The Public Square Prejudice gets a very bad press, but one cannot live without it. On numerous questions, we have all made judgments that are “pre” our present encounter with the question. “No, thank you, I do not care for broccoli; and no, I’m not interested in revisiting the question.” Not all such questions are as important as broccoli. It has been brought to my attention that some readers think vegetarianism is so manifestly and self-evidently wrongheaded that, after rejecting it upon first encounter, one would be a moral idiot to give it a second thought. The occasion for such outbursts is my essay in National Review (December 31, 2002) on Matthew Scully’s recent book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Why, I am asked, do I even take the time to read such a book, never mind write an essay on it? Vegetarians, fruitarians, animal rightists, tree huggers. Don’t I know they’re a company of crazies, cranks, and puling adolescents of all ages who major in moral minors in order to divert attention from what in their lives they really should feel guilty about? Well, not quite.
It is true that I’m a paid-up subscriber to the robust and emphatically embodied view of life. With Chesterton, I think it not sacrilegious but persuasive analogy to envision the end of life’s journey in terms of an eternal convivium, with a thick steak, a pint of ale, and a good cigar in a particularly comfortable country inn, and with the best of friends, of course. With due respect to the saints who are, an ascetic like the desert fathers I am not. Moreover, I have to work at containing my impatience with people who are not content with the perpetual monitoring of their moral pulse, but are eager to help me out by monitoring mine as well. More sensitive than thee or me, they can be counted upon to rain their distress upon the threatening appearance of almost any happiness—other than theirs in winning the self-bestowed prize for superior scrupulosity. Such people are simply too sensitive for decent company. I do not say we should go out of our way to offend their sensibilities, but a little tweaking is sometimes in order.
So why, then, did I treat Mr. Scully’s book with such respect? The answer is that it is, for the most part, a book that makes serious arguments. Too many arguments, no doubt. It is unfortunate that his editor was on vacation, leaving the text to go chasing after every forensic hare in excurses that run over the tops and around the bends of subjects sometimes remotely related to the case he wants to make. The best part of the book, which is written from an expressly Christian and conservative way of looking at the world, is his contention that the morality of the humane treatment of animals rests not—as the “animal rights” theorists such as Peter Singer would have it—on animals being equal to human beings but precisely on their being unequal and therefore so very dependent and vulnerable. That’s why the subtitle speaks of “the call to mercy” rather than “the call to justice,” although Scully does, against his better instincts, end up entangling himself in some of the esoterica of the animal rights theorizing. Most pertinent to public policy is his polemic against industrial, or containment, farming. He visited some huge pig plants in North Carolina and what he reports is unpleasant in the extreme. “If you could walk all of humanity through one of these places,” he writes, “90 percent would never touch meat again.” That’s hyperbolic, but in a cause deserving of notice.
Conversations with Sammy
In terms of the egregious infliction of pain, it would seem that present practices in industrial farming constitute cruelty to animals and beg for regulative attention. Scully makes a persuasive case that the same must be said of many laboratory experiments with animals. Egregious means unnecessary, but, in the view of Scully and those of like mind, all raising of animals for food is egregious, since it is not absolutely necessary to eat meat. Most everybody understands what is meant by the infliction of pain. If that is the question, then the discussion turns to if and in what ways animals experience pain, and from there it can move to finding less painful, or even painless, methods of using animals for food. But cruelty is only one part of the argument. Another is the “deprivation” experienced by animals who are denied the living out of their natural propensities. Here the argument gets very wobbly, appealing to sentimentality and anthropomorphisms by which we are asked to imagine how we would feel if people did to us what people do to those pigs and Frank Perdue’s chickens. I, for one, wouldn’t like it at all. But I am inclined to doubt that pigs or chickens or, for that matter, mosquitoes have a life plan that anybody is frustrating.
I take second place to nobody when it comes to sentimentality about animals. Well, about some animals. My dog Sammy the Second, for instance. (Sammy the First died some years ago.) She has a pleasantly inflated view of my virtues, and she gives abundant evidence of sensations for which I cannot help but use words such as pleasure, fear, devotion, guilt, and hunger. Mainly hunger—for food and for affirmation, in that order. I have been caught in the act of discussing with her subjects both mundane and recondite. For example, the consciousness of animals. I am not embarrassed to say that I find these discussions with Sammy very rewarding, although, admittedly, I supply the best lines. I would not think of having her for dinner, and anybody who threatens her harm will have to deal with both of us, although more ominously with her. Neither would I think of extrapolating from my playfully and unabashedly embroidered relationship with Sammy to construct moral imperatives for humanity’s responsibility toward the animal kingdom. There’s not much more to be said about it than that she’s a lucky dog. I’m happy with the arrangement, and, so far as I can tell, she is brimming over with happiness in her doggy mode of being.
There are deeper dimensions worth exploring, of course. It is spiritually salutary to be reminded that we, along with Sammy and all the other animals, are creatures. Which is another way of saying that we are not God. Consider this fine passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions:
“And what is this God?” I asked the earth and it answered: “I am not He,” and all the things that are on the earth confessed the same answer. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things with living souls, and they replied, “We are not your God. Look above us.” I asked the blowing breezes, and the universal air with all its inhabitants answered: “I am not God.” I asked the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, and “No,” they said, “we are not the God for whom you are looking.” And I said to all those things which stand about the gates of my senses: “Tell me something about my God, you who are not He. Tell me something about Him.” And they cried out in a loud voice: “He made us.”
He made all of us animals, and to us human animals he gave a most particular charge, as we read in the first chapter of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’“ There are some intriguing discussions among the rabbis and early teachers of the Church as to whether Adam and Eve were vegetarians before the Fall. Or maybe everybody was vegetarian up until Noah and his family came out of the ark and, as we read in Genesis 9, the mandate assumed a darker hue: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
They all cry out, “He made us.” And we cry in response, “He made us too.” But why and for what? Among other things, for food. Or so it would seem. St. Augustine was not a vegetarian. As was St. Francis of Assisi—who is reputed to have understood most deeply the mysterious connections between ourselves and our fellow animals—not a vegetarian. Many people today are vegetarians, or vegans, as those of the strict observance commonly call themselves. There is no agreement on how many, but it is said the number is growing. If by vegetarian is meant someone who never eats meat or fish or fowl, it’s probably one or two percent of the American population.That number is cut very sharply if vegetarianism includes a prohibition of animal products such as milk, cheese, and eggs. And, of course, leather and fur.
One cannot fault the consistency of those who, determined to escape complicity in the slaughter, put their dogs and cats on a vegetarian diet. There is much debate about this in vegan circles. The conclusion seems to be that it makes some owners feel better about themselves, and their pets very sick. The quest for absolute purity is a relentless master, and the doctrinal disputes and distinctions embroiling the vegan world are like the infightings of a religious sect, which in some ways it is. I see there are also websites run by ex-vegans, apostates as it were, who left the fold chiefly for health reasons. There are even not very good ex-vegan jokes. For instance, Q:How many vegans does it take to screw in a light bulb? A:Three; one to do the work and two to anguish over how many animals are killed by the habitat destruction necessary for extracting the minerals required to manufacture a light bulb.
The temptation to mock the hyper-sensitive, while not completely resistible, should be indulged within limits. I would seriously question the moral curiosity, if not intelligence, of anyone who has not given some thought to the rightness of our raising and hunting animals for food. When it came to butchering time on Rud Biesenthal’s farm and Big Jack, the prize hog, was whacked on the head with a sledgehammer and then hung upside down by a chain pulley to have his throat slit and be bled before he was lowered into a boiling cauldron to scald off the hair, this twelve-year-old had deep thoughts about our right to pork chops and bacon. Such reactions are not to be brushed aside as juvenile squeamishness but should be thought through with care. The purpose of thinking something through is to arrive at a judgment. A judgment is subject to change in the face of convincing argument or evidence, but it is a judgment. Which means it is the alternative to crippling and guilt-ridden indecision.
A Testimony to Hope
To be well adjusted to the world as it is not an indication of moral or spiritual health. A friend who agrees that vegan ideology cannot be lived consistently and is not a practicable means for alleviating the sorry state of the world nonetheless follows a fairly rigorous vegetarian diet. It is, she says, a matter of witness to a future promise. Remember the Peaceable Kingdom envisioned by Isaiah:
For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth;
and the former things shall not be
or come to mind . . . .
The wolf and the lamb shall feed
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
and dust shall be the serpent’s
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
My friend’s vegetarianism is not a program of action but a testament of hope and is, I think, to be honored as such. Her purpose is not to lay a guilt trip on others nor to assert her superior sensibilities, but to remind us, and herself first of all, that in a fallen world we are to be yearning for a reality rightly ordered, as in “new heavens and a new earth.” She is not discouraged by the knowledge that her witness runs counter to the way things are. That’s the point of witness. She knows and can appreciate the story about the zookeeper who was famous for having trained a lion and a lamb to live peacefully together. “How do you do it?” asked an admirer. “It’s simple,” said the zookeeper. “Every morning a fresh lamb.”
Vegetarianism in its myriad versions will not, and I think should not, become the rule. Not an inch can be given to the nastier elements in the animal rights movements that employ violence against people to enforce gentleness toward other creatures. We human beings will, to put it bluntly, continue to kill. We will continue to raise and hunt animals for food, and continue to cull deer and Canada geese that invade our living spaces. The Humane Society and the National Audubon Society, the cat people and the bird people, will continue to go to court on opposing sides over what is to be done about the 100 million cats (including strays) who kill billions of birds and other life forms each year. Few will develop qualms about exterminating rats, and even fewer will fret, as did the reviewer of Scully’s book in the New York Times Book Review, about the pain we inflict upon the vegetables we eat. Most people are aware of the ways in which many animals are dependent upon human beings, and the huge role that the domestication of animals, also for food, plays in our history and theirs. There are, I am told, fifty million dogs in America while wolves are numbered in the thousands. If, as some urge, we adopted a more natural approach and let dogs be dogs and wolves be wolves, I expect those numbers would be fairly quickly reversed. It is not evident that this would be to anybody’s benefit, except maybe for the wolves.
