Along with the editors of First Things, I deplore the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court (“The Ninth Circuit's Fatal Overreach,” May) in its ruling that the Constitution grants a “liberty right” to physician-assisted suicide (PAS). It is a bad decision in support of a bad cause. Nonetheless, the line of dissent taken by the editorial seems to me naive and unhelpful.
The naïvete lies in assuming that if we get PAS in this country, it will somehow be the fault of the courts. On the contrary, this is as good an instance as one can find of late where the courts are doing little more than ratifying public opinion. While it is true that there is, as the editorial asserts, significant organized opposition to PAS, it is more importantly true that public opinion polls have, since the late 1970s, shown strong majority public support for euthanasia and/or physician-assisted suicide. It is, we should sorrowfully note, a popular movement.
It is also important to observe that, while the American Medical Association opposes PAS, the majority opinion of American physicians (not all of whom belong to, much less follow, the policies of the AMA) is favorable toward the practice. The First Things editorial suggested that there would be “open insurrection” if the Supreme Court made the decision of the Ninth Circuit “the law of the land.” On the contrary, given the state of public opinion, there could well be “open insurrection” if the Court declared unconstitutional laws prohibiting PAS. Even now, prosecutors nationwide show little interest in pursuing those physicians, probably many, who already illegally practice PAS. That indifference is already a kind of mild insurrection. Anti-littering laws are prosecuted more zealously.
For all those reasons, it seems to me naive to think that the courts are the problem here. It is thus unhelpful to excoriate the “arrogance” of the court. I did not, moreover, notice anyone opposed to PAS excoriating John Noonan's earlier Ninth Circuit opinion upholding the constitutionality of laws against PAS; but he intervened in a legislative matter no less than the larger and later Ninth Circuit panel. Nor can I imagine that the latter panel would have been attacked for arrogance if its opinion had gone the other way. I take it to be a central part of the American constitutional system that the courts are called upon to determine the constitutionality of state and federal statutes. They may be wrong in their conclusions, as the Ninth Circuit (and then later the Second Circuit) surely was, but that does not make them arrogant.
None of this might matter but for one point. The most disturbing feature of the present struggle over PAS is that it does have such significant public support. While the Hemlock Society and other groups have in recent years pressed for the legalization of PAS, even they are following as much as leading public opinion. The majority public support for PAS that first appeared in the late 1970s was not engineered by organized advocacy groups. There was not even much public discussion of the issue at that time. It was truly a grassroots movement, and in great part it still is. The pro-euthanasia/PAS groups did not become important or influential until the late 1980s, well after the public was already supportive.
If this is, then, a popular movement, as all the evidence suggests, the real target of criticism must be our fellow citizens—not the arrogant courts. Those citizens have become convinced that they need the availability of PAS to reduce the chance that they will die a bad death at the hands of American medicine. They want it, moreover, for themselves, not as a way of ridding the country of economic burdens or killing the unwanted (though it could well be used that way).
It will be temptingly easy in the battles ahead to single out the intellectual leadership of the PAS movement, or the courts, as the villains. That is not likely to be effective or on target. The harder and far more important task is to persuade a large number of our perfectly decent friends and neighbors that they should not want PAS available for themselves—that it will harm them and many values they treasure. That is a difficult case to make, even though many of us think it easy; we should know better by now. But if it is not made, then the courts are likely to do what they have already demonstrated they can do, simply follow public opinion. It was the citizens of Oregon, after all, not the courts, who first chose to vote favorably for PAS in this country; and they are likely to do it elsewhere also.
One final thought. If you choose to attack Judge Stephen Reinhardt, please add Justice Scalia to the list. For it was he who, in the earlier Supreme Court Cruzan decision, said that there is no difference between assisted suicide and the removal of life support and feeding tubes. “The cause of death in both cases,” he wrote, “is the suicide's conscious decision to ‘put an end to his own existence.'“
This dictum—which trashes ancient medical, theological, and legal principles—was favorably invoked in the no less obnoxious opinion of the Second Circuit Court. If people are going to have “painful thoughts about their allegiance to this political and legal regime,” Judge Scalia must be included as part of that “regime.” The problem, unhappily, is that everyone—conservatives and liberals alike, Democrats and Republicans—has had a hand in the nasty slide toward PAS. That's why the struggle ahead will be uncommonly hard: the combination of sympathetic judges and favorable public opinion will be tough to beat. The evil of PAS is seen as a positive good, and what a tragedy that is.
The Hastings Center
Briarcliff Manor, NY
The editors reply:
We agree that public education on the issue is urgently needed, but current sentiment is not so monolithic as Dr. Callahan suggests. Polls that ask vague questions about “aid in dying” or “death with dignity” show overwhelming support; polls about doctors helping patients commit suicide show a different picture. A recent Washington Post poll (April 4) shows 50 percent support—with seniors (presumably the most likely “beneficiaries” of this policy) opposing legalization, 54 to 38 percent. Yes, the voters of Oregon did approve an assisted-suicide law in 1994–but similar laws were rejected by the voters of Washington and California, and in the last year they've been rejected by legislatures in thirteen states. The only new laws being enacted on the issue are laws to ban assisted suicide. This is why euthanasia supporters turned to the courts: they were losing fairly consistently in the democratic branches of government. As to Judge Noonan and Justice Scalia, Noonan was not intervening in a legislative process but leaving it alone by ruling that the Constitution does not prohibit states from banning assisted suicide. In the Cruzan case, Justice Scalia likewise upheld the longstanding American legal tradition against suicide-and he worried that some decisions to refuse basic sustenance serve a suicidal purpose, seeking to end a life rather than to end a particular burdensome treatment. Now pro-euthanasia judges have exploited Scalia to argue that all refusals of treatment are suicides (something Scalia never said). The law lets people assist in withdrawing treatment, it is argued, and therefore the law must let people assist in suicides. That conclusion is not supported by Justice Scalia's reasoning in Cruzan and, we are reasonably hopeful, will not be supported in the democratic political process.
