The Public Square
In the nineteen years he has been attending these meetings, says one archbishop, this was unquestionably the best. The sentiment seems to be widespread among the bishops who participated in the semi-annual meeting, held this past June in Englewood, a few miles from Denver, Colorado. The sentiment is hardly universal, however. For some who are more closely bound to an older way of doing things, the meeting had its rough patches. But, for those who loved it, several reasons are offered. There was no press. The bishops were meeting among themselves and had a chance to work through problems without the glare of publicity. They were able to engage in fraternal argument and disagreement without worrying about the next day’s headline, Major Rift in Bishops Conference. Equally important, it is said, there was minimum participation by the staff of the national conference, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). There are 281 active bishops (active, in this case, means they are not retired) and more than 350 staff members of the USCCB. While the USCCB is the creation of the bishops, and the staff is there to serve the bishops, a common complaint has been that meetings of the bishops are consumed by processing the predetermined agenda of an endless array of committees, subcommittees, departments, and related offices. As the title of a book on the episcopacy has put it, the bishops have become a flock of shepherds. In sum, substance was subsumed by process and the bishops have found themselves, willy-nilly, subordinated to those who are supposed to be serving them. That, it is said, did not happen at the Denver meeting.
At Denver there was real discussion and deliberation, and a readiness to engage rather than deny disagreements. Not that the meeting was confrontational, although there were tense moments; but the bishops spoke out as bishops, as shepherds and teachers of the Church, and not as managers of local franchises of Catholicism U.S.A. The most important difference, several bishops say, is that the meeting was intensely prayerful. The homilies at Masses were spiritually and intellectually substantive, there were periods devoted to prayer and reflection before the Blessed Sacrament, and confessors were kept busy. The sense was that, after years of scandal and unremitting attack, they had, by the grace of God, come through a dark night together; wounded and chastened, to be sure, but newly resolved to be more fully the bishops they were ordained to be. Of course, minds were powerfully concentrated by a question that most of the bishops knew could not be evaded or postponed: how to deal with Catholic public figures, meaning mainly politicians, who act in public and persistent defiance of the Church’s teaching, notably on the protection of innocent human beings at the beginning and end of life.
Before turning to that great question and what the bishops did about it, however, a word is in order on what Denver may portend for the future of the American bishops as a body. It is said that Denver may be, just possibly, a turning point in how the bishops deliberate and decide, and how they define their fraternal responsibilities to one another and to the body. As discussed previously in this space, there has been much thought over the last two years about how the bishops might more effectively exercise their leadership. Apparently nobody is suggesting that the USCCB be dismantled, but there is a general sense that something else is needed. The idea of a plenary council for the Church in the U.S. has been widely bruited, but a plenary council has not been held since the nineteenth century and nobody quite knows what it would entail. Some experts say that the pertinent canons prescribe the participation of well over a thousand people, both clerical and lay, thus making it unwieldy, in addition to being ineffective as a forum for deliberation among the bishops. It would also be, some note, forbiddingly expensive.
Alternatively, there could be a special U.S. synod of bishops, but synods of bishops are ordinarily held in Rome and are composed of representatives from the region involved. That would not achieve the goal of enhancing effective collegiality among all the American bishops. So it seems the plenary council and synod proposals have been put on a back burner. They may be moved to the front again, but right now bishops who are looking for a better way are saying, Let’s do the June meeting again for another two or three years and then see where we are. In other words, if at least once a year they meet as bishops with no press, minimal staff, a limited and sharply focused agenda, and a generous openness to what the Spirit might do as they engage one another on questions of consequence, perhaps a plenary council or synod will not be necessary after all.
A New Generation
Another reason for talking about a possible turning point is that there seems to be something like a generational change underway. It is not necessarily age specific, being more a matter of when one was admitted to the episcopal club. There is, I am told, a different spirit among many of those who were made bishop from, say, 1995 on. They were not present at the creation of the USCCB system. The last of the founding fathers who knew how to make the machinery work and enjoyed making it work was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, who died in 1996. No other cardinal archbishop has taken over the organizational controls. The late Cardinal O’Connor of New York believed he had more important things to do than to get distracted by national episcopal politics, and his successor, Edward Cardinal Egan, has concentrated on putting New York on a sound financial basis. Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, now retired, is an assertively orthodox and independent soul who is impatient with bureaucratic restrictions. His successor, Justin Cardinal Rigali, evidences no ambition to be king of the conference. William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore steadily attends to organizational duties and has served as president of the conference but has apparently never aspired to run the machine in the tradition of Cardinal Bernardin. The energies of Cardinal Law, formerly of Boston, were applied to curial business in Rome and international troubleshooting. As for Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, he is viewed as being off in a world of his own. There was for years the monumental preoccupation with building that cathedral, and now he and his batteries of lawyers have their hands full with abuse charges that will likely see him through retirement. Also monumentally preoccupied has been Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit, who raised some seventy million dollars for the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., which has turned out to be a cropper in terms of both popular interest and scholarly contribution. So nobody has taken on, or seems likely to take on, the role of conference ringmaster played by Cardinal Bernardin. Some think that Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, moved from Newark to Washington in 2001, may aspire to that role, but after the June meeting that seems unlikely, for reasons we will come to.
