The Public Square
There are in the press repeated references to “the rapidly growing lay protest movement, Voice of the Faithful.” There is indeed such an organization, but, as for “rapidly growing,” VOTF doesn’t seem to have moved much beyond the thirty to forty thousand range of the old liberal reliables who can always be counted on to sign up for the revolution that they think the Second Vatican Council was supposed to be. Remember that a few years ago most of the same folk launched a campaign to get millions to sign a petition of generalized protest in the hope of matching the several million who subscribed to the “We Are Church” insurgency in Germany and Austria. After extending the time for the campaign several times, they ended up with thirty thousand signatures, tantamount to a couple of large parishes in this country of more than sixty-five million Catholics.
But VOTF plods on, and now some of its leaders believe Voice has found its theological voice in Paul Lakeland, Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University, who has just published The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church (Continuum). Scott Appleby of Notre Dame, a liberal of studied moderation, writes in America that Lakeland is just what is needed if we are to escape the fate of “our embarrassingly dysfunctional way until the last ounce of credibility and influence of our faith community is squandered.” (It is a sure sign that something’s up when people speak of the Catholic Church as “our faith community.”) Appleby says that, if we have the courage for it, Lakeland’s book could become a “landmark.” Lakeland’s chief point is the familiar one that Christianity is not about religion or the salvation of souls but about affirming and revolutionizing the secular. God planned for Adam and Eve to fall, for, in being expelled from the garden, God “gives them the world.” With his typical brio, Lakeland writes, “Paradise is for infants, not for human beings.”
Confessing his debt to liberation theology, he says that Catholic laity are “oppressed” and “in chains” under the tyranny of the clergy who enjoy “the most secure lifestyle of anyone in the community, except perhaps for the fabulously wealthy.” (In connection with secure lifestyles, he does not mention tenured university professors.) Along the way, he vehemently rejects a bundle of Church teachings which are depicted as the baggage lay people must leave behind if they are really to take over. Perhaps not surprisingly, he ends up with a minimalist, medieval, and post-Tridentine view of priesthood as limited to the cultic functions of presiding at the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance. It is the very view of episcopacy and priesthood, one might note, that Vatican II so explicitly aimed to correct. He endorses a variant of Gallicanism, or nationalism, in which the “American church” would have a synodal structure composed of “bishops, leaders of local communities, ministers of the church, and ministers in the world” who would have the power to act in matters such as abolishing priestly celibacy and ordaining women. Bishops are referred to as “the oligarchy”; “leaders of local communities” are, except for cultic functions, lay people, as are “ministers of the church,” while “ministers in the world” includes, as best I understand him, everybody.
Christopher Ruddy writes in Commonweal: “Lakeland’s insistence on the Church’s ‘worldly’ mission leads him to deprecate the centrality of worship. The Eucharist is not simply something that the Church does, however, but what the Church is. In this context, his understanding of worship as an event where believers renew themselves for their worldly mission is somewhat functionalistic. In writing that worship is ‘not the task or even the most important task’ of the Church, Lakeland contradicts Vatican II’s statement that the liturgy is the ‘summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the source from which all its power flows.’” Ruddy draws attention to a different understanding of Christian faith and life set forth in Robert Louis Wilken’s recent book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Ruddy is right; there could hardly be a sharper contrast in understandings of what it means to be a Christian than that between Wilken and Lakeland.
Lakeland’s view of Christian faith brings to mind Obi-Wan Kenobi of Star Wars fame: “The key word in this working definition of faith is ‘force.’ Faith is a primal force. It is not an attitude, or a set of opinions, or an ideology. It is the imagination on the move.” There is much more. “If modernity was the time of demythologization, postmodernity is surely the moment for a return to the myth, albeit that—unlike premodernity—we now know it as a myth.” “If we ask where . . . the future of faith lies, the smart money is on the power of the people.” “The God in whom the whole of Western religion has throughout premodernity and well into modernity placed all its faith is either dead with Hegel, buried with Heine, murdered by Nietzsche, or alive but an abuser.” The oppressed of the world—which apparently includes everybody but Catholic clergy—live in a “polemological” world. “Thus the practice of popular religion in such contexts is resistant, transgressive, and utopian. Faith becomes an opening to the utopian space within the polemological space of everyday power relations.” “It is plain to me at least that if we are to have a worthwhile future to bequeath to our children, it will only be because we shall find the strength for true political activism and real social change precisely where Gandhi said it would be, at the grassroots.”
Ah, yes, “the grassroots.” All of us of a certain age remember them well. Lakeland acknowledges his debt to the Baptist theologian, Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School. If you enjoyed Cox’s book of thirty-eight years ago, The Secular City, you will love The Liberation of the Laity. In fact, except for the specifically Catholic embellishments, you have already read it.
The Meanings of Apostolic
The future of ecumenism understood as the quest for visible unity among Christians and their ecclesial communities depends above all on the commitment and directions of the Catholic Church. Which means it depends in significant part on the leadership of Walter Cardinal Kasper, who in 2001 succeeded Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Kasper was for years a distinguished professor of theology at the University of Tübingen before becoming bishop of the German diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. Although he has published prolifically in German, his work is not well known in the English-speaking world. One welcomes therefore a collection of essays just published by Crossroad, Leadership in the Church, which carries the telling subtitle How Traditional Roles Can Serve the Christian Community Today. Kasper has a sympathetic appreciation of “liberal” discontents with church structures, joined to a conviction that a deeper understanding and living out of the apostolic meaning of those structures is the path to renewal, including the renewal of the ecumenical imperative. Thus, at its best, his writing advances the goal of the Second Vatican Council, aggiornamento through ressourcement—renewal through a reappropriation of the fullness of the tradition.
The Catholic Church and the pontifical council are at the epicenter of ecumenism for many reasons, not least because well over half the Christians in the world are Catholics. John Paul II has repeatedly asserted that the Church’s commitment to unity is “irrevocable.” Ecumenism is not simply another program or policy; it is inherent in the self-understanding of the Church. As Kasper notes, there are official dialogues with a long list of churches and ecclesial communities: the ancient Oriental churches (Armenians, Copts, Syrians, Ethiopians, Malankara Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East), the Byzantine Orthodox churches (the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox, the Greek, Serbian, and Romanian Orthodox, et al.), the Anglican communion, the Lutheran and Reformed communions, along with Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, Adventists, and a wide array of evangelical and Pentecostal communities around the world. The pontifical council has been strongly supportive of the ongoing project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which began in this country and has inspired similar efforts in Latin America and elsewhere.
An Interesting Start
Kasper’s tenure at the council got off to an interesting—others say controversial—start with a very public argument with Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In fact, the argument was joined before Kasper took up his official duties with the council, but it prompted some to wonder whether, under his leadership, the council would vie with CDF as a parallel or alternative voice of magisterial teaching. That prospect could result in considerable confusion over who speaks for Rome. A 1992 document of CDF stated that the universal Church “in its essential mystery is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.” Kasper published an article criticizing that claim and affirming the priority of the local Church, meaning the bishop and the communities under his leadership. This may seem like a very arcane dispute, but it is not without significant consequences.
In the present book, Kasper offers “a friendly rejoinder” to Ratzinger’s critical response to his article. He writes: “My remarks were not primarily dictated by a systematic theological interest. Rather, they were born of my pastoral concerns and experience: as the bishop of a large diocese, I have seen the steady widening of the gulf between the norms of the universal Church and local praxis. . . . Unfortunately, Cardinal Ratzinger has not chosen to engage in dialogue with these pastoral concerns and experiences.” Kasper would seem to be retreating from a “systematic theological” argument with Ratzinger, although the original CDF document and his article criticizing it were undoubtedly framed as an exercise in systematic theology. And, indeed, his “friendly rejoinder” is not devoid of theological argument.
For instance, the CDF document, following venerable tradition, sees in the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles clear evidence of the presence and priority of the universal Church. It says: “The Church is manifested, temporally, on the day of Pentecost in the community . . . gathered around Mary and the twelve Apostles, the representatives of the one unique Church and the founders-to-be of the local churches, who have a mission directed to the world: from the first the Church speaks all languages.” That claim, writes Kasper, “cannot go unchallenged.” He says that many exegetes believe that the account in Acts is a “Lukan construction.” He cites Michael Theobald’s argument that the Pentecost depicted in Acts was but one of many local gatherings that in the course of time became “the Church formed out of all peoples.” “According to Theobald, normative character belongs to this process—not only to Luke’s story of how the Church began on the first Pentecost feast.” If one must choose between a “Lukan construction” and a ‘Theobaldian construction,” one may be forgiven for inclining to the former in view of its authority as inspired Scripture and its acceptance throughout two millennia of the Church’s tradition.
Kasper quickly moves on, however, recognizing that the great question at issue is not to be adjudicated by historical research. The more important issue is the ontological primacy of the local or universal Church. He writes, “Cardinal Ratzinger now makes a surprising move” by arguing from the preexistence of the Church. Kasper then offers what must be described as a somewhat garbled account of Ratzinger’s argument, ignoring its foundation in the reality of the one Christ who can have as his body only one (i.e., universal) Church. Kasper cites in support of his argument for the local Church no less an authority than Henri de Lubac, who wrote, “A universal Church that exists antecedently to all the individual churches, or that is conceived as existing in itself independently of the local churches, is merely an abstraction.” Antecedence, however, returns us to the historical question, which Kasper recognizes is not the decisive issue, and, as he undoubtedly knows, nobody contends that the universal Church exists “independently” of local churches.
The 1992 document “On Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion” is precisely about the “essential mystery” of the Church as communio in the life of the Triune God. Despite his disagreements with the document and with Ratzinger’s subsequent statements, Kasper wants it to be understood that he agrees with core affirmations of the document and the Second Vatican Council on which it draws. For instance, he agrees that, as the Council said, the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church, meaning that, as he puts it, “despite all the weakness of the Roman Catholic Church, God’s faithfulness preserves the one Church in it: this is the concrete location of the one Church.” As for the universal and local Church, he says that each “includes” the other, that they “inhere” in each other, that their relationship “is one of co-penetration or circumincession,” of “mutual indwelling and correlation,” and so forth. He ends up, however, by speaking of “a balanced relationship between the universal Church and the local Church.” One may wonder how the theological concepts of co-penetration and mutual indwelling fit with the language about a “balanced relationship.” To speak of a balanced relationship suggests a connection between two distinct institutions; in this case Rome (representing the universal Church) and the bishop (representing the local Church). Such language is less theological than practical and church-political. Perhaps it is fair to infer that, in Kasper’s view, Ratzinger’s seemingly theological argument is really an argument in the service of the jurisdictional primacy of Rome. That may help explain what he means when says he is writing out of his pastoral concerns about “the steady widening of the gulf between the norms of the universal Church and local praxis.”
