In our March issue, George Weigel offered a comprehensive, incisive, and, it must be admitted, devastating examination of “The Churches and War in the Gulf.” In times of war, it has been said, truth is the first casualty. There is something to that. But times of great national moment can also be moments of truth. The Gulf war has been such a moment in illuminating the moral corruption of much religious witness and activism in our public life.
Our concern is not whether religious leaders opposed or supported U.S. policy in the Gulf. People of intelligence and integrity can disagree on such matters. Our concern is with the integrity of religious witness. It has been widely commented that this writer, in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, has “endorsed the administration's policy in the Gulf.” That is not true. We have tried, with painstaking care, to put that policy to the tests posed by traditional just war theory. We concluded that, on its stated terms, that policy satisfied those criteria of justice.
It was clearly stipulated, “This use of force could turn out to be a tragic mistake. God only knows.” That a cause is just does not necessarily mean that, in a fallen creation, that cause will prevail. The application of just war criteria requires prudential decisions about contingent facts, what we ordinarily refer to as judgment calls. There were numerous and unanswerable questions about what U.S. policy would actually mean in practice—in terms of casualties, collateral damage to other nations, and the politics of the Middle East. With respect to such contingencies, this writer declined to pit his relatively uninformed judgments against the prudential judgments of those who exercise legitimate political authority in this representative democracy. He declined not simply because they represent legitimate political authority, but because there was good reason to trust their judgment calls with respect to the nature and consequences of military action.
The late Paul Ramsey insisted that religious leaders must adopt “self-denying ordinances” if they are to have anything to contribute to public moral discourse and maintain their own credibility. They cannot indulge themselves by popping off about anything and everything in the name of “moral concern” or “religious insight” and still expect to be taken seriously. Weigel amply documented the indulgence, to the point of hysteria, that marked most oldline Protestant pronouncements on the eve of the allied military response to Iraq's aggression.
Most of those pronouncements were ideologically driven outbursts of “functional pacifism.” Not real pacifism, mind you. Real pacifism frequently possesses a moral integrity and intellectual weight that is a necessary challenge to the just war tradition. Functional pacifism is the selective pacifism of political convenience. It explains how the same people can root for the violence of the most morally dubious “liberation struggles” all over the world while, at the same time, demanding that we “Make Love Not War” when it comes to U.S. military action in a just cause.
We have surely not seen each and every statement made by religious leaders about the justice or injustice of the allied response. We have examined dozens and dozens of them, however. Particularly impressive were some of the comments issuing from the National Association of Evangelicals, and a statement of notable gravitas and self-restraint by President Ralph Bohlmann of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. As we read them, these and other statements neither opposed nor endorsed administration policy. They took account of the seriousness of the situation, the solemn stakes involved, the relevant criteria of justice, the basis of reasonable confidence in our national leaders, and then called people to courage, patience, and prayer.
In these weeks, we have been impressed by how difficult it is to get people to understand the difference between a moral judgment and a judgment about contingent facts. In the minds of many, it seems that a “moral statement” is a statement on something about which one feels very strongly. It becomes a moral statement by turning up the volume, so to speak. “We are not making a political statement,” church bureaucrats and bishops declare, “we are making a moral statement.” And so we were awash in “moral statements” about innumerable matters of fact and speculation where it may reasonably be assumed religious leaders have no special competence. At least not as religious leaders. Nonetheless, statements typically began with “We, as religious leaders” and then went on to propose, condemn, urge, etc.
“There is an obligation to help another nation resist military aggression.” That is a moral statement. “President Bush declares UN resolutions will be enforced without protracted war.” That is a statement of contingent fact. The religious leader who might make the first statement has no particular competence to comment on the latter, unless of course he is convinced that the President is misinformed or a liar. If he is saying that the policy is misinformed, he is obliged to produce better counter-information, which seems unlikely. If he is saying that those in charge are liars, he is, absent convincing evidence, indulging in slander.
Many of the religious protests against U.S. policy in the Gulf were not only unwarranted judgments about contingent facts but, upon closer examination, at least implicit judgments about the character of those responsible for that policy. A nasty streak, an absence of humility, indeed an overweening hubris, became evident in much of the protest. We expect that there are people in the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon, and many in the field of battle who pray that God forgives the religious leaders who judged them so harshly, so ignorantly, and so self-righteously.
Weigel's article paid special attention to the role of Roman Catholic leadership. One reason for that is because Catholicism has claimed something of a proprietorial interest in just war theory. He might have mentioned other examples of Catholic failures in this great moment of national testing. At the time of writing he did not have, for instance, the statement of the board of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, which is composed of the major superiors of 4,700 Jesuits in this country.
