Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A question much discussed in the last few years was what would happen to the “conservative coalition” after the Peace of Reagan. We did not have to wait long to find out. Infighting among conservatives has a venerable pedigree. Some who view the last eight years as an aberration appear delighted to resume the tradition. Others, believing that “the conservative revolution” has hardly begun, think there are more important things to do than indulge intramural squabbles.

In an earlier fight, the redoubtable Russell Kirk termed libertarians “the chirping sectaries” of the right. That may become the apt term for a little band of conservatives who declare themselves the keepers of the flame and seem to be declaring what could become a nasty little war against those whom they view as imposters. Democracy is their bête noir, and they vent their animus most specifically at neoconservatives,” who are variously derided as democratists, global democrats, political parasites, and ideological mercenaries. The tone of the attack is less than edifying.

Denominational tags are disputed, but the sectaries on the attack are usually called paleoconservatives—as distinct from the old right, the new right, the religious right, and, above all, the neoconservatives. “Paleos” are, in a nutshell, at war with modernity. Theirs tends to be a patrician view of republican governance conducted by men of tested genetic stock. In the way they tell it, the American story is one of almost unremitting decline. With Henry Adams a century ago and Gore Vidal today, they believe that modernity and her rapacious consorts, democracy and capitalism, have sold America into bondage to immigrant newcomers who, in their grasping vulgarity, know nothing of republican virtue. The paleos quietly seethed while Ronald Reagan championed a conservatism of democracy, capitalism, and progress, but now they're not going to take it anymore.

Beyond the paleo war against “democratism,” one notes renewed attempts to invite back into the conservative movement a list of uglies that had long been consigned to the fever swamps, in large part by the efforts of William F. Buckley and his National Review. The list includes nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, a penchant for authoritarian politics, and related diseases of the ressentiment that flourishes on the marginalia of American life. There will always be some who enjoy the frisson of flirting with forbidden bigotries once confused with conservatism. No conservative should need to be told that terms such as racism and anti-Semitism can be abused to quash the discussion of legitimate issues, but some may need to be reminded that the evils signified by such terms are not merely figments of the fevered liberal imagination.

One can understand the desire of some conservatives to have “their” movement back again, to reclaim it from those whom they view as assertive newcomers. Fortunately, most conservatives do not believe that an expanding movement is a sign of apostasy, or that arguments can only be won at the price of integrity lost. They have been persuaded that effectiveness in the defense of truth is no vice, and impotence in the pursuit of Justice is no virtue. While able to accept honorable defeat, they do not think defeat is a moral imperative. Not content to grouse, they are prepared to govern.

Spanning Generations

In contrast to the chirping sectaries of a factious past, a new generation of thinkers is coming on line. They know that our society is embroiled in a great Kulturkampf, and the war will be won or lost on the terrain of the ideas we take to be most bindingly true. The religio-cultural battle is not the only one, but it is the most critical battle. Defining the moral symbols and truth claims by which a people lives can redefine the democratic idea to which this people is inveterately attached.

Authentic religion cannot be the servant of American democracy, or of any political order short of the Kingdom of God. The essential paradox is that religion is most politically potent when it debunks the pretensions of the political, keeping the City of Man under the transcendent judgment of the City of God. Thus religion's contribution to the renewal of democracy depends, first, upon the renewal of religion. This way of thinking can provide a nuanced account of democratic governance that is limited, constitutional, and accountable to what some call natural law and the common good. Happily, there are projects advancing this way of thinking underway in the worlds of Judaism, Evangelicalism, and even oldline Protestantism. Those who view these efforts as selling out to the liberal god of “democratism” lost track of the discussion some while back.

And the discussion does go back some while. In the last year much ink has been spent on the paleo neo wars, but the lineaments of the dispute have been evident for at least three decades. Consider, for example, Will Herberg's masterful 1956 essay on Reinhold Niebuhr as a representative of the “new conservatism.” Herberg noted that Niebuhr was embarrassed about being perceived as a conservative, as indeed are some who are called neoconservative today. Then much more than now, however, the embarrassment was understandable, since thirty years ago “conservatism” generally referred to positions and dispositions now associated with the “paleos.”

Yet Herberg correctly saw that “the basic direction of Niebuhr's political philosophy” required the term conservative. Niebuhr had by the 1940s arrived at a decisive critique of modern political thought as that thought was grounded in the French Enlightenment. In 1944 he described the French Enlightenment as the cradle of “every error which infects a modern liberal culture in its estimate of the human situation, and of most of the errors which reached a tragic culmination in modern totalitarianism.” The French Revolution, he wrote, “produced despotism in the name of liberty, civil war in the name of fraternity, and superstitious politics in the name of reason.” According to Herberg, what was “new” in Niebuhr's conservatism was that it did not repudiate the core of his earlier radicalism.

