Years ago, writes John Leo in U.S. News & World Report , an old friend, now deceased, was ordained a priest and joined a new community in the Midwest. My friend was homosexual, and it slowly dawned on me, on a visit out there, that the other priests in the house seemed to be gay too. So was the local bishop, according to the clerical grapevine . . . . Bishop Wilton Gregory, the current head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently said, Its an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men. Apprehension about gay domination of the Church is now a top-level concern? Ordinary Catholics hadnt been told. Now, if they have been paying even a modicum of attention, they know.
Before we turn to the delicate matter of homosexuality and the priesthood, there are a few other developments in the Long Lent that is now well into its second year. The National Review Board mandated by the Dallas meeting of bishops last June has set up a schedule for issuing four reports. By this June they hope to have an account of just how many priests have abused how many minors and the circumstances in which the abuse occurred. Come December, there will be a report, based on visits of auditing teams to all 194 dioceses, on how the procedures approved by Dallas and revised by Rome have been implemented in the handling of these cases. A third report, with date unspecified, will employ in-depth interviews with priests, victims, bishops, and others on the causes of abuse, while a fourth will be farmed out to social scientists, psychologists, and other experts who will take several years to analyze the crisis in relation to its larger social context, comparing clergy abuse rates with other professions, and so forth.
There is disagreement within the board on whether to press bishops to release the names of all priests-living, retired, dead, or afflicted with Alzheimers-who have ever been accused of abuse, going back as far as there are confidential files that can be publicized. That was done most conspicuously by William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, for which he won the plaudits of the media and the outrage of others for destroying the reputations of priests who have no chance to defend themselves. Ray H. Siegfried II, a member of the board, is pushing for such disclosures. Transparency is what the charter says, he insists, and anything short of that this businessman is not going to accept. And if that means suspending the Eighth Commandment, well, its all in a good cause. Board member Robert Bennett says, We have to look at the institution, and at systemic problems. What is the role of celibacy? Of homosexuality? We are going to deal with the very tough issues. Im certain we are not going to get into doctrinal issues, unless they are a cause. The implication would seem to be that, if the review board determines that the Churchs doctrine is causing sexual abuse, the Church will just have to change her doctrine.
On the anniversary of the breaking of the Boston scandal in January of last year, the New York Times ran its own front-page report in a long story with multiple graphs reflecting what is repeatedly referred to as the Times research. For those who have been following the story carefully, there is little new in it. Examining priests who have been ordained from 1950 to the present, it is said that 1,205 have been accused of some kind of sexual abuse, with half of them molesting more than one minor and 16 percent accused of having five or more victims. There are, says the Times , 4,268 known victims. Eighty percent of the alleged abuse is against boys, mainly teenagers. The highest rate of accusations involves those ordained in the 1970s, of whom 3.3 percent have been accused. Since January 2002, 432 accused priests have resigned, retired, or been removed from ministry. Of all priests ordained since 1950, 1.8 percent have been accused. The percentage is higher in places such as Boston where dioceses have been forced to disclose their files.
In a sidebar to the story, it is said that the study, although the most complete of its kind, faces some methodological limitations that make it difficult for either supporters or opponents of the Church to draw sweeping conclusions. Although some facts were verified from the Church or other official sources, some information was based on published reports that could not be independently verified by the Times . The report describes abuse as pervasive, and, whether because of sloppy reporting or editing, confuses the question by including incidents dating from the 1930s and 1940s. The interesting implication is that supporters of the Church want to minimize and opponents to exaggerate the incidence of abuse. The tone and substance of the three-page story leave little doubt that the Times is in the second camp. But, in reality, things are much more complicated. Many traditionalists are inclined to exaggerate in order to demonstrate how deep is the rot, while many progressives exaggerate in order to advance their goals, particularly married clergy and the ordination of women. The Times frequently equates accusations with known guilt, but I would not be surprised if the figure of 1.8 percent accused turns out to be somewhat low. Lawyers are busily soliciting suits and some victims, also from the 1980s and 1990s, may be taking their time about going public. There are, quite possibly, more than a few such time bombs that will be going off in the years ahead.
It is said by students of journalism that the priest scandal received more media attention last year than any story except the war on terrorism. It was persistently on the front page of the Times , sometimes for days running. Yet in the two multi-page roundups at years end, summarizing the most important news of the year past, the scandal received a passing mention. Does this mean the Times thinks the scandal is not that important after all? Or perhaps it does not qualify as news, but if it is not news, what is it? Maybe a favored cause of the media that better fits the category of advocacy. In that case, featuring it in the end-of-the-year roundups might look like the media celebrating itself. That has been known to happen. Or maybe the editors responsible just overlooked the story, although one supposes they read their own paper. In any event, it struck this reader as curious.
Lawyers in the Ring
Editors may eventually weary of the story, but not, I expect, anytime soon. Meanwhile, those who love the Church must be braced for more grim news with no end in sight. Those who hate the Church will not let the story go. Writes one columnist, The Catholic Church in the United States is finished, but it will take years to bury the corpse. Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and longtime professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, offers some vivid observations on the mistake of the bishops in inviting the lawyers to help run the Church. Like overstaying guests, they wont leave. The bishops, accustomed to being both owners and managers of the team, as well as umpires making all the calls at every hierarchical home game, must now play on the home field, and according to the rules, of the lawyers. This is a direct result of the bishops Faustian pact with the law, signed in their own blood at Dallas, lowering the drawbridge and allowing lawyers to enter and seize the inner workings of the Church.
