The AIDS Debate
Although basically an enthusiastic reader of First Things, I find the editors’ incessant bashing of the liberal straw man somewhat tedious. At times it seems that polemical zeal overtakes astute social commentary. One prime example of this [unfortunate] manner of social analysis can be found in the editorial “AIDS: Deadly Confusions Compounded” (February). It’s hard to know exactly what the editorial’s point is: to malign Magic Johnson’s character, reaffirm George Bush’s competence in domestic affairs, expose those nefarious and ubiquitous hippie left-overs who have infiltrated every organization in American society except the Republican Party, or maybe, incidentally, to offer some insight into the problem of AIDS.
If the point of your article is to criticize the AIDS lobby for ignoring the ethical dimensions of this social malady, or to criticize the moral philosophy that compels AIDS activists to hand out condoms in public high schools instead of emphasizing the importance of chastity and self-discipline, then you should be commended. Unfortunately, if that is your point it has been obscured behind several layers of unnecessary and uninteresting diatribe. The best illustration of what I mean can be found in those three motives you blithely attribute to those “who orchestrate the AIDS campaign”: “to rescue the sexual revolution,” “to gain social acceptance of homosexuality,” and “to transcend morality altogether.” I don’t know if these conclusions are based on some unknown statistical information or merely keen intuition. I suspect they’re based on neither. At any rate, not only are such allegations extremely dubious, but also because of their fantastic character, they undermine the credibility of the editorial. I suggest in the future you contain some of that neoconservative zeal and just work to communicate your fundamental insights.
Candler School of Theology
I am writing to express my profound disappointment at the tone and content of your editorial statement on AIDS. I am very deeply disturbed by the thinly veiled bigotry that underlies the whole piece. It has a negative tone that serves only to support attitudes of prejudice against those who suffer from the disease. Rather than a fair criticism of what you perceive to be the overzealousness of some of the people involved in advocating for the cause of AIDS, it is a bitter and unwarranted attack against what you refer to as the “AIDS Lobby.”
As a hospital chaplain I work directly with people who have AIDS and their loved ones. Additionally, I am a certified HIV instructor for the American Red Cross. Though by no means an expert on AIDS, I have more than a casual knowledge of and interest in the subject. I also have a deep commitment to advocating for an attitude of compassion for those who suffer because of AIDS. I am hence very sensitive to what I perceive to be attitudes of callousness toward the victims of this disease. I am also concerned by what I feel to be the dangerous hardening of hearts toward those with AIDS in statements such as your editorial.
You refer to “the ill-disguised connection between AIDS transmission and the ‘gay lifestyle.’” The implication here is that there is something unique about the lifestyle of gays that is connected to the transmission of AIDS. In fact, on a worldwide basis, AIDS is present more in the heterosexual community than it is in the gay community. In the U.S. there has been widespread promiscuity in the gay community that has been a factor in the spread of AIDS. It is not the nature of this activity as gay that has been the problem, but rather the nature of it as sexual . . .
It is not so much important that we belittle or deny the fact that AIDS has spread dramatically in the homosexual community. What is important is that we help people understand that all promiscuous sexual behavior puts them at risk . . .
...It does not matter what sexual preference a person has in terms of his/her vulnerability to AIDS when practicing sexual activity. It is dangerous to imply there is. Indeed, it is irresponsible to do so . . .
You seem to imply that because AIDS is behavior-specific this somehow makes it less deserving of our response than other forms of suffering. Well, lung cancer is in many cases behavior-specific. A lot of it is caused by smoking . . . One can go a step further and argue smoking is a sinful behavior (it does defile the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit). Yet we do not go to cancer wards preaching to the victims of lung cancer about their sinful lifestyles . . . Could it be that the weight of our moral judgments is clouded by the fact that a lot of conservatives smoke (smoking can even cause harm to nonsmokers who are unwilling breathers of the cancer-causing substance)? Could it be we are biased and selective in our moral judgments? With the victims of lung cancer we have the good sense to respond at the point of human suffering rather than the point of moral judgment. For some reason, we seem unable to do that with AIDS.
In the face of human suffering the moral character of the sufferer is irrelevant to the demand of the gospel for a compassionate response. Our Lord reminds us that whatever we do to the least of those who suffer we do to Him. His statement applies to all, not just a select few . . .
Your editorial speaks the sad story of hearts long since devoid of compassion and filled rather with hate and bitterness. Your editorial betrays fear that leads to prejudice and bigotry rather than compassion and understanding. Your editorial divides instead of unites; it tears apart instead of heals . . .
(The Rev.) John G. Anderson
Your editorial on the AIDS epidemic has much to commend it but also some significant medical distortions.
Your article suggested that AIDS is rarely transmitted heterosexually and is “declining among all risk categories.” The truth is that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is spread by all forms of penetrative sexuality. Only about 6 percent of Americans with AIDS acquired the virus heterosexually, but this is up from 3 percent only a few years ago. The World Health Organization estimates that three-fourths of HIV-infected people in the world acquired the virus heterosexually. Moreover, the just-released report of the Centers for Disease Control (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 41, #28) shows that there are several groups in which AIDS is increasing, including heterosexuals, women, infants, and adolescents. Although the disease is not progressing as quickly as many experts feared, this is primarily due to earlier diagnosis and treatment with drugs such as AZT that prolong the asymptomatic period before the HIV-infected person develops full-blown AIDS.
