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Tithing for the Poor

The question, “What Should We Do About the Poor?” (April), is at least as old as the Bible. The real question, or perhaps more aptly stated, the real problem has more to do with the manner of our response. Private social responsibility has been increasingly replaced with socialized public responsibility, and it simply has not worked . . .

Why not use the biblical paradigm? How about the equivalent of the triennial tithe for the poor on an annualized basis? . . . Individuals could contribute a “poverty percentage” of their income as a tax liability to certified institutions. Amounts not contributed would be due as taxes...

There would be little need for Welfare Departments, and their massive overhead/transactional costs. Dealing with poverty would again become a personal, communal responsibility, and more of the money designated for the poor would actually be available for them, administered by those who actually know the community . . .

The continuing commitment of Americans to our churches and synagogues in the face of imposed secularization is a testament to our traditional values. Recently published analyses of charitable giving reaffirm the generosity of the American people. The diversity of our volunteer organizations attests to our ability to mobilize resources to address the problems that face us. It is time we rid ourselves of the socialist bureaucracies and return to traditional responses that bring us together in common cause to solve our community problems.

Nevin J. Mindlin
Harrisburg, PA

Teach Us

Bravo to Nancy W. Yos’ article, “Teach Me: A Catholic Cri de Coeur (April).

I too am a victim, if that is the right word, of the CCD experience. I was so disgusted with “the coloring books,” as Ms. Yos puts it, of Catholic education that by seventh grade I decided this Catholic stuff was a banal waste of time. In fact, my disaffection became so severe that even today I have yet to be confirmed in the Church.

Only recently have I discovered the rich history of the Catholic tradition. It is not the foolish superstition that my agnostic and Protestant friends had always told me that it is. Nor is it the humanistic Marxism that too many leftist priests had implied.

I truly believe that the awful experience I had as a child . . . stunted my spiritual growth. Only now am I starting to recover from that experience . . .

John Patrick Feehery
Alexandria, VA

As a conservative evangelical Protestant, I surprised myself by how deeply my heart cheered for Nancy Yos as she groped for knowledge of the rich heritage that belongs to her as a Roman Catholic. As I followed her spiritual journey and read her challenge to her own church, I was vividly taken back to my own childhood as a Lutheran. My only memories were being taught at Easter that the meaning of the cross of Christ is that capital punishment is a bad thing; and, as a Junior Higher, being taken upstairs to the adult Sunday School to be interrogated on the question of how our young people’s Sunday School class could be made more “relevant.” I remember seeing some faces reflecting surprise, some discomfort, and others paternal bemusement as I shared my very real desire to know who Martin Luther was and what he believed. Of course, it was only after leaving the Lutheran Church that I began to learn about Luther.

I can only reiterate what is becoming an important realization among evangelicals and fundamentalists, that we have much more in common with believing Catholics than we ever will with those professing Christians of whatever label who categorically reject the great creeds and the moral standards of the historic churches they inhabit. I pray Nancy Yos’ passionate plea will be heard by people of faith and courage in every denomination where unbelief and cowardice have so tragically obscured the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(The Rev.) Wayne A. Wilson
Action Faith Bible Church
Palmdale, CA

Nancy Yos writes her Cri de Coeur for the paucity of religion taught in her Roman Catholic upbringing and doubts the future. She is both right and wrong. If it were necessary to read the fathers of the church, the saints, the great divines, the inspirational and spiritual contributors to the elaboration of Christendom, to sing the chants, psalms, glorias, hymns, and to inculcate our young with this knowledge to make them whole Christians we would be in sore trouble. It is not. That is not to say it is not efficacious, just that it is not necessary.

The necessaries can be counted: to know and believe the creeds (Nicene, Apostles’), the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and our Lord’s summary of the Law; and to understand the necessity of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper for salvation. These would suffice to equip a Christian for eternity.

Indeed, it could be argued that Christians through the ages have been so equipped with about this much baggage on board. Long before reading was general, souls were saved, instruction was given, and the faith passed on to succeeding generations.

