I once accused the young convert poet Robert Lowell of espousing Catholicism with all the marital fidelity of a gigolo on the make. Whatever the state of his personal faith as it developed through the 1940s and lapsed through the 1960s, he did not need to become a Catholic to find a poetic impulse. He had plenty of his own, and, besides, the history of Catholic poetry in English since the eighteenth century was too thin to be much help to him. Gerard Manley Hopkins is worth something, certainly, but such figures as Coventry Patmore and Fr. John Tabb don’t contribute all that much to the project of building the major poetics for which Lowell hungered.
Neither, in truth, was he looking to Catholicism to provide him with poetic topics. For poets of his generation, from Delmore Schwartz to John Berryman, the world had more topics than they could readily use. No, the things the young Robert Lowell needed most as a poet were a coherent system of thought, a rich set of symbols, and a powerful collection of truths with which to begin his work. Catholicism gave him a center to write out from: a place on which to stand and evaluate the world. And the result is poems such as “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” the centerpiece of his first full book, published in 1946. You could cut the brackish winds with a knife, the long, dense poem concludes,
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.
This example of Robert Lowell came to mind recently, while I was at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island, not far from Lowell’s cold Atlantic, listening to the speakers at an interesting conference on the thought of William F. Buckley. In the midst of all the writing Buckley did before his death last year at the age of eighty-two, in the midst of television shows and the politics and the leadership of the conservative movement, we tend to forget that there was a time through the 1950s and 1960s when he was also seen as one of the nation’s leading Catholic laymen.
Buckley was never a professional Catholic, in the sense of someone who made his living from the fact of his faith, and his standing as a Catholic commentator may have declined when, in 1961, National Review responded to John XXIII’s encyclical on Christianity and social progress, Mater et Magistra, with an unsigned quip: “Mater si, Magistra no” (though most reports now ascribe it to a hotshot young writer at the magazine named Garry Wills.) Still, his faith was always there in his life, even if, on Firing Line, he most often used Malcolm Muggeridge as the designated Christian commentator.
Buckley was secure enough to joke about his faith. He said, for instance, of the deathbed conversion of his friend Frank S. Meyer that “the only remaining intellectual obstacle to his conversion was the collectivist implication lurking in the formulation ‘the communion of saints’ in the Apostles’ Creed.” And he could be serious about his faith, as well: In reply to Garry Wills’ claim that “being Catholic always mattered more to him than being conservative,” Buckley responded, “If he meant he has a higher loyalty to God than to civil society, then the answer is obvious: God has to be preeminent.” But he never let his faith go, even in his final months, darkened by the death of his wife, Patricia, in April 2007.
Indeed, one of his biographers reports that in the 1950s he even made an attempt to purchase the Catholic magazine Commonweal (through the agency of a National Review contributor, the political theorist James Burnham, whose brother Philip had been Commonweal’s editor). Those were different days, of course, in the glow of a Catholic flowering that ran from the essays of Thomas Merton to the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and such journals were seen as significant national publications. It would be fascinating to see what, in an alternate universe, William F. Buckley might have done as the editor of a Catholic intellectual magazine instead of National Review.
Nonetheless, Buckley’s obituaries last year—in the New York Times, for instance, and the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—nearly all reduced his Catholicism to merely a form, or at best a cause, of his political conservatism. This diminishment of a religious mind to political activism marks a loss in our understanding of how an intellectual life is made and how a full life is lived.
Looking through the Glasses
One cause of this decline in awareness of Buckley’s Catholicism may be the fact that he wrote less about his faith than any other major Catholic figure of the twentieth century—at least, if we calculate by sheer percentage of the prose he turned out in his hugely productive lifetime. That distinguishes him from the great apologists, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, for example, with whom the century began. And it distinguishes him, as well, from the prolific controversialists, such as Richard John Neuhaus, with whom the century ended.
And yet, Buckley’s young—and, in truth, fairly arrogant—use of his Catholicism was, in many ways, typical of the generation to which he belonged. Consider this possibility: William F. Buckley may be best understood as a central figure in the golden age of what came to be called the American Catholic Renaissance, which began just before the Second World War and ran through the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.
I’ve always disliked that title “Catholic Renaissance.” Surely to have a renaissance, you have to have had a naissance, somewhere along the line, and that golden-age generation was the first, really, to assemble all the pieces necessary to be both fully American and fully Catholic writers. Still, whatever we name the era, Buckley has a place in it, alongside Thomas Merton and Avery Dulles and Alan Tate and Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. William F. Buckley—especially the young Buckley of the 1951 God and Man at Yale, his first book—exploded on the American scene in much the same way these other Catholic writers did.
Think of it this way: For all that “God” is in the title, God and Man at Yale is not a particularly religious book, and it certainly is not a volume of Catholic apologetics or exegesis. And yet, read as a text in the Catholic Renaissance, it bears some resemblance to Flannery O’Connor’s stories and Robert Lowell’s poetry and Walker Percy’s prose.
The writings of Buckley through the 1950s assumed Catholicism. They took it as a place to stand and look outward on the world. They accepted it as the system of truth by which other things could be judged.
Who speaks more about their eyeglasses than about what they see through those glasses? William F. Buckley, like much of his confident generation, was far more interested in evaluating what he saw, rather than describing the Catholicism that allowed him to see it.
Looking at the Glasses
A short generation later, and all this was gone. Garry Wills and Michael Novak make a nice portrait of that next generation, crisscrossing as Wills swung from conservative stalwart at National Review to liberal regular at the New York Review of Books, and Novak traversed in the other direction, from liberal to conservative.
For both of them, Catholicism had become an inward-looking thing. To be a Catholic was, for their 1960s generation, to think and write constantly about being a Catholic. The focus of Catholic intellectual attention had shifted in on the Church rather than out on the world, and, from the best of them to the worst, the Catholic writers of the time all ended up less interested in what they saw through their eyeglasses than in the question of how those glasses worked.
