A hundred and seventy one thousand is a lot of people. That is how many adults came into the Catholic Church in the United States in the past year. That is in addition, of course, to more than a million infant baptisms, adding to the rapid growth of the number of Catholics in this country, now standing at 62,391,484. Of the adults entering the Church in the past year, 83,157 were received by baptism, and 87,799 had previously been baptized in other communions. The former are technically called catechumens and the latter are called candidates, but people more commonly speak of 171,000 adult converts. The number of adult converts per year has been growing steadily and is testimony, in part, to the success of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a program of evangelization and catechesis begun after the Second Vatican Council. The number of adults moving into full communion with the Catholic Church is one of the important untold stories in contemporary America.
In my experience, most Catholics are not aware of this story. Both progressive and traditionalist Catholics, for their own reasons, generally depict a Church that is embattled, besieged, and struggling for survival, when in fact, at least by numerical and institutional measures, Catholicism is flourishing and even burgeoning in America. Certainly the rapid growth of Catholicism is a non-story in most of the Catholic press. Among bishops, priests, and editors who know the facts, there is frequently an evident uneasiness about the phenomenon. Individual Catholics, I have discovered, are very convert-minded. There is hardly a devout Catholic who does not have several people for whom he is regularly praying that they will come into the Church. There is, however, uneasiness about talking in public about the adult convert phenomenon.
Part of this has to do with the memory of a time”a time not entirely past”when Protestant America questioned whether Catholics really belong here. Anti-Catholics regularly raised the specter of a Catholic takeover of America. That memory inhibits any triumphalistic drawing of attention to Catholic growth. Another important factor today is that, since Vatican II, Catholicism is deeply and irreversibly committed to the quest for Christian unity, and many Catholics sense a tension, if not a contradiction, between ecumenism and conversions. Those who come from other ecclesial communities and enter into full communion with the Catholic Church encounter great joy among some Catholics that they have, not to put too fine a point on it, come over to our side. They also encounter frequent Catholic puzzlement that anyone would convert in these ecumenical times. That ambivalence is not a factor, of course, with the nearly one-half of adult converts who were never baptized and had no previous ecclesial affiliation.
Why It Makes a Difference
Several years ago, the bishops’ conference asked for a study of what is happening with RCIA, and it has now been issued. Journey to the Fullness of Life is valuable, although limited, because it goes up only through 1996 and is based on a relatively small sampling of people who have participated in RCIA. It is also a bureaucratic product and, as is the way with committee reports (actually, five committees in this case), the humps on the horse do not enhance the clarity of the picture presented. But some of the findings are helpful. At the time of the study, three-quarters of the twenty thousand parishes in the country had an RCIA program of nine months or more to prepare adults for membership in the Church. The largest age group is from twenty to thirty-five, with most participants being married to Catholics. A very commonly heard complaint about RCIA (and one reason some people seek individual instruction from a priest) is that its presentation of doctrine is dumbed down, priority being given to good feelings about community and belonging. This complaint is reinforced by the findings of Journey to the Fullness of Life. While many of the catechists and leaders of RCIA were concerned about questions such as multiculturalism and inclusive language, the participants whom RCIA is to serve want a greater emphasis upon doctrine and what makes the Catholic Church distinctive. After all, they are devoting months of preparation to taking a very big step, and they need to know why being Catholic makes such a big difference.
Here again, ecumenical sensibilities come to the fore. As one of the five groups involved in the study, the response of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs evinces a certain embarrassment. The committee rightly emphasizes what Christians have in common. It is our common Baptism that places us in real, if imperfect, communion with other Christians so that the initiation of the baptized, though not an ecumenical activity, requires a particular ecumenical sensitivity. The committee quotes the official ecumenical directory which says, The work of preparing the reception of an individual who wishes to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church is of its nature distinct from ecumenical activity. That statement can be, and often is, misunderstood.
The implied tension between ecumenism and evangelization can be a hindrance, in RCIA and elsewhere, to the full and confident presentation of Catholic teaching. It is not encouraging that leaders in RCIA mention a list of secondary resources they use, and then the study adds this, They mention using the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a background resource. That official and very accessible compilation of Catholic teaching, one might suggest, is deserving of more than a mention, and should be in the foreground rather than the background. Surely nobody going through RCIA should be without a personal copy of the Catechism. The responses of RCIA participants underscore the commonsensical observation that what the Catholic Church teaches”including what she teaches about the importance of being in communion with the Catholic Church”is at the heart of why these people are becoming Catholic. At least it should be.
Obscuring the Truth
Wholehearted evangelization and uncompromising catechesis are not the enemies of ecumenism. Proselytizing is something else. Proselytizing is of its nature distinct from, and incompatible with, ecumenical activity. There have been countless efforts in recent decades to draw a bright definitional line between proselytizing and evangelizing, and perhaps none of them is entirely successful. One such worthy effort is the 1994 statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, the signers go on to say:
It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the gospel. There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or sheep stealing. . . . Christian witness must always be made in a spirit of love and humility. It must not deny but must readily accord to everyone the full freedom to discern and decide what is God’s will for his life. Witness that is in service to the truth is in service to such freedom. Any form of coercion”physical, psychological, legal, economic”corrupts Christian witness and is to be unqualifiedly rejected. Similarly, bearing false witness against other persons and communities, or casting unjust and uncharitable suspicions upon them, is incompatible with the gospel. Also to be rejected is the practice of comparing the strengths and ideals of one community with the weaknesses and failures of another. In describing the teaching and practices of other Christians, we must strive to do so in a way that they would recognize as fair and accurate.