Problems with Liberalism and Conservatism
J. Budziszewski in his invective against liberalism (“The Problem with Liberalism,” March) and more specifically in his chastisement of the Welfare State tells us that the provision of public funds for the weaker and needier in our society is indistinguishable from robbery, and he insists that “according to Christianity I should give my own help to the needy, taking from no one.” . . . Why does he not extend his line of thought to its natural conclusion and argue that we should not demand monies for our children's education? But let's not stop there. Extend it only a bit further: Is a piece of road more public and more important than a person? If not, then how can we possibly demand funds for public roads? Instead, why not grasp one other opportunity for us to exercise our charity and so have each one of us voluntarily contribute to his or her allotted path? . . . And let's not dare probe into public institutions that require hundreds of billions of dollars from everyone just for a ghostly potentiality: that of killing other human beings. The author's whole frame of mind supposes an equation between morality and money. The more of the one, the more of the other. . . .
I really must protest J. Budziszewski's assertion that taxation amounts to theft whenever the government uses the monies so collected for something not its proper work, which he defines as “merely punishing wrongdoers and commending right doers,” referencing 1 Peter 2:13–14.
The governmental function of “punishing wrongdoers” is a subset of what are commonly referred to as “public goods.” The economic argument for governmental provision of public goods is well developed. The argument relates to what is called the “free rider” problem in economics. Some goods or services, by their nature, provide benefits to most, or even all, inhabitants of a society. The example normally used is national defense. Surely we are all benefited by the existence of a national military that protects us from foreign invasion. Yet, without governmental compulsion, there is no reason for me personally to contribute a sizable amount to obtaining this good. If I contribute and no one else does, I've thrown my money away. If I don't contribute, and everyone else does, I will attain the same level of defense, but be able to use all of my money on myself. The tendency of the market, then, is to underfund such public goods in the absence of the government. This is the economic rationale of governmental taxation, and governmental involvement in the economy. . . .
Proponents of governmental involvement in the fight against poverty make a strong case that the fight should be considered a public good. As such, it is appropriate for that fight to be funded by the government via taxation. This would not constitute theft, either in economic theory or in light of Scripture. That the government's current programs are largely counterproductive, and that we can do better, are entirely different issues.
For some time I have been puzzled by the emergence of a call for lower taxes as a rallying cry for religious conservatives. J. Budziszewski's characterization of taxation as theft baffles me even more.
Both Christ and St. Paul gave instructions to “render unto Caesar” (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:7)—supporting not simply a police or judicial function, but a government that made use of tax money to support an occupying army, gladiatorial contests, and an imperial cult. How tempting it would be to discount the validity of such a government. What St. Peter actually said in this regard was not that the proper role of government was “merely punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers” (emphasis added), but that Christians were to be subject to human institutions, including the emperor and his deputies. . . .
One need not subscribe to a radical policy of redistributionism in order to acknowledge corporate, as well as individual, responsibility. Often our responsibilities require coordination of effort and resources in order to be effectively discharged, a project that falls to government. . . .
J. Budziszewski makes a strong argument that we cannot be neutral about such subjects as the availability of (induced) abortions. I believe a Christian should have nothing to do with infanticide or abortion. However, I believe that individuals need to decide this moral issue for themselves freely. I may invite others to hold my beliefs, but under no circumstances would I try to compel or coerce individuals to follow a certain religious doctrine that I may hold. . . . It is not a contradiction to personally abhor the callousness and immorality of abortion and yet accept it as a fact of life for people living in their own “post-Christian” age. . . .
I felt a little uneasy with the author's suggestion that we should practice a laissez-faire Christianity in the face of misery. Being partly Irish in ancestry I was brought up with a strong folk tradition as to the moral lesson of the Potato Famine. A government is more than paying the soldiers and forgetting the rest. If a government is just and good it will do its utmost to provide sustenance and security to the many who are poor and without food. Maybe this means making a lot of mistakes, but I always remember my father saying it was better to strike out swinging than to take a called third strike. “Sure FDR and Churchill struck out a lot, but they had a great slugging percentage.”
If that means I have a vestige of New Deal liberalism, so be it. I was brought up to believe that FDR was one of the “good guys,” a soldier of freedom and an apostle of democracy. But then FDR never hesitated to speak of Christianity as “our religion.” If he had, he would have definitely been suspect.
Richard K. Munro
Having now read the two essays by Mr. Budziszewski on liberalism (March) and conservatism (April), I am confirmed in my belief that neither word has been left with any continuing usefulness. As has been the fate with “socialism,” neither liberalism nor conservatism is any longer usefully descriptive. At one time, most clearly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these terms had fairly specific realms of meaning. John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Benjamin Constant—among others—had given meaning to liberalism; Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, and the Vicomte de Bonald—among others—had defined conservatism. Others, in the early years of this century, articulated those meanings even further.
