The Public Square
Among the most powerful social and political forces of our time is the “pro-family” movement. Pressed by organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, as well as by the emphatic teaching of the Catholic Church, millions of Americans have been caught up in the effort to restore “the traditional family.” As every cause must have its antithesis, the movement has been greatly energized by radical feminist hostility to the family as an oppressive institution, and, more recently, by homosexual agitations to relativize the meaning of marriage and family by the formal recognition of same-sex unions. Driving the movement, too, is alarm over the explosion of illegitimate births in the urban underclass (now over 80 percent of births), as well as in the general population (around 30 percent of births).
With respect to family and marriage, as well as many other things, there is a tradition of efforts, some of them quite innovative, to restore the traditional. One phase of this particular tradition is carefully examined in a new book by Joel F. Harrington, Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany (Cambridge University Press). Reviewing the study in the Times Literary Supplement , Joachim Whaley writes that “the difference between Protestant and Catholic marriage reformers was much less than is commonly thought. Both responded to the growing perception that the institution of marriage as defined in the twelfth century was breaking down. The medieval reforms made marriage into a sacrament, a state clearly inferior to celibacy, yet still holy, consensual, and indissoluble. This may have solved a theological problem, but it did little to regulate the institution as such. Indeed, the doctrine that consent alone validated a marriage potentially liberated the institution from both familial and communal control. By 1600, many German commentators believed that anarchy prevailed: sexual promiscuity was rife, clandestine marriages made a mockery of the whole social order, while the law on consent was abused by both the disobedient minors (to get into marriage) and unscrupulous philanderers (to get out of it).”
In Protestant mythology, the example of Martin and Katie Luther, as well as other Reformers, established the ideal of the Pfarrhaus (parsonage) in which clergy families provided a model of marriage that is liberated from “priestcraft” and affirms the sanctification of the secular. “Marriage reformers had no argument with the canonical tradition as such. They simply aimed to make it work in the interests of stability and good order in society as a whole. The Protestants did this by rejecting celibacy and desacramentalizing marriage. The recognition that sexual drives were natural relieved marriage of its unspiritual’ taint. Furthermore, once it was no longer a sacrament, control over it passed from ecclesiastical to secular authority, which allowed the introduction of such measures as divorce, and ultimately presaged the complete secularization of marriage. Yet Harrington emphasizes that this should not blind us to the similarity between Protestant and Catholic reform in the sixteenth century. The Catholics retained celibacy, the sacramental character of marriage, and the principle of ecclesiastical authority over it. But the addition of numerous conditions concerning validity (the publication of bans, the presence of a priest and witnesses, registration in a parish register, etc.) betrayed the same anxiety to stem sexual immorality and correct abuses in the laws of marriage.”
The conclusion offered is that “the Reformation did not fundamentally change marriage and that the new Protestant ideal of an affectionate family had little effect on social reality. Society remained resistant to the high-minded measures of both Protestant and Catholic reformers.” Well, not quite. Everything has its ups and downs, and since the sixteenth century there are indeed many people who have been “resistant” to the Christian construal of marriage, but it hardly seems true to say that Protestant and Catholic teaching have “had little effect on social reality.” Today’s champions of “the traditional family” are not indulging in nostalgic reconstruction when they contend that things were not always as they are now. In the last two centuries in Europe and America, and within the memory of any middle-aged person, both having children out of wedlock and divorce were relatively rare and subject to strong social censure. This was especially the case among the more religiously committed.
In recent years, some more candid evangelical Protestants have decried the “hypocrisy” of preachers who are silent about the evil of divorce, in many cases because they are themselves divorced. In the Lutheran denomination in which I was reared, it was only twenty-five years ago that a pastor who was divorced or even separated almost automatically demitted the ministry. There were exceptions when the pastor was clearly the “innocent” party in the breakup of the marriage. (There were then clear criteria for determining guilt and innocence.) Today among Lutherans there are pastors and even bishops who have been divorced more than once, and much the same is true of other denominations. The no- fault mentality has insidiously entrenched itself in the churches, and a profound change has taken place in a willy-nilly manner without benefit of serious theological and moral examination.
It seems almost nobody wants such an examination. Marital circumstances, whether of clergy or laity, are dealt with “pastorally” and “nonjudgmentally,” which usually means that normative morality is suspended in deference to cultural accommodation and the avoidance of “giving offense.” Some argue that this change is, all in all, for the good. However that may be, there is a corrosive dishonesty in winking at biblical and traditional norms that were, not so very long ago, invoked as binding. Certainly it can do nothing for the confidence or the credibility of preachers who still invoke those norms in other areas of sexual behavior such as chastity, adultery, and, not least, homosexuality.
There is, to put it delicately, uneasiness among Catholics as well. Critics claim that the increased number of annulments granted has made annulment tantamount to “Catholic divorce.” Of course an annulment does not dissolve a valid marriage but is a declaration that such a marriage never existed (while acknowledging the legitimacy of the children born of the union). Diocesan marriage tribunals today put increased emphasis upon the “maturity” of the intention with which a couple entered upon marriage. The result is to increase the number of annulments as it is discovered that there were “impediments” to a valid marriage and, at the same time, to elevate the level of understanding that should be brought to marriage. It has been suggested that there is a certain irony in the fact that, as the understanding of sacramental marriage is elevated, it becomes easier to get out of unions that fall short of that high mark.
At the heart of the Catholic practice is the concern to keep faith with the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching grounded in both Scripture and Christian tradition. The words of Jesus would seem to be unequivocal, “What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). In addition, there is a rich scriptural and sacramental understanding of marriage in analogy to Christ and the Church. St. Paul writes, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). A man can no more abandon his wife than Christ can abandon the Church. “For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church” (Ephesians 5:29). The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love between Christ and the Church. Baptism itself is a nuptial mystery, a nuptial bath, that precedes participation in the wedding feast of the Eucharist (Ephesians 5:25-26).
