The Public Square

Last month we began an extended report on the two reports issued on February 27 and on some of the preliminary responses to the reports. The first report, commissioned by the National Review Board, consisted of the findings of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the incidence and nature of sex abuse by Catholic clergy from 1950 to 2002. The limited media attention focused on the finding that there were some ten thousand accusations against four thousand priests, or about four percent of the priests serving during the time studied. We noted that no other major institution in American society”notably the public school system, social workers, Boy Scouts, athletic associations”has been subjected to similar scrutiny, and that some experts believe that the incidence of sex abuse by priests and bishops is relatively small by comparison. Moreover, we took into account statistical analyses of the John Jay findings, including the fact that only 149 priests accounted for more than a quarter of all accusations, that can lead to the conclusion that the sex abuse crisis was significantly exaggerated. From a purely statistical viewpoint, it no doubt was exaggerated, and for various reasons: e.g., raw anti-Catholicism in the media, a continuing campaign within the Church against the celibacy rule, and an effort to exclude or remove homosexuals from the priesthood. The likelihood of exaggeration in the number and gravity of offenses, however, provides naught for our comfort. The report of the National Review Board itself (as distinct from the John Jay report commissioned by the NRB) underscores that the sexual abuse of minors simply opened a window, exposing a much more pervasive and deeply troubling “Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.”

According to the NRB, the crisis was chiefly created by what can only be described as misgovernance by the bishops. As might be expected, this news is not welcomed by many bishops, and certainly not by the bureaucracy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which in some matters is the collective representative of the bishops. The misgovernance reported by the NRB does not include all bishops by any means. Many, probably most, are hardworking, conscientious leaders trying to do their best in shepherding their local churches. Neither, however, does the NRB report focus on isolated incidents of misgovernance. It discerns far-reaching patterns that call for a searching reappraisal of the leadership of the Church in the United States. The NRB report will be “put on the agenda” of the June meeting of bishops, but there is a concern that it will there be accorded a perfunctory discussion before being consigned to the archives of the USCCB”or assigned to a committee for “further study,” which might amount to much the same thing. If that happens, a historic opportunity will have been missed for the reform of the Church, and not least for the restoration of gravely damaged confidence in the Church’s episcopal leadership.

Contrary to the general impression, there are many lay advisory groups in the Catholic Church. One archbishop says that he can hardly make a move unless he checks it out with lay panels or boards, and doing something major, such as closing a parish, is a nightmare of battling a dozen or more lay groups. Even the USCCB has a lay body that goes over the agenda for meetings of bishops and makes recommendations. The reality, however, is that the NRB and its report are something very different. The NRB was created by the bishops in response to what is commonly called “the greatest crisis in the history of Catholicism in America.” There have been other crises that may have been as severe. For instance, the trusteeship crisis of the nineteenth century that threatened to move Catholicism to a “congregationalist” polity, or the crisis of episcopal inaction in the face of orchestrated dissent from the 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae , a dissent that powerfully undermined the authority of magisterial teaching. But the sex-abuse crisis prompted the bishops to give the NRB a mandate to examine the “causes and context” of what went wrong with the Church’s leadership and what should be done about it. It may be, as some bishops complain, that the NRB went beyond what they thought was its mandate, but it was only the promise that its investigation would be independent and comprehensive that made it possible to enlist the extraordinary talents and devotion of the twelve lay people who worked so hard to produce the report.

The Smoke of Satan

These people are not the usual church activists or chronic malcontents, whether of the left or the right, who are the bane of every bishop’s life. They do not question the divine constitution of the Church’s apostolic leadership; nor are they interested in “power sharing,” meaning endless meetings to nitpick a bishop’s every decision. They have a life, and they have made great sacrifices to serve on the NRB. Their only interest is in helping the bishops to be more effectively the shepherds they are ordained to be. If the product of their work is not taken seriously”as, for instance, an invaluable reference in a synod of bishops dedicated to a program of comprehensive reform”it may be a very, very long time before people of their quality will make a comparable effort to help the bishops with much of anything. Of course, that may be just fine with some bishops who still believe that the Church is a clerical corporation and the role of the laity is, as the old saying has it, to pray, pay, and obey. There will be a strong and understandable desire at the June meeting to “move on” from the nightmare of scandals. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB, will likely receive a well-deserved standing ovation for having moved the scandals out of the headlines. Then will come the critical question of whether the bishops as a body are really interested in the “causes and context” of what went wrong, and has been going wrong for so long. That will be answered in large part by their response to the NRB report. Was the NRB and its report simply a ploy in a public relations strategy, or will it be received and acted upon in advancing a program of authentic Catholic reform?

Whatever the bishops do with it, the NRB report is a historically important document that warrants careful study. (The complete 150-page document can be found at www.usccb.org/nrb ). The two questions with which the report begins are: 1) why did sexual predators gain admission to the priesthood; and 2) why did they remain in the priesthood after their abuse was know to bishops and other leaders? A summary answer is that the responses of too many bishops “were characterized by moral laxity, excessive leniency, insensitivity, secrecy, and neglect.” The fear of litigation (the Church has to date put out close to seven hundred million dollars in settlements) and of public scandal led some bishops to minimize the fact that what some priests were doing was, as the NRB says, “simply immoral.” “Sexual abuse is inherently traumatic; when committed by a priest, it is especially traumatic. Because a priest is quite literally a ‘father figure,’ abuse by a priest is likely to cause more harm to a child than abuse by any other individual outside the family. Moreover, a unique consequence of abuse by a member of the clergy is the damage to the victim’s faith.” The immorality and horror of what was happening reflected the fact that the bishops in question were not paying attention, and apparently did not want to know. One priest interviewed said that he could have a concubine and three children and his bishop would not know it. It would appear that there are many more incidents of priests having a sexual relationship with an adult woman or man than with minors. Such relationships are, in many cases, not viewed as a major problem because they usually do not have legal, financial, or public relations consequences for the Church, and are therefore deemed to be “nobody’s business.” The report states, “Whether a priest keeps his vows and lives in accordance with the moral precepts of the Church is the business of his bishop, his fellow priests, and his parishioners.”

