The Public Square
Back in May 2001, I wrote in this space, under the title “Bible Babel,” about the translation that is the unfortunate New American Bible (NAB). It is a subject that should not be dropped. Not, mind you, that I expect anybody to do anything about it any time soon. But some day, please God, there will be a real reform of the misguided reforms of recent decades, and the NAB (along with the Revised NAB and the Amended Revised NAB and whatever version of the NAB that crops up in this Sunday’s Mass guide) should be on the agenda. Robert Louis Wilken has written wisely that the Bible is the lexicon of the Church and the liturgy is the grammar of the Bible. Among Catholics subjected to the NAB, and all are now subjected to it, the lexicon takes a terrible beating.
Everyone who has sung or listened to Handel’s “Messiah” knows the words: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV). Magnificent. Here, as of this week’s amended Missalette, is the New American Bible: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Try singing that. Whether under the rules of literal accuracy or of what, taking liberties, translators call “dynamic equivalence,” that is no more than a pedantic transliteration of the Hebrew. It is not a translation. It is a string of possible signifiers. It is not English. To be fair, the passage is not representative. Most of the NAB is English, albeit of a down-market variety.
One has to wonder what those in charge of Catholic translations thought they were doing since the NAB project was launched. An answer commonly given is that they wanted to produce the most literally “accurate” translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. It is usually said that Catholics are not biblical literalists, but that appears not to hold in this instance. Even literalism does not explain the many eccentricities introduced in the NAB. Probably the best known of all psalms is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In the KJV and the RSV, the psalm concludes with, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Readers of the Douay-Rheims express the confidence that they will “dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.” That is very open-ended and may be very much like “forever.”
Even the more recent and trendy New Revised Standard Version invites me to believe that “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” My whole life long will, please God, be life eternal. Then comes the NAB: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” For years to come? It inevitably prompts the question of how many. Ten? Twenty? Fifty? Whatever the answer, it would seem to be far short of forever. Note that there is nothing in the Hebrew that requires or even suggests such a change. But what’s the point of doing a new translation unless it is different from earlier translations?
The problems begin with the very first verse of the Bible. In the English tradition, solidly grounded in the Hebrew as well as in Jerome’s Latin translation, Genesis 1 begins with the majestic words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Here is what the NAB offers us: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.” Compare that with the English tradition, followed almost exactly by Douay-Rheims: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” Apart from the NAB’s deaf ear to poetry and theological suggestiveness, the very first words of the very first verse of the Bible raise a question of no little importance. Note the difference between “In the beginning God created . . . ” and “In the beginning, when God created . . . ”
“In the beginning God.” Homilies and theological reflections beyond numbering have pondered and probed those four words. It is God and God alone who is in the beginning; He is the source and acting subject of all that follows. If we do not get that right, we will not get right all that follows. Very different is the NAB’s rendering, “In the beginning, when God.” Here there is no invitation to ponder and probe what and who is meant by God. The knowledge is taken for granted; the reader’s attention is immediately turned from the acting subject to His actions. “In the beginning was the Act.” That is not, from the beginning, how Christians have understood the matter. The writer of the Fourth Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The great student of the Fourth Gospel, C.K. Barrett, writes, “John intends that the whole of his gospel shall be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true, the book is blasphemous.” That, says Barrett, is the significance of the tie to Genesis 1, “In the beginning God . . . ”
From the apostolic and patristic eras up through magisterial and theological writings of the present day, the parallel between Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 has been the source of the most profound reflections. God who was in the beginning is now revealed in Jesus the Christ who is God. The great Augustine, writing in the fifth century, insists upon the parallel wording. As in the beginning is God, so in the beginning is the Word who is God. Here he is preaching against the Arian heresy which claimed that the Son is not truly God but was created as an agent for creating the world. No, insists Augustine: As in the beginning God, so in the beginning the Word. That parallel, so crucial to the entire gospel story, is quite thoroughly obscured by the NAB. From the beginning, the NAB introduces unwarranted novelties that not only further erode what remains of a common biblical vocabulary but are often blithely indifferent to the Church’s tradition of theological reflection.
Consider the parable of the prodigal son: After his dissipation in a “far country” (NAB has “distant country”) the RSV, following the English-language tradition and the Greek text, says “he came to himself.” NAB says “he came to his senses.” No, he didn’t just become more sensible. He came to himself; he returned to who he truly was, the beloved son of the loving father. The theologically literate preacher is regularly compelled to correct the NAB translation prescribed for public reading. Those responsible for the NAB and its perpetual updatings are not heretics and I am sure they do not intend to be doctrinally subversive. It would appear that they are simply indifferent to the great tradition of the Bible in English, frequently indifferent to the history of scriptural interpretation in the Church, and almost always indifferent to good English usage.
So why do they, and so many other translators, do what they do? The answer is undoubtedly related to the fact that, without the production of novelties and revisions, translators would be out of a job. A telling indictment of the NAB is that it is not used or even referred to by non-Catholics and is seldom employed by Catholic biblical scholars who, quite sensibly, prefer other translations. It is a translation that is used at all only because its use has been made mandatory.
But perhaps a few more examples are in order. In Mark 10:9, Our Lord says of marriage, “What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder” (RSV). The NAB renders this, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” No human being must separate, but a human being may separate? Perhaps angels must separate? Then there are the much quoted words of Psalm 111, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Compare that to the never-to-be-quoted rendition of NAB, “The fear of the Lord is the first stage of wisdom.” St. Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season.” In the NAB—in the event you were wondering what clunky means—that becomes, “be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.” It is too easy to imagine an NAB version of the Gettysburg address: “Approximately eighty-seven years ago, political leaders developed a system of government . . . ”
The NAB assumes that readers and listeners may be a bit slow on the uptake. Here is Genesis 18 in the RSV: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’“ Here is the NAB read at Mass: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her womanly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, ‘Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?’“ Just in case you didn’t get it, the story is about sex. A little before that, the NAB says, “He had intercourse with her, and she became pregnant.” The RSV: “And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.” Like the high school health text, the NAB is worried that we may miss the point.
The NAB picks up on cultural ticks. Some while back I was in conversation with a national columnist who regularly used “righteous” as an adjective of denigration. For instance, she would criticize “righteous political leaders.” I suggested that surely she meant “self-righteous,” to which she responded that righteous and self-righteous are today synonymous. I thought of this again when working on a Sunday homily. The text was Luke 18, and the NAB renders verse 9 this way: “Jesus spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding every one else in contempt.” The KJV, RSV, NIV, and other standard English translations all speak of those who trust in their own righteousness, correctly translating the Greek dikaioi. It is of more than passing interest that the NAB translators seem to agree with the columnist that righteousness today means self-righteousness. But what sense does it make to say that they believed in their self-righteousness? Imagine someone boasting, “I’m more self-righteous than you are!”
Examples can be multiplied almost book by book and chapter by chapter. In 2 Timothy, St. Paul declares, “I have fought the good fight.” Fight the good fight. The bracing phrase echoes and re-echoes in high culture and everyday life. What does the NAB give the Catholic people? “I have competed well.”
In the face of every affliction, Paul says in Romans 8, “we are more than conquerors” (RSV). The NAB says “we conquer overwhelmingly.” On the Church’s relationship to earthly powers, the words have rolled down the centuries: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The NAB: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” We have taken something from Caesar and from God that we must repay? Don’t ask. The line of Matthew 22:14 is still commonly heard: “Many are called but few are chosen.” NAB: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” What is gained by the change? What is lost?
St. Paul to the Philippians: “Have this mind among you, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” NAB: “Have this attitude in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Jesus had an attitude? There is a significant difference between having the mind of Christ and having the attitude of Christ. Not to mention that literate speakers of English do not speak of a person having an attitude “in” him. In the translation of the four gospels, the NAB regularly says that Jesus “cured” rather than “healed” people. In standard English “cure” connotes a medical remedy while “heal” connotes making a person whole. At least the NAB does refer to Jesus as a healer rather than a “curer.”
