The Public Square
The notion that in matters of religion, but not only in matters of religion, one must make a choice between tolerance and truth is as persistent as it is false. It comes up again in connection with a study designed by sociologists James D. Davidson and Dean R. Hoge that explores how the sexual scandals have influenced Catholic attitudes toward the faith and the Church. The study included a nationwide survey of more than a thousand self-identified Catholics, 60 percent of whom are registered in a parish and therefore, presumably, more active than the 40 percent who are not or are not sure whether they are registered.
“The overall picture,” the researchers report, “is one of stability, not decline, although there is more decline in some places, such as Boston. To our surprise, generational differences on the effects of the scandal turn out to be small, as were differences between registered parishioners and others.” “Catholics like being Catholic and are not very likely to leave the Church for other religious groups. Eighty-one percent of Catholics said that ‘being Catholic is a very important part of who I am,' and two-thirds said they ‘cannot imagine being anything other than Catholic.' Eighty-two percent said the ‘Catholic Church is very important to me personally,' and 71 percent said they ‘would never leave the Catholic Church.'“
Contrary to a mischievous report of some years ago that only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the study finds that 83 percent of Catholics agree that in the Mass “the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.” Belief in the Real Presence is possibly considerably larger than 83 percent, since some Catholics, while not doubting the reality, would phrase differently what they believe happens in the Mass. Also of interest, while fewer than 50 percent of Catholics can name their bishop and a substantial minority thinks lay people should have a greater say in how their parishes are run, there is little support for the kind of angry challenging of the Church's structure promoted by groups such as Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action. Not surprisingly, on every score of adherence, belief, and practice, registered parishioners score higher than the nonregistered.
Then we come to the question of truth and tolerance. Davidson and Hoge suggest there is a tension, if not contradiction, between the fact that the great majority of Catholics declare themselves strongly devoted to the Church and, at the same time, sound very “relativistic” in saying that other churches and world religions “are equally good ways of finding ultimate truth.” “In short,” say the researchers, Catholics “are trying hard to be both Catholic and ecumenical in a highly pluralistic world.” But maybe it is not a question of trying to, as Davidson and Hoge put it, “balance being Catholic and being ecumenical.” Maybe they are ecumenical because they are Catholic.
In a response to the study, John Cavadini, chairman of theology at the University of Notre Dame, explored a while back exactly this possibility with specific reference to Catholic young people and their view of John Paul II: “What they see in him is perhaps something that youth of any age and period admire: idealism and commitment, tempered with warmth. John Paul has the ability to state ideals forthrightly without closing off openness toward the ‘other,' regardless of the other's religion or lack thereof. Like our millennial youth, John Paul seems to respect, as something sacred, religious faith and moral commitment wherever he finds it. He sees it as a basis for the building of what he calls the ‘civilization of love.' Without wanting to minimize the problems or real inconsistencies in the position of our younger brothers and sisters in Christ, are they not, in some sense, especially the children of this pope in this regard? In their abiding affection for Catholicism, coupled with an openness toward other faiths, could we not see an intuition, not of relativism, but of a religious alternative to the indifferentism of secular culture? In place of the secular ideals of ‘tolerance' or ‘respect for difference' simply as difference, is there among young Catholics a sense of love or charity founded on and in the Christian faith itself? On the one hand, charity makes no sense apart from the truth of the Catholic faith that proclaims the love revealed in the Incarnation as the absolute and final revelation. And yet it is that very charity that ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things' (1 Cor 13:7) and so, in its very absoluteness, intrinsically implies an openness as well. This means that the evangelization of our youth should be aimed, not at undoing the ‘inconsistency' that Davidson and Hoge point to, but at making articulate the inarticulate commitments that are implicitly folded in the ‘joy and hope' this very striking juxtaposition seems to embody.”
There is a very big difference between tolerating others because nobody has the truth and being convinced of the truth that we are to love those with whom we disagree about the truth.
The Posthuman Future
The term “posthuman” is gaining a certain cachet. There is, for instance, Francis Fukuyama's recent book, Our Posthuman Future, and now Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution gives further currency to the term. Garreau quotes a “professor of innovation” who says, “My son today wakes up in the morning certain of one thing. And that's that the world will be different by nightfall. He expects it. Humans didn't use to live that way.” Really? From time immemorial, I expect boys have been jumping out of bed expecting the world to be different by nightfall, maybe by virtue of what they'll do that day. There have always been people, some of them passing as deep thinkers, who have suffered from the excessive excitability that makes it intolerable to believe their moment in history is not unprecedented.
They are called “neophiliacs,” people infatuated by the new or by what they imagine to be new. Was it only a few years ago that “futurists” were a big item on the bestseller lists? Asked their profession, they answered “futurist,” and got away with it. Futurists we will always have with us. Please do not misunderstand: Of course we should be thinking about the future, and of course new things happen. Pharmacological mood enhancers, pills to slow aging or increase SAT scores by two hundred points, plus cloning and creating human-animal life forms—these are among the things we should be thinking hard about.
The inventor Ray Kurzweil is a big name in this near-fantasy world of speculation. The author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, he writes: “We will be part of this very rapid explosion of intelligence, and beauty, and a very rapid acceleration of this evolutionary process. And that, to me, is what God is.” There you have “process theology” of a low order. Predictably, the government is getting in on the game. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on techniques that will enable men to fight for weeks, both night and day, without eating or sleeping. There is a federal document called “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance” which concludes: “The twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment.”
Not everybody is so sanguine. Bill Joy, also a name to reckon with in these discussions, is anything but joyful. “I think it is no exaggeration to say,” says he, “that we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil.” One false step and we're finished. The engineering of evolution will produce warring human species, and “nanobots” that will take over from human beings entirely. One slip in a laboratory and “gray goo” could annihilate us all. Against Mr. Joy, Peter Pettus suggests a dose of positive thinking. Concluding his review of the Garreau book he writes, “I think Mr. Garreau is right, and I see a parallel here with democracy itself. The aggregate of voters often reaches levels of electoral wisdom hard to predict. So here, despite the undeniable threats looming, humans on earth with their increasing interconnectivity and commonality might just deal with this evolutionary crisis in surprisingly creative ways. It's that or the gray goo.” We might just muddle through to a human future after all, at least for a while.
Most of the futuristic literature, both the more sober and fantastical, is on a continuum with the tainted history of eugenics. In April 1988 I wrote an article in Commentary entitled “The Return of Eugenics.” Some thought it alarmist at the time, but it hardly seems so today. From the end of the nineteenth century up through the end of World War II, eugenics was all the rage among many of the brightest and best. After the revelation of the nasty things the Nazis did in the name of eugenics, the movement kept a low profile for a while, but it hardly went away. In fact, American programs of eugenic sterilization were much admired by Hitler, and American foundations, notably those associated with the Rockefeller family, supported German eugenics both before and after Hitler came to power.
This doleful history is recounted in Rebecca Messall's essay “The Long Road of Eugenics: From Rockefeller to Roe v. Wade,” in the Fall 2004 issue of the invaluable Human Life Review. Some may think the title is a reach too far, but it takes no imagination—only a measure of alertness—to connect the dots. Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the Roe decision, is helpful. In footnote 62 of that decision, he favorably cited an article called “The New Biology and the Future of Man.” The article says:
Taken together, [artificial gestation, genetic engineering, suspended animation] constitute a new phase in human life in which man takes over deliberate control of his own evolution. And the consequence is arresting: There is a qualitative change to progress when man learns to create himself. . . . For our appropriate guidance in this new era, a reworking of values is required, which will take into account the new, and which will be as rapid and effective in its evolution as are the new techniques. . . . Our task will be easier if we regard value systems as complex adaptations to specific sets of realities, which adaptations must change when the realities change. . . . Chastity is not particularly adaptive to a world of effective contraception. . . . Respect for elders is less and less adaptive to a world in which life-spans greatly exceed the period during which great-grandchildren find their senior progenitor's wisdom of any interest. Submission to supernatural power is not adaptive to a world in which man himself controls even his own biological future. . . . High regard for the dignity of the individual may prove difficult to maintain when new biologic techniques blur his very identity. . . . What counts is awareness of the unmistakable new fact that in general new biology is handing over to us the wheel with which to steer directly the future evolution of man.
From “the future of man” to the “posthuman future” is a relatively short distance on “the long road of eugenics.” In fairness, one notes that Blackmun and the Supreme Court were not necessarily endorsing everything in the article cited. But the citation occurs in a section of the majority opinion that is discussing the “theory of life” and criticizing the position that life begins at conception. “Substantial problems for precise definition of this view are posed, however, by new embryological data that purport to indicate that conception is a ‘process' over time, rather than an event, and by new medical techniques such as menstrual extraction, the ‘morning-after' pill, implantation of embryos, artificial insemination, and even artificial wombs.” Both the citation of the article and the Court's own argument put Roe decisively on the side of plasticity in defining the humanum both in its beginning and possible future.
Of course there are necessary distinctions to be made. The very term “eugenics” is susceptible to different definitions. There is, for instance, a great difference between alleviating human suffering and redefining by redesigning the human. On the latter score, the classic and ever-relevant text is C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, and the pertinent depiction of the society we may become is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The latter-day futurists who are set upon turning science fiction into reality claim such texts are laughably outdated. We have, they say, already entered the world against which Lewis and Huxley warned, and there is no turning back on the long road traveled. The authentic humanism of biblical religion, inseparably joined to the civilizational tradition that is ours to preserve, rejects this dismal conclusion in proposing a better way forward.
Why Democracy Is Not the Answer
Whenever I hear about a “liberal-conservative standoff,” I feel the impulse, conciliatory soul that I am, to volunteer my services. Jay P. Dolan, in the Robert Cardinal Bellarmine Lecture at St. Louis University, says that such a standoff is what we have the minute the conversation turns to lay participation in the government of the Church. Dolan, emeritus at Notre Dame, is the author of The American Catholic Experience, a big and instructive textbook that is, I am told, still widely used in college courses. The gist of the book is that the American Catholic experience is, all in all, a great success because now Catholics are more or less like everybody else.
