In the January issue, this section carried a commentary titled “The Catholic Church as Interest Group.” Among the points made was that, despite the bishops’ declared intention, a statement such as “Political Responsibility,” issued by the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), is in fact a political platform, and it inevitably presents the Catholic Church as but another political interest group. We have received a number of spirited (to put it gently) reactions to that commentary from people in responsible positions, so let us try once more to spell out what is and what is not at issue.
It is unfair, we are told, to pick on the Catholic Church when many other religious groups do the same thing. In fact, our comment emphatically underscored the point that Catholics were increasingly following the pattern of mainline/ oldline /sideline Protestantism in the politicizing of religion for partisan purposes. It is true, as our critics note, that sectors of the Catholic hierarchy have—in various ways and to varying degrees—been issuing political platforms as far back as 1919. So the Catholic impulse to imitate the Protestant penchant for acting as a partisan interest group in the political arena is not entirely new. What is new in the last two decades or so is the wholehearted Catholic entry into the more recent con figuration of partisan political lobbying in Washington and state capitals. (See Allen D. Hertzke, Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity, University of Tennessee Press, 1988.) And yes, this writer does expect better of the Catholic Church. This was the concluding line of our commentary: “The Catholic Church, indeed any church, should aspire to doing better than that, to being more than that [i.e., merely another interest group].” The response of our critics, that the Catholic Church is no worse than many others, is not terribly encouraging.
We are told that we are critical of the USCC political platform because we disagree with the positions that it takes on a hundred and one issues. But again, our commentary explicitly asserted: “The remedy for such statements is not to make them more ‘balanced,’ never mind more ‘conservative.’ The remedy, for the most part, is not to make them at all. When it is not necessary for the Church to speak, it is necessary for the Church not to speak.” Please note carefully that those who deny the sincerity of that assertion are, in fact, impugning the motives of those who make it. They are of course free to do so, but they should recognize that impugning motives is a morally serious business, and does little to elevate the level of trust in political and churchly discourse.
Would we be less critical if the churches all took the political positions that we happen to favor? Knowing our own weakness, we probably would. But we should not be. The core problem is the politicizing of the churches, not the partisan direction in which they are politicized.
So politicized is our culture, and so insidiously has politics penetrated the life of our churches, that some people simply cannot believe that others are not prepared to exploit the institutions of religion in order to advance their own political agendas. Whether in Methodism, Catholicism, or numerous other communities, the bureaucratic defenders of platforms such as “Political Responsibility” routinely dismiss their critics as disgruntled “conservatives” who are unhappy about not getting their way. Should not the very language of their dismissiveness give these defenders pause for asking whether, if it is the conservatives who are unhappy, it may be because the liberals are getting their way in using the ecclesiastical machinery to promote their ends? Does not the very form of the dismissal tend to confirm the conservative complaint?
In our own case, however, we do not want a more “conservative” political platform from the Catholic Church or any other church. In truth, when we go through the laundry list of positions endorsed by, for instance, “Political Responsibility,” we have no substantive objection to many of them. Whether one as an individual agrees or disagrees with positions taken is, we must say as insistently as possible, not the point. The point is that churches exceed their competence, undermine their credibility, skew their mission, and risk betraying the trust of their people when they turn themselves into political lobbies, promiscuously pronouncing and advocating on almost every policy issue in public dispute.
All very interesting, say the critics, but don’t you yourself commend the Catholic Church for taking a strong position on some issues in dispute? Yes. In the commentary in question we commended the USCC for “trenchant statements on protecting the unborn and on the evil of active euthanasia, together with a call for equitable tax support for school choice and support for increased immigration.” The last item was something of an add-on (we are always straining to be generous) and is not of the same moment as the first three—although it does seem appropriate for the Church to caution against the nativism that frequently motors anti-immigration sentiment. So then, why is it appropriate, indeed imperative, for the Church to take a public position on those first three items and not on, for instance, the merits of nuclear energy or the reorganization of cable television.
It should be needless to say that there can be—there inevitably will be—legitimate disagreements about which questions are appropriate and imperative for the Church’s public witness. Every committee in an organization such as the USCC is tempted to promoting its issue as the issue for the Church’s attention. That is understandable. But, unless the Church is going to dissipate its public influence in indiscriminate efforts in every direction, decisions must be made, priorities must be determined. In the phrase favored by the late Paul Ramsey, churches must discipline themselves by employing “self-denying ordinances.” They must do that for reasons theological, moral, institutional, and strategic.
A good rule of thumb is that, if a statement is not imperative, it is not appropriate. Churches should not just be opining on this or that; bishops, individually or collectively, should not be merely popping off according to their political propensities. If the moral credibility of the Church is to be nurtured, there must be a keen awareness that that moral credibility is at stake in every public pronouncement. Otherwise, pronouncements such as “Political Responsibility” will not be taken seriously, as in fact they are not taken seriously, except by the institutional managers and activists who use them as license for lobbying.
Testing for Appropriate Witness
In trying to determine what is proper or appropriate in the Church’s public witness. Father Avery Dulles has helpfully suggested that we attend to the propria of the Church. We should ask, What is so distinctive about a particular question that the Church, qua Church, is warranted, indeed obliged, to engage it in the public square? What is the connection, the undeniable nexus, between the distinctiveness of the Church and the distinctiveness of the question at hand? One answer is that a public position of the Church should be derived directly from the clear and authoritative teaching of the Church. A secondary answer is that the Church may be required to speak to a question of justice when it is being ignored by others. With very few exceptions, the positions taken in “Political Responsibility” meet neither of those two tests. For the most part, the document echoes the moderately left-of-center positions of the Democratic Party, which is itself left of center in our political culture. Our criticism would be absolutely unaffected were the document to reflect most of the platform positions of the Republican Party.
