The Public Square
I am impressed by how often it happens; when I lecture on religion in American life someone will urgently point out during the Q & A that our society is now religiously pluralistic and it is therefore misleading to speak of religion in mainly Christian and Jewish terms. Then someone almost inevitably refers to Islam, frequently adding that it is the fastest growing sector of American religion. The someone is usually a secularist for whom the appeal to pluralism is one way of diluting the idea of a predominantly Christian presence in society, and of warding off the notion that ours is in any sense, even demographically, a Christian nation.
One can well understand the fears associated with talk about Christian America. But the claim that America does not continue to be a predominantly Christian society, in any sociologically meaningful sense of the term, runs counter to the facts. The appeal to the growth of Islam is especially misplaced. The numbers crunchers have arguments among themselves, but the best survey research puts the number of Muslims in the U.S. somewhere between 1.5 million (with half of those being American-born blacks) and four million. Of course, Muslim organizations, for understandable reasons, claim many more, but provide no credible data in support of their claims. Moreover, a distinctively Muslim public voice in American life”except on questions of Middle Eastern politics”is virtually nonexistent. With respect to American culture and domestic politics, the various Muslim organizations demonstrate that they are good Americans by reinforcing the Judeo-Christian moral tradition that is thought to be the baseline of our common life. (As for the fastest growing sector of American religion, that is, far and away, Roman Catholicism.)
As in the U.S., so also on the world scene. I have frequently suggested that, at the edge of the Third Millennium, Christianity”with the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism in the lead”is uniquely situated to be the culture-forming dynamic in world history. After the end of Marxism, Christianity provides the only coherent, comprehensive, compelling, and promising vision of the human future. This vision has been most persuasively set forth by this pontificate in encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus (on the free society), Veritatis Splendor (on the universality of truth), Evangelium Vitae (on the culture of life), and Ut Unum Sint (on Christian unity as a sign of human unity). In addition, there is the factor of the sheer magnitude of the growth of Christianity, which is highlighted in Redemptoris Missio s view of the Third Millennium as the springtime of world evangelization.
Of course this line of argument runs the danger of flirting with the unpleasantnesses associated with triumphalism. Given the choice between triumphalism and defeatism, I’ll take triumphalism any day, but that is not to deny that there are indeed real dangers in what is meant by triumphalism. In this connection, too, one encounters the claim that Islam represents a comparable or even greater world force to be reckoned with. There is much to be said for that claim. The history of the next century will in large part be shaped by the encounter between Islam and Christianity. Not for nothing has John Paul II very assiduously cultivated relations with various Islamic leaderships, as difficult as that is. And of course there are other world religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. But, unlike Christianity and Islam, they do not have and are not likely to develop assertive, culture-forming ambitions on a world scale. Shortly before his death in 1986, the French intellectual Andre Malraux is reported to have said, The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all. To the extent that is true, the drama will mainly be played out between Christianity and Islam.
Prescinding for the moment from the question of theological truth (which is, of course, the decisive question), in that drama Christianity most decidedly has the upper hand. Relative numbers are only part of the story. There are almost two billion Christians in the world (one billion of whom are Roman Catholics) and somewhat under a billion Muslims. More important than numbers is the fact that Christianity, unlike Islam, is positioned on the far side of modernity’s secular alternatives to religion. Put differently, Islam has missed out on the last several centuries of world-formative history. Today it views itself, with considerable justice, as the object rather than the acting subject of world history.
These realities are helpfully laid out in a marvelous new book by Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (Scribners, 433 pp., $30
). Of course Islam is not limited to the Middle East, but, as Lewis notes, the Middle East is the birthplace of Islam and it is there that the consciousness of Islam continues to be effectively defined. In its first centuries, Islam had little to learn from the West (Christendom) of the Middle Ages, being much farther advanced in most respects than the countries of Europe. But soon the West would pull far ahead in almost every field. The Ottoman Empire borrowed military techniques and cartographic information from the West, but this information seems to have had little or no impact on intellectual life.
Lewis, the doyen of Western scholars of Islam, writes: The literature available [to Muslims] on European history was minimal, and its impact infinitesimal. Such major movements as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution passed unnoticed and without effect. Islam had its own Renaissance some centuries earlier, with significant effects even in Europe. There was no response to the European Renaissance, and no Reformation. All these ideas and others that followed them were seen as Christian and discounted accordingly. They were simply irrelevant”of no interest and no concern to Muslims.
There was one exception: The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe which had a significant impact on the Middle East, and which began to change the processes of thought and action of its peoples. One reason for this is obvious. This was the first major upheaval in Europe that did not express its ideas in Christian terms, and that was even presented by some of its exponents as anti-Christian. Secularism as such had no appeal to Muslims; if anything, the reverse. But a movement free from the taint of a rival and superseded religion, and opposed by all the traditional enemies of the Ottomans in Europe, was another matter. It could at least be looked at on its merits, and might even yield the elusive secret of Western power and wealth, about which Muslims were becoming increasingly concerned.
In 1699, Islam made its last major assault on Christendom, crawling away from Vienna in defeat and disarray. A little over a century later, Napoleon would establish himself in Egypt, and from then on, French, English, German, Italian, Russian, and American forces would humiliate Islam by demonstrating that the Middle East was more or less their object to be fitted to their designs. Christianity moves into the Third Millennium having transcended modernity in many respects, while Islam feels threatened by the consequences of the three centuries and more of world history that it missed. Islam, especially militant Islam, suffers from a profound inferiority complex that is not unrelated to its being inferior in the intellectual, cultural, scientific, and technological achievements that now, and will likely continue to, shape the future.