The writing of the basic tenets of the faith upon one’s heart requires minimal intellect. It is not wholly or exclusively in one’s intellect that one engages God. (If it were, heaven would be only for smarties or heavy thinkers, and God would not be characterized as merciful!) . . .

Ms. Yos is correct that the educational material of Catholics, and of Protestants, too, is hopeless at conveying the faith. We drew a lot of maps as well as colored in Sunday School. At the end of all that drawing and coloring, my memories held only the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the creeds, the Ten Commandments . . .

Charlotte Hawtin
Director of Research and Analysis
United Episcopal Church of North America

Maybe I’m older than Nancy Yos (I’m 41) and therefore can remember the last days of the Baltimore Catechism. Things weren’t as haphazard for me as they seem to have been for her in Catholic religious education. Yet I certainly can identify with her appeal, “teach me.” Nowhere in my realm of experience with American Christianity is this being done well.

In my present church tradition, United Methodist, a pastor can write to our national magazine: “In my group of twelve young people, all regular church attenders, at our conference’s fall camp for fifth through eighth graders, not one could tell us the reason Jesus died on the cross. One girl said they didn’t study the Bible at her church. ‘But,’ she added, ‘we do study recycling.’ I felt so hurt for her, and angry.” . . .

I used to think that Protestant churches had to fight an uphill battle to educate our children religiously because if they attended Sunday school at all, we had them for only 30 to 45 minutes of instructional time per week. But according to Ms. Yos, I needn’t worry. Catholic education managed to inculcate very little in a lot of time. Neither tradition seems to have hit the highlights, for example, “why Jesus died on the cross.”

Neither is secular public education hitting some very important highlights. Priorities in education (where I live, anyway) seem to be self-esteem, sexuality, and driver’s training. Students have no clue in which century the American Civil War was fought. They cannot trace the passage of a bill through a legislature or a drop of blood through the human body. Should Ms. Yos be so surprised that neither religious nor secular education teaches us about such figures as Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Pascal? Both systems have bought into the modern disregard for the value of history: “If it didn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen.” . . .

To end on a positive note, our United Methodist Church has graduated 100,000 persons in the last five years from Disciple Bible Study, a 34-week study of the entire Bible. In many cases, this amounts to remedial religious education. I’m sorry our members didn’t receive adequate instruction the first time around. But we’re attempting to turn the tide. In my local church, fifteen adults have completed the course. It’s a beginning in the fight against biblical illiteracy.

Jeanne Devine Bonner
Wichita, KS

Just before reading Nancy Yos’ article, I had read Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s paper “Children and Youth” (presented to a White House conference on that subject in 1960). In it he claimed that the “problem with youth” is really a problem with adults—parents and others who themselves are not the sort of people that children can or ought to honor or revere . . .

Recent studies of religious education by the Search Institute as well as research on confirmation ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have made it very clear that the most effective and rewarding Christian education and formation programs for youth occur in denominations and congregations where adult Christian education is a high priority. And the depth and breadth of this adult education is at least equal to that of the secular education that such adults have received.

It seemed to me in reading Yos’ article that her implicit assumption that the church is the clergy and the institution reveals a great part of the problem in this area. As long as we do not see that the church is the people, clergy and lay alike, the whole body of Christ, there will be the tendency to leave Christian education to the professionals. Then we will blame the institution when education doesn’t work rather than making sure that we as adults and parents are always involved in learning (in Heschel’s sense: learning as a form of worship) and in seeing to it that such learning spills over into the lives of the young.

Whatever the limits of self-education, Nancy Yos reveals its possibilities. May her kind multiply and may congregations welcome and assist such learning.

Marc Kolden
Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary
St. Paul, MN

Nancy Yos’ article is a remarkable and poignant account of the deplorable state of Christian education at the parish level. It is even more remarkable that Mrs. Yos has recognized that it is a treasure of which our children are deprived. Twenty-five years ago that treasure was termed “useless baggage” and “junk from the past” by those “progressives” who were about to throw it all overboard and set up a rival religion. And the pirates were not just Catholic; modernist Protestantism has edged out the Creed and Sacred Scripture and has attempted to stuff the gap with New Age puff. Led away from the worship of the Blessed Trinity, the once faithful bend despairing knee before nothing in particular. Pathetic . . . .