It’s curious to think of the American Catholic generations in this way, of course, since liberal Christians of all denominations imagined in the 1960s and 1970s that they were expanding and opening up their faith. The world sets the agenda for the Church, as the slogan ran.
But this strange sort of inversion is visible all through the era. Take the much-praised and much-mocked Catholic set piece of the time: the Call to Action meeting in Detroit in 1976 (an example used in an earlier First Things essay, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” October 2006).
Back in 1971, Paul VI had issued an apostolic letter that asked Catholics to “take up as their own proper task the renewal of the temporal order.” Indeed, “it is to all Christians that we address a fresh and insistent call to action”—for “beneath an outward appearance of indifference, in the heart of every man there is a will to live in brotherhood and a thirst for justice and peace, which is to be expanded.”
That phrase, “call to action,” subsequently became the rallying cry of progressive Catholics everywhere. At a synod in Rome the same year, an international group of bishops expanded the call to include a demand for hard self-examination and self-criticism, declaring, “The Church recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes; hence, we must undertake an examination of the modes of action, of the possessions, and of the lifestyle found within the Church itself.”
The error here is not immediately obvious. Who could be against self-examination and self-criticism? If anything, a Christian conscience actively requires it. But the actual effect of this demand from the synod was to invert Paul VI’s call to action. The energy that was supposed to go outward instead got turned inward, and what Paul VI had intended as a secure Church acting externally against the injustices of the world became instead an obsessive interiority—a self-devouring Church that was determined to find all the world’s injustices first within itself.
In our time, with a little distance from it all, a book like God and Man at Yale and a life like William F. Buckley’s seem to call us to a different way of being Catholic in the world. They suggest, as a possible model for our own time, just how much can be accomplished when Catholics, confident in both their faith and the intellectual foundations of the Church, suddenly turn their attention outward on an unsuspecting world.
A Room with a View, Part II
All of this—the outward gaze of the writers in the Catholic Renaissance, and the inward gaze of the next generation—had consequences that remain with us, even now. You can see them, for example, in the claims and counterclaims that swirled around Notre Dame’s granting President Obama an honorary degree this spring, despite his support of abortion. The question of Catholic institutions like Notre Dame—their odd relation to the Church and their peculiar relation to the nation—is already pressing on us, and it requires no great leap to predict that, over the next decade, this question will dominate the public stage as the central Catholic problem of our time: the locus of media attention and the flashpoint for the arguments of Catholics with one another.
The hospitals, the orphanages, the charities, the schools—all the nineteenth- and twentieth-century bricks and mortar with which Catholics asserted themselves in America—seem uncertain, nowadays, of their exact location in the space between the Church and the world. As well they ought, in many cases, for the changing American landscape makes certainty difficult for these semi-affiliated institutions. What is their role in Catholic culture? How do they operate in the legal thicket of American regulation? The proposals for health care in Congress this year, for example, will soon escalate the clash between religious hospitals and state agencies over mandatory performance of abortion: Any single-payer system will prove, as it must, irresistible to social engineers in government, and each twist of the ratchet necessarily moves Catholic hospitals further from the Church and closer to the state.
Meanwhile, Catholic institutions are under enormous pressure simply as employers. The dioceses and the parish churches have usually been held exempt by the courts, but general Catholic institutions, precisely as they are not churches, are increasingly being required to carry insurance that covers things to which they object: abortion for their employees, for example.
And then there is the public legitimizing of homosexuality. Within ten years, I expect—maybe even within five—one New England state or another will strip the power to issue civil-marriage licenses from clergy of churches that do not perform same-sex marriages. Well before that, we will see increasing legislation, taxation, and state licensing directed, in the name of gay rights, against church halls and schools and charities: all the Catholic institutions that can be identified as offering some kind of public access and accommodation.
Still, the colleges and universities have leapt forward since the 1960s to become the most visible examples of confusion in the limicole spaces between the Church and the world. It’s true that they face their share, and maybe more than their share, of legal, social, and financial problems in their relation to the state and popular American culture. They are increasingly being forced to struggle, however, with problems on the other side—the side of their relation to Christian faith and the institutional Church.
What, for example, has Georgetown University to do with the archbishop of Washington? Not nothing, certainly, but not everything, either. Founded by the Jesuits, an independent society, and then given away by the Jesuits to its own self-perpetuating board, Georgetown is not owned or ruled by the archdiocese, and its precise canonical status remains muddy and unclear.
Land O’ Lakes
Such ill-defined relations worked reasonably well for a considerable time, while the mechanism that kept Catholic institutions tied to the Church was a powerful cultural feeling for Catholicism (enforced by the tuition payments and donations that came from the members of that culture). Many conservative commentators point, as the icon for all that went wrong, to the 1967 Land O’ Lakes statement, in which the presidents of Catholic colleges declared that their pursuit of academic excellence served a high Catholic goal and thus exempted Catholic schools from direct obedience to the hierarchy and magisterium of the Catholic Church.
I’m less sure. Land O’ Lakes was not ideal, by any means, but it could have been a reasonably workable arrangement of Church and school. Workable, at least, in the setting of the strong Catholic culture it assumed.
Of course, that Catholic culture was fading at exactly the moment the Land O’ Lakes statement codified its necessity, and that left us only with things like Land O’ Lakes and its many imitations and successors: documents that define America’s Catholic colleges as institutions that exist fundamentally over against the Church.
The result has been obvious in the schools from well before the recent battles over Obama’s visit to Notre Dame. John Cavadini, chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame, focused on this during the 2006 debate over the university’s hosting of a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” “If the Church is ever mentioned” in such debates, he pointed out, “it is in the gratitude expressed that we have not attempted to ‘appease’ the Church or the Church hierarchy, or else in the (unintentionally) patronizing allusion to those who care about the University’s relationship to the Church as implicitly conceiving the University along the lines of a seminary.”
