Don’t be fooled by the parentheses. “Continued” is the operative word. As in going on and on. I have said it before: we have probably not yet felt the full fury of the storm aroused by the grave misgovernment of the Catholic Church in America. I do not want to write about this, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do not want to read about it. Since all this broke in January, I have given no less than thirty hours per week to the subject, talking with endless reporters, and doing radio interviews. (I’ve been turning down as many as half a dozen television interviews per day, because they take so much time in traveling to studios, and mainly because most of them provide an opportunity for no more than a few sound bites and a food fight.) Please, I’m not whining. It is just to say I’m weary of the subject, but recognize the probability that it will not let us go.
For weeks now, the media have been in a feeding frenzy. I do not say that in criticism of the media. Let it be stated unambiguously: the leaders of the Catholic Church, meaning mainly the bishops, are responsible for the crisis and for the consequent frenzy. Of course some reporting is sensationalistic, and of course it is amusing to see the New York Times, day after day, running essentially the same story on the front page, as though they’re afraid people are going to forget about it. But, regrettably, there are also new developments, and no doubt will be more, that legitimate the major attention paid.
There is this difference: for the first time in years, I have the impression that most journalists are really trying to understand what is happening, or at least to find a story line that makes sense of what is happening. In other words, the story doesn’t conveniently fall into the conventional left/right, liberal/conservative boxes on which reporters usually depend. Recall that the story started out as a “pedophilia” scandal. The story has rightly moved beyond that now. The scandal is only very marginally about pedophilia. With very few exceptions, it is about adult men having sexual relations with adolescent and older teenage boys. So everybody has by now heard a great deal about “ephebophilia.” It is not necessary, however, that we learn a new vocabulary. There’s a perfectly good old fashioned word for same-sex sex. Homosexuality is very close to the center of the crisis. At the epicenter is the grave negligence of bishops. Not all bishops, to be sure, but too many. And, as in the case of Palm Beach, Florida, not only grave negligence but active complicity. Two months ago a lawyer and friend of the Church told me that before this is over we will see a bishop or two in jail. I thought that hyperbolic. Now I am not so sure.
It is not the greatest crisis for the Church since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, as one columnist has written. And it may not even be the greatest crisis the Church has experienced in America. Remember, for one instance, the nineteenth-century controversy over lay control. At stake was whether Catholicism in America would be governed by the traditional hierarchy or adopt a more “democratic” polity along the lines of Protestant denominationalism. For another instance, the massive, mainly Irish, immigration of an earlier time, joined to the virulent anti-Catholic bigotry of the Protestant majority, posed a crisis that went on for decades. Then there was the “Americanist” crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century when, in the view of many, Rome’s hostility to key ideas and institutions of the American experiment forced Catholicism into a countercultural ghetto. Today’s relentless immediacy of a media culture requires and induces historical amnesia. In its American experience, never mind the many previous centuries, the Church has hit rough spots much rougher than this. But, once again, this is a crisis.
The Rallying of the Faithful
The crisis is not that millions of Catholics are going to abandon the Church. The papers are full of reports about alienated, devastated, and angry Catholics, and many of them are disappointed and angry with good reason. But they are not leaving, and are not about to leave, the Church. One national poll found that three percent of Catholics interviewed were “reconsidering their relationship to the Church” because of the scandals. That’s less than the margin of error in survey research. I would not be surprised if at least three percent of Catholics are at any given time reconsidering their relationship to the Church, for one reason or another. In the current circumstance, it seems that the more general reality is that Catholics are rallying to the defense of the Church, or at least to the defense of their own parishes and priests. Mass attendance is up, offerings are up, words of encouragement and support are the order of the day. That is the case in my parish and, having talked with people all over the country, it seems to be the general picture. There are exceptions, of course. An acquaintance who is a convert from the Episcopal Church says he is thinking about reverting. At least there, says he, you can take your vice without the scandal. I don’t know whether he’s serious about that.
“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” or so the saying has it. I have traditionalist friends, priests and lay people, who are unhappy with that. They say there are not sixty-five million Catholics in the U.S., but, at the most, only twenty million or so real Catholics. In their view it would be good riddance if the majority of impostors packed up and took themselves elsewhere. I don’t think so. Other traditionalists say they themselves are sometimes tempted to leave but they are “going to stay and fight.” As though there is somewhere else to go. Such ways of thinking and speaking strike me as profoundly untraditional. Dare I say profoundly Protestant? To such traditionalist friends, I say, I was a Protestant and did not become a Catholic in order to be a Protestant. Catholics speak of the Church as our Holy Mother. A holy and loving mother does not disown her miscreant children. And she remains our holy and loving mother, even when those to whom she entrusts leadership turn out to be unholy or misguided in their understanding of the duties of love.
But, as I say, the evidence is that the Catholic faithful are rallying. Their allegiance to the Church, or at least to their parish church where Mass is said, is deeply heartening. It is, after all, the Mass—which is to say Christ in the Real Presence—that has always held the Church together. At the same time, there is a troubling aspect to this demonstration of loyalty. It may lead some priests, and especially some bishops, to the conclusion that we’re simply going to ride out the storm. “This, too, will pass.” Of course, this will pass, and the Church will ride out this storm and all the storms to come until Our Lord returns in glory. We have his promise on that. If the gates of hell will not prevail, no number of abusive priests or negligent bishops will prevail.
That is ultimately important but it is not the immediate point. The point is that this is a crisis, and this crisis must be permitted to do its work. That work involves scrupulous self-examination, candid confession, firm contrition, and believable amendment of life. And the doing of that hard work is chiefly up to the bishops. They are the ones who got us into this mess and, given what we believe is the divinely constituted structure of the Church, they are the ones who have to lead in getting us out. Faithful Catholics owe it to the Church and owe it to their bishops not to let them off the hook. In this instance, the virtue of docility includes a respect for bishops that requires recalling them to the duty and the dignity to which they were ordained. Too many of them have neglected that duty and debased that dignity.
One little-remarked dimension of the troubles is that they represent a severe setback for those who have argued that the Church in America should have more authority to govern itself in greater independence from Rome. The claim that the U.S. bishops have demonstrated their capacity for self-government may strike many as a sick joke. Perhaps the June meeting of bishops will restore a measure of credibility to the U.S. conference. But the national conference is not the issue, nor should it be, except to the degree that it can encourage or pressure bishops to do their job. It is, after all, the bishop in the place who is the pastor of the local church, meaning the diocese.
The Nerve to Govern
As I write, the Pope has taken the extraordinary step of summoning the American cardinals for consultation. This comes only days after his meeting with representatives of the bishops conference who said the Pope was leaving it up to them to deal with the problems. Apparently they misunderstood him, or he was subsequently given reason to change his mind. The bishops have said that their June meeting will produce yet another set of “guidelines” for dealing with sex abuse. The summoning of the cardinals suggests that the Pope expects a great deal more than that in response to the crisis. (See postscript below.)
There is general agreement that the bishops of today are a more solid lot than was the case, say, twenty years ago. Yet, at least on the national scene, there are few who have demonstrated real leadership in the present crisis. And some to whom people might have looked for leadership, such as Cardinal Law of Boston, have turned out to be more part of the problem than of the solution. Resisting and protesting every inch of the way, I have been dragged by the accumulating evidence to the conclusion that I cannot wholeheartedly defend his decision to stay on. A friend of his and of mine says he is just waiting for a moment in which he can exit with more public grace. His friends should not leave it to his enemies to point out that the disgrace already incurred may well preclude that option.
Today’s newspaper brings another report, this one about a seminary in the Southwest where the influence of the “lavender mafia” and the consequent and predictable scandals are coming to light. “I have no control over the seminary,” the bishop is reported as saying. That is simply false, and represents a grave dereliction of duty. Canonically and pastorally, he does have control of the seminary. It is in his diocese. What he should have said is that he does not have the nerve to exercise the control that was entrusted to him by the Church, and that he accepted by solemn vows before God and man. At the epicenter of the continuing crisis is the simple, however difficult, virtue of fidelity. What is this crisis about? The answer is that this crisis is about three things: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. The fidelity of bishops and priests to the teaching of the Church and to their solemn vows; the fidelity of bishops in exercising oversight in ensuring obedience to that teaching and to those vows; and the fidelity of the lay faithful in holding bishops and priests accountable.
I have been told that the proposition is “controversial,” but I suggest it is almost embarrassingly self-evident: if bishops and priests had been faithful to the teaching of the Church and their sacred vows, there would be no scandal. Those who would confuse the subject reflexively reach for complexity. No, I am sorry, it is as simple as that. We are reaping the whirlwind of widespread infidelity. If you ask why infidelity became so widespread, the answers do become more complex. Although I expect they all come back to the haunting question of Jesus in Luke 18: “When the Son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?”
Celibacy Not the Issue
Contrary to much current discussion, the problem is not the rule that priests must be celibate. When there is a rise in the incidence of burglary, do we say it throws into question laws against burglary? When husbands and wives commit adultery, do we say the problem is the virtue of marital faithfulness? Of course not. And if, as now almost everyone recognizes, the scandals are inextricably tied to homosexuality in the priesthood, nobody is suggesting that the remedy is to allow homosexual priests to marry. (Except, of course, for those who advocate same-sex “marriage.”) The problem is fidelity, or, more precisely, infidelity. Every priest—voluntarily and with ample opportunity for careful thought beforehand—took a solemn oath to live, by the grace of God, in uncompromised chastity and celibacy. The sadness is that some of them, homosexual and heterosexual, did not really mean it. Because at seminary they were taught, explicitly or by example, that they were not expected to really mean it. Because bishops turned a blind eye to what seminarians were being taught; or, even worse, bishops by their own example indicated that sacred vows do not really mean what they really say, and what the Church says they mean.
But the issue is not celibacy. It is correctly observed that the discipline of celibacy is precisely that, a discipline and not a doctrine. It could be changed. I do not think it should be, but that is for the Magisterium to deliberate and decide. It is frequently being said now that the celibacy rule is a late-medieval imposition aimed at protecting the Church’s property from nepotism. That is not true. The celibacy rule is grounded in the words and example of Jesus, Paul, and the earliest apostolic churches. At Nicea in 325 the West wanted it to be firmly adopted by all the churches, but the Eastern churches—in which to this day only the bishops are required to be celibate—defeated that move. In 386 Pope Siricius reinforced the rule of celibacy, a measure reaffirmed by Innocent I (d. 417) and Leo the Great (d. 461). The fact that it had to be repeatedly reinforced suggests that there has always been a problem with its observance. As there is today, much more so than in this country, in Latin America and Africa. Perhaps in the next pontificate or in the one after that, the rule will be reconsidered. I believe it would be a great loss were it rescinded. To explain why I believe that would require another essay. Suffice it to say that it would be disastrous for the rule to be changed, or even formally reconsidered, under the public pressure of the present scandals.
The celibacy rule is so offensive to many of today’s commentators, Catholic and otherwise, because it so frontally challenges the culturally entrenched dogma that human fulfillment and authenticity are impossible without sexual intercourse of one kind or another. Among the many oddities of the present circumstance is that a new twist is being given to the old maxim, Hate the sin but love the sinner. It is commonly said that the maxim has been discredited. It is not explained why or by whom it has been discredited. Hating the sin but loving the sinner—it seems to me, as it has seemed to innumerable worthies through the centuries—gets it just right. There is reason to believe that the maxim is said to be discredited by people who love the sin. Great public indignation is expressed at priests who violate their vow of celibacy. It is frequently the same people who say that celibacy is unnatural and oppressive. In effect, the maxim is now, Love the sin but hate the sinner. Love the fact that people give sexual expression to “who they really are”—whether heterosexual or homosexual—but hate these men for belonging to an institution that teaches that sexual expression is not necessary to being who you really are. In this view, it is intolerable that the largest and most influential moral authority in the world persists in rejecting the sexual expression of the cultural commandment to “follow your bliss.”
I asked an assistant to check out what the gay papers and websites have been saying about the scandals. (NB: In this context, “homosexual” means someone with dominantly same-sex desires, while “gay” refers to a person whose self-identity is determined by such desires.) After one day, he couldn’t stomach any more of the pornography that is endemic to that subculture, but he came up with a sizable portfolio of reporting and editorial comments. For the most part, it would seem that “the gay community,” as it regularly calls itself, is keeping a careful distance from the criminal aspects of the scandals, repeatedly insisting that it does not endorse man-boy sexual relations. At the same time, there are expressions of sympathy for priests who are acting out their homosexual desires and accounts of gays who claim to have had affairs with priests. One young Jesuit describes in detail how grateful he is to his superiors for helping him to understand, affirm, and give expression to his sexual needs. In the gay community, it would seem, the maxim is: love the sin and love the sinner, but hate anyone who calls it a sin or him a sinner.
