The debate over women's ordination is a many-splintered thing, and it will likely continue to splinter groups such as the Anglicans for some time to come. One consideration that has not received the attention it deserves is whether concepts such as “equality” and “rights” mean the same thing in the community of faith as in the civil society. Also frequently obscured is the fact that the ordination of women is very much a minority phenomenon in world Christianity. That is perhaps not surprising in light of the fact that it is largely a phenomenon of the last twenty of Christianity's two thousand years of faith and life.
In any event, the churches to which more than four-fifths of the Christians in the world belong take the position that only men can be admitted to the ordained ministry. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, these include the Eastern Orthodox churches and the vast array of “evangelical” groups (including fundamentalist, Pentecostal, etc.). Moreover, in the Third World, the former mission churches of the oldline denominations are typically very cool to the idea of ordaining women. Of course a question of such moment cannot be decided by head count, but the broader picture helps to keep in perspective the degree to which the insistence on women's ordination is a North American and, to a lesser extent, Western European development.
There is no surprise in the fact that proponents of women's ordination, and especially those women who have been ordained, are determined that their churches not “go back” on the commitment that they have made. From a purely institutional viewpoint, it is hard to see how such churches could retract the decision to ordain women, even if they became persuaded—which seems exceedingly unlikely—that the decision was in error. Consider, for instance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The predecessor bodies that merged to form the ELCA began ordaining women at the beginning of the 1970s. On other questions about ministry there were sharp disagreements, however, so the merger went ahead with the understanding that the ELCA would try to sort out the doctrine of ministry in its first few years of existence.
A study document has since been issued and among its first stipulations is that there can be no reconsideration of the question of women's ordination. “This study will in no way reopen the question of women's place in the ordained ministry of the church. . . . This explicit affirmation is important, since both women and men have expressed the fear that this study might seek to question women's contribution to the church's ministry.” As we said, such an assurance would seem to be institutionally required and, some would argue, morally required in view of the commitment already made to women in ordained ministry.
Who Closed What?
At a recent conference of mainly Lutheran clergy, a Catholic theologian was challenged on whether Rome has in fact declared women's ordination to be a “closed question.” He responded that it was highly improbable that Rome would ordain women, not least because of the hope for reconciliation with the Orthodox churches of the East. But the discussion of women's ordination has not been formally terminated, he said, and it may therefore be argued that it is not a question that has been officially and definitely closed. Turning the challenge around, the Catholic theologian asked whether the Protestant bodies that ordain women have not in fact declared it to be a closed question. The ELCA has answered that question in the affirmative, and other groups that have ordained women would seem to have given the same answer.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the two Western communions in most intensive dialogue with Rome with a believable view toward “ecclesial reconciliation” and “full communion” were the Lutherans and Anglicans. The worldwide Anglican communion is not yet of one mind on ordaining women, but it seems to be moving inexorably toward approval of the practice. As Anglicans on both sides of the question insist, it will be nearly impossible to maintain communion if some bishops do and other bishops do not recognize the orders of women. Of larger significance, as Avery Dulles pointed out in “Ecumenism Without Illusions” (FT, June/July 1990), it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the plausibility of the hope for ecclesial reconciliation between Rome and the Lutheran and Anglican communions. Even if Rome were willing, Anglicans and Lutherans would feel that they cannot accept a “mutual recognition of ministries” that excluded the women they have ordained.
The significance of these developments for world Christianity should not be underestimated. Since the beginning of the essentially Protestant ecumenical movement, usually dated from the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, the goal has been full communion among all Christians. The result has chiefly been the formation of cooperative agencies such as the world and national councils of churches, and the merger of Protestant groups into organizations such as the United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ, plus the amalgamation of separated groups within denominational traditions such as the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran. In terms of ecclesial configurations, ecumenism has produced not so much the overcoming of differences as the cobbling together of groups that decided that their differences did not make that much difference.
For many Christians, and especially for many Anglicans and Lutherans, the ecumenical enterprise had a much more ambitious goal than that. They hoped for the ecclesial healing of the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation. Almost nobody today thinks that that is in prospect. Put differently, it becomes an increasingly eschatological prospect. There is irony in the fact that women's ordination—a question that had no part in the disputes of the sixteenth century—may have sealed the permanence of the breach between Rome and the churches that claim the Reformation heritage. On the other hand, it might be argued that women's ordination just happened to be the issue that reflected a much deeper difference implicit in Protestantism's declared freedom from a Christian tradition that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy deem to be normative. The conclusion that becomes more and more inescapable is that, at the end of the century, the ecumenical enterprise launched in 1910 has turned out to be a noble illusion.
This comes as no surprise to those evangelical Protestants who have always viewed the ecumenical movement as a dangerous illusion. In their view, that movement and its agencies such as the World Council of Churches (WCC) were from the start exercises in doctrinal compromise and politico-ideological deviance. There is no doubt that the now-fading WCC bears a heavy responsibility for discrediting ecumenism by subordinating the quest for Christian unity to its political and ideological predilections. In the last thirty years the WCC has been more a source of division than of reconciliation in world Christianity. But even if the WCC had kept its politics in check and maintained the priority of the quest for Christian unity, it might not have made much difference to most evangelical Protestants. The reason is that the fiercely independent and congregationally based evangelicals do not generally have a doctrine of “Church” that either requires or accommodates the goal of visible unity understood as ecclesial reconciliation and full communion.