The relation to the Church has grown so odd, defined so sharply as the barrier to academic excellence, that Catholic schools can hardly bring themselves to say the word Church. They speak instead of things like “the Catholic intellectual tradition.” That’s a fine phrase, in itself, but in the context of America’s Catholic schools today, it almost always gets used as a soft circumlocution for avoiding the hard topic of the school’s Catholicism.
Such phrasings, Cavadini notes, “ratify our unspoken declaration of independence from the Church, to permit it as the ‘default’ mode of operation, and to invite the reduction of any model of the university which entails any explicit relationship to the magisterium of the Church as a ‘seminary’ model....This is to invite and to cultivate an intellectual tradition that is not moored to any ecclesial community or authority that could have a claim on defining that intellectual tradition. It is to invite and to cultivate an intellectual tradition in which ‘Catholic’ is not normed by accountability to any incarnate, historical body but only to the disincarnate, ahistorical church of the mind.”
Again and again through the history of American Catholicism over the last fifty years we have seen this strange, inverted pattern: The claim that Catholics must be more outward-looking eventually forces them to be more inward-looking; the demand that Catholics struggle with the world ends up making them struggle with the Church.
The Lost Vision
But think of the model suggested by the writers of the Catholic Renaissance. The colleges and universities were intended as the original confident and secure places for Catholic projection onto the American scene. Each was supposed to be a room with a view: the outward-looking place for Catholics, settled on a firm foundation.
Without the old confidence in the faith and the intellectual foundations of the Church, the room itself fades away and slips from existence—leaving only the window: a strange, free-floating pane of glass, hanging somehow in mid-air. A lens through which no one is looking any more.
While We're At It
• Just yesterday, walking through the park at Madison and 23rd, I passed a quiet man, on a quiet bench beneath those quiet summer trees, quietly reading a shopworn hardback copy of that 1964 classic Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships by Eric Berne. Nay, never ask this week, fair lord, / Where they are gone, nor yet this year, / Save with this much for an overword— / But where are the bestsellers of yesteryear?
• Note this, from the announcement of a press call on the unions’ desired card-check legislation, when the bill was before Congress: “Prominent interfaith leaders, including Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice, Bishop Greg Rickel, and Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, will hold a press conference call to talk about restoring workers’ freedom to organize as a moral imperative and civil and human right.”
A moral imperative? A civil and human right? Such rhetoric, and all for a governmentally mandated union-election procedure, pushed on the Democrats by the party’s supporters in the unions’ headquarters. Never again do we have to listen to claims about how religious leaders were in the tank for the Republicans during the Bush years. There is being in the tank for a particular party, sure, and perhaps some conservative religious leaders were. But then there’s diving all the way to the bottom and holding on to the drain cover until you drown. Which seems to be Jim Wallis’ waterlogged intention.
• Instead of the birth of Iranian democracy, the crisis that followed the June elections may portend the irreversible decline of an ancient country. The clerical regime has shown itself capable of crushing the mass protests, but it may have stifled the last attempt of Iranian society to gasp for breath. Many idealistic commentators predicted that from these protests there would emerge a “color revolution” in the country that, in the 1978 rebellion against the shah, became the founding state of political Islam. They appear to have spoken too soon. As the geopolitical service Stratfor noted on June 22, “When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei . . . called out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, [the commentators] failed to understand that the troops—definitely not drawn from what we might call the ‘Twittering classes’—would remain loyal to the regime for ideological and social reasons. The troops had about as much sympathy for the demonstrators as a small-town boy from Alabama might have for a Harvard postdoc.” It wasn’t a revolution, just Tiananmen Square, concluded the realists at Stratfor.
• Of course, the realists may underestimate the importance of the June rebellion just as much as the idealists exaggerated it. Regardless of whether recent events in Tehran have been like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, Iran is not at all like China. It is, in fact, in much worse shape. Social pathologies suppurate in the Islamic Republic of Iran to an astonishing degree. The June rebellion against Iran’s rigged elections may have failed to overthrow the regime, but it exposed the hypocrisy and fraud that underlie the claims of Islamic radicals to a higher morality. Iran has been ready to implode for some time. The evidence is fragmentary, but what is available suggests that, long before Iranian security forces began killing protestors on the streets of Tehran, the Islamic Republic had already killed off the better part of its next generation.
Birthrates tell us something about the feeling a people has for its own future, and the collapse of Iran’s fertility is the fastest ever observed. Fifteen years ago Iran had 6.6 children per female. The number today is well below 2. “A first analysis of the Iran 2006 census results shows a sensationally low fertility level of 1.9 for the whole country and only 1.5 for the Tehran area (which has about 8 million people),” Tehran University demographer Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi recently observed. “A decline in the TFR [total fertility rate] of more than 5.0 in roughly two decades is a world record in fertility decline. This is even more surprising to many observers when one considers that it happened in one of the most Islamic societies. It forces the analyst to reconsider many of the usual stereotypes about religious fertility differentials.” Other estimates put total Iranian fertility at only 1.7 per female, far below the 2.1 replacement level.
• A sudden collapse in fertility produces a slow-motion train wreck in a third-world society, as the age cohorts collapse in accordion fashion. There will not be enough people in the next generation to support the present one as it ages. Iran’s elderly dependent ratio is only 7 percent today. At current fertility rates it will rise to an astonishing 35 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations’ World Population Prospects, the same as the United States’. The American economy will strain to support elderly dependents comprising a third of its population, but the Iranian economy will collapse—particularly given the projection, common among economists, that, by about 2020, Iran will be a net importer, rather than exporter, of oil, as its reserves dry up. Iran is already close to the demographic point of no return. The extinction of hopes for relief from theocratic tyranny may well terminate Iran’s national prospects forever.
