Theology From The Bench
Richard Garnett celebrates the clarity that the Supreme Court’s recent Hosanna-Tabor decision purportedly brought to religion-clause doctrine (“Things Not Caesar’s,” March). Far from clarifying the doctrine, however, the court has muddled it, and there is rather less to celebrate than Garnett imagines.
Missing from both Garnett’s analysis and the court’s opinion is any mention of Jones v. Wolf (1979), which had been the previous last word on church autonomy. Recognizing that courts are constitutionally disabled from deciding theological questions relevant to church property and governance disputes, Jones nevertheless held that courts are empowered to decide such disputes when they can do so on the basis of religiously neutral principles of secular law that require no venture into the theological thicket. Jones had thus framed church autonomy as a function of judicial competence, not religious-group rights.
Hosanna-Tabor’s expansive language about a “freedom of the church” undermines Jones, whose demise would be unfortunate. Consider the plight of the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich. The record suggests that the church may have promised—and Ms. Perich understood—that she could return to her teaching job once she recovered from her illness. Did the church indeed make such a promise? Did Perich rely on it to her detriment? Did the church renege on its commitment?
Under Jones a court would be empowered to decide the legality of Perich’s termination by answering these basic, secular questions of contract law. Under Hosanna-Tabor’s expansive notion of religious-group rights, however, churches appear immune from the legal consequences of breaking even their own employment contracts when they can plausibly fit the employee into the court’s spacious and deferential definition of “minister”—i.e., one whom the church believes is “involved in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”
The court was right to recognize a ministerial exemption, since church employment disputes often involve nonjustifiable theological questions. But not always. Despite their spiritual commitments, religious employers often act little different from their secular brethren when it comes to terminating employees, and courts are fully capable of deciding such cases when theology is not involved. By ignoring Jones, the court may have erased important legal protections for large numbers of religious employees, leaving them to the uncertain mercies of their church.
Frederick Mark Gedicks
Brigham Young University
Richard W. Garnett replies:
Few legal scholars have written as perceptively about religious freedom as has Frederick Mark Gedicks. I am honored by his engagement but have three responses.
First, he is wrong to charge that Hosanna-Tabor “muddled” the relevant doctrines. True, it did not purport to answer every question about the ministerial exception’s content and application. Still, it is now clear that the ministerial exception is required by the First Amendment, and this clarity is welcome.
Second, he overreads Jones v. Wolf. In Jones, the Justices agreed that civil authorities may decide some disputes about church property so long as they do not purport to “resolve a religious controversy” in so doing. Jones is controversial, but most agree that secular courts have to find some way to decide (nonreligious) questions about property ownership. They do not, however, have to supervise—indeed, they lack the power to supervise—churches’ selection of their ministers.
Gedicks claims too much when he says that “Jones . . . framed church autonomy as a function of judicial competence, not religious-group rights.” In fact, Jones reaffirmed earlier rulings, such as Kedroff and Milivojevich (on which Hosanna-Tabor relied), which stated that it is not merely judges’ incompetence, but also the rights of churches, that keep courts from answering religious questions.
Finally, he is right that disputes between churches and ministers do not “always” involve “nonjusticiable theological questions,” and nothing in the court’s opinion suggests that religious institutions are generally free to break their contracts. If they fail to pay promised salary, they can be sued. But if the dispute is over who shall be entrusted with the duties of ministry, they cannot be sued.
The chief justice put the matter well: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. . . . [T]he First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”
Persecuted And Persecuted
All Christians should welcome the courage and clarity evident in the latest Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement (“In Defense of Religious Freedom,” March). But the arguments put forth defending religious freedom would have been even more convincing if its framers had had the courage to exercise a bit more self-critique.
If, for example, the quote taken from Dignitatis Humanae—“In the life of the People of God . . . there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it”—really were a confession of “Christian sinfulness,” as the writers imply, the Catholic Church would be in a much better position to speak out against the atrocities committed against believers around the world today. But the wording of that “confession” is qualified in such a contorted manner that a reasonable person could be left thinking that the executions of two to three thousand sixteenth-century Anabaptists who number among my spiritual forebears—or the killing of unnumbered heretics during the Inquisition—only “at times” “appeared” to be “a way of acting” that was not in accord with the teachings of Jesus.
Why is it so difficult to name the execution of human beings on account of their religious convictions a “sin”? If Catholics and Evangelicals are ready to call on the state to renounce all forms of coercion in matters of religious beliefs, citing the biblical truth that humans are made “in the image of God,” then it would seem to follow that those same Christians would want to renounce all forms of coercion for any reason whatsoever.
