The Public Square

“An Open Letter to the Jewish Community” was issued by the Catholic League a few weeks prior to the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ . I have problems with aspects of the letter, but it spoke some hard and necessary words about a few Jewish leaders who are way out of line in their defamation of Mr. Gibson, the film, and the Christians of America. With the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center providing the lead, outrageous claims have been made, also in the major media: that the movie will provoke pogroms against Jews; that Christians are at least latent anti-Semites and the movie will ignite their barely repressed hatred; that Mr. Gibson denies the Holocaust; and on and on. There has never been a pogrom in America and no sensible person thinks there is any danger of there ever being one. On the contrary, never in history have Jews been as secure, successful, and accepted as they are in America. This is underscored by many Jewish scholars, and most recently by Jonathan Sarna in his important new book from Yale University Press, American Judaism: A History .

Of course there has been anti-Semitism, and there still is on some far fringes, but the happy circumstance of Jews in this society is not despite but because this is America, a country in which, not at all incidentally, nine-tenths of the people identify themselves as Christians. To suggest that Christian Americans are latent anti-Semites is a vile slander. It is complained that in his Reader’s Digest interview Mel Gibson declined to say that the death of Jews in the Holocaust is the worst thing that ever happened in history. One Jewish leader voices outrage that, in speaking of the Holocaust, Mr. Gibson mentioned other great tragedies such as the famine in the Ukraine under Stalin. He compared a mere famine to the deaths of six million Jews! A little perspective is in order here. In Stalin’s politically engineered famine, as many as ten million Ukrainian men, women, and children were starved to death. The demand is that we not pay too much attention to that lest it detract from the unique horror of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

In important respects, the Holocaust was unique, but such exercises in competing victimologies are both irrational and morally repugnant. In history, and especially in the last century, there have been horrors enough to go around. It is perfectly understandable that for many Jews there is nothing comparable to the Holocaust, as for Armenians there is nothing comparable to the genocide of 1915. But most people are neither Jews nor Armenians. They can empathize and learn, and they do, but they cannot really know the soul-shattering horror experienced by those whose primary identity is formed in solidarity with one category of victims rather than another. This reality may be especially hard to accept for those Jews for whom the Holocaust is the core of what it means to be Jewish. This does not include all Jews by any means. Rabbi David Novak has said, “I do not get up in the morning to curse Hitler but to praise God.”

If one must speak of the worst of history’s horrors, Christians have no choice but to say it was the killing of the Son of God. Jesus, the first-century Jew, was condemned by the religious leaders of his people as a false Messiah, and they contrived to have him killed by the Romans. Jesus was a Jew, his mother was a Jew, his apostles were Jews, the leaders who opposed his death were Jews. It is the Jewish story of the redemption of the world. That is what Christians believe, and it is worth noting that when some have tried to de-Judaize the story”as some have done, from Marcion to the “German Christians” under Nazism”it has been very bad for Jews. Christians must tell the story of salvation truly, which means telling it Jewishly. “Salvation is from the Jews.” Many a Jew has expressed the wish that God had chosen a different people. But so it was and so it is.

In America over the last century there has been unprecedented progress in Jewish-Christian understanding. Not just at the level of intercommunal relations, but in exploring our inescapable entanglement in discerning the purposes of the God of Israel. In telling the story of Jesus and his death, the Catholic Church has developed detailed homiletical and catechetical guidelines for the depiction of the Jews of the time. A Jewish partner in the dialogue tells me that Gibson’s film does not conform to those guidelines. I think he is probably right, but it should be remembered that this film is not produced by the Catholic Church. Mr. Gibson, while a Catholic, is an artist and a craftsman, and his work should be judged on those grounds. In the film that I saw in advance screening, the rendition of Christ’s passion is eminently defensible”biblically, historically, and theologically. There is nothing anti-Semitic about it, and those who are making reckless claims to the contrary are only stirring up ugly mischief that nobody needs.

The Bishop of Bray

Heresy is better than schism, says the Episcopal bishop of Virginia. Bishop Peter J. Lee had for many years been viewed as a moderate, tilting to this side or that in order to keep his little barque afloat. Virginia is a wealthy and important diocese in the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA), and for twenty years Lee was thought to personify the archetypically Anglican knack for tasteful ambiguity that precludes the vulgar dialectic of yes or no. “So, is it both/and or either/or, your Grace?” “Well, surely we must say it’s both, mustn’t we?” It’s a talent developed to an art form in the Anglican tradition. Recall the stout and uncompromising law of the Vicar of Bray in a time when men were losing their livings and, sometimes, their heads over questions of principle:

And this is law, I will maintain,
Unto my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever king shall reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, sir!

But then the Bishop of Virginia up and voted at the General Convention of ECUSA in Minneapolis to seat the Bishop of New Hampshire, despite the latter’s having deserted his wife and family in order to live with his male partner and celebrate what he describes as their sacramental sex. Now parishes in Virginia are up in revolt and withholding hundreds of thousands of dollars from the diocesan budget. What got into the exquisitely moderate Bishop Lee to prompt him to take such a controversial position? I don’t know, but from what he says I expect he does not think that he has violated the law of the Vicar of Bray. The controversial position among Episcopal bishops, certainly the minority position, would have been to uphold historic Christian morality. (“Episcopal bishops” is such an odd phrase. Episcopal episcopoi , as though to insist that they really are bishops.)