• Internal Iranian data show a high degree of disaffection among young people. The Austrian newspaper Der Standard reported on an Iranian Education Ministry poll of young Iranians. Of Iranians fifteen to twenty-nine years old, 36 percent said that they wanted to emigrate. Fewer than a third “found existing social norms acceptable.” No Iranian outlet dared print the study, the Austrian paper explained.
In a second study reported by Der Standard, Iran’s Health Ministry reported that prostitution has become a typical way for Iranian women to pay their university tuition. According to the Health Ministry survey, more than 90 percent of Tehran’s prostitutes have passed the university entrance exam, while 80 percent said they engage in prostitution voluntarily and temporarily. The educated ones are waiting for better jobs. Those with university qualifications intend to study later, and the ones who already are registered at university cite the high tuition as their motive for prostitution. The Health Ministry’s report concluded that most of Tehran’s prostitutes are content with their occupation and do not consider it a sin according to Islamic law. Other estimates have put the number of prostitutes working in Tehran as high as 300,000.
• Prior to the election, some Iranian commentators claimed that the so-called reformer Hossein Moussavi would actually end up taking a stronger line against the United States than President Ahmadinejad, who was widely denounced by hard-line clerics for agreeing to meet with Barack Obama. The Iranian political scientist Mahan Abedin, for example, declaimed, “A more long-term challenge for Moussavi is how to deal with the threat of U.S. President Barack Obama and his deceptive strategy of engagement. It is a damning indictment of Ahmadinejad’s personality (if not of aspects of his foreign policy) that he seeks a face-to-face meeting with Obama, a move that would spectacularly undermine the Islamic Republic’s long-standing policy of nonengagement with the United States.”
Moussavi is the protégé of former President Hashem Rafsanjani, the father of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. On May 30, a Rafsanjani-linked institute attacked Ahmadinejad, alleging that “Ahmadinejad has played down his predecessor’s role in the development of the country’s nuclear program, which was launched during Rafsanjani’s term in the 1980s.” In other words, the complaint of the Moussavi camp before the elections was that Ahmadinejad wasn’t giving them enough credit for having initiated the nuclear-weapons program. Even while the world shows its sympathy with the demonstrators, the candidate in whose name those protestors marched is as unsavory as his opponent.
• Iran’s regime has been wounded by the events of June 2009. The regime’s weakness is exposed to the world. The enemies of Iran’s Shi’a allies in Iraq and Pakistan will take note. The Israelis will calculate how much the world would really object now if Israeli planes were to bomb Iran’s nuclear-weapons capabilities. The Syrians will wonder if their best interests are still served by an alliance with Tehran.
The result, however, may well be that Iran becomes even more dangerous. The Khameini-Ahmadinejad regime knows it has been humiliated, and it will look for ways to demonstrate its fearlessness and resolve—with consequences certain to be felt in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. For a new American president, the events in Iran are the first of many rude reminders that the world is not a subject for easy solutions and quick social engineering.
• A United Church of Christ congregation explains on its website that it welcomes everyone: “No matter...where you’re going on life’s journey.” Hmm. The goal of a Christian on life’s journey is, we’ve heard, to end up somewhere within the vicinity of the Throne. But perhaps it is good to keep other alternatives in mind.
• Meanwhile, the United Methodist Hymnal committee is out roaming Mother Earth, seeking progressive tunes for the times. Or so says Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and executive director of UM Action, a United Methodist reform organization. A UM Action fundraising letter from May this year reminded readers that twenty years ago a UMC hymnal committee attempted to drop “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as “too militarist to fit the church’s current pacifist stance.”
This time, the direction of a new committee producing the coming 2012 hymnal, seems to be toward feminization and, um, earthification of God. See, for example, the hymn titled “Womb of Life.” Worshippers are made to address God as “Mother, Brother, Holy Partner, Father, Spirit, Only Son,” who is invoked to “aid the birthing of the new world yet to be.” In “I Am Your Mother”—described as an “earth song” or “earth prayer”—the planet seems to personify a mother tenderly pleading for more recycling bins.
The UMC web page has put up a number of interpretations for the disputed hymns, authored by Dean McIntyre, UMC music-resources director. He provides a spirited defense for each selection, linking them whenever possible to historic hymns, pertinent scriptural verses, and relevant biblical imagery. When he describes “I Am Your Mother,” for example, he points to St. Francis of Assisi’s “All Creatures of Our God and King,” in which “we find the following: brother sun, sister moon, brother wind, sister water, brother fire, and mother earth.”
Far be it from us to step between Dr. Tooley, a friend of this magazine, and Dr. McIntyre, a man obviously at pains to put the best spin on the coming hymnal. But in “I Am Your Mother,” the earth itself speaks to say, “I am your mother, tears on my face,” with singers taking on the role of a personified planet. Dr. McIntyre says it is merely a “poetic device,” a phrase he uses for many of the hymns. But surely there is something earthy when worshippers sing as the earth—not in praise of creation or even as penitents for their environmental failures. This emphatically is not what St. Francis of Assisi does in “All Creatures of Our God and King.” In that hymn, worshippers join their voices to a creation that, in all its glory, already is exultantly praising God.
• President Obama did not go half far enough in lifting the ban against federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Or so claims Nature magazine. In particular, the president did not mention present legislation that forbids the use of federal money to create embryos for research and eventual destruction. Present law—the 1996 Dickey–Wicker Amendment—badly needs updating if not outright repeal, says Nature, to fit the current research reality. The Dickey-Wicker provision inhibits the use of “specially created” embryos for research. “Because of this law, worthy projects will still be barred from federal funding despite Obama’s action.”
