It’s a nudge here and a shove there. A push from one side and a kick from another. Little things, for the most part, and surprisingly often the perpetrators retreat when directly challenged, but only to watch someone else step in to take their place. And the Christian churches have responded to all the recent thumps and torments with the bumbling confusion of a schoolboy giant.
You remember that boy from the schoolyard: an overgrown child, harassed by a ring of nimble bullies. He’s a little pudgy and a little stupid, good-natured but slow, big but clumsy. He flails around, and he doesn’t believe they actually mean it, and he really only wants to be liked by them— them, all the cruel little boys and girls who think of themselves as clever, all the spiteful little boys and girls who think of themselves as cool. But they never will like him. He’s not clever, and he’s not handsome, and rolls of fat show above his collar. If he ever does shove back, they can run to the teacher to complain that the big kid hurt them, and, meanwhile, tormenting the confused boy makes them feel brave and superior and quick.
So the California court penalizes doctors for referring a patient to another clinic because they didn’t want to perform in-vitro fertilization for an unmarried couple. A state representative in Connecticut submits legislation that would force the Catholic Church to divest itself of its parishes. A judge in Montana decides that healthcare providers are required to arrange for euthanasia when a patient requests it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules against a college in North Carolina for attempting not to provide its employees with health insurance that covers contraception. A charity in Massachusetts is forced out of the adoption business. The Ninth Circuit attempts to compel a park to remove a memorial cross rather than trade the land with the cross into private hands. A New Hampshire divorce court orders a Christian mother to stop homeschooling because her daughter “appeared to reflect her mother’s rigidity on questions of faith.” The president allows a diminished form of funding for faith-based institutions to continue, but only if these religious organizations stop hiring on the basis of their religion. An Illinois druggist is ordered to dispense abortifacients or to close his business. The blizzard of lawsuits to ban Christmas displays is beginning to fall on us once again, the most bizarre of the nation’s holiday traditions.
Not one of these is a vital wound to the practice of American religion. Even together, they don’t add up to anything like a deathblow. Conservatives shouldn’t give in to the temptation to think that the rise of their political opponents portends the crushing of faith, anymore than the left should have declared that the administration of George W. Bush meant the creation of American theocracy. Remember all those anti-Bush books back in 2005 and 2006—James Rudin’s The Baptizing of America, and Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming, and Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, and their ilk? They seemed nutty then, and they look even nuttier in hindsight, and it would be almost as nutty for the political right to imagine today that the nation is on the edge of throwing Christians to the lions—or that our situation is comparable to that of places with real and deadly persecution: Tibet, or Sudan, or Vietnam, or Timor, or India. Besides, American exceptionalism has always depended on the fact that our major political parties do not line up perfectly with religious voters on one side and anti-religious voters on the other. America ceases to be much of an America the day we arrive at something like Europe’s old political divisions of Christian Democrats on one side and Socialists on the other.
Still, America’s religious believers are not wrong to feel ringed in, somehow—teased and ragged and bullied and pressed in on. And they have responded, generally, like the bewildered boy surrounded by bullies. Take Fr. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, for example. This is not a stupid man. At the very least, he’s one of those sharp, get-ahead people with an ability to tell which way the wind is blowing. And there’s no gainsaying the fact that, with healthcare reform, changes in the tax code, and homosexual rights routinely posed against religion, the wind is blowing hard against Notre Dame and all the other limicole institutions—hospitals, schools, and charities—that stand between the Catholic Church and the state. But somehow, despite his cleverness, Jenkins has chosen the big, tormented, clumsy boy’s solution: stupidly hoping that the cool kids will like him if he tries to do the same things they do. They won’t, and in the meantime he succeeds mostly at kindling anger in all the pro-life people who ought to wish Notre Dame well.
Or take the case of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ruling against Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina for denying insurance coverage of contraceptives for its employees. The story has many ins and outs—the best analysis I’ve read is Rabbi Yaakov Menken’s in the Baltimore Sun, perhaps not surprisingly, since Orthodox Jews have a stake in this fight, too—but, in many ways, it has followed thus far the usual pattern of such things: A religious institution takes a stand, and a government agency rules against that stand (in this case, under the somewhat peculiar reasoning that it discriminates against women), and the school’s appeals for publicity are not ignored. The machine goes to work publicizing the case, with mentions in the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, and Fox News. The high-powered religious-rights law organizations provide their expertise, and, though the case is still pending, most legal scholars seem fairly confident that the school will eventually prevail in court.
