The Public Square
There is this odd thing that all the social science data agree that the United States is ever so much more religious, so much less secularized, than Western Europe. Yet I keep bumping into people who say that, when they are there, they are impressed that religion seems to be more publicly present. I expect one reason is that, whatever the different levels of religious belief and practice, the English, French, Germans, and others know that, whatever cultural identity they have, it is inextricably tied to Christian civilization. American identity, by contrast, is tied to abstract principles such as those of the Declaration of Independence which, at least in the last half century, have been publicly divorced from the civilizational matrix that gave them birth and can alone sustain them. The period of the American founding was a brief moment in which leading citizens such as Jefferson and Madison were enamored of what was thought to be the more “universal” language of the Enlightenment. Although with few exceptions the Founders were devoutly Christian, they were persuaded by influential thinkers of the time that biblical particularities could be smoothly translated into the vocabulary of nature and reason. A thought experiment: how would the Declaration of Independence have read had it been written a half century earlier, or later? In any event, herewith an editorial in the London Times published last year while the U.S. and NATO were bombing Serbia. One cannot imagine a similar editorial in any American newspaper of influence.
Making Peace by the Blood of His Cross
A Good Friday in a week of bombings, massacres, and ethnic cleansing is a stark reminder that the Christian gospel is no philosophical theory or mere symbolic story. It is a gospel of salvation that has at its heart the execution by barbaric torture of a particular man in a particular place at a particular point in time. What we remember on Good Friday is all of a piece with Kosovo today—and with the judicial murders and tortures of every century of human history. Golgotha, the place of the skull, where nails smashed through the wrists and feet of Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth in Galilee, can stand for the skulls of every genocide. Betrayal by friends, self-preserving denial, making sport with prisoners, the mockery of crowds, spectators drawn to the spectacle, the soldiers doing their duty and dicing for his clothes, a mother in agony and a knot of women helplessly looking on—it all happens time, and time, and time again.
Jesus was put to death in an occupied nation. His Crucifixion was the direct consequence of his challenge to the religious authorities of his day. It was no less a convenient way for a jittery Roman governor, nervous of trouble at Passover time, to get rid of a potential threat. The context of the Crucifixion of Jesus was a cocktail of religion and politics. Yet although this anchors it in history, we are compelled to look deeper to see why the Cross is the mark of Christian identity and the disclosure of what God is like.
The Gospels mark the ministry of Jesus with predictions of his passion. Sacrifice and suffering are at the very heart of who he is. As Dostoevsky affirmed, “Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.” Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom, or rule, of God, a kingdom that was neither pursued nor established by the ways of violence and power. His kingdom, as he tells Pontius Pilate in St. John's Gospel, is “not of this world.” Only if it were would his servants fight.
And yet there is a fight, a fight of a cosmic order of which he is at the heart. The ministry of Jesus is seen as a wrestling with the powers of evil, an engagement with that engulfing darkness named as sin and death. When Judas goes out to betray Jesus, St. John notes that it was night, and at the Crucifixion, the culmination of this struggle, the Gospels record that there was darkness over the land.
Jesus comes to do his Father's will, showing that will to be a love going to the uttermost, reaching out into the very darkness of Hell, plumbing the depths of human sin, betrayal, abandonment, and rejection. In a costly work of reconciliation he defeats the powers of darkness and establishes peace. That peace is the reconciliation of a sinful, fallen humanity, caught in a web of the worship of false gods, and driven by selfish desires, with the God who made men and women in the image of His love that they might reflect His likeness. It is called simple “atonement,” making one again. So peace is made “by the blood of His Cross.”
Good Friday is “good” only because of Easter. The Passion story without the Resurrection would be vastly different. It is the hope kindled by the Easter encounters with the Risen Jesus that makes all things new. In the light of Easter we see that love's redeeming work was indeed done through the Cross, not apart from the Cross. There the fight was fought and the battle won. The Resurrection is . . . the declaration of a victory won on the Cross, and in the darkness and silence of death, and even in the hell of utter apartness from God. From there Christ rose again in triumph.
And the Easter good news of the Cross and Resurrection has been found to bring hope and life in the most appalling situations, in refugee camps, on battlefields, and in the most abject human misery. On Good Friday and at Easter we know that even if we go down to Hell God is there also, for Christ's blood does indeed “stream in the firmament,” and in that blood, love going to the uttermost, we do indeed find our peace.
Dawson and the Daunting Questions
We owe a debt to the Catholic University of America Press and to editor Gerald J. Russello for Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (262 pages,, $24
paper). The appropriate way to pay that debt is to go get the book and read it. Dawson (1889-1970) was once a very big item, although in recent decades he has been sadly neglected. One hopes this excellent selection will help introduce him to another generation, for the questions he addressed become ever more urgent at the beginning of a new millennium. In the 1930s, T. S. Eliot, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, called Dawson the most powerful intellectual influence in Britain. He was also an important contributor to Eliot's journal, the Criterion.
