The Public Square

 


I don’t say that everybody has been waiting for it, but I was, and now it is out. The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by the distinguished journalist John O’Sullivan, packs into an engaging narrative the detail and color of three decades of transformation—spiritual, political, and economic. The three figures who changed the world are, of course, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher. For anyone who came of political age by the 1970s, the book is a reminder of just how much has changed. “Ah yes,” a reader might find himself saying again and again, “I had almost forgotten that.” For younger readers, this is an account of “the olden days” that persuasively explains how we got to where we are.

Admittedly, there are asymmetries here. Mrs. Thatcher is not a figure of historical consequence anywhere near equal to that of John Paul or Reagan. Repulsing the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, for instance, is a long way from the Solidarity revolution in Poland or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Her prominence in O’Sullivan’s story is in part a result of his having worked with her closely. And he is, after all, a Brit, although a very American Brit. Having said that, however, by the end of the book one comes to understand just how crucial was her supportive role in moving this country as well as hers beyond what O’Sullivan calls “The Indian Summer of Liberaldom,” which is the title of his first chapter.

In the 1970s, O’Sullivan writes, “Revolutions of every kind—sexual, religious, political, economic, social—were breaking out from the campus to the Vatican to the rice paddies of the Third World. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, now actually being implemented, was liberating gays, lesbians, housewives, unhappy spouses, single parents—and, of course, those who wanted to sleep with them—from closets of either silence or irksome duty.” (The importance of those who wanted to sleep with them is too easily forgotten.) The right of women to kill their offspring was legalized, Christian faith was being transmogrified into sundry liberation theologies, and Richard Nixon announced that “We’re all Keynesians now.”

“Liberals dominated debate and the general direction of policy even when they were out of power,” O’Sullivan writes. “And though they sometimes lost the power of government through election defeats, they and their colleagues almost never lost power in the bureaucracy, the courts, the universities, the media, the charitable sector, and the great cultural institutions. The West—Europe more than America but both to different degrees—was governed by the assumptions of a liberal church just as Christendom had been governed according to the assumptions of the conservative Roman Catholic Church.” That was the order that O’Sullivan calls Liberaldom.

There followed “the nightmare years.” It was taken as axiomatic that the West, and America in particular, was in decline. In 1975, “the dramatic photographs of U.S. helicopters lifting off the Saigon embassy with desperate Vietnamese clinging to their undercarriages both dramatized the defeat and underscored America’s betrayal of its allies.” It was more betrayal than defeat. I could never forget the millions in the reeducation camps, or the boat people, as they were called, who drowned in their effort to flee the new regime. But I had almost forgotten that note written by Sirik Matak. He had been the Cambodian prime minister and he refused the U.S. ambassador’s offer of escape. “I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion,” he wrote. “As for you and, in particular, for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty.” Remaining in Phnom Penh, Sirik Matak was brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge, along with nearly a quarter of the country’s population.


Switching Sides

In the great moral and political contests of the time, O’Sullivan writes, “America switched sides.” One may object that that is putting it too strongly, but there is no denying that, in influential opinion-making circles, it became axiomatic that America had been and continued to be “on the wrong side of history.” Economically, and in almost every other respect, the party was over. In 1972 the Club of Rome had published The Limits to Growth. Robert Lekachman of New York University was joined by other eminent economists in announcing: “The era of growth is over and the era of limits is upon us. It means the whole politics of the country has changed.”

While intellectuals in the West spoke about superpower convergence and a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, Leonid Brezhnev boasted in 1973 that the “correlation of forces” meant that by 1985 “we will be able to extend our will wherever we need to.” Europe was responding to terrorism by caving into threats and releasing terrorists, including the murderers of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. O’Sullivan calls these “the nightmare years,” and one is reminded of Philip Jenkins’ recent book on the seventies, Decade of Nightmares.

O’Sullivan credits Jimmy Carter with putting human rights center-stage in foreign policy and believes that his foreign policy “held together intellectually.” But the premise was that the United States had to accommodate itself to large historical forces over which we had little control. “Carter’s beliefs were not anti-American; he was a patriot who had served in the military. Nor were they ?un-American’ as that word had acquired a special meaning the postwar years. But they might fairly be described as ?post-American,’ as they assumed that the ?American century’ had come to a premature end, that America was losing its preeminent role in global politics as other nations caught up, and that American values would have to be reshaped to conform to these new realities.” With U.S. hostages in Iran and so much else, writes O’Sullivan, it seemed to friends and enemies alike that “Carter’s foreign policy was one of active helplessness.”

Enter the world-changing trio. Their appearance on the world stage at about the same time was not expected. As O’Sullivan puts it, John Paul was too Catholic, Thatcher was too conservative, and Reagan was too American. It is true that Thatcher’s bid for party leadership was thought to be a long shot. And Reagan, who was going on seventy when he ran in 1980, was thought by Europeans to be too American, as in “cowboy.” Whether Karol Wojtyla was viewed as “too Catholic” to be elected pope depends upon one’s reading of the Catholic circumstance in the late seventies. Read through the lens of the destabilized Catholicism of the United States and Western Europe in the years following Vatican II, and through radical undertakings such as liberation theology in Latin America, Wojtyla may have looked like a reactionary, but that is not how he was seen by the cardinals who elected him in October 1978. He was seen to be very much a man of the council who would bring an infusion of energy to the Church’s engagement with the world, and not least with the communist regimes dominating much of Europe.

In his treatment of John Paul, O’Sullivan draws heavily, as any writer on this subject must, on George Weigel’s authoritative biography, Witness to Hope. Throughout his book, O’Sullivan weaves connections between his three figures, making much, for instance, of the assassination attempts against John Paul and Reagan in 1981. There was also the Brighton hotel bombing, in which Thatcher came near to being killed. Unlike Thatcher, the pope and the president discerned a providential guidance and purpose in their close brushes with death.

O’Sullivan gives detailed attention, as one would expect, to the ending of the Cold War, focusing on John Paul’s indispensable role with Solidarity in Poland and on Reagan’s adroit use of the Strategic Defense Initiative in negotiations with the Soviets. O’Sullivan highlights Reagan’s intensely personal commitment to nuclear disarmament, a commitment that was not shared by many of his advisers but was understood and appreciated, says O’Sullivan, by John Paul. An interesting sidelight in the narrative of arms negotiations with the Soviet Union is recently released documents containing notes on meetings in Moscow with Senator Edward Kennedy in which, if the Soviet notes are accurate, the senator was advising the Soviet leaders on how best to defeat the strategy of the United States.

As I say, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister is a valuable book. Dr. Johnson said we have a greater need of being reminded than of being instructed. This book does both. O’Sullivan concludes: “In all three cases—Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul—it is a spiritual element that best explains them and their achievements. All three, in subtly different ways, taught and embodied the virtue of hope.” Nobody should want to argue with that.

 

The World Hates Jews

 


“The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.” So says David Mamet in a new book from Schocken, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. Mamet is a writer of distinction and has a Pulitzer Prize among his credits. His plays include Glengarry Glen Ross and he has authored several novels, as well as books on being Jewish. His latest book is written with a very definite audience in mind:

 

To the wicked son who asks “What does all this mean to you?” To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israeli Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi’Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris—to you, who find your religion and your race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.

 



Mamet’s writing is frequently powerful, the indictment relentless. Those who are not the kind of Jews he is addressing, those who are not Jews of any kind, listen in; but maybe we’re not supposed to. Irving Kristol memorably said that Americans don’t hate Jews. On the contrary, they want to marry them. Mamet does not mention Kristol. The world, he insists, hates Jews and always will.

It’s not just the Europeans, among whom anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise, aided by the pressure of immigrant Muslims who do hate Jews. Pogroms and the culmination of Jew-hatred in the Holocaust are part of European history, and it was not so very long ago. When the world’s premier Holocaust museum was to be built in Washington, some asked, and some still ask, Why here? It was not something we did. Why here? Surely part of the answer is that Americans were making precisely that point: We are not them. Although it is not without a call to vigilance that it not happen here, the Washington museum is a deeply moving confession of their sins.

According to Mamet, however, we are them, and nobody is more them than self-loathing American Jews who are, as he puts it ever so gently, traitors to their race and tribe. They are the wicked sons. In the Passover Haggadah, the other sons ask in order to learn who they are. The wicked son asks, “What does this ritual mean to you?” It is a question of disassociation. The Haggadah, the Jewish story, is not his. But he can never get away from them.

“For Jews feel most comfortable in the community of Jews. Who can deny it? Freed from either the scorn or the ?understanding’ of the non-Jewish world, the Jew can be himself. Are six thousand years of cultural and genetic and religious affinities to be abrogated by the brave individual embrace of secularity? Demonstrably not. Examine the elective affinities of the apostate Jew—the communities, the clubs, the professions, the resorts—all the inhabitants are Jews.”

