The Public Square
Who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility? That, I would suggest, is the question that defines the disagreement over abortion law. The history of “Christian America” can be invoked, and is invoked, by all sides in this dispute. There are religious coalitions, mainly drawn from mainline/oldline Protestantism, strongly in support of the unlimited abortion license. They invoke Christian sensibilities of compassion for women in trouble, and employ with considerable effect the Christian language of freedom and personal responsibility, the latter understood as taking charge of one’s own life. Among the weaknesses of these pro-choice coalitions is that they depend on the dispirited and declining constituencies of the liberal churches. Moreover, they are muted in invoking explicitly religious warrants for their position, since one of their chief accusations is that it is their opponents who are trying to “impose” their religiously grounded morality on others. Their fallback position is an appeal to tolerance, to agree to disagree. But to agree to disagree, of course, means that people should be able to do what they want with respect to abortion, with the unborn child having no voice in the decision. An irony in this dispute is that pro-life forces reject that appeal to tolerance as an instance of “repressive tolerance,” much as Herbert Marcuse and others on the radicalized left used that phrase in their scorn of liberalism in the 1960s.
On the other side of the “Christian America” dynamic as it works its way through the abortion conflict are evangelical Protestants and Catholics who have the distinct advantage of having many more Christians, and more committed Christians, in their support. The “commitment variable” (as it is called in the jargon of social science) is important here. Research repeatedly confirms that, the more religiously committed people are—the more they go to church, the more they give, the more they rate religion as being “very important” in their lives—the more they are likely to be pro-life rather than pro-choice. Interestingly, the commitment variable holds also in the case of more liberal churches that are supportive of the pro-choice position. That is to say, the more committed members of these churches tend to disagree with the position of their church leaderships on abortion.
A further advantage of the pro-life forces is that, especially in the Catholic component of their coalition, they are armed with sophisticated arguments from natural law and public reason that require no explicit appeal to religious faith. In order to avoid engaging these arguments, pro-choice opponents contend that the rationality of Catholics is only a facade, that it is the appearance of rational argument in the service of a religious commitment. In taking this line, the opponents run the risk of appearing to be both antirational and anti-Catholic. In fact, the more strident pro-abortion advocates have over the years been overtly anti-Catholic, contending that resistance to what they view as progress is orchestrated by a monolithic Catholic Church, with evangelical Protestants and others being but pawns in a grand strategy to roll back the course of progress.
The connection, then, between the culture wars and what sociologists call “the religion factor” could hardly be more intense or complicated. On the most fevered question in cultural and political contention, that of abortion, we are witness to a playing out of the idea of Christian America, understood as the Judeo-Christian moral tradition having normative status in our public life. Few historians would dispute that this was the tradition—also in its Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment variations—by which this constitutional order was constituted. The great dispute is about whether it can be reconstituted on that basis, or whether that tradition is now irretrievably fragmented, or whether that tradition has in fact been replaced by a very different morality—perhaps along the lines of the “mystery passage” of the Casey abortion decision, which declared that our nation has no higher devotion than to the individual’s right to construct his own meaning of the universe. This dispute will not be settled any time soon, and it is probably in the nature of such a dispute that it is never really settled at all. The raucous contention between conflicting (because incompatible) moral traditions may be a permanent feature of a democracy such as ours.
Conservatives are frequently heard to say that the country is on the edge of, or already engaged in, a massive religious revival, something like another Great Awakening. We should nurture a measure of skepticism about that. In his 1992 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, the celebrated critic Harold Bloom argued that “no Western nation is as religion-soaked as ours.” According to Bloom, however, the religion in this instance is not Christianity but a sub-Christian Gnosticism in which the individual is thought to be endowed with a divine spark that is more primordial than creation itself. The sub-Christian religion that constitutes Bloom’s post-Christian America is practiced in the name of Christianity but is far removed from any belief system that could sustain a normative moral tradition. The prophet of American Gnosticism, according to Bloom, is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in this respect Bloom is very close to Richard Rorty’s “American religion,” without the latter’s extravagant patriotism and sense of national destiny.
Bloom’s depiction of American religion is intended to be provocative, but it should not be lightly dismissed. It poses a caution to conservatives who place their hopes in what is vaguely called a religious revival. There is religion and then there is religion. Recall the shelves upon shelves of New Age “spiritualities” to be found in the bookstores at the mall. Giving credence to Bloom’s claim, such books are bought and read by people who think of themselves as Christians but are either unwilling or unable to recognize Gnostic doctrines quite at odds with elementary Christian teaching. In short, it is far from obvious that a revival of religiosity would reinvigorate the normative status of Judeo-Christian morality in a manner that might be decisive in resolving the conflicts of today’s culture politics, and particularly the conflict over abortion policy. There is great uncertainty about whether the abortion conflict will ever be resolved at all, although a number of possibilities reward consideration.
The founding creed—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—affirms truths that have been and are today far from self-evident to the great majority of humankind. The truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a truth that can only be explained as the product of a very particular history. In the eighteenth century, its explication and popular acceptance can only be explained in the context of the taken-for-granted reality of Christian America. This is not to say that the truths affirmed by the Declaration cannot be supported by rigorously secular arguments that are not dependent upon the biblical tradition. There have been many efforts to develop such arguments, from John Dewey’s A Common Faith to, at a more academically rarefied level, John Rawls’ 1971 work, A Theory of Justice. Whatever one may think of the intellectual persuasiveness of such efforts, they are familiar only to a relatively small number of intellectuals who are by no means agreed on their meaning or merits. They cannot secure a popular, which is to say democratic, adherence to the great claims of the Declaration and the constitutional order dependent upon those claims. This is not to say that it is not hypothetically possible to make a rigorously secular case for those claims that is democratically accessible and persuasive. But, in view of the many attempts that have failed, skepticism about that possibility is in order. And there is the inherent difficulty of what to do with the Creator—a reference that in the logic of the Declaration is essential to the claim that human rights are prior to government in the order of both time and authority.
Right from the beginning, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was of course denied to slaves of African descent. The founders did not deny it in principle, but came around to denying it in practice as the price to be paid for achieving the Union, which would turn out to be the undoing of the Union in a terrible civil war. History is not the automated playing out of inevitabilities. Had it not been for specific persons, actions, and circumstances—most particularly, had it not been for Abraham Lincoln—there might have been a peaceful secession of the South, or perhaps the nation might have lived with “the peculiar institution” of slavery for another century or more. And so it may also be the case that we might continue for a very long time with the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe v. Wade.
Similarities and Dissimilarities
Despite the chilling similarity in logic and even in the language employed, however, there are significant differences between Roe v. Wade of 1973 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The former is in its time deemed by opinion-making elites to be in the cause of progress, while the latter was by the same elites of the nineteenth century condemned as the defense of an intolerable status quo. It is of the utmost importance that in the mid-1960s the liberal flag, signaling the cause of progress, was planted on the pro-abortion side of the divide. That, too, was not inevitable. American liberalism is historically schizophrenic. On the one hand, liberalism is devoted to ever expanding the community of common care and concern, as with the civil rights movement under Dr. King. On the other, it is the cause of the unlimited assertion of individual rights. In the abortion dispute, the second liberalism prevailed, powerfully reinforced as it was by an insurgent feminism defined as liberation from past constraints.
Then too, slavery was a public institution around which an entire economic and social order was constructed, whereas abortion can be construed as a private, even intimate, matter—a regrettable recourse to a quasi-medical solution of a problem that, while it may involve more than one person, is certainly not public business in the usual sense of the term. Most important, even those who had never seen a black slave acknowledged, with very few exceptions, that these were fellow human beings who were denied liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even then, however, the abolitionists were, up until the Civil War, in a distinct minority. No matter how widespread the recognition of slavery as an evil—even a great evil that fundamentally contradicted the constituting truths of the nation—few were prepared to accept the conflict and massive dislocation required to abolish it. Pro-life activists who compare their cause to that of the nineteenth-century abolitionists can appeal to moral logic and historical symmetry, but the comparison does not engender hope for the prospect of abolishing abortion. Unless one envisions another Civil War. There are a handful of radically alienated Americans on the fringes who apparently do envision that. They are angry about many things, and some of them are also angry about the abortion license. They are, and must of moral necessity remain, a fringe phenomenon.
Most people have a remarkable capacity to live with cognitive dissonance. It is a burden that we become adept at bearing lightly. Yes, said the farmer and shopkeeper of 1857, slavery is grossly incompatible with the founding truths of the country, but it is the Fourth of July and the parade must go on. As mentioned earlier, public opinion on abortion has changed very little in the last quarter century. Somewhat less than 20 percent support the unlimited license now in force, about 20 percent say all abortion should be outlawed, and the remainder say abortion should not be permitted except in certain very limited circumstances. At the very end of the century, in 1999, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a survey of college freshmen showed that only 51 percent think abortion should be legal, indicating a decline of 14 percent from a few years ago.
At the same time, an abortion-rights organization indicated its distress at the finding of its own survey that an absolute majority (53 percent) of American women believe abortion should be outlawed entirely or allowed only in cases of rape, incest, and direct threat to the life of the mother. A finding of particular interest is that somewhat more than 50 percent of respondents agree that abortion “is the same thing as murder.” Yet cognitive and moral dissonance continues to be conspicuous. The question is variously phrased in different surveys, but the noteworthy fact is that over half of those who say that abortion is tantamount to murder also say that abortion should be legal in difficult circumstances. One may wonder whether people really intend to say that murder should sometimes be legal.
Of course we do not have comparable survey research from the first part of the nineteenth century. From what we know, it seems likely that a strong majority of people in the North, and a substantial minority in the South, thought slavery was wrong, but also thought it was something they would have to live with, or at least did not see any tolerable way of getting rid of it. Compared with murder, slavery was certainly viewed as a lesser violation of moral right. Although today we tend to forget it, up until the late eighteenth century slavery in various forms was an almost universal institution. Educated people of undoubted moral seriousness vigorously debated the rights and wrongs of it. We today judge any word in defense of slavery to be abhorrent, but we should resist the hubris of presentism that despises those who lived before us, recognizing that we are as “culturally conditioned” in our views, and not always for the better, as were they. In any society that is deemed civilized, however, there has never been a comparable debate about the rights and wrongs of murder. The novelty of our circumstance is sobering. With respect to abortion, it would seem that a majority of Americans think we are debating the rights and wrongs of murder. The question is, When should the private use of lethal force in taking an innocent human life be legal? The question poses the oxymoron of legal murder. The moral, cultural, political, and legal implications of this should be of concern to everybody, and not only to those opposed to Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny.
