The Public Square
In the nineteen years he has been attending these meetings, says one archbishop, this was unquestionably the best. The sentiment seems to be widespread among the bishops who participated in the semi-annual meeting, held this past June in Englewood, a few miles from Denver, Colorado. The sentiment is hardly universal, however. For some who are more closely bound to an older way of doing things, the meeting had its rough patches. But, for those who loved it, several reasons are offered. There was no press. The bishops were meeting among themselves and had a chance to work through problems without the glare of publicity. They were able to engage in fraternal argument and disagreement without worrying about the next day’s headline, “Major Rift in Bishops Conference.” Equally important, it is said, there was minimum participation by the staff of the national conference, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). There are 281 active bishops (active, in this case, means they are not retired) and more than 350 staff members of the USCCB. While the USCCB is the creation of the bishops, and the staff is there to serve the bishops, a common complaint has been that meetings of the bishops are consumed by processing the predetermined agenda of an endless array of committees, subcommittees, departments, and related offices. As the title of a book on the episcopacy has put it, the bishops have become “a flock of shepherds.” In sum, substance was subsumed by process and the bishops have found themselves, willy-nilly, subordinated to those who are supposed to be serving them. That, it is said, did not happen at the Denver meeting.
At Denver there was real discussion and deliberation, and a readiness to engage rather than deny disagreements. Not that the meeting was confrontational, although there were tense moments; but the bishops spoke out as bishops, as shepherds and teachers of the Church, and not as managers of local franchises of Catholicism U.S.A. The most important difference, several bishops say, is that the meeting was intensely prayerful. The homilies at Masses were spiritually and intellectually substantive, there were periods devoted to prayer and reflection before the Blessed Sacrament, and confessors were kept busy. The sense was that, after years of scandal and unremitting attack, they had, by the grace of God, come through a dark night together; wounded and chastened, to be sure, but newly resolved to be more fully the bishops they were ordained to be. Of course, minds were powerfully concentrated by a question that most of the bishops knew could not be evaded or postponed: how to deal with Catholic public figures, meaning mainly politicians, who act in public and persistent defiance of the Church’s teaching, notably on the protection of innocent human beings at the beginning and end of life.
Before turning to that great question and what the bishops did about it, however, a word is in order on what Denver may portend for the future of the American bishops as a body. It is said that Denver may be, just possibly, a turning point in how the bishops deliberate and decide, and how they define their fraternal responsibilities to one another and to the body. As discussed previously in this space, there has been much thought over the last two years about how the bishops might more effectively exercise their leadership. Apparently nobody is suggesting that the USCCB be dismantled, but there is a general sense that something else is needed. The idea of a plenary council for the Church in the U.S. has been widely bruited, but a plenary council has not been held since the nineteenth century and nobody quite knows what it would entail. Some experts say that the pertinent canons prescribe the participation of well over a thousand people, both clerical and lay, thus making it unwieldy, in addition to being ineffective as a forum for deliberation among the bishops. It would also be, some note, forbiddingly expensive.
Alternatively, there could be a special U.S. synod of bishops, but synods of bishops are ordinarily held in Rome and are composed of representatives from the region involved. That would not achieve the goal of enhancing effective collegiality among all the American bishops. So it seems the plenary council and synod proposals have been put on a back burner. They may be moved to the front again, but right now bishops who are looking for a better way are saying, “Let’s do the June meeting again for another two or three years and then see where we are.” In other words, if at least once a year they meet as bishops with no press, minimal staff, a limited and sharply focused agenda, and a generous openness to what the Spirit might do as they engage one another on questions of consequence, perhaps a plenary council or synod will not be necessary after all.
A New Generation
Another reason for talking about a possible turning point is that there seems to be something like a generational change underway. It is not necessarily age specific, being more a matter of when one was admitted to the episcopal club. There is, I am told, a different spirit among many of those who were made bishop from, say, 1995 on. They were not present at the creation of the USCCB system. The last of the founding fathers who knew how to make the machinery work and enjoyed making it work was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, who died in 1996. No other cardinal archbishop has taken over the organizational controls. The late Cardinal O’Connor of New York believed he had more important things to do than to get distracted by national episcopal politics, and his successor, Edward Cardinal Egan, has concentrated on putting New York on a sound financial basis. Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, now retired, is an assertively orthodox and independent soul who is impatient with bureaucratic restrictions. His successor, Justin Cardinal Rigali, evidences no ambition to be king of the conference. William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore steadily attends to organizational duties and has served as president of the conference but has apparently never aspired to run the machine in the tradition of Cardinal Bernardin. The energies of Cardinal Law, formerly of Boston, were applied to curial business in Rome and international troubleshooting. As for Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, he is viewed as being off in a world of his own. There was for years the monumental preoccupation with building that cathedral, and now he and his batteries of lawyers have their hands full with abuse charges that will likely see him through retirement. Also monumentally preoccupied has been Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit, who raised some seventy million dollars for the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., which has turned out to be a cropper in terms of both popular interest and scholarly contribution. So nobody has taken on, or seems likely to take on, the role of conference ringmaster played by Cardinal Bernardin. Some think that Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, moved from Newark to Washington in 2001, may aspire to that role, but after the June meeting that seems unlikely, for reasons we will come to.
If one asks around among knowledgeable bishops, there seems to be near unanimity that the intellectual leader of the conference is Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. Nobody is listened to more carefully and respectfully by the other bishops. It is not simply that he is very bright. He seems to embody a sense of urgency and expectation about the possibilities of Catholic renewal in the U.S. That is joined to a dour—I think excessively dour—assessment of the problems intrinsic to America’s Protestant (he says Calvinist) culture, and he has no illusions about the culturally accomodationist “reforms” of Catholicism over the past four decades. He is strongly, albeit critically, sympathetic to what some describe as a need for a “reform of the reforms.” But he, too, has no ambition to succeed Bernardin in presiding at the master control panel of the USCCB.
A while back, we invited Cardinal George to give a lecture at the celebration of Cardinal (then Father) Avery Dulles’ eightieth birthday, and he took the occasion to present a dramatically different vision of the bishops conference. In contrast to the present apparatus of departments, committees, and subcommittees issuing endless memoranda and position papers on every issue that pops up on the public radar screen, he suggested that bishops should see themselves as part of a deliberative body that participates in the magisterium or teaching ministry of the Church. Close conversation and coordination with Rome, he believes, is not an unwelcome restriction but is crucial to the credibility of the bishops’ leadership. Unlike some critics of the bishops conference, he does not want to downgrade the conference but to upgrade it into a more ecclesial and less institutional-bureaucratic instrument of leadership. Maybe into something more along the lines of what began to happen this June in Denver.
Not surprisingly, Cardinal George’s star is high also in Rome. John Allen, the best of American reporters in Rome, says that when he mentions Francis George in Vatican circles he frequently gets the response, Peccato che lui è un americano. Perchè sarebbe un bel papa. (Too bad he’s an American. Otherwise he would make a great pope.) Because of this country’s dominance in almost everything else, it is assumed that no American should be elected pope. One also has reason to believe that Cardinal George, very sensibly and very definitively, does not want or expect to be pope. He has no ambition other than to be the very best archbishop of Chicago that he can be, and it is the singularity of his devotion to the episcopal task that makes his leadership crucial to what some sense as a turning point in the episcopal conference. In short, he is greatly respected by those who are sometimes called the “new generation” of bishops, the men who are likely to shape the conference of the future.
“JP II Bishops”
These are men who palpably understand their office in ecclesial and spiritual, rather than managerial and career, terms. They evince a serious practice of prayer and are not inhibited in talking about the devotional life. They give top priority to evangelization, and to the re-evangelization of Catholics who seem not to know what it means to be Catholic. They are active in encouraging vocations to the priesthood, proposing it to young men as a course of high adventure and costly discipleship. Very often, they are simply called “JP II bishops.” The term is not meant to suggest that not all bishops respect the Pope. Of course they do. Admittedly, there are still some who are inclined to the view that this Pope has slowed down or stopped the liberal progress that they thought was mandated by the Second Vatican Council. Others are well past that ideological hump, respect the authority of his office, and admire him personally. The JP II bishops, however, have internalized the dramatic teaching initiatives of this pontificate and have demonstrated a zeal in communicating them. They share the Pope’s discernment of the third millennium as a potential “springtime” of evangelization and authentic Catholic reform.
