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The editorial in our May 1991 issue was titled “Christian Mission and the Third Millennium.” It described the complicated connections between the Christian missionary enterprise and the future of an essentially Western civilization that is, in however ambiguous a manner, a product of the “Christian West.” The assumption of the editorial was that Christianity always has been and will continue to be inherently missionary in character. As several readers have pointed out, that cannot be assumed lightly.

In various Christian communities today, from evangelical Protestant to Roman Catholic, there is a lively debate about “universalism.” Universalism teaches that, in one way or another, all human beings will be eternally saved. If that is the case, it would seem to undercut any great sense of urgency about missio ad gentes—bringing the gospel to the nations that do not know God’s saving work in Christ. Universalism is often thought to be a liberal or modernist position, and it is vigorously opposed by “conservatives” who, their critics say, seem to relish the prospect of watching multitudes burn eternally in hell. Such conservatives deny the charge, pointing to their earnestness in pursuing the missionary mandate precisely in order to rescue others from that doleful destiny.

In fact, universalism in one form or another has been a perennial in two thousand years of Christian history. The early fathers had a Greek name for the doctrine, apocatastasis, and by it they meant that ultimately all moral creatures—angels, men, and devils—would share in the grace of salvation. The doctrine is to be found in Clement of Alexandria, in Origen, and in St. Gregory of Nyssa. It was strongly attacked by St. Augustine, and this aspect of “Origenism” was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 543. Nonetheless, universalism persists in the modern era, being defended by certain Anabaptists and Moravians, and by theologians in the tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

What might be called a modified version of universalism—that all men have at least the possibility of being saved, whether or not they have heard the gospel—is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church today, and is probably embraced by most Protestant thinkers. These Christians insist, inter alia, that it is contrary to a biblical understanding of the justice of God that billions of human beings should be eternally damned through no fault of their own. And that brings us to the question of the motives for mission. If the missionary enterprise is not driven by the imperative of rescuing souls from everlasting perdition, the urgency of the thing would seem to be considerably relaxed.

Countering Confusions

That is among the issues addressed by Pope John Paul II in the 26,000 words of his eighth encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer), issued this past January. The Pope believes that many Catholics are confused about the reason for missions, and that confusion bas everything to do with the marked decline in devotion to the missionary effort. Since Catholics are not the only ones confused on this point, it may be that the encyclical can be an ecumenical “teaching moment” that contributes to a broader understanding of Christian mission and the third millennium. Redemptoris Missio received slight attention in the general press which, being very political, bas focused more attention on the subsequent encyclical that deals with Catholic social teaching. Because it drives to the very heart of Christian faith and takes up questions so theologically controverted, however, the letter on missions is arguably the most important encyclical of John Paul’s pontificate to date.

With respect to missions, John Paul writes in Redemptoris Missio, “there is an undeniable negative tendency, and the present document is meant to help overcome it.” He cites Paul VI, who pointed to “the lack of fervor which is all the more serious because it comes from within. It is manifested in fatigue. disenchantment, compromises, lack of interest, and above all lack of joy and hope.” Those are the symptoms, John Paul suggests. The causes are cultural and, mainly, theological. What he calls the negative tendency “is based on incorrect theological perspectives and is characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.’ “ He thinks it an “insidious” factor that some people invoke the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in order to justify indifference to the missionary task.

Early on, John Paul lays out the questions to which he proposes to offer answers. “[As] a result of the changes which have taken place in modern times and the spread of new theological ideas, some people wonder: Is missionary work among non-Christians still relevant? Has it not been replaced by inter-religious dialogue? Is not human development an adequate goal of the Church’s mission? Does not respect for conscience and for freedom exclude all efforts at conversion? Is it not possible to attain salvation in any religion? Why then should there be missionary activity?” In proposing to respond to those questions, he has obviously given himself a hefty assignment.

A Universal Possibility of Salvation

John Paul repeatedly affirms the statement of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes that “we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in the paschal mystery in a manner known to God.” He insists, however, that that teaching in no way undercuts the uniqueness and universal significance of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. On the contrary, the universal possibility of salvation is premised upon the uniqueness of the Christian truth. Put differently, the claim that salvation is possible for everyone, including non-Christians, is inseparable from Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” to whom Christians bear witness.

John Paul says with Peter, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4). The point is that those who are saved without knowing the name of Christ are nonetheless saved by Christ. The Pope states it this way: “No one, therefore, can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s one, universal mediation . . . is the way established by God himself . . . Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees [through other religions] are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his.” Other religious ways may be salvific only because they participate, albeit unknowingly, in the salvation worked by the One who is the Way.

Toward an Ultimate Unity

Thus, despite the failures of Christians and non-Christians alike, God’s plan is “to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1). In that plan, the Church is the sacrament of salvation, and here John Paul cites Lumen Gentium of Vatican II. “To this catholic unity of the people of God, therefore . . . all are called, and they belong to it, or are ordered to it in various ways, whether they be Catholic faithful or others who believe in Christ or finally all people everywhere who by the grace of God are called to salvation.” He goes on to comment, “But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the Gospel revelation or to enter the Church . . . For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church.” Such universally available grace is not something natural to the human condition apart from Christ. “This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit.”

