The Public Square
Early returns tend to vindicate, at least in part, the worries of cardinals and others when John Paul II announced in the 1994 document Tertio Millennio Adveniente (On the Coming of the Third Millennium) that the Catholic Church should publicly confess the sins of her children over the centuries.
The fears were several: that confession of errors past would undermine confidence in the authority of the Church; that the distinction would be blurred between the sinfulness of the Church’s members and the holiness of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ; that such a confession would reinforce the cultural presumption of the moral superiority of the present; and that the enemies of the Church would construe such a confession as an apology confirming their critique of Catholicism. These concerns and responses to them are masterfully treated in Father Avery Dulles’ article, Should the Church Repent? (December 1998).
One may reasonably assume that the Pope was well aware of the risks involved, and judged them well worth taking. Such a public confession, he believes, is a sign not of the Church’s weakness but of her self-confidence in an historical moment in which she is the world’s singular institution of moral credibility. Above all, it is a sign of confidence in the forgiving and renewing grace of God in Christ. Four hundred years after the divisions of the sixteenth century, and having survived centuries of hostile challenge by Enlightenment secularism, the Catholic Church is no longer in a defensive mode. All this is part of John Paul II’s strategic thinking in laying the groundwork for what he calls a springtime of world evangelization. As the thirty-page explanation produced by the International Theological Commission and presented by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger insists, the Church has nothing to fear from historical truth, including unpleasant truths about things done in the name of the Church.
When the Mass of Reconciliation with its ceremony of the purification of memory was celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent, there was intense public interest. I confess that my heart sank just a little when, in several media appearances and interviews I did, it became evident that the worst misconstruals dominated the discussion. In response to the Pope’s confession, one heard multiple variations on the themes: It’s about time! and I told you so! and It’s too little too late! The heart of the matter seemed to get lost amidst the chortlings and recriminations. The purification of memory focused, in order of priority, on Catholic responsibility for divisions among Christians, on the injustice of employing coercion in the service of truth, on the historically tormented relationship between Christians and Jews, and on responsibility for the evils of today, including secularism, moral relativism, atheism, and the demeaning of human life. Perhaps predictably, most media reports homed in on the Jewish connection and the Holocaust, frequently alluding to the old canards about Pius XII’s alleged silence regarding the latter. Jewish voices typically allowed that the confession was a welcome first step but did not go far enough. When it comes to admitting the sins of the Catholic Church, a rabbi friend has observed, We Jews now have two slogans: Never Again’ and Never Enough.’
Jewish voices continue to express irritated incredulity at the distinction made between the sinlessness of the Church and the sins of her children. The analogy does not hold all the way, but in this connection I have found it helpful to point out the distinction between the Old Testament prophets who adamantly denounce the sins of the people of Israel while, at the same time, insisting that they are the elect people of God. With respect to both Israel and the Church, the accent is on the grace and faithfulness of God who continues to affirm the dignity of the people despite their so often acting in violation of that dignity. Moreover, in connection with the Holocaust it is useful to remember the enormous storm that broke over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963. Arendt raised the exceedingly delicate question of the large number of Jews who not only did nothing to resist the Holocaust or to protect other Jews but who actually cooperated, out of whatever tortured motivations, in the rounding up, transport, and killing of Jews. Arendt was vociferously attacked by some Jews for blaming the victims and besmirching the integrity of Judaism itself.
Efforts to sort things out historically engage the much-disputed distinction between individual and collective responsibility. Regarding that distinction, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of saying, Some are guilty; all are responsible. Applied to the image of the Church as the Mother of the faithful, it must surely be possible to find a way to say that she accepts responsibility for the actions of her children. She, although sinless, does not disown her sinful children. To change the image, Christ in his body on the cross bears the guilt of those who are members of his body, the Church. Of course analogies limp, but these are the kinds of tangled questions that must be explored more carefully as the concept of the purification of memory takes root, over time, in the consciousness of Christians and others.
Central to the misconstrual of what the Pope did is the assumption that he was issuing an apology. Apology is definitely not the right word, although it was persistently used in almost all the media reports and commentary. A late-night television show that would have been blasphemous were it not so juvenile ran footage of the Pope speaking with the voice-over, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, and I promise not to do it again. That was followed by the Jewish host saying that maybe Jews should apologize too. We brought you some yentas [irritating women], but we also produced the bagel, which is pretty good, right? There were only a few hesitant laughs from the audience, which otherwise seemed to have a bottomless appetite for vulgarities. The host, a very funny man, looked puzzled and wondered out loud if there were no Jews in the audience.
In fact, John Paul was not issuing an apology but was confessing to God, and on behalf of the sons and daughters of the Church, our failure to live lives worthy of the truth authoritatively taught by the Church. Far from throwing that teaching into doubt, he underscored that we are all held accountable to it. In all this he was setting an example and inviting others to engage in a comparable act of self-examination, confession, and repentance, acknowledging that all of us have in myriad ways betrayed the moral truths that we profess. Representative of the media’s reaction, however, was the lead editorial of the New York Times , The Pope’s Apology. It was substantively the reaction of the television comedian, albeit with a long face. The editors smugly commend the Pope for an apology that will make it easier for the Church to heal its relations with other faiths. They then quickly move on to complain about what he did not say.
The apology, they say, was offered on behalf of the Church’s sons and daughters,’ but not the Church itself, which is considered holy. One might think the editors are raising a theological challenge to Catholic ecclesiology, but of course they are only scoring partisan points. Nor, the complaint continues, did John Paul directly address the sensitive issue of whether past popes, cardinals, and clergy”not just parishioners”also erred. That is, of course, patent nonsense. Bishops, cardinals, and popes are also children of the Church who have sinned. Why, do the editors suppose, does the Pope go to confession every week? Then there is this: The Pope’s apology for discrimination against women is welcome but difficult to square with his continued opposition to abortion and birth control, and to women in the priesthood. Regrettably, he made no mention of discrimination against homosexuals.
