The Public Square
In a rare departure from the utter originality of these pages, parts
of this commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal and other publications
here and abroad. So you never recycle? ”RJN
In an interview with a network news program, I was explaining what the forthcoming visit of the Holy Father meant for Catholics. “Yes,” said the interviewer, who was a Protestant, “but why are we so excited about it? It wasn’t like this before.” She’s right, it wasn’t like this before. I sensed among journalists a new determination to get “the pope story” right this time. I even ran into reporters who had actually read encyclicals such as Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).
This new attitude among reporters reflected a much more general sense of heightened expectation as the Pope made his way to New York City, the city that he has called “the capital of the world.” He came, he was seen, and he conquered. And, of course, he was heard. But was he really heard? Will the message have any long-term effect? One somewhat jaded journalist said as the Pope’s plane took off for the return trip to Rome, “John Paul is yesterday’s news. Now we turn the page to tomorrow’s story.”
Maybe he’s right, but most observers disagree. The sense here is that something unprecedented and astonishing happened. New York City may not be the capital of the world, but it is certainly the capital of global communications, and people who have been around for a very long time say that they cannot remember a time when the press and broadcast media worked in such concert to capture every word and gesture of a visitor, as well as the variety of enthusiastic responses to his person and message. As for how much difference all this will make, Christians trust the promise of the prophet, “The word will not return void” (Isaiah 55). But even those who do not take their cue from biblical promise express the feeling that the papal visit represents a turning point in the American perception (or at least the New York perception) of this pope, of the Catholic Church, and maybe of the importance of religion in our common life.
The sin of intellectual sloth is at least as pervasive in journalism as in any other human enterprise, and reporters in the past have generally fallen back on two taken-for-granted “story lines” about this pontificate. The first, in the period immediately following his election, was that of a young (for a pope), dynamic leader, the first non-Italian in centuries, confronting the “evil empire” of communism. That was quickly succeeded by the second story line that has dominated the news coverage: a conservative, indeed reactionary, pope who is trying to clamp down on the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council and restore authoritarian uniformity to a once monolithic Catholicism now badly fractured. Especially in the United States, the standard picture we have been given is that of an authoritarian leader who, when it comes to the realities of the modern world, “just doesn’t get it.”
In that second story line, Catholics in America are depicted as bright, independent progressives who are profoundly alienated from the old- fashioned ways of their antiquated Church. Reporters sometimes express genuine surprise when they encounter the vibrancy and faithfulness that is also powerfully evident among Catholics in this country. Thus, in a profile of Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor who headed the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, the New York Times noted that she “still attends Mass regularly.” That “still” speaks volumes.
Among reporters in thrall to the second story line, almost all the questions are about sex, gender, and politics. Contraception gets a big play, as do the Church’s “rigid” positions on homosexuality and abortion. And why doesn’t the Pope “change the Church’s policy” on ordaining women to the priesthood? For those who interpret the world according to a political paradigm, it is very difficult to understand that the Pope is not the leader of a political party but the servant of a tradition that understands itself to be the bearer of truth revealed by God. Among journalists who are trained to be skeptical, who are often incapable of being skeptical about the limits of skepticism, Pilate’s question is taken to be the mark of sophistication: “What is truth?” On this visit, too, there was reporting that never rose above the American preoccupation (maybe the human preoccupation) with sex and power. But, in general, the coverage moved beyond the old story lines.
It Began Earlier
For some reporters, the change began with the World Youth Day in Denver two years ago. The Denver coverage began with a script straight out of the second story line, but half-way into the event reporters began to have second thoughts; a note of puzzlement, of respect, and even of occasional reverence began to sneak into the evening news. Here were these hundreds of thousands of intense, well-behaved young people fervently hanging on every word of a septuagenarian Polish priest who challenged them to settle for nothing less than spiritual and moral greatness. And then there was the World Youth Day in Manila, bringing together the largest gathering of human beings in the history of the planet.
There were other factors. “Everybody knew” that American Catholics are in wholesale dissent and don’t give a fig about the Church’s teaching, but then they rushed out by the millions to buy a huge eight-hundred-page volume with the decidedly non-sexy title of Catechism of the Catholic Church . The same happened with a book of papal ponderings, Crossing the Threshold of Hope , on topics not usually found at the checkout counter, such as Husserl’s phenomenological account of human nature and the role of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum in shaping modern subjectivism. It was all very puzzling indeed. Suddenly, secular thinkers who were accustomed to holding forth on “the real world” were beset by the troubling suspicion that maybe they were the ones who just didn’t get it.
But here is what I think is really happening. Beyond the crowds, the media hype, the book sales, and the fascination with the ever so “colorful” worlds of Catholicism is the dawning awareness that, at the end of the twentieth century, at the edge of the Third Millennium, there is simply nobody else on the stage of world history. The realization grows, also among the media, that at the end of what has been a slum of a century here is a man who has a spiritually and morally compelling vision of the human future, and no other world figure or world movement does.
To be sure, everyday politics entered into much of the coverage of the Pope’s visit. From John Paul’s remarks at Newark airport through his farewell in Baltimore, some reporters declared that they had made a great discovery. The Pope is a liberal!
Not on internal church matters, of course, and not on abortion and questions sexual. But on most political questions, the Pope is, we were told again and again, “on the left of the spectrum.” Many reporters went further, depicting the papal visit as almost a part of the Democratic campaign strategy. President Clinton, who has alienated Catholic voters on abortion and other questions, was embarrassingly aggressive in his efforts to be seen with the Pope in public. Against the Republican ascendancy, reporters said, the Pope came out foursquare for the United Nations, open immigration, the welfare state, and people with AIDS. Former governor Mario Cuomo of New York, with his characteristic delicacy, put it this way: “If you are a Republican conservative Catholic and your Pope says you are behaving like this to the poor, you’d have to think twice. That’s all you need to get rid of Newt Gingrich.”