Red in Tooth and Claw
If we stopped eating meat, entire species would quickly become extinct. For instance, almost nobody raises pigs for the pleasure of their company. Moreover, if left on their own, millions upon millions of animals would die more brutal deaths at the hands of a nature red in tooth and claw. There is an element of sadness in the death of a deer shot by a hunter. It is not quite the horror of a deer ripped apart by a pack of coyotes. Many hunters—and this may go back to our primordial roots—practice little rituals of respect for the life that is taken. In a similar vein, it is not entirely whimsical that at table we acknowledge with thanks the animal and vegetable life that makes possible our meal. “He made us,” they might well have said, and we readily agree. He made them to be Sunday dinner, and we are grateful.
Consideration should be given also to the countless small field animals that would be killed in order to cultivate enough grain to feed a nation, never mind a world, of vegans. The toll would be, some estimate, much greater than the number of lives now taken for meat. He made those field animals, too. Nor can we dismiss as trivial the part that gastronomy and other social conventions associated with feasting play in the civilizing of the human animal. True, our vegan friends boast of culinary developments with meatless delicacies, but I am inclined to be skeptical. And, because I am unpersuaded by their moral arguments, I feel no need to work at overcoming my skepticism.
There is undoubtedly a shadow of sadness over the complex patterns of cooperation, competition, and conflict in the animal kingdom for which we, of all the animals, have been commissioned to care. We—along with snails, cockroaches, rodents, leopards, cats, tuna, and mosquitoes—are caught up in a web of creaturely life marked by deprivation and bounded by inevitable death. We alone, however, can be, and are called to be, humane. That capacity and that call require, as noted above, a closer look at the practices of industrial farming as described by Scully and many others.
Lacrimae rerum. The tears of things. Karl Barth, the most influential Protestant theologian of the past century, wrote that those who dismiss empathy with our fellow animals as childish or sentimental “are themselves subjects for tears.” He went on to say:
The world of animals and plants forms the indispensable living background to the living space divinely allotted to man and placed under his control. As they live, so can he. He is not set up as lord over the earth, but as lord on the earth which is already furnished with these creatures. Animals and plants do not belong to him; they and the whole earth can belong only to God. But he takes precedence over them. They are provided for his use. They are his “means of life.” The meaning of the basis of this distinction consists in the fact that he is the animal creature to whom God reveals, entrusts, and binds Himself within the rest of creation, with whom He makes common cause in the course of a particular history which is neither that of an animal nor a plant, in whose life-activity He expects a conscious and deliberate recognition of His honor, mercy, and power. Hence the higher necessity of his life, and his right to that lordship and control. He can exercise it only in the responsibility thus conferred upon him.
Barth offers this caution, however: “If we try to bring animal and vegetable life too close to human, or even class them together, we can hardly avoid the danger of regarding and treating human life, even when we really want to help, from the aspect of the animal and vegetable, and therefore in a way which is not really apposite.” And, of course, that is exactly what happens with animal rightists such as Peter Singer who condemn as “speciesism” our insistence upon the singular dignity of the human. The hope for a more humane world, including the more humane treatment of animals, is premised upon what is denied by Singer and his like. Barth’s point is nicely caught in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s statement, “Man is both the cantor and the caretaker of the creation.”
Life Feeding on Life
Lacrimae rerum. There is much to weep about. But it is a sin to permit our tears to drown out our song of gratitude and joy in the gift of creation. Yet it is true that—whether at the level of the animal, vegetable, or microbiological—the order of creation is that life feeds on life. That rule is universal and immutable. The most we can do by changing our habits is to decide not to feed on some forms of life, which decisions will always have about them an element of arbitrariness, producing the guilt-tripping and sectarian disputes that mark communities of disordered scrupulosity. Whether life fed on life before that unfortunate afternoon in the Garden of Eden, I do not know, but I cannot imagine how it could have been any other way. The same must be said of whether the universal rule will hold in the New Jerusalem. The revealed indicators are that things will be radically different, so radically different as to elude our wildest imaginings. We will, please God, find out in due course. Meanwhile, we are creatures in a creation caught up in a perpetual dance of life with death, and of death with life.
Vegetarianism and related moral impulses go way back to belief systems very different from ours, most of which have a very different understanding of creation and of what it means to be a creature. And, it follows, very different understandings of the Creator. In the sixth century b.c., Pythagoras and his followers embraced the kinship of all animals, apparently believing in the transmigration of souls or a form of reincarnationalism along the lines affirmed by many Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains to this day. Some eighteenth-century Enlightenment figures, such as Voltaire, praised vegetarianism, as did Shelley, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and George Bernard Shaw. Seventh-day Adventists are strong proponents, as are the people who live in the strange afterglow of Madame Besant and Theosophy. Frequently their cause is joined to the campaign against alcohol and smoking, which is yet another indicator, in my judgment, of moral reasoning gone awry. At the risk of being provocative, one notes that the most prominent vegetarian, and enemy of smoking and drinking, in the twentieth century was Adolf Hitler. As best one can tell from his muddled remarks on the subject, it had to do with not compromising the genetic superiority of his bodily fluids.
According to the admirable eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Racial Improvement” was an important part of the vegetarian movement as typically promoted by, for instance, the Order of the Golden Age at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Encyclopaedia explains: “On the ground that the aim of every prosperous community should be to have a large proportion of hardy country yeomen, and that horticulture and agriculture demand such a high ratio of labor, as compared with feeding and breeding cattle . . . the country population would be greatly increased by the substitution of a fruit and vegetable for an animal dietary.” That seems terribly dated a century later when agricultural technology has made farming anything but labor intensive. On the other hand, authors such as Scully suggest it is a reasonable compromise to eat only animals who are raised in the old-fashioned way, commonly called “free farming,” and, if that practice really caught on, one could imagine a revival of the racial improvement argument. Although it is likely that Mexican immigrants would be the chief beneficiaries of the improvement.
Rebels Against Creaturehood
There are revolutionary rebels against creaturehood who propose utopian schemes for achieving a higher level of existence. There are resigned rebels who stoically endure the unacceptable. Much more numerous are the guilt-ridden rebels, who apparently gain a measure of relief by making others feel guilty as well. To feel guilty about being a creature is a species of pride. All life feeds on life. Creatures have teeth and claws and instruments for grasping at one end and organs of excretion at the other. That, too, is what it means to be embodied. Our creaturely life is marked by sin, but it is no sin to be a creature. Knowing that we are creatures is the cause not of guilt but of gratitude. In Christ, God became one of us. Knowing that we are human creatures is also to know that we alone of all the animals are called to responsibility. We are to exercise dominion, to care and to take care. We will continue to deliberate and debate about what that requires in terms of public policy. For the living of their own lives, different people will make different decisions. And, please God, in our disagreements, both public and personal, over what it means to be humane toward nonhuman animals and other life forms, we will strive to be humane also toward one another.
Israel 55 Years Later
Among the hottest of hot buttons in public discussion is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlikely alliances are formed and friendships broken over the position one takes. It has been that way for more than half a century, and today only more so. The ill-fated Oslo Accords of a decade ago supposedly settled the question of whether Jews are legitimately at home in Israel. But the Palestinians and their supporters continue to insist on the “right of return” for all refugees, which would reduce Jews to being an imperiled minority in Israel and is not, in fact, all that much different from the older Arab call—still heard today—to “drive them into the sea.” It would be the end of Israel, certainly the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
At the same time, Israel’s settlements policy and the threat of permanently taking over Palestinian territory poses the same problems of a non-Jewish majority. If, in that case, Israel remained a democracy with universal franchise, the Jews would soon be swamped. The alternative would be to abandon democracy and establish a regime comparable to apartheid. It is a dreadful and continuing conundrum for which it seems nobody has a convincing answer. Perhaps a year or so from now the aftermath of the Iraqi regime change will vindicate the Bush Administration’s hopes for a democratic insurgency in that part of the world that will make a real peace between Israel and its neighbors possible. Meanwhile, among most non-Jewish intellectuals in this country, and much more so in Europe, sentiment is strongly on the side of the Palestinians.
Reviewing L’Imparfait du Présent by Alain Finkielkraut, a French intellectual of controversially independent views, in the Times Literary Supplement, Henri Astier says, “The public-spirited citizen of today is at heart a prosecutor: his aim is to punish evildoers. As Finkielkraut observes, his model is Robespierre, the scourge of tyrants.” It is hard to depict Palestinians, and easy to depict Israelis, as the oppressing tyrant. Terrorism, including the horror of suicide bombings, is employed to underscore the desperation of the dominated. There is disagreement about just how, but there is no doubt that the poison of anti-Semitism is a significant part of the anti-Israel line. Astier writes, “Finkielkraut has no sympathy for Israeli hardliners—they too stand in the way of peace by refusing to share the land. He repeatedly laments their barely concealed gloating over the breakdown of the Oslo process. But while European progressives condemn Israeli intransigence, they gloss over Palestinian radicalism. What name, Finkielkraut asks, should be given to this ‘inextinguishable animosity’ against Israel? Here Finkielkraut’s analysis indirectly sheds light on a recent transatlantic misunderstanding. American conservative commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, have pointed to the vilification of Israel across Europe and to recent attacks against synagogues, particularly in France, accusing Europeans of returning to their old, anti-Semitic ways. Is this fair?
“Finkielkraut points out that the new anti-Semitism is very different from the old type. Progressive anti-Semites condemn Israel not in the name of a racist ideology, but in the name of anti-Nazism. In their minds, the Jews have turned into their former oppressors. Finkielkraut quotes a French commentator referring to Israel’s ‘push to the East’—a reference to Hitler’s Drang nach Osten. He could also have quoted the Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate José Saramago, who invoked the ‘spirit of Auschwitz’ in depicting the horrors inflicted by Israel. Finkielkraut is right, Krauthammer wrong: today’s anti-Semitism is not fascist. It speaks the language of the oppressed, not of domination—and it is all the more fervid for it.”