A Counterintuitive Claim
It is true, as some readers have noted, that we have in these pages tried to maintain a certain distance from the question of homosexuality in the priesthood. Publications such as the National Catholic Reporter, on the left, and Catholic World Report and the Wanderer, on the right, have over the years given the question more attention. We countered Father Donald Cozzens’ The Changing Face of the Priesthood, which offered an alarming (alarmist?) picture of the homosexualization of the priesthood, with Msgr. Earl Boyea’s “Another Face of the Priesthood” (FT, February 2001), which attempted to put Cozzens’ claims into perspective. We had Avery Cardinal Dulles review the McDonough-Bianchi study of the Jesuits, Passionate Uncertainty (FT, April), and he did so in his usual balanced manner, correcting some of its more exaggerated claims.
Now there is Michael Rose’s forthcoming book, Goodbye, Good Men, which I have had a chance to read. It is a depressingly detailed account in support of the thesis that the so-called crisis in priestly vocations is “artificial and contrived.” Diocesan vocation directors and “formation teams” in the seminaries systematically weed out the “good men” who do not jump through the hoops of psychological testing. They are deemed to be “rigid” or “inflexible” if, for example, they agree with the Church that it is not possible to ordain women, or if they are not “comfortable” with homosexuals in the priesthood and are therefore suspected of the sin of “homophobia.” A subtheme of the Rose book is that some bishops actually want to intensify the vocations crisis in order to promote the abandonment of the celibacy rule and the ordination of women. A large part of the book is based on interviews with manly men who were repelled by seminaries dominated by the “lavender mafia.” Rose names names, and I have checked with people familiar with some of the incidents he recounts. It seems that his reports are generally reliable, but, even if the situation in vocation offices and seminaries is only half as bad as he suggests, it is very bad indeed.
Rose duly notes that in some dioceses vocations are flourishing: Denver, Colorado; Arlington, Virginia; Lincoln, Nebraska; Peoria, Illinois; and Rockford, Illinois, are among the outstanding examples. Without exception, they are dioceses with bishops noted for their orthodoxy. Which brings us back to fidelity. It is simply counterintuitive to claim, as many do, that there is no connection between dissent from the Church’s teaching on doctrine and dissent from teaching on morality. The Church teaches authoritatively on “faith and morals,” and the two are inseparable. For a long time, most blatantly in the organized opposition to the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, systematic dissent was inculcated, also in the seminaries. In 1972, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) established a commission whose findings were published in a 1979 book from Doubleday, Human Sexuality. The seeds of everything that has come to light in recent months are to be found there.
Human Sexuality was “received” by the CTSA, which also “arranged” for its publication “as a service to the membership of the Society and a wider public of interested persons.” The book is thoroughly revisionist from A to Z, flying in the face of the Church’s teaching on contraception, celibacy, chastity, homosexuality, and even—albeit more delicately—on bestiality. Had the CTSA formally approved the study, it would have created a frontal confrontation with the Magisterium. But the book has been widely used in seminaries. Seminarians and priests of the time who had a woman or a male lover on the side could, and did, cite Human Sexuality to reasonably claim that a very large part, if not the majority, of the academic theological establishment countenanced their behavior. The CTSA report left no doubt that it represented the avant garde, that the Church’s teaching would eventually catch up with “the latest research,” and that, while waiting for the Church to catch up, priests should exercise discretion in deviating from the present and woefully benighted official teaching. Thus did academic and theological dissent promiscuously issue permission slips for an era of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, the consequences of which are now on scandalous public display.
Many of the bishops did not and do not have the intellectual self-confidence to challenge the academic theological establishment. A few hardly bother to disguise the fact that they agree with the positions espoused by, for instance, Human Sexuality. One bishop, in his self-serving statement of resignation after an unsavory incident with a teenage boy was revealed, went so far as to suggest that his problem was that he was a particularly caring and intelligent person who was attuned to the latest thinking about matters sexual. Most of the publications cited above that have been paying major attention to what is called the homosexualization of the priesthood allow that, at least in diocesan seminaries, the situation has been much improved in the last ten or fifteen years. As has been frequently noted, almost all the current scandals are from twenty or thirty years ago. We should not be surprised, however, if the relentless probings that are now inevitable turn up more recent incidents.
In all this, relatively little attention has been paid the religious orders where, according to some accounts, deviations from the Church’s moral teachings are more common than among diocesan clergy. One reason less attention has been paid is that the orders have their own chain of command and, as one bishop remarked, “The media are out for the blood of bishops.” In fact, orders operating within a diocese are accountable to the bishop, but not so directly. An obvious exception in terms of public attention is the Society of Jesus, Jesuits still having a certain panache. (Catholic lay people of a certain age announce with some pride that they are “Jesuit educated.” That claim is becoming less common and will possibly disappear in another generation.) Cardinal Dulles has written here that, despite the “gaying and graying” of the society, Jesuits have been through hard times before and the charism of Ignatius of Loyola will rebound in the future. We must pray he is right. The aforementioned Passionate Uncertainty and other reports suggest that the corruption is far advanced. Everybody has their own stories. A young scholastic tells me that he and others were hit on by superiors and decided to lodge a complaint with higher-ups in the society, only to discover that “the higher up we went, the deeper in we were to the lavender regime.” Nonetheless, there are still a few virile young men entering the society, determined to revive the Ignatian charism in all its integrity, and one must pray them well.
In 1979, a high-ranking prelate in the Roman curia asked Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, then Archbishop of Boston, about reports of widespread homosexuality among clergy and seminarians. The inquiry was sparked by tapes on homosexuality produced by Fr. Paul R. Shanley that had come to the prelate’s attention. Shanley, it may be remembered, is the flagrantly gay priest who, among other things, publicly supported the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The fact that, under Cardinal Law, he was shifted from parish to parish and finally fobbed off on other dioceses was, for many loyal supporters of Law, the final straw. In a confidential document now made public under court order, Medeiros responded to the Vatican inquiry: “The danger in the seminaries, your Eminence, is obvious. . . . Where large numbers of homosexuals are present in a seminary, other homosexuals are quickly attracted. Other healthier young men tend to be repelled.” “Since our seminaries reflect the local American culture,” he continued, “the problem of homosexuality has surfaced there in a manner which is widespread and quite deep.” He was confident, however, that the problem had been remedied. “We have a seminary which has now—within a five-year period—become almost fully transformed into a community of healthy, well-balanced young men. Our numbers are much smaller but now we will attract more young men who will be the right kind of candidate.” People who know the Boston seminary very well tell me that Medeiros’ confidence, with very few exceptions, was warranted.
One reason the media began searching for a new story line once the issue moved from pedophilia to homosexuality is, of course, the fear of being accused of homophobia. There was quite a ruckus in March when Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, opined that homosexuals “just cannot be ordained.” He went so far as to suggest, but did not develop the idea, that homosexuals who had been ordained were not validly ordained, homosexuality being an “impediment” to ordination in the same way that there may be impediments to a valid sacramental marriage. This gets into sticky territory, given confused and conflicting notions about sexual orientation. (See above on the distinction between “homosexual” and “gay.”) It seems more than likely that, in centuries past, some priests who have been canonized as saints would meet today’s criteria as having a “homosexual orientation.” The issue was not then, and should not be today, the nature of the temptations resisted but the fidelity of the resistance.
The Triumph of the Therapeutic
You have undoubtedly read in the press that the rule for homosexual priests is like the presumably discredited rule in the military, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” In fact, quite the opposite is the case today, and has been for some time. Seminarians are incessantly asked, and encouraged to incessantly tell, about every quirk and wrinkle in their sexual make-up and imagination. This is “the triumph of the therapeutic” that Philip Rieff wrote about in his classic 1965 book of that title. It is most particularly depressing to hear bishops offer assurances, in response to the present scandals, that they are going to add more psychological testing to the process of forming priests. Psychological testings and probings are, one may suggest, at least as much a part of the problem as of the solution.
The same bishops, more understandably, offer assurances about prompt reporting of criminal abuse to civil authorities. In such preoccupation with the psychological and legal, what risks getting lost is the commonsensical and the moral. Psychobabble and legalities aside, bishops have the job of seeing to it (episcopos = oversight) that their priests teach and live in fidelity to the truth about faith and morals expounded by the Catholic Church. In respectfully holding their bishops to account, the Catholic faithful should cut through all the chatter about more psychological testing, updated bureaucratic procedures, and new guidelines for reporting, and ask the simple question, Have you been doing your job? The three-fold job to which bishops are ordained is to “teach, sanctify, and govern.” It is obvious that some bishops have failed to teach and govern, with dire consequences also for sanctification. Had they been doing their job, we would not now be inundated by scandal. If one asks why they did not do their job, the answers are no doubt various, ranging from indolence, naiveté, willful ignorance, doctrinal dissent, and cowardice to active complicity in evil and the fear of blackmail. Some of the answers may be excusable, all are forgivable, but none is edifying.
What the bishops do in their June meeting will not be very credible if they do not forthrightly address the question of homosexuality and its obvious connection with the sexual abuse of adolescent and older teenage boys. This necessarily involves a thorough reform of what Michael Rose calls the “Gatekeeper Phenomenon.” The gatekeepers are the clerical and lay staff of the diocese or religious order who control the various stages of formation on the way to the priesthood, beginning with the admission of candidates to the seminary. They typically include vocations directors, psychologists, nuns and former nuns, seminary rectors, and what are called “formation teams.” The would-be priest runs a gauntlet that, the accumulating evidence indicates, all too often screens out healthy heterosexual men who are religiously orthodox, traditional in their piety, and resistant to manipulative therapeutic techniques that only thinly disguise an ideology of dissent.
As one seminary rector says, “For those men who are exclusively heterosexual in orientation and devoutly orthodox in faith, the difficulty in becoming a priest at the present time must be faced in an objective and dispassionate manner.” Such men who want to make it through the therapeutic gauntlet must keep their cool, resist any temptation to criticize the system, and, above all, learn how to achieve the psychobabble goal of “transparency” while being anything but transparent about who they are and what they really believe. Unwelcome theological convictions must be hidden, along with unfashionable devotional practices. The seminarian who takes the bait and strikes back at the therapeutic regime will likely be sent for special psychological counseling, which provides the formation team with additional material for a recommendation that he be rejected for ordination. To be sure, this oppressive regime does not obtain in all seminaries, but the evidence suggests that it is widespread, and was even more common ten and twenty years ago, thus lending support to the claim that the crisis in priestly vocations is, in large part, “artificial and contrived.”
It should be said that not all that is submitted as evidence is convincing. Michael Rose, for instance, interviews 125 seminarians or former seminarians from fifty dioceses, and the cumulative effect is devastating. At the same time, I cannot help but suspect that some of the rejected whom he interviewed really are rigid and refractory in ways only marginally related to orthodoxy or traditional piety, and would likely not have made good priests. Yet Rose’s account, supported by many others, generally rings true. A friend who is now a happy family man and distinguished academic tells how, when he was a young man, he discerned that he had a vocation to the priesthood. He joined a religious order and, along with other novices, was sent on retreat. As the novices got off the bus, they were joyfully greeted by older members of the order who gathered around giddily discussing which of the novices was the cutest. He soon packed up and left. That was more than twenty years ago.
Losing Our Native Language
Not very long ago, anyone relating such incidents might have been accused of telling tales out of school. Now the tales are on the front page of every newspaper, and the corruption they reflect must be candidly addressed. Consider again the notorious Fr. Paul Shanley of Boston. In addition to his other activities, he and a gay priest friend owned and operated tourist resorts in California that catered to the gay subculture, including sex at poolside. What would have happened if, even a year ago, Cardinal Law had confronted them and other blatantly gay priests with the alternative of living in obedience to their vows or leaving the priesthood? We can be sure that a powerful protest would have been launched, strongly supported by, among others, the Boston Globe, against the Cardinal’s campaign of “homophobic repression.” It would have taken great courage on the Cardinal’s part.
Catholics tell the story of a ten-year-old attending the ordination of a bishop with his father. There comes the point in the ceremony where the opened book of the Gospels is held above the head of the bishop. “What are they doing?” the boy whispers to his father. “Shh,” the father responds, “I think this is when they remove the backbone.” It’s an old story and is not entirely respectful, of course, but the fact that it is told is reflective of a Catholic sensibility that is not devoid of a certain whimsy about the Church’s leadership.
In another diocese, priests and nuns are involved in a very public “ministry” to gays and lesbians. They make no secret of the fact that their aim is to help people “affirm” and “celebrate,” as they do, a way of life that the Church teaches is gravely sinful. The bishop told them he will not interfere or pry, but if they occasion public scandal, he will show no mercy. The sobering implication is that, for this bishop, grave sin and clerical defiance of the Church’s teaching are not as grave a cause for concern as the prospect of legal, financial, and public relations liability. As anyone attentive to the news now knows, this bishop is by no means alone. The dismal reality is that the Church’s native language of sin and grace, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, is in danger of being displaced by the vocabulary of psychology, law, and public relations. What profit is it to a bishop if he masters the arts of damage control but is no longer a bishop? One must resist the perhaps cynical answer that he may be made an archbishop.