Of course there are many who say that the Catholic teaching, however beautiful and well grounded scripturally, is simply “unrealistic” in today’s cultural circumstance. Certainly it runs counter to cultural currents, but that is nothing new. Studies such as Joel Harrington’s remind us that patterns of sexuality and mating have typically been unruly. In human history, the actual living out of marriage as a lifelong union has been the exception rather than rule. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of hearts. But he teaches that he has come to restore God’s original intention. This is an integral part of his being the Second Adam who sets to right what was disordered by Adam’s sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, Christ himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to receive’ the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life.”
Talk about bearing the cross does not go down easy these days, but that, too, is nothing peculiar to our times. Earlier this year I preached at an Episcopal church for the Week of Christian Unity. Afterwards members of the vestry hosted a dinner at a local restaurant. It turned out that most of those present were former Catholics, each having “left the church” because of a marital irregularity. “Episcopalianism is our half-way house,” said one, “until the Catholic Church gets more realistic about its marriage rules.” I didn’t want to be argumentative, but muttered something about bearing the cross, to which another woman piped up and smilingly said, “You’re probably right, but the nice thing about the Episcopal Church is that it has such a little cross.” The rector, a dear friend of long standing, was not amused.
Evangelicals and other Protestants sometimes express admiration for the Catholic Church’s effort to hold the line on marriage and divorce, but there is a price to be paid. Despite the Church’s insistence that they are still cherished members, innumerable Catholics think they have been excommunicated because they are living in marriages not recognized by the Church. Although they are urged to attend Mass and make a “spiritual communion,” being barred from full participation in the sacraments no doubt feels like excommunication to many. Then too, and despite the Church’s teaching, some priests act on their own to “resolve” marital irregularities in the confessional (“the internal forum”). But it is not only maverick priests who find the official practice intolerable. Last year some German bishops of impeccable orthodoxy proposed that exceptions should be made for couples in particular circumstances, but the proposal was firmly rebuffed by the Vatican.
In this country there are canon lawyers on marriage tribunals who say privately that in the long run the Church will have to recognize divorce. As one puts it, “I understand the importance of indissolubility, and I don’t know how we’ll square changing that with Scripture and tradition, but the present practice is simply not sustainable. We’re losing too many people.” Others are even more adamant, however, in saying that the Church cannot change a practice that is based on the doctrine of Jesus, the apostles, and centuries of authoritative teaching. They add that, even were change possible, now would be the worst possible time to do it. In this view, those critics are exactly right who view the Catholic Church as the last holdout against cultural liberation from the traditional restraints surrounding marriage, family life, and sexual behavior more generally. Were the Catholic Church to change its teaching and practice, they say, the dam holding back the libidinous urgencies of a licentious culture would collapse completely. That claim is far from implausible.
In the early centuries, in the High Middle Ages, and again at the time of the Reformation, Christians were compelled to rethink and reformulate their understanding of marriage and the family. After the Reformation, it was several centuries before that understanding took firm root, but in the last thirty years much of it has been uprooted in both teaching and practice. In 1979, in his first papal visit to the United States, John Paul II raised eyebrows when he suggested that the agenda for ecumenical dialogue should include moral teaching. The reference was to practices such as abortion and euthanasia, of course, but also, by implication, to Christian morality regarding marriage and family.
At the end of the twentieth century, the question is whether Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics can believably set forth a distinctively Christian understanding of marriage. Some say it is too late, that even the Catholic Church must finally go along with the de facto polygamy that is the practice of serial monogamy. One must hope they are wrong. In any event, no amount of pro-family and pro-marriage agitation can cover up the contradiction of Christian acquiescence in a culture of divorce that produces disposable spouses and turns the solemn covenant of marriage into a contract of convenience. If it is evident that Christians are not held to fulfilling the most momentous vow they will ever make to another person, young people and others may be forgiven for thinking that the churches are not entirely serious in their moral teaching about other matters, especially those related to sexuality. A twice-divorced preacher railing against homosexuality is more likely to be perceived as a bigot and hypocrite than as a champion of “traditional values.” And with good reason.
“Long before Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust alerted us to the importance of associational life for economic prosperity, and long before Robert D. Putnam reported fewer and fewer Americans participating in civil associations, and long before Daniel Bell, in the pages of The Public Interest , heralded a return to the study and appreciation of civil society, and long before social capital’ became a buzzword, Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus authored, in 1977, a short pamphlet anticipating much of this.”
I’m not inclined to argue with that judgment by Adam Wolfson, executive editor of the Public Interest , who is reviewing To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (edited by Michael Novak, AEIPress). The new book of essays updates the twenty-year sojourn of the argument that Peter and I set forth in the original tract, also titled To Empower People . The language of that essay has now become the common parlance of public policy debates-”mediating institutions,” “empowerment,” “new paradigm,” and so forth. Enriching the vocabulary is not the same thing as changing minds, however, and changing minds is not the same thing as changing policies. Over these twenty years, four administrations, from Carter through Clinton, have claimed pieces of the argument, or at least of the vocabulary, but none has demonstrated much resolve in acting on it.
Recently the American Enterprise Institute hosted a big conference in Washington celebrating To Empower People and its authors, which I enjoyed immensely and Peter seemed to mind not at all. I’m of the view that you take snatches of your fifteen minutes wherever you can get them. I don’t know if the argument was as prescient as Wolfson and many other policy experts claim, but who am I to argue? I do know that even people as insightful as Wolfson do not get, or are not persuaded by, key aspects of the argument. Not all mediating structures are good, he says, and there is no doubt about that. But then this: “Mediating structures must be judged by this criterion: Whatever their profession or form, do they teach the virtues? Do they teach the love of man? If such judgments are not made, we may end up with a dense network of mediating structures, a revivified society, but one that is hardly civil .”