Ignore the battling metaphors; hes making an important point. The bishops belatedly pried their hands away from their own eyes and admitted at Dallas that they had a problem. Their solution was to hand it over to the legal system, to empty their files onto prosecutors desks, and to hide under their own desks to look good legally as they removed priests automatically on the basis of accusations alone. Victims sue, priests countersue for defamation of character, and lawyers flourish. Kennedy compares it to the World Wrestling Federation. This fixed performance is what lawyers do. They dont make any secret of it. They have been to wrestling school together and the main object is how to use mock strangleholds to squeeze money, not justice, out of the system. The other parties in the drama become secondary to the lawyers in the middle of the ring and their dream of dividing a championship purse without really hurting each other. They want to do this again next week in a different place.
A promising alternative to that charade is offered by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, who has the unenviable task of restoring the deeply divided and demoralized diocese left by his predecessor, Rembert Weakland, who resigned in disgrace. Dolans pastoral letter, Reform, Reconciliation, Renewal, is the work of a bishop who knows how to bishop. It addresses the crisis in the Churchs language of sin and grace, is responsive to critics and victims without pandering, and accents restorative justice, which means employing a way of mediation that sidelines the lawyers while, at the same time, meeting all legal requirements. The mediation I envision, says Dolan, is a process independent of litigation where victims and their advocates meet with representatives of the archdiocese, without lawyers, to come to a response of pastoral, spiritual, emotional, and restorative care . . . . I believe with all my heart and soul that Jesus is purifying and renewing his Church through all this sorrow and pain. There is undoubtedly much more pain to come, but Dolans initiative has been well received by almost everyone in Milwaukee and suggests itself as a model for other dioceses. (A copy of the pastoral letter may be obtained by writing the Archbishop at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, P.O. Box 070912, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53207-0912.)
In pathetic contrast is Manchester, New Hampshire, where Bishop John McCormack, formerly an auxiliary of Boston, has managed to get himself into a position so untenable that even his friends fear he cannot last much longer. He appears to be in way over his head. McCormack has stumbled again and again, but he set off national alarms when, under pressure from the states attorney general, he entered into an agreement that makes the diocese the defendant and places significant parts of the Churchs ministry under state supervision in a way that raises monumental questions of church-state relations.
McCormack and his colleagues are let off the hook by an agreement that states, The Diocese of Manchester acknowledges that certain decisions made by it about the assignment to ministry of priests who had abused minors in the past resulted in other minors being victimized. The decisions were made by it. The agreement speaks of faults in the culture of the diocese, in the system, and in the structure. No blame is attached to the people in charge, if anyone was in charge. The logic is: the structure made us do what we didnt do. Bishop Gregory of the USCCB immediately recognized the evasiveness of this ploy and the dangerous precedent it could set. The errors of specific persons at specific times and places which may have endangered children cannot be attributed to the Church as a whole, he declared. As Church leaders we are willing to own up to our mistakes. And if McCormack isnt, Manchester might soon have a new leader.
The Nuns Story
Since the last installment, there was also the Nuns Story. You may have seen it during its brief run into deserved oblivion. It was reprinted in papers around the country. I do not say that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch hit a new low, since the competition for that distinction is intense among the media bottom feeders, but the paper splashed on its front page the awful disclosure that 40 percent of nuns have been sexually abused at some point in their lives, with one out of eight exploited during her religious life. As the story was pitched, the unsuspecting reader would conclude that 40 percent of nuns had been raped or molested, mainly by priests. The paper preened itself on the hard-nosed investigative reporting that had brought these previously concealed facts to light. In fact, the study exploited by the Post-Dispatch had been published several years ago in professional journals and was thought old hat by people paying attention. Fearless investigative reporting consisted in nothing more than an ability to read and a determination to distort. Sexual abuse, as defined in the story, was so loosely defined that it is surprising that 100 percent of nuns did not report being abused. After all, the refusal to ordain women as priests is clearly an instance of gender discrimination. As it happens, women ministers in oldline Protestant churches and women rabbis report being abused, exploited, and discriminated against at a rate almost twice as high as reported by nuns. But that, of course, is beside the point. It is the Catholic Church that is in the crosshairs. Philip Jenkins commented in Chronicle of Higher Education : The attention focused on this nonstory is a telling illustration of how far the media are prepared to go in attacking the Catholic Church, and how many people are prepared to accept these charges without question or criticism. The only remaining question is this: Why dont they just quit stalling and reprint The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk ?
On the legal front, the California assembly and senate have unanimously voted to suspend the statute of limitations on clergy sex abuse claims for one year. When that was happening last summer, the California bishops did not oppose the measure, fearing that it would seem self-serving and would only highlight the fact that the law is aimed, without saying so, specifically at the Catholic Church. This December, however, the bishops did issue a letter saying that the law would result in a new wave of molestation suits, and would revive long-settled cases, some involving alleged perpetrators and witnesses who have been dead for many years, which would make it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the truth. The bishops may challenge the law in court.
The idea of statutes of limitation is to serve the goal of what today is commonly called closure; that parties in a dispute have a right at some point to finality, to be free from the endless threat of lawsuit. Also, such statutes protect the integrity of the court and justice systems, so they do not have to be dealing with cases in which the evidence has gone stale and witnesses are appealing to such discredited notions as recovered memory syndrome. Nonetheless, a number of states are planning to follow Californias lead, and some, such as New Jersey, are entertaining proposals to eliminate altogether statutes of limitations in cases of child molestation. In Minnesota, on the other hand, a coalition of churches, child care agencies, and defense lawyers successfully argued that such changes are bad for the justice system, bad for children, and bad for the institutions that have the job of protecting children.