But of course John Paul did directly address abortion, birth control, and morally disordered sexuality when he spoke of our responsibility for the evils of today. What the editors mean to say is that the Church’s understanding of good and evil is difficult to square with their understanding of good and evil. As for the ordination of women, one eagerly awaits from Howell Raines and his editorial colleagues their theological study explaining why the biblical, patristic, and magisterial sources authorize the Catholic Church to approve of such an innovation in its sacramental order. The nub of the misconstrual by the editors”and one says this in fear of offending against a self-importance of narcissistic proportions”is their apparent inability to understand that the Pope was not apologizing to the New York Times . The editors assume the posture of being the infallible tribunal before which the Pope must make his case. They are prosecutor, jury, and judge, and they will decide when the Catholic Church’s act of contrition is sufficient to warrant pardon, or at least a measure of clemency. Such towering arrogance would be amusing were it not so pathetic.
The Pope is keenly aware of the risks involved in the purification of memory. Despite all, I believe he was right to take those risks. In sharpest contrast to the dominant evasions and mendacities of our time, evident not least of all in the media, the Pope has dramatically demonstrated how we are honestly to confess our sins, in the confidence of God’s forgiveness and of grace for the amendment of life. In time, those who initially and self-righteously thought they were being offered an apology which they were in a moral position to either accept or reject might begin to understand and follow the example of courage and honesty that John Paul has set. Or they may continue to use it as yet another stick with which to flail their perceived opponents. The Church has survived much worse. The purification of memory is, first of all, about the integrity of the Church, and, despite initial misunderstandings and misconstruals, she is strengthened by acknowledging the truth about both the light and the shadows along the way of her earthly pilgrimage.
Forgive us our trespasses . . . Against the misconstruals of the Mass of Reconciliation on the First Sunday of Lent, one notes with deep gratification the very different response to the Pope’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as reported in this issue by George Weigel. In fact it is against the background of such misconstruals, especially with reference to Jewish-Christian relations, that the achievement of the pilgrimage becomes so luminously clear. It is by such moments that the much overused word historic is properly defined.
Blaming Bob Jones
Among the nastier and more patently manipulative aspects of the presidential primary season was the accusation by the McCain campaign that George W. Bush is anti-Catholic because he spoke at Bob Jones University and did not take the occasion to challenge the view among some hard-core fundamentalists that the papacy is the Antichrist. Immediately, a horde of reporters and television crews (a horde meaning more than a dozen) were at the door or on the phone wanting to know what I made of Bush’s alleged anti-Catholicism. They were generally disappointed to learn that I made nothing of it at all, and that because the charge against Bush was entirely bogus. A writer from the New Republic asked if I agreed with an article he was doing which claimed that the Bob Jones incident would break up the convergence between Catholics and evangelical Protestants represented by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He was obviously surprised and disappointed by my saying it would likely have quite the opposite effect. The animus against Catholics in this culture has very little to do with Bob Jones University and everything to do with the liberal-left elites who also make no secret of their disdain for evangelicals. It is hardly the strongest bond between them, but evangelicals and Catholics are also drawn together by recognizing who holds them both in contempt.
The partisan manipulation of the anti-Catholic issue is incisively addressed by Peter Steinfels of the New York Times . He notes along the way that the Democratic leaders who try to pin the anti-Catholic label on Republicans are the same people who have slammed their party’s door against Catholics who dissent from, to cite the most obvious instance, its pro-abortion orthodoxy. Then there is the larger question about the source of anti-Catholicism in America. Steinfels writes: Yes, anti-Catholic animus rooted in the theological polemics of the sixteenth-century Reformation still exists in the United States. But the anti-Catholic animus rooted in the political polemics of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the cultural polemics of nineteenth-century American nativism has long since taken over all the traditional themes. The Church is an authoritarian monolith; its doctrines are hopelessly premodern; its rites are colorful but mindless; its sexual standards are unnatural, repressive, and hypocritical; its congregations are anti-Semitic and racist; its priests are harsh and predatory; its grip on the minds of believers is numbing. These themes still ring in some fundamentalist pulpits. But they are far more apt to be interjected into the more adult sitcoms and late-night comedy, and to be reflected in films, editorials, art, fiction, and memoirs considered enlightened and liberating.
At a social event in Washington, Steinfels reports, a woman with an impressive reputation for supporting liberal and humanitarian causes was singing the praises of her daughter-in-law. She’s a Catholic, you know, and then quickly added, but she’s a thinking Catholic. Steinfels asks us to imagine that woman saying of someone, She’s an African American, you know, but she’s an educated African American. A thinking Catholic, of course, is a Catholic who disagrees with the Church’s teaching on regnant cultural and moral orthodoxies. In this view, as one has too many occasions to note, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.
Steinfels concludes: Anti-Catholic animus is not keeping Catholics out of board rooms or country clubs, however, although it may complicate the careers of those in academic life,journalism, or some professional fields who don’t make sure they are seen as thinking’ Catholics. Anti-Catholicism would be a worthy subject for study and debate, freed, one hopes, from the manipulative politics of victimhood. But the place to begin is not Bob Jones University. One place to begin is with the anti-Catholic, and anti-evangelical, prejudices entrenched among those who, in a moment of partisan contortion, expressed such touching concern about the alleged anti-Catholicism in the current presidential race.
So What’s the Big Deal About Partial Birth Abortion?
