The Public Square
The day Mother Teresa died, an editor at USA Today asked for an op-ed piece, which I did. In it I quoted her words upon receiving the Nobel Prize for peace (see below). The next day a more senior editor called to say they couldn’t use it. “We had in mind,” he said, “more on the role of the media and less on abortion.” In other words, they didn’t want a piece on Mother Teresa.
She was a most improbable celebrity. Less than five feet short and craggy-faced, she was born in, of all places, Albania, and followed God’s call to live with and for “the poorest of the poor,” the street people of Calcutta. And there she died at age eighty-seven. Not a very promising career path toward becoming one of the best known and most loved people of the century. But, of course, that was not her goal.
In the same week Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed, and inevitably comparisons were made. The media frenzy and orgy of bathos was tasteless in the extreme, but it is fitting that she was mourned. Striking, however, were the commentators, many of them secularist to the bone, who went on about her having been “canonized” as a “saint.” It is strange how even the Church’s enemies reach for the Church’s vocabulary when their words fail them. It was “the week of two saints,” according to one news program. Comparisons need not be invidious, but the contrast could hardly be sharper. Diana was killed at age thirty-six in the company of a wealthy playboy who, it was intimated to the press, she intended to marry. Born into British aristocracy, she had married into the royal family, and loaned her publicity to approved causes. And yes, she was beautiful.
The other woman was vowed to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience; her only beauty was her laughter and her eyes (what laughter! what eyes!); they reflected the joy of doing, as she put it, “something beautiful for God.” It is no criticism to note that we probably never would have heard of Diana had she not married Prince Charles. Like some dissident Catholic theologians, she owed her celebrity entirely to the institution that she trashed. At the same time, we should never have heard of Mother Teresa. The whole point, after all, was to hide her life away in the lives of those whom the world is glad enough to forget. The unwanted, the unneeded, the unloved. Mother Teresa’s goal, she often said, was not to be successful but to be faithful. But astonishingly successful she was, in a curious way. As wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove, she employed that success in the service of the truth that she served.
A Fool for Christ
The rumor got out about this little nun in India doing something beautiful for God, and it was spread far and wide, notably by the late Malcolm Muggeridge of BBC. Over the years she would become a spiritual magnet, and today the Missionaries of Charity count more than four thousand sisters and novices, four hundred priests and brothers, and hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers, all serving the poorest of the poor in a hundred countries. The mighty of the world, who pride themselves on their realism, heaped honors upon her, often in lieu of heeding her words. Against the world’s realism Mother Teresa did not propose anything so flimsy as idealism. She called us to a different realism, a more real world, a world where life is found when lost in service to others. It is easy to live in a dream world where we fantasize that we are royalty. Much harder, and infinitely more rewarding, is the real world where the royal family is composed of those whom Jesus called “the least of these,” and of those who find life in surrendering life to their care.
Mother Teresa became what the apostle Paul called “a fool for Christ,” and it is not surprising that some thought her simply a fool. To the powerful and worldly wise who believe an over-populated world is filled with millions of expendable people who never would be missed, she was a bothersome naïf who insisted on the dignity of every life, destined from eternity to eternity. She was a rebuke to politicians and ideologues who claim to speak for the poor but are not on speaking terms with poor people. “If you don’t know them, you don’t love them and don’t serve them,” she said. She had no grand schemes for ridding the world of poverty, which all too often are schemes for ridding the world of poor people. In defiance of elites who dismiss charity as a “band-aid solution” and demand that charity be replaced by justice, she called her order the Missionaries of Charity, knowing that charity is but another word for love. She knew that justice without love is deadly.
Mother Teresa was not a social worker who happened to be a nun. For her, people were not clients or cases. In those she served she saw the face of Christ—and it did not matter whether they were Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or bereft of any sustaining faith. She believed with them and for them. Her business was not to deliver services but to transform lives. For her, even the most wretched life was transformed by transcendent hope. There is, she insisted, no such thing as a life not worth living. She stood at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, bearing witness that all is gift, all is grace. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
Some, including some Catholics, derided her as dreadfully old-fashioned. The Missionaries of Charity were pathetically out of step with the progressive directions pioneered by so many religious orders in recent decades. And her “authoritarian” leadership was an embarrassment. Those who confuse the authoritative with the authoritarian were scandalized. Mother Teresa did not deny that she had bowed to authority. It was the authority of the one who said, “Come, follow me”—with all you have, with all you are, all the way. And, like Mary, who is the Mother of us all, she said, “Let it be.” And it was. It was for her, and it is for thousands who have followed in her following him. In our time, and in all times, submission is a scandal. Mother Teresa scandalized the world, and she scandalized many in the Church. As was the case with the Lord she followed, she forced the question of whether she was right or whether she was crazy. One way of avoiding the question was to turn her into a celebrity.