A friend tells me that the characteristic of a crank is that he has three theories: A theory about the Jews, a theory about the real author of the works of “Shakespeare,” and a monetary theory, usually related to the gold standard. To judge at least by this book, Mamet has only a theory about the Jews. He may not be a crank, but he intends to be unpleasant about it. Jews are unique, he insists, and are unique in traitorously trying to run away from their uniqueness.

They desperately try to believe that they are not hated, even if they know, deep down, that they are not accepted, never mind loved. To non-Jews, the Jews are—in the required academic jargon—the Other. The truth is that “the human capacity for xenophobia is vast and we are usually eager to label the other as savage. (The designation ‘charming’ is merely an application of the epithet of savagery to that group by which one does not currently feel threatened.)”

It is not a pretty picture of non-Jewish Americans who may think Jews charming or, as more commonly expressed, fascinating or interesting or even admirable. Of course, most Americans have little occasion to think about Jews at all. Mamet is not worried about people who decline to think about how much they hate Jews. His worry is about Jews who refuse to recognize that they are hated, or think the hatred may be abated by distancing themselves from racial and tribal solidarity.

These “apostates” are in love with the Palestinians and other victims of history’s sorrows. Such sympathy is perversely linked even with the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Jews against Judaism want to identify with the “they” to whom they are the Other. “They are that which one is powerless to oppose. They are the society of the Irresistible Other—the liberal, Jewish voice of the New York Times, of National Public Radio, the right-thinking Jewish Left, which seeks the illusory solidarity of identification with the illusory, inert, supposedly moral, wider world—which is to say with (in their view) the non-Jewish world.”

Israel is an embarrassment to them, even a criminal embarrassment. Noam Chomsky is brought in as Exhibit A. Apostate Jews march for everything except Judaism. “The protest movements, from the days of civil rights to the environmentalism of the present day, are disproportionately peopled by Jews and, in fact, by lapsed Jews. But the racially engrained mitzvot persist, in their observance, as do-gooderism and, in their nonobservance, as guilt and anomie.”

A sense of being chosen, of being a peculiar people charged with setting right the wrongs of the world, is racially engrained. This is the particularity that makes the world hate Jews. “The effort to combat psychotic prejudice with reasonable counterarguments is not only an act of folly but a capitulation. (cf. the old saw ?A woman who consents to listen consents.’) . . . One may, then, accept that this persecution is inevitable and constant (now waxing, now waning, but inevitable) and decide how one will deal with it. One may side with the oppressors or side with the oppressed.”

But then this irrational hatred is, Mamet suggests, not so unique after all. It is directed also at blacks and gays and Native Americans. It would seem the hatred of Jews is not because of the peculiarity of who Jews are but is part and parcel of the irrational hatred of all who are, in the eyes of the majority, the Other. This despite Mamet’s criticism of the cult of victimhood. “In the West, particularly in America, there is no higher status than victimhood. Victims are the noble savages of our day, possessing, in their innocence, no qualities other than good. We love victims.” We love them but we do not pity them. “For pity, as Aristotle laid it down, is based upon a recognition of a shared, irreducible humanity, of community with the sufferer. Our sententious love of the victim, however, treats him as an object and his woes as a special, protected subspecies of entertainment.” Does Mamet want Jews to be pitied? It is not clear. Even less clear is why, in America, non-Jews would pity the lot of Jews.

What is clear beyond doubt is that Mamet wants the wicked sons to repent and embrace Jewishness, if not Judaism. They should recognize that the world hates them and return to the synagogue to take their stand, along with Israel, against the eliminationist intentions of their enemies. He ends on a more positive note: “We are the children of kings and queens, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. We are the children of a mystery that has not abandoned us and that has come for us; it is both described and contained in the Torah.”

 

Deprived of Hatred


After almost two hundred pages, God is mentioned, almost. So maybe the irrational hatred against Jews is different, after all, from the irrational hatred against blacks, gays, and Native Americans. It is not only a matter of identity with Jewishness but of the religion of Judaism. Mamet says he is of the Reform (i.e. liberal) persuasion. He is pleased that his synagogue employs inclusive gender language, rejecting the sexist practice of calling God “He.” He is the champion of “observant” Jews, although to the more observant he is undoubtedly, as the title of one of his chapters puts it, “Jewish, but Not Too Jewish.”

The Wicked Son will strike non-Jewish readers, and perhaps many Jewish readers, as a curiously confused book. Irving Kristol is right: Jews are not hated, at least not in America. Anything that can be credibly described as anti-Semitism is so marginal in this country that the Anti-Defamation League is reduced to raising alarms about the likes of a teenage prank at a beer party where a plastered boy is reported to have put his finger under his nose, raised his arm, and shouted “Heil Hitler!” The KKK, Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, and Father Coughlin are, if remembered at all, viewed as ancient history. Yes, and of course, we must be alert to anti-Semitism, but contemporary America deprives David Mamet of the hatred for which he so patently yearns in order to revive a sense of Jewish solidarity.

Meanwhile, the 98 percent of the population that is not Jewish knows Jews mainly through the Old Testament, the State of Israel, and, more vaguely, through Hollywood and leftist politics. They believe the children of Israel are, somehow and despite everything, God’s chosen people, and they overwhelmingly support their rightful place in the Holy Land. Among committed Christians, the greatest puzzlement is why so many Jews are not Jewish—meaning by Jewish not Jewishness but adherence to the religion of Judaism. They share Mamet’s concern about the “wicked sons,” although they do not share his anger and would not be so indelicate as to call them wicked sons. They most definitely will not appreciate, however, Mamet’s effort to rally Jews by depicting non-Jews as Jew-haters. If they happen to read The Wicked Son, the sentiment it is likely to evoke is puzzlement and, yes, pity.

 

While We’re At It


• As of January 10, it has been fourteen years since I died. After those terrifying operations for cancer, some of the doctors thought I had died, and, for a time, I thought maybe they were right. I wrote about that ordeal and the aftermath in the little book As I Lay Dying. It is a source of inestimable gratification that so many people say they have found that book to be of great help in their own encounters with mortality. All this is brought to mind by a new book from Doubleday, Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death: Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die. The author is John Fanestil, a Methodist minister in California, and the Mrs. Hunter of the title is a twenty-six-year-old English woman who died in 1801. Accounts of exemplary Christian dying were a staple of devotional literature of the time. Books on ars moriendi, the art of dying well, were extremely popular also in the Middle Ages. A man by the name of J. Wood was the chronicler of Mrs. Hunter’s happy death: “The night before she died, between eleven and twelve o’clock, she sang with a loud voice, ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.’ She said to the young person who sat up with the nurse, ‘The enemy has deceived me long enough; but he shall deceive me no more; he shall not have me. O what a deliverance! What great grace!’ . . . ‘Angels are coming for me! Cannot you see them?’ . . . Then, turning her face to the pillow, she said, ‘O how easy! How easy!’ From that time she spoke no more to be understood; but lay from three, till about seven o’clock, when she took her happy flight to the joys of the Lord, on Saturday, January 17, 1801.”

• Mrs. Hunter’s happy death is but one of many related by the Rev. Fanestil, who has made something of a specialty of ministering to the sick and dying. It is anything but a morbid or melancholy book. On the contrary, some readers may find it excessively sentimental, even treacly, in its depiction of death made uncomplicated by robust Christian faith. As I Lay Dying—although I trust the message of unconquerable hope is unmistakable—is, by comparison with Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death, a book of philosophical complexity and existential angst. And yet, John Fanestil has rendered a service by reminding us that, for Christians beyond numbering, the experience of dying can also be one of serene simplicity. His book is a counter-testimony to Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s bestseller of some ten years ago, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. Nuland offers a relentlessly grim picture of dying and makes the astonishing statement that never in all his years at the bedside of the dying has he witnessed even one instance in which religious faith mitigated the horror. I’m afraid this is an unhappy comment on Dr. Nuland’s relationship with his patients.

• Fanestil is a Protestant, and interspersed between the stories he tells are interesting reflections on various theologies of salvation, holiness, and eternal life. In a footnote, he includes this “Prayer for a Happy Death” by John Henry Newman: “O My Lord and Saviour, support me in my last hour by the strong arms of Thy Sacraments and the fragrance of Thy consolations. Let Thy absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me; and let Thine own body be my food, and Thy Blood my sprinkling; and let Thy Mother Mary come to me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and Thy glorious saints and my own dear patrons smile on me; that, in and through them all, I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy Faith, in Thy Love. Amen.”