In any event, the bishop explained his rationale at the annual meeting of the diocesan council. “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy. For as a heretic you are only guilty of a wrong opinion. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided the body of Christ. Choose heresy every time.” This met with applause from most of the assembly. The bishop offers a deeply interesting rationale. It would seem to assume that the schismatic position would have been to oppose the consecration of an openly gay man who is living and teaching in defiance of historic Christianity and even of the official position of ECUSA, if that still is the official position. Certainly he is saying that Virginia parishes that reject the sodomite heresy are acting in a schismatic way. What, he appears to be saying, is a little heresy among friends? And, beyond friendship, the solvency of the diocese is at stake. “I would remind you,” said the bishop, “that Christian communities often consist of solidarities not of our choosing.” Indeed. Jesus said, “You have not chosen me. I have chosen you.” ECUSA has chosen you to pay your parochial dues. The resisters should not feel that going along with heresy compromises their faith. As the bishop put it, “Our faith teaches that people with who [sic] we differ often have important truths to teach us.” Indeed again. And shame on Augustine”to cite but one example”for not letting himself be instructed by Pelagius. (Actually, Augustine did learn from Pelagius, and what he learned most importantly is that the teaching of Pelagius was incompatible with the faith.)

Also noteworthy is the bishop’s solicitude for the unity of ECUSA, or maybe just of the Virginia diocese, while ignoring the schism precipitated in the worldwide Anglican communion by the action of the General Convention. He strikes a touchingly parochial and distinctively Episcopalian note in referring to the two million-member ECUSA as “the body of Christ.” “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy.” In fact, we are never in a position of having to make that choice, since heresy is by definition schismatic. Choosing heresy in order to avoid schism is a guaranteed formula for ending up with both.

Editorial Secrets Revealed

Paul Johnson says an important part of it in his introduction to The Norman Podhoretz Reader (Free Press, 479 pages,, $35). Of Podhoretz he writes, “He is a bit of a prophet himself, gritty and angular, nonconformist and egregious, a purveyor of harsh and often unwelcome truth.” That is Podhoretz the political and cultural polemicist or, as his enemies prefer, the ideologist”and my friend Norman provides ample grist for the mills of both admirers and detractors who see him only in that mode. The Reader , however, contains much from the 1950s to the present that reveals other sides of the man: the literary critic, the observer of manners, the amateur (in the best sense) theologian, the autobiographer of an inexhaustible gratitude that someone like him could become who he is. (His 1967 book, Making It , scandalized many by its confession”and accusation”regarding the dirty secrets of ambition and hubris in the service of getting to the top. Almost all reviewers missed the wonder and gratitude that, admittedly, are less muted in his later autobiographical writing.)

The Reader is a gift to first-time readers and rereaders alike. Among the many excerpts on offer, I had not read or had read and forgotten”sorry, Norman, that is possible”an essay titled “In Defense of Editing.” Written when he was only six years into his thirty-five-year tenure as editor of Commentary , the essay addresses questions pertinent to any magazine of ideas, and not least this one. Podhoretz writes, “Most people, I imagine, if they think about it at all, think that the job of an editor is to pick and choose among finished pieces of work which have been submitted to him and deliver them to the printer; that is to say, he acts as a middleman between individual authors and an expectant public.” Some people no doubt do think that. Certainly some authors think the editor should be no more than that. In my experience, however, more people hold the editors responsible for every word published. In (I am glad to say) the relatively infrequent instances of readers asking that their subscriptions be cancelled, that is always the case. (I’ve always rather liked William F. Buckley’s response: “Cancel your own damn subscription.” As a priest, I could never say that, but my colleagues can.) It is true that the editors are responsible. What is not understood is that they do not necessarily endorse every idea or argument they think deserving of consideration. That touches on what might be called the character of a magazine, if indeed it has a character.

“Every magazine that deserves the name,” Podhoretz writes, “has a character, a style, a point of view, a circumscribed area of concern, a conception of how discourse ought to be conducted; if it lacks these things, it is not a magazine but a periodical anthology of random writings.” We receive many unsolicited submissions; all are welcome, all are considered, relatively few are published. Phrases such as “Not for us” or “Unsuitable” or “Doesn’t quite work” often accompany letters of rejection. Such phrases, says Podhoretz, “are used partly to soothe the wounded feelings of authors, but there is a truth in them by which magazines live or die.” Sometimes authors write back demanding to know why their article was unsuitable or why it doesn’t quite work. See Podhoretz on what every magazine that deserves the name has.

I know that sounds somewhat arbitrary, but there it is. De gustibus there is endless disputation. It is not only a matter of taste, however, as important as taste certainly is. It is a matter of coherence of argument and grace of style. The question repeatedly asked in editorial meetings here is, “Does it advance the argument?” Does it have something fresh to say, and does it say it freshly? Although, as a general rule, an author who thinks clearly writes clearly, there are sometimes good arguments badly written. In such cases, we ask whether it is worth a “typewriter job.” That is a phrase introduced to this shop by Midge Decter, Norman ‘s wife, during the wonderful years she was with us. A typewriter job means that you basically rewrite the piece. If the author will hold still for it. And of course it entails an enormous investment of editorial time and effort.

The great Methodist theologian and ethicist Paul Ramsey was a famously clear thinker and notoriously bad writer. When I was with another publication, I used to edit his prose, and it was almost always a typewriter job. With a high degree of regularity, Ramsey was very pleased with the result and would triumphantly display the published article as evidence against his reputation, of which he was keenly aware, of being a bad writer. I would bite my tongue, knowing that a requisite virtue in an editor is humility, a quality on which I am still working, with slight discernible success, or so colleagues and authors say.

For instance, in this shop we never ask the last of the questions in Podhoretz’s list of those questions editors regularly ask: “Is it right for us ? Can it be made right for us? How? Will the author be willing to revise? Are we being unfair or too rigid? Should we perhaps publish the piece more or less as it is? Are we perhaps a little crazy?” I don’t think Norman ever asked the last question either. But we do ask how the author will react to our editing. As Podhoretz writes, “Seeing the edited manuscript, the author, as likely as not, is more than a little outraged. This is, after all, his article; he takes responsibility for it; it is to appear under his name. By what right does anyone presume to tamper with it?” He then adds, “On the other hand, some authors, curiously enough including many who write very well, are often grateful for editing.” That is also our experience. A few good writers resist any editing, but more typically good writers appreciate good writing and welcome suggestions on how the very good might be made even better.