If one asks around among knowledgeable bishops, there seems to be near unanimity that the intellectual leader of the conference is Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. Nobody is listened to more carefully and respectfully by the other bishops. It is not simply that he is very bright. He seems to embody a sense of urgency and expectation about the possibilities of Catholic renewal in the U.S. That is joined to a dour”I think excessively dour”assessment of the problems intrinsic to America’s Protestant (he says Calvinist) culture, and he has no illusions about the culturally accomodationist reforms of Catholicism over the past four decades. He is strongly, albeit critically, sympathetic to what some describe as a need for a reform of the reforms. But he, too, has no ambition to succeed Bernardin in presiding at the master control panel of the USCCB.
A while back, we invited Cardinal George to give a lecture at the celebration of Cardinal (then Father) Avery Dulles’ eightieth birthday, and he took the occasion to present a dramatically different vision of the bishops conference. In contrast to the present apparatus of departments, committees, and subcommittees issuing endless memoranda and position papers on every issue that pops up on the public radar screen, he suggested that bishops should see themselves as part of a deliberative body that participates in the magisterium or teaching ministry of the Church. Close conversation and coordination with Rome, he believes, is not an unwelcome restriction but is crucial to the credibility of the bishops’ leadership. Unlike some critics of the bishops conference, he does not want to downgrade the conference but to upgrade it into a more ecclesial and less institutional-bureaucratic instrument of leadership. Maybe into something more along the lines of what began to happen this June in Denver.
Not surprisingly, Cardinal George’s star is high also in Rome. John Allen, the best of American reporters in Rome, says that when he mentions Francis George in Vatican circles he frequently gets the response, Peccato che lui è un americano. Perchè sarebbe un bel papa. (Too bad he’s an American. Otherwise he would make a great pope.) Because of this country’s dominance in almost everything else, it is assumed that no American should be elected pope. One also has reason to believe that Cardinal George, very sensibly and very definitively, does not want or expect to be pope. He has no ambition other than to be the very best archbishop of Chicago that he can be, and it is the singularity of his devotion to the episcopal task that makes his leadership crucial to what some sense as a turning point in the episcopal conference. In short, he is greatly respected by those who are sometimes called the new generation of bishops, the men who are likely to shape the conference of the future.
JP II Bishops
These are men who palpably understand their office in ecclesial and spiritual, rather than managerial and career, terms. They evince a serious practice of prayer and are not inhibited in talking about the devotional life. They give top priority to evangelization, and to the re-evangelization of Catholics who seem not to know what it means to be Catholic. They are active in encouraging vocations to the priesthood, proposing it to young men as a course of high adventure and costly discipleship. Very often, they are simply called JP II bishops. The term is not meant to suggest that not all bishops respect the Pope. Of course they do. Admittedly, there are still some who are inclined to the view that this Pope has slowed down or stopped the liberal progress that they thought was mandated by the Second Vatican Council. Others are well past that ideological hump, respect the authority of his office, and admire him personally. The JP II bishops, however, have internalized the dramatic teaching initiatives of this pontificate and have demonstrated a zeal in communicating them. They share the Pope’s discernment of the third millennium as a potential springtime of evangelization and authentic Catholic reform.
Very importantly, they are men who do not hesitate to speak up and speak well in the company of their fellow bishops. Until recently, the protocol was that those recently made bishop deferred to their seniors and remained silent in conference meetings for several years. That is changing. Another change is noted. Rome is no longer limiting itself to the conventional sequence of episcopal promotion. Younger auxiliary bishops are being appointed directly to archiepiscopal sees. The Catholic Church, as one is regularly reminded, is like a very big ship that turns slowly, and, in the gradualness of the turning, turning points are hard to specify, but there is a sense that change is underway. The future of the bishops conference, in particular, will be significantly affected by a number of bishops whose names repeatedly crop up in these discussions. Mind you, this is not to be taken as my list of favorite bishops. Some of them I do not even know. No bishop should have his influence crippled by appearing on a First Things roll of honor, so that is not what this is. But in a very unscientific survey of people who pay attention to such matters, there are bishops who are mentioned again and again.
Not in any particular order, the list includes: Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado; Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, California; Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona; Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota; Bishop Peter Sartain of Little Rock, Arkansas; Auxiliary Bishop José Gomez of Denver; Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston, Massachusetts; Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio; Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey; Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts; Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas. They are, along with Cardinal George, the emerging leadership of the American bishops, or so I am told by people whose judgment I respect. No doubt, to the extent their leadership is effective, there are many others who will come to the fore in the years ahead. But, if there is to be a vibrantly collegial reception of the deep reforms”spiritual, catechetical, evangelistic, pastoral”proposed by this pontificate, these are the bishops who are notably eager to let the Spirit make it happen.
Catholics in Political Life
Aspects of the new leadership were evident in the way the bishops addressed the question of Catholic politicians who defiantly reject the Church’s teaching, notably on abortion. Cardinal McCarrick had earlier been appointed to head up a task force on the question, and it was scheduled to issue its report to the bishops after the November elections. At the June meeting, he arranged for Cardinal Keeler and Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco to make presentations, after which he would speak. Keeler reported on consultations that had been held months earlier with bishops, theologians, canonists, and sundry lay leaders, all suggesting that it would be a big mistake to publicly sanction offending politicians. By the time of the June meeting, however, Cardinal Keeler’s report seemed very dated. Levada offered an extended pastoral-theological reflection, asking the question, Who is to judge the state of a Catholic communicant’s soul? He warned that penalties imposed on politicians or voters might be viewed as an interference in the constitutional rights to political freedom. Moreover, he said, bishops should act together, since the application of restrictive practices regarding the reception of Holy Communion in one diocese necessarily has implications for all.
