Stem Cells Sell
In “Stem Cells: A Political History” (November 2008), Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson make a plausible sounding case that the errors manifest in politicizing the science of embryonic stem-cell research will cause people to be more prudent in the future about mixing science with politics in general. They indicate that, with the discovery of pluripotent stem cells derived from skin cells, the debate about embryonic cells has been won by the pro-life side. While I wish it were so, I believe they overlook several key aspects of the situation, leading to an overly optimistic conclusion. I identify at least five problems with that conclusion.
First problem: Who knows? The authors assume everyone is aware that the stem-cell battle has been settled and everyone is capable of extrapolating that lesson to other instances of politicized science. Though an attentive observer of the life issues on many fronts, including the debate about stem cells, I was not aware that the debate was over until I read the article. I heard about the pluripotent cells from skin tissue when the discovery was announced but was not aware that the debate had gone away. No one announced or acknowledged publicly that it had. Now at least all the readers of First Things know. But beyond this elite fraction-of-a-percent coterie, who knows?
Second problem: One group that does not know the debate is over is the group of pro“embryonic stem-cell research advocates, whose name is Legion. Their issue goes beyond stem cells to the overall belief that scientific research should never be limited by moral concerns. They may be silent now, but their basic assumption has not been refuted, and they will be back.
Third problem: The pro-life side has won no point in the debate. A temporary victory has been declared in a part of the debate conducted on the terms of the other side”the question of utility. No progress was made in taking the debate out of the realm of moral relativism into the realm where the real debate lies”principled moral discernment. No moral principle has been established. The question of the dignity of human life has not been advanced at all by this temporary truce, which is based only on the fortuitous circumstance of an alternative discovery (stem cells from skin). The basic life issues remain as unsettled as before.
Fourth problem: The authors’ thesis fails the test of life issues. Related to the third problem, above, there is no change in the public debates over cloning, abortion, euthanasia, and so on. If the pro-life side truly wins a basic point, for example, by persuading people of the dignity of every human person”then that principle will begin to inform other life issues. It has not.
Fifth problem: Their thesis about the lesson learned about politicizing science fails the test of application to the next obvious case: Global-warming hysteria continues apace. Among other indications, both presidential candidates favored some kind of cap-and-trade, carbon dioxide“limitation policy, which is bound to be economically harmful and disproportionately hard on the poor. The new president doesn’t care if such policy forecloses use of the most plentiful native energy source in the United States”coal. If ever there was an instance of politics co-opting and corrupting science, and vice versa, it is the global-warming issue. Had the stated lesson truly been learned from the stem-cell debate, there would be audible voices of prudence cautioning all not to be too hasty about impoverishing ourselves for the sake of an unproved (and probably false) theory of man-made global warming. The voices are there, Fr. Neuhaus having been among them, but they are still just as unheeded in the public square as before.
Let us by all means defeat bad ideas as we can, including on the opposition’s terms when necessary. Let us be thankful that a tool for discrediting the pro-life movement (shaming us for opposing magical cures promised by embryonic stem-cell research) has itself been taken out of their hands. Defeating the proponents of embryonic research on their own utilitarian terms was worth doing, even if it is only a partial and temporary victory.
But let us not congratulate ourselves too soon, forgetting the larger duty of taking the debate to more fundamental grounds. The necessary debate must be engaged on moral principles, in a way that confronts the “dictatorship of relativism.” This is no small task, but it is a necessary one. As to the problems with politicizing science, which are real, a lot more must happen before the public and its opinion leaders will be convinced.
While the historical perspective on the stem-cell debate provided by Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson was informative and well done, their conclusion that the stem-cell wars came to a “sharp and sudden end” last year is a bit premature. Suggesting that the November 2007 paper describing the induction of pluripotency in adult cells represents an endpoint in the stem-cell debate demonstrates a misreading of both the fundamental issue in the debate as well as where stem-cell research, at least in this country, is heading.
For most in the scientific community, the debate was never truly about whether adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells would be the most useful therapeutically or whether we could obtain embryonic-like stem cells without destroying embryos. Rather, the stem-cell debate was an ongoing battle in a yet unresolved war, a war being waged by the scientific community and its allies to keep the ethical and moral concerns of “religious fanatics” from impinging on scientific research. This was and is the fundamental issue.