I agree that groups with a vested interest in maintaining the New Morality have used AIDS to push their own agendas and will thereby increase the death toll. They have perpetuated myths about the efficacy of condoms, the inability of teenagers to abstain, and the notion that morality has nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic. But AIDS is a serious disease that will result in a million deaths of young people in the next decade and so is not insignificant. Perhaps by trying to balance some of the AIDS hysteria (“everyone is at risk of contracting it”), you have swung too far in the other direction.
Glen G. Wood, M.D.
Thank you for “AIDS: Deadly Confusions Compounded.” I do think, however, that you missed an opportunity to set forth an important difference between AIDS and other diseases as confronted by Christians.
Precisely: AIDS is a behavior-linked disease, and the particular behavior is extraordinarily painful for many Christians to confront. This makes AIDS the opportunity it is for the Church to contrast its own foundation with secular points of view.
The secular world, lacking any vocabulary of mercy, is forced into mendacity. It knows only the publicist’s way to justify attention to any particular disease: exaggeration of its size and terrors. The Church, on the other hand, knows perfectly well that diseases all affect only sinners. This is an outrage to those who have to connive and compete for attention on the basis of deserving (the victim ploy) or threat (the scare ploy directed at heterosexuals).
The Church is constantly confronting sin and disease with love, but this is not obvious to outsiders. Alas, even in the pews there are plenty who believe that we are loved and love each other because we are so lovable. AIDS presents an opportunity to smash that illusion. Here we have a plague that, unlike those of the Middle Ages, is transmitted by bad behavior. The great nevertheless which we oppose to this of all diseases makes no sense except as a preachment of Christ’s mercy. That, its age-old evangelistic task, and not numbers or threats to ourselves, is the reason for the Church to be seen confronting AIDS.
Unfortunately, the churches are often heard repeating the secular line, because they mistake it for Christian charity. In so doing, they undermine their effectiveness, and betray serious misunderstandings within the community of faith.
I was distressed to see that in your otherwise excellent editorial on AIDS you perpetuated the myth that heterosexual AIDS is a “myth.” Having spent the past three years (up until August 1991) working in the public health department of a Florida city, I can assure you that AIDS can be transmitted through heterosexual intercourse, and that it in fact is being so transmitted at an increasing rate. In 1990, nearly a third of our newly diagnosed HIV cases were detected on routine screening of pregnant women. The majority of these women contracted the disease not by intravenous drug abuse, but from their infected boyfriends and husbands. We also saw a number of male HIV cases whose only risk factor was heterosexual promiscuity.
Your editorial states that “the epidemic is declining among all risk categories.” This is far from true. To quote from a recent report by Surgeon General Novello in The Female Patient (January 1992), “Women and perinatally infected children represent the fastest growing subgroup with the disease. More than 19,000 American women have AIDS, and over half of these cases have been reported in the past two years. Women now account for almost 12 percent of U.S. AIDS cases, as compared with 2 percent in the early years of the epidemic.” I would suggest that your sources of information, particularly Michael Fumento’s The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, are hopelessly out of date and inappropriate to a discussion of the AIDS epidemic as it is developing in the 1990s.
To say that AIDS can be transmitted heterosexually is by no means to accept the lie that “everyone is (equally) at risk” for AIDS. It only makes it all the more urgent for young people to be told the truth that sexual promiscuity, whether homosexual or heterosexual, may endanger their lives, that condoms are by no means a foolproof way to avoid that risk, and that chastity is the best defense. As concerned parents, as doctors and health care workers, we should insist that at least this minimum truth be taught to our children.
Paul C. Fox, M.D.
I have been following the slow and arduous acceptance of author Michael Fumento’s central thesis presented in his book The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS and in his series of articles in The New Republic and in Commentary with great interest. . . . So I was extremely pleased to read your editorial position concerning AIDS.
The central point in Mr. Fumento’s findings is that vaginal intercourse is a barrier preventing the outbreak of the disease into the general population. Receptive anal sex is the primary vehicle for AIDS transmission, a fact that is mysteriously missing from AIDS literature and related public service advertisements. Homosexuals, in their quest for total social acceptance of their purported “lifestyle,” simply cannot tolerate the idea that anal sex is somehow qualitatively different from vaginal intercourse. To allow for this would impugn the supposed equality of sexual “preference.” . . .
One small problem I have with your editorial stance is that there is no mention of the conservative movement’s involvement in perpetuating the hysteria surrounding AIDS for the purpose of promoting abstinence. As a conservative and a Christian, I think it is unfortunate that conservatives have been so eager to buy into the idea that “we are all in it together.” Well-meaning conservatives, while trying to encourage young people to behave as they should, have lost the moral high ground in the AIDS debate, and regaining that ground will be exceedingly difficult. Unfortunately, fear of death, no matter how effective as a tool for social engineering, is not the proper moral grounds for virtue . . .
My suspicion is that many conservatives have simply not realized or accepted the fact that we live in a post-Christian society where Christian values are commonly viewed as antithetical to everything progressive. Children have been consistently taught, directly and indirectly, that the true picture of reality is that there is no transcendence and no absolute besides mere matter in motion. So to call for abstinence, and to expect that it would have any meaning to those it’s directed to, is simply to operate on a memory of a world that no longer exists.