While there are many ways of understanding the current crisis, the Board believes that “the overriding paradigm that characterizes the crisis is one of sinfulness.” The Board borrows a phrase from Pope Paul VI: “Somehow, the ‘smoke of Satan’ was allowed to enter the Church, and as a result the Church itself has been deeply wounded.” “The only way to combat sinfulness is with holiness . . . . Priests who were truly holy would not have abused young people; nor would they have allowed others to do so.” In short, the crisis is about fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Here the report touches on a factor that has only been whispered about in the past. Some bishops may have failed to do their duty because they were themselves sexually compromised. “That is, priests either explicitly or implicitly threatened to reveal compromising information about a bishop if the bishop took steps against the priest.” Anyone who “could be subject to blackmail,” the report says, “should not allow himself to be elevated to bishop or placed in any other position of authority.”

The report, in my judgment, goes a little wobbly on the Dallas policy of “zero tolerance” for a priest who has ever been accused of anything at any time, no matter how long ago, and no matter how impeccable his record of service over years or decades since. Recognizing that zero tolerance is a “blunt instrument,” the report says, “Nonetheless, the Board believes that for the immediate future the zero-tolerance policy is essential to the restoration of the trust of the laity in the leadership of the Church, provided that it is appropriately applied.” Beyond the immediate future, the goal should be “individualized justice.” It is reported that over seven hundred accused priests have been peremptorily removed from ministry. Others who have been closely tracking these developments, such as the Detroit-based Opus Bono Sacerdotii, an organization of lawyers helping accused priests, estimate that more than a thousand have been removed. As one priest told the Board, “It’s like being divorced by your wife, fired from your job, and evicted from your home all at once.” And all this without any effective channel of appeal.

Scandal Within the Scandal

It is hard to know how zero tolerance can be “appropriately applied.” Zero tolerance excludes by definition any consideration of what is appropriate. A priest who is accused of even one incident”even if it was no more than a misunderstood hug, and even if that was twenty or thirty years ago”and has given his life in faithful service to the people of God ever since, is rudely thrown out, not because he poses a credible threat to anyone but because he is a convenient scapegoat for bishops who, after years of laxity, now want to look tough. Such a gross violation of the Church’s teaching about repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life”not to mention its violation of elementary justice”is the scandal within the scandal, and no institutional exigency can morally justify it, even for “the immediate future.” Yet some bishops are talking about the need to extend the zero-tolerance policy beyond the two-year trial period reluctantly allowed by Rome. In the Pope’s April 2002 meeting with American bishops he said there is no place in ministry for anyone who poses a threat to children. He also said we must never forget the power of forgiveness and redemption. The first admonition has been regularly cited, and rightly so. The second has been quite forgotten. On the advice of lawyers and public relations experts, care is taken to avoid any suggestion that bishops are ministers of grace and forgiveness. The media would have a field day with that. And so the innocent are treated as prodigal, and the prodigal son returning home is turned away at the gate. The Good Shepherd could afford to rejoice in the lost sheep that was found; His sheep did not pose a risk of legal liability. Bishops who promised to be fathers to their priests toss to the wolves the innocent and the guilty alike, all in the name of “protecting the children,” but protecting, in fact, themselves and an institution that has no reason for being other than to minister the justice and mercy of God. Zero tolerance is a denial of both justice and mercy. Bishops, and all of us, must tremble at the prospect of its being the policy in force at the Final Assize. How many souls were deprived of care, and perhaps of salvation, because of the unjust removal of good and faithful priests? One must hope that bishops are asking themselves now the questions that will surely be asked of them then.

Father Ladislas Orsy, one of the world’s most distinguished canonists, recently wrote in the Boston College Law Review : “The law should have ‘zero tolerance’ toward any crime by proscribing it, but the judge and jury should weigh and ponder the personal responsibility and culpability of the accused (which can exist in different degrees) and come to a decision accordingly. This distinction is foundational for any civilized legal system and is also a matter of natural justice. Yet the ‘Norms’ [adopted at Dallas] ignore it, a grave omission.” After having for so long turned a blind eye to the guilty, bishops are now, as though it were some kind of compensation for their negligence, turning a blind eye to the innocent. It does not enhance the credibility of a Church that, on so many fronts, presents itself as an expert on justice. The report notes again and again that there is no comparable zero-tolerance policy for bishops who protected predator priests and continued to give them assignments. Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, for example, is alleged to “have allowed numerous predator priests to remain in ministry,” and then to have placed obstacles in the way of law enforcement authorities, all of which, in the understated words of the report, “did little to enhance the reputation of the Church for transparency and cooperation.” Or, one might add, for justice.

The report repeatedly stresses that “this crisis [is] one of the episcopacy as much as it is a crisis of the priesthood,” and it cites the 2003 apostolic exhortation by John Paul II, Pastores Gregis : “The title of Bishop is one of service, not of honor, and therefore a Bishop should strive to benefit others rather than to lord it over them. Such is the precept of the Master.” By way of sharpest contrast, the Board encountered a “haughty” and uncooperative manner in some bishops, leading them to the conclusion that “the exercise of authority without accountability is not servant-leadership; it is tyranny.” As of this writing, a bishop accused of abusing minors remains in office and is using the full resources of the diocese to defend himself in the public arena. One must hope that he is innocent, but, were he a priest, it seems he would have been immediately and permanently removed from ministry. A particularly egregious instance of double standards and nonaccountability is the former Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, who settled a matter related to his relationship with an adult male, a former theology student, by paying the man $450,000 out of church funds. Had the amount been $50,000 more, it would have required the approval of the diocesan finance council. “Clearly,” the Board says, “a bishop should not be allowed to make such a large payment, whether on behalf of himself or priests in his diocese, with no oversight.” Weakland’s resignation was accepted by Rome only when the scandal became public, but his actions reflect a pattern of the corruption that attends leadership without accountability.

