The Public Square

At the conclusion of the Year of the Great Jubilee, John Paul II issued a 23,000 word apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Inuente (As the New Millennium Begins), in which he reflects on the many special events of the year, including the World Youth Day that brought more than two million young people to Rome, and the historic visit to the Holy Land. Of particular interest is what he has to say about Christian unity and the dialogue with culture and other religions.

In view of the controversy over the declaration Dominus Iesus (see “To Say Jesus is Lord,” Public Square, November 2000), one notes in the following the implications of the assertion that in Christ the Church is undivided. (Where not otherwise specified, the quotes in the Pope’s statement are from the documents of the Second Vatican Council.) The Pope writes: “And what should we say of the urgent task of fostering communion in the delicate area of ecumenism? Unhappily, as we cross the threshold of the new millennium, we take with us the sad heritage of the past. The Jubilee has offered some truly moving and prophetic signs, but there is still a long way to go.

“By fixing our gaze on Christ, the Great Jubilee has given us a more vivid sense of the Church as a mystery of unity. ‘I believe in the one Church’: what we profess in the Creed has its ultimate foundation in Christ, in whom the Church is undivided (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11-13). As his Body, in the unity which is the gift of the Spirit, she is indivisible. The reality of division among the Church’s children appears at the level of history, as the result of human weakness in the way we accept the gift which flows endlessly from Christ the Head to his Mystical Body. The prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room—‘as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us’ (John 17:21)—is both revelation and invocation. It reveals to us the unity of Christ with the Father as the wellspring of the Church’s unity and as the gift which in him she will constantly receive until its mysterious fulfillment at the end of time. This unity is concretely embodied in the Catholic Church, despite the human limitations of her members, and it is at work in varying degrees in all the elements of holiness and truth to be found in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. As gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, these elements lead them continuously towards full unity.

“Christ’s prayer reminds us that this gift needs to be received and developed ever more profoundly. The invocation ‘ut unum sint’ is, at one and the same time, a binding imperative, the strength that sustains us, and a salutary rebuke for our slowness and closed-heartedness. It is on Jesus’ prayer and not on our own strength that we base the hope that even within history we shall be able to reach full and visible communion with all Christians.

“In the perspective of our renewed post-Jubilee pilgrimage, I look with great hope to the Eastern Churches, and I pray for a full return to that exchange of gifts which enriched the Church of the first millennium. May the memory of the time when the Church breathed with ‘both lungs’ spur Christians of East and West to walk together in unity of faith and with respect for legitimate diversity, accepting and sustaining each other as members of the one Body of Christ.

“A similar commitment should lead to the fostering of ecumenical dialogue with our brothers and sisters belonging to the Anglican Communion and the Ecclesial Communities born of the Reformation. Theological discussion on essential points of faith and Christian morality, cooperation in works of charity, and above all the great ecumenism of holiness will not fail, with God’s help, to bring results. In the meantime we confidently continue our pilgrimage, longing for the time when, together with each and every one of Christ’s followers, we shall be able to join wholeheartedly in singing: ‘How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1)”

The reflection on dialogue with other religions invokes the “dread specter” of wars of religion that have afflicted humanity in the past and must never be allowed to recur. John Paul II writes: “Dialogue, however, cannot be based on religious indifferentism, and we Christians are in duty bound, while engaging in dialogue, to bear clear witness to the hope that is within us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). We should not fear that it will be considered an offense to the identity of others what is rather the joyful proclamation of a gift meant for all, and to be offered to all with the greatest respect for the freedom of each one: the gift of the revelation of the God who is Love, the God who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only Son’ (John 3:16). As the recent Declaration Dominus Iesus stressed, this cannot be the subject of a dialogue understood as negotiation, as if we considered it a matter of mere opinion: rather, it is a grace which fills us with joy, a message which we have a duty to proclaim.

“The Church therefore cannot forgo her missionary activity among the peoples of the world. It is the primary task of the missio ad gentes to announce that it is in Christ, ‘the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6), that people find salvation. Interreligious dialogue ‘cannot simply replace proclamation, but remains oriented towards proclamation.’ This missionary duty, moreover, does not prevent us from approaching dialogue with an attitude of profound willingness to listen. We know in fact that, in the presence of the mystery of grace, infinitely full of possibilities and implications for human life and history, the Church herself will never cease putting questions, trusting in the help of the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth (cf. John 14:17), whose task it is to guide her ‘into all the truth’ (John 16:13).

“This is a fundamental principle not only for the endless theological investigation of Christian truth, but also for Christian dialogue with other philosophies, cultures, and religions. In the common experience of humanity, for all its contradictions, the Spirit of God, who ‘blows where he wills’ (John 3:8), not infrequently reveals signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers to understand more deeply the message which they bear. Was it not with this humble and trust-filled openness that the Second Vatican Council sought to read ‘the signs of the times’? Even as she engages in an active and watchful discernment aimed at understanding the ‘genuine signs of the presence or the purpose of God,’ the Church acknowledges that she has not only given, but has also ‘received from the history and from the development of the human race.’ This attitude of openness, combined with careful discernment, was adopted by the Council also in relation to other religions. It is our task to follow with great fidelity the Council’s teaching and the path which it has traced.”

In this document, as in almost all his official statements, one is struck by the force and care with which John Paul delineates the ways in which his pontificate is enacted in obedience to, and fulfillment of, the Second Vatican Council. Professor Russell Hittinger, an astute student of the modern papacy, has recently written that the single greatest achievement of this pontificate is that “it has secured the interpretation of the Council.” That has the ring of truth. Although there are still some who do not understand this, John Paul II has brought to an end more than thirty years of partisan conflict between the proponents of the “spirit” of the Council, on the one hand, and the proponents of the “letter” of the Council, on the other. And he has done so in a way that reveals that both the spirit and the letter of the Council are ever so much more radical and more promising than either party usually imagined.

Taking Risks for Freedom

It has been said that history is made by people who show up at meetings, stay ‘til the end, and then write the minutes, and there is a lot to that. Similarly, movements are launched by people who run the risk of being viewed as fanatics, so relentless are they in advocating, lobbying, badgering, and generally making a nuisance of themselves that, as in the parable of the judge and the importunate woman, attention is paid. Among those who in the 1990s took that risk are Nina Shea of Freedom House and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, and the result is growing international concern for religious freedom and the establishment of that concern as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.

“Defending the Faiths,” by Allen D. Hertzke and Daniel Philpott, published in the distinguished foreign policy journal the National Interest, explains what has happened and explores future prospects. Laws enacted by Congress and the setting up of a commission on religious freedom in the State Department have not met with universal applause. “With a few exceptions,” the authors say, “the mainstream media and foreign policy commentariat have reacted coolly to these developments, suspecting that the attention the issue has received is merely a sop to conservative Christian lobbies. But, pursued wisely, the elevation of religious freedom can properly serve the national interest. It is congruent not only with international human rights covenants, but with our founding tradition and basic values. It complements the promotion of civil society and democracy, and it may easily be pursued in tandem with our other interests.” Perhaps not “easily,” but it can be done.

One reason the denial of religious freedom is becoming a bigger issue is that religion is becoming a bigger issue. Hertzke and Philpott write: “Behind the persecution lies one of the great surprises of the late twentieth century: a global resurgence of faith. Indeed, secularizing trends in Western Europe and among a thin, if influential, stratum of global intellectual elites now stand out as exceptions to more general trends. As Samuel Huntington has observed, persecution endures precisely because religion matters, and matters increasingly. When religion becomes important to people, dictatorial governments ‘will insist on controlling it, suppressing it, regulating it, prohibiting it, and manipulating it to their own advantage.’“

As important as religious freedom is in itself, it also serves other ends. “As Huntington has demonstrated convincingly, Western Christianity in particular has encouraged democratization. Its emphasis on the dignity of the individual, the equality of all souls before God, and the autonomy of churches from state control (now embraced by both Catholic and major Protestant traditions) fosters a respect for civil rights and institutional pluralism. Christianity may also foster democracy by molding opinion and encouraging opposition to authoritarian rule.”

There is a particularly striking correlation between Christianity and democratization. “Today, nearly nine out of every ten of the nations Freedom House designates as ‘free’ are Christian countries, while others, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have substantial Christian populations and Christian leaders. Contrary to secular intellectuals’ image of Christianity as backward or colonial, its indigenous growth outside the West is one of the signal democratizing forces around the globe today. A policy promoting religious freedom, then, will alert vulnerable Christian minorities—and also independent Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and others—that the United States stands with their struggle for free expression.”

