While We're At It
• Here's an interesting statement by Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, who also runs the “Crunchy Con” blog on beliefnet.com. Some years ago he was giving major attention to the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and a priest warned him that “I was going to find places darker than I realized existed.” He did, and he left the Catholic Church. “After I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity,” he writes, “I made a deliberate decision not to investigate the scandals in my own church. And there are scandals there. My family needs me to be spiritually healthy. My family needs to have a church. And there's nowhere left to go. So I can stand on the sidelines and watch journalists commenting about scandals in the Orthodox Church, and I can cheer them on to see justice done, but I cannot be involved in that. If that makes me less of a journalist, then that's something I have to live with, but at least now I know my weakness.” He is not less of a journalist, and his decision does not reflect a weakness. He is simply a journalist who has decided that, for compelling personal reasons, his beat is not the Orthodox Church. He and his family need a church and “there's nowhere left to go.” Many Catholics feel the same way and, for sound reasons, believe Orthodoxy is not a place to go. As with Dreher and Orthodoxy, there are things these Catholics really don't want to know about their Church. They know that it is a community of sinners—and of sinners forgiven, called to be saints, and usually failing to respond to the call as they should—and that is enough. A while back we were sharply criticized for refusing to accept advertising for a book on the Catholic abuse crisis that, among other things, went into salacious detail about what some bad priests did to young boys. That was not the only reason for rejecting the advertising, but it was a major reason. We thought there were some things people didn't need to know and didn't want to know, and for good reasons. As I trust is obvious, that does not prevent this magazine from dealing candidly with continuing patterns of corruption in the Church. So I have considerable sympathy for Rod Dreher's decision not to try to win journalistic kudos for investigating what's wrong with Orthodoxy. At the same time, if he had made the same decision for the same reasons some years ago, I suppose he would still be a Catholic.
• It is hard to argue against the claim—and I am not at all inclined to attempt it—that Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is the gold standard for the writing of biography. It is often said that Johnson is larger than life, but it is more accurate to say that he showed how large life is. Nobody thought that one man could produce that monumental dictionary of the English language, but Johnson did. With a few assistants, to be sure. He included himself in his definition of a lexicographer: “A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” His definition of essay certainly does not apply to his own efforts in that direction: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” It is as though he had foreseen the blogosphere two centuries ahead of its time. Once one starts quoting Johnson, citing Rasselas, The Idler, and the Lives of the Poets, there is no end to it. As with writers such as Chesterton and Montaigne, I find it advisable to read him in small pieces. Too much Johnson and you start trying to sound like him, which is a sure way to sound foolish. Yet on occasion during the passionate excitements of the recent election, I found myself repeating on more than one occasion this sage counsel: “ How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure. / Still to ourselves in every place consigned, / Our own felicity we make or find.” Of the writing of books about Johnson there is no end. Basic Books has just brought out Jeffrey Meyers' Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. It's big (520 pages) and has a workmanlike account that provides for Johnson devotees a welcome revisiting of the familiar episodes in a life lived in heroic defiance of innumerable obstacles and afflictions. Regrettably, Meyers exhibits unwarranted certitude and eagerness in claiming that Johnson indulged in masochistic erotic practices. He suggests that other Johnson scholars are prudes or are too careful of the great man's reputation to recognize the obvious when, in fact, what Meyers asserts is by no means obvious. He is also disposed to see in Johnson's rigorous religious principles the source of his lifelong feelings of guilt and flirtations with despair, when Johnson himself was convinced that his religion supplied his fragile hold on sanity. Meyers dismisses Walter Jackson Bate's great 1977 biography, Samuel Johnson, as “academic and sometimes stretching credulity with dubious psychoanalytic theories.” It is true that Bate overdoes the psychoanalytic speculation, but his book is marked by an intense curiosity about the man and reflects an admiration not untouched by awe for the human phenomenon that is Samuel Johnson. The same cannot be said of Meyers, who, quite implausibly, thinks he understands his subject. I have read Bate's biography several times. Meyers' book is a generally reliable introduction, but I cannot imagine anyone rereading it in order to marvel again at the human possibilities revealed in the life of Samuel Johnson.