Sean R. Gerety
New Milford, CT
The Editors reply:
From these and other responses, it is obvious that the AIDS editorial, as intended, struck a nerve. Good points are made in the several letters. We are sorry Mr. Baer did not understand the purpose of the editorial, which we thought obvious. We hope to discourage the cruel exploitation of concern about AIDS, an exploitation that results in, inter alia, more people contracting the disease. If Mr. Baer is not familiar with individuals and groups who vigorously promote the goals of the AIDS lobby as described in the editorial, perhaps Atlanta is more culturally isolated than we have reason to believe is the case. Without entering into intramural disputes about precise data, we note that Michael Fumento is a widely respected authority on the AIDS epidemic and is constantly updating his argument with the latest evidence. Mr. Anderson protests that sexual promiscuity of any sort, whether homosexual or heterosexual, puts people at risk. Of course we have no argument with that, as a careful reading of the editorial makes unmistakably clear. It is harder to know how to respond to his charge that we lack compassion. Saying that we’ll match his compassion any day seems a little juvenile. Trying to save people, especially young people, from sexual exploitation and exposure to a deadly disease strikes us as compassionate, if that is the required word for it. Mr. Anderson attributes to us the view that “because AIDS is behavior-specific this somehow makes it less deserving of our response than other forms of suffering.” Not at all. We must respond by caring for those afflicted and, as our editorial attempted to do, by discouraging the behavior in question. We will leave it to others to assess the merits of the proposed analogy between cigarette smoking and the transmission of AIDS.
In understandable enthusiasm for their cause, animal advocates, like animal researchers, sometimes seem to believe that the ends justify any means, and Thomas Derr’s “Animal Rights, Human Rights” (February) contains cogent arguments against a number of the positions and practices of animal advocacy. But it also contains a surprising assessment of the movement as a unidirectional and nearly unanimous force headed for failure because of its lack of “forthright anthropocentrism.” One would expect a professor of religion and biblical literature to discourse upon the relationship between humans and animals from a predominantly theocentric, not anthropocentric, perspective. One would also expect to find in the discourse due mention of the increasing number of animal defenders who are of religious persuasion and of the fact that the defense of animals, when carried out with scrupulous fairness, has been seen as a spiritual issue inseparable from human obligation to the divine ethic.
Professor Derr seems unaware that to further their cause, animal advocates need not minimize the differences between humans and animals. On the contrary, precisely because we are superior and unique, we have a mind and a conscience enabling us to understand that it is our evolutionary duty always to treat animals well because of their sentience and the moral demands it makes upon us.
Although maintaining that the concept of rights applies only to human relations and that therefore animals have none. Professor Derr admits that we must [treat] them with a responsible stewardship and that the things we do to them should be limited by “a realistic anthropocentrism, and inhere in decisions about what is useful and valuable to humanity.” This sweeping anthropocentric position then leads him to the conclusion that it is permissible, if not desirable, to breed and keep animals for our food, work, and pleasure, and he approves, in particular, of their use in medical research and even in the testing of cosmetics that are to be marketed. But all this animal exploitation is to be conducted with kindness and sympathy . . .
Two questions come immediately to mind: (1) whether real human kindness and sympathy are, or can be, encountered in the slaughterhouse, in the circus and the rodeo, in the forced captivity of wild animals in zoos, and in pain research in biomedical laboratories, and (2) whether our abuse and destruction of members of other sentient species for our benefit alone can be a truly moral goal for mankind.
In my opinion, treatment of animals based upon the kind of anthropocentrism that Thomas Derr recommends is wholly inappropriate for this age of spiritual awakening. More environmentally sensitive to the plight of the biosphere than ever before, man is now seeking the theocentric perspective that alone can provide him with the sense of justice, compassion, and harmony to facilitate the evolution of the whole of sentient life.
May I please suggest some supplementary material in reference to Thomas S. Derr’s cogent article?
According to the natural law tradition, a right is a spiritual entitlement, a moral power to do (e.g., to walk in one’s garden), hold (e.g., to keep a family heirloom), or exact something (e.g., to demand the payment of a debt). Rights are rooted in a person’s spiritual component, his human life-principle. Everyone has the duty to achieve his destiny. Consequently, he possesses a legitimate claim to the means to do so. By way of example, a person has the right to bodily integrity, since its absence would frustrate him in his quest for happiness.
Let it be said forthrightly: animals have no rights whatsoever. Purely material beings have no spiritual prerogatives. Does this mean we may abuse animals at will? Hardly. Animals are God’s creatures. (St. Francis of Assisi was especially conscious of that truth.) The moral law strictly limits our dominion over animal life. It obliges us to deal with animals in a reasonable fashion, carefully refraining from causing them unnecessary pain.
It is perhaps misleading for Professor Derr to indicate that “babies have rights because they have human potential.” Who will deny that babies are completely human, despite their lack of mental and physical development? An infant in a bassinet has as many actual rights as a metaphysician or a prizefighter. To be sure, he may not exercise some of his rights, such as his religious freedom, until he is capable of mature reasoning.
Kenneth E. Slattery, C.M.