Herberg wrote that Niebuhr's “prophetic radicalism implied a radical relativization of all political programs, institutions, and movements, and therefore a thoroughgoing rejection of every form of political rationalism. Add to this a renewed emphasis on the historic continuities of social life, and Niebuhr's brand of ‘conservatism' emerges. It is manifestly not the conservatism of those who are called conservatives in American public life today [i.e., 1956], but it is enough apparently to establish a kinship with Burke and to give Niebuhr a prominent place in all the recent histories and anthologies of the ‘new conservatism.'

The new conservatism of 1956 is the neoconservatism of 1990. Reinhold Niebuhr's nuanced appreciation of democracy had internalized and gone beyond the polemics against “democratism” that are still being echoed by some conservatives in 1990. As we said, these polemicists lost track of the discussion some while back.

Real Estate and the Cunning of History

Some historically minded readers may think that our address, 156 Fifth Avenue, rings a bell. That's because when this building was erected around 1894 it was called The Presbyterian Building, and it served as the national headquarters of the Northern Presbyterians. The building across 20th Street on Fifth Avenue was The Methodist Building. In fact, from the late nineteenth century through the early 1950s, most of the oldline Protestant establishment was clustered in this section of Manhattan. In 1950, when the National Council of Churches was formed from the Federal Council of Churches and seven other agencies, it was headquartered here, until the Interchurch Center (irreverently called the “God Box”) was built up at 475 Riverside Drive. Later, 156 Fifth was the headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union. It seems our institute, Religion and Public Life, is the only religiously connected tenant in the building today. We did not choose the building for its historical associations, and when we moved in we were undecided whether rites of exorcism or of rededication, or some combination of the two, were in order. While we did not choose it for those associations, and while we certainly don't want to make a big deal of it, there is the intriguing possibility that Hegel's “cunning of history” is at work. Now that it is so manifestly obvious that the National Council of Churches of late failed to bring a measure of coherence to issues of religion and public life, it is perhaps fitting that the task should be started afresh from 156 Fifth. At least we of the Institute sometimes amuse ourselves with the thought.

Class and Kingdom

Father James Burtchaell of the University of Notre Dame is one of the wisest Christian ethicists around. We would say that even if he were not on our editorial advisory board. More precisely, he is on the board because he is one of the wisest Christian ethicists around. That wisdom is finely displayed in his new book from Notre Dame Press, The Giving and the Taking of Life: Essays Ethical. Witness, for example, the essay, “How Authentically Christian is Liberation Theology?” Knowing that it is still a young movement and frequently issues from experiences of unquestionable human suffering, Burtchaell examines liberation theology sympathetically. As a service to thinkers of that school, he lucidly sets forth his several misgivings. There are the problems of “the canonization of the poor,” of the misuse of the Old Testament paradigms of liberation, of a social agenda narrowed on a specific notion of “Justice,” and of equating salvation with sociopolitical change.

The idea of “the preferential option for the poor” is now deeply entrenched, and Burtchaell recognizes that it can be construed in a manner that is at one with the Christian tradition. After examining key texts of the liberation theology school, however, he concludes that 11 the preferential option for the poor” is misconstrued to result in the “canonization of the poor.” At the hands of the liberationists, the poor become the Gospel but are not themselves addressed by the Gospel. Burtchaell writes: “There are serious difficulties in the notion that the Gospel call to conversion is withheld from the poor, for the reason that their miseries have exempted them from the struggle between sin and grace. What could be more bourgeois than to declare the poor to be so subhuman that they live beyond the reach of the universal undertow of lust and jealousy and greed and anger and sloth and pride? Is one to imagine that they are therefore not offered forgiveness and transformation in Christ? Are the best tidings Christians can announce to the poor only that they will eventually be poor no longer, and that their oppressors have been marked down for destruction? Are they and they alone not to be summoned to forgive their oppressors as Jesus did his, or to appeal to those oppressors that they be converted and live? What could be more patronizing?”

Burtchaell concludes, with a note of sadness: “The teaching of liberation theology, in the way it deals with oppressors and oppressed, moves off in a direction which the Gospel cannot follow. By treating the oppressed as aliens to moral struggle, not needing to be called into the kingdom by faith, transformation, and service, and by promising them an inheritance primarily enclosed within socioeconomic and political terms, it seems to treat the poor in a condescending way. By its tendency to consider oppressors as adversaries rather than as fellow-sinners in dire need of rescue, it speaks more of secular class warfare than of the struggle for the Christian kingdom.”