“Special Pleading”

Nonetheless, some liberal Catholics and Protestants (the latter typically connected with the National Council of Churches) have ranged from being ambivalent to downright hostile to this movement against religious persecution—in part, one may fairly say, because they deeply resent the fact that their conservative opponents have so neatly stolen the human rights card from the liberal social justice deck. But they also present arguments, the chief one being that promoting the cause of persecuted Christians is an instance of “special pleading” that ignores other religions. The fact is that the leaders of the movement have been most particularly careful to include all believers, although another fact is that many of the most egregious instances of persecution in the world are against Christians.

As Hertzke and Philpott note, “The charge of special pleading is particularly puzzling. Would the same critics have considered human rights campaigns on behalf of South African blacks, Soviet Jews, East European dissidents, the Argentine ‘disappeared,’ the eradication of female circumcision, or the banning of land mines to be special pleading? As Jacob Heilbrunn commented in the New Republic, ‘This seems a remarkable attitude for a human rights activist, since by definition, all arguments on behalf of all persecuted groups—racial minorities, political minorities, ethnic minorities, etc.—are “special pleadings” intended to help “certain classes” of victims.’ Human rights campaigns on behalf of particular parties are the only kind of human rights campaigns there are.”

In thousands of local churches, on campuses, and elsewhere, the movement against religious persecution continues to gain steam. Hertzke and Philpott suggest that the test case may be Sudan, and whether an international protest can be launched comparable to that against apartheid in South Africa in years past. The Islamist regime of Sudan, supported by Chinese and Canadian investment in its oil resources, has used man-made famine, slavery, forced conversions, and other atrocities against its black Christian and animist population. Freedom House estimates that up to two million people have been killed in the past decade.

As Hertzke and Philpott do not say, however, it is very difficult to muster the same forces against the Sudanese regime as rallied against apartheid. After all, the apartheid regime was white and made a very big point of being part of the West, while the tyrants in Khartoum are “people of color” and champion militant Islam against the presumably decadent West. Apartheid South Africa was also, as it was said, “constructively engaged” with the U.S. So protesting apartheid had the panache of being, at the same time, a protest against the West and against America, a big advantage in the view from the left. As Albert Camus observed, to a certain ideological mindset some murders are more politically interesting than others. Then too, there is the soft bigotry, as it is aptly called, that cuts a certain moral slack for genocide among people of color, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa. So one should not expect to see the protest against religious persecution, in Sudan or elsewhere, become as fashionable as the anti-apartheid movement was. The hard work will continue to be done by people who are prepared to run the risk of being viewed as obsessed by their belief that it is wrong to harass, penalize, jail, torture, kill, or otherwise maltreat people because of what they believe.

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, and Irony

It has been said in these pages and elsewhere that, looking back now, it is apparent that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written at the beginning of the thirties, has turned out to be more prophetic than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written at the end of the forties. I did not know, however, until I read Jeffrey Meyers’ new biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (Norton), that Huxley expected things to turn out this way, and delicately explained why to Orwell in a letter of October 1949. Huxley praised Nineteen Eighty-Four very highly: “Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is.” He then went on to say:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and that these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. . . . Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. . . . The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Animal Farm before it (Meyers reports that Orwell rushed around London bookshops taking Animal Farm out of the children’s section and putting it in the adult section), was of inestimable importance during the Cold War in alerting people to the reality of Soviet totalitarianism. Our debt to Orwell on that score can never be fully repaid. But Huxley recognized a half century ago what is now evident to all, that the brutal boot-on-the-face tyranny of communism was terribly inefficient. There are still in the world plenty of tyrants who rule by the boot, machete, club, and machine gun, and there likely will be for a long time. But the more sophisticated who want the total control that is totalitarian tyranny will resort to means more like those depicted in Brave New World—baby hatcheries, cloning, the elimination of the unfit, and the exclusion of moral and historical reasoning by a uniform sense of therapeutic well-being induced by what Huxley called soma and is today chillingly similar to multiple variations on Prozac. It will be a softer, and therefore more efficient, totalitarianism.

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II speaks of what can happen when moral reasoning is eliminated from public life and politics is reduced to the manipulation of desires and images in order to secure the acquiescence of a compliant majority. The result he calls “thinly disguised totalitarianism.” The danger at present and in the future is more Huxley’s velvet glove than Orwell’s iron fist, although, to be sure, the velvet glove is not entirely absent in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the compassionate and gentle manipulations of Brave New World only thinly disguise the iron fist.

Meyers’ Orwell is, by the way, a very good read. One does wish, however, that he had not tried to explain Orwell’s relentless truth-telling and life of self-deprivation in pop psychology terms of guilt feelings. It is more convincing that Orwell’s determination to tell the truth was just that, a determination to tell the truth because he hated brutal and self-serving lies, and because he believed that decent people should counter lies with truth. Then too, Meyers’ claim that Orwell was the greatest and most popular writer of his time leads him to exaggerations that undermine his otherwise admirable defense of Orwell’s achievement.

Particularly egregious is his citing, among many others, spy novelist John le Carré in praise of Orwell. Le Carré says, “Orwell’s hatred of greed, cant, and the ‘me’ society is as much needed today as it was in his own time—probably more so. He remains an ideal for me—of clarity, anger, and perfectly aimed irony.” That is a self-serving statement of a very low order. Le Carré’s novels of the Cold War all too often were almost perfect exemplifications of the “moral symmetry” that denied any real moral difference between the free world and the Soviet Union’s evil empire, or at least any real moral difference in their struggle to prevail. Orwell wrote not against the “me” society but against the totalitarian “them” who denied the possibility of “I.” As for perfectly aimed irony, there is not a hint of irony in Orwell’s depiction of the difference between human freedom and dignity, on the one hand, and a regime of oppression and debasement, on the other. Orwell’s perfectly aimed anger is directed, then and now, at those whose playful irony makes light of the murderously inverted rules of the animal farm.

Sinful Christians, Holy Church

During the course of his pontificate, John Paul II has many times over confessed the sins of “the children of the Church”—popes, bishops, and laity alike—who have, he says, “marred the face” of the Church, which nonetheless remains our holy and sinless mother. This distinction has puzzled and sometimes infuriated outsiders, and also some Catholics. A furious Garry Wills derides the Pope’s words as “propaganda by apology.” Even more thoughtful and sympathetic folk might wonder if there is not some sleight of words going on here in order to avoid implicating the Church herself in the sins of her children.

The distinction may be difficult to communicate in a society that is given to the promiscuous confession of sins that are redefined so as not to be sins, and is positively enthusiastic about confessing the sins of others, especially of institutions of putative moral authority. But it is a distinction that is hardly new with John Paul II. It is clearly taught by the earliest fathers, grounded in the Scriptures, and present also in the Reformation traditions. Demonstrating the last point is the burden of a fine article by David S. Yeago, “Ecclesia Sancta, Ecclesia Peccatrix: The Holiness of the Church in Martin Luther’s Theology.” Writing in the ecumenical theological journal Pro Ecclesia, Yeago notes that Luther has seldom been faulted for failing to rail with sufficient vigor against the sins of the Church of his time. At the same time, he understood, in agreement with the great tradition, that the holiness of the Church is an article of faith. Luther wrote:

“But faith alone perceives this, for we say: ‘I believe in the holy Church.’ But if you consult reason and your own eyes, you will come to a different conclusion. For you will see many things in the godly which offend you, you will see that sometimes they waver, sometimes they sin, sometimes they are weak in faith, sometimes they struggle with anger, envy, and other evil passions: ‘Therefore the Church is not holy.’ I deny this inference. If you look at my person or the person of your neighbor, then she will never be holy. But if you look at Christ, the Propitiator and Cleanser of the Church, she is entirely holy: for he has taken away the sins of the whole world.”

When Luther speaks of the holiness of the Church he does not resort to the old dodge of saying that it is the “invisible” Church that is holy, or that only the part of the Church composed of its holy members is holy. Yeago writes, “The relationship between the holy Church and the gathering of sinners is not disjunctive; it is not that the gathering of sinners is simply not the Church, while the real Church is something else. Luther distinguishes between two ways of regarding one phenomenon, not between two different phenomena. The crowd of sinners is the Church, but faith sees that the sin and weakness of that crowd do not define the Church.” Or again: “When we encounter the Church, therefore, we encounter something more than the ‘human, all too human’ ambiguity of her personnel. We encounter the action of the Spirit, ‘in, with, and under’ the sacramental and proclamatory actions of the community, and just so the gathering of sinners is more than the sum of its parts: it is the holy Church, our mother.”

The Church as the Body of Christ is sinless, because Christ is sinless. Sinners who, through repentance and forgiveness, are united with Christ share in his sinlessness. The Church as magna peccatrix, the great sinner, is the Christian people who do not repent. Luther sardonically remarks that “the pope and the cardinals and others of that sort have no sin at all,” explaining that “they are not tormented in their conscience.” They are, as Yeago says, “strangers (or so Luther believed) to the struggle with unbelief and evil passion which characterizes the congregatio fidelium.” One wonders what Luther would make, or does make, of John Paul II. One day, God willing, we may find out.