As a consequence of the division over women's ordination—an issue that would seem not to loom large within the context of two millennia of Christian history—we may be forced to a new understanding of the situation of world Christianity. Entering the third millennium, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy maintain a concept of historical continuity and a doctrine of the Church that makes imperative the quest for full communion among all Christians. Mainly because of the fragmented condition of Orthodoxy itself, the healing of the millennium-old breach between Rome and the East will not likely happen any time soon. But both are committed, at least in theory, to that healing as a matter of God's will and therefore of urgent ecclesial duty. In addition, Rome is the more clearly committed to the healing of the later breach with Protestantism, repeatedly declaring that the goal is full communion with all who are, by baptism and faith, now in “true but imperfect” communion with the Catholic Church. Of the approximately 1.7 billion Christians in the world, one billion are Roman Catholic and as many as 200 million are Orthodox.
Outside of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the largest and most rapidly growing sector of Christianity is that which is broadly designated evangelical Protestant. The concept of the Church held by these Christians, as already noted, makes ecumenism a matter of secondary importance, if indeed it is not viewed as entirely alien to Christian life and mission. In Latin America and elsewhere the explosion of conservative Protestantism has created a situation approximating religious warfare between Catholics and evangelicals. Perhaps not surprisingly, Catholics are sometimes reacting to this conflict in a manner that throws into question their church's formal commitment to ecumenism. Full communion between Catholics and evangelical Protestants is today hardly within the range of discussability. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for as we enter the next century is that Catholics and evangelicals will be able to agree on mutually respectful “rules of engagement” in their continuing rivalry.
Meanwhile, the oldline Protestants seem to be increasingly marginalized in the world-historical picture. There are signs of vitality in the mission churches that they once planted in the Third World, such as the stunning growth of Presbyterianism in South Korea. But the general condition of those churches that sustained the ecumenical movement that is now in ruins is, in North America and Western Europe, one of apparently unremitting decline. As has become evident in the division over women's ordination, although it undoubtedly has deeper causes, the communions that plausibly strove for full communion with Rome and Orthodoxy, notably the Anglicans and the Lutherans, have now apparently accepted their status as permanently separated Protestant denominations. If in fact they are reconciled to that, the goal of ecclesial reconciliation as conceived by the ecumenical movement has been made obsolete.
Toward the Next Century
Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, oldline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism—these are the four divided components of world Christianity at the edge of the third millennium. (And the last is something of a catch-all, being so disparate that it is perhaps misleading to describe it as one component.) In the present world circumstance it is very difficult to speak believably about the quest for visible Christian unity. Yet the end of one ecumenical movement need not mean the end of ecumenism. Almost all reflective Christians acknowledge that all who are “in Christ” are, however imperfectly, somehow in his body, the Church, for the head cannot be separated from the body. Although lacking any clear idea of how it might happen, almost all can agree that that imperfect unity should be more evident so that the world might see and believe (John 17).
Alexander Schmemann, the late distinguished theologian of the Orthodox Church in America, remarked that Americans will never understand ecumenism because they cannot understand anything that does not have a schedule attached to it. There is, we believe, wisdom in that observation. The better understanding is that ecumenism is integral to Christian existence, and the dissolution of the ecumenical movement launched in 1910 does not change that fact. Depending largely upon Orthodoxy's role in it, even the World Council of Churches could be revived as an instrument of broader Christian cooperation, if not ecclesial reconciliation. We have now neither schedule nor scenario for the future of Christian unity, and perhaps it was presumptuous to think that we ever did. We might also keep in mind that those observers may turn out to be wrong who say that the decision of oldline Protestantism to declare women's ordination a closed question is the end of progress toward full communion. The history of the Christian movement is fraught with surprises.
In the absence of schedules and scenarios, the imperative of Christian unity remains. The maxim of the Faith and Order division of the WCC was “The Unity of the Church, the Unity of Humankind.” It is a worthy maxim still. The exclusion of religion from public life is attributable in large part to the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Confessional conflicts ripped apart the fabric of civil society. Thoughtful people, including many thoughtful Christians, concluded that Christianity is an inherently divisive force that must be kept at arm's length from the public square. Among the worthy goals of the ecumenical movement was to demonstrate that Christianity could be a source not of division but of unity also in the civil and political order. Whether that claim will be credible in the twenty-first century is up to all Christians, but is a most particular responsibility of Roman Catholics and evangelicals.
They are the largest and most assertive sectors of world Christianity. In addition they are, now and in the foreseeable future, the sectors in most widespread conflict. (Conflict between Catholics and Orthodox in Eastern Europe is, we may hope, of a more limited scope.) Finally, the future of the continuing ecumenical imperative rests chiefly upon the Roman Catholic Church. That is because it, unlike evangelical Protestantism, is the bearer of an ecclesiology that makes Christian unity imperative. It was easier for the Catholic Church to work with the Protestant oldline. They at least recognized one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Many evangelicals, and especially fundamentalists and pentecostalists, are by no means persuaded that Catholics are really Christians. It is tempting for Catholics to return the compliment, but both Catholic orthodoxy and the future of Christian unity forbid it.
In sum, the ecumenical movement that used to be was in many ways an easier thing. It was in large part, among oldline Protestants, a matter of bringing together people who agreed that their differences made little difference. At least with some oldline traditions, it was also able to sustain the hope of healing the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation, until that prospect was closed by, inter alia, the closing of the question of women's ordination. Full ecclesial reconciliation between Orthodoxy and Rome—theologically ever so near and institutionally ever so far—could happen at almost any time, or not for centuries. As the Christian movement is led into its third millennium, ecumenism, far from being passea, may be assuming the form of its most formidable challenge. The challenge is for all Christians, but for nobody so much as for Catholics and evangelicals. In that relationship, there is no doubt a lowering of ecumenical expectations. Full communion is nowhere visible on the horizon. But the development of attitudes and habits of mutual Christian obligation is perhaps ecumenical challenge enough, at least for a time.
