The Public Square
It is galling when a good friend submits to another publication an article that we would have loved to publish. But then Maria McFadden, editor of the Human Life Review, is also a good friend of his and of ours, and I suppose that evens things out. The article in question is by George McKenna, longtime professor of political science at City College (New York). It is titled “Criss-Cross: Democrats, Republicans, and Abortion” and is about as fine a treatment of important aspects of how we got to where we are as I’ve ever read.
McKenna begins by imagining a politically savvy Rip Van Winkle in, say, 1965. Noting that there is a movement afoot to legalize abortion, Rip is asked which political party would identify with that movement. The answer is obvious, he says: the Republicans. They’re the party of laissez-faire economics and of upper-middle-class WASPS who care about conservation and flirt with eugenic proposals to limit the multiplication of “undesirables.” (I would have agreed with old Rip back then. In fact, I did. That was the argument of the first book I wrote on my own, In Defense of People: Ecology and the Seduction of Radicalism [Macmillan, 1971] .)
McKenna’s Rip Van Winkle goes on to explain why the Democrats could never become the party of abortion. First, there is the heavy concentration of Catholics in the Democratic party. “The church hierarchy would go bananas if any prominent Catholic Democrat—or any Democrat at all—came out in favor of abortion.” Remember Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s description of his party as the advocate of those “who are in the dawn of life; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” Were abortion ever to become a big issue, inserting “unborn children” into that list would be the most natural thing in the world. Only those mean, uncaring Republicans would support beating up on the littlest guy of all, the child in the womb.
Forty years later, Rip wakes up from his nap and everything is turned upside down. Some say the Democrats became the abortion party because the feminists piggybacked on the civil rights agenda, which was owned by the Democratic party. Not so, argues McKenna. The Equal Rights Amendment was a Republican cause as far back as 1940. The early feminists were adamantly anti-abortion. The first edition of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) didn’t mention abortion. Three years later, the National Organization for Women (NOW) included prominent Republicans and made no mention of abortion in its statement of purpose. And then there were the heavyweights in the Democratic party:
Ted Kennedy, then as now the lion of progressive Democrats in the Senate, wrote to a constituent in 1971 that “the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. . . . When history looks back on this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.” Even in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, Kennedy insisted that “abortion is morally wrong. It is not a legitimate or acceptable response to any problem of society. And if our country wishes to remain true to its basic moral strength, then unwanted as well as wanted children must be unfailingly protected.”
The main players in changing all this were two men, Lawrence Lader and Bernard Nathanson. Nathanson would later be converted to the pro-life position and also to the Catholic Church. But in the 1960s, he and Lader were relentless propagandists who had access to the mainstream media in raising the alarm about the plight of thousands of desperate women who had to resort to, and frequently died in, dangerous “back alley” abortions. (Nathanson later admitted that he and Lader simply made up the statistics.) They made a deal with Betty Friedan and NOW to make abortion the central item in their cause. McKenna writes that Friedan “always acknowledged Lader’s leadership on the issue, calling him (apparently without conscious irony) the ‘father’ of the abortion-rights movement.” Lader was cited no less than eight times in Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Remember that this was also the time when Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb and Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” were required reading in college classrooms. We are facing ecological catastrophe, Hardin argued. “The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.”
A Mighty Protest
In 1972, the McGovern Democrats were dubbed by a prominent Republican “the triple-A party: abortion, amnesty, and acid.” But that line wasn’t pushed very hard because too many prominent Republicans were also backing the abortion license: for instance, Colorado governor Richard Lamm, Senator Bob Packwood, Congressman George H.W. Bush, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. In 1970, Richard Nixon appointed John D. Rockefeller III to head up a commission on the “challenge” of population growth in America. The commission’s report advocated a nationwide program of contraceptive “services” and government-subsidized abortion.
The Catholic bishops protested mightily, and Nixon, facing reelection in 1972, renounced the report. Early in 1974, however, he authorized another commission, headed by Kissinger, to address world population growth and U.S. security interests. Its report is known as National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200). Population growth, it said, threatens our security because large numbers of restless young people threaten the economic and political power structures of the world. The answer is to limit population through contraception, sterilization, and abortion. Since poor countries might view this as American colonialism, the strategy should be implemented indirectly through the United Nations and related organizations. While the report spoke of population limits in terms of individual “rights,” it added that “mandatory programs may be needed.” Nixon was out of office by the time NSSM 200 was completed, but President Gerald Ford signed off on it in 1975.
And so, McKenna observes, Rip Van Winkle waking up in early 1976 might have felt vindicated in his prediction about how the parties would line up on the abortion question. “At about the same time Gerald Ford was endorsing NSSM-200 and placing Nelson Rockefeller a heartbeat away from the presidency, Democrat Ted Kennedy was declaring that abortion ‘is not a legitimate or acceptable response to any problem of society.’ Despite restive rumblings from some quarters in the party, the leaders were in no hurry to accommodate them, and most Democratic voters were pro-life. But by the end of the 1980 conventions, everything had turned around: clearly and unambiguously, the Republicans had become the pro-life party and the Democrats were now so committed to abortion that they would not consider any arguments against it.”
The Catholic Party
What caused such an astonishing turnaround? The answer requires a bit of history. In general, the Democratic party has been the Catholic party and the Republican party has been the Protestant party. The reasons for that are not hard to find. It was Democratic ward-heelers who met the immigrants off the boats, while Republicans fretted about the invasion of the great unwashed. Catholics quickly became leaders in the urban Democratic machines and found congenial Catholic social doctrine as set forth in, for instance, Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, with its affirmation of the rights of labor. Years later, that doctrine neatly conflated with the ambitions of the New Deal under FDR. And then there was the leadership of the Church:
The great majority of Catholic clergy were Democrats. Born in working-class homes, they attended Catholic schools and were usually the first generation in their family to get higher education—mainly in Catholic colleges and seminaries. Even the least reflective among them could see that the social teaching they absorbed in those colleges was strikingly similar to the domestic platform of the Democratic party. As for the Catholic laity, by the 1940s their tie to the Democrats was so strong that one of the jokes of the time has two Irish ladies gossiping over the back fence: “Did you hear that Timmy Breen became a Republican?” one said. “Couldn’t be,” said the other, “I just saw him at Mass last Sunday.”
True, many Catholics voted for Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson, but then came the magical moment of John F. Kennedy:
Kennedy was Catholic but he was not too Catholic. He was not parochial, part of the “immigrant church.” He had gone to Harvard and the London School of Economics; he had written books and even got a Pulitzer Prize for one of them. (The book, Profiles in Courage, was written by an aide but very few knew it at the time.) These young people were proud of Kennedy as representative of their religion. They had been brought up in the era of Pius XII but were coming of age in the time of John XXIII and Vatican II. In their minds it all seemed to fit together: the Catholic Church was throwing open its windows to the modern world and here was this classy young Catholic occupying the highest seat in the land. It brought young people to the Democratic Party in a way that their forbears had not. Their parents and grandparents were simply born into it, accepting it as part of their patrimony, but they came to it as adventurers, finding in it a spirit of dynamism and openness, a secular counterpart to the Church’s aggiornamento.
