It is not the case that a “female cannot represent Christ because of her femininity.” That is an incorrect answer to the question, “Why can a woman not be ordained?” Any woman can represent Christ precisely because of her femininity. Most significantly, the Virgin Mary, through her grace-filled femininity, represents Christ as the penultimate model of submission to the will of God. What a woman cannot do because of her femininity is act in persona Christi as the person through whom Christ’s saving grace is directly communicated to the faithful through the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation, as Jennifer Ferrara competently explains. Through revealing the falsity of Ms. Wilson’s subordinate clause, the irrelevance of the independent clause is also revealed.
Of course Ms. Wilson provides a rejoinder to the gender exclusivity of acting in persona Christi, claiming that to say a woman cannot stand in persona Christi is a denial of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. This is a bald assertion that does not seriously challenge or refute the Catholic understanding that maleness and femaleness are essentially different modes of being human. I’m not sure what to make of Ms. Wilson’s assertion. Does she mean that the Catholic Church, which denies exactly what Ms. Wilson says cannot be denied, also denies the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ? Does she mean to say that the Catholic Church is actually some shade of Docetist? Surely I am not alone in thinking that Ms. Wilson comes much closer to denying the importance of the incarnation by her many implications that the fact of Christ’s maleness has no real theological significance.
It seems to me that the source of her confusion comes down to the Scholastic distinction between essence and existence that Ms. Wilson herself makes reference to and misapplies. Men and women are not in essence the same even though both are created in God’s image (unless Ms. Wilson means that our essence is the same as God’s). Men and woman are in essence different, for “male and female He created them.” Since essence ought to determine existence, it follows that men and women ought to be existentially different as well. Since every man’s and woman’s essence is damaged by sin, every man’s and woman’s existence is also damaged by sin. Christ’s atoning death and resurrection are the only remedy for sin, but it does not follow from this that male and female existential differences are abolished by the unity of Christ. The unity of Christ properly orders the essential and existential differences between men and women not by negating them, but by restoring them to their original perfection as complementary parts of the human species.
Ms. Wilson is right about this: “Orthodoxy has been a battle from the get-go, as the apostolic epistles amply demonstrate.” The battle and the demonstration occur also in the writings of the Church Fathers. In this battle, the Holy Spirit ensures the Church remains the “pillar of truth.” Thus, the authentic teachings of Christ defended in the apostolic tradition are continued and developed during the patristic period and beyond. In the skirmishes about the ordination of women, the orthodox tradition is this: women cannot be priests.
Mark L. Chance
I read with curiosity the exchange between Jennifer Ferrara and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson concerning the ordination of women. While both writers made some persuasive points, it is distracting to argue over shoulds, shouldn’ts, roles, traits, obligations, rights, etc. The issue is not really how women should behave in private or public life. The issue is: Does gender matter? Does gender add something to our humanity? Does femaleness make it literally impossible for a person to be ordained?
To answer no to these questions is to stray from the precision of incarnational faith into dangerous territory, joining company with the many through the ages who have said Jesus is only seeming God, seeming man, or who have denied the hypostatic union.
Let’s start by considering the fiat of the Virgin Mary. Here we have a real, live woman, approached by a real, live lover (the Holy Spirit), who conceived a real, live child. I think we can assume that her fiat was above all a sexual response to the Holy Spirit. Her reply was not the dutiful “Yes, you know best, whatever you say” that is often depicted. It was an ecstatic assent, given with body and soul. Certainly, in Mary we can assume a perfect concordance between spirit and flesh; but her response, and its fruit, was no less physical than spiritual. The incarnation comes about through the specificity of the female sexual response.
A man may spiritually “give birth” to spiritual fruit, but only a woman could physically give birth to the Word made flesh. By analogy with Mary, although it may be harder to discern, can we not assume that there is something uniquely male about Christ’s salvific role?
The doctrine of the Virgin Birth tells us that all of Christ’s human nature is inherited from his Mother. She could not have passed him the y-chromosome necessary for maleness. We must infer, then, that his maleness was given by his Father along with his divinity and not as part of his human genetic makeup. Jesus’ maleness is not an attribute of his humanity but of his divinity. (Conversely, when Eve was created from Adam, Adam’s x-chromosome may have been duplicated, or supplied by God in an additional act of creation.)
Jesus’ masculinity is a supernatural attribute which nevertheless has a physical effect on his human nature. It gives a spin to his human nature. His maleness is the locus of the union between his humanity and divinity. Whatever vein of speculation one chooses to mine, it is clear: his maleness is somehow a key to the hypostatic union.