In evangelization, apologetics, and catechesis, the rule is always, in the words of St. Paul, to speak the truth in love. Love that obscures the truth is not love, and truth pitted against love is not truth. In RCIA and elsewhere, Catholics must not obscure or belittle the great gift of our existing unity in Christ with all who are baptized. Because there is only one Christ, there can be, in the full sense of the term, only one Church, which is the body of Christ. This is the meaning of the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation that all who are baptized are in certain but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. The goal of ecumenism is not to create unity where there is none, but to bring to fulfillment the unity that already exists by virtue of baptism and faith in Christ. Catholics believe that the one Church of Christ uniquely subsists in the Catholic Church, which is to say that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. That is the Catholic proposal, and those who come to believe that it is true are, says the Council, conscience bound to enter into and remain in full communion with the Catholic Church. Obviously, those who are not persuaded of the truth of that proposal have no such obligation in conscience.
RCIA is one of the great gifts of the Council. Each year the number of adults entering into full communion with the Church through this program has grown, and will, please God, continue to grow in the future. It is a story that should be better known. In the telling of the story, it must be underscored that the vibrant growth of Catholicism is not in tension, never mind conflict, with the Church’s irreversible devotion to Christian unity. Ecumenism is not enhanced by compromise or timidity but by confident, candid, and mutually respectful engagement among those who seek the fullness of truth. The Journey to the Fullness of Life, to cite the title of the RCIA study, is inseparable from the journey to the fullness of truth. To judge by this study, and also by much anecdotal evidence, that is sometimes better understood by the adult catechumens and candidates than by the leaders of RCIA. Journey to the Fullness of Life is a hopeful sign that this defect is being remedied in a program that is crucially important to the continuing vitality of Catholicism and of Christian witness in America.
The Clinton Plunge
Tracking the moral state of the American people is anything but an exact science. It is more of a game where everyone can play, and pundits are expected to. (Pundit, as you undoubtedly know, from the Hindi pandit , meaning a learned person.) As faithful readers know, I have contended all along that the slimy psychodrama of the Clinton presidency was not an accurate indicator of what is called the American character. It was more a matter of a nation watching with fascinated horror as the toilet backed up and overflowed into its living room. I expect that the word unprecedented and the phrase this has never happened before were used more times in the Clinton Administration than in the last five presidencies combined. It was part soap opera, part Al Capp’s Dogpatch, and, with Mrs. Clinton, a generous slice of Macbeth . People were variously amused, appalled, and outraged, but nobody knew how to fix the toilet. Except for the managers of the impeachment, but it was finally decided that their price was too high.
An extraordinary thing has happened, however, since President Clinton so gracelessly left the Oval Office. Those who defended him through perjury, contempt of court, multiple abuses of power, the sexual exploitation of employees, and at least one plausible charge of rape have, suddenly it seems, discovered that there is something deeply wrong about Mr. Clinton and his consort. People who stuck with them through thick and thin are now heaping opprobrium on their heads, as though to make up for their previous oversights. One liberal columnist in a newsweekly calls for ending the eight-year moratorium on the use of the not very nice Southern phrase, white trash. It is almost enough to make one feel sorry for the former President and his senatorial wife. An editorial in the New York Times says that it seems Mr. Clinton is making a redoubled effort to plunge further and further beneath the already low expectations of his most cynical critics and most world-weary friends. All of this makes President George W. Bush and the return of the adults an even more welcome relief than it would otherwise be.
Morgan Stanley, the investment firm, publicly apologizes for inviting Clinton to address a conference, at a reported fee of more than $100,000. From being political genius and lovable rogue, the former President has become tainted goods. The immediate occasion of the editorial wrath of the Times is Clinton’s apparent selling of a presidential pardon to the fugitive mogul aptly named Marc Rich. This does not seem to be the greatest of the offenses committed by the Clintons, so why the outrage now? Why now are loyal partisans, rediscovering their fastidiousness, so eager to make clear that the Clintons are not our kind of people? Part of it is perhaps a belated expression of guilt and embarrassment over having for so long defended the indefensible. Part of it is surely that offenses such as the Rich pardon and the purloined White House furnishings are not about sex. Clinton was not attacked for his libidinal escapades, and even the most virulent feminists excused his gross exploitation of women, lest the sexual liberation dear to FOBs (remember Friends of Bill?) be thrown into question. The current outrage is over the Clintons’ vulgar venality, a vice about which most of his rich former allies try to be discreet.
Then too, there is the obvious factor that liberal Democrats no longer need Bill, and are increasingly embarrassed about their ties to the Senator. In fact, they have every reason to put distance between themselves and the Clinton Administration. And so it is that they are throwing their former hero to the wolves. To be sure, there are hard-core loyalists who remind us of the alleged achievements of his presidency, despite his personal mistakes, and revisionists will inevitably get their turn at redefining his legacy in a more favorable light. But for the moment fashion and self-interest dictate the loud expression of a long-lost capacity for moral outrage. Today’s fashion, like yesterday’s, tells us very little about the character of the American people. One can be grateful, however, that the continuing soap opera has been moved off center stage while the adults, who from the start understood the Clintons all too well, get on with business.
That Loud-Mouthed Irish Priest
From time to time I have had occasion to refer to Father Andrew Greeley, more often than not in raising a question about something he has said about matters internal to the Catholic Church. I have perhaps failed to convey my critical appreciation of aspects of Fr. Greeley’s project as a sociologist of religion. The editor of Society, a social science journal, asked me to review one of Fr. Greeley’s recent books, The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press), and the review was published in that journal’s January/February issue. Herewith excerpts from that review, offering a somewhat different take on Fr. Greeley and his project.