On the other hand, there was the Republican party with its long history of anti-Catholicism. Remember the Whore of Babylon? Remember “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”? Less known is the observation of Ulysses S. Grant that the country was facing the prospect of a new civil war. This time, he said, “the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but it will be between patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.” McKenna writes: “Everyone knew what he meant, and it reminded Catholics of why they were Democrats and why they were going to stay that way. This was the kind of jibe that sank deeply into their collective memory. At some level they never forgot the nastiness of nineteenth-century Republicanism.”
New Soul Mates
Fast forward to the 1960s, when progressive young Catholics found soul mates in the civil rights movement and in marching for sundry causes. Their new friends were often “spiritual” without being religious, and some of them viewed Catholicism with deep suspicion. McKenna writes:
Yet this did not stand in the way of amicable relationships. In different ways these young people admired each other. The secular humanists were impressed by the dedication and seriousness of the Catholics. They figured that in this fight Catholicism was harmless, maybe even useful; afterwards their new friends might outgrow it, or at least not take it so seriously. The Catholics, for their part, liked the style and the dash of their secular comrades; they liked their gift for summing up the conflict in sharp, militant phrases that always got on the nightly news programs. And, perhaps above all, they liked the fact that their secular comrades liked them. If there was a touch of condescension in the secularists’ attitude toward Catholic liberals, there was none going the other way. The Catholics wanted very much to be liked by their new friends.
The Democratic party had not yet become the abortion party. In 1972, McGovern had turned back the effort to put a pro-abortion plank into the platform. (I was a delegate to that year’s Miami convention and was in an embattled minority in the New York delegation.) The Catholics of the JFK and civil rights moment, says McKenna, were now in their thirties. In a few more years, some who were priests would become bishops, and already that generation held key posts in chanceries and educational institutions.
The abortion issue discomfited them. They were shocked that so many of their antiwar friends simply dismissed their concerns about killing unborn children, regarding abortion simply as “a woman’s choice.” They tried dialoguing with them but the dialogue got so tense that they gave it up. Meanwhile, other Catholics were organizing anti-abortion protests, and that raised a question: Should they join or sit this one out? The pro-life activists were different from the activists of the 1960s. Few of them had ever been involved in demonstrations before. They had never marched against racism or the war, and some of them might have even been on the other side. In any case, all they seemed to care about now was abortion. It didn’t look like there were many college students in the anti-abortion demonstrations (though there were plenty of Catholic high school kids, who’d been given the day off to come), and most of the older demonstrators didn’t sound like college graduates. They were the Catholics they had left behind when they went off to college at the start of the 1960s. Their accents, their interests, their outlooks—nothing had changed since then. Even their Catholicism seemed to have come from an earlier era; it had a Tridentine quality. But why should that matter? It was enough that they were right on the abortion issue.
It didn’t matter, but it did matter. The pro-life cause was, for the most part, rallying folk who had not been morally legitimated by being part of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Then came 1973 and Roe v. Wade, in which, as the New York Times put it, the Supreme Court “settled” the abortion controversy. Prior to the decision, the bishops had become increasingly categorical about the evil of abortion. “The destruction of any human life is not a private matter but the concern of every responsible citizen,” they had said in 1970. After Roe, the bishops stated, “as emphatically as possible, our endorsement of and support for a constitutional amendment that will protect the life of the unborn.” In 1975, they launched an ambitious “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities,” an elaborate program of education, help for women who had abortions, and a “public policy effort” aimed at legally protecting the unborn.
In 1976, President Ford endorsed a constitutional amendment, while Jimmy Carter said he was “personally opposed” but would not support an amendment. McKenna writes: “This was painful to the bishops, who by conviction were Democrats. The basic thrust of the Democratic platform—emphasizing workers’ rights, extension of government aid to the needy, government-subsidized health care, restraint in military spending, reliance on multilateral diplomacy—reflected Catholic thought, yet here was the Democrats’ refusal to endorse the major pro-life goal, a constitutional amendment to reverse Roe. As one liberal writer smugly put it, ‘the bishops agreed with the Republican platform on abortion, and with the Democratic platform on virtually everything else.’ If they could only get the Carter campaign right on abortion, they could wish both candidates well and vote Democrat with a clear conscience.”
Carter began to waffle, finally meeting with the bishops to assure them he shared their opposition to abortion and differed only on “strategy.” He reminded them of all the other things on which they agreed and on which they differed from the Republicans.
It didn’t work. At that time one of the most influential figures in the national conference of Catholic Bishops was Archbishop Joseph Bernardin. The Bernardin of 1976 developed a very powerful case for abolishing abortion. Appearing before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee in March of that year, he went out of his way to refute the argument (later advanced by Mario Cuomo) that opposition to abortion is a purely “religious” position which Catholics must not try to impose on non-Catholics. Abortion, Bernardin said, “is not wrong because the Catholic Church or any church says it is wrong. Abortion is wrong in and of itself. The obligation to safeguard human life arises not from religious or sectarian doctrine, but from universal moral imperatives concerning human dignity, the right to life, and the responsibility of government to protect basic human rights.”
The 1976 Democratic platform did not contain an outright endorsement of abortion. It said it was “undesirable” to overturn Roe, and Carter added the gloss that abortion could be curbed by other means. The bishops, led by Bernardin, kept up the pressure. They expressed the strongest opposition—“indeed outrage,” as Bernardin put it—in response to the Democratic platform. Four years later, things had dramatically changed. In 1980, the Democratic platform ringingly endorsed Roe and went on to call for, among other things, government funding for “reproductive” services. Abortion was declared to be “a fundamental human right.” “This time neither Carter nor any other party leader had even bothered to meet with the bishops, much less attempt to appease them. The Democratic Party was now the abortion party and, in case the bishops had any objection, there was an implied response: Stuff it.”
”The bishops were literally dumbstruck. . . . Abortion was thrust right in their faces and they said nothing—not that year, not for the next three years. And when they finally did speak, abortion was no longer their main topic.” What had happened between 1976 and 1980? For one thing, it was the high season of American feminism. “Triumphalism was in the air, and so was rage at any who dared stand in the way. A torrent of abuse was therefore unleashed against the Catholic clergy: What right did these celibate males have to talk about women’s reproductive rights? What did they know about bearing children? What did they even know about sex? Get your rosaries off my ovaries! Mixed with these taunts was what appeared to be a resurrection of the old Know-nothing charge that the Vatican was trying to ‘meddle’ in American politics—only this time it was not coming from Republicans but from people associated with the left, people who usually voted Democrat.” The word seemed to be getting out that Catholics, or at least Catholics who were seriously Catholic, were no longer welcome in the Democratic party.
Four Major Groups
At least since the New Deal, the party had been a coalition of four major groups: African Americans, Southern whites, liberal intellectuals, and Catholics. “Of the four components, two were conservative, the Southerners and the Catholics; but conservative in different ways. The Southerners were conservative on race, which translated into political conservatism. The Catholics were conservative culturally, for they were loyal to a Church which resisted many of the cultural fashions of the twentieth century, from sexy Hollywood movies to eugenics, birth control, forced sterilization of the mentally impaired, and abortion. In effect, Catholicism functioned as the Democratic Party’s immune system, fighting off certain cultural trends they deemed toxic but which attracted many of the party’s secular liberals.” Now Catholics who could not imagine being anything other than Democrats were asking not, What is wrong with the party? but, What is wrong with the Church? Wasn’t it too dogmatic, too uncompromising, too focused on the “single-issue politics” of abortion?
