The Public Square
The cover of the 150-page report of the National Review Board (NRB) is deep purple, the color of Lenten penitence, which is just right for this telling moment in the Long Lent that began with the Boston exposures of January 2002. It is titled “A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” Not the “Sex Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church” but the “Crisis in the Catholic Church.” Long before there was a sex abuse crisis, there was a spiritual crisis, a moral crisis, a doctrinal crisis, and a crisis of misgovernance in the Catholic Church in the United States. All these crises finally come down to what the bishops did and did not do, what the bishops have and have not been doing for decades. The report is about priestly perpetrators and their victims; it is about seminaries and spiritual formation; it is about lawyers and the compromising of the Church’s independence. But, mainly and most importantly, the report is about bishops.
When, in their panicked Dallas meeting of 2002, the bishops created a National Review Board of prominent Catholic laity, I was opposed to the idea. I said and wrote that the bishops should take the heat and the responsibility for what had happened. I thought it was a dangerous precedent to have lay episcopoi of the episcopoi, overseers of the episcopal overseers; that it would play into the hands of dissenting Catholics who challenge what, in Catholic teaching, is the divinely constituted structure of the Church governed by bishops who are successors to the apostles. I hoped the bishops would devise some means—perhaps a plenary council or a long collegial retreat—to honestly examine what had gone wrong and come up with a believable program for reform. I was wrong. It is now apparent that the bishops as a body, meaning the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), were incapable of doing what the National Review Board has done. It is inconceivable that the bishops and bureaucracy of the USCCB could have produced the forthright analysis and program of reform that the NRB issued in Washington on Friday, February 27. The NRB has done what the bishops should have done. The report is a great gift to the bishops and to the Church. Now the question is whether the bishops are capable of receiving the report, and acting on it. If not—and the initial responses are not encouraging—they will, as the report suggests, further undermine the confidence of the Catholic faithful in the authority, competence, and moral integrity of their leaders. That is the “Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” The report leaves no doubt that clerical sex abuse opened a window, exposing to sight a much larger reality of nonfeasance and malfeasance in the leadership of the Church.
A bit of history is in order, and it goes back long before January 2002. It goes back, in fact, to the beginnings of Catholicism in this country, to what is called the “trusteeship controversies.” Beginning in the 1780s and up through the nineteenth century, some Catholic laity were attracted to the voluntaristic idea of church membership and church government that they saw in the Protestant denominations around them. Parishes elected lay “trustees” who took charge of the temporal affairs of the churches, including the salaries and, in some cases, the appointment of clergy. This American model, as it was called, was encouraged by a few bishops such as John England of Charleston, South Carolina, but Rome and the great majority of bishops viewed it, correctly, as a form of “congregationalism” incompatible with the Catholic understanding of the divine constitution of the Church. Trusteeism was effectively suppressed by the end of the nineteenth century, being replaced by patterns of what the NRB rightly calls the “clericalism” that has much to do with the “Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” Still today, priests, and priests who become bishops, are trained to take alarm at the slightest hint of “trusteeism.” That is why, among other things, parish pastors expend inordinate time and energy on the minutiae of administration that could be better handled by laypeople. That is why bishops engaged in the practices of autocracy, secrecy, and cover-up that contributed so powerfully to the current crisis.
Among the great gifts in the gift that is the NRB report is that it steals the thunder of those who have so long and so loudly campaigned against clericalism in order to advance agendas alien to the Church’s structure, faith, and life. While trusteeism was suppressed more than a century ago, discontent with the clericalism that replaced it has been a staple of Catholic life in this country. Following the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, that discontent found powerful expression through various organizations, mainly on the Catholic left. In the heady atmosphere inspired by “the spirit of the Council,” the bishops in 1976 sponsored a “Call to Action” conference in Detroit that brought thousands of activists together who demanded power sharing and democratization in church government, the abandonment of priestly celibacy, and steps toward the ordination of women and approval of homosexuality. Detroit was a debacle. The bishops were understandably alarmed and resolved never again to provide such a forum for the unleashing of lay discontents. Some bishops now fear that they inadvertently violated that resolve by creating the National Review Board. They are, I am convinced, wrong again.
A vestigial organization called Call to Action, claiming some 20,000 members, is still with us. Nobody seems to pay it much mind. Not so with Voice of the Faithful (VOF), which has received a great deal of media attention since the first Boston exposures. It should be said in fairness that some leaders in some places around the country wanted VOF to be something other than Call to Action by another name. As is evident by its media pandering, its diocesan agitations, and the rostrum of speakers at its regional and national gatherings, however, VOF quickly became but another instrument of the weary old litany of dissent that first alarmed the bishops at Detroit. There seem to be, riding under whatever organizational banner, about thirty to forty thousand Catholics in the U.S., out of about sixty-three million, who can be rallied to the dream of a different church “come the revolution”—the revolution in question being their construal of the Second Vatican Council. The most important continuing institution linking this tattered band is the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a weekly newspaper published in Kansas City. These are the NCR Catholics. There is still a small handful of bishops who think NCR Catholics are the wave of the future, but most bishops see them as a past that must be kept safely past. Unfortunately, some bishops—and not only those closely tied to business as usual at the bishops conference—may view the analysis and recommendations of the National Review Board as being on a continuum that runs from nineteenth-century trusteeism to Detroit 1976 to the latest splenetic eruption in NCR. That would be, I am convinced, a grave mistake.
Something Very Different
The NRB and its report are something very different. The NRB is not against the bishops; it is for the bishops. It does not dissent from church teaching; it wants to see that teaching taught and lived. It does not contest but affirms the Church’s divinely constituted structure, and wants that structure to more effectively serve the faithful for whom it exists. The members of the NRB are not chronic church activists. They are men and women of great accomplishment in the world who, at the price of deep personal and professional sacrifice, agreed to help the Church they love in her time of need. They did not need or want this job but they were willing to serve, and what they have accomplished since the June 2002 meeting in Dallas is impressive indeed. Through formal interviews and in-depth conversations, they have discussed the crisis with hundreds of bishops, priests, victims, perpetrators, lawyers, prosecutors, theologians, lay activists, seminarians, seminary rectors, and experts on sexual abuse. They spent thousands of hours in conversation and in reading pertinent books, official documents, and files, seeking out whatever information and wisdom might be relevant to what went wrong and what might be done about it. The Church in the United States is very much in their debt. (Incidentally, I do not retract my statement that one prominent pro-abortion member should not have been appointed to the board. But that appointment was the result of an entrenched habit by which bishops do not challenge the decisions of other bishops, which is one of the problems addressed by the NRB report.)
I hesitate to single out members, but mention must be made of Anne Burke, a federal appellate judge in Chicago, who took over as Interim Board Chair after the unfortunate Frank Keating resigned. Keating, it will be remembered, is the former governor of Oklahoma who greatly embarrassed and almost torpedoed the NRB by misrepresenting its mandate and presenting himself as a kind of special prosecutor against the bishops, whom he publicly portrayed as being akin to the Mafia. For reasons of its own, the bishops conference declined to name Judge Burke as chairman, but she soldiered on with the awkward title of “Interim.” At the February 27 news conference she offered a moving testimonial to the fidelity of the great majority of priests who labored under the shadow of scandal created by some of their criminal colleagues. There is also Dr. Paul McHugh, distinguished professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who supplied invaluable expertise on sundry forms of sexual deviance. Robert Bennett—yes, he’s Bill’s brother—is one of the top “power lawyers” of Washington and, as head of the research committee, he put his immense talents and the considerable resources of his law firm at the disposal of the NRB. Finally, William Burleigh, board chairman of a national communications company, made the NRB his full-time job, bringing to its deliberations a nonspecialized but deep knowledge of Catholic theology and history.
There are others of the twelve members of the board who could be mentioned, but my point is simply to indicate the high quality of intelligence and devotion that the board brought to its assigned task. Never in the history of Catholicism in this country has such a distinguished, capable, and devoted group of laypeople offered, at the behest of the bishops, such a comprehensive assessment of the Church’s leadership. These last years are frequently called “the greatest crisis in the history of Catholicism in America.” In the research and report of the NRB, we have a response appropriate to the crisis. Some members of the board will resign this June and new members will be appointed. It is possible that in the longer term the NRB will turn out to be the problem that I expected it to be in the beginning. But right now, by the grace of God, the NRB is pointing the way toward authentic Catholic reform and a restoration of trust in the Church’s apostolic leadership. Right now, and in the months ahead, the great question is whether the bishops will accept and act upon the gift they have been given.