As the essays collected here demonstrate, Dawson dared to risk historical and intellectual generalizations—his critics called them sweeping generalizations—and thereby provoked the displeasure of pedants who raised endless quibbles. He was not a professional historian in the academically respectable sense, but a layman of vast and deep learning who wrote history for the educated public. He was from 1958 to 1962 the first holder of Harvard's Charles Chauncey Stillman Chair in Catholic Studies (a chair that, one may note in passing, has since fallen prey to parties alien to the vision of both Dawson and Stillman), which gained him considerable recognition in this country, and in 1946-47 Dawson gave the distinguished Gifford lectures, which issued in two books, Religion and Culture and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.
The titles indicate his abiding interest, and his determination to persuade us that we cannot understand where we are as a civilization, or how we lost our way, or where we go from here without understanding religion as the primary variable in the constituting and sustaining of culture. His arguments had a great influence upon me in my formative years, and I would like to think that, were he alive today, Christopher Dawson would be a regular contributor to this journal. If I have a quibble about the present selection of essays, it is that the title should refer to Western culture rather than European culture. Of course there are those who contend that the terms are synonymous, with America being at present the most important location of European culture, but I do not agree with that, and neither did Dawson. In his comprehensive concepts of “the six ages of the Church” and the “seven stages of Western Civilization,” he recognized that something new and important is happening in America. His intuition that there would be in the not distant future a positive reaction to modernity's relentless secularization was linked, in important part, to the American prospect.
Scholars of a more secular bent frequently dismissed Dawson as a “medievalist,” meaning not his field of study but his disposition. Dawson did not take it as an insult. Unlike some Christian romantics, however, Dawson had no use for the idea that the way forward is to go back to, say, the thirteenth century. He did much of his work at a time when many of the brightest and best thought liberal democracy was moribund. The wave of the future, it was said, is the comprehensively planned, indeed totalitarian society, whether of the National Socialist or Marxist variety. Dawson did not believe that, or at least he was not prepared to surrender to it without putting up a fight. What is best in the liberal tradition of Western culture, he contended, can be protected and revitalized only by reasserting the soul of that culture, which is Christianity. This means that in the academy and in popular consciousness, the successes and failures of Christendom—the period roughly from Constantine to the sixteenth century—should be given equal status with Greco-Roman classicism and the achievements of modernity. This, he insisted, is who we are; and we cannot possibly give a convincing reason for the defense of who we are unless we know who we are.
After World War II, Europe was divided between Western and Soviet spheres. “This frontier, which passes through the heart of Central Europe,” Dawson wrote, “is not merely a political boundary; it is a line of division between two alien worlds which excludes the possibility of social intercourse and cultural communication, so that the man who wishes to pass from one part of Europe to the other is forced to abandon his citizenship and become a fugitive and an exile.” Like John Paul II and others, Dawson had no truck with the dominant idea at the time that Communist rule was a permanent feature and the best we could hope for was “peaceful coexistence” or, in the long term, some kind of “convergence.” He wrote that “the present division of Europe is so recent and so artificial that it is difficult to believe in its final character.” After the end of the evil empire, Dawson's reflections on the meaning of Europe and its importance for the world should be required reading for the current builders of the European Union.
The essays from the 1930s are haunted by the fears that all modern states, including those called democratic, are driven by a totalitarian impulse, that “the machine” would increasingly be the master of its maker, and that education and culture-formation would be increasingly centralized and conformist. They are warranted fears, then and now. Yet I expect Dawson would be encouraged by today's ascendancy of liberal democracy as the normative political order; surprised by the machine that turned into a digital revolution whose dynamic, it is reasonable to think, is more decentralizing than centralizing; and greatly heartened by current trends, notably in this country, toward dismantling the state monopoly in education.
I am not sure what he would think now about the big question of secularization and the possibility of a Christian culture. At one point he writes, “It is clear that contemporary culture can no longer be regarded as Christian, since it is probably the most completely secularized form of culture that has ever existed.” But later: “There can, I think, be little doubt that the present phase of intense secularization is a temporary one, and that it will be followed by a far-reaching reaction. I would even go so far as to suggest that the return to religion promises to be one of the dominant characteristics of the coming age.”
In another essay he quotes Eliot, who wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society: “A society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else. It is my contention that we have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which insofar as it is positive, is still Christian.” In that essay, Dawson suggests that Eliot underestimates the degree to which secularism “has become positively something else.” On this point, I find myself more on Eliot's side, and we should note that Dawson is elsewhere more ambivalent. As I have urged in these pages, ours is still a Christian society—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly so. The other things—consumerism, hedonism, radical individualism, gnostic spiritualities, and so forth—are declensions from Christianity. They are not “positively something else.” My point is that it is misleading and all too easy to speak about ours as a “post-Christian” society. It is contrary to social fact, and it lets Christians off the hook, giving us a neat excuse for not accepting responsibility for the cultural and moral crises of our country.
