Executing Justice


Joseph Bottum’s prudential claim (“Christians and the Death Penalty,” August/September) that Christians must deny secular democracies the right to enact stories of high justice is challenging and attractive. After all, who wants to grant civil authorities who cannot bring themselves to recognize their responsibility for unborn babies power over life and death?


Yet he argues that Romans 13 does not necessarily warrant the death penalty, suggesting that “Paul certainly had no illusions that the reigning authority of Rome was anointed or godly. The ‘sword’ he mentions is a metaphor for police powers that does not necessarily imply approval of the death penalty.”

Whatever he meant by “sword,” as a Pharisee, Paul certainly did approve the death penalty, and if he believed the death penalty was permissible for Israel and not other nations, he chose a misleading way to make his point. Moreover, in the passage Bottum cites, Paul claims the powers are agents of vengeance, conflicting with Bottum’s own claim that the state is not “a sort of hired agent or substitute avenger.” In Romans 12-13, Paul’s exhortation to suffer injustice without vengeance is rooted not only in hope for divine vengeance but in an expectation that wrongs will be avenged by civil powers. Paul had no illusions about Roman justice, but even so he describes the civil ruler”presumably Roman”as a “deacon of wrath.”

Peter J. Leithart
New St. Andrews College
Moscow, Idaho

It is to be expected that, as a Christian, Joseph Bottum would bring specific Christian theological arguments as to why the death penalty is wrong. But it is curious that nowhere does he mention or comment on Genesis 9:5-6, in which God Himself states that as part of the new (Noahide) covenant with humanity, human beings (and not God) have the responsibility of taking the life of a murderer. Furthermore, this is a covenantal requirement precisely because human life is qualitatively different in its unconditional sanctity: “and at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man .”

Rabbi Cary Kozberg
Columbus, Ohio

Joseph Bottum assumes that the newly minted Catholic attitude can be legitimate when seen against the backdrop of Catholicism through the ages. The last pope’s personal pastoral opinions (on the circumstances, if any, when the death penalty can be rightly exercised by the state) substitute the prevailing winds of European opinion for the Catholic tradition, much as the revisionists in the liberal Protestant churches do. I feel sorry for you that you feel that you must defend this laughable development in Catholic teaching. As a traditionally minded Anglo-Catholic, I must say that the Catholic Church’s strange new position on capital punishment is one major reason why I would find accepting Roman Catholicism, at best, a compromise with a defective faith.

R. Scott Pennington
Lexington, Kentucky

The basic error Joseph Bottum makes is in thinking that there is no level of justice between an entirely temporal punishment and a punishment that fully and perfectly satisfies the universal demand for justice built into the fabric of existence itself. He reinforces this supposition by repeatedly using phrases like “cosmic justice” and “restoring the universe”: Since it is obvious that no state can effect universal justice, then obviously no state can have as its proper end such cosmic justice.

And yet, at root, the justice that is the state’s proper aim is the justice that pertains to the sovereign temporal community as its rightful common good. Being sovereign, its power and duty includes a view to the justice that completes the community itself. Admittedly, the state is not the sole sovereign entity (there are other states) and it is not the final sovereign being (since there is an eternal order), so the common good of the state is not final, universal justice. But the justice that completes the state includes punishments that are the proper redress for the disruption of the common good of the state. If a person were so utterly opposed to the common good as to attempt to overthrow the very existence of the state (by insurrection, say), then the proper level of correction is one that opposes the preferred good of the insurrectionist by disrupting his life. And this is properly within the state’s scope of action, even after it has stopped the insurrection and no longer is in any danger.

Tony Montanaro
Stafford, Virginia

I appreciate Joseph Bottum’s noble sentiments, but I wonder how his principle that “Jesus turned all our stories inside out, . . . especially the old, old ones about blood and blood’s repayment,” which he applies to capital punishment, would apply to the story of war and just-war theory. Both are weighty issues that deal explicitly with “high cosmic justice,” so if he argues that a government overreaches its authority to execute justice by attempting to “balance the books of the universe” in repaying blood with blood, then does that mean there can never be any just criteria for one nation to retaliate against another after an unprovoked attack”an attack that in essence would repay blood with blood? The “narrative” of war is just as substantial, if not more so, than that of the death penalty. Should the state then not be permitted to wield this form of “high cosmic justice” to complete the story? It appears that to be truly just, we would have to apply this theory of justice categorically”both to the death penalty and to war.

The Rev. Bryce Sibley
Parks, Louisiana

Joseph Bottum says that genuine crimes are committed against societies. Try telling that to the victims. Except for crimes against the state and against institutions, people are always involved, and the most heinous crimes are always the most personal. The further law gets away from the individual, the less “natural” it is, and the more “positive” it becomes. The same can be said of justice. It is true that when we enter into society we give up the right to retributive justice at the personal level, but if the state ignores the retributive aspect of justice in its application in society, support for that society will erode, as will respect for it laws.

People know justice”or lack thereof”when they see it. Perhaps this is why, despite opposition to capital punishment by the legal elites of Europe, a continent in decline, popular opinion polls in most of those countries continue to support the death penalty.