The Lavender Network
Now we turn to the top-level concern that John Leo says he and other ordinary Catholics had not been told about. Three years ago, Father Donald Cozzens, a man of impeccable liberal credentials and a former seminary rector, published The Changing Face of the Priesthood , which brought to more general attention the high incidence of homosexuals in the priesthood. Nobody knows how high, but certainly several times higher than in the general population. There are seminaries, Cozzens wrote, in which heterosexual men are made to feel distinctly uncomfortable by a dominantly gay culture. Cozzens has a new book, Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Church (Liturgical Press). In it he responds to criticisms of the earlier book and defends his liberal credentials on a number of scores, notably in his support for married priests; but he does not back away from his concern about homosexuals and the networks they almost inevitably create, frequently involving promiscuous sex in the gay subcultures of American cities, and, in some cases, even the blackmailing of priests and bishops who may try to restrain or expose their activities. Cozzens writes:
When priests in such networks attain leadership posts, the health and morale of the presbyterate itself are at stake. I suspect a good number of these networks are celibate in the sense that there is little or no sexual contact among its members. Priests and seminarians in these loosely structured groups find the company of other like-minded men spiritually and aesthetically enriching. They share, nonetheless, a common secret-the existence of their gay world and the joy they find in it. The secret inevitably reinforces the network and its excluding power. The effect even of celibate networks on seminaries and presbyterates is unhealthy and divisive. They reinforce a culture of secrecy.
After Cozzens first book, there appeared Michael Roses Goodbye, Good Men , written in the mode of an exposé of the lavender hegemony in many seminaries that drove away the good, meaning heterosexual, men of his title. There is not a shortage of priestly vocations, Rose argues (following Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha), but an abundance of obstacles that effectively exclude good men who dissent from widespread doctrinal dissent and are not comfortable with sexual deviance. Rose has been criticized for citing a couple of seminary situations of a decade or more ago that have since been largely remedied, but almost nobody denies that the problems he addresses are very real, and not very rare. In a survey of 1,200 priests conducted by Dean R. Hoge of Catholic University, more than half said there was a homosexual subculture in their diocese or seminary. But only three percent of priests over the age of sixty-six had that impression. Hoge said that the age gap shows that the subcultures had increased over time, or that they were underground, or that older men have hazier memories of their seminary days. The last two explanations are probably true, and the first, on the basis of the evidence offered by Cozzens, Rose, and many others, is almost certainly true.
Jason Berry, a journalist who brought clergy sex abuse to public attention in the 1980s, agrees with Cozzens and Bishop Gregory that the priesthood is in danger of becoming a gay profession. In interviewing gay priests, Berry writes, I asked why, if they could not practice celibacy, they didnt leave the priesthood. Most saw themselves as leading the Church toward the reform of outdated moral teachings-including celibacy. He writes, Most liberal Catholics find it difficult to call attention to this situation for fear that criticism of any dimension of gay culture is homophobia. But the issue is hypocrisy, not homophobia. The answer, according to Berry and many others, is to end the celibacy rule, allowing heterosexuals to marry and gays to do whatever gays do.,br />
The Dots Connected
The reality of gays in the priesthood and its connection to the scandals has been aptly described as the elephant in the sacristy that many are determined to ignore. The Times says 80 percent, but other tabulations of the instances of abuse that have come to light indicate that as many as 90 percent involve boys, usually postpubescent boys. In other words, sexually mature teenagers who view themselves, and are viewed by others, as young men. Men having sex with men is usually called homosexual or gay sex. That the beautiful young man is the erotic ideal of the gay subculture is easily verified by flipping through any of a dozen gay-oriented magazines at your local bookstore. Yet, in the context of the present scandals, many are embarrassingly stubborn in denying the obvious. It is not a matter of connecting the dots. They are already and very explicitly connected by the subculture, by gay priests who are determined to reform outdated moral teachings, and by the court records in case after case. Even if, as some claim, only a little more than half the cases involve priests having sex with young men, it makes little sense to suggest that the Church should ignore more than half the problem.
After the Dallas meeting of bishops, Dignity, an organization of gay activists, issued a press release: We are very pleased that in this document [adopted at the meeting], the U.S. bishops are finally agreeing with what experts have been saying all along-that there is absolutely no link between the sexual abuse of children and homosexuality. Of course the bishops did not agree to any such thing, but they did carefully avoid mentioning the link. That avoidance or, as some prefer, evasion is coming to an end. Toward the end of last year, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, on behalf of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, declared:
The ordination to the diaconate or to the priesthood of homosexual persons or those with a homosexual tendency is absolutely inadvisable and imprudent and, from a pastoral point of view, very risky . . . . A person who is homosexual or has homosexual tendencies is not therefore, suitable to receive the sacrament of sacred orders.
A draft of a forthcoming document on this question is circulating among several congregations of the Curia, and it or a companion document will also address the matter of psychological testing and the abuses of psychological testing in determining admission to seminaries. The document will be normative for the universal Church and, it is expected, will play an important part in the visitation of American seminaries ordered by the Pope last April. Predictably, some are construing this as a witchhunt against gay priests and yet another rollback of the reforms mandated by the spirit of Vatican II. There will likely be nothing new in the document, however. What is new is the sense of urgency about applying what has always been the Churchs teaching and formal discipline.
In 1974, the Congregation for Education said: The choice of priestly celibacy does not interfere with the normal development of a persons emotional life, but on the contrary it presupposes it . . . . This maturity is all the more applicable when one is dealing with the formation of students in a seminary. This is because God calls real men and, if there are no real men, there can be no call. To speak today in that old-fashioned way about real men triggers the charge of homophobia, but only because everybody knows what the phrase means. In a 1967 encyclical, Pope Paul VI wrote, The life of the celibate priest, which engages the whole man so totally and so delicately, excludes in fact those of insufficient psycho-physical and moral balance. Nor should anyone pretend that grace supplies for the defects of nature in such a man. Last month I mentioned the thoughtful response to the crisis by Bishop John DArcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Citing the foregoing authoritative statements, DArcy comments: If we send into the ministry men with pathologies, serious personality problems, or an incapacity for true pastoral love, they will draw the same kind of men. Thus the path to more vocations to the priesthood, which are so desperately needed, lies not in lowering the bar but in raising it to where the Church in its documents always said it should be.