Lewis emphasizes that, while many in the West speak simply of the West and think of it in secular terms, to most Muslims there is no doubt that the West means Christianity. The crisis they face is understood as, above all, a religious crisis. When, for example, the Iranians speak of the United States as the Great Satan, the reference is not primarily to military or economic power but to the Quran’s description of Satan as the insidious whisperer who whispers in the hearts of men. The perceived threat is not chiefly that of conquest or colonial domination but of apostasy. Western journalists conventionally talk about the Muslim fear of Western secularization, and there is something to that, but, according to Lewis, in Muslim eyes even secularization is but another guise of Christendom’s ascendancy.
And so at the edge of the Third Millennium, Christianity”with Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism in the lead”is positioned to be the chief culture-forming vision in world history. There are arguments against that proposition, the most impressive being that the global market, joined to technology, consumerism, and a debased (mainly American) popular culture, is shaping the future. And, of course, only the future will tell. But I think one thing is clear: If Malraux is right about the next century being religious, and I suspect he is, Islam is largely irrelevant to the American scene and is severely disadvantaged on the world scene. All this is no occasion for Christian triumphalism. An Islam that feels hopelessly cornered could be extremely dangerous. Therefore the cultivation of authentic dialogue with Islam is a matter of greatest urgency. Unfortunately, such a dialogue is almost entirely nonexistent today. Why that should be the case is a story for another time.
Here they come again. The article is about addiction (to which, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am opposed). But then come the standard statistics about the cause of deaths: In 1995 illegal drugs killed 20,000 Americans. Tobacco was responsible for 450,000 deaths; alcohol for more than 100,000. I am always bothered by these assertions, and not only because I like a good cigar and a Dewar’s before dinner.
I know what it means to say that driving accidents kill 45,000 Americans per year. It means that, except for those who were terminally ill at the time, 45,000 people who otherwise probably had a long time to live were killed in driving accidents. Similarly with shootings, falls off high buildings, and electrocutions in the bathtub. But tobacco kills 450,000 people per year? Are we to suppose that they otherwise would have lived forever? There would seem to be no doubt that tobacco”more precisely, cigarettes”is not good for your health. Nor is being overweight, sexual promiscuity, jogging till you drop, or obsessive anxiety about your state of health. It may well be that in x number of cases cigarettes contribute, more or less, to the clinically determined cause of death. It may be that y number of people would have lived two or five or twenty years longer had they not smoked cigarettes. But that is very different from saying that cigarettes kill 450,000 people per year.
In his best-selling book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland says we all die from the same cause: lack of oxygen to the brain. A thousand circumstances can contribute to that end, and innumerable, and often unknown, factors can contribute to each of those thousand circumstances. But the fact remains that”with or without cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs”the mortality rate is and will continue to be 100 percent. Understandably, people have a hard time accepting that. This is not a brief for adopting habits that are injurious to one’s health and general well-being. There is a moral obligation to be a good steward of the physical self. But we should stop invoking statistics in a way that suggests we would naturally live forever unless killed by one bad habit or another.
It’s bad enough that young people think they are exempt from the 100 percent mortality rule, but it’s intolerable when a whole society turns so puerile. A seventy-six-year-old friend who is a chain smoker cites studies allegedly showing that cigarette smokers are significantly less likely to get Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. He says he would rather die of lung cancer, and hopes he is prepared to die of whatever finally does him in. Not dying at all is not an option. Maybe you have an argument against his view. I’m not sure I do.
Please. Spare me those letters pointing out that cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs can do great damage. I know, I know. My point here is about how we think about death, and how delusions of immortality can do great damage to our minds and souls. The pushiness of the health purists, including their manipulative use of statistics, pollutes the spiritual air, and is, I am sure, bad for our health. We should protest our having to inhale their second-hand fanaticism. I do not say it will kill us, but it can’t be good for us. My point is not that we should light up, but, having come to terms with the constancy of the mortality rate, we would do well to lighten up.
Across the country this fall the Catholic people will once again be asked to give money for the Campaign for Human Development (CHD). And they will no doubt respond generously, once again. Not because they know much or anything about CHD, but because the Church asks them to and they trust the Church. CHD was established in 1970 at the height of the radicalizing of Christian social consciousness. Most of the liberal Protestant churches had similar programs at the time, but they have for the most part withered away as church members were alienated by the oldline bureaucracies of professional prophecy. Not so with CHD.
Since its inception, $23
0 million has been donated to CHD. The literature handed out in the parishes suggests that it is a mother-and-apple-pie affair, helping poor people to help themselves. It sounds downright conservative. In fact, CHD is the last slush fund for unreconstructed 1960s radicalism. Its theme is radical community organizing in the tradition of the late Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and author of Rules for Radicals. Alinsky’s credo was, and that of numerous groups funded by CHD is, To hell with charity; the only thing you’ll get is what you’re strong enough to get. The irony is, of course, that this credo of total confrontation is totally dependent upon the charity of the Catholic people. In fact, some IAF projects today are much less confrontational than Alinsky would have liked. Indeed, IAF, which has received many millions from CHD over the years, is almost moderate compared with other groups that are funded.
At the twenty-fifth anniversary of CHD last year in Chicago, two thousand activists gathered to cheer on the incitements of, for instance, Cornel West of Harvard, who said in his keynote address: We are living in one of the most frightening and terrifying moments in the history of the nation . . . . And believe you me, there will never be enough police and prisons to deal with the avalanche of despair . . . . There’s no serious talk about the fact that 1 percent of the population owns 48 percent of the financial wealth. That sounds oligarchic, plutocratic, pigmentocratic. . . . The ultimate logic of a market economy is the gangsterization of culture. The marketplace is an extension of the laissez-white supremacy. Same as those with homophobia, keeping trapped the humanity of gay brothers and lesbian sisters. Mr. West gets very excited as he goes on that way.
