Notre Dame, Again
I find myself in substantial agreement with Joseph Bottum’s central thesis(“And the War Came,” June/July 2009): There is indeed a split happening in American Catholicism, and its fault lines are becoming more and more publicly evident—the Notre Dame controversy is an episode in and a symbol of this split.
But Bottum’s analysis does not go far enough; the wound runs much deeper than he suggests.
He says that there is “a great divergence, in outlook and purpose, between Catholic universities and the Catholic culture of America.” This implies that there is a unitary American Catholic culture with which Catholic universities are at odds. Yet Bottum himself claims that “at the root of culture lie the deepest commitments to what people hold to be true.” If this is true, then we clearly do not have a single “Catholic culture” in America.
This claim can be supported with evidence Bottum himself provides. For instance: 1) the 54 percent of self-identified Catholics who voted for Obama in the last election, and 2) the news reports that students on campus strongly supported Notre Dame’s administration, while the alumni were less happy, and the pro-life community was outraged.
On those grounds—and I’m sure we can all supply further anecdotal evidence—we must conclude, however reluctantly, that there are two different sets of deepest commitments to what is true within the Catholic Church in America. For one of those cultures, abortion is a central concern; for the other, it simply is not.
Edward M. Hogan
Joseph Bottum’s analysis of the Notre Dame scandal is insightful and instructive. I disagree, however, with his contention that abortion is more a “cultural marker” for Catholics than a theological matter. For most orthodox Catholics, abortion is a profoundly theological issue. Indeed, the reason so many “cafeteria Catholics” dissent on abortion is that their theological reasoning is muddled.
Catholics who think in harmony with the Church correctly perceive that abortion profanes the very core of our faith, which is the incarnation of God as a human being. God could have chosen to save fallen man in any way he wanted, but he chose to do it by becoming one of us. And he did not choose to appear suddenly as a fully mature human—Almighty God chose to become incarnate as a tiny zygote in Mary’s womb. God Himself, a human being like us! Part of what makes the Good News so good is that the inherent dignity of human beings can never again be in doubt.
It is thus far more than just a cultural phenomenon when Catholics place abolition of abortion at the very center of social justice and believe it to be the single most important moral issue. Human dignity is at stake, as are the reality and the implications of the Incarnation.
To accept abortion is to deny the very nature of man—and of God. Killing a fellow human being at the same vulnerable, prenatal stage at which Jesus’ earthly life began naturally seems more abominable than anything else we can imagine. It is not only a violation of justice and compassion but, at some level, a rejection of God’s ineffable gift of intimacy with himself, which he has given us precisely by means of his life as a fellow human being.
I am dismayed that Joseph Bottum mentioned Randall Terry’s website but not the website of the pro-life student group working to respond to Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Obama with an award.
As Bishop D’Arcy wrote on April 10, Catholics and all people of good will should “stay away from unseemly and unhelpful demonstrations against our nation’s president, Notre Dame, or Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. The Notre Dame community is well equipped to supervise and support discussions and prayer within their own campus.”
Terry’s sickening demonstrations not only used gory images but also vilified Fr. Jenkins as “Judas.” To give such publicity to Terry’s website (especially without balancing it with comparable publicity for more constructive groups) is to tacitly encourage him.
I was staunchly pro-life before this began, but my emotional support for the movement was washed away in the blood of the signs flying over the university.
Notre Dame, Indiana
I admire Joseph Bottum, but this time he really missed the mark. His analysis of the Notre Dame controversy, however, was spoiled by unkind comments about Randall Terry, whom he describes as a “wild-eyed, self-promoting activist.”
Terry remains a true hero for those of us who remember his courageous leadership of Operation Rescue and his ongoing commitment to the pro-life movement (much of it at great personal cost).
By contrast, our bishops cluck like a bunch of agitated hens; none of them brave enough to issue even an ultimatum to the likes of Kennedy, Biden, and Pelosi.
Los Angeles, California
As a Catholic, I hope the Church doesn’t limit the definition of justice to opposing abortion. Respect for life also includes: banning torture; working to reduce the risk of nuclear war; strengthening international cooperation on peaceful strategies for averting deadly conflict; making affordable heath care for all people a priority; practicing environmental stewardship to protect Creation for future generations.
President Obama isn’t perfect, but he has brought to Washington a much-needed openness to policy changes, like the ones mentioned above, that advance the goals of peace and social justice in many areas. His call for pro-choice and pro-life groups to work together to reduce the number of abortions might not satisfy some, but it is a starting point. Perhaps by working together on this contentious issue we can protect life while reflecting Christ’s unconditional love and grace.
The situation at Notre Dame and at my alma mater, Marquette University, is quite disturbing to me as a practicing Catholic. I don’t blame the scholars as much as I do the bishops, who have for almost forty years allowed catechesis to be watered down. At this point, most Catholics simply don’t understand the content or demands of their faith.
The religions of feminism and individualism have overshadowed the truths of the faith and of personal and social morality. Have you heard of your body being a “temple of the Holy Spirit” lately? No, our bodies (and the new human lives that may happen to be growing in our bodies) are property to dispose of at will.
The bishops have been too busy covering up for pedophile priests, leaving the faithful to retreat into their own, frequently defective, understanding of the faith. I can hardly blame the Catholic students at Notre Dame or elsewhere for their pro-choice views. I can’t remember the last time the priest in our parish has discussed anything at all relevant to the life issues or, for that matter, anything relevant at all.
Mary Ann Edwards
The only apparent point of Joseph Bottum’s essay was to vilify Fr. John Jenkins. Bottum calls Jenkins’ behavior “execrable,” among other things, while weaving a narrative of institutional betrayal because the university invited a pro-choice president of the United States to give the commencement speech.
