Michael Uhlmann's “The Legal Logic of Euthanasia” (June/July) is an outstanding essay on the two recent assisted-suicide decisions from the federal judiciary. I write with a few comments.
The Second Circuit in Quill v. Vacco employed equal-protection analysis under the Fourteenth Amendment to invalidate New York's prohibition on assisted suicide. This approach requires that legislation have a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest. The Quill court found that New York's statutes contained an improper action-inaction dichotomy. In other words, under the law, action (a physician's prescription of lethal doses of medication) was impermissible and inaction (a patient's refusal of nutrition and hydration, for example) permissible. The Second Circuit held this classification to be irrational, and it is hard to find fault with that conclusion. Indeed, Justice Scalia noted the untenable quality of this distinction in his concurring opinion in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health. The reasonable line is drawn, as Justice Scalia argued, between various forms of inaction (refusal of extraordinary as opposed to ordinary measures).
The real problem with Quill—and it is this problem that demonstrates that the Second Circuit was as radical as the Ninth Circuit in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington—is that it holds that the state has no legitimate interest in prohibiting assisted suicide. On this point the Quill court cites In re Quinlan, New Jersey's leading right-to-die case that is predicated on the disastrous line of federal privacy cases. More importantly, Quill invokes the notorious “Mystery Passage” (Gerard Bradley's phrase) from Planned Parenthood v. Casey. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This nonsense—which has absolutely no foundation in the text or history of the Constitution—is central to both Quill and Compassion in Dying.
The action-inaction problem can be remedied legislatively. That is, a legislature is free to revise a statute and still retain control over the fundamental issue. However, the Second Circuit's nullification of the state's legitimate interest in the preservation of life places the issue completely beyond the reach of a citizenry that is left to struggle under a judicially imposed culture of death.
Gregory J. Sullivan
The evidence is everywhere but it took Wolfhart Pannenberg (“How to Think About Secularism,” June/July) to make the point with clarity and precision: “In a secular milieu, even an elementary knowledge of Christianity—its history, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures—dwindles. It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings; large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity.”
A few years ago, when I was teaching at UCLA, my neighbor—a visiting professor in Art History from Germany—complained that he was having great difficulty communicating his course material to undergraduate students. He felt that the problem was the predominantly Christian motif of the subject matter—medieval and renaissance painting. The students were not overtly antagonistic to Christian belief and traditions—they simply knew nothing about them. He noted that a significant number of his students had never heard of the Virgin Mary.
The same day I read the Pannenberg piece, I picked up the May 24 Chronicle of Higher Education, which cited an item in the Cornell Daily Sun: “‘An invaluable copy of a Twelfth Century ivory plaque depicting the Enunciation was stolen from a glass display case in Goldwin Smith Hall early yesterday morning. The plaster 5-1/4 by 3-1/2 inch plaque contains a carving of the Enunciation scene in which the angels tell Mary that she will have a child.' A scene so named because they spoke with such clarity and precision, we suppose.”
The Chronicle‘s recognizing the mistake and thinking it reportable may mean that there's hope after all.
Charles N. Bertolami
San Francisco, CA
Carl Braaten's interesting review essay (“A Harvest of Evangelical Theology,” May) nevertheless misses the point by contrasting this scholarly harvest with my assessment of evangelicalism. My argument was not that academic theology was not being done but that theological ideas rest inconsequentially upon the evangelical world.
After all, add a few modest tests of religious commitment and the 34 percent who claim spiritual rebirth are whittled down to 9 percent. Ask whether there is, alongside the spiritual rebirth, a functioning worldview that is discernibly Christian and the 34 percent are reduced to 1 or 2 percent. One-third of the reborn say that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of their faith or its absence, and 11 percent say that sin is now an outmoded concept. Would Braaten not, on second thought, be willing to allow that the characteristic he discerned in the volumes he reviewed, that they are “deeply anchored in the scriptural sources,” is not always widely apparent elsewhere in the evangelical world?