There is another theological dodge that, Yeago insists, Luther does not indulge, although many Protestants, including Lutherans, do. That is to say that in the order of being (ontologically) Christians really are sinners, and we can say they are holy only by virtue of Christ’s holiness being imputed to them. In Yeago’s reading of Luther that is to get things the wrong way round: “Therefore when Luther distinguishes between what the Church is in her sinful personnel and what she is in Christ, this is not a distinction between hard reality and a ‘legal fiction’ contrived through bare imputation. It must be understood in terms of his account of salvation as shared life, our participation in the being of another by the generosity of that other. Imputation itself is based on this sharing of the faithful in the being of Christ; the Father overlooks the sin which remains in the faithful precisely because they exist by faith as a single concrete whole with Christ. Union with Christ, not imputation, is the ontological rock-bottom in Luther’s theology of salvation.”

Yeago concludes that Luther’s understanding of the Church “seems open to central concerns of the contemporary ecumenical ‘ecclesiology of communion.’“ Open to, one might add, but still at least in tension with aspects of the Catholic understanding of the Church as communio. There is, for instance, the Catholic accent on what is commonly called the Church militant and the Church triumphant, the latter including the saints and preeminently the Blessed Virgin who do not participate in “the struggle with unbelief and evil passion” that characterizes the Church militant, although they assist us in our struggle here on earth. Their holiness is not in addition to that of Christ, but is the holiness of Christ perfected in them and actively cooperating with him.

There are other differences between Catholic teaching and Luther’s understanding, even when the latter is construed so ecumenically as it is by Yeago. But all Christians should be able to agree, if they think about it, that there is no sleight of words or evasiveness in the distinction between the sins of the children of the Church and the holiness of the Church herself. Of purely human institutions—such as governments, corporations, or universities—we may at times say that the wrongs of those who belong to them and run them are so pervasive and apparently beyond remedy as to warrant condemnation of the institutions themselves. But the Church is not such a purely human institution. This communion is the continuing embodiment of Christ through time. There is deep mystery here, and it is all too subject to misunderstanding and abuse. Leaders of the Church have at times simply equated themselves and their office with Christ, suggesting that any criticism of them is tantamount to criticizing Christ. The public confessions of John Paul II are designed to make necessary distinctions in understanding the mystery of the Body of Christ that is simultaneously the community of both sinners and saints. To distinguish without dividing is never easy. Whether one views the Pope’s efforts as a necessary purification or as “propaganda by apology” finally depends on what one believes about the relationship between Christ and his Church, which, in turn, depends on what one believes about Christ. That is the point of controversy. Always has been. Always will be.

Life, and One Life

The following could not, for complicated reasons, be fitted into the usual space for poetry, but I believe it will be of interest to readers. It invites a slow reading, and the one line—“Life is not incompatible with you”—will, I believe, more than reward your attention.



Jonathan David Jones
Pronounced anencephalic
and incompatible with life

by Rebecca Jones

A firstborn son belongs to God.
Most can be redeemed, for a price.
But you, Jonathan David—
God snatches you and leaves us empty-handed, empty-wombed, empty-hearted.

We’ve stormed the throne to buy you back,
offering our very life for yours.

We’ve pled before the Judge:
“His life belongs with us.
His parents could know joy,
the doctors awe.
Our faith would blossom
and our love grow bold.

Dear Father, if you had a mind to heal,
You could heal his brain with a word.”

But the nurses tell us
as they gaze through walls of flesh, opaque:
“I’m so sorry, but there’s no mistake.”
They never say it quite, and so we do,
“Jonathan David, you’re our Pooh—
Our bear of very little brain.”

A laugh can ease the pain
and cut encroaching terror into shreds
that only cling like webs.

How gladly we would offer you our cells.
Thousands die each day
and those we keep we throw away.
But our mind cannot be yours.
A fog has settled on our souls.

The voice comes muffled through the
darkened shroud.
“Fear not. It is I
who have redeemed him.
I’ve hidden his life with me.
Nursing infants sing my praise.
Before you,
Jonathan will have my mind
to think my thoughts
after me.
In my wisdom
His mind is perfect,
and your grief is power.”

And so, dear Jonathan, we will believe.
We will receive and love you as you are—
Most precious to us in your desperate need.
If birth is more than you can bear,
then through our tears we’ll sing a lullaby of joy.
For you will go unhindered from the comfort of your mother’s womb
to the safety of our Father’s home.

If you linger with us for a fleeting breath
or two,
we will count each one and remember you.
Our breaths are numbered, too.

Dear Jonathan,
If God, in mercy, grants you one full hour,
We’ll peer a little longer past your mind
into your soul.
We’ll take your tiny hands in ours,
look upon you long
and sing our song.

If life rests with you for a day,
then we will give it back to God
who turns it to a thousand years.

Dear Jonathan, if you are born
sheer miracle, and life should last;
if on this earth you burp and grin and crawl;
then you will groan with us beneath the load
of sin
and struggle with the dark within.
But you will smell the lily,
touch the head
of a baby sister in her bed.
You will seize the power and the grace
of a Savior’s love,
who with you forever
bears the weight
of a past.

Jonathan David,
Life is not
incompatible with you.
However long you stay within our reach,
you and life are bound in Jesus’ sheaf.
In your new home,
you will love as you are loved
and know as you are known.
Life’s author stands to greet you,
Impatient, runs to meet you,
“Well-done, good and faithful friend.
Jonathan, You’ve served me to the end.”


Three Constellations of American Religion

(Number 10 in a series on the idea of Christian America)

Today it is not easy to recall the level of cultural confidence reflected in an intellectual secularism that could produce John Dewey’s A Common Faith, published in 1934. The same impulse is promoted today by the philosopher Richard Rorty in his Massie Lectures published under the title of Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in the Twentieth Century, which has been previously discussed in these pages (“The Gods of Left and Right,” Public Square, March 1999). But, very much unlike 1934, there is a wan and desperate feel to Rorty’s proposal. Rorty frankly describes as utopian the vision of social justice that he calls a religion. In this religion, the chief apostles are Walt Whitman and John Dewey, and America is the New Jerusalem. “They wanted Americans,” writes Rorty, “to take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America’s obedience to any authority—even the authority of God.” Especially the authority of God, one might add. Rorty quotes Whitman:

And I call to mankind. Be not curious about God.
For I who am curious about each am not curious
about God.

Whitman and Dewey, writes Rorty, “wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul.” Rorty admiringly quotes Whitman’s exclamation, “How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!” The older forms of religion have long been superfluous, even obstacles, says Rorty. “Whitman and Dewey, I have argued, gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift, we Americans need to go about our public business.” This religion of patriotic fervor sets Rorty against other contemporary leftisms with what he describes as their “semi-conscious anti-Americanism, which they carried over from the rage of the late sixties.”

The “spiritual uplift” supplied by the religion of social justice is not simply for “public business” but also for personal redemption. Unlike Marx and others who tried to turn socialism into a science and thought they had the key to predicting the future, Rorty’s religion is radically open to, adamantly insistent upon, the new—making possible a life of “pure, joyous hope.” The past, including Christianity, contributes to his childlike piety of limitless possibility. “The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.” Americans must embrace an endless revolution of new beginnings; every achievement is but prelude to another radically new beginning. “This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity—it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future.”

Rorty’s civil religion of ultimate devotion to the unlimited possibilities inherent in and mandated by America will, I expect, have fewer takers today than did Dewey’s common faith of the 1930s. But it does indicate one direction that can be taken by a civil religion that is, in Sydney Ahlstrom’s term, “debased.” That direction has conspicuous precedent in American history. Not incidentally, Rorty’s maternal grandfather is Walter Rauschenbusch, the chief apostle of the Protestant “Social Gospel Movement” that asserted such powerful influence around the turn of the century. Rorty’s civil religion is in continuity with his grandfather’s, except it is stripped of God and, if one may put it this way, the attendant theological baggage. We have seen that Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, did not think the theological baggage of the Social Gospel Movement was all that heavy. His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, famously described the creed of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Taking America Back

Historians have noted that radical and utopian impulses in American culture and politics are frequently promoted by those who are but a step or a generation from the liberal Protestant pulpit. Even the God without wrath and Christ without a cross are discarded as impedimenta of a tradition that is superseded by a religion of the utterly new thing. Already in 1876, Herman Melville wrote of the New England Protestantism that he knew:

Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out—these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
by Atheism.