More fervid than Nazi anti-Semitism? That seems doubtful. Moreover, as Krauthammer understands, the old anti-Semitism also exploited the language of the oppressed—e.g., the German majority allegedly oppressed by a relatively small minority of Jews. The Nazi goal was not to dominate but to eliminate the Jews. Finkielkraut and Astier are right about the way in which today’s public citizen understands himself as a Robespierre—like scourge of tyrants, and how that leads to favoring the Palestinians against the Israelis. But Krauthammer is right that the specifically anti-Semitic component of that view is an old and familiar enemy.
The state of Israel was formally established on May 14, 1948. Whatever one may think of the justice or injustice of its establishment fifty-five years ago, there will be no secure peace in the Middle East until its neighbors accept Israel as an irreversible fact. It is possible they never will, or at least will not in the next fifty or seventy-five years. In which case it is possible that a battle-wearied and demoralized Israel will not endure. If that happens, I believe the record will show that those in the West who kept alive the idea of the reversibility of 1948 did so by nurturing and exploiting the anti-Semitism that precipitated the creation of Israel in the first place.
The Catholic Center
At the end of last month’s installment of this continuing rumination on Catholic trials and tribulations, I spoke of the Catholic center, asserting that “The center holds.” Is that more than a rhetorical ploy? After all, people who take a position generally like to claim that their position constitutes the center. Having taken a stand at the center, one then defines the “extremes,” usually described in terms of left and right, liberal and conservative. To be sure, there are minorities who gladly identify themselves as being out of the mainstream and do not blanch at being called extreme. They style themselves revolutionaries or reactionaries, the avant garde or defenders of the ancient régime. But, as I say, they are a minority. For purposes of persuading others, and usually by conviction, most of us are inclined to present our position as considered, thoughtful, and moderate. Our moderation is certified by our making clear beyond doubt that we eschew this extreme, on the one hand, and that extreme, on the other. Le centre c’est moi!
At the same time, we want it understood that ours is not the Laodicean center of Revelation 3. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot. . . . I will spew you out of my mouth.” No, our center is—to borrow Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s phrase with reference to American politics—the vital center. Conservatives insist that their adherence to magisterial teaching is a vibrant orthodoxy, while liberals describe their dissent as being “in the Catholic tradition.” Please, do not describe my position as hot, in the sense of overheated or fanatical. But neither is it cold, in the sense of conventional or unfeeling. It is warm, as in welcoming. It is cool, as in composed and unruffled. Tired of the contentiousness of extremes in conflict? Welcome to the center.
Once upon a time, before the Second Vatican Council, there were “good Catholics” and “bad Catholics,” but everybody knew what it meant to be a Catholic. Now it seems that everything is up for grabs, and in the resulting confusions contesting parties vie for the treasured turf called the center. On the left and on the right, we hear people claiming to be “beyond” the old categories of left and right, liberal and conservative. These are the beyondists. They are usually liberals running away from the sour smell of liberalism far beyond its sell-by date. And beyondists are sometimes conservatives wanting to distance themselves from the stereotypes of conservatism. In either case, they typically represent only more of what they say they are beyond. The language of beyondism has to do not with substance but with salesmanship. Beyondism keeps returning us to where the arguments began.
I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!W. S. Gilbert didn’t have it quite right. We may not be born one way or the other, but having reached the point of taking sides, few of us get beyond it. Yes, it is true that in the 1960s I was viewed as a liberal, but I was a liberal for conservative reasons. When over a long period of time it was made clear to me that my position was untenable (I will not bore you with the details, but it had to do most importantly with the division of the house over abortion), I did not move beyond liberal and conservative. I became a conservative, or at least what some persist in calling a neoconservative. If someone proposes to you a position that is beyond left and right, you can be almost certain he’s peddling a gussied-up liberalism or conservatism. Beyondism is a shell game.
Parties in Conflict
Disputes in the Church are different from disputes in the arena of secular politics, although not so different as one might like to think. I venture the suggestion, however, that, in trying to understand the intra-Catholic disputes of the forty years since the Council, it is more helpful to think in terms of two parties: the party of discontinuity and the party of continuity. The party of discontinuity has both right-wing and left-wing branches, but they are united in their agreement that the Council represented a decisive break in the story of the Catholic Church. The one sees the Council as deviation or even apostasy; the other sees the Council as liberation or even revolution. Both see the Council as a break from what had gone before; both speak of a pre-Vatican II Church and a post-Vatican II Church, as though there are two churches; both are highly critical of the Church’s leadership, and of this pontificate in particular—the one because John Paul II has failed to restore what was, and the other because it thinks he is trying to do just that. Such are the two branches of the party of discontinuity. We might call them the discontinuants.
The rightists in the party of discontinuity are most graphically represented by the late Marcel Lefebvre and his followers. Having participated in the Council as a bishop, Lefebvre came to the conviction that the Council was heretical and he went into schism, being excommunicated by Rome, after the Holy See’s most arduous efforts to avoid a final break, in 1988. Lefebvrists in the Society of St. Pius X are to be found around the world, and have their American headquarters in Kansas City. Some on the right of the party of discontinuity are “sedevacantists”—from sede vacante, meaning “the see is vacant.” They believe John Paul II is an imposter, as was Paul VI before him. They have photos showing that the left ear lobe of Giovanni Battista Montini is very different from the left ear lobe shown in photos of Paul VI, or something like that. In the twilight zones of the Internet, sedevacantism is conveniently linked to websites about Elvis sightings.
Discontinuants of a rightist bent are usually not so radical in their views. They include people who say, sotto voce, that Vatican II was a mistake; some thinking it was a catastrophe, others a wrong turn, and yet others a severe bump in the road. They say such things sotto voce because the Catholicism they want to repristinate provides no doctrinal resources to justify the claim that Vatican II was simply illegitimate. In their view, the Council was, at the very least, unnecessary. Two councils were quite enough: Trent to definitively rebut the Protestant heretics, and Vatican I to declare papal infallibility, which would then be sufficient for dealing with all future contingencies. John XXIII’s decision to call a council, they believe, was not an inspiration but a wild impulse that a wiser man would have stifled. Discontinuants of the right generally stay in the Church—there being nowhere to go except into the Lefebvre Land of schism—but not without a steady rumble of grumbling.
The Catholic Moment That Was
Representative is a recent column by Pat Buchanan, for whom Vatican II was somewhere between catastrophe and wrong turn. He lists all the things that have gone wrong in the Church since the Council, and it is an impressive list indeed. When in 1987 I published The Catholic Moment, Mr. Buchanan sent me a copy of a book he had just published with the inscription, “I too believe in the Catholic moment. It was forty years ago and is not likely to happen again.” That earlier Catholic moment, as his column says, was one of full seminaries and full convents, of a burgeoning system of health care and schools, of colleges and universities intellectually committed to Catholic truth, of crowded pews, big families, and a church celebrated by Hollywood and the world to the ringing of The Bells of St. Mary’s. Witness now a church dispirited and divided, riddled by scandal and led by bishops who, if they are not on the edge of resigning in disgrace, are sheepishly employed in giving depositions, trying to explain why they didn’t do what they should have done about their clerical buddies who couldn’t keep their pants zipped around little boys.
Buchanan’s depiction is very grim, so grim as to be a caricature. As also, many will protest, is his depiction of the good old days too glowing. But caricatures that carry weight with many thoughtful people are not woven out of whole cloth. In his critique of the Council, Buchanan and many others commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc—it happened after the Council, therefore it happened because of the Council. But the Council was not responsible for John F. Kennedy and the doctrine, approved by the Houston council of Baptist ministers, that a Catholic in public life should be indifferent to the teachings of the Church. The Council did not produce the sixties, although it did “open the Church’s windows to the world” just when the world was going crazy. An intriguing “what if” exercise is to ask what would have happened if the Council had been held ten years earlier. In any event, I am convinced that the discontinuants of the right are wrong to blame the Council. To say that a council is infallible, which it is, is not to say that a council is omniscient, which it isn’t. There are a good many Council fathers who, in subsequent years, have made no secret of their wish that some documents had been worded differently in order to avoid misunderstanding and deliberate misconstrual. But the responsibility for what has gone wrong—and much has gone wrong, along with much that has gone right—rests solidly with the discontinuants of the left.
Think about it. For almost forty years, the leftist branch of the party of discontinuity has been agitating the same old issues, all of which come down to sex, power, and freedom understood as license. They have been at it so long that their cause has the stature of a tradition, of which they are the traditionalists. Originally fired by memories of the real or imagined oppressions and constrictions of the “pre-Vatican II Church,” in their senescence they grumble about “conservative” younger Catholics, including younger priests, who are excited by John Paul II and the challenge of living the high adventure of a Catholicism freshly discovered and two generations removed from the bitter quarrels between the Pat Buchanans and Richard McBriens over whether the years before the Council were the good old days or the bad old days. The traditionalists of the discontinuant left keep scratching the same old sores.
First there was contraception, and with the orchestrated assault on the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae they won A Famous Victory. Not a victory in changing the Church’s teaching, of course, but a victory in persuading many, perhaps most, Catholics that they can ignore such teaching with spiritual impunity. In this they were greatly aided by supine prelates who learned to turn a blind eye to dissent and deviance more generally, one of the consequences of which is detailed in the files of your local prosecutor. After contraception, there was agitation for married priests, then for priestesses, then for the moral approval of buggery. And, all along, the demand for the “democratizing” of church government, sometimes called power—sharing, which, being translated, means the quest for power. Sex, power, and license drove the discontinuant cause of the left, which no doubt still inspires some as, toddling about the nursing home garden, they reminisce about grand battles past.