An argument made by the Supreme Court in Casey is that the abortion license is now so deeply ingrained as a taken-for-granted option that limiting it, never mind removing it, would result in intolerable social and political disruption. Further, the Justices claim, it would throw into question not only the “legitimacy” of the Court but of the rule of law. There are conservatives who, while supporting the Republican Party’s declared opposition to abortion, basically agree with Casey. In this view, we have as a country passed the point of no return. The Republican anti-abortion plank, it is said sotto voce, is similar to the public position of leftist parties in Europe during the Cold War. Their public platforms committed them to state ownership of the means of production and alliance with the Soviet Union. That public position was necessary to hold on to their core leftist constituency, but it was perfectly well understood that they were not going to do anything to implement such commitments. Many in the core constituency also understood that, although they preferred not to admit it even to themselves. So it is, some say, with the Republicans and their “social conservative” constituency in the matter of abortion. Some call it cognitive dissonance; others, less kindly, speak of hypocrisy. More cynical still is the claim that some ostensibly pro-life politicians have no intention of effectively limiting the abortion license, since it would deprive them of such a useful issue in securing the loyalty of their core constituency.
Not Giving an Inch
It is very different with the partisans of Roe and Casey. After all these years, they are not complacent; they are determined not to give an inch. They are deadly serious in defending any and all abortions, including abortions that even some pro-choice advocates acknowledge are not abortions at all but instances of infanticide. Again we encounter irony in that the pro-choice side is burdened with a victory that it did not expect, and in some ways it did not want. Almost everybody was surprised by the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. Planned Parenthood and its allies were pressing for “liberalized” abortion law, an expansion of those circumstances in which abortion would be legal. The Court responded by abolishing the abortion laws of all fifty states, thus removing with one edict any effective legal protection of unborn children. Defenders of Roe have said that the Court simply “speeded up” what was already happening in public opinion and politics. In fact, in the years immediately prior to Roe, public opinion as expressed in referendums and other initiatives was moving strongly against “liberalized” abortion law.
Certainly there can today be no dispute that Roe—unlike the 1954 Brown decision on school desegregation with which it is often compared—has not been democratically legitimated by the acceptance of the people. It is the single most unsettled and unsettling question in our public life. Being radically dependent upon the judiciary, pro-choice strategists feel compelled to adopt a position of no compromise, even if it means the defense of infanticide. If, as seems quite possible, the Supreme Court in a future decision effectively reverses its narrow 5-4 approval of “partial-birth abortion” that many states and Congress have tried to ban, pro-choice leaders fear that the entire abortion regime put in place by Roe will begin to unravel. That is a rational fear. What, then, is the alternative?
The leadership of the many organizations that make up the pro-life movement is agreed on the movement’s goal: every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. With a few exceptions, it is agreed that that goal must be pursued over time and through incremental steps. In a world radically wounded by original sin, that goal will never be achieved completely. Children protected in law will not always be effectively protected by law. Some fathers will abandon their responsibility, and some mothers, whether in moral anguish or in contraceptive insouciance, will choose against their own children. There will always be some abortions. Before war came, Lincoln argued that the crucial decision was to turn in the direction of the eventual extermination of slavery, and so it is with abortion. In the language of John Paul II, language that has been embraced by the pro-life cause, it is a matter of deciding for “the culture of life” and against “the culture of death.” Along the way, political accommodations and compromises will be made, but they are clearly along the way to the goal of “every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life,” which cannot be compromised.
The firm consensus of the movement is that the second part of the goal—“welcomed in life”—cannot be secured by politics or laws alone. Political debate and the enactment of laws have an important pedagogical role, but the goal finally requires a dramatic moral and cultural transformation. Against that happening is a media-driven popular culture that typically celebrates no higher value than the autonomous self. Against that happening are developments in reproductive technology, fetal screening, genetic engineering, cloning, and yet unknown practices that can more deeply entrench the treatment of the developing child as a thing at our disposal. Against that happening is the formidable ability of the pro-choice establishment to depict their opponents as the enemies of freedom—and the propensity of pro-lifers to inadvertently cooperate in that depiction.
Weighing the Advantages
Finally, however, the pro-life side has decided advantages. The pro-choice position depends upon government by the judiciary, and the judiciary, as it is said, also reads the election returns. The advocates of abortion rights are in a position of staking all on an extreme and much disputed reading of Roe, which, in turn, is widely viewed as an aberrant decision of an aberrant moment in American public life. Their pro-life opponents, on the other hand, urge a return to law and practice well established in the history of the nation before Roe. To excited cries about a regression to back alleys and clothes hangers, it is pointed out that current abortion technology will be readily available to outlaw abortionists, making post-Roe abortions as medically safe for the mother as they are today in abortion clinics that are, as is the case at present, almost entirely outside legal oversight.
An immeasurably more important advantage of the pro-life position, however, is its orientation to the future. The ideas of the future and of progress pervade the American experience. The pro-choice party is in the position of defending the status quo of the Roe regime. Pro-choice leaders are heard to complain that young people take the abortion license for granted; they do not remember a world in which it was not there. Could they be politically activated if they perceived that the license is threatened? Perhaps so. But pro-choice leaders have loudly declared for years that abortion rights are gravely threatened, and there has been no such activation. It is a distinct handicap that almost nobody wants to be described as pro-abortion, while many proudly, even defiantly, declare themselves anti-abortion. Today there are many thousands of young people intensely engaged in pro-life activism, also on college campuses. On most campuses they know they are going up against the status quo, a factor not unrelated to the attraction of youthful protest.
More significant still, the future orientation of the pro-life cause has a horizon that is, not to put too fine a point on it, eschatological. The vocabulary of “the culture of life” is redolent with prophetic promise, crucifixion, resurrection, and the coming Kingdom of God. In sharpest contrast, the pro-choice cause is defined by a time-specific conjunction of a judicial decision with the cultural convulsions emerging from the 1960s. Fashions change. Already there is a widespread reaction against an earlier feminism premised upon the actualization of the autonomous self. The promise that women could “have it all” has soured as more and more women recognize that the promise excluded what they want most—family, children, and love that is on friendly terms with obligation. Once again, motherhood is chic. Of course, reports about these cultural trends may be wrong. Nobody knows how deep or long-lasting they may be. But that is just the point. They come and go. The “liberalized” abortion campaign, Roe v. Wade, and the cause to which they gave definition have come, and now appear to be on their way to being gone. It will take a while to get rid of the judicial detritus of that era. Stare decisis, the standing of precedent, carries weight in the law but not in the gyrations of cultural change.
In the biblical view of things, the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death will continue until the End Time. The historical scenario within which the pro-life movement understands itself is spacious. The pro-life movement of the last quarter century was laying the foundations for the pro-life movement of this century, and the century after this. The context is set by the words of St. Paul: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). What all Americans need to understand is that pro-life activists typically do believe that their children or their children’s children will live in a world in which people will look back upon the abortion license with the same abhorrence with which we today look back upon slavery. They will, it is expected, shake their heads in horrified wonder at the fact that it was once legal and socially acceptable to kill children at will.
To be sure, the activists may be disappointed in that expectation. Perhaps the abortion regime now in place really is the infamous slippery slope, the precursor of widespread infanticide, euthanasia, eugenic engineering, and programs for the elimination of the “unfit,” whether born or unborn, whether old or young. The proposal of such as Princeton’s Peter Singer that we liberate ourselves from “traditional ethics” may prevail, at least for a time. But again, that is just the point of noting that the contention for the culture of life is set against an eschatological horizon. In principle—and in faith grounded in the cross and resurrection—nothing can falsify the hope that the culture of life will finally prevail. Any reversal is, in the larger scheme of things, but a momentary setback. As mentioned earlier, there are arguments for opposing abortion that are not religion-specific. Some Christians, especially Catholics, are adept at casting pro-life arguments in “secular” terms that they believe will have more purchase in the public square. There is also an organization called Humanists for Life, and I get occasional mailings from what I assume is a smaller group, Atheists for Life. But the abortion rights advocates are correct in portraying the pro-life cause as an undeniably religious movement. Its numbers, organizational base, and power to endure is in religion. Which is one way of saying that the pro-life movement is a democratic exercise in giving political effect to the deepest convictions of the political sovereign in this constitutional order, the American people.
This analysis, admittedly, assumes that America will continue to be a Christian, not a post-Christian, nation. It further assumes, with Irving Kristol and many other Jewish thinkers, that “Christian nation” is shorthand for saying that it is a nation in which the Judeo-Christian moral tradition is accorded normative status. As the immigrant Muslim community matures, it seems likely there will be Muslim Irving Kristols who will similarly affirm the shorthand of “Christian nation.” To say that America is a Christian nation is like saying it’s an English-speaking nation. There are not many people who speak the language well, but when they are speaking a language poorly, it is the English language they are speaking. There is, finally, no alternative to the English language, as there is no alternative to Christian America in a country where nearly 90 percent of the people think they are Christians. Goodness knows, alternative religions have been proposed by some intellectuals, but they have had few takers. Such alternatives purport to be universal, but they are universal in much the same way that Esperanto is a universal language. Like speakers of Esperanto, the adherents of these alternative religio-moral creeds are an elite sect, a cult without a culture.
For different reasons, both those who are not Christians and Christians for whom Christianity is an ideal will continue to have problems with the reality of Christian America. It is an exceedingly problematic reality. But historically and at present, cultures are defined, above all, by cult, by the most binding truths to which people adhere or claim to adhere. In his fine study Gregory the Great and His World, R. A. Markus describes how the identity of a people had changed by the sixth century. “Traditionally, the human race was composed of three ‘peoples’ or ‘kinds’ (genera),” he writes:
In the second and third centuries Christians were seen by their pagan contemporaries as the “third race.” Jews, long familiar to them, were the second, while they themselves-Romans—were, naturally, the first. This schematization was turned on its head in the course of the Christianization of the Empire. From the Christian point of view, there were still three “religions,” that of the Christians, of the Jews, and of the “pagans.” This classification risked creating the illusion that “paganism” was a religion, like Christianity or Judaism; in fact it was simply the rest, those who were neither Christians nor Jews.
In America today, “the rest” are sometimes called the pagans. Or we may think about this in a different way. Survey research over the years indicates that India is the most religious society in the world. Every aspect of personal and public life is riddled through and through with religious rituals, symbols, and beliefs. The least religious, the most thoroughly secularized, society is Sweden. Sociologist Peter Berger has suggested, with an admitted touch of hyperbole, that, if we want to understand the cultural conflicts in our society, it is useful to think of America as a society of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes. The Swedes believe, with some justice, that they control the commanding heights of the culture—the university, the prestige media, the major philanthropies, the world of arts and letters. The problem, which becomes ever more something like a crisis, is that the culture of the commanding heights has become a culture unto itself, disengaged from and increasingly in conflict with the culture of the American social reality.