St. John’s University
Thomas Derr’s article was on target in every way. As the author of several articles taking on the same issue in the Jewish press, I can add that there are real First Amendment religious rights infringements at stake, at least with regard to Judaism. By extension, this applies to all religions . . .
In brief, the prohibition of the use of animals would eliminate the production and use of: Torah scrolls (the Bible); tefillin (phylacteries—leather/sinew/hide parchment device required by men for daily praying); mezuzahs (hide parchment of prayer required on every doorpost); shofars (ram’s horn used as part of the requirement for repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—the highest Jewish Holy days); use of meat meals in the celebration of other holidays; and much more. These rites are mandated by Torah Law and are binding on Jews. In none of these cases are substitute materials allowed. Prohibitions of these rites would be substantial infringements, abrogating the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Two animal rights [activists] stated [to me] that if Judaism cannot accommodate (their definition of) animal rights, it will have to be changed by government force . . . . Further claims used demonic representations of Judaism normally found in Nazi literature or medieval blood libels. In one public TV program, [the activists] stated that they would rather see animals live than save one human life . . .
While Judaism contains the oldest known humane limits on the use of animals (e.g., harming an animal is punishable, slaughter must be painless, they must be fed before one’s children, they are to rest on the Sabbath, etc.), it does not eliminate animals for use as food, manufacture, or for ritual. These uses are for Jews, literally, G-d’s no-appeal commandments. Animal rights [advocates] seek not merely to [make animals equal to humans], but to subordinate human religious rights.
East Windsor, NJ
Thomas Derr replies:
I thank Messrs. Hoffman and Slattery for their support, and hasten to assure Fr. Slattery that I, too, believe that babies have rights equal to adults. My point was that they may not be denied those rights even if, in some respects, they may not seem as developed as some of the higher animals, because rights belong to the whole human species, and thus to all its members.
Catherine Roberts asks me, as a matter of my vocation as a teacher of religion, to view animals from a theocentric, not anthropocentric, perspective. But it is just because I have taught religion for so many years that I do not think I can say how God would view this world. I would be wary of anyone who claimed such knowledge. All I think we can say, speaking From within the biblical tradition, is that we are called to care for the whole of creation including the animals in it, not because they are sentient, or because they possess any other particular property, but simply because they are God’s creatures. Some of the examples she cites may well violate the principle of faithful care, the kindness that I, too, would require. But I will not link rights to properties. That is both unconvincing and dangerous, as our experience with the defense of human rights should surely have taught us by now.
True Jewish Confessions
I hope Stephen Miller feels better now that he has gotten that off his chest (“Confessions of a Rootless Cosmopolitan Jew,” February).
Miller’s problem is not a Jewish problem, nor is his problem his life as a Jew. He is certainly not a Jew in any significant sense, as he would be the first to say. Rather, Miller’s problem, or non-problem, would better be described as that of a “rootless cosmopolitan intellectual aesthete.” In this he joins the vast, modern European—now worldwide—communion that cuts across all religions. It includes innumerable intellectuals, novelists, poets, journalists, feinschmeckers, litterateurs, and solipsists.
On the other hand. Miller cannot claim to join that illustrious and small band of cosmopolitan Jews for whom their own Jewishness precipitated a crisis, from either external or internal causes, or both. This group includes in its ranks extraordinary individuals such as Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Leo Strauss, and even Primo Levi. Each of these individuals embarked on an essentially Jewish quest brought about by the accident or providence of his birth. For Miller, there is neither crisis nor quest, merely a need to salve in public his delicate conscience. Of course, it is unfair to compare Miller to such remarkable persons, but then it is unfair of Miller to trade on a “Jewish” problem he doesn’t have.
Mr. Miller’s very conception of religious spirituality is not Jewish, but an aestheticized Christianity. Jewish religious life is intensely communal and revolves around deeds, prayer, and lifelong study. It is the “way” of the Jews. A self-administered short course in Judaism will not serve.
Mr. Miller, however, is a solitary and too fastidious to connect or commit beyond family to communal life (except when it comes to placing aging parents in institutions run by the Jewish community). Miller prefers moments of transcendence, presumably epiphanies, preferably through art, especially music. I suppose Leonard Bernstein could have been a priest in this communion, someone who composed Masses and Kaddishes alike. As Miller observes, it is easier to believe in God than to practice religion.
Still, Mr. Miller wishes us to understand that he has serious regard for religion, particularly Christianity, and that he was drawn to it especially after his short course in Judaism. But while the continuing survival of the Jews and its meaning is a theological puzzlement for Christianity, it is not for Miller . . . So Christianity, for which Miller has a high regard, perforce takes seriously the faith of Mr. Miller’s fathers, while he himself cannot.
I hope that Mr. Miller solves his problem, but please, I wish he would not involve the Jews in his own meshugas.
Robert A. Licht
Silver Spring, MD
Steven Miller’s “Confessions of a Rootless Cosmopolitan Jew” would be more appropriate on a psychiatrist’s couch than in a serious journal of religion in public life. Mr. Miller is certainly rootless, perhaps cosmopolitan, but positively not Jewish. He trivializes his birthright and has abandoned all religious, philosophical, and ethical attachment to the Jewish people.
