The Public Square
A half-truth is, more often than not, the half that we prefer to believe, or prefer that others believe. David Brooks, now a columnist for the New York Times, observes: “These days political parties grow more orthodox, while religions grow more fluid. In the political sphere, there is conflict and rigid partisanship. In the religious sphere, there is mobility, ecumenical understanding, and blurry boundaries. If George Bush and Howard Dean met each other on a political platform, they would fight and feud. If they met in a Bible study group and talked about their eternal souls, they’d probably embrace.” That’s a half-truth very nicely put.
Mr. Brooks has read and has been, unfortunately, unduly impressed by Alan Wolfe’s The Transformation of American Religion, which argues that religion in America is now totally captive to the American Way of Life, which is, in turn, indistinguishable from Mr. Wolfe’s putatively tolerant secularism (see my reflection on Wolfe’s thesis, “The Superficial in Pursuit of the Superficial,” Public Square, December 2003). Echoing Wolfe, Brooks depicts evangelical Protestantism in particular as an anodyne mix of optimism, self-help, and doctrinally indifferent hustling in the marketplace of American spiritualities, all of which are faithful to “the national creed.” The national creed is that creeds don’t matter. “Evangelical churches are part of mainstream American culture, not dissenters from it,” writes Brooks, following Wolfe.
As with most caricatures, this caricature of religion in America, and of evangelicalism in particular, contains considerable truth. Religion in America, like America itself, is so vast and so various that almost any caricature is amply supported by evidence. Half-truths are, after all, half true. I will not repeat what I wrote in the abovementioned reflection on why it is reasonable to think that Alan Wolfe, not to put too fine a point on it, doesn’t know what he is talking about when it comes to what the great majority of Americans think, believe, and do religiously. Both Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Brooks want to reassure their enlightened and mainly secular readership—and I expect they do share the same readership—that the “religious right” is largely a myth and that religion in the public square is really quite harmless. These deliverances have a piquant note. Only in America, as it is said, does one have two Jews publicly certifying that Christianity is, in Mr. Wolfe’s phrase, “safe for democracy.” We Christians are grateful, I’m sure. Where do we apply for citizenship?
Harold Bloom rendered a similar service several years ago with his book The American Religion, which argued that American Christianity is really not very Christian. It is, rather, Gnosticism with a few vestigial elements of a distinctively Christian tradition. Mr. Bloom’s book is a playfully provocative reading of popular religious sensibilities, and I’ve come to think more of it than I did when I first reviewed it in Commentary. His argument goes some way toward explaining the bestseller status of Elaine Pagels and others who peddle the Gospel of Thomas and Gnostic spiritualities as “alternative” Christianities. What we have in all these cases, however, are Jewish thinkers offering revisionist accounts of a “Christian America” that many American Jews view as threatening. The classic reference in this connection is Will Herberg’s 1955 study, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which presented religion as providing identity markers within a common civic piety.
The “Orthodox” and the “Fluid”
The Jewish sense of insecurity in an overwhelmingly Christian society is perfectly understandable, and perhaps even necessary, but what all these accounts have in common is the claim that Christianity in America is not threatening because it is not very Christian. The greater truth, I believe, is that Christianity has become more authentically Christian as it has, over the last half century, made great strides in theologically internalizing the abiding bond with living Judaism in obedience to the God of Israel. But that greater truth is largely lost on all but the relatively few Jewish thinkers engaged in the related dialogues and scholarship of the last fifty years.
It is a great pity, because the alternative strategy of grounding a sense of Jewish security in the hope of the evacuation or disappearance of Christianity in America is dead-ended. To put it bluntly: Most Christians do not appreciate being told by Jews that they are not really Christians, for, if they were, they would not be so friendly to Jews. That suggestion is very impolite and has, in addition, the distinct disadvantage of being false. It is precisely “orthodox” Christianity that securely grounds the bond with Jews and Judaism, and “fluid” Christianity that is, well, fluid—as in liberalism’s “go with the flow.” A not insignificant case in point: Are liberal or conservative Christians more solicitous of the security of Israel?
I do not wish to be too hard on Mr. Brooks. I know him as a fine fellow and he does not, after all, claim to be a scholar of American religion. But his use of the Wolfe thesis is part and parcel of the problem under discussion. Brooks has a track record as a conservative political pundit, and one can appreciate why he wants to make the argument that the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, is “part of mainstream American culture.” For readers of the New York Times, that gives the definition of “the mainstream” a big push to the right. Brooks, of course, is correct about where the mainstream is, if the mainstream is defined by where the American people mainly are. But I suspect Mr. Brooks is being more than a little disingenuous in his contrasting of political partisanship and religious amity. These are not two separated worlds. Brooks is, I am sure, familiar with the very substantial research showing that the most important single variable in partisan political alignments is, precisely, religion. Churchgoers are, or lean toward, the Republicans, while nonchurchgoers, the nonreligious, and the explicitly antireligious are overwhelmingly Democrats.
Mr. Brooks’ liberal readers are not likely to be taken in by his ploy. They are religiously committed to the belief that they are the mainstream and their mission is to ward off the barbarians whose only claim to being the mainstream is that they constitute the great majority of the people. His farther leftward readers are only too ready to admit, indeed to proudly trumpet, that they are dissenters from “mainstream American culture,” which does not detract from but only reinforces their conviction that they are anointed to govern America.
As for George Bush embracing Howard Dean at a Bible study, I’m sure he might. If Mr. Dean showed up, which seems extremely unlikely. After all, he left his local Episcopal church, which he says he seldom attended, over a dispute about a bike trail. His disputes with George Bush are somewhat more substantial than that. And, at bottom, some of those disputes probably have a good deal to do with religion. One thinks, for instance, of abortion, faith-based initiatives, the impossibility of same-sex marriage, parental choice in education, and the belief that God intends the world’s people to be free, toward which end the U.S. is morally obliged to play a part, even the leading part. One may disagree with President Bush on all these questions, or agree with him, on grounds that have little or nothing to do with religion. But I do not think there is a reasonable doubt that, in the mind of George Bush, these and other questions are closely related to his understanding of what it means to be a faithful Christian. There is no reason to believe, and every reason not to believe, that Mr. Dean shares that understanding. Which would not prevent President Bush from embracing Mr. Dean as a wayward brother—giving him the benefit of the doubt as Christians are wont to do.
In sum, the Wolfe-Brooks claims about the public insignificance of religion in America are, in addition to being deeply insulting to Christians, quite implausible. Maybe Brooks’ argument is better than the Times’ usual and somewhat fanatical crusading against the dangers posed by “the religious right,” but not by much. There is a measure of dignity attached to being viewed as dangerous, and none at all to being deemed innocuous. But it may be unfair to link Wolfe and Brooks so closely. Mr. Wolfe, for all his pretensions to scholarship, is simply ignorant about religion in America, while Mr. Brooks, knowing he is ignorant, makes the innocent mistake of relying on Mr. Wolfe. If Mr. Brooks is guilty of anything, it is probably of nothing more than being a talented social and political pundit who is sometimes too clever by half. Which, of course, brings us back to the dangers of half-truths.
The Bishops Get Their Report Card
On January 6, as scheduled, the bishops conference (USCCB) released the first report on compliance with the Charter adopted at its Dallas meeting in June 2002. The report contains no surprises, which is itself not surprising. The same may not be true of the report card on the bishops that the National Review Board (NRB) will be issuing at the end of February. The January 6 document reads like a very long corporate memorandum, much like something Ford might issue on what it is doing to remedy brake failures in the 2000 Taurus. The media have not been able to squeeze even one juicy tidbit out of the report, which is no doubt exactly what the bishops had in mind.
With a handful of exceptions—and in those cases for reasons unexceptionable—all the dioceses and eparchies (the latter are Eastern Rite jurisdictions) cooperated fully with the “audit” conducted by an army of investigators composed mainly of former FBI agents. A few jurisdictions are mildly criticized, all received a passing grade, and “commendations” were generously bestowed on those that anticipated or went beyond the rigorous mandates of Dallas. To judge by this report, the Catholic Church is well on its way to being the squeakiest clean institution in the country when it comes to protecting minors from a friendly pat on the back, never mind sexual abuse. (Although, admittedly, the two are hard to distinguish if one employs the elastic definition of sexual abuse adopted in Dallas.) It should be noted that the report does not cover the religious orders. They have about a third of the priests in the U.S., and it is not clear when or whether they will be issuing a comparable report on compliance with the Charter. Bishops do not have jurisdiction over the religious orders, aside from deciding whether to admit them to their dioceses, just as the USCCB does not have jurisdiction over bishops. Everything depends on voluntary cooperation, although, of course, pressures can be brought to bear.