A few days before the allied response on January 16, the Jesuits wrote the President that the response did not meet the “last resort” test of just war theory. “More time, much more time, is needed before it can be credibly claimed that the UN sanctions and various diplomatic initiatives have failed. Indeed, some obvious diplomatic initiatives have not even been tried,” they declare. Unfortunately, they did not specify what other resorts were so obvious to Jesuits that lesser mortals failed to see. Nor did they apparently feel any responsibility even to address the objection that more time would have strengthened the hand of Saddam Hussein, a manifestly ruthless international outlaw. It was enough, it seems, that they declared themselves for maintaining the “peace” of Iraq's brutal aggression. (It is remarkable how many calls to “pray for peace” overlooked the fact that a state of war existed as of August 2 with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.)
The Jesuits also told the President: “We fear that decisions on your part which ignore the points we have raised will, in the long run, not be supported by the American people. Certainly we could not support them.” This is among the smarmiest passages in the protest statements that have come to our attention. Being translated, it says, “Mr. President, we fear that the American people will not support you, and we intend to do all that we can to make sure they don't.” After informing Mr. Bush that he is morally forbidden to do what he seemed to be preparing to do, the letter concludes with the assurance of Jesuit prayers for the exercise of his “awesome responsibilities.” Thanks a lot, Fathers.
Then there is the Catholic bishop (charity requires that he not be named) who wrote a public letter to Senator Edward Kennedy. He begins, “I write this letter to you, not knowing to whom else I can turn.” One pauses to ponder all those to whom, it would seem, a troubled bishop might turn when, as he says, he feels “a particular fear growing within me.” His fear is one that placed him in solidarity with the position at the time of the Democratic majority in Congress, and of that majority's most leftward leader in the Senate, Edward Kennedy. The bishop opposes military action “on January 15 or, for that matter, any other date within months, if not years, of that deadline.” The bishop also fears President Bush's call for national unity. The consequences for our democracy, he fears, will be catastrophic. “The President's call for unity is specious,” the bishop tells the Senator and the world. “It is in reality a demand that we abandon our own judgment, conviction, and, at least in some cases, moral principles for the sake of going along.” So now you know what this President is really up to. We trust the ACLU and other defenders of our precious liberties have taken note.
Truth is a frequent, if not the first, casualty of war. But this war has highlighted some unsavory truths about certain styles of religious leadership. The first casualties of that leadership's inept efforts to address the cardinal virtue of justice were the three other cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, and fortitude.
After the End of the Ecumenical Movement
Pope John Paul II is scheduled to visit Hungary this August. The country is about 60 percent Roman Catholic and 20 percent Protestant, mainly Reformed hut with smaller groups of Lutherans and others. The Reformed Church is going through major convulsions. Leaders above the level of parish pastor are being forced to resign for their collaboration with the former Communist regime. Aspects of the “renewal movement” are also troubling, however. For instance. Reformed activists, backed by some new leaders, are threatening to disrupt the Pope's visit by preventing him from moving around freely or presiding at public services. Clashes, probably violent clashes, between Protestants and Catholics are expected.
This is a striking reminder of how distinctive is the ecumenical situation in the United States—a situation reflecting, of course, long-standing habits of democratic pluralism. The expected conflict in Hungary will certainly not be the last such reminder. The Revolution of 1989 lifted the lid on long-suppressed hostilities, including religious hostilities, in Central and Eastern Europe. The wars between Reformation and Counter-Reformation and between Catholic and Orthodox, suspended by the oppression of the Soviet empire, can now be resumed. Americans should be no under no illusions that we can easily impart to Christians in the East what we have learned through ecumenism. Their situations are different in maddeningly diverse ways.
What is called the ecumenical movement was launched in 1910 in Edinburgh and was essentially an enterprise involving Protestants of like mind and culture, although with significant Orthodox participation. The movement was fundamentally changed by the ecumenical turn of the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. Another change of recent decades has been the difficult process of incorporating the “new churches” in former colonies and other poor countries. The ecumenical movement has been singularly unsuccessful in including evangelicals and fundamentalists, who constitute, along with Roman Catholics, the rapidly growing sectors of the Christian movement. Now Eastern Europe presents a new time of testing.
The World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, is the institutional center of the ecumenical movement dating from 1910. By sheer force of habit and by the continued funding of the oldline Protestant churches in Western Europe and North America, the WCC will continue. But it seems that it will be increasingly irrelevant to the tasks of ecumenism in the future. The WCC was politically “radicalized” in the 1960s, and its subsequent efforts to include the “third world” were typically accompanied by support for leftist regimes and ideologies that are now discredited.
