• We write this on Shrove Tuesday, with Ash Wednesday and Lent arriving tomorrow, and you will be reading this, those of you in liturgical churches, a few weeks into Lent. We hope you’re advancing in holiness. William F. Buckley is said to have answered someone who asked if he liked writing, “I like having written.” That is our feeling about Lent.
• A recent cover of The Utne Reader, a popular “alternative” magazine that’s a kind of Reader’s Digest for the lifestyle left, featured an article entitled “The New Extremists: Understanding and Combating Fanaticism.” The cover illustration included people like Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then-Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, and the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, all looking extreme and fanatical. By far the biggest figure in the drawing, shown holding a flaming torch with a smug, crazed look on his face, was Benedict XVI.
As it turned out, the article didn’t mention Benedict at all. In fact, we think he would have agreed with much of its criticism of the kind of fanaticism that cannot hear other people and will not reason with them, and often tries to beat them into submission by force.
But that’s not what the cover told you. That drawing told you he’s a dangerous nutcase. And that drawing’s message, let us be blunt, is deeply stupid. There are disagreements in which both sides have a plausible case, but there is no plausible case to be made that Benedict, a man of genteel and old-fashioned liberality, is a fanatic and extremist.
• We don’t mean to sound like a junkyard dog defending his supper dish, but they’re smearing someone who’s like a father to us. A beloved father. A reverend father.
• Benedict thinks through and with the Church, and that’s the problem. But fair is fair, and just because Benedict starts with the Church doesn’t make him any more fanatical than the atheist who starts with atheism and the atheist intellectual tradition. A Christian or an atheist can be a fanatic, or not, because fanaticism is a quality of the way people hold their beliefs, not of the beliefs themselves.
Indeed, given what Christianity teaches about charity, human sinfulness, and God’s grace, being a Christian may make Benedict or any other Christian far less likely to be fanatical than the atheist. As the Catholic priest Ronald Knox once admitted, he didn’t know why he saw the truth of Christianity and many perfectly nice people he knew didn’t see it at all. He certainly wasn’t better than they were. He could only thank God that he saw it, as unworthy as he was, and pray for those who didn’t. The atheist has no such restraints.
• The more things change, etc. In his drive to re-paganize the Roman Empire in the middle of the fourth century, the Emperor Julian (a.k.a. “The Apostate”) tried to weaken the Christian opposition by dividing it and setting one faction against another, observes our friend Mike Aquilina. “He offered prominent Catholics high positions, so that he could neutralize them while claiming their support. Meanwhile, he made the requirements for schoolteachers so stringently pagan that no Christian could fulfill them. Said Julian: ‘If they want to learn literature, they have Luke and Mark: Let them go back to their churches and expound on them.’” He also, Mike notes, restored heretical bishops who had been deposed, so that major cities would have two competing bishops.
According to his biographer Adrian Murdoch, Julian “marginalized Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion.” In other words, Julian used the normal tools of political power to try to drive Christians into a cultural ghetto and thereby eliminate Christianity as a cultural force.
• Hanging on the wall of an office here is a flyer, made up in the very earliest days of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, for Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Movie, a production distributed by Miramaximaculpa and rated PG-65. The movie stars Anthony Hopkins as Richard John Neuhaus, Pat Boone as Charles Colson, Jeremy Irons as George Weigel, and Sir Alec Guinness as Avery Dulles, S.J.
Others appearing in the movie include Telly Savalas as Peter Berger, Fred Thompson as Richard Land, and Wally Cox as J. I. Packer. With small parts are Lily Tomlin as our office manager Davida Goldman and Tom Hanks (this was certainly surprise casting) as then-editor James Nuechterlein.
This, we realize, will be much funnier to those of you who know these people. Suggestions for casting Return of Evangelicals and Catholics Together will be gratefully received.
• We don’t know who wrote the flyer, but we suspect George Weigel, both because it’s very funny and because it has the then-dashing Jeremy Irons playing George. Now that we think of it, the flyer was written not too long after Anthony Hopkins played the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, but we don’t know if that means anything.
• In an article on the anxieties of wealthy New York parents trying to get their small children into elite preschools, a New York Times reporter writes of standing outside one of the sought-after public schools, which happens to be one of four public schools recently the subject of a sex-abuse scandal.
Thirty-five parents were touring the school, though they had little hope of getting their children in. Not one of them, Ginia Bellafante writes, “asked administrators a single question about the recent arrest of a teacher’s aide on charges that he was physically inappropriate with a male student. They believed that the matter was a failing of the Department of Education, not the current principal, and that bad things can happen anywhere and that, in any case, it is parents who need to teach children how to protect themselves.”