The three exceptions we noted clearly meet both tests. The clear and authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church is that it is always and intrinsically wrong to directly intend to terminate innocent human life. The position on abortion and euthanasia inexorably follows; justice requires the protection of both the unborn and those who are likely to become the objects of mercy killing. Although of less moral moment, the issue of school choice meets both tests. The “double taxation” of parents who choose a religious education for their children unjustly burdens the free exercise of religion, and that is clearly a matter that engages the propria of the Church. The failure to protect innocent life and the burdening of religious freedom are injustices to which the Church must clearly say No, while resisting the temptation of prescribing just how these injustices are to be remedied.
But others will come forward with their long list of injustices that must be protested: the poor, the street people, the mentally ill, environmental abuse, substandard housing, unemployment, corruption on Wall Street, the absence of peace in the Middle East, and on, and on, and on. In response, it must first be said that to call everything an injustice is to debase our already fragile moral vocabulary and to throw moral discourse into even deeper confusion. The world is a very unsatisfactory place; many people are disadvantaged, neglected, or abused. Sometimes the cause is their own delinquencies, sometimes it is the delinquencies of others, sometimes it is misbegotten and, yes, unjust, social policies. Always Christians individually and the churches collectively are called to care. One of the least effective, and usually counterproductive, ways for churches as institutions to care is to take political positions on bow such problems are to be remedied. Although, admittedly, taking positions is cheaper than directly meeting human needs through what the “peace and justice” enthusiasts derisively call “charity.” (Despite the fashionable derision, one may gratefully note that the great bulk of what the churches actually do in response to myriad human needs is charity, or what used to be called the corporal works of mercy.)
The promiscuous position-taking of documents such as “Political Responsibility” is quite unwarranted by any peculiar competence of bishops or church bureaucracies. They frequently claim that they are providing a distinctive measure of moral concern or vision. With respect, that claim is little more than moral boasting, and it is most unbecoming in religious leaders. The positions taken are not directly, or even plausibly, the necessary consequence of clear and authoritative teaching. The issues addressed, far from being ignored or neglected by others, are endlessly debated in legislatures, government bureaucracies, think tanks, universities, and public forums beyond number. Individual Christians who sense that they are called to it should jump into the political fray and the policy debates with gusto. The churches should strongly affirm such exercise of citizenship, without presuming to instruct Christian citizens on the policy specifics of their “political responsibility.” And, of course, everybody should refrain from trying to capture the churches’ credibility and resources for the promotion of their own clutch of policy preferences.
“Your criticism is hypocritical,” writes one reader, “because First Things itself advocates specific policies.” This is an obvious misunderstanding. First Things and other independent publications, as well as individuals and voluntary associations within the churches, may be as political as they wish or as they deem prudent. None of them can pretend to represent “the Catholic position” or “the Presbyterian position” on public policy options. General assemblies, bureaucracies, and bishops conferences can and do presume to represent the positions of their respective churches. Sometimes they must do that, but only within the limits of the self-denying ordinances and warrants discussed above.
The Catholic Magisterium
On matters of political engagement, the situation is somewhat different for the Catholic Church because of its distinctive understanding of the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the bishops. The college of bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, and bishops individually, are thought to have a special charism for teaching on matters of “faith and morals.” Whether “morals” extends to policy specifics for the remedying of societal ills is, to say the least, uncertain. Whether the charism extends to bureaucracies that presumably serve the bishops—as the USCC is designed to be the practical arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCH)—is yet another question. And, of course, there is much dispute about the “magisterial” status of national bishops conferences, with the Holy See tending to downplay their teaching authority.
It is all very confusing, and the confusion is not relieved by promiscuous pronouncings on matters political. The argument is frequently made that confidence in the magisterium was gravely weakened by the 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae. Many, if not most, of those who make that argument were and are publicly dissenting and urging dissent from that particular papal exercise of the teaching office. It is not without interest that such dissenters are frequently most enthusiastic about the Church taking official positions on innumerable issues in political dispute. At the same time, Catholics who are most supportive of the magisterium often tend to be most critical of episcopal political propensities. There may be attitudinal, even theological, correlations here that are deserving of closer examination. When the Church speaks with clear magisterial authority on questions undoubtedly within the compass of “faith and morals”—sexual ethics and the meaning of marriage and procreation—the Catholic house divides one way. When the Church (or at least the U.S. bishops conference) pronounces on public policy specifics—welfare reform, medical delivery systems, or armaments strategy, for examples—the Catholic house divides the other way.
Whatever may be the correct doctrine regarding the teaching authority of the bishops conference, in practical fact that authority is at stake in every statement made by the conference. The same is true, of course, of the individual bishop in his diocese. No doubt there are conservatives who would be delighted if individual bishops and the bishops conference were to issue political platforms that tracked the Republican party line. In our judgment, those conservatives are misguided, since such platforms would also exceed the competence of the magisterium and would, therefore, bring the magisterium into discredit. In fact, many liberal Catholics are delighted that individual bishops and the bishops conference generally promote the politics that they favor. This gives them a double advantage. It both gives them the support of the Church’s institutional resources for their political causes, and it undermines the credibility of the magisterium, from which they are inclined to dissent in any case. This is at least one way of understanding the correlation between diminished teaching authority and increased politicizing of the Church’s life.