In lucid moments, they know they have lost on the issues. The discipline of celibacy is precisely that, a discipline and not a doctrine. It conceivably could be made optional, in which case I believe it would be very exceptional and under the shadow of suspicion of sexual deviance. In the wake of the scandals the determination of the Church’s leadership, both here and in Rome, is to strengthen, not weaken, the discipline of celibacy understood as perfect and perpetual continence. On ordaining women, twenty centuries of tradition, reaffirmed by this pontificate in a manner that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith terms infallible, says that the Church is simply not authorized to do it. Even were there a doubt, the Church cannot ordain in doubt without jeopardizing the entire sacramental economy. And it would be the end of any hope for reconciliation with Orthodoxy, for, if there is anything certain in history, it is certain that the Orthodox will never ordain women. Likewise, to declare that homosexual acts are rightly ordered according to law both natural and divine would be a reversal of millennia of unanimous teaching. It will not happen. One says that with the same confidence that one says two plus two will never equal five, or that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the Catholic Church will continue to be the Catholic Church, or that the promise of Jesus that he will send the Spirit to lead and keep the Church in the truth can be trusted.
So the leftist party of discontinuity has lost on its chosen issues. There is still power-sharing, however, and it is evident that over the centuries there have been varying rules and patterns of government in the Church. Bishops have been elected by popular acclaim. Remember Ambrose in Milan. But that was a very long time ago. I see that in a recent column Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame writes, “Those who advocate for a more accountable and responsible pastoral leadership are not innovators. For various reasons, this element got lost in the ecclesiastical shuffle during the Second Christian Millennium when the Catholic Church became more deliberately monarchical in structure.” Now there is the voice of a true traditionalist. You do remember “the ecclesiastical shuffle” of the second millennium, don’t you? One is reminded of unreconstructed Southerners who speak of the Civil War as “the recent unpleasantness.”
Of course one must agree that bishops should be more accountable and responsible. That is to say they should be better leaders, and the most important part of that is that they should lead with the zeal of the apostles whose successors they are. In the wake of the scandals the enhanced awareness is that the bishops should be more, not less, the bishops that they are ordained to be. The problem was timorous shepherds who failed to protect the flock, and especially the lambs, fearing to confront the wolves admitted to the sheepfold. But power-sharing understood as lay participation in decision making is not an issue to sustain a cause or stir the soul. “Honey, remember tomorrow night you got the vicariat subcommittee on education finance.” As Oscar Wilde said of socialism, the problem with power-sharing is that it leaves one with no free evenings.
“The Church of Tomorrow”
How can it be that—with issues so doomed or dull and with a hoary—headed leadership that has to dredge up grievances from a distant past unknown to anyone born in the last fifty years—the discontinuants of the left can still present themselves as the vanguard of change? That’s a very good question. Here, speaking just last month, is a bishop who belongs to the shrinking liberal caucus that was led by Rembert Weakland before he went down in flames: “As priests in the Church we have a golden opportunity to become involved at the heart of this reawakening, of being forerunners of the Church of tomorrow, of being molders and builders of new theological language and ecclesial structures which speak to our contemporary society and which ensure a fresh hearing for the Christian message.”
Bracing stuff, that. Some apparently still think so. Never mind that a bishop presides over a dispirited diocese of zero vocations, declining Mass attendance, closed schools, and an epidemic of scandals. Never mind that a bishop hasn’t read a serious book of theology for twenty years or that his statement of the Christian message contains no reference to Christ. Never mind all that and much else; he is building “the Church of tomorrow.” Having made a shambles of the Church of past and present, he has no choice but to bet on tomorrow. He is loyal to the Church, meaning the Church of tomorrow. He is obedient to the pope, meaning the next pope or maybe the one after that. So how, in the midst of the ruins of its own making, does the cause of leftist discontinuity maintain its status as the vanguard? In large part, simply by repeating, until reiteration overwhelms powers of reflection, that it is the vanguard.
Relentless futurism provides unlimited escapes from the counterevidence of the present. This works in all kinds of wondrous ways. Remember, for instance, how the Jesuits were once noted for their fierce loyalty to the papacy. They are still loyal, but with a futurist twist of discontinuant devising. Thus the very influential Karl Rahner, in one of his less judicious moments, told his fellow Jesuits: “You must remain loyal to the papacy in theology and in practice, because that is part of your heritage to a special degree, but because the actual form of the papacy remains subject, in the future too, to an historical process of change, your theology and ecclesiastical law has above all to serve the papacy as it will be in the future.” Jesuit Paul Shaughnessy comments: “Jesuits are all loyal to the papacy, but to the future papacy—that of Pope Chelsea XII, perhaps—and their support for contraception, gay sex, and divorce proceeds from humble obedience to this conveniently protean pontiff.” Shaughnessy goes too far, of course. There are still some admirably loyal Jesuits. But you see the move. As with the above-mentioned bishop, all things are permitted when one is a “forerunner of the Church of tomorrow.” Being a faithful Catholic is becoming now what Catholic will mean when faithfulness is redefined. Liberated by “the spirit of Vatican II” from past and present, discontinuants of the left hold themselves rigorously accountable to a future of their own desiring.
A New Yorker cartoon has executives sitting around the board room table on which is a box of soap emblazoned with the word “NEW!!!” The chairman is saying, “What do you mean what’s new about it? The ‘New!!!’ on the box is new.” For almost forty long, weary years, the left has managed to sell itself as the Church of the future by incessantly announcing that it is the Church of the future. And the pitch does sell, in part because it appears to be news. It is pseudo-news, of course, but it is welcome news to those who dislike the Church of the past and the present. This is crucial to understanding the success of the leftist party of discontinuity. From the beginning, from John XXIII’s announcement of a council, the story line was established that there must be something very wrong with the Church of the past and present or else the Pope would not have called a council to set things right.
It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Xavier Rynne (aka Fr. Francis X. Murphy) in establishing that story line. Almost all Catholics get their news about the Church from the general media, and all the media followed the story line set by Rynne in his voluminous reports in the New Yorker. The first piece of the story line to be put into place is that the Church is an institution like any other, with a self-protective power structure dominated by conservatives and challenged by courageous liberals. Theological language about the Church—as in “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”—is, in this view, a smokescreen employed to hide the real questions, which are questions of privilege and power. To be sure, the Church is a thoroughly, but not exhaustively, human and social institution. But if she is not what she claims to be in language inescapably theological and sacramental, she is no more than another institutional “it” among many institutional “its,” albeit a very big and old and venerable “it.”
This de-theologizing and de-sacramentalizing of our understanding of the Church is now very widespread. Consider a small but telling incident. An archbishop in the Northeast is addressing lay leaders on the years of scandal and wants to end on an upbeat note. With a warm and winning smile, he declares, “I’m here to tell you we got a great church!” This is a bishop of the Catholic Church. Imagine, if you can, Ambrose or Aquinas or John Paul II saying, “We got a great church.” I know, you can’t. Neither can I. What kind of operative ecclesiology is in the archbishop’s mind and heart? Maybe “The Catholic Church, Inc.” Or the voluntary association with the biggest and best niche in the religious marketplace. Like a basketball coach during a losing streak: “I’m here to tell you we got a great team!” Yes, it’s a little incident, but implicit in it are the ravages wreaked by the construal of Vatican II in discontinuity from the story of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
But I hear someone raise the objection that, while I started out saying there is a party of continuity (the Catholic center) and a party of discontinuity, with the latter having left and right branches, I have so far been speaking mainly about the left branch of the party of discontinuity. There is a good reason for that. From the very first session of the Council, beginning October 11, 1962, the perception of the Council was controlled by Rynne and other reporters, and they soon imposed upon it the master template that there were only two parties in play—the liberals and the conservatives. The right-wing discontinuants were simply “conservative extremists” who were beyond the pale and unworthy of notice, except when it was convenient to depict all conservatives as extremists. This was a masterful move, and it continues to be the dominant story line in explaining the Second Vatican Council. Leftist discontinuants constituted the force of “progress” that prevailed against the party of continuity and against rightists deploring discontinuity, both of the latter being portrayed as the party of conservative resistance.
By the second session, everybody “knew” that the Council was about an archconservative Catholic Church set against the modern world belatedly and reluctantly being dragged into the twentieth century. Indeed—wonder of wonders—Catholicism was becoming the champion of liberalism’s tale of historical progress. Popularizing theologians who fit this master template were made the experts on the Council. Those who disagreed were routinely dismissed as the conservative resistance. A priest friend recalls going to a press conference at the Gregorian University where the great Fr. John Courtney Murray, who had a major influence on the Council’s teaching on religious freedom, was trying to explain to the media the complexities of what had happened at the Council that day. He was followed by Fr. Charles Davis, then a leftist popularizer who later had the integrity to leave the Church when he recognized that he was no longer a Catholic. Fr. Davis began, “Well, it’s really quite simple. The conservatives . . .” My friend looked over at Murray who was sadly shaking his head in disagreement. But the progressive vs. conservative story line was by then set in media concrete.
And so it has been ever since. The great leaders of the theological, liturgical, ecumenical, and pastoral movements of renewal affirmed by the Council are, I expect, still—if sadness is permitted in heaven—sadly shaking their heads in disagreement. One hears them saying, “That is not what the Council said. That is not what it said at all.” While they were still with us, Hans Küng, later officially decertified as a Catholic theologian, rejected Karl Rahner’s criticism of his ecclesiology as being essentially Protestant. Leslie Dewart, later associated with “death of God” theology, rejected Bernard Lonergan’s criticism of his work as a false de-hellenization of doctrine. The Jesuit provincials rejected the pleas of Murray and Lonergan to maintain the tradition of serious intellectual formation. In the name of “the spirit of the Council,” liberal French theologians, following the revolutionary ritual of turning against the fathers, dismissed as impossibly outdated the giants who had prepared the way for the Council: Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and Jacques Maritain. It was a clean sweep for the discontinuants of the left.
