The Public Square
Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ”God Is Love”is dated the Feast of the Nativity but was not issued until late January. There has been so far surprisingly little commentary on the substance of the argument that the pope advances. Most of the initial response has to do more with the politics or even with what might be described as the public relations of the encyclical. God is Love sounds like a warm and fuzzy sentiment aimed, as many news reports said, at accenting the kinder and gentler side of a pontiff who has a reputation as a hard-edged enforcer of orthodoxy.
News reports also highlighted the claim that the second part of the document, which addresses the differences between the Church’s works of charity and secular politics, is in fact a reworking of notes for an encyclical that Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul the Great, had in mind. In truth, both the first and second parts are in striking continuity with Joseph Ratzinger’s writings over the decades, bearing the signature themes of his well-known critiques of political theologies that, he is convinced, distort the distinctiveness of the biblical message.
Deus Caritas Est is short, at least by comparison with encyclicals of recent pontificates, with forty-two sections under two headings. The first is Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History, and the second is The Practice of Love by the Church as a Community of Love. One might say the first is more purely theological, even speculative, while the second is more practical, but that distinction should not be pressed too hard. Throughout the document, theology and practice, theory and application, are in conversation with one another.
The argument”and it is a sustained argument”begins with and repeatedly returns to 1 John 4:16: God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. Benedict notes the many and sometimes contradictory ways in which the word love is used, and then asks, Are all these forms of love basically one, so that love, in its many and varied manifestations, is ultimately a single reality, or are we merely using the same word to designate totally different realities? He answers that question by coming down strongly on the side of the unity of love.
In the Greek, there are three words for love: eros, agape, and philia . He notes that the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses eros only twice, while the Greek New Testament doesn’t use it at all. While philia , meaning friendship, occurs in John’s Gospel, the biblical texts typically speak of love as agape , a word infrequently used in the Greek literature of the time.
While the pope does not mention it explicitly, he knows that he is on well-traveled turf. Many readers will be familiar with C.S. Lewis’ discussion of the four loves. More influential in the world of theology is the work of Anders Nygren, a Swedish theologian, who in the last century posited agape against eros . Nygren’s analysis is (too briefly stated) that eros is the essentially pagan dynamic of human aspiration toward the ecstatic or divine, while agape is the utterly gratuitous love of God preeminently exemplified in the Son of God’s gift of himself for our salvation.
Benedict’s purpose is to rehabilitate a Christian understanding of eros . He says that Friedrich Nietzsche and other moderns held that Christianity, with all its emphasis upon sin, sacrifice, and commandments, had poisoned the understanding of eros . They asked, Doesn’t [the Church] blow the whistle just when the joy that is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the divine? The pagan world, the pope says, saw eros as a kind of intoxicated longing, a divine madness, that found expression in fertility cults and the sacred prostitution that flourished in their temples. The Old Testament rejected such cults as incompatible with monotheistic faith, but it did not reject eros as such: An intoxicated and undisciplined eros is not an ascent in ecstasy’ toward the divine but a fall, a degradation of man.
There is, Benedict says, a certain relationship between love and the divine. Love promises infinity, eternity”a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday experience. But the attainment of the promise is not through succumbing to instinct but through a purification by renunciation that heals eros and restores its true grandeur.
Of critical importance is the understanding of the human being as both body and soul. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness.
The body should be neither denigrated nor exalted. The latter is the cultural tendency today when eros is reduced simply to sex and becomes a commodity, with the result that the person becomes a commodity. Thus the apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. The Song of Songs in the Old Testament shows the way in which love becomes concern and care for the other. Love’s growth advances as it becomes ever more definitive in the sense of exclusivity (this person alone) and is directed to the eternal (it is forever). Such love is ecstasy, not as a moment of intoxication but as a continuing journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self and toward the other, and finally toward God.
In philosophy and theology, a sharp antithesis is proposed between agape as the oblative love that unconditionally gives and eros as the love that seeks to possess. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the pope writes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. The more that agape and eros find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love is realized. Deus Caritas Est aims to reclaim the lived experience of love in all its complexity for a Christian understanding of human possibility. Biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man. For the Christian, love is more than, but not something other than, what the non-Christian means by love.
The new thing in biblical faith is the image of God and image of man. Israel’s Shema (Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord) establishes that all reality has its source in the one God whose creation is dear to Him. At the height of Greek philosophy, the divine power is the object of desire and love and moves the world, but this divine power in itself lacks nothing and does not love. Here Benedict draws on Old Testament images such as Hosea’s depiction of God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images. The language of the encyclical is itself bold, and could be misread as suggesting that God is not impassible and self-sufficient. But there is in fact a subtle trinitarian turn in which the unity of eros and agape is effected in the incarnation of the Son of God.
In the Old Testament depiction of the passion of God, Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the cross: So great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love. This passion is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. The Logos, the primordial reason that is the source of all being, is at the same time a passionate lover. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape . (In the second part of the encyclical, this distinction between love and justice”God turned against Himself”is key to Benedict’s understanding of politics as the realm of justice and the Church as the community of love.)