As I say, Christopher Dawson takes on the daunting questions of his time and ours. Christianity and European Culture is a good place to get acquainted, or to revisit an old acquaintance. He was convinced that Christianity is necessary to the West, but rejected the idea—advanced by some who have an instrumental view of religion—that Christianity should be embraced to shore up Western culture. “Nothing could be more fatal to the spirit of Christianity than a return to Christianity for political reasons,” he wrote. Or, as it was said upon the launching of this journal, “The first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” I am rather sure that Christopher Dawson would agree.
Always a Priest, Always Present
John Cardinal O'Connor had a reception at his residence to celebrate the publication of my most recent book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic). It was a quite splendid occasion, although His Eminence could not be there. He was confined to his bed, having taken a turn for the worse. The day before he could not say the Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, an event he never misses if at all possible. He asked Bishop Patrick Sheridan to stand in for him at the reception, and the bishop did a most able job of hosting the affair. On such occasions the author is expected to say a little something, and I took the opportunity for a brief tribute to my friend who was now into his final days as Archbishop of New York.
Thank you, Bishop Sheridan, for your gracious introduction. You said something about this handsome residence, and it is that. I have to tell you, though, that a prelate friend in Rome was recently taking me through his truly palatial quarters, by comparison to which this handsome residence is in the low-rent district. Murals in the bathroom by Raphael, drawing room decor by Bernini, and baroque splendor for days. “It isn't home,” says my friend, “but it's much.”
This reception is one more item on a very long list of debts I owe Cardinal O'Connor. In fact, the debt is beyond calculation. I first came to know the Cardinal when he arrived here as Archbishop in 1984, and our institute was able to be of some little help in his settling in to New York. Of course, some have thought him a most unsettling presence over these sixteen years, but that, not to put too fine a point on it, is their problem.
I think I can fairly say that we hit it off from the beginning, and he made it a point that I should call him my friend. Thus has he been for all these years “my dear and eminent friend.” On September 8, 1990, on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, he received me into full communion with the Catholic Church, and a year later, on the same day, ordained me a priest of the Catholic Church. It was, in his understanding and mine, the sacramental completion of a ministry undertaken many years earlier as a Lutheran pastor.
In 1989 the Cardinal issued a pastoral letter on the priesthood, also dated September 8, the Nativity of Our Lady. The letter is titled, “Always a Priest, Always Present.” There he wrote, “I believe that suffering is of the essence of the priesthood. The priest is preeminently a man of sacrifice.” This I have noted about the Cardinal over the years, that for him the priesthood and the Mass are always under the sign of sacrifice. The Eucharist, as you know, is many things: a meal in memory of Him; a communion of the living and dead in Christ; an anticipation of the eschatological Feast of the Lamb. But in the preaching and piety of John Cardinal O'Connor, it is preeminently the sacrifice of the Mass.
Perhaps some of you, too, have been impressed by the homiletical specificity and force with which he portrays the action of the Liturgy as the reenactment of the suffering, death, and glorious resurrection of Christ. At the epicenter is always the Cross. It is the sacrifice of the Mass not as the repetition of Calvary, to be sure, but as re-presentation to the Father and to us. “Always a Priest, Always Present.” Always a priest as one is present at and in the sacrifice of Christ, our high priest.
In the thought of the Cardinal, and in the testimony of his life, sacrifice is fulfillment, and the immeasurable joy of participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ, which embraces all the sufferings of the world. In the Cardinal's present weakness he knows yet more deeply that fulfillment and that joy. Redemptive suffering leaves its mark. In the pastoral letter on the priesthood he wrote, “It has always impressed me that even his risen body was scarred with the wounds of the Crucifixion. I cannot imagine an unscarred priest, a priest without wounds, because I cannot imagine an unscarred Christ.” Those of you who have already read Death on a Friday Afternoon know that the last chapter, on the last word from the Cross, is titled “The Scars of God.” About that, too, I have learned from my dear and eminent friend.
In recent weeks there have been a number of public events in tribute to the Cardinal. At one of them, the President of the City Council said that, in the more than three hundred years of New York City, no public figure has left as great a mark for the good. I haven't been here for three hundred years, but I'm not inclined to argue with that.
The Cardinal speaks often of his father, who was a highly skilled craftsman in Philadelphia. He was a gold-leafer, meaning that he applied gold to buildings and works of art. The Cardinal has followed in his father's steps. It is a different kind of gold, of course: a human gold not untouched by the divine; the gold of kindness, of generosity, of uncompromised witness to the truth, of devoted service to the end.
For years and years to come, people will be discovering in this often tarnished city the gold of my friend's craftsmanship. And when they see the signs of its shining, they will say, “Cardinal O'Connor was here. He was always a priest. He is always present.”