Surely, if we are not justified in killing others in the name of religious truth, then there can be no justification for Christians to kill others “made in the image of God” and to do so in the name of lesser claims on our allegiance, be they nation, resources, or political principles.
John D. Roth
Thomas Guarino replies:
It is crucial, as John D. Roth says, that Christians confess their own historical failures to honor the conscience and religious freedom of others, including other Christians. This was a need we discussed many times in our meetings and wanted to make as clear as possible in our statement In Defense of Religious Freedom.
Hence, in the statement, we not only cite Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae. We also call upon all Christians to confess that we “have often failed to live the truths about freedom that we have preached: by persecuting each other, by persecuting those of other faiths, and by using coercive methods of proselytism. At times Christians have also employed the state as an instrument of religious coercion. Even some of the greatest leaders in the history of Christianity failed to live up to their own best ideals.” Is this language “contorted”? Or is it, rather, a straightforward confession of sin?
We thank Roth for his letter. But we think this statement makes clear that we defend religious freedom as people whose fellow believers have been both persecuted and persecutors, and that both experiences contribute to our sense of the profound urgency of this cause.
Thomas G. Guarino
Seton Hall University
South Orange, New Jersey
Fr. Guarino is the Catholic co-chairman of
Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Robert K. Vischer suggests that Sharia proponents will never be able to subvert American constitutional law (“The Dangers of Anti-Sharia Laws,” March). Some Americans, however, including numerous Muslim Americans who are grateful for the refuge from political Islam that America provides, observe the aspirations, resources, and progress of Sharia movements in Europe, Australia, and Canada, as well as the United States, with justifiable alarm.
Does the failure of the Oklahoma anti-Sharia law, which was (correctly, I think) ruled unconstitutional on grounds that it violates the First Amendment by mentioning Sharia singularly and categorically, mean that no further steps should be taken to buttress the American legal code against gradual undermining by rivals with colonizing ambitions and a track record of success? I suggest no.
Vischer says that the wholesale prohibition of Sharia goes too far, and in this he is correct. Nuance is needed. Anti-Sharia laws are certainly not intended to prevent the execution of a will drawn up by a qadi (judge) or the preparation of a meal in a halal fashion. American law preserves the right of Muslims to be fully observant in every way that does not infringe the rights of another.
It is, however, proper to address, as needed, areas in which Sharia and other legal systems operating in America come into direct conflict with U.S. law regarding individual rights. Sharia in all its forms (there’s no single authoritative formulation, only major “schools”) is in many of its fundamentals conspicuously incompatible with the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech (Sharia vigorously denies it), freedom of religion (Sharia denies it by killing apostates, and in other ways), affirms that all people are equal and have equal standing before the law (Sharia denies it, abridging rights of non-Muslims and women), and so forth.
Americans should be under no illusions concerning the colonizing ambitions of Sharia proponents. A memo by American Islamist leader Ismail Elbarrasse expresses the dominant Muslim Brotherhood perspective: “The process of settlement is a ‘Civilization-Jihadist Process’ with all the word means. The Ikhwan [Muslim Brothers] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”
It is important to clarify that these laws are not racist nor categorically anti-Islam, since a great many Muslims of all races do not wish to live in a land where Sharia rules. The concern of those pressing for laws addressing these matters is to make a clear affirmation that the United States is still committed to upholding the self-evident truths recognized in the Declaration of Independence and that these truths form a baseline for all participation in American society.
Lawyers and politicians should work to ensure that liberty and justice remain a lasting and equal heritage for all members of this society. They can do this, perhaps, through narrower legislation that addresses particular issues rather than naming Sharia specifically or categorically.
Daniel A. Brubaker
Robert K. Vischer implies that Muslims in America have no intention of bringing to the United States practices, like the stoning of adulterers and the mistreatment of women, that are seen in some Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia. He also claims that among Islamic legal scholars there are schools of interpretation that read the Qur’an in ways compatible with the rights and freedoms of liberal democracies or that at least do not “stand in tension” with them.
In reality, however, every school of Islamic jurisprudence mandates numerous practices that contradict constitutional freedoms and Western notions of human rights. Stoning adulterers is in accord with the words and example of Muhammad, whom the Qur’an holds up as the supreme example of conduct for believers (33:21); the Qur’an mandates amputating the hand of thieves (5:38); and both the Qur’an and Muhammad’s words promote the oppression of women.