• Cardinal Newman’s reference to his patron saints recalls last month’s comment on the declining practice of bestowing the names of saints at baptism. At the risk of excessive self-referentiality, a word on the use of “Richard John,” about which I have frequently been asked. The story of how that happened is quite prosaic. I was the seventh child and sixth son, and my parents had run out of preferred names for boys, so they suggested that the older children write the names they wanted and put the slips of paper into a pot on the stove, from which Dad, with eyes closed, picked Richard John. My oldest sister, Mildred, says that was her slip of paper. As a boy I was called Dick, and I have an elderly aunt who still calls me Dicky. Anyone else who tries that should expect a cool reception. At college, I decided to be known as Richard, and at seminary, Richard John. I had chosen them as my patron saints, and they seem not to have objected. St. Richard is Richard of Chichester, also known as Richard de Wyche, since that is where he was born in 1197 in Worcestershire, England. He was chancellor to Boniface, archbishop of Canterbury, who opposed Henry III’s appointment of a bishop in Chichester and appointed Richard in his place. In the subsequent dispute, Rome came down on the side of Boniface and Richard, a decision that King Henry refused to accept until he was threatened with excommunication. St. Richard is, or so I fancy, the combative side of my patronal protection, especially when it comes to the rights of the Church. With no offense to St. Richard, St. John, the apostle and evangelist, is my premier patron. He is the disciple whom, as we are told in the Fourth Gospel, “Jesus loved.” I take consolation from the conclusion of his gospel: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” After the millions of words I have written, and the millions I may yet write, I will have hardly begun to tell my story of his love.

• Since you catch me in a rambling mode, I note that people who use two Christian names are often, perhaps usually, addressed by the second. Thus strangers frequently address me as John. But I’ve gone by the name of Richard since college days, and it seems rather late to change now. Which brings to mind a story told about the famous Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. At an informal gathering, a new graduate student asked him if his friends called him John or Ken. A very tall man whose self-estimation matched his height, Galbraith condescended to reply, “My friends call me Kenneth. You may call me Professor Galbraith.”

• “Pope Shocks Theologians by Suggesting He May Be Fallible.” The headline ran in the Daily Telegraph (UK) and other papers around the world. I wish I could say I am shocked by the puerility of such reporting, but after a while one becomes quite inured to this sort of thing. For the record, the pope is publishing a book this spring, titled Jesus of Nazareth. He describes it as “a product of my personal research” and says: “Consequently, everyone is free to disagree with me. I only ask readers that they read with sympathy, without which there will be no comprehension.” In other words, this is not a magisterial document such as an encyclical but a book by a theologian, albeit a theologian of very notable stature. Reporters found a professor at Bologna University, Giuseppe Alberigo, who said, “I really believe this is the first time this has ever happened. It means that the pope is not totally infallible.” He added that Pope John Paul II “could never have made a distinction between ?official’ pope and ?ordinary’ pope.” As a matter of fact, neither could Pope Benedict. Alberigo is a professor of history, but he has apparently forgotten John Paul’s 1994 bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope and his later book of very personal reflections, Memory and Identity. Both were clearly the statements of Karol Wojtyla, who was also Pope John Paul II, as Jesus of Nazareth is a book by Joseph Ratzinger, who is also Pope Benedict XVI. Such writings do not come anywhere near the question of infallibility.

• Admittedly, there may be some people, including reporters, who think the Church teaches that a pope burps infallibly. In fact, infallibility is a very narrowly prescribed charism that ensures that the Church will never invoke its full teaching authority to require assent to anything in faith and morals that is false. Since the definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council in the nineteenth century, it has been exercised in a manner beyond dispute only once, namely, in the 1950 definition of the bodily assumption of Mary. I expect journalists such as Malcolm Moore, who wrote the story in the Telegraph, are not really as ignorant as they would have us believe. Rather, they routinely play up popular misperceptions of what the Church teaches and then manufacture “news” from what the Church actually teaches. It is a very old journalistic game. A reporter can hardly expect to pique an editor’s interest in a hot story that the Church is still teaching what she taught before. This is not to say that there are not interesting questions to be raised about the relatively recent “personalizing” of the papacy. When, shortly after his election as pope in 1978, John Paul told a reporter that he would soon visit Poland, an agitated curial official complained that it was the first time in at least two hundred years that a pope had responded in public to a question by a journalist. (The Oxford English Dictionary records the term journalist as early as 1720.) Benedict has taken the practice much further, frequently responding to questions from sundry groups with extended extemporaneous reflections. He understands, as does everybody else except the practitioners of shock journalism, that this has nothing to do with infallibility. In any event, we look forward to reviewing Jesus of Nazareth, a new book by a very distinguished theologian to whom, by virtue of his also being pope, we are disposed to pay very close attention.

• I know some may think it unfair to remark on the lady’s outfit. On the other hand, it is a very prominent and obviously posed photo in the New York Times Magazine. The photo falls into the category of what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “the presentation of self.” She is making a statement, and it would be churlish of us not to take notice. In the photo, the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is wearing an open clerical collar and the bright magenta shirt fancied by bishops of that persuasion. Her black suit jacket is combined, as it were, with a baggy pair of striped pants. She is looking directly at the camera with an expression that says, “So, you got a problem with this?” Add a mustache and cane and it would be Charlie Chaplin in a movie that might be called Postmodern Times. Please, I’m just taking notice. She’s the one who chose the outfit and struck the pose. Born in 1954, the Right Reverend Schori was ordained a priest in 1994, consecrated bishop in 2000, and presided over the Nevada diocese of ECUSA, which has 4,300 communicant members in 37 congregations averaging 119 members each. She now presides over the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The NYTM asks her how many Episcopalians there are. Answer: “About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.” Percentagewise? Percentagewise of what? In any event, unlike those Catholics and Mormons, better-educated people know better than to have lots of children. Bishop Schori has one child. (The bishop now lives in New York, while her husband will stay in Nevada, but “he will be here in New York when it makes sense.”) She is asked whether Episcopalians believe in having children. Answer: “No, it’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.” As things are going with ECUSA, Episcopalians are likely to be using much less than their portion. Percentagewise speaking. If, that is, their portion is determined by superior education and environmental consciousness. They are surrendering their portion to those dumb Catholics and Mormons, which hardly seems environmentally responsible.

• The bishop’s parents were Catholic but became Episcopalian when she was nine. “What led them to convert?” Answer: “I think my parents were looking for a place where wrestling with questions was encouraged rather than discouraged.” You know how it is with those unthinking Catholics: pray, pay, and obey. Asked about Ted Haggard and hypocritical religious leaders, the bishop answers, “But we’re all hypocrites. All of us.” At least she’s not evasive. Unless, of course, her answer is hypocritical. In another interview, with Time magazine, in which she is pictured mixing the magenta with what appears to be a tan sports jacket, she is asked, “What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?” Answer: “Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.” It’s an updated version of Our Lord’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20, in a manner of speaking. But perhaps preaching the gospel and saving souls is included in a secondary focus, so to speak. She is asked whether her support for abortion, gay bishops, and other causes means that she’s bolstering the religious left. Answer: “No. We’re not about being either left or right. We’re about being comprehensive.” Have you met Pope Benedict? Answer: “I have not. I think it would be really interesting.” No doubt.

• It seems obvious that Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is making a serious run for the presidency. He has taken a strong stand on the social issues that matter most to religious conservatives, although he is having some difficulty in explaining earlier positions taken. But more recently, when more than 170,000 people signed a petition in support of a ballot measure that would challenge the ruling of the state’s highest court that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, and the legislators recessed rather than taking up the measure, Romney’s position was unequivocal. “A decision not to vote,” he said, “is a decision to usurp the Constitution, to abandon democracy and substitute a form of what this nation’s founders called tyranny, that is, the imposition of the will of those in power on the people.” Usurpation. The abandonment of democracy. Tyranny. It would be understandable if some thought they heard the echoes of that famous 1996 symposium in First Things, “The End of Democracy?” The twist in this case is that the legislators are colluding with the judiciary in the usurpation of politics.

• Says Mark Solomon, director of Mass Equality, a group supporting same-sex marriage: “One of the tenets of the Constitution is that you do not put the rights of a minority up for a popularity contest. It is one of the very principles this country was founded upon.” That’s one way of putting the matter. But the guiding principle is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, namely, that just government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not for the courts to invent new rights, whether for a majority or a minority. And it is doubtful in the extreme that the American founders thought that there is a right to same-sex marriage. The denigration of democracy that Romney rightly deplores is further exacerbated by dismissing the decision-making procedures of this constitutional order as nothing more than a popularity contest. Popularity, we do well to remember, is derived from populus, as in “We the People,” which is the locus of political sovereignty in the polity of the United States, if not the polity of Massachusetts.