While We're At It
• First there was the bogus charge by the John McCain campaign that George W. Bush is anti-Catholic because he spoke at Bob Jones University without publicly challenging hard-core fundamentalism's biblical exegesis relative to the papacy and the Antichrist. Anti-Catholicism is a very serious matter and is more pervasive than many are willing to admit, but I really do not think we want politicians to play at being theologians in addressing the more virulent polemics between Catholics and Protestants that have marred the last four centuries. One may believe, as I do, that the view of the Catholic Church held by folks at Bob Jones is wrongheaded and even bizarre, but that is not what is ordinarily meant by “anti-Catholic prejudice.” It is, rather, a matter of grave theological error. Needless to say, those who tried to exploit the Bob Jones incident, and the media that gleefully joined in the exploitation, are not interested in theological error or truth but in scoring partisan points. The same partisan spirit drove another charge of anti-Catholicism, this time over the selection of a new Chaplain for the House of Representatives. For my sins, I was drawn into this dispute and spent hours and hours talking with parties involved and going over the pertinent documentation. It therefore came as a great relief when the man initially chosen for the post gracefully withdrew and Speaker Dennis Hastert named the widely respected Chicago priest Father Daniel Coughlin. Just for the record, however, the charge that the initial House Chaplain decision was motivated by anti-Catholicism is as plausible as the prospect of George W. Bush using the occasion of a political speech at Bob Jones University in order to challenge that school's misinterpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10. When announcing the appointment on the House floor, Hastert noted the partisan charges of anti-Catholic bigotry against him and the Republican leadership. “In all of my years in Congress, I have never seen a more cynical and more destructive political campaign. That such a campaign should be waged in connection with the selection of the House Chaplain brings shame on this House.” That, too, should be on the record.
• Everybody (well, maybe not absolutely everybody) knows that G. K. Chesterton said that paradox is “truth standing on her head to get attention.” Dean Inge is reported to have said of GKC himself that he is “a fat clown who crucifies truth upside down.” Richard Le Gallienne wrote in The Romantic Nineties (1926) of Oscar Wilde: “Paradox with him was only Truth standing on its head to attract attention.” Not satisfied with that, our quotesmith goes on to point out that George Orwell (Eric Blair) wrote that when he was eleven years old he wanted to get the attention of a little girl, Jacintha Buddicom, who was later to have a big part in his life. She was playing with friends and they came across the field to ask him why he was standing on his head. Eric replied, “You are noticed more if you are standing on your head than if you are the right way up.” So who borrowed from whom? Or maybe really neat phrases have a way of striking more than once.
• To the joy of some and the distress of others, the last Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the worldwide Anglican communion, strongly reaffirmed biblical and traditional teaching on a number of subjects, including sexual morality. American bishops were in the lead in promoting the acceptance of homosexual acts and unions. African bishops took the lead in opposing such changes. When their plans were thwarted, some Americans explained in a none too subtle way that Africans did not understand the issues and, as one American bishop suggested, were but one generation away from the jungle. Canon George Conger, editor of Lambeth Directory, offers some pertinent data. In Nigeria, for instance, there are sixty-two dioceses for 17.5 million Anglicans. In the U.S., there are more than twice as many bishops (139) for about one-eighth as many Episcopalians (2.4 million). Put differently, in Nigeria there is a bishop for every 282,000 people, and in the U.S. a bishop for every 17,000. African bishops, he notes, are, by and large, better educated than their Western counterparts in the U.S., Canada, England, et al. Of the forty-three Nigerian bishops for whom educational information is available, six hold a research degree (Ph.D.) and two hold doctorates of ministry (D.Min.). Of the 139 American bishops, three have research degrees and fifteen have a D.Min., which is not a research degree but a professional degree awarded by seminaries. At least 14 percent of Nigerian bishops and 22 percent of Indian bishops hold research degrees, compared with 2 percent of American bishops. The lowest level of academic qualifications is found among American female bishops. Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, for but one example, did not graduate from college or attend seminary. Of course a degree does not a bishop make, but this helps put into perspective the condescending contention-some think not untouched by racism-that bishops from Africa and other developing nations are not equipped to understand the questions in dispute.
• The Express (London) calls him one of the “leading thinkers of our age” and invited the nimble A. N. Wilson to contribute one of their millennium essays. Wilson's books over the years proclaim in high decible certitude whatever his current convictions-from atheist, to born-again Christian, back to atheist, and now, or so it seems, maybe moving on to Islam. In “The Dying Mythology of Christ,” Wilson explains that even Christians do not believe all that incredible stuff in the Bible, and people are increasingly turning to Islam, which provides “a moral and an intellectual acknowledgment of the lordship of God without the encumbrance of Christian mythological baggage. . . . That is why Christianity will decline in the next millennium and the religious hunger of the human heart will be answered by the Crescent, not by the Cross.” Don't mock; this is from one of the leading thinkers of our age.