What Belmont Abbey did is the right thing; if you’re going to be a Catholic school, then, by God, be a Catholic school. But it is one of the bullied boy’s solutions, as well: a lashing out, with the whole weight of the conservative press, against a specific abuse. Belmont Abbey could hardly do otherwise; it’s not the job of that small but serious college to fight all the wrongs of Christendom. Religious believers in general, however, will not be helped if Belmont Abbey prevails, because the problem is not a few rogue bureaucrats at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The problem is not the strange jurisprudence coming from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The problem is not the mainstream media’s distaste for Christianity.
The problem is not any one abuse or even the sum of them. No, the real problem is that Christians in America today feel embattled and hemmed in—nagged and teased and bullied from a hundred directions. This is not a good situation for the Church, and it is a terrible situation for the nation. To travel much among believers is to feel a growing sense that the day is rapidly coming when religious people will not have the freedom to live ordinary lives in accord with their faith. Oh, the Amish option is always available: Retreat from the world, forego the technologies and enjoyments that others have, and build an isolated refuge. But, otherwise, the ordinary things of life seem increasingly to require not just acquiescence but participation. You must not just allow gambling to exist, but you must be dependent on its tax revenues for public services. You must not just allow pornography to be sold, but you must be confronted with it. To be a Catholic doctor is close to a contradiction. To be an evangelical pharmacist is already one, in some jurisdictions. Even to preach against homosexuality is a crime, according to some Canadian human-rights commissions, and within a few years clergy in the churches that do not perform same-sex marriages will be stripped of their power to perform state-recognized marriages.
Two freedoms are at risk: the freedom of conscience for individuals and the freedom of religion for churches. The loss of either of these will damage the nation, and the reaction against the loss will damage the nation even more. But these are the dangers with which we are threatened, by forces determined to shame Christian belief, abolish Christian rhetoric, and prohibit Christian argument, as they strip the public square of its religious dress. All this, and more, is imperiled by a world increasingly bent on compelling not merely our silence but ultimately our participation in its sins, crimes, and follies—its pornographies, infanticides, and redefinitions of human nature.
Too many of the churches are giving in. The great historical presence of Christian witness, the moral force that derives from faith in Jesus Christ, is equally endangered by the growing acquiescence of the Christian churches. Harried by law and social pressure, the churches have begun to beg off the duty to which they have been called by God—the duty to stand up before their cultured despisers and say what must be said by those who believe it: that faith in Jesus Christ is the cure for the diseases of our time, that all human beings are endowed with the dignity and worth of having been made in God’s image, and that the universal truths established by God at the foundation of the world remain the universal truths of human existence today.
In a truly democratic society, individuals must be free to speak, act, work, vote, and live according to the conscience formed by the commitment to first principles that come with faith in Jesus Christ. In a truly democratic society, churches must be free to proclaim the gospel, denounce sin, perform acts of charity, and defend the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable.
As Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants of many denominations, Christian believers do not hold all the same beliefs. But all believers must stand up now and make a declaration. We must demand from the powers of the world genuine freedom for believers: the freedom to earn their livings, the freedom to educate their children, the freedom to practice their charities, and the freedom to speak the truth—all without compulsion to violate, along the way, the conscience formed by faith in Jesus Christ.
We must demand, as well, genuine freedom for the churches: the freedom to proclaim the gospel, the freedom to persuade conversions, the freedom to make the case for Christianity by participating in public discourse, the freedom to operate charitable and educational organizations, and the freedom to decry sin wherever it is found.
Finally, we must call the churches of every Christian denomination to cast off their torpor and compliance—to shed their fear of scorn and disapproval. The churches must take up their first and greatest duty: the proclamation of the Gospel of Life in a time increasingly enticed by death—the proclamation of the Gospel of Light in a world increasingly stumbling in darkness.
Why Then Is Still Now
In the 2008 election, 78 percent of American Jews supported barrack Obama, voting neither their pocketbooks (“Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” as Milton Himmelfarb’s old joke ran) nor their foreign-policy preferences, given that the outgoing bush administration backed Israel more firmly than any of its predecessors. Obama’s popularity in Israel now stands at around 6 percent. Think about that for a moment: a democratic president of the United States whom less than a tenth of Israelis admire. But the majority of American Jews still appear to support him, even after his public squabble with the Jewish state.
It seems a puzzle without a solution, but Norman Podhoretz has set himself to solving it with his new book, Why Are Jews Liberals? (Doubleday, 352 pages, $27). And by his title, what he really means to ask is: Why are American Jews still liberals? Israeli Jews for the most part ceased to be liberals after their bitter experience with the Oslo Process during the 1990s, and the Israeli left has been pushed to the fringe of politics.
Once upon a time, Podhoretz explains, it made sense for the overwhelmingly poor Jewish emigrants to America to be economic liberals. They found succor in the trade-union movement and social advancement in a liberalism that defended them against discrimination. The anti-Communist liberalism of David Dubinsky, head of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, typified the Jewish mainstream.