Causes and Context

In addressing the “causes and context” of the crisis, the NRB is on issue after issue refreshingly forthright. Too often, they concluded, lawyers were dictating the decisions of bishops. Fear of litigation, an admittedly necessary concern, trumped a bishop’s duty to his priests and to his flock. Bishops are also scored for relying on psychotherapists to evaluate miscreant priests, sometimes shopping around for positive evaluations in order to return abusers to ministry. In this way, bishops also evaded the requirements of canon law and their own responsibility for making judgments. Most grievously, dependence on the therapeutic resulted in a dismissal in practice, if not a denial in theory, of the Church’s constituting truths with respect to sin, forgiveness, repentance, and redemption. Verging on the incredible, in the week following the release of the NRB report, the Los Angeles Archdiocese issued a statement declaring: “The Church treated clerical sexual abuse primarily as a moral weakness and a sin. For years this misunderstanding underlay ineffectual policies for dealing with abuse of minors. Changes in Church and professional psychological thinking unfolded over nearly two decades and gradually empowered the Archbishop and the Church as a whole to improve those policies.” That statement of putative improvement perfectly encapsulates a way of thinking that greatly exacerbated the crisis in many dioceses, and very notably in Los Angeles.

The NRB report does not ignore the reckless and self-serving ways in which bishops escaped criminal liability by pleading guilty on behalf of their dioceses and handing important aspects of church governance over to civil authorities. Such bishops had no right, morally or canonically, to do what they did, and the Church may be suffering for years from their selling out of the Church’s First Amendment rights of self-governance. Nor does the report flinch from taking on the question of homosexuality in the priesthood. At the height of the epidemic, in 1975-1980, 86 percent of abuse cases involved adolescent boys. The point is not that homosexuals are more likely to be child abusers. The point is that, as heterosexual men are attracted to young women, homosexual men are attracted to young men, and homosexual priests have more opportunities to act on their attractions. One need not get into obfuscatingly complicated arguments about the nature of homosexuality. The 86 percent figure speaks for itself. Between men who want to have sex with adolescent boys and men who do not want to have sex with adolescent boys, the former are more likely to have sex with adolescent boys. QED”in scandalous spades.

The NRB found ample evidence supporting the claims that some seminaries in the 1960s through the early 1980s were “pink palaces” or powerfully influenced by “lavender mafias,” including sleeping around by both students and faculty. An official visitation of seminaries in the early 1990s made a big difference, and it cannot be overlooked that in recent years the incidence of sexual abuse has declined to the level of 1950, before the epidemic broke out. There are still a few “gay-friendly” bishops, but they are keeping a low profile. The general attitude toward ordaining homosexuals or admitting them to the seminary has dramatically changed. Some bishops exclude from seminary anyone who is significantly, never mind dominantly or exclusively, given to same-sex attraction. Almost all now agree that any suggestion of homosexuality is reason for “heightened scrutiny” in admitting a man to the seminary. At the same time, and as the NRB rightly notes, there are undoubtedly in the priesthood many men afflicted by same-sex attractions who are nonetheless good and faithful priests living lives of chaste celibacy. The crucial question is not the nature of temptation but the fidelity with which temptation is overcome. At the same time, in light of the disastrous experience of recent decades and the growing cultural pressures for homosexual acting-out, most bishops seem to be concluding that same-sex attraction of any degree simply poses too great a risk in admitting men to the seminary.

The NRB makes a point of not challenging the discipline of celibacy for priests, choosing rather to stress that celibacy must mean celibacy, as in chastity. Some members of the Board were obviously taken aback to discover in the course of their study that a sizeable number of priests were ordained under the impression that celibacy does not necessarily mean celibacy. Beginning in the late ‘60s, some were told in seminary that celibacy means only that you can’t get married; sex outside of marriage is quite another matter. Others were assured that the celibacy rule would be abandoned within a few years. The resulting disappointment no doubt contributed to thousands of priests leaving the active ministry during these decades. The Board strongly accents the importance of spiritual formation for a faithful celibate life, a life made more difficult, even heroic, in a culture that teaches that sexual relations are essential to having a life at all. Bishops are sharply criticized for not giving personal attention to the problems their men may be encountering in this connection, both at seminary and after ordination.

The Way to Reform

If bishops are unhappy with this and other criticisms, the Board responds that it is only doing what the bishops asked it to do. Looking into “causes and context” sounds anodyne enough, until it turns out that the Board is as independent as the bishops promised it would be in June of 2002, and very specific “causes” multiply to expose a “context” of misgovernance. The Board lets it be known that it is not working entirely at the sufferance of the USCCB. “Although the direct source of the Review Board’s authority lies in Article 9 of the [Dallas] Charter, the Board’s ultimate authority lies in church law.” Canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law is cited:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they [the laity] possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

The Board manifestly believes that this is a time for the exercising of that right and the doing of that duty. It is also canon law, they note, that the bishops all too often ignored, as though the Church had not for centuries had clear provisions in place for dealing with sexual miscreants in the clergy. At the same time, Rome, too, is criticized for its languid attitude and complicated procedures. “The Vatican did not recognize the scope or gravity of the problem facing the Church in the United States despite many warning signs; and it rebuffed earlier attempts to reform procedures for removing predator priests.” To the consternation of some bishops here, members of the Board arranged on their own to consult with leading prelates in the Roman Curia and were greatly heartened by the understanding and encouragement they received. Throughout their report they invoke John Paul II and, most particularly, his exhortation that out of this crisis must come “a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, a holier Church.”