• Whether marriage should be radically redefined as any association of two or more people who want their relationships to be legally defined as marriage is a question that drives to the core of a vast array of marriage and family laws that affect every wife, husband, and child in the society. At the very least, it is a further destabilizing of an institution that has been foundational to society for thousands of years. And, of course, it is a critically important step toward putting homosexuality and homosexual relations on a moral and legal par with what has been understood, and still is understood by all but a small minority, as the rightly ordered relationship between men and women. These and other considerations enter into answering the question asked, often disingenuously, by advocates of same-sex marriage: “What difference does it make to you if homosexuals, too, can get married?” Such advocates well know the difference it would make, which is why they are so passionate in their advocacy. Governor Romney has the right word for the imposition of such a radical change without the consent and even against the express will of the people. The right word is tyranny.

• Although there is disagreement, it seems most evangelical leaders who are prominently engaged in public affairs can envision supporting Romney. It all depends on who are the other candidates in the primaries or the other candidate in the general election. Catholics have been generally quiet on the Romney candidacy. Perhaps because Catholics are not as inclined to focus on the personal faith of a candidate. A natural-law orientation to public justice suggests a focus on competence, character, and positions embraced. Strongly Catholic Massachusetts elected Romney, a Mormon. On the other hand, they have also and repeatedly elected Senator Edward Kennedy. Which may suggest it is a strongly Catholic state of very weak Catholicism. Among evangelicals, there is considerable agitation against the prospect of a Mormon president. The fear is that a Mormon as president would lend legitimacy to the claim that Mormonism is but one Christian denomination among others. I see that frequent reference in the press and blogosphere is made to my reflection “Is Mormonism Christian?” (March 2000). My answer is that, as an official belief system, Mormonism is not Christian; which is not to deny that many Mormons may be Christians. The focus on competence, character, and positions does not, I believe, preclude a Mormon president, or a Jewish president, or, perhaps some day, a Muslim president. (I do believe, along with John Locke and probably most of the Founders, that it does preclude an atheist president, as explained in my article “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?” [August/September 1991]). These questions will become more urgent as Mitt Romney’s campaign advances, which seems likely. As is so often the case in making political decisions, the question is, Compared to what? or Compared to whom?

• That article on atheists and good citizenship caused a bit of a ruckus at the time. (The noted cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer deliciously lampooned it with a full page in The Nation depicting religious leaders who were guilty of doing things very dumb and very bad.) John Locke’s argument in his 1689 “Letter Concerning Toleration” was part and parcel of his contract theory of society. Contracts depend, he contended, upon an ultimate sanction that necessarily entails divine judgment. “Lastly,” he wrote, “those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.” True, Locke also would not tolerate Catholics, but that was for a very different reason. In seventeenth-century England they were viewed, not without cause, as owing allegiance to a foreign power hostile to the state. Locke is not my favorite political philosopher, and his contract theory of government leaves much to be desired. My argument was and is that, while atheists may be law-abiding and valuable citizens in many respects, a good citizen is one who agrees with and is able to transmit the founding principles of this constitutional order, which are inseparable from God and his providential purposes in history. See the Declaration of Independence, which I believe—along with Abraham Lincoln and others who have thought deeply about the matter—provides a statement of philosophical presuppositions undergirding the more procedural specifics of the Constitution. Since atheists and ideological secularists are not likely to disappear, the argument over those presuppositions will continue so long as the American experiment endures.

• “Comedy Comes Clean” was a story in the Wall Street Journal a while back. It seems comedians are discovering that young people respond positively to non-scatological shticks. It’s so avant-garde. I do my deeply unscientific sociological analyses while walking the streets of New York. Overhearing conversations, it struck me a few years ago that I couldn’t get to the office or back without hearing, usually several times, the F-word used as noun, adjective, adverb, and ways grammatically unspecifiable. And then suddenly last spring, as I remember, it stopped. I’m still eavesdropping, but I don’t think I’ve heard it in the last several months. Something important is happening, maybe. Columnist Daniel Henninger read the same story about clean comedy but is not convinced. Apparently, he watches HBO and other cable channels. That is a mistake. Reality is on the streets of New York. Possibly it applies to decency too: If it can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere. It’s a happy thought.

• A great deal of interest has been generated by the exchanges in the December and January issues between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward Oakes on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his treatment of Christ’s descent into hell. Dr. Pitstick’s book on this and related subjects, Light in Darkness, will be out in February from Eerdmans. It is an astonishing work of scholarship and well worth a careful reading, which I expect it will receive from many theologians, both Catholic and Protestant. Balthasar is without doubt one of the great and growing influences in Christian thought. I confess that I agree with Fr. Oakes that Pitstick is too hard on Balthasar (as Fr. Oakes is too hard on Pitstick). On the descent and other questions, Balthasar has made bold proposals, activating the process known as the development of doctrine. Time and the guidance of the Holy Spirit will tell whether his proposals can be incorporated into what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, is fond of calling “the structure of faith.”

• Pitstick accuses Balthasar of sometimes playing fast and loose with the patristic texts, the writings of those whom we call the Church Fathers. It is generally acknowledged that Balthasar did pioneer work in reviving the thought of the seventh-century Greek monk Maximus the Confessor. As for his use of other patristic texts, however, a balanced perspective is offered by Fr. Brian Daley, a distinguished scholar at Notre Dame. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (edited by David Moss and, as you might expect, Edward T. Oakes), Daley says that Balthasar never became a patristics specialist. “A reader of eclectic tastes, passionate engagement, and an astounding breadth of interests, he devoted extraordinary energy and focus to reading those works of the Fathers that attracted him. . . . But when all is said and done, he still treated them essentially as sources to support his own theological engagement with modern European culture and thought. As a result, his discussions of the Fathers, extensive as they are, remain in some ways an accompaniment to his very personal intellectual agenda. Or at least we can say that he usually (but not always) presents patristic thought in terms of the categories and issues that mattered most to him.” Balthasar was, says Daley, “a learned but idiosyncratic patristic connoisseur.” I take that to be a compliment and, indeed, considering everything else that Balthasar was, high praise. Some will focus on the connoisseurship, while others, with Pitstick, will focus on the idiosyncracies. Both testify to the inescapability of theologically engaging the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

• Asked to name the two most influential Catholic theologians of the last sixty years, many would name Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. (By the combined influence of their thought and office, I would nominate Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.) Karen Kilby of the University of Birmingham, who has done notable work on Rahner, compares him with Balthasar in the abovementioned Cambridge Companion. After underscoring the importance of Balthasar’s sympathies with the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth, she writes: “The problem between Christianity and modernity is located by Rahner largely on the side of Christianity—or, to be precise, of how Christianity has sometimes been expressed—whereas Balthasar places it firmly on the side of modernity. A corollary of this, and one which is highly significant for the differing tone of the two authors, is that Rahner writes of that which is ‘modern’ as interiorly present within the Christian, and indeed within himself—it cannot be otherwise, and so it must be faced—whereas Balthasar very often opposes the modern to that which is Christian, and writes as one who stands outside and apart from his period. Rahner wants to help modern Christians overcome intellectual schizophrenia; Balthasar wants to bring them to see that there is a choice that must be made.”

• To speak in that way of different tones is to speak of different intellectual sensibilities. To put it into a Protestant context, one might say that Karl Rahner is Paul Tillich to Balthasar’s Karl Barth. Between Christian faith and modernity, Tillich’s theme was “correlation,” whereas Barth asserted an adamant Nein! to all that he saw as the disordered human desire to rival the revealed Word of God. And yet the parallels are not entirely satisfactory. I’m not sure that Balthasar urged a choice against modernity so much as he viewed modernity as one episode, and not necessarily the most impressive episode, in the human drama encompassed by the life of the Triune God acted out in the Incarnation, the cross, and the lives of the saints. Karl Rahner helped people make sense of Christian faith in the context of what makes sense in our understanding of the real world. Balthasar invites us to be transformed by entering into the exploration of the wildness of the true, the good, and the beautiful that redemptively throws into question what we take to be the real world. The vocation of the Church is to sustain many vocations, including theological vocations. There is no doubt, it seems to me, that both Rahner and Balthasar were Catholic theologians, even if the one tended to tame and the other exulted in intensifying the mystery that is at the heart of what Ratzinger calls “the structure of faith.”

• In the Catholic Church, the discussion of whether women can be ordained to the ministerial priesthood is closed, writes Sr. Sara Butler in a remarkable little book, The Catholic Priesthood and Women. “This does not mean, however, that the teaching itself does not need to be expounded and discussed,” she quickly adds. On the contrary. Since the Church requires “the full and unconditional assent of the faithful” to the teaching, it needs to be fully and persuasively explained. Which is just what Sr. Sara does in 117 pages of careful response to all the standard arguments in favor of ordaining women—and a few I had never heard of. Published by Hillenbrand Books, The Catholic Priesthood and Women is a must for anyone who is puzzled by or opposed to a teaching that is settled but still unsettling to many.