The measure of Bottum’s uncontrolled desire to wound is the slice of gossip he retails halfway through the piece. In it, he tells us that an unnamed “former student” spotted Fr. Jenkins on his way into the White House and emailed this sighting back to a professor at Notre Dame, also unnamed, who then asked the president about the incident. Bottum manages to find a crime in Fr. Jenkins’ heated denial that he was even near the White House. “Regardless of the truth of the matter,” Bottum writes, “the tone of the reply is revealing.”
No, what is revealing is that Bottum doesn’t care whether the rumor he reports is true or not. Also revealing—and all too familiar—is Bottum’s description of his sources as “friends of First Things,” a device the late Richard John Neuhaus often used to describe a tiny group of disgruntled and always anonymous professors at Notre Dame that he regularly relied on for his occasional swipes at the university. The new editor apparently wants to maintain this shabby First Things tradition of reporting gossip as if it were fact.
Fr. Jenkins isn’t the only distinguished figure Bottum disses. He gratuitously sneers at Judge John T. Noonan, who graciously agreed to replace Mary Ann Glendon at the last moment as a speaker.
As for Glendon, she may indeed be “celebrated for her good manners and good will,” but the way she handled her refusal of the Laetare Medal showed neither. Good manners would dictate minimally that she pick up the phone and explain her decision to Fr. Jenkins. Instead, she sent him her withdrawal letter by fax, then published it as an open letter in First Things refusing afterward to talk to the press.
And as for Bishop D’Arcy, much as he may say he meant no disrespect to President Obama, it is hard not to read his actions in that light. The bishop said the graduation Mass on Saturday and in his sermon even echoed the theme of faith and reason that Fr. Jenkins brilliantly adumbrated the next day in the presence of President Obama. So the only ceremony Bishop D’Arcy absented himself from was the one at which Obama spoke. Regardless of the bishop’s intent, it was a display of disrespect.
Finally, I must say that Bottum’s concluding argument—that opposition to abortion is now at the center of Catholic culture in this country—is another example of ignoring inconvenient facts. I wish he were right, but studies of Catholic attitudes toward abortion do not bear him out nor, alas, does the practice of all too many Catholic women.
Having been nurtured in the Catholic culture of the 1950s, I think I know in my bones both its strengths and weaknesses. Any effort to construct the boundaries of a new subculture around opposition to abortion is sure to fail because it asks too little of Catholics, and strains the abortion issue too much. Certainly it cannot sustain the culture of a Catholic university like Notre Dame.
Kenneth L. Woodward
Briarcliff Manor, New York
During his commencement speech at Notre Dame, President Obama, addressing the need to find “common ground” regarding fundamental issues such as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, encouraged students to “doubt” their faith even as they “cling” to it. His call for “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words” is, ultimately, then, a plea to doubt the tenets of one’s faith.
Such doubt about God’s covenant and the accompanying invitation to human beings to free themselves from their limitations has appeared in various forms throughout history. It first appeared in the Garden of Eden. Rather than deny God outright, the serpent made an apparently reasonable request for information, which by insinuation caused man to mistrust God: “Did God say, ‘you shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). The first step toward apostasy, then, is not denial of God but rather doubt about his covenant. In practice, this means doubt about the community of faith and prayer and the commandments that provide the context for living the covenant.
Once people begin to doubt God’s covenant they are well on the way to building their own worlds. Obama, though he speaks of the Golden Rule—the “call to treat one another as we wish to be treated”—ignores it when advocating for his positions on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. He treats the weak, powerless, and defenseless as a subordinate class of human beings. May God preserve us from doubting our Catholic faith and from following his pragmatic example.
Joseph Bottum writes that the bishops “lack much of a weapon beyond the pinprick of a sharp letter and the atomic explosion of declaring that an institution is no longer Catholic.”
Why are other apparent options unworkable? Fr. Jenkins is a Holy Cross priest under ecclesiastical authority. Why can’t the American bishops get Fr. Jenkins called to a desk job in Rome? Why can’t Bishop D’Arcy withdraw Fr. Jenkins’ faculties to say Mass, hear confessions, and so on within the diocese?
These actions are short of Bottum’s “atomic explosion” but would no doubt get Fr. Jenkins’ attention. He is in open rebellion against the Church and has separated himself from the Bishops—this must not stand!
Cave Creek, Arizona
Joseph Bottum’s article was disappointing and unhelpful. Rather than investigating Notre Dame’s actual motivation for inviting Obama, which was more complicated and less nefarious than the one-sided story Bottum portrayed, the piece simply (and wrongly) presumed the worst, namely, Notre Dame’s thirst to get into the political limelight. Isn’t telling the complex truth more important than misrepresenting it in order to confirm and promote one’s already established worldview?
Bottum’s story also suggested that the protest against Obama at Notre Dame spontaneously rose up from among “the faithful.” However, the faithful (unless the term is taken simply to mean those who agree with Bottum) in fact clearly disagree about the best strategy for addressing and combating abortion, even if they agree in their opposition to abortion per se. Indignation, protest, and refusal to talk is only one strategy for changing the world, and it is not necessarily always the best, as many Catholic faithful—including President John Jenkins—know.
Furthermore, for all of Bottum’s talk about “the faithful,” it might be worth remembering that American Catholics are not much different from many others in their views of abortion. The 2008 General Social Survey, for example, shows that 38 percent of Catholics (compared to 32 percent of Protestants) say women should be able to get a legal abortion for “any reason”; 83 percent of Catholics (compared to 88 percent of all Americans) say women should be able to get a legal abortion if the woman’s health is “seriously endangered”; and 46 percent of Catholics (compared to 49 percent of Protestants) say it is “not wrong at all” for a woman to get an abortion if the baby has birth defects.
