“The Venerable” is not a title used among Presbyterians, but it fits few people better than John H. Leith, the highly respected professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Dr. Leith attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer in Milwaukee. His insights and impressions command attention. The “most decisive action” of the Assembly, he says, was the election of John Fife as Moderator. Fife is pastor of a small (156-member) congregation in Tucson, Arizona, and is best known for his social activism, especially for his role in “the sanctuary movement” of some years ago. He was a vigorous opponent of U.S. policy in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and served five years on probation after being convicted of violating U.S. laws in connection with his protest activities. The other candidate for Moderator was W. Frank Harrington, pastor of the 10,000-member Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, a congregation noted for vibrant evangelism and stewardship. There has for a long time, notes Leith, been a reluctance to elect to leadership positions in the church clergy who are distinguished by a demonstrated capacity to build and serve local churches. He suggests that this is an “anomaly” in a church that is clearly in institutional crisis. In 1966 the Presbyterian Church had 4.2 million members; in 1991 the figure was 2.8 million. And this during a period when the population of the country grew from 196.5 million to 248.8 million. The denomination has 3,356 more ministers than in 1966, but 1,536 fewer congregations. The General Assembly also faces, not surprisingly, a growing deficit. It is variously estimated that by 1995 the shortfall will be between $4.5 and $20
million. “A second anomaly,” says Leith, “is the consistency with which the Assembly has elected moderators with a pronounced liberal social agenda” when studies show that the Presbyterian membership is decidedly conservative in politics. “The third anomaly is the celebration of cultural diversity in a denomination that is almost 95 percent white.” A big item at the Assembly in Milwaukee was abortion. Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier played a strong role in trying to get Presbyterians to affirm that every life is created by God, and is to be cherished and protected from conception onward. That effort was turned back, and the Assembly ended up with language that is somewhat more moderately pro-choice than its earlier position that was understood to support abortion on demand. In the abortion statement, the Assembly made the theologically significant decision to substitute “unique and authoritative” for “ultimate, authoritative source” in describing the Bible. Dr. Achtemeier later declared: “There is a virus eating at the PCUSA, a deadly disease that is making us sick, gradually but surely destroying our life together. The disease is characterized by the attempt to turn the Scriptures into a relativistic document that takes two forms, and both of them are found in the majority report on abortion that was adopted by the General Assembly . . . . First, the Scriptures are viewed no longer as the ultimate authority for our faith and practice but only as a unique authority, one differing from other authorities yet not necessarily superior to them. Second, the Scriptures are said to have no objective meaning in themselves but rather contain only that message which the individual interpreter brings to them.” Another controversy was over whether the Boy Scouts of America should include homosexuals. The Assembly voted down a motion that affirmed the right of the Boy Scouts to set their own membership criteria, but likewise refused to ask churches to exclude Boy Scout troops that did not admit homosexuals. When Presbyterians decline to take a position on homosexuality and the right of voluntary associations to govern themselves, the outcome is called a draw. The Milwaukee gathering received reports on ordination, the placement of ministers, and theological education that, says Dr. Leith, would “significantly change the traditional education and calling of pastors.” When these reports come up for action at a future Assembly, he expects they will provoke heated debate. John Leith observes: “The significance of the 1992 Assembly is to be found not so much in its actions as in its changing character. These changes have developed slowly and are more obvious to those who remember assemblies of twenty to thirty years ago. Some changes have to do with Assembly processes that are now much more complicated. Others are reflected in the attendance at the Assembly of advisors, committees, caucuses, governing body staff who outnumber the commissioners (600) three to four times. Other changes have to do with the very nature of the Assembly and, though seldom discussed, will have a significant influence on the effectiveness of the Assembly and on the very life of the denomination.” As mentioned, multiculturalism is high on the agenda of the PCUSA. The stated goal is to have a membership that is 40 percent ethnic minority by the year 2000. How that is to be achieved in a declining church that is now almost 95 percent white was not specified. The largest ethnic minority at present is Korean, although many Korean Presbyterians are not affiliated with the PCUSA. The problem, says Leith, is that “there is no evidence of strong growth in ethnic minority congregations” other than the Korean. So the stratagem is to move minorities into the bureaucracy. Of the 590 people on existing boards, committees, and other entities, 32 percent are Asian, black, Hispanic, or Native American. “The Assembly has given significant power to minority groups,” notes Leith, “but they do not as yet have a membership and stewardship base that can sustain this power over time.” Milwaukee devoted time to “1492 and all that,” with the focus on the innumerable victims resulting from Columbus’ invasion of the putative arcadia that was America. The continuing rapacity of America and its role in the world came in for extended “prophetic” attention. Says Dr. Leith: “No one would have been aware that hundreds of millions of people around the world ardently seek to come to the United States or that the United States is not only the most affluent great society in human history but also the most successful great society in providing for cultural diversity. Of greater importance in a Presbyterian Assembly no one was aware that apart from the Protestant Reformation and Puritanism, the Evangelical awakening in the United States would not have been possible. It is a great pity that no attention was given to the specific role of Presbyterianism and of Reformed theology in founding this nation that among the relative political achievements of the human spirit may be greatest. The confession of guilt when it becomes ideological and politicized and especially when it is blind to grace is pathological and destructive of the common good.” From a passion for justice emerge actions that some might deem unjust. For instance, the Assembly decided to take money from health care of retired church workers with less than $5,000 in resources and give it to racial and ethnic colleges, and to take money from world hunger offerings for the programs of Native Americans. There is a fundamental abandonment, Leith fears, of the integrity of Presbyterian polity. From John Calvin in the sixteenth century up until recently, it was assumed that the church should be governed by the ablest and wisest, by those who have demonstrated their Christian commitment and competence in the care of local churches. No longer. Whether in Assemblies, church offices, or seminary training, a quota mentality prevails in which the chief doctrine is expressed in terms of representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. At the Assembly, for instance, there were 164 youth advisory delegates, and 30 from the seminaries. Their votes are flashed on the screen before the commissioners