Yet another reader raises a final and, she believes, clinching point. “You fail to understand that the bishops and the bureaucrats like the way things operate now, and have good reason to like it. They are convinced that it is their job to do exactly what you say they should not do.” It is an impressive point. Analyses such as our present discussion may seem like no more than academic exercises. The reality is that there are numerous gifted and intensely sincere people who take statements such as “Political Responsibility” to be a charter for the Church’s social mission. In the USCC offices, in programs such as the Campaign for Human Development, and in the widespread networks of social activism, questions such as those we have raised meet with predictable resistance. Frequently, they also meet with incomprehension. How is it possible to explain people who criticize the self-evidently correct politics of those who are sincerely convinced that they are only interested in advancing peace, justice, and the empowerment of the poor? The easiest explanation is that such critics do not care about peace, justice, the empowerment of the poor, and other self-evidently good things.
Change vs. Status Quo
The dismal result is that in the Catholic Church in this country, as in the oldline / sideline Protestant churches, there is almost no real dialogue about the appropriate role of the churches in the political arena. The stalemate is commonly described in terms of the “party of change” vs. the “party of the status quo”—except that the party of change is, for the most part, in control of the institutional status quo. Those who have the jobs, programs, and activist networks that they understandably want to protect and enhance can only view dialogue as threatening. Those on the right, who want to capture the jobs, programs, and networks for their opposing political agenda, also have little interest in dialogue. Thus does the politicizing of the Church proceed apace. Questions about the nature and mission of the Church as it relates to political responsibility are shunted aside as energies are consumed in the contest to capture the Church for partisan advantage. In the contest to control the major institutions of Catholicism in America today, the partisans of the left are winning hands down. But, once again, the situation would not be one whit more encouraging were the advantage to their political opponents.
Robert Wuthnow of Princeton is among the students of American religion who have incisively analyzed the ways in which all the churches are split along a left-right, liberal-conservative divide, mirroring the divides within our general culture. For oldline Protestant denominations this has resulted in decades of dizzying decline as leadership elites, styling themselves as “prophetic,” have worked, it seems almost deliberately, to alienate the general membership. Although these churches claim to be “democratically” governed, those in charge effectively orchestrate the assemblies, conventions, and commissions by which decisions are made. While the United Methodists, Presbyterians (USA), Lutherans (ELCA), and others all have “renewal groups” that protest the political captivity of their churches, their efforts seem to amount to little more than that”protest. All the while, these churches, divided and demoralized, continue their numerical and institutional decline.
The Catholic Church, presumably, has a very different structure of governance. Pastoral and administrative authority rests with the bishop of the local church, by which is meant the diocese. (In addition, there are parallel, and sometimes opposing, structures of authority represented by the religious orders, the Jesuits being a notable instance of an institution in frequent opposition both to the bishops and to the Pope, the universal bishop.) Ecclesiological theory aside, however, a study of the sociology of religious institutions may indicate that the Catholic Church in America is becoming more and more like its oldline Protestant counterparts. In this connection, the Holy See may from a distance, so to speak, have a better understanding of what is happening to American Catholicism than do many bishops here.
It is at least conceivable that the Catholic Church in America, like the oldline Protestant institutions, could end up being effectively controlled by its knowledge class bureaucracy, with the chief difference being that the Protestants continue to pretend to be governed democratically while the Catholics would continue to pretend to be governed episcopally. A complicating factor is that some bishops who are most concerned about this development will keep their distance from the national bureaucracy, thus assuring that the relevant institutions will be left in the hands of those who either favor or do not understand what is happening. One can sympathize with bishops who keep their distance from the infightings of the Washington apparatus of, for instance, the USCC. They have more than enough to do at home, they have battles to wage on other fronts, and they rightly fear being drawn into the maw of endless committees and rivalries by which entire lives and ministries are consumed and spewed up on the waste heap of spiritual passion reduced to bureaucratic process.
If we limit ourselves to the sociological analysis, the outlook for American Catholicism, as for oldline Protestantism, is very grim. Process-driven institutions will follow the dictates of committees meeting, of committees spawning subcommittees and committees to coordinate committees, of constituencies being appeased, of deals being cut, of truths being compromised, and of truth being ruled out of order. Among, the results will be more pronouncements such as “Political Responsibility,” it having been schemed, moved, seconded, and passed that a political platform is to be issued in election years, whether anybody wants it or not, whether the USCC has anything to say that needs saying or not. There are, after all, ill these committees, offices, and lobbies that need “official policy guidance.” The Catholic people and politicians are not asking for political platforms from the bishops. The only institution that needs them is the institution that produces them. The process is, in sum, self-generating and self-serving.
Church political statements—given the knowledge class “experts” in effective charge—will almost always be blandly leftist in character. They will, predictably, be cheered by those who agree, denounced by those who disagree (because they “go too far,” or “don’t go far enough”), and ignored by everybody else, which is just about everybody. They will be ignored in particular by politicians and politically engaged citizens who believe, with justice, that the bishops do not have much to teach them about political wisdom, and who conclude, again with justice, that the Catholic Church, like other churches, is just another partisan interest group. Thus will the idea that Christianity has something to teach about how we ought to order our life together be further discredited, and thus will the public square be increasingly naked of religiously informed moral deliberation.
That is the doleful prospect if we limit ourselves solely to institutional dynamics. Christians are trained, however, to resist all determinisms, including those suggested by the sociology of institutions. The continued abuse and debasement of Christian social witness is not inevitable. Communities of faith are not bereft of the Spirit, and therefore of the possibility of renewal through the efforts of men and women who dare to act in the hope that the Church can contribute more to our public life than merely another interest group.