This may not be anything for committed Catholics to be proud of. But it does make problematic some of Bottum’s assured claims about “the faithful” when it comes to abortion. It also raises questions about the actual effects of the strategy of indignation, protest, and refusal to talk on educating pro-abortion American Catholics toward embracing a more faithful pro-life position.
I wonder if Bottum watched Jenkins’ speech, which more than rose to the occasion, made Notre Dame proud, and helped unmask Bottum’s highly negative and inaccurate portrayal of Jenkins as a Catholic leader. I also wonder if Bottum noticed the May 18 article in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano, which positively noted Obama’s “search for common ground” and made no mention of Mary Ann Glendon or the protests of some of the U.S. bishops.
I generally appreciate First Things but not when I know enough to realize when some of its stories, including Bottum’s about Notre Dame, are ill informed, one-sided, and tarnish some of the Catholic faithful it claims to champion.
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
I am a physician, so I thank you for providing some moral clarity to this “wave of nausea” that I’ve been experiencing about this Obama controversy. The “common ground” Obama seeks from Catholics surely smells like liberal Protestantism. We’ve gotten a taste of it in the snubbing of the bishops and the embarrassment of a Thomas More figure, Mary Ann Glendon.
San Antonio, Texas
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Mary Eberstadt’s article (“Pro-Animal, Pro-Life,” June/July 2009) focused on only one subset of the pro-animal group, namely those who do not want to eat animals.
But consider the subset of animals that do not end up on a plate: pets. The increase in throwaway pets—the many dogs and cats that end up in euthanizing shelters—may be due to the culture of death that abortion cultivates. But there is also anecdotal evidence to suggest a recent spike in the prevalence of no-kill animal shelters.
That these shelters are bursting with animals implies that many of those who cannot keep their animals—or, more commonly, the stray that they found—prefer the animal to live. This suggests a widespread sense of compassion for animals.
Thus, Eberstadt’s conclusion that “vegetarians and pro-lifers . . . have a natural bond in moral intuitionism that should make them allies” is also true of the relationship between pro-pet owners (“finders”) and the pro-life community. Compassion for child and animal should bring these two groups together.
Mary Eberstadt is onto something. Ethical vegetarianism is not well explained by any of the favored modern ethical theories. Utilitarianism would have us refuse to cause pain to animals, but it cannot be averse to eating them after they have been gently killed. Rights-based contractualism has a hard time caring about beings that will never be able to bargain.
The refusal to eat flesh is best explained by a sense of the sanctity of life, the very principle to which pro-lifers appeal. Why should those who care about humans, a subset of animate beings, feel uncomfortable around those who revere the entire set? Vegetarianism provides a way to explain to young people today that feelings and rights do not comprise the whole moral universe—a point pro-lifers need to make.
Many pro-lifers think human life is sacred because humans have a rational nature, unlike most or all other animals. They worry that vegetarianism obscures this vital fact.
But I think rationality simply epitomizes something present in all life that we tend to respect or revere. I like to call this something “directed power.” All life—even vegetable life—has, so to speak, “a mind of its own.” Each living creature has its own form and purpose, in its very genes, quite apart from how we may wish to use it. This amazes us and causes us to step back in awe.
All life is worthy of respect because, from the beginning, it aims at some sort of excellence or virtue. Animal life deserves more respect than plant life because the virtues of which it is capable are more excellent (the virtue of sight, for example). And human life deserves the greatest respect because it alone (or almost alone?) is from conception designed for the greatest creaturely virtues we can imagine: It is meant to choose the good for its own sake and to know the truth of being.
Therefore, respect for animals, as demonstrated by not eating or torturing them, logically supports rather than opposes still greater respect for human beings.
Mary Eberstadt’s search for common moral ground between vegetarians and life groups is understandable, but she runs the serious risk of bestowing a moral status on vegetarianism that it does not possess.
Killing animals for meat is either wrong or it isn’t. How animals are treated prior to their demise is another question entirely. Confusion on this point gives rise to the absurd “antihumanist” defense of animal lives over those of humans that Eberstadt exposes in her piece.
However unintentionally, describing vegetarianism itself (as distinct from the opposition to the cruel treatment of animals that may motivate it) as a moral triumph tends to trivialize the notion of the sanctity of life and to imply that animals and humans have equal moral worth. The effect is to decrease concern for the value of human life rather than to increase concern for animal welfare.
Abstaining from meat may have wonderful spiritual and physical benefits. But unless it is offered in reparation for sins against life, it has nothing to do with saving the unborn.
Mary Eberstadt writes that “[the shared sense of acting on a moral intuition] . . . is the moral key to a place where actual vegetarian lambs can easily be imagined resting alongside pro-life lions.” This is the kind of writing that confirms me issue after issue as a First Things reader.
I hope there will be a follow-up essay, because I cannot see for myself how to make common cause with a vegetarian without giving up my meat . . . or how the vegetarian could reciprocate without simply becoming a pro-lifer.
New Braunfels, Texas
My Dominican teachers often said, “Never affirm, never deny; always distinguish.” With that in mind, a few distinctions between pro-animal, pro-life, and vegetarianism are in order.
Like Mary Eberstadt, I abhor cruelty to animals, and I believe that inflicting unnecessary suffering on them is wrong. I am also pro-life. But the origins of these two ethical positions are radically different. The first arises from the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” and the second arises from the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Respect and kindness for animals derives from mankind’s duty to care for creation as its steward, not from reverence for animals as if they were persons. I hunt and eat animals and have taught my children to do so. We have a strong sense of ethical responsibility when we hunt. My children have learned to be conservationists as well as carnivores, to respect and to delight in the beauty of nature, and to take seriously their role as stewards of nature. We obey game laws and we do our best to kill quickly and mercifully. There is always a sense of loss in the death of an animal, but there is also a sense of gratitude to the Lord who provides for us.