Pablo Eisenberg runs the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., a life-support system for radicalisms past. He described conservatives in Congress as anti-American, anti-people, anti- democratic, anti-Christian, and anti-faith; intolerant, bigoted. CHD, he said, is an attack on all the conservative values the Christian coalition claims it has. Without CHD funds, he observed, more than half of the organizing in this country would not be taking place. No doubt he exaggerates somewhat. Even those who think that radical community organizing is a very good thing might pause over the fact that CHD also funds organizations that make no secret of their agitation for abortion rights along with gay and lesbian liberation. Over the years, and again at the Chicago conference, activists expressed amazement at the fact that they were funded by the Catholic Church, as well they might.
We raised the CHD problem several years ago in these pages, and the bishop then in charge of the program protested vigorously. Our criticism, he said, concentrated on the controversial and ignored the unquestionably good things funded by CHD. Well yes, of course. There are very few programs that don’t do some good. Nobody suggests that CHD has given $23
0 million exclusively to efforts that directly contravene Catholic teaching or assault the sensibilities of the great majority of the Catholic people. The question is, Why does CHD give any money at all to such efforts? The answer comes back that, when CHD gives money to an organization, it is funding selectively-supporting only those activities that are in accord with Catholic teaching. But this is quite unconvincing. The elementary fact is that money is fungible. When an organization does not have to spend its own money on one part of its program, that money is freed up for another part.
To take but one example, Grassroots Leadership in North Carolina describes itself (in literature distributed at the CHD conference) as an organization that works closely with all major southern movements and organizations, including civil rights, women, labor, lesbian and gay, environment, peace, and religious action. Some might say that its CHD grant of $25
,000 is a small amount, but others might wonder why Grassroots Leadership should be helped at all in promoting abortion and gay liberation. Paraphrasing Senator Dirksen, $25
,000 here and $25
,000 there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money. Apologists for CHD can insist until the cows come home that they are only funding morally unobjectionable activities, but the reality is that all those activists gathered in Chicago certainly thought they were being funded by CHD. And they are. The good bishop to the contrary, you cannot fund only the one half of an activist’s time when he is not working to maintain abortion on demand.
The most solemn question is the exploitation of the trust of the Catholic people. It is almost certain that, if they knew what CHD monies supported, they would not support CHD. They should know. And even if some Catholics who reject Church teachings on moral questions would continue to support CHD, why on earth should the bishops? CHD itself needs to be radically reorganized. Or terminated. Meanwhile, when the basket is passed for the second collection on CHD Sunday, those Catholics who do know will want to exercise their own good judgment.
Over four decades of remarkable industry, Martin E. Marty has established himself as the most influential of historians of American religion. Coming out of the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod, Marty early declared his allegiance to the Protestant mainstream, and from his post at the University of Chicago he has virtually redefined the academic field of modern American religious history. The third volume of his Modern American Religion is just out from the University of Chicago (528 pp., $34.95
). The second was discussed extensively here (Political Religion: Reporting on the Reporters, August/September 1991), and its sequel should not go without notice.
The third volume covers the years 1941-1960. The thesis is that, while the previous two decades marked the centrifugal dynamics of American culture and religion, 1941“1960 accented the centripetal. In these decades, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and other sectarian strivings gave way to religion as a unifying national force during World War II and prepared the way for the religious boom of the fifties marked by a civil religion of the American Way of Life. In the final chapter of the third volume, Marty sets the stage for the conflicts of the 1960s and another cycle of the centrifugal.
As in the earlier volumes, Marty takes the standard account of national history, especially political history, as the established story line, and then supplies the ways in which the religious situation reacted to, interacted with, and sometimes helped shape that story line. At center stage is the national culture, where radio and television, films, magazines, and books depict the American reality. The national culture is Marty’s vital center, and at the end of the 1950s the vital center of the national culture was the liberalism described by Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center. In the ancillary religious story, Marty situates himself at the vital center of mainline Protestantism, which, as he points out, was even then no longer so very vital.
Marty and his research assistants, whom he generously acknowledges, are assiduous readers, and these more than five hundred pages are in large part an extended report on that reading. He strings together precis of books and major articles, devoting page after page to summarizing what was said by people as various as Arthur Cohen, Walter J. Ong, Will Herberg, James DeForest Murch, or Carl Henry. He says he is not writing a history of ideas, and that is probably right. It is more like a florilegium of other writers’ commentaries on the religious situation, with Marty keeping his own commentary on the commentaries under tight rein. Apart from the centrifugal/centripetal thesis mentioned above, the volume offers no major argument, nor does it challenge the conventionally liberal reading of American culture in the forties and fifties.
That is not necessarily a criticism. As Dr. Johnson observed, we have a greater need to be reminded than to be instructed, and Marty’s compilation of book reports and literary gleanings from the discussions of the time are a most instructive reminder. What is lacking in analysis or in the dramatic unfolding of a story is compensated for, at least in part, by Marty’s providing us with a treasure trove of quotations. Readers of Marty’s newsletter, Context , know how skilled he is in picking out the apt paragraph or article excerpt that illustrates what is being discussed in sundry forums. Modern American Religion is in some ways a multivolume Context, except that it more specifically focuses on what was said about the religious situation (the title of an early book by Marty).
The relative absence of women, blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities in his account is apparently a great embarrassment for Marty. He apologizes for the omission several times, and at length, but he notes that he can only report on who at the time was doing the public talking, namely, white males. One is struck also by the clarity of Marty’s recognition that the Protestant mainline with which he identifies was already in dramatic decline by the end of World War II. The present volume provides the obsequies for the last vestiges of Protestantism as the national religion. With the resurgence of fundamentalism, now called evangelicalism, the mainline or ecumenical groups represented only a part, and that an increasingly dispirited part, of Protestantism. Moreover, Protestants of all varieties lived in fear of what they perceived as the threat of a rapidly growing Catholicism. Marty very effectively demonstrates the pervasiveness and intensity of anti-Catholic prejudice, and on that score and others he does not spare the magazine with which he has been associated for many years, the Christian Century.
