• First Baptist in Center City Philadelphia: $6,090,032; Congregation Rodeph Shalom: $7,969,884; Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church, with its 480-student parish school and the Anthony Bevilacqua Community Center: $22,440,382. Led by a University of Pennsylvania professor of social policy, researchers from Partners for Sacred Places in Philadelphia have decided to take on MasterCard’s challenge that “some things in life money can’t buy” by determining the economic benefit twelve religious congregations in the city bring to the communities they serve.
To estimate the “halo” effect of each congregation, the researchers added up not only staff salaries and wages paid to gardeners and roofers, as well as the money generated by events like weddings and funerals, they also put a price on less quantifiable goods: A divorce diverted by counseling is worth $18,000; a suicide prevented by counseling is worth $19,000; and teaching “pro-social values” to a child is worth $375 (we suspect this last one is valued so low because no one actually knows what “pro-social” means).
The researchers were impressed by what they found: All told, the twelve congregations bring $50,577,098 of benefit to the city’s residents. We can’t say we’re ¬surprised. We’re ¬inclined to agree with MasterCard—and the gospel—that some things are priceless, but we’d also note that some priceless things like faith pay off in cold hard cash.
• The staff at our embassy to the Vatican seems to have understood, for the most part, the election to the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger, judging from a memo revealed by Wikileaks. “As head of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s watchdog for theological orthodoxy,” our diplomats reported, “Ratzinger developed a reputation for unapologetic conservatism and a firm hand with wayward theologians. The media often portrayed him as an aloof, autocratic despot. However, in meetings with Ratzinger, Post has found him to be surprisingly humble, spiritual, and approachable.”
Surprisingly, if they listened only to the media or dissenting Catholics. Not surprisingly, if they’d read him or talked to someone who knew him. But still, they got the story basically right.
“Post” (the name is State Department jargon) did, however, over-read the clues, as Vatican-watchers, like tea-leaf readers and the old Sovietologists, tend to do. Because Benedict XV ruled only a few years, claims Post, “In choosing the name Benedict XVI, Ratzinger may have been acknowledging that at seventy-eight, and following an historic papacy, he will be a transitional figure.” Um, no, he wasn’t.
But understanding Joseph Ratzinger, alas, does not change their attitude to the pope. “Post” is an ugly American. “Despite his euro-centric focus, he will also need to address the concerns of those Catholics in the developing world whose priority remains a socially and politically active church working against poverty, disease, and oppression,” he (or they) reports. “In this regard, and more broadly on international issues, he will face a steep learning curve. We should reach out to him early on to help shape his approach as he begins to grapple with the world beyond the Vatican’s walls.”
So the American embassy is going to help naive, ignorant Benedict—stuck behind those Vatican walls—deal with Catholics and the rest of the world. Maybe they’ll provide him regular updates from the New York Times editorial page.
• A young lady of our acquaintance has been working to memorize the Apostles’ Creed in preparation for confirmation this spring. She’s nearly got it too, until the last part, which she supplies as: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of sins, and life everlasting. Amen!”
We have to wonder what sins she, at the tender age of twelve, so fondly remembers and enthusiastically wants to resurrect. Of course, we believe in the resurrection of sins too, but as a discouraging fact, not a hope.
• In 2004, William Schneider, CNN’s longtime political analyst, famously said, “On the national level, the press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn’t get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction. The press is not necessarily contemptuous of serious religion. It’s just uncomprehending.”
At least one well-known journalist understands religion, or at least the Catholic Church. In an article for the Huffington Post, Dan Rather (a little surprised, aren’t you?) explained why the Church continues to be misunderstood by the media.
“Secular Americans can’t begin to understand or predict the Vatican’s positions on what matters to them without taking the time to learn about what matters to the Church,” he observed. “The Church is operating in a time-frame of millennia, with the sole goal, as it sees things, of salvation. Ripples on the surface of its water such as changes in rules on condom use are products of a changing calculus of how best to bring souls to God. Journalists treat the Church like any other organization, interested in influence and self-preservation, but while it may sometimes be those things, that lens is flatly insufficient.”