In Search of an Imprimatur
The claim that the Vicar of Christ so forcefully injected himself into the policy particulars of American politics is not very believable. What is believable, what is undoubtedly the case, is that liberals are desperately in search of a moral imprimatur to revive their drooping fortunes.
It is true that the Pope called on America to be a “hospitable society.” The phrase is borrowed from the pro-life movement and means that we are to care for the “stranger in the womb,” the handicapped, the aged, and others against whom we are tempted to harden our hearts, including the immigrant. So there is some truth to the claim that John Paul’s words on the “hospitable society” support liberals who are opposing Republican efforts to restrict immigration to the country, which is now at the level of a little over one million people each year.
As for the UN, however, his speech there might more accurately be described as a sharp criticism of that body. The Vatican has been a strong supporter of the UN from its beginnings, but proponents of world government will find naught for their comfort in the Pope’s carefully crafted address. The Pope called on the UN to rise above its bureaucratic obsessions and pretensions to global power in order to become a forum of “moral deliberation” among the nations. Most strikingly, he offered a trenchant argument for the universality of human rights, a position frequently attacked under the auspices of the UN, as at the Cairo conference in 1994 and at the September 1995 conference on women in Beijing.
As for the welfare state, John Paul’s strong criticisms of excessive state action are spelled out in detail in his 1991 encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (The Hundredth Year). Everything he said on this visit was entirely consistent with what he says there. At the Mass in Central Park, for instance, he said not to the Government but to every one in the huge crowd, “Christ wants you to go many places in the world, and to enter many hearts through you. Just as Mary visited Elizabeth, so you too are called to visit’ the needs of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those who are alone or ill; for example, those suffering from AIDS. You are called to stand up for life.”
Judgment and Love
To suggest that the Pope was taking a position one way or the other on Republican proposals for welfare reform is as unbelievable as the claim that his compassion for those with AIDS reflects a change in the Church’s censure of the homosexual acts associated with that dread disease. In Centesimus Annus and elsewhere, John Paul’s emphasis is on “the subjectivity of society,” meaning that individuals and the intermediate institutions”families, churches, voluntary associations”bear the primary responsibility for helping those in need.
The language of compassion and caring is the vocabulary of the Christian tradition and it eludes capture by any partisan cause. The parable of the Good Samaritan did not come out of a Democratic focus group. In the Archdiocese of New York and elsewhere, for example, the Catholic Church is in the forefront of those caring for people with AIDS, without in any way compromising the teaching that homosexuality is “objectively disordered” and homosexual acts are sinful. Both censure and compassion are grounded in moral truth, a concept that is alien to many who are steeped in a culture of relativism.
So how to explain this attempted hijacking of the Pope for the liberal cause? Part of the answer is obvious partisan expediency, an effort to exploit the popularity and moral credibility of John Paul II. More important is the disinclination, maybe inability, of many in the media to recognize that some things cannot be contained within the paradigms of power and politics. The Pope is not advancing an ideology, never mind a political program. He sets forth a universal moral teaching by which all ideologies and programs are to be judged, whether of the left or of the right. At least that is certainly what he believes he is doing.
In addition to overt partisan exploitation, however, there is among most reporters an entrenched mindset that associates caring with the left. Typically, reporters hear the word “love” and think the word “liberal.” They hear the exhortation to help those in need and think the need for a government program. They perhaps know that conservative churchgoers rank highest in voluntary service to others, but voluntarism doesn’t count. It does not relieve the itch of the collective “we” to “do something.” The Pope says, “Christ wants you to visit the poor,” and the liberal resolves to make the trip by sending tax dollars, preferably the tax dollars of “the rich.”
The political hijacking of John Paul’s message is not necessarily deliberate. It frequently happens that people are simply not speaking the same language. This recently came home to me in a network television interview. Asked about gays, the divorced, and people living together outside marriage, I assured the interviewer that they were all welcome in the Church, that the Church is a community of sinners attempting, always with great difficulty, to live the life of holiness to which we are called. The interviewer protested that I was giving a very “liberal” version of the Church’s teaching, and I assured her that everything I said is unquestionably orthodox. “Well, I am sure this will confuse some of our viewers,” she opined, “because, if I understand you right, you’re saying that these people can be forgiven.”
To her it seemed obvious that forgiving is what liberals do. Behind that, I suspect, is the assumption that forgiving means excusing. The idea that one could be so “intolerant” as to hold people morally accountable for their behavior and still love them was quite beyond her ken. As it is beyond the ken of others that caring about the poor does not necessarily require getting rid of Mr. Gingrich.
The Pope is unfazed. He is accustomed to attempted hijackings. Calmly and clearly, he sets forth the message. For instance, this at the Mass in Central Park: “Love makes you reach out to others in need, whoever they are, wherever they are. Every genuine human love is a reflection of the love that is God Himself, to the point where St. John says, The man without love has known nothing of God, for God is love.’“
Any effort to recruit that message for the purposes of partisan politics of the left or of the right is dishonest, trivializing, and, if we are still capable of understanding the word, blasphemous. On the other hand, it is also understandable. When there is something so big as this papal visit to the “Big Apple,” it is not surprising that everybody, including politicians, wants to get, as they say, “a piece of the action.”
Where We Are
One must in fairness say that the media coverage generally rose above that kind of self-interested bias. Like the massive response of people from every walk of life and every religious persuasion, the tone was one of listening”intensely, respectfully, even reverently. Here was a man who represented something hopeful in a world that is running short of hope.
