It was Norman Mailer, I think, who once quipped that most contemporary social criticism is the desperate attempt to find something to say about America that Alexis de Tocqueville hadn’t already said. It can get a little tiresome, the constant Tocquevillian citation in every writer’s effort to speak about the American experience. Democracy in America sometimes seems the nation’s equivalent of the Sibylline Scrolls”a text to go dowsing in, with closed eyes and a pin, in the hope that something portentous and prophetic will emerge.

Nothing more sibylline”nothing more oracular and scrying”appears in Tocqueville than his oft-cited 1830 prediction that “our descendants will tend more and more to be divided into only two parts, those leaving Christianity entirely and others entering into the bosom of the Roman Church.” Not that he was alone in such nineteenth-century visions. “Rome and the atheists have gained,” Herman Melville added in 1876. “These two shall fight it out”these two; Protestantism being retained for base of operations sly by Atheism.”

The current condition of the United States hardly bears out the prediction. The Protestant Mainline may have grown more than a little shaky as the stable guarantor of the American experiment. But the nation remains a deeply religious one in its messy way, with evangelical Bible churches scattered out across the prairie, and Pentecostal storefronts filling the inner city, and a rising tide of Jews turning to Modern Orthodoxy, and Mormons in their temples, and even Muslims in their mosques.

Of course, there is no real unity among them: a surprising lack of antagonism, perhaps, but nothing that one could point to as the kind of grand ecumenical agreement symbolized, once upon an American time, by President Eisenhower’s flying up to New York to lay the cornerstone of the bravely new modern headquarters for the National Council of Churches”the home and the synecdoche of Mainline Protestant concord.

There does exist, however, the curious fact that all the contemporary religious look, in their own ways, to the Catholic Church for the institutional weight to anchor the public role of religion in America”through the Catholic schools, and the Catholic hospitals, and the Catholic bishops, and, most of all, the Catholic intellectual tradition. The Church’s social teaching, while often misread through the familiar polarities of 1970s right and left, stands as the only comprehensive and politically significant religious vocabulary on public offer in America today”the only vocabulary that has much chance of transcending polarities and appealing across sectarian lines. Even after the post“Vatican II decades of confusion, division, and cultural decay, the Catholic Church seems to retain enough cohesion to form the way American religion needs to speak.

For historians and social critics”for all of us plodding along the path that Tocqueville blazed”the question, of course, is why? And an answer may lie in that curious phrase Benedict XVI introduced as a rallying cry: the “dictatorship of relativism.” The epistemological and moral relativism of secular liberalism is very American, in certain ways, but, on the level of national rhetoric, it undermines and constricts the American experiment in ordered liberty. And where else besides Catholicism can we look for intellectual and even political support of the still-pervasive public conviction that we stand under a historically manifest source of moral authority beyond ourselves?

For a long while, Americans thought Catholicism was an un-American form of religion, but in our current situation, Catholicism alone appears able to synthesize faith and reason long enough, broadly enough, and deeply enough to avoid sectarianism. John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who influenced the Second Vatican Council’s decree on religious liberty, made essentially this argument, and the thirty years of debate over abortion has confirmed it. Catholic thought now defines the nonsecularist terms of American discourse”and does so, at its best, without threatening either the religious freedom or nonestablishment clauses of the First Amendment.

The Question of Authority

No one but a fool would say that Catholicism is certain to win the American public debate. Secularism may be out of gas, but it is still rolling forward, its inertial momentum carrying it onward. We are surrounded by the ubiquitous, reflexive propaganda that dismisses as “sectarian” and “theocratic” any religious voice that clashes with the dominant secular view of any social issue. For that matter, Catholic politicians have internalized the propaganda as much as anyone. Many of them used to say, for instance, that they had to support legal abortion despite their religious belief that abortion is immoral; yet to hear such figures as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden tell it, Catholic politicians must now support legal abortion precisely because their religion tells them it is immoral. As my friend Paul Mankowski, S.J., once remarked, the Catholic Church’s moral agenda would be much advanced if every Catholic in Congress was replaced with a Mormon or a Muslim.

All this may be proof that the vaunted Catholic culture of the 1950s was not as healthy as pride and nostalgia have led many to believe. By the early 1970s, most of the educated Catholics who had come of age between World War II and Vatican II had thoroughly surrendered to the sexual revolution and, driven by that revolution’s inner logic, acceded to the legality of abortion. Think of poor, lost Ted Kennedy as a clear example of what Chicago’s cardinal, Francis George, meant when he wrote: “The greatest failure of the post“Vatican II Church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally, and socially on faith’s terms rather than the world’s .”