“It is necessary,” says the Pope, “to keep these truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for salvation. Both these truths help us to understand the one mystery of salvation, so that we can come to know God’s mercy and our own responsibility.” Most Catholics and Protestants may readily agree that it is necessary to keep those truths together, but it is not always easy. The fact is that many Christians today are puzzled, even embarrassed, by the heroic stories of missionaries of the past who braved unspeakable persecutions and even martyrdom in carrying out the missionary mandate to the nations. According to a good many contemporary theologians, it used to be that the “ordinary” means of salvation was through Christ and his Church, while allowance was made for “extraordinary” means in the case of those who never had a chance to hear the Gospel. But now, the argument goes, the situation has been reversed; the ordinary has become the extraordinary, and the extraordinary the ordinary.

Well aware of that way of thinking, John Paul nonetheless declares: “The mission of Christ the redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion. As the second millennium after Christ’s coming draws to an end, an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service.” His intention is to “relaunch the mission ad gentes.” “Christian hope sustains us in committing ourselves fully to the new evangelization and to the worldwide mission.” Then this vision: “As the third millennium of the redemption draws near, God is preparing a great springtime for Christianity, and we can already see its first signs.”

Six Reasons

A bracing vision, the skeptic may observe, but it is also unconvincing. What possible reason, what urgently compelling reason, can motivate Christians to commit themselves wholeheartedly to missions? If in God’s plan salvation is already available to all—available through Christ, to be sure—what is the irresistible incitement to give oneself to the missionary endeavor? It is fine for the Pope to say that “missionary activity represents the greatest challenge for the Church today,” but why, finally, should Christians care about the mission ad gentes—or why should they care as much as John Paul so earnestly wants them to care?

The reasons are not set out systematically, but one can extract from Redemptoris Missio six distinct, although not separable, arguments for commitment to the evangelization of the world. Not necessarily in order of importance, the six arguments are these: the nature and vitality of the Church; love of neighbor; duty to neighbor; Christian unity; obedience to the mission of Christ; and the concern of Christians for their own salvation.

“In the Church’s history,” John Paul writes, “missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith.” “Missionary activity,” he contends, “renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!” What the Pope says about the vitality of the Church would seem to be historically and psychologically undeniable. Beyond that, he employs elaborate biblical support in arguing that it is the very nature of the Church to be missionary. “The preaching of the early Church was centered on the proclamation of Jesus Christ, with whom the kingdom was identified.” Although John Paul does not put it quite this way, the implication is that, absent missionary commitment, the continuity between the contemporary Church and the New Testament Church is obscured, perhaps even thrown into question.

In addition to the vitality and nature of the Church, the Pope argues from the second of what Jesus called the great commandments, love for neighbor. “What moves me even more strongly to proclaim the urgency of missionary evangelization is the fact that it is the primary service that the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity,” he writes. It is both the primary service and the utterly distinctive service. Other institutions can do many of the good things done by the Church, but only the Church proclaims the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ. If the Church does not do that, nobody else will. “Every form of the Spirit’s presence is to be welcomed with respect and gratitude, but the discernment of this presence is the responsibility of the Church, to which Christ gave his Spirit in order to guide her into all truth” (John 16). According to John Paul, for Christians not to do all they can to propose this fullness of life in Christ to others is, quite simply, to violate the law of love.

Third, and obviously related, is duty to the neighbor. “No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church, can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples,” says the Pope. “Faith demands a free adherence on the part of man, but at the same time faith must also be offered to him.” He again quotes Paul VI: “The multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ—riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth.” To abdicate the missionary task, then, is to deny human beings their rights. Put differently, they have “a right to know,” so that they might have an opportunity to believe.

And Ecumenism

The fourth reason for recommitment to the mission ad gentes may strike some as a bit odd. “The missionary thrust,” the Pope says in the first paragraphs of the encyclical, “therefore belongs to the very nature of the Christian life and is also the inspiration behind ecumenism: ‘That they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17).” Much later he returns to the question of Christian unity. Concern for mission, he writes, “will serve as a motivation and stimulus for a renewed commitment to ecumenism.” This is because divisions among Christians “weaken their witness” to the world, and because reconciliation among Christians is itself a “sign of the work of God” that Christians proclaim. So, commitment to ecumenism is for the sake of mission, and a renewed commitment to mission requires commitment to ecumenism.

One notes in passing that ecumenism in Redemptoris Missio appears to be limited to those churches with which the Catholic Church “is engaged in dialogue.” The aggressively missionary evangelicals and fundamentalists—and here the Pope surely has Latin America in mind—are viewed as a “threat,” and it is intimated that the Catholic Church and its dialogue partners should join in opposing them. This apparently truncated ecumenical vision is tactically understandable, but it is not conspicuously consistent with what the encyclical says elsewhere about the nature of the Church and its mission.