Poetry And Prose
The University of California Press does a service by reissuing Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner ($13 paper). When it was first published forty years ago, Mann worried that it was not up to the standard set by his earlier Doctor Faustus, and he was undoubtedly right about that. It is nonetheless a fine story finely told (and not to be so psychoanalytically over-interpreted as it is in Russell A. Berman's introduction). But we mention it here for the sake of a comment on poetry that Mann puts in the mouth of his monk narrator: “One thing is certain, that I write prose and not little verses, for which on the whole I cherish no exaggerated regard. Rather in this respect I am in the tradition of the Emperor Carolus, who was not only a great lawgiver and judge of the nations but also the protector of grammar and an assiduous patron of correct and limpid prose. I hear said, indeed, that only meter and rhyme can result in a strict form, but I would like well to know why this hopping on three or four iambic feet, resulting to boot in all sorts of stumbling in dactyls and anapaests, with a little light-hearted assonance of the end words, is supposed to indicate the strict form, as against a shapely prose with its much finer and less obvious rhythmical laws.”
If, as Oscar Wilde claimed, Meredith and Browning “used poetry as a medium for writing in prose,” it may be said that Mann at his best did the reverse. His narrator's express disdain for formal poetry is widely shared today. Most of the many assertions about poets and poetry ruling the world were made, not surprisingly, by poets. In our time, there is hardly an artistic endeavor more marginal or unrewarded by attention than poetry. Books of poetry are remaindered with unseemly rapidity, if they ever get published in the first place. The number of magazines and journals that publish poetry, even as a literary ruff and frill, even as filler for otherwise awkward white space, continues to decline. While agreeing with Mann on the merits of well-crafted prose, we continue to publish poetry.
Poetry does many things, and not least is aiding our appreciation of fine prose. Poetry is an invitation, almost a demand, to slow down and notice the skillful deployment of words. We are inclined to read a book or an article in order to get the argument, or simply to get through it. We cannot imagine that anybody reads a poem in order to get through it. Well, we can imagine it, but speed-reading poetry seems quite perverse. A poem is a place to stop and linger, and wonder about the arrangement and possible rearrangements of the house of language in which we live. The poem may also give us a salutary twitch of guilt about our habit of rushing past the poetry of fine prose. In addition, there are all those thousands of people out there writing it, and some of it is very good, and, if a few of us don't continue to publish it, who will? That having been said, publishing poetry is less our act of charity than gratitude for a gift received. Poets may never rule the world, which is perhaps just as well, but they provide welcome relief from and perspective on its general misrule.
Methodism on the Middle Way
Every four years the people called Methodist gather in General Conference to discern where now God may be leading the movement launched by John and Charles Wesley in 1729. This year they gathered in Louisville. Not all of Methodism, of course, but the largest part of the movement in this country, the United Methodist Church. With just under nine million members, it is, after the Southern Baptists, the second-largest Protestant association in the United States. Retrospectives from Louisville suggest that the Methodists are sharply divided but not hopelessly split. For the most part, the lines of division track the conservative/liberal divide within the general culture. On the votes deemed to be the most telling, the one thousand elected delegates decided disputes by minuscule majorities, sometimes going one way, sometimes another. On key votes regarding homosexuality and the national bureaucracy, some conservatives claimed victory, while liberals more or less graciously interpreted the same votes as representing little more than a delay of the inevitable. The dynamics of change, they confidently believe, are on their side.
A committee appointed in 1988 recommended that the church change its position that homosexual activity is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The committee majority asked the conference to acknowledge Methodism's “lack of a common mind” on the question, thereby withdrawing any moral censure of homosexual behavior. The conference vote reaffirmed the earlier position but, at the same time, urged local churches to study the committee's report that strongly advocates a change in traditional teaching. Those favoring that change hope that such extensive “education” on the issue will turn the vote in their favor at the General Conference of 1996.
Conservatives took particular satisfaction in a vote favoring a move of the church's largest agency, the General Board of Global Ministries, from New York City. They have long contended that the board, together with other offices of the national church, is out of touch with “grassroots” Methodism in the rest of the country. At the same time, the conference mandated further study of the costs of such a relocation, thus effectively delaying a final decision on the move until 1996. The hegemony of ambivalence was evident in other issues. On the national church budget, for example, officials asked for a 4 percent annual increase from local churches. After much wrangling, the general conference approved a 2.4 percent annual increase.
At Louisville there were signs of greater concern for the protection of the unborn, but an earlier resolution backing the Roe v. Wade decision and existing patterns of cooperation with pro-abortion organizations were allowed to stand. A new “Book of Worship” maintains the Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for rites such as baptism and ordination, but also includes “gender inclusive” language aimed at accenting the “feminist dimensions” of God. And so there are prayers addressed to “our Mother and Father,” and referring to God as “bakerwoman” leavening our hopes and giving “birth to our world.”
Diversity Within Limits
Tex Sample, professor of ethics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, explained the Methodist situation: “This is a centrist church. The delegates want diversity, as much inclusion of people as they can possibly get, as long as they don't have to buy into a position they think is divisive.” That rather neatly summarizes the circumstance in which other mainline/oldline churches find themselves. And of course the description applies beyond the boundaries of oldline Protestantism. The goal is to be as inclusive and diverse as possible, but that is not the highest goal. Institutional stability, which requires the avoidance of “divisiveness,” is trump. Methodism, like other oldline groups, has been in an institutional free fall for many years now. Those on all sides of disputed questions are concerned, if not alarmed, by that reality, and are therefore reluctant to push their causes to the point where they might further debilitate the institution that they wish to win over to their side.