We are now at the point where public prosecutors are in a position to give or withhold from Catholic bishops a clean bill of moral health. Morally approved bishops cooperate fully with the state’s oversight of their oversight. Having squandered their moral authority to judge right and wrong, and having abandoned the Church’s native language of sin and grace, bishops appeal for exoneration to the legal and therapeutic. “I followed the advice of the experts.” The telling subtitle of Philip Rieff’s classic text The Triumph of the Therapeutic is Uses of Faith After Freud. Rieff argued that Freud, like most modern thinkers, assumed that human nature is a “jostling democracy of contending predispositions” arranged in no fixed hierarchy. He wrote that psychological maturity is not achieved by writing oneself permission slips to unleash instinctual desires. Maturity is won by the trained capacity to negotiate the conflicting discourses between cultural norms and instinct. Post-Freudian psychology took a very different course, endowing therapy with the power to release and then synthesize the “jostling democracy” of passions. Psychology as an all-purpose tool for achieving a satisfying way of life became, as Rieff put it, “a therapeutic parody of a moral demand system.”
The Triumph of the Therapeutic was published in 1965, the final year of the Second Vatican Council. Rieff warned then that authentic spiritual renewal in Catholicism was liable to be confused with the therapeutic ethic, turning the spiritual prudence of pilgrims into the lifestyle ambitions of tourists. Psychology can serve many good purposes, Rieff wrote, but it must not be allowed to become a therapeutic ideology that aspires, like religion or morality, to order the entirety of human life. That, tragically, is what psychology became in too many seminaries and programs of pastoral formation, including the “treatment centers” to which priests and religious are sent when their behavior becomes unacceptably egregious. What Vatican Council II meant by “pastoral” was widely confused with openness to the therapeutic. Euphemisms were concocted to make the pastoral and the therapeutic seem part of a single continuum of spiritual insight and growth.
Perhaps no book on the priestly life and pastoral care has done more damage than the late Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. In this view, priests become good pastors to the degree that they expose their own wounds to therapy, inviting others to similar disclosure. The teaching of the Church and centuries of spiritual and moral wisdom are judged by whether they inhibit or enhance the therapeutic norm. And so the therapeutic marches on from triumph to triumph. Treatment centers for priests take names such as “New Life Center” or “House of Affirmation.” Resisting seminarians are packed off to clinical psychologists for “growth therapy” or what is called “Sexual Attitude Reassessment.” The patient is liberated from “traditional” sexual roles and stereotypes to be his true self while, at the same time, taught to observe the “boundaries” of professional conduct. The Palm Beach bishop who was forced to resign used the claim that he was practicing therapy as an excuse for sex with young men. Three of the seminarians who accused him are now very openly gay. The bishop confessed to “having crossed the boundaries.” In such a view, the boundaries are not grounded in moral truth or fidelity to ecclesial vocation but would appear to be merely external limits on the expression of an otherwise amoral therapeutic.
Given all that has now come to light, bishops should resist the proposal that the solution is in adding another layer of the therapeutic. Some bishops continue to look to the therapists; it would seem to be the only answer they know, except for the force of law. But therapists can provide only a more intrusive and degrading approach to priestly formation. If now the order of the day is to tailor the therapeutic to the fear of legal liabilities, the result will be seminaries ever more disordered and ever more repressive. The result will be more testing, more scrutiny, more coerced self-disclosure and self-discovery—and more files to turn over, in due course, to the public prosecutor. The alternative is love for Christ and his Church, including the tough love of disciplining the wild card in the poker of life that is sexuality. The great task and the great grace, as St. Augustine reminds us, is the right ordering of our loves and loyalties. In a word, fidelity. Or we might go so far as to rehabilitate another word banished by the therapeutic: holiness.
To Be a Priest
As mentioned earlier, there are dioceses and seminaries today that are attracting large numbers of manly, faithful, and holy candidates for the priesthood. The seminarians at, for instance, the North American College in Rome are an inspiration. The same is true of communities such as the Legionaries of Christ. Moreover, and without in any way excusing what has gone wrong, we should not blind ourselves to the fact that there are some in the media who are bent upon exploiting the present scandals in the hope of discrediting the Church and her teaching, especially her teaching with respect to sexual morality. In these months it has been a disappointment that so few non-Catholic Christians seem to recognize that the attack is not just against the Catholic Church but against Christian faith and morals as such. Nor should we fail to acknowledge the tragedy and injustice when priests who have been faithful for many years are subjected to public disgrace by the exposure of, or even no more than the unverified accusation of, a wayward act twenty or thirty years ago. It is no news that the Church has enemies and that some of them are vicious. Neither is it an excuse for what has gone wrong.
The public scandal of priestly sex abuse first broke in the mid-eighties, and was then muted when the media was rightly embarrassed by its reckless and false charges against the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. The bishops did take action and by 1993 most dioceses had in place much more effective systems, often involving lay review boards, for dealing with charges of abuse. As has been noted, none of the currently publicized incidents are from the last ten years. In this connection, it is also important to ask what bishops have done right in the last decade and more. Part of the answer, it would seem, is the reduced defensiveness of a clericalist culture and a greater involvement of lay people not only in advisory roles but in actual decision-making. It does not diminish but enhances the apostolic authority and dignity of the episcopal office when it is exercised in a relationship of trust and cooperation with the faithful—and the overwhelming majority of Catholics do want to understand themselves as the faithful.
Any discussion such as this must end with the acknowledgment that, despite all, most priests and bishops are faithful, often to the point of heroic self-sacrifice. It has become almost a cliché to say that, but it is a cliché because so many people say it, and so many people say it because they know it to be true. Even in the general media, scandal stories are typically accompanied by an acknowledgment of the fine work done by most priests in helping the poor, providing shelters and soup kitchens for the homeless, and so forth. Their value as social workers outweighs the dubiousness of their being priests. That, of course, is to miss the point quite entirely.
The point is that at ordination a young man hears his name called and responds, “I come to serve.” He lies prostrate at the altar and over him is declared, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek”; he is indelibly marked and for him is prayed the Litany of the Saints, invoking all the heroes and heroines of the past to assist him in being who he truly is—sacramentally, ontologically, and forever—a priest. He is what he does, his person is conformed to his vocation; he preaches, he baptizes, he forgives, he blesses, he anoints, he intercedes, and, above all, he offers in persona Christi, and in the presence of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, the eternal sacrifice by which the world is redeemed. He is a priest, possessed of a dignity, all undeserving, that he earnestly and daily prays he will never besmirch nor betray.
One day the present scandals will be yesterday’s news. The lawyers, prosecutors, therapists, and spin masters will leave the stage. The reporters will go chasing after other disasters. The Church will remain. About that there is no doubt. Please God, the Church will remain renewed. I do believe that will happen. Whether and how it happens depends upon the bishops who are primarily responsible for the shame and humiliation of the Long Lent of 2002. Theirs is a historic opportunity for self-examination, confession, repentance, and publicly credible resolve to exemplify, by the grace of God, amendment of life in rediscovering, and calling others to rediscover, the vocation to fidelity.
Postscript: The address to the cardinals and other American leaders at the end of April was an instance of what might be described as papal tough talk. John Paul left no doubt that he holds the bishops responsible for what has happened. While acknowledging the need for more effective procedures in dealing with abusive priests and related matters, he underscored that the core issue is fidelity. The Catholic faithful and the world have a right to expect better of the Church. “They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.” In other words, how can bishops and priests credibly speak of fidelity in marriage if they themselves are not faithful to their vows? “We must be confident,” the Pope continued, “that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (Romans 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow, must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.” Following the Rome meeting, a number of bishops, notably Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops conference, have been speaking in tones reflective of the Pope’s urgent words about sin, grace, repentance, conversion, and fidelity. Regrettably, other bishops continue to focus on legal liabilities and the need for a procedural “fix” to get out of an embarrassing institutional scrape. There is no telling which accent will prevail at the June meeting in Dallas. Needless to say, there will be much more on all this in the August/September issue of FT.
Morality in the Absence of a Story
Some while back, Robert Jenson wrote “How the World Lost its Story“ (FT, October 1993), and it has provided rich grist for many intellectual mills, including Steven D. Smith of Notre Dame Law School in an article in the Wake Forest Law Review. The commonly assumed distinctions between the “religious” and the “secular” and between “religion” and “morality” are really very odd, says Smith, and make little sense to people who believe that the world has a story, as in upper case Story. The moral question, How should I live?, has an obvious answer: I should live in harmony with the Story of which my life is part. People who have lost the Story come up with sundry moral theories of a utilitarian or pragmatic sort, but they are finally of a merely prudential sort. And, as Smith notes, a problem with mere prudentialism is that its adoption is imprudent “because if people realize that the point of ‘morality’ is really to get what we want, then people will lose their incentive to respect the moral-prudential imperatives that prudence itself imposes whenever those imperatives seem to impede us from getting what we want.”
And so Smith poses his question this way:
Can we reconstruct a “morality” that is more than merely prudential without a Story? Most people (or at least most specialists) seem to believe-though perhaps out of desperation-that we can. So they set about devising what we might think of as “Story-substitutes.” There are various candidates for this role, but the leading candidates to succeed the Story seem to be, first, moral discourse itself and, second, the characters who remain-who have been left stranded, so to speak, without their Story.
The first Story-substitute proposal observes that although we may not be situated in a Story, as we had supposed, still we do find ourselves situated in a moral discourse. We still use words like “should” and “ought,” “right” and “wrong,” “naughty” and “nice”; and we still talk about things like “virtues” and “duties” and “rights.” This usage seems inescapable, as the nihilist “wannabe” quickly learns when he embarrasses himself by declaring that “we ought to stop saying ‘ought.’“ Moreover, we still recognize that some ways of using this moral vocabulary seem appropriate and broadly “grammatical”; other usages do not. Indeed, analytical philosophers can devote entire careers to studying and explaining how this moral discourse works. So perhaps this discourse can take the place of the Story; indeed, maybe we will do better-become better moral reasoners-without the Story.
The second Story-substitute proposal suggests that moral rights and duties can be squeezed out of the characters themselves, without the aid of any Story-like the odd movie that succeeds with good characters even without the benefit of a discernible plot. Probably the most influential version of this proposal observes that these characters-ourselves, in other words-aspire (at least intermittently) to behave “rationally.” Some people might be inclined to deny that this aspiration is their most important feature, and a few might try to disclaim it altogether; but it proves to be harder than you might think to deny the commitment. Try it: a philosopher will ask you to defend your denial-to explain why you are not obligated to be rational-and as soon as you try to satisfy this request the philosopher will say, “See, you can’t deny your rational nature without contradicting yourself, because you resort to reasoning even in resisting rationality.” So perhaps this innate rationality can be the source of categorical duties that would provide the substance of “morality.” Perhaps it could be shown that some responses to the question “How should I live?” are self-contradictory and hence irrational, and that other responses are not.
Obviously, this is not the occasion to enter into the labyrinthine philosophical debates surrounding these “Story-substitute” candidates. But even for present purposes I think I can notice one objection that is in a sense “pre-philosophical,” and hence that even a non-philosopher might be permitted to raise. I can explain the objection in this way: those of us who remember our upbringing in Idaho may think that these Story-substitute accounts, intriguing and important though they may be, are guilty of “changing the subject.” For all of their ingenuity and their (perhaps considerable) merits, in other words, these accounts seem not to be talking about the same sort of thing that we have all along understood “morality” to be (or that we encounter when we feel ourselves subject to “moral” constraints). “Your analysis is very impressive,” we might say to the Story-substitute proponents, “just as the consequentialists’ analysis was impressive. But you said they weren’t really talking about ‘morality’; and it seems that you aren’t either. Even you ‘moral discourse’ types are talking about how we talk about morality-not about morality itself.”
We might make basically the same point, I think, by asking a “So what?” question. Why does “morality,” thus reconceived, exert any significant moral “pull” on us in the way the Story did (or, for the devout, still does)? When we raise this concern with the proponents of the Story-substitute “moralities” (“Why should I make an effort to comply with my moral ‘duties’ as you understand them?”), the answer typically ends up being either that “That’s just what it means to be ‘moral’ (or ‘virtuous,’ or ‘good’)” or else that if we do not comply with the demands of morality we will have committed a special kind of rational blunder-a “performative contradiction.” And our attitude toward each of these responses is likely to be “So what?” The “So what?”, in this context, is a way of expressing that the Story-substitutes are not, in reality, doing what the Story did: they are, rather, ways of changing the subject.