• The Jordan River is one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations, especially for Christian pilgrims. Every year, up to 100,000 people visit the Jordan, especially at Qasr Al-Yahud, the site in the West Bank where Christ is believed to have been baptized. Many other Christian pilgrims are baptized there or immerse themselves in the water as a symbol of their baptism.
The Friends of the Earth Middle East is warning that baptism in the Jordan River may be hazardous to your health. The group alleges that Israel, Syria, and Jordan have diverted up to 98 percent of the Jordan’s water and pump untreated sewage into what’s left of the river. The group called on the Israeli government to suspend baptisms in the Jordan until the water quality improved. In response, the Israeli military conducted bacteriological tests at Qasr Al-Yahud and concluded that the water, though polluted, is still safe for baptisms.
We searched the Internet and could not find a single case of illness or death from contact with the Jordan. Which confirms our belief that baptism isn’t anywhere, even in the polluted Jordan, “hazardous to your health.”
• A woman in a miniskirt “can provoke not only a man from the Caucasus, but a Russian man as well.” “If she is drunk on top of that, she will provoke him even more. If she is actively inviting contact, and then is surprised that this contact ends with a rape, she is all the more at fault.” So writes the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s social-outreach department, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who proposes an “all-Russian dress code.”
Revealing clothing, he declared, leads to “short-term marriages, which are immediately followed by ratlike divorces, to the destruction of children’s lives, to solitude and madness, to life-catastrophe.” He did, to be fair, also condemn men wearing tracksuits in public (and rightly so).
His remark about rape is appalling. But what of the rest? Sophisticated Westerners, including Western Christians, will snicker at the idea of a national dress code, and many Russians certainly responded with scorn. “It is not good for a woman to wear only one dress—this has long been considered indecent!” declared one critic, who suggested that women had to wear at least three dresses to meet the archpriest’s standards.
Amusingly out of touch with modern life, yes. Quaintly prudish, yes. A little extreme, undoubtedly. But—and we ask this knowing that we risk sounding like a cranky old Russian—what about modesty? Isn’t there something to be said for public standards that may be more restrictive than the present ones? Is it really so bizarre to worry about revealing clothing?
Let’s start where the critic does: A woman will wear clothes to cover herself. (No one, even in Western Europe, is arguing for public nudity, outside some French beaches.) In other words, some parts of the body are to be kept from public view. So the critic actually . . . agrees with the archpriest. They agree on the principle, they just disagree about where to draw the line—the hemline in ¬particular.
• A P.R. agent sends a message about Benedict’s next book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, and titles the message “Jesus of Nazareth: The Sequel.” Not inaccurate, of course, but perhaps a little . . . breezy? Would they refer to a new translation of the Old Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth: The Prequel”?
• The Great Recession has brought good news and bad news for American marriages, according to The Great Recession and Marriage, a recent report from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project. The bad news is that, as a result of the Great Recession, 51 percent of married Americans have experienced some financial stressor—unemployment, home foreclosure, or worries over paying bills, for example—and 29 percent find that the recession has brought stress to their marriages.
The good news, though, is that 29 percent of married Americans also report that the recession has “caused them to deepen their commitment to their marriage,” and 38 percent of those who were considering divorce report that it has “caused them to put aside divorce or separation.”
The positive and negative effects of the Great Recession on American marriages have not, however, been distributed evenly. Not surprisingly, those couples who experienced no economic stress from the recession were more likely to report “very happy” marriages than those who did, and the more financial stress, the less likely the couple was to report a very happy marriage.