In fact, when the 2007 paper came out, the commentaries in most scientific publications were quick to point out that, despite the success with adult cells, there was still a need to continue embryo-destructive research and that it would be critical to the advancement of science that research on embryonic stem cells continue. The scientific community was not about to give an inch to those who defended the rights of the embryo, even if embryo-destructive research became unnecessary. To do so could give the impression that the juggernaut of modern science had yielded to religious zealots and their petty ethical concerns.
This past election should make it clear to everyone that the scientific community and their allies are far from yielding on this issue. The recently approved ballot measure in Michigan that approved the use of government funds for embryo-destructive research is a case in point. In addition, scientific journals continue to push the issue of embryonic stem-cell research in their editorial and commentary sections, using it as a prime criterion to grade political candidates. Even the British journal Nature got into the act, grading our presidential candidates on the scientific issues. Not surprisingly, President Obama received high marks from the journal, largely because his response to the question of whether he would lift Bush’s ban on the federal funding of new embryonic stem-cell lines is in line with the view of most in the scientific community. He stated, “Recent discoveries indicate that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave like stem cells; these are exciting findings that might in the future lead to an alternative source of highly versatile stem cells. However, embryonic stem cells remain the ‘gold standard,’ and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.”
The issue is not going away, nor has the war been won. In fact, with Obama’s election, a crucial battle appears to be lost. In all likelihood, soon after he is sworn in, federal dollars will start flowing toward research on new embryonic stem-cell lines, bringing with it new battles to fight.
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Thanks to Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson for laying out, brick by brick, the disingenuousness of the Democratic party, the media, left-wing Hollywood, and yes, unfortunately, the scientific community regarding the politics and truth of the stem-cell debate. Although the article was intended to highlight the political history of the debate, it is unfortunate that it did not address the many successes of adult stem-cell research and treatments. The less scientifically informed reader might be surprised to find that, despite the utter failure of embryonic stem-cell research, there have been nearly a hundred diseases and disorders that have been successfully treated with adult stem-cell therapy. Indeed, its future in medicine is bright for all of us.
On an unrelated scientific topic (although involving a politically similar modus operandi): I suspect that at some time in the future the same political history will be written on embryonic stem-cell research’s first cousin, global warming, which has been used as a political wedge by the Democratic party, the Hollywood left, the mainstream media, and yes, unfortunately, the once again complicit scientific community.
Richard J. Duffey, M.D.
The article by Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson is an instructive analysis of the dangers of mixing politics and science. I advise my scientific colleagues and students to become more political rather than less so, because it is impossible to separate science from politics when government funding is a primary factor for promotion and tenure in academia. Given this constraint, it is necessary to make politics more scientific by having more scientists involved in the political process”that is, our profession should be more involved in what dominates its funding.
One clear positive element in the stem-cell debate for me was hearing the top researchers in biomedical science reinforce The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 343: “Man is the summit of the Creator’s work, as the inspired account expresses by clearly distinguishing the creation of man from that of other creatures”). At meetings, I often suggested that proposed embryonic stem-cell research should be done in animal models first, and I was told by stem-cell experts that there is no animal equivalent to the human embryo.
John C. Criscione, M.D.
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson reply:
Our thanks to all who wrote in response to our political history of stem cells. The key word there is history , not theory or strategy for going forward . It was a history precisely because we feared that people weren’t paying enough attention to the timeline, step by step and distortion by distortion, of stem cells in the public square. Not only did we think scientists need to see what happens when they allow themselves”and promote themselves”to be manipulated for partisan political purposes, but we also thought pro-lifers needed to see the contours of this most recent scientific-political collusion so as to be better prepared for the next one. Neither of us is naive enough to think the pro-life movement won. The end of the stem-cell wars came not because of moral conversion and agreement but because of a technological breakthrough.
As we read this history, the furor over stem cells was fueled by numerous factors: the near-universal human desire for magic; patients’ desperation in the face of illness and their hope for cures; the belief that biology can now do anything; the reluctance of scientists to accept any limits (particularly moral limits) on their research; the impact of big money from biotech stocks, patents, and federal funding; the willingness of America’s elite class to use every means possible to discredit religion in general; and the need to protect the unlimited abortion license by accepting no protections of unborn human life. The most recent technological breakthrough changes none of these facts. What it did, however, was allow many of these facts to be admitted”and both Shinya Yamanaka and James Thomson, after their breakthroughs, expressed moral doubts about stem cells derived from embryos.
We thank Dr. Criscione for his witty reminder that even scientists can’t avoid the truth of human exceptionalism, but, while he’d like to see more scientists involved in politics, we’d like to see the technocratization of the public sphere reduced in all spheres. Rule of experts is never an ideal for a deliberative democracy. Scientifically informed debate is certainly to be desired, but for scientists to claim the mantle and authority of science to buttress and disguise their political agendas helps no one.