In trying to make a connection between vegetarianism and respect for human life, Eberstadt lists vegetarians who are bad people and then lists vegetarians who are very good people. But there are also many meat-eaters who are bad people, and perhaps a few who are good people. It’s really all beside the point, as are the emotional experiences of those who have embraced either the pro-life or the vegetarian cause.
Eberstadt finally arrives at the point of writing, “None of this is to introduce a moral equivalency between killing animals and killing humans. . . .” Yes, that is the whole point, isn’t it? Yet the bulk of the article is spent trying to establish, if not an equivalency, then at least a close parallel.
As for the vegetarian saints Eberstadt cites, the Church has a long history of encouraging self-denial of one’s carnal appetites as a spiritual exercise. In this context, refraining from eating meat is not called vegetarianism but abstinence. It may be that perpetual abstinence is a counsel of perfection for some, but the Church has never required or even suggested it for ordinary people or for clergy and religious.
William G. White
Franklin Park, Illinois
Mary Eberstadt seeks common moral ground between vegetarians and pro-lifers. She reports that vegetarians are chiefly concerned with animal suffering. So it might seem natural for her to argue that opposition to abortion follows from this concern. But of course she makes no such argument, because she cannot.
For a person to feel pain, two things must happen: Signals originating in pain receptors must reach the cerebral cortex causing excitation there, and this excitation must be communicated to another cortical area which interprets this activity as pain. But before the third trimester, neither of these events is possible. The cerebral cortex, if it even exists, is not yet connected to the rest of the body, nor is it connected within itself. In an anencephalic fetus, these conditions will never be met. So abortion in all these cases causes no suffering, at least not the suffering of the fetus.
We must allow our moral intuitions to be tutored by our best understanding. This is difficult. It is probably beyond the child who Eberstadt thinks can be trusted to “connect the dots” for us, as it is beyond those who cannot think past the label “baby,” or whose revulsion at gruesome photos terminates considered judgment.
Eberstadt refers to pro-lifers as “moral traditionalists,” but this is inaccurate. Traditionally, people recognized a moral difference between abortions early and late in pregnancy. Aristotle and Aquinas both thought that there was a progression from vegetative to sensitive to rational souls during gestation. The time of “quickening” was recognized as a dividing line in English common law. The psalm says, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” It doesn’t say, “You snapped your fingers, and I was created in an instant in my mother’s Fallopian tube.”
This latter view, “immediate animation,” was a nineteenth-century innovation, which jumped from new observations on human reproduction to its conclusion based on two now outdated theories: vitalism and animism. Vitalism asserted that an immaterial force or principle, namely “life” (a different version for each species), was responsible for making the body alive. Animism identified this life principle of the soul or self with the Aristotelian “form” which imposed its order on the body. These are highly attractive, intuitive notions with ancient pedigrees. It should not surprise us that the pro-life movement is essentially vitalist, or that anyone who refers to a person or an embryo as a life is an animist.
So Eberstadt’s “moral traditionalists” are really animist-vitalists. And the news these pro-lifers have not yet heard, trapped as many are in their scholastic ghetto, is that the scientific theory of vitalism was found in the twentieth century to be false. The entire science of molecular biology is a testament to this fact. It turns out that there is no life principle. Life is a set of properties belonging to a suitably organized physical organism. These properties are the same for humans and nonhumans, for animals and plants. What distinguishes us is not some mysterious entity called human life. It is the structures of our bodies, especially our brains, and what they do. So a person is not a life. Animism is false. The mere fact that an embryo is alive does not mean that the person who might later arise from it is in any sense present. Life is not a proper object of sympathy.
All this might sound terribly abstract and far from the kinds of life-changing accesses of intense empathy of which Eberstadt writes. But my guess is that many moral intuitions of pro-lifers are tied up with these basic but mistaken conceptualizations of what it means to be alive. Before seeking common ground with vegetarians, perhaps they should first seek a solid grounding in modern biology and then reexamine whether their own moral intuitions have truly been “thought through with care.”
San Diego, California
Mary Eberstadt’s article was a welcome affirmation for this pro-life veteran. There are many reasons why a person might be pro-life. Some are pro-life out of sheer political calculation; some are pro-life because they are obedient to a religious authority; some want to prevent demographic winter; some want to put an end to the psychological and social damage they see abortion inflict. But the most deeply religious and human reason for being pro-life is the recognition that this fragile, beautiful gift of life is just that—a gift. We identify with it and understand that without this living pulse, as real on one side of the birth canal as it is on the other, there is nothing. John Paul II understood this as he named his encyclical on the topic, The Gospel of Life. The very thing Jesus came to redeem and save is that living being, created by God, delicate, beautiful, and freely given. It is life itself.
In 1978 I was a seminarian for the Diocese of Columbus in Ohio. A young man from Portsmouth, Ohio, named Alex Pacheco joined us that summer. He had a deep appreciation of the gift of life in animals and was truly offended by actions of violence against them. He was a pretty ordinary guy in many ways, but the instinct in him for the gift of life was so acute that one would have to conclude it was a gift from God, not unlike that rumored to be true of St. Francis. Two years later, Alex would release to the media pictures of experiments on monkeys that he had taken as a custodian at a laboratory at Georgetown University. That action and the uproar that followed would be the founding moment for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
While we can argue about their methods, many of which have been deplorable, we need not argue any longer over the historic effect of PETA in America. While Alex went on to hobnob with Hollywood celebrities and watch his organization’s budget grow to tens of millions of dollars, the pro-life movement continues to labor on the fringes of society in many ways. It is important to see the fundamental agreement and religious nature that bind both.
