Accuracy in Media?

Among the first things that First Things is surely committed to are accuracy and fairness. Richard John Neuhaus’ references to my September keynote address at the Future of the American Church Conference in Washington, D.C. (The Public Square, January) fail on both counts.

It is evident that he did not have the full text of my speech at hand, but was probably relying on Thomas McArdle’s report in the National Catholic Register (October 6, 1991). Even at that, he confused the clear distinction found in the Register story between what I had said in the speech and remarks attributed to me at a subsequent press conference.

If he had read the text of the speech before rushing to judgment, he would have known that I was citing, unfavorably, “one Catholic editor” who had made reference to “the party of change” in the Catholic Church. It was that editor, not I, who proposed the list of that “party’s” components. If there was any “bizarre hyperbole” at work there, it was the editor’s, not mine.

Secondly, neither in the keynote address nor in the press conference did I include Pope John Paul II among “the enemies of change.” Indeed, I never used the word “enemies” with reference to anyone in the Church, including Cardinal Ratzinger.

Thirdly, I deny that I “hinted” that Cardinal Ratzinger as a teenager was a member of the Hitler Youth. The reference in the original Register story was taken out of context, and Neuhaus compounded the problem by not even quoting the Register accurately. At least the Register acknowledged that it wasn’t quoting everything I said at that point: “Was he [Cardinal Ratzinger] in the Hitler Youth? . . . Some suggest he was.” Neuhaus conveniently dropped the dots.

Had I engaged in “leftist smear tactics,” as he accuses me of doing, it’s odd that none of the journalists present challenged me on the point or took note of the reference to Cardinal Ratzinger in their own reports. Perhaps the writer for the ultraconservative Register had a polemical intent. Or don’t “rightists” ever engage in “smear tactics”?

Richard P. McBrien
University of Notre Dame


Richard John Neuhaus replies:

Father McBrien is right in thinking that my comment was based on the account in the National Catholic Register, an eminently respectable source. I still do not know what else Father McBrien said, but I take it that the remarks suggested by the omitted ellipses modified the harsh judgments reported by the Register. I hope that is the case. As to why other journalists did not challenge Father McBrien, I suppose that is a question to be put to the other journalists.


Freud on the Mind

I read Marjorie Rosenberg’s article “The Mindless Self: Freud Triumphant” (December 1991) with a mixture of great pleasure and mild irritation. To begin with, I was deeply gratified with her eloquent critique of Freud’s Lamarckianism, of his profound phallocentrism, and above all, of his stubborn refusal to confront death as a problem in human existence and as a wellspring of unconscious psychic activity. All in all, I find myself in profound agreement with Rosenberg’s rejection of Freud’s Oedipal monism, which was often a gigantic evasion of other, more profound existential issues. Here I could only add that these criticisms were also voiced decades ago by Erich Fromm, who preceded revisionists like Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker, and whose ideas I discuss in my recent book The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991).

At the same time, without wishing to minimize Freud’s influence, I think it may be excessive to blame him, or any one thinker, for all the evils of modernity. Moreover, it is profoundly misleading to suggest that Freud would have put newspapers, pulp fiction, and rock video in the same cultural category as a solid case history or good imaginative fiction, or endorsed the curricular changes that are being urged upon us on the basis of their supposed equivalence(s). As a cultural and intellectual historian, I can assure you that Freud was a cultural conservative who made no secret of his antagonism to radical causes, and would have angrily opposed those who subverted his ideas for these ends.

Taking a cue from Fromm, I am also a bit dismayed by Rosenberg’s need to represent Freud as an enemy of reason. Freud was a Feuerbachian, and follower of the Enlightenment, and his exaggerated antipathy to religious ideas and feelings and his tendency to construe them as collective projections stemmed directly from this fact. Nevertheless, as Ernst Cassirer, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Mann all noted, despite strong positivist leanings, Freud was also a metaphysician manque, and indulged his tendencies in this direction rather lavishly in his instinct theory. Rather than seeing Freud as the originator of so many modern evils, it might he more charitable, and ultimately more useful, to regard his metapsychology as the synthesis or culmination of earlier trends in psychology and metaphysics, including ideas from Spinoza, Leibniz, Herbart, Carus, Spencer, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, von Hartmann, and Theodor Lipps.