The last observation was understood to refer to a few bishops, most notably Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, who had taken the pastoral initiative in cautioning offending politicians that they should refrain from communing or run the risk of being refused at the altar. At the meeting, there were some who wanted Burke put on notice that he had violated the protocols of episcopal fraternity by acting as he did. First in his diocese in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and then shortly after his move to St. Louis, Burke stood firm on the necessary connection between communing and being in communio with the Church, which includes not publicly rejecting her solemn teaching on the dignity of human life. Some canon lawyers argued that Burke had exceeded his canonical authority, but they apparently did not know their man. For five years Burke was on the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, the Church’s highest court, and he has mastered canon law in all of its sometimes befuddling intricacies. It soon became evident at Denver that the overwhelming majority of bishops, while they may not follow Burke’s precise course of action, were in no mood to reproach him or distance themselves from him. To the contrary, the final Denver statement, Catholics in Political Life, was approved 183 to 6 and provided ample room for the approach taken by Burke and others.
A Beleaguered Cardinal
After the speeches by Cardinal Keeler and Archbishop Levada, Cardinal McCarrick spoke to the assembly. It had become obvious that the bishops were not prepared to wait until after the elections for his task-force report. The question, which had in prior weeks and months become publicly entangled with the John Kerry campaign, had to be addressed now and addressed clearly. McCarrick told the bishops that the battles for human life and dignity and for the weak and vulnerable should be fought not at the communion rail but in the public square. (One conservative wag indicated his surprise and pleasure that there are still communion rails in Washington.) McCarrick declared that, while life comes first, there are other issues that demand our attention and action as well, such as faith and family, education and work, housing and health care. He continued, We must not allow ourselves to become used in partisan politics either by those who dispute our teaching on life and dignity or those who reduce our teaching to a particular issue or partisan cause. The reference to our teaching”as distinct from the teaching of moral reason, natural law, and the Church’s magisterium”struck an odd note. As did the suggestion that those who concentrate on protecting the unborn are somehow reducing the Church’s teaching to a partisan cause, while pro-abortion Catholics are innocent of partisan politics.
The unhappy and beleaguered Cardinal went on in this vein, bringing to mind familiar liberal abuses of the metaphor of a seamless garment of moral urgencies. The fundamental issue is human life and dignity, he asserted, which is threatened in so many ways”preeminently by abortion, but also by euthanasia, cloning, widespread hunger and lack of health care, by war and violence, and by crime and the death penalty. The list can be readily extended in emptying preeminently of preeminence. Our task is not winning elections, he said, but, with an eye to elections, he noted that attempts to impose penalties on Catholic politicians have often been counterproductive. Things took an interesting twist when he told the bishops that he had been in contact with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by letter and telephone. He has offered some observations for our work, Cardinal McCarrick said, which he specifically asked not to be published, but which I wish to share with you. According to McCarrick, the burden of Ratzinger’s message was that he has complete confidence that the American bishops know best how to deal with these questions, that the proper approach is one of dialogue and persuasion, not discipline, and that, not to put too fine a point on it, Cardinal Ratzinger agrees with Cardinal McCarrick. He did allow that Ratzinger recognizes that, as in the case of a person in an invalid marriage, there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied.
The Ratzinger letter and how McCarrick used it is the subject of lively discussion. No bishop wanted to say that McCarrick misrepresented Ratzinger’s message but, as one put it, The charitable thing to say is that he did not tell us the whole truth. It appears, although it is not certain, that the letter was sent only to McCarrick and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who was, of course, present at the meeting. At least a few bishops, however, were apprised of the full text and were less than pleased with McCarrick’s presentation of what Ratzinger had to say. When the full text was later made public, first in an Italian newspaper, McCarrick suggested to the press that there were other communications with Ratzinger that put the letter in context, justifying the interpretation he had offered the bishops. Back at the June meeting, the bishops had, despite McCarrick’s resistance, made up their minds. There needed to be a clear and firm statement that unmistakably underscored the utterly distinctive status of abortion and euthanasia in Catholic teaching, and that approved, but did not mandate, specific pastoral approaches, including the denial of Communion to the obdurate.
The drafting of the statement was assigned to Cardinal McCarrick’s task force, but not before the bishops took the precaution of adding Cardinal George and Archbishop Chaput to the drafting team. McCarrick was manifestly unhappy with the turn of events, but the others stitched together a statement that, while hardly seamless, managed to take into account appropriate cautions while affirming an assertive course in dealing with offending public figures, including the denial of Communion when other measures have failed. One can only speculate on how the statement would have been different had Cardinal McCarrick more accurately communicated Cardinal Ratzinger’s message.
The Ratzinger letter speaks decisively to those who misleadingly weave a seamless garment of Catholic concerns:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not with regard to abortion and euthanasia . . . .
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation [i.e. knowing, free, and deliberate cooperation] becomes manifest (understood in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist [emphasis added].
Citing an earlier statement of the Holy See, Cardinal Ratzinger continues:
When these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it. This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin [emphasis added].
In view of the striking differences between Ratzinger’s letter and what he had told the bishops on June 15, Cardinal McCarrick was in an awkward position. He did later elicit and make public a letter from Ratzinger, dated July 9, referring not to McCarrick’s position but to the statement actually adopted by the bishops. That statement is very much in harmony with the general principles set forth in his earlier letter which, writes Ratzinger, was sent as a fraternal service”to clarify the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue”in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations. This is a classic instance of observing what in the Vatican is called bella figura ”in this case, reproaching by subtle indirection. How could Ratzinger’s earlier letter have assisted the bishops in their discussion and deliberations if it was not shared with them? Which is precisely what McCarrick did not do and claimed he was instructed not to do. There is also a nicety in the phrase very much in harmony. If I ask whether you agree with something I have said, you might answer, Yes, very much. Or you might answer, Well, very much”meaning to a large extent”and then you might go on to qualify that by referring to agreement in general principles.