Very importantly, they are men who do not hesitate to speak up and speak well in the company of their fellow bishops. Until recently, the protocol was that those recently made bishop deferred to their seniors and remained silent in conference meetings for several years. That is changing. Another change is noted. Rome is no longer limiting itself to the conventional sequence of episcopal “promotion.” Younger auxiliary bishops are being appointed directly to archiepiscopal sees. The Catholic Church, as one is regularly reminded, is like a very big ship that turns slowly, and, in the gradualness of the turning, “turning points” are hard to specify, but there is a sense that change is underway. The future of the bishops conference, in particular, will be significantly affected by a number of bishops whose names repeatedly crop up in these discussions. Mind you, this is not to be taken as my list of favorite bishops. Some of them I do not even know. No bishop should have his influence crippled by appearing on a First Things roll of honor, so that is not what this is. But in a very unscientific survey of people who pay attention to such matters, there are bishops who are mentioned again and again.
Not in any particular order, the list includes: Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado; Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, California; Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona; Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota; Bishop Peter Sartain of Little Rock, Arkansas; Auxiliary Bishop José Gomez of Denver; Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston, Massachusetts; Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio; Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey; Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts; Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas. They are, along with Cardinal George, the emerging leadership of the American bishops, or so I am told by people whose judgment I respect. No doubt, to the extent their leadership is effective, there are many others who will come to the fore in the years ahead. But, if there is to be a vibrantly collegial reception of the deep reforms—spiritual, catechetical, evangelistic, pastoral—proposed by this pontificate, these are the bishops who are notably eager to let the Spirit make it happen.
Catholics in Political Life
Aspects of the new leadership were evident in the way the bishops addressed the question of Catholic politicians who defiantly reject the Church’s teaching, notably on abortion. Cardinal McCarrick had earlier been appointed to head up a task force on the question, and it was scheduled to issue its report to the bishops after the November elections. At the June meeting, he arranged for Cardinal Keeler and Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco to make presentations, after which he would speak. Keeler reported on consultations that had been held months earlier with bishops, theologians, canonists, and sundry lay leaders, all suggesting that it would be a big mistake to publicly sanction offending politicians. By the time of the June meeting, however, Cardinal Keeler’s report seemed very dated. Levada offered an extended pastoral-theological reflection, asking the question, “Who is to judge the state of a Catholic communicant’s soul?” He warned that penalties imposed on politicians or voters might be viewed as “an interference in the constitutional rights to political freedom.” Moreover, he said, bishops should act together, since “the application of restrictive practices regarding the reception of Holy Communion in one diocese necessarily has implications for all.”
The last observation was understood to refer to a few bishops, most notably Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, who had taken the pastoral initiative in cautioning offending politicians that they should refrain from communing or run the risk of being refused at the altar. At the meeting, there were some who wanted Burke put on notice that he had violated the protocols of episcopal fraternity by acting as he did. First in his diocese in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and then shortly after his move to St. Louis, Burke stood firm on the necessary connection between communing and being in communio with the Church, which includes not publicly rejecting her solemn teaching on the dignity of human life. Some canon lawyers argued that Burke had exceeded his canonical authority, but they apparently did not know their man. For five years Burke was on the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, the Church’s highest court, and he has mastered canon law in all of its sometimes befuddling intricacies. It soon became evident at Denver that the overwhelming majority of bishops, while they may not follow Burke’s precise course of action, were in no mood to reproach him or distance themselves from him. To the contrary, the final Denver statement, “Catholics in Political Life,” was approved 183 to 6 and provided ample room for the approach taken by Burke and others.
A Beleaguered Cardinal
After the speeches by Cardinal Keeler and Archbishop Levada, Cardinal McCarrick spoke to the assembly. It had become obvious that the bishops were not prepared to wait until after the elections for his task-force report. The question, which had in prior weeks and months become publicly entangled with the John Kerry campaign, had to be addressed now and addressed clearly. McCarrick told the bishops that “the battles for human life and dignity and for the weak and vulnerable should be fought not at the communion rail but in the public square.” (One conservative wag indicated his surprise and pleasure that there are still communion rails in Washington.) McCarrick declared that, while “life comes first,” there are other issues that “demand our attention and action as well,” such as “faith and family, education and work, housing and health care.” He continued, “We must not allow ourselves to become used in partisan politics either by those who dispute our teaching on life and dignity or those who reduce our teaching to a particular issue or partisan cause.” The reference to “our” teaching—as distinct from the teaching of moral reason, natural law, and the Church’s magisterium—struck an odd note. As did the suggestion that those who concentrate on protecting the unborn are somehow “reducing” the Church’s teaching to a partisan cause, while pro-abortion Catholics are innocent of partisan politics.
The unhappy and beleaguered Cardinal went on in this vein, bringing to mind familiar liberal abuses of the metaphor of a “seamless garment” of moral urgencies. “The fundamental issue is human life and dignity,” he asserted, “which is threatened in so many ways—preeminently by abortion, but also by euthanasia, cloning, widespread hunger and lack of health care, by war and violence, and by crime and the death penalty.” The list can be readily extended in emptying “preeminently” of preeminence. “Our task is not winning elections,” he said, but, with an eye to elections, he noted that attempts to impose penalties on Catholic politicians “have often been counterproductive.” Things took an interesting twist when he told the bishops that he had been in contact with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by letter and telephone. “He has offered some observations for our work,” Cardinal McCarrick said, “which he specifically asked not to be published, but which I wish to share with you.” According to McCarrick, the burden of Ratzinger’s message was that he has complete confidence that the American bishops know best how to deal with these questions, that the proper approach is one of dialogue and persuasion, not discipline, and that, not to put too fine a point on it, Cardinal Ratzinger agrees with Cardinal McCarrick. He did allow that Ratzinger recognizes that, “as in the case of a person in an invalid marriage, there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied.”
The Ratzinger letter and how McCarrick used it is the subject of lively discussion. No bishop wanted to say that McCarrick “misrepresented” Ratzinger’s message but, as one put it, “The charitable thing to say is that he did not tell us the whole truth.” It appears, although it is not certain, that the letter was sent only to McCarrick and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who was, of course, present at the meeting. At least a few bishops, however, were apprised of the full text and were less than pleased with McCarrick’s presentation of what Ratzinger had to say. When the full text was later made public, first in an Italian newspaper, McCarrick suggested to the press that there were other communications with Ratzinger that put the letter in context, justifying the interpretation he had offered the bishops. Back at the June meeting, the bishops had, despite McCarrick’s resistance, made up their minds. There needed to be a clear and firm statement that unmistakably underscored the utterly distinctive status of abortion and euthanasia in Catholic teaching, and that approved, but did not mandate, specific pastoral approaches, including the denial of Communion to the obdurate.
The drafting of the statement was assigned to Cardinal McCarrick’s task force, but not before the bishops took the precaution of adding Cardinal George and Archbishop Chaput to the drafting team. McCarrick was manifestly unhappy with the turn of events, but the others stitched together a statement that, while hardly seamless, managed to take into account appropriate cautions while affirming an assertive course in dealing with offending public figures, including the denial of Communion when other measures have failed. One can only speculate on how the statement would have been different had Cardinal McCarrick more accurately communicated Cardinal Ratzinger’s message.
The Ratzinger letter speaks decisively to those who misleadingly weave a “seamless garment” of Catholic concerns:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not with regard to abortion and euthanasia. . . .
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation [i.e. knowing, free, and deliberate cooperation] becomes manifest (understood in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist [emphasis added].
Citing an earlier statement of the Holy See, Cardinal Ratzinger continues:
When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.” This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin [emphasis added].
In view of the striking differences between Ratzinger’s letter and what he had told the bishops on June 15, Cardinal McCarrick was in an awkward position. He did later elicit and make public a letter from Ratzinger, dated July 9, referring not to McCarrick’s position but to the statement actually adopted by the bishops. “That statement is very much in harmony with the general principles” set forth in his earlier letter which, writes Ratzinger, was “sent as a fraternal service—to clarify the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue—in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations.” This is a classic instance of observing what in the Vatican is called bella figura—in this case, reproaching by subtle indirection. How could Ratzinger’s earlier letter have assisted the bishops in their discussion and deliberations if it was not shared with them? Which is precisely what McCarrick did not do and claimed he was instructed not to do. There is also a nicety in the phrase “very much in harmony.” If I ask whether you agree with something I have said, you might answer, “Yes, very much.” Or you might answer, “Well, very much”—meaning to a large extent—and then you might go on to qualify that by referring to agreement in “general principles.”