Outside the circles of pro-abortion extremism, almost all Americans are revulsed by partial-birth abortion. State after state has enacted bans against a gruesome procedure that kills babies within seconds and inches of their being unquestionably born. Just as regularly, federal courts have overruledthe bans, claiming that they transgress against the abortion license guaranteed by Roe v. Wade . Now the question of partial-birth abortion is before the Supreme Court, and a great deal will turn on its ruling.
Meanwhile, however, Richard Stith, Professor of Law at Valparaiso University, notes that something very curious is happening. Partial-birth abortion is forcing a new judicial candor about other abortions as well, at least from the midterm of pregnancy. Sensible people may disagree about whether this new candor is promising or ominous.
Remember that Roe v. Wade decided that states cannot prohibit abortion based on a theory that life begins before birth. Today the pretense is being dropped that that is just a theory. Here, for instance, is Judge Richard Arnold of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals explaining why states cannot ban the killing of a living unborn child while it is in the process of being delivered. His language is graphic:
In a D&E procedure, the physician inserts forceps into the uterus, grasps a part of the fetus, commonly an arm or a leg, and draws that part out of the uterus into the vagina. Using the traction created between the mouth of the cervix and the pull of the forceps, the physician dismembers the fetal part which has been brought into the vagina, and removes it from the woman’s body. The rest of the fetus remains in the uterus while dismemberment occurs, and is often still living . . . . [Even in] a suction-curettage procedure where the fetus does not remain intact, part of the fetus which is still living may be drawn into the vagina before demise occurs.
In other words,Judge Arnold says, such ordinary abortions must also be considered partial-birth abortions, since the fact is that death is the result after the abortionist delivers part or parts of the baby. Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit makes essentially the same point as Judge Arnold, although he focuses not on the sameness of technique but on the sameness of outcome in partial-birth abortions and other abortions:
From the standpoint of the fetus, and, I should think, of any rational person, it makes no difference whether, when the skull is crushed, the fetus is entirely within the uterus or its feet are outside the uterus. Yet the position of the feet is the only difference between committing a felony and performing an act that the states concede is constitutionally privileged . . . . [T]here is no meaningful difference between the forbidden and the privileged practice. No reason of policy or morality that would allow the one would forbid the other.
Judge Posner does not deny that partial-birth abortion is gruesome. His point is that other abortions, certainly from the second trimester on, are also gruesome. Posner even indicates some sympathy for those who want to prohibit those other abortions:
I do not mean to criticize anyone who believes, whether because of religious conviction, nonsectarian moral conviction, or simply a prudential belief that upholding the sacredness of human life whatever the circumstances is necessary to prevent us from sliding into barbarism, that abortion is always wrong and perhaps particularly so in late pregnancy, since all methods of late-term abortion are gruesome . . . . But what is at stake in these cases is whether the people who feel that way are entitled to coerce a woman who feels differently to behave as they would in her situation.
So where are we then? Prof. Stith writes, The United States Supreme Court for many years inhibited serious discussion of abortion by using its immense prestige to encourage doubt about what abortion actually does. Perhaps surprisingly, opponents of partial-birth abortion were able to use this doubt to their legislative advantage. But Judge Posner incisively points out that public support for the [partial-birth abortion bans] was [in part] based . . . on sheer ignorance of the medical realities of late-term abortion. The uninformed thought the [partial-birth] procedure gratuitously cruel, akin to infanticide; they didn’t realize that the only difference between it and the methods of late-term abortion that are conceded all round to be constitutionally privileged is which way the fetus’ feet are pointing.
The publicity about, and consequent opposition to, partial-birth abortion rendered a great service in educating the public on how extreme is the abortion license created by Roe v. Wade . On the other hand, the new judicial candor about what happens in ordinary abortions may lead some to the conclusion that partial-birth abortion is not qualitatively different and therefore, however regrettable, must be accepted. The more hopeful possibility, of course, is that a better-informed public will conclude that the killing of babies is a monstrous evil and must be outlawed. Put positively, the conclusion should be that we must work toward the goal of the pro-life movement: every child, born and unborn, protected in law and welcomed in life.
The Pope at the National Prayer Breakfast
The National Prayer Breakfast, now in its fiftieth year, has been mainly a Protestant affair, with more recent overlappings into the interreligious and generalized civil religion. Always addressed by the President, the breakfast gathers most members of Congress and hundreds of others variously linkedto national leadership. This year, Pope John Paul II was invited to address the breakfast and, while he could not be present in person, he sent an extended message that was read by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo. The Pope began with, Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him and all the ages; to him be glory and power through every age for ever. Amen. Then followed reflections on the way of salvation, Christian unity, the responsibility of the U.S. in world history, and the strengths and temptations of democracy. Herewith some excerpts:
Two weeks ago, leaders from Christian denominations worldwide joined me in opening the Holy Door at the basilica of Saint Paul, and together we crossed its threshold. That was an eloquent sign of our commitment to ensure that, in the millennium just beginning, Christians will give ever fuller expression to that unity which is Christ’s gift to his Church, so that together we may cross the threshold of hope in openness to the future which God in his providence holds out to us.
This great project”the building of a world more worthy of the human person, a society which can foster a renaissance of the human spirit”calls also for that sense of moral responsibility which flows from commitment to truth: walking the path of truth, as the Apostle John puts it (3 John 3). And such a moral responsibility, by its very nature, cannot be reduced to a purely private matter. The light of Christ should illumine every thought, word, and action of believers; there is no area of personal or social life which it is not meant to penetrate, enliven, and make fruitful. The spread of a purely utilitarian approach to the great moral issues of public life points to the urgent need for a rigorous and reasoned public discourse about the moral norms that are the foundation of any just society. A living relationship with the truth, Scripture teaches, is the very source and condition of authentic and lasting freedom (cf. John 8:32).