Over the many years of his very productive life, Father Andrew Greeley has been the butt of all the jokes about the super-prolific author. He has, it is said, no unpublished thoughts, and, after he started publishing steamy novels that became bestsellers, it was said that he has no unpublished fantasies. I do not know, and perhaps he is not quite sure, how many books he has published. Some are severe (others would say strident) indictments of the leadership of the Catholic Church, maintaining his reputation as, in his own words, a loud-mouthed Irish priest. Others are astringently academic analyses of survey research data accumulated by the National Opinion Research Center, with which he has been connected for decades. Yet others are devotional-theological reflections on dimensions of Catholic faith, such as the role of the Virgin Mary and the place of the feminine in human existence. Now Professor of Sociology at both the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, Greeley repeatedly asserts his dual identity as both priest and sociologist, and in the latter capacity he adamantly insists that he is a scientist, usually defining that term in an old-fashioned positivist manner. In fact, Andrew Greeley is a man of many parts. The parts and the resulting books do not easily fit familiar categories, as is once again evident in The Catholic Imagination .
The book starts out with the thesis to be demonstrated. Or maybe it is the reality to be celebrated. I expect it is both.
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.
Once again, Greeley throws down the gauntlet in challenging the secularization theories that have dominated the last hundred years and more, especially in the social sciences. I find no persuasive evidence that either modern or postmodern humankind exists outside of faculty office buildings. Everyone tends to be premodern. This is the argument that Greeley made at greater length in his 1972 book Unsecular Man , and it is an argument that now appears to have been ahead of its time. Some thinkers who once confidently connected modernity and secularization”one thinks, for instance of Peter Berger and David Martin”have now done an about face, asserting that the dominant characteristic of our time is de secularization. Greeley agrees, with the caveat that it is not desecularization because, outside the academic imagination, there was no secularization to begin with. Max Weber et al. to the contrary, human beings, by virtue of being human, live in an enchanted world. Although he does not put it this way, and would likely object to my putting it so bluntly, Greeley’s contention is that the Catholic imagination enables Catholics to be more human, or at least to give freer and fuller expression to their humanity.
Being a Catholic, says Greeley, is a matter of what one believes, in the sense of doctrines affirmed. But it is more importantly a matter of the sacred stories told in community. None of the doctrines is less true than the stories. Indeed, they have the merit of being more precise, more carefully thought out, more ready for defense and explanation. But they are not where religion or religious faith starts, nor in truth where it ends. The experienced Catholic reality is communal stories, rituals, and cultivated sensibilities that engage ultimate truths. This is the gist of The Analogical Imagination , a 1982 book by University of Chicago theologian David Tracy. Greeley dedicates the present book to Tracy, offering it as sociological support for Tracy’s argument.
By way of contrast, Greeley contends, Protestantism and a culture formed by Protestantism tend toward a dialectical imagination. The dialectical imagination is analytical and distrustful of analogy, metaphor, and poetry. Between the natural and supernatural, the ultimate and the penultimate, the heavenly and earthly, Protestantism accents dissimilarities and otherness, while Catholicism generously, even promiscuously, embraces the similarities. Catholicism is a verdant rainforest of metaphors. The Protestant imagination distrusts metaphors; it tends to be a desert of metaphors. Catholicism stresses the like’ of any comparison (human passion is like divine passion), while Protestantism, when it is willing to use metaphors (and it must if it is to talk about God at all), stresses the unlike.
Greeley knows that these are very broad strokes, and at several points he courteously says that he is not claiming that Catholicism is better than Protestantism; it is just different. But he obviously does not mean that. Toward the end, he writes, Well, yes. I’m a Catholic. I like being a Catholic. That is a notable understatement. Andrew Greeley is exuberantly a Catholic. Lest his Catholic exuberance be off-putting to some readers, he underscores that he has also written books critical of Catholicism in its present institutional manifestations. That, too, is a notable understatement.
The Catholic Imagination is more than a declaration of the author’s love of Catholicism. It is a small book, and the supporting sociological evidence is mainly referenced in the footnotes, but Greeley does propose evidence that, among other things, Catholics have, compared to non-Catholics, a significantly higher appreciation of the arts and high culture; they have more satisfaction and fun in sex; they better understand the uses of leisure; they have a deeper and more stable relationship to family and community; they have a greater respect for the life of the mind, with educational achievements reflecting that respect; and they understand the nuanced connections between freedom and authority. Greeley acknowledges that the evidence for these and other claims is not always conclusive, but he finds the evidence convincing and believes that others should at least think the evidence is somewhere on the spectrum from suggestive to persuasive.
The book is eccentric, but that is not necessarily a criticism. Eccentric in this case simply means that it provides an angle of vision that is somewhat off center. Against the endless discussions of the crisis of Catholicism”a crisis of authority, a crisis of priestly vocations, a crisis of identity, etc.”Greeley offers a rather sanguine view of the state of the Church. He suggests that, apart from a lot of dumb bishops (in my experience they are not so many and they are not so dumb as he thinks), the Catholic thing is vibrantly alive in America. He recognizes that he is addressing mainly the Catholic situation in the United States, and even that from his Irish-American perspective, but he believes that his core argument about the Catholic imagination and its cultural potency has wider application, and I expect he is right about that, although in this book it is asserted rather than demonstrated.
The genius of the Catholic thing, says Greeley, is evident in the mandate that Pope Gregory the Great gave to St. Augustine of Canterbury when he sent him off to Christianize the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the seventh century. The heart of his instruction was that Augustine should not destroy the pagan temples, rituals, and sacred stories but should try to incorporate indigenous beliefs and practices into orthodox Christianity. In short, evangelization proceeds by a strategy of co-optation. Catholicism is on friendly terms with the human condition in all its cultural and religious diversity. Rather than fearing contamination by the other, Catholicism habitually attempts to consecrate whatever can be consecrated within its own sacred story, even when it leads to substantial adjustments in that story. It is hard to imagine, Greeley writes, Jewish or Islamic or Platonist or Hindu or Buddhist or Parsi missionaries (should there have been any in these world religions) taking such liberties with their heritage.