Bishops and religious superiors turned to the popularizers to implement the Council, with the mostly sorry results still with us today in theology, liturgy, catechesis, and much else. As mentioned earlier, Humanae Vitae‘s attempted exercise of papal teaching authority in 1968 was handily turned back. The media portrayed that initiative of Paul VI as an effort to break the master template, to return to the bad old days of what was by then called “the pre-Vatican II Church.” Even today, after almost twenty-five years of the pontificate of John Paul II, who is preeminently “a man of the Council,” the template is in place. But it is cracking.
It was at a conference in the mid-eighties that I listened to Hans Küng hold forth in triumphalist tones on the victory of the progressives. “We” control, he announced, the seminaries, the academic departments of theology, the catechetical and liturgical institutions, the publishing houses, the magazines that matter, and the chanceries. Most of the bishops, he said, are now on “our” side, and those who aren’t have been neutralized. Anyone who wants a future in the hierarchy or the Catholic academy has no choice but to cooperate, he observed. It was a clean sweep; all that was left were a few details; the disgruntled band of risibly reactionary dissidents from the new order didn’t understand what had happened and couldn’t do much about it.
It was an impressive speech. Almost nobody on the left is talking that way today. They are still largely in control of major institutions, notably the academy and some religious orders, but the more astute among them know that they are increasingly on the defensive. (See my “The Persistence of the Catholic Moment,” FT, February). Their most reliable allies today, as in 1962, are people in the media who continue to see the Catholic Church as a reactionary and threatening institution, the great and not-to-be-tolerated dissenter from the gospel of liberal progress. For such people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. The anti-Catholic media need the discontinuant left, and it needs them. Without this alliance of mutual need, the master template is shattered.
It is no secret that the initiative today is with the center. For younger clergy and seminarians, the so-called bad old days are the olden days that their grandparents talked about. They are inspired by John Paul II, the only pope they have ever known, as are the many renewal movements that feed into and draw from the millions of young people gathered by, for instance, the World Youth Days. Chancel dancers in leotards and Clown Masses are increasingly a thing of the past. The silly season is almost over, although elements of the discontinuant right find it useful to generate outrage by pretending that it is still in full swing. For its annual trips down the memory lane of radicalisms past, Call to Action will soon be convening in Florida. True, what passes for theology in many nominally Catholic colleges is a tiresome deconstruction of orthodoxy, but that, I expect, leads many students to want to explore an orthodoxy that they never learned and is deemed worthy of such intense attack. In Washington, D.C., in New York, in Boston, and elsewhere, there are growing and vibrant networks of young professionals excited about being Catholic. Many are discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. In the marvelous phrase of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, young people will give their lives for a mystery but not for a question mark. By way of sharpest contrast, the discontinuant left is dying because there is no successor generation. It cannot replicate the bad old days, which to protest is its only reason for being.
Consider the absurdities to which some are reduced. In Commonweal and the London Tablet, reviewers of George Weigel’s bracing book The Courage To Be Catholic try to argue that “the center” is somewhere between Weigel and Garry Wills. Among discontinuant leftists, Wills is a radical. He’s not waiting for Vatican III or the next pope. His position is that Vatican II dismantled once and for all the Magisterium and, with it, the teaching authority of the Church. (See my “Mr. Wills for the Prosecution,” Public Square, November 2002). To save him embarrassment, I will call the Commonweal reviewer Mr. B. He has a carefully cultivated reputation as a “moderate” liberal. Mr. B says that his position is “the broad middle” between Weigel and Wills. What can this possibly mean?
Weigel stands foursquare with millennia of tradition as set forth by the Council and interpreted by a pope whom he calls John Paul the Great. Wills says that that tradition is a “structure of deceit” and John Paul is an authoritarian throwback who is attempting “a coup against the Council.” Where does that leave Mr. B and his broad middle? The successor of Peter, who is certainly not the successor of Peter, is using a liberal council for reactionary purposes, but, despite the deceit, has a winning personality and is, all in all, John Paul the Not All Bad? Weigel, to cite another example, greatly admires John Paul’s “theology of the body.” Wills says magisterial teaching on sexuality is “just silly,” and he approves of contraception, gay rights, and a woman’s right to choose. I will leave it to Mr. B to explain the “broad middle” between Weigel and Wills on those and other questions.
It is said a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. Mr. B does not even have a side, or, if he does, it is an imagined space between clashing contradictions. To such nonsense the master template of liberal vs. conservative reduces differences of momentous consequence. Mr. B and many others are moderate members of the party of discontinuity of which Garry Wills is a radical member. They have in common that, for them, the center (i.e., the Magisterium) is the right. They are not on speaking terms with, they hardly deign to recognize the existence of, their ideological cousins in the rightist branch of the party of discontinuity, for whom the center (i.e., the Magisterium) is the left. Yet the cousins are in agreement that a choice must be made between the pre-Vatican II Church and the post-Vatican II Church, differing only in the choices they have made. Both insist that the Council was a radical break with the tradition, the difference being that the right deplores and the left celebrates the putative break.
The party of continuity is the center. From the Council of Jerusalem to Vatican II, from Peter to John Paul II, there is—the variations, deviations, and ambiguities of history notwithstanding—a continuing and identifiable community that is the Catholic Church. There have over the centuries been much more powerful parties of discontinuity than we have experienced these past forty years. But it is to the continuing community that Jesus promised he would send the Spirit to lead us into and keep us in the truth. Even if one does not believe that promise, can anyone really believe that the likes of Garry Wills or the Society of St. Pius X are the future of the Catholic Church? The extreme discontinuants of the left are angry because their understanding of Vatican II’s promise of a preferred future, a promise that was never made, has been broken. The extreme discontinuants of the right are angry because they believe Vatican II broke a promise with a preferred past. Both live off their anger; both live off the Church that they condemn. As for the Laodicean moderates such as Mr. B and his counterparts on the right, they will, in their broadly middle way, continue to grumble incoherently about this and that. But I expect they are secretly grateful for the people who—inspired by the Second Vatican Council and in continuing communion with Peter—see visions and dream dreams for the renewal of the one Church that was, is, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory. Parties of discontinuity we will have with us always, but the center holds.
• The Chicago Sun Times prompted something of an ecumenical kerfuffle with a long story under the headline, “Are Lutherans Pretending to be Catholic to Lure Hispanics?” Some Catholic priests think so. Pastor Keith Forni of a congregation that goes by the name of Iglesia Santa Cruz Church protests. Yes, he writes in a Lutheran publication, some Lutheran parishes reaching out to Latinos have holy water at the door, display pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, call the pastor “Father,” celebrate a liturgy very much like the Catholic Mass, and downplay the name “Lutheran.” But for Lutherans, or at least for Lutherans who understand themselves to be “evangelical catholics,” such practices can be justified by appeal to the original intention of the Lutheran Reformation. Pr. Forni notes that Luther himself did not intend a church called Lutheran. Yet, as he acknowledges, there is the question of “truth in packaging.” In response to the criticism that it is deceptive for Lutherans—and he mentions Episcopalians as well—working among Hispanics not to prominently display their denominational affiliation, he says, “My nearest Roman Catholic parish is commonly known as ‘Mount Carmel Church’“—without any mention of Catholic or Roman Catholic. Well, yes, but for almost all Hispanics the default position is Catholic. That is to say, a church that does the aforementioned things is assumed by Hispanics to be Catholic. This is not a big deal, except for the people immediately involved. Lutheran and Episcopal outreach to Hispanics is minuscule compared with the work of Pentecostals, who make no secret of the fact that they are not Catholic and are, more often than not, overtly anti-Catholic. But there are interesting questions raised. “Lure” may not be the right word, but there is something sly about trading in mistaken identities. Of course, Lutheran and Episcopal parishes could put their denominational identity front and center, offering themselves as a way of being catholic without really being what almost everybody means by being Catholic. But it is somewhat demeaning to present oneself as a substitute for the Real Thing. I am sympathetic to the Catholic priests who are critical of non-Catholics presenting themselves as Catholics. At the same time, it is good for priests to know how much some Protestants do share with Catholics. The question posed in Chicago and elsewhere is but one of many vexing ambiguities in being a lower-case catholic.
• At least one Anglican bishop is prepared to clamp down on dissidents. Bishop Michael Ingham of Vancouver, British Columbia, says, “I am trying to be very patient. I am trying to keep the door open as long as I can. I am trying to say to [the dissidents], ‘We do respect your conscience, we are not forcing you into anything.’“ But he adds, “There is a limit to all human patience.” The dissident priests and parishes are opposed to the church’s blessing of same-sex unions. (Recall the maxim: “Where orthodoxy is optional it will, sooner rather than later, be proscribed.”)
• It is all too easy to dismiss the World Council of Churches as moribund and irrelevant. Yet one should not overlook the ways in which an institution on the ropes is capable of maintaining a “plausibility structure” (Peter L. Berger) that makes it possible for people to believe that they are not only engaged but are on the cutting edge. In the WCC publication the Ecumenical Review, there is a long article by Ulrich Duchrow, professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg University and author of Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action (soon to appear under that title in English). “Since the breakdown of historic socialism,” the article begins, “the category of private property has practically disappeared from the discussion on economic justice.” After the breakdown of “historic socialism,” what the world needs, he seems to be saying, is socialism. Typical of his proposals is “linking private productive property to strict criteria of social usefulness” as determined by “democratic institutions in the framework of the UN, which needs to be reformed accordingly.” The churches need to find the “prophetic” nerve to “join the struggle of the social movements” that will bring them into “conflict with the forces of power and wealth.” Francis Fukuyama wrote with relative caution about the end of history. The WCC, as befits a prophetic institution, is after the end of history, although it looks pretty much like history repeating itself. In any event, it is perhaps worth bringing this to the attention of those who thought the WCC is history.