That was then. Today, however, no more Jews starve over sewing machines in Lower East Side sweatshops. Barriers to Jewish advancement in all fields of American life have vanished. Anti-Semitism remains a threat, but it comes mostly from the political left, under the thin veil of anti-Zionism—because anti-Semitism on the right is marginal, while anti-Semitism on the left is mainstream. When Patrick Buchanan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric went over the line into anti-Semitism, his erstwhile friends at National Review repudiated him; when Gore Vidal penned an anti-Jewish screed at The Nation, the whole left stood by him. Conservative Christians, moreover, are Israel’s staunchest supporters.
Why, then, do Jews continue to cluster on the political left? The only answer, Podhoretz concludes, is that liberalism has become a substitute religion. This isn’t the first time that Jews have chased after a false messiah. Why Are Jews Liberals? notes that Jews who became Marxists were “converting to a new religion in which Marx’s Capital became (in the words of Paul Johnson) ‘a new kind of Torah.’”
Despite the persecution they endured, premodern Jews never stopped believing they were God’s chosen people; and despite the “seemingly irrefutable case that could be made against his promise” that keeping true to his commandments “would bring them prosperity here on earth,” they continued to proclaim, like Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” As Podhoretz observes, “The belief of Jewish Marxists in the glorious promise of socialism was almost equally resistant to refutation by the horrors of ‘actually existing socialism’ in the Soviet Union and other countries living under communism.”
And now liberalism has joined the parade of stubbornly held beliefs for many American Jews. Steven M. Cohen notes that only a quarter of American Jews say that religion is important in their lives, compared with half of all Americans. But half of American Jews say that “being Jewish” is important. Podhoretz concludes: “By this indirect route, these supposed secularists, no less than the Jewish liberals who speak in the name of Judaism, transfer and apply the faith that the Torah of Judaism inspired in their forebears to the Torah of liberalism, and to this new Torah they give a like measure of steadfast devotion and scrupulous obedience.”
What makes this attitude all the more incongruous, Podhoretz observes, is that Jews have a special relation with “the traditional American system.” One of the striking chapters in the book shows how deeply the Puritan founders of America identified with Israel and sought to be a new chosen people in a new promised land. New England, as he documents, drew heavily on the Old Testament, stamping America indelibly with a Jewish character. Puritan judaizing persisted, as he shows, into the generation of Harriet Beecher Stowe in the mid-nineteenth century. Jewish immigrants to America, in turn, were among the greatest beneficiaries of American freedom, and the Jews in America “flourished—and not just in material terms—to an extent unprecedented in the history of their people.”
“Thus,” Podhoretz notes, “do we come full circle to the Augustinian idea of the Jew as ‘witness.’ . . . The Jewish people bear witness to the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system. Surely, then, we Jews have an obligation to join with the defenders of this system against those who are blind or indifferent or antagonistic to the philosophical principles, the moral values, and the socioeconomic institutions on whose health and vitality it depends.”
Explaining that traditional American values are more consonant with Judaism than contemporary liberalism, Why Are Jews Liberals? makes a compelling case—as far as it goes. Consider the fact that, among American Jews, the factor correlating most closely with conservatism is religious observance. Only 14 percent of Orthodox Jews approve of President Obama’s handling of Middle East issues, as opposed to 54 percent of all American Jews. To make the case for Jews who are more conservative, it might be necessary to make first the case for Jews who are more observant.
He Would Have You Fight
On October 22, at the Union League Club in New York, Human Life Review hosted its annual dinner—the dinner at which it gives its great defender of life awards. This year’s awards went, rightly, to human life review’s own senior writers: Ellen Wilson fielding, Marry Meehan, and William Murchison.
It was, as always, an inspiring evening, but a little sadder this year, with the absence of several figures, including previous winners of the Great Defender of Life award, who had supported Human Life Review’s work. Among them, of course, was Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things, and Maria McFadden Maffucci, who guides Human Life Review, asked me to begin the evening with a few remarks about our loss when Fr. Neuhaus died in January:
This winter, this early spring, was a cold and rainy season for us here in New York. Cold and wet and dim and spare and . . . Lost, somehow. Bereft. Stripped of our certainties, decayed in our senses, lost in a landscape from which the watchtowers and the fortified places had disappeared.
All spring, I found myself oddly in mind of those strange lines from John Dryden. Strong were our sires, he wrote,
and as they fought they writ,
Conqu’ring with force of arms, and dint of wit;
Theirs was the giant race, before the Flood;
And thus, when Charles return’d, our empire stood. . . .
Our age was cultivated thus at length;
But what we gained in skill we lost in strength.
Our builders were, with want of genius, curst;
the second temple was not like the first.