Our own six children, also raised in the religious ruins, have survived parochial school, CCD classes, etc. On a regular basis, we offered our own “third magisterium” classes in our home. Several generous and reliably orthodox speakers agreed to address a crowded living room of teenagers on various religious topics: church, sacraments, chastity, marriage and family, authority, work, school. It was remarkably successful! After the disaster of our older two sons’ confirmation classes, we kept the younger ones out of CCD; they have been confirmed only after they left high school. All of the children have chosen Christian lives and faithful vocations . . . .

Mothers like Nancy Yos have the formation of young souls in their hands. They are establishing missionary outposts in their own homes. In a very real way mothers are like the scholars and monks of old, who must wear out their eyes in study and “face [modern] Vikings with their altars at their backs.” The domestic church—the family—seems rather isolated in its mission, but missionary outposts have always been remote in heathen lands. Remote, but not alone. There is yet another great treasure that, once recovered, can end that sense of aloneness and even of remoteness. The Communion of Saints was also pitched overboard, yet once it is recovered and recognized, it connects us with the angels and the saints of the past and with a host of unknown companions in the present. We are never abandoned, never in fact alone, per saecula saeculorum, not even at the end of time.

Ruth D. Lasseter
South Bend, IN

Many of the gaps in Ms. Yos’ Catholic education are astounding—e.g., not knowing how to say the Rosary. To have completed twelve years of formal Catholic education and never have attended a Stations of the Cross is incredible. It’s incredible that the schools she attended never required such attendance; it’s unfortunate that the parents or guardians who sent her to Catholic schools apparently added nothing by way of example to her Catholic childhood. If St. Mary’s School let me get away with missing a Stations of the Cross on a Friday in Lent, I would most likely have found myself accompanying my father to the service later that day . . . .

There is an implication in the essay that because a Catholic education fails so miserably in truly educating children about the history and traditions of Catholicism it is no different than a secular, public education. Catholic school children may graduate without knowing what the decades on a Rosary stand for, but I hope that Catholic schools continue to perform what I think may be their more basic mission—the teaching of civil behavior and basic human values along with English, math, and science. I honestly believe that this kind of education, even if it fails to illuminate what role Caiaphas played in the Passion narrative, “will help bring me to salvation, which is, after all, the point.”

I bet Ms. Yos, notwithstanding her profession of ignorance, will not permit her children to be on their own against the American Church’s efforts to “smother Christian learning.” As she wages war against the American Church to “save the Cross” I hope she will not become so obsessed with the Church’s refusal to educate its people that she will ignore the Catholic Church’s role in teaching the high moral values that I recall were an integral part of my Catholic education and my Catholic upbringing.

Sue A. Fugate
Oxford, PA

I was appalled to read of the lack of instruction Nancy Yos received in “formal Catholic education.” . . .

Although I was certain of the depth of my education in this regard, I was doubtful, after reading the article, of that of my sixteen-year-old daughter’s. So I went home and tested her. Let me compare my personal knowledge of things with that of my daughter’s, who was horn and raised in the American system of Catholic education after sixth grade. We both know the difference between the Gospels and the Epistles; the holy days of obligation . . . the Church calendar and the concomitant changes of color of the clergy’s vestments; the understanding of Immaculate Conception; the Passion of Christ and the Lamb of God as the central part of the mass. And, most certainly, we both remember being told (I remember being hit over the head) to genuflect on both knees in the presence of our Lord during Holy Hour. It also made me feel good that my daughter’s knowledge of the Bible was, perhaps, even better than mine. Her understanding of the Passion of Christ—possibly because of the influence of films such as Jesus Christ Superstarwas even fuller. She distinctly remembers readings during Lent on the words of Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, Barabbas, and that of the people saying “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.”

