Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Choosing Choice

John E. Coons (“Is Choice Still Choice?” August/September) writes that polls show support for choice in education. The more sophisticated polls, however, show that while the public strongly supports choice within public education, it equally opposes public support for nonpublic schools.

Furthermore, Mr. Coons makes no mention of the most significant difference between public and nonpublic schools: the vast majority of nonpublic schools are pervasively denominational institutions, while public schools approach the ideal of religious neutrality required by the Constitution and our religious pluralism.

Mr. Coons says that a voucher plan must neither increase public spending by more than about one percent nor reduce public spending for public schools. These goals are not reconcilable. With 10 percent of our children in nonpublic schools, public spending would have to go up by at least 10 percent, plus a great deal more to pay for transportation.

Elizabeth Randall
Aspen Hill, MD

John E. Coons replies:

Ms. Randall’s “more sophisticated” polls are unknown to me. Since the early 1970s, the Gallup poll has indicated a steady shift from majority opposition to majority support for the choice she deplores. A 1992 poll by Gallup asked this question: “Suppose the Supreme Court rules that it is constitutional for state or federal governments to provide some public financial support for parents who choose religious-affiliated schools. Would you favor or oppose your state or federal government providing such support?” The response: 64.2 percent favored; 32.8 percent opposed. The strongest support was found among poor and minority respondents. These results are consistent with the many other polls I have seen or helped to design. Unless one were to limit the sample to very high income suburban enclaves, this would be the pattern to anticipate. Whether a well-designed proposal would be politically successful is, of course, a very different question. The point is that ordinary people want choice.

As for the risk of increased cost, it should be understood that the average private school runs on a bit more than half what is spent on public schools. A scholarship worth, say, 60 percent of the public cost would break even or even save money on the one assumption that a substantial number of children would move from the expensive public schools to the more frugal private schools. The polls suggest that precisely this would happen.

As for the private schools being mostly “denominational,” Ms. Randall gets this right. I have been unable to locate any study suggesting that private religious schools turn out a disproportionate number of intolerant dimwits. Indeed, all the evidence is that their graduates vote, pay taxes, and stay out of jail with remarkable regularity.

Tradition and Truth

In his “A Tale of Two Stanleys” (June/July), Alan Jacobs applauds distinctions made by Alasdair MacIntyre between the relativism and perspectivism of modernity and something called a “kind of rationality possessed by traditions” (in MacIntyre’s words).

This distinction troubles me, for I fail to see the difference. I see that the rationality of perspectives is opposed to the rationality of traditions, but how does the latter escape the problems of the former? To reason from the perspective of one of several traditions is no less relative than to reason from one of several nontraditional perspectives.

Traditions provide competing perspectives. How do they avoid relativity? Is it because one tradition “believes in Truth with a capital T,” as Professor Jacobs contends, thereby ranking its own tradition as the truth, others as falling short of the truth? But relativism says the same: its appeal is that it is a truth larger than other merely incomplete perspectives. It is the final perspective, the horizonless horizon.

My sense is that MacIntyre’s solution to the problem of relativism is an instance of intellectual sleight of hand, or purely rhetorical, or both (i.e., postmodern). It works especially well for religious types. By speaking of the rationality possessed by traditions from a religious perspective, which he tends to do, MacIntyre simply moves from the perspectives of nonreligious points of view to those of religious points of view, and his audience, warm as it is to religion, takes comfort in the maneuver, thinking warmly of its own religion.

Where’s the philosophic advance?

Bill Johnston, Jr.
Pt. Richmond, CA 

Alan Jacobs replies :

I do not understand all of Mr. Johnston’s comments. For instance, I do not know what he means by “the rationality of perspectives,” or what the word “moves” connotes in his penultimate sentence. I also suspect that he uses the word “perspective” too loosely.

But I take the substance of his concern to lie in this sentence: “To reason from the perspective of one of several traditions is no less relative than to reason from one of several nontraditional perspectives.” If MacIntyre’s work has accomplished anything, it is to establish that there are no “nontraditional perspectives”: every philosophical position is a product of one “tradition of inquiry” or another. The idea that one can escape from traditions is delusive.

Therefore, MacIntyre argues, the first necessary step toward productive argument comes when all parties admit that none of them can occupy some intellectual ground that is independent of tradition and thus capable of judging traditions from the outside or from above. For MacIntyre, the chief liability of both relativism and perspectivism is their refusal to acknowledge that this is the case. It seems to me, then, that Mr. Johnston is unaware of MacIntyre’s use of the word “tradition,” and assumes that MacIntyre is paying a compliment when he says that a position is “traditional.”