In our perennially Arian way, we repeatedly shortchange both the physical and the spiritual. The physical is considered “merely” physical, the spiritual belonging to a plane of higher truth. On the other hand, only the physical is thought to be “literally” true, while spiritual truths are seen as mere metaphors. But both are equal in value, although one is ontologically prior—there is nothing “mere” about the physical realm, the flesh taken on by our Savior. And spiritual truths are no less literally true than physical ones. Both are literal—one physically, the other metaphysically. Both are metaphorical—the physical is a metaphor for the spiritual, and vice versa. Both matter.
The masculinity of Christ does indeed explain why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, but not for the reasons enumerated by Jennifer Ferrara. Nothing about Christ can be understood apart from the fact that God chose incarnation as His response to original sin. Thus, women cannot be ordained priests because priests image Christ as the sacrificial lamb of God, as the ones who have committed their lives to representing Calvary though the Eucharist. The Eucharistic Calvary signifies not only human atonement for human sins stretching back to Eden, but also the restoration of the human loves and friendships sundered in Eden through original sin.
In Eden, the race lost not only its unity with God but also the unity between man and woman. As a result, Christ had two missions: the humanitarian mission of restoring unity with God and the gender mission of restoring heterosexual unity. The humanitarian mission of restoring unity with God required that the lamb of God be fully human and fully God. Accordingly, since women are as human as men, God could have incarnated as a woman. A female Christ could have restored the human race to its original unity with God. It is not Christ’s humanitarian mission that required Christ to be male.
The maleness of Christ is rather required in order to restore the unity between men and women destroyed by original sin; for as Genesis 3:16 states: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This passage indicates three gender consequences of original sin: the excessive desire or obsession of women for their men, male domination over women, and sexual inequality. Freeing the human race from these consequences of original sin constitutes Christ’s gender mission.
These consequences are significant. In his letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” John Paul II identifies male domination with chauvinism and blames it for the many ways in which women suffer discrimination and lack of proper appreciation for their equality and dignity. Chauvinism as a consequence of original sin necessitated that the Christ be a man. For due to chauvinism, a female Christ would not have been recognized by men as being their Lord, their Rabbi, their Savior. Christ exemplified sacrificial love, which chauvinism identifies as a weakness and as a peculiarity of women; according to chauvinism, maleness is about strength, independence, power, and control. Not so, taught Christ; rather, masculinity is for the sake of pouring out one’s life for another in love, not for the sake of self-gratification and domination.
Fallen women also needed Christ to be incarnated as a man—and not only to teach men a lesson. Original sin weakened femininity to the point where it blinded women to the truth about their desire for love. Original sin derailed woman’s transcendent passion for God with an egocentric passion for man—for a Mr. Right able to satiate desire. Fallen woman thus assumes either that Mr. Right will be perfect as promised by fairy tales or that accommodating his chauvinism and domination will be the sacrifice that enables her to be loved. Thus woman needed not only to be freed from the harms of chauvinism but also from the misdirection of her desire. Women needed to learn not just that there can be only one perfect man, Jesus Christ, but also that men need not be chauvinistic. If Christ had been incarnated as a woman, these lessons would have been untaught.
If Christ had to be incarnated as a man in order to fulfill his gender mission, then it is not possible for women to undertake this mission. If it is not possible for women to undertake the gender mission, then it is not possible for women to be ordained Catholic priests. For the Catholic priest images Christ in his gender mission as well as in his humanitarian mission. This is particularly the case since the Catholic Church was founded as the remedy for original sin. Thus if the Catholic Church were to ordain women her priests would not be able to image the gender mission of Christ. But since the effects of original sin continue even unto this age, there is need for priests to image the gender mission of Christ.
Furthermore, since the refusal of the Catholic Church to ordain women is grounded in the gender mission of Christ, it is a refusal that promotes sexual equality. It is important that the Church promote sexual equality—for two reasons. First, it is through sexual equality that the harmful inequities resulting from original sin are countered. Secondly, as John Paul II points out, it is only when spouses recognize and appreciate the equality of the other that they are able to appreciate properly the other’s spousal gift of self. Without this appreciation, marriages fail to properly image the loving equality of the Trinity. But we are made in the image of God and we love best when we love as God loves.
Therefore, it is in the interest of promoting sexual equality and Trinitarian love that the Catholic Church forgoes ordaining women. By so doing, she proclaims both the importance of Christ’s male incarnation and the need to image his gender mission. This proclamation, in turn, witnesses to the ongoing effects of original sin and the need to counter those effects by relying upon the grace and wisdom of Christ.