Dr. Duffey is entirely correct to point out the many uses of adult stem cells. Nonetheless, the advancement of induced pluripotent stem cells marks a significant achievement. Therapies are still quite a ways away, but the techniques to produce and manipulate these cells are improving daily.
Professor Kuebler’s cautions are good, but we made the same points. The underlying causes have not changed. It is remarkable how in 2004 and 2006 stem cells were common in stump speeches and political ads, but in 2008 they were ignored. Over the last six years the New York Times regularly ran front-page stories on the latest stem-cell news, largely to embarrass the Bush administration, and now we rarely see stem-cell stories on any page.
It is in this sense”and only this sense”that the stem-cell wars are over: The central cause of battle, the destruction of human embryos, is no longer necessary or even most useful. The sudden fading of stem cells from the center of our public discourse allowed the underlying causes we highlighted in our article to become central in focus. The debates were never about stem cells; they were about the money of big-business biotech, the bashing of religion to protect abortion, and the autonomy of scientists to do whatever they want.
Finally, Mr. DeVet thinks our article had too optimistic a conclusion, arguing that stem cells “will cause people to be more prudent in the future about mixing science with politics in general.” Of course, we didn’t come to this conclusion. We largely agree with the points he raises, but then again, we made many of those points in our article. DeVet seems to have assumed that we were arguing that the pro-life side won because it was pro-life and that this victory marked the end of the culture wars and the ethical issues of biotech. Our thesis was instead about the corruption that happens when science presents itself in the political realm. The stem-cell breakthroughs haven’t changed any of this”they illustrate it. Which was, of course, the point of the article.
As a homeschooling mother of four, I was interested to read Joseph Bottum’s review of children’s literature. I admire Mr. Bottum for tackling the subject and giving specifics. I’ll start with agreement: I like his willingness to reexamine some of the books that are considered “classics” but that may not be worthy of their reputation. I particularly agree that Little Women is not worth the time it takes to read. It is really nothing better than a soap opera, and I do not plan on exposing my four girls to such garbagey emotionalism. On the other hand, I was surprised at his seeming criticism of the Babar stories, whose merit he saw as lying chiefly in the illustrations. The fact is, three- and four year olds will ask for Babar over and over again, as they will ask for Beatrix Potter stories. I think this is because de Brunhoff, like Potter, knows how to create a world that you can really feel yourself a part of, and get lost in, for a little while.
C.S. Lewis admired George MacDonald tremendously, not because he was such a great “writer””his prose, in fact, was often cumbersome”but because he could create worlds and myth. It’s the elephant world, and the stuff that goes on in that world, that makes Barbar so great; that the language is so simple and the books so engaging attests to that greatness.
Beatrix Potter adds to her genius of story a genius of expression that is wonderful, and it is appalling to see the modern versions tamper with her beautiful prose, but I do not think we need to demand that kind of lingual elegance of every great author.
I must admit I was very shocked to see the facile dismissal of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, and I truly cannot imagine how anyone could read the books and not be completely charmed by them. There was a reason that Baum tried to end the series several times, but the children would not let him, insisting, through thousands of fan letters, on another Oz book. In our family, three generations can sit back on the couch belly laughing together while grandpa reads aloud The Patchwork Girl of Oz . Again, Baum has the genius of creating a world you can be happy to be lost in, and, moreover, I find his language to be extremely engaging. In that respect, I would place him above Lewis. I hope that Bottum dismissed Baum because he had only seen the movie and assumed the books to be equally vapid. The fact is, the books are an entirely different thing, and I recommend that every family acquire the hardbound set with the wonderful original illustrations.
I will not chastise Bottum for omitting all of my favorites, because he did not set out to write a complete list. That being said, I think any good children’s library must contain some of the works of Howard Pyle, a truly great writer and artist whose versions of Robin Hood and King Arthur are superiorly crafted and can be enjoyed by all ages.