The effect of sustained inappropriate usage in the past half century, and the consequence of such essays as those by Mr. Budziszewski, has been to demonize both words. “Liberal” and “conservative” have come to be used, by those holding some other view, in pejorative and derogatory ways. . . . Few seem to remember, or apparently care to know, what liberalism and conservatism derived from, and what intelligent and informed “liberals” and “conservatives” continue to hold as basic values and broadly defined political, social, economic, and cultural perspectives. I looked in vain for those understandings in these two essays.
To propose, by way of catalogs of “moral errors,” that liberal and conservative perspectives are somehow anathema to the Christian faith is, in fact, to demonize both. Moreover, it is a fundamentally erroneous and irresponsible assertion. To be a witness to the living faith in Christ, to live the life of Spirit—indeed, to be God—centered—does not necessarily preclude holding to conservative or liberal principles. I find no incongruity or difficulty in regarding myself as a believing Christian, a social and political liberal, and a cultural conservative—Mr. Budziszewski's assertions of prevailing “moral error” notwithstanding.
Robert W. Heywood
J. Budziszewski argues that the compelling-interest doctrine rehabilitated by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act yet leaves us in a situation where “the laws of man are higher than the laws of God.” “Perhaps,” he writes, “the blame for our troubles lies with the Framers, for refusing to distinguish the kind of religion whose exercise should be free from the kind of religion whose exercise should not. But, foolishly thinking ignorance a friend of conscience, we have followed their lead.” We too are “afraid to judge among religions. “
How might the Framers have distinguished (and how might we distinguish) among “kinds of religion”? On theological grounds? According to whose theology? On civic grounds? This would open the door to still more dramatic objections that here the laws of man have priority. The latter approach may seem to be taken by the Supreme Court in free-exercise cases when it rules that polygamy or the use of peyote, to mention two notable examples, can be prohibited. Yet while the Court sometimes engages in ad hoc consideration of a legally problematic practice, it is constitutionally prevented from considering religions themselves. (Note how even in the wake of the ostensible anti-Mormon polygamy ruling, Mormonism has thrived.) The decisions in Reynolds v. U.S. and Employment Division v. Smith may, of course, have been wrong or wrongheaded. But if so, we need clarity about why. Surely the state has some legitimate interest in regulating marital arrangements and the use of psychotropic drugs. If, however, the state is understood as never having sufficient motive—whether “neutral” or “compelling”—to enforce a law against a contravening religious claim, then how could it possibly “judge among religions”?
Any sober effort at deciding in a difficult free-exercise case necessarily entails an element of prudence. For a government to attempt to act prudently, particularly on questions pertaining to people's ultimate concerns, is surely not always for it to act rightly: the virtue of prudence is exercised with something less than mathematical exactitude. But in a messy modern world where people's ultimate concerns are multifarious, this virtue may be our best hope. At any rate, a modern regime would be ill-advised to rule a priori on “the kinds of religion whose exercise should be free.”
Todd R. Flanders
J. Budziszewski's article on conservatism contains some very bad reasoning in the section dealing with what the author calls “Caesarism.”
Caesarism, for him, is the notion that “the laws of man are higher than the laws of God.” Additionally, “the peculiar thing about American Caesarism is that the state never says that its laws are higher than the laws of God; it simply refuses to acknowledge any laws of God, in the name of equal liberty for all religious sects.”
All this means, in practice, is that any religious sect that wants to advance some laws as “laws of God” that should be written up as statutes must do so on purely secular grounds, and not claim for them any authority based on the particular tenets of that sect. Mr. Budziszewski uses the example of the practice of polygamy among the Mormons in the late nineteenth century as an example of “American Caesarism.” But all that was asserted by the courts against the Mormons was that while polygamy might well be acceptable within the frame of reference of that religion, the state was justified in forbidding it within its own frame of reference, which was not that of any particular religion.
The author concludes by dismissing the efforts of the Congress to clarify the situation with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which attempts—quite reasonably as I see it—to reinstate the “compelling interest” doctrine as the standard for judgment of matters of freedom of religious practice, saying that “after all, even under the compelling interest doctrine, claims to the free exercise of religion can be swept aside whenever the state thinks its reasons are good enough.”
But what other standard would he employ? What would he do in the case of some sect that, as he puts it, takes the position that “even releasing nerve gas in public places can be an exercise of religion”? The simplest answer is that no judgment may be made as to whether this is a valid exercise of religion, and thus enjoys legal immunity from restriction or regulation. Any and all exercise of religion is so immune, but any and all can be regulated or forbidden if the compelling interest of the state is judged to be strong enough, not by the state itself, but by an independent judiciary, upon which all our liberties depend in the final analysis, anyway. . . .
I find myself rather alarmed at J. Budziszewski's covert defense of economic liberalism (his “second” meaning of liberalism) by means of a critique of “government-driven social reform” (his “third,” “colloquial” meaning).
This surreptitious defense of economic liberalism is particularly apparent in his criticisms of the “moral errors” of liberalism he terms “expropriationism” and “solipsism.” Under the first guise he claims that taxation is theft if done to foster government policies which exceed the mandates of 1 Peter 2:13–14–”punishing wrongdoers and commending right doers.” Now, certainly this passage of Scripture cannot be taken as giving a sufficient account of the scope of government (as fundamental a governmental function as national defense lies outside these guidelines). Professor Budziszewski has failed to distinguish between Christian and properly political reasons for governmental policy. There may not be an explicitly Christian mandate for government to provide national defense and otherwise insure the interests of the commonwealth (“promote the general welfare”), but there are good political reasons for doing so that do not violate Christian principle. . . . His attack on all taxation that serves ends outside of moral praise and blame have not a Christian but an ideological basis—one rooted in economic liberalism. . . .