Your nation was built as an experiment in ordered freedom, an experiment in which the exercise of individual freedom would contribute to the common good. The American separation of Church and State as institutions was accompanied from the beginning of your Republic by the conviction that strong religious faith, and the public expression of religiously informed judgments, contribute significantly to the moral health of the body politic. Within the fabric of your national life a particular moral authority has been entrusted to you who are invested with political responsibility as representatives of the American people. In the great Western democratic tradition, men and women in political life are servants of the polis in its fullest sense”as a moral and civil commonwealth. They are not mere brokers of power in a political process taking place in a vacuum, cut off from private and public morality. Leadership in a true democracy involves much more than simply the mastering of techniques of political management: your vocation as representatives calls for vision, wisdom, a spirit of contemplation, and a passion for justice and truth.
Looking back on my own lifetime, I am convinced that the epoch-making changes taking place and the challenges appearing at the dawn of this new millennium call for just such a prophetic function on the part of religious believers in public life. And, may I say, this is particularly true of you who represent the American people, with their rich heritage of commitment to freedom and equality under the law, their spirit of independence and commitment to the common good, their self-reliance and generosity in sharing their God-given gifts. In the century just ended, this heritage became synonymous with freedom itself for people throughout the world, as they sought to cast off the shackles of totalitarianism and to live in freedom. As one who is personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the twentieth century, allow me to ask: will America continue to inspire people to build a truly better world, a world in which freedom is ordered to truth and goodness? Or will America offer the example of a pseudo-freedom, which, detached from the moral norms that give life direction and fruitfulness, turns in practice into a narrow and ultimately inhuman self-enslavement, one which smothers people’s spirits and dissolves the foundations of social life?
These questions pose themselves in a particularly sharp way when we confront the urgent issue of protecting every human being’s inalienable right to life from conception until natural death. This is the great civil rights issue of our time, and the world looks to the United States for leadership in cherishing every human life and in providing legal protection for all the members of the human community, but especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable.
For religious believers who bear political responsibility, our times offer a daunting yet exhilarating challenge. I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self-destruction. Democracy is our best opportunity to promote the values that will make the world a better place for everyone, but a society which exalts individual choice as the ultimate source of truth undermines the very foundation of democracy.
If there is no objective moral order which everyone must respect, and if each individual is expected to supply his or her own truth and ethic of life, there remains only the path of contractual mechanisms as the way of organizing our living together in society. In such a society the strong will prevail and the weak will be swept aside. As I have written elsewhere, If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political action, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism ( Centesimus Annus ).
Secularization in Theory and Fact
Many of the most influential secularization theorists have been Europeans, especially German and French. Since the eighteenth century and up to the present”albeit with fits and starts and many convolutions”it does seem that Western Europe has been on a course of inexorable secularization. In bothpublic and personal life, the institutions, observances, and teachings associated with religion”in this case meaning Christianity”appear to be ever more marginal, giving credibility to the idea that there is a necessary connection between modernity and secularity. The more modern a society, the more secular it will become. In this context, scholars regularly spoke about American exceptionalism. Why is it, they asked, that the United States, presumably the most modern of societies, is so vibrantly religious? America was thought to be the exception that had to be explained. In recent years, however, more and more scholars have come to the conclusion that Europe is the anomaly, leading to talk about European exceptionalism. (Meaning mainly Western Europe, since Central and Eastern European societies show very different patterns.)
In 1997 Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard published The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order , advancing an argument that continues to generate lively interest. Contrary to long-entrenched expectations, we witness a world in which different civilizations”defined by different cultures that are typically defined, in turn, by cult or religion”are the deciding factor in collective allegiances and conflicts. Huntington’s proposal flies in the face of the widespread assumption that the world is being homogenized into a global village where everybody becomes more and more alike. The economic and technological dynamics of globalization are indeed powerful, but they are far from being omnipotent. And some aspects of globalization, such as the explosion of communications technology, can expand and strengthen religio-cultural diversity in a world that is, at the same time, both linked and divided by a near-infinite number of electronic bands, channels, websites, and whatever comes next.
Such is the larger context in which we are invited to think about religion, culture, and secularization. Were the legendary man or woman from Mars to show up and ask what is the single most important thing now happening on Planet Earth, many possible answers might come to mind. Were I put on the spot in that unlikely circumstance, I think I would say that the most important thing now happening on Planet Earth is the desecularization of world history.
Our immediate business, however, is not quite so global in its reach, although it is not always easy to distinguish between what is American and what is global. It is now the case that several generations of Americans have been taught, from grade school through graduate school, that ours is a secular society, or is rapidly becoming such. Whether the subject is sexual mores, family life, the work ethic, or attitudes toward wealth, death, and dying, the textbooks are replete with generic statements such as: In earlier times, people sought answers to these questions in religion, but in our secular society____. The student is invited to fill in the blank or, more commonly, to accept the answer provided by the writer of the textbook who simply knows, as everybody supposedly knows, that traditional belief and morality are no longer relevant. What we in fact know is something very different, even if there is no agreement on how to explain it: American society is as religious and, in some ways, probably more religious than it ever has been.