The tone-deaf linguistic wreckers of the Catholic Biblical Association have a great deal to answer for. But it seems that few bishops are prepared to fight the good fight against the atrocities being perpetrated. The tradition of the Bible in English is mangled and banalized at almost every opportunity; the poetic is flattened into the prosaic and the suggestively allusive is forced to submit to the arbitrarily chosen obvious. Literalism joined to a penchant for the insipid succeeds in producing a text that is, at the same time, irritatingly quirky and surpassingly dull. It might be argued that a merit of the NAB is that it discourages—indeed, precludes—the dubious practice of teaching the Bible as literature.
Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future Catholics are stuck with the NAB in its ongoing revisions of revisions. There seems to be little chance that the bishops or the liturgy industry will make available lectionaries or entire Bibles in the RSV or in the more recent and quite splendid English Standard Version, which rivals the RSV in respecting the tradition of the King James and Douay-Rheims. Of course, younger Catholics, those born since 1970, for instance, never knew that tradition. It is their great loss.
The imposition of this embarrassingly third-rate translation is made definite by a provision of the otherwise welcome 2001 instruction from Rome’s congregation for worship, Liturgium Authenticum. The instruction says that “in order that the faithful may be able to commit to memory at least the more important texts of the Sacred Scriptures and be formed by them . . . there should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books.” The American bishops, alas, chose the NAB. Had they chosen a more worthy translation, there would have been a fierce uproar from the guild of Catholic biblical scholars who perpetrated the NAB. In addition, there is a thoroughly misplaced proprietorial pride in this being a Catholic translation: It may not be very good, but it is ours.
The result is a loss keenly appreciated by those who grew up with what literary critic Alan Jacobs describes as “a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear—words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed, and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts.” Think of those generations of English-speaking peoples “separating the wheat from the chaff,” “lying down in green pastures,” sometimes being “weighed in the balance and found wanting” but at other times “fighting the good fight” and “putting on the whole armor of Christ”—the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly poetic) demonstrating that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share words. Because Christians are counseled to “be of one mind,” we should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible would be a significant step towards that one mind in Christ.
It is a great pity that our churches and our culture have largely lost a common biblical vocabulary. The blame rests with academic Bible scholars and with the hustlers of the very big business of multiplying and marketing ever-more-novel versions of the biblical text. But the decay of a culture-and soul-forming tradition is also the fault of the bishops, and it is their very particular fault that the Catholic people are saddled with among the clunkiest of translations, the New American Bible. Yes, I know that there is not much to be done about it, or at least that those who could do something seem not to be interested. And yes, I know that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But sometimes it is necessary to curse the darkness as well, just to prevent our getting used to it.
Literate converts coming into communion with the Catholic Church, of whom, despite all, there are more and more, are regularly struck by the banalities and eccentricities of scriptural readings and liturgical texts. They are grateful for being received and do not wish to complain, but the blunting of literary sensibilities should not be a price exacted for becoming Catholic.
And now I will let this subject rest for a while. I do not promise that I will not return to it at some later time. It is important that Catholics who are week by week subjected to the NAB know that someone—in the words of a former president—feels their pain. And they should know that they are not limited to this inferior translation in their personal reading and Bible study groups. Then too, those responsible for the translation might be embarrassed into reconsidering their trashing of the tradition of the Bible in English. Finally, the bishops might reconsider their choice of the NAB, or at least petition Rome to allow the liturgical use of other and worthier translations. Or maybe not. In which case, we will during the scriptural readings at every Mass have occasion to remember Flannery O’Connor’s sage observation that we frequently must suffer more from the Church than for the Church.
“Are Jews Smarter?”
That’s putting the question bluntly, but there’s really no other way of putting it if you’re going to put it at all. Jennifer Senior, who is Jewish, is emboldened to write an article under that title by the fact that the New York Times and the Economist have also reported on a new study that gives a strongly affirmative answer to the above question. Writing in New York magazine, she explains that the study suggests that there is a causal connection between the vulnerabilities of Ashkenazi Jews to certain diseases (Tay-Sachs, for instance) and the apparent compensation of greater brain power. It’s the old question of nature vs. nurture; in this case, whether it’s more important to have Jewish genes or a Jewish mother. As it turns out, most Jews have both.
So is a study such as this good for the Jews? Senior writes, “I talk to Abe Foxman, legendary head of the Anti-Defamation League, whose life’s mission is the pristine upkeep of the Jewish reputation. His answer surprises me. ‘If it’s a genetic condition,’ he says, ‘it’s not for us to embrace or reject. It is what it is, and that’s the way the genetic cookie crumbles.’ I detect a note of pride in his voice.” Senior is somewhat more ambivalent: “Freud and Marx, Einstein and Bohr, Mendelssohn and Mahler. The brothers Gershwin. The brothers Marx. Woody Allen. Bob Dylan. Franz Kafka. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Bobby Fischer. Jews may take tremendous pride in their aristocracy, but we fetishize it at our own peril; to suggest that we’re chosen, rather than that we make our own choices, curdles quickly into a useful argument for anti-Semites who’d love to claim that the objects of their derision are immutable vermin. It can’t be an accident that the most aggressive debunkers of Jewish essentialism, including the participants in this story, are generally Jews themselves.”
To the question of whether Jews are smarter, I expect most people—Jews and non-Jews, philo-Semites and anti-Semites—would likely say it is true as a generalization, although all but the anti-Semites would quickly add that people must be judged on an individual basis. The Senior article, like most writing on this topic, is a bit coy. It’s nice to know you got it, but you shouldn’t flaunt it. At the same time, it’s permitted to write about how you shouldn’t flaunt it, not-so-implicitly flaunting it.
There is a more serious dimension to this discussion. One cannot help but be nervous about the renewed candor in discussing genetic differences. Historically, genetics and eugenics are closely related, and the latter has a very ugly history. The reaction is very different when the same questions are studied in relation to other identifiable groups, such as Americans of African descent, and the answers turn out not to be so complimentary. Ask Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. Whatever one’s race or ethnicity, a measure of pride and preening about it is understandable and perhaps inevitable, but it is the polite thing to keep it within the family, so to speak.
Comparisons between genetically defined groups are inherently problematic and tend toward the invidious. If one group is generally smarter, the other is generally less smart. What is the point of scientific studies that reinforce prejudices (i.e. pre-judgments) based on life experience? Murray was unhappy when I asked that question in my review of The Bell Curve. Such studies, he contends, can encourage us to rethink educational and other policies that are premised upon the assumption of innate equality. That is not a dumb position, but neither is it wise. It easily leads to what is aptly called the bigotry of low expectations. It is very difficult, to say the least, to incorporate Murray’s position into a polity based on equality.
Every bright eighth-grader congratulates himself on the discovery that the assertion of the Declaration of Independence is not literally true. In ways important and unimportant, it is not the case that all are created equal. Call equality our “founding mythology,” if you like, but it is crucial to the foundation of the American order and our efforts to get along more or less amicably. We need not try to play tricks with our minds, pretending that we do not know what we think we know about certain kinds of people in general—positively and negatively, based on scientific studies or anecdotal experience. Life would be unmanageable without such generalized assumptions.
When it comes to asserting publicly the genetic and ethnic assumptions that are usually muted, some say that Jews, because of their past suffering and minority status, should be given an exemption from observing the protocols of assumed equality. There are and should be exemptions. For instance, for humor that is not intentionally vicious or hurtful. The attempt to ban jokes that may offend the super-sensitive is both wrongheaded and futile. With the effective prohibition of anything that anyone might deem hurtful, a vast silence would fall upon the world.