Of course the yet deeper sadness is that many proponents of liberation theology dispute the very distinction between class struggle and the kingdom. Their point is that the class struggle is the struggle for the kingdom, that social, economic, and political liberation is what the Bible means by salvation. Little wonder that some theologians have suggested that liberation theology fits the kind of thing Paul had in mind when he warned the Galatians against accepting “another Gospel.”

Interreligious Brinkmanship

Now that passions have subsided somewhat, it is perhaps possible to get a better view of the furor over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. For a while there, it seemed that some Christians and Jews were, to use John Foster Dulles' phrase, going to the brink, ready to jeopardize everything that had been achieved in a quarter century of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Escalating nastiness was taken as license for the venting of sentiments that, for good reason, had for some time been deemed to be beyond the pale. A noted Jewish editor, protesting Christian symbols at Auschwitz, opined on the op-ed page of the New York Times that the shadow of the cross there was “sickening.” A Christian columnist responded that he was sickened by the arrogance of Jews who routinely trash Christianity while “screaming anti-Semitism” at the slightest criticism of Jews or Judaism. And so it went for several unedifying months.

Some Christians, reproached for their intemperance, reacted by claiming that there was little temperance on “the other side,” which does not strike us as a very Christian reaction. In addition, the claim was not true. Among quite a few voices of calm and reason one might cite, consider Michael Wyschogrod's words at a time when the controversy was still raging. Wyschogrod is a leading Jewish thinker and professor of philosophy at City University of New York. Writing in Sh'ma, he asked “Was this fight necessary?” His answer: “I am not sure it was. Once an agreement was signed to move the convent, it was difficult not to insist that it be honored. But should Jews initially have made such a big issue of the Auschwitz convent?”

He notes that, while nobody knows the exact numbers, the evidence indicates that the majority of those murdered at Auschwitz were Jews. “But,” he continues, “it is also clear that a large number of non-Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. 200,000 non-Jews at the very least and possibly as many as 1,600,000. This being the case, it does not seem reasonable to me to demand that there be no Christian symbols at Auschwitz. For many years Dachau has had three chapels, one Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish, near each other, each displaying its symbols without anyone having objected to this arrangement. In fact, there is also a Catholic monastery adjacent to the Dachau camp and I have never heard anyone objecting to it.” Wyschogrod wonders whose purposes were served by the furor over the convent at Auschwitz. “In light of the magnitude of what happened at Auschwitz, is it possible that the survivors or the relatives and friends of the survivors now quarrel over the site? Are the Nazis not laughing from hell? Need we give them this satisfaction? Is all this not diverting attention from the perpetrators, those who invented and created Auschwitz and, in so doing, are forcing us to rethink our conception of what human beings can do?”

Wyschogrod sympathetically discusses why Jews are made nervous by Christian symbols, and especially by the cross, and he has harsh words for a speech by Cardinal Glemp, the Polish primate, which “was replete with crass anti-Semitic stereotypes.” At the same time, he asks his readers to understand why the statement by Prime Minister Shamir of Israel that Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk “played very badly in Poland.” The problem is that “many Jews are convinced that Poles are incurably anti-Semitic and many Poles are convinced that Jews are incurably anti-Polish.” All that said, Wyschogrod ends on a cautiously hopeful note: “Nevertheless, we must not forget the progress that has been made. To a large degree, the recent difficulties are a measure of that progress. We simply expect much more of each other than we did in the past. The Polish church is just beginning its dialogue with Judaism. It is a dialogue in need of particular attention.”

A few months later and it seems that everyone—well, almost everyone—has pulled back from the brink, recognizing what is at stake. What is at stake is not simply civility between Jews and Christians, as important as that is, but the much greater risk of offending against God's mysterious and sometimes mystifying way of entangling us with one another in the unfolding of his saving purpose.

Audacious Unoriginality

Thomas C. Oden, Methodist professor of theology at Drew University, is doing an audacious thing. He is writing a three-volume systematic theology which, by most determined resolve, is not the theology of Thomas Oden. The first volume, The Living God (Harper & Row, 432pp., $29.95), came out last year, and the second, The Word Of Life (583 pp., $32.95), has just arrived. In the preface to Volume I Odell writes, “Some may think it mildly amusing that the only claim I make is that there is nothing whatever original in these pages.” In our cultural climate that may seem like a very original idea. But for most of the two millenia of Christianity the great theologians had no doubt that their obligation was not to be original but faithfully and persuasively to transmit “the faith once delivered to the saints.”