R. Mary Hayden Lemmons
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Catholic Studies
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota
The two viewpoints on ordination and women aptly illustrate how this issue is connected with the very concept of sacrament, and the Church’s identity. Because priestly ordination is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes as if it were an invention of the Church, which can be remade as desired. She admits that words like Father and Son have no substitute, but then tries to separate these words from their very meaning. Ms. Wilson dismisses Scripture and tradition as “inconclusive” by blurring the distinction between basic discipleship and membership in “the twelve.” The Church’s documents on this issue have already explained that the economies of salvation and sacramental function are two different things. It is understandable that a Lutheran minister might not hold these Catholic beliefs. More disturbing is the number of Catholic theologians who choose to ignore them.
(The Rev.) Matthew Kowalski,OSB
Blue Cloud Abbey
Marvin, South Dakota
The exchange on women’s ordination by Jennifer Ferrara and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson illustrates a problem that faces all liberal Protestant denominations, which is that it is philosophically incoherent to hold to Sola Scriptura without holding to the inerrancy of Scripture. Protestant theologians who reject the inerrancy of Scripture always end up finding infallibility somewhere else. Ms. Ferrara finds it in Rome. Ms. Wilson finds it in her own judgments.
Ms. Wilson dismisses the exegetical case against women’s ordination as though it is unworthy of serious discussion. She writes, “Scriptural injunctions to the silence of women in the Church are, first of all, not observed anywhere, not even in the churches that prohibit women at the altar. Women sing, chant, pray, and speak in tongues of humans and angels alike.” This is sophistry through and through, implying that those scriptural injunctions must either be taken literally to a degree that would make the most ardent fundamentalist blush or else they must be completely meaningless. She then argues that “the injunctions against speech and authority are internally contradicted by the equally scriptural witness to the activity of women.” It is that simple for her. The Bible contradicts itself on the subject, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for the answer.
However, Ms. Wilson’s central argument that men and women are ontologically the same cannot definitively address the issue of women’s ordination, for the simple reason that Scripture forbids many types of people from holding the pastoral office, all of whom are ontologically the same as people who may hold that office. Are new converts ontologically different from other Christians? Are those who are not apt to teach or those whose lives involve a lot of public scandal ontologically different? Of course not. Yet according to Scripture none of them may be pastors.
As a liberal Protestant theologian who holds to Sola Scriptura but not the inerrancy of Scripture, Ms. Wilson needs someplace to turn when she thinks the Bible is wrong or contradicts itself. She finds the needed infallibility in her own judgments, simply restating her thesis as divine revelation when she concludes that ultimately, “the only justification for the ordination of women lies in the fact that God calls some women to it.” To put it plainly: No, He doesn’t. Scripture, tradition, council, and pope all agree on this. Against such voices argue only the spirit of modernity, the sexual revolution, private opinion, and a handy charge of lack of charity against anyone who disagrees.
(The Rev.) Peter A. Speckhard
Faith Lutheran Church (LCMS)
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson argues that the only real differences between men and woman are occasional hormonal stirrings and insignificant fleshly protuberances: “Men are fathers because of the organs they possess and women are mothers because of the organs they possess.” She first fractures the human condition into physical, psychological, sociological, cultural, philosophical, and theological pieces and then calls on a Jesus-as-mystical-nihilist who proclaims that “in the resurrection they neither will marry nor be given in marriage, but [will be] like angels in heaven.”
Ms. Wilson argues that who we are in essence (ontologically) negates everything we actually are in existence. Her argument is essentially a Gnostic one, negating the mysterious ontology that is incarnational, caught up absolutely in the messy physicality of it all. She loses sight of the fact that Jesus is referring to the Parousia when he tells us marriage will no longer be necessary. Which means that marriage, with all the differences between men and women, will remain until the end of human time.
Jennifer Ferrara’s lucid exploration of the nuptial mystery and the symbiotic relationship of man and woman, on the other hand, points the way to God’s transcendent vision and inscrutable ways which we cannot grasp, but which the Church nonetheless affirms.
My seminary rarely addressed the hows and whys of women’s ordination, as the point was considered by all quite moot. My co-pastor, however, who is also my spouse and good friend and colleague, needs more than “that’s the way we’ve always done it, and aren’t we progressive and gospel-centered for it?” The articles by Jennifer Ferrara and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson were both engaging. I followed Ms. Ferrara all the way until she intimated that those priests who “steadfastly avoid having a spiritual relationship with Our Lady” were somehow in danger of narcissism. As a Lutheran minister who has never had the will, much less the instruction, to develop such a “spiritual relationship” with Mary, I certainly acknowledge my own inclination to narcissism, but I hope it’s no more profound and dangerous than anyone else’s. The wheels sort of fell off her argument for me there. Ms. Wilson’s eloquent article took it from there, and gave me, and my co-pastor, a solid theological and historical justification for our ministry here.
Thanks to First Things for putting together such great reading.