In his Bellarmine Lecture, “In Search of an American Catholicism,” Dolan sharply criticizes John Paul II because, inter alia, “he sought to silence those who support a more open and tolerant Catholicism that is at home in the modern world.” The loss of Catholic distinctiveness and being at home in a modern world that has lost its way are not my idea of goals to be desired or achievements to be celebrated. It appears that Prof. Dolan and I have serious disagreements.
But I want to be helpful in getting beyond the above-mentioned standoff, and so will touch on points of agreement. I expect he is right in saying that the system of “trusteeism” that prevailed in the nineteenth century for some thirty years has gotten a bum rap in the telling of Catholic history. In that system, laymen incorporated parishes, handled most of the business affairs, and in some cases chose and paid the pastors. Dolan blames foreign-born bishops who were ignorant of, or actively hostile toward, the American democratic ethos for squelching trusteeism and imposing a European model of “monarchical” episcopal rule over an utterly subservient laity. And it is true that to this day many pastors and bishops seem to live in fear of a revival of trusteeism, with the result that they expend their energies on micro-management, doing many things that lay people could do as well or better, and only grudgingly entertaining the counsel of the non-ordained. This compulsive need for control is an aspect of the deadening disease that is clericalism, which is widespread in the Church in America.
A workable division of labor has been a problem in the Church for a very long time. We are told in Acts that the apostles, in order to be freed from “waiting on tables” and able to give their full attention to the ministry of the Word, appointed deacons. The next thing we know, the deacon Stephen is preaching the Word and, as a consequence, getting himself martyred. We are not told whether he ever got around to waiting on tables. Bishops are ordained to “teach, sanctify, and govern” but many will admit that their day-by-day schedule leaves little doubt that the first two take a back seat to the third. Especially the first. The same is true of many pastors of parishes.
Dolan tells of a Bishop George Conroy who in 1878 was sent by the Holy See to evaluate the state of the Church in America. Conroy reported that many of the bishops were more “bankers than pastors,” that they had little respect for the rights of the clergy, and were frequently chosen by a secretive process in which personal friendships counted more than qualifications for the office. Conroy's criticisms strike a contemporary chord. In Conroy's judgment, only ten of the sixty-eight bishops in the United States at that time were distinguished. “The rest,” Dolan writes, “were mediocre, and, he believed, as far as theological understanding was concerned they were even less than mediocre.”
Ten out of the sixty-eight is 15 percent. There are currently 194 bishops who are heads of dioceses, and it might be asked whether we have even that 15 percent now. Can one name twenty-nine distinguished American bishops serving today? One respectfully suggests that this is the kind of question that answers itself. Of course, we can quibble about the meaning of “distinguished.” One possible measure is whether, if they were not bishops, they would by virtue of their talents, character (as in “holiness”), and intellectual or pastoral achievements be considered men of distinction.
So Dolan raises interesting questions. “Because of this affection for democracy,” he writes, “people today expect more consultation and collaboration when it comes to the government of the Church at both the parish and diocesan levels.” Consultation and collaboration to be sure. But then he and groups that he supports, such as Voice of the Faithful, make the confusing claim that the Church should be democratic. Apparently Dolan thinks it a good thing that for Americans “the voice of the people became the voice of God.” He says the Church needs “more democracy,” but the question is not more or less democracy, the question is democracy itself.
Democracy means that sovereignty resides in the demos, while in the Church sovereignty belongs to Christ and is exercised through his apostolic ordering of his body, the Church. Consultation, collaboration, participation, Yes. Democracy, No. Dolan acknowledges that “the Catholic creed is not subject to a popular vote” but he seems not to appreciate that the apostolic order of the Church is an essential part of the Catholic creed. America's democratic culture does produce the expectation that leaders be persuasively engaged with those whom they would lead. Effective leaders know that and welcome that. For the laity to be unquestioningly subservient to their bishops may have personal spiritual benefits for the laity, but it is very bad for bishops, spiritually and otherwise. Command and control is not the model of leadership enjoined by the Church's Lord.
If we are to move beyond the clericalist habits of episcopal arrogance and the standoff between liberals and conservatives, both of which Dolan laments, it must be agreed that—after all the consultation, collaboration, debate, and discussion—it is the bishop who is finally responsible, iure divino, for the government of the local church. Even the more distinguished of bishops will cling to autocratic ways as long as Prof. Dolan and those of like mind insist that the only alternative is “democracy.”
While We're At It
• Bishop Hugh Latimer was preaching in Westminster Abbey before King Henry VIII. In the pulpit Latimer soliloquized, “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of England is here.” Then he continued, “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here.” That is from a fine book by Christopher Bryan, professor of New Testament at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford, 184 pages, $25
). This very readable, closely argued, and assiduously documented book contends that Jesus and his followers had not the slightest interest in the forms or structures of temporal power, while they were adamant that power be held accountable to justice. “There were never any freedom fighters for Jesus,” writes Bryan. On the other hand: “There is, however, an equal and opposite error to which we can tend—and this error is the particular temptation of those who have become suspicious of our preoccupation with power and our concern with structure. In most matters, of course, we are indeed powerless and had better not forget it. From potentate to peasant, we cannot by worrying add a cubit to our height (Matt. 6:27) or avoid the certainty of death. Yet, in some matters, from time to time, we are given power, as Adam was given power (and therefore also responsibility) to ‘till and to keep' the garden. The error is to suppose that on such occasions we may abandon that power. We may not abandon it. ‘The powers that be are ordained by God' (Rom. 13:1) is an assertion that does not cut only one way. Power, like any gift from God, is a sacred trust, and when those who have received it abandon their responsibility, the result is chaos. The Church has, at its best, realized this, and to dismiss such awareness of responsibility as ‘neo-Constantinian' or as ‘owing more to pagan philosophy than the church' simply will not do. Nathan's challenge to David—‘You are the man!'—implicitly demands responsibility in the exercise of power, as do the words of the Johannine Christ to Pilate: ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above' (2 Sam. 12:7; John 19:11). Matthew's picture of Pilate washing his hands is—and is meant to be—contemptible (Matt. 27:24). The governor is no more ‘innocent' of Jesus' blood after that act than he was before. One cannot by the renunciation of power become ‘innocent' of something that one had the power to prevent. The parables of the talents and the pounds, in their own way, make the same point. Not to use one's gifts and powers, to act as if one did not have them or was not responsible for them, is merely to ‘bury' them, and that is to incur God's wrath (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27).” Bryan concludes with two scriptural words to be kept always in mind by those who exercise power and by those who are responsible for holding power to moral account: “The kingdom of God is at hand,” and, “God is not mocked.” Render to Caesar is a valuable correction of certain forms of political theology, and also of pacifist and other abdications of political responsibility. It is, at the same time, a compelling call for the Church to muster the wisdom and courage to do its public duty. (Whether, in point of fact, Latimer did say what the King of Kings wanted the king of England to hear is a discussion for another time.)
• Here is Living It Up With National Review by Priscilla L. Buckley (Spence, 247 pages, $27.95
). Early on, the sister of William F. had the job of scouring all the newspapers, including the Communist Party's Daily World, which was sometimes tedious, although it had its moments. “The first dozen times one came across ‘running dogs of imperialism,' it was kind of fun,” writes the author, “but the fortieth time or fiftieth time, less so. But I persevered because of pearls such as Philip Bonosky's touching description of the death of the Communist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: ‘As he lay dying the greatest poet of our age rose from his bed of pain and delivered a curse on the betrayers of his country that will yet scare their corrupted bones. Voracious hyenas, hellish predators, rodents gnawing, satraps who have sold out a hundred times. Then he cursed them. And he named them: Nixon, [former Chilean president] Frei, Pinochet. He pronounced anathema on them. He indicted them: Prostituted vendors of the North American way of life, pimps of the whorish bosses. He hurled his contempt for them with his last breath.'“ The delightful Priscilla Buckley goes delightfully on and on, recounting the jinks high and low that have accompanied fifty years with National Review. The cast of characters is colorful and the pace is lively, lending support to the rumor that the right has more fun than the left, which, like Neruda, seems so very angry. Although I rather doubt that even so great a poet managed the hurling of so much contempt with his dying breath.
• “Study Finds 29-Week Fetuses Probably Feel No Pain and Need No Abortion Anesthesia,” or so the New York Times announced, in a headline based on an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which is admittedly based on no new research but offers the opinions of doctors who, it is said, have reviewed the pertinent literature. One of the article's co-authors runs an abortion clinic and another, David Grimes, is vice president of the pro-abortion organization Family Health International and has personally performed over ten thousand abortions, of which 10 to 20 percent were later than the first trimester. One notes that neonatologists who treat premature babies as young as twenty-three or twenty-four weeks have long observed their patients reacting to painful procedures by crying and jerking away, and they routinely administer anesthesia during surgery. For the New York Times and other pro-abortion publications, denying fetal pain is an important tactic in denying the humanity of these little people. To that end, we are asked to believe that they feel pain in surgery but not when they are being chopped to death. To believe this requires an ideological conditioning of the mind to which most people, fortunately, are strongly resistant.