Odell attempts to convey the received tradition of the community of faith—what Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and those in the Reformation communions have embraced as “orthodox” Christianity. In this he succeeds admirably. Some may suspect that Odell is unpretentious to a fault, but we find his approach entirely winning. Every page is loaded with references to the classic literature, especially to Scripture, the patristic era, and the early ecumenical councils. Odell is fully conversant with theology of the last century or two, as other references make clear, but he is inclined to the view that more recent theology is not nearly so interesting or original as many of its champions have claimed. Paul, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and Luther anticipated most of what is true and what is false in theology of the modern era.

In short, Oden's project is anti-trendiness with a vengeance. “Modernity,” he writes, “presents no tougher a set of challenges to Christianity than did the fall of Rome, the collapse of the medieval synthesis, the breakup of the unity of Christendom in the sixteenth century, or the Enlightenment. Modern theology must be written amid the breakup of modernity.” While that assertion is refreshingly bold, it may meet with a measure of skepticism also among orthodox Christians. The philosophical radicalness of some forms of modernity's negation of “the meaning of meaning,” it may plausibly be argued, has little or no precedence. But this is to risk a quibbling that might obscure the interest of Oden's intention and extent of his achievement.

The achievement is in giving a convincing answer to the question, Is there such a reality as Christian theology? Today that question typically elicits evasions and equivocations about how there are many Christian theologies—Eastern, Western, denominational, liberationist, process, feminist, and on and on. Cognizant of the varieties, Odell is engaged in the perennial and necessary task of uniting without confusing and distinguishing without separating. Another way of putting it is that Odell is trying to reestablish the canon or, perhaps better, to recall our attention to the established canon that is under attack from numerous quarters.

His enterprise is closely related to the larger cultural question about whether or not there is a civilizational canon, whether there is a reality called “Western culture” which we think we are in some sense obliged to sustain and transmit to successor generations. In various academic disciplines, not limited to history and literary criticism, the currently prevailing wisdom answers that question in the negative. As the protesting students at Stanford put it a while back, “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho/Western Culture Got to Go!” People like Tom Oden don't think Western culture, or the Christian tradition that is the core of Western culture, got to go. But, if they cannot convince others of the worth of the tradition, they minimally insist that people should know something about the tradition that they are so recklessly consigning to the dustbin of history.

In today's academy those who so insist are frequently condemned as advocates of DEWM—the thought of “dead European white men.” In fact, Oden makes a point of lifting up the contributions of African thought, especially in early Christianity, and emphasizes theologians who were women throughout the two millennia. That said, however, he refuses to be intimidated by fashionable charges of elitism, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, etc. Christian theology, he points out, has a history, it is a history, it is there, we are not just making it up as we go along, and it is Oden's intention to present that theology, DEWM and all. What we decide to do with it or about it is something else. Obviously, Thomas Oden wants us to embrace and extend the living tradition of faith in the living God. But, whether or not one is so led, any reader who aspires to being learned has reason to consider getting these volumes for the library. They are not the canon, but they are a reliable guide to the canon.

On Jesuit Education

Some 900 people attended “Assembly ‘89: Jesuit Ministry in Higher Education,” which was held at Georgetown University. They were addressed by Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Jesuits. Reports on the meeting gave the impression that he spent his time indulging loquacious generalities about “the option for the poor,” “the global village,” and the need to promote “justice,” “values,” and other presumably good things. The loquaciousness cannot be denied, and the “black pope” does betray a penchant for inoffensive vacuities. (Since when, for instance, are Jesuits, or Christians, for that matter, committed to “values” rather than truths?) Nonetheless, his message was more substantive and pointed than some of his Jesuit hearers may have wanted to hear.

The recent statements of the Society of Jesus about the primacy of the mission to social justice, Kolvenbach emphasized, definitely do not mean that Jesuits are downplaying the importance of higher education. In calling for a “holistic” (ugh) approach to the society's mission, he seemed to be saying that the politicizing of that mission under the rubric of justice must be redressed by accenting other imperatives as well. Colleges and universities that describe themselves as Jesuit or “in the Jesuit tradition” should pay more attention to truth in advertising, he suggested. The implication is that theology and philosophy should play a stronger role in the interdisciplinary mix of such schools. He underscored that what happens in America would have wide ramifications elsewhere. With respect to education and much else, he said, “Like it or not, the United States is the world's laboratory.”