Part of the observance of the unenforceable that makes life livable, however, is a learned awareness of proprieties. In serious public discourse that impinges upon respect and social opportunity for real people, the protocol of presumed equality is indispensable. The question “Are Jews smarter?” inescapably invites the question, “Smarter than whom?” And that quickly becomes problematic. To the objection that the only reason we’re made so nervous by that further question is because of the history of race and racism in this country, the answer is: That is not the only reason, but it is one very good reason.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was born in 1906 and executed at the direct orders of Adolf Hitler on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenberg prison in Bavaria. On this centenary of his birth, we offer a series of excerpts from the writings of a man who is justly honored as one of the great witnesses—as in “martyrs”—of the century past.
Shortly before the outbreak of the war, Bonhoeffer was studying in the United States and became personally acquainted with Reinhold Niebuhr and other major American thinkers. Convinced that his duty required him to share the fate of his people, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany—to life and death under a regime he conspired to overthrow. From Pastor Bonhoeffer we have a number of books, all happily in print in English and some of them undoubted classics: Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship, Letters and Papers from Prison, and his Ethics. The following is from the last work, published by Macmillan: “Our forefathers are for us not ancestors who are made the object of worship and veneration. Interest in genealogies can all too easily become mythologization, as was known already to the writers of the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:4). Our forefathers are witnesses of the entry of God into history. It is the fact of the appearance of Jesus Christ nineteen hundred years ago, a fact for which no further proof is to be sought, that directs our gaze back to the ancients and raises in our minds the question of our historical inheritance. The historical Jesus Christ is the continuity of our history. But Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah of the Israelite-Jewish people, and for that reason the line of our forefathers goes back beyond the appearance of Jesus Christ to the people of Israel. Western history is, by God’s will, indissolubly linked with the people of Israel, not only genetically but also in a genuine uninterrupted encounter. The Jew keeps open the question of Christ. He is the sign of the free mercy-choice and of the repudiating wrath of God. ‘Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God’ (Romans 11:22). An expulsion of the Jews from the West must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew.”
While We’re At It
• Columbia Journalism Review, published by the journalism school of Columbia University and often described as a watchdog of the practices of the press, has a long piece, “Articles of Faith,” by Kiera Butler. It is all about the rumpus over the retirement of Fr. Thomas Reese as editor of America, a Jesuit magazine. The matter was discussed at some length in these pages (Public Square, August/September). There is one reference to your scribe (“an outspoken conservative Catholic thinker”) in an article mainly devoted to what a fine fellow Fr. Reese is (true enough) and how thoughtful Catholics fear his leaving is the portent of a Vatican witch hunt. And so forth. Bishops, we are told, are trying “to rid diocesan papers of controversy.” Perhaps so, but it is more likely that they want their papers to engage controversy in a way that leaves no doubt that the papers are on the side of the Church. As for the future editorial policy of America, Ms. Butler concludes, “the world will be watching.” America should be so lucky. First Things, too, for that matter.
• Students from Christian high schools are having a hard time getting accepted at the University of California, Riverside. The university deems some of the high school courses to be biased in favor of Christianity. The curricular review extends to religion classes. “Religion and ethics courses are acceptable,” says the university, “as long as they do not include among its [sic] primary goals the personal religious growth of the student.” If only we were making this up.
• The subject is C.S. Lewis and moral education. It will be remembered that in The Abolition of Man Lewis calls what we most fundamentally know about moral truth the Tao. (Screwtape in Screwtape Letters refers to such maxims as “primeval moral platitudes.”) Gilbert Meilaender writes, “We should not think of moral education as indoctrination, but as initiation. It is initiation into the human moral inheritance: ‘men transmitting manhood to men.’ We initiate rather than indoctrinate precisely because it is not we but the Tao that binds those whom we teach. We have not decided what morality requires; we have discovered it. We transmit not our own views or desires but moral truth—by which we consider ourselves also to be bound. Hence, moral education is not an exercise of power over future generations.” In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength the final effort to control and reshape nature is directed by an evil organization called the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, with the acronym of NICE. Meilaender notes the “rather nice irony” that in Britain the National Health Service has recently established a National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to formulate guidelines about the use of quality-of-life assessments in the clinical care of patients.
• Paul Dean is head of English at the Dragon School, Oxford, and is deeply offended by the portrayal of W.H. Auden as a serious Christian. That is the portrayal offered in a new book from Yale Press by Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity. It’s all nonsense, writes Mr. Dean. “Brought up in the High Church (which also means High Camp) tradition, Auden was fond of ritual and ceremony; for him, religion was a branch of aesthetics rather than the other way around.” Never mind that Auden wrote to the contrary. A common critical judgment is that Auden was a better poet before he went to America in 1939. Kirsch says that judgment reflects an anti-religious prejudice since “The American Auden is emphatically a Christian Auden.” Mr. Dean is having none of it and selects some second-rate lines Auden wrote in America to prove his case. Mr. Dean’s clinching evidence is Auden’s observation that a young man’s sexual impulse is at odds with the world of right and wrong. Dean writes, “A telling comment if ever there was one!” One infers that Mr. Dean had a very tranquil boyhood. Dean cites a catty remark “someone” made about Auden: “Wystan doesn’t really love God, he just fancies Him.” As for Dean, he is sure that Auden “ended in darkness.” It is obvious that he very much wants to believe that Auden was not a serious Christian and ended in darkness. Why he wants to believe that, he does not say. For a more reasoned and persuasive discussion of what Auden believed, see Arthur Kirsch’s Auden and Christianity.
• Here’s a different twist on John Allen’s book, Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church. I have commented favorably on the book (“While We’re At It,” November) and the review by Mollie Ziegler in the New York Sun also has positive things to say. But she is troubled because, she says, Allen “keeps a journalistic distance from the real action—the theological divide between Opus Dei and its liberal and conservative critics.” She explains: “Escriva’s vision and mission are theologically radical. Laypeople supervising priests is arguably anti-clerical. The view that all Christians can co-redeem the world could be perceived as denigrating the work of Jesus Christ. Teaching that day jobs are the spiritual equivalent of the Eucharist—both are ‘places where Christ is made present’ and sacrifices are given to God—might be anti-sacramental.” These are criticisms of Opus Dei from the right, so to speak, and are seldom mentioned in discussions of the movement. I don’t think there is much merit to the criticisms, but it is of some interest to see them aired.
• I have expressed misgivings about the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) being taken in by environmental groups that are glad to have Christian support for their frequently very un-Christian purposes. The Reverend Ted Haggard, president of the NAE and pastor of the huge New Life Church in Colorado Springs is aware of such misgivings and responds in an interview in Christianity Today. Asked about his relations with the environmental organizations, he says: “We don’t respond to them. They’ve all tried to reach us and communicate with us, but we are so diametrically opposed to some of the traditional environmentalist philosophies that we don’t return their phone calls, because we think this should be an evangelical Christian issue. We think the environmental solutions should come from our philosophy of human responsibility and dignity, because we’re in the image and likeness of God, rather than we’re a fellow animal in the animal kingdom. We think that our approach is a pro-business, pro-free market approach to environmental problems, where their approach is typically anti-business and anti-free market. Their solutions will never work. It’s going to require our approach to improve some of our environmental problems. I think our strategy is better. Our strategy is more thoughtful. Ultimately, since God created it all and God is sovereign and God will judge it all in the end, it’s only God-type solutions that will work. All the other attempted solutions that various human beings will try will fail.”
• That may not count as a refined philosophy, but it’s not a bad statement of sound intuitions. As Christianity Today observes: “In Haggard, one can see the new confidence of American evangelicalism. Previously consigned to the margins of respectable society, today’s evangelicals are on a roll. Those like Haggard enjoy their newfound influence and haven’t paused to sort out a philosophy of culture engagement. They’re too busy making a difference.” Haggard is committed to helping persecuted Christians elsewhere, but as for Christians in America, and maybe especially in Colorado Springs, “I do not believe life is so hard. I think it is easy to live a good life.” I know you think you know what I’m thinking, but it would almost sound churlish to mention the cross.