As has been frequently noted in these pages, the problem began to be critical in America shortly after the Second World War when the courts and educational institutions set out to create the naked public square, meaning public life untouched by the moral and religious allegiance of most Americans. But the form of the problem is hardly that recent. Two centuries earlier, the revolutionaries in France attempted to replace Christianity with the Religion of Reason. In nineteenth-century England, Matthew Arnold proposed what we would call high culture as a substitute for traditional religion. And in this century we have witnessed the rise and the fall (after historically unprecedented suffering and death) of the ersatz religion of sundry political projects associated with Marxism. Compared with the French Revolution and Marxism, it should be noted, America’s secular liberalism seems relatively benign.
These and other attempts to break the link between cult and culture—or to replace an existing cult with another—had in common a high confidence that they were the wave of the future. They were projects of modernity, and modernity was defined, above all, by the assumed demise of traditional religion. This was key to its mythology. For the enlightened elite of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and today, history is producing a nasty surprise. At the beginning of the third millennium, the great and building development is the desecularization of the world. The global significance of this is analyzed by Harvard’s Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As with any bold and comprehensive analysis, parts of that argument are glaringly vulnerable. (For instance, I believe he is wrong about Eastern Orthodoxy constituting a civilization separate from the Christian West.) But Huntington’s thesis is unfairly, if understandably, attacked by those who have a deep stake, perhaps an ultimate stake, in the secularizing mythology of modernity.
Playing the Postmodernity Card
Then there is postmodernity, a term that covers a multitude of insights and sillinesses. Some religious thinkers are enamored of it because it “deconstructs” the scientistic and secularistic pretensions of Enlightenment rationalism. That is, I believe, a mistake. As John Paul II contends in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), most of what is called postmodern thought reinforces various forms of “fideism”—the claim that things are true if you believe they’re true—which is the death of reason and universal truth. Yet there is no doubt that the phenomenon of postmodernism has dealt an additional blow to the secularizing myth of modernity, and the blow is the more severe because it occurs at the heart of the culture of the commanding heights, namely, the university. More than any other institution, the university was the shrine of that culture. Its sacred task was the quest for the truth. And now its postmodernist hierophants giddily announce that “the truth” is a delusion-that they, like everybody else, have been making it up all along.
Humanity’s propensity for utopianism being what it is, this century or the next may produce some new substitute religion—what T. S. Eliot called a “positive” replacement of Christian culture. A young Marx may be working at this moment on another world-transforming explanation of everything, and we may be in for another dizzying round of political ecstasy and human catastrophe. It seems improbable, but only God knows. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the century, we are faced with the challenge of coming to terms with the desecularization of the world and, closer to home, with the perduring, and perhaps reinvigorated, reality of Christian America. In the case of the latter, the quality of Christianity leaves much to be desired. Much of American Christianity is, as critics rightly point out, fideistic, privatized, and subjectivized—both incapable of and disinclined to make public arguments and exercise public influence. Christian America is, all in all, second-rate Christianity. But then, unless one holds to an implausibly romantic view of the earliest Church, the world has never seen anything but Christianity that is, all things considered, second-rate.
The problem with talk about Christian America, says an academic friend, is that it is not very Christian and it is not very American. He is certainly wrong at one level. Until fairly recently, most Americans talked about Christian America, and most Americans who talked about Christian America were Christians. At another level, one can employ words such as “Christian” and “American” qualitatively, and then argue until the cows come home about what is truly Christian and truly American. I don’t mean to disparage such argument, for it is endlessly interesting and important, and we are in very deep trouble if we stop having such arguments. But here I speak of Christian America chiefly in a descriptive, and not a qualitative, manner. I am concerned about the thereness, the thus and so-ness, of the thing—and what it has meant in the past, and means today, and may mean in the century ahead.
My professor friend was, of course, taking a leaf from the great Edward Gibbon, who caustically remarked from the commanding heights of his day that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. A clever fellow, that Gibbon. And he is right that it was not holy in the sense that most of its rulers and people were not outstanding in the holiness of their lives. Almost by definition, the majority of people is never outstanding. It is also true that it was not effectively governed from Rome and most of its subjects were not Romans. As to whether it was an empire, that depends on whatever other regimes that have claimed that title one might compare it to. It was holy, however, in that it formally acknowledged as Lord the Holy One of Israel, and Christianity was the religion that most everybody failed to practice very well. And it was both Roman and an empire in that it more or less held together for a considerable time vast territories and numbers of people in a political order that understood itself to be in continuity with the Roman Empire and in spiritual solidarity with the See of Rome. In short, while it did not meet Mr. Gibbon’s definitions of holy, Roman, and empire, it was the Holy Roman Empire.
And so it is, mutatis mutandis, with Christian America. Some people find talk about Christian America terribly threatening. Some thoughtful Christians find it terribly embarrassing. We can have endlessly interesting conversations about what a Christian society might look like, only to have our speculation rudely interrupted by the reminder that one of the largest and certainly the most influential of Christian societies looks like the United States of America at the beginning of the third millennium. Admittedly, it is not an entirely edifying sight. “Christian America” signifies a description under the judgment of an aspiration.
What We Learned From Wilder
In The Children of Wilder (Pantheon), Nina Bernstein of the New York Times presents us with a terrible story beautifully told. It is the very personal story of Shirley Wilder, the named plaintiff in the notorious Wilder v. Sugarman lawsuit, her son, her grandson, and generations of the poor and chiefly black children who have been caught up in what is euphemistically called the “child care system” of New York City. Weaving in and out of that personal narrative is a tale of mainly misguided efforts to reform that system. Ms. Bernstein has assiduously researched the personal dimensions of her story, and provides a refreshingly candid account of the legal and public policy battles that centered in a curious understanding of the “separation of church and state” and the role of religion in public life. The late John Cardinal O’Connor once remarked to me, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole, “Everything that is wrongheaded in this country’s thinking about religion and society is summed up in Wilder v. Sugarman.” Ms. Bernstein’s book invites the conclusion that any hyperbole in that statement is readily forgivable. Although she finished writing before President Bush’s proposal for “faith-based and community initiatives” in social services, her book could hardly be more pertinent to the debates generated by that proposal.
New York has a long history, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, of trying to cope with children who have, in Christopher Lasch’s phrase, no haven in a heartless world. One answer was the “orphan trains” that carried many thousands of orphans and abandoned or abused street children to small towns and farms in the Midwest. For many, this meant escape from poverty and successful entrance into the world of American opportunity; for many others it was a form of indentured servitude in which they languished before drifting back into the urban underclass. Another, and dominant, answer was the construction of a child care system by Catholic and Jewish leaders who were determined to take care of their own. Both Catholics and Jews saw the orphan trains as yet one more device by which the Protestant establishment was trying to steal their children from what that establishment viewed as the vices of “popery” and “ghettoization.” By the middle of the twentieth century, there was a large and flourishing network of Catholic and Jewish homes and schools for children in need of care. Working on a contractual basis with the city, this network was the backbone of child care in New York.
But there was not a comparable Protestant network, and Ms. Bernstein writes insightfully about why that was the case. A century and more ago, the then Protestant establishment understood itself to be the “Americanizing” party that had the mission of integrating the unwashed immigrant hordes of Catholics (mainly Irish Catholics) and Jews (mainly from Eastern Europe). In education, child care, and most everything else, it was assumed in those days that “public” meant Protestant. Across the board, Jews (especially Orthodox Jews) and Catholics struggled to maintain institutional control of their own communities. As Protestant meant public and public meant governmental, Protestant efforts were devoted to expanding city-run institutions and were directed against the religious “discrimination” inherent in the Catholic and Jewish efforts.
Over time, there were two major changes that set the stage for Wilder v. Sugarman in the 1970s (Jule Sugarman was then commissioner of social services). In city government, and especially in social services, Jews had largely displaced the older Protestant establishment. These were, however, thoroughly “Americanized” and secular Jews who were even more hostile than the earlier Protestants to the “discrimination” practiced by Catholics and the Orthodox. The second big change is that, by the latter part of the century, most of the children in need of care were black—and, with relatively few exceptions, Protestant. While Catholic and Jewish agencies cared for black children in numbers far out of proportion to the number of black Catholics or Jews, most of the black children were channeled into the less desirable city-run programs.
The Legacy of Leo Pfeffer
In 1973 Wilder began with, and for more than twenty years was pressed by, Marcia Lowry of the New York Civil Liberties Union. As Bernstein makes clear, Lowry and those who supported her came out of the world of what was then known as the Old Left, a world of passionate socialist idealism and militant secularism in which Jews were conspicuously prominent. In that world, religion and, more specifically, the connection between religion and political power was the enemy. The Catholic and Jewish agencies that played so large a part in the city’s child care system were an obvious target. The line of attack in Wilder employed the “strict separationist” interpretation of the First Amendment then being advanced by Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress. At that time, the Supreme Court was sympathetic to the Pfefferian interpretation by which the city’s payment for “sectarian” services in child care was an obvious violation of the “no establishment” provision of the religion clause.
The year 1973 was also in the afterglow of the high point of the civil rights movement, which made any hint of racial discrimination socially and legally anathema. In addition, Bernstein’s account underscores the importance of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, which came down only months before Wilder was launched. The reader is struck by the passionate attachment to, bordering on obsession with, abortion and contraception in the way that the militant secularists pressed their attack. According to the Catholic agencies in particular, the proper response to sexual promiscuity and abuse was better supervision. For their opponents, the answer was contraception and abortion. Wilder was driven, then, by three powerful factors: a doctrine of “strict separationism” entrenched in the courts; the heightened potency of the charge of racial discrimination; and an ideological commitment to individual autonomy—especially the autonomy of women (including teenage girls)—represented by Roe.
Wilder began when John Lindsay was mayor and came to a whimpering settlement under Rudolph Giuliani. It took a large chunk of twenty-six years out of the lives of many capable people, and consumed millions of dollars in legal fees. Lawyers joked that it was like Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens’ Bleak House. “Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on,” Dickens wrote. “This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. . . . Fair wards of the court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of chancellors has come in and gone out . . . but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”
The hopelessness of Wilder became evident when Mayor Ed Koch made it clear that he had no stomach for testing the declared determination of Cardinal O’Connor to shut down the Catholic agencies, on which the city was increasingly dependent, rather than compromise Church teaching on abortion and contraception. (O’Connor promised that the Church would care for the children through some unspecified alternative system.) By the 1990s, other things had changed as well. The courts were drawing back from a dogmatic version of “the separation of church and state,” giving way to accommodation and cooperation between government and the institutions of civil society, including religion. Further, the question of racial discrimination had been mooted by the fact that now almost all the children being cared for in the system were nonwhite.