For a papal encyclical, the document is unusually attentive to the history of philosophy. The pope’s interlocutors include Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Plato in rehabilitating our understanding of love. There is a strong element of truth, says Benedict, in the myth, in Plato’s Symposium , of man having been split in two by Zeus, with the result that he longs for his other half. In the biblical narrative, man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become complete.’ Thus it is that corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage.
The novelty of the New Testament is in the understanding that, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the stray sheep,’ a suffering and lost humanity. His death on the cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him . . . . By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand the starting point of this encyclical letter: God is love.’ It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation, the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.
This is not an individual but a communal path. We are in sacramental communion with the crucified Christ, for it is as St. Paul says: Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10). Communion, the pope writes, draws me out of myself toward him and thus also toward unity with all Christians . . . . We can thus understand how agape also became a name for the Eucharist: There God’s own agape comes to us bodily in order to continue his work in us and through us . . . . Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply collapses. Worship’ itself, eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn.
Benedict then turns to the question of love of God and love of neighbor, asking whether we can love God without seeing him and whether love can be commanded. To the first question, scripture teaches that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God. As to whether love can be commanded, there is in Christ, and for those who are in Christ, a communion of will between God and man. God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.
And again: No longer is it a question, then, of a commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. In his speeches and audiences since becoming pope, few themes have been stressed so insistently by Benedict as the truth that the will of God is not an alien will, that God’s will is not a heteronymous imposition that constricts the self but an invitation to the fulfillment of the self by living a life of love in response to the gift of love. Thus is eros purified and fulfilled.
The second section of the encyclical, The Practice of Love by the Church as a Community of Love, engages the similarities and differences between love and justice”but mainly the differences. Jesus gave up his Spirit on the cross, which anticipates the gift of the Spirit to the ecclesial community in serving as the Lord served. The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man. This is the calling of every individual Christian and of the ecclesial community. Love needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community. Charity is constitutive of being the Church. Within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.
The choosing of the deacons in Acts has permanent importance. With the formation of this group of seven, diaconia ”the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian and orderly way”became part of the fundamental structure of the Church . . . . The Church can no more neglect the service of charity than she can neglect the sacraments and the word. Benedict notes that, when Julian the Apostate (d. 363) tried to abolish the Church and reestablish the pagan cults, the one thing he wanted his old-new religion to emulate was the Church’s ministry of charity. Thus, it is suggested, has the Church taught the world, including those who think of themselves as the enemies of the Church, the meaning of charity.
The nature of the Church is expressed at the deepest level by her threefold ministry of proclamation ( kerygma ), celebration of the sacraments ( leitourgia ), and works of charity ( diakonia ). For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others but is part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being. While the Church’s love is universal, she is also God’s family and has a particular responsibility to members of the family. Here the pope cites Galatians 6:10: So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Since the nineteenth century, and especially in Marxist doctrine, it has been said that charity must give way to justice; indeed that charity, by taking the edge off the consequences of injustice, is the enemy of justice. It must be admitted, writes Benedict, that the Church’s leadership was slow to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way. He then points to the body of modern social doctrine from Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century to my great predecessor John Paul II. This social doctrine provided the alternative to the Marxist notion that revolution and the collectivizing of the means of the production would establish a just society in which charity is superfluous. Of the Marxist claim, he says, This illusion has vanished.
Justice is the proper business of the state. Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. The Church, as affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, supports the autonomy of the temporal sphere. Between the Church and the state, the two spheres are distinct yet always interrelated. Then this reflection on the meaning of politics:
Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life. Its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The state must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: What is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.
At this point politics and faith meet. Politics is the realm of reason, and faith can help liberate reason from its blind spots and enable it to be more fully itself. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: It has no intention of giving the Church power over the state. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just. The Church teaches on the basis of reason and natural law . . . but it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. The last point is reiterated in several ways. As a political task, building a just social and civil order cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.
Readily recognizable here are the themes of John Paul II and Ratzinger pressed in response to political theologies”particularly the liberation theology so prominent a few decades ago. Love” caritas ”will always prove necessary even in the most just society, Benedict writes. There is no ordering of the state so just that it will eliminate the need for the service of love. The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing that the suffering person”every person”needs: namely, loving personal concern. The claim that just social structures would make charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live by bread alone’”a notion that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.
Ecclesial charity is an opus proprium , a work integral to the very nature of the Church. In the work of charity, the Church may cooperate with the state and others, but her work must never lose its Christian distinctiveness grounded in the love of God in Christ. She does not cooperate collaterally but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. Implicit in this understanding is that the Church is never simply an agent of society; she is a distinct society, doing what, by the grace of God, she does naturally.
In the Church’s work of charity, professional competence and effectiveness in meeting needs is not enough. Charity workers need a formation of the heart’: They need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. Further, Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. Especially must it be free from ideologies that deride charity as a stop-gap measure or even as the servant of an unjust status quo. Benedict’s language is strong: What we have [in such ideologies] is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future . . . . One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now.
Must the Church’s work of charity be directly related to evangelization, to what is today commonly called proselytizing? Benedict answers: Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith on others . . . . A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. Here he does not, but he might have, cited the maxim of St. Francis of Assisi that we should preach the gospel always, using words when necessary. Always, Benedict insists, Christian charity is rooted in and bears witness to the love of God in Christ.