Gregory T. Walker
Bloomington, Indiana

While I appreciate Joseph Bottum’s philosophical objection to capital punishment, he fails to take into account the justice system that he claims to prefer. That system can be described fairly succinctly: “The state guarantees that you can kill as many innocent people as you want, under any circumstances whatsoever, without having to face even the theoretical possibility that you will put your own life at risk.” Bottum may be correct in his assertion that our society is unworthy to administer the “high justice” that capital punishment demands, but his alternative in many cases would be no justice at all. We ought to be generous in our mercy, even to murderers, but genuine mercy presupposes the right to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

James Belna
Claremont, California

When Joseph Bottum states that “high justice” for murder victims “is something we cannot permit the State of Connecticut to wield,” one can infer that the United States, a nation where the people are sovereign, lacks the moral authority to do that which the Church for millennia conceded to kings and princes. Considering the history of conflicts between Church and State, it would seem more prudent for Christians, Jews, and others of good will to take the position that the death penalty is justified as long as it is carried out by a lawful sovereign, not inflicted in a cruel and unusual manner, and imposed only on those convicted of heinous crimes by due process of law.

We should make a firm distinction between the lawful execution of a convicted murder and the taking of the life of an innocent fetus”which is done without justification or excuse. Making one act the moral equivalent of the other does not advance the cause of those who oppose unrestricted abortion.

Gary Inbinder
Woodland Hills, California

Those countries in Europe that have abolished the death penalty for first-degree murder are well along in the abolition of their Judeo-Christian heritage, which is reportedly evident in the constitution they have written for the union of European states. The United States currently has more than three thousand inmates on death row because so many citizens are reluctant to be hard-nosed about capital punishment for murderers of the first degree. Some day the financial outlay for the support of these murderers may be questioned: What does society profit by maintaining room, board, and hospitalization costs in the millions and billions for these murderers? Absolutely nothing, except the indulgence of the tender-hearted feelings of the sentimentalists. In time there must be once again a recognition of the fact that the worst crime a human being can commit is to plot, scheme and plan the murder of one or more innocent fellow human beings”and that the only just punishment is life for life.

Leland D. Peterson
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia

Joseph Bottum dismisses several common objections to capital punishment and then tries to give a real Christian rationale against executions. His argument seems to hinge on the idea that capital punishment is so extreme and so different from all other punishments that it necessarily falls in the category of “high justice””an attempt to “balance the cosmic books””an authority which the state cannot rightly wield. Bottum argues that capital crime is not an offense the state can rectify: To do so would be to make an idol of the state, believing it able to do things it cannot. He compares this to the idea of the divine right of kings, which has no place in a modern democracy.

Bottum misses, however, the real point of capital punishment. John Locke, in his second treatise on government, gives the definition of political power as “the right of making laws with the penalty of death, and consequently all lesser punishments, for the regulating and preserving property.” Property, in Locke’s view, meant everything God has given, that is, “life, health, liberty, and possessions.” The state exists to protect the individual’s life, liberty and property, and the state is given power by the people’s consent to enforce that protection with external punishments, including death of the evildoer.

Locke’s words were echoed eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, which is the foundational document for modern democratic republics. In Locke’s view, the authority to execute the evildoer is not to satisfy any mythic notion of high justice. It is to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual, created in God’s image, from those who would rob him or her of these things. It is to restrain evil in those who will not restrain themselves.

Bottum seems to imply that treason is a different case that may justify capital punishment. But it is an insidious notion that there is some intrinsic value in the state that justifies the state’s self-defense. The state has no such value in the order of creation. It exists solely to protect the individual, and our loyalty to the state is simply the sum of our love and respect for all those individuals living under its authority. In actuality, treason is not different than any other capital crime. Treason may be punishable by death not because it attacks the state, but because it undermines the state’s ability to protect its citizens, particularly from foreign attacks.

We might question whether execution is always the most effective and fair means toward the end of protecting its citizens, and there may be many who misunderstand the purpose of the death penalty, construing it to be more than it really is. But this does not negate the right of the state. The authority to institute capital punishment is based on a high concept of the human identity and a very realistic concept of how perverse humans may become. Murder is serious stuff with God, and the state has the responsibility to deal with it seriously.

Kelley Vincent
Tyler, Texas

Joseph Bottum argues that since our society is infected by a culture of death, we should prudentially end (or postpone?) executions until life is respected again. In other words, justice should counter the law-abiding public’s mindset. One could as well argue that opposing a culture of relativism requires adherence to unchanging principles of justice. But is deterring the public from wrong attitudes more important than countering criminal behavior? As one who sat on a jury in a murder case in a state that is not shy about executions, I am aware of how important it is to make sure the right person is convicted. There may be a case for demanding a higher standard of proof before imposing the death penalty, but the right to impose it has never been abrogated.

Ralph Gillmann
Burke, Virginia

I read Joseph Bottum’s essay on capital punishment with admiration and bemusement. Naturally, it was well-written and thoughtful, but it does not seem to embrace the wider conversation about this complex, troubling issue. By exercising the divinely mandated prerogative to take the life of convicted murderers, the state neither makes itself into an idol nor cancels the possibility for individual repentance.