The radical turn, both politically and theologically, resulted in a pronounced cooling of relations with Catholicism. Rome and Geneva today are barely on speaking terms, with the former investing its ecumenical energies in “bilateral” relations with other particular churches. Throughout vast areas of the world where evangelicalism is burgeoning, the “established” churches of the ecumenical movement are generally viewed as the enemy. As if all that were not enough, the WCC is tainted by deep complicity with the regimes of the former Soviet empire. For forty years, the WCC received major funding through their puppet churches and served, more often than not, as a Western apologist for Communist oppression.
These are hard judgments, but they are based on hard realities. In the course of its history the ecumenical movement as embodied in the WCC was confronted by four great challenges and opportunities—Roman Catholic ecumenism, independent churches in the post-colonial era, the evangelical resurgence, and the persecuted churches under Communism. The WCC has bungled every one. What began with such high promise at Edinburgh in 1910 has ended in a shambles. The claim that the WCC might be the instrument for bringing together the Christians of the world is today little more than pathetic. Of the 1.4 billion Christians in the world, well over a billion belong to churches that are unrelated to the WCC and are frequently overt in their suspicion or hostility to what it represents.
As Christianity survived and flourished after the passing of official Christendom, so one may hope that ecumenism will more than survive the death of the ecumenical movement. Whether that will happen depends chiefly upon Roman Catholics and evangelicals. If David Barrett's figures are to be trusted—and he is thought to be the state of the art statistician on these matters—there are over 900 million Catholics and 250 million evangelicals in the world. Especially in Eastern Europe, the Orthodox are also crucial. These communions do not agree on many things, not even on the goal of ecumenism. For Rome, the goal is nothing less than full communion. Many others fear that Rome understands that to mean that everyone must “return” to Rome on Rome's terms. Almost everyone recognizes that full communion among all Christians is an eschatological concept that will not be realized before Christ returns in glory.
For evangelicals, or at least for those who have given ecumenism a thought, the goal is peaceful cooperation and competition within the framework of full religious freedom. That may not seem like a terribly ambitious goal, until we look at the actual state of relations between Christians, not least in Eastern Europe. We will no doubt have many occasions to look at those relations in Eastern Europe; to look with alarm, and with the prayer that the biblical truth of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” will yet find firmer and fuller expression than it did in the ecumenical movement that so egregiously failed.
Try Saying No
The Human Genome Project has previously come in for attention in these pages. It is a multi-billion-dollar government-financed effort to track, remedy, and maybe transform the genes of which we are all made. For people who have given it more than a moment's thought, HGP is fraught with spooky possibilities. For those who are most nervous about it, the required cautionary text is C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. Famed scientist James Watson, who is in charge of HGP tells us not to worry, however. He assures us that the budget includes millions of dollars to hire state-of-the-art ethicists who will do the requisite moral handwringing while the project proceeds apace.
Gilbert Meilaender of Oberlin College, a frequent contributor to this journal, isn't buying. “Proceed with caution,” he says, is not good moral advice in every case. “Attempting to hold before us a yellow caution light, it in fact allows us to proceed with a good conscience.” We should at least entertain the possibility that with some things we should not proceed at all. We human beings are so enamored of the importance of freedom that we forget that it might be possible for us to be free to do some things “that will destroy something as essential to our humanity as freedom is.” Put differently, we have the freedom to destroy our capacity to be free. In the above-mentioned essay, Lewis argues that efforts to remake humanity result in “one dominant age which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species.” Lewis observes, “There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man's side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”
The Latin hybrida, Meilaender observes, refers to the offspring of a wild boar and a domestic sow. The word has deeper connections, however, with the Greek hubris, meaning insolence against the gods. He quotes Lewis Thomas, the medical scientist and superb essayist: “This is what the word has grown into, a warning, a code word, a shorthand signal from the language itself: if man starts doing things reserved for the gods, deifying himself, the outcome will be something worse for him, symbolically, than the litters of wild boars and domestic sows were for the Romans.” But Meilaender sees that Thomas, too, finds it hard to say No. “Like a good modern, Thomas is more fearful of sloth than pride—more fearful that we may leave unexplored some potential for good than that we may exercise our freedom in ways that are finally destructive of our humanity.”
Freedom undoes freedom. Meilaender comments on the argument of Barbara Katz Rothman that prenatal diagnosis, for example, offers a woman “the illusion of choice” while actually depriving her of choice. “The technology of prenatal diagnosis has redefined the meaning of motherhood: it is making it difficult to commit oneself to an unborn child whose diagnosis is not yet assured; it is making it increasingly difficult to exercise one's freedom not to abort if the diagnosis is a bad one; it is encouraging women to think of their child as a product for whose quality they must accept responsibility; and it is making it more difficult to deal with disorders and afflictions that are not within our control and must simply be accepted. Rothman's is a powerful argument; more freedom has turned out to be less.”