Finally, sometimes the teacher’s seeds do not bear fruit, but those teachings are reinforced on Sundays, in the readings and sermons. I was gratified that Ms. Yos overcame early obstacles and went on to fill in her gaps in religious education, and I am glad that, as in St. Francis’ words, the author might have found in her life “where there was darkness, light.” . . .

Ada Orlando
Miami, FL

Thank you for publishing Nancy Yos’ article . . . . It should be required reading for those who staff diocesan and archdiocesan departments of religious education, as well as grade and high school principals, directors of religious education, and all teachers of religion courses, CCD, etc. Good for parents to read also . . . .

Therese Lawrence
San Anselmo, CA

Who’s Ugly?

The editorial, “The Year that Conservatism Turned Ugly” (May), contains the argument that there is an inherent difference between the relevancy of the terms anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and racism. The mind boggles!

This contention is based upon a logical convolution that grows out of what seems to be an unwillingness to believe the truths behind the words. Rather than simply admit this, the editorial states that sexism and homophobia are (1) terms of recent “ideological invention” that are (2) designed to discredit opponents in societal culture wars.

Do definitions take on meaning only with long usage? If sexism and homophobia have been misused by some, or, in some cases, have “ideological intent” not consonant with others’ credos, why does not the old theological axiom, abusus non tollit usum (the abuse does not abolish the use), apply to them as well as it does to the terms racism and anti-Semitism? My personal experience with individuals who reject the use of these terms is that they do so because their personal shortcomings are reflected therein. People seem to hope that if offending labels are out of use, the discomfiting failures so identified aren’t quite so real.

The attempt to assign narrow, hamstrung definitions to these terms seems to belie an underlying “politically correct” position. Homophobia is more than a fear of homosexuals; it is a fear manifested in hate, violence, rejection, and the severing of the familial bond between parent/sibling and child. To quibble about, debase, and consequently dismiss terms based upon their periodic misuse rather than the truth that their application generally embodies is a conservative analogue to a liberal abuse of them. To be other than a white heterosexual male is to have all too often experienced real incidents of the racism, sexism, and homophobia (is “heterosexism” preferable?) of contemporary American society.

Jim McCrea
Piedmont, CA

I believe Hugh Kenner is right. “Anti-Semitism” has no stable meaning. Beyond Mr. Kenner’s explanation of stable meaning, there are other questions of what is, and what is not, anti-Semitism.

If the alleged anti-Semitic statements made by Pat Buchanan are true, are they still anti-Semitic? If Pat otherwise believes them to be true, is Pat an anti-Semite?

It seems that a great deal depends on whether the statements are true and whether Pat believes them to be true. And therein hangs the explanation of why Pat does not apologize for making the statements. The truth will set us free.

W. J. Provance
Murrieta, CA

It was heartening to note that First Things took issue with those who “recklessly equated reasonable criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”

While conceding the major thesis that there are contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism that are repulsive and in Christian and Catholic eyes sinful and deserving of condemnation, one is also obliged to note that there are sins of omission that must also be avoided. No matter how much one wants Israel to survive and prosper, and no matter how much one admires Israel’s spiritual heritage, one cannot permit those important concerns to fog the reality of the repugnance of the repression, suppression, and dispossession of Palestinians. The violations of their human rights, collectively and individually, cannot be glossed over if any sense of justice is to be maintained and honored.

The Intifada heading towards its fifth year revealed the immorality of the Israeli repression of the Palestinians. It is getting too late in the day to pretend that the nature of and the level of violence directed at the indigenous population in the last quarter of mandated Palestine is justified military or morally. The silence of too many religious Jews and Christians is reprehensible. What is more revolting is the racism inherent in the policies of dispossession and repression and in the silence accompanying it . . .

Assuredly, manifestations of anti-Semitism need to be denounced today and so do demonstrations of racism towards the Palestinians. The imperative of the common command in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to love your neighbor makes the demands of justice obligatory for all.