• On the fortieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate, Pope Benedict sent a letter to Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In advancing Jewish-Catholic relations, Benedict says, “I have expressed my own firm determination to walk in the footsteps traced by my beloved predecessor Pope John Paul II.” It is perhaps noteworthy that he says the Vatican Council laid the foundations not simply for a new relationship between Jews and Christians but a new relationship “between the Jewish People and the Church.” Twice in the short three-hundred-word letter he lifts up the importance of theological dialogue. He also calls for a shared witness “to the One God and his commandments,” including “the sanctity of life.” His reference to the Holocaust underscores that it was “inspired by a neo-pagan racist ideology.” Important points are made in what may be viewed as a brief pro forma statement: The rejection of the claim that the Holocaust is rooted in Christian anti-Semitism; the emphasis on the corporate and not only personal dimension of the Jewish-Christian connection; the importance of common witness on the sanctity of life; and the Council’s call for dialogue that is theological. Benedict’s every statement invites close parsing.
• John Silber reviews Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He begins by asking, “If Franklin Delano Roosevelt applied to Harvard today, would he get in?” Harvard, one might point out, accepts only living applicants. But Silber has a serious point: “Why does Karabel devote so much attention to the admissions policy at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton unless he actually believes that they still offer an almost exclusive path to membership in the American elite? In fact the three schools, while extraordinary in many respects, long ago lost their controlling grip on the levers of power. More senators have bachelor’s degrees from Brigham Young University than from Princeton; the vast majority of senators attended fine universities in their own states. Despite enormous endowments accrued over decades of serving the interest of the wealthy, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are not uniformly excellent in all fields. A high school student interested in history can do very well at Yale, but one interested in philosophy might do better at Rutgers University. Students interested in the life sciences have a wide choice of schools with stronger programs than Harvard’s. All this raises a heretical thought. What if Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, purportedly America’s answer to Oxbridge, are in fact more like the nation’s other universities than they are different from them? The question, in other words, might not be whether FDR could get into Harvard today, but rather: Would he apply?” It should be noted that Silber has the good grace not to mention Boston University, where he is president emeritus and achieved wonders in enhancing that school’s academic distinction.
• “We, the undersigned faith-based leaders and organizations . . . “ That’s how the statement, included in a short press release, begins. It calls for, among other things, “An opportunity for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue and option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens.” There are an estimated eight to twelve million illegal immigrants in the United States, the largest number being from Mexico. The statement’s call for liberalizing immigration law does not use the word “amnesty,” but that is what opponents call it. And it may be, in effect, what the White House will propose. Sensible people can and do disagree about what should be done about immigration. The interesting thing about this statement is that it is signed by thirty-eight organizations, of which thirteen are Jewish, six are Catholic (for example, the Jesuit Conference, and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men), and the others are associated with oldline Protestant social action groups. One signatory stands out, however: “U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.” What might this say about the identity and influence of the Catholic bishops of America? Do they think of themselves as one among thirty-eight “faith-based leaders and organizations”? Do they think their influence so diminished that they need to join a coalition of organizations which, put together and multiplied by ten, is a fraction of the Catholics in America whom the bishops presumably represent? Just asking, mind you. But putting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the same league with the Anti-Defamation League and the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office does seem very odd. Not incidentally, the statement received no media attention that I have noticed, whereas a considered statement by the American bishops on moral judgment and immigration policy might be of widespread interest. Are the bishops hiding their light under a bushel of “faith-based leaders and organizations”? Oops, I already asked that question.
• Under intense pressure from the fevered media, hungry lawyers, and nervous insurance companies, the U.S. bishops at their Dallas meeting in 2002 hurriedly put together a number of measures aimed at definitively consigning the sex-abuse scandal to the past. Among these was the establishment of an Office of Child and Youth Protection and the adoption of a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The latter was slightly revised and reissued this past June, but it still includes Article 12, which requires dioceses to “maintain ‘safe environment’ programs . . . to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations.” While these programs are supposed to “be in accord with Catholic moral principles,” many thoughtful Catholics think they are sex-ed by another name. In a pastoral letter, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, asks probing questions about the implementation of Article 12 and concludes that he cannot “expose the children of the diocese to harm under the guise of trying to protect them from harm.” He is by no means alone, although he may not be joined by many bishops. The head of a distinguished Catholic school speaks convincingly of his enormous respect for his bishop. “But,” he says, “if the bishop insists upon Article 12, the parents will be in rebellion, and they’ll be right. No way is the school going to expose third-graders to the details of ‘inappropriate touching’ and ‘sexual boundaries.’“ Catholic principles, one might be inclined to think, include protecting childhood innocence, discouraging early sexual expression, and affirming the primary responsibility of parents for teaching the facts of life. I expect more bishops will be hearing from parents and schools who believe that young children should be protected from protection programs that plant in young minds the seeds of sexual fear and suspicion. For information on how one diocese, in compliance with Article 12, is trying to protect children without harming them, write Nancy Walla, of the Archdiocese of Denver, at email@example.com.
• “Goodbye, Catholics” is an article in Commonweal by Mark Stricherz explaining how the 1972 McGovern Commission wrested control of the Democratic Party from Catholic and other leaders who were attuned to the working class and the values of most Americans. Stricherz is writing a book on the alienation of Catholics from the Democratic ranks and, to judge by this article, it should be interesting. In the same November 4 issue is Daniel Finn’s “Hello, Catholics: Republicans & the Targeting of Religious Voters.” Finn teaches economics and theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville. Finn alleges, if you can believe it, that Republicans are engaged in a deliberate strategy to get voters who identify themselves as religious to vote Republican. Furthermore—brace yourself for this—they are using opposition to abortion to advance their nefarious purposes. Republicans have, says Finn, hoodwinked “perfectionists” who actually want to end the unlimited abortion license. He writes: “Moral perfectionists take the position that if abortion is the most fundamental moral issue today, then striving for political change on abortion should outweigh pressing for change on all other issues. So powerful and pervasive is this mistaken belief that I would not be surprised if at least some of these moral perfectionists misunderstand this essay and claim that it indirectly advocates abortion simply because it questions the political judgments the church has made in opposing abortion.” Of course Daniel Finn does not advocate abortion, directly or indirectly. He simply thinks there are many things as important, or more important, than abortion, and he is unhappy that Christians have been made “attractive targets for strategic manipulation by politicians bent on reaping political gain from their constituents’ moral convictions.” He ends with this: “Caveat credens. Let the believer beware.” Watch out for politicians who are responsive to the moral convictions of the people. I am sure that Professor Finn does not intend to encourage cynicism, but he is compelled to tell the truth: Politicians want to get elected! Say it ain’t so, Joe.
• There is the good Pope Benedict and then there is the bad Pope Benedict, according to Margaret O’Gara who teaches theology at St. Michael’s in Toronto. Or, more accurately, it’s the good Ratzinger and the bad Ratzinger. Writing in Commonweal, she says the good Ratzinger is the man with long experience in ecumenical relations who had a major hand in the initiatives of John Paul II. The bad Ratzinger—and here she reaches way back—is the man who was involved in, for instance, the removal of Fr. Charles Curran from Catholic University and the imposition of restrictions on Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle because of, among other things, his “pastoral outreach to the gay community.” She cites the statement of an Episcopal seminary when Curran was removed in 1986: “The question is whether or not the Anglican Communion should envision closer ecumenical relations with a church that seems officially determined to suppress public discussion, debate, dialogue, or even disagreement.” (Even disagreement? The suggestion would seem to be that suppressing public discussion, debate, and dialogue about the teaching of the Church is bad enough, but at least disagreement should be allowed.) And now “the question is” whether there will be an Anglican Communion with which to have any kind of relations at all.