More than a century later, the most culturally assertive form of Protestantism is very different. Coming out from the losing side of the modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century, what is now called evangelical Protestantism is in a position of undoubted strength in American life. But the many worlds that make up “evangelicaldom” are themselves riddled by doubts as to how they ought to be disposed toward the American experiment. Demographically, and especially in the South, those who call themselves evangelicals are typically of old White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant stock. Like their WASP cousins in New England, they were, to use the fine phrase of Dean Acheson, “present at the creation.” The leaders of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention can typically trace a lineage that is every bit as authentically American as that of the Rortys, Deweys, and Whitmans. For both, America is undoubtedly “our country.” For both, the intuitions and the rhetoric surrounding “Christian America” are very much alive.

Although acknowledging its Christian inspiration, Rorty’s civil religion dare not speak its Christian name. Many evangelicals, on the other hand, are emphatic in asserting that this is Christian America, or at least it used to be. To which it is added, in tones sometimes belligerent, that they are going to take back their country. Other evangelicals, probably a growing number, say that Christian America is a lost cause. Some say it with sorrow, others say it was misbegotten from the beginning and deserves to be lost; both say that the new reality is post-Christian America. Post-Christian America, however, is still post-Christian America, an idea that makes no sense apart from the history and ambiguous present of Christian America.

Christianity in America comes in three main forms of approximately equal size: mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. There are others, such as the Orthodox churches and Missouri Synod Lutherans, who do not fit into those three forms, but they are relatively small and, to the distress or satisfaction of their adherents, will likely remain “other” in the larger story of religion in America for the foreseeable future. And there are the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who many Christians do not recognize as Christian, but whose cultural and political influence is by no means limited to the state of Utah. Whatever other Christians may think of them, the Mormons, now numbering nearly five million, are an indigenously American religion and have a very lively sense of “Christian America.” There is also the black church, a very important story in its own right. For many reasons that would take us astray from this discussion, the black church has had slight culture-forming influence since the halcyon days of Martin Luther King’s leadership of the civil rights movement. It is conceivable that the black church could again become a major factor in reshaping a wider understanding of the American experiment, but, as I say, that is another story.

Our immediate concern is with the three major Christian constellations. The denominations of the Protestant mainline—now increasingly called the oldline or even the sideline—still reflect much of the old establishment of the North and Northeast, but in recent decades have experienced a severe loss in membership, institutional confidence, and cultural influence. Evangelical Protestantism is the religious and, in many ways, the cultural establishment of the South and Southwest. In every part of the country, evangelicalism supplies most of the troops and organizing centers for the political activism that, since the late 1970s, critics have termed “the religious right.” Many evangelicals belong to independent local churches, while millions of others are affiliated with groups that, in the view from Manhattan, are just a rung up from the alien world of cults—the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Seventh-day Adventists, the Nazarenes, and sundry “Holiness” groups.

Then there are the somewhat more than sixty million Catholics, at least a quarter of whom are Hispanic, and a majority of those recent immigrants. The history of Catholicism in America is filled with tumult and attended by deep ambivalence toward the idea of Christian America. Although there was a small Catholic presence in the founding period, the masses of Catholic immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries felt like, and were made to feel like, aliens in a Protestant land. It did not need to be said, although anti-Catholics said it at every opportunity, that Christian America means Protestant America. Like most immigrant groups, Catholics desperately wanted to belong, to be accepted as authentic Americans. After decades, including two world wars, in which they demonstrated their patriotism (some would say super-patriotism), it was widely thought that Catholics had “come into their own” with the election of John F. Kennedy as President. In some tellings of the Catholic success story, the great achievement is that Catholics had become just like everybody else. They were, at long last, real Americans. Not incidentally, it was at just this time that Will Herberg was writing about the dissolution of Christian America into the civil religion of the American Way of Life.

A Nation with the Soul of a Church

Catholics were not taken with the idea of Christian America because Christian America meant Protestant America. But there was another reason that had to do with Catholic sensibilities shaped by their understanding of the Church. For many Protestants—from John Winthrop’s Holy Commonwealth to the Founders’ novus ordo seclorum—America itself was a kind of church. They had local churches and larger denominations, of course, but the really big thing that God was doing, the thing that mattered in terms of world-historical consequence, was the American experiment itself. Recall G. K. Chesterton’s observation that America is a nation with the soul of a church. Being a Catholic, he did not mean that entirely as a compliment. For most Protestants, the Church is a moveable event; it “happens” when and where certain things happen, such as the pure preaching of the gospel, the experience of conversion, or the living of holy lives. The earliest Puritans had no doubt that the true Church had moved from the old world to the new.

For Catholics, on the other hand, the Church is a determinate people through time, governed by bishops who can be traced by ordination, palm on pate, to the original twelve apostles, and all in communion with Peter, the chief of apostles, through his successor, the bishop of Rome, who is the pope. While many Catholic Americans have no doubt adhered to the religion of the Redeemer Nation and even to the religion of the American Way of Life, such adherence is always in strong tension with membership in the universal Church. In this sense, as has often been remarked, there is an analogy between Catholics and Jews. For both, the civil religions of America have been attenuated by the consciousness of belonging to a people elsewhere. Of course, Protestants of almost all varieties would insist, and rightly so, that they, too, have allegiance to a Church that transcends national belonging. The Church in question, however, tends to be more of a theological construct; certainly it is not marked by the stubbornly institutionalized thus and so-ness of the Catholic Church.

During one of our recent spasms of political psychodrama, the host of a major television talk show devoted an hour to canvassing the views of “the nation’s religious leadership.” His guests were all Baptists noted for their political activism, including one black Baptist. This was hardly representative of the nation’s religious leadership, but it was not unrepresentative of high profile leadership that is today contending in the political arena for what they perceive as the moral character of Christian America. In years past, such a discussion would certainly have included figures like Bishop James Pike, Eugene Carson Blake, and others associated with the National Council of Churches and its leading member churches such as the United Methodists, Presbyterians (USA), and Episcopalians. There are people in that mainline/oldline world who would eagerly volunteer for such a summit television seminar, but, rightly or wrongly, their views are thought to have slight political consequence, being adequately represented by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The evangelical leaders on the program, by way of sharpest contrast, are considered to be major influences in shaping the direction of the other major party. (In view of the growing and perhaps dangerous political polarizations today, it is hard to remember that only a few years ago analysts were more or less agreed on the increasing irrelevance of political parties.)

The striking thing about this discussion with “the nation’s religious leadership” was not only the absence of a Catholic figure but that one could not name any Catholic who would fit into a panel composed of Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed. There are conservative Catholics who fit into the panel in terms of sharing the views espoused. But the style of political activism represented by a Robertson or Falwell has not been and is not a Catholic thing. A notable exception in American history was Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979), the Detroit radio priest who rallied millions in support of the New Deal, then turned against Roosevelt and embraced half-baked schemes of a markedly anti-Semitic hue until finally silenced by Church authorities in 1941. There had been nothing like Coughlin before and there has been nothing since. In the 1950s, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) commanded the largest television audience in the nation, but his message of Peace of Mind and the American Way of Life was decidedly apolitical.

In the current churnings of religion and politics, which began with the rise of “the religious right” in the late 1970s, Protestant clergy engaged in social activism complain that their fervor is not matched by Catholic bishops and priests. On the other hand, other evangelicals, especially in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, say that, when it comes “family issues” and abortion and related “life issues,” the Catholics are the only ones who can be relied on to stand up and be counted. Complicating the picture is the fact that many Catholic priests and religious honestly disagree with some of the items on the political agenda of conservative evangelical activists. In addition, Catholic immigrant history and its social and economic success was historically associated with the Democratic Party and, very specifically, with labor unions. While in recent years, notably in the Reagan elections, the Catholic vote split between the parties, that Democratic and labor legacy is still powerful. Catholics received their certificate of American legitimacy, the assurance that they had “arrived” in America, under liberal auspices. Moreover, most Catholics have their roots in the urban North, and there is more than a little cultural, as well as religious, uneasiness with the revivalist traditions of a South now making its presence so powerfully felt in national politics.

These and other considerations being taken into account, however, there remains the critical difference in Catholic attitudes toward the very idea of “Christian America.” There is something alien about the language of “taking back” a country that was never securely theirs to begin with. From the Catholic perspective, as mentioned earlier, Christian America has been mainly Protestant America. Catholics viewed the Protestant dominance with a mix of suspicion and eagerness to prove that they really belonged, knowing full well that their acceptance could be bestowed or withheld by the Protestants in charge. Here too, there is a significant convergence between Catholic and Jewish experiences. The full social, economic, and cultural enfranchisement of both Jews and Catholics is a post-World War II development. And at least at some centers of influence, it seems likely that Jews feel more enfranchised than Catholics.

