The Public Square
I dont know what to call this. It is certainly not, in any ordinary sense of the word, a review of Robert Louis Wilkens new book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press, 368 pages,, $29.95). A reviewer is supposed to have a measure of critical distance from the author and book under discussion, and I am anything but distanced from Wilken. Apart from my family, he is my friend of longest standing. We go back to college days in Austin, Texas, we went through seminary together in St. Louis, and we have been in unbroken conversation ever since. To complicate matters further, the book is dedicated to our friendship. So dont expect from me what is usually meant by objectivity in the reviewing business. This is in part the discharging of a debt, or, better, call it an appreciation. And I take it as an occasion to reflect on the indispensable part that friendship plays in ones personal and intellectual formation. As it happens, that theme is also close to the argument of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought .
From time to time it is suggested to me”and not always, I think, in the way of flattery”that I should write my memoirs or even a full-scale autobiography. Perhaps some day I will, although I rather doubt it. Were I ever to do so, it would be in very large part the story of my gratitude for the people who have shaped my mind and way of being in the world. So herewith, before I return to Robert Louis Wilken, some rough notes in lieu of the memoirs that will likely never be written. I limit myself to intellectuals and writers, recognizing that the influence of innumerable other friends, also intellectually, would require a large book. Those mentioned are people without whose influence I would not think the way I think or live the way I live. They are my teachers, people to whom I intellectually surrendered myself, which is the only way to learn. Each left an indelible mark. With some I am now in decided disagreement. To others I regularly return to learn more, or to relearn what I had forgotten.
In compiling this list, I soon realized it was getting impossibly long. Rigorously, and reluctantly, I pruned and then pruned again. The final criterion was this: these are the thinkers who are essential to the telling of my lifes story. The omission of any would result in missing an influence without which I could not understand myself. Others might have been included; those included could not have been excluded. And a final caveat: we will not know the whole of the who and what in the formation of what we think we know until we know even as we are known, which is not yet.
I am not entirely satisfied with my list. After all, one could go through ones personalized version of the Great Books or of Matthew Arnolds the best that has been thought and said and be compelled to acknowledge that, in ways not always obvious, one would be a different person if he had never read, for instance, Plato, Descartes, or Alasdair MacIntyre. But I mean to limit myself to powerfully felt influences, to intensely personal engagements (whether or not I knew the thinker personally), to encounters that were aha experiences of an acutely conscious and continuing nature. I mention first thinkers whom I did not know personally, and then those whom I did, some of whom are still alive and still dear friends. I leave off the list biblical writers, only noting for the record that the four evangelists, along with Paul, the prophets, and the writers of the psalms”probably in that order, and as is probably the case for most Christians”are formative beyond any possible comparison.
So here we go. The names are not necessarily in order of importance. Each deserves an essay or more, but I offer only a sentence or two, which does no more than gesture at the nature of the influence. My list and what I say about each is, I readily acknowledge, not always terribly original, but it is mine. And then I will get back to Robert Louis Wilken.
St. Augustine : The master teacher of thinking faith and faithful thinking. St. Thomas Aquinas : Uncompromising champion of bringing all knowledge into obedience to Christ. Almost, from time to time, I am disposed to call myself a Thomist. Martin Luther : Possessed prophet of the utter gratuitousness of salvation. John Henry Newman : How we know what we know that we dare to trust. Josef Pieper : The wisdom of Thomas distilled and illuminated by life as lived. Samuel Johnson : The courage to see and say the obvious. Friedrich Schleiermacher : The brilliant but finally wrongheaded freedom of thought disengaged from authority. Émile Durkheim : Society as the bearer of mystery. William James : The futility of denying transcendence. Michael Polanyi : The impossibility of the autonomous and systematically skeptical mind. Hans Urs von Balthasar : Intellectual and spiritual genius at play in the fields of the Lord. Feodor Dostoevsky : The prophet of the fiery word pitted against the fiery sword that blocks the way to Eden. Søren Kierkegaard : The contriver of introspective knots from which we are freed by truth not our own. John Courtney Murray : The Catholic Thing made critically at home in America. Louis Bouyer : Faith lived as liturgy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer : Relentlessly probing what it means to follow Him. Flannery OConnor : Vocation discovered in the grace of being limited. G. K. Chesterton : Unbounded gratitude in the wonder of what is.
Then there are those whom I have been blessed to know personally, in some cases casually but in most over years and in the conversation of friendship. Arthur Carl Piepkorn : There is no gospel apart from the Church. More pointedly, the Church is integral to the gospel. Wolfhart Pannenberg : Christian knight of Enlightenment rationality besting Enlightenment rationality at its own game. Abraham Joshua Heschel : He opened the Torah to reveal to me, but not to him, the Christ. Peter L. Berger : The sociology of thinking. Martin Luther King, Jr. : Pressing politics as the art of what might be possible. Reinhold Niebuhr : Uncompromising analyst of a grim world qualified by grace. Paul Ramsey : Happy contrarian captive to thinking clearly about doing the right thing. Karol Wojtyla : All truth is personal, and in the Truth, the person of Christ, we are revealed to ourselves. Avery Dulles : A magisterial command of the tradition making him a contemporary touchstone of reflective orthodoxy.
So there you have it, the short list; rough notes for the intellectual memoirs that will likely never be written. The list is eclectic, no doubt, and the less charitable might call it a hodgepodge. But then, life is eclectic and something of a hodgepodge. There are other thinkers, and especially individual books, that have turned around my thinking on this or that subject of consequence. Other contemporaries might have been included, but neither they nor I think of themselves as my teachers, and there are simply too many of them. I am also conscious of short-changing literary figures”novelists, dramatists, poets. Composers, too. The above canon of influentials is heavy on theology and philosophy, also on moral philosophy. But then, so am I. So I let the list, with its no doubt too allusive explanatory tags, stand as it is for the time being. Everything is for the time being.
