The Public Square
I don’t know what to call this. It is certainly not, in any ordinary sense of the word, a review of Robert Louis Wilken’s new book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press, 368 pages,, $29.95). A reviewer is supposed to have a measure of critical distance from the author and book under discussion, and I am anything but distanced from Wilken. Apart from my family, he is my friend of longest standing. We go back to college days in Austin, Texas, we went through seminary together in St. Louis, and we have been in unbroken conversation ever since. To complicate matters further, the book is dedicated to our friendship. So don’t expect from me what is usually meant by objectivity in the reviewing business. This is in part the discharging of a debt, or, better, call it an appreciation. And I take it as an occasion to reflect on the indispensable part that friendship plays in one’s personal and intellectual formation. As it happens, that theme is also close to the argument of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.
From time to time it is suggested to me—and not always, I think, in the way of flattery—that I should write my memoirs or even a full-scale autobiography. Perhaps some day I will, although I rather doubt it. Were I ever to do so, it would be in very large part the story of my gratitude for the people who have shaped my mind and way of being in the world. So herewith, before I return to Robert Louis Wilken, some rough notes in lieu of the memoirs that will likely never be written. I limit myself to intellectuals and writers, recognizing that the influence of innumerable other friends, also intellectually, would require a large book. Those mentioned are people without whose influence I would not think the way I think or live the way I live. They are my teachers, people to whom I intellectually surrendered myself, which is the only way to learn. Each left an indelible mark. With some I am now in decided disagreement. To others I regularly return to learn more, or to relearn what I had forgotten.
In compiling this list, I soon realized it was getting impossibly long. Rigorously, and reluctantly, I pruned and then pruned again. The final criterion was this: these are the thinkers who are essential to the telling of my life’s story. The omission of any would result in missing an influence without which I could not understand myself. Others might have been included; those included could not have been excluded. And a final caveat: we will not know the whole of the who and what in the formation of what we think we know until we know even as we are known, which is not yet.
I am not entirely satisfied with my list. After all, one could go through one’s personalized version of the Great Books or of Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said” and be compelled to acknowledge that, in ways not always obvious, one would be a different person if he had never read, for instance, Plato, Descartes, or Alasdair MacIntyre. But I mean to limit myself to powerfully felt influences, to intensely personal engagements (whether or not I knew the thinker personally), to encounters that were “aha experiences” of an acutely conscious and continuing nature. I mention first thinkers whom I did not know personally, and then those whom I did, some of whom are still alive and still dear friends. I leave off the list biblical writers, only noting for the record that the four evangelists, along with Paul, the prophets, and the writers of the psalms—probably in that order, and as is probably the case for most Christians—are formative beyond any possible comparison.
So here we go. The names are not necessarily in order of importance. Each deserves an essay or more, but I offer only a sentence or two, which does no more than gesture at the nature of the influence. My list and what I say about each is, I readily acknowledge, not always terribly original, but it is mine. And then I will get back to Robert Louis Wilken.
St. Augustine: The master teacher of thinking faith and faithful thinking. St. Thomas Aquinas: Uncompromising champion of bringing all knowledge into obedience to Christ. Almost, from time to time, I am disposed to call myself a Thomist. Martin Luther: Possessed prophet of the utter gratuitousness of salvation. John Henry Newman: How we know what we know that we dare to trust. Josef Pieper: The wisdom of Thomas distilled and illuminated by life as lived. Samuel Johnson: The courage to see and say the obvious. Friedrich Schleiermacher: The brilliant but finally wrongheaded freedom of thought disengaged from authority. Émile Durkheim: Society as the bearer of mystery. William James: The futility of denying transcendence. Michael Polanyi: The impossibility of the autonomous and systematically skeptical mind. Hans Urs von Balthasar: Intellectual and spiritual genius at play in the fields of the Lord. Feodor Dostoevsky: The prophet of the fiery word pitted against the fiery sword that blocks the way to Eden. Søren Kierkegaard: The contriver of introspective knots from which we are freed by truth not our own. John Courtney Murray: The Catholic Thing made critically at home in America. Louis Bouyer: Faith lived as liturgy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Relentlessly probing what it means to follow Him. Flannery O’Connor: Vocation discovered in the grace of being limited. G. K. Chesterton: Unbounded gratitude in the wonder of what is.
Then there are those whom I have been blessed to know personally, in some cases casually but in most over years and in the conversation of friendship. Arthur Carl Piepkorn: There is no gospel apart from the Church. More pointedly, the Church is integral to the gospel. Wolfhart Pannenberg: Christian knight of Enlightenment rationality besting Enlightenment rationality at its own game. Abraham Joshua Heschel: He opened the Torah to reveal to me, but not to him, the Christ. Peter L. Berger: The sociology of thinking. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Pressing politics as the art of what might be possible. Reinhold Niebuhr: Uncompromising analyst of a grim world qualified by grace. Paul Ramsey: Happy contrarian captive to thinking clearly about doing the right thing. Karol Wojtyla: All truth is personal, and in the Truth, the person of Christ, we are revealed to ourselves. Avery Dulles: A magisterial command of the tradition making him a contemporary touchstone of reflective orthodoxy.
So there you have it, the short list; rough notes for the intellectual memoirs that will likely never be written. The list is eclectic, no doubt, and the less charitable might call it a hodgepodge. But then, life is eclectic and something of a hodgepodge. There are other thinkers, and especially individual books, that have turned around my thinking on this or that subject of consequence. Other contemporaries might have been included, but neither they nor I think of themselves as my teachers, and there are simply too many of them. I am also conscious of short-changing literary figures—novelists, dramatists, poets. Composers, too. The above canon of influentials is heavy on theology and philosophy, also on moral philosophy. But then, so am I. So I let the list, with its no doubt too allusive explanatory tags, stand as it is for the time being. Everything is for the time being.
The Strange New World of the Fathers
It goes without saying that Robert Louis Wilken—he started using the “Louis” after he became a Catholic, in honor of the thirteenth-century king of France, patron of his native city of New Orleans—would be on the list were it expanded only slightly. Wilken is not my teacher in the usual meaning of the word, but he is a friend who has taught me much. It is said of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth that he opened for many “the strange new world of the Bible.” Wilken has opened for many the strange new world of the Church Fathers. He taught patristics for years at Catholic institutions, notably at the University of Notre Dame, and since 1985 has been William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.
There is a discernible trajectory of development over the years in his many books and articles (some of the latter appearing in these pages). The new book prompted me to go back and look at The Myth of Christian Beginnings (1971). The thesis there is that there was for the Christian movement no biblical Golden Age from which subsequent history is a declension or by which subsequent history is to be judged. With specific reference to the patristic era, the argument is that the movement, also doctrinally, is one of development pointing toward an eschatological denouement. The eschatological accent was attributable in significant part to the influence of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Thirty years later, Wilken has not retracted that thesis, nor does he suggest that the biblical or patristic era was a Golden Age after all, but he is inclined to contend that the early Fathers got “the Christian intellectual tradition” (a favored phrase) right, and that that tradition is inseparably tied to the interpretation of the Bible. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought does not suggest that the patristic era represents the whole of the tradition. Not by a long shot. But it is a notably energetic, imaginative, and faithful part of the tradition to which Wilken has devoted a life of study. The conclusion of the book puts it nicely:
The intellectual tradition that began in the early Church was enriched by the philosophical breadth and exactitude of medieval thought. Each period in Christian history makes its own unique contribution to Christian life. The Church Fathers, however, set in place a foundation that has proven to be irreplaceable. Their writings are more than a stage in the development of Christian thought or an interesting chapter in the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Like an inexhaustible spring, faithful and true, they irrigate the Christian imagination with life-giving water flowing from the biblical and spiritual sources of the faith. They are still our teachers today.
The book fully vindicates that judgment. Although, truth to tell, I expect an essay by Wilken on the “unique contribution” of the modern era to the Christian intellectual tradition would be short and marked by deep ambivalence. An argument at the heart of The Spirit and Wilken’s other writings of recent years is that the thought we call modern is—unlike the Fathers and the classical world of philosophy of which they were part—marked by systematic skepticism and a posture of critical distance in the interpretation of sacred texts. Like the Greeks, the Fathers understood that commitment—as in faith and love—is essential to discerning the truth. Indeed, love is a way of knowing. In this connection and others, Wilken decisively rejects the powerfully influential complaint of Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) that the Fathers were guilty of “Hellenizing” Christian thought. The Fathers’ appropriation of Greek philosophy, and their success in bringing it into obedience to the history of Israel and its Christ is, according to Wilken, precisely their genius and their glory.
Whether in understanding the Greeks or in interpreting the Bible, the serious interpreter must give himself to the author. On this Wilken effectively cites T. S. Eliot: “You don’t really criticize any author to whom you have never surrendered yourself. . . . You have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery.” But is it possible for a modern to so surrender himself, to entrust himself to love as a way of knowing? Does that not inevitably end up in a form of fideism? Although the above-mentioned Michael Polanyi is not named in the book, Wilken’s answer, at least implicitly, is very much like Polanyi’s proposal for a “post-critical philosophy.” Also unmentioned, but very much between the lines, is Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the “second naiveté” that is on the far side of systematic skepticism.
Wilken does invoke in his opening pages the words of Augustine: “No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable. Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought. Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.” Wilken, however, does not understand himself to be writing a systematic treatise on the relationship between faith and reason. “Although I deal with ideas and arguments, I am convinced that the study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas.” And, he might have added, not only early Christian thought. Christianity is about history, about what happened and is happening, about a way of life constructed by such events remembered, related, and reenacted. Christianity is a Church, a community, indeed a culture, created by truth discerned through commitment, which is to say by faith. Christianity is, as Wilken repeatedly says, the res, the things—especially the sacramental, devotional, moral, and intellectual things—that constitute The Christian Thing. We must give ourselves to the res. Critical distancing, and especially irony, are, in relation to the things of God, blasphemy.