This is how good poetry ought to be judged, by the measure of whether it has the power to recur to the mind in moments of stress, or joy, or sorrow—whether, when it really matters, those words return in their proper season, good or bad.
And it has been a bad season for us, here. I have friends that I have seen, over the past two years, only at funerals. Friends that we once laughed and fought beside, now only to kneel beside in yet another darkened church or stand in the rain beside, around yet another open grave. We have been besieged by frequent hearses, and the long funerals have blackened all the way. William F. Buckley, and Jack Kemp, and Avery Dulles, and Fr. Francis Canavan, and Karen Novak, and Richard—Richard John Neuhaus.
The loss of Fr. Neuhaus to the pro-life cause is incalculable. As I wrote when he died in January, Fr. Neuhaus was the greatest reader I ever met. The greatest reader, and a cigar smoker, and a walker, and a preacher, and a brewer of some of the worst coffee ever made. The mind latches onto odd items in moments of grief: the tilt of a friend’s head, the way he used his hands when he spoke, an awful meal shared a decade back, a conversation about a book last year.
Novels and movies always seem to me to get it wrong. Grief doesn’t conjure up ghosts. Grief renders the world itself ghostly. The absent thing alone is real, and, in comparison, all present things are pale, gray, and indistinct: a vague background to the sharp-edged portrait of what is gone.
And, oh, what sharp edges Richard John Neuhaus had. He wrote and wrote and wrote—a discipline of writing that to every writer I know feels like an indictment: the books, and the innumerable essays, and all those talks he flew around to give. And, just as an incidental, the thousands of words a month he poured out in his column, The Public Square, just to keep First Things going.
He loved to tell the story of the time when he was complaining—boasting, really, in the guise of complaining, the way young men do—about how busy he was and how he didn’t want to fly to Cincinnati to give again the speech he had just given in Chicago. And his friend and mentor Abraham Joshua Heschel said to him, “You think you’re such a big shot, they know in Cincinnati what you said in Chicago? Go to Cincinnati, Richard.”
That was back in his radical 1960s days, of course, when he was the Lutheran pastor of a large, mostly Black congregation in Brooklyn, and, together with Rabbi Heschel and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, he founded one of the largest anti-war groups, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. He was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, a McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, and a radical candidate for Congress in 1974.
It’s a long way from there to being the Catholic priest of whom, on all the life issues, George W. Bush would say “Father Richard helps me articulate these things.” This journey from left to right has become the received account of Fr. Neuhaus’ life, but in his autobiography—the internal narrative by which he understood himself—Richard John Neuhaus didn’t think he had changed all that much. Generally, he imagined that the world had done more changing than he had.
Take abortion, for instance. In 1968, he won the award for best editorial of the year from the Catholic Press Association—Catholics liked giving awards to a Lutheran in those days; they thought of it as being bravely trendy and ecumenical—for an essay in which he cried, “The pro-abortion flag is being planted on the wrong side of the liberal/conservative divide.” It ought to be those heartless conservatives who want to define the fetus as a meaningless lump of tissue; it ought to be caring liberals who want to expand the community of care to embrace the unborn.
If he later came to have a kinder view of conservatives, that was because he actually met some of them. Even his conversion to Catholicism in 1990, and his ordination as a Catholic priest the next year, could be understood as a standing-still while the world altered around him. This was a man, after all, who titled his account of conversion “How I Became the Catholic That I Was.” Still, all such things have costs, and one of the great things about Fr. Neuhaus was that he was always willing to pay them. His mind was a grown-up mind, and when he decided on a position, he advanced it with the same rhetorical power and energy with which he had advanced his earlier positions.
I remember him, sitting on the couch, walking me through the argument of a book he had just finished—and making the argument clearer than the author had ever managed. I remember his puffing on his cigars, and his constant jaywalking across the streets of Manhattan in blithe confidence that all the cars would just . . . stop. I remember his Lutheran-style preaching and his bad coffee. I remember the way he would tilt his head when he smiled, and the way he used his hands when he talked, and the brilliant conversation about a book only last year.
It’s worth mentioning how much he loved the people who have gathered tonight: the editor of Human Life Review, Maria Maffucci, and her children, and Faith McFadden, and all of you here. He even kept a soft spot in his heart for Human Life Review, though sometimes, when he read something good in it, he’d ask, plaintively, “Why did George McKenna give that essay to Maria instead of me?”
But Maria knew, as we all do, that, on the day that Roe v. Wade is overturned and this nation halts its slaughter of children, Richard John Neuhaus will be remembered as the hero that he was—a man who, for more than thirty years, set himself, heart and soul, against abortion and the murder of the unborn.
If he were here—and, oh, I can imagine it: close my eyes and see him standing here before you, once again.