The Strange New World of the Fathers
It goes without saying that Robert Louis Wilken”he started using the Louis after he became a Catholic, in honor of the thirteenth-century king of France, patron of his native city of New Orleans”would be on the list were it expanded only slightly. Wilken is not my teacher in the usual meaning of the word, but he is a friend who has taught me much. It is said of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth that he opened for many the strange new world of the Bible. Wilken has opened for many the strange new world of the Church Fathers. He taught patristics for years at Catholic institutions, notably at the University of Notre Dame, and since 1985 has been William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.
There is a discernible trajectory of development over the years in his many books and articles (some of the latter appearing in these pages). The new book prompted me to go back and look at The Myth of Christian Beginnings (1971). The thesis there is that there was for the Christian movement no biblical Golden Age from which subsequent history is a declension or by which subsequent history is to be judged. With specific reference to the patristic era, the argument is that the movement, also doctrinally, is one of development pointing toward an eschatological denouement. The eschatological accent was attributable in significant part to the influence of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Thirty years later, Wilken has not retracted that thesis, nor does he suggest that the biblical or patristic era was a Golden Age after all, but he is inclined to contend that the early Fathers got the Christian intellectual tradition (a favored phrase) right, and that that tradition is inseparably tied to the interpretation of the Bible. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought does not suggest that the patristic era represents the whole of the tradition. Not by a long shot. But it is a notably energetic, imaginative, and faithful part of the tradition to which Wilken has devoted a life of study. The conclusion of the book puts it nicely:
The intellectual tradition that began in the early Church was enriched by the philosophical breadth and exactitude of medieval thought. Each period in Christian history makes its own unique contribution to Christian life. The Church Fathers, however, set in place a foundation that has proven to be irreplaceable. Their writings are more than a stage in the development of Christian thought or an interesting chapter in the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Like an inexhaustible spring, faithful and true, they irrigate the Christian imagination with life-giving water flowing from the biblical and spiritual sources of the faith. They are still our teachers today.
The book fully vindicates that judgment. Although, truth to tell, I expect an essay by Wilken on the unique contribution of the modern era to the Christian intellectual tradition would be short and marked by deep ambivalence. An argument at the heart of The Spirit and Wilkens other writings of recent years is that the thought we call modern is”unlike the Fathers and the classical world of philosophy of which they were part”marked by systematic skepticism and a posture of critical distance in the interpretation of sacred texts. Like the Greeks, the Fathers understood that commitment”as in faith and love”is essential to discerning the truth. Indeed, love is a way of knowing. In this connection and others, Wilken decisively rejects the powerfully influential complaint of Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) that the Fathers were guilty of Hellenizing Christian thought. The Fathers appropriation of Greek philosophy, and their success in bringing it into obedience to the history of Israel and its Christ is, according to Wilken, precisely their genius and their glory.
Whether in understanding the Greeks or in interpreting the Bible, the serious interpreter must give himself to the author. On this Wilken effectively cites T. S. Eliot: You dont really criticize any author to whom you have never surrendered yourself . . . . You have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery. But is it possible for a modern to so surrender himself, to entrust himself to love as a way of knowing? Does that not inevitably end up in a form of fideism? Although the above-mentioned Michael Polanyi is not named in the book, Wilkens answer, at least implicitly, is very much like Polanyis proposal for a post-critical philosophy. Also unmentioned, but very much between the lines, is Paul Ricoeurs understanding of the second naiveté that is on the far side of systematic skepticism.
Wilken does invoke in his opening pages the words of Augustine: No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable. Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought. Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking. Wilken, however, does not understand himself to be writing a systematic treatise on the relationship between faith and reason. Although I deal with ideas and arguments, I am convinced that the study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas. And, he might have added, not only early Christian thought. Christianity is about history, about what happened and is happening, about a way of life constructed by such events remembered, related, and reenacted. Christianity is a Church, a community, indeed a culture, created by truth discerned through commitment, which is to say by faith. Christianity is, as Wilken repeatedly says, the res , the things”especially the sacramental, devotional, moral, and intellectual things”that constitute The Christian Thing. We must give ourselves to the res. Critical distancing, and especially irony, are, in relation to the things of God, blasphemy.
The distinguished church historian Jaroslav Pelikan says of the book: By turns scholarly, contemplative, and argumentative, this is an exposition in which the early Christian writers speak for themselves”and to us. I dont want to overinterpret a book blurb, but Pelikans use of the word argumentative is insightful. Although Wilken has been heaped with academic honors over the years, I have long thought he is not sufficiently appreciated by contemporary Christian thinkers. One reason for that, I expect, is that readers do not see the arguments he is making in the stories that he tells. Wilken is a stranger to polemic or pointed attack. His style is understated; absent are the fireworks of intellectual showmanship. He writes in a manner that is disarmingly, and sometimes deceptively, simple. The tone is invitational, as though he is saying, Come and see. Let me show you a way of being Christian and thinking Christianly that is richer, more imaginative, more convincing, more faithful than the way in which most of us are Christian today.
And so it is that, if anybody ever bothers to write about my life and thought, he will have to write about the people named above, and he will have to write about Robert Louis Wilken. Get The Spirit of Early Christian Thought and read it. Read it slowly, letting Wilken take you by the hand to enter into conversation with Augustine, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and others; all of whom got The Christian Thing right. That doesnt mean that nobody except the early Fathers got it right, and it certainly doesnt mean that they exhausted the ways of getting it right. It is still and always the case that the truth is discerned and lived against an eschatological horizon. But Wilken loves the Fathers and their way of loving Christ. In asking the reader to come and see, he is, like St. Paul, introducing the great hymn of love that is the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul says, and Robert Louis Wilken says, Let me show you a more excellent way. Let him show you a more excellent way.