Forget for the moment that the president does not have the power to overrule an enacted congressional statute. What is important is the view represented by Nature that rejects all restrictions. If enough embryos are not available, we must make more. Nature does call for an “intense national conversation” on the subject—but that, we gather, merely would be to raise the public’s comfort level with using embryos and, coincidently, confine the word embryo to those embryos researchers already find unacceptable for their purposes. “Here, the word embryo is a stumbling block. This term refers to everything from a newly fertilized single-celled egg to millions of cells organized into eyelids, ears, genitals, and limbs. Yet the latter form, which is present some eight weeks after fertilization, is not only ethically unacceptable for research but also far too old to yield embryonic stem cells.”
Given the position that Nature takes, we are surely justified in our suspicion that “ethically unacceptable” would somehow disappear if eight-week-old embryos—with “millions of cells organized into eyelids, ears, genitals, and limbs”—were to prove useful to researchers.
• Those who follow Oprah are often captivated by her resident medical expert, Dr. Mehmet Oz. He was featured last April in a segment that included Michael J. Fox—who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and is an avid supporter of fetal stem-cell research through his charitable foundation.
Dr. Oz, who rarely disagrees with the queen of talk shows, told both Oprah and Fox to brace themselves, as he had something provocative to say on stem cells: Adult stem cells are the way of the future. “The stem-cell debate is dead. . . . In the time of all this fighting we’ve had [over embryonic stem-cell research]—which did slow down this [adult stem-cell] research—in the last year we’ve advanced ten years.” Adult stem cells are likely to be more effective, less risky, and of course less controversial than their fetal counterparts. Oz’s comments, of course, fly in the face of Fox’s strident advocacy for the use of embryos and Oprah’s coincident political beliefs. Oprah looked a bit stunned.
Dr. Oz is moving to his own show. Soon.
• During her recent diplomatic trip to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a brief tour of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While there, the basilica’s rector showed Mrs. Clinton the church’s famous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Popular piety says the Virgin’s image appeared miraculously. After examining it, Mrs. Clinton asked her host, “Who painted it?” “God!” said the good rector. Leaving the basilica, Mrs. Clinton remarked to a group of Mexicans waiting outside to greet her, “You have a marvelous Virgin!”
But Our Lady wasn’t the only woman Hillary Clinton praised this past March. On the day after her visit to Mexico, Mrs. Clinton was in Houston to receive Planned Parenthood’s highest honor, the Margaret Sanger Award. In her acceptance speech, Mrs. Clinton took time to laud the organization’s founder: “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously, her courage, her tenacity, her vision. . . . And when I think about what she did all those years ago in Brooklyn, taking on archetypes, taking on attitudes and accusations flowing from all directions, I am really in awe of her.”
Somehow Mrs. Clinton failed to notice or note that Sanger was regarded even in her own lifetime as a notorious advocate of eugenics, and any objective reading of her works reveals that, by today’s standards, she was a distinct racist. From marvelous Virgin to Margaret Sanger, from one day to the next.
• The Cistercian monks of Our Lady of Spring Bank primarily support themselves by selling printer ink, dog biscuits, and monastic goods on a website called LaserMonks.com. A New York Times article tells the story of the women who run the organizational side of LaserMonks, along the way describing the hobbies that many of the monks have but neglecting to mention that the monks do their heavy share of manual labor in the business and on their property.
All of which led Br. Steven, a blogging novice at the monastery, to remark: "Some of you have asked why I don’t seem to think that yesterday’s story was negative. I spent a long time working in a job where my main task was to understand the mind of the average Times and New Yorker reader and raise several million dollars a year in contributions. In the progressive intellectual frame, there are only three kinds of Catholics: Unaccountable powerful men (who are quite probably libidinous and nefarious), ignorant and oppressed masses (preferably with colorful customs and heart-warming aspirations for self-betterment), and unexpectedly intelligent and altruistic people who are credits to the race (or to the religion, as it might be). The best we could hope for was a credit-to-our-race story, which is largely what we got. . . . The Times article sold a lot of soy toner and dog biscuits, which I’m off to bake now. That makes it a good article."
The press might not get religion, but religion seems to get the press.
• And how long has it been going on that the New York Times has gotten its initial facts so wrong it had to publish a correction? Certainly since the 1920s. In January 1922, the U.S. Peace silver dollar was released for circulation. The New York Times said at the time that the reverse side of the new dollar coin depicted a dove on a mountain top. Numismatists, not to mention ornithologists, were appalled. The mountain-top bird is actually the American bald eagle. The published correction suggested that the eagle’s folded wings had confused the reporter.
• Abortion is a holy blessing, says the new dean and president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Katherine Ragsdale. And thereby, not surprisingly, abortionists are saints. From a 2007 speech Ragsdale delivered to the Texas NARAL chapter:
And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship, has every option open to her, [and] decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion—there is not a tragedy in sight— only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.
"These are the two things I want you, please, to remember—abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. . . . I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing—who do this work every day: The healthcare providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes—in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.
• And then the newly elected bishop of Stockholm, the Rev. Eva Brunne, says that her being a lesbian means she knows “what it is to be called into question.” Given she was elected bishop easily, we can’t think that many questions were called at all. “I am in the lucky situation,” said Brunne, “that I have power and I can use it for the benefit of those who have no power.”
Ah, yes, power. “I am very ’umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield,” as Uriah Heep once declared, but now “I’ve got a little power!” Brunne is described as the “first openly lesbian bishop in the world,” living “in a registered homosexual partnership”—with another lesbian priest—and “has received a church blessing” for it.