Consider where we are. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Western civilization was supremely confident that reason, science, and technology, guided by the god named Progress, was ushering in the long-sought utopia of perpetual peace and prosperity. Then came 1914 and what was called the Great War, when, as it was said, the lights went out all over the world. Then came the Bolshevik putsch of 1917, then came Hitler and the Holocaust, then came the Cold War and nuclear weaponry that threatened to obliterate life on the planet. As the century that heaped up mountains of corpses and loosed rivers of blood now comes to an end, the ideological idols of humanity’s prideful ambition lie scattered in the rubble. Then from the midst of the rubble there stands forth a man who says to the Church, who says to the world, “Be not afraid!”
That of course was the theme of his very first homily as pope, back in October 1978, and it has been repeated again and again throughout this pontificate. “Be not afraid!” It is not a message of optimism. This pope is no optimist. It is a message of hope from a man who has looked long and unblinkingly at all the reasons for giving up hope. He knows all about what in Evangelium Vitae he calls “the culture of death.” He lived through Nazism, he lived through communism, and he probably has more knowledge than any person alive of all the horrors around the world that defy hopefulness about the human future.
He dares to say “Be not afraid!” because it is not his message. It is the message of the Risen Christ to disciples devastated by the unfathomable catastrophe of the cross. There is another theme that has been repeated a thousand times in this pontificate: “Open the doors to Christ!” In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul invited us to envision the twenty-first century as the century of the greatest missionary expansion in Christian history. “The Church imposes nothing,” he wrote, “the Church only proposes.” But what a proposal! It is a proposal that includes all Christians, as he made clear in the encyclical earlier this year, Ut Unum Sint (That They May All Be One). And it includes not only Christians, for it has been a constant theme of this pope’s teaching that Jesus Christ is nothing less than the future of humanity.
Do I believe that all this was understood by the reporters and the millions of people who watched and listened during the Pope’s visit to “the capital of the world”? Not by a long shot. But this visit made it clear beyond doubt that the story lines of the past are pathetically incapable of communicating the significance of the person and pontificate of John Paul II.
After the visit, I talked again with the Protestant reporter who asked why she and others were so excited about the Pope’s coming. “I think I have the answer now,” she said. “You look at the world today, and you have to ask yourself the question, Who else is there?” That’s not the complete answer, but it is a very important part of the answer.
How Very Episcopalian
Touchy, touchy. That was my first response to a number of letters vigorously protesting “An Anglo-Catholic Hereafter” (October 1995). On second thought, however, the protesters have a point, indeed several points. I have in these pages been joshing Anglicans somewhat out of proportion to other communions. I have not taken adequate note of the fact that the goings-on in the Episcopal Church in this country are not necessarily representative of the Anglican communion, which is in largest part not British-American and is in places such as Africa vibrantly alive and growing. And I have seriously overestimated the appetite of at least some Anglicans for what is intended as humorous comment on their part of the household of faith. For all that and more, my apologies.
Having gotten that out of the way, I should say that some of the letters were both gracious and informative. For instance, Fr. W. L. Prehn of San Antonio, Texas, makes a grammatical point of which I was aware but sometimes forget. “One last thing: It really is as okay to make fun of Anglicans or Anglo-Catholics as it is for us to make fun of Papists (and, believe me, there’s a seasoning of envy’ for us too!). But when doing so, always remember that Episcopalian’ is not and can never be an adjective. Episcopalian’ is always a noun. Our descriptive adjective is Episcopal, so that a correct usage would be I am Episcopal,’ or I am an Episcopalian;’ but I am Episcopalian’ is never correct. (I am Anglican’ is the best way to put it.) Likewise, our theology and beliefs would be Episcopal and never Episcopalian.’ This is not always known, even by Episcopalians who should know better. For example, one of our far western bishops has spoken and written of Episcopalianism.’ What he means of course is Episcopal beliefs,’ or he ought rather to say, simply, Anglicanism.’ Anglicanism’ is by definition the doctrine and ethos’ of the Episcopal Church and the entire Anglican Communion.”
To which some reader is saying, “How very Episcopal,” and wondering why that doesn’t sound quite right. The reason it does not sound right, of course, is that “How very episcopal,” outside the American Anglican context, means that it is the kind of thing you might expect from a bishop. But the reader in question intends to say something about Episcopalianism. And for that purpose he and others”despite Fr. Prehn’s instruction (with which I would not argue for a moment)”will probably continue to say, “How very Episcopalian.” It would never occur to me, as a Roman Catholic, to say that having a refined sense of humor is an episcopal characteristic. It is certainly very Episcopalian, however. Of course matters are clarified if “episcopal” is upper case, but in everyday usage most people have difficulty with pronouncing the upper case.
Josef Goebbels is supposed to have said, “When I hear the word culture,’ I reach for my Luger.” Good words are always susceptible to being coopted and put in service to bad ends. (Although in the case of Goebbels, he opposed the good ends served by culture.) Spirituality is such a word these days. When you hear someone mention spirituality, reach for your Bible. Similarly, in the last five years almost all talk about angels has been twisted and trivialized to feed the insatiable appetites of the religiosity market. That loud whooshing sound is the cultural vacuum sucking up the riches of the Christian tradition. And not only the Christian tradition. Consider the word “values.” There is a bull market in values. Bill Bennett’s publisher wanted him to call it The Book of Values. Fortunately, he had better sense than that.