The fifth argument, and John Paul says it is the most fundamental, is that mission is what God has done and is doing in Christ. “God has revealed to mankind who he is. This definitive self-revelation of God is the fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by her very nature.” It is a question of letting Christ do his work. “He carries out his mission through the Church.” The missionary mandate is a matter of obedience to Christ. The Pope cites the words of Jesus in John 20, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” The Good Shepherd searches out the lost and gives his life for the sheep (John 10), and therefore “those who have the missionary spirit share Christ’s burning love for souls.” It would seem to follow that those who don’t don’t. In short, for people who would be disciples of Christ the missionary mandate is not optional, for the only Christ who can be known is the Christ who declares his intention to be in continuing mission through his disciples.

Sixth and finally, the Pope’s answer to the question “Why mission?” does come back to its being a matter of salvation. Except the salvation in question is not so much that of non-Christians as that of Christians. “Mission is an issue of faith,” he writes, “an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us.” Or again, “Why mission? Because to us, as to St. Paul, ‘this grace was given to preach to the gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Eph. 3).” Mission is required by “the profound demands of God’s life within us.” “Those who are incorporated in the Catholic Church ought to sense their privilege and for that reason their greater obligation of bearing witness to the faith.” Once more he quotes Lumen Gentium: “They owe their distinguished status not to their own merits, but to Christ’s special grace; and if they fail to respond to this grace in thought, word, and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely.” So it turns out that salvation is at stake after all—the salvation of those who are Christians.

Truth Claims and Threats

These are the six reasons for the mission ad gentes that seem to emerge from a close reading of Redemptoris Missio. In this encyclical, John Paul is not simply issuing a pronouncement, he is making an argument. His argument challenges deeply entrenched fears about Christian “triumphalism,” “cultural imperialism,” and the such. It does not sit well with cultural prohibitions against “proselytizing,” and it offends regnant notions of “tolerance” and “pluralism.” The argument is, in sum, profoundly countercultural. The encyclical leaves no doubt that John Paul is aware of that. Catholics and non-Catholics who would engage the argument, however, must engage it at its heart, namely, that the truth claims of the Christian Gospel leave Christians no choice but to be people in mission to others.

Those who are not Christians may, understandably, be inclined to view any revival of the missionary mandate as threatening, or as a matter of indifference that is of interest only to Christians. To those who view it as threatening, John Paul adamantly insists that complete religious freedom and the rejection of every form of coercion is integral to the Gospel. “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” Those, on the other hand, who think the question of missions is purely an internal Christian concern fail to appreciate the powerful bearing that this question has on the attitude of 1.7 billion Christians toward world history, and, consequently, on the shaping of the third millennium. Whether the argument of Redemptoris Missio is consigned to the dusty shelves reserved for official ecclesiastical documents or is taken up by the several churches—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—is a matter of enormous moment for the future of religion and public life.

Countering Extremism

A price of democracy is putting up with extremists and demagogues. Sometimes they are small, marginal, and relatively ineffectual. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance. The police keep a close eye on such outfits and, while they’re not likely to go away, they can hope for little more than institutional subsistence in the fever swamps that surround the civil order. Other extremists are well-funded and well-connected. They don’t have to subtly insinuate their poison into our public life; they shout their hysteria from some of the most prestigious platforms in the society. Planned Parenthood, for instance.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD LOST A COURT CASE. AMERICANS LOST THE FIRST AMENDMENT. That’s PP’s contribution to civil discourse about Rust v. Sullivan, a case in which the Supreme Court declined to declare unconstitutional a rule that prevents government-funded clinics from promoting abortion. PP calls it the “gag rule.” As though recognizing that public support for unlimited abortion “rights” is on the wane, the full-page PP advertisements in the New York Times and other major newspapers declare, MORE THAN ABORTION IS IN TROUBLE. In the last twenty years of PP demagoguery about abortion, Americans have been told innumerable times that they have lost the First Amendment. Those who believed it may read the current screeds with a sense of relief, being pleasantly surprised that the First Amendment is still around to be lost.

Of course the hysteria is thoroughly self-serving. PP is into the abortion industry in a very big way, performing 120,000 abortions per year (1990) that produce an annual income of about $30 million. (Roughly one-third of that money is provided by federal, state, and local government.) In addition, PP’s piece of the abortion action is necessarily tied to the entire industry, whose 1.5 million abortions per year depend upon fending off any and all measures for the protection of the unborn. PP and its ilk are keenly aware that less than 20 percent of the American people share their enthusiasm for Roe v. Wade’s assertion of an unlimited right to abortion. They know that public sentiment is running against them. Little wonder, therefore, that their alarums consistently focus on the courts and refuse to recognize that abortion is a question legitimately addressed through the democratic process.

The regulation in question stipulates that government-funded clinics must tell those who inquire that the government “does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning.” Of course PP thinks abortion is an eminently appropriate method of family planning. So it comes down to a difference of moral judgments (or, as the current jargon puts it, “value judgments”). PP insists that the government should fund its moral judgment. The great majority of the American people would seem to disagree. PP, not to put too fine a point on it, doesn’t give a fig about democratic process. They demand that the courts impose the abortionists’ moral judgment on the American people, and force taxpayers who disagree to pay for it, to boot. It is a truly impressive exhibition of anti-democratic effrontery.