The distinguished church historian Jaroslav Pelikan says of the book: “By turns scholarly, contemplative, and argumentative, this is an exposition in which the early Christian writers speak for themselves—and to us.” I don’t want to overinterpret a book blurb, but Pelikan’s use of the word “argumentative” is insightful. Although Wilken has been heaped with academic honors over the years, I have long thought he is not sufficiently appreciated by contemporary Christian thinkers. One reason for that, I expect, is that readers do not see the arguments he is making in the stories that he tells. Wilken is a stranger to polemic or pointed attack. His style is understated; absent are the fireworks of intellectual showmanship. He writes in a manner that is disarmingly, and sometimes deceptively, simple. The tone is invitational, as though he is saying, “Come and see. Let me show you a way of being Christian and thinking Christianly that is richer, more imaginative, more convincing, more faithful than the way in which most of us are Christian today.”
And so it is that, if anybody ever bothers to write about my life and thought, he will have to write about the people named above, and he will have to write about Robert Louis Wilken. Get The Spirit of Early Christian Thought and read it. Read it slowly, letting Wilken take you by the hand to enter into conversation with Augustine, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and others; all of whom got The Christian Thing right. That doesn’t mean that nobody except the early Fathers got it right, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they exhausted the ways of getting it right. It is still and always the case that the truth is discerned and lived against an eschatological horizon. But Wilken loves the Fathers and their way of loving Christ. In asking the reader to come and see, he is, like St. Paul, introducing the great hymn of love that is the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul says, and Robert Louis Wilken says, “Let me show you a more excellent way.” Let him show you a more excellent way.
War in a New Era
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. That appears to be the operative maxim in some quarters where folks have been gleefully burying under an ever-growing mountain of ridicule some of the more reckless opponents of U.S. action in Iraq. Not that there isn’t a great deal to ridicule. Leading up to the invasion and even after its rapid military success, critics were predicting a quagmire, a Somalia-like debacle, a rising of the Arab “street” that would be “a storm from hell,” and, of course, another Vietnam. With reference to civilian casualties, some protestors spoke about a “Middle East holocaust.” None of that happened. In view of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed by Saddam’s murderous regime, the war probably saved innumerable lives. So the critics were abysmally wrong on almost every point. That must be clearly established on the public record.
On the question of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), one of the several justifications offered for military action, all the returns are not yet in. Over the past decade, the Security Council of the UN, supported by the intelligence services of all the major nations, said he had WMDs. Maybe he did destroy them but refused to say so lest he lose face by appearing to buckle under UN demands. Maybe they are still hidden and will yet be found. More troubling, maybe all the intelligence services were wrong. That is troubling not because it raises questions about the liberation of Iraq but because it raises questions about our intelligence capacities in dealing with similar problems in the future.
The aftermath of the Iraqi intervention is a time for all of us to think anew about conventional wisdoms regarding war, peace, and global security. To take but one instance, for decades, ever since the first use of the atom bomb against Japan, it has been a staple in arguments about “just war” that weapons of ever more destructive power have made obsolete the traditional criterion of “proportionality” between a just cause and the cost of vindicating that cause by military means. In his speech announcing victory in Iraq, President Bush made an observation that deserves the careful attention of serious students of the ethics of war and peace.
[We] have witnessed the arrival of a new era. For a hundred years of war, culminating in the nuclear age, military technology was designed and deployed to inflict casualties on an ever-growing scale. In defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war. Yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.
This is indeed a great advance. Without entering into the much-disputed question of whether the World War II obliteration bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki was morally justifiable, everyone can agree that it is a very good thing that the U.S. did not, to use Churchill’s phrase, “bounce the rubble” of Baghdad. Those who predicted hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq should have known better. The strategy made possible by precision weaponry was already on display in the Gulf War of 1991 and in Afghanistan in 2001-02. The claim that modern weaponry has made obsolete the proportionality criterion in evaluating the justice of war should now be permanently retired. It is true that terrorists and rogue nations may possess and use nuclear and biochemical weapons of massive and indiscriminate destruction, but they operate outside of and in defiance of the tradition of just war reflection. Not only in the context of the last hundred years, but in the context of human history, it is a genuinely new thing that “the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.”
This certainly does not make warfare morally unproblematic. Some predicted that even the most discriminate and precise military action in Iraq would trigger the use of biochemical weapons by Saddam, resulting in the death of countless Iraqis and coalition forces. That did not happen, but it was not unreasonable to fear that it might happen. This was among the many calculated risks in which the judgment of those leading the coalition was vindicated, for which we should be deeply grateful. Also morally problematic is the possibility that pinpoint accuracy in warfare may make military action seem too easy. As he has many times before, in the above-mentioned speech President Bush again declared that military action is the “last resort” in addressing threats to the U.S. and world security.
He also said, “Yet all can know, friend and foe alike, that our nation has a mission: we will answer threats to our security and we will defend the peace.” In accomplishing that mission, last resort has never meant the very last thing that can be done in order to avoid conflict. After all, one can always surrender. The “resort” in question refers to available means for countering aggression and securing a more just peace. In view of the changes in technology and strategy, applying the criterion of proportionality may, in some prescribed circumstances, move us toward thinking about military action in terms not of the last resort but of the best resort. If the question is how to achieve a just goal while inflicting minimal damage, especially to innocents, the answer may sometimes be military action. That, too, is not morally unproblematic. But, for both waging war and thinking about war, it is a prospect entailed in understanding that “we have witnessed the arrival of a new era.”
Haeresis as Doctrinal Choice
Thomas Oden is one of the prime movers in the “confessional movement” to reclaim catholic substance for oldline Protestantism. He is also a key participant in the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In his recent book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (HarperSanFrancisco, 212 pages,, $24.95) he strongly affirms the Vincentian canon set forth by Vincent of Lerin (d. circa 450). Oden renders the canon this way: “In the worldwide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”
Roger E. Olson teaches theology at Baylor University, a Baptist institution, and he has his reservations. He writes: “We must remain open to the possibility that the Word of God—not some new revelation or personal opinion—may correct or supplement what the Church has always believed. Otherwise we must condemn Luther, for surely his doctrine of justification (simul justus et peccator) cannot be found within the consensual teaching of the Church before him (at least he did not think so, nor do most contemporary historical theologians). For that matter, can one find Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification in a moment in the consensual tradition? What about the Synod of Dort’s doctrine of limited atonement? Most significant for many evangelicals is that one cannot find believer baptism only (including ‘rebaptism’ of persons already baptized in the triune name as infants) in the consensual tradition as Oden defines it. In fact, Baptists should note, Oden sides with Pope Stephen I against the Donatists in condemning ‘rebaptism’ (a term no group uses for its own practice) and declares, ‘When an unprecedented claim on such an important subject as baptism stands in direct contrast to the previous consensual memory, it has to be rejected promptly and firmly. . . . After Stephen’s prompt response to the practice of rebaptism, the historical precedent was reconfirmed so conclusively that the issue was seldom reviewed again until much later.’ Oden does not tell us what he thinks about the outcome of that later ‘review.’ Are Baptists heretics? He does not say it, but it would seem so by Vincent’s canon and Oden’s logic. If not, why could there not be contemporary steps away from the ancient, consensual tradition of the Church insofar as they can be established by appeal to Scripture and not to private opinion, philosophy, or culture? In matters of theological examination of Christian teachings old and new the ancient, consensual tradition of the Church gets a strong vote but not an absolute veto.”
In sum, if St. Vincent and Oden are right, much of Protestantism is wrong, and that can’t be right. That puts Olson’s complaint a bit too simply, but only a bit. These are knotty questions that will not be untangled anytime soon. Thomas Oden is no doubt well aware that the Vincentian canon does not mean that there was ever a time when every single Christian or group of Christians believed exactly the same thing about everything. In the early centuries of the Church, there were maddeningly diverse and often conflicting beliefs on core issues such as the human and divine natures of Christ, the unity and trinity of God, and much else. That is why there were disputes, synods, and councils in which the tradition of identifiable continuity appealed—before there was agreement on which texts constituted the New Testament of Scriptures—to the authority of the apostles and apostolic churches. This early came to be called the “rule of faith” (regula fidei), of which St. Vincent’s formula is one expression.
Adjudication of differences by appeal to the rule of faith continues to this day in all Christian communions that intend to be catholic, and is, of course, most carefully observed in the churches called Catholic and Orthodox. It is easy to say that “the Word of God—not some new revelation or personal opinion—may correct or supplement what the Church has always believed,” but it is in fact the opinion of a person or group of persons about the Word of God that is set against the continuing tradition. This is what John Henry Newman called the tyranny of “private judgment,” which is not unlike heresy—from haeresis, meaning choice. As I say, these are questions that have been with the Church from the beginning, and metastasized into numerous institutional divisions in the sixteenth century. They will not be resolved by Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, but his argument points toward what may, please God, be a resolution one day. It deserves a better response than the charge that it implicitly indicts the departures from historic Christianity that many people cherish.
Catholics, Protestants, and the Meanings of Freedom
There are many books on the history of anti-Catholicism in America, but the achievement of John T. McGreevy, a historian at Notre Dame, is in making a persuasive argument, supported by detailed and original research, that helps explain the underlying conflict of ideas, experiences, and sensibilities that has made America from the founding to the present day so hospitable and, at the same time, so hostile to Catholicism. I have discussed earlier (“Something Like, Just Maybe, a Catholic Moment,” Public Square, May 2001) McGreevy’s important article on twentieth-century anti-Catholicism in the American academy, published in the Journal of American History. Much more ambitious and comprehensive is his new book, Catholicism and American Freedom (Norton, 431 pages,, $26.95). One may not be persuaded on every point but, all in all, this is the most informative, analytically insightful, and even-handed account we have of the troubled relationship between Catholicism and the American experiment. It is also a pleasure to read.