Freud’s relationship to reason was profoundly paradoxical. On the one hand, in Civilization and Its Discontents, he stressed how helpless we appear in the face of an onslaught from the instincts. But ultimately, like the great Greek philosophers and tragedians, his only remedies for our ills were reason and renunciation, or the mindfully Stoic recognition of necessity (Logos and Anake). Freud did wax terribly pessimistic at times, and warned against the dangers of intellectualization, but fundamentally, he continued to believe that our only (tenuous) road to the domestication of the instincts and the diffusion of anti-social aggression is through the use of reason, which he identified rather narrowly with scientific/instrumental rationality at most times. (And in this, needless to say, he was arguably quite mistaken.)

Notwithstanding these various reservations, I enjoyed Marjorie Rosenberg’s lucid and illuminating article on Freud and look forward to reading more like them.

Daniel Burston
Toronto, Canada

Marjorie Rosenberg replies:

Freud’s quintessentially bourgeois personal life, invoked by Mr. Burston as his “cultural conservatism,” militates not at all against the intellectual nihilism inherent in Freudian theory. Informing every aspect of psychoanalytic thought is Freud’s message that all human communications are worthy of suspicion, a suspicion centered on man’s hopeless subservience to his animal nature. All behavior and verbalizations must be decoded, and not by reason, for the revelation of instinctual motivation. Freud’s mythic stories, his universal symbols, and his imaginative metaphors for Lamarckian and Darwinian ideas provide the elements of the method. There is no theory of mind, only elaboration of defensive maneuvers carried on by the ego to disguise the workings of the unconscious.

Mr. Burston misquotes me, however, simplifying one brief and undeveloped comment, as though I had asserted that Freud himself would have behaved like some contemporary professors of English and declared the equality of all literary and cultural expression from rock video to imaginative literature. What I said was that “dominant theories of literary criticism, adopting Freud’s approach to content as no more than a code to be deciphered,” go on to insist on a presumption of such equality. Again, it is the meaning and consequences of the theory, not Freud’s own cultural preferences, that I addressed.

My analysis of the Darwinian basis of psychoanalytic theory and its resultant assimilation of human to animal behavior did not require a discussion of the many thinkers Burston names as influences on Freud. What is more important in this context is to recognize that Freud’s significance in the twentieth century was achieved through his essentially literary imagination, an imagination that absorbed the scientific and philosophical theories of his time and translated them”incorporating his own angry misanthropy”into highly dramatic psychological analogues to nineteenth-century evolutionary biology.


The Christian Academy

Thank you for David Lutz’s article on the peril facing Notre Dame (“Can Notre Dame Be Saved?” January). The question”why universities that aspire to be true to their religious heritage have to constantly choose between faithful ties and academic excellence”is key. The profitable exploration of this question goes far beyond discussions of the relevancy of secular definitions of excellence. Both the religious and the secular are evolving and there is no safe retreat in either case. Salvation is in the tension between the two and in thoughtful discussion that modifies both. (The thoughtful discussion that modifies faith is not the attempt to discover the divine by consensus that Lutz fears, but rather a calling to mind of necessary preparation for the next step of faith.)

It should come as no surprise that this disquieting and profitable discussion is best championed at institutions of higher learning that pursue both the best of Athens and the best of Jerusalem. Failure as a university comes by not taking one side or the other seriously. For example, the educational institutions of the religious right often fail by hiding from observation and thought in a pusillanimous cloak of doctrinaire balderdash. On the other hand, secular institutions often fail by their seemingly insatiable need to convert every stirring of faith into some sort of sociology that can be extracted and studied but never believed.

The glory of institutions like Notre Dame is that they can fail, but have not yet. Both secular and doctrinaire observers are correct in characterizing such institutions as lingering in peril. However, such observers err in offering their own remedies for salvation. What appears a brink to both types of observers, viewing from different directions, is in reality a crest upon which such institutions are balanced. The attempt to use strong measures to push an institution away from the fault one does see is often a destabilizing move that tumbles the institution into the fault one doesn’t see. The precipice is two-sided and sliding down either renders the institution trivial and redundant.

Thomas W. Draper
Brigham Young University
Salt Lake City, UT


Your recent articles on the state of church colleges from both a historic and contemporary perspective have interested me.

I share the same concern for our Lutheran colleges. Some are already only marginally “church-related” and others have experienced a steady erosion of a once-strong Christian character and impact.