Jeffrey C. Silleck
Mary Eberstadt presents a plausible case for common ground between vegetarians and pro-lifers, with an especially lucid articulation of why there will probably always be an insuperable impasse between their respective camps. Nonetheless, a number of objections come to mind that further diminish the prospect of common ground between vegetarians and pro-lifers.
The first of these is the need to recognize that the term pro-life is a capacious tent covering many people who got there for all kinds of reasons. For example, someone might be agnostic on the question of exactly when life begins but have the good sense to give the benefit of the doubt in a way that comes down on the side least likely to incur harm. Throw in the recognition that Roe v. Wade was a travesty, and you end up with someone who is solidly pro-life, but for reasons that do not bear on anything that might motivate vegetarianism.
Of course, most pro-lifers, and certainly most First Things readers, are pro-life because of a moral intuition, usually bolstered by authoritative religious teaching to which they endeavor to be attuned. Such pro-lifers believe that the universe has a certain objective order, including a moral order. They try to live in accordance with this order. For such people there are a number of ways in which the claims of ethical vegetarianism may seem to be in tension with the very worldview that makes them pro-life.
The first might be called the “enjoyment factor.” We tend to think that the things we really, truly enjoy are not accidents of nature but gifts from God. What a pity to have never had a “Thank you, Jesus” moment upon biting into a perfectly cooked steak! It seems inconceivable that a Creator who has shown his love in so many ways would create something as universally enjoyed as chickens but desire that we totally abstain from them.
A more serious objection arises from what seems to be the main source of common ground: an aversion to “cruelty.” We will probably not agree about where to draw the line about what is cruel and what is merely an unpleasant manifestation of the fallen state of the physical world. Judgments about cruelty often ride on waves of radical subjectivism, a phenomenon that is already working much mischief. What vegans deem cruel a more objective observer of nature might lament but in the end find perfectly natural.
Why is it more cruel for me to catch a trout than it is for a trout to demolish exquisitely beautiful mayflies all morning long? Are parasite-ridden, arthritic cattle in India better off than those bovines lounging under an oak tree just up my road that will be dinner later this year? Like the recently much-debated word torture, cruelty is too expansive and subjective a term to be a moral criterion in a fallen world.
Finally, at the most basic level, the pro-lifer who resists being grouped with vegetarians is likely pushing back against an alternative understanding of the order of the universe. We know that humans stand apart from other creatures in large part because of what our Maker revealed to us about what he has done for us. One can be committed to treating lesser creatures with all due decency and respect and still hold that in God’s order there is a gap between humans and nonhumans that is far greater than that gap between plants and animals or plants and rocks. Such a belief does not preclude the need for ethical treatment of animals, but it is a different ethic than that for humans—and not just by degree.
Perhaps a more fruitful discussion might arise by shifting the focus away from the morality of meat to a broader sense of our relationship with food. Immoderate consumption is manifesting itself in an obesity epidemic, which, along with related maladies, is straining our healthcare system. It also diminishes the divine intent alluded to by the aforementioned enjoyment factor. If idols can be defined as those objects from which we derive comfort, security, and identity in ways that ought to come more directly from our Creator, it is clear that cheap, plentiful food has become an idol for millions of people. Proposing a more virtuous relation with food (moderation and gratitude instead of entitlement) rooted in the understanding expressed by Paul (1 Cor. 6:19–20) might not banish cruelty from the earth, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Thomas J. Lewis
Dripping Springs, Texas
Mary Eberstadt says that “it is also a fact that Trappists, Cistercians, Benedictines, and Franciscans traditionally adopted vegetarian diets.” Trappists, Cistercians, and Benedictines all base their lives on the Rule of St. Benedict, which does not provide for vegetarianism.
Rather, its chapter on food requires monks in good health to abstain perpetually from the meat of four-legged animals; but it permits monks who are ill to eat such meat (and affords them certain luxuries not permitted to other monks). It does not forbid any monk to eat the meat of animals having fewer than four legs, such as chickens, ducks, geese, and fish.
The Rule’s distinction of the four-legged versus other animals would be expense: Raising or buying four-legged animals for meat required some degree of wealth; by contrast, poultry could be raised by leaving them to forage the monastery grounds, possibly supplying them with minimal amounts of grain; wild fish could be caught for free. There is no vegetarian thinking or policy in the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, the chapter on food upholds the principle of “frugality in all things.”
The Rev. Stephanos Pedrano, O.S.B.
Prince of Peace Abbey
I have just one consideration to add in response to Mary Eberstadt’s excellent essay. A significant reason vegetarians and pro-lifers have been at odds is the factor of environmental degradation and human population growth. While many vegetarians practice what they do because of the epiphany moments Eberstadt mentions, they also do so out of concern for the environment and to lessen the use of natural resources.
Many of these vegetarians have been taught that one of the most significant sources of environmental degradation is human life—not just wasteful, polluting humans but all human life. It is no surprise that those who understand human life in this way are often abortion supporters.
Is there any merit to the idea that humans by nature harm the environment? It would take more wisdom than I have to know the full ramifications of an ever-increasing human population.
But we can agree that, while the planet may be able to sustain a population many times greater than the present one, it cannot support a wasteful, blatantly consumerist population while maintaining the natural, wild, and open spaces that many of us value so highly.
As noted in Gaudium et Spes, “there are . . . serious and alarming problems arising in many parts of the world as a result of population expansion.” If this was true back in 1965, how much more true is it forty-four years later, with a world population approaching seven billion?
Vegetarianism can easily be united with a frugal, less consuming lifestyle that sits equally well with both the environmental preservationist and the Christian seeking to live a simpler life. Whether or not the population-control argument has any merit, surely living a less wasteful lifestyle is something that can appeal to Christian pro-lifer and vegetarian alike.