• This does put Church of England Archbishop Rowan Williams in a pickle, doesn’t it? The Church of England—like the Anglican Communion Churches of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—is in full communion with the Church of Sweden through the Porvoo Agreement. If Williams should question full communion with Brunne, he will add endorsement to the traditionalist positions of Anglican Archbishops Peter Akinola of Nigeria and Henry Orombi of Uganda and their American supporters. If he says nothing, then he may need to explain how the election of the Brunne differs ecumenically from the American election of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
• Historian James Hitchcock has an insightful column comparing the formal similarities shared by the Episcopal Church in the United States and the New York Times: One is losing members, the other subscribers. Once the link is made, the reader wonders why no one thought of it before. Both “have brought the trouble on themselves and in the same way,” Hitchcock writes, “by systematically alienating their more conservative supporters, driving away precisely the people who were at one time the most loyal.” The strategy might make sense if newer and more liberal constituencies in equal numbers were replenishing their departing members or subscribers, but that isn’t happening.
"The woes of liberal churches have long been a staple of sociological analysis, and their causes are known: “Many a religious leader has worn himself out, and spiritually bankrupted his church, in futile efforts to win credibility with self-consciously postmodernist people for whom secularity is fundamental to modernity.”
That sad reality is no longer in dispute. The odd twist is that the same dynamic also applies to secular organs that imagine objective reporting can be fused to tendentious ideology: “Something similar has happened to the media, which embody the postmodernist outlook that makes the forest of cable-television channels and the infinity of websites more appropriate means of communication than the Times or CBS.”
Just as liberal churches are dying because they give more credence to norms of secularity than to the gospel, so too the mainstream media have embraced ideological spin to their peril: “The embrace of postmodernism by both the media and the churches is like attempting to quench a thirst by drinking salt water—whatever temporary relief it provides merely exacerbates the problem.”
• Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a work much reviewed, and it is interesting to note the differences when a Methodist, an Anglican, and a Catholic reviewer get a hold of it.
The Methodist theologian D. Stephen Long, for instance, finds that “ A Secular Age is Taylor’s most explicitly theological work.” Taylor argues that nominalism and deism distorted cultural understanding of the God of love, who came to seem extrinsic, arbitrary, and ultimately unnecessary. Taylor finds the solution not in the rules of modernity or the rules of Christian orthodoxy but in practical reasoning that seeks to evaluate “forms of life” from within broadly shared “conceptions of the good.” In the saints, whose lives aim at eternal communion with God and with fellow human beings, Taylor identifies practical reasoners par excellence. Long concludes, “To see this form does not resolve all the dilemmas of our secular age, but it offers a different ‘itinerary,’ one where those who articulate the conversion to love can be heard, and who in turn constitute yet another social imaginary. To see this form is not to find another code, but to be moved by those whose lives reflect closer contact to God than our own.”
Interesting, is it not, that this focus on the communal “conversion to love,” rooted in personal practices rather than institutional structures or rules, displays the pattern of Methodist ecclesiology? Long’s Taylor manages to sound a lot like Long.
The Anglican theologian John Milbank finds a significantly different Taylor. Milbank praises Taylor as more “radically orthodox” than many Radical Orthodox theologians. Taylor refuses to grant that secularization arises from a secular space apart from Christianity, although secularization certainly seeks “an immanent human transcendence.” Milbank appreciatively examines Taylor’s account of the “disenchantment” of medieval religion. For Milbank, Taylor “is highly alert to the fact that disenchantment perhaps primarily came about because a certain style of theology favored this—a style wishing to monopolize all mystery in the one God, somewhat in the way that the modern state now monopolized all coercive power at the sovereign center.” Since certain forms of religion stimulate secularization by rationalistically draining Christian monotheism of its “Dionysiac” energies, what is needed is an “enchanted” understanding of God’s communicative presence, experienced through interpersonal “bonds of trust and gift-exchange” rather than legalistic structures and rules that fail by seeking the “institutionalization of charity.”
Along the way, Milbank suggests that the Church’s emphasis on sexual sins and on hell played a role in secularization, and he ends by asking how we can affirm at least some “procedure and institutionalization” in reinventing a more participatory, erotic, and interpersonal Christianity. This Taylor seems strongly in tune with the metaphysics of Milbank’s book The Suspended Middle, as well as in favor of a universalist, sacramental, sexually permissive—and Anglican—ecclesiology. Milbank’s Taylor sounds a lot like Milbank, yes?
For his part, the Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths divides the book into diagnostic and prescriptive modes, with the prescriptive being “very Catholic in tone and substance” and indeed “the book’s engine,” despite the genealogical diagnosis of secularization that occupies most of the pages. Griffiths suggests that the secular cultural field may emerge in part from the influence of the capitalist market economy, which results in “market-states” and the identification of human beings as primarily “consumers” or “choosers.”
Griffiths then describes Taylor’s prescriptive mode, where Taylor’s understanding of Catholicism comes to the fore. But he suggests that Taylor misses the opportunity to find in the Church an alternative cultural field to that of capitalism. For Griffiths, the Church is a place, through the sacraments and the works of mercy, for learning the practices of receptivity and gifting, and thereby of conformity to Christ’s self-giving love. In short, once the influence of the market economy is added to the mix, Griffiths finds that Taylor’s book warrants a Catholic ecclesiology, “something more like a rapturous self-giving to the embrace of the sponsa verbi.”
And, yes, doesn’t Griffiths’ Taylor sound at least a little like Griffiths? A Secular Age received less praise than some of Charles Taylor’s other books, particularly his classic Sources of the Self, but any book that so closely mirrors the person reading it is a book that deserves another look.
• The list seemed to contain exactly the right set of worries that normally motivated teenagers should have, if they’re going to worry. But advertising from the New York University Child Study Center suggests that worries like these constitute a treatable medical disorder. An NYU advertisement worriedly asks, “Is your teenager a worrier?” This, not unnaturally, may set parents to worry. But not to worry, “Your child may qualify for a research study of teens who worry.” Participation is voluntary (should you worry otherwise), and low-cost treatment is available (relieving another worry). Among the worries the Center lists:
What if . . .