In the beginning, from the Puritan commonwealth in Massachusetts to the founding of the Republic, Catholicism was viewed—not always for the same reasons—as alien and threatening. Almost everybody viewed Catholicism with suspicion, although not all saw it as an immediate danger. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, urged that New York give Catholics full voting rights in 1787, noting the “little influence possessed by the Pope in Europe” and arguing against the needless “vigilance of those who would bring engines to extinguish fire which had many days subsided.” The monolithic and authoritarian Church that his compatriots feared, he said, was a thing of the past. Many, one may note, make the same argument today, pointing to the “liberalization” of Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council. Then and now, many other Americans are not persuaded.
The nub of the dispute, McGreevy contends, is the tension, if not contradiction, “between Catholic and American ideas of freedom.” That tension was first voiced in the 1840s when European immigration made Catholicism the largest religious group in America and “it moves from nineteenth-century debates over education, slavery, and nationalism to twentieth-and twenty-first century discussions of social welfare policy, democracy, birth control, abortion, and sexual abuse.” The difference was and is between freedom as “ordered liberty” and freedom as the autonomous individual’s right to choose. A nineteenth-century Catholic editor contrasted liberals and Catholics: “They say that true liberty is a freedom from right as well as from wrong; we assert that it is a freedom only from wrong.” Or, as the Catholic Lord Acton would have it, freedom is not the freedom to do what we want but to do as we ought. From the beginning, Catholic thinkers in both Rome and the U.S. made the argument that the American founding—with its emphasis on natural law, natural rights, and higher law—was perfectly consonant with the Catholic understanding of freedom. In his 1888 encyclical promoting Thomism, Leo XIII declared, “The true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases [but] supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law.” More than a hundred years later, Catholics still contend that that proposition is perfectly consonant with what Father John Courtney Murray, in his 1960 book of essays We Hold These Truths, called the “American Proposition.”
An Ignorant and Squalid People
An earlier Puritan and Calvinist tradition also stressed a higher law, the sovereignty of God, and communal fidelity to truth. As Michael Novak has conclusively demonstrated in his recent book, On Two Wings, such convictions were much stronger during the founding era than most accounts allow. But by the mid-nineteenth century, such convictions clashed with developments in liberal Protestant theology. In the North, influential figures such as William Ellery Channing, Horace Bushnell, George Cheever, and Theodore Parker unfurled the banners of an optimistic, this-worldly Christianity, and were most particularly hostile to any idea of authority, sin, or redemptive suffering. The way of the cross was to be replaced by the way of individual self-realization and social reform. From his socially eminent pulpit, Theodore Parker described the waves of Catholic immigration as composed of “ignorant and squalid people, agape for miracles, ridden by their rulers and worse ridden by their priests, met to adore some relic of a saint.”
Parker was not the exception but represented the liberal consensus when he declared in 1854: “The Roman Catholic Church claims infallibility for itself, and denies spiritual freedom, liberty of mind or conscience, to its members. It is therefore the foe of all progress; it is deadly hostile to democracy. She is the natural ally of tyrants and the irreconcilable enemy of freedom. Individual Catholics in America, as elsewhere, are inconsistent, and favor the progress of mankind. Alas! Such are the exceptional; the Catholic Church has an iron logic, and consistently hates liberty in all its forms—free thought, free speech.” So also in many quarters today, allowances are made for “inconsistent” Catholics, the rule being that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. They are tolerable despite their being Catholic. Indeed, in their defiance of or indifference to the Church, they are praiseworthy. But, in this view, the “iron logic” of Catholicism has not changed.
Catholicism and American Freedom, however, is not just about anti-Catholicism. It is not to be read as another telling of the story well told by Philip Jenkins in his recent The New Anti-Catholicism (which, as McGreevy would have it, is really very old). McGreevy wants to explain how Catholicism understood itself, and was understood, and how that, in turn, helps explain the religious, cultural, and political situation of Catholicism in America today. Anti-Catholicism explains part of it, but then one must explain anti-Catholicism. Of course, there were the centuries of anti-Catholic Protestant theological polemics—returned in good measure by anti-Protestant Catholic theological polemics—but in America’s public square the great issue was freedom. McGreevy’s title is no doubt to be taken as a play on Paul Blanshard’s explosive anti-Catholic best-seller of 1949, American Freedom and Catholic Power. The conflict was not between freedom and power, however. Those who viewed Catholicism as a threat had the power. The real conflict was between very different ideas of freedom.
Slavery and Freedom
The mid-nineteenth century witnessed a “Catholic revival” in Europe, with both ultramontane and liberal wings. Notable among the liberals were, in France, Charles Montalembert and Bishop Felix Dupanloup, along with Ignaz von Döllinger in Germany, and Lord Acton, Richard Simpson, and John Henry Newman in England. In this country, Orestes Brownson pressed the liberal direction, urging the “Americanization” of Catholicism, meaning mainly immigrant Irish Catholicism. McGreevy calls Brownson “the most influential American Catholic intellectual of the nineteenth century.” (See Peter Augustine Lawler, “Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America,” FT, December 2002.) Decisive for the future of Catholicism, however, was the issue of slavery. Alignments formed in the 1850s continue to influence the public position of Catholicism to the present day.
Catholics were ambivalent about slavery. But so, then, were most Americans. The abolitionist agitators in the North were a distinct minority and were viewed as dangerous radicals. This is easily forgotten today. Moreover, the abolitionists, drawn mainly from the brahmin class, were also the most stridently anti-Catholic, a factor that was not lost on Catholics. From saints in the Middle Ages through popes during the time of New World discoveries, the Catholic Church had condemned chattel slavery as intrinsically evil. Catholics, along with a majority of Americans in the North, including leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, thought slavery to be an evil, but they were not persuaded that abolition was the remedy. Nor did it seem to Catholics and many others that slavery was the greatest evil afflicting American society.
Catholic ambivalence about slavery is sometimes explained by the fear of Irish immigrants, who were at the bottom of the economic ladder, that freed slaves would be unwelcome competition in the labor market, and that was no doubt a factor. Today some explain the ambivalence by reference to racism. While that, too, was no doubt a factor, McGreevy writes, “In fact, the Vatican’s insistence on the validity of interracial marriage and its opposition to rigid segregation laws made Roman authorities relatively tolerant of racial mixing and opposed to biological notions of racial inferiority.” When in 1861 a Louisiana bishop wrote a pastoral letter adopting the slaveholders’ view on race, he was sharply censured by Rome. The Roman congregation rejected the claim of “a natural difference between the Negroes whom he calls children of Canaan, and the Whites who he says are the privileged ones of the great human family.” African-American slaves, the Vatican insisted, are an integral part of the human family saved by Jesus Christ, not simply, as the bishop said, “poor children.”
Catholics would not have become Democrats prior to the Civil War if anti-Catholics had not rallied to the new Republican Party. By the mid-1850s, the Republicans had replaced the Whig Party and the explicitly anti-Catholic American Party as the chief rival to the Democrats. This ensured “that a broad array of [Republican] politicians, ministers, and editors would begin complaining, in the words of the Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, about ‘the alliance between an ancient and powerful Church and slave interests of America.’” Significant too was the fact that some southern writers, not necessarily enthusiastic about slavery, were sympathetic to a Catholic understanding of freedom that was not pitted against community and tradition. Influential Catholics joined southerners in scorning the radical individualism and laissez faire “dog eat dog” capitalism of the North.
Some Catholics did not see that much difference between slavery in the South and “wage slavery” in the North. Bishop John (“Dagger John”) Hughes of New York compared the master to the father, writing that the “difference in the relations and obligations of those who own slaves, and those who are masters of hired servants, or the parents of children, is rather one of degree than of kind.” Boston’s diocesan paper editorialized, “The principle of slavery is involved in apprenticeship, in imprisonment, in peonage, and in other forms of servitude.” Moreover, in Rome the Republican cause seemed disturbingly similar to the French Revolution and the nationalist radicals led by Garibaldi who were besieging the papacy and seizing convents and monasteries. L’Osservatore Romano depicted the Republicans in America as radicali who were “inflamed by puritan and abolitionist fanaticism and motivated by a poisonous hatred.” Pius IX had friendly contacts with Jefferson Davis, and when Davis was imprisoned after the war sent him a crown of thorns he had plaited with his own hands.
The Origins of Catholic Liberalism
It is among the many ironies of American history that what would later become the Catholic “liberal” alliance with the Democratic Party was forged in the conflict over slavery. It is not so much that Catholics were sympathetic to the South, and very few actually defended the institution of slavery, but they recognized their declared enemy in the Republican Party. For decades after the Civil War, Republicans pressed policies inimical to Catholics, including a “national education” policy that would have dismantled the huge parochial school system. Meanwhile, Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum roundly condemned both unbridled capitalism and socialism, proposing a distinctly communitarian or “corporatist” approach to social and economic relations. This approach was reiterated and strengthened in the 1931 encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, and McGreevy does a masterful job of demonstrating how this doctrine contributed to the powerful alignment of Catholics, the Democratic Party, and organized labor. Catholic social doctrine was seen as an alternative to, and bulwark against, socialism. In the early twentieth century, some Catholics thought their distinctive doctrine warranted the formation of a Catholic Party, but by then too many had risen to positions of leadership in the Democratic Party to make that an attractive option.
There were multiple tensions in the Catholic-Democrat alliance. Al Smith’s presidential candidacy in 1928 was supported by most liberal intellectuals, who also opposed the anti-Catholicism of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and FDR’s early policies as President were welcomed by Catholics as consonant with the directions of Catholic social doctrine. Also in the 1930s, however, Catholic sympathy for the “corporatist” regimes of Italy, Spain, and Portugal placed severe strains on the Catholic-liberal partnership. Catholic support for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, most particularly, was fatal to many cooperative relationships. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, liberal Jewish leaders made their own bid for acceptance by joining the American elite in letting Catholics know that they were on probation. The Catholic vote, especially in the urban north, was essential to Democrats, as were Catholic labor leaders in opposing socialism, but Catholics were still suspected of divided loyalty between Church and country, and of subscribing to a view of society inimical to American democracy.