More than thirty years ago, in 1967, my longtime colleague and friend Peter Berger published The Sacred Canopy . Berger has subsequently and substantively changed his thinking about religion and secularization, but the theory set forth in that book continues to have enormous influence on the discussion of these questions. Once upon a time, according to this theory, people lived in societies that were covered by a sacred canopy of religious meaning; there were traditional and taken-for-granted truths that explained the world and their part in it. Then came along modernity with its scientific, specializing, and fragmenting explanations of reality that challenged and shattered what had been a sacred cosmos. With modernity, said Max Weber, an earlier social theorist, the world became disenchanted. In the middle of the last century, the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann opined that people who had learned to use an electric light switch could no longer believe that God makes things happen. For modern man the world had been demythologized, and Bultmann set out to demythologize the Christian gospel as well, stripping it of its miraculous and supernatural elements and making it once again believable to a world of educated grownups.
A Choice of Theories
Berger was never a Bultmannian in theology, but the early Berger offered a similar account of the corrosive effect of modernity on religious faith. The crisis for religion, he said in The Sacred Canopy and other writings, is how to maintain the plausibility structure of traditional religion in a world that does not think religious truth claims are plausible. One answer is for religious groups to create a sheltered enclave in which believers huddle together and reinforce one another in their conviction that the old stories with their old truths still define the really real real world. The problem, of course, is that most people cannot live full time in the sheltered enclave; they also participate in the real world of modernity with its conflicting explanations of how the world works. The result is that people experience cognitive dissonance, which can be painfully disorienting. What I know about reality when, for instance, participating in the enclave’s ritual enactment of the sacred story is very different from what I know when going about my everyday business in the modern world.
Some people can apparently live quite contentedly with the most severe cognitive dissonance simply by not thinking about it. They don’t pay much attention to the clashing dissonance between what they think inside and what they think outside the enclave. More thoughtful people, however, have to negotiate some kind of truce between these conflicting worlds, and this results in cognitive bargaining, which typically means trimming religious truth claims to fit the real world of relentlessly secular modernity. The theory of early Berger and those who followed him is similar in important ways to current ideas associated with postmodernism. In fact, with Thomas Luckmann, Berger wrote in 1966 The Social Construction of Reality , a book that anticipated postmodernists who contend that all meaning systems, including modern rationality, are socially constructed. What we call reality is no more than the stories”whether we choose to call them religious or secular”that we make up as we go along. While Berger has greatly revised his earlier thinking and regrets the uses to which others have put it, the sheltered enclave theory continues to be an influential explanation of why religion flourishes in an otherwise modern and secular society such as the United States.
Other scholars have preferred the status discontent theory. According to this explanation, religious groups, especially those of a conservative or fundamentalist hue, mobilize themselves in reaction to perceived threats to their social standing or security. In the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and others employed this theory to explain the emergence of a political right wing in American public life. Echoes of the status discontent theory are still routine in the mainline media’s treatment of what is called the religious right. As a story in the Washington Post put it a few years ago (the editors later apologized), these people are poor, uneducated, and easily led. And they are easily led because they are easily frightened by changes favored by the rich and educated which they do not understand and which they see as threatening to their way of life.
Another explanation of why religion can flourish in an otherwise secular society might be called the strictness theory. This gained currency with the late Dean Kelley’s 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing . Kelley produced massive evidence on the decline of liberal or mainline churches, in contrast to conservative churches that were enjoying a bull market. In some ways Kelley’s thesis was similar to early Berger, but he did not place so much emphasis upon the cognitive. Doctrines, ideas, and what Kelley called notions are less important than the actual demands that a religious group imposes. The more demanding a religion, the more likely it is to succeed. We want something more, Kelley wrote,
than a smooth, articulate verbal interpretation of what life is all about. Words are cheap; we want explanations that are validated by the commitment of other persons . . . . What costs nothing accomplishes nothing. If it costs nothing to belong to a community, it can’t be worth much. So the quality that enables religious meanings to take hold is not their rationality, their logic, their surface credibility, but rather the demand they make upon their adherents and the degree to which that demand is met by commitment.
Some students of American religion have taken part of Kelley’s strictness theory and given it a turn along the lines of the rational choice theory that so fascinates many contemporary economists. In this view, which is notably associated with Laurence Iannaccone, strict religions are successful not so much because they provide more intact communities of meaning but because they tend to exclude free riders. Free riders are, quite simply, people who are just along for the ride; they take what they want from a group but give little or nothing in return. Liberal groups are full of free riders; indeed, such groups typically make it one of their selling points that they place no demands on those to whom they appeal. This has the attraction of being accepting and open. Since, however, free riders make little contribution to what people are looking for in religion”in terms of inspiration, fellowship, strong conviction, and communal security”liberal groups tend to spawn apathy and a lack of direction, which is a sure formula for institutional decline.
Also stealing a card from the economists are the proponents of religious marketing theory. In this theory, social pluralism, which is commonly thought to be hostile to religion, is in fact the best friend of religious flourishing. The claim is that, in societies where religion appears to be strong and even to enjoy a monopoly in providing the sacred canopy, it is in fact weak and fragile. It is no accident, according to market theorists, that secularization is so far advanced in countries such as England, France, and Germany that have culturally (and, in different ways, legally) established churches, or that religious indifference is so widespread in Latin American countries that have a taken for granted Catholic culture.
In the United States it has been very different. In their much discussed 1992 book, The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy , Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argued that competition has been the very lifeblood of American religion. They produce impressive evidence to show that, contrary to commonly held assumptions, religion does better in pluralistic cities than in small towns and rural areas. Moreover, they contend, church attendance has steadily increased during the course of American history as we have become, all in all, a more religious, not a less religious, nation.