Well-connected extremist views reach also into the highest courts. Justice Blackmun, the author of the infamous Roe v. Wade majority opinion, dissented in Rust v. Sullivan, writing that it endorses censorship of what anyone says on any job supported by government funds “so long as that restriction is limited to the funded workplace.” Banging the old tocsin for all its worth, PP screams, “Freedom of speech may soon be something Americans exercise only after five o’clock and on weekends.” Now that does sound worrying. Until we remember that we have all kinds of sensible regulations about what can be done on government time with government money.

For instance, in most government jobs employees are forbidden to campaign for political candidates, champion racist or sexist ideas, sell their own products for profit, or, for that matter, agitate against extremist groups such as PP. As for non-government employees being able to exercise freedom of speech only after five o’clock and on weekends, one cannot help but wonder what would happen to a pro-life secretary or filing clerk at PP who wants to exercise freedom of speech about abortion on company time.

The clearest evidence that we are not about to lose the First Amendment is that the public square is filled with the distraught alarums of extremist elements such as PP, the KKK, animal rights terrorists, and proponents of “death with dignity” for the burdensome and parasitic. Of course not all extremists can afford full-page ads in the Times at 140,000 per whack. (Perhaps the Times, which considers unlimited abortion an integral part of its officially endorsed religion of goddess worship, gives PP a special rate.) In any event, whether upmarket or downmarket, extremism is extremism and demagoguery is demagoguery. We can be thankful for the First Amendment that prevents government from legally forbidding even some of its more morally abhorrent and fanatical expressions.

Israel as Super Story

The media sometimes seem to be obsessed with Israel. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times notes that there are some 350 permanently accredited news organizations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. At times such as the December 1987 eruption of the Palestinian intifada, the influx of reporters is such that there is one foreign correspondent for every 6,000 Israelis. The reason is that Israel is a “super story,” says political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. A super story is a collection of myths or ideological constructs tied together by a narrative. It helps us to explain the world to ourselves, to determine what information we will treat as significant.

“Like any colored lens,” Friedman writes in From Beirut to Jerusalem, “it lets certain rays of light in and blocks out others. Religions are the most popular super stories, but so, too, are universalist ideologies such as Marxism. As it happens, the oldest, most widely known super story of Western civilization is the Bible: its stories, its characters, and its values constitute the main lens through which Western man looks at himself and at the world. The Jews—the ancient Israelites—are the main characters in this biblical super story . . . Every American is familiar with a place like the Sea of Galilee—even though many states in the United States have lakes which are much bigger. But physical size is irrelevant in trying to understand why one country or people gets reported in the Western media and another doesn’t. What matters is the size that country or people occupies in the super story, and when looked at that way, Israel becomes one of the largest of countries in the eyes of the West, while big countries such as China or Sudan become very small.”

Friedman explains that, while the Palestinians garner a great deal of international attention, it is attention derived from the importance of Israel in the imagination of the West. He also explains why, in any conceivable future, Israel will continue to receive “inordinate” notice in cultures shaped by the story of God, a people, and a place—a story that many, both Christians and Jews, believe is far from being over.

Twenty-Five Years Later

This item is for Catholics in particular, but not for Catholics only. Of the approximately 1.7 billion Christians in the world, one billion are Roman Catholics, and how they work out their problems or fail to work out their problems has a strong bearing upon the entire Christian reality in our time. In a promising attempt to address those problems, the editors of Commonweal, the Catholic lay journal, look back on the twenty-five years since the Second Vatican Council and try to make some sense of it all.

As they see it, the two contending sectors trying to define the Catholic reality are the “restorationists” and the “reformers.” The restoration project is led by such as John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Apparently, they are in the ascendancy. The reformers, on the other hand, feel besieged. “After twenty-five years some have left the church entirely; others hide out in small communities of bitterness ever ready to see the church as an oppressor and to ascribe the worst motives to official pronouncements and actions.” This strikes us as a peculiar portrayal of the viewpoints in contention.

If the reformers are defined as those opposed to what they think Cardinal Ratzinger represents, they may be bitter but they are hardly hiding out. They dominate prestigious Catholic universities and theological faculties, have superior access to the media, and control key posts in national bishops conferences and some of the largest religious orders. They by no means exercise the monopoly that many “traditionalist” Catholics portray, but those who tend to view this papacy as a threatening aberration and a betrayal of “the spirit of Vatican II” are certainly well secured in positions of influence. As in all such conflicts, it is extremely difficult for the parties involved to appreciate the self-understanding of their opponents. Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faithto see others as they see themselves. One wonders if the editors of Commonweal might not do well to spend a little more time with those Catholics who view the “reformers” as the oppressive establishment.

The editors say that the restorationists ultimately will have to face up to the issues of participation, collegiality, and ecumenism, while the reformers need to come clean on the importance of catechesis. doctrine, and the life of faith. It is an interesting paring of issues that are presumably neglected by each side. To the extent that it is accurate (a very limited extent, in our view), one is led to ask which set of issues is more critical to the nature and mission of the church.

