The Public Square
During those younger years as the pastor of a poor, black, inner-city parish in Brooklyn, including the years of working with Martin Luther King, Jr., I was an unapologetic romantic about the critical, even redemptive, part that blacks were to play in the unfolding of the American drama. Many of us were. The subsequent years have been hard on Dr. King’s dream. True, most black Americans are better off in most ways of calculating better off. But my version of the dream was attuned to the poor, and especially those concentrated in the hard core of the inner city.
After Hurricane Katrina, there was much chatter about the rediscovery of the poor. It was almost all nonsense, and I fiercely wish that were not so. By the 1980s it had become widely recognized that there were the poor, and then there were the poor. The first had low incomes, but they also had jobs at which they worked regularly; they reared their children; the children went to school and learned; and their families were on their way to becoming non-poor. Then there were the poor who were called the underclass, especially the urban underclass. The underclass is not solely black but it is mainly black, and by a very wide margin.
We haven’t heard much talk about the underclass in recent years. That is not because they have gone away. Far from it, although many of them have been put away in prison. The reason we do not hear about the underclass is that they have become forgettable: confined and contained.
We who live on the right side of the tracks, so to speak, have successfully shielded ourselves from them. It is a domestic version of the Cold War’s containment policy. Some years ago there was worried discussion about the privileged who live in gated communities. Ours is now a gated society. The gates are open to those who play by the rules, but tightly shut against the threatening underclass.
It is almost inconceivable today that we would have the kind of urban riots that were a major feature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Black radicals threatened to burn down the cities and succeeded in wrecking the neighborhoods where they lived.
White flight accelerated, leaving city centers abandoned and rotting. Black Power succeeded to the extent that blacks were left in charge of the ruins. Detroit, while it is the premier example, is far from alone. New York bought off or otherwise co-opted black leaders, who were recruited to keep the underclass in its place. Al Sharpton and a few other court jesters who dance a mean radical shuffle are kept around to remind taxpayers why the pay-offs are a good investment.
The underclass is a minority of a minority. It is defined by a pattern of not playing by the most elementary of the rules. For instance, holding a job, or at least wanting to get a job. For instance, staying in school, at least through eighth grade, or maybe even getting a high school diploma they can read. For another instance, by men not having babies by multiple women whom they decline to support. For a very big for instance, by not engaging in criminal activity.
Social scientist Charles Murray has recently pulled together some of the latest data on the underclass. It makes for grim reading. In the last few years, there has been good news about declining crime rates. One reason is that so much of the underclass is in prison or under correctional supervision. Since Ronald Reagan took office, the number of Americans in various forms of supervision by the criminal justice system has increased by 300 percent. As Murray puts it, Crime has dropped, but criminality has continued to rise.
The general sense is that these are better times, at least for those who live in enclaves secured against the underclass. The criminals are left to prey on their hapless neighbors, if they are not locked up. Consider the ratio of prisoners to the number of crimes committed. If the ratio was the same as it was when Ronald Reagan took office, we would today have a prison population of 490,000. In fact, the current prison population is over two million. Imagine what the crime rate would be if tomorrow we released 1.6 million prisoners. That is what is meant by declining crime but increasing criminality.
The underclass is unsocialized. They have dropped out of society and its expectations. Criminal activity is actively anti-social; not working is declining to participate. In 1954, when such figures were first gathered, nine percent of young black men, ages twenty to twenty-four, were not working and not looking for work. In 1999, when businesses were desperately seeking workers for every job level, the figure was 30 percent. And, of course, that does not include all the young men in jail.
Almost everybody who has been paying attention agrees that the big change is in the number of young males who grow up without fathers. This is now an intergenerational phenomenon. It was the harsh reality I witnessed years ago in Brooklyn. Not only boys who did not know what it means to have a father but boys who did not know what it means to be a father. They did not know any men who accepted open-ended responsibility for their children. These boys did not expect to be, and almost nobody expected them to be, fathers to their children.
Today, 35 percent of all children born in America are born to women who are not married. The black illegitimacy rate, as of 2003, is 68 percent. There are large black churches in our cities that have not had a wedding in years. Consider that, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan caused a great ruckus by announcing the breakdown of the black family forty years ago, the black illegitimacy rate was 24 percent. It is not true that illegitimacy has risen precipitously throughout the population. It is heavily concentrated in low-income groups, and especially among blacks. We hear good news about falling teenage births. That is balanced by the fact that blacks have many more abortions. The critical factor with respect to the underclass is the proportion of children born and raised without fathers. That proportion, Murray writes, is the indicator that predicts the size of the underclass in the next generation.
With the rediscovery of poverty after Katrina, all kinds of government programs are being proposed and massively funded. They have all been tried before. They have failed before, in largest part because they are premised upon the assumption that the problem is poverty and not the underclass. As Murray writes, Poor people who are not part of the underclass seldom need help to get out of poverty . . . . The statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass.
Some may think Murray’s conclusion is excessively stark, or even cynical. He writes: Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw. What comes next is depressingly predictable. Five years from now, the official evaluation will report that there were no statistically significant differences between the subsequent lives of people who got the government help and the lives of people in a control group. Newspapers will not carry that story, because no one will be interested any longer. No one will be interested because we will have long since replaced the screens, and long since forgotten.