The early 1930s, McGreevy writes, was a high point of the Catholic-liberal alliance. Then FDR turned from economic planning and distributive justice, the directions favored by Catholic leaders, to economic growth. Then came the Spanish Civil War. Then came the radio priest Fr. Charles Coughlin, an early enthusiast for FDR who later turned against him and toward the advocacy of strange doctrines, including anti-Semitism. The Spanish war passed, Fr. Coughlin was silenced by church authorities, and Catholic adherence to the Democrats held firm, but things would never be the same. Liberalism—or progressivism, as it was then called—had many parts. “As long as American reformers focused on economic reforms, Catholics proved loyal allies,” McGreevy writes. “But important components of progressive activism lay in the cultural sphere, as suggested by liberal campaigns for more explicit sex education in the schools, less rigorous censorship of books and films, and greater access to birth control.” On contraception and censorship, Catholics, interestingly enough, were fighting to uphold policies earlier put in place by Protestants. Many Protestants were happy enough that Catholic-led efforts such as the Legion of Decency were bearing the odium for the censorship that, in fact, most Protestants favored.
An Alliance Shattered
The definitive change came with abortion. Against the advocacy for liberalized abortion law in the 1960s, Catholics stood alone. Evangelical Protestants, today so prominent in the pro-life movement, were then on the other side. When the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision came down from the Supreme Court, the Southern Baptist Convention hailed it as a victory for “religious freedom” against Catholic efforts to “impose” their doctrine on others. But the Catholic-Democratic alliance, along with much else, was shaken to the foundations. In 1960 the election of John F. Kennedy was supposed to have signaled the end of politically potent anti-Catholicism, even if his triumph was purchased by the promise that he would not let his Catholicism influence his politics. The bishops, touchingly eager for Catholic “acceptance,” did not publicly challenge that fatal pact. The carefully orchestrated campaign by Catholic theologians against Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, including contraception, further and massively weakened adherence to Catholic distinctiveness in the public square. But the breaking point was abortion.
It may be hard to remember now, but McGreevy is surely right in saying that “well into the 1960s the Democratic Party arguably stood to the right of the Republicans on issues of sexual morality.” The party of big business, what came to be called country club Republicanism, stood sniffingly aloof from moral and social questions. But in 1972, the Democrat George McGovern could choose the staunchly pro-life Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, and when Eagleton was forced to drop out, he replaced him with Sargent Shriver, also pro-life. In the early 1970s, the number of prominent anti-abortion Democrats was striking. For example, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who wrote of his “personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life.” Kennedy hoped his generation would be remembered as “one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the moment of conception.”
All that would soon change, and nobody played a larger part in the change than Jesuit law professor and, later, Massachusetts Congressman Robert Drinan. In the 1960s, Drinan proposed “that Catholics simply abstain from the abortion debate, since to condone any abortion, even for the health of the mother, meant Catholics would be guilty of regulating, and implicitly approving, an abhorrent practice.” It was a disingenuous proposal, and Drinan would later become a reliable supporter of the abortion license, supplying Catholic politicians with a moral cover for their switch to a pro-choice stance.
In the early 1980s Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York, was probably the most popular Democratic politician in the country, and, with the aid of Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, he offered an apparently sophisticated argument for the “personally opposed, but . . .” position of Catholic politicians. He even harked back to the 1850s when Catholics were “despised by much of the population” and the bishops declined to issue an outright condemnation of slavery. The bishops “were not hypocrites,” Cuomo observed; “they were realists.” And so now, although Catholics encounter far less hostility, they still need to “weigh Catholic moral teaching against the fact of a pluralistic country where our view is in the minority.” That logic, critics observed, did not prevent Cuomo from pressing hard for the abolition of capital punishment, a position decidedly more in the minority. By the late 1980s the pro-abortion litmus test was securely in place and no Democrat with national ambitions could afford to dissent. With very few exceptions, Catholic politicians in the party had taken JFK’s 1960 pledge to the Baptist ministers of Houston not to let their religion influence their political decisions.
“You Catholics . . . ”
In 1984, I hosted a dinner for some twenty-five media leaders to meet the newly arrived John O’Connor as Archbishop of New York. There had been a media ruckus a few weeks earlier when O’Connor challenged Geraldine Ferraro, then the pro-choice Democratic vice presidential candidate, on her claim that there was more than one “Catholic position” on abortion. O’Connor thought that, as Archbishop, he had a responsibility to clarify the Catholic position. In the course of the dinner, Max Frankel, then executive editor of the New York Times, raised the issue and said, “When John F. Kennedy was elected, some of us thought that the question of whether you Catholics belonged here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled once and for all. But I have to tell you frankly, Archbishop, that in the few weeks you’ve been here some of us are asking those questions again.” Whether Catholics belong here. Whether they understand how we do things here. Suddenly it seemed like a hundred years ago.
Reflecting on the different Catholic understanding of freedom, McGreevy writes: “This intensely social tradition struggled to absorb insights from its liberal counterpart. But just as the work of John Courtney Murray, Jacques Maritain, and others on democracy and religious liberty reached fruition at the Second Vatican Council, the abortion debate shattered this Catholic-liberal rapprochement.” McGreevy takes passing notice of another rapprochement, that between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, notably on cultural and moral questions. With the Reagan presidency, Republicans skillfully nurtured this realignment. More than McGreevy allows, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus signaled a new appreciation of market economics in Catholic social doctrine, a development also favorable to Republicans. He observes, “President George W. Bush and his advisers routinely invoke Catholic ideals. Practicing Catholics are increasingly likely to vote for Republicans in presidential elections.” He then adds, “But Republican leaders remain indifferent to income inequality in the United States and to the immorality of tax cuts disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest Americans.” One might point out that an equal rate of tax decrease or increase will always affect most those who pay the most taxes. But I digress.
I expect that McGreevy’s final chapter, on the sex abuse scandals that broke out in 2002, was added at the insistence of the publisher. It is disappointingly thin and one hopes it will be omitted or entirely rewritten for future editions. While McGreevy does acknowledge the large part played by doctrinal dissent and clerical homosexuality in the scandals, he allowed the furor of the moment in which he was writing to obscure his historical perspective. On page 289, referring to the scandals, McGreevy dismisses the previous 288 pages of history with an abrupt, “And then none of this mattered.” He surely knows that is not the case. For better or worse, the firestorm over the scandals has subsided and is not likely to be reignited. The ongoing tensions and conflicts inherent in two very different ideas of freedom, however, will continue to matter, and to matter greatly, in the unfolding story of Catholicism and the American experiment.
The Supreme Court’s Everson decision of 1947, which established the “wall of separation” in the service of the naked public square, put the matter bluntly. There Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote that the assumption behind the public school system “is that after the individual has been instructed in worldly wisdom he will be better suited to choose his religion. . . . Our public school, if not a product of Protestantism, at least is more consistent with it than with the Catholic culture and scheme of values.” Religion is a private choice made by the autonomous individual. Against this is a “culture and scheme of values” in which one is born and sacramentally reborn into a community of authoritatively defined tradition. On the one side: individuality, autonomy, choice; on the other: community, tradition, authority. The first triad is said to represent “American freedom,” and by it national unity is constituted. Commitment to autonomy, oddly enough, is supposed to establish national unity. It is a jealous unity that will abide no compromise with the competing triad of community, tradition, authority. This idea of freedom serves, in the language of H. Richard Niebuhr, the “Christ of culture.” Of American culture; and of American Protestant culture to the degree that it is necessary to ward off the threatening alternative of Catholic culture.
The conflict over abortion brought things to a head also by revealing the divided soul of American liberalism. The liberalism of, for instance, Martin Luther King and the early civil rights movement was embracing, reaching out to include the previously excluded within the community for which we accept common responsibility. Modern liberalism took a decisive turn with the movement for “liberalized abortion law” in the 1960s. American liberalism had always been schizophrenic, divided between individual self-expression and communal solidarity. By planting the liberal flag on the pro-choice side of the abortion conflict, its individualistic propensities gained ascendancy, even to the point of driving a lethal wedge between mother and child, the most fundamental of communal bonds. Autonomy is a jealous god.
Such are among the many reflections provoked by Catholicism and American Freedom. One is struck by how few Catholic intellectuals of stature have addressed the conflict between the two ideas of freedom. Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, of course, but the overwhelming majority of the Catholic intellectual establishment since Vatican II has been preoccupied with intra-Catholic disputes related to a one-sided accommodation of Catholicism to the idea of freedom as autonomy. The spirit of Emersonian gnosticism described in Harold Bloom’s The American Religion has made deep inroads also among Catholics in America. One is almost inclined to think that Leo XIII’s 1899 condemnation of “Americanism” in Testem Benevolentiae was issued about sixty-five years too early, but then one has to wonder what would be the Americanization of Catholicism had it not been issued when it was.
Never was it, and never could it be, a stark choice between one idea of freedom or another. Maritain and Murray were among the few who understood the need for mutual influence, for a constant probing of possibilities that would preserve and enhance the truth in each idea. Today there are many intellectuals—one thinks, for instance, of Michael Sandel, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Mary Ann Glendon, and Charles Taylor—writing about the limits of liberalism, or at least of the liberalisms that have defined “American freedom.” A “communitarian” movement has had a not insignificant influence in the last two decades, and hyper-liberals of a postmodernist bent accent “the social construction of reality.” Out of these sometimes confused and contradictory intellectual churnings, one may be allowed to think, could come a culturally potent understanding of self and community that will modify the stark antinomy between freedom as the freedom to do what one ought and freedom as the freedom to do what one wants.
