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Defending Kagan

One can, of course, differ with the thesis of Donald Kagan’s Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, but to suggest (as the April editorial, “How Democracy Came About and How It Might Be Sustained,” does) that the work has anything in common with “deconstructionism”,“made up,” “fabricated,” the product of “myths” and “creative misinterpretations””is totally unwarranted and patently unjust to Kagan, who is a distinguished historian in the classic, traditional mode.

I would not presume to pass judgment on the substantive issue”whether Pericles’ Athens is worthy of the esteem in which Kagan holds it, or of the contempt displayed in the editorial. But it may be of interest to note that Lord Acton, who can hardly be accused (as Kagan is) of advancing a “secular” view of history (still less of being a deconstructionist), has the highest praise for Pericles, and for much the same reasons as Kagan. In “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton describes the age of Pericles as “the grandest movement in the profane annals of mankind, for to it we owe, even after the immeasurable progress accomplished by Christianity, much of our philosophy and far the better part of the political knowledge we possess.” When he later pays tribute to Christianity’ for its unique contribution, “Render unto Caesar . . .,” he does so without detracting from the equally unique and valuable contribution of Pericles. (It is also interesting that Acton apparently does not share the editorial writer’s view of Pope Gelasius as one of the “critical moments” in the emergence of democratic thought; I have come across no mention of Gelasius in any of Acton’s very erudite writings on this subject.)

I should also like to comment on Eugene Fisher’s assertion, in another essay in the same issue (“The Vatican and the State of Israel”), that the position of the Vatican in relation to Israel is “virtually the same as that of the U.S. government.” Not quite. Whatever its criticisms of Israel, the U.S. government (like Britain, France, and most Western governments) recognizes the state of Israel, whereas the Vatican (like most of the Arab states) does not. That is a not insignificant difference.

Gertrude Himmelfarb
Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

Criticism on Cruzan Case

The Public Square is always interesting and thought-provoking but I strongly disagree with Richard John Neuhaus regarding the Nancy Cruzan case (“The Death Watch,” The Public Square, March). Neuhaus, like many who are appalled with the decision to withdraw nutrition and hydration from Nancy, argues more from superficial appearances than from moral principles. Catholic moral tradition has always recognized that there are circumstances which remove the obligation to sustain life at any cost. Pope Pius XII clearly taught that when efforts to sustain life are extraordinary (or become excessively burdensome to the patient or others) there is no moral obligation to employ them or continue them. The Vatican Declaration on Euthanasia (1980) enlarged on the teaching of Pius XII and the Church’s moral tradition.

In 1986, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities considered exceptional circumstances, including providing nourishment, attending the terminally ill and concluded that they “may become too ineffective or burdensome to be obligatory.” Neuhaus and others wrongly believe that the Cruzan decision was based on a judgment that Nancy lacked a “quality of life.” Because it is ambiguous, to interject “a quality of life” expression in this controversy is misleading. It is not a case of judging that “a life is not worth living”; the question is whether there is a moral responsibility to continue at all cost the artificial feeding of patients who, in the opinion of physicians, are in an irreversible coma.

Admittedly, the answer is highly controversial within the Catholic Church. Sixteen bishops of Texas have stated that the withdrawal of feeding for patients in a permanent comatose state is a moral option. The bishops of New Jersey disagree. The bishops of Missouri have taken a cautious middle position and found the decision in the Nancy Cruzan case to be acceptable. Individual bishops can be found on both sides of the issue. The Vatican has refrained from a definitive resolution to the question and is waiting for the national Conference of Catholic Bishops to report its opinion. A special committee composed of the members of the NCGB Pro-Life Activities and the Doctrine Committees is now studying the issue. Hopefully, it will report soon.

Regardless of how the question is finally settled by the Magisterium, I hope that Neuhaus will be less judgmental about those who believe that the Nancy Cruzan decision was moral and in accord with traditional Catholic moral principles. It is hardly worthy of him to imply that this opinion may be no better than the Nazi decision to kill those who in their opinion were unworthy of life.

Finally, did Nancy Cruzan die of starvation? Or was the cause of death ultimately the fatal pathology that required artificial feeding in the first place? I think it was the latter. Food is no more necessary to sustain life than oxygen. When a ventilator is turned off from a critically ill patient for whom there is no hope of recovery, it is not claimed that the patient suffocated or was choked to death. For a parallel reason, it can be said that Nancy Cruzan was not starved to death. In both cases nature was allowed to take its course and death resulted from the underlying pathology.

Neuhaus is as familiar as anyone with the distinction between directly intending to kill and allowing someone to die when there is no obligation to maintain life. It astounded me that he could imply that the Nancy Cruzan decision included the intention to kill. At the least, I hope his gross misjudgment will be seriously reviewed.

Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza
Bishop of Galveston-Houston

Richard John Neuhaus replies:

I appreciate Bishop Fiorenza’s thoughtful letter. I would note, however, that I did not say that it is morally necessary to maintain feeding “at all costs.” I explicitly referred to instances in which it is not necessary. Further, as I understand it, Nancy Cruzan was neither “terminally ill” nor in “an irreversible coma.” My commentary was chiefly on the way that the Cruzan case was publicly discussed, and there is no doubt that that discussion turned on “quality of life” and lives not worth living. I did not say that other opinions on the permissibility of withdrawing Ms. Cruzan’s food and fluid are “no better than the Nazi decision to kill,” etc. I did say that discussion of lives not worth living is inescapably reminiscent of Nazi views on lebensunwertes Leben. The comparison with the ventilator is familiar and suggestive, but I am inclined to agree with those who argue that there is a morally significant difference between the technology of artificial breathing and providing a patient with food and fluid. Finally, the conventional distinction between terminating life and allowing to die is useful and no doubt comforting. However, in the current state of the public discussion, as represented in the Cruzan affair, “allowing to die” frequently has become a fatal euphemism for the unjust taking of life. I would like to think that the above considerations might lead the bishop to review his criticisms and arrive at a “less judgmental” estimate of what I wrote.

Settling the Walker Percy Dispute

Paul Greenberg seems to get a kick out of mocking Joseph Schwartz’s interpretation of Walter Percy’s novel The Moviegoer (“Walker Percy: An Exchange,” March), but I think the joke is on him.

Mr. Greenberg attacks Mr. Schwartz for drawing orthodox Catholic messages from Percy’s novel and reducing art to catechetics with his tidy, “schematic” reading. Mr. Greenberg’s real enemy, however, is Percy himself. In an interview published in Crisis magazine in 1990, Percy spoke about the reaction of nonbelieving critics to The Moviegoer and commented directly on the passage that Mr. Greenberg uses to support his case:

The Moviegoer was well received, and for the wrong reasons. The Catholic novelist has to be very careful. He has to be underhanded, deceitful, and damn careful how he uses the words of religion, which have fallen into disuse and almost become obscenities . . . . One reviewer said that the reason he or she liked it so much was that at the end of the novel Binx Bolling says something like, “When the word God is mentioned, a curtain comes down in my head; I can’t think about it. What I really believe is that a kick in the ass, in the right place, is the only thing a man can do.” That was read by nonbelievers to mean a kick in the ass to the Church, you see, instead of to the nonbelievers. That may be my fault.

I think Mr. Greenberg will admit that Percy’s interpretation—kicking nonbelievers in the ass—is awfully “edifying.” In his other novels, which Mr. Greenberg likes less, Percy made sure that there was no mistake about his message.

I happen to agree with Mr. Greenberg that The Moviegoer is Percy’s best novel, in large part because it is the least didactic, but it cannot be denied that Percy meant to express the truths of the Catholic catechism in his novels. His numerous remarks about his novels and his essays make that abundantly clear. That is not the only thing he attempts to express, of course. In that same interview, Percy says, “Binx Bolling lived out the various Kierkegaardian modes of existence: aesthetic, ethical, and religious”—how “schematic” can one get?

If Mr. Greenberg wants to take a stand against reductionism in Christian art, Flannery O’Connor is considerably safer ground than Walker Percy.

John Wauck
Princeton, NJ

The exchange between Messrs. Schwartz and Greenberg epitomizes the crisis in the study of literature today. Schwartz understands The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, and is able to do so because he apparently understands the doctrine underlying it, orthodox Christianity. Greenberg is the conventional intellectual of our day, drawn to the obvious art of the book, but unable to comprehend it because he is hostile to its doctrine, and fails to recognize his own. He is a doctrinaire secular existentialist who thinks it is morally superior to be confused than certain. He further distinguishes faith and certainty (faith is good, certainty is bad); he needs to consult the Grammar of Assent by Newman. There is also a hint of Blake’s famous comment on Milton, that he is on the Devil’s side without knowing it. If art inspired by uncertainty is better than art inspired by certainty, let us dismiss Dante and the cathedrals.

What is most disturbing, and typical, about Greenberg’s piece is the sophomoric sarcasm (masquerading as sophisticated, balanced irony) with which it fairly drips. Either Greenberg is ignorant of intellectual history, or he is disingenuous. The absurd notion that questioning is good but finding (or even desiring) answers is bad, far from being the bright idea Greenberg pretends it to be, is precisely the false orthodoxy of today in academia. As long ago as 1926, Chesterton punctured this particular balloon (in The Outline of Sanity ):

. . . pioneers and empire builders were filled with hope and courage because, to do them justice, most of them . . . were in search of something, and not merely in search of searching. They subconsciously conceived an end of travel and not endless traveling . . . . The spirit of adventure has failed because it has been left to adventurers. Adventure for adventure’s sake became like art for art’s sake . . . . Even if we picture the goal of the pilgrimage as a sort of peasant paradise, it will be far more practical than setting out on a pilgrimage which has no goal . . . . For it is a sin against the reason to tell men that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive; and when once they believe it, they travel hopefully no longer.

Or to put it in a nutshell as St. Mark the Ascetic did in the fifth century, “A journey without destination is wasted effort.” For Mr. Greenberg to pretend that Mr. Schwartz is the dogmatist, and not himself, would simply be false. We have here two dogmas at loggerheads. The question is, which of them is true?

Jonathan Chaves
George Washington University
Washington, D.C. 

Wanted More on Just War

I was disappointed by George Weigel’s article attempting to supply moral justification for the actions of the United States in the Persian Gulf War (“The Churches & War in the Gulf,” March). I had expected to see some sort of rational analysis based on Catholic just war principles.

Unfortunately, he gave us no such thing. What he did gives us was one long argumenturn ad hominem attacking all those who might have serious reservations about not only the war’s morality but even its prudentiality from a standpoint of American self-interest. I would remind him that those who questioned the war included many thoughtful conservatives, not just the usual leftish clergymen and peaceniks from the 1960s, as he seems to think.

Among those who have decried the Gulf War is our own Holy Father. He has spoken of this “senseless massacre” and of an “adventure without end.” On the eve of the January 15 deadline, he pleaded with Hussein and Bush not to begin hostilities. Bush chose to ignore his plea and ordered American forces to start shooting (and bombing). Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope’s right-hand man, has been quoted as being doubtful that this can be construed as a just war. Does anyone think that this extremely astute man would say this unless he knew it reflected the thinking of the Holy Father?

Perhaps more disturbing than anything else is Weigel’s good guy/ bad guy scenario—his assumption that the United States holds the moral high ground, Iraq being the villain. I would ask him to reflect on the fact that the U.S. is in no position to preach morality to anyone. A country that has [killed] a million and a half of its own people . . . every year for the past seventeen years—almost thirty million people—is hardly a nation able to sit in judgment on others.

I doubt if Hussein’s Iraq—whatever its crimes—has sunk this low.

Joseph P Wall
Philadelphia, PA

On Church & State

Your editorial, “When Church-State Conflicts Aren’t” (March) unnecessarily confused matters. Religious individuals or groups are quite free under our Constitution to advocate or oppose policies on religious grounds or nonreligious grounds. A church-state conflict arises when government adopts a policy that has the effect of restricting freedom of conscience or of imposing on all a policy essentially based on the ethos of a particular religious tradition (example: a law outlawing contraception or mandating devotion to Mary in a public school).

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, MD

The editorial, “When Church-State Conflicts Aren’t,” in your March issue made me want to cry out in frustration. I don’t know yet what article the author was criticizing, but the verbiage sounded like disorganized stream-of-consciousness dissatisfactions with arguments the writer did not want to accept.

He points out that 80 percent of Americans “say” that their moral beliefs are derived from religious sources. Does that mean that in an atheistic or 51 percent nonreligious society there will be no morality? Hardly; other sources—the common good, awareness of rights, desire for peaceful existence—all contribute to ethical lawmaking.

Then the writer says that “practical coalitions are almost always premised upon not inquiring too closely into the sundry sources of belief that bring the members of the coalition together.” Present-day coalitions in the anti-abortion effort are obviously so ordered—how else could fundamentalist Baptists ever join ranks with Mormons and Roman Catholics? It’s evidently easy—just sacrifice principle for a greater power position; don’t discuss any great doctrines of God and salvation, just stick to abortion. The end, after all, justifies the means; and a little hypocrisy never hurt anybody.

Finally, the writer [apparently] operates on the mistaken view that if we can only get at least 51 percent of the voting populace to be swayed sufficiently by our coalesced, power structure, emotional appeals, and biblical truth (used only where it will work), then we can pass laws outlawing abortion. If that system were true, blacks would still ride in the back of the bus, women would not have the vote, and we Protestants would have run all the Catholics back to Ireland a long time ago.

Hal H. Eaton
Mouth of Wilson, VA

Misreading Rorty?

Richard Neuhaus concludes his send-up of Richard Rorty (December 1990) as follows. “So now we have followed Mr. Rorty’s advice and asked him, ‘Why do you talk that way?’ Having listened carefully to what he has to say, it is time to follow his advice again: it is time to change the subject.” Judging from Neuhaus’ account of Rorty’s views, this statement is purely self-congratulatory. Neuhaus has not listened carefully to what Rorty has to say. He doesn’t have the first clue as to why Rorty talks the way he does.

