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Pluralism, Nay & Yea

From S. Mark Heim’s discussion of “Pluralism and the Otherness of World Religions” (August/September) I get the impression that today’s Christianity has little to do with God. It seems to be more interested and active in such trendy cultural issues as liberation theology, social justice, feminism, gays, singles, and politics. It is floundering in an ocean of unfocused babble that has nothing to do with the meeting of humanity with Divinity. Christianity may soon be replaced by those with whom it is attempting to be inclusive.

Everett King
Lansing, IL

S. Mark Heim’s gentle critique of pluralistic theologies is certainly thought-provoking, but also is terribly abstract. Meanwhile, in the real world out there, Muslims are being murdered by Christians in Bosnia, Christians are being murdered by Muslims in the Sudan, and Bahais are being murdered by Muslims in Iran, not to mention the mutual slaughter that has been going on for so many years among the various religions in India.

For the vast majority of true believers in any faith, religious truth is what they have been taught to believe from an early age. Yet, sadly, it seems not to occur to many such persons that had they, by accident of birth, been reared in a different faith culture they might well believe just as passionately in a different “one true faith” that today is totally alien to them.

A powerful case can be made that there is indeed validity, as well as possible error, in all religious traditions. The eminent theologian Paul Tillich alluded to what he called the Protestant Principle, i.e., the possibility that any of us may be wrong in interpreting the word and the will of God. If that is so, then we should all be more disposed toward humility rather than triumphalism. As I am sure Prof. Heim would agree, the cherished values of religious liberty and freedom of conscience for each of us must be defended by all of us against never-ending onslaughts.

Samuel Rabinove
Legal Director
American Jewish Committee
New York, NY

The Abortion Wars

Justice Scalia was quite right to analogize the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott and Casey decisions (“Abortion and a Nation at War,” October), in that the question in each case was not resolved by the decision. But does he or First Things think the abortion question would die if Roe v. Wade were thrown out? If Dred Scott had gone against the South, do you think it would not have seceded?

You demonize those who disagree with you by labeling them with “license” and “private satisfaction,” and attaching “communal” and “familial responsibility” to yourselves. Worse, the currently much-abused term “elitist” is meaningless. Clearly you and your readers aren’t “populists,” else you couldn’t produce First Things or sell it.

The logic of each side of the abortion question leads to a conclusion unacceptable to modern society: either to the edge of infanticide or to a scenario in which a teenage rape victim’s parents must explain to her that she must bear the child of her violator. The flaw is in the premise: that the fetus becomes human only at some instant—viability (or perhaps later) for the pro-choicer, conception (or perhaps earlier) for the pro-lifer. Your arguments for the humanity of the fetus could be extended to an in vitro fertilized ovum, to a sperm cell, to a blood cell. If depriving a fetus of life is wrong, why isn’t prevention of its conception? Such single-minded pursuit of an arbitrary premise leads some to promulgate animal rights and others to genocide.

Even if the South had been allowed to secede, slavery was doomed. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of abortion. Apart from the activism of those who want absolutely no abortion, Roe v. Wade has worked. If the “culture wars” worsen—and I’m sure we all hope they don’t—pro-lifers will bear the blame. Abortion abolitionists, unlike slavery abolitionists, will lose, as will we all.

Robert F. White
Media, PA

Pro-lifers should beware of the syllogism: “A fetus is human, a fetus is living, therefore a fetus is a living human being.” This commits at least three fallacies: equivocation (on the term “human”), begging the question (asserting what needs to be proven), and composition. The latter can be illustrated thusly: “That dog is Socrates’ (dog), that dog is a mother, therefore that dog is Socrates’ mother.”

The problem with the generic term “human” is that there is no agreement on its meaning. Is human cancer “human”? Is it living? A fetus is a growth attached to a woman’s insides. It is a parasitic growth. It is life-draining and life-threatening. If it is attached there against the woman’s will, or under duress, coercion, or fraud … the woman alone must decide what is to be done. If killing results, it’s in self-defense. Bystanders should stop beating up on the only person competent to make this painful decision. Remember Jesus’ attitude toward the woman caught in the act of adultery? It was one of understanding and compassion, not condemnation. Go and do likewise.

John B. Goodwin
Sisters, OR

Trials of Ecumenism

In “A Closed Question and Ecumenism Now” (Public Square, October), Richard John Neuhaus asserts: “Mainly because of the fragmented condition of Orthodoxy itself, the healing of the millennium-old breach between Rome and the East will not likely happen anytime soon.” The statement is simply false, on two counts.

First, the condition of Orthodoxy is not “fragmented.” During the past year in particular, two events, epoch-making in their importance, and of great significance to Christians of all confessions, have strengthened the unity of Orthodox Churches to a degree unprecedented in modern history. It is deeply unfortunate that First Things has chosen largely to ignore these extraordinary achievements.

(1) A schism of over fifteen hundred years between the Orthodox Church and what are sometimes called the “Oriental Orthodox Churches” has been resolved in principle. All issues of disagreement have been settled between the Chalcedonian (that is, those churches which accepted the pronouncements of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in Chalcedon in a.d. 451) and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches.

The non-Chalcedonian Churches are the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Ethiopian Church, the Church of India, and the Syrian Orthodox Church. Their combined membership is approximately 30 million. The resumption of full intercommunion between these Churches is imminent.

To place this event in perspective, one need only recall that the reformed churches have existed for only approximately 450 years, and the Roman Catholic Church (as contrasted with the Church of Rome) cannot be said to have existed before 1054.

(2) In March of this year, the Primates of all fourteen Orthodox Churches, or their representatives, met for three days at the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey. This meeting is unprecedented in modern history.