• “How does it hurt, or even affect, your marriage if they too are able to get married?” That, as I mentioned above, is the question frequently posed to opponents of same-sex marriage. “Hey, you do your thing and let them do their thing.” Such is the mindset of expressive individualism that is blithely indifferent to the intricate web of laws, customs, and convictions relative to marriage and family. This mindset was on bold display in November when the New York City Board of Health announced that people would be allowed to change their birth certificates by designating the sex of their choice. Before this, those who had undergone sex-change surgery could have their switch legally acknowledged, and now the right was to be extended to everyone who, for whatever reason, thought he or she was living in a body of the wrong sex. A few weeks later, the proposal was rescinded. “This is something we hadn’t fully thought through,” said city health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden. Police and security officials pointed out that the proposed change would play havoc with vital records and identification documents. Hospitals asked how they would decide who is assigned to which bed. Prison officials raised the difficulty of men deciding to register as women in order to be housed with female prisoners, even though, as the Times delicately put it, “they still have male anatomies.” In short, the whole thing was a monumentally dumb idea. Dr. Frieden acknowledged that it was “unfortunate” that the panel that came up with the proposal was composed of psychologists and LGBT advocates and did not include anyone from institutions that would be affected, such as prisons, schools, and hospitals. Shannon Minter of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute was deeply disappointed by the reversal: “I fear that because of the public attention the change had attracted, they lacked the courage to give the proposed amendment the consideration it deserved.” It would appear that, to the contrary, the proposal was torpedoed upon receiving the consideration it deserved. But one notes Ms. Minter’s distress that progressive measures are impeded by public attention.

• Fr. Alvin Kimel, an Episcopal priest, was Mr. Alvin Kimel for a time, until, December 3, he became Fr. Alvin Kimel, a Catholic priest. Like many others who have traveled this path, he tries to explain to friends why this priesthood is different. Of the Catholic Church, he says, “This Church is simply different, ontologically different, if you will, from the church in which I had served as priest for 25 years. . . . This is why the debate on the validity of Anglican Orders so quickly descends into irrelevance. It’s not just a matter of proving an unbroken historic succession of properly ordained ordaining hands. Be the physical links ever so intact, yet the sacerdotal line is ruptured if Anglicanism is not Church in doctrinal and catholic fullness; and by both Catholic and Orthodox standards, it is not. How can the Anglican Church, for example, pass on the sacerdotium, when it has always denied a sacrificing priesthood? Yes, one can find the exceptional ‘catholic’ Anglican bishop—Lancelot Andrewes immediately comes to mind—but exceptional bishops cannot overcome the corporate intentions and nonintentions that have informed Anglicanism from its inception. Newman accurately states the difference between the Catholic and Anglican approaches to the question of ministerial validity: ‘Catholics believe their Orders are valid, because they are members of the true Church; and Anglicans believe they belong to the true Church, because their Orders are valid.’ I well understand why Anglicans might find vexing this Catholic confidence, yet it is a confidence grounded in the primary ecclesial reality of the Catholic Church.” Fr. Kimel well understands that others, and not only Anglicans, may find his reasoning both vexing and unconvincing. Like many others, he arrived at a point where he recognized what he was obliged to do and did it. Also like many others, his explanation is more in the nature of testimony than of a clinching argument.

• There they go again. But then, when isn’t the New York Times beating the drums for its strict separationist view of church–state relations? The latest crusade is impressive, however. So far, there have been four major installments in a series in which each report claims much of the front page and continues with extra inside pages. The chief reporter is Diana Henriques. The paper’s website tells us that Ms. Henriques has been active in Protestant churches and is currently senior warden in an Episcopal church in the New York area. The point is, I suppose, to assure readers that she cannot be prejudiced against religion. One story runs under the title “Favors for the Faithful” and is headlined “Religion Trumps Regulation as Legal Exemptions Grow.” Another is “Limiting Worker’s Rights,” with the headline “Where Faith Abides, Employees Have Few Rights.” Yet another has the banner “Christ’s Mission, Caesar’s Money,” with the headline “Religion for Captive Audience, With Taxpayers Footing the Bills.” As the wording suggests, the series is a sustained attack on President Bush’s faith-based and community initiatives. It is also an attack on government accommodations of the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion across the board. The big layout on prison ministries treats favorably Judge Robert Pratt’s astonishing decision regarding an Iowa program in which he wildly caricatures evangelical Protestantism. (See the discussion of the decision in this space, August/September 2006.) The series notes in passing that the sponsors of faith-based programs “claim” they are really helping people, but that is sharply subordinated to the strict separationist ideology that drives the reports. Henriques relies heavily and very sympathetically on organizations bringing suits against sundry programs, notably the ACLU, Americans United, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As has frequently been noted here, there are legitimate questions to be raised about government funding of religious programs. And leaders of faith-based programs have reason to be cautious about dependence upon government support. The series in the Times, however, goes far beyond raising legitimate questions. It is a deeply biased muckraking campaign in the service of a strict separationism that is aimed at maintaining what has aptly been described as a naked public square. I expect you are not surprised. It is the Times after all. But I thought you might want to know.

• It was described as a bold speech, and with good reason. In December, Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed multiculturalism in Britain. He said, “But when it comes to our essential values—belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage—then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British. At that point no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.” A multicultural society is usually defined as one that consists of several different cultures, with no one culture being, as the jargon has it, privileged. The occasion of Mr. Blair’s speech is the set of problems—ranging from the socially awkward to the massively lethal—posed by the large number of Muslim immigrants in Britain. There are Muslims who contend that, as Muslims, they have no problem with belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, and respect for the country. The “shared heritage” raises a difficulty, however. The “essential values” of Britain are inexplicable apart from a heritage that is undeniably and emphatically Christian. A Muslim may respect that heritage, but it is hard to see how he could share it. The British sovereign is “the defender of the faith.” Prince Charles once floated the idea that, if and when he becomes king, he will style himself “defender of faith” rather than defender of the faith. That idea met with a decidedly negative reaction, and he has not mentioned it recently. Then there is the statement that “no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.” No Christian who thought about it carefully could subscribe to such a statement. Supersede has several meanings: to set aside, to displace, to supplant. The Christian’s supreme allegiance is to Christ and his Church, and it can happen in the case of conflict that that allegiance supersedes allegiance to the state. Britain is, after all, the land of Becket and More, who knew something about rightly, and heroically, ordering their loyalties. For Christians, it might be suggested, such clashes are minimized because their “distinctive culture [and] religion” is, in fact, the “shared heritage” of the country. It seems unlikely that even the most accommodating Muslim, if he is seriously Muslim, could pledge allegiance to that heritage. Perhaps what the prime minister means to say is that no other allegiance can be permitted to supersede, or even significantly qualify, allegiance to the liberal society. If that is what he means, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others who are claimed by a higher allegiance will recognize his words as a formula for the idolatry of the liberal state. One would like to think that that is not what Mr. Blair means.

• This is a liberal arts college that really does intend to be different. Wyoming Catholic College, on 2,300 beautiful acres near Lander, Wyoming, admits its first class this coming fall, and I’ve been sent a bundle of materials explaining just how different it will be. There is, for instance, the Technology Policy of WCC. The premise is that the most powerful piece of technology is the human brain, and it works best when engaged in reading, listening, conversation, and prayer. Therefore: There will be no television sets on campus; classroom notes will be made the old-fashioned way; no private Internet access, and limited public access; no cell phones, period. All these are replaced by books both great and good galore. Would I have wanted to enroll? I don’t know. Were I a parent, would I want my children to enroll? I don’t know. But I might well be intrigued. To learn more about Wyoming Catholic College, check it out on the Internet that you might not be needing for the next four years.

• “One of the dirty little secrets of contemporary jurisprudence,” said the distinguished legal scholar Roberto Unger ten years ago, “is its discomfort with democracy.” That has everything to do with what is called the judicial usurpation of politics. In democratic politics, people typically disagree, and sometimes disagree unpleasantly. This is lamented as “divisiveness,” which violates social decorum. The judiciary, said Unger, is at home with “an ideal of deliberative democracy as most acceptable when closest in style to a polite conversation among gentlemen in an eighteenth-century drawing room.” And, of course, the judges are the gentlemen (and women) whose task is to resolve the most controversial questions, which, if left to the great unwashed, might lead to unseemly quarrels in public. Particularly troublesome are questions involving religion. Thirty-five years ago, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that “political division along religious lines was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.” Since then, that claim has been invoked in numerous court cases. But is it the constitutional duty, or right, of the judiciary to eliminate, reduce, or even temper political division, whether along religious or any other lines? That is the question addressed in a brilliant article by Richard W. Garnett, professor of law at Notre Dame, in The Georgetown Law Review (August 2006).

