The Public Square
A truly odd thing has happened this past year. Well, of course many odd things have happened, but nothing else quite like this readily comes to mind. We are witnessing a very major policy shift, with partisans on all sides making high-octane moral noises, and yet with few people fessing up to what is really happening. A couple of years ago, National Review embarked on a campaign to persuade Americans that the current level of immigration to this country, legal and illegal, is dangerously out of control. Almost everybody who has commented on this debate has noted the oddity that the campaign was led by two Brits, Peter Brimelow of Forbes, who is now a U.S. citizen, and John O’Sullivan, editor of National Review, who is not. Most commentators have complained that this is clearly an instance of people who, having been allowed on board, now want to pull up the ladder and deny others the same opportunity.
Conservatives are by no means united on the immigration question, and for a while it was thought that this could occasion a split that would jeopardize what appears to be the conservative political ascendancy. The Wall Street Journal, for example, could not be more bullish on immigration, making the argument that massive immigration is an almost unqualified blessing for the economy. The Journal has editorially proposed (it is not clear that the proposal is meant to be taken at face value) a constitutional amendment declaring that the U.S. has open borders. The more immigrants the better. It seems now that the Journal is losing, if it has not already definitively lost, this debate. Of course, in politics nothing is definitive as in forever. The Brimelow-O’Sullivan case is that America is a nation much as other nations are nations. This is posited against the idea of American exceptionalism which proposes that America is, in the phrase of Ben Wattenberg, “the first universal nation.” Writers such as Wattenberg contend that America is basically constituted by a set of ideas of universal validity, and whoever subscribes to these ideas is, in effect, an American, whether or not they actually live here. So they might as well live here, if they want to. National Review counters that a universal nation is a contradiction in terms. Any nation is a nation among nations, each being defined by not being the other, and by the culture and experience of a particular people. I have engaged in an extensive exchange with O’Sullivan on these questions in the pages of National Review (February 6, 1995) and will not repeat what I wrote there.
Suffice it that, as the debate has been structured, I come down on the pro-immigration side, with qualifications. Yes, immigration policy is out of control; illegal immigration needs to be sharply stemmed, even if it cannot be entirely stopped; and the effective assimilation of immigrants requires major changes in welfare and education policies in order to avoid the welfare dependency syndrome and the cultural balkanization of “multiculturalism.” In addition, affirmative action programs should not apply to immigrants; indeed they should be junked for everybody. At the same time, I have contended, the idea that America is an “immigrant nation” is a critically important part of our national story; there would be a steep cultural and moral price to be paid for denying others the opportunity of immigration; and, contra Brimelow-O’Sullivan, it is neither plausible nor desirable to reconceptualize America as the continuation of the British cultural imperium. In these pages I argued that the real problem of “aliens” among us is represented not by immigrants but by the urban underclass and the intellectual overclass, both of whom are profoundly alienated from the rights and responsibilities of the American experience (see “The Aliens Among Us,” The Public Square, August/September 1993).
The centerpiece in this debate is Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster (Random House). Brimelow has an impressive command of the relevant facts, and writes in the accessible and aggressive manner of a debater out to score points. And score he does. This is a very important book; anybody who wants to get in on the immigration debate has to read it. It has been widely reviewed, more negatively than positively, but the curious thing is that even the hostile reviews generally end up conceding much of Brimelow’s argument. For instance, Michael Lind reviewed it in the New Yorker of April 24, 1995, and, after making all the appropriate liberal sounds, concludes (as though he were disagreeing with Brimelow) that we should institute an extended moratorium on immigration in order to give the country a chance to assimilate the many millions who have arrived here in the last two decades. (Immigration, legal and illegal, is now at the level of almost two million persons per year, nearly twice as many as the last high point in 1907.) In his New Yorker review, Lind also attacks my comments in these pages, underscoring, as is his wont, that his own unique thought patterns cannot be accommodated by existing views on this or any other matter.
The most frequent criticism of Alien Nation is that Brimelow includes also a racialist (many say racist) argument that, without major changes in immigration policy, whites will in the not-so-distant future be a minority in America. In response to the passionate objections to such painfully incorrect considerations, Brimelow persistently asks the question, “Shouldn’t the American people be consulted about what kind of nation they want?” It is an eminently fair question. Do Americans think it would be a good idea if, in say the year 2050, the country’s population is 350 million, with whites in the minority and the great bulk of the increase being non-European in origin? Some critics of Brimelow clearly think such questions should not be asked, apparently because they assume that Americans are racists who will come up with the wrong answer. The picture is complicated by the fact that native-born black Americans feel more strongly than whites that there are too many immigrants.
It was, I believe, wrongheaded for Brimelow to feature the race factor as he does. The American inhibition about addressing the race factor is not, as Brimelow seems to think, simply a matter of self-delusion or hypocrisy. Policies based on race-consciousness have bedeviled the American story, whether in their malign (slavery and segregation) or benign (quotas and affirmative action) forms. One need not deny the importance of race in everyday life in order to insist that public policy decisions should, as much as possible, be color blind. In fact, the reason for so insisting is precisely that race is so important. Brimelow’s raising of the race question, however, may be one reason that the book has received so much attention. It may also be the reason why, if Brimelow’s argument wins in the political arena (which seems more than possible), few people will give him or his book much credit in helping to transform U.S. immigration policy.
Of course Brimelow is right in claiming that there is a great deal of conscious and unconscious dishonesty in American discussions about race. (Yes, dishonesty can be so thoroughly internalized as to be unconscious.) Although the question regularly gets reconfigured, race is still the “American dilemma” that Gunnar Myrdal wrote about in 1944. Brimelow is simply tone-deaf to the American ways of calculated and constructive circumlocution on matters racial, dismissing such practice as nothing more than hypocrisy. Which is a shame, since his argument does not require the appeal to race. Many have become persuaded of the argument despite its appeal to race. Of course, Brimelow can respond that they are persuaded, at least in part, because of the racial factor but are not honest enough to admit it. Obviously, there is no way of proving the point one way or another.
Brimelow makes the telling point that, whatever may be the protocols for discussing race in America, there are a good many Americans on the pro-immigration side who violate them with apparent impunity. The proponents of sundry versions of multiculturalism do not hesitate to be very explicit about race, and to be stridently polemical against one racial group, namely, whites. Numerous textbooks, television shows, and movies are uninhibited in celebrating their version of a “pluralistic” America in which whites are, or will soon be, a minority. In this picture of the future, the real enemy is, of course, Western culture, with whites portrayed as the bearers of that plague.
If one side gets a free ride in pushing that racial-cultural line, is it fair to charge those who disagree with racism? Brimelow’s point is that the multiculturalist proponents of open immigration first raised and continue to press the question of race, and therefore their claim that he has injected race into the debate is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, as we were once allowed to say. Again and again, he returns to his bottom-line question, Shouldn’t the American people-citizens of every race and cultural background-be asked what kind of America they want for their grandchildren? It is disturbingly clear that many of Brimelow’s critics have made up their minds that that question should be answered in the negative.
Race aside, Brimelow makes a convincing case that existing immigration policy is a shambles, if not the “disaster” claimed in his subtitle. The question of immigration should be submitted to public debate and political decision. Most Americans likely think it self-evident that a country should have some standards for deciding who is admitted and who can become a citizen. Useful skills, law-abidingness, literacy, and a reasonable assurance that those admitted will not go on the public dole are among obvious criteria. Those who take seriously the Judeo-Christian character of our cultural story might want to propose policies that tilt in favor of people who share that story, although any attempt to do that directly would no doubt run into a legal buzzsaw. In this discussion, I am not overlooking the fact that an interesting moral argument can be made that America has an obligation to let in as many of the world’s people as want to come. It is an interesting argument that does not, I believe, stand up under close examination in an ethics seminar, and in the political arena it is a nonstarter.