The commitment to charity, if it is to be sustained and open-ended, must be free from delusions. [We] are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. If we would help others, we ourselves must be changed. It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work.
Confronted by perduring injustice, our prayer takes the form of crying out with Job, and is ultimately joined to the prayer of Jesus on the Cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Such prayer, says Benedict, is not an expression of despair but is the deepest and most radical way of affirming our faith in God’s sovereign power. As for the ideologists who claim to know the way to a perfectly just society and who build a case against God in defense of man, on whom can they depend when human activity proves powerless?
Caritas is the way, the only way, of the Church. Benedict points to the history of monasticism and the saints”Anthony, Francis, Ignatius, Vincent de Paul, Teresa of Calcutta”who are the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope, and love. And, above all, he points to Mary, for whom the Word of God becomes her word, and her word issues from the Word of God. That Word and that word is always and forever the word of caritas discovered in the truth that God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
Deus Caritas Est is not only a brief encyclical, as encyclicals go. It is also unusual in that there are few footnotes, thirty-six to be precise, and only two refer to earlier papal teaching. More substantively, one is struck by the determination to reclaim for Christian thought and life the human experience of eros , purified and fulfilled by agape . This should be grist for the mills of contemporary theologians.
I do not know what to make of the fact that the discussion of the fulfillment of the human person through being joined with a person of the opposite sex in marriage is not followed by a discussion of celibacy. In recent years, and notably in the teaching of John Paul the Great, there has been much attention paid to the nuptial character of priestly celibacy. The absence of that theme in a discussion where it might have been expected is not without interest. Perhaps the explanation is simply that not everything can be treated in one encyclical.
Particularly striking is what some may see as Benedict’s realistic, antiutopian, and even dour view of the possibilities of justice in a fallen world. Benedict is very much in the Augustinian tradition, and St. Augustine is repeatedly cited in Deus Caritas Est . He is also known to be a sympathetic student of the theology of the Augustinian-formed Martin Luther, and I expect some theologians will see elements of Luther’s concept of the twofold kingdom of God in this encyclical.
In the treatment of the relation between justice and love, in which God turns against himself, there is something of the paradoxical way in which God exercises his sovereignty. Justice is the alien or left-hand rule of God through temporal powers, while love is the proper or right-hand rule of God through the Church and the gospel she proclaims and lives. The parallels with Luther’s conceptualization are intriguing. At the same time, however, Luther was not entirely original, and a similar conceptualization could no doubt be developed from the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. But that is a subject for another time.
Arresting, too, is Benedict’s understanding of the collapse of the contraposition between worship and ethics. The emphasis on the ecclesial community, the Church, as a distinct society or, as he repeatedly says, as a family suggests that leitourgia , and especially the Eucharist, is, in fact, the enactment within history of the new politics for which the human heart yearns. We are rightly outraged by injustice and hungry for justice. In an anticipatory way, recognized by faith, the crucified and risen Christ satisfies that hunger in the celebration of agape that is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is in this way the anticipated new politics of the Kingdom in which justice and love will be again and forever one.
Here I am, admittedly, going beyond what the encyclical explicitly says”but not beyond what it suggests. One thing is manifestly clear: Far from being an anodyne document aimed at putting a friendly face on this pontificate, the encyclical is a radical call for the Church to be the Church in a world in which unsentimental candor continues to compel the cry, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The answer to that cry is that, despite all and in all and through all, Deus caritas est .
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in 1906 and martyred by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, well understood the demonic nature of political utopianism. When eternities are demanded of life, the powers of the earth readily pay the price of death in order to force life to deliver on the demand. Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics :
The miracle of Christ’s resurrection makes nonsense of that idolization of death which is prevalent among us today. Where death is the last thing, fear of death is combined with defiance. Where death is the last thing, earthly life is all or nothing. Boastful reliance on earthly eternities goes side by side with a frivolous playing with life. A convulsive acceptance and seizing hold of life stands cheek by jowl with indifference and contempt for life. There is no clearer indication of the idolization of death than when a period claims to be building for eternity and yet life has no value in this period, or when big words are spoken of a new man, of a new world and of a new society which is to be ushered in, and yet all that is new is the destruction of life as we have it. The drastic acceptance or rejection of earthly life reveals that only death has any value here. To clutch at everything or to cast away everything is the reaction of one who believes fanatically in death.
But wherever it is recognized that the power of death is illumined by the miracle of the resurrection and of the new life, there no eternities are demanded of life but one takes of life what it offers, not all or nothing, but good and evil, the important and the unimportant, joy and sorrow; one neither clings convulsively to life nor casts it frivolously away. One is content with the allotted span and one does not invest earthly things with the title of eternity; one allows to death the limited rights which it still possesses. It is from beyond death that one expects the coming of the new man and of the new world, from the power by which death has been vanquished.