We create values. Values are simply what we value. You have yours and I have mine, and neither can make a claim on the other, except to be tolerant. Almost thirty years ago, Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of The Republic , criticized H. D .P. Lee’s translation of Plato’s phrase, “examining the beautiful and the good.” Lee translated that as “discussing moral values.” Bloom wrote: “In fact, values’ in this sense is a usage of German origin popularized by sociologists in the last seventy-five years. Implicit in this usage is the distinction between facts and values’ and the consequence that ends or goals are not based on facts but are mere individual subjective preferences or, at most, ideal creations of the human spirit. Whether the translator intends it or not, the word values’ conjures up a series of thoughts which are alien to Plato. Every school child knows that values are relative, and thus that the Plato who seems to derive them from facts, or treat them as facts themselves, is unsophisticated. When the case is prejudged for him in this way, how could the student ever find out that there was once another way of looking at these things that had some plausibility? The text becomes a mirror in which he sees only himself. Or, as Nietzsche put it, the scholars dig up what they themselves buried.”
Iain T. Benson of British Columbia, who heads the Centre for Renewal in Public Policy, has brought to our attention an instance of “values talk” in a rather surprising context”the writings of John Paul II, or at least in the English translations of the same. This happens at several points, for instance, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor . Thus the phrase “the fountain and origin of goods” ( bonorum fons et origo ) is translated “the source of values.” So, too, in Evangelium Vitae , the English speaks of promoting “values” in law where the Latin speaks of promoting the good ( bonum). This pattern of mistranslation is particularly unfortunate in view of the fact that both documents are centrally concerned about combatting “the ethical relativism which characterizes much of contemporary culture” ( Evangelium Vitae , 70). As Allan Bloom might put it, the text becomes a mirror of the distortion it intends to counter.
When Tolerance Is No Longer Tolerable
Toward the end of an annus horribilis that has left the Episcopal Church shaking from top to bottom, the House of Bishops, meeting in Portland, Oregon, has forced another division by voting overwhelmingly (122 yes, 17 no, 18 abstaining) to mandate the ordination of women in all its dioceses. Four dioceses and many more parishes had opposed the ordination of women on theological grounds. The 1976 agreement on ordaining women contained what were said to be guarantees protecting those who had conscientious objections to the change. But now the patience of the majority has clearly run out. The women bishops in the House were vocal in asserting that the time for debate and tolerance had expired. “The church has made a decision to end discrimination,” said Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod of Vermont. “I ask you to affirm that.”
In the 1970s, when women’s ordination was being agitated, it was a running story on the front pages and the evening news. The Portland decision to quash dissent on the question rated a few inches on page eighteen of the New York Times . Maybe because “Episcopal intolerance” doesn’t fit any established story line. Maybe because most reporters think putting up with dissent for almost twenty years is evidence of Episcopal tolerance. Maybe because the Episcopal Church, after years of drift and decline, is no longer news.
In any event, demonstrating its devotion to nondiscrimination, the House set aside famed Anglican “inclusiveness” and gave dissenting bishops twenty-seven months to conform or take the consequences. One dissenter, Donald Parsons, the retired bishop of Quincy, Illinois, declared, with less than ecumenical sensitivity, “The resolution is entirely un-Anglican and totally Roman.” Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, one of the resisting dioceses, said, “The vote was so one- sided here that 1997 will probably be the end for a lot of people in the church.” The General Convention of the church is scheduled for 1997, and Wantland indicated that the liberal tide is now so strong as to make likely the passage of many other measures, including the formal approval of homosexual behavior.
Wantland and five other bishops issued a statement asserting that the action of the House “is a denial of the basic Anglican principle that the church cannot demand that which cannot be proven from the plain teaching of Scripture. A Catholic theological position universally held for almost 2,000 years, and still embraced by a majority of the Anglican communion, will have been banished from the life and practice of this church . . . . Clearly, this threat and this action create a new level of impaired communion, subverting the collegiality of the House, and guaranteeing, for the first time in history, that the Episcopal Church will actively prohibit Catholic order.” They conclude, “We reaffirm our own total commitment to the Catholic order and faith, even in the face of a coming persecution. We will not abandon the faithful, no matter the cost.”
Shortly before the Church of England approved the ordination of women, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that opposition to the proposal was “heresy.” He publicly stepped back from that later, but his remark reflects the mindset of many who first plead that their disagreement with established teaching should be tolerated, and then, having gained toleration, move on to prohibit what had formerly been established teaching and practice. It is a problem facing any church body in which matters of doctrine cannot be appealed beyond democratic procedure. Tolerance will not suffice when deep interests are at stake. The problem is hardly limited to the ordination of women. Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.
He Who Steals My Words . . .
When you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research. I wish I had said that, but it was in fact said by the noted wit Wilson Mizner (d. 1933). Plagiarism in its various forms seems to be getting renewed attention these days. A writer does a devastating article on the doleful effects of affirmative action in hiring and promotions at the Washington Post , and the Post management fires back that the writer is a charlatan and well-known plagiarist. She did admit to an error a while back in using some lines she found in her computer that she thought were hers but in fact had been borrowed from someone else. It is very doubtful that that qualifies as plagiarism. Since they were not able to refute the article, the Post editors were desperate to discredit its author. Among writers the charge of plagiarism is powerful; it is comparable to the potency in today’s social climate of being accused of the sexual abuse of minors.
I’ve always been somewhat relaxed about this question of literary borrowings. After all, is it not said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? I assiduously make a point of attributing to the source anything I’m aware of borrowing, but mainly because I would be embarrassed to have somebody find me out. When people tell me that they’ve “stolen” something from me for a speech or newsletter, my response is that they’re welcome to steal anything worth stealing. Not so with Dennis Prager, editor of Ultimate Issues. When people tell him that they stole something he wrote, he responds, “That makes you a thief, and you should repent.” That seems a bit heavy, but Mr. Prager and others have prompted me to rethink the merits of their view.