Authority Proper and Necessary
Kasper writes, “The bishop is not a delegate of the pope, but one commissioned by Jesus Christ with a proper responsibility of his own . . . which is rooted in the sacramental order. He must have all the authority necessary for the governance of his diocese. All this is the unambiguous teaching of the last council.” That is no doubt the teaching, but it does not eliminate a measure of ambiguity and room for disagreement as to what authority is proper and necessary. The relationship between the Petrine ministry exercised by Rome and the authority of local, and also national, churches has for centuries been much disputed, with the practical authority of Rome waxing and waning according to political and cultural currents both ecclesiastical and secular. Cardinal Kasper leaves no doubt about his reading of the present moment: “In the aftermath of the council, centralist tendencies have regained their strength.” He adds that “it would be unjust to attribute this only to the curia’s greed for power.” The “only” is worthy of note, remembering that this “friendly rejoinder” was written after Kasper himself became a member of the papal curia.
Commenting on Leadership in the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles says of Kasper, “Even theologians who might differ from some of his conclusions will be impressed by the strength of his arguments.” Dulles has written extensively on the increasing rather than decreasing importance of authoritative coordination by Peter in view of of the fissiparous dynamics of cultural differences and communications technologies in a time of putative globalization. His would seem to be a very different reading of the “balancing” required between the universal, on the one hand, and the local or national, on the other. He and many others would no doubt agree with Kasper when the latter says, “In many cases, one could go so far as to speak of a mental and practical schism.” The difference is over what should be done about that schism. Kasper writes, “Many laypersons and priests can no longer understand universal church regulations and simply ignore them. This applies both to ethical issues and to questions of sacramental and ecumenical praxis such as the admission of divorced and remarried persons to communion or the offer of eucharistic hospitality to non-Catholics.” “A solution is possible,” he writes, “only if the bishop has a certain freedom of action in his application of universal church norms. . . . Obviously, no compromise is possible on questions of the faith. . . . But in addition to the immutable doctrines of faith and morals, there is a wide sphere of ecclesiastical discipline that does indeed have a more or less close connection with the truths of the faith, but is in principle open to change.”
Such generalities are, for the most part, unexceptionable. One may ask, however, whether it is the case that laity and priests do not understand universal “regulations” or whether, more commonly, they disagree with them and therefore ignore them. And generalities tend toward particularities. It is not easy to see how either truth or unity would be served if different bishops had the authority to teach and practice in contradiction to one another with respect to “ethical issues” or, for instance, the admission of non-Catholics to the Eucharist. One assumes that, in referring to ethical issues, Cardinal Kasper does not have in mind questions such as abortion or the blessing of same-sex unions, but he does not say. In recent years, Rome felt it necessary to challenge what it viewed as the German bishops’ dubious cooperation with the abortion regime by certifying that women seeking abortions had received spiritual counseling. In any event, Kasper’s observations about the connection between faith and morals would appear to be somewhat at variance with John Paul II’s repeated insistence that moral theology is theology and that social doctrine is doctrine, as well as Ratzinger’s writings on moral teaching as an integral part of “the structure of faith.”
The Bishop at the Center
Much of the present book is devoted to ministerial orders, with an essay on the diaconate and several extended discussions on the episcopal office and the meaning of apostolic succession. It has been observed frequently that Vatican II had relatively little to say about the priestly office, and that is true also of Kasper’s reflections. Prior to the council, the diaconate was generally a transitional office on the way to priestly ordination. Moreover, the bishop was typically viewed as a priest who has been promoted to the jurisdictional office of supervising other priests. In short, the presbyteral priesthood was at the center of the sacramental understanding of ministerial order. The council, says Kasper, viewed the permanent diaconate “as an autonomous grade of the sacrament of orders.” Deacons are not substitutes for priests or simply helpers of priests. Rather, “deacons are immediately subordinate to the bishop,” to which he adds, “naturally, this entails fraternal collaboration with the priests who likewise share in his ministry.” The bishop, rather than the priest, is now at the center.
The essential apostolic office is that of the bishop, an office intimately associated with the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Kasper quotes Augustine: Christus est qui praedicat, qui baptizat, qui consecrat—in the actions of the bishop, it is Christ who preaches, baptizes, and consecrates. Jerome held that ordination to the episcopate is not a sacrament and, under the influence of Peter Lombard, most medieval theologians agreed. “This view,” writes Kasper, “was definitively superseded only by the Second Vatican Council, which taught that episcopal consecration must be understood as the plenitude of the sacrament of orders.” In fact, a bishop today is not consecrated but ordained. Kasper writes, “The bishop is wholly and definitively commissioned as pastor for his flock, whereas the priest is charged by the bishop with service in particular and limited pastoral tasks for one period of time.” In this sharply subordinated view of the priest, he does not address the problem posed by what might be called itinerant bishops on their way to being “promoted” to larger and “more important” sees, leaving the priest as the more permanent shepherd of a particular flock.
“A bishop must not polarize,” he writes, “since his task is to realize the peace of the Church. His is the ministry of unity and peace.” This generalization, too, is not without problems. Surely the faithful teaching of the truth will sometimes have the effect of “polarizing” those who oppose the truth. One thinks, for instance, of the frequently tumultuous ministry of St. Augustine. In addition, with respect to the universal Church, Kasper views the papal “ministry of unity and peace” as an instance of unwelcome centralization. Indeed, in discussing the “schism” between Rome and the local Church, he suggests that the bishop is obliged to represent the concerns of priests and laity over against centralized authority. In this connection, or so it would seem, the bishop may be, and perhaps must be, a polarizing figure. While, as he says, the local bishop is, sacramentally speaking, as much a bishop as is the bishop of Rome, it does not follow that the bishop is, jurisdictionally speaking, a pope in his own diocese.
“People of God”
The “traditional roles” referred to in Kasper’s subtitle are in the service of the sacramental integrity of the Church. There is scarcely an aspect of the council’s teaching, he says, that has been more misunderstood than the understanding of the Church as the “people of God.” The theological reality of the people of God (laos tou Theou) has been confused with the political idea of the demos, and “has led to demands for the democratization of the Church.” Greater participation is one thing, but the push for democratization “is often motivated by the ideological desire to reduce the irreducible distinction between the various charisms, offices, and ministries.” Such distinction was not a later accretion compromising the “equality” of the earliest Church. Kasper writes, “There was never any initial period without ministries: these are as old as the Church itself, and they have been conferred by the laying on of hands since the apostolic age.”
“Community leadership in the theological sense,” he writes, “is possible only for one who is ordained, since it cannot be divorced from the celebration of the Eucharist. Such a dichotomy would reduce community leadership to a purely functional service, thus reintroducing the fatal separation between ordo and iurisdictio and reversing one of the most important developments of Vatican II.” Kasper challenges a practice that is taking hold in some dioceses also in this country, that of appointing lay people as “pastoral assistants” who act as de facto pastors, doing everything but presiding at the Eucharist. The result is “an official unordained ministry in the Church,” and that “puts the basic sacramental structure of the Church at risk.”
The sacramental structure of the Church is required for fidelity to the apostolic order that has been from the beginning, and the bishop, who is successor to the apostles, is at the center of that order. The bishops “possess in plenitude this apostolic ministry in the full sense of the term; priests share in this mission of the bishops and are called their collaborators, helpers, and instruments, as well as their sons, brothers, and friends. They are to represent the bishop in the local community and make him present there.” That understanding, appealing to the teaching of the council, has in some cases led to a downgrading of the priesthood. During the recent scandals in this country, for instance, one bishop went so far as to claim that his priests were “independent contractors,” which would seem to come pretty close to saying they are hired hands. From Kasper’s discussion of the “plenitude” of ministry possessed by bishops, one might infer a distinct deficiency in the ministry of one who is “merely” a priest.
The Real Presence of the Bishop
Recently a priest who had served for years as an official in the chancery office was ordained an auxiliary bishop. “At last,” he declared, “I am fully a priest.” It might have been somewhat jarring if he had said, “At last, I am a bishop,” although it seems that that, in effect, is what he meant. There may be a shortage of priests, but there is no shortage of priests who would like to be bishops. That this auxiliary bishop at his chancery desk is more fully a priest than the parish pastor faithfully caring for the people of God seems counterintuitive. There is a sense in which it is no doubt right to say that priests “represent the bishop in the local community and make him present there.” Much more important, and not in contradiction, the priest represents Christ and makes him present there. The traditional language of the Church is that the priest acts in persona Christi, not in persona episcopi. Kasper is insistent that the bishop of the local Church is not a delegate of the pope. So also the priest of the community within the local Church is not adequately described as the delegate of the bishop.
Christus est qui praedicat, qui baptizat, qui consecrat. That is as true of the actions of a bishop as of a pope, and as true of a priest as of a bishop. In preaching and baptizing, it is as true of a deacon, and, in the case of emergency baptism, as true of any lay person. Kasper is rightly concerned for the integrity of the total Church in its apostolic structure, and to that end he contends for the dignity of the episcopal office in relation to the Petrine ministry, which is to strengthen and not undercut the brethren (Luke 22). However, the episcopal office, including the Petrine ministry, along with all the curial apparatus and thousands of chancery officialdoms is there for one purpose: to assure continuing obedience to the command of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me.” The Church exists for and from the preaching of the Word and the doing of the sacramental things, with the Eucharist as the very “source and summit” of her life. That is the truth so powerfully underscored by John Paul’s most recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia—the Church of the Eucharist. The priest at the altar may, as Kasper says, make the bishop present, but that is relatively uninteresting in comparison with the presence of Christ.