South Hamilton, MA
Congratulations to Matthew Berke for his illuminating article on “God and Gender in Judaism” (June/July). Whether his reflections will prove a quixotic adventure in his own synagogue only time will tell, but his thesis will in any case apply a fortiori to Christian language about God, with its religion-specific doctrine of a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One of the most persistent features of this heated debate is the conflation of metaphor and analogy. The difference between the two rests on a distinction first drawn by Aristotle and given new life by the work of Paul Ricoeur. Analogy is the legitimate extended use of a term across a spectrum of proportionate realities (a “healthy” diet and a “healthy” complexion being the standard examples), while metaphor is the arresting use of a term improperly used. According to Ricoeur, metaphor only functions “amidst the ruins of the literal sense.” For example, when in Act V of Othello the eponymous hero—with his soul now irreparably poisoned by Iago's machinations—calls his heart “a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in,” the reader/playgoer realizes without being told that Othello's physical heart is not literally teeming with croaking frogs. . . .
Another sign of this more-than-obvious-but usually-implicit distinction is, as Mr. Berke points out, the consistent use of one set of pronouns for a person regardless of the metaphor of the moment. Thus when Jesus compares his longing to gather in the people of Jerusalem with the natural desire of a hen to gather in her chicks, no one would think of addressing Jesus as “she,” for he is being metaphorical here. That is why Mr. Berke's observation that the Hebrew Bible continues to address God as “He” even when God, through the medium of the prophets, is using feminine metaphors to describe Himself is so crucial. . . .
Although these considerations imply that “Father” when applied to God is proper and analogical and “Mother” is metaphorical and “improper” (in the technical sense), and although this conclusion is bound to sound offensive to those who insist that only an affirmative-action Godhead will heal the wounds of sexism, these insights are nonetheless grounded in the most pervasive features of language and cannot be easily gainsaid without contorting theological and ordinary language beyond control. Perhaps I am wrong and it can be done, but Mr. Berke's examples from Reform Judaism certainly do not inspire much confidence in the project. . . .
In my opinion, failure to make these distinctions can only result in confusing the faithful. I realize this is the standard cant phrase for opposing any theological innovation, but I mean it in the most literal, non-metaphorical sense of that term. For the advocates of gender equality who insist that God must be equally addressed with male and female metaphors rest their case on a much more elementary confusion about the function of ordinary language: they confuse the faithful because their own minds are so confused about the hidden power and majesty of the language they once learned at their mothers' knees.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Those of us who are deeply involved with Reform Jewish liturgy owe a debt to Matthew Berke for his thoughtful analysis of the recent trend toward degenderization in liberal Jewish prayerbooks.
His point about the theological hazards of feminizing the God of Israel is a potent argument for careful scrutiny of phrasing which addresses the Almighty as female. However, I am not persuaded that simple degenderization in the vernacular poses a threat to God as a personal deity. We have employed the 1994 gender-neutral Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays at our synagogue for some nine months now. The changes in pronouns have not provoked strong responses from our congregants one way or the other. (Nor has there been a groundswell of support for setting up an altar to Astarte for the purpose of ritual debauchery.)
The aspect of this issue that remains for more detailed exploration has to do with the status of vernacular worship in the Jewish world of this and succeeding generations Since most Jewish children being born these days are growing up in the boundaries of the Jewish State, the role of any liturgical language other than Hebrew is of diminishing importance with the inexorable demographic shift of Jewry to Israel. The possibility of successfully rendering “Our Parent, Our Ruler” as “Our Mother, Our Queen” in contemporary Hebrew is about as remote as the likelihood that the present Knesset will vote to move the Jewish capital from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv or Caesarea.
Rabbi Jeffrey Ronald
Paul Baumann asserts, in his review (June/July) of Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, that I “explain the enthusiasm [of members of Catholics United for the Faith] for policing liturgies and dissent.” Clearly, Mr. Baumann has taken a stereotype of this organization and applied it to my essay. I doubt that he could have read what I wrote. If he had, he would have found me explaining why the organization had had to shut down rogue chapters; how it broke with Lefebvrites in its midst; that it was persona non grata with a large number of traditionalist Catholic people. He would have reported how the founder, H. Lyman Stebbins, had risked losing the support and friendship of all sorts of conservative Catholics by throwing in with Pope Paul VI. This whole other side of CUF was simply ignored by Mr. Baumann.