I will not close, however, without taking issue with Bottum’s placement of the Harry Potter series among the great or even good literature for children. I know I’m beating a dead horse, but my opinion is that Harry Potter is an action film. You want to know what happens next, so you can hardly put it down, but you wouldn’t read it again once you know what happens. That aside, the series is morally questionable on so many levels that it isn’t worth the thrill. The author is a morally confused modern. She said in public that Dumbledore is a homosexual and that this fact should be obvious to any reader. Whether or not it is obvious, it should be enough to give us pause about whether we really want such a person speaking to our children through the very powerful medium of fiction. If I don’t want my girls imbibing the unhealthy, misguided emotionalism in Little Women , I don’t want them imbibing the revenge, elitism, moral relativism, mockery of impurity, and reliance on Self for Salvation of Harry Potter. I don’t like much “moralizing” in my fairy tales; I just like a good story. But it is a fact that every story will have moral underpinnings either to the good or to the bad, and those underpinnings will reflect the thought of the author. This should be a serious consideration in making up our lists of good and great books.
My experience is limited only to my five children, my two sisters, and my children’s friends. Nevertheless, it seems evident that both gender and personality differences come into play when reviewing children’s books”in ways that Bottum seems to acknowledge only when discussing Little Women . He and I would tend to disagree about recent children’s literature. I didn’t enjoy the edgy, the “disturbing,” or the “happily vulgar” as a child, and I don’t enjoy seeing my children read them today.
Among the books he fails to mention, Lloyd Alexander’s five imaginative books about Prydain are those whose omission most surprised me, since these books fit into the realm of fantasy, which he discussed extensively. Perhaps I ought to be more surprised at his omission of historical fiction, including that of Madeleine Polland, written from a deeply Christian perspective; she wrote such works as Beorn the Proud , now available in reprint, and my personal favorite, The Queen’s Blessing , set in the time of Saint Margaret of Scotland. He also fails to mention Robert Lawson’s amusing tales of American history, including I Discovered Columbus and Mr. Revere and I . The ancestors of the insipid American Girl books (available in reprint), the excellent Little Maid books of Alice Turner Curtis, failed to attract his notice. And of course, with their lovely illustrations, the works of Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire merit reading either as picture books or as biographies.
The D’Aulaire books are also representative of another genre almost unmentioned by Mr. Bottum, that of the mythic, fairy, or folk tale. The brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Geraldine McCaughrean deserve at least a momentary nod, which is all he can spare Hans Christian Andersen. In poetry, doesn’t Edward Lear even deserve a mention? Or T.S. Eliot’s delightful cats?
There are also nonfiction authors who write exclusively for children”Jean Fritz and Gail Gibbons spring to mind in history and science, respectively. Actually, nonfiction works for children are the untold story of the past two decades. There are more good new books”attractive, in my experience, particularly to boys”than anyone can take the time to record.
In the realm of the picture book, surely Mr. Bottum would have wished to mention a few special books during the Christmas season”I am thinking of the works of Tomie dePaola, particularly Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi and The Lady of Guadalupe . Also The Weight of a Mass by Josephine Nobisso.
Everyone has personal favorites, and I would like to close with a few of the books I have enjoyed with my children: Noel Streatfield’s books about families with dancing children, including Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes ; Cotton in My Sack and Indian Captive , books of historical fiction by Lois Lenski; the hilarious picture book Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman; the gentle moral tale of Rose, “who didn’t work any harder than she had to”; Seven Loaves of Bread, by Ferida Wolf; and the accurate depictions of family life in both Joanna Harrison’s When Mom Turned into a Monster and Jean van Leeuwen’s delightful Oliver and Amanda Pig stories.
Karin Venable Morin
The Twain Shall Meet
In “Reconciling East and West” (December 2008) Richard John Neuhaus rightfully laments the remaining division”so close and yet so far away”that separates Christians East and West.
Not long after converting to Catholicism in 1969, I began to realize that something was liturgically amiss. There were disturbing shades of what I thought I had just left behind in Protestantism. Like innumerable older Catholics, I found elements of the Mass of Paul VI not only smacking of Lutheranism but simply banal in comparison to the mysterious beauty of the Tridentine rite. Even when said in the vernacular (“Oh,” grieved my old Catholic neighbor, “if only the ‘liturgical experts’ had merely forced us to switch to the English translation on the right-sided pages of our paperback Roman missals”), the Tridentine Mass, despite its shortcomings (even Archbishop Lefebvre admitted that it needed fine-tuning), conveyed the numinosity”an absolutely vital concept for those who turn to the Orient for their worship”that I was only able to find twenty frustrating years later in St. John Chrysostom’s and St. Basil’s Divine Liturgies. One ex-Catholic Orthodox priest had dryly observed that the Orthodox Church was the church you thought you were joining when you joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Perhaps we shall have to await a third Vatican council wherein still yet another liturgical document will fully address the liturgical wisdom and beauty of Rome’s ancient Eastern brothers in the faith. Sadly, until that happens, I fear there will be no “rush to embrace” from large blocks of Orthodox Christians.