In 1960 John Kenneth Galbraith published The Liberal Hour. That was the time in which Martin E. Marty had very much come into his own as a leading commentator, if not the leading commentator, on the religious dimension of an apparently ascendant liberalism. His liberalism was tempered, however, by his ineradicable formation as a Missouri Synod Lutheran, with the theological skepticism about liberal progress that attends that formation. By the end of volume three, he can scarcely contain his scorn for the mindless optimism that had seized liberal Protestantism in the form of William Hamilton’s death of God theology and Harvey Cox’s celebration of the secular city. And yet, if he takes his stand anywhere, it is still, and despite all, with the vital center.
That center is shrinking and is now obviously off-center, but where else is one to stand? In Modern American Religion, evangelicalism, Catholicism, and, of course, Judaism are all them, and it is to Marty’s credit that he does not presume that academic history provides a vantage point of neutrality untouchably above the fray. So the faithful chronicler will stay by his chosen station. By the final chapter of this third volume he sees the icebergs ahead, but he is determined to stay on, recording what people said, writing down what people wrote, until the very end. Of course, Marty knows that it isn’t over until it’s over, and the story of American religion, including the story of the liberal mainline, is certainly not over yet. I expect and hope that, with or without what once was thought to be the vital center, Martin E. Marty will continue to chronicle the conversation about the religious situation. The instruction is in being reminded.
Mendacity. I am surrounded by mendacity, declares cancer-ridden Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The same might be said about the brouhaha over St. Martin’s Press and the cancellation of its contract with David Irving to publish his Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. All I know about the author and his book is what I read in the Times, and there is no reason to trust that. They claim Irving belongs to the odious company of Holocaust deniers and, if true, that is very bad indeed. My interest is in the several accounts given of the controversy, including the most recent in the Sunday book review by Tina Rosenberg, author of a tendentiously leftist book on post-Communist Europe.
When word got out that it planned to publish Goebbels , St. Martin’s was attacked in news reports and columns, and was deluged with protests, including death threats. Rosenberg writes: Before the reversal by St. Martin’s, Thomas Dunne [the editor who had acquired the book] released a statement arguing that books should not be rejected because they are offensive to certain groups in society or because their authors’ lives are not admirable ones. He is right, of course, but this is a disingenuous argument in this case. Ms. Rosenberg is a principled opponent of censorship, of course. If Mr. Irving is determined to get a hearing for his perverse views, she says, he can always self-publish. Offensive books are published all the time, she notes, citing books by Howard Stern and O. J. Simpson. She even approves of the recent publication of a book by a Robert W. Thurston which claims that Stalin wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
But again, she writes, Goebbels is different”and not just because of the sensitivity of its subject and the influence of its critics. Mr. Thurston may be a bad historian, but at least he is an honest one. David Irving, by contrast, is not just wrong, he appears to be engaging in deliberate distortion. Worse, he is a sneak: the uncautioned reader will absorb a version of history exonerating Hitler and minimizing the evil of the Holocaust without knowing it. This is incoherence and disingenuousness of a high order. It is honest history to exonerate Stalin. What is impermissible is an author who appears to be distorting the history of Hitler and the Holocaust. It is the duty of Ms. Rosenberg and others to protect unsuspecting readers who might otherwise absorb an account that misrepresents the facts. In fulfilling that duty, there is no criticism of the means employed, including death threats against editors. (Compare the almost universal outcry when Muslims threatened Salman Rushdie with death for his Satanic Verses.)
The truth is that in New York publishing there is an effective taboo against anything that smacks of Holocaust revisionism or denial. As it happens, I am all for taboos. It would be a very good thing were publishers prevented by public opprobrium (not including death threats) from trafficking in pornography, incitements to criminal behavior, and pseudo-scholarly exonerations of such as Hitler or Stalin. Whether or not it is backed by law, that is called censorship. The mendacity of the Times and of its apologists such as Tina Rosenberg is in censoring David Irving while claiming to be principled opponents of censorship. If Mr. Irving’s book denies or belittles the Holocaust, I am glad that St. Martin’s is not publishing it. The dissemination of such literature should be confined to the fever swamps where it belongs.
The sadness and dishonesty revealed by this episode, however, is a publishing world that defends and even celebrates the promotion of almost every real and imaginable evil, except when it comes to the evil of the Holocaust. The cultural consequence is Weimar on the Hudson, a world without censorship, except for one last and increasingly fragile taboo. Increasingly fragile because those who enforce the taboo declare themselves to be principled opponents of enforcing taboos, thus making their behavior appear arbitrary, irrational, and, by their own libertarian ethics, immoral. Holocaust denial should be beyond the pale. As should much else. Absent the nerve and wit required for an honest discussion of the perils and necessity of censorship, we will continue to be surrounded by mendacity.
Author Richard Rodriguez, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, attacks Justice Antonin Scalia for saying in his dissent from the Colorado Amendment 2 case that homosexuals as a group have disproportionate political power, high disposable income, and enormous influence in the American media. Scalia, says Rodriguez, is part of a backlash or countermovement against the acceptance of homosexuality. Writing as a homosexual man, Rodriguez says he is confident his side is winning. What I see is an astonishing change. I meet homosexual men and women now in every corner of American life . . . . I think of two Catholic families in California. They have been united in recent years by the love of two dying men”lovers dying of AIDS. There they all were”fifty smiling faces in a Christmas photograph. Three or four generations, standing alongside the two thinning men. That is the way the sexual revolution is taking place”by the Christmas tree, within the very family that Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson invoke for their own purposes as unchanging and rigid. It is, paradoxically, because so many Americans are growing unafraid of homosexuality that the countermovement has grown.