Already, Meilaender writes, there are rumblings from insurance companies that pregnant women must agree to abort if prenatal diagnosis indicates a severely defective fetus. Such pressures will almost certainly increase. These developments “express and encourage an attitude that opposes not disease and disorder but the diseased and afflicted human being.” Apologists for the HGP point up its potential value in correcting a particular gene-related defect in the individual. But of course it goes beyond that. With the best of intentions, it gets into the alteration of genes and thus shapes the nature of generations to come. Meilaender writes, “Not only a human being but humankind is then the object of our intervention.”
Meilaender is no scientific Luddite. He affirms seeking new knowledge about our genes and developing therapies for genetic orders that afflict many people. “But we should turn against disease, not against those who are diseased. And we should focus our therapeutic efforts on particular afflicted human beings, not on humankind.” It is not clear to Meilaender nor, for that matter, to many in the scientific community that the HGP is the best way of pursuing these ends. What is clear is that those in charge of the project show little awareness of the ominous risks they are running. Dr. Watson in particular evidences a scientific insouciance, an onward-and-upward recklessness, that is nothing short of chilling. There is slight comfort to be drawn from the assurance that he is buying the advice of the best ethicists available. His attitude toward those who raise the serious moral questions seems to be, “Inhibit me if you can.” At most his ethicists are likely to respond, “Proceed with caution.” Needed are people who have a proven record of being able to say No.
Fundamentalists Anonymous (FA.) is a New York-based organization that was started up five years ago by Richard Yao and James Luce. Its purpose is to rescue people from the fangs of fundamentalist religion. (Yao went to Yale Divinity School, which is known to have strange effects on some people.) When the founders advertised in the Village Voice, they discovered their idea was a big hit. Phil Donahue loved it.
F.A. claims to have 60,000 members in fifty states. In its recent hard-hitting fundraising appeals, F.A. says that the IRS, the Postal Service, and a cabal in the U.S. Senate are trying to do the organization in. One appeal contends that America is in danger of becoming a “Fundamentalist theocracy” by the year 2000, with “the kind of intolerance and mindset that has gripped Iran.” The evidence is that Jack Kemp is in the cabinet, and James Baker's wife has organized prayer meetings in the White House. FA. notes that the “experts” say it can't happen here, but then adds that the “experts” also thought “Hitler could not carry out his program.”
A conspiracy of “Fundamentalist Catholics, reactionary Mormons, Fundamentalist Jews, Moonies, and secular extremists . . . already have a working majority on many issues.” But not to despair. Unless you're one of the “wimpy, whiny, or timid people,” you can give a thousand dollars a year and become an F.A. Freedom Fighter. As such, you get “battle” reports that other members have not seen and a Freedom Fighter ID card. If F.A. really does have any members, and if it keeps going on this way, it's only a matter of time and we'll be hearing about some folks organizing F.A.A. Little chance that they'll get on Phil Donahue's show, however.
What the Law Is About
Before saying what is so very fine about this book, we must enter a strong caveat. The book is by Graham Walker, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and it is called Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought: Current Problems, Augustinian Prospects (Princeton). But first, we should get the caveat out of the way. In surveying representative positions on the question of law and morality. Walker mistakenly portrays Judge Robert Bork as a “skeptical nihilist.” A skeptical nihilist is somebody who believes that the good has no reality. It is simply a word that people apply to their preferences and interests. Since there is no good, objectively speaking, Bork, according to Walker, thinks that questions of morality should be left entirely to the power struggles and deliberations of the political process.
At this point we should declare interest, as the lawyers say. Robert Bork is a dear friend and we bridle at his being misrepresented. More disinterestedly, he is a major referent in current thinking about the nature of law in a democratic society and it is therefore important to get his argument straight. To be fair to Graham Walker, some earlier essays by Bork, on which he chiefly relies, can easily be misunderstood as advocating something like skeptical nihilism. (Walker wrote his book before the appearance of Bork's massively influential The Tempting of America.)
Like many others, however, Walker mistakes Bork's argument for “judicial restraint” as an argument against moral reflection. Bork is not opposed to moral philosophy, and he readily recognizes that our constitutional order is premised upon moral principles. He simply thinks that judges make lousy philosophers, are not paid to be philosophers, and, when in the “judicial activism” mode, disguise their political preferences as moral discernment. In fact, Graham Walker's argument ends up on the side of judicial restraint in a manner not entirely unlike Bork's.