While admittedly never able to make a serious commitment to the principles of Judaism, he further trivializes other organized religious groups with his intellectual posture of belief, but admitted fear of commitment to any established faith.
He diminishes the commitment of First Things with his whining prattle. Shame on your editors! Where is the intelligent voice of contemporary American Judaism in your publication? Serious Jewish scholars abound in this latter part of the twentieth century. Although we are a mere fragment of our ancient self, we nonetheless continue to contribute greatly to the intellectual religious thought of the world. If we are not to read that thought here, then what use is your journal? . . .
Larry M. Lefkowitz
North Potomac, MD
Confessions are usually meant for sin and Stephen Miller has ample reason to confess. In Hebrew, the term sin means to fall short. Mr. Miller falls short on serious thought and is long on self-serving rationalizations. The principle weakness in his confession is that he is intellectually lazy.
I wouldn’t mind his laziness if he owned up to it and admitted that rediscovering and reclaiming a heritage is hard work that requires much time and effort. Instead he claims that Judaism did not have a strong enough appeal for him. How would he know? He claims to have read a few books on Judaism, which didn’t move him. Imagine for a moment that an English student proclaimed that after reading the cliff notes on Macbeth, he deemed Shakespeare to be overrated. Such a student would be thrown out of class, not viewed as presenting a serious alternate viewpoint.
Understandably, Mr. Miller, and the legions of assimilated Jews whom he represents, is outraged that more committed Jews view him to be a posthumous victory for Hitler, but what should he be called? With his children, thousands of years of Jewish history ended. The six million martyrs of the Holocaust lost their Jewish identity at gunpoint. Mr. Miller lost his through laziness and his consequent Jewish illiteracy.
I suggest that Mr. Miller spend less time writing odes to his Jewish alienation and start on the lifelong task of learning Torah. Perhaps many years from now Mr. Miller will have something interesting to say.
Silver Spring, MD
Stephen Miller replies:
Mr. Licht says that I availed myself of Jewish institutions for my parents while keeping myself at arm’s length from Judaism. Sorry, but I could not find a nursing home for “intellectual-aesthetes” for my mother, so I found her a place at a Jewish nursing home, which is where she wanted to be. The rest of Mr. Licht’s letter is incoherent and mean-spirited. If this is what “deeds, prayer, and lifelong study” do to one’s mind and character, I’m glad I have not chosen this “way.”
Mr. Lefkowitz says that I’m “positively not Jewish.” I never claimed that I was. If being Jewish means practicing Judaism, then clearly I’m not Jewish. I only said that I was born into a Jewish family and received a Jewish upbringing.
Mr. Shore accuses me of intellectual laziness, but laziness is not what kept me from exploring Judaism in depth. Rather, it was intellectual indifference, as I made clear in my article. After having read some books on Judaism, I decided I was not interested in pursuing what he calls “the lifelong task of learning Torah.” This confession should not be taken as a sign of any disrespect for Judaism. As I said, I lack the will to make a rediscovery of Judaism. Life is short, and I’d rather do other things.
Regarding Seth Williamson’s “Blue Ridge Modernity Blues” (February), I certainly agree that the local school district was wrong to employ a counselor who used “nonjudgmental” language regarding stealing and drug use. As a gay Christian, however, I was concerned by the way Williamson freighted in the idea of homosexuality as a choice—hence subject to the same kind of moral decision-making as drug use or stealing.
I didn’t “choose” to be gay; it’s just the way I am. Perhaps Williamson meant that the decision to be visibly gay is a kind of choice. I’ll wager that if he looks around Floyd County, Virginia, he’ll find about as many homosexuals relative to the overall population as here in Cook County, Illinois, though the former are certainly obliged to hide it much better. (I know: I grew up in a southwestern Virginia hamlet much like the one Williamson describes.)
At any rate, the school counselor’s moral reasoning on homosexuality wasn’t any muddier than Williamson’s. I would fault “Ms. Nouvelle,” though, for implying that a young person in such an environment could choose to be visibly gay without risk. When teens in small towns do come out, they run the risk of abuse, ostracism, and sometimes a beating. Such are the sturdy pioneer values that Williamson advocates in his piece.
I wonder if I am the only reader to find Williamson’s stance as offensive as Ms. Nouvelle’s: here’s an employee from the oh-so-liberal world of public radio who fled to the security of provincial life and, through a rather sophistical analysis, passes off as common decency, common bigotry.
In criticizing the “situational ethics” of a school counselor, Seth Williamson declares, “She suddenly develops a strange reluctance to say what all sane people know to be true: that illegal drugs are wrong. Not just unhealthy, or even dangerous, but wrong. Period.”
The only absolute thing we can say about illegal drugs is that they are illegal. Just about every illegal drug can be used in a medicinal way, often with less danger from side effects or addiction than legal drugs. Illegal drugs may be used in religious rituals.
Since most people rely on some kind of substance to help them escape pain, to relax, or to socialize, the moral question is whether the immediate good outweighs the possible harm”something very specific to each situation. It is not the use of any substance but the abuse that is wrong.
The moral standards and parental guidance a counselor applies in her own home cannot morally be imposed on children who come from families with different religious backgrounds, moral standards, and family rituals.