Sample's formula of “diversity just short of divisiveness” works in favor of the liberal faction that dominates also the national bureaucracies. Whether the issue is homosexuality, feminism, or multiculturalism, the assumption is that the “progressive” causes are on the offensive. The church may not be “ready” to embrace them now, but through a sustained process of “education” popular resistance can be overcome. The initiative is with change toward the new. Most important, the rubric of inclusiveness means that all viewpoints must be represented, and those minority viewpoints that have been least heard in the past must be more than equally represented.
The loser in this process, of course, is the question of truth. When inclusiveness reigns, those who appeal to the Bible or to the classical Christian tradition or to the Wesleyan heritage are representing simply one viewpoint among others. To the traditionalists this is intolerable, since it means that truth and falsehood are equally represented in the church's decision making. But their unhappiness with this situation, indeed their insistence that there is a distinction between truth and falsehood, registers in the process as no more than one more opinion to be included in an outcome that aims at accommodating maximum diversity short of institutional divisiveness. The entire process becomes one of accommodating opinions and passions rather than of weighing arguments. Thus does the procedural triumph over the deliberative in an approach that is always pressing the envelope to be more inclusive. Thus does the “middle” get moved inexorably toward that which had previously been inadmissible.
There are some understandable, and in many ways attractive, human dimensions that accelerate this process. For instance, William D. Lux, an Iowa farmer who sat on the homosexuality committee, described his feelings when a colleague on the panel told him she was a lesbian “in a committed couple relationship.” Mr. Lux told the delegates that he continued to believe that the Bible prohibited homosexual activity, “But, at the same time, within this committee we have built a level of trust and understanding where we can speak to each other under the umbrella of Jesus Christ.” The image of Jesus Christ as an umbrella is reminiscent of the late Lee Atwater's description of the Republican Party as a “big tent” that can accommodate pro-choice and pro-life viewpoints. It is an image that well serves the mandate to be inclusive. Whatever the Bible and the Wesleyan tradition may say about sexual ethics, Mr. Lux and many like him are understanding, compassionate, and just plain nice people who are not about to pass severe judgment on the practices or views of others whom they have come to like. The Christian imperative, after all, is to be “accepting.” Isn't that what the New Testament means by love? (It isn't, of course, but the equation of love and niceness is far advanced in our culture and in our churches.)
Some of the dynamics at work here were well understood by Alexander Pope more than two centuries ago. “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,/As to be hated needs but to be seen;/Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,/We first endure, then pity, then embrace.” Three steps: to endure, to pity, to embrace. To endure is not to judge and certainly not to exclude. To pity is to be understanding and compassionate. To embrace is to officially approve, perhaps at the 1996 General Conference after the constituency has been sufficiently “educated.”
“Diversity just short of divisiveness” is a formula tailor-made to ensure apostasy. At its heart is the ascendancy of sociological and institutional principles of representation over theological principles of deliberation. At its heart is the relativizing and eviscerating of the question of the truth. Again, the problem is in no way limited to Methodism. There is hardly a religious community in America that has not succumbed to the imperative of inclusiveness, sometimes employing elaborate quota systems to ensure that the enemies of the tradition have at least equal representation with its defenders. But all such communities were originally constituted by a claim to truth, and cannot long survive the abandonment of that claim.
The defenders of the constituting truth claims are regularly, and successfully, portrayed as reactionaries resisting the inevitable course of progress. In the struggle between liberals and conservatives, each accuses the other of cultural accommodationism. Conservatives, it is said, are uncritically captive to the church culture of the past, while they accuse liberals of joining the Gadarene rush to accommodate the church to the secular culture of the present. But this again is a sociological rather than a theological dispute. It is doubtful that most of our churches are still capable of theological argument. Such an argument assumes that there is indeed a word from God, that there is normative truth by which the life of the Christian community is to be ordered, if it is to be a Christian community. That very assumption is deemed to represent a conservative bias. Under the rubric of inclusiveness, it will be admitted to the debate, but it will be counted as one viewpoint among others. When the appeal to normative truth is registered as a viewpoint to be taken into account, the appeal to normative truth is denied.
Conservatives and moderates came away from Louisville feeling that they had gained some ground. If, however, “diversity just short of divisiveness” is the controlling dynamic, they have only slowed the loss of ground. Their resistance demonstrated to their opponents who do not want to destroy the institution that the institution of United Methodism is more fragile than the party of progress had hoped. The progressives will have to go more slowly in educating the constituency to embrace their agenda of change. In Methodism and in all the churches, those who are loyal to constituting traditions will have to do much better than what apparently happened in Louisville. They will have to demonstrate how traditions that brought communities into being can faithfully develop in response to new challenges. They will have to make a persuasive case that truth is not the enemy but the indispensable support of other great goods, such as compassion and understanding. Absent the capacity to deliberate about theological truth, religious communities are defenseless before the ravages of sociological transformation disguised as progress. It is not easy to make the case for truth in a culture whose intellectual elites (very active also in the several churches) have come to believe that Pilate's question to Jesus—What is truth?—represents philosophical sophistication.