Children Left Behind
This brief account cannot do justice to the complex and fascinating story told by Nina Bernstein in The Children of Wilder. She keeps our attention centered on what happened to the children, and that is sad and sometimes wrenching to read. Particularly in the government institutions there were shifting expert theories and fashions in the treatment of problem children, ranging from lobotomy, to electro-shock, to “aversive” therapy, the last including various forms of physical abuse and putting children into long periods of solitary confinement. In the book one encounters instances of wise and caring nuns in the Catholic institutions, but one is left with the impression that most of the people in charge of child care were kooky, cruel, or, most commonly, burned out and indifferent. One would like to think that there were more who were selflessly doing their best in almost impossible circumstances. Bernstein mentions, but might have paid more attention to, the damage done to the alternative of adoption by black ideologues who condemned interracial adoption as a form of “genocide,” and by bureaucrats who used the foster care system as an instrument of income redistribution in racial politics.
As a result of Wilder and the agitations it generated, a marginally functioning child care system was almost pushed over the edge. Although Ms. Bernstein does not make a point of saying so, her book powerfully reinforces the truth that there is no adequate—not even anywhere near adequate—substitute for the stable two-parent family. President Bush’s admirable slogan notwithstanding, however, some children will always be left behind. In New York and other urban centers, they are overwhelmingly black children, the victims of the collapse of an older order of marriage and family, including the extended family that once took in the children of irregular liaisons. Among the things to be learned from the misguided ideological campaign of Wilder is that any system of care that works for children will have to build on existing bonds, including religious bonds, of caring. That is the heart of “faith-based and community initiatives” proposed by the Administration. We have to wish the proposal well. The alternative, as we are reminded by The Children of Wilder, is a fourth and fifth generation of damaged lives further wrecked by government systems of child care disconnected from the institutional bearers of the communal dynamics of caring.
The Imperative And Peril Of Assimilation
Philip Gleason, that distinguished Notre Dame historian, writes in Logos on “The Catholic Church in American Public Life.” In short compass and admittedly broad strokes, he sketches the ways in which Catholicism creatively assimilated itself in American culture as a consequence of the crises of the two world wars of the twentieth century. Today almost everybody speaks favorably of “pluralism” and “diversity,” but Gleason contends that “assimilation” is the more straightforward term, underscoring the imperative of engaging the culture while avoiding the peril of being dissolved into the culture. Catholicism successfully did that, he contends, until the multifaceted crisis commonly called “the sixties.” He has words of sharp criticism for progressives, then called “Commonweal Catholics,” who embraced the imperative while forgetting the peril. In addition to what the sixties meant for other Americans, for Catholics those years meant, above all, the Second Vatican Council. Gleason writes:
On the one hand, the Vatican Council itself, and even more notably “the post-conciliar temper,” completed the discrediting of “tridentine Catholicism” that the self-criticism of the 1950s had already begun. The Council shook everything loose. Deep splits among the Council fathers, sensationalized in the press as power struggles between progressives and conservatives, demystified the whole area of doctrine. Beliefs, practices, and institutions long regarded by ordinary Catholics as fundamental to their faith were now called into question, yea, openly derided by the most radical reformers. The Church, it was said, was “corrupt”; its leaders, bankrupt! Such charges were among the more extreme, to be sure. But even the most moderate observers agreed that the Council left American Catholics in a state of “confusion.” And what was it they were confused about? Nothing less than their identity as Catholics—their sense of who they were, what they believed, and how those beliefs should shape their lives.
So where does that leave Catholicism now? Gleason writes:
Assimilation became a more serious problem for American Catholics over the course of the twentieth century. To call it a problem does not mean assimilation is a bad thing in itself. Recall the “assimilation problematic” referred to at the outset; assimilation is necessary if a group is to avoid self-isolation, but unqualified assimilation entails the group’s extinction. While I do not anticipate extinction, it seems to me quite clear that the problem has gotten to be a lot bigger. In the era of World War I, Catholics experienced a striking degree of assimilation, but they also forged a new ideological and institutional basis for Catholic identity. That balance was not maintained at midcentury, when accelerating assimilation found no matching deployment of new internal resources. In the sixties, the old ideological and institutional structures collapsed, and nothing comparable was at hand to replace them. That gave rise to a Catholic identity crisis, which has since modulated into a continuing identity problem.
Gleason concludes by asserting the urgency of strengthening Catholic identity by rehabilitating distinctively Catholic institutions. He does not specifically mention Catholic colleges and universities or the ongoing debate over proposals set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but one may fairly assume that is not far from his mind. What is so routinely praised as “pluralism,” he says, is too often “simply assimilationism sailing under false colors, and for that reason an all the more insidious danger.”
A More Hopeful Note?
Gleason’s is a sober and sobering narrative of “the Catholic Church in American public life,” and I have no substantive disagreement with the way he tells the story. At the same time, I think there is reason to hope that his moral is gaining wider acceptance today than his article suggests. A few items chosen at random: the fact that the dominant express concern in Catholic higher education today is “Catholic identity,” not the disengagement from Catholicism espoused by the 1968 “Land O’ Lakes” manifesto. Another: bold statements such as that by Peter Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of that magazine, detailing the catastrophe of the Catholic liberalism that joined its fortunes to sundry, and usually mindless, leftisms. Another: the launching and growth of vigorously Catholic magazines in the last two decades. Another: the dramatic upsurge of adult converts, including notable academics and cultural leaders. Another: the initiation of new centers of liturgical studies and pastoral formation aimed at remedying the “destabilization” of the sacramental order that was such a marked feature of recent decades. And Gleason does not even mention the inestimable impact of the pontificate of John Paul II, especially among young people, including younger priests, who are excited by the high adventure of Catholic faith and life, and for whom the seductions of being “just like everybody else” hold no appeal at all.
Maybe it’s because I hang out with the right crowd, but the Catholics I know best, especially the younger Catholics, are less interested in being “American Catholics”—meaning that they are Catholics in a distinctively American way-than in being “Catholic Americans”—meaning that they are Americans in a distinctively Catholic way. The adjective is decisive. In sum, I agree with Gleason’s narrative and diagnosis, and there are many who still need to be persuaded of the truth he sees so clearly, but I would end such a historical survey on a more hopeful note. Today, it seems to me, the energy, the commitment, the sense of venture and possibility are mostly on the side of his concluding prescription—strengthening a distinctively Catholic identity. I should only add that of course I may be wrong about that.
Caught Out And Catching Up
Everybody knows by now Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative: a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Actually, the term “neoconservative” is not much used now, and I use it almost never. But in some circles the neoconservatives are still a lively topic of conversation, as witness William Dean of Iliff School of Theology, Denver, writing in a symposium in Religion and American Culture. He takes his liberal academic colleagues to task for letting the neoconservatives—meaning mainly the usual suspects, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and your writer—monopolize the field of public theology. Public theology in this context means theology that has something to say about the res publica.
“The neoconservatives overtook the academic public intellectuals for three reasons,” Dean writes. “First, because the neoconservatives were shaken to their foundations, they were forced to rethink their positions, while the academics were unshaken; second, the neoconservatives remained classical, small ‘r’ republicans, and the academics did not; third, the neoconservatives developed a basic cultural, sometimes even theological, interpretation of America, and the academics did not.” The liberal and mostly Protestant academics, Dean observes, smugly continued on in the tradition of Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, failing to appreciate that these figures in their lifetimes underwent a shaking of the foundations comparable to today’s neoconservatives.
From the late 1960s on, he writes, “this small band of intellectuals grew strong enough to provide much of the intellectual ballast for the Reagan Administration,” to found journals of influence such as Public Interest and First Things, and, in general, to dominate the discussion of religion, ethics, and public life. “As they moved from the far left to the right wing of the left and then to the antiliberal wing of the right, they endured the outrage of liberal intellectuals who had once been their friends and colleagues.” Dean clearly includes himself among those liberal intellectuals, but he has some pointed advice for his friends: “The academic public theologians need to develop a distinct theological interpretation of America, one that gives context and impetus to their particular and often admirable political, economic, gender, racial, and ecological arguments. But to do this, they must get within mugging range of reality.”
There are several things that might be said about this, apart from the fact that those of us who are called neoconservatives are, contra Dean, the champions of the liberal tradition. First, William Dean considerably overestimates our influence. Second, the arguments of his liberal friends are, in substance and temperament, generally hostile to the American experiment, both past and present. People will not buy their self-understanding from those who are perceived to be, and often declare themselves to be, their enemies. Third, the liberal academics he has in mind are, with exceptions, Protestant, as is the tradition of Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, and Tillich to which they adhere. The leading “neocons,” on the other hand, are Catholic, determined to advance the vision of John Paul II, and energetic in embracing the best in the Protestant tradition of public theology, notably the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Moreover, they are assiduous in cultivating a close relationship with evangelical Protestants, who are anathema to most of Dean’s oldline liberal academics, not least because evangelicals are favorably disposed toward a theological interpretation of America. (In the same symposium, Mark Noll of Wheaton College suggests, with some justice, that the most influential public theology today is being advanced by evangelicals.) Conclusion: Dean and his friends do need to get “within mugging range of reality,” and his essay is a sign that this may be happening. But, once sufficiently mugged, it is not evident that they have an alternative vision to propose. But then, who could have predicted that, to cite but one example, the author of the 1969 Theology of Radical Politics (Michael Novak) would have so much to contribute?
While We’re At It
• She smoked cigars, had seven children, did the definitive translation of Wittengenstein’s major work, succeeded to his chair at Cambridge, publicly protested Truman’s use of atomic bombs, was arrested as a pro-life activist, possessed one of the great philosophical minds of the century, and was an upfront Christian. How I wish I had known her personally. The tributes to G. E. M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe (including John M. Dolan’s in these pages [May]) have me going back to read her works. Christopher Howse in the London Daily Telegraph observes: “Elizabeth Anscombe was no fundamentalist, but nor did she use philosophy to explain away the creed in which she believed. To an essay on the Eucharist, republished in the third volume of her collected philosophical papers (1981), she gave the title ‘On Transubstantiation,’ even though the term substance was not one that her contemporaries or mentors used in their cosmology. The essay begins with the problem of explaining to a child the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. ‘When one says “transubstantiation,” one is saying exactly what one teaches the child in teaching it that Christ’s words, by the divine power given to the priest who uses them in his place, have changed the bread so that it isn’t there any more (nor the stuff of which it is made), but instead there is the body of Christ. I knew a child,’ she continues, ‘close upon three years old and only then beginning to talk, but taught as I have described, who was in the free space at the back of the church when the mother went to communion. “Is he in you?” the child asked when the mother came back. “Yes,” she said, and to her amazement the child prostrated itself before her. I can testify to this, for I saw it happen. I once told the story to one of those theologians who unhappily (as it seems) strive to alter and water down our faith, and he deplored it.’ The story no doubt shocked, even if that paper was delivered to a Catholic audience. And, of course, Elizabeth Anscombe knew, as she went on to mention, that Christ is not present ‘dimensively’ (nor does transubstantiation imply that he is). She was only exemplifying what Dr. Johnson noted: ‘Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass. They believe God to be there and they adore him.’ And now Elizabeth Anscombe has moved from the shadows and metaphors of philosophy into Reality, ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem [out of shadows and images into the truth].”