“How We Do Things Here”

A vignette illustrates the point. (You’re right, I’ve told this before, but it is pertinent to the subject at hand.) In 1984, when Archbishop John O’Connor first came to New York, our institute hosted a number of dinners to introduce him to various circles of the city’s leadership. O’Connor had arrived in the midst of a presidential election campaign in which the Democratic candidate for Vice President, Geraldine Ferraro, had publicly declared that the Church’s teaching allowed a faithful Catholic to support the abortion license decreed by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. O’Connor publicly pointed out that this was not the case, and there ensued an enormous rumpus over his alleged meddling in politics. At a dinner we hosted for the city’s media leadership, a top editor of the New York Times opined: “Archbishop, when John F. Kennedy was elected President, some of us thought that the question of whether you Catholics really belong here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled. But I must frankly tell you, Archbishop, that in the few months you have been here some of us are asking that question again.”

Never mind that, from the late nineteenth century on, the political life of New York has been dominated by Catholics, mainly Irish Catholics with names like O’Connor. Never mind that O’Connor’s immigrant Catholic forebears arrived in this country well before the managing editor’s immigrant Jewish forebears. (I should add that O’Connor decorously let the remark pass.) The interesting reality is that a Jewish leader could pose the question of “whether you understand how we do things here” in a way that it is near unimaginable that a Catholic would pose to anyone else, and certainly not to a Jew. One obvious reason for the difference is a heightened consciousness of the evil of anti-Semitism, while the evil of anti-Catholicism generally receives scant attention. Another interesting reality is that the same comment would almost certainly not have been made to, say, Pat Robertson. Robertson traces his lineage, which includes distinguished political and cultural leaders, back to before the founding; and those whom he represents, while their blood may not be as blue, are equally sure that they belong here. They understand “how we do things here,” or at least how they used to do things here, and they are determined to do things that way again. In moments of alarm at the state of politics and culture, they, too, speak of post-Christian America. But the underlying, and often explicit, contention is that this once was and can be again Christian America.

Another Disestablishment

Reinhold Niebuhr was rightly impressed by what he called the ironies of American history, and those ironies are pronounced in the religio-cultural history of the society. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the “Benevolent Empire” of evangelical Protestantism (almost all Protestants were called evangelicals then) exercised what seemed to be an unquestionable cultural hegemony, proclaiming a gospel of inevitable progress toward a genuinely Christian society as defined by the Social Gospel Movement. In the battle between modernists and fundamentalists, the latter were thoroughly routed, as indelibly recounted by H. L. Mencken and others in their accounts of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Driven into the cultural wilderness—and, in part, fleeing into that wilderness—fundamentalism was, as J. M. Cameron put it, bagged and stuffed, presumably never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, the liberal heirs of the modernist triumph resumed their hegemony, or appeared to do so. Today it is hard to remember that fifty years ago the National Council of Churches—which included the oldline-liberal denominations—was almost universally acknowledged as the religious establishment of the United States.

Appearances were deceptive. The NCC and its member churches looked like the re-establishment of the religio-cultural hegemony of the earlier Benevolent Empire, but many things had changed. For one thing, wars, unprecedented atrocities, and the rise of totalitarianisms had not been kind to the gospel of inevitable progress. For another, liberal religion, having abandoned the intellectual defense of doctrine—lest it be tainted with the brush of supposedly vanquished “fundamentalism”—lost its hold on cultural leadership, which gravitated to the university, the media, and other institutions. Unlike the Benevolent Empire, the re-establishment was not a religio-cultural establishment but a purely religious establishment. It was religion in search of a way to make itself useful to the culture, with others defining what is meant by useful. The consuming passion was to be “relevant,” and relevance was discovered in the service of “social change,” most dramatically in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s.

When that movement splintered in the mid-1960s between Dr. King’s American dream and varieties of “black power” and “black nationalist” depictions of the American nightmare, and when this potent mix was added to the growing polemic on campuses and elsewhere against “Amerika,” a polemic generated by or at least focused on the Vietnam War, the leadership of what had been viewed as the religio-cultural establishment became a vaguely religious counterculture. In the subsequent decades, as the children of the secular counterculture of the 1960s assumed positions of leadership throughout the society, they no longer had any need for the institutions of liberal religion that had once made themselves so useful. The National Council of Churches, once a national institution that seemed comparable to the American Medical Association or Harvard University, was by the end of the century a skeleton of its former self, barely able to pay its bills, pitiably seeking to demonstrate its public relevance by acting as a wholly owned subsidiary of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The heirs of the modernists were now in the wilderness into which they had once driven their fundamentalist opponents. Meanwhile, the heirs of the fundamentalists, now calling themselves evangelicals, began in the late 1940s a long march back into the public square, where they now exercise powerful, if not always controlling, influence in the other major party. Only in America, as they say.

While We’re At It

• Faithful readers have come to expect the annual comment on favorite baby names. It’s not an obsession, simply attentiveness to important cultural indicators. I haven’t seen the report for this year, but meanwhile there is columnist Mark Steyn’s list of the National Post’s Top Ten Baby Names of ‘00: Chad, Darva, Regis, Condoleezza, Elián, Marisleysis, Eminem, Tipper, W, and Stockwell. If you’re not familiar with all of them, be grateful.

• What, me? Some journalists are very thin-skinned when it is suggested that they are hostile to religion. But what might better explain, for instance, the reporting of the statement of Mel Martinez when he was nominated as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development? “Today for me is the fulfillment of the promise of America, the promise that regardless of where you come from, what language you speak, the color of your skin, or your economic circumstances, if you share the dream of a brighter tomorrow, and you’re willing to pursue it with respect for others and an abiding faith in God, all things are possible.” In some, not all, newspapers around the country, including the St. Louis Post Dispatch, St. Petersburg Times, Bergen County Record, and Dallas Morning News, the above statement was quoted, but without the reference to an abiding faith in God. That was simply omitted. Obviously, somebody made a decision to omit it. There may be a better word, but “hostility” would seem to do the job.

• I have an entire file on dumb things that bishops say, and readers persist in sending more. My habit of deference to episcopal authority, bordering on docility, inhibits me from dipping into the file very often. There is, for instance, the bishop who addresses a diocesan rally and urges them to “project a more positive image.” The question to be answered, he declares, is, “Are we anti-abortion or pro-life?” Take some time to work on that one. Then there is the Southern bishop who has banned the perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in parishes. Apparently people who go in for that sort of thing are suspected of being a bit fanatical. Such people should ask themselves, according to the bishop, “Are they as respectful and reverent toward Christ’s presence in the gathered Body of the Church as they are to the presence of Christ in the Sacrament?” If that’s the test, most of us would have to stop going to Mass altogether. And this I have over the years heard dozens of times: “I’ve been attacked by both the Wanderer and the National Catholic Reporter, so I must be doing something right.” It doesn’t follow. Sometimes right and left can both recognize a wrong. And then there are really smart things that bishops say. For instance, my late bishop, Cardinal O’Connor: “I get up every morning praying that I will get through the day without discouraging any initiative of the Holy Spirit.” May all of us, and not only bishops, live that prayer.

• I am frequently asked, How can you read everything? The short and honest answer is that I don’t. I don’t usually read, for instance, the Industry Standard. But the sharp-eyed Joseph Brosnan, who is also a member of Immaculate Conception, my parish here in Manhattan, sends me a full-page advertisement from the September 4, 2000 issue. The ad promotes FIRSTWORLD, a business that protects business databases, and at the top is a sonogram picture of a very little baby in the womb. Beneath the picture: “Few environments are as safe and secure as our Internet Data Center.” What to make of this? One possibility is that the people who designed the ad were making a subtle pro-life point, knowing full well that, in the era of Roe v. Wade, the womb is far from being a safe and secure environment. If so, good for them. On the other hand, maybe they don’t know about the unlimited abortion license. But that’s improbable. Isn’t it?

• A sentimental reflection on the decline of religious community in the National Catholic Reporter concludes with this author identification: “Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net.” Trappists on e-mail? Apart from the clickety clack of the keyboard, I suppose the traditional silence could be maintained, in a manner of chattering.