The pro-life movement is not all that new, writes Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas in Policy Review. Abortion was widespread in the nineteenth century, and many groups opposed it chiefly by providing caring alternatives. The YWCA, Women's Christian Temperance Union, and a host of denominational groups, joined by the medical establishment, not only made clear that abortion is a great vice but they developed myriad programs aimed at helping women in various circumstances, including girls unaccustomed to “city ways” and prostitutes. By the 1870s, all states had laws making almost all abortions illegal and, although they were fitfully implemented, they placed an effective moral onus on the practice. Looking at the larger picture, Olasky observes that “the 1950s was probably the safest time to be conceived in American history.”
Although many pro-lifers today are inclined to compare their cause with the abolitionist movement of the last century, Olasky urges that the incremental approach of that earlier pro-life effort is a more promising example to follow. “Men such as John Brown,” he notes, “helped to precipitate a tragic civil war in which 600,000 died, and former slaves found their new freedom abridged by sharecropping, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan.” Drawing on a more recent analogy, he suggests that the policy of “containment” has been vindicated in dealing with Communism, and a comparable policy is in order in reducing drastically the number of abortions.
“Proponents of containment did not have it easy. Some Americans criticized the approach because it did not kill Communism immediately. Some demanded military action and argued that it was immoral to leave hundreds of millions of souls in totalitarian hell while life went on in America. Containment doctrine was embraced by Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and maintained by the United States, despite some wavering in the 1970s, for forty years. Now that the West has won, all of us can see how immoral it would have been to resort to war for a slim chance to achieve ends, at enormous cost, that were attainable through peaceful perseverance.
“The pro-life movement today needs Eisenhowers, not John Browns. It needs leaders who understand that, in America, there has always been some abortion among women seduced and abandoned by men, money, or the religion of self. That is sad, but the tragedy becomes gargantuan only when those three groups expand to become part of an evil empire, and when those on the outskirts of the group come to consider abortion normal. The pro-life goal should be to help Americans see abortion not as a right but as a non-normative practice engaged in by sidestream groups and not given societal approval. As abortion is contained in that way, legal changes and compassionate alternatives will reduce the likelihood of abortion being used as a desperate recourse.
“The hope with containment, of course, is that it is the first step to rollback. Who would have dreamed that the Soviet empire, after decades of constant pressure, would finally fall so fast? But it did. And that is why a doctrine of perseverance is not depressing for those who have a biblically realistic view of human nature and a trust in God's timing and justice. The abortion empire can begin to fall only if it faces steady pressure over decades through all the means that worked a century ago and are beginning to work anew: education about abstinence, refuges for the abandoned, and provision for adoption and many other services.”
Olasky's article is part of a forthcoming book, Abortion Rites: A History of Abortion in America, to which we will be giving attention in these pages. There is undoubted wisdom in the argument that he and others make for an incremental approach of containment (see “Abortion: The Case for Political Compromise” by Christopher Wolfe, FT, June/July.) Certainly there will always be abortions, just as many human beings will persist in other vicious behavior. The incidence of abortion can be dramatically reduced, not least of all by the pedagogical effect of restoring laws that are clearly biased in favor of life. At the same time, not all pro-lifers will be persuaded by the argument for incremental change and containment, and that may be just as well. Causes that engage questions of great moral moment are seldom univocal. However ambiguously, the abolitionists did contribute to abolition, and proponents of “rolling back” Communism stiffened the spines of those who pursued containment. Quite apart from the strategic merits or demerits of having “extremists” in the pro-life movement, they are not going to go away. Americans who believe that four thousand pre-born children are being murdered each day in this country are understandably impatient with nuanced strategies for ending that horror. A truly nuanced strategy will take that impatience constructively into account.
In the aftermath of Communism, the former captive nations may be sliding into a new captivity to vindictiveness and revenge. Especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia there is intense agitation to “purify” politics and public life of those who collaborated with the former regimes. Many observers and participants are reminded of the efforts to “de-Nazify” Germany after World War II. There are important dissimilarities, however. The Communist dictatorships in Central Europe lasted almost four times as long as Nazism. Living under Communism was a way of life for several generations, and it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish active collaborators from those who just “went along” under the pressures to conform. In addition, the end of Nazism came about almost entirely by a victory from without, whereas the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and developments generated by Solidarity and the church in Poland were largely internal to these societies. After the War, the Nuremberg trials and other de-Nazification procedures were conducted under the secure hegemony of the conquering allies. There is no comparable supervisory authority in the post-Communist societies.
The debate over political purification and the screening out of collaborators raises important questions about history, complicity, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the limits of human justice. One observer writes: “In Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, it is the former dissidents and those who spent the most time in prison who generally oppose the ‘screening' law. On the other hand, it is fast being revealed that some of the most rabid new-style anti-Communists have a history of, if not collaboration, then cozy relations with the discredited regimes.” The poet and former president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, who more than paid his dues as a dissident, opposes the passion for purgation. In perhaps his best book, Living in Truth, Havel underscores the critical importance of calling good and evil by name. It is one thing to recognize the good and evil that confront us in the present, but quite another to try to calibrate gradations of participation in good and evil by millions of people over a span of more than forty years. It is one thing to exclude from political life those who were clearly in charge of the hated regime, but quite another to punish those who were less than heroic in making their peace with an oppression that they viewed as unassailable.
Milos Zeman is one of those who participated in the peaceful demonstrations of October 1989 that produced the Velvet Revolution. Although we may remember images of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, Zeman reminds us that at the beginning only a few hundred people joined the protest. And those few hundred did not include most of those who are now so eager to conduct a purge. He recently spoke to the national assembly in a debate over the screening law: “I ask, who in this assembly was there and whether a complex of guilt, a complex of collaboration, is not driving some of those who are frantically applauding.” As in the Great Terror of the French Revolution, those who most vociferously cry for retribution may be hoping to deflect attention from their own complicity in the crimes that they very belatedly came to condemn.