At Commentary Norman was a line-editor, meaning he massaged manuscripts line by line. Most of that is done here by Damon Linker and John Gray. Norman describes well that undercelebrated craft: “It takes a great deal of work, an enervating concentration on detail, and a fanatical concern with the bone and sinew of the English language to edit a manuscript”to improve an essentially well-written piece or to turn a clumsily written one into, at the very least, a readable and literate article, and, at the very most, a beautifully shaped and effectively expressed essay which remains true to the author’s intention, which realizes that intention more fully than he himself was able to do.” Or, I would add in some cases, was willing to take the time to do.

“Is it all worth it? Over and over again one asks oneself that question, tempted as one is to hoard some of the energy that goes into editing for thinking one’s own thoughts or doing one’s own writing.” Podhoretz answers: “In the end an editor is thrown back, as any man doing any job faithfully must be, on the fact that he cares and that he can therefore do no other. He cares about the English language; he cares about clarity of thought and grace of expression; he cares about the traditions of discourse and of argument. It hardly needs to be said that even good editors will sometimes bungle a job and that bad editors invariably will, but it nevertheless remains true that the editorial process is a necessity if standards are to be preserved and if the intellectual life in America is not to become wholly compartmentalized and ultimately sterile in spirit.”

Well, I’m not sure about that Luther-like “can do no other.” And there is a touch of hyperbole in the notion that we editors are preserving civilization as we know it. It is an excusable hyperbole, however, and, pushed to the wall, I do believe we play some unspecifiable but not inconsiderable part in maintaining a measure of clear thinking and literary grace in a largely debased intellectual culture. In any event, it is what I believe I have been given to do, and in doing it I am probably doing less damage than were I doing something else. On a lighter note, Podhoretz ends his essay by remarking, parenthetically, that it was not edited. He adds, “Perhaps”I hope not”it should have been.” In the years when I wrote with some frequency for Commentary , my pieces regularly emerged untouched by editorial hands. I’m sure they could have been improved. I do recall one instance in which I resisted Norman ‘s proposed concluding sentence, but then relented. He was right. He usually is. Usually.

For hours of pleasure and provocation with one of the most spirited thinkers and writers of the last several decades, you might want to check out, or even buy, The Norman Podhoretz Reader .

Low Expectations and Catholic Preaching

Among all the qualities Protestants look for in their clergy, the one consistently rated highest is that he (or she) be a good preacher. With Catholics it is very different. First, they don’t get to choose the priest or priests assigned them by the bishop, so there is not much point in drawing up a list of the qualities they’re looking for. More important, the Catholic sensibility reflects a theology of the priesthood that accents the sacred office more than the talents of the person, or lack thereof. This is sometimes attributed to the “mystique” of the priesthood, but is more accurately understood as the mystery of the priest’s participation in the priesthood of Christ. He acts in persona Christi . Personal qualities are not unimportant, but they are secondary. Among the most valued qualities, it would seem, is that the priest be holy, kindly, and approachable. It is not expected that he be a fine preacher, and there are many wonderful priests who are not.

Catholics go to church to be encountered by the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass, not to hear a sermon. If there is a well-crafted and well-delivered homily, that is a plus, and something of a surprise. It is only human that low expectations and low execution go together, the one reinforcing the other. Few will dispute the generalization that Catholics do not expect and (therefore?) do not get good preaching. Homiletically speaking, priests are under little pressure. Ten minutes of more-or-less impromptu “reflections” vaguely related to the Scripture lessons of the day, combined with a little story or personal anecdote, is “good enough.” For weekday Masses, it is usually three or four minutes of even more impromptu remarks. The daily Mass sets the pattern; the Sunday homily is simply a few additional minutes of the same.

When I tell my Catholic confrères that in Lutheran seminary we were taught that every minute of a twenty or thirty minute sermon should be preceded by at least an hour of preparation, they respond with incredulity. In truth, I doubt that many Lutheran pastors keep to that regimen, but they know that the Sunday sermon is a thing, if not the thing, by which they will be judged by their people. The Catholic Mass is composed of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but when Catholics speak of “going to Mass” it is chiefly the second they have in mind. The Liturgy of the Word is the preliminary to be endured on the way to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Of course, Word and Sacrament should not be pitted against one another. Since apostolic times, Christians have been called to come together for both. But the Word and, more specifically, the preaching of the Word has fallen upon hard times among Catholics.

It will be objected that the situation is much better than it was before the Second Vatican Council. Hilaire Belloc was among many who thought it an inestimable advantage of being Catholic that one did not have to listen to sermons. After the Council, a Sunday homily based on the lessons of the day has been mandatory, but the succeeding four decades have produced, it seems, little more than an observance of the letter of the law. The quality of homilies is a common complaint among Catholic lay people and would no doubt be much more common if they had much experience of good preaching. As one priest friend half-jokingly remarked in defense of homiletical mediocrity, “We must be careful not to raise their expectations.”

Homiletical “Helps”

The sorry state of preaching is reflected in, and no doubt encouraged by, the pap that passes for devotional writing and “homiletical helps” among today’s Catholics. My favorite was one I came across in the sacristy on St. Matthias’ Day. Matthias, it will be remembered, was chosen to replace Judas among the Twelve. The little book of homiletical helps said the theme for the day was that it is natural to make mistakes; even Jesus made a mistake in choosing Judas.

Usually, however, it is not so much a matter of heresy as of banality. In my parish, Immaculate Conception in Manhattan , we use “Celebrating the Liturgy,” the Mass guide published by Liturgical Press. The gospel reading for the “Second Sunday in Ordinary Time” is the wedding at Cana. (Incidentally, how can Protestants get along without the idea of purgatory as preparation for heaven? In the absence of a long stretch in purgatory, there would be no alternative to sending the liturgists responsible for defaming time as “ordinary” straight to that other place.) The Church’s theological and homiletical tradition on the wedding at Cana is vast and wondrously rich. Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas all made marvelous connections between the water at Cana and the previous Sunday’s baptism of Jesus, between this wedding and the anticipated wedding feast of the Lamb, between Cana and the mixing of wine and water in the chalice, and, above all, between this wine and the blood that was shed on the cross and is given in the Eucharist. The gospel reading is filled to the brim, like the jars at Cana, with invitations to the spiritual and theological imagination.