• In reviewing a biography of Arthur Koestler, the author of Darkness at Noon whose heroism in exposing the horrors of communism is overshadowed in some circles by his crankiness and abuse of women, Richard Gid Powers writes: “If capturing the world's imagination and moving it to action are any measure of a writer's importance, there were moments when Arthur Koestler's voice was the most important of the century.” I take his point, but to be the most important voice of the century requires a very long moment. Like a century.
• Blacks are 12 percent of the population and account for 29 percent of abortions. Hispanics are 11 percent and account for 20 percent. With Catholics, it is 31 percent and 31 percent, while the 54 percent of women who say they are Protestant obtain 37 percent of abortions. Since most blacks are Protestant, this suggests a relatively low rate of abortion among white Protestants. The 6 percent of women who profess no religion are responsible for 24 percent of the total number of abortions. The foregoing data from an analysis by Peter Brimelow in Forbes, based on a survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
• Some of the clearest thinking about the family these days is being done by Professor David Popenoe of Rutgers University. In a recent issue of Society he asks the hard question, “Can the Nuclear Family Be Revived?” By the nuclear family, he means most importantly “voluntary lifelong monogamy.” In answer to the hard question, he suggests we face up to the fact that some things cannot be changed. “Among the things we can't rid ourselves of, or change to any significant degree, are the following: the biological make-up of males and females; modern technologies; the isolated nuclear family (few people wish to return to the earlier system of living in extended families); women in the workplace (except for certain periods of their lives, such as childrearing, women are in the workplace to stay); the nature of the marital relationship (no one wants to go back to arranged marriages, patriarchy, and gross economic dependence); and material affluence (despite the possibility of temporary economic recessions and depressions).” The sphere of culture, morality, and religion, says Popenoe, is where good things can happen, and good things can be supported by public policy. Here is his checklist:
If the nuclear family is to be revived, we must restore the cultural importance of voluntary lifelong monogamy. Here are the three most important focal points for such efforts:
1. Counter the Sexual Revolution.
Promote sexual abstinence at least through the high school years. Most parents certainly favor this and probably most high school students do as well.
Encourage women and men to lead their premarital sex lives with eventual marriage more strongly in mind. For example, what our grandmothers supposedly knew might well be true: if a woman wants a man to marry her, wisdom dictates a measure of playing hard to get.
Rein in the organized entertainment industry. At one time the entertainment industry did have a moral conscience, so we know it is possible. The main levers today are mass protests and boycotts.
2. Promote Marriage.
Spread the word about the emotional, economic, and health benefits of lifelong monogamy, and about how it is superior to other family forms. This can be done by high schools and universities, churches, voluntary associations, and even by federal and state governments.
Educate people about the nature of modern marriage—that it is not merely finding the perfect mate and living a life of passion and romance. It is a long-term friendship between a man and a woman that requires constant effort and care plus a strong moral commitment to the institution, in addition to special communication skills.
Widely promulgate the findings about how marriage failure damages children.
Continue to privilege marriage through public policy and at the same time discourage the formation of alternative lifestyles.
3. Renew a Cultural Focus on Children.
Parents want to do what is best for their children. So do most adults. We should not let the age-old cultural priority on childrearing—the sentiment that children are our future—slip from our grasp, as now seems to be happening. A serious problem is that less than one-third of households today contain children, down from more than three-quarters in prior centuries. The task will not be easy.
Of course the last sentence is a cliché. More often than not, clichés become clichés because they are true. (And let's hope we can do better than moderate “premarital sex lives.”)• Our Sunday Visitor has a fine story on Eugene Genovese's return to the Catholic Church and the reception of his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Gene, one of the most distinguished historians of our time, quoted Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is lawful.” It came out in the story as “If God does not exist, is not everything awful?” Yes, that too.
• For almost two hundred years, liberal theology has been haunted by the question of the connection, if any, between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. B. A. Gerrish, a distinguished Reformation theologian, takes another crack at it in a two-part article in the Christian Century. Even if historical scholarship determined that Jesus never lived, it does not necessarily mean the end of faith in Christ. “Is faith really at the mercy of the latest report on the quest for the historical Jesus?” Gerrish asks. “The Christian assertion that saving faith is the gift of God in Christ Jesus is not a claim to know more about the past than historians can know. . . . It is the outward attestation of an inner conviction nurtured in the communion of saints.” This is, finally, another variation on Rudolf Bultmann's affirmation of the resurrection gospel without the resurrection. Of course faith is not at the mercy of the latest report on the quest for the historical Jesus. The truly remarkable thing is that, apart from academic mavericks who are always coming up with a newly imagined Jesus, the basic picture of Jesus, his teaching and his life, presented by serious scholarship is pretty much what the Church held nineteen hundred years ago. Liberals believe they are boldly bracing themselves for the worst, but then console themselves with the thought that the worst isn't all that bad. But, if there was no Jesus, faith in Jesus the Christ is just another way of whistling in the dark. Much bolder is the orthodox acknowledgment, with St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15), that if Christ is not risen our faith is in vain. That is the radically historical nature of Christian faith that awaits its final and certain vindication from the future, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2). Contra the easy consolations of liberalism, if it is not true, be it ever so meaningful, it is not true. And if, as Christians believe, it is true, there will never be compelling evidence to the contrary.