In fact, there are obvious differences between the bishops’ statement, Catholics in Political Life, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s articulation of the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue. Most notably, what is optional in the former is mandated in the latter. Nonetheless, the June statement is to be welcomed. It acknowledged the worries of the timid while affirming the course decided upon by the likes of Archbishop Burke and Archbishop Myers and emboldening others to follow their example. There is every reason to believe that the statement would have been more firm and coherent if, as Cardinal Ratzinger intended, the bishops had had the benefit of his letter. As several have pointed out, the connection between Communion and communio , which is addressed by the statement, involves much more than the current and necessary concern about errant Catholic politicians. In recent decades the practice has become widespread that everyone attending Mass receives Communion. The consistent Catholic teaching, however, is that only those who are in a state of grace and are rightly disposed spiritually should receive. Practice to the contrary has resulted in, among other things, a dramatic decline in recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a decline approaching desuetude in some parts of the Church. It is hoped that the clarification precipitated by the controversy about Catholic politicians might turn into a teaching moment with respect to the sacramental order of Catholic Christianity.
And so one may see the June meeting as a possible turning point in the leadership of the American bishops. As Cardinal George has underscored, it is not a turn against the bishops conference but a turn toward reconceptualizing the purpose of the conference and its supporting institution, the USCCB. The key to the turning is the readiness of bishops to be the teachers and shepherds they are ordained to be. After a few more meetings like that of Denver, there may be substantial reason to believe that a new generation of bishops is prepared to lead.
The New York Intellectuals, Again
A lot of people don’t read Comment , a magazine published by the Work Research Foundation in Mississauga, Ontario. For that matter, it has frequently been brought to my attention that a lot of people don’t read this magazine. Maybe more will be reading Comment now that it is turning itself into a website. In any event, the last print issue of Comment includes a provocative article by Daniel Silliman of Hillsdale College, Michigan, The Failure of the New York Intellectuals. The New York Intellectuals included figures such as Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and, toward the end, Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz. The community generated and gravitated around publications such as Partisan Review , Commentary , The Public Interest , and Dissent . Today’s talk about public intellectuals is a faint echo of what the New York Intellectuals were, writes Silliman.
The New York Intellectuals were a movement that ought to have continued, one whose lack of an heir is frustrating and discouraging. They were different from the other political movements in two respects: the occupation of a position between pundit and academic, and their attention to culture, especially the literary. With them, politics and art were cyclically informed by each other, and that is very different from today’s political magazine including three or four short book reviews in the back. Silliman writes:
It is here that we find the hope and potential of the New York Intellectuals. Here they were poised to change everything. Here they had a chance at genius and the mark of individuality. It is here that we find the most heart-rending failure: they were unable to be more than products of their time and never embraced their literary focus as the essence of their potential. It was never seen as the definition, either by the New York Intellectuals or by the observers of the New York Intellectuals. The New York Intellectuals themselves embraced the literary but never saw it as what they were, failing to get past the historical accidents of context from which they rose. It is here, too, that we find their final failure, their lack of heirs. It is on this point of a political movement informed by and informing the aesthetic that the end of the New York Intellectuals is felt most dearly, perhaps in the subtlety of echoes half heard, but felt as an absence. This breadth has not been replaced and, looking, one finds political movements designed for political men with political souls. And, for some of us observers, the landscape feels bereft of something that was great, or, at least, something that could have been great. The New York Intellectuals never saw themselves predicated on this point, and those movements hoping to be heirs to the New York Intellectuals didn’t see it either.
That’s very beautiful, in its way, but is not, I think, the whole story. The New York Intellectuals were a phenomenon of very particular time and place and sensibility: the sons and daughters of immigrant Jews assertively making their debut in the intellectual public square; City College, the Old Left, intra-Marxist ideological battles; proving their mastery of the high”meaning mainly literary”culture, and fading out into definitional contests over evolving meanings of left and right. How could they have left heirs? The concatenation of circumstances is not repeatable. And Mr. Silliman fails to appreciate how much they were writing and arguing for themselves and among themselves, as the many and sometimes romantic accounts of the New York Intellectuals make clear.
Numerous writers, editors, and think tank scholars understand themselves to be heirs, to a greater or lesser degree, of central figures in the legend of the New York Intellectuals. Unlike them, however, they do not have the advantage of being one or more steps removed from direct public influence. They are in the thick of it, and, being in the thick of it, cultural tone is compromised for the sake of effectiveness, alliances are made with those of different sensibilities, and the cyclically informed relationship between politics and art tends toward giving way to the triumph of politics. So I suppose I do not have a substantive disagreement with Mr. Silliman, except to suggest that he might have titled his article, The Success of the New York Intellectuals, recognizing that, in a fallen world, success is the forerunner of failure, usually for reasons quite unexpected.
Drawing the Line Against Torture
The outrages committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq justly sparked worldwide protest. Never mind that much of the protest was motivated by opposition to American policy or generalized America-bashing. We handed them a bat with which to bash us. The pictures of what happened and the failure of policy that permitted what happened will long be cited as evidence against the claim that America is the champion of human rights and dignity. The damage is grave.