Continuing in an admirably temperate tone, the editors write: “Each side must turn from pursuing its own destructive course. On the one side, the theological and ecclesiological absolutes that grow not from our tradition but from the Vatican’s idealized notion of the church are at odds with the everyday experience and life of the church; however forcefully these claims are asserted they can only end in discrediting religious authority. On the other side, the psychological, if not explicit, rejection of tradition and of papal and episcopal authority among would-be reformers can only end in further drift and theological and liturgical illiteracy.” The editors conclude, “We are all responsible for the life of the church, but none of us is all-knowing or all-seeing about how to carry on its mission. That recognition in all quarters would in itself constitute a small miracle, and a necessary one.” The suggestion is that, between reformers and restorationists, there is a kind of moral equivalence. “The future,” we are, told, “does not lie in some easy compromise of these two mistaken tendencies, but in the cultivation of a spirit of self-critical responsibility.” But to what are Catholics to be self-critically responsive if not to the authoritative teaching and teaching offices that are distinctive to Catholicism?

Rome has frequently and in great detail indicated both the reach and the limits of magisterial authority. In the last year, for instance, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” spelling out, inter alia, the nature of both conscientious allegiance and conscientious dissent. Here and elsewhere, it is evident that the Vatican has moved far beyond the simplistic dichotomy between freedom of inquiry and submission to church authority. The spirit officially espoused is precisely what Commonweal calls for, namely, “a spirit of self-critical responsibility.”

One must ask what is this “everyday experience and life of the church” that is presumably “at odds with” church authority. Is the experience that the editors have in mind self-critically responsible to what Catholicism defines as authoritative? Or is it more the case that such experience is uncritically responsive to those who favor, in the words of the editors, “rejection of tradition and of papal and episcopal authority”? If the latter, surely it is not church authority that is being “discredited” but that “everyday experience and life of the church” that must be challenged. It is passing strange that reformers should be so eager to defend the status quo of the “everyday experience and life of the church.”

Commonweal styles itself as a liberal voice, and it does reflect a style of liberalism much more irenic and judicious than, say, the perpetually strident National Catholic Reporter. And yet, it seems that the editors are still in thrall to a conceptual confusion that has caused immeasurable mischief since Vatican Council II. Reform and restoration are not antithetical. Indeed the reformist impulse of the Council was driven by the theme of ressourcement, the attempt to restore and recover the full riches of the tradition in order to remedy some of the constrictions worked by the Counter-Reformation. Aggiornamento, or updating, was not a counter-theme of the Council. Aggiornamento was the renewal hoped for from a fuller appropriation of the tradition in conversation with the modern world. Most of the confusions of the last twenty-five years have stemmed from the “progressive” assumption that the modern world, rather than the tradition, is the source of renewal.

Those whom Commonweal says reject the tradition often seem bent upon replacing the tradition with the stiflingly truncated tradition of modernity. The tradition of the church through the centuries is ever so much more capacious, and intellectually interesting, than are the smelly little orthodoxies of the Zeitgeist. For the church to be in conversation with the modern world, it must be distinct from the modern world. Otherwise, it is simply part of a modern world talking to itself. Our argument over the years has been that this Pope and his collaborators, such as Cardinal Ratzinger, are, in fact, the party of reform. As much as we welcome Commonweal’s tone of moderation and fair-mindedness, it seems that the editors have not yet come to terms with that possibility.

Perceiving the Presence

Octavio Paz is the author most recently of Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith (Harvard). This past year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and the following is from his speech of acceptance. “I begin with two words that all men have uttered since the dawn of humanity: thank you. Grace is gratuitous; it is a gift. The person who receives it, the favored one, is grateful for it, and if he is not base, he expresses gratitude . . . If each of my words were a drop of water, you would see through them and glimpse what I feel: gratitude, acknowledgment, and also an indefinable mixture of fear, respect, and surprise at finding myself here before you.”

Paz is bemused by time. “Modernity is an ambiguous term. There are as many types of modernity as there are societies. Each has its own. The word’s meaning is uncertain and arbitrary, like the name of the period that preceded it, the Middle Ages. If we are modern compared with medieval times, are we the Middle Ages of a future modernity? . . . The idea of modernity is a byproduct of our conception of history as a unique and linear process of succession. The origins of this conception are in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it breaks with Christian doctrine. In Christianity, the cyclical time of pagan cultures is supplanted by unrepeatable history, which has a beginning and will have an end . . . Christians see the world, or what used to be called the seculum or worldly life, as a place of trial: in this world, souls can be lost or saved. In the new conception, by contrast, the historical subject is not the individual soul but the human race, sometimes viewed as a whole and sometimes through a chosen group that represents it: the developed nations of the West, the proletariat, the white race, or some other entity. The pagan and Christian philosophical tradition had exalted Being as changeless perfection overflowing with plenitude, but we adore change; it is the motor of progress and the model for our societies. Change articulates itself in two ways, as evolution and revolution. The trot and the leap . . .

“Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and of the future, of eternity and of the void, we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing, or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know at least one thing: that the present is the source of presences . . . [Modernity] is the instant, that bird that is everywhere and nowhere. We want to capture it alive, but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed. And then the doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real time, the one that we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence.”