The real moral irresponsibility is the way parents and society have abandoned the guidance and control of their children to professionals and institutions. Public counselors simply cannot do what should be done by families, churches, and communities. But as long as parents shirk their personal responsibilities, as long as there are children brutally abused, counselors and schools, courts and cops, will continue unsuccessfully trying to substitute for those who fail their primary responsibility.
Seth Williamson replies:
“Ms. Nouvelle’s” remark about homosexuality concerned a certain adult and not a student, a distinction that was unnecessary for the purposes of my piece.
As the 1986 Vatican “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” stated, the homosexual inclination is “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and is therefore an “objective disorder.” I believe this wise and nuanced document says something true about human nature; I’m afraid Mr. Smalling might label it “common bigotry.”
For a while the notion that homosexuality was a “choice” (as in the phrase “sexual preference”) was homosexual-movement orthodoxy; in recent years the correct line has been that it’s somehow inherent. But there’s little comfort for Mr. Smalling even if a predisposition to homosexuality is eventually shown to be genetic. Some studies have suggested that conditions such as alcoholism and schizophrenia may possess heritable components, but no one is (yet) claiming that either is desirable.
Furthermore, it is degrading to homosexuals to suppose that they lack free will and are, unlike heterosexuals, presumptive slaves to their sex drives. Whatever the true etiology of homosexuality, homosexuals still possess the dignity that derives from participation in what Josef Pieper called “the luminous domain of free human action.” Father John Harvey states (in The Homosexual Person: New Thinking in Pastoral Care) that some homosexuals may be victims of truly compulsive behavior and as such deserve our special sympathy and understanding; but even these unfortunate individuals, he notes, may exercise the choice to seek help.
I’m glad Mr. Lehman agrees that parents shouldn’t abandon their children’s moral training to so-called professionals. But the usual problem is just the opposite: “professionals” who attempt to teach what parents strongly believe to be untruthful, stupid, or even wicked. That school prayer is wrong, for example, but illegal drugs aren’t. Yes, some individuals may manage to use illegal drugs without paying that all too familiar price. But then some people can commit adultery and seemingly escape the consequences for years. Sorry, but I think anti-drug laws are firmly rooted in the realities of human nature.
Saving Notre Dame
In David W. Lutz’s view (“Can Notre Dame Be Saved?” January), a religiously affiliated university has only two choices. It must remain an exclusivist Christian bastion (Calvin College, the University of Paris circa 1250), or it must inevitably slide into full-blown secularism. So he reads Notre Dame’s future as grim. But Notre Dame is trying to break out of this pattern, to bring Christian scholarship into full dialogue with modern pluralistic intellectual life.
Take the matter of hiring. Yes, Notre Dame welcomes non-Christian professors. Yes, some of the Catholic majority on its faculty are purely nominal Catholics. But the administration does not just ask whether a potential professor can dig a baptismal certificate out of his baby book. It pursues a serious “affirmative action” program for Catholics in particular and Christians in general. This is why Notre Dame has by far the largest proportion of serious and vocal Christians that I have ever encountered at a major university.
And consider (what first strikes an outsider from a really secular university) where Notre Dame commits its research and teaching efforts. It sustains, of course, work in the broad range of subjects one expects in any large university. But its largest departments are theology and philosophy of religion. The History Department emphasizes the history of religion. The Sociology Department stresses the sociology of the family (a traditional area of Catholic concern). The Medieval Institute—one of the University’s jewels—concentrates on a period of clear import for Catholicism in particular and for the history and philosophy of religion in general. Again, the University does not see such subjects as exclusive Christian reservations but believes in bringing the Christian intellectual heritage back into the mainstream of American academic work.
Is Notre Dame always an easy and congenial place for Christian scholars? Of course not. Do all its teachers and scholars operate from a Christian perspective? Deliberately not. But there is a reason why Notre Dame has attracted and retained more Christian scholars of real eminence than any other American university, including such committed orthodox Protestants as Nathan Hatch, now Dean of the Graduate School; John Van Engen, Director of the Medieval Institute; and Alvin Plantinga, in Mr. Lutz’s own department. Why, after all, did Mr. Lutz come to South Bend?
Notre Dame has committed itself to sustaining internally, and promoting externally, a dialogue between the contemporary pluralistic academy and Christianity. Further, Notre Dame is the only Catholic, indeed the only Christian, university with the resources and the will to make a run for real national eminence in that larger academic world. Its efforts falter; it makes mistakes; it has its share of pretension and puffery. And it is the most promising attempt in American higher education to recover Christian traditions for our common intellectual life.
Professor of History
University of Michigan
David Lutz senses that “a battle for the soul is being waged at Notre Dame” and traces the devolution to the new deity, Academic Freedom.
Secular Humanism needs a secular virtue. Freedom is an attribute not found in the gospel. Jesus, like John the Baptist, taught subordination of the individual will to the will of God and urged repentance to those who engaged in illicit actions which violated that relationship.
The primary function of civil law is to limit freedom when an act impinges on the right of another individual or on the rights of society. Freedom by its very nature must be limited in order for civilization to prosper. The decline in education is in direct relationship to the decline in discipline. While we celebrate the freedom in Europe from tyranny we now worry about consequences that might lead to anarchy. And in all universities there are standards that impose limits. One doesn’t put bestiality in the curriculum.