The initial and carefully choreographed response was not encouraging. An hour after the NRB news conference at the National Press Club on February 27, the USCCB held its own conference to respond. A big banner was put on display for the television cameras: “Promise to Protect/Pledge to Heal.” That, I am told, is the slogan suggested to the USCCB by a New York public relations firm. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB, did most of the talking. It was, as it has been for the past two years, all about “the children, the children, the children.” The NRB report is, to be sure, about children (more typically, about teenage boys), but it is mainly about the bishops, the bishops, the bishops. Among the messages of the report is that, if the bishops had been doing their job, we would not have had to worry about the children. Gregory graciously thanked the NRB for its work, saying, “Their efforts have helped keep us on an even keel during the storm through which we have been passing.” If the Catholic Church has been on an even keel during the last few years, one must wonder what her floundering would look like.
Bishop Gregory spoke about “making our church institutions the safest of environments for children and young people,” about “reaching out to victims,” and about “keeping from ministry anyone who would harm the young.” They are all imperative concerns, to be sure, but such statements do not address the question of who is chiefly responsible for what went wrong. The purple cover of the report notwithstanding, the tone of the USCCB response was more self-congratulatory than penitential. Most unfortunately, and in the only underlined passage in his prepared text, Bishop Gregory declared, “The terrible history recorded here today is history.” With all due respect, that is precisely and glaringly wrong. It would be an unspeakable sadness were the USCCB, having successfully spinmeistered the hostile media, to deep-six the NRB report in its archives where future scholars may examine it as a historical curiosity. One must pray that the initial response of the USCCB is not the final response. Otherwise, an unprecedented opportunity for reform will sink into the miasma of business as usual, the disillusionment of committed Catholics will deepen even further, and the legitimate concerns about the Church’s leadership will again become the property of the usual agitators who will, as usual, exploit them for purposes dubiously Catholic. Bishops who understand that the crisis of sex abuse is a manifestation of a larger crisis of leadership—and there are bishops who do understand that—must keep the NRB report from being put to death with a gracious thank-you and then buried in the archives.
So far I have been speaking about the NRB report in the singular. In fact, there are two reports. One is a study commissioned by the NRB and carried out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It consists of findings about the number of sex abuse incidents, the number of offenders, the nature of incidents, and so forth. The John Jay report is valuable in helping to set the record straight, although, because of limitations of methodology and records, it leaves some important questions unanswered or only partially answered. We turn now to the John Jay report and will come back later to the report produced by the NRB itself, the latter being of much greater potential significance for the future of Catholicism in America.
Missing the Point
The NRB and others make a point of noting that no other major institution in America that regularly works with children and young people has submitted itself to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the Catholic Church. One can imagine what the National Education Association would say to the demand that sexual abuse by public school teachers be subjected to a similar scrutiny. Comparisons with other religious groups, with organizations such as the Boy Scouts, with social workers, or with athletic coaches simply are not possible because there are no studies comparable to the John Jay report. Some well-intended but misguided Catholics complain that the Church is being unfairly singled out, that the crisis is not so severe when compared to other institutions. But that is to miss the point. As we shall see, the John Jay data are also susceptible to less alarming interpretations, but that, too, is to miss the point. The Point to be kept firmly in mind is well stated in the NRB report:
It is clear that the abuse of minors is not unique to the Church. However, given the moral stature of the Church, the role of priests and bishops in providing moral leadership within the Church, and the obligations of priests and bishops to foster the spiritual and moral development of children and young people, when sexual abuse of minors occurs in the Church it is particularly abhorrent. Thus Catholics take no solace from the fact that the sexual abuse of minors occurs outside the Church as well.
The John Jay study is comprehensive, albeit not exhaustive. The researchers received the cooperation of 98 percent of the dioceses and eparchies (the latter being Eastern Rite jurisdictions) and of the religious orders that include 80 percent of order priests (about a third of all priests in the U.S. are in religious orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Benedictines). The headlines following the February 27 release of the reports declared that four percent of all the priests who had served during more than half a century, from 1950 to 2002, had been accused of sexually abusing a minor. A few headlines said that homosexual priests were at the heart of the scandals. In those fifty-plus years, there were 10,667 reported minor victims of clergy sex abuse. Eighty-one percent of them were male. There is some expressed unhappiness that the John Jay report uses the category of ages 11 to 17 rather than 13 to 17. According to some criminal justice and psychological authorities, the latter bracket more accurately draws the line at pubescence and thus makes clearer the distinction between pedophilia and adult men having sex with teenage boys. In its report and its February 27 presentation, the John Jay team was manifestly nervous about the homosexuality factor. The woman making the slide presentation at the National Press Club skipped over the data on adolescent males in a nanosecond. A perhaps jaundiced network reporter remarked afterwards about the downplaying of the homosexuality factor, “Remember that the John Jay people have to go back and get along in New York City.”
The incidence of reported abuse increased significantly in the 1960s, peaked in the ‘70s, and then decreased in the ‘80s and ‘90s even more dramatically than it had increased during the prior two decades. During the entire period studied, 4.3 percent of diocesan priests were accused but only 2.7 percent of priests in religious orders. Different explanations of the difference are on offer. One is that order priests generally live in community and keep a closer eye on one another, thus ensuring chaste celibacy. A less edifying explanation is that homosexual priests in the orders have easier sexual access to other priests in the order and less access to teenage boys.
Of the more than four thousand priests accused of abusing minors, more than half (56 percent) had only one allegation against them. Three percent had ten or more allegations. These 149 priests accounted for almost three thousand (27 percent) of the allegations. Of the 109,694 priests in active ministry during these 52 years, 149 or .14 percent fit the public depiction of the predator priest sexually abusing young people. Moreover, the John Jay report says that 10 percent of all alleged incidents of abuse were found to be “not substantiated,” while another 20 percent were brought against deceased, debilitated, or otherwise inactive priests and could not be investigated. Although it is admitted by all that some figures are less than precise, it is more than possible that well over half of all alleged incidents involved fewer than two hundred priests in a fifty-two-year period. Some may take it as a comfort that relatively so few priests and bishops violated their vows and abused minors, mainly teenage boys, over such a long time, but, if so, they should read again The Point set forth by the NRB above. The John Jay report notes that the proportion of victims who were male increased in the 1960s and reached 86 percent in the ‘70s, remaining there through the 1980s. In a footnote, the NRB report responds to the frequent obscuring of the homosexual factor by reference to “ephebophilia.” The authors write, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (IV) does not recognize ‘ephebophilia’ as a distinct disorder. Ephebophilia is thus not a disorder in the technical sense, but rather a newly coined descriptive term for homosexual attraction to adolescent males.”
There is another study that falls under the mandate of the NRB and may or may not get done, depending in significant part on the availability of an estimated four or five million dollars. The Johns Hopkins psychiatrist and NRB member Paul McHugh underscores that “the record of the abuse has this epidemic or ‘outbreak’ character rather than one suggesting an ever-present abusive proclivity in Catholic priests. John Jay, by extending its enumeration further back in time (to 1950), could show that the Catholic clergy of the 1950s was comparatively free of predators.” He writes, “Roman Catholic priests were the agents of a huge and unprecedented behavioral epidemic of homosexual predation upon young males, many under their pastoral care, that went relatively unrecognized through the 1970s and 1980s. The epidemic appears to be abating—for reasons as inexplicable as those of its onset—even as concern for the discovery and treatment of individual victims continues.” The study of the causes and context of the epidemic would include, for instance, the vulnerability of victims, the traits of predators, and contributing factors in the ecclesiastical and surrounding cultures. McHugh says, “We must encourage [the bishops] to press bravely ahead—despite their natural shame over this matter—with what is the first systematic study of sexual abuse of minors in public health history.”
A Different Perspective
While appreciative of the John Jay research, Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University and author of The New Anti-Catholicism believes the findings should be treated with caution. Many reported abuses are based on “weak or shaky evidence.” “Investigators are counting all charges ‘not withdrawn or known to be false,’ and total exoneration is a very high standard.” He notes that one-third of all accusations surfaced in 2002-2003, when priestly misdeeds were in the headlines almost every day. “The great majority of accusers,” he writes, “are unquestionably sincere souls who have been deeply traumatized by their awful experiences, but a minority of accusers are blatantly in it for the money. These are the entrepreneurs who wait until after Father X dies to allege that he fondled them thirty years ago, an impossible charge either to verify or contest.” Fifteen years ago, when there was a nationwide hysteria about childcare centers, “they would have been denouncing Satanic covens rather than priests.” Victim-advocacy organizations claim that John Jay’s four percent figure for abusers is too low, that it frequently takes years for accusers to come forward and therefore there are many more accusations in the pipeline. Jenkins is skeptical, noting that victim organizations have an interest in hype. One such organization, The Linkup, estimates that there at least 601,600 direct victims, and as many as 9,475,200 “indirect victims,” adding up to 10,076,800 people abused by priests. Such nightmarish fantasies, in Jenkins’ view, are woven out of whole cloth.