Admittedly, this argument is not original with Greeley, but it is too often forgotten by those who cry Crisis! when, in fact, a particular cultural configuration of Catholicism is undergoing change as it accommodates, in accord with venerable tradition, a new cultural circumstance. At the same time, one wishes that Greeley had related his argument to, for instance, the explosive growth of evangelical and pentecostal Protestantism in the presumably Catholic culture of Latin America. Some might invoke that phenomenon as evidence countering Greeley’s argument about the cultural weakness of dialectical Protestantism. My own suspicion is that the forms of Protestantism flourishing in Latin America are not dialectical but have co-opted the Catholic strategy of co-optation. But that is the subject of another book, quite possibly forthcoming from Andrew Greeley.
The Catholic Imagination is, as we have come to expect from its author, a provocative mix of Catholic teaching and experience, personal enthusiasm and antipathies, served in a setting of social scientific theory laced with suggestive data, and presented with an attitude. The result will not be to the taste of everyone, but Fr. Greeley has never been inhibited by what he views as the lamentable taste of his detractors. My own recommendation to the hesitant is that they give The Catholic Imagination a try.
Culture Politics, and Other kinds
(The eleventh in a series of reflections on the theme of Christian America.)
We have seen the way in which a thorough secularist such as Richard Rorty also subscribes to a Christian America, but one that is Christian once or twice removed. What he, following his mentor John Dewey, does not hesitate to term a religion stands in sharpest contrast to the culture politics now being waged by both the left and the right. Achieving Our Country is a poignant cry for the left to return to what Rorty thinks is the real business of politics, which he frankly describes as social justice understood in terms of redistributing wealth. It seems that Rorty’s appeal to reconstitute what now might be called the old left will have few takers in the foreseeable future. Although those of the hard-core left today declare themselves to be anticapitalist, a declining number affirm that they are socialist, and, unlike the old left of earlier decades, a real Communist is almost impossible to find.
Questions of economic, military, and foreign policy are perennials in American politics, as in the politics of any nation. They will never go away entirely, and in unpredictable manner will sometimes erupt as the dominant and formative questions. For the present and in the likely future, however, American politics is mainly culture politics. One notes again that culture is derived from the Latin cultus , meaning what we revere or worship or hold ourselves accountable to. Culture politics is therefore a contention over what religious or quasi-religious moral tradition, if any, will guide our deliberating and deciding how we ought to order our life together. In this country, composed of these people with their history and associational allegiances, that contention inevitably engages the reality of Christian America.
I do not find it entirely persuasive, but the argument should be acknowledged that culture politics is nothing new in the American experience; that it is, in fact, the normal thing, with most of the twentieth century being an aberration. The dominant public issues of the twentieth century were the crises of war and economic depression, with the program of the Progressive Era, which is essentially a program of state regulation and redistribution of wealth, making its way as best it could through and around the crises. The two world wars, the Great Depression, and the more than forty years of Cold War are all in the past. As is the era of big government, or so at least former President Bill Clinton once proclaimed and some believe. So now, in this view, we are returned to the normality of politics as culture politics. After all, what else should politics be about if, as Aristotle suggests, it is the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together, and ought is defined by available and commanding ideas, which is to say, by culture?
It is an argument of more than passing interest, but I believe a better case can be made that the form of culture politics dominating our historical moment is the aberration. I am not prepared to press the case very hard, however, since I also harbor the suspicion that it is futile to try to specify what is aberration and what is normality in the American experience. It is difficult enough to try to get a fix simply on what is happening, quite apart from judging whether it is aberrant or normal. Recall the adage that America is so vast and so various that almost any generalization about it is amply supported by evidence.
In any event, there is no doubt that many people are disturbed by the present dominance of culture politics. Culture politics necessarily results in the moralizing of politics. Across the political spectrum, there is considerable ambivalence about this turn in our political culture. The left complains about an ascendant neo-Puritanism, especially in relation to sexual ethics, and especially in the aftermath of the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton. The right responds that it is simply challenging the new morality so vocally and successfully promoted by the left since the 1960s. Both sides have more than a point. It is not that one side is moralistic and the other is not. One of the more successful conservative ploys of recent years, for instance, was to highlight the rigorous moralism of political correctness. In the dispute over speech codes on campuses, to take but one example, there was the irony of conservatives, in their opposition to such codes, sounding like moral libertarians, while liberals were determined to impose moral standards.
Moralities in Conflict
More often than not, culture politics is not a matter of morality vs. immorality (or even amorality) but of moralities in conflict. As much for secularists like John Dewey and Richard Rorty as for religionists like Walter Rauschenbusch and James Dobson of today’s massive Focus on the Family network, it is a conflict that takes place within the ambiance of Christian America. And that for the inescapable reason that Christian America”however confusedly Christian”is the only America there is. Culture politics has to do with the right ordering of our life together, and the right ordering of our life together has to do with almost everything. It has to do with everything, that is, when everything becomes politics, and it is worth remembering that it is has typically been a tenet of the left that everything is politics.
