There are numerous obstacles to making the connections between religion and public life. For some moderns, a quasi-religious commitment to secularism produces an overt hostility to religion in all its manifestations. For many others, religion is self-evidently a purely private phenomenon. In that view, the idea of making connections between religion and public life is nonsensical and probably dangerous—dangerous to both religion and public life. Alfred North Whitehead is frequently invoked to the effect that religion is what a man does with his solitude (although Whitehead’s religious thought, as developed in subsequent “process theologies,” is very much publicly accessible). Similarly, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is, as the title suggests, focused on experiences of an intensely idiosyncratic nature, in sharpest contrast to public reason or institutionalized traditions that claim to bear truths of general, even universal, applicability.
The notion that religion is an exclusively private affair that is to be hermetically sealed off from matters public is deeply entrenched in our culture. That entrenchment should not be attributed solely, or even chiefly, to the enemies of religion. Historically and at present, the divorce of religion from public life is in largest part the “achievement” of the religions. One thinks, for instance, of the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prosecuted by the religiously committed, that warfare destroyed the fabric of civil and political society, and convinced many thinkers, including devout Christians, that religion posed a lethal threat to the public order. From that tragic history arose an extreme version of “the separation of church and state” that was tantamount to the separation of religion from public life. Needless to say, such extremism is still very much with us. It is not enough to deplore it. We must understand why it emerged and why it continues with such force.
The Pannenberg Project
Enter the Pannenberg project. Over the last thirty years, Wolfhart Pannenberg of the University of Munich, a frequent contributor to this journal, has been engaged in what is justly deemed the most ambitious theological project of our generation. The appearance in English of the first volume of his Systematic Theology (Eerdmans) is a major event, and occasions this reflection on reason public and private. It must be admitted from the start that the Systematic Theology is for those with some theological training (although it is accessibly, even gracefully, translated by the great Geoffrey W. Bromiley). The standard and more reader-friendly introduction to Pannenberg’s thought is Theology and the Kingdom of God (Westminster, 1969), edited by this writer, who also contributed an extensive “profile” of Pannenberg and his project. While many of the complexities of the Systematic Theology may be for the theologically trained, the burden of the argument should be of the greatest interest to all who care about the role of religion—and specifically of Christian and Jewish religion—in the modern (postmodern) world.
The divorce of religion from public life is critically reinforced by ideas about the relationship between religion and reason. Religion, it is asserted, must be contained within the private sphere and thus kept at a safe distance from the public sphere because religion is necessarily nonrational, if not irrational. Or, it is more carefully asserted, religion operates by a form of reason that is irreconcilably different from the reason that is appropriate to guiding public life. We may have a large measure of sympathy for the elements of truth in these assertions. Christians may affirm, for instance, that the moral truths necessary to the right ordering of society are “knowable” to everybody without reference to anything specifically Christian (or, as our courts are given to putting it, without reference to anything “sectarian”). Christians who make that affirmation typically advert to concepts such as natural law, general revelation, or natural reason. One may also be sympathetic to maintaining a divide between religion and reason because vibrant religion cannot be contained within the limits of what is conventionally described as reasonable. The attempt to squeeze religion into the iron cage of the rational results in the kind of “rationalism” that Pascal protested in asserting that “the heart has its reasons of which reason does not know.”
Yet while one may concede elements of truth in the distinction between religion and some versions of rationality, the distinction must not become a separation. The head is in conversation with the heart. Biblical assertions about reality are emphatically public in nature. They make truth claims—assertions about the nature and destiny of all things. Biblical religion is not an esoteric “mystery cult” whose secret message is accessible only to the initiated. Father Louis Bouyer writes: “The Mystery of which St. Paul speaks is not a rite formerly known to everyone but now become secret; the Mystery of St. Paul is a plan of God for the salvation of the world, which had been hidden in the depths of the divine wisdom, inaccessible to man until it was to be proclaimed to the whole world in the Gospel.” (Liturgical Piety)
Foolishness and Reason
According to Paul, the content of the Gospel, especially the message of a crucified Lord, is “foolishness” to the wise of the world, but it is not foolishness in the sense of being irrational. On the contrary, what can be known by reason is congruent with the mystery revealed in Christ. Speaking of those who deny Cod and turn to idols, he says that they are responsible for the clouding of their minds and are thus “without excuse.” “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew Cod, they did not honor him as Cod or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless mind; were darkened.” (Romans 1) In this view, the nonrationality or irrationality is on the side of unbelief.