In fact, there are obvious differences between the bishops’ statement, “Catholics in Political Life,” and Cardinal Ratzinger’s articulation of “the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue.” Most notably, what is optional in the former is mandated in the latter. Nonetheless, the June statement is to be welcomed. It acknowledged the worries of the timid while affirming the course decided upon by the likes of Archbishop Burke and Archbishop Myers and emboldening others to follow their example. There is every reason to believe that the statement would have been more firm and coherent if, as Cardinal Ratzinger intended, the bishops had had the benefit of his letter. As several have pointed out, the connection between Communion and communio, which is addressed by the statement, involves much more than the current and necessary concern about errant Catholic politicians. In recent decades the practice has become widespread that everyone attending Mass receives Communion. The consistent Catholic teaching, however, is that only those who are in a state of grace and are rightly disposed spiritually should receive. Practice to the contrary has resulted in, among other things, a dramatic decline in recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a decline approaching desuetude in some parts of the Church. It is hoped that the clarification precipitated by the controversy about Catholic politicians might turn into a “teaching moment” with respect to the sacramental order of Catholic Christianity.
And so one may see the June meeting as a possible turning point in the leadership of the American bishops. As Cardinal George has underscored, it is not a turn against the bishops conference but a turn toward reconceptualizing the purpose of the conference and its supporting institution, the USCCB. The key to the turning is the readiness of bishops to be the teachers and shepherds they are ordained to be. After a few more meetings like that of Denver, there may be substantial reason to believe that a new generation of bishops is prepared to lead.
The New York Intellectuals, Again
A lot of people don’t read Comment, a magazine published by the Work Research Foundation in Mississauga, Ontario. For that matter, it has frequently been brought to my attention that a lot of people don’t read this magazine. Maybe more will be reading Comment now that it is turning itself into a website. In any event, the last print issue of Comment includes a provocative article by Daniel Silliman of Hillsdale College, Michigan, “The Failure of the New York Intellectuals.” The New York Intellectuals included figures such as Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and, toward the end, Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz. The “community” generated and gravitated around publications such as Partisan Review, Commentary, The Public Interest, and Dissent. Today’s talk about “public intellectuals” is a faint echo of what the New York Intellectuals were, writes Silliman.
“The New York Intellectuals were a movement that ought to have continued, one whose lack of an heir is frustrating and discouraging. They were different from the other political movements in two respects: the occupation of a position between pundit and academic, and their attention to culture, especially the literary.” With them, politics and art were “cyclically informed” by each other, and that is very different from today’s “political magazine including three or four short book reviews in the back.” Silliman writes:
It is here that we find the hope and potential of the New York Intellectuals. Here they were poised to change everything. Here they had a chance at genius and the mark of individuality. It is here that we find the most heart-rending failure: they were unable to be more than products of their time and never embraced their literary focus as the essence of their potential. It was never seen as the definition, either by the New York Intellectuals or by the observers of the New York Intellectuals. The New York Intellectuals themselves embraced the literary but never saw it as what they were, failing to get past the historical accidents of context from which they rose. It is here, too, that we find their final failure, their lack of heirs. It is on this point of a political movement informed by and informing the aesthetic that the end of the New York Intellectuals is felt most dearly, perhaps in the subtlety of echoes half heard, but felt as an absence. This breadth has not been replaced and, looking, one finds political movements designed for political men with political souls. And, for some of us observers, the landscape feels bereft of something that was great, or, at least, something that could have been great. The New York Intellectuals never saw themselves predicated on this point, and those movements hoping to be heirs to the New York Intellectuals didn’t see it either.
That’s very beautiful, in its way, but is not, I think, the whole story. The New York Intellectuals were a phenomenon of very particular time and place and sensibility: the sons and daughters of immigrant Jews assertively making their debut in the intellectual public square; City College, the Old Left, intra-Marxist ideological battles; proving their mastery of the high—meaning mainly literary—culture, and fading out into definitional contests over evolving meanings of left and right. How could they have left heirs? The concatenation of circumstances is not repeatable. And Mr. Silliman fails to appreciate how much they were writing and arguing for themselves and among themselves, as the many and sometimes romantic accounts of the New York Intellectuals make clear.
Numerous writers, editors, and think tank scholars understand themselves to be heirs, to a greater or lesser degree, of central figures in the legend of the New York Intellectuals. Unlike them, however, they do not have the advantage of being one or more steps removed from direct public influence. They are in the thick of it, and, being in the thick of it, cultural tone is compromised for the sake of effectiveness, alliances are made with those of different sensibilities, and the “cyclically informed” relationship between politics and art tends toward giving way to the triumph of politics. So I suppose I do not have a substantive disagreement with Mr. Silliman, except to suggest that he might have titled his article, “The Success of the New York Intellectuals,” recognizing that, in a fallen world, success is the forerunner of failure, usually for reasons quite unexpected.
Drawing the Line Against Torture
The outrages committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq justly sparked worldwide protest. Never mind that much of the protest was motivated by opposition to American policy or generalized America-bashing. We handed them a bat with which to bash us. The pictures of what happened and the failure of policy that permitted what happened will long be cited as evidence against the claim that America is the champion of human rights and dignity. The damage is grave.
It is not a question of terrible things done by “a few bad apples.” Ruth Wedgwood of Johns Hopkins University and R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, write, “In a democratic country bounded by religious faith, there is no room for unbounded power over any human being.” Unbounded power and the repugnantly abusive use of unbounded power was on display at Abu Ghraib. Pinning responsibility may be difficult, but we know that the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department was in 2002 producing memos on how, in the treatment of terrorists, the U.S. might get around solemn international agreements prohibiting torture. Wedgwood and Woolsey write:
The Office of Legal Counsel has traditionally claimed the last word, at least on constitutional law, within the Executive Branch. But even the most capable lawyers cannot countermand the President’s solemn promise of humane treatment for all persons captured in war. Nor can they override the President’s proclamation of June 26, 2003. President Bush declared that “the United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture” and called for all governments to join with America to prohibit “all acts of torture” and “prevent other cruel and unusual punishment.” The words of a President should not be lightly dismissed.
There is a temptation to place terrorists beyond the pale of humanity. But every human being, no matter how radically he has debased himself, is a child of God, created in His image and likeness. Liberals such as Alan Dershowitz have argued that, in extraordinary circumstances, we should get over our abhorrence of torture and establish rational rules for its use. Dershowitz’s argument is seconded by Andrew C. McCarthy in the July-August issue of Commentary in a jumbled article that compares torture to capital punishment, allowing abortions under restricted circumstances, the death of innocents in war, and government plea bargaining to obtain information. The gist of McCarthy’s case is that we should “create controlled, highly regulated, and responsibly accountable conditions” in which torture would be permitted. Torture happens anyway, he writes, and his proposal is “far superior to the current hypocrisy that turns a blind eye to that which it purports to forbid.” An even better proposal is not to turn a blind eye to the illegal and unconscionable.
The usual instance cited by proponents of legalized torture is that of the “ticking time bomb.” The scenario is that we have in custody a fourteen-year-old girl who, we have reason to believe, knows where a nuclear bomb is planted in the heart of a city, a bomb timed to explode within hours. Surely, it is argued, in such a circumstance torture is justified in order to get information that will save many thousands of lives. No, it isn’t. Leave aside the counter-arguments that maybe she does not know, or that information exacted by torture is unreliable. When it comes to defining circumstances justifying torture or to the regulating of torture, the course is slippery and steeply sloped. We dare not trust ourselves to torture.
Torture as defined in international agreements to which the U.S. is party—outrages against human dignity, humiliation, degradation, mutilation, the threat of death—is never morally permissible. Admittedly, a measure of coercion, both physical and mental, is inevitably involved in most interrogation. The very fact of being in custody and under threat of punishment is a form of coercion. The task is to draw as bright a line as possible between such coercion and torture, and to forbid the latter absolutely. The uncompromisable principle is that it is always wrong to do evil in order that good may result. This principle is taught in numerous foundational texts of our civilization and is magisterially elaborated in the 1993 encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. We cannot ask God’s blessing upon a course of action that entails the deliberate doing of evil. When something like Abu Ghraib happens, the appropriate response of patriotic Americans is one of deep sorrow, clear condemnation, and a firm resolution that it not happen again.