That out of the way, Moral Foundations is a splendid book splendidly written. For a succinct and lucid exposition of Augustine's political philosophy, no better recent treatment comes to mind. Walker persuasively argues that most of the positions currently in play were anticipated by Augustine in his contentions with Aristotelians, Platonists, Manicheans, and sundry gnostics. He also demonstrates that today's disputes about the nature of law and morality are inevitably entangled with larger metaphysical and even theological issues. The Ronald Dworkins and Laurence Tribes of the world may protest that, but, whether one is a moral realist or a moral nihilist or somewhere in between, serious talk about law and concepts such as justice requires talking about the way reality really is.
Graham Walker is very much in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, another Augustinian of note, in appreciating the tensions and ambiguities that attend any effort to understand the connections between law, politics, and the good. Walker writes: “If this kind of thinking suspends questions of political morality—and therewith constitutional theory—in stubborn tensions, we should not be surprised. Tensions like these are ubiquitous in Augustine's thought (because he believes they are rooted in the condition of fallen humanity). . . . Augustine discerns in man the image of God that is fractured but not effaced. He finds man's freedom of will to be foreshortened but not foreclosed. He points us to the truth about being and goodness that our minds can truly glimpse but not fully capture. He hopes for a moral politics, while refusing a moralizing politics. He makes it hard to countenance a morally or religiously neutral state, and impossible to accept a theocracy. He regards law as embedded in goodness but distinct from it. He enables us to insist on real moral interpretation in law, and to insist also that it be circumspect and relative. He enables us to recognize the need for a proximate judicial restraint that absolutely cannot be absolute.”
Good stuff, that. Despite the fact that the last sentence poses a problem. Walker has not entirely disenthralled himself of the idea of the judge as moral philosopher. Judges should indeed be moral philosophers enough to recognize the moral philosophy that undergirds the Constitution that they are to serve. They serve that Constitution by rearticulating the philosophy by which it is constituted. As Walker himself says, “We are not framers or ratifiers but rather subjects of the Constitution that they formulated; therefore, we cannot afford simply to dispense with the conventions of framers' intent if we are going to understand the meaning of the text, especially in its explicitly moral provisions.” Others—Robert Bork, for example—are much more emphatic, and rightly so, about the importance of interpreting the Constitution according to “original understanding.”
But the great achievement of Graham Walker's work is not so much that he authoritatively referees many current disputes in legal theory as that he illuminates the philosophical and moral context in which, knowingly or not, these disputes are conducted. Legal theorists, moral philosophers, theologians, and citizens who care about the foundations of the American experiment in ordered liberty have reason to read with care Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought.
Religion and What Passes for the News
People want a lot more news about religion than they're getting. At least that is the finding of a major national study conducted by Religious News Service (RNS) and funded by the Lilly Endowment. Note that in the interviews people were not alerted to the fact that the study had any religious connection. They were simply asked what kinds of news most interested them. Religion was way up there. Way ahead of gossip, the culture page, astrology, business, and sports. “Way ahead of sports?!” a colleague asked, incredulous. This colleague, be it known, is a sports freak with a special devotion to the Orioles, which we understand to be a baseball team in Baltimore. Devout Catholic though he is, we have no doubt that he would turn to the baseball standings before reading the story on the election of a new pope.
“If people said that they're more interested in religion than sports,” he declared, “they're lying.” But why should people lie about that? Surely in our culture of privatized religion it is more respectable to tell a stranger that you're very interested in sports than that you're very interested in religion. The overall results of this study are no doubt affected also by a gender difference, most women being less obsessed by sports than is our friend. (Most men, too, for that matter.) But back to the main point. Despite the high level of interest in religion news, consider the difference in coverage of religion and sports in both print and broadcast media. Fifty-to-one in favor of sports would be a very conservative estimate. If creatures from another planet were to get their information about life in America from the news media, it would come to them as a stunning surprise that more Americans attend church or synagogue every week than attend all professional sports events in an entire year.
There are a number of reasons why the media ignore the largest single pattern of voluntary associational behavior in our society. Studies by Rothman and Lichter have demonstrated the dramatic gap in religious belief and behavior between news executives and the general population. In addition, religion news is thought to be so upbeat as to be soporific. Good news is no news. Scandals—especially if they involve Fundamentalists or Catholics—get considerable coverage, as do theological battles leading to denominational breakups. Almost any public fight with the Pope is thought to be newsworthy. But that's about it.