It is not a question of terrible things done by a few bad apples. Ruth Wedgwood of Johns Hopkins University and R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, write, In a democratic country bounded by religious faith, there is no room for unbounded power over any human being. Unbounded power and the repugnantly abusive use of unbounded power was on display at Abu Ghraib. Pinning responsibility may be difficult, but we know that the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department was in 2002 producing memos on how, in the treatment of terrorists, the U.S. might get around solemn international agreements prohibiting torture. Wedgwood and Woolsey write:
The Office of Legal Counsel has traditionally claimed the last word, at least on constitutional law, within the Executive Branch. But even the most capable lawyers cannot countermand the President’s solemn promise of humane treatment for all persons captured in war. Nor can they override the President’s proclamation of June 26, 2003. President Bush declared that the United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and called for all governments to join with America to prohibit all acts of torture and prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. The words of a President should not be lightly dismissed.
There is a temptation to place terrorists beyond the pale of humanity. But every human being, no matter how radically he has debased himself, is a child of God, created in His image and likeness. Liberals such as Alan Dershowitz have argued that, in extraordinary circumstances, we should get over our abhorrence of torture and establish rational rules for its use. Dershowitz’s argument is seconded by Andrew C. McCarthy in the July-August issue of Commentary in a jumbled article that compares torture to capital punishment, allowing abortions under restricted circumstances, the death of innocents in war, and government plea bargaining to obtain information. The gist of McCarthy’s case is that we should create controlled, highly regulated, and responsibly accountable conditions in which torture would be permitted. Torture happens anyway, he writes, and his proposal is far superior to the current hypocrisy that turns a blind eye to that which it purports to forbid. An even better proposal is not to turn a blind eye to the illegal and unconscionable.
The usual instance cited by proponents of legalized torture is that of the ticking time bomb. The scenario is that we have in custody a fourteen-year-old girl who, we have reason to believe, knows where a nuclear bomb is planted in the heart of a city, a bomb timed to explode within hours. Surely, it is argued, in such a circumstance torture is justified in order to get information that will save many thousands of lives. No, it isn’t. Leave aside the counter-arguments that maybe she does not know, or that information exacted by torture is unreliable. When it comes to defining circumstances justifying torture or to the regulating of torture, the course is slippery and steeply sloped. We dare not trust ourselves to torture.
Torture as defined in international agreements to which the U.S. is party”outrages against human dignity, humiliation, degradation, mutilation, the threat of death”is never morally permissible. Admittedly, a measure of coercion, both physical and mental, is inevitably involved in most interrogation. The very fact of being in custody and under threat of punishment is a form of coercion. The task is to draw as bright a line as possible between such coercion and torture, and to forbid the latter absolutely. The uncompromisable principle is that it is always wrong to do evil in order that good may result. This principle is taught in numerous foundational texts of our civilization and is magisterially elaborated in the 1993 encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor . We cannot ask God’s blessing upon a course of action that entails the deliberate doing of evil. When something like Abu Ghraib happens, the appropriate response of patriotic Americans is one of deep sorrow, clear condemnation, and a firm resolution that it not happen again.
While We’re At It
In Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales , there is a poem about the unfortunate Jim who gets eaten by a lion. Belloc counsels the children, And always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse. George F. Kennan, commonly called the father of the containment policy against the Soviet Union, brought the line to the attention of John Lewis Gaddis, the distinguished Yale historian, who uses it to good effect in his little book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Harvard University Press, 150 pages,, $18.95
). Gaddis provides a marvelously intelligent and lucid evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The key elements of that policy, as set forth in the National Security Strategy published in the fall of 2002”preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony”go back to John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, who, Gaddis convincingly argues, was the architect of a strategy that continues to this day, as is evident in America’s response to September 11. A significant change was introduced by FDR, who, in extending America’s hegemony to the entire non-Communist world, realized that we would need the help of others and established organizations such as the United Nations and NATO. Others went along with American preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony for fear of finding something worse. The problem today is that much of the world sees U.S. hegemony as the something worse, while the U.S., Britain, and a few others try to make the case that the something worse is the terrorism against which they are defending the world. Although he is very hard on the naïveté and inaction of the Clinton administration, Gaddis is not making a partisan argument. He is sharply critical of Bush on several scores, but he helps us to understand that the U.S. strategy since September 11, including the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, fits into a strategic framework established by Adams almost two hundred years ago. In the current highly politicized and frequently toxic disputes about U.S. foreign policy, a reader looking for an informed perspective on the continuities and discontinuities in America’s response to September 11 could hardly do better than to spend a couple of hours with John Lewis Gaddis in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience . My own expectation is that the world will gradually, or under the pressure of catastrophic surprise, come to realize that there is something much worse to fear than American preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony.