• I have on several occasions been somewhat critical of Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, and now my irrepressible niceness compels me to compensate by bringing to your attention a thoughtful essay by Wieseltier, “Hitler is Dead.” It was written some months ago at the height of what he called “ethnic panic” about the newly assertive anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. He cites a 1948 essay by Simon Rawidowicz, “The Ever-Dying People.” Rawidowicz wrote, “The world has many images of Israel, but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be. . . . There was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up.” Wieseltier comments: “The fright of American Jewry is finally not very surprising, and not only because we are an ‘ever-dying people.’ To a degree that is unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people, our experience is unlike the experience of our ancestors: not only our ancient ancestors, but also our recent ones. It is also unlike the experience of our brethren in the Middle East. Their experience of adversity in particular is increasingly unrecognizable to us. We do not any longer possess a natural knowledge of such pains and such pressures. In order to acquire such a knowledge, we rely more and more upon commemorations—so much so that we are transforming the Jewish culture of the United States into a largely commemorative culture. But the identifications that seem to be required of us by our commemorations are harder and harder for us to make. In our hearts, the continuities feel somewhat spurious. For we are the luckiest Jews who ever lived. We are even the spoiled brats of Jewish history. And so the disparity between the picture of Jewish life that has been bequeathed to us and the picture of Jewish life that is before our eyes casts us into an uneasy sensation of dissonance. One method for relieving the dissonance is to imagine a loudspeaker summoning the Jews to Times Square. In the absence of apocalypse, we turn to hysteria. In America, moreover, ethnic panic has a certain plausibility and a certain prestige. It denotes a return to ‘realism’ and to roots. A minority that has agreed to believe that its life has been transformed for the better, that has accepted the truth of progress, that has revised its expectation of the world, that has taken yes for an answer, is a repudiation of the past. Yes feels a little like corruption, a little like treason, when you have been taught no. For this reason, every disappointment is a temptation to eschatological disappointment, to a loss of faith in the promise of what has actually been achieved. That is why wounded African Americans sometimes cry racism and wounded Jewish Americans sometimes cry anti-Semitism. Who are we kidding? Racism is still with us. Anti-Semitism is still with us. The disillusionment comes almost as a comfort. It is easier to believe that the world does not change than to believe that the world changes slowly. But this is a false lucidity. Racism is real and anti-Semitism is real, but racism is not the only cause of what happens to blacks and anti-Semitism is not the only cause of what happens to Jews. A normal existence is an existence with many causes. The bad is not always the worst. To prepare oneself for the bad without preparing oneself for the worst: this is the spiritual challenge of a liberal order.” In that 1948 essay, Rawidowicz had observed, “An ever-dying people is an ever-living people. A nation always on the verge of ceasing to be is a nation that never ceases to be.” Of course, that is a statement of hope, not of logic. History is littered with nations on the verge of ceasing to be that ceased to be. But, with respect to Israel, it is a hope that we should all share.
• Does Francis Cardinal George of Chicago exaggerate? I think not. There is a move in the American Medical Association to require all hospitals to provide all “reproductive health services.” The Cardinal says, “Catholic hospitals cannot comply. Effectively, the AMA is being asked to help abolish Catholic health care in this country.” Catholic hospitals treat eighty million patients each year and make up 11 percent of all community hospitals. These are often in rural areas, and the 637 Catholic hospitals take a loss of $2.8 billion per year in serving the poor. Catholic hospitals are not where the money is. Abortionists—of whom there are less than a thousand in America—are concentrated in the cities. Only seven percent of abortions are performed in hospitals, and they are performed in just 14 percent of all hospitals. Pro-abortionists know that if abortion is ever to gain the appearance of moral legitimacy and be considered a normal part of medical care, it is necessary for Catholic hospitals to do abortions. As the Cardinal says, Catholic hospitals cannot comply. If the present agitations in the AMA and state legislatures, along with litigation in several courts, are allowed to succeed, it spells the end of nearly two centuries of Catholic health care in America.
• Thank goodness David Blankenhorn is on the job. My eyebrows too were raised by a January 14 Wall Street Journal story, “Divorce Makes a Comeback,” by Jeffrey Zaslow. Blankenhorn, who heads the Institute for American Values, an organization that does some of the best research on marriage and family questions, devastatingly dissects the story, showing that Zaslow’s claims are based on no evidence at all. Divorce rates peaked in 1979 and have since fallen substantially. Of course there are still too many divorces, but at present the tide has stopped and shows some signs of turning. Numerous studies demonstrating, among other things, the sorry consequences of divorce for the children involved have contributed to a growing popular understanding that divorce is not the solution that it was so widely thought to be several decades ago. I’m as puzzled as Blankenhorn as to why the Wall Street Journal ran the story. Maybe they have an editor in charge of countering good news.
• Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, California’s capital, announced at Mass on the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade that Gov. Gray Davis and other pro-abortion politicians should abstain from receiving Holy Communion. “As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone—politician or otherwise—who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the Church. . . . Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.” The Bishop says he was emboldened by a priest who runs a home for disadvantaged children and told the governor that he wasn’t welcome, and also by a recent note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that set forth the responsibilities of Catholics in politics. The governor’s office said that Weigand’s statement was “sad” and that the governor “is proud of the legislation he has signed giving women the right to choose.” The governor’s statement also criticized Bishop Weigand for “telling the faithful how to practice their faith.” How dare he! It must be admitted that the example of many bishops over the years has no doubt given some the impression that bishops have no business instructing the faithful on the practice of the faith. The key phrase in the governor’s statement is, of course, “their faith.” Yes, they take their faith from the local Catholic franchise as distinct from, for instance, the local Buddhist temple, but, in exchange for patronizing the Church and making a generous contribution, it is “their faith” to do with as they wish. Imagine if you patronize WalMart by buying, say, a sound system and then WalMart presumes to stipulate what kind of music you play with it. It is not the business of WalMart to tell customers how to use their sound system. The governor has given perfect expression to the idea of religion as a consumer product. For putting the matter so starkly, we are in his debt.
• Also on the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Medical Students for Choice, an organization at Johns Hopkins, threw a party. The invitation read: “Come learn about what’s being done to train new providers and ensure that a woman’s right to choose is both safe and accessible! Come and eat birthday cake!” Birthday cake in honor of Roe v. Wade? Perhaps this is an instance of overdetermined postmodernist irony, but I doubt it. Here the rule applies: do not seek for further explanations when stupidity will do.
• Daniel Johnson of the (London) Daily Telegraph has a useful article in the February Commentary titled “The Catholic Crisis.” It includes a review of Garry Wills’ Why I Am a Catholic, Daniel Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning, and George Weigel’s The Courage To Be Catholic. No reader will be surprised that I think he is right in his high praise of Weigel’s analysis of what has gone wrong and what might be done about it, and in his sharp criticism of Wills’ position as the problem, not the solution. Johnson overstates, I think, the immediate impact of the crisis on matters such as Mass attendance, financial support, and vocations to the priesthood, but he is right in thinking that the media depiction of the scandals—a depiction supported by very real failures of Catholic leadership—has had a powerfully negative effect in terms of the Church’s public influence. The article concludes with a typically laconic piece of wisdom from Irving Kristol, the Jewish “godfather” of neoconservatism, in an address of 1979. Kristol spoke about the threat of “an upsurge of anti-biblical barbarism that will challenge Christianity, Judaism, and Western Civilization altogether.” He went on to say: “If I may speak bluntly about the Catholic Church, for which I have enormous respect, it is traumatic for someone who wishes that Church well to see it modernize itself at this moment. . . . The Church turned the wrong way [in the 1960s]. It went to modernity at the very moment when modernity was being challenged, when the secular gnostic impulse was already in the process of dissolution. Young people, especially, are looking for religion so desperately that they are inventing new ones. They should not have to invent new ones; the old religions are pretty good.”
• There is a certain attraction in the ingenuousness of a review of my book As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning in a medical journal called The Pharos. The review is appreciative on some scores, but then Dr. Benson B. Roe writes, “From the viewpoint of a physician and research scientist, I find it impossible to reconcile the conflicting forces that must have influenced Neuhaus’ perceptions. His severe illness suggests the likelihood of experiencing toxic delusions during his critical phase, which he may have recalled with various imaginative embellishments.” Fair enough. I said as much in the book. And then this, “It is difficult for me to understand how an educated society, surrounded by critical media and objective appraisals of everything from movies to automobiles, can so willingly accept assertions of metaphysical phenomena.” I do not find it difficult to understand that he really does find that difficult to understand. One is put in mind of Rudolf Bultmann, the once influential New Testament scholar and proponent of “demythologizing,” who thought it evident that a modern man who creates light by flicking an electrical switch cannot really believe that Jesus rose from the dead. There are still many like Dr. Roe for whom “critical” and “objective” simply preclude reflection on dimensions of reality that can be neither considered nor understood without reference to ways of thinking that throw into question the meaning of “critical” and “objective.” Anything that cannot be known in the way that we know toxins and how automobiles work cannot be known. It is a dogma that simplifies life, but at a terrible price of intellectual impoverishment.