Referring to the aforementioned 149 rogue priests, Jenkins writes, “The real problem was an extremely small core of highly persistent pedophiles who massively ‘over-produced’ criminal behavior—men like John Geoghan and James Porter.” Some of these serial molesters produced hundreds of plausible complaints. The relatively few men who really were predatory pedophiles, and not homosexuals abusing teenage boys, vastly inflate the reported number of very young victims. Further, given that the majority of accused priests have only one complaint against them, Jenkins says “it seems that most dioceses were doing a surprisingly good job coping with reports of misbehavior, working as they did on the apparently correct assumption that once a complaint was received about a priest, he would not reoffend.” That will likely strike most readers as altogether too sanguine. Drawing on the John Jay data, Jenkins does offer a suggestive “profile” of the typical abusive priest. He was born about 1940 and ordained in the late 1960s, in time to be part of what one John Jay table shows as a “Himalayan peak” of reported abuse between 1975 and 1980, “an awful six-year period that produced one quarter of all recorded incidents for the whole fifty-two-year era under study.” A full 10 percent of priests ordained in 1970 have been accused of abuse.
The Himalayan peak, Jenkins believes, has everything to do with the moral and doctrinal “chaos” following the Second Vatican Council. In addition, with thousands of men leaving the priesthood, bishops tolerated higher levels of misbehavior because they could not afford to lose more priests. Add to that the factor of a general culture that encourages “acting out” by, in the fine phrase of Pat Moynihan, defining deviancy down, and you get the high number of clergy abusers—although not nearly so high as many think and probably not quite so high as the John Jay report suggests.
Jenkins is not alone in urging caution in dealing with the John Jay data, or at least with the way the data are being interpreted. No sooner were the John Jay findings released than the statistically minded went to work on what are claimed to be discrepancies. The John Jay researchers acknowledged that they were under the pressure of a deadline and that some of the numbers would need revisiting. A final, final report is promised soon. Among the alternative interpretations I have seen, one suggests that, given the number of Catholic children and the number of accusations during the period studied, one in 100,000 was abused by a Catholic cleric in 1950 and that is again the number for 2000. At the peak of the reported abuses, in 1980, six in 100,000 Catholic children were abused by clergy. These alternative readings tend toward lowering significantly the 4 percent figure for accused abusers. John Jay includes references to studies that estimate that 13.5 percent of all children are sexually abused by someone at some time during their childhood, and 62 percent of the victims might be expected to report the abuse. My hunch is that the 13.5 percent claim should be viewed with some skepticism, especially if abuse is defined as loosely as it was by the bishops at Dallas. As previously discussed here, that definition—which does not require physical contact, sexual intention, or even the perception of sexual intention—could make almost any adult an abuser and any child or adolescent a victim.
The discussion of the John Jay data will go on. I am not a statistician, and all this may seem like hairsplitting, but as one informed observer points out, these considerations are crucial to determining “whether there is a particular danger to children from Catholic clerics that is not found among other adult males who work with children. . . . [It] would appear that there is almost no comparable information by which to judge the severity and extent of the problem in either the Catholic Church or the larger society.” Without similar studies of school districts, youth recreational leagues, other religious groups, and institutions serving significant numbers of children, it is hard to evaluate the incidence of clerical sex abuse of minors in the past or the present. Almost all studies indicate that the majority of sex abuse is by members of the family or relatives. And again, what we don’t have is a basis for institutional comparison between the Catholic Church and other organizations dealing with children.
It may be objected that this discussion of the John Jay findings and their interpretation tends to minimize the severity of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. That is not true. Recall again The Point in the above-quoted passage from the NRB report. It is commonly said that, if even one priest or bishop has abused even one child or adolescent, that is a crisis. That is true. It is a crisis for the victim and should be for the perpetrator, but it is not an institutional crisis. If over half a century thousands of clergy have abused minors, even though the rate of abuse might be much lower than it is for cognate institutions, that is an institutional crisis. And it is a severe crisis if, as is indisputably the case, the leadership of the institution was complicit in the abuse by ignoring, denying, covering up, or facilitating the abuse. No matter how the numbers are crunched and recrunched, this is a Catholic crisis because it involves Catholic priests and bishops from whom the people have a right to expect better. Much better. As I have said before, given the rigorous measures that have been put into place since January 2002, the Catholic Church is today probably the country’s safest institution for children and adolescents. But that does not answer the very big questions about what went wrong and what can be done to make sure it does not go wrong again.
What is to Follow
To begin to get answers to those questions, we must momentarily set aside the number crunching and return to the report and recommendations of the National Review Board. The NRB has given the bishops a potentially historic opportunity to address problems that have, since long before the sex abuse scandal, undermined confidence in their leadership. The sex abuse crisis brought out into the open for all to see the problems that have created what the NRB calls the “Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” I attended the news conferences of February 27 and a reporter asked me whether that moment was a period or a comma or a semicolon in the story of Catholicism in America. If it is to be described in terms of a punctuation mark, I responded, I very much hope it is a colon. In other words, the great question is what follows from this moment in our Long Lent.
A bishop tells me that I’m wrong to worry that the episcopal conference will simply bury the NRB report. “It will be on the agenda for our June meeting,” he tells me. “We will warmly thank the review board for its hard work, and maybe spend an hour or more in three-minute interventions on their report before moving on to the next item on the agenda. Only then will the NRB report be buried in the archives.” He adds that a committee will no doubt be assigned the responsibility of studying the document further and bringing back its report in a year or two, by which time the agenda will be crowded with other matters clamoring for attention. The bishop smiled as he said this, but it was a wan smile, reflecting long experience with the ways of the USCCB and its bureaucracy. We must pray that he is wrong about the probable fate of the NRB report. There is reason to believe that he may be wrong. There is, for example, a serious move by some bishops to have the June meeting consider a proposal for convening something like an extraordinary synod of American bishops. Such an unprecedented synod could be the instrument for moving the bishops from the mode of public relations and institutional defensiveness toward the conversion called for by this Long Lent. A good start would be for the bishops to make the NRB report their own. It is not unreasonable to hope that such a decisive step could be the beginning of the Catholic Reform.
To be continued next month.
Believing in Evolution
The angry dogmatism of its defenders such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett suggests that Darwinism as a comprehensive explanatory system is on the ropes. That doesn’t mean that the arguments will not go on and on. They will. There is too much at stake. The arguments are not, finally, over scientific evidence in fields such as evolutionary biology. They are about the nature of reality and our place in it. Dawkins declares that Darwinism makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, and intellectual fulfillment, for an intellectual, is something like salvation. A good place to catch up on the state of the arguments to date is Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, edited by William A. Dembski (ISI, 350 pages, $18). Dembski has appeared in these pages and, along with Michael J. Behe, is credited (or blamed) for launching a school of thought that goes by the name of Intelligent Design.
In addition to Dembski and Behe, the book includes thirteen essays by a variety of scientists and philosophers who have been led to a position of skepticism toward, or outright rejection of, Darwinism. Of very particular interest is the essay “The Deniable Darwin” by mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski, which first appeared in Commentary. Berlinski offers a tour de force that is, variously, relentless in its logic, devastating in its studied understatement, and delightfully whimsical in exposing the incoherence of opposing arguments while never, unlike some of his opponents, being vicious. His essay and response to critics will come to be, I expect, a classic text in these debates.
Berlinski is assiduous in distancing himself from “creationists” or arguments claiming that manifest design logically requires a Designer. He contents himself with making the case that Darwinism is riddled with internal contradictions and simply does not explain what it claims to explain. While the more dogmatic proponents of Darwinist orthodoxy circle the wagons and fire imprecations at any and all who question the true faith, Berlinski does not accuse them of engaging in a conspiracy. “No conspiracy is required to explain the attachment of biologists to a doctrine that they find sustaining; all that is required is Freud’s reminder that those in the grip of an illusion never recognize their affliction.” As for the complexity of living systems, Berlinski says he entertains no “supernatural explanations.” “The thing is a mystery, and if there is never to be a naturalistic explanation, I shall forever be content to keep on calling it a mystery.” His purpose is limited to pointing out that Darwin’s naturalistic explanation, turning on random variation and natural selection, is implausible, incoherent, and contrary to a great deal of scientific knowledge. Berlinski is especially effective in showing how Darwinists kick any idea of purpose, design, or teleology out the front door, only to smuggle such ideas in by the back door. Nature “selects” this or that, Nature “chooses,” Nature “targets,” and so forth. This Nature, whether upper or lower case, is a kind of deity in the details, ever invoked and ever denied.