The theme that runs throughout Pannenberg’s theology is “the truth of Christian doctrine.” This is not some special esoteric truth but truth that is publicly presentable and debatable. It is historical truth. Christianity rests on Israel’s “discovery” that “history is the sphere of the self-demonstration of the deity of Cod.” This way of speaking theologically is today considered controversial. But it has only become controversial in recent centuries when, under the impact of certain forms of Enlightenment thought, Christians have tried to exempt theological assertions from the restricted criteria of rationality proposed by modern secularism. Throughout most of Christian history—from Paul, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and up through Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas—theologians understood themselves to be engaging the philosophers in the same arena of reasonable discourse, of discourse about the truth of the way the world really is. The relatively new thing is the dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” discourse. That dichotomy is so taken for granted today that many assume that secular is synonymous with public, while religious means subjective, esoteric, idiosyncratic, and necessarily private.
In making his case for Christian doctrine as fully participating in universal reason, Pannenberg in no way suggests that we can or should go back to a period before the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he insists that the Enlightenment has contributed powerfully to our understanding of the truth to which Christianity bears witness. He has high praise for those Enlightenment figures who tried to preserve the ideas of universal truth and universal reason when many Christian thinkers had abandoned them, seeking refuge in other sources of cognitive authority. In the conflicts following the Reformation, Protestant thinkers typically tried to secure Christian doctrine in the authority of the Bible and Catholics in the authority of the Church. When modern historical studies tended to undermine the credibility of conventional appeals to such authorities, theological discourse retreated further into esoteric experience, subjectivism, varieties of existentialism, or simple fideism, which is little more than faith in faith.
The ambitiousness of the Pannenberg project may be described in terms of its being emphatically post-Enlightenment. It is post-Enlightenment not in the obvious sense that it, along with much else, comes after the Enlightenment, but in the sense that it internalizes and moves beyond the Enlightenment and the “modern consciousness” to which the Enlightenment gave birth. Pannenberg’s case for the reasonability of Christianity is precisely that—that it is capable of being reasoned. This is not to be confused with earlier claims about rational “proofs” for the existence of Cod or other doctrine. The “proof” of Christianity—in the sense of settling its truth claims once and for all—lies in the future. That is to say, biblical religion is eschatological, pointing toward a consummation that will vindicate or falsify what has been claimed along the way of history’s course. But varied and conflicting truth claims, including religious truth claims, are now eminently debatable; they are to be tested “by the reality of the world so far as we can experience it.” It is this “debatability” of Christianity that moves theology into engagement with public reason.
The reality of the world so far as we can experience it is the subject of all human thought and science, including theology. Obviously, Pannenberg is sharply challenging regnant notions of rationality that exclude the question of Cod as nonrational, irrational, supra-rational or, as is said by some, simply “meaningless.” Those familiar with contemporary discussions of these questions will recognize important similarities with the work of, for instance, Alasdair MacIntyre. In, among other works, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, MacIntyre debunks the pretensions of certain forms of secular reason, dominant in the modern university, to exhaust the meaning of rational discourse. In that regard, what MacIntyre is doing in moral philosophy Pannenberg is doing in theology. This important similarity, however, should not obscure equally important differences. As Pannenberg argues in great detail in Theology and the Philosophy of Science (1976), there is a universal intelligibility about reality that is debatable across the lines of various and conflicting traditions. This drive toward the universal, which makes many contemporary thinkers uneasy, is, Pannenberg contends in the Systematic Theology, integral to biblical monotheism. The unity of truth is necessarily entailed in the affirmation of the unity of the One Cod who is the source and end of all things.
We can here do little more than intimate the richness, complexity, and daring reach of Pannenberg’s project. While he is a Lutheran, his vast erudition and ecumenical sympathies encompass the Great Tradition to which all Christians who would be orthodox are pledged, and he is especially attentive to contemporary Roman Catholic thought. His argument is particularly pertinent to today’s discussions about a need for a “public theology” that can guide and undergird a democratically pluralistic society. Talk about a public theology will inevitably seem threatening to secularists unless it is demonstrably respectful of alternative ways of construing reality, of alternative traditions of rationality. To say that it is respectful of alternative ways of thinking does not mean that it is accepting of them. Christian theology, if it is Christian, must dispute claims that contradict Christian doctrine. But this is precisely the kind of critical engagement with other claims that elevates intellectual discourse by affirming the public “debatability” of the most important truths about human nature and destiny, and about the world we share in common with those who do not credit the biblical account of the revelation of God.
So long as Christian teaching claims to be a privileged form of discourse that is exempt from the scrutiny of critical reason, it will understandably be denied a place in discussions that are authentically public. Again, Christians bear the chief responsibility for the intellectual “ghettoizing” of Christian doctrine. The philosophical divorce of “is” from “ought,” of “fact” from “value,” of “what” from “meaning” largely succeeded because Christians under assault from the Enlightenment retreated into specialized and subjectivized languages of religious experience where they hoped to be secure from the radical skepticism of the modern era. It also succeeded because many other Christians—often the brightest, if not the best—uncritically accepted the equation between radical skepticism and reason. As incisively recounted by Michael Buckley in At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987), such Christian apologists tried to rescue what Christian truth they could from the ordeal of modernity, usually ending up with the eviscerated vestige called liberal Christianity. Or, alternatively, they surrendered historical reason to the skeptics while continuing to cling to Christian truths that are somehow “known by faith” quite apart from reason.
