The defenders of judicial activism, properly understood as the judicial usurpation of politics, count on wearing down their critics over time. Robert H. Bork is not easily worn down. He returns to the battle with a new book, Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges (AEI, 159 pages, $25). Not only in America but throughout the nations of the West, judges have seized the political authority that properly belongs to the people and their elected representatives. Borks opening chapter on this permanent revolution carries an apt epigraph by James Madison: I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpation. While Bork has written extensively on judicial imperialism, in these pages and elsewhere, the present book addresses the international dimensions of the problem, illustrating his argument with fascinating studies of the politics of law in the United Nations, Canada, and Israel.
Judicial activism, Bork writes, results from the enlistment of judges on one side of the culture war in every Western nation. Despite denials by some that any such conflict exists, the culture war is an obtrusive fact. It is a struggle between the cultural or liberal left and the great mass of citizens who, left to their own devices, tend to be traditionalists. The courts are enacting the agenda of the cultural left. Such judges belong to the New Class whose members select, reinforce, and reward one another on the assumption that they know better than ordinary people how we ought to live. They have few compunctions about making up law in order to coerce others into conforming with their understanding of virtue. Bork supplies instance after instance of this process at work in the U.S., with particular reference to the Supreme Court, and shows the ways in which we are now facing a transnational culture war. He writes, Courts possess very potent powers, both coercive and moral. Although that power is asserted over an entire culture, it is not always dramatic because it proceeds incrementally, but since the increments accumulate, it is all the more potent for that. What judges have wrought is a coup detat”slow-moving and genteel, but a coup detat nonetheless.
Countries belonging to the United Nations, many of them antidemocratic and downright tyrannical, cooperate with Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in creating international laws in order to impose upon their countries measures that they know they could not win by democratic means. International law, says Bork, is not law but politics. For that reason, it is dangerous to give the name law, which summons up respect, to political struggles that are essentially lawless. The international New Class is often deeply anti-American and works hand-in-glove with American NGOs that are hostile to the morality of their own society. The result is that international law becomes one more weapon in the domestic culture war. The U.S. Supreme Court has also taken to citing the authority of foreign courts. In one risible instance, in a case having to do with delays in execution, Justice Stephen G. Breyer invoked decisions by the Privy Council of Jamaica and the supreme courts of India and Zimbabwe.
The Supreme Court appeals to a living Constitution and evolving social standards, but it is mainly the judiciary that is doing the evolving. Bork quotes Justice Antonin Scalia: What secret knowledge, one must wonder, is breathed into lawyers when they become Justices of this Court, that enables them to discern that a practice which the text of the Constitution does not clearly proscribe, and which our people have regarded as constitutional for two hundred years, is in fact unconstitutional? . . . Day by day, case by case, [the Court] is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize. Bork comments: What we call conservatism on the Court is usually a mere holding action; liberals set the agenda and conservatives resist but rarely roll back prior liberal rulings or advance any agenda of their own. The result is a steady movement, occasionally delayed for the moment, of the Constitution to the cultural left.
Conservative Holding Actions
The chapter on Canadas 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms is withering. The Canadian courts have interpreted the Charter to mean that any legislation can be challenged by anyone who has shown a general interest in the validity of the legislation and that there is no other reasonable and effective manner in which the issue may be brought before the Court. This practically guarantees that all issues are subject to judicial rather than political resolution. And, of course, that is what has happened with the court-imposed law regarding same-sex marriage. True, the Charter has a notwithstanding clause whereby the legislature can, for a time, block the implementation of court-made law. The idea of the clause is to check runaway courts, but, for complicated reasons, the clause has fallen into desuetude. The mere existence of such a checking power, Bork contends, is used to encourage judicial adventurism. The mystique of the courts is too great, he observes. The power to challenge the courts exists on paper, but the political costs of using it are simply too high.
Israel is the supreme example of judicial imperialism securely entrenched. Bork writes: Imagine, if you can, a supreme court that has gained the power to choose its own members, wrested control of the attorney general from the executive branch, set aside legislation and executive action when there were disagreements about policy, altered the meaning of enacted law, forbidden government action at certain times, ordered government action at other times, and claimed and exercised the authority to override national defense measures. Imagine as well a supreme court that has created a body of constitutional law despite the absence of an actual constitution . . . . Israels Supreme Court has done them all. The court is decidedly on the side of a post-Zionism that has broken with the founding ideas of Israel. Aharon Barak, President of the Supreme Court, has blithely decreed that, in cases of disagreement, the views of the enlightened community in Israel must prevail, and the court gets to decide who is and who is not enlightened. Borks judgment is grim: Israel has set a standard for judicial imperialism that can probably never be surpassed, and, one devoutly hopes, will never be equaled elsewhere. The sad irony is that the Supreme Court, operating with a Basic Law that specifies Israels values are both Jewish and democratic, is gradually producing an Israel that is neither Jewish nor democratic.
Much of what Bork says in Coercing Virtue he has said before. The important contribution of the book is to put the dynamics of judicial imperialism into an international context. If we do not understand the worldwide corruption of the judicial function, we do not comprehend the full scope of the political revolution that is overtaking the West, he writes. The political revolution in Western nations is the gradual but unceasing replacement of government by elected officials with government by appointed judges. Perhaps the revolution was inevitable. Wherever there is judicial review, two forces are placed in opposition: the democratic principle of the elected branches of government and the antidemocratic principle of the judiciary. Today, the antidemocratic principle is ascendant and aggressive. The crucial question for all nations that desire to remain self-governing is how to tame and limit the antidemocratic aggressions of their judiciaries and of the international tribunals and forums we are so blithely and thoughtlessly creating.