The Pope in Poland

Since the New York Times editorially declared its religious preference (goddess worship) earlier this year, its coverage of other religions has not noticeably changed. For instance, Stephen Engelberg regularly reports on Catholicism in Poland in the usual manner. The controlling story line includes several items. Although at the time the Times largely ignored the role of religion in the Revolution of 1989, it is now acknowledged that the church was politically useful in resisting Communism. Since the revolution, however, the church has become a threat, trying to “impose its values” on the Polish people and government. The key issue, wouldn’t you know, is abortion. (Abortion, probably more than any other single issue, is the Times’ litmus test of a just social order. Wholesale abortion as family planning was one of the policies of the former Communist regimes that the editors seem to approve.) Interviews, writes Mr. Engelberg, make clear “how strong a hold religion has on Poles, but among the believers it was not hard to find many who expressed open criticism of some church policies and officials.” Hard or easy, Mr. Engelberg’s reports “balance” enemies and friends of religious influence by a ratio of about ten to one in favor of enemies. If we credit the Times, the Pope visited Poland chiefly in order to thwart an emerging democracy that, with the help of unelected Communist deputies, is being constructed on the basis of dissent from religious authority. Mr. Engelberg’s reporting is an extended editorial to the effect that the church, having rendered a useful service to the revolution, should now gracefully take its bow and surrender the stage to its secularist opponents. The Times is aware of “how strong a hold religion has on Poles.” (The image is that of a hostile and oppressive force, rather than of belief popularly embraced.) But the Times is hopeful that there, as in the United States, its encouragement of dissent and opposition will break that hold in time. The prospect is that, with enough enlightenment, everyone will one day join the editors of the New York Times in turning from “the male gods” and bending the knee to the Great Earth Goddess.

A few days later, a Gabrielle Glaser is reporting on the Pope’s trip. This headline on the front page of the Times: “Pope Delivers Angry Sermon on Abortion to Poles.” We read, “His normally sonorous, pacific voice shaking with rage, the Pope departed from his prepared text and assailed Poland’s moral state as if it were a personal affront. ‘All of you who lightheartedly approach these matters, you must understand that I cannot but be concerned with these matters, that I cannot but be hurt,’ he said during an open-air Mass. ‘You also should be hurt.’” It takes little imagination to come up with the Times headline if the Pope had been criticizing, say, anti-Semitism or ethnic prejudices. “Pope Delivers Impassioned Plea Against Injustice.” Only when the issue is abortion, the Times’ litmus test of justice, does an impassioned plea become an “angry sermon.” Of course almost all the people quoted in this front-page story are highly critical of the Pope. Said Anna Stetien, a store clerk, “Every Catholic has the right to make their own choices between right and wrong. That’s what Christ taught us, after all.” That’s in Matthew’s gospel, isn’t it?

By the last day of the Pope’s Polish visit Stephen Engelberg is back on the job. “Which Way Poland?” is the heading of his news commentary. Once again, we are told that the sonorous has been supplanted by the ranting. “The man whose sonorous voice stirred the momentum for the Solidarity movement was transformed this year into a fist-shaking warrior against Western decadence.” Mr. Engelberg devotes half of his piece to the results of a survey conducted by Polish television. Here is the question that was posed: “Is it your opinion that the Catholic Church has the right to demand that people submit to it in the following matters?” The following matters are contraception, extramarital sex, divorce, and, of course, abortion. Surprise. A great majority of Poles did not think that the church has the right to demand that they submit to it in these matters. In case the reader missed the point, the story boldfaces it in a box: “Poles ignore the church on abortion.”

Again, it takes little imagination to envision the response had the question been put differently. For instance: “Do you think the Polish people should try to keep public morality and law in harmony with Catholic teaching in the following matters?” But the response to that question would not serve to advance the “super story” to which the Times is committed. That super story, or party line, is that orthodox Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church, is an intolerable obstacle to the progress of modern secularity, whether in Poland or in the United States. The Times, once arguably the greatest newspaper in the world, has under Max Frankel become increasingly uninhibited in presenting itself as an ideologically driven organ captive to the wearily familiar agenda of the politically correct. It is a sadness.

An Approximation of Repentance

Robert Heilbroner of the New School for Social Research has for years been among the foremost and most thoughtful proponents of socialism. Unlike most folk who pronounce on such matters, notably including those in religious organizations, Heilbroner recognizes the error of his ways. He writes in Dissent on the Revolution of 1989. “What I find startling and disconcerting is that these massive historical trends have been largely unanticipated. The conventional wisdom with respect to socialism has been that it was, or would be, a success and that the future very likely belonged to it. The same wisdom with respect to capitalism was that its future was clouded.”

Who was open to considering the falsity of that position? Heilbroner responds, “Not a single writer in the Marxian tradition!” “Are there any in the left-centrist group? None that I can think of, including myself. As for the center itself—the Samuelsons, Solows, Glazers, Lipsets, Bells, and so on—I believe that many expected capitalism to experience serious and mounting, if not fatal, problems and anticipated some form of socialism to be the organizational force of the twenty-first century . . . That leaves the right. Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It has been the Friedmans, Hayeks, von Miseses, e tutti quanti who have maintained that capitalism would flourish and that socialism would develop incurable ailments.” Heilbroner draws what he admits is a “discomforting generalization.” “The farther to the right one looks, the more prescient has been the historical foresight; the farther to the left, the less so (emphasis his).”