While We’re At It
Evangelicalism, now much absorbed by the arts and tricks of marketing, is simply not very serious anymore. That is the judgment of David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in a new book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs (Eerdmans). Forget about the poetic spelling of powers in the title; this is a book of considerable interest. More than half of it is devoted to an overview of the last several decades of sociological writing about religion and modernity, with major attention to the work of Peter L. Berger, and laced with a theological critique indebted chiefly to Karl Barth. The last third of the book is a devastating polemic against the evangelical megachurch phenomenon, with its pandering to seekers in search of a vaguely spiritual uplift devoid of concern for truth or serious discipleship. The panderers, writes Wells, claim to be winning souls for Christ, but in fact the number of born again Christians is static. They are really engaged in niche marketing by selling spiritual entertainment that, by comparison, makes Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace look like the way of the Cross. Wells writes: This is probably the first time that Christian people anywhere in the West have thought that ecclesiastical architecture is, in principle, offensive, that religious symbols, such as crosses, should be banned from churches, that pulpits should be abandoned, that hymns should be abolished, that pews should be sent to the garbage dump, and that pianos and organs should be removed. All of this has been happening on the forefront of this movement. This is probably the first time, too, that churchgoers have wanted their buildings to be mistaken for corporate headquarters or country clubs.
There are exquisite ironies here. In The Kingdom of God in America (1937), H. Richard Niebuhr famously summarized the gospel of Protestant liberalism: A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. That is, mutatis mutandis , pretty much how David Wells describes the gospel on offer at the evangelical supermarkets. From my limited knowledge of that world, much of his indictment has the ring of truth. Certainly, a movement that sells entertainment and the experience of spiritual highs to the neglect of the doctrinal, devotional, intellectual, and artistic traditions of historic Christianity will strike others, Christians and non-Christians alike, as not very serious. At the same time, it must be said that the evangelicalism criticized by David Wells is hardly the whole of all the worlds of evangelicalism in this country.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded in 1915 by Arthur O. Lovejoy, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and John Dewey in order to defend academic freedom. It has over the years had rocky relations with religiously inspired colleges and universities, especially those that require subscribing to a statement of faith. Writing in Academe , Lee Hardy, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College, says: The AAUP was founded during the heyday of American progressivism, a broad cultural movement that invested its hopes for the future of humanity in the free and untrammeled development of the natural and social sciences. It also posited a conflict in principle between science and religion. In fact, it looked forward to the eventual triumph of science over religion; science was to replace religion as the basis of human public life and culture. Hardy claims it is a considerable benefit to be at Calvin where I could draw on the full range of my convictions in my teaching and research, a freedom I was not likely to enjoy in an officially secular environment. He writes: Much of the literature on academic freedom at religious colleges and universities seems to miss this point entirely. A religiously affiliated institution of higher learning is, after all, an elective association within civil society. It is not a political society into which people are born willy-nilly, nor is it the only game in town. Faculty members are not compelled to teach at a church-related college or university against their will. Treating the academy as if it were the state and not a free association of the likeminded, the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles refers to institutions which impose upon their faculties doctrinal standards of a sectarian or partisan character.’ (Emphasis added.) Similarly, in the 1993 book Freedom and Tenure in the Academy , philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson and legal scholar Matthew Finkin speak of doctrinal requirements as a form of coercion, where academic institutions police’ their faculties, employing the techniques of terror. I find this language wholly foreign to my experience as a faculty member at Calvin College”and about as appropriate as charging the Sierra Club with using terrorist tactics for expecting its employees to be committed to a strong environmental agenda. I endorse the idea of a liberal state that is neutral on issues of God and the good in order to accommodate deep cultural diversity, but the free associations of civil society should not be required to adopt a position of neutrality on these issues as well. In fact, requiring such neutrality would be an excellent way to eliminate the cultural diversity that liberal society is designed to protect. That is not all that is to be said about the contribution of determinedly Christian colleges, but it is something that needs saying again and again.
Patty Crowley has died at age ninety-two. She and her husband Pat were once very major figures in American Catholicism. The Christian Family Movement, which they led, was a powerful force of renewal for Catholic family life and lay leadership in the Church. Then came 1968, the concerted attack on the encyclical Humanae Vitae , and the shattering of, among many other things, the Christian Family Movement. Peter Steinfels reflects in the New York Times on the death of Patty Crowley: She was, in other words, representative of a large segment of American Catholics who have come to enjoy material security, good educations, and confidence in their own initiatives. If, like her, they reached maturity before the crisis over Church authority that began with the birth control controversy, they often have a kind of bred-in-the-bones Catholicism . . . . Patty Crowley and her peers never doubted that the Church had something to say, but after 1968 they began to wonder whether it was interested in listening. That puts the matter very nicely, I think. The Chicago funeral of Patty Crowley was, writes Steinfels, a kind of last hurrah for a certain kind of Catholic. A half-century ago, they were often called Commonweal Catholics, referring to a magazine of which Peter Steinfels was once the editor, being succeeded by his wife Peggy Steinfels. They were American Catholics rather than Catholic Americans, a distinction that I develop in Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth , published in March by Basic Books. They thought they were pioneering an American way of being Catholic, rather than being called to model a Catholic way of being American. They were bred-in-the-bone Catholics who felt betrayed by a Church that did not accommodate itself to their having arrived in America. But of course, the Church is universal, not just American, and is obliged by truths that are eternal and not limited to the Camelot moment of Commonweal Catholics. With the dramatic expansion of the Church on other continents, it became evident that American Catholicism, while not exactly a sideshow, is certainly not front stage center. This is a bitter pill for nostalgists who gathered for the last hurrah in Chicago. Steinfels’ recent book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America , looks back longingly to what he views as the inspiring leadership of such figures as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, and laments the era of John Paul II and Ratzinger, now become Benedict XVI. What he laments as the derailing of the American Catholic coming of age a younger generation of Catholics is discovering as the high adventure of fidelity. Peter Steinfels is right. We are witnessing the long last hurrah of an older generation who believed that liberation from Catholic teaching, epitomized by the insurrection of 1968, was the future. There will be many more funerals at which mourners of like mind will reminisce about the revolution that was not to be. Meanwhile, a new era of vibrant orthodoxy is, please God, aborning.