Many of the people who have joined CUF over the years, complaining of liturgical excesses and doctrinal fuzziness in classroom and pulpit, have been of the middle and lower—middle classes. This sociological point should be of interest to Mr. Baumann, inasmuch as his publication, Commonweal, has always taken a sympathetic attitude toward those on the margins of American society. . . . When I worked at CUF from 1988 to 1994, it always struck me how the liberal Catholic intelligentsia were writing a kind of “populist” ecclesiology, not for the working classes, but for the edification of the lapsed graduates of Marymount and Manhattanville.
James A. Sullivan
Mr. Sullivan reads too much into what is a descriptive sentence. I wrote that he “explains” the enthusiasm for policing dissent; I didn't write that he embraces it uncritically. To be sure, such enthusiasm easily slides into intemperance, sectarianism, or worse, as CUF's internecine battles demonstrate.
How Mr. Sullivan gets from an imaginary slight to the usual cartoon of the “liberal Catholic intelligentsia” mystifies me. Just who is perpetuating stereotypes here?
As a friend of James and Helen Hitchcock, a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (FCS), a longtime supporter and ally of Women for Faith & Family (WFF), and one who admires Mother Angelica's enormous achievements with EWTN and related enterprises, I am deeply disturbed by an editorial policy that would lead you to publish Paul Baumann's review of Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, edited by Mary Jo Weaver and Scott Appleby.
Weaver has said, in the Santa Clara Lecture she gave on April 15, 1996-which is a reflection on her experiences in editing the above book and entitled “What's Wrong With Being Right?”—that liberals would rather be interesting than right and thrive on dissent. I've no doubt that liberals would find fissures among the ranks of traditional Catholics no end interesting, and would not be above trying to create divisions where there were none. Indeed, I rather imagine they would thrive as much on the dissent they could encourage among the likes of us as on their own dissent from the Church.
Weaver and Appleby have very carefully targeted the Hitchcocks, the FCS, WFF, and Mother Angelica in what seems an obvious attempt to isolate them from everyone else and brand them as “fundamentalist.” Apparently Baumann (and your editorial staff) saw merit in these tactics and indeed even welcomed the opportunity to suggest that some critical distance separates the above people and groups from the likes of the editors, contributors, and readers of First Things. Baumann reminds us that the Editor-in-Chief of First Things has said that “The first obligation is not to think like the Pope, but to think with the Pope,” clearly implying that the Hitchcocks and Mother Angelicas of this world don't do this. . . .
Joyce A. Little
Professor of Theology
University of St. Thomas
We, too, are eager not to create divisions where there are none. It should be obvious that the editors do not always agree with the opinions expressed by reviewers. Such disagreements are in the nature of producing a serious journal of ideas.
Richard John Neuhaus takes me to task (Public Square, May) for some opinions concerning Christianity's origins and doctrine in my review of a study of eighteenth-century anti-Semitism (Eighteenth-century Fiction, 8 , 283-85). He seems most particularly exercised by my assertion that the author of the work under review was “blind to the deep embeddedness of anti-Semitism in Christianity's self-definition,” and a concomitant assertion that “the annihilation of Jewry is not an afterthought of Christianity, but its violent point of origin.”
The very fact that his brief account turns immediately and viciously into an ad hominem attack, dripping sarcasm and vitriol in a most un-Christian manner, suggests I was not too far from the truth in suggesting—the real point of my review—that an assertion of the essential rightness of the Jewish religion (or any other religion) over the essential wrongness of Christianity tends to irritate Christians.
In the long 2,000 years of its history, this has proved to be true again and again, and is still true today, in Bosnia, in Eastern Europe, and in some significant pockets of the American scene. Indeed, far more disturbing than the petty nastiness of Neuhaus' response is its ratification of that history: since Christianity is a “truth” religion, one easily provokes Christians by suggesting they do not have the “Truth”—and a provoked Christian has been one of the nastiest of the human species throughout that long 2,000 years, especially long for its many victims.