The Church of England, we noted a while back, has dropped references to the Three Wise Men. The text, it is claimed, doesn’t say they were three, or wise, or men. So now it’s persons from the East. But that’s nothing compared to Good as New , a Bible version produced by John Henson of One, an organization dedicated to establishing peace, justice, dignity, and rights for all, along with the sustainable use of earth’s resources, and to challenging oppression, injustice, exclusion, and discrimination while accepting one another, valuing their diversity and experience. So you can see that One is a Very Good Thing. Endorsing Good as New , which also includes the noncanonical gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says he hopes it will spread in epidemic profusion through religious and irreligious alike. The epidemic he wishes upon the masses changes original Hebrew and Greek names into modern nicknames. Peter becomes Rocky, Mary Magdalene is Maggie, and Aaron is Ron. Henson deftly refers to demonic possession as mental illness, and references to the Son of Man become the Complete Person. Mark 1 in the Revised Standard Version (RSV): And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.’ Good as New : As he was climbing up the bank again, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. At the same time a pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God’s spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, That’s my boy! You’re doing fine!’ In 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul says, Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. That was then, this is now. The same text, so to speak, in Good as New : Some of you think the best way to cope with sex is for men and women to keep right away from each other. That is more likely to lead to sexual offenses. My advice is for everyone to have a regular partner. Later in the chapter, the RSV has this: To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. Good as New : If you know you have strong needs, get yourself a partner. Better than being frustrated. The Archbishop of Canterbury writes: Instead of being taken into a specialized religious frame of reference”as happens even with the most conscientious of formal modern translations”and being given a gospel addressed to specialized concerns, we have here a vehicle for thinking and worshipping that is fully earthed, recognizably about our humanity. There is no doubt that Good as New is fully grounded in fashionable sensibilities. There are few things more poignant than the liberal nostrum that if it is difficult to communicate the gospel, the answer is to change the gospel. From the general public Good as New is likely to elicit hoots of derision. From the two percent of the members of the Church of England who go to church, it is likely to prompt deeper wonderings about whether they’re wasting their time. Among the theologically serious, in which company Rowan Williams is included, it will little enhance hopes for his leadership. One holds out the possibility that he did not read the book before endorsing it, which may be construed as only a venial sin. The epidemic of which Good as New is a carrier has already reached plague proportions. It does not need a boost from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
What can we do to show that the Eucharist is a communal activity? Greeting people at the door is a start. It alerts us to the fact that we are going to do something with others . . . . I have found some Catholics who think this whole welcoming’ business is destroying our traditional sense of reverence and replacing it with some folksy, feel-good experience. This is a false conclusion. If you wish to invite a guest into your home, you must have space. To invite others into our hearts and our worship, we must make room for them. The enemy of reverence is not hospitality but arrogance. Despite my being intimidated by the flat assertion, This is a false conclusion, I dare to wonder if the author, a professor of theology writing in America , might tolerate a modest dissent. Note the language: we are going to do something; our traditional sense of reverence; your home; our worship. Is there not something to be said for reverence for what God is doing in His house through the liturgy of the Church , the saints in heaven and pilgrims on earth? There are many conversion stories in which the narrator describes quietly entering a Catholic church, maybe even sneaking in, and being struck by the statues and candles, and, most of all, by the people kneeling in rapt devotion as the priest at the altar lifts the consecrated host and declares, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. There may be one, but I have never read a conversion story in which a person was drawn to the Catholic Church by the kind of chumminess that one might encounter at a birthday party or around the water cooler at the office. This is a false conclusion, rumbles our liturgist. I’m sorry, sir, but since I’ve had the temerity to go so far, I’ll go a step further and, at the risk of your wrath, suggest that it is really not so important to show that the Eucharist is a communal activity. That’s not the point. The point is what God has done, and is doing in the Mass, reconciling the world to Himself through the sacrifice of Christ. The eucharistic community is created precisely by our turning away from ourselves and toward Christ. The wonderful friendliness of our wonderful selves is really quite beside the point. And to think otherwise is, well, arrogance.
Among the trickiest elements when tyrannies are moving toward something better is how to deal with guilt and responsibility for the bad things done in the past. South Africa and Chile have provided recent examples of balancing strict justice and reconciliation in the transition to a more democratic regime. An alternative approach is represented by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the U.S. thinks that alternative deeply flawed. These questions are carefully probed in a Notre Dame Law Review article by law professors John Czarnetzky and Ronald Rychlak, An Empire of Law? Legalism and the International Criminal Court. They write: An effective international tribunal, one that will do most of the good that its proponents posit for the ICC, cannot rest upon an unbridled faith in legalism. With the ICC, however, the yearning for an end to human rights abuses has led a significant portion of the international community to look only toward mechanistic legalism, enforced by an unaccountable Court. In doing this, the ICC is essentially imposing the unconditional surrender’ model of Nuremberg on all future transitional societies. No room is left for political compromise. This, of course, means that the ICC is taking some potential tools for peace off the table. That is a dangerous thing to do. Law itself is an instrument of politics, and therefore does not transcend human beings and our foibles. Though it is unfashionable to assert, humans have no choice but politics when we discuss just resolutions of difficult situations. Put differently, the fallible human beings who will run the ICC, though garbed in the mantle of positive law derived from noble human-rights norms, will still just be human beings. If history teaches anything, it is that human beings with unchecked, absolute power will eventually abuse that power. In the case of an international tribunal with the power decisively to affect the future of entire peoples, the stakes are far too high to deny such a truth learned through so much hardship over the centuries.