And if Fr. Neuhaus were here, he would have you fight. He would have you roar. He would have you continue to defend the deepest things of life. He would call us all, once again, to our better selves. He would tell us all, once again, to stand—laughing and brave and confident and sure—against the powers that threaten the fulfillment of human nature. He would call us all, once more, to rise up and oppose the forces arrayed against the weak, and the vulnerable, and the precious, and the unborn.
Understanding the Difference
You’ve heard of him, of course: Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, current president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, and the de facto intellectual dean of the American episcopate. Perhaps what’s most interesting about his new book—The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (Crossroad, 384 pages, $26.95)—is the sheer fact of it, for no one besides Cardinal George has both the talent and the ecclesial weight to attempt what he’s after in the book. And what he’s after is a theological vision with enough breadth and depth to move beyond the crippling polarization among American Catholics over moral questions of political moment.
As such, it is broader and deeper than the vision set forth by Cardinal George’s predecessor in the see of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin. A generation ago, Bernardin was chiefly responsible for disseminating the view of Catholic social teaching as a “seamless garment.” Although that approach was doctrinally orthodox in itself, it had the practical effect of allowing some Catholics to treat questions that were clearly matters of opinion—such as which military interventions were just and at what level the minimum wage should be set—as morally and politically equivalent to the question of whether abortion should be legal. Thus, conservative opponents of legal abortion were charged with abandoning the Church’s “consistent ethic of life” if they did not also support the politically liberal agenda on those other questions.
Over the long haul, the charge of inconsistency boomeranged. Many began to notice that Catholics on the political left could be asked why the Church should accede to the Roe regime—when Pope John Paul II was saying things that implied no such concession was morally acceptable—while the Church should not compromise on certain other matters about which the papal line was not quite as hard as that of the Democratic party.
There was, after all, a doctrinal basis for distinguishing between negotiables and non-negotiables: The latter were precisely those issues in which the moral norm at stake was the direct, intentional taking of innocent human life, which is always and intrinsically immoral; abortion was and remains the most egregious violation of that norm. In their official, collective statements over the past decade, the U.S. bishops have gradually strengthened their emphasis on the non-negotiables. And so, no longer do Catholic Democratic politicians argue that we must support keeping abortion legal despite our religious belief that abortion is murder.
In fact, they now typically argue that we must support legal abortion because our belief that abortion is immoral is religious. Whatever else may be said about that, it clearly exposes the bankruptcy of the old “seamless-garment” argument: Why cloak ourselves in that garment if it comes from a closet that we may not open? And yet, a self-consistent and theologically orthodox morality still ought to inform Catholic influence in the public square, which includes culture as well as politics. Liberal Catholicism is a dying project, so the question then becomes: What theological vision should replace the seamless garment as the context for influencing the wider society?
Taking for granted the truth and the irreformability of the non-negotiables, George sets them and many other questions of Catholic social teaching (chiefly “the dignity of the human person”) in a broad theological context that allows him to critique American individualism and secular liberalism in terms that could appeal across the political and ecclesial spectra. Like John Courtney Murray, he argues that Catholics can influence culture and politics in ways that genuinely appeal even to non-believers. But, unlike Murray, he does not believe this can be done politically without mining a distinctively Catholic theological patrimony, one that runs deeper than the Church’s current defense of natural law.
The patristic and medieval “metaphysics of participation” (in which God is seen as the Being whose essence is to exist, rather than as one being among others) undergirds a theology and politics of communion that, George argues, late-medieval theology abandoned. The result was an admirable clarification of the fact that the secular realm has meaning, and the human person has dignity. But the cost was the philosophical foundation of those ideas in the existence of God—and the resulting crisis of modernity indicates the need to return to the older paradigm. Although all cultures are “evangelically ambiguous,” containing both fertile and rocky ground for the gospel, the disparities today are particularly sharp and challenging. But they can also be overcome with the right theology, which has been done by and under the last two popes.
There are some problems with George’s account. For instance, he follows Pope Benedict’s suggestion at Regensburg that the long devolution into secularity, and away from a more integral “City of God” type of theology, began with Duns Scotus. But George places the emphasis on Scotus’ doctrine of univocity of being rather than on voluntarism. The argument doesn’t quite seem to follow, and plenty of theologians would dispute George’s history even as history. Moreover, the parts of the book about globalization and Islam seem more tacked onto the thesis than contributions to it.
Still, the overall argument in The Difference God Makes is a strong one. If the metaphysics of participation undergirds a theology of communion, in which relationality is ontologically prior to individuality, then the radical autonomism of secular liberalism cannot survive. There are no pure individuals to determine themselves freely apart from a network of givens that shape identity and make communal life possible, enabling the experience of life as gift. The meaning of human life is primarily something to be discovered and received in love rather than created from the nihil of an individual freedom with no prior vision of what freedom is for. Such a network precludes characterizing human self-interest and freedom in terms of a mutual conflict, along Hobbesian and social-contract lines, in which government’s purpose is to limit the conflict and maintain at least a facsimile of justice. Thus solidarity comes to the fore.