Given this sorry failure of the news media, it's nice to be able to lift up a counter-example from time to time. The Washingtonian is a general interest magazine that in recent months has had Terry Eastland doing major articles on religion in the D.C. area. They are splendid articles about people, congregations, and other institutions doing remarkable things for unabashedly religious reasons. The articles expose the happy little secret that, for instance, nurses take care of crack babies and churches run hospices for the dying because, as odd as it may seem, they really do love God and want to serve him by serving his children. The Washingtonian, however, is the all too rare exception.
Complaints that religion does not receive enough news attention may be dismissed as self-serving. The Lilly-RNS study suggests, however, that readers and viewers earnestly do want more coverage of religion, and one would think that might make an impression on news executives who cannot be entirely indifferent to market dynamics. Religion gets along just fine without the coverage. There are no doubt many religious groups and leaders who prefer it that way. But if journalism is to make any pretense of representing the society—what matters to people and the institutions they care about—the ludicrously slight attention paid religion must be remedied. Did we mention that more than twice as many people are in church or synagogue every week than vote in presidential elections once every four years?
A Roman Catholic bishop in the Northeast addressed a Virginia symposium on “The Wisdom of Women.” We have only the text of what he said, but it seems he was terribly insecure, perhaps intimidated. He is disturbed that many Catholics are not listening to their bishops. “People say more often than I would like to hear, ‘You do not understand sexuality in marriage' or ‘We cannot possibly live up to that' Further, many persons simply disengage from any conversation with us.” The bishops need to listen more carefully to the people, says this bishop, and in principle one can hardly argue with that.
He continues: “Another issue that invites our careful listening involves the question of abortion, which is so troublesome and divisive in our nation. This is an issue which will challenge our pastoral sensitivity for years to come. My particular hope is that we will do a better job than we have done in hearing the women and men of our church on this issue. We will only be helped in our pastoral practice by hearing those who conceive and those who bear new life in their womb and who for whatever reason struggle with the question of whether or not they will carry that new life to full term. In my opinion, Archbishop Weakland's recent initiative in this regard was an important service to the church. Our ability to defend the life of the unborn will only be deepened when we expand that kind of respectful dialogue.”
It is hard to know how Weakland-like exercises can strengthen efforts to “defend the life of the unborn.” Archbishop Weakland (Milwaukee) issued a report on his listening sessions that was clearly sympathetic to those who dissent from church teaching on abortion, and harshly judgmental toward those in the prolife movement. (They are, charged the Archbishop, harshly judgmental.) Although Weakland definitely said that he did not dissent from church teaching, he seemed to invite the inference that he was only going along with what is canonically required of an archbishop. The most remarkable thing about the Weakland exercise, as Father James Burtchaell pointed out in The National Catholic Reporter, is that his long report included not one word in defense of the unborn.
There is a yet deeper nervousness evident in the bishop's address at the Virginia conference. It is a nervousness that marks much church teaching today, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. It is a nervousness that results from an apparent inability to respond to the question. By what authority? “By what authority,” people are asking the bishop, “do you presume to instruct us on sexual morality?” “You do not understand sexuality in marriage,” they contend. The bishop, it seems, agrees with the challenge, or at least thinks there is truth in it. The challenge is that, on matters ethical, you have your opinion and I have mine, and only the person actually in the situation can know what is right for him or her.
That challenge is not simply to the church's teaching on this or that. It is a fundamental challenge to normative ethics, Christian or other. Clergy of almost all communions agree that there is a moral content to the Christian message, and that there are normative referents (Scripture, creed, etc.) by which moral teaching is determined. Roman Catholics, in addition, assert that bishops have a special duty, aided by a special charism, to teach that moral content. Listening carefully is indeed part of “pastoral sensitivity,” as the bishop says. But if, as Catholics and most other Christians believe, the direct intention to take innocent human life is always wrong, one wonders what is to be learned from listening to those “who for whatever reason struggle with the question of whether or not they will carry that new life to full term.”
By such listening we might better be able to understand why people are tempted to do wrong. But there is no hint that that is the learning that the bishop has in mind. The unavoidable implication is that the bishop is deeply bothered that abortion is “so troublesome and divisive in our nation,” and that somehow the Catholic position is, at least in part, responsible for that trouble and division. The implied solution is not that the church's position should he more persuasively taught but that it should be corrected by “pastoral sensitivity” to those who reject that position. To be sure, a Catholic bishop who came right out and said that he disagrees with the church's teaching would be in deep trouble. One must in charity believe that the bishop does not, in fact, disagree. But there can be no doubt that he is embarrassed by that teaching and intimidated by those who challenge it.