At the center of Father Kolvenbach's address was this assertion of what is required of a school that calls itself Jesuit: “In a Jesuit college or university the knowledge of the whole of reality remains incomplete and to that extent untrue, without the knowledge of the humanizing incarnation of God in Christ and the divinizing of men and women by the gift of the Spirit. Transfiguration of Christ by the power of the Spirit is part of human reality itself. This transfiguration, which continues among us, saves us even as it calls us to integrate all learning and all science. It is this transfiguration which makes the work of a Jesuit university a project and an adventure that is both human and divine; one which proclaims that in spite of the prodigious diversity of technologies and the centrifugal forces at work in many areas of learning, the idea of a university, which is the integral realization of the human person, is revealed to us as possible. “

In sum, those who say that the superior general didn't say much at Georgetown probably were not listening very carefully.

Restorative Justice

It will soon be twenty years since Charles (Chuck) Colson was in the headlines for his part in the Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. Before a recent meeting where your editor was to introduce Mr. Colson, he was asked by a bright young woman, “That guy over there, isn't that Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship?” It is no little thing that many thousands of people today identify Colson not with Watergate but with the ministry of Prison Fellowship. After a patently authentic conversion experience, Colson launched PF in an effort to address some of the pathologies he had witnessed firsthand while he was imprisoned.

Today PF is an international organization with hundreds of staff people based in Virginia just outside the Washington beltway. Its primary work in prisons is to preach the Gospel, build character, and provide a sustaining fellowship for prisoners determined to live new and constructive lives. PF is also intensively involved, however, in “prison reform,” a project usually associated with sentimentalists who operate on assumptions dramatically different from those of PF. Colson believes that the fear of politicians that they will be viewed as “soft on crime” has stymied an honest debate about a prison system that destructively incarcerates hundreds of thousands of people who are reinforced in the way of life that brought them to prison in the first place.

Now, with Daniel Van Ness of PF, Colson has issued an accessible little book deserving of wide attention, Convicted: New Hope for Ending America's Crime Crisis (Crossway Books, Westchester, IL 60154). The argument, which may sound deceptively simple, is for “restorative Justice.” Restorative Justice is based on three principles: (1) crime causes injuries that must be repaired; (2) all parties affected by crime should be included in the response to crime; and (3) government and local communities must play cooperative roles. The first principle includes the understanding that the injury done in crime is not chiefly against the state or the society but against other persons who are the victims. The second principle requires that victims be included in the trial, sentencing, and restoration process, while the third principle lifts up the critical role of churches in helping criminals to become contributing members of the community. Colson's understanding of crime, character, and responsibility is thoroughly biblical and conservative, but even those who do not share his deepest convictions have reason to welcome Convicted as an imaginative proposal for getting beyond the sterile polarities of “permissiveness” and “law-and-order” in thinking about the criminal justice system.

McCarthyism and Theology

John May, Archbishop of St. Louis and then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting in his city. Screwing up his courage, he told them in no uncertain terms exactly what they wanted to hear. Theologians are being outrageously and unjustly criticized, he asserted.”There are too many sweeping accusations leveled at the theological soundness and credal fidelity of the theologians,” he declared. “There are too many vague but insistent attacks, telling bishops that the theologians will supplant them in their teaching office or ignore their pastoral guidance or lead the people of God into antagonism, division, and virtual schism.” The Archbishop doesn't say how many is too many, but he is distressed and he is, perhaps predictably, reminded of McCarthyism. “To assess these warnings and general threats is like attempting to pin down allegations that flourished and destroyed so many during the McCarthy period.”

Far from being “sweeping” and “vague,” it seems that anxieties about the Roman Catholic theological scene are being expressed in remarkably specific terms. There are numerous theologians who proclaim that they are doing precisely what May says they are falsely accused of doing. It is hard to come up with any other interpretation of, for instance, Philip Kaufman's book of a few months ago, Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. In the introduction the noted ethicist, Father Richard McCormick of Notre Dame, writes that “Kaufman knows very well that there are powerful forces at work in the church attempting to reduce the reflections in his book to ‘isolated speculation.' ” Far from being isolated speculation, McCormick wants it understood that Kaufman's arguments on sexual morality represent an alternative to the official church teaching which, he says, “stumbles at the bar of experience and ideas.” At the St. Louis meeting, Archbishop May was cheered for saying that theologians are maliciously charged with doing exactly what some of those same cheering theologians adamantly insist that they are doing. It is all very curious.

One may be forgiven for wondering whether some bishops really want to know what is happening. And the wonderment is by no means limited to the Catholic scene. May complains, “The [offending] theologians are not named, their works are not cited, the offending passages are not quoted.” If critics don't name names, it is McCarthyism; if they do name names, it is also McCarthyism. Every week, from the far left of center, the National Catholic Reporter names the names of prelates who are allegedly violating what May depicts as the cordial relationship between theologians and the hierarchy. From the far right of center, The Wanderer renders a similar service by naming names of theologians who are, in its view, at war with official teaching. Then there are eminently balanced sources such as George Weigel's recent Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy. Nobody reading Weigel's richly documented analysis can entertain a reasonable doubt that there is something very much like a crisis in the relationship between contemporary Catholic theology and the magisterium, or teaching authority, exercised by the bishops.