There is the moral question of, among other things, property rights. The formidable Florence King has convincingly demonstrated that another Southern writer, Molly Ivins, has lifted her material without attribution, and changed material that she does attribute to Miss King. “If we had the right kind of laws in this country,” said Miss King, “I’d challenge her to a duel over this.” Miss Ivins, to her credit, has fessed up and apologized. Miss King is not entirely mollified. (It is a distinguishing mark of her writing that she is seldom mollified about anything.) In a letter to Miss Ivins published in the American Enterprise , Miss King notes that the Washington Post’s story on their little scrap talks about the Ivins “side” and the King “side” of the unpleasantness. Miss King writes, “How can there be a side’ in this when everyone involved is either a writer or an editor? All of us, by definition, are on the same side”the word side. Every word I write is a piece of my heart, and I presume you feel the same way.”
That is putting it too strongly. In my case it would mean that I have, after more than twenty books and probably two thousand published articles and reviews, quite lost my heart, for I cannot remember most of the words I have written. But there is that question of property rights. At a recent conference in Oxford, I ran across a fellow who has been giving his attention to plagiarism in the writings of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. GKC said some brilliant things about plagiarism, as he did about almost everything, but he seems to have been rather casual about his borrowings, and got through a stunningly prolific life without the bother of even one footnote. If one reveres GKC as much as I do, the Oxford don’s research might seem to be a quibbling not untouched by sacrilege. Knowing that there’s nothing new under the sun, it seems probable that few of us have ever written anything that is genuinely original, so why not celebrate someone like Chesterton who repackaged so very originally? On the other hand . . .
A Careless Corruption
King, Prager, and others are right: there is something corrupting in careless borrowing. Words are the only property that writers, qua writers, possess. And property is an integral part of personal identity and responsibility. While writers who write a great deal may not remember all their words, there are what might be called signature phrases that signal their public identity. Of course one is more aware of this in connection with writers with whom one is closely associated. “A rumor of angels,” for example, is a signature phrase for Peter Berger. Similarly, “rights talk” signals Mary Ann Glendon. There are numerous other examples. Yet in books and articles I have run across authors using these phrases as though they had cooked them up themselves. That is not right for many reasons, and not least because, in the mind of attentive readers, it discredits writers who do it.
If one pays attention to the writing of one’s friends, it is as nothing compared to the attention one pays one’s own writing. I, perhaps immodestly, assume that I have a signature phrase or two. For instance, “the Catholic moment,” “the naked public square,” “politics is in largest part a function of culture . . . ” (long-time readers can fill in the rest of the formula from memory), and so forth. One sees these phrases appearing without attribution, and it is not always amusing. In the book of a distinguished political philosopher, we are offered an extended discussion of religion and the First Amendment, and it concludes with this: “I would go so far as to describe this exclusion of religion from our common discourse as the creation of a naked public square.” He did not have to go very far at all”only to the book of that title, which is not cited in his notes, and from which he also lifted, almost without change, entire paragraphs. I am not inclined to sue and, unlike Miss King, I’m not up to dueling, but, if it weren’t for the flattery implied, I would just as soon people didn’t do that sort of thing.
The embarrassment factor gets awfully convoluted. In a recent book, an author attributes one of my signature phrases to another writer, and then conscientiously notes in his critical apparatus that “the phrase is sometimes attributed to Richard John Neuhaus,” even though the writer he is quoting, in the notes to the very text under discussion, attributes the phrase to me. So is there an element of sinful pride in my being a mite irritated? Of course. But beyond that, for people who write about ideas and their consequences, there is the not unimportant matter of getting the story right.
One more example and I’ll get off this kick. A few years ago, a reporter for the New York Times made the interesting observation that, in the abortion controversy, pro-choice people talk about “rights and laws” while pro-lifers talk about “rights and wrongs.” I thought that suggestive and developed it, with attribution, in these pages. Later, another writer whom I will call Smith used my developed version, without citing his source, after which yet another writer told me that the original Times reporter was plagiarizing from Smith. All this may seem trivial to more normal folk, but writers and editors cannot help but follow the fortunes and misfortunes of their words. And it happens that we sometimes lose track. The words and signature phrases of others end up in our own heads and seem so very at home that we come to believe they were born there.
It happens also that words insinuate themselves into everyday discourse in such a way that it never occurs to people that there is a source to be cited. When, for instance, presidents and other public figures go on about the naked public square, I confess to a slight twitch of proprietorial pride. Writers, poor souls, must take their satisfactions where they can. It’s different when other writers do it, however. As Florence King says, we’re on the same side”the words and ideas side”and there are rules to be observed. Unlike Dennis Prager, I am disinclined to call anyone a thief. But neither do I now say so insouciantly that, if it’s worth stealing, go ahead and steal it. I have come to understand how important it is for people to publicly say thank you.
That assumes, of course, that you know that there is a source to be thanked. I fear I may be letting down the side when I entertain the suspicion that there really is nothing new under the sun, and some obscure nineteenth-century essayist may have written brilliantly about, for example, “the naked public square.” It is even possible that years ago I read such a hypothetical essay and have quite forgotten where I got the phrase. So, just to be safe, to everybody on our side, to all the forgotten, misquoted, and unquoted scribblers in glory (and elsewhere): Thank you!
While We’re At It
A correction. In the November 1995 issue we commented on the discussion of the treatment of anencephalic babies at St. Louis University Medical Center. We mistakenly cited informed sources to the effect that abortions and other procedures contravening Catholic teaching were done at the Center. We misunderstood the information supplied us. Our sincere apologies.