Richard J. Gallo
East Islip, NY

In Defense of the AAR

Paul V. Mankowski’s ravings about the American Academy of Religion (“Academic Religion: Playground of the Vandals,” May) should not be permitted to go unchallenged. As a longtime member of the Academy and participant in its philosophy of religion section, I want to comment on just two of his allegations: “the AAR’s preoccupation with sexuality” and the absence of “sympathy for, or even awareness of, the struggles and achievements of Anglo-American analytic philosophy.”

At the Kansas City meetings in November, about which Mankowski is writing, I attended sessions at which papers were presented, and discussions held, about Whitehead and process philosophy, Kant’s philosophy of religion, Martin Buber, and Hume. Human sexuality was not a topic of discussion at any of those sessions.

I myself read a paper in which I discussed, among other things, work by Brian Hebblewaite and Joseph Runzo. Unless Mankowski is operating with a completely idiosyncratic category scheme, these scholars fall into the Anglo-American school of analytic philosophy. Whether their work represents any great achievement is another matter. The point is that analytic work in philosophy of religion is known and discussed in the AAR. In the past few years, just to my knowledge, entire sessions of the philosophy of religion section have been devoted to that discussion. Christian philosophers like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Marilyn Adams were invited speakers. Plantinga’s work has been discussed time and again.

The attractive thing about the AAR is that it brings together an amazingly diverse group of people interested in religion in many different ways and for many different reasons. If one wants to spend one’s time at AAR meetings talking about human sexuality, it is possible to do so. One by no means has to do that. Readers can draw their own conclusions about how Mankowski chose to spend his time in Kansas City.

J. Wesley Robbins
Professor of Philosophy
Indiana University at South Bend

It is not particularly newsworthy that Paul V. Mankowski did not find God at the Kansas City meeting of the American Academy of Religion. To my knowledge, the Academy has never promised such a manifestation. If it did, I, and I suspect Father Mankowski also, would be justifiably suspicious of such claims.

Father Mankowski apparently knows that the inordinate preoccupation with sex that he saw in the AAR program is a sure attention getter. But, given a culture saturated with the subject, such preoccupation is hardly surprising.

Nor should one be surprised that, given the sad state of much that passes for theology these days, a fair amount of the analysis set forth under that head at the Kansas City meeting lacked much sense of authority or awareness of tradition. But, not to worry, Father Mankowski, he who marries the spirit of the times is soon to be widowed.

What is surprising and misleading in Father Mankowski’s probing into the soul of the AAR is that he ignores so much. I too attended the famous or infamous Kansas City meeting. My first reaction on reading Father Mankowski’s article was that we were not at the same meeting. True, I was involved with such subjects as “Freedom of Religion and Native American Traditions”— admittedly not the sexiest subject in the hall. But personal impressions aside, arguably the most significant development in the almost thirty years of the AAR’s existence is that it has decisively transcended its Protestant (even liberal Protestant) orientation. It has become instead a society in which a broad array of topics from a variety of religious traditions are subjected to critical analysis. Annual meetings of the Academy now include attention to a range of traditions from African to Zoroastrian and including Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Native American as well as Christian traditions. As one might expect, some of the critical analyses are more scholarly than others. But the way to improve the standards is to enter the arena rather than cast stones from the bleachers.

Robert S. Michaelsen
Department of Religious Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Paul V. Mankowski replies:

Of course I did not attend the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting expecting to find God, any more than I would go to a convention of the American Academy of Otolaryngology hoping to find ears. Yet one might expect of all learned societies that their professed norms of critical study be uniformly applied to their subjects. My disappointment with the AAR was not that it has broadened its horizons beyond Protestantism but that it seems unconscious of the exceptions it is willing to make to its own policy of non-advocacy. If one is prepared to let feminist scholars ask (as did one AAR speaker), “Is it too late to go back to the Goddess?” one ought to let the Full Gospeller demand, “Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” Far from reflecting “diversity” in this regard, the AAR struck me as monotonously indulgent of the former brand of partisanship and universally intolerant of the latter.