Liberalism can certainly be criticized (in all three of the forms mentioned in the essay). They even should be by any Christian. However, to pretend to critique liberalism (really just welfare state liberalism) from the covert perspective of economic liberalism is not to give a Christian critique at all, but an internal critique.
Wylie D. Jones
Emerson set down the kind of praise that every man of thought and letters would like to receive: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. The very hopes of man, the thoughts of his heart, the religion of nations, the manner and morals of mankind are all at the mercy of a new generalization.”
Just now I can think of no one more deserving of the honor than J. Budziszewski for his magnificent back-to-back pieces on the respective problems of liberalism and conservatism. Truly, a thinker is loose on this planet, and I congratulate you for having at least briefly confined him in the pages of First Things.
His ingenious and persuasive analysis is not to be missed. If I may once more quote (Cranmer): “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”
J. Budziszewski replies:
I thank my correspondents for their interest. Much they have said deserves more ample comment than I can offer here.
Mr. Freire's main points seem to be that I am a sinful man, I favor killing, I contradict myself, my principles would prohibit several obviously good things, and I equate morality with money. I freely admit the first point, I don't understand the second, and he offers no argument for the third. Point four depends on a false alternative, for neither in education nor in the construction of public roads is it true that the choice lies between pure charity and state monopoly. The argument for point five seems to be that to oppose theft is to oppose generosity. This does not follow. We agree that the best thing to do with one's own money is to give it away; our disagreement concerns the money of other people.
Mr. Tuszynski has mischaracterized what economists mean by “public goods” (they are not the same as things that are good for the public)—but even if he had not, there is a greater hitch in his argument. His tacit premise is that the government policy of offering cash prizes for bearing children out of wedlock really does lift mothers out of poverty. Experience tells another tale: What it does is sink them deeper into it. That is no way to help.
Mrs. Smith rightly turns to Scripture as the final arbiter of disputed questions. But what does it actually say? Jesus does not instruct us to “render unto Caesar” but to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's.” Moreover, the same apostle who admonishes us to be subject to human institutions says in Acts 5:29 that in cases of conflict, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The disagreement between Mrs. Smith and myself is not over whether Christians have corporate responsibilities, but over which corpus chiefly bears them: the State or the Body of Christ.
Mr. Munro says that as a Christian he will have nothing to do with infanticide or abortion, but that people must decide those moral issues freely for themselves. I suppose, then, that although as a Christian I must have nothing to do with matricide, drive—by shootings, or the strangulation of correspondents who disagree with me, people must also decide these moral issues for themselves. The deeper problem with Mr. Munro's letter lies in his opinion that one can hold Christian and anti-Christian worldviews simultaneously. On the contrary, Paul says faith must “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Mr. Heywood seems to argue from inconsistent premises. First he says the meanings of the terms “liberalism” and “conservatism” have become too various to be fixed; second he insists that their meaning be fixed by reference to their origins. A better solution, and the one I adopted, is for every author to state clearly which liberalism or conservatism he has in mind. I would welcome an essay by Mr. Heywood about the classical varieties; why should he not welcome one about the contemporary varieties?
Prudence is not the issue between Mr. Flanders and myself; neutrality is. Suppose terrorists threatened to blow up a school bus unless certain hungry people were fed. Whether they invoked the name of Mao or Jesus would make no difference; my prudential judgment would be to stop them. Prudence, then, is my standard too. But it would be a Christian understanding of prudence, informed by the New Testament principle that “no one may do evil that good may result.” Needless to say, terroristic prudence is informed by different principles. What we see in this example is that every view of prudence is some view of prudence, and the judicial pretense of neutrality merely disguises which one it is. “I do not presuppose any ultimate concern” usually means “Reasons of state are my ultimate concern.” In this case we have the moral error I protested.
In telling me what my standard ought to be, Mr. Weinmann falls even harder for the notion that prudence can be neutral. Statutes, he says, must be justified on purely secular grounds. But there are no purely secular grounds. So-called secular creeds, like Fascism, Utilitarianism, and Leninism, are merely incognito religious creeds, no less firmly based on ultimate concerns than their cognito cousins.
Like several other correspondents, Mr. Jones has the mistaken idea that I forbid national defense and demand laissez-faire. In his case the error comes from reading “punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers” as the much narrower “[expressing] moral praise and blame.” Punishing is more than expressing blame, and I should think that wrongdoers include both military adventurers who drop napalm on my neighbors and businessmen who dump poisons in their water. To be sure, Peter's brief statement does not make the boundaries of punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers completely clear. However, I cannot imagine a reading of his phrase that would justify the state in taking whatever it wants for whatever reason it thinks good, so I see no reason to revise my critique of expropriationism.
Mr. Martin I simply thank, although of course I cannot accept Cranmer's encomium: the Archbishop was talking about something much better than any article of mine.
My gratitude again to all my correspondents—and if the unknown couple whose April e-mail I accidentally vaporized do not mind sending it again, I will certainly reply.
Walter Berns does a characteristically admirable job of sorting out and presenting the pertinent issues in his discussion of same-sex marriages (“Marriage Anyone?” April). However, he is wrong to agree with homosexuals that their claim for equal treatment is generally a fair one. On the contrary, I would argue that there is a clear civic duty to disapprove of homosexuality. Sexual relations between individuals of the same gender epitomize pleasure-seeking without responsibility. No society can hope to survive that grants relationships which cannot produce offspring equivalent status and respect with those that can. Condemnation and some measure of ostracism are in order against the anarchic implications of self-gratification, and a strong ration of support is in order for those who undertake the often self-denying and demanding task of raising children to be praiseworthy citizens. . . .