The immigration reform of 1965 has not turned out the way its promoters promised it would. Nothing new in that. Whatever is done now will also have unintended consequences that a Peter Brimelow (or maybe Peter Brimelow himself) will thirty years down the road declare to be a “disaster.” But in a democracy the people are supposed to have a say in the policy disasters that are visited upon them. That this is currently happening on immigration is in large part due to the enterprise of Brimelow-O’Sullivan, although all the people who are now saying that “of course” something must be done about immigration are not going to give them much thanks. After all, America is not an extension of the British imperium!
The provisional resolution (and in politics everything is provisional) may be that immigration is brought under somewhat more rational control in a manner that sustains the conviction that we are and ought to be a nation of immigrants. Sustaining the conviction requires sustaining a generous level of immigration. The meaning of generous-and the difference between generosity and carelessness-is now being submitted to public debate. The outcome will almost certainly be fewer immigrants, legal and illegal, and greater attention to their successful assimilation. This can happen without rousing the furies of nativism, and without subverting the perception and reality of America as a bearer of universal aspiration. At least we may hope that it can happen.
Protestants, Catholics, Jews-they all complain about the press. Of course, everybody complains about the press (including the press), so why should religion be different? Fr. Avery Dulles has some helpful reflections on this perennial topic. He is speaking about the Catholic Church and the press, but what he has to say applies, mutatis mutandis, across the religious board.
“The secular press, because it belongs to the world and is directed toward a worldly audience, will never be the ideal organ for transmitting the Christian message,” writes Fr. Dulles, in typically understated manner, in the Jesuit journal America. But the secular press ought not therefore to be ignored. “Without prejudice to the religious press, it must be recognized that many Catholics learn what is happening in their church primarily, or in great part, from the secular media. It is also true that the Church has a responsibility to communicate not only with its own members but with the general public. The popular media of communication have a legitimate interest in religious news. It would be neither desirable nor possible to keep the Catholic Church out of the secular press.
” The Church, however, has not been “conspicuously succesful in its relations with the press”-the blame for which is commonly placed either (by Catholics) on the anti-Catholic bias of journalists or (by journalists) on Church leaders incapable of presenting the Church’s story in a proper light. “Neither of these contributing factors can be denied,” Fr. Dulles observes, “but the real sources of the difficulty lie deeper.” The nature of the Church’s message and the power of the media to communicate are necessarily in tension, for at least seven reasons, which are worth enumerating:
(1) The mystery of faith calls for an approach by reverence, by worship, while the investigative mode of the press makes for irreverence. (2) The Church, convinced of the permanent validity of revelation, seeks continuity with the past, while the press thrives on novelty-and consequently presents a picture of the Church in constant turmoil. (3) The Church seeks to promote unity, while the press specializes in disagreement-and gives the impression that every point of dogma is hotly disputed. (4) The Church is interested in spiritual realities, while the press seeks more tangible material-and thus tends to report Church events mainly when they have to do with sex, politics, or power. (5) The Church is hierarchical, while the press is ideologically egalitarian, and thus lionizes even marginal dissidents. (6) The teachings of the Church are usually complex and phrased in subtle theological vocabularies hundreds of years in developing, while the press wants brevity and simplicity-a.k.a. soundbites. (7) The Church seeks to persuade its hearers of the truth of revelation, while the press addresses a general and skeptical audience-and is typically hostile to claims of truth in matters spiritual and moral.
All the above does not mean that there are not anti-Catholic, and anti-Christian, journalists out there. There are, lots of them. And it does not mean that Church officials are not dumb in dealing with the press. They are, often. But Fr. Dulles’ point is that there are built-in tensions between the Church and the press, and, while we should work at better understanding all around, the tensions will not, and should not, go away.
Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart-with those names one has named most of the great classical music in existence, and for our money the same is true if you name only Bach and Mozart. Why should this be? It has been a puzzlement to me ever since I was a teenager. Whatever else might be said about the failures and barbarities of this century, surely one of the most telling judgments is that, with slight exceptions here or there, it has produced no great classical music. On any given day there are dozens of concerts in New York, and directors are always trying to slip in something “contemporary.” One suspects that for them, as for the audience, it is a matter of duty, of insisting that it simply can’t be true that mankind has lost its capacity to produce music of consequence. So people patiently put up with the boredom of the contemporary until, having done our duty, the concert gets back to the good stuff-meaning Bach, Brahms, etc.
It seems just possible that this doleful circumstance may be changing. Writing in Commentary, critic Terry Teachout sees something like a revival of the musical wisdom that several generations of the avant garde tried so hard to stifle. “Musical styles do not die out of their own accord: they must be replaced. The decline of interest in American-style minimalism is due in part to the emergence of a new style of classical composition that has found a comparably large popular audience. There is no commonly accepted term for this style, though it is sometimes referred to as ‘European mysticism’ or ‘holy minimalism.’ Its chief proponents are Henryk Górecki (b. 1933), the Estonian Arvo Part (b. 1935), and the British John Tavener (b. 1944). All three men are intensely religious, are associated with orthodox faiths, and write both secular scores and music intended for liturgical usage; all three use repetition in a manner broadly reminiscent of the American minimalists.”
It is not without significance that these three have sensibilities refined by the experience with the totalitarianism of our time. Part is Estonian, Górecki is Polish (and a friend of John Paul II), and Tavener, while British, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. The superficiality of Western musical sophistication-or what has for several decades been taken for sophistication-holds little appeal for them. Not, of course, that all composers of this century have been caught up in the swirling superficiality. As Teachout notes, composers such as Stravinsky, Bart”k, Hindemith, and Shostakovich embraced their places in the great tradition of Western art “and sought to expand the frontiers of tonality, rather than arrogantly seeking to create ‘new’ musical languages out of whole cloth.”
Yet it is possible that with the “holy minimalists” something really progressive is happening, a rediscovery of what was so long forgotten or denied. Teachout writes: “It is also of no small interest that the composers who have done the most in recent years to revive the language of tonality should all be religious (not excluding Glass, a convert to Tibetan Buddhism). Regardless of one’s own beliefs, there is something undeniably satisfying about the fact that the world of classical music at the end of the twentieth century is dominated by three men who can say of tonality what G. K. Chesterton said of his rediscovery of religious faith: ‘I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them, I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. . . . I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.’“
“Why are you so obsessed with these questions? Give it a rest.” A good many of our readers have probably received such counsel-whether the question be abortion, euthanasia, the genocidal murder of Christians in the Sudan, human rights violations in China, or some other matter worthy of obsession. Arthur Koestler was one of the great defenders of public decency in this century, and in January 1944 he published an article in the New York Times Magazine that was titled “On Disbelieving Atrocities.” It offers ever-pertinent insight into the experience of those who are “obsessed” with great horror. A refugee from Hitler’s continental New Order who was then living in England, Koestler tried to tell the world about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Koestler described himself as belonging to a group of “escaped victims or eyewitnesses . . . who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theaters and cinemas. Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a moment.” Koestler noted: “I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces. . . . But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourselves like puppies who got their fur wet; then the transparent screen descends again, protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound.”
“Give it a rest. Your relentlessness is disruptive of civil discourse.” Then and now, the “obsessed” cannot accept such counsel. It is very much worthwhile to quote Koestler at length: “We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years. We started on the night when the epileptic van der Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing-by hot steam, mass-electrocution, and live burial-of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far three million have died. It is the greatest mass killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worthwhile. The facts have been published in pamphlets, books, newspapers, magazines, and what not. But the other day I met one of the best-known American journalists over here. He told me that in the course of some recent public-opinion survey nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they don’t believe a word of it. As to this country, I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops, and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps; they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages in France, in the mass graves in Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka, or Belzec; you can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self-defense begins to work, and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock. Clearly all this is becoming a mania with me and my like. Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal. But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a fantasy world. So, perhaps, it is the other way round; perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened fantasy world because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were it not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your day-dreaming eyes would still be alive.”