These were cloudy days for Catholic Democrats. And then came the thunderclap: Ronald Reagan. An adroit politician, firmly anticommunist, he put together a coalition of key Catholic and evangelical Protestant constituencies, adding them to the fiscal conservatives in the Republican party.
In caring for and feeding the coalition, Reagan’s team made radical changes in the Republicans’ abortion plank. In place of its namby-pamby 1976 plank (devoted almost entirely to explaining how complex the issue was, how even Republicans differed on it, and how important “public dialogue” was), the 1980 plank put the complexity part into a dependent clause—“despite the complex nature of its various issues”—and then forthrightly declared that abortion is “ultimately concerned with equality of rights under the law.” Now, at last, the two parties made their positions starkly clear: For the Democrats, abortion was “a fundamental human right”; for the new Republican Party, unborn children deserved protection under civil rights law.
With very few exceptions, Catholic liberals uncomplainingly accepted what had happened in the Democratic party. “To have protested would have been ‘acting Republican’ or ‘sounding like Reagan.’ It also helps to explain why the bishops, who made such a fuss over the mild 1976 plank (which merely opposed a pro-life constitutional amendment) shut their mouths for three years in the face of a much greater provocation in 1980.” The seminaries, journals, theological associations, chanceries, and national bishops’ conference were overwhelmingly staffed by Democrats, some of them being Democratic activists. To criticize the Democrats was to lend aid and comfort to the Republicans. “Therefore, to single out the Democrats’ abortion plank for condemnation is to side with the forces opposed to the Church’s program of peace and justice. Objectively speaking, as the Marxists used to say, it is anti-Catholic.” James Robinson, lobbying director of the bishops’ conference, referred to the pro-lifers as “the anti-abortion people” and expressed the hope that some day the United States might find an “accommodation” on abortion.
Three years after the Democrats had declared abortion to be “a fundamental human right,” the bishops finally did speak-but not about abortion. In 1983, they issued The Challenge of Peace, a long document endorsing a nuclear freeze, mutual disarmament, and “maximum engagement with governments of potential adversaries.” The Challenge of Peace meshed nicely with the proposals being pressed by congressional Democrats and the position taken by Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential race. Toward the very end of the book-length document there was a plea to “all those who would work to end the scourge of war to begin by defending life at its most defenseless, the life of the unborn.” So abortion was not entirely forgotten, but it was folded unobtrusively into what was called “the peace and justice agenda.”
A Different Bernardin
In 1983 and 1984, Cardinal Bernardin was giving his influential talks on the “seamless garment” and a “consistent ethic of life.” The key was “quality of life,” and quality of life issues, he said, include “tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care.” Of course, Catholics should support the protection of the unborn, but they should be “equally visible” in fighting for the full array of issues touching on the quality of life. McKenna writes:
It was hard to believe that this was the same Bernardin who in 1976 had refused to fall for Jimmy Carter’s trick of listing all the “quality of life” programs that the Democrats supported. At that time, Bernardin’s reply was forthright: the right to life is the most fundamental, because once you abandon it, “the entire spectrum of human rights will ultimately be eroded.” But now that the Democrats had quite brazenly abandoned it, Bernardin was saying that Catholics can diffuse their energies into a wide variety of causes, from peace demonstrations to sheltering illegal immigrants. “Each of us can do something.”
Liberal Catholics who downplayed or even ignored abortion began employing what McKenna calls “the shopping-cart defense”: You put all the issues that really matter to you in your shopping cart, and I’ll put my issues in mine, and then we’ll count them up. The result is that the liberals are the real defenders of life and, not incidentally, in line with the platform of the Democratic party. “In 1998,” writes McKenna, “the bishops finally remembered the reply to this ruse. In their 1998 pastoral letter they sharply reminded politicians that abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide can never be justified no matter now many meritorious programs are thrown into the cart. Programs addressing racism, poverty, hunger, unemployment, and health care should indeed be pursued. ‘But being “right” in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the “rightness” of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community’” (emphasis in original).
But it was too late. The bishops had lost the initiative in the battle against abortion. Catholics, half of whom no longer went to church, had been bamboozled into believing that it was permissible to be pro-choice, or at least into believing that abortion was only one issue among many others. In the front line of the contention for life were the old pro-life organizations—and the Republican party. Leading Catholic Democrats who had once declared themselves to be staunchly pro-life made a deal. They told themselves they had escaped “the Catholic ghetto” and were now members of the beautiful people defined by the espousal of political and moral progressivism. “Loyalty to their new friends and their old party trumped their religious and moral convictions,” says McKenna.
All These Years Later
There are still pro-abortion politicians in the Republican party and a few pro-lifers in the Democratic party. McKenna expresses little confidence in the staying power of the Republican party, noting how many Republicans have supported, for instance, embryonic stem cell research. But his chief concern is what has happened to Catholics. He ends his long, sad story this way:
Finally, what about the flagship of liberal Catholic Democrats, the class of 1960? The survivors are in their 60s and 70s now and try to make what sense they can of the tumultuous times they have gone through in the past four-and-a-half decades. The New Frontier ended abruptly in Dallas in 1963; the Great Society never arrived; the War on Poverty faded out even before 1976, the year that President Johnson predicted it would end in victory. Then came Jimmy Carter, with scores of legislative proposals that he could not get through a Democratic Congress, followed by Ronald Reagan, who threw everything into reverse. Clinton’s presidency seemed more a holding action than anything, and his personal monkeyshines left an embarrassing smudge. And now, God help us, Bush. Bush, they know, got into office and was kept there by a small sliver of votes, and a significant portion of those votes came from church-going Catholics who didn’t like the Democrats’ abortion plank. Well, dammit, they don’t like it, either, but what can they do? They can’t leave a party that pays homage to their dreams of peace and social justice. This abortion business was never even on the horizon when they first voted. Why did it have to come up, how did it get in there? Confusion, frustration, crankiness intrude into their recollections. Better to think about the past, when progress was the order of the day. Everything was so clear on that frosty day in front of the Capitol. A torch had been passed to a new generation-their generation-and didn’t Kennedy say that he would not trade places with any other generation? The way was straight and they were starting on it. Yet somehow it all got twisted, all screwed up. Anger and frustration can’t last. At some point they give way to resignation, perhaps even to a kind of serenity. It could be that somewhere, right now, maybe in a pastor’s study or a Catholic university’s library, an elderly man or woman has pulled from the shelf a dusty blue-cloth edition of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man and has started reading again about the coming of the noogenesis, the movement of human consciousness into higher regions, with the Omega Point finally in sight.
As I said, “Criss-Cross: Democrats, Republicans, and Abortion” is a remarkable article. I have greatly abbreviated it and paraphrased parts. The entire thing is in the summer/fall issue of the Human Life Review. A couple of additional comments are required. For all the failures of the American bishops, it should never be forgotten that, when “liberalized abortion law” was first promoted in the mid-1960s up through Roe in 1973, the bishops were the only publicly influential group in America that vigorously opposed the unlimited abortion license. The worlds of the media, higher education, medicine, and law all cheered the Roe decision. As did the mainline/oldline liberal churches. And as did evangelical Protestants, who viewed opposition to abortion as an effort to impose Catholic beliefs on others. Years after Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant association in the country, was still applauding the abortion license the Court had decreed. Only the Catholic Church, through the voice of her bishops, dared say no.