Some bishops are expressing unhappiness that the organization hired to do the audit made a slew of “recommendations” that, it is said, exceed the organization’s mandate and infringe upon a bishop’s authority in deciding how to do his job. This complaint would be more credible if the bishops concerned had not voted for the present process at Dallas. They knew, or should have known, that when you hire people to evaluate the job you’re doing they’re likely to have some ideas of their own. The unhappy fact is that, in their panic-driven actions at Dallas, the bishops declared their incompetence in governing the Church. In a damage-containment mode, they appointed from the laity episcopoi of the episcopoi, overseers to oversee the overseers. To complain now about the consequent undermining of their authority is a little like a man’s seeking refuge from his creditors by declaring bankruptcy and then complaining that people think he is bankrupt.
Most of these dynamics are familiar by now, although see below on a new and important wrinkle on the role of canon law—or rather the ignoring of canon law—as a major factor in bringing about the crisis that has preoccupied the Church’s leadership for the last two years. As for January 6 and the audit, it was quite predictable that “emergency” measures adopted at Dallas would become entrenched. That is the way it is with organizations and bureaucracies. Among the recommendations of the auditing organization is that there be another audit next year, and the year after that, and, most probably, on and on. As for the NRB, it is unlikely to disappear. That specific institution may have a terminal point, but the taste for, and the perceived necessity of, lay supervision of the bishops is open-ended. It may be that some bishops at Dallas consoled themselves with the thought that this, too, shall pass, that the Church thinks in terms of centuries, and so forth. With Longfellow, they may have anticipated a better time coming:
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
Not very likely. The taste for and perceived necessity of lay supervision will not be denied. A mix of episcopal autocracy and episcopal laxity created the scandal, and neither the bishops who rejected any questioning of their authority nor the bishops who neglected to exercise their authority will be allowed to go back to business as usual. Which is undoubtedly a good thing. The big losers will be good bishops who understood and understand that their authority, while sacramentally bestowed, is made practically effective by holiness of example, by fatherly solicitude for and brotherly collaboration with priests and people, and by uncompromising fidelity to the teaching and norms of the Church they were ordained to serve. At Dallas, the good bishops, too, acquiesced in the declaration that they are bad bishops. They are not to be trusted. They must be watched carefully. That is the perception that they ratified by their votes. It is a perception that will be exploited, that is being exploited—by the media, by district attorneys, and by Catholic activists, none of whom believe that bishops are apostolically entrusted with the governance of the Church.
“Perhaps so,” some bishops respond, “but what else were we to do? It was a crisis, a legal disaster, a media catastrophe. This was the plan presented to us and, despite misgivings, we went with it.” What else were they to do? They might have acted like bishops of the Catholic Church instead of frightened franchise managers in a time of corporate meltdown. They might have come to Dallas on their knees, or gone into seclusion for a long period of prayer, fasting, and reflection, instead of hastily recruiting hired guns as spinmeisters and damage controllers. They might have been bishops. They might have spoken a word about sin and forgiveness, about human fragility and the call to holiness, about grace and the amendment of life. Some bishops might have voluntarily resigned as an act of penance. Instead, the bishops produced self-exculpating press releases, organizational charts promising new levels of accountability, and a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy, even if it meant scapegoating priests to whom they had failed to be bishops. It was not an edifying sight. But the most damning indictment of non-leadership since the crisis broke in January 2002 is the collective failure to frame what has happened in terms of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Long before this was a legal, financial, and public relations crisis, it was—and this is infinitely more important—a spiritual and moral crisis.
In sum, the bishops let those who were in an adversarial mode—the media, the victims, their lawyers, and the prosecutors—define the nature of the crisis and what must be done about it. “Yes,” it is objected, “but that was inevitable. They were playing offense and we were playing defense. If we addressed the crisis in the terms of Catholic morality and teaching, we would not have been understood and would probably have been mocked and accused of evasiveness.” There is something to that objection, but I am not persuaded. There is venerable precedent for being misunderstood and mocked in the service of the Gospel. By choosing the route of damage control, they are perceived as failed managers seeking rehabilitation, not as bishops. Of course, corporate management is part of being a bishop, but it is far from the most important part. The Church is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the People of God, not the Catholic Church, Inc. I am speaking here, please note, about the collective voice of the bishops, the USCCB. Some bishops in their dioceses have addressed the crisis in spiritual and moral terms, finding it to be an occasion for effective evangelization and re-evangelization. Others have communicated with their people through nothing more than a letter or two that might have been written, and probably were written, by their lawyers. During this Long Lent, no bishop has emerged as a nationally effective voice of Catholic truth. Perhaps that was too much to expect.
Caught by Surprise
So we await the two NRB reports at the end of February. One will be the findings of a team from John Jay College of Criminal Justice on instances of abuse—how many, who, what, when, and how they were handled—and the second will be a more evaluative report by the NRB itself probing into possible causes, patterns of misconduct in dealing with cases, and what can be done to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. Of course bad things will happen again, as they have been happening since Our Lord in his infinite wisdom entrusted the leadership of his Church to frail human beings. One of the truly strange things of the last two years is the impression that the bishops were caught by surprise. Didn’t the Church have provisions in place for dealing with sexual abuse? That question is very helpfully addressed by Father John J. Coughlin in an article for the Boston College Law Review, “The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis and the Spirit of Canon Law.”
A Franciscan friar for twenty-five years and Professor of Law at Notre Dame University, Fr. Coughlin knows that his article “might be interpreted as critical of ecclesiastical authority,” but his purpose is to contribute to the renewal of that authority. Canon law, he notes, “has always considered the sexual abuse of a minor to be a grave crime and grievous sin.” As is now scandalously evident, “the failure to correct the injustice of clergy abuse through the rule of canon law aggravates the injury for all concerned, but especially for the abused minor.” Canon 1389 of the 1983 Codex Iuris Canonici “provides for a penalty, including deprivation of ecclesiastical office, for an official who abuses ecclesiastical power or who omits—through culpable negligence—to perform an act of ecclesiastical governance. A bishop who fails to employ the appropriate provisions of canon law in a case of sexual abuse of a minor is liable to penal sanctions imposed by the Holy See.” The undisputed fact is that many bishops failed to follow canon law in dealing with cases of priestly sexual abuse, typically with males of high school age. In such cases, as well as in instances of coerced sex or open concubinage with a woman, canon law provides serious penalties, including permanent removal from the clerical state. Why did so many bishops not follow canon law during the 1970s and ‘80s, the period when most of the sexual abuse was happening? Fr. Coughlin writes, “I am unaware of a single case in the United States during the past several decades in which a priest was dismissed from the clerical state as a result of the diocesan penal process stipulated in canon law.”
The history of the Church, Coughlin notes, displays periods of both legalism and antinomianism. The latter “so emphasizes faith alone that it excludes the correct function of the moral law in the economy of salvation.” When antinomianism holds sway, the very fact and idea of canon law is viewed as legalistic. Following Coughlin’s analysis, we see how the laxity encouraged by an antinomian atmosphere results in the countenancing of sinful and criminal behavior which, in turn, produces a legalistic reaction. Thus the hyperlegalism of the measures adopted at Dallas in June 2002. While the oscillation between legalism and laxity and back again is not new in the experience of the Church, this time it was intensified by the decision of the Second Vatican Council to revise the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Coughlin writes, “Over the course of almost three decades of revision, the 1917 Code, although theoretically still the universal law of the Church, fell into general disuse. It was in many instances abrogated in favor of postconciliar innovations ad experimentum. In retrospect, the ecclesial ambiance in the wake of Vatican II represented a swing of the pendulum from the preconciliar legalism toward the antinomian.”
In many instances, those who pitted the “spirit” of the Council against what the Council actually said undermined the very validity of canon law. Clear law was frequently flouted, Coughlin notes, in the great increase in the number of marriage annulments and in the reckless “alienation” of church property, the latter resulting in the loss of major Catholic educational and health care institutions. “Unfortunately, the negligence of church authorities in the United States in each of these broad areas of justice seems consistent with the failure to address cases of sexual abuse of minors during the last four decades.” There was yet another factor. As allegations of sexual abuse greatly increased, “the bishops opted for a therapeutic approach to the exclusion of correcting the grave injury through the rule of canon law.” At the time, psychologists and other professionals believed that sexual predators could be rehabilitated with proper treatment, and the bishops went along. They were not acting in malice, Coughlin underscores, but, having set canon law aside, followed what they were told was the best professional advice. Moreover, according to the psychological model, offenders were deemed to possess “diminished capacity” to control their impulses, which made the penalties prescribed by canon law seem inappropriate.