She is a very good woman, there’s no doubt about that. But she is spiritually straitened by the intensity of her concern. A heroine of the pro-life cause, she is on the picket lines in front of the abortuaries, running the phone lines to get out the vote, and doing many other good things. Yet there is this drivenness. “How can we just go on,” she asks, “as if we did not know that four thousand innocent children are being killed every day in this country alone?” It is a question more often asked than many might think. It is all too much.
For more than twenty-five years now, I’ve been speaking to pro-life groups all over the place, and I frequently end up with a line from T. S. Eliot. (I have a higher estimate of Eliot’s faith than does my friend J. Bottum.) The line is from “East Coker”: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I’ve noticed in audiences that there are often people who, as penance for whatever sins, have come out to listen to me before, and you can tell that they see the line coming. It’s a fine line, I think, reflecting not resignation but an acknowledgment that ultimately we cannot set the world right. Only God can do that, and He will.
Christian devotion should not be driven; discipleship should not desiccate. The call to follow him is an invitation to splendor, to live in truth, in veritatis splendor. Chesterton understood that. Even in the face of the horror of it all, it is a great sin, he said, to call a green leaf gray. There is no place for whining or self-pity. Precisely in the face of the encroaching darkness, one defiantly lifts a tankard in tribute to the Crucified King. Robust is the word that comes to mind at the mention of Chesterton. Some dismiss his as a “manly” or even “muscular” Christianity, but that seems not such a bad thing in this wimpish world. The better term is adventuresome. He knew that there is a wildness to God’s mercy, and a wildness to being Christian in the world. It infected his view of the Church careening through history, coping with one thing after another. Recall the fine passage from Orthodoxy:
“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. . . . To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom-that would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
Bracing stuff, that. And Chesterton was by no means alone. The other day I came across this Chestertonian flurry in Charles Peguy, the great French poet. Peguy (d. 1914) was at times a revolutionary socialist; he wandered away from Christianity, and was then drawn back to a wild vision of the Christian as embodied in nature and history, no longer afraid of the dark because that is where the Incarnate God has hidden himself. Christians can afford to be heroes and heroines. Of heroism Peguy wrote: “Heroism is essentially a skill, a condition and an act of sound health, good spirits, joy, even merriment, almost of frivolous playfulness-in any case, an act of pleasure, well-being, an act of the unconstrained, relaxed, productive person, of security, self-mastery, self-possession, almost (so to speak) of custom and routine, of good manners. It is without any posturing or ulterior motive, and, above all, without any self-pity; without sighs and lamentations, without the wish to win a reward. The person who only wants to win is a bad player. What makes a great player is the will to play. He would far rather play without winning than win without playing.”
But it seems to do no good to tell my friend about Peguy’s vision of life as a noble game played in the presence of God. Or to ask her to join in lifting a defiant tankard in the face of all that would drain away life’s joy. Her devotion is earnest and driven, as though she carries the weight of the world’s wrong. There is no doubt that she believes and she loves-more than Chesterton or Peguy perhaps, certainly more than I. Heroism has many faces. There are many ways to be a saint.
The Ku Klux Klan, the Michigan Militia, and Scientology. To hear some folk tell it, Opus Dei (The Work of God) belongs to that company, except it is bigger and more dangerous. Opus Dei is, they say, a secretive, cult-like organization that is running a vast international conspiracy with unlimited funding and tentacles reaching into the most unlikely centers of power. In short, Opus Dei is “controversial.”
So how does one go about making up his mind about a movement such as this? I have no connections with Opus Dei, but over the last ten years I have developed friendships with a number of people, priests and laity, who are involved in The Work. For example, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the communications director for the Vatican. He is an extraordinarily personable gentleman, and we have had long conversations about, inter alia, the importance of Opus Dei in his life. He does not push the movement, but speaks in a matter-of-fact and utterly persuasive manner about how Opus Dei has helped him to understand and sustain his vocation as a Christian layman. And there are others in Opus Dei who speak in a similar vein. But in making up one’s mind there is no denying that a privileged witness is Pope John Paul II. He has been publicly and consistently supportive of Opus Dei, granting it in 1982 the singular status of a “personal prelature,” which means the jurisdiction of its bishop is not limited to a region but includes everyone in Opus Dei. In 1992 he beatified the founder of Opus Dei, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva, who died in 1975. The Pope has spoken of Opus Dei as an instrument of energetic orthodoxy that is a great gift for the renewal of the Church and its mission in the world. Of course that does not mean that Catholics must agree. Orthodox Catholics who otherwise have the greatest respect for the Pope have had bad experiences with Opus Dei and think that maybe he does not always know what the organization is actually doing. Be that as it may, in forming one’s approach to Opus Dei, the strong and consistent affirmation of John Paul II cannot help but carry very considerable weight.
Since it was established in Spain in 1928, there have been a slew of books attacking Opus Dei, and we are told that more are in the works. For those of a leftist disposition, it is sufficient damnation that Opus Dei members were prominent in the government of General Franco. It is seldom mentioned that those same Opus Dei members were key players in Spain’s successful transition to democracy. Today Opus Dei has about seventy-seven thousand members in eighty-three countries, including fifteen hundred priests and fifteen bishops.
One cannot emphasize too strongly that Opus Dei understands its mission to be the revival of the lay apostolate. While priests do the things that priests do in their capacity as spiritual directors, Opus Dei members frequently describe themselves as anticlerical. Not in the sense that they are opposed to clergy, but in that they oppose the old clericalist notion that lay people are second-class (at best) members of the Church. Opus Dei members sometimes suggest that the movement is responsible for Vatican II’s lifting up of the dignity of the lay vocation, which is undoubtedly going one claim too far. But it is ironic that some of the harshest critics, who think of themselves as great champions of the laity, have not recognized the similar inspiration in Opus Dei.
The Work became active in North America about twenty years ago, and now has approximately three thousand members and runs sixty-four centers (often residences near major universities), five high schools, and several retreats. The Opus Dei presence has not always been welcomed by Catholic ministries on campuses, and this has occasioned some notable controversies. The cause, it seems, is sometimes personality conflict, sometimes a too aggressive approach by Opus Dei, and, in a number of cases, resentment by super-progressive priests of a movement that proposes a different, and deeply conservative, way of being Catholic. The charge heard again and again is that Opus Dei is secretive and cult-like in recruiting new members.
These and other charges were again aired in a major article this past year in America, the Jesuit magazine (February 25, 1995). The issue had a lurid red cover with nothing but the words “Opus Dei” in sharp relief, and I approached it with the expectation of reading another slash-and-burn attack on the movement. It turned out, however, to be a reasonably temperate and balanced treatment-in comparison, that is, with the usual stuff on Opus Dei. A great deal of attention was given to the testimony of people who had had unhappy experiences with Opus Dei, and to the views of Kenneth Woodward, religion reporter for Newsweek, often a fair-minded fellow, who has a long-standing hostility to Opus Dei
Every movement has people who left for one reason or another, and, as is the case with jilted lovers, it is hard to know how to evaluate their testimony. They complain that they were recruited under the guise of friendship, that they were not told at first what they would be getting into, that women are separated from and subordinate to men, and so forth. What it apparently amounts to is that some people discovered that Opus Dei was not for them and were disappointed and embittered about that. Certainly Opus Dei is demanding. A full-fledged “numerary,” for instance, makes a commitment to celibacy, lives in an Opus Dei center, and follows a rigorous daily schedule of prayer and spiritual discipline. Clearly, it is not for everyone. But the critics say it is more than that, that Opus Dei is a cult. A few parents unhappy with their children’s association with Opus Dei have even formed an Opus Dei Awareness Network, and make the usual claims about “brainwashing” and the like.
I know some of these parents and cannot help but feel considerable sympathy. One wonders, however, if in some cases they are not experiencing, in intensified form, the pain of recognizing that their children are growing up and therefore, in a certain necessary sense, away from them. The mother of a young man I will here call Billy relates in tears how he went away to university, came into contact with Opus Dei in his third year, and now has decided to commit himself as a numerary. “He’s completely alienated from us.” “His father and I had such plans for him.” “He’s not my Billy that I knew four years ago.” Sympathy yes, but tempered sympathy. He strikes one as a sensible young man, mature for his years, and enormously grateful for the life he has found with Opus Dei. He insists he is not alienated from his parents, but every contact with them, especially with his mother, is an ongoing and ugly hassle over Opus Dei. “She can’t accept that I must do with my life what I believe God wants me to do.”