Without the Catholic Church, there would be no pro-life movement in America, and without the pro-life movement in America, there would be no pro-life movement in the world. This must never be forgotten. Today evangelicals and Catholics together, along with many others, are leading a pro-life cause that is attracting a new generation of young people who find it hard to believe that so many of their parents were so supine in going along with what John Paul II taught the world to recognize as “the culture of death.” (For part of the story of how evangelicalism was turned around, see Timothy George, “Evangelicals and Others,” First Things, February 2006.)
But George McKenna is right: When it came to the crunch in 1980, when the Democrats had unequivocally become the abortion party and the Republicans unmistakably the pro-life party, it was obvious that liberal Catholics, including most bishops, had chosen, whether they knew it or not, party over principle. Under the tutelage of Cardinal Bernardin and others, consciences had been sedated, and the bishops turned their energies to writing pastoral letters on “peace and justice” issues such as disarmament and economic equality. For which they received the enthusiastic plaudits of the media. Largely because they were not talking about abortion.
When, in 1984, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York corrected from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro on her version of a Catholic position on abortion, there was an enormous public ruckus. The cardinal told me that when he attended the meeting of the bishops’ conference that fall, there was hardly a bishop who had a good word for his having spoken out. Rather, various bishops said, “Don’t you know we’ve been through all that?” “Why are you causing a fuss about it now?” “You’re playing into the hands of the Republicans.” “We have a bigger agenda now.” And, “Face it, we’ve lost on the abortion question.”
Due in significant part to the relentless and eloquent witness of John O’Connor, many bishops rediscovered their nerve. In 1998, the conference adopted the magnificent statement “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics” (see First Things, February 1999). The argument is that there is a “house of human dignity,” and, like any house, it has many parts—walls, windows, doors, roof, etc. But the foundation of the house of human dignity is the defense of innocent human life, without which nothing else can stand. As Prof. McKenna says, 1998 was late in the day. It was too late to prevent the fateful reconfiguration of the two major political parties. Of the four groups that formed the Democratic coalition, serious Catholics had been effectively expelled. Still welcome were those Catholics who subordinated the defense of human life to what they call a more comprehensive social justice agenda, those Catholics who avert their eyes from what Mother Teresa called the distressed face of Christ in the face of the least among us. The defense of the dignity of the human person at the points of his or her greatest vulnerability is the foundation of social justice. If we don’t get this issue of social justice right, we will not get anything else right.
The country and the world owe an inestimable debt to the Catholic bishops, even if, for a time, they lost their courage and betrayed the cause in which they had rendered such distinguished service. In the contention for the dignity of the human person, it is late in the day, but it is never too late.
While We’re At It
• At the memorial service for Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale University, there was Bach organ-music and reflections by Yale’s president Richard Levin and by James Billington, Librarian of Congress. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma played Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D Major, followed by readings from Dostoevsky and Goethe, along with St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and a prayer composed by John Henry Newman. The Yale Russian Chorus sang “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos” from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. The funeral last May was according to the rites of the Orthodox Church, which Pelikan, a former Lutheran, joined in his latter years. The Yale service was choreographed, however, by Pelikan before his death, and he chose Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia to speak about his life’s work. Wilken wrote the tribute to Pelikan in these pages (August/September). In his reflection at Yale, Wilken said: “Throughout his life, Pelikan never wavered from the conviction that it was the central orthodox tradition-orthodox with a small ‘o’-that was the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring. In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or other forms of so-called ‘lost Christianities,’ but also to become their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes of Christian history, it was said, were the heretics whose insights were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great Church. Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine. In one of his last books, he cited such writers as Edward Gibbon, Adolf von Harnack, and Matthew Arnold, who believed that ‘creeds pass’ and ‘no altar standeth whole.’ But he answered them with John Henry Newman, who said that dogma is the principle of religion. And with Lionel Trilling, who wrote that ‘when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emotion and ethical intention . . . and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being.’”
• Many years ago, I asked Pelikan who was the most influential theological mind of the past two hundred years. I had suggested thinkers such as Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Barth. Without hesitation, he said John Henry Newman. I expressed surprise at the certainty with which he named Newman. I may not recall the exact words, but he explained that Newman’s thought has been received into the tradition of the Catholic Church, whereas Schleiermacher and Harnack, brilliant though they were, wrote against the tradition, and Barth was, as he claimed to be, a “church theologian” but a church theologian without a church capable of bearing his contribution through successive generations. Pelikan understood, as Wilken said at Yale, that it is orthodoxy that is the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring.
• So passionate do some people become about politics. Here is the often thoughtful Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on the eve of the November elections: “Let Karl [Rove] know that you think this is a critical election, because you know as a citizen that if the Bush team can behave with the level of deadly incompetence it has exhibited in Iraq—and then get away with it by holding on to the House and the Senate—it means our country has become a banana republic. It means our democracy is in tatters because it is so gerrymandered, so polluted by money, and so divided by professional political hacks that we can no longer hold the ruling party to account. It means we’re as stupid as Karl thinks we are.” Whew, by the skin of our teeth—by one seat in the Senate—America avoided the fate of becoming a banana republic. It was a close call. And do Democratic victories mean that our democracy is not in tatters, is not so gerrymandered, is not so polluted by money, etc.? I’m not in the business of political analysis, but I really don’t think the choice was between being a banana republic and a constitutional democracy. As an outcome of the elections, it seems likely that pro-life measures will have a more difficult time, good judicial appointments may be stymied, and the Bush doctrine of promoting democracy in the Middle East may be abandoned. I am sympathetic to the argument that it was the right doctrine but was dismally executed. In key races, more-conservative Democrats were elected, giving formal congressional control to much-more-liberal Democrats but quite possibly moving the center of balance in a conservative direction. But, as I say, I am not in the business of political analysis. My pastoral counsel is that none of us should think that the outcome of an election is the end of the world or even the end of American democracy.
• “While Western Europe is turning Muslim, its Christian churches are committing suicide,” wrote Paul Belien in the Brussels Journal this past May. That may be putting it too strongly, but something odd is going on. In Belgium, as noted here earlier, dozens of churches have been taken over by squatters, mainly illegal Muslim immigrants. Altars and statues are covered to eliminate Christian symbols that might give offense. “Solidarity cannot be limited to one’s own nation,” said Godfried Cardinal Danneels, archbishop of Brussels. The Church is leading a campaign to have the government legalize thousands of immigrants. In Amsterdam, Fr. Herwig Arts, a popular author, describes the scene at a Jesuit chapel in Antwerp. “They removed the tabernacle and installed a television set and radios, depriving us of the opportunity to pray in our own chapel and say Mass. . . . For me, the place has been desecrated. I feel I cannot enter it any more.” The Brussels Journal reports, “Father Arts was severely criticized for his comments. Today he remains silent, as do other Catholic priests.” In Glasgow, Scotland, a spokesman for St. Albert’s School told The Scotsman, “We support faith schools across the board. In the case of St. Albert’s, we see a school in which for 95 percent of the children the festival of Eid has more significance than Christmas or Easter. It is de facto not a Catholic school.” Never mind that Muslim organizations may be virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. The Christian teachings of compassion and solidarity trump Christian survival. In Italy, the Franciscan friars of Genoa are helping one such organization build a mosque adjacent to the monastery. As for actually taking over churches, the Holy See addressed the question in a 2004 document, Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi (Christ’s Love Toward Migrants): “To avoid misunderstandings and confusion, and considering the religious diversity that we mutually recognize, and out of respect for sacred place and the religion of the other, too, we do not consider it opportune for Christian churches, chapels, places of worship, or other places reserved for evangelization and pastoral work to be made available for non-Christian religions. Still less should they be used to obtain recognition of demands made on the public authorities.” It would appear that Cardinal Danneels and others are—to borrow a term from nineteenth-century controversies over papal infallibility—“inopportunists.”