W. Dain Oliver
Newton Highland, MA
Do we want gay men and women living their lives out in the bright of day where their behavior may be scrutinized by the rest of us? Or do we turn our backs on them hoping the problem will just go away. Should they enjoy the same rights of contractual agreement as we have, passing their property on to whomever they wish? Or are they to continue as second-class citizens. Do we maintain the status quo? Or do we find a way to bring these men and women into the mainstream of civilized life and its promise.
After giving this much thought, and prayer, I have come to the following conclusion. This is not a crisis. This is an opportunity.
A highly respected scholar, Walter Berns, after reporting on the status and prospects for legal same-sex marriage, pointlessly writes, “Students of the Republic will know that Plato proposed to abolish the family, not merely to undermine it but to abolish it altogether.”
Students of the Republic will remember the three waves of Book 5. At 450c Plato has Glaucon challenge Socrates to “tell us how you think our guardians (emphasis added) will share in wives and children. . . .” The first two waves that threaten to drown them are the proposals that females receive the same education, physical as well as mental, as the males; and that there be a community of spouses and children in the guardian class. When we get this straight we can appreciate Plato's line of thought. The guardians are charged with protecting and directing the larger community. Hence they should reproduce, for they are the most likely to have progeny able to lead in the next generation; but also, since they have responsibility for the whole polis, they should not be distracted by the cares and concerns of typical parents with their own little brood. This second part of his thinking seems consonant with the Church's long tradition of the celibate priesthood and religious, the understood need for the pastors to be devoted to the whole flock. . . .
More important, Berns would presumably agree that family or family values per se will not bring remoralization of our society. Nothing can be more apparent in our time than that perhaps every family, save the Holy Family, is to some extent dysfunctional. How make families more functional? Can we not learn from Plato that only to the extent that parents and other teachers inculcate the peculiar human excellences of courage, temperance, justice, and prudence will the children be properly educated? And what are family values, in a good family, but these very virtues? Moreover, love commands all that virtue requires, a point made by the Holy Father in Veritatis Splendor.
May we then have done with these mistaken and gratuitous attacks on Plato.
Theodore A. Young
Walter Berns replies:
Like W. Dain Oliver, I disapprove of homosexuality, but, unlike him, I am not willing to condemn homosexuals. It's a matter of condemning the sin but not the sinner. Still, he is right to think that marriage is somehow connected to procreation, which sets him apart from Laura Crockett. Without saying so, she treats sex as an end in itself, and suggests that by allowing homosexuals to marry they can be brought “into the mainstream of civilized life and its processes.” Perhaps, but I have to wonder whether public approval will make homosexuals more sexually responsible or those of us in the “mainstream” less so. Professor Young calls for an end to “these mistaken and gratuitous attacks on Plato.” But I didn't attack him, and my mention of him was neither mistaken nor gratuitous. I said that he favors the abolition of the family in his Republic—which he clearly does—and the point of this reference was to introduce Rousseau's defense of the family.
(Double) Standards of Speech?
In “When Rights Are Wrong” (April), Professor William J. Stuntz writes eloquently of the need “to create the conditions of civil, decent, respectful discussion.” He has undoubtedly read more on the subject than I have, but I don't recall any Christian writers endorsing the decidedly uncivil free-for-all that presently passes for debate on many college campuses.
Moreover, as he himself admits, most campus speech codes apply only to certain students. The same campus authorities who pounce on white males for racism, sexism, etc. decline to intervene when “oppressed minority” types tear down pro-life posters, shout down speakers they dislike, destroy conservative campus newspapers, and call their opponents every nasty name in the book. Such “political correctness” isn't limited to academe; recently in our local newspaper a letter appeared claiming that black people could say anything they wanted to about whites, because those who had been the object of racism were incapable of being racists themselves.
So, while I'm all for “moving the culture in the right direction” by restoring standards, I can't help feeling that these kinds of double standards really are worse than none at all.
Anne G. Burns
Cos Cob, CT
Anthropology, Theology, and René Girard
As a long time reader of René Girard I was gratified to see J. Bottum's excellent review of his work (“Girard Among the Girardians,” March) and especially Girard's own essay (“Are the Gospels Mythical?” April). Girard's work is immensely important in the present climate of violence and ethno-religious politics. It forces us to reexamine the very nature of religion itself, an exercise that is ever necessary and rarely undertaken competently.
The annual spring rite performed by national newsmagazines who interview Scripture scholars about the identity of Jesus always rehearses the same choreography: the Jesus of history in a dialectical pas de deux with the Jesus of faith. Girard's reading of Scripture gives us deeper insights than historical-biblical criticism alone or religious belief abstracted from biblical criticism. Girard is a textual critic, in the best literary sense of that word, a brilliant analyst who knows that texts both disclose and conceal the social dynamics of the world from which they emerge.
It is Girard's genius to see Hebrew and Christian Scripture from the perspective of cultural anthropology, especially foundational myths—all of which betray the violent origins of human societies. This method of reading reveals the deepest meaning and significance of the Bible as a radically different account of origins (and community), rescuing the biblical texts from both academic historicism and naive personalism. His analysis of scapegoating, collective murder, human sacrifice, religious and judicial systems allows us to understand both the biblical text and much that we read outside of the text. He explains, for example, why we insist on assigning violence (and the approval of violence) to God in our politics, as well as in our foundational mythologies, and why the violent strategies we have always used to keep the peace are becoming less and less effective.