It is an intergenerational conflict that has been around from the beginning of time. Innumerable young people, including recognized saints, have caught a vision of radical discipleship and pursued a course vehemently opposed by parents and family. This should come as no surprise to people who follow the One who said, “He who loves father or mother more than me . . .” It is especially odd that this conflict should figure so large in a Jesuit magazine, for it is within living memory that a more demanding Society of Jesus was frequently accused of recruiting young men to a pattern of discipleship that pitted them against parents who had other plans for their children’s lives.
The America article also highlights the fact that the formal “constitutions” of Opus Dei are available in Latin and Spanish but not in English. This is taken as evidence that the organization is concealing something from outsiders, and even from its own members. Opus Dei responds that the Holy See, for some unknown reason, does not want the constitutions translated into English, although some members have told me that they are being translated. They add that the constitutions are merely legal stipulations, and that they contain nothing that members and prospective members are not told. In any event, the constitutions are readily available in Latin, and we know that there are still Jesuits who can read Latin. If there is anything they find objectionable in the constitutions, the critics of Opus Dei have ample opportunities to publicize their objections.
So why the intense, sometimes venomous, attacks on Opus Dei? In my experience, the members of Opus Dei are not secretive, but they are sometimes very defensive. That is perhaps understandable, given the nature and persistence of the attacks, but it is still a problem, and Opus Dei members with whom I have spoken generally recognize it as a problem. Then too, Opus Dei sometimes presents itself as the saving remnant of orthodoxy in a Church that is largely apostate. This is unattractive and, if not entirely untrue, greatly exaggerated. But such exaggeration is not surprising among people who feel that they are part of a rare, comprehensive, and commanding vision of what it means to serve Christ and his Church with the entirety of their being. Of course there is the danger of fanaticism, but it seems to me that Opus Dei is keenly aware of that, and its program of spiritual direction assiduously guards against it. People who think that the way to avoid fanaticism is never to surrender oneself to a commanding truth live desiccated lives and end up breeding their own, and usually less interesting, fanaticisms.
The opposition to Opus Dei cannot be explained without at least some reference to jealousy. Competition and jealousy among religious movements in the Catholic Church is nothing new, and some Opus Dei members are not hesitant to suggest that theirs is now the role in the Church once played by the Jesuits. The Jesuits, who were once viewed as the elite corps of the papacy, have in recent decades had a sharply attenuated relationship to the hierarchical leadership of the Church. The famous “fourth vow” of allegiance to the pope is now frequently understood by Jesuits as a vow to the papacy in general-meaning the papacy as they think it ought to be. (The articles on Jesuits and Jesuit spirituality in the new Encyclopedia of Catholicism, edited by Richard McBrien, make no mention of obedience to the pope.)
It is not surprising that this pontificate has looked with particular favor on Opus Dei, Focolare, Legionaries of Christ, and similar movements that have sprung up to champion the magisterium’s understanding of the renewal called for by Vatican II. As for Opus Dei itself, it is, as the Catholic Church views things, still a very young movement, and in this country its work has hardly gotten underway. From the general media and from liberal Catholics, it is not going to get a fair shake for a very long time, if ever. Opus Dei has, as they say, a big image problem, and it will have to learn to live with that without being intimidated by it. Over time, as more people became acquainted with the people who are Opus Dei, and as Opus Dei members engage in works that are generally respected, the day may come when Opus Dei will no longer be routinely described as “controversial.” And maybe not. There are some things eminently worth being controversial for. Meanwhile, one cannot help but be impressed by the people who believe that they have found in Opus Dei a way to make an unqualified gift of their lives to Christ and his Church.
• The general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, Samuel Mwaniki, has to recall twenty-four retired male pastors to run parishes where the people refused to accept women pastors. “Mwaniki lamented that many African Christians lived in the past, characterized by gender prejudice,” according to Ecumenical News International. “Once ordained, nothing makes women lesser mortals in the church,” said Mwaniki. Not a happy thought for women who are not ordained.
• It’s been a long time since we mentioned it, so once again: Feminists for Life is a lively and growing organization that is making a big dent on the stereotype that pro-woman equals pro-choice. They’ve recently upgraded their newsletter, The American Feminist, and you might want to take a look at it. They can be reached at 733 Fifteenth Street NW, Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20005.
• The explosion of Protestantism in Latin America should not be confused with the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), which recently held its third general assembly in Chile. This is mainly an assembly of what we here call mainline churches, and there are called “historic churches.” Liberation theologians such as Jose Miguez Bonino and C. Rene Padillo may have tempered their Marxist enthusiasms, but they addressed the assembly on the dangers of Roman Catholic “Constantinianism.” The more-radical-than-thou Brazilian Methodist professor, Nancy Cardoso Pereira, played the feminist and multiculturalist cards, receiving warm ovations for her call to abandon the premise that “there is only one God, one Lord Jesus Christ, one Holy Spirit.” She urged openness to the many gods and goddesses worshiped in Latin America (e.g., Pachamama, Tupa, Olorum, and Zambi). All excoriated capitalism and other evils of Yanqui imperialism. Ecumenical unity of sorts is achieved, it seems, by opposition to the Catholic and Yanqui threats. For the first time, CLAI decided not to invite any representatives of the Catholic Church in any capacity. That was not very nice, but some Catholic leaders admit to not worrying a great deal about what CLAI does or does not do. Only 1 percent of the CLAI budget comes from Latin America, with 98 percent coming from European and Yanqui churches. An article in the Christian Century takes note of that “embarrassing reality” and concludes, “As the prospects of foreign funding wane, CLAI may begin to lose its ability to function.” The author does not say whether that should be cause for regret.
• In the New York Review of Books Howard Gardner of Harvard discusses a number of books related to behaviorism, cognitive science, and the connection between mind and matter. He notes that, almost beginning with Noam Chomsky’s devastation of B. F. Skinner’s 1959 book Verbal Behavior, behaviorism has had rough sledding. Gardner concludes with this anecdote and reflection: “In Verbal Behavior Skinner recalls an evening in 1934 when he found himself sitting next to the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead at dinner. Skinner explained his new ideas enthusiastically to Whitehead, who listened with some sympathy. After a while, Whitehead said, ‘Let me see you account for my behavior as I sit here saying, “No black scorpion is falling upon this table.”’ Skinner reports that the next morning he drew up plans for the study reported in his book a quarter of a century later. We now know that Skinner’s effort was flawed. What remains to be seen is whether the writers reviewed here or their associates, individually or collectively, can shed more light on the question Whitehead asked-a question about the sources of human distinctiveness, imagination, and playfulness. Perhaps an entirely different perspective will be required.”
• In the debates over the National Endowment for the Arts some sharp words have been exchanged. But perhaps none quite so sharp as the Spectator’s Auberon Waugh on the state of contemporary art tout court. As in most of his commentaries, the Americans are the prime malefactors. “Thus the American abstract artist Frank Stella describes his important modern masterpiece Six Mile Bottom: ‘There at least seems to be a bilateral symmetry in all my work. The parts relate to and they are balanced simply and conventionally, but without being relational they don’t relate to any other part.’ We continue to listen to this twaddle-and a few people even pretend to find some meaning in it-for a reason which few of us may guess. The Modern Movement, which effectively ran out of all genuine vitality about sixty years ago, is kept on the road because the great American foundations have millions of dollars to spend on it. They continue to spend millions of dollars every year on this rubbish because if they didn’t they would have to accept that the billions and billions of dollars already spent on it had been poured down the drain, money wasted. The whole modern art scene is a gigantic anti-American joke, a worldwide conspiracy of intelligent, hard-headed rascals-at any rate in its higher manifestations. There are plenty of dupes and sincere twerps lower down who are able to convince themselves they can spot a nonrelational balancing interrelationship in any American daub they are shown.”