• It’s time for the annual report on names given boys and girls. According to the city’s department of health, Emily was the most popular girl’s name for the second year in a row. Next come Ashley, Kayla, and Sarah, and it’s downhill from there. (The good news is that Sarah has made a reappearance.) As usual, boys get the names of biblical and virtuous gravity. For the twentieth year, Michael was at the top, followed by Daniel, Joshua, and David. I see that Fr. John Dietzen, who writes “The Question Box” in many Catholic papers, takes up the question of baptismal names. “The centuries-old tradition of naming children after one of the saints,” he writes, “is still good and admirable. It is one way of reminding them that they are part of a long Christian line and puts them at an early age in touch with the heroes of the faith.” In fact, the old Code of Canon Law specified that children are to be named for saints, or for virtues such as Faith, Hope, and Charity. That was then. Revised according to “the spirit of Vatican II,” the new code only advises that care be taken “that a name foreign to Christian sensibilities is not given.” So I suppose Satan is out. The Rite of Christian Initiation says that any old name will do “provided such a name is not incompatible with Christian beliefs.” Don’t tell my bishop, but I once explained to parents that I could not baptize a girl with the name of Kaya. They finally settled on Catherine, she of Siena, but they said they would still call her Kaya. I couldn’t stop them from doing that, but I could do my bit to uphold a wise and venerable tradition that was among the many jettisoned in the name of “updating” the Church. Updating is also known as aggiornamento, which in too many instances translated into gutting the richness of being Catholic.
• One must at least admire the patience of Garry Wills in going back through his notes and writing it all up, once again. “A Country Ruled by Faith” in the New York Review of Books reminds us, just in case anyone forgot, that George W. Bush said Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher because “he changed my heart.” And remember when John Ashcroft said at Bob Jones University, “We have no king but Jesus”? (One wonders what other king Ashcroft’s critics think we should have.) And you have possibly forgotten “faith-based initiatives” in which Bush reached out also to black ministers. Not only that, but he did it to “shave a few points off the boost blacks normally gave to Democrats.” Bush’s people “also brought black ministers to the White House to meet the first black woman to become secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.” My goodness, you mean Condoleezza Rice is black? How could I have overlooked that. Then Mr. Wills reminds us that many evangelicals think that God is on the side of America, and vice versa, in the war against terrorism. Right, I seem to have read something to that effect. His clincher is that “there were Bible study groups in the Green Zone” (of Baghdad). Well, that does it. To readers who suffer from severe memory lapses, I recommend “A Country Ruled by Faith” in the November 16 issue of the New York Review of Books, which bills itself as America’s leading intellectual magazine.
• “It is as if morality has been divided into two parts,” Pope Benedict told the Swiss bishops in November. There are the great themes of peace, nonviolence, justice for all, concern for the poor, and respect for creation. For many, these themes constitute “a substitute religion, or its successor.” Then there is the morality of “commitment on behalf of life, from conception to death; that is, its defense against abortion, against euthanasia, against manipulation, and against man’s self-conferred authorization to dispose of life.” The Church’s task is to rejoin these “two moralities.” Benedict said, “It is only if human life is respected from conception to death that the ethics of peace is also possible and credible; it is only then that non-violence can express itself in every direction; only then that we truly welcome creation, and only then that we can arrive at true justice.” In sum, the pro-life cause and the peace and justice cause are one cause. If it seems the Church is more insistent and specific on the first, it is because the attack on life, as in abortion and related actions, is more direct and unambiguous. The search for peace and justice, by way of contrast, engages many questions on which there can be legitimate disagreement.
• Maybe you, too, have noticed it. I refer to the use of religiosity when people mean religious commitment. Webster’s Third says what every educated person should know: Religiosity is “intense, excessive, or affected religiousness.” This comes to mind upon reading about a conference on young Catholics held at Fordham University, led by Christian Smith and James Davidson, sociologists at Notre Dame and Purdue, respectively. They had some important things to say, but both repeatedly talked about “religiosity” when they meant religious knowledge, commitment, and practice. The basic message of their studies is that most young Catholics are uncatechized and disengaged from the Church. Their recommendation is that parents train their children in the faith and set an example of Catholic devotion. No doubt a very good idea, if only the parents were not uncatechized as well. We are now into the third generation of Catholics who were never introduced to the basics of the faith. Coloring butterflies in religion classes and encouraging inflated self-esteem are no substitute for dogma and doctrine. Also speaking at the conference was the director of ministry at an elite Catholic high school in Manhattan. Although she would not put it that way, she is determined that there will be a fourth generation of the uncatechized. “In my experience,” she said, “we risk alienating [young people] when we are motivated by a desire to preserve the Church as we know it. I think the Church is changing. I think our attempts to save the Church from these changes will only fail. I think we have to let go of our attachment to the Church as we know it and trust that the outcome won’t be the Church’s death.”
• I think, I think, I think. We live in exciting times. “I think the Church is changing.” Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, some people, now hoary- headed and broad of beam, are still excited that the Church is changing. Young people, they touchingly believe, are eager to share their excitement about being liberated from the “pre-Vatican II Church,” that is, the olden days of which young people have heard their grandparents speak. A wise observer has said that young people will give their lives for an exclamation point, but they will not give their lives for a question mark. He was speaking about priestly vocations, but the truth has wider application. “The Church is changing.” Oh, goody. What was it before it decided to major in changing? For three generations, the Church became a question mark.
• For decades it has been the pattern that priests and religious who are in adolescent rebellion against Catholic faith and life have been put in charge of youth ministries, including those on college campuses. Their cutting-edge views might upset parishes but will be welcomed by the young, or so it was thought. After all these years, the cutting edge is very rusty and a total bore. Some young people enjoy being pandered to. They thrill to being confirmed in the conceit that they are the brightest and best that ever was. In my experience (as the sister might say), most want to be challenged to the high adventure of Christian discipleship. Consider the electric rapport between young people and John Paul the Great at, for instance, the World Youth Days. He found a thousand ways to say, “Settle for nothing less than moral and spiritual greatness!” The lady at Fordham thinks the Church must change in order to attract today’s young people, while young people yearn for an invitation to play their part in the high adventure that is the long and turbulent history of Christ and his Church. The world of youth is filled with novelties gone stale, while the really new thing is the call to radical fidelity.