While a state guided by a “culture of life” should clearly resort to the death penalty only very rarely, when it does, given proper judicial safeguards, it makes a temporal statement about a crime, leaving the final judgment of that soul to God alone. And when one thinks about it, how could it ever affect a judgment that lies so infinitely beyond its power to change?

Michael J. Ortiz
Boyds, Maryland

According to Joseph Bottum, the “sword” that St. Paul mentions in Romans 13 is “a metaphor for police powers that does not necessarily imply approval of the death penalty.” But why this metaphor? It is common for ancient authors to refer to beheading and the sword even when many of those they are speaking of were executed by other means. Thus the Book of Revelation speaks of the first resurrection of those who have been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus”referring to the Neronian martyrs, many of whom were , in fact, burned or crucified. And Tertullian, who full well knew what kind of deaths they underwent, said of Nero that he persecuted Christians “with the utmost fury of the imperial sword.”

So yes, the sword is a metaphor for police powers, but a metaphor that places capital punishment at the top of the list of those powers and justifies the exercise of those powers starting at the top. If we are going to say that the death of Jesus Christ has overcome and transformed the commandment to Noah that those who kill men should themselves be killed, so that we no longer have to do this, we cannot use St. Paul as our ally, as he clearly believed no such thing.

Theodore W. Volckhausen
New York, New York

Joseph Bottum quotes the passage in Evangelium Vitae where John Paul II states that the death penalty should be “very rare and practically non-existent.” He contextualizes the Holy Father’s assertion with another excerpt from the 1995 encyclical, where the pope says, “The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.”

The application of these principles in the United States would be relatively easy if the criminal justice system operated such that those guilty of capital crimes remained behind bars for life. The “disorder” caused by these lawbreakers would be redressed (to the extent humanly possible), and the offenders would, in all likelihood, pose no further danger to the innocent.

But such is not always the case. All too frequently in contemporary American society, a sentence of “life” means something far less than “for the remainder of one’s time on this earth.” I am not a supporter of the death penalty, but I do understand the fears of those who are deeply distressed by the machinations of judges and lawyers within the current legal structure”machinations that sometimes lead to the early (and unwise) release of those who have long since forfeited their gift of freedom.

Bottum rightly notes that “circumstances alone dictate when capital punishment is necessary for a government’s self-defense and the preservation of social order.” Even though our modern prisons are relatively safe and secure, a case can be made that the present condition of the legal system justifies the use of the death penalty, since lesser punishments do not guarantee the “government’s self-defense and [the] preservation of social order.” It should thus be obvious that legal and penal reforms are necessary pre-conditions for the eventual elimination of the death penalty. Without them, many concerned Americans will turn a deaf ear to current Catholic teaching on capital punishment as enshrined in Evangelium Vitae and the 1996 version of the Catechism.

The Rev. Raymond N. Suriani
St. Pius X Catholic Church
Westerly, Rhode Island


Joseph Bottum replies:

I am a little surprised by the outpouring of letters rejecting my Christian and conservative case against the death penalty”which is to say, I am not startled by the letter-writers’ objections in themselves, for I may well be wrong in my argument, but I am disturbed by the nearly universal support for capital punishment expressed along the way. Each of the letters published here represents many other letters to FIRST THINGS making similar points, and a great number of them were genuinely angry. R. Scott Pennington is a typical case, insisting in his letter that the Catholic Church is a “defective faith” because it has turned against the death penalty.

This simply will not do. There are several things on which Christian faith stands or falls, but support for capital punishment is not one of them. I am sorely tempted to say that it runs, in fact, in the other direction: If you’re a Christian, you ought to be made uncomfortable by the shedding of blood, even for the best of reasons. It may need to be done on occasion”there are such things as just wars, after all, and the state’s obligation to defend the social order may necessitate an execution”but Pennington’s sort of blithe assumption of justice done in the death of another human being makes me tremble. Since when is a well-contented conscience, as over-easy as an egg, the mark of a Christian?

My old friend Peter J. Leithart joins Tony Montanaro, Gary Inbinder, and Kelley Vincent to argue”each for different reasons”against my worries about the implicit claims of authority made when modern democratic states employ the death penalty. Several times I used the phrase “cosmic justice” to speak of the poetic and metaphysical levels at which the death penalty seeks to operate, and perhaps that phrase was unhelpful. As the philosopher Russell Hittinger recently pointed out to me, we lack in ordinary discourse these days the vocabulary to speak of a morally interconnected universe in which great events and great disturbances are echoed even across the stars.

That makes it all the stranger that we still attempt cosmic stories with the death penalty, but Hittinger suggested some phrase like “historical justice” might make the same point and fall more easily on contemporary ears. In any case, what I intended was this: Where beside the death penalty are criminals sentenced to their crime? No American court orders assailants to be punched, or tax cheats to be defrauded, or rapists to be raped.

We send criminals to jail instead to achieve social justice, and their sentences are deliberately measured in time behind bars: Offenders must be withdrawn from society for a period sufficient to allow them to realize the wrongness of their actions”and sufficient to protect society from them until they learn that lesson. Meanwhile, with the just punishment of incarceration, we reestablish social order and repress private vengeance. Along the way, we also instruct ordinary citizens about the general majesty of the law and the particular evil of the criminal’s offense.