There is something strange, and maybe paradoxical, here, but it is not as Mr. Rodriguez would have it. The acceptance of two men dying of AIDS may be a testament to love and forgiveness, but it is hardly evidence of people being unafraid of homosexuality. Studies indicating that, for men actively engaged in the homosexual subculture, the average age of death is forty-two (a little more than half the life expectancy of an average American male) gives most parents good reason to fear that their sons will be homosexual. Gay propagandists”who do indeed have enormous influence in the American media”depict those with AIDS as wounded heroes returning from the front lines of the sexual revolution. We should be thankful for the innumerable families that, while they reject that depiction, care for their dying loved ones. And we should be thankful for judges such as Scalia who refuse to override by judicial fiat the democratically expressed rejection of a way of life that is, with good reason, viewed as a way of death.
Mr. Rodriguez says gay activists tend to portray their movement as countercultural when in fact it is the opponents of the movement who have become the counterculture. And they know it, Rodriguez adds. That was partly what Scalia meant to imply: Homosexuals have power. Justice Scalia and Mr. Rodriguez would seem to agree on that, then. He is still outraged that Scalia says it, however, and one suspects the reason is that, for all his bravado, Mr. Rodriguez knows that gay power is not carrying the day against the moral sentiments and common sense of the American people. The only hope is to silence popular sentiments and sense by anathematizing them as bigotry and irrational prejudice. Which, regrettably, is what a majority of Justice Scalia’s colleagues on the Court did in overruling Colorado’s Amendment Two.
Two papal potboilers offer a disturbing glimpse of the polarization of American Catholicism. That’s the heading of Peter Steinfels’ reflection in the New York Times on new books by Andrew Greeley and Malachi Martin. Greeley’s White Smoke, published by Forge Books, is about the wicked machinations of conservatives (i.e., reactionaries) in the election of a successor to John Paul II, while Martin’s Windswept House, published by Doubleday, reveals that liberal (i.e., apostate) forces joined by Satanists and Masons are conniving to force the resignation of John Paul II. Such sensationalist fantasies at the polar extremities, says Steinfels, provide a disturbing glimpse into the overheated id of Catholicism today. A constant reason for concern, no doubt, but not, at least not finally, all that disturbing.
The origin of the statement is in dispute, but somebody (maybe James Joyce) first said that Catholicism is Here comes everybody. More than a billion people worldwide and sixty million in the U.S. cannot help but produce a maddeningly confused array of positions in contention. On the one hand, there is We Are Church, a jerry-built coalition of more than twenty groups trying to get a million signatures in the U.S. for a referendum that calls for women’s ordination, married priests, the popular election of bishops, and other changes favored by the left. The credibility of the coalition is not enhanced by the inclusion of Catholics for a Free Choice, a pro-abortion letterhead organization that the bishops conference has declared has no right whatever to call itself Catholic. Nor, I expect, will any sensible person be much impressed by a year’s campaign that produces only a million signatures. Even if all those signing are Catholics (a point much disputed in a similar referendum in Germany and Austria), it will invite the inference that over 98 percent of Catholics in the U.S. do not agree with the positions espoused by We Are Church.
At the other end, so to speak, are various traditionalist groups claiming that a de facto schism already exists in the Church in the U.S. It is frequently said that there are two Catholic churches, the magisterial and the dissenting, an assertion quite remarkable when coming from supposed champions of orthodoxy. Such an assertion flies in the face of the most elementary Catholic ecclesiology that affirms that all those are in communion with one another who are in communion with the bishops who are in communion with the bishop of Rome, who is Peter among us, and through whom Christ governs His one Church.
Those who do not persevere in charity are part of the Church only in body and not in heart, but they are still part of the one Church (Catechism, 837 ). Moreover, it is by no means evident that perseverance or non-perseverance in charity falls neatly along the left/right divide. I have traditionalist friends who urge that we should be more candid in distinguishing between true Catholics and false Catholics. We should not say that there are sixty million Catholics in the U.S. but only six or, at the most, ten million real Catholics. My response to that sectarian way of thinking is that I did not become a Catholic in order to be a Protestant.
Given the size, influence, and moral stature of the Catholic Church in the world, it is hardly surprising that, between the extremities of Greeley and Martin, there is much jockeying and posturing aimed at laying claim to the authentic center of Catholicism. Consider the response to Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, a very useful book edited by Mary Jo Weaver and R. Scott Appleby. We thought it would be interesting to have it reviewed by an intelligently moderate person on the liberal side of the aisle and so we asked Paul Baumann, associate editor of Commonweal . His review implicitly defined the center as including George Weigel and the wonderful people (the Catholic ones, at least) associated with FT, while marginalizing, if not excluding, groups such as Women for Faith and Family (WFF) and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (FCS).
Baumann referred to the busy household of James and Helen Hitchcock, which I took to be a compliment, even if he did not intend it that way. Helen heads up WFF and Jim is a founder of FCS, of which I am pleased to be a member. Immediately cries were heard from the conservative side of the aisle that FT had declared the Hitchcocks to be outside the charmed circle of the Catholic center. Dear me. It is perversely flattering to learn that some people think FT is controlling the correlation of forces in American Catholicism, and even manipulating the hierarchy and the Holy Father himself, but of course it is utter nonsense. (The conspiratorially minded will respond: Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)
Paul Baumann apparently thinks WFF and FCS are on the fringes. I am always surprised when readers are surprised that the editors do not necessarily agree with our authors on everything. Baumann notes that WFF says it endorses all Catholic teaching, and FCS claims to embrace the entire faith of the Catholic Church. He comments, All and entire are favorite modifiers for many conservatives. I suppose he’s right about that. But, if the alternatives are piecemeal and selective, I’ll go with all and entire any day. All and entire, as in catholic, which means according to the totality or in keeping with the whole ( Catechism, 830 ). As, also, in Here comes everybody. Which includes a good many people who are not as Catholic, or as catholic, as one might wish.