• There are two forms of nationalism in Russia, writes Geraldine Fagan, the Moscow correspondent of the Oxford-based Keston Institute. The one is Stalinist and the other prerevolutionary, with most nationalists being in the first camp. They couldn’t care less about religion, but they are hostile to the Catholic Church “since there is a general perception that it belongs to an organized anti-Russian force, and all Russians were taught in school that Catholics were crusaders from the Baltics repelled by the national hero Alexander Nevsky.” The pleading of John Paul II that the Church needs to breathe again with both lungs, East and West, simply makes no sense to the Orthodox, says Fagan. “Practicing Orthodox in favor of ecumenical dialogue are indeed very few. In the Soviet era the pro-ecumenical element within the Church gained an artificial influence because of its usefulness to the foreign policy aims of the regime, and precisely for that reason is now frequently viewed with derision by post-revival practicing believers. For most Orthodox, ecumenical dialogue with Catholics (and others) is impossible for a simple reason—they are heretics. To Russian Orthodox, however, this does not necessarily conjure up emotive images of burnings at the stake: one parishioner matter-of-factly explained to me that the word ‘heresy’ merely derives from the Greek for ‘opinion’; that is, anything deviating from Orthodox tradition is the product of the mistaken human notion that this tradition could be improved upon.” The Moscow Patriarchate has been implacable in opposing the Pope’s initiatives for Christian unity, and Fagan suggests that John Paul II’s visit to predominantly Orthodox Ukraine, despite the protests of Moscow, is clear evidence that Rome is no longer willing to let Moscow exercise veto power in the ecumenical quest. She writes, “It looks as if Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations might be about to become stormier, if also more open.” That seems about right. Time presses as this pontificate goes into its final innings, and John Paul is eager to reach out to whoever is willing to respond in advancing the vision of the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). Some Orthodox churches have responded, with the result that ecumenism becomes more an argument within Orthodoxy, rather than, as the Moscow Patriarchate would have it, an argument between Orthodoxy and Rome.
• You have probably read that “studies have demonstrated” that it makes no difference whether children are reared by a mother and father, two fathers, or two mothers. The claim is a staple of advocacy for same-sex unions. The problem with the claim is that it isn’t true, according to two social scientists, Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, who examine forty-nine studies of same-sex parenting in a 148-page book, No Basis: What the Studies Don’t Tell Us About Same-Sex Parenting. The book is available for $7 from the Ethics and Public Policy Center (1015 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005) or can be downloaded from www.eppc.org.
• Daniel McGroarty has a way with telling the moving stories of people, and not only poor people, who have benefited from educational choice. The 156-page book, Trinnietta Gets a Chance: Six Families and Their School Choice Experience, is published by the Heritage Foundation, and I expect they’ll send you a copy if you write them at 214 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.
• Last summer in Waco, Texas, there was a civil trial in which survivors and relatives of those killed in the 1993 debacle brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government. The facts about the tragedy in Waco—see Dean Kelley’s “Waco: A Massacre and Its Aftermath,“ FT, May 1995—have quickly, too quickly, faded from the public mind. Writing in Religion in the News, Stuart A. Wright, a sociologist who has studied the circumstances leading up to the death of the Branch Davidians, details what appears to be the extreme prejudice in favor of the government exhibited by Judge Walter Smith who presided at last summer’s trial. The verdict, almost predictably, went against the survivors and relatives, and is now on appeal. Wright concludes: “Perhaps the only thing more disconcerting than the ignored subtext of Judge Smith’s thinly veiled scorn toward the plaintiffs was the lack of coverage of the trial by the major national news outlets. Outside of Texas, the mainstream media decided that the country didn’t want to revisit the painful memory of Waco. In tandem with Special Counsel [John] Danforth, they determined that this unfortunate episode should be put behind us—and permitted a biased judge to sweep legitimate grievances under the rug. As a result, the country in all likelihood missed its last opportunity to correct an agonizing injustice and heal a national wound.”
• This year is the bicentenary of the birth of John Henry Cardinal Newman. John Paul II has written a letter on the occasion, in which he says: “Newman was born in troubled times which knew not only political and military upheaval but also turbulence of soul. Old certitudes were shaken, and believers were faced with the threat of rationalism on the one hand and fideism on the other. Rationalism brought with it a rejection of both authority and transcendence, while fideism turned from the challenges of history and the tasks of this world to a distorted dependence upon authority and the supernatural. In such a world, Newman came eventually to a remarkable synthesis of faith and reason which were for him ‘like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth’ (Fides et Ratio). It was the passionate contemplation of truth which also led him to a liberating acceptance of the authority which has its roots in Christ, and to the sense of the supernatural which opens the human mind and heart to the full range of possibilities revealed in Christ. ‘Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead Thou me on,’ Newman wrote in The Pillar of the Cloud; and for him Christ was the light at the heart of every kind of darkness. For his tomb he chose the inscription: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem; and it was clear at the end of his life’s journey that Christ was the truth he had found.” The Pope adds that he hopes the time is near when the Church, having already declared Newman “venerable,” will “publicly proclaim the exemplary holiness of one of the most distinguished and versatile champions of English spirituality.”
• Talk about a clergy shortage, among both Protestants and Catholics, is badly skewed, reports Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona. Half of all churchgoers in the U.S. are in the largest 10 percent of congregations, which number four hundred or more members. It is the small congregations that tend to be without full-time clergy leadership. Catholic parishes are usually larger, which means that, while 18 percent of Protestants in the country have no full-time leadership, that is true of only 6 percent of Catholics. These and other data were offered at a forum on theological schools and congregational leadership in Indianapolis last January.
• I sometimes think that half our readers are editors, former editors, or would-be editors. Every issue elicits challenges to a word, trope, or grammatical form that met with disapproval. Way back in the fourth grade, a persnickety Ms. Woodward spoiled the subject of grammar for me, and I have ever since “written for the ear,” meaning that it’s right if it sounds right. In recent years, however, I’ve had second thoughts, wondering whether I have not given aid and comfort, however inadvertently, to the “descriptivists,” who, against the “prescriptivists,” contend that there are no rules at all. Mark Halpern, writing in the Winter 2000 issue of American Scholar, has a helpful word on the subject: “In order to preserve their delusions on this point, would-be linguistic liberators have to fantasize that we are beleaguered by schoolmarms threatening to crack our knuckles with a hickory stick if we split an infinitive, use a double negative, or commit any of the other solecisms that nineteenth-century teachers were so alert for, and that, no doubt, a few twenty-first-century ones still are. It is also necessary to cherish the illusion that there are many potentially great writers who have been crushed and silenced by the strictures of these pedants, and that we have been deprived of many a masterpiece by such oppression. The best short retort to these fevered imaginings is that of Flannery O’Connor: ‘Everywhere I go I’m asked if the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.’” No telling what a good teacher might have done for my writing career.
• “Freedom From Religion” is a long article in the Nation by Ellen Willis of New York University in which she deplores the revival of religion in public that has been going on for some years and is embraced by “the accidental President,” George W. Bush. She leaves no doubt that she favors a thoroughly secular state in a thoroughly secular society, but breaks with many on the left by acknowledging that this “is not mandated by the First Amendment. It’s a matter of sensibility, not law.” She further acknowledges that the left is in trouble because many of its natural allies in the religious communities have been swayed by, inter alia, what they perceive as the justice of protecting unborn life. Old-fashioned religious reactionaries and fundamentalists have always been with us, she says, but what she calls the “pro-church” movement has now made such political headway because it has been able to translate its message “into a less parochial language.” According to Willis, “Two Christian intellectuals have been key figures in developing that language”—Stephen Carter of Yale and your scribe. “Richard John Neuhaus, now editor of the ‘theocon’ journal First Things, wrote what might be considered the pro-church movement’s canonical work, The Naked Public Square, which appeared in 1984.” Against the secularist left, Carter and Neuhaus have succeeded in redefining the public question. “Together they have changed the debate by challenging secularism on its own moral ground, as the defender of democratic values.” For Willis, the conflict is very largely about sex, and the choice is stark: “Conservative sexual morality and antifeminism are rooted in premodern, patriarchal religious ideology, while the logic of secular morality supports gender equality and a view of sexual fulfillment as a human right.” Parental choice in education, faith-based social initiatives, and “the right’s sexual-political agenda” do not violate the no-establishment provision of the First Amendment, she admits, but they do “undermine the spirit of secular democracy.” Ellen Willis is right to worry that the left is increasingly perceived as antidemocratic, and conservatives as the champions of democratic self-governance. When religion is so closely associated with morality, she laments, the secularist left is viewed as immoral. Her conclusion: “This is what we’re facing now—not only from Bush and the Christian right, but from the earnest centrists and liberals who are doing their dirty work.” Although Willis no doubt exaggerates the role of a couple of scribblers, the terms of the debate have been changed, and the frustration of the secularist left is entirely understandable.
• David Packard and William Hewlett, cofounders of Hewlett-Packard, were conservatives, of a sort. The kind of conservatives who want to reduce the number of poor people not by eliminating poverty but by eliminating poor people. Both left billions to their family foundations, which handsomely fund the programs of Planned Parenthood and others in promoting abortion among the world’s poor. Some pro-life leaders have called for a boycott of Hewlett-Packard products. The standard objection to boycotts is that companies will always find customers elsewhere, but boycotts can, as they say, send a message—especially if you, in fact, send a message to the company explaining why you won’t patronize it.
• In “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?“ (May) Leon Kass makes a convincing case that we should not want to extend our natural life span by another twenty, never mind one hundred, years. In that connection, an article in Scientific American explains why human beings were not “built to last.” “The living machines we call our bodies deteriorate because they were not designed for extended operation and because we now push them to function long past their warranty period. The human body is artistically beautiful and worthy of all the wonder and amazement it invokes. But from an engineer’s perspective, it is a complex network of bones, muscles, tendons, valves, and joints that are directly analogous to the fallible pulleys, pumps, levers, and hinges in machines. As we plunge further into our postreproductive years, our joints and other anatomical features that serve us well or cause no problems at younger ages reveal their imperfections. They wear out or otherwise contribute to the health problems that become common in the later years.” The authors conclude, however, by noting that progress in the biomedical sciences is changing that picture. “These profound advances will eventually help compensate for many of the design flaws contained within us all.” The repeated references to design might lead one to believe that the authors belong to the “intelligent design” school of thought, even if they think the designer is not as intelligent as we are.