At the heart of Girard's analysis of the Gospels is his reading of the Passion narrative, a distinctive hermeneutic that he probes anew in this recent essay. His argument here is necessarily compressed, and is shaped to a particular thesis. I believe, nevertheless, that Girard has yet to treat the central event in the Christian story adequately. It is the Resurrection, after all, that defines Christianity. Girard needs to describe the Resurrection event in terms beyond “the rectification of the lie of the guilty victim.” The Resurrection is about more than the victim's innocence. It is about the victim's forgiveness of his murderers.
Resurrection goes beyond “reopening the channels of communication” (although it does that). It tells us that mimetic reciprocity (read: retaliation, punishment, “balancing the books”) is not the name of God's game. It is not God's way of keeping the peace—or trying to keep the human family in line. The Christian story is about accepting forgiveness in the light of the disclosure that it is human beings who desire crucifixions, executions, sacrifices, expulsions, “holy” wars, and never God, who can reveal the horror of human violence only by submitting to it.
The biblical texts show us who we are. They show us how wrong we are about sin and justice and judgment. But they also show us who God is and how radically we have misread the nature of our own desires. If, according to Christian belief, Jesus in his return from the dead did not observe the rules of reciprocity—which we always imagine that God invented—if he did not take revenge on his persecutors but offered us a Counselor for our defense, if by his forgiveness he showed us a way out of the mimetic contagion that has engulfed the world in violence, there is reason enough to speak of the gospel not as myth but as news—good news, indeed.
Director of Religious Studies
Kent State University
René Girard's explanation of Satan as scandalon, stumbling block, that is to say, as both rival and obstacle for worldly desires that others model for us, leaves barely a phenomenological stone unturned. It explains mountains and molehills of satanic lore within Scripture and way beyond it, down to our present sacrificial confusion about evil in the world and all those besides ourselves whom we like to blame it on. Girard's strictly anthropological interpretation here exhibits the appeal of his work to believers and nonbelievers alike, as it demonstrates an internal coherence that allows researchers to organize a mass of anthropological, literary, and historical data in meaningful patterns that illuminate the sacrificial and scapegoating dynamics of all-too-human violence.
This limpidity is not in evidence, however, in Girard's account of prophetic and apostolic revelation as it concerns the anomalous resistance of a few to the unanimous contagion of victimization, a courage which he rather too abruptly assigns to “divine grace.” You can explain anything you wish or leave unexplained anything you cannot with such a notion as that, which is to say that ultimately you explain nothing in a way that is logically compelling. But it is too soon to preach to the choir, for there is no need at this point to forfeit claims to strictly anthropological reasoning. In sum, such precipitate recourse to divine grace begs the question of intelligibility just where the implications of Girard's own mimetic analysis open up still broader and clearer channels of communication between theology and science, between faith and human experience. . . .
Andrew J. McKenna
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Together with its method, what recommends René Girard's scriptural deconstruction is its startling result: The primary thesis of Enlightenment fundamentalism—the thesis that the four Gospels, in essence, belong to the domain of mythology—is turned upside down. Professor Girard's point is not simply that the Bible is irreducible to myth; his point is that the Bible, by any just assessment, must be credited with a prodigious feat: forever destroying the credibility of mythological representations. . . .
I think Professor Girard's theory is on the right track, but where he claims that the Gospels are indispensable to the “purely anthropological revelation of unanimous victimage,” I would distinguish absolute indispensability from conditional indispensability, and argue that the Gospels are not absolutely indispensable to the task of decoding myths as representations that falsely impute guilt to sacrificial victims. . . .
1. The fact that the Passion supremely illuminates the victimage mechanism does not render it absolutely indispensable to the revelation of that mechanism. The revelation of “magico-sacrificial” killing as idolatrous is already contained in the providential history of the people of Moses (the second commandment):. “You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them.” As E. P. Sanders has pointed out, the precise meaning of the word “serve” in Judaism and in other ancient religions is: “serve by sacrificing to”; serve, then, refers to “magico-sacrificial” killing or idolatrous killing.
2. If the Gospels are not absolutely indispensable to the revelation of the kind of all-against-one victimization that is hidden by mythology, then are the Gospels conditionally indispensable to such revelation? If the condition is as daunting as the moral conversion of the Gentile nations, then the answer is Yes.
At the same time, as Franz Rosenzweig discerned in Star of Redemption (1930), “the nations within the church” remain noticeably vulnerable to mimetic crisis. Significantly, Rosenzweig uses the same terminology that Girard will later use. . . . Rosenzweig describes the Jewish people as the eternal beginning of the “ultimate community” of nation-states.
3. If the Gospels are indispensable for overcoming mimetic conflict between nation-states, but not absolutely indispensable for discrediting the mythic fatality that enshrouds that conflict, then what is the relation between Girard's demythologizing revelation and Revelation proper? . . .
Girard describes his deconstructive revelation as purely anthropological, but I submit that it is only materially anthropological; formally, it is theological. Indeed, exposing mythic violence is a proximate, secondary reason why God decreed the Incarnation. . . .
John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
René Girard replies:
I agree with Diana Culbertson when she defines what is still missing from the “mimetic reading”: the very heart of the Gospels, their soteriological mystery. There is and there will always be much more to say, and she hints at it better than I can in the last two beautiful paragraphs of her letter.