• The viciousness of attacks on Sarah Palin took many forms. Prominent among them was the claim that she is some kind of religious fanatic. Among the evidences produced is that the local church of which she is a member sponsored a conference on how to help people who suffer from unwanted same-sex attractions. In the view of gay activists and their supporters, this is intolerable. Our therapeutic society offers programs of help for every imaginable problem, discontent, maladjustment, or unhappiness. When it comes to same-sex attractions, however, the problem is in thinking it is a problem. Those who, for whatever reason, do not want to act upon their homosexual impulses are, in this view, indeed in need of help. But the only approved form of help is to encourage them to embrace their temptations and make their peace with accepting their identity as gay. This is among the questions addressed in a lively book of essays by young Catholics, Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflects on Life, Love, Sex, and Other Mysteries. David Morrison is a writer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in international development and finance. He has also written a little book published by Our Sunday Visitor, Beyond Gay. In Faith at the Edge he writes: “At bottom, the Church's teaching on homosexuality is a matter of discipleship. I turned forty this year, and all around me in my parish there are men and women about my age who don't self-define as gay or lesbian yet are not closer to being married than I am. And the Church expects them to live chastely as part of making Christ the Lord in their lives. The issue is not what tempts us, then. The issue is how we live. Living chastely is hard, just like forgiving and asking others to forgive us, just like being charitable to folks who make us angry. But following Christ is not impossibly hard. I have found, for example, that the growth of love in a chaste relationship can be every bit as deep as the love I experienced while I was having sex. And in the end, I don't believe homosexual sex is objectively loving because genuine love seeks what is best for the beloved—not merely what's convenient, not merely what feels good or reassuring or serves emotional needs, but what is truly best for the person we love. . . . At the same time, there can be in friendship so much good and so much grace. God's love is like water. It finds a way. So my reaction to the Church's teaching on homosexuality is that we all should ask ourselves how willing we are to follow Christ and take him up on his offer. For it is a leap of faith. But it's been my experience, and the experience of a lot of people I know, that when we take the leap of faith, he's there to catch us, and he does catch us, and he'll catch you.” One might call that countercultural. More accurately, it is counter the gay subculture that has made such astonishing strides in normalizing the deviant and anathematizing dissent from the doctrine that the essential self is defined by disordered desire.
• As you would expect, the editors of Christianity Today paid particular attention to the massive media bashing of Sarah Palin. Much of it was focused on her unabashed commitment as an evangelical Christian. For all her defense of Christian values, her unmarried daughter is pregnant: Gotcha! To which the editors respond, “We specialize in troubled lives. . . . Evangelical pews are full of people whose lives are untidy. If we get angry when a teen gets pregnant, it is not at the hot-blooded teens but at the fashion and entertainment industries that persistently sexualize the images of the young and set them up for bad choices.” So what about the evangelical belief that women shouldn't exercise authority over men? The editors respond, citing the biblical Deborah and Britain's Margaret Thatcher: “Gender is complex and fundamental and not a mere social construction. It functions in archetypal ways. Many conservative Christians (though not all) believe these archetypes provide symbolic structure to church and marriage. God distributes gifts across gender lines, and women and men who develop their gifts do so to the Giver's glory. God created church and marriage, they say, and God wrote the user's manual for each. . . . Maleness and femaleness, though potent archetypes in church and home, are neither qualification nor impediment in any other endeavor.” Any other questions? In fact, there were many others, although they were usually not questions but snotty and condescending caricatures. Particularly odd, in view of the candidates on the other side, was the claim that she did not have sufficient governing experience. I forget how many waves of “the new feminism” we're supposed to have been through, but the treatment of Sarah Palin, especially by professed feminists, cannot have been good for any of them.
• It is the end of the affair. This is not something one does lightly. For years, for decades, reading the New York Times each morning seemed to be inseparable from being a New Yorker. I don't know when that stopped being the case. I see that I have a draft of this statement on “the end of the affair” that is dated all of three years ago. So there have been for some time intimations of a terminal nature. It's not that the Times has become that much worse in recent years. Its familiar slants and spins simply seem less interesting, mainly because they are so utterly familiar. Maybe it has something to do with me as well, but it is increasingly infrequent that the morning reading of it can get a rise out of me. It was for years part of the routine: Get up, pray the morning office, then coffee and half an hour or so with the Times before Mass, and into the day. Those of us of a certain age don't like to change our routines. But I noticed that, as often as not, the half hour was down to fifteen minutes or less as my attention was distracted by a book or magazine article close at hand. A factor in the decision was, of course, the Internet. If there's something you really do want to read in the Times, it's all there at the click of a mouse. Do I feel just a smidgen of guilt at having cancelled my subscription? No, not at all. I might have fifteen or twenty years ago, when reading the Times seemed of a piece with one's civic duty. Now it is one of numerous news and opinion sources one may check out as needed. I don't say I won't miss at times the morning ritual of coffee and a leisurely read of a newspaper. We still get the Wall Street Journal at the office and I look over it with some regularity. As for the Times, with its boring predictability of opinion and partisan slants on the news (opinion and news being often indistinguishable), both the pleasure and the benefit have long since departed. A friend tells me that not to be engaged with the Times is not to be engaged with a crucially important part of the culture. I used to think that way about the Times, too, but it seems a long time ago. Truth to tell, there's little fun left even in ribbing the Times. It is a pitiably vulnerable target in a target-rich environment. Paying attention seems to be a bit cruel. But, I am asked, what would happen to the New York Times if everybody canceled their subscriptions? I am reminded of my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Wooton: “No you can't. What would happen if everybody wanted to go to the bathroom?” That never struck me as a persuasive argument. As to what would happen if the New York Times went under, I have that on a list of things to worry about. It is a very long list.