The last stratagem is notably evident today in biblical studies, both Protestant and Catholic. It is one of the unusual features of Pannenberg as a systematic theologian that he is so assiduously attentive to biblical scholarship. Indeed, in the 1960s he first came to wider attention in this country for his writing on the historical evidences and theological interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus. Also in his use of historical-critical methodology, Pannenberg’s work is in dramatic contrast to current modes of scholarship, especially in the academic guilds of biblical scholarship. The contrast might be illustrated by reference to any number of studies, but especially helpful here is the recent study by the Catholic University of America scholar John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday). Father Meier’s book has come in for a great deal of deserved attention and it usefully demonstrates some of the problems involved in the discussion of religion and public reason.
The dust jacket, which we may assume the author did not have a chance to review, announces that Father Meier “is perhaps the foremost biblical scholar of his generation.” It is sufficient to note that he is eminently representative of academically respectable biblical scholarship in our time. In this very learned and readable book, Meier says he wants to offer an account of Jesus that sticks to what can be known exclusively by historical research. “My method follows a simple rule: it prescinds from what Christian faith or later Church teaching says about Jesus, without either affirming or denying such claims.” Just the facts, ma’am, as Sergeant Friday used to say.
“Suppose,” writes Meier, “that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic—all honest historians cognizant of first-century religious movements—were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library . . . and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended.” The resulting consensus document, he says, would not necessarily be the truth about Jesus, certainly not the entirety of the truth affirmed by orthodox Christians, but it would be a rough draft of what “all reasonable people” could say about the historical Jesus.
It is not an uninteresting idea. But consider the minimalist and truncated notion of reason that is employed. Of the four scholars involved in his hypothetical exercise, the agnostic’s definition of historical reason wins by default. The Catholic and Protestant—if they are serious Christians in addition to being honest historians—could not agree that the consensus statement represents what the texts really say about Jesus. Not, that is, if they hold with the entirety of the Christian tradition that the Church’s proclamation of Jesus the Christ is derived from the authoritative account given in the Scriptures. In Meier’s scenario, however, the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Jew must abide by the scholarly criteria of methodological skepticism as a condition for keeping the skeptic involved in the exercise.
Jesus and Christianity
In reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review, Martin Goodman, a Jewish scholar at Oxford, makes some telling points against Meier’s contention that Jesus was a “marginal” Jew. His more important complaint, however, is that there is a radical disjunction between Meier’s historical scholarship and the reality of Christian faith. Goodman writes, “the problem is that Father Meier, like most writers about the historical Jesus, wants to see Him as a special man while simultaneously disclaiming any theological explanation of the truly remarkable birth of Christianity.” The Jesus portrayed by Meier in this first volume (a second is forthcoming) is thoroughly unremarkable. According to Meier, Jesus was only a blip on the screen of Jewish history, and yet Meier makes clear that, as a Catholic, he wants to affirm all that the Church professes about Jesus the Christ in its creeds and Christological formulations.
Meier invokes—very questionably, in our view—Thomas Aquinas in support of his “strict distinction between what I know about Jesus by research and reason and what I hold by faith.” Significantly, he speaks of “holding” and “affirming” by faith, but “knowing” by reason. At other points, however, he speaks of what is “known” by faith apart from reason. It would seem that the strict distinction is in fact a determined separation between reason and faith. In this way of doing things, one must write history as an unbeliever while adamantly insisting that the results have no bearing on what one believes. What he skeptically views as the “first-century documents of Christian propaganda” are, simultaneously and inexplicably, the divinely inspired gospel accounts on which the Church bases its proclamation of Jesus the Christ.
Meier tells us that the second volume will end with the death and burial of Jesus. He explains that “a treatment of the resurrection is omitted not because it is denied but simply because the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters that can be affirmed only by faith.” This certainly suggests a form of fideism—of faith posited against reason, of faith as a way of “knowing” that is exempt from critical examination, of faith in faith. Perhaps fideism is not what Meier intends. Perhaps in another book he could employ a less “restrictive” understanding of historical reason that could take account of the resurrection. And perhaps not. The stakes are very high if St. Paul is correct in saying that “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15) Biblical scholarship that “prescinds” from the Church’s faith cannot, by definition, be informed by the Church’s faith, and necessarily undercuts the Church’s claim that its faith is grounded in the scriptural account of God’s revelation.