St. Augustine observed that God has many whom the Church does not have, and the Church has many whom God does not have. And no doubt the Church has many whom we might think she shouldn’t have. But the embrace of her love is as promiscuous as is the love of Christ, whose body she is. In the end He will see to the sorting out of the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares. Short of the end time, some will separate themselves from the communion, and it is a good thing when the Church excommunicates such, which is really a matter of putting them on loving notice as to what they have done to themselves. But, so far as I know, the busy Hitchcock household, the editors of Commonweal, Andrew Greeley, and Malachi Martin are all in communion with the center that is Christ and His Church. Admittedly, in some cases it is a bit of a stretch, but that’s the way it is with the grace of God. For which we all have reason to be grateful.
Some five hundred participants from the U.S. and Canada heard Michael Root of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, address the annual gathering of the National Workshop on Christian Unity in Richmond, Virginia. Root spoke on A Striking Convergence in American Ecumenism, referring to three proposals that are on the table for a variety of oldline Protestant denominations. There is the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), which was launched in 1970 and has subsequently had a rocky history. Then there is the proposed concordat between ELCA Lutherans and Episcopalians, which would establish full communion between those two bodies. As would the formula of agreement among the ELCA, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Root mentions in passing a fourth proposal on the world level for a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Lutheran World Federation.
None of the American proposals aims at merging national denominations in the way that in recent history produced PCUSA, the United Methodist Church, and the ELCA. Originally, COCU was supposed to do that, but it has now retreated to a vaguer communion of worship, witness, and service in which the several bodies retain their distinct ecclesiastical systems. For lack of a better name, says Root, one might call the shared model of the present proposals denominational communion. COCU, along with the ELCA-Episcopal and ELCA-Reformed proposals, have built-in ambiguities. In the second there is admitted ambiguity about the necessity of bishops in episcopal succession (and whether or how Episcopalians are bestowing that on Lutherans), and in the third there is admitted ambiguity about the Real Presence in the Eucharist (a historic difference between Lutherans and Reformed).
The proposals avoid debates that are going on within the bodies involved. They declare communion in faith while leaving unclear what that faith might be. Says Root: Within all of the involved churches, debates are proceeding about what some see as fundamental issues of faith, e.g., Trinitarian language, and about sensitive areas of ethics, e.g., sexuality. If the ecumenical proposals are truly received by the churches and a common life follows, then we cannot expect to insulate our ecumenical relations from these debates. The proposals also declare a common ministry, but, if the bodies involved have differing policies on the ordination of homosexual persons, then the interchangeability of ordained ministers will be limited by a regulation that is more than merely administrative and practical.
While he does not quite say so, Root is skeptical about these proposals for denominational communion. I seriously doubt, he asserts, that the continued divisions of our churches are today extensively experienced at the local level as barriers that divide Christians from one another. Survey data demonstrate that deep shifts in opinion have taken place. Especially among the Protestant churches (including here Episcopalians), the division of our churches has become rather painless. The danger, he says, is that these proposals are no more than status quo ecumenism. I am increasingly unconvinced ecclesiologically, says Root, that the unity we are seeking is finally compatible with the long-term continuing existence in the same place of differing denominations with virtually unlimited autonomy. He concludes: We need to keep in mind the larger movement within which these proposals might be significant steps, but still only steps along a path where we trust the Spirit will lead us further.
For some readers, this discussion of rearrangements among oldline Protestants will inevitably bring to mind the jape about deck chairs on the Titanic. The chairs are stenciled with a bewildering variety of proprietorial initials: COCU, ELCA, RCA, PCUSA, UCC, and on and on. It is true that the bodies involved represent a declining and dispirited sector of Protestantism in America, and yet they still have millions of committed members and many vibrant local churches. It is hard to see, however, any real advance for Christian unity in these proposals for denominational communion. As Root notes, in the experienced life of liberal Protestantism, the existence of separate denominations has become rather painless, because they have become meaningless.
And the present proposals might reinforce the much more significant division, which is between liberal Protestantism, on the one hand, and the robust and growing sector that goes by the name of evangelical Protestantism. Evangelicalism, in turn, includes not only groups such as the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God, but also substantial numbers of more conservative members in the oldline groups who are increasingly alienated from their denominations. The churnings of American religion defy neat classifications.
ELCA Lutherans are key to two of the current proposals. It is expected that they will come before the ELCA for action in the next year. The formula for communion with the Reformed, including the very liberal United Church of Christ, would move the ELCA in a decidedly Protestant direction. The concordat with the Episcopalians, according to some, would move the ELCA in a more catholic and maybe even Catholic (meaning Roman Catholic and Orthodox) direction. But the Episcopalians (and the Anglican communion generally) began burning bridges with Orthodoxy and Rome by unilaterally ordaining women”a demolition that may be completed with this year’s de facto approval, and perhaps next year’s de jure approval, of the ordination of active homosexuals.
Whatever else is involved, the proposals would certainly mean a further dilution of whatever distinctively Lutheran theological identity remains in the ELCA. They would finalize the break with other Lutheran bodies in this country such as the Missouri and Wisconsin synods, bringing to a definitive end the century-long search for Lutheran unity. But that may in fact have happened with the formation of the ELCA in 1987, in which case the current proposals are but a further unfolding of the step that was, willy-nilly, taken then. At the same time, one notes that the large Missouri Synod has in recent years shown signs of drifting, in a most un-Lutheran way, into the camp of evangelical Protestantism. The result may be that there are ten million Lutherans in the U.S. but no presence that is distinctively Lutheran. Others can judge whether that is a great loss.