Would a modern Father Sorin be commended for founding a college for the purpose of inculcating students with the truths embodied in the magisterium? Not if the judges are the AAUP who censored Catholic University for terminating the services of Father Charles Curran . . . .
Everyone agrees that the function of a university is to teach truth. When the curriculum involves chemistry or mathematics, the religious identity of a teacher is irrelevant. But parents who entrust their son or daughter to the “care” of Notre Dame, do they have an implied right that involves trust? Is there not a difference in the predicates of a Catholic university and those who claim the right to teach any value free from the supervision of the authorities who hire them? . . .
Perhaps the criticism of David Lutz is rebutted by his own experience. It seems to me that Notre Dame has done an outstanding job not only of teaching him to think, but of building a perspective on the meaning of life. I suspect he is a better Methodist as a result.
Edward E. Halpin
Park Ridge, IL
Kudos to David W. Lutz on his insightful article concerning the future of the University of Notre Dame. As Catholics become more and more concerned with their personal identity, the ideals and morals of the Universal Church begin to disintegrate when faced with the “subjectivism, relativism, emotivism, and nihilism so much in fashion in Western democracies today.” . . . If Catholicity at the university level is to remain, Notre Dame had better be prepared to save itself, whether from “secular humanism,” a distorted view of academic freedom, or a goal of becoming [well-regarded] at the cost of its Catholic uniqueness . . . .
York A. Young
South Bend, IN
David W. Lutz replies:
Professor James Turner and I share a desire that Christian scholars influence the contemporary pluralistic academy. We disagree, however, concerning the most effective means of attaining this objective. He believes that a Christian university should itself become pluralistic. I maintain, for several reasons, that our policy should be one of uncompromising commitment to the truth of Christianity.
It would be impossible to represent within a single university more than a small fraction of the intellectual positions opposed to Christianity. And in an age of printed and electronic media and rapid transportation, Christian scholars at Christian universities can debate non-Christians at other universities. Certainly non-Christians at secular universities need not hire Christians in order to attack Christianity.
In addition to debating the opponents of Christianity, Christian universities should hand down their tradition to the next generation. Notre Dame professors, whether Christians or not, teach. And most teach far more students than do the distinguished Protestant scholars whom Prof. Turner mentions. If we believe Notre Dame cannot become a great Christian university without inviting hundreds of non-Christians to join its faculty, we have an obligation to tell prospective students that many of their professors will be non-Christians who were hired in order to give Christians an opportunity to debate positions opposed to Christianity.
Prof. Turner believes Notre Dame can remain indefinitely at some point between Christian commitment and complete secularism. But the fact that no Christian university has gone further down the road to secularism than Notre Dame has without going all the way should alert us to the dangers of present policies. Among my Christian critics are some who say that by suggesting Christianity should have something to do with faculty hiring, I have “offended” non-Christian professors and, therefore, have acted uncharitably. My intent was to get the attention of Christians, not to criticize non-Christians. But if we first hire non-Christians and then must refrain from discussing the role Christianity should play in future hiring decisions for fear of offending them, it will he only a matter of time until non-Christians reach a critical mass and decide that religious belief should no longer he a criterion in hiring decisions.
The information Prof. Turner has received concerning “affirmative action” at Notre Dame is simply inaccurate. Although the University has indeed placed several distinguished Christian scholars in endowed chairs, each academic department has a high degree of autonomy in making most hiring decisions. And although their decisions are approved by higher-level administrators after they have been made, approval is unrelated to candidates’ religious beliefs. In a 1983 document entitled “Priorities and Commitments for Excellence,” Notre Dame Provost Timothy O’Meara reported that 55 percent of the untenured regular faculty were Catholic. He added: “The evidence suggests that if Notre Dame is not more successful in attracting Catholics, it will cease to he a Catholic university in a generation or two.” But the figure of 55 percent was determined by a simple binary distinction between those who were at least nominally Catholic and those who were not. Because many of Notre Dame’s nominally Catholic professors either were never believers or are apostates, the threat to the Christian identity of the University in 1992 is imminent.
Prof. Turner cites the size of Notre Dame’s theology and philosophy departments as evidence that I am mistaken. But there is no positive correlation between the degree of Christianity of an academic department and its size. Certainly a department can be large without being Christian. Therefore, the size of certain departments is no evidence that my thesis concerning the secularization of the University is false.
Prof. Turner is certainly correct in maintaining that there are more genuinely Christian scholars at Notre Dame than at most other American universities. But the presence of many committed Christians at Notre Dame is consistent with my argument. It is because Notre Dame is in better condition than the great majority of what were founded as Christian universities that I am writing about Notre Dame and not some other school.
Some of my Christian critics on the Notre Dame campus agree with Prof. Turner that I have written about a problem that does not exist. But others say that the battle to have a Christian university was fought and lost years ago and that I have only made it more difficult for them to get along with their non-Christian colleagues. I wish these two groups of Christian critics would debate one another; but so far they have not.
A Better Lutheran Difference
Mark A. Noll’s “The Lutheran Difference” (February) was superb; thank you for publishing it.