While individual Islamic legal scholars have indeed interpreted the Qur’an and Sunna in ways more compatible with Western pluralism and liberal democracy than is Sharia in its classic formulations, these have never gained any significant traction among Muslims. Wherever Sharia has been the law of the land, throughout the history of Islam as well as wherever it is implemented today, it has never by any stretch of the imagination resembled liberal democracy.
Vischer says that “fears about the most extreme applications of Sharia need not prompt a categorical ban on Sharia,” but the world has never seen a form of Sharia that has not been “extreme.” Turkey and other relatively westernized Muslim countries have not been governed by Sharia at all but by legal codes imported from the West. In fact, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the modern-day Turkish republic as a defiant rejection of Sharia and in an explicit determination to establish a Western-style state, free from the strictures of Islamic law. Such states don’t have a different, more expansive version of Sharia; they don’t have Sharia at all. Today their freedoms are rapidly eroding, as the Arab Spring is bringing Sharia back into force.
Anti-Sharia laws will not, as Vischer claims, infringe upon Muslims’ rights to practice their religion. Those are already protected by the First Amendment. As Thomas Jefferson said, it doesn’t matter whether my neighbor believes in one god or seventeen, because his belief neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. It does matter what he believes when he starts to think that his god commands him to pick my pocket or break my leg. The purpose of anti-Sharia laws is not to stop Muslims from getting married in Islamic religious ceremonies and the like but to stop the political and supremacist aspects of Islam that infringe upon the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims.
Sherman Oaks, California
Robert K. Vischer replies:
I have never set out to defend Sharia law categorically; I simply reject current efforts to exclude it categorically from our legal system. It may be that additional political or legal safeguards may be appropriate at some point in the future to ensure that the rule of law is not compromised in our country. I see no evidence that we have arrived at such a time, and the current anti-Sharia initiatives create substantial harms to the social fabric without any identifiable benefits.
Daniel Brubaker agrees with me that the absolutist approach to current anti-Sharia law should be rejected, but wants a more nuanced approach to guard against the imperialist strains of Sharia. I don’t really know if he’s right unless we can flesh out what that more nuanced approach looks like. I agree with Robert Spencer that we should resist “the political and supremacist aspects of Islam that infringe upon the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims,” but permitting a court to enforce a contract that calls for Sharia-compliant financing, for example, does not infringe on others’ rights or freedoms.
Perhaps I’m too confident in the capacity of our legal system to protect our freedoms without resorting to crude religious labels and sweeping curtailments of contract rights. Before embracing that conclusion, I would need more evidence that the system is failing. If more legal tools are needed to shore up our liberties, I’m certainly open to that conversation, but the current wave of anti-Sharia proposals, I’m afraid, are not helpful conversation starters.
The Tigress Of The Church
Elizabeth Lev’s Tigress of Forlì and the artful exposition by Sebastian White (“A Woman in Full,” March) offer a disquietingly beautiful account of God’s grace. The work stands between the glorious veneer of the Renaissance’s religious art and architecture and the scurrilous backstory given by two-bit Roman tour guides (to which sorry lot this reader once belonged).
What emerges in this middle distance is a much complexified account of the economy of redemption. Through her unsparing report of the countess, Lev provides what a Golden Legend never could: an account in which the unseemly and tattered whole of one’s life is threaded by grace and bound in the narrative of providence. The biography speaks in the register of a Graham Greene; to borrow the words of Sarah from The End of the Affair, “You were there [O Lord], teaching us to squander . . . so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of you.” Caterina’s eventual “repair” to the Church allows us to find in The Tigress of Forlì an unexpectedly beautiful account of divine grace at work.
South Bend, Indiana
Joseph Small’s discussion of the harmful effects of the Presbyterian Church USA’s “captivity to American society’s legislative and regulatory procedures” and “forced-choice majority voting” (“Presbyterianism’s Democratic Captivity,” March) overlooks more serious, underlying differences that will not be resolved through a grassroots, bottom-up process where “multi-level study, discussion, and consultation” usher in the elusive “consensus among the faithful” for which he hopes.
No doubt, such a consensus will eventually come within the PCUSA. But, regrettably, it will come through attrition, as those who hold a traditional and more biblical understanding of Reformed faith and practice leave the denomination. These members have been casting their votes with their feet, so to speak, since the PCUSA was formed in 1983, resulting in a drop in membership from 3.1 million to 2 million today.
Small would have the PCUSA engage in ecumenical consultation with its full communion partners on “significant theological, moral, and ecclesiological matters,” as if the other mainline denominations could somehow provide the collective “mutual correction” needed to retain membership and reclaim the high ground. The mainline Protestant churches in America lost their moral authority in the areas of gender, sexuality, and reproduction years ago. Their positions reflect the evolving opinions of the secular cultural elites and their media proponents, not the theological reflections of any religious body.