All of which brings us back to those taken-for-granted distinctions between the “religious” and “secular,” and between “religion and morality.”
Even if it is misconceived, though, the question is still pressed upon us: Is it permissible in our political community for public decisions to be based on moral values informed by religion? So I suppose that the devout citizen will just answer “yes,” adding under her breath, “Because, in the final analysis, that’s the only kind of moral values there are.” Asking whether citizens should be permitted to rely on religious convictions in addressing moral issues will seem to the devout a bit like asking whether horses should be allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby, or whether participation in symphony orchestras should be open to musicians. The questions seem a bit peculiar, but I suppose the appropriate response is still to smile and say “yes.”
So in the end, the tough-minded, post-Story people and the more traditionally devout people may give the same short answer to our question. But their tone-and their longer answers-will be quite different. The devout citizen answers “yes” while thinking that she is putting up with a good deal of conceptual and perhaps spiritual confusion. The tough-minded post-Story survivor may (if he is an indulgent sort of person) also answer “yes”; but if he does he will believe that he is generously tolerating a good deal of backwardness and obscurantism. And as particular controversies arise (about abortion, or the “right to die,” or same-sex marriage), these deeper differences are likely to make even a surface convergence on a “yes” answer seem quite thin.
Still, there is at least a possibility of convergence, at a fairly abstract level, on the answer. It is harder to understand who ought to be really happy with the question-or with the way the culture that produces the question forces us to talk.
I’m not sure the culture “forces” us to talk that way. The pressure to do so can be defied, as Steven Smith defies it. He is among those whom he calls the devout, and he does not simply smile and say “yes” to the way the question is posed. He challenges the question, and explains why. And so should we all.
It Is Not a “Catholic Thing”
During what may come to be called the Great Lenten Humiliation of 2002, it seemed that every day the news included another report on a priest accused of sexually molesting a minor-in Atlanta, Amarillo, Texas, or the suburbs of Seattle. A reader acknowledges that a tu quoque (“You’re one, too”) defense always sounds petty, but he was curious about the often repeated claim that such abuse is as prevalent among other religious leaders. So he went to his Internet search engines looking for news stories about ministers and rabbis accused or convicted of such offenses. It makes a very thick dossier. He stopped after two hours when he had accumulated over three hundred such stories-from Bakersfield, California, to Chicago, Illinois, to a place aptly named Embarrass, Minnesota. They were all cases dating from 1997 to the present, whereas the publicized Catholic scandals are typically from twenty to thirty years ago.
What does this prove? Perhaps nothing, except that sexual abuse by clergy is more widespread than one might expect. And one might want to see a comparable search on abuse by other professions, such as teachers and social workers. Some might complain that the Catholic Church has been “unfairly” singled out for negative publicity, but that comes with being the Catholic Church. Certainly this reader’s findings excuse nothing. But they do provide a measure of perspective.
Just as I was thinking why there was little or no reporting on this in the media, the Christian Science Monitor of April 5 ran a long story on a study just done by Christian Ministry Resources (CMR). CMR is an organization that offers legal and tax advice to more than seventy-five thousand Protestant congregations and one thousand denominational agencies nationwide. The study indicates that over the past decade the number of allegations of sex abuse against churches and church agencies has averaged about seventy per week. The numbers peaked in the mid-nineties and have since been declining, largely because of pressure from insurance companies that insist that churches more carefully screen people working with children or else lose their insurance.
Why are there so many more reported instances of sex abuse in Protestant churches? Anson Shupe, an Indiana University professor who has studied the matter, says, “To me it says Protestants are less reluctant to come forward because they don’t put their clergy on as high a pedestal as Catholics do with their priests.” Abuse is more frequent among church volunteers than among clergy. Some larger congregations are now fingerprinting and doing a criminal background check on anyone over eighteen who works with children. Says one pastor, “If the check comes back with a blemish, they’re not working with kids. That’s all there is to it.” The story quotes others who have dealt with the problem and say that “churches are the perfect environment for sexual predators, because they have large numbers of children’s programs, a shortage of workers to lead them, and a culture of trust that is the essence of the organization.” In short, some of the very strengths of the churches are also their weaknesses.
Again, what happens in other religious communities in no way excuses what has happened in the Catholic Church. And yes, it may be unfair that the media tend to depict the sexual abuse of children and young people as a “Catholic problem.” Unfair but, for reasons frequently alluded to in these pages, hardly surprising. Leaving aside all the other factors-old-fashioned anti-Catholicism, eagerness to discredit a traditional morality most publicly represented by the Catholic Church, and so forth-look at it from a purely journalistic viewpoint: nobody is going to win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing rude things done to a fourteen-year-old boy in the basement bathroom of, say, Second Baptist Church in Indianapolis. Not even if the elders were informed and tried to hush it up.
The same story about a priest is obviously very different. With the priest the bishop is somehow implicated, and with the bishop the archbishop is somehow implicated, and with the archbishop the cardinal is somehow implicated-and, as everybody knows, all roads lead to Rome and so the story leads to You Know Who, the representative of the oldest and largest institution in the world. And the institution that bears the moral and spiritual authority that the modernity project has been trying to overthrow for three centuries. Catholics should not complain about the unfairness. It comes with the territory.
The Hermeneutics of Love
The suspicion did cross my mind that Alan Jacobs is not playing fair. If, as he has done, you write a book titled A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, you might seem to be saying that any reader who does not love the book has not understood it. But I know, as do the readers of his marvelous essays in these pages, that Alan Jacobs is an eminently fair-minded person. So I think he would allow that it is possible to understand his book and yet not like it very much, never mind love it. Fortunately, I do not have to worry about that possibility since I like the book very much, and urge others to read it, lovingly. It is just out from Westview (186 pages, $18 paper).
Reading with love entails risks, according to Jacobs, including the risk of not being in command of the text. At several points, he quotes Iris Murdoch: “Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused.” And Murdoch again: “Art and morals are one. . . . Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Although Jacobs enters into lively exchange with the usual mandarins of contemporary criticism-Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, Jacques Derrida, John Milbank, et al.-every page is under the long shadow of Augustine, who explained in De Doctrina Christiana that love of God and neighbor is required to understand Scripture. Augustine makes the remarkable claim that “Whoever finds a lesson in the text that is useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.” What we would ordinarily call a misinterpretation may be a “right” interpretation if it serves love, which is, according to Scripture, both God’s purpose and being.
In sharpest contrast is a Cartesian hermeneutics that requires a distancing or alienation from the text. Here the posture is one of neutrality and devotion to objectivity. Jacobs finds merit in Hegel’s observation that the demand for neutrality generally means that the interpreter of a text should expound its meaning as if he, the interpreter, were dead. Hans-Georg Gadamer (who recently died at age 102) argued that the notion of objectivity had its roots in the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. The Reformers had to defend their own interpretation of the Bible, Gadamer noted, and were up against Catholic theologians who appealed to the indispensability of tradition. Jacobs, a Protestant, writes: “The Reformers found themselves obliged by their polemical situation to show that they could specify a set of reliable safeguards against error-safeguards which would serve a similar liminal function to the concept of ‘tradition’ in the Roman Catholic Church-and this need to provide safeguards and eliminate error came to dominate the hermeneutical tradition for the next several centuries. The chief goal of theological hermeneutics naturally, then, comes to be associated more closely with ‘getting it right’ than with a deepening of understanding or a growing in love.” That may be a bit harsh, but I expect there is a good deal to it. It must be added that there were also Catholic interpreters who used Scripture and tradition in order to win an argument. The difference is between using, even exploiting, the text and serving the text in love. Between the reader and the text, it is a matter of who submits to whom.
A Hard Saying
My problem with parts of Jacobs’ argument may have something to do with the fact that this office receives hundreds and hundreds of books for review. New stacks grow faster than old ones can be-always judiciously!-whittled down. I expect we give more attention to books than any comparable journal in the world. (Yes, you’re right: there is no publication that is really comparable, but modesty excuses the figure of speech.) Yet we can review or even briefly note but a small fraction of all the books received. Little wonder that Jacobs induces a sense of guilt: “Charity demands that we extend the gift of love to all books, and receive the gift of love when it is offered to us. . . . There is no single form that either the giving or the receiving takes, and moreover there is no inconsistency in having certain favorite books while seeking to love all other books in the way appropriate to them. . . . We may indeed use books-it is right and proper that we do so-but we must use them in the way that Augustine counsels, which is to say, a way that recognizes their value as parts of God’s world and that therefore loves them in an ordinate manner.”
That is a hard saying for book review editors, and maybe Jacobs did not have editors in mind. Even for the editor, however, Jacobs leaves some outs. We do try to love them all “in the way appropriate to them” and in a manner that is “ordinate.” Appropriately and ordinately, most get tossed after a brief examination. Not without a touch of sadness, however. Some are simply not pertinent to our interests (making a billion in the market or getting right with God through aerobics), while many are simply bad books, meaning they are impossibly wrongheaded or impossibly dull, or both. Yet one is aware that even a bad book is somebody’s pride, joy, and proffered contribution to making the world a much better place. Always in my mind is the image of the author incensed by our god-like arrogance in consigning his book to the bin destined for the Strand, a store around the corner that advertises its offering of eight miles of lost books. It is a sadness, but it cannot be helped. True, we frequently publish comment on really bad books, but that is usually in cases where misguided editors elsewhere give them favorable notice, thus potentially misleading the unwary reader. Does that sound arrogant? It probably is. Arrogance is endemic to this business, and it is a wonder that Damon Linker, who has primary responsibility for books in this shop, has not succumbed, to date.
A Final Homecoming
But I wander from Alan Jacobs’ argument. The person he draws on, perhaps more than any other, is the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, whose books, mainly published by the University of Texas Press, are not as well known here as they deserve to be. Bakhtin can at times sound like the trendiest of postmodernists, the kind I examined a while back in an essay on George Steiner and Paul Fiddes (“The End of Endings,” FT, August/September 2001). But, as we shall see, there is a critical difference with Bakhtin. Here, for example, is a suggestive passage:
There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)-they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.
That may sound a lot like the never ending, never resolved, and never resolvable “conversation” that is the model of interpretation espoused by such as Richard Rorty or Stanley Fish. There is a crucial difference, however. Bakhtin is a Christian. Eschatology provides the comic, viz., happy, ending. Jacobs writes, “For Bakhtin, God is the Father who waits patiently but hopefully for the world’s prodigal meanings to return to Him and receive His blessing. Bakhtin implicitly invites us as readers to wait in patient hope for that consummation, and to participate, at first proleptically and then fully, in the ‘homecoming festival.’“ The thought of all prodigal meanings returning for the Father’s blessing is fetching, although it would seem that some prodigals never return, persisting to the end in being, quite simply and damningly, wrong. One may, by stretching hope, envision the universal salvation of personal signifiers, but only after they have repented of what they wrongly signified.
Bakhtin’s thought is formed by Orthodox faith and piety, which is centered in theosis, or deification, the redeeming work by which we are restored not only in the image of God but into the very Trinitarian life of God. This is our deepest need and our destiny. The open-ended dialogue of meanings is held together by a “constant unity of answerability,” and is in this way a dialogue of faithfulness. Against Descartes and even against Plato, the dialogue of faithfulness denies our self-sufficiency, says Jacobs. I’m not sure that is fair to Descartes, who underscores an infinite openness to infinity, or to Plato’s understanding of self-transcendence in devotion to the ideas, but Jacobs is on firm ground when he elects the pitifully misguided Ralph Waldo Emerson as his foil. “It is not the office of a man to receive gifts,” declared Emerson. “How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten.” How dare the giver of gifts assume that we are somehow deficient?
Jacobs introduces the phrase “Quixotic reading,” by which he means the practice of looking into a book or poem and seeing only the reflection of oneself. Once again, I wonder if this is not unfair to Don Quixote, who was undoubtedly deluded but whose delusions opened him to worlds within worlds not contained by unbridled egotism. Here too, Emerson is the man whom Jacobs more fairly skewers. “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense,” Emerson pontificated, “for the utmost in due time becomes the outmost-and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. . . . In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” For Emerson, Jacobs observes, “Even works of genius cannot truly be gifts to us: they are merely our own possessions returned to their rightful owner.” History and anything else outside the self, declared Emerson, “is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue and parable of my being and becoming.” Now that is egotism, and egoism, of a very low order, and the negation of the hermeneutics of love and faithfulness.