War in a New Era
If its worth doing, its worth overdoing. That appears to be the operative maxim in some quarters where folks have been gleefully burying under an ever-growing mountain of ridicule some of the more reckless opponents of U.S. action in Iraq. Not that there isnt a great deal to ridicule. Leading up to the invasion and even after its rapid military success, critics were predicting a quagmire, a Somalia-like debacle, a rising of the Arab street that would be a storm from hell, and, of course, another Vietnam. With reference to civilian casualties, some protestors spoke about a Middle East holocaust. None of that happened. In view of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed by Saddams murderous regime, the war probably saved innumerable lives. So the critics were abysmally wrong on almost every point. That must be clearly established on the public record.
On the question of Saddams weapons of mass destruction (WMD), one of the several justifications offered for military action, all the returns are not yet in. Over the past decade, the Security Council of the UN, supported by the intelligence services of all the major nations, said he had WMDs. Maybe he did destroy them but refused to say so lest he lose face by appearing to buckle under UN demands. Maybe they are still hidden and will yet be found. More troubling, maybe all the intelligence services were wrong. That is troubling not because it raises questions about the liberation of Iraq but because it raises questions about our intelligence capacities in dealing with similar problems in the future.
The aftermath of the Iraqi intervention is a time for all of us to think anew about conventional wisdoms regarding war, peace, and global security. To take but one instance, for decades, ever since the first use of the atom bomb against Japan, it has been a staple in arguments about just war that weapons of ever more destructive power have made obsolete the traditional criterion of proportionality between a just cause and the cost of vindicating that cause by military means. In his speech announcing victory in Iraq, President Bush made an observation that deserves the careful attention of serious students of the ethics of war and peace.
[We] have witnessed the arrival of a new era. For a hundred years of war, culminating in the nuclear age, military technology was designed and deployed to inflict casualties on an ever-growing scale. In defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war. Yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.
This is indeed a great advance. Without entering into the much-disputed question of whether the World War II obliteration bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki was morally justifiable, everyone can agree that it is a very good thing that the U.S. did not, to use Churchills phrase, bounce the rubble of Baghdad. Those who predicted hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq should have known better. The strategy made possible by precision weaponry was already on display in the Gulf War of 1991 and in Afghanistan in 2001-02. The claim that modern weaponry has made obsolete the proportionality criterion in evaluating the justice of war should now be permanently retired. It is true that terrorists and rogue nations may possess and use nuclear and biochemical weapons of massive and indiscriminate destruction, but they operate outside of and in defiance of the tradition of just war reflection. Not only in the context of the last hundred years, but in the context of human history, it is a genuinely new thing that the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.
This certainly does not make warfare morally unproblematic. Some predicted that even the most discriminate and precise military action in Iraq would trigger the use of biochemical weapons by Saddam, resulting in the death of countless Iraqis and coalition forces. That did not happen, but it was not unreasonable to fear that it might happen. This was among the many calculated risks in which the judgment of those leading the coalition was vindicated, for which we should be deeply grateful. Also morally problematic is the possibility that pinpoint accuracy in warfare may make military action seem too easy. As he has many times before, in the above-mentioned speech President Bush again declared that military action is the last resort in addressing threats to the U.S. and world security.
He also said, Yet all can know, friend and foe alike, that our nation has a mission: we will answer threats to our security and we will defend the peace. In accomplishing that mission, last resort has never meant the very last thing that can be done in order to avoid conflict. After all, one can always surrender. The resort in question refers to available means for countering aggression and securing a more just peace. In view of the changes in technology and strategy, applying the criterion of proportionality may, in some prescribed circumstances, move us toward thinking about military action in terms not of the last resort but of the best resort. If the question is how to achieve a just goal while inflicting minimal damage, especially to innocents, the answer may sometimes be military action. That, too, is not morally unproblematic. But, for both waging war and thinking about war, it is a prospect entailed in understanding that we have witnessed the arrival of a new era.
Haeresis as Doctrinal Choice
Thomas Oden is one of the prime movers in the confessional movement to reclaim catholic substance for oldline Protestantism. He is also a key participant in the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In his recent book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (HarperSanFrancisco, 212 pages,, $24.95) he strongly affirms the Vincentian canon set forth by Vincent of Lerin (d. circa 450). Oden renders the canon this way: In the worldwide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.
Roger E. Olson teaches theology at Baylor University, a Baptist institution, and he has his reservations. He writes: We must remain open to the possibility that the Word of God”not some new revelation or personal opinion”may correct or supplement what the Church has always believed. Otherwise we must condemn Luther, for surely his doctrine of justification ( simul justus et peccator ) cannot be found within the consensual teaching of the Church before him (at least he did not think so, nor do most contemporary historical theologians). For that matter, can one find Wesleys doctrine of entire sanctification in a moment in the consensual tradition? What about the Synod of Dorts doctrine of limited atonement ? Most significant for many evangelicals is that one cannot find believer baptism only (including rebaptism of persons already baptized in the triune name as infants) in the consensual tradition as Oden defines it. In fact, Baptists should note, Oden sides with Pope Stephen I against the Donatists in condemning rebaptism (a term no group uses for its own practice) and declares, When an unprecedented claim on such an important subject as baptism stands in direct contrast to the previous consensual memory, it has to be rejected promptly and firmly . . . . After Stephens prompt response to the practice of rebaptism, the historical precedent was reconfirmed so conclusively that the issue was seldom reviewed again until much later. Oden does not tell us what he thinks about the outcome of that later review. Are Baptists heretics? He does not say it, but it would seem so by Vincents canon and Odens logic. If not, why could there not be contemporary steps away from the ancient, consensual tradition of the Church insofar as they can be established by appeal to Scripture and not to private opinion, philosophy, or culture? In matters of theological examination of Christian teachings old and new the ancient, consensual tradition of the Church gets a strong vote but not an absolute veto.