(The Rev.) Gregory Yeager
Grafton Lutheran Church (ELCA)
Grafton, North Dakota
What does Sarah Hinlicky Wilson’s position come down to? A small argument spread thin: men and women cannot be that different, or else women would not be saved. Besides, biology agrees—not that we, as Christians, care about that sort of thing. And if my opponents are right—why then, we need women pastors all the more, so that women can have things presented from their own viewpoint. Finally: women are called to the ministry; they say so themselves. And who are you to tell them no if God is telling them yes?
Considering the possible danger to souls presented by women’s ordination if it be false, surely we deserve better arguments than this; and if indeed no such better arguments exist, maybe we should just retire this issue, as the Church already did long ago.
Ithaca, New York
Jennifer Ferrara and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson provide opposing views on the ordination of women. Ms. Ferrara is right, but for the wrong reasons. She makes the recently developed “iconic” argument against women priests, which claims that only a man can be a priest because the priest is an iconic representation of Christ, who was a man. Ms. Wilson refutes this incorrect reason for not ordaining women.
The two writers and your readers could benefit from reading The Scandal of Gender (Regina Orthodox Press, 1998), in which Patrick Mitchell concisely explicates the teaching of the Church Fathers on the proper role of men and women in the Church. Quite simply, women cannot be priests because they cannot exercise authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12), which as Mr. Mitchell points out is “the most obvious implication of the doctrine of the headship of the man.” In addition to the priesthood, the prohibition on exercising authority over men, as taught by the Church Fathers, restricts or eliminates many other roles for women, both in and outside the Church.
Andrew G. Van Sant
I was enthralled by the two opposing views you presented on the ordination of women. From a layperson’s perspective I found Jennifer Ferrara’s argument quite compelling, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson’s perhaps less so.
Ms. Ferrara makes more intuitive sense. She points out that according to the Bible, male and female roles differ. The male gives love; the female receives it. God established His Church in the female gender but He Himself appeared as male. So in the Catholic Church, since the priest represents Jesus, then that role can be filled only by a man.
It makes sense but it leaves a wide-open question. If Ms. Ferrara’s argument applies to the Catholic Church, then wouldn’t its correlative apply to the Protestant churches? The Protestant pastor represents not Jesus but his congregation—the Church. And the Church, remember, embodies the feminine—the bride. So oughtn’t the pastor as leader—as, as it were, head bride—be a woman? Wouldn’t, by Ms. Ferrara’s logic, she actually be mandated to be?
I’m not trying to challenge Ms. Ferrara. If the answer is yes, it’s fine with me. But it’s a radical notion and I wonder if she’d be willing to entertain it.
Jennifer Ferrara replies:
R. Mary Hayden Lemmons rejects the reasons I give for restricting the priesthood to men, but does not respond at all to the content of my essay. Instead, she proposes a novel thesis of her own, one for which she provides no evidence from Scripture or tradition.
I am unaware of any basis for her claim that Jesus was on a gender mission to restore the heterosexual unity destroyed by original sin. True, men’s dominion over women is a result of the fall, but men and women continue to be united in marriage. By God’s grace received through the sacraments, husbands and wives can be equal partners in a marriage based upon a radical giving of self on the part of both spouses, a giving that results in mutual submission. However, the roles of men and women are not the same, but complementary. This diversity within unity lies at the heart of the nuptial mystery proclaimed throughout Scripture. For instance, Ephesians 5:21-33 says that New Covenant wives are to be subject in everything to their husbands as the Church is subject to Christ, while husbands are to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ did for the Church. The priest is a symbol of the gift of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church.
Prof. Lemmons ignores this beautiful imagery and instead, using sterile words that could only emanate from the academy, says the priest “images Christ in his gender mission.” In the end, her own rationale suggests it might be time to ordain women. If Christ has been on a gender mission to overcome the effects of chauvinism, he has been largely successful in Western democracies, at least. Certainly, priests no longer need to be male in order to be taken seriously as rulers and managers of the Church. Those who recognize the God-given inherent differences between men and women and their importance for the Church and society will want to reject Prof. Lemmons’ arguments and stick with the traditional teachings of the Church.
Pastor Gregory Yeager says he followed me up to the point where I said Roman Catholic priests who avoid having a relationship with Mary run the risk of becoming narcissistic. Let me clarify: I did not have Protestant pastors in mind when I made the statement. I was addressing the problem of celibate priests who are in danger of leading lives divorced from the feminine. The crux of the argument is that men and women have a symbiotic relationship: men learn how to become receptive, and therefore holy, from women. However, if Pastor Yeager was indeed with me up to that point, I would think he would be eager to partake in the characteristically feminine, self-giving receptivity of the Marian fiat (“Let it be done to me according to your Word.”), which lies at the heart of a spiritual relationship with her.