I appreciate Mary Eberstadt’s observation that vegetarians and pro-lifers could be more closely aligned. Without any specific expertise in this area, I have a concern regarding total alignment that may indeed be classified as “morally traditionalist.”
Certain aspects of pregnancy, child-birthing, and parenting are difficult and unappealing, as are the risks associated with animal husbandry and military service. There is an ideological strain in vegetarianism that finds such activities disdainful and thus appeals, particularly to young people, as the price one pays to avoid or circumvent these activities.
Vegetarianism is a respected practice that many of us have followed one day out of seven all our lives. However, it should in no way be used to foster contempt for the physical aspects of our nature to which pro-lifers give witness.
Maryann O. Keating
South Bend, Indiana
Some years ago, in an editorial in Lutheran Forum, I referred to “the pro-choice vegetarian” as a symbol of the inconsistencies of our era. Mary Eberstadt has addressed that irony with great clarity and sensibly argues that the pro-life cause should appeal to a large number of those whose moral instincts have pushed them to vegetarianism. I am inclined to agree, but some serious reservations about vegetarianism curb my enthusiasm.
It is, as she notes, necessary to affirm the legitimate ascetic tradition of vegetarianism in Christianity. Vegetarianism for reasons of health likewise invites no criticism beyond that appropriate to any quest for salvation through diet, and most of us are rightly hesitant to criticize people whose humane and moral scruples push them to vegetarianism. Still, there are problematic features of contemporary vegetarianism, even where it is not a product of utilitarianism or postmodern feminism.
Among some vegans and vegetarians, many of them highly secularized persons seeking a moral center, pro-life Christians might well identify the pursuit of a false absolute. Vegetarianism cannot provide a shortcut in the quest for transcendent good.
There is also at least a whiff of Gnosticism about the movement. Vegetarianism can allow those who practice it to imagine that they have transcended the mud and the blood and the beer of life in the flesh. Yet everything we eat must in fact die. Meat is dead, but so is bread.
It strikes me that vegetarianism can serve as an individualistic escape from moral ambiguity. I find little evidence that vegetarians I have known are in any way morally superior to the farmers and hunters among whom I grew up or the Amish butchers I patronize.
Scripture, too, provides some complications—envisioning the new age as a feast of fat things, steeped in the blood of sacrifice, and celebrating the return of the prodigal son with the slaughter of the fatted calf. Christian freedom assuredly allows for vegetarianism as a moral or ascetical option, but Scripture assumes the more common human practice of animal husbandry and eating meat.
Paul insists in Chapter 14 of his Letter to the Romans that there be room for both practices. Accordingly, Christian pro-lifers in any conversation with vegetarians should take care that our sympathy and understanding not be mistaken for agreement with legalistic vegetarianism. In the end we must ask them to acknowledge that their position a fortiori should include ours but that our pro-life position does not necessarily require adoption of their dietary practices or consent to the moral judgments that underlie them.
That it might be a hard sell is no argument against Eberstadt’s call for conversation. It is certainly worth the effort. Vegetarians really should be on our side, but there are serious cultural and theological hurdles in some of the assumptions that accompany contemporary vegetarianism.
The Rev. Leonard R. Klein
Mary Eberstadt replies:
Sincere thanks both to critics and supporters of my essay. Their insightful correspondence confirms that First Things is by far the best place to open what I hope will be a continuing discussion about several subjects of importance to the pro-life efforts of our time—in particular, subjects having to do with the proper relation between concern for animal life, on the one hand, and concern for human life, on the other.
It is gratifying to learn that at least some readers agree with the fundamental point of my essay—that is, that the pro-life and pro-animal movements have been historically estranged for reasons of accident rather than essence and that their philosophical points of contact suggest they ought instead to be more closely aligned.
As noted in the essay, one reason for the failure of these groups to work together up until now is the long-standing reluctance by many pro-lifers and traditionalists to take ethical vegetarianism seriously. A hidden premise of that reluctance appears to be that a concern for animals somehow undermines a concern for humans—that “describing [ethical] vegetarianism itself as a moral triumph,” as Mark Geratry puts it in a good summary of this shared objection, “tends to trivialize the notion of the sanctity of life and to imply that animals and humans have equal moral worth.”
But does it really? Richard Stith puts it well: “Why should those who care about humans, a subset of animate beings, feel uncomfortable around those who revere the entire set?” His point, with which I agree, is that morality, including judgments deduced from moral sentiments, should not be a zero-sum game. As he also puts it, “respect for animals...logically supports rather than opposes still greater respect for human beings”—if, and this qualifier is crucial, the respect for animal life springs from proper moral sentiment rather than from the often pernicious academic theories (utilitarianism, radical feminism) that presume to speak in the movement’s name.
As I sought to show, most vegetarians, vegans, and even animal-rights activists today do not appear to sign on to their movement because of such abstract theories (which do indeed entail a diminished respect for human life) but because they are observing a moral intuition telling them to respect animal life. This shared insight is surely good news and not bad news for pro-lifers—especially those who want their message to reach and influence and perhaps even convince other people. Another writer, Cheryl Bonner, suggests that the potential bond between those camps includes other pro-animal efforts too, such as the adoption of abandoned animals from shelters into human homes. “Compassion for child and animal,” she observes, “should bring these two groups together,” too. Surely she’s right.
William G. White raises another familiar objection to the case for a pro-life, pro-animal alliance by appealing to his understanding of man’s role as steward of creation. Similarly, Maryann O. Keating fears that vegetarians would deny the God-given “physical aspects of our nature.” Let us briefly consider their shared point.