Of the recommendations made by the Board, most have to do with the reform of the episcopate. If bishops are really to know the priests and people they are supposed to shepherd, there should be less moving of bishops from one diocese to another. The clericalist career pattern of “promotion” to a larger and more prominent diocese or archdiocese should be abandoned. To encourage a more effective bishop-priest relationship, others have suggested reducing the size of larger dioceses. There is no way in which one bishop can really know what is going on in the life and ministry of hundreds of priests. For that he has to delegate oversight to auxiliary bishops and others, as was done with unhappy consequences in Boston under Cardinal Law. In the selection and placement of bishops, the report notes, a “‘don’t-rock-the-boat’ attitude prevailed for too long.” Priests who are outspoken and are proven pastors of souls are too often excluded from the episcopate in favor of chancery clerks whose chief virtue is not having blotted their copybooks. Some think it controversial that the Board says that “greater involvement by the laity in the selection of bishops could help ensure that future bishops are pastors, prophets, and men of honor, and not mere management functionaries.” In fact, there is venerable precedent for a role by the laity in the selection of bishops. Nobody should want the politicizing of church leadership that comes with popular elections, as is the case in many Protestant denominations, and the Board assumes the right of the pope to appoint bishops, but they are convinced that the present pattern of the promotion of the like-minded by the like-minded within a clericalist club designed to perpetuate the habits that created the present crisis is not a promising way toward reform.

Again, the NRB wants bishops to be bishops, as they were ordained to be. Of the long and difficult process leading up to the issuing of the report, one NRB member says, “I found myself loving the Church more, and working harder not to despair of her leadership.” While the Board’s recommendations address modest structural changes, involving also greater lay oversight, the real appeal, the urgent appeal, the almost poignant appeal, is to the bishops, pleading with them to exercise the responsibility that is theirs. The report stresses the importance of “fraternal correction” among the bishops, recognizing that accountability, given the polity of the Catholic Church, means chiefly the accountability of bishops to one another. Too many bishops view their diocese as a personal fiefdom and will brook no “outside interference.” Specifically, the Board urges a revival of the oversight role of metropolitans, i.e., archbishops overseeing bishops in their province. It is suggested also that the bishops should devise a system of regular visitations of the dioceses of their fellow bishops, a proposal, it is suggested, that should pose no threat to bishops who do not fear being held accountable. Such a visitation process would not be attended by jurisdictional authority but would be more like the regular accrediting visitations in the academic world. Very conspicuously, and perhaps understandably, the Board has little to say about a role for the USCCB in any believable program of reform and renewal.

The NRB report concludes with the following “Coda”:

In making public this report and recognizing the stain that it exposes on the Church that we love, we can but recall the words of the psalmist who taught that, while hidden guilt festers, honest admission of guilt heals:
As long as I kept silent,
My bones wasted away;
I groaned all the day . . .
Then I declared my sin to you;
my guilt I did not hide.
I said, “I confess my faults to the Lord,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32)
It is with that faith in the merciful powers of the Almighty that we members of the National Review Board offer the candid judgments we have been asked to give. How, one may ask, can any forgiveness, much less renewal, emerge from such a sordid history of misdeeds? We are inspired, as always, by the example of Jesus who two thousand years ago founded this Church and who during his life on earth instructed his disciples, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Now, as always, and as it should be, it is up to the bishops. They can embrace this report on the “Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States” as a starting point and set themselves on a course of reform and renewal that could, among other benefits, restore the confidence of priests and people in their leadership. Or they can congratulate themselves on the public relations success of having commissioned an independent study, thank the NRB for its labors, and inter the report indirectly by referring it to a committee for further study or, more directly, by consigning it to the archives. If, willy-nilly, they decide in favor of interment, I expect that twenty or fifty years from now historians will write that “the greatest crisis in the history of Catholicism in America” was promptly followed by one of its greatest missed opportunities.

Complexifying Evil

The French adage has it wrong: to understand all is not to forgive all. But it is true that the more we understand the more we can enter into the moral drama of decisions and actions that, in retrospect, seem so brutally obvious. Virtue consists, in significant part, in refusing to turn complexities into excuses. Many commentators on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ claimed the treatment of Pontius Pilate was sympathetic. But he is sympathetic only to those prone to turn complexities into excuses. After all the hand-wringing and hand washing, he condemned to death a man he knew to be innocent. The conflation of complexities and excuses marks much of the moral reasoning of our time. The twentieth century’s moral drama of Hitler and the Holocaust is currently being rethought and retold in ways that enrich the moral drama but must not be permitted to fudge the moral judgment of the horrors committed. When I say the story is being retold in fresh ways, I do not refer to the Lidless Eye crowd of Holocaust deniers, who will likely always be with us, but to works of substantial scholarship that are rightly welcomed for helping us to understand how what happened did happen.

There is, for instance, Christopher Browning’s The Origins of the Final Solution (reviewed in this issue). Browning reminds us that history is less a matter of the implementation of grand plans than of reactions to unexpected contingencies. For many on the left, the key to understanding the Third Reich is Hitler’s all-consuming determination to destroy Bolshevism, with the extermination of the Jews as a consequence of that obsession. For other writers, the extermination of the Jews was the overriding purpose that explains his many other crimes. Browning’s prodigious research shows that, while the virulent hostility to Jews was a constant, the Third Reich settled on systematic extermination along the lines of Auschwitz and other death camps only after other possibilities, such as the massive expulsion of Jews, were foreclosed, and the feasibility of eliminating Jews, gypsies, and political enemies in conquered Soviet territories had been demonstrated. There was, in other words, an incremental and by no means predetermined movement to the ultimate evil. There were points along the way when a different course might have been chosen.