The Fear of Being Deceived
The opposite of the hermeneutics of love is, of course, the hermeneutics of suspicion, and here Nietzsche is the mad master. According to Nietzsche, the happy person is absolutely self-sufficient, and self-sufficiency is the goal of lifelong struggle. Hell is indeed, as Sartre declared, other people. Every other person is an adversary and Nietzsche’s stated goal is “not to cleave to another person, though he be the one you love most-every person is a prison, also a nook and corner.” More than that, contact with others is defilement. “Solitude is with us a virtue: it is a sublime urge and inclination for cleanliness which sees that all contact between man and man-‘in society’-must inevitably be unclean. All community makes somehow, somewhere, sometime-‘common.’“ It follows that “every profound thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.” The sentiment is echoed by the eternally adolescent Emerson: “To be great is to be misunderstood.” (As your fifteen-year-old may have said just yesterday.) The drivenly despairing Nietzsche is often contrasted with the buoyantly exuberant Emerson, but what Jacobs says of the former applies as well to the latter: he is torn “between contempt for all those beneath him and desire for their understanding and approval.” Except Emerson was a showman, while Nietzsche let the tearing go all the way, severing the self into madness.
Nietzsche’s later thought was driven by fear, writes Jacobs. “Above all else he fears being deceived in faith, hope, and love-after all, all three states of mind open one to deception-and would rather suffer anything than the humiliation of being fooled. This may be said to be the very origin of the hermeneutics of suspicion, the adolescent fear of being caught believing in that which others have ceased to believe in.” Nietzsche is often praised for the daring of his thought, says Jacobs, but the daring of his thought may be the product of the excruciating timidity of his way of living. Jacobs’ reading of Nietzsche, Emerson, and other masters of self-sufficiency is incisive and devastating, but is it loving? Will their meanings, too, have a place in the “homecoming festival”? Will they, like the prodigal son, return to receive the Father’s blessing?
People Must Be Amused
The hermeneutics of love, it seems, extends to every text and author. It is, says Jacobs, both “flexible and responsible.” “It will have universal obligations but highly particular forms of attention. This is the road to justice, or, as the Bible would have it, to shalom.” I am not so sure. The hermeneutics of love, says Jacobs, has a game-like quality, and here he makes charming use of Gradgrind and Sleary in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times:
I would like to think that writing a book like this one-that is, making an academic case for governing interpretation by the law of love-bears some analogy to running a circus. To those who would label the project naive, childish, frivolous, foolish, the ringmaster can do little more than simply shrug and continue the game. Indeed, this is the best form of argument available to the circus-owner or the advocate of charitable interpretation. To Gradgrind’s Benthamite arguments, Sleary has no response except to continue the circus’ performances, and merely to say, as he does more than once, “People mutht be amuthed”-which is not an argument but a kind of imperative declaration: Sleary politely refuses to enter the dialectical arena where Gradgrind brandishes his Benthamite weaponry, but instead contents himself with a) doing something else and b) proclaiming that he is doing something else. “People mutht be amuthed” bears the whole content of Sleary’s kerygma.
Yes, but Alan Jacobs’ kerygma is proclaimed in “making an academic case” that, of necessity, enters “the dialectical arena.” As Sleary’s circus includes the animals and the acts of his choosing, so also Jacobs’ hermeneutical game includes and excludes, and the burden of his book is to explain who is in and who is out, and why. And that, too, is of necessity. Iris Murdoch is right: “Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused.” With Mikhail Bakhtin one may, in light of the Eschaton, suspend final judgment, even at the cost of incoherence, in the hope that all prodigal meanings will return to receive the Father’s blessing. But that is a hope directed toward the future. Along the way, here and now, decisions must be made about meanings that are, in fact, prodigal. Recognizing that does not mean that one has succumbed to the Reformer’s obsession with “getting it right” or to a Cartesian obsession with self-sufficiency. Discernment and decision are tasks of love, knowing that love can never be separated from justice. The hermeneutics of love indeed leads to a deepening of understanding, including a deepened understanding of why some meanings are wrong. Remembering always that our discernments and judgments are conditioned by the knowledge that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known.” We can and should be open to a final surprise when prodigal meanings return, without fudging for a moment the fact that they were prodigal. That they were prodigal makes it possible for them to re-turn-to turn back to the truth that they turned from.
The book is A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, and I recommend reading it, lovingly. Even as I have read it, trusting in the assurance of St. Augustine: “Whoever finds a lesson in the text that is useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.”
While We’re At It
• More on “The Best Bioethicists that Money Can Buy“ (Public Square, March). Professor Carl Elliott of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota is probably not ingratiating himself with some of his colleagues by publishing in the American Prospect a bracing critique titled “Pharma Buys a Conscience.” It is not only the pharmaceutical industry, of course, but it is mainly that industry that bids fair to take over bioethics as a wholly owned subsidiary. Prof. Elliott cites numerous instances in which both medical research and ethical counsel about medical research are provided by people in the employ-frequently the very lucrative employ-of companies that have a steep interest in outcomes. Elliott writes, “Industry-sponsored bioethics programs face problems that parallel those encountered by industry-sponsored medical researchers. What do you do when your scholarly work conflicts with the goals of your industry sponsor? No one is forcing industry money on bioethics programs, but many of them are located in academic health centers, where faculty members are expected to generate money to fund their research either by seeing patients or by obtaining grants. If bioethics is seen as an activity that can attract industry sponsorship, university administrators strapped for cash will inevitably look to industry as a financial solution. All that remains is for bioethicists themselves to dispense with the ethical roadblocks.” Our ethicists have a conflict-of-interest problem? Oh dear, we’d better check with our ethicists on that. Good news: they’ve ruled that there’s no problem. Next question? Of course there are different ways of rationalizing the unseemly circumstance of being a paid piper. Elliott writes: “Defenders of corporate consultation often bristle at the suggestion that accepting money from industry compromises their impartiality or makes them any less objective a moral critic. ‘Objectivity is a myth,’ [one bioethicist] told me. . . . ‘I don’t think there is a person alive who is engaged in an activity who has absolutely no interest in how it will turn out.’ Thomas Donaldson, director of the ethics program at the Wharton School, has compared ethics consultants to the external accounting firms often employed by corporations to audit their financial records. Like accountants, ethicists may be paid by the very industries they are assessing, but they are kept honest by their need to maintain a reputation for integrity. But the comparison of ethicists to accountants is deeply misleading. Ethical analysis does not look anything like a financial audit. If a company is cooking its books and the accountant closes his eyes to this fact in his audit, the accountant’s transgression can be reliably detected and verified by outside monitors. But how do you detect the transgressions of an ethics consultant? Ethicists have widely divergent views: they come from different religious standpoints, use different theoretical frameworks, profess different political philosophies. They are also free to change their minds at any point. How do you tell the difference between an ethics consultant who has changed her mind for legitimate reasons and one who has changed her mind for money? How do you distinguish between a consultant who has been hired for his integrity and one who has been hired because he supports what the company plans to do? A savvy CEO will have no problem finding an ethicist to say virtually anything. Yet influence is not exactly what’s at issue. If a policeman takes money to overlook a speeding violation and then writes the ticket anyway, he has still accepted a bribe, even if he has not been influenced by it. The point is that certain people in whom public trust is placed must not have a financial interest in violating the duties carried by their institutional role. In this respect, at least, they must be financially disinterested. What is more, they must be seen as disinterested; otherwise, the institution they represent risks falling apart. Judges and jurors, for instance, depend on the appearance of disinterestedness for their fragile hold on public trust. Judges get paid, of course, as do bioethicists and other academics. But the source of that payment is crucial. If we allowed judges to be paid by corporate litigators, they would soon lose their credibility-and rightly so. If bioethicists have gained any credibility in the public eye, it rests on the perception that they have no financial interest in the objects of their scrutiny.” At present, that public credibility, such as it is, is being fast eroded. The pharmaceutical industry is not about to go away, nor should it. And ethical oversight is undoubtedly necessary. But if it is to be done by watchdogs rather than lapdogs, some independent arrangement for their care and feeding will have to be found.
• Hymns are out, choirs are out, “praise teams” are in. So says Anderson Rearick of Nazarene College in Ohio. It’s part of the “entertainment worship” thing, with members of the praise team scattered around the audience, mikes in hand, making sure that everybody takes hearty part in eighteen reprises of “I love you, Lord, love you, love you, love you.” Rearick, writing in the Christian Century, observes: “It’s all to our benefit. After all, if a member of the congregation is filled with jealousy, and thus a carnal heart, the discipline of standing through fifteen choruses of ‘Thank you, Jesus’ will chastise the flesh. And although the words may sometimes be a mystery, no one should worry. The lyrics are so simple and short that memorization is automatic. And so I say, ‘Praise the Lord!’, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’, and ‘Awesome is as awesome does.’“ Catholics should not sneer, for there is evidence that this slappy-happy kitsch is invading Catholic parishes as well. When it comes to congregational singing, it sometimes seems that American Catholics went directly from silence to decadence without passing through the period of great hymnody.
• Avery Cardinal Dulles did his usual incisive job in reviewing Passionate Uncertainty, the McDonough-Bianchi book on the state of Jesuits today, his incisiveness always being tempered by generosity of spirit (FT, April). Discussing the book in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills notes that the Society of Jesus in the U.S. has declined from 8,393 in 1965 to 3,635 today, with a marked increase in the number of homosexuals. There are more ex-Jesuits in the U.S. today than Jesuits. He writes, “It is not surprising that the numbers of heterosexuals have declined, as many left to marry and others were deterred by the celibacy requirement from entering. The remaining or arriving gays have formed protective networks-the authors call it a ‘lavender Mafia’-to provide the sense of community otherwise so hard to come by in the order. Of course, this works against a larger sense of community, since some of the Jesuits interviewed express resentment at being excluded by the gays.” Father Raymond Schroth, a Jesuit, comes to a more sanguine conclusion in a review in the Newark Star-Ledger (March 3, 2002): “Yet the overall portrait is one of men content in their vocations, who have drawn closer to the person of Jesus while leaving an earlier Almighty God figure behind.” In view of recent and much-publicized developments regarding sexual abuse by priests, including Jesuits, one hopes that men who are on such friendly terms with Jesus will be able to get a reintroduction to his Father. One waited to see how America, the main Jesuit publication in this country, would deal with the book. The editors assigned it to a social scientist who took issue with the authors’ interviewing methodology; observed that, if one read only the statements of those who had good things to say about the Society, one would come away with a better impression of the Society; and suggested that the “inspiring” official Jesuit documents provide “a more reliable picture.” There are undoubtedly problems with the McDonough-Bianchi book, as Cardinal Dulles noted, but surely one might have hoped for at least a hint of openness on the part of America to the possibility that there is a problem or two in the Society as well. In other contexts, such denial is sometimes called stonewalling.
• India is the most pervasively religious society in the world and Sweden the most secular, giving rise to Peter Berger’s jibe that, in order to understand America’s culture wars, one must know that it is a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes. But things are not going well with religion and society in India, as witness the resent slaughter of five hundred Muslims by Hindu mobs in the western part of the country. Tunku Varadarajan of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page notes that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, had no use for religion of any sort and tried to impose a secular regime from on high. But he knew he couldn’t do what Ataturk did in Turkey or the Jacobins during the French Revolution. Varadarajan writes: “India’s secularism has, from its inception, offered a contrast to the Jacobin-Turkish model. Religion is not excluded from the political sphere; in fact, there are numerous political parties which have patently religious manifestos. The Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is often described as a ‘Hindu nationalist’ party, and counts among its extra-parliamentary allies a few groups that are avowedly Hindu-chauvinist. Secularism, in its Indian ideal, emulates some of the ways of the liberal West, which is one reason why Indian democracy-in spite of its flaws-has so many admirers in America and Europe. Religious parties are not proscribed; religiosity is not a bar to political advancement; and religious discrimination is unlawful. The framers of the Indian constitution envisaged a multireligious state whose citizens coexist, with no group enjoying advantage, nor disadvantage, by virtue of religion.” Varadarajan is surely right in calling for tolerance in a religiously pluralistic society, and tolerance is most securely grounded in religious belief and practice. One has to wonder why, in advancing his proposal, he uses the Western term “secularism,” with all the Jacobin connotations it carries. There would seem to be no better way to guarantee the opposition of those devoted to the flourishing of both religion and democracy.