Following a rash of incidents in which teachers, physicians, and others in authority have taken advantage of their position to have sex with minors, the New York Times has this story on the need to reconsider the age of consent. Having studied thirty-seven cultures and queried all kinds of people, David Buss, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, proposes ( The Evolution of Desire , Basic Books) that in all cultures people have tried to “interfere” with each other’s sexuality primarily because women are competing for desirable men while men are competing for desirable women. In the U.S., he says, where “socially imposed monogamy” pits the fourteen-year-old girl against the thirty-year-old woman, it is in the adult’s interest to maintain that adult-adolescent liaisons are immoral. “Sexual morality becomes fascinating from this perspective,” he says, “since what is moral depends on whose interests are being served.” Strange how morality as will-to-power keeps getting rediscovered. Also very convenient, of course, for those with power. That a moral rule protects thirty-year-old women from being discarded and fourteen-year-old girls from being exploited might, one dares to think, suggest that the rule makes sense; maybe that it is even, well, true. But those in charge of what is laughably called higher education would not likely find that perspective so “fascinating.”
Commenting on the 1992 Casey decision of the Supreme Court, we wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “lawless law is an invitation to lawlessness.” David Smolin takes up that theme in an intriguing article in the Baylor Law Review . “Rev. Neuhaus represents the mainstream, rather than the fringes, of American theologically conservative theism . . . . Calling Roe and Casey and the Supreme Court lawless’ is mainstream, rather than radical, among the one-third or more of Americans within the worlds of theologically conservative theism.” We confess it is a discomforting experience to be called mainstream, even if mainstream of a one-third minority. But the more interesting part of Smolin’s article is his view of the probable future facing what he calls the religious patriotism of the pro-life movement, and of “the religious right” in general. We are by no means prepared to say that he is right, but his conclusion bears pondering: “The difficulty with the religious right is that it cannot succeed. The religious right may succeed in preventing abortion from being mainstreamed as a social good; it may succeed in pushing America in a more libertarian, less regulatory, direction. The religious right cannot make America Christian or virtuous; at most, it can give individuals and groups more room to choose to be Christian or virtuous. The American people live within the cultural revolution as a fish lives in water; to expect politics to undo the cultural revolution is like expecting a baseball team to win the Presidential election. The cultural revolution is imbedded in the cultural forces of family breakdown, mass media, and secular’ education, and therefore will not give way merely because of legislative decree or political leadership. The religious right lacks, at present, an adequate cultural strategy for combatting the cultural revolution. Thus, the time will come when the Christian Coalition, like the Moral Majority before it, will have to face up to its failure to achieve the goal of reclaiming’ America. The frustrated religious patriotism of traditionalist theists therefore must stem into other branches besides murder and impossible political dreams. In the end, there seem to be two primary options: either the religion will accommodate itself to the patriotism, or the patriotism will give way to the religion. Some will drift away from traditionalist theism to a religion that can accept Roe and still be proud of America. It may be enough, in the end, for many in the Christian Coalition to maintain a libertarian, rather than a moral, America. Few in the religious right seemed to notice that the country became, during the Reagan-Bush era, less, rather than more, moral, according to traditionalist Christian standards. Some may be satisfied to see politically conservative Christians,’ or at least Republicans, in power and giving voice to virtue and God, even as the culture sinks deeper into moral depravity. In this way Christian patriotism will be tamed, as conservative Christians discover that America can be a great nation even with a 30 percent abortion rate and 50 percent divorce rate. Others, however, will cling to traditionalist theism; ultimately, they will have to reject patriotism. These traditionalists will look beyond the politics and even the laws of America, to the behavior of Americans: to our rates of abortion, divorce, murder, rape, theft, and illegitimacy; to the glorification of violence and sexual immorality in our media; to the constantly shrinking evidence of virtues such as patience, humility, generosity, faithfulness, honesty, kindness, and selfless love. If a significant portion of traditionalist theists reject patriotism, then traditionalist theists will join the underclass, and tribal Americans, as the newest of America’s growing class of permanent political exiles. Once they accept that they are exiles, they will be peaceful; but they will no longer, as in years past, be willing to sacrifice for the country. Anti-abortion lawlessness is ugly, whatever one’s position on abortion. It is but a passing thorn on a broad branch of disenchantment; no one can yet see what other thorns, leaves, or flowers that branch will grow.”
At this recent conference, a theologian”he happened to be Methodist but the comment is denominationally generic”remarked that evangelization today requires addressing “the modern mind” with a message stripped of its primitive origins. On the flight back, I came across this by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and wished I had had it in hand when responding to said theologian. It is from “The Doubts of Democracy” (1904): “If there really are some other and higher beings than ourselves, and if they, in some strange way, at some emotional crisis, really revealed themselves to rude poets or dreamers in very simple times, that these rude people should regard the revelation as local, and connect it with the particular hill or river where it happened, seems to me exactly what any reasonable human being would expect. It has a far more credible look than if they had talked cosmic philosophy from the beginning. If they had, I would have suspected priestcraft’ and forgeries and third-century Gnosticism. If there be such a being as God, and He can speak to a child, and if God spoke to a child in the garden, the child would, of course, say that God lived in the garden. I should not think it any less likely to be true for that. If the child had said: God is everywhere; an impalpable essence pervading and supporting all constituents of the Cosmos alike’”if, I say, the infant addressed me in the above terms, I should think he was much more likely to have been with the governess than with God. So if Moses had said God was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary. As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see something extraordinary. For whatever be the Divine Secret, or whether or no it has (as all peoples have believed) sometimes broken bounds and surged into our world, at least it lies on the side furthest away from pedants and their definitions, and nearest to the silver souls of quiet people, to the beauty of bushes, and the love of one’s native place. . . . When the learned sceptic says: The visions of the Old Testament were local, and rustic, and grotesque,’ we shall answer, Of course. They were genuine.’“
Pop spirituality is flourishing in America, says J. Budziszewski, a frequent contributor to these pages, but it is run by the ABC rule: “Anything but Christianity.” Reviewing two new books, one by Robert Fulghum and the other by M. Scott Peck, he notes that they reflect the condition of folk who hang around the vestibule of Christianity, not quite in and not quite out. Budziszewski says he has passed through the portal both leaving and returning, and he worries about Fulghum, a Unitarian minister, who is clearly on his way out, and Peck who is, just maybe, thinking about going in. “So it is that two such different authors, one a refugee from fundamentalism and the other just arrived from Zen, converge at the gate and pause. Contemporary American pop spirituality is a theology of lingering, of loitering, of hesitation, a religion of the vestibule. It wants connectedness without commitment, reconciliation without repentance, and sacredness without sanctity. It wants to sing the songs of Zion in the temples of Ishtar and Brahman. God help us to know what we want and to want what we ought. God make haste to help us; God make speed to save us.”