Of course the bishop is by no means alone in this respect. There are leaders in all the churches who relish being “bold” and “prophetic” in pronouncing on global debt, the inequities of a market economy, and the details of U.S. foreign policy, but become strangely reticent and “pastorally sensitive” when it comes to moral questions that impinge more directly upon how people order, or disorder, their everyday lives. Clergy, like most people, like to be liked. It is not always easy to remember that the One whom they are pledged to serve promised that faithfulness to the truth would be “troublesome and divisive.” One would like to encourage this timorous bishop and others like him to entertain the possibility that, when a teaching is controverted, it may be a sign not that the teaching needs correction but that it is on to something very important.
Numbers and the Numinous
We most definitely do not believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. But that does not mean that polling research does not have its uses. Among other things, it can serve as a “reality check” against social generalizations too readily assumed to be true. Not, of course, that polls reveal the reality, but they at least give us pause in accepting other readings of reality. For instance, our parochial newspaper, the Times, was manifestly taken aback a little while ago when it did a national survey on family behavior. It turns out that something like 80 percent of respondents claim that they have dinner with their families at least five nights a week. Moreover, during dinner they do not watch television but, if you can believe it, talk with one another. The Times ran this as a very big story, since it ran directly counter to its editorial and news line of at least the last fifteen years, insisting that the “nuclear family” is an almost extinct species.
Among those who supply us with reality checks on what is happening in religion, none is so assiduous as George Gallup and his Princeton Research Center. Even the questions that may at first seem trivial are sometimes suggestive of larger patterns. For instance, how many American teenagers, do you suppose, said grace the last time they sat down for dinner with their families? The answer is 51 percent. Protestant young people say grace more than Catholics (60 percent to 48 percent), and non-white teens (59 percent) more than whites (49 percent). Of all teens, those who attended church in the last seven days are much more likely to say grace (72 percent) than those who didn't (30 percent).
Or consider this. Ask Americans which is their favorite holiday and 72 percent vote for Christmas. Thanksgiving comes in a very distant second with 8 percent. Easter gets a very meager 2 percent, one point behind the Fourth of July. There are many reasons why it is not surprising that Christmas comes in first. But only 2 percent for Easter? The overwhelming majority of Americans claim to be Christians, and for at least 1,500 years the Christian church has taught that the Feast of the Resurrection is the premier day of the year, around which all other feasts and festivals gravitate. (Pentecost, the third great feast of the Christian calendar, does not show up on the list of favorites.) To put it very gently, one may conclude that Christians in America do not rate holidays (holy days?) according to their theological significance. On the other hand, Easter church attendance is comparable to attendance on Christmas. So maybe it means that people do take Easter seriously, but they just don't enjoy it very much. (After all, they were asked about their “favorite” holiday, not the holiday that they thought most important to their faith. Had they been asked the latter question, however, we would not be surprised if Christmas still turned out to be the winner by far.)
Galluping along, we came across this item having to do with wealth and its distribution. In a national survey, 7 percent of respondents say they are upper income, 59 percent identify themselves as middle income, 23 percent lower income, and 10 percent as poor. Although they were given the choice, no respondents said they were rich. Seventeen percent admitted that they envied rich people, but 82 percent denied it. “All in all, if you had your choice, would you want to be rich, or not?” Fifty-nine percent say they would like to be rich, 38 percent say no, and 3 percent have apparently not thought about it (which suggests that they do not want to be rich, at least not very badly). It seems there are serious biblical inhibitions about wanting to be rich—”the eye of the needle” and all that. Nineteen percent think rich people have a harder time loving God and neighbor, 71 percent think riches make no difference, and 6 percent think everything, including spiritual wellbeing, goes better with more money. While they have little use for envy and generally have a high opinion of riches and the rich, 66 percent of respondents do say that wealth “should be more evenly distributed” (up from 60 percent in 1984).
What else in Mr. Gallup's most recent report? There has been a modest rebound over the last year in expressed confidence in organized religion (from 52 to 56 percent). But of major institutions in American society, the military is number one (68 percent), a position held by religion every year since 1973 except for three. There are reassurances here. Of the ten institutions named, television has the confidence of only 25 percent of respondents. Organized labor. Congress, and “Big Business,” in that order, do even worse than television. Only 9 percent have high confidence in “Big Business,” leaving us to wonder bow people would respond simply to “Business.” Big anything, we expect, sounds bad to most Americans.
While we're at it, so to speak, we might mention one more item. Twenty-four percent of Protestants say they read the Bible daily and 28 percent weekly. The parallel figures for Catholics are 7 percent and 16 percent. Yet only half of all respondents could name even one of the four gospels. Thirty-seven percent could name all four, down from 42 percent who could do that in 1982. Most of these data are clinching arguments for little, leaving us, as they do, with the half empty/half full question.