Small laments the cultural transformation of his own denomination and its subsequent loss of authority but focuses on an aspect of cultural accommodation that he labels “perhaps the most harmful transformation” of the PCUSA, which is his denomination’s “adoption of decision-making procedures that mimic American-style liberal democracy.” With all due respect, this seems to me to be an example of fiddling while Rome burns.
Signal Mountain, Tennessee
Joseph Small does not go far enough in examining the roots of the troubles the PCUSA has in using democratic procedures to make theological determinations. In short: although the PCUSA claims to be confessional, it is confessional only on paper Having kicked its confessions aside as an authoritative source for the beliefs and practices of the church, the only place left for any sort of theological discernment is in the polity of the church.
Small cites the example of the adoption of the ordination of women as deacons, elders, and ministers as an example of how patience across more than forty years can produce a sensus fidelium. This change was accomplished by the exact democratic processes he so vigorously takes to task. This major change was accomplished by changing the church’s polity, not its professed theology. It was nearly forty years after the change in polity that the theology of the church was updated with one line in the Brief Statement of Faith.
This cart-before-the-horse, polity-before-theology methodology has been most harmful to the church. The lack of a common theological, common confessional ground has led directly to the current chaotic state of the church. Recently, the highest court in the denomination, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, ruled in the case of a minister convicted of performing same-sex weddings. Not one concurrence with nor dissent from the decision cited either the Scriptures or the Book of Confessions. All were based solely on the Book of Order, the denomination’s polity, which as Small has shown so convincingly, is extremely shaky ground on which to base the unity of a denomination.
I believe this is where all of Small’s suggestions for improving discernment in the PCUSA break down. They are all ultimately founded on correcting errors in how we do our polity, not in taking the bolder step of more closely linking our de jure and de facto beliefs and practices. Until the PCUSA takes steps to fix the cognitive dissonance resulting from years of neglect of its confessional nature, of its need to confess first and govern second, all of the effort poured into fixing its polity will be for nothing.
Joseph Small writes that the schisms within mainline Protestantism are caused by majorities voting in “democratically constituted governing bodies.” This is not quite accurate. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), voting members are chosen according to a strict quota system.
Even at regional, synodical assemblies, voting members from each congregation must insure gender balance. At the national assemblies, strict quotas mandate not only gender inclusivity but a balance between lay and clergy and a separate ballot for “people of color or whose primary language is other than English.”
Those who put the quota system into place were no doubt motivated by a desire to hear the voice of those who have historically been denied a voice. Unfortunately it didn’t work. The ELCA remains a denomination whose membership is predominantly white. Also, with the recent schism within the ELCA, much of its minority membership (which tends to be conservative on some important social issues) has left the denomination and joined the more confessional North American Lutheran Church (of which I am a member). At a recent meeting of mission leaders within the North American Lutheran Church, a denomination with no quota systems, nearly 40 percent of those attending were “people of color or whose primary language was other than English.”
The ELCA spent years and millions of dollars studying the moral status of homosexuality and the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian people. As one of the older members of our congregation sagely announced, “They’re going to study this issue until they get the answer they want.” There is always the tendency to turn the politics of prayer into the politics of power. In the end, after two decades of thoughtful deliberation, discussion, debate, and prayer, some of us realized that we simply and irreconcilably disagreed.
Eric M. Riesen
Zion Lutheran Church
In his insightful article, Joseph Small left out an important example of the major point of his article. In 1970 when the PCUSA’s General Assembly prohibited the ordination of a man who would not participate in the ordination of women, a fundamental Presbyterian principle rooted in Presbyterian polity and theology was denied. It is not incidental that the Westminster Confession has a chapter on “Liberty of Conscience.”
The action made it next to impossible for a man to remain in the church and hold a historic view of Presbyterianism—namely, that the office of elder was open only to men. It denied this confessional principle and in effect enshrined women’s ordination as an essential tenet of the gospel. This action practically banned dissenting ordinands from the Presbyterian Church. It was, to use Joseph Small’s own words, “settling for the victory cry of momentary majority.” The decision caused a group of long-time Presbyterians to choose between their denomination and faithfulness to their conscience.
Further, such cultural captivity has caused the PCUSA often to make confusing if not heretical statements on Scripture, Christology, and salvation that have led to the gradual further demise of a beloved and historic denomination.