• In a generally favorable review of Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday), David Hart agrees that in a secular world that is suffering from what he elsewhere calls “metaphysical boredom,” atheism is decidedly on the wane. He has a somewhat different take than McGrath, however, on what has brought us to the present circumstance. Writing in the New Criterion, Hart says: “As for why this should be, it is surely not enough to say merely that atheism fails to divert our thoughts from our mortality as religion supposedly used to do; television does that much better. It seems more correct to say that religion, far from suppressing the vitality of human reason and will, opens up a dimension coterminous with rational consciousness as such. In purely theoretical terms, the question of the transcendent source of reality is an ontological—not a causal—question: not how things have come to be what they are, but how it is that things exist at all. And none of the customary post-Christian attempts to make the question of being disappear can possibly succeed: even if physics can trace all of time and space back to a single self-sufficient set of laws, that those laws exist at all must remain an imponderable problem for materialist thought (for possibility, no less than actuality, must first of all be); all the brave efforts of analytic philosophy to conjure the ontological question away as a fallacy of grammar have failed and always will; continental philosophy's attempts at a non-metaphysical ontology are notable chiefly for their lack of explanatory power. In the terms of Thomas Aquinas, there is simply an obvious incommensurability between the essence and the existence of things, and hence finite reality cannot account for its own being. And if this incommensurability is considered with adequate probity and clarity, it cannot fail but lead reflection towards something like what Thomas calls the actus essendi subsistens—the subsistent act of being—which is one of his most beautiful names for God.”
• When, shortly after his election, John Paul II answered a shouted question by a reporter about whether he planned to go to Poland soon, a long-time Vatican observer was stunned. “That,” he observed, “is the first time in at least two hundred years that a pope has responded to a question by a journalist.” I don't know if that's true, but it is obvious that Pope Benedict is very much at ease with the give-and-take of informal conversations with journalists and others. In connection with the World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, he met with Orthodox and Protestant leaders, offering formal and impromptu remarks. He began, “Permit me to remain seated after such a strenuous day. This does not mean I wish to speak ex cathedra.” With specific reference to the Protestants present, he said, “May I make a small comment: Now, it is said that following the clarification regarding the doctrine of justification, the elaboration of ecclesiological issues and the questions concerning ministry are the main obstacles still to be overcome. In short, this is true, but I must also say that I dislike this terminology, which from a certain point of view delimits the problem since it seems that we must now debate about institutions instead of the Word of God, as though we had to place our institutions in the centre and fight for them. I think that in this way the ecclesiological issue as well as that of the ministerium are not dealt with correctly. The real question is the presence of the Word in the world. In the second century the early Church primarily took a threefold decision: first, to establish the canon, thereby stressing the sovereignty of the Word and explaining that not only is the Old Testament hai graphai [the Scriptures], but together with the New Testament constitutes a single Scripture which is thus for us the master text. However, at the same time the Church has formulated an apostolic succession, the episcopal ministry, in the awareness that the Word and the witness go together; that is, the Word is alive and present only thanks to the witness, so to speak, and receives from the witness its interpretation. But the witness is only such if he or she witnesses to the Word. Third and last, the Church has added the regula fidei [rule of faith] as a key for interpretation. I believe that this reciprocal compenetration constitutes an object of dissent between us, even though we are certainly united on fundamental things. Therefore, when we speak of ecclesiology and of ministry we must preferably speak in this combination of Word, witness and rule of faith, and consider it as an ecclesiological matter, and therefore together as a question of the Word of God, of his sovereignty and humility inasmuch as the Lord entrusts his Word, and concedes its interpretation, to witnesses which, however, must always be compared to the regula fidei and the integrity of the Word. Excuse me if I have expressed a personal opinion; it seemed right to do so.” The unity the Church seeks, he continued, “does not mean what could be called ecumenism of the return: that is, to deny and to reject one's own faith history. Absolutely not!” “It does not mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline.” Rather the goal is “unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity.” “It is obvious,” he said, “that this dialogue can develop only in a context of sincere and committed spirituality. We cannot ‘bring about' unity by our powers alone. We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, spiritual ecumenism—prayer, conversion, and the sanctification of life—constitutes the heart of the meeting and of the ecumenical movement.”
• According to the civics textbooks, politicians campaign for office, get elected, and then spend their time on governing until it is time to campaign again. In reality, it is increasingly the case that the campaigning never stops. Within the permanent campaign, however, there is still a “campaign season” in which more people pay serious attention. In the 2004 season, much attention was paid the minority of Catholic bishops who publicly challenged Catholic politicians who support the unlimited abortion license. Some said that such politicians should solemnly reconsider their relationship to the Church, others that they should refrain from receiving Communion, and yet others that they would be refused Communion. And there were bishops who did not disguise their unhappiness with bishops who even raised such awkward questions. Now Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh is urging his fellow-bishops to get ready for the next campaign season, when the same questions will undoubtedly arise. In a very thoughtful essay, he notes that what a bishop does in one diocese can have a major impact on other dioceses, and can even shape a national debate affecting all bishops in all dioceses. While recognizing core Catholic teaching that a bishop is responsible for pastoral care and discipline in his diocese, which is the “local church,” Wuerl accents the affectus collegialis, or collegial spirit, that should be cultivated among bishops, also through the national bishops conference. Bishops should not rudely surprise other bishops with their pastoral decisions. There should at least be, he writes, “an agreement among all of the bishops to refrain from making individual pastoral decisions that would impact upon all bishops until there was an opportunity for them to discuss the issue and the impact of a specific pastoral judgment.” While Bishop Wuerl's concern for collegiality is undoubtedly legitimate, were such an agreement in place, it is almost certain that what many view as the courageous actions of a minority of bishops in 2004 would have been powerfully discouraged, and possibly stifled. The magisterial documents cited by Wuerl speak chiefly of episcopal unity in common doctrine and obedience to the Holy See. That unity is in no way questioned by bishops making different decisions about the pastoral application of doctrine. Against the ambitions of national conferences, Rome has strongly emphasized the responsibility of the bishop for the pastoral leadership of those in his care. In the 1998 apostolic letter Apostolos Suos, appropriately cited by Wuerl, John Paul II said that “bishops, whether individually or united in conference, cannot autonomously limit their own sacred power in favor of the episcopal conference, and even less can they do so in favor one of its parts.” Bishop Wuerl is to be commended for urging his confreres to think ahead to the next campaign season, but what is urgently needed today, and has been needed for a very long time, is not greater coordination by the conference officialdom in the name of affectus collegialis. What is urgently needed is bishops who have the courage to be bishops, even if it ruffles the feathers of the brethren. There are bishops who unselfconsciously refer to the episcopacy as “the club” and have no higher praise for a fellow member of the club than to say he is a “team player.” Collegiality is not to be confused with clerical clubbiness. As the National Review Board report of 2004 incisively noted, the failure of bishops to do their duty lest they disrupt episcopal business as usual was a big part of the toleration of sex abusers and the consequent scandal that erupted in January 2002. As long as they are clearly united in church teaching and adherence to the Holy See, there is no scandal in bishops making different pastoral judgments. The scandal is bishops who decline to be bishops.
• It ought not offend pious sensibilities to observe that among bishops, too, peer pressure is a powerful dynamic. Also in the bishops' conference the maxim applies that one goes along to get along. It is an old story. A few years ago, Bernardin Cardinal Gantin, now retired as the prefect of the curial congregation for bishops, ruffled feathers by criticizing the episcopal careerism that is encouraged by bishops leaving smaller sees for larger and more prestigious sees. An American bishop tells the story of being appointed to his first see and assuring the people that his episcopal ring was a marriage ring signifying that he was united with them for life. About a year later he received a call from the papal nuncio, telling him that he had been appointed to another and larger diocese. “I can't do it,” he told the nuncio. “I promised the people here that they are my wife.” The nuncio dryly responded, “Your Excellency, your wife has just moved to _____” (naming the city). Cardinal Gantin was candid in his criticism, although not quite so blunt as the first canon of the Council of Sardica in 343: “There is no more injurious custom than the corrupt practice of a bishop moving from a small city to another. This must be rooted out. The reason is obvious. No one has ever yet been found who tried to move from a large city to a less important one. Such persons burn with covetousness and are slaves to ostentation and wish to gain greater authority.” I cannot honestly say that I'm unhappy that the bishop of Yakima, Washington, is now in Chicago, or that the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, is in Denver. On the other hand, Hippo in northern Africa was a little like Yakima and Rapid City, and just think what the bishop of Hippo did and continues to do for the Church.
• Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal writes under the headline, “America's anti-Reagan Isn't Hillary Clinton. It's Rick Santorum.” He is reviewing Senator Santorum's new book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good (ISI, 464 pages, $25
). In the American tradition, Rauch says, Goldwater and Reagan were with Madison and Jefferson in elevating freedom over virtue, while Santorum is with John Adams and Washington in reversing that order. Rauch's argument is not entirely unpersuasive, and Santorum does seem to have more confidence in government interventions—big government, if you will—than may be warranted. But the same Reagan who said that government is not the solution but the problem also focused government attention on social problems, especially those affecting the family. Goldwater was very different. He was a libertarian, as witness his pro-abortion and pro-homosexuality positions of later years. “The bold new challenge to the Goldwater-Reagan tradition in American politics comes not from the Left but from the Right,” writes Rauch. This announcement comes a little late. The virtues-oriented base of the Republican Party, strongly assisted by Reagan, has been with us for a decade now. Senators Clinton and Santorum may agree on the importance of virtue, but they have very different understandings of virtue, as witness, for starters, their approach to the legal protection of unborn children and the irreplaceability of the traditional family. The philosophical argument over the relationship between liberty and virtue has been with us for a very long time. And for a very long time, politically speaking, so has the shift belatedly discovered by Jonathan Rauch.