Since Andrew Van Sant was kind enough to recommend a book to me, I wish to return the favor and suggest he read Manfred Hauke’s comprehensive Women in the Priesthood? (Ignatius, 1988). If he does, he will see that the iconic argument for the male priesthood is neither recently developed nor without substantial witness from Christian authors of both the patristic and medieval periods, including those of Eastern Orthodox lineage.
With regard to Patricia Coyne’s interesting proposal, perhaps she does not know that the Catholic priest also acts in the person of the Church, that is, as representative of the whole Church, but he does so, as Inter Insignores observes, only “precisely because he first represents Christ, himself, who is the Head and Shepherd of the Church.” Protestant pastors, however, do not claim to represent either Christ or their churches in this sacramental way.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson replies:
The exchange of articles with Jennifer Ferrara, and now of letters with readers, has been for me a most instructive exploration into the nature of debate.
First, a few specific responses. Mark Chance, Father Matthew Kowalski, and Gil Costello criticize me for not accepting Roman Catholic anthropology or sacramentology. For that I offer no apology. I would like to note that I do indeed think that Jesus’ maleness has theological significance, but that is another article. June McIntosh and R. Mary Hayden Lemmons present midrashic interpretations of Christ’s masculinity, which, though interesting in their own way, are otherwise unfounded in Scripture and tradition. Mark Wyman caricatures my argument in misleading ways that would be tedious to enumerate. Pastor Peter Speckhard complains because I did not write the article he wanted—one that is primarily scriptural in nature. This is for the simple fact that I was writing in response to Ms. Ferrara, herself a Roman Catholic, and as the letters from other Roman Catholics amply demonstrate, they are overwhelmingly more interested in questions of gender ontology than scriptural warrant. I certainly could provide a scriptural case for the ordination of women, but it would not be convincing to such a reader, since I, like Martin Luther, am not a scriptural inerrantist.
Of course, these brief rejoinders will persuade no one who was not already persuaded by the initial article, which raises (to me) the more interesting question: What makes an argument persuasive? And who is allowed to debate? Note the following features of these letters. I am charged with making bald assertions, and yet refuted with further bald assertions. I am labeled a Gnostic despite the fact that I argue for a flesh-and-blood biology instead of an ethereal ontology of gender. Because I discuss the nature of ordination, I am indicted for treating it as “an invention of the Church, which can be remade as desired.” Indeed, for engaging in a theological argument at all, I am accused of being a “liberal Protestant” who puts her own judgments above Scripture, tradition, pope, and council. My simple request for charity is treated as a shameless play for cheap grace, and the philosophical principle of charity in debate—presuming the best in one’s opponents’ arguments rather than the worst—is handily ignored by my respondents.
All I have done is amass arguments from Scripture, tradition, and plain reason regarding the ordination of women. That is what theology is and does. Any doctrine to which the Church holds was not handed down from on high, pristine and complete, but was developed and debated by the Church’s theologians over centuries. True doctrine stands up to genuine challenges. Here, however, I have encountered no meaningful response to either the trinitarian or the Christological arguments, and the responses about gender only further support my thesis that unclear thinking and mystical befuddlement surround the issue. So did I cause offense by the content of my argument, or by the fact that I made the argument at all?
I presume no greater certainty about the validity of ordaining women than the risk of faith allows. I’m with Gamaliel on this one: “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).
Faith and the Founding
I am writing to compliment Michael Novak for his excellent article, “The Faith of the Founding” (April). Mr. Novak rightly recognizes that the writings of some of the early American republic’s most famous deists actually “owe their derivation to a Jewish and Christian worldview, and do not spring from any other.” However, along with the “official” documents of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, there exist the “unofficial” writings of another Virginian who falls into Mr. Novak’s category of the deist with a Christian worldview: George Washington. Washington, always a churchgoer but never a communicant, was among those who often spoke of the “great Ruler of events,” but never of Jesus Christ. He attributed to this “Ruler” “wisdom & goodness,” and he believed that “we may safely trust . . . him, without perplexing ourselves to seek for that which is beyond the human ken, only taking care to perform the parts assigned to us, in a way that reason & our own consciences approve of” (Washington to David Humphreys, March 23, 1793, National Archives).
Washington viewed organized religion as a critical pillar of society and the public order, and he demonstrated this opinion by supporting a variety of churches and denominations. At the same time, he generally opposed any state support of religious institutions. In October 1785 Mason gave Washington the opportunity to support Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Virginia’s assessment law. Mason sent Washington a copy of the Memorial: “If upon Consideration, You approve of the Arguments, & the principles on which they are founded, Your Signature will both give the Remonstrance weight, and do it Honour” (Mason to Washington, October 2, 1785, Library of Congress).