Jesuits Take the Lead
Although no hard figures are available, it is generally thought that the incidence of homosexual and gay priests is considerably higher in the religious orders than among the diocesan clergy. The discussion is confused by the frequent failure to distinguish between homosexual and gay. Homosexuality is present when someone experiences, with varying degrees of intensity, same-sex attractions. A person whose erotic desires are dominantly or exclusively directed toward persons of the same sex may know himself to have a major problem with homosexuality. For understandable reasons, gay activists want to subsume all homosexuality under the title of gay. But the distinction still holds in everyday language. If someone announces himself as gay, he is not saying that he has a problem with same-sex desires. He is in almost all cases defining and affirming his identity as a person by reference to his sexual desires. This is not just something about me, it is who I am, and what I do sexually is honest to who I am. Understandably again, such persons typically dissent, publicly or privately, from the Churchs teaching on sexual morality, and frequently do not hesitate to assert that what the Church teaches is simply false.
In reaction to the present circumstance, and in defense of gays in the priesthood, the Society of Jesus has taken the public lead. This is not because the Jesuits necessarily have a higher ratio of gay priests-although there has been much published about the graying and gaying of the order-but because they have an official publication of some public influence, America , and they still enjoy the afterglow of a reputation for intellectual acuity. Other orders have followed more or less identical practices. Here, for instance, is a celebratory story about a leading gay activist in Illinois who, to his surprise, was readily accepted for the priesthood this past year by the Dominicans of the Chicago Province. As he looks to his future, we are told, He would like to serve a college campus ministry, recruiting other men into the order. But of course. I have been offended in the last year, he says, when people have used the gay issue as a scapegoat for the scandals in the Church. Being a pedophile has nothing to do with being gay. There is some truth in that, remembering that a pedophile is inclined toward sex with prepubescent children.
Whatever may be the situation with the Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, and others, including diocesan clergy, the Jesuits have become the chief public defenders of the status quo established over the past three decades or so. Last fall, America set up an exchange between Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, and Fr. Andrew Baker of Romes Congregation for Bishops. Gumbleton has long been an advocate of gay advocates, while insisting that he is not a gay advocate, and he wrote an anecdotal essay about the gay men he knows who are good priests. Baker offered a closely reasoned point-by-point argument as to why homosexuals, and certainly gays, should not be admitted to the priesthood. The editors apparently recognized that Baker got the better of the exchange, and subsequent issues have not even pretended to offer balanced viewpoints. Multiple editorials and articles have defended the ordination of gays, and a special issue was devoted to the subject in December.
In that issue, Fr. Edward Vacek, professor of moral theology at Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts, was featured as the heavy hitter. Fr. Vacek, who does not disguise his rejection of magisterial teaching, offers as his clinching argument the syllogism-like formulation, From the fact that there are gay men who are good, celibate priests, it follows that gay men can be good celibate priests. Of course everything depends on what is meant by being a good priest and what is meant by being celibate. The linchpin in the Vatican view is that homosexuality is an objective disorder, he writes. For the purposes of this article, let me concede but also clarify that term. In the Catholic tradition, he continues, heterosexuality is also an objective disorder because, according to everyone from St. Paul to the Second Vatican Council, it can be accompanied by lustful thoughts, adultery, fornication, and other evils. That is why, he says, the Church teaches that marriage is a remedy for this disorder.
But of course this is patent sophistry. Everything created good, including mans love for woman, is tainted by original sin and susceptible to actual sin. But there is nothing objectively disordered about heterosexuality. Marriage has indeed been viewed as, among other things, a remedy for lust, adultery, fornication, and other evils, but never as a remedy for heterosexuality. Vacek repeatedly depicts two thousand years of consistent Christian teaching on homosexuality as the Vatican view, as though Rome is imposing a new position and he is defending the tradition. It is really quite extraordinary, and thoroughly disingenuous. The unsuspecting reader might assume that Fr. Vaceks essay reflects a difficult wrestling with his uncertainties. But it appears he has long had a very definite view on these matters. There is, for instance, his 1980 essay in Commonweal , A Christian Homosexuality? In the light of his argument there, the question mark was already then a coy gesture.
Well before the gay revolution had really gotten up steam, and before gay was the prescribed term, Fr. Vacek wrote, Put simply, some are quite happy with their condition, some confused, and some quite unhappy. To those who are at peace with their homosexuality it seems an affront to demand that they change themselves. He then took what is now called the conservative gay position associated with Andrew Sullivan and some others. It should be clear in what follows that no one recommends the kind of activity that would be condemned if it were performed in a heterosexual context. No argument for homosexual relations should be construed as an argument for promiscuity, prostitution, mate swapping, infidelity, and the like. Homosexuals must exhibit the same personalist virtues as heterosexuals.
With apparent reference to the thoroughly discredited work of the late John Boswell, Vacek wrote, Many scholars think that the sin of Sodom was not primarily homosexuality, but inhospitality, gang rape, and even attempted sexual congress with angels. Employing what he describes as an ethics of proportionality (which has since been explicitly condemned by John Paul II), he wrote, Stated briefly, my judgment is this. Homosexual actions are biologically deficient, but they may be psychologically healthy, the best available exercise of ones interpersonal freedom, and may even be a form of authentic Christian spirituality. He goes further. Persons who are homosexuals are able to function and grow at least as well as heterosexuals . . . . Somewhat surprisingly, they make love more humanely, largely because they are better able empathetically to feel what their partner is feeling. Fr. Vacek allowed that some homosexuals may be called to genital non-activity. The desire never to act contrary to certain explicit statements of our Scriptures and tradition may itself constitute such a vocation for some. Fidelity may be an option. For some.