vote, and frequently there are more advisory delegates speaking on the floor than commissioners. “The voice of the youth delegates is important,” says Leith, “but it is worth noting that their increased role in the Assembly comes at a time when youth work and campus ministries are at a low ebb in the church.” And, of course, such delegates can vote for their favored causes without having any responsibility for follow-through action in the congregations. This, says Leith, gets close to the heart of the matter: the growing gap, indeed hostility, between the national church structures and the actual life of congregations. And, at the very heart, is the distance between the gospel and the church’s busyness. “The General Assembly was preoccupied not with the ground and sources of the church’s life but with derivative issues. A commissioner who has attended many Democratic conventions could have closed his eyes at various times during the Assembly, even during prayer, and imagined that he was at the Virginia State Democratic Convention. The attention of the Assembly was not on the commission of the risen Christ to preach, to teach, and to baptize or on the origin of the church in the hearing of the word of God, but on its social agendas and its organizational structures. While social activism took primacy over evangelism, organization and process over the gathering of congregations, there seemed little awareness that apart from vigorous worshipping, believing congregations the church has no influence or power. More significantly, there seemed little awareness that the gospel is what God does, not what human beings do, and that the faith in the God who reigns, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who sends forth the Spirit, who can do more than we ask or think, is the source of the church’s very life”not process, organization, or social agenda.” The “feminization” of the church was manifest at the Assembly. Nine of the seventeen moderators of committees were women, and almost all the preachers for the assembly were women. Women are now 60 percent of the membership of PCUSA, and in some presbyteries the figure climbs toward 70 percent. The number of men studying for the ministry (885) is falling, the number of women (682) is rising. “While the church rejoices in the presence of women in the official structures of the church,” Leith observes, “it now has to face the reality that the percentage of women may be so high because men are walking away from the church and responsibility for its mission.” This doleful circumstance was probably not helped by the Moderator’s insistence that a lesbian minister from Rochester, New York, who is under judicial church challenge should lead the Assembly in prayer. It reflects a direction that might induce a good many women, too, to walk away. Some months after the Assembly, PCUSA held a consultation that brought together about 500 people to address the financial crisis of the church. The consultation reportedly cost $30
0,000. To John Leith it all seems very wrongheaded. “Nothing,” he says, “is likely to change the direction of the church until there is a recovery of the biblical. Reformed faith and of the awareness that the church is not committees or task forces or bureaucracy but the community that lives by hearing the Word of God.” Of course the objection can be raised that John Leith, venerable figure though he be, has become an old curmudgeon nostalgic for the days when the church was run by an old boys’ network of white males who certified and supported one another by the canons of their patriarchal hegemony, etc. etc. The objection rather misses the point made by Leith, Elizabeth Achtemeier, and a host of others: the PCUSA is, after all, a voluntary association dependent upon the organizational and financial support of people in local congregations. It is losing that support, it is losing the people, it is losing congregations. Radical feminists, political activists, and proponents of sundry other causes may be delighted if they succeed in turning the shell of PCUSA into their ideological playground, but it cannot be a happy prospect for those who care about the integrity of Presbyterianism. Most important, the objection misses the central point made by John Leith: the Presbyterian Church can only be church to the extent that it lives from and for the Word of God.
An Embarrassed Disclaimer
In the last twenty-five years, we have written or edited more than thirty books and never has this happened before. Although they may not be obliged legally to do so, publishers routinely submit to the author in advance all the text that is proposed for the dustjacket. Not so with Doubleday and this writer’s most recent book. Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist. When the first copy of the book arrived, we read with mounting astonishment, not unmixed with anger, the inside flap of the dustjacket. It seems that Richard John Neuhaus has written a book unrecognizable by this writer. According to the flap, Neuhaus believes that “the spirit is calling for a very new thing: to make money”even lots of it.” Neuhaus favors “hustling to make a buck,” and his book “unashamedly seeks to bestow a blessing on business.” The description makes Rev. Ike or Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” seem understated. The dustjacket is a grave and embarrassing misrepresentation of the argument of Doing Well and Doing Good. How did it happen? The editor who wrote the copy explained that he “did not think it necessary” to check the text with the author. The jacket flap is “advertising space for the publisher,” he said, and a certain amount of “hype” is necessary to spark “commercial interest.” The editor in question is no longer with Doubleday. It would seem just had his leaving been connected with this incident, but he was going anyway. Apparently little could be done to remedy his mischief. The books were all printed and copies had been sent out to reviewers and to fulfill advance orders. The damage is to readers who may think that they are buying a handbook for becoming rich and righteous. And one confidently awaits hostile reviews that gleefully seize upon the jacket promo to prove that the author is an uncritical cheerleader of business as usual. The second printing, which could come soon, will have a dustjacket that accurately describes the book it surrounds. But meanwhile, thousands of copies are out in the bookstores bearing what amounts to false advertising. As the subtitle indicates, the book is a challenge to the Christian capitalist. The argument, which is thoroughly ecumenical, draws on Catholic social teaching, and particularly on the thought of Pope John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. The call is to move toward what the Pope calls the “new capitalism,” which is a powerfully reformist agenda that combines the free market with a renewal of culture, politics, and the life of the spirit. Such dramatic reform is required if the poor and marginal are to be included within the free market’s “circle of productivity and exchange.” Doing Well and Doing Good gives major attention to what such change means also for domestic social policies, especially the role of the state in welfare and the future of the urban underclass. The book develops in greater detail the author’s earlier writings on “mediating structures,” explaining how families, churches, and voluntary associations are the key to addressing social problems that are too often exacerbated by government intervention. In sum, if you’re looking for a manual on how to make big bucks, or for a booster shot to sustain your enthusiasm for laissez-faire capitalism, you would be well advised to steer clear of Doing Well and Doing Good. If, on the other hand, you are eager to engage an argument about how the free market”joined to cultural and spiritual renewal”could help bring about a world more promising for all, then we are immodest enough to think that this may be just the book you’re looking for.