• We are not likely to get a more passionate or convincing argument against affirmative action than John H. McWhorter’s Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (Free Press, 285 pages, $24). The author is a young associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, who frankly acknowledges that he would not have gotten to where he is as easily as he did were he not black. He is candid also in acknowledging that he is not the first black writer to make the argument against compensatory privileges for African-Americans. He writes, “The national dialogue is beginning to change already; indeed, I would not have written this book if I did not feel that I was part of a growing race-wide sentiment.” Affirmative action, he contends, has entrenched three vices among American blacks: victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism. More persuasively than anyone I have read, McWhorter responds to those who say that black opponents of affirmative action, such as Clarence Thomas and himself, are “pulling up the ladder” after they climbed it to success. Especially in the academy, if you are black, you cannot help but receive affirmative action preference. If affirmative action was ever needed in the past—and McWhorter seems to be unsure about that—today it is widening the gap of academic achievement between whites and blacks, and depriving blacks of the benefits of competition and the dignity of succeeding by merit. McWhorter sums it up this way: “I maintain that we have reached this state of affairs as an unintended result of the Civil Rights Act, which gave a demoralized group the keys to success by fiat rather than through the slow and agonizing avenue of working within the society, gradually eroding stereotypes and social barriers as Jews and the Irish did. We must have compassion for the black Americans who have unwittingly been disabled by this strange by-product of a good thing. However, our compassion must not let us allow this sociological excrescence to continue to condemn this race to eternal second-class status.” The last point is crucial. McWhorter underscores that only one in five blacks is today in the inner city, only one in four is below the poverty level, yet middle-and upper-middle-class African-Americans perpetuate the myth that they are victims in need of special preferences for generations without end. Academic under­ achievement by blacks, undeniably connected to affirmative action, is the greatest cause of continuing racial inequality today. That is McWhorter’s argument, and it should be engaged by the makers of public policy and by all who care about the resolution of what Gunnar Myrdal so many years ago called “the American dilemma.” In view of that, one cannot help but be disappointed that on the dustjacket, where publishers designate the category to which a book belongs, Losing the Race is consigned to the ghetto of “African-American Studies.” The publisher should read McWhorter on “Separatism”—and on “Victimology” and “Anti-Intellectualism” as well.

• Our national chronicler of cultural breakthroughs has come through again. It seems that gays and lesbians are given to beating each other up a good deal, and not just when having kinky sex. “Silence Ending About Abuse in Gay Relationships,” is the headline in the New York Times. “We’re just now beginning to take same-sex domestic violence out of the closet,” says Jennifer Rakowski, Associate Director of Community United Against Violence, a crisis intervention group in San Francisco. “We had to get acceptance as individuals first.” Individual acceptance first, violence next. But when violence comes out of the closet it’s in for a rude surprise, encountering an entrenched prejudice that might be called batterphobia. The women, it seems, are as bad as the men. Bekki Ow-Cuevas fled a violent husband only to be assaulted by her female partner. “There was a piece of me that really wanted to believe that women are safe people,” she ruefully says. It seems that women can be really mean. The partner of a diabetic woman forced her to eat sugar. Two lesbians who are disabled report that their partners got their kicks by taking them to isolated wooded areas and leaving them there without their wheelchairs. Moreover, the police have a problem when they’re called to intervene in cases of same-sex violence. “Stereotypes of meek, overpowered women and rampaging, abusive men are of little help to officers responding to a battle between two men or two women. Often, the abuser is the smaller gay man, or the more feminine lesbian.” Some cops probably think it’s downright unnatural. “Unfortunately, we’re still twenty-five years behind the battered women’s movement,” says Susan Holt of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. “But at least we’ve gotten started.” There is something weirdly wrongheaded about a movement that promotes a way of life that wants the protections of the “natural” that it adamantly denies. Of course, natural justice requires that protection be provided, also to those who deny that there is anything normative in nature. The element of putative cultural breakthrough in the Times story is the acknowledgment that gays and lesbians can be as nasty as anyone else. Only in a journalistic world where the opposite is commonly assumed to be the case would that be considered a story. Not surprisingly, the upshot of the story is that same-sex violence is yet another argument for viewing same-sex unions as natural as marriage. You batter your partners, we batter our partners, so what’s the difference? It’s as good as the other arguments.

• In the overheated partisanship of Washington, D.C., the Ethics and Public Policy Center renders invaluable service in nurturing reasonable discussion across the usual divides. This is evident in a recent conversation, “Conflict on Campus: Religious Liberty vs. Gay Rights?”, that brought together gay advocates, conservative Christians, and public policy experts to examine the decision of Tufts University and other schools to exclude religious groups that “discriminate” against gays by holding that homosexual acts are immoral. It was a lively and, for the most part, intelligent discussion. The upshot was something close to a consensus that a private university has a legal right to make such a decision, but it is detrimental to its mission as a university, not least because it would send the message that morally traditional students are not welcome. Particularly thoughtful were the interventions of Professor William A. Galston of the University of Maryland. He said, “In my global view, the warp and woof of Western civilization are secular-rational philosophy and revealed religion. It would be a shame if an institution such as Tufts, in an effort to make the world very safe for one, made it entirely unsafe for the other. I believe the internal dialogue of the university would be much richer if both were present on honored terms.” One might add the caveat that, at least in the case of Christianity, revealed religion requires also rational philosophy, but, as I say, this is a refreshingly honest and intelligent exchange. For a copy of “Center Conversations, Number 6,” send $2 to Ethics and Public Policy, 1015 15th Street NW, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20005.

• Here is a spot of unpleasantness, and it deserves at least a notice lest readers who are also readers of the New Oxford Review might be confused. Mr. Dale Vree, editor of that magazine, has published a long attack on what he takes to be my views on whether all people will ultimately be saved, a doctrine commonly called universalism. Based on his misreading of my book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Mr. Vree writes, “Neuhaus hems and haws, but finally answers yes, all are saved.” Hemming and hawing? Me? Well, I suppose I should ‘fess up. As longtime readers have always suspected, equivocation is my besetting fault. Mr. Vree’s assertion, however, is false. What I do say, along with many venerable thinkers in the Christian tradition, is that we may hope that all will, ultimately, be saved. Mr. Vree goes on for all of eight pages to argue that what he says I teach, which I do not teach, would encourage, among other bad things, abortion, infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, euthanasia, and skipping Mass. He ends up by comparing my book with the writings of notoriously dissident theologians such as Fr. Hans Küng and Fr. Richard McBrien. Much of what he says would be true, if I taught what he says I teach, which I do not. I have no need, interest, or intention of engaging in extended public polemics with Mr. Vree. I would note that Death on a Friday Afternoon is not a doctrinal manual but a book of devotional reflections. For a more systematic treatment of salvation, the motive for evangelization, and related questions, interested readers might want to consult my commentary on the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) in the October 1991 issue of FT (“Reviving the Missionary Mandate,” Public Square). That commentary received many favorable responses, including a warm commendation from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who is reputed to have a keen eye for orthodox teaching. For those not familiar with it, the New Oxford Review is an independent monthly published in Berkeley, California. It is perhaps best known for its strident advertisements in other publications. In the past, we found it possible to carry some of its more responsible ads in the pages of this journal. Mr. Vree understands himself to be a defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and I wish him all the best in doing that, noting only that the truth is never served by misrepresentation.

• Recall Humpty Dumpty’s answer to Alice’s objection that you can’t make words mean whatever you want them to mean. “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” To judge by the new fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the master of the language is however people use the language. Political correctness dictates that there is no correctness when it comes to English usage. To be sure, language is a living thing, but what’s the point of a dictionary if a word means whatever you want it to mean? For instance, American Heritage notes that “disingenuous” means “not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating.” It then notes that the meaning has been “shifting lately,” and many people say “disingenuous” when they intend “unaware or uninformed; naive.” But the editors cannot bring themselves to say the second usage is incorrect. Edward Rothstein observes that Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defined the word as “meanly artful, viciously subtle.” Reviewing American Heritage, Rothstein writes: “I don’t think this dictionary is disingenuous in Dr. Johnson’s sense; I think it is disingenuous in the incorrect popular sense. With all its usefulness and sophistication, it is naive. It cannot take responsibility for the words it describes. Yes, all usages are of interest, and yes, language is mercurial, and yes, a dictionary needs multiple perspectives. But this dictionary, like many other contemporary counterparts, sits comfortably amid the swirl of conflicting assertions, nodding this way and that, deferring to the mastery of each and all, while urging the reader to hop up and join it on its precarious Humpty Dumptyish perch.”

• On the other hand, how can we forget the words of that post-Marxist Marxist Terry Eagleton in his inaugural lecture at Oxford in 1992? “Linguistic purity is the last refuge of the paranoid and pathological, the visceral, proto-fascist fantasy of those who feel undermined in their very being by the polyglot social order they themselves have helped to fashion.” Very easily, as it happens.

• “Jews Can’t Take ‘Yes’ for an Answer” is an important article in Reform Judaism by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis who argues that some Jewish leaders are undermining the remarkable rapprochement between Catholics and Jews since the Second Vatican Council, and especially during the pontificate of John Paul II. The regular moving of the goalposts in the dialogue and constant carping on issues such as the alleged silence of Pius XII in World War II is producing noticeable exasperation among Catholics. Schulweis sympathetically quotes Edward Cardinal Cassidy who said, “We expect and hope that the Jewish partners will at least show us respect. You can hardly claim to respect someone if at every possible opportunity you are ready to criticize the person, even without making a real effort to understand and appreciate the position of the other person.” Schulweis comments, “This is a charge more serious than not being able to take ‘yes’ for an answer. We are facing a threat to Catholic-Jewish relations, and repairing the breach will require our earnest attention and moral statesmanship.” In the same vein, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, recently said this in a speech at Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts: “There is a desperate need for a joint campaign of positive religious education. This means that Catholics need to educate Catholics about Jews, and Jews need to educate Jews about Catholics. I believe that the Church is far ahead of the Jewish community in this regard. We have failed utterly in conveying to our young people the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Too often we teach nothing at all about other religious traditions to our children, and what we do teach about Catholicism is likely to focus on the Inquisition and the Crusades. This is a moral failure of the first order, and we have a profound responsibility to provide an immediate remedy.”