• Disraeli said this: “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.” The ever thoughtful John O’Sullivan quotes that in defense of his friend John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, who is now being hailed in some liberal circles as a defector from the conservative cause. Gray is still very much a conservative, says O’Sullivan. He is not wrong to see that globalization—along the simplistic lines of a universal imposition of American-style capitalism touted, for instance, by Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree—can pose a serious threat to tradition and community. Where Gray is unrealistic, according to O’Sullivan, is in thinking that global regulation by institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO can provide protection against what he fears. “John Gray’s attempt to protect these things against the inevitable challenges of economic and technical change would merely succeed in handing control of our lives to the international bureaucrats who are the latest incarnation of ‘abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.’” So many of life’s questions come down to the question of who will do what most sensible people recognize must be done. The cultural ravages of globalization need to be checked, but the question—as in who will guard the guardians?—is who will regulate the regulators? O’Sullivan suggests that the best we can hope for is that different forms of capitalism—American, Asian, British, German, etc.—will vie with one another in proposing the right mix of economic efficiency and cultural tradition. It is a formula for muddling through, which, it may be objected, is not a formula at all. Muddling through is very unsatisfactory, but then, so is everything else short of the promised End Time.
• “Everything is political.” That is a deeply wrongheaded maxim. But it is making headway also in the worlds of humanitarian aid, writes Fiona Fox of Cafod, a Catholic aid and development agency, in the Tablet. She cites the example of Henri Dunant, a nineteenth-century humanitarian who inspired the formation of efforts such as the Red Cross, and challenges those who today attack a policy of “neutrality” on the part of organizations providing humanitarian aid. “The principle of neutrality in particular—the refusal to speak out against any side in a conflict as a means of guaranteeing access to the victims—has become the subject of an acrimonious debate,” she writes. Whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, or East Timor, it is said that aid organizations should withhold assistance to the “wrong” side. “To be neutral is to be on the side of the criminal,” declared a speaker at a recent meeting organized by the International Red Cross. “There are moments in history when crimes are being committed, when neutrality is not neutral at all but complicity in the crime. I think the time has come for aid workers to challenge the commandment of neutrality—to draw a line and be counted.” Fiona Fox strongly disagrees: “Using humanitarian aid to achieve wider political goals is a dangerous route. Instead of giving in to the moral pressure to become new humanitarians, it might be more courageous to decide instead to breathe new life into old principles. Agencies could ask politicians to stick to politics, leave Amnesty International and others to promote human rights, and themselves concentrate on reviving the spirit that compelled the young Henri Dunant to go to the aid of wounded soldiers on the battlefields of Solferino in 1859. The men were lying in the mud in agony, without access to water, food, or medical aid. Dunant did not judge the soldiers who lay dying in his arms, and he took no view of the rights or wrongs of their war. And yet he inspired an amazing humanitarian tradition that has endured for more than a century. We should certainly pause a while before we consign it to history.” I believe she is right. There are enough people in the world eager to take partisan positions. There will always be a shortage of people who reach out to help the victims, whether they are one side or the other—or, as is most often the case, on neither.
• Coming soon from Germany! Koerperwelten! The word means body works, and refers to an exhibition in Berlin in which mummified corpses are used as works of art. The “artist” is Gunter von Hagen, an anatomy professor, and he preserves human tissue by replacing body fluids with synthetic resin. The corpses look like anatomical models with muscles, organs, the nervous system, and blood vessels clearly visible. There is a sectioned body of a pregnant woman with her unborn child. The exhibits are of people who gave their consent before dying. It is reported that museums in London and New York have expressed an interest in hosting Koerperwelten. One recalls reports a few years ago that Germans were no longer placing obituary notices in newspapers. Funerals were also in decline. People wanted simply to depart with no public notice taken. Between nothing and exhibitionism there used to be something called civilization.
• Peter Singer of Princeton is back, this time with an essay on bestiality. “One by one, the taboos have fallen,” he writes, but people still have this hang-up about doing it with animals. Singer’s view seems to be that there is nothing wrong in having sex with animals, so long as no cruelty is involved. For instance, some men do it with chickens, sometimes killing the chicken in the process. Singer disapproves of that, although he notes that “it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time.” His chief complaint is against “the Judeo-Christian tradition” that imagines there is “a wide, unbridgeable gulf” separating us from animals. He goes on to cite many examples of this mistaken view. He might have, but does not, cite the fact that only human beings get appointed to tenured chairs of ethics at Ivy League universities. Given his argument, that would seem to be profoundly unfair. I have no doubt that in such a position my dog Sammy would perpetrate less intellectual and moral confusion than some who are unjustly privileged by virtue of the speciesism that is rampant in our institutions of higher learning. The fact that we too are animals, Singer concludes, “does not make sex across the species barrier normal or natural, whatever those much misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offense to our status and dignity as human beings.” The fact that Peter Singer promotes such views does not necessarily make him lunatic or perverse, whatever those much misused words may mean, but it does not do much for his status and dignity as a professor of ethics, nor for that of the university that honors him.
• There is an abundance of speculation, but nobody seems to know why FBI agent Robert Hanssen, a devout Catholic, spied for the Soviet Union, and later for Russia, for fifteen years, if indeed he is guilty as charged. There is this, however, from the Tablet: “Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie, a Catholic schoolteacher, is reported to have had no indication of her husband’s double life. He was, it seems, utterly dedicated and loyal. Perhaps that is why in turning traitor he was able to switch from one extreme to the other.” It’s hard to figure these extremists who are dedicated and loyal.
• Now the pieces of the Hanssen mystery have been put together by Pacific News Service, based in San Francisco. Reporter Yoichi Clark Shimatsu, who has also reported on the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan, notes that Hanssen is a member of Opus Dei, “a secretive lay group within the body of the Catholic Church” that provided “crucial support” for the election of John Paul II as Pope, in return for which he instructed Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli to use Opus Dei as the instrument of the Vatican foreign service in order to induce the Soviet Union to dismantle its empire in return for U.S. intelligence secrets passed on by Robert Hanssen, in return for which the Pope would . . . oh, forget it.
• Excommunication is a matter of the Church’s determination that a person has excommunicated himself. This comes up again in the response of Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow to demands that the Church revoke the excommunication of Leo Tolstoy more than a hundred years ago. “We do not have the right,” said the Patriarch, “to force a person who died a hundred years ago to return to the Church he rejected.” Rome has made a similar response to suggestions that the excommunication of, for example, Martin Luther be revoked. Presumably both cases have already been disposed of by higher authority.
• Arthur Koestler will be remembered by history for his 1940 antitotalitarian masterpiece, Darkness at Noon. Right now he is being remembered as the misogynist, abusive, self-hating Jew depicted in David Cesarani’s recent Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind. Neil McInnes goes after Cesarani in the National Interest on many scores, but especially for his blaming Koestler for the Holocaust deniers and anti-Israeli propagandists who exploit his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage. In that book Koestler contended that in the ninth century in Central Asia, the Khazars, given the choice of becoming Christian and therefore clients of Byzantium or Muslim and therefore subject to the Caliphate, converted to Judaism in order to maintain their independence. According to this theory, the Jews of Poland and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe were Khazar converts and had no historical link to—or claim to?—Palestine. McInnes notes that, while Koestler went well beyond what the evidence supports, his thesis was hardly new. Ernest Renan made much the same case in the nineteenth century. McInnes writes: “Renan maintained that the mass conversions to Judaism in Greek and Roman times had already deprived Judaism of any ethnographic meaning, i.e., had severed the physical (but not the spiritual) links with Palestine. Just as the Prophets had predicted, Judaism became a universal religion: ‘Tout le monde y entrait.’ Most of the Jews of Gaul and Italy, Renan said, came from these conversions. As for the Jews of the Danube basin and southern Russia, Renan was already pointing at the Khazars. ‘These regions contain great masses of Jewish populations who probably have little or nothing ethnographicallly Jewish about them.’ Later, Max Weber in Ancient Judaism gave the reason for the mass conversions of Hellenist and Roman times, ‘the great epoch of Jewish proselytism,’ namely that, regardless of race or nationality, ‘Jewry attracted people who found their religious satisfaction in the purity of the ethic and the power of the conception of God.’ These were the facts that, still later, it became urgent to recall in order to counter the absurd Nazi theory of the Jewish ‘race.’“ Remember Arthur Koestler for Darkness at Noon. Read it and I am almost certain that you will remember, and be grateful for, its author.
• I am a little late in noting the retirement of Edward Cardinal Cassidy as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Cardinal Cassidy returns to his home country of Australia after serving thirty-eight years all over the world in the Vatican’s diplomatic service and eleven years in the above positions. He has been an invaluable help to our Institute, speaking at our events, contributing to this journal, and helping out in numerous ways with the officially encouraged but deliberately unofficial project of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Working with him has always been an edifying pleasure, and I look forward to the same helpful cooperation with his successor, Walter Cardinal Kasper. In a March interview, Cardinal Cassidy cited as highlights of his work with other Christians and with Jews the Pope’s Jubilee Year visit to the Holy Land and completing with Lutherans the joint declaration on justification. His last months at the Pontifical Council were somewhat vexed by the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus (Jesus the Lord). He was publicly critical of aspects of the statement, which did not sit well with those at the Congregation who point out that Cardinal Cassidy had signed off on the statement and is, therefore, one of its authors. In the March interview, Cardinal Cassidy noted the initially negative response to the statement and observed that, when a document gives rise to so much confusion and disappointment, the authors must ask themselves how much of the fault is their own and how they might have explained things better. Fair enough. No matter its source or level of authority, no such document is above improvement. At the same time, one notes with satisfaction that, after the initial criticisms and after people have had a chance to study the document itself, there is something of an ecumenical consensus building that Dominus Iesus is a salutary and bracing clarification that keeps ecumenical dialogue unmistakably engaged with the fullness of the truth taught by the Catholic Church. I count it a signal grace of my life to know Cardinal Cassidy as a friend and pray him, in what will undoubtedly be a very active retirement, ad multos annos.
• What’s wrong with the public school system will not, I think, be fixed by adding a prayer to the school routine, but it is important to understand why such a strong and steady majority of Americans want such prayers. How the present circumstance looks to many young people is caught in the following doggerel, submitted by a vigilant reader who says it was written by a teenager in Baghdad, Arizona.
Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd.
If Scripture now the class recites,
It violates the Bill of Rights.
And anytime my head I bow
Becomes a Federal matter now.
Our hair can be purple, orange, or green,
That’s no offense; it’s a freedom scene.
The law is specific, the law is precise.
Prayers spoken aloud are a serious vice.
For praying in a public hall
Might offend someone with no faith at all.
In silence alone we must meditate,
God’s name is prohibited by the state.