The disjunction between reason and history, on the one hand, and faith, on the other, leads to some remarkable assertions. Father Meier says that he agrees with Protestant scholars Martin Kahler and Rudolf Bultmann that “the Jesus of history is not and cannot be the object of Christian faith.” Certainly the Jesus of A Marginal Jew is an unlikely object of faith. But it is not immediately evident how Meier’s assertion can be squared with classical Christian teaching about the unity (hypostatic union) of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Meier would likely respond that that is a problem for “the theologians.” Like many other biblical scholars, Meier assumes a very sharp division of labor among Christian thinkers. It is not simply that they move on different tracks; they operate within entirely different cognitive railway systems, so to speak. The biblical scholar lays out the results of his research, and the theologians (and the Christian people) can do with it as they will. When he has supplied the findings produced by an admittedly restrictive methodological skepticism, the biblical scholar has presumably done all that can be expected of him.
His book, says Meier, is “an invitation to theologians to appropriate from this particular quest what may be useful to the larger task of a present-day Christology—something this book pointedly does not undertake.” Now, as a matter of fact, a number of theologians—equally attentive to the biblical evidence but employing a less truncated version of historical reason—have taken on the larger task of writing Christology. Many scholars agree that the most impressive of these more recent efforts is Jesus—God and Man (1968), written by none other than Wolfhart Pannenberg. It is striking that, among the thousands of references in Meier’s apparently exhaustive critical apparatus, there is not one mention of Pannenberg. One draws back from the inference that Meier is not familiar with Pannenberg’s work. There is no doubt, however, that dealing with Pannenberg would pose serious problems for one who feels compelled to write about Jesus as though one were not a Christian.
The Naked Public Classroom
We do not wish to single out A Marginal Jew as though it were exceptional with respect to the question of reason public and private. As we said, it is an unusually learned, readable, and balanced representative of its genre. (Certainly there can be no doubt that Father Meier intends to be an entirely orthodox Catholic Christian.) The genre of which it is a notable representative is the rule rather than the exception in academic theology today, at least in the more prestigious sectors of academe. In religious studies departments in major universities and in divinity schools, the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption is that one is a scholar in public and a believer in private. Scholarship is defined by the canons of “critical consciousness.” With regard to Scripture, as well as Christian history, doctrine, and ethics, the scholar is disinterested and value-neutral. What one makes of the truth claims of the tradition is an entirely private matter that may be given expression in family and church but must not be permitted to impinge upon the classroom. All this fits very nicely the exclusion of religion from public discourse proposed by the more secularist thinkers of the Enlightenment, and enthusiastically embraced by many Christian intellectuals. Reinforcing the naked public square is the naked public classroom—and, increasingly, the classrooms of colleges and universities that still claim to be Christian. (See James T. Burtchaell, “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College,” First Things, April and May issues 1991.)
The attendant problems are especially acute with respect to biblical studies because all Christian communities claim that the Scriptures are foundational for their message and mission. A while back we convened an ecumenical conference of theologians—oldline and evangelical Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic—with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (The papers and exchanges of that conference are published in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church [Eerdmans, 1989].) The conference included such notables as Avery Dulles, Raymond Brown, William Lazareth, George Lindbeck, Thomas Oden, and Clark Pinnock. The participants examined the various hermeneutics—theories and practices of interpretation—used in biblical studies today, and were especially impressed with George Lindbeck’s advocacy of a postmodernist hermeneutic that, fully employing historical-critical methodology, interprets Scripture in a way that makes it a “hospitable house” for Christians who have passed through the ordeal of modernity.
The Question is Truth
Yet it seems that nobody left the conference entirely satisfied, and for good reason. Of Lindbeck’s formulation, Ratzinger said in conclusion, “Professor Lindbeck’s thesis contains the essential methodological elements of a postmodern exegesis. I am very thankful for that formulation, though I do have some reservations about it. For example, what is self-referential and self-interpreting?” As Ratzinger repeatedly insisted, it is not enough that Scripture and tradition be a hospitable house, it is not enough that there is a wondrous “coherence” in the structure of faith. The question is whether the Christian message is true. And the testing of the truth of the matter must be in conversation with the ways in which we test the truth of other matters. Self-referentiality is not enough. Christian truth claims cannot be interpreted and vindicated simply by reference to Christian truth claims. Christian doctrine is vulnerable to—and is made publicly debatable by—the criteria by which other claims to truth are tested. The point made by Ratzinger and others is that nothing less than the confident and reasonable affirmation of the truth of Christianity can sustain Christian faith and mission—and can embolden Christians to publicly challenge other, and frequently conflicting, truth claims. In this view, Christians must accept the responsibility to break the monopoly that methodological skepticism (and, perhaps more frequently the case, methodological atheism) exercises in the leading sectors of today’s academic guild.