Reaping the Whirlwind
During these years, the Holy See repeatedly called on the U.S. bishops to follow the norms of canon law. “Despite the various authoritative calls to confront the problem,” writes Coughlin, “more than a few bishops failed to afford a just legal process when dealing with accusations. When the psychological model replaced the canonical order, the conditions were set for great damage to individuals and the common good.” To further compound the problem, the psychological model blurred the line between the “internal forum” and the “external forum.” Matters of conscience, as in the confessional, are internal, while matters of governance are external, which means they are public and verifiable. Coughlin writes, “A credible accusation of the sexual abuse of a minor officially reported to an ecclesiastical authority clearly belongs to the external forum. The exclusive reliance on the psychological model, however, tended to create the impression of secrecy and cover-up.” The scandal would not have flared as it did without the widespread appearance of secrecy and cover-up. Under the immense pressures of the public scandal, says Coughlin, “the bishops elected to correct the decades-long absence of canonical response with a rule of strict criminal liability.”
This paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:
Law hastily framed runs the risk of abrogating any semblance of fundamental fairness and justice. In the months following the formulation of the Dallas policy, it was not uncommon for a priest with a single allegation against him, which was placed in his diocesan personnel file twenty or more years ago, to be summarily dismissed from an active and fruitful ministry. Following years of faithful service, the priest suddenly found himself deprived of his life’s work and with his reputation irreparably damaged. Placed on indefinite administrative leave without adequate notice or opportunity to be heard, he received the same penalty as a serial child abuser. The implementation of the zero-tolerance approach in certain instances stunned priests and their parishioners and caused attorneys for the accused to raise questions about a lack of fundamental due process.
The denial of an opportunity to be heard and offer a defense, the absence of proportionality in penalties, and the retroactive application of law are issues that, in both civil and canon law, pertain to the fundamental human rights of an accused person. “The lack of concern to frame a fair and just policy that protects the rights of the accused displayed a strange combination of both antinomian and legalistic approaches. On the one hand, the bishops seemed simply to ignore many of the requirements of the natural law expressed in canon law. On the other hand, the bishops adopted an absolute rule that permitted little or no discretion.” In short, reaping the whirlwind of decades of negligence in not following the canon law that they were pledged to uphold, the bishops reacted by imposing a legalistic regime that is equally in violation of the canon law by which the Church’s life is to be ordered.
The result has deeply damaged what it means to be a bishop. Canon law says a bishop is to govern with “holiness, charity, humility, and simplicity of life.” Coughlin writes, “Although many bishops undoubtedly exemplify holiness of life, the bishops as a whole have not conveyed that inner harmony of life as a characteristic of their approach to canon law in cases of clergy abuse. . . . Given their collective failure with regard to the rule of canon law, the bishops have now found it necessary to surrender their discretion for the zero-tolerance rule.” Moreover, the bishops have severely compromised the Church’s right to govern itself. “On the basis of two millennia of its historical development, the Church proclaims itself as an organic reality with juridical manifestations for the purpose of proclaiming salvation. During this long history, its canon law has been shaped by the Church’s supreme law, which remains the salvation of souls. . . . The secular order aims to establish a set of societal conditions that maximize the opportunity for material well-being and prosperity. Canon law, however, seeks to create the optimal conditions for salvation through the proclamation of conversion, forgiveness, and penance.” Put very directly, by surrendering crucial aspects of their governance to secular authorities, bishops have compromised not only canon law and the freedom of the Church but have compromised the mission for which they exist—namely, the salvation of souls.
Fr. Coughlin writes, “An antinomian approach to ecclesiastical governance only reinforces the perception that church authorities lack the resolve to protect children. Legalism, in contrast, communicates to priests and all the baptized that the internal order of the Church lacks justice as a result of the disrespect of fundamental rights.” “No law or policy can eradicate sin from the fallen nature of the human situation, including that of the human beings who comprise the priesthood.” The Church has known that for many centuries, and made ample provision in canon law for dealing with that circumstance. It is hard to disagree with Fr. Coughlin’s conclusion: “If bishops had fulfilled their duty to abide by the rule of law, especially in cases involving serial abusers, there probably would have been no crisis.”
There are some who persist in denying it, but it seems to be generally recognized now that this Long Lent (which is not yet over) was brought on by a widespread failure of fidelity. The de facto suspension of canon law’s provisions for dealing with abuse was, as Fr. Coughlin persuasively explains, occasioned in part by the false assumption that the 1917 code was in abeyance until the 1983 revised code came into effect. Behind that, however, was a growing belief, reinforced by what Philip Rieff aptly called “the triumph of the therapeutic,” that canon law, and indeed law itself, is in conflict with a “loving,” “pastoral,” and “evangelical” approach to human failures. Fr. Coughlin does not exaggerate in describing the resulting atmosphere and the episcopal negligence it fostered as “antinomian.” Faced with the massive public embarrassment, along with the financial and legal consequences of their negligence, the bishops at Dallas reacted in panic by imposing a legalistic regime that entails frequently unjust penalties for priests while protecting the bishops whose failure to do their duty created the crisis in the first place. As aforesaid, it is not an edifying spectacle.
The abrogation of canon law described by Coughlin was one important factor in creating an ecclesiastical climate of “wink and nudge” that lasted for decades. Other factors are by now well known: the misunderstanding of the Council’s call for aggiornamento as a mandate to embrace a culture that was in the 1960s in a state of terminal disintegration; seminary education encouraging the belief that in “the post–Vatican II Church” teachings and practices were up for grabs, and that vows, with most specific reference to the vow of celibacy, were made conditional by anticipated changes in the “status quo”; the widespread “openness” to homosexuals and assertive gays, resulting in “lavender” influence and sometimes control in seminaries and chanceries; and, undergirding and driving all of these deformations, the conviction that “the American Church” was pioneering a new and more authentic Catholicism against the “authoritarian” opposition of Rome.
There are no doubt many causes of the scandal of sexual abuse and the further scandal of the bishops’ response to the scandal. As it is said, “The matter is very complex.” The NRB has consulted with many experts, a breed prone to proving that they are experts by multiplying complexifications of the inconveniently obvious. One must hope that, and I think there is reason to believe that, the members of the NRB will not be taken in. I was from the first opposed to the creation of episcopoi of the episcopoi, but since we have them, pray their report will speak clearly and candidly to what happened and why, pointing the way toward—in the words of the Holy Father in April 2002—“a holier episcopate, a holier priesthood, a holier Church.”
While We’re At It
• Coalitions are almost always a dicey business. They are task-specific, as it is said, meaning that you work together with individuals and organizations that are joined by that specific task but disagree on much else. I am on the advisory board of Alliance for Marriage (AFM), a prime mover in defending marriage from same-sex agitations. Some of you have written in response to Internet attacks on AFM because its coalition includes—in addition to a wide array of Jewish, Christian, and ethnic organizations—the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Reckless charges have been made that ISNA is a terrorist organization or supporter of terrorist organizations. To the best of my knowledge, that is not true. The U.S. government and experts on Islamic organizations in the U.S. say it is not true. (For details, see the website of AFM: www.allianceformarriage.org.) Longtime readers know that this journal has no illusions about Islam being “a religion of peace,” or about the ease with which Muslims can be assimilated in this and other Western societies. Indeed, we have been the object of vicious attacks by one prominent Muslim organization that accuses us of “anti-Muslim bigotry.” It is probably true that ISNA is only a few degrees of separation from other Muslims who support terrorism. That is almost inevitable. We should work, here and abroad, to cultivate connections with Muslims who evidence an interest in supporting the peaceful and democratic directions that are in our mutual interest. Again, AFM is a task-specific coalition and ISNA is supportive of that task. I know I have deep disagreements with ISNA religiously and also, I expect, politically, especially with respect to the politics of the Middle East. But those are for another day and another forum. The task at hand is the defense of marriage. Toward that end, and until somebody comes up with compelling reasons that persuade me to the contrary, I welcome the help of the Islamic Society of North America.
• Strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but perhaps not. The French interior minister visited Cairo and received a blessing, so to speak, from the grand sheik of Al Azhar, the prestigious center of Sunni Islamic learning, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi. He said he had no problem with the decision of the Chirac government to ban the wearing of the head scarf, or hijab. The prohibition is required, Chirac explains, by the French devotion to secularism, which they call la laïcité. The grand sheik appreciates such devotion. “If a Muslim woman observes the laws of a non-Muslim state,” he explained, “then from the point of view of Islamic law, she has the status of acting under coercion.” The French minister thanked the grand sheik for his understanding, and told his Egyptian audience that the law did not single out Muslims, since it also banned the public wearing of yarmulkes by Jews and “large” crosses by Christians. Oh well, that’s all right then. “There are no rights without duties,” he said, “and if the Muslims of France have the same rights as other believers, they have the same duties.” In fact, it would seem, rights and duties are synonymous: everyone has the right not to wear religious symbols and everyone has the duty not to wear religious symbols. The grand sheik is in warm agreement with the French understanding of religious freedom: “Just as I do not allow non-Muslims to interfere in my affairs as a Muslim, at the same time I do not permit myself to interfere in the affairs of non-Muslims.” If non-Muslim states want to forbid Muslims to wear the hijab, that is their business, so long as they recognize that it is none of their business when Muslim states forbid non-Muslims to engage in public worship or share their faith with Muslims, the punishment for a Muslim who converts to another faith being death. Admittedly, the French prohibitions and attendant penalties are somewhat less severe, but the principle is the same: Freedom of religion means the freedom of the government to control religion.
• Recall Snoopy of Peanuts fame sitting atop his doghouse typing out, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” San Jose State University in California has an annual “Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest,” in which entrants (from all over the world) are challenged to compose the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The first sentence of Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford was this: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Michel Faber of Fearn Station House, Ross-shire, England, doesn’t claim it’s great but he protests that it is far from the worst opening sentence of a novel. “In truth,” he writes, “if the opening sentence of the prelude to Middlemarch (“Who that cares much to know the history of man,” etc.) had been subjected to the same sustained ridicule, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest might have been the George Eliot Fiction Contest instead.” He has more than a point, and I can easily picture Snoopy typing, “Who that cares much to know the history of man. . . .” Imagine what fun Lucy would have had with that.
• In the October 2003 issue I commented on a number of pundits who complain about an alleged cabal of Jewish neoconservatives who have an excessive influence on U.S. foreign policy. Among those mentioned was William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune. That was a mistake. Mr. Pfaff points out that, while he has been strenuously critical of neoconservative influence, he has not made an issue of the fact that many neoconservatives are Jewish, nor does he think it should be an issue. I am grateful for the correction.
• “It hurts me when people say the Tablet is not really orthodox because it has always seemed to me that orthodoxy is the most daring and exciting thing there is.” So said Tablet editor John Wilkins upon receiving a papal knighthood at a convivial London ceremony attended by Archbishop Pablo Puente, the papal nuncio, and Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. “The Tablet,” Wilkins continued, “under both my editorship and that of my predecessor, Tom Burns, has been engaged in the search for true orthodoxy. It is so encouraging to have this recognition from the Holy See.” There is little likelihood that a papal knighthood is in the works for, say, Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press. That would be very controversial. Fr. Fessio is not engaged in the search for true orthodoxy. He thinks he has pretty much found it in the teaching of the Church. The Tablet has over the years been unflagging in its support for contraception, the ordination of women, and the moral acceptance of homosexuality, among other deviations from Catholic teaching. No matter. The papal nuncio described the Tablet as “a living laboratory of the marvelous reality that is the prophetic mission of the laity in the Church.” He went on to say, “Dear Mr. Wilkins, thank you for your work. Thank you for your search for ideas and new paths. Thank you for presenting us with new aspects of old themes. Thank you for encouraging us to deepen our thinking,” and so forth. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor smilingly asked, “What shall I say about John Wilkins?” My question exactly. But he then went on to praise Mr. Wilkins’ “critical loyalty,” and so forth. Mr. Wilkins was made a Knight of the Equestrian Order of Pope Saint Sylvester I, an honor created by Pope Gregory XVI in 1841 and conferred in recognition of particular service to the Church. It does not come with a horse. According to venerable legend, Pope Sylvester (314-335) baptized the Emperor Constantine. My own view is that what is called Constantinianism was not entirely a bad thing. But those who think the word refers to the Church’s fatal accommodation to the establishment culture may see a certain fitness in the Pope Sylvester honor being given to Mr. Wilkins and the Tablet. Truth to tell, I know John Wilkins and he is a generally pleasant fellow, albeit a very confused Catholic. And judging by the papal nuncio’s remarks, one can well understand how he might have the impression that Mr. Wilkins and the Tablet have deepened his thinking.
• Michael Lindsay writes that he is amused when he drives along Forty-Sixth Street in Minneapolis and sees the sign pointing to Faith Free Lutheran Church. I checked out the church’s website and it seems they’re firmly committed to the “solas” of Scripture and grace. So that’s two out of three. Lutherans are not perfectionists, after all.
• Progress is a jealous god. Upon being the first Episcopal bishop to ordain a lesbian, the late Paul Moore declared that, whenever he was faced with a difficult moral decision, he chose change, the way of the future. Albert R. Hunt begins his Wall Street Journal column with, “I am a convert to accepting gay marriages.” He says he was uncomfortable with the idea at first. “But times are changing. When I asked my seventeen-year-old son if he supported gay marriage, he shrugged and replied, “Sure. What’s the big deal?’” After having done his homework on the subject, Hunt goes on to echo Andrew Sullivan’s usual talking points, but the clinching argument is that “younger Americans are not encumbered with many of the hang-ups and prejudices of their elders; the tide is with change.” And if you are not convinced by that, there is the fact that gay marriage has about it “a sense of ultimate inevitability.” Well, there you are. Hunt acknowledges that the great majority of Americans are against gay marriage and a majority appears to favor a constitutional amendment to preclude it, but that only means he is among the elect of those who are ahead of their time. “The times are changing.” “The tide is with change.” Some things never change.
• “Thomistic” has never been the word to describe American culture, writes Christopher Lynch in the Weekly Standard, and he’s surely right about that. Unless, of course, one believes, as some of my friends who are Thomists of the Strict Observance do believe, that all serious human thought returns of necessity, no matter how circuitous the route, to the font of wisdom that is St. Thomas. Mr. Lynch’s observation is occasioned by his review of three books on just war doctrine. “At the peak of the agitation before the invasion of Iraq, one could hardly pick up a newspaper without finding the distinction between jus ad bellum, justice in the reasons for going to war, and jus in bello, justice in the means used during a war, deployed somewhere on the op-ed page.” That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Lynch agrees with Jean Bethke Elshtain, who writes in her fine book Just War Against Terror—a book that in these pages was given rough treatment by Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths, but was ably defended by Professor Elshtain and many others (see October 2003; and Correspondence, January 2004)—that American public discourse about war has dramatically changed in the last few decades. John Courtney Murray complained forty years ago about the American tendency to assume there is no evil as long as there is peace, and no morality as soon as there is war. That was changed by long second thoughts about the terror bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II, by the monstrous logic of “mutually assured destruction” during the Cold War, and, of course, by the Vietnam experience. Today, people on all sides of disputes about particular military actions agree that distinctions must be made. And after they had been long ago consigned to the museum of medieval curiosities, the distinctions proposed by St. Thomas in the thirteenth century and, before him, by St. Augustine in the fifth suddenly seemed particularly pertinent to the twenty-first. Mr. Lynch’s conclusion seems warranted: “Much remains to be done before America fully internalizes the canons of just war, but popular punditry’s now-routine use of the theory and the flood of recent books on the topic suggest that a change in the nation’s thinking has taken place.” Or at least is taking place. It is to be feared that for many Americans it is still the case that there is no evil as long as there is peace and no morality as soon as there is war.