By executing murderers, we are trying to tell a different story: a story with poetic closure, a tale of punishment that fits the crime. When the state imposes prison or fines, it acts as the agent and enforcer of normal social justice, with powers derived from and limited by the social contract of its citizens. When the state sets out to kill a killer, it becomes instead an actor in a drama about righteous vengeance. Under any Christian account of political theory, how does a modern democracy gain authority to act on this high level?

My article made note of old claims about the divine right of kings, not because I imagine such claims were true even in their own time, but because they at least offered a theory about why the state is justified in exercising power over life and death. When, in the great movement of modern liberalism, we demythologized the state and rejected most of the metaphysical foundations of politics, we gained much”but we also lost something, and one of the things we lost is any coherent theory about the nation’s continuing authority to enact such metaphysically fitting punishments as the death penalty.

“Jesus turned all our stories inside out,” I wrote, “especially the old, old ones about blood and blood’s repayment.” In his letter Bryce Sibley suggests that this requires me to reject not just the death penalty but just-war theory as well.

But I do not oppose the death penalty in quite the way he means, for I noted that one can imagine in certain extreme cases the need for executions in the order of social justice. And for exactly the same reason I accept the need for war in certain extreme cases in the international order. No modern democracy can march to war for “high cosmic justice,” but other reasons may exist and identifying those is the task of just-war theory.

Cary Kozberg, Theodore W. Volckhausen, and Peter J. Leithart each examined my use of scripture, and I thank them for their intelligent and learned remarks.

We could quibble here about the difference between, say, the Roman Empire (which claimed divine establishment, in however confused and pagan a way) and modern judicial systems (which explicitly reject any appeal to the state’s religious foundations). But I take my correspondents’ point that Romans 13 and Genesis 9 are strong texts. All I ask is that we read them with three questions in mind: (1) Do they demand the death penalty be imposed by all legitimate states?, (2) Do they empower with life and death all possible political systems equally?, and (3) Is there any reasonable reading in which they can be understood as speaking of what states do at the level of ordinary social justice?

In his letter Gregory T. Walker asks me to take my analysis and “try telling that to the victims.” This is indeed a problem, but exactly the reverse of what he imagines. The weakening of the distinction between torts and crimes, between harms done individuals and harms done society, is one of the most disturbing trends in American law, and it threatens a great deal of the political theory upon which this nation depends.

When we defend the social order, we are doing the proper criminal justice of the state. When we seek instead to “pay something back to the victims and bring them closure,” we are doing a justice either lower (as in civil-court cases) or higher (as in repaying blood with blood)”but, in any case, something that should not be a model for how we deal with criminals.

Here, I think, John Paul II’s joining of abortion with the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae is exactly right: A culture that cannot bring itself to rescind its license of murder in the womb is unlikely to understand the proper ways in which justice should be done. The Gospel of life is hard to preach in a culture of death, but eliminating capital punishment is one thing that may help.


Stemming the Tide of Cloning


In her article “Stem Cells and Babies” (August/September), Maureen Condic outlines a variation of cloning that she and her colleagues hope will produce the equivalent of embryonic stem cells”while bypassing the production of an actual human embryo, thus overcoming intrinsic moral problems entailed in embryonic stem cells for research.

Condic and her colleagues propose a procedure, called “oocyte-assisted reprogramming” (OAR), which they claim will produce a pluripotent cell without first producing a totipotent zygote, the single-cell embryo. The details, however, show that OAR would produce an embryo”albeit one that would be incapable of developing normally.

Condic’s definition of the pluripotent embryonic stem cell is not fully accurate. She states that such cells are “specialized cells that have limited developmental capabilities.” According to the National Institutes of Health’s definition, however, pluripotent embryonic stem cells are “the embryonic source of all cells of the body.” The NIH defines totipotent cells as the source of both embryonic stem cells and of trophoblast cells which give rise to extra-embryonic tissues such as the placenta. Thus the only difference between totipotent and pluripotent cells is that totipotent cells divide and differentiate into both embryonic stem cells and trophoblast cells. Pluripotent cells divide into more embryonic stem cells until they are ready to differentiate, later on in embryonic development.

OAR produces a crippled embryo”one whose cells can divide and differentiate to a certain stage in embryonic development and no further. The OAR proposal uses a variation of therapeutic cloning called altered nuclear transfer (ANT) in which the nucleus of a donor cell (a skin cell, for example), containing the 30,000 genes of the genetic code, is altered in such a way that it produces an epigenetic factor, a protein called nanog.

OAR proponents claim that when the altered donor-cell nucleus with its activated nanog gene is transferred to the enucleated oocyte (egg cell), the presence of nanog will immediately convert the enucleated egg cell to a pluripotent cell, without ever forming a zygote.

The conclusion that no zygote is formed is not correct. Nanog appears in both the morula (12-cell stage) and in high concentration at an advanced stage of normal embryonic development, the blastocyst (150-cell stage). The blastocyst contains both embryonic stem cells and trophoblast cells. Because a pluripotent embryonic stem cell cannot differentiate into a trophoblast cell, the blastocyst must have differentiated into these two cell types from a totipotent cell (the zygote). Therefore nanog does not block the early embryonic development of the zygote. Nanog is said to act at a later stage of development to keep cells in an undifferentiated state. But a short-lived embryo is still an embryo.