With such an account, George is applying the communio theology developed by Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and von Balthasar—and he believes that understanding human life this way could heal the defect that makes the American experiment “evangelically ambiguous.” More, he believes that this way of setting Catholic social teaching could transcend the standard American political divisions without falling into the black hole of the seamless-garment approach. Perhaps so. At the very least, The Difference God Makes can restore fruitful discussion of how Catholics should influence public life.
While We're At It
•This is from the Challenges of Enculturation Department. According to a sprawling article in the New York Times’ Sunday magazine, the global Sesame Street franchise is facing some trouble in the Holy Land. The pluralistic tranquility of the world depicted in the American program may have always reflected aspiration rather than reality, but even that aspiration seems more reasonable in Philadelphia than in Ramallah.
As the New York Times notes, Awadallah (an Arab writer for the program) “was still struggling . . . to express himself within the parameters of the “Sesame Street” universe. His first idea . . . was a series of disturbing vignettes based on the Israeli siege in Gaza last December. In one scene . . . Haneen, a girl Muppet, would cower under a table while bats . . . [representing] Israeli fighter jets swarmed around her. In another, a dove would be shot as it tried to fly to Gaza.”
Back to the drawing board, Awadallah, old boy.
•The Associated Press reports from Los Angeles that Cardinal Mahony is in legal trouble for failing to report a sex-abuse complaint: “In the deposition transcript, archdiocesian attorney Don Woods said that, because the two alleged victims were adults when they filed their claim, Mahony was not obligated to report it to the police and did no wrong.” As the acerbic blogger Diogenes observes, “notice the moral standards now set for Catholic prelates. If their actions did not violate any criminal statutes, nothing more can be expected.”
• “Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations.” Thus saith the folks at Conservapedia, who have conceived a curious idea they call the Conservative Bible Project. The only way to rid the Bible of its clandestine “liberal bias,” they say, is to make use of “conservative principles.” To this end, the Conservative Bible Project sets out ten guidelines to shape the proposed retranslation. Some of these include an emphasis on “powerful conservative terms” such as “volunteer” instead of “comrade,” “resourceful” instead of “shrewd,” or, in another case, a decidedly pragmatic substitution of “gamble” for “cast lots” to effect guilt-by-association with gambling.
Even free-market principles should be brought out in the text, the Conservapedia writers insist—especially in Jesus’ “economic parables.” A small portion of the New Testament has been newly translated for the project, but many completed sections are simply rewording older translations: changing “plenteous” to “bountiful,” for instance, “tribulation” to “oppression,” and “Word” to “Living Word.” Some retranslations go beyond the limits of dynamic equivalence, though, such as the changing of “There is none good but one, that is God” to “There is only one good Person.”
One almost gets the idea that Conservapedia is trying to serve two masters.
• Britain’s Royal Society has recently released a report on the possible applications of geoengineering—deliberate, large scale intervention in the earth’s climate system—in solving the current climate crisis. Just to be clear, that crisis is that average global temperatures could rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 if humans do not drastically curb their carbon emissions. The result of this temperature increase? According to one Royal Society researcher, “Civilization as we know it will end within our grandchildren’s lifetime.” Swift action must be taken.
The geoengineering solutions reviewed by the society were myriad, ranging from ho-hum solutions such as reforestion to fantastical proposals to reflect solar rays back into space. One such proposal entailed making clouds whiter to better reflect incoming solar rays before they reach the surface of the earth. Another “solar radiation management” solution suggested reflecting solar rays back into space by imitating the effects of major volcanic eruptions which inject large quantities of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere. And a third recommended covering large portions of the desert with reflective polyethylene-aluminum.
Meanwhile, back across the pond—in fact, directly involving the pond—Bill Gates has equally grand plans to intervene in the earth’s climate system. Gates has submitted patent applications for storm-managing methods “not limited to atmospheric management, weather management, hurricane suppression, hurricane prevention, hurricane intensity modulation, [and] hurricane deflection.” The proposal is to deprive nascent hurricanes forming over the ocean of the warm water they feed on by pumping cold water from the depths of the ocean to the surface. The method would require cooling an extensive portion of the ocean, since hurricanes can cover an area of over sixty square miles.