Those couples experiencing two or three economic stressors were more than twice as likely to be at a high risk for divorce than those couples who experienced none. Coupled with the fact that nearly six in ten married Americans without college degrees report at least some economic stressor caused by the recession while nearly six in ten married Americans with a college degree report no economic stressors, it is clear that married couples without college degrees have disproportionately suffered the adverse effects of the recession.
So how do we close that gap? The Great Recession and Marriage suggests that going to church might be a good place to start. Of married couples who regularly attend religious services together, 44 percent reported that they are “in a very happy marriage” and 32 percent “agree that the recession has deepened their commitment to marriage.” Only 35 percent of those couples who do not regularly attend religious services together report that their marriage is “very happy” and only 26 percent believe the “recession has deepened their commitment to marriage.”
The good work being done by the indefatigable Brad Wilcox and all the other researchers at the National Marriage Project makes it clear that helping marriages survive requires more than pre-marital classes and pep talks. It requires corporal works of mercy. And a growing economy.
• Recently, Fr. Dale Carnegie, er, Fr. James Martin, S.J., jotted down twelve spiritual tips he formulated “on a lark” on his fiftieth birthday as advice he wished he had followed when he was twenty-five. Fr. Martin’s Ignatian exercises range from the unobjectionable: “Remember three things and save yourself lots of unneeded heartache: You’re not God. This ain’t heaven. Don’t act like a jerk.” To the anodyne: “First up: Stop worrying so much! It’s useless. (I.e., Jesus was right.)”
And then to the dubious: “Being a saint means being yourself. Stop trying to be someone else and just be your best self. Saves you heartache.” And finally to the Pelagian: “Your deepest, most heartfelt desires are God’s desires for you. And vice versa. Listen. And follow them.” Who knew holiness was so easy? Who knew our hearts were so trustworthy? Would you really have wanted to have believed this at twenty-five?
Fr. Martin tweeted these words of wisdom, which may explain a certain lightness in the advice. He had only 140 characters for each tip. Moses couldn’t have tweeted the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, Jesus could have tweeted the Beatitudes. So maybe the medium doesn’t explain it.
• “I’m a feminist graduate of an all-women’s college who has vowed to never change my name or end my career to raise children full time—though I would never undervalue the work that many women do in their home,” Monica Potts assures us in the American Prospect, but, to her horror, in all of her virtual reality games (and kudos to her for admitting how many virtual reality games she plays) she chooses conservatively.
“My Sims are conservative,” she admits. “I’m in complete control of them, but for some reason their lives aren’t anything like the life I consider ideal in the real world. . . . My Sims rarely remain single long into adulthood. My wives always take their husbands’ last names. They don’t just have children; they bear lots of them. And they leave their careers to take on the lion’s share of care-giving duties.”
It gets worse, or better, depending on your point of view: An expert on Sim City, she reports that “things function much more smoothly if taxes are low and city government caters to corporate interests,” while “wind energy is fine in theory, but old-fashioned petroleum and coal facilities really make them run.”
Potts blames the parameters of the game; they just make it so much easier to be a conservative: “Having children has the added bonus of extending game time in The Sims, because I get to continue to play the same family as the generations roll by. Maternity leave is mandatory for pregnant Sim women because of a long-standing technical issue within the game.”
We’d like to think that the parameters of the game just mirror the parameters of real life. For example, women are, because of long-standing technical issues, the members of our species who give birth to babies and thus require maternity leave.
• “Has social psychology become a Tribal Moral Community since the 1960s?” asked social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, pointing out the discrimination against conservatives in his field and in academia in general. “Are we a community that is bound together by liberal values and then blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values?”
Social psychologists have “taboos and danger zones,” he told a convention of his peers, drawing on his own observations and some statistical data. Harvard’s president Larry Summers asked why so many more men taught math and science at the nation’s top universities, and instead of reasonably considering his hypothesis that there may be “a sex difference in the standard deviation of IQ scores between men and women,” social psychologists stood by or joined the resulting attack on Summers as a sexist. “If you’re inside the force field, [Summers’ suggestion] is not a permissible hypothesis. It is sacrilege.”