• One of the more controversial figures in recent Vatican history is Archbishop Annibale Bugnini. For reasons that puzzled many, Paul VI put him in charge of revising the form of the Mass following the Second Vatican Council. Later, for reasons yet more deeply shrouded in mystery, the pope exiled him to Iran as pro-nuncio. He died in 1982. The “ordinary form” of the Mass, used by the great majority of Catholics today, is sometimes, and usually meaning no compliment, called the Bugnini Mass. Benedict XVI has recently given general permission for the use of the “extraordinary form” in Latin, which is sometimes called the Tridentine Mass or the Paul V Mass, although Benedict calls it the John XXIII form, since it was modestly revised by John and used at the sessions of the council. Got all that? I bring this up because there is an interesting tidbit in Antiphon, a liturgical journal. It is in a response to critics by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger before he was elected pope. He reports that a cardinal of the Roman curia once asked Bugnini about the longevity he expected for “his missal.” Bugnini answered that he expected it would be used for twenty or thirty years. Ratzinger writes: “On this point I am decidedly in disagreement with Bugnini: A missal is not a book good for only twenty or thirty years; rather, it is situated in the great continuity of the history of the liturgy, in which there is always growth and purification, but not ruptures. In this respect, I am much more in favor of the stability of this missal than was he with whose name it is perhaps too much associated.” And so Ratzinger has a higher estimate of Bugnini's revisions than did Bugnini—not because he approves of them but because for forty years they have been part of the Church's liturgy and he has a much higher estimate of the importance of continuity in the life of the Church.
• It seems that everything and everyone is being deconstructed, so why not Abraham Lincoln? Allen Guelzo, a distinguished Lincoln scholar, answers that question in his review of Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President by Thomas L. Krannawitter. Guelzo writes: “For a century and more after his death, Abraham Lincoln was extolled as the greatest example of what American democracy offered in a statesman. But just as a vast skepticism about the value of democracy has darkened the American mind over the past generation, so has a skepticism about the value of Abraham Lincoln, and it has become fashionable for democracy's despisers to cast Lincoln as a racist, a wrecker of the Constitution, a military despot, a capitalist tool, and a great fixer rather than a Great Emancipator. Nothing, however, surpasses Vindicating Lincoln in exploding the addled libels of the Lincoln-haters. One by one, in his nine chapters, Krannawitter patiently—and sometimes hilariously— disassembles the myths of Lincoln-the-tyrant, Lincoln-the-racist, and Lincoln-the-betrayer, and once more restores the epic gleam of Lincoln the defender of natural right, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Union. It is a good thing, too, for he is right to warn that ‘if Americans come to believe that the President reputed to be the greatest was in truth a scoundrel unworthy of respect,' then they will ineluctably surrender to ‘the mistaken idea that there is nothing noble or beautiful about politics.' The result will be political cynicism and a withdrawal from the public square of citizenship into ‘our private pursuits and private interests.' Who then ‘will hold our government accountable to Constitutional and moral standards'? Who, indeed? And then conservatives will have become the chief instrument of the nightmare they complain about. Conservative philosophy, I think, can do better. And it can start with Vindicating Lincoln.” There is a measure of contrarian charm in some of the conservative criticisms of Lincoln. There is no doubt that we still live with his dramatic expansion of the power of the federal government, and some of the speculations about how the Civil War could have been prevented are of more than passing, if only academic, interest. But Abraham Lincoln is alone among American presidents, and almost alone among the leaders of nations, in evincing a gravity and wisdom born of life's bittersweetness and reaching toward what can only be described as moral and spiritual grandeur.
• The new issue of the Chesterton Review is out and, as usual, has some fetching items. There are, for instance, some verses by Hilaire Belloc. This one is titled “On a Great Name”:
I heard today Godolphin say
He never gave himself away.
Come, come, Godolphin, scion of kings,
Be generous in little things.
And there is this:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: and serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
The concluding lines of “Jim” are among Belloc's best. Jim is a little boy who is taken by his nurse to the zoo, where he runs away and gets himself eaten by a lion. It ends with this: And always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse.
• This issue of the Chesterton Review also contains a long article by Ann Farmer, “Chesterton: Religion, Anti-Semitism, and the Politics of the Underdog,” which was the subject of her dissertation at Cambridge. At the same time, Adam Gopnik publishes a substantial essay on GKC in the New Yorker. Gopnik is appreciative of GKC's literary brilliance but is among those who tend to view anything related to Jews retrospectively through the prism of Auschwitz. Today we cringe at some things GKC wrote about Jews, but Gopnik is wrong to dismiss with indignation any mitigating explanations having to do with the cultural climate of that time. Long before it was fashionable to do so, GKC vigorously criticized Nazism. Gopnik also caricatures, or simply fails to understand, his idea of “distributism.” Since GKC was certainly not a communist and was not quite a fascist, says Gopnik, he was at least “in spirit” a Falangist along the lines of the Franco regime in Spain. Gopnik writes: “He dreamed of an anticapitalist agricultural state overseen by the Catholic Church and governed by a military for whom medieval ideas of honor still resonated, a place where Jews would not be persecuted or killed, certainly, but hived off and always marked as foreigners. All anti-utopians cherish a secret utopia, an Eden of their own, and his, ironically, was achieved: His ideal order was ascendant over the whole Iberian Peninsula for half a century. And a bleak place it was, too, with a fearful ruling class running a frightened population in an atmosphere of poverty-stricken uniformity and terrified stasis—a lot more like the actual medieval condition than like the Victorian fantasy.” To which Matthew Boudway of Commonweal responds: “There are many good ways to interpret Chesterton's distributism, and there are good ways to criticize it. But this is not one of them. It is a very long way from The Napoleon of Notting Hill to Alcázar. Chesterton was, as Gopnik insists, a localist, but there was really nothing localist about Franco's regime, which was characterized by strict centralization, cultural uniformity, and militarism—things Chesterton always opposed. (Ask a Catalonian about Franco's tolerance of localism.) Chesterton's main criticism of ‘Prussianism,' and later of Nazi Germany, was not, as Gopnik says, that it resembled Judaism in its belief in a chosen people, but that it was essentially militarist and autocratic. Despite Chesterton's ‘medievalism,' it is not at all obvious what sort of modern political mechanisms would have best embodied his distributist theory, which is arguably the theory's greatest weakness. What is clear is that distributism was as different from Franco's brutal politics as it was from Bernard Shaw's socialism. Gopnik is impatient with such theoretical distinctions. For him, it is all about tendencies: All radical critiques of capitalism tend toward communism, which has failed, or toward some kind of anti-Semitic authoritarianism. One is allowed to have a few mild reservations about capitalism, of course, and even to look down at the pitiless people who seem to have fewer reservations (i.e., Republicans), but any less mild opposition to our political economy, whatever its name or origin, is headed toward trouble: if not the Gulag or the gas chamber, then the Inquisition.” That puts the matter very nicely.