Another serious flaw in the OAR proponents’ hypothesis is its assumption that the technician’s reprogramming of the nucleus of the donor-cell nucleus to direct the synthesis of nanog would assure the formation of a pluripotent cell and never a zygote. This hypothesis underestimates the opposing power of the egg cell cytoplasm to reprogram the genes in the donor-cell nucleus.

For instance, the egg-cell cytoplasm strips off all of the many epigenetic factors which differentiate a genetically restricted donor skin cell from a totipotent zygote. The term “oocyte assisted reprogramming” suggests that the egg cell will merely assist in reprogramming. It is far more likely, however, that the egg-cell cytoplasm with its stripping factor will reprogram all the genetic material including the alterations made in the donor nucleus that were intended to prevent the creation of the zygote. The OAR proponents’ claim that that the egg-cell cytoplasm will remove all of the many epigenetic factors restricting genes of a skin cell, but not just one more epigenetic factor, nanog, is not credible.

Perhaps the most dangerous ethical leap made by OAR proponents is that science, by itself, can answer the critical ethical question: Does the zygote exist, for even a short time, during the OAR procedure? Proponents claim that this is merely a technical question and that experiments on rats and mice will give us the answer. If these experiments support their hypothesis, they will be able to go on to similar human-cloning experiments because, according to OAR proponents, there is no moral issue left to be determined.

There are limits to certainty in biology, however. For instance, the claim that nanog is not detected in the zygote, using a specific biological procedure, is not the same as certainty that it is absent. Due to the limited statistical and methodological certainty allowed by biological science, the occurrence of technical errors in biological experiments, the differences between human and animal embryo development, the rapidity by which the cloning procedure produces a totipotent zygote, and the philosophical and theological nature of the question, there is no biological experiment that will prove with moral certainty that a human zygote never exists during the OAR procedure.

Therefore, biological science will never provide the moral certainty required to answer the critical moral question. Yet a mistaken judgment by scientists, that OAR works in mice, could lead authorities in the Catholic Church to the decision to approve creating crippled human embryos for research.

Finally, there is a broader ethical problem with OAR. Like in-vitro fertilization, the OAR procedure would take a component of human reproduction, the oocyte or egg cell. OAR then uses it in a cloning procedure that would be otherwise immoral if used on humans. Either activating or blocking the expression of a gene in the cloning procedure in order to prevent the development of a zygote might sound like a moral advance.

We do not think a similar alteration in the genetic material used in in-vitro fertilization would make the process of in-vitro fertilization moral. Similarly, we do not think this alteration in cloning makes it any more morally acceptable. A combination of wrongs cannot make the end result good.

William J. Burke
Professor of Neurology
Saint Louis University
Medical Center

Patrick Pullicino
Chair of the Department of Neurology and Neurosciences
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

The Rev. Edward J. Richard
Associate Professor of
Moral Theology
Kenrick Glennon Seminary


Maureen Condic replies:

The letter by William J. Burke, Patrick Pullicino, and Father Edward J. Richard raises two biological objections, and two more general objections, to ANT-OAR. First, the authors focus on a protein, the transcription factor nanog, and assert that because it “does not block the early embryonic development of the zygote,” therefore ANT-OAR “produces a crippled embryo.” This assertion is both misleading and scientifically unsupported.

The experiment of manipulating nanog expression as part of ANT-OAR has not yet been done. It is therefore impossible to know what effect this manipulation will have. While nanog is weakly expressed in the late morula, it is clear that nanog expression is rapidly restricted to the cells of the inner-cell mass. Thus, in biological terms, nanog is a good marker of the pluripotent state, and may well prove to be sufficient to induce this state. Animal experiments will resolve the question of what manipulating nanog can accomplish, and until then, unsupported and inflammatory assertions about producing “a crippled embryo” do not contribute to a reasoned debate.

The second biological objection is that “the egg-cell cytoplasm” will “reprogram all the genetic material including the alterations made in the donor nucleus that were intended to prevent the creation of the zygote.” This objection is, for the lack of a better name, nothing more than “egg mysticism”: the belief that eggs are somehow so potently driven to create zygotes that no scientific manipulation will prove capable of deflecting the egg from its preordained path.

The notion that oocytes are beyond the realm of scientific manipulation is absurd. Eggs are cells. Like all cells, they are subject to the rules of biology. Many thousands of experiments have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the imagined insurmountable “power of the egg-cell cytoplasm to reprogram genes” can be readily overcome by standard manipulations of molecular biology. Indeed, because eggs are large cells that are relatively easy to manipulate, they are one of the favored cell types used by biologists to express foreign genes and to test gene function. It is nonsensical to suggest that by some mystical mechanism the egg will prevent a controlled manipulation of gene expression.

Both of the scientific objections raised by the authors miss the point of the ANT-OAR proposal. The proposal is not linked to manipulation of a specific gene (such as the much-maligned nanog), but rather to a conceptual approach designed to yield a specific outcome. The clearly stated goal of ANT-OAR is categorically to prevent formation of an embryo, even “a short-lived embryo,” which everyone agrees “is still an embryo.” Should, as the authors fear, the expression of a single factor prove insufficient to promote the direct formation of pluripotent stem cells there are multiple other factors to try”either singly or in combination.