• I recently referred to “Christian Zionists” and readers protested what they took to be a slur. Far from it. Google “Christian Zionism” and up pop nearly a hundred thousand results. That’s what they call themselves. They are mainly evangelical/fundamentalist/charismatic (the terminology is slippery) Christians who believe that the Jewish state in the Middle East is part of God’s plan, whether historical and long-term or apocalyptic and imminent. Many Jews, both here and in Israel, have come to believe that Christian Zionists are their most solid base of support in this country, even more important than “the Jewish lobby.” This is frequently in tension with a more secularized Jewish contempt for anything associated with “the religious right,” of which most Christian Zionists are part. Irving Kristol has, in typically pithy fashion, indicated why he thinks Jews should welcome the support of Christian Zionists: “It’s their theology. It’s our Israel.” A fascinating overview of these matters is available in the form of a published conversation from the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, “Evangelicals and Israel.” Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, is not a Christian Zionist, but in his paper he traces the deep evangelical roots of sympathy for the Jewish people and their claim to the land. While Enlightenment philosophers dismissed Judaism as a fossil and more liberal Christians displayed Marcionite tendencies to displace totally the old covenant with the new, evangelical thinkers, including the great Jonathan Edwards, continued to take very seriously the prophecies, people, and land of biblical promise. Israel today, says McDermott, continues to be good for Christians: “In sum, the Christian population of Israel, not including the West Bank and Gaza, rose in absolute terms from 34,000 in 1948 to nearly 180,000 in 1998—a sixfold increase. When Christians in the West Bank (42,000) and Gaza (9,000) are added, the total is 230,000 in 2000. In Israel, the percentage of Christians in the population is virtually the same after fifty years of Israel’s existence. So while the Christian population in the Middle East as a whole is declining because of Muslim persecution, the number of Christians in the state of Israel has risen.” Other participants in the discussion take a less benign view of Israel, noting the mistreatment of Palestinians and underscoring that the biblical promises of the land to Israel were contingent upon the doing of justice, especially to non-Jews. It appears that many non-Zionist Christians who are supportive of Israel are increasingly insistent that Israel cannot be given a blank check for doing “whatever is necessary” to enforce Israeli policies, as “whatever is necessary” is defined by extremists in Israel and their more enthusiastic Christian supporters here. This is notably true with respect to settlements in Palestinian territory. For a copy of the twenty-five-page conversation, “Evangelicals and Israel,” write EPPC at 1015 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
• The Orthodox Churches, led by the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople and followed by bishops of various jurisdictions in this country, have been particularly outspoken in opposing U.S. policy in Iraq and in the Middle East more generally. What is called a firestorm of protest from lay people was generated by a petition circulated by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship which said that casualties in the Iraq war “could only be regarded as murder.” Writing in Touchstone, Patrick Reardon attributes Orthodox attitudes to the exigencies of having to coexist with Islam in various parts of the world and a long-standing Orthodox fear of the growth of Western and non-Orthodox power. He fears that an Orthodoxy “committed to an ethics of pacifism will remain forever on the fringes of American life, along with other pacifist groups, like the Amish.” That might be a worry in America, but in most other places, notably Russia, Orthodoxy is inextricably entangled with state interests and, as in Serbia, shows slight inclination toward pacifism.
• It is a great pity, but most of us don’t know what to do about it, aside from observing that it is a great pity. William Dalrymple has written From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, and in the New York Review of Books he discusses another book on the same subject, Charles M. Sennott’s The Body and the Blood: The Middle East’s Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace. Some years ago, Robert Louis Wilken wrote in The Land Called Holy about the prospect of “the first Christians” becoming historical curiosities, and the sacred places of Christianity’s birth being turned into museums. The discussion of the besieged and declining Christian population of the Middle East is inextricably entangled with the seemingly intractable politics of the region. Dalrymple, like most other writers on the subject, places the burden of responsibility upon Israel and what they depict as its brutal occupation of Palestinian territory. A careful look at the map with the settlements occupied by more than 200,000 Israelis, and the unlikelihood of any Israeli government dismantling the bulk of them, make it very hard to envision what would be the Palestinian part of the currently proposed “two-state solution.” Also in the New York Review, Tony Judt recently prompted a heated discussion by suggesting it is time to consider alternatives, such as Israel’s outright incorporation of the occupied territories. But in such a unified state the Arabs would soon be a majority, which would mean that Israel might in that case decide not to be a democracy, becoming a frankly apartheid society. The unofficial Geneva Accords negotiated last year have received warm support from many in the U.S. foreign affairs establishment, and have even elicited a few words of sympathy from the Bush administration, but are heatedly dismissed by defenders of current Israeli policy. A professor friend says he has a list of problems on which he does not even pretend to have a useful opinion. He calls it his “Northern Ireland List,” and the first problem on the list, he says, is the Middle East. Why doesn’t he call it his Middle East List? “Because,” he says, “I don’t want to be controversial about my uselessness.” I expect that is where many people are, except if one lives in the Irish Bronx where it would be exceedingly controversial to have a Northern Ireland List. But back to Dalrymple and the Christians of the Middle East. He talks to Nadim Khoury, a Christian who returned home to Palestine at the time of the 1993 Oslo Accords and set up a successful business that has now been destroyed by the restrictions of the Israeli occupation. “There is no question of going back to Boston,” Mr. Khoury says. “You just have to hope. Every day I pray to Saint George. It’s too late to give up.” It’s too late to give up. That gives new meaning to the phrase hoping against hope.
• Presidents are usually not philosophers, which is probably just as well. And yet James W. Ceaser of the University of Virginia writes, “in their responsibility to act, it happens that their words sometimes open a dimension of theoretical insight that more abstract thought misses.” Consider the idea of history (often with an uppercase H). Once upon a time in America, the left was confident that history was on the side of Progress. Then in the 1960s came the New Left, which was certain that history, or at least American history, was all downhill. Then came Ronald Reagan, an inveterate optimist. Grover Norquist, orchestrator of things conservative, declared, “From Ronald Reagan, conservatives have learned optimism and discovered they are on the winning side of history.” George W. Bush, too, speaks with a certain confidence about history, but with a strong accent on Providence. Ceaser writes: “Providence is one of the richest and most complex—and therefore one of the most variously interpreted—of all religious ideas. For many, of course, the mere mention of a religious term is sufficient to provoke Pavlovian accusations of political messianism; any idea of religious pedigree (other than the message of peace) is devoid of all sense. Yet those willing to consider the matter more deeply will find that traditionally, Providence has had a reasonably determinate meaning. One of its central themes is that the course of history, from a human standpoint, is unfathomable: “The Almighty has His own purposes.’ One conviction, however, remains supreme: While the path of events before us can never be fully known, and while there will always be difficulty and pain, Providence offers a basis for hope and a ground for avoiding despair. Yet it disclaims any pretension to know the future and offers no assurance of divine reward for our action in this world. At the practical level of human affairs, the focus remains on human responsibility and choice. The most sublime evocation of the “providence of God’ in political rhetoric appears as the central theme of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. This speech carries a message of ultimate hope without any guarantee of immediate reward. It keeps the focus in the political realm on duty, on the need to do right “as God gives us to see the right.’ These aspects of this great speech are well known, but less known, perhaps, are two other things. The first is that Lincoln’s recourse to Providence was a response to the nineteenth-century precursor to the Doctrine of History that had circulated before the war and that taught, in the words of the historian George Bancroft, that “everything is in motion for the better . . . . The last political state of the world likewise is ever more excellent than the old.’ Standing where he did in 1865, after experiencing all of the agony and turns of fortune of the Civil War, Lincoln had come to know the centrality of political choice and to experience pathos. The second thing was that no sooner did Lincoln give the speech than he was widely criticized for not invoking God more directly on his side and for not promising a swift and certain reward. In one of his last letters, Lincoln explained that such a wish was contrary to the idea of Providence and unsuited to the education of a great people.” In his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush declared, “We do not know—we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.” Ceaser concludes, “Perhaps this language, suitably developed and elaborated, provides the best framework for conservatives both to express and reconcile their hopes and fears about history.” I’ll second that, with the amendment that it applies to liberals and everyone else as well. Ultimately—and we must ever keep the ultimate immediately in mind and soul—the “winning side of history” is not determined by political or ideological allegiances.
• I don’t mean to pick on Wesley Clark. On this question there is no substantive difference between him and other politicians who strive to prove their impeccable pro-abortion credentials. But the language is different. “I’m not going to be appointing judges who are pro-life,” he told the Manchester Union Leader. One imagines an aide whispering, “Our people do not say “pro-life,’ General.” Clark also told the paper, “Until the moment of birth, the government has no right to influence a mother’s decision on whether to have an abortion.” That would seem to go beyond Roe v. Wade, which allows that there is a government interest in unborn life, at least in its later stages, if the mother has no “health” reason for wanting an abortion, which includes psychological health, which means she has a right to an abortion if she would be distressed by not having an abortion. Again, the difference is not substantive, but the general’s language is strikingly blunt. Then, on the allegedly complex but obviously obvious question of when life begins, the general accepts the price of medical and metaphysical incoherence in order to win the Most Candid Candidate Award. He says, “Life begins with the mother’s decision.” (Unless, presumably, she later decides to have the child killed.) Clark’s statement does have the quasi-Cartesian clarity that drives the pro-abortion movement, even if most of them hesitate to put it so unequivocally: I decide this is not a human life; ergo this is not a human life. More generally stated: I think it is not; ergo it is not. The principle has breathtakingly large potential for the alleviation of inconvenient reality. Yes, there is a price to be paid, but is sanity really so important?