The drama of those who chose a different course, not only or chiefly with respect to the Jews but with respect to the Nazi regime in toto, is detailed by Hans Mommsen in Alternatives to Hitler: German Resistance Under the Third Reich (Princeton University Press, 320 pages, $29.95). Mommsen is considered the dean of twentieth-century German historians and has written about the German resistance before, but this time he focuses on what resisters had in mind for the regime that would succeed Hitler’s tyranny. Tens of thousands of Germans, many of them later executed, were actively involved in various forms of resistance against the Nazi regime. Those who were most serious about planning a successor government”notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg, Helmuth von Moltke, and others of the Kreisau Circle”are often depicted as aristocratic in sentiment and distinctly undemocratic in their political views. Mommsen suggests that was only partly true, and emphasizes the ways in which they included labor leaders and left-leaning socialists in their planning. He underscores, too, the way in which the Allied goal of “unconditional surrender” hobbled their efforts to gain support, both inside and outside Germany, for the prospect of what today we might call regime change.

The near-successful attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, was undertaken, Mommsen suggests, in a spirit of desperation to demonstrate the seriousness of the conspirators and the vulnerability of the regime. The conspirators were often “realists” who were not averse to making deals with Nazis in order to further their ends. As Mommsen notes, “The line drawn between good and evil was far from being as clear-cut as it has been represented in retrospect.” With respect to the Jews and others who were viewed as enemies of the Reich, conspirators in the army did not come with clean hands. “We have no alternative but to admit,” Mommsen writes, “that a considerable number of those who played an active part in the July Plot, and in many cases lost their lives as a result, had previously participated in the war of racial extermination, or had at least approved of it for quite a time and in some cases had actively promoted it. As a rule, this happened under the cloak of fighting the partisans [in Soviet territories], yet those who were directly or indirectly involved could scarcely fail to see that the SS brigades and Einsatzgruppen were carrying out a comprehensive ‘ethnic cleansing,’ to which the Wehrmacht, if only by condemning large numbers of Russians to starvation, were giving active support.”

“The great majority of the plotters,” he writes, “only gradually broke free from the basically anti-Semitic sentiment that tainted the German upper class and governing elite, but which made an exception for assimilated groups of Jews.” For some younger conspirators, the anti-Semitic policies of the regime were a major factor in turning them against Hitler, but for almost all, says Mommsen, those policies were not the decisive factor. The brutal treatment of Jews (the scope of systematic exterminationism was not generally known) was perceived as being of a piece with what they saw as Germany’s descent into barbarism. That, combined with opposition to a war that they believed could end only in catastrophic defeat, galvanized the resistance. For only a few”notably Pastor Bonhoeffer and Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit”was the treatment of Jews a dominating reason for rebellion. Mommsen notes, as have many others, that the resisters were drawn chiefly from the churches, the army, and the higher levels of civil service. Conspicuously absent from the resistance were academics. As also was the case in the most oppressive years of the Soviet Union, academics and artists”who typically style themselves the guardians of freedom and human rights”were, with few heroic exceptions, the most adept at making their peace with tyranny. Alternatives to Hitler is especially helpful in depicting the kind of Germany and Europe that the conspirators envisioned after Hitler. Their plans were strikingly similar to the integration of nationalisms or what might more accurately be called the supranationalism of today’s European Union. With the critical difference to which Mommsen returns again and again”namely, their conviction that a secure and peaceful Europe could only be built on cultural foundations that are explicitly Christian.

A very different book from and about the same period is Day of No Return by Kressmann Taylor. Written in 1942 and today, unfortunately, available only online, it is the tale of a theology student in the 1930s whose father, pastor of a large congregation in Magdeburg, bravely attempted to prevent the Nazi-sponsored “German Christians” from taking over the Protestant Church. The “Karl Hoffman” of the story is based on the real-world experience of the late Leopold Bernhard, a Lutheran pastor who fled Germany and ministered for years in this country. I knew Bernhard and respected him greatly. We had worked together on civil rights questions in the 1960s. For complicated reasons, Day of No Return has only now been made available. I wish I had been able to read it back then and had the chance to discuss with Bernhard the early years under Nazism. I cannot say the book is great literature, but it is a good read, and it provides a powerful feel for the day-by-day pressures exerted by a regime bent upon extinguishing any independent force of possible opposition, and especially any force appealing to an authority transcending the state.

The Origins of the Final Solution, Alternatives to Hitler , and Day of No Return have in common the great merit of helping us understand how people could do the unspeakable things they did. And the latter two have the additional merit of illuminating how people could and did say No to great evil. One is reminded of the words of John Paul II in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor that, if one is prepared to die rather than to do wrong, one is never in the position of having to do wrong. Most people do not think of themselves as heroes and heroines, and yet, when the time of decision is forced upon them, many turn out to be exactly that. That is the truth so compellingly told in the 1988 classic, The Altruistic Personality , a study by Sam and Pearl Oliner of hundreds of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. The rescuers were typically not intellectuals or philo-Semites or people given to political activism. They were to all appearances very ordinary people, usually devoutly religious people, who knew that some things must not be done and who put their lives in the way of the doing of such things. Academics have a way of explaining history in terms of large and impersonal dynamics. But living history is the moral drama of people making decisions day by day. As for those who do great wrong, it is not true that to understand all is to forgive all. But to understand, at least in part, is to be strengthened in the knowledge of our own capacity for both good and evil”and of our radical dependence on the One who, despite His understanding all, forgives the penitent. The truly penitent know that complexification is the enemy of forgiveness.