Why Communism Collapsed
The National Interest is a very important foreign policy journal, and Owen Harries its very able editor. But nobody’s perfect. Well, almost nobody. In that other excellent journal. Commentary, Harries published “The Cold War and the Intellectuals.” Among those responding in the letters column is Franky Schaeffer, who points out that Harries rather thoroughly ignored religion as a potent factor in the collapse of Communism. In answer, Harries allows that there was a strengthening of religious faith in the Soviet Union as conditions deteriorated. But then this stunning assertion: “For what it is worth, I believe that the ‘engines that drive history’ are various, and their relative importance changes with time and circumstances. Religion has been enormously important in some periods, but not, outside the Middle East, in the twentieth century.” Really?
Our reaction is shaped in part by having just finished reading the manuscript of The Final Revolution, a marvelous book by our colleague George Weigel that will be published later this year by Oxford University Press. What the book makes conclusively clear is that the people who actually participated in the collapse of Communism—the leaders of the democratic forces who brought about the Revolution of 1989—have no doubt that it was above all a revolution of the spirit (and of the Spirit). Religious and secular folk, Protestant and Catholic, almost all say, in various ways, that it all began with the election of a Polish pope on October 16, 1978. The unraveling of the Communist tyranny began in Poland, and it began with John Paul II’s first and triumphant visit in 1979. Again and again, those who were involved in the day-by-day struggle express amazement that intellectuals and journalists in the West have missed this most obvious fact about the end of Communism. This is a point that has been made repeatedly by, among others, James Billington, eminent Russia scholar and Librarian of Congress, with little evident effect on commentators in this country.
Of course secularists can say that the key actors from Vaclav Havel to Lech Walensa deceive themselves when they think that spiritual, moral, and religious dynamics were the “engine” that drove the revolution. Religion, in this view, is simply the epiphenomenon disguising the “real” forces at work—economic, military, politico-structural, etc. etc. Such deterministic reductionism (dressed up as realism) has long since become intellectually tiresome. And, not incidentally, it represents precisely the way of thinking that marked the orthodoxies of the tyrannies now, thank God, overthrown.
The subject of the Commentary article was the collapse of Communism, but we fear Mr. Harries’ secularist obiter dictum fares no better when applied to innumerable other instances of great historical change. Religion is not a factor, even an enormously important factor, in India, South Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria? One could go on and on. Then there is the way in which Americans determine their own national interest—from manifest destiny, to Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for democracy, to the delegitimation of America’s war in Vietnam, to the debate over just war and the Gulf War. G. K. Chesterton (whom Harries quotes to different effect) was right sixty years ago and is right now: “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Of course “the engines that drive history” are legion. To say no more than that a subject is complex is the final simplism.
No doubt many factors contributed to the collapse of Communism. The Gorbachev factor, the Reagan factor, the Strategic Defense Initiative factor, the economic factor (although, on the last, Boris Yeltsin, among others, has noted that the system could have lumbered along for another ten years or more). But, as John Paul, Havel, and others said at the beginning of the revolution and say now, it was above all a matter of people discerning the possibility and moral imperative of “living in truth” and “calling good and evil by name.” The “velvet revolution” was preeminently a revolution of the spirit, and of the Spirit. To miss the significance of that at this, the end of the twentieth century, is to lose one’s grip on a realistic appreciation of affairs both domestic and foreign.
Lutherans on the Rocks
The entire world knows, or at least the entire world that has reason to take notice knows, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) got off to a rocky start. The late 1980s merger of the old American Lutheran Church (ALC), Lutheran Church in America (LCA), and Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC, a much smaller body that broke earlier with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) resulted in an organization of 5.3 million members that has been producing red ink, membership losses, and general demoralization since its start. The Rev. Edgar Trexler thinks he knows some of the reasons why.
Trexler is editor of The Lutheran, the ELCA’s official publication that, with over 500,000 subscriptions, is the largest-circulation religious magazine in the country. In a new book, Anatomy of a Merger, Trexler fingers the obsession with “the new” in the merger process, an obsession that was expressed in the imposition of a quota system for church offices. The experience with quotas in the ELCA tracks much of the dispute over quotas and “affirmative active” in the society at large. A quota system that specified that a certain percentage of positions had to go to designated groups, such as women and certified minorities, resulted in a skewing of leadership dynamics and undermined popular confidence.
When “inclusiveness” became the highest priority, many leaders (white, male, middle-age) whom people had trusted were shunted aside, and the merits of those who attained office (because they fit the quota slots) came under the shadow of suspicion. As a consequence, writes Trexler, there was a loss of communal memory, cohesion, and loyalty. In 1991, after bouncing against the rocks for three years, the ELCA did some modest restructuring (but not touching the quota system), and in an epilogue Trexler bravely ends on the note that maybe the boat is being turned in a more promising direction.
Also among the Lutherans, the Rev. James Siefkes, an executive with the former ALC, recently revealed that in that body there was a pattern of slipping denominational monies to various “gadfly” groups that were trying to push the church on controversial issues, such as pacifism, feminism, and homosexuality. He arranged, he says, for the ALC to contract with such “edge of the church” ministries to serve as “probers,” making it possible for them to pay staff salaries and travel expenses. At one time the ALC was funding forty of these “probers,” and the pattern was continued in the ELCA under the code name “mission discovery,” until the ELCA ran out of money.
The end of such back-door funding, says Siefkes, was signaled last April by ELCA secretary Lowell Almen, who told the Church Council: “The candy store of the churchwide organization must now close. The time has ended when every interest group, every caucus, every concern, every emphasis, every self-proclaimed representative body, every good intention, every noble effort, every great program could demand and get whatever it wanted, as if there were no limits. The dreadful moment of necessary and radical surgery is upon us.”