That is where Judge Bork leaves the matter. He undoubtedly knows that readers will complain that he does not propose a clear remedy. His job in the present book is diagnostic rather than prescriptive. It is said that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But one recalls again that, in the absence of a candle, it is sometimes important to curse the darkness, just to make sure that we do not resign ourselves to it. Both domestically and internationally, the forces advancing the judicial usurpation of politics are formidable. But so also is the core conviction of democracy that just government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is by no means certain but one may be permitted to hope that there are still leaders possessed of sufficient wisdom and courage to give political effect to that conviction.
Intelligent and good people can end up taking wrongheaded positions, which is a point underscored by Paul Griffiths in taking a wrongheaded position on same-sex marriage. Griffiths, a frequent contributor to these pages who holds the Catholic Studies chair at the University of Illinois, Chicago, argues in Commonweal that Catholics should not oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and, indeed, may well support it. Dont get him wrong; Griffiths is not a conventional progressive given to ignoring church authority. He has read very carefully the July 2003 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stating that same-sex unions are contrary to Catholic teaching and should be strongly opposed. Griffiths writes, Catholics are bound to show at least obsequium religiosum , religiously submissive respect or deference, to magisterial teaching like that found in the CDFs document. He understands himself to be simply raising questions aimed at contributing to the further clarification of the Churchs mind over time while still maintaining submissive deference to what is taught. This is the ordinary process by which the Churchs teaching develops.
Griffiths underscores that he is an orthodox Catholic, and offers an elegantly phrased argument, the gist of which is that the public culture of the United States is now profoundly pagan, opposed in almost every significant particular to what the Church advocates as a justly ordered society, and, since the Churchs understanding of marriage is so distinctive, complex, and humanly beautiful, it should not be debased or compromised by entanglement with a pagan societys marriage laws. So let the pagan society go its way on marriage, including same-sex unions, and let the Church be true to herself. The happy result, he says, would clarify Catholic teaching about marriage, help Catholics to live in accord with it, make it more attractive to non-Catholics, and so, in the end, conform the body politic more closely to Christ by making the Church more seductively beautiful.
In the same issue, Margaret OBrien Steinfels offers a stiff rejoinder to Griffiths, pointing out that the understanding of marriage as a life-long covenanted union between a man and woman is not uniquely Catholic. It is shared by other Christians, Jews, and, indeed, people of almost every culture and religion. Withdrawal from public debate on the definition of marriage or any other publicly contested issue, writes Steinfels, is the gesture of sectarians”a perennial temptation of certain Protestant groups, and now of some Catholics, both right and left, as well as the newly self-styled orthodox Catholics. The sneer quotes around orthodox Catholics are unseemly, and on most questions of Catholic moment I am closer to Paul Griffiths than Margaret Steinfels, but she is right about the dangers of Catholic sectarianism.
Moreover, throughout his argument Griffiths assumes that this profoundly pagan society is moving toward same-sex marriage, when, in fact, there is massive popular opposition to such a change and the only chance of its happening, as its proponents are keenly aware, is through the dictate of courts. The proposed Federal Marriage Amendment intends to maintain marriage as what most Americans believe marriage is and should be, even if many betray that belief in practice. To speak of America as a deeply pagan or post-Christian culture is a convenient way to abdicate responsibility for what is, in troubling fact, an incorrigibly, conflictedly, and confusedly Christian society.
Griffiths also overlooks the fact that in the Catholic understanding”an understanding shared by many others”marriage is part of the natural order, created and blessed by God. As the Code of Canon Law puts it, The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. To which is added, This covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. By concentrating exclusively on sacramental marriage, Griffiths ignores the responsibility of the Church to teach and protect the meaning of marriage in the natural order. This is an error hardly limited to Paul Griffiths, and it has worked considerable mischief, not least in the sometimes promiscuous granting of annulments in the U.S.
Then there is the question of what is meant by obsequium religiosum when one publicly contends that the Magisterium is wrong about a Catholics public moral duty. It is important to state Griffiths argument fairly. He writes, I conclude that Catholics may support the legalization of same-sex marriages, together with the progressive disentanglement of sacramental marriage from state-sponsored contractual marriage. He might say that he is not actually contradicting or rejecting the CDF instruction since it does not explicitly address the second part of his conclusion, namely, the disentanglement from civil marriage law. In truth, however, the instruction, backed by centuries of Catholic teaching and practice, assumes a desired compatibility between church and civil law on marriage. And behind that assumption are centuries of Catholic teaching and practice related to the proper relationship between Church and culture.
In this and every society, there is much that is opposed to, much that is compatible with, and much that is supportive of what, in Griffiths words, the Church advocates as a justly ordered society. In recent history, the complexity of our circumstance and our duties is admirably addressed in documents such as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus and the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae . In these and numerous other magisterial statements, the point is that we are enjoined to advocate, as effectively as we can, a justly ordered society. The alternative is to abandon society to its profoundly pagan fate, in the hope that a few brands will be rescued from the fire by the attraction of the Churchs countercultural witness. In his Commonweal article, Professor Griffiths is taking on much more than a disagreement over same-sex marriage. But I expect he knows that.
Martin Martys Martin Luther
We can be grateful that an editor of Vikings Penguin Lives suggested that the series should include Martin Luther by Martin Marty ( Martin Luther , 199 pages,, $19.95). For all the academic and popular attention paid Luther, Marty says there are only three or four biographies in print in English. Now there are four or five. Marty, an influential church historian now emeritus at the University of Chicago, is himself a Lutheran pastor, and he has produced a portrait of the founder that is deeply and instructively ambivalent. Contra some contemporary Luther scholarship, Marty stays with the conventional portrayal of a distraught and guilt-ridden soul in search of a gracious God. He makes most sense as a wrestler with God, Marty writes, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own.