A certain style of social rationalism”usually attached to radical versions of individualism and egalitarianism”has always been unhappy with “arbitrary” distinctions between persons. But even the most determined rationalists have in the past made their uneasy peace with the distinction between adult and minor. They have also recognized that, however “irrational” it may be, there is a special relationship between child and parent that must be respected. In the view of some, such distinctions are holdouts against the doctrine that every person is an autonomous self to be treated as every other autonomous self. These holdouts are now under vigorous attack. The doctrine of the autonomous and unencumbered self as a rights-bearing individual was among the most striking features of the Supreme Court’s Casey decision, which reaffirmed the abolition of abortion law in Roe v. Wade. In that decision, marriage was construed purely as a contractual relationship between two individuals that could not be permitted to “burden” a woman’s choice to have an abortion. In this respect, Casey took much farther a view of marriage that had been suggested in earlier Court decisions. To date, however, the federal courts have not entertained claims challenging the adult-minor distinction or the privileged status of the parent-child relationship. That may change. As a general rule, minors cannot sue or be sued in a court of law. This is viewed as an injustice by “children’s rights” advocates such as the National Child Rights Alliance. The alliance was greatly heartened recently when a juvenile court judge in Orlando, Florida, recognized a twelve-year-old boy’s right to file suit seeking “termination of the parent-child relationship” so that he could be adopted by the foster parents with whom he has lived for nine months. The implications are indeed amazing. A twelve-year-old exercises the right of an adult in order to legally terminate his being the child of his mother. But, since he is still a child, he needs parents. (It is hard to get around that “irrational” need.) After he has exercised adult rights to be available for adoption, the foster parents then adopt him as a child. If Gregory (the child in the case) is unhappy with his new parents when he is, say, age thirteen, he will be able to invoke his constitutional right to protect his fundamental interests in order to terminate that relationship. Not that his suit would necessarily prevail. A judge (presumably an adult) would have to determine whether Gregory had sufficient reason for being unhappy. In the process, all kinds of curious things have happened to the concepts of minor, adult, child, and parent. Legal theory that treats the person as an isolated rights-bearing, needs-satisfying individual cannot tolerate the notion of what is “natural””whether it be the natural distinction between minor and adult or the natural relationship between child and parent. It is an impressive mark of our culture, including the legal culture, that the word “natural” almost always now appears in quotes. The natural”along with notions of biological limits, behavioral habits, and established social custom”is seen as an impediment to the drive for rationality, equality, and control. Thus the North American Man-Boy Love Association claims that existing laws against sexual relations with minors violate the boys’ autonomy rights to affectional preference. This, too, is a question of children’s rights. Thus the exclusion of active homosexuals from the military is condemned as unjust discrimination. Thus commonsensical considerations pertinent to women in military combat are excoriated as irrational bigotry. Thus more and more states are eliminating “marital immunity” laws that prevented spouses from testifying against one another. These and other developments make sense, indeed they seem to be self-evidently mandated, if one subscribes to the philosophical doctrine of the unencumbered, self-constituting self. In a manner that is unique among the democracies, that is the philosophy that is increasingly being entrenched in American law. It meets with learned protest from thinkers such as Mary Ann Glendon (Rights Talk), Michael Sandel (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice), and a growing number of religious ethicists who stress the importance of community, character, and virtue. But, at this point in the American experiment, the protest seems to be relatively ineffectual in the face of the juggernaut of relentless individualism set upon the atomizing of social life in the name of personal autonomy. It is near impossible to exaggerate the importance of abortion in these developments. The radical conclusion of Roe, that a woman has a constitutional right to get an abortion at any time for any reason, completely overrode the biological fact, the customary perception, and the moral intuition that another life is involved in the abortion decision. In other democracies, legislatures have tried to take that life into consideration, seeking some measure of balance between the desire of the woman for an abortion and what is due the unborn child. Only in America has that deliberation been removed from the political process, as the Court elevates the notion of the autonomous self into constitutional dogma. As Ronald Dworkin approvingly declares, “rights are trump.” Behind that maxim is the passionate belief that nothing can be permitted to impinge upon the rights-bearing individual who is the Sovereign Self. Americans, thinking to flatter themselves, have traditionally claimed that they are pragmatic. That is to say, they are more inclined to the commonsensical adjustment of differences than to the rigid application of rational principle. In this respect the American (more accurately, Anglo-American) tradition is presumably very different from continental social orders that are erected upon grand philosophical schemes hatched by great thinkers. This, it is conventionally said, is also the great difference between the American Revolution of 1776 and the French of 1789. Historically and at present, it may be the case that most Americans are of a pragmatic disposition. It is definitely not true, however, of our elite knowledge class, and the influence of that class increasingly drives our legal culture. On all the developments mentioned above”and other similar assaults upon the natural, the customary, and the commonsensical”one may take the sanguine view that the irrationality of relentless rationalism can only be pushed so far. At some point, it is said, the inherent limits and imperatives of the human condition will reassert themselves. A rationalistic notion of the unencumbered self, pushed too far, creates a boomerang effect that restores a measure of sobriety. There may be something to that. But before the binge is over, much that is essential to make and keep life human may be destroyed by the rancorous contentiousness of the unbridled assertion of individualistic rights. And many who are not equal in their power to assert rights”the aged, children born and unborn, the severely handicapped, and women abandoned by their spouses”will have been cruelly deprived of the communal protections that prevent society from being reduced to a Hobbesian state of war among strangers. The paradoxical truth that we may have to learn all over again is that the rights of the autonomous individual are of no effect in a society that has dissolved the communal bonds of duty and obligation. As the whole world now knows, the judge ruled in Gregory’s favor, opining that, although a minor, the boy has the same constitutional right to protect his fundamental interests as an adult. The question is not whether his natural mother was so negligent or incompetent that her parental rights should have been terminated, permitting the foster parents to adopt Gregory. Perhaps so, and states have provisions for that (although the family court and foster care system in most states is notoriously jammed and confused). The novum here is the boy’s standing to sue.