• Father Benedict Groeschel is one of the wisest spiritual directors around, and his little essay “Waiting for Grace” is one of the wisest reflections on the pastoral care of homosexuals. It is included in a book, With Mind and Heart Renewed (University Press of America), celebrating the ministry of Fr. John Harvey, the founder of Courage, an association of recovering homosexuals. The subtitle of Fr. Groeschel’s essay is “The Pastoral Care of Those Who Are Not Yet Disposed to Follow the Commandments.” He writes: “The thorny problem of the pastoral care of those who desire to participate in the life of the Church, and who are yet either unwilling or unable to observe its moral teachings, is one that many pastors and pastoral workers encounter every day. In every good-sized parish there are people beginning to experience a real call to conversion, but who are involved in moral difficulties ranging from invalid marriages and homosexual relationships to addiction to alcohol and drugs. There are others who are unaware of the call to real conversion but who at least want to be a part of the life of the Church, and this desire may indeed be a call of divine grace. The question of the pastoral care of this very needy group presents itself over and over again. What can be done for them without becoming an enabler, someone who out of compassion or need to be agreeable or even guilt, cooperates in another person’s immorality or psychological confusion by pretending that a real and ongoing conversion has taken place?” The great difficulty, Fr. Groeschel knows, is in being compassionate without becoming an “enabler” of sinful actions. The essay offers sage counsel on many questions, including how to respond to the claim of homosexuals that “God has made me this way.” In ministering to homosexual persons over many years, he has also learned. For instance: “It may come as a surprise to many to know that those who were sexual partners may live in chastity together. I myself know a number of people who once lived together in homosexual relationships who now share the same domicile but lead scrupulously chaste lives as friends. It is conceivable that the only way that they were going to lead a chaste life was with the emotional support of another person struggling with the same difficult adjustment. They now have the love of a chaste friendship. Now it is my pastoral impression that such people, having gained chastity, merely need to communicate to their close circle of relatives and friends that they are living a chaste Christian life, in order to avoid misunderstanding and confusing others. I would not have thought this possible, but we live and learn.” Too often, Fr. Groeschel believes, ministries ostensibly aimed at leading those with same-sex desires to the fullness of conversion-as we all need to be led to the fullness of conversion-become part of the problem rather than the solution. “This brings up the oxymoron of ‘gay-lesbian ministry.’ Truth be told, there is simply no such Christian ministry, any more than there is a ministry to ‘drunks.’ There is a very needed ministry to homosexual persons and recovering alcoholics. The terms ‘gay and lesbian’ mean the acceptance of a lifestyle with a commitment to immoral behavior. Homosexual is a condition; gay and lesbian is a decision, a commitment which is powerfully denounced by St. Paul. It is my personal conviction that the accepted use of these terms for a ministry is a profound cause of confusion for the faithful and a dangerous spiritual disservice to those who have a right to be shepherded by the Church.” But the essay, as well as other essays in this fine book, deserves to be read in full.
• Christianity is ever so much more interesting as a venture of obedience to truth revealed. Yet so many Christians persist in making it up as they go along, living a truth contrived in their own image. “Childless by Choice” is an article in Prism, “America’s Alternate Evangelical Voice,” published by Evangelicals for Social Action. The author explains that when she got married she and her husband assumed they would have children. “But before giving us a child, God called us to steward our other talents.” God got her husband into graduate school “and put in my heart a conviction that my gift for writing came with a command to publish.” Ergo, no time for children. The author includes a bibliography promoting childlessness, admitting that the books mentioned might not be endorsed by evangelicals. In fact, some of the books mentioned are aggressively anti-Christian and pro-abortion. But, she says, “they’re all we have until Christians write their own.” She adds, “I do plan to write that book.” Being a good evangelical, she of course quotes Scripture in support of her position. “Shout for joy, O barren one, you who have borne no child; break forth into joyful shouting and cry aloud, you who have not travailed; for the sons of the desolate one will be more numerous than the sons of the married woman.” That’s Isaiah 54, the context being the suffering of the Messiah, which is quite an analogical reach for the author’s belief in her mission to publish. She writes, “Paul’s comments on not marrying, if single, might have been meant to include not reproducing, if married. It is an alternative call, a radical one even, but it is a call.” Why get bogged down in what Paul actually said when he might have said what we think he should have said? The magazine is Prism, which is, at times, an alternative to the evangelical voice.
• It’s been ever so long since I’ve commented on Christian News, a collage of news clippings harvested from many sources and published by a Lutheran pastor, Herman Otten, who takes being called a right-winger as a compliment. This item has an old picture of me (you can actually see the few hairs on the top of my head) and reproduces, for the umpteenth time, some left-leaning statements of mine from twenty-five and thirty years ago when I was, with increasing difficulty, trying to maintain my liberal credentials. The point of this story, as of many others in Christian News, is that I continue to be invited to speak at Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod institutions, whereas Pr. Otten is not. But what I liked about the item is the charge, in boldface, that accompanies the picture: “Father Richard Neuhaus Says Non-Christians Can Be Saved With Faith in Christ.” I suspect there may be a typo there, but it states my position fairly enough. Of course, I would want to add that it must be a living faith attended by good works.
• Religion is what a person does with his solitude, William James believed, and Richard Rorty, who claims the legacy of James, agrees. Rorty also claims to be the heir of John Dewey, however, who had a different understanding of the public nature of religion, even proposing his own version of a public religion, which he called “A Common Faith.” (See “The American Mind,“ Public Square, December 2001.) Rorty recently expanded on his understanding of religion in a speech he gave in Germany upon being awarded the Meister Eckhart Prize. He noted the oddity that Eckhart was God-obsessed while he has frequently described himself as an atheist. But the word atheist, Rorty says, is dated and misleading. Both theists and atheists think they have an epistemological or metaphysical disagreement, when in fact religion has been decisively defeated by science and common sense in its claim to describe reality or how we can know what is real. Now Rorty says he is more accurately described as an anticlericalist, which he defines this way: “It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do-despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or in despair-are dangerous to the health of democratic societies, so dangerous that it would be best for them eventually to wither away. The dangers that we anticlericalists fear are particularly evident in my own country. The Christian fundamentalists whose support has become indispensable to right-wing American politicians are undermining the secularist, Jeffersonian tradition in American culture. They are making it respectable once again to say that the U.S. is ‘a Christian nation’-an assertion that would have been considered, a few decades ago, as in bad taste.” Rorty devotes most of his speech to the thought of Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, who has returned to the Catholicism of his childhood, but with the difference that he now understands that the Incarnation means that God has emptied Himself (the kenosis of Philippians 2) of any claim that impinges upon public truth. (I have not read Vattimo, but Rorty’s description of his argument in favor of radical secularization seems reminiscent of “secular society” and “death of God” discussions in this country in the 1960s.) Rorty once again sets forth his religious-like commitment to our making a human future that he allows may be utopian, and concludes with this contrast between his view and Vattimo’s: “I have no idea how such a society could come about. It is, one might say, a mystery. That mystery, like that of the Incarnation, concerns the coming into existence of a love that is kind, patient, and endures all things. First Corinthians 13 is an equally useful text for both religious people like Vattimo, whose sense of what transcends our present condition is bound up with a feeling of dependence, and for nonreligious people like myself, for whom this sense consists simply in hope for a better human future. The difference between these two sorts of people is that between unjustifiable gratitude and unjustifiable hope. This is not a matter of conflicting beliefs about what exists and what does not exist. So I should like to think of both Vattimo and myself as having gotten at least a little way past the issue of theism versus atheism.” His drawing of the difference between living by gratitude and living by hope is suggestive. Rorty admits he may be deluded in his hope, but only the future can tell. On the other hand, one who is deluded in his gratitude, which necessarily assumes a gift or grace already given, is simply deluded. Is Vattimo right or wrong in being grateful? The response to that question necessarily entails considerations metaphysical and epistemological; in short, considerations of truth. Once again, it would seem, Richard Rorty has failed to escape from the bothersome question of what counts as truth. Moreover, Meister Eckhart, with his wild and wily theological mind, would say that Rorty, who says the one absolute is love, is in fact, whether he knows it or not, speaking of God.
• Something odd is happening in Protestant groups that used to be strongly opposed to bishops, according to a story in the Atlanta Constitution. Once it was “Mister,” then “Reverend,” then “Doctor,” and now it is “Bishop.” Or more. The Rev. Miles Fowler of Big Miller Grove Baptist Church is now Bishop Miles Fowler. The popular television preacher is Bishop T. D. Jakes. Earl Paulk of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches is nothing less than Archbishop Paulk. Not to be outdone, Jamie Pleasant of Kingdom Builders Christian Center in Norcross, Georgia, is Apostle Pleasant. The way this is going, we may yet see a return to the time of anti-popes.
• In his Gifford Lectures, Stanley Hauerwas is sharply critical of William James and Reinhold Niebuhr as representatives of the liberalism he thinks we should reject (see Stephen H. Webb’s “The Very American Stanley Hauerwas” elsewhere in this issue). I am inclined to think Niebuhr was more of a believing Christian than Hauerwas allows, but that’s for another time. At hand is a review of Hauerwas’ book by Richard Wightman Fox, a biographer of Niebuhr. He writes: “With the Grain of the Universe shows Christian and secular liberals why James and Niebuhr are so important to their faith. James, like his hero Whitman, underwrites the quest for novel experience, for becoming more fully human. This was Emerson’s way: living one’s life in a quest for wider and wider circles of experience. Liberalism is about individuals getting to be who they decide they most truly are, according to their own lights, whether they are women or men, gay or straight, no matter what their color, cultural background, or economic status. Liberal modernity is about choice, and helping others acquire the power to choose. It is about choosing again and again, remaining open throughout one’s life to refashioning oneself. This can look like anarchy to many defenders of tradition. But now it is a tradition in its own right, a tradition (in the nineteenth-century U.S. alone) developed by Jefferson, Emerson, Fuller, Douglass, Whitman, Lincoln, Stanton, Anthony, Gilman, Rauschenbusch, Gladden, Debs, Dewey, and James, among many others. It is a tradition that needs defending today more than ever. It is the tradition at the fountainhead of liberal and democratic freedom.” That is in some ways an attractive vision of liberalism, but note how incessantly and stiflingly self-referential it is. The alternative view is that the high adventure of life, intellectually and spiritually, is in losing oneself in obedience to upper case Truth, in which, by surprising grace, one finds oneself. I suppose Fox would call that conservative. Another word for it is Christian.
• One-quarter of the pre-war Jewish community in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust, but it seems doubtful they will survive the way they live now. According to a study reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, among the forty-four thousand Dutch Jews, only 28 percent of couples have children, 44 percent under age thirty-five live alone (almost double the rate for the general population), and one-third of the women are still childless at the age of forty. On drugs, homosexuality, euthanasia, and a host of other matters-not least in adapting religion to, as they say, speak to the modern world-the Netherlands is ever so advanced.
• I was down speaking at Duke University the other week and was reminded that the question of blessing same-sex unions in the Duke chapel, on which I had commented some while back (“When Tolerance Is Trump,” Public Square, February 2001), is still a hot issue there, as it should be. Since my comment, my friend William H. Willimon, dean of the chapel, who makes it clear that he does not approve of such blessings and will personally have nothing to do with them, responds in the Christian Century to the criticism that he should not have gone along with the chapel’s permitting them. Of a divinity school colleague who says such blessings desecrate a Christian chapel, Willimon asks, “Where was this theologian’s protest when the university had the gall to parade in an American flag at opening convocation?” Surely he is not suggesting that displaying the flag is incompatible with Christian morality. Or maybe he is. He writes that the claim that allowing same-sex blessings is “an attack on biblical principles and the United Methodist Church is just plain silly.” He explains: “I don’t get it. Divorce? Remarriage after divorce? Greed? Those are biblical subjects on which we ought to have no disagreement. Our Lord has expressly forbidden such sin, even though my church has found a way to overlook it, even among our bishops.” We overlook divorce, remarriage, and greed, so what’s the big deal with homosexual coupling? In view of so much heterosexual misbehavior, Willimon writes, “I think it is in bad taste for me, or any other pastor, to focus on homosexual sin as the worst of sin.” It would not only be in bad taste, it would be heretical. Did any of the critics of whom he complains say that homosexual sin is “the worst of sins”? I rather doubt it. He writes, “Richard Hays has written convincingly that, while there is New Testament evidence that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Pauline views of the self under Christ, there is absolutely no biblical justification for making this the predominant issue for the Church, the supreme test of fidelity.” He is at least partly right about that. Certainly it is not the supreme test of fidelity, and it should not be the predominant issue for the Church. But who has made it such a dominant issue for some churches if not homosexual activists who demand that Christians abandon two millennia of biblical and traditional teaching on human sexuality? One semi-plausible argument for Duke’s decision is that Duke University and its chapel have long since ceased to be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term. But then, as I said in my earlier comment, the question is: Who decided that, and when, and by what authority? Hasn’t Will Willimon simply caved in the face of a false, even if institutionally entrenched, assumption? And if, in fact, the assumption is correct, why is he dean of a non-Christian chapel? Willimon should work on a better response to his critics. Better yet, he should retract his acquiescence in the decision made by the university administration. “I’m not resigning,” he defiantly declares. Good. The only thing missing is an assurance that the Rev. William H. Willimon, minister of the gospel and dean of a chapel dedicated to the lordship of Jesus Christ, is staying to contend for the truth he professes and against the flaccid liberalism that he says he rejects.