But Washington confessed “that I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denominations of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, & thereby obtain proper relief.” He opposed the assessment law not out of principle, but because “there is a decided majority for it, to the disgust of a respectable minority.” In other words, Washington found little distasteful about the bill itself. What he disliked was the agitation caused by it. He wanted the return of “quiet to the State” (Washington to Mason, October 3, 1785, Library of Congress). Having written these brief remarks, Washington said nothing more to Mason about Madison’s Memorial and returned it unsigned.
Throughout his life, Washington made a conscious effort to avoid actions that might anger Virginia’s clergy or adversely affect Christianity and Judaism. In Washington’s view, the potential damage to the social order from Madison’s radical deism was not worth the risk. He recognized more than some of his contemporaries in the founding generation that one did not need to be a communicant or believe in the resurrection to benefit from living in a society based on Christian principles. Perhaps this is why Washington did not sign the document, perhaps not. Maybe he did not want to express his opinion publicly on so inflammatory an issue. What we know for sure is that Madison did not admit publicly to the writing of his own Memorial until 1826.
John C. Pinheiro
Assistant Professor and
Papers of George Washington
University of Virginia
Michael Novak’s thoughtful analysis of “The Faith of the Founding” made one very significant error. He asserts that “only Judaism and Christianity . . . nourish and celebrate the three central concepts necessary to the American conception of rights. . . . Only they had the doctrine that there is a creator . . . ; that each individual owes a personal accounting at the time of Judgment to this Creator . . . ; and that this inalienable relation between each individual and his Creator occurs in the depths of conscience and reason, and is not reached merely by external bows, bended knees, pilgrimages, and other religious observances.”
Mr. Novak believes that the third of these three concepts is not found in Islam. This is not the case. Allow me to quote one hadith as evidence that for Muslims a very appropriate emphasis on the intention behind the ritual is the key to the appropriateness of the ritual. This hadith is found in the Forty Hadith of An-Nawawi:
On the authority of the Commander of the faithful, Abu Hafs ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab who said: I heard the messenger of Allah say: actions are but by intention and every man shall have but that which he intended. Thus he whose migration was for Allah and His messenger, his migration was for Allah and His messenger, but he whose migration was to achieve some world benefit or to take some woman in marriage, his migration was for that for which he migrated.
At Hartford Seminary 18 percent of our students are Muslim: when I speak to them about the significance of ritual prayer, they understand entirely the importance of one’s conscience before God as a necessary condition for effective prayer.
Dean and Professor of Theology and Ethics
Michael Novak replies:
I am very grateful for both these letters, though for different reasons. Warmest thanks to John C. Pinheiro, Assistant Editor of the papers of George Washington, for the fascinating details he adds to the story of Washington’s religion and especially to Washington’s actions regarding Madison’s “Remonstrance.” For me personally his letter could not have been more welcome, since I am just starting on a brief book on the religion of George Washington, at the request of the Executive Director of Historic Mount Vernon, James C. Rees. I would much appreciate guidance and suggestions from the readers of First Things, who can reach me at email@example.com. And I hereby warn Professor Pinheiro that, since no good deed goes unpunished, he can expect in due time an urgent call from me requesting his counsel and assistance.
Meanwhile, Professor Ian Markham also does me the service of pointing out an error in my article, in the misleading language I employed for the point I really wanted to make. I can see how he interpreted my passage on the concept that “the inalienable relation between each individual and his Creator occurs in the depths of conscience and reason” in the light of inner intention. But that was not precisely the point I was aiming at, and I see now what I should have written. Had I had at hand the hadith Professor Markham brings forward, I could have explicitly allowed for his recognition of the Muslim emphasis on conscience and intention in religious prayer and action, and then gone further.
If such intentionality is crucial to the Creator, then what political principle follows? More than any who went before them, the Americans grasped the further conclusion that that bond of spirit between the Creator Who is “Spirit and Truth” and the creature who comes to Him in spirit and in truth is the ground of a new step forward in “the new science of politics.” For it undergirds a fresh recognition by the state of the religious liberty of every person—even Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists, whose commitments the American majority did not then share. Neither the state nor any other person can enter into that sacred space between Creator and individual rational creature. The state declares itself incompetent to step into the path of that relation. Therefore, the religious liberty of the individual must be inviolably respected, by the state and by others, whether or not it meets the standards to which others pledge their fealty.
If Prof. Markham means to imply, further, that his Muslim students can build an argument from the importance of conscience in ritual prayer to a declaration of religious liberty by Muslim states, I would rejoice exceedingly. I believe strongly that such an argument must be possible, based on its available origins in Muslim doctrine about reward and punishment, and about intention. However, in my ignorance of Muslim thought, I do not know of any writer in the Muslim tradition who has made that argument on a religious basis. As editor (with Brian Anderson) of a series of books on religion and politics for Lexington Books, I would be most happy to welcome for possible publication manuscripts that make such an argument.