Yes, but the critical question is, Who does the judging? If the state makes the judgment of which institutions can benefit from vouchers, tax credits, and other measures, we end up with the governmentalizing of mediating institutions and the consequent destruction of what makes them so invaluable in the first place. At the heart of To Empower People is the contention that those most immediately affected by the decision (notably parents and families) are in the best position to decide which institutions will best serve their needs-in education, health care, housing, and other areas. It is a radically democratic argument that is untouched by any illusion that people will always choose wisely. Apart from choices that are clearly criminal, however, people have a right to make dumb choices.
The further presupposition is that almost everybody will make better choices for themselves and their families than the options imposed by the megastructures of the welfare state. One either believes that or one doesn’t. It is not easily testable by the criteria of what is called social science. If one doesn’t believe it, however, he is in conflict not merely with the argument of To Empower People but with the assumption of self-governance upon which the American experiment in republican democracy is constituted. Or so it seems to me.
Peter and I doubt that we will see the mediating institutions proposal implemented on a grand scale, but then, part of the proposal itself is that we should be suspicious of almost everything attempted on the grand scale. For all the talk about them, new paradigms hardly ruffle the old parameters of political business as usual. But we are hopeful about some stirrings, and rumblings, and experiments at the edges. On school choice, tenant management of government housing, community policing, and drug rehabilitation, there are promising initiatives underway all around the country. We are open to the possibility that policy makers, as well as many in the general public, are beginning to think anew about what a self-governing society might look like. Meanwhile, it is nice to have so much attention paid.
In recent months, particularly in the pages of the New Republic , we’ve witnessed a series of well-known (and not so well- known) liberals thrashing about in search of new justifications for the unlimited abortion license. Quite apart from the proof this ought to offer the Republicans that even the pro-abortion chorus recognizes which way the wind is blowing, we are still left with the question of why liberals seem suddenly to recognize the need for new justifications”especially since they got such mileage from their old ones.
“The answer,” writes Candace C. Crandall in the Winter 1996 Women’s Quarterly , “couldn’t be simpler.” Abortion was sold to the American public in the early 1970s with a long series of claims about its future social benefits. “Without exception,” twenty years after legalized abortion, “those claims have proved false.” The trouble with promoting something by making factual predictions is that eventually people find out whether you were right. And about all its major social predictions, the 1970s abortion lobby turns out to have been wrong.
“Perhaps the most powerful of the pro-choice arguments,” Ms. Crandall points out, was that illegality of abortion would leave America in “the dark ages when thousands of women died because of unsafe, back-alley abortions”between five thousand and ten thousand a year was the figure usually given” in the 1970s. “In fact, it wasn’t Roe v. Wade that made abortion safe: it was the availability of antibiotics. . . . Had pre- Roe abortions been so very dangerous, we would have expected a sharp drop-off in the death rate among women after Roe . But Centers for Disease Control show no decline in the years after Roe .”
Other powerful claims put forward in those years were that legalized abortion would eliminate child poverty, reduce illegitimacy rates, and help to end child abuse (“Every child a wanted child,” ran the slogan). Rarely have predictions been more spectacularly falsified-especially the prediction of reduced illegitimacy: “Only 10.7 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers in 1970 . . . . It stands now at 26 percent. Two-thirds of all black children are born out of wedlock.”(Some studies suggest higher figures.)
Of course, Ms. Crandall adds, “there was probably something disingenuous even at the time in abortion advocates’ concern for children.” Abortion supporters found a happy ally in the Zero Population Growth movement that had begun to gather steam in the earlier seventies. Paul Ehrlich and his ilk predicted imminent horrors from pollution and disease caused by overcrowding: a life expectancy down to forty-two by 1980, all ocean life dead by 1979, thousands of smog deaths in 1975, and so forth. Legalized abortion, we were assured, was our only way to ward off the “population bomb.” We certainly got abortion, but any notion that it saved us from environmental disaster can only strike one as absurd, for those predicted horrors never came close to happening: “Paul Ehrlich looks pretty silly now.”
The last of the seventies predictions to prove false was the claim that legalized abortion would remove the question from the legal and social realms, making abortion a matter entirely between a woman and her doctor. Leaving aside the fact that nearly twenty-five years later legalized abortion still remains our most pressing legal and social issue, the claim that the issue of abortion could be medicalized turns out to be wrong in a way that we should have been able to predict long before: the medical profession has for the most part declined to join the partnership. “Two-thirds of obstetricians and gynecologists in practice in the United States refuse to perform abortions, according to a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation in September 1995. The reasons given by these doctors only rarely included pressure from anti-abortion activists. Most doctors cited religious scruples or simply said they did not like doing them.” The majority of abortions are done by just 2 percent of the available doctors.
Even women seem to have opted out of the notion of abortion as a medical issue. Nearly 50 percent of those having abortions last year were women who had previously had abortions, while nearly 20 percent had had more than one. Legalization has made abortion into a contraceptive backstop that is virtually the opposite of “choice.” In fact, abortion turns out to be pretty much what we should have expected in 1972: a nasty but legal business in which a handful of failed doctors offer the clinical murder of babies as an expensive form of contraception. No wonder the authors in the New Republic and elsewhere seem so desperate to find new arguments with which to salvage the abortion license.