The practice of informal and sometimes covert funding of “controversial” causes is long-standing in some denominations, and was also common in the National Council of Churches. Frequently the funding is not direct but is through “seconding” staff from official programs, supplying office space and other in-kind help, and “piggybacking” on meetings and travel expenses. Usually the arrangements were such that the responsible officials had, as they say in the intelligence community, “deniability.” The “gadfly” groups could advance favored agendas that denominational officials thought it impolitic to promote in their official capacities, and if the groups got too outrageous the officials could always cut their informal ties, declaring that the groups had “gone too far.”
Not surprisingly, doing such end runs around denominational structures of accountability did little to instill general confidence in church leadership. The pattern described (approvingly) by Siefkes was by no means limited to Lutherans, but it, too, no doubt contributed to the distrust and demoralization that Trexler analyzes in Anatomy of a Merger. As it turns out, financial crunches may be hard on candy stores but, at least sometimes, good for churches.
The Wisdom of Marion Montgomery
We can probably assume that most of our readers do not subscribe to the Tamkang Journal of American Studies, published in Taiwan, and that they therefore missed a fine interview with Marion Montgomery. He is the author of determinedly “Southern” works such as Why Flannery O’ Connor Stayed at Home and Possum and other Receits for the Recovery of “Southern” Being, all of which are recommended reading. He is also generally described as a “traditionalist” conservative—one of the tribe sometimes called paleoconservative. Whatever the label, he is a repository of wisdom.
The interviewer asks whether Marxists, libertarians, and traditionalists don’t finally have to depend upon recourse to history in order to establish some kind of “authority” in their arguments. Montgomery: “I suppose I would say to such a question that the solution each intends to advance is out of a principle initially accepted by faith. Advanced insofar as one’s reason can advance it. That is why I find Aquinas and Voegelin so encouraging. Each understands that faith is the point of departure. What is necessary to reason’s support, I would hold, is a metaphysics. Our intellectuals—most of them—are too content with, their faith in a physics baldly taken on faith. That faith has truncated history to arrive at an immediate authority justified as if by all history. But unless one can find some purpose to human existence beyond the merely socio-political, one becomes lost amid ideologies, each of which justifies itself by man’s finite intellect in its selectivity from complex reality. Man as an autonomous creature, an accident of time and ‘natural’ forces, has no choice but to select from man’s history to justify social and political authority. That may mean rejecting the medieval world—the ‘Dark Ages’—or embracing the medieval world as if that were our most recent Eden, nominalism poisoned our intellectual life, whether one takes himself to be of the left or right, insofar as one justifies order merely in terms of history or these mechanisms collectively referred to as ‘nature.’ What nominalism called in question is the universal, those principles and causes larger than the mechanism of nature or ideas generated out of nature seen as mechanistic by man. The ‘traditionalist,’ unless he can ground his position more firmly than in a history or a nature so taken, hasn’t moved very far toward the mystery of his own existence, toward discovering a Mystery engulfing the limits of his ordering mind.”
Being an artist, Montgomery has given some serious thought to love. Although he does not mention by name Anders Nygren, the Swedish theologian, he clearly disputes Nygren’s driving of a sharp wedge between eros and agape: “I remember, for instance, my delight in discovering this recognition that eros opens upon agape in Homer. In the Odyssey there is a marvelous moment where Odysseus is pulled toward eros, tempted by a beautiful young princess who wants him. He remembers Penelope, and wishes for the young Princess such a happy union as his and Penelope’s has been. (He isn’t always so circumspect in his actions.) He speaks of the good marriage, of how fortunate that man and wife who are like-minded in their own house, a home maintained by their enlarging love which gives comfort to their friends and disquiet to their enemies. But, he adds, none know that love’s fullness so well as that man and wife. Theirs is a knowledge beyond the signs of knowledge—beyond words. Even so Odysseus does a pretty good job of celebrating it with words. Words are what we have to start with, once we discover ourselves to have experienced being, existence. They are not what we end with—unless we conclude ourselves only a residue of history. Sometimes they seem most feeble as they try to speak beyond our finitude, try to comprehend in its more literal sense—words like well as in ‘All manner of things shall be well.’ Or simply put, yes. The best is silence, though a silence not below words but beyond words—as I keep trying to say.” As Marion Montgomery well knows, there are some things, the more we try to say them, the more we know that they cannot be said.
While We’re At It
• We see Pat Robertson is back at it again. In 1987 this writer was interviewed on one of his shows. Afterwards we chatted with Robertson, who had not yet announced his presidential candidacy. We asked if it was true that he was thinking about running for President. “No,” he responded, “I’m praying about it.” We wish we had had the wit to ask whether he always prayed without thinking. In fact, Robertson has been doing a lot of both and has now come up with the Christian Coalition, which aims to become the leading organization of the Christian right. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is, as you might expect, on the case. Its magazine, Church & State, sneaked a reporter into a meeting of the Christian Coalition and reports that these “native fascists” are up to all kinds of sneaky things. The Coalition does phone surveys to “target” favorable voters, enlists the support of such suspect characters as Jesse Helms and Dan Quayle, and even does mass mailings of voter guides “which are usually biased comparisons of candidate views or records.” Well, we never. The gravamen of the Americans United report is that the IRS should look into Robertson’s tax exemption. Not only is he mixing politics and religion, his organization also “discriminates in hiring on the basis of religion.” One sleeps better knowing that Americans United is on the case.
• Some significant progress has been made on “equal access” in public schools. That is to say, high schools that had allowed students to promote Marxist liberationism, gay rights, and goddess worship must now allow other students, if they are so inclined, to promote their Christian convictions. Americans United is, of course, on this case too. Church & State expresses support for a student who complains, “A group of students go around the school and approach you and say you’re going to burn in hell. I feel it’s wrong.” Apparently it would be alright if they said that you’re not going to burn in hell; even better if they said there is no hell; best yet if they didn’t mention the subject. Now it’s not nice being told that you’re going to burn in hell, and no doubt a lot less nice to burn in hell. One response to people who have rather doleful views on your eternal destination is to tell them that you think they’re wrong, and explain why. It is called, if we remember correctly, free speech.
