The Public Square
The cover of the 150-page report of the National Review Board (NRB) is deep purple, the color of Lenten penitence, which is just right for this telling moment in the Long Lent that began with the Boston exposures of January 2002. It is titled A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. Not the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church but the Crisis in the Catholic Church. Long before there was a sex abuse crisis, there was a spiritual crisis, a moral crisis, a doctrinal crisis, and a crisis of misgovernance in the Catholic Church in the United States. All these crises finally come down to what the bishops did and did not do, what the bishops have and have not been doing for decades. The report is about priestly perpetrators and their victims; it is about seminaries and spiritual formation; it is about lawyers and the compromising of the Churchs independence. But, mainly and most importantly, the report is about bishops.
When, in their panicked Dallas meeting of 2002, the bishops created a National Review Board of prominent Catholic laity, I was opposed to the idea. I said and wrote that the bishops should take the heat and the responsibility for what had happened. I thought it was a dangerous precedent to have lay episcopoi of the episcopoi , overseers of the episcopal overseers; that it would play into the hands of dissenting Catholics who challenge what, in Catholic teaching, is the divinely constituted structure of the Church governed by bishops who are successors to the apostles. I hoped the bishops would devise some means”perhaps a plenary council or a long collegial retreat”to honestly examine what had gone wrong and come up with a believable program for reform. I was wrong. It is now apparent that the bishops as a body, meaning the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), were incapable of doing what the National Review Board has done. It is inconceivable that the bishops and bureaucracy of the USCCB could have produced the forthright analysis and program of reform that the NRB issued in Washington on Friday, February 27. The NRB has done what the bishops should have done. The report is a great gift to the bishops and to the Church. Now the question is whether the bishops are capable of receiving the report, and acting on it. If not”and the initial responses are not encouraging”they will, as the report suggests, further undermine the confidence of the Catholic faithful in the authority, competence, and moral integrity of their leaders. That is the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. The report leaves no doubt that clerical sex abuse opened a window, exposing to sight a much larger reality of nonfeasance and malfeasance in the leadership of the Church.
A bit of history is in order, and it goes back long before January 2002. It goes back, in fact, to the beginnings of Catholicism in this country, to what is called the trusteeship controversies. Beginning in the 1780s and up through the nineteenth century, some Catholic laity were attracted to the voluntaristic idea of church membership and church government that they saw in the Protestant denominations around them. Parishes elected lay trustees who took charge of the temporal affairs of the churches, including the salaries and, in some cases, the appointment of clergy. This American model, as it was called, was encouraged by a few bishops such as John England of Charleston, South Carolina, but Rome and the great majority of bishops viewed it, correctly, as a form of congregationalism incompatible with the Catholic understanding of the divine constitution of the Church. Trusteeism was effectively suppressed by the end of the nineteenth century, being replaced by patterns of what the NRB rightly calls the clericalism that has much to do with the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. Still today, priests, and priests who become bishops, are trained to take alarm at the slightest hint of trusteeism. That is why, among other things, parish pastors expend inordinate time and energy on the minutiae of administration that could be better handled by laypeople. That is why bishops engaged in the practices of autocracy, secrecy, and cover-up that contributed so powerfully to the current crisis.
Among the great gifts in the gift that is the NRB report is that it steals the thunder of those who have so long and so loudly campaigned against clericalism in order to advance agendas alien to the Churchs structure, faith, and life. While trusteeism was suppressed more than a century ago, discontent with the clericalism that replaced it has been a staple of Catholic life in this country. Following the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, that discontent found powerful expression through various organizations, mainly on the Catholic left. In the heady atmosphere inspired by the spirit of the Council, the bishops in 1976 sponsored a Call to Action conference in Detroit that brought thousands of activists together who demanded power sharing and democratization in church government, the abandonment of priestly celibacy, and steps toward the ordination of women and approval of homosexuality. Detroit was a debacle. The bishops were understandably alarmed and resolved never again to provide such a forum for the unleashing of lay discontents. Some bishops now fear that they inadvertently violated that resolve by creating the National Review Board. They are, I am convinced, wrong again.
A vestigial organization called Call to Action, claiming some 20,000 members, is still with us. Nobody seems to pay it much mind. Not so with Voice of the Faithful (VOF), which has received a great deal of media attention since the first Boston exposures. It should be said in fairness that some leaders in some places around the country wanted VOF to be something other than Call to Action by another name. As is evident by its media pandering, its diocesan agitations, and the rostrum of speakers at its regional and national gatherings, however, VOF quickly became but another instrument of the weary old litany of dissent that first alarmed the bishops at Detroit. There seem to be, riding under whatever organizational banner, about thirty to forty thousand Catholics in the U.S., out of about sixty-three million, who can be rallied to the dream of a different church come the revolution”the revolution in question being their construal of the Second Vatican Council. The most important continuing institution linking this tattered band is the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a weekly newspaper published in Kansas City. These are the NCR Catholics. There is still a small handful of bishops who think NCR Catholics are the wave of the future, but most bishops see them as a past that must be kept safely past. Unfortunately, some bishops”and not only those closely tied to business as usual at the bishops conference”may view the analysis and recommendations of the National Review Board as being on a continuum that runs from nineteenth-century trusteeism to Detroit 1976 to the latest splenetic eruption in NCR. That would be, I am convinced, a grave mistake.