The bishops themselves have not recovered the moral authority that disappeared in the wake of the revelations, still ongoing, of the sex-abuse scandals of previous decades. And, jurisdictional considerations aside, the bishops’ failure to adopt a coherent policy on the giving of the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians has retarded that recovery, at least among the most faithful Catholic laity.

Taken one by one, such obstacles seem vincible, if only with the energy and courage that spring from an urgent sense of the need to unite around what’s rightly held in common. It helps that the Catholic Church is the largest single religious denomination in America, even if that is now due largely to Latino immigration. Yet Catholic voting patterns aren’t much distinguishable, statistically, from those of the general population. What makes the most difference is the kind of authority the Catholic Church strives, however fitfully, to exercise. There is a kind of power that can come only from speaking “with authority, not as the scribes,” even when the authority is not clearly recognized and acknowledged as such.

And this is what we might call “the papal difference.” I do not mean simply the papacy’s unmatched ability to speak urbi et orbi. Nor do I mean even the First Vatican Council’s dogma of papal infallibility in matters of “faith and morals.” That dogma functions almost as a bogeyman and a warning to children among non-Catholics, more an obstacle than an anchor for Christian unity. The papacy itself has invoked it only twice in the last century and a half”both times on questions of no political moment. The relevance of the dogma lies not so much in its sparing, formal application as in what it signifies about the Catholic Magisterium’s overall self-understanding.

Consider the topic that the Church’s critics seem to care most about: sexual morality. At its 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church broke with the historic consensus of Christendom by allowing the use of contraceptives by married couples in “extreme cases.” Pope Pius XI reacted fiercely and at once with the encyclical Casti Connubii , rejecting the Anglican decision while developing Catholic teaching on marriage to a greater extent than had any previous pope. In the years that followed, almost all Protestant denominations followed the Anglicans on contraception”and, unsurprisingly, many of those same Protestant denominations continued on to abandon all the other equally ancient teachings about sexual morality, marriage, divorce, and procreation. Yet in 1968, against much pressure even from intramural dissent, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion with Humanae Vitae . Since then, only the Catholic Magisterium has continued to uphold every one of the ancient Christian prohibitions.

Even more important, it has continued to develop the positive vision that explains the prohibitions. That vision is focused by John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” presented in a series of catechetical audiences from 1979 through 1983. Though vulgarized by some of its popularizers today, the theology of the body was the first serious attempt, at the highest level of the Catholic Church, to provide a spiritually energizing account of what sexuality is for. Benedict XVI has contributed distinctively with the first part of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est , and on the life-and-death questions of bioethics he has been vigilant and voluble since he arrived in Rome to help John Paul II.

Of course, the needed sort of theistic morality cannot regain political force in America if it appears as moralism” Catholic or otherwise. As Benedict has often pointed out, the morality must be, and be seen as, motivated by love and beauty: exemplified by witnesses who rejoice in the Lord, not just by teachers who rejoice in being right. Central as it is to his projects, Benedict’s reasoned defense of reason will not persuade those who acknowledge neither the basis nor the scope of reason. For reason alone has never been enough to motivate reliably the embodied soul and ensouled body that is a human being. Religion would be necessary for morality even had we not fallen with original sin. And in an era when even reason must find credentials outside itself, holistic evangelization is more necessary than ever.

Which bring us to the papal difference of authority. Not just geopolitical authority, though that is sometimes quite important, as, for instance, when John Paul II exercised it against communism; not even intellectual authority, indispensable as that has proved for Benedict’s papacy. The papacy’s possession of those kinds of authority has waxed and waned over the centuries: occasionally falling to the point of risibility, and never rising to the point of irresistibility. Behind them, however, lies a kind of authority that makes the papacy unique: its claim, at least, to divinely granted and protected authority, charismatically institutional, over the Body of Christ on earth. Benedict knows that, of course”which is why, even during the 1990s, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he nurtured doctrinal developments whose significance few Catholics, and even fewer non-Catholics, have noticed.

Most of these developments are about authority, especially the authority of the Magisterium exercised by the college of bishops, of which the pope is head. Consider just one fairly recent doctrinal development raising the question: Benedict’s endorsement of the International Theological Commission’s 2007 downgrading of limbo from the status of de facto doctrine to that of mere opinion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church had already addressed the issue, albeit rather obliquely; for many of those who care about such things, however, the pope’s endorsement of the commission’s white paper elicited plaints of confusion: How can a doctrine that almost all Catholics had believed since the Middle Ages”and most thought they were bound to believe”be tossed aside as a needless “hypothesis” (in the pope’s word)? Indeed, what does that say about the authority of the Magisterium?