It’s easy to see the appeal of such creative and elegant solutions: They suggest that we fully understand and have complete mastery over our environment. But doesn’t the sheer scale of these endeavors make their proponents wary? The adverse effects could be cataclysmic, and to foresee them all would require, well, the mind of God—which is why we suggest control of the weather be left primarily up to him. Before tinkering too much with the earth’s climate system, scientists would do well to remember that while God did give man dominion over all the earth, it was the serpent who said, “and you shall be like God.”
• Meanwhile, back again in Britain, doctors at an national healthcare hospital left a newborn baby to die because he was born too prematurely—and, when challenged, they perfunctorily cited national guidelines for limiting perinatal care. According to the guidelines published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, for babies born before twenty-two weeks gestation, it “would be considered in the best interests of the baby, and standard practice, for resuscitation not to be carried out.”
Jayden Capewell was born at twenty-one weeks and five days—just two days before the cut-off. Disregarding the assurance of the Nuffield Council that it would be in her son’s best interest to die, Sarah Capewell begged that doctors help him, but they refused even to see him. She was told to consider the birth a miscarriage, and in reply to her demand, “You have to help him,” she was frankly told, “No, we don’t.” Two hours after his birth, Jayden died in his mother’s arms.
In their endorsement of the guidelines, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine assures the public that “the care of the mother, her fetus, and the baby, will always need to be individualized and should be led by senior staff in all disciplines. The parents’ hopes and expectations need to be explored with honesty and compassion in a realistic way, drawing upon the available evidence.” That seems innocuous enough, but clearly, in practice, innocuousness is not the primary feature. The guidelines become mandates, providing doctors the authority to ignore the wishes of patients and their families. And why should they listen when the guidelines have already determined what is in the “best interest” of the patient? What more could a patient—or the mother of a baby—add to the discussion?
At the same time, national guidelines provide hospitals and doctors immunity from any culpability, for they are, after all, just following the rules. Moreover, the danger of using guidelines dictated from on high is that they are particularly resistant to being “individualized.” Rather than acting as a flexible framework that must be tailored to each individual patient, national guidelines force the patients into categories and, in the process, erase their individuality. In this case, because Jayden was under twenty-two weeks, the living, breathing baby held in his mother’s arms was “just a fetus.”
• Ten days after Carolyn Savage underwent in-vitro-fertilization treatment, her family received an unexpected phone call. “Carolyn is pregnant, but we transferred the wrong embryos,” the doctor explained. The Sylvania, Ohio, couple immediately decided to carry the baby to term and relinquish him to his biological parents after birth. And nearly nine months later, Savage gave birth to someone else’s baby boy. Reflecting on her experience, Carolyn said, “I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my life. It was such a nightmare and, in a way, I felt violated.” Unfortunately, it’s not just mothers who unexpectedly carry other people’s children who feel violated by IVF. In Britain earlier this year, a woman was impregnated with another couple’s embryo, and, instead of carrying the child to term, she simply took the morning-after pill, thereby destroying the other couple’s last viable embryo and aborting someone else’s child. Violated, indeed.
• The Large Hadron Collider is a 4.5 billion dollar, seventen-mile long, underground physics experiment outside Geneva. Last year, when it was switched on, two huge magnets shorted out and grounded the project to a halt. Things are almost ready to get started again, but “a pair of otherwise distinguished physicists” think that all the effort spent getting the project back on track might be in vain—because the universe is working against it. Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya think that the Higgs boson, the theoretical particle the collider is searching for, “might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.” “It must be our prediction,” wrote Dr. Nielsen in an email, “that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck.” Elsewhere, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, Nielson continued, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.” A particle God himself tries to avoid? That’s one mean piece of matter.
• For his New York Times article “Coming Out in Middle School,” Benoit Denizet-Lewis interviewed middle-school children from all over the country who have identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and have come out to their friends and families. It’s unnerving to hear from the mouths of babes their experience of coming out to their parents: “I told my cousin, my cousin told this other girl, she told her mother, her mother told my mom and then my mom told me.” Or of discovering their own sexual identity: “It was confusing for a while, because for some reason I thought that you had to be straight or gay, and that you couldn’t be both. . . . So I thought about it a lot, like I do about everything, and I went online and looked up bisexuality to read more about it. I realized that was me,” or bickering over their classmates’ sexual proclivities, “We can’t even keep up with who’s gay or bi and who’s into who, and we go to school here!” Even Denizet-Lewis guiltily admitted that he found himself blurting out to a pair of seventh-graders glibly discussing their sexual orientation: “But you’re so young!”
But as most any ten, eleven, or twelve year-old could tell you, they know almost everything. Confusion and uncertainty are states they especially loathe; give them labels to neatly categorize themselves (and their peers) and they will zealously apply them. And labels are exactly what these prepubescent tweens are given when they are told that sexual preference is a fundamental, inborn, aspect of personhood; it is only natural for them to conclude, as Fr. Paul Scalia wrote in A Label That Sticks (First Things, June/July 2005), that “an adolescent with homosexual inclinations must necessarily be homosexual, or gay, or lesbian, or transgendered—whichever label fits.”