It may be that Catholic piety regarding the dignity and power of the priest has sometimes been exaggerated. Graham Greene’s whisky priest in The Power and the Glory who can, despite his many failings, “put God on the tongues of men” is dismissed by some as an outmoded “mystique of the priesthood.” Correctly understood, however, it is not a matter of mystique but of the deepest mystery of Christ keeping his promise, of what St. Paul calls the treasure in earthen vessels. A humble priest saying Mass with the poor in a slum of Mexico City effects the same mystery as does the cardinal archbishop in his cathedral or the pope in the basilica of St. Peter’s. It is finally Christ who both effects and is the mystery. Kasper knows this. He writes, “Just as Jesus Christ is the primary celebrant of the sacraments, so he is also the primary and the real teacher and shepherd in the Church. This is why the Tübingen school spoke of Jesus Christ’s ‘handing on of himself’ (Selbstüberlieferung) in the Holy Spirit.” Precisely. Yet, in correcting what he views as a distorted understanding of ministry derived from an exaggerated idea of the papal office, he appears to propose an exaggerated idea of the episcopal office. As a result, the central action of what Christ does when priest and people are gathered to do this in memory of him is, no doubt inadvertently, obscured. It is for the sake of that action and that mystery that the entire structure and apostolic order of the Church finds its necessary reason for being. (Kasper’s argument also neglects the ways in which the Petrine ministry serves as a court of appeal for priests and laity suffering under tyrannical bishops. It is not only popes who can abuse their authority. But that is a subject for another time.)
When Ministry is Apostolic
Of particular pertinence to his ecumenical task are Kasper’s reflections on the meaning of apostolic succession in ministry. “This link between the apostolic tradition and the succession is the consequence of understanding the Church and its ministries as a sacrament, i.e., a sign and instrument of salvation: succession in the ministry is understood as a sign and instrument of the res, namely, the transmission of the gospel. Apostolicity in the sense of historical continuity serves to ensure apostolicity in the sense of the substantial identity of the apostolic message.” The idea of apostolic succession changed in the late middle ages, he says, when “the Church was increasingly understood only as a legal structure, where ministerial authority was no longer a sacramental repraesentatio brought about by the Spirit, but a potestas bestowed on the individual office-holder as his personal possession.” He cites instances in which priests served as bishops without episcopal ordination, acting only with the potestas bestowed by the jurisdictional authority of Rome.
As valuable as it is to highlight the connection between apostolic succession and apostolic message, along with the primarily sacramental rather than juridical nature of the episcopal office, interesting questions are raised by other statements. Of the apostolic succession Kasper says, “This is not a succession in the linear sense, where one office-bearer follows another; rather, new members are co-opted and integrated into the apostolic college with its mission that is carried on from age to age.” Or again, “When a bishop enters the apostolic succession, he does not receive some private channel (or ‘pipeline’) connecting him to the apostles. Rather, he enters the fellowship of bishops. The individual bishop is a successor of the apostles, not thanks to an unbroken chain going back from his predecessors to one of the apostles, but because he is in communion with the entire ordo episcoporum, which as a whole is the successor of the apostolic college and of the apostles’ mission.”
The reference to a “pipeline” is, of course, pejorative hyperbole and is not to be pressed. It is worth asking, however, how Kasper’s construal of succession fits with that set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Church continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, assisted by priests, in union with the successor to Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor.” John Paul quotes that passage in Ecclesia de Eucharistia and adds this explanation: “Succession to the apostles in the pastoral mission necessarily entails the sacrament of holy orders, that is, the uninterrupted sequence from the very beginning of valid episcopal ordinations. This succession is essential for the Church to exist in a proper and full sense.” Kasper’s idea of succession may not be in conflict with that, but it is different. Not incidentally, typically downplayed or unmentioned in his discussion of the question is the necessity of communion with Peter. With respect to both the meaning of succession and the need for communion with Peter, Kasper no doubt has ecumenical considerations in mind.
Kasper is keenly alert to Protestant sensibilities, and indeed can sound very Protestant. For example: “The authority of the Church’s ministry reaches only as far as the gospel—hence, we may say that we do not believe in the Church, but in God; we believe in the Church only to the extent that it proclaims the word of God. We follow church leaders only to the extent that they themselves follow Christ. . . . Some situations oblige one to obey God and one’s conscience rather than the leaders of the Church. Indeed, one may even be obliged to accept excommunication rather than act against one’s own conscience.” Later on, however, Kasper speaks in what seems to be a different and more Catholic voice. “The Second Vatican Council does indeed affirm that the Magisterium is not above the Word, but is at the service of the Word; but it does not speak of a polarity between the gospel and the Church in such a way that Scripture would exercise a critical function vis-à-vis the Church and the tradition. On the contrary, the council declares that the Church does not derive its certainty about revelation only from Scripture, and it emphasizes the inherent unity and interrelation between tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium.” The reader may well experience a certain confusion at this point. If the Scripture or the gospel does not exercise a “critical function” in relation to Church and tradition, how could one know to what extent the Church is proclaiming the word of God? At several points in these essays one wishes for a more connected treatment of the “inherent unity and interrelation” of Scripture, tradition, Magisterium, and conscience.
It is evident, however, that Kasper does believe in the Church, and without the conventionally Protestant qualifications. In fact, it is precisely on this point that he sees the fundamental divergence between Protestant and Catholic. The Protestant Reformers, he says, dismantled the inherent connection between traditio and successio, between the gospel and the historic reality of the Church, and did so not only in this instance or that but as a matter of principle. “This decision by the Reformers concerns not one isolated partial problem, but the total sacramental view of the Church, i.e., the question whether the Church’s visible elements are sacraments and signs of its spiritual essence, which can be perceived only in faith.” Luther and Calvin did not propose a completely hidden, invisible, or platonic Church. “Unlike the enthusiastic groups, they clearly recognized in word and sacrament, and in ecclesial ministries, visible elements in the Church. But this does not amount to the affirmation that the salvation bestowed by God once and for all is mediated through the Church. Accordingly, the primary break was not caused by an interruption of the chain of succession, but by a new understanding of the relationship between the Church and the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.”
Friedrich Schleiermacher was the father of nineteenth century liberal Protestant theology, and Kasper cites his claim that Protestantism “makes the relationship of the individual to the Church dependent on his relationship to Christ,” whereas Catholicism “makes the relationship of the individual to Christ dependent on his relationship to the Church.” That formulation, says Kasper, may be somewhat exaggerated but it “points in the right direction.” He notes that Protestant thinkers today are not agreed on whether the denial of the sacramental nature of the Church arose out of an emergency situation in the sixteenth century and has lasted to the present day, or whether it is foundational and constitutive for the Protestant construal of the Christian reality. Kasper’s way of putting the matter brings to mind Ratzinger’s assertion that the crucial difference between Catholic and Protestant is that, for the Catholic, faith in Christ and faith in the Church is one act of faith, whereas, for the Protestant, faith in the Church is a second act of faith, if it is thought to be necessary or even legitimate. In a similar vein, I have written elsewhere about “ecclesial” and “non-ecclesial” faith in Christ.
Upping the Ante
In this context, Kasper notes that ecumenism necessarily engages disagreements on various doctrines and practices, and asks whether such disagreements do or should divide the churches. Before we can make decisions about differences and imperfect agreements, however, “We must first agree about what the Church is and what church unity requires.” The conclusion logically follows: “This is why a discussion of ecclesiology is the most important task on the agenda of future ecumenical dialogue.” Some interlocutors in dialogue may well complain that Kasper is upping the ecumenical ante. On some formulations of doctrine, Kasper appears to be more flexible (others might say liberal) than their presentation in statements of the Magisterium. That would appear to be the case with respect to, for instance, apostolic succession in ministry. But it avails little if we reach agreement on this doctrine or that but are in fundamental disagreement about the sacramental nature of the Church in inseparable unity with Christ and the salvation he bestows. That is why ecclesiology must be the great subject if ecumenism is to have a promising future.
Kasper writes, “What is the goal of the ecumenical pilgrimage, and what are the next steps? The Catholic answer is clear: unity in faith, in the sacraments, and in ecclesial ministries.” That is an answer, he notes, that is shared with the Orthodox, both believing that eucharistic and ecclesial fellowship belong together. Implicit in that answer is the understanding that eucharistic fellowship without unity in faith and ministry would be the end of ecumenism. That understanding is made more explicit in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (see “Getting Along at the Altar,” Public Square, October). Here again, one misses in Kasper’s formulations a clear reference to the Petrine ministry, a reference so consistently prominent in magisterial statements such as the great encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One). What constitutes unity among Catholics and what constitutes the unity with other Christians for which we pray is being in communion with a bishop who is in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor to Peter.
“Apostolicity in the sense of succession in the episcopal ministry,” Kasper writes, “can be communicated only by a church like the Catholic Church, which itself possesses this ministry: the ecclesia apostolica subsists in the Catholic Church.” He immediately adds that this “does not reduce ecumenism to a one-way street or a mere ‘return to the fold.’” Other communions have “many substantial apostolic elements” and, when Protestants “enter the apostolic succession,” the catholicity of that succession will be realized “in a fuller manner.” This prospect is not to be achieved by our programs and schedules but entails an eschatological hope. “The fullness of apostolicity and catholicity will be completely manifest only at the end of time.” Along the way, we encounter difficulties and resistance. “It takes more than a single day to fill in trenches that have divided people for centuries; nor can one simply hop over them, since no church can allow itself to deny the tradition and the faith of its fathers and mothers.” Perhaps “deny” is not the right word, but in the course of ecumenical development it would seem that others will have to overcome those elements of their tradition that precluded unity with the Catholic Church, just as the Catholic Church has overcome her earlier rejection of the authentically Christian and ecclesial elements in other communions.