• Some catechists are shocked, simply shocked, by the idea that lay people-meaning people without any kind of professional training or certification-might actually read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for themselves. If things are not to be mediated and interpreted by professionals, just what are catechists for, after all? An amusing instance of this is by a John F. Craghan in “The Catechism and Future Catechetics,” published by Liguori Publications of Missouri. Craghan reminds the laity that the Catechism is addressed to the bishops, and that catechists will prepare materials fit for lay consumption that “will reflect [our] culture’s interpretation of the Catholic tradition.” Such materials will replace the “sexist language” with “inclusive language,” of course, will reflect the U.S. bishops’ teaching on the economy and peace (or one version of that teaching), and will in other respects correct the deficiencies of the Catechism itself. “Theologians, biblicists, historians, liturgists, catechists, etc. will be asked to pool their talents for the good of the community.” (Biblicists? Surely he means biblical scholars.) Craghan continues: “That good will also demand their improving certain areas in the Catechism. Loyalty to the tradition also calls for the courage to change.” He then adds, “‘A disciple is not above the teacher,’ Jesus tells us today, ‘but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.’“ Clearly the teacher in question is not John Paul II or the Church’s magisterium but the catechetical guild. For Craghan and those of like mind, it is likely a cause of deep regret that millions of copies of the Catechism are already in circulation, thus making it too late to chain it to the library post where access could be limited to the catechetically correct. One would not be at all surprised to learn that John Craghan believes himself to be a strong proponent of empowering the laity.
• The truth is not always shocking, frightening, or novel; sometimes the greatest good sense is found in straightforward and anodyne statements of old-fashioned truths. At their fifteenth meeting, the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee made such a statement, finding shared commitments to the family in Catholic and Jewish traditions. “The family is humanity’s most precious resource,” the Committee members declared in the joint statement. “The family is far more than a legal, social, or economic unit. For both Catholics and Jews it is a stable community of love and solidarity based on God’s covenant. It is uniquely suited to teaching and handing on the cultural, ethical, social, and spiritual values that are essential for the development and well-being of its members and of society. The rights and obligations of the family in these areas do not come from the State but exist prior to the State and ultimately have their source in God the Creator.” Great differences remain to be discussed in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, but what serious Catholics and Jews have in common is, as this statement reminds us, a continuing commitment to the sort of things that used to seem obvious.
• Art, said St. Thomas Aquinas, is recta ratio factibilium-an activity rightly ordered not to the producer of the work of art, and not to the viewer, but to the work of art itself. Somewhere in the nineteenth century, we seemed to decide that art should be about artists (and so high art and the aesthetes appeared) or that art should be about viewers (and so low art and the philistines appeared). Twentieth-century postmodernists, in claiming to be high artists ironically slumming in low art, are at least seeking some escape from the nineteenth-century division. But the only real possibility for escape requires that we seek through art the object of beauty in all its integrity, consonance, and effulgence (to borrow from St. Thomas again). And that requires artists to have a sense of the Transcendent, a sense-not to put too fine a point on it-of God. There is at least one journal, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, that has since 1989 been seeking out writers and visual artists who have this sense of the Transcendent. The world of art in America is nearly as complicated as the world of religion, and even more difficult to address. There is the question of what constitutes authentic religious art. A weak theology makes a weak theologian, while a weak theology doesn’t necessarily make a weak artist. But Image consistently aims for Christian orthodoxy (broadly construed), and does succeed in finding strong artists. Subscriptions to the quarterly journal may be obtained by calling 1 (800) 815-2997.
• John Adams Hurson, majority leader of the House of Delegates in Maryland, responds to a citizen who urges him to take a position in favor of the legal protection of the unborn. Mr. Hurson writes: “Being a Roman Catholic, my religion teaches that abortion is the taking of life. But religious beliefs require an act of faith. Incorporating religion into the laws of the state violates the separation of church and state.” Seldom is a dumb position stated so flat-footedly. Biology, not religion, teaches that abortion is the taking of life. Further, the real act of faith is to believe that in a democracy the laws of the state can be sustained in isolation from the moral convictions of its citizens, including moral convictions formed by religious faith. By the logic of Mr. Hurson and too many other politicians, the Constitution requires that disagreements about morality must always be resolved in favor of the position that is not supported by religious tradition. It is a logic as embarrassingly incoherent as, for some politicians, it is wondrously expedient.
• “Thank God I’m alive and my baby is healthy,” said Jean Morgan of Hauppauge, Long Island, after being rescued from the trunk of her car where two thugs had locked her in six hours earlier. Mrs. Morgan was five months pregnant. That is from the story in the New York Times. On the same morning, the anchor on New York One, a local news show, concluded her version of the story with, “Both mother and baby are well.” Then a brief look of consternation and this correction, “I mean the fetus, of course.”
• Both Jacob Neusner and Isaac Rottenberg are familiar to FT readers. In the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, the latter challenges the former’s suggestion that the Jewish-Christian dialogue to date has been pretty much a fraud. Many years ago, Arthur Cohen declared that the idea of a common Judeo-Christian tradition is a “myth,” and Neusner agrees. Rottenberg says Neusner is in fact asking us to “accept the fact that Judaism and Christianity are entirely different and essentially unrelated religions.” “In short,” writes Rottenberg, “Neusner seeks dialogue with a radically de-Judaized Christianity. . . . I believe that to that invitation we must say ‘No, thank you.’ We have gone that route before; we have done so contrary to the New Testament witness, and it has had disastrous consequences. On that point Christians must simply say ‘Never again,’ because it would mean a return to bad history and ancient heresies.” Rottenberg continues: “For Christians the answer to supersessionism and sinful triumphalism cannot be total separation, because the very soul of the church’s kerygma lies in the message of Moses and the prophets to which Jesus claimed to be faithful and to which he wanted to be true-even unto death. Perhaps Neusner is right when he argues that we have gone too far too fast, or at least have prematurely assumed points of consensus where there was still much mutual incomprehension. I see no problem in focusing on Neusner’s approach to mutual clarification, but all that, it seems to me, is still pre-dialogical. In the end Jews and Christians must face what Arthur Cohen has called ‘a contest of truth.’ Such a dialogue will involve a good deal of disputation, but let us hope that we will have learned to do that with a measure of grace and humor.”
• After years of study, the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law came out strongly against the legalizing of assisted suicide. In an editorial titled “Mercy for the Dying,” the New York Times, all too predictably, criticized the Task Force in harsh terms. Tracy E. Miller, executive director of the Task Force, responded with this letter to the editor: “You presume that many patients would want to commit suicide. Many people believe they might opt for suicide rather than endure a vastly diminished quality of life. Yet often when patients are confronted with terminal illness, continued life becomes more precious. Most terminally ill people, when given appropriate relief from pain and depression, even those with AIDS and cancer, do not want to kill themselves. You dismiss the risks of legalizing assisted suicide noted in our report as ‘nightmarishly speculative.’ We do not presume doctors want to kill their patients to save money. We identify more subtle and pervasive risks: doctors who are caring but too harried to explain the alternatives to patients, those who will recommend suicide without appreciating the profound effect the recommendation will have on patients, and those who will not treat pain and depression before offering death as a preferred option. Undertreatment of pain and depression, which most commonly lead patients to think of suicide, are widespread in clinical practice. ‘Burnout’ and lack of familiarity with pain relief correlate with physician willingness to endorse or assist suicide. You assume that if we had the right guidelines, abuse or mistakes would be minimized. How many lives lost to abuse or mistake would be too many? How could society enforce any standards for decisions shrouded in the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship? It is also naive to assume assisted suicide could be insulated from bias and social inequality. In a recent study, those treated for cancer at centers that care predominantly for minority patients were three times less likely to get adequate pain relief. Blacks are also far less likely than whites to get such procedures as coronary bypass surgery. Mercy for the dying is an undebatable goal, but we must not endanger the vulnerable.”