Culture politics has to do with sex, of course. But again, it was the new politics of the left, not of the right, that declared a cultural revolution (meaning, above all, a sexual revolution) some thirty years ago. The cultural-sexual revolution entailed major social and political changes in gender roles, family structures, attitudes toward homosexuality, and much else. I indicate some reservations about attributing all this to the sixties because, in fact, the revolt against what are called bourgeois values goes back much farther than that. In some respects, the culture wars have been underway almost a century now. This is brilliantly described by Modris Eksteins of the University of Toronto in his Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age , which takes as its title and starting point Stravinsky’s ballet first performed in Paris in 1913:
That the issue of sexual morality should become a vehicle of rebellion against bourgeois values for the modern movement was inevitable. In the art of Gustav Klimt, in the early operas of Richard Strauss, in the plays of Frank Wedekind, in the personal antics of Verlaine, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde, and even in the relaxed morality of the German youth movement, a motif of eroticism dominated the search for newness and change. Better a whore than a bore, mused Wedekind, while in the United States Max Eastman shouted, Lust is sacred! The sexual rebel, particularly the homosexual, became a central figure in the imagery of revolt, especially after the ignominious treatment Oscar Wilde received at the hands of the establishment. Of her Bloomsbury circle of gentle rebels Virginia Woolf said, The word bugger was never far from our lips. André Gide, after a long struggle with himself, denounced publicly le mensonge des moeurs , the moral lie, and admitted his own predilections. Passion and love, he had concluded, were mutually exclusive. And passion was much purer than love.
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Norman O. Brown’s polymorphous perversity, both major features of the 1960s, are not a far distance from 1913. One might suggest that the cultural revolution declared at the beginning of the twentieth century was delayed by the distraction of crises”from World War I (the Great War) through the end of the Cold War in 1989. The conservative turn in politics over the last decade is a long-delayed response, now led in significant part by evangelicals, the heirs of the fundamentalists who went into cultural exile almost a century ago. Of course the response is condemned as a philistine reaction against today’s so-called high culture, which has, for the most part, descended into a self-indulgent and transgressive vulgarity far removed from the panache and imagination of an earlier modernism. But, then and now, the core of the revolution is sexual.
When in the culture politics of today the right comprehensively packages its agenda under the label pro-family, it is mirroring the definition of the conflict proposed by the left. Disputed policies ranging from parental choice in education, to a tax break for married couples, to opposing the legalization of gay rights are all included in the pro-family package. The right, and especially the religious right, is frequently viewed as the aggressor in our culture politics. Its champions, however, believe that they are engaged in a defensive aggression. The clarity of public discourse would be well served were that point conceded. To deny it is to deny that there was a cultural-sexual revolution launched in the 1910s and resumed in the 1960s, or else to claim that it was not about anything of importance.
There is today one question above all others, however, that drives culture politics. It underlies and overarches a host of other issues. Start probing apparently unrelated disputes, and soon the argument gets around to it. Most of us wish this were not the case. But it is the finally unevadable question in American public life, and it will not go away. The question, of course, is abortion. Not surprisingly, those who are put off by culture politics are put off by the conflict over abortion. The arguments for or against the existing abortion license are not necessarily religious in nature. Yet in the everyday reality of public debate and battle, nothing cuts so close to the frazzled nerve center of Christian America. More than any other factor, abortion has also shifted the public constellations of religious allegiance in the country, notably in the convergence of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in the anti-abortion cause.
Of course, abortion and its centrality in the culture wars did not come out of nowhere. Some resist the suggestion, but I believe the abortion license is inexplicable apart from the moral acceptance of contraception, beginning with the Anglicans at the Lambeth conference of 1930, and, later, the development of the pill. As Eksteins notes also with respect to homosexuality, the revolution aimed at liberating the erotic from fertility and morality. Following on the abortion license and its declared dominion over life and death, the revolution is entangled today with biomedical activities that constitute nothing less than a return to eugenics (see my article, The Return of Eugenics, Commentary , April 1988). Considering how long the culture wars have been underway and what is at stake, it is hardly surprising that, barring a distraction such as global war or depression, our politics at the beginning of a new century are mainly culture politics. The great question in dispute is whether passion and love are mutually exclusive, whether passion offers a freedom greater than the freedom proposed by the hard tasks of love. ( To be continued .)
While We’re At It
What hath Luther wrought? Among other things, McDonald’s. That is the claim of Father Massimo Salani, a patristics scholar and author of a book on the dietary habits of the world’s religions. An interview with Fr. Salani in Avvenire caused a great media storm in a country that cherishes three-hour lunches, with papers running headlines such as Theologian Excommunicates Hamburger and The Hamburger Is Not for Catholics. Fast food, said the theologian, is the fruit of a Protestant culture. The individualistic relation between man and God, started by Luther, is also reflected in the world of eating. Lacking the community aspect of sharing, fast food is certainly not a Catholic model. It is the complete forgetting of the sacred nature of food. In McDonald’s, you look for a fast meal, satisfying your hunger as quickly as possible in order to give yourself to something else. McDonald’s, which claims to serve 600,000 Italians daily, made a fast answer: Fast food means being served quickly, not eating quickly. They went on to note that their offerings are attuned to cultural and religious differences around the world. I have some sympathy for Fr. Salani’s position. At Immaculate Conception, my parish on 14th Street, the dry cleaners next door moved out a couple of years ago and was replaced by, sure enough, a McDonald’s. I have suggested that we should put up a sign with arrows pointing to Fast Food in one direction and Eternal Food in the other. But I’ve not been able to persuade my priestly confreres. They say it may lead people to think that the Masses go on forever.
In 1971 Bryn Mawr, the elite women’s college, surveyed its five most recent graduating classes. Three-quarters of the women responded, reporting, inter alia, a total of more than seventy babies. In 1975, Bryn Mawr again surveyed the five most recent graduating classes, with the same rate of response, but this time reporting only three babies. As late as 1967, 40 percent of American adults thought that four was the ideal number of children in a family; by 1973, only 20 percent thought so. Today the median age of Americans is thirty-eight, in the early 1970s it was twenty-eight, a hundred years ago it was twenty-one. Thus does David Frum pile item upon item to demonstrate that ours, like other advanced societies, is rapidly aging, although immigration keeps America from an absolute decline in population. In the 1970s people stopped having babies, with, among other cultural consequences, an elite concerned about nothing so much as safety and security. Frum writes: As the feminist revolution institutionalized itself, Gloria Steinem observed triumphantly (or was it ruefully?) that her women friends had turned into the men they had once wanted to marry. In the same way, the formerly young are busily refurbishing their society into the safe cocoon they once mocked their elders for retreating into. Once safely settled, they will no doubt go on playing the exciting songs of protest they grooved to back in 1968”playing them louder and louder as their food gets softer and softer. But it won’t be those protests that will by then define the modern world; it will be the consequences of the decisions they made in their personal lives, during those crucial years from 1970 to 1980.