In sum, if St. Vincent and Oden are right, much of Protestantism is wrong, and that cant be right. That puts Olsons complaint a bit too simply, but only a bit. These are knotty questions that will not be untangled anytime soon. Thomas Oden is no doubt well aware that the Vincentian canon does not mean that there was ever a time when every single Christian or group of Christians believed exactly the same thing about everything. In the early centuries of the Church, there were maddeningly diverse and often conflicting beliefs on core issues such as the human and divine natures of Christ, the unity and trinity of God, and much else. That is why there were disputes, synods, and councils in which the tradition of identifiable continuity appealed”before there was agreement on which texts constituted the New Testament of Scriptures”to the authority of the apostles and apostolic churches. This early came to be called the rule of faith ( regula fidei ), of which St. Vincents formula is one expression.
Adjudication of differences by appeal to the rule of faith continues to this day in all Christian communions that intend to be catholic, and is, of course, most carefully observed in the churches called Catholic and Orthodox. It is easy to say that the Word of God”not some new revelation or personal opinion”may correct or supplement what the Church has always believed, but it is in fact the opinion of a person or group of persons about the Word of God that is set against the continuing tradition. This is what John Henry Newman called the tyranny of private judgment, which is not unlike heresy”from haeresis , meaning choice. As I say, these are questions that have been with the Church from the beginning, and metastasized into numerous institutional divisions in the sixteenth century. They will not be resolved by Thomas Odens The Rebirth of Orthodoxy , but his argument points toward what may, please God, be a resolution one day. It deserves a better response than the charge that it implicitly indicts the departures from historic Christianity that many people cherish.
Catholics, Protestants, and the Meanings of Freedom
There are many books on the history of anti-Catholicism in America, but the achievement of John T. McGreevy, a historian at Notre Dame, is in making a persuasive argument, supported by detailed and original research, that helps explain the underlying conflict of ideas, experiences, and sensibilities that has made America from the founding to the present day so hospitable and, at the same time, so hostile to Catholicism. I have discussed earlier (Something Like, Just Maybe, a Catholic Moment, Public Square, May 2001) McGreevys important article on twentieth-century anti-Catholicism in the American academy, published in the Journal of American History . Much more ambitious and comprehensive is his new book, Catholicism and American Freedom (Norton, 431 pages,, $26.95). One may not be persuaded on every point but, all in all, this is the most informative, analytically insightful, and even-handed account we have of the troubled relationship between Catholicism and the American experiment. It is also a pleasure to read.
In the beginning, from the Puritan commonwealth in Massachusetts to the founding of the Republic, Catholicism was viewed”not always for the same reasons”as alien and threatening. Almost everybody viewed Catholicism with suspicion, although not all saw it as an immediate danger. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, urged that New York give Catholics full voting rights in 1787, noting the little influence possessed by the Pope in Europe and arguing against the needless vigilance of those who would bring engines to extinguish fire which had many days subsided. The monolithic and authoritarian Church that his compatriots feared, he said, was a thing of the past. Many, one may note, make the same argument today, pointing to the liberalization of Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council. Then and now, many other Americans are not persuaded.
The nub of the dispute, McGreevy contends, is the tension, if not contradiction, between Catholic and American ideas of freedom. That tension was first voiced in the 1840s when European immigration made Catholicism the largest religious group in America and it moves from nineteenth-century debates over education, slavery, and nationalism to twentieth-and twenty-first century discussions of social welfare policy, democracy, birth control, abortion, and sexual abuse. The difference was and is between freedom as ordered liberty and freedom as the autonomous individuals right to choose. A nineteenth-century Catholic editor contrasted liberals and Catholics: They say that true liberty is a freedom from right as well as from wrong; we assert that it is a freedom only from wrong. Or, as the Catholic Lord Acton would have it, freedom is not the freedom to do what we want but to do as we ought. From the beginning, Catholic thinkers in both Rome and the U.S. made the argument that the American founding”with its emphasis on natural law, natural rights, and higher law”was perfectly consonant with the Catholic understanding of freedom. In his 1888 encyclical promoting Thomism, Leo XIII declared, The true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases [but] supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law. More than a hundred years later, Catholics still contend that that proposition is perfectly consonant with what Father John Courtney Murray, in his 1960 book of essays We Hold These Truths , called the American Proposition.
An Ignorant and Squalid People
An earlier Puritan and Calvinist tradition also stressed a higher law, the sovereignty of God, and communal fidelity to truth. As Michael Novak has conclusively demonstrated in his recent book, On Two Wings , such convictions were much stronger during the founding era than most accounts allow. But by the mid-nineteenth century, such convictions clashed with developments in liberal Protestant theology. In the North, influential figures such as William Ellery Channing, Horace Bushnell, George Cheever, and Theodore Parker unfurled the banners of an optimistic, this-worldly Christianity, and were most particularly hostile to any idea of authority, sin, or redemptive suffering. The way of the cross was to be replaced by the way of individual self-realization and social reform. From his socially eminent pulpit, Theodore Parker described the waves of Catholic immigration as composed of ignorant and squalid people, agape for miracles, ridden by their rulers and worse ridden by their priests, met to adore some relic of a saint.