David Lutz writes forcefully of “platitudes about values” apart from (or replacing) Christian content. It reminds me of an ad that appeared some months ago in The Lutheran, sponsored by the Division for Education of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which stated that ELCA colleges emphasize “values education without indoctrination.” One hopes this was only a bad choice of words.

If to indoctrinate is to teach or instruct in the basics of a branch of learning (as Webster says), it’s obvious that a college exists for that very purpose. We need to relearn that indoctrination is not a dirty word. It is in fact the mandate for both church and school. Why are we afraid of it? . . .

Secularization is always difficult to resist. And Lutz is probably correct in saying that when a Christian university is lost, it is irretrievably lost. That’s sad”for church and society.

Gordon A. Selbo
San Jose, CA


Law and Grace

I agree with Carl Braaten that there is no contradiction between biblical revelation and “natural law” ethics (“Protestants and Natural Law,” January), but I see an equivocation in his claim that the natural law possesses “no theological significance in the sense of providing a basis of human salvation.”

Braaten is right if he means only that salvation does not have a direct relationship to materially “right” behavior; he is right if he means only that the material rightness of behavior is not yet the moral goodness of man as person in grace.

But Braaten has an entirely different thesis in mind. He proposes to confine the natural law within the limits of a functional anthropology, where it is allowed a role to play in man’s relation to man (for “the interim between the first and final advent of Christ”) but”unfortunately”no salvific role to play in man’s relation to God. In peculiar contrast to Karl Barth’s totally negative verdict on the natural law, Braaten announces a split verdict, assuring us that “the negative verdict on the natural law in the vertical dimension need not entail a corresponding negative verdict on the horizontal line.”

In my opinion, both the totally negative verdict and the split verdict should be overturned. Both verdicts participate in the same mistake. To reject the salvific significance of the natural law in human history, with Braaten”just as to reject the natural law in the name of “the ethics of faith,” with Barth”is to fail to understand that the recta ratio of the natural law (the right judgment of moral reason) is based more deeply in Jesus Christ than in the ratio itself. Braaten simply repeats the error of Barth in milder form.

In becoming man, the Son incorporates recta ratio (natural law) in himself. In so doing, he reveals to moral reason its own full dimensions. In no way does Revelation exclude the exercise of reason in history as somehow nonsalvific; to the contrary. The truths of moral reason, taken up by Christ, are necessary for salvation per se.

Braaten is right that Christ is salvation, not the natural law, but wrong to set the natural law “within theological brackets” as a functional rather than theological necessity. He defends this reduction in the name of the sola gratia of evangelical theology. In reply, I would stress that the expression sola gratia does not imply that God operates alone. The “merit” involved in the struggle to translate right reason into moral practice is itself a grace, and in no sense competes with sola gratia.

John F Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
Richmond, CA


I want to express my thanks to Carl E. Braaten for his fine article . . . . It taught me a lot and raised my ecumenical hopes.

As I made my long, circuitous journey from Protestant fundamentalism through agnosticism and Anglicanism to the Catholic Church, one of my most cherished acquisitions was a gradual new understanding of how creation really does “declare the glory of God.” Previously, I had thought of God’s law as a thing divorced from human experience”an arbitrary law that bore only arbitrary relations to the world we live in; a law designed only to prove our obedience.

What is lost with the rejection of natural law morality is the connection between actions and consequences. Catholic natural law theory taught me that this connection exists in nature, and that to ignore it is to hurt oneself. For example: as Catholic couples have accepted the use of unnatural methods of family planning, the divorce rate among them has soared with that of the population at large. Why? Because they have rejected as an arbitrary rule the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, rather than seeing that this teaching protects a positive human good, the institution of marriage itself. They thus fail to see the relation between the moral law and a life in which this good is developed.

Furthermore, unless we reassert the connection in nature between morality and consequences, we can never effectively combat our biggest societal problems. For example, if an addict is unable to see that life without drugs is really better right now than life in a perpetual state of intoxication, he cannot recover. Recovery brings a growth in real human goods”individual, familial, societal. It is by nature inseparable from those goods. Without understanding that this connection is real, one cannot argue effectively against self-destruction through drug use.

Incidentally, First Things is the best new periodical I’ve seen in years.

Roy R. Barkley
Permanent Deacon
Diocese of Austin, TX

Articles by Austin Stone

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