She concludes the story: “That is true, of course. No school can inoculate a child against the unfortunate. Parenting demands vigilance as much as it does magical thinking.”
We will bet a good bit of money that no New York Times reporter has ever written with such insouciance about a sex-abuse case in the Catholic Church.
• But to be fair to the reporter, she opens her story with a great lead:
Perhaps there’s some cosmic significance to the fact that two of the city’s most pitched competitions occur concomitantly: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which concluded at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, and the final determining rounds of private kindergarten admission, which play out on a far broader psychic territory. In each case, the subjects delivered for judgment have the least investment in the outcome. Just as no one has ever seen a corgi rend her collar over losing to a borzoi, no one has ever witnessed a 4 -year-old stare deep down into his juice box and declaim the lost opportunities bound to arise from his rejection from Fieldston.
• Speaking before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in mid-February, our friend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik protested the Obama administration’s now infamous assault on religious freedom in the contraceptive mandate. The administration, he said, “implicitly assumes that those who employ or help others of a different religion are no longer acting in a religious capacity, and as such are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.” This reveals the administration’s “complete misunderstanding of the nature of religion.”
For Orthodox Jews, he said, religion doesn’t just govern the obviously religious acts. “Religion and tradition also inform our conduct in the less obvious manifestations of religious belief, from feeding the hungry, to assessing medical ethics, to a million and one things in between.” Invoking Maimonides, he explained that good works—like, say, running hospitals—are for Jews necessary ways of inspiring “true appreciation of the wisdom of the Almighty.” They are, to put it differently, essentially religious acts, not optional additions to the religious life.
And therefore, he continued, “in refusing to extend religious liberty beyond the parameters of what the administration chooses to deem religious conduct, the administration denies people of faith the ability to define their religious activity. . . . The administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious.” Which isn’t its call.
Rabbi Soloveichik is, by the way, director of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought and great-great-nephew of the great Joseph Soloveitchik, subject of the editor’s “Loving the Law” in the January issue.
• Our friend and former colleague David P. Goldman, writing as “Spengler,” draws out the implication of this redefinition of what it means to be religious:
Today it is contraception and the morning-after pill. Tomorrow it will be kosher slaughter, or matrilineal descent, or circumcision, or other matters of existential importance to Jewish observance. If the Obama administration gets away with forcing Catholic institutions to step across lines of life and death in the name of “health,” the federal government will have a precedent to legislate Judaism out of existence—as several other countries have already tried to do.
England’s highest court, for example, has declared the definition of a Jew as someone who has a Jewish mother to be discriminatory, indeed (of all things) “racist,” which, as the chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed, “is in effect declaring Judaism racist.” (The Catholic Church in England strongly supported the Jewish leadership, David notes, while the Church of England refused to comment.) Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland now ban kosher slaughter.
It doesn’t matter to those countries that the definition of who is a Jew is a matter of Jewish law nor that, as David notes, “our consumption of meat is bound up with the mysteries of life and death, and observant Jews consume animal life for our own sustenance only with divine sanction, and under the supervision of religious authorities.”
What matters to them is the imposition of their beliefs upon those of the religious. Revealingly, the courts and legislatures of these countries are denying Jews the ability to live out their faith in things that don’t, in their own terms, matter a great deal. Kosher slaughter, for example, is if anything kinder to the animals than the government-approved methods of industrialized slaughtering.
When Western nations become so unconcerned with the freedom of religious institutions, David concludes, “America’s Orthodox Jews—a minority within a minority—will be vulnerable to a new Inquisition. . . . Some Jews have failed to stand by the Church under the Obama administration’s persecution. I appeal to these Jews: Don’t be naive. We’re next.”
• Catholics are of course glad to have such distinguished and articulate allies in this particular battle. But Catholics, and Christians in general, should attend to the words of our Jewish friends even when the threat to us is not so obvious as it is today.
Jews are, if we can use this image, the canaries in the coal mine for religious persecution. After suffering two millennia of horrendous abuse, much of it at the hands of Christians, they are an exquisitely tuned early-warning system, as those whose history has made them acutely sensitive to the ways—often small, subtle, indirect, and easily ignored by those who don’t want to see it—that persecution begins.
David says in this case, “Catholics now, Jews next.” The reality is that the case is usually “Jews now, Catholics next.” We need to listen to them, for our own good, and be quick, quicker than we generally are, to come to their defense when they’re the subjects of persecution.