For instance, asked about family, almost all American adults who have bad children say they would do it again if they bad the choice. Only 4 percent could be called “anti-children”: they have not bad any and do not want any. Yet, asked to state in their own words why they have bad children, Americans give answers that, without exception, might be construed as selfish (“The love and affection children bring,” “Having the pleasure of watching them grow,” etc.). Not too much should be made of that, however. In view of the open-ended and unconditional commitment involved in having children, it seems likely that most parents simply lack the vocabulary to express their nobler reasons. (Sociologist Brigitte Berger has plausibly proposed that an honest newspaper advertisement for the job of being a parent—24 hour duty, unqualified responsibility for another person for twenty years or more, no remuneration, financial commitment in the vicinity of $150,000, etc.—would draw no takers.)
But enough for now. Mr. Gallup serves us all by tracking data that are as suggestive as they are inconclusive, and we will from time to time revisit his findings.
While We're at It
• As has frequently been noted, the oldline Protestant churches were, in the 1960s, in the forefront of endorsing “liberalized abortion.” Eighteen years after Roe V. Wade, many people in those churches are having second and third thoughts. A “liberalization” that would allow for abortion in extreme circumstances has turned, much to their professed surprise, into the routinizing of abortion as contraception—at the rate of 1.6 million each year. They should not have been surprised, but that they are concerned is undoubtedly to their credit. An influential group of United Methodists, including some who understood the abortion tragedy from the start, have now issued “The Durham Declaration.” Drawn up in Durham, NC, the declaration begins: “United Methodists, abortion is testing our church. Abortion is testing our church today as deeply as slavery tested our church in the nineteenth century.” The declaration contains nine pledges to prayer and action, including these: “We pledge, with God's help, to teach our churches that the unborn child is created in the image of God and is one for whom the Son of God died. This child is God's child. This child is part of God's world. So the life of this child is not ours to take. Therefore, it is sin to take this child's life for reasons whether of birth control, gender selection, convenience, or avoidance of embarrassment. We pledge, with God's help, to become a church that hospitably provides safe refuge for the so-called ‘unwanted child' and mother. We will joyfully welcome and generously support—with prayer, friendship, and material resources—both child and mother. This support includes strong encouragement for the biological father to be a father, in deed, to his child. We pledge, with God's help, to honor the woman who has, under difficult circumstances, carried her child to term.” The commitment to support the mother and child is important, although it will not stop critics from saying that prolifers do not care about women in trouble. John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, for example, has repeatedly over the years pledged that the Archdiocese will spiritually and materially support any woman who asks for help in carrying her child to term. Many women have asked and many have been generously helped but, as the Cardinal ruefully notes, never once has this commitment of the Archdiocese been mentioned in the general media. (Those who wish to receive the Durham Declaration, especially United Methodists who might sign it, are invited to send a self-addressed stamped envelope and $1 to the Rev. Paul Stallsworth, Creswell UMC, Route 1, Box 272A, Creswell, NC 27928.)
• We have often spoken of America being embroiled in a Kulturkampf. The term, of course, refers to Bismarck's efforts to reduce or eliminate the influence of Christianity, more specifically Catholicism, in German public life. Needless to say, that situation and ours are different in important respects but the term Kulturkampf serves very nicely. The above is by way of mentioning that Richard Schaefer of San Francisco writes that we should take note of Ludwig Windthorst, who died 100 years ago this spring. He was for many years the leader of the Center Party in Prussia and Bismarck's chief opponent. Barely five feet tall, crippled, and blind most of his adult life, Windthorst was considered the foremost parliamentarian of his time. He battled for ethnic minorities, opposed a growingly virulent anti-Semitism, and won a solid following among workers. Writes his biographer, Margaret Lavinia Anderson, “Within Catholic Germany . . . he was revered long after his death, and the Windthorsthund, established to keep his legacy green, was dissolved only by Hitler. Yet today, except among professional historians, the man is unknown.” Now you know.
• “Salt is the magazine for justice-hungry Christians.” That's from a promotional mailing for a Catholic-based publication intent upon enlisting Christians to right the wrongs of the world. On the envelope is this: “INSIDE: HOW TO WORK SOCIAL JUSTICE INTO YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE plus A RISK FREE SUBSCRIPTION OFFER.” It sounds like a pretty safe way to satisfy one's justice hunger.
On ecumenism and the WCC, Lutheran World Information, November 29, 1990. On Fundamentalists Anonymous, Wig Wag, October 1990. On Archbishop Weakland, Origins, December 20, 1990. Religious data in emerging trends. Vol. 12, No. 9.