• Another alarming alert from the Anti-Defamation League: “In a disturbing new trend, neo-Nazi groups around the country are hijacking local community events and ADL is leading the fight to confront this menace.” Well, perhaps not around the country, but in Cadillac, Michigan, the city asked for volunteers to help pick up the litter in the parks. It seems four young people of the National Socialist Movement (aka skinheads) showed up to lend a hand. The mayor, Ronald Blanchard, had a big stack of certificates of appreciation for participating groups and the NSM also received one. The pace quickens: “ADL sprang into action and contacted Mayor Blanchard, expressing our outrage over the city's de-facto endorsement of the NSM. Along with incensed community members, we asked city leaders to apologize for honoring the racist group and revoke the certificate.” A city spokesman said he didn't think an apology was necessary, saying, “Hey, they're a volunteer group. It was an honest mistake.” It's about what you'd expect from someone who de facto endorses Nazism, although, to be fair, he probably didn't know that Adolf Eichmann started out by picking up litter in the parks of Solingen, the little town where he was born in North Rhine-Westphalia. The ADL alert continues: “The citizens of Cadillac, appalled by the response of their local officials, invited the ADL to a town hall meeting to confront the issue.” One World War II veteran said he never thought he would be “fighting Nazis in my backyard.” The four kids are possibly pleased by the thought they've started another world war. At the meeting, a task force was formed and it called upon the city to buy into ADL programs in sensitizing teachers and police officers. So all's well that ends well. Admittedly, not so well for Mayor Blanchard who has been labeled a supporter of Nazism by the ADL. And not so well for the ten thousand people of Cadillac who did not call in the ADL, along with their teachers and cops, who are declared to be, at the very least, insensitive to the evils of National Socialism and in need of ADL reeducation. But hey, doing battle with Hitler in the American heartland may be dirty work, but somebody has to do it. You can count on the ADL to spring into action. Coming soon: An ADL defamation and reeducation program near you. Recognizing that eternal outrage is the price of liberty and the key to fundraising, the ADL bulletin highlights the appeal: “Help ADL Fight Neo-Nazis. Donate Now!”
• At the June meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, two veteran ecumenical theologians reflected on forty years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue. Father George H. Tavard is a priest of the Augustinians of the Assumption. In describing an early meeting in 1965, he makes a noteworthy observation: “There was in the planning meeting no extensive discussion of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We nevertheless agreed that, although it was hotly contested in the sixteenth century, the question of justification—by faith alone, or by faith and good works?—is not a problem today between the two Churches. Both sides agree in doctrine and practice that no one is justified by personal intentions and actions, but only by faith in the redeeming life, death, and rising of Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, good intentions and actions following as normal developments in a life of faith.” The decision of the meeting was to focus not on justification but on the Nicene Creed. How the easy assumption of 1965 gave way to the intense work that produced the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification is a fascinating tale. On the Lutheran side, Dr. John Reumann was also present at the creation, and he offers an informative account of the serious work that earned the Lutheran-Roman Catholic effort the crown of ecumenical dialogues. He twice emphasizes, however, and in italics, that “our convergences have not carried over into studies, let alone decision-making and church life.” He notes that in the recent ELCA study on sexuality “there seems to have been little inclination to note and consider Roman Catholic views on homosexuality,” with more attention being paid to “pro-gay-lesbian positions in the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.” Yet over the forty years the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue did produce ten scholarly volumes and other work in which “future generations may find resources . . . for new contours, of which we cannot now know.” The tone of both Tavard and Reumann is somewhat doleful and their expressions of hope for the future wan. Both affectionately recall the Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn who embodied in the early years the sense of high promise for what some of us called the healing of the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation. Perhaps, as Reumann says, future generations, learning from the achievements and disappointments of these forty years, will take up that project with renewed confidence.
• Actress Jane Fonda's 1998 conversion to Christianity received considerable attention. She recently told the Baltimore Sun, “I believe people have different ways of approaching the Word. For me, it's metaphor, written by people a long time after Christ died and interpreted by specific groups. I read the gospels that aren't included in the Bible. These make me feel good about calling myself a Christian.” She may be on to something. The ones that are in the Bible sometimes make me feel bad about calling myself a Christian.
• I lift this from Martin Marty's newsletter Context, as he lifted it from the Utne Reader: “Religion professor Paul Powers of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon: ‘Softheaded spiritualism is its own form of fundamentalism. The suggestion that the ‘true essence' of all religions is spirituality implies that if only people were not so stupid as to believe what their tradition teaches them, they would see that behind all this mere cultural baggage is the supreme ‘spiritual' truth. Religions and religious people are mind-bogglingly different. Why American liberals who seem so happy to embrace difference in various contexts want, when it comes to religion, to sweep [all differences] under the rug of some invented, undefined, supposedly universal ‘spirituality' remains one of the true religious mysteries of our times.”
• I confess to being less impressed by Marty's quotation of poet Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Only a writer, psychoanalyst, gossip, or narcissist could believe that. Or, more innocently, a five year-old child.
• The growing controversy over evolution—what it is and how it should be taught—is about much more than evolution. Here is then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a lecture delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris and now published in Truth and Tolerance: “The separation of physics from metaphysics achieved by Christian thinking is being steadily canceled. Everything is to become ‘physics' again. The theory of evolution has increasingly emerged as the way to make metaphysics disappear, to make ‘the hypothesis of God' (Laplace) superfluous, and to formulate a strictly ‘scientific' explanation of the world. A comprehensive theory of evolution, intended to explain the whole of reality, has become a kind of ‘first philosophy,' which represents, as it were, the true foundation for an enlightened understanding of the world. Any attempt to involve any basic elements other than those worked out within the terms of such a ‘positive' theory, any attempt at ‘metaphysics,' necessarily appears as a relapse from the standards of enlightenment, as abandoning the universal claims of science.” At stake is a human and Christian truth that cannot ultimately be demonstrated but upon which everything depends. “The question is whether reason, or rationality, stands at the beginning of all things and is grounded in the basis of all things or not. The question is whether reality originated on the basis of chance and necessity (or, as Popper says, in agreement with Butler, on the basis of luck and cunning) and, thus, from what is irrational; that is, whether reason, being a chance by-product of irrationality and floating in an ocean of irrationality, is ultimately just as meaningless; or whether the principle that represents the fundamental conviction of Christian faith and of its philosophy remains true: In principio erat Verbum—at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason. Now as then, Christian faith represents the choice in favor of the priority of reason and of rationality. This ultimate question, as we have already said, can no longer be decided by arguments from natural science, and even philosophical thought reaches its limits here. In that sense, there is no ultimate demonstration that the basic choice involved in Christianity is correct. Yet, can reason really renounce its claim to the priority of what is rational over the irrational, the claim that the Logos is at the ultimate origin of things, without abolishing itself?”
• As was to be expected, among the first acts in the pontificate of Pope Benedict was the strong reaffirmation of the Catholic Church's irrevocable commitment to ecumenism and the quest for full communion among all Christians. By virtue of his background, Benedict brings to this task a greater familiarity with the separated communions of the West than was possessed initially by John Paul II whose Polish experience was more oriented to the East. For many reasons, relations with the Orthodox East will continue to have priority in Catholicism's ecumenical efforts, but Benedict's long history of interaction with the communities issuing from the sixteenth-century division in the West is thought to be a major asset. It is therefore deeply regretted that some of those communities are in recent years pulling back from the ecumenical task. The Joint Declaration on Justification, signed between Lutherans and Catholics in 1999, has been widely attacked by Lutheran theologians in Germany, and in 2004 the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany issued a statement that suggests, writes ecumenical scholar Geoffrey Wainwright in Pro Ecclesia, it may be repudiating the entire ecumenical enterprise of the past one hundred years. The text limits the goal of ecumenism to “cooperation” among separated Christians, and insists that dialogue with others can proceed only “from within the Lutheran perspective.” Wainwright observes, “Even where a common understanding of the gospel has not (yet) been achieved between the confessional bodies, it contemplates an immediate mutual invitation of members to participation in word and sacrament; without doctrinal or institutional unity, communion is thus reduced to the individual level.” This idea of unity, he says, risks ending up with nothing more than “unreconciled denominationalism.” A similar argument was made in John Paul the Great's last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Welcoming everyone to Holy Communion, which some think is a very ecumenical thing to do, is in fact a formula for the end of ecumenism. It assumes that our differences over the truth of doctrine and the right ordering of the Church really make no difference. We commune together and then go on in our separate ways, thus abandoning the goal of full communion. The German statement seems to posit a Church (capital C) that exists above and beyond any actual existing church. “If that were so,” says Wainwright, the Germans “would by this document be endorsing a docetism of the most insidious kind.” Docetism is the ancient (and recurring) heresy that Christ only seemed to have a human body and to suffer and die on the cross. The real Christ is above and beyond ordinary history. As there is christological docetism, so also there is ecclesiological docetism, and among many Christians it enervates or even negates the quest for full communion. It is at best a loss of nerve, at worst a rejection of Christ's high-priestly prayer for his disciples (see John 17).