Something Very Different
The NRB and its report are something very different. The NRB is not against the bishops; it is for the bishops. It does not dissent from church teaching; it wants to see that teaching taught and lived. It does not contest but affirms the Churchs divinely constituted structure, and wants that structure to more effectively serve the faithful for whom it exists. The members of the NRB are not chronic church activists. They are men and women of great accomplishment in the world who, at the price of deep personal and professional sacrifice, agreed to help the Church they love in her time of need. They did not need or want this job but they were willing to serve, and what they have accomplished since the June 2002 meeting in Dallas is impressive indeed. Through formal interviews and in-depth conversations, they have discussed the crisis with hundreds of bishops, priests, victims, perpetrators, lawyers, prosecutors, theologians, lay activists, seminarians, seminary rectors, and experts on sexual abuse. They spent thousands of hours in conversation and in reading pertinent books, official documents, and files, seeking out whatever information and wisdom might be relevant to what went wrong and what might be done about it. The Church in the United States is very much in their debt. (Incidentally, I do not retract my statement that one prominent pro-abortion member should not have been appointed to the board. But that appointment was the result of an entrenched habit by which bishops do not challenge the decisions of other bishops, which is one of the problems addressed by the NRB report.)
I hesitate to single out members, but mention must be made of Anne Burke, a federal appellate judge in Chicago, who took over as Interim Board Chair after the unfortunate Frank Keating resigned. Keating, it will be remembered, is the former governor of Oklahoma who greatly embarrassed and almost torpedoed the NRB by misrepresenting its mandate and presenting himself as a kind of special prosecutor against the bishops, whom he publicly portrayed as being akin to the Mafia. For reasons of its own, the bishops conference declined to name Judge Burke as chairman, but she soldiered on with the awkward title of Interim. At the February 27 news conference she offered a moving testimonial to the fidelity of the great majority of priests who labored under the shadow of scandal created by some of their criminal colleagues. There is also Dr. Paul McHugh, distinguished professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who supplied invaluable expertise on sundry forms of sexual deviance. Robert Bennett”yes, hes Bills brother”is one of the top power lawyers of Washington and, as head of the research committee, he put his immense talents and the considerable resources of his law firm at the disposal of the NRB. Finally, William Burleigh, board chairman of a national communications company, made the NRB his full-time job, bringing to its deliberations a nonspecialized but deep knowledge of Catholic theology and history.
There are others of the twelve members of the board who could be mentioned, but my point is simply to indicate the high quality of intelligence and devotion that the board brought to its assigned task. Never in the history of Catholicism in this country has such a distinguished, capable, and devoted group of laypeople offered, at the behest of the bishops, such a comprehensive assessment of the Churchs leadership. These last years are frequently called the greatest crisis in the history of Catholicism in America. In the research and report of the NRB, we have a response appropriate to the crisis. Some members of the board will resign this June and new members will be appointed. It is possible that in the longer term the NRB will turn out to be the problem that I expected it to be in the beginning. But right now, by the grace of God, the NRB is pointing the way toward authentic Catholic reform and a restoration of trust in the Churchs apostolic leadership. Right now, and in the months ahead, the great question is whether the bishops will accept and act upon the gift they have been given.
The initial and carefully choreographed response was not encouraging. An hour after the NRB news conference at the National Press Club on February 27, the USCCB held its own conference to respond. A big banner was put on display for the television cameras: Promise to Protect/Pledge to Heal. That, I am told, is the slogan suggested to the USCCB by a New York public relations firm. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB, did most of the talking. It was, as it has been for the past two years, all about the children, the children, the children. The NRB report is, to be sure, about children (more typically, about teenage boys), but it is mainly about the bishops, the bishops, the bishops. Among the messages of the report is that, if the bishops had been doing their job, we would not have had to worry about the children. Gregory graciously thanked the NRB for its work, saying, Their efforts have helped keep us on an even keel during the storm through which we have been passing. If the Catholic Church has been on an even keel during the last few years, one must wonder what her floundering would look like.
Bishop Gregory spoke about making our church institutions the safest of environments for children and young people, about reaching out to victims, and about keeping from ministry anyone who would harm the young. They are all imperative concerns, to be sure, but such statements do not address the question of who is chiefly responsible for what went wrong. The purple cover of the report notwithstanding, the tone of the USCCB response was more self-congratulatory than penitential. Most unfortunately, and in the only underlined passage in his prepared text, Bishop Gregory declared, The terrible history recorded here today is history. With all due respect, that is precisely and glaringly wrong. It would be an unspeakable sadness were the USCCB, having successfully spinmeistered the hostile media, to deep-six the NRB report in its archives where future scholars may examine it as a historical curiosity. One must pray that the initial response of the USCCB is not the final response. Otherwise, an unprecedented opportunity for reform will sink into the miasma of business as usual, the disillusionment of committed Catholics will deepen even further, and the legitimate concerns about the Churchs leadership will again become the property of the usual agitators who will, as usual, exploit them for purposes dubiously Catholic. Bishops who understand that the crisis of sex abuse is a manifestation of a larger crisis of leadership”and there are bishops who do understand that”must keep the NRB report from being put to death with a gracious thank-you and then buried in the archives.
So far I have been speaking about the NRB report in the singular. In fact, there are two reports. One is a study commissioned by the NRB and carried out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It consists of findings about the number of sex abuse incidents, the number of offenders, the nature of incidents, and so forth. The John Jay report is valuable in helping to set the record straight, although, because of limitations of methodology and records, it leaves some important questions unanswered or only partially answered. We turn now to the John Jay report and will come back later to the report produced by the NRB itself, the latter being of much greater potential significance for the future of Catholicism in America.
Missing the Point
The NRB and others make a point of noting that no other major institution in America that regularly works with children and young people has submitted itself to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the Catholic Church. One can imagine what the National Education Association would say to the demand that sexual abuse by public school teachers be subjected to a similar scrutiny. Comparisons with other religious groups, with organizations such as the Boy Scouts, with social workers, or with athletic coaches simply are not possible because there are no studies comparable to the John Jay report. Some well-intended but misguided Catholics complain that the Church is being unfairly singled out, that the crisis is not so severe when compared to other institutions. But that is to miss the point. As we shall see, the John Jay data are also susceptible to less alarming interpretations, but that, too, is to miss the point. The Point to be kept firmly in mind is well stated in the NRB report:
It is clear that the abuse of minors is not unique to the Church. However, given the moral stature of the Church, the role of priests and bishops in providing moral leadership within the Church, and the obligations of priests and bishops to foster the spiritual and moral development of children and young people, when sexual abuse of minors occurs in the Church it is particularly abhorrent. Thus Catholics take no solace from the fact that the sexual abuse of minors occurs outside the Church as well.