Refusing to Give Up
It is not true that no one will be interested. It probably is true that most Americans, including many working-class and middle-class blacks, will not be interested. As long as they don’t pose a threat to the rest of us, the underclass illegitimacy rate could climb to 95 percent and there could be three million or more in prison without prompting any sense of national crisis. The great majority of Americans, I expect, are weary of hearing about the plight of blacks and probably welcome the fact that the largest minority is now Hispanic, which dramatically changes the discussion of minority rights and is devoid of lingering feelings of guilt about slavery and all that. Among Hispanics there is not an underclass comparable in scale or intergenerational obstinacy.
Yet there are many who have not given up on the underclass. There are churches and church-related social programs that do the hard, slogging, day-by-day work of helping young people put their lives together and keep them together. There are occasionally black leaders from the religious, entertainment, and sports worlds who risk being called Uncle Toms by trying to persuade young people that it is not cool to cultivate a dress and demeanor that makes you unemployable, to sexually exploit women, or to accuse those who want to learn of acting white. And there are mothers beyond numbering who, with no help from a man, strive valiantly to set their children on the way out from the underclass.
As for public policy, a strong case can be made that the greatest single injustice perpetrated upon the urban poor is the captivity of their children in thoroughly rotten government-run school systems. There are heartening signs that the movement for parental choice in education is picking up steam. We have addressed this question again and again. John Coons’ essay School Choice as Simple Justice, in the April 1992 issue of First Things , remains one of the most trenchant briefs for something that can be done and would make a real difference, also for the underclass. Across the country, there are today promising experiments with educational vouchers and charter schools. In many places, experiments have turned into demonstrations of effectiveness, hastening the day when educational freedom will be a reality for all Americans.
Affluent Americans generally choose their schools by choosing where to live. That is not an option for the poor. Obviously, educational choice will not resolve all the problems of the underclass. But it is something that government could do, and that it is reasonable to believe would effect major change over time. It is something that merits the support of people who know that it is not morally tolerable to ignore the millions of fellow-citizens who we so successfully keep on the other side of the gates.
A while back, Bob Herbert of the New York Times surprised his readers with a column devoted to the state of black America. We can pretend that these terrible things are not happening, but they are. There’s a crisis in the black community, and it won’t do to place all of the blame on society and government. I say the column was a surprise because over the years Mr. Herbert has, with sometimes tedious repetition, tended to place all, or almost all, the blame on society and government. I don’t know what changed his mind. Perhaps he read the above data pulled together by Charles Murray. In any event, the change is most welcome.
He writes, The problems facing black people today are comparable in magnitude to those of the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century. There were leaders in those days who were equal to the challenge. I believe that nothing short of a new movement, comparable in scope and dedication to that of the civil rights era, is required to bring about the changes in values and behavior needed to halt the self-destruction that is consuming so many black lives. The crucial question is whether the leadership exists to mount such an effort . . . . Despite the sometimes valiant efforts of individuals and organizations across the country, we are not meeting that obligation now. And that’s because there’s a vacuum where our leadership should be.
Bob Herbert’s bold indictment and call for leadership took considerable courage. We must hope that he does not retreat under the withering criticism that is sure to come. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Glenn Loury of Boston University was in the forefront of calling for a very different black leadership. In October 1992 he wrote Two Paths to Black Power for First Things , recommending the model of W.E.B. DuBois over that of Booker T. Washington:
It is time to recognize that further progress toward the attainment of equality for black Americans, broadly and correctly understood, depends most crucially at this juncture on the acknowledgment and rectification of the dysfunctional behaviors which plague black communities, and which so offend and threaten others. Recognize this, and much else will follow. It is more important to address this matter effectively than it is to agitate for additional rights. Indeed, success in such agitation has become contingent upon effective reform efforts mounted from within the black community . . . .
The key point is that progress such as this must be earned, it cannot be demanded. When the effect of past oppression is to leave a people in a diminished state, the attainment of true equality with the former oppressor cannot depend on his generosity, but must ultimately derive from an elevation of their selves above the state of diminishment. It is of no moment that historic wrongs may have caused current deprivation, for justice is not the issue here. The issues are dignity, respect, and self-respect”all of which are preconditions for true equality between any peoples. The classic interplay between the aggrieved black and the guilty white, in which the former demands and the latter conveys recognition of historic injustice, is not an exchange among equals. Neither, one suspects, is it a stable exchange. Eventually it may shade into something else, something less noble”into patronage, into a situation where the guilty one comes to have contempt for the claimant, and the claimant comes to feel shame, and its natural accompaniment, rage, at his impotence.
Ten years later, Loury published The Anatomy of Racial Inequality in which he seemed to have reverted to blaming society for the plight of blacks in America. In our May 2002 issue he was taken to task by J.L.A. Garcia and John McWhorter for having retreated to the conventional wisdom of the black establishment. Loury responded to the criticism by saying his new book was addressed to a different audience, one that is mainly white. I confess that I, along with Garcia, McWhorter, and others, did not find the explanation entirely convincing.
There are a few black thinkers (Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams come most prominently to mind) who have, year in and year out, insisted that the healing of the black community”and, most particularly, of the black underclass”is primarily the responsibility of blacks. Those who still claim the antiquated title of civil rights leaders have excoriated them without mercy. They are Uncle Toms, Oreos, and, most devastatingly, conservatives. From time to time a prominent black such as comedian Bill Cosby will say what Loury once said and Herbert is now saying. But such courageous eruptions of honesty have in the past been episodic, being quickly smothered by the now weary and wearying rhetoric about the evils of our racist society. Perhaps now, at long last, and after the wasting of lives beyond numbering, there will emerge the leadership for which Bob Herbert, along with too few others, is calling.