Parker was not the exception but represented the liberal consensus when he declared in 1854: The Roman Catholic Church claims infallibility for itself, and denies spiritual freedom, liberty of mind or conscience, to its members. It is therefore the foe of all progress; it is deadly hostile to democracy. She is the natural ally of tyrants and the irreconcilable enemy of freedom. Individual Catholics in America, as elsewhere, are inconsistent, and favor the progress of mankind. Alas! Such are the exceptional; the Catholic Church has an iron logic, and consistently hates liberty in all its forms”free thought, free speech. So also in many quarters today, allowances are made for inconsistent Catholics, the rule being that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. They are tolerable despite their being Catholic. Indeed, in their defiance of or indifference to the Church, they are praiseworthy. But, in this view, the iron logic of Catholicism has not changed.
Catholicism and American Freedom , however, is not just about anti-Catholicism. It is not to be read as another telling of the story well told by Philip Jenkins in his recent The New Anti-Catholicism (which, as McGreevy would have it, is really very old). McGreevy wants to explain how Catholicism understood itself, and was understood, and how that, in turn, helps explain the religious, cultural, and political situation of Catholicism in America today. Anti-Catholicism explains part of it, but then one must explain anti-Catholicism. Of course, there were the centuries of anti-Catholic Protestant theological polemics”returned in good measure by anti-Protestant Catholic theological polemics”but in Americas public square the great issue was freedom. McGreevys title is no doubt to be taken as a play on Paul Blanshards explosive anti-Catholic best-seller of 1949, American Freedom and Catholic Power . The conflict was not between freedom and power, however. Those who viewed Catholicism as a threat had the power. The real conflict was between very different ideas of freedom.
Slavery and Freedom
The mid-nineteenth century witnessed a Catholic revival in Europe, with both ultramontane and liberal wings. Notable among the liberals were, in France, Charles Montalembert and Bishop Felix Dupanloup, along with Ignaz von Döllinger in Germany, and Lord Acton, Richard Simpson, and John Henry Newman in England. In this country, Orestes Brownson pressed the liberal direction, urging the Americanization of Catholicism, meaning mainly immigrant Irish Catholicism. McGreevy calls Brownson the most influential American Catholic intellectual of the nineteenth century. (See Peter Augustine Lawler, Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America, FT, December 2002.) Decisive for the future of Catholicism, however, was the issue of slavery. Alignments formed in the 1850s continue to influence the public position of Catholicism to the present day.
Catholics were ambivalent about slavery. But so, then, were most Americans. The abolitionist agitators in the North were a distinct minority and were viewed as dangerous radicals. This is easily forgotten today. Moreover, the abolitionists, drawn mainly from the brahmin class, were also the most stridently anti-Catholic, a factor that was not lost on Catholics. From saints in the Middle Ages through popes during the time of New World discoveries, the Catholic Church had condemned chattel slavery as intrinsically evil. Catholics, along with a majority of Americans in the North, including leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, thought slavery to be an evil, but they were not persuaded that abolition was the remedy. Nor did it seem to Catholics and many others that slavery was the greatest evil afflicting American society.
Catholic ambivalence about slavery is sometimes explained by the fear of Irish immigrants, who were at the bottom of the economic ladder, that freed slaves would be unwelcome competition in the labor market, and that was no doubt a factor. Today some explain the ambivalence by reference to racism. While that, too, was no doubt a factor, McGreevy writes, In fact, the Vaticans insistence on the validity of interracial marriage and its opposition to rigid segregation laws made Roman authorities relatively tolerant of racial mixing and opposed to biological notions of racial inferiority. When in 1861 a Louisiana bishop wrote a pastoral letter adopting the slaveholders view on race, he was sharply censured by Rome. The Roman congregation rejected the claim of a natural difference between the Negroes whom he calls children of Canaan, and the Whites who he says are the privileged ones of the great human family. African-American slaves, the Vatican insisted, are an integral part of the human family saved by Jesus Christ, not simply, as the bishop said, poor children.
Catholics would not have become Democrats prior to the Civil War if anti-Catholics had not rallied to the new Republican Party. By the mid-1850s, the Republicans had replaced the Whig Party and the explicitly anti-Catholic American Party as the chief rival to the Democrats. This ensured that a broad array of [Republican] politicians, ministers, and editors would begin complaining, in the words of the Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, about the alliance between an ancient and powerful Church and slave interests of America. Significant too was the fact that some southern writers, not necessarily enthusiastic about slavery, were sympathetic to a Catholic understanding of freedom that was not pitted against community and tradition. Influential Catholics joined southerners in scorning the radical individualism and laissez faire dog eat dog capitalism of the North.
Some Catholics did not see that much difference between slavery in the South and wage slavery in the North. Bishop John (Dagger John) Hughes of New York compared the master to the father, writing that the difference in the relations and obligations of those who own slaves, and those who are masters of hired servants, or the parents of children, is rather one of degree than of kind. Bostons diocesan paper editorialized, The principle of slavery is involved in apprenticeship, in imprisonment, in peonage, and in other forms of servitude. Moreover, in Rome the Republican cause seemed disturbingly similar to the French Revolution and the nationalist radicals led by Garibaldi who were besieging the papacy and seizing convents and monasteries. LOsservatore Romano depicted the Republicans in America as radicali who were inflamed by puritan and abolitionist fanaticism and motivated by a poisonous hatred. Pius IX had friendly contacts with Jefferson Davis, and when Davis was imprisoned after the war sent him a crown of thorns he had plaited with his own hands.