Here is the theme for the day proposed by “Celebrating the Eucharist”: “For their own time and custom we can well imagine that the couple in this Sunday’s gospel probably spent a proportionate amount of time preparing for their own wedding day. We identify with Mary’s sensitivity in noticing that the wine was running short (this would surely spoil a perfect day!) and Jesus’ sensitivity in keeping the miracle quiet (the focus was on the couple, not him!).” Do you suppose Miss Manners is writing for Liturgical Press? The banality deepens, however. We are told, “The purpose of the miracle wasn’t to save the wedding couple’s day or to draw attention to Jesus. The purpose runs deeper: the sign ‘revealed Jesus’ glory.’” So the miracle draws attention to the glory of Jesus without drawing attention to Jesus. One sympathizes with the priest who depended upon this vacuous incoherence for homiletical inspiration, and sympathizes even more with the people subjected to the resulting “reflection.”

This, I am sorry to say, is more or less par for the course for “Celebrating the Liturgy,” and “Celebrating the Liturgy” is, I am sorrier to say, better than most other Mass guides on the market. (Such Mass guides are commonly called “missalettes,” producing, someone has remarked, homilies that are “sermonettes,” and people who are “Christianettes.”) My apologies for inflicting this upon you. It is simply that I sat down to work on Sunday’s homily on the wedding at Cana and happened to notice the theme proposed by Liturgical Press. I admit to being easily distracted and easily provoked. Were it otherwise, there would be no Public Square each month. But now back to work on this homily, in the hope that it will not lower Catholic expectations even further. Some of the people will have read the stated theme in the Mass guide, so maybe I should work in something about the exquisite sensitivity exhibited by Jesus and Mary.

And a little story, preferably a funny one, never hurts. This one, too, is from my Lutheran days. Mrs. Schultz was most exceptional among Lutherans of German extraction in that she was a teetotaler. She objected also to the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper and regularly argued the point with her pastor. Finally, the pastor was exasperated and said, “We’ve gone round and round on this, Mrs. Schultz, and you simply have to admit that Our Lord himself used wine when he instituted the Supper.” “Ja, Ja, Pastor,” said Mrs. Schultz, “and that’s one thing I never liked about Jesus.” There, that should make memorable the deeper lesson of the wedding at Cana : Be tolerant of those who take a nip from time to time. As the years go by, I’m getting the hang of Catholic preaching. St. Augustine would not have approved and Chrysostom would have been scandalized, but what did they know about sensitivity? They were hopelessly pre-missalette.

While We’re At It

• Medical concerns have been raised about the “morning after pill,” but the Christian Century editorially opines that it’s worth the risks. “The possible downside is offset by some distinct benefits. It seems to us a good idea to give women who wish to terminate a pregnancy the option of doing so at the very earliest”and morally preferable”stage rather than later. It’s also a good idea to provide a method that reduces the total number of abortions.” Unless, of course, terminating a pregnancy is morally indistinguishable from abortion.

• Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State , published two years ago, has received a great deal of deserved attention and, for the most part, high praise (see FT, December 2000). Douglas Laycock, another distinguished scholar of the First Amendment religion clause, offers a sharp dissent in the University of Chicago Law Review (Fall 2003). In “The Many Meanings of Separation,” Laycock contends that Hamburger’s book”while providing massive and useful documentation of the ways in which separationism has been driven by anti-religious and, more specifically, anti-Catholic passions “ deceptively limits “separation” to one meaning, namely, the “strict separationism” of, for instance, the 1948 McCollum decision with which the Hamburger book ends. Almost a half century later, Laycock argues, it is evident that the Supreme Court’s construal of the religion clause is much more nuanced than Hamburger suggests. Laycock concludes: “If to some people separation means protection of religious activity from government, and to other people it means suppression or subordination of religious activity by government, then the phrase has no agreed core of meaning that will enable anyone to communicate. The phrase is deeply entrenched in American society and people will not quit using it. But the apparent lesson of Hamburger’s book is that the phrase has no sufficiently agreed meaning to be of any use, and until we develop vocabulary that communicates distinct theories of separation, we should give up the phrase altogether. Thanks to Hamburger’s careful history of actual usage, we now know that from the phrase alone, without an analysis of context, we have no idea what people mean by it.” I’m not quite sure what to make of all this. I agree with Hamburger that, in the past and at present, the dominant use of “separation of church and state” in public discourse has aimed at limiting, muting, or excluding religious influence in our public life. I agree with Laycock that the most virulent forms of antireligious separationism, described in such detail by Hamburger, have not definitively triumphed. I also agree with Laycock that the “separation of church and state” also supports the freedom of religion from government interference. He is right to say that the phrase is deeply entrenched and will continue to be used until an alternative terminology gains currency. All of which leaves us with the observation that the phrase “the separation of church and state” is used in ways both hostile and friendly to religious freedom and, so long as it is with us, we must not tire of contending for its friendly use.

• Apparently it’s becoming the thing with rich kids who have lots of Jewish friends. They go to Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and find the parties really cool. For example, Laura Jean of Dallas, whose parents are Methodist, had a really big bash, which the Wall Street Journal says “looked like a Bat Mitzvah, without the religion.” Said Laura Jean, “I wanted to be Jewish so I could have a Bat Mitzvah. Having the party fulfilled that.” More precisely, having the party fulfilled wanting to be Jewish in order to have a party. Don’t blame the kids, but what are the parents, if they are thinking, thinking?

• Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia concludes his review of the book by saying that we are privileged to live in a time that can claim a historian of such distinction. That is a tribute offered by one master historian to another. The book is The Rise of Western Christendom and the historian is Peter Brown of Princeton (Blackwell, 625 pages,, $29.95). The book was first published in 1996 and this is called the second edition, but in fact it is so thoroughly updated and rewritten that it can be considered a new work. Brown is the author of many books on early Christianity and late antiquity, and is best known for his magnificent Augustine of Hippo , a biography. The Rise covers the period from 200 to 1000, the story of “the decline and fall” of the Roman Empire, the “invasion of the barbarians,” and the final triumph of “Western Christendom.” It is the story known to generations from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , a great book that was utterly wrongheaded in its time and is now impossibly outdated but is still much worth reading for the caustic elegance of its prose. Brown offers an alternative to two more recent historians: Christopher Dawson, who, in The Making of Europe , put Catholicism at the center of the constitution of a new civilization, and Henri Pirenne, who dismissed “the barbarian invasions” as a nonevent, contending that the empire did not fall but was sustained by the economic system of Mediterranean trade. In Brown’s telling, there was no dramatic “fall” and no real “invasion” from the north but a slower and more ambiguous process of amalgamation between what was originally Roman with what was “Romanized” in a long period of interaction with the Franks and others who gradually moved from marginality to dominance. The book is especially strong in its depiction of the Eastern Empire based in Constantinople and the vitality of pre-Islamic Christianity in the Levant, and it dwells with loving attention on the early Irish-Scot Christianization of Britain centered in the holy island of Iona. Of popular accounts such as Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization , Brown flatly states that “this is a myth which has no scholarly support.” It is a myth that also obscures the true achievement of the Irish. “For what Irishmen and West Britons lacked in books, they more than made up for through the intensity and originality with which they read what books they had, and the zest with which they applied their reading to substantially new situations. The Irish did a lot more than ‘save’ the relics of classical civilization. They created something new.” On the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Brown makes the interesting point that the initial tolerance toward Christians, Jews, and others reflected the original Arab belief that Islam was for Arabs, who were a kind of new chosen people. Only later was it asserted that obedience to the new revelation required the conversion or subjugation of all. Then there is the big question: What was it that held Christianity and, later, Christendom together? Brown answers with the rather clunky term “inter-connectivity,” meaning that”from Syria to Constantinople to Iona to Armenia to Iceland”Christians shared the same sacred texts, essentially the same liturgy, and a form of episcopal governance harkening back to a shared memory, or imagined memory, of apostolic origins. Only with trepidation would I question Peter Brown but, if Christopher Dawson exaggerated the role of Rome, I suspect Brown is inclined to downplay it. There are other questions that might be raised, and Brown well knows that he has not written the last book on the subject, but the appropriate response to The Rise of Western Christendom is one of enormous gratitude. It is an astonishing story, told in a way that keeps general themes clearly in sight while lovingly attending to the particularities of people, practices, and beliefs. If the term multiculturalism is ever to be rescued from its current trivializations, it might be through engaging the intricacies of difference and sameness, of clashes and borrowings, of defeats and victories and new beginnings related by Peter Brown in The Rise of Western Christendom .

• Precisely six years after the tumultuous visit by John Paul II, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, visited Cuba. There are about a thousand Orthodox Christians in Cuba, and the patriarch was there to dedicate a new church in downtown Havana. Fidel Castro pulled out all the stops and Bartholomew was, according to press reports, the perfect guest. Despite appeals from brave dissidents for a meeting, despite the hundreds, if not thousands, in Castro’s jails for challenging his tyranny, despite the regular protests of Jaime Cardinal Ortega y Alamino against the regime’s denial of freedom, Bartholomew said nothing that might upset his dictator host. By way of sharpest contrast, John Paul II in Cuba repeatedly called for religious freedom, respect for rights of parents and families, democratic accountability, and the release of prisoners. Yes, an Orthodox friend tells me, but we must remember that the two are in very different positions. John Paul commands the world stage as leader of more than a billion Catholics, while Bartholomew, for all the traditional dignity of his office, is holed up in the back streets of Istanbul and lives day by day at the sufferance of a hostile Turkish government and people. That is true enough. (The sorry plight of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is vividly depicted in William Dalrymple’s splendid book, From the Holy Mountain [1999]). But the fact remains that, for all of Bartholomew’s besieged circumstance, including also a frequently unfriendly and very powerful Moscow Patriarchate, he is the nominal leader of Orthodox Christianity. He came to a country where fellow Christians are persecuted, jailed, and summarily executed, and he said not a word. He diligently followed the script given him by his criminal host, and that”all mitigating circumstances notwithstanding”is both disappointing and scandalous.

• Twenty-three priests in the Chicago area sent out an open letter protesting what they said was the use of harsh and insensitive language in Vatican documents on homosexuality. Francis Cardinal George responded by saying that we must indeed be careful about the language we use, and then he added this: “Pastors have to mediate the tension between welcoming people and calling them to change, to repent and convert and live according to Christ’s teaching transmitted by the Church. That tension is often resolved in practice by a pastor’s love for his people. I thank you for loving your people. If, however, you cannot resolve that tension between welcoming people as they are and still calling them to leave their sinfulness and become saints, or if you yourself do not accept the Church’s moral teaching on the moral use of the gift of sexuality, it would be all the more important for us to talk.” There is no report on how many priests have called for an appointment.

• A conference on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is a delicate business. But it happened recently in Jidda, and the Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, considered to be Saudi Arabia ‘s highest religious authority, was not amused. “Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe,” he said. “It is highly punishable. Mixing of men and women is a reason for greater decadence and adultery.” Muhammad, he suggested, would be exceedingly displeased by the conference. At the meeting a different perspective on allowing women to mix with men was offered by former president Bill Clinton. According to the New York Times , he said that “ Saudi Arabia could not fight the ‘tide of change’ and that the Prophet Muhammad would have let his wife drive if cars had existed 1,400 years ago.” (Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.) So the question is: What would Muhammad do? Sheik Abdulaziz’s views seem somewhat extreme, but one can readily imagine, and sympathize with, his opinion of Mr. Clinton as an authority on Islamic teaching”or, for that matter, Christian teaching”on how men and women should and should not mix.