One is sometimes asked whether one “believes in” evolution. More strident Darwinists adamantly insist that it is not a matter of faith; it is not a theory to be accepted or rejected; it is a fact to be acknowledged. But of course that is silly. It is precisely, and Darwin intended it precisely as, a theory to explain how the complexity of living systems came about. And there may be something to it in terms of micro-evolution, in possibly explaining how changes happen within particular species. As for macro-evolution—a general and all-encompassing explanation of how we and all other living things came to be—Darwinism is, in my considered judgment, preposterous. Berlinski is embraced by proponents of Intelligent Design for the persuasiveness and vigor of his arguments but also because he is an agnostic. It is odd but understandable that in our intellectual culture a critic of Darwinism is thought more credible if he is an agnostic or atheist. A scientist who believes in the Creator is suspected of cooking the evidence to support his belief. Whereas one who has made a commitment to agnosticism or, even better, atheism is thought to be neutral. This, too, is nonsense. There are devout and thoughtful Christians who accept Darwinism of one sort or another. The question before us is the evidence and proposed theories to explain the evidence. As the still-dominant theory—typically presented as a comprehensive belief system—Darwinism fails to explain too much that we know and claims to know much too much that we cannot know by reason and scientific evidence. As a belief system it suffers the distinct disability of being unbelievable. Of course there is much more to be said on these matters, and most of it is persuasively said in Uncommon Dissent.
From Common Culture to Culture Wars
It’s a very big subject and one scholar cannot be expected to be on top of every aspect of it. Even if he were, one can only do so much in a little over 300 pages. Given these limitations, Patrick Allitt of Emory University has written a very impressive book, Religion in America Since 1945: A History (Columbia University Press, $30). What has been said about America must also be said about religion in America: It is so vast and various that almost anything said about it is amply supported by the evidence. Unlike too many historians, Allitt understands that the subject of America and the subject of religion in America are not two subjects but one. In this eventful half century—what half century is not eventful?—there was an uneasy peace after World War II, quickly replaced by communism and the Cold War, the extraordinary “religion boom” of the 1950s, the lure of “Eisenhower spirituality” and sundry positive thinkings, the essentially Christian civil rights movement, tumult over Vietnam, Catholicism’s dubious “coming of age” in America, Jewish-Christian dialogue and the curious uses of the Holocaust, feminist theology, the clash over abortion, the emergence of the “new religious right,” environmental piety, megachurches, millennial expectations, and the challenge of homosexuality.
Those and other developments carry Allitt’s story up to September 11 and Ground Zero for America’s understanding of itself and its place in the world. The story is strewn with names from the seemingly distant past and imperious present: Thomas Altizer, Norman Vincent Peale, John Cogley, Cesar Chavez, Otis Charles, Fawn Brodie, Paul Blanshard, Daniel Berrigan, James Forman, Mary Daly, John LaFarge, Charles Colson, and many more. Writing from the perspective of the liberal Protestantism that was once the mainline, Allitt is fair-minded in treating the many religious, cultural, and political changes that have driven that mainline world to something like the sideline. Allitt ends by wondering why, fifty years later, there are no theologians of great public consequence. Of course there are “public intellectuals,” some of whom are explicitly Christian, but he has in mind towering cultural figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich.
The absence of such figures, I would suggest, is not so puzzling. Among many factors are these: the media-assisted suicide of the religious mainline/oldline; the establishment culture’s loss of its defining “other” in Catholicism and fundamentalism; the emergence and astonishing success of Jewish thinkers in the academy and public culture; fundamentalism’s makeover into a perceived political enemy as “the religious right”; the balkanization of a common culture under the force of sundry multiculturalisms and radical pluralisms; the multiplication of information and entertainment sources such as the Internet and hundreds of cable channels.
It is not true that—as some champions of deviant subcultures contend—there is no longer such a thing as an American culture and that there is only a smorgasbord of subcultures. But it is true that deviancy has been defined down, and in some cases out of existence, making the common culture much thinner. There was a time when the center seemed to hold. Everyone was expected to be aware of what was said in Life, Time, and on the “Jack Benny Show,” and it was well known that the World Series of “our national sport” brought us together, even as we good-naturedly rooted for opposing teams. There was something like a civil religion as celebrated in, for instance, the heroic four chaplains (two Protestant, one Catholic, one Jew) who went down with the Dorchester in 1943. This was the America depicted in Will Herberg’s 1955 classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew. The religio-cultural triumvirate was given powerful popular expression in the preaching and writings of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Rabbi Joshua Liebman. All of that was a very long time ago.
I expect that there are today theologians speaking to public questions who might be at least as profound and articulate as were Niebuhr or Tillich. But if Niebuhrs or Tillichs appeared today, what national venues would be available to them? Union Theological Seminary in New York or a conference of the fragmented and declining United Church of Christ? No such figure has emerged from, say, the large and vibrant Southern Baptist Convention, which no doubt has to do with what Mark Noll calls “the scandal of the evangelical mind,” but also with the fact that the dominant media and academic world view the SBC as the cultural and political enemy. The last time a much-diminished Time celebrated a theologian was two years ago, and the theologian was Stanley Hauerwas, the scourge of the common culture that Niebuhr and Tillich sought to serve.
The common culture is now much thinner and, it seems, becoming thinner every day. It has in large part been displaced by what are aptly called the culture wars. There are distinguished religious thinkers who think of themselves as not being captive to the culture wars, who aspire to provide a nonpartisan theological perspective on the American experience. But their more partisan friends and enemies will not let them. Whether it is assigned by friends or enemies, they have a definite place on the battlefront of the culture wars. To the reluctant the question is insistently posed, “Whose side are you on?” They must answer the question, or it will be answered for them. This is not the happiest of circumstances for the public square, or for religion in the public square. But it is where we have come and Patrick Allitt’s Religion in America Since 1945 helps to explain how we came to where we are.
Nobody should want culture wars. As for myself, I am keenly aware that I am viewed as a belligerent, by both friends and enemies, and therefore I undoubtedly am. But my allies and I did not initiate hostilities. We did not, to cite but a few obvious examples, declare an unlimited abortion license, or advocate the deconstruction of Western culture, or champion the replacement of marriage with state-certified friendships. We are playing defense, albeit an aggressive defense, in a reasoned hope of prevailing. Prevailing so to speak, for the wise know that, short of the coming of the Kingdom, history is continuing contention. Much better than culture wars, however, is the idea of democratic engagement that Father John Courtney Murray described as a people “locked in civil argument.” While accepting our part in battles not of our choosing, we must never sacrifice hope for genuine argument within the bond of civility. Please God, the realization of that hope may be the history of the next half century of religion in America.
While We’re At It
• David Horowitz is pressing a proposal that has thrown many academics into a tizzy. He wants universities to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights that will assure, amidst a multitude of other diversities, “intellectual diversity.” Everybody in the academy is fervently devoted to diversity, until you put “intellectual” in front of the word. The eminent and self-described sophist Stanley Fish does not like the Horowitz proposal one little bit. It is, he says, a “Trojan horse of a dark design” to infiltrate conservatives into positions of academic influence. On campuses, says Fish, the culture wars are being won by those who promote women’s studies, Latino studies, African-American studies, postmodern studies, gay-lesbian-transgender studies, and the like. But their critics have won the war of public opinion, convincing Americans that “our colleges and universities are hotbeds (what is a ‘hotbed’ anyway?) of radicalism and pedagogical irresponsibility where dollars are wasted, nonsense is propagated, students are indoctrinated, religion is disrespected, and patriotism is scorned.” Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, Fish declares, would inaugurate the oppressive rule of ideological “balance” when the only purpose of a university is “to seek the truth.” It is hard to know what to make of Fish’s protest. In other writings, he is scornfully dismissive of the idea that there is such a thing as “the truth.” Maybe it is just that Fish likes the academy’s domination by insouciant nihilisms and doesn’t want to see that challenged. Of course Horowitz is a conservative and would like to see more people in the academy challenging the likes of Fish. His proposal is a very odd Trojan horse, however, since no secret is made of its intent. Stanley Fish, sophist that he is, is never happier than when people say it is hard to know what to make of what he says. As for the meaning of “hotbed,” I trust that Professor Fish is not above resorting to a dictionary where it is defined as “a bed of soil heated by fermenting manure.”
• A release from Fortress Press: “Lathrop and Wengert Reveal Christian Tradition as a Resource for the Modern Church.” The release announces a new book by Lutheran theologians Gordon Lathrop and Timothy Wengert on the “marks” of the true Church. “Revealing” the tradition is a theologically intriguing idea, but suggesting that two millennia of history might be pertinent to Christianity today is downright revolutionary.
• Richard J. Mouw and I have been friends since we were both young and irresponsible. He is now president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California and recently raised a good many hackles with an article in the very leftward magazine Sojourners. The article is adapted from a talk he gave to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization sympathetic to the gay agenda and working to avoid a split in the Presbyterian Church-USA (PCUSA) over sex-related disputes. The experience of Reformed (Calvinist) theology in this country, says Mouw, is one of the orthodox breaking away to form a purer church, followed by further splits in the service of yet greater theological purity. He’s right about that. He’s also right in saying that it’s wrong for some Presbyterians to deride those who dispute the gay agenda as homophobes. “My views on same-sex relations are very traditional,” he writes. “I am convinced that genital intimacy between persons of the same gender is not compatible with God’s creating or redeeming purposes.” He then makes a plea for “sexual humility,” pointing out that nobody is untouched, in desire or deed, by sexual quirks and transgressions. What he wants to happen is “that we take up our arguments about the issues that divide only after we have knelt and laid our individual and collective burdens of sin at the foot of the cross.” That is well put, and when the arguments are taken up again and PCUSA comes to officially teach that genital intimacy between persons of the same gender is compatible with God’s creating and redeeming purposes, and to bless same-sex marriages, and to ordain LGBTs, will Richard Mouw be left kneeling, confessing his sins of homophobia? The confession of sins in general does not answer the question of what are sins in the particular. Because he is a man of integrity, I do not expect that Richard Mouw will submit to a solemn assembly’s approval of what he is convinced is incompatible with God’s purposes. And I very much doubt that he is prepared to make a theological case for sacrificing truth in order to ensure the institutional survival of PCUSA. Then, too, there is a hope against hope: that having knelt at the foot of the cross, a repentant PCUSA may again name sin as sin, apart from which the meaning of forgiveness is made empty. I do not mean to pick on Richard Mouw or PCUSA. It is only that his talk has generated considerable interest. Many others in other denominations find themselves in a similar quandary. Who would have thought only a few decades ago that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the deepest fissures in these communions would appear along the lines of conflicting positions on homosexuality?
• Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School has been named to head the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. It’s a part-time position that will keep her oscillating between Rome and Cambridge. The Boston Globe quotes her colleague at Harvard, Alan Dershowitz: “If a woman could be made pope, she’d be my candidate. She brings to bear all the best of religion and secular thinking. Whenever I get upset about religion, which happens from time to time, I think about Mary Ann Glendon and I remember the virtues of a religious perspective.” Then, because papers must be balanced, the Globe talked to an old reliable from the superannuated left. “But the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian, compared Glendon’s selection to that of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Glendon’s views, he said, are also extreme and out of step with the constituency she is supposed to represent. ‘Catholic women who know her would not see her as one of their own and would not see her as evidence of the Vatican’s commitment to place women in high positions of visibility,’ McBrien said.” It is true that some blacks have presumed to decertify Clarence Thomas as a black man, but at least they are black. Perhaps Father McBrien has canvassed all the Catholic women who know Professor Glendon and has been appointed their spokesperson, but I rather doubt it. Better, I think, for women to speak for themselves, although not about who is and who is not a woman.
• I hear from readers who wonder why there are fewer comments in this space on the distortions, falsehoods, and general inanition of the New York Times. Frankly, it is because the Times is increasingly tedious and I spend less and less time with it. It has long been a liberal paper, of course, but in recent years it has become increasingly strident and unprofessional in its leftwing advocacy. Picking out this item or that for criticism seems unsportsmanlike, like shooting fish in a barrel. One increasingly looks at the Times in the way one looks at the Village Voice or the Nation, just to see what the left is up to. But old habits die hard, and I do look at the Times almost every morning. And from time to time, one comes across something worthy of comment. For instance, a while back there was a long editorial titled “Frank Talk About Abortion.” It is now generally recognized that the pro-abortion advocates are on the defensive, and this had the appearance of an editorial reassessment of the question. It was unusual in that it took up the entire space for editorials. The editors begin with some grave chin-pulling about the “unfortunate consequences” of recent turns in the abortion debate. “Among the most disheartening is the widespread impression that the pro-choice movement does not regard abortion as a serious matter, and that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy require a condescending reminder from Congress to understand that the fetus they are carrying is a potential life.” Hope is sparked by an editorial subtitle, “Finding Common Ground.” Aha, one thinks, at last the pro-abortion forces, who have up to now been unwilling to give an inch, are open to an accommodation. “The wisest line,” the editors write, “is the one laid down by the Supreme Court thirty years ago in Roe v. Wade: Government should have the right to step in only when the fetus has developed fully enough to be able to exist on its own.” So, the Times is ready to support the legal protection of the unborn after the point of viability? Well, not quite. The editorial is occasioned by, and strongly opposed to, the partial birth abortion ban. In other words, the government does not have the right to step in even to protect a healthy baby who is being killed in the very process of leaving the birth canal. The editors’ only other specific proposal in the service of “finding common ground” is that government should promote “effective sex education and easier access to contraception, including over-the-counter availability of the so-called morning-after pill.” Did I, in a triumph of hope over experience, approach this editorial with the thought that maybe the Times would have something to say that did not insult the intelligence of its readers? Yes, I honestly did. Call me naïve, or call me charitable, I really am exceedingly reluctant to give up on the possibility of intelligent public discourse and respectful engagement with opposing arguments. And so, despite all, there may still be occasional references to the Times in this space.
• A lot of people must do this or else those airport bookstores wouldn’t survive. It was going to be a long flight and I took along some heavy-duty reading, but then I spotted The Best American Short Stories of 2003 and decided to give myself a break. Don’t buy it. Inclusivity of the ethnic-gender-racial-sexual kind obviously trumped the storytelling art in the editor’s decisions about what to include. But there is an engaging tale by E. L. Doctorow about a disoriented gal, Karen, who steals somebody else’s baby and then wants to return him to his parents. But how to do it without being charged with some terrible crime? Her boyfriend Lester comes up with the idea that she should go to confession and tell it to the priest, who can then return the baby. “‘Lester,’ she said, ‘I don’t know the right words for confessing.’ ‘It’s OK,’ I said, ‘just go in there and sit down in that box they have. It is somewhere off to the side. You don’t have to be Catholic for them to listen to you. . . . He will listen and never betray your trust that it is just between the two of you. And you don’t have to cross yourself or anything, he will tell you what to do if you put it in the form of asking for his advice. And you will thank him, and you will mean it, and maybe thank God, too, that there are people who are sworn to do this for a living.’” And it all worked out just the way Lester said it would. Leaving one to wonder where Mr. Doctorow gets his ideas about current Catholic practices. Just as likely, the church would be closed, the box long ago discarded, and the best Karen would be able to do is make an appointment through the parish secretary to see Father next Tuesday, by which time both Karen and Lester would be in the slammer. For the rest of the flight, I went back to my heavy-duty reading, a book about vestigial Catholic influences in contemporary literature.
• We have already given favorable notice to Russell Hittinger’s The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (see FT, April 2003), but the review by Graham McAleer of Loyola College in Maryland adds a point or two worth noting. Writing in Pro Ecclesia, McAleer says, “For Hittinger, the American Republic is a ‘polity’ riven by state sanctioned violence against the innocent [i.e. the unborn], which—although Hittinger stops just short of saying it—is Aquinas’ definition of tyranny.” I’m not sure that Hittinger does stop short. See, for instance, his contribution to the “End of Democracy?” symposium in the November 1996 issue of FT. The question is more one of what can and should be done in response to tyranny. McAleer recognizes that a great strength of Hittinger’s approach is that it construes natural law in emphatically theological terms. Almost all Protestants, as well as many Catholics, are put off by natural law theory because it seems to be based on universalizing human capacities to which specifically Christian truth looks like an afterthought. Hittinger is solidly in the corner of John Paul II who, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor and elsewhere, underscores a Christological understanding of natural law that entails the human response of the gift of self. And there is another important factor. McAleer writes: “One reason among many that the Hittinger volume is so good is that he treats natural law as, well, law. And Thomas insists that law requires promulgation. Many overlook this aspect of Thomas’ theory. Whether one takes the John Finnis view that the norms of natural law are akin to something like Platonic forms, or one is willing to grant [as others do] that norms might yet change with evolution, Thomas’ interest in promulgation is lost. All of these writers are going to have some explaining to do if Thomas is right that promulgation is essential to law. Promulgation does not appear essential on their views, and whilst this is not to say that they cannot introduce it, Hittinger has certainly exposed a shortcoming in their views.” Is all this mere quibbling and definition-splitting among natural law theorists? Perhaps so, if the present masters of jurisprudence in the law schools and on the courts are in unchallengeable control. But Russell Hittinger and his natural law colleagues are, at the very least, keeping alive an understanding of the rule of the law that might slow and one day stop the course of lawless tyranny.