• Some evangelical Protestants call themselves “red-letter Christians” (derived from the practice of printing the words of Jesus in red ink in some editions of the Bible). In fact, the very leftist folk at Sojourners magazine have a blog by that name. It says that red-letter Christians attend to all the words of Jesus and shun the reduction of Christian teaching to “hot button issues such as abortion and homosexuality.” Now HarperCollins has brought out The Green Bible with all the references to caring for the earth highlighted in green. It is endorsed by, among others, the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, and the National Council of Churches. The publicity carries this notice: “With over 1,000 references to earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth.” One hopes the earth is listening. Faith, hope, love, and earth abide, and the greatest of these is earth. Another unique feature of The Green Bible is that it includes contributions by additional, and presumably inspired, authors, including Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, Desmond Tutu, and, it says here, “many others.” The development of doctrine is one thing. The expansion of the canon of scripture hasn't been tried since the third century. But, as Nobel laureate Al Gore reminds us, inconvenient truths call for unconventional measures.
• Whatever else you do, don't leave your money to your children. It will probably spoil them, induce conflicted feelings of guilt and entitlement, and generally undermine their character and usefulness to society. So advises Frank J. Hanna in a new book, What Your Money Means: And How to Use It Well. A wealthy businessman in Atlanta, Hanna has written what he describes as a “lean no-nonsense” guide for Christians and others who are confused about the morality of being rich. A strong defender of private property and the market economy, he is more than equally committed to the principle of “the universal destination of earthly goods,” which means, quite simply, that you are the steward or manager, and not the absolute owner, of what you possess. Hanna sharply distinguishes between essential goods, work-related goods, beneficial goods, and what he calls the excess wealth that is to be used for others. The distinctions are sharp, but he knows that their application is sometimes unclear and readily acknowledges that he is still learning. He addresses at length wise and unwise philanthropy, drawing on the counsel of such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The book is sprinkled with sage sayings and delightful cartoons about the delusions and confusions that attend being rich. He does not agree with Sen. Joseph Biden that paying taxes is a form of patriotism, in which connection he quotes the humorist P.J. O'Rourke: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.” At the same time, he eschews some conventional forms of Washington-bashing. Again he quotes O'Rourke: “For the people in government, rather than the people who pester it, Washington is an early-rising, hard-working city. It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.” Humorous, provocative, and wise, What Your Money Means will be welcomed by people who don't know what to do about having more money than they need to fulfill their obvious responsibilities.
• Top curial officials are, in the Roman manner, famously convoluted in their public statements, frequently leaving audiences to ask, “What was that about?” Franc Cardinal Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which has oversight of religious orders in the Church, violates the stereotype. On a recent visit to this country, he spoke of religious orders in terminal decline, which “see the handwriting on the wall” and morbidly dwell on the question of who will turn out the lights. He noted that there are also lively new orders that are attracting many youthful vocations, but his concern is with “those who have simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community, and seek to do so in the most peaceful manner possible, thanking God for past benefits.” Of still deeper concern are “those who have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to ‘stay' in the Church physically.” This is, says His Eminence, the result of “pseudo-aggiornamento,” referring to a grave distortion of the Second Vatican Council's call for aggiornamento, or renewal. This distortion is evident in many ways: “In talk about holiness that is divorced from fulfillment of Christ's law and the concept of grace. In minimizing sin. In the acceptance of the world as it is, with no need of conversion. In taking the world as the criterion according to which the Church should be reformed....In rejection of authority, hence the rejection of the magisterium and all canonical and disciplinary ordering in the Church.” And what is the answer? “Religious life, being a gift from the Holy Spirit to the individual religious and the Church, depends especially on fidelity to its origins, fidelity to the founder, fidelity to the particular charism. Fidelity to that charism is essential, for God blesses fidelity while he ‘opposes the proud.' The complete rupture of some with the past goes against the nature of a religious congregation and, essentially, provokes God's rejection.” The cardinal's is a grim but accurate depiction of religious communities that have followed their misreading of “the spirit of Council” to imminent oblivion.