John H. White
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania
Joseph Small reminds us that the councils of the church do not govern by plebiscite but by “seeking together to find and represent the will of Christ,” in the words of the Book of Order. The loss of a theological awareness and vocabulary on the part of the “whole people of God” is leading to an increased clericalization of the church, in which only a few people know the “magic words” of theology and the rest roll their eyes and inspect their fingernails whenever theological ideas are offered in discussion.
The result is that councils from the local to the national level fall back on mimicry of civic political processes as a foundation for ecclesiastical decision making. Such a concentration of theology in the hands of a few exchanges discernment for demagoguery, the will of Christ for the will of those present and voting.
Ultimately, it was the danger of clericalism that led those who revised the Book of Order to prefer the term “teaching elder” to “Minister of the Word and Sacrament.” The new terminology, which is actually recovered from antecedent polities, reaches back to Reformation-era notions of the priesthood of all believers and the conviction that all God’s people have both a need and a right to the knowledge of the faith.
Its reintroduction now is a way of pointing up the irreplaceable function of teaching the whole people of God the language of theology by which to express their faith. Uniquely prepared by seminary education, the teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church USA is entrusted with the task not of hoarding the mysteries of God away from the prying eyes and grimy hands of the masses but of sharing—no, lavishly ladling out—the bounty of critical biblical, historical, and theological scholarship upon the people whom Christ has assembled to be his Church. To the extent that the people of God can think and speak their native theological tongue, the church will be less susceptible to the sort of process captivity Joe Small decries.
Paul K. Hooker
Joseph D. Small replies:
A comprehensive analysis of mainline Protestantism’s debility is beyond my competence, and certainly outside the scope of my brief essay. My more modest intention was twofold: to demonstrate the Presbyterian Church USA’s accommodation to democratic proceduralism as the means to determine central matters of faith and morals and to show that these procedures exacerbate disagreement in the church rather than resolve it.
Gary Cosby, Eric Riesen, and John White offer explanations for PCUSA and other mainline churches’ decline: representational quotas, church statements, and the departure of biblical and traditional members. While each of these plays into the current situation, the reality of mainline decline is far more complex. At any rate, my limited contention is that cultural accommodation is a significant reality in the Presbyterian Church and that the adoption of American-style liberal democratic procedures forces it into reductionist dualities that preclude thoughtful, faithful deliberation on theological, moral, and ecclesiological matters.
The democratic captivity of the church is but one instance of the ways the Presbyterian Church, once a shaper of American culture, has been transformed by the culture. As one wag has put it, “the church has accomplished the unimaginable: it is of, but not in the world” (I used to attribute this to Stanley Hauerwas, but he denies responsibility).
Cosby, Riesen, and White are quite right that neither protracted churchwide discussion nor ecumenical consultation are cure-alls and that both have their own drawbacks and pitfalls. Even so, they are preferable to voting in biennial gatherings of ill-informed strangers.
Dave Pepper misunderstands my reference to the history of women’s ordination in the PCUSA as an example of how “patience” over the course of decades can lead to a sensus fidelium. It was not mere patience, but rather serious, sustained theological attention to Scripture, ecclesiology, and the nature of ministry in the Reformed tradition that led to the church’s judgment. To be sure, voting was needed to amend the constitution, but the overwhelming majorities in both the general assembly and the presbyteries is evidence that the votes did not decide the matter, but simply accepted the theological discernment of the whole church.
Paul Hooker is also quite right when he says that PCUSA clericalism, together with the attendant diminution of the church’s other ordered ministries and the loss of the ministry of the whole people of God, contributes to the church’s mimicry of liberal democratic proceduralism. The recovery of the historic term “teaching elder,” as well as other significant linguistic changes in the new Book of Order, are suggestive. But it will take more than terminological changes to being about actual change.
As I said at the end of my essay, the precondition for any meaningful change is to say no to “the way things are.” That is the beginning of metanoia.
I found myself nodding throughout James Nuechterlein’s review of Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers (“Radical Revelries,” March), until I got to the last two paragraphs, which left me completely befuddled. Nuechterlein seems to believe that radical leftist movements have fallen off the radar, and he can’t see how “Kazin’s yearned-for radical renewal might become more than an empty hope.”
Has he been living in a cave since Inauguration Day 2009? The radical socialism that Kazin traced throughout the past two centuries is now solidified in the policies and platform of the Democratic party. He states that “the dream of economic equality, along with that of public ownership and control of the means of production, has been quietly abandoned.” But that observation is counter to everything that the Obama administration is foisting on this country, from a heavy hand in the automotive industry to publicly funded mandatory health care to the curtailing of religious freedom.