There is a great sorting out going on in the developments surveyed by Michael Root. Not too many years ago, liberal religion meant groups such as the Unitarians. Today they have lost their market niche and almost disappeared, having been displaced by the further liberalizing of what used to be called mainline Protestantism. It is very unlikely that a minister who is a unitarian”meaning someone who rejects the dogma of the Trinity”would be made to feel uncomfortable in, say, the United Church of Christ. The net result of the proposals addressed by Root would bring about two major accessions to liberal Protestantism”the Episcopalians and the ELCA Lutherans.
The Anglo-Catholics among the former and the evangelical catholics among the latter are ambivalent about being Protestant and emphatic about not being theologically liberal, but both parties have now been effectively marginalized within their denominations. Episcopalians and Lutherans of catholic sensibility and conviction must either seek another ecclesial home or hunker down in local enclaves in the hope that their denominations will let them be”a form of radical congregationalism that hardly accords with a belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is a bitter turn of events for those Lutherans and Anglicans who not too long ago thought there was a reasonable hope of ecclesial reconciliation with Rome and, in time, with Orthodoxy.
The ecumenical vision is strikingly narrowed in Michael Root’s A Striking Convergence in American Ecumenism. What he calls denominational ecumenism amounts to a hardening of the ecumenical isolation of liberal Protestantism. He is right to be unhappy with what he describes. It is worse than status quo ecumenism. Root points to the larger movement within which these proposals might be significant steps. It seems more likely that these proposals are not steps within that larger movement but against that larger movement. The larger movement that is worthy of being called ecumenical must surely include all Christians”oldline, evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox.
An invitation to that larger movement is issued in John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). The invitation is premised upon the truth declared by Vatican II that all who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior are truly but imperfectly in communion. Ecumenism is not a matter of creating unity but of bringing to fulfillment the unity that already exists. It is not a simple matter of coming home to Rome, although full communion does require communion in the Petrine ministry that is exercised by the bishop of Rome. One of the more striking features of Ut Unum Sint is the way that John Paul put on the table for ecumenical discussion how that ministry of Peter might be exercised differently in order better to serve Christian unity. Unfortunately, that offer has received slight response from other Christians to date.
Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has made unmistakably clear that its commitment to Christian unity is irrevocable. Ut Unum Sint repeatedly affirms that ecumenism is not optional, it is not an appendix, but is essential to the Church’s life and mission. It is in the very nature of being Church. The encyclical lays out a clear agenda of steps toward ecclesial reconciliation with both Orthodoxy and the various sectors of Protestantism. The Catholic Church alone is devoted to sustained, intense, and disciplined ecumenical conversation with all Christians. Its commitment is not contingent upon ecumenical schedules or schemes of reorganization. It is in this for the duration, until Our Lord returns in glory. This is the larger and more promising movement. By comparison with this movement, oldline Protestant proposals for ecumenical convergence are revealed as little more than the consolidation of existing divisions.
Herbert C. of Cleveland put his very bright niece on his list, and we sent her a sample issue of FT. Now a very satisfied subscriber, she says she had never suspected her uncle of going in for such high-class reading. It is the kind of thing that can happen when you send us your list of family members, friends, and associates who should be reading FT. Why not do so right away?
Here’s a new book by a Deborah G. Felder, The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time (Citadel Press). In compiling her list, Ms. Felder sent out a questionnaire to one hundred (presumably the most influential) heads of women’s studies departments, asking them to nominate their top ten. After tallying the results, she came up with the women who have had the greatest and longest-lasting historical and cultural impact. Number one is Eleanor Roosevelt and hundredth on the list is Lucille Ball. Others are Golda Meir (36), Coco Chanel (50), Marian Anderson (65), and Cleopatra (84). The Virgin Mary is listed tenth. I don’t know why, but it seems one would have to list the Blessed Virgin first or not at all. Ms. Felder allows that Mary is undoubtedly the most famous woman of all time [but] she is more a myth and an article of faith than a flesh-and-blood woman. In any event, those who come before Mary and after Mrs. Roosevelt are: Marie Curie, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, Jane Addams, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Tubman. Of her project Ms. Felder says, I expect a lot of controversy. That is no doubt what she hopes for, but sympathy is the more appropriate response. Ms. Felder is a former editor at Scholastic magazine, which may help explain what your children are being told in school. One imagines that a young girl of a feminist bent would find it profoundly discouraging that, in order to come up with a hundred women who have most influenced world history, one has to reach for the likes of: Frances Perkins (12), Melanie Klein (23), Angela Grimke (24), Elizabeth Blackwell (26), Karen Horney (34), Zora Neale Hurston (40), Jane Goodall (48), Dorothea Lange (59), Mary Cassatt (69), Hillary Rodham Clinton (75), Frida Kahlo (78), Diane Arbus (88), and Edith Head (98). Now to find a hundred reasonably well-educated Americans, men or women, who could identify more than half of the figures on Ms. Felder’s list. I do not for a minute credit this book’s slur against the influence of women in world history.