Archbishop May surely reads and therefore knows these things. Perhaps his complaisantly reassuring words about the Catholic theological situation were due to his being carried away by his role as bishop of the convention's host city. The temptation to pander is an ever present temptation, and there are few among us who do not succumb from time to time. Leaders in all the churches, however, would be more helpful if they stopped making sweeping accusations about sweeping accusations and respectfully engaged the arguments that are being joined. Patting theologians on the head and saying that all is well is another way of saying that theology is not very important. The odd thing in this instance is that the Catholic Theological Society of America apparently took that as a compliment.

Reconstituting the Religious and Civil Orders

Ecumenism, the search for more visible unity among Christians, strikes many people as being far removed from questions having to do with public life. It is, in their view, strictly an internal matter of relations within the Christian community. Ecumenism, however, also addresses religion's role in the public arena. It was the bloody disunity of Christians—especially during the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—that convinced many thinkers that religion is of necessity a divisive force that threatens the civil order. Today's concern for ecumenism—and also for a more deeply grounded relationship between Christians and Jews—is, in part, an exploration of the possibility that religion can be a unifying force, providing meaning and hope for a public order that is dangerously short of both.

In the West the most important division between Christians stems from the Reformation of the sixteenth century (or, as others would have it, from the papal reaction to the Reformers' protest against the corruptions of Rome). The “breach of the sixteenth century” began between Lutherans and Rome, and it is therefore understandable that ecumenists pay particular attention to that relationship when looking for signs that the breach may now be healing. They were looking very carefully when, last June, John Paul 11 visited Scandinavia. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland are overwhelmingly Lutheran, at least nominally. In fact, participation in the churches is depressingly low, as is also the case with some nominally Roman Catholic countries to the south. Since there are relatively few Catholics in Scandinavia, a large part of John Paul's trip was paying a visit to the Lutherans. Trained in the customs of more than 450 years of hostility to Rome, some of the Lutheran bishops were churlish enough to note publicly that the Pope had invited himself. Others among their episcopal graces showed more grace. As did John Paul.

In Denmark the bishops decided that the people were not ready to put up with a pope speaking in the historic Roskilde Cathedral. So, after a prayer service there, John Paul was asked to address the Danish bishops in the episcopal residence next door. The Pope took it in stride, speaking as though he were in the cathedral: “This house of God also recalls [a] half millenium characterized by conflicts between Christians of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church.” Nonetheless, he noted “with thankfulness and joy” that “we have remained joined together by the common heritage of the gift of baptismal grace and the proclamation of the Gospel by Christ, despite the bitterness that the cleavage in belief has brought forth between us and despite all the judgments that have been pronounced.”

“Many see an obstacle [to our fuller unity] in the figure of Martin Luther and in the judgment of the Catholic Church of his time pronounced on many of his teachings,” John Paul observed. More particularly, some Lutherans have insisted that Rome should “lift” the excommunication pronounced against Luther centuries ago. The Pope acknowledged that “the events surrounding his excommunication have opened wounds that have not healed after more than 450 years,” but he then added that those wounds “cannot be healed today through a juridical act.” Lutherans should not be so exercised about the excommunication, he suggested, because there is nothing Rome can do about it in any case. “According to the understanding of the Catholic Church, every excommunication terminates with the death of the person concerned, as excommunication is to be considered a measure directed against a person during his life.”

The Important Thing

The important thing, according to John Paul, is that Lutherans and Catholics engage in “a common, new evaluation of the many questions that were raised by Luther and his proclamation.” The Roman Catholic Church, he said, did that in the Second Vatican Council and has been doing it since. “The wish to hear the Gospel anew and to testify to it credibly, which lived also in Luther, must lead us to seek the good in others, to grant forgiveness, and to give up inherited images of enemies,” the Pope asserted. Nor did he leave any doubt that Rome too needed to be forgiven. “If we do not avoid reality, then we will realize that human fault has led to the disastrous division of Christians and that our fault hinders again and again steps toward unity that are possible and necessary.” Adopting the words of Pope Hadrian VI to the Nuremberg Parliament of 1523, John Paul stated: “Therefore, we must all honor God and humiliate ourselves before him. Every one of us must consider why he has fallen and save himself rather than be judged by God on the day of judgment.”