At the same time I was thinking about McGreevy’s book, I was reading Paul Elie’s engaging new work, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pages,, $27). The book is a critical appreciation that tells the stories of four Catholic thinkers and writers: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. The first three were converts, and the last a Catholic in a South practically without Catholics. European Catholicism, Elie notes, was accustomed to being the majority religion and way of life, indeed to constitute a Catholic culture. It could not have been more different in America. Elie does not put it quite this way, but in America, and for his four subjects, Catholicism was what today is fashionably called the Other. In the American context, there was something even exotic about the idea of community, tradition, and authority. For the three converts, becoming Catholic was quite self-consciously the way to becoming individuals, particular persons, situated selves. As for O’Connor, she knew that intuitively, and became ever more what she always was.
The juxtaposition of the McGreevy and Elie books is powerfully suggestive. Perhaps, one may be permitted to speculate, there is underway, or at least a hint of a groping toward, something like a cultural transformation in what is meant by American freedom. Perhaps, just perhaps, it poses the prospect of individuality realized by an act of decision in obedience to a communal gift of grace. It may be that the tradition—and it is a tradition—of anti-traditionalism has exhausted itself. The authority of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Robert H. Jackson in their hatred of authority no longer appeals. A new generation may weary of running with what Harold Rosenberg memorably called “a herd of independent minds.”
These are but possibilities, but they are possibilities enhanced by many developments, not least being an evangelical Protestantism that is, more and more, the only Protestantism of public influence, and that is increasingly less dependent upon anti-Catholicism as a necessary component of its self-understanding. The elite liberal class, those who control what are called the commanding heights of culture, will continue to view both Catholicism and evangelicalism as the Other. The first is seen as exotic and seductive, but finally oppressive and deserving of hatred; the second is viewed as ignorant, stifling, and deserving of fear and loathing. But all that could change over time. It depends in very large part upon thinkers, writers, and public exemplars who persuasively propose a more compelling idea of freedom. Such, at least, are some of the thoughts provoked by the gift that is John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom.
While We’re At It
• “Judeo-Christian.” The American Muslim Council and some others really don’t like the term. That’s understandable. In speaking of our culture, they say we should say “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” or “Abrahamic.” The National Council of Churches has joined the movement to abandon “Judeo-Christian.” Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals has a different view. “A lot of the ideas that underpin civil liberties come from Judeo-Christian theology. What the Islamic community needs to make are positive contributions to culture and society so we can include them.” That puts it a bit bluntly, but he is, I think, on the right side of the argument. People who live in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, can tell you that many Muslims have made many contributions to our society. But there are only about two million Muslims in the country and, with few exceptions, they are newcomers to the American experiment. We must wish them well. We should not, in order to make people feel good, rewrite American history, however. The founders of the experiment thought this was, quite simply and obviously, a Christian society. “Judeo-Christian” gained currency in the last century for good reasons. One reason was undoubtedly to make the two percent of the society that is Jewish feel more secure, and their sense of insecurity was not without grounds. At a deeper and theological level, Christians have come to appreciate more fully their dependence on Judaism. Christianity is inexplicable apart from Judaism. That is in no way the case with respect to Islam, which claims to be the true revelation superseding both Judaism and Christianity. We must hope that, over time, Muslims will find in Islam the resources for affirming the constituting truths of this Judeo-Christian society and culture. Whether they do or not, they can be welcomed as full citizens along with many others from outside the Judeo-Christian orbit who do not demand that we revise our national identity by speaking of a Judeo-Christian-Buddhist-Hindu-Islamic-Agnostic-Atheist society. Judeo-Christian morality undergirds America’s welcome to people who are not Jews or Christians in a way that Islamic morality, for instance, does not support the welcoming of outsiders to countries that are dominantly Muslim. However well intended, it is no service to Muslims to encourage them to challenge the moral and cultural identity that is the basis of their welcome and security in Judeo-Christian America.
• Elaine Pagels of Princeton has another book out celebrating early Christian gnosticism. Beyond Belief is about the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, written in the second century and much amended later, which Pagels prefers to the canonical Gospels, and especially to the Gospel of John. “One of its central messages,” Pagels says in an interview with Publishers Weekly, “is that there is divine light within each person. Reacting to Thomas’ teaching, the author of the Gospel of John has Jesus always declaring that Jesus is the only light of the world. . . . Thomas is not a specifically Christian book, if by Christianity one means believing that Jesus is the only Son of God. Thomas is not about Jesus, but about the recognition of the light within us all. In this way, Thomas has a close affinity with Jewish mysticism.” Well, at least a close affinity with about 80 percent of everything in the “Spirituality” section of Borders or Barnes & Noble. The Gospel of Thomas as celebrated by Pagels is marvelously attuned to what Harold Bloom calls in a book by that title, The American Religion, namely, gnosticism pitched to a popular and apparently inexhaustible appetite for self-flattery.
• Historian James Hitchcock of St. Louis University has some fun with the special issue of the National Catholic Reporter marking the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The pro-life movement, say the writers of NCR, has failed. It has failed in persuading Americans; it has failed in maintaining a civil discussion of a polarizing issue; and, above all, it has failed to follow the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment of life” proposal which, according to NCR, means that abortion is one issue among many and, since it is outnumbered by other issues backed by pro-choice Democrats, support for pro-life Republicans is morally precluded. In fact, Bernardin intended no such relativizing of the priority of abortion. In his aforementioned book Catholicism and American Freedom, John McGreevy notes that Bernardin’s last public statement, issued four days before his death in 1996, urged the Supreme Court to recognize that “there can be no moral and legal order which tolerates the killing of innocent human life.” If Americans continue to “legitimate the taking of life as policy, one has a right to ask what lies ahead for our life together as a society.” From his deathbed, the Cardinal made clear that—however others may abuse his language about a seamless garment and a consistent ethic of life—abortion is not just one issue among others. But now back to Professor Hitchcock’s little exercise: “If the NCR were consistent it would, for example, caution the opponents of capital punishment not to be shrill, warn them that often they seem insensitive to the suffering of the families of murder victims, recall that through most of its history the Church has supported capital punishment, and discuss the complex issues of deterrence, punishment, and restitution. The editors would deride liberals for supporting Democratic politicians, such as Clinton, who support capital punishment. Opponents of capital punishment would be urged to enter into respectful dialogue with its supporters, with an aim to discovering the psychoogical and social assumptions which underlie the two sides of the debate. Approaching the issue in terms of moral absolutes would be deemed counterproductive and disruptive of civil peace, and activists would be reminded that they have failed to persuade a majority of their fellow citizens on the issue. Thus, the editors would point out, the number of people executed in the United States continues to increase, the movement is a failure, and its members should at least temporarily withdraw from the fray.” “If the NCR were consistent.” If pigs had wings.
• “Today, the United Nations is more relevant than ever.” Such was the headline of a full-page ad in the New York Times signed by nearly two hundred religious leaders. The signers of the tribute to the UN and its Secretary General Kofi Annan—and the not-so-hidden attack on George W. Bush and America’s alleged unilateralism—included no Jews. There was a sprinkling of leftward Catholics and a few Muslims and Buddhists, but it was essentially a statement by officials of mainline-oldline-sideline Protestantism, with the former and present heads of the National Council of Churches leading the list. The ad featured an inspiring observation by Hiroshi Matsumoto, president of Inner Trip Reiyukai International: “By increasing our spiritual awareness we can contribute meaningfully to global peace and harmony.” The ad was sponsored by the World Council of Religious Leaders of the Millennium World Peace Summit, which has an address in midtown. The Rev. James Park Morton, former dean of St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral, was on the list. Another name that might have been expected, that of the man for whom Morton had worked, was missing. The same issue of the Times carried a very long obituary in tribute to Bishop Paul Moore, who, at age eighty-three, had died the previous day. The juxtaposition of the ad and the obituary was suggestive, provoking as they did memories of a religious and cultural moment now long gone. Paul Moore and Jim Morton were among my friends way back then. When in 1972 Paul became Bishop of New York (that is how the Episcopal bishop was styled, and still is), he brought Jim from the then vibrant but now defunct Urban Institute in Chicago to be dean of the cathedral. (I was offered Jim’s position in Chicago, but that didn’t work out.) They declared their intention to transform St. John the Divine into the medieval model of the cathedral as “circus,” and transform it they did: with the exoticisms of world religions, the avant garde banalities of art and theater, and occasional flirtations with the blasphemous. St. John the Divine became the very definition of trendiness. Paul was very much in the “prophetic” mode as well. During New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, he thundered from the pulpit against Wall Street’s malefactors of great wealth. Last March, shortly before his death, he preached his last sermon in the cathedral, targeting U.S. policy in Iraq. “It appears we have two types of religion here,” he said. “One is a solitary Texas politician who says, ‘I talk to Jesus and I am right.’ The other involves millions of people of all faiths who disagree.” But I couldn’t help liking Paul. Born into great wealth and social prominence, Paul’s life was the perfect model of the patrician noblesse oblige that seems to have quite disappeared from American life. Tall, rugged, a much decorated marine captain who had fought in Guadalcanal, and the father of nine children, he was about as personable as human beings can get. He had worked in the inner city of New Jersey when there was great enthusiasm for urban ministries, and while I was in the inner city of Brooklyn at a black Lutheran parish we dubbed St. John the Mundane in distinction from St. John the Divine. At the cathedral, Paul and his wife Jenny lived in relative modesty in a part of what was originally built as the bishop’s palace. He told me that J. P. Morgan was a cathedral trustee back then, and when some objected that the bishop did not really need fifty-seven rooms, Morgan put his foot down, declaring that “The bishop should live like everyone else in New York.” Paul was uneasy about his wealth, and told how, as a child, when the chauffeured limousine passed bread lines, he would hide in shame on the limousine floor. We had a sharp disagreement when, in the early seventies, Paul wrote a glowing introduction to the annual report of Planned Parenthood that set forth in great detail how much money abortion had saved the city in terms of education, welfare, crime, and keeping young predators in jail. He did not agree that this was tantamount to saying that the way to improve the city is to encourage the killing of the babies of the poor. Yet, when Jenny died and Paul married a woman who had only a tenuous relationship to the Christian teaching, he asked me to give her instructions in the faith. In view of our substantial differences, I declined. Paul had not a theological bone in his body. But, taken in all, Paul Moore was a piece of work, and we are not likely to see his kind again. Not least because the Episcopal Church, at least in New York City, will never again be what it was. The Times obituary was headed, “Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., Dies.” Thirty years ago, the word “Episcopal” would have been omitted. Then the Times and many others viewed the Episcopal Church as “the church” in New York, despite Roman Catholicism being, then and now, about fifty times larger. Still today, elegant church architecture throughout the city testifies to the time when it was the church of the Astors, DuPonts, Morgans, Vanderbilts, Mellons, and Roosevelts. There was a piquancy in the above-mentioned ad and Paul’s obituary appearing the same day. In that final sermon in the cathedral addressing the Iraq war, Paul said, “I think it is terrifying. I believe it will lead to a terrible crack in the whole culture as we have come to know it.” The culture as Paul Moore knew it had already cracked and collapsed a long time before, and some very good things were lost with it. Our falling out could probably not have been helped, but fondly and fervently I pray that he will rest in peace.
• “All news all the time” is how a local radio station describes itself. All scandal all the time is what I don’t want this section to become. But, from time to time, someone comes up with a new insight, or a fresh perspective on what we knew. That’s the case with “Strangers in the Chancery” by sociologist Joseph E. Davis at the University of Virginia. Writing in Society, Davis takes his title from David J. Rothman’s Strangers at the Bedside, an account of how, beginning in the 1960s, medicine lost much of its moral authority. There are striking parallels with what is happening with the bishops. I doubt if Davis is right that bishops today are more “strangers” to their people than were bishops fifty years ago, but the gist of Davis’ analysis rings true. For instance: “The sexual abuse scandal is also likely to produce this indirect form of authority loss. As discussed, many of the key elements that shaped the transformation of medicine are in place: increased social distance, a broad erosion of trust, and a constituency far from compliant. Moreover, medicine and doctors were only one institution and professional group among many to see trust and deference erode and their scope of discretionary authority sharply curtailed. This pattern shows an underlying cultural logic at work in American society rooted in an a priori skepticism toward the exercise of paternalism, an emphasis on individual rights and protections, and a deep suspicion of institutions. In organizations, this logic leads toward more bureaucracy and procedural rules, collective rather than individual decision-making, and the insertion of third parties (often other authorities) to constrain the actions of authorities. This logic too is playing itself out in the sexual abuse scandal. The policies adopted by the bishops in response to the scandal are the best illustration.” Davis describes the “one strike and you’re out” policy adopted by the panicked meeting of bishops in Dallas of last year, and concludes with this: “Protecting children from abuse is the justification for the drive toward proceduralism, collective decision-making, and the curtailing of discretionary authority. This is the worthiest of reasons but it is not the only one. The Catholic bishops first addressed the sexual abuse scandal in earnest ten years ago and apparently with great success. With a few notorious exceptions, repeat offenders have long since ceased to be shuffled from parish to parish and very few cases have come to light (in distinction to the public exposure of cold cases). If, in this sense, children are already safer, then why the current drum-beating for zero tolerance and zero room for pastoral discretion? Punishing the bishops is part of the story; simply having tougher rules for the sake of tougher rules is another. While these latter reasons may make everyone feel better, they are poor reasons for increasing procedural regulation. Bureaucratic structures, after all, tend to deliver an iron cage. They stifle creativity and charisma; they are blind to ends like charity and compassion; they have no inspiring mode of discourse; they do not facilitate strong group bonds; and they do not restore trust in persons. In other words, they do not supply many of the things Catholics across the board have insisted are so badly needed. As scandal works its effects, it is not too early to consider the unintended consequences of the solutions.” Pray it is not too late.
• Here is something one doesn’t see every day. In fact, I don’t recall anything like it. John Carroll, the top editor at the Los Angeles Times, sent this memo around the newsroom: “I’m concerned about the perception—and the occasional reality—that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right.” He went on to criticize a story on the link between abortion and breast cancer that gave full credence to those who denied the link and scoffed at those who take it seriously. The memo concludes: “We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times. I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious, and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.” Journalistic responsibility. It’s an idea that could catch on.
• The mischievous Forum Letter is up to it again. It reports that at a Rocky Mountain Synod meeting in Colorado Springs, Bishop Mark Hanson, head of the ELCA Lutherans, spoke on a sexuality study in which that communion is embroiled. Certainly, he said, “we’re not going to base our position with regard to homosexuality on seven passages from Scripture.” One pastor leaned over to a brother and said, “Isn’t that more than we have on the institution of the Lord’s Supper?”
• “We are 100 percent focused on protecting children,” a bishop tells me in a discussion of the Dallas “one strike and you’re out” rule. One hundred percent leaves slight time or energy for anything else. Herewith a letter sent me by a priest in New England: “I agree with you that protecting children is imperative, but I am not as convinced as you seem to be that doing so is the bishops’ collective and primary motive. I was visited recently by a sixty-eight-year-old priest who, fourteen years ago, told his bishop of a sexual indiscretion that occurred thirty-one years ago and involved a then sixteen-year-old girl. His admission was the occasion of his being prudently removed from his position as pastor of a parish. The concern expressed then was that living alone could place him, and others, at risk for engaging in inappropriate relationships. The priest accepted the conditions, attended a year-long therapy and renewal program followed by three units of Clinical Pastoral Education, and found ministry at a hospital where he worked successfully, effectively, and happily for the next thirteen years while living in a small community of supportive priests in a nearby rectory. The priests, and the hospital administration, were aware of his rather ancient transgression, and in many ways he was able to offer a perspective and experience that brought home to the other priests the fragility of the human spirit and the need for fraternal support. In the months following implementation of the reactionary Dallas policy, my friend was ordered to resign his ministry as hospital chaplain and accept early retirement. He tearfully conceded. Last month, he was instructed to move out of the rectory in which he had found support, friendship, and community over the last fourteen years. At the age of sixty-eight, thirty-one years after his indiscretion, fourteen years into his repentance and renewal, the wisdom of the bishops is now that this priest should live alone and away from the support of his brother priests. This scenario is being repeated throughout the United States, and I believe it has nothing to do with protecting children. It has everything to do with ‘risk aversion,’ a term you used to describe the response of bishops to accusations against priests. Risk aversion is a concept that is wholly antithetical to ‘the gospel of sin and grace, repentance and restoration.’”
• There will be more in these pages on N. T. Wright’s big new book, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress). Wright argues the case that the historical evidence, contra Enlightenment liberalism, leaves us with no reasonable conclusion other than that what happened that Sunday morning is what the New Testament writers say happened. I mention the book now only to note that Wright has been elected Bishop of Durham. (Durham, where the Venerable Bede is entombed, is in my judgment the most impressive of the English cathedrals.) David Neff of Christianity Today observes the “providential irony” that Wright’s predecessor at Durham was David Jenkins, who caused a stir by referring to the resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones.” The role of Providence in electing Anglican bishops is not entirely transparent, but Wright’s elevation is certainly a happy turn. And it does return Durham to its tradition of scholar-bishops such as Joseph Lightfoot, Michael Ramsey, and Ian Ramsey.
• The reviewer in America, the Jesuit magazine, really does not like Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. It “advances a conservative and fundamentalist agenda,” says John Saliba, S.J., Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. “Oden has nothing positive to say about the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches” and their efforts to “further mutual understanding and reduce conflict.” Oden ignores the fact that “Christian movements that claim they are the only legitimate expression of true Christianity have tended to be intolerant and belligerent.” As though that were not bad enough, Oden “offers no guidelines as to how the Church can react to technology and globalization.” That’s the least one should be able to expect from a theological book titled The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. One might be justified in suspecting that the reviewer is no friend of the rebirth of orthodoxy.
• The summer school catalogue of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley lists a slew of courses leading to a “Certificate in Sexuality and Religion.” A person so certified is equipped “to advance the full inclusion of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered] people in their faith communities.” One course is “Blessing Same-Sex Unions” and is offered by Mark Jordan of Emory University. Assuming that “more and more Christian congregations will be blessing same-sex unions in the years to come,” the class will wrestle with this question: “Should LGBT Christians want their unions blessed without first reforming the present theology and practice of ‘Christian marriage’?” One conservative response to this is to say, “See, those people will never be satisfied. Try to be tolerant and bless their same-sex unions and the next thing they want is to change the meaning of marriage for everybody else.” The more interesting response, I think, is to commend them for implicitly recognizing—despite public protestations to the contrary—that blessing same-sex unions does entail a reform (i.e., revolution) in the “theology and practice of Christian marriage” (without the sneer quotes). In a similar way, there was among Catholics some years ago a fairly influential organization called the Women’s Ordination Conference. There was a big split within the organization between those who simply wanted to press for the ordination of women and those who contended that the ordination of women required a radical change in the theology and practice of priesthood. The second party is right. However much one may dissent from their purposes, those who recognize that the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of women are incompatible with the Church’s understanding of, respectively, marriage and priestly ministry have the better part of the argument.
• Among the books noticed in Publishers Weekly is Pagan Babies: And Other Catholic Memories by Cina Cascone. It is yet another bitter account of “the earthly purgatory” of growing up Catholic, complete with Sister Perpetua and her knuckle-thumping ruler. (The title refers to money sent to missionaries for the conversion of pagans.) That review is followed immediately by a rather favorable notice of Philip Jenkins’ The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. I expect an editor at PW was aware of the aptness of running the notices side by side.