• Garnett refers to the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray (d. 1967), who did pioneering work in bringing Catholic theology and the American constitutional order into constructive conversation. Garnett writes: “At the end of the day, this Article offers a reminder that—again, in Murray’s words—‘pluralism [is] the native condition of American society’ and that the unity toward which Americans have aspired—e pluribus unum—is a ‘unity of a limited order.’ Those who crafted our Constitution believed that both authentic freedom and effective government could and should be secured through checks and balances, rather than standardization, and by harnessing, rather than homogenizing, the messiness of democracy. It is both misguided and quixotic, then, to employ the First Amendment to smooth out the bumps and divisions that are an unavoidable part of the political life of a diverse and free people and, perhaps, best regarded as an indication that society is functioning well.” Murray wrote that it appears that pluralism is written into the script of history. (To which I have added that it also appears that God has done the writing. But that is a subject for another day.) Pluralism entails differences, and the robust engagement of differences, preferably but not always within the bond of civility, is the nature of democracy. As Garnett notes, there is an epidemic of commentary today deploring “divisiveness” and the “polarization” of our society. Red states, blue states, and all that. America is no more religiously pluralistic than it has ever been, and there are impressive studies suggesting that it is, in fact, less pluralistic. Divisiveness is not caused by religious differences but by those who are offended by religion, and most especially by the influence of religion in our public life. In any event, as Garnett convincingly argues, “while political divisiveness along religious lines might well be undesirable and unattractive, and might well ‘signal’ problems in the political life of a community, and might well attend violations of the Establishment Clause, it nonetheless should play no role in the evaluation by judges of First Amendment challenges to state action. What it ‘signals’—disagreement, pluralism, and the exercise of religious freedom—are, in the end, constitutionally protected facts of life.” Garnett’s conclusion lets James Madison have the last word: “The widely discussed and regretted divisions that run through our politics and communities make appealing to many a more managerial approach to politics and public life. But division and disagreement about important things is, this side of Heaven, a fact. In any event, Madison’s warning remains as powerful as ever: ‘Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.’”

• The Jews who are involved in activities that come under the rubric of Jewish–Christian relations are, with relatively few exceptions, Conservative, Reform, or frankly secular. Almost all Orthodox Jews eschew anything that smacks of interfaith theological dialogue and are generally disposed to remain aloof from cooperation with Christians or, for that matter, with “heretical” Jews. The more remarkable, therefore, is a long article in Jewish Action, the major publication of the Orthodox Union. It is written by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and is titled “Friends and Foes: Who’s Who in the Christian World.” The article is a veritable tour d’horizon of the American Christian world with specific reference to “friends and foes” of Israel. Most attention is paid to various Protestant worlds. With respect to evangelical support for Israel, Adlerstein writes: “We also think that Evangelicals support Israel because they hope to bring Armageddon closer in time, at which point all Jews will either convert or be killed, God forbid. This is a very common fallacy. If Israel-friendly Evangelicals prepared a top-ten list of reasons to support Jewish causes, their picture of the end of time might rank as number eleven. Evangelicals look forward to a Messianic Age, but very few believe that it is within their reach or duty to hasten it. Supporting Israel is important to them because God’s covenant with Abraham, as set forth in Bereishit, explicitly promises that those who bless the Jews will be blessed themselves. Simply put, Evangelicals are being completely self-serving—in a laudable manner—when they militate for Israel. They take the Bible seriously, and they wish to assure themselves a piece of God’s favor!”

• Adlerstein is withering in his comments on mainline/oldline Protestantism. “Coupled with the movement of many in academia and the power elite toward liberal ideas and ideals, far-left politics became the unofficial catechism of churches that never had one before. The equation was a simple one. Power was bad, powerlessness was good. . . . Power was seen as vested in two entities in particular: the United States and Israel.” Adlerstein deplores the way in which the leadership of oldline churches works with leftist Jews and longstanding Christian institutions in the Middle East to generate pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment. He warmly commends the “zeal and tenacity” of a successful lay-led effort to reverse a move for “disinvestment” from Israel in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Adlerstein acknowledges the past contributions of “heterodox movements” (meaning Reform and Conservative) but writes: “More and more, it appears that the Orthodox community must play a large, if not dominant, role in any action plan regarding Christian attitudes toward Israel.” Not least, he says, because conservative Christians are more comfortable in relating to Orthodox Jews since they really believe in a God who promises and commands. In view of its authorship and its promotion by Jewish Action, “Friends and Foes” may be a portent of a significant turn in the history of post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian relations.

• Islam was on a triumphant course of conquest until stopped at the siege of Vienna in 1683. That is the conventional wisdom, and it is conventional because it has the merit of being true. But there is in some enlightened circles a deep devotion to the proposition that Islam is “a religion of peace,” and, even if Muslims have been terribly aggressive at times, it is not really religion that motivates their assertiveness. Thus British critic Eric Ormsby reviews John Stoye’s new book, The Siege of Vienna (Pegasus): “Mr. Stoye’s careful accumulation of detail makes one fact abundantly clear. The Ottoman campaign, for all the religious rhetoric on both sides, was no ‘jihad.’ The Turks were less interested in spreading Islam than in augmenting their empire.” To be sure, no military campaign is driven by any one motive. Peoples go to war to gain territory, revenge wrongs, ward off threats, advance ideologies, or just for the sheer pleasure of beating up on those whom they view as their enemies. The fact is, however, that the Turks attacked Vienna in the name of Allah and, had they succeeded in conquering the heartland of Europe and continued “augmenting their empire” from that conquest, the basic texts at the universities of Vienna, Paris, and Oxford would have been the Qur’an, hadith, and sharia law. Which is not to deny that some may have been permitted to study also Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas under the severe limitations of dhimmitude. The subsequent and very different history of the world would likely have been the ever-expanding dar al-Islam. Religion is hardly the only variable in world affairs, but to deny that it is a major variable, as Mr. Ormsby does, is to gravely distort the past and blind us to the challenges of the present, with very specific reference to jihadist Islam.

• When it comes to Hilaire Belloc, and perhaps to much else, it seems that Mr. Scott Bloch knows what he’s talking about. All I know is that he is secretary of the Hilaire Belloc Society, and he writes to clarify the little back and forth we’ve been having on Belloc’s “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine . . .” Mr. Bloch says that doggerel appears in Robert Hutchinson’s 1998 book, When in Rome, but Hutchinson supplies no source. Mr. Bloch thinks that version is “suspiciously anemic,” but he allows that Belloc wrote so much and so erratically that it is quite possible that even he occasionally penned something anemic. Mr. Bloch thinks the source on which people have been doing riffs is a song that appears in The Path to Rome and has been reprinted in various collections of Belloc’s verse. It goes like this:

 

Heretics all, whoever you be,

In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,

You never shall have good words from me.

Caritas non conturbat me.

But Catholic men that live upon wine

Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;

Wherever I travel I find it so,

Benedicamus Domino.

 



Mr. Bloch tells me that the society regularly meets in Washington, D.C., bringing together Catholic men who are frank and fine, who live upon wine, and are deep in the water. They also smoke cigars and sing Belloc songs. And sometimes they hear talks on Belloc, “that most refreshing and stentorian voice of Christendom.” He did not send along the music to which the above verses are to be sung.

• I see two friends are having at it in that fine journal the New Atlantis. More precisely, my friend Wilfred McClay is having at my friend Ramesh Ponnuru in a review of the latter’s book The Party of Death. McClay has many positive things to say about the book, but he thinks Ponnuru insufficiently appreciates the need for an incremental approach to protecting the unborn, and he holds up as a model Lincoln’s incremental approach to abolishing slavery. McClay writes: “Indeed, excessive reliance on unbending abstract principles in such debates can have the entirely unsought effect of rendering the Lincolnian ‘spirit of compromise’ ineffectual. It would be ironic indeed if a position that insists upon assigning the full panoply of basic rights to every individual fertilized egg would have the unintended political consequence of making impossible a workable compromise that would confine abortion to the earliest stages of pregnancy, a positive development that most Americans would welcome. But in politics, the best very often is the enemy of the good. That recognition was surely at the heart of Lincoln’s intense commitment to the ‘spirit of compromise.’ Today, it should guide those, like Ponnuru, who see even the earliest embryos as rights-bearing persons, but who need to accept that living in an imperfect world often means accepting imperfect limits on injustice, perhaps indefinitely.” There is hope for progress, writes McClay, in new technologies that allow us to see the early development of a human life in the womb. He writes: “To be sure, not all the important questions facing us can be easily addressed by such evidence. The very tininess and invisibility of the embryo are adduced as reasons why its destruction is of no great moral consequence. But, like it or not, the fact remains that our public moral discourse is most responsive to what is visible and tangible, since it is through appeals to sight and imagination and story that these issues are best brought within the public’s affective circle.” McClay goes on to say that what is really needed is something like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to place in compelling narrative form the horror of abortion in the way that Stowe helped people understand the horror of slavery.