No major literary figure of our time is more religion-obsessed than John Updike, and that is evident also in his latest novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies . Writing in the New York Review of Books , Michael Wood of Princeton says the story is religion-driven from beginning to end. Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister, loses his faith, and two generations later his spiritual heirs end up dying in a Waco-like Gotterdammerung . Woods writes: “The structure of the novel suggests that Clarence Wilmot’s fall from faith has somehow caused this carnage and confusion; that the failure of belief will not have awakened modern America to reason, only delivered her to more craziness than anyone can bear to contemplate. The death of one god is the death of all,’ Wallace Stevens wrote. On the contrary, Updike’s novel suggests. The death or senescence of the institutional God is the birth of a cloud of avengers. Is there no secular hope, no brighter, more modernizing reading of Clarence’s lapse? No release from religion which is not a further flight into religion? Not in this novel, or this novel’s America, where the snake pit of history bequeaths us its mad dreams.’ The patterns of damnation are glamorous,’ Jesse Smith says. Lucifer was the fairest of the angels. But God scraped him off the edge of Heaven like a little piece of goat shit.’ When the bad guys have all the lines, what are the good guys to do?”
The fact that John Milton, among others, has pondered such questions more imaginatively does not mean they do not deserve to be pondered again. Over the years, Updike has presented himself as someone who, like most Americans of his class, has misplaced his faith and wishes he could find it again but knows he can’t. In Updike’s view, the ineluctable disappearance of religion in the life of Americans has been replaced by the ersatz religions of devotion to the bitch goddess of material success, and to the excitements of a degraded popular culture (the cult of the silver screen figures large in Lilies ). Never mind that this has, at best, a tenuous connection to the experienced reality of most Americans. Updike’s sales suggest that enough of them enjoy the idea that his depiction is true of other people.
I know Updike is wrong about the disappearance of religion, and I expect he is wrong about what has replaced it in the lives of those for whom it has disappeared. For a certain sector of society, religion has been replaced by the aesthetic, by culture understood as high culture (and, increasingly, as deviant culture). People endow museums and go to concerts the way an earlier elite supported religion and went to church. There are rules also for the literary culture, in which the very gifted Updike is one of the very few superstars. Admission to this world requires not a denial of God but a discreet silence about Him, unless one can speak elegantly of how very much one regrets His death. This John Updike has been doing for a very long time now, and he does it better than almost anyone else around. At the upmarket end of popular culture, he provides his many readers a momentary pleasure of pretended angst about their certitudes, a brush with ever so refined and regretful unbelief. The spiritual descendants of Clarence Wilmot are to be found not at Waco but at your local Barnes & Noble, where John Updike will likely be appearing soon.
There are some questions that can hardly be answered without getting into deeper trouble. For instance: Have you stopped beating your wife? Or if someone says there is nothing of which you are incapable, it does not enhance one’s moral credibility to issue a list of things that one would never do. Which is to say that there are butts best left unrebutted. Nonetheless, Father Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame, feels he must respond to a critic’s claim that those opposing papal teaching are theologians who “see no limits.” McBrien writes, “Let it be said one more time: There are limits to Catholic orthodoxy. I know of no Catholic theologian who would disagree.” He then sets out fifteen limit-setting theses. “For example, it is beyond the limits of Catholic orthodoxy to deny the reality of God”of the sacred, the holy, the supernatural, the transcendent.” And the final thesis: “It is beyond the limits of Catholic orthodoxy to deny any basis for our hope in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
Fr. McBrien concludes: “It is always a mistake to assert a universal negative”as in see no limits’”because even one exception undermines the validity of the assertion. In this case, there are scores of exceptions.” Or at least fifteen exceptions to the claim that there is nothing Fr. McBrien is incapable of denying. Notably absent from the exceptions he offers, however, are any limits peculiar to being a Roman Catholic theologian. To cite but a few examples, there is no mention of distinctively Catholic moral teaching, or of bishops and communion with Peter, or of the teaching authority of the Magisterium. A theologian who is an Episcopalian, Lutheran, or Baptist (at least a high church Baptist) might agree with all his stated “limits of Catholic orthodoxy.” McBrien does mention the seven sacraments, but then affirms only that they have “spiritual efficacy.” If that be the mark of a sacrament, a non-Catholic might gladly assert that there are not seven but seventy times seven, or more if you wish.
Of course, Fr. McBrien does not say that his list is exhaustive. Were he to go on to elaborate the “scores” of limits he says he has in mind, one may hope that Fr. McBrien would come to something distinctively Catholic, but the present list is most notable for its omissions. There is the further difficulty of who sets even these few limits. Fr. McBrien says he is speaking for himself and other theologians, and then specifies, “I mean real theologians with theological doctorates, teaching positions, and a publications record.” So maybe he has addressed the question of Magisterium after all. The Magisterium, it seems, is Fr. McBrien and others whom he recognizes as belonging to the sacred college of academic theologians. One may observe that the question of obedience is greatly simplified when obedience is rendered to oneself and those of like mind.
A reader may wonder if Fr. McBrien might have been better off not to attempt to rebut the claim that he sees no limits. For the record, however, let it be said one more time: Fr. McBrien believes there are limits to Catholic orthodoxy. No fair-minded person would deny that that certainly seems to be true in his case.
Andrew Sullivan, who has just stepped down as editor of the New Republic , admits to “harping” on the question of gay rights, and so he has. Under his leadership, that distinguished magazine acquired a distinctly lavender hue. Mr. Sullivan is a learned man and usually writes with a certain style, which no doubt explains why he gets a more serious hearing than most advocates of the gay cause (see Elizabeth Kristol’s review of his Virtually Normal , FT, January).