An issue that is fast heating up and requires discerning moral judgment, although it will more likely elicit clashing moralisms, is that of immigration policy. A while back, I discussed in some detail Samuel Huntington’s important book, Who Are We? (August/September 2004). On the pro-immigration side of the argument, Huntington is depicted as a nativist, which is unfair. He is alarmed about the huge and growing wave of immigrants from Latin America, chiefly Mexico, that is, he persuasively argues, unprecedented in both size and character. The title question of his book is a question that any people has to ask if they are to sustain their identity as a people. The alternative is to abandon any idea of what it means to be an American. As I wrote earlier, I am not convinced by Huntington’s argument, but it is an argument that needs to be engaged if we are to be prepared for the storm of controversy about to burst upon us.
President Bush has repeatedly said that political capital is there to be spent. With the deep disagreements over his policy in the Middle East, and with apparent failure in other initiatives, such as Social Security reform, some may think he has little capital left. But what he has he is now apparently prepared to spend in tackling immigration reform. While the details will have to be worked out by Congress, the president’s proposal has three parts: securing the borders, ensuring sufficient immigration to sustain the economy, and making it easier for immigrants to become citizens.
The proposal throws into confusion the usual liberal/conservative alignments. For the playing out of this reform, new scorecards will be required to identify the players. The first part of the game, securing the borders, is widely popular. It does not seem to be a top priority issue with most Americans, but there is a commonsensical assumption that a nation worthy of the name should be able to control who is and who is not admitted. That assumption does not go undisputed. While it does not come right out and say so, the Wall Street Journal would seem to favor the abolition of national borders altogether. Many Catholic bishops share that view, although it is not the public position of the bishops conference.
There are politicians who believe that tough talk about securing the borders (not meaning the border with Canada, you may be sure) will pay off on election day. That is perhaps why President Bush kicked off his reform campaign last December with the stern assurance, We are going to protect the border. He announced that during his time in office there had been a 60 percent increase in spending on securing the border and an addition of thousands of new border guards, with 4.5 million illegal immigrants caught and returned home.
Send Them Back
But, of course, there are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Not long ago I was speaking at a convention in the Southwest. The person sitting next to me at dinner was trying to persuade me that we should send them back. I asked him to look around the ballroom where about a thousand people were being served by hundreds of waiters and busboys, all of them, so far as I could see, Latino, and probably a large percentage of them here illegally. The same immigrant preponderance would likely obtain among the kitchen workers, the truck drivers who delivered the food, and those who had gathered and prepared it for shipping. My tablemate was unmoved.
Here in New York, in my daily walk to Immaculate Conception and to this magazine’s office, I pass dozens of businesses, along with construction sites, hospitals, and nannies caring for children, all reflecting the city’s dependence upon Hispanic immigration. They are here because immigrants are, as the president says, doing the work that Americans don’t want to do. To which some, including much of organized labor, say that, if so many immigrants weren’t here, Americans would do the same work, at higher wages and with benefits. I rather doubt it. In times of prosperity, such as the present, unemployment among American citizens is practically non-existent. (The official and very low unemployment figure includes a majority of people who are voluntarily between jobs or simply taking time off from work.) Very few Americans are lining up to wash dishes, mop floors, or deliver pizza. The economy and everyday life of New York and other cities would grind to a near halt in the absence of Hispanic immigrants. Not to mention what would happen to the vast agricultural enterprises of California and other states.
It is hard to argue with Andrew Ferguson, who writes: Restricting that flow of willing workers would cause an economic calamity that no federal official will seriously contemplate. Nor would anyone in a position of responsibility pretend it is plausible to round up the 11 million illegal immigrants who are already in the U.S., ship them back to their homelands and then seal the border against their otherwise inevitable return.
The three parts of the Bush proposal are to secure the border, establish something like a guest worker program, and then give those who participate in the program an easier way to become U.S. citizens, once they have completed the terms of the program and returned to their native country. Whatever the details worked out by Congress, opponents are likely to attack the proposal as a gussied-up amnesty for illegals. When the great majority of immigrants speak the same language, Spanish, we are inevitably on the way to becoming a bilingual society, critics say. They note, with considerable justice, that the history of societies divided by language and culture is not a happy one. They point out, in addition, that many immigrants, Mexicans in particular, do not want to be citizens. They are here only to take advantage of opportunities for work, along with social and educational benefits. They are, in effect, cross-border commuters. Other Mexicans make no secret of their aim to reconquer the vast territories stolen by the Yanqui imperialists.
True Faith and Allegiance
To prepare for the debate that is heating up, a helpful primer is True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism . The title of the book is, of course, from the oath of allegiance taken by new citizens, and the author is Noah Pickus, who teaches ethics and public policy at Duke University. The value of the book is not so much in the specific policies proposed”Pickus is careful, sometimes almost annoyingly careful, not to seem partisan”as in its providing a history of American immigration policies and a taxonomy of current positions on what should be done. With respect to the latter, it is something like the aforementioned scorecard.
Civic nationalism is the idea around which Pickus thinks most of us can rally. It offers, he says, our best chance to incorporate immigrants, sustain a robust American nationalism, and foster a meaningful democratic form of citizenship. Pickus does not blithely assume national myths, such as the notion that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants. He refers to Huntington only in passing, but Huntington’s presence is close at hand throughout the book. Huntington is withering in debunking the nation of immigrants myth, and Pickus knows that Huntington is right in contending that there is another way of thinking about what it means to be an American, and that that other way still has considerable salience.