In August 2000, CDF issued the document Dominus Iesus, which occasioned considerable controversy and led some to speak of a “crisis” in ecumenism. Many non-Catholics, says Kasper, were “disappointed and hurt by this declaration—and this has hurt me too, since the sadness and pain of my friends makes me sad and pained.” He calls the document “unnecessarily sharp and harsh.” Kasper’s public criticism of Dominus Iesus was not well received by some curial colleagues who insist that he participated in the writing and signed off on the final statement. Protestants were offended by the document’s assertion that their communities are not “Church” in the full sense of the term. In the present book, Kasper responds in a manner almost identical to the response of Cardinal Ratzinger. Kasper writes: “Dominus Iesus does not in fact deny that these bodies are ‘churches.’ It says only that they are not churches in the sense in which the Catholic Church understands itself to be ‘Church,’ and this is surely undeniable! In terms of their own ecclesiology, they have no desire whatever to be a church like the Catholic Church. They are a different type of ‘church.’ They do not possess the episcopal ministry in the historic succession, nor the Petrine ministry; but for us Catholics, both these elements are essential.” It should also be noted that some Protestants, such as the distinguished Baptist theologian Timothy George, warmly welcomed Dominus Iesus as a powerfully orthodox statement of the gospel and a Christ-centered reflection on the unity that Our Lord wills for his disciples, while noting that the document also candidly addresses perduring obstacles to the realization of that unity.
Kasper cites a statement by the Protestant church in Germany, issued a year after Dominus Iesus and titled Church Fellowship in Protestant Understanding. The statement declared, “Protestants must oppose the Catholic position on the necessity and form of the ‘Petrine ministry’ and the primacy of the pope, the understanding of apostolic succession, the refusal to admit women to the ordained ministry, and not least the role of canon law in the Roman Catholic Church.” Kasper comments: “This formulation is so harsh, so devoid of nuances and uninterested in the outcome of ecumenical dialogues, that it makes Dominus Iesus appear a positive ecumenical text by comparison.”
All Christians, Kasper writes, now face a new circumstance in which many of the old questions, both those that united and those that divided Christians, are largely irrelevant. For instance, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Lutherans and Catholics was a great ecumenical achievement but stirred little public interest. “The questions of the sixteenth century had ceased to interest them.” Unlike the time of Luther, “our experience today is no longer the crushing burden of sin, but the absence of any experience of sin. . . . Most people today have no idea what is meant by ‘sin,’ still less by original sin, redemption through the cross, or the mediation of salvation through the sacraments of the Church. . . . We have all become more or less Deists, no longer asking: ‘How can I do what God expects?’ but ‘How can I do justice to myself and to my own life?’” Kasper’s bleak depiction of a thoroughly secularized culture no doubt reflects his own experience of the situation in Germany and Western Europe more generally, which is hardly representative of the larger world. But nobody anywhere should dispute the conclusion he draws: “At the beginning of a new century and a new millennium, the churches face the ecumenical challenge of a new evangelization.”
His summary vision of the ecumenical future is compelling: “Dialogue in love is accompanied by dialogue in truth, for love without truth is empty, dishonest, and ultimately deceitful. Ecumenical progress does not mean that we abandon the convictions of our own faith, but rather (as with the doctrine of justification) that we penetrate these more deeply, until we reach the point at which they are compatible with the convictions of the faith of the other church.” Others might say that, as we penetrate more deeply, we may discover not compatibility but incompatibilities that cannot be overcome. This is the view of, for instance, those Protestant theologians who speak of a “fundamental difference” with Catholicism along the line of division suggested above by Schleiermacher. I believe, however, that we must agree with Kasper. Truth is one. Christians are locked together in ecumenical dialogue by Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. If the faith that we are penetrating more deeply is faith in the one Christ, there can, finally, be no incompatibilities requiring divisions in his body, the Church. It is true, “finally” may be a long time; it may be until the end of time. But the continuing ecumenical task is now. Kasper puts it nicely: “There is no ecumenical dialogue without personal conversion and institutional renewal, and we begin not by ‘converting’ our dialogue partner, but with our own conversion and renewal.”
What to Do With Beauty and Gratitude
I go back on occasion to The Stories of John Cheever and am never disappointed. I know he is supposed to be a minor writer, but the stories, and the novels such as Falconer and the two Wapshot books, tell us things about post-World War II America that almost nobody else tells as well. Cheever’s own life was in many ways a wreck; there were multiple collisions with lechery, alcoholism, and deep funks. But I once read an interview in which he was asked why he went to church. He answered, as best I recall, “I go for the Eucharist. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what to do with my gratitude.”
That answer came to mind again as I read an interview with Makoto Fujimura, an artist whom I recently met. He lives with his family over in the TriBeCa district of Manhattan, where he also has his studio. His paintings are awe-full. Highly abstract, to be sure, but visibly tethered to points of reality in a way that makes them, if not representative, certainly not self-indulgent to the point of narcissism, which is the manner of so much contemporary art. (You can get some sense of what I mean by checking him out on the Internet.)
Fujimura is part of a small group of Christian artists in New York who are leading something like a renaissance in work of spiritual consequence. As with Fujimura, some of them have been inspired and sustained by the remarkable community that is the Church of the Redeemer, led by the Rev. Tim Keller. Presbyterian in orientation, Redeemer meets in midtown, with subgroups elsewhere in the city, and has a well-deserved reputation for reaching young New York achievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ. More on that some other time. Here is part of the interview I mentioned. Fujimura is asked why, by the use of layers of silver and gold foil, his pictures have built into them a process of change. What is the significance of that? He answers:
It is a very Japanese way of thinking. Rather than trying to make something permanent, they appreciate what has aged. Once you accept the fact that things are not permanent, you approach the ephemeral with a renewed perspective. You can see the permanent and the ephemeral as parallel tracks and can find value in something that is aged, rusting, or decaying . . . Japanese artists have always considered silver, for example, to symbolize our lives and death because it oxidizes over time and tarnishes. Painters deliberately use this oxidizing process to symbolize time itself. The paintings are made so that, as the silver tarnishes, certain aspects of expression are revealed that would not originally have been seen. In the recent Koetsu [a sixteenth century artist] in Philadelphia, many of his paintings were heavily tarnished, but they had this incredible glow to them. He was certainly aware of what was going to happen to those paintings, and here we are four hundred years later looking at works that will continue to evolve over time.
And here is the part of the Fujimura interview that put me in mind of John Cheever’s reflection:
I came to a point where I couldn’t justify what I did, although I knew that it fit who I was as a person and the expression I was longing for. Yet when it came down to looking at this sublime grace that was flowing out of my own hands, I didn’t know how to justify it. The more I thought about it, the more depressing it became. I knew that when I was making art it was very rich, very real, very refined, and very beautiful. Yet I could not accept that beauty for myself. I knew that inside my heart there was no place to put that kind of beauty. And the more I painted, the more I realized that this schism between what was going on in my heart and what I was able to paint was growing larger. When I finally embraced the faith that there was this presence, this Creator behind the creation, then I had a way to accept this beauty, because I had been accepted by someone even more sublime. There was a purpose behind everything; Christ came two thousand years ago and lived in Palestine. He walked among us; he felt the same dirt we feel today and that to me was an amazing realization. If this beauty had a home then I could accept it for myself as small and frail as I am, because of the work that Christ himself poured out for me. But without him, it was impossible.
I read the other day yet another theologian explaining that people today can make no sense of the Church’s language about being justified. To be justified means, among many other things, the discovery that beauty and gratitude, and gratitude for beauty, have a home.
“This Hapless Bench”
Last month I commented on the not very secret “secret meeting” between some bishops and a largeish group of progressive laity, including some notable doctrinal dissenters, to discuss the future of the Church. The protest over that meeting resulted in another in early September, this time between the executive committee of the bishops conference and about forty notable champions of Catholic fidelity, of her apostolic structure, teaching, and mission. Participants I’ve talked with say the meeting may have done some good, but I confess that I thought and think it was a dubious undertaking. It reinforces the line of the “Common Ground Initiative” that there is what might be called an ecclesial symmetry between those who do and those who do not accept the Church’s teaching.
The Church is a holy mother and is very patient with those who have difficulties with her teaching, but as Avery Cardinal Dulles put it in “True and False Reform” (FT, August/September): “The only kind of reform that the Church should consider is one based on authentically Christian and Catholic principles. Holy Scripture and Catholic tradition give the necessary parameters. All who propose ecclesial reform should make it clear at the outset that they sincerely embrace these principles. Otherwise they should not be invited to participate in the process.” By meeting with “the left” and then with “the right,” with “liberals” and then with “conservatives,” bishops put themselves in the position of brokering the difference between those who reject and those who embrace the principles to which Dulles refers. Worse, bishops look very much like politicians pandering to their several constituencies.
Of course, that is apparently what some bishops mean when they say they are “pastoral” and view their office as a “symbol of unity.” Being pastoral, one might suggest, means bearing witness to the fullness of the truth and patiently persuading others to enter into the fullness of the communio established by the truth. The Common Ground approach is a convenient way for bishops to evade their responsibility. More than once I’ve heard a bishop say that he must be doing something right since he is criticized by both the Wanderer (on the right) and the National Catholic Reporter (on the left). That is self-serving nonsense. Maybe both the Wanderer and NCR recognize that he is doing something wrong.
Bishops are ordained “to teach, sanctify, and govern.” Faithful Catholics earnestly want them to do that, and to do it effectively. To be sure, bishops should listen to everybody. More important, they should clearly speak the mind of the Church. To which a bishop responds that dissenters also reflect the mind of the Church, thus indicating that he either does not understand or does not accept what the Magisterium of the Catholic Church means by the mind of the Church. The crisis in which we are embroiled is, in largest part, attributable to bishops who seem not to understand their responsibilities.
In the September meeting, several participants pressed the bishops on why they do not address the scandal of prominent Catholics, notably politicians, who publicly and persistently oppose the Church’s teaching on abortion and yet, to all appearances, remain in untroubled communion with the Church. A bishop responded by citing an instance in which another bishop publicly criticized such a politician, thus winning sympathy for him and he won the election. A prominent business leader who was at the meeting and is active in politics told me, “My heart sank as I listened to him. Here was a bishop telling us that speaking the truth is politically counterproductive, so he will not speak the truth. His job is to be a teacher and shepherd of the flock, damn it, not to be a political tactician. Let him do his job and we’ll take care of the politics. That’s our job as lay people.” He might have cited, although he didn’t, the Second Vatican Council on precisely that point.