Benedict explained why limbo is unnecessary either for Catholics to believe in or for its putative beneficiaries to enjoy. But the explanation mollified neither the traditionalists, still wedded to medieval propositions, nor the progressives, who wanted to know why other, still older propositions about sexuality could not also be jettisoned. The limbo controversy replayed, in a minor key, the questioning and confusion that followed Vatican II’s apparent reversals on such things as religious liberty, ecumenism, and the idea of a vernacular liturgy”all of which had, in their turn, reminded scholars of earlier changes on such points as usury.

Many conservative Protestants in America, concerned about what seems to them Catholic wobbliness and woolliness, have echoed such concerns. We could explain the papal difference by appealing to the intellectually and historically steadying influence of the papacy”but it would be ridiculous if no cogent reason beyond historical accident could be given, particularly for Americans, in our culture where the change that does occur is usually taken to be the change that ought to occur. Any conservative appeal to religious authority must first show that the authority in question distinguishes consistently between permissible and impermissible change.

Before he became Pope Benedict, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the intellectual figure in Catholicism most concerned with this point. We could speak here of women’s ordination and other loudly noticed issues. But it’s not hard to see what, in intra-Catholic terms, is really at stake. If the progressives are right, then any doctrine that has not been “solemnly defined,” in the technical sense of that phrase, is legitimately revocable. That holds even for important doctrines peaceably held and taught for as far back as we have records”for instance, that contraception is intrinsically wrong. To treat such an ancient doctrine as revocable leaves open the possibility of bringing Church teaching into line with popular American progressive views today”which is almost certainly why so many theologians hope for such theological developments.

Indeed, they hope that “development of doctrine” will give them all the issues they want. But it is just such possibilities that the work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI seems designed to rule out. Consider the events of 1998, when John Paul II promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Ad Tuendam Fidem, accompanied by Ratzinger’s Doctrinal Commentary . Aimed at setting forth, as a matter of canon law, an oath of fidelity from Catholic theologians and clergy, Ad Tuendam Fidem specified two categories of doctrine calling for “definitive” assent from believers. Pertinent here is the second: “each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.”

In his accompanying commentary, Ratzinger remarks:

Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman pontiff when he speaks “ex cathedra” or by the college of bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a “sententia definitive tenenda” [belief to be held definitively]. Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in the position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.

The subsequent explanation notes that the teaching on women’s ordination falls into that category. But so does the doctrine of the “illicitness of euthanasia,” which John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae had characterized as “based upon the natural law and the written Word of God, transmitted by the Church’s Tradition, and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” Other examples Ratzinger gives are the traditional condemnations of fornication and prostitution.

They are, however, only examples. The days are long past, if they ever existed, when Vatican documents could quell all dissent. But so also are the heady, post“Vatican II days when everything seemed up for grabs. The issue of what constitutes authority is, in some ways, an arcane intra-Catholic meta-magisterial issue. But it is not the sort of thing Rome ever unsays, especially now that the word infallible has been used. In that sense, it remains true that Roma locuta, causa finita. And, over time, this should suffice to quell doubts, among religious conservatives of various bodies, that what’s unique about papal authority is eroding. Much to progressive chagrin, it is objectively strengthening. More than geopolitics, and as much as reason itself, that is what’s needed to check the dictatorship of relativism. It’s the papal difference that, in the longest term, makes the most difference.

Back in America

In the American context, however, doctrinal authority, even combined with geopolitical and intellectual authority, still isn’t enough. For one thing, it doesn’t restore de facto moral authority to a Catholic hierarchy tarnished by the sex-abuse scandals. That is a major reason Benedict’s 2008 trip to the United States was so important. His well-publicized statements of sorrow about the sex-abuse scandals, and his unprecedented pastoral meeting with victims, at least assured Americans that he cares enough about the “filth” that he had identified in his conclave homily to the assembled cardinals in 2005. Combined with the American hierarchy’s draconian new vetting and reporting procedures, and the massive monetary payouts that continue, that is enough at least to begin the road to recovery.

Of course, Benedict did much else on that trip. His White House address expressed the congruence of the American experiment with the Church’s developed conception of human rights: “From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” And in that speech, Benedict went on to express the hope that the Catholic Church would make a distinctive contribution to the American experiment.

And that, in turn, is why his address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America combined his characteristic emphasis on the synthesis of faith and reason with an equally needed reminder that its faithful transmission to the young is a sine qua non of maintaining Catholic identity. Catholicism can make no distinctive contribution to the culture without agreement among its educated elite about what makes Catholic education distinctive and about why that element should continue defining its major semi-secular institutions: not only schools of all levels but charities and health-care institutions as well.