• Proponents of capital punishment have a solution that would preclude such problems. Abdullah Salahuddin was convicted of murder and is serving a twenty-five-years-to-life sentence at Attica prison in New York. He claims his First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion were violated when prison authorities required Sunni and Shiite inmates to pray together during Ramadan. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s ruling against his lawsuit, pointing out that the state must demonstrate compelling “penological reasons” for its denial of Salahuddin’s claim. Set aside the arguments for capital punishment, and set aside whether it is Muslim doctrine that Sunnis and Shiites should not pray together, and consider the court’s remarkable solicitude for First Amendment rights. That is surely something to be cheered. I am informed by Prison Fellowship and others who work in the field, however, that that solicitude is not uniformly extended to the two million people in prison in this country, most of whom are not Muslim. I am in regular correspondence with a number of prisoners who tell me, for instance, that their access to a Catholic chaplain is severely restricted. “I was in prison and you visited me.” There are few efforts so unqualifiedly admirable as those of congregations and parishes that have established programs of regular prison visitation. But such congregations and parishes are few. The escalation of the number of prisoners in the last two decades is almost certainly related to falling crime rates, but too often these men (and the overwhelming majority are men) are consigned to oblivion. Christians have reason to give serious thought to the day when we will meet some of them and they will ask why we did not visit them.
• Upon turning seventy-five in October, Chuck Colson announced that he is retiring as chairman of Prison Fellowship, which he founded some thirty years ago. His successor is Michael Timmis, head of a Detroit-based investment company. What the reports I saw did not mention is that Timmis is a very active Catholic, which would seem to be noteworthy in view of PF’s being among the more prominent of evangelical para-church organizations.
• It is as though Pope Benedict had never delivered his challenge to Islam on the incompatibility of force and true religion at Regensburg University on September 12. In fact, Benedict is not even mentioned in a long and astonishing editorial in La Civiltà Cattolica, a magazine published by Jesuits under Vatican supervision. The clear implication is that what the editors call fundamentalist Islam is Islam, and there is very little anybody can do about it. “From this arises the necessity, for fundamentalist Islam, of the ‘armed struggle’ (al-jihad bi-l-saif) against those who attack an Islamic state with the pretext of turning it into a ‘democratic’ state. An Islamic state, according to radical interpretation, is ‘theocratic’ by nature; that is, it is ruled only according to the Qur’an and the Sunna, and thus, according to the extremists, it cannot be ‘democratic,’ much less ‘secular,’ nor can it fail to declare Islam the ‘state religion.’” The editors continue: “It must not be forgotten that, according to Muslim thought, the West appropriated Muslim territories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, exploiting their resources; above all, it has sought to spread among the Islamic peoples its own religion, it own political institutions, and its own lifestyles, at the expense of the Islamic religion and its political institution, the caliphate. This has constituted a fitna (temptation, trial) for the faith of Islamic peoples, and must be wiped out, according to the fundamentalists, with a struggle against the West and with its subjection to Islam.” The West and America in particular are blamed for fanning the flames of Muslim terrorism. The editors are not without recommendations: “Abandon the idea of forcing Islamic people to accept democracy, understood in the Western sense, because, insofar as this is founded upon popular suffrage as its source of authority, it denies, according to the fundamentalists, the absolute authority of Allah over the ‘believers,’ and derives the force of the laws from popular consensus. For Islam, Allah is the source of the laws, which are divine laws, revealed to Mohammed and codified in the sharia. It can certainly be hoped that the democratic system may spread throughout Islamic countries, but this must take place with the consensus and at the initiative of the Islamic peoples themselves, in respect for their culture and their values.” This wisdom is in the service of the goal of creating “bonds of friendship and collaboration [with Islam] in order to solve today’s great problems and establish a serene and trusting intercultural dialogue.” As for Israel, the editors allow that some Muslims are resigned to its existence, but “the viewpoint shared by the entire Islamic world” is that Israel must be removed from a land that “belongs to Muslims ‘by divine law’ until the end of time.” It is recognized that there is a division in the Muslim world, but it is a division without a real difference. “On one side, behind the terrorist ideologies inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood of al-Banna and al-Qutb, by Jama’at-i-Islami of Mawdudi, and by Salafiyya are great and powerful Islamic states, which are interested in combating the West; and on another, there is a strong aversion against the West.” And, as described, the strong aversion against the West is also sympathetic to the ideology of terrorism. The upshot is that Benedict and everybody else should forget about challenging the Islamic Jihadists and settle for “a serene and trusting intercultural dialogue” with Islam as it really is and always will be. It is possible that that is not what La Civiltà Cattolica means to say, but, on the basis of what it does say, the Jihadists and everybody else can be excused for reading the editorial as a call for the surrender of the West.
• Elton John, er, Sir Elton John, is a pop musician with very definite views. In a recent interview with a gay magazine, he said, “Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays.” He went on to say, “From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn’t work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it’s not really compassionate.” In the same interview, he complained, “The world is near escalating to World War Three and where are the leaders of religion? Why aren’t they having a conclave? Why aren’t they coming together?” Given his view of the evil of religion, I should think he would be very glad that its leaders are not coming together. I mention this only because a parishioner insists I simply must expose the fatuities of Sir Elton. Duty done. Although I confess that he is not anywhere near the top of my list of threats to the souls of a generation.
• There’s another big story in the Christian Century on the “precipitous” decline in mainline/oldline church membership. A page later there is this: “’The Protestant left has the potential to become a key constituency of the Democratic Party,’ says a political scientist studying the growing number of faith-related progressive groups in the U.S.” In journalistic circles, that’s known as burying the lede.
• catholic trends is published by the U.S. bishops conference and is, as its title suggests, essential reading for those, otherwise known as trendy, who want to keep abreast of trends. Headlined in this issue is a pastoral letter by Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. He says, “The relationship of reconciliation, healing, and salvation are recurring themes in Luke.” I’m not sure that Luke’s gospel does in fact address the relationship between them, but there is no doubt that St. Luke has a lot to say about reconciling love, divine healing, and eternal salvation, none of which are addressed in the bishop’s letter. “Our ailments are symptoms of underlying ills in society,” he declares. Well, that explains my sore back. It’s all part of embracing “an expanded vision of health” that addresses “the root problems of illness.” For instance, the lack of universal health insurance. The underlying causes of “poor health behaviors,” we are told, are “social injustice, and inadequate social services, and insufficient economic opportunities.” In a just society, the overweight would presumably not have access to Big Macs. “Today the church [always lowercase in USCCB publications] is being called not simply to change but to transform the health of her communities.” Transformation-that begins to edge up to what Luke is about. For instance, writes the bishop in his capacity as shepherd of souls, “Roads and transportation influence the appropriate use of health services.” But of course. Moreover, “The lack of healthful alternatives for children and teens may influence some to turn to unhealthy behaviors including substance and alcohol abuse.” But how can they lack the alternative of not doing drugs and alcohol? Don’t ask. Parishes should establish “Health and Wholeness Committees,” and “preaching, teaching, and programs should encourage healthy living and practices making connections between faith and health.” Maybe his next pastoral letter will take up the “faith” side of the connections to be made. Meanwhile, we are challenged by the prophetic insight that “Justice and compassion require no less than the transformation of many unjust social arrangements, as well as attention to their symptomatic consequences.” So if you, like the blind, the deaf, and the halt in the Gospel of Luke, are suffering from the symptomatic causes of social injustice, take heart. The Church in West Virginia is on your side, determined that you, too, may experience “reconciliation, healing, and salvation.” The bishops’ understanding of “gospel values” is comprehensive: “To promote a transportation system that does not rely solely on the individual automobile. Our current system leads to air pollution, consumption of natural resources and disproportionately punishes the poor. We must provide mass transportation, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructures.” Hiking and biking the hills of West Virginia as radical discipleship. (Peter Berger has remarked that Americans have long since embraced mass transportation: the automobile.) But as the bishop says, “We, as members of the body of Christ, can no longer afford to let our fellow family members and neighbors wait until they are broken for us to reach out and attempt to support their health.” We will establish Health and Wholeness Committees. Jesus demands no less. Also better roads and transportation services. I believe I already mentioned universal health insurance. The bishop ends with a Marian riff: “Finally, I call to mind that unique Christian, Mary, the mother of Jesus, the first disciple. At the annunciation her yes allowed the healing presence of God to take human flesh as her Son. . . . It was she who stood with the early church to experience the restoration of health through the resurrection.” So that’s what all that was about. To contemplate the paucity of moral and spiritual wisdom in our society were it not for the bold pastoral leadership of bishops brought to our attention by catholic trends is to tremble.