• Some call it faithfulness and some call it fanaticism. People get hold of a truth and will not let it go, or a truth gets hold of them and will not let them go. In the case of Steven Mosher, I call it faithfulness. Many years ago he broke the story of China's coercive one-child-only policy, and he is now president of the Population Research Institute. He has written for publications as various as the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and First Things, and he now has a book out, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (Transaction). Ideological fanaticism is rampant in agencies of the United Nations and other international organizations set on imposing, by means fair or foul, population control on the poor countries of the world. Mosher writes: “As these examples suggest, population control is ultimately out of sync with history. Neither West nor East required government-mandated family-planning programs during its period of rapid demographic and economic growth. (One can only imagine the public outcry if anything along the lines of a state-mandated condom distribution program had been attempted in Victorian England.) Yet leaders of the developing world are not told these obvious truths from our own history and experience. Instead, they are misled into thinking that lowering their country's birthrate will jumpstart economic development. ‘Look at us,' we say. ‘We have small families and are wealthy.' What we do not tell them is that this argument slyly reverses cause and effect. Declining fertility in the West was not the cause of economic development, but rather its unintended consequence. Moreover, it had a significant downside, and was resisted by a number of European governments, largely to no avail. Most economists will agree that ‘economic development is the best contraceptive.' Coercive population-control programs aside, the other factors leading to reduced fertility are closely related to economic development, namely urbanization, industrialization, and female participation in the work force. As a nation's economy develops, young people tend to marry later and to postpone childbirth. Even for those who remain in the countryside, the advent of modern agricultural technology, basic health care, and pension programs cause a marked drop in the birthrate. Farmers who enjoy these benefits don't feel the need to have as many children to work the fields, to ensure that some children survive, or to take care of them when they are old and infirm. As the quality of life of the people goes up, the birthrate goes down. Even Indira Gandhi, who directed India's infamous sterilization campaign of the mid-1970s, later moved away from forced-pace measures. Observing that the birthrate in Kerala and the more advanced states of the Indian south was falling naturally, she rethought her position. By 1984 she could be quoted as saying that ‘The very best way of inducing people to have smaller families is more development. Where we have highly industrialized areas or much better education or even much better agriculture, we find automatically families tend to grow smaller.'” It was not easy to pick out this one passage of common sense, including moral sense, from a book that has so many. The title is Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits.
• You may have run into the claim that the Catholic teaching on conscience is really quite circular: You must act according to conscience; your conscience must be rightly formed in accord with truth; the Church teaches the truth. Thus the upshot is, critics say, that you must do what the Church tells you to do, and so much for all the fine talk about conscience. There is indeed much confusion about conscience. Some think of conscience as a little built-in moral regulator that scolds you when you do wrong and commends you when you do right. Much like the cute cartoons in which a little angel is seated on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. Others confuse conscience with sincerity. To act in conscience is to determine your deepest feelings on a matter and to act accordingly. Rather, conscience is a God-given capacity and desire to seek the truth and, working together with the gifts of reason and will, to act on the truth. What then is the role of the Church's teaching? The answer has to do not so much with conscience as with faith. If one believes that, as Jesus promised, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in her teaching, the Church is an indispensable source of truth, including moral truth. If one does not believe that, one is, to that extent, not a Catholic Christian. Conscience does not establish truth—whether by automatic moral monitor or by sincerity of feelings—but enables us to discern and respond to truth. It is not simply a matter of doing what the Church tells you to do. It is a matter of acting in conscience, in the hope that one's conscience is formed by truth. These are among the questions very deftly and persuasively treated by Fr. Thomas Williams in his new book, Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience. Reading it is time spent in good conscience.
• A week before the November election, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter observed that he may be the only reporter in America who had not weighed in on the presidential race. Finally his abstemiousness “began to feel more like stubbornness than good journalistic judgment, considering all that's at stake and the obvious passion people feel for the subject.” And so he weighed in with a remarkably tendentious and muddled commentary on how so many Catholics are “alienated from both parties” and feel “disenfranchised.” So why, on that score, should Catholics be different from many, if not most, other voters? But Allen wants a party that represents “a holistic Catholic sensibility,” and toward that end thinks Catholics should work at capturing one party or the other, although he admits he doesn't know how that might be done. He offers a “thought exercise.” “What would happen if a serious candidate came along who's pro-life, pro-family, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-death penalty, pro-sustainable development, and a multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom and a robust role for believers in public life? . . . The machinery of both major parties, however, appears almost designed to prevent such a person from ever being nominated.” Really? If one sets aside conventional liberal biases in defining such slogans, it is obvious that an argument can be made that John McCain meets, except for the death penalty, all those desiderata. In a wearily familiar mode, Allen bundles issues, gives each its liberal spin, and then suggests both candidates are unacceptable, leaving it implicit that Obama is less unacceptable than McCain. In truth, there is one issue on which the candidates stood in stark and long-entrenched opposition. The Catholic Church consistently and relentlessly teaches at every level of teaching authority that the unborn child should be cared for and protected in law. McCain agreed. Obama not only disagreed but adamantly declared his support for the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe, government funding of abortion, and the