The ambition—some would say audacity—of the Pannenberg project is to point the way toward a theological understanding of reason that frees us from two centuries of unfruitful reaction to the Enlightenment, remembering that the Enlightenment itself was in large part an understandable reaction to theological disputes. Religious reactions to the Enlightenment were various. Some Christians simply bought into a truncated definition of rationality and then tried to get along with whatever Christian substance survived the elimination tests of what was deemed rational. Others abdicated rational responsibility altogether, submitting themselves uncritically to inerrant Bible or inerrant Church, and willfully blinding themselves to the various interpretations of the teachings of each. More commonly, Christians divided their minds, if not their souls, allowing secularized reason to rule everywhere, determining all that we can “know’ about reality—except for that, preserve called religious belief, where they claimed to “know” by faith and by private religious experience.
True, being a Christian is more than a matter of reason. Much more. And the heart does have its reasons of which culturally entrenched definitions of reason know little or nothing. But in the absence of an informed and vibrant capacity to challenge those definitions of reason, Christianity itself is enervated, and its potential contribution to the better ordering of our common life is stifled. Of course Wolfhart Pannenberg is not the only Christian thinker addressing these problems. But in our estimation nobody is doing it with more erudition, lucidity, and persuasive force. And that is why the appearance of the first volume of his Systematic Theology occasions such extensive comment in a journal devoted to religion and public life.
World Class Dumbness
John Sommerville explained, rather persuasively we thought, why the news makes us dumb (October 1991). One reason that might have received more attention in the article is the mental limitations of those who are in the business of selling news. The Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia, must do about the most thorough tracking of movies, television, and news reporting in America today. Highly critical of the leftist bias that dominates most media, the Center’s newsletters generally eschew railing in favor of straightforward reporting of what no doubt sets many readers to railing. An extremely useful service, the Media Research Center has in recent years gathered a distinguished panel to determine the annual “Linda Ellerbee Awards.” Linda Ellerbee, you have no reason to remember, was the CNN commentator who in 1989 questioned the sanity of the Vietnamese boat people: “Why would any Vietnamese come to America after what America did for Vietnam? Don’t they remember My Lai, napalm, Sylvester Stallone? Clearly they have no more sense over there than, say, Mexicans who keep trying to get into this country even though this country stole large parts of their country from them in the first place.”
Admittedly, Ms. Ellerbee set an exacting standard, but the judges were able to find dozens of journalists worthy of the award. Dan Rather, John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and other media celebrities all receive due recognition. But there were three that seem deserving of special mention. You remember the Dahmer fellow in Milwaukee whose homosexual thing was to kill boys and cut them up. That got Howard C. Chua-Eoan, an editor at Time, to thinking, so to speak: “There is a ‘logic’ too in Dahmer’s crime. Raised in a culture that condoned racial prejudice and despised homosexuals, Dahmer appeared to believe he could preserve a place in mainstream society—with all its furtive hopes of family, friends, and future—by destroying the evidence of his homosexuality. He killed his ‘lovers’—mostly blacks—dismembered them, and in some cases, may have devoured their remains. Crime is a logical, if messy, quick fix to the shortcomings of society. Is that the lesson then? That we get the criminals our societies deserve? Yes, of course.”
Barbara Reynolds, an editor at USA Today drew her lessons from other news events: “Politicians led a victory parade of ga-ga worship, with people hugging tanks that have vacuumed billions from social programs. The Supreme Court ordered family planning centers to help keep women barefoot and pregnant by not telling poor women about abortion, while Congress refuses to appropriate enough funds to feed poor children. And the President says his big-deal domestic programs are highways and executions. Meanwhile, the S&L and banking fiascos flash around the country Willie Horton-style, raping not only women but men and children yet unborn.”
Finally, Jerry Adler, Senior Writer at Newsweek, pondered how we might resolve one problem and, with it, all the others: “It’s a morbid observation, but if everyone on earth just stopped breathing for an hour, the greenhouse effect would no longer be a problem.”
More information about the Media Research Center can be obtained by writing to them at 113 S. West Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314.
The Last Priests
I have ability, creativity, and imagination in an organization that doesn’t value those qualities.” That is Father Richard McBrien, former head of theology at Notre Dame, a Catholic university in Indiana. He is speaking about the Catholic Church. The statement is typical of those to be found in forty-two interviews included in The Last Priests in America: Conversations with Remarkable Men by Tim Unsworth (Crossroad). McBrien admires Father Charles Curran, another Catholic enfant terrible who has troubles with Church authority. “We need people in this Church,” says McBrien, “with voices like Charles Curran’s—and mine—who are committed and yet willing to say: ‘This is not right!’”What McBrien has in common with almost all of those interviewed is the conviction that he is vastly superior to the Church that he putatively serves.