Letters to a Young Catholic is George Weigel’s latest. Just out from Basic (262 pages,, $22.50), it is in the publisher’s series of “Letters to . . . ””a young conservative, a young radical, a young this or that. Weigel’s The Courage to be Catholic has been a big hit, and I expect the new book will make a similar mark. Like Courage , it presents Catholic fidelity as a challenge and invitation to the high adventure of Christian discipleship. But this book is more autobiographical, even confessional, in character. It takes the reader on a tour of the places and people and practices that have formed the author’s understanding of what it means to be Catholic, in the hope of conveying to the young reader the “feel” of the particular and palpable “stuff” of Catholic faith and life. There is the Holy Land, and Chartres, and Newman’s oratory, and the Scavi in Rome where St. Peter is buried. There is also the youth ministry of the Dominicans in Krakow, Poland, and the cathedral in Weigel’s hometown of Baltimore, as well as a visit to a vibrantly Catholic parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Here is the Church, Weigel is saying, and in this Church is to be discovered, in its fullness and variousness, the presence of Christ and the maddeningly different ways of responding to Christ. It is a marvelous book, a great gift for young people of your acquaintance. But be sure to get a copy for yourself as well. Here is a taste: “That’s the truth shining through the ineffable blues of the Chartres windows. That’s the truth that makes every icon possible. That is grace at work”God’s outpouring of his superabundant life into the world and into our lives. Like Augustine, we, too, burn for the embrace of the Beauty that is ever ancient and ever new. That burning, which God himself has built into us, is the beginning of every prayer.” Letters to a Young Catholic . I warmly recommend it.

• “Sexual Abuse in Social Context” is a report issued by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It was published in anticipation of the comprehensive report by the National Review Board which has not been issued as of this writing. The Catholic League document is aimed at countering the media “obsession” with sexual abuse by Catholic priests, suggesting that the incidence of abuse is somewhat higher for Protestant clergy, rabbis, and psychologists, and much higher for public school teachers. It underscores what is undoubtedly true, that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members or people known to the family. The Catholic League report is well intended but largely beside the point. Nobody doubts that “inappropriate sexual behavior” is widespread, but the Catholic scandal is about men engaging in sex with minors. Moreover, it is about Catholic priests doing so, and priests are rightly held to a higher standard. Finally, the reality would seem to be that the overwhelming majority of instances involve teenage boys, from which one may surmise that the problem is homosexual priests who act on their desire to have sex with teenage boys. Good intentions notwithstanding, no report on “social context” can mitigate that horror. This is not the time for Catholics to circle the wagons, shooting tu quoque arrows at their critics. The assault on the integrity of the Church comes from within. Conservatives focused on countering anti-Catholicism and liberals focused on countering gay-bashing join in suggesting that the crisis is not so grave as it has been made out to be. They are both wrong.

• Forget about the slander that it is anti-Semitic. It appears that the problem with Mel Gibson’s film on the passion is that it’s too pro-Christian. The Rev. Paul Rutger, director of the Council of Religious Leaders in Chicago, saw an advance screening and said, “Personally, I have mixed feelings about the movie. It’s clearly a message movie. And the message is ‘I believe in Jesus as the Son of God.’ It’s straight-out evangelical, Jesus-died-for-your-sins.” Aha. So that’s what Gibson’s up to. Clearly, the film should be accompanied by an advisory giving fair warning to the Christianly challenged.

• “The book doesn’t say much that we didn’t already know,” one reader wrote. Christopher Baglow of St. Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana also started out with the prejudice that the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) volume Your Word is Truth could hardly say anything about the relationship between Scripture and tradition that has not been said many times before. Reviewing the book for Nova et Vetera , he changed his mind: “Yet reading only a few pages of Your Word is Truth is enough to turn both disdain and discomfort into eager attention, and to stand ordinary theological prejudices on their heads. The depth of insight in the essays collected in this volume is distinguished by an all-too-rare pairing of virtues: theological astuteness and ecumenical charity. In regard to the first, the volume justifies the reputations of the distinguished Evangelical and Catholic theologians who dutifully and diligently entered the discussion. In regard to the second, every individual contribution justifies, from page to page, the frequent assertions of an earnest and common desire for unity in the truth which permeate the joint statement that begins it.” He concludes with the suggestion that the ECT participants should “compose a joint statement on the method and spirit of dialogue they employ, so that other ecumenical enterprises can benefit from the example of their excellent approach.” We’re thinking about it.

• Good news, according to the advertising magazine Brandweek . Focus-group studies show that products advertised on “edgy” television programs do not suffer significant damage to their image. “Edgy” is the new word for vulgar. Advertisers used to worry that the sleaze would rub off on their products. But now, Brandweek declares, “marketers can get a bang for their buck buying into edgy programs.” What matters morality, never mind good taste, when the alternative is a bang for the buck?