What distinguishes MacIntyre from perspectivists and relativists is not that he believes his position to be true, while they do not. Everyone believes his or her position to be right: that’s what it means to hold a position, whether the relativist position or any other. MacIntyre’s distinctive belief is that philosophical inquiry does not have to be tradition-independent in order to be rational. One can believe that there is no extra-traditional vantage point from which to conduct an argument, and also believe that some traditions can be shown to be superior, in various ways, to other traditions. Insofar as MacIntyre has demonstrated how this can be done, that’s “the philosophic advance,” I think.

Stay or Go?

Richard John Neuhaus says (Public Square, August/September) that the comment of the Wanderer that perhaps 70 percent of the clergy and 90 percent of the laity might leave the Catholic Church is “utter fantasy.” He thinks American Catholics want to remain members of the Church.

I would like to agree with his statement; however, I have to conclude that the vast majority of American Catholics could well leave the Church. . . .

Most Catholics know that the Church forbids contraception; but they do not accept the teaching, and when they practice contraception, don’t confess it. Surveys and personal experience further indicate that many Catholics do not hold to Church teaching on (a) the virgin birth, (b) the Real Presence, (c) abortion, and (d) punishment/reward after death. Quite a large number hold, at least implicitly, a form of religious indifferentism. Any serious sin against faith loses or weakens the gift of faith. Whether the sin is material or formal, it does have implications for the spiritual life of the individual. Many Catholics seem to be attached to the Church not through a faith commitment to the truth but through a cultural and emotional commitment to a comfortable rite and religion.

The fearful question: does Fr. Neuhaus honestly expect “Catholics” who have a difficult time following the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination or birth control to stand with the Pope when offered an alternative choice of “cultural Catholicism” in which anything goes, both dogmatically and morally? I would hope to say yes; but I fear the opposite to be true.

Clare J. Hendricks
U.S. Marine Corps
Catholic Chaplain
Cherry Point, NC

Unfair Swipe?

You may be right in taking a swipe at the Wanderer for rhetorical license in its preaching of loyalty to Rome by implying formal schism might be in the offing if the Holy Father is not successful in averting it.

But shouldn’t “While We’re At It” long before this have bowed respectfully to a publication that has for well over 100 years gone to the mat for the magisterium—to the extent, mind you, of losing five thousand subscriptions to a spin-off weekly rather than compromise that loyalty? . . .

I am very proud of my long attachment to the Wanderer . It has been a source of edification and comfort to me in my fifty-eight years in the priesthood. I don’t take it kindly, as the saying goes, that you place it among the crazies.

Make the amends honorable and after a decent interval mention how good it is that the Wanderer places the words of the Holy Father on its front page every week.

(The Rev.) Thomas Regis Murphy
Pittsburgh, PA 

Richard John Neuhaus replies :

To criticize a comment is not to consign a publication to “the crazies.” With no interval at all I am pleased to go on record as saying it is very good that the Wanderer runs John Paul II on every week’s front page.

On Military Power

I would like to commend A. J. Bacevich (“The Illusions of Military Power,” June/July) for an outstanding essay on the relationship (or lack thereof) between military power and the strength of the nation it serves. Many years ago my Ottoman history professor made the sage observation that fish and empires always begin to rot at the head. While the splendid military formations of the Ottoman Empire were at the gates of Vienna, the Sultans were having the born and unborn children of rivals slaughtered. That axiom fits very well today. We have a President devoid of any moral bearings whatsoever, and a military establishment still morally intact but being undermined by Administration initiatives designed to pay off political debts to left-wing ideological groups.

And while traditional Americans may be changing their view of the efficacy of the projection of military power, I hope they understand that the military establishment—whatever its faults—is one of the last reservoirs of institutional traditional values, a point made by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen many years ago in a speech to West Point cadets.

As a member of the military for thirty years and as a civilian instructor of military officers for the last five, I have observed a widening chasm between the young soldiers and the moral nomads who constitute a large part of the civilian society.

It is not a panacea, but it would be a tremendous countercultural step in the right direction to reinstitute the draft. Just for these young men to observe the meaning of responsibility and fidelity would be a major revelation to a generation absorbing the mores of “Melrose Place” and “Northern Exposure.”

Norvell B. De Atkine
Fayetteville, NC

An objective look at the anti-Vietnam War movement would explode A. J. Bacevich’s stereotypes of those who opposed American military intervention. I was among the hundreds of thousands of Americans who protested the war and was part of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s youth brigade. During an antiwar march on the Pentagon our members included housewives, nuns, veterans in uniform, blue-collar workers, students, and other “normal” Americans. The media fixed on one small band of scruffy, disruptive radicals carrying Viet Cong flags. Among those who actively protested our military intervention in Vietnam were Generals Matthew Ridgeway, James Gavin, and former Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup. Does Mr. Bacevich believe that these generals and heroes of WW II were antimilitary?