• On the one hand, there is the ordination of women, and, on the other, the move toward lay presidency at the Eucharist. In the Anglican communion, both are going on at the same time, and are frequently supported by the same people. The diocese of Sydney, Australia, has already approved lay presidency, and it is being debated elsewhere. Some women protest lay presidency, wondering what’s the big deal about being ordained if ordination doesn’t matter. Monica Furlong, an English activist and author, sees no contradiction between campaigning for the ordination of women and having the Eucharist without an ordained person presiding. At her St. Hilda’s community, one lay person says the words “for convenience,” but the idea is that “the whole community does the celebrating.” “The priesthood of women is about declericalizing the Church,” she says, “changing it in a way that makes it inclusive. The unseen priesthood is what interests me more than the lay presidency. What we are about is eating supper together in the context of Christ, and that is a moving experience.” Paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor’s famous retort to Mary McCarthy: If it’s just a moving experience, I say to hell with it.
• Reviewing a book on American exiles in Paris, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times refers to “Maurice Girodias, best known as a purveyor of pornography in his famous Olympia Press but also not incidentally the publisher of such modern classics as Nabokov’s Lolita, J. P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Pauline Reage’s Story of O.” So it isn’t as though Girodias only published pornography.
• It’s playing in Peoria. In 1991 there were 1,210 divorces in Peoria. That year the clergy there adopted “Community Marriage Policy” (CMP), and in 1992 there were 947 divorces. Cause-effect relations are hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt, but in twenty-seven cities across the country clergy are persuaded that CMP is making a difference. CMP is the brainchild of religion columnist Michael McManus, who has written a book and, with the help of the Southern Baptists and the American Family Association, put together instructive videos under the title Marriage Savers. The idea is that clergy and local churches agree not to marry couples who have not prepared for marriage, and to foster “church interventions” to save marriages in trouble. In six videos, couples discuss how their lives were changed by church interventions that helped them to avoid a bad marriage before it starts, to obtain “marriage insurance” as engaged couples, to strengthen existing marriages, to save even deeply troubled marriages, to reconcile separated and divorced couples, to enable the divorced to recover, and to help people avoid a second divorce. Everybody is talking about the importance of family formation and saving marriages; Mike McManus and his growing host of friends are doing something about it. For information, write him at 9500 Michael’s Court, Bethesda, MD 20817.
• Ken Burns brought us The Civil War on PBS a couple of years ago, and it was something extraordinary. Since then there have been a number of shamelessly imitative spin-offs. For instance, Burns’ own Baseball, which was properly scorched by George Weigel for its political correctness (Commentary, November 1994). Both spin-off and rip-off was Paul and Ellen Wagner’s Out of Ireland, also shown on PBS. The two-hour program acknowledged that Catholicism had something to do with the immigrant Irish, and so the Catholic Church got three minutes of attention, along with Irish views on leprechauns, fairies, and other superstitions. Out of Ireland repeatedly projected photographs over the reading of letters to which the people in the photographs had no connection, and laced the program with generally banal commentators striving, and pathetically failing, to do what Shelby Foote did for The Civil War. Of course the Irish immigration was not the Civil War, but millions of people fleeing from oppression and hunger to find a new life in a new world is a story not devoid of dramatic possibilities.
• The usually sensible and entertaining Spectator (London) has David Caute, of all people, review the much-discussed book The Secret World of American Communism by Harvey Klehr et al. (Yale University Press). If the review is meant as entertainment, it doesn’t quite come off. Drawing on newly opened Soviet archives, The Secret World, almost all scholars agree, demolishes the lie that American Communists were simply “liberals in a hurry.” The archives resoundingly vindicate Whittaker Chambers and others who depicted Communists in the U.S. as active agents in the pay and under the direction of the Soviet Union, and dedicated to the betrayal of their country for the sake of The Revolution. The problem is that Mr. Caute is one of the chief perpetrators of the old lie, having in 1978 published The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower, the gist of which was to pooh-pooh any Communist threat and demonstrate how Joe McCarthy and his minions brought liberty-loving Americans to their knees. In 1995 David Caute can and does write, “The Soviet threat, whether real or perceived, served as a pretext for reversing the New Deal and keeping Negroes in their place.” Whether real or perceived? Faced by Klehr & Co. with irrefutable documentary proof that he had been duped all these years, Caute can only react with an extended and irrelevant complaint that the Yale scholars have received handsome foundation support for their research. That such research is well supported is hardly surprising; not nearly so surprising as David Caute having access to the pages of the Spectator for his continuing exercises in mendacity.
• According to our local paper, a Dr. Mark Siegler, who, as they say, “does” medical ethics at the University of Chicago, was holding forth on the marvelous new technologies for extending life. “A generation ago,” Dr. Siegler said, “death was not optional.” Think about it.
• Rodney Clapp of InterVarsity Press is ambivalent about the ascendancy of religious conservatives in our political culture. “One way the religious right can be read is as the latest manifestation of the evangelical refusal to admit and accept the passing of Americanized Constantinianism-which basically means evangelicalism’s own hegemony over the culture. The religious right tenaciously, if vaguely, holds to the memory of the evangelical religious, legislative, and educational domination of this country that did not erode until the late nineteenth century. A few years ago, historian Douglas Frank provocatively suggested that American evangelicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries switched from a postmillenial to a premillennial eschatology because they lost control of the nation. Put oversimply, when things were under their reign, evangelicals easily assumed God was triumphing through their regnant institutions. When the Lord returned, he would be greeted by a materially triumphant church. But when things were no longer under their reign, evangelicals assumed the country was going to hell, yet ingeniously gained another sort of control by claiming to possess ultimately powerful knowledge-the exact timetable for the Lord’s return, and the way to escape God’s wrath while seeing justice done to those who resisted the true way. Such an eschatology allows-if not encourages-the anger and fear now so pervasive among conservative evangelicals. It expects matters to grow worse and worse (read, more and more out of evangelical control), eventually pitting out in an absolute moral and social nadir just before Jesus returns. Whatever its strengths, this eschatology is terribly susceptible to an ugly and smug spirit of triumphalism. There is little about it that urges conservative evangelicals to beware their own sinful and self-deceptive construals of unfolding history.” Clapp agrees that there is a great deal of bigotry, especially on campuses and in the media, against Christian conservatives, but the bigotry is mixed with legitimate anxiety that evangelicals are trying to get back at the culture that disestablished them. “Then, I want to say, they are not only failing to be politically correct. They are failing to be theologically correct.” Christian Reconstructionists, sometimes called theonomists, keep on ploughing their eccentric Calvinist furrow, and along the way turn up new ideological enemies and even heresies. Pessimillennialism, for instance. Chalcedon Report, the chief Reconstructionist voice, notes: “One of the most devastating ideological strongholds that inhibits the development and implementation of a consistent biblical worldview is what is now popularly known as Pessimillennialism.” Within the constricted world of Reconstructionism, ten people being aware of something makes it popularly known. The author continues, “Pessimillennialism is the belief that regardless of what Christians do, it is God’s plan that the Church (and thus Christian culture) suffer inevitable disaster and defeat in this age. Pessimillennialism thus robs Christians of the expectation of and motivation for victory in time.” In view of what might be described as theonomy’s Optimillennialist plans for reconstructing society on the basis of its understanding of “Bible Law,” a measured sympathy for the Pessimillennialists is perhaps in order.
• In Bergamo in Northern Italy there is an order of nuns with the hefty name of Little Sisters of the Poor of the Palazzolo Institute. They have medical sisters working all over Africa, including Zaire, where six have died from the Ebola virus, having been infected while ministering to others with the disease. Sister Bakita Sartore was asked whether the sisters who died might have taken greater precautions. She said, “You cannot care for the poor in astronaut suits.”
• In an editorial bemoaning President Clinton’s flip-flopping on almost every question he addresses, the New Republic concludes: “It would be pitiful, if it weren’t so deeply depressing.” Or maybe it would be deeply depressing, if it weren’t so pitiful. Or something.