That a Jew in America is relatively free from Christian violence has much to do with the nominalism of American Christianity today and little to do with Christianity's origins in an ever—increasing violence directed toward pharisaic Judaism. More to the point, I would not want to bask in the hopefulness of nominalism, as did German Jews in the nineteenth century. True, I am not threatened today by the 90 percent majority population—until Neuhaus tries to bully me into submission by hiding behind that majority as always right and peaceloving and “Christian.” Jews know better: if 5 percent of the 90 percent becomes more than nominal, we have violence in front of abortion clinics; if 10 percent, we have “moral wars” being fought between “Christians” and heathens (or godless academics—code for Jews in some circles) for the souls of our schools and children; and, God help us all, if even 25 percent of the 90 percent of Christians today begin to hear voices again proclaiming absolute Truths, we had indeed better take cover.
Department of English
University of Florida
Oh dear. And all I said is that I don't think the Christians of America want to kill Jews in general or Professor New in particular. They would want to, he responds, if they were really, and not just nominally, Christian. He appears to think it a fault of Christians that they tend to be irritated by such assertions. I expect the response of most Christians, if they knew about people who think the way Professor New thinks, would be one of bemusement. But then, that may be because they are only nominal Christians.
I was pleasantly surprised by a favorable mention of my recent book on marriage and the Protestant Reformation (Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany [Cambridge, 1995]) in Richard John Neuhaus' June/July essay on “Marriage, Divorce, and ‘Pro-Family' Credibility.” I am particularly indebted to the Times Literary Supplement review to which Neuhaus refers for liberating my study from the narrow realm of academe and presenting some of its arguments to a wider audience. Yet because some of his characterizations of these arguments appear to be drawn solely from the same TLS review, I am afraid that I must risk the semblance of ingratitude in order to provide some clarification.
Most importantly, I never say that “Protestant and Catholic teaching have had little effect on social reality.” To the contrary, I argue that the very idea of marriage as holy, consensual, and indissoluble was a religious concept that at first appeared very alien to medieval Europeans yet after centuries of acculturation succeeded in permeating every level of society everywhere in Europe. It is, as Neuhaus suggests, hardly credible to maintain that “the Christian construal of marriage” has not been enormously influential in all Western cultures.
This influence, however, must be viewed as variable over time. Thus, although sixteenth-century Protestants and Catholics agreed on those aspects just mentioned, their practical interpretation of them could vary so much as to permit divorce and clerical marriage among Lutherans and Calvinists while prohibiting the same among Catholics. All of these religious reformers claimed to revere the “biblical and traditional norms” Neuhaus himself celebrates, yet like modern social critics they disagreed (violently at times) among themselves on the nature or implementation of such norms.
The Protestant “introduction” of divorce, for instance, was based on the apparent scriptural support of Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:13 as well as the “traditional” canon law practice of divortium (legal separation) in cases of adultery and malicious desertion. The only significant change—aimed at preventing greater harm to the institution of marriage—was to allow the innocent spouses in such cases to remarry. Marriage was still considered sacred and indissoluble, but proven adultery or abandonment now rendered the guilty party spiritually dead, thus freeing the innocent partner in the same manner as physical death. Meanwhile, Catholics continued to follow an alternate interpretation of the same “traditional and biblical norms,” allowing only separation in the same instances.
All of this might fall into the category of interesting historical tidbits except for its potential to inform the current national debate about “traditional family values.” Americans in the late twentieth century are heirs to many marriage traditions, and one of the oldest and most recurrent is public concern about its decline. In fact, the modern dilemma Neuhaus mentions regarding canon law, divorce, and family preservation is almost identical to the self-described crisis of sixteenth-century reformers. They too worried about extramarital sex and conception, about the disintegration of marriage as an institution, and about indifferent or hypocritical religious authorities. They responded with a massive pro-marriage campaign, conducted in the press and the pulpit, and backed up by governmental regulation and enforcement of “biblical and traditional norms” for marital behavior.