• Here’s an interesting fracas. Psychology Today ran a small ad for a book, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality by Joseph and Linda Nicolosi. Robert Epstein, the magazine’s editor in chief, received an angry call from a lesbian activist informing him that she and her allies were organizing a harassment campaign against him and the magazine. Mr. Epstein tells the story: “In all, I received about 120 letters, many of which exemplified a bad game of Telephone: Some people complained about an anti-gay ‘article’ PT had published; others referred to an anti-gay book I had published and people who weren’t subscribers said they were dropping their subscriptions. Several writers suggested I was a ‘Nazi’ and a ‘bigot,’ and one compared me with the Taliban. A surprising number of letters asserted that gays have a right to be rude or abusive because they themselves have been abused. Most echoed the same points that my caller had made. But my caller was way off base on key points. The [American Psychological Association] has never condemned sexual conversion therapy but has merely issued cautionary statements, one of which reminds psychologists of their obligation to ‘respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from [their] own’—an obligation from which my caller clearly feels exempt. Although homosexuality was removed from the DSM—the diagnostic manual used by therapists—as a mental disorder in 1973, all editions of the DSM have always listed a disorder characterized by ‘distress’ over one’s sexual orientation (DSM section 302.9). Both gays and straights have a right to seek treatment when they’re unhappy with their sexual orientation, and some choose to try to change that orientation. It would be absurd to assert that only heterosexuals should have that right. Can gays change? Some people who wrote to me insisted that ‘orientation’ is immutable, but behavior is certainly not, and it’s common for people to ask therapists to help them suppress a wide variety of tendencies with possible genetic bases: compulsive shopping and gambling, drinking, drug use, aggressiveness, urges to have too much sex or sex with children, and so on. A 2002 research review by Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D., published in an APA journal, suggests that sexual conversion therapy is at least sometimes successful. From this and other sources I’ve checked, I’d guess that such therapy is probably successful about a third of the time and that in perhaps another third of the cases, clients are unhappy or even angry about their failure to change. These figures might sound discouraging, but there are certainly many examples of clinical problems that resist change (e.g., agoraphobia and autism) or that produce angry outcomes after therapy (e.g., couples counseling or treatment for sexual abuse). Of greater importance is a new study by Robert Spitzer, M.D., of Columbia University, the man who headed the committee responsible for removing ‘homosexuality’ from the DSM in 1973. After surveying two hundred people who had remained ‘ex-gay’ for at least five years—and even though he has been under tremendous pressure by gay activists to repudiate his findings—Spitzer has concluded that sexual conversion therapy can produce significant, positive, and lasting changes.” Mr. Epstein goes on to say that the Nicolosi book is “surprisingly” tame and balanced, although he takes exceptions to parts of it and is more sympathetic to gays than he takes the Nicolosis to be. He also says it’s time for the magazine to revisit the “sexual conversion” question, and it will be doing that in the near future. One thing is for sure: the protest guaranteed that the Nicolosis got more than their money’s worth from that little ad.
• Many important things have been said in this year of the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision. Among them I count the counsel of Father Francis Canavan of Fordham University, writing in catholic eye: “The direct and intentional taking of human lives is of its nature a public issue (if the state does not exist to protect human lives, what is it there for?) and is not one to be dismissed with cries of ‘imposing beliefs.’ All that is asked for is that the issue be taken for what it is and be admitted to the public forum to be decided by the democratic political process. It would also help if pro-lifers got over the habit of thinking of that process as an either-or, all-or-nothing contest. If we present the issue as abortion on demand or no abortion at all, there can be no doubt which of the two the American public will support. Politics, however, does not work that way. As Edmund Burke explained two centuries ago, ‘The decisions of prudence [i.e., political judgment] . . . almost all are determined on the more or less, the earlier or the later, and on a balance of advantage and inconvenience, of good and evil.’ We are in for a long, hard fight, where the gains will be slow and at first few, but the only way to make any gains is to get into the fight and stay in it.”
• “Religious routine” can mean a pattern of good habits. Or it can be something quite grim. As with this reflection on Church of England habits plucked from Nigel Rees’ inimitable “Quote . . . Unquote“ Newsletter. The poem, published in 1918, is by Geoffrey Herbert Crump:
A brilliant summer morning, still and hot;
A day for flannels and a pipe, and not
For stuffy Sunday clothes, a long, dull walk,
And duller sermon, and the vapid talk
Of fellow-Christians, with souls replete,
Hurrying to fill their bodies with roast meat.
Their worship’s over; God’s returned to Heaven,
And stays there till next Sunday at eleven.
• I have on occasion quoted Martin Luther King’s statement that law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me. But I was at a loss when asked for the exact source. Once again the invaluable Nigel Rees to the rescue. It was in a sermon at St. Paul’s Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on May 14, 1963. Here is the fuller statement: “There are always those who say legislation can’t solve the problem. There is a half-truth involved here. It is true that legislation cannot solve the whole problem. It can solve some of the problem. It may be true that morality can’t be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that legislation cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
• John L. Allen’s “The Word from Rome” offers possibly the best reporting on the Holy See published in this country. He shares some of the leftist bias of his paper, the National Catholic Reporter, but is attentive to the various and often conflicting currents to be expected at the institutional and spiritual center of a community that is universal, as in Catholic. Here are a few recent items of interest. Father Thomas Stransky, 72, was one of the original staff for what was then called the Secretariat for the Union of Christians, established by John XXIII in 1960. In a speech in Rome, Stransky revealed that the Second Vatican Council’s language about the “hierarchy of truths” was in part the work of the ecumenical observers at the Council. The Council said: “When comparing doctrines with one another, [theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of Christian faith” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 11). Renowned Protestant theologian Oscar Cullman said at the time that the passage was “the most revolutionary to be found not only in the ecumenism scheme but in any of the schemata.” Of course the Council did not intend anything revolutionary, but innumerable Catholic theologians have used the idea of a hierarchy of truths to claim that dissent from, or rejection of, some doctrines is licit, provided it does not affect their definition of what constitutes “the foundation of the Christian faith.” Frequently the line of necessary assent is drawn at those truths infallibly defined, followed by endless quibbling over which doctrines qualify by that rule, followed by more quibbling over the meaning of infallibility, and yet more over what is meant by assent. In sum, “hierarchy of truths” has turned out to be, at least in consequence, infelicitous. Cardinal Ratzinger says the Council’s intent is better caught by the phrase “the structure of faith,” in which all doctrines co-inhere and are therefore obligatory, although, as in a building, not all are as essential to the structure itself. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has at times tried to discriminate between the different kinds or levels of assent required of theologians. These are honorable and necessary labors, but they are not likely to end the quibbling or dissent on the part of theologians who are undoubtedly sincere in asserting that they intend to be faithful Catholics while rejecting some or much that the Church teaches. Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of “bad faith” is perhaps his single contribution to philosophy and our understanding of the subtleties of the human capacity for self-deception. No formulation—hierarchy of truths, structure of faith, whatever—can secure fidelity in the absence of a theologian’s earnest desire to think with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia). Fr. Stransky’s information throws light on how the Council’s phrase was misunderstood from the start. It would seem that Protestants who thought unity possible on the basis of selective assent to Catholic teaching supplied cover for Catholics who think the same. The infallibility of a Council does not mean that its documents are immune to misconstrual.
• John Allen reports that some European Catholics “look upon the European Union with approximately the same affection they feel for the Freemasons and the Communist Party.” One reason is that in its “constitutional treaty” the EU is resisting, with the French in the lead, any explicit mention of Christianity as the spiritual and cultural foundation, at least historically, of European identity. At a conference at Regina Apostolorum, the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, it was noted that, according to UN statistics, 560 million of 730 million Europeans are Christian. To judge by what most Europeans say they believe and by what they do or don’t do religiously, “Christian” in this connection would seem to require a weaker word than “nominal.” In a de-secularizing world, Europe, and especially Western Europe, appears to be the dismal exception. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna recently compared the circumstance of Christians in Europe to that of the Jewish diaspora throughout most of history. “This hostile, rejecting attitude in our secularized countries is felt ever more frequently,” Schönborn said. “We are increasingly regarded as foreign bodies, disturbing the peace in a neo-pagan society.” In this sense, he said, the situation of Christians is not unlike that of both Jews and Christians in antiquity whose refusal to place God among the gods in the pantheon was thought “highly intolerant.” The big difference, of course, is that today’s European views Christianity as something that was tried and found wanting, whereas in the second or third century it was a fresh, if troubling, proposal. It may be that Christians in Europe need to talk less about Christianity in terms of the “roots” and “foundations” of European identity and more about the proposal of Christian truth for the European future. I don’t pretend to have the particulars of how that might be done, but I doubt that Europe is an exception to the rule that those who propose the most believable and promising vision of the future are on the way to carrying the day.
• This is written before any military action by the U.S. and the coalition of the willing to effect regime change in Iraq, but there are irritants in Rome that some would inflate into a crisis of Catholic fidelity. Some curial officials have been very vocal in their criticism of U.S. leadership. One very influential Cardinal is reported as saying to a group of Italian journalists, “I said to an old American friend: Didn’t the lesson of Vietnam teach you anything?” Of course His Eminence is right. We Americans really must get around to giving some serious thought to the lessons of Vietnam. “The Holy See is against the war,” he said. “It’s a moral position.” It may be a moral position in the sense that it is held by moral people for what they deem to be moral reasons, but it is not a position to which Catholics are morally obliged to assent. The Cardinal continues: “There’s not much to discuss, whether it’s a preventive war or non-preventive, because this is an ambiguous term. It’s certainly not a defensive war.” With due deference, there is a great deal to discuss. On September 11 terrorists attacked and declared war (once again) on America and the civilized world. In response, the U.S. declared a defensive war on terrorism. One can debate whether attacking Iraq is the right way to prosecute that war, while being permitted to wonder whether, as a geopolitical strategist, the Cardinal’s judgment is to be credited more than that of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and the heads of government in Australia and most of Europe. “We’re trying to provoke reflection not so much on whether it’s just or unjust, moral or immoral, but whether it’s worth it,” the Cardinal said. “Is it really a good idea to irritate a billion Muslims?” The policy is to neutralize terrorists—most of whom happen to be Muslim—who are intent upon killing millions of us, and irritating a lot of Muslims might be a price worth paying to achieve that goal. On the other hand, millions of Muslims might be grateful for being liberated from their oppression by tyrants who, among other things, support international terrorism. I don’t know what is going to happen, and I’m rather sure the Cardinal does not know, but he is inclined to expect the worst. “Not even in Afghanistan are things going well,” he says with apparent satisfaction but without specifying what he has in mind. “For this reason we have to insist on asking the question if it’s a good idea to go to war.” I cannot help but think that President Bush et al. have asked that question. Another highly placed curial party shares the Cardinal’s concerns about the dire consequences of military action. He says an Arab foreign minister told him that war would “open the gates of hell.” Let’s hope that he and the Arab minister are wrong. The prudential judgments of curial officials on military and strategic matters should be respectfully received for what they are worth as weighed in the balance of other such prudential judgments. They do not reach, they do not even credibly gesture toward, magisterial teaching on faith and morals. For Catholics, no question of fidelity is engaged. Hypothetically, that could be complicated by a definitive pronouncement from the Pope, but I do not expect that. In Europe and here, there are many prognosticators predicting the worst. The other day an Episcopal bishop announced that he knows an attack on Iraq will cause “millions of deaths.” He knows no such thing. It would be more seemly and more helpful if religious leaders refrained from pretending to a superior knowledge of what might go wrong and got down on their knees, praying that a just cause will prevail. In all these ponderings, one keeps in mind the teaching of the Church as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. After discussing the traditional conditions for “legitimate defense by military force,” the Catechism states, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (§2309). As for me, it is little to the point whether I support or oppose military action against Iraq. It appears almost certain that it will happen. I am not persuaded that there is a morally defensible alternative to such action. I am persuaded it is part of a just cause that I pray will prevail with minimal damage to all concerned—except for Saddam and those most immediately responsible for this unhappy circumstance. They must, in justice, be severely punished. Military action in Iraq will not be the end of the war that has been declared against us. This, too, is a time to test men’s souls. At future points of crisis, one hopes that religious leaders will contribute to the necessary public discussion something more than their fears.