In a recent issue of TNR, he returns to his subject, once again lamenting the alleged inconsistency of the Catholic Church in countenancing the marriage of infertile couples while rejecting same-sex marriage. “The theologians’ best answer to this is simply circular,” writes Sullivan. “Marriage, they assert, is by definition between a man and a woman. When pressed further, they venture: well, sexual relations between two infertile heterosexuals could, by a miracle, yield a child. But, if it’s a miracle you’re counting on, why couldn’t it happen to two gay people? Who is to put a limit on the power of God?”
That, one regretfully notes, is the cleverness of the sophomoric. Couples who were infertile frequently do have children. Often, as it happens, after they have adopted a child. When that happens, it is not a miracle in the sense of something that reverses nature but a healing and restoration of a natural capacity. Anyone who has to have it explained that it is unnatural for homosexual copulation to produce a child is, one fears, not really interested in serious argument.
In an article occasioned by his unhappiness with Pat Buchanan, Mr. Sullivan moves from the sophomoric to the meretricious. Buchanan has made critical remarks about homosexuals and their cause, and in response Mr. Sullivan notes that the Buchanans have no children. “Either Buchanan is using contraception, in which case he is a hypocrite; or he or his wife is infertile, and he is, one assumes, engaging in non-procreative sex. Either way, I can see no good reason why his sexual life is any more sinful than mine.” Mr. Sullivan was brought up to be well mannered and knows that there is something tawdry about his making a public issue of the Buchanans’ marital life, but he excuses himself this way: “Indeed, I would regard anyone’s inability to have children, if he wanted to, to be a sadness I should privately sympathize with and publicly say nothing about. Why, I wonder, cannot Buchanan express the same compassion and fairness for me?”
The obvious answer is that Buchanan has not asked Sullivan or anyone else to discuss in public his relationship with Mrs. Buchanan. Sullivan, on the other hand, insists that his homosexuality is a matter of great public moment, and demands a radical change in centuries of family law to accommodate same-sex “marriage.” Had he not turned his sexuality into a political campaign, no doubt Pat Buchanan and almost everyone else would regard Sullivan’s unhappiness as “a sadness they should privately sympathize with and publicly say nothing about.” It has long seemed that Andrew Sullivan’s reputation as a consequential thinker about matters sexual is somewhat inflated. With the indecency of making a political issue of an opponent’s childlessness, it appears that Mr. Sullivan has become unhinged by his harping.
When the dust has settled, if it does settle, we will be doing something more comprehensive on the “heresy trial” of retired Episcopal Bishop Walter C. Righter for having violated church order by ordaining a homosexual not pledged to chastity. As the story unfolds, it is worth keeping in mind several points generally overlooked in the media coverage. The bishops who signed the “presentment” that occasioned the present proceedings make clear that Bishop Righter is only the first of a number of bishops who might be similarly charged. Seventy-two bishops signed the 1994 “Koinonia Statement” initiated by Bishop John Spong of Newark and supporting the ordination of homosexuals. Quite a few of these bishops (the exact number is unclear) have themselves performed such ordinations.
Second, it is by no means evident that this first procedure was a “heresy trial.” The phrase “heresy trial” is favored by the press, of course, because in the American ethos of tolerance it creates strong sympathy for the dissenter putatively oppressed by an ecclesiastical establishment. Bishop Righter’s defense lawyer, however, insisted that there is no question of heresy because in fact the Episcopal Church has no authoritative teaching on these matters, and therefore Righter can only be guilty of bending the rules of procedure. From the viewpoint of many Episcopalians, the claim that the church has no authoritative teaching is the more damning indictment, vindicating their believe that the communion is doctrinally adrift.
David W. Dunlap, who has covered the story for our local newspaper of record, joined many reporters in playing it strictly as a case of inclusiveness vs. exclusiveness, of love vs. bigotry. In the media and in the Righter proceedings there is an increasingly explicit doctrinalizing, so to speak, of the position that the church has no doctrinal test other than the doctrine that there can be no doctrinal test. In some ways this is no more than an extension of the much vaunted tolerance of Anglicanism, but in the face of homosexual assertiveness the canons of tolerance have become more rigid.
Otis Charles-described by the Times as “the only openly gay Episcopal bishop,” thereby implying that others are in the closet”says, “The new phenomenon is that we’re no longer willing to remain silent and invisible. More and more individuals are saying we’re going to live openly and honestly as the people we are.” The wink and the nudge, the giving of the benefit of the doubt, the charitable looking the other way”none of these can be tolerated any longer. Those who aggressively come out of the closet make it necessary for everyone else to take an explicit position on their sexuality. This in-your-face strategy excludes the option of Anglicanism’s tradition of studied ambiguity regarding positions in conflict.
Bishops such as William C. Wantland of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who is a signer of the Righter presentment, worries that the Episcopal Church is declining because it seems not to stand for anything. It may be, however, that the opponents of his way of thinking, who seem to have the upper hand in the church leadership, are a step ahead of that complaint. They, too, want the Episcopal Church to stand for something quite definite, but quite definitely different. The Rev. David L. Norgard, who is openly gay and is chairman of the national church’s Standing Commission on Evangelism, says, “I’m thoroughly convinced, and hold it as a point of faith, that in the long run people are turned off by a church that excludes.”
It is noteworthy that the “point of faith” is not, as is traditionally the case, about revealed doctrine but about strategy based on a reading of culture and social dynamics. Most sociologists of religion would likely think that Norgard’s is a misreading that would lead the Episcopal Church into becoming an upmarket version of the Metropolitan Community Church, an association catering to the 2 percent or less of the population that is actively homosexual. But whether the head of the Standing Commission on Evangelism is strategically right or wrong, the more interesting development is the increasingly explicit doctrine that the Episcopal Church is a non-doctrinal communion. That is not the way that Anglicanism has traditionally presented itself, either to its own communicants or in theological dialogue with other Christians.