It has been said that a celebrity is someone who is well known for being well known, but there is more to it than that. One might say she was an accidental celebrity, but more than accident is involved. In a world captive to wealth and glitter and power, her witness kept alive the rumor that there is a radically different measure of human greatness. And even those whom the world counts great half suspected that she was right. She was greatly honored by those whose measure of greatness she challenged. They were even willing to overlook her violation of their conventional wisdoms. Upon accepting the Nobel Prize for peace in 1979, she declared: “To me the nations with legalized abortion are the poorest nations. The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crime against unborn children.”
She said much the same at a big prayer breakfast in Washington with Mr. Clinton and his courtiers in attendance. They listened, or feigned to listen, with faces fixed and, perhaps, teeth gritted. Afterwards, of course, all rose in a standing ovation. “She is a saint, after all, and allowances must be made,” some no doubt said to themselves, before turning their attention again to what they call the real world. Mother Teresa agreed with John Paul II that the great contest of history is between the “culture of death” and the “culture of life,” and that the culture of life is simply, and demandingly, the way of unconditional love for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” Those who bestowed the honors partly hoped and partly feared that this strange little nun was right.
The unborn, the dying, the radically handicapped, the lepers, those afflicted with AIDS—all those who are shunned by the sleek and strong because they smell of neediness and death—live along the fault lines of society. Mother Teresa understood that a people is judged not by the successful whom we celebrate but by those along the fault lines for whom we care. The message she embodied, and the message of the thousands of sisters all over the world who joined her in the Missionaries of Charity, is disturbingly countercultural. It is disturbing because it demands a response not simply of admiration but of emulation. That’s the way it is with saints. Also with the saint whom a cynical world, not quite knowing what to do with the radical innocence of faith, turned into a celebrity.
Christians know better. Or at least we should. And sometime soon—perhaps in the lifetime of some who are reading this—she will be formally beatified, canonized, and raised to the honors of the altar. Little children will ask whether you ever saw her. And you will answer, “Oh yes. That laughter! Those eyes! What joy!” And another generation will listen for the voice that says, “Come, follow me,” and will throw away their lives, and thereby find their lives, in doing something beautiful for God.
Gridlock in the Public Square
The above is from the title of a column in the New York Post that has stirred up quite a furor. E. V. Kontorovich of the Post editorial board wrote that all kinds of groups are “piggy-backing” on Jewish success in crashing the Christmas party. He calls this “the Menorah Principle.” Some years ago, Jews demanded equal space in the public square and got the menorah put up beside the Christmas tree. The very minor feast of Hanukkah was inflated to the size of Christmas, and now fabrication has been added to inflation as some blacks demand equal space for the newly invented festival of Kwanza.
This is getting crazy, says Mr. Kontorovich. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a district not notable for its cultural diversity, inclusivity requires a Christmas holiday display crowded with Christmas trees, menorahs, Kwanza kinara candle holders, and gold-laminated pictures of Buddha. Enough already! cries Mr. Kontorovich. In a country where more than 90 percent of the people are Christians, why can’t minorities be tolerant enough to let the Christians celebrate their big festival? “Unless society draws a line—the only obvious place to draw it is at Christianity—an unmanageable tumult will ensue: gridlock in the public square,” concluded Mr. Kontorovich. For his troubles, he was attacked with a bombardment of protest in the letters column of the Post.
Of course Mr. Kontorovich has a point. In most of the country, a Christmas tree—which is a theologically ambiguous symbol at best—poses no big problem. But where there is an influential Jewish presence, the accompanying menorah has become a tradition by now (traditions being more or less instant in a culture afflicted by presentism). It would cause an awful fuss to remove the menorahs, and where it is tried the courts declare it illegal. One might argue that we should “draw the line” at the tree and the menorah, there being a special connection between Judaism and Christianity (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) that doesn’t obtain with Islam, Buddhism, or, heaven help us, Kwanzaism. But that line would be impossible to sustain, socially or legally. And we really do not want the courts getting into the theology of the singular relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
An alternative to gridlock is that, in the public square and the public school, we might declare it the Religion Season rather than the Christmas Season. But the courts would likely prohibit that as an impermissible “advancement of religion,” even if the town atheist got to put up a sign indicating his dissent. The editors at the Post note that most of the protest letters came from Jews, and wondered where the Christians are on this. The answer is that many Christians feel very uneasy about being a majority. Call it the virtue of humility, guilt over their real and alleged oppression of minorities in the past, or just loss of nerve. Our more liberal churches are not at all sure that Christianity should be “privileged.” Not even in church, and certainly not in the public square. More orthodox Christians, too, are easily intimidated by the charge of “triumphalism.”