elimination of existing, and very modest, regulation of abortion by the states. Contra chatter about a “holistic Catholic sensibility,” abortion is the only one of the above-mentioned issues on which the Church has spoken with such consistency, force, and authority, even raising it to the level where it entails mortal sin and impinges on one's communion with the Church. Allen goes on to ask, “Do the bishops want their relationship with an Obama White House to be dominated by a political and judicial struggle they almost certainly can't win? Or would it be more prudent to seek common ground [on issues on which they agree]?” Here Allen again lists the issues on which he tendentiously assumes Obama agrees with Catholic teaching. But the more important question is: Why should the bishops be worried about their relations with an Obama White House, or, had it turned out that way, a McCain White House? The bishops are a magisterium, not a political lobby. Their job is to teach with clarity and apostolic zeal the Church's truth on faith and morals. Obviously, they and the priests and others who are to help them have not done that as effectively as they should, as witness the number of Catholics for whom revealed truth is trumped by a “holistic sensibility.” Apart from the political partisanship, however, John Allen's initial concern is misguided. Why is it a problem that Catholics are politically “disenfranchised” or “homeless”? True, most Catholics once thought they had a “home” in the Democratic party, but that was part of a long immigrant experience that is, for most Catholics, now long past. For Catholics, as for all Christians, “we have here no abiding city” (Heb. 13:14). The sense of being homeless, out of step, and bereft of any enduring alliance with parties or temporal powers is a sign of Christian fidelity. In our exile we can, as Jeremiah advises the Jews in their Babylonian exile, work with whoever is willing to advance whatever measure of justice is possible in what St. Augustine calls the “city of man,” which is far short of our destiny in the City of God. Meanwhile, political homelessness is not our problem but our appointed circumstance on the way toward home.
• C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox barely knew, although they greatly admired, one another. The title of Fr. Milton Walsh's book from Ignatius is Second Friends. First friends, according to Lewis, are those who say what we believe, only better. With second friends we carry on a running debate in our minds. The book is a delightful read, as you can see from passages such as this: “Lewis spoke of the ‘tropical fertility' of Roman doctrines, which to his mind went beyond ‘mere Christianity.' For Knox, on the other hand, it is for the college of bishops united with the pope, the successors of the apostles, to determine what ‘mere Christianity' is, and Lewis' ‘belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times' is for Knox the Catholic faith. But undoubtedly there was something ‘foreign' about the feel of Catholicism to many Englishmen, and Knox feared that this allowed them to see conversion simply as a matter of temperament: ‘If you love to exaggerate, to proclaim defiant paradoxes, to swim with the tide of exuberant spirituality which foams down in flood from the Seven Hills, then the Church of Rome is the place for you. It is otherwise if you are critical in your outlook, guarded in your judgments, tender towards the inherited prejudices and the robust common sense of Protestant England. Rome is for the Roman-minded.' But if there are, in the Catholic fold, those who seek to enlarge the province of piety, lavish new titles on Our Lady, and extend the sway of papal authority, ‘there are others who keep a jealous eye on the documents of antiquity whose concern is to safeguard the balanced edifice of Christian doctrine,' and Knox counted himself among this group. For this reason, it is interesting to imagine him discussing specifically Catholic beliefs with Lewis, who certainly was critical in his outlook, guarded in his judgments, and tender toward the inherited prejudices and the robust common sense of Protestant England.” Second Friends is a contribution to—although certainly not a resolution of—the debate over whether Lewis was on his way to becoming a Catholic. My impression, for what it's worth, is that he had quite decidedly settled that question in the negative.
• Tolerance strikes again. Sponsored by Pakistan and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the UN general assembly is again taking up a resolution against the “defamation of religion.” The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is on the case. Says its president, Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, “These laws are part of a worldwide campaign to create international blasphemy laws. They are an assault on free speech and the free exercise of religion couched in the diplomatic language of tolerance and respect.” That puts it very nicely.
The coalition opposing the resolution includes also the American Jewish Congress, Freedom House, and the International Quranic Center. Wish them well.
• Long before people talked about politically correct opinion, it was understood that an absolute requisite for being deemed intellectually respectable was to evince an intense contempt for the bourgeoisie. One might survive being accused of many things, but not the charge of being bourgeois. Allen Guelzo, that indispensable biographer of Lincoln, has some fun with this cultural conceit in the course of reviewing Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Guelzo writes: “For the bourgeois mind turns out to be substantially more complex than its cultured despisers would have it be, and the best proof of that lies in how many of the cultured despisers are members of the bourgeoisie themselves. This is especially true in America. The American republic lacked an aristocracy, but it had bourgeois aplenty, so the middle classes in American history had to do double duty: They had to be the oppressor of the working class, while at the same time criticizing themselves for doing it. This is why the most revealing line in the entire prosy landscape of the Port Huron Statement in 1962 was its candid admission that the New Left was drawn from ‘people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.' Much as they liked to think of themselves as revolutionaries, the New Left were the prisoners of a bourgeois mentality, and their ‘modest comfort' was precisely what enabled them to look down upon others who thought ‘modest comfort' was not a bad thing and re-imagine themselves as a ‘vanguard'—which is to say, an aristocracy, predicated on intellect. America was born modern, and born bourgeois, and the best evidence for that is in Howe's book. Those who hope to act out the fantasy of Christian socialism or the Social Gospel or evangelical environmentalism are, like Diana Oughton and Bill Ayers, drawn to those fantasies precisely because they aspire to ascend to the changeless realm of the aristocrat, marked now not by ermine robes and coronets but by prestige, compassion, and the no-fault templates of sociological analysis. Too bad for them. They assault their jailer, but they remain in jail.”