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska—who, for his candor, some of his colleagues think unclubbable—has spoken about “this hapless bench of bishops.” That is putting it pretty strongly, and there are admirable exceptions, but it is embarrassingly close to the mark. I do not think that most bishops begin to appreciate how many devout Catholics are embarrassed by them, and embarrassed for them.
While We’re At It
• Now it seems probable that it’s not a question of whether but of how what used to be the Anglican communion will break up. I doubt if, even twenty years ago, anybody dreamed that the shattering would come over the question of homosexuality. But, as Philip Turner explains in this issue, other shatterings prepared the way. “God has once again brought an Easter out of Good Friday,” declared an exultant V. Gene Robinson after his election as Bishop of New Hampshire was approved by his episcopal colleagues. It’s not the Second Coming, but another Easter is nothing to sniff at. Robinson, who left his wife and children in order to satisfy his sexual needs, addressed the bishops in solemn assembly thusly: “I believe that God gave us the gift of sexuality so that we might express with our bodies the love that’s in our hearts. I just need to tell you that I experience that with my partner. In the time that we have, I can’t go into all the theology around it, but what I can tell you is that in my relationship with my partner, I am able to express the deep love that’s in my heart, and in his unfailing and unquestioning love of me, I experience just a little bit of the kind of never-ending, never-failing love that God has for me. So it’s sacramental for me.” I just need to tell you that it’s probably just as well that he didn’t go into all the theology around it.
• In a Times story on how September 11 is still affecting New Yorkers, we are told: “There continues to be a minority of people who avoid the subway, stay away from skyscrapers, sleep fitfully, find new solace in religion.” Ah, well, in time they’ll overcome such quirkiness. But then there is the statement that they continue to find “new” solace in religion, which implies they found it there before. This may be a more long-term problem.
• The Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, has agreed to an $85 million settlement. The lawyers will each get an automatic $750,000 to cover legal fees, plus one third of the amount each client gets. The lawyers did all right by themselves. Forbes magazine has run blistering articles on how the scandal lawyers have been soliciting for clients, giving fat contributions to the victim organizations, and exploiting “recovered memory” charges that would not stand a moment’s scrutiny in court. So what’s new? Unlike priests, lawyers had no honorable reputation to lose. That’s very unfair, of course, to many conscientious lawyers, but they knew that when they signed up for law school. An interesting twist in the Boston settlement is that the archdiocese entered an iron-clad agreement to keep confidential any counseling files it has on those bringing charges. In some cases, such files might indicate mental instability or a desire to extort money by making false charges. I’m firmly for keeping confidential matters confidential. At the same time, however, the archdiocese is required to reveal all confidential files on priests who are accused, including communications with the papal nuncio and the Holy See. All crimes should be investigated, including the crime of attempted extortion. In Boston, lawyers and an overreaching state attorney general have not limited themselves to crime, real or alleged. They have asserted their intention to run the Church. As for the privacy rights of priests or the right of the Church to govern itself, forget it. But Archbishop O’Malley is probably right in acting quickly to move on from the legal, financial, and media nightmare of the last two years. Addressing the moral, spiritual, and leadership failures that produced the nightmare is work enough for the years ahead. I have known the archbishop for a long time, and he is a very good man. He is intelligent, articulate, orthodox, courageous, and personable. He knows, and his life evinces his knowing, that without holiness ministerial leadership rings hollow. He was the right choice for Boston, and we should join the faithful there in praying that he goes from strength to strength.
• After some controversy over how it was being done, the National Jewish Population Survey has been released to the general satisfaction of earlier critics. The survey finds that the Jewish population of the U.S. is smaller and older than it was at the last survey ten years ago. There are 5.2 million Jews, a drop of 300,000, despite a large wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. That is about 1.8 percent of the population. Forty-seven percent of Jews marry non-Jews, and two-thirds of their children are not being raised as Jews. Before 1970, only 13 percent married non-Jews. Moreover, Jews have a lower birth rate than most Americans. There is always the big question of defining who is a Jew. For purposes of the survey, a Jew is someone who says he is Jewish or has at least one Jewish parent or had a Jewish upbringing and has not converted to another monotheistic religion, such as Christianity or Islam. Forty-six percent of adult Jews belong to a synagogue, and of them 39 percent are Reform, 33 percent Conservative, and 21 percent Orthodox. (The rest belong to smaller and generally more liberal groups.) The median age of Jews is forty-two, while for all other Americans it is thirty-five. While 43 percent of Jews who have no Jewish education marry non-Jews, the figure falls to 23 percent of those who go part-time to an afternoon Hebrew school, and to seven percent of those who attend a full-time school or yeshiva. The 22 percent of American Jews who live in the West are, by all measures, much less Jewishly connected.
• After the 1968 election, Milton Himmelfarb wrote that Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. Thirty-two years later, in the election of 2000, Jews were still a little ahead of Hispanics in their support for the Democrats. But September 11, 2002 changed many things, says Milton’s formidable sister, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in an essay in an important new book, Religion as a Public Good: Jews and Other Americans on Religion in the Public Square (Rowan & Littlefield). She writes: “This is the lesson that all of us, Jews and non-Jews, may learn from recent history: that religion is, by and large, a force for good, and that it does not become less good when it emerges from the home and temple and assumes its rightful place in society. Jews in particular have learned a great deal from the Bush Administration and from the President himself. We are no longer so fearful of the rhetoric of religion, which comes naturally to a benign and tolerant President, or, for that matter, of the rhetoric of morality (the ‘axis of evil’), which was so appropriate a response to the events of 9/11. Nor are we so fearful of the conservatives, who have understood, as many liberals have not, the intimate relationship between America’s War against Terrorism and Israel’s. Nor are we so fearful of the evangelicals who have been among Israel’s staunchest defenders. The nature of public discourse has changed, and it will inevitably affect our attitudes toward such issues as faith-based initiatives, or prayers in schools, or school vouchers. There are difficult administrative and constitutional problems to address in all of these cases. But however they are resolved, we are already, in a sense, ahead of the game. The Jewish religion is no longer bound by the liberal credo. More and more Jews have begun to recognize that the separation of church and state does not require a comparable separation of religion and society. There may even come a time when Jewish women will no longer feel that the ‘right of choice’ (that is, the unrestricted right of abortion) is their principle article of religious faith. 9/11 has called into question a good many of the old verities and taboos, not only about foreign policy but about domestic and cultural affairs as well.” Gertrude Himmelfarb concludes her essay by admitting that she is writing in one of “my more optimistic moments.”
• Because James Wood is an always interesting critic and essayist, because he has written provocatively about his atheistic views, and because authors whom he has criticized are piling on in trashing this his first novel, one approaches The Book Against God (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) with the hope that it is something really fine. It is much more engaging than some of the critics have allowed. Thomas Bunting, a young man who is permanently procrastinating about his Ph.D. thesis in philosophy in favor of making notes for his own book against God (called BAG), and who is a chronic liar, lives against the presence of his imperiously benign father, a vicar in a village near Durham. Almost everyone in the book is much more attractive than Thomas (who may or may not be James Wood), including his wife Jane, a concert pianist, who takes until page 208 to exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, grow up. Please, Tommy.” The authorial voice is distanced from Thomas’ (Wood’s?) atheistic ramblings, which never rise above Theodicy 101—if God is good and almighty, why is there so much wrong with the world? Thomas is not moved by the persistent suggestion of Jane and others that he and his way of thinking is one of the main things wrong with his part of the world, and the book ends on a note of nostalgic protest that, all arguments notwithstanding, reality should be as innocent and promising as it seemed when he was his father’s little boy. That may not sound like much of a story, but there are delightfully comic moments, and an intimation that Tommy might grow up when he dares to say yes to life by acquiescing in Jane’s desire for children. I don’t know what our reviewer is going to say about the book, but I thought I would sneak in this anticipatory strike of appreciation.
• For understandable reasons it did not receive much attention but, for the record, the Central Committee of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) has called on the UN to investigate Saddam Hussein’s crimes in Iraq and any “war crimes” committed by the “occupying powers,” including the “illegal resort to war.” The WCC news service notes that the resolution “implied that U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair might appropriately be charged with war crimes.” Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a Central Committee member, said he was “deeply grateful” for the resolution because it “gives some understanding of what we’re to do next.” Others think there is absolutely no telling what the WCC will do next. My own view, I am sorry to say, is that what the WCC will do is sadly predictable. During four decades of the Cold War it pretty much took its marching orders from another Central Committee on the wrong side of freedom, and its anti-American propensities remain unbounded. Which is a pity, because the U.S. needs to lead the world by persuasion, and that requires international interlocutors interested in consultation rather than scoring polemical points. And it is more of a pity when an institution created to advance Christian unity turns itself into an anti-ecumenical agency exacerbating further division along political divides. As I say, the WCC action received slight attention and a spokesman allows it is “not likely” that the UN will follow its advice. On the other hand, these days there is no telling what the UN might do. But that’s a pity for another time.
• “On behalf of His Holiness RAEL, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, and the sixty thousand Raelians living in eighty-four countries, I want to express our outrage regarding the article by Susan Palmer in the article ‘UnRael!’ in the Spring 2003 issue of Religion in the News.” So begins a letter to the editor by Nicole Bertrand, who bears the title “Raelian Bishop.” Palmer was reporting on the announcement of the Raelian-related organization Clonaid that it had cloned a human baby, and maybe several. Palmer responds: “I am sorry if the Realians found my article unfair. . . . I personally have found much to admire about the Realians. . . . I am by no means convinced that Baby Eve was the shortsighted hoax the media made it out to be, and expect to receive new insights into the modus operandi of the largest UFO religion in the world when the mystery of the disappearing clones is finally cleared up.” Readers often ask why I have not commented on this or that, to which I respond that a journal on religion, culture, and public life cannot take note of everything. So why give space to the modus operandi of the largest UFO religion in the world? Chalk it up to eccentricity. Do you suppose there are larger UFO religions elsewhere?