It has not escaped the attention of ecumenical observers that, since Vatican Council 11, Rome has more frequently and straightforwardly confessed its responsibility for Christian divisions than have most heirs of the Reformation. The healing of the breach of the sixteenth century depends in large part upon a readiness to acknowledge human fallibility and error. There can be no reconciliation without an ample and shared measure of humility. If, centuries after the wars of religion, the reconciliation of communities of faith is to offer hope also for peace in the civil realm, closer attention must be paid the ecumenical efforts of John Paul. He has spoken often of the need to reconstitute the religious basis of Western civilization, and that is the light in which his Scandinavian visit must be viewed. It was not simply a pastoral visit to the handful of Catholics in Scandinavia. Nor did he go there, as one Vatican official half-seriously remarked, “because he was troubled by the fact that there was a spot on the map where he had not been.” Rather, as he made explicit both in Scandinavia and in his earlier visit to the Lutherans of Germany, he wants to encourage a healing reappraisal of the beginnings of the religious fissure—with the resulting cultural, moral, and political fissures—of the West. It is a program of breathtaking reach.

Sidney and the Lord

The death of Sidney Hook some months ago has been much and deservedly remarked. Hook, who died in his 87th year, was a liberal who, because he understood and resisted the totalitarian temptation, was often taken to be a conservative. (Liberal anticommunism sounds like an oxymoron to most Americans who came of political age after the fifties.) Hook was among this century's foremost intellectual champions of democratic freedom, including the freedom of religion.

Sometimes he described himself as an atheist, at other times as an agnostic, but never as a believer. He was an old fashioned rationalist of a type that is not so common anymore. About a year before his death, your editor was on a talk show with Sidney Hook. Hook was asked what he would say when the Lord asked him why he had not believed in Him. Hook responded, as he had often responded before, “Lord, you didn't give me enough evidence.” After the show, I asked Hook what he would say if the Lord answered, “Sidney, there was evidence enough to convince a lot of people whom I did not make as smart as you, and quite a few whom I made considerably smarter.” Professor Hook smiled and allowed as how he would probably say, “I was wrong, Lord. Please forgive me.” What the Lord said to that we will likely find out in due course.

A large crowd gathered for a memorial service for Sidney Hook at New York University. There were many distinguished speakers, including John Bunzel, his colleague and close friend. A few years before his death, Hook had been gravely ill and, on a particularly despondent day, demanded that the doctors pull the plug and let him die. In the years after his recovery—productive years in which, among other things, he completed his marvelous autobiography, Out of Step—Hook wrote in defense of what he wanted done on that dark day. Bunzel was there at the time and reports that he argued with Hook that he should continue living. But Hook was adamant, until Bunzel mentioned that he had intended to bring the next day a first edition of an eighteenth century author whom Hook especially admired. Hook promptly decided that he would put off dying for one more day.

About four years later, during the last days of his final illness, Hook was drifting in and out of consciousness. A few hours before he died, says Bunzell, he woke up, looked about with a puzzled expression, and asked, “Am I still here?” One cannot help but wonder where Sidney Hook thought he might be.

Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, spoke at the NYU memorial. He noted that little attention had been paid by other speakers to the fact that Hook was very conscious of being a Jew. Saying that he did not think Sidney would mind, he donned his yarmulke and said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of trust and mourning. That obviously divided the house, and at least one of Hook's more militantly secular admirers was heard to remark afterwards, and perhaps somewhat inconsistently, that praying at Sidney Hook's memorial was a “sacrilege.” Now that he is better informed on the God question, we expect that Sidney Hook did not mind the prayer at all.


♦ In South Africa, it is commonly said, the clock has been at five minutes to midnight for at least fifty years. While alarmism has been frequent and undeniable, however, the sense of urgency, even of impending doom, cannot lightly be dismissed. This, along with much else, is the message of Michael Cassidy's The Passing Summer: A South African Pilgrimage in the Politics of Love. The book is published in England by Hodder & Stoughton and will soon be appearing here. Michael Cassidy is a South African by birth and the founder of Africa Enterprise, a multi-racial, continent-wide evangelistic association. A staunch opponent of apartheid, he also leads an organization devoted to national reconciliation” among all races and factions in South Africa. To those at both radical ends of the political spectrum, Cassidy is viewed as a naive and meddlesome idealist. And it is true that Reinhold Niebuhr, for one, would have some reservations about his high hopes for “the politics of love.” Yet one cannot help but admire the religiously inspired courage of Cassidy and his associates who, in a desperately polarized country, insist that the great tragedy to be feared is not that political change might go this way or that but that Christians might replace loyalty to Christ with loyalty to political faction. Mmutlanyane Stanley Mogoba, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, says of The Passing Summer, “No racial group has been spared and with amazing objectivity we are shown ourselves as if in a mirror.” Because that is the case, it is likely that Michael Cassidy will continue to be a sometimes lonely voice in a inode that deserves to be called prophetic. (For information about Cassidy, his book, and his work, write David Montague, African Enterprise, 128 East Palm, Box 727, Monrovia, CA 91016.)