• One can hardly imagine more dramatically different visions of America than those provided by Martin Heidegger and G.K. Chesterton. That is the subject of Peter Augustine Lawler’s essay in The Intercollegiate Review, “Homeless on ‘Paradise Drive’: Two Views of Americanization.” He is reviewing David Brooks’ Paradise Drive and other writings, and comes to the conclusion that Brooks is closer to Heidegger than to Chesterton. For Heidegger, “Americanization” meant the “inauthentic existence” of obsession with technological fixes against meaning, mortality, and Being. For Chesterton, who, unlike Heidegger, actually spent some time here, America was living the discovery that we are equal human beings situated between the other animals and God. Of course, it probably would not have made any difference if Heidegger did have first-hand experience of America; so very different was his philosophy of life. Chesterton famously said that America is “a nation with the soul of a church.” America, he said, is about “making a home of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.” It is a “home for the homeless” who are on the way to the country where they will be homeless no more. Chesterton’s understanding is grounded in doctrine, even dogma, Lawler writes, while David Brooks agrees with sociologist Alan Wolfe that religion in America is simply a matter of individualistic preferences in search of “whatever works” to make one feel better. Lawler writes, “If oblivion to Being is the price to be paid for opportunity and prosperity, Brooks answers Heidegger, so be it.” Lawler may be too hard on Brooks. Brooks is on many scores a very astute social critic. Yet there is in his writing, and especially in his writing about religion in America, more than a whiff of what Alan Bloom called “debonair nihilism,” which he then attributes, altogether too sweepingly, to his fellow Americans.
• There is another passage in the Lawler article that is well worth reading: “In one of his most countercultural columns, Brooks notices that the exurbs contain a disproportionate number of ‘natalists’ or people whose ‘personal identity is defined by parenthood’ and who have three or more children. Natalists ‘are more spiritually, emotionally, and physically invested in their homes than in other spheres of life, having concluded that parenthood is the most enriching and elevating thing they can do.’ Birthrates are plummeting throughout Western Europe, Canada, and large parts of the United States, but not in the exurbs. Areas of our country that some view ‘as sprawling materialistic wastelands’ are seen by ‘many natalists . . . as clean, orderly, and affordable places where they can nurture children.’ People who have big families, Brooks goes on, ‘are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.’ They are, in others words, rejecting ‘Americanism’ as described by Heidegger (and Brooks). Mainly, if not only, because of such people, America, from Heidegger’s view, is now the least ‘Americanized’ place in the prosperous West. Because of the natalists, the U.S., Brooks notices, ‘stands out in all sorts of demographic and cultural categories,’ and there is a clear correlation between natalism, attendance at religious services, and conservative voting patterns. Brooks attempts to downplay the connection between orthodox religious beliefs and big families. But Philip Longman, for instance, says that if it weren’t for such religious Americans, our birthrate would be roughly the same as that of the France, which is fading away. The natalists who understand themselves more as parents than as individuals usually also understand themselves more as creatures than as individuals. America, we are tempted to say, is now divided between Heidegger’s technological nihilists or free individuals—who believe they can define themselves as they please—and Chesterton’s dogmatists, who see themselves as parents, creatures, and citizens.” (The Philip Longman book to which Lawler refers is The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to do About It.)
• Martin E. Marty quotes Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas, who is interviewed in Homiletics magazine. “We are a country mesmerized by fear,” says Hauerwas. On September 11, “death was brought to the American shore. It’s a reality Americans do not want to confront.” Apparently Americans pretended that nothing important had happened on September 11. Hauerwas is especially outraged that President Bush said people should go out and shop in order to show their determination to get on with life. Then Hauerwas does an about-turn, complaining that Americans overreacted to September 11. “There’s a connection between the amount of money Americans spend on medicine and our reaction to 9/11. Both are attempts to deny that we’re not going to get out of life alive.” Or maybe just an indication of wanting to live a little longer? Hauerwas continues: “The worst thing that happened was the words, ‘We are at war.’ September 11 was not war, it was murder. You want to arrest murderers.” Well, yes, but these particular murderers were already dead. Moreover, the murderous network of those who directed the attack called it war and were supported by states that called it war. It is hard to know how we might have gone in to arrest the responsible parties without war, as in being “at war.” Hauerwas does not say. As a principled pacifist, he recognizes no obligation to say. Marty says his words are deeply “meaningful” and, as difficult as it may be to figure out what Hauerwas means, who am I to dispute the meaning of meaningful? Hauerwas is quoted as declaring, “One of the things that bothers me deeply is how seldom preachers tell their congregations the truth!” Me, too.
• While strongly favoring burial in the earth, in 1963 the Catholic Church for the first time permitted the practice of cremation. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it does not however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.” Until very recently, cremation was typically chosen for reasons contrary to Christian faith, specifically Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Alvin J. Schmidt, a Lutheran ethicist, has written a little book, Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes? (Regina Orthodox Press), arguing that Christians should still reject cremation. Along the way, he casts light on some increasingly bizarre funeral practices: “Recently, another phenomenon has begun to become part of our society’s death-denying posture. Some funeral directors now are providing services in various settings that reflect a key interest or hobby the deceased person had or valued in life. If the deceased was an avid basketball fan, for instance, the funeral director has the mourners sit around a basketball hoop next to the coffin; if the individual loved outdoor grilling, a grill and its accessories are the focus of attention, together with the aroma of corn roasted on the cob; and if the person, say, a woman, greatly enjoyed baking, an oven with loaves of bread and a stove covered with cakes are located near the coffin in the mortuary.” In Balsamic Dreams, a book on the baby boomer generation, Joe Queenan complains about those who “transform the traditional funeral service into a ludicrous stage show.” Funerals, he writes, “are no longer somber rituals where we pay our respects to the dead. They are cabaret.” That may be over the top, as is Professor Schmidt’s call for an absolute prohibition of cremation, but both give pause for thought.
• There is a great deal to like about Noah Feldman’s Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It (FSG, 306 pages, $25). Not the title, to be sure, which runs counter to Feldman’s argument that religion need not be divisive, and there is no suggestion that he thinks God wills division. Since the American founding, he writes, “we have been trying to construct a single nation,” and he hopes his book will contribute to that construction. Feldman, who teaches law at New York University and is a fellow of the Washington-based New American Foundation, exercises civility and restraint in addressing our current culture wars, created in large part, he believes, by the “legal secularism” that has in recent decades favored a “naked public square.” Feldman is more than generous in describing my influence in current religious-cultural-political reconfigurations, and there is much on which we agree; notably on the hash of incoherent no-establishment doctrines promulgated by the Supreme Court. Feldman’s central proposal is this: “Offer greater latitude for public religious discourse and religious symbolism, and at the same time insist on a stricter ban on state funding for religious institutions and activities. . . . If no one is being coerced by the government, and if the government is not spending its money or other resources on religious institutions and practices, the courts should hold that the Constitution is not violated.” His position is summed up as “no coercion and no money.” There is much to be said for that position, except Feldman would also prohibit government aid to citizens in, for instance, exercising the right of parental choice in education, which may indirectly benefit religious schools. While generally trying to calm unwarranted alarums about the dangers of religion in public life, on the question of education vouchers Feldman generates unconvincing alarums of his own. The author is thoroughly confused about the Catholic understanding of natural law reasoning (which at one point he identifies as canon law), and gets things exactly backwards when he says that Catholics joined evangelical Protestants who he apparently thinks first opposed the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe. Nevertheless, Divided by God is a welcome contribution. It joins Philip Hamburger’s important book of three years ago, Separation of Church and State, in a growing literature aimed at persuading militant secularists that their hostility to religion and religiously-grounded morality in public is without support in the Constitution, undermines authentic democracy, and further marginalizes the liberalism they would advance—unless, of course, militant secularism is inseparable from their understanding of liberalism.