The Origins of Catholic Liberalism
It is among the many ironies of American history that what would later become the Catholic liberal alliance with the Democratic Party was forged in the conflict over slavery. It is not so much that Catholics were sympathetic to the South, and very few actually defended the institution of slavery, but they recognized their declared enemy in the Republican Party. For decades after the Civil War, Republicans pressed policies inimical to Catholics, including a national education policy that would have dismantled the huge parochial school system. Meanwhile, Leo XIIIs 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum roundly condemned both unbridled capitalism and socialism, proposing a distinctly communitarian or corporatist approach to social and economic relations. This approach was reiterated and strengthened in the 1931 encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno , and McGreevy does a masterful job of demonstrating how this doctrine contributed to the powerful alignment of Catholics, the Democratic Party, and organized labor. Catholic social doctrine was seen as an alternative to, and bulwark against, socialism. In the early twentieth century, some Catholics thought their distinctive doctrine warranted the formation of a Catholic Party, but by then too many had risen to positions of leadership in the Democratic Party to make that an attractive option.
There were multiple tensions in the Catholic-Democrat alliance. Al Smiths presidential candidacy in 1928 was supported by most liberal intellectuals, who also opposed the anti-Catholicism of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and FDRs early policies as President were welcomed by Catholics as consonant with the directions of Catholic social doctrine. Also in the 1930s, however, Catholic sympathy for the corporatist regimes of Italy, Spain, and Portugal placed severe strains on the Catholic-liberal partnership. Catholic support for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, most particularly, was fatal to many cooperative relationships. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, liberal Jewish leaders made their own bid for acceptance by joining the American elite in letting Catholics know that they were on probation. The Catholic vote, especially in the urban north, was essential to Democrats, as were Catholic labor leaders in opposing socialism, but Catholics were still suspected of divided loyalty between Church and country, and of subscribing to a view of society inimical to American democracy.
The early 1930s, McGreevy writes, was a high point of the Catholic-liberal alliance. Then FDR turned from economic planning and distributive justice, the directions favored by Catholic leaders, to economic growth. Then came the Spanish Civil War. Then came the radio priest Fr. Charles Coughlin, an early enthusiast for FDR who later turned against him and toward the advocacy of strange doctrines, including anti-Semitism. The Spanish war passed, Fr. Coughlin was silenced by church authorities, and Catholic adherence to the Democrats held firm, but things would never be the same. Liberalism”or progressivism, as it was then called”had many parts. As long as American reformers focused on economic reforms, Catholics proved loyal allies, McGreevy writes. But important components of progressive activism lay in the cultural sphere, as suggested by liberal campaigns for more explicit sex education in the schools, less rigorous censorship of books and films, and greater access to birth control. On contraception and censorship, Catholics, interestingly enough, were fighting to uphold policies earlier put in place by Protestants. Many Protestants were happy enough that Catholic-led efforts such as the Legion of Decency were bearing the odium for the censorship that, in fact, most Protestants favored.
An Alliance Shattered
The definitive change came with abortion. Against the advocacy for liberalized abortion law in the 1960s, Catholics stood alone. Evangelical Protestants, today so prominent in the pro-life movement, were then on the other side. When the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision came down from the Supreme Court, the Southern Baptist Convention hailed it as a victory for religious freedom against Catholic efforts to impose their doctrine on others. But the Catholic-Democratic alliance, along with much else, was shaken to the foundations. In 1960 the election of John F. Kennedy was supposed to have signaled the end of politically potent anti-Catholicism, even if his triumph was purchased by the promise that he would not let his Catholicism influence his politics. The bishops, touchingly eager for Catholic acceptance, did not publicly challenge that fatal pact. The carefully orchestrated campaign by Catholic theologians against Humanae Vitae , Paul VIs 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, including contraception, further and massively weakened adherence to Catholic distinctiveness in the public square. But the breaking point was abortion.
It may be hard to remember now, but McGreevy is surely right in saying that well into the 1960s the Democratic Party arguably stood to the right of the Republicans on issues of sexual morality. The party of big business, what came to be called country club Republicanism, stood sniffingly aloof from moral and social questions. But in 1972, the Democrat George McGovern could choose the staunchly pro-life Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, and when Eagleton was forced to drop out, he replaced him with Sargent Shriver, also pro-life. In the early 1970s, the number of prominent anti-abortion Democrats was striking. For example, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, Speaker of the House Tip ONeill, and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who wrote of his personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Kennedy hoped his generation would be remembered as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the moment of conception.
All that would soon change, and nobody played a larger part in the change than Jesuit law professor and, later, Massachusetts Congressman Robert Drinan. In the 1960s, Drinan proposed that Catholics simply abstain from the abortion debate, since to condone any abortion, even for the health of the mother, meant Catholics would be guilty of regulating, and implicitly approving, an abhorrent practice. It was a disingenuous proposal, and Drinan would later become a reliable supporter of the abortion license, supplying Catholic politicians with a moral cover for their switch to a pro-choice stance.
In the early 1980s Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York, was probably the most popular Democratic politician in the country, and, with the aid of Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, he offered an apparently sophisticated argument for the personally opposed, but . . . position of Catholic politicians. He even harked back to the 1850s when Catholics were despised by much of the population and the bishops declined to issue an outright condemnation of slavery. The bishops were not hypocrites, Cuomo observed; they were realists. And so now, although Catholics encounter far less hostility, they still need to weigh Catholic moral teaching against the fact of a pluralistic country where our view is in the minority. That logic, critics observed, did not prevent Cuomo from pressing hard for the abolition of capital punishment, a position decidedly more in the minority. By the late 1980s the pro-abortion litmus test was securely in place and no Democrat with national ambitions could afford to dissent. With very few exceptions, Catholic politicians in the party had taken JFKs 1960 pledge to the Baptist ministers of Houston not to let their religion influence their political decisions.
You Catholics . . .