My book's apparently misunderstood conclusion on the minimal immediate impact of such activity, however, is not a denial of the importance of marriage as a social institution or of the possibility of social reform but rather a meditation on the evolutionary pace of significant changes in such basic social institutions as marriage. Neuhaus' concerns about the high rates of divorce and illegitimacy in our society, while certainly valid, might also take into account that every generation bears the conceit that its own problems are both unique and monumental.
Given the complexity of these two social issues, I hesitate to claim any insight except perhaps that vague appeals to “biblical and traditional norms” will yield no more clear-cut solutions—especially among Christian leaders—than they did four hundred years ago. Our cultural heritage is not a fragile ossified relic; it is the adaptable and dynamic experience of all those who came before us. If we claim to be listening to them, we must at least recognize that they, like us, speak with several voices. If we claim to honor them, we will not reduce their experience to a backdrop, favorable or unfavorable, for our own concerns.
Joel F. Harrington
Department of History
In “The Pleasure of Regretful Unbelief” (Public Square, June/July) Richard John Neuhaus is right on target in identifying John Updike as “religion-obsessed,” although I would have preferred a less pejorative word than “obsessed.” This is evident in his novels, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, especially his memoirs. In the latter he records his debt to G. K. Chesterton, who helped him to retain his Christian faith.
Hence, I was surprised to read later in the essay that Updike had misplaced his faith and could not find it again. “He provides his readers a momentary pleasure of pre-tended angst about their certitudes, a brush with ever so refined and regretful unbelief.” This is not so, nor is it kindly put.
In this brief note it is impossible to present the massive amount of evidence to the contrary in each novel from The Poorhouse Fair to In the Beauty of the Lilies. Instead, let me recommend to you one of Updike's finest poems, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (in Verses). It is a clear testament of Christian faith; unquestionably, he is on the side of being and the enemy of nothingness. He belongs rightly in the company of Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, and John Cheever—different as each is, but life-givers all of them. Let me end with a quotation from “Fever”—“God exists.”
Joseph Schwartz, Editor
Richard John Neuhaus' rethinking the question of literary borrowing (“He Who Steals My Words . . .” January) invites serious reflection on the matter of ethical integrity. Historical-critical assumptions that undergird biblical scholarship over the last two centuries have taught us to believe that certain books of the Bible are pseudepigrapha, i.e., works written by unknown authors but attributed to apostles, prophets, or pillars of the faith. Ancient writers, it is maintained, were decidedly less interested in copyright and borrowed rather freely. Furthermore, motives for pseudonymity, we are assured, were noble, with no desire on the part of the unknown writer to deceive. Not insignificantly, however, an upshot of the assumption that false attribution—i.e., pseudonymity—occurs throughout biblical literature is that the biblical books lose their authority, since they are judged not to be authentic.
More recent scholarship, particularly among orthodox biblical scholars and even historians of no religious conviction, has demonstrated rather persuasively that the ancients in fact were not uncritical regarding literary borrowing, even when such practice was widespread. Indeed, the apostle Paul underscores the ethical implications of false attribution and literary borrowing, as if to say that originality and authenticity are a hallmark of Christian integrity: “I, Paul, write this . . . with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine: it is the way I write” (2 Thessalonians 3:17). It should even be noted that Paul is careful to distinguish in his writings between letters penned by a secretary—i.e., one merely recording the apostle's thoughts—and letters that come from his own hand.
Whereas false attribution appears to have plagued ancient religious writers, a tendency that seems to plague their modern counterparts is a failure to attribute sources at all. This aversion to footnotes is largely encouraged by a rather freewheeling attitude toward ghostwriting, the religious world's marketing of its superstars, and the considerable financial reward that attends this modern version of pseudepigraphy (a reward that customarily trumps any initial agonizing over the ethical question). In the end, both parties—the borrower and the borrowed—prostitute themselves for personal gain. In the end, both have sold a part of themselves.
That this phenomenon occurs among people professing faith is not as disturbing as the extent to which it is practiced. Let us hope that the Christian community continues to scrutinize the practice, at the core of which stands no less than personal integrity and religious authority, not to mention the reputation of the Lord of Hosts.
J. Daryl Charles
Ellicott City, MD