• What you always thought you knew about Jews in America is more or less true, according to Jewish Distinctiveness in America, published by the American Jewish Committee. “Overall,” we are told, “Jews are the most distinctive of all ethnic/racial and all religious groups.” They are richer, more urban, in more high-status jobs, more highly educated, less likely to be divorced, have fewer children, and are strikingly more secular and liberal, especially on controverted social questions. Their mean age (not meaning the age at which they stop being nice) is 47.7. Only liberal Protestants are older, at 50.8, with evangelicals at 45.2 and Catholics at 43.1. There are all kinds of odd findings in the report. For instance, Jews are at the very bottom among ethnic groups in expecting that the standard of living of their children will be better than their own, and next to the bottom in believing that people get ahead mainly by hard work. (Polish Americans are at the bottom on the latter scale. Go figure.) Israel is a big factor in accentuating Jewish distinctiveness. “For other groups the ‘old country’ tie is progressively lost across time and generations, and under the American immigration pact it is considered disloyal to maintain an allegiance to another country. But it is considered natural and acceptable for Jews, as a religious group, to have connections to and strong, positive feelings toward Israel (up to the line that Jonathan Pollard crossed).” Pollard, it will be remembered, is an American citizen who was convicted of espionage against the U.S. on behalf of Israel. As for changes over the last thirty years, they are chiefly that more Jews are marrying non-Jews, with the result that fewer children are being reared Jewishly, and that Jews are, as a group, growing older. There is little that surprises in Jewish Distinctiveness in America, but the American Jewish Committee and I thought you might want to know.
• Set aside for a moment where you stand on the death penalty. It is the reasoning of the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons that is of great interest. It violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual” punishment, the Court ruled, to execute people who committed murder when they were less than eighteen years old. The case at hand was a seventeen-year-old who bragged to his buddies that he could get away with it because he was a minor, and then broke into a woman’s home, put duct tape over her eyes and mouth, wrapped her head in a towel, tied her up with electrical wire, and then threw her off a railroad trestle into a river where she drowned. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5–4 majority that in recent years a “national consensus” has formed against the death penalty for minors. In fact, of the thirty-eight states that have capital punishment, eighteen bar the execution of those under age eighteen. Kennedy invoked “evolving standards of decency” and cited “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.” If true, what that has to do with interpreting the U.S. Constitution is not addressed. Kennedy’s opinion is that of a sociologist, psychologist, and free-lance moralist, not of a justice of the Supreme Court, although the distinction is by now very fuzzy. Kennedy writes that “any parent knows” and “scientific and sociological studies” show that people under eighteen have a “lack of maturity” and an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and susceptibility to “negative influences” along with a weak sense of “cost-benefit analysis.” Remembering when I was under eighteen, I cannot but agree. I know a great many people who are over eighteen of whom the same might be said. Interestingly, the Court does not think these factors are pertinent to a woman under eighteen disposing of the child in her womb. Since I am generally opposed to the death penalty, I do not object to the conclusion of Roper v. Simmons. But the arguments offered by the Court, along with counter-arguments, belong in the legislative chambers of the country. Roper is yet another in a long list of judicial usurpations of the political process, of which Roe v. Wade is the most consequential. This is outlaw law, legally effective but not morally binding. There will yet come a day, we must try to believe, when the people and their representatives will free judges from the arrogant delusion that they are the legislators of our laws and arbiters of our morals.
• Early on in his pontificate, Pope Benedict met with representatives of major Jewish organizations and the discussion was most cordial. There is continuing Jewish anxiety, however, about the prospect of Pope Pius XII being beatified. “It is not for the Jewish community to tell the Catholic Church who its saints are,” said Rabbi David Rosen, head of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. But he added, “There would be very many within the Jewish world who would see the beatification of Pius XII as an act of intentional insensitivity.” Intentional insensitivity is the most insidious kind.
• On the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, reflected on the Christian alternative to both secularism and theocracy: “There is yet a third element of Christian tradition that I wish to mention, that, in the afflictions of our time, is of fundamental importance. Christian belief—following in the way of Jesus—has negated the idea of political theocracy. It has—to express it in modern terms—produced the worldliness of states, wherein Christians along with the adherents of other convictions live together in peace. Thus is distinguished the Christian belief that the Kingdom of God does not exist as a political reality, and cannot so exist, but rather, through faith, hope, and love is it attained, and the world transformed from within. But under the conditions of temporality, the Kingdom of God is no worldly empire, but rather, a call for the freedom of humanity and a support for reason that it may fulfill its own mission. The temptations of Jesus were ultimately about this distinction, about the rejection of political theocracy, about the relativity of states and reason’s own law, as well as about the freedom to choose, which is meant for every person. In this sense, the secular state follows from a fundamental Christian decision, even if it required a long struggle to understand this in all its consequences. This worldly, ‘secular’ state incorporates, in its essence, the balance between reason and religion, which I have tried here to present. However, it stands against secularism as an ideology, which would, as it were, construct the state from pure reason, released from all historical roots, and which can thus recognize no moral foundations that are not discernible to reason. All that is left it, in the end, is the positivism of the greatest number, and with it the abasement of right; ultimately, it is to be governed by a statistic. If the countries of the West were to commit wholly to this path, they could not indefinitely withstand the press of the ideologues and political theocrats. Even a secular state may—indeed, must—find its support in the formative roots from which it grew, it may and must acknowledge the foundational values without which it would not have come to be, and without which it cannot survive. Upon an abstract, an ahistorical reason, a state cannot endure.”
• Albert J. Raboteau, professor of religion at Princeton, became Orthodox later in life. Writing in the Boston Review about his ambivalent response to the role of religion in public life, he cites Father Alexander Schmemann, whose work has received much attention in these pages. The Church, Schmemann insisted, is not centered upon herself but is a missionary community “whose purpose is salvation not from, but of, the world.” Raboteau writes: “To keep Christianity from being reduced to religion—just one more isolated compartment among the many that occupy the modern person’s life (this, for Father Schmemann, was the meaning of secularism)—it is essential to hold sight of the reality of the kingdom as present and as future. Secularism is not antireligious. It approves of religion by turning it into what Niebuhr called an ‘idol,’ one among others suited to our self-gratification. Secularism, in this sense, robs the Church of its eschatological dimension. It is no longer the primary community for us, the source of our life and our joy, but one more activity in a busy week, competing with work, social life, and entertainment. When the Church loses its awareness of the kingdom of God and its essential sacramentality, there develops (as Father Schmemann writes) ‘a peculiar divorce of the forms of the Church’s life from their content, from that reality whose presence, power, and meaning they are meant to express and, as a consequence the transformation of those forms into an end in itself so that the very task of the Church is seen as the preservation of the ‘ancient,’ ‘venerable,’ and ‘beautiful’ forms, regardless of the ‘reality’ to which they refer.’ The Church, in effect, becomes a museum of archaic artifacts and rituals, beautiful but inert. What is lost, and lost not through persecution but through our own inattention and inertia, is the ‘very deep and essentially Orthodox experience of the Church as truly an epiphany: the revelation of, the participation in, a reality which because it is not ‘of this world’ is given to us—‘in this world’—in symbols. Hence the crucial importance of symbols in which we experience the reality of the Divine presence and action.”