• Oh, for the days when Christians polemicized with rhetorical panache. For instance, there is this from a 1662 defense of the “vertuous Mediocrity” of the Church of England, written by S. Patrick of Cambridge. The established church, he wrote, stands “between the Meretricious Gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid Sluttery of Fanatick Conventicles.” My source is not specific as to when mediocrity lost her virtue.
• We have taken a few hits for pointing out what can only be called the corruption of some religion-connected social services, including the huge enterprise that is Catholic Charities (CC). Now a most welcome analysis of the problem is provided by Brian C. Anderson in the very influential City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. The Manhattan Institute and its journal carry weight with policy makers around the country, and are credited with many of the successful innovations of the Giuliani administration in New York City. Anderson's article, “How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul,” begins this way: “As advanced social thinkers rediscover the power of faith-based institutions to rescue the down-and-out by transforming the dysfunctional worldview that often lies at the root of their difficulties, you would think that Catholic Charities USA would be a perfect model to emulate, getting the poor into the mainstream by emphasizing moral values and ethical conduct. But no: rather than trying to promote traditional values and God-fearing behavior, Catholic Charities has become over the last three decades an arm of the welfare state, with 65 percent of its $2.3 billion annual budget now flowing from government sources and little that is explicitly religious, or even values-laden, about most of the services its 1,400 member agencies and 46,000 paid employees provide. Far from being a model for reforming today's welfare state approach to helping the poor, Catholic Charities USA is one of the nation's most powerful advocates for outworn welfare state ideas, especially the idea that social and economic forces over which the individual has no control, rather than his own attitudes and behavior, are the reason for poverty. The example of this multibillion dollar charity should serve as a warning to policy makers seeking to privatize the care of the needy that they had better pick and choose prudently: for some of the institutions of civil society have been tainted with the same value-free worldview that has made most government-run poverty efforts a hindrance rather than a help to the poor.” Anderson appreciates that many good things are done through the thousands of programs sponsored by CC, but even the worthy efforts, with few exceptions, fall into the social work category of “delivering services” rather than transforming lives—never mind transforming lives through moral and spiritual change. In a few places around the country, diocesan organizations of CC have preserved their integrity by not accepting government funding, but national CC is unapologetically devoted to lobbying—with millions of government and donated dollars—for an ever-expanded welfare state. This, Anderson notes, is a big change from the earlier history of CC. “Catholic Charities first announced its politicization in a wild-eyed manifesto that invokes such radical sixties icons as Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Herbert Marcuse, and—above all—the Marxist-inspired Liberation Theology movement that (to put it crudely) equates Jesus with Che Guevara. Ratified at Catholic Charities' annual meeting in 1972, the so-called Cadre Study totally abandoned any stress on personal responsibility in relation to poverty and other social ills. Instead, it painted America as an unjust, ‘numb' country, whose oppressive society and closed economy cause people to turn to crime or drugs or prostitution. Moreover, the study asserts, individual acts of charity are useless. We must instead unearth ‘the root causes of poverty and oppression' and radically reconstruct—‘humanize and transform'—the social order to avert social upheaval.” CC has been notably cool to the “Charitable Choice” provision of the 1996 welfare-reform law that allows “faith-based” institutions to receive government funding without compromising their religious mission. It has been a long time since saving souls—meaning the reordering of lives in relation to God and neighbor—has had a prominent place in the thinking of CC. Anderson knows that some argue that Charitable Choice will make other religious groups dependent on government and put them on the path down which CC has long gone. “But,” he writes, “this argument assumes that it was government funding that corrupted CC. In fact, CC officials already sincerely believed that government entitlements are the best way to help the needy when they began accepting government funding.” It is up to religious institutions to preserve their religious integrity, and the new provisions in law help them to do precisely that. On the other hand, those who believe that charity is a dirty word (some CC officials are embarrassed by its retention in the title of the organization), and that the transformation of lives must give way to the transforming of an inherently unjust and racist “system,” view it as no loss of integrity when they become, in effect, government agencies for the expansion of government entitlements and controls. Defenders of CC and similar, albeit smaller, organizations in the Protestant and Jewish communities will protest that they do a lot of good. That is true, and quite beside the point of Anderson's critique. They do great damage by helping to perpetuate the excesses of welfarism and, even more important, by severely compromising, if not betraying, the spiritual and moral commitment that brought them into being in the first place.