The John Jay study is comprehensive, albeit not exhaustive. The researchers received the cooperation of 98 percent of the dioceses and eparchies (the latter being Eastern Rite jurisdictions) and of the religious orders that include 80 percent of order priests (about a third of all priests in the U.S. are in religious orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Benedictines). The headlines following the February 27 release of the reports declared that four percent of all the priests who had served during more than half a century, from 1950 to 2002, had been accused of sexually abusing a minor. A few headlines said that homosexual priests were at the heart of the scandals. In those fifty-plus years, there were 10,667 reported minor victims of clergy sex abuse. Eighty-one percent of them were male. There is some expressed unhappiness that the John Jay report uses the category of ages 11 to 17 rather than 13 to 17. According to some criminal justice and psychological authorities, the latter bracket more accurately draws the line at pubescence and thus makes clearer the distinction between pedophilia and adult men having sex with teenage boys. In its report and its February 27 presentation, the John Jay team was manifestly nervous about the homosexuality factor. The woman making the slide presentation at the National Press Club skipped over the data on adolescent males in a nanosecond. A perhaps jaundiced network reporter remarked afterwards about the downplaying of the homosexuality factor, Remember that the John Jay people have to go back and get along in New York City.
The incidence of reported abuse increased significantly in the 1960s, peaked in the 70s, and then decreased in the 80s and 90s even more dramatically than it had increased during the prior two decades. During the entire period studied, 4.3 percent of diocesan priests were accused but only 2.7 percent of priests in religious orders. Different explanations of the difference are on offer. One is that order priests generally live in community and keep a closer eye on one another, thus ensuring chaste celibacy. A less edifying explanation is that homosexual priests in the orders have easier sexual access to other priests in the order and less access to teenage boys.
Of the more than four thousand priests accused of abusing minors, more than half (56 percent) had only one allegation against them. Three percent had ten or more allegations. These 149 priests accounted for almost three thousand (27 percent) of the allegations. Of the 109,694 priests in active ministry during these 52 years, 149 or .14 percent fit the public depiction of the predator priest sexually abusing young people. Moreover, the John Jay report says that 10 percent of all alleged incidents of abuse were found to be not substantiated, while another 20 percent were brought against deceased, debilitated, or otherwise inactive priests and could not be investigated. Although it is admitted by all that some figures are less than precise, it is more than possible that well over half of all alleged incidents involved fewer than two hundred priests in a fifty-two-year period. Some may take it as a comfort that relatively so few priests and bishops violated their vows and abused minors, mainly teenage boys, over such a long time, but, if so, they should read again The Point set forth by the NRB above. The John Jay report notes that the proportion of victims who were male increased in the 1960s and reached 86 percent in the 70s, remaining there through the 1980s. In a footnote, the NRB report responds to the frequent obscuring of the homosexual factor by reference to ephebophilia. The authors write, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (IV) does not recognize ephebophilia as a distinct disorder. Ephebophilia is thus not a disorder in the technical sense, but rather a newly coined descriptive term for homosexual attraction to adolescent males.
There is another study that falls under the mandate of the NRB and may or may not get done, depending in significant part on the availability of an estimated four or five million dollars. The Johns Hopkins psychiatrist and NRB member Paul McHugh underscores that the record of the abuse has this epidemic or outbreak character rather than one suggesting an ever-present abusive proclivity in Catholic priests. John Jay, by extending its enumeration further back in time (to 1950), could show that the Catholic clergy of the 1950s was comparatively free of predators. He writes, Roman Catholic priests were the agents of a huge and unprecedented behavioral epidemic of homosexual predation upon young males, many under their pastoral care, that went relatively unrecognized through the 1970s and 1980s. The epidemic appears to be abating”for reasons as inexplicable as those of its onset”even as concern for the discovery and treatment of individual victims continues. The study of the causes and context of the epidemic would include, for instance, the vulnerability of victims, the traits of predators, and contributing factors in the ecclesiastical and surrounding cultures. McHugh says, We must encourage [the bishops] to press bravely ahead”despite their natural shame over this matter”with what is the first systematic study of sexual abuse of minors in public health history.
A Different Perspective
While appreciative of the John Jay research, Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University and author of The New Anti-Catholicism believes the findings should be treated with caution. Many reported abuses are based on weak or shaky evidence. Investigators are counting all charges not withdrawn or known to be false, and total exoneration is a very high standard. He notes that one-third of all accusations surfaced in 2002-2003, when priestly misdeeds were in the headlines almost every day. The great majority of accusers, he writes, are unquestionably sincere souls who have been deeply traumatized by their awful experiences, but a minority of accusers are blatantly in it for the money. These are the entrepreneurs who wait until after Father X dies to allege that he fondled them thirty years ago, an impossible charge either to verify or contest. Fifteen years ago, when there was a nationwide hysteria about childcare centers, they would have been denouncing Satanic covens rather than priests. Victim-advocacy organizations claim that John Jays four percent figure for abusers is too low, that it frequently takes years for accusers to come forward and therefore there are many more accusations in the pipeline. Jenkins is skeptical, noting that victim organizations have an interest in hype. One such organization, The Linkup, estimates that there at least 601,600 direct victims, and as many as 9,475,200 indirect victims, adding up to 10,076,800 people abused by priests. Such nightmarish fantasies, in Jenkins view, are woven out of whole cloth.