• Don't we know how pushy those evangelical Christians can be? That is among the questions raised in protest against what I thought was a rather light-hearted comment in the October issue about the problem of “pervasive religion” at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Well yes, some people—not only evangelicals and not only Christians—can be pretty obnoxious in pressing their convictions on others. And not only their religious convictions. Their causes would be better served by the learning of elementary good manners. An almost certain way of exacerbating bad manners in the public square is to try to impose good manners by regulations of law. Civilization, as has often been observed, depends upon obedience to the unenforceable, which is another way of saying that civilization depends upon civility. In my commentary I suggested—in a spirit of what now appears to have been unwarranted hopefulness—that that lesson had been learned at the Air Force Academy. But here is a Laurie Goodstein story in the New York Times with the headline “Air Force Bans Leaders' Promotion of Religion.” It seems new Air Force guidelines will proscribe anything that might be perceived as favoring a particular religion or even, according to the proposed text, “the idea of religion over nonreligion.” The guidelines were largely drafted by Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a former navy chaplain and former director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who was hired as special assistant to the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force. The need for such guidelines had been pressed by Representative Steve Israel of New York, an influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate who has agitated against the Christian tenor of activities at the school. A professor of law at Yeshiva University is quoted on the new rules: “What I liked about them is they went so far out of their way to say the government should not be endorsing religion, because that's not always been true in the military.” That, one might observe, is a breathtaking understatement. From George Washington's Farewell Address and throughout American history, government leaders have strongly and explicitly endorsed religion, and nowhere has that been so emphatically the case as in the military. The attempt to extirpate religion from the official life of the military is a rewriting of history in the name of pluralism and sensitivity. Despite the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes, there have always been those in the military who dissent from the dominant religious affirmation. They were and are a small minority. The new thing, following a half century of Supreme Court rulings in hostility to religion, is the idea that a minority has the right to be protected from reminders that it is a minority. This gives even the smallest minority effective veto power over the public voice under government auspices, and nothing is more comprehensively under government auspices than the military. Anything the minority deems offensive or not to its liking must be excluded. Also in the military, the protocols of civility are subject to negotiation, but the new Air Force regulations are riddled with confusions that are likely to increase the putative problems they are designed to resolve. For instance, says the Times, “they allow for ‘a brief nonsectarian prayer' at special ceremonies like those honoring promotions, or in ‘extraordinary circumstances' like ‘mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters.'“ Is a mention of Jesus or Sinai sectarian? How brief is “brief,” and how many casualties are required to warrant an extra minute of prayer time? Perhaps most important, why should the government endorse or any observant Jew, Christian, or Muslim go along with the idea that public prayer should be limited to “extraordinary circumstances”? The limitation of prayer to moments of great mourning or danger encourages the most debased notion of “the God of the gaps”—of religion in the form of last-resort superstition reserved for times of crisis. Although one notes that prayer will be permitted also for “honoring promotions,” which perhaps reflects the belief of the Air Force in the dubious notion that God has a hand in its personnel decisions. The proposed regulations are a prime instance of attempting to turn faith into a tame and inoffensive civil religion that should offend everyone who understands that the nation and its military are “under God”—meaning the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Who cannot be recruited to anyone's service. All that having been said, I am reliably informed that some evangelical officers at the Air Force Academy were seriously out of line in using their rank to promote their faith on military time. If true, that needed to be corrected, but is better corrected by obedience to the unenforceable than by regulations that invite evasion.
• Rabbi Joshua Haberman of Washington, D.C., once observed that America's Bible Belt is his safety belt. Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute agrees. Writing in Christianity Today, he tells Christians, and evangelical Christians in particular, that “you've become, beneath the radar screens of the national press, America's most powerful force for human rights progress. And you've done it as Christians whose biblical commands have made your silence impossible in the face of slavery and genocide.” Although he doesn't say so, Horowitz, a Jew, has played an invaluable part in recruiting evangelicals to the cause of human rights. As under Nazi and Soviet persecution those who defended Jews were defending all, so also, Horowitz writes: “The battle over worldwide Christian persecution is a battle for the freedom of all—all the more so because the explosive global spread of Christianity has made the paradigmatic Christian a poor and brown third-world female rather than the white middle-class Western male that your patronizing detractors paint you to be.” Horowitz also has words of advice. It is too easy to defeat the possible better in the quest for the impossible best. “You can get more support than you may imagine possible by avoiding utopian overreach; doing so can, without sacrifice of principle, broaden the support you can achieve. Take, for example, the hot-button issue of abortion. Many in the Christian community denounced the wise and shrewd leaders who conceived of the partial-birth abortion initiative. Its critics demeaned the initiative as barely half a slice of the full-loaf reform that was needed. They argued that the reform would have the overall effect of legitimizing abortion even if it succeeded. Those critics were wrong. They did not understand that success has ripple effects. They did not understand how much more could be achieved by framing the issue to allow false caricatures of evangelicals to be shattered. Americans' views of abortion have shifted by more than 20 percent since the onset of the partial-birth abortion debate and largely because of it. It has put the pro-abortion community on the defensive. And it all happened because wise Christian leaders picked a target that was winnable, and framed an issue that revealed abortion's underlying nature. Those leaders may have wanted to pass more far-reaching anti-abortion legislation, but knew they couldn't on both legal/constitutional and political grounds. They were tough-minded. They didn't sacrifice principle. And, more than perhaps even they expected, they began to reach others not previously on their side as they began to change the terms of the abortion debate.” The goal of comprehensive legal protection for the unborn is not, I believe, an instance of “utopian overreach,” but Horowitz is right in saying that the focus on partial birth abortion played a powerful role in changing the terms of the continuing conflict over abortion. And he is right in understanding the ways in which the mobilization of evangelicals—as explained by Allen Hertzke in “The Shame of Darfur” (FT October)—has transformed the never-ending campaign for human rights.
• Already underway is a major visitation to evaluate about 160 Catholic seminaries and houses of formation. The visitation began late September and is scheduled to be completed by the first week of May 2006. In some circles, there is considerable skepticism. There was a similar visitation in the 1980s and it apparently did not catch the problems related, however directly or indirectly, to the sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002 and continues to send shock waves through every level of the Church's life. This visitation, we are assured, will be different. The most important difference is that Rome is unequivocally in charge. Reports from the visitation teams will go directly to the congregation for education in Rome without being vetted in advance by seminary rectors or local bishops. The visitors will look at everything being taught and done in the seminaries, with particular reference to moral theology as it relates to priestly formation, and with most particular reference to celibacy. Here, inescapably, homosexuality comes in for serious attention. No doubt some have exaggerated the incidence of homosexual orientation or activity among Catholic clergy, but more than 80 percent of the relatively small number of priests involved in sex abuse were involved with post-pubescent boys and young men. And there is no doubt about the hundreds of priests, seminarians, and ex-seminarians who testify to the existence of “gay-friendly” institutions powerfully influenced, if not dominated, by “lavender mafias.” The visitors will include forty-five bishops, sixty priests, and twenty-five lay experts, and the whole thing is coordinated by Archbishop Edward O'Brien of the military vicariate. He will not be a part of the three-to five-member visiting teams but is working closely with Rome, and especially with Archbishop Michael Miller of the Congregation for Education, a widely and justly admired scholar who is thoroughly familiar with the American situation. The visiting teams will spend a week at each seminary, house of formation, or theological union (such as those at Chicago and Berkeley), interviewing faculty and every student individually. Priests who have been ordained in the last three years and others who know the institution will also be invited to testify. Interviews will be sub secreto, meaning the participants are vowed to secrecy. It is alleged that during the visitation of the 1980s, some schools created Potemkin villages, putting on a front of fidelity to the magisterium and moral discipline, while carefully scripting in advance what students should tell the visitors. This time, we are told, the visitors will be alert to any such signs of dissembling. “This is not a witch hunt,” says one bishop involved. “Our entire purpose is to help these places be better. We understand that some faculties are fearful. They should not be. Except for those who have a reason to be afraid.” At this point, it seems to me, confidence in the visitation now underway is justified. The process has been carefully thought through, the determination of those in charge is manifest. The firm intention is that what is right will be reinforced, what is wrong will be remedied, and what is rotten will be removed. Perhaps most important, Rome is in charge and Rome is resolved to help get priestly formation in America back on course. Obviously, results are not guaranteed, but attentive hopefulness is fully warranted.
• At the World Youth Day in Cologne, Pope Benedict met with a delegation of Muslim leaders, whom he repeatedly addressed as “dear and esteemed Muslim friends.” He said, “Thanks be to God, we agree on the fact that terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence.” He then underscored the responsibility of Muslim educators to make sure that younger Muslims share that understanding. He added, “The dignity of the person and the defense of the rights which that dignity confers must represent the goal of every social endeavor and of every effort to bring it to fruition. This message is conveyed to us unmistakably by the quiet but clear voice of conscience. It is a message which must be heeded and communicated to others: Should it ever cease to find an echo in peoples' hearts, the world would be exposed to the darkness of a new barbarism.” It was, as is usual with Benedict, a carefully crafted statement reflecting his rejection of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” and affirming dialogue without delusions. Whatever the difficulties, and they are formidable, the alternative is “the darkness of a new barbarism.” Speaking of the history of Christian-Muslim relations, he said, “We know only too well what atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.” In sharpest contrast to those who dream of a world in which religion fades away, Benedict underscores that the remedy for the abuse of religion is religion firmly grounded in obedience to God's will for peace among all peoples. In response to the pope's remarks, a Muslim spokesman said, “We wholeheartedly support the process of dialogue launched and pursued by the Vatican.” The spokesman, Ridvan Cakir of the Turkish Islamic Union (most Muslims in Germany, about four percent of the population, are from Turkey) also said, “The process of Turkey's accession to the European Union is also an important occasion, one that should be judged in this context [of dialogue].” Before he became pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expressed grave misgivings about the consequences of redefining “Europe” to include Turkey. The Cologne encounter, while described as cordial, reflected both the tentativeness and necessity of dialogue without delusions.