• It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that Catholics and Jews were both victims of prejudice in this country and for similar reasons: They were foreign, odd, superstitious, disloyal, clannish, poor, et cetera. High-level anti-Catholicism in America goes way back.
To give one startling example: In 1774, the Continental Congress protested parliament’s policy of religious toleration for Catholics in Quebec. Written by John Jay, who was to become the new nation’s second secretary of foreign affairs and first chief justice, it complained that this toleration of “a religion fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets” was “hostile to British America” and worried that the growing number of Catholic emigrants to Canada might “reduce the ancient free Protestant Colonies to the same state of slavery with themselves.”
“Nor,” Jay and the congress concluded, “can we suppress our astonishment, that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”
It took a long, long time for things to get better. They could easily get worse.
• “We believe church should be an enjoyable experience, so we have created a casual and comfortable environment where you can grab a cup of gourmet coffee, relax, and be yourself.” So says a flyer sent out by a new start-up church and received by one of our advisory council members. We know what they’re trying to do, and it’s not exactly a mistake, we think, but still, when St. Paul told the Corinthians he had given them milk because they couldn’t handle solid food, we don’t think he meant a latte.
• Or a cookie. A friend sent us a web article praising a religious writer for writing “about being served fresh baked Communion wafers made by the children of a local parish. The caramel aftertaste of the wafer lingers in her mouth, reminding her of the sweetness of her faith.”
• A friend, a traditional Anglican who came to Christianity from communism and likes her faith unsentimental, suggests using cayenne pepper to remind her of the piquancy of her faith.
• Which reminds us of a priest we know, who brought some of the children from the parish school into the sacristy and gave them the unconsecrated wafers to eat. They didn’t want to eat them, for obvious reasons, but he urged them to, and tried to teach them about the miracle of transubstantiation. Now it’s just bread, then it’s the Body of Christ.
You can guess where this is going. Some of the boys started sneaking into the sacristy to gobble down “Jesus chips.” Being schoolboys, and about as subtle as elephants, they were quickly caught. Parents were upset. The school teachers were embarrassed. The priest was mortified.
He meant well, this priest, and ideally, we ought to be able to distinguish the wafer from the host, but to our mortal senses they look the same. There’s a reason to hedge round the unsanctified thing that will be sanctified, and set it apart for its special use. Which is a principle that should guide other aspects of our lives.
• The academic state of college freshmen is not encouraging, writes Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Brainstorm” weblog. Only one in five students spent more than ten hours a week studying during their senior year of high school and a tiny, tiny percentage (0.6) intend to study a foreign language or (1.8) English.
Our junior fellow Matthew Cantirino, only four years ago a college freshman himself, thinks the problem can be traced to the fact that over half of the freshman admit they spend “less than one hour per week” reading for pleasure. This means that for them education is a chore, not something they have made their own, something that has become a pleasure even when it’s hard work.
They lose a lot, not reading, and not just all the pleasures books will bring. Simone Weil famously analogized reading to prayer because both require sustained, focused attention. It’s no surprise, Matt says, that today’s students are also markedly less religious and more harried. If only there were a way to make “useless” pursuits more obviously rewarding.
• In this issue Eric Cohen reflects upon Stanley Hauerwas’ pacifism, admiring his consistency while doubting his principles. The Catholic writer Ronald Knox was a little harder on pacifists. “Those people who tell us it is wrong in all circumstances to go to war, because the Sermon on the Mount says we ought to love our enemies,” he said in one of his sermons, “do not equally object to the organization of a national food supply, because the Sermon on the Mount forbids us to be anxious about the future.”
• The spirit behind Evangelicals and Catholics Together plays itself out in all sorts of encouraging ways. Recently Beeson Divinity School, a deeply Evangelical institution whose dean is ECT’s co-chairman Timothy George, had papal preacher Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa preach in its chapel. He’s the latest in a string of Catholic guests that has included Avery Dulles, Richard John Neuhaus, and Benedict Groeschel.
Beeson, Timothy tells us, “honors the heritage of the Protestant Reformation but is also committed to Christian unity. Now, as never before, we think it is important for believing Christians to stand together and to speak out together on things that matter most.”
The school’s founding benefactor, Ralph Waldo Beeson, encouraged the school to make a priority preparing “pastors who can preach.” (Would that more Catholic seminaries would . . . no, we’ll leave that one alone.) “Many Evangelicals are surprised to learn that the Pope has a preacher! But this is something that Catholics and Evangelicals have in common: We all need to hear on a regular basis the lively proclamation of God’s written Word.” Timothy asked Fr. Cantalamessa to speak on some aspect of preaching, and he chose Acts 2 and the theme “How the Apostles became effective preachers of Jesus.”