• I’m late?
• I miss my bus?
• I don’t get an A?
• I make the wrong decision?
• I don’t get into a good school?
Assuming we are talking about teenagers whose parents have not unnecessarily downloaded their own insecurities to their children and, equally assuming, these children have parents who refuse to medicalize childhood in the way NYU suggests, let us offer the following low-cost replies:
• Leave earlier next time.
• Try harder.
• Don’t do it again.
• There’s always NYU.
• Perhaps you noticed the NYU Child Study Center’s questions target only certain children, kids somewhere in the A and B range with potential for getting into a good school. Children not among the targeted audience: those who worry about having enough food to last through the weekend, those who wonder why their father is no longer at home, and those who must learn to avoid neighborhood violence. What’s missing, in other words, is children with something actually to worry about—worries less amenable to the “low-cost treatment” proposed by NYU’s Child Study Center.
• In 1967, Susan Chapulis, a sixth grader studying monasticism, wrote to Thomas Merton asking for “any information whatsoever” that she could share with her class. Merton replied:
Thanks for your nice letter. You want “any information whatsoever” to help the sixth grade in the study of monasticism. Well, I’ll see if I can get the brothers down in the store to send you a little book about the monastery here. That ought to help.
The monastic life goes back a long way. Monks are people who seek to devote all their time to knowing God better and loving Him more. For that reason they leave the cities and go out into lonely places where it is quiet and they can think. As they go on in life they want to find lonelier and lonelier places so they can think even more. In the end people think these monks are really crazy going off by themselves and of course sometimes they are. On the other hand when you are quiet and when you are free from a lot of cares, when you don’t make enough money to pay taxes, and don’t have a wife to fight with, and when your heart is quiet, you suddenly realize that everything is extremely beautiful and that just by being quiet you can almost sense that God is right there not only with you but even in you. Then you realize that it is worth the trouble of going away where you don’t have to talk and mess around and make a darn fool of yourself in the middle of a lot of people who are running around in circles to no purpose. I suppose that is why monks go off and live in lonely places. Like me now I live alone in the woods with squirrels and rabbits and deer and foxes and a huge owl that comes down by my cabin and makes a spooky noise in the night, but we are friends and it is all ok. A monk who lives all by himself in the woods is called a hermit. There is a Rock ’n’ Roll outfit called Herman and his Hermits but they are not the same thing.
I do not suppose for a moment that you wish to become a hermit (though now I understand there are some girl hermits in England and they are sort of friends of mine because they are hermits, so I send them stuff about how to be a hermit). But anyway, I suggest that you sometimes be quiet and think about how good a thing it is that you are loved by God who is infinite and who wants you to be supremely happy and who in fact is going to make you supremely happy. Isn’t that something? It is, my dear, and let us keep praying that it will work out like that for everybody. Good bye now.
• First Things has a tradition of looking at the annual updates for the most popular names for children. Online at the ever-interesting City Journal, Kay Hymowitz tells us that the name José is less popular than it once was. Or, more accurately, she says that is how Sam Roberts summarized a Pew Center study in the New York Times:
“This ‘profound change,’ we’re told, reflects the fact that more—52 percent of the nation’s 16 million Hispanic children—are American-born. Yes, many are the children of illegal immigrants (as are two out of three of the country’s foreign-born Hispanic kids.) But they’re born in the U.S. and, Roberts continues, are learning English at the same rate as Asian immigrant children. The subtext is clear: Hispanics are assimilating to American life much like previous generations of newcomers and as successfully as the so-called ‘model’ Asian immigrants. Hence, Hispanics’ growing preference for American-sounding names. This is excellent news.”
But buried deeper in the article, Hymowitz notes, were these remarks on the rise of single parenting among third-generation Latinos: “Most immigrants start off rather poor and over generations move up the socioeconomic ladder. Hispanics fit that pattern at first. Forty-seven percent of first-generation Latino children are poor; that rate falls to 26 percent by the second generation. So far, so good. But the third generation shows a disturbing lack of progress. Its poverty rate has barely budged, with 24 percent of its kids poor. Though the article doesn’t make the connection, one cause is clear: the large proportion of Latino children being raised by a single parent. According to the Pew study—noted by Roberts somewhere in the forgotten midsection of his article—the proportion of such children rises over time and is actually higher in the third generation than in the first and second. This is very bad news.”
• A month later the New York Times had a story on Mexican cartels recruiting young Mexican and American men to fight in the drug wars. One young man mentioned was Gabriel Cardona, “the ringleader of the American cell of assassins, a savvy, brash young man who orchestrated at least five murders in Laredo of people connected to the Sinaloa Cartel.” Cardona is now serving a life sentence in Texas for kidnapping two American teenagers and stabbing them to death with a broken bottle.
What sent him down this road? The newspaper reports: “His mother, Gabriela Maldonado, a home health worker, said Mr. Cardona had grown up with an abusive, alcoholic father, but had done well in school through eighth grade, when his father abandoned the family. Then Mr. Cardona began to skip classes and hang out with drug users on Lincoln Street. Soon he was sent to juvenile prison for aggravated assault, and after that he moved out of the house.”
For Cardona it wasn’t poor schools or lack of government funding; it was “when his father abandoned the family.”
• Dr. Philip Nitschke, “England’s Dr. Death,” runs Exit International, a pro-euthanasia group. In May, he began hawking suicide kits for $50. Each kit comes with a syringe that allows users to extract half a milliliter of barbiturate solution without breaking the sanitary seal. The seal, we gather, is mostly for marketing purposes. “Clearly sterility doesn’t matter given that death is the desired outcome,” Nitschke says.
One of our friends writes in to say, “Funny, I thought it was spelled, ‘Nietzsche.’” A good line, but even Nietzsche was above this.