On October 17, 2003, there was a dinner held over at the Union League Club and sponsored by the invaluable Human Life Review in order to honor its founder, the late J. P. McFadden. William F. Buckley, a close friend of McFadden’s, was asked to make remarks, and jolted those present by suggesting that Catholics should relax their strictures against removing feeding tubes from the likes of Terri Schiavo, whose life was then hanging in the balance in Florida. Mr. Buckley cited favorably an article in National Review by the late Ernest van den Haag advocating doctor-assisted suicide. Buckley’s remarks were, to say the least, controversial and have occasioned a lively symposium in Human Life Review . George McKenna of City College (New York), who is familiar to readers of this journal, criticized Buckley on a number of scores, including good taste and logic, but homed in on the assumption that the law against taking innocent human life is a peculiarly Catholic hang-up. Quoting Romans 2 on the law written in their hearts, McKenna mentions Nat Hentoff’s protest against Buckley’s suggestion, noting that Hentoff is an atheist who heeds no theological system but only the law written in his heart. McKenna writes: Let me cite another person, now dead for many years, who did the same. Mr. Buckley and J. P. McFadden knew him very well, because he served for a time as columnist and editor at the National Review . His name was Whittaker Chambers. He was a figure of great controversy in the late 1940s because he exposed Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, as a long-time Communist spy. Chambers knew about Hiss’ secret Communist activities, because he had participated in the same activities during the 1930s; he had received stolen State Department documents from Hiss and passed photocopies of them along to Moscow. Chambers came from a nominally Protestant home, but he lost whatever scraps of religion he had during college, and of course was a staunch atheist during his thirteen years as a Communist. (He became a Quaker some time after he left the party in 1938.) In 1952 he published Witness , a memoir of his Communist years. In it he recalls that in the mid-1930s his wife (who also held no religious belief) told him that she thought she was pregnant. Since this was one of the most intense periods in his career as a Soviet agent, they planned an abortion. His wife went to a doctor to verify her pregnancy, and when she returned, he asked what the doctor said. She said that I was in good physical shape to have a baby,’ his wife replied. Then there was silence. Finally, it dawned on him: he asked if she wanted to have the child.
My wife ran over to me, took my hands, and burst into tears. Dear heart,’ she said in a pleading voice, we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.’ A wild joy swept me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of the child.
So it happened that Whittaker and Esther Chambers, having no religious law at the time, joyously went ahead to bring their first child into the world. Their consciences bore them witness. Mr. Buckley, I fear, has misjudged his audience and readers because he does not speak to what unites them. It is not religious doctrine, precious as that doctrine is to most of them. It is a law written in their hearts telling them that we may not kill people just because their birth will be inconvenient or their death will be greeted with relief. It is that law which brought them all out to honor the memory of J. P. McFadden, and it is what motivated Mr. McFadden to sacrifice so much for the journal he founded. It is a very compelling law and, however complicated its implementation may be in particular cases, a very clear law; it can be obscured only by lies and sophistries.
The threat by Catholic bishops to withhold communion from politicians who uphold abortion rights is an affront not just to democracy but also the best moral teachings of Catholicism. So begins an editorial in Forward , the Jewish weekly. It’s unfair to believers and unfair to the system, the editors conclude. What a system, in which a Jewish paper instructs Catholic bishops on the moral teachings of the Church. Only in America, as it was said when the people of Dublin elected a Jewish mayor.
Sorry. Circulation figures for some of the publications mentioned in the last issue were in error. The errors resulted from failing to include institutional and overseas subscriptions, as well as newsstand sales. The correct figures as of November 2003: Commentary , 34,000; National Review , 156,000; Weekly Standard , 60,000; New Republic , 61,000; and New York Review of Books , 130,000.
If they want to do it, let them. How does it affect you? That’s the line that opponents of same-sex marriage have the greatest difficulty in responding to. An interesting response comes from Adam Haslett, writing in, of all places, the New Yorker . Love Supreme offers a serviceable, if somewhat misleading, sketch of marriage in Western history, noting the ways in which the institution has been largely disengaged from child-bearing and child-rearing, while at the same time it is connected to a growing number of legal entitlements. Moreover, the proponents of same-sex marriage know that something bigger is involved, says Haslett, namely, the official recognition of love. This, he writes, is the difference between civil unions and marriage: one is a legal certificate and the other is a public endorsement. That is why they insist on the word marriage. To discount this as mere semantics misses what the definition points up: that marriage, through all its incarnations, has been a procedure that assigns people a new identity based on their gender. For centuries, it has been the ceremony that makes males into husbands and females into wives. Until very recently, this meant a lifetime commitment to both the security and the constriction of a well-defended social role. The symbolic danger that gay marriage poses to such an arrangement is obvious. It alters the public meaning of the word by further draining it of its power to reinforce traditional expectations of behavior. What does it mean to be a husband in a world where a man could have one of his own? This is up to each individual couple, one is tempted to say. Fair enough; but the words we use to describe our relationships are shared cultural property. There is no private language. In this sense, granting the word marriage’ to gay couples will eventually affect everyone. Haslett concludes on the note that same-sex marriage should be seen as a fulfillment of a goal of the women’s movement, which, historically speaking, is radical: the decline of the patriarchal legal structure and rise of the goal of self-fulfillment. Obligations”patriarchal, matriarchal, or simply faithful”are out. Self-fulfillment is in. Get used to it. Or not.