The vast array of such institutions founded years ago by the Protestant Mainline have long since been secularized. That has not yet entirely happened with the majority of Catholic institutions, which nonetheless struggle in a peculiarly American way to maintain their religious identity. The papal difference is needed for these limicole institutions to maintain an identity”and the papal difference is also needed if those institutions are going to matter to American public life.

The papal difference is needed, in other words, if these institutions are going to aid the odd, in-but-not-of-the-world role that America needs religion to play. Over the next decade, the most visible battlegrounds of American religion are going to be the Catholic colleges and hospitals. The battle over President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame last spring was only the beginning. And this shouldn’t surprise us. The Catholic institutions are places where religion obviously impinges on public life in this nation”and public life impinges on religion.

Which is all rather the point. We need, to maintain the American experiment, the support and the criticism that religion alone can express. And, as Tocqueville predicted, Catholicism provides the only viable vocabulary in which that support and that criticism can still be cogently and publicly expressed.

While We’re At It

Cats that look like Hitler. Cats That Look Like Hitler . Yes, you can find photographs”many, many photographs”of cats that look like Hitler online at, naturally, CatsThatLookLikeHitler.com . And the truly weird thing is that many of the cats actually do look like Hitler: black patch on top of their heads like his brushed-over bangs and another little black patch over their mouths like his squared-off moustache. The link to the website was sent to me by a relative with far, far too much time on her hands. Still, it’s good to know that the Internet is finally fulfilling its promise. Cats that look like Hitler. “Kitlers,” as they had to call them. Sometimes I get a great notion / to jump in the river and drown.

• If the impression given by the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation is correct, the hopes of Lutherans everywhere were riding on the outcome of the United Nations climate-change conference that was held in Copenhagen in December 2009. The expectations of the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, conveyed in a letter to Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, were astonishingly precise: “[Lutherans] look to the international community meeting in Copenhagen, and to your leadership of this gathering, to produce an agreement that will ensure that global greenhouse gas emissions peak no later than 2015 and then decline rapidly towards a target of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of less than 350 ppm as soon as possible.”

A curious formula” your leadership of this gathering . Until now, no one has suspected Dr. Noko of being any sort of expert on climatology. While his interest (much like that of Al Gore) is perhaps only the affectation of a hobbyist, we nonetheless applaud his effort to seek a better world climate for Lutherans.

Unfortunately, if Prime Minister Rasmussen (a nominal Lutheran of the Danish state church) doesn’t already have enough problems, Dr. Noko surely added to them by making Rasmussen’s leadership pivotal. If, in five years’ time, greenhouse emissions have not been reduced, and carbon dioxide concentrations remain uncapped, we’ll all know whom to blame, won’t we?

• Speaking of religion and climate, we also note this entry: “The pope denounces the ecological crisis but does not belong to the church of Al Gore.” So wrote Giuliano Ferrara, director of the Italian daily Il Foglio , in his editorial column after reading Benedict XVI’s message for the 2010 World Day of Peace. The possibilities of ecumenism appear even broader than anyone had imagined.

• As we go to press, the British Parliament is considering an “Equality Bill” at the behest of the EU Commission for Employment, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities. The bill has passed the House of Commons and is advancing through the House of Lords.

One of the two “reasoned opinions” from the EU commission, backed by a threat of litigation in the European Court of Justice, has been that current British “exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive” of 2002, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. In response to that complaint, the bill’s most controversial provision would enjoin churches and other religious bodies from discriminating on the basis of gender or sexual orientation in the selection of personnel, save in cases where said personnel regularly spend more than half their time “leading worship services or explaining doctrine.”

According to Simon Caldwell in Britain’s Catholic Herald , the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has prepared a briefing to protest the measure. A senior Queen’s Counsel has informed the bishops that the bill’s pertinent clause will make it “unlawful to require a Catholic priest to be male, unmarried or not in a civil partnership, etc., since no priest would be able to demonstrate that their time was wholly or mainly spent either leading liturgy or promoting and explaining doctrine . . . the Bill fails to reflect the time priests spend in pastoral work, private prayer and study, administration, building maintenance, and so on.”

We may not see the return of priest holes if this bill passes, which it has a good chance of doing. But one wonders what would become of the Catholic clergy in Britain. Would the bishops, most of whom spend more time on administration than leading worship services or explaining doctrine, face civil or even criminal penalties? The likelier course, one hopes, is to reach accommodations of the sort that have prevented such an outcome on the Continent.