John Jay, for instance, wrote in the second of the Federalist Papers : Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people”a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs. The venerable Benjamin Franklin was not at all happy with so many Germans and Dutch in Pennsylvania: Why should Pennsylvania , founded by the English , become a colony of Aliens , who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of [our] Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?
That sounds today like raw nativism and chauvinism. A hero in the Pickus account is Theodore Roosevelt who, while welcoming immigrants, was adamant that they conform to the given American type. There was no room for hyphenated Americans”German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, et al . There is room only for those who are prepared to be Americans, period. After World War I, following decades of massive immigration, the nation was in a mood for a pause, just as today some urge that, after decades of even more massive immigration, we need a pause to assimilate people already here.
In the 1920s, the Americanization movement often turned virulently anti-immigration, and leading liberals joined in deploring a social experiment that had ended up with too many who were too different. In 1921, John Dewey said, The simple fact of the case is that at present the world is not sufficiently civilized to permit close contact of people of widely different cultures without deplorable consequences.
Today, says Pickus, the debate about immigration is largely about different ideas of what it means to be a citizen. There are, he says, four ideas of citizenship in contention: immigrant rights, minority representation, cultural nationalism, and universal nationalism. The first need not involve citizenship at all. It champions the rights of immigrants simply because they are here. The second involves citizenship only to the degree that it is necessary to participate in political and other activities aimed at building coalitions and advancing multicultural policies in order to achieve equal rights and representation for minorities. The third understands citizenship to be a matter of being deeply embedded in a culture that is identifiably American. The fourth”sometimes invoking the idea that America is the first universal nation”views citizenship as a matter more of consent than culture. One becomes a citizen by agreeing to abide by the American political creed as embodied in the ideals and institutions of the founding.
In contradiction to the first two ideas of citizenship, and in contrast to the second two, Pickus calls for a new civic nationalism. His approach is more irenic than polemical, and his proposed alternative therefore takes on the appearance at times of being a melange of conflicting ideas in play. Today, writes Pickus, Americans face the difficult task of sustaining a civic nation in the absence of a dominant culture, ethnic identity, or consensus on the meaning of constitutional values. These absences make the challenge of forging unity out of diversity even more difficult than at the Founding or in the Progressive Era. Yet Americans possess something that was missing from those periods”a real history [quoting David Hollinger] a record of specific tragedies, successes, failures, contradictions, and provincial conceits.’
In sum, we are bound together by a history of muddling through and may reasonably hope that we can continue to muddle through. After all the discussion of history, principles, and diverse schools of thought, Pickus is inclined to expect more of the same. It remains unclear, however, whether any fundamental changes will occur in U.S. policy regarding the numbers and origins of immigrants seeking entry to the country, their rights and benefits once admitted, and the requirements governing access to citizenship.
This may seem like a limp response to the alarums raised by Huntington’s Who Are We? or Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia . But there are obviously those who think it is about the best that can be expected. It would appear that President Bush is not among them. His three-part reform may shake up conventional alliances in Congress and the political class. By virtue of the proposed reform, the border may be somewhat more secure, and the millions of illegals now in the country may see benefits in becoming legal under the guest worker program. Whether that means they will become citizens is another matter. President Vincente Fox of Mexico has said that most Mexicans in the United States are not going to become American citizens, nor do they want U.S. citizenship. What they are interested in is having their rights respected.
One reason citizenship is not the prize it once was is the growth in the number of official and de facto dual citizens, and even multiple citizens. Also among the elite leaders of globalization, it is increasingly common for people to carry the passports of two or more nations. At the bottom and at the top of the economic hierarchy, more and more people are Americans when it is convenient. It is far from clear how the White House or Congress will address that problem, if indeed it is seen as a problem.
Noah Pickus’ case for civic nationalism is brimming over with intelligence and good will, but one is left with the distinct impression that true faith and allegiance is not likely to mean in the future what it meant in the past according to the mythology of this nation of immigrants. As long as there is a steady flow of workers and parishioners, the editors of the Wall Street Journal and the bishops of the Catholic Church will probably not be losing any sleep over that prospect. Many others, however, will regret the passing of the day when they thought they more or less knew what it meant to be an American.