• And a good time was had by all, the Birmingham News reports. Fr. Cantalamessa, quoting Martin Luther a lot, declared that “The first fruit of the Holy Spirit is a new understanding, a new zeal for Jesus, a new desire to proclaim Jesus. . . . The big struggle between faith and works could have been avoided if we had looked more closely at the Word. We must be united in proclaiming the joy of Jesus together.”
A Baptist pastor studying at the seminary said, “As a Baptist, that was one of the most humbling sermons I’ve ever heard.”
• The sixty-five bishops of the canonical Orthodox Churches in North America are no happier with the contraception mandate than their Catholic peers. In a unanimous statement, they call it a “threat to the sanctity of the Church’s conscience” and a “transgression” of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
• “Feel free to smell them,” said the waiter. “And to taste them.” After a short pause, he said, “Make a memory of them.” He was talking about—this may surprise you—little glasses of water, at a restaurant, writes Frank Bruni in the New York Times, “whose conceits include the pairing of each dish in an eleven-course meal with a lukewarm flavored water in a lidded grappa glass. One water might be infused with leek and radish, another with jasmine and dried seaweed. Most taste like indecisive teas, commitment-phobic broths, or pond runoff.”
“It’s the craziest example I’ve encountered of the way our culture’s food madness tips into food psychosis,” Bruni writes, or, as he puts it later in the article, “a florid demonstration of just how much culinary vanity we’ve encouraged and pretension we’ve unleashed.” The single tasting menu the restaurant offers costs $245, and that doesn’t include drinks or tip.
We have nothing to say about this. We just thought it was so astonishing we had to mention it.
• One of the mainstream media’s classic “gotcha” moments is the claim that nearly every Catholic woman you meet uses contraception and blows off the teaching of her Church. So, we are supposed to conclude, who cares what the bishops say? The latest version of this, reported as authoritative by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and parroted by Nancy Pelosi, is that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception.
Which isn’t true, reports the fact checker for . . . wait for it . . . the Washington Post. Glenn Kessler reports that the study included only “self-identified Catholic women who have . . . ever used one of the 12 methods of birth control. In other words, a woman may have sex only once, or she may have had a partner who only used a condom once, and then she would be placed in the 98 percent category.” He gave the claim two Pinocchios out of four, meaning that it is exaggerated and/or misleading, but not completely wrong.
The blogger Lydia McGrew explains that the study was designed to “include only women for whom a pregnancy would be unintended and who are ‘at risk’ of becoming pregnant. . . . A statistic based on a study that explicitly excluded those who have no use for contraception is obviously irrelevant to a question about the percentage of Catholic women who have a use for contraception.”
That such a misrepresentation is being used as leverage in serious political discourse is unfortunate, regardless of the content of the study. For one thing, it doesn’t matter how faithful Americans are to their church’s teaching in gauging whether their church’s institutions can operate according to their own rules.
• First Things readers will appreciate the sophisticated and faithful writing in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, a quarterly published by the Rabbinical Council of America. Edited by our friend and frequent contributor Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Tradition shares our goal of articulating a worldview at once intellectually sophisticated and religiously sincere, and its continuing success in that regard is a testament to the vitality of the, well, the tradition it represents.
The latest issue features, among other things, an essay by Rabbi Carmy exploring the nuances of our mortal humanity; a legal analysis of Talmudic inerrancy; reflections on the influence of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on American Jewry; and an essay by our very own junior fellow Alex Ozar on the theology of David Hartman.
• In his review of David Slavitt’s translation of Ovid (“Briefly Noted,” November 2011), A. M. Juster accused him of leaving out much in his earlier translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Slavitt replied that he had done the whole book but the publisher decided to use only part of his translation, and now reports that the ebook publisher Outpost19 will be publishing the “outtakes”—which came, he said, to 1,100 manuscript pages—in paper and online.
• Philadelphia’s recently-appointed Archbishop Charles Chaput made news recently by announcing plans to sell off his official residence, a manor house of over 13,000 square feet on eight acres of land with a six-car garage. Many people hear this and think of fatcat bishops living it up in extravagances purchased on the backs of the poor. And that was, alas, true.