♦ Here's a thoughtful article by a Roman Catholic pondering the morality of capital punishment, which he favors. But on at least one point the author does seem to be straining. He recognizes that John Paul 11 has expressed the judgment that capital punishment should not be employed by the state, while he has also indicated that the death penalty is not unjustifiable in principle. “On this view,” the author writes, “to administer the death penalty is good; to withhold it, knowing that one could administer it, is better.” But he thinks this is a “high ethical ideal” that is only relevant to societies that accept the “traditional teaching of the Church” regarding the permissibility of capital punishment, which American society clearly does not. There are at least two problems with that reasoning. First, the overwhelming majority of Americans (who are the society?) do accept both the moral permissibility and the prudential advisability of the death penalty, although not necessarily because it is the “traditional teaching of the Church.” Second, in his several locutions on the subject, the Pope was undoubtedly aware of social contexts when he urged states to refrain from the use of capital punishment. He has not said that it should not be used in societies where the right to use it is clearly understood. He has stated his belief that it should not be used, period. While they are considered with utmost respect, for most of us such papal statements do not settle the matter one way or another. As painful as it may be for someone who is appropriately deferential to church authority, the author of the article in question would better advance the argument by frankly acknowledging that he disagrees with the Pope (or, put more gently, that the Pope has not adequately addressed the question), and then explain why. Suggesting that the Pope has not really said what in fact he has said does not, whatever the author's intention, demonstrate respect for the papal teaching office. Nor does it recommend Roman Catholic moral reasoning to those outside that ecclesial fold.

♦ Episcopalians are in a particular bother about sexual ethics. Episcopalians therefore, but not only Episcopalians, have reason to welcome Men and Women: Sexual Ethics in Turbulent Times (Cowley, Cambridge, MA, $10.95). Edited by Philip Turner, these essays are sure to please neither the champions of a “new ethics” attuned to the realities of “the sexual revolution” nor many of their traditionalist opponents. As Victor Preller of Princeton writes in “Sexual Ethics and the Single Life,” there is an obligation to really love and really listen to “the new reformers.” If we so love and listen, there is just a chance that some may be open to entertaining another view of the right ordering of our sexuality, a view rooted in Scripture, sustained by tradition, and confirmed by clear reason. (Preller's is a particularly elegant argument, even if he does get Luther wrong on our human inability to please God.) Men and Women is one of the more persuasive statements of historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics to have appeared in some time. It would be a helpful addition to personal and parish libraries.

♦ As the abortion debate enters a new phase, a new and most welcome publication makes its appearance. It is the Bernadell Technical Bulletin, an eight page newsletter edited by Dr. Bernard Nathanson that makes accessible to the layman (and the politician!) the most up to date medical information on the care of the unborn, abortion practice, and related developments. Gleaning more than 100 medical journals, plus textbooks, seminar proceedings, and research reports, the bulletin offers a wealth of scientific data pertinent to our understanding of the unborn and others who are often deemed to be doubtfully human. To get a sample copy, write Dr. Nathanson at PO Box 1897, NY, NY 10011

♦ New Yorkers have always gotten a good deal of their folk wisdom from cab drivers. Cabbies today are, more often than not, recent immigrants from Russia, Haiti, Afghanistan, or Cuba. On a trip uptown the other day, the cabby was a devout Sikh, and eager to talk about it. There is a community of about 20,000 Sikhs in Queens, and he was much distressed that here, as in India, most of them are not very devout. “The leaders are more interested in politics than religion,” said he. “When God sent us down here He said, ‘Go and tell everybody about me,' but all these people do is talk politics. So when they go back God is going to be very mad. ‘What's wrong with you?' He'll say. ‘I sent you down to talk about me and all you did was talk about politics.' It's really that simple.” Too simple? It strikes us as the simplicity of a wisdom that should be heeded, and not only by Sikhs.


“Reinhold Niebuhr: Christian Apologist to the Secular World” in From Marxism to Judaism: Collected Essays of Will Herberg, edited by David Dalin (Markus Wiener). Wyschogrod on Auschwitz convent controversy, October 27, 1989. Kolvenbach on Jesuit education, Origins, June 22, 1989. May to the theologians, Origins, June 22, 1989. John Paul 11 on Luther and ecumenism Origins, June 22, 1989. “Until Death Do Us Part” by Michael Pakaluk, Crisis, September 1989.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift