A reader takes this site to task for not having commentary on proposed budget cuts, the Iranian president's threat to destroy Israel, U.S. policy toward the thuggery of Chavez in Venezuela, and a dozen other items on the front pages. A clarification is obviously in order. This website is not the Drudge Report or National Review Online. What appears here are daily observations, contentions, and random ruminations from the FIRST THINGS shop, mainly by editor Joseph Bottum and your scribe. The mode is impromptu and makes no pretense to being comprehensive. I suppose one might go so far as to say this space is somewhat eccentric. It is a cultivated taste and not for everyone. But if there are twenty thousand or more "page views" per day, meaning people who stop by and actually read it, it seems worth doing. Plus, it's a good way of getting more people to subscribe to FIRST THINGS. I hope that is clarification enough. Don't expect sustained commentary on the policies of the Federal Reserve Board. That's what The Wall Street Journal is for.
The storyline is appearing with greater regularity. The story is, not to put too fine a point on it, that my friends and I, through our powerful influences with the Vatican and the White House, are running the world. Garry Wills brought the story to a sharpened point of paranoid fantasy with his long article in The New York Review of Books on how we are governing from "the fringes." If the pope and the president are the fringes, one might well wonder where the mainstream is. Mr. Wills' answer, not surprisingly, is that the mainstream is Mr. Wills. My answer to all this is that, if we had a minuscule part of the influence Mr. Wills and others think we have, we would have many times the influence we have. Needless to say, that answer is not convincing to the paranoid.
The storyline reappears in an essay in the current issue of The New Republic by senior editor Franklin Foer, reflecting on the prospect of a Catholic majority on the Supreme Court. He writes, among other things: "This unprecedented Catholic majority, assuming Alito's confirmation, might seem a historical accident. When George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas, it's a good bet that his Catholicism wasn't foremost on the president's mind. But the emergence of the Court's Catholic bloc reflects the reality of social conservatism: Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft."
"It is no accident that . . ." as our Marxist friends used to say. At one level, Mr. Foer's argument is a repeat of the notorious Washington Post claim of several years ago that evangelicals are poor, uneducated, and easily led. And, of course, we crafty Catholics are doing the leading. That, in fact, is the suspicion voiced by the declining number of evangelical critics of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Their fear is that we Catholics are leading naïve evangelical leaders down the garden path in a vast "Jesuitical" conspiracy. (It has been a long time since anybody accused the Society of Jesus of engaging in conspiracy on behalf of the Catholic Church.)
It is true that Catholics have a much longer and richer intellectual tradition of social doctrine. In evangelicalism there is the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and politician, but that is still largely the property of those of a Calvinist persuasion who are in a minority among evangelicals. But evangelicals involved in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) include some formidable minds. There are, to name but a few, J.I. Packer of Regent College and Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School who delivered the Erasmus Lecture this year. Thomas Oden, longtime professor of theology at Drew University, has a solid grasp of the "consensual tradition" of Christian thought, with a particular accent on the patristic period. And anyone who thinks Charles Colson does not have a sharp and theologically-informed mind does not know Charles Colson.
I suppose that I am in a mood to take particular umbrage at the line pushed by Wills, Foer, and others because just this week we completed another meeting of ECT in which evangelicals and Catholics wrestled with the great questions of "the culture of life" as posed by John Paul II's 1995 enyclical Evangelium VitaeThe Gospel of Life. It was a tough-minded exchange, as ECT meetings regularly are, and I am hopeful that from it will come a bracing common statement, possibly next year.
George Weigel was by for dinner the other night. He was in town to do the Today show and other promotions for his new book, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins) which was released this week. I read the manuscript in advance and can warmly recommend the book. And yes, I would say that even if George were not among my closest friends. It is, quite simply, the most thorough and readable account of the collaboration between John Paul and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and the legacy of the pontificate of the former and the prospects for the pontificate of the latter. He also has insightfully critical words, combining respect and candor, about the leadership of the U.S. bishops. (The title, by the way, is not meant to suggest as an article of faith that God chose Joseph Ratzinger to be pope. It is to suggest that God had a hand in the process of choosing, and that, as Benedict has said, we have the promise that God would not let anyone be elected pope who would destroy the Church.) If you want to understand what is happening in Catholicism, both in this country and the world, get a copy of God's Choice.