• There are in the world thousands upon thousands (nobody knows just how many) frozen human embryos, the “spares” of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. And there is a growing debate over “embryo rescue.” This is a question very intelligently addressed by Dr. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini of the University of Melbourne in the spring 2003 issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Embryo rescue involves a couple “adopting” an embryo by having it implanted in the woman’s womb. The child is brought to birth and reared as the partly natural/partly adopted child of the couple. On the face of it, this is a very pro-life thing to do, since the embryo would otherwise remain in a state of suspended development for an indeterminate period of time or would be thawed and quickly die. But there is, as I say, a very serious argument over the morality of embryo rescue. Some moralists, notably Germain Grisez and William E. May, approve, while others, such as William Smith and Tonti-Filippini are on the other side. There has been no definitive statement on the question by the Magisterium of the Church, and it is therefore a point of legitimate exploration and argument by Catholic thinkers. Without attempting to do justice to the elegance of Tonti-Filippini’s case, he recognizes the indisputably good, indeed admirable, intentions of embryo rescuers, but contends that it violates the sacramental bond of marriage in which the mutual gift of self includes the exclusion of other parties from the process of procreation. He offers other persuasive, if not conclusive, arguments, not least being the fact that embryo transfer is almost always (about 96 percent of the time) unsuccessful. It has been suggested that frozen embryos might be brought to birth by transfer to an artificial womb (ectogenesis) or to an animal of another species, such as a sheep. Tonti-Filippini writes, “Part of the intuitive rejection of the idea of ectogenesis or transpecies gestation is the thought that the developing unborn child would be denied a normal relationship to a woman, his or her mother, and that that relationship is not just biological. There is something very disturbing about a child having an animal or a machine for a birth mother.” To which, as he recognizes, the response is that the embryo would otherwise be denied birth or would die without further developing. Tonti-Filippini’s article is representative of the kind of careful moral reasoning on bioethical questions that is to be found in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. I do not mean that careful moral reasoning is not to be found in other publications, but the quarterly addresses these questions within a specifically Christian and Catholic framework. Each quarterly issue is handsome and big, over two hundred pages, and the articles range widely. Also of special interest in this issue is Mary Timothy Prokes on the body as sacramental or artifact, and extended discussions of John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” The quarterly is published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, based in Boston, and individual subscriptions are $48 ($120 for institutions). Write the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, P.O. Box 3000, Denville, New Jersey 07834-9772.
• Here’s more on the disputed question of “embryo adoption.” Paige Comstock Cunningham of Americans United for Life writes: “Is the embryo person or property? If a person, she cannot be bought or sold. Nor can her parents ‘give’ her away. The Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) prohibits the ownership of one person by another. If, however, the embryo is deemed to be property, he may be contracted like goods or services. Or, if the embryo is equated with human tissue, blood, or organs, she may be donated, but with no payment to the donor. Here arise the questions of who is the donor—the genetic parents or the embryo—and of the purposes for which the embryo may be donated.” The Bush Administration recently allocated $1 million in support of embryo adoption, half of which went to Snowflakes, a Christian adoption agency. There are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos, and, to date, sixteen babies have been born as a result of the Snowflakes program. Cunningham is inclined to think that the legal system is up to making the fine distinctions that can avoid Thirteenth Amendment and other problems, but she knows that abortion advocates will fight every step of the way, viewing any legal protection for the embryo “as a stealth assault on abortion rights.” She writes: “If questions of abortion advocacy did not eclipse the picture and embryo adoption was regarded as a method for providing infertile couples with a child, then the legal and moral questions might be more helpfully addressed. As long as this is not the case, every inch of linguistic and legal ground will continue to be contested. Is the very early human being ‘pre-embryo’ or ‘child,’ ‘pre-person’ or ‘person’? Is transferring such an entity to another couple ‘donation’ or ‘adoption’? Or is it something else entirely? It is not only possible, but imperative, that the law secure the future of ‘embryo adoption’ by creating a legal environment that protects the interests of everyone involved. Whether the abortion lobby and pro-life activists can tolerate such a politically necessary compromise is yet to be seen.”
• I have written supportively of the bishops who have called for a plenary council in this country in order to put the government of the Church into a greater semblance of right order. There were three such councils in the U.S. from 1852 to 1884, but none since, and some think a council overdue. At the same time, some very thoughtful bishops have been cool to the proposal, fearing that canonical requirements on representation would turn it into something of a circus not unlike the disastrous “Call to Action” conference in Detroit in 1976. That worry is reinforced by an article by Father Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., of Boston College, “The Authority of the Diocesan Bishop in the Roman Catholic Church,” published, somewhat improbably, in Lutheran Forum. While the editors of the magazine are promoting episcopal governance for Lutherans, Fr. Sullivan makes the case for a more congregational and lay-directed form of leadership for Catholics, and he thinks a plenary council may be just the instrument for achieving that goal. He sets forth a number of canonical provisions, to which he adds his own proposals, that would greatly expand participation in a council beyond the bishops, and would also mandate greater consultation by bishops in governing their own dioceses. His depiction of a plenary council does bear a striking resemblance to Detroit 1976. If a council is not the way to go, there is still the proposal on the table that the bishops should gather by themselves for an extended period of time in a remote, perhaps monastic, setting and with no press within hearing distance in order to sort out what has gone so very wrong with their leadership of the Church and what might be done about it. It seems, however, that there is no sense of urgency about any proposal for a thorough self-examination. Now that the publicity storm generated by the scandals has passed, the dominant mood seems to be one of relief and return to business as usual. The Long Lent that began in January 2002 would, many hoped, precipitate efforts aimed at deep reform and renewal. There is little evidence of that happening. Were that to happen, it would require that bishops be more fully what they are ordained to be, pastors of local churches charged with the tasks of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. One reform that is beginning to be discussed more seriously is that large dioceses be reduced to governable size. Cardinal Law in Boston is the most notable instance, but in case after case the sex-abuse scandals—never mind scandals of doctrinal, liturgical, and sundry moral delinquencies—reveal that ordinaries of dioceses are not minding the shop. And that is frequently because a diocese is too large for the exercise of the kind of pastoral attentiveness called for in the Church’s official understanding of the episcopal office. It is recognized by those discussing the matter that the idea of reducing the size of major sees may not be popular with bishops who have attained the dignity of occupying them.
• The usual suspects beat up on Senator Rick Santorum for daring to state in public his position and that of the Catholic Church that, to put it delicately, homosexual acts are not morally unproblematic. By the time this sees print, the Supreme Court may have reversed its 1986 Bowers decision that upheld the constitutionality of state anti-sodomy laws. I am not a fan of laws that are not intended to be enforced, but it is worth noting that Santorum’s offense was no more than that he agreed with the Bowers decision. Contrary to some reports on the media brouhaha, Santorum did receive support from Catholic bishops, notably from Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Bishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh. Not, however, from Father Robert Drinan, S.J. More than anyone else, Fr. Drinan, beginning almost forty years ago, promoted the rationalization by which Catholic politicians claimed to be liberated from the Church’s teaching, especially on abortion. On the Santorum flap, Drinan told the Washington Post, “Catholics have no right to impose their views on others. Even if they say homosexual conduct is unfitting for a Catholic, they have no right to impose that on the nation.” catholic eye impishly wonders about Drinan’s use of “they” in talking about Catholics. Senator John Kerry got a pass when, in speaking to a pro-abortion group about judicial nominations, he said, “Litmus tests are politically motivated tests; abortion is a constitutional right. I think people who go to the Supreme Court ought to interpret the Constitution as it is interpreted, and if they have another point of view, then they’re not supporting the Constitution, which is what a judge does.” The principle would seem to be that no Supreme Court decision should ever be overturned, including Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and, for that matter, Bowers. Kerry probably didn’t mean that. As Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson probably didn’t mean it when he said, “I would love to talk to the Pope about it.” The subject was the research use of embryonic stem cells, which Thompson approves. “I think it’s in line with Church teaching that instead of throwing valuable resources away we make use of them,” he said. In the same interview he allowed as how he had not read the recent Vatican statement, “On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” I’m sure that Mr. Thompson would love to talk with the Pope, but if he’s really interested in what the Church teaches on this and other questions, he might begin by reading what the Church teaches. Or maybe the idea is that he could bring the Pope around to his point of view. Politicians tend to have a high estimate of their powers of persuasion.
• Massachusetts Bill H. 3190 would, following the lead of almost two-thirds of the states of the Union, specify that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Father James F. Keenan of Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., is opposed to it and so testified at a hearing on the bill. As noted earlier, Fr. Keenan has written extensively and sympathetically on gay rights, “queer” theology, and related matters. “Besides coming before you as a priest,” he told the solons, “I am here as a moral theologian. We theologians see our task in the Church as teaching and interpreting the Church’s tradition and in this sense we are somewhat like rabbis whose authority derives from an ability to teach and apply the tradition to our ordinary lives of faith.” Really? The authority of a rabbi is indeed dependent upon his personal wisdom and holiness, while with Catholic theologians there is the Magisterium that defines what the tradition is and, when necessary, authoritatively indicates its correct application to the particulars of life. Fr. Keenan’s formulation would seem to be yet another way of advancing the claim that academic theologians constitute a “parallel magisterium.” He goes on to cite a number of moral theologians who agree with him that homosexuals “retain their full range of human and civil rights because of their inherent dignity as human persons.” He names nine theologians but he could have named thousands, for that is, quite simply, the magisterial teaching of the Church. The difference is that Fr. Keenan and a few others contend that human and civil rights include the right of homosexuals to have their unions legally defined as marriage. Not only that, but he appears to believe that that is the only authentically Catholic position. “In this light, as a priest and as a moral theologian, I cannot see in any way how any one could argue for H. 3190 on any Roman Catholic traditional grounds” (emphasis added). So much for the many bishops, theologians, and priests who, in their several states and in their support for a federal marriage amendment, take the position that marriage should be legally defined as a union between a man and a woman. But Fr. Keenan did say that, as with rabbis, his authority derives from his ability. As with rabbis, one is free to consult another who is able to see what Fr. Keenan is unable to see. Even better, one might have recourse to someone who accepts the responsibility of being a teacher of what the Church teaches.