With the way things are going in Britain, though, that is by no means assured. A few weeks ago, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled “that the admissions criteria of the Jewish Free School, which gave preference in the event of oversubscription to children who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law (either by descent or conversion), were in the definition of the 1976 Race Relations Act, directly racially discriminatory” (from the press release of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). It’s been decades since the U.N. passed a resolution characterizing Zionism as racism; by their logic, if not by intent, the highest court in Britain has now all but defined Judaism itself as racism.

• Wheaton College, one of the nation’s premier evangelical schools, has launched an ambitious new patristics program. According to the National Catholic Register , George Kalantzis, the newly appointed director of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, claims that such a program is “a first for a Protestant school.” There’s no reason to doubt that. Formal courses of study have been established at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Kalantzis’ explanation for the new undertaking is evocative: “What is missing in American Protestantism is an understanding of the richness of the early Church. One looks at reformers such as Calvin, Luther, and Wesley and one sees the dependence on the early Church. The Reformation itself is a call to come back to the Church. It is a call to the Church to come back to the tradition of the Church.” This is meant to go beyond “pillaging” the Fathers of the Church by mining their writings for quotations to support preconceived positions. Rather, says Kalantzis, we “need to delve into it and truly live with them and understand them, where their conflicts were and what their thought patterns were. How else are we going to understand our faith if we don’t understand those who delivered it to us?”

The center is being funded by Frank and Julie Papatheofanis, a married couple who are physicians and Orthodox Christians. In October, First Things contributor and board member Robert Louis Wilken gave the center’s inaugural lecture, “Going Deeper Into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.” Kalantzis assigns Wilken’s book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God to all his classes. This is truly an ecumenical undertaking in the best sense.

I do not regularly keep up with the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, but a reader recently pointed me to an article in a recent issue that offered an “ethically justified, practical approach to offering, recommending, performing, and referring for induced abortion and feticide.” The role of obstetricians, the authors argue, must be guided by “professional medical ethics, based on respecting the pregnant woman’s autonomy and respecting the fetus as a patient,” with a very limited role for the doctor’s “individual conscience.” For, you see, “in contrast to professional conscience, individual conscience is variable because of the striking heterogeneity of the sources of morality that form individual conscience.”

Having only an amateur conscience myself, I was puzzled as to why the “professional conscience” is immune to the striking heterogeneity of sources of morality; perhaps those professionals find it written on their hearts.

• While on the subject of the ethical responsibilities of doctors, I recently came across this reflection by St. Gianna Beretta Molla on the beauty and responsibility of a doctor’s vocation: “This is a priestly mission. Just as the priests can touch Jesus, so we doctors touch Jesus in the bodies of our patients: in the poor, the young, the old, and children. Jesus makes himself seen in our midst. Many doctors offer themselves to him. When you have finished your earthly profession, if you have done this well, you will enjoy divine life ‘because I was sick and you healed me.’”

• In 2008 our friend John G. Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College, published a book we would have done well to take note of at the time: Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford University Press). As the title suggests, Stackhouse addresses Christian engagement with culture as always both unavoidable and provisional, an engagement “for the time being.” Thus, as Miroslav Volf has pointed out, Stackhouse steers between the Scylla of “a whole-scale transformation of the world” and the Charybdis of “building alternative enclaves in the world.” Since neither is realistic in any case, what does Stackhouse think is realistic?

The book proceeds largely by imaginative dialogue with such twentieth-century Protestant luminaries as C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer”drawing, along the way, on H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous “five ways” of relating Christ to culture. Brisk and blunt, Making the Best of It yields what Stackhouse describes as his own “hybrid” between “Christ the transformer of culture” and “Christ and culture in paradox.” Sometimes Christians will transform culture, and sometimes they will have to be countercultural”and often they will have to do both. That is the creative tension of Christianity in the world, which cannot be resolved until the end time.

This won’t satisfy those convinced that answers are easy, but its evident fidelity to what C.S. Lewis would have recognized as the Great Tradition may enable us to distinguish between engaging the world on faith’s terms, which is the disciple’s task, and engaging faith on the world’s terms, which is merely the project of religion’s cultured despisers.

• A personal genome sequence is a must-have accessory among the wealthy, reports the Times of London. The paper admits that “$70,000 is a significant expense by even a Wall Street banker’s standards,” but, then, that price “seems inconsequential when compared with the $3 billion cost of decoding the very first genome.” Ah, the wealth of knowledge that money can buy.

