Cal Thomas, whose column runs neck-to-neck with George Will's as the most widely syndicated in the country, enters a dissent from the current "Christmas wars." Thomas doesn't give a fig whether the salesperson in the mall wishes him "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." None of this has anything to do with true homage to God incarnate in the Christ-child. "We should expect that homage only from those who 'believe on His name,' not from the Santa Claus worshippers."
Mr. Thomas has a point. The presence of a Christmas tree or crèche in the public square is not to be confused with the fullness of the Church's worship of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. At the same time, the former is not a matter of indifference. Cal Thomas has over the years expressed despair and derision with respect to what he views as our incorrigibly corrupt culture. On this score, he is the counterpart on the right to Stanley Hauerwas and his followers on what is perceived as the left. Their cry is, "Let the Church be the Church." Which is my motto as well, except when attending that is an implicit, "Let the culture go to hell, where it's going anyway."
The call for the Church to be the Church is always and urgently in order. I don't know, however, how Cal Thomas and others of like mind square their dismissal of the culture with their persistent labors in offering advice on how Americans should more rightly order their public life. Mr. Thomas, after all, publishes hundreds of columns per year, the great majority of them dealing with what he sees as the rights and wrongs of our public life.
Whether on the right or the left, there are those who refuse to face up to the fact that ours is, however confusedly and inadequately, a Christian society. For whatever reason, they acquiesce in the claim of the New York Times, Hollywood, and whatever is the latest form of degenerate rock music that they define our culture.
In seeking the well-being of the earthly city of our exile (Jeremiah, Augustine, et al.), Christians accept responsibity for our culture and its public expressions. Defending Christmas symbols in the public square is by no means the most important exercise of that responsibility, but it is not unimportant. Especially when extreme secularists seek to ban the free exercise of religion in public.
It is true that the full and authentic celebration of Christmas is to be found only in the proclamation and liturgy of the Church, the eucharistic community that is always in contrast to, and in necessary tension with, the surrounding culture. But neither Christian faith nor the Constitution discourages the exuberant reverberations of the gospel truth in the public square as well.
Michael Foley teaches patristics at Baylor University and is an exemplary alumnus of our annual Tertio Millennio Seminar in Krakow, Poland. A model of clarity is his letter to the Wall Street Journal in response to Kenneth Woodward's confusing column on the recent instruction from Rome on homosexuality and the priesthood:
In characterizing the Vatican's instruction on homosexual candidates for the priesthood as "shoot first and ask questions later" ("Ungracious Instruction," editorial page, Dec. 2), Kenneth Woodward paints a misleading picture of an important and fair-minded directive. We will never know how many ordained priests today have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, but we do know that 82% of the recent sexual abuse cases were not acts of pedophilia involving small children of both sexes but acts of homoerotic ephebophilia by priests attracted to teenage boys. Put simply, the clerical scandals were predominantly perpetrated by gay men, not clinical pedophiles.
In response to this glaring fact, the Vatican could have barred anyone with the slightest homosexual proclivity from the priesthood, but instead it showed moderation and prudence, allowing bishops and seminary directors some wiggle room in deciding what constitutes a "deep-seated homosexual tendency" or support of "gay culture." The Vatican is to be commended for such restraint, which will mitigate against witch-hunts while still addressing a scandalous problem.
Moreover, Mr. Woodward fails to see that the priesthood requires more than "affective maturity." It demands that the protective and procreative zeal that a man would have had toward his wife and children is transposed to his spiritual family, his parish. As early as the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), which forbade the ordination of voluntary eunuchs, the church has very much relied on the spiritual exercise of its priests' heterosexually oriented eros. For the priesthood is husbandry in the strict sense, not mere celibacy: it is spiritual fatherhood, not professional bachelorhood.
Robert P. George of Princeton takes me to task for an item in the Public Square section of the current issue of FIRST THINGS:
In the item "Are Jews Smarter?," paragraph six opens with your point about bright eighth graders congratulating themselves on the "discovery" that the assertion of the Declaration of Independence "is not literally true." "In ways important and unimportant, it is not the case that all are created equal. Call equality our 'founding mythology,' if you like, but it is crucial to the foundation of the American order . . . ." Well, I don't think this is right. "All men are created equal" is literally true. The equality in basic worth and dignity of every member of the human family is not a myth. (Or if it is a myth, as Flannery O'Connor might have said, to hell with it.) Of course, as you say, not all men are equal in every respect. That's obvious. Some are smarter than others, some are stronger, some are more creative, some are more virtuous, etc. But precisely in respect of the matter at issue in the Declarationbasic worth and dignityall are, literally, created equal. That's not a myth, not a noble lie, not a generalization admitting of exceptions. It is why it would be profoundly and inherently wrong (and not just imprudent or dangerous because it's the sort of thing that could get out of hand) for someone to take the life of a single severely mentally retarded child in order to harvest organs to save the lives of Edward Witten (who, let's imagine, need a heart transplant), Michael Jordan (who needs a liver), and Bela Fleck and the Dalai Lama (both of whom need kidneys). Of course, it is not that the retarded child is as smart as Witten, possesses the athletic prowess of Jordan, displays the musical genius of Fleck, or is as holy as the Dalai Lama (I'm guessing at the Dalai Lama's holiness, by the way; maybe I should say Jimmy Carter here instead--just kidding! just kidding!!). Rather, it is that in basic worth and dignity the child really is the equal of these guys and everyone else. We don't just pretend that he is equal in dignity because it helps to support the kind of public order and political regime we happen to favor, or because social life would become unmanageable otherwise. We believe he is equal--literally--and we assert it as a matter of moral truth.
Mea culpa, albeit not maxima. I should have made it clearer that I was speaking about that eighth-grader's understanding of equality, not the understanding held by Robert George or the American founders, which I fully share. I would also note that "myth" and "mythology" need not suggest that something is untrue. There are true myths, as biblical scholars and J.R.R. Tokien remind us. But I have often criticized biblical scholars for their use of those terms because most people do associate myth with falsehood. I should not have done it myself. (Note to Hadley Arkes and Harry Jaffa: Please hold off on those letters of reproach. I am sorry.)
In addition to which:
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