The economic factors of competition and marketing are not, it must be admitted, the most edifying way of thinking about religion, but they are useful in understanding what I mean by the incorrigibility of Christian America. These are approaches to religion employed by social scientists who presumably refrain from making what are called value judgments. Just the facts, ma’am, as Sergeant Joe Friday put it. Remember, too, that economic dynamics are part of being human, and nothing that is human is alien to Christianity, the most humanistic of religions. What else could Christianity be, since its central teaching is that God became a human being in Jesus Christ in order that everything human might be redeemed through him? This theological reminder is a caution against dismissing the analyses under discussion as merely economic or merely sociological. In the biblical understanding of things, there is nothing mere about any dimension of the human condition.
That having been said, however, social scientists who understand both the usefulness and limitations of their craft know that the religious phenomenon, at its heart and in its totality, escapes the nets of social theory and analysis. Not only in its elevated forms of literary expression but also in the popular piety of revival meetings, Bible study groups, and the millions of people at daily Mass, religion engages the supernatural, metaphysical, and mystical. In ways unarticulated and perhaps beyond articulation, people are encountered by God, by the ineffable. Or so in various ways they say they believe, and believe with varying degrees of certitude. The theories and statistics of sociology are to religion as sexology is to the act of love. They are not to be confused with the thing itself. Yet it is unavoidable that we employ instruments such as statistics even as we are skeptical about them. As one wag put it, It has been statistically demonstrated that most statistics are wrong. In any event, those who during most of the twentieth century were weaving statistics and theories into a grand and confidently told story of the secularization of the world are now having to cope with a quite different story that seems to be writing itself.
In 1993, as the hysteria over child sex abuse cases was beginning to decline in the U.S., charges started flying around a reform school for boys in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. One former employee was convicted of abuse and died in jail. The case received wide publicity and soon hundreds of other claimsof abuse, going back as far as fifty years, were lodged. In the hope of avoiding huge damages from lawsuits, the province set up a fund of $25
million to buy off other complainants. The province then had the bright idea of advertising its offer and, not surprisingly, thousands of complaints flooded in. In prisons, lawyers posted what inmates called the meat chart, an official compensation scale that ranged from $3,500 for physical abuse up to $85,000 for sexual assault. The payoff fund was soon depleted, so the legislature added another $8 million to it. As a result, nearly all of the hundreds of employees who had worked at Shelburne over the years were charged without a chance to learn who had accused them of what. Those administering the fund accepted charges at their face value, because as Anne Derrik, a lawyer for 450 former residents, put it, There are no records. There are no witnesses. As a Toronto reporter noted, Employees who had dedicated their lives to helping troubled kids are now seeing their names, reputations, and life work smeared forever by allegations of hideous crimes they never committed. The prize for the most callously dumb statement goes to lawyer Derrik, who allowed that there is undoubtedly a certain amount of fraud, but questioned why the accused were angry, noting that the money is not coming out of their pockets. Perhaps she vaguely misremembers from her school days Shakespeare’s saying, Who steals my good name steals trash.
Remember the new painting of the epicene Jesus touted by the National Catholic Reporter as someone who celebrates our differences? In the revised version of Mark 1, the man with an unclean spirit cries out, What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are”the Holy One of God! and Jesus reassures him saying, Relax, I have come to celebrate our differences. As is so often the case, life beggars parody. Here is the comment on the same passage in Celebrating the Eucharist , the Mass guide published by Liturgical Press and used by thousands of Catholic parishes. After Jesus cast out the unclean spirit, we read in Mark that All were amazed and asked one another, What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.’ Celebrating the Eucharist comments: Jesus’ authority is not a power over’ but a truth that calls forth life. His is an authority that derives from modeling how a true servant of God lives. If I get this right, the problem with the evil spirits is that they wanted to serve God but lacked an adequate role model until Jesus came along. In Mark it is said, The unclean spirit convulsed the man and with a loud cry came out of him. In the psychobabbled Mass guide, one infers that the unclean spirit said something like, Thanks, Jesus, I needed that. There are no convulsions or loud cries, although one imagines there might be some gagging in the pews.
The American Anglican Council, which understands itself to be a biblical renewal movement within the Episcopal Church, says that the consecration of two American bishops in Singapore last January creates a new reality for Episcopalianism. The new bishops are to be missionaries in the U.S., providing episcopal oversight for conservative parishes in liberal dioceses. A year earlier, the Council had issued a Jubilee Initiative that called for the creation of alternative oversight for both liberal parishes in conservative dioceses and conservative parishes in liberal dioceses. But the initiative was ignored by the Presiding Bishop’s office in the U.S. The Jubilee Initiative, says the Council, is a commonsense proposal intended to foster unity. Since in historic Christianity the bishop is supposed to be a sign of unity, it may be difficult for outsiders to understand how bishops selected to serve on the basis of theological and ideological divides can foster unity. In any event, the Council joins others in hoping that the Anglican Primates (bishops leading various provinces of the Anglican communion) will be able to come up with a way to stem further divisions.