• Calvin Trillin recently did some parodies for the New York Times , mocking the trademarking and brand-naming that various organizations”AARP, for instance, and the Daughters of the American Revolution”have done. And then there’s this: “‘We’ve got to get away from the notion of Boy Scouts as goody-goodies and teachers’ pets,’ said Boyd Cottrell, the Scouts’ image director, explaining why he’d hired Moose (Big Chains) Glump, the former fashion enforcer for the northwest region of the Hells Angels, as clothes-licensing agent. ‘What people admire these days is not a boy who helps older women across the street but a boy who dates older women.’” Why doesn’t it actually seem much of a parody in today’s culture?

• There is a growing movement of “child-free-by-choice” people, mostly married couples who are proud to proclaim they deliberately exclude children from their family. Or so, at least, one would gather from the websites they maintain. They must organize, they say, because they are discriminated against: Coworkers with children get, for example, preferential treatment for sick days and vacation time. Non-child-free parents benefit from tax cuts, as well, which strikes the commentators on these childless sites as a manifest injustice.

• Except they are not “childless,” they say”for that’s a term expressing the lack of something. Rather, according to childfree.net , “we consider ourselves childfree”free of the loss of personal freedom, money, time, and energy that having children requires.” Indeed, the poor fools who surrender to the childbearing impulse are dubbed breeders and cows ( moomy , you see, rather than mommy ). One woman, on her happilychildfree.com blog, claims that mothers are trying to “force everyone to cater to them.” Indeed, “this group””meaning parents”“wouldn’t be so dangerous if they didn’t insist that parental irresponsibility and selfishness should be the rule.”

Curious that a group of people who are so very concerned about having rights would so fiercely oppose those who make different choices. Or call themselves true feminists while demanding that the breeders of the world stop mooing.

• A friend notes the décor at a dinner at the papal nuncio’s residence. In the ground-floor sitting room, the walls held portraits of popes: Paul VI, John XXIII, the two John Pauls, Benedict XVI. Set around the room on tables were framed photographs”four of which, curiously, were of George W. Bush. Not a one of Barack Obama or any other president. Papal nuncios are usually taken as the archetype of the diplomatic core: Nothing done, or undone, without a message being conveyed. Has President Obama really fallen this much in the esteem of the international community? I thought he was going to reestablish our place in the world.

• Michael Pearce is an art professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. In 2009, he explored the theme of World AIDS Day through his artistic representations of safer-sex methods. He accomplished this largely by his exhibition of a condom tree. As no one we know actually saw the tree, and, sadly, no photographs exist on CLU’s website, we have no description of Pearce’s exhibition. Perhaps that is just as well. We do wish to note that the idea of hanging condoms from a tree is not new. Artistically, it is swiftly passing to the clichéd. There was, for instance, the 2002 effort of Australian health officials. They tucked condoms inside canisters made of plastic piping and placed them in trees near isolated Aboriginal communities. The Nindilingarri Cultural Health Service at Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia reported that the 3,000 Aboriginal residents of the valley were plucking 3,500 condoms from the trees every month. No artistic pretensions were in play, but we imagine things had to be arranged attractively to have generated such an enthusiastic response. We cannot say whether Professor Pearce took this project for his artistic inspiration, nor are we able to report whether art lovers were permitted to pick the condoms from the display on CLU’s campus. In any case, the health-services clinic at the University of Texas“Pan American in Edinburg has, in the past, um, erected condom trees with condoms free for the taking.

A video of one such tree is available on YouTube. In fact, if you search for “condom tree” on YouTube, you will find numerous examples. Curiously (and this may prove a professional disappointment to Prof. Pearce), many of them seem to mock the very idea that so animated his artistic endeavor.

The problem with the gospels, says Deepak Chopra in Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment , is they give us a “static” Jesus”a Jesus who “didn’t have problems” and who “didn’t evolve.” “Jesus,” Chopra complains, “was born divine in Bethlehem and remained that way for the rest of his life.” Worse, millions of people who have worshipped Jesus have done so without being “transformed.” Except for a few saints and suchlike, almost nobody claiming Jesus has ever become “the light of the world”: “Like Buddha and every other enlightened person, Jesus wanted his followers to become enlightened too.” Christians have been just such an awful disappointment to Jesus.

To help Jesus out”we think Chopra wants to be helpful”the mind-body wellness guru has produced this tale of the “lost years” of Jesus, who stumbles his way to “Christhood” largely by discovering, well, Chopra’s Five Steps to Enlightenment, helpfully summarized in an epilogue. These steps turn out to be Chopra’s version of “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal guide and guru?” Frankly, Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord series is better written, more insightful, and actually downright reverent. As for a Jesus who never encountered “problems,” managing twelve apostles while traveling to crucifixion might rank up there somewhere.