While We’re At It
• In Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, there is a poem about the unfortunate “Jim” who gets eaten by a lion. Belloc counsels the children, “And always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse.” George F. Kennan, commonly called the father of the containment policy against the Soviet Union, brought the line to the attention of John Lewis Gaddis, the distinguished Yale historian, who uses it to good effect in his little book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Harvard University Press, 150 pages,, $18.95
). Gaddis provides a marvelously intelligent and lucid evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The key elements of that policy, as set forth in the National Security Strategy published in the fall of 2002—preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony—go back to John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, who, Gaddis convincingly argues, was the architect of a strategy that continues to this day, as is evident in America’s response to September 11. A significant change was introduced by FDR, who, in extending America’s hegemony to the entire non-Communist world, realized that we would need the help of others and established organizations such as the United Nations and NATO. Others went along with American preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony “for fear of finding something worse.” The problem today is that much of the world sees U.S. hegemony as the “something worse,” while the U.S., Britain, and a few others try to make the case that the “something worse” is the terrorism against which they are defending the world. Although he is very hard on the naïveté and inaction of the Clinton administration, Gaddis is not making a partisan argument. He is sharply critical of Bush on several scores, but he helps us to understand that the U.S. strategy since September 11, including the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, fits into a strategic framework established by Adams almost two hundred years ago. In the current highly politicized and frequently toxic disputes about U.S. foreign policy, a reader looking for an informed perspective on the continuities and discontinuities in America’s response to September 11 could hardly do better than to spend a couple of hours with John Lewis Gaddis in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. My own expectation is that the world will gradually, or under the pressure of catastrophic surprise, come to realize that there is something much worse to fear than American preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony.
• The Church of England, we noted a while back, has dropped references to the Three Wise Men. The text, it is claimed, doesn’t say they were three, or wise, or men. So now it’s “persons from the East.” But that’s nothing compared to Good as New, a Bible version produced by John Henson of One, an organization dedicated to “establishing peace, justice, dignity, and rights for all,” along with the “sustainable use of earth’s resources,” and to challenging “oppression, injustice, exclusion, and discrimination” while accepting “one another, valuing their diversity and experience.” So you can see that One is a Very Good Thing. Endorsing Good as New, which also includes the noncanonical gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says he hopes it will spread “in epidemic profusion through religious and irreligious alike.” The epidemic he wishes upon the masses changes original Hebrew and Greek names into modern nicknames. Peter becomes “Rocky,” Mary Magdalene is “Maggie,” and Aaron is “Ron.” Henson deftly refers to demonic possession as “mental illness,” and references to the “Son of Man” become “the Complete Person.” Mark 1 in the Revised Standard Version (RSV): “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.’” Good as New: “As he was climbing up the bank again, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. At the same time a pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God’s spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, ‘That’s my boy! You’re doing fine!’” In 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul says, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” That was then, this is now. The same text, so to speak, in Good as New: “Some of you think the best way to cope with sex is for men and women to keep right away from each other. That is more likely to lead to sexual offenses. My advice is for everyone to have a regular partner.” Later in the chapter, the RSV has this: “To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” Good as New: “If you know you have strong needs, get yourself a partner. Better than being frustrated.” The Archbishop of Canterbury writes: “Instead of being taken into a specialized religious frame of reference—as happens even with the most conscientious of formal modern translations—and being given a gospel addressed to specialized concerns, we have here a vehicle for thinking and worshipping that is fully earthed, recognizably about our humanity.” There is no doubt that Good as New is fully grounded in fashionable sensibilities. There are few things more poignant than the liberal nostrum that if it is difficult to communicate the gospel, the answer is to change the gospel. From the general public Good as New is likely to elicit hoots of derision. From the two percent of the members of the Church of England who go to church, it is likely to prompt deeper wonderings about whether they’re wasting their time. Among the theologically serious, in which company Rowan Williams is included, it will little enhance hopes for his leadership. One holds out the possibility that he did not read the book before endorsing it, which may be construed as only a venial sin. The epidemic of which Good as New is a carrier has already reached plague proportions. It does not need a boost from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
• “What can we do to show that the Eucharist is a communal activity? Greeting people at the door is a start. It alerts us to the fact that we are going to do something with others. . . . I have found some Catholics who think this whole ‘welcoming’ business is destroying our traditional sense of reverence and replacing it with some folksy, feel-good experience. This is a false conclusion. If you wish to invite a guest into your home, you must have space. To invite others into our hearts and our worship, we must make room for them. The enemy of reverence is not hospitality but arrogance.” Despite my being intimidated by the flat assertion, “This is a false conclusion,” I dare to wonder if the author, a professor of theology writing in America, might tolerate a modest dissent. Note the language: we are going to do something; our traditional sense of reverence; your home; our worship. Is there not something to be said for reverence for what God is doing in His house through the liturgy of the Church, the saints in heaven and pilgrims on earth? There are many conversion stories in which the narrator describes quietly entering a Catholic church, maybe even sneaking in, and being struck by the statues and candles, and, most of all, by the people kneeling in rapt devotion as the priest at the altar lifts the consecrated host and declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” There may be one, but I have never read a conversion story in which a person was drawn to the Catholic Church by the kind of chumminess that one might encounter at a birthday party or around the water cooler at the office. “This is a false conclusion,” rumbles our liturgist. I’m sorry, sir, but since I’ve had the temerity to go so far, I’ll go a step further and, at the risk of your wrath, suggest that it is really not so important “to show that the Eucharist is a communal activity.” That’s not the point. The point is what God has done, and is doing in the Mass, reconciling the world to Himself through the sacrifice of Christ. The eucharistic community is created precisely by our turning away from ourselves and toward Christ. The wonderful friendliness of our wonderful selves is really quite beside the point. And to think otherwise is, well, arrogance.
• Among the trickiest elements when tyrannies are moving toward something better is how to deal with guilt and responsibility for the bad things done in the past. South Africa and Chile have provided recent examples of balancing strict justice and reconciliation in the transition to a more democratic regime. An alternative approach is represented by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the U.S. thinks that alternative deeply flawed. These questions are carefully probed in a Notre Dame Law Review article by law professors John Czarnetzky and Ronald Rychlak, “An Empire of Law? Legalism and the International Criminal Court.” They write: “An effective international tribunal, one that will do most of the good that its proponents posit for the ICC, cannot rest upon an unbridled faith in legalism. With the ICC, however, the yearning for an end to human rights abuses has led a significant portion of the international community to look only toward mechanistic legalism, enforced by an unaccountable Court. In doing this, the ICC is essentially imposing the ‘unconditional surrender’ model of Nuremberg on all future transitional societies. No room is left for political compromise. This, of course, means that the ICC is taking some potential tools for peace off the table. That is a dangerous thing to do. Law itself is an instrument of politics, and therefore does not transcend human beings and our foibles. Though it is unfashionable to assert, humans have no choice but politics when we discuss just resolutions of difficult situations. Put differently, the fallible human beings who will run the ICC, though garbed in the mantle of positive law derived from noble human-rights norms, will still just be human beings. If history teaches anything, it is that human beings with unchecked, absolute power will eventually abuse that power. In the case of an international tribunal with the power decisively to affect the future of entire peoples, the stakes are far too high to deny such a truth learned through so much hardship over the centuries.”