We’re allowed to cuss and dress like freaks,
And pierce our noses, tongues, and cheeks.
They’ve outlawed guns, but FIRST the Bible.
To quote the Good Book makes me liable.
We can elect a pregnant Senior Queen,
And the “unwed daddy,” our Senior King.
It’s “inappropriate” to teach right from wrong,
We’re taught that such “judgments” do not belong.
We can get our condoms and birth controls,
Study witchcraft, vampires, and totem poles.
But the Ten Commandments are not allowed,
No word of God must reach this crowd.
It’s scary here I must confess,
When chaos reigns the school’s a mess.
So, Lord, this silent plea I make:
Should I be shot, my soul please take!
• Many years ago, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy wrote a book called No Offense in which he discussed the phenomenon of “happen-to-be-Christians”—people who admit, if pressed, to being Christians but are not going to make a thing of it, and certainly not in public. Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame notes that, in an interview, Avery Cardinal Dulles says he has a certain admiration for evangelical Protestants because they “preach the gospel loud and clear.” Too often, complains McBrien, “loud and clear” means “in your face.” He juxtaposes Dulles with Alan (O. J. Simpson) Dershowitz, who wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times complaining about the explicit mention of Jesus Christ in the prayers at President Bush’s inauguration. Between Dulles and Dershowitz, McBrien comes down on the side of Dershowitz. Prayers at public events “should be inclusive rather than exclusive,” and expressions of Christian particularism should be muted in this country, says McBrien, “even if the majority of its citizens happen to be Christian, just as we are.” What do you mean “we,” Father?
• “For 1,100 years men have denied her existence. She is the legend that will not die.” That is an offensively sexist statement, for it is not only men who are capable of historical knowledge and common sense. And anyone who knows anything about it knows that the legend of Pope Joan is a total fabrication. Nonetheless, Ballantine Books has published Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolkscross, and the promotion that contains the above quote informs us that the book is soon to be a major motion picture. For the record, the gist of the story is that in 1100 (other versions say 855) a woman in male disguise was elected to the chair of Peter and, after reigning more than two years, died while giving birth to a child during a procession to the Lateran. The tale was widely believed in the Middle Ages and again, it appears, in the age of credulity that is the beginning of the twenty-first century. For more on the fabulation of Pope Joan, see C. A. Patrides, Premises and Motifs in Renaissance Thought and Literature (1982). As it happens, and despite the publicity hype, Ms. Woolfolkscross also denies her existence, except in myth.
• Many in the media followed the New York Times headline declaring that Bush won the presidency by “a single vote” of the U.S. Supreme Court. It now seems to be clear that he beat Gore in the Florida popular vote and thereby won the electoral college and the presidency. But I was earlier criticized for saying that Bush v. Gore did not prevail by “a single vote” in the Supreme Court but by five votes and, upon reflection, by seven votes. Judge Robert H. Bork writes on “The Florida Fiasco” in the New Criterion: “Though the decision appears to be five-to-four, seven justices agreed that a violation of equal protection was in progress and, since a valid recount could not have been completed even by December 18 [the meeting of the electoral college], Bush had, in practical effect, won seven-to-two.” Precisely. Bork goes on to worry, however, that the employment of the equal protection clause may “federalize” all elections, and he wishes that a majority of judges would have agreed to arrive at the same result on the basis of Article II of the Constitution, which is limited to the election of the President of the U.S. Nonetheless, he writes that “Bush v. Gore was a valiant effort, legitimate in law, to rein runaway political passions and a lawless state court those passions had captured.” Along the way, he surveys some of the hysterical partisan attacks on the decision by liberals who have for decades been using the courts to advance their political agendas. Bork is not terribly hopeful about checking this judicial usurpation of politics. “Constitutional law is like inside baseball: Only those who play the game have any chance of real understanding.” In the law schools and throughout the judiciary, he says, judicial usurpation is the orthodoxy taught and practiced. “That is part of the case for restrained judges: they will leave to the people what belongs to the people, whether the people know it or not.”
• You want to make the argument that most people agree with you. One way to do it is to get some research assistants to go out and do interviews with “ordinary” people, preferably middle class and fairly articulate. Twenty interviews will do, although a hundred makes it sound like really serious research. Then you excerpt from the interview transcripts what you want people to say and, voila! they say pretty much what you want them to say. Such was the “methodology” employed by Alan Wolfe, who heads Boston College’s Center for Religion and American Life, to produce his book One Nation After All. Both the methodology and Wolfe’s hostility to religion in public—the latter making his appointment by Boston College even curiouser—came in for scathing criticism in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures. Now Wolfe has a new book, Moral Freedom. The combination of fraudulence and fatuity is stunning. Wolfe’s argument is that, having achieved political and economic freedom, Americans are now achieving moral freedom. He writes: “The ultimate implication of the idea of moral freedom . . . is that any form of higher authority has to tailor its commandments to the needs of real people.” As Adam and Eve agreed. Or this: “Morality has long been treated as if it were a fixed star, sitting there far removed from the earthly concerns of real people. . . . In the contemporary world, however, people experience in their own lives many situations for which traditional conceptions of morality offer little guidance: What do you do when the pursuit of one virtue conflicts with another?” Homer, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, MacIntyre—and, yes, you too, Charlie Brown—call your offices immediately!
• America magazine on a statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “The statement of doctrinal principles drew heavily from the recent controversial document, Dominus Iesus, which strongly emphasized Christ as the unique savior and rejected the idea that ‘one religion is as good as another.’“ How controversial can you get?
• Speaking in North Dakota, President Bush told an audience, “My job is to say to the moms and dads of America, ‘Your most important job is to love your children with all your heart and all your soul.’” The Associated Press smelled a story in Bush’s “controversial” statement and quotes three academics (from New York, Boston, and the University of Missouri) who say there is nothing in the Constitution that gives the President that job. National Review Online comments, “The AP should get credit for enterprise. Finding three people to criticize the President for saying parents should love their children can’t have been easy.” Actually, there is a story here. The only one we are to love with all our heart and all our soul is the Lord God. But that nuance—well, really more than a nuance—apparently escaped both the AP and NRO.
• John DiIulio, a friend and contributor to these pages, now heads up President Bush’s faith-based and community initiatives program. Months before Bush’s election and his appointment, DiIulio reviewed in the Public Interest Charles Glenn’s The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies (Princeton). DiIulio says that he agrees with the bet of Glenn and others that faith-based programs will more effectively meet human needs, but he cautiously notes the absence of studies confirming that hunch. “At this stage, the relative effectiveness of more strongly faith-based programs remains an informed hypothesis, not a settled fact.” DiIulio ends his reflection with a number of questions about whether there will be “a stable base of religious people to volunteer in the poorest reaches of American society,” whether “public funds will be mobilized to match private investments” in programs that work, and whether “a new presidential administration will adopt a decidedly faith-friendly posture toward such programs.” He concludes, “Stay tuned—and, well, pray.” Now he at least knows the answer to his last question. Continue to stay tuned, and pray.
• Quite a row was stirred when the new president of the University of San Francisco, a school “in the Jesuit tradition,” peremptorily disbanded the Saint Ignatius Institute, a much respected great books program that took the Catholic tradition very seriously indeed. About the same time, John J. DeGioia, a layman, was appointed president of Georgetown University, the flagship of Jesuit schools. Father Joseph O’Hare, Jesuit president of Fordham University, is among those who are outspoken in criticism of the decision, insisting that it is not true that are no Jesuits qualified for the post. “I can assure you that my successor at Fordham will be a Jesuit, unless the moon and stars take on a different alignment,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. Fr. Brian McDermott, on the other hand, rector of Georgetown’s Jesuit community, supports the appointment of DeGioia, noting that the largely lay board of directors has “full authority over the university.” That was a change made years ago, he observes, and it means that “the Society of Jesus does not have that authority over Georgetown now and it hasn’t since 1968.” Apparently some people did not realize what they were doing more than thirty years ago. Fr. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, states that “collaboration with the laity” has a long Jesuit tradition. The report continues, “Currie noted that non-Jesuits led Georgetown for a period in the late 1700s and early 1800s during a period when Jesuits were suppressed by the Vatican.” So there. The Jesuit influence is as vibrant today as it was when there were no Jesuits.
• Anglicans who identify themselves as conservative were generally disappointed by the recent meeting of the primates, meaning the chief bishops of the several national churches in the Anglican communion, at Camp Kanuga, North Carolina. They had hoped for some apostolic word on a number of controverted issues, notably the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Instead, the primates issued what I’m afraid does sound like a terribly vacuous statement. “We have together begun to learn, and invite every Anglican to learn with us, the deeper meaning of the Scriptures for life in the world today. . . . It is this constant renewal that strengthens our communion with each other. This is a special calling of the Anglican Communion amongst the Churches,” and so forth. Representative of conservative disappointment is that of Father Michael Carreker, rector of St. John’s Church in Savannah, Georgia: “In reply to the minority conservative bishops seeking some definitive and comfortable word on the issue, the majority of the primates simply acknowledged that ‘alienated groups’ exist within the church’s own life. According to them these alienated people (that is us) are estranged from others because of changes in theology and practice. Moreover, according to the majority of prelates, these alienated people (that is us again) believe that the acceptance of homosexual activity and of the ordination of practicing homosexuals is unfaithful to the gospel of Christ. Notice the turn of phrase. What has been the moral theology of the Catholic Church, believed everywhere, always, and by all, and which we now believe as the truth of God and the sacred tradition of the Church, is said to be merely the subjective opinion of estranged people, who are us.” It is time, says Fr. Carreker, for orthodox Christians to understand that they live in exile within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. This theme of “internal exile” has been a staple among orthodox Anglicans for a long time now. For those of more catholic conviction, it is a painfully awkward self-understanding, being in exile within a communion that is itself in exile. In the judgment of Fr. Carreker and many others, “the spirit of Kanuga” provides no relief.
• Contra historians who have pointed out the risible inaccuracies and outrageous distortions in James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (see, for instance, Thomas F. X. Noble in FT, May), Robert S. Wistrich writes in Commentary that “Carroll does get most of his history pretty much right.” He goes on to observe that Carroll seems not “to realize that satisfying some of his theological demands would involve not a reformation of the Church but its virtual dissolution.” “Still,” Wistrich writes, “despite occasional excesses, Constantine’s Sword is marked by a basic integrity and honesty, and its intense style achieves often moving effects.” Proposing the dissolution of the Church does seem a bit excessive. And the irony of Carroll’s proposing for the Church what he claims the Church proposed for Judaism does seem to be somewhat underappreciated.