Fr. Neuhaus’ statement is also false in regard to the cause of the continued separation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The principle points of Orthodox disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church are two: the alleged magisterial and jurisdictional primacy of the Pope; and the existence of the “Uniate” Churches, along with the continued Roman Catholic proselytism among Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox insist that any canonical resolution of the Schism must include a return to the condition of ecclesial unity that existed prior to the Great Schism of 1054 when the Church of Rome was in communion and full doctrinal agreement with all the other Orthodox Churches. The Bishop of Rome was regarded by all other bishops of the Church as “first among equals,” not on account of any alleged jurisdictional supremacy accruing to the See of Peter, but in respect to the antiquity and greatness of the city of Rome, the first capital of the empire.…

For the Orthodox, the acceptable solution is communion with, and not under, Rome. The unity of the Church from Her very beginning has been a unity of faith, not of obedience to a Supreme Pontiff. Indeed, prior to the Great Schism, there was no Pope in the modern sense.

The Uniate problem, however, is the more immediately pressing of the two. The “Uniate,” or “Eastern Rite Catholic,” Churches are in communion with Rome, but follow the same Eastern or Byzantine liturgical forms used by the Orthodox. Uniate Churches exist in Ukraine, Romania, East Slovakia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The Uniate Churches originated in the sixteenth century, as a result of proselytizing by the Jesuits among the Orthodox Christians in Poland. The ultimate purpose of the Jesuits was to force the Orthodox hierarchy in Poland to submit to the Pope. The plan failed; but the Eastern Rite Catholic Church eventually spread to other parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The genesis and continued existence of Uniate Churches are, from Orthodox perspective, intended solely for the purpose of converting Orthodox Christians to Roman Catholicism, an act that the Orthodox regard as hostile.

Although Vatican II declared the Orthodox Church a “sister church” to Rome, the Orthodox believe that recent decisions and actions by the Roman Catholics pertaining to the Uniate Churches contravene their professions of the “sisterhood” of the two Churches, being motivated instead by a policy of proselytization and expansion in traditionally Orthodox lands. The Orthodox Churches have united to suspend further dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church on all other issues until a satisfactory solution of the problem is obtained.

Scott R. Stripling
North Andover, MA

It is difficult to determine the real point of Richard John Neuhaus’ “A Closed Question and Ecumenism Now.” On the one hand he seems to say that the position of Anglicans and Lutherans on the ordination of women has doomed the ecumenical movement to failure. On the other hand he states that “ecumenism is integral to Christian existence” and that “those observers may turn out to be wrong who say that the decision of oldline Protestantism to declare women’s ordination a closed question is the end of progress toward full communion.”

Obviously the [existence] of church-dividing and irreconcilable differences would preclude the possibility of entering into full communion. But the purpose of ecumenical dialogue is to determine which differences are truly church-dividing, whether or not they are irreconcilable, and whether or not those concerned are willing to do what is necessary to resolve church-dividing irreconcilable positions. Relentlessly pursuing the objectives of ecumenical dialogue may lead to surprising results despite what appear to be insurmountable obstacles.

(The Rev.) Jude D. Weisenbeck
Office of Ecumenism
Archdiocese of Louisville

Catholics and Development

First Things’ “treatment” of the Campaign For Human Development (CHD), “Left Over from the Sixties” (Public Square, August/September), contains misinformation that cannot go unchallenged. A more careful analysis of the record reveals the following:

1. Contrary to the assertion about the Campaign’s fundraising, the CHD appeal has exceeded twelve million dollars annually. Recent growth, while admittedly somewhat modest, has been steady.

2. It is true that CHD funding criteria give high-priority consideration to projects that “work to bring about institutional change.” This reflects the insight of the bishops who established the program more than twenty years ago. They acknowledged the significant resources that were already available for direct service programs, through Catholic Charities and other agencies, for example. At the same time, they noted a need for funds to support projects working to get at root causes of poverty. At the heart of CHD’s criteria are the principle of participation and the policy of empowerment. First Things seems to be unaware of these very important criteria, which are at the heart of Catholic social teaching.

First Things concludes that changing times call for “the bishops to reevaluate a program based upon the ideological certitudes of an earlier era.” This is precisely what occurred in 1986–87, and it resulted in a near-unanimous reaffirmation of CHD’s program and funding criteria by the body of bishops at their November 1988 General Meeting.

The Campaign’s program and methodology have enjoyed the strong support of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, and the U.S. Catholic bishops, who singled out CHD by name in their 1986 pastoral message,Economic Justice For All.

3. CHD’s philosophy and practice is to help people help themselves—through its support of community-based, self-help projects. That message is simple, direct, and unambiguous. It is the basis for the fundraising appeal to Catholic parishioners on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. CHD subscribes to the highest standards of truth in advertising.…

Most Rev. Joseph A. Fiorenza
Bishop of Galveston-Houston
Chairman, USCC CHD Committee

Richard John Neuhaus replies:

The only thing that could conceivably qualify as “misinformation” in the commentary on CHD was the statement that it raises “about ten million dollars per year.” I wish I could say that I am pleased to learn that it has raised $12 million. As stated in the article, CHD is, perhaps inadvertently, presented to the Catholic people as supporting the Church’s ministry among the poor. In fact, as stipulated in its own guidelines, CHD only supports non-Church projects. Such projects are typically of a social activist mode that was accurately described as “left over from the sixties.” Bishop Fiorenza is responsible for the oversight of CHD and one can appreciate his effort to defend the program.

Photo by Liam Truong on Unsplash. Image cropped.