For a relatively small communion (somewhat over two million members) the Episcopal Church is producing a remarkable number of lay and clergy initiatives to do public battle over the future of the church. This energy, whether supporting or opposing current trends, testifies to the strong allegiance many feel to Anglicanism in this country. For the progressives, the hope is to capture what has historically been an elite denomination for what they earnestly believe to be the wave of the future. For the conservatives, the somewhat more desperate hope is to preserve what they believe to be a catholic form of Christianity that is an alternative to Rome and Orthodoxy. Even as they sound the trumpet for battle, many conservatives acknowledge that theirs is a holding action, and that the 1997 General Convention may force a decision about continuing membership in the Episcopal Church.
Anglicanism prides itself on its ability to muddle through by somehow containing contradictions over which others divide. It may be, however, that that story is now coming to an end. If so, future historians may debate whether the end was a matter of the church abandoning doctrine or displacing one understanding of doctrine with another. Both Bishop Wantland and the Rev. Norgard are devoted to articles of faith. For the bishop, those articles are given by Scripture, ecumenical councils, and other authoritative references affirmed by the Anglican tradition. For the chairman of the Standing Commission on Evangelism, while claiming to honor those authoritative references, the normative articles of faith are constructed by perceived cultural directions and personal needs.
In the absence of a teaching office that can effectively decide for one or the other, these conflicting orthodoxies must do battle through the quasi-democratic procedures of church politics. As both church history and the history of nations demonstrate, combatants frequently have little control over the issue around which the definitive battle is joined. Thirty years ago, few would have predicted that the issue would be homosexuality. On the other hand, those Episcopalians may turn out to be right who say that it is in the nature of Anglicanism that no battle is definitive.
It’s an argument I’ve been making for years, with little success: Social observers in general and religious folk in particular vastly overestimate the influence of the news and entertainment media. A Protestant friend who is a very successful writer routinely rails against our “post-Christian society.” His supporting evidence is largely drawn from movies, television, and the papers. Recently a Catholic bishop told me that he was “scared to death” when a television executive told him that, given enough money and air time, the tube could make the American people think whatever its owners wanted them to think. Instead of being scared to death, he should have pointed out that this is arrant nonsense, the braggadocio that typifies overpaid egos who dominate a shrinking media market. Of course the media have a powerful and frequently malignant influence, but if they had only a small part of the influence that they (and their critics) claim, we would be living in a country that we would hardly recognize.
Were the television networks, the movie producers, and the editors of the prestige papers really in charge, there would be no pro-life movement, active euthanasia would be the uncontested law of the land, every school child would be indoctrinated in the joys of gay sex, home schooling would be prohibited, church schools would be run by state agencies, government day care for preschool children would be mandatory, churches would not be tax-exempt, and smoking anywhere would be a criminal offense. Certainly Reagan and Bush would never have been President, the Republican Party would be on the Department of Justice list of suspect organizations, and Ralph Reed would be in jail. That’s just for starters.
Do I exaggerate? Maybe just a little. But imagine, on the basis of their record of advocacy, the America that would be created by Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Frank Rich of the New York Times . It is possible, of course, that were such an America to come into being, with all the authoritarian controls that would be required, those worthies would change sides and protest the oppression. In that case, many liberals might embrace conservatism as the “true” liberalism. No doubt the word “neoconservative” would be reinvented to describe them. But my point is that Rather, Jennings, Rich, and their ilk are not running the country. They make a difference, no doubt, but they are increasingly fighting to maintain their niches in media empires that are more and more out of touch with the American reality.
So who pushed my buttons on this subject? The other day I was speaking at Gettysburg College, a school in Pennsylvania with a vestigial Lutheran connection, and a professor took strong exception to my claim that ours is not a secular society but one that is maddeningly confused in its pervasive religiousness. All you have to do, he asserted, is to look at television, movies, and the big papers to see how thoroughly secular America is. But that’s like determining what the weather is by reading weather reports rather than looking out the window, or reading sex manuals to understand sex. In the case of the media and social reality, the gap is considerably wider.
The Sunday after Gettysburg the professor’s objection was on my mind as I was looking at the local publication that styles itself the world’s newspaper of record. It is Palm Sunday and here is the television guide for Holy Week. Twenty-some movies and other programs are lifted up for special attention. These are among the items promoted for Holy Week: two polemics against white racism, an attack on the tobacco industry, three murder mysteries, one story about a serial murderer, a comedy about soap operas, a story on the sexual abuse of children, and a drama about vampire families in San Francisco. On Good Friday there is one movie that has what might be called a transcendent dimension” Rosemary’s Baby , a story about the Devil’s son born of woman.
You may object that it is not fair to judge all the media by the Times , and it is not fair to judge the Times by its weekly television guide. Perhaps, although it is generally acknowledged that the news media routinely take their lead from the Times and the entertainment and culture business is heavily dependent on its judgment. As to whether the television guide is a good guide to the Times , the ten pounds of newsprint that Sunday had no other reference to religion other than a business story about selling palms to churches and an article in the Sunday magazine about a Catholic who has decided to become a Jew. Well, there was one other story, a rather sad one, that might count as religious. It was about aging homosexuals who regularly get together to reminisce, dance, and talk dirty in the basement of an Episcopal church in Queens.
But stay with the television guide for a moment. No doubt, had I bothered to look through the many pages of listings, I would have found some religious services and maybe an old Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic being broadcast that week, but the interesting thing is what the editors chose to feature as being worthy of attention. None of the programs was related to, and some of them were grossly antithetical to, what is represented by Holy Week. Not so incidentally, especially in New York, the same week was Passover. The Lubavitcher hasidim bought two full-page ads urging the world to get itself ready for the return of the Moshiach, the late Rebbe Schneerson. So the Times collected well over $30
0,000 in ad revenue related to the week (including a full page of paid church notices) but, being a newspaper of scrupulous integrity, did not let that influence its studied indifference to there being anything noteworthy about Holy Week and Passover.