• How can one issue of a magazine be so rich? Here is Church & State again, this time on those dreadful Catholic bishops. It cites a report claiming that the bishops are dangerously effective in opposing government funding of birth control. It seems that the bishops do their devious work through the U.S. Catholic Conference. That’s not all. The U.S. Catholic Conference and its “immense resources . . . exist solely for the U.S. bishops. The staff works not for the Catholic people, but for the bishops. The decisions on spending and lobbying priorities and the opinions that emanate from these offices are not those of the 55 million American Catholics, but those of the 300 bishops.” It probably won’t comfort Americans United, but we know a bishop or two who think that the staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference is chiefly accountable to itself.
• New on the scene is Diversity: A Critical Journal of Race and Culture. Volume one, number two, has some fine material on black churches—why they are failing to hold their own, and what might be done about it. Everyone talks about the stale line of the superannuated civil rights leadership, but Diversity supplies a real alternative. In thinking about race and the American experience, the increasing influence of this new publication can only contribute to, well, diversity. For more information, write the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 520, Washington, D.C. 20036.
Another excellent source of fresh thinking about matters racial in America is Issues & Views. It bills itself as “an open forum on issues affecting the black community,” and it certainly is that. Although we would add that, since the black community is at the heart of the historic travails of the American experiment, they are issues that affect us all. For more information on Issues & Views, write PO. Box 467, New York, NY 10025.
• Readers know how preoccupied this journal is with questions of culture. Having set forth the proposition that our society is embroiled in a Kulturkampf, we try to relentlessly follow up on every new wrinkle in the culture wars. So we were naturally interested in a new book by the director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard University. She is Marjorie Garber and the book is Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Her thesis is that “there can be no culture without the transvestite, because the transvestite marks the entry into the Symbolic.” With an extensive tour of the byways and bentways of history, Ms. Garber seeks to demonstrate that the great contributions to culture are made by those who produce “category crisis.” Those who, like transvestites, defy conventional categories are the true creators of culture because they force creative responses from others. The author’s putatively pathbreaking work has landed her in the conventional category of countercultural academics who exhibit their arrested adolescence by sustained scholarly devotion to the iconoclast and criminal. Their lives are defined by rebellion against the “parent” of bourgeois society. Creating “cultural anxiety”—i.e., giving ordinary folk the heebie-jeebies—is the mark of the extraordinarily gifted. In this enlightened view, the mugger, far from being anti-social, blesses us all with a “category crisis,” creatively disrupting our expectation that old ladies will be treated gently. The list of the true creators of Western culture can, by this criterion, be readily extended. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times calls the book “a provocative piece of cultural criticism.” Those who missed adolescence, or enjoy revisiting its sensibilities, will possibly be provoked. More sensible people might be bemused, wondering once again why parents put out $25,000 per year to send a kid to Harvard in order to be instructed by the likes of Marjorie Garber.
• So why do you mention the Times so often? a reader asks. Because, in the nature of things, we have to read it every day—the nature of things being that, by almost universal admission, the New York Times is the single most influential communications medium in the world. Poor world. In the last eight years or so, under the executive editorship of Max Frankel, the Times has been going steadily downhill. With notable exceptions, what were once called “journalistic standards” no longer apply to news reporting. Linda Greenhouse routinely inserts into her “reporting” on the Supreme Court extended editorials against the Court’s threat to the “constitutional right” to unlimited abortion and her other favored causes. Andrew Rosenthal has a front-page story on President Bush’s message to a pro-life demonstration in Washington. Bush cited Jefferson to the effect that all human beings are created equal. At which point Rosenthal inserts, “In fact, abortion was well known in Jefferson’s day, and was legal.” Editorial correction of the President, or anyone else for that matter, are now standard in the Times’ news columns. (In fact, of course, Rosenthal is dead wrong in suggesting that abortion was more or less accepted in Jefferson’s day. On historical mendacities about abortion, see Gerard V. Bradley, “Academic Integrity Betrayed,” First Things, August/September 1990.) But if the news reporting has become carelessly tendentious, it is on the editorial page that the silly season has been in fullest swing. We have noted more than once the Mothers Day editorial suggesting that the patriarchal gods of Judaism and Christianity should be replaced by worship of the Great Mother, Gaia. Then there was the editorial proposing that, if you had to choose between being operated on by a HIV-infected surgeon or one not so infected, you should elect the infected surgeon because there is little chance of catching anything. It would also, one supposes, be a bold statement against homophobia. More recently, an editorial worked itself into a froth of enthusiasm for the social contribution of comic books. It seems that Marvel Comics has a hero named Northstar who reveals that he is homosexual and proceeds to adopt an AIDS-infected baby. The editors opine: “Mainstream culture will one day make its peace with gay Americans. When that time comes, Northstar’s revelation will be seen for what it is: a welcome indicator of social change.” The Times rather sniffily make a point of the fact that it does not carry the comics. Those who read it regularly, and especially those who read the editorial page, know better.
• A reporter for The Tablet (London) writes from Moscow that “the Orthodox Church . . . has now emerged as, in all but name, the established ideology of the new Russian state.” Diplomats and politicians make a point of being at church on Sundays, the long-disused Kremlin chapels are crowded, and it has become a standard feature of political life that meetings open with prayer. Of course there are those awful economic problems, but at least one factory that used to produce heavy artillery for the military has easily converted to civilian purposes. Its order book is full to the end of the decade and beyond. Its casting facilities now produce an item in heavy demand but, for the last seventy years, in very short supply—church bells.