• Admittedly, the vocabulary is a bit on the clunky side, but the editors of Christianity Today are on to something important. Following the lead of a number of influential evangelicals—John R.W. Stott, Richard Halverson, Richard Mouw—they call for a “remonasticization” of the churches in which “remonks” would model for church and world what it means to really follow Christ. “North American evangelicals are now acutely awake to the fact that they live in a post-Christian culture,” the editors write. “It is a culture dominated by the mechanisms and mentality of consumerism, and facilitated by mass media that penetrate every nook and cranny of the country.” That culture, they say, has also penetrated evangelical Protestantism, which has its own patterns of celebritydom and obsessions with worldly success. I will not here repeat my argument that ours is not a post-Christian culture but an incorrigibly and confusedly Christian culture for which we must accept responsibility. The merits of monasticism do not depend upon Christianity Today‘s cultural analysis. In the absence of a strong and deep ecclesiology, American Protestantism has always been prone to embrace America as its church, and to react with angry disillusionment when America fails to live up to that role. The editors are on more solid ground when they connect the need for monasticism to “the call to holiness” and the indispensability of communities with a disciplined commitment to the “life of prayer.” Flannery O'Connor reflected on the possibility of Protestant monasticism in a letter of 21 June, 1959, that is included in the splendid collection, The Habit of Being. Her letter was occasioned by the “beat generation” of that time. She wrote: “If you took Christ, the Church, law and dogma out of Christianity, you would have something like Zen left. The beat people's need for it witnesses to their need for the contemplative life. Do you think it would be possible for Protestantism ever to come up with a form of monasticism? I asked a divine from Mercer [University] that, and he said ‘No.' In any case if there could be such a thing in Protestantism, a lot of these people could be salvaged from Zen. . . . For us the Church is the body of Christ, Christ continuing in time, and as such a divine institution. The Protestant considers this idolatry. If the Church is not a divine institution, it will turn into an Elks Club.” Christianity Today proposes strongly intentional communities of families, a form of life followed, however differently, by Hutterites and some Catholic charismatics, but they accent the importance of a more “radical” commitment in communities of service that are pledged to poverty and celibacy. The third “evangelical counsel,” obedience, is not mentioned. The history of factionalism and division over questions of leadership in Christian communities is notorious. Evangelicals interested in acting on the Christianity Today proposal would do well to read closely the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the magna carta of western monasticism, with special attention to obedience. Community life must be ecclesially embedded in ways that may be difficult for Protestants. At the same time, the Taizé community in France, founded half a century ago by Roger Schutz and Max Thurian, provides one suggestive model. The editorial, “Remonking the Church,” is a bold proposal and one hopes it is not just a passing fancy. The evangelical historian Mark Noll has written about the “episodic and reactive” nature of evangelical enthusiasms, to which one might add a propensity for reinventing the wheel. The Christianity Today proposal is deserving of serious and sustained exploration.
• My dear friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of saying, “Interfaith dialogue begins with faith.” That maxim is exemplified in the distinguished work of Rabbi David Novak, a Heschel student and head of Judaic studies at the University of Toronto, and now he has put much of that work together in an important new book, Talking With Christians: Musings of A Jewish Theologian (Eerdmans, 269 pages, $25
). Novak played a key role in the production of Dabru Emet (“Speak the Truth”), a statement of hundreds of Jewish scholars on the significance for Jews and Judaism of Christians and Christianity. (For full text, see FT, November 2000.) It is a great pity, in fact a great scandal, that the major Jewish organizations and their Christian counterparts in what is called the Jewish-Christian dialogue have ignored the singular achievement that is Dabru Emet. Especially on the Jewish side, the organizational penchant is to avoid questions of theology and faith, reducing the dialogue to an exercise in intergroup relations and endless rehashings of the problems of anti-Semitism. It was that penchant that prompted Rabbi Heschel's maxim in the first place. It is to the great credit of Novak that he has relentlessly persisted in deepening the questions that Jews and Christians must address together. Talking with Christians includes a number of essays that originally appeared in the pages of First Things. They and others range over a wide array of subjects that have engaged Novak's impressive learning and original mind, including Karl Barth on divine command, Maimonides and Aquinas on natural law, the theological and communal status of Jews who become Christians, and Jewish strengths and weaknesses in speaking to moral conflicts in the public square. Let me put it simply: Anyone who has a substantial interest in Jewish-Christian relations and the question of Judaism's importance to Christianity, and vice versa, must read Talking with Christians. If David Novak and the more reflective among Christian interlocutors have their way, the day may yet come when interfaith dialogue begins with faith.
• So much for Paul, Origen, Cyprian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Ambrose, and Bernard—to say nothing of the writers of the four Gospels. In fact, so much for Christian biblical interpretation prior to the dawn of “modern” biblical scholarship in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. Dr. John Jaeger of Dallas Baptist University recently reviewed the first volume in a new series, “The Church's Bible,” under the general editorship of Robert Louis Wilken and published by Eerdmans. The first volume is composed of judiciously selected commentary on the Song of Songs and is edited by the distinguished historian Richard A. Norris, Jr. In the early patristic and medieval periods, the Bible was understood to be all of a piece and through various allegorical and other interpretive strategies was displayed as the “whole counsel of God” centered in the revelation of God in Christ. “The Church's Bible” is an exciting project that provides extended commentaries by the fathers of the Church, boldly proposing that we reclaim scriptural interpretation for the believing community. Biblical scholarship should not be, as it has largely become, an antiquarian specialty of the academy. In short, it is the Church's Bible before it is the academy's. Jaeger, writing in Christian Librarian, is unimpressed. “Biblical interpretation for several centuries,” he writes, “has emphasized that the literal meaning of the text is most significant. . . . It is difficult to find a reason to recommend this commentary, given that the methods of interpretation used are no longer very relevant.” It would seem Dr. Jaeger is just catching up with the academic prejudices of the last several centuries. Solidly positioned on the reflective far side of the crippling “relevance” of the past, “The Church's Bible” is a bold project aimed at reclaiming the scriptural text in the service of Christian truth. Contra John Jaeger, it is strongly recommended for preachers and teachers of the faith who are weary of refracting biblical texts through the atheological academic fretwork of the literal-historical-critical obsession with what they “really mean.”
• In my critique of Kenneth Collins' The Evangelical Moment, I attributed to him the claim that 40 percent of the members of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) reject the idea of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Prof. Collins points out that he was only following sociologist James Davison Hunter who reports that 40 percent of “evangelical theologians” reject the idea. Membership in ETS, Collins notes, requires the affirmation of inerrancy. How many of Hunter's 40 percent also belong to ETS is quite another matter.
• A reader objects that my comments (August/September) on Steven Levitt—who claims that the abortion license has contributed dramatically to the decline in crime by killing in the womb those most inclined to criminality—failed to mention the contrary argument by John Lott and John Whitley that the abortion license has actually contributed to an increase in crime by exacerbating family instability and, consequently, youthful criminality. (The Lott-Whitley study can be found on the Internet: “Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 254.”) In fact, I favorably commented on the Lott-Whitley argument in the October 2001 issue of First Things. My comment on the Levitt claims was not intended to take sides with regard to the facts but to highlight the abhorrence of the moral reasoning encouraged, however inadvertently, by Levitt.
• Here's an editorial in a magazine on the Catholic right that claims the editors of First Things are either dupes or willing collaborators in the neocon designs of “corporate capitalism” and the supporters of a “militaristic U.S. foreign policy” to take over the world. What we are doing is “reminiscent of how the Communist Party operated in the U.S.” “The CP set up front groups for religious people to advance the CP line,” says the editorial, in much the way that First Things is a front group for the neocon cabal. Such hysteria, whether on the right or left, is usually undeserving of comment, but then I was struck by the editorialist's claim that “Fr. Richard John Neuhaus said he gets a ‘princely salary.'“ That's news to me, so I checked out the editorial's reference to our December 1998 issue. There I was discussing our policy in accepting or rejecting advertisements and wrote this: “We cannot and would not require that advertisers agree with all our judgments. We can and will make judgments about what is mean-spirited, malicious, in violation of good taste, or seriously false. Yes, making such judgments is difficult, but that's why editors are paid such princely salaries. With the cooperation of our advertisers, we hope the necessity for such judgments will be few and far between.” Apparently the writer of the editorial is unfamiliar with irony. An additional and not unamusing twist is that the occasion of my comment was the repugnant advertisements for the very magazine in which the above-mentioned editorial appears. Those advertisements, like much that appears in that magazine, are mean-spirited, malicious, in violation of good taste, and seriously false.
• The problem was exacerbated by the sensationalist novel The Da Vinci Code, but it existed long before that. As it happens, some folks in Opus Dei tried to turn the novel's popularity into lemonade by inviting curious readers to tour Opus Dei centers and learn more about the organization. But it will take a lot more than that to overcome the public relations difficulties of Opus Dei (meaning “the Work of God” and commonly called “the Work”). John Allen's latest book, Opus Dei, is just out from Doubleday (320 pages, $24
). The promise of the subtitle—”an objective look behind the myths and reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church”—is fully kept. Allen visited Opus Dei centers and apostolates in Europe, North America, Latin America, and Africa, and talked with hundreds of members and supporters. He also provides a succinct history of the Work from its 1928 founding in Spain by Josemaria Escriva, now Saint Josemaria, as well as a lucid description of its organization, rules, and finances. In all this he says he had the complete cooperation of the organization, which is known as a personal prelature because it is unique among institutions in the Church in having its own bishop to govern internal affairs while members are, like all Catholics, also responsible to the bishop of the local church where they live and work. An additional strength of the book is that Allen gives a fair hearing, maybe more than a fair hearing, to critics of Opus Dei, including the network of those who, for whatever reason, left the organization and have made a life's work of attacking it as a secretive and dangerous cult. As Allen well understands, Opus Dei, like other “controversial” institutions in the Church—the Legionaries of Christ comes to mind—is emphatically not for everybody. Any institution that takes seriously its distinctive “charism” will inevitably have a strong sense of “us” and “them,” which, also inevitably, leads to the charge that its members are “elitist,” and to hard feelings on the part of those who feel left out. Allen explores these dynamics with assiduous fairness, examining the claim that the Work is devious in its eagerness to recruit new members and the opposite claim, frequently made by the same critics, that it is stand-offish and arrogantly exclusive. Opus Dei is emphatically a lay phenomenon dedicated to the sanctification of work in the secular world. It has about 87,000 lay members around the world and 1,850 priests to provide spiritual direction and support. Although its influence is sometimes exaggerated by members, the Work's emphasis on the “universal call to holiness” did anticipate, even if it did not precipitate, Vatican II's affirmation of the vocation of the laity in the world. There is hardly a question or criticism about Opus Dei that Allen does not address. One has the distinct impression that, during the course of his research and writing, he came to a much more favorable view of the organization than the one with which he began. At least the conventional objections and misgivings were, one by one, more or less resolved. My own more limited experience with Opus Dei over the years pretty much squares with John Allen's conclusions. Although I'm a bit uneasy with his recommendations that the Work should downplay some of the things that make it so very different and therefore “controversial.” There is no point in being different for the sake of being different, but in its difference is a large part of its strength. In any event, Opus Dei is a book that has been needed for a very long time, but it awaited the meeting of the organization's growing confidence with a journalist who was determined to get the story right. Institutional confidence and journalistic fairness have joined in producing a book from which future discussions about Opus Dei should begin.