Robert Craft on Igor Stravinsky is a subject almost as endless as other writers on Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky. But here is an aspect I had not come across before. Craft is commenting in the Times Literary Supplement on John Warrack’s review of a new Stravinsky biography: Warrack has perceived that the book’s discussion of Stravinsky’s indebtedness’ to [Jacques] Maritain is exaggerated. But it is a mistaken argument that Stravinsky’s sudden assemblage of icons, votary candles, and so forth [was no] more than a symptom of an exile’s nostalgia.’ Every morning before he composed, Stravinsky prayed to an icon that he had brought from Russia. Superstition was undoubtedly a large element in Stravinsky’s religion”as in other people’s”but the drawing of the Crucifixion on the flyleaf of the Symphony of Psalms sketchbook, and the Church calendar dates found in his scores”I. Stravinsky after Friday confession, April 9, 1926’ on the cover of the Sérénade en la ”are indications of a profound religious belief, and we know for certain that he wanted his uncommissioned Mass to be used liturgically; when it was, in a Los Angeles church for a Thursday noon Holy Day of Obligation service, he knelt throughout.
There has been much and deserved comment on the Netherlands becoming the first country to legalize euthanasia. A Washington Post story nicely captures part of the rationale: Recognizing common social practices and decriminalizing them has become a Dutch hallmark, making the country a dangerous trendsetter to some, and to others a laboratory for progressive social experimentation. The Dutch have the most liberal drug laws in Europe, allowing, for example, marijuana users to purchase the drug legally at licensed coffee shops.’ Prostitution has long been legal, and this year brothels have been legalized and are subject to government regulation and regular inspections. And also this year the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriages. Health minister Els Borst says euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide need to be brought out into the open so that they can be more easily regulated and controlled. Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. As Mussolini said. The principle of legalizing common social practices raises interesting questions. For instance, Whither incest? Of course there are health professionals who will say that incest violates Mill’s harm principle, but who are they to impose their values? And shouldn’t kids who enjoy sex with siblings and relatives have a say in this? Even the Dutch run into the perennial liberal problem with the distinction between children and adults. The euthanasia law finally dropped the provision that twelve-year-olds could ask to be killed. Until age seventeen they need the consent of their parents. The health minister acknowledges that there is a still a problem regarding the informed consent of people with Alzheimer’s, but a committee is working on it. Meanwhile, people are encouraged to make out an advanced directive so that they will not have to be asked when they can no longer answer. Of course, human beings have this stubborn intuition that there is a connection between law and morality, from which it is commonly assumed that what is legal is also moral, from which it results that common social practices, once legalized, become more common, as is evident in the debased public culture of the Netherlands. This is the country, mind you, that once won the admiration of the world when its doctors and other institutional leaders courageously refused to cooperate with the eugenic and anti-Semitic programs of the Nazi occupation. Although in the name of the kindness that kills, it seems the Dutch are doing to themselves what the Nazis could not do to them. Not incidentally, the Netherlands back then was a vibrantly Christian nation with a remarkable comity between Calvinists and Catholics. That a people could come so far so fast is a cautionary tale for the still moderately civilized nations of the world. The Netherlands is what happens when truth and virtue have lost their public purchase in challenging common social practices.
Holland, it should be noted, is not the only country where euthanasia is legally permitted or tolerated. To assist in suicide is not a crime punishable by law in Sweden, and in France euthanasia is now permitted in exceptional cases. The constitutional court of Colombia authorized euthanasia in 1997 for terminally ill patients who ask for it, and in China euthanasia is routine for the terminally ill in hospital. Then, of course, there is Oregon.
Madonna. As in Our Lady. As in Madonna and Child. As in the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital run by the Benedictine Sisters of Lincoln, Nebraska. For several years they had an Internet website named Madonna. Then an entertainer, one by the name of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, better known simply as Madonna, got wind of it. She, too, had a website named Madonna. She appealed to the World Intellectual Property Organization, an outfit connected with the UN that maintains the international registry of domain names. She won. The sisters, the hospital, and Madonna are out. Between two millennia of devotion and two decades of sleaze, there was no contest.
A British company has developed a $150 test for screening unborn children for low intelligence. There is an urgent need for regulation of what constitutes legitimate use of this type of genetic diagnosis, said Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics . Low IQ is not life-threatening. This is a significant step towards eugenics. All such significant steps should be carefully regulated.
Episcopalians and Lutherans opposed to the ordination of women frequently refer to priestesses. That is taken as a put-down, which is no doubt how it is intended. Michael Church, a Lutheran pastor, is married to Terri Luper, a Lutheran pastor, and he writes: Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this problem. Every so often my wife will testily compile a list of the words by which she is addressed in the course of her daily duties. Along with the conventional Pastor,’ she is also routinely called Reverend,’ Sister,’ Mother,’ Um-excuse-me,’ and (more often than you might think) Father.’ The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been ordaining women for three decades now, as have any number of other Christian communities. Recent polls show overwhelming support among Americans for women as religious leaders. But, at least linguistically, it seems that we have not quite found a place for them. But it’s a problem that touches on nothing essential, says Pr. Church. In any case, we are agreed that priesthood, by which I mean ordained ministry in the Christian Church, is not about the titles we give each other. It is about the Mysteries we celebrate, the Word we proclaim. It is not really about us’ at all, but about the One who shares himself with us. But he doesn’t do it without us. So maybe, at least in the order of secondary causes, it is about us after all. And just maybe the persisting problem of titles for women clergy is a symptom of something more important that is out of order.