New York magazine recently told us, in a long (and flattering) profile, that “Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul.” Keller is head pastor of a Manhattan megachurch, Redeemer Presbyterian. That New York made Keller and his congregation the subjects of a feature article should come as no surprise. Surely the magazine’s Manhattan readers would be curious to know where five thousand of their neighbors go every Sunday morning and why (in heaven’s name) they do so. It’s more surprising that it took the magazine this long to discover Keller’s church. Christianity Today named Redeemer one of “Manhattan’s most vital congregations” in 2004, Church Reporter ranked it among the top twenty most influential churches in America in 2006, and Keller’s book The Reason for God reached number eight on the New York Times best-seller list in 2008.

But, in New York ’s defense, Redeemer might be hard for a secular New Yorker to notice. As Joseph Hooper, the article’s author, explains, the church’s parishioners look just like everybody else. They “don’t fit the easy Bible Belt stereotypes. They are a cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites”doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.” To prove this point to skeptical readers, the magazine provides snapshots of fashionably dressed twentysomething parishioners.

Hooper also makes an admirable effort to understand what it is about Keller that draws nearly 5,000 New Yorkers to hear him preach each Sunday. The author notes, with some surprise, that “Keller doesn’t speak in theatrical, over-the-top tones but in a soft, conversational manner, as if he’s sharing a confidence with a friend.” Hooper also tells us that Keller references Salon.com in his sermons and his study is “lined with bookcases.” Keller’s office, Hooper says, “could belong to a professor or a shrink.” One might be led to think, from the hint of wonder in Hooper’s tone, that New Yorkers flock to Reedemer just to see the spectacle of an evangelical pastor who knows how to read.

To his credit, Hooper does seem to grasp the message Keller preaches and its appeal to career-driven New Yorkers. The New York author might be surprised to learn, however, that this is, in fact, the same message that brings most of us to the pews on Sunday mornings: Keller “wants to call people’s attention to the emptiness of a way of living that overvalues worldly achievement and to help them see the spiritual benefits of accepting Jesus Christ, and all he stands for, as their savior.”

• Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York caused a stir when he accused the New York Times of anti-Catholicism. In an October 29 blog post originally submitted to the Times as an op-ed piece, Dolan cited four recent examples from the paper to show that the Times has been unfair in its treatment of the Catholic Church. The archbishop’s post sparked a reply by Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor. “I think it is hard to pick a handful of examples, as Dolan did, and make a case that the Times has been ‘anti-Catholic,’” Hoyt wrote in his column on November 8. “Could the newspaper sometimes choose a better word in a story or pay more attention to transgressions in other parts of society? Yes. Has it been guilty of anti-Catholicism? I don’t buy it.”

Hoyt, however, might want to explain two church“state stories that the Times published within days of each other. On November 2, the Times reported that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn recorded a message praising Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who also doubles as the Brooklyn Democratic county chairman. Supporters of a city-council candidate who had Lopez’s backing used the message in a “robo-call” that was telephoned to voters in the candidate’s district. (Lopez was not up for election.) A spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese said that the bishop simply wanted to thank the assemblyman for his service to the diocese, and he insisted that the message did not endorse any candidates by name.

The Times story takes a predictable path: “By recording his message, a legal scholar cautioned, Bishop DiMarzio could be treading close to legal lines limiting political advocacy by nonprofit organizations”whose tax-exempt status could be jeopardized.”

A few days earlier, on October 29, the Times reported on African-American ministers”among them the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former congressman who is pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens”who publicly endorsed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for reelection. The story did not even raise the issue of whether the ministers were violating IRS guidelines.

One Times story clearly treats the political involvement of African-American Protestant clergy as perfectly normal and legitimate. Another story treats the political involvement of a Catholic bishop as something bizarre that may even be illegal. The tax guidelines for nonprofits (available on the IRS website) treat all churches the same. There isn’t one standard for the Roman Catholic hierarchy and a different one for African-American Protestant clergy.

Maybe Mr. Hoyt should have a word with his reporters.

• The Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister, takes issue with the request from Thomas Tobin, the bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, that Congressman Patrick Kennedy refrain from receiving Holy Communion because of his support for legal abortion. “Communion shouldn’t be used as a political weapon,” Currie writes on his blog. “It’s God’s table. All are welcome.” He then asks, “Why is it that pro-choice Democrats are denied communion when Roman Catholic Republicans who vote against children’s health care, against foreign-aid to prevent hunger, against climate-change legislation, and for war”all positions contrary to Roman Catholic teachings”are ignored?” This is certainly a fair question, and it deserves an answer.