• Jeffrey Tucker notes that watching Angels and Demons wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience. The movie had a better sense of liturgical music than most Catholic parishes:
Actually, the real reason I like to see any film in which the Catholic Church is featured prominently concerns the music. Let’s just say that “On Eagles’ Wings” is never featured at a Catholic funeral on film. And it pleases me to see confirmed that even the most secular parts of the industrial media sector understand what sacred music probably sounds like.
Sure enough, this movie opens with the Introit of the Requiem Mass playing at the funeral. Indeed, whenever there is a need to call forth some sense of solemn liturgy, a modal piece comes on featuring vague outlines of Kyrie Eleison and Agnus Dei. There were several people’s chants featured here and there—probably more than most parishes hear in the course of one liturgical year, sad to say.
Sad to say indeed, but it all comes down to how you view the Church. If the Catholic Church is a large institution full of tradition, majesty, and mystery, the music one associates with it will reflect that. Whether that that mystery is redolent with Illuminati conspiracy or the source of grace and truth, it nonetheless exists and will be reflected in the art associated with the deep traditions of Christianity. But if mystery and tradition are thrown away, there is no reason to have majesty in art. Gather us in on eagles’ wings because the whole thing is just about us and our experiences, not anything deeper.
Of course Ron Howard knows that that’s not true. But it would be nice if more Catholics did, too.
• We’ve had bad experiences in modern times with the immanent eschatologies of the people who wanted to build heaven on earth or reestablish Eden—with Marxists and all the rest, who demanded, in one way or another, that the ultimate purposes of humankind be achieved. Mass murder is the regular result of the political attempt to reach a cosmic horizon.
But that’s not, in itself, an argument against all horizons—against every strong cultural goal. In fact, vibrant cultures always want something, and exhausted cultures don’t. So it’s reasonable to ask what it is we actually want these days. What is it that we imagine? Western societies aim at so little now. They have such small interests in mind.
What we need, says the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, is to go to Mars. And he’s right. What besides space today can reinspire the temporal imagination? The author of a new book, Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin argues, “More than just exploring a hostile new world, Apollo 11 was about bold vision and great risk, about the obstacles a great nation could overcome with dedication, courage, and teamwork. It was about choosing a goal that exceeded our grasp—and then reaching across history to make it happen.”
Indeed, he notes, “For me, the most difficult part of the mission wasn’t what happened during the flight but what happened after we came home.” America has done some interesting things in space, over the decades since the moon walk. “But what America hasn’t done is inspire the world—and itself—with a bold vision for our future in space.” What we need is “a destination in space that offers great rewards for the risks to achieve it. I believe that destination must be homesteading Mars, the first human colony on another world. By refocusing our space program on Mars for America’s future, we can restore the sense of wonder and adventure in space exploration that we knew in the summer of 1969. We won the moon race; now it’s time for us to live and work on Mars, first on its moons and then on its surface.”
To be a religious believer is to know that the hungers of the human heart will not find fulfillment without God, but even religious believers benefit from goals short of the ecstatic vision of the divine. People without any temporal horizons—without any historical purpose or vision of the future—grow enervated and decadent, and they begin to follow strange gods, who promise them meaning.
In times of advance, and times of goals, and times of purpose, people have little need for that kind of acedia. Want to inspire the world with a temporal purpose? Want to reveal many of our arguments as the pettinesses that they are? Ever since last summer’s news about possible water on the planet, I’ve been telling people that we should build a rocket and fly it to Mars. As Buzz Aldrin says, the Red Planet must be conquered.
• Have a tip for an item that would make a good While We’re At It? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY, 10010. Those who suggest items that are used will receive $25
and have their names listed in the source box at the end of The Public Square. Plus, of course, gain the satisfaction of contributing to the pages of First Things.
Public Square Sources:
William F. Buckley, Weekly Standard, March 10, 2008. John Cavadini, Notre Dame Observer, April 19, 2006.
While We’re At It Sources:
Card check, Interfaith Worker Justice press release, May 11, 2009. Mohammad Jalal Abbasi- Shavazi, “Education and the World’s Most Rapid Fertility Decline in Iran,” European Population Conference, July 10, 2008. Iranian data, Der Standard, February 3, 2009. Mahan Abedin, Asia Times, May 28, 2009. Rafsanjani, Ynet News, May 30, 2009. UCC sign on life’s journey, First United Church of Christ website. Methodist hymns, UMAction Letter, May 2009. Obama and stem cells, Natu re, March 25, 2009. Oprah and stem cells, www.youtube.com. Clinton in Mexico, California Catholic Daily, March 30, 2009. Publicity for monks, New York Times, June 1, 2009; Sub Tuum blog, June 3, 2009. Eagles and Doves, Coins, July 2009. Abortion blessing, Pro-Choice Texas website. Lesbian bishop, Ecumenical News International, May 29, 2009. Hitchcock on the New York Times, Touchstone, May 2009. Theologians on Taylor, D. Stephen Long, Pro Ecclesia, Winter 2009; John Milbank, Studies in Christian Ethics, February 2009; Paul J. Griffiths, The Thomist, Fall 2008. NYU worries, Metro, March 31, 2009. Merton, Christianity Today website, June 4, 2009. Hispanic names, City Journal, May 2009. Fatherless drug-cartel murderer, New York Times, June 22, 2009. Dr. Nitschke, Time, April 13, 2009. Ron Howard and Angels and Demons, New Liturgical Movement website, June 2, 2009. Aldrin on Mars, CNN, June 23, 2009.
David P. Goldman, William Hurlbut, Matthew Levering, Sarah Powers Mostrom, Edward T. Oakes, S.J., Ryan Sayre Patrico, Nathaniel Peters, Russell E. Saltzman, Steve Wissler.