Religion and Democracy: A Necessary Tension

Many years ago, in 1965 to be precise, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer were worried about ideological seizures in the social sciences and decided to do something about it. They established the Public Interest , a quarterly that has had an enormous influence far beyond its few thousand subscribers. Over the years, there has hardly been a major rethinking of social policy that did not start with, or receive an indispensable boost from, the Public Interest . As the editor notes in the Spring 2004 issue, the magazine has regularly attended to the importance of religion in society, but this time the entire issue is devoted to “Religion in America.” One detects just a hint of defensiveness on the editor’s part. He writes that “all our authors look at religion in America, as did Tocqueville, from ‘a purely human point of view.’” That I take to be a vestigial secularist tic, reflecting the fact that it used to be not quite respectable for social scientists to take religion too seriously. Like Tocqueville, the authors here write about religion as social observers, but they also understand religion “from within” as committed adherents. Of the thirteen contributors, four are, to my personal knowledge, devout Protestants, four are devout Catholics, and at least one is an observant Jew. Perhaps there should have been a fourteenth essay on why being religious is not a disqualification but an asset in writing intelligently about religion. That having been said, there is much good stuff in this special issue of the Public Interest . Herewith a sampler:

• The lead essay is by Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who is also, not incidentally, a member of the FT editorial board. September 11, he writes, “produced a great revitalization, for a time, of the American civil religion, that strain of American piety that bestows many of the elements of religious sentiment and faith upon the fundamental political and social institutions of the United States.” President Bush, he says, “puts forward the civil-religious vision of America with the greatest energy of any president since Woodrow Wilson.” McClay quotes Bush at a 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy: “The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom”the freedom we prize”is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind . . . . And as we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain the Author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom.” McClay reflects on the significance of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan: “It has become a shrine, a holy place, and has thereby become assimilated into the American civil religion. Yet the single most moving sight, the most powerful and immediately understandable symbol, is the famous cross-shaped girders that were pulled out of the wreckage and have been raised as a cross. What, one wonders, does this object mean to the people viewing it, many of whom, one presumes, are not Christians and not even Americans? Was it a piece of nationalist kitsch or a sentimental relic? Or was it a powerful witness to the redemptive value of suffering”and thereby, a signpost pointing toward the core of the Christian story? Or did it subordinate the Christian story to the American one, and thus traduce its Christian meaning?” There has been much public fretting about Bush’s “God talk,” but McClay observes that “his oratory lies well within the established historical pattern of American civil-religious discourse.” The new thing is the negative reaction to such rhetoric. Bush’s way of understanding America is embraced by millions of Christians who otherwise feel excluded by the secularism that dominates much of our culture. “It is far too early to say that a settled alienation of religious believers from the American nation-state is no longer a possibility,” McClay writes. From Tocqueville to John Dewey, it is understood that American democracy depends upon a close connection between religion and our national creeds and institutions. Dewey, a committed secularist, even proposed a “common faith” that would embrace the emotive power of religion without its supposedly divisive truth claims. McClay writes, “It was not a bad idea. In a pluralistic society, religious believers and nonbelievers alike need ways to live together, and to do so, they need a second language of piety, one that extends their other commitments without undermining them. Yet it seems needlessly revolutionary, not to mention futile, to invent a common faith when one is readily at hand. To be sure, there is always something secondary and unsatisfying, and even inherently dangerous, about a civil religion. But the alternative may be even more perilous.”

• In “The Unraveling of Christianity in America,” Clifford Orwin, political scientist at the University of Toronto, writes: “Thus, mainline religion, despite its efforts to please, has become merely incidental to the lives of so many who continue to profess it. When I was growing up as a Jewish kid in Chicago in the 1950s, America still seemed very Christian. (Our Reform rabbi said it was ‘Judeo-Christian.’ We wanted to believe him, but the fists of the Irish kids enforced skepticism.) In retrospect, the country looked more Christian than it was. Today, by contrast, it looks less Christian than it is.” Orwin takes up the Bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) image of Americans proposed by David Brooks and compares it with Alan Wolfe’s book, One Nation, After All ”which he rightly says would have been more accurately titled One Suburban Upper Middle Class, After All . For Brooks and Wolfe, “moral laxity is a way of life, having mysteriously emerged as the fundamental principle of morality itself.” Differing from McClay, Orwin writes that, in his eagerness to avoid any hint of crusading, “Bush has embraced willy-nilly the view that liberal democracy is one thing, Protestant Christianity (or Christianity of any sort, or even Judeo-Christianity) entirely another. He has chosen to present America to the world not as the Christian nation for which his religious supporters take it, but as the universal sponsor of liberal democracy, which as such is impartial in principle as between Christianity and Islam.” As a result, writes Orwin, “His administration must become America’s first genuinely Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jewish (and Muslim) one. And so the challenge of Islamic terror will collaborate with other forces to drive official America to ever greater lengths of secularism or syncretism.”

• Muslims in America, suggests Hillel Fradkin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, are eager to be Americans. “With the exception of African-American Muslims, America’s Muslim households are relatively prosperous: More than half have incomes in excess of fifty thousand dollars a year, and the average overall is about fifty-five thousand dollars. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that nearly half of all Muslim Americans earn their living in professions such as engineering, medicine, teaching, and business management. It also reflects the fact that Muslim Americans well exceed national educational averages, with nearly 60 percent holding college degrees.” After September 11, “the nature of Islam in America has become increasingly defined by the global role of America in Islam. American Muslims are now, more than ever, forced to engage in the worldwide struggle over the current reformation within their religion.” “A civil war is raging within the soul of Islam pitting radicals, along with their terrorist offspring, against moderate Muslims who wish to embrace modern democratic, social, and economic principles. The subjects of this dispute are encapsulated by America. In effect, then, America has become a party to that religious war.”