Referring to the aforementioned 149 rogue priests, Jenkins writes, The real problem was an extremely small core of highly persistent pedophiles who massively over-produced criminal behavior”men like John Geoghan and James Porter. Some of these serial molesters produced hundreds of plausible complaints. The relatively few men who really were predatory pedophiles, and not homosexuals abusing teenage boys, vastly inflate the reported number of very young victims. Further, given that the majority of accused priests have only one complaint against them, Jenkins says it seems that most dioceses were doing a surprisingly good job coping with reports of misbehavior, working as they did on the apparently correct assumption that once a complaint was received about a priest, he would not reoffend. That will likely strike most readers as altogether too sanguine. Drawing on the John Jay data, Jenkins does offer a suggestive profile of the typical abusive priest. He was born about 1940 and ordained in the late 1960s, in time to be part of what one John Jay table shows as a Himalayan peak of reported abuse between 1975 and 1980, an awful six-year period that produced one quarter of all recorded incidents for the whole fifty-two-year era under study. A full 10 percent of priests ordained in 1970 have been accused of abuse.
The Himalayan peak, Jenkins believes, has everything to do with the moral and doctrinal chaos following the Second Vatican Council. In addition, with thousands of men leaving the priesthood, bishops tolerated higher levels of misbehavior because they could not afford to lose more priests. Add to that the factor of a general culture that encourages acting out by, in the fine phrase of Pat Moynihan, defining deviancy down, and you get the high number of clergy abusers”although not nearly so high as many think and probably not quite so high as the John Jay report suggests.
Jenkins is not alone in urging caution in dealing with the John Jay data, or at least with the way the data are being interpreted. No sooner were the John Jay findings released than the statistically minded went to work on what are claimed to be discrepancies. The John Jay researchers acknowledged that they were under the pressure of a deadline and that some of the numbers would need revisiting. A final, final report is promised soon. Among the alternative interpretations I have seen, one suggests that, given the number of Catholic children and the number of accusations during the period studied, one in 100,000 was abused by a Catholic cleric in 1950 and that is again the number for 2000. At the peak of the reported abuses, in 1980, six in 100,000 Catholic children were abused by clergy. These alternative readings tend toward lowering significantly the 4 percent figure for accused abusers. John Jay includes references to studies that estimate that 13.5 percent of all children are sexually abused by someone at some time during their childhood, and 62 percent of the victims might be expected to report the abuse. My hunch is that the 13.5 percent claim should be viewed with some skepticism, especially if abuse is defined as loosely as it was by the bishops at Dallas. As previously discussed here, that definition”which does not require physical contact, sexual intention, or even the perception of sexual intention”could make almost any adult an abuser and any child or adolescent a victim.
The discussion of the John Jay data will go on. I am not a statistician, and all this may seem like hairsplitting, but as one informed observer points out, these considerations are crucial to determining whether there is a particular danger to children from Catholic clerics that is not found among other adult males who work with children . . . . [It] would appear that there is almost no comparable information by which to judge the severity and extent of the problem in either the Catholic Church or the larger society. Without similar studies of school districts, youth recreational leagues, other religious groups, and institutions serving significant numbers of children, it is hard to evaluate the incidence of clerical sex abuse of minors in the past or the present. Almost all studies indicate that the majority of sex abuse is by members of the family or relatives. And again, what we dont have is a basis for institutional comparison between the Catholic Church and other organizations dealing with children.
It may be objected that this discussion of the John Jay findings and their interpretation tends to minimize the severity of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. That is not true. Recall again The Point in the above-quoted passage from the NRB report. It is commonly said that, if even one priest or bishop has abused even one child or adolescent, that is a crisis. That is true. It is a crisis for the victim and should be for the perpetrator, but it is not an institutional crisis. If over half a century thousands of clergy have abused minors, even though the rate of abuse might be much lower than it is for cognate institutions, that is an institutional crisis. And it is a severe crisis if, as is indisputably the case, the leadership of the institution was complicit in the abuse by ignoring, denying, covering up, or facilitating the abuse. No matter how the numbers are crunched and recrunched, this is a Catholic crisis because it involves Catholic priests and bishops from whom the people have a right to expect better. Much better. As I have said before, given the rigorous measures that have been put into place since January 2002, the Catholic Church is today probably the countrys safest institution for children and adolescents. But that does not answer the very big questions about what went wrong and what can be done to make sure it does not go wrong again.
What is to Follow
To begin to get answers to those questions, we must momentarily set aside the number crunching and return to the report and recommendations of the National Review Board. The NRB has given the bishops a potentially historic opportunity to address problems that have, since long before the sex abuse scandal, undermined confidence in their leadership. The sex abuse crisis brought out into the open for all to see the problems that have created what the NRB calls the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. I attended the news conferences of February 27 and a reporter asked me whether that moment was a period or a comma or a semicolon in the story of Catholicism in America. If it is to be described in terms of a punctuation mark, I responded, I very much hope it is a colon. In other words, the great question is what follows from this moment in our Long Lent.
A bishop tells me that Im wrong to worry that the episcopal conference will simply bury the NRB report. It will be on the agenda for our June meeting, he tells me. We will warmly thank the review board for its hard work, and maybe spend an hour or more in three-minute interventions on their report before moving on to the next item on the agenda. Only then will the NRB report be buried in the archives. He adds that a committee will no doubt be assigned the responsibility of studying the document further and bringing back its report in a year or two, by which time the agenda will be crowded with other matters clamoring for attention. The bishop smiled as he said this, but it was a wan smile, reflecting long experience with the ways of the USCCB and its bureaucracy. We must pray that he is wrong about the probable fate of the NRB report. There is reason to believe that he may be wrong. There is, for example, a serious move by some bishops to have the June meeting consider a proposal for convening something like an extraordinary synod of American bishops. Such an unprecedented synod could be the instrument for moving the bishops from the mode of public relations and institutional defensiveness toward the conversion called for by this Long Lent. A good start would be for the bishops to make the NRB report their own. It is not unreasonable to hope that such a decisive step could be the beginning of the Catholic Reform.