• The story is told of a Donegal man who met a country woman walking over the hills with a little boy by her side, holding her hand. As an Irishman would, the man asks her who she is. She replies:”I am the mother of God, and this is Himself; and He’s the boy you’ll all be wanting at the last.” That’s from a reflection by Cahal Cardinal Daly, former Archbishop of Armagh, on the future of Irish Catholicism in a remarkable issue of the Chesterton Review devoted to “Chesterton’s Ireland Then and Now.” The special 300-page issue, which includes a number of Chesterton’s commentaries on Ireland, comes out of a conference held at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and has Chesterton scholars, journalists, and public figures trying to make sense of the apparent dissolution of what was once beyond cavil “Catholic Ireland.” Among the more insightful essays is that of Garrett FitzGerald, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who traces the tumultuous history that resulted in the virtual equation of Ireland and Catholicism, to the severe detriment, as is now becoming evident, of both government and Church. The story is in many respects strikingly similar to the collapse of Catholic Quebec after the “quiet revolution” led by Pierre Trudeau and his colleagues, although, unlike the Irish instance, they were cheered on by priests and bishops who conflated “the spirit” of the Second Vatican Council with a desire for liberation from the Erastian captivity of the Church. “Chesterton’s Ireland Then and Now” also looks to the future with a sometimes bracing and sometimes sagging hope against hope. The Irish still know, it is suggested, that He’s the boy they’ll all be wanting at the last. (The special issue sells for $25, but is free for those who subscribe for $30 per year. Write to the Editor, Rev. Ian Boyd, C.S.B., Seton Hall University, 400 South Orange Ave., South Orange, New Jersey 07079.)
• David Burrell respects the force of the argument supporting Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, and shares Huntington’s appreciation of the religio-cultural sources of conflicts in international affairs. Yet he thinks Huntington must not be allowed the last word. Burrell’s article in Modern Theology, “Thomas Aquinas and Islam,” points to what the author thinks is a more promising form of engagement. “Ours is a very different world from Aquinas’, yet his ability to see the presence of interlocutors from other faiths as a spur to understanding of his own tradition offers us a model which deftly eschews intellectual colonizing, and displays the way in which every living tradition grows by carefully responding to challenges from without. Yet what must animate that approach is a lively confidence in the truth of one’s own tradition, together with the realization that such a truth will continue to outstrip any standing articulation of it. So one seeking the truth of matters revealed will always have something to learn from others; the polar opposite is to need certitude. Yet a proper phenomenology of a living religious faith will be able to identify needs of that sort as obstructions to the internal development of the faith itself, exposed so neatly in Kierkegaard’s ridiculing of anyone intent on ‘defending the faith.’ We have explored in detail the appropriation which Aquinas made of a set of philosophical strategies transmitted to him by an Islamic rendition of a Neoplatonic text, the Liber de causis [Kitab al Khair Mahd], as he sought to articulate the faith assertion—central to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—of a free creator, in properly metaphysical terms as the ‘cause of being.’ The deft way in which he adapts this (already adapted) text of Proclus displays how he executed his calling to show that theologia could be scientia: not by reducing itself, Procrustean-fashion, into Hellenic categories, but by employing them in a way that respects their logical power yet allows them to illuminate, rather than pretend to explain, matters which will resist explanation in simply human terms. No wonder his synthesis of Christian doctrine, once shown to be the intercultural, interfaith achievement it is, has proven to be normative for subsequent generations as well.” To the objection that this vision is more suitable for an academic seminar than the real world of Islamist terrorism against the West, Burrell notes that Aquinas, too, lived in a world besieged by Islam. It is especially in times of war, however just war may be, that we must not let war have the last word.
• Out of the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century came, in the 1940s, the “neo-Evangelicals” who were determined to move from isolation to engagement, winning the culture for Christ. A half century later, the result is an amorphous coalition of “parachurch” movements kept in a state of spiritually adolescent excitements that are exploited by skilled entrepreneurs bent on building their own religious kingdoms. Such is the picture provided by D. G. Hart in Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (Baker). He writes, “The National Association of Evangelicals tried but could not contain the gigantic puddle that evangelicalism had become—a mile wide and, depending on the consistency, maybe even less than an inch deep. Unfortunately for Evangelicals, scholars and church leaders continued to be impressed by the breadth of the lake but seemingly unconcerned about the movement’s formlessness and shallowness. But if evangelicalism is going to mean anything more than liking Billy Graham, someone or something needs to channel the seepage into a culvert with adequate depth and firm banks.” That culvert, Hart contends, is provided by the historic denominations that have a churchly tradition of theology, liturgy, and moral reflection. Hart addresses himself to scholars of American religion, urging them to give up their obsession with evangelicalism’s fervors and return to giving serious attention to the traditions that anchor American religion, the traditions on which evangelicalism is largely parasitic. Although as a conservative Christian of the Calvinist persuasion, Hart would ordinarily be called an Evangelical, he argues that the term has long since outlived its usefulness. Deconstructing Evangelicalism is a lively polemic peppered with both humor and irascibility. It is a superior contribution to a rapidly growing literature by Evangelicals on evangelicalism’s grave ecclesiological deficit. In 1992, Charles Colson published The Body (recently updated as Being the Body), and since then there has been no end of evangelical books pointing out that Jesus established not a coalition of spiritual enthusiasms but a Church. D. G. Hart’s is a distinctively Reformed contribution to a debate that is still just getting underway.
• It is no surprise coming from Christopher Hitchens, but that it is published on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal is noteworthy. Of course a conservative paper, precisely because it is intelligently conservative, wants to engage opposing arguments. But Hitchens’ article, “The Married State,” has no argument whatsoever; it does not even purport to make an argument. He tells us that he has gay friends and knows about gay couples who live in a marriage-like relationship. So Christopher Hitchens wants it understood that he is not a homophobe. The announcement of that hardly seems to warrant valuable space on the Journal’s opinion page. Hitchens does not come right out and say that he favors same-sex marriage. What, then, is the point of the article? The one and only point of the article is that he thinks it speaks in favor of same-sex marriage that the idea really upsets religious believers. It is, he says, “nonsense on stilts to speak of [homosexuality] as an offense to any presumable Creator. . . . I know that our theocratic enemies are, and that our former totalitarian enemies were, ugly and paranoid on the point.” “I like to picture the writhing faces and hoarse yells of the mullahs and fanatics [if America adopts same-sex marriage].” Much as Hitchens relished the discomfiture of her admirers when he wrote a vicious screed against that “sacred cow,” Mother Teresa. So here is the Wall Street Journal giving a big chunk of space to Christopher Hitchens to put on the public record (once again) that he is not a homophobe and that he hates believers in “any presumable Creator.” Perhaps the editors of the Journal simply wanted to display the vicious vacuity of Mr. Hitchens and others who believe that the fact that many Christians support a marriage amendment is a good reason to oppose it.
• That intrepid Rome reporter John Allen recently sat down with Father Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, one of the foremost Vatican experts on East-West affairs. It seems that patience is wearing thin in some quarters. A big sticking point with the Moscow Patriarchate is that it refuses to recognize the millions of Greek Rite Catholics in Ukraine, those who are in communion with Rome. Allen asks whether we are ever going to persuade the Orthodox to change their minds. Taft: “No, and I don’t think we should even try. To hell with Moscow.” Would Fr. Taft care to say what he really thinks? Yes he would: “Basically, there are three groups in the Russian hierarchy. You’ve got a wacko kind of rightwing fringe. These are the ones who agree with calling Rasputin a saint and that kind of garbage. Then you’ve got people like Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, who are open and ecumenical and intelligent, because he’s got an education. Then you’ve got kind of a middle group that’s very conservative but not frothing at the mouth. Kirill’s group is a very small minority. The patriarch is a juggler trying to keep all these balls in the air.” So, Allen asks, Taft is recommending tough love? Taft: “Absolutely. That was one of the problems of the Secretariat of Christian Unity [in the past]. When the Orthodox would say something outrageous, the Vatican would make remonstrances privately, but never in public. You can’t do it that way. That makes them think they’re getting away with it. It’s got to be front page, in your face.” According to reliable sources, Fr. Taft is not looking for another job. I expect there are those in Rome who are glad that somebody said out loud what they have been thinking for some time.
• It is an interesting question, how or how much do you edit letters to the editor. Except for obvious typos, we tend to take a hands-off approach, but we do not print gross errors of fact. Apparently they have a different policy at the Wall Street Journal. Writing in opposition to an op-ed article by Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard that warned against judicial activism in imposing same-sex marriage, Evan Siegel of Evanston, Illinois, asks, “Does she believe the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education lacked legitimacy because it was decided by a mere 5–4 majority?” A telling point, except that, as any high school student should know, the Brown decision of 1954 was unanimous. I am undecided about whether it is more troubling that Journal editors did not know that or knew it and still printed Mr. Siegel’s false statement. There is also the possibility that they know the decision was unanimous, they assume their readers know it as well, and they simply wanted to show how ill-informed are the critics of Professor Glendon. Except that Mr. Siegel is a reader and it seems just possible that there are many others like him. In any event, it would definitely not be nice to publish letters in order to display the ignorance of their writers. Fortunately, given our readership, we seldom have to deal with such questions.