But it is important to note that estates like the archdiocese of Philadelphia’s were often given to the Church by wealthy lay families, and were usually a home for several bishops and priests as well as the diocesan offices. They were also seen as a way for a still-excluded faith to truly establish itself, to announce its presence to a society and nation that viewed Catholics as aliens. And they were also, as the archdiocese should find out, good investments.
Yet Chaput is (in his case predictably) right. The Church badly needs the money, and the mission of the Catholic Church in America has become far more evangelical and outsider than it once was, and mansions can be stumbling blocks to others—especially those who are looking for something in the Church to trip over.
• Readers may remember Alain de Botton, the Swiss-British television personality whose kinder, gentler “Atheism 2.0” we mentioned last month. He’s now raising money for a 151-foot tower in the old part of London as a “temple” to celebrate 300 million years of life on earth. He means it to inspire awe. “Each centimeter of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence,” the Guardian reports.
Richard Dawkins a little grumpily said that “Atheists don’t need temples,” but a clergyman from the Church of England “rejoiced” in the idea. De Botton “is referring to a sense of human transcendence, that there is something more than our visceral existence,” said the Rev. George Pitcher, a minister at St. Bride’s, Fleet Street. “Building a monument acknowledges that we are more than dust. Whether we come at that through secular means or a religious narrative, it is the same game.”
We wouldn’t think so. There is, we think, an infinite distance between the awe you feel when you realize that the creator of the universe was born in Bethlehem and the awe you feel when you look at something you might find as a visual aid in a well-funded science museum.
• In reporting last month on Commonweal’s symposium on the problem of “irregular unions” among Catholics, we said that everyone but our editor “essentially favored” regularizing those unions. This was unfair to two contributors, William Portier and Christopher Roberts. They were not nearly as bold or direct as our editor, but they did stand for the Church’s teaching, and we apologize to them.
• Randy Boyagoda, whose review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 appears in this issue, happens to be in the office as we write, going through boxes and boxes of Richard John Neuhaus’ files in preparation of the biography he is writing. He’s a charming and cheerful man as well as a good writer, whose novel Beggar’s Feast, which we praised in November, will be published in this country by Penguin in October.
• We asked Randy why, as a Canadian academic and novelist of Sri Lankan descent, which is not the profile we would have expected, he decided to write a biography of Richard John Neuhaus. “I’m a professor of American literature by training, and so stealing from Whitman is the easiest way to explain why I’m drawn to writing the life story of Fr. Neuhaus,” he said. “In terms of his writings, his friendships, his achievements, and his battles, Richard John Neuhaus contained multitudes, but his life and work were always ordered by and to his vocation as a joyful servant of God.”
It was the latter point that made him want to tell Neuhaus’ life story. “Here was someone who never denied that his love for Christ and the Church were part of everything he tried to do, while living in a time and place that tries so hard to keep Christ and the Church so far from everything. And rather than despairing of this permanent tension or retreating, he thrived on it. As a result, there was a great drama to his life and work and as a novelist, that’s hard to resist.”
• We are conscious that we edit a magazine created by an extraordinary man, as Randy suggests. We work hard to maintain and, we hope, improve the project he created. To do so, we need your help. Send us the names and addresses of anyone you think might enjoy First Things, and we will send them a sample copy. Just write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 35 East 21st Street, New York, NY 10010.
while we’re at it sources: Abusing Benedict: Utne Reader, November/December 2011. Julian the fourth century Obama: Mike Aquilina’s Facebook author page. Insouciant parents: New York Times, February 17, 2012. Soloveichik explains religion: Jewishideasdaily.com, February 17, 2012. Goldman defends it: Pjmedia.com/Spengler, February 19, 2012. Jay’s bigotry: press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions19.html. Latte church: Reported by Stephen Barr. Students who don’t read: chronicle.com/blog/brainstorm (February 12, 2012). Selective pacifists: Ronald Knox Society email, February 21, 2012. Beeson’s Catholic moment: Letter from Timothy George and blog.al.com/spotnews, February 21, 2012. Orthodoxy says no too: assemblyofbishops.org. Food psychosis: nytimes.com (October 17, 2011). The 98 percent: Washingtonpost.com/ blogs/fact-checker, February 17, 2012 and whatswrongwiththeworld.net (February 16, 2012). Selling the Chateau: weeklypress.com (February 8, 2012). Athesit Temple: guardian.co.uk (January 26, 2012). Commonweal correction: commonwealmagazine.org (December 27, 2011).
wwai tips: Mark Barrett, Matthew Cantirino, Chad Hatfield, Gregory Laughlin, Mark Misulia, Alex Ozar, Judy Warne.