Richard John Neuhaus’ wonderful reflections on unity in “Reconciling East and West” were both informative and positive. The real challenge would appear to be not so much mending the split hairs of rubric and theological issues but giving the people in the pews the opportunity to be a witness to both traditions. Utilizing a sports metaphor, I would call them “intrasquad” scrimmages. To be able to attend and be welcome at Masses and receive Holy Communion would be a first step. Without the buy-in from laypeople, both Catholic and Orthodox, there will never be true unity; and that will be the true measuring rubric for all Church leaders.
John M. Devlin Jr.
Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania
There is much that is problematic in Richard John Neuhaus’ article. As one of those Catholics who clings to the quaint and antiquated notion that Holy Mother Church is exactly who she claimed to be, that is, the true Church, I do not believe that her mission is compromised by those who refuse to join her.
While we Catholics can and do lament the separation of those in the East from communion with the Roman pontiff, we should not pretend that there is a moral equivalency with regard to this separation.
Furthermore, it is astounding that an article on this topic can ignore the multitude of Eastern Christians who have already reconciled with the Holy See. These courageous souls have seen fit to overcome both the “exaggerated claims of medieval popes” and the Catholic Church’s “insufficient respect and even hostility to the Eastern churches.” Perhaps they believed that full and perfect communion with the vicar of Christ overrode notions of national pride. Instead of being an ossified bastion of legalism and hierarchy, these Eastern Christians practiced unity. Neuhaus should have held them up to us as a model of healing the schism.
Richard John Neuhaus’ pursuit of Christian unity seems to me to falter on two points. He says about “the various Protestant denominations and ecclesial communities” that “their churches are viewed as human constructs of voluntary association.” If he had said that many Protestants view their churches as human constructs, or even that many Protestants have never given a moment’s thought to whether their churches are “human constructs,” I would not object.
But I believe Neuhaus paints too broad a stroke when he does not qualify his statement at all. Many of us do not see our congregations as convenience-store franchises placed where mere human circumstances dictate. We do seek and believe in (for example) the leading of the Holy Spirit in such matters, and that “unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127).
Secondly, and more importantly, he does not clearly explain what he means by Christian unity. He calls it “full communion,” but he does not explain what that means.
He does quote, evidently with approval, Avery Cardinal Dulles’ explanation: “Full communion, as I understand it, will require the acceptance by both Catholics and Orthodox of all the dogmas that are held by the other community to be matters of faith.” Presumably, then, Protestants would need to accept all the Roman Catholic dogmas to ever achieve that full communion.
The crucial question is whether such a high hurdle for unity is God-ordained or a “human construct.” I am having a hard time picturing Jesus saying, “Take and eat, but only if you all agree on all the dogmas you hold to be matters of faith.”
Richard John Neuhaus is to be commended for his good article. He brings out so many important points that I hesitate to offer criticism, but I believe I must. There are several assertions that are ambiguous from the viewpoint of Catholic ecclesiology. Neuhaus writes that “Rome is irrevocably committed to ecclesial unity.” Here it would be far more accurate to say that the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to Christian unity, not ecclesial unity. Vatican II speaks of Christian unity, not ecclesial unity, as the goal of ecumenism, and for good reason. If ecclesial unity were something yet to be achieved, how can we profess belief in “the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church,” which”as a society in the present world”“subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” ( Lumen Gentium , 8)? In his 1968 Credo of the People of God , Paul VI states: “We believe that the Church founded by Jesus Christ and for which he prayed is indefectibly one in faith, worship and the bond of hierarchical communion.” If ecclesial unity were not yet a possession of the Catholic Church, how can she be “indefectibly one”?
There are other ambiguities in the article. Neuhaus states that “the Catholic Church frankly admits she cannot be fully what she claims to be apart from other Christians and, most particularly, apart from the Orthodox.” Such a statement is certainly in need of clarification because it could suggest that the Catholic Church is now lacking something essential to the proper fulfillment of her mission. In its Decree on Ecumenism , however, Vatican II teaches that “it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation [ generale auxilium salutis est ] that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.” If Christ entrusted the fullness of the means of salvation to the Catholic Church alone, how is it possible to claim that “apart from other Christians” the Catholic Church “cannot be what she claims to be?” Moreover, Vatican II teaches that the separated churches and ecclesial communities “derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” If the Catholic Church were currently lacking something to her essential identity, how could she possess the “fullness of grace and truth” entrusted to her by Christ himself? Perhaps the clarification Neuhaus needs is provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its declaration, Dominus Iesus (2000): “The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the Church; not in the sense that she is deprived of her unity, but ‘in that it hinders the complete fulfillment of her universality in history.’” So, yes, the lack of unity among Christians does hinder the witness of the Catholic Church to her universality in history. This, though, is something different from suggesting that the Catholic Church presently lacks something she needs to be “fully what she claims to be.”