Perhaps the main premise in the last part of the review was simply that the radical movements of yesteryear’s leftists are not as visible or newsworthy. But therein lies the danger. Just as the proverbial frog suffered in the pot of water, we of the twenty-first century now encounter the socialism of the left under the wing of a mainstream political party, which is using strong-arm political tactics to implement socialist programs that radicals of one hundred years ago would have only dreamed about.
Rochester Hills, Michigan
James Nuechterlein replies:
One may fairly accuse the Democratic party in general and the Obama administration in particular of many things, but not, as John-Paul Belanger does, of “radical socialism.” Outside the realm of jabberwocky, socialism has a meaning: public ownership and control of the means of production.
The Obama administration has implemented a number of interventions in the free market and has argued for many others. But neither its specific policies nor its overall program—whatever one thinks of them—add up to what any serious analyst would define as socialism. The health-care legislation perhaps comes closest, but it still leaves the various elements in the health industry in private hands. Government regulation of economic activity, however misguided one may take it to be, does not equal socialism.
Barack Obama is a political and economic liberal. Let us hold him answerable for the faults such liberalism is liable to, and not for those of an imaginary socialism.
Virtuosity Good And Bad
For Michael Root, in an informed and perceptive essay (“The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” March), it is somehow suspicious that Wolfhart Pannenberg is a theological “virtuoso” in the line of Luther, Schleiermacher, and Barth, seeking to do by himself what should be done “by a normative communal sense of the faith.” These “promethean” thinkers, whom he calls “virtuosi,” go wrong, it seems, in their attempt to fashion novel approaches that both differ from those of previous theologians and attract adherents. Although Pannenberg is more humble than some, the newness and systematic nature of his work renders it “ambiguous.”
As a Catholic who wrote a dissertation on the great Lutheran, I think there is something to object to here. The figures Root worries about are Protestants and face the accusation of their theology being unmoored to the “life of the Church” and the Church’s tradition. Yet, while Roman Catholics of an anti-ecumenical bent often say such things about our brothers and
sisters in Christ, it does not quite fit the argument Root wants to make.
Catholic tradition, after all, has its own virtuosi: Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Newman, and so on. Each broke new ground, distanced himself from predecessors—in fact if not always in word—and collected followers. Indeed, the history of Catholic tradition is filled with vigorous and at times violent clashes between different schools each flying the banner of its own champion.
Thomas Aquinas, for example, and to his everlasting credit, judged that intellectually potent insights arising from outside of Christianity (from Aristotle in particular) required a rearticulation of the ancient truths of faith, and he carried out his systematic program with the confidence that truth is never divided against itself. In other words, Aquinas was a virtuoso of the first rank. Is there a difference between the intentions of Aquinas and Pannenberg, or does the difference just boil down to the one being a Catholic and the other a Protestant?
Root ends his essay with the suggestion that the “ambiguity” of Pannenberg’s achievement tells us something about the task of theology in the life of the Church. For Pannenberg, because modernity poses serious challenges to the credibility of Christianity, the theologian is called to confront them honestly and to forswear any easy retreat to the security of a premodern ghetto in which the hard questions are not asked. Such a retreat fails the ordinary believer and the potential believer by undermining the Church’s claim to speak of God as the source and summit of all truth. Catholics are free to disagree with his conclusions, but Pannenberg the virtuoso offers an example that Catholics would be wise to follow.
Providence, Rhode Island
Michael Root’s essay is a fair review of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s contributions to modern theology. I have known Wolfhart Pannenberg for fifty-five years, going back to 1957, when I was a student in Heidelberg and he an instructor (Privat-Docent) in theology, and the first book I wrote was on history and hermeneutics, introducing him to the English-speaking world of theology, arguing that his thought presented a welcome breakthrough out of the impasse created by Barth and Bultmann.
Pannenberg’s influence in theology reached far beyond his native Germany. Hundreds of doctoral dissertations have been written on his thought in every major language. Jesus’ saying about prophets comes to mind: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country.” Root rightly mentions the profound friendship between Richard John Neuhaus and Pannenberg. Equally profound was his influence on some younger Evangelical theologians, such as Stanley Grenz, Roger Olson, Philip Clayton, and many others.
Mainline Protestant theologians didn’t quite know what to make of Pannenberg’s theology. On his first lecture tour of leading divinity schools in the United States, he presented two lectures. In the first he affirmed the authority of the Bible, but only if it is demonstrably true. Its assertions must be subject to verification, like those of every other book in the library. In the second he took up the question “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” His yes was too much for the likes of Schubert Ogden and Gordon Kaufman to swallow.