Writing in Civilization , the magazine of the Library of Congress, Gerald Early of Washington University, St. Louis, has an interesting take on Afrocentrism. “The tragedy is that black people fail to see their Americanization’ as one of the great human triumphs of the past five hundred years. The United States is virtually the only country where the ex-masters and the ex-slaves try to live together as equals, not only by consent of the ex-masters but by the demand of the ex-slaves. Ironically, what the Afrocentrist can best hope for is precisely what multiculturalism offers: the idea that American culture is a blend of many white and nonwhite cultures. In the end, although many Afrocentrists claim they want this blending, multiculturalism will not satisfy. For if the Euro-American is reminded through this that he is not European or wholly white, the African-American will surely be reminded that he is not African or wholly black. The Afrocentrist does not wish to be a mongrel. He wants, like the Southerner, to be pure.” Early seems to want to defend the liberal idea of individualism at least in a tempered form, but ends up with the reflection, “Black folk know, and rightly so, that their individual identities are tied to the strength of their community. The struggle over black identity in the United States has been the struggle over the creation of a true black community here.” What a true black community (or a true Jewish community or a true Irish community, for that matter) might be he does not tell us, but it would seem to be at least as problematic as the Afrocentric yearning “to be pure.”
“The Brief Statement” is a document that is more or less subscribed to by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Christian News , which has included raw anti-Catholicism on its menu of causes championed, recently surprised us with this: “Lutherans, who want the LCMS to draw closer to the Roman Catholic Church, oppose the Brief Statement when it says that we subscribe to the statement of our Confessions that the Pope is “the very Antichrist.” “ Is Christian News saying that Lutherans want the LCMS to draw closer to the Roman Catholic Church and therefore oppose the nasty things Lutherans have said about the Pope? That would be a welcome change of mind. The more probable reading, unfortunately, is that the editor’s fondness for commas has him saying precisely the opposite of what he intended to say. Proofreaders beware.
Psychologists, never mind psychiatrists, have fallen upon hard times. American society is now awash in myriad psychotherapies, many of which “work” for people much more effectively, and much more cheaply, than those proffered by the high-priced experts who were once able to define psychotherapy. This is discussed by Lewis M. Andrews in “Religion’s Challenge to Psychology” (Public Interest, Summer 1995). Andrews observes, “If there is any intellectual issue at stake for the conventional secular therapists, it is their growing lament that economic and religious forces may be combining to undercut certain schools of thought, especially psychoanalytic and other in-depth approaches, which they believe have made a positive and dynamic contribution to American culture. I worry especially,’ says Jeremy Lazarus, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Managed Care, that we may have lost our ability to help those people in intellectual, artistic, and other creative fields.’ Karen Stone, a Long Island psychologist who cochairs the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals and Consumers, a group opposed to managed care for mental health, expressed the fear of her colleagues when she recently told a New York Times reporter that current trends are destroying this field.’ She went on to add parenthetically that nobody wants their kid to be a psychologist any more.’“ The other and more disturbing side of that is that many become priests, ministers, and rabbis in order to be psychologists.
The Coalition for Pagan Religious Rights held a big fund-raiser at Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. According to the Washington Post , the event attracted witches, priests, and priestesses galore, along with a crowd of the curious. Curses were cast, blessings were invoked, shamans mediated supernatural spookiness, and apparently almost everyone had a good time. Not everyone. According to the Post , “Some critics inside and outside the congregation have complained that playing host to pagan groups could reflect poorly on the church. . . . Dick Meyer, Christ Congregational’s property administrator, said the church has provided space for community groups, including various pagan groups, but does not necessarily support their views.” Not necessarily.
Back in the early sixties when I was an eager young Lutheran pastor in black Brooklyn, inner city ministry was all the thing. That has changed drastically in the last three decades. Today, as Edward Marciniak and William Droel write in an important article in Chicago Studies , an assignment to an inner city parish is frequently viewed as exile to a Third World country. Based on recent studies by the urban center of Loyola University, they argue (“The Future of Catholic Churches in the Inner City”) that inner city churches, both Protestant and Catholic, may be coming back, and that is because, in Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, and elsewhere, urban centers are making a comeback. Among advocates of the urban poor, this is sometimes dismissively referred to as “gentrification,” but Marciniak and Droel know that the very best thing for the poor is that they break out of their “radical isolation” (William Julius Wilson) to live in communities populated by people who represent an economic, educational, and professional mix. The article is one of the most suggestive statements on the future of the inner city church that I’ve seen in many a year, and I expect the authors would be glad to send you a copy if you enclose a dollar with your request to The National Center for the Laity, 205 West Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60606.
A correction. In the August/September issue we reported on an extended discussion of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” that, we said, appeared in Touchstone . Several readers have pointed out that it appeared in the Lookout , an independent weekly in the Campbell-Stone tradition of the Churches of Christ. They’re right, and we’re sorry for any confusion caused.