• Kenneth Woodward, longtime religious writer for Newsweek, is nothing if not diligent. For a big special issue of Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy dealing with ethics and the media, Woodward assiduously combed every database to see how the New York Times has over the years dealt with abortion and, more specifically, partial-birth abortion. In July of last year, David Okrent, the paper’s “public editor” (something like an ombudsman), asked in his column, “Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper?” To which he answered, “Of course it is.” Woodward writes: “As evidence he cited not only the editorial page but also the Times’ reporting, and the issues he chose were not economic but social—abortion, gay marriage, and the like. Citing the issue of same-sex marriage, Okrent found much in the way of ‘implicit advocacy,’ not only in what the Times reported but in what it did not. He then went on to observe that ‘if you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.’ Such frankness is rare among public editors.” Woodward then examines in detail how, from 1995 on, the Times in its news reports employed evasions, mendacities, and linguistic games to avoid honest reporting on partial-birth abortion. When the phrase “partial-birth abortion” was used, it was accompanied by the claim that it is a political phrase employed by opponents of “reproductive rights.” In fact, “partial-birth abortion” is in the medical dictionaries, and the American Medical Association supported a government ban on it—only the second time in 150 years that the AMA has endorsed legislation prohibiting any medical procedure. Undaunted, the Times editorially declares: “‘Partial birth’ is a political battle cry, not medical terminology.” Woodward concludes his essay with this: “Moving from the news pages to the editorial page it is hard to know which is the sound, which the echo. One of the values that newspapers are expected to uphold is the absolute separation between the editorial page and the news pages. At the Times, this independence of news from editorial is symbolized by housing editorial writers on one floor, reporters on another. Yet on the issue of ‘partial-birth’ abortion, those who edit the news and those who comment on it appear to be joined at the hip. This conclusion should not surprise long-time readers of the New York Times. Nor am I under any illusion that the Times will, on this subject, rethink its one-dimensional newsroom practices, much less its constraining newsroom culture. A walk through the Times, as Okrent put it, can indeed make readers feel like ‘you are traveling in a strange and forbidding world.’ It is a strange world where ‘women’ carry ‘fetuses’ but where it is forbidden to ever write that ‘mothers’ carry ‘babies.’ This essay is about journalistic ethics, not the ethics of abortion. My purpose throughout has been to demonstrate that even at the highest levels of journalism, the demands of craft and the demands of ethics are braided and seldom separable. Language is where the two most often intertwine, and when ideology determines what is written as news, language and its integrity are the first to suffer.”
• In the same essay, Kenneth Woodward takes note, as have many others, of the terminological wars around abortion. Pro-abortionists call themselves pro-choice and anti-abortionists call themselves pro-life, but those terms are seldom used in the news media. The Times and others often refer to advocates of “abortion rights” or “reproductive rights,” who are opposed by “anti-abortionists.” The complaint is that the first are depicted as being for something while the latter are against something. I’m not so sure. I remember a conversation some years ago with the late James McFadden, founding editor of Human Life Review, in which he urged that we should take our cue from the anti-slavery movement of the nineteenth century and embrace being called anti-abortion. Yes, he agreed, “pro-life” sounds more “positive,” but abortion, like slavery, is an unspeakable evil about which we ought to be unambiguously negative. He didn’t entirely persuade me then, and I’m not entirely persuaded now. There is proven power in the pro-life language, especially among Christians—as in “the gospel of life.” On the other hand, I’ve noticed that young people today are uninhibited in declaring themselves anti-abortion. And in some survey research there are people who don’t call themselves pro-life, perhaps because of its political connotations, but declare themselves strongly opposed to abortion. We are used in funny ways by the language we use.
• The ugly story of eugenics in America, and major American philanthropies supporting eugenics in Germany, is now being told in a number of recent books and articles. Christine Rosen’s important contribution is to focus on the role of religion in the promotion of eugenics in her book Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. As Rosen demonstrates in devastating detail, the liberal religious establishment was, in the first part of the twentieth century, solidly behind the pseudo-scientific movement to “improve the human stock” by breeding for excellence and eliminating the unfit. Some progressive Catholic thinkers also signed up with the cause. Philip Jenkins, reviewing Rosen in Books & Culture, writes: “Generally, though, the Catholic Church provided a firm bulwark against eugenic ‘reform.’ When in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court famously upheld the sterilization of Carrie Buck, the lone dissenter was the court’s one Catholic Justice, Pierce Butler. For liberals, such obstructionism proved yet again that the Catholic tradition could never truly be reconciled with secular democracy. As late as 1949, Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power ranted against Catholic willingness to allow defectives and even ‘monsters’ to be born alive, and to be viewed as full human beings.” Quoting Chesterton, Jenkins observes that it was only adherence to traditional Christian doctrine that prevented the individual believer “from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Jenkins adds, “The next time someone posits a conflict between science and religion, it would be useful to recall the American experience with eugenics.”
• Oriana Fallaci is the—how should one put it?—outspoken Italian journalist who has been criminally charged with the “vilification” of a “religion admitted by the state.” This makes her a vilipend, notes the Wall Street Journal‘s Tunku Varadarajan, who interviewed her in New York a few months ago where she was staying away from the Italian court. Her putative crime is to have said unflattering things about Islam. Following Bat Ye’or, she calls today’s Europe “Eurabia.” Her view of the future is almost unrelievedly grim. She says, “I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger.” Varadarajan writes, “I had asked Ms. Fallaci whether there was any contemporary leader she admired, and Pope Benedict XVI was evidently a man in whom she reposed some trust. ‘I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. It’s that simple! There must be some human truth here that is beyond religion.’“ Ms. Fallaci admired John Paul II, not least because he was a “warrior who did more to end the Soviet Union than even America,” but she thought him altogether too weak on the Islamic invasion. Varadarajan continues: “The scant hopes that she has for the West she rests on his successor. As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the European (and the Western) condition. Last year, he wrote an essay titled ‘If Europe Hates Itself,’ from which Ms. Fallaci read this to me: ‘The West reveals . . . a hatred of itself, which is strange and can only be considered pathological; the West . . . no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.’ ‘Ecco!‘ she says. A man after her own heart. ‘Ecco!‘ But I cannot be certain whether I see triumph in her eyes, or pain.” (Yes, the quotation is from Pope Benedict’s essay in this issue of First Things, published here for the first time in English.)
• Wasn’t I going to say anything about Mario Cuomo’s outdoing himself with an egregiously dumb op-ed piece in the New York Times a while back in favor of the laboratory exploitation of embryonic stem cells? No, as a matter of fact, I wasn’t. Mr. Cuomo’s occasional reappearances as a deep-thinking Catholic moralist have long been on a list of things politely ignored. But then there were these interesting letters in response to the Cuomo column, putting Peter Singer of Princeton and the pro-life office of the New York Catholic Conference solidly on the same side against Mr. Cuomo’s claim that the crucial question is when human life begins. “Even the earliest embryo conceived of human parents is alive and a member of Homo sapiens,” writes Singer. “Each of us has our origins in such an embryo. That is a fact of biology, not faith,” writes Kathleen Gallagher of the pro-life office. Singer continues: “The crucial moral question is not when human life begins, but when human life reaches the point at which it merits protection. . . . Unless we separate these two questions—when does life begin, and when does it merit protection—we are unlikely to achieve any clarity about the moral status of embryos.” Almost exactly right. I say “almost” because, while the questions can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. Long-term readers are familiar with Professor Singer from, inter alia, my debate with him at Colgate some while back (see “The Philosopher from Nowhere,” February 2002). Singer has an intellectually complexified answer to the question of what human lives merit protection. He argues, for instance, that the life of an adult pig deserves protection more than that of a newborn human baby, and that parents should be free to kill their young children already born if they deem them unacceptably disabled. So, while Singer comes up with barbarously wrong answers, he comes close to posing the right question for public consideration: Given the biological fact that an embryo is a human being, what duty, if any, do we have to protect that life? And, if we say we have no such duty because that life is too small or too weak or too burdensome, how do we avoid extending that lethal logic to the monstrous conclusions espoused by Peter Singer? Prof. Singer has often said that he agrees with the pope on the question engaged in the debate over abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and mercy killing, and he has criticized the dishonesty of those on his side of these issues for fudging the moral logic entailed in their position. On that he is entirely right.