First, sections 2270“2275 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church make clear the Church’s unequivocal condemnation of abortion. “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person”among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life,” the Catechism states. “Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” The Second Vatican Council also condemned abortion as an “unspeakable crime.”

Second, in 2004, a future pope addressed this very issue in a letter to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington. Writing in his official capacity as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger said this: “For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

Third, it seems that Currie is confusing official Church teachings with the prudential judgments of the pope and the bishops. While Catholics are obligated to follow Church teachings, they may disagree with the individual judgments of popes and bishops. The Church certainly teaches that Catholics must care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and other vulnerable members of society. But there is nothing in Catholicism that teaches that government programs (on the federal, state, or local levels) are the best and only ways to address the needs of the poor, sick, and elderly. What about individual almsgiving and acts of personal charity”concepts that greatly predate the existence of the modern welfare state? Indeed, the seven corporal works of mercy, which are included in the Catechism , are directed toward individuals, not governments. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be any government programs, but, at the same time, we recognize that the Church is open to different means on how to achieve important goals for alleviating human suffering.

President Barack Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC). The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, the UCC’s general minister and president, has issued a statement criticizing the president for sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan: “Serious concerns have been raised about corruption during the recent Afghan election and in the trustworthiness of the Karzai government. These concerns offer legitimate reasons to question any expansion of U.S. military involvement in this insurgent and likely unwinnable war.”

If the UCC wanted to deny President Obama communion for escalating the war”or even excommunicate him”wouldn’t it be within its rights to do so?

• The pressures associated with trying to pass a health-care reform bill seem to be getting to Harry Reid. In December, the Senate majority leader drew a rather unfortunate comparison between critics of the proposed health-care reform measures and supporters of slavery: “Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all the Republicans can come up with is, ‘slow down, stop everything, let’s start over.’ If you think you’ve heard these same excuses before, you’re right. When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said ‘slow down, it’s too early, things aren’t bad enough.’” There might be more effective ways to gain bipartisan support.

• In December, a bill was proposed in the Italian senate that would recognize the legal status of unborn children as persons. But, according to Maurizio Gasparri, one of the backers of the bill and the caucus chief of the People of Freedom party, the bill would not “abrogate current abortion laws,” which allow a woman to obtain an abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks and in the second trimester when carrying the pregnancy to term presents serious risk to the health or life of the mother. Carlo Casini, the author of the bill and leader of Italy’s pro-life movement, pointed to the nearly identical abortion laws in Poland and Spain and the widely disparate numbers of abortions in those countries. In 2007, there were 313 recorded abortions in Poland and 120,000 in Spain. The difference, Casini said, is in the wording of the nations’ laws : “Polish law refers to the conceived in the first point as a person, whereas for a certain Spanish culture, the conceived is ‘something,’ a mass of cells that has no rights.” What’s in a name? Apparently quite a lot.

While We’re At It Sources: Lutherans for climate change, lutheranworld.org , December 9, 2009. Church of Gore, Catholic News Agency, December 16, 2009. Equality Bill, Catholic Herald , December 11, 2009; Times of London, December 16, 2009. Patristics Center, National Catholic Register , November 30, 2009. Medical ethics, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology , December 2009. Personal genome sequence, Times of London, November 14, 2009. Boy Scouts, New York Times , November 15, 2009. Childless by Choice, childfree.net ; happilychildfree.com . Condom trees, vcreporter.com , Event Information, November 24, 2009; thebody.com , “Condom-in-Tree Program Reducing Sexual Disease Among Australian Aborigines,” March 22, 2002; youtube.com . Tim Keller, New York , November 29, 2009; redeemer.com . Hoyt and Clergy, blog.archny.org , October 29, 2009; New York Times , October 29, November 2, and November 8, 2009; Williamsburg Courier , November 6, 2009. Answering Chuck Currie, chuckcurrieblogs.com , November 23, 2009; priestsforlife.com , Teachings of the Catholic Church on Abortion. United Church of Christ against war, ucc.org , December 2, 2009. Harry Reid, Fox News, December 7, 2009. Abortion laws, ansa.it , December 3, 2009; zenit.org , December 7, 2009.

WWAI Tips : Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, Andrzej Fister-Stoga, Ben Hulst, Michael Liccione, Sarah Powers Mostrom, Ryan Sayre Patrico, Russell E. Saltzman, Thad Whiting.

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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