• Bush’s faith-based initiative is taken up by Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Washington-based Center for Public Justice. He writes, “In their 1977 book To Empower People , Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus argued against expansive government, recommending that officials instead should protect and foster the institutions of civil society, even utilizing those institutions in carrying out its own responsibilities. But they also raised red flags that the government might co-opt churches, families, and nonprofit structures ‘in a too eager embrace that would destroy the very distinctiveness of their function.’ Looking back in 1996, Berger and Neuhaus underlined that concern, writing now of a potentially ‘fatal embrace’ when nongovernmental organizations collaborate with the government.” The fatal embrace might be avoided, Carlson-Thies suggests, through the use of vouchers and other instruments that give people a real choice among providers of social services. But religious organizations have the primary responsibility for making sure that they are not compromised by cooperating with the government. “The success of the faith-based initiative must be gauged not only by the number of times faith-based organizations win government funds, but also by those times when, if the conditions are not right, faith-based organizations reject the support that is offered.”

• John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania and the first director of the faith-based initiative under President Bush writes that over the years “religious mega-charities like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Jewish Federations, and others have literally received tens of billions of dollars in public support.” He obviously agrees that smaller organizations that are closer to the communities in need should be helped in helping others. But there are big problems in achieving that, especially when those organizations are not only “faith-based” but are “faith-saturated.” DiIulio writes: “Some conservatives want this accomplished by having all or most government social-welfare programs administered, not via direct grants, but through indirect disbursement arrangements, chiefly by vouchers supplied to eligible individuals. There is, in principle, nothing wrong with vouchers, and for some civic purposes (for example, drug treatment and child care), vouchers have been used to varying degrees with no obvious ill effects. Indeed, there is growing evidence that school vouchers are associated with measurable gains, including among low-income urban children and youth, and the Supreme Court’s 2002 Zelman decision upheld a Cleveland school program that used vouchers.” DiIulio concludes that “faith-based and community initiatives will improve the prospects of the needy only by following a constitutionally correct path paved by empirical data and broad public support.” In view of the convoluted and conflicted rulings of the courts on “the separation of church and state,” it is hard to know what that “correct path” might be. As for public support, I expect it depends chiefly upon the perception, whether supported by empirical data or not, that people are being helped.

• A less hesitant approach is provided by Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation. Telling the stories of Prison Fellowship, Teen Challenge, and other programs reflecting “the politics of conversion,” Loconte writes: “The First Amendment debate over religious charities is often trivialized as a fight over mealtime prayers or a crucifix hanging on an office wall. Something much more consequential, however, is at issue. The real fight is over whether the overly scientized public sphere will accept a competing anthropology: a view of the human person as endowed with moral and spiritual capacities”and obligations. If Bush’s faith-based initiative can bring significant government support to groups so decidedly religious, and if those groups can deliver real results, it could revolutionize social policy in America.”

• As does McClay, Joel Schwartz of the Hudson Institute revisits Will Herberg’s classic 1955 book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew . There is, he notes, a crucial dimension of religion in America that Herberg did not anticipate. “If the civil rights movement began to push some American religious forces to the left, the rise of evangelical Protestantism signified the movement of other forces to the right. But Herberg’s treatment of Protestantism emphasized the mainline denominations and had little to say about evangelicals and fundamentalists: ‘Whereas the Methodists and Baptists and Disciples have become great churches, the peripheral sects of today seem to be denied such possibilities. They emerge on the fringe of Protestantism but never appear able to get much closer to the center.’” Fifty years ago, Herberg saw the affirmation of religion, even if in the potentially idolatrous form of civil religion, as the glue that held Americans together. Today, says Schwartz, it is increasingly evident that religion is viewed as conservative and “is now a force that divides Americans and sets them against one another.” During the Civil War, Lincoln observed that the people of the North and the South, whatever their differences, “pray to the same God.” Today, writes Schwartz, religion is a more polarizing, less unifying force than it was in the time of Lincoln and a hundred years later in the time of Herberg. “We no longer pray to the same God”not because many Americans are now Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, but because a gulf has arisen between the majority of Americans who pray and the minority who do not.”

• Largely forgotten today is the insistence of James Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance that one’s duty to the Creator “is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation” to one’s duty to civil society. Michael McConnell, a federal judge and one of our most distinguished constitutional scholars, quotes these words of Madison: “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the general authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.” That is in sharp contrast to the argument of Rousseau”who first came up with the term “civil religion””that civil society and religion should be one and the same thing. When Jews were emancipated in Europe, the motto was “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.” This privatization of religious particularity, McConnell notes, is still urged by many academics, including law professors. To be a citizen is to put aside, at least in public, loyalties that are not shared by all other citizens. In other words, McConnell observes, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The idea that secularism is tantamount to neutrality”as in France’s current banning of religious symbols in public”is, says McConnell, “a Western illusion.” Like other essayists, McConnell ends up with a reflection on Islam. “It is fanciful to imagine that the Muslim world will lose its attachment to religion, just as Jefferson was fanciful and illiberal in his desire that Americans all become Unitarians. A more realistic hope is that the jihadists can be separated from the Muslim mainstream and be reduced in influence. That will not happen if America embraces a secularism that does not differentiate between the two. Laïcité , as a national policy, neither seems congruent with America’s constitutional tradition nor likely to bring about interreligious harmony.”

