believe it or not, there are whole weeks in which I restrain myself from commenting on the New York Times. So now readers want to know what that’s about, so here goes. In a front-page story, reporter Frank Bruni discusses George W’s down-home ways with the English language. “Mr. Bush also offered an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle. ‘Don’t be takin’ a speck out of your neighbor’s eye,’ he told the audience, ‘when you got a log in your own.’“ Mr. Bruni and his editors apparently don’t know it, but there’s a whole book full of those odd Texas sayings.
• I’m a little late in noting the death of Rabbi Samuel H. Dresner, who, among his other distinctions, coauthored (with Robert K. Kaplan) the biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (see FT, October 1998), in connection with which we reminisced about a man whom we both loved. Heschel had and has many disciples, but devotion to Heschel and his teachings was, it is fair to say, the thread of Sam Dresner’s intellectual life. Born in 1923, ordained and married to Ruth in 1951, he taught with Heschel at Jewish Theological Seminary, but over the years was chiefly a congregational rabbi. Against considerable opposition, he contended for traditional Jewish teaching on family, marriage, and chastity. He also launched a national movement against undertakers who were pressuring Jews to buy expensive coffins, insisting instead on the Jewish tradition of a simple funeral and burial in a pine box. To know him was to know that he loved the God of Israel. Alav ha-shalom.
• The poems in this issue are by Notre Dame’s remarkable Ralph McInerny—teacher, philosopher, novelist, poet, and sometimes wicked wit. More of the delicious same may be found in his book, Shakespearean Variations, just published by St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, and including variations on all 154 sonnets ($10 paper). Each of the sonnets begins with Shakespeare’s opening line and then proceeds in its own direction.
• “I always start at the back.” I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that. Readers often say it a bit sheepishly, as though they were cheating. Please. Start reading an issue at any point you wish. And please, do not feel obliged to read every word of every issue, as though you might be letting the editors down. We put so much in every issue on the assumption that not everything will be of equal interest to every reader. Our concern is that we don’t let you down, or the people to whom you recommend FT. We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, New York 10010 (or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll-free 1-800-783-4903.
David Frum on the churches in Canada, National Post, August 19, 2000.
While We’re At It: On Norwegian Association of Pagans, ZENIT, April 7, 2000. On Joseph Lieberman “defining Orthodoxy down,” Jews for Morality press release, August 30, 2000. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, reviewed by Jerry A. Coyne, New Republic, April 3, 2000. Mary Ann Glendon on Dorothy Day, Origins, April 13, 2000. On Christians under communism, ZENIT, April 9, 2000. George Sumner on Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology Today, April 2000. On liberal churches’ charitable work, Religion in the News, Spring 2000. On French PACS, catholic eye, April 30, 2000. On the supposed fallacy of the Fall, Bulletin of St. Peter’s Church, May 28, 2000. Population figures cited by Romano Prodi, taken from report of Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, May 4, 2000. Nathan D. Mitchell on Peter Singer, Worship, May 2000. Roper Center survey on religious belief, Public Perspective, May/June 2000. On Jack Kevorkian and Derek Humphry, Life at Risk, March/April 2000. Sherwin B. Nuland on physician-assisted suicide, New England Journal of Medicine, February 24, 2000. On protestors with signs “Holocaust then, Babycaust now,” ZENIT, June 1, 2000. On conference “The Spiritual State of Black America,” Religion Watch, June 2000. On the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, New York Jewish Week, June 23, 2000. Christianity Today list of great books of the last century, April 24, 2000. Frank Bruni on George W. Bush’s odd “Texas” sayings, New York Times, April 24, 2000.