• It’s not much of a story but it does have its whimsical side. Jim Nicholson, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, invited Michael Novak to give a lecture in a series sponsored by the embassy. His subject was just war, with specific reference to Iraq. Sixty American opponents of U.S. policy, including superiors of men’s and women’s religious orders and activists associated with the pacifist Pax Christi organization, signed a letter of outraged protest. They accused Novak of violating the “almost unanimous” Catholic opposition to military action against Iraq. The letter does not say how they determined the opinion of the sixty-five million Catholics in the U.S. And they could not have been referring to the U.S. bishops, whose formal statement on the matter carefully refrained from making the prudential judgments necessary to determining the rightness or wrongness of U.S. action. The protest complains that Nicholson “selected one theologian to represent the U.S. Catholic community’s position on the morality of this war without any consultation with the recognized Catholic leaders in the United States.” Unlike the protesters, neither Nicholson nor Novak presume to think they represent the Catholic community in the U.S. Since “recognized leaders” could not refer to the bishops, one wonders if the signers meant themselves. The letter also says, “In a country where we have a time-honored and legally protected right to the separation of church and state, the appointment of a theologian seems to us to violate that separation.” But Nicholson didn’t “appoint” Novak to anything. He invited him to give a lecture. In fact, Novak, like this writer, has been appointed to various government positions over the years. The claim that theologians must be excluded from government appointments or government—sponsored lecture series is a new wrinkle in Catholic social doctrine and an impressive expansion of the ideology of the naked public square. To be sure, the protesters’ scrupulosity about church—state separationism is somewhat confused by their complaint that Nicholson should have invited someone who represents the “almost unanimous” position of Catholic Americans. The most piquant complaint of the letter is that, because he thinks the U.S. is waging a just war, Novak is a “dissident theologian.” Since some of the signers publicly dissent from Church teaching on any number of questions, it is quickly added, “While dissent is always welcome, it should not be confused with the clear statements by Church leaders and theologians.” But of course, dissent from authoritative Church teaching is not and should not be welcome, and nothing so confuses both the Catholic faithful and the general public as activists who present their political preferences as the teaching of the Church. Michael Novak, U.S. citizen and a non-dissident Catholic lay theologian, presented his views on why military action against Iraq is morally justified, and by most reports he did so very ably. It is true that Ambassador Nicholson could have invited someone from Pax Christi to lecture, but I suppose he thought that viewpoint is more than amply represented in Rome. However, for the champions of dissent and open dialogue, “almost” unanimous is not unanimous enough.
• Some Democratic analysts, more or less accepting the proposition that the parties are increasingly defined by the secularist/religious divide, have taken heart from the finding that 14.1 percent of the population say they have no religion or describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. That figure has doubled since 1990. It turns out, however, that some secularists are not so very secular. Only one—fifth of those in the “no religion” category disagree with the statement that God exists, and only 12 percent of them disagree strongly. It’s an old story: some people don’t like religion, preferring “spiritualities” that are unencumbered by obligations and other people. Christianity in particular is notorious for letting in the riffraff, and then there is that business about taking up one’s cross and following Him.
• “The Case for Invading Iraq” is the subtitle of The Threatening Storm by Kenneth M. Pollack (Random House). Pollack is convinced that Iraq is set upon the aggressive use of weapons of mass destruction. Peter Baehr’s review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement includes a grim observation that none of us, whatever our view of U.S. policy, can evade. “At the heart of The Threatening Storm is a pathos that cannot have escaped its author. If Pollack’s recommendation is followed, and Iraq is invaded, his central argument can never be proved, for then history will thankfully be unable to record Saddam’s nuclear aggression. Yet if Pollack’s argument is vindicated by events it will be because his prognosis was tragically ignored. We are still left, however, with a question that deserves an honest answer: What would prove invasion to be a mistaken strategy, and those of us who now support it to be guilty of a gross misjudgment? The most damaging single piece of evidence would be the revelation that Iraq had abandoned its weapons of mass destruction program after 1998 (the year that the International Atomic Energy Agency was last able to verify that ‘most’ of Iraq’s nuclear inventory had been eliminated). And a ‘victory’ that came through the use of American or Israeli nuclear weapons against Iraqis would be worse than any of Saddam’s crimes. The cruel dilemma is that, without an invasion, a nuclear confrontation later is more likely than it is now.” But, Baehr says, we are not bereft of reasons for gratitude: “Since her founding over two centuries ago, the United States has been blessed with Presidents who were willing to make difficult but vital decisions in hazardous times. No one is going to elevate George W. Bush to the pantheon of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, but I for one am grateful that providence has seen fit to place him, and not a Jimmy Carter, in the Oval Office at this fateful moment. Iraq is sui generis. One can oppose Bush on many other issues—domestic and international—while believing that invasion is the correct course of action. Saddam Hussein is a sinister and menacing tyrant who has violated sixteen United Nations resolutions since 1990. American power is the only means by which he can finally be unseated.”
• The “morality gap” is becoming the most important variable in American politics. So says Thomas Byrne Edsall, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, and using data similar to that employed by a recent article in the Public Interest on which I commented here (“Voting What You Believe,” Public Square, January). The best indicator of how people will vote, says Edsall, is their attitude toward sex: homosexuality, pornography, adultery, and sex before marriage. Those with traditional views vote Republican, those with liberal views vote Democrat. Edsall recognizes that there is a strong connection with religion, but the good news for Democrats is that people are becoming less religiously observant and more liberal in their sexual behavior. Edsall’s bias is undisguised. The Republicans are “the party of sexual repression,” devoted to “reversing the sexual revolution” by “moving to restrict Americans’ sexual autonomy,” and so forth. Missing from his discussion are counter-data indicating, inter alia, a dramatic rise in teenage abstinence and in pro-life views among younger adults. He also seems to assume that, for instance, because more people watch pornography more people think watching pornography is a good thing to do. At least as probably, there are just more people feeling guilty about watching pornography. I don’t know whether religion and morality serve the short and long-term political purposes of the Republican Party as argued with considerable sophistication in the aforementioned Public Interest article. Mr. Edsall’s essay to the contrary is more punditry than social science, and one can understand his trying to make the data come out in favor of his political and moral preferences.
• Here’s an item that flew in over the Internet transom. The title is “Who Reads the Newspapers?” and it doesn’t say whether it is the result of methodologically scrupulous survey research or just somebody’s hunch. Whichever, it has the ring of truth.
• The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country.
• The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country.
• The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country.
• USA Today is read by people who think they should run the country but don’t really understand the Washington Post. They do, however, like their statistics shown in pie charts.
• The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn’t mind running the country, if they could spare the time, and if they didn’t have to leave L.A. to do it.
• The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country and they did a far superior job of it, thank you very much.
• The New York Daily News is read by people who aren’t too sure who’s running the country, and don’t really care as long as they can get a seat on the train.
• The New York Post is read by people who don’t care who’s running the country, as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.
• The San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren’t sure there is a country or that anyone is running it; but whoever it is, they oppose all that they stand for. There are occasional exceptions if the leaders are handicapped minority feminist atheist dwarfs, who also happen to be illegal aliens from any country or galaxy as long as they are Democrats.
• The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country but need the baseball scores.
• We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people who you think are likely subscribers. ([First Things—>www.firstthings.com] is read by people who really like to read and think and discuss important ideas with their friends.) Please send names and addresses to [First Things—>www.firstthings.com], 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, New York 10010 (or e—mail to subscriberservices@pma—inc.net). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll free 1–877–905–9920, or visit www.firstthings.com.
Sources While We’re At It: Hispanic Lutherans, Let’s Talk, published by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA, Vol. 7, Issue 2. Anglican dissidents, National Post, January 20, 2003. On the World Council of Churches, Ecumenical Review, October 2002. Leon Wieseltier on the ever—dying people, New Republic, May 27, 2002. Catholic hospitals and the AMA, data from Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. David Blankenhorn on divorce rates, American Values Reporter, January 15, 2003. Birthday cake for Roe v. Wade, personal correspondence. Daniel Johnson on the Catholic crisis, Commentary, February 2003. Dr. Benson B. Roe on As I Lay Dying, Pharos, Autumn 2002. Fr. Francis Canavan on abortion, catholic eye, December 31, 2002. Nigel Rees to the rescue, “Quote . . . Unquote” Newsletter, January 2003. John W. Allen on war and the Curia, Word from Rome, January 31, 2003. Protesting Michael Novak, Pilot, Febuary 7, 2003. “No religionists,” Religion Watch, February 2003. Peter Baehr on war with Iraq, TLS, January 31, 2003. Thomas Byrne Edsall on the morality gap, Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2003.