Marian Salzman is connected with an advertising agency called JWT Worldwide and got considerable attention by inventing the term metrosexual. In her new book, The Future of Men , she’s going for her full fifteen minutes by announcing that this year’s man is the ubersexual. Ubersexuals are men who embrace the positive aspects of their masculinity, such as confidence, leadership, passion, and compassion. But they do so without giving in to negative neanderthal stereotypes. The ubersexual has a passion for principles. The metrosexual has a passion for fashion, and so forth. The ubersexual does not turn up his nose at any cultural pursuit that doesn’t involve sports, beer, or burgers. Who knows, he might even subscribe to First Things . Before signing up for this season’s personality remake, however, you might check out whether the woman in your life is comfortable with the über implied in being an ubersexual.
A media flutter followed the report that Benedict XVI had said that Islam is incapable of reform. What happened is that Father Joseph Fessio, in a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, had discussed a meeting with the pope in which the pope reflected on the way that Christians and Muslims differ in their understanding of their sacred scriptures. Neither the pope nor Fr. Fessio, says Fr. Fessio, claimed that Islam is incapable of reform. The important difference, he explains, is that the Qur’an is understood as the words of God delivered directly to Muhammad while Christians understand the Bible to be both the Word of God and the words of men inspired by God, within a community that contains divinely appointed authorized interpreters. Fr. Fessio writes, My later remarks in a live radio interview were extemporaneous. I think that I paraphrased the Holy Father with general accuracy, but my mentioning what he said at all was an indiscretion, and my impromptu paraphrase should not be used for a careful exegesis of the mind of the Holy Father. So that clears up that. What Benedict has said on the record, it should be noted, gives reason to believe that he has a very sobering view of the deep differences between Islam and Christianity.
So now I’ll never get a chance to see it. NBC pulled its weekly drama, The Book of Daniel . A friend describes it this way: Played by Aidan Quinn, the title character was an Episcopal priest with a tumultuous family and church life. Daniel was addicted to painkillers and had an alcoholic wife, an adulterous bishop and father, a homosexual son, a drug-dealing daughter, a promiscuous teenage son, a brother-in-law embezzling from the church, and a lesbian sister-in-law engaging in group sex. Periodically in the program, Jesus appears to the priest to dispense non-judgmental comments. Situated in a posh Connecticut suburb, The Book of Daniel depicted wealthy Episcopalians who fought and cavorted at the church, the country club, and the priest’s handsome colonial mansion. The bishop warns the priest that his liberal ways may provoke the supposedly strict archbishop of Canterbury. I might have to report you to Rowan Williams, one imagines the bishop saying. The daring priest is not intimidated. Understandably. As it happens, the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut is a very liberal fellow who is making life difficult for dissenting conservative priests and parishes. It is understandable that few Americans could identify with the liberal country club hijinks of wealthy Episcopalians in Connecticut. But one has to wonder what the folks at NBC had in mind in the first place. As a depiction of liberal religion, the lesson would seem to be that, after the rebellious children have taken over the house and then burned it to the ground, they still need to pretend that there is a parent who is going to call them to account. Otherwise, what is the point of rebelling? I’m going to tell the archbishop of Canterbury on you. Standing tall with chin high, they boldly respond, Go ahead, see if we care. We dare you! Followed by an eerie silence as the realization dawns that there is no parent, there are no rules, nobody is watching, nobody cares, the show has been cancelled.