There are exceptions. Among the better-known exceptions are Monsignor Jack Egan and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, and J. Bryan Hehir of Georgetown University. They speak movingly of the burdens and blessings of being a priest. They and two or three others do not belong in this book. The Last Priests is, for the most part, a collection of bitter, even bilious, commentary by aging men looking back on misspent lives in an institution that, they are convinced, was not worthy of their talent or devotion. It is a rambling, repetitious book, apparently printed without benefit of research or editing. (The author seems not to know whether the encyclical Humanae Vitae was issued in 1965 or 1968. It was 1968.) It is a very sad book. The stories told are hardly representative of the Catholic priesthood today. Mr. Unsworth writes for National Catholic Reporter, a kind of National Enquirer of American Catholicism, and he has chosen to interview those who follow its endlessly reiterated line that the Catholic Church is headed for oblivion unless it restructures itself in a manner reminiscent of liberal Protestantism. Most of the interviewees are indeed “the last priests” of a style of priesthood that gained prominence in the 1960s.
A Grim, Bitter View
Unsworth and his conversation partners raise repeated alarums about the decline in vocations to the priesthood. One can hardly imagine a document better calculated to discourage young men considering that calling than The Last Priests. Many of those interviewed were, a few still are, parish pastors. To hear most of them tell it, parish ministry is the pits. Among evangelical Protestants today there is much excitement about “megachurches,” congregations of two thousand or more members. There are several dozen of them around the country. Of the 19,000 Catholic parishes in the U.S., the average number of parishioners where there are two or more priests is well over two thousand. Parishes that have six or seven thousand people at Sunday masses are not unusual. Yet there is no similar excitement among the priests with whom Mr. Unsworth talks. On the contrary, there is a thinly veiled, and sometimes nakedly revealed, contempt for the people and piety of the Catholic “system.” In place of a sense of responsibility for ministering to the faithful there is the relentless complaint that the priesthood stifles the exercise of the “ability, creativity, and imagination” that these men allegedly have in abundance.
In American culture during the 1960s the habit took hold of blaming “the system” for every discontent public and private. In the sector of the priesthood examined by Mr. Unsworth, as in the fetid groves of academe, the habit has not been kicked. His priests indulge in unrelieved self-pity about their noble visions that were frustrated by a recalcitrant Church. Dysfunctional men who resigned the priesthood in order to marry, who wrecked their ministries on the rock of alcoholism or drugs, and at least one who served time for sexually abusing a minor, all rail against what they describe as a “dysfunctional Church.” The priest convicted of sexually abusing a boy complains of the ill treatment that he and other sex offenders received in jail. He protests the injustice of it all: “The boy I was accused of abusing was practically a grown man, for God’s sake.” Another homosexual priest who is HIV-positive says, “What would I say to the Church? I’d tell them to grow up.” Presumably he knows all about growing up.
Unsworth calls his priests “remarkable men,” and they are that—for their superficiality, for their utter lack of introspection or self-reproach, for their unexamined confidence that their grand visions would have produced a lovely Church and world, had they not been foiled by an ecclesiastical system controlled by vile and stupid reactionaries—with John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger being at the top of the list. This pontificate is compared to Soviet totalitarianism. Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and pulp novelist, is among those who make that comparison. “We could have a Gorbachev in the Church,” he says. But he is doubtful about that happening, for, as a friend told him, “the bishops simply don’t have enough nerve or enough courage.”
Sex on the Mind
Most of the interviews are preoccupied with celibacy, married clergy, and the need to ordain women. These are veritable obsessions, and are proposed as the key to almost everything. One priest who resigned his ministry declares that “the Church can’t have any real significance until it gets honest about celibacy, women, and the pill.” There is the repeated charge that celibacy is “only for heteros,” that homosexual priests can hang out and sleep together with impunity. There may not be that many homosexual priests, but it is another convenient stick with which to beat the celibacy requirement. The connection is made between celibacy and clericalism. Almost all those interviewed condemn clericalism as a very bad thing. None, including Mr. Unsworth, notes the irony that this book is patently an exercise in clericalism. The author and his remarkable men assume the mystique of the priesthood—a mystique not entirely unrelated to celibacy—even as they dismiss that mystique as magic. One cannot imagine a comparable book of interviews with malcontent United Methodist ministers, or with unhappy dentists. Here are priests deriding the priesthood even as they insist that attention be paid because they are priests.
One says the priesthood is “an aberration.” Others opine that the Church, and perhaps the entirety of Christianity, is an aberration. Harvey Egan was pastor of a large parish in south Minneapolis and exults in being called “Harvey the Heretic.” He is, we are told, a “skilled infuriator” who invited such as Philip Berrigan, Robert Bly, and Gloria Steinem to speak in his parish. He is a very bold man. “[Richard] McBrien is one of my heroes,” he says. “Our parish property became a nuclear weapon free zone, but it didn’t seem to make a difference.” Apparently nobody wanted to launch or drop a bomb there anyway.