In sum, twenty-three years later America recruits as its champion for the defense of a disordered status quo a pioneer of the status quos disorder. From the fact that there are gay men who are good, celibate priests, it follows that gay men can be good celibate priests. It sounds logical; one might even say Jesuitical. But of course it entirely begs the pertinent questions. Does being a good priest include faithfulness to the Churchs authoritative teaching? Does being celibate mean a commitment to perfect and perpetual continence? To judge by the case that America tries to make for the status quo, the answers are clearly in the negative. But the alarm of the editors, and of those, Jesuit and non-Jesuit, for whom they speak is not surprising. There will not be, I am confident, a witchhunt to drive those with homosexual leanings out of the priesthood. There will be, I hope and expect, a strengthened resolve to confront priests, both heterosexual and homosexual, with the need to decide between fidelity and demitting their ministries. There will also be, and it is already underway, a clear policy and practice of not admitting homosexuals to seminaries and other programs of priestly formation.
Some seminaries and religious orders will no doubt resist as best they can the renewed order of the old tradition. They are the ones that are dying. About the ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men and about much else with which the Church is struggling, the conventional alignments will likely continue for the foreseeable future. What are called the left and the right are in agreement that authoritative magisterial teaching and governance ended with Vatican II. The right, often preferring the name traditionalist, views the Council as an abandonment of the tradition in favor of modernistic novelties. The left, often calling itself the party of progress, celebrates the Council and construes it as having terminated the authority of Rome and of the hierarchy more generally. Garry Wills puts it nicely: John Paul II, Ratzinger, and those in their company are attempting a coup against the Council. Both left and right are the parties of Catholic discontinuity. In the center is the party of Catholic continuity. It is composed of those who embrace the high adventure of Catholic fidelity as set forth by the Council and its authoritative interpretation by the continuing Magisterium of the Church. Despite all, the center holds.
Dostoevsky and the Fiery Word
When I was young and under the compulsion to affect a deeper experience of life than I had, I was fond of quoting Whittiers sage-sounding observation that the saddest words of tongue or pen are simply these, It might have been. They can be words of profound regret and even bitterness about the roads not taken, but they can also be spoken without sadness in grateful recognition of ones creatureliness. Being a creature of time and limited possibilities, no matter how much Ive done, what Ive done is so pitiably small, but I choose to believe it was mine to do. Decisions were made; and Ive never gotten over my first discovery that the word decision is derived from decidere , which means to cut off. In deciding for this and then for that, from which followed the other thing, I cut off what might have been. But it is only in moments of ungrateful rebellion against my creatureliness that I resent the fact that what might have been was not. Most of the time I think about what might have been not in resentment but in wonder.
I know for sure that I will never do the monumental thing done by Joseph Frank. I have published, quite literally, millions of words on subjects so various that many, if not most, of them escape recall. I am regularly asked by graduate students in search of something or someone to write about what I meant by one thing or another that I wrote ten or twenty or even thirty years ago. I wrote that, did I? What I wrote is usually not an embarrassment, although there is a touch of awkwardness in not remembering.
The same might have been the case with Joseph Frank. After all, he was a professor of comparative literature and understood himself to be a literary critic. He could very well have ended up giving papers at the Modern Language Association on transgressive gendering or other topics of felt academic urgency. But then-to our good fortune and, I trust, to his gratification-he got interested in Dostoevsky. He started out to write a modest book on the novels, but then, as he rather understates the matter, my initial intention would grow in size and scope. Decades later, we have the fifth, final, and very big volume of a biography that will be a standard reference for as along as there are people interested in Dostoevsky, which I like to think will be until Our Lord returns in glory. It is titled Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton University Press, 794 pages, $35). Frank is now professor emeritus and I cannot help but wonder, not without a smidgen of what I trust is unsinful envy, what must be the satisfaction of a writers life commandeered by one grand project.
Frank invested his life in exploring everything pertinent to understanding the life and work of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky: the language, the social and political changes, the literary rivalries, the loves, the illnesses, the frustrations. It seems there is almost nothing left unexplored. The fifth volume picks up at the point of Dostoevskys return to Russia from four thoroughly disquieting years in the West and includes the writing of A Raw Youth , The Diary of a Writer , and, by far the most important, The Brothers Karamazov. The last is, I dare say, the greatest novel ever written, and the only novel I have read and reread year after year, always with increased pleasure and admiration. Frank writes:
No previous work gives the reader such an impression of controlled and measured grandeur, a grandeur that spontaneously evokes comparison with the greatest creations of Western literature. The Divine Comedy , Paradise Lost , King Lear , Faust -these are the titles that naturally come to mind as one tries to measure the stature of The Brothers Karamazov . For these too grapple with the never-ending and never-to-be-ended argument aroused by the accursed questions of mankinds destiny.
A Definite Argument
I would not quibble with a word of that. And yet, in the very same passage Joseph Frank makes a claim that is repeated in various forms throughout his biography. With that claim I have not only a quibble but a very definite argument. In fact, I have the temerity to suggest that Frank is simply wrong when he writes that Karamazov is about the great theme that had preoccupied [Dostoevsky] since Notes from Underground : the conflict between reason and Christian faith. I am keenly aware that Joseph Frank probably knows as much about Dostoevsky as any person alive. For all his undoubted knowledge, however, I am persuaded that he misunderstands texts that are crucial to his claim that Dostoevskys lifelong obsession was with the presumed conflict between reason and what Frank persistently calls irrational faith. Since that claim is key to, in some ways the key to, his construal of Dostoevskys life and work, this is no little disagreement. But I will come back to that. First it is necessary and fitting to note, indeed to relish, other aspects of Franks achievement.