And there is, Haidt continued, “a statistically impossible lack of diversity” in social psychology. He polled his audience of approximately 1000 social psychologists and found the ratio of liberals to conservatives was approximately 266 to 1. “When we find any job in the nation in which women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three or four, we make the strong presumption that this constitutes evidence of discrimination. And if we can’t find evidence of overt discrimination, we presume that there must be a hostile climate that discourages underrepresented groups from entering.”
Contrasting this to a Gallup data that showed that Americans are about two-to-one conservative, he concluded that “underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology, by a factor of several hundred, is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering.”
• Ashley Madison, an “adult dating service” designed to help married people start affairs, proposed a Super Bowl advertisement featuring a pornographic actress excited to discover her husband had been cheating on her. After Fox and the NFL decided the ad violated even their standards, the company’s CEO protested that they had demonstrated an unjust bias against porn stars. We think this may be a first.
Ashley Madison’s corporate slogan is, “Life is short. Have an affair.” We would say, “Affairs are even shorter. Get a life.” Or maybe, “Affairs are even shorter. Keep your wife.”
• Offering contrasting articles by the pro-life philosophers Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor, the indispensable online magazine Public Discourse has started a vigorous and important internet debate over the morality of the “sting” operation of Lila Rose’s group Live Action against the “deeply malicious organization” Planned Parenthood. The sting involved tricking local branches of Planned Parenthood into revealing their actual practices and attitudes, which were, not surprisingly, horrific.
The above description of Planned Parenthood is Robert P. George’s, commenting on the debate on the “Mirror of Justice” blog. George (a long-time member of our editorial and advisory council) sides with Tollefsen. Pro-lifers, he says, whatever their religious commitments, should
reject lying even in the greatest of good causes. What we fight for is just and true, and truth—in its unparalleled splendor and luminosity—is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. It is the truth about the precious life of the child in the womb, and about the consequences of abortion for women and men, and the effects of abortion on families, on the medical profession, and on society more broadly, that will ultimately enable us to build a culture of life.
The pro-abortionists seem to have the advantage here, and it is one that naturally makes us want to oppose them with their own tools. “The edifice of abortion is indeed built on a foundation of lies,” George notes. “And in working to protect the ¬victims of abortion, it is frustrating to hold ourselves to standards that so many on the other side freely disregard.” They are lying, he points out, when they deny the humanity of the unborn child and refer to the embryonic child as mere tissue or, famously, “a clump of cells.” But still, there are no moral shortcuts to victory in this struggle. A culture of life can only be built on a foundation of truth. Lying may produce short-term victories, but it will, in the end, frustrate our long-term objective. Respect for life—like respect for every other great human good and every other high moral principle—depends on love of truth. Our efforts in the cause of life and every other worthy goal will, in the end, prove to be self-defeating if they undermine love of truth.
• We admit, we don’t keep up with singers described as “pint-sized haircut/prepubescent girl magnets,” but an item on a New York news website caught our eye. The pop singer Justin Bieber, it reported, told Rolling Stone that “I really don’t believe in abortion. It’s like killing a baby?” (The question mark is in the original.) Asked about aborting children conceived by rape, he said, “Um. Well, I think that’s really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don’t know how that would be a reason. I guess I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”
The comments round the web were as you would imagine. Typical of the responses was one comment on New York magazine’s website: “It’s great. This is him, real, unfiltered, for his fans and the world to see. When he faces the inevitable (and justified) backlash, he will have to think about the issues more deeply and learn something. Better than a publicist-approved, pre-packaged answer that doesn’t stir any debate or self-reflection.”
We might remark that this response seems pre-packaged and suggests a lack of self-reflection, but we won’t. Despite that “like” and question mark— why do young people speak like that?—young Master Bieber seems to have a better grasp of the child’s moral status than his many critics.