• On October 17, 2003, there was a dinner held over at the Union League Club and sponsored by the invaluable Human Life Review in order to honor its founder, the late J. P. McFadden. William F. Buckley, a close friend of McFadden’s, was asked to make remarks, and jolted those present by suggesting that Catholics should relax their strictures against removing feeding tubes from the likes of Terri Schiavo, whose life was then hanging in the balance in Florida. Mr. Buckley cited favorably an article in National Review by the late Ernest van den Haag advocating doctor-assisted suicide. Buckley’s remarks were, to say the least, controversial and have occasioned a lively symposium in Human Life Review. George McKenna of City College (New York), who is familiar to readers of this journal, criticized Buckley on a number of scores, including good taste and logic, but homed in on the assumption that the law against taking innocent human life is a peculiarly Catholic hang-up. Quoting Romans 2 on “the law written in their hearts,” McKenna mentions Nat Hentoff’s protest against Buckley’s suggestion, noting that Hentoff is “an atheist who heeds no theological system but only the law written in his heart.” McKenna writes: “Let me cite another person, now dead for many years, who did the same. Mr. Buckley and J. P. McFadden knew him very well, because he served for a time as columnist and editor at the National Review. His name was Whittaker Chambers. He was a figure of great controversy in the late 1940s because he exposed Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, as a long-time Communist spy. Chambers knew about Hiss’ secret Communist activities, because he had participated in the same activities during the 1930s; he had received stolen State Department documents from Hiss and passed photocopies of them along to Moscow. Chambers came from a nominally Protestant home, but he lost whatever scraps of religion he had during college, and of course was a staunch atheist during his thirteen years as a Communist. (He became a Quaker some time after he left the party in 1938.) In 1952 he published Witness, a memoir of his Communist years. In it he recalls that in the mid-1930s his wife (who also held no religious belief) told him that she thought she was pregnant. Since this was one of the most intense periods in his career as a Soviet agent, they planned an abortion. His wife went to a doctor to verify her pregnancy, and when she returned, he asked what the doctor said. ‘She said that I was in good physical shape to have a baby,’ his wife replied. Then there was silence. Finally, it dawned on him: he asked if she wanted to have the child.
My wife ran over to me, took my hands, and burst into tears. ‘Dear heart,’ she said in a pleading voice, ‘we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.’ A wild joy swept me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of the child.
So it happened that Whittaker and Esther Chambers, having no religious law at the time, joyously went ahead to bring their first child into the world. Their consciences bore them witness. Mr. Buckley, I fear, has misjudged his audience and readers because he does not speak to what unites them. It is not religious doctrine, precious as that doctrine is to most of them. It is a law written in their hearts telling them that we may not kill people just because their birth will be inconvenient or their death will be greeted with relief. It is that law which brought them all out to honor the memory of J. P. McFadden, and it is what motivated Mr. McFadden to sacrifice so much for the journal he founded. It is a very compelling law and, however complicated its implementation may be in particular cases, a very clear law; it can be obscured only by lies and sophistries.”
• “The threat by Catholic bishops to withhold communion from politicians who uphold abortion rights is an affront not just to democracy but also the best moral teachings of Catholicism.” So begins an editorial in Forward, the Jewish weekly. “It’s unfair to believers and unfair to the system,” the editors conclude. What a system, in which a Jewish paper instructs Catholic bishops on the moral teachings of the Church. Only in America, as it was said when the people of Dublin elected a Jewish mayor.
• Sorry. Circulation figures for some of the publications mentioned in the last issue were in error. The errors resulted from failing to include institutional and overseas subscriptions, as well as newsstand sales. The correct figures as of November 2003: Commentary, 34,000; National Review, 156,000; Weekly Standard, 60,000; New Republic, 61,000; and New York Review of Books, 130,000.
• “If they want to do it, let them. How does it affect you?” That’s the line that opponents of same-sex marriage have the greatest difficulty in responding to. An interesting response comes from Adam Haslett, writing in, of all places, the New Yorker. “Love Supreme” offers a serviceable, if somewhat misleading, sketch of marriage in Western history, noting the ways in which the institution has been largely disengaged from child-bearing and child-rearing, while at the same time it is connected to a growing number of legal entitlements. Moreover, the proponents of same-sex marriage know that something bigger is involved, says Haslett, namely, “the official recognition of love.” “This,” he writes, “is the difference between civil unions and marriage: one is a legal certificate and the other is a public endorsement.” That is why they insist on the word “marriage.” “To discount this as mere semantics misses what the definition points up: that marriage, through all its incarnations, has been a procedure that assigns people a new identity based on their gender. For centuries, it has been the ceremony that makes males into husbands and females into wives. Until very recently, this meant a lifetime commitment to both the security and the constriction of a well-defended social role. The symbolic danger that gay marriage poses to such an arrangement is obvious. It alters the public meaning of the word by further draining it of its power to reinforce traditional expectations of behavior. What does it mean to be a husband in a world where a man could have one of his own? This is up to each individual couple, one is tempted to say. Fair enough; but the words we use to describe our relationships are shared cultural property. There is no private language. In this sense, granting the word ‘marriage’ to gay couples will eventually affect everyone.” Haslett concludes on the note that same-sex marriage should be seen as a fulfillment of a goal of the women’s movement, which, historically speaking, is radical: “the decline of the patriarchal legal structure and rise of the goal of self-fulfillment.” Obligations—patriarchal, matriarchal, or simply faithful—are out. Self-fulfillment is in. Get used to it. Or not.
• “Jews, Muslims, Christians—we are all children of Abraham and people of the Book.” Not so, says the French historian Alain Besançon, writing in Commentary. “What Kind of Religion is Islam?” is a hard-hitting critique of what Besançon views as a false ecumenism eager to find commonalities with Islam that do not exist. Not incidentally, this misguided effort disadvantages Judaism since it is claimed, for instance, that Islam honors Jesus and Mary while Judaism does not. But the Jesus/Issa honored in the Koran as a messenger of Allah is not the Jesus whom Christians worship, writes Besançon. He is supposedly born of Mariam, the sister of Aaron, and is neither a redeemer nor a mediator between God and man. And, of course, he does not die on the cross, since a double is substituted for him. Moreover, Allah is not the God of Abraham who reveals himself through historical events, but a distant and impersonal power that makes everything happen immediately; not through the nature and history of his own creation but according to his omnipotent whim. Thus the determinism and fatalism at the heart of Islamic religion. “These then,” writes Besançon, “are some of the elements that conduce to misunderstanding when Christians and Jews approach Islam. Such outsiders may well be struck by the religious zeal of the Muslim toward a God whom they recognize as being also their God. But this God is in fact separate and distinct, and so is the relation between Him and the believing Muslim. Christians are accustomed to distinguish the worship of false gods—that is, idolatry—from the worship of the true God. To treat Islam suitably, it becomes necessary to forge a new concept altogether, and one that is difficult to grasp—namely, an idolatry of the God of Israel. To put it another way, Islam may be thought of as the natural religion of the revealed God.” The concept is indeed difficult to grasp and not, I think, entirely convincing. Yet Besançon’s critique is a necessary caution against the kind of interreligious dialogue that slides too easily into wishful thinking. “The Qur’an,” he writes, “is neither a preparation for biblical religion nor a retroactive endorsement of it. In approaching Muslims, self-respecting Christians and others would do better to rely on what remains within Islam of natural religion—and of religious virtue—and to take into account the common humanity that Muslims share with all people everywhere.” Christians seeking dialogue with Muslims have to begin somewhere, and Besançon’s bare minimum is one starting point. Despite the fundamental differences that he underscores, however, other Christians and Muslims may, with eyes wide open to the difficulties, try to tease out greater religious commonalities. This is one of the great tasks of this century, and the alternative to pursuing it may be open-ended and unlimited warfare between Islam and the infidels, meaning chiefly Christians and Jews.
• The ceremony was at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Pittsburgh. According to the New York Times, the bride “is the director of advocacy programs and a spokeswoman for the New York affiliate of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the reproductive rights organization.” The pastoral policy in Pittsburgh is “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Although the Times found out, and reports it with what one detects is a measure of glee.
• It’s a muckraking book, admits Yale’s Daniel Kevles in his review of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and the American Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black, but he nonetheless thinks it important reading. Black details American scientific and financial support for German eugenics programs in the early part of the last century that did not cause but were certainly on a continuum with the Holocaust. The Rockefeller Foundation was in the lead in backing projects in Germany and the U.S. aimed at culling out the unfit (“life unworthy of life”) to make way for superior human beings. Progressives such as Margaret Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, and Rabbi Stephen Wise cheered on the improvement of the race. And there was, of course, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ pithy observation in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision upholding the sterilization of inferior people: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Kevles is a bit sniffy about Black’s alleged overstatements, but he concludes his review with this: “Despite its imperfections, Black’s book does prompt us to wonder what in medical genetics and biotechnology we are taking socially and morally for granted today that our descendants might indict us for tomorrow.” We do not have to wait until tomorrow. The indictments are coming in fast and furious today. Our descendants may well wonder why so many ignored them.