Underscoring the subtitle The Mantle of the Prophet, the fifth volume employs as its epigraph Pushkins The Prophet. Pushkin had died in 1837, and there is no doubt that Dostoevsky believed that he, Elisha-like, had inherited his mantle. On several notable occasions, he gave public recitations of the poem that were marked with such fervor of devotion that the audience sensed that one even greater than Pushkin was here. The poem speaks of a six-winged seraph who cuts open the authors breast and presses into the wound a glowing livid coal.
There in the desert I lay dead, And God called out to me and said: Rise, prophet, rise, and hear, and see, And let my works be seen and heard By all who turn aside from me, And burn them with my fiery word.
Dostoevsky evinced the conviction of having been divinely commissioned in a manner that was diffident, almost shy, and utterly devoid of braggadocio. He was anxious about falling short of the task bestowed. An admirer describes her meeting with Dostoevsky: Most sharply of all remains in my memory the following trait, quite outstanding in Dostoevsky, his fear of ceasing to understand the young generation, of breaking with it . . . . There was not at all any fear of ceasing to be a beloved writer or of decreasing the number of his followers and readers: no, he obviously regarded a disagreement with the young generation as a human downfall , as a moral death. He boldly and honorably defends his intimate convictions; and at the same time somehow fears not fulfilling the mission entrusted to him, and inadvertently losing his way.
Frank supplies a number of instances in which Dostoevsky seems almost to be pandering to the youth, so worried is he about not losing touch with the shifting currents of thought and yearnings for change. His is not, however, the embarrassing sixties-ish posturing of so many of the hoary-headed among todays intellectuals. Dostoevskys wisdom embraced the creatureliness of his aging and mortality. His anxiety was not for himself but for the mission, for the prophecy that will be carried to fulfillment by the successor generation and their children. Frank is especially strong in depicting the churnings of avant-garde opinion, of political and social movements, from sundry socialisms of atheistic and engineering varieties to populist efforts by intellectuals to reconnect with the simple faith of the Russian peasantry. For long stretches, Dostoevsky is as much social and political history as it is an examination of the mans thought and writing. To which Frank would no doubt say, with justice, that the two are inseparable.
Dostoevsky understood himself to be the prophet of a new world in which historical possibility intersected with resurrection hope. I confess that I had always found the ending of Karamazov something of a let-down. There Alyosha Karamazov, the youngest of the three brothers, is surrounded by the boys remembering their poor and shabbily treated friend. Alyosha addresses them:
Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and right! . . .
Karamazov, we love you! a voice, which seemed to be Kartashovs, exclaimed irrepressibly . . . .
Hurrah for Karamazov! Kolya proclaimed.
And memory eternal for the dead boy! Alyosha added again.
Karamazov, cried Kolya, can it really be true, as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?
Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been, Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.
And then they went off, hand in hand, to the meager funeral meal. As I say, the ending always seemed to me to be marred by an excess of sentimentality, leaving me with the hope that it might have been redeemed by the second volume of Karamazov , focusing on Alyosha, that Dostoevsky did not live to write. But Frank helped me to understand the fitness of the ending, charged as it is with the conviction that the love exemplified by Alyosha is a world-transforming force. At the same time, Franks treatment of Dostoevsky as prophet of a world-transforming word lacks a certain weightiness, and I think the reason is that he does not, for whatever reason, take seriously Alyoshas, and Dostoevskys, eschatological hope. Perhaps it is because that hope is part of the faith that Frank calls, with puzzlement often indistinguishable from dismissiveness, irrational.< br />
From Them Accepted Christ
The socialists who took a populist turn in trying to utilize Christianity without Christ viewed Dostoevskys reverence for the faith of the Russian people as naive, romantic, and, yes, irrational. Dostoevsky responds that he is well aware of the transgressions of the Christ-loving people, but, referring to the years in Siberia, he also knows much more. I lived with them for some years, shared meals with them, slept alongside them, and was myself numbered among the transgressors; I worked with them at real, backbreaking labor and at a time when others were playing at liberalism and snickering about the people. So dont tell me that I dont know the people! I know them; it was from them I accepted Christ into my soul again, Christ whom I had known while still a child in my parents home and whom I was about to lose when I, in my turn, transformed myself into a European liberal. One can hardly exaggerate the disdain that attends Dostoevskys use of the words European liberal.
Dostoevskys animus toward European liberalism and Roman Catholicism-which to his mind were of a piece-is another thing that can hardly be exaggerated (see Rodney Delasantas Dostoevsky Also Nods, FT, January 2002). There are, Dostoevsky said, three ideas contending for mastery over the world. One is the Catholic idea embodied in France and at the heart of French socialism. For French socialism is nothing other than the compulsory unity of humanity, an idea that derived from ancient Rome and that was subsequently preserved in Catholicism. Rome is infinitely devious and resourceful. It is by no means the antithesis of socialism. Having lost the kings as its allies, said Dostoevsky, it will surely rush to the demos. Indeed, socialism is simply the secularized version of Catholicism with its claim to universal domination, and the Church is eager to re-sacralize it. Dostoevsky was on to something. There were and are Catholics who think that way. Todays readers will recall the late and unlamented efforts of liberation theology to establish under Marxist auspices what would be, in effect, a new Christendom.
The second great force is the Protestant idea that, Dostoevsky said, goes back far before Luther but gained new strength with the unification of Germany in 1870. As Frank describes his thought, Like the Slavophiles, Dostoevsky views Protestantism as fundamentally a protest against Latin Catholic civilization, hence containing nothing positive of its own and ultimately leading to atheism and nihilism. And the third great force is, of course, the Slavic idea incarnated in Orthodoxy and the Russian faithful. Despite the eighteenth-century efforts of Peter the Great to introduce westernizing corruptions, Dostoevsky believed in the fundamental religious and social integrity of Holy Russia. Russia is, for Dostoevsky, the Redeemer Nation, and his fantastical claims for the moral, spiritual, and even intellectual superiority of the Russian people know no bounds. Frank deals with all this in detail, and is particularly deft in his treatment of what we today can only describe as Dostoevskys anti-Semitism. Yiddism, he believed, was a culture within a culture, a people within a people, and therefore a culture and people undermining the integrity and destiny of Orthodox Russia.