• Parents know all about university inputs. They put in as much as $20
0,000 to get a child through college. Universities, however, are not much inclined to talk about outputs-meaning what a student actually learns. The public-policy department of the University of Connecticut has now done the largest study ever of what students learn about American history, government, and economics. They randomly selected fourteen thousand freshmen and seniors at fifty colleges and universities and asked them sixty multiple-choice questions. More than half the seniors could not identify the century when the first American colony was established in Jamestown. Fewer than half could name the source of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” More than 75 percent of seniors were not familiar with the Monroe Doctrine. And so forth. But here’s the interesting part: Across the board, seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen, and at many colleges, including Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, seniors know less than freshmen about American history. In other words, they are not being educated; they are, if one may be permitted the term, being de-educated. A majority of the sixteen schools where senior scores were actually lower than freshman scores are usually rated as among the most prestigious institutions in the nation. In terms of teaching about our country, the top five schools are Rhodes College, Colorado State University, Calvin College, Grove City College, and University of Colorado, Boulder. Notable among those schools where seniors knew less than freshmen are University of Chicago, Williams College, University of Virginia, Yale, Duke, Cornell, and, at the very bottom, in fiftieth place, Johns Hopkins. (The study, “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship,” is available from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Wilmington, Delaware.)
• There are former priests, such as Dan Maguire of Marquette University, who, presenting themselves as Catholic theologians, have labored mightily in the pro-abortion cause. But there is no priest who has had an influence comparable to that of Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., in providing a moral rationalization for Catholic politicians’ support of what Pope John Paul II taught the Church and the world to recognize as “the culture of death.” Fr. Drinan served five terms (1971–1981) as a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, until the pope declared that priests should not hold elective office. Among the pro-abortion politicians who have expressed their indebtedness to Fr. Drinan are Senator Edward Kennedy and former governor Mario Cuomo. I confess to a small measure of culpability. In 1970, I ran for Congress in what was then the fourteenth congressional district in Brooklyn. Fr. Drinan told me he had been asked by people in Massachusetts to run for Congress and he wanted my counsel. I encouraged him to run. By the grace of God, I lost, and, by the support of pro-abortionists in Massachusetts, Fr. Drinan won. Now the Georgetown University Law Center has established a Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights. John Paul II wrote in the apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici: “The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” With maximum determination, Fr. Drinan worked to defy, and encourage others to defy, that elementary truth of moral reason. Georgetown University is an institution “in the Jesuit tradition.”
• We celebrate anniversaries of the twenty-fifth, the fiftieth, and the one-hundredth of this and that, but it is not too often that we get to celebrate an eight-hundredth anniversary. It was in 1206 that Dominic de Guzman, sub-prior of the chapter of canons at the cathedral in Osma, Spain, received his inspiration to launch what became the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans are rare among religious orders in that they pioneered what today we would call a democratic form of governance and have never been split by internal movements pressing for change. In December 1216, Dominic received papal approval for the new order, and so from 2006 to 2016, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, the friars, nuns, apostolic sisters, and Dominican laity invite us to join in the celebration of their founding. I have long had a special attachment to the Dominicans, especially in this country and in Poland, and am pleased to be described, albeit informally, as a “honorary Dominican.” All Catholics, and indeed all Christians, have greatly benefited from the charism of St. Dominic. And so it is that I invite you to join in praying for the Dominicans a happy eight-hundredth birthday.
• Last month, I discussed an important new book by Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares, which analyzes the ways in which self-identified conservatives are much more generous than self-identified liberals in the giving of their time and money to help others. But entrenched stereotypes are stubborn. Here is a report in the Christian Century on a new study of Pentecostalism from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “When U.S. adults in the survey were asked if they agree that Christians have a responsibility ‘to work for justice for the poor’—a phrase often identified with liberal Christianity—90 percent of Pentecostals and 85 percent of charismatic believers agreed.” Well yes, the phrase is often—indeed routinely—identified with liberal Christianity in the liberal press. How many Christians of any stripe do you suppose would say that Christians have no responsibility to work for justice for the poor? As sociologist David Martin and others have underscored, Pentecostal Christians, especially in the Global South, chiefly help the poor by helping them to get their lives in order. The same story has a nice quote, however. Catholic teaching affirms a “preferential option for the poor,” and that phrase was picked up by liberation theologians, notably in Latin America, who gave it a distinctly Marxist twist. A theologian in Argentina observes: “Liberation theology opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism.”
• How to take history, including America’s role in history, with theological seriousness without equating America with God’s chosen people? Religious thinkers have been wrestling with that question at least since the Puritans came over on the Mayflower. My take on the subject can be found in “Our American Babylon” (December 2005). Kurt Peterson writes the cover story in the Christian Century on David Barton, a Texan who has been barnstorming the country advocating the idea that this is a Christian nation. He focuses on some of Barton’s more hyperbolic rhetoric, which at times come close to a ludicrous depiction of George Washington and other founders as twenty-first-century Southern Baptists. Barton’s organization is called WallBuilders, an allusion to the biblical Nehemiah’s call to rebuild foundations and definitely not intended to be supportive of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” Barton is the author of The Myth of Separation. Peterson criticizes Barton for making an “idol” of the American state. And then there is this: “Finally, Barton’s vision of a Christian America has no room for the church. Without a robust theology of the church, Barton has no place to go but to the state to find the venue where Christians can act out their public commitments. When Christians engage the powers of this world, they properly do so not as a voting bloc but as the eternal community of God’s called-out ones-the church of Jesus Christ. Absent the church, which forms Christians into committed disciples, Barton, along with many American evangelicals, have turned to politics as the truest expression of Christian commitment.”
• Another wave of the future seems to be receding into the past. This year, United Methodists and Presbyterians are observing fifty years and Episcopalians are observing thirty years of ordaining women. But Adair Lummis, author of Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, notes that the number of women clergy is sharply declining in other denominations. In 1908, 20 percent were women and today only 8.5 percent. The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1927, has gone from 50 percent women to 36 percent. In the much larger Southern Baptist Convention, support for female pastors was widespread twenty years ago, but now the SBC official position is that “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture.” For women in the liberal denominations, opportunities are limited. Says Lummis: “For the larger churches, the better-paying churches, they want a man in the pastorate. This is a problem.” One likely reason for the change is that evangelicals have in recent years placed increasing emphasis on the differentiated and complementary roles of men and women in the church and the family. Plus, there is the widespread and perennial worry about the “feminization” of church life, a development that is opposed by both men and women. Moreover, Wayne Grudem, author of Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?, observes, “There’s an increasing realization that there’s a connection between the ordination of women and more liberal views of the authority of scripture.”