The third and ostensibly most serious objection is that biological experiments cannot provide moral certainty. This objection, however, is universally true for the entire field of biomedical science. Even the most well-tested drugs can (and occasionally do) kill patients for reasons that are impossible to predict. All medicines are potentially fatal. We cannot have moral certainty that a specific drug is safe, we can only have reasonable certainty.

Surely, as physicians, Burke and Pullicino would not insist that the entire field of medicine must be abandoned because there are no biological experiments that prove with moral certainty the doctor will “do no harm” in administering a potentially fatal drug to a patient.

The authors conclude by raising what they consider to be “a broader ethical problem with OAR,” stating that this procedure amounts to nothing more than human cloning with the additional twist of introducing a genetic mutation”ominously concluding that a “combination of wrongs cannot make the end result good.” Far from raising a broad ethical problem, this argument is both specious and circular: First the ANT-OAR procedure is incorrectly defined as “cloning,” and then it is condemned because it is cloning.

The explicit goal of ANT-OAR is to produce a cell that is not an embryo. If successful, this procedure can no more be considered cloning than establishing a colony of skin cells can be considered cloning. In both cases, cells derived from an adult individual are maintained in the laboratory under conditions where the cells replicate (or “clone” themselves).

But in neither case are these cells capable of generating another complete human being. No embryo has been generated, no organism “cloned” if ANT-OAR succeeds in its goal of producing nothing other than pluripotent stem cells.

As I stated in my original article, prior to conducting experiments with human cells, ANT-OAR techniques would need to be rigorously tested in animal models to establish a procedure that guarantees with reasonable certainty that an embryo is not generated. Realistically, what level of certainty is possible for this technique? Are there criteria that could be met to establish beyond reasonable doubt that ANT-OAR does not produce a human embryo, even a very short-lived embryo? I believe the answer is “yes.”

Embryos are different from mere cell cultures in a number of important ways. Single-cell embryos have a unique pattern of gene expression that is characteristic of a zygote and not of any other cell type. Zygotes generate specific types of cells in an orderly progression. The heterogeneous progeny of the zygote interact in a coordinated manner to generate new cell types and to form organized multicellular structures.

Many entities that are not embryos (teratomas, parthenotes, complete hydatidiform moles, and even enucleated oocytes) resemble embryos to varying degrees and yet can be reliably distinguished from embryos by careful comparison. The ANT-OAR cell would need to be compared to a normal embryo on multiple criteria, and the results of this comparison carefully considered.

In the clearest possible case, the ANT-OAR cell would differ from a zygote on all of the parameters noted above: The ANT-OAR cell would have a pattern of gene expression that is clearly distinct from a zygote; it would generate a homogeneous population of cells rather than multiple cell types; it would undergo simple cleavage divisions and not produce any multicellular structures.

If this ideal situation proved to be consistently the case in animal experiments, then there would be near-absolute certainty that the cells produced by ANT-OAR are merely cells and not embryos.

If such crystal clarity is not achieved, yet the ANT-OAR cell consistently meets the criteria we currently use to distinguish confidently between teratomas and embryos, we would still have reasonable certainty that ANT-OAR generates cells, and not embryos.

While those espousing “egg mysticism” may continue to wring their hands and express doubts that the magical properties they attribute to the egg have not been fully overcome, such doubts are not reasonable doubts and would not constitute a legitimate moral indictment of ANT-OAR.


Forever Young?


I have read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s “Against Eternal Youth” (August/September), and I must admit to being flabbergasted. Mathewes-Green believes that Baby Boomers’ parents shielded their children from the trials of adult life, making us unwilling to grow up and assume our adult roles in society. That was not my experience growing up in the 1950s.

In my experience, many Boomers’ parents exposed them to a very unpleasant picture of adulthood. In my formative years, I saw excessive use of alcohol and tobacco by adults who were self-absorbed, bored with life, and, in fact, not very interested in their children.

Perhaps other factors are at work in producing the societal ills mentioned in the article. Maybe we should look at some of those institutions thought to be helpful in forming the character of our youth: the arts and religion, for example. A movie industry that affirms adolescent fantasies and churches that preach a politically correct gospel might be a part of the problem.

Anthony Migler
Camarillo, California

At age twenty-nine, with two graduate degrees but no wife, I am the perfect target for Frederica Mathewes-Green’s disappointment with the rising age of marriage. She notes that “fifty years ago, when the average bride was twenty, the divorce rate was half what it is now.” Later marriage, she says, does not result in a more thoughtful choice of mate, but discourages us from treating marriage as a lifelong commitment.

The statistics are a bit more complicated, however. Today, as Mathewes-Green notes, half of all men marry by age 27.1 and half of all women by 25.3. That is significantly different from fifty years ago, when median age at first marriage was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women.

But the 1950s were the low-age decade for both sexes. In 1890”the earliest year for which we have reliable data”the median marrying ages were 26.1 and 22.0 for men and women, respectively. These averages fell throughout the first half of the twentieth century, then rose again during the second half. A stable, “correct” age for marriage simply doesn’t exist. The existing data on divorce do not appear to support the theory that late marriage contributes to an increased divorce rate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, brides who are at least twenty-five years old are 40 percent less likely to divorce or separate than women who marry in their teens.