Luther exulted in his gift for complexifying. Marty writes, Explain his life story as one will, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by what has to be called an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed. The Church taught that the sacrament of confession required that the sinner be contrite. That sounded like a simple idea”to be contrite meant to be sorry for sins, as Luther was”but he rendered it complex. What if contrition is self-centered and selfish, aimed at securing forgiveness? How could one know if he is truly contrite? Might one not be proud of his contrition? And on and on. The received wisdom criticized such questionings as scrupulosity, but Luther”or at least a part of Luther”had declared war on the received wisdom.
Marty emphasizes that Luther was not simply a reformer of ecclesiastical abuses, of which there were many. Anticlericalism and rebelliousness against church authority were widespread. In a time of plague and social disruption, many sought the security of a loving God. Their hungers matched that of Luther, even if they were less gifted than he at speaking up. Attacking the priestly and sacramental system was Luthers first move; assaulting the official church and questioning its divine authority came next. Martys is a very Protestant Luther who, when the protests of his followers who joined him in rejecting pope and bishops got out of hand, turned to the princes to restore order. In handing the churches over to the protection and care of the princes, Luther expressed an abject dependence upon their power in a manner that Marty describes as groveling. And yet the princes were also dependent upon Luther to provide a theological and moral rationale for the powers they were supposed to assume. Marty writes: If we think of Luther as a specialist in dealing with matters of faith, we will find that he was a generalist when it came to leading in practical matters of church and state. Not a born administrator or theorist of governance, he improvised and often changed course.
After developing his ideas of the two kingdoms as they pertain to temporal and spiritual rule, Luther had a higher estimate than Marty of his achievement. Not since the time of the apostles, Luther declared, have the temporal sword and temporal government been so clearly described or so highly praised as by me. The temporal sword was fully unsheathed as Luther urged the princes to slash and slaughter without remorse in the Peasants War that broke out in 1525. Women were raped and left to die, men were strung up on trees, children perished in the cold winter. Before it was over, as many as 100,000 were killed. Afterwards, Luther would say, Preachers are the greatest of slayers. For they urge the authorities to execute their office strictly and punish the wicked. In the revolt I slew all the peasants; all their blood is on my head. But I pass it on to our Lord, who commanded me to speak thus.
The Anabaptists, or re-baptizers, along with the radical iconoclasts, claimed God was commanding them as well, but Luther knew better. They were vermin and flies on the dungheap, mad men and enemies of Christ. Marty is not sparing in pointing up the contradiction between Luthers claim to understand Gods Word apart from tradition and church authority while denying the same claim made by more radical rebels. Luthers relative conservatism with respect to liturgy and the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist is attributed to his fear of instability and his dependence on the princes for protection. There was also, despite his sometimes brutish behavior and scatological language, an aesthetic sensibility, as is evident in the joy he took in music and the writing of hymns.
Marty depicts Luther as a man of extremes and contradictions, all in the service of letting God be God. Here he draws on the Luther research of the Methodist Philip Watson, who in Let God be God portrays a Luther who praised the love of God that might even damn him to hell, and declared against Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will that God himself does evil through those who are evil. Luthers extremism was notoriously unleashed as, later in life, he turned against the Jews for refusing to accept Christ. Luther, Marty writes, felt licensed to use degrading imagery: that rabbis made Jews kiss, gobble down, guzzle, and worship the shit they were teaching, along with the Judas piss of their biblical interpretations. His apocalyptic vision fired his already out-of-control imagination. He was appointing himself and his princes Gods avengers.
A great strength of Martys account is that, following the lead of his friend Mark U. Edwards, he takes very seriously the fact that Luther was convinced that he was living in the very last days. The end of the world and the final judgment were, he believed, a matter of a few years or even months away. His view of the papacy as the Antichrist plays a large part in this apocalyptic vision. It made little sense to be concerned about Christian unity, whether with Romanists or Zwinglians, or about the long-term consequences of the reordering of civil society when one is living in the last minutes of the last act of history. Luther, it seems, only grudgingly tolerated his friend Philip Melanchthons efforts to heal the breach with Rome. It was a waste of time when time was in such short supply.
Martin Marty has written, I believe, a very good book. For a brief summary of Luthers life and work it is much superior to the popular and almost entirely adulatory Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. Yet there is no denying that Martys book is marked by a distinct distaste for Luther the man and, to a lesser degree, Luther the theologian. His conclusion is curious: Luther was a man of conservative outlook in respect to much church life, but also a person of radical expression who took extreme positions. Through the centuries since his time, many have chosen to seek a safe middle between the ambiguous and often contradictory options available to them in his legacy. Whether many can or will choose to share his boldness in the new millennium will help determine how his influence will find expression in the centuries ahead.
I say the conclusion is curious because, meaning no offense, Marty is very conspicuously a man of the safe middle, as the middle is defined by the mainline Protestantism with which Marty identifies. It is precisely Luthers boldness that Marty typically depicts as extremism. The inference would seem to be that Marty is not at all sure that Luther should have much influence in the centuries ahead. Marty chose as the epigraph for his book lines from a 1940 poem by W. H. Auden on Luther:
. . . All works, Great Men, Societies are bad,
The Just shall live by faith . . . he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad,
Whod never cared or trembled in their lives.