• The nice thing about assigning inexperienced journalists to a story is that the press can invent a whole new world, or, in this case, resurrect realities long dead and buried. John J. Fialka, staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal, has just discovered the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a scattering of mainly mainline Protestants who have joined hands with the Sierra Club and other environmental alarmists. The story goes on and on about what a coup this is, since the churches “set the moral tone for the whole country,” and so forth. “Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which represents some fifty million members of U.S. Protestant churches, says . . .” That description of the NCC, common fifty years ago, was perhaps last used some twenty years ago. Today the NCC is largely a letterhead organization with a slew of “member churches,” most of which make no financial contribution, which is why the organization, headed by the former liberal Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar, has a skeleton staff focused on priorities such as paying overdue telephone bills. The more troubling thought is that Mr. Fialka is not inexperienced, that he knows the NCC has simply hitched a free ride with environmental organizations that do have resources, and that he is just shilling for the cause. I prefer to think the article is best explained by ignorance.
• Mention Gore Vidal and the phrase “acerbic wit” is sure to follow. His métier is more accurately described as full-bore nastiness in the service of a perpetual snit. Publishers Weekly comments on a new collection of Vidal rants, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated. The reviewer is a bit put off by Vidal’s suggestion that we should try to see the world from the viewpoint of Osama bin Laden, and that Timothy McVeigh of Oklahoma City infamy was a martyr in the libertarian cause. “But in this book, the tone is as important as the text,” says Publishers Weekly. “Vidal gleefully skewers American capitalism and the role of the religious right in American politics at every opportunity.” So the book is not all bad.
• This is a little late, but it should not go unremarked. A few days before Easter, President Bush issued from the White House a message to “Christians around the world [who] celebrate the central event of their faith-the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is the Messiah, the Son of God.” The message could not have been more theologically specific. “Jesus’ death stands out in history as the perfect example of unconditional love. The four Gospels of the Christian Bible recount his amazing life, his miraculous death, resurrection, and ascension, and his unending offer of salvation to all.” Referring to the current war against terrorism, Bush says, “As we fight to promote freedom around the world and to protect innocent lives in America, we remember the call of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: ‘As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.’“ I don’t know when was the last time that such an explicitly Christian message was issued from the White House, but I suspect it has been a very long time. It received almost no mention in the media and, as far as I know, there was not a word about the “violation of the separation of church and state” from the usual suspects. Was it a good thing to do? Jaded political analysts might say the President was shoring up support among his “Christian constituency”-about 90 percent of the country being Christian of one sort or another-and it cost him nothing. Some thoughtful Christians may admit to a measure of ambivalence about the mixing of Christian faith and piety with the Administration’s foreign and domestic policies. The mixing was minimal, however, noting September 11 and observing that “Americans responded with strength, compassion, and generosity”-which virtues likely have something to do with Christian faith. One friend thought such an explicitly Christian message divisive, since the President is “supposed to represent all the people.” But there is no way Mr. Bush can be a Buddhist to Buddhists or a Muslim to Muslims. He is-not at all incidentally-a Christian. Of course, one might argue that, precisely for that reason, a religious message is “inappropriate,” which is the argument for what someone has called the naked public square. My hunch is that Mr. Bush just thought it would be the right thing to send Easter greetings to his fellow believers, and so he did it. The only wrong note is the misquotation of Julia Ward Howe’s hymn. She wrote, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The more comfortable “live to make men free” appears in many contemporary hymnals (along with “inclusive” substitutes for “men”). The message of Jesus, to follow him in being prepared to die for the right, is the deeper truth. But I don’t want to cavil. The Easter statement was welcome and, as I say, should not go unremarked.
• The Washington Times quotes this from the Easter homily of a Catholic bishop: “Christ is our light in this time. He leads us to apologize humbly and profoundly for past sinfulness, to follow our strict diocesan policy on sexual abuse and misconduct in the future, and to develop additional protocols in order to prevent harm to any member of the Church.” It does not say what biblical text the bishop was expounding, but apparently there was no mention of millstones.
• “The mores of New Jersey.” The phrase may puzzle people whose view of New Jersey is formed by watching The Sopranos. I can, however, give personal testimony to the fact that there are many people and communities of virtue and sense in that great state. But then there is the matter of the courts in New Jersey and, more specifically, their cutting-edge role in devaluing human life, as in what are called “wrongful birth” and “wrongful life” lawsuits (see Jay Webber, “Better Off Dead?“ FT, May). The New Jersey Law Journal-a journal of, by, and for lawyers-is editorially critical of the French National Assembly for legislating against awarding damages to the parents of a disabled boy “because medical errors allowed him to be born.” He would have been better off dead, and his parents would have been spared great trouble and expense. The Journal opines: “Wrongful life and wrongful birth cases implicate deep feelings not just about law, but religion, ethics, and other fundamental values. In a pluralistic society, different people, understandably, may hold different views that are contentious.” Ah yes, that pesky pluralism again. What to do when there are different and contentious “feelings” about fundamental values? Obviously, let it be settled by lawyers who have a bundle to make in the common law of torts as interpreted by very progressive courts. The editorial concludes: “Given the difference between the legal systems and the mores of France and New Jersey, we hesitate to say that the National Assembly reached the wrong decision for France. Suffice it to say, we are satisfied with the state of the law in New Jersey.” “Why the hell not?” as Tony Soprano might say.
• Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was beyond doubt the most celebrated Catholic cleric of his time, and remains a hero to many today. The end of his life trailed off toward the inglorious, however. After clashing with Cardinal Spellman of New York, he was appointed Archbishop of Rochester, New York, which some (perhaps Sheen as well) viewed as a form of exile. The Second Vatican Council had recently concluded, and Sheen declared his ambition to make Rochester a model of Vatican II reforms. James Hitchcock, St. Louis University historian, reviews Thomas C. Reeve’s America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen, and offers this reflection: “During the council he had supported most changes, at one point even exulting that the gathering ‘undid’ four hundred years of history, although prior to that time he had given no public, and few private, intimations that he thought the Church needed change. Now he seemed often to lose his critical faculties in a rush of euphoria (including President John F. Kennedy in an account of ‘modern saints,’ for example). His brief career in Rochester was a sad story, full of obscure conflicts the full nature of which are not known, partly because the Sheen archives there are in disarray. What seems to have happened is that he attempted to establish himself as a leader of change, at one point even getting maneuvered by a television interviewer into saying that contraception might be a permissible practice, then found that he had unleashed forces that he could not control. Attacked from both left and right, he was practically forced to retire, and his personally chosen successor went on to make Rochester perhaps the most liberal diocese in the United States, an ironic legacy from a man who for decades epitomized Catholic orthodoxy for millions of people. Sheen’s career illustrates both why the Church was so strong in the United States for so long and also why it began to unravel after 1965. If biography, as used to be thought, is for the purpose of teaching moral lessons-the secrets of both greatness and decline-Archbishop Sheen should perhaps above all be seen as a victim of his own success. At every stage of his career he faced an ambiguous situation in which he could use his great talents to further the kingdom of heaven, yet those very efforts required pursuing the path of ever greater fame and adulation, measuring success by public recognition. Often he seems to have been unable to distinguish between acting for God and acting for himself. But he titled his autobiography Treasure in Clay, and of few such flawed vessels has God made more prodigious use.”
• After his best-selling tribute to his own people, How the Irish Saved Civilization, and a second in obeisance to another people who really matter, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels-which, one notes, is an awful lot like saving civilization-Thomas Cahill does his duty by Catholic liberalism with Pope John XXIII, which is part of the Penguin Lives series. It is too much even for liberal Commonweal, where Christopher Ruddy writes that the book will be enjoyed by “those who like their biography Manichean-style.” In this case, it’s Good Pope John XXIII against Evil Pope John Paul II. The latter is, according to Cahill, a tyrannical reactionary under whom “we have come full circle and are back in the pontificate of Pius XII.” Ruddy writes: “Only the most hardened of John Paul’s opponents could makes such a claim. Diplomatic inertia and regal aloofness are not John Paul’s faults. And the claim that this pontificate is ‘restorationist’ could only be made by someone who has paid only slight attention to the best theology of the last twenty years.” Here is his summing up: “One need not subscribe to papal biographer George Weigel’s flights of hagiography-wherein John Paul’s only faults are that he is sometimes too patient, too visionary-to realize that Cahill has misjudged the current pope. Perhaps the time has come to call a cease-fire on polemical contrasts between John and John Paul. Aspects of the present pontificate (including some of those mentioned by Cahill) should be criticized. Ironically, however, Cahill’s portrait of John Paul violates the gentleness so characteristic of his hero Good Pope John, and fails to exhibit the ‘primacy of charity’ that Yves Congar held to be the first condition for all true reform in the Church.” It is possible that some may detect in that just a hint of animosity toward Weigel’s splendid biography, Witness to Hope. With the gentleness so characteristic of this space, I take Ruddy to mean that Weigel’s acutely insightful and exquisitely nuanced book is hagiography, which means writing about a saint, which, in my judgment, is what Weigel was doing. In any event, Ruddy is right about the “polemical contrasts” that have become such a liberal convention and only demean John XXIII by making the case for his greatness dependent upon denigrating the greatness of John Paul II.
• Andy Lamey, writing in the National Post, complains about Canadians who complain that “our political culture is biased against religion” and is guilty of “unfairly excluding faith-based perspectives from the so-called naked public square.” Nonsense, says Mr. Lamey. He points to provinces that fund religious schools, which is true, although some of them increasingly limit just how religious those schools can be. He notes the existence of Sunday closing laws in some provinces, and that Elizabeth is acknowledged as Queen “by the grace of God,” and even that the Mounties can wear wedding rings “as a symbol of their commitment to holy matrimony.” In sum, Lamey writes, “church leaders [should admit that] they occupy a position not of victimhood but conspicuous and long-standing privilege.” This might not be worth mentioning, except that also in this country one encounters a similar misunderstanding of what is meant by the naked public square. Like Mr. Lamey, people point to various public symbols, often of a vestigial nature, reflecting the cultural influence of Christianity, and suggest that religious leaders or institutions are falsely claiming to be victims. That entirely misses the point. The point is the exclusion of religion and religiously grounded moral arguments from political discourse. That such exclusion is the established practice, more overtly in Canada than here, seems to me to be manifest. See Raymond J. de Souza’s analysis of the last Canadian election (“The Politics of Incivility,” FT, March 2001), in which any reference to moral argument associated with religion was subjected to vulgar condemnation as a violation of the totally secularist (read naked) public square. Yes, Mr. Lamey is right, the Mounties are allowed to wear wedding rings, and Elizabeth is queen by the grace of God, and some provinces close stores on Sundays, but at question is the way in which a society deliberates how to rightly order its life together. In that deliberation, only arguments that are not guilty by association with religion are allowed a voice. And, as I say, that is much more the case in Canada than in the U.S.
• When it came the time to die, his wife Joanie and their three children, ages two to five, gathered by his bed and sang Dona Nobis Pacem (Give us your peace). David Orgon Coolidge died in peace as they were singing. David was a friend. A man without guile and with bottomless good humor. He put his enormous energy into launching the Marriage Law Project, working closely with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the law school of Catholic University, both in Washington. His project became the clearing and coordinating center for the legal defense of marriage against revisionist campaigns for, inter alia, same-sex marriage. He fought well, and he fought clean, and he never let the fight consume him. Then came the brain cancer and months of vigil that led a large network of family and friends into new intensities of prayer and caring. David Orgon Coolidge. May choirs of angels greet him on the far side of Jordan.
• “Companions on the Sacred Journey: An Interfaith Conference Celebrating Love, Compassion, and Spiritual Wisdom.” Well, I’m certainly for all those good things. Scheduled for next month at Princeton University, it is presented by the chapel ministry of the university and funded by something called The Infinity Foundation (which one may assume is not only far out but farthest out). The conference is exquisitely inclusive, with Rabbi Marcia Prager offering “Jewish spiritual wisdom that draws from the wisdom of other paths as well,” and therapist Joan Borysenko offering an exciting alternative to “patriarchal” oppression, it being the sad case that “in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the map for the spiritual journey was written by men for other men.” The Venerable Gelongma Trime Lhamo, a Buddhist nun, will demonstrate “practices that develop the healing properties of your own mind,” while “behavioral neurologist” Susan Mickel will show how Buddhist vipassana meditation “helps us see clearly into the true nature of our embodied hearts and minds, and into the nature of reality.” Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Univeralist minister, will explain why materialism leads to violence, and Father Robert E. Kennedy, a Jesuit and Zen Master, will enhance “appreciation of the practice of what is good in the world’s religions.” Among many other attractions, Robin Becker, teacher and dancer, will explain how “the longing to remember, unite with, and live our divine inheritance is the heart of Sufi practice.” Dr. Robert K. C. Forman, executive editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, will explore what may be the constitutive question posed by the conference: “Might it be possible to forge communities of the spirit yet not sacrifice our own beliefs, insights, and experiences on the altar of traditional religious creeds and institutions?” I have this hunch that his answer is that it is possible. For three days in June, Princeton offers a wondrous array of alternative altars, turning itself into a veritable Wal-Mart of unabashed spiritual consumerism, requiring no sacrifice other than the $200 registration fee. Only in America. Love it or leave it.