• I was definitely going to do something else this morning. A dozen deadlines clamored for attention, and there were all those calls I had promised to return. I blame Philip Smith of Oakland, California, a longtime reader who is editor at Octavo, an outfit that is putting out digital editions of rare books. He sent along a CD-ROM of a sixteenth-century book of hours, Horae Beatae Mariae ad usum Romanum, from the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress. My colleague Dan Moloney showed me how I could run it on my Mac, and there went the better part of the morning. It really was the better part. The experience is that of having this rare and exceedingly beautiful book all to yourself for as long as you want. Even better, your computer can zoom in, magnifying the text and exquisite paintings for the most minute examination. It is quite extraordinary, and this is only one of many rare books that Octavo has on CD-ROM. For information, contact them at 580 Second St., Oakland, California 94607 or www.octavo.com. And now, in a frame of mind pleasurably edified, back to what I was supposed to do this morning.
• Jody Bottum wrote in these pages that the killings at Columbine high school and the martyr-like (at least) witness of Cassie Bernall could be a turning point in our moral culture (“Awakening at Littleton,” August/September 1999). Jean Bethke Elshtain, another frequent contributor to these pages, is skeptical about that. Reviewing She Said Yes, the book by Misty Bernall, Cassie's mother, Elshtain writes in the New Republic: “The early martyrs were taken up, over the span of centuries, and made part of a highly complicated intellectual and institutional framework. Such traditions require above all a capacity that we lack: attention over time. But nothing durable will come from all the pink-tinged websites. . . . The ‘Cassie Pledge,' as with so much of the Cassie material on the Internet, purports to express a spirituality that will last a lifetime. But last, how? Absent the sustaining forms of spiritual discipline, of any discipline, Cassie Bernall's death has become just the latest splash in the stream of American spiritual self-help.” “Political and cultural change is effected,” says Elshtain, “when people hang in for the long haul, and institutions—places of work, schools, governments, families—are thereby transformed. Websites and rallies will not do it. Conversion experiences, without the sturdy wisdom of traditions and institutions, will not suffice.” She is right, of course, and I cannot imagine that Jody Bottum would disagree.
• “Catholics have become a bridge church in the ecumenical movement in ironic ways,” observes Brother Jeffrey Gros, Associate Director of Ecumenism for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). In a thoughtful survey of developments in Ecumenical Trends, Br. Gros appreciates the historic importance of initiatives such as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT), but also worries about Catholicism becoming a “wedge church” that pits relations with evangelicals against relations with the oldline (he says “classic”) Protestant groups. He writes: “Catholic strong commitment to orthodoxy in doctrine, a certain allergy to the Enlightenment and its political and epistemological implications, and an ethical tradition that is strong on sexuality and pro-life issues, gives it an affinity to the evangelical culture and convictions. On the other hand, its scholarly critical tradition, its sacramental and social sense of solidarity, and its commitment to a broad ecumenical program, rooted in common baptism, common Scriptures, as well as the goal of full communion, places it squarely in the tradition of the ecumenical churches gathered in the conciliar movement. With the World Council member churches it shares the goal of full communion in faith, eucharistic life, mission, and witness.” Br. Gros' concern is legitimate, although one wonders if he does not overestimate the theological and ecclesial solidity of some, if not most, of the member churches of, for instance, the World Council of Churches. In addition, he speaks of ECT “building on the more official work” of Catholic dialogues with evangelicals, Pentecostalists, and Holiness groups. In his view, ECT is an instance of the “reception” of these official dialogues. That, I would suggest, is not quite right. While he correctly notes that ECT has brought the questions of Christian unity and cooperation home to evangelicals, the actual work of ECT is decidedly independent of the official dialogues. While the participants in ECT are aware of those dialogues, ECT itself might best be viewed as a theological scouting party that is exploring possibilities that might later be incorporated into the work of the official dialogues. This is also the understanding of ECT among responsible parties in Rome. That being said, however, Br. Gros' essay is a helpful contribution to understanding the ways in which the Catholic Church is engaged in “differentiated ecumenism,” and his caution that this engagement must always be viewed as a bridge rather than as a wedge is well taken.
• The British journal History Today recently printed an article claiming that many of the most prominent pioneers of feminism—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others—not only refused to support abortion but aggressively denounced it as “the ultimate in the exploitation of women.” Such an article, in such a publication, in such a culture? Perhaps it is a straw in the wind, the UK wind at least. It is certainly an argument that the Feminists for Life have been making for a long time. The recent issue of their magazine, the American Feminist, contains a vigorous argument by Rosemary Oelrich Bottcher, who claims that abortion is nothing less than “a betrayal of feminism.” “In rejecting both violence and the concept of humans owning other humans,” she writes, “the suffragists also rejected abortion. Human worth, in their view, was not based upon size (physical size had always been one supposed reason for male superiority), ‘wantedness' (women were wanted only in[as]much as they could be controlled by men), or dependency. . . . All feminists share the vision of a world in which violence directed against women is not only legally condemned but also regarded as both socially and morally unthinkable. As we work together toward that vision, pro-life feminists hope that our sisters who promote abortion will one day realize that unborn children are not property either and that violence against them is equally unacceptable. Let us not have to spend another 150 years establishing that the children we bear are also persons.” This is feminism rightly understood, and it is most admirable. To find out more about Feminists for Life, write to them at 733 15th Street, NW, Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20005, or visit their website at www.feministsforlife.org.