To be continued next month.
Believing in Evolution
The angry dogmatism of its defenders such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett suggests that Darwinism as a comprehensive explanatory system is on the ropes. That doesnt mean that the arguments will not go on and on. They will. There is too much at stake. The arguments are not, finally, over scientific evidence in fields such as evolutionary biology. They are about the nature of reality and our place in it. Dawkins declares that Darwinism makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, and intellectual fulfillment, for an intellectual, is something like salvation. A good place to catch up on the state of the arguments to date is Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing , edited by William A. Dembski (ISI, 350 pages, $18). Dembski has appeared in these pages and, along with Michael J. Behe, is credited (or blamed) for launching a school of thought that goes by the name of Intelligent Design.
In addition to Dembski and Behe, the book includes thirteen essays by a variety of scientists and philosophers who have been led to a position of skepticism toward, or outright rejection of, Darwinism. Of very particular interest is the essay The Deniable Darwin by mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski, which first appeared in Commentary . Berlinski offers a tour de force that is, variously, relentless in its logic, devastating in its studied understatement, and delightfully whimsical in exposing the incoherence of opposing arguments while never, unlike some of his opponents, being vicious. His essay and response to critics will come to be, I expect, a classic text in these debates.
Berlinski is assiduous in distancing himself from creationists or arguments claiming that manifest design logically requires a Designer. He contents himself with making the case that Darwinism is riddled with internal contradictions and simply does not explain what it claims to explain. While the more dogmatic proponents of Darwinist orthodoxy circle the wagons and fire imprecations at any and all who question the true faith, Berlinski does not accuse them of engaging in a conspiracy. No conspiracy is required to explain the attachment of biologists to a doctrine that they find sustaining; all that is required is Freuds reminder that those in the grip of an illusion never recognize their affliction. As for the complexity of living systems, Berlinski says he entertains no supernatural explanations. The thing is a mystery, and if there is never to be a naturalistic explanation, I shall forever be content to keep on calling it a mystery. His purpose is limited to pointing out that Darwins naturalistic explanation, turning on random variation and natural selection, is implausible, incoherent, and contrary to a great deal of scientific knowledge. Berlinski is especially effective in showing how Darwinists kick any idea of purpose, design, or teleology out the front door, only to smuggle such ideas in by the back door. Nature selects this or that, Nature chooses, Nature targets, and so forth. This Nature, whether upper or lower case, is a kind of deity in the details, ever invoked and ever denied.
One is sometimes asked whether one believes in evolution. More strident Darwinists adamantly insist that it is not a matter of faith; it is not a theory to be accepted or rejected; it is a fact to be acknowledged. But of course that is silly. It is precisely, and Darwin intended it precisely as, a theory to explain how the complexity of living systems came about. And there may be something to it in terms of micro-evolution, in possibly explaining how changes happen within particular species. As for macro-evolution”a general and all-encompassing explanation of how we and all other living things came to be”Darwinism is, in my considered judgment, preposterous. Berlinski is embraced by proponents of Intelligent Design for the persuasiveness and vigor of his arguments but also because he is an agnostic. It is odd but understandable that in our intellectual culture a critic of Darwinism is thought more credible if he is an agnostic or atheist. A scientist who believes in the Creator is suspected of cooking the evidence to support his belief. Whereas one who has made a commitment to agnosticism or, even better, atheism is thought to be neutral. This, too, is nonsense. There are devout and thoughtful Christians who accept Darwinism of one sort or another. The question before us is the evidence and proposed theories to explain the evidence. As the still-dominant theory”typically presented as a comprehensive belief system”Darwinism fails to explain too much that we know and claims to know much too much that we cannot know by reason and scientific evidence. As a belief system it suffers the distinct disability of being unbelievable. Of course there is much more to be said on these matters, and most of it is persuasively said in Uncommon Dissent .
From Common Culture to Culture Wars
Its a very big subject and one scholar cannot be expected to be on top of every aspect of it. Even if he were, one can only do so much in a little over 300 pages. Given these limitations, Patrick Allitt of Emory University has written a very impressive book, Religion in America Since 1945: A History (Columbia University Press, $30). What has been said about America must also be said about religion in America: It is so vast and various that almost anything said about it is amply supported by the evidence. Unlike too many historians, Allitt understands that the subject of America and the subject of religion in America are not two subjects but one. In this eventful half century”what half century is not eventful?”there was an uneasy peace after World War II, quickly replaced by communism and the Cold War, the extraordinary religion boom of the 1950s, the lure of Eisenhower spirituality and sundry positive thinkings, the essentially Christian civil rights movement, tumult over Vietnam, Catholicisms dubious coming of age in America, Jewish-Christian dialogue and the curious uses of the Holocaust, feminist theology, the clash over abortion, the emergence of the new religious right, environmental piety, megachurches, millennial expectations, and the challenge of homosexuality.
Those and other developments carry Allitts story up to September 11 and Ground Zero for Americas understanding of itself and its place in the world. The story is strewn with names from the seemingly distant past and imperious present: Thomas Altizer, Norman Vincent Peale, John Cogley, Cesar Chavez, Otis Charles, Fawn Brodie, Paul Blanshard, Daniel Berrigan, James Forman, Mary Daly, John LaFarge, Charles Colson, and many more. Writing from the perspective of the liberal Protestantism that was once the mainline, Allitt is fair-minded in treating the many religious, cultural, and political changes that have driven that mainline world to something like the sideline. Allitt ends by wondering why, fifty years later, there are no theologians of great public consequence. Of course there are public intellectuals, some of whom are explicitly Christian, but he has in mind towering cultural figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich.