Animal Rights and Wrongs
Richard John Neuhaus is to be commended for the respect he pays to Matthew Scully’s new book Dominion and the call therein to examine the rightness of our raising animals for food (“Wild Moralists in the Animal Kingdom,” Public Square, April). The huge industrial farms that provide nearly all animal-based foods today inflict pain on the weakest of creation through castration, debeaking, and tail-docking without anesthesia. Furthermore, factory farming systems frustrate every God-given drive in these innocent animals: chickens can neither spread their wings nor establish a pecking order, while piglets and calves are weaned quickly, if not immediately removed from their mothers. Artificial insemination rules on today’s farms; natural reproduction is prevented by the quest for efficiency and profit and the hormone-saturated, artificially enlarged bodies these industries create.
Father Neuhaus, Mr. Scully, and all Christians are right to conclude that these practices constitute the wrong answer to God’s entrustment of the care of His creatures to humanity. We are called by God to treat with love and mercy the animals that, by their mere existence, bless and give Him glory. Responding to that call should begin each time we sit down to eat. Adopting a vegetarian diet, as Mr. Scully himself has, meets the biblical demand for just environmental stewardship and follows Christ’s precedent of ministering to the exploited. This choice for nonviolence and kindness, against cruelty and the “might makes right” mentality, is a most practicable means for alleviating an average of ninety-two animals each year of the sorry “existence” that factory farms entail.
Readers interested in receiving a free pamphlet about Christianity and vegetarianism by Fr. John Dear, S.J., can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catholic Vegetarian Society
The following is commentary on Jewish ritual slaughter, or Shechitah, by Dr. J. H. Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of what was then the British Empire. The commentary is taken from a 1941 Metzudah edition of the “Pentateuch and Haftorahs.” It is remarkable both for the dark time in history in which it was written, and for its adumbration of the current European Union attitude toward this ancient practice.
As is well known, the rabbinical regulations concerning Shechitah, the Jewish mode of slaughtering animals intended for food, are in part due to a desire to prevent the slightest unnecessary suffering to the animal. “Since the need of procuring food necessitates the slaying of animals, the Law enjoins that the death of the animal should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by pole-axing, or by cutting off a limb while the animal is still alive.” (Maimonides)
The Jewish method of slaughter is one continuous cut with the sharpest of knives, applied by a skilled operator. Such cut severs all the great blood vessels of the neck, and produces instantaneous insensibility in the animal. Professor C. Lovatt Evans, a leading physiologist, declares: “I should be happy to think that my own end were likely to be as swift and painless as the end of these cattle killed in this way undoubtedly is.” Similar opinions in regard to Shechitah have been given over the years by a large number of non-Jewish professors of physiology and veterinary surgeons in the principal European countries. While Shechitah is prohibited in enlightened lands like Switzerland and Norway, this is due to ignorance on the part of the electorate as to what the Jewish method of slaughter actually is. In Nazi Germany such prohibition was enacted not so much out of sympathy with the beast, as out of a desire to inflict pain on human beings: “They sacrifice men, and kiss calves” (Hosea 13:2).
While I think much of the attitudes of the so-called “animal rights” movement can be chalked up to ignorance, I’m afraid that some who should know better, such as Peter Singer, “kiss calves” while advocating the slaughter of innocent children, both born and unborn.
Woodland Hills, California
Creating a Christian Culture
In the Public Square (February) Richard John Neuhaus comments on the research of Dean R. Hoge on young adult Catholics and their weak grasp of Catholic doctrine and of Catholicism as a “comprehensive way of life.” Father Neuhaus correctly identifies much of that weakness as rooted in inadequate teaching and in an absence of the experience of Catholicism as a “tight-knit cultural system.”
These problems of course extend to all denominations, but only evangelical Protestants have faced up to the full scope of the problem and have addressed it in the thorough way that is needed.
Most people do not relate strongly to abstract ideas; instead their view of reality comes from direct experience and from the people they associate with and the culture they live in. From the days of Constantine in the fourth century a.d. up to the twentieth century, Christians lived in a Christian culture. If they went to school or university, the school and university reflected Christian values. Their family was Christian, their neighbors were Christians, any book they were likely to read was based on Christian ideas. This was still true for Roman Catholics up until the 1950s. Virtually overnight, almost all that changed.
Now young people with Roman Catholic parents mostly go to a public school and college where they meet with active hostility to Christian ideas and values. It is hardly an exaggeration to describe many of these educational institutions as pagan in culture. Through much of their childhood and adult life these young people will read newspapers, watch television, and listen to radio that again promote ideas and values hostile to Christianity. In all likelihood many of their friends and coworkers will be of at least another Christian denomination, if not from a home that is agnostic or atheist. Many of these young Catholics will marry someone who is not Catholic.