• Although formally a statement of the president of the conference, the bishops at their November meeting also approved a statement on Iraq. “We call upon all Catholics to pray daily for the safety of those who honorably serve our nation and for their families. We especially offer our support and solidarity to those who have lost loved ones in Iraq. Our prayers and solidarity must also include the Iraqi people, who have suffered so greatly under a brutal dictator and now face continuing violence, instability, and deprivation.” Particular concern is expressed for Christians in Iraq, and the bishops are to be commended for drawing attention to this severe problem, which is neglected by almost everybody else. “As bishops and defenders of the human rights and religious freedom of all, we are alarmed by the deteriorating situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. . . . Christians in particular are caught in the middle of civil strife between Sunnis and Shiites. . . . We are deeply impressed by the courage of many Christians who remain in the land of their birth.” As for U.S. policy, the bishops deplore the “shrill and shallow” rhetoric that has marked debate over Iraq. Their recommendation: “Our nation’s military forces should remain in Iraq only as long as their presence contributes to a responsible transition. Our nation should look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal.” Of course, one can argue about what is included in a “responsible transition,” but that strikes me as a wisely restrained statement well within the competence of the Church’s bishops.
• If ten years ago, or even five years ago, you had been told that the Catholic bishops were going to issue three major statements on the much controverted questions of artificial contraception, homosexuality, and the disposition required to receive Holy Communion, and that all three would be vibrantly orthodox, persuasively pastoral, and unequivocally clear, you would have been permitted a measure of skepticism. But that is precisely what the bishops did at their meeting last November. Of course, there were disagreements about this and that. (Why else have a meeting?) The amendments that were finally accepted did indeed mend the possibility of confusions and strengthened the statements. The statements, adopted overwhelmingly, are: “Married Life and the Gift of Love,” “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination,” and “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper.” All are available from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
• The statement on married life and love reaffirms the teaching of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and underscores the prophetic character of that 1968 encyclical in anticipating the consequences of the “contraceptive mentality” in, among other things, family instability and the incidence of abortion. It also proposes in a thoroughly invitational way the practice of Natural Family Planning (NFP). The statement on homosexuality is marked by thoughtful sympathy for those who experience same-sex attractions, joined to lucid and practical counsel on the difficult practice of the virtue of chastity. Some bishops wanted a stronger recommendation of the possibilities of therapy, while others cautioned against addressing medical and psychological questions beyond their competence. In any event, the reference to therapy is more sympathetic than it was in the earlier draft. The statement is admirably precise in explaining the dangers of forming one’s core identity by reference to morally disordered sexual desire. In the statement on the worthy reception of the Eucharist (knowing that we are all unworthy of so great a gift), there was a move to mention specifically public officials. While that failed, it should be obvious to everyone that they are very much included in the discussion of those who have compromised or broken their communion with the Church and therefore should not receive the sacrament. (Refusing Communion to those who come forward is a different matter, since in most instances the priest cannot know whether a person has been reconciled with the Church and her teaching. In such cases, the moral burden is on the person coming forward.) This statement should also help correct the assumption that has become commonplace in recent decades, namely, that everybody present at the Mass should also receive. All in all, the bishops did the Catholic faithful proud in their November meeting. Of course, on all three issues addressed, it is very late in the day. And it is true that there is often a big gap between adopting a statement and implementing it. The three statements are not beyond criticism, but they are an occasion for gratitude rather than grumbling. They provide the bishops and everyone else with clear guidance for teaching and living in the splendor of truth.
• Last year about this time I remarked on the curious paucity in Christian art and devotional literature on the relationship between Mary and Eve. I mentioned this poetic reflection on a card sent out by the Sisters of the Mississippi Valley:
My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away,
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child,
Through whom all will be reconciled.
O Eve! My sister, my friend,
We will rejoice together
Life without end.
A reader has subsequently sent me a little story by the French authors Jerome Tharaud and Jean Tharaud. It is in Contes de Noël, from Editions du Seuil. Here it is:
It was Bethlehem, the end of a long night. The star had just disappeared, and the last pilgrim had left the stable. The Virgin arranged the straw: at last the Child could sleep. But who can sleep the night of Christmas? Gently the door opens, so gently that it seems more like the wind was pushing it than a hand. A woman appears on the threshold, covered with rags. She was so old and wrinkled that you would have thought her mouth was one more deep wrinkle in a face the color of dirt. A fearful chill came over Mary when she saw her, as if a malicious fairy had come into the room. Fortunately Jesus was asleep. The ass and the ox placidly continued munching their hay, as if there was nothing unusual, as if they had known her forever. The Virgin didn’t take her eyes off her. The woman walked slowly, each step seeming to take centuries. She continued, the old woman, and approached the manger. Thank God, Jesus was still sleeping. How can one sleep on Christmas night? Suddenly he opened his eyelids. His mother was completely astonished to see that the eyes of the old woman and his eyes were exactly the same, they both shone with the same hope. The old woman sank down on the straw. One hand disappeared into her rags, looking for something, taking ages to find it. Mary watched her closely, still concerned. The animals watched her too, but always without surprise, as if they knew beforehand what was going to happen. Finally, after a long time, slowly, tiredly, the old woman pulls out of her clothes a little object hidden in her hand, and she gives it to the child. All the treasures of the Wise Men and the offerings of the Shepherds, what could this present be? From where she was, Mary could not tell. She saw only the shoulders bowed down, the woman’s back, bent over from age, now bent over even more before the crib, and the Child within it. The ox and the ass watched, and were not amazed. The woman stayed bowed before the Child a long time. Finally she arose, as if relieved from a great weight which had dragged her to the ground. Her shoulders were no longer bowed down, her head almost touched the low roof, her face seemed miraculously renewed, as if she was finding once more the vigor of her youth. She turned from the crib, smiled at Mary, and went out through the door into the dawning day. Finally Mary could see the mysterious present. An apple, a little apple, having within it all the sin of the world, given to the baby Jesus by Eve, for it was her, the old woman, who had come to worship the Child born of her blood, who would save her from her sins. The apple of the original sin, and the sin of so many who would follow her. And the little red apple shone in the hands of the Child, as if it were the globe of the kingdom and of the new world which had just been born with the King.
• A young reader recently graduated from an Ivy League school says that only a few months ago did he discover First Things, which reminded him of something he had read by Mortimer J. Adler: “No one has ever been—no one can ever be—educated in school or college. The reason is simply that youth itself—immaturity—is an insuperable obstacle to being educated. Schooling is for the young. Education comes later, usually much later.” It would seem that a lifetime subscription is in order.
Friedman on the congressional election, New York Times, November 3. Muslims and churches, FrontPageMag.com, November 13. Christian names, Catholic New York, October 26. Pope Benedict, Chiesa.Espressonline.it, November 16. Fordham youth conference, Catholic New York, November 9. Abdullah Salahuddin, New York Sun, November 13. Islam Cattolica, Chiesa.Espressonline.it, November 8. Elton John, Drudge Report, November 11. Mainline decline, Christian Century, November 14. Bishop Bransfield, catholic trends, October 21. Liberation theology vs. Pentecostalism, Christian Century, October 31. Barton’s America, Christian Century, October 31. Female pastors, Christian Century, October 31.