The biggest difference between right and left, says Heilbroner, is in their attitudes toward the malleability of human nature. At the end of his essay, however, Heilbroner indicates that he is not ready to cut all his ties to his ideological past. Whatever the monumental errors of the left, he suggests, it is the left that keeps open the future to change and experiment. Therefore: “To be a radical conservative or a conservative radical appears to offer the best chance to position oneself wisely with respect to the future—not to predict it, which only a fool could aspire to do, but to prepare for its blows and to secure its advances as best we can.”


Writing in The Journal of Law and Politics, which is published by the University of Virginia, Richard Baer of Cornell points out that the standard dictionary definitions of “sectarian” are all exceedingly pejorative. Among its more common symptoms are “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” “heretical,” “parochial,” and “dogmatic.” And yet in American jurisprudence, from the Supreme Court to local jurisdictions, “sectarian” has been and still is routinely used as a synonym for “religious.” Such usage reinforces the prejudice that religion is opposed to what is common, public, and of general interest. After surveying this linguistic distortion and its deleterious effects, Baer concludes:

“A commitment by our courts, other government officials, and by the mass media to abandon the equation ‘religious sectarian’ would constitute a commendable first step in the move toward nondiscrimination and public justice. Although such a move would not in itself correct the confusion of Supreme Court decisions since Everson on the relation of the religious to the secular, it would at the very least improve the climate of discussion. It would help cast doubt on the correctness of the assumptions the courts have employed in wrestling with issues pertaining to religion and public life, and thus conceivably would open up the path to more rational constitutional interpretation.”

While We’re at It

♦  It would seem that there have been exposes enough of the trespasses of televangelists and their Barnumesque enterprises. Televangelism and American Culture by Quentin Schultze (Baker) is different. A committed Christian, Schultze takes no delight in the much publicized scandals associated with televangelism. The real scandal, he believes, is that, while purporting to fight secular humanism, televangelism may be a prime agent in the de-Christianizing of our culture. That the medium has become the message is manifestly evident in the style and content of much televangelism that is pitched to the lowest appetites of selfishness and superstition. Worst of all, the televangelist mode of religiosity, under the guise of “church growth,” is making rapid inroads in shaping local church life—subsuming worship under entertainment, doctrine under personality cults, and turning congregations into audiences. Schultze writes: “One of the great dangers of televangelism is that it is able to deliver more aberrant messages to more people in less time than any previous mode of religious communication. In so doing, it has become far more than an identifiable religious movement with its own beliefs and practices. Like television programming generally, televangelism pervades American culture, distributing its diffuse messages to millions of people and crosscutting religious traditions by appealing directly to individuals. As a result, TV ministries have been shaping religious consciousness across the nation, delivering a warped gospel to hopeful Americans who represent all groups in the country’s heterogeneous religious landscape. It is increasingly evident that what churchgoers consider to be the right theological stuff has been influenced by the new sorcery. The health-and-wealth gospel pervades the popular Christian media today and increasingly shapes local congregations’ expectations of their pastors’ preaching.” Televangelism and American Culture is an important contribution to thinking about the Christian mission in our time.

♦  Glenn Tinder of the University of Massachusetts has written a fine book titled The Political Meaning of Christianity. The promotional piece from his publisher, HarperCollins, carries this headline: “AN INTELLIGENT AND DEEPLY CARING INQUIRY INTO LIVING IN THE WORLD BY CHRISTIAN PRINCIPLES.” Now how do you suppose HarperCollins would have promoted Augustine’s De Civitate Dei?

♦  “Catechesis” is the word for instruction in what Christians believe and why. The church has been at it for two millennia now. A 1985 extraordinary synod in Rome decided that Catholics could be doing a much better job of catechesis. So a “universal catechism” is being devised. Actually, it’s a set of guidelines for the development of catechisms in different national and cultural settings. A preliminary draft was barely out before a group of academics perennially fretted by the suggestion that the church teaches much of anything in particular called a conference to raise the alarm. The result of that excitation is The Universal Catechism Reader: Reflections and Responses (HarperCollins), edited by Thomas Reese, S.J. A more accurate subtitle would be Reactions, but a new journal. Catholic International, seems to like the book. “Changes in textbooks are not the central problem in catechetics, what is called for is a renewal of the People of God. That, perhaps, is the real question raised by the Catechism project: to what extent does a yearning for it indicate a lack of faith in the dynamic of the People of God?” The real question, surely, is why anyone should think that the “dynamic” (whatever that might mean) of Christians precludes the need for effective Christian catechesis.

♦  Vice President Joyce Miller of the AFL-CIO is president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, which has published its annual “Hit or Ms. List” of people correct and incorrect. Only one religious figure gets a “Ms. Award.” “Archbishop Rembert Weakland for supporting a more tolerant stance on pro-choice views within the Catholic Church.” Among the “Hits”: “President George Bush and those in Congress who have relentlessly supported his pursuit of an anti-family domestic agenda.” We doubt that Archbishop Weakland feels honored, or that President Bush feels hit.