• There’s an outfit called the Rainbow Sash Movement whose purpose is to encourage lesbians and gays to don a rainbow sash and present themselves for Communion at Catholic cathedrals on Pentecost Sunday. The idea, of course, is to protest the allegedly oppressive homophobia of the Catholic Church. In some places, Chicago for instance, priests are instructed to politely deny the sacrament, and they wave the protesters by, sometimes adding a blessing and a prayer for the reordering of sadly disordered lives. The point is, according to the Archbishop of Chicago, that those who would exploit the Eucharist by turning it into a political protest are manifestly not rightly disposed to receive the Body of Christ. In Chicago, Rainbow Sash succeeded in getting a few news stories about their being turned away at the altar. Other places, Los Angeles for instance, took a different tack. The cardinal archbishop there is on record as being opposed to politicizing the Eucharist by imposing sanctions on notoriously pro-abortion politicians. Los Angeles is also known to be, as it is delicately said, a gay-friendly place. The archdiocese not only announced that it would not turn away protesters but sent a message to the Rainbow Sash Movement saying that they would be warmly welcomed at the altar of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Nobody with sashes showed up. What’s the point of going to Mass if you’re going to be denied a confrontation? I would not be surprised if some gay activists in L.A. are upset about the archdiocese depriving them of their right to be rejected. And just imagine the hurt feelings of an ever-so-welcoming archdiocese scorned. In the theater of gay agitprop, players should stick to their designated roles. In Chicago, the archdiocese had the satisfaction of being Catholic, and gay activists the satisfaction of being oppressed. It was a win-win proposition. In Los Angeles, it seems that everybody lost.
• In “unenlightened” times, it seemed more or less natural for people to do really nasty things to those who did not belong to the tribe. It was taken to be instinctual, normal, and lawful to slaughter and enslave enemies, and to take their women as concubines. It was in the Europe of the Enlightenment, of the discovery of human rights, that human nastiness required rationalizations. That, says Bernard Lewis in From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, helps explain why racism and anti-Semitism arose and flourished in Europe. “Modern racism, in its origins, is an attempt to justify the enslavement and exploitation of Black Africans by enlightened Europeans and Americans; anti-Semitism is the response of the secularized Christian, no longer able to use theological arguments, against the emancipated Jew. . . . Religious hostility against Jews had of course existed since early times, but restating this in racist rather than religious terms was a nineteenth-century invention—an attempt to rationalize and to justify primitive bigotry. In enlightened, science-minded nineteenth-century Germany, it was no longer acceptable to hate Jews because they had rejected Christ. One had to find a modern and scientific reason. Anti-Semitism was the answer.” Lewis is widely acknowledged as the almost indispensable guide to the history of what is happening in the Middle East. (“Almost” because, as de Gaulle said, the cemeteries are filled with indispensable men.) His recent book, What Went Wrong?, is perhaps the best answer we have to the inevitable question of why so many Muslims hate us as they do. The new book, From Babel to Dragomans, is a collection of Lewis’ scholarly and occasional writings from the last fifty years and touches on a wide array of questions currently disputed. There is, for instance, the question of why so many Christian clergy are hostile to the state of Israel. Lewis notes that Israel is a relatively open society in which the media are free to air complaints and grievances. “After all, where else in the entire Middle East and North Africa is it possible to get an opponent of the government on television to denounce the government as conducting a police state? You might infer from this that Israel is the only police state in the region, or you may find another explanation.” It is both blessing and curse for Israel that Jews and Christians share so much of a common religious tradition. The Hebrew Bible is the Christian Old Testament. “There was no parallel development among Muslims, who simply declared both the Old and New Testaments to be obsolete and brought a new Scripture not to supplement but to supplant the existing ones.” Christians are deeply implicated in Jewish religion and Jewish history, and the latter generates an understandable element of guilt. “This was extremely important in the early days of the history of the state of Israel and the conflicts in which it was involved, but is becoming less so. The feeling of guilt, particularly guilt for the Holocaust, can operate in more than one way. One can expiate it, by supporting Israel even when it’s wrong; or one can escape from it, by denouncing Israel even when it’s right. For the [Christian] clergy in particular, the problem of guilt for the Holocaust has been an extraordinarily difficult one, and to deal with Jews as accused and not accusers brought welcome relief. It enables them to abandon the uncomfortable and unfamiliar posture of contrition and penitence, and to return to the more familiar and comfortable posture of moral superiority and stern reproof.” That is not the whole of the story, as Lewis well knows, but it is an important part of the reason why liberal Christian leaders tend to be so strongly anti-Israel (or, as they prefer, pro-Palestinian), in sharpest contrast to millions of American Christians who, inspired not so much by guilt as by Bible prophecy, constitute a base of support for Israel that is, in the judgment of many observers, now more important than the organized “Jewish lobby.” The items cited here are chosen at random and are not necessarily representative of the writings collected in From Babel to Dragomans. For entrance to the wisdom of Bernard Lewis, begin with What Went Wrong? Then, if you are as taken with what he has to say as innumerable others have been, you might want to pick up the new collection of exhibits in evidence of the near indispensability of Bernard Lewis.
• It’s a good thing the courts are pressing same-sex marriage, says Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA Lutherans. “It’s an issue for the whole culture; it helps us to see that this isn’t something that we are doing in isolation.” Apparently some people thought the ELCA had come up with the idea of same-sex marriage. Their presiding bishop assures them they have good company; it’s a cultural thing. Those familiar with H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ of Culture” model will relish his further statement: “Now, the question for us as people of faith is when, out of conscience, do we challenge civil society as being wrong and when do we embrace the decisions of civil society as it orders its life hopefully for the sake of order and justice.” Apart from the fact that the courts and not civil society are making these decisions, one wonders if it has eluded the bishop’s notice that “people of faith,” unlike the courts, are to decide in obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He does mention the gospel, noting that it “encompasses more than sexuality,” and is often “troubling.” For instance, “It better trouble us that the ELCA is still 94 percent descendants of European immigrants in this wonderfully rich and pluralistic country.” Bearing the cross of Scandinavian or German ancestry is not easy. The ELCA leadership suffers from a deep sense of guilt about being noninclusive in a wondrously inclusive culture. Guilt about being noninclusive is joined to the galling realization that there are not a lot of people interested in being included in the ELCA. To paraphrase a Pauline passage so important to Luther, “Who will deliver the ELCA from this body of demographic sin?” Since it is improbable that millions of blacks, Latinos, or Filipinos are going to join up any time soon, it seems that, for the members of the ELCA, salvation must be by faith alone, combined with profound contrition for being who they are. As it happens, there are many very nice people and devout Christians in the ELCA. I used to be one myself. (Not unusually nice or devout, but I was in the ELCA.) They and their church would, I expect, be more generally appreciated were they not so touchingly eager to catch up with the cutting edge of a culture to which the community of faith is to be not a mirror but a contrast. As for “troubling” aspects of the gospel, being descended from European immigrants doesn’t even make the list, except by conveniently eliminating the real sins for which Lutherans, along with the rest of us, must plead forgiveness.
• There are long shelves of books, nay, entire libraries devoted to answering the question, What is anti-Semitism? I have read more than my quota of learned disquisitions on the matter. Imagine, then, the sense of relief when I spied on the corner of Third Ave. and 20th St. a big poster blazoned with the slogan “Anti-Semitism Is Anti-Me.” Pictured on the poster was a collared clergyperson of the female persuasion. Walking toward Fifth Ave. I spotted another one, this time with a pretty black lady, and on Broadway yet another with a little boy with Asian features. I went for answers to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the sponsor of the posters. I learned that the first picture is of the Rev. Kathleen Rusnak, described as “one of the nation’s leading Lutheran Christian ministers.” (In New York it cannot be assumed that people know Lutheran is Christian.) The second poster featured “Supermodel Naomi Campbell.” All I learned about the boy in the third is that his name is Jacob. Abraham Foxman of ADL explained that the poster campaign, which is soon to go national, intends to “change the perception that anti-Semitism is strictly a problem for Jews.” Employing the language of critical theory, he explained, “Anti-Semitism is an expression of a hatred of the other.” Aha. So hatred of George W. Bush is anti-Semitism. Hatred of the religious right is anti-Semitism. Hatred of France for, among other things, its anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism. The possibilities multiply. Real anti-Semitism being in such short supply in America, the ADL, whose sole purpose is to combat anti-Semitism, has immeasurably expanded the definition of the threat that is its reason for being. A smart move for the institutional perpetuation of the ADL. A really dumb move if the aim is to increase alertness to the evil that is anti-Semitism. Such an expansion of the meaning of anti-Semitism ends up reducing it to a generalized term of abuse for people who dislike people they find disagreeably different. Declaring war on human antipathies is breathtakingly ambitious. But then, nobody has ever accused Mr. Foxman of being modest.