While We’re At It
On the First Things website and elsewhere, there has been a lively discussion about Wheaton College dismissing a faculty member who became Catholic because, said the college president, he could not, as a Catholic, honestly subscribe to the school’s doctrinal statement on the authority of Scripture. The faculty member said he could. The incident came to public attention through a story in the Wall Street Journal and our Joseph Bottum took a somewhat benign view of the matter, underscoring the importance of a Christian school being serious about what it believes. There is a great deal to be said for that, but, as others, including some Wheaton faculty, have pointed out, the dismissal may also be seen as an evangelical Protestant insecurity that prevents intellectual engagement with the diversity within the Christian tradition. Even the most seriously Catholic of Catholic colleges, for instance, would not exclude evangelical Protestants from the faculty. You can’t get much more seriously Catholic than, say, Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, which boasts of the presence of Rabbi David Dalin. As I had occasion to write in connection with the bold (albeit imperiled) experiment at Baylor University, a Jew who believes in the mission of a determinedly Christian institution makes a much more important contribution than the most devout Christian who doesn’t believe in that mission. And there is another set of questions raised by the Wheaton incident. Who is an evangelical? Should Wheaton be Reformed, including the Westminster Confession in its doctrinal statement? And how about Arminians, Dispensationalists, or those who hold to the teaching of total depravity? Then there are evangelicals who believe in the effective grace of infant baptism, and others who don’t. Apparently, Wheaton wants to be broad enough to include all Protestants who call themselves evangelical, no matter the conflicts and contradictions among those who hold to what is called the Reformation tradition, but narrow enough to exclude Roman Catholics”who make up more than half of all the Christians in the world. Or isn’t the difference between Arminian free-will and Calvinist predestination all that important, after all? The president of Wheaton, Duane Litfin, says that Catholic and Protestant claims reflect alternate answers to the question of authority in the church. These answers in turn dictate most of the other Catholic/Protestant differences. It is, he says, a matter of sola scriptura (Protestant) or Scripture and tradition (Catholic). This, I am afraid, doesn’t quite work and never has. Notable heresies of Christian history”Arianism, Docetism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Tritheism”appealed earnestly to the supreme authority of Scripture without reference to what Catholics understand as tradition and magisterial teaching authority. Apparently an Arian, who denies that Jesus is true God and true man, would pose no problem for Wheaton, as long as he appealed to Scripture alone as the authority for his beliefs. In fact, there are evangelical theologians who promote open theism, which denies the omniscience of God, and are adamant in their devotion to sola scriptura . The Roman Catholic Church stands in this great magisterial tradition, a tradition from which Protestantism has from the outset dissented, writes Dr. Litfin. The college, he writes, intends this reference to Scripture’s supreme and final authority’ to be read as an historic dissent from Catholic claims. Dr. Litfin thus lends credibility to the claim that the identity of evangelicalism rests on a double negative: Evangelicals are Christians who are not Catholic and not liberal Protestants. If you are not Catholic and not a liberal, presumably anything goes. And, if anything goes, it is not clear why the theologically liberal should be excluded”as long as they appeal to Scripture as the supreme and final authority for their liberalism. Dr. Litfin appeals to Reformation distinctives as being somehow normative. Another term for Reformation distinctives or the Reformation heritage is the Reformation tradition . Thus does it become evident that the dispute is not over sola scriptura , on the one hand, and Scripture and tradition, on the other. The dispute is over which tradition is normative; one that interprets Scripture in continuity with a tradition that extends from the apostolic era to the present, or one that interprets Scripture according to a tradition, riddled with internal contradictions, that began in the sixteenth century. The one thing that everybody in the second tradition had in common then was anti-Catholicism. Wheaton’s decision to dismiss a highly respected faculty member because he became Catholic may understandably lead some to think that not much has changed.
Among those taken in was the prestigious magazine Science , with the media leading the chorus of global acclaim. It went on for months and months. Then it turned out that Hwang Woo Suk, the South Korean scientist, was forced to admit that he had faked the evidence for his cloning experiments and related discoveries. In an interview, Dr. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, who has recently stepped down as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics and is famous for choosing his words with care, put it this way: Scientific fraud is always revolting, but it is fortunately rare, and, in the end, truth will out. But in this case, American scientists and the American media have been complicit in the fraud, because of their zeal in the politics of stem-cell and cloning research and their hostility to the Bush funding policy. Concerted efforts have been made these past five years to hype therapeutic cloning, including irresponsible promises of cures around the corner and personalized repair kits’ for every degenerative disease. The media and the large part of the scientific establishment were complicit in the fraud. So eager were they to puff the high promise of, among other things, embryonic stem cell research, so determined were they to ignore the proven rewards of employing adult stem cells, and so exultant were they in scoring points off the Bush administration, that the usual cautions were thrown to the winds in announcing a great scientific breakthrough and cruelly raising the hopes of those who suffer from sundry diseases that a cure was at hand. Kass said, The need to support these wild claims and the desire to embarrass cloning opponents led to the accelerated publication of Dr. Hwang’s findings.’ . . . We even made him Exhibit A for the false claim that our moral scruples are causing American science to fall behind. The technological imperative”that if something can be done, it must be done”operates by the motto Full steam ahead, and morality be damned . Of course, it is not usually put that bluntly. The denigration of moral scruples”the word sounds so old-maidish”is thinly veiled by the hiring of the best bioethicists that money can buy. They can be counted on to issue permission slips for whatever ambitious scientists want to do. To be sure, not all scientists are unscrupulous, but the imperative to push the envelope is built into the system. Before he went down in ignominy, Dr. Hwang was an international celebrity and the darling son of South Korea. It is reported that a postage stamp was issued in his honor. Whatever their interest in philately, every researcher involved in fields related to Hwang’s fraud should keep an enlarged copy framed in the laboratory. Others might be sent to top editors and executives of the world’s media. Especially sordid in this case was the eagerness with which Hwang’s findings were embraced for crassly political purposes. Such incidents should not be forgotten as yesterday’s news. Hwanging deserves a permanent place in our vocabulary, referring to the many instances in which dubious or fictional scientific advances are invoked in order to create a simulacrum of inevitably about the abandonment of moral reason. This instance of Hwanging was not the work of one man. It was the result of an ideologically driven scientific-media complex that, if unchecked, will continue to pit science against morality, with the likely and unhappy result of bringing science into popular disrepute. Complicity is the right word.