Religion in Full Bloom
As happens from time to time, a book review planned for this journal just doesn’t work out. That was the case with Harold Bloom’s The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (Simon and Schuster). But it is a book very much in our part of the ballpark, so we don’t want to ignore it entirely. This writer reviewed it for another publication and thus has a thought or two about it. A merit of the book is that it wants to take seriously the inescapability of religion in understanding American culture. Our society, says Mr. Bloom of Yale and New York University, is “dangerously religion-soaked, even religion-mad.” To the extent that a thesis is discernible, it is that the American religion is neither Christianity nor Judaism but a kind of Emersonian gnosticism. Americans are gnostics in the sense that they believe that they have a very private, very special, prelapsarian relationship with God”more precisely, they believe that they are God. This gnosticism is only obscured by irrelevant and vestigial language about torah, cross, resurrection, and the like. No doubt many Americans, especially those of a californicating New Age disposition, do subscribe to a gnosticism along the lines described by Bloom. They are to be found more within than without the several churches. Bloom is especially taken with Joseph Smith as an exemplar of the “genius” of the American religion, although be deplores the ways in which Mormonism bas presumably domesticated and thus ruined Smith’s spiritual enterprise. He also has many good things to say about E.Y. Mullins (d. 1928) and the “moderate” Baptists who have fallen prey to the awful fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention, against whom Bloom rails at length. Bloom is considered by many to be the country’s leading literary critic in the deconstructive mode. He perches himself, like a garrulous gargoyle at what be takes to be the peak of American “ spirituality, and offers his ironic interpretations of the religious worlds below in the form of “strong misreadings.” Some will no doubt find this wondrously creative, while others, searching for a modicum of intellectual coherence, will dismiss The American Religion as an impossible mish-mash of self-indulgent whimsicality. The book has met with lukewarm to negative reviews, and deservedly so. As with his earlier The Book of J (which contends that a woman very much like a late-twentieth-century feminist is the source of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures), Bloom seems to feel the need to lurch into territories of which be is quite ignorant, assuming that this equips him to be extremely original. Those occupying said territories have not been very welcoming; perhaps because they are defending their turf, but more, one suspects, because their appreciation of Bloom’s contributions is limited by their familiarity with the subject under discussion. It may also be that most other fields are not as infinitely tolerant of, even celebrative of, clever idiosyncracy as is literary criticism. In another respect, Bloom is typical of much writing on American religion and culture. The conventional complaint in academe is that the dominant and “normal” receive too much attention, while the marginal and exotic are neglected. At least in the field of religion, quite the opposite is the case. It seems that there are ten books published on the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, and New Age cults for every one on oldline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, or Catholicism”the communities with which 80 percent or more of Americans identify in one way or another. Like Harold Bloom, many scholars seem to find the reality of American religion not very “interesting.” Perhaps they do not find America very interesting. That is why, one surmises, they are forever inventing the American religion and the America out of their own fertile imaginations. After all, what are intellectuals for, if not to explain that things are not what lesser mortals know them to be?
Giving Prophecy a Rest
Among Catholics, no less than liberal Protestants, the prophetic mode bas been de rigueur for decades. Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, issues a convincing call to think whether it might not be past time to give it a rest. Put differently, she suggests that “the right way for many of us to be prophetic in the context of a democratic society is to be more intelligently, more skillfully, more devotedly political.” Mrs. Steinfels was addressing the right audience, the joint assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Both organizations have long been dominated by what is fast becoming a gerontocracy of nostalgia for the revolution that did not happen after the Second Vatican Council. In place of the revolution came the ravages of disillusion and dissolution, leaving a remnant of men and women religious gathered in conferences of consolation to recall the “prophetic” excitements of yesteryear. Here is Steinfels: “The prophet presents himself or herself as the one who speaks for God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet was a necessary and corrective exception, not the norm. The emotional attraction of the prophet is always considerable; and when there are so many of them as there have been in the American Catholic Church and when their critiques have merit, as they sometimes have, then critical engagement with the system itself, the political, reformist impulse, say, can look a pale and halfhearted sort of thing. “And yet it is the political and reformist impulse, rather than the prophetic one that, I believe, we need now. And its purpose is building up those institutions and associations and ways of life that will create and maintain the social infrastructure that so many individuals and so many communities are sorely lacking. Letting things fall apart, as we can see everywhere, is not an effective tool of social change.” The self-designated “progressive party” in American Catholicism has almost obsessively insisted that the Church is the “People of God.” Steinfels suggests that it may be time to attend to the people who are the People of God. The ties that loyal, middle-class, educated Catholics have to the Church should not be taken for granted.. A preferential option for the poor cannot mean indifference to the non-poor. Steinfels again: “At times, I wonder if there aren’t some in the church who would like these Catholics to leave the church. In some ways it is easier to deal with the poor and uneducated. There is too little effort either to engage the haves in the church as adult, knowledgeable, skilled, and faithful Catholics or to support and encourage their work as Christians in their workplaces, neighborhoods, political activities. Catholics need to develop and sustain a sense of responsibility for living the life of a Christian in this church and in this world . . . ”
Be Kind to World Council of Churches
The Central Committee (why does that name seem so dated?) of the World Council of Churches has met once more in Geneva. Major attention was given to racism, and participants in the plenary session had their consciousness raised by listening to a tape of an address to the WCC’s 1968 assembly by that noted novelist and theologian, the late James Baldwin. Aggiornamento in the WCC means calling the churches to catch up with the sixties. Then Eugene Turner of the Presbyterian Church (USA) explained, according to this press release, that “a major source of racism is fear based on prejudice, which is never factual.” Never is a really big word, but the WCC specializes in rhetoric that is bold, as in “prophetic.” That was followed by Hirin Kaa, a Maori from Aotearoa/New Zealand, who said that in his country the church had turned the “institutions of New Zealand into shrines of racism.” “The first missionaries arrived in Aotearoa 170 years ago, and converted my ancestors to Christianity. And at the same time they told the Maori to reject much of their culture.” They told them to get rid of those lovely idols, no doubt. Missionaries of that benighted era assumed that conversion should be accompanied by change. And look where it all ends up, tearing Hirin Kaa out of his authentically indigenous world and forcing him onto an airplane to go and berate guilt-ridden Christians in Geneva. It is enough to make one rethink the entire missionary endeavor. The big item of business was the election of a general secretary to succeed Emilio Castro. The post went to Konrad Raiser, a German Lutheran and former WCC official. Raiser has been a major player in the WCC program called “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation” (JPIC), which espouses an eco-liberationist theology aimed at ending the oppression of the world’s poor by the rich nations. Mac Charles Jones of the National Baptist Convention of America complained that the two finalists for the position of general secretary were white Europeans. “What does it say about our deliberateness to deal with racism?” he asked. Raiser himself spoke to the question of Christian unity, noting that ecumenical dialogues are too often dominated by church leaders and theologians and should include people “whose basic roots are in the rich background of local experience.” In theological dialogues it seems that theologians tend to get bogged down in theology. He also encouraged the Orthodox members to recognize that the WCC is “their fellowship” and not an exclusively Protestant club. With evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in mind, he urged that the WCC must “open up, maintain, deepen relationships with those churches who at present stand outside the WCC membership.” Evangelicals, who are the growing edge of world Protestantism, have historically shown a distinct coolness to the WCC, and that is not likely to change as the organization looks ever more like a vestigial institution of an ecumenical enterprise determined to self-destruct. As for Catholics, retiring general secretary Castro left with a blast against recent statements from the Holy See that suggest that there are many outstanding issues in the way of greater rapprochement between Rome and the WCC. Castro complained that relations with Rome “have been put back to square one.” As we have said many times, the WCC”however diminished its stature, influence, and resources”could still be important to the future of world Christianity. But the evidence issuing from Geneva is not encouraging. World history and the vibrant centers of world Christianity have moved on, leaving the WCC to drift in the fetid backwaters of the politicized religion produced by eviscerated faith and discredited ideology. Called to the challenge of the third millennium, the WCC gives every appearance of being fixated on the past, as it convenes in solemn assembly to mumble its apologies to the ghosts of Jimmy Baldwin and Maori tribesmen for having been Christian. One is embarrassed for these dispirited leaders of dispirited flocks. Perhaps the kindest thing is to pretend not to notice.
The Center C’est Moi
We have more than once resolved never to mention in public Fr. Richard McBrien, former head of theology at Notre Dame. When, for instance, he wrote in his column a while back that “the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger are trying to hijack the church of John XXIII,” we did not mention it. But occasionally he provides amusement beyond resistance. In America, a Jesuit publication, Fr. McBrien has a longish disquisition, “Conflict in the Church: Redefining the Center.” It seems that he came across a statement in which the Pope discussed confrontation between “two wings” in the Church. On the right the Pope placed the schismatic (later excommunicated) Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and on the left he put those progressives who, in his view, are trying to undo the Second Vatican Council. McBrien writes: “The Pope mentioned no names to represent the left. But if Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers constitute the right wing or conservative side of the church, does it not follow that the center belongs to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Opus Dei, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Crisis and Communio magazines, and most of the Bishops appointed by the Pope over the past decade? And if they are in the center, that must mean that Milwaukee’s Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the Catholic Theological Society of America, the drafters and supporters of the U. S. Catholic bishop’s pastoral letters on peace and the economy, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Commonweal and America magazines are left-wing and, therefore, out of the doctrinal mainstream.” While Fr. McBrien acknowledges that Matthew Fox and a few notably hysterical feminist theologians may constitute something like a left, he is sure that the center-left of which he is primus inter pares is the center of Catholicism today. “Our liturgists and religious educators, our justice and peace officers, our campus ministers, our Catholic university and college administrators, our social service personnel, our theologians, our spiritual writers and directors, and many of our sisters, priests, and bishops do not constitute a party’ in the church. They are products and supporters of the Second Vatican Council”but of the council as shaped and fashioned by its working majority, not by its defeated minority.” Be it noted that John Paul II, unlike Fr. McBrien, was a major participant in the Vatican Council. He voted for its conclusions, and, as bishop and as pope, has vigorously advanced its teachings over the last quarter-century. Never mind all that. McBrien knows what John Paul, Ratzinger, and their ilk are really up to. “They are not the center of the church. They stand instead with the council’s defeated minority”on the right. Their effort to redefine and usurp the center must be rejected.” He does generously add: “To be sure, they have a right to their own point of view, and no one should have any desire to hound them from the church.” So it seems that the Pope will be permitted to stay, but Richard McBrien has put him on notice. And now we revert to our resolve not to mention Fr. McBrien again, although reserving the right to break it when he is more egregiously riotous than usual. Incidentally, we are on friendly terms with the fellows who edit America, and a sense of humor in editors is a very good thing. But we wonder if, in publishing Fr. McBrien, they are not running the risk of overestimating the ability of their readers to recognize when they are being put on.
Rules and Royalty
“Its mystery is its life,” Walter Bagehot wrote about the British monarchy in the nineteenth century “We must not let in daylight upon the magic.” Then kings could, without publicity or censure, keep mistresses and father bastards, for it was understood that there were different rules for those at the very top. Not so today, as witness the seemingly inexhaustible sensationalism surrounding the Prince and Princess of Wales and other royals. Observers say that the problem stems from the fact that, during World War II under George VI, the royal family began to market itself as Britain’s ultimate happy family, embodying stolid, upper-middle-class, and very British values. “It is very difficult,” notes a London journalist, “to be mythical and bourgeois at the same time.” According to this view, the monarchy went into show business and turned out not to be very good at it. There are perhaps other dynamics at work, such as the democratization of values and the insatiable appetite of the sensational media (which is to say, increasingly, all the media) for stories that obliterate the distinction between public and private. The democratization of values is by no means all bad. There is much to be said for the demand that people live by the standards that they profess. On the other hand, there is wisdom in the old saw that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. That wisdom takes into account the circumstances of a fallen creation in which there are inescapable gaps between profession and performance. A case can be made for preserving social spheres of exemption from moral scrutiny. That was Bagehot’s point, but it would likely be futile for the British royal house to try to put his counsel into effect today. It would be futile not because a convincing argument has been made against spheres of exemption but because the hungry beast called The News would not tolerate it. Whether or not this means the end of monarchy is a question that a growing number of our British cousins will probably be debating for some time. Closely related are our own debates about “the character issue” in electoral politics. There is an out, however, for those who have reason to fear moral scrutiny of their own lives. The doctrine that people should live up to the standards that they profess is neatly sidestepped by those who profess no standards. The royal exemption urged by Bagehot is today enjoyed by those in the media and artistic worlds who declare themselves liberated from the standards by which they relentlessly judge others. This is not hypocrisy, they insist with some justice, because they are not imposing these standards on others. They are simply exposing the failures of others who make themselves fair game by professing such standards. A public figure who makes an issue of supporting “traditional values” is vulnerable, while his opponent is embraced within the magic circle of exemption. In religion, for example, a hypothetical Episcopalian bishop named Sponge, who has soaked up all the politically correct attitudes toward traditional values, would enjoy a remarkable immunity. Perhaps it is only fair. Profess nothing and you are incapable of the awful sin of hypocrisy. Of course those in the exempt category do have their standards. One may be condemned for smoking cigarettes, failing to use recycled paper, or suggesting that there may be a connection between the incidence of AIDS and doing rude things with parts of the body not intended for such activity. But he is off the hook when it comes to misbehavior that has been on the sin list for a somewhat longer period of time. And if he claims to be an artist, he may even get away with committing the politically corrected cardinal sins, since it is thought to be the chief, maybe the only, mark of the artist that he be outrageous. At this point it may be objected that there is the case of Woody Allen. There is no denying that he was unmercifully dumped upon for what appeared to be, in everything but legal fact, incest. The fact that his exemption was suspended may witness to the enduring power of the incest taboo. But the oddity of the fracas was that many of those who criticized him most severely lacked a moral vocabulary for their criticism. He had a very few defenders in the exempt sphere who pointed out that Allen was simply acting on the notions of sexual liberation that his critics also espoused. Or maybe the problem was that Allen”with his decades of public and “existential” anguishing over the psychoanalytically compounded quagmires of life”was viewed as a spiritual leader. He proposed a way, however convoluted, to integrity, authenticity, maybe even happiness (or at least coping “honestly” with the discontents of life). That his own life turned out to be such a shambles for himself and others was sensed as a betrayal. In short, he made the mistake of professing a standard. The cultural aristocracy of the morally exempt are accused of hypocrisy for criticizing others for what they do themselves. But that is to miss the point quite entirely. Nihilists are not capable of hypocrisy. And they are nihilists, except for the commandments about recycling, the treatment of whales, etc. etc. They are moralistically stringent about being ever so sensitive toward approved victims, and ever so contemptuous of those who still live by the uncorrected canon of virtues and vices. So it turns out that we are witnessing not the democratization of values but the establishment of a royalty that, at this point, may be facing a longer run than is the British monarchy.
Andrew Sullivan is very bright, very talented, very out of the closet about his homosexuality, and was last year appointed editor of The New Republic. In his first months as editor, he has given that influential magazine a distinctly lavender hue, producing intimations of Weimar on the Potomac. In a recent piece, he offers reflections on what is happening to the Republican Party. What came to him as he was “slumped in front of the TV with a friend of mine” is that Republicans are no longer conservative at all, but have become a “cranky opposition to the ruling cultural ethos of the day.” It is, he suggests, simply silly to get excited about single parents, divorce, premarital sex, and homosexuality. “All are now indelible features of our social landscape. If Burke were alive, he might describe their emergence as a function of an organic society in which conservatives should properly feel at home.” The Pats, Buchanan and Robertson, have by their extremism “offered gay America a unique chance to reach into the mainstream.” Sullivan is critical of fellow gays who claim to feel threatened by the fascist right. ( QW, a gay magazine in New York, put Buchanan on the cover with the headline: “The Next Reich.”) Nonsense, says Sullivan. It is time for gays to abandon their cherished paranoia. “This inability to give up the subcultural identity,” he writes, “is partly, of course, because there is no longer any sustaining broader culture to take its place. There is, these days, only subculture.” In the gay world of recent years, reports Sullivan, the big thing is called Ecstasy. It is a “designer drug” that “seems pretty harmless,” and “it’s cheap and fun.” Those who have been around longer than Sullivan tell him that “drug use now is unprecedented, outstripping even the craziness of the 1970s.” He thinks this may be “the latest wrinkle in plague psychology.” AIDS and paranoia about a conservative ascendancy have made the subculture a very nervous place. “As an antidote to anxiety, the drug has finally found its perfect market. Ecstasy seems to be able to provide instant intimacy: intimacy without fear, either of disease or commitment.” It is “a happy drug that is a cure for unbanishable sadness, an ear-muffler for the white noise of death.” There is a deep ambivalence in Mr. Sullivan’s reflections, as there has been in his earlier writings on homosexuality and the culture of death. On the one hand, there is a note of bravado. Homosexuality is part of “the ruling cultural ethos of the day.” The gay world is no more subcultural than anything else. “There is, these days, only subculture.” At the same time, there must be something like a mainstream if it is the case that “gay America [has] a unique chance to reach into the mainstream.” There is undoubted truth in Sullivan’s observation that the idea of a common culture has been severely weakened. “The networks,” he writes, “once the bastion of authoritative mutual communication, are out-Foxed. Even The New Yorker must find its subcultural niche.” (The reference is to the new editor of that magazine, who presumably intends to turn it in yet trendier directions.) There is no American way of life, only alternative lifestyles; no unified moral discourse, only the assertion of preferences. Sullivan invites gays and others to celebrate their liberation, but then comes the sadness. The liberation turns into disillusionment as people reach for Ecstasy to provide “instant intimacy,” “intimacy without fear, either of disease or commitment.” Muffle the white noise of death; lie back and enjoy it. As for American culture, only the “cranky opposition” thinks that something can or should be done. Those who understand the ruling ethos of the day know that the jig is up. It would not be so remarkable an argument, nor so depressing, were it not advanced by the editor of The New Republic.
While We’re At It
The ecumenical movement is “in dire straits,” Larry L. Rasmussen of Union Seminary in New York told a recent consultation titled “New World Order.” The consultation was jointly sponsored by something called the Theology in Global Context Association and the New World Order Project of the National Council of Churches. Professor Milan Opocensky of Prague was there to explain that the revolution of 1989 marked “the end of one particular model of socialism but not the end of the socialist ideal.” General Secretary Gabriel Habib of the Middle East Council of Churches highlighted the imperialist perfidy of the U.S. in the Gulf War, which was aimed at “dominating” the region. Marc Ellis, a Jewish teacher at the school of theology run by the liberationist Maryknoll Fathers in Ossining, New York, urged that “Christians in the ecumenical dialogue will have to move beyond the view of Israel as innocent and redemptive.” Allan Boesak of South Africa prophetically denounced racism, while Professor Rasmussen’s contribution was to underscore the importance of bringing together “concerns for justice and for ecology.” Apparently the straits of institutionalized ecumenism are not so dire as to have provoked a reconsideration of business as usual in the tired Old Church Order of the National Council. It is a pity when people not yet old refuse to think anew or engage ideas other than their own, resigning themselves to huddle together, poking through the ashes of radicalisms past. Somewhere in there, they tell themselves, there must be a phoenix. Some readers may not believe it, but we really do not comment on every fatuity championed by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union. There simply is not space. Here, for instance, is an item we never got around to. Local judges in Milwaukee have abandoned the long-standing practice of not evicting tenants from their homes during Christmas week. Landlords have always protested the practice, and now they have the support of the ACLU. “The moratorium serves no legal purpose and has the effect of promoting the religious celebration of Christmas,” Gretchen Miller of the ACLU told the courts. “No similar rules prevent eviction of Muslim tenants during the month of Ramadan or the eviction of Jewish tenants during Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or other commonly celebrated religious holidays.” Never mind that less than one-quarter of one percent of the population of Milwaukee is Muslim, and a Jew has not been evicted within living memory. Never mind that the courts are quite prepared to extend the practice to Muslims and Jews as the occasion arises. In a democracy, as defined by the ACLU, social reality must not be permitted to impinge upon the administration of the law. “I would like to continue [the Christmas moratorium],” said Judge Patrick J. Sheedy, “but if they are to bring an action against us, we would have no defense.” The separation of church and state means the separation of the law from common decency. The ACLU has the satisfaction of having vindicated the great constitutional principle that poor people should be put out on the street on Christmas Day. Some readers will remember John Frohnmayer, former director of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), he who expressed approval of government grants displaying, inter alia, the crucifix in a vat of urine and bull whips inserted into unmentionable parts of the male anatomy Writing in the Christian Century, he explains the mission he had in mind. “If an artist seeks, either gently or confrontationally, to pique our social conscience, how different is that from the example Christ set?” How different indeed. “It’s not up to the Amsterdam tourist office to make moral judgments,” said spokesman Herman ter Balkt. Earlier this year the parliament scrapped the statute that outlawed pimping and organized prostitution. Amsterdam, like other major European cities, has long had a tolerated red light district, but now prostitution will be officially promoted as a major tourist attraction. The story continues: “The city will collect a modest fee for licensing. Dutch brothel owners and prostitutes are required to declare income and pay taxes.” Good. That they will have to pay taxes is reassuring evidence that at least some rules are still inviolable. Perhaps coincidentally, right beside that story is another one on Anne Frank and the courage of the Dutch in resisting Hitler’s occupation. The people of the Netherlands were once noted for a solid, if sometimes stolid, morality, both public and personal. After a quarter-century of astonishingly rapid secularization and demoralization, the Dutch have turned into a nation of hustlers in human vice. Not incidentally, they lead the world in the cruelty and cowardice of involuntary euthanasia. It is not true that these developments in the Netherlands are beneath contempt. Pat Buchanan has no connection with it, but an outfit called Cincinnatus PAC is sure that “Providence has raised him up” to be made President in 1996. Cincinnatus is a group of militant Catholic laymen who have been “rudely awakened to the reality that our public life is dominated by what amounts to an anti-Christian network spearheaded by powerful leftist Jewish organizations and members of the Masonic secret societies.” The title of their magazine”which would seem to preempt our territory and that of most everybody else”is All These Things. First Things seems embarrassingly inadequate by comparison. Nor does it seem likely that we would ever be able to publish an article like the one advertised in this mailing from Cincinnatus. It is called “Understanding the History of the World in 30 Minutes or Less.” Our pedantry may be showing, but it seems to us that understanding the history of the world should take at least 30 minutes. We didn’t send for the article. The Lee v. Weisman ruling that outlawed prayers at public school graduation ceremonies is, in our judgment, deplorably wrongheaded on a number of scores. But we have some sympathy for the majority opinion’s concern about the kind of vapid “civil religion” that such public invocations and benedictions tend to produce. It is, as John Murray Cuddihy brilliantly wrote in a book by that title, the religion of No Offense. We therefore have a grudging admiration for the Rev. Ronald Meyer of Parkway United Church in Minneapolis. Asked to invoke at the Minnesota Independent-Republican Party Convention, he snuck in the editorial comment, “If we declare government should not be in our pocketbook or pockets, we certainly don’t think that government should be in the womb.” Quickly jerked to attention, the delegates of the overwhelmingly pro-life convention booed, hissed, and shouted until a party