On January 17, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand Oregon’s law permitting doctor-assisted suicide. The issues were, as is often the case, tangled, with the relation between federal and state jurisdiction very much in play. A deeply troubling aspect is that the court majority accepted assisted suicide as a form of medical care, while those in the minority vigorously protested that caring can never mean killing. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, wrote a moving reflection on the Court’s decision, which included this: For the victims of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law the world has become a place that they feel is not worth living in. In the past, we would have seen this as a desperate cry for help, a sign of depression, a sign that the person needs help not to die but to live better. The Oregon Solution, however, removes any glimmer of hope and assures the person that their feelings of hopelessness, perhaps uselessness, feelings of being a burden are all exactly right. So when the depressed person says, I don’t feel like I have any reason to continue living,’ Oregon says, You know, you’re right! There really is no reason for you to continue living.’ What a horrible thing to do to depressed, distressed, suffering, and even terminally ill persons. The human spirit seeks meaning, grasps at hope, and Oregon takes these away. Clearly, sick and suffering people feel that their lives are meaningless. We can either affirm or deny meaning for them. One leads to life the other to suicide. Life is meaningful and valuable. Suicide affirms hopelessness. In the past when someone complained of the intolerable burdens of life, someone might propose calling the doctor. Now if someone complains of the intolerable burdens of life, someone might propose that if they truly feel that way then maybe they should call the Doctor.’ Instead of affirming the person’s worth and value as a person, as a family member, and as a member of the human family, the feelings of despair are ratified as valid and acceptable. Then there is no genuine attempt to treat and terminate the patient’s attitude toward his unchangeable fate’ but rather a termination of the patient. I often tell people in distress, Trust what you know, not what you feel.’ The terminally ill patients need assurances of what they know from experience. They need to know that their lives are valuable and worth living. They need to know that they are loved and esteemed and even needed. Every suicide, and especially an assisted suicide, represents a failure of the human community to affirm the meaning of a person’s life. Ask not for whom the bells toll.
Given time enough, some disputes do get clarified. It will be remembered that, early in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Father Thomas Reese resigned as editor of the Jesuit weekly America . The New York Times depicted it as a sign of the reign of terror to come and the editors of Commonweal went ballistic in their protest against the ham-fisted oppression of Rome. I suggested that everybody should calm down; that there were serious problems with the way Fr. Reese was running the magazine; that we should not dismiss his claim that he had voluntarily resigned; and that, in any event, if he was fired, it was the Society of Jesus that did the firing. John Allen recently asked Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Jesuits, what really happened. Kolvenbach said: America magazine, under the competent and dynamic guidance of Fr. Tom Reese, believed that the best service to a mature Catholic public was to let the two sides of a controversial question defend their views. However, this orientation did not meet the approval of some pastorally concerned priests who were worried about a negative effect on the faith-growth of the Catholics. They expect that Jesuit publications will offer clear standings to meet the questions of the day, avoiding confusion and relativism. Unhappily, instead of changing his policy, Fr. Reese resigned. This episode takes us back to St. Ignatius when he speaks about sentire cum ecclesia [thinking with the Church]. Fr. Kolvenbach has generous words for Fr. Reese personally. He notes”and, it would seem, agrees with”the expectation that Jesuit publications should clearly support Catholic teaching, and he regrets that Fr. Reese chose to resign rather than change his way of editing America . Allen asks whether concerns about America came from the United States rather than the Vatican. Kolvenbach: Yes, from clergy outside the Jesuits in the United States, including some in senior positions. If one credits the account of Fr. Kolvenbach, and I do, that should put an end to claims that Benedict forced the removal of Fr. Reese. On the other hand, I would not have been upset if he had done so, although I was rather certain he had not. Finally, one notes with regret that there has been little discernible change in the editorial direction of America . The magazine’s recent and apparently unequivocal editorial rejection of Rome’s instruction on homosexuality and the priesthood is a troubling case in point.
Once you have made the world an end and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing, C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours. That piece of wisdom is quoted by Jason Byassee, assistant editor of the mainline/oldline magazine Christian Century , cautioning evangelicals against the intoxication of political influence. It’s tempting to trade fidelity for influence, writes Byassee, but it’s hard to get fidelity back, and influence doesn’t satisfy. These dire warnings aside, enjoy your time at the top. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever,’ Scripture says. Political power is a good deal more transient than the things we both hold most dear. When the powers that be are done with you, we mainline liberals will have a rocking chair for you at the retirement home of the formerly religiously important. Maybe then we can finally see each other as sisters and brothers.
The foregoing counsel is always timely. Put not your trust in princes, as the Psalmist says. Christian history is strewn with examples of those who have sold their spiritual birthright for a pot of political message. While not detracting from Mr. Byassee’s cautions, however, it should be noted that evangelicals will get to the retirement home by a very different trajectory. The old Protestant establishment (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregationalist”the core constituents of the National Council of Churches) were the natural heirs of America’s founding class. Religious and cultural hegemony was theirs by right. Beginning in the 1960s, they squandered it in a spasm of guilt over real and alleged injustices of American society, and of hubris that they, being the vital center, represented a better America determined to join the right side”meaning the left side”of the global revolution. More important, they squandered it theologically, mortgaging the gospel of the Kingdom to invest recklessly in the secular city. The public insurgency of the evangelicals that began in the late 1970s was very different. They understood themselves to be engaged in an aggressive defense against the ruling class, including the religious ruling class, that had once driven them into the wilderness and now threatened to destroy what was left of the world they held dear. As Philip Jenkins underscores in his most recent book, Decade of Nightmares , it is hard to remember now just how arrogantly aggressive and confident liberalism was in the mid-1970s. Thirty years later, some evangelicals are intoxicated with their newfound public influence. They pinch themselves as they walk through the corridors of power. They tell themselves they have arrived, not really believing it. Just as well. Perhaps not as rapidly as their ascent, but disappointment, corruption, and decline will surely come. They will never become the Protestant establishment in the way that the National Council was once the Protestant establishment. There are many reasons for that, and not least because they came to influence by contending against the dreams of progressive secularism that the old establishment so faithfully, and fatefully, served. But it is surely to be hoped that in time, and not waiting until the retirement home, Christians will discover one another as brothers and sisters in allegiance to the One whose kingdom is not of this world.