Render Unto Caesar . . . and Unto God is a ninety-two-page report issued after several years of study by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod (LCMS). Subtitled A Lutheran View of Church and State, it is a refreshingly thoughtful document that should be of interest far beyond Lutheran circles. Guided by the distinctively Lutheran Law/Gospel dialectic and the concept of the twofold kingdom of God, the LCMS has been notably cautious about political engagement, except on issues such as abortion and parental responsibility in education where it believes it is acting in obedience to a clear word of Scripture. Among the conclusions of the report is this: It may very well be that, in such a cumbersome process, the institutional church will miss many opportunities to say important things. But the day-to-day political process does not depend upon the church. If the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod is to avoid the failures of those church bodies where the advocacy agenda is so full that their voices are simply dulled by overuse, it must be willing to accept such limited speaking and the cumbersome process of checks and balances that produces it. The careful approach of the LCMS is premised upon a highly spiritual (some would say spiritualized) idea of the Church. Reformed (Calvinist), Roman Catholic, and Orthodox communities have very different ecclesiologies which make possible and even necessary a concept of social doctrine that is alien to most Lutherans and to Protestants in free-church traditions. Nonetheless, both theologically and in terms of practical judgment, Render Unto Caesar . . . and Unto God contains much wisdom that can benefit all Christians. Given the pervasive theological and practical confusions that mark today’s entanglements between religion and politics, clear thinking from any quarter should be warmly welcomed. (For more information, write LCMS, 1333 South Kirkwood Rd., St. Louis, MO 63122.)
A reader excoriates us for publishing an article a while back that seemed to accept one version of theistic evolution. Didn’t we agree with C. S. Lewis that evolutionary theory in all its possible variations is incompatible with Christianity? There’s a bit more to it than that, it seems. The March 1996 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, a journal of evangelical persuasion, has an article that examines Lewis’ correspondence with Bernard Acworth from 1944 to 1960 on precisely this subject. The authors conclude: It is doubtful that Lewis would have felt comfortable espousing the views of present-day creationists. He always carefully indicated that he opposed evolutionism as a philosophy, not evolution as a biological theory. At the same time his correspondence with Bernard Acworth suggests that he had come in his later years to entertain more doubts about the claims made for organic evolution than his published works indicate. Of course Lewis is not the final word, but those Christians who sometimes seem to think he is might take note. We tend to sympathize with the argument of our own Phillip Johnson that it is frequently very difficult to distinguish, never mind separate, evolution as scientific theory from evolution as materialist philosophy.
Promise Keepers goes from strength to strength, gathering hundreds of thousands of men to pledge themselves to moral and spiritual renewal as husbands and fathers. In 1997, Promise Keepers plans to bring a million men to Washington. Founder Bill McCartney is placing increasing emphasis on the multiracial character of the movement. The sixth of seven promises men are asked to keep is to be committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity. Of course everything bright and beautiful has its cavilers. Randall Bailey of the International Theological Center in Atlanta says it’s all very nice for Promise Keepers to talk about racial reconciliation but that doesn’t address the systemic root causes of racism, and so forth and so on. According to this report, Bailey said leaders of another large gathering of men, the Million Man March in Washington last October, had been more committed to systemic dismantling’ of racism. That’s one way of describing Minister Farrakhan’s racist program of black separatism.
Inspired by Roger Rosenblatt, our friend Jim Wall, editor of the liberal Christian Century, deplores the opprobrium surrounding the L-word. Noting the rigidly quota-ized structure of the Democratic Party, he even speaks of liberal fundamentalism. He recognizes that abortion is somehow related to the decline of liberalism. Like Rosenblatt, Wall favors the current abortion license but complains that liberals have not been appropriately sensitive to the deeply held convictions of those who find abortion morally unacceptable. What is to be done about the fact that the law permits abortion at any time for any reason during the course of pregnancy, that more than thirty million babies have been killed in this country alone since the 1973 Roe decision, that four thousand innocent human beings are slaughtered daily, that many thoughtful Americans believe the country is engaged in a moral struggle as great as that over the emancipation of slaves? Wall’s answer: Abortion is a complex moral issue which demands constant and thoughtful discussion. One need go no farther than that non-answer to discover why liberalism has become for so many a term of opprobrium.
Many pleasant things have been said, and deservedly so, about Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, but perhaps nobody has put the heart of the matter so well as FT author Wilfred M. McClay, who reviews the book in Commentary : Perhaps, then, there is another sense in which Kristol deserves the appellation of godfather.’ Ever since the appearance of Mario Puzo’s book of that title, there has been a tendency to think of a godfather as nothing but a power broker. But in the word’s original meaning, a godfather is one who sponsors a child at baptism and thereafter is expected to take a leading role in his spiritual instruction within the community of faith. To be sure, there is something odd in crediting this neo-orthodox’ nonobservant Jew with a status so closely associated with Christian practice. But Kristol may have turned out to be just the right kind of godfather for an intellectual and political movement, neoconservatism, that began its life without much regard for spiritual things. In the process of seeking to preserve the genuine achievements of modernity, many of us, neoconservative or not, have come to acknowledge modernity’s manifold failures and sicknesses”only to find that Irving Kristol has already been saying such things for a long time, and saying as well that our view of political and social life, and the moral calculus by which we shape our individual and social lives, derive from what we believe about ultimate matters. Slowly but surely, the rest of us are catching up with him.
More attention will be paid in these pages to Christopher Shannon’s marvelously lucid Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought from Veblen to Mills (Johns Hopkins University Press), but, simply to whet your appetite, this from the conclusion: Finally, the recovery of the formal spheres of freedom and necessity should bring with it a respect for the informal realm that exists to some degree in both of these spheres. This informal world I take to be the ordinary life of work and love. Respect for this world entails a rejection of the modern affirmation’ that rationalized ordinary life into a locus of meaning; it entails a much humbler acceptance’ of ordinary life in all its ordinariness and informality. The world of friendship”of drinking and talking, working and playing, loving and hating”may bring happiness or it may not; in neither case does it bring meaning.’ It is no less important for being, in a sense, meaningless. Our modern spiritual efficiency experts, including many social historians, tremble at the prospect of some ordinary experience failing to produce meaning. Acceptance of ordinary life requires an acceptance of waste still anathema to most people in our work-obsessed culture. All things do not exist to be read. Experience does not have to be written to be valid. The informal must be left informal. Of course, distinctions between the formal and the informal, or freedom and necessity, only make sense within specific traditions. The modern revolt against God and nature has all but in