Neuhaus is astute enough to pick up on one point. He believes in a saving power beyond ourselves. Rorty doesn’t. With that disagreement about where we should pin our hopes for salvation in hand, Neuhaus is off and running. Rorty is an individualistic skeptic who doesn’t believe in anything beyond himself. He “claims we can say nothing about ‘reality,’ about what is ‘out there’”or at least nothing to which it is appropriate to attach terms such as ‘true’ or ‘false’ in intersubjective (public) discourse.” Rorty is a self-absorbed Romantic who does not allow for successors who will redescribe him the way he has redescribed his predecessors. His is an egoistic eschatology in which “it seems that our time is the End Time because it is our time.”

All of this is, to put it gently, nonsense. Neuhaus systematically inflates Rorty’s belief that there is no saving power beyond ourselves into the belief that there is nothing beyond ourselves. This is an example of interpretative overkill. No doubt Rorty is in sharp disagreement with Neuhaus. But it is a disagreement about where to pin our hopes for salvation. No doubt that is an important matter. But it is not a matter of whether there is an external world . . . .

The key to all of this is that, despite Neuhaus’ repeated claims to the contrary, Rorty is not a skeptic. He is, first of all, a pragmatist. And pragmatists since Charles Sanders Peirce have been at pains to break with the inherent skepticism of modern philosophy. They discount Descartes’ notion that beliefs are representations all of which might fail to correspond to reality. Consequently, they dismiss the companion notion that it is our philosophical duty to doubt all of our beliefs in an effort to rule out conclusively the possibility of such a massive failure of connection to reality. The principal tool used in this break with modern epistemology has been a Darwinian account first of the mind and, more recently, of language. In either instance, the pragmatist contention is that since ideas in our minds and words in our language figure in behavioral adaptations on the part of human organisms to the environment, it is no more likely that these ideas and words are totally out of synch with the environment than it is that our physical organs are.

With our linguistic feet thus firmly planted in the real world from the time our humanoid ancestors first learned to manipulate noises and marks, we latter-day inheritors of that linguistic ability are in a position to talk about, among other things, where we should pin our hopes for salvation. Rorty says that we should learn to be more self-reliant than our predecessors in this instance and depend on our ability to talk differently for change and, if we are fortunate, improvement in our social and personal lives. Neuhaus says that we should continue to follow the example of our Christian predecessors and depend on God for the transformation of our lives.

So far as the connection of language to the world is concerned, each of these beliefs is one among a large number that are held by Rorty and Neuhaus respectively and that are mostly true. Neither of these beliefs is the lone one by which all the rest of their beliefs are connected to the real world. It therefore makes no sense to pick out this one undoubtedly important matter and make disagreement about it into the difference between robust contact with reality and effete self-absorption.

J. Wesley Robbins
Department of Philosophy
Indiana University
South Bend, IN

Don’t Forget Scripture

I read with great appreciation Paul Zahl’s perspective on ministry and the “credo” that sustains that ministry (“The Things That Remain,”February). It was both satisfying and uplifting to hear the reflections of a “kindred spirit,” one who knows the joy and pain of being an evangelical in a mainline denominational setting . . . .

I was a little surprised that Father Zahl did not mention, as a part of his bottom-line theology, the authority of Scripture. Nothing, in my opinion, is more crucial to a vital evangelical faith, especially for one who designates himself as “an explicit Protestant.” (Is not the authority of Scripture the formative principle of Protestant theology?)

This is not a merely academic matter. Without this principle, most of the affirmations Father Zahl sets forth can and have been “theologized” out of any meaningful existence by various spokespersons for ecclesiastical modernity. This is precisely what must be resisted.

(The Rev.) Russell C. Wentling
First United Methodist Church
Schuylkill Haven, PA

Ethics in a Vacuum?

One cannot help but agree with Stanley Hauerwas (“Honor in the University,” February) that ethical behavior comes about through virtuous people, not through the study of ethics in particular circumstances. Codes of ethics in business, law, and politics are necessary for the nonvirtuous among us who don’t even notice unethical behavior when it occurs.

While a university honor code might be a good idea for Christian colleges, it’s just another code of ethics designed to teach right from wrong to the non-virtuous. The real challenge is how to teach virtuous behavior to a generation that does not come from a tradition of Judeo-Christian morality and hence has no sense of revealed truth. If everything is relative, so is ethics. What is the basis of ethical or moral behavior in these souls? This is the real challenge to the teacher of ethics. An honor code is just another set of laws. If we don’t break the code, we have honor; or is there more to it than that?

Wilfred Q. Uhl
Northport, NY

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