officer hustled the Rev. Meyer from the stage without his having finished his “prayer.” We wish he had given offense in a worthier cause, but we expect it is one of the few public invocations that will be remembered for some time. In churches, as elsewhere, the road of evasion is paved with study committees. The Southern Baptist Convention (SHC) has again asked a study committee to determine whether Freemasonry is compatible with Christianity. The Catholic Church, Church of England, Lutheran Church”Missouri Synod, Presbyterian Church in America, and Assemblies of God are among the bodies that have long answered that question in the negative. The reason it is such a hot potato in the SHC is that, according to a recent Baptist Press poll, 14 percent of SHC pastors and 18 percent of church deacon chairmen are or have been Masons. Catholics for a Free Choice is an outfit based in Washington. It’s not clear that it has any members, but it has a very vocal talking head on the tube, whose name, quite aptly, rhymes with Quisling. The purpose of CFC is to undermine Catholic teaching by advancing the claim that good Catholics can and should support abortion on demand. CFC is strongly and understandably supported by pro-abortion forces who find it a useful tool for promoting the kind of raw anti-Catholicism with which non-Catholics hesitate to be publicly associated. The Ford Foundation, for example, would likely be embarrassed to put its name on a campaign vilifying the putatively oppressive, sexist, patriarchal, medieval, and generally un-American institution that is the Catholic Church. But the Ford Foundation can give CFC the money to do its dirty work. And it does. The latest annual report from Ford indicates that it gave no less than $500,000 to CFC last year. CFC does no research, publishes no scholarly findings, provides no direct services. CFC, purely and simply, propagandizes against the Catholic Church in order to weaken its influence in the abortion debate. It is perhaps noteworthy that, still today, one of the largest and most prestigious philanthropies in the country apparently has no qualms in bankrolling one of the unloveliest bigotries in American life. All’s fair in love and the culture wars, or so it seems. The airwaves around Los Angeles are animated by a talk show run by Dennis Prager. (Can airwaves be animated? Why not?) He also publishes a quarterly of personal reflections called Ultimate Issues, and the current one reflects on the Los Angeles riots and what lessons others have drawn from that disaster. Mr. Prager thinks most commentators have failed to draw the obvious lesson that a lot of young and not-so-young people no longer know the difference between right and wrong. “I will only note here,” he writes, “that we can easily assume that no church-going black torched any building or beat anyone in Los Angeles.” Knowing as we do that the church is a community of sinners, we do not feel quite safe about that assumption. But Mr. Prager’s further observations are perhaps on firmer ground: “For years on my radio show, I have posed one question to those who dismiss religion in America as morally irrelevant: Imagine it is midnight, and you are walking in a very bad area of the city. You are alone in a dark alley, and all of a sudden you notice that ten men are walking toward you. Would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just attended a Bible class?’ As a Jew and as an American, I greatly fear a post-Christian America. It is symbolized in American youths’ lives by the difference between the Boy Scouts and Guns N’ Roses. In black life, it is symbolized by the difference between Martin Luther King and Louis Farrakhan. Liberal activists yearn for a post-Christian America, but this Jew believes that in the Los Angeles riots we saw a preview of precisely what such an America will look like.” The United Church of Canada, with 800,000 members the country’s largest Protestant denomination, was braced for big fights at this summer’s convention. Should the church authorize same-sex unions? A fight was avoided by leaving it up to local congregations to do what they want. Then there was the big debate over the status of the Bible. Some wanted the UCC to say that it is “the” and others wanted to say it is “a” “foundational authority of faith.” Peace was achieved, admittedly at the price of curious grammar, by dropping both articles and resolving that “The Bible is foundational authority as we seek to live the Christian life.” The UCC is prepared to die for the principle that nothing is worth fighting over. And it is. In an extended and fawning piece on Hillary Clinton, Time defends her against the charge of being indifferent to religion. “Hillary, a Methodist who claims to have been religiously committed since childhood,’ carries her favorite Scriptures (Proverbs, Psalms, Corinthians, Beatitudes) wherever she goes.” We would like to think that Mrs. Clinton did not give that list to the biblically illiterate editors of Time. On the other hand, maybe the Clinton theme of “time for a change” includes a new biblical canon. There is the Vatican’s International Liaison Committee. And then there is the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. The groups have been getting together for almost twenty-five years and earlier this year met for the first time in the United States, at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. The Jewish organization includes the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, Synagogue Council of America, and the World Jewish Congress. At the Baltimore gathering the Catholics had a distinguished delegation of theologians and bishops, headed by Edward Cardinal Cassidy from Rome. On the Jewish side, however, some of the big names that were scheduled did not show, and some who did show left early. Father John Pawlikowski, a longstanding participant in Catholic-Jewish dialogues, observed, “On the Catholic side we’re dealing with one organizing group, and [the Jewish coalition] is a very loose association of myriad members who have all sorts of different agendas for the dialogue, to put it mildly.” Said Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vatican leadership has second thoughts about a meeting of this kind in the future. And I cannot blame them.” The Marxists weren’t good for much, but they did have these imaginative linguistic constructs for explaining away manifest contradictions. For instance, we have problems with the claim that hard-core conservatives are fascist and Nazi-like, but they also take such un-Nazi-like positions. For instance, here is an article in The Arizona Republic on how those right-wingers, especially Dan Quayle, are jockeying for 1996. It seems that Quayle has been introduced by Pat Robertson a