Obviously, these societies will have to sort out for themselves the problematic legacy of their recent past. Just as obviously, they cannot adopt a morally indifferent attitude of “forgive and forget” without corrupting even more deeply their common life. “Living in truth” means that truth must be told about the great lessons to be drawn from the horror through which they came. It does not mean a retributive justice that relentlessly seeks to allocate blame with individual precision. The attempt to do that could unleash suspicions, recriminations, and police controls not unlike the former horror. It is not surprising that the real dissidents, the heroes of the great drama of these last years, dissent from the passion for purgation indulged by those who were less than heroes, who were frequently cowards, and sometimes criminals.
That the guilty should be punished is a sound general proposition. That the most manifestly guilty should be punished is necessary public policy. That an entire population be put on trial for their complicity in crimes past is beyond the capacity of human justice and a sure formula for new, and possibly greater, crimes in the future. “Living in truth” is living in the acknowledgment of ambiguity and the possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness, in this context, is less solution than solvent. It is not a satisfactory solution but, in the absence of solutions, it is the necessary solvent of a problem of retribution that cannot be resolved within the limits of sinful human nature.
A Synthesis Too Smooth
In a careful reflection titled “Should the Church Help Shape Public Policy?”, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, emphatically and rightly answers the title question in the affirmative. One part of his argument, however, gives reason for pause. He discusses the need to translate religious language into language appropriate to the public square and remarks that the “common ground” on which church and civil society carry out their proper activity “is the idea of the dignity of the human person.” “The church accounts for the dignity of the human person on religious grounds,” the Archbishop writes, “grounds concerned with creation and redemption and an eternal destiny. Society takes the dignity of the human person as a given, as something beyond further determination by human means. But the reality is the same.”
What the civil society means by “freedom” is what Christians mean by “human dignity,” and vice versa. He makes the point even more strongly: “A good rule of thumb for translating religious discourse into civil terminology is to read ‘freedom' wherever the religious context speaks of ‘human dignity.' Likewise, if you want to read civil discourse from a religious perspective, read ‘human dignity' for ‘freedom' throughout.” If one reads our civil discourse from, for example, the Declaration of Independence, the smooth synthesis suggested by the Archbishop has a measure of plausibility. But surely that is not what is meant by “freedom” in either elite or popular culture today. The Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person—derived from God, directed to God, and embedded in communities of virtue—is quite the opposite of freedom understood as license, as freedom from all that constrains the actualization of the self-constructed self. The latter understanding of freedom, the freedom of the unencumbered self, is now entrenched also in the doctrine expounded by the Supreme Court.
Archbishop Pilarczyk's essay helps us understand the ways in which Christians necessarily live within two traditions of discourse. In other contexts he has spoken persuasively about the countercultural character of Christian faith and life. The present essay would be strengthened by that theme, recognizing the ways in which the two discourses do not always neatly converge in American society, but are and must be also in tension, and frequently in conflict. The two discourses are not simply saying the same thing in different ways. The vitality of the Christian community, and of the civil society, requires a clear acknowledgment of clear differences. It is only when the differences that really make a difference are candidly engaged that the democratic process is tested. Indeed, it is for the sake of that open-ended testing that our constitutional order was invented.
Making Babies and Making Babies Wanted
The New York Times Magazine carries a devastating article on abuses and tragedies surrounding IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) and related technologies aimed at “making babies.” Ellen Hopkins writes in “Tales From the Baby Factory” that numerous couples have been seduced into trying one technique after another—at enormous financial and emotional expense—with only a very, very few ever ending up with a baby of their own. She concludes: “Ours is a society driven by the technological imperative. If the technology exists, we use it. The rare cancer patient who refuses treatment bewilders us—however debilitating that treatment may be, however low its success rate. ‘If there's just the tiniest chance' is today's refrain when confronted by therapy for a body that won't cooperate. Obviously, reproductive technology has blessed many couples with unfathomable joy. Obviously, even the harshest critics of IVF don't want to run back the clock to the bad old days when the only option offered the childless was stoic acceptance. What isn't so obvious—and what needs to be addressed—is the fact that in the realm of fertility options, more doesn't always mean better. Babies have price tags. The currency differs according to the circumstances. Sometimes the cost is measured in monetary terms, sometimes physical or emotional, sometimes spiritual. But every bundle of joy has its price. And while it's unfashionable to state this in the midst of today's fervid baby worship, that price may be more than some of us can afford.”
At the time the Hopkins article appeared, other reports on abuses of IVF were receiving widespread attention, including that of a Virginia “fertility doctor” who employed the distinctly low-tech approach of impregnating 60 or 70 women with his own semen. The sadness of the preoccupation with artificial reproduction techniques is magnified because it has succeeded in drawing attention away from the many children who desperately need adoption. For reliable information on adoption, which in fact has brought joy to countless parents, write the National Committee on Adoption, 1930 Seventeenth Street NW, Washington D.C. 20009.