Auden was right. The Sturm und Drang of Luther was safely domesticated in Lutheranism. And Marty seems to be suggesting that it is just as well; caring and trembling are to be indulged in moderation. Oddly enough, I, as a Catholic who was once a Lutheran, have, I think, a greater respect for Luther the theologian. Few Christian thinkers have so well understood the abyss of despair that is the alternative to the utterly gratuitous love of God in Christ. Without his influence, it is doubtful that sola gratia would be so solidly part of Catholic orthodoxy. If only Luther had not been so reckless, so headstrong, so convinced that he alone was the oracle of Gods truth, so sure that he was living in the very last days and that therefore the shattering of Christian unity was a matter of slight consequence. If only, in short, he had not been the Martin Luther fairly portrayed in Martin Martys Martin Luther
Protestants, Catholics, and Mary
In 1937 a group of Catholic and Protestant theologians, the latter being mainly Reformed and Lutheran, launched an independent effort to explore the possibilities of Christian unity, an effort that met with considerable suspicion at the time. The company came to be known as Le Groupe des Dombes because it usually met at the Cistercian abbey of Nôtre Dame des Dombes, which is about twenty miles north of Lyons, France. The Dombes effort is in some ways similar to the project Evangelicals and Catholics Together in this country, which began in 1992. In distinction from the official theological dialogues, both are deliberately independent from ecclesiastical authority, while receiving encouragement from the communions to which the theologians belong. Both speak from and to their communions, but not for their communions. Both serve as sustained scouting expeditions, so to speak, exploring what might be possible in pursuing the unity that Christ wills for his disciples.
After six years of intense study of the subject, the Dombes Group has now issued an important book on Mary in Christian faith and life, Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints (Paulist, 162 pages, $18.95). The book provides a balanced examination of the scriptural, historical, and dogmatic questions in a way that leads to common affirmations without compromise. It is noted that the sixteenth-century Reformers, especially Luther and Zwingli and to a lesser extent Calvin, had a vibrant Marian devotion that was largely lost in the intensification of Protestant-Catholic polemics. Moreover, on the threshold of the modern era, in the seventeenth century, there was a flourishing of pietism on both sides. Pietism, or a religion of the heart, was a reaction to what was viewed as the excessive intellectualism of regnant theological orthodoxies. Among Catholics, pietism took a decidedly Marian turn. In predictable reaction, Protestant pietism expunged vestiges of Marian devotion as Romanist. Of the nineteenth-century definition of the Immaculate Conception the authors write: On the whole, the new dogma was well received in the Catholic world. Its proclamation served to give Roman Catholicism a more united front. For the churches of the Reformation and for Orthodoxy, however, the dogma became an added stumbling block. It would play a part in removing from Protestant piety the remaining traces of the Marian reflection and piety of the Reformers.
Mariology Is Christology
In recent years, the influence of the Second Vatican Council has moved Catholics away from attributing peculiar privileges and dignities to Mary and bound her more closely to the Church as the premier disciple of her Son. All of Mariology is Christology, and any devotion to Mary that is not centered in glorifying Christ is suspect. Today there is a popular revival of diverse forms of Marian devotion and, as the authors note, Catholics have begun again to frequent controversial places of apparitions, despite the stern warnings of bishops. However, they add, At the same time, we must also acknowledge the effort being made at some important places of pilgrimage (Lourdes, La Salette, etc.) to foster in the pilgrims an experience of faith that is authentic and formative. Nowadays, these pilgrimages are privileged places for the exercise of a Catholic pastoral oversight of popular Christianity.
I can testify to the truth of that. When I first visited Lourdes with the Knights of Malta, I braced myself in advance against letting my perhaps too fastidious theological sensibilities be offended by the excesses of popular piety. I need not have worried. Of course there are the predictable booths peddling every kind of pious kitsch, but even they were considerably less offensive than, say, a convention of the Christian Booksellers Association. At the shrine itself, and in the devotions surrounding the mandatory baths, the principle that Mariology is Christology could not have been more explicit. I had, I must confess, expected miracle-mongering and vulgar superstition, but the piety of the baths is solidly grounded in baptismal regeneration, and the Mass in the underground chapel, with twenty thousand or more people, many of them the sick and dying on gurneys surrounding the altar, some of them attending their final Mass, was marked by a palpable intensity of surrender to the love of God in Christ such as I have seldom experienced. Simply to recall it as I write this quite takes my breath away.
Protestants who become Catholics, or are thinking about becoming Catholics, are prone to put Marian devotion and doctrine to the test of Protestant orthodoxies. While the most theologically austere renditions of Catholic Mariology can usually pass the test, that is, I am convinced, a great mistake. In becoming a Catholic, one should be open to previously unimagined dimensions of Christian piety, far from the least of which is coming to know the Mother of God as the Churchs mother, and ones own. Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints sometimes succumbs to the aforementioned mistake. But that is perhaps understandable in that this is a dialogue with Christians for whom the Marian dimension of Chris-tian existence has until now been shut off behind a closed and strongly barricaded door.
There are many questions to be taken up between Protestants and Catholics, and some might think the question of Mary somewhat marginal, but I believe the Dombes report is right in saying: The discussion of the Virgin Mary makes it clear that today she is perhaps the point at which all the underlying confessional differences, especially in soteriology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and hermeneutics, become most clear. These issues are fundamental, if any are, so that when all is said and done, the ecumenical dialogue on the Virgin is a suitable locus for ascertaining our doctrinal disagreements, as it is no less suitable a locus for looking self-critically at our respective ecclesial behaviors in regard to the Mother of the Lord.
Unique and Unparalleled
If salvation is by Gods grace alone, in what sense did Mary cooperate in her salvation, and ours? Is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary scripturally defensible? If Mary was immaculately conceived, and therefore sinless, did she need a Savior? Does the assumption of Mary mean that she is, in fact, supra-human? If Christ is the one mediator, what place is there for invoking the Blessed Virgin in prayer? These are among the questions typically raised by Protestants, and here they are carefully addressed by Protestants and Catholics together. They are not always resolved to everyones satisfaction. But the Dombes statement says, At the same time, we recognize that these differences do not undermine our communion in one and the same faith in Christ. We are all convinced that the claims concerning the life of the Virgin from its beginning to its end must always be ordered to our understanding of the person of Christ and of the salvation Christ has brought to us.