• Leave aside for the moment McClay’s reference to “a position that insists upon assigning the full panoply of basic rights to every fertilized egg.” As I expect McClay would agree, we do not assign rights but recognize rights that are already there. (Ponnuru is in very distinguished company when he contends that the refusal to recognize inherent rights at the very beginning of a human life, or at any other point of dependency or debilitation, imperils the very idea of human rights.) The title of McClay’s article is “Beyond the Right to Life,” and it is his argument about an incremental approach to protecting unborn life that catches my attention. I share his respect for Lincoln’s moral reasoning and political strategy with respect to slavery. But, unlike the humanity of Uncle Tom, who everyone recognized as a fellow human being, I doubt if any narrative can bring as fully into what McClay calls “the public’s affective circle” the humanity of the embryonic human being. The matter turns not on narrative power but on clear moral reasoning. Is this embryo a self-directing but radically dependent human life on its way to developing into what—barring natural misfortune or lethal intervention—everyone will recognize as a human baby? A baby who will, of course, at that point be just as radically dependent. If the answer is yes, I don’t see how we get or why we should want to get “beyond the right to life.”

• McClay is right about the importance of an incremental approach to achieving the goal of justice. The goal of the pro-life cause is a society in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. That goal will never be achieved perfectly. There will always be some abortions, as there will always be other grave wrongs. In the pro-life cause, the question is frequently posed in terms of incrementalists vs. absolutists. Last November’s defeat of the abortion ban in South Dakota, for instance, is generally attributed to the refusal to include exceptions for rape and incest. The real choice, however, is not between incrementalism and absolutism. Lincoln was an absolutist about the human dignity and rights of the black slave. Absolutism—if one must use the term—is the moral premise to which incrementalism is the moral strategy. Incrementalism is not chosen but is a necessity recognized. If it were possible to do so, we would make absolute justice the law of the land as of yesterday. But it is not possible. McClay is right in saying that, in politics, the best can become the enemy of the good or the enemy of the better. Yet the political struggle for the protection of the unborn would lose its force and its moral coherence were it not animated by the commitment to truth and justice that is inseparable from “the right to life.” I agree with McClay that many other and different appeals must be made in order to penetrate the “affective circle” in which people make decisions of moral moment. I take it that he is saying that “rights talk” is necessary but not sufficient. Fair enough. In both law and life, however, other ways of making the argument will not be made effectively apart from the “unbending,” but by no means “abstract,” principle that it is always wrong to kill, intentionally and directly, an innocent human being at any point of development, dependency, or decline. Which is why we cannot get “beyond the right to life.”

• Behind and beneath bestselling tracts beating the drums for atheism, such as recent offerings by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, is an endless flow of publications insisting that God is a delusion and religion a dangerous racket. No house is more devoted to the cause than Prometheus Press. In this issue of Publishers Weekly, Prometheus announces God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger; Atheism: A Reader, edited by S.T. Joshi, and two by George H. Smith, Why Atheism? and Atheism: The Case Against God. Fun is frequently made of atheists who can’t stop talking about God. But, to be fair, these are people who believe that the vast majority of humankind is captive to an error that is the source of most of the world’s problems. And so, over the past three hundred years, we have the thousands of books, each one published in the confidence that it provides the final knock-down argument demonstrating that there is no God and that once this truth is recognized all belief and action premised upon the reality of God will cease and desist. There is, in a perverse way, something admirable in the persistence of these proponents of atheism. If someone is not convinced by the argument, it must be because they did not understand it, and so they go back and start over again from the beginning—usually in yet another book. Pascal somewhere observes that the problem with being convinced of the existence of God by an argument of five logical steps is that once you get to step five you begin to wonder whether you got step three exactly right. And the same might be said of arguments for the nonexistence of God. Like the village atheist of old, atheist writers so often come across as cranks, tiresomely tireless in their insistence that if only you thought the way they think, you would arrive at the conclusion at which they have arrived. I have in my time read more than my share of arguments for atheism and have yet to encounter one that is aimed at debunking the God in whom I believe. Put differently, I, too, do not believe in the God in whom they do not believe. The reality of that which surpasses understanding is not disproved by the recognition that it surpasses understanding. And around titles such as The Case Against God hovers the unacknowledged presence of that which is so persistently, so zealously, so desperately denied.

• On December 5, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times published “A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion.” He opined that atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were becoming too mean-spirited in their attacks. Two days later, both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins had letters to the editor, with Harris citing Dawkins and Dawkins citing Harris as a model of civility. The problem with people like Kristof, writes Dawkins, is that they have become “acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion.” And, in case you doubt it, when was the last time you saw a book critical of religion on the Times’ bestseller list? Mr. Harris writes, “Calling our efforts ‘mean’ overlooks our genuine concern for the future of civilization.” It cannot be mean to want to rid the world of religions that “offer a view of reality that is now so utterly impoverished as to scarcely constitute a view of reality at all.” The religious non-view of reality or, if you prefer, view of non-reality is, says Harris, incompatible with “the astounding number of galaxies,” “the complexities of life on earth,” and “the advances in our ethical discourse over the last 2,000 years.” Religion may scarcely constitute a view of reality at all but, by gum, Messrs. Harris, Dawkins, Stenger, Joshi, and Smith, along with your crazy uncle in Oregon, are determined to stamp it out once and for all. Their crusade, writes Mr. Dawkins, is devoid of polemic. It is simply that when 99 percent of the world’s population is delusional, people will hear “gentle criticism of religion as intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious.” “Without wishing to offend,” writes Dawkins, “I want The God Delusion to raise our consciousness of this weird double standard.” The weird double standard, according to Dawkins, is that in our society religion is immune from criticism. I confess that my consciousness definitely needed raising on that score, and it would be less than generous not to acknowledge the gentleness with which Mr. Dawkins makes his point, not wishing to offend the fools who disagree.

• Again and again, one is disappointed in the hope of being surprised by the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). At their November meeting, the bishops adopted a solid statement on marriage and openness to new life, and another on the pastoral care of people with homosexual inclinations. Both statements are exemplary in their clarity, orthodoxy, and pastoral awareness of problems encountered by many Catholics. NCR’s editorial reaction is long but is briefly summed up in its assertion that “the teaching makes little sense, doesn’t match the experience of lay Catholics, and tends to reduce all of human love to the act of breeding.” Looking for a reasonable response to church teaching from NCR is, in Dr. Johnson’s words, the triumph of hope over experience.

• For reasons that are not easy to explain, one looks for a more considered response from the editors of Commonweal. They begin by commending a thoughtful statement on Iraq that was also approved by the bishops. “These are sensible recommendations,” the editors write, “necessary steps in bringing about a responsible resolution to a tragic and untenable situation. The USCCB would do well to adopt just as sensible a policy in confronting the laity’s doubts about church teaching on the meaning of human sexuality. For instance, 95 percent of married Catholics do not find the teaching on contraception persuasive. And how do the bishops respond? ‘Stay the course or get out of the Communion line’ might be a rough paraphrase of the USCCB statements.” Yes, rough, tasteless, and inaccurate. Do the editors really not see that there is, with respect to moral truth and teaching authority, a substantive difference between the bishops’ prudential judgment about Iraq, on the one hand, and the Church’s doctrine on human sexuality that is grounded in Holy Scripture and two thousand years of ?tradition? I honestly do not know the answer to that question.

• It may be that most Catholics do not find the Church’s teaching on sexuality “persuasive.” If so, it is in very large part because they have never heard the teaching persuasively presented. How should the bishops respond? They should respond exactly as they responded in November, by presenting the Church’s teaching more persuasively. But, of course, nobody will be persuaded if they do not read the statements. Both NCR and Commonweal leave no doubt that the statements are not worth reading. Both call for dialogue and for respectful listening; both contemptuously dismiss what the bishops have to say. Not only are the bishops not teachers in the Church, they are not recognized as participants in the conversation who have something of value to contribute. Following its gross caricature of what the bishops say, Commonweal concludes that the consequence will only be the “strengthening of the growing moral solidarity felt between heterosexual and homosexual Catholics.” That this solidarity is not in conversation with but in rejection of the teaching authority of the Church seems to bother the editors not at all. On the contrary, they triumphalistically quote the words of Charles Peguy, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Never mind the bishops; God is on our side. This is not the voice of dialogue. The dreary result over all these years is the perpetual taunting of a tradition that, for complicated reasons, they refuse to engage. Possibly out of fear that they might be persuaded of its truth.