• There is this fussy rule in the reviewing business that anyone who has given a blurb for a book is disqualified from reviewing it. We here at First Things refuse to be bound by it. It is one of those petty rules that provide a patina of moral scrupulosity for an otherwise unscrupulous enterprise. There can be real conflicts of interest. If, for instance, the author is your best friend, your boss, your client, or your brother-in-law, we don’t want you to review the book. But if you sincerely and disinterestedly praised the book in a blurb, it might be interesting to know why you thought it worthy of praise. Along with, of course, whatever you think is wrong with it. To continue to like a book that you liked upon first reading, even if the first reading was cursory, is no conflict of interest. Thus I do not hesitate to say that I continue to like, in fact I like even more, Alan Jacob’s The Narnian, of which I say on the dustjacket, “As C.S. Lewis helped make sense of so much for so many, Alan Jacobs helps make sense of C.S. Lewis. The most influential Christian apologist of the last hundred years has found a worthy biographer.” Upon a closer reading, however, I see better what Jacobs means when he says that this is not a biography in the usual sense of the word. It does not follow a strict chronology and he omits many details that can be found in other books on Lewis. The subtitle catches the idea of the book, The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, with the discussion of the life in service to understanding the imagination. It is quite the most satisfying book on Lewis that I have read, and I think I’ve read most of them. The Narnian helpfully corrects misunderstandings that have gained wide currency. For instance, the claim of A.N. Wilson and others that Lewis gave up Christian apologetics after being devastatingly defeated in debate with the philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe is decisively debunked. Jacobs explains how Lewis over time came to be uneasy with his reputation as an undefeatable debater, and indeed with the whole idea of “proving” Christian truths by scoring points. From his Belfast childhood on, Lewis’ thought and writing was permeated by a yearning, a longing, an intimation of the most real, and this intimation he called “joy.” Hence the title of his most autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. The trajectory of his life and imagination, Jacobs insists, is always on the way to eternal life, “the country never yet visited.” Narnia whets the appetite for what is to be, and that appetite, that longing, is the mark of living wonder-fully on this side of that far country. Jacobs is deeply respectful of Lewis but stops far short of being uncritically reverential. He was perhaps more sharply critical in some of his earlier writing, such as “The Second Coming of C.S. Lewis” (FT, November 1994). In the present book, he distances himself from Lewis’ turn against modernity, and especially the literary moderns (Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, et al.), and one wishes Jacobs had explained more fully why he thinks, as he apparently does think, that turn was not necessary to Lewis’ entire project. But he will probably never tell us since, as he writes in his preface, “I will never, ever write another word about C.S. Lewis.” That is a pity, because many others will continue to write about Lewis and the conversation will be diminished by the absence of Alan Jacobs. Whether or not it was his last word on the subject, we can be grateful for The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.
• In the course of a talk on faith and culture at Fairfield University, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, addressed the oft-heard view that “it doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, we all worship the same God.” He said: “Such a remark sells every religion short. It implies that while we have to be discerning about other aspects of life, we do not have to be religiously discerning as all religions are equally valid. In this conception, salvation and eternal life fade into murkiness. This does not lead to a greater toleration of religion but to its dismissal as pointless or as dangerous since absolute religious relativism is powerless to critique degenerate forms of religion. It is far more respectful for Christians to bring their universal claims, that is, the wisdom of the cross, to the table of interreligious dialogue and prayer rather than to check them at the door. Those very claims enable us to recognize the truths that other religions embody and their points of contact with the divine. In turn, we are better able to see how other religions can enrich the Christian proclamation without diluting it. As mentioned earlier, relativism is often seen as just the right attitude for living in a democracy where presumably everyone has a right to be heard in the public square. And indeed, that is to some extent true, but it is not absolutely true. There are foundational truths and values upon which a just, humane, and cohesive society rests and without which it becomes a destructive force for its own citizens and for the world order.”
• “The delusional is no longer marginal, and we err on the side of folly if we continue to grant the boon of tolerance to people who mean to do us harm in the conviction that they receive from Genesis the command ‘to take dominion over the earth,’ to build the Kingdom of God, to create the Christian Nation. The proposition is as murderous as it is absurd.” That is editor Lewis Lapham in an issue of Harper’s devoted to the threat of conservative Christians in the public square. The issue contains two long slash-and-burn articles by reporters who visited the aliens living in Colorado Springs, a center of evangelical megachurches and parachurch organizations. Not surprisingly, they found and enthusiastically highlight some loopy “Dominionists” and “Reconstructionists” who think our constitutional order should be replaced by a society based on “Bible law.” Lapham’s politics of paranoia notwithstanding, such people are in fact very marginal and in no way representative of the evangelical insurgency in public life. It is not without interest, however, that an old liberal standby such as Harper’s declares it folly to “grant the boon of tolerance” to fellow-citizens with whom it disagrees. “Boon,” be it noted, denotes a benefit or a favor. One has to wonder what has happened to liberalism’s devotion to rights. But perhaps one should not make too much of this. Mr. Lapham has a very long paper trail testifying to his excitability. On the other hand, many might view Harper’s as a venerable institution of the American establishment. Established in 1850, it has a circulation of over 200,000, and has published worthies such as Henry James, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill. In its publicity, however, it boasts only one writer of note in the last half century, Seymour Hersch writing on the My Lai massacre. That was a very long time ago. Some while back, Harper’s was going belly up and was rescued by the far-left MacArthur Foundation, which now owns the magazine. Nonetheless, it should not go unremarked that a publication that has a reserved perch on “the commanding heights of culture” (Marx) declares that tolerance is a boon that liberalism should no longer grant to conservative Christians. I would not be surprised if, by searching diligently, one could find a Dominionist nut in Colorado Springs who favors banning Harper’s. Lewis Lapham is in very strange company.
• The response to the changes at First Things’ website has been beyond expectations. For regular updatings with news and commentary, please check out old.firstthings.com.
• Christianity is not a mythology or source of elevating spiritual insights. Historical particularity is all, which is nicely underscored by the following “Proclamation of the Birth of Christ” from the Roman Martyrology for Christmas Mass:
The twenty-fifth day of December.
In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world
from the time when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth;
the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood;
the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham;
the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses
and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt;
the one thousand and thirty-second year from David’s being anointed king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace in the sixth age of the world,
Jesus Christ the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed
since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea
of the Virgin Mary,
being made flesh.
Are Jews Smarter? New York Magazine, October 24. Reese rumpus, Columbia Journalism Review, November/December. Personal growth unacceptable in Riverside, Wall Street Journal, October 28. Meilaender on moral education, Imprimis, October. Dean on Auden, New York Sun, October 13. Opus Dei, New York Sun, October 26. Benedict XVI on Nostra Aetate, letter, October 27. USCCB under a bushel, immigration statement, October 14. Hello, Catholics, Commonweal, November 4. Good pope/bad pope, Commonweal, July 15. Lawler on Brooks, The Intercollegiate Review, Fall/Winter. Marty on Hauerwas, Context, May. Roper v. Simmons, hat tip to George Will’s column, March 6. Anxiety over possible Pius XII beatification, Cath News Service, June 9. Then-Ratzinger on the secular state, Logos, Spring 2005, originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Raboteau on the Church, Boston Review, April/May. What we’ve always known about the New York Times, Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, Volume 19, Issue No. 2. Eugenics in America, Books & Culture, July/August 2004. Oriana Fallaci, Wall Street Journal, June 23. Peter Singer gets something right, New York Times, June 23. Bishop Lori on orthodox ecumenism, Origins, November 3. No tolerance for evangelicals, Harper’s, May.