With respect to the two dogmas defined by the Catholic Church”the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950)”the authors suggest that all can agree on the following formulation: The Catholic Church would not make the acceptance of these two dogmas a condition for full communion among the churches. It would only ask the partners with whom it would renew this communion to respect the content of these dogmas and not to judge them contrary to the gospel or to the faith, but to regard them as free and legitimate conclusions flowing from reflection by the Catholic consciousness on the faith and its internal coherence. Whether such a formulation would, in fact, be acceptable to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is another matter. As I said, the Dombes Group is a scouting expedition exploring what may be possible.
The Group concludes that their statement is not the fruit of an ecumenical compromise that would bring together quite different points of view, but a return to the Mary of the Gospels and the mark of a greater fidelity to the Scriptures. They quote Karl Barth, probably the most influential Protestant theologian of the past century, who repeatedly suggested that Catholic Mariology is the greatest obstacle to Chris-tian unity. Barth also wrote about Mary: There is one here who is greater than Abraham, greater than David, and greater than John the Baptist, greater than Paul and greater than the entire Christian Church; we are dealing here with the history of the Mother of God himself. This is a unique and unparalleled event. Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints is a powerful appeal to Protestants to recover what they have lost, and to Catholics to ensure that their devotion is always ordered to the glory of the Son to whom Mary surrendered all. It is a book that deserves the careful attention of those who yearn for the unity of Christians.
While Were At It
Philip Jenkins is not swept off his feet by Jedediah Purdys new book, Being America , but he allows that Purdy comes up with the occasional aphorism that invites reflection. For instance this: Forgetfulness keeps a people open to the world. Purdy writes, Forgetful America is poisoned against no people, and looks to the future in the expectation that, no matter how the country changes, it will remain itself. We will hardly remember”as we hardly remember now”having been anyone or anything else. Which inspires Jenkins to this reflection: This amnesia manifests itself in the recurring myth of national innocence, a state that every generation believes itself to be losing. Depending on the history books you read, America lost its innocence with the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War, the Depression, at Pearl Harbor, on September 11 . . . and generations yet unborn will probably think that only in their time did the nation lose its primal simplicity. If only they could have shared the simple, naïve faith of the early twenty-first century, a time of plain living and high thinking! A chosen nation may just need a fundamental myth of Eden and the Fall. Purdys argument may or may not be entirely convincing, but I for one will never have the same confidence in quoting Santayanas observation that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.
In October 2003, there was a loud outcry over the anti-Semitic remarks of Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia, at the opening of the Islamic Summit Conference. He said that Europeans established the State of Israel to solve their Jewish problem. He said, We Muslims are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed six million Jews out of twelve million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them. And he said other despicable things, but they are little more than Islamic boilerplate. Overlooked were the substantive things he said about Muslim responsibility for the sorry state of the Islamic nations. For instance: We are now 1.3 billion strong. We have the biggest oil reserve in the world. We have great wealth. We are not as ignorant as the Jahilliah who embraced Islam. We are familiar with the workings of the worlds economy and finances. We control 50 out of the 180 countries in the world. Our votes can make or break international organizations. Yet we seem more helpless than the small number of Jahilliah converts who accepted the Prophet as their leader. Why? Is it because of Allahs will or is it because we have interpreted our religion wrongly, or failed to abide by the correct teachings of our religion, or done the wrong things? And for instance: There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people. They feel that they can do nothing right. They believe that things can only get worse. The Muslim will forever be oppressed and dominated by the Europeans and the Jews. They will forever be poor, backward, and weak. Some believe, as I have said, this is the Will of Allah, that the proper state of the Muslims is to be poor and oppressed in this world. But is it true that we should do and can do nothing for ourselves? Is it true that 1.3 billion people can exert no power to save themselves from the humiliation and oppression inflicted upon them by a much smaller enemy? Can they only lash back blindly in anger? Is there no other way than to ask our young people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people? Much of the Prime Ministers speech might have been lifted from Bernard Lewis searing critique of Islamic leadership, What Went Wrong ? Dr. Mahathir said: We also know that not all non-Muslims are against us. Some are well disposed toward us. Some even see our enemies as their enemies. Even among the Jews there are many who do not approve of what the Israelis are doing. We must not antagonize everyone. We must win their hearts and minds. We must win them to our side not by begging for help from them but by the honorable way that we struggle to help ourselves. We must not strengthen the enemy by pushing everyone into their camps through irresponsible and un-Islamic acts. Remember Salah El Din and the way he fought against the so-called Crusaders, King Richard of England in particular. Remember the considerateness of the Prophet to the enemies of Islam. We must do the same. It is winning the struggle that is important, not angry retaliation, not revenge. We must build up our strength in every field, not just in armed might. Our countries must be stable and well administered; must be economically and financially strong, industrially competent, and technologically advanced. This will take time, but it can be done and it will be time well spent. We are enjoined by our religion to be patient. What is truly depressing about the speech is not the conventional anti-Semitism but the controlling assumption that Islam is engaged in a struggle with the rest of the world, and most particularly with Christendom, and can settle for nothing less than victory. Perhaps it was necessary for Dr. Mahathir not to question that assumption in order to get a hearing for the sensible and challenging things he had to say to the assembled Muslim rulers. That is, admittedly, a hopeful interpretation.