During the Vietnam War I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Many of us in the service thought the war was a mistake. We believed that the Saigon government was a corrupt leftover of French colonialism, and not worth killing and dying for. We also rejected the domino theory. The ready collapse of the Saigon government and the failure of communism to spread have proven us right.

Leland Gamson
Marion, IN

Catholics & Evangelicals (Cont.)

As I read through “Evangelicals & Catholics Together” (May), I was amazed at the compromising attitude of the Catholic participants toward Evangelicals. The declaration indicated no intention of the Evangelicals involved joining the Catholic Church. We Catholics then waste our time on them instead of going where converts are possible. As far as the two groups working together, this has been the case ever since our country won its freedom. They worked together to build a great America, having like ideals of high morals and integrity.

But the general use of the word “Christian” causes much doubt in my mind. Who is meant? Are Catholics simply to coexist with Evangelicals? They no doubt have part of the Truth, but know nothing of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacraments, or other doctrines of the Catholic Church. Why lump us together as though we were alike? The essentials are missing in their religion. We are Catholic. Please distinguish.

We are promised that the Holy Spirit will be with the Catholic Church until the end of time, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Protestants are not one with the Catholic Church. Their founders broke away from the Catholic Church. Christ commanded us to go out and evangelize the rest of the world, to bring non-Catholics into the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The Catholic Church does not compromise its doctrine to accommodate Protestants—or shouldn’t. You would almost think that some bishops and priests never learned their own Catechism. . . .

Sister Winifred Bauer, C.PP.S.
O’Fallon, MO

The unofficial document “Evangelicals & Catholics Together,” which to many came as a bolt out of the blue, likely will prove to be helpful. It presents us with the spiritual fruit of theological maturation by both parties. Recognition of abiding differences is made plain. The statement holds to those fundamental doctrines under which Catholics and Evangelicals stand testifying to that which is believed, “everywhere, always, and by all.”

I wish to raise an appeal, however, for hard thinking about traditional Christian views of public life by readers of this document elsewhere around the globe. As a Southern Baptist theologian, both Protestant and religiously disestablishmentarian, I am very conscious of the fact that much of Roman Catholicism remains anti-Protestant and religiously establishmentarian. For example, some papal statements on “Re- evangelization” in Latin America at the beginning of this decade were rather antagonistic to the evangelical movement throughout that region. While many Evangelicals tend to respect expressions of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church in evangelistic encounter, they cannot help but seek to mediate spiritual awakening to nominal adherents of any denomination along side of the unevangelized. This intent is not well respected by many of our Catholic brethren in Latin America, especially among the hierarchy. The recent address by Bishop Sinealo Bohn in March to the thirty-first National Conference of Bishops in Brazil in calling his church to “declare a holy war” against a host of evangelical denominations is a case in point.

Thus, acknowledging joyfully the numerous points in common presented in this document consonant with many personal relationships, I must confess deep reservations on behalf of my evangelical brethren in regions where this distinctly American Christian experience is not their own. Globally, they frequently encounter a virulent nationalistic Catholicism that is actually quite fundamentalist in the world-religious sense. This phenomenon, however, bears only superficial similarity to American Protestant fundamentalism, which was a reaction to the loss of cultural hegemony after the turn of this century. But if separatist, anti- intellectual Protestant fundamentalism is to be checked by Christian cooperation in America, by the same token and for perhaps more compelling reasons establishmentarian, antidemocratic Catholic fundamentalism is to be restrained by Christian cooperation in the rest of the world.

Kurt A. Richardson
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, NC

Religious Sanctions

Peter J. Leithart has touched on something very fundamental in his call for a restoration of sanctions within the various Christian communities (“The Very Modern Christian Right,” May). This is true not only in what he says about the use of corrective measures themselves, but also in what he suggests about authorities’ dedication to their vocation when they are willing (or unwilling) to use sanctions to try to restore Christian morals.

This is one of those nitty-gritty issues that people like to shove under the rug. When Pastor Leithart remarks that there will not be “an easy way out of the political impasse,” he is certainly not overstating the situation. I have seen how, for example, suggestions for a restoration of commonsense discipline within Catholic religious orders is greeted with incredulity and disdain (unless it comes from lawyers trying to protect deep pockets).

For Catholics, I think the unwillingness of authority to use the measures suggested by Pastor Leithart—censure, rebuke, and excommunication—has had the effect of weakening the Church’s authority. The media love to dwell on the fact, for example, that former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan is in good standing with his bishop and pastor. . . . Similarly, I think of the late Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives; did he ever receive any correction for his lack of support for the Right to Life cause or his support of Democratic Party platforms that championed abortion? If he had received some public censure, as called for, from his pastor, I would be surprised—and pleased that the priest was doing his duty.

Thomas Norton
Dillwyn, VA