Should President Clinton have been removed from office? Should he have been impeached in the first place? Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review, offers a different take on these questions in Necessary Impeachments, Necessary Acquittals. He notes that in our constitutional history there have been four impeachments followed by four acquittals, each the occasion of epic confrontations”Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1804, Judge James Hawkins Peck in 1830, President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and President Clinton in 1999. In each case, Lindberg argues, the acquittals resulted from the fact that the confrontation was really over something other than the specific charges of the impeachment. He writes: The facts about Clinton’s misconduct in trying to conceal his relationship with Monica Lewinsky were stubborn and damning. No President should do what Clinton did, and his name will forever bear the mark of impeachment for it. Yet it would have been impossible to remove Clinton without simultaneously vindicating the process by which he came to stand trial in the Senate”which is to say, without vindicating the House’s deference to and reliance on independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation, the conduct of the Starr investigation in all its particulars, and the authority for the investigation, the independent counsel statute itself. And it is noteworthy that within the year, the statute was gone, bringing to an end its twenty-year disfiguration of our political system. So the Senate trial was really, as many of Clinton’s defenders claimed, about Kenneth Starr and, as a few said, about the independent counsel statute. It is an interesting but not persuasive argument. It overlooks the fact that many Clinton defenders and some Senators who voted to acquit claimed that the whole thing was no more than a matter of Republicans trying to get rid of a President they intensely disliked, a claim reinforced by the partisan lines of the final vote. More troubling, however, is that the Senators went forward one by one to sign a solemn oath that they would make their decision on the basis of the articles of impeachment”not on the basis of whether they approved of the actions of Kenneth Starr, and certainly not as a vote on the independent counsel statute. The trouble is compounded by the fact that at least some who voted to acquit had publicly said that they thought Clinton was guilty as charged. If it is true, as Lindberg suggests, that a Senate vote in the impeachment process is less about the charges brought than about the complex circumstances that produced the charges and the impeachment in the first place, then perhaps the wording of the oath should be changed. There is something very wrong with a practice that puts Senators in a position of solemnly swearing to do what they do not intend to do.
The following comment, inserted only hours before the deadline for this issue, replaces an item on the role of the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the Elian Gonzalez affair. That item noted that the NCC had for months served as the mouthpiece for the curiously shared position of the Castro regime and the Clinton Administration. The NCC has a very long record of moral bankruptcy, and in the last year its financial bankruptcy, too, has been widely publicized. At this point we do not know where it got the money to pay for charter airplanes for its Havana-Washington shuffle, or for other undoubtedly considerable expenses in its campaign to return Elian to Cuba, including the hiring of President Clinton’s impeachment lawyer, Gregory Craig. Suffice it to say that the part played by the NCC in this sordid business is morally contemptible and warrants the clear condemnation of its member churches. As for the forcible seizure of Elian in Miami, I write in the immediate aftermath of the thuggish night raid of Holy Saturday by heavily armed federal agents who have been aptly compared to storm troopers. It is not an excess of outrage but sober reflection that compels a chilling comparison with the Waco catastrophe. It is no mitigation to say that nobody was killed in Miami. The raiders clearly indicated they would shoot if they met with resistance. Once again, the Clinton Justice Department treated this as a hostage situation although Elian was in no way a hostage. Once again, Attorney General Janet Reno and her enforcers brushed aside the law”in this case a federal appeals court decision favorable to the Miami relatives”in order to meet their own unilateral and arbitrary deadline for action. This despite the fact that a number of alternatives were under discussion, including an offer by the Holy See to arrange the boy’s transfer at the nuncio’s residence in Washington. Once again, Ms. Reno sought to justify the action by claiming to possess intelligence that her opponents had weapons and thus posed a threat requiring immediate action, in this case a night raid in the middle of the Easter weekend. Once again, the government claimed to be concerned about child abuse, citing the speculation of a hired psychological expert who had never met the boy, who to all appearances was quite happy and lovingly cared for. What law warranted the raid? None. What was the hurry in removing the boy? The hubris of a government wanting to save face by doing what it said it would do. Since Elifin’s rescue from the sea on Thanksgiving Day, thoughtful people have been divided as to what should be done. Weighing the rights of the father and the interests of the child, many were reluctantly resigned to the boy’s eventual return to Cuba. On that score, reasonable people can disagree. But the night raid of Holy Saturday”smashing into the home of American citizens who were not breaking the law nor even accused of breaking the law, seizing a terrified boy at gunpoint”is further evidence of a Justice Department that is dangerously unhinged. In the past eight years, President Clinton has done many things to undermine confidence in the rule of law. To the extent that he supports Ms. Reno and her storm trooper tactics, he makes additionally persuasive the judgment that this administration is a grave threat to our constitutional order and the civil rights of all Americans.
Crisis magazine has been doing some numbers-crunching on the Catholic electorate and now turns to the similarities and dissimilarities between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. On the big questions in public life, says researcher Steven Wagner, there is a growing convergence between the two groups. Along the way, he notes that a very small fraction of those surveyed have received voting advice from their clergy (5 percent for active Catholics, 2 percent for evangelical conservatives), and only 15 percent in both groups were contacted by a religious or moral advocacy organization at election time. These results, Wagner writes, belie the image of evangelical churches as hotbeds of political activism. While there are differences between Catholics and evangelical conservatives, they are trivial compared with the political schisms between religiously active and religiously inactive voters. Wagner writes: This conclusion is particular to the current political moment. At another time, under different political circumstances, active Catholics and evangelicals might find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades. But at this political moment, these two groups are united by a common diagnosis of the social crisis and a common desire for an agenda of social and cultural reconstruction. We stand together just now at the side of the road with thumbs out, waiting for a political leadership to come along that will lead us forward.
It does not mitigate the shame of Princeton in giving him a tenured chair, but the more Peter Singer is allowed to talk and write the more he exposes the looniness of his garage sale utilitarianism built on his version of the principle that everyone should count for one and no more than one. A concomitant principle is that a morally decent person will give away to the poor everything he does not need to maintain the basics of life as defined very basically. A number of writers have challenged Singer’s spending large sums of money on the care of his mother in Australia who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The question is raised again in an interview with the Princeton alumni weekly. Isn’t he violating his own principles? Singer answers, Yes. In a sense, my spending money on my mother’s care is in conflict with that principle. But so is the fact that I flew back to Australia to visit my daughters at Christmas. That money could also be better spent elsewhere. I’ve never claimed that I live my life perfectly in accordance with those principles of sharing my money as much as I should. Apparently it is not necessary to obey the rules of moral decency to be a morally decent person. In the interview, Singer says again that babies become persons when they develop some kind of awareness of themselves existing over time. That happens sometime during the first year of life but not in the first month of life. Previously, Singer had proposed that the law should allow the killing of disabled infants in the first twenty-eight days after birth. But I no longer think that that will work. It’s too arbitrary. The suggestion is that decisions about killing infants should be made on a case-by-case basis. Singer is asked whether his being an atheist affects his philosophy. It probably does, although there are some theists who would reach the same conclusions. But it’s certainly easier to reach them if you are not religious. And probably people who are strongly committed to the traditional religions like Christianity would not be likely to come up with the same views that I hold. Peter Singer is one of those people whose vestigial sanity is saved by their inconsistencies.