• “Where orthodoxy is optional . . . “ The Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church placed the Rev. Edward Johnson on involuntary leave of absence without pay for refusing church membership to a man who was unrepentant about living in a sexual relationship with another man. The man, said Johnson, was living in violation of both Scripture and the Methodist Book of Discipline. Bishop Charlene Kammerer of Virginia explained to a local newspaper that no Methodist minister “has the authority to exclude anyone from joining the church.” This is an inclusive church, and those who don't like it can go elsewhere.
• It was officially entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” but was commonly called the “Moynihan Report,” after the late senator from New York. That was 1965, and forty years later the black family, notably in the urban underclass, is by every measure in yet more desperate straits. All the more reason to welcome “God's Gift: A Christian Vision of Marriage and the Black Family,” a fifty-five-page, very handsomely published statement from the Seymour Institute, which is headed by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, one of the country's most dynamic black leaders. The document presents a solidly orthodox view backed up by careful social science demonstrating that there simply is no way a community can flourish unless it is solidly rooted in the marriage-based family. Recognizing the singular leadership role of the black church, the document was sent to pastors with an urgent appeal that they, at long last, confront a crisis that many would prefer to ignore. Regrettably, the report has received little or no notice in the general media. Although Adrian Walker, a Boston Globe columnist, did object to the statement's understanding of family. “Note, please, what is excluded in that description: interracial families, any kind of nontraditional family, and, especially, any representation of gay marriage, which Rivers—like much of the local black clergy—vigorously opposes.” No surprises there. “God's Gift” deserves the widest possible distribution and discussion. For more information: Seymour Institute, 411 Washington St., Boston, Massachusetts 02124 (www.seymourinstitute.org).
• Except for confirmed Luddites, there should be no problem with the claim that the damage done or threatened by technology can sometimes be effectively countered by technology. That promises to be the case with alternatives to the use and destruction of embryonic stem cells (see Maureen Condic, “Stem Cells & Babies,” August/September). The promise receives further and impressive support from a June statement signed by more than thirty scientists and ethicists following a consultation sponsored by the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a project of the Legionaries of Christ. The statement is entitled “Production of Pluripotent Stem Cells by Oocyte-Assisted Reprogramming,” and a copy is available from the director of the institute, Fr. Thomas Berg at The Westchester Institute, P.O. Box 78, 582 Columbus Avenue, Thornwood, New York 10594 (email@example.com).
• If the idolization of the flag is the alternative to the burning of the flag, there is something to be said for the burning of the flag. The parish bulletin of Holy Spirit Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, includes an extended reflection by the pastor on the flag's symbolic significance. In addition to the usual meanings, you probably did not know that the thirteen stripes represent Jesus and the twelve at the first Eucharist; the six white stripes the six holy days of obligation; the seven red stripes the seven sacraments; the fifty stars the fifty Hail Marys in the Rosary; and on and on. The pastor concludes, “When I think about God and the faith, I suppose I will, in a unique sort of way, think as well about our country, our freedom, and our flag.” One might entertain the possibility that in his case the spiritual antidote to the sacrilege of patriotic kitsch might be to do something rude to the flag.
• Herewith, somewhat belatedly, an acknowledgment of the death last February of Nathan Wright, Jr., at age eighty-one. Few will recognize the name today, but in the riotous 1960s he was a figure of considerable note. An Episcopal minister and author of Black Power and Urban Unrest, in 1967 he chaired the National Conference on Black Power in Newark, New Jersey, which proposed dividing the United States into two countries, one black and one white. While he was not a racial separatist, he thought the goal of racial integration an insult because it assumed blacks could not have a life except in association with whites. He was a radical of self-reliance, insisting that to start a business is more important than running a soup kitchen, and to learn a skill more important than increasing welfare benefits. I remember him as a gentle man of scholarly demeanor who did not fit into any of the designated categories of racial politics in America, then or now. Nathan Wright, Jr., requiescat in pace.
• “There are many things to debate about the Holocaust, but whether it happened is not one of them,” says Deborah Lipstadt who wrote a book about her trial in a British court when historian David Irving sued her for calling him a Holocaust denier. The court ruled in Prof. Lipstadt's favor. The above comment, in a column she published in the New York Sun, was occasioned by her outrage at C-Span for airing a discussion with Irving. Lipstadt writes, “Holocaust deniers and, for that matter, most prejudiced people are wretched types who are no more important than the dirt we step in on the street. We must, however, clean it off our feet before we drag it into our homes.” They do not rise to the status of “subhuman,” they are not even “vermin,” they are no more important than the dirt we step in on the street. Is Deborah Lipstadt, a student of the Holocaust, capable of hearing herself? There are many things to say about the Holocaust, but whether it is right to view human beings as dirt to be scraped off our feet is not one of them.
• Hillel Halkin is a regular contributor to, among other publications, Commentary and the New York Sun. He writes in the latter about anti-Semitic remarks by Ken Livingston, the mayor of London. In order to understand such views, Halkin says, “One has to go to the very roots of Christianity. Jesus, a Jew in every fiber of his being, was killed by the Roman rulers of Palestine. What did a Christianized Roman Empire do with that fact? It turned Jesus' murderers into his own people, forever accursed on account of it. Such a people deserved the worst, even annihilation. This is the deepest, most instinctive of ‘moves' in regard to the Jewish people. . . . It's what Christianity has done for 2,000 years. . . . Perhaps, consciously, London's mayor is really not an anti-Semite. Unconsciously, he is a violent one, in the best Christian tradition.” The ignorance is appalling, the venom is breathtaking. A murderous hatred of Jews, Mr. Halkin tells us, is in the best Christian tradition. It would seem to follow that, the better Christians we are, the more we will hate Jews. Bigots such as Hillel Halkin do not make it easy to be, by that definition, a very bad Christian.
• One notes with interest a certain change of tone over at America, the Jesuit weekly, since Fr. Thomas Reese departed. The editorial voice has assumed an authoritative, decisive, peremptory, even sovereign style. For instance, an editorial on the importance of unity in the labor movement ends with this: “The current dispute within the AFL-CIO is an unfortunate move in the opposite direction. Unions can be powerful advocates for poor workers. Let the unions' internal divisions be resolved.” What's next? “Let the world be at peace.” “Let all partisan bickering cease.” Yes sir!
• I believe I mentioned that, under pressure from the hyper-sensitive ACLU, the board of supervisors of Los Angeles County removed the very small cross from the county seal. They feared the imposition of attorney fees by a judge under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1988. The ACLU did not object to the very large figure of Pomona on the seal. That may have something to do with Pomona being the Roman goddess of fruits and nuts. Nonetheless, the board replaced Pomona with what appears to be an American Indian woman. Where the cross used to be, there is a representation of the San Gabriel Mission. Except that the cross atop the mission has been airbrushed. Such are the antics mandated by what the ACLU interprets as the cultural sterility clause of the First Amendment. (The foregoing was brought to my attention by Rees Lloyd, a California civil rights attorney who was recently honored as “Legionnaire of the Year” by the American Legion for his work in the effort to preserve the cultural recognizability of the country for which its members fought.)
• It is true that I don't have much to say about liturgy in this space. It is not for lack of interest. Liturgical renewal has been an abiding concern. As a young Lutheran pastor, I edited a scholarly quarterly, Una Sancta, dealing with liturgy and ecumenism. At that time I was also the token Protestant on the board of the National Liturgical Conference, an organization that sponsored Liturgical Weeks that regularly drew tens of thousands of people from around the country and played, I believe, a constructive role until it got caught up in the counter-cultural excitements of the period and finally went down in flames. In a forthcoming work from Basic Books, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, I discuss, among many other things, the derailment of the liturgical movement in the decades following the Council. So it is not lack of interest but lack of space that explains the limited attention to matters liturgical. For Catholic readers who want to keep up on what, for better and worse, is happening on this front, I recommend Adoremus Bulletin, published by the Society for the Renewal of Sacred Liturgy and edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock. (Adoremus, PO Box 300561, St. Louis, Missouri 63130. www.adoremus.org.)
• The usual thing is not to give away the end of a book lest you spoil the suspense of where a story or argument is going. In the case of Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Czech writer Patrik Ourednik, however, the ending serves as an excellent introduction. So here it is: “And in 1989, an American political scientist invented a theory about the end of history, according to which history had actually come to an end, because modern science and new means of communication allowed people to live in prosperity, and universal prosperity was the guarantee of democracy and not the contrary as the Enlightenment philosophers and Humanists had once believed. And citizens were actually consumers and consumers were also citizens and all forms of society evolved toward liberal democracy and liberal democracy would in turn lead to the demise of all authoritarian forms of government and to political and economic freedom and equality and a new age in human history, but it would no longer be historical. But lots of people did not know the theory and continued to make history as if nothing had happened.” Europeana is a little book of only 122 pages and is published by the somewhat-obscure Dalkey Archive Press associated with Illinois State University. It has been a while since I've read anything that so fascinates, chills, and amuses all at the same time. In a tone that is laconic, laid back, and intelligently bemused, Ourednik offers a merciless account of the achievements and madnesses—but mostly the madnesses—of the century past: the wars, the utopian delusions, the concentration camps, the political ideologies, the technological advances, and the wacky philosophical pretensions of the brightest and best all receive the attention of a disinterested but curious narrator who can hardly believe what these human beings will be up to next. A leitmotif is the craziness throughout of those who labor to deny God, which is matched only by those who are very sure of His purposes in every particular. Europeana is not for every taste but, at the risk of exposing my quirkiness, I found it both sobering and delightful, and powerfully so on both scores. The thing that kept coming to mind was the great Dr. Johnson's injunction, “clear your mind of cant.” Patrik Ourednik has a mind cleared of cant.