That we human beings are indeed called to be stewards is of course not in dispute here, and neither are the physical aspects of our nature. What’s at issue instead is this question: Might vegetarians have a point in believing that stewardship properly understood is incompatible with eating animals? This is a serious question (and not one my essay took on). White and many other people appear to believe that stewardship prima facie covers the eating of animal flesh, on the grounds that we are designed to consume and digest it. Yet surely that is a simplification of what is actually a complicated chain of thought in need of a closer look. My point here is simply that the appeal to the principle of being made that way in and of itself doesn’t identify for us whether a given action might be right or wrong, capricious, or biologically mandated.
Would a closer look at these questions reveal that eating meat is always and everywhere wrong, as some vegetarians and vegans believe? For reasons I hope to spell out in more detail in the future, I believe there is evidence to suggest the answer is no. On the other hand, I also believe that we do not have to answer that question categorically to give moral credit where it is due—in this case, to those ethical vegetarians who do what they do out of a heightened sense of respect for the gift of life.
In his beautiful letter affirming his own experience of just that phenomenon, Jeffrey C. Sillek speaks of a particular young man he knew who had “a deep appreciation of the gift of life in animals and was truly offended by actions of violence against them.” “The instinct in him for the gift of life was so acute,” Sillek observes, “that one would have to conclude it was a gift from God, not unlike that rumored to be true of St. Francis himself.” It is his judgment, and one shared by this author, that pro-lifers ignore or reject sentiments like that at our peril—just as we would be wrong to reject the widespread intuition of many children that abortion is deeply wrong. In both cases, the heightened sensitivity of the parties should demand our attention.
Without doubt, “there are serious cultural and theological hurdles in some of the assumptions that accompany contemporary vegetarianism,” as Fr. Klein puts it here. Also, without doubt, many young vegans, vegetarians, and animal-rights activists believe they are in possession of a whole moral truth—respect for creation—when in fact they’ve got hold of just one part of it: respect for nonhuman animal life.
That is one reason, as my essay argued, that there is much work to be done in finding common ground between pro-lifers and the vegan and vegetarian movements: Because most of the time, those who are pro-animal ought also, by virtue of the logic of their position, to be pro-life; and many of them do not realize as much, in part because pro-lifers historically have not thought to reach out to them.
As mentioned earlier, a great deal of philosophical and moral ground lies under discussions like those sketched here, and several other correspondents have also contributed thoughts worth mentioning. Thomas J. Lewis raises the interesting question of whether meat-eating might (or might not) fall under the longstanding prohibition against gluttony. Eric Lee raises the connection between vegetarianism and a “frugal, less consuming lifestyle,” as does Fr. Stephanos Pedrano in his letter clarifying the dietary thinking of the Rule of St. Benedict.
William G. White’s letter, as mentioned, calls to mind the need for a serious discussion of the real duties and perquisites of stewardship. Since a proper response to these and other significant issues raised by First Things readers is beyond the scope of a letters column, I would like also to thank those letter writers like Bill Daugherty who have presciently asked for further thoughts. As the depth of the response to “Pro-Animal, Pro-Life” suggests, there is more ground to be covered here; and with thanks to those who have helped sharpen the discussion, I hope to pursue this conversation further in these pages some months hence.
I did not mind that Gabriel Said Reynolds (“Sanctifying Islam” June/July 2009) did not like my positive approach to Islam in The Theology of Tariq Ramadan. If people have suffered under a religion—Irish Catholics under British Protestant rule, Waldensians in culturally Catholic Italy, or Copts in present-day Egypt—they have good reason to be angry with the religion that makes them suffer. But my approach to Islam is guided by the relevant paragraph in Nostra Aetate and the speeches of John Paul II.
Gabriel Said Reynolds replies:
I recognize the sincerity of Gregory Baum’s commitment to the Church and Muslim–Christian relations. Still, the questions that I attempted to articulate in my review are certainly not the product of anger. They are the product of the particular relation of Islam to Christianity. After all, Islam teaches that Jesus was a Muslim prophet who was saved from the Cross when God had someone else die in his place. Tariq Ramadan, by all accounts, subscribes fully to this teaching. Now there is certainly no reason for Christians to feel anger at Ramadan, or any other Muslim, for this. But what does this teaching mean for Islamic ideas about Christians and their beliefs? How, in the end, do Muslims explain the very existence of Christianity? These are questions that Christians should at least raise when engaging Islam.
The authors of Nostra Aetate (some of whom Baum knew personally, so I hesitate to continue) were aware of the Muslim belief that Muhammad came to correct false Christian beliefs about Jesus. Accordingly, in the two paragraphs (in section 3) of the document that deal with Islam, they refrain from even mentioning the name Muhammad. John Paul II was aware of the same and, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, commented, “in Islam all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.”
But the authors of Nostrae Aetate and John Paul II were motivated by sympathy for the piety of Muslims (a sympathy to which, Benedict XVI has argued, Catholics in particular are called). Nostrae Aetate notes how Muslims “adore the one God.” John Paul II became the first pope to enter a mosque. Thus we learn we can be devoted to the faith of our Church and sympathetic to the faith of others.
But Wait, There’s More!
Thomas F. Farr’s fine review (“Cold War Religion,” June/July, 2009) of William Inboden’s fine book, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1952, notes that “neither Henry Kissinger’s magisterial Diplomacy nor Walter McDougall’s Pultizer Prize–winning Promised Land, Crusader State, pay much attention to the influence of religion . . . in shaping Cold War policy.”
I am obliged to correct the record insofar as The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age was my book that won the prize. Otherwise, I thank Farr for the flattering juxtaposition, and I assure him that more recent research has rendered me fully cognizant of the profound influence of sectarian and civil religion on U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, that will be a central theme in a planned sequel to Promised Land, Crusader State.