It is therefore not surprising that for young people under such an onslaught, faith weakens and their ability to apply their faith to their lives atrophies. Such a situation will not be reversed by one hour on Sunday attending Mass and listening to a ten-minute homily.
Evangelical Protestants have met this problem head on. They have set out deliberately to develop a Christian culture and worldview in their members through “small-group ministries.” Members of their congregations are encouraged, if not pressured, to join one or another small group in the church. Typically such a small group will be made up of people like themselves—young parents with young parents; young single adults with other young single adults. These groups meet weekly for socializing, for study, and for prayer. They study the Bible or basic Christian teaching and discuss how to apply the teachings. As a result they are not only exposed to Christian teaching, they are forced to grapple with its meaning in their lives. Just as important, gradually they acquire friends who hold Christian beliefs and values. One of the best descriptions of such a congregation is given in Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church.
With such a strong foundation the evangelical churches can aggressively promote Christian values and insist that their members subscribe to them. They do this not only through sermons, but through radio ministries addressing the felt needs of listeners, through conferences, and the like. And they insist that Christian colleges live up to their name.
The Roman Catholic Church could learn from the evangelical experience, but we need to recognize that we are back in the days of the early Church where the mission frontier begins at the front door of the parish, not in some far-distant country. It also requires swimming against the dominant culture, not coming to uneasy terms with it, as some church leaders are tempted to do. Developing a Christian culture for members, particularly the critical group of young, single adults and married couples with young children, is not easy. Initiatives such as small-group ministries are not easy to start and maintain and they take a lot of money. But it is to be feared that without such an effort, in a culture like ours, we may indeed discover before long that our Catholic capital is exhausted and that “it is simply too late.”
Not an Apostate
I do not blame anyone for concluding from what purported to be the text of a 1999 PBS Frontline interview with me that I had apostatized from the Christian faith (While We’re At It, Public Square, May). But I wish that before speculating publicly and damagingly about the long-standing fragility of my faith, Richard John Neuhaus had paused the length of an e-mail to check whether I acknowledged as mine sentiments so radically at odds with everything I have ever written. In fact the so-called “transcript,” posted on the Internet without my knowledge and never vetted by me, grossly misrepresents me, attributing to me views that I emphatically do not hold. The Frontline website conflated my genuine interview, a purely historical assessment of the pontificate of John Paul II, with that of a so far unidentified northern European interviewee, speaking in an imperfect English that is evident even in the transcript. All the passages on the website denying the resurrection and other Christian truths quoted in the Public Square piece came from this man’s interview, and not from mine.
In the wake of your notice, and the flood of bewildered and in many cases distressing correspondence to which it has given rise, I of course contacted PBS, and asked for an unedited videotape of the interview: the appalling error then emerged. PBS has acknowledged its mistake, it has removed the offending part of the interview from the website, and it has posted there an unqualified apology to me.
Father Neuhaus’ comment hinted that my supposed apostasy helped explain an otherwise puzzling “hostility” in my work to the present Pope and to Pope Paul VI. I have on occasions expressed reservations about the exercise of authority in the present pontificate: that is one of the jobs of a historian, and part of the service a Catholic historian offers the Church. Reasoned criticism from within the household of faith is not the same as hostility. We are members of a family, not troops in an army, forbidden to criticize our officers. Justice and charity require us to do the best we can to respect and support our pastors: that doesn’t oblige us to credit them with impeccability or unfailing wisdom. Popes, like other people, sometimes make bad decisions, and supporting them sometimes means saying so honestly.
But I am in any case amazed that anyone should think me “hostile” to Pope Paul VI. The portrait of Papa Montini offered in my history of the popes was written with love and profound sympathy for a great man, heroically seeking the will of God in an impossible situation. Anyone who looks again at the text will see that I say so.
There was no reason to doubt the authenticity of the document published by PBS as an interview with Eamon Duffy, professor of history at Cambridge. I did not know Prof. Duffy personally, and people sometimes do say surprising things about what they do and do not believe. Certainly the item was worthy of note. I am, of course, very pleased to learn that Prof. Duffy did not say what PBS represented him as saying. Regarding his history of the popes, Saints and Sinners, Duffy is hostile to John Paul II (he tells me a new edition is more sympathetic to the current pontiff), but his letter prompted me to read again his section on Paul VI, and he is right. He depicts Montini as “frightened,” “reserved, prone to fits of depression, easily hurt,” but also as a man who did his best under extremely difficult circumstances. I repeat what I wrote in the May issue: “Eamon Duffy is a historian of great talents, with a gift for illuminating unsuspected aspects of the past.”