The Higher Racism
When it comes to race, black is white and white is black, if that is what it takes to keep the p.c. focus on white guilt for the oppression of blacks. Thus Newsweek, the pop opinion magazine, offers a sympathetic survey of black rap “artists.” While on the surface it may seem that the rappers indulge in morally debased celebrations of violence, cop killing, and gangbanging (multiple rape), the more sophisticated will recognize that they are actually appealing to “conservative values.” A new disc from a group called Arrested Development, Newsweek notes approvingly, “replaces rage with measured calls to arms.” The suggestion is that the advocacy of measured murder is a definite improvement. Another outfit, Kriss Kross, has a new number lauding gunplay and the excitements of shooting people you don't like. They are described as a “Kid duo with an edge.” A young man called Scarface of the Geto [sic] Boys raps, “Dad said, always look a man in the eye before you kill him.” This, Newsweek acknowledges, is “the new hard line.”
Not to worry, however. “Beneath the sometimes harsh imagery, rap embraces very old-fashioned social norms (even, in its take on gender roles and homosexuality, primitive norms).” Ten guys brutally sodomizing a young girl before shooting her dead, or young toughs hunting “faggots” in order to force them to do grotesquely rude things is, Newsweek admits, “primitive.” But then, the reader is implicitly reminded with a wink and a nudge, “You know how those colored folk are.” Anyway, hating women and homosexuals are “old-fashioned social norms” that most Americans presumably subscribe to, albeit with somewhat more reserve. Further, we must respect the violent rappers for their economic enterprise. They are making very big bucks. Newsweek approvingly quotes an authority on the subject who asks, “Isn't that the self-sufficiency that Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas and Bush prescribe?”
The celebrated head of Afro-American studies at Princeton, Cornel West, concedes that a lot of rap “sounds bad.” But then we have to understand that these kids have had a rough time in life. “Look at the job the mamas and the daddies have done,” observes West. Newsweek concludes that rap has rendered a great social service by warning us about the “rage” that is building up and sometimes explodes, as in Los Angeles last April. While celebrating gangbangers, dead police, and civil war, “the music also held to other values: nurturing, education, self-sufficiency.” “These are some of the forces that must come together to rebuild the country. However modestly, rap has hinted at a way to that regeneration, too.” Why sure, why didn't we think of that? The next time you feel a negative thought coming on about thugs who rape, mug, and butcher the innocent, just remind yourself that they are only hinting at a way to the regeneration of America. Now if there were only some slight hint of regeneration among the editors of Newsweek who cannot bring themselves to treat blacks as full participants in a society that has run out of patience with the racist claim that blacks are childish primitives for whom allowances must be made.
The Sider Crusade
Back in 1973 there was a Chicago Declaration calling evangelical Protestants to greater social and political engagement. Ron Sider, now of Eastern Seminary, was key to that, as he had also been the point man a year earlier for Evangelicals for McGovern. Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger has sold over 200,000 copies in three editions. The editors of Christianity Today recently made Sider and his “Unsettling Crusade” the subject of a cover story. It is generally admiring, while admitting that Sider's analysis of the causes of world hunger “is not particularly convincing.” More generally, they observe that “Sider clearly, if simplistically, presents the liberal side of this debate.” Nonetheless, “Through twenty years of perpetual motion, he has helped to keep world poverty on evangelicals' consciences.” Sider himself acknowledges that he has become more “conservative” in some respects. He now recognizes, for instance, that failures in personal ethics can do as much damage to people as failures in political ethics.
The article emphasizes that Ron Sider has a way of irritating everyone across the political spectrum, being much too cautious for left-wing publications such as Sojourners and too radical for almost all the activists of the Christian right. For our part, we have always found Sider a likable fellow, irritating only in his ebullient certitude that, if we all loved Jesus enough and had the political will for it, we could fix most anything wrong with the world. It is not so much that he lacks a sense of the tragic. He lacks a sense of the difficult. CT may be right in saying that his agitations have helped keep world poverty, and much else, on the Christian conscience. But his simplistic nostrums for redistributing the wealth have also seduced gullible Christians, while leading the more thoughtful to the unhappy conclusion that Christian concern for poverty is inherently muddleheaded. And on the great test of political morality in our time—clearly discerning the difference between the free society and Communist totalitarianism—Ron Sider struck out again and again.
That being said, however, Sider continues to be part of the yeast and salt in American Christianity, and especially in evangelical Protestantism. His enthusiasm can take the form of insufferably obtuse self-righteousness, but also of unflagging eagerness to engage and convert those with whom he disagrees. In the engagement he, too, is changed, at least a little. Unlike those who are called neoconservatives, he seems to be impervious to muggings by reality. Through all its contortions and transmogrifications, Sider stubbornly holds on to what he believes to be the liberal faith. He describes himself as a country hick who got to go to Yale where his best friends were “Wheaton sophisticates.” Anyone who came of intellectual age viewing Wheaton College as the lodestar of sophistication is likely to carry through life a somewhat peculiar view of how the world works. Notwithstanding, anyone who reads this comment as anything other than an affectionate tribute to the ever-exasperating Ronald Sider has misread it.
While We're At It
• Doubleday renders a fine service by reissuing three classic works by John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, and Essay on Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, all collected in a volume titled Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine (464 pages, $15). Doubleday is responsible for a great disservice in giving the collection the subtitle “Revolutionary Texts by Cardinal Newman,” along with dustjacket hype about Newman being a great champion of “change” and “conscience” in the sense that those terms are understood by the religious libertines of our day, and of his. Fortunately, the introduction by editor James Gaffney, as well as the Newman texts themselves, give the lie to the publisher's misleading promotion. Conscience, for Newman, was not a matter of self-will or self-expression but of obedience to God as best one can discern the will of God. Here is a passage with a fine contemporary ring, as pertinent to 1992 as to 1874, in which Newman, drawing upon both Protestant and Catholic authorities, contrasts two dramatically different understandings of what is meant by conscience: “When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humor, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand what they think is an Englishman's prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one's leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.”