It was not my intention to suggest that the exotic interests declared by some AAR participants were to be imputed to all. In failing to make this clear I owe, and extend, an apology to Dr. Robbins. I am cheered to learn that the AAR’s philosophical breadth is greater than that I encountered as a newcomer to the Annual Meeting. I would willingly be talked out of the suspicion that such instances of traditional scholarship represent a dwindling force within the organization. Readers desirous of making their own judgment may examine the AAR Abstracts (1991) printed by the Scholars Press, Adanta, GA 30333.

What Bishops Don’t Know

The article “What the Bishops Don’t Know About Families” (May) was very properly followed by “Naming Good and Evil.”

It has been my observation that the bishops of America are more and more looking to the laity for their direction in moral teaching. Our deacon gave a homily several weeks ago where he argued that the Pope had the responsibility of taking moral direction from his bishops, the bishops from their priests, and the priests from the laity.

This leads us not to expect anything but the bishops’ statement on “putting children first.” Most of those who have the ear of our bishops are feminists and naturally put their agenda first.

Frank H. Fischer
Arlington, TX

Hope for Canada?

Mark A. Noll’s “The End of Canadian History?” (April) was as succinct in describing our history and the current malaise regarding our constitutional search as anything I’ve read.

With respect to government funding of religious-based schools, Canada has never been guided by the American church/state separation debate. While we have no religious “establishment,” our laws have not sought to separate the church and state from working in a cooperative and interactive mode.

The current constitutional crisis has led to the possible inclusion of a preamble, which has a specific religious structure. This preamble, brought forward by MP John Reimer, has received all-party support. The difference between this preamble and the one to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that it will be “instructive” to the entire constitution and not just window dressing as is the Charter’s preamble. Whether or not it will survive the final debate is yet to be seen. But it does show the possibility of a continuing Christian presence in the public life of the nation.

The preamble includes the following:

We affirm that our country is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity of each person, the importance of family, and the value of community.

We recognize that we remain free only when freedom is founded on respect for moral and spiritual values, and the rule of law in the service of justice.

Brian C. Stiller
Executive Director
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
Willowdale, Ontario

A Reconsideration Reconsidered

I wish to respond to the article “The Naked Public Square: A Metaphor Reconsidered” by Richard John Neuhaus (May).

Father Neuhaus refers to the great tyrants of this century (Hitler and Stalin) as being “virulently secular and most specifically at war with Judaism and Christianity.” He indicates that the toll of the Inquisition was rather trivial when compared to that of the two infamous dictators, [but this is] certainly a function of means available rather than degree of bestiality.

In this connection, Hitler’s view of the function of public schools is of interest, since it coincides rather nicely with that of the author. It was expressed in a speech made on April 26, 1933 in conjunction with the negotiations leading to the conclusion of the Nazi-Vatican Concordat. One could assume that it is duplicitous. To me it rings true. The master propagandist knew well how to inculcate ideas in all realms:

“Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . . Faith transcends reason, and too much reasoning can destroy faith . . . We need a believing people” (emphasis added).

He got what he needed. I say we need a reasoning people.

Joseph Gerstein, M.D.
Watertown, MA

Congratulations All Around

Congratulations are in order to First Things for publishing, and to David Lotz for writing, his fine appreciation of the achievement of Jaroslav Pelikan, this century’s greatest historian of doctrine. What was refreshing about the article was its refusal to content itself with being merely an awestruck paean to Pelikan’s talents and achievement. Appreciation is hardly the same thing as fawning sycophancy, a sin perhaps we lesser mortals are tempted to when confronted with so astonishing a performance as Pelikan’s five-volume history of Christian doctrine.

But Lotz is right. The enterprise is fraught with internal difficulties that demand engagement, and it is that willingness to take up that engagement that constitutes real appreciation. It was especially heartening to see this kind of work in First Things , living proof that your journal’s concern for the Great Tradition does not entail eschewing engagement with the modern world. On the contrary, the true test of the conservative temper will be how it meets that challenge . . .

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. 
New York University
New York, NY

Photo by Carol Jeng on Unsplash. Image cropped.