A Poor Prophet
Critics, one notes in passing, have been exceedingly harsh in their treatment of Dostoevskys nationalism. It is said with derision that, in view of the overthrow of the Tsar, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and the subsequent history of the Soviet Union, Dostoevsky was a lamentably poor prophet. To which the response is that his prophetic office did not consist in predictive powers but in bearing witness to a truth and possibility that, tragically, were shattered by the facticity of history. As Richard Pipes and other historians have underscored, there was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik takeover. One can readily conjure other and credible scenarios in which Tsardom and Orthodoxy might have cooperated in the realization of something approximating Dostoevskys hopes.
Even with respect to predictive powers, the magnificent Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, related by Ivan Karamazov, was eerily prescient in its understanding of the dynamics that would become twentieth-century totalitarianism. Frank observes in a footnote that Dostoevskys nightmare vision of the surrender of inner freedom for untroubled security was also a predecessor of the literary genre of dystopia, represented by such works as Eugene Zamiatins We , Aldous Huxleys Brave New World , and George Orwells 1984 . The motif of deception-the Grand Inquisitors pretense to speak in the name of the true Christ-is closer to the Communist model.
Dostoevsky is harshly criticized also for his support of the Russian effort to recapture Constantinople as the capital of Orthodoxy. That effort is commonly derided as an exercise in unbridled jingoism, but it is by no means evident today that France and, more particularly, England (perfidious Albion) were on the side of the angels in opposing Russias effort. The what if arguments of history are interminable, but a believable case can be made that todays clash of civilizations and the attendant war against terrorism might be less threatening, or have been avoided altogether, had Christian Russia succeeded in turning back, at least in part, the Muslim conquest. One might even push the question a bit further and speculate that, on the basis of what he foresaw then, Dostoevsky would not have been surprised by what many view as todays unfolding conquest-by-immigration as Islam relentlessly presses upon a spiritually and demographically dying Europe. Dostoevskys eye was ever attentive to the larger patterns of history.
A key to understanding Dostoevsky is fantastic realism, a phrase he himself used to describe his work. Frank explains it nicely:
He is always striving to apply to the present the mode of apprehension that he sees as a psychological datum in relation to the past. He looks for the essence of the passing and contemporary by projecting it into the future and imagining its completion (which makes it fantastic), but then, with an unflinching moral-social and psychological realism, dramatizing all the consequences of this future, as if it had already occurred or was coming into being.
This fantastic realism is closely tied to Dostoevskys appreciation of original sin, although he is not comfortable with that terminology snatched from the Augustinian vocabulary of the West. The ever so progressive spreaders of the European disease deny the reality of human guilt and freedom, contending that fault and destiny lie with social and economic arrangements. Dostoevsky rejects this in no uncertain terms:
It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness that evil lies deeper in human beings than our socialist-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it has always been; that abnormality and sin arise from that soul itself; and, finally, that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges.
The Question Is Freedom
There it is, and it will not go away: the question of the soul. It brings us back to the aforementioned disagreement with Joseph Frank, a disagreement which, I regret to say, is inescapable and basic. I regret to say it because it seems almost a sin against gratitude for the enormous gift that is his Dostoevsky . But it must be said: the driving motif around which Dostoevskys life and work cohere is not the conflict between reason and irrational faith. It is, rather, the conflict between freedom and the enemies of freedom, however variously disguised. It is between the affirmation and the denial of the reality of the human soul.
The simple Russian people knew they had souls. Dostoevsky fiercely defended popular Christian piety, even when it appeared to be superstitious and fantastical. In response to a critic he writes, They need sacred objects by their side, visible, as reflections of Godliness. One must believe, aspire to the invisible God, but revere Him on earth with simple customs that are related to Him. You can tell me that such belief is blind and naive, and I will reply that faith should be that way. We cant all be theologians. And, we might add, a good thing too. The people are not theologians, but, as we shall see, Dostoevsky, although an artist and not a theologian in any academic sense, is given to careful theological reflection. Joseph Frank is inclined to disparage this at almost every turn. He describes Dostoevskys Weltanschauung as one of apocalyptic intuitions of impending cosmic chaos, religious irrationalism, and mystical nationalism-and they are all of a piece. At several points, Frank even compares Dostoevsky with Kierkegaard in what he calls his intuition of the total irrationality and subjectivity of faith.
Yet he also quotes, without attempting to explain, Dostoevskys emphatic rejection of the claim that faith is irrational. The real irrationality, Dostoevsky insists, is represented by forms of Enlightenment, and often atheistic, rationalism that he sometimes terms Euclidian. Infinite wisdom, says Dostoevsky, crushes the mind of man, but he seeks it. Existence must be unquestionably and in every instance superior to the mind of man. The doctrine that the mind of man is the final limit of the universe is as stupid as stupid can be, and even stupider, infinitely stupider, than a game of checkers between two shopkeepers. That may be described as an affirmation of the supra-rational, but it is not, as Frank claims, irrational. It is, rather, a conclusion to which Dostoevsky is compelled by reason.