• I would guess that most people don’t think much, and don’t want to think much, about homosexuals, what they do in bed, and how they live. This is possibly offensive to gays who want to be thought about, noticed, and, as it is said, taken seriously. Most people want the same. A complication is that heterosexuals do not want to be viewed as knowing much about homosexuality, lest their too-much-knowing be deemed suspect. “You know so much about gays and their lifestyle.” Followed by an unspoken, “What is it with you?” This leaves people who are opposed to, say, gay marriage at a distinct disadvantage, having conceded that gays are the experts on all things related to homosexuality. Enter Getting It Straight: What the Research Shows about Homosexuality, recently published by the Family Research Council. The special usefulness of this 144-page book is that it confines itself to what the experts say, citing, usually without comment, the pertinent texts from the most prestigious academic journals on the causes of homosexuality, practices of the gay world, health risks attending those practices, children raised by homosexuals, and the link between homosexuality and the sex abuse of minors. As debates about homosexuality heat up—in the public square and over the kitchen table—readers may want to have this valuable book at hand. It is available, for a five dollar contribution, from the Family Research Council, 801 G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.
• Not to worry about all those people who say they believe in Jesus. Adam Kirsch, writing in the New York Sun, reviews Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America: A History. Says Mr. Kirsch, “If the omnipresence of Jesus in our ostensibly secular country is troubling, his malleability is reassuring: Americans seem less eager to do Jesus’ bidding than to have him do theirs.” Oh well, that’s all right then.
• A San Francisco rabbi says that same-sex marriage is consistent with “Jewish history in a way that is radical and yet also very traditional.” Don’t ask, he can’t tell. The influential Israeli journalist Hillel Halkin is not amused at the way in which American Jews are rallying to the cause of same-sex marriage. Of Israelis, he writes, “It makes about as much sense to them to say that homosexuals should be granted marriage licenses in the name of human equality as it would make sense to say that it is discriminatory to withhold driver’s licenses from people who can’t drive.” The result is a great and growing “Jewish Divide” between Israeli and American Jews. Israelis see the Bush administration “as the most sympathetic to them ever to hold power in Washington, while American Jews view it as a menace to liberal social values.” In taking the wrong side in an American Kulturkampf, says Halkin, “American Jews seem already to have crossed the Rubicon.”
• Just as Germans have been congratulating themselves upon at last becoming a “normal” society, there was that unsettling incident of the fellow who advertised for men who wanted to have sex, after which it was understood that they would be killed and eaten. He had over a period of weeks consumed forty pounds of one volunteer before he was arrested. According to his testimony, they had together enjoyed an appetizer of his guest’s sliced and sautéed penis before he did him in. The courts were in something of a quandary about the charges to be brought since it was, after all, consensual. He was finally sentenced to five years and will actually spend some time in jail. “There are standards that must be upheld,” said a prosecutor. Meanwhile, in Frankfurt, Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ dead body museum continues to be enormously popular. He artistically exhibits human cadavers, whole and artfully arranged in cross sections. In February, however, there was a public flap when it was charged that some of his cadavers were purchased from China and had holes in the back of their skulls. In China, the condemned are forced to kneel and are then dispatched with a bullet in the back of the head. In response to the charges, Dr. Hagens said, “The likelihood is very slim, but I cannot rule it out. After all, it is possible that you have a corpse in your cellar and do not know it.” On a happier note, he says that at first he worried that the charges might hurt attendance at his lucrative museum. “Some people might say, ‘That’s a scandal,’ but in the long run it won’t matter.” According to the newspaper account, “On a recent afternoon, visitors seemed so distracted by the cadavers—sliced, diced, some clutching their internal organs in their hands—that no one bothered to ask where the bodies had come from.” We are a wonderfully resilient species. In the long run, you can count on people to get used to anything.
• As a folksinger once sang, “How many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult?” Well, that’s not exactly the line from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but it gets the job done and avoids offending the excruciatingly sensitive. A couple of years ago, the New York State Education Department became a laughingstock when it was revealed they had bowdlerized even classics such as Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, and Walt Whitman to remove potentially offensive words from textbooks. Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University, investigated and found out that the censors had a definite policy: “We may not always understand why a certain word hurts. We don’t have to. It is enough that someone says, ‘That language doesn’t respect me.’ That is, if any word or phrase is likely to give offense, no matter how far-fetched, it should be deleted.” Among excisions are any reference to a person’s age, ancestry, disability, ethnicity, nationality, physical appearance, race, religion, sex, or sexual proclivities. Also to be replaced: “grandfather clause,” “ghetto,” “alumna,” “alumni,” “alumnus,” “white collar,” “blue collar,” “pink collar,” “teenager,” “senior citizen,” “underprivileged,” “unmarried,” “widow,” “widower,” and, of course, “man.” One oddity here is that some of those terms, such as “underprivileged” and “senior citizen,” not so long ago entered the language in order to avoid hurting the feelings of, in these instances, the poor and old. But it gets even odder, as explained by Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police: “Thus the great irony of bias and sensitivity reviewing. It began with the hope of encouraging diversity, ensuring that our educational materials would include people of different experiences and social backgrounds. It has evolved into a bureaucratic system that removes all evidence of diversity and reduces everyone to interchangeable beings whose differences we must not learn about—making nonsense of literature and history along the way.”
• I am somewhat surprised by how many readers expressed surprise, and puzzlement, over my statement in the February issue that Christians and Jews and, mutatis mutandis, Muslims worship the same God. Think about it this way: Christians know that the God of Israel—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit definitively revealed in the first century Jew, Jesus the Christ. Although Christian tradition interprets the Old Testament by a trinitarian hermeneutic, we do not claim that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others in the Old Testament understood God as He is depicted in, for instance, the Nicene Creed. Does this mean they were worshiping another God? Of course not. Was the God of Abraham and Moses the God whom we worship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Of course. Or is it that, as one reader argues, Jews who rejected the self-revelation of God in Jesus the Christ were no longer worshiping the God of Israel? That can hardly be squared with the New Testament evidence, especially Romans 9-11. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have a fundamental disagreement about the nature and actions of God. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jews deny the second part of that statement. Muslims say Jesus was a prophet but was superseded by the revelation given to Mohammed. But Christians, Jews, and Muslims agree that the God we are disagreeing about is the God of Abraham who spoke to our fathers by the prophets. Christians hold that Jews and Muslims are not worshiping God rightly—as the Father who revealed Himself in the Son and is understood by the guidance of the Spirit in Christ’s body the Church. That Christian claim will, we believe, one day be vindicated when, as St. Paul says, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2). I hope these comments help clarify what it means to say that, despite all, we worship the same God.
• Two new books on the abortion wars. Bearing Right by William Saletan of Slate argues that “conservatives” are winning, having blocked government funding for abortions and the freedom of teenagers to procure abortions without parental consent. Gary Rosen of Commentary points out, however, that the 70 percent supporting parental consent and 60 percent opposing government funding are a much higher portion of the population than either votes or identifies itself as conservative. The abortion movement is frustrated by a supermajority of the American people. The second book, Beyond Choice by Alexander Sanger, grandson of population-control champion Margaret Sanger, contends that the rallying cry of “pro-choice” should be replaced with “reproductive success,” affirming abortion not as a “necessary evil” but a positive good. He allows that abortion kills human life, but this should be seen as a necessary good so that wanted human lives can better flourish. Mr. Rosen asks, “Can Sanger really believe that public opinion would shift his way if only abortion were repackaged as a Darwinian survival strategy?” Not likely, answers Mr. Rosen. The book “seems intended to sway not average citizens but activists, opinion-makers, and—most of all—judges and law professors.” Since when have average citizens had a say in decisions about the legal protection of the unborn?
• Muslims frequently complain that their critics do not take the trouble to understand them. David Twersky reviews Gabriel Schoenfeld’s new book, The Return of Anti-Semitism, in the New York Sun, and commends the author for recognizing the problem of “a rising tide of Muslems emigrating to the West.” “Muslem” appears four times in the review. Whether the fault is with Mr. Twersky or an editor, Muslims might justly complain that their critics should at least learn to spell their name right.
• Jesus prays for his disciples “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The teaching of the Catholic Church, as insistently reiterated by John Paul II, is that she is “irrevocably” committed to the visible unity of all Christians in full eucharistic communion. I have written extensively about this commitment in these pages and elsewhere, and in a three-page blast the New Oxford Review attacks what I work and pray for as a “pipedream Church.” “We fail to see the possibility, or even the desirability, of this,” writes the editor. Ecumenism is a mirage and a shell game. As for non-Catholics, “There’s no hope for orthodox Christians stranded in these denominations other than to return to Rome. There’s no point in offering them a hallucinatory Church that will never be. . . . There will never be a one-world Church. The Catholic Church is, as ever, the closest thing to Christian unity we’ll ever see.” As for all Christians being one, the editor implicitly suggests that Jesus will just have to get over his “liberal utopian ecclesiology.” As I and others have frequently noted, the full unity of all Christians may be an eschatological concept. It is God’s work in which we can only trustingly participate. Certainly none of us can see the way to overcome the many obstacles to unity. It may require, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has said, a new outpouring of the Spirit opening possibilities that do not now exist. But NOR’s repudiation of the goal of full communion among all Christians is both a striking rejection of magisterial teaching and an act of breathtaking presumption in answering the prayer of Our Lord in the negative. Of course, the prayer of Jesus is addressed not to NOR but to the Father, so the former’s answer may be taken as less than decisive.