This is a welcome occasion to mention the fine series, handsomely produced, Vintage Spiritual Classics, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. The series includes, inter alia: The Book of Job , Buddhist Wisdom , The Confessions of Saint Augustine , The Desert Fathers , The Imitation of Christ , Introduction to the Devout Life , The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius , Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther , and The Wisdom of John Paul II . The immediate occasion is the preface by Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., of Fordham University to Saint Thomas More . Koterski concentrates on what More meant by conscience. He notes that most people know what they think they know about More from Robert Bolts very impressive play and film, A Man for All Seasons . Bolt has More say at one point, But what matters to me is not whether its true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it. I trust I make myself obscure? A nice line, that, but Koterski says it quite thoroughly obscures Mores understanding of conscience and why he could not assent to Henry VIIIs marriage to Anne Boleyn. Here are the actual words of More after he had been found guilty and sentenced to death:
Seeing that I see ye are determined to condemn me (God knoweth how) I will now in discharge of my conscience speak my mind plainly and freely touching my Indictment and your Statute, withal. And forasmuch as this Indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and His Holy Church, the supreme Government of which, or of any part whereof, may no temporal Prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual pre-eminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, bishops of the same See, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law, amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man.
Koterski offers a brief but persuasive interpretation of Mores Utopia , and ends up by taking issue with another invention of Robert Bolt, who, at the end of his play, has More say, Finally, it is not a matter of reason but of love. Not true, says Koterski. For him it was always a matter of reason: a matter of careful discernment about principles he did not choose or create himself but which he honored as the groundwork for a reasonable decision. Saint Thomas More with Koterskis preface is a splendid addition to the Vintage Spiritual Classics. I am thinking about that series these days because I have just agreed to do for it the preface to Kierkegaards Training in Christianity . My friend Fr. Koterski has set for me a high standard.
The often extravagant ravings of anti-American hatred, the media imputations”sometimes the product of incompetence, sometimes of mythomania”the opinionated ill will that puts the United States in an unfavorable light at every turn, can only confirm for Americans the uselessness of consultation. The result is the exact opposite of what is sought. The fallacies of the anti-American bias encourage American unilateralism. The tendentious blindness and systematic hostility of most of the governments that deal with America can only lead to their own weakening, a progressive distancing from reality. And so Americas confused enemies and allies alike, valuing animosity over influence, condemn themselves to impotence”and thus, in effect, strengthen the country they claim to fear. That is the vigorous summation of Jean-François Revels Anti-Americanism (Encounter, 176 pages,, $25.95). Revel is, among Parisian intellectuals, a genuinely independent mind in a herd of independent minds whose independence is collectively certified by their unanimous opposition to almost everything American. As the above-cited conclusion indicates, Anti-Americanism is a tract, but the kind of tract that restores the good reputation of political tractarianism.
Here is another big whopper of a book on the Kennedys to add to the pile of big whoppers on that subject. It is not easy to make the case that we really needed this one. Robert Dalleks recent eight-hundred-plus pages, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy , revealed much about JFKs medical debilities, drug habits, and obsessive womanizing that was not generally known. I am not so sure that we learn much that we didnt know before from Thomas Maiers The Kennedys: Americas Emerald Kings (Basic, 676 pages,, $29.95). The strength of the book is that it places JFK into five generations of Kennedy history, and concentrates on the specifically Irish Catholic”the two words being inseparable and sometimes indistinguishable”dimensions of the story. Of course, JFK looms largest in the tale, but Joe Sr. runs him a close second. Although he doesnt put it quite this way, Maier, author of Dr. Spock: An American Life , aims at countering the ways in which the Kennedy myth has been made respectable by downplaying the Irish Catholic, presenting JFKs career as a product of the brightest and the best. From the beginning, Maier convincingly shows, that career had a great deal more to do with the Knights of Columbus and Boston communion breakfasts than with Harvard or the New York Times . New to many will be Joe Sr.s wheeling and dealing at the Vatican, and the very worldly roles played by some prelates who are depicted, I expect accurately, as being more pols than pastors. Until the bitter end, writes Maier, Cardinal Cushing of Boston was JFKs political guardian angel. When it comes to making sense of it all, Maier seems ambivalent. He writes:
In the fairy-tale world of Camelot politics”not even in the psycho-biographies of his detractors”Jack Kennedy rarely appeared to worry about the truth or consequences of sex. The Roman Catholic Church was often an unabashed, albeit unofficial, ally for his ambitions and a compliant keeper of his secrets. To many established Catholics, Camelot was encased in fond memories, part of the climb out of the old ethnic neighborhoods of the past. It may be hard to remember the impetus that Kennedy gave to a sense of Catholic arrival in America, observed theologian Richard John Neuhaus after so many of JFKs transgressions were exposed. Despite subsequent revelations about his private life (news photographers at the time, for example, agreed not to publish pictures of him smoking cigarettes), the Kennedy myth remains the forceful statement of Catholics having made it in America.
But by the 1970s, the Roman Catholic hierarchy was no longer enamored with the Kennedy family or its politics. Many practicing Catholics felt increasingly alienated by the Kennedys, and they, too, seemed disillusioned by the rightward drift of their onetime followers. The Camelot myth remained strong in the minds of Americans, but it became a strangely secular one, no longer endorsed by churchmen such as Cushing but propagated by the media. For Jacks survivors, particularly his youngest brother, American societys obsessions with sex cast Camelot in an uncomfortable light, and gradually changed its meaning. Camelot came to signify the glories of a lost era, the blinding light of celebrity and having sex with other celebrities or sycophants. Rather than a high-minded call to public service, as Jacqueline Kennedy said she had intended, Camelot became a parable about excess and its consequences.