• In what sense is America an empire? Or should it be an empire in any sense of the term? To the second question, Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and a contributor to these pages, answers with a qualified No, but in the new book he has edited, The Imperial Tense (Ivan R. Dee), he gives ample space to those who answer with an outright, or variously qualified, Yes. Most of the essays are interesting, several are outstanding, but my attention was drawn particularly to “A Citizen’s Response” by Wendell Berry. Berry is a Kentucky farmer and prolific writer on How We Live Now, and how we should be living. From time to time, readers who admire Berry have wondered why we don’t pay more attention to his work, although there have been favorable mentions. I confess that what I have read of Berry strikes me as a too easy proposing of beguiling alternatives in a manner too often marred by wistful sentimentality and moral smugness. But people whose judgment I respect tell me I’m wrong, and so I”possessed of an irrepressible eagerness to be corrected”went immediately to his essay in The Imperial Tense . Berry takes as his text the statement on National Security Strategy (NSS) published in September 2002, which declares the U.S. intention to work with the international community, but then adds that “we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists.” Who is this “we,” asks Berry, and then answers his question: “This ‘we’ of the new strategy can refer only to the president. It is a royal ‘we.’ . . . By this new doctrine, the president alone may start a war against any nation at any time.” And just who are these “terrorists” (quotes in original)? The NSS document defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.” To which Berry responds, “The ‘legitimate’ warfare of technologically advanced nations likewise is premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.” Plus, there are many other forms of terrorism. “I mean such things as toxic pollution, land destruction, soil erosion, the destruction of biological diversity and of the ecological supports of agriculture,” writes Berry. In the NSS document there is “the contradiction of peace and war, or of war as the means of achieving and preserving peace. This document affirms peace; it also affirms peace as the justification of war and war as the means of peace, and thus perpetuates a hallowed absurdity.” The document notes that the U.S. has not accepted the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. Berry comments: “The rule of law in the world, then, is to be upheld by a nation that has declared itself to be above the law. A childish hypocrisy here assumes the dignity of a nation’s foreign policy.” He acknowledges that September 11 was a “catastrophe,” but observes, “It is useless to try to adjudicate a long-standing animosity by asking who started it or who is the most wrong.” I am sorry, but this is moral recklessness of a drearily predictable and partisan nature. Berry ‘s unfortunate essay notwithstanding, The Imperial Tense is well worth reading for other and more bracing arguments, pro and con, on whether or in what sense America is an empire.

• The life of Francis Thompson was in many ways a shambles, but I am impressed by the number of people for whom “The Hound of Heaven” was instrumental in drawing them, or returning them, to the faith. Continuum has now brought out The Poems of Francis Thompson , and Neil Powell, writing in the Times Literary Supplement , wonders why. “The Hound of Heaven” he describes as “that pious dog’s dinner of a piece,” and he cites approvingly the judgment of Geoffrey Grigson that the poem is the “wild half-digested gush” of a drug addict dominated by “indolence and self-delusion.” Well, that is a bit over-the-top. In the late 1870s, Powell writes, Thompson became addicted to opium and his family life disintegrated around him. “His mother died in 1879, six years later”when one of his sisters entered a convent, the other became engaged to a Canadian, and his father was planning his own remarriage”Thompson fled to London,” where he became destitute and was provided refuge by a prostitute. I don’t know why having a sister getting engaged to a Canadian is a sign of disintegration. Powell rather grudgingly acknowledges that Thompson did get off some good lines. For instance, this: “Nothing begins, and nothing ends, / That is not paid with moan; / For we are born in others’ pain, / And perish in our own.” I don’t know Neil Powell, but one gets the distinct impression that what he most dislikes about Francis Thompson is that he knew himself to be a sinner who was finally compelled to surrender to the persistence of grace.

• Now here is something as welcome as it is unusual. I am not aware of any government publication quite like it. Being Human is a 628-page collection of readings put together by the President’s Council on Bioethics, under the leadership of the formidable Dr. Leon Kass. The selections from world literature, philosophy, ethics, and poetry are exquisitely judicious. Although from a multitude of different perspectives, each selection homes in on one or another aspect of what it means to be human, which of course is the fundamental question that the Council was established to address. It’s a very big book divided into ten chapters. The first, on human perfection, includes Hawthorne ‘s story about the birthmark, C. S. Lewis on “that hideous strength,” and Lewis Thomas on the importance of making mistakes. The second, on “scientific aspirations,” includes Descartes, a touching memoir by E. O. Wilson, and James Watson’s chilling account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. On the human life cycle we have Plato, St. Augustine, and Tolstoy (the last making several appearances in the volume). On suffering, there is Auden and Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, among others, while the meaning of human dignity is addressed by Willa Cather, Homer, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. And so it goes, on and on. (But where is Dostoevsky?) My worry about this big book is that some might use it as CliffsNotes, sampling the well-chosen excerpts and bypassing the original texts. Each excerpt comes with some well-formulated questions for further reflection, and the whole thing makes for several evenings of instructively pleasant reading. To obtain a copy of Being Human, visit the website of the President’s Council on Bioethics ( info@bioethics.gov ).

• The problem with Michael Novak is his “Marxian sentimentality.” That, according to Scott Richert, an editor at Chronicles , a magazine published in Rockford, Illinois. What is worth noting is that the Wanderer , a conservative Catholic paper, thinks Richert is right. The Wanderer quotes Richert quoting Novak: “At one time, the major form of wealth in most places was land . . . . In our time economists affirm that the chief cause of the wealth of nations is not material at all, but knowledge, skill, know-how, what economists call ‘human capital.’” That, writes Richert, is “denying the material nature of property” and is clear evidence of Novak’s succumbing to “gnostic notions” that are in manifest dissent from Catholic social doctrine. Novak is not alone in dissenting from church teaching. Consider this: “In our time another form of ownership . . . is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology, and skill. The wealth of industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.” That’s John Paul II in the encyclical Centesimus Annus . That papal encyclicals are not read at Chronicles is perhaps not surprising, but at the Wanderer ?

• While a prisoner in the Tower of London awaiting his certain execution, Thomas More reflected on, among many other things, the perfidy of the English bishops who signed the oath accepting King Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England. Only one, John Fisher, refused, and he paid with his life. More’s words are hard, but he never for a moment doubted that the bishops are successors to the apostles, which only makes their perfidy all the greater. More was struck by the words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 7: “For the sorrow that is according to God produces repentance that surely tends to salvation, whereas the sorrow that is according to the world produces death.” The second kind of sorrow was evident in the bishops who buckled in the face of what they viewed as the inevitable. The following is from a fine little collection edited by Matthew Levering, On the Priesthood . Thomas More writes: “If sorrow so grips the mind that its strength is sapped and reason gives up the reins, if a bishop is so overcome by heavy-hearted sleep that he neglects to do what the duty of his office requires for the salvation of his flock”like a cowardly ship’s captain who is so disheartened by the furious din of a storm that he deserts the helm, hides away cowering in some cranny, and abandons the ship to the waves”if a bishop does this, I would certainly not hesitate to juxtapose and compare his sadness with the sadness that leads, as Paul says, to hell. Indeed, I would consider it far worse, since such sadness in religious matters seems to spring from a mind which despairs of God’s help.” As John Paul II may or may not have said in another connection (Mel Gibson’s The Passion ), “It is as it was.”