The absence of such figures, I would suggest, is not so puzzling. Among many factors are these: the media-assisted suicide of the religious mainline/oldline; the establishment cultures loss of its defining other in Catholicism and fundamentalism; the emergence and astonishing success of Jewish thinkers in the academy and public culture; fundamentalisms makeover into a perceived political enemy as the religious right; the balkanization of a common culture under the force of sundry multiculturalisms and radical pluralisms; the multiplication of information and entertainment sources such as the Internet and hundreds of cable channels.
It is not true that”as some champions of deviant subcultures contend”there is no longer such a thing as an American culture and that there is only a smorgasbord of subcultures. But it is true that deviancy has been defined down, and in some cases out of existence, making the common culture much thinner. There was a time when the center seemed to hold. Everyone was expected to be aware of what was said in Life , Time , and on the Jack Benny Show, and it was well known that the World Series of our national sport brought us together, even as we good-naturedly rooted for opposing teams. There was something like a civil religion as celebrated in, for instance, the heroic four chaplains (two Protestant, one Catholic, one Jew) who went down with the Dorchester in 1943. This was the America depicted in Will Herbergs 1955 classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew . The religio-cultural triumvirate was given powerful popular expression in the preaching and writings of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Rabbi Joshua Liebman. All of that was a very long time ago.
I expect that there are today theologians speaking to public questions who might be at least as profound and articulate as were Niebuhr or Tillich. But if Niebuhrs or Tillichs appeared today, what national venues would be available to them? Union Theological Seminary in New York or a conference of the fragmented and declining United Church of Christ? No such figure has emerged from, say, the large and vibrant Southern Baptist Convention, which no doubt has to do with what Mark Noll calls the scandal of the evangelical mind, but also with the fact that the dominant media and academic world view the SBC as the cultural and political enemy. The last time a much-diminished Time celebrated a theologian was two years ago, and the theologian was Stanley Hauerwas, the scourge of the common culture that Niebuhr and Tillich sought to serve.
The common culture is now much thinner and, it seems, becoming thinner every day. It has in large part been displaced by what are aptly called the culture wars. There are distinguished religious thinkers who think of themselves as not being captive to the culture wars, who aspire to provide a nonpartisan theological perspective on the American experience. But their more partisan friends and enemies will not let them. Whether it is assigned by friends or enemies, they have a definite place on the battlefront of the culture wars. To the reluctant the question is insistently posed, Whose side are you on? They must answer the question, or it will be answered for them. This is not the happiest of circumstances for the public square, or for religion in the public square. But it is where we have come and Patrick Allitts Religion in America Since 1945 helps to explain how we came to where we are.
Nobody should want culture wars. As for myself, I am keenly aware that I am viewed as a belligerent, by both friends and enemies, and therefore I undoubtedly am. But my allies and I did not initiate hostilities. We did not, to cite but a few obvious examples, declare an unlimited abortion license, or advocate the deconstruction of Western culture, or champion the replacement of marriage with state-certified friendships. We are playing defense, albeit an aggressive defense, in a reasoned hope of prevailing. Prevailing so to speak, for the wise know that, short of the coming of the Kingdom, history is continuing contention. Much better than culture wars, however, is the idea of democratic engagement that Father John Courtney Murray described as a people locked in civil argument. While accepting our part in battles not of our choosing, we must never sacrifice hope for genuine argument within the bond of civility. Please God, the realization of that hope may be the history of the next half century of religion in America.
While Were At It
David Horowitz is pressing a proposal that has thrown many academics into a tizzy. He wants universities to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights that will assure, amidst a multitude of other diversities, intellectual diversity. Everybody in the academy is fervently devoted to diversity, until you put intellectual in front of the word. The eminent and self-described sophist Stanley Fish does not like the Horowitz proposal one little bit. It is, he says, a Trojan horse of a dark design to infiltrate conservatives into positions of academic influence. On campuses, says Fish, the culture wars are being won by those who promote womens studies, Latino studies, African-American studies, postmodern studies, gay-lesbian-transgender studies, and the like. But their critics have won the war of public opinion, convincing Americans that our colleges and universities are hotbeds (what is a hotbed anyway?) of radicalism and pedagogical irresponsibility where dollars are wasted, nonsense is propagated, students are indoctrinated, religion is disrespected, and patriotism is scorned. Horowitzs Academic Bill of Rights, Fish declares, would inaugurate the oppressive rule of ideological balance when the only purpose of a university is to seek the truth. It is hard to know what to make of Fishs protest. In other writings, he is scornfully dismissive of the idea that there is such a thing as the truth. Maybe it is just that Fish likes the academys domination by insouciant nihilisms and doesnt want to see that challenged. Of course Horowitz is a conservative and would like to see more people in the academy challenging the likes of Fish. His proposal is a very odd Trojan horse, however, since no secret is made of its intent. Stanley Fish, sophist that he is, is never happier than when people say it is hard to know what to make of what he says. As for the meaning of hotbed, I trust that Professor Fish is not above resorting to a dictionary where it is defined as a bed of soil heated by fermenting manure.
A release from Fortress Press: Lathrop and Wengert Reveal Christian Tradition as a Resource for the Modern Church. The release announces a new book by Lutheran theologians Gordon Lathrop and Timothy Wengert on the marks of the true Church. Revealing the tradition is a theologically intriguing idea, but suggesting that two millennia of history might be pertinent to Christianity today is downright revolutionary.