Walter A. McDougall
University of Pennsylvania
Thomas F. Farr replies:
I appreciate the correction from Walter McDougall and am glad to know of his plans to write a sequel to Promised Land, Crusader State. I am particularly gratified that McDougall will bring his considerable talents to bear on the subject of religious influences on U.S. foreign policy. If I might be so bold, I would suggest he consider whether those influences go beyond “sectarian and civil religion.” Do they include, for example, the Catholic understanding of natural law or the premises of Dignitatis Humanae? Inboden’s excellent book touched lightly on these themes but, given his focus on Truman, Eisenhower, and the Protestant community, did not explore them.
David P. Goldman’s depth of understanding and clarity of exposition in “Jewish Survival in a Gentile World” (June/July 2009) have left me breathless.
The last words of the New Testament: “ Maran athà, veni domine Iesu!” are full of a longing that demands a fulfillment. But we know that our desires will not be fulfilled until the Christians are reunited with the Jews. This article gave me a ray of hope that the day may be a bit closer.
Los Angeles, California
I was deeply disturbed by David P. Goldman’s article on Jewish survival. In arguing that Benedict XVI should assert that the election of Israel is still valid and that the Jews do not need to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, Goldman is asking the pope to do something that neither he, nor any pope, can do—privilege a liberal interpretation of Nostra Aetate over the New Testament. Indeed, Goldman is effectively asking the pope to repudiate the New Testament, when it is clear that the Jews, like all peoples, must accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Only invincible ignorance can justify those who fail to do so.
St. Peter made his point unambiguously in addressing the Jews: “For David is not ascended into the heavens: But he saith himself, ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, “sit thou at my right hand, until I make thy foes thy footstool.”’ Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:34–36).
Goldman says that Benedict XVI personally believes in the continuing election of Israel. There is simply no real evidence for this. In his famous 1996 article, “Reconciling Gospel and Torah: The Catechism,” then Cardinal Ratzinger, while expressing his deeply felt hope that Jews and Christians will “accept each other
in profound inner reconciliation,” nevertheless does not say that the Jews do not need to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their savior.
Goldman also claims that it is only the anti-Israel forces of “the Catholic left” who are preventing the pope from clearly affirming the continuing election of Israel. There is no question that it is fashionable for left-wing Christians of many stripes to denounce Israel and to express sympathy for the Palestinians. But it is silly to suggest that it is the Catholic left, which provided the impetus for Vatican II and tries to make a liberal understanding of Vatican II control all discussion within the Church, that is trying to prevent the pope from privileging Nostra Aetate over the New Testament.
David P. Goldman replies:
Tim Girard seems unaware that the last two popes have “clearly affirmed the election of Israel.” John Paul II declared in 1980 at the Mainz synagogue that the “old covenant” was “never revoked by God,” a position reiterated by Benedict XVI, most recently (as I reported) to a visiting delegation of Israeli rabbis last March 12. Girard is of course correct to note that Christians believe that everyone should acknowledge Jesus Christ as savior. But the position of the Church is that, where the Jews are concerned, this is a hope for the end times rather than a mission to persuade today’s Jews to convert.
Just that point was reiterated in the strongest terms earlier this year by the Church’s head of Catholic–Jewish relations, Walter Cardinal Kaspar. It is not a simple matter for Christians to acknowledge the continuing election of the Jewish people; as I wrote, it is a mystery (Rom. 11: 25). Finally, I did not claim that the Catholic left is the only source of anti-Jewish sentiment within the Church. On the contrary, this year’s misunderstanding was provoked by open Jew-hatred expressed by a priest of the Pius X Society. My observation, though, is that left-wing animosity toward Jews is the deadlier threat.
There are many things in Francesco Sisci’s article, “China’s Catholic Moment” (June/July, 2009), that I agree with. But having just visited dioceses in China, I find it a stretch to say, as Sisci does, that the Chinese government has “shifted from persecution of Christians to subtle—and sometimes even open—encouragement of Christianity.”
No one would deny that persecution has, in fact, eased markedly. To give but one example, I visited a parish in Shanxi that sends out 50 lay missionaries to surrounding villages each Sunday, an evangelization that I was told has brought 160 converts into the Church in the past year alone. Such open proselytization would have been impossible in the not too distant past.
But encouragement? When the local diocese in Shanxi, on account of this burgeoning numbers of believers, wanted to build several new churches, it was denied permission. Now it is true that local Catholics, under the guise of constructing “social centers,” went ahead and put up buildings where Sunday Mass is held and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. But the lack of official sanction means that the religious activities that go on within the walls of these social centers are technically illegal and can be stopped at any time.
One may see in this the Communist Party’s “subtle encouragement of Christianity” if one wishes, but to me the situation remains more subtle than encouraging.
Add to this that Catholics are still not allowed to join the officially atheist Communist Party, to serve in senior positions in the government, to volunteer for military service, or even to operate schools, hospitals, or orphanages, and you have a recipe for second-class citizenship.
Fewer Christians are enduring imprisonment and torture these days, but China still awaits its Constantine.
Front Royal, Virginia
Francesco Sisci replies:
I see what Stephen Mosher means, but the encouragement I perceive consists more in symbolic acts of support for the Church as a whole than in policies toward individual dioceses.
Here is one striking example: A couple of years ago the Beijing government at its own expense restored, refurbished, and built a square for Matteo Ricci’s first church in Beijing. The church is located in Beijing’s best shopping area of Wangfujin, just 500 meters away from Zhongnanhai, China’s White House. Why did they restore it? Why did they make a square for it? It shows the Church to all of China, conveying the message: The Chinese government supports the Church.