Protestant theologians had become used to the idea of being Christian without believing in the resurrection of Jesus. For Pannenberg the resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin that holds together all the various elements of faith in a comprehensive system of Christian doctrine.
Root correctly emphasizes the privileged role of reason that Pannenberg advocates in doing theology. (The German festschrift for him is entitled Vernunft des Glaudens, “Reason of faith”). But Pannenberg is neither a rationalist nor a fideist in the usual sense of those terms. Reason is blind without faith, and faith is empty without reason. What a Christian believer sees is seen by reason, but that reason sees what it sees is on account of faith. Faith and reason do not run on two separated tracks, like the dualism of Siger of Brabant. Pannenberg serves as a corrective to the rampant subjectivism that sucks everything Christian into its vortex. He offers the right medicine for the sickness unto death that has afflicted modern Protestant theology.
The Mount Rushmore of twentieth century Protestant theology will feature three towering figures, each very different from the others: Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Carl E. Braaten
Sun City West, Arizona
Michael Root replies:
Both Carl Braaten and Jim Keating cast further light on Wolfhart Pannenberg’s work. Jim Keating’s letter allows me to clarify my concern. My problem does not lie with virtuosity in the sense of sheer brilliance but with the modern cult of the virtuoso theologian and the way that cult distorts both theology itself and the function of theology in the church. The reinterpretation of the faith becomes a goal in itself and the unique creative insight of the theologian becomes the structuring interpretive touchstone for understanding revelation. I think that description does apply to theologians such as Schleiermacher and Tillich (for whom I have less enthusiasm) and does not apply to Augustine, Anselm, or Thomas Aquinas.
I don’t see such a cult in Protestant theology prior to about 1800. The issue is not primarily a Protestant–Catholic difference but relates to features of theology over the past two hundred years. These features are more prominent in Protestant than in Catholic theology. The modern decline in the Protestant world of a stable doctrinal tradition is part of the background that feeds this cult and makes it harder to escape. Pannenberg does, to a significant degree, escape this cult, but not entirely. Herein lies an “ambiguity” in his work, no more or less.
I fully agree with Keating’s commendation of Pannenberg’s engagement with modernity and hope that my essay will move others to become better acquainted with Pannenberg’s impressive achievement as a theologian.
I found one of the items in the March “While We’re At It” disturbing and the conclusion you reach bordering on immoral. You argue, and I completely agree, that it would be immoral to take a liver from a mentally impaired person, thus killing her, so that the liver could be transplanted to save the life of someone who was of purportedly greater value to society.
But you then go on to suggest that this “hypothetical example . . . is not far from reality” by citing the case of a mentally retarded girl deemed ineligible for a kidney transplant. There are critical differences between the hypothetical situation and your own real-world one.
Unfortunately, there are far fewer kidneys available for transplant than there are patients needing one, and patients do die waiting for a transplant. The question is not whether kidneys, or medical care in general, will be rationed but how they will be rationed.
One mechanism is the so-called free market. This means, in effect, that those who can afford to pay more will get a kidney before those they can outbid. Another mechanism is to have gatekeepers determine who should receive a kidney. My wife has late-stage Alzheimer’s. I love her deeply and will grieve when she dies, but I would not argue that she should receive a kidney over someone whose “quality of life” after the transplant would clearly exceed her own. I would consider it immoral to think otherwise.
All human life is precious in the eyes of God, and we are morally forbidden to take positive acts to kill the innocent in our society, no matter how impaired or “useless” they may seem to be. But we are not morally obligated to keep everyone alive by whatever means at whatever cost for as long as possible. There is simply no moral imperative that requires this; quite the contrary. So long as kidneys and medical care are in finite supply, we must make choices.
There seems to be an opinion abroad in the land that everyone should get all the medical care they want and that anything less involves either murder or is at least seriously immoral. No, the tragedy is that we are unwilling to admit that medical care is already rationed but that the current system of rationing is both inconsistent and of dubious morality.
League City, Texas
David Mills replies:
Michael Gemignani is right that horrifically difficult and painful choices must sometimes be made because we can’t do everything we would like to do. But I don’t think he’s really thought through the implication of what he says in relation to the case described in the “While We’re At It” item.
Do we really want intelligence included in the estimation of a patient’s quality of life? Why would the life of a handicapped person be considered of lower quality than that of someone who isn’t handicapped? Are they less in humanity and human dignity because they’re not as good at math? Do they enjoy life less? Do they give less to others? By that principle, the person whose IQ is 100 should, on the transplant list, be dropped below the person whose IQ is 120, and that idea no one (yet) accepts.