The Austrian bishops came visiting and Pope Benedict spoke to them like a Bavarian uncle: There are some topics relating to the truth of the faith, and above all to moral doctrine, which are not present in the catechesis and preaching of your dioceses to a sufficient extent, and which sometimes are either not confronted at all or are not addressed in the clear sense understood by the Church. Perhaps those who are responsible for the proclamation [of the truth] are afraid that people may draw back if they speak too clearly. However, experience in general demonstrates that it is precisely the opposite that happens. Don’t deceive yourselves! Catholic teaching offered in an incomplete manner is a contradiction of itself and cannot be fruitful in the long term. What about that don’t you understand?
James Tramel, a convicted murderer, was paroled by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger after he had demonstrated that he is a new man. He was then ordained a priest by Bishop William Swing, the Episcopal episcopos of San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Swing used a blueberry muffin and grape soda out of the prison vending machine as stand-ins for bread and wine during the ceremony. Some ask, Why? Others ask, Why not?
The Da Vinci Code , the movie, is scheduled to open on May 19 and we’ve noted here projects by which some evangelical groups are, in curious ways, cooperating with the producers in getting Christians to go see it. The idea is that this is a teachable moment and a great opportunity to counter flagrant lies with the truth. Well, maybe, but I’ve never noticed that there is such a shortage of flagrant lies that we have to go about promoting them in order to have something to counter. In any event, the concern is expressed that, while our evangelical friends might counter the manifestly anti-biblical aspects of the book and movie, they are not likely to be as alert as they should be to the anti-Catholicism with which the story is riddled. In part because some of them might share Dan Brown’s twisted view of Catholicism. So, I am asked, where are the Catholics who are intelligently and energetically countering the fiction that is the Da Vinci Code . The answer is that they’re all over the Internet. For starters, you might want to check out Catholic Exchange at www.davinciantidote.com . There you will come across The Da Vinci Hoax by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, published by Ignatius Press. And a neat little 130-page book called The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions About the Facts and Fictions of the Da Vinci Code , published by Ascension Press, which also supplies posters and other promotional materials for forming parish discussion groups about the book and the film. It is true that we have made only passing reference to the Da Vinci phenomenon in these pages. The magazine cannot do everything, and our attention to pop culture is limited. That doesn’t mean pop culture is unimportant; it’s called pop because it is popular and influences, for better and worse, people beyond numbering. Our shtick is interesting ideas and Mr. Brown does not have any interesting ideas to engage. He is a teller of tall tales, and what he does he does very well, at least as measured by sales. I don’t think one needs to help the producers by encouraging people to go see the movie. It is expected that millions will do that without the help of church leaders, whether evangelical or Catholic. It can be turned into a genuine teachable moment, however, and imaginative planners of parish programs should employ the abundant materials available to take advantage of the widespread interest.
For some people, it takes an awful lot to trigger righteous anger. Especially when they recognize that they’re not being attacked without reason. Greg Erlandson, publisher of Our Sunday Visitor , begins his article with an acknowledgment of the horror of clerical sex abuse. Any priest who is found guilty of such abuse in an objective investigation or in an appropriate court should be dealt with according to the laws of the state and the Church. Then he changes pace: But we are so far past this point. Then comes the anger, which is not to be confused with hate but is just outrage at gross injustice. Catholics are being robbed by a collection of activists, judges, legislators, and lawyers in a shrewdly manipulated hysteria that shows no sign of abating. It has resulted in an estimated one billion dollars in payments. Now parish properties and services are at risk . . . . No other institution has undergone this kind of scrutiny”or taken similar steps to remedy the problems. It is estimated that the number of abuse cases in one year in the nation’s public schools is larger than the total number of alleged cases in the Church in the past 50 years. More specifically, in 1998 the U.S. Department of Justice listed 103,600 reported cases of sexual abuse in public schools, while in the 53 years from 1950 to 2003 there were 10,667 reported cases of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. That’s ten times as many in a single year as instances of clerical abuse in more than half a century. Yet the media and the legal system, which profess to be concerned about protecting children, have had little to say about abuse in public schools or other institutions. An honorable exception is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which ran a series on Dirty Secrets, examining sex abuse in public schools regionally and nationally. That was back in 1999. Public schools are protected by government immunities from large claims for damages, and abusing teachers are routinely moved from classroom to classroom. The Catholic Church is being singled out, Erlandson writes. You are being singled out. It is your pocket that is being picked clean. It is Catholic schools, Catholic aid programs, Catholic charities, Catholic parishes that are being bled dry. I believe it is time that Catholics fight back. Turn the spotlight on the legal profiteers of sexual-abuse allegations . . . . Oppose legislative efforts to further punish the Church by rolling back the statutes of limitations. On the latter score, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, supported by Protestant and Orthodox leaders, is leading the fight in Colorado. Erlandson concludes: Bishops have made mistakes. So have the lawyers and doctors who counseled them. Some of these mistakes were compounded by clericalism, arrogance, and insensitivity. But this controversy is no longer about these men. This is about us. We can continue to allow the Church to be singled out for extraordinary punishment, or we can finally say, Enough!’ The Erlandson article is, I believe, more than a straw in the wind. During the Long Lent that began in Boston in 2002, bishops and priests have been in a defensive posture, and understandably so. Lay people such as Erlandson are, while in no way fudging their disappointment with their leaders, saying that it is past time for Catholics to come to the defense of their Church. The patrimony built by generations of devotion is being looted by trial lawyers and politicians. Righteous anger is in order.