Now retired, Egan looks back on a progressive priesthood in which progress is measured by making the priesthood obsolete. “Hans Kung raises the question of what happens when Christians get together,” he says. “Does anything happen? He believes that it does. But do we need the priest? Parents can do baptism. In Penance we can ask God for forgiveness. Confirmation can become a Bar Mitzvah. In Matrimony the priest is only a witness and the perpetuity of marriage is being reconsidered. Extreme Unction has been long under scrutiny. Do we need a grease job at the end of our lives? It’s the direction of our lives that really counts. And so it gets down to the Eucharist and one must ask: Is it really necessary to have a priest for Eucharist? The priesthood could disappear.” In fact it is not clear why all those rites, including the Eucharist, should not disappear, since they are depicted as vestigial tribal habits of what Andrew Greeley calls “communal” (as distinct from doctrinal, liturgical, or ethical) Catholics.
After a Long, Long Run
Harvey Egan’s reflection captures nicely why Unsworth’s remarkable men are not the last priests in America but the last priests of a certain kind. They are the priests who championed an uncomplicated convergence of the Second Vatican Council with the spirit of the time known simply as “the sixties.” In fact, it was not a convergence but a collision. The Council was the fruition of decades of ressourcement in theology, biblical studies, liturgy, and pastoral teaching. It was aimed at bringing the defensiveness of the Counter-Re formation to an end by reappropriating the riches of the Great Tradition to which the Catholic Church lays claim. Unsworth’s remarkable men, by way of contrast, viewed the Council solely in terms of aggiornamento ”of “updating” the Church by bringing it into sync with the cultural revolutions of the sixties.
From the wreck of the collision between Council and Zeitgeist, these priests and theologians picked up pieces of the Council that fit their progressivist agenda, and indeed tried to hijack the Council itself in the name of “the spirit of Vatican II.” At first hesitantly under Paul VI and then energetically under John Paul II, the Church began to take back the Council. That project of reclamation and repair is now far advanced and shows no sign of flagging. It is little wonder that these last priests, who now know that they are the last priests of their kind, speak with such anger and bitterness.
For others of that generation, it is less anger than dismay. They seem not to understand why the project of deconstructing the “system” must itself deconstruct. The books of one interviewee whom Unsworth calls a “clerical prophet” sold big in the fifties and sixties. He strikes a rare note of something very near to self-reproof. “I had a constituency in those days,” he says. “Now, my constituency is gone . . . . The liberal Catholics of a few decades ago had a network throughout the country. Now, there’s no such group. Future chroniclers will not speak fondly of us. We have not prepared the next generation of ministers. We could have had an orderly transition. Instead, there’ll be nothing to pass on.”
A similar note is evident in the reflection of William McManus, retired bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, in which Notre Dame is located. Richard McBrien thanks Bishop McManus for protecting him from the alleged reactionaries in the Church. McManus, on the other hand, wonders if he did not miscalculate what was happening in those years of progressivist “renewal.” Speaking of the tightly structured seminary where he received his formation, he says, “I was so glad to be free of the place that, even years later, as a bishop, I thought that I had done my duty by simply telling my priests that they were free to develop their talents. ‘You’re free!’ I told them. That didn’t encourage them. They hadn’t come from such a structured past.” Precisely. Being told that one is “free to be” is not very encouraging when one has no idea what he is free to be, as most of the remarkable men of The Last Priests in America obviously have no idea of what it is to be a priest. The meaning of a life spent in getting liberated from a structure cannot survive liberation. Freedom is an empty achievement if there is no answer to the question. Freedom for what?
Meanwhile, thirty million or more Catholics in the U.S. go to Mass every week, the morale of the faithful and most of the clergy is palpably reviving, the drop in vocations to the priesthood has bottomed out, and there is a slow but sure recovery of doctrinal and moral coherence. Today’s seminarians shake their head in wonderment at an older generation that saw it as their mission to dismantle the Church that they, who are aspiring to the priesthood, are resolved to serve.
Off on the sidelines, in the ruins of a failed revolution, surrounded by a few aging and dispirited comrades, superannuated leaders poutingly protest, “I have ability, creativity, and imagination in an organization that doesn’t value those qualities.” Mr. Unsworth seems to think that they are the prophetic vanguard. Those who understand what has happened gently reassure the last priests of their kind: Yes, yes, you really are able, creative, and imaginative, but now your act is over, the curtain has fallen, and it is time for you to shuffle along. A new and quite different drama of Catholicism in America has already opened. The show called “The Sixties” closed some time ago. You should not feel so bitter about it. It had a very, very long run.