From time to time we note encouraging advances in thinking about the religion clause (n.b.: one clause) of the First Amendment both in the courts and the law journals. And then one comes across something that is a jolting reminder of how many have not moved an inch beyond the most fundamentalist reading of the separation of church and state. Just as though nobody had written a book on the dangerous incoherence of the naked public square. Such a jolting reminder is an article with the sexy title, Keeping Sex in Sex Education, by Gary Simpson and Erika Sussman in the Southern California Review of Law and Women’s Studies . They argue that school districts that encourage abstinence until marriage are violating the no establishment provision of the religion clause. Since abstinence is supported by religion, it follows that government promotion of abstinence is an establishment of religion. You can readily draw up your own list of the absurdities to which such illogic can lead and all too often does lead. The authors further argue that the free exercise provision of the religion clause does not require letting parents opt out of sex education classes on behalf of their children. So Simpson and Sussman execute their legal pincer move: abstinence-only courses are unconstitutional and anything-goes courses are mandatory. By this bizarre interpretation of the religion clause, not often put so baldly these days, the authors assert their constitutional freedom from being interfered with in their interfering with the freedom of others.
Readers say they relish it when this section takes on our parish paper, and I wonder whether some readers may not relish it excessively. At the risk of pandering to a disordered pleasure, however, the following is an item that has not been published previously in this space. If there be a periodical of the day which lays claim to knowledge of this globe, and of all that is in it, which is catholic in its range of subjects, its minute curiosity, and its worldwide correspondence, which has dealings with all the religions of the earth, and ought to have the largeness and liberality of view which such manifold intercourse is calculated to create, it is the Times newspaper. No men avow so steady a devotion to the great moral precepts embodied in the Decalogue, as its conductors, or profess so fine a sense of honor and duty, or are so deeply conscious of their own influence on the community and of the responsibilities which it involves, or are so alive to the truth of the maxim that, in the general run of things, honesty is the best policy. What noble, manly, disinterested sentiments do they utter! What upright intention, strong sense, and sturdy resolution are the staple of their compositions! What indignation do they manifest at the sight of vice or baseness! What detestation of trickery! What solemn resolve to uphold the oppressed! What generous sympathy with innocence calumniated! What rising of heart against tyranny! What gravity of reprobation! How, when Catholic and Protestant are in fierce political antagonism, they can mourn over breaches of charity in which they protest the while they had no share! With what lively sensibility and withering scorn do they encounter the accusation, made against them by rivals every half-dozen years, of venality or tergiversation! If anywhere is to be found the sternness of those who are severe because they are pure”who may securely cast stones, for none can cast at them”who, like the Cherub in the poem, are faithful found among the faithless’”you would say that here at length you had found the incorruptible and infallible, the guides in a bad world, who, amid the illusions of reason and the sophistries of passion, see the path of duty on all questions whatever, with a luminousness, a keenness, and a certainty special to themselves. I do not offend against modesty by saying that that is a fine piece of writing and, in most particulars, an accurate description of the New York Times . It is, of course, John Henry Newman on the London Times in his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England .
I opined (December 2000), in a hopeful way, about Jacques Barzun’s deepest beliefs, drawing on random comments in his recently published From Dawn to Decadence , and have been taken to task for being a bit too hopeful (see Correspondence, March). There is some light shed on the question by Charlotte Hays’ interview with the ninety-two-year-old scholar in the Women’s Quarterly . She asks if he is a religious person, to which he answers yes, adding this: I was reared in what might be called a semi-Catholic, French fashion”that is a good Catholic, but not intense, like a convert, or the way that many Catholics are today, because the Church is attacked. In my time, the Church was just there and people took it in stride. I am not a practicing Catholic now, particularly because of the conditions of the Church, both its fragmentation and its extreme conservatism and other considerations. American Catholicism is a very different thing from French Catholicism or, indeed, European, and I would not fit into any parish or organization. I’m perfectly willing to go to a Protestant church, and I find that some of them, which are called Presbyterian, have very high-church ways of being Presbyterian. So that the whole religious question today is almost incapable of being described by the old labels. When I find a choir, the minister coming down the aisle in a procession with the choir behind him in a Presbyterian church, I’m a little amazed. But that is exactly what I’ve encountered here in San Antonio, which is so largely Catholic. As a religious commitment, it’s not terribly discerning, perhaps, but it is not nothing.
The Manchester Guardian , that staunch defender of leftist orthodoxies, has come out against the Act of Settlement of 1701 which excludes Catholics from wearing the crown or marrying those who do. Leanda de Lisle, a Catholic of recusant descent, is not impressed. The Guardian s objective, she says in a letter to the editor, is not to see a Catholic on the throne, but to have no throne at all. The campaign to disestablish the Church of England is aimed not at giving other religions a fuller part in public life but at making all religions equally insignificant. The zealously tolerant and educated middle classes, in combination with the progressive media, are set upon establishing a thoroughly naked public square. Then there is this on an England that apparently is not always to be, after all: The monarch would be replaced by somebody akin to the gargoyles now sitting in our House of the Bourgeois Lords. I never tried to defend the Lords in the old days,’ Jeremy Paxman wrote in the Spectator last week, but I simply cannot see how the new place is any more legitimate: at least there used to be the possibility of unpredictability by accident of birth.’ Now he sees Tony’s cronies, a few extinct political volcanoes, and, with the coming people’s peers, a selection of busybodies who want a role in governing us without the inconvenience of getting elected.’ The Guardian s republic will be a dictatorship of the proletariat by school swots who dress in expensive casual wear and enjoy a little traditional toff bashing.