• I have often quoted Herbert Butterfield to the effect that realism is a boast, not a school of thought. That is often the case, especially in discussions of public policies, foreign and domestic, as they touch on the dynamics of interest and power. Philosophically, however, realism is also a school of thought. In his recently published intellectual biography, A Mind’s Matter (Eerdmans), Stanley L. Jaki-priest, scientist, philosopher, and theologian-looks back on a long and productive life, and is inclined to settle scores with anyone and everyone who ever disagreed with him. Along the way, he offers this suggestive description of what it means to be a philosophical realist. “Heavy reliance on the phrase, ‘objects do object,’ or some equivalent of it, such as ‘objects are here to object,’ could at least convey the measure to which commitment to realism has become with me nothing short of a methodical obsession. For in order to be a realist it is just not enough to stand by the primacy of objective reality. As a historian and philosopher of physics I saw some egregious examples of how inadequate such a stance can be. Einstein’s is a classic case. So are Pauli’s words to Born that Einstein’s refusal to accept the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was rooted not so much in a connection between causality and exact measurements as in an obsession with the primacy of the physically real. Pauli had only ridicule for that obsession. But in the absence of such an obsession the most inadequate, indeed half-baked, philosophies can be grafted onto excellent physics. These philosophies may amount to no more than the individual physicist’s rumination about his own universe. Obsession with the real ought to be articulated systematically, if it is to turn into a well-reasoned message. Yet this means much more than just to be systematic in one’s realism. Preoccupation with a system may, in fact, distract one’s attention from what gives life to the system, namely, the very starting point of one’s philosophizing. Realism has to be methodical, that is, a continual return to what one has most consciously taken for one’s primary step. This is something more than what I said about the importance of the first step taken in any activity. Continual return to that first step, to an ever fresh reconsideration of what it means, of what it implies, is what gives life to one’s realism in philosophy. What I would say now is that a true realist, a true objectivist, should never tire of taking an ever fresh look at that primary step of his. He should be ready to test it again and again against ever new problems, tasks, and possibilities, in fact against all of one’s major concerns.” Father Jaki is today honored as a leading Catholic conservative, but he persists in thinking of himself as a liberal. The problem is with what has happened to liberalism, especially in the Church. “Liberal theologians and their journalist allies writing on religion hand down in any given month more infallible statements than all the popes in two thousand years. At the same time they keep denouncing dogmatism.” So in what sense is he a liberal? He answers: “The liberalism I believed in from early on simply meant an openness to the immense variety in which the real encounters us and, hopefully, we encounter the real. In other words, my liberalism seems to have been an integral aspect of a realism that held me in its grip from early on.” One wishes such liberalism, and Fr. Jaki, ad multos annos.
• That wickedly keen social observer David Brooks has this in the Atlantic Monthly: “The New Age quest is for those who have a bias toward self-discovery techniques that are performed while barefoot. It suits men who believe that everyday life is full of trivial distractions and who want to discover inner joys and deep harmonies, which can then be used as fodder for self-adoring monologues before captive dinner-party audiences. The quest usually starts with a few afternoons in the spirituality section of the local bookstore. Several months of journal keeping, bread making, yoga classes, and suburban Buddhist epiphanies follow. Pretty soon Hermann Hesse novels begin to seem intelligent; the garage has been transformed into a pottery studio; the days start with chants to Eos, Goddess of the Dawn; and it seems like a good idea to grow a ponytail on the back of your head even though there’s no hair left on top. This spiritual mid-life crisis is the near exclusive province of a certain kind of soft-spoken, upscale Democrat.” That’s very nice, although I know some Republicans and a great many Independents (as in the herd of independent minds) who fit the picture. Which reminds me of a comment read somewhere recently that in the center of the monstrance held up for adoration by our culture is a mirror.
• The Woodstock Theological Center, a Jesuit enterprise, takes on the tough questions. This is from the announcement for a forum on religion in the public square: “This discussion will examine two forms of radical religion in public life: the uncompromisingly nonviolent as modeled by Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day, and the unflinchingly violent as represented by Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. By way of contrast, we shall also discuss how God may be found along more moderate paths amid the ambiguity and compromise of public life.” Somehow I don’t think they mean “more moderate” than Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day. Then there is this: “Some claim that each of the following lived fully integrated, publicly uncompromising religious lives: Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Osama bin Laden, and Timothy McVeigh. Can we grant their search for religious integrity yet distinguish between them? On what grounds?” How to distinguish? Oh, that’s a tough one. Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa were women? They were Catholics? No? I give up.
• A reader reports that Melrose United Church in Hamilton, Ontario, posted this mantra on its bulletin board last Palm Sunday: “Jesus Christ and Judas are both movements of a single dance.” Our puzzled reader thought we might want to join in pondering that. I think I hear the sound of thousands of one hand clappings.
• “Can There Be a Decent Left?” When that question, with its implication that there is not now a decent left, is asked by the editor of Dissent, the chief intellectual journal of the left, attention should be paid. And when that editor is Michael Walzer, the much respected political philosopher of Princeton, very careful attention should be paid. In the fall of last year, he writes, the left did its best to organize opposition to the war on terrorism, arguing that it was unjust in its cause and/or consequences, or unwinnable as in “another Vietnam.” Walzer writes: “But among last fall’s antiwar demonstrators, ‘Stop the bombing’ wasn’t a slogan that summarized a coherent view of the bombing-or of the alternatives to it. The truth is that most leftists were not committed to having a coherent view about things like that; they were committed to opposing the war, and they were prepared to oppose it without regard to its causes or character and without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks.” And that raises some larger considerations: “The radical failure of the left’s response to the events of last fall raises a disturbing question: Can there be a decent left in a superpower? Or more accurately, in the only superpower? Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics. Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power. Certainly, all those emotions were plain to see in the left’s reaction to September 11, in the failure to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused, in the schadenfreude of so many of the first responses, the barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved. Many people on the left recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed; there is at least the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really happened.” The left has no future, he says, if it persists in pitting itself against sympathetic identification with America. “I grew up with the Americanism of the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s; I look back on it now and think that the Communist Party’s effort to create a leftist pop culture in an instant, as the party line turned, was kitschy and manipulative-and also politically very smart. Paul Robeson’s ‘Ballad for Americans,’ whatever the quality of the music, provides at least a sense of what an unalienated American radicalism might be like. The days after September 11 would not have been a bad time for a popular front. What had happened that made anything like that unthinkable?” Walzer specifies four factors leading to the bankruptcy of the left. The first is an “ideology” that reflects the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism and the third-worldist doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s. “We may think that we live in a post-ideological age, and maybe most of us do, but the traces of old ideologies can be found everywhere in the discourse of the left. Perhaps the most striking consequence is the inability of leftists to recognize or acknowledge the power of religion in the modern world. Whenever writers on the left say that the root cause of terror is global inequality or human poverty, the assertion is in fact a denial that religious motives really count. Theology, on this view, is just the temporary, colloquial idiom in which the legitimate rage of oppressed men and women is expressed.” The second factor, following from the first, is that the left has turned itself into a permanent elite of “internal aliens.” The left despairs of ever exercising power, and therefore cannot speak responsibly to those who do. In its self-indulgence, it does not even desire to exercise power. “But what really marks the left, or a large part of it, is the bitterness that comes with abandoning any such desire. The alienation is radical. How else can one understand the unwillingness of people who, after all, live here, and whose children and grandchildren live here, to join in a serious debate about how to protect the country against future terrorist attacks? There is a pathology in this unwillingness, and it has already done us great damage.” The third and fourth factors have to do with delusions of moral purity that preclude the recognition that there are evils in the world that we have the right, and obligation, not only to criticize but to oppose. “The world (and this includes the third world) is too full of hatred, cruelty, and corruption for any left, even the American left, to suspend its judgment about what’s going on. It’s not the case that because we are privileged, we should turn inward and focus our criticism only on ourselves. In fact, inwardness is one of our privileges; it is often a form of political self-indulgence. Yes, we are entitled to blame the others whenever they are blameworthy; in fact, it is only when we do that, when we denounce, say, the authoritarianism of third-world governments, that we will find our true comrades-the local opponents of the maximal leaders and military juntas, who are often waiting for our recognition and support. If we value democracy, we have to be prepared to defend it, at home, of course, but not only there.” Walzer concludes with the declaration, “The left needs to begin again.” Agreeing with the gist of his argument about what has gone wrong with the left, and what it got wrong from the start, and in no way meaning to be flippant, the obvious response to that concluding declaration is, Why? The clear, if implicit, answer to his title question is that there cannot be a decent left, or at least not a decent left in recognizable continuity with the left that was and is. A better conclusion is that the left needs to be given a decent burial. Which, in fact, Michael Walzer’s remarkable article may be doing.
• Some readers have asked, with a note of puzzlement, what I mean when I write in my recent book As I Lay Dying that I came better to appreciate why I had always found so unconvincing the Cartesian Cogito ergo sum. Much better, I wrote, is Cogitor ergo sum-I am thought, therefore I am. There are many literary references in the book, but I had not come across this before. It is a 1929 poem by C. S. Lewis:
Master, they say that when I seem To be in speech with you, Since you make no replies, it’s all a dream-One talker aping two.
They are half right, but not as they Imagine; rather, I Seek in myself the things I meant to say, And lo! the words are dry.
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake The Listener’s role, and through My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake The thoughts I never knew.
What they say is half right, Lewis says, and when he knows that he knows his own emptiness into which God speaks “the thoughts I never knew.”
And thus you neither need reply Nor can; thus, while we seem Two talking, thou art One forever, and I No dreamer, but thy dream.
Exactly.Cogitor ergo sum. The poem is in Stephen Medcalf’s review of Denis Donoghue’s Adam’s Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature (University of Notre Dame Press) and, while I’m at it, there is also Medcalf’s insightful comment on the claim that Milton in Paradise Lost portrays an Arian, not-quite-God, Christ and, in addition, has no place for the Holy Spirit. Not so, writes Medcalf. “But the opening of Paradise Lost, when Milton invokes the Holy Spirit instead of the Muse, makes it clear that in Milton’s hope the Spirit will, like the Muse in the Iliad, be not only present but omnipresent in the poem. As in Lewis’ understanding of prayer, everything in Paradise Lost is sung or said by the Spirit. No more than in prayer will this always work out in fact. The Spirit can only work through Milton and through human language. But that is the paradigm, and in such magnificent lines as ‘As thus the Filial Godhead answering spake,’ we feel not only the explicit presence of the Son in His relation with the Father, but the implicit presence of the Spirit. The poem is not Arian, but fully Trinitarian.” I am thought, therefore I am; I am spoken, therefore I am.
• The airing of an hour-long interview on Booknotes with Brian Lamb is scheduled for a Sunday evening in May at eight o’clock EDT and rerun at eleven. The occasion is my recent book, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, and the discussion covers my life and work, the continuing influence of the sixties and seventies, the clerical and sexual disarray in the Catholic Church, and much else, including As I Lay Dying. I think you might enjoy the program. Booknotes is broadcast on C-Span, and you can check TV listings for the day of showing. And, since you may have been about to ask, As I Lay Dying is selling very nicely and getting good reviews. Thank you for having been about to ask.
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Sources:While We’re At It: On praise teams, Christian Century, November 14, 2001. On the state of American Jesuits, New York Review of Books, March 28, 2002; America, March 25, 2002. Tunku Varadarajan on India, Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2002. Childless evangelicals, Prism, November/December 2001. Herman Otten on RJN, Christian News, January 7, 2002. On Protestant bishops, Christian Century, February 13-20, 2002. Richard Wightman Fox on liberalism, Christian Century, November 21-28, 2001. Jews in the Netherlands, Christian Century, November 21-28, 2001. Same-sex marriage at Duke University, Christian Century, May 2, 2001. On the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2002. On Gore Vidal, Publishers Weekly, April 1, 2002. On wrongful life suits, New Jersey Law Journal, April 1, 2002. James Hitchcock on Bishop Fulton Sheen, Touchstone, April 2002. Christopher Ruddy on Thomas Cahill, Commonweal, March 8, 2002. Andy Lamey on religion in Canada, National Post, March 19, 2002. David Brooks on the New Age quest, Atlantic, March 2002. Michael Walzer on what’s wrong with the left, Dissent, Spring 2002. On Cogitor ergo sum, Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 2002.