A world trading system already exists; a world government does not, and in many quarters the very concept evokes resistance. So say the editors of America , the Jesuit weekly. Christians believe that neither this nor any other hope for the future can be realized without grace, and so until the end of the ages they will continue to pray: Thy kingdom come.’ To think that all this time we’ve been praying for a world government.
Writing in the London Review of Books , historian Norman Finkelstein deplores the exploitation and vulgarization of the Holocaust. There is, for instance, the question of who is and who is not a Holocaust survivor. He quotes the director of the Yad Vashem archive in Israel who says that the testimonies of most survivors are unreliable: Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on secondhand information given them by friends or passing strangers. Finkelstein comments, Because survivors are revered as secular saints, one doesn’t dare question them. The term Holocaust survivor originally referred to those who suffered the trauma of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, or labor camps, and at the end of the war the number of such people was thought to be about a hundred thousand. Recently the Israeli Prime Minister’s office stated that there are nearly a million living survivors. Finkelstein’s mother, who really was a Holocaust survivor, used to ask him, If everyone who claims to be a survivor actually is one, who did Hitler kill? Claiming to be a survivor is, of course, not unrelated to sundry demands for reparations from countries and corporations. The pattern of mendacity described by Finkelstein is both distasteful and dangerous. The great danger is that it plays into the hands of the Holocaust deniers. There are some who accuse those who expose the pattern of mendacity of aiding the deniers, but that strikes me as thoroughly wrongheaded. The truth about the Holocaust can be preserved only by a relentless commitment to truth.
It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that Anthony Lewis, a great champion of judicial activism, is married to the recently appointed head of the top court in Massachusetts. In a recent column, Lewis takes on those who confuse democracy with majority rule, including some writers associated with this journal. The making of law and protection of rights, Lewis contends, must rest with an independent institution not subject to the mercies of the majority or the minority. That institution is the judiciary. He invokes in support of his argument the president of the Supreme Court of Israel, Aharon Barak, who said in a 1998 speech, One of the lessons of the Second World War and the Holocaust is that it is vital to place formal limits on the power of the majority. The concept It is not done’ needs to receive the formal expression It is forbidden.’ Really? Hitler, who was not elected by a majority, abolished majority rule and replaced representative democracy with a system of dictatorial command that included the courts. Was the It is verboten of the Nazi system an advance over the customary It is not done of German tradition? One might argue that the example invoked by Judge Barak supports exactly the opposite of what he and Mr. Lewis advocate. In any event, the case that law should be made in a way that is not subject to the mercies of the majority or the minority (i.e., not accountable to the people) must, in a democracy, be submitted to the people. Whether in the U.S. or Israel, one expects that the people will not rule in favor of that proposal. Which, of course, is why Mr. Lewis thinks the people should not rule.
A couple of months ago we ran here an entertaining story about a New Orleans fellow who had to trace a property deed to get a loan from the FHA. You may remember it. If you don’t, no matter. While a reliable source vouched for the story’s authenticity, several readers have convincingly argued that it is apocryphal. So if you do remember it, please forget it.
There has been an enormous fracas over the Israeli government’s permitting militant Muslims to build a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Father Drew Christiansen, SJ., a man with extensive experience in the tangled affairs of the Middle East, offers some sage counsel: Already some officials and organizational leaders have hinted that any criticism of Israeli government policy in the Nazareth affair will be perceived ipso facto as anti-Semitic. The foreign ministry spokesman Avis Sharon, for example, already accused the Holy See of playing a time-honored game of pointing the finger in the wrong direction’ in opposing the Israeli government’s role in the crisis. Christians should be able to defend their coreligionists against violent intimidation anywhere, including Israel, and they should be able to expect support of those who regard themselves as guardians of religious liberty. Many Jews and Muslims, in Israel and elsewhere, fully understand this. In a mature Catholic-Jewish relationship, moreover, it should be possible to distinguish between support for Israel and criticism of Israeli government policies. Likewise, in a mature Catholic-Muslim relationship, it should be possible to distinguish between respect for Islam and criticism of militants pursuing their own ends in the name of Islam. If Christian solidarity with the church of the Holy Land results in a new level of dialogue and a new quality of relationship with Jews and Muslims in the United States, perhaps some good may still come from the affair in Nazareth. Such progress in Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim relations, however, must never lose sight of the pain of Israel’s Christians made so sorely public in the crisis over the Nazareth square.
Believe me, it is no denigration of Oklahoma when I say that it is not the place one might have expected it. There in the foothills of the Ozarks, some fifty miles east of Tulsa, at an otherwise forsaken spot called Clear Creek, the abbey of Fontgombault in France has for the first time established a Benedictine monastery in the U.S. Fontgombault is associated with the Congregation of Solesmes, from which issued the great liturgical renewal, including the revival of Gregorian chant, in the nineteenth century, laying the foundations for the liturgical movement of the twentieth. The new foundation at Clear Creek begins with thirteen monks, and w