• The Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, is a Catholic and strongly supports same-sex marriage. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, Alberta, said the PM “doesn’t understand what it means to be a good Catholic,” and, if he didn’t start getting serious, he “risks his eternal salvation.” Well, you can imagine. Joining in the media outrage was the Minister of Heritage, Sheila Copps, who said she was appalled by the Bishop’s statement: “I think that’s something that each person reconciles with their own maker and that’s not something that you take to the political arena. Every Canadian, regardless of their religion, has to reconcile their beliefs with their god, their Allah, their guru, that’s why we live in a country that separates the views of religion from the views of the state.” The theological view of the state is that people have their own makers, their own gods, and, even, their own Allahs. Bishop Henry dissents from the state religion and gave offense by suggesting that the PM should make up his mind about whether he wants to continue in the community of dissent that is the Church. Henry’s refusal to believe in the many gods of the society puts him in a position not unlike that of the early Christians who were accused of atheism. Canada may be finding its long-sought national identity as the North American social laboratory for experiments in unbounded muddleheadedness.
• E. Brooks Holifield has written an impressive history, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 617 pages,, $35
). Adam Kirsch, the books critic of the New York Sun, finds it an engaging curiosity, noting that “theology now seems halfway between a medieval relic, like alchemy, and a tolerated academic oddity, like classics. . . . This is a cause for celebration: our principled secularism is part of what makes America the hope of the world. But American theology remains a valuable legacy, and there could be no better introduction to it than Theology in America.” A legacy, no doubt, but why valuable? In Mr. Kirsch’s telling, it is more like Mr. Holifield has interestingly presented the deranged notes that a batty aunt in the attic kept in a shoebox. Admittedly, that “principled secularism” does hint at something like a replacement theology, and talk about “the hope of the world” rises to the level of eschatological promise. Kirsch does allow that, for all of theology’s antiquated riddles, thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards did try to resolve them “in more philosophically precise terms.” Mr. Kirsch cannot be accused of philosophical precision, or even awareness, which I expect he will take as a compliment.
• “I believe, all things considered, morally and politically, Pius XII acted appropriately and made the right decisions.” So says Sir Martin Gilbert in an extensive interview in Inside the Vatican. Gilbert, who is Jewish, is the acclaimed biographer of Winston Churchill, and the most recent of his many books, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, was favorably noted in our August/September issue. In the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, there are a little over twenty thousand Christian rescuers of Jews who have been given the title, “Righteous Among the Gentiles.” These are people—mainly Catholics, if for no other reason than the dominance of Catholicism in the most affected areas of Europe—who risked their lives to save Jews, and Gilbert and other scholars believe that the actual number of rescuers is much higher. Many of the Righteous Gentiles were, along with those they were rescuing, captured and killed. Their names have been lost to history, but not to God. Gilbert says, “It could well be that half a million Jews saved is not an exaggerated figure. We are certainly talking about something on the scale of hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands.” Pinchas Lapide, another Jewish scholar, estimates that the number of Jews rescued is over 800,000, although many scholars think that figure too high. In any event, Martin, along with others, strongly underscores that the bishops, priests, nuns, and courageous lay people who engaged in rescuing Jews understood that they were acting in accord with Catholic teaching and with the blessing of Pope Pius XII. Gilbert says, “Hundreds of thousands of Jews saved by the entire Catholic Church, under the leadership and with the support of Pope Pius XII, would, to my mind, be absolutely correct.” The longest article we have ever published in these pages is Ronald Rychlak’s “Goldhagen v. Pius XII” (June/July 2002). That article, in our judgment, is a devastating scholarly refutation of the meretricious polemics of the likes of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, James Carroll, and John Cornwell, who charge Pius XII with indifference, and even with crimes against humanity, during the Holocaust. In the present issue we publish Father Martin Rhonheimer’s assessment of less admirable dimensions of Catholic leadership during those times of terror. Yes, there were the rescuers; and yes, the record of Catholic leaders is far better than that of Protestants, especially in Germany; and yes, we must be exceedingly careful in judging those caught in circumstances dramatically different from ours. All that being said, we must also understand the story told by Fr. Rhonheimer. Such understanding is part of the “purification of memory” for which Pope John Paul II has so incessantly called. It is also an essential part of appreciating the timidity, evasions, and rationalizations to which bishops, too, are sometimes prone. Very pertinent to our own historical circumstance, Fr. Rhonheimer’s article highlights the need for the Church’s voice to be public and explicit in defending innocent human life and protesting great moral evils. Many who today blame the Church for being silent then want the Church to be silent now on issues such as abortion. They do not recognize their contradiction, failing to see or refusing to see the evil of the present. Or, if they see it, averting their eyes and muting their protest, as did most, including religious leaders, during those years when moral duty was so glaringly obvious—to us.
• In August, about one third of the priests of Milwaukee, 163 to be exact, signed a letter to the U.S. conference of bishops. “We urge that from now on celibacy be optional, not mandatory, for candidates for the diocesan Roman Catholic priesthood. . . . We remain aware that—great charism that it is—some future priests will continue to choose celibacy. The primary motive for our urging this change is our pastoral concern that the Catholic Church needs more candidates for the priesthood, so that the Church’s sacramental life might continue to flourish.” It is an interesting initiative. One might point out that, if celibacy is a great charism, as in a gift, it is not chosen. Of course, one may choose whether or not to accept the gift. The experience of communions that have married clergy is not encouraging. In those communities there are single clergy who are homosexual, and married clergy who declined the gift for fear of being thought homosexual. There are very few celibate clergy. Because the bishops conference is designed to relate to bishops, its president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, responded to the letter in a letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee. He pointed out that there are many ways priests can encourage vocations to the priesthood, and that “service to Christ and his people through a celibate priesthood was not an arbitrary imposition by the Church of a particular moment in history, but rather the result of a growing consciousness, already from the earliest centuries of the Church’s history, that there was a powerful congruence between priesthood and the celibate example of Christ himself.” In the archdiocesan newspaper, Dolan commented on the letter and the media’s lionizing of those who signed it: “The reports would have us believe that this letter is revolutionary and novel, requiring ‘courage’ in a climate where free discussion on this issue is rare. Courage, I would propose, characterizes rather all our priests—those who signed and the 72 percent who did not—who live their celibate chastity with fidelity and joy; courage characterizes our married couples who generously and obediently live out their vows; courage is found in our young people and unmarried adults who follow the teaching of Jesus, the Bible, and the Church on the beautiful virtue of chastity; courage is found in those writers—priests, religious, lay, Catholic and non-Catholic—who defend such a countercultural virtue as celibacy in a world that feels one cannot be happy or whole without sexual gratification.” Dolan says he agrees with a priest who told him, “The problem is not that we don’t talk about optional celibacy; the problem is that we’ve talked it to death the last forty years.” “This,” Dolan adds, “is the time we priests need to be renewing our pledge to celibacy, not questioning it. The problems in the Church today are not caused by the teachings of Jesus and of his Church, but by lack of fidelity to them.” Archbishop Dolan, who has been in Milwaukee only a year, leads in a manner that might be described as affably resolute. He understands and effectively communicates the high adventure of fidelity. In short—and in a time, like most times, when such is in short supply—he is a bishop who knows how to bishop.
• “Is Christ Divided? Dealing with Diversity and Disagreement” is the title of a powerfully suggestive lecture delivered at Catholic University by Father Joseph Komonchak, who has written extensively and knowledgeably on the Second Vatican Council. He traces the ways in which the bishops at the council dealt with agreements and disagreements, resulting in authentic deliberation and, sometimes, deliberate accommodation without compromising the common devotion to speaking the truth. Then there is this noteworthy passage: “There is one problem in the contemporary Church to which I don’t think there is a parallel in the experience of Vatican II. At the council the differences I have pointed to were differences within the household of faith, and by faith here I mean the substantive sets of meanings and truths that constitute the Church. The council fathers may have argued fiercely over particular points, including whether a particular matter had been settled by Trent or by the ordinary magisterium; but they were at one in recognizing the constitutive role of doctrine and the importance of defending the faith once delivered to the saints. They took it for granted that the Church is first of all the community of those who believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. But I think what Charles Taylor describes as ‘the new individualism’ is very widespread in our culture and even among Catholics. This is the tendency to reduce religion to one’s own very personal, even private spirituality (‘following your bliss,’ ‘being true to your own inner self’), which then becomes the criterion by which to decide what tradition, if any, to follow, what community, if any, to enter, what beliefs to hold, if any. As Taylor argues, this is an almost perfect exemplification of William James’ definition of religion as ‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.’ Out of this inner reality, James said, ‘theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow.’ This seems to me different from the often deplored ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ (although it may be one of its inspirations), that is, picking and choosing among Church teachings; that at least allowed that there were Church teachings. For those whom I am describing it is nearly incomprehensible that one’s spirituality might need itself to be tested against any external reality or authority. If this phenomenon is as widespread as Taylor thinks it is, then it may be that many of the disputes about doctrines or worship or morality that so often occupy Catholics are rather missing the point: there are many people claiming to be Catholic who couldn’t care less.” Komonchak concludes with this fine statement by the French theologian Yves Congar, a statement deserving of attention not only by Catholics and Christians but by all who are determined to settle for nothing less than the truth: “Let our ideas be clear; let us present them in all their rigor. This is a condition of honesty. Let us serve them with all our might. This is the exercise of our courage. But just as we leave a margin on our writing paper for revisions, for corrections, for things not yet found, for the truth for which we can still only hope, let us leave around our ideas the margin of fraternity.”