• Soulforce, Dignity/USA, Equal Partners in Faith. Such are the names of three gay and lesbian groups agitating for Christian legitimation. They sponsored a demonstration aimed at disrupting the Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington where the bishops were meeting. Said William Donohue of the Catholic League: “The militants talk about tolerance and practice intolerance. They talk about diversity and work to impose uniformity. They talk about democracy and represent no one but the alienated few. And they talk about peace and invite violence. They need our prayers, but they also need to spend some time in jail.” The bishops kept their cool, while the police did arrest a few for an hour or two in jail, including William Sloane Coffin, onetime Yale chaplain and legendary wordsmith, now age seventy-six, who declared, “The Catholic bishops are steering the car by what they see in the rearview mirror.” It’s one way of keeping an eye on what may be catching up on you, remembering that objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.

• “On September 14, a joint session of the U.S. House and Senate basically bowed down to Baal.” So says Timothy Lamer in the evangelical Protestant magazine World. What happened that day is that a Hindu priest gave the invocation at a session addressed by the Prime Minister of India. Evangelicals, says Mr. Lamer, should think again about their enthusiasm for religion in public. “Increasingly, the result of their effort will be a golden calf in America’s pluralistic public square. How will they react? If Mr. Samuldrala’s invocation is any indication, they will silently bow and not make waves, for the sake of having religion—any religion, even soul-destroying religion—in the public square.” Forget that Baal and the golden calf are not Hindu: Mr. Lamer’s point is clear enough. In the same issue, James Skillen of the Center for Public Justice comes to a different conclusion, contending that “most Americans are not convinced that secularizing the public square is the way to do justice to diverse faiths.” He suggests that the public square should “make room for all faiths—both religious and secular—without giving a privileged position to any of them. . . . The United States is not a Jewish state or a Catholic state; not a Protestant state or Muslim state. And it certainly should not be a secularized state.” Skillen thinks the chaplaincy program in the military, government support for faith-based social services, and parental choice in education are indicative of the ways to go in a pluralistic society. Mr. Lamer is wrong, I think, to claim that bowing one’s head in respect means that one is joining in a prayer to Hindu gods. Presumably Christian legislators, if they were praying, were praying to the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Mr. Skillen is right about pluralism, although I cavil at his referring to the United States as simply a state. “The United States” refers to a country and society that surely is, as a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christian and founded upon a Judeo-Christian worldview. Citizens of the United States have every right to advocate that the government, i.e., the state, should formally declare itself to be Christian. That is in my judgment, and, I am glad to say, in the judgment of almost all Americans, a very dumb thing to advocate. I would recast the World debate to argue that it is precisely because of the Judeo-Christian ethic that the public square should be hospitable to all faiths. Because, first, we do not sacralize the public square, mistaking it for the Church. And, second, because we recognize that all people, whatever their religious or other errors, are made in the image of God and therefore bearers of a human dignity that demands our respect. The Lamer-Skillen exchange usefully poses questions about which all Christians need greater clarity.

• Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is in an unenviable position. Holding on to an embattled enclave in a Muslim society and challenged by the Moscow Patriarchate for Orthodox leadership, he and his office are in danger of being bypassed by history. Bartholomew has raised his profile, as they say, by embracing fashionable environmentalisms. In Europe he is lionized by environmentalists as the “Green Patriarch,” and a while back he was here in New York to receive an environmental award at the very elegant Cosmopolitan Club. In his talk he said that a natural link between Orthodoxy and environmentalism is the “ascetical element” of the Orthodox tradition. “Restraint frees us from selfish demands, so that we may offer what remains and place it at the disposal of others. This is the result of our freedom from avarice, which has its roots in the lack of faith and the making of a god out of matter, which we consider idolatry.” All very true, of course, but the New York Times reporter could not resist a naughty but accurate observation: “Those remarks may have seemed slightly incongruous in the club’s vast dining room, where guests dined on an exquisite lunch of quail and various wines, surrounded by ornate mirrors, candelabra, and elaborate marble carvings of scenes from antiquity. But the guests seemed inspired by the Patriarch’s message.” No doubt. So is Patriarch Bartholomew being used by the glitterati of the environmental left? One suspects he is aware of that risk, but is prepared to do what is necessary to help make sure that the Patriarchate of Constantinople is not forgotten altogether.

• It was a big gathering of Catholic liturgists at the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy, and they were addressed by Lutheran Bishop Robert A. Rimbo of the Southeast Michigan Synod. “Just as the liturgical movement began at a grassroots level, so we too cannot wait for the powers that be to approve of our understanding of what is sufficient for our practice of eucharistic hospitality,” said Rimbo. “It is time for us to begin communing together at the one table of the one Lord as the one church, and consider the consequences of such when God reveals them to us.” He said that when he was a student in Milwaukee he often communed at the Catholic cathedral. “So far, it hasn’t done any damage,” he added. The report says “the audience roared with laughter and applause.” What goes around comes around. More than thirty years ago I was as a very young Lutheran pastor the token Protestant on the board of the National Liturgical Conference. The Conference was then a very big thing, with its annual liturgical weeks drawing crowds of twenty thousand or more. In the heady atmosphere immediately following Vatican Council II, it was thought to be only a question of time, and not very much time at that, before intercommunion would be the order of the day. In the Liturgical Conference we assumed we were only a few steps ahead of “the powers that be,” and so at our board meetings it was thought very ecumenical indeed when I as a Lutheran presided at the eucharistic celebration. “Look,” I said to Catholic audiences, “intercommunion is easy. Just do it. I do it all the time.” And they roared with laughter and applause. That was a very long time ago, and I hope that, at least in this respect, I have put aside childish ways. In the intervening years there have been very serious and difficult theological dialogues between Lutherans and Catholics, in which the continuing connections between doctrine, ordered ministry, ecclesial communion, and eucharistic communion have been clarified. For a brief moment, way on back there, it seemed avant garde for Catholics to agree with Lutherans that the question of “the powers that be”—meaning apostolic ministry exercised by bishops in communion with the Petrine ministry of Rome—was an irrelevancy. Now it is understood that the only unity, as expressed in eucharistic communion, that can be pleasing to God is unity in the fullness of the truth that Christ intends for his Church. At least one hopes that is understood by most Catholics and most Lutherans.

• Edward F. Halpin was at Buchenwald with Patton’s Third Army and later reflected, “Only the concept of eternity could explain the ambiguity between a loving God and the Holocaust. For if life does not end with the grave, we should pity the prison guard, not his victim.” Halpin is an amateur theologian—amateur meaning lover, which is a very good thing to be—who ponders this and related questions about good and evil in a little book, Man or Mankind? (Dorrance), which came to mind while reading John Cooper’s excellent study, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Eerdmans). Among other points, Cooper, who is a very professional amateur theologian and philosopher, makes a convincing case that wrongheaded biblical scholarship of the twentieth century played the primary role in discrediting an almost universal understanding that justice requires an ultimate judgment. Everyday ambiguities and outrages far short of the dimensions of Buchenwald, when seriously thought about, bring that truth home. The four final things—death, judgment, heaven, hell—are largely missing from Christian preaching, catechesis, and piety today. A good many historians attribute the triumph of Christianity in the early centuries to the fact that it had the most convincing answers to those irrepressible hopes and fears. It may be that the renewal of Christianity in our time will begin with the confident rediscovery of those answers.

• I noted that the fifteenth edition of Bartlett’s had a convenient ellipsis in place of the Hippocratic Oath’s forbidding of abortion. A gimlet eye award to Thomas J. Walsh of West Bloomfield, Michigan, for pointing out that the sixteenth has restored the words, “Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion.” That the editors had conscience qualms about having fiddled with the classic text is an encouraging thought.

• “God, Women, and Medicine” was the title of the 60 Minutes segment. The subject was the refusal of Catholic hospitals to provide what is called a full range of reproductive services, which means help in avoiding reproduction, including the termination of the “product” when reproduction is not avoided. 60 Minutes featured Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) who declared, “It’s not like the old days. Doctors are no longer gods. Now we have bishops who are gods.” William Donohue of the Catholic League, who embarrasses progressive Catholics by protesting attacks on Catholicism, said of Kissling and her part in the program: “Her anti-Catholicism is so blatant that on two occasions the bishops have expressly denounced Catholics for a Free Choice for fraudulently posing as a Catholic group. And this is the ‘expert’ that Morley Safer repairs to for commentary. It is on the order of asking those blacks who voted for George Wallace what they think about civil rights and then airing their self-hating views as representative of African-American thought. The only difference being that Kissling is getting paid around a quarter of a million dollars by the Ford Foundation and their ilk for doing the bidding of Catholic-bashing elites.” Analogies are always subject to quibbling, but that would seem to get it about right.