• We are told that there is still considerable interest in what Hans Kung is saying, although when he lost his Catholic theological faculties some years ago he lost the cachet of being the test case for how much dissent (some would say defiance) Rome would tolerate. In any event, we see he made this speech in Barcelona condemning the “new Inquisition” of this papacy. “I ask myself,” Kung asked himself aloud, “when will the Church find a Yeltsin to protest against the spiritual dictatorship which Rome has become?” To his credit, Kung wants a Yeltsin. In the week we read his remarks, we also came across two columns by very progressive Catholic theologians in this country. They both wondered when the Church would find its Gorbachev who would overthrow the alleged tyranny of John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Presumably the hero for whom they yearn would do for the Church what Gorbachev did for the Soviet Union. Many readers will remember Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union.
• There is something to be said for plain speaking. In Pennsylvania this past year the teachers unions reportedly spent two million dollars to agitate against a proposal for vouchers that would permit children to attend schools of choice. The Roman Catholic bishops of the state supported the measure. Union leader Jack Grier, a major voice for maintaining the educational status quo, publicly declared, “If the Catholic Church were to cease to exist and disappear today, it would be better for all of us.” Some might call that plain speaking. There are more accurate terms for it.
• The Rev. Samuel Atchison, an Assemblies of God minister, ran a gospel-based program in Trenton, New Jersey, aimed at rehabilitating homeless black men. Writing in the Christian Century, he recounts his frequent embarrassment in having to appeal to white churches for funding while the black churches closer to hand did nothing to help. He draws some lessons that, he readily admits, are not too different from those being advanced by black conservatives whom the liberal establishment likes to dismiss as “house niggers.” Atchison writes: “Having cast aspersions at government and business, we blacks have often failed to accept responsibility for what happens in our own community. Why isn’t the wealth of the black middle class—among whom are some of our most vocal leaders—being used to serve our poorest brothers and sisters? Why do we depend on federal funding—with all the red tape that is involved—when we have within our own community the resources and the expertise to develop many of the programs we need? If the white man is our enemy, as so many are fond of saying, why do we continue to appeal for his help?
“The issue is not whether blacks should take advantage of federal grants and loans. Rather, the issue is one of hypocrisy. The Not-in-My-Backyard attitude often seen among whites is often expressed as a Not-with-My-Money attitude in the black community. This is especially true of the black church, where many have forgotten that it is in serving the least of our Lord’s brethren that we serve him.” Of course, racism still exists, says Atchison. But he suggests that blacks have chiefly succeeded in deceiving themselves by attributing everything to their victimization. “No, the issue is not whether racism still exists. The point is that we blacks should be required to give as much help to each other as we expect to receive from others. While this fact may appear obvious to some, my experience as a black minister serving the poor of our community suggests that it cannot go without saying.”
• In its twenty years of existence, the Campaign for Human Development (CHD) has raised from Catholic parishes nearly $150 million for sundry programs aimed at helping the poor. While that is, of course, a lot of money, in terms of annual support it would seem to average out to about 17¢ per Catholic in the U.S., which may reflect the measured enthusiasm of clergy and people for CHD. In the January issue, we reported on a critique of CHD issued by the Capital Research Center (CRC) in Washington, D.C. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, who is chairman of the bishops committee on CHD, was not at all happy with the criticism and our drawing attention to it. Against the specific points raised by CRC, the Bishop issued a statement condemning the “unfounded and baseless attack on CHD.” He also notes that the GRG interpretation of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus is “superficial, questionable, and self-serving.” The CRC viewpoint, he declares, “is out of synch with the Bishops, the lived experience of the people of God, and the Holy Father.” (He cites the fact that the Pope gave CHD a blessing.) More specifically, he notes that it is wrong to say that CHD does not envision “a positive role for business and the marketplace,” and he points to a number of instances in which CHD projects have “followed the pattern of getting the business community involved.” Also, “Some CHD grantees have benefitted from the advice and counsel of corporate executives.” Moreover, Bishop Fiorenza quotes the executive director of CHD, who speaks very highly of the program. Those interested in obtaining the full statement may write the Bishop at 1700 San Jacinto, PO. Box 907, Houston, TX 77001.
• An upstate New York police chief tried the other week to suggest that obscenity laws might be enforceable. He notified some music stores that they run a risk of prosecution if they sell that rap junk promoting sodomy, rape, child abuse, and the “snuffing” of sex partners. Under pressure from the ACLU the chief backed down and withdrew his threat. “We can’t give censorship even one inch,” said the ACLU personoid. There was a flurry of press attention to the issue. A prosecuting attorney in New York City was quoted as having said several years ago, “By community standards, nothing is obscene in New York.” Actually, a popular referendum would likely falsify that claim, but in fact there has not been an obscenity prosecution in the city for years. The folks at Morality in Media assert, “Obscenity laws are not unenforceable, they’re just unenforced.” But, if you think the cultural situation in New York City is grim, you’re right. Except now New York is everywhere, at least everywhere there is a porno shop or a television set, it being increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two. We are always being advised that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Our view is that it’s not an either/or proposition.
• For more than four decades there has been an astonishing scholarly and popular interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Writing in the February Commentary, Robert Alter suggests it has to do with our search for a kind of “time capsule” that will wondrously reveal the secret of our origins, how we came to be the way we are. He thinks that expectations are greatly exaggerated. Alter writes: “By the time the sectarians fled their Dead Sea dwelling in 68 C.E., the early Christians (chiefly Paul) and the early rabbis had already taken decisive steps toward creating supple new systems of belief and religious practice out of the texts and ideas of the Hebrew Bible—on the one hand, a bold synthesis of monotheism with the mythic power of the mystery cults and a translation of theological universalism into a universalism of religious constituency; on the other hand, a refashioning of biblical doctrine as an intricate and developing system of law, based in learning, and, at least in principle, accessible to all Jews.