I thank Andrew McKenna for his positive reading of my essay. It is true that much more needs to be said regarding the apostolic revelation, in continuity with what he calls my phenomenology of Satan and the mimetic crowd, but there was no room to say it in a short essay, and I wanted to show that my reordering does not exclude but ultimately demands an intervention of divine grace. Ultimately, there cannot be any human explanation for the fact that the Gospels reveal so much about the true God as well as about the false ones. It is often said that my reading is purely anthropological. What I attempt to show is that the anthropological and the theological cannot do without each other, which is, after all, what the dogma of the Incarnation is about.
John Maguire perfectly defines what is, in my view, the chief value of deciphering mythology through the Gospels. This process refutes the modern tendency to reduce Christianity to another example of mythology. It shows that resemblances between the two are not due to contamination of the first by the second: they are the absolute prerequisite for the Christian deconstruction of mythology.
Since the myth of a mythical Christianity is the chief obstacle to faith in our world, its refutation is a most urgent task, and, to be convincing, it must be conducted independently from all theological presuppositions, as a purely anthropological and rational operation that deals with the Gospels exactly as if they could be what skeptics tell us they are, a more ethically refined myth perhaps, but a myth nevertheless, a myth just like any other. If theology were resorted to, the whole demonstration would become pointless from an apologetic point of view. Many Christians are less quick in understanding this than non-Christians. They automatically assume, wrongly I hope, that there is something “unorthodox” in my approach. I see it myself as a classical synthesis of faith and understanding, one that respects the relative autonomy of human reason.
Ultimately, I agree with Mr. Maguire that the deconstruction of mythology is not the most important aspect of the Judaic and Christian revelation, but is intrinsic to it.
Can Abortion Be Restricted?
Your April issue carried two pieces dealing with the feasibility of legally restricting abortion, Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru's “The New Abortion Debate” and a While We're At It piece on the reissuing of Marvin Olasky's Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. Each discussion erred in diagnosing the main problem with restricting abortion through force of law.
The main problem is not in fashioning palatable penalties for the abortionist. He should not ordinarily be sent to prison or fined. He should be sentenced to full-time community service in institutions for the disadvantaged, handicapped, and the ill. Should he resist, the lie will have been put to his rhetoric of humanitarianism. How much sympathy will he enjoy when he is sent to a minimum security prison because he would not show up at the foster facility or rehab center or nursing home?
The real problem is that there are not likely to be a whole bunch of abortionists as we usually envision them. For we are rapidly moving into the era where the abortifacient will render the abortionist obsolete. Pharmacological “advances” and discoveries, e.g., RU-486 and tests showing the abortifacient effect of combining drugs used for other purposes, will be what frustrate the law in protecting the unborn. We cannot control the flow of illicit drugs that many citizens regularly ingest for mere recreation. How much more difficult will it be to ban substances that a sizable portion of the population views as life-salvaging for the unfortunate woman finding herself with an unwanted pregnancy?
Proponents of prohibiting abortion will have to tackle this problem head-on. More, since abortifacients will most often be employed in the initial stage of pregnancy, such proponents will have to wrestle with questions about the actual personhood of the conceptus at the earliest points of gestation.
Kevin M. Doyle
South Nyack, NY
The editors reply:
Regarding the prospective changes to be wrought by RU-486 and other “advances,” readers may want to consult Bernard Nathanson's “The Abortion Cocktail” (January).
In his enumeration of the obstacles to evangelization in the Catholic Church, Father Avery Dulles erected one of mountainous proportions by his own plain statements (“Evangelizing Theology,” March). This barrier, which it seems to me is the most important of all the modern enemies of evangelization—since it sets itself up against and directly attacks the historic Christian standpoint and not merely secular philosophies—appears to have established a near universal domination in late-twentieth-century Catholic theology and is supported by the current Pope in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It is, namely, the denial of the historic Catholic doctrine of the eternal damnation of unbelievers. Popular as this denial may be, it can hardly be claimed to represent historic, orthodox, Catholic Christianity, and I found it disturbing to read Fr. Dulles' statement that the Pauline doctrine of salvation “does not require one to hold that all unevangelized peoples are consigned to eternal damnation. Indeed, the Catholic Church has repeatedly proclaimed that God puts salvation within the reach of everyone. But the way in which people can be saved without hearing the gospel remains God's secret.” . . .
In the writings of Origen in the third century we encounter the hopeful expectation that in the world to come, and following millions of years of purgatorial cleansing and angelical instruction, it may turn out that unbelievers and perhaps even fallen angels and Satan himself will repent and be restored to a state of grace. The modern universalists admire Origen, but they seldom understand him rightly. What they almost always ignore is that for Origen the postulated restoration was in the first place uncertain and in the second place bi-directional: on the one hand he hopes for Satan's restoration to holiness in the coming age, but on the other hand his doctrine of the will's intrinsic freedom forces him to concede that good angels and believers may in the future age apostatize and land themselves in hell.
Origen was not even unambiguous in his views, since in his commentary on Romans he explicitly denies the possibility of Satan's future restoration and in Peri Archon he suggests that the hoped for restoration will fail, a situation which will lead God to recreate the universe, reassign human souls to bodies, and begin the salvation process all over again. What I want to point out here, however, is that Origen cannot be enlisted as a catholic voice denying the eternal damnation of unbelievers, assuming Fr. Dulles was thinking of him in his article, since for Origen there was no question of the damnation of unbelievers and of the unevangelized but some question of the duration and finality of this damnation.