For those who by occupation or obsession (or a mix of both) monitor such things, the Times is as good a window as we have into the perversities of what passes for”because, unfortunately, it is”our high culture. How to explain that television guide? This is a city in which about 75 percent of the population is Christian and somewhat over 15 percent is Jewish. The majority of New Yorkers would be in church or synagogue at least once that week. Is it possible that the editors of the guide were not aware that it was Holy Week and Passover? It seems more than possible. Stanley Rothman and others have for years been giving us the research that demonstrates an enormous “religion gap” between the American people and the media elite. And I remember the reporter who told me he wanted to do a story that dealt with the influence of John Henry Cardinal Newman, only to be turned down by three senior editors who had never heard of Newman. In trying to understand the media, do not search for other explanations when ignorance will suffice. But Rosemary’s Baby on Good Friday? I’m sorry, I think somebody knew exactly what he was doing.
At Mass on Palm Sunday morning, I looked out from the altar at hundreds of fervent worshipers and, knowing that the same thing was happening in hundreds of other places around the city, had no doubt that this, and not what the Times reported, is the real world. Of course what the Times and its media minions present as reality has real effects. Among other things, it makes that evangelical writer, that Catholic bishop, and that Gettysburg professor think that, as believers, they are fighting a rear guard action. It makes them feel marginal, when in fact it is the media that are increasingly marginal.
There is consolation in the fact that the Times is bought by less than one out of twenty people in the New York area, and the audience for television networks and movies has been declining for years. The people in charge know this. But as long as they can indulge their ideological urges and still make big money in a diminished market, they will continue to do what they do. They do damage, of course, but there is no cause for panic. More and more, they are playing defense, as more and more Americans stop taking them seriously. The critical thing is to trust your own experience and not let putative experts convince you that you do not know what you know.
The classic example from the social sciences is “the happy marriage syndrome.” From the beginnings of survey research, people have been asked whether theirs is a happy marriage, and what percentage of marriages do they think are happy. With striking consistency, about 75 percent say they are happily married and that only 10 percent of Americans are happily married. The first they know from experience and the second they get from the news. All of the above notwithstanding, I would not be surprised if Rosemary’s Baby got high ratings on Good Friday. If so, it demonstrates not that ours is a secular society but that, as aforesaid, it is maddeningly confused in its pervasive religiousness. There will always be those in the media who are bent upon offending and are not above exploiting confusion and depravity. But that’s no reason to let them, including the old gray madam that is the Times , get away with the claim that they represent the real world.
A footnote: later in Holy Week, the federal appeals court in New York discovered a constitutional right to assisted suicide, a discovery promptly hailed in the Times’ lead editorial (see article by Michael M. Uhlmann beginning on page 39). The big headline announcing the decision said the court “relieves anxiety of physicians.” (Nothing was said about the anxiety of patients who may be killed rather than cured.) The Easter edition of the Sunday magazine had a long article on Episcopal bishops ordaining homosexuals, written by gay advocate Bruce Bawer. The lead editorial on Easter Sunday was a ringing endorsement of same-sex “marriage,” beginning with the line, “Chances are that Americans will look back thirty years from now and wonder what all the fuss was about.” At the rate it is going, chances are that Americans will look back thirty years from now and wonder why anyone paid much attention to the New York Times .
Subscribers by the thousands are found one by one. And sometimes by the dozens. It depends on how many names you send us of family members, friends, and associates who should be reading FT. We’ll send them a letter giving you credit for suggesting that we get in touch. One free sample issue has been known to hook people for life. And think of how grateful they will be to you.
You might think that one thing all Christians could agree on is that it is a very bad thing for governments to persecute people for being Christians. But then, there are so many things that one might think to be the case. At the end of January, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) put out a strong and eloquent “Statement of Conscience Concerning Worldwide Religious Persecution.” The statement and organizing activities around it received a good deal of media attention, and some oldline churches joined in this long-needed initiative. Not, however, the National Council of Churches (NCC). This despite the fact that, looking back on the Cold War, its General Secretary, Joan Brown Campbell, recently confessed to the Washington Times , “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism, and we failed to really cry out against the Communist oppression.” In February, the Executive Board of the NCC declined to endorse the NAE statement. Speaking on behalf of the NCC, Albert Pennybacker explained that the focus on the persecution of Christians was a “sectarian approach that is not healthy.” (In fact, the NAE statement strongly condemns the persecution of believers of any faith.) In addition, Pennybacker expatiated, some regimes have legitimate cultural reasons for opposing Christian proselytism, and some Christians are guilty of resisting the revolutionary measures of so very progressive governments. And on and on. At the same time, the NCC calls for the unification of North and South Korea, without reference to the oppression, including religious oppression, in the North, and condemns sanctions against Cuba, which it blames for the economic disappointments of Fidel’s revolution. Worse than failing to cry out, the NCC continues in its historic role as de facto apologist for the persecution of Christians and other believers. That is a hard judgment, to be sure, but it is difficult to reformulate it in a manner that is both kind and accurate. Of course there is the factor that the NCC, which still thinks of itself as the mainline, is loath to associate itself with an initiative coming from those upstart “fundamentalists” in the NAE. But the main thing continues to be that a little religious persecution, or even a lot of religious persecution, must not get in the way of support for progressive politics.