It’s not a secret, but I don’t recall mentioning it before in print. In 1970, when a pastor in Brooklyn, I made the potentially disastrous decision to run for Congress. Actually, it was for the Democratic nomination, which in that district was tantamount to election. It was a very near thing. I’ve never seen anyone look incredulous, but I suspect some are, when I say that I’ve thanked God almost every day-well, almost every week-that I lost. Only weeks into the campaign, which was going frighteningly well, I knew that this was not where I belonged. Politics, and especially Washington politics, has for many years seemed to me oppressively dehumanizing, verging on the demonic. It’s the all-pervasive corruption of self-importance. And yes, some of my best friends are deeply entangled in it and seem, mirabile dictu, still in possession of their souls. These reflections are prompted by a marvelous article by Diane Ravitch, “Adventures in Wonderland” ( American Scholar , Autumn 1995). It’s worth a trip to the library. Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Education under Lamar Alexander, and, while not in Congress, discovered that life in Washington is all about the power games “on the Hill.” I will not attempt to summarize the article, but only say that it is not an unrelenting series of horror stories. Ravitch, an author of distinguished books on education, tells of her experience with considerable humor and graciousness. She ends on this note: “Two week after the 1992 election, I attended a gala dinner at the New York Public Library, where I was among a group of writers who were honored as Literary Lions.’ I was still a government official and felt slightly illegitimate since the intensity of government work leaves little time for any writing other than speeches or an occasional article (which, so long as one is in a political job, has at least a strain of boilerplate). As I looked at the other writers, I reflected that we were being honored for what we had done on our own, without politics, without negotiation, without compromise, without pre-clearance, without deference to committees, commissions, or tethered minds. And I knew that night in which world I belonged.” And so, with immeasurable relief, did I know that autumn night of 1970 when I learned that the late John Rooney would continue to represent Brooklyn’s Fourteenth Congressional District on the Hill.
“Hume Backs Weakland’s Speech” is the headline in the National Catholic Reporter . Some British cousins had protested to Cardinal Hume remarks made by Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee at a conference in Birmingham. Weakland said, as he has said so many times before, that the shortage of priests constitutes a crisis, and suggested once again that an answer may be to ordain married men and women. In response to the protesters, Hume issued a prepared statement: “The Cardinal would not wish to prevent from speaking a bishop whose continuing ministry as a bishop was supported by Rome.” Some backing.
Quite a few sensible people are having difficulties with what Dinesh D’Souza says about race in his new book, The End of Racism . Glenn Loury of Boston University and Bob Woodson of the American Enterprise Institute, for instance. The former scorched it in a review in the new Weekly Standard , and the latter cut his ties with AEI for having sponsored the book. Both are black thinkers for whom we have great respect (Loury has contributed several splendid pieces to these pages). We will be returning to D’Souza’s argument here. Meanwhile, the book is also being attacked by people who, it seems all unknowingly, confirm central parts of D’Souza’s thesis. For instance, his suggestion that many white liberals who support the old civil rights establishment and failed welfare policies really believe that blacks are not capable of getting their own lives in order”or, put differently, that blacks are inferior. Here, for example, is that reliable lefty Joe Conason in the New York Observer railing against D’Souza’s “heartless hypocrisy in promoting the notion that blacks should become unhyphenated Americans’ who embrace mainstream cultural norms,’ while proclaiming in the same breath that they will have to heal their devastated communities on their own. Does anyone truly believe they possess the necessary resources without government or private help?” A reader who did not know that Mr. Conason is a celebrated foe of racism might make the mistake of thinking the question betrays more than a hint of racism.
Here’s a news release announcing that a Robert Gross, former Jesuit, has decided to “transfer his clergy credentials” from the Roman Catholic Church to the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), an outfit started some years ago to promote the Christian acceptance of homosexuality. Gross is the author of Jesus ACTED UP (HarperCollins). Have credentials, will travel.
The noted critic Frank Kermode discussed in the New York Times Book Review a study by a Harvard type of lesbianism, cross-dressing, and related antics in the history of Western culture. Kermode opined that it was all a decided bore and he wondered why people would devote their academic careers to such trash. Of course that provoked a rash of letters from outraged academics protesting that the editors should not have asked someone to review a subject in which he was not interested. It is an interesting question. That something is not interesting, that it is really beneath notice, is itself a legitimate critical judgment. But then why review the book at all? One answer is: Some people think the subject terribly important and they should be set straight. So I’m with Kermode and the editors on this one. Anything can be deconstructed, as clever adolescents have always known. Grownups should try to be patient with juvenile cleverness, but when the kids keep clamoring for attention and take over whole departments for their exhibitionist games, a line must be drawn. They should be told, nicely if possible, that what they are doing is not terribly interesting, and, if they don’t get themselves under control, they might do some serious damage, not least to their own minds and souls. The damage is not the main point, however. The main point is that what they’re doing is pretty dumb and quite unworthy of their own gifts. Frederick Turner of the University of Texas makes the point in the American Arts Quarterly (Spring 1995): “If indeed the disciplines of culture have been discredited (as postmodern aesthetics claims), so that there is no apprenticeship, no growing mastery in a difficult technique or craft, and therefore none of the self-respect that comes of such training, no amount of self-esteem’ flummery will make up for the loss.” He illustrates the point this way: “Suppose sports were in the same condition as the postmodern arts and humanities. There would be a whole corpus of theory that attacked sports as traditional ways of suppressing and buying off the legitimate aspirations of the oppressed, that denigrated winning as a patriarchal and implicitly racist goal, that interpreted physical training as a sort of brainwashing of the body so as to enable the power elite to control individuals, that ridiculed the grace and the beauty of the human body in athletic activity, and undermined the aesthetic assumptions that make us value the agony and perfection of a close-fought game. The language of sport would be deconstructed, the structure of the game rules would be shown to be self-contradictory, the historical origins of sports would be shown to be bound up with slavery and