After Origen I'm not sure who Fr. Dulles can recruit in support of his views that the unevangelized will be mysteriously saved by participation in the Logos, seeing that Origen's speculations were condemned as heretical and poisonous by Saint Jerome and later in an official ecumenical council. . . .
(The Rev.) Tom Scheck
Free Evangelical Church
I demur to the notion of Father Avery Dulles cited in “Obeying in Order to Understand” (Public Square, April) that fidelity to the Church's teaching that only men may be ordained to the priesthood requires as a major task of the Church the full involvement of women in the Church's life. Before that is even considered, a major task of the Church should be to set forth clearly its teaching on the relation and complementarity of the sexes and distinguish it from contemporary secular feminism. One often gets the impression from churchmen, reacting to an agenda set by contemporary feminism, that they are apologetic about the Church's teaching, as they point to the quantity of women in the sanctuary, seminary, and church bureaucracy. Moreover, in the rush to assure the world that the Church really values women, a monumental crisis is being ignored: that of men and fathers.
Men are staying away from the Church in droves, identifying religious leadership in family and church with women's work. The contemporary feminist portrait of the patriarchal church is largely a myth. Consider these statistics: more than 85 percent of those involved in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are women; 80 percent of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) teachers are women; 80 percent of prayer group members are women; 70 percent of Bible study participants are women; 58 percent of those identified as the most influential leaders in parish life are women; 60 percent of persons involved with youth ministry are women.
The dearth of male religious leadership and participation in church life is having devastating consequences on vocations and family life. The priesthood is often not seen as a manly vocation. Fatherhood is not seen involving religious commitment or leadership. The Church's response to the world about its teaching on the priesthood and on men and women cannot be determined by journalists and secular feminism, which I am afraid is largely the case today.
(The Rev.) Leonard F. Villa
St. Eugene's Church
Avery Dulles replies:
It has been the firm teaching of the Catholic Church since the struggles against Jansenism in the seventeenth century that God does not withhold from anyone the grace needed for salvation. Pius IX in several documents asserted that non-Christians living in invincible ignorance of the true faith could obtain eternal life, provided that they cooperated with the grace given to them. The Holy Office under Pius XII, clarifying this point, insisted that no one could be saved without supernatural faith, which could, however, be merely implicit. Vatican Council II asserted in a number of texts that every human being can have faith and can be associated in a saving way with the mystery of Christ. John Paul II has picked up from Vatican II the idea that “seeds of the Word” are present in the great religions of the world.
The idea of “seeds of the Word” is not new. It comes into Christian tradition even before Origen. Justin Martyr, who spoke of the “seminal word” (logos spermatikos), taught that Christ is “the Word of whom every race of people were partakers” and that “those who live reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists.” Clement of Alexandria, inspired by the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, declared: “The word is not hidden from any; He is a universal light; He shines upon all human beings.”
On the basis of texts such as these it is possible to surmise that by accepting the illumination of the Logos, the unevangelized may have sufficient faith to attain eternal life. But it is important to keep in mind that the universal presence of the Logos is intended to be a preparation for the gospel, which discloses Jesus Christ as the only Savior.
In the contested passage concerning women in the Church, I was practically quoting John Paul II's address of September 3, 1995. If Father Villa has a quarrel with me, he must have one with the Pope as well. Fr. Villa is of course correct in what he says about the dominance of women in certain ministries, such as health care and religious education, particularly on the parish level. But women are conspicuously absent in policy-making positions at the higher levels of Church administration. Although the complementarity of the sexes must be respected, I do not see it as justifying the dearth of either male or female leadership, whether on the local or on the universal level.
In Defense of Opus Dei
It is surprising that your Briefly Noted on Joan Estruch's book (Saints and Sinners: Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes, March) gives such uncritical acceptance to a deconstructionist analysis of Opus Dei. . . .
When a deconstructionist sociologist treats texts dealing with Christian faith and practice, the results will necessarily be altogether corrosive, particularly if he feels obliged to take a scholarly stance that excludes any sympathy for ultimate truth. Estruch subjects the writings of Blessed Josemaria Escriva and his followers to this kind of “objective” analysis. His results, often couched in cynical irony, range from the silly to the outrageous. Your review seems to buy into much of this when it repeats Estruch's charge that Escriva's “hagiographers” indulged in “excesses—if not outright prevarications.”
Religious truth simply is not relevant to Estruch's deconstructionist method. It is inevitable that his almost endless and often rarefied juggling of multiple readings of texts leads to an unrelenting assault on an institution whose fundamental purposes have already been discounted. To assess Opus Dei in this way is akin to analyzing what goes on in a basketball game while disregarding the aim of the game itself.
Your review at least raises some suspicions about the book. It terms it “peculiar” and says the author “gets a bit hysterical” when discussing the relationship between Opus Dei and Pope John Paul II. Yet for all that, it accepts a number of Estruch's claims about the Prelature, even counting them “valuable contributions.”
Of course central to Estruch's method would be the allegation that the Prelature is not what the members or the Church say it is. Estruch makes this point with the assertion that Opus Dei has changed its purpose over the years and was really founded in 1939, not 1928 as the founder had often repeated and as the Catholic Church in fact solemnly proclaimed. These charges are patently untrue—and offered without a shred of hard evidence.
The book may add little to the study of Max Weber's theories about capitalism and the Protestant ethic, as your review concludes. But contrary to what the review says, it is doubtful that the book will be “of interest” for any understanding of Opus Dei. Nearly everything it says about the Prelature is a caricature.
William A. Schmitt
Office of Communications
New Rochelle, NY