Still another statement that needs clarification is Neuhaus’ claim that disunity among Christians deprives “each of us of spiritual gifts intended to be shared by all.” But how can the Catholic Church at once possess the “fullness of the means of salvation” ( omnis salutarium mediorum plenitudo ) and yet be deprived of certain spiritual gifts? I think a far more accurate way of expressing this point would be to say that the return of the separated Eastern Churches to full Catholic communion would intensify the Catholic Church’s appreciation of the spiritual gifts of the East. But these spiritual gifts are already expressed in the Eastern Catholic Churches, and they are already the possession of the historical heritage of the Catholic Church. After all, the great Eastern Fathers of the Church (for instance, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Maximos the Confessor) are Catholic saints who were in full communion with the successor of Peter and the Catholic Church.
Robert L. Fastiggi
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
What struck me as the most important insight came from the quotation of Dumitru Popescu: “Orthodoxy accepts a primacy of the bishop of Rome, but a primacy of service.”
It seems to me that the motto or title of the Holy Father as “Servant of the servants of God” is possibly the most promising key to reconciliation between the East and the West. As Jesus, who came “not to be served but to serve,” so the husband as head of the family is called to be the servant of the wife, and, as the pastor as head of the parish is called to be the servant of his people, so the pope is the servant of the bishops and people of the world.
It is interesting that in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter, without any objection, accepted with John an assignment from the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:14) to investigate the enthusiasm that erupted in Samaria. Nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles or in other accounts of the post-Pentecost Church is there any hint of Peter’s demanding recognition as the rock on whom Jesus founded his Church. There is no hint of Peter’s claiming an authoritarian position when excoriated by Paul (Gal. 2:14). I am not suggesting any weakening of the pope’s responsibility regarding infallibility or authority. Rather, it seems that the authority of the Holy Father, like that of the husband as head of the family, needs to be defined, exercised, and proclaimed as a necessary service, not a privilege. I am suggesting that an emphasis in thought and action on the gentle spirit of service as shown by Peter may be the key to reconciliation between the East and the West.
Rev. Alfred R. Guthrie
St. Fidelis R.C. Church
College Point, New York
I very much enjoyed “Reconciling East and West.” It was poignant and insightful”expressive of our hopes and yet showing the obstacles in the way of reunion. Neuhaus also has given many of his readers signposts of hope, such as the promise held by such Orthodox writers as Olivier Clement. Still, I should be most interested to hear his views regarding reunion, considering the declining position of the patriarch of Constantinople (especially in light of difficulties with the Turkish government) and the establishment of Roman Catholic dioceses in such Orthodox territories as Russia.
Joseph C. Heim
California University of Pennsylvania
The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God
J. Budziszewski’s article “Natural Law Revealed” (December 2008) reminds me of St. Paul’s admonition, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8). Budziszewski is concerned that “under the influence of the Enlightenment, natural-law thinkers scrubbed, little by little, whatever influence remained from the centuries of faith”whatever benefit they might have gained from the help of revelation.”
But what natural-law thinkers does he have in mind? Aristotle? Cicero? Aquinas? Some of the Protestant natural-law thinkers such as Grotius and Pufendorf? He doesn’t say. And which theory of natural law? And more importantly, which natural law or laws? Jeremy Bentham famously caricatured natural law as being able to justify anything by showing it was “natural.” Or maybe Budziszewski is just referring to the common idea that natural law just means “acting rationally.”
Stephen Buckle in A Companion to Ethics observes that “the shortcoming of natural law theory is . . . its typical failure to go beyond the insistence that human nature is rational nature.” Natural-law theory is much richer than this. And yes, many natural laws can be more deeply comprehended in the light of revelation. The only natural law to which Budziszewski gives any implicit detailed attention is the law of procreation, as clarified by revelation and the Theology of the Body. But even regarding this law, one’s starting point should be to spell out whether he has in mind the version of Aquinas or Suarez or perhaps some contemporary theorist such as Grisez or Finnis, because the versions differ.