• In the 1960s, Richard Hofstadter wrote about “the paranoid style in American politics.” He had wacky right-wingers in mind but, as has been observed, the paranoid style has now gravitated to the left. A fine example is Garry Wills' recent and very long article in the New York Review of Books explaining how a few of my friends and I have established a “fringe government” by working with both the Vatican and the White House in a nefarious conspiracy to disenfranchise the great American mainstream represented by, of course, Garry Wills. I may come back to Mr. Wills' article in the months ahead. I understand that there are in the works other articles, plus a book or two, advancing the same thesis. A professor tells me that his Jewish colleague read the Wills article, put it down, and exclaimed with some amazement, “That's how they used to talk about us.” There's something to that. It does little good for me to say that, if my friends and I had only a small part of the influence that Mr. Wills says we have, we would have many times the influence we have. To that the conspiratorially-minded have a ready response: “He would say that, wouldn't he?” Thus is the conspiracy theory further confirmed. As Wills puts it, “[Neuhaus speaks] with a quiet air of reasonableness which just makes his extremism more effective.” As Hofstadter observed, they get you coming and going. (I do appreciate the generosity of David Levine, the review's legendary cartoonist, in restoring some of my long lost hair.)
• In response to his contemptuously dismissive depiction of evangelical Protestants in the New York Times book-review section, I expressed skepticism about whether Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago actually knew any evangelicals (August/September). In the September 18 issue of the Times‘ Sunday magazine, there appears, as though in response, “Getting Religion: My Long-Lost Years as a Teenage Evangelical,” by Mark Lilla. He tells how, as an unhappy teenager in a nonobservant blue-collar Catholic family in Detroit, he discovered the Bible, was born again, and was for seven years a thoroughly obnoxious “religious fanatic.” Evangelicalism as he knew it was a matter of getting together with like-minded friends and searching the Bible to come up with a do-it-yourself Christianity. His experience was untouched by the Christian intellectual tradition. “A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, [and] Jacques Maritain. . . . But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery, self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it's strictly self-service.” Well, not quite. There are, for instance, writers such as Alan Jacobs, Alister McGrath, Mark Noll, Timothy George, Wilfred McClay, and quite a few others I could name, most of whom appear with some regularity in the pages of FT or in the evangelical publication Books & Culture. There is no doubt a powerful streak of anti-intellectualism in American evangelicalism, but Lilla's experience, as he tells it, is hardly representative. So I think I'll stand by most of what I said in my original comment. Lilla now calls himself a skeptic. There is a nice touch toward the end of his article. Recently Lilla encountered a young man filled with the fervor reminiscent of his own youthful days. “I felt a professorial lecture welling up in my throat about the history and psychology of religion. I wanted to expose him to the pastiche of the biblical text, the syncretic nature of Christian doctrine, the church's ambiguous role as incubator and stifler of human knowledge, the theological idiosyncrasy of American evangelicalism. I wanted to warn him against the anti-intellectualism of American religion today and the political abuses to which it is subject. I wanted to cast doubt on the step he was about to take, to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love, perhaps even self-transformation. I wanted to convince him that his dignity depended on maintaining a free, skeptical attitude toward doctrine. I wanted . . . to save him. I thought I was out of that business, but maybe not.”
• On the same day, the Times carried an essay by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr.” Much of it is what he said at the Princeton meeting last fall marking the twentieth anniversary of my book, The Naked Public Square. Schlesinger has long been a member of the club that philosopher Morton White dubbed “Atheists for Niebuhr.” Along with the conventional whacks at George W. Bush and the pope, Schlesinger's chief complaint is that there are no religious thinkers today like Niebuhr with whom atheists can happily get along. Now, as it happens, I have for many years contended, contra the likes of Schlesinger as well as some Christian critics, that Reinhold Niebuhr was much more of a Christian than they want to believe. I first met Niebuhr when I was a very young man, and he said, “I'm told you're the next Reinhold Niebuhr.” By any measure, that turned out not to be the case. Although I do not protest when I'm accused of having a Niebuhrian sensibility, and sometimes it is meant as a compliment. I prefer to describe it as an Augustinian sensibility, marked by an abiding awareness of the fallenness of our human circumstance, the ambiguities that surround and the ironies that confound our prideful certitudes, and our radical dependence upon the grace of God. Atheists for Niebuhr, such as Arthur Schlesinger, read Niebuhr, if they read him at all, very selectively. They celebrated him because he lent a patina of intellectual and religious prestige to their liberal causes, and Niebuhr can be criticized for so readily letting himself be used for their ends. Which is not unrelated to the fact that their political ends were, for the most part, also his. Garry Wills, Mark Lilla, Arthur Schlesinger: all three appeared within a few days of each other. Religion is certainly getting more attention. The dominant themes, however, are miscreant Catholics and mindless evangelicals; the former being smart but sinister and the latter dumb but at least equally dangerous. The prospect of the two working in concert is the stuff of liberal nightmares. These three and similar articles have a common purpose: to warn the enlightened reader against the dangers posed by religion today, and especially by religion in public. It would appear that Garry Wills and Arthur Schlesinger are no longer capable of thinking anew about the very different religious, cultural, and political circumstance that so alarms them. But maybe I'm wrong about that.
• “Religious activists fool themselves if they believe public displays of the Ten Commandments reflect a more moral and less corrupt nation. One needs only to watch television to discern the level of our depravity.” That's Cal Thomas whose column, he says, runs neck and neck with George Will's as the country's most widely syndicated. Thomas got it wrong: It's not so much a matter of reflection as of aspiration. I don't know if anybody thinks displaying the Ten Commandments will “reflect” a more moral nation, but it may indicate that the we as a people aspire to being less corrupt. And it's far from evident why schlock on television should be taken as the measure of the country's moral vitality or lack thereof. The Bible, says Thomas, does not teach “that God needs the state to promote himself and that such promotion should be visible.” Of course not. The notion that God “needs” anything contradicts the biblical understanding of the being of God. Why is it that Cal Thomas sounds so very much like Barry Lynn of Americans United for a Naked Public Square? Both suggest that permitting the free exercise of religion in public is a favor granted to the religiously fixated or, even, a favor granted to God. The same problem is evident in the otherwise eminently sensible comment on the Ten Commandment cases by George Will. He writes: “Nowadays many people delight in being distressed. They cultivate exquisitely tender sensibilities and practice moral exhibitionism, waxing indignant about minor encounters with thoughts and symbols they dislike. So, just to lower the decibel level of American life, perhaps communities should refrain from religious displays other than in religious contexts. But this is a merely prudential, not a constitutional consideration. The justices churned out 140 pages of opinions and dissents about the Texas and Kentucky displays. Here is a one-sentence opinion that should suffice in such cases: ‘Because the display on public grounds does not do what the establishment clause was written to prevent—does not impose a state-sponsored creed or significantly advantage or disadvantage one sect or sects—the display is constitutional.'“ The problem is with the sentence I have italicized above. No doubt some proponents of multiplying religious symbols in public spaces are motivated by a desire to score points in the culture wars. Prudence and civility suggest they should restrain themselves. The Ten Commandments should not be demeaned by being turned into a political slogan. Both Thomas and Will fail to understand the crucial issue in these court cases, however. As admirably argued by Justice Antonin Scalia—writing in dissent and marshalling massive evidence from the founding era up through recent times—the purpose of the Ten Commandments and related symbols in public is to bear witness as a nation to the constituting truths of this constitutional order. In direct contradiction of the explicit statements of the founders, the Declaration of Independence, multiple acts of Congress, and the repeated assertions of presidents from Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, and up through the present, the Supreme Court declared in 1968 that the government must be “neutral” between religions and between religion and non-religion. That the government cannot favor religion, Scalia says, is simply false. He is right about that, as he is right in saying that an unprincipled majority on the Court does not strike down the pledge's “one nation under God” and the national motto “In God We Trust” only because they know it would be a fatal blow to the gravely weakened credibility of a judicial “dictatorship” increasingly marked by “hostility to religion.” Contra Thomas, Lynn, Will, and many others, the public display of the truths by which this order is constituted is not a favor granted to those who have a thing about religion, and certainly not a favor to God. These truths are publicly displayed and revered because they continue to be essential to what Lincoln called the testing of “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” They reflect who we as a people are and who we aspire to be. “We hold these truths” because without them this legal and political order makes no sense, and, most importantly, because they are true. We as a nation have never been and are not now “neutral” about these truths. The majority opinion prohibiting their official affirmation combines historical ignorance and judicial arrogance in a way that justly brings the Court into deeper disrepute.
Truth And Tolerance, Again, Commonweal, Nov 19. The Posthuman Future, Pettus in New York Sun, June 20, The Human Life Review, Fall 2004. Why Democracy Is Not The Answer, Theology Digest, Winter 2003. Fetal pain, Catholic Eye, August 31. David B. Hart reviews Alister McGrath, The New Criterion, June. Bishop Wuerl, Origins, September 8. Jonathan Rauch reviews Rick Santorum, The National Journal, Vol 37, No 36. ADL fights Neo-Nazis, ADL bulletin, July 27. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, Ecumenical Trends, September. Jane Fonda, Christianity Today. Martin Marty, Context, September. Geoffrey Wainwright on the VELKD, Pro Ecclesia, Spring. Air Force Academy, New York Times, August 30. Michael Horowitz and Christians, Christianity Today, September. Pope Benedict meets with Muslims, Origins, September 1. Protestant monasticism, Christianity Today, September 2. “The Church's Bible,” Christian Librarian 48 (2). Father Neuhaus' salary, NOR, September. Methodist inclusivism, Good News release, July 26. Idolization of the American flag, parish bulletin July 10. Mark Lilla's Evangelicalism, The New York Times Magazine, September 18.