Some years ago in a pleasant conversation with an English prelate, I asked him how he would define the mission of the Church of England. He seemed a little taken aback by the question, but finally allowed that he supposed the mission, so to speak, was something like keeping alive aspects of the Christian heritage for those who are interested in that sort of thing. The conversation came to mind in reading an article in the Spectator on how English schoolchildren are taught quite a bit about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, but almost nothing about Christianity. This circumstance is required, of course, by multicultural politesse. The author, Jackie Wullschlager, is an agnostic and cites other agnostic and atheist worthies (A. N. Wilson, Freud, Bertrand Russell) on why a knowledge of Christian myths is important to understanding Western culture, and literature in particular. Wullschlager writes: If we are not careful, this culture will become the prerogative of a social elite, for those at private schools where traditional assemblies and religious education still flourish, and for children at Church state schools, whose parents, hypocritically or not, secure places by attendance at church. How ironic that knowledge of Christianity”the religion born out of the revolutionary belief that all men are equal, whose history is one of empowering the poor and deprived”will end up being class-bound in this way. Some Christians may welcome that kind of solicitude, so touchingly grateful are they for any attention paid. But knowledge of Christianity as a vestigial cultural artifact is not knowledge of Christianity at all. Jackie Wullschlager undoubtedly means well, but the only remedy for what is nervously decried as a cultural problem is for Christian communities, including the C of E, to rediscover a mission aimed not at preserving but at challenging a culture, including the agnostic well-wishers of cultural Christianity. When Christianity is viewed as part of Britain’s story, rather than Britain as part of the story that Christianity tells, both stories are destined to disappear. Which seems to be pretty much what is happening in that once-sceptered isle.
I expect all of us have at one time or another said of a remarkable conversation, I wish I had been there. Such is the May 1979 conversation between Malcolm Muggeridge and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, moderated, so to speak, by James P. McFadden. It took place in Sheen’s apartment in New York a few months before he died, and a few years before Muggeridge entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. At one point Sheen is discussing the effort of the U.S. bishops to raise millions of dollars for a project in communications, and they wanted the famous bishop to write a supporting letter for the fund appeal. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Because I know that when we spend that money on dramas and on debates and television shows of any kind, and crossword puzzles, we’re not going to influence anyone. This was sparked by Muggeridge’s enormously successful production of the film on Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Something Beautiful for God . Muggeridge’s point was that the best way to communicate the Christian message is to present credible Christians like Mother Teresa. Just get them there and give them half an hour to tell their viewers why they’re Christians. You’ll do good with that. And that is absolutely so. Find those people with faith who will express that for you. And that’s all you can do. Because the other gimmicks are worthless”absolutely worthless. Setting up your panels, those terrible panels, with a kind of nebulous clergyman and a life peeress who believes in sex education, and a terrible sociologist from Leeds. [ laughter ] And now Is there a God?’ you know: Do the panel think there’s a God?’ [ laughter ] And the life peeress clears her throat and in a rather resonant voice says, What we need is more education.’ We don’t. We need less. [ laughter ] But that’s the thing, because it is true that the words”or the Word”is irresistible, presented by somebody who truly believes and lives it, which is why this extraordinary woman”because I have been with her in television studios and other places”and she doesn’t ever say anything of any particular note in intellectual terms, but wherever she goes, everything is crowded, anything she says on television has an enormous impact, because she believes it and lives it. A thirty-eight-page transcript of the Muggeridge-Sheen conversation is available for $5 from the National Committee of Catholic Laymen, 215 Lexington Avenue, 4th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
Yesterday’s reform is today’s convention calling for reform. It is a very old story, and probably a very good thing, too, or else we would be frozen in the status quo. Although the Second Vatican Council did not mandate celebrating Mass versus populum (facing the people), liturgists championed it and the practice, along with the free-standing altar, rapidly spread, also among Lutherans, Anglicans, and others with a liturgical tradition. Among younger priests today, there is a new interest in celebrating the eucharistic liturgy”as distinct from the first part of the Mass, the liturgy of the Word” ad orientem (toward the rising sun). This is sometimes pejoratively described as the priest celebrating with his back to the people, but it is in fact the primitive Christian way of celebrating, underscoring the eschatological truth that those gathered by the Paschal Mystery are expectantly awaiting the coming of Christ, the Oriens ex alto (Dawn from on high). And, to be fair, nobody pejoratively describes versus populum as against the people. All of this is very persuasively explained by Father Timothy V. Vaverek, a young pastor in Waco, Texas, in the October 1999 issue of Homiletical & Pastoral Review . While he is attentive to the pertinent theological and rubrical questions, a strength of the article is his practical and pastoral concern that liturgy not be made a parochial battleground. Based on his own parish experience, he makes the case that the successful modifications of the last thirty years have prepared people to be accepting and appreciative of constructive change. In my own parish it is versus populum all the time, and I do believe that mode of celebrating, if done with care and reverence, need not get in the way of the transcendent and vertical dimension of the liturgical action. At the same time, I am impressed by the thoughtful people who are having second thoughts about the wholesale abandonment of ad orientem . For those giving second, or first, thoughts to the matter, a good place to begin is Fr. Vaverek’s Celebration of Mass ad orientem in a Parish Setting.
There was much and fully warranted discussion of the case of the congenitally joined (Siamese) twins born in Manchester, England, to Catholic parents from Malta. The parents vigorously objected to an operation that would separate the twins at the expense of the life of one, but were finally overruled by the British government. Daniel P. Sulmasy, O.F.M., M.D., who teaches ethics at St. Vincent’