In 1984, I hosted a dinner for some twenty-five media leaders to meet the newly arrived John OConnor as Archbishop of New York. There had been a media ruckus a few weeks earlier when OConnor challenged Geraldine Ferraro, then the pro-choice Democratic vice presidential candidate, on her claim that there was more than one Catholic position on abortion. OConnor thought that, as Archbishop, he had a responsibility to clarify the Catholic position. In the course of the dinner, Max Frankel, then executive editor of the New York Times , raised the issue and said, When John F. Kennedy was elected, some of us thought that the question of whether you Catholics belonged here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled once and for all. But I have to tell you frankly, Archbishop, that in the few weeks youve been here some of us are asking those questions again. Whether Catholics belong here. Whether they understand how we do things here. Suddenly it seemed like a hundred years ago.
Reflecting on the different Catholic understanding of freedom, McGreevy writes: This intensely social tradition struggled to absorb insights from its liberal counterpart. But just as the work of John Courtney Murray, Jacques Maritain, and others on democracy and religious liberty reached fruition at the Second Vatican Council, the abortion debate shattered this Catholic-liberal rapprochement. McGreevy takes passing notice of another rapprochement, that between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, notably on cultural and moral questions. With the Reagan presidency, Republicans skillfully nurtured this realignment. More than McGreevy allows, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus signaled a new appreciation of market economics in Catholic social doctrine, a development also favorable to Republicans. He observes, President George W. Bush and his advisers routinely invoke Catholic ideals. Practicing Catholics are increasingly likely to vote for Republicans in presidential elections. He then adds, But Republican leaders remain indifferent to income inequality in the United States and to the immorality of tax cuts disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest Americans. One might point out that an equal rate of tax decrease or increase will always affect most those who pay the most taxes. But I digress.
I expect that McGreevys final chapter, on the sex abuse scandals that broke out in 2002, was added at the insistence of the publisher. It is disappointingly thin and one hopes it will be omitted or entirely rewritten for future editions. While McGreevy does acknowledge the large part played by doctrinal dissent and clerical homosexuality in the scandals, he allowed the furor of the moment in which he was writing to obscure his historical perspective. On page 289, referring to the scandals, McGreevy dismisses the previous 288 pages of history with an abrupt, And then none of this mattered. He surely knows that is not the case. For better or worse, the firestorm over the scandals has subsided and is not likely to be reignited. The ongoing tensions and conflicts inherent in two very different ideas of freedom, however, will continue to matter, and to matter greatly, in the unfolding story of Catholicism and the American experiment.
The Supreme Courts Everson decision of 1947, which established the wall of separation in the service of the naked public square, put the matter bluntly. There Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote that the assumption behind the public school system is that after the individual has been instructed in worldly wisdom he will be better suited to choose his religion . . . . Our public school, if not a product of Protestantism, at least is more consistent with it than with the Catholic culture and scheme of values. Religion is a private choice made by the autonomous individual. Against this is a culture and scheme of values in which one is born and sacramentally reborn into a community of authoritatively defined tradition. On the one side: individuality, autonomy, choice; on the other: community, tradition, authority. The first triad is said to represent American freedom, and by it national unity is constituted. Commitment to autonomy, oddly enough, is supposed to establish national unity. It is a jealous unity that will abide no compromise with the competing triad of community, tradition, authority. This idea of freedom serves, in the language of H. Richard Niebuhr, the Christ of culture. Of American culture; and of American Protestant culture to the degree that it is necessary to ward off the threatening alternative of Catholic culture.
The conflict over abortion brought things to a head also by revealing the divided soul of American liberalism. The liberalism of, for instance, Martin Luther King and the early civil rights movement was embracing, reaching out to include the previously excluded within the community for which we accept common responsibility. Modern liberalism took a decisive turn with the movement for liberalized abortion law in the 1960s. American liberalism had always been schizophrenic, divided between individual self-expression and communal solidarity. By planting the liberal flag on the pro-choice side of the abortion conflict, its individualistic propensities gained ascendancy, even to the point of driving a lethal wedge between mother and child, the most fundamental of communal bonds. Autonomy is a jealous god.
Such are among the many reflections provoked by Catholicism and American Freedom . One is struck by how few Catholic intellectuals of stature have addressed the conflict between the two ideas of freedom. Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, of course, but the overwhelming majority of the Catholic intellectual establishment since Vatican II has been preoccupied with intra-Catholic disputes related to a one-sided accommodation of Catholicism to the idea of freedom as autonomy. The spirit of Emersonian gnosticism described in Harold Blooms The American Religion has made deep inroads also among Catholics in America. One is almost inclined to think that Leo XIIIs 1899 condemnation of Americanism in Testem Benevolentiae was issued about sixty-five years too early, but then one has to wonder what would be the Americanization of Catholicism had it not been issued when it was.
Never was it, and never could it be, a stark choice between one idea of freedom or another. Maritain and Murray were among the few who understood the need for mutual influence, for a constant probing of possibilities that would preserve and enhance the truth in each idea. Today there are many intellectuals”one thinks, for instance, of Michael Sandel, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Mary Ann Glendon, and Charles Taylor”writing about the limits of liberalism, or at least of the liberalisms that have defined American freedom. A communitarian movement has had a not insignificant influence in the last two decades, and hyper-liberals of a postmodernist bent accent the social construction of reality. Out of these sometimes confused and contradictory intellectual churnings, one may be allowed to think, could come a culturally potent understanding of self and community that will modify the stark antinomy between freedom as the freedom to do what one ought and freedom as the freedom to do what one wants.
At the same time I was thinking about McGreevys book, I was reading Paul Elies engaging new work, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pages,, $27). The book is a critical appreciation that tells the stories of four Catholic thinkers and writers: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery OConnor. The first three were converts, and the last a Catholic in a South practically without Catholics. European Catholicism, Elie notes, was accustomed to being the majority religion and way of life, indeed to constitute a Catholic culture. It could not have been more different in America. Elie does not put it quite this way, but in America, and for his four subjects, Catholicism was what today is fashionably called the Other. In the American context, there was something even exotic about the idea of community, tradition, and authority. For the three converts, becoming Catholic was quite self-consciously the way to becoming individuals, particular persons, situated selves. As for OConnor, she knew that intuitively, and became ever more what she always was.