Despite its being discredited by scholars again and again, Inherit the Wind , a dramatization of the 1925 Scopes trial, is still a favorite with high school and college drama groups. I saw somewhere”I forget where”that Norman Lear, the television producer, is funding a new dramatization of the trial with Ed Asner playing William Jennings Bryan. In any event, in the received account Bryan is the Bible-thumping dolt who is totally destroyed by the rapier-like tongue of Clarence Darrow.
One thing leading to another, I thought you might be interested in this account of a debate on the future of religion between Clarence Darrow and G.K. Chesterton at the Mecca Temple in New York City. The account is by the noted journalist Henry Hazlitt and appeared in the February 4, 1931, issue of the Nation .
In the ballot that followed, the audience voted more than two to one for the defender of the faith, Mr. Chesterton of course, and if the vote was on the relative merits of the two debaters, and not on the question itself, it was surely a very just one. Mr. Chesterton’s argument was like Mr. Chesterton, amiable, courteous, jolly; it was always clever, it was full of nice turns of expression, and altogether a very adroit exhibition by one of the world’s ablest intellectual fencing masters and one of its most charming gentlemen. Mr. Darrow’s personality, by contrast, seemed rather colorless and certainly very dour. His attitude seemed almost surly: he slurred his words; the rise and fall of voice was sometimes heavily melodramatic, and his argument was conducted on an amazingly low intellectual level.
Ostensibly the defender of science against Mr. Chesterton, he obviously knew much less about science than Mr. Chesterton did; when he essayed to answer his opponent on the views of Eddington and Jeans, it was patent that he did not have the remotest conception of what the new physics was all about. His victory over Mr. Byran at Dayton had been too cheap and easy; he remembered it not wisely but too well. His arguments are still the arguments of the village atheist of the Ingersoll period; at Mecca Temple he still seemed to be trying to shock and convince yokels.
Mr. Chesterton’s deportment was irreproachable, but I am sure that he was secretly unhappy. He had been on the platform many times against George Bernard Shaw. This opponent could not extend his powers. He was not getting his exercise.
To other forms of exercise, one notes in passing, GKC was decidedly averse.
The fanatically secularist-socialist government of Spain has decided that birth certificates will no longer specify a mother and father, since those terms presuppose distinctions which can no longer be assumed. Father will be replaced by Progenitor A and mother will become Progenitor B. Note the lingering patriarchy in the man getting the first letter of the alphabet. And I’m not sure how this change resolves the uncertainty about distinctions that can no longer be assumed. I take it that the sex-distinctive names of the parties involved will still be allowed, so that it should not be too difficult to tell the mother from the father, or at least the female from the male. But the engineers of the brave new world are undoubtedly working on that, too. While I’m on the subject of curious uses of the alphabet, I’ve never seen anybody remark on this American habit of calling the children of the baby boomers Generation X, while those who are now under age twenty-five or so are called Generation Y. There is only one letter left. The assumption is that the next generation will be the last? Just asking.
A sloppy censor at the New York Times is possibly out looking for a job. Here is a story by Carl Zimmer about medical research on pregnancy. It is noted that the heart and the kidney work fine for years and years, but pregnancy is associated with all sorts of medical problems. Then this: The difference is that the heart and kidney belong to a single individual, while pregnancy is a two-person operation. And this operation does not run in perfect harmony . . . . A mother and her unborn child engage in an unconscious struggle over the nutrients she will provide it. Two persons ? Unborn child ? So far the slips have not been noted in the Corrections section of the paper.
The New York Times editorialists broke out in a paean of praise for Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles. His bold initiative, we were told, contributed to raising the level of moral discourse in public policy. You can be sure the subject was not abortion or same-sex marriage. No, the cardinal had used the occasion of an Ash Wednesday statement to declare that he would instruct his priests and other church workers not to cooperate with any federal regulation requiring citizens to snitch on illegal immigrants. The term civil disobedience was used, which gave the statement a frisson of liberal causes past. Leaving occasion and rhetoric aside, of course the cardinal is right. The Church ministers to people in need, and its ministers are not agents of the state. In large parts of the Southwest, but not only in the Southwest, the majority of those with whom priests work are in the country under circumstances that are at least legally doubtful. The low estimate is that there are eleven million illegal immigrants working in the United States. Any law that would require clergy to serve as federal immigration officers would be unjust and monumentally dumb, and I expect the Congress knows that. On the larger question of what is to be done about immigration, I recently examined the various ways of thinking about this proposed by Noah Pickus in his book, True Faith and A