• In speeches and in letters written on official embassy stationery, Raymond L. Flynn, U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and former Mayor of Boston, has been taking it upon himself to explain that Catholic social teaching comes down on President Clinton’s side in his battles with the Republican Congress. A couple of years of breathing the wisdom of the eternal city produces insights such as these: “As with all human undertakings, some of the Great Society programs to assist the poor and disadvantaged did not work according to their promise, but we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.” Flynn notes that some Republicans have criticized him “for pointing out the similarity between Catholic social teaching and the Clinton Administration programs to assist the poor.” He is unfazed. “I do not see the conflict. The Vatican and the present administration do disagree on many things, but not on the necessity to assist the poor and less fortunate.” Those who oppose Mr. Clinton, it is understood, are against helping the poor and less fortunate. Our sources in Rome would like to have it understood that Raymond Flynn does not represent the Holy See in the American political fray. Since he obviously does not understand the job, perhaps it is time to get somebody else to do what Ambassador Flynn is paid to do, namely, represent the U.S. to the Holy See.
• The letter is addressed to “Dear Freedom-Loving American,” so of course we read it eagerly. It begins with a fictional news story dated April 27, 2003, which tells about the execution of a woman who obtained an abortion, and goes on this way: “Imagine, if you can, an America in which a thirty-year-old woman could be put to death for aborting a fetus that had no chance of survival-and that might have caused her death as well! Or an America in which you could get thrown in jail just for possessing a book illustrating ‘forbidden’ love-making techniques. Or owning a contraceptive device. . . . Or bearing a child out of wedlock. Or-heaven help you!-living with the opposite sex without ‘benefit of clergy.’ Imagine a long prison term, without parole, for publishing a book that challenged the existence of the supernatural. Or six months’ hard labor for ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’ . . .” It goes on in that vein for four pages, all this promoting “FREE INQUIRY: THE VOICE TO COUNTER THE DEMAGOGUES!” The magazine is published by the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism in Amherst, New York (Professor Paul Kurtz, bishop and founder). One shudders to think of the pickle we’d be in if we didn’t have such a sober and dispassionate voice to counter the demagogues.
• Those who were on the ground floor of launching the enterprise called biomedical ethics-people such as Leon Kass, Paul Ramsey, Edmund Pellegrino, and Dan Callahan-were not entirely sure that it could ever become a discipline, and the more thoughtful participants in the enterprise are not sure that it has. A medical ethicist, it is said, is someone who declares himself to be such and is recognized as such by others who have declared themselves to be such. But much the same can be said of any discipline. Presumably they are people who have thought a lot about medicine and ethics in the company of others who have thought a lot about medicine and ethics. In any event, the discipline, even presenting itself as a profession, is with us, and is not likely to go away soon. On the contrary, as these folk (sometimes called bioethicists) encounter more problems (and produce more problems), their services become increasingly mandatory. Not least of all because people in the research and practical ends of medicine need somebody around to give them ethical permission to do what they want to do, and there has to be a body of people who are authorized to hand out permission slips. In short, one views biomedical ethics with a measure of ambivalence. Since it is around, however, it is worth knowing what these people are up to, which is why a new monthly publication may be of interest to some readers. It is called Moral Community: The Monthly Digest of Health Care Ethics News, and is edited by Philip Foubert. (A one-year subscription is $109 from Ethics Consultation Services, 38003 Hood Canal Drive N.E., Hansville, WA 98340.)
• By describing himself as a “bloodless utilitarian,” Robert Wright of the New Republic perhaps signals a certain uneasiness about his bloody argument. In his regular “TRB” column, Wright asks why people make such a big deal about China scheduling the execution of prisoners to get body parts for sale to rich patients. He allows that China shouldn’t be sentencing people to death for their political beliefs, but, since they do, it would be a shame to let fresh corpses go to waste. Anyway, Wright notes, the rich get preferential medical treatment in America, too. As for the really bad guys, we owe them nothing. “If after Ted Bundy’s execution you could have given his liver to some child who would otherwise die, would you have done so? . . . If accelerating Ted Bundy’s death by a week would save the life of your son or daughter or sibling, would the idea acquire some moral plausibility?” In the pages of the New Republic this passes for moral philosophy. As for the Chinese marketing the organs of executed prisoners, Wright says that “we don’t have enough data to deem the practice immoral in some universal, self-evident sense.” Data? It is a word that would occur only to bloodless utilitarians as being pertinent to forming a judgment about the killing and exploitation of human beings.
• “The importance of maintaining appropriate regard for nascent human life cannot be overstated.” That’s from the conclusion of a little medical ethics essay by Sister Jean deBois of the Saint Louis University Medical Center. “Appropriate” is such a convenient word. It enables Sister Jean not to let regard for nascent human life get in the way of her conclusion that “once the diagnosis of anencephaly has been made the pregnancy may be terminated at any time.” Anencephalic babies are missing major portions of the brain and die within a few hours of birth. The official Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Facilities says that “Abortion, that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability, is never permitted.” The common practice is to wait until the baby reaches the stage of viability when labor is induced, the baby is delivered, and then is given “comfort care” and allowed to die. Employing the ethical theory of proportionalism, Sr. Jean proposes that “viability” be redefined so as to apply only to “a live born infant having the capacity for continued, integrated growth and development.” Given the “emotional trauma” experienced by a couple upon diagnosis of anencephaly, and given the fact that the baby will never be “viable” by the criteria proposed, abortion is permissible at any time. The essay does not challenge the pernicious use of prenatal testing undertaken with an eye toward aborting the unfit. Moreover, given the plasticity of criteria such as “continued, integrated growth and development,” combined with the appeal to the psychological suffering of the mother, the logic invites an extension to the possibility of eliminating almost any unwanted child. While presumably being limited to the rare instances of anencephaly, the structure of the argument is indistinguishable from that employed by the proponents of abortion on demand. It is not surprising that, according to informed sources, at St. Louis University Medical Center handicapped babies have been aborted, sterilizations are performed, and contraception is commonly prescribed. In the current climate of health care restructuring, many Catholic institutions are entering into new relationships with non-Catholic facilities, and it seems likely that statements about “appropriate regard for nascent human life” will increasingly accent the “appropriate.” Appropriate-as in proportion to the good to be achieved by doing evil.
• The toy Doberman snaps again. When Senator Bob Dole criticized Time Warner for exploiting sundry human depravities, Frank Rich of the New York Times charged that he was flirting with anti-Semitism because the CEO of Time Warner is Jewish. To which the formidable Michael Medved responds in the Jewish weekly, Forward: “Leave it to a Frank Rich to try to strengthen in the public’s mind the association of Hollywood irresponsibility with Jewish people. It’s absolutely ludicrous for anyone to suggest that criticism of Hollywood is by its nature anti-Semitic.” Why, some of our best friends agree with Frank Rich, which does not necessarily make them anti-Semites. They do not really intend to discredit legitimate concern about anti-Semitism. Mr. Rich, we assume, does not intend to do that either. It seems he just can’t help himself. • “In the Case of Pat Robertson” in the August issue of Commentary is a brilliant inquiry by Norman Podhoretz into charges of anti-Semitism brought against Robertson and, more generally, against the Christian Right. After weighing the evidence with care, and censuring Robertson’s delinquencies on several scores, Mr. Podhoretz concludes that Jews should recognize in Robertson and the movement he represents a friend and ally. A similar conclusion is reached by Toby Bulman Katz, writing in the Summer 1995 issue of Jewish Action, a publication of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Criticizing the attacks on Christian activists by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and others, Katz writes: “If the United States becomes a noticeably more religious country over the next few years, Jews, especially secular Jews, may feel a certain level of psychological discomfort. However, the specific goals of the Christian Right are goals which Torah-true Jews generally share. Furthermore, trying to thwart the popular will is more likely to provoke than to prevent anti-Semitism. We should show a face of friendship and commonality rather than one of rejection and enmity to the newly reemerging Christian majority, while maintaining a certain inevitable wariness. It is particularly saddening to see Jews, the people who gave the world the Bible, treating religious believers as the enemy, merely because they love our Book too well. Where right-wing groups or individuals cross the line into anti-Semitism or bigotry, the ADL has the right and the duty to sound the alarm. But it is not part of the ADL’s mandate to involve itself in partisan political battles.”