Howard P. Kainz
J. Budziszewski replies:
One might have thought it a virtue rather than a flaw that the article was situated not in a single theory but in a developing tradition. I subscribe to a “thick” view of natural law, which aspires to understand both the inbuilt purposes and meanings of the created order and the deep structure of the created moral intellect. Despite their differences, such thinkers as Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Suarez, and more recently Russell Hittinger and John Paul II are all more or less congenial to this aspiration; despite their differences, such thinkers as Hobbes, Pufendorf, and of course Bentham are all more or less hostile to it.
Some, such as Grotius, are ambivalent. I criticized the thinkers of the Enlightenment because not only do they mean something different by “nature” than the classical thinkers do, but they throw away most of their equipment for understanding it.
Since the published version of the article was condensed by half, I hope it will not be too cheeky to refer Professor Kainz to my forthcoming book, mentioned in the article’s bio line, which discusses these matters explicitly.
Law’s Little Acres
John E. Coons’ essay “In Defense of the Sovereign Family” (December 2008) leads up to his conclusion that government “must create some financial arrangement that will enable . . . the parents’ authority to educate their children.” What this circumlocution means is that government should compel all taxpayers to contribute involuntarily to the support of faith-based nonpublic schools, presumably by means of a device Coons has long favored but coyly refrains from naming: school vouchers.
What Coons goes out of his way to avoid discussing is the principle, found in the First Amendment and most state constitutions, that government may not compel any citizen to support any religious institution, directly or indirectly.
Coons refers to public schools pejoratively as government schools, the implication being that they are somehow lockstep authoritarian institutions. This is an odd way to view our almost 15,000 separate school districts, nearly all of them run by elected boards of local citizens, parents, and taxpayers and subject to state laws and to court rulings intended to prohibit discrimination or indoctrination. Our public schools, however imperfectly, bring together students and teachers from all parts of the religious, ethnic, political, and class spectra, honoring our national motto “E pluribus unum.” Coons’ oft-touted voucher plan would fragment our school and community populations along creedal, class, ethnic, ideological, and other lines and so increase the financial and social costs of education.
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Maryland
John E. Coons argues that parents enjoy powers with respect to the upbringing and education of their children that were recognized and affirmed in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These powers exist allegedly prior to and independent of the state’s governing powers. As I understand him, parents are a sovereign power, which he calls a “parentocracy.” If the Supreme Court somehow obtained jurisdiction over this independent sovereign power, according to Coons it would not be acting “either as or for the state, but as the arbiter of legal sovereigns who need a way to live together by some rule more humane than naked power.” He also argues that parents exercise certain “sole and inviolable” lawmaking powers over their children in the areas of custody, care, upbringing, discipline, and education, which the Supreme Court has acknowledged in many cases under the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
With all due respect to Coons, these arguments reflect a bizarre conception of the relations between citizens and their government in the United States. When the nation was established as a democratic republic, the people of the former English colonies, acting in their various constitutional conventions, transferred all governing power to their states and to the federal government, reserving for themselves only certain rights and powers they previously claimed to enjoy as subjects of the British Crown. These retained rights and powers they described as “privileges and immunities,” which were supposedly outside government control or modification. What these privileges and immunities were, however, and how far they extended was, of necessity, left to the determination of federal and state courts, acting according to the way they interpreted their constitutions and legislation. It was thought that, since all power in a democracy proceeds from the people in their corporate capacity, the lawmaking bodies of government (the executive, legislature, and judiciary), being representative of the public will, would sufficiently protect these liberties.
Contrary to what Coons argues, parents”private individuals or couples”do not possess lawmaking powers. It is true that they continue to enjoy, under state and federal laws , some powers to care for, have custody of, discipline, raise, and educate their children, but always subject to the oversight of the public and its agencies of government. The state and federal governments may curtail these rights and powers should the public need require it. Some Supreme Court decisions may suggest otherwise, but history shows that some of these supposed exemptions from government regulation vanish when there is a radical shift in public opinion and public needs. Nothing is written in stone.
I suppose this will brand me as a “monopolist” in the eyes of Coons. But imagine what the result of his concept of parental rights and powers would entail. Different parents have different ideas about rules for raising kids and disciplining them. In disputes between parents and persons outside the family or in disputes between parents and their children, what neutral third party would arbitrate or adjudicate the controversy and according to whose law? The law of the parents in question themselves? If so, is their word final? If not, can you truly say this “parentocracy” is “sovereign”? From the time of Hammurabi at least, sovereigns have been promulgating laws defining and limiting the powers of parents with respect to their children. The parent“child relationship, as well as the marital relationship, has always been one of the most regulated in both positive and religious laws. Coons’ concept of a parentocracy is simply unworkable and does not satisfy the definitional requirements of a legal system or of a sovereign power.