In my reflection on The Truce of 2005 in the February issue, at least a few readers thought I gave excessive attention to the role of Jesuits in the widespread resistance to, or rejection of, the November instruction from Rome on gays and the priesthood. I am sensitive to the criticism, but really must plead innocent. The Society of Jesus has been conspicuous in throwing down the gauntlet in defiance of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. It will be recalled that the November instruction declared that the Church cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture. I cited a number of Jesuits who could hardly have been more explicit in their disagreement. At the time I wrote, America , the official Jesuit weekly, had not spoken editorially on the instruction. A measure of caution and delay is understandable. America had just been through a rough patch in its relations with Rome, resulting in the dismissal of its former editor, Father Thomas Reese. The Jesuit response to the November instruction would have to be carefully considered, and there is reason to believe that this involved consultation within the leadership circles of the society. It is possible that some leaders counseled caution, or even support for the directive from Rome. Other influential Jesuits, however, very publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are morally wrong and that homosexual desires are therefore morally disordered. Some of the dissenters have very openly declared themselves to be gay. In any event, the America editorial finally appeared, and it is obvious that the counsel of caution, never mind obedience, was rejected. The editorial praises the excellent priests who are gay, cautions against animosity toward gays, and urges that priests be prudent in their involvement with the gay culture. The key passage is this: There is a valid concern that the priesthood should not become exclusively or even predominantly the domain of gay men. In the same way that one would not want to see all or most priests coming from a particular ethnic group, or from a particular region of a country, one hopes that the priesthood reflects the great diversity of Catholics. So the official position of the Society of Jesus in the United States, insofar as it is represented by the society’s magazine, is that homosexuality is no more morally problematic than ethnic or geographical origins. The November instruction makes careful distinctions with respect to homosexual acts and tendencies. America conflates these distinctions in the word gay, using the term as it is ordinarily used to refer to a person who engages in homosexual acts, has predominantly or exclusively same-sex desires, elects to identify himself as gay, and supports the gay culture. Rome says that men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies must not be admitted to the priesthood. America counters by saying that those who have such tendencies, act upon such tendencies”and embrace such tendencies and actions as constituting their identity”make excellent priests. Rome says that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral and the desire to commit them is objectively disordered. America says such acts and desires are comparable to being Irish or Latino, or to being born in Texas or Wisconsin. Rome says gay men must not be admitted to the priesthood. America says there is a valid concern that the priesthood not be composed predominantly or exclusively of gay men. I confess that I do not how to construe the editorial position of America , the official weekly magazine of the Society of Jesus, as anything other than an in-your-face rejection of the instruction from Rome, issued by the explicit authority of the pope, and of the magisterial teaching on which the instruction is based. In the absence of a vigorous and visible response from Rome, it would seem that we are confronted by a Truce of 2005 comparable to the Truce of 1968 with respect to orchestrated dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae . If that is the case, and we must pray it is not, it is difficult to overestimate the grave consequences for the effective leadership of the still-young pontificate of Benedict XVI.
We had hoped by now to have a review of Raymond Arroyo’s bestselling book Mother Angelica (Doubleday, 400 pages, $23
.95), but that didn’t pan out. I won’t bore you with the details. The book should not go unremarked here. It is a great read, and I recommend it to your attention. Born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, in 1923, the woman who became Mother Angelica is the product of a family that redefines dysfunctional. She was restlessly energetic in a dozen directions, not least in her sense of a world riddled through and through with the reality of miracles. Had current practices prevailed then, she might have been put on Prozac, and there would be no Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), no Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, and fewer of the stirrings of vibrant (and sometimes wacky) orthodoxy embraced by her millions of fans. The entire book is a lively read, but I found most particularly fascinating Arroyo’s account of the Catholic piety and practices of her formative years. This was a world of Catholicism that deserves to be remembered with honor. It cannot be reconstituted in most of its historical particulars, but there is much there that can be revived and revised for our time. (Rita Rizzo was on my mind when I was writing parts of my new book, Catholic Matters .) Moreover, Mother Angelica is a deft introduction to aspects of the politics of the Church in this country, as bishops variously tried to control, co-opt, silence, or displace this remarkable woman. All to no avail, as to no avail was their multi-million-dollar effort to establish a competing Catholic network. Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles earned himself a major role in Arroyo’s account of episcopal ineptitude and pettiness. It is to Arroyo’s credit that he seeks, even strains, to be kind. Working at EWTN, he had years of one-on-one interviews with Mother Angelica, in which she insisted that he tell her life and work with no embellishments. For such a life and work, embellishment is superfluous. Mother Angelica is an important part of the history of religion”and not only of Catholicism”in the last half century, and in Mother Angelica she receives a critical appreciation worthy of her person and achievements.
A noted professor of English recently wrote an essay on the true meaning of conservatism in which he opined that the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe should be accepted as a permanent fact of life. In the course of his argument he said, Such use of language as unborn child’ does not advance analysis. Stephen Barr, a frequent contributor to these pages, dropped me this note: I’d like to hear from this professor of English what is wrong with English. Surely Prof. Hart must know the etymology and meaning of the word child.’ I find in my old Webster’s that it comes from Old English cild’ and the Gothic words kilthei’ (womb) and inkiltko’ (pregnant), and the first definition of child’ given is unborn or recently born person.’ Pregnant women are traditionally said to be with child.’ It is touching to see how humanists stand in such awe of the way scientists talk. When we speak of electrons, and entropy, and momentum, and equations, let’s use Greek and Latin. (What was the Anglo-Saxon word for electron anyway?) But, please, Professor, when it comes to mothers, fathers, and children, let’s speak English.