• Initiatives abound to redress the problem that historian Mark Noll described as “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” Here, for instance, is the premier issue of the Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs. The title refers to the Brandywine Creek near Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, where the review is published under the editorship of Robert A. Seiple, former Eastern president and the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. In the statement of purpose Seiple writes: “Against the secularist definition of a tolerant public square, which would have Christians and others check their deepest commitments at the gate, and against the relativist definition, which would have everyone pretend that profound differences do not really mean anything, we advocate for a civil yet robustly pluralistic public square.” (I feel sincerely flattered.) Interestingly, in explaining why religion is now receiving more attention in the discussion of international affairs, Seiple highlights not resurgent Islam but “the rise of religious persecution to a prominent place on the human rights agenda.” The two factors overlap, of course, but that way of putting it is, well, interesting. The first issue includes an open letter to President Bush signed by about a hundred evangelical Protestant leaders, including editor Seiple. The letter underscores that “the American evangelical community is not a monolithic bloc in full and firm support of present Israeli policy.” While the signers “abhor and condemn” the suicide bombings and other acts of violence in the current Palestinian intifada, they write: “We urge you to provide the leadership necessary for peacemaking in the Middle East by vigorously opposing injustice, including the continued unlawful and degrading Israeli settlement movement. The theft of Palestinian land and the destruction of Palestinian homes and fields are surely some of the major causes of the strife that has resulted in terrorism and the loss of so many Israeli and Palestinian lives. The continued Israeli military occupation that daily humiliates ordinary Palestinians is also having disastrous effects on the Israeli soul.” So one may safely assume that the new review is not in the Christian Zionist camp. In any event, a publication marked “Volume 1, Number 1” is always bracing evidence of irrepressible hope. (For more information about the Brandywine Review, write 1300 Eagle Rd., Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania 19087 or www.cfia.org)
• We carried the story of Lieutenant Ryan Berry, a young married man stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota (Daniel P. Maloney, “Sex and the Married Missileer,” February 2000). He asked for an exemption from the routine in which he would be alone with a female officer in a small underground bunker for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. This exemption would accommodate, as his request put it, his Catholic belief that he should avoid situations in which he might “develop inappropriate intimacy—even platonic—with a woman who is not his wife.” In an older parlance that is known as “an occasion of sin,” and Berry asked for permission to avoid it, absent military necessity. For a while, permission was granted, but then a new commander refused and put derogatory statements in Berry’s official record, thus destroying his military career. Now, years later and with the help of the Becket Fund, a feisty legal defender of religious freedom, Berry has prevailed and the U.S. military has agreed to remove all derogatory material from his records. A small victory, some might say, but nothing is small in the defense of religious liberty. Chalk up another one for the Becket Fund.
• Marian E. Crowe of the University of Notre Dame writes to say that we need not speculate about what Hilaire Belloc might say about the Catholic infidelity scandals. She thinks he said it in his little book, How the Reformation Happened. Not all the parallels are fair or accurate, but Belloc’s advice on how the Church should have responded to the Protestant challenge in the sixteenth century is, I think, suggestive for our admittedly different circumstance and is by no means limited to the present round of scandals: “Obviously the perfect thing to do in such cases—if there were no conditions of matter, time, and space, if most men were intelligent, pure in motive and heroic, instead of being, as most men are, stupid, corrupt, and cowardly—would be to perform what the Catholic Church herself calls Penance. Obviously the attack upon the Catholic Church would have no success if all the officials thereof in the early sixteenth century had themselves come forward in a body denouncing their own guilt; the pluralities, the lay appropriations, the shame of their worldly lives, the gross scandals of impurity, the oppression of the poor, the exaggeration of mechanical aids to religion, the occasional use of fraud in it, the widespread use of extortion in clerical dues and rents, the chicanery of clerical courts. If the very many church officials who were guilty of evil living had beaten their breasts, repented, and turned anchorite; if the many who were swollen with riches had abandoned them and given them to the poor; if such of the cultured Renaissance prelates as had come to ridicule the Mysteries had suddenly felt the wrath of God—then all would have righted. So fruitful is repentance. But men do not act thus after long habit. It is only after they have felt the consequence of wrongdoing, and often not then, that they admit reality. Repentance, which should precede chastisement, is commonly its consequence.”
• “I guess I’m an existentialist,” announced the eighteen-year-old upon discerning no meaning in his life. The meaning of “existentialism” in this and so many other connections is equally obscure. Werner J. Dannhauser takes on George Cotkin’s Existential America in the pages of the Weekly Standard. Of Cotkin he says: “Optimistic and benevolent, he seems to think that since existentialism is a good thing and America is a good thing, existentialism in America must be a very good thing.” One problem, says Dannhauser, is that, for Cotkin and many others, existentialism seems to be compatible with almost anything. “One can prove that there can be no Christian existentialists, since existentialism portrays man as floundering in meaningless chaos—and then notice that in real life Christian existentialists abound. Similarly, one can prove there can be no Marxist existentialists, since existentialism insists on man’s complete (and dreadful) freedom—only to discover that Marxist existentialists are thick on the ground. At times it seems that anybody who ever experienced a bit of unhappiness and concluded that life is no bowl of cherries qualifies as an existentialist. Cotkin hardly lays this suspicion to rest, granting as he does existentialist legitimacy to Walter Lippmann, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Woody Allen, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and even Abraham Lincoln.” In dealing with existentialism, says Dannhauser, there are giants to be wrestled with, but they are given slight attention by Cotkin. Kierkegaard, for instance, “a towering thinker who employed reason’s power to expose reason’s limits and did so with unmatchable wit and fervor.” A fervent Christian, Kierkegaard railed against the church establishment, “thereby becoming the patron saint of all who think they are profound when they say, ‘I believe in God but not in organized religion.’” In Dannhauser’s judgment, Existential America is altogether too much American and too little existential.
• Thirteen years ago, Sister Mary Rose McGeady was asked by John Cardinal O’Connor to take over Covenant House, which was wracked by sexual and financial scandal and close to going under. Covenant House, established by Father Bruce Ritter, works with street kids, mainly multiply-troubled teenagers who have run away from home. Sister Mary Rose is one formidable woman, and she turned the apostolate around to the point where it now has a budget of nearly $120 million and works with sixty thousand teenagers through centers in twenty-two cities. She joined the Daughters of Charity when she was a teenager and there were 1,300 sisters. Today there are 800, and the average age is sixty-nine. At age seventy-five she says, “I’m on the young half.” From the beginning, her work has been with troubled children. She wears her blue habit and veil, and lives very modestly with a group of sisters in Brooklyn, getting up at 5:30 to begin the day with common prayer. Soon she will be moving to the community’s house in Albany, New York, situated beside the cemetery where she expects to be buried. But she still has projects in mind, related, of course, to caring for kids in trouble. “I look back on my life and wish I had been holier,” she says. “I wish I hadn’t fallen asleep at prayers. I wish I had kept all my promises to people. I make more promises than I keep. I wish I could have a wand and mend a child’s broken heart.” Don’t dare mention the idea to her, but it would be no surprise if the time comes when her cause is submitted to the Congregation for Saints.
• It must be twenty years ago that the “church growth movement” was the big new thing in American Protestantism. It’s not so new anymore, but it goes on and on. Writing in Nicotine Theological Journal—which describes itself as “Dedicated to Reformed [meaning Calvinist] Faith and Practice”—Brian Pieters takes note of current evangelical books claiming that “the age of the Church is over.” The message is that Semper Reformanda, understood as perpetual change, is the imperative for survival-oriented spiritualities devoted to becoming rather than being, and so forth. The Protestant Church as we have known it is doomed to the fate of the dinosaur. Pieters writes: “Reading these words prompts one to wonder: whoever claimed that evangelicals don’t believe in evolution? These people are the veriest of Darwinists, only they have cut it out of their biology texts and pasted it into their church growth books. Really, it’s all there: dinosaurs, a hostile environment, muting genes, and natural selection (i.e., seekers). Indeed there seems no more firmly held and shared conviction about the Church today than the theory of evolution. Pick up any church growth manual today, and if you are sturdy enough to wade through some bizarre neologisms, you are bound eventually to wind up with this impassioned plea: Change or die! ” Pieters ponders this from a new book titled ‘A’ is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church: “The formula that opens many mysteries of the spiritual universe is e=mc3. E equals the energy of a spiritual awakening. M equals the mass density of knowledge about the Word and world that has become wisdom. C cubed is the constant of the J-factor [editors’ note: the J-factor is Jesus, we think], which is raised to three dimensions: the depth of trusting faith, the height of connectivity, and the breadth of mission. Every spiritual awakening in Christian history has been the development of this spiritual formula.” The authors drive their point home with the three-letter acronym, “COD.” Yes, it means, Change or die! But then, it’s about what one might expect when Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever, evolves into the J-factor.
• Will those conservatives never stop? Yes, here is another “Volume 1, Number 1.” It is called Family Policy Review, is published by the Family Research Council, and is not just for policy makers. The first issue combines scholarship and readability in addressing a host of questions, with particular attention to how tax law affects marriage and family life. There is also William Saunders’ perceptive review of Hadley Arkes’ Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, to which too much attention cannot be paid. Saunders understands the significance of Arkes’ relentless work on behalf of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act and, more comprehensively, his argument for “natural rights.” Saunders writes: “In asserting a ‘right to choose,’ abortion proponents undermine the concept of natural right, for they deny a nature that transcends the preferences of others. Law is thus reduced to power: it secures the ‘right’ of the powerful to define who has rights, even to define who is ‘human.’ It can no more be ‘contained’ than could a ‘right to own slaves.’ It will seep into areas of care of the elderly, the infirm, the handicapped. It has already poisoned the policy discussion where the status of the embryo (prior to implantation, especially) is at stake. By reducing rights to a mere reflection of the preferences of the powerful, a ‘right to choose’ puts all rights, even those claimed by abortion proponents, at risk, because such rights are always subject to redefinition when power shifts. As we confront and ponder the thirtieth year since Roe and Doe, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose offers us a way out of this blind alley. It points us to a ‘rights theory’ that is grounded not in power, but in principle. In the national debate about abortion that we must hope will follow passage of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, this book provides welcome direction.” For more information about Family Policy Review, contact the Family Research Council at 801 G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20101 (www.frc.org).