Mathewes-Green’s response, presumably, would be that a society that weds young has strong marriages, while an individual who marries young in a late-marrying culture is at risk. The standard caution applies: Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Age at marriage may be a risk factor with respect to divorce, but perhaps the more valid conclusion is in the opposite direction, that high divorce rates scare couples away from early marriage.

William E. Woodward
Arlington, Virginia


Frederica Mathewes-Green replies:

I am grateful for Anthony Migler’s comments, which allow me to restate a subtle point. The general rule was a separation of child and adult worlds, and a fantasy that childhood is wonderful and adulthood is miserable. This does not mean our childhoods were, in fact, wonderful; adult misery has a tendency to leak. Nor did it mean all adults were amused by or even interested in children; much more than today, adults socialized with other adults, rather than enjoying the company of their children. (Think of the adults-only bridge clubs and cocktail parties, rare among Boomer parents, who are much closer to their own children.)

My point was that an artificial division, a “generation gap,” was established between childhood and adulthood. Yet no way was provided for a young person to get across that gap and attain recognized adult status, no “rite of passage.” Given the relentless emphasis on the negatives of adulthood, there was little reason to want to attain it. It is a cautionary tale for those who idealize the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s.

William E. Woodward’s comments are also welcome. Yes, the point was that we have gotten estranged from what physical maturity would tell us about the age for marriage. Look even beyond the nineteenth century and think about pre-modern society. In terms of biology and maturity, there is no reason teen marriage could not succeed, if the culture expects and supports it. But we are presently in a culture so estranged from our bodies, and male-female relationships are in such an overall mess (with sex redefined in terms of power rather than vulnerability), that it is hard to know where to start.

I chose to start with the idea of encouraging a return to early marriage, because it restores us to body-logic, and because it is inherently a delightful and cheering idea. The goal, obviously, would be a culture-wide reaffirmation of young marriage. Unfortunately, this can only begin when isolated young couples take the risk and go against the tide.



The Roe Effect


To be fair to Levitt and Dubner, authors of Freakonomics , they make the same point as Richard John Neuhaus does (“While We’re At It,” August/September) about the moral implications of eliminating potential criminals in order to reduce crime. After making the case that they believe establishes a link between the rise in abortions in the 1970s and the falling crime rates of the 1990s, they say, “It feels less Darwinian than Swiftian; it calls to mind a long-ago dart attributed to G. K. Chesterton: when there aren’t enough hats to go around, the problem isn’t solved by lopping off some heads.” They say further that even if one does not equate a fetus with a child, as long as one attributes some value to the fetus”and they demonstrate how economists routinely make such outrageous calculations in insurance claims for loss of body parts”and put the value as low as one hundredth of a human being, the lowered crime rate would not come near justifying the number of abortions. Throughout the book, they repeatedly state that economists are not in the business of making moral judgments but of coldly assessing data and analyzing cause and effect. We could argue that the link between increased abortions and decreased crime is not one of cause and effect, and they would challenge us to come up with statistics to support our position, but if we were to grant the linkage while nevertheless disputing the morality of the trade-off we would not be in disagreement with them. This distinction is missed in most of the discussion of Levitt’s findings.

Elizabeth Nicol
Urbana, Illinois


Conservative Calvin


Richard John Neuhaus’ knee-jerk defense of all things “Bush” is becoming increasingly evident. Take for example his recent criticism of Calvin College (“While We’re At It,” August/September). Rather than praise the college for warmly inviting President Bush to give its commencement address, Neuhaus chose to chide the institution because one hundred teachers (less than 30 percent of the faculty) published a respectful letter disagreeing with the very reasonable view that the Iraq War policy is not de-facto “God’s will.”

Since conservatives comprise anywhere from 2 to 6 percent of faculty on the major campuses across the country, the fact that over 70 percent of the Calvin faculty chose not to sign the protest letter is stunning and should have been viewed as a positive.

But Neuhaus calls the faculty protest “smarminess” and goes on to denigrate the “national prominence” of Calvin College, as if it is some rude, liberal Podunk institution looking for cheap media attention with a publicity stunt. Like Neuhaus, I am a faithful Catholic and recognize the Iraq War as just.

But unlike Neuhaus, I also recognize that reasonable, thoughtful Christians can disagree with each other on this war. Calvin is consistently recognized as a stalwart Christian academic institution, one of a very few remaining in this country. Neuhaus’ spin on Calvin’s invitation shows how the Iraq issue is tainting his ability to interpret even praiseworthy events.

Anthony Newley
Bowling Green, Ohio


RJN replies:

On the contrary, I respect Calvin College, I admire Calvin College, I love Calvin College. It may be my favorite college, among those of a Calvinist persuasion. But the letter by the faculty minority was smarmy, or at least disingenuous. As for my wondering whether the protest was organized to generate publicity for the college, that was”in full awareness of running the risks of subtlety”intended humorously. My respect for those who disagree with U.S. policy in Iraq was, I think, amply addressed in my reflection in the October issue, “Iraq and Moral Judgment.”