The juxtaposition of the McGreevy and Elie books is powerfully suggestive. Perhaps, one may be permitted to speculate, there is underway, or at least a hint of a groping toward, something like a cultural transformation in what is meant by American freedom. Perhaps, just perhaps, it poses the prospect of individuality realized by an act of decision in obedience to a communal gift of grace. It may be that the tradition”and it is a tradition”of anti-traditionalism has exhausted itself. The authority of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Robert H. Jackson in their hatred of authority no longer appeals. A new generation may weary of running with what Harold Rosenberg memorably called a herd of independent minds.
These are but possibilities, but they are possibilities enhanced by many developments, not least being an evangelical Protestantism that is, more and more, the only Protestantism of public influence, and that is increasingly less dependent upon anti-Catholicism as a necessary component of its self-understanding. The elite liberal class, those who control what are called the commanding heights of culture, will continue to view both Catholicism and evangelicalism as the Other. The first is seen as exotic and seductive, but finally oppressive and deserving of hatred; the second is viewed as ignorant, stifling, and deserving of fear and loathing. But all that could change over time. It depends in very large part upon thinkers, writers, and public exemplars who persuasively propose a more compelling idea of freedom. Such, at least, are some of the thoughts provoked by the gift that is John T. McGreevys Catholicism and American Freedom .
While Were At It
Judeo-Christian. The American Muslim Council and some others really dont like the term. Thats understandable. In speaking of our culture, they say we should say Judeo-Christian-Islamic or Abrahamic. The National Council of Churches has joined the movement to abandon Judeo-Christian. Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals has a different view. A lot of the ideas that underpin civil liberties come from Judeo-Christian theology. What the Islamic community needs to make are positive contributions to culture and society so we can include them. That puts it a bit bluntly, but he is, I think, on the right side of the argument. People who live in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, can tell you that many Muslims have made many contributions to our society. But there are only about two million Muslims in the country and, with few exceptions, they are newcomers to the American experiment. We must wish them well. We should not, in order to make people feel good, rewrite American history, however. The founders of the experiment thought this was, quite simply and obviously, a Christian society. Judeo-Christian gained currency in the last century for good reasons. One reason was undoubtedly to make the two percent of the society that is Jewish feel more secure, and their sense of insecurity was not without grounds. At a deeper and theological level, Christians have come to appreciate more fully their dependence on Judaism. Christianity is inexplicable apart from Judaism. That is in no way the case with respect to Islam, which claims to be the true revelation superseding both Judaism and Christianity. We must hope that, over time, Muslims will find in Islam the resources for affirming the constituting truths of this Judeo-Christian society and culture. Whether they do or not, they can be welcomed as full citizens along with many others from outside the Judeo-Christian orbit who do not demand that we revise our national identity by speaking of a Judeo-Christian-Buddhist-Hindu-Islamic-Agnostic-Atheist society. Judeo-Christian morality undergirds Americas welcome to people who are not Jews or Christians in a way that Islamic morality, for instance, does not support the welcoming of outsiders to countries that are dominantly Muslim. However well intended, it is no service to Muslims to encourage them to challenge the moral and cultural identity that is the basis of their welcome and security in Judeo-Christian America.
Elaine Pagels of Princeton has another book out celebrating early Christian gnosticism. Beyond Belief is about the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, written in the second century and much amended later, which Pagels prefers to the canonical Gospels, and especially to the Gospel of John. One of its central messages, Pagels says in an interview with Publishers Weekly , is that there is divine light within each person. Reacting to Thomas teaching, the author of the Gospel of John has Jesus always declaring that Jesus is the only light of the world . . . . Thomas is not a specifically Christian book, if by Christianity one means believing that Jesus is the only Son of God. Thomas is not about Jesus, but about the recognition of the light within us all. In this way, Thomas has a close affinity with Jewish mysticism. Well, at least a close affinity with about 80 percent of everything in the Spirituality section of Borders or Barnes & Noble. The Gospel of Thomas as celebrated by Pagels is marvelously attuned to what Harold Bloom calls in a book by that title, The American Religion , namely, gnosticism pitched to a popular and apparently inexhaustible appetite for self-flattery.
Historian James Hitchcock of St. Louis University has some fun with the special issue of the National Catholic Reporter marking the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade . The pro-life movement, say the writers of NCR , has failed. It has failed in persuading Americans; it has failed in maintaining a civil discussion of a polarizing issue; and, above all, it has failed to follow the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardins seamless garment of life proposal which, according to NCR , means that abortion is one issue among many and, since it is outnumbered by other issues backed by pro-choice Democrats, support for pro-life Republicans is morally precluded. In fact, Bernardin intended no such relativizing of the priority of abortion. In his aforementioned book Catholicism and American Freedom , John McGreevy notes that Bernardins last public statement, issued four days before his death in 1996, urged the Supreme Court to recognize that there can be no moral and legal order which tolerates the killing of innocent human life. If Americans continue to legitimate the taking of life as policy, one has a right to ask what lies ahead for our life together as a society. From his deathbed, the Cardinal made clear that”however others may abuse his language about a seamless garment and a consistent ethic of life”abortion is not just one issue among others. But now back to Professor Hitchcocks little exercise: If the NCR were consistent it would, for example, caution the opponents of capital punishment not to be shrill, warn them that often they seem insensitive to the suffering of the families of murder victims, recall that through most of its history the Church has supported capital punishment, and discuss the complex issues of deterrence, punishment, and restitution. The editors would deride liberals for supporting De