Jews, Muslims, Christians”we are all children of Abraham and people of the Book. Not so, says the French historian Alain Besançon, writing in Commentary . What Kind of Religion is Islam? is a hard-hitting critique of what Besançon views as a false ecumenism eager to find commonalities with Islam that do not exist. Not incidentally, this misguided effort disadvantages Judaism since it is claimed, for instance, that Islam honors Jesus and Mary while Judaism does not. But the Jesus/Issa honored in the Koran as a messenger of Allah is not the Jesus whom Christians worship, writes Besançon. He is supposedly born of Mariam, the sister of Aaron, and is neither a redeemer nor a mediator between God and man. And, of course, he does not die on the cross, since a double is substituted for him. Moreover, Allah is not the God of Abraham who reveals himself through historical events, but a distant and impersonal power that makes everything happen immediately; not through the nature and history of his own creation but according to his omnipotent whim. Thus the determinism and fatalism at the heart of Islamic religion. These then, writes Besançon, are some of the elements that conduce to misunderstanding when Christians and Jews approach Islam. Such outsiders may well be struck by the religious zeal of the Muslim toward a God whom they recognize as being also their God. But this God is in fact separate and distinct, and so is the relation between Him and the believing Muslim. Christians are accustomed to distinguish the worship of false gods”that is, idolatry”from the worship of the true God. To treat Islam suitably, it becomes necessary to forge a new concept altogether, and one that is difficult to grasp”namely, an idolatry of the God of Israel. To put it another way, Islam may be thought of as the natural religion of the revealed God. The concept is indeed difficult to grasp and not, I think, entirely convincing. Yet Besançon’s critique is a necessary caution against the kind of interreligious dialogue that slides too easily into wishful thinking. The Qur’an, he writes, is neither a preparation for biblical religion nor a retroactive endorsement of it. In approaching Muslims, self-respecting Christians and others would do better to rely on what remains within Islam of natural religion”and of religious virtue”and to take into account the common humanity that Muslims share with all people everywhere. Christians seeking dialogue with Muslims have to begin somewhere, and Besançon’s bare minimum is one starting point. Despite the fundamental differences that he underscores, however, other Christians and Muslims may, with eyes wide open to the difficulties, try to tease out greater religious commonalities. This is one of the great tasks of this century, and the alternative to pursuing it may be open-ended and unlimited warfare between Islam and the infidels, meaning chiefly Christians and Jews.
The ceremony was at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Pittsburgh. According to the New York Times , the bride is the director of advocacy programs and a spokeswoman for the New York affiliate of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the reproductive rights organization. The pastoral policy in Pittsburgh is don’t ask, don’t tell? Although the Times found out, and reports it with what one detects is a measure of glee.
It’s a muckraking book, admits Yale’s Daniel Kevles in his review of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and the American Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black, but he nonetheless thinks it important reading. Black details American scientific and financial support for German eugenics programs in the early part of the last century that did not cause but were certainly on a continuum with the Holocaust. The Rockefeller Foundation was in the lead in backing projects in Germany and the U.S. aimed at culling out the unfit (life unworthy of life) to make way for superior human beings. Progressives such as Margaret Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, and Rabbi Stephen Wise cheered on the improvement of the race. And there was, of course, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ pithy observation in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision upholding the sterilization of inferior people: Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Kevles is a bit sniffy about Black’s alleged overstatements, but he concludes his review with this: Despite its imperfections, Black’s book does prompt us to wonder what in medical genetics and biotechnology we are taking socially and morally for granted today that our descendants might indict us for tomorrow. We do not have to wait until tomorrow. The indictments are coming in fast and furious today. Our descendants may well wonder why so many ignored them.
There’s an outfit called the Rainbow Sash Movement whose purpose is to encourage lesbians and gays to don a rainbow sash and present themselves for Communion at Catholic cathedrals on Pentecost Sunday. The idea, of course, is to protest the allegedly oppressive homophobia of the Catholic Church. In some places, Chicago for instance, priests are instructed to politely deny the sacrament, and they wave the protesters by, sometimes adding a blessing and a prayer for the reordering of sadly disordered lives. The point is, according to the Archbishop of Chicago, that those who would exploit the Eucharist by turning it into a political protest are manifestly not rightly disposed to receive the Body of Christ. In Chicago, Rainbow Sash succeeded in getting a few news stories about their being turned away at the altar. Other places, Los Angeles for instance, took a different tack. The cardinal archbishop there is on record as being opposed to politicizing the Eucharist by imposing sanctions on notoriously pro-abortion politicians. Los Angeles is also known to be, as it is delicately said, a gay-friendly place. The archdiocese not only announced that it would not turn away protesters but sent a message to the Rainbow Sash Movement saying that they would be warmly welcomed at the altar of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Nobody with sashes showed up. What’s the point of going to Mass if you’re going to be denied a confrontation? I would not be surprised if some gay activists in L.A. are upset about the archdiocese depriving them of their right to be rejected. And just imagine the hurt feelings of an ever-so-welcoming archdiocese scorned. In the theater of gay agitprop, players should stick to their designated roles. In Chicago, the archdiocese had the satisfaction of being Catholic, and gay activists the satisfaction of being oppressed. It was a win-win proposition. In Los Angeles, it seems that everybody lost.
In unenlightened times, it seemed more or less natural for people to do really nasty things to those who did not belong to the tribe. It was taken to be instinctual, normal, and lawful to slaughter and enslave enemies, and to take their women as concubines. It was in the Europe of the Enlightenment, of the discovery of human rights, that human nastiness required rationalizations. That, says Bernard Lewis in From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East , helps explain why racism and anti-Semitism arose and flourished in Europe. Modern racism, in its origins, is an attempt to justify the enslavement and exploitation of Black Africans by enlightened Europeans and Americans; anti-Semitism is the response of the secularized Christian, no longer able to use theological arguments, against the emancipated Jew . . . . Religious hostility against Jews had of course existed since early times, but restating this in racist rather than religious terms was a nineteenth-century invention”an attempt to rationalize and to justify primitive bigotry. In enlightened, science-minded nineteenth-century Germany, it was no longer acceptable to