• Two months ago I defended the inclusion of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in the Alliance for Marriage (AFM), a broad coalition of organizations working to protect the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The Islamic Society has since voluntarily withdrawn from AFM, lest the controversy generated by its participation become a distraction from the coalition’s task. There is still Muslim participation, but it is mainly of the black American variety. I understand ISNA’s decision, but I am inclined to regret it. There are now many Muslims from the Middle East living in this country. The low estimate is one million. Most of them are citizens or want to become citizens, and it is in our interest and theirs to cultivate their participation in our common life. As I said in the March issue, there may be only a few degrees of separation between most Muslim organizations and those that promote Islamist terrorism. Our purpose should be to increase the degrees of separation, and ISNA’s part in AFM might have done that. There will be other opportunities.
• Archbishop Raymond Burke was installed in St. Louis with the usual ritual splendors and courtesies. In his homily he said again what he had said to considerable effect in his former diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, that Catholics who knowingly, publicly, and persistently defy the Church’s teaching on abortion and related questions should not present themselves for Communion. Bishop G. Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Church was there and afterwards told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Burke really tried to persuade people with his moral teaching but he will find that Missourians don’t take kindly to being told what to think and what to do.” Imagine that, a bishop who thinks his job is to teach people what to think and do. It does pique one’s curiosity about Bishop Smith’s understanding of his own job. On second thought, it may not be so different from what many Catholic bishops think their job is.
• It is no little thing when one Sunday’s church bulletin can reflect the innumerable wonders of renewal. A friend picked up the other day the bulletin of St. Francis Xavier Church, which is around the corner on West 16th Street. It includes the parish mission statement: “We, the Church of St. Francis Xavier, are a prophetic Roman Catholic community. . . .” Not any old Roman Catholic Church, mind you, but a community, and a prophetic one at that. It goes on to say that “Jesus Christ is recognized as Companion in our journey and made present by. . . .” Then follow all the wonderful things the community is and does to make its Companion present. I used to dislike the old language about the priest “confecting” the presence of Christ in the Mass. In English, the word puts the focus on what the priest is doing rather than on what Christ is doing. But that is nothing compared to the amazing people of St. Francis Xavier who confect the presence of the Companion by being their own deliriously wonderful selves—”we commit ourselves to the spirit of inclusion and collaboration,” “[we are] a community where injustice in all its forms is challenged, where the alienated and the marginalized find a home,” and so forth. True, it is all about them, but then they really are very, very good people. They are even, it appears, bringing about the Second Coming. The mission statement concludes: “Standing together as a people of hope, we seek to realize the Reign of God.” Forget what the Companion said about nobody knowing the day or the hour. The days and hours are clearly posted at St. Francis Xavier. On the second Friday of the month is the meeting of “Catholic Lesbians.” “Gay and Lesbian Catholics” is scheduled for the first and third Fridays. (I suppose one has to go to the meetings to discover the difference between Catholic Lesbians and Lesbian Catholics.) For some reason no time is specified for “Love Makes a Family,” a support group for gays and lesbians “dealing with family issues.” But the first and third Wednesdays are for “Young Adult Gays and Lesbians.” (Young being defined as 21-35, which seems somewhat discriminatory. Are the Jesuits at St. Francis neglecting teenagers?) The bulletin contains a reflection on the Companion’s Sermon on the Mount, titled “Grace is Energizing.” The conclusion: “‘Be who you are,’ Jesus is saying. ‘Be the person you are created to be.’ ‘Be fully yourself. . . . Don’t give away this power to be yourself, don’t deny my grace to you. Instead, come home to yourselves.’ It was quite a sermon, wasn’t it?’” Right. No wonder they crucified him. Telling people how simply wonderful they are is not easy, but a prophetic community is marked by the courage to pander. There is also Bible study at St. Francis Xavier. A series is announced on the creation accounts in Genesis where people will be “discovering surprises and deep wisdom along the way.” “For instance, did you know that the phrase describing Eve as Adam’s ‘helpmate’ can more accurately be translated as ‘someone to guide as his leader.’” No, I didn’t know that, but then I studied Hebrew the old fashioned way. At St. Francis Xavier it’s different: “We’ll read the scriptural narrative in English and in the original Hebrew—no previous experience necessary!” That way there are a lot more surprises along the way.
• Some might think we have expended our share of ink on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and at this point it seems that everything to be said about the film has been said. But, as I anticipated many months ago, this is much more than a film. The film and the responses to it are something of a cultural epiphany, and what we have learned is both heartening and depressing. I have a huge file of clippings on the subject and am ruminating on what needs saying. Surely not another fifty reasons on why it is not anti-Semitic or on the difference between unspeakable brutality and egregious violence. The difference between reactions by Christian liberals and Christian conservatives needs closer examination, as also the difference between evangelical Protestant and Catholic responses. And why is it that so many think Pontius Pilate is treated sympathetically, rather than as a craven coward who killed an innocent man to save his own skin? This seems obvious: The most important difference between those who hate and those who love the film is whether they do or do not believe that they are watching a depiction of the suffering and death of their Lord and Savior. But more on all this next month, along with an insightful reflection on these questions by Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek. Meanwhile, I know I’ll be going to see at least one more time The Passion of the Christ.
• When David B. Hart is on a roll, there is no stopping him. In the March issue of The New Criterion he offers an extended and scintillating overview of contemporary religion, culture, and civilization in America. (On the last he doesn’t have much to say because he doesn’t think there is much of it.) Most of the analysis will be familiar to our readers from what he and others have written in these pages. As you might expect, I’m in substantial agreement with the assessment he provides, although I think he exaggerates the importance of the “charismatic” in the present and future vitality of Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. I have frequently cautioned against the propensity of some conservatives, especially Evangelicals, to claim that ours is a post-Christian society. That is, I contend, an easy out from engaging the tasks that are ours in an incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian America. Hart sets out another consideration to which we should attend: “For, if we succumb to post-Christian modernity, and the limits of its vision, what then? Most of us will surrender to a passive decay of will and aspiration, perhaps, find fewer reasons to resist as government insinuates itself into the little liberties of the family, continue to seek out hitherto unsuspected insensitivities to denounce and prejudices to extirpate, allow morality to give way to sentimentality; the impetuous among us will attempt to enjoy Balzac, or take up herb gardening, or discover ‘issues’; a few dilettantish amoralists will ascertain that everything is permitted and dabble in bestiality or cannibalism; the rest of us will mostly watch television; crime rates will rise more steeply and birthrates fall more precipitously; being the ‘last men,’ we shall think ourselves at the end of history; an occasional sense of the pointlessness of it all will induce in us a certain morose feeling of impotence (but what can one do?); and, in short, we shall become Europeans (but without the vestiges of the old civilization ranged about us to soothe our despondency).” Hart acknowledges that he is not original in observing that “the vestigial Christianity of the old world presents one with the pathetic spectacle of shape without energy, while the quite robust Christianity of the new world often presents one with the disturbing spectacle of energy without shape.” It is reasonable to believe that a more churchly and culture-forming shape of Christianity may be in process through efforts such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and new Christian initiatives in philosophy, literature, and the arts. There are, to be sure, formidable obstacles but, if we resist the temptation to resign ourselves to ours being a post-Christian society, such initiatives could bear impressive fruit in the short term of the next hundred years or so. And in the long term, who knows what might happen?
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David Horowitz and Stanley Fish, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2004. Richard J. Mouw on Presbyterians and the gay agenda, Sojourners, February 2004. Mary Ann Glendon’s appointment to head the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Boston Globe, March 10, 2004. Editorial on abortion, New York Times, November 30, 2003. Graham McAleer on Russell Hittinger, Pro Ecclesia, Winter 2004. David Burrell on Thomas Aquinas and Islam, Modern Theology, January 2004. Christopher Hitchens’ editorial on same-sex marriage, Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2004. Fr. Robert Taft on the Orthodox faith, Word from Rome, National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004. Error-ridden letter to the editor critical of Mary Ann Glendon’s defense of marriage, Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2004. Adam Kirsh on Jesus in America, New York Sun, March 3, 2004. San Francisco rabbi and Hillel Halkin on same-sex marriage, New York Sun, March 3, 2004. Cannibals and cadavers in Germany, “Frankfurt Journal; A New Spine-Tingler from the Impresario of Cadavers,” New York Times, February 2004. Making language inoffensive, Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2004. Conservatives winning on abortion, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2004. “Muslems,” New York Sun, February 23, 2004. Archbishop Raymond Burke rebukes scandalous politicians, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 26, 2004. Gays and Lesbians of St. Francis Xavier Church (New York City), church bulletin, Sunday February 15, 2004. David Hart’s piece on religion in America, New Criterion, March 2004.