Richard J. Mouw and I have been friends since we were both young and irresponsible. He is now president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California and recently raised a good many hackles with an article in the very leftward magazine Sojourners . The article is adapted from a talk he gave to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization sympathetic to the gay agenda and working to avoid a split in the Presbyterian Church-USA (PCUSA) over sex-related disputes. The experience of Reformed (Calvinist) theology in this country, says Mouw, is one of the orthodox breaking away to form a purer church, followed by further splits in the service of yet greater theological purity. Hes right about that. Hes also right in saying that its wrong for some Presbyterians to deride those who dispute the gay agenda as homophobes. My views on same-sex relations are very traditional, he writes. I am convinced that genital intimacy between persons of the same gender is not compatible with Gods creating or redeeming purposes. He then makes a plea for sexual humility, pointing out that nobody is untouched, in desire or deed, by sexual quirks and transgressions. What he wants to happen is that we take up our arguments about the issues that divide only after we have knelt and laid our individual and collective burdens of sin at the foot of the cross. That is well put, and when the arguments are taken up again and PCUSA comes to officially teach that genital intimacy between persons of the same gender is compatible with Gods creating and redeeming purposes, and to bless same-sex marriages, and to ordain LGBTs, will Richard Mouw be left kneeling, confessing his sins of homophobia? The confession of sins in general does not answer the question of what are sins in the particular. Because he is a man of integrity, I do not expect that Richard Mouw will submit to a solemn assemblys approval of what he is convinced is incompatible with Gods purposes. And I very much doubt that he is prepared to make a theological case for sacrificing truth in order to ensure the institutional survival of PCUSA. Then, too, there is a hope against hope: that having knelt at the foot of the cross, a repentant PCUSA may again name sin as sin, apart from which the meaning of forgiveness is made empty. I do not mean to pick on Richard Mouw or PCUSA. It is only that his talk has generated considerable interest. Many others in other denominations find themselves in a similar quandary. Who would have thought only a few decades ago that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the deepest fissures in these communions would appear along the lines of conflicting positions on homosexuality?
Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School has been named to head the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Its a part-time position that will keep her oscillating between Rome and Cambridge. The Boston Globe quotes her colleague at Harvard, Alan Dershowitz: If a woman could be made pope, shed be my candidate. She brings to bear all the best of religion and secular thinking. Whenever I get upset about religion, which happens from time to time, I think about Mary Ann Glendon and I remember the virtues of a religious perspective. Then, because papers must be balanced, the Globe talked to an old reliable from the superannuated left. But the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian, compared Glendons selection to that of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Glendons views, he said, are also extreme and out of step with the constituency she is supposed to represent. Catholic women who know her would not see her as one of their own and would not see her as evidence of the Vaticans commitment to place women in high positions of visibility, McBrien said. It is true that some blacks have presumed to decertify Clarence Thomas as a black man, but at least they are black. Perhaps Father McBrien has canvassed all the Catholic women who know Professor Glendon and has been appointed their spokesperson, but I rather doubt it. Better, I think, for women to speak for themselves, although not about who is and who is not a woman.
I hear from readers who wonder why there are fewer comments in this space on the distortions, falsehoods, and general inanition of the New York Times . Frankly, it is because the Times is increasingly tedious and I spend less and less time with it. It has long been a liberal paper, of course, but in recent years it has become increasingly strident and unprofessional in its leftwing advocacy. Picking out this item or that for criticism seems unsportsmanlike, like shooting fish in a barrel. One increasingly looks at the Times in the way one looks at the Village Voice or the Nation , just to see what the left is up to. But old habits die hard, and I do look at the Times almost every morning. And from time to time, one comes across something worthy of comment. For instance, a while back there was a long editorial titled Frank Talk About Abortion. It is now generally recognized that the pro-abortion advocates are on the defensive, and this had the appearance of an editorial reassessment of the question. It was unusual in that it took up the entire space for editorials. The editors begin with some grave chin-pulling about the unfortunate consequences of recent turns in the abortion debate. Among the most disheartening is the widespread impression that the pro-choice movement does not regard abortion as a serious matter, and that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy require a condescending reminder from Congress to understand that the fetus they are carrying is a potential life. Hope is sparked by an editorial subtitle, Finding Common Ground. Aha, one thinks, at last the pro-abortion forces, who have up to now been unwilling to give an inch, are open to an accommodation. The wisest line, the editors write, is the one laid down by the Supreme Court thirty years ago in Roe v. Wade : Government should have the right to step in only when the fetus has developed fully enough to be able to exist on its own. So, the Times is ready to support the legal protection of the unborn after the point of viability? Well, not quite. The editorial is occasioned by, and strongly opposed to, the partial birth abortion ban. In other words, the government does not have the right to step in even to protect a healthy baby who is being killed in the very process of leaving the birth canal. The editors only other specific proposal in the service of finding common ground is that government should promote effective sex education and easier access to contraception, including over-the-counter availability of the so-called morning-after pill. Did I, in a triumph of hope over experience, approach this editorial with the thought that maybe the Times would have something to say that did not insult the intelligence of its readers? Yes, I honestly did. Call me naïve, or call me charitable, I really am exceedingly reluctant to give up on the possibility of intelligent public discourse and respectful engagement with opposing arguments. And so, despite all, there may still be occasional references to the Times in this space.
A lot of people must do this or else those airport bookstores wouldnt survive. It was going to be a long flight and I took along some heavy-duty reading, but then I spotted The Best American Short Stories of 2003 and decided to give myself a break. Dont buy it. Inclusivity of the ethnic-gender-racial-sexual kind obviously trumped the storytelling art in the editors decisions about what to include. But there is an engaging tale by E. L. Doctorow about a disoriented gal, Karen, who steals somebody elses baby and then wants to return him to his parents. But how to do it without being charged with some terrible crime? Her boyfriend Lester comes up with the idea that she should go to confession and tell it to the priest, who can then return the baby. Lester, she said, I dont know the right words for confessing. Its OK, I said, just go in there and sit down in that box they have. It is somewhere off to the side. You dont have to be Catholic for them to listen to you . . . . He will listen and never betray your trust that it is just between the two of you. And you dont have to cross yourself or anything, he will tell you what to do if you put it in the form of asking for his advice. And you will thank him, and you will mean it, and maybe thank God, too, that there are people who are sworn to do this for a living. And it all worked out just the way Lester said it would. Leaving one to wonder where Mr. Doctorow gets his ideas about current Catholic practices. Just as likely, the church would be closed, the box long ago discarded, and the best Karen would be able to do is make an appointment through the parish secretary to see Father next Tuesday, by which time both Karen and Lester would be in the slammer. For the rest of the flight, I went back to my heavy-duty reading, a book about vestigial Catholic influences in contemporary literature.