One very supportive mother told Denizet-Lewis she was not surprised when her ten-year-old daughter confessed to her (in rhyming couplets, no less) that she was bisexual: “Kids just know what these words mean a lot earlier.” Well, that’s really not fair. Kids don’t just know; it takes a lot of hard work. Chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance at middle schools across America work “to educate the school community about homophobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues,” and for over a decade now the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network has been working to ensure that “students in all grade levels [have] access to curricula, trainings, texts and materials—in all areas including but not limited to, history, literature, family life, sexuality and health education—that are relevant, comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”
• Speaking of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the organization’s former director, Kevin Jennings, has been appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education’s Office of Safe & Drug Free Schools by President Obama. Jennings has in the past expressed his belief that children should begin sexual-orientation sensitivity treatment as early as kindergarten, and he wrote the introduction to a book called Queering Elementary Education. Mr. Jennings’ new office will indeed give him the perfect platform to begin “queering” elementary education under the auspices of anti-bullying initiatives. We are glad to hear that the good folks at the American Principles Project are working hard to get Mr. Jennings expelled.
• The term “outsourcing labor” has taken on a new and quite literal meaning as more and more Americans are using—abusing might be a better term—Indian women as surrogate mothers, renting their wombs to carry children for them. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of fertility clinics in India offering surrogacy services has tripled in the past three years, and American medical-tourism companies have seen comparable increases in the number of couples they send to India for surrogates. Couples are attracted to India for various reasons, and first among them is cost: As one couple explained, “we didn’t
want to go broke [and] bring a child into the world bankrupt.”
The cost of surrogacy in the United States can range from $70,000 to $130,000, while one medical-tourism company offers an Indian surrogacy package (including egg donor services but excluding the cost of travel) for just $32,000. The regulations governing surrogacy in India are also less restrictive than those in the United States; it is, for example, legal to pay surrogates in India. For some prospective parents, however, it seems the quality of Indian surrogates is what makes the difference: As one satisfied customer explained, “We looked at Panama and the Ukraine, . . . but India had better infrastructure, more high-tech facilities, and the healthier lifestyle. [Most women] don’t smoke, they don’t drink, and they don’t do drugs.”
Most of the women are also poor, struggling to repay debt or feed their families, and the prospect of making more money than they could otherwise make is hard to turn down—no matter how painful the process is. “Whenever I have free time and I lie down,” said one surrogate mother more than a year after giving birth, “I think about the child.”
• In his new book The Future of the Church, the reporter of all things Catholic John Allen muses on what a new theological evaluation of Islam by the Church might look like. As the Church has come to see the Jews as her “elder brothers in the faith,” he writes, so “Muslims could come to be seen as ‘younger brothers in the faith,’ whose revelation in the Qur’an and in various oral traditions is not regarded as of the same order as the Old and New Testament, but nonetheless enjoys a status different from the sacred texts of other religions.”
“Muhammad could come to be seen as a legitimate ‘prophet,” not in the precise sense that Islamic theology attaches to the term, but in the broader Christian view of prophets as religious and moral reformers. (Imagine what impact it might have on Christian-Muslim relations, for example, if popes were to use the formula ‘the prophet Muhammad.’)”
While we whole-heartedly agree with Allen that the Qur’an should not be regarded as of the same order as the Old and New Testament, we do wonder about his fraternal analogy, and what it seems to imply: As Jews are to Christians, so Christians are to Muslims. Just how much more can the fulfillment of the law be fulfilled?
Readers should note that, though Allen seems enthusiastic about this prospect, he does place this new theological evaluation into the category of long-shot possibilities over the next hundred years—the same category as a papal assassination and the bombing of Saint Peter’s. (Imagine what impact that might have on Christian–Muslim relations).
Public Square Sources: Yaakov Menken, Baltimore Sun, October 22, 2009. American Jewish statistics, Jennifer Rubin, Contentions blog September 30, 2009.
While We’re At It Sources: Sesame Street, New York Times, October 4, 2009. Cardinal Mahoney, Associated Press, September 18, 2009. Geoengineering, Times of London, August 30, 2009. Premature baby, Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2009. IVP Confusion, CNN, September 26, 2009; BBC News, June 15, 2009. Particle Collider, New York Times, October 12, 2009. Coming Out Kids, New York Times, September 23, 2009. Indian Mothers, Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2009.
WWAI Tips: Meghan Duke, Stefan McDaniel, David P. Goldman, Michael Liccione, Ryan Sayre Patrico, Kevin Staley-Joyce.