♦  Those on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate usually take pains to have their case presented by “spokespersons” who are good, clean, upright, “pro-family” types. Not, however, our local newspaper, the Times. It is (as noted above) as fanatical on abortion as it is in praise of Gaia worship, and apparently does not care whom it offends. Here is a big op-ed piece titled “Abortion: An Inmate’s View.” It is by Jean Harris, who works with women in prison. The entire point of the article is that most of the women are poor, many are on drugs, and almost all have babies on the outside who should have been aborted. These children are a drag on everybody. “They will need years of special education classes” at a time when money for schools is in short supply. By cutting back on the availability of abortion we “have created a situation in which hundreds of thousands of women and children may be doomed to survive without loving care, health, dignity, and hope.” The Jean Harris whom the Times presents as an authority on loving care, health, dignity, and hope is serving a life sentence for the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower, inventor of the Scarsdale Diet. Are these editors serious?

♦  Owen Fiss of Yale Law School is worried that John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), is something of a wimp. A new law directs the NEA to apply “general standards of decency” in making applications. This, frets Fiss in The Nation, could become “an internal operating principle of the NEA.” In other words, it would be a terrible thing for the NEA to observe general standards of decency in its operations. Fiss acknowledges the good news that “controversial performance artist” Holly Hughes has been funded again. Ms. Hughes is noted for doing rude things of an erotic nature while naked on stage. Fiss does not draw too much comfort from her getting government support, however. He quotes Hughes as saying, “This might get tossed my way, but I think other artists whose identities are controversial”their race, their gender, their sexual orientation”are just going to be weeded out by the new internal changes in the NEA.” Lacking things to worry about at Yale, Professor Fiss worries that general standards of decency means that NEA will not give grants to blacks, women, or homosexuals. He is the Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Public Law. It seems a shame. Alexander Bickel was so very sensible.

♦  “P.O.V.” (Point of View) is a PBS show to which the National Endowment for the Arts gave $250,000 this year. A recent program was called “Tongues Untied” and celebrated the black homosexual subculture in a manner that the producers readily acknowledged as being a bit on the raw side. Some PBS stations decided not to show it, others showed it at a later hour, presumably when the kiddies had gone to bed. Not WCET in Cincinnati, however. Said the station executive, “We chose to run it in prime time. We’re not going to put this one show on at a different hour. That would be a cop-out. I don’t think small children or even young teenagers should watch. It’s not the kind of show I’d sit down and watch myself. But that’s why people have ‘on’ and ‘off’ buttons. Choosing what people should watch—that’s not the business we’re in.” Being translated: Of course it’s junk, but that’s the business we’re in.

♦  Christian Lesbians Out Together produces the nice acronym CLOUT. The organization was launched in New York by 113 clergy and laywomen from fourteen denominations. According to its statement of purpose, CLOUT will struggle in the churches against sexism, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, U.S. imperialism, classism, ableism, clericalism, and “other structures of domination that foster oppression.” The statement says the women will “explore new understandings of erotic power and sexuality, mutuality, commitment, faithfulness, and partnership that do not merely imitate or replicate sexist, heterosexist, or capitalist relationships of alienation and possession.” Some of the better known founders of CLOUT are Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, who were irregularly ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Carter Heyward of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of eleven women irregularly ordained in 1974, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, an evangelical who was a major figure in producing the Inclusive Language Lectionary sponsored by the National Council of Churches.

♦  Paging the new catalog from Fortress Press helps one to understand why most clergy, never mind lay people, have given up reading theology. Amidst sundry liberationists, feminists, deconstructionists, and general pedantry, there was one title that caught our attention: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today by William Countryman. It is accompanied by a recommendation from a Bishop George N. Hunt. Says Bishop Hunt, “Dirt, Greed, and Sex fills a large gap . . .” We confess that it is one of the gaps that had entirely escaped our attention.


Planned Parenthood advertisement in the New York Times, May 28, 1991; figures on PP abortions and revenues from the Christian Action Council, based on information from the Alan Guttmacher Institute: 25 percent federal, 9 percent state and local; abortions cost an average of $250. Twenty-five year retrospective on Vatican II in Commonweal, December 7, 1990. Octavio Paz speech quoted in The New Republic, January 7, 1991. Stephen Engelberg quote on Catholic Church activism in Poland in the New York Times, June 1, 1991; Gabrielle Glaser article on the Pope’s “angry” sermon in the New York Times, June 4, 1991; survey on abortion views in Poland. New York Times June 11, 1991. Robert Heilbroner on socialism in Dissent, Fall 1990. Richard Baer on the term “sectarian” in The Journal of Law and Politics, Spring 1990. On the Catholic catechesis. Catholic International, April 15-30, 1991. Jean Harris on abortion and choice in the New York Times, June 25, 1991. Owen Fiss on the NEA in The Nation, April 15, 1991. On the PBS show P.O.V. the New York Times, June 25. 1991. On CLOUT, Lutheran World Information. March 21. 1991.

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