• I suggest that is part of the explanation. If one really is devoted to dialogue, to finding common ground, as they say, one does not want to be as dismissive of Commonweal and NCR as they are dismissive of the bishops and the teaching of the Church. Perhaps the editors have a proposal for addressing these difficult questions in a manner that is consonant with the Catholic Church’s understanding of magisterial teaching authority, meaning a proposal that is not simply a formula for the subordination of moral truth to cultural trends. If NCR and Commonweal do have such a proposal, they are duty-bound to offer it for the deliberation of the Catholic Church, which is the Church distinguished from other communities by communion with the bishops who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Otherwise, the unhappiness of the editors is, more than one wants to believe, explained by juvenile rebellion trapped in the amber of nostalgia for a post-Vatican II revolution that was not to be. Or—and this one certainly does not want to believe—these editors have slight interest in being Catholic as the Catholic Church defines Catholic. Were that the case, their refusal to engage respectfully the teaching of the Church as presented by the bishops would make perfect sense.

• Of the making of new Bible translations there is no end. Catholics, who are forced to listen to the clunky New American Bible at Mass, get to work off in advance some of the punitive aspects of purgatory. And evangelicals are indebted to Nelson publishers for the New Century Version. Now that version is available in Immerse: A Water-Resistant New Testament. “The first-ever water-resistant Bible is available in lime green and orange, with the pages 100% water-resistant. . . . A wonderful addition to any mission trip, a weekend at the beach, hiking, or even when you get baptized!” The effectual grace of baptism being indiscernible in so many of us, we now have a water-resistant Bible for water-resistant Christians. What won’t they think of next? Don’t ask.

• In November, I had an essay in Time magazine on how radical Jihadists see terrorism and massive Muslim immigration as working together toward a reconquest of Europe. The editors ran that alongside an essay by Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim theologian living in Switzerland who has written about the need to develop a “European Islam.” Ramadan is usually considered a moderate, but I admit that I found somewhat chilling this assertion: “Europe in particular must learn to reconcile itself with the diversity of its past in order to master the coming pluralism of its future.” Perhaps I’m wrong, but the translation would seem to be: We are here, we are coming, don’t even think of stopping us. Europe is ours at least as much as it is yours. Get used to it.

• In the November issue of First Things, I commented, in a vein that might be described as somewhat critical, on a promotional piece from Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C., that left it quite unclear whether it is a Christian, never mind a Catholic, institution. The advertisement was very upfront about being in the Jesuit tradition. A former teacher at Georgetown, who is not uncritical of the place, directs me to the school’s website and its “Profile of a Prep Graduate,” which is very explicit about the school’s Christian and Catholic mission, which is an encouragement. I don’t know the school, wrote only on the basis of what I had read, and sincerely hope that what I have now read is true.

• The freak show used to be a big draw at state fairs. Not anymore. Ward Hall, who styles himself the King of the Midway, is now an old man whose “World of Wonders” is consigned by organizers to the back corner of the fairgrounds, next to the horse stables. His company includes Poobah, a three-foot-seven dwarf who has eaten one hundred skewers of fire a day, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for five decades. His voice is hoarse. There is also the sword-swallower, the four-legged lady, and a few other oddities. The freak show has come upon hard days. “Technology killed the art form too,” says Mr. Hall. For instance, they separate Siamese twins at birth. “Can’t they just leave well enough alone?” he asks. You might think that callous in the extreme, and you would be right. We pride ourselves on having become a more sensitive society in which people refuse to pay to gawk at freaks. The late Christopher Lasch had a darker view of the matter. We have become, he said, a society that has no room for freaks. There is prenatal screening for hundreds of potential hereditary abnormalities; multiple pregnancies in IVF procedures are “selectively aborted.” I regularly pass the United Cerebral Palsy School around the corner, on 23rd Street. Each day hundreds of children and young people are bused in. They are slobbering and terribly contorted, with eyes rolling in all directions, and almost all of them happily smiling. The bus drivers and teachers seem to love them very much. And the thought keeps recurring: These children and those who care for them may be the last generation of their kind. In the brave new world that is upon us, such children will be killed before they can become a burden. Ward Hall, the King of the Midway, may be crude, but is it really a more humane society that has achieved the sensitivity that kills?

• There are many reasons why one might wish to live in the Bahamas, Jamaica, or the Leeward Islands. Catholics have an additional reason. These are places where they can, in the Mass and other liturgical settings, hear the Scriptures read in a translation that is both accurate and of literary excellence. The Episcopal Conference of the Antilles has approved, with the full support of Rome, the two-volume lectionary containing the second Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV). The volumes are handsomely produced by Ignatius Press, as is the full RSV, giving to the faithful there a complete Bible that is in accord with the texts read in liturgy. The lectionary in use in this country employs the unfortunate New American Bible (NAB), which is frequently different from the separately published complete NAB. The Antilles lectionary and Bible is also in entire accord with the 2001 Vatican instruction, Liturgiam Authenticam. As it happens, the RSV translation is approved also by the U.S. bishops conference (USCCB)—but not for liturgical use. The bishops here hold the copyright to the regrettable NAB and make a great deal of money by charging for its use in liturgical publications. The National Council of Churches, which holds the copyright to the RSV, believing that the Christian people are deserving of a worthy translation of the word of God, generously allows its reproduction. It is expected that in the next few years the English-speaking world will have a new sacramentary, the book that contains the liturgical texts. But it seems that budget considerations at the USCCB dictate that we will still be burdened with the Scripture readings from the deeply embarrassing NAB. The American bishops could readily remedy this scandal by simply joining their Caribbean confreres in approving the RSV lectionary for liturgical use. I know the USCCB is hard up for funds, and there were further cutbacks this year, but surely the translation of the Bible that is heard and studied by the Catholic faithful should be a matter of some priority for men who are, after all, bishops before they are bookkeepers. They could approve the RSV lectionary while still allowing the use of the NAB in parishes that, for whatever elusive reason, might prefer it. No doubt there are those for whom embarrassing banalities and near-comical solecisms have a certain charm. But for those to whom accuracy joined to literary grace matters, it should not be necessary to move to the Bahamas.

• “I said, ‘Why not?’—and look where it got me.” She’s a very bright college senior and her uncle had put her on to First Things. Being very bright and a bit of a contrarian, she was much taken with a young philosophy professor—a fresh Ph.D. from Duke, I think she said—who had opened to her a way of reason that left no room for the Christian faith she had half-learned as a child. There’s another way of reason, her uncle suggested. And so she started reading First Things, she said, and found herself saying, “Just maybe,” and then, “Why not?” I expect that when Jesus called Peter, John, Matthew, and the others, and we are told that they promptly got up and followed him, they had no idea what was in store for them, and maybe at least some of them had the thought, “Why not?” Robert Browning, in “Unfaith and Faith,” put it this way:

 

The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly,

There the old misgivings, crooked questions are—

This good God,—what he could do, if he would,

Would, if he could—then must have done long since:

If so, when, where, and how? some way must be,—

Once feel about, and soon or late you hit

Some sense, in which it might be, after all.

Why not, ‘The Way, the Truth, the Life’?

 



And soon—not immediately, but soon enough—our college senior discovered that the final question mark had been replaced by an exclamation point, and her “Why not?” had become the entrance point to an adventure of faithful reason and reasoned faith beside which the young philosopher’s dull and querulous way of easy doubt quite lost its allure. She is very grateful to her uncle, as are many younger readers grateful to parents, uncles, aunts, and friends who signed them up for First Things, eliciting from them the response, “Why not?” After that, there’s no telling what might happen.

Sources:

Papal infallibility, New York Sun, November 24. Bishop Schori, New York Times Magazine, November 19; Time, July 17. Romney on tyranny, Associated Press, November 20. Clean comedy, Wall Street Journal, December 15. New York sex changes, New York Times, December 6. Fr. Al Kimel, Pontifications blog, December 10. Tony Blair on multiculturalism, Daily Telegraph, December 8. Jewish–Christian relations, Jewish Action, Winter 2006. Ormsby on Islam, Wall Street Journal, December 6. McClay and the right to life, New Atlantis, Fall 2006. Dawkins and Harris on religion, New York Times, December 5. USCCB statements, NCR, November 24; Commonweal, December 1. Freak shows, New York Times, November 13.