• Rome and national bishops' conferences have produced a number of compendiums of official texts aimed at making the Church's teaching more accessible. These can be helpful. But an American archbishop proposed at October's Synod on the Bible that there should also be a compendium of the Bible itself. It would be “totally ecclesial and Catholic,” he said, and it would be an aid for Catholics participating in Bible studies with other Christians. He no doubt means well, but one can hardly imagine a step better designed to confirm many non-Catholics in their belief that the Church does not trust the faithful to study the Bible—the entire Bible—on their own. Bible study guides are one thing; a bowdlerized Bible is something else. For Catholic or ecumenical Bible study, there is the excellent RSV (Catholic Edition), published by Ignatius Press, which includes helpful notes on reading the Bible with the Church. The bishops could take a great step forward in encouraging biblical literacy and appreciation by allowing the use of translations other than the clunky and eccentric New American Bible, with its endless permutations, in the readings at Mass—which for most Catholics is their chief exposure to biblical texts. The Catholic people do not need a compendium of the Bible; they need the Bible. I am told and hope it is true that the archbishop has withdrawn his suggestion.
• During the election campaign, the News Journal of Delaware published an interview with Sen. Joseph Biden that was conducted in 2007, when he was running for the presidential nomination and before he became the vice-presidential candidate. It begins with the question, “How do you reconcile your Catholic faith with your position on Roe v. Wade?” He offers the same potted history of Catholic teaching that got him into such trouble with the bishops in the summer of 2008 and concludes that in the third trimester “there's an overwhelming burden to say that there isn't a good reason to abort unless it relates to the mother's health.” Since, as he no doubt knows, “health” includes psychological distress at not being able to abort, his support for the unlimited abortion license is absolute. His response, following the loquaciousness for which he is loved by his friends, ends with this: “To sum it up, as a Catholic, I'm a John XXIII guy, I'm not a Pope John Paul guy.” The memory of John XXIII should be spared the sins of his putative admirers.
• I was recently invited by a television show to offer “a Christian perspective” on the current economic crisis. Apart from the futility of saying anything substantive in the three to (at the most) five minutes available, I was not at all sure that I had a view of the question that qualified as a distinctively Christian perspective, and so I declined. But not without being reminded of the poet John Betjeman, who in 1955 was asked by the head of religious programming at BBC to write poems on current affairs “from a Christian point of view.” Instead, he wrote a few lines about the suggestion:
The Reverend Martin Wilson wrote
To me a most disturbing note
Demanding of me Christian views
On current matters in the news.
The poem went on to discuss his deeper misgivings when the daily newspaper arrived with their dreadful reports on world affairs:
Riots in Cyprus, trouble in Greece,
Russia, it seems, is keen on peace.
A Christian comment on the news?
Dear Martin Wilson, I refuse.
Christians have perspectives on many things. Most of them are not to be confused with “a Christian perspective.”
• Even the finest of histories sometimes surprise by leaving out critical parts of the story they purport to tell. For instance, Forge of Empires, 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, by Michael Knox Beran, is a well-told tale of Lincoln, Bismarck, and Czar Alexander II, who were caught up in that remarkable decade's struggle between freedom and authoritarianism. Beran highlights the ways in which Lincoln saw the Civil War not only in terms of the American future but as a crucial test of the universal history of freedom. Thus he makes more than is usually made of these words of the Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” The “new birth of freedom” is for all peoples. Alexander II freed the serfs, of course, but then, in a mix of ineptitude and the distractions of imperial conquest, didn't know how to follow through on freedom's agenda and was wildly unpopular before being assassinated at age sixty-two in 1881. Beran doesn't mention it, but Dostoyevsky toyed with the idea of having Alyosha, in a further book of The Brothers Karamazov, abandon the faith, become a revolutionary fanatic, and assassinate the czar. Then there is Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, who created modern Germany by imposing a regime of paternalistic authoritarianism. And this gets us to what is missing. There is not a single reference to the Kulturkampf, the great “culture war” by which Bismarck attempted to eliminate the public influence of the Catholic Church. (I should mention that there is the same omission in Robert Bruce Mullin's Short World History of Christianity, a book that really is a great achievement and that I recently praised in this space.) The Kulturkampf is a relatively brief but critically important chapter in the history of Christianity and in the history of freedom, and not only of religious freedom. Bismarck expelled the Jesuits, who, the historically minded will remember, were once fervent partisans of the papacy. He took over church schools, charities, and periodicals; banned religious teaching from government schools; withdrew financial support from the Church; abolished religious orders; and imprisoned bishops and priests who resisted his measures. Rome responded with vigorous condemnations of his policies and strong support for Catholics in Germany, leading Bismarck, who had vastly underestimated the strength of the Church, to reverse most of his repressive measures by 1887 and make his peace with Leo XIII. Dramatically contrary to Bismarck's intentions, the Kulturkampf contributed to a great religious awakening and strengthening of the Catholic Church's influence in the public life of Germany. To be sure, history does not repeat itself, but there are pertinent similarities with culture wars of other times, including our own, and the omission of the Kulturkampf in a history of the nineteenth century's struggle for freedom is a very big omission indeed. It is not only that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. It is also that those who do not remember history are deprived of the lessons that can strengthen their resolve to resist those who would repeat it.