A Warrior for Education


It appears that FIRST THINGS (“While We’re At It” August/September) was given a partial, and hence misleading, account of the comments of Robert A. Wild, S.J., which declared that Marquette University “is first and foremost an academic institution.” President Wild’s statement was made in the context of a firestorm generated by the offer of a seven-figure gift if the university would revert to a nickname formerly used for its athletic teams. In the hysteria that followed this offer, some urged that the university take the money and run; others cried that the university was all about sports and that the former nickname was the essence of the university. You do not have to take my word for it. These things were not done in a corner; you can look them up.

Wild responded to the crisis generated by the aficionados of the former nickname by stating that the university was not for sale, by teaching about the true idea of a Catholic university as transcending athletics and nicknames, and by opening the door to a reconsideration of nicknames as long as the nickname did not violate Catholic teaching. The words you quoted were an excerpt of a much more significant teaching moment.

At the end of the day, the university ruled the former nickname out of bounds, and the university community voted to retain the current nickname. And the students, faculty, and alumni continued to advance as a great Catholic university.

When the whole story that this incident and the context of the attendant remarks is fully known, FIRST THINGS should praise Marquette University for its courage and faithfulness, not heap the school with sarcasm.

Rolf Wegenke
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin


Here I Stand


I recall reading The Catholic Moment when it first appeared back in 1987, and due in part to my ongoing interest in conversion, I was immediately intrigued by Richard John Neuhaus’ metamorphosis from Lutheran minister to Roman Catholic priest. The process of human transformation, in terms of its many subtleties over time, and richly informed by generous theological reflection, gave me a deep appreciation for this very thoughtful account. I was, therefore, surprised to find that such subtlety and attention to nuance was not duplicated in Neuhaus’ review of The Evangelical Moment (“The Public Square,” August/September), a book that in a certain sense chronicles my own transition from Roman Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism. The door apparently does not swing both ways.

Though it is ostensibly about my own contribution to the field of American religion, the review nevertheless begins and ends with a paean to Timothy George, “a Baptist who is dean of Beeson Divinity School and who will also deliver our annual Erasmus Lecture in October.” It’s almost as if the reviewer, not liking the difficult task at hand, needs to remind us that there are, after all, “good” evangelicals who do not raise the admittedly difficult historiographical issues that are considered in a forthright fashion in The Evangelical Moment . Emboldened by this move, Neuhaus likewise feels free to declare that “the great majority of Christians in the world belong to bodies that, in continuity with two millennia of history, believe women cannot be ordained to what is traditionally called the presbyterate,” as if the mere pronouncement of such a statement thereby settles the matter for any contemporary or future discussion.

Beyond the considerable body of research that has emerged in the past three decades which demonstrates that women played a far more generous role in the early Church than perhaps Neuhaus has imagined, my own Wesleyan holiness tradition has apparently escaped his ecumenical vision as well for it was already ordaining women in the nineteenth century.

I have never met Timothy George, but judging from the accolades offered by Neuhaus he must be a wonderful man and an exemplary Christian. He’s the dean of a well-established divinity school, a Baptist theologian and an earnest Christian, a gifted writer and a theologically articulate lecturer, a champion of orthodoxy, “distinguishing heresy from truth,” and one who has rightly discerned, as Neuhaus puts it, the “pattern of Christian truth, a pattern derived from the apostolic witness and maintained across time as the depositum fidei.

And yet, though I am not acquainted with him, I know at least this much: No matter how saintly he is, no matter how profound his Christian witness, no matter how gifted his teaching, Timothy George will not be sharing in the Lord’s Supper with Richard John Neuhaus. That stubborn fact is one of the reasons The Evangelical Moment was written.

Kenneth J. Collins
Asbury Theological Seminary
Wilmore, Kentucky


Eucharist for Whom?


I was rather surprised to find myself quoted in the recent issue of FIRST THINGS as claiming, “Any church excluding Christians at a given place is not merely a bad church, but rather is not church at all, since a Eucharist to which not all the Christians at a given place might gather would not be merely a morally deficient Eucharist, but rather no Eucharist at all.”

Now, it is true that these words are found in my book, After Our Likeness . But they do not represent my opinion, but rather that of the eminent Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas. His point has nothing to do with church discipline, and therefore with the possibility that some people at a given place who confess “the lordship of Christ” might be excluded from partaking of the Eucharist.

Instead, he is making an ecclesiological point: At any given place, there should be only one Eucharist celebrated to which all Christians “in good standing” should be admitted. Put differently, his point is that Eucharist requires the catholic composition of the Eucharistic communion and must transcend all natural and social divisions at a specific place. That is not just a moral demand placed on the church; it is the criterion of ecclesiality. Which is exactly how the context in which the above quote is situated in my book demands that it be read.

I happen not to agree with Zizioulas on this point, but at least his point can be theologically defended. Opening communion indiscriminately to all who confess Christ irrespective of how they live and what they believe, cannot be defended.

Miroslav Volf
New Haven, Connecticut


RJN replies:

I appreciate Professor Volf’s clarification. I was relying on Professor Collins’ use of the quotation in his book The Evangelical Moment .


Correction:

The report in the October issue that the most recent meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council “called for the United States to get out of Iraq” and agreed to “consider disinvestment from Israel” is incorrect. These steps were advocated at the meeting, but the council took no position on them.