As mentioned before in these pages, Loyola Press is doing a very good thing by bringing out in handsome paperback format a number of staples in the Catholic literary tradition, appropriately titled The Loyola Classics Series, under the general editorship of Amy Welborn. Among them are The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West, The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor, Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Last Catholic in America by John R. Powers, and Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis. Each volume carries a new introduction by a contemporary writer, and that’s where I noticed an odd thing. I recently had the excellent company of The Edge of Sadness on a long flight. Edwin O’Connor is best known for The Last Hurrah , an agreeably sentimental account of the last years of the Irish Catholic political establishment in Boston. His latter novel, The Edge of Sadness , published in 1961, won a Pulitzer Prize. The story is told by Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic, and turns around the character of Charlie Carmody, a humorously mean-spirited octogenarian who made his pile as a slumlord. His zest for life is in tyrannizing all around him, beginning with his family. But here’s the odd thing: In his introduction, Ron Hansen notes the intensely honest and unsentimental perspective that gives resonance to Edwin O’Connor’s novel even today. The key words are even today. In this and other introductions in the series, the sharp contrast is drawn between the Catholicism prior to the Second Vatican Council and the Catholicism of what came after. An elegiac note is struck about what once was and will never be again. The books are frequently recommended as interesting period pieces that should not be ignored even today. There is a defensive tone that one would not expect in the recommending of literature that is confidently thought to be of lasting consequence. Edith Wharton writes of a New York society that is long gone, as Melville writes of a vanished life at sea, but nobody would think of saying that they are worth reading even today. I doubt if that would be said of Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop . But there is the feel in the Loyola Classics that these books have been retrieved from the dustbin of an insular and parochial world, and that world has to be explained to readers if they are to understand why these books were once thought to be worth reading. That is, I believe, quite unfair to most of the books in question. They stand on their own as quality literature. Their neglect is due to changing literary fashions, influenced in part by Catholics who are eager to forget”or to remember only to pillory”the pre-Vatican II Church. A wag recently remarked that the greatest Catholic contribution to literature in recent decades is the production of so many ex-Catholic writers. There is something to that. It was not always so. Today there are hints of a possible revival in Catholic literature. One thinks, for instance, of Matthew Lickona’s Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic . But the hints are few and far between. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and a host of others write unabashedly Jewish novels, and there are about thirteen times more Catholics than Jews in America. Perhaps the eclipse of Catholic literature can be attributed to a sensed loss of apartness that is still the inspiration, and burden, of Jews. Lickona’s fetching story is very much that of a traditionalist who stands apart from a Catholicism that has made its peace with the American Way. I expect the truth is that most non-Catholic Americans, unlike Catholics who assume their unqualified cultural assimilation, still view Catholicism as something strange, even exotic. That is evident in the continuing flow of novels and plays of a distinctly anti-Catholic bent, usually written by ex-Catholics. But now there are no Catholics of the stature of J.F. Powers or Edwin O’Connor writing from within the Catholic experience. First Things ’ own junior fellow Mary Ruiz has joined with others to help that happen. They have launched Dappled Things , an online literary magazine for young Catholics that is trolling for talent. Years from now an Edwin O’Connor may look back and recall how he got his start with Dappled Things . Meanwhile, we are indebted to Loyola Press for making available again books such as The Edge of Sadness which are splendid reading anytime, and not even today.
Greenwood Press is publishing an interesting series for classroom use on various religions under the generic title The American Religious Experience. There are, for instance, the Buddhist, African-American, Protestant, and Muslim experiences in America. And now there is The Catholic Experience in America by sociologist Joseph A. Varacalli. The book provides an informed overview of Catholic history in this country, with particular attention to controversies and conflicts since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. The final chapter, What Lies Ahead?, charts possible scenarios for the future of Catholicism in this country: 1) dissolution; 2) an American Church; 3) sect-like retreat; 4) neo-orthodoxy; 5) formal schism; and 6) pluralism. Although he doesn’t come right out and say so, Varacalli clearly favors number 4, which he identifies with the vision of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Protecting his reputation as a social scientist, he doesn’t lay odds on which is most likely to prevail. Since I am free from that professional inhibition, I venture that the serious contest is between numbers 2, 4, and 6. In this case, pluralism (note the quotation marks) means an increasingly dispirited status quo in which Catholicism is a loosely associated amalgam of accommodations to spiritual consumerism. In my book Catholic Matters , published this February by Basic Books, I discuss these possibilities in terms of whether the accent is placed on being American Catholics or Catholic Americans, pointing out how the adjective tends to control the noun. Varacalli’s typology is suggestive, however, and The Catholic Experience in America warrants a close look by high school and college teachers, and by others curious about the past, present, and future of Catholicism in this country.