One thing leads to another. Philip Jenkins has explained in these pages (“The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” February) how the several factions in the Catholic Church have exploited the scandal of clerical sex abuse to their own advantage. For instance, the left uses it to agitate for married priests while the right uses it to indict the bishops for general laxity in enforcing orthodox faith and life. As is now generally recognized, both factions collaborated with the press in vastly exaggerating the incidence of such abuses. Nonetheless, court cases may drag on for years, as is now happening with the diocese of Dallas. In the Texas case, plaintiff’s lawyers are going for multimillions in damages, and to get that kind of money are claiming that not only the diocese but the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its operating arm, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), are liable for not properly supervising the priests in question. An interesting twist here is that the right, represented by the Wanderer , is siding with the lawyers. The Wanderer and those of like mind have never had much use for the NCCB, viewing its bureaucracy as a nest of leftist ideologists bent upon reducing the authority of local bishops and resisting the salutary influence of Rome. In the past, conservatives have complained that the NCCB has claimed an authority that it does not rightly possess, that it has spoken and acted in ways that weaken the effectiveness of both local bishops and Rome. In response to the Texas case, however, positions seem to be reversed. The NCCB protests that it cannot be liable since it has no jurisdiction over dioceses and no pastoral responsibility for the actions of individual Catholics or priests. In this case, the NCCB presents itself very modestly indeed, as little more than an institutional arrangement for bishops to get together to talk shop. The Texas lawyers, however, pounce upon past actions and statements of the NCCB in which it appeared to present itself in a considerably more ambitious light. The Wanderer cheers the Texas lawyers on, apparently in the hope of scoring a blow against their old adversary, the NCCB and USCC. It is all somewhat unseemly, as these things tend to be. Perhaps good will come of it, though, if bishops conferences are reminded that there are also very practical perils in suggesting that they are the real leadership of the Church. Practical, as in being sued into bankruptcy when something goes wrong over which a bishops conference can have no control. On the point in dispute, the Texas lawyers are wrong, the NCCB is right, and the Wanderer should back off. Even in ecclesiastical politics, some vendettas should not be pursued.
We’ll leave it to Islamic scholars to say whether he got the Qur’an right, but Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf said it forbade him to stand for the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf, the leading scorer for the Denver Nuggets, was for a time suspended for refusing to stand as required by NBA regulations. He did not want to make a public issue of it, and said he was willing to stay in the locker room and come out after the anthem was played. But he would not stand for the anthem. “This is my belief,” he said, “and I won’t compromise my beliefs.” Rather than do that, he said he would give up basketball. One supporter of the NBA suspension declared, “Refusing to stand up and recognize the unity of this nation as embodied under the flag to me is tantamount to treason.” Which strikes us as tantamount to fanaticism, if not idolatry. America has easily survived the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others to engage in patriotic rituals, and we expect that neither America nor professional basketball would be done in by anyone’s declining to participate in patriotic solemnities. The NBA is not bound by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but it and the country are not well served by the suppression of religious freedom. Dissent that is truly conscientious, and not self-serving or willful, is, even when wrongheaded, a rare and valuable commodity in a culture as decadent as ours. The NBA is not a national church, after all. At least not for some of us. The dispute, I should add, seems to have been resolved by Mr. Abdul-Rauf’s agreement to stand in silent prayer while the anthem is played.
Here’s the 282-page volume, Antisemitism: World Report 1995 . The news is that in the U.S. anti-Semitism continues to be on the decline, as it has been for at least thirty years. As you might expect, developments in some other countries are not so encouraging. The main concern in the U.S. is the influence of Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam among black Americans. The Anti-Defamation League continues to be active on many fronts. Last year it got the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary to remove the previously allowed words “nigger,” “spic,” “dago,” and “jew” (defined as “to bargain with”). Are we really better off when the existence of offensive words is officially denied? Just asking.
“Heterosexism is the systemic privileging of heterosexuality and of heterosexual persons.” With that definition in place, Louie Crew proceeds to grade the 113 bishops in the Episcopalian House of Bishops who have since 1979 voted on one or more resolutions having do with ordaining homosexuals. Thirty-two bishops get a 100 percent “Hetero Score” and forty-eight get 0 percent, being totally free of any taint of heterosexism. Put differently, forty-eight are supportive of what Crew calls the “lesbigay” agenda and thirty-two opposed. A friend, an Episcopal rector, sends the study along with the note, “For whatever you think it’s worth.” I’m thinking.
It’s no big issue here, except for an unpleasant English fellow by the name of Christopher Hitchens who apparently thinks he is being boldly iconoclastic in slandering Mother Teresa. But in India there is much media ado about her ministry being a cover for the coercive conversion of the dying to Christianity. Donald M. Bishop, a subscriber in Dakha, India, sends us this clipping from the Indian newspaper, the Telegraph . A reporter was sent to check out the facts at Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s main house in Calcutta, and discovered that, of the 66,635 people who have been cared for there, 80 percent were Hindu, about 12 percent were Muslim, and the rest were Christian. Moreover, when people die the sisters arrange for funerals according to the rites of their own religion. As aforesaid, it’s not a big issue, but in the event someone brings it up we thought you might want to know. Of course Mother Teresa and her sisters make a powerful witness to Christ by word and deed, and we would not be at all surprised if thousands who are listed as Hindu or Muslim came in their last days and hours to know something of the One who inspires and sustains this work of love unqualified. God will register the conversions. Mother Teresa’s job is to care.
While on the subject, a priest friend says he had the privilege of visiting with the famed Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in the hospital a few days before he died. Sheen was noted for, inter alia, the number of people he had helped bring into the Catholic Church, and our friend, too, was eager to win converts. He asked Sheen for guidance on the matter, noting as an aside that he had already brought thirty-six people into the Church. The venerable bishop raised his head from the pillows, looked at our friend very firmly, and said, “The first thing is to stop counting.”