• Brian Anderson of the Manhattan Institute addresses the dramatic differences between Europe and America in religious belief and practice. He writes, “As for Europe, it is possible to imagine a religious resurgence there, perhaps radiating outward from still-faithful and soon-to-be-powerful Poland. Nothing in history lasts forever. The Italian philosopher and papal advisor Rocco Buttiglione argues convincingly that European modernity, in its secular humanism, leaves men and women cut off from ‘an essential dimension of their being”the Absolute”and thus confronted with the worst diminution of their being.’ Such diminution is existentially unbearable for many human beings over the long haul. At the same time, however, a revival does not seem imminent. The rift between a religious America and a secular Europe is thus likely to widen in the years ahead, with unpredictable consequences for the democratic world as a whole.”

• One frequently hears that the naked public square is necessary because we live in a pluralistic society. William Galston of the University of Maryland proposes a refreshingly different understanding of pluralism: “Liberal democracy must steer a principled course between theocratic claims that subject politics to a single religious orthodoxy and a civic republicanism that subordinates faith to the functional requirements of the polity. This means acknowledging that there are multiple sources of authority within a shared social space, and that the relation among them is not straightforwardly hierarchical. This political pluralism may be messy and conflictive. It may even lead to confrontations not conducive to maximizing public unity and order. Avoiding anarchy is unquestionably in the public interest. But the evidence linking accommodation of conscience to the bogey of political dissolution is scanty. And if political pluralism reflects the complex truth of the human condition, then the practice of politics must do its best to honor the principles that limit the scope of politics.”

• Alan Wolfe comes in for further attention in a review by Daniel J. Mahoney of Wolfe’s book The Transformation of American Religion . The problem with Wolfe, says Mahoney, is that he has “a meager understanding of religion” as one social variable among others that is of interest only to the degree that it affects Wolfe’s version of democracy. “Wolfe’s view of religion, in fact, turns out to be something of a caricature. He repeatedly casts traditional religion as narrow, illiberal, and judgmental. In the worst instances, it becomes apparent that for Wolfe, the mere act of interrogating one’s faith makes one a full participant in intellectual modernity. A believer who thinks”in particular, one who reasons about the nature of faith”is simply no longer a practitioner of ‘old time religion,’ by Wolfe’s lights. Such a claim would surely astonish readers of Maimonides or Aquinas.” Wolfe’s greatest compliment to “transformed” religion in America is that it has abandoned any authoritative truths by which the social order can be judged, and is therefore safe for democracy. Mahoney writes, “If his sociology’s ultimate inspiration is the antireligious enlightenment, his inchoate theological assumptions can be traced to a fideism that denies the natural and necessary intersection of faith and reason, religious truth and natural law.” Mahoney does not think Alan Wolfe is a reliable guide if one wants to understand religion in America.

• Finally we come to Joseph Bottum, who keeps his day job with the Weekly Standard while serving as our poetry editor. In “The Fire Next Time,” he writes: “There is something in America, as well, that has always burned against the world. From Cotton Mather to William Lloyd Garrison, from John Brown to Martin Luther King, Jr., there has been a hunger here to speak with lips touched by burning coals, a blessed rage for the apocalyptic lessons taught only by tongues of fire. A nation formed by political geniuses”masters of compromise, philosophers of prudence, judges of wisdom”we are also a nation with another theme. Something here has, from the beginning, disdained political order and sought not to be brilliant, wise, and learned, but only true , though the heavens fall as a result. ‘I am come to send fire on the earth,’ Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, ‘and what will I, if it be already kindled?’ It’s not the only thing in America, of course, but without it there is no America.” Secularists understandably see religion as a social danger, and they have had a long run since the 1930s up to the present. “But,” Bottum writes, “I have the sense, insofar as one can judge the tides of such things, that the secularists have lost the intellectual part of the battle and are running now only on the fumes of their irrational belief in anti-belief.” The truth is, he claims, that “liberalism needs religion, but religion doesn’t need liberalism.” The Founders understood that, in the words of Washington’s farewell address, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Bottum writes, “The United States, as it naturally wants to be”what we might call the platonic ideal of America”contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith. And how shall the fish hate the water wherein they live? Or the water hate the fish?” And again, “‘Biblical America’ is the oxymoron that defines us, the contradiction that maintains us. If we lose either our extra-public religion or our Enlightenment use of public religion”if either side in this tension ever entirely vanquishes the other”the United States will cease to be much of anything at all.” Bottum discusses books (by Leon Kass and Thomas Pangle) that try to mine the Bible for its contributions to our public philosophy. But the Bible is not for hire in that way, he insists: “We need the untamed Bible that forces public philosophy to bend and accommodate.” And where does this leave us? Bottum answers: “Even while the mass mind’s mindless cant clatters all around us, there is that which must be celebrated: the worldly wisdom of a broad and democratic spirit, the reasonable discourse of reasonable men seeking reasonable compromises. The platonic ideal of the United States must have these things; America is not America without them. But America is also not America unless, underneath it all, a small voice whispers that the nations are as a drop in a bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance. America is a triumph of political philosophy because it is not entirely political”because it also hears, even in these days, the murmur, ‘I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?’”

The special issue of the Public Interest on religion in America is remarkable in conception and execution. The McClay, Galston, and Bottum essays are especially valuable in underscoring the necessary tension”the tension that must not be definitively resolved one way or the other”between authentic religion and liberal democracy. Christianity has lived, and indeed flourished, with and under many different kinds of regimes. Liberal democracy, at least in its American expression, has never been without and almost certainly cannot continue without the support of Christianity. The Christian’s primary community of allegiance is the Church and the Kingdom of God that the Church both proclaims and anticipates. Madison was right: one’s d