• Expanding on “The Gift of Authority,” a 1999 statement of the international Anglican-Catholic dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation in the U.S. has come up with a number of proposals. It is suggested that Anglican bishops accompany Catholic bishops on their ad limina visits to the Holy See, a consultation with the Pope required of heads of dioceses every five years. It is also suggested that Episcopalians and Catholics be delegates to one another’s meetings, with full voice and participation but no vote. This would include everything from synods of bishops in Rome to the Episcopal House of Bishops in the U.S. It is an interesting set of ideas, but not without notable difficulties. For one thing, it assumes, as is customary in Anglican-Catholic dialogue, a “special relationship” that makes Anglicans closer to Roman Catholics than other Christians. That place of ecumenical priority, as is made very clear in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One), is held by the Orthodox, who are lacking only full communion with Rome to be in full communion with Rome. Anglicans stress that they are in apostolic succession, but the 1896 decision of Apostolicae Curae declaring that Anglican orders are “utterly null and absolutely void” is still the teaching of the Catholic Church, as recently reiterated, albeit in passing, by a statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That would seem to pose a problem. A while back a Catholic archbishop attended an ecumenical meeting of Episcopal and Lutheran bishops, as well as other church leaders. An Episcopal female bishop was also present, and the archbishop was criticized by conservative Catholics for addressing her as “Bishop.” To which he responded, “She’s as much a bishop as the others are.” Apart from the question of orders, some experienced ecumenists are of the view that, with respect to theological substance, Lutherans are closer to Rome than Episcopalians. Others would extend that to evangelical Protestants, noting the unquestionable commitment of most evangelicals to the core doctrines of the Christian tradition. In any event, the singling out of Anglicans for ad limina visits and other official meetings would likely meet with vigorous protest from the Catholic Church’s other ecumenical partners. One cannot readily imagine ad limina visits as an ecumenical conference with Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and a host of others, none of whom holds himself or herself accountable to the Pope. With respect to origins, however, there is an Anglican distinctive. At least for high Anglicans, the Church of England is the Catholic Church in England. That self-understanding was rudely inconvenienced by the reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and is made additionally awkward by the fact that today there are more church-going Catholics than Anglicans in England. Nonetheless, the memories and the theology of high Anglicans continues to be potent, also in the minds of the thirty-six national Anglican churches of what is today called the Anglican communion. Moreover, in England and elsewhere, Anglicans more than others in the West have maintained the appurtenances of catholicity in liturgy, ceremony, nomenclature, and ecclesial structures. Then there is the factor that, for many immigrant Catholics in this country, the Episcopal Church represented the social and cultural status of their assimilationist aspirations. That is still the case for some Catholics. So there is a lingering sense of a “special relationship,” and not only in the mind of the Anglican-Catholic Consultation. But I rather doubt that it is strong enough to move the recent suggestions from the Consultation beyond the level of interesting ideas.
• The Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) has a record of provoking salutary trouble from time to time. It recently issued guidelines for creating and sustaining something like a dialogue with Muslims. The guidelines delicately suggested that it is “unhelpful” and even “dangerous” when evangelical Protestant leaders publicly declare that Islam is a “wicked religion.” Typical of one strong reaction is columnist Cal Thomas, who writes: “As chronicled in this column over several years, invective against Christians, Jews, and all other non-Muslims regarded as ‘infidels’ rains down from Islamic pulpits throughout the world. The harsh rhetoric makes reference to Koranic justifications of violent means to religious ends. These include the takeover of not only the ‘West Bank,’ but all of Israel. Why would such people negotiate with ‘infidel’ diplomats who represent ‘the great Satan’ and settle for less when they believe their God wants them to take it all?” Thomas concludes, “Christians and Jews aren’t declaring war on the world, and they are not hijacking airplanes to fly into buildings or blowing themselves up among civilians. Those who do claim their mandate is from Islam. The shoe is on the wrong foot.” Well, yes and no. There is no doubt that the overwhelming preponderance of nastiness is coming from the Muslim side, but why, by responding in kind, should Christians accommodate Muslim radicals who want a holy war? We do not need to choose between being thugs or wimps, and the IRD guidelines certainly do not advocate wimpiness. They do recognize our obligation to explore whatever truth Christians and Muslims can affirm together, our interest in avoiding an unmitigated clash of civilizations, possibly descending into religious warfare, and our responsibility as the stronger party to take the initiative in building a climate of trust—or at least of reduced distrust—in which the more sensible voices within the worlds of Islam can gain a better hearing. The IRD guidelines got it just about right, I think, and I would say that even if I were not on the board of that fine organization.
• “A lost chance for moral leadership,” is how Philip F. Lawler, Editor of Catholic World Report, describes the role of the Holy See in the debate leading up to intervention in Iraq. “The just war tradition gave the Church a means of imposing restraints on warfare. By moving away from that tradition, Church leaders undermine their own influence.” There is no doubt that some in the Vatican not only moved away from that tradition but flatly rejected it. Archbishop Renato Martino of the dicastery known as Justice and Peace, for instance, appeared to jettison 1,500 years of moral teaching by declaring, “There is no such thing as a just war.” Other Vatican officials were content to sing along with the sixties banality, “Give peace a chance.” Lawler writes, “We know what the Vatican does not want: war. But what alternative does the Holy See propose? What does the Vatican want?” The worldwide war on terrorism, writes Lawler, poses questions not adequately addressed by traditional just war formulations. To cite but one such question, “How can a nation-state respond to attacks mounted by non-governmental terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda? Is it justifiable to attack other states that support those terrorists? If so, how close must the connection be?” Lawler concludes: “Today more than ever—when the potential costs of war are so high, and threats to our civilization are so immediate—the world needs the moral guidance that the Church can provide. To abandon that effort at this crucial moment, to substitute bland and pious generalities for the judicious application of just war principles, to condemn military action without offering realistic alternative means of securing justice and peace—would be a serious abnegation of the Church’s mission to the modern world.” In recent months, curial officials have repeatedly said that the teaching of the Church is not pacifist. We knew that. But what wisdom does the Church have to offer statesmen who must make life and death decisions in a dangerously disordered world? We know that, too: centuries of the most careful reflection on the criteria of justice and injustice with respect to the use of military force. Unfortunately, that tradition was ignored or traduced in most of the statements from Rome this past year, even as it was explicitly engaged by political decision-makers here and in Britain. It is hard to disagree with the observation that we have witnessed “a lost chance for moral leadership.”
• Now this, one might think, is a welcome instance of episcopal leadership. Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester, Mass., told Holy Cross College that he would not be attending the commencement at which Chris Matthews of television’s Hardball would be giving the address and receiving an honorary degree. Matthews has publicly and repeatedly declared himself to be “pro-choice.” “I cannot,” said the Bishop, “let my presence imply support for anything less than the protection of all life at all its stages.” But then a measure of confusion enters the picture. The Boston Globe quotes the Bishop as also saying, “I am not questioning the fidelity of the College of the Holy Cross to its mission as a Catholic college or its dedication to the mission of the Catholic Church.” I’m working on this. The Bishop’s presence might imply support for something less than the Church’s teaching on the protection of human life. On the other hand, the college’s inviting Matthews to give the commencement address and awarding him an honorary degree does not raise a question about its dedication to the mission of the Catholic Church. Maybe the Church’s teaching is not part of its mission. Or maybe, when it comes to fidelity, what bishops do matters while what colleges do does not. Or maybe he means that the fidelity and dedication of the college is already so much in question that he does not see the need to mention the obvious. Or maybe, dare one say, he is trying to please everybody by boycotting the offending event and, at the same time, reassuring those responsible that he does not think it is really all that offensive. After all, those protesting the honor to Mr. Matthews are a momentary nuisance, but the bishop has to live with Holy Cross. Or maybe the statement is to be read as saying, “My attending the event would imply infidelity but your sponsoring it does not because your fidelity is not in question.” I need some help here. Instances of episcopal leadership are in such short supply that I’m reluctant to give up hope on the possibility that this was the real thing.
• The next issue will include an examination of the new encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, issued this past Holy Week, looking with particular interest at what it says about intercommunion between Catholics and other Christians. I will look also at some intriguing hints that Rome may be reconsidering its position that Anglican ministerial orders are null and void. And, of course, there will be commentary on new developments on the scandal front. What is this by now, “Scandal Time XV”? With Frank Keating’s resignation as chairman of the National Review Board and sharpened disagreements at the semiannual meeting of bishops in St. Louis, there would appear to be no end in sight. In addition to which, gay rights issues are rising to the boiling point in several religious communities and, as a result of court decisions, in the more encompassing culture wars. Perhaps you, too, have noticed the number of commentators who recently have taken to referring to “the culture wars of the nineties.” As though they are behind us. Dream on. And maybe there will be something worth reporting about the mood of Europe after I get back from the annual seminar in Krakow, Poland. So much happening. So little time.
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: Roger E. Olson on Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Books & Culture, May/June 2003. While We’re At It: Ted Haggard on “Judeo-Christian,” Religion Watch, June 2003. Elaine Pagels on the Gospel of Thomas, Publishers Weekly, April 14, 2003. James Hitchcock on the National Catholic Reporter, Human Life Review, Winter 2003. Journalistic responsibility at the L.A. Times, National Review Online, May 29, 2003. Bartholomew Tours, ZENIT, June 3, 2003. The ELCA on homosexuality, Forum Letter, June 2003. John Saliba, S.J., on Thomas Oden, America, April 28-May 5, 2003. On LGBT at Berkeley’s GTU, Forum Letter, May 2003. Pagan Babies, Publishers Weekly, April 14, 2003. Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., on plenary councils, Lutheran Forum, Spring 2003. Catholic politicians, catholic eye, April 30, 2003. On Anglican-Catholic dialogue, Catholic Trends, April 12, 2003. Philip F. Lawler on just war tradition at the Vatican, Catholic World Report, March 2003. Bishop Daniel Reilly and the Holy Cross commencement, Boston Globe, May 22, 2003.