• Tom and Ann Belser Brown write in the Messenger , a magazine of the Church of the Brethren: “We have had an END WAR license plate on our car since 1985 in Mississippi. When we moved to Indiana in 2001, we transferred that phrase to our new plate. A few months later, we joyfully found out that some good friends in Jackson took the END WAR for their Mississippi car tag. Unfortunately, war continues.” Even after all that?

• A Wisconsin reader writes that his cable television now shows pay-per-view gay and lesbian films. “We subscribe to cable. It is our only source for television. Have we a moral duty to cancel now that it has embraced sodomy? This raises, of course, the much larger question about Christian responsibilities in a pagan culture. To what degree must we retreat?” First, we should be careful about being unfair to the pagans of antiquity, who were in some respects morally exemplary. Second, why is sodomy the line in the sand when television has long been promoting promiscuity, adultery, divorce, abortion, and egregious violence? I have considerable respect for people who have long since pitched out their television sets. I have one but often go days without looking at it. Not as a form of moral protest, but just because there is so little on offer that can compete with all the books to read, music to listen to, and friends to talk with. In any event, we should not retreat, except in the sense of making a retreat to be strengthened in doing battle, even if that takes the form of simply living a life attuned to things more worthy. There have been televised moments that I am glad I did not miss. But it is good to remember that television, like newspapers and most other media, are businesses aimed at making a profit by attracting paying crowds. They are marketing their products, which is to say they pander to the degree that it does not jeopardize their market. And they pitch themselves ever lower in a society that is, in the nice phrase of the late Senator Moynihan, defining deviancy down. Those in charge do their best to feel good, indeed righteous, about what they are doing, knowing that every deviancy indulged, every taboo defied, will be celebrated by their peers as daring creativity and a blow for liberty. The television of countries such as Germany and France shows how far this can go. We are not there yet, but we may be on our way. There is much to be said for pitching out the set, or putting it in the closet, only to be very occasionally retrieved for viewing things of great moment. Prime time should be reserved for the aforementioned books, music, friends, and, of course, this journal. As for not watching television, it is not so much a matter of moral principle as knowing how little you have missed.

• In time for the edification of another generation there may appear a new sacramentary with, at the insistence of the Congregation for Divine Worship, rites and prayers more accurately translated from the Latin. Adoremus Bulletin quotes Dorothy Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels and much else, on the difficulties in writing good prayers. “It isn’t so much liturgical or theological knowledge that is lacking as the ability to write good English, and I refuse to believe that God is well served, or a spirit of worship promoted, by knock-kneed, broken-backed phrases that sound as though they were written by a tired journalist in a hurry.” That is a depressingly fair description of the language with which Catholics have been burdened for several decades. In addition to liturgical and theological knowledge, along with accuracy of translation, one hopes the promised sacramentary will reflect a decent respect for felicity in the use of a language capable of honoring God and elevating souls, if we will but let it.

• “Secularism, Justice, and Jesuit Higher Education”Are They All the Same?” The article is in Review for Religious , and the answer to the question would seem to be in the affirmative. The particular issue addressed is globalization and the inequalities created by capitalism. Father Martin R. Tripole, S.J. writes, “The perception seems to be that Jesuit higher education is not adequately committing itself to the pursuit of justice and something must be done about it. The pressure has grown to make the promotion of justice the litmus test for qualifying as a Jesuit institution . . . . In short, if your institution is not promoting justice, it is not Jesuit.” Fr. Tripole is surely justified in being worried about Jesuit higher education. To borrow his fine phrase, something must be done about it.

• Mark Judge writes in Crisis that, having given away yet another copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain , he went out to buy a new one, to which has been added an introduction by William H. Shannon, president of the International Thomas Merton Society. Merton’s book is, of course, a conversion story, and some have gone so far as to compare it with Augustine’s Confessions . Shannon, however, seems downright embarrassed by Merton’s conversion, and perhaps by the very idea of conversion, as though one form of religion might be more “true” than others. Shannon writes: “The pre-Vatican II Church into which Merton was baptized was a Church still reacting”even three centuries later”to the Protestant Reformation. Characterized by a siege mentality, wagons circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, it clung to its past with great tenacity . . . . The Church prided itself on the stability and unchangeable character of its teaching in the context of a world in flux. At the time Merton wrote his book, Roman Catholic theology had become a set of prepackaged responses to any and all questions. Polemical and apologetic in tone, its aim is to prove Catholics were right and all others were wrong.” Oh dear. Merton went so far as to think he was being received into the “one true Church” (in sneer quotes). Oh dear, dear. All is not lost, however. Shannon goes on: “Today, as we hover on the verge of a new millennium, we can identify with his searching, if not always with the specific direction it took. Merton’s personal magnetism, the enthusiasm of his convictions, the vivid narratives of this born writer, transcend the narrowness of his theology. His story contains perennial elements of our common human experience. This is what makes it profoundly universal.” But agree with Merton or not, the entire story of his book is about “the specific direction” of his searching and finding. For Merton, the “profoundly universal” was discovered in the Church. For Shannon, as for so many in an Oprahfied popular culture, the fatuously universal is the discovery of Me. Catholicism is a living tradition and much has changed since Merton’s book was published in 1948, but I expect Mark Judge is right when he writes, “I daresay that in a hundred years Shannon’s introduction will seem far more dated than the book it so ineptly introduces.”

• Quite suddenly, it seems, there are four imminent developments of most particular interest to a magazine of religion, culture, and public life. Each has the potential of being a benchmark of historic change. Not necessarily in order of importance they are the response to Mel Gibson’s The Passion , the campaign for the marriage amendment, the report of the National Review Board on the Catholic scandals (and the responses to it), and the prospect of John Kerry being the Democratic nominee. Many churches and parachurch organizations are gearing up to make T