His reading of recent American Lutheran history seems to me to be quite accurate. It is startling to realize that our tortured last twenty years (the “deformation” of American Lutheranism in a new Missouri and ELCA) may be little more than accommodation to our American home—a mere one hundred years late. I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. Noll, and I’m sure Luther, will understand that I am doing both.
God is calling us Lutherans to be more than affirmative action advocates with a (disguised) Lutheran accent and more than Evangelicals with (some) vestments. Noll makes a good case for a better “Lutheran difference.”
John R. Hannah
Fort Monmouth, NJ
To be able to “see oursel’s as ithers see us” is a rare and always valuable experience. As a lifelong Lutheran, I was immediately drawn to Mark A. Noll’s article . . . . Professor Noll is looking at us from the outside, but he does see us clearly. His advice that we remain true to our heritage and confessions, demonstrating to the world that they are important to us, cannot be faulted.
He seems, however, to write from the point of view that looks first to government for the solution of the problems of life, and to imply that Lutherans are not doing their share for the common good because they are underrepresented in the upper echelons of politics. But if we (properly) regard government as a necessary evil, then the “political quietism” he ascribes to Lutherans is not a weakness . . . .
John E. Schaefer
Oak Harbor, WA
Although I frequently find myself at odds with First Things over issues pertaining to economics and the role of government in public life, I usually find its critique of American social mores and ethics to be insightful and illuminating. A case in point is Orania Papazoglou’s scathing indictment of modern American feminism, “Despising Our Mothers, Despising Ourselves” (January). Her article goes a long way toward explaining the feminization of poverty and the war on children, phenomena that in my view could eventually destroy the social fabric of our nation and undermine any hope of a bright future for my two young sons. It also makes clear why women like my wife, who has an M.Arch. from the University of Virginia and has done graduate work in theology at Tuebingen, feel such deep distress and ambivalence, even shame, over their decision to stay at home for the sake of their children.
I do not share, however, Ms. Papazoglou’s pessimism about the prospect for a new feminism that both asserts the rights of women in the workplace and upholds the family and marriage as the bedrock of civilization. Almost all of my wife’s friends—and their husbands—have had their perspectives radically altered by the experience of having children. The reality of a hormonally driven maternal instinct, distinction in the behavior of girls and boys at a very young age in spite of gender-neutral social engineering, and the revelation that you can’t “have it all” have come as a deep shock to all of us. (The most startling discovery is that father cannot replace mother as the primary caregiver, even within days of birth, without eliciting feelings of rage and abandonment in children, no matter what the quality of the father’s care.) This transformation has great implications for the future of feminism and will, I am convinced, eventually restore us to sanity. Articles like Ms. Papazoglou’s are only the beginning.
(The Rev.) Jonathan Currier
St. Peter’s Church
Two recent First Things pieces—“Euthanasia: Final Exit, Final Excuse” (December 1991), and “Always to Care, Never to Kill: A Declaration on Euthanasia” (February 1992)—deserve wide dissemination. But as powerfully persuasive as they are, the slide to active euthanasia, I am afraid, will continue. The reasons include the Patient’s Self-Determination Act of Senators John Danforth and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. This act has now become the law of the land and requires that patients on admission to a hospital or other institutions in receipt of federal health care funds be questioned about Advance Directives—which are a Living Will, Health Care Agent, Durable Power of Attorney—so that if unable to express an opinion, the patient’s wishes concerning life-sustaining technologies will have been made known. The act is well-intended, and in the case of intensive care units apprehension is understandable. Between the technological imperative, a need-to-know ethic, medical subspecialists so smugly focused, a legal system that has cancelled the concept of trust, and a reimbursement system that has become an end in itself, there is enough blame to go around for our present confusions. It is not surprising that the possibility of a fate worse than death has been emphasized and that death becomes not only a choice but a right.
As a physician, I bitterly resent what is happening to my profession, but the slide to euthanasia will not be stopped by less than a concerted effort—and your articles are major contributions.
Paul D. Doolan, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Medicine
Yale University School of Medicine
The announcement of your . . . publication terrifies me. You will publish the works of right-wing religious radicals, pseudo-intellectuals, bright but aged and arrogant narrow minds, and hierarchical loose cannons; you will support not the quest for theological understanding, but the “party line” emanating from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger; you will not be open to the gift of the Spirit in the People of God; you will confuse the exercise of raw power as the will of God; you will, in sum, be attempting to reverse the immensely important theological progress of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I.
What a waste! Even more, what a tragedy!
(The Rev.) Thomas F. McQueeny
St. Louis, MO
The Editors reply:
And all that on the basis of a mere announcement. We tremble at contemplating the wrath of Father McQueeny had he actually read the journal.
Thank you for your announcement of the periodical First Things.
I noticed that your Editorial Board has only one woman, and the Religion and Public Life Institute has twice as many men as women. Your [advertising] flyer has seven times as many men.
Please write when you equalize these numbers. We will then review your publication.
Margaret Mary Majewski, O.P, Ed.D.
Saint Mary’s University Parish
Mount Pleasant, MI
The Editors reply:
The sister is wrong about there being only one woman on the Editorial Board. Second and more important, she misses an even more egregious imbalance: on the Editorial Board and the Institute Council we do not have even one person who is so muddleheaded as to judge a journal by gender rather than by its quality of thought and writing. We have no intention of remedying that happy imbalance.