“Against these achievements, whose power is still palpably projected from that turbulent era to ours, the writings of the Qumran sectarians seem narrow and rigid and shrill. They withdrew from the teeming city to a rock-strewn desert, hearkening to the voice of their master and awaiting the destruction of their enemies. The air they breathed was an atmosphere of hypnotic words that insulated them from the changing winds of history. The texts they left behind will continue to be intriguing objects of scrutiny but can offer scant sustenance for us who live in the unfolding movement of historical time.”
• Mystery writer P. D. James writes in The Spectator (London) that she will continue to address God as “Father,” and has never had any problems with thinking of Him as masculine in any exclusive sense. Then she adds: “But what about the devil? Is he, too, to be neutered? At the risk of gross sexism, I prefer to think of him as male. A female devil is no doubt quite as capable as Satan of going to and fro in the earth and of walking up and down on it to our general discomfort, but somehow to me she lacks credibility.” While Ms. James is at it, she reflects on things that she misses in contemporary British life. “A more important pleasure I miss is visiting churches, particularly in the country. Invariably, because of vandals, they are now locked. I have been told of a country vicar who has placed a notice on his church door in French explaining where the key can be found and asking visitors to replace it after re-locking the church. He will no doubt be criticized for elitism, and the assumption that no one who can understand French can possibly be a vandal is open to question. However, I understand that it works.” Dare we suggest that here, given the state of American education, one might achieve the same effect by leaving a note in any language?
• Being rich in a hungry world is a great guilt inducer. Jeffrey Wentling of Acton, Mass., notes an oddity about the usual literature on the problems associated with our sinful opulence. “My own view is that restricting the size of one’s family for the reasons that most Christians [give] is one of the most profound expressions of materialism I can think of.” They say they “cannot afford” more children and, simultaneously, worry about their affluent lifestyle. “My own experience,” writes Wentling, “is that, if you’re truly concerned that your lifestyle is too opulent, a simple and biblical remedy is to have more children. That’ll take care of it!” Clearly, another one of those awful conservative simplisms.
• Day care centers for sick children was a big new idea in the late 1980s. It appears the idea is flopping rather spectacularly. “But growth in sick-child care has been slow,” says a story in the Wall Street Journal, “partly because of prejudice among parents and employers against taking ailing youngsters away from home” (emphasis added). In fact, as the story makes clear, not only is growth slow; underutilized centers are in trouble or closing all around the country. Says Kim Smith, director of “Sniffles,” a sick-child center in Lincoln, Nebraska, that is teetering on the edge, “We have a new frontier in child care here.” It seems that sick children, for some irrational reason, think they should be near their parents, and the parents tend to agree. The war against prejudice never ends.
• A mite “peevish.” That’s the word one reader used to describe our comment on PBS’s ubiquitous Bill Moyers. We wrote back saying that he was probably right and we would try to restrain ourselves in the future. Here, without comment, are Mr. Moyers’ concluding remarks on his recent PBS special Minimum Wages: “Today, making it in America means more family members working longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits. If the trend continues, it will change radically America’s work force and America’s future. Economic progress will come to fewer and fewer of us, the divisions among us will grow, and millions will find that poverty and a paycheck go hand in hand.”
• Liechtenstein is a delightful place to be in July, we are assured. Scheduled is a four-week seminar on “The Free Society and Centesimus Annus,” and ten fellowships for Americans are available. Applicants must be graduate students or entering their senior year of college. The faculty includes Michael Novak, Rocco Buttiglione, George Weigel, and this writer. The application deadline is April 1. Send curriculum vitae and writing sample to American Enterprise Institute, 1150 Seventeenth Street, NW, Washington D.C. 20036, Attention: Derek Cross.
• The Pope spoke to some Spanish bishops making their ad limina visit to Rome. He said that Western Europe and Spain in particular had not done enough to defend the unborn and, more generally, to resist the tide of “consumerism” and “neo-paganism.” The Spanish government was outraged. “It is almost an insult,” said the education minister, Javier Solana. Another cabinet member, Virgilio Zapatero, went further. “The government of a country with no official religion,” he said, “must act as though God did not exist.” The report does not say whether Sr. Zapatero is a member of the Spanish Civil Liberties Union.
Sources: Owen Harries on “The Cold War & the Intellectuals” in Commentary, October 1991; Franky Schaeffer letter and Harries reply in the February 1992 issue. On the ELCA, Lutheran World Information, March 1992. Marion Montgomery interview in Tamkang Journal of American Studies, Summer 1990. On Pat Robertson, Church & State, January 1992. On students preaching hellfire and damnation, Church & State, January 1992. On the Catholic bishops, Church & State, January 1992. Review of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests and discussion of gay comic book heroes in New York Times, January 24, 1992. On the new status of the Russian Orthodox Church, The Tablet, 31 August 1991. Hans Kung remarks reported in The Tablet, 26 October 1991. Anti-Catholic remark by teachers union leader reported in the Family Research Council’s newsletter, Washington Watch, January 1992. Samuel Atchison on black self-help in Christian Century, January 1-8, 1992. E D. James’ observations in The Spectator, 16 November 1991. On day care centers for sick children, Wall Street Journal, January 20, 1992. On the Pope and the Spanish government, The Tablet, 12 October 1991.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?