Barton L. Ingraham
Santa Fe, New Mexico
John Coons replies:
After half a century, Ed Doerr and I still lack a common meaning for public . I used this word to identify places and institutions that are open to all”truly accessible. I think here of sidewalks, squares, malls, parks, museums, and libraries that welcome anyone disposed to walk, look, or read. One could imagine a Central Park closed to all but Manhattan residents; in my view such a place would not qualify as public. Alternatively, a private cemetery open to people strolling by might make the grade.
The word, to be sure, is plastic, and note that, in application to schools, its careless usage carries a special risk of misunderstanding. Unlike a ramble in a park or a reverie with Rubens, the activity we call formal schooling is conscriptive; it is a form of intellectual draft. For thirteen years every child must do it; parents must either allow it or manage it on their own. But this image of coercion can itself mislead, for, in the end, the system formally acknowledges that the American parent holds the trump card. Within very wide boundaries, mothers and fathers by right decide the specific agent who will transmit their own image of the true and the good. Just as the state is powerless to dictate the child’s music, games, or naptime, it cannot impose a particular school. Parents do rule by law over 99 percent of the young child’s life; they are the final word. On this even the justices agree.
Proud of this timeless authority and responsibility, those parents who can do so proceed to choose the school they think best. Some, like me, head for the Berkeley hills; others become Doerr’s neighbors in Silver Spring. In such retreats they get their choice of something called a public school. But let us be clear that these parents have purchased a place in this school with money. My family could afford a residence in the Berkeley hills. Many others cannot; such parents can only peek at us over the Oakland boundary. I suppose that parents in the District of Columbia peek at those government schools in Silver Spring that are distinguished from their private counterparts by the form of their economic standard for admission”tuition in the one case and a purchased residential address in the other. Doerr can approve all this, but he should not defend it in the language of democracy. Finally, to disperse the smoke about religion I would urge him and Americans for Religious Liberty to reread Zelman v. Simmons-Harris .
To be fair to Barton Ingraham, he may well represent the mind of the American lawyer; quite plausibly he states the professional assumption correctly: It is “bizarre” to imagine any source of law outside government. But is it less bizarre for these lawyers to suppose that “the people” in 1787 “transferred all of their governing power” over their own children to these artificial authorities? This is not an issue reserved to antiquarians. Ask yourself, what middle-class parent in America today supposes that her authority over the crucial details of her child’s life is nothing more than a revocable delegation from New Mexico or the feds? Even if law did consist of nothing but command, force, and obedience, in all but the extreme cases parents are law”and governments are not law. Check the decisions. Ask your middle-class neighbors.
Should we not, in good spirit, quest together for some richer, more realistic understanding of law itself? My suggestion was that, as a start, we reflect on the nature and locus of those powers that were explicitly “reserved” in the Tenth Amendment. Such plain language invites the profession at least to raise its eyes to the possibility of an authority surviving outside the state”never transferred from the people. I explore this more fully in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (2008).
Be not afraid of a world of domestic sovereignties. Worry, rather, that parents scorned as nobodies may come to scorn themselves; that is the point at which real social trouble begins. It is instead trust that begets the reciprocal trust and responsibility now in short supply. To be sure, the threat of tyranny will always be with us, but it may lie less in such “little commonwealths” that disagree with one another than with a Leviathan sure of its own mind.
Knowing the Truth
In the Public Square (While We’re At It, December 2008), Richard John Neuhaus wrote: “The survey does indicate that the great majority of Christians say that their religious community does not have a monopoly on the truth, which is true enough. For more traditional Christians”whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant”one might say that it is a matter of dogma. Of course, the recognition that there is truth we do not know is no reason for not bearing clear witness to the truth we do know.”
I would suggest that what people mean when they say their religious community doesn’t have a monopoly on truth is not that their religious community doesn’t know every truth. It’s that their community is, or may be, ignorant of truths known by other communities. In that sense it is false to say it’s a matter of dogma that the Church doesn’t have a monopoly on truth. The Church is most certainly in possession”either explicitly or implicitly”of all theological truth. It is not defective nor in need of guidance by any other claimant, although other “faith communities” may possess some or even many of the truths taught by the One True Church.
Santa Clarita, California