A critic writes Dostoevsky in what Frank describes as a tone of lofty professorial self-assurance-a tone which, I am sorry to say, Frank too often assumes-about the infantile and irrational nature of religious faith. To which Dostoevsky responds, You could regard me from a scientific point of view, but not so arrogantly when it concerns philosophy, although philosophy is not my specialty . . . . It is not like a child that I believe in Christ and profess faith in him, but rather my hosanna has come through the great crucible of doubt , as the devil says in that same novel of mine ( Karamazov ). As for science, Dostoevsky is all for it, but what is called science is unscientific and irrational, or just plain stupid, when it refuses to take seriously faith and that to which faith points. The tremendous fact of the appearance on earth of Jesus, and all that came after that, in my opinion demand scientific elaboration. But at the same time, science cannot reject the meaning that religion does have for humanity, if only as a historical fact that is staggering in its continuity and tenacity. The conviction that humanity has about coming in contact with another world is also very significant and cannot be resolved [by dismissing it as infantile].
Again, his point is that Euclidian rationalism is not rational enough, and dogmatically atheistic science is unscientific. It is not with Kierkegaard but with Pascal that Dostoevsky should be compared. The heart has its reasons, and as with Pascal and, earlier, with Augustine-although there is no evidence that Dostoevsky was conscious of borrowing from either on this score-there is the awareness of love as a way of knowing. In Karamazov , the chattering Mme. Khokhlakova has picked up bits of fashionable atheism and responds to the saintly Father Zosimas statement of faith, But how is one to prove it? It is surely Dostoevsky who speaks through Zosima when he says that no proof is possible but one knows by the experience of active love. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubts and no doubt can possibly enter your soul.
Frank says that the rationalist Ivan Karamazov refuses to make the leap of faith that would allow him to believe in Christ and his world-transforming power. But it is not a Kierkegaardian leap of faith that is at issue. In the very same passage he quotes Ivan saying that even if at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity . . . even then, though all that may come to pass, I wont accept it. Then Frank himself comments, Ivan now finds himself in the same position as those unbelievers mentioned earlier who would not accept miracles even if they were accomplished before their very eyes. Precisely. But Frank fails to recognize the import of what he has just said. The problem with Ivan is not that he refuses to make the leap of faith but that he is blinded to reality by his irrational rationalism.
Frank is similarly confusing the reader, I believe, when he speaks of Dostoevskys visionary beliefs that the promise of Christ and the possibility of world-transforming love will be realized. Of his Christian faith Dostoevsky writes, If I believe that the truth is here, in those very things in which I put my faith, then what does it matter to me if the whole world rejects my faith, mocks me, and travels a different road? To which Frank comments, Here speaks the voice of his ridiculous man, whose dream of the ideal cannot be shaken by the skepticism and incredulity of those who laugh at his preachments. The value of such an ideal, he says, cannot be measured in terms of immediate benefit, but is directed toward the future, toward eternal ends and absolute joy. This is the vision that Dostoevsky upholds as the Russian answer to Western enlightenment.
That is not a peculiarly Russian answer, however, but simply the Christian answer, which, of course, Dostoevsky believed the Russian soul was uniquely capable of making. Jesus told his disciples that they would be rejected, mocked, and persecuted. Dostoevskys words are those of all faithful disciples who, as Jesus said, continue in the truth. They are the words of the martyrs, martyrdom being the frequent fate of prophets. For Dostoevsky, faith is required by the reason that it complements and completes. I hesitate to go so far as James Scanlan in his recent book, Dostoevsky the Thinker , in almost making of Dostoevsky a systematic theologian, but there is no denying that Joseph Frank is simply tone-deaf to the philosophical and religious coherence of Dostoevskys thought. It is a remarkable and in some ways an admirable thing that Frank could discipline himself to devote decades of his life to, and write thousands of pages on, a figure who most critically defined himself by reference to a Christian faith for which Frank has little sympathy and, it would appear, even less curiosity.
Frank writes, For Dostoevsky, it was a moral-psychological necessity of the human personality to experience itself as free. It is necessary to say also that his hard fought conviction, on the far side of his battle with doubts to the contrary, is that the human soul is free, and is that by virtue of Christ. The inescapably Christian logic that permeates his work, and especially Karamazov , is discovered in the two sayings of Jesus: I am the way, the truth, and the life and You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Man is free to choose good and evil. That, too, is part of the dignity of being human. Thus Dostoevsky writes that, if criminals are not punished, you only plant cynicism in their hearts, you leave them with a seductive question and with contempt for you yourself. Frank criticizes that as a sanctimonious plea for punishment in order to uphold age-old inherited pieties of the Russian people. I think not. What Dostoevsky insists upon upholding is the moral agency of the human person.
Frank applies his master template of reason versus irrational faith in his interpretation of Father Zosimas critique of rationalistic socialism. He says Zosima is criticizing those who rely on reason alone, but he is in fact criticizing the irrationality of their view of reason. They have, says Zosima, more fantastic dreams than we. They aim at justice but, denying Christ, they will end flooding the earth with blood. Indeed, were it not for Christs covenant, they would slaughter one another down to the last two men on earth, and then the last two would kill one another in their fantastic effort to establish the rule of reason apart from the truth of Christ. In our awareness of the consequences of communisms scientific doctrine of history in terms of dialectical materialism and other rationalist fancies, Dostoevsky, speaking through Fr. Zosima, seems startlingly prescient.
Frank writes that Karamazov is about the moral-psychological struggle of each of the main characters to heed the voice of his or her own conscience, a struggle that will always remain humanly valid and artistically persuasive whether or not one accepts the theological premises without which, as Dostoevsky believed, moral conscience would simply cease to exist. Frank is right about conscience as a witness to human freedom in Dostoevskys thought, but I expect Dostoevsky would be exceedingly impatient with Franks essentially aesthetic treatment of conscience apart from the truth to which conscience testifies. Similarly, in the haunting account of Ivans dialogue with the devil-whether in his fevered imagination or at some other level of reality-the devil taunts Ivan with the fact that his Euclidian rationality cannot account for his determination to help his brother Dimitry. You are going to perform an act of heroic virtue and you dont believe in virtue; thats what tortures you and makes you angry, thats why you are so vindictive. And thats why, Dostoev