Yet the book ends with an admiring depiction of the remaining Kennedys making a joint appearance at the 2000 Democratic convention and the wan suggestion that somehow, despite all, Camelot as high-minded call to public service still lives. They are attenuatedly Irish and even more attenuatedly Catholic, but the author seems still to hope for another generation of emerald kings. As do enough Americans to provide a promising market for another big, perhaps unnecessary, but interesting book about the Kennedys.
Yale professor David Gelernter thinks it speaks well of our society that, when we have condemned a criminal to death, we are in no hurry to [kill him], and will search on and on for a convincing reason not to. Not so with the severely brain damaged, those in a vegetative state. Not so with Terri Schiavo, whose husband wanted her dead and was only saved for a time by Governor Jeb Bushs calling of a special session of the legislature to give him authority to intervene. Writing in the Wall Street Journal , Gelernter says: What happens to the next Mrs. Schiavo? And the next plus a hundred or a thousand? How much attention will the public and the legislature be able to muster for this sort of thing over the years? The war against Judeo-Christian morality is a war of attrition. Time is on the instigators side. They have all the patience in the world, and all the patients. If this one lives, there is always the next. After all, its the principle of the thing. The mark of civilization, says Gelernter, is the shortening of the list of reasons that justify taking human life. But now footnotes are being added to the list. Thoughtful people have argued: once you start footnoting innocent human life, you are in trouble. Innocent life must not be taken . . . unless (here come the footnotes) the subject is too small, sick, or depressed to complain. One footnote, people have argued, and the jig is up; in the long run the accumulating footnotes will strangle humane society like algae choking a pond. Who would have believed when the Supreme Court legalized abortion that, one generation later, only one, America would have come to this? Mrs. Schiavos parents wanting her to live, pleading for her to live, the state saying no, and a meeting of the legislature required to pry the executioners fingers from the victims throat? I would never have made such an argument when the abortion decision came down, and I would never have believed it. I still cant believe it. Is this America? Do I wake or sleep? He wakes, as many others are awakening. Late, to be sure. But, please God, not too late to turn us toward becoming a culture of life.
I took mainly favorable notice of Father Andrew Greeleys Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium , in part because it was so contentiously against the grain of what everybody knows about the dismal decline of Christianity in Europe, meaning mainly Western Europe. Our aforementioned friend Philip Jenkins, writing in Books & Culture , is less patient with Greeleys contrarianism: The issue of methodology is critical. Greeley has a thorough (if not Gradgrindian) commitment to a positivist quantitative approach, and if this leads to conclusions that seem frankly silly, then the fault must lie in public perceptions, not in the statistics. The introduction offers a gorgeously Greeleyan piece of rhetoric: Data from probability samples do not make for easy cocktail party chatter, but they are a lot more reliable than the repetition of clichés about what everybody knows. Well, clichés are never worth defending, and I would be the last to reaffirm the truthfulness of what everybody knows. But the argument here is that on the one side, we have Andrew Greeley with his hard statistics, and on the other we find only feather-brained dilettantes at their cocktail parties. It really is not that simple. Jenkins thinks there is another Greeley who could have greatly improved this book that represents Greeley the social scientist to the near exclusion of Greeley the religious and cultural commentator, whose book The Catholic Imagination was such a delight. Readers looking for that kind of book must turn instead to Colm Tóibíns superb travelogue The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994). Sometimes the journalists and novelists can tell us quite as much about social realities as the number-crunchers. Maybe we should have asked Greeley the journalist and novelist”he is also both”to review the Greeley number-crunchers book.
To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you have to draw large and startling figures. That wisdom of Flannery OConnor is quoted by Gregory Wolfe, editor of the admirable publication Image , which bills itself as a journal of the arts and religion. He goes on to suggest that, in our postmodern times, the Christian writer is more likely to be a whisperer than shouter, and he thinks that good. Many deplore todays absence of boldly and explicitly Christian writers, but Wolfe writes that those critics who champion earlier cultural manifestations of muscular Christianity start to sound a bit like schoolyard bullies rather than enlightened intellectuals. I dont know whether its right to say that Auden, OConnor, or Graham Greene (figures Wolfe mentions) espoused muscular Christianity, and I cannot help but wonder by whose definition of enlightenment Christians should aspire to being enlightened intellectuals. Wolfe writes, Genuine doubt is not weakness but strength, a willingness to wrestle with the angel. I doubt therefore I am strong? Perhaps I dont understand what he means by genuine doubt, but surely it is faith, not doubt, that wrestles with the angel. The decline-and-fall critics are so sure of themselves, says Wolfe, that they dont bother to carefully sift whats out there. If they did, theyd find more kinship between the whisperers and the shouters than they have imagined. No doubt. Artists of faith may work on smaller canvases today, he concludes, but if they can create exquisite miniatures, then they have done their bit to redeem the time. To be sure, we must all try to do our bit, but I cannot silence the whispering suspicion that, with respect to the dearth of bold and imaginative Christian writing, Gregory Wolfe should more strongly doubt false comforts.