• Of course it’s a lie, but the sheer brazenness of it elicits something akin to respect. It’s this week’s new Bible translation (it does seem there is one every week), which is, as is all too often the case, no translation at all. This one is called The Inclusive New Testament and is published by an outfit called Priests for Equality in Hyattsville, Maryland. Read what Anne Carr, professor of theology at the University of Chicago, no less, says about it: “The text reads smoothly and beautifully, betraying no other agenda than a faithful rendition of the New Testament.” Uh huh. Then read the allegedly faithful rendition of, for instance, Colossians 3:18f. But first recall the passage (Revised Standard Version): “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” And so forth. Now the same (so to speak) passage in The Inclusive New Testament: “You who are in committed relationships, be submissive to each other. This is your duty in Christ Jesus. Partners joined by God, love each other. Avoid any bitterness between you.” And so forth. What to do when faced with a problematic text? Simply to say it is wrong might offend the faithful. Explaining how it really says what one wishes it to say takes effort, and may be unpersuasive. The much easier, albeit dishonest, thing is to rewrite the text and call it a translation. Professor Carr is the author of Transforming Grace. Watch for her next book, Transforming Texts.
• (1) Reporters, talk show producers, and other media drones who tell you how much and how long they have admired your work, and then begin the interview with the question, “Have you written anything about religion in America?” (2) College students who say they are writing a paper on you and ask you to send them a fifteen-page summary of your thought on this or that. In other words, Please write my paper for me. (3) Writers of three-page letters who saw something you said in a newspaper, offer ten points in objection, demand an explicit and detailed response to each, and are offended when you politely suggest that they read an article or at least look at a book in which you have dealt with exactly the points raised. (4) Strangers who send you a four-hundred-page manuscript and insist upon a dust jacket blurb because it is the most important book to be published in the last couple of centuries, and because you are favorably quoted in a footnote on page 273. The foregoing are among our least favorite things about this job. Please don’t do them. This plea is prompted by all of them happening, once again, this week. “The almost total identification of the Religious Right with the new Republican majority in Washington is a dangerous liaison of religion with political power.” That’s from a “Cry for Renewal” signed by a hundred folk described as religious leaders, and written by our old friend Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Christian Century’s favorite evangelical, sociologist Tony Campolo. There is indeed a danger in the liaison between religion and political power, but it seems somewhat late, if not disingenuous, for some of the signers to be pointing that out. Jim Wallis, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning of the Episcopal Church, and Joan Campbell Brown of the National Council of Churches (NCC) have devoted most of their lives to cultivating the liaison between religion and liberal politics. (Why the declaration carries the signature of J. I. Packer is a puzzlement.) Frank Rich of the New York Times loved the statement, declaring that “Christians flee the Christian Coalition.” He quotes one of the signers, Robert Brooks, who flatly declares, “I tell you that the Christian Coalition does not speak for me, and it does not speak for the Episcopal Church.” So there. That should decisively scotch the rumor that Ralph Reed had enlisted the support of the Episcopal Church in exchange for taking over its multi-million dollar debts resulting from embezzlement and general mismanagement. Refusing to compromise their integrity, the Episcopalians and the NCC will just have to find some other way of paying last month’s phone bill. “Cry for Renewal” repeatedly claims to speak for “biblical faith,” which is defined exclusively in terms moral, social, and political. In this curious version of “biblical faith” there is not a mention of sin, redemption, the cross, resurrection, or the hope of glory. We counted one reference to God and one to Jesus, the latter only to point out that he teaches us not “to abandon or blame the poor for their oppression.” We are told that “religious faith and values” should make public discourse “more honest, moral, civil, and spiritually sensitive.” The statement alludes to many questions that we need to engage in a more honest, moral, civil, and spiritually sensitive way. Among the questions not mentioned are: abortion, euthanasia, parental choice in education, religion in public schools, welfare dependency, crime, divorce, and collapsing family structures. “Cry for Renewal” is, in sum, a patently partisan attack on the “dangerous liaison of religion with political power” by those whose party used to be in charge of that liaison. It refuses to address the issues that most divide Americans, it exacerbates the incivility that it deplores, and it has little or nothing to do with biblical faith. But in this season of their discontent, we should perhaps not begrudge the Frank Riches of American religion and culture whatever scraps of consolation they can scavenge from the rubble of their former rule. • I suppose it was supposed to be something like an expose. Writing in the Christian Century, Leon Howell reports that organizations such as the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the Ethics and Public Policy Center receive grants from foundations. His article concludes with this, “Neoconservatives have shown not only that they are ready and eager to battle over the shape of the culture, but that they are willing to invest in the journals and think tanks that help mobilize the troops. Neuhaus, [George] Weigel, and others might say that neoconservatives have flourished in the culture wars largely on the strength of their ideas. But the money from [foundations] hasn’t hurt.” He is entirely right about that, of course. The ideas haven’t hurt either. Actually, Mr. Howell is something of an expert on the indispensability of building a support base among readers and contributors. Two years ago, as editor, he presided over the demise of the once distinguished liberal publication Christianity & Crisis, which died of terminal lack of interest.
• “Father Neuhaus is a man who on occasion plays fast and loose with the truth,” reports the Christian News, a national publication issuing from New Haven, Missouri. Back in February, I noted in these pages that when I was a boy the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, to which I belonged, taught that it was “the true visible church on earth.” Christian News offers this clarification: “No serious Missouri Synod theologian ever contended that the LC-MS is, in and of itself, the true visible church. The LC-MS and other confessional Lutheran bodies have always held that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the true visible church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church encompasses all church bodies and synods that hold to God’s inerrant Word, the Holy Bible, and to the Book of Concord as a correct and true exposition of the Holy Scriptures.” I stand corrected. I should have said that the Missouri Synod taught that the Missouri Synod and other bodies that are in agreement with the Missouri Synod constitute the true visible church on earth. The way I put it made it sound as though the teaching represented a somewhat narrow view of the comprehensiveness of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
• Our most influential American church historian, Martin E. Marty, notes in his newsletter, Context, some data from Jews and the New American Scene by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab (Harvard University Press), a book on which we have previously commented. Jews, who are approximately 2 percent of the American population, “have made up 50 percent of the top two hundred intellectuals, 40 percent of American Nobel Prize-winners in science and economics, 20 percent of the professors at the leading universities, 21 percent of high-level civil servants, 40 percent of partners in the leading law firms of New York and Washington, 26 percent of the reporters, editors, and executives of the major print and broadcast media, and 59 percent of the directors, writers, and producers of the fifty top-grossing motion pictures.” Marty then asks, “What will Pat Robertson do with such statistics?” The more pertinent question is, What is Martin Marty doing with such statistics? Apart from taking a mean-spirited swipe at Pat Robertson, that is. Pat Robertson has been quite clear about what he makes of the role of Jews and Judaism in modern history (see “Anti-Semitism and Our Common Future,” June/July 1995). Robertson believes that Jews are God’s chosen people, recognizes the talent and energy of many Jews, has placed Jews in high positions in his organizations, and is a generous supporter of Israel. Robertson is, to put it gently, no historian, and he has no doubt said many things that can and should be faulted. Not among them, to the best of our knowledge, is implying that those with whom he disagrees are anti-Semitic. Or perhaps that is not what Professor Marty intended to suggest with his question, “What will Pat Robertson do with such statistics?”
• On the day the London Times ran a story about a Church of England bishop who succeeded in raising an eyebrow or two by explaining the expendability of yet another cardinal doctrine of the faith, this letter to the editor appeared (from a man who lives on “Church Street” in Somerset): “Sir, There doesn’t seem very much left for us agnostics not to believe in.”