We have already given favorable notice to Russell Hittingers The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (see FT, April 2003), but the review by Graham McAleer of Loyola College in Maryland adds a point or two worth noting. Writing in Pro Ecclesia , McAleer says, For Hittinger, the American Republic is a polity riven by state sanctioned violence against the innocent [i.e. the unborn], which”although Hittinger stops just short of saying it”is Aquinas definition of tyranny. Im not sure that Hittinger does stop short. See, for instance, his contribution to the End of Democracy? symposium in the November 1996 issue of FT. The question is more one of what can and should be done in response to tyranny. McAleer recognizes that a great strength of Hittingers approach is that it construes natural law in emphatically theological terms. Almost all Protestants, as well as many Catholics, are put off by natural law theory because it seems to be based on universalizing human capacities to which specifically Christian truth looks like an afterthought. Hittinger is solidly in the corner of John Paul II who, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor and elsewhere, underscores a Christological understanding of natural law that entails the human response of the gift of self. And there is another important factor. McAleer writes: One reason among many that the Hittinger volume is so good is that he treats natural law as, well, law . And Thomas insists that law requires promulgation. Many overlook this aspect of Thomas theory. Whether one takes the John Finnis view that the norms of natural law are akin to something like Platonic forms, or one is willing to grant [as others do] that norms might yet change with evolution, Thomas interest in promulgation is lost. All of these writers are going to have some explaining to do if Thomas is right that promulgation is essential to law. Promulgation does not appear essential on their views, and whilst this is not to say that they cannot introduce it, Hittinger has certainly exposed a shortcoming in their views. Is all this mere quibbling and definition-splitting among natural law theorists? Perhaps so, if the present masters of jurisprudence in the law schools and on the courts are in unchallengeable control. But Russell Hittinger and his natural law colleagues are, at the very least, keeping alive an understanding of the rule of the law that might slow and one day stop the course of lawless tyranny.
The story is told of a Donegal man who met a country woman walking over the hills with a little boy by her side, holding her hand. As an Irishman would, the man asks her who she is. She replies:I am the mother of God, and this is Himself; and Hes the boy youll all be wanting at the last. Thats from a reflection by Cahal Cardinal Daly, former Archbishop of Armagh, on the future of Irish Catholicism in a remarkable issue of the Chesterton Review devoted to Chestertons Ireland Then and Now. The special 300-page issue, which includes a number of Chestertons commentaries on Ireland, comes out of a conference held at St. Patricks College, Maynooth, and has Chesterton scholars, journalists, and public figures trying to make sense of the apparent dissolution of what was once beyond cavil Catholic Ireland. Among the more insightful essays is that of Garrett FitzGerald, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who traces the tumultuous history that resulted in the virtual equation of Ireland and Catholicism, to the severe detriment, as is now becoming evident, of both government and Church. The story is in many respects strikingly similar to the collapse of Catholic Quebec after the quiet revolution led by Pierre Trudeau and his colleagues, although, unlike the Irish instance, they were cheered on by priests and bishops who conflated the spirit of the Second Vatican Council with a desire for liberation from the Erastian captivity of the Church. Chestertons Ireland Then and Now also looks to the future with a sometimes bracing and sometimes sagging hope against hope. The Irish still know, it is suggested, that Hes the boy theyll all be wanting at the last. (The special issue sells for $25, but is free for those who subscribe for $30 per year. Write to the Editor, Rev. Ian Boyd, C.S.B., Seton Hall University, 400 South Orange Ave., South Orange, New Jersey 07079.)
David Burrell respects the force of the argument supporting Samuel Huntingtons clash of civilizations thesis, and shares Huntingtons appreciation of the religio-cultural sources of conflicts in international affairs. Yet he thinks Huntington must not be allowed the last word. Burrells article in Modern Theology , Thomas Aquinas and Islam, points to what the author thinks is a more promising form of engagement. Ours is a very different world from Aquinas, yet his ability to see the presence of interlocutors from other faiths as a spur to understanding of his own tradition offers us a model which deftly eschews intellectual colonizing, and displays the way in which every living tradition grows by carefully responding to challenges from without. Yet what must animate that approach is a lively confidence in the truth of ones own tradition, together with the realization that such a truth will continue to outstrip any standing articulation of it. So one seeking the truth of matters revealed will always have something to learn from others; the polar opposite is to need certitude. Yet a proper phenomenology of a living religious faith will be able to identify needs of that sort as obstructions to the internal development of the faith itself, exposed so neatly in Kierkegaards ridiculing of anyone intent on defending the faith. We have explored in detail the appropriation which Aquinas made of a set of philosophical strategies transmitted to him by an Islamic rendition of a Neoplatonic text, the Liber de causis [ Kitab al Khair Mahd ], as he sought to articulate the faith assertion”central to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike”of a free creator, in properly metaphysical terms as the cause of being. The deft way in which he adapts this (already adapted) text of Proclus displays how he executed his calling to show that theologia could be scientia : not by reducing itself, Procrustean-fashion, into Hellenic categories, but by employing them in a way that respects their logical power yet allows them to illuminate, rather than pretend to explain, matters which will resist explanation in simply human terms. No wonder his synthesis of Christian doctrine, once shown to be the intercultural, interfaith achievement it is, has proven to be normative for subsequent generations as well. To the objection that this vision is more suitable for an academic seminar than the real world of Islamist terrorism against the West, Burrell notes that Aquinas, too, lived in a world besieged by Islam. It is especially in times of war, however just war may be, that we must not let war have the last word.
Out of the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century came, in the 1940s, the neo-Evangeli