• A 280-pound man from Hampshire, England, was told that, in order to qualify for gastric bypass surgery, he would have to gain at least another fourteen pounds. We can only hope that this sort of regulation will never make its way into other areas of life. One can imagine the feelings of a penitent in the confessional who, having completed his confession, hears the priest say, “If you want absolution, you’re going to have to do better than that.”
• The latest Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches offers its latest membership figures for American churches, a term they define a little expansively, and although the figures are a little questionable—several churches offer suspiciously round figures and some haven’t updated theirs in years—they at least help in identifying trends.
The Catholic Church grew a little (mostly, we are sure, from immigration) and is now up to almost seventy million members, while the Southern Baptist Convention (the second largest body) shrank a little and is now down to about sixteen million members. The mainline churches unanimously continued to decline, led by the Presbyterians (the tenth largest body) at 2.61 percent and the Episcopalians (fourteenth) at 2.48 percent. Both the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the traditional Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod—which if combined would form the fourth largest body in America—decreased in members. The Mormons (the fourth largest body, claiming about six million members), the Jehovah’s Witnesses (twentieth, with a little over one million members), and the Seventh-day Adventists (twenty-fourth, with about one million members) grew.
• A UN-funded study of AIDS prevention in Zimbabwe found that “partner reduction” (a.k.a. chastity) “appears to have played a crucial role in reversing the HIV epidemic,” in the words of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Daniel Halperin. Similarly, Edward Green, the former head of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard School of Health, reports that “fidelity (sometimes called partner reduction) and to a lesser extent . . . abstinence (or late sexual debut) is what works best in AIDS prevention, especially in Africa.”
In contrast, the provision of free “morning-after pills” in England seems to have increased the number of adolescents with sexually ¬transmitted diseases—by 5 percent for those under eighteen and 12 percent for those under sixteen—and possibly the number of teenage pregnancies as well, according to a Nottingham University study published in the Journal of Health Economics.
One possible reason is that the availability of the pills encourages teenagers to riskier sexual behavior. “Our study illustrates how government interventions can sometimes lead to unfortunate unintended consequences,” one of the professors who performed the study explained. Science, if not government intervention, marches on.
• Readers of the magazine are not, our webmaster tells us, always readers of our website. If you are among those who do not look at the website, please check it out (the address is the simple www.firstthings.com). Among other things, you will find in the “On the Square” section a daily column by one of our writers, including David Bentley Hart, Elizabeth Scalia (the blogger known as “The Anchoress”), Joe Carter, and David Mills, and often a second article as well. You’ll also find our blog, “First Thoughts.” And all of the articles from the magazine are available to subscribers.
And speaking of subscribers, new subscribers we always want. We would be happy to send a copy to someone you think would like to see it. Just write firstname.lastname@example.org with their address.
while we’re at it sources: Church worth: Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 2011. Vatican embassy: Wikileaks, December 22, 2010. Young lady: Personal experience. Dan Rather: huffingtonpost.com, December 8, 2010. Jordan River: Haaretz, July 7, 2010 and Agence France-Presse, July 27, 2010. Russian dress code: New York Times, January 18, 2011. P.R. Agent: Personal message. Marriages: The Great Recession and Marriage, February 7, 2011. Fr. Martin: huffingtonpost.com, January 30, 2010. Sims: The American Prospect, February 11, 2011. Academic discrimination: New York Times, February 7, 2011. Ashley Madison: huffingtonpost.com, January 24, 2011. Pro-life lying: mirrorofjustice.blogs.com, February 15, 2011. Bieber: gothamist.com, February 16, 2001; nymag.com/daily/entertainment, February 16, 2011. Confession: dailymail.co.uk, January 27, 2011. Churches: Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2011. AIDS: lifesitenews.com, February 15, 2011 and ionainstitute.ie, February 11, 2011.
wwai tips: Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, David Lasher, David Mills, Kevin Staley-Joyce.