• “All citizens have the right and responsibility to contribute to the common good through the payment of taxes,” declares a new statement by the Catholic bishops of Iowa. The bishops go on to say that “taxes should be based on one’s ability to pay.” (That used to be called progressive taxation.) Further, the bishops say, “From those to whom much has been given, much should be expected.” I may be wrong about this, but I think Our Lord was speaking about what God expected, not what the government expected. The bishops do not dismiss corporal works of mercy, voluntarism, and giving to church-related programs that help the needy. “Works of charity will always be a personal responsibility for Christians. But private charities cannot substitute for what the public sector can do through the just collection and distribution of tax monies.” No matter how much public good faith-based efforts may do, the government, we are given to understand, has a monopoly on “the public sector.” The bishops’ statement brings back warm memories of seminary days when we were taught that charity must give way to justice, that voluntary initiatives were but stopgap measures until we created a just society in which government would attend to all human needs. So much has happened since then: the mediating institutions revolution, the communitarian movement, the discovery of “social capital,” the end of the socialist dream, Reaganomics, supply-side economics, the Clinton welfare reforms, faith-based initiatives, the teachings of John Paul II on the free society, and on and on. Along with fond memories, the bishops’ statement stirs a measure of envy. In a world of rapid and often troubling change, what bliss it must be to teach social doctrine in Iowa.
• I have occasionally observed that one need not have to choose between being a thug or a wimp. This item is equal time for another view, offered by Theo Hobson of 63 Lothrop Street, London W10 in a letter to the TLS: “Sir, Rowan Williams (July 4) peddles the modish notion that secularism is disguised tyranny. He warns of “the unspoken violence of the anything but neutral secular sphere.’ And he insists that the “claim of religious truth over and against [secularism] is not, as the anxious contemporary unbeliever assumes it must be, a bid for control.’ As an anxious believer, I find this complacent. Is there no attempt by the papacy, or the Ayatollah, or indeed the Anglican Evangelicals, to control social morality? He concludes: “The Church is therefore neither an amiable commentator on the margins of public life, superfluous and ceremonial . . . nor a theocratic bully.’ Alas, the evidence suggests that it is the former when it is prevented (by secularism) from being the latter.”
• A while back, I noted that in Germany death is becoming increasingly anonymous: no notice in the papers, no church funeral, no memorial service, no nothing. As though the deceased had never been. In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach reports on ways the remains are being put to use in Europe. In Sweden, for example, an entrepreneur heads a company named Promessa, which wants to replace cremation with a system of organic human composting. Corpses are lowered into liquid nitrogen, frozen, then shattered into small pieces by ultrasound waves, freeze-dried, and used as compost. The reviewer in the TLS comments, “Stiff’s commercial success in the United States is surely a symptom of cultural sickness.” That may well be the case, but it seems we’re reading about it while they’re doing it.
• Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The question of who will watch the watchdogs is as perennial as it is important. Religion in the News, published by an institute at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, keeps an eye on how the media handle big religion stories, and is, more often than not, fairly reliable. But then there is a big article, “The Anglican Crackup,” by Frank Kirkpatrick, who is himself an Episcopal priest teaching religion at Trinity. “Throughout the story,” he writes, “American journalists for the most part handled the conflict [over consecrating as bishop the Rev. Gene Robinson, who divorced his wife in order to live with another man] with a high degree of fairness, paying respectful attention to both sides without a lot of spin in one direction or the other. But their grasp of the underlying doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues was less than impressive.” Readers may be less than impressed with Mr. Kirkpatrick’s grasp, beginning with his reference to a nonexistent worldwide “Episcopal Communion.” As for spin, we are told that the Episcopal Church “scrupulously followed its practice of deferring to the autonomy of dioceses and ratified Robinson’s selection.” In this spin, those who approved the consecration are the real traditionalists. They were only following venerable precedent, and doing so scrupulously. The statement of the October summit meeting of primates convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury was, we are told, “alternatively interpreted as slapping American wrists or simply stating the facts.” Not quite. The statement—which was, curiously enough, signed also by Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church USA—clearly warned that, if the consecration proceeded, “we would have to conclude that the future of the communion itself is in jeopardy.” From there the Kirkpatrick article descends into the now tediously familiar assertions about the “genetic orientation” to homosexuality, and how biblical condemnations can be set aside because “the Bible knew nothing about what is now understood as consensual sex between two men and two women.” St. Paul writes in Romans 1: “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” What St. Paul is describing might strike some readers as entirely consensual, indeed passionately so. It would seem to cover also what today are called long-term committed relationships. It seems, after all, that they “gave up” women altogether in order to sexually service one another. But Mr. Kirkpatrick reminds us the Bible is “still a human document, bearing the marks of the culture in which it was written and that, as a result, it cannot be transported uncritically into the present.” Transportation difficulties aside, most people have access to a copy and can see that what it calls a very bad thing the gay rights movement calls a very good thing. Ah yes, pounces Mr. Kirkpatrick, but the so-called orthodox “evade hermeneutic challenges of their own.” “How,” he triumphantly asks, “do they handle biblical passages that seem to condone slavery, polygamy, or the treatment of women as property?” A modest grasp of church history amply answers that question. But then Mr. Kirkpatrick comes up with an argument that has the merit of novelty, at least as stated so starkly: Anglicanism “has long claimed to be bound by doctrinal orthodoxy as found in the historic Christian creeds, but it has never asserted an explicit moral orthodoxy.” Ah well, that does make things easier, doesn’t it? Being a disciple is a matter of what you say, not what you do. As Jesus did not say in John 14, “If you love me, you need not keep my commandments.” But as Mr. Kirkpatrick helpfully points out, Jesus didn’t say anything explicitly about homosexuality, and silence denotes consent. Or is that an instance of uncritically transporting a legal principle in order to meet one’s hermeneutical challenges? Never mind; we are assured by Religion in the News, watchdog of media watchdogs that, on the controversy over homosexuality and religion, “American journalists for the most part handled the conflict with a high degree of fairness.”
• My habitual and irrepressible impulse to be fair prompts me to make also a favorable comment on Religion in the News. A recent issue includes a special supplement on “Religion in the 2004 Election” that contains in summary form useful information on “the religion variable” in partisan alignments. There are sections on various religious segments, and the one on “Mainline Protestants” is written by Laura Olson of Clemson University and author of Christian Clergy in American Politics. She notes that “these denominations have been in numeric decline since the 1950s.” She then writes, “Some cynics like to call mainline Protestants “oldline Protestants.’” Me, a cynic? Ouch. She cites a study that shows that “the most committed mainline Protestants, the attenders, are quite Republican and very, very pro-military, which suggests that Bush is going to get their vote, maybe even more so because of the war.” Then we are told, “Mainline leaders, if they attract media attention and if they work in coalition with left-wing groups, could help shape the public agenda, even if they’re not reaching people in the pews.” She closes with this: “Finally, many of them are elderly. Many want to make sure that Social Security is protected and might like to see a prescription drug benefit added to Medicare.” It all sounds very “oldline” to me. (And, unless I’ve missed something, I think George Bush has stolen the prescription drug benefit card from the political deck.)
• I am told that Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas is upsetting many Christians. No doubt, but I expect many others are aglow with Pagels’ flattery of their unbelievably wonderful selves. The Gnostic message of Thomas teaches us that we all have this marvelous spark of divinity that Jesus, a really admirable human being, encouraged us to trust in seeking our own truth on the way to salvation. But then, don’t you know, along came power-hungry bishops who, in cahoots with the likes of Emperor Constantine, exploited the Gospel of John—which had all those exclusive ideas about Jesus being God and the only way to salvation—in order to turn the ever-so-nice Jesus movement into an authoritarian religion with creeds that had to be believed (hence Beyond Belief). According to Gary A. Anderson of Notre Dame University, Pagels gets the Gnostics as wrong as she gets the early Christians. “If the White Queen bragged that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast,” writes Anderson in the Weekly Standard, “the Gnostic adepts would need to multiply that by a factor of four, at least. Why Pagels happily swallows this camel while straining out the gnats of the creed is a mystery.” If you’re thinking about reading the book, Professor Anderson has some advice: “In sum, what we have in Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief is a well-written account of why one educated woman finds herself unable to recite the creeds today—and why the Gnostics, rather than the orthodox early Christians, seem to her closer to the typical feelings of a twenty-first-century college professor. My own advice to the prospective reader would be to read a précis of the Gnostic myth and recite its cosmology six times before breakfast. If this sits well with you, then proceed deeper. Most, however, will find the challenge beyond belief.”