• It has been said by many, for many have discovered it to be true, that the Catholic Church is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. And, the longer one has been on the inside, the more one realizes that there are rooms, galleries, ballrooms, and wings leading to wings that one will never have time to explore until the whole splendid thing is transformed into the New Jerusalem and then there will be time enough. I thought of this when discussing with a gifted young woman her thoughts about whether she is called to the contemplative life. In the course of conversation, she told me she had been greatly influenced by a little book by a Mother Mary Francis, A Right to Be Merry, published in 1956. She loaned me her dog-eared copy of the book and I was quite taken with it. Mentioning it to Catholic friends, the response was, “Oh yes, A Right to Be Merry. Everybody has read that. It's a classic.” Far from everybody, as I discovered in conversations with other Catholics, but it has never gone out of print and is rightly cherished by those who have explored the wing of the Catholic Thing that is the contemplative life. More specifically, the contemplative life of the Poor Clares, who live the charism of St. Francis of Assisi and his partner in the wildness of holiness, St. Clare. The book is about a small community of sisters in Roswell, New Mexico, told with an arch charm and a sweetness that is never cloying. It is about the merriness of life unequivocally surrendered. Many passages clamor for quotation, but here is one sampling: “St. Clare is a true mirror of Mary. She built no hospitals, made no political pronouncements, inaugurated no new system of pedagogy and wrote no books. In the world's eyes, she did nothing at all. But what was she? Holy Church declares that she is a light more shining than light itself. The Church delights to frolic with her name: Clare, light. The Office of her feast is shot through the beams of that light which she was. And when the last speech has been made and the last atom shattered, St. Clare will still be a ‘bright light illuminating all the world.' She was a citadel of silence, and that is why she answers a crying need of our time. We have forgotten how to be silent; we have grown afraid. Yet nothing truly great or enduring was ever yet or will ever be achieved without silence. ‘While all things were in quiet silence, thy almighty Word, O God, leaped down from heaven.' In the singing silences of eternity the Word was begotten in the bosom of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeded as their mutual Love ablaze with silence.” The book is A Right to Be Merry, by Mother Mary Francis.
• As of this writing, the bishops' annual fall meeting, held this year in Baltimore, has just wrapped up. I was resting up from a bout with illness and so watched more of the proceedings on EWTN than I have before. That and conversations with knowledgeable participants left me with the impression that something both important and promising is afoot. For instance, the Grail translation of the Psalms was approved for liturgical use. A small thing? I think not. It is another step in the growing disillusionment with the clunky and eccentric New American Bible (NAB) now imposed on the Catholic faithful. Moreover, the bishops indicated that they have had enough with the obstructionist tactics of some “liturgical experts” and approved overwhelmingly the more accurate and felicitous translation of Latin texts for the Mass, renewing hopes that a new sacramentary will be ready by 2012. Bishops are extremely averse to criticizing other bishops, especially in public. This is, after all, an “old boys club” as well as part of the college of apostles. So it is impressive that the bishops responsible for overseeing the misconceived and mismanaged Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) were put on the carpet. The immediate occasion was CCHD's giving of millions of dollars to ACORN, a now infamous organization engaged in partisan policies dramatically at odds with the Church's teaching, especially on the protection of unborn children. Episcopal nerves were strengthened by a forceful address by Paul Cardinal Cordes, head of Cor Unum, the Vatican office for overseeing Catholic charities. Cordes emphasized the teaching of Benedict XVI, in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est and elsewhere, that Catholic work on behalf of the poor and needy must be imbued with explicit witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the integral and most important part of the Church's service. We may be witnessing the first moves in the dismantling of CCHD as presently constituted. Most important, however, was the strongly expressed awareness that, with the election of Barack Obama and his majority support among nominal Catholics, the Church must have the courage to be the Church. The talk about “bridge building” and “constructive cooperation” with the new administration was muted. The emphasis was on asserting the integrity of the Church's teaching and mission. There was even reference to the need to embrace the Church's noble tradition of martyrdom. At times, the bishops sounded like the successors to the apostles that they are. It is not the rule that meetings of the bishops can be described as edifying. This one, at least at moments, was.
Dreher at ReligionWriter.com, Sep 21, 2008; Palin, Christianity Today, Nov 2008; Ratzinger on Bugnini, in Antiphon, Winter 2007; Guelzo on Lincoln, in the Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2008; Belloc in the Chesterton Review, Fall/Winter 2007; Gopnik in the New Yorker, July 7 and 14, 2008; Boudway at Commonweal website, July 1, 2008; Cardinal Rode at Stonehill College, Sep 27, 2008; John Allen, at National Catholic Reporter website, Oct 24, 2008; Guelzo on the bourgeoisie, in Books & Culture, Sep/Oct 2008; Biden at DelawareOnline website, Oct 19, 2008; Betjeman in the Times Literary Supplement, Oct 3, 2008.