• I usually find myself in agreement with that astute critic, Hilton Kramer, editor of the New Criterion. But I suspect he does not have it quite right in his review of the remarkable Tilman Riemenschneider exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He notes that one enters the exhibition by way of the Greek sculpture galleries. “The spirit of classical humanism that we encounter in the Greek sculpture galleries transports us to a realm of heroic earthly life in which the human physique is exalted as an object to be admired and idealized. In the galleries devoted to Riemenschneider's sculptures, however, we find ourselves immersed in the shrouded interior world of medieval Christian piety. The one is a realm of light and worldly aspiration; the other plunges us into the shadows of religious agony and the ordeals of redemption. Both embody ideas that have shaped our own civilization, yet the stark polarities of mind and material circumstance which they represent remain difficult to reconcile.” He observes that “the Greek sculptors seemed to entertain no doubts or anxieties” about the status of man and the glory of the human condition, as is evident in the exuberant treatment of nudity, which is conspicuously absent from the fifteenth-century devotional wood sculpture of Riemenschneider. “When we exit this exhibition and retrace our course through the Greek sculpture galleries on our way out of the museum,” Kramer writes, “we are bound to feel a sense of release and exhilaration. For we have passed out of shadows into the light.” Stark polarities? Perhaps. Or maybe it is the case that we have learned through terrible experience that the only light to be trusted is the light on the far side of the shadows. Hilton Kramer is not usually on the side of liberationisms (“a sense of release and exhilaration”) that flee from that wisdom.
• Professor Vincent Crapanzano of City University of New York writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education against the religious insurgency in our culture. “Christian Fundamentalism is only a part of the story. Literalism in the United States is far more widespread than most realize or are even prepared to accept.” Well, we can hardly accept it if we don't realize it, can we? “Indeed,” Crapanzano writes, “it can be argued that the moral idiom is beginning to replace the psychological” in our public discourse. Literalism, he opines, may be a male thing. That “would account for the correlation we find between literalism and the denigration of women. Women are—they have to be—held in place, the way meaning, literal meaning, has to be.” This is vintage Crapanzano and is, I am sure, not to be taken literally.
• Oldline Protestantism seems to be in a state of perpetual identity crisis. This is displayed in a bundle of essays edited by Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger, Re-forming the Center: American Protestantism, 1900 to the Present (Eerdmans). This from a review in the Christian Century by Milton J. Coalter of the Presbyterian seminary in Louisville: “Searching for alternative descriptors of the ‘center,' the editors recall Peggy Shriver's suggestion that we regard American Protestantism as ‘a Protestant archipelago, a circle of islands connected together under water,' and Randall Balmer's proposal that what we are observing is ‘an evolving geography of religious tectonic plates in creative collision.' Both images carry promise. But if Protestants are connected ‘under water,' what exactly is the theological, pietistic, and/or ethical ground that connects them, and if they are ‘in creative collision,' what motivates their colliding? Despite the problems with the word, Jacobsen and Trollinger state, ‘Still, for now we retain “center,” albeit a center that is construed in a non-hegemonic, multi-polar, multi-dimensional, and nonhierarchical fashion.'“ In sum, a thoroughly uncentered center.
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“Making Peace by the Blood of His Cross,” London Times, April 2, 1999.
While We're At It: On Chesterton, Orwell, etc., and use of paradox, Quote/Unquote Newsletter, October 4, 1999. On most recent Lambeth Conference, personal correspondence with Canon Conger. A. N. Wilson on Christ, London Express, October 21, 1999. Richard Gid Powers on Arthur Koestler, National Review, December 20, 1999. Statistics on religion and abortion from Alan Guttmacher Institute and used by Peter Brimelow, Forbes, October 18, 1999. “Can the Nuclear Family Be Revived?” by David Popenoe, Society, July/August 1999. On misquotation of Dostoevsky, Our Sunday Visitor, December 12, 1999. B. A. Gerrish on liberal theology, Christian Century, October 13, 1999. On the “vertuous Mediocrity,” Quote/Unquote Newsletter, October 4, 1999. Brian C. Anderson on “How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul,” City Journal, Winter 2000. Jean Bethke Elshtain on Cassie Bernall, New Republic, January 17, 2000. Brother Jeffrey Gros on Catholic ecumenism, Ecumenical Trends, January 2000. On abortion as anti-feminist, History Today, August 1999, and American Feminist, Winter 1999/2000. Hilton Kramer on the Tilman Riemenschneider exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Observer, February 21, 2000. Vincent Crapanzano on fundamentalism and literalism, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 11, 2000. Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger's Re-forming the Center reviewed by Milton J. Coalter, Christian Century, October 27, 1999.