Publishers Weekly says that Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life may be his “break-out” book. All the usual media outlets, we are told, are lining up to interview Princeton’s peddler of bargain-basement utilitarianism, which should be good for sales. And some of the unusuals. Nat Hentoff, for instance, interviewed Singer and strongly disagrees with him, saying that the gist of his message is that some lives are not worth living—e.g., severely disabled children and the expendable elderly—and should therefore be terminated. Noting that Nazi atrocities stemmed from “small beginnings,” Hentoff says Singer’s book is dangerous. PW quotes a bookseller who scoffed, “The alternative to writing that is dangerous is writing that is safe, and that, to a bookseller, is writing that doesn’t sell.” So neat is the fit between intellectual courage and capitalist greed. Dan Halpern, Singer’s publisher at HarperCollins, says Singer gets a bum rap from his critics. “The sore points for people are his writings on euthanasia and impaired infants. They imagine he is trying to mandate killing without cause.” Not at all. It is simply that he is so productive of new causes for killing.

• Brooke D. Haas, director of sales for Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has divided feelings about the December issue. On the one hand, ISI is delighted with the attention we paid their “A Student’s Guide To” series of books, and they’ve received many responses. On the other hand, we said the books are free when in fact the offer is one free book to students or professors who are members of ISI. Otherwise they are $5.95 each, and well worth it. Write ISI Books, P.O. Box 4431, 3901 Centerville Road, Wilmington, Delaware 19807.

• They try their best, but Ross G. Douthat, a Harvard junior who started reading First Things when he was twelve years old, writes in the Crimson that even at Harvard they fall somewhat short of a total obliteration of historical and cultural fact. Surrounding the “winter break,” there is no mention of Christmas, of course, but an official Harvard mailing did wish folks a “happy millennial observance.” Douthat thought this displayed “a remarkable lack of respect for those faiths that choose not to follow a dating system based upon an obscure Nazarene carpenter’s historically dubious birth.” But maybe they’re not aware of the origins of the system. “If you believe their academic jargon, after all, we’ve just completed two thousand years of the ‘Common Era’—which apparently took over when the Uncommon Era ran out of gas midway through the reign of Caesar Augustus.” After almost ten years of reading FT, he might want to think about writing for us.

• Who’s afraid of the Salvation Army? Russia, for one. The Moscow courts have refused to register the group because it is a “militarized” organization under foreign command.

• Here’s a new book from Crossroad, a Catholic publisher of sorts. Is the Pope Catholic? A Woman Confronts Her Church by Joanna Manning. The author is a former nun, it says here, and she “powerfully articulates how John Paul II’s current views on women are not only a disaster for the Catholic Church, but are also a threat to the well-being of all women, regardless of belief.” Well, yes, but those are only his current views. Wait until he reads Ms. Manning’s book.

• John Lukacs, that distinguished historian, is interviewed in Books & Culture, that fine evangelical publication. (The two most recent Lukacs books are A Thread of Years and Five Days in London, May 1940, the latter recounting the decisive exchanges between Churchill and his cabinet on what to do about Hitler.) Lukacs is asked, “How does your Christian faith influence your historical understanding?” Here is what he says in response: “I find the Catholic concept of human nature utterly convincing. As Pascal said, men are both beasts and angels—because of the essential inclinations of their souls. By the way, my view of human nature is the opposite not only of Karl Marx, but also of someone like Alan Greenspan, or Bill Buckley, or Adam Smith. I believe that the most important thing in the world is what people think and believe, and that the entire material organization of the world is the consequence of this. The human mind does not follow the physical laws of the universe. Take a briefcase. The more there is in it, the more difficult it is to stuff more into it. But the more we know about something, the easier it is for us to accumulate more knowledge about it. Our mind consists not of facts but of words. Facts do not exist apart from the words with which we express them and think of them. The words are not the packaging of the facts; the words are the facts themselves. We think in words. There is no fact that can be separated from the statement of the fact. History—unlike chemistry or biology or sociology—has no jargon, has no scientific language of its own. We write, teach, speak, think about history in everyday language. This has a biblical and theological basis. Language is a very mysterious gift from God. In the beginning was the Word. Not the Fact. Not the Picture. Not the Number. Not the Image. It is through words that we relate to each other. It is through words that we can give pain or pleasure to each other. And because of this—and every historian worth his salt ought to know this—the choice of the word is not only a matter of accuracy, not only an aesthetic choice, it is a moral choice. It is a moral choice how I describe something that has happened.”

• Is nothing normal any more? I remember reading many years ago that an association of psychiatrists had determined that 35 percent of people in Manhattan are in need of clinical care. I thought at the time that the figure was on the low side, unless, of course, one assumes their eccentric state is normal for New Yorkers. Now comes an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal assessing the characters in A. A. Milne’s children’s books and arriving at grim conclusions. Winnie the Pooh is suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and could be prone to Tourette’s syndrome. Eeyore has chronic depression and Christopher Robin is in the midst of a gender-identity crisis. “Pooh’s most prominent disorder is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the doctors conclude, but he also suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, suggested by his single-minded pursuit of honey and his repetitive counting behavior. They point out his impulsive behavior, including when he disguises himself as a rain cloud to get honey. His food obsession has led to obesity.” The diagnosis goes on: “Pooh’s best friend, Piglet, is struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, the authors found. His symptoms include anxiety, blushing, and stammering. The doctors say there was clearly no early medical intervention because childhood treatment with an anti-panic drug could have altered his behavior. Eeyore, the sorry donkey with the detachable tail, suffers from depression, which could be helped by Prozac; therapy might help him deal with the amputation of his tail. Owl, the bespectacled fowl, seems the brightest. However, that he pretends to read things that he cannot and that he covers up language and spelling errors are clear indications of dyslexia, the doctors say. Rabbit has an untreatable narcissistic personality disorder.” In addition to his gender-identity disorder, Christopher Robin has a host of other problems, not least being that he spends so much time talking to animals. “Adult intervention is needed,” the doctors conclude. Dr. Sarah Shea, the lead author of the article, says it is in part a parody, but then she cannot help but add, “These characters do have some pretty significant disorder patterns.” For Pooh, a low dosage of Ritalin is prescribed. Thus are the fun, challenge, and adventure of the normal abnormalities of the world normalized to death.

• I was lecturing in the Vancouver area and the fellow doing the introduction noted that there were many ROFTERS in the audience. This was new to me. In Canada, I am told, a ROFTER is a Reader of First Things. It is how people recognize one another in what is not exactly a secret society. There is, for instance, no special handshake, but there is that alertness of mind, civility of manner, and eagerness to engage questions that matter. At least that is how it was explained to me, and, sure enough, there seemed to be a lot of them in the audience. May their tribe multiply. We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely ROFTERS. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, New York, 10010 (or email to subscriberservices@pma-inc.net). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll free 1-800-783-4903, or visit old.firstthings.com.


Sources:

 

“Defending the Faiths” by Allen D. Hertzke and Daniel Philpott, National Interest, Fall 2000. “Ecclesia Sancta, Ecclesia Peccatrix: The Holiness of the Church in Martin Luther’s Theology,” by David S. Yeago, Pro Ecclesia, vol. IX, no. 3.

While We’re At It: Mark Steyn on baby names, National Post, December 28, 2000. Mel Martinez quote, Family Research Council press release, December 21, 2000. Caption to ad for FIRSTWORLD, Industry Standard, September 4, 2000. Trappists online, National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 2000. Domestic violence in same-sex relationships, New York Times, November 6, 2000. Dale Vree on RJN on hell, New Oxford Review, January 2001. Edward Rothstein on American Heritage Dictionary, New York Times, November 25, 2000. Harold M. Schulweis on Catholic-Jewish relations, Reform Judaism, Fall 2000. On gay Christian militants, Catholic League press release, November 14, 2000. Lamer-Skillen debate on prayer in Congress, World, October 7, 2000. On Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, New York Times, November 14, 2000. Robert A. Rimbo on “eucharistic hospitality,” National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000. On Peter Singer’s new book, Publishers Weekly, December 11, 2000. Christmas at Harvard, Harvard Crimson, December 11, 2000. On the Salvation Army in Russia, Keston Institute Press release, November 30, 2000. Is the Pope Catholic? by Joanna Manning reviewed in Commonweal, September 2, 2000. John Lukacs interviewed in Books & Culture, July/August 2000. Diagnosing Winnie the Pooh and friends, Canadian Medical Association Journal, December 12, 2000.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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