• The pathetic competes with the presumptuous in a recent exchange between an Episcopal priest and Randy Cohen who writes a column for the New York Times Magazine called “The Ethicist.” The priest asks what he should do since his bishop will not let him bless same-sex unions. Cohen answers, “You need not endorse every doctrine of the church to participate in it honorably.” “While there are organizations so impervious to reform that one would be ethically obliged to leave them, that is not your situation,” Cohen adds. Is it unfair to think he might have the Catholic Church in mind? Cohen then urges the priest to be welcoming to gays, to preach against his bishop’s policy, and to find a way to get around the policy so he can get on with the “happy task” of blessing same-sex unions. The pathetic is in a priest seeking doctrinal and moral guidance from the Times. The presumptuous is in Mr. Cohen’s giving it. Unless, of course, he is a theologically trained Episcopal layman, which I am told he is not.
• In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), John Paul II asked Christian leaders outside the Catholic fold to join in exploring ways in which the papacy, so often an obstacle to unity, might become more effectively an instrument of the unity that Christ manifestly desires for his disciples. Reinhard Hütter, a Lutheran theologian at Duke University, takes up the invitation in Bound to be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Eerdmans). His reading of the encyclical is, for the most part, sympathetic, but he bridles at the claim that the Church in its fullness uniquely “subsists” in the Catholic Church. While Christ and, therefore, in some very important sense, his body the Church are to be found outside the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic claim is that she is the Church most fully and rightly ordered according to the intention of Christ. There is another sense, however, in which Hütter and others who call themselves evangelical catholics bridle at the very existence of the Catholic Church. “What question is raised by the encyclical,” he asks, “for the churches of the Reformation, and how do these churches fend off the very fact of the ongoing existence of the Roman Catholic Church, which calls them into question?” But why should Lutherans, for instance, want to “fend off” being called into question? The great Lutheran confessional theologian, Peter Brunner, said that a Lutheran does not understand what it means to be a Lutheran if he does not ask himself every day why he is not a Roman Catholic. Hütter himself cites Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s closest collaborator, who wrote: “However, concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we, too, may (for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future) grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has ‘by human right.’” (The distinction between “human right” and “divine right,” one notes, is susceptible of considerable nuance in view of God’s working through human agency.) Hütter also cites Luther: “According to Luther’s ecclesiology, the test case of the papal office can hinge solely on whether the ordained ministry to the gospel also includes—and indeed, where possible, requires—a ministry of unity to all of Christendom. If the papal office permitted itself to be understood as a ministry under the gospel, serving as a transforming—even re-forming—catalyst for the unity of the church, it would open the door to an ecumenically promising and, from the perspective of the Lutheran Reformation, permissible approach to the thorniest of all ecumenical dilemmas. After all, Luther himself asserted in 1531 that he ‘could kiss the pope’s feet if he would permit the gospel.’” But only a page earlier Hütter himself writes: “In the area of the doctrine of justification, the heart of Reformation theology, while there is not complete agreement, there is convergence, which suffices to certify that the truth of the gospel—that is, the biblical message of the sinner’s justification by faith alone—has in the meantime been both permitted and recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.” If that is true, one cannot help but ask why Hütter and evangelical catholics of like mind are not prepared to kiss the pope’s feet. (Figuratively speaking, of course, since the gesture is not required and almost certainly would not be welcomed today.) Hütter cautions those in the Reformation tradition against finding or inventing additional “basic differences” that justify separation from Rome. But if the basic difference is not, as Melanchthon said, that the pope does not “allow the gospel,” what does justify the continued separation?
• There are the survivors of the Holocaust, and now there are the children of survivors who are carrying on the business. Ruth Franklin, writing in the New Republic, finds it more than a little obscene. She reviews, among other books of the genre, Melvin Jules Bukiet’s recent collection of writings by second-generation “survivors.” Bukiet writes: “Whatever wisdom others bring to it comes from the heart and head, but for us it’s genetic. To be shabbily proprietary, we own it. Our parents owned it, and they gave it to us. Just as John Quincy Adams and Ken Griffey Jr. followed in their parents’ footsteps, we go into Shoah business. I’d like to tell everyone from the Bellows and the Ozicks to the Styrons and the Wilkomirskis, ‘Bug off. Find your own bad news,’ but no one can legislate artistic imperative, and perhaps no one should. . . . We have been given an obscene gift, a subject of predetermined value that no one can deny.” On which Franklin comments: “It’s difficult to say what is most grotesque about this passage—that a mean scribbler such as Bukiet is asserting moral authority over Saul Bellow; that the survivors somehow bequeath their stake in the Holocaust to their children (I can’t speak for Bukiet’s family, but my own grandparents weren’t in ‘Shoah business,’ they ran a grocery store); that anybody ‘owns’ anything about the Holocaust. Bukiet’s twisted proprietariness does not stop here: he later announces with pride that he uses the number on his father’s tattoo, 108016, as his ATM code. Identity thieves, take note!” For the second generation writers, says Franklin, “the Holocaust lies at the very foundation of their consciousness.” The Holocaust is allowed the last word about reality. Franklin writes, “In survivors, this degree of possession by the Holocaust is tragic—but in their descendants it is shockingly defeatist.” It is to “make of the world our own personal Holocaust museum.” As Emil Fackenheim, whom Franklin does not mention, might have said, to give the Holocaust the final word is another way of giving Hitler a posthumous victory.
• Barbara Ehrenreich is hard as nails and demands that other women be so too. “Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights. The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.” What has her upset in her column in the New York Times is that polls show that “only 30 percent of women are unambivalently pro-choice.” Actually, the figure is much lower than that. Considerably less than 20 percent are unambivalently pro-choice if unambivalently means they believe that abortion should be legally available for any reason at any time during the entire course of pregnancy and up through delivery (partial birth abortion). That, of course, is the present license of the lawless law of Roe v. Wade. But let’s not quibble about the polling data; it is Ehrenreich’s argument that is of interest. There are, she writes, “an appalling number of women who are willing to deny others the right that they once freely exercised themselves.” It is the women who regret having an abortion and feel guilty about it who outrage Ms. Ehrenreich. She would deny them their remorse and their resentment of an unlimited abortion license that made it too easy for them to do wrong. They do not want other women to be similarly tempted. Ehrenreich will have none of it: “Honesty begins at home, so I should acknowledge that I had two abortions during my all-too-fertile years. You can call me a bad woman, but not a bad mother. I was a dollar-a-word freelancer and my husband a warehouse worker, so it was all we could do to support the existing children at a grubby lower-middle-class level. And when it comes to my children—the actual extrauterine ones, that is—I was, and remain, a lioness.” Do not call her a bad mother. She acknowledges all her children and is very protective of the ones she did not have killed. She perhaps feels a bit uneasy about the abortions, since she offers the excuse that the alternative would have been intolerable: sub-middle-class existence with a husband working in a warehouse. Ugh. She writes, “Choice can be easy, as it was in my case, or truly agonizing.” Today Ehrenreich is a best-selling author and liberal activist, is divorced from her lower-middle-class husband and remarried to Yale literary critic Peter Brooks, has houses in Charlottesville and the Florida Keys and a column in the Times. No wonder the choice was easy. What are the lives of two children compared to all that? It isn’t as though the children died for nothing. As for those for whom abortion was “truly agonizing,” Ehrenreich tells them to get over it. “Assuming the fetal position,” she writes, “is not an appropriate response.” If that does not persuade those millions of women with whose unhappiness she is unhappy, Ehrenreich invokes the moral authority of Jean-Paul Sartre who, she says, would accuse them of “bad faith” for wanting to discourage other women from doing what they did. Sartre, it may be remembered, was throughout his life an unrepentant apologist for Communism’s mass murderers. He taught generations of leftists the moral wisdom that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Ehrenreich’s column, “Owning Up to Abortion,” carries the pull-quote, “It’s time to get past the guilt.” It’s time to move on. Money, fame, media stardom, Ivy League connections. Those thumb-sucking women are implying that it is not really terrific to be Barbara Ehrenreich, which is ludicrous. Not that they will be able to match her success, but they can at least support the abortion license that made it possible. Too bad about those two kids, but, as Sartre understood, nothing comes without paying a price. Sure it’s unfair, but, then, life is unfair. The children died in the cause of giving the public Barbara Ehrenreich and giving Barbara Ehrenreich some really neat advantages. Do these women know what it’s like to live in a grubby lower-middle-class world with a husband who works in a warehouse? Barbara Ehrenreich should feel guilty about what she did? Get real, ladies.