• Perhaps this is the time to address, once again, our policy in accepting ads. An outraged reader protests our carrying an ad for Hans Küng’s My Struggle for Freedom: Memoir. We already said that we think it’s an awful book (see December 2003). Would we carry an ad for the abovementioned Beyond Belief? Probably, although I’m told none has been submitted. Chesterton went too far in saying that all of morality is a matter of drawing lines, but a good deal of moral judgment is that. We would not, for example, accept an ad for a book claiming that all Protestants are going to Hell, or that the Pope is the Antichrist, or that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is the truth about Jews. But, within limits, we carry ads also for wrongheaded books, including those critically reviewed in these pages. Publishers promote, we evaluate, and the discriminating reader understands the division of labor.
• Here’s a helpfully wide-ranging symposium on patriotism in Society. Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee, a member of our editorial board, discusses the genius of what he calls “mixed patriotism” in the American experience. Drawing on Burke and, most especially, on Tocqueville, he argues that patriotism in America has not traditionally been a zero-sum contest between the particular and the universal. Here is where contemporary cosmopolitans get it wrong, says McClay. He cites the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s influential 1995 essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” in which Nussbaum asserts, ““I believe . . . patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve—for example, the goal of national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality. These goals, I shall argue, would be better served by an ideal that is in any case more adequate to our situation in the contemporary world, namely the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose allegiance is to the worldwide community of human beings.’ Nussbaum offers as a heroic exemplar the figure of Diogenes the Cynic, who was said to have answered anyone who asked what city-state he came from by declaring, “I am a citizen of the world.’ He heroically declined, Nussbaum says, to be identified with the accidents of birth, “his local origins and group memberships, so central to the self-image of the conventional Greek male; instead, he defined himself in terms of more universal aspirations and concerns.’ We are urged to do the same, and to educate our children along similar lines. But as Lee Harris has recently pointed out, the historical evidence suggests that Diogenes consented to be a citizen “only of a nonexistent and purely ideal community simply because there is never any danger that such an abstract entity will make a concrete demand on him.’ Most anecdotes associated with Diogenes consistently depicts him as a nauseating and narcissistic sociopath, who lived by begging and stealing from others, who had no reservations about defecating, urinating, expectorating, or masturbating in public, and who specialized in the sadistic harassment of others. He had no regard for social propriety, no respect for others, but even more telling, he had no capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice—the key virtues without which civic life itself is impossible. One is reluctant to assert that such attitudes may be a logical outgrowth of the cosmopolitan outlook, though they are certainly entirely consistent with it. And the fact that they are associated with the man whom Nussbaum offers as the fons et origo of cosmopolitanism seems a fact of more than passing importance.” McClay writes, “Cant about being a “citizen of the world’ will always be with us, but it should arouse the deepest skepticism. There is all the difference in the world between a cosmopolitanism that requires one reluctantly to put aside deeply held patriotic sentiment for the sake of a higher cause, and a cosmopolitanism that never feels any such sentiment.” Burke had it right: it is in the “little platoons” that we learn the virtues of adherence and excellence that can then be lived in more extended worlds. “Imagine,” concludes McClay, “a Diogenes who had also learned to honor his father and mother, and not to steal from his neighbors—and you would have a very different, and better, Diogenes.”
• It appears that the customary spine-removal ceremony in Episcopal consecrations is not part of the African Rite. After the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) affirmed an openly gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire, the Anglicans of Uganda formally announced that its communion with ECUSA had been broken. Herewith a letter from Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo on behalf of the Anglican Church of Uganda to ECUSA’s Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold: “Considering those things, we were shocked to receive a letter from you informing us of your decision to send a delegation to the enthronement of our new Archbishop in January, and your intention for the delegation to bring aid and assistance for the people who live in desperate conditions in the camps in Gulu that you have ignored for years. Recent comments by your staff suggesting that your proposed visit demonstrates that normal relations with the Church of Uganda continue have made your message clear: If we fall silent about what you have done—promoting unbiblical sexual immorality—and we overturn or ignore the decision to declare a severing of relationship with ECUSA, poor displaced persons will receive aid. Here is our response: The gospel of Jesus Christ is not for sale, even among the poorest of us who have no money. Eternal life, obedience to Jesus Christ, and conforming to his Word are more important. The Word of God is clear that you have chosen a course of separation that leads to spiritual destruction. Because we love you, we cannot let that go unanswered. If your hearts remain hardened to what the Bible clearly teaches, and your ears remain deaf to the cries of other Christians, genuine love demands that we do not pretend that everything is normal. As a result any delegation you send cannot be welcomed, received, or seated. Neither can we share fellowship nor even receive desperately needed resources. If, however, you repent and return to the Lord, it would be an occasion of great joy.” Repent. Imagine that.
• In making the case for the indispensability of the resurrection in the Christian understanding of reality, St. Paul asks: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (I Corinthians 15) Apparently there were those who asked for a second baptism on behalf of a deceased pagan relative, and Paul refers to this in making a point while not judging the practice one way or another. This is the only New Testament mention of the practice and it was not received as part of the apostolic tradition. The practice was featured, however, in the alleged revelations to Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century. Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) maintains an International Genealogical Index with biographical information on more than 400 million people, and from that index are drawn the names of those who are vicariously baptized. In 1995, there was something of a ruckus when it came to light that the index included 380,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust. An association of Holocaust survivors demanded that such names be removed and the LDS agreed, but now it is charged that they’ve reneged on the agreement. A Mormon spokesman protests that it would be nearly impossible constantly to go through the ever-expanding list of names to eliminate Holocaust victims. “When the church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken in compliance with the agreement,” he said. This business is passing strange. Why remove just Holocaust victims? Why not all Jews, of whom there must be many in the index? More interestingly, why do some Jews take so seriously a practice that everyone else views as nothing more than a Mormon curiosity? Is it possible that they believe vicarious baptism really turns dead Jews into Mormons? A similar question was joined a decade ago when Jewish organizations vociferously protested a Carmelite convent near Auschwitz. The sisters were praying for all the victims of Auschwitz, including Jews, and this, it was protested, was an effort to “Christianize” the Holocaust. A very real issue is engaged here. Some Jewish thinkers contend that the Holocaust must remain forever a sphere of the absolute reign of evil, untouched and untouchable by any hint of redemption. Christians cannot agree that any aspect of the creation is beyond the reach of redemption. Neither, it seems, can Mormons. The survivors group is threatening to go to court to enforce their Manichaean-like absolutizing of the triumph of evil. Of course, theirs is not a position shared by all Jews. I hold no brief for the vicarious baptism of the dead, but this is at bottom a theological dispute. Moreover, and the 1995 agreement notwithstanding, from the LDS perspective it must seem far from clear why children or grandchildren should have veto power over the bestowal of a spiritual benefit upon a dead ancestor. Evidently, both the Mormons who do the baptizing and the Jews who protest their doing it believe that it effects a change in the identity and/or spiritual status of the one vicariously baptized. One expects Mormons to believe that is the case, but it seems odd for Jews to fear that it may be the case. In any event, it is unlikely that the courts will try to settle the dispute. On the other hand, after the judicial usurpation of politics, the judicial usurpation of theology may be next.
• As you know, the Supreme Court will soon be coming down with a decision on Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow. The Ninth Circuit ruled that “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the no-establishment provision of the First Amendment’s religion clause, and most observers expect that decision will be reversed. Of more than passing interest, the American Jewish Congress (AJC)—among the strictest of strict separationists—has submitted an amicus brief urging reversal. Says AJC lawyer Marc Stern, “I think every one of us devoutly wishes this case had never been brought. Newdow might be right in a platonic sense . . . but in the messy world in which we live, it’s hard to see how any good can come of it.” In the messy world in which we live, the AJC fears that, if the Supremes uphold Newdow, there will promptly be proposed and passed a constitutional amendment allowing not only the Pledge of Allegiance but a host of other religious intrusions upon the naked public square. Immediately after the Ninth Circuit decision, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 400-7 a binding resolution in support of reciting the Pledge. So, while AJC and others may support Newdow in principle, they know it is a big-time loser politically. As usual, they have a way for the Court to nullify the convictions of the unenlightened people and their representatives. The Court should rule, they say, that “under God” has become so empty of religious meaning that it does not rise to the level of an establishment of religion. In this view, “under God,” “In God We Trust,” and similar phrases and symbols in public are no more than what Justice Brennan in 1984, borrowing a phrase from Eugene Rostow, called “ceremonial Deism.” In other words, such references to God in public are permissible because nobody really believes what they say. In a nation in which 95 percent of the people say they believe in God, the Supreme Court should rule that nobody, or at least nobody that matters, believes in God. Why not? Maybe the Court will next rule that pigs can fly. To the judicial usurpation of politics add the judicial suspension of reality.