With respect of the right to be treated with concern and respect—which requires the right to life—every single member of the human family is equal. The mentally retarded child has no less right to live and live as well as possible than the intellectual. In allocating life-saving health care, we can consider such factors as physical health and life expectancy, as they bear on the question of how to get the most use out of, say, a transplantable vital organ. But it is immoral to allocate that organ to one person rather than another simply because the first is smarter.
The President’s Record
O. Carter Snead’s commentary “Obama’s Freedom Deficit” (March) reflects a widespread but erroneous view. The president has been bad on some religious-liberty issues but very good on others. And it is dangerous to religious liberty to use it as a political club with which to beat up the other side.
On contraception under the health-care act, the president surrendered to pressure from the women’s and abortion-rights movements—although they are mad at him too, because they think his “compromise,” which accomplishes little for religious liberty, surrendered to pressure from churches. Both sides are now turning the issue to broader political purposes, and the Democrats plainly think it is a winner for them.
I represented the church in Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court case on whether ministers can sue their churches for loss of ministerial appointments. The government’s position in the case was terrible, but as best we could tell, it was a litigator’s position, driven by lawyers trying to win a case. The policy people at the White House were not involved; their sin was one of omission rather than commission.
On the plus side, the Obama Justice Department has been very active and effective in enforcing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, protecting churches from hostile local zoning and protecting the free-exercise rights of prisoners. And on the right of religious institutions to hire members of their own faith, even when they have government grants or contracts under the faith-based initiative, the administration has been quietly heroic, leaving Bush-administration protections in place despite intense pressure from a broad civil-rights coalition and from Democrats in Congress.
The funding of stem-cell research and overseas abortions are moral and political issues, but they are not religious-liberty issues. There is no constitutional right to prevent the government from funding programs that many citizens find religiously objectionable. If there were, government would be paralyzed.
Religious liberty is in danger of becoming just another left–right political issue, and if that happens, the cause is lost. The right controls only part of the government and controls all three branches only occasionally. There is much support for civil liberties and human rights on the left, and part of the strategy should be to constantly remind folks on the left that religious liberty is something they should support too.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Amendments, the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donations Protection Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act were all signed by Bill Clinton and all enacted by large bipartisan majorities. That is how we have improved protections for religious liberty in this country. Turning religious liberty into one more partisan issue is counterproductive.
University of Virginia
O. Carter Snead replies:
Douglas Laycock is one of the most thoughtful and important scholars of religious liberty in America. There is much in his letter with which I agree. I join him in applauding President Clinton for signing protective legislation passed by large bipartisan majorities. I agree that the Obama administration deserves credit for its enforcement of RLUIPA and for leaving in place the Bush administration’s employment protections for some religious institutions receiving federal grants, though I would not go so far as to declare the enforcement of extant federal law and the passive acceptance of a predecessor’s sensible policies to be “heroic.”
I do, however, respectfully disagree with some of his other assertions. First, the essay’s critique rests entirely on the merits of the president’s record, without regard to his political affiliation. It is not a “partisan” work meant as a “political club” to “beat up the other side.” Laycock should be assured that I would be equally vigorous in criticizing a president from a different party who pursued the same destructive agenda.
Second, I do not share Laycock’s intuition about the provenance of the government’s arguments in Hosanna-Tabor. In any case before the Supreme Court, the solicitor general is not going to defer to the judgment of career attorneys about the content of the government’s briefs. They would be scrutinized and approved at the highest levels for legal soundness, strategy, and conformity with the administration’s priorities. Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that the government’s attorneys would deploy such a novel, extreme, and widely rejected argument in the name of litigation strategy directed toward winning the case.
I likewise take issue with Laycock’s claim that a law conscripting taxpayer dollars to support abortion or research that involves the use and destruction of nascent human life does not violate the consciences of religious (and nonreligious) Americans. A law is not benign or neutral simply because it does not give rise to a constitutional claim.
Finally, I disagree partially with his account of the HHS contraception mandate and “compromise.” He is surely correct that it does little for religious liberty. I disagree, however, that it is equally unsatisfying to administration allies such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, who have praised the policy. And I further disagree that current efforts to defend religious liberty in this domain are reducible to politics as usual.
In light of the numerous and well-documented actions of the administration described in the essay, I stand by the regrettable conclusion that this administration has been uniquely aggressive in pursuing policies that do great violence to religious liberty and conscience.