• Amitai Etzioni, sociologist at George Washington University and founder of the “communitarian movement,” has brought out his memoirs, My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and a Message (Rowman & Littlefield, 488 pages,, $35
). Etzioni is an intellectual entrepreneur of remarkable energy and daunting self-confidence. From the beginning, he jealously guarded and effusively advertised his proprietorship of “the movement.” Communitarianism claimed to “leap-frog” the polarities between left and right, thus putting it in the category of the perennial “beyondisms” that typically tilt to the left. Whether or not the movement exercised the influence that Etzioni claims for it—and whether or not, for that matter, it ever was a movement—the basic idea of countering excessive individualism and balancing rights with responsibilities was sound enough. Such countering and balancing will always be necessary. Following through on my earlier work with Peter Berger on “mediating institutions” in social policy, I was an early supporter of Etzioni’s effort to turn the argument into a movement. It soon became evident, however, that Etzioni’s beyondism meant that the effort would remain safely distanced from the specific policy disputes, and not only those related to the abortion controversy, that define the cultural and political conflicts of greatest consequence. Etzioni deserves credit for trying to temper the excesses of liberal individualism, but the communitarian movement—if that is what it was—was more a matter of general disposition exemplified by a personality than a force of intellectual, never mind policy, change in America. Whether, as Etzioni claims, it was a major influence in the development of New Labor in Britain is for others to judge. Making allowances for inflated claims of importance—a problem endemic to the writing of memoirs—My Brother’s Keeper can be read as a valuable sociological and psychological case study in the quest of intellectuals for public policy relevance in the last part of the twentieth century. More than most in the company of “public intellectuals,” Amitai Etzioni championed respect for the wisdom of ordinary Americans, their traditions and habits of decency. If he was overly zealous in protecting the movement and his ownership of it by staying clear of the hard questions, there is no doubt in my mind that “communitarianism” was and is, on balance, a force for good in our public life.
• You don’t have to be Catholic to have a clergy crisis. Jack Wertheimer of Jewish Theological Seminary writes in Commentary about “The Rabbi Crisis.” The decline in vocations to the priesthood is much discussed. Less well known is the sharp decline in seminarians intending to go into pastoral ministry in the oldline Protestant denominations. Seminarians are much older, in some schools women are in the majority, with a high incidence of divorce, lesbianism, and other factors that were once considered disqualifying. With particular reference to the rabbinate, Wertheimer notes trends contributing to the diminished appeal of the religious calling: “Several other developments contributed to the erosion of the rabbis’ status. One was the society-wide assault on authority, of which many rabbis were simultaneously victims and initiators. Catering to the newly modish disdain for formality, rabbis refashioned themselves, trading in their suits for leisure wear, abandoning the title ‘Rabbi Cohen’ for ‘Rabbi Bob,’ and dropping formal sermons in favor of free-flowing discussion that might include an exchange of views with congregants. More critically still, many relinquished their roles as authorities in matters of Jewish religious law; to quote Daniel Jeremy Silver . . . by the mid-1980s, rabbis were making ‘a virtue of being nonjudgmental.’ A blow from a different direction came with the growth of Jewish studies in colleges and universities around the country. In a matter of decades, a whole new cadre of professionals had begun to compete with congregational rabbis as certified interpreters of Jewish texts and culture. In this competition, the title of professor inevitably outranked that of rabbi. To add to the discomfort, younger Jews joining synagogues did not share their parents’ and grandparents’ awe of the rabbi’s learning. Many of them boasted advanced degrees of their own, and felt no need for anyone to mediate between themselves and ‘the mysteries’ of Western culture.” So what might be done? You don’t have to be Jewish to recognize the applicability of his answer, mutatis mutandis, to other communities. “Rejecting defeatist advice from among their own colleagues, they would need to gird themselves to combat the present solipsistic moment in American Judaism, reeducating their congregants to think beyond their immediate personal need, their inchoate yearnings for ‘spirituality,’ and their consumerist notion of religious life. They would need to insist on synagogue ritual focused on communal rather than privatized concerns, and they would need to reorient the synagogue itself as an institution focused on the transcendent needs of the Jewish people. Above all, they would need to take their own role seriously, accepting the burden and the challenge of their calling as individuals who speak with authority not only for themselves but for the Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and God.”
• Bishop Joseph Sprague heads the Northern Illinois Conference of the 8.3 million-member United Methodist Church. He has, according to those who follow these matters, denied the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the virgin birth, and the atonement. The conference, meeting in June, expressed its deep concern. In fact, it expressed many concerns. What were described as “prophetic” resolutions endorsed boycotts of Tyson’s chickens, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and supported the territorial demands of the Palestinians, the land mines treaty, the forswearing of military force against North Korea, increased government efforts to combat global warming, and gay and lesbian relationships as an “expression of God’s love.” The resolution on the last item urged clergy and Sunday School teachers to “tell it to our children.” The concerns about Bishop Sprague were not overlooked. A resolution was resoundingly approved supporting his ministry. Among United Methodist conferences, Northern Illinois is contending for the lead in membership decline. From mainline to oldine to sideline to oblivion.
• The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) is an odd organization. Its members include oldline Protestant groups such as the Episcopal, United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), and United Church of Christ, as well as a number of Jewish and humanist organizations. Its money (about $4 million per year) comes from outfits such as the Ford Foundation. Its focus is on young people and African-Americans. Its purpose is to promote the idea that abortion, including partial-birth abortion, is not sometimes a tragic necessity, as its member churches say, but is a “holy work,” and the defense of the unlimited abortion license is, according to RCRC, a holy war. Young people are taught that abortion is a rite of passage to adulthood, and their parents have no right to interfere with their “reproductive choice.” In short, RCRC is about as extremist as pro-abortion agitation gets. Now Michael J. Groman and Ann Loar Brooks have written a little book, Holy Abortion?, calling all this to the attention of the oldline churches. The purpose of the book is not to convert people to the pro-life position, although that would no doubt be welcome. The purpose is to call these communities to get serious about their own moral and spiritual integrity. As the authors demonstrate, the teachings of these churches are clearly contradicted by the positions advanced by RCRC. Holy Abortion? is a simple but compelling appeal for honesty. Perhaps because its bills are being footed by pro-abortion foundations such as Ford, some churches aren’t paying attention to what RCRC is doing and saying. They should. It is being said and done in their name. The book is available from wipfandstock Publishers, 199 West 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, Oregon 97401 (e-mail orders: email@example.com).
• Pondering the long reaches of history is conducive to modesty, or at least it should be. What any of us does is such a small part of the whole. Many years ago, when A. M. Rosenthal was executive editor of the New York Times, I raised a small question of religious nomenclature which resulted in a change in the paper’s style manual. Mr. Rosenthal wrote me a long letter explaining the change and concluded, “You may have the satisfaction of knowing that, in a small but important way, you have changed history.” Just think of what that implies about the historical significance of the Times, and of Mr. Rosenthal. I don’t think I’ll have his tribute inscribed on my tombstone. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, still celebrated today as one of the Church’s greatest theologian-preachers, wrote that preachers should cultivate the virtue of “contempt for praise.” I have not yet mastered that, but am sure he was right. It does not mean that one doesn’t appreciate the nice things people say, but one does not preach—or write, or do anything else of consequence—for the sake of the nice things people may say. I have always found fetching one aspect of the “triumph” that the Roman senate would vote for victorious generals. The chariot, drawn by four horses, was wreathed in laurel, and the triumphator was attired like the Capitoline Jupiter in robes of purple and gold. At the head of the procession were the members of the senate, followed by a host of trumpeters, and then the spoils of war, the animal victims destined for ritual sacrifice, and, finally, in chains, the prisoners of the defeated army. In the chariot was a slave who held over the general’s head the golden crown of Jupiter and all along the route whispered into his ear, “You, too, are mortal.” That’s a nice touch. I do not know, but am told by those who claim to know, that in his home the great twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth had on his staircase wall portraits of Christian thinkers, beginning with Paul and Origen and moving on up through Augustine, Abelard, Bernard, Thomas, Schleiermacher, and other worthies. At the very top was a portrait of Karl Barth. The man had a sense of his place in history. It is not pride, or at least not necessarily so. A friend who is a distinguished philosopher and has had his share of triumphs tells me in a matter-of-fact manner, without a hint of boasting, that a thousand years from now or as long as philosophy is seriously done, “Nobody will be able to bypass my work.” I’m profoundly skeptical about such a claim. It’s true that we all matter, and matter ultimately. After all, we are assured that even every sparrow that falls is counted, but it is best to count on God alone to do the counting. These reflections on mortality and our part in the world’s story are prompted by my reading the entry on Beethoven in the 1960 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica I keep at the cottage in Quebec. That’s what I read in the mornings over coffee where I am spared the distraction of newspapers. The long entry is written by the long forgotten Sir Donald Francis Tovey, Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh, who obviously had a deficient appreciation of Bach. The article ends with this: “It is as certain as anything in the history of art that there will never be a time when Beethoven’s work does not occupy the central place in a sound musical mind. When Beethoven is out of fashion, that is because people are afraid of drama and of sublime emotions. And that amounts merely to a fear of life.” So there. As the general said to the slave, “Hold the crown steady, and stop that ridiculous whispering.”
• Here are more Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) who are interested in convening discussion circles. If you would like to join an FT discussion group and live in or around the following addresses, please contact the organizers. If you would like to start a group in your area, please send us your contact information.
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In Baltimore, Maryland:
G. Edward Dickey, Ph.D.
Three Stratford Road
Baltimore, Maryland 21218
In (North and West) Vancover, British Columbia:
#215-2012 Fullton Ave., N.
Vancouver, British Columbia V7P-3E3
Phone: (604) 926-6657
We are greatly heartened by the interest in forming ROFTERS discussion groups. Once again, each group is entirely independent and it is up to you to decide how you wish to proceed. Our job is limited to providing grist for your several mills. With all the heavy-duty deliberating involved, we pray you’ll also have fun.
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: Secular City Redux, Lakeland quotes from The Liberation of the Laity and “Does Faith Have a Future?” Cross Currents, Spring 2002. While We’re At It: September 11th and New Yorkers, New York Times, September 8, 2003. WCC on Hussein, IRD release, September 5, 2003. On RAEL, Religion in the News, Summer 2003. Kirsch on Holifield, New York Sun, September 10, 2003. Chretien, Mail-Star, Halifax, Nova Scotia, August 11, 2003. Bishop Dolan, Catholic Herald, September 4, 2003. Seiple on Bush, Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs, Spring 2003. Existential America, Weekly Standard, April 21, 2003. Covenant House, New York Times, June 20, 2003. Church Growth Movement, Nicotine Theological Journal, April 2003. Rabbi crisis, Commentary, May 2003. Bishop Sprague, IRD, June 26, 2003.