• It is not easy to be transgressive in discussing “the transgressive” in literature and the arts. Anthony Julius comes close, however, in Transgressions: The Offences of Art (University of Chicago Press, 272 pages, $35). Reviewing the book in the New York Sun, Adam Kirsch observes: “It is not a criticism but a compliment to say that Mr. Julius’ book leaves many unanswered questions. How can we distinguish between sterile shock art and art that genuinely engages with convention? In which category, for instance, do we place Ron Mueck’s “Dead Dad,’ a portrait of the naked corpse of the artist’s father, which is both shockingly impious and an homage to paintings by Mantegna and Manet? More broadly, why has art entered an age of criticism, in which new works are intelligible only as comments on earlier works? Does there exist for art, as Adorno thought there did for music, a sort of Hegelian path that leads inevitably to the completion, exhaustion, and suicide of art itself?” Of course we must hope that is not the case. But one does get the impression of decadence feeding on itself, while denying what it is doing. I recently listened to Andres Serrano explaining in tones of injured innocence that he was shocked that people were shocked by his “Piss Christ,” in which he submerged a crucifix in his own urine. “I just thought it would be an interesting artistic expression,” he said. Julius suggests that transgressive art is of three types: the innovative that attacks artistic conventions; the taboo-breaking that attacks the audience’s pieties; and the political that attacks a specific regime. Mr. Kirsch thinks that much transgressive art invokes a taboo, not to revoke it in the name of reason, but simply to provoke the viewer. “Such art—like Gilbert and George’s scatological paintings, or Marcus Harvey’s portrait of the child-murderer Myra Hindley—actually colludes with taboo, plugging into its electric current for the sake of delivering a shock.” Following Midge Decter’s counsel to “think low,” one might note the additional and vulgarly capitalist fact that many artists work in the hope of becoming rich and famous, and many therefore do the things that the rich and famous will buy for very big money. The hypothesis about the Hegelian path has its charms, but following the money will likely lead one closer to the truth. And why do people pay for the meretricious and ugly? The most obvious answer is snobbery. There hanging on the wall is the declaration that you are a sophisticate, incapable of being shocked, and far removed from the booboisie who are offended. Joining in chic chatter about finding excrement ever so meaningful is the price of admission to the company of the knowing. At some point, the market will shift and the knowing will bid up the price of the creatively new thing called anti-transgressive art. It is not unlike the seasonal rise and fall of hemlines, although, for the most part, less interesting. And the seasons of artistic fashion are so very long.
• “Water, An Essential Element of Life.” That is the lead item in Origins, a Catholic documentary service. “Water, an Essential Element of Life” is a major and perhaps eagerly awaited statement by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. Last year was the UN International Year of Water. The statement declares, “Sufficient and safe drinking water is a precondition for the realization of other human rights. There is a growing movement to formally adopt a human right to water.” Without drinking water, people cannot live and therefore cannot exercise their rights. Obversely, those who have drinking water can violate the rights of others. “When water is scarce, competition for limited supplies has led nations to see water as a matter of national or regional security,” the pontifical council has concluded. “Access and deprivation underlie most water decisions. Hence, linkages between water policy and ethics increasingly emerge.” Moreover, “the poor suffer far more from the scarcity of water than do the wealthy.” The principal difficulty involving water today, the pontifical council discovered, “is not one of absolute scarcity but of distribution.” It seems that some places have too much water and other places have too little. There is an unconfirmed report that under discussion at the UN is an International Year of Air. If that ambitious step is taken, informed observers say, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be ready with a major statement, “Air, An Essential Element of Life.”
• Brian Anderson of City Journal and his wife, Amy, send their five-year-old to kindergarten at a Catholic school in Westchester County, New York. At a parents’ meeting, the pastor, Father “Bill,” announced a new curriculum in which he would be teaching peace studies. He went on to explain that we must not let September 11, 2001, be hijacked by the warmongers, that we must address the root causes of terrorism, and that there are fanatics on our side as well. With these and other half-truisms did he discomfort the parents. Anderson writes: “Ultimately, Father Bill’s “peace studies,’ like other political causes espoused by church leaders since the 1960s, undermines the Church’s already battered moral authority. My son’s experience illustrates the point. After a service presided over by Father Bill, he told me: “You must never war, Daddy—that’s what Father says.’ I had to correct him: Sometimes there are bad men in the world, and we need force to stop them. On reflection, he had no problem with that. One of his favorite television shows is “Justice League,’ chronicling the (often violent) adventures of Superman, Batman, and other heroes as they oppose monstrous villains. However, now he’s likely to treat all of what Father Bill says with greater skepticism. The pastor’s radicalism hasn’t outweighed the other advantages of choosing a Catholic education for our boy. But it sure has made that choice less satisfying.” The most important line there is about the skepticism implanted in the boy. When clergy teach opinion as doctrine, they invite the suspicion that doctrine is no more than opinion.
• I don’t want to make too much of it, but Peter Singer of Princeton University, whom I have regularly referred to as “the philosopher from nowhere,” has a long essay in the New York Review of Books on the thirtieth anniversary of the animal rights movement. The essay immediately preceding his is a reflection on a novel by Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man. There is possibly an editor there with a sense of humor. Singer’s ethical utilitarianism is a form of rationalism that rigorously prescinds from tradition, habit, instinct, or anything that smacks of authority, especially religious authority. This leads him to a position of equal consideration for all sentient beings. The core question, he writes, is this: “Should all and only human beings be protected by rights, when some nonhuman animals are superior in their intellectual capacities, and have richer emotional lives, than some human beings?” Singer answers that question in the negative and declares that those who disagree are guilty of “speciesism.” His contention is “that a difference of species is not an ethically defensible ground for giving less consideration to the interests of a sentient being than we give to similar interests of a member of our own species.” Question: If a house containing a healthy chimp and a severely retarded child is on fire, which would Peter Singer try to rescue? Maybe neither, since a utilitarian argument might be made that neither is worth risking the more valuable life of Peter Singer. I would like to think, however, that his human decency would trump his ethical theory and he would try to rescue the child. But maybe not.
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Nasty and Nice in Politics and Religion, David Brooks, New York Times, December 30, 2003. The Bishops’ Report Card, Father John J. Coughlin, “The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis and the Spirit of Canon Law,” Boston College Law Review, July/Sept 2003.
While We’re At It: France and Egypt on secularism, Reuters, December 31, 2003. Bad opening sentences, Times Literary Supplement, August 1, 2003. The Tablet’s orthodoxy problem under Wilkens, Tablet, November 7, 2003. Faith Free Lutheran Church, correspondence. Hunt on gay marriage, Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2003. Christopher Lynch on just war, Weekly Standard, November 3, 2003. “Christian Zionism,” Center Conversations, Number 25, November 2003. The Orthodox Church on wars in the Middle East, Religion Watch, December 2003. Dalrymple on Christians in the Middle East, New York Review of Books, September 25, 2003. Presidents and Providence, Weekly Standard, March 10, 2003. Clark on abortion, LifeNews, Jan 9, 2004. Iowa bishops, catholic trends, December 6, 2003. TLS letter on Rowan Williams’ via media, Times Literary Supplement, July 11, 2003. Human compost, Times Literary Supplement, July 11, 2003. Frank Kirkpatrick on media’s coverage of the Anglican Crackup, Religion in the News, Fall 2003. Oldline Mainline decline, Religion in the News, Fall 2003. Gary Anderson on Elaine Pagels’ book that is beyond belief, Weekly Standard, August 4-11, 2003. Wilfred McClay on “mixed patriotism,” Society, November/December 2003. Mormon baptism of the dead, New York Times, December 21, 2003. Transgressive titillation, New York Sun, April 9, 2003. Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace on water, Origins, April 24, 2003. Brian Anderson on Fr. Bill’s peace studies, City Journal, Fall 2003. Peter Singer on animal rights movement, New York Review of Books, May 15, 2003.