While We’re At It
♦ When it comes to setting the record straight, better late than never. Both supporters and opponents of Justice Clarence Thomas expressed astonished disbelief at his claim, during the pre-Anita Hill hearings, that he had never discussed Roe v. Wade at any time with anyone. The Wall Street Journal didn’t believe it either. Weeks later the editors went back and checked the transcript of the hearings. It turns out that Thomas never made the claim so widely attributed to him. He said that he had never debated the contents of the Roe v. Wade decision, meaning, one may reasonably assume, that he had never taken part in the public debate over the decision or had never debated the law of it with other lawyers. The exact exchange went like this. Senator Patrick Leahy: Have you ever had a discussion of Roe v. Wade other than in this room, in the seventeen or eighteen years it has been there? Clarence Thomas: Only, I guess, Senator, in the fact, in the most general sense, that other individuals express concerns one way or the other, and you listen and you try to be thoughtful. If you are asking me whether or not I have ever debated the contents of it, the answer to that is no. Senator. The editors of the Journal add, “We would guess that 99 percent of all lawyers also have never debated the legal issues—because almost every lawyer agrees there is little or no law there.” Nonetheless, the day after his testimony the Washington Post ran a page one story declaring that the nominee said he “had not discussed the issue, even in a private setting, in the eighteen years since the court decided it.” This was the allegation endlessly repeated and, corrections notwithstanding, it is no doubt accepted by almost everybody still.
♦ Pro-life folk are not of one mind when it comes to “the consistent ethic of life” (sometimes called “the seamless garment”), an idea most prominently associated with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. Fr. Joseph M. Connors vigorously endorses and elaborates the idea in a little pamphlet that he will be glad to send readers for two dollars. Write for “The Consistent/Consecutive Ethic of Life,” WORDLIFE, Box 1319, Silver Springs, FL 32688. H As long-term readers know, we give attention each year to the reports on the most popular names for boys and girls. This year’s report isn’t out yet, but meanwhile we pick up an item from Martin E. Marty’s newsletter, Context. Chicago Bears end James Coley and his wife Gwannettia have six children. The five daughters are named Ani, Fehlisegwanafay, Myrialysia, Shanuanevia, and Tiyonetenoa. The boy’s name is James. We herewith invite further reader explanations of why people give quirky or frivolous names to girls (Tiffany was a favorite last year) and sober, usually biblical, names to boys.
♦ Zondervan of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one of the biggest evangelical publishers in the world. Their books regularly outsell those listed on the best-sellers list of, for instance, the New York Times. And every great once in a while they publish a book that the Times deigns to notice, such as Oliver North’s memoirs, Under Fire. In the Times review, Zondervan was repeatedly spelled “Xondervan.” The newsletter put out by Zondervan comments, “One expects better from the New York Chimes.” Those who live a greater distance from it are given to higher expectations.
♦ Your scribe recently wrote for another publication an obituary on Joseph Fletcher, the “situation ethics” guru who died last October. We observed, inter alia, that Fletcher was a conventionally old-fashioned Protestant in his personal life and seemed to assume that everybody else was pretty much like himself. In response, a reader sent a marvelous quote from William Hurrell Mallock, a nineteenth-century writer who was critical of the optimistic irreligion of his time: “Positivistic thinkers, whose early training has been religious, and who know little enough of the world, imagine that their own tame and narrow emotions are all that humanity has to discipline. If they succeed in revolutionizing the moral convictions and character of most men, they will learn how close the beast lies beneath the skin of humanity.”
♦ Friendly critics have worried to us that we may have been too harsh on Islam, especially in the reporting of David Pryce-Jones’ book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (“The Closed Circle of Islam,” Public Square, December 1991). Well, it was really Pryce-Jones who was so very harsh, but perhaps we did not demur clearly enough. For the record, we agree that Islam cannot be identified with the Arab world. As Islam establishes itself more fully outside the Arab world, it may very well exhibit a capacity for distinguishing religion and politics in a manner more amenable to democratic governance. And yes, there are significant ways in which Islam, along with Judaism and Christianity, bears witness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In that connection, we note that “Allah” refers to the One whom Christians and Jews call God. The Muslim creed is, “There is no God but God and Muhammed is his messenger.” The Arabic “Allah” is from the same root as the Hebrew “Elohim.” When the Quran was first translated into English in the seventeenth century, “Allah” was transliterated rather than translated, thus giving the false impression that Muslims bad a different God than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These are all points very much worth making. And we still worry, along with our friendly critics, whether Islam can open itself to—without being destroyed by—democratic values in general and religious pluralism in particular.
Ellerbee “Awards” cited in Notable Quotations, a biweekly from the Media Research Center’s MediaWatch, December 23, 1991 (Howard Chua-Eoan on the Dahmer case, Time, August 19, 1991; Barbara Reynolds on the abortion debate, USA Today, June 14, 1991; Jerry Adler on the greenhouse effect, Newsweek, December 31, 1990). Clarence Thomas’ actual statements regarding Roe v. Wade in the Wall Street Journal, December 2, 1991. Peculiarities of children’s names in Context, December 1, 1991. Our thanks to John H. Lawless for the Mallock quote.