• I don’t know what kind of revolution Robert Reich, labor secretary in the Clinton administration, has in mind, but he does Robespierre proud. Writing in the July issue of the American Prospect, he contends that Christian fundamentalists pose a greater danger to America than people flying jetliners into skyscrapers. He writes, “Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority . . . between those who believe in science, reason, and logic, and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.” By Reich’s definition of “fundamentalist” and “religious zealot,” one would have to include, to name but a few Presidents, Washington, John Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, Carter, Reagan, and, of course, George W. Bush. More impressively, the great majority of the American people are, by his measure, enemies of the democracy he envisions. Reich’s are not offhand remarks after the third scotch but were written for publication in a magazine of liberal respectability and influence. The thing worth remarking is that most of those who inhabit his ideological fanum (from which “fanatic”) likely consider his sentiments unexceptionable. Mr. Reich has written a book called Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. Recall the recipe for unicorn stew: first, get a unicorn. Robert Reich’s recipe for liberal victory in America is similar: first, get rid of the Americans.
• “Jesus Matters in the U.S.A.” is the title of his article in a new journal, Modern Intellectual History, and historian David Hollinger of the University of California, Berkeley, thinks Jesus matters altogether too much. In a review essay discussing four recent books on American religious history, he notes that America’s intellectual elite in the twentieth century consciously identified itself with “a larger arena,” meaning a more secularized Europe. Wanting to play in the game of world-class intellectuals, American thinkers more or less consistently ignored the fact that America remains an overwhelmingly Christian society, and this has contributed to the huge gap between intellectual elites and “the people.” After World War II, “Jews interacting with liberal Protestants and lapsed Protestants greatly advanced the integration of American intellectual life with that of the secularized elites of Europe, and in the process they helped distinguish ‘the intellectuals’ from everyone else.” Thinkers were reluctant to acknowledge the Jewish factor “for fear of giving indirect support to the anti-Jewish attitudes long sustained by Christian cultures.” The American intelligentsia imitating like-minded Europeans tended to “treat the Christianity of the public and of the public’s learned fellow travelers as an irrelevant anachronism.” Mr. Hollinger shares that aloofness from his embarrassingly religious society. Discussing D. G. Hart’s argument for confessional rather than revivalistic Protestantism (The Lost Soul of American Protestantism), he writes, “This aspect of the book will be of interest chiefly to Christians involved in disputes specific to that community of faith.” Ah yes, that community of faith. I suppose he means the two-thirds of the population that is Protestant, or maybe he means all who think they are Christians, which is 90 percent of the people. In any event, Mr. Hollinger suggests, we need not bother our heads about matters of interest chiefly to those people. With specific reference to Catholics, Hollinger thinks Paul Blanshard, author of the 1949 anti-Catholic tract American Freedom and Catholic Power, is wrongly accused of bigotry. Catholics, he says, were pretty much guilty as Blanshard charged. But Catholic intellectuals, through “changing the Church’s stance on birth control” and other achievements, somewhat alleviated the problem by turning Catholics, or at least thoughtful Catholics, into Protestants. (It will come as a surprise to Catholics, intellectual or not, that the Church has changed its stance on birth control.) Hollinger allows that there are Christian intellectuals—”the public’s learned fellow travelers”—but they are afflicted by a “survivalist” mentality. That is, they seem to want Christianity to survive and flourish. That is why they are so often unsympathetic to the liberal Protestants who “decided either that Jesus mattered differently than they had thought before, or that he did not matter so much after all.” “The Idea of liberal Protestantism as a halfway house, as a stepping stone to modernity, even as a slippery slope out of Christianity, is problematic only if one looks at twentieth century history as a Christian survivalist.” That is clearly not Mr. Hollinger’s problem. He is very happy with aspects of Christianity “that flow to the outside of the perimeter of faith, making Jesus matter less.” Thus does David Hollinger’s essay exemplify what he so acutely describes: the Europeanized American intellectual who is embarrassed by his stubbornly religious country. Thus do those intellectuals who style themselves “the intellectuals” persist in trying to protect their superior selves from the embarrassment of America.
• Although numerous accounts of the civil rights movement fudge or skirt the truth, honest scholars recognize that it could not have succeeded without the driving force of Christian conviction in the black churches. This is convincingly demonstrated in David Chappell’s recent book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (reviewed in this issue). Liberal secularists who are inclined to exaggerate their role in the movement, and to downplay the part played by religion, sometimes contend that religion equally supported the cause of segregationist resistance. That, says Chappell, was not the case. Southern segregationists displayed a “veneer of defiance and solidarity [but] the segregationists’ foundations in Southern white culture were mushy. The segregationists had popular opinion behind them, but not popular conviction.” Conviction trumps opinion, and Southern white culture was as deeply rooted in Christian conviction as was Southern black culture. Already in the early 1950s, the Southern Baptists and Southern Presbyterians were passing resolutions in favor of integration, and Billy Graham was conducting racially integrated revivals in the South. In short, segregationists had a bad conscience about their opinions, which put them at a distinct disadvantage in relation to blacks who confidently invoked a Christian moral tradition to which whites also claimed to adhere. The distinction between opinion and convenience on the one hand, and conviction on the other, is pertinent also to the continuing struggle over protecting the unborn. Every few months or so, there is another news story about pro-abortionists fretting about the need to recruit religion to their cause. To that end, they appoint “chaplains” to provide a veneer of religious legitimation for the unlimited abortion license. These are typically clerics far to the left of left-leaning denominations. A recent report described one such female chaplain as a “liberal Unitarian.” This is religiously thin gruel and a patently desperate effort to counter the profoundly religious conviction driving the great human rights cause of our time, the pro-life movement. As with the segregationists of a half century ago, the pro-abortionists’ foundations in American culture are mushy. In time, and given political opportunity to express itself, one reasonably hopes that opinion and convenience will once again be trumped by conviction.
• We continue to hear from Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) who have started or would like to start independent discussion groups in their local communities. Here are the newest ROFTER contacts. For a complete list of ROFTERS groups, now dotting the globe from Massachusetts to China, visit our ROFTERS page on this site. If you would like to start a new group, please send your contact information to Erik Ross, whose e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Phoenix, Arizona:
P.O. Box 2014
Phoenix, Arizona 85001
In the Sacramento/Stockton area of California:
(The Rev.) Darrell Thomas
10428 Teton Ct.
Stockton, California 95209
Phone: (209) 956-0755
In West Palm Beach, Florida:
4858 Palm Brooke Circle
West Palm Beach, Florida 33417
New York Intellectuals, Comment, Winter 2004. Torture at Abu Ghraib, Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2004. Good as New Bible, WorldNet Daily, June 24, 2004. Eucharist and false conclusions, America, May 3, 2004. International Criminal Court, Notre Dame Law Review, Volume 79, Issue 1. Buckley and assisted suicide, Human Life Review, Winter 2004. Instructions to Catholic bishops, Forward, June 25, 2004. Haslett on same-sex marriage, New Yorker, May 31, 2004. Besançon on the monotheist’s God, Commentary, May 2004. Pro-choice bride, New York Times, May 16, 2004. Kevles on War Against the Weak, New York Times Book Review, Oct 5, 2003. ELCA on same-sex marriage, Christian Century, May 4, 2004. “The Ethicist” and Episcipal priest, New York Times Magazine, Feb 15, 2004. Ruth Franklin on second-generation “survivors,” New Republic, May 31, 2004. Ehrenreich and abortion, New York Times, July 22, 2004. Hollinger contra Christian intellectuals, Modern Intellectual History, 1,1 (2004).