• This is something we had meant to comment on some time back. Maurice M. Benitez of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas addressed the Church Club of New York, and in the course of his remarks he rehearsed the gloomy statistics relative to the decline of the Episcopal Church. The church, he suggests, has lost its way, theologically, morally, spiritually. He illustrates the point with this story: “Ten years ago I was on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, and we passed a resolution, over the objections of a few of us, condemning Exxon for diversification. Instead of lowering gasoline prices, they had invested some of their profits in buying a company that was developing a new electric motor. The Executive Council said that was wrong and so passed a resolution, refusing to wait for the next meeting when a spokesman for Exxon could be present. We discovered two days later that it wasn't Exxon at all, it was Mobil.” The conclusion to be drawn? Maybe this, said Bishop Benitez: “Our task in the world is to build congregations that embody the principles of our faith. Rather than a never-ending stream of resolutions about justice, let's demonstrate justice in our care for one another, in the way that we live. Rather than sending pronouncements to Congress to do right, we are called to build up a people of righteousness in our congregations. The Church serves the world best and has the most profound effect on society by being the Church.”
• The more things change, and so forth. Here is a 1791 letter from Burke to the Chevalier de Rivarol. Change “humanity” and “benevolence” to “compassion” and “sensitivity,” and see how it fits the world of the morally correct 201 years later: “I have observed that the philosophers in order to insinuate their polluted atheism into young minds systematically flatter all their passions natural and unnatural. They explode or render odious or contemptible that class of virtues which restrain the appetite. These are at least nine out of ten of the virtues. In place of all this, they substitute a virtue which they call humanity or benevolence. But this means their morality has no idea in it of restraint, or indeed of a distinct settled principle of any kind. When their disciples are thus left free and guided only by present feeling they are no longer to be depended on for good or evil. The men who today snatch the worst criminal from justice will murder the most innocent persons tomorrow.”
• The Millennium Society is composed of 6,000 young and rich business types who say they are going to throw the biggest party in history on December 31, 1999. Some 2,000 members plan to travel to Egypt aboard the Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate the year 2000 at the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Other parties will be thrown at Stonehenge, Red Square, and the Taj Mahal. Apparently the group is not big on arithmetic. The third millennium begins January 1, 2001. More interestingly, they seem quite oblivious to the event that got civilization measuring time this way in the first place. No party is planned at Bethlehem.
• “Marketplace Prophets” is a film promoting the American bishops' Campaign for Human Development. It has been shown on network television and is available for study groups. The theme is “voices for justice in the twentieth century,” and the heroes and heroines are the wonderfully radical activists of NETWORK who work for overhauling the oppressive economic structures of the West. They are following the teachings of a Church that “used to be focused on the hereafter” but has now joined recent popes in “turning to issues of this world.” The great news is that “the popes no longer reject socialism,” and they call us to reject the conservatism of market economies. We hope that somebody is collecting items such as “Marketplace Prophets” for a much needed museum of religio-ideological antiquities.
• Dr. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, has refused an invitation to be patron of the Anglican Church's Ministry Among Jews (CMJ). Some Jewish organizations have hailed it as a great step forward in Jewish-Christian relations. One may be permitted to doubt it. The Archbishop said, “Alongside my commitment to mission stands another commitment. It is to do all in my power to encourage trust and friendship between the different faith communities in our land.” Canterbury, he says, “is looked to as the protector of the religious freedom of people of other faiths and as a genuine friend.” He observes that “rightly or wrongly, many Jewish people do not believe that CMJ respects their integrity.” It is hard to see how Carey's decision has anything to do with religious freedom, and, if some Jews “wrongly” think that CMJ offends their integrity, it would seem to be all the more reason for the Archbishop to come to the organization's defense. Perhaps CMJ is theologically off base or employs illegitimate means in pursuit of its mission. Those would be good reasons for his refusing to serve as a patron. But the Archbishop doesn't say that. He simply says that many Jews resent any effort to share the Gospel with Jews. The effort gets in the way of “trust and friendship” between Jews and Christians. But trust and friendship that is based upon obscuring the most fundamental point of difference between Christians and Jews is a fragile artifice. It seems that the Archbishop's “commitment to mission” is sharply qualified by the condition that mission not give offense. The reason he gives for distancing himself from CMJ debases the theological integrity of the Jewish-Christian relationship—a relationship forged not by evasion but by engagement and respectful argument. Moreover, his remarks give further reason for disappointment among those who had hoped that Dr. Carey would provide a clear evangelical leadership that might stir to renewal the moribund Church of England.
• We see from L'Osservatore Romano that the Holy See and Mongolia have decided to establish diplomatic relations. The rumor is that both The Wanderer and the National Catholic Reporter have submitted to Rome the names of a number of U.S. prelates who would be ideal for the post of Apostolic Nuncio to Mongolia. Different names, of course.
Quotes on United Methodism, New York Times, May 17, 1992. Marvin Olasky on the pro-life movement in Policy Review, Spring 1992. Milos Zeman on retribution in “The Velvet Revolution Gets Rough,” New York Times Magazine, May 31, 1992. Archbishop Pilarczyk on the Church and public policy in Origins, June 11, 1992. Ellen Hopkins on in vitro fertilization, New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1992. On rap music, Newsweek, June 29, 1992. On Ron Sider, Christianity Today, April 27, 1992. Edmund Burke quotation submitted by John Attarian. On the Millennium Society, New York Times, September 1, 1991. Archbishop Carey on proselytizing among the Jews from American Jewish Committee news release, March 13, 1992.