I don’t know if a rant is on the far side of a tirade, or vice versa. But, whatever term one prefers, the New Republic gave Alan Wolfe of Boston College seven pages to attack Rodney Stark’s recent volume, The Victory of Reason : How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success . The Victory of Reason, writes Wolfe, is the worst book by a social scientist that I have ever read. Rodney Stark writes in an age of reason to advance the cause of prejudice. Faiths other than Christianity made their contributions to reason as well. Wise people know this: blowhards and bigots do not. Stark owes more to Lenin than to [Max] Weber; agitprop, disdain, perfect certainty”all the Marxist arsenal is here, deployed not on behalf of class struggle but in the name of religious sectarianism. You can see that Wolfe does not like the book at all. Oh, yes, if I understand Wolfe correctly, Stark is also guilty of anti-Semitism. Along the way of Wolfe’s assault there are stunning gaffes. He has the Spanish Inquisition condemning Galileo, and invokes Charles Freeman as his authority for the claim that St. Paul was a fanatical enemy of reason. It was only later, writes Wolfe, most strikingly in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas that Christian theologians began to make their peace with reason. So much for Origen, the Gregories, Basil, Irenaeus, and a host of others whom the Church calls Fathers. Driving Alan Wolfe’s rage against Rodney Stark’s book, I expect, is his animus against the particularity of religion as it is believed and lived. As has been noted before in this space, Wolfe is a student of religion in general and is impatient with the commitment of others to religions in particular. Believers are right in thinking that religion is neglected in the academy but, says Wolfe, the real problem is that most believers do not believe in religion. They believe in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism”in a specific faith. Alan Wolfe believes in religion, or at least he believes that religion is interesting. He nicely sums up the controlling claim that informs all his work: Advocating religion over secularism runs the risk of dismissing secularists; advocating one religion over all the others degrades every believer who does not believe what you do. Of course, that can be neatly turned around: Advocating secularism over religion runs the risk of dismissing believers; advocating that all religions are more or less equal degrades what the believer in any religion believes. Alan Wolfe to the extreme contrary, Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason is an important book, and I am glad to see it has been receiving respectful reviews in places of influence. I have a blurb on the book’s dust jacket saying that it not only provides fresh answers but also frames old questions in a new way. Stark is bold, even swashbuckling at times, and there are generalizations that cry out for qualification. But The Victory of Reason is, all in all, a bracing intellectual and historical exercise, and it will be receiving further attention in these pages.
Think low. That is the advice that Midge Decter has had occasion to give me many times over the years. She’s right. My problem (well, among my many problems) is that, when somebody does or says something really dumb, I assume it is a failure of understanding and they just need to have the matter explained to them. I am averse to looking for ulterior motives, especially pecuniary motives. Part of that is charity and part of it is, I suppose, naiveté. Think low is closely related to Follow the dollar. All this was brought to mind by readers who said they greatly appreciated my critique of the New American Bible (NAB), but then added that I had overlooked the money factor. The Catholic Biblical Association is surely at fault for so much that is wrong with the NAB, writes a reader who is in a position to know, but the reason that abominable translation is foisted on the faithful at Mass has more to do with the budget of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). There is undoubtedly more than a little to that. A number of companies supply the Mass guides (called, ugh, missalettes) that are used in every Catholic parish, and that is a multi-million-dollar business. Unlike those who hold the copyright to the Revised Standard Version and allow it to be used at little or no charge, the NCCB charges an arm and a leg for the use of NAB. Mandating that the suppliers of Mass guides use the NAB is a major source of income for the bishops. Interestingly enough, in its own publications the NCCB tends not to use the NAB. Presumably because they don’t want a third-rate translation, and also because there is little point in paying exorbitant fees to themselves by using the NAB. So it is, for example, that the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the more recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church use the Revised Standard Version. The NAB, on the other hand, is good enough for the people at Mass. Plus, there is all that money from the publishers of Mass guides. I really do not like to think low, but sometimes explanations are less than edifying.
Kevin Seamus Hasson is the feisty founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an organization that is to be found in the forefront of battles over religion in the public square. He has now written an irenically assertive book, The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America (Encounter, 159 pages, $25.95), which includes this: Writ large, that is the solution to the culture war. Respect for others’ consciences, even when we’re sure they are wrong, is contagious. Not because it’s nice. (In fact, the postmodern consensus seems to be that it’s not nice to call anybody wrong.) Rather, it’s contagious because it conveys an important idea: Whether it’s a tradition as old and venerable as Buddhism or as new and flaky as parking-barrier worship doesn’t matter. Because of how we’re made, we are each free”within broad limits”to follow what we believe to be true in the manner that our consciences say we must. That is, we are free to celebrate our beliefs in public and try respectfully to persuade others of them. We are free, ultimately, to organize our entire lives around them. I doubt the book will end the culture war over religion, but it does”by way of clear argument, whimsy, and revealing anecdotes”make a powerful case countering the conventional pitting of truth against tolerance. It is respect for the dignity of the person, who is inseparable from what he holds to be true, that is the surest foundation of an authentically pluralistic society. My friend Seamus is sometimes pugnacious, but he is never nasty. He is undisguisedly impatient with bigots who claim to be offended by the existence of beliefs other than their own.
Of major newspapers, none has an editorial page as generally sensible as that of the Wall Street Journal . But then there is this: Churchill might wonder at today’s attitudes toward fighting terrorists, about American torture’ of prisoners, and about the U.S. President who’s often derided in London as a cowboy.’ The British Prime Minister’s clarity about the Nazi threat in World War II got his nation and the world successfully through that conflict. No one should doubt that Churchill was a great historical figure and that his cause was our cause and that cause was just. But the man was also possessed of a deeply shadowed side. In addition to condoning the reprisal killings of civilians, Churchill is also supposed to have said of the obliteration bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Dresden, Bomb and bomb until you’re bouncing the rubble. This is barbarism of a low order, and the fact that it was waged against barbarism of a lower order does not mitigate the abandonment of the moral order upon which civilization depends. Just as casually, many people, including many Christians, have accepted the intrinsically evil bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as justified by the assumed shortening of the war. In the current discussions of the Iraq war, torture, and concern about surveillance and civil liberties, much of the protest is wimpish or motivated by rank political partisanship. As the generally sensible editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal should know, however, the choice is not between being a wimp or being a thug.
Christina Page works for NARAL, one of the more strident pro-abortion lobbies, a