• A part of the religious world that feels sorely neglected came in for some sympathetic attention at a Washington conference in March. The subject was “The Public Role of Mainline Protestantism: Is ‘the Quiet Voice’ Loud Enough?” The consensus, according to the Christian Century, was that evangelicals and Catholics are unfairly hogging the spotlight. James Wind of the Episcopalian Alban Institute, however, opined that mainliners are different: “There is a distinct care for the common good in mainline churches which our culture desperately needs.” Sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton thought mainline congregations were turning inward. “Members like the warm fuzzies they get working with their friends; they could care less about national issues.” He was not suggesting that they should. As for real influence where it counts, apparently the old Protestant establishment is still very much alive. “The quiet way has been the historically normal way for the Church to proceed,” says Wuthnow. “I think it’s very similar to the way people who have influence in the community through business or other connections operate. . . . They have influence and they don’t want their names in the headlines.” Another conference participant contended that mainline disputes over gay ordination and the blessing of same-sex unions, although they may lead to loss of members, actually reflect the strength of mainline churches because they have “granted legitimacy to all sides of the debate.” The Century reports that, following the conference although formally unrelated to it, the formation of a new coalition, named the Progressive Religious Partnership, was announced. It began two years ago when Episcopalian George Regas called on fellow clergy to “bring back a strong prophetic voice to the public square.” The coalition includes Christian and Jewish leaders and works closely with Norman Lear’s People for the American Way. The Washington announcement featured Senator Edward Kennedy. Following the injunction to bring back a prophetic voice, speakers included William Sloane Coffin, formerly of Yale, formerly of Riverside Church, formerly of SANE, formerly of the last dozen new coalitions for a progressive religious partnership. It is a tradition, and conservatives should be grateful that there are those who are determined not to let it die.
• I am assured by Baptist friends that not too much should be made of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) recent announcement of a temporary suspension of official conversation with Roman Catholics. It is mainly a matter of program priorities, I am told, and there is no doubt that the SBC’s 1994 resolution taking note of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and urging “ongoing Southern Baptist-Roman Catholic conversation while maintaining our Southern Baptist confession without compromise” is still very much in force. The temporary suspension of the official conversation, says a leading Southern Baptist, “makes ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ all the more important.” We will be proceeding on that understanding.
• At the big bash held at the Gregorian University in Rome to celebrate the creation (cardinals are “created”) of Avery Cardinal Dulles, I had fun toasting the honoree. When he received his red hat from the Pope, Cardinal Dulles fumbled and dropped it into the Pope’s lap. I remarked, among other things, that Cardinal Dulles obviously wears his honors lightly. Okay, but it got a big laugh at the time. The editors of Commonweal take a more curmudgeonly line on the goings-on in Rome. “There’s a place for pageantry and for grand ecclesiastical ritual,” they write in an editorial titled “All Dressed Up,” acknowledging that “even Jesus allowed himself to be anointed with precious oil.” But he allowed it only once, mind you, and it is suggested that he did not really approve. Surely, the editors observe, Jesus wouldn’t have stayed at a five star hotel in Rome the way Edward Cardinal Egan of New York did, even if it was on the house, as his stay was. Egan has yet to pass muster with the editors. He “has yet to convey much warmth or pastoral vision, let alone Christian mirth.” (For Christian mirth, check out Commonweal.) It is noted that Egan “must act in the late Cardinal John O’Connor’s considerable shadow.” (Not that the editors had much use for O’Connor.) As for Cardinal Dulles, it is allowed that “A deep love for and devotion to the Church are evident in everything he writes.” Nonetheless, “it is hard to suppress the suspicion” that his defense of “disputed papal teachings” was key to his being created a cardinal. Suspicion? There is no doubt that Dulles is the kind of old-fashioned Jesuit who believes he has a special responsibility to serve the papacy, and why should anyone be surprised that the Pope would likely honor a theologian whom he would like to see other theologians emulate? As for “disputed papal teachings,” they are only that because the likes of Commonweal dispute them. Then the editorial moves in for the kill: “Finally, one aspect of the pageantry in Rome was even more conspicuous than the color red. Doubtless those made cardinals are persons of talent and great loyalty to the Church. They are also all, without exception, men.” The editors undoubtedly checked out all forty-four names, watched the proceedings on television, and, sure enough, there were no exceptions. “Even should the priesthood remain closed to women, there is no possible theological or moral excuse for denying women a position of authority in the official structure of the Church,” we are told. This overlooks the fact that, in order to make clear that the college of cardinals is not an alternative to, but is part of, the college of bishops, the rule is that cardinals be bishops, and therefore priests. Commonweal, one notes, is usually a great champion of episcopal collegiality. The editorial ends with this word to the new cardinals, “But congratulations, anyway, boys.” I may be wrong, but I suspect that Commonweal‘s editor, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, would not take kindly to my saying, “Way to go, girl.” So I won’t. After all, hers is an office deserving of a measure of respect.
• This is a beautiful book—beautifully conceived, beautifully executed, and rare in the beauty of its pastoral and theological sensibilities. It is by Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, and is titled Open Secrets (Doubleday, 256 pages,, $23
.95). There has not appeared for a very long time such a compelling story of Christian ministry. Do not be put off by the occasionally too breezy style or the PC opinions on this and that; the former is only occasional and the latter are strictly by-the-way asides that have no bearing on the tale that Lischer tells. The tale is about his three years as pastor of Cana Lutheran Church in a little German no-place hamlet near Alton, Illinois. He and his wife Tracy (he with his newly minted Ph.D. from England, and thinking himself quite God’s gift to the Church) could not have been more disappointed or more out of place with this rustic congregation so drearily set in its ways. Slowly, awkwardly, and with many a misstep, Lischer came to see in these people the face of Christ. The last phrase is, of course, from Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, and I can offer no higher praise of this book than to say that at times it explores heights and depths of Christian ministry in a manner worthy of Bernanos. With a literary grace that never loses touch with the thus and so-ness of everyday lives, Lischer reveals to the reader, as was revealed to him, the presence of Christ in his body. It is not the whole of the truth, but it is a too easily forgotten part of the truth, to say that all Christianity is local. This people, this place, these wounds, these healings, these questions left, it seems, forever hanging. The book caught my attention because Lischer was a pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which I also once was, and graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, which is my alma mater as well. But these personal connections, interesting though they are to me, are not the reason for my strong recommendation of Open Secrets. I could only feel sorry for a Catholic priest or a minister of any denomination who does not resonate to Lischer’s discovery of the mystery of Christ in the ordinary. And it is far from being a book for clergy alone. Every Christian who, looking honestly at the ragtag company of disciples that is every local church, has ever asked, “Is that all there is?” should read this book and be opened to the wonder of the One who meets us in others who are—in the words of Mother Teresa—Christ in distressing disguise. Open Secrets is a rare achievement.
• Father Fred Kammer, head of the national coordinating office of Catholic Charities, writes in America that we should “avoid polemics” in discussing the Bush proposal for “faith-based” initiatives in social policy. He then proceeds to attack, inter alia, Michael Novak, George Will, and your writer, noting that the leadership of the bishops “in explaining Catholic social teaching has never been accepted by those on the extreme right.” Oh, that hurts. But how are those of us who don’t want to be part of “the extreme right” to know what authentic Catholic teaching is? Fr. Kammer has a ready answer: “Catholic Charities are really surrogates for the U.S. bishops.” It’s really very simple. Catholic Charities speaks for the bishops and Fr. Kammer speaks for Catholic Charities. What part of that don’t you understand?
• Longtime readers know that we are relentless in tracking the names that people give their children. Here, from AOL’s “Government Guide,” are, in order, the most popular names for children born in the first eight months of 2000, based on Social Security applications. For boys: Michael, Jacob, Matthew, Joseph, Christopher, Nicholas, Andrew, William, Joshua, and Daniel. For girls: Hannah, Emily, Madison, Elizabeth, Alexis, Sarah, Taylor, Lauren, Jessica, and Ashley. There are actually three biblical names in the top ten for girls, which is an uptick from previous years. But the constant is that, at least in choosing names, boys are taken ever more seriously.
• A hospital chaplain reports seeing this entry on a patient’s chart: “Catholic minister read the Last Rights to patient.” When all the others turned out not to be inalienable after all.
• It says here that there are “surrendered wives” groups sprouting up all over the country. They are composed of women who have bought the argument of Laura Doyle, author of The Surrendered Wife, that they and their men will be much happier if they, the wives, let their husbands dominate, or at least think they are dominating. “Yes, dear, you’re right.” “You know best, dear.” It’s called Yes-dearing your way to a happy marriage. The odd thing is that the book receives appreciative attention from prestige media such as the New York Times, while Christian ideas such as male headship, or mutual subordination, or even the husband as servant-leader are the object of outraged feminist scorn. But maybe it’s not so odd. To judge by the account in the Times, the way of surrender in The Surrendered Wife is proposed in terms of manipulation, power plays, and self-serving deceit. We are assured that it has nothing to do with self-surrender, as in love. Oh well, that’s all right then.
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: Philip Gleason on Catholic assimilation, Logos, Fall 2000. William Dean on neoconservatives and public theology, Religion and American Culture, Winter 2000.
While We’re At It: On Elizabeth Anscombe, London Daily Telegraph, January 13, 2001. On Russian nationalism, Tablet, January 27, 2001. On the Waco trial, Religion in the News, Fall 2000. Ellen Willis on neoconservatives, Nation, February 19, 2001. Hewlett-Packard, SPUC Information, March 8, 2001. Immortality and design flaws, Scientific American, March 2001. John O’Sullivan on John Gray, National Review, March 5, 2001. On Henri Dunant and humanitarianism, Tablet, February 17, 2001. On Koerperwelten, Tablet, February 17, 2001. Peter Singer on bestiality, www.nerve.com, March 6, 2001. On Robert Hanssen, Tablet, March 10, 2001; Pacific News Service, March 6, 2001. On excommunications, Tablet, March 10, 2001. On Arthur Koestler, National Interest, Fall 1999. Edward Cardinal Cassidy on Dominus Iesus, Catholic News Service, March 22, 2001. Fr. Richard McBrien on Dulles and Dershowitz, Catholic Northwest Progress, March 15, 2001. Robert Bork on “The Florida Fiasco,” New Criterion, March 2001. Alan Wolfe on moral freedom, New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2001. On Dominus Iesus, America, March 12, 2001. Bush on loving children, National Review Online, March 15, 2001. John DiIulio on faith-based programs, Public Interest, Fall 2000. On Jesuit universities, National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001. Fr. Michael Carreker on Anglican primates, parish paper of St. John’s Church, March 25, 2001. Robert Wistrich on James Carroll, Commentary, April 2001. On Progressive Religious Partnership, Christian Century, April 4, 2001. Commonweal on Cardinals, March 23, 2001. Fr. Fred Kammer on avoiding polemics in faith-based initiatives, America, April 2, 2001. On “surrendered wives,” New York Times, February 8, 2001.