It is not simply that the English translations in the Mass tend toward banality. The problem goes back to the hurried putting together of the Paul VI Missal in Latin following the Second Vatican Council. That is the argument of Theological Principles that Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal by Lauren Pristas ( The Thomist , 67, 2003). Researching the statements of those in charge of the redaction, Pristas finds that they were quite explicit about their intention to adapt ancient texts to the modern mind. Sin and damnation are downplayed, and the distinctions between heaven and earth, the profane and the sacred, Gods grace and our efforts tend to be fudged. The traditional [Latin] orations are highly sophisticated and stunningly concise literary compositions that overflow with surplus of meaning”connotation far outstripping denotation, Pristas writes. The redactors, however, believed that prayers should be submissive to the principles required for a good homily: to have something to say, to know how to say it, and to stop after it has been said. It is doubtful that most of the new prayers rise even to the level of a good homily. Far from overflowing with a surplus of meaning, upon careful examination they display a deficit of meaning. A good many of the prayers in the Mass can be adequately summarized by the petition, Help us to be the really nice people we are. By so revising the prayers from all ages, Pristas writes, it may be the case that nearly all the texts of our missal reflect the strengths and weaknesses, the insights and biases, the achievements and limitations of but one age, our own . . . . If this is indeed so, then Catholics of today, in spite of the access made possible by vernacular celebrations, have far less liturgical exposure to the wisdom of our past and the wondrous diversity of Catholic experience and tradition than did the Catholics of earlier generations. True, the Mass was then said in Latin but the people followed it in missals containing a reasonably accurate translation of the Latin. In the rush to the vernacular, the redaction deprived people of the texts in both Latin and English. In Rome, the Congregation for Divine Worship is engaged in a painstaking reappraisal of what happened to the texts in the Paul VI Missal. A remedy for the mischief described by Lauren Pristas may be on its way. This time a little hurry might not hurt.
John Leo calls it the rapid refurbishing of appalling people, and he has more than a point. In 1987, Joel Steinberg of New York City beat to death his illegally adopted six-year-old daughter. Though still in jail, he has parlayed his notoriety into a job with a cable TV show. Jayson Blair fabricated stories for the New York Times , and has a six-figure advance for a book telling how a racist press made him do it. Stephen Glass fabricated stories for the New Republic and other publications, which earned him a movie sale and big book contract, as well as a job writing for Rolling Stone , for which he wrote fiction as fact. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, and then skipped the country, which did not prevent him from getting last years Oscar for best director. Marv Alberts career was presumably shattered by a messy sex scandal, but a little more than a year later he was hired as host of MSG Sports Desk . And then there is Al Sharpton, co-perpetrator of the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, leader of an agitation against a Jewish store owner in which he joined with others in screaming bloodsucking Jews and Jew bastards, which agitation ended with three people shot and seven dead in a fire set by a protestor. Now he is a civil rights leader who is addressed as the Rev. Sharpton in national debates with other aspirants for the presidency of the United States. Such things are to be expected, writes Leo, in a culture with no higher standard than non-judgmentalism. Religious leaders must take a large part of the responsibility for the debasement of the Christian understanding of forgiveness into non-judgmentalism. In the entertainment and political worlds”the two being not easily distinguishable”we are witnessing the cultural consequences of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. There is another interesting note, however, in Leos worthy jeremiad. The Hall of Fame refuses to honor two great but tainted players, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Leo asks, Is raping a child less serious than betting on baseball or throwing a World Series? An interesting question, but the Hall of Fame is about more than fame. It is about honest achievement and, as pitched to young people, about something like virtue, the latter requiring at least the absence of a blatant defiance of virtue. When watching a ball game, one has the heartening thought that there is still an activity in which it is hard to fake it. Along with the depressing thought that there are so many others in which fakery and even viciousness is the road to celebrity. Leo is undoubtedly right in urging serious people to fight the rapid refurbishing of appalling people.
The death of Neil Postman, at age seventy-two, should not go unremarked. His 1985 critique of a television culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business , is an indispensable reference for anyone alert to what we are doing to ourselves. Postman, who taught at New York University, did not call himself a Luddite, but wasnt terribly upset if others did. On the fashion of putting computers in classrooms, he wrote, I would bar educators from talking about technical improvements until they have disclosed their reasons for offering an education in the first place. And such reasons are to be found in places where machines do not dwell. In The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) he argued that television was destroying the distance between childhood and adulthood, since young and old are both dependent on the same source of information and entertainment. Finally, this from the 1985 book: When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. He did not call himself a prophet, and did not like it when others did, but many do, for understandable reasons.
John Wilson began the series in 2000, and now we have The Best Christian Writing 2004 (Jossey-Bass, 216 pages,, $15.95). It includes three articles from FT: Jody Bottums Dakota Christmas, Philip Jenkins A New Religious America, and Wilfred McClays The Continuing Irony of American History. All three are deserving of the honor, although I might have included at least ten others that we published in the past year. But then, John Wilson makes the editorial calls, and it is important to be reminded that fine writing is not limited to FT. Again this year, there are more articles from FT than from any other publication, including Books & Culture , which is no slouch when it comes to fine writing, and of which John Wilson is editor. One might infer that he is a more disinterested judge than I.
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared. These words of Psalm 130 have puzzled many. If God is so ready to forgive, it is thought, then we need not fear Him. On the contrary: if there is no forgiveness, if we are indelibly marked by and held accountable for our iniquities, our situation is hopeless, we cannot stand. And if our situation is hopeless, forget about God. In some Christian traditions, a very sharp distinction is made between law and gospel. In this view, the law is what God commands and the gospel is Gods forgiveness for our failing to obey his commands. The law is bad news, the gospel is good news. The bad news comes first, and then comes the good news. But Psalm 130 suggests a different sequence. Only when we know our situation is not hopeless, when we know there is forgiveness, dare we face up to our iniquities. Because we know there is forgiveness, we are able to confess our sins. Last month I commented on the admirable action of the Southern Baptist Convention in publicly repudiating its pro-abortion resolutions of many years ago, and asking the forgiveness of God and of the minority who then held fast to the pro-life position. Now the bishops of the Catholic Church in Africa, meeting on Senegals notorious Goree Island where slaves were shipped off to the New World, have held a ceremony of repentance and forgiveness for the role of Africans in the slave trade. This is part of the purification of memories for which John Paul II has called so persistently. The report of the bishops says, The trade of Blacks is one of the most odious acts . . . of human history, be it for its dimensions or the human disasters it caused, or because of the mentalities and be