A Minority Is a Minority
So what is to be done? Where it does not raise community hackles, a Christmas tree or, much better, a crèche is a very nice thing. And if the Jews in the community really want a menorah there, why not? For Jews it is a sign that they really belong, while for Christians it speaks of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament promise. Plus, it shows that Christians are very nice to Jews. But it becomes a different matter when what Kontorovich calls “the 2 percent religions” (and 1 percent and near zero percent) all want to get in on the act. The Cherry Hill solution is simply silly. Moreover, there is no more sure way to trivialize religion than to suggest that the crèche, the menorah, a Kwanza candle, and a laminated Buddha are all “equally meaningful” symbols of whatever.
E. V. Kontorovich is right. The “Menorah Principle” was wrongheaded from the start. Here in New York it was pressed by the very Orthodox, such as the Lubavitcher hasidim. There is painful irony in a reach for symbolic “equality” that involves distorting Jewish tradition in order to produce a simulacrum of Christmas. Jews were and still are divided on the wisdom of the Menorah Principle. Jews can withdraw from their public entanglement with Christmas, but there is no agreement on doing that. Christians cannot ask them to withdraw without sparking an enormous public row.
Were it not for the judiciary’s mindless pronouncements on the “establishment” of religion, it would have been possible for the overwhelming majority of citizens to publicly celebrate one of their really important festivals. In fact, it happened quite naturally until the Supreme Court, beginning in 1947, took its “strict separationist” turn of hostility to religion. Before that, Jews more or less gladly left Christmas to the Christians, recognizing that a minority of 2 percent is, well, in the minority. The Court’s hostility to religion (especially the religion of the majority) made common cause with the Lubavitchers’ zeal for religion, producing the Menorah Principle, about which not much is to be done. Except perhaps to let it run its course and destroy itself in the Cherry Hill Implosion. Or, at the risk of sounding utopian, the courts might come to their senses.
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that, while the public school is a government school, the public square is not coterminous with government square. Government schools are on the defensive and may over time give way to schools of parental choice, as more people realize that, when it comes to what is most important in education, government makes a complete hash of things. The public square, however, includes many spaces that are not governmental. It involves malls, which in many places are the closest thing to a town square. And it involves church properties and the front lawns of homes, where citizens can be as exuberant as zoning laws allow in celebrating Christmas as a Christian thing.
Where that can still be done in government space as well, let it be done. But it cannot be done where the Menorah Principle is entrenched, and it seems it will soon be entrenched everywhere. Certainly, Christians should not be complicit in the public trivialization of Christmas. And I expect there will be a return to sanity some day when enough Jews decide that a muddled exhibition of menorah, Kwanza candle, Islamic star and crescent, Buddha, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is not really the statement they wanted to make about the place of Judaism in American public life. When that happens, Christians, Jews, and everybody else will be permitted to go back to celebrating their holidays as holy days.
Here I Stand.
And Here, and Here:
The ELCA in Assembly
A delegate to the recent assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said he was reminded of the Yiddish description of a trimmer who wants to be loved by all, “Er tantsan af tszey khasenes”—he dances at every wedding. This was not simply a matter of dancing, however, but of accepting marriage proposals. The assembly had before it action on several proposals: a joint Lutheran̵Roman Catholic statement declaring that differences on justification by faith are not church-dividing; a Formula of Agreement with Reformed churches, including a doubtfully Reformed body, the United Church of Christ; and a Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopal Church. The justification statement was hardly a marriage proposal. It simply said that what Lutherans had historically claimed was the chief obstacle to reunion with Rome is no longer an obstacle. There was no indication, however, that that brings wedding plans any nearer, although Catholics may wonder why not. The Episcopal Concordat was a proposal, and it was declined by a very narrow margin, with promises that it would be accepted the next time around. So the ELCA ended up with only one wedding for now.
“If the Lutheran and Reformed churches can bridge historic differences between Luther and Calvin, other denominations would do well to take a close look at what we’re doing,” said H. George Anderson, bishop of the ELCA. One may wonder whether differences were bridged or simply obscured and ignored. Among oldline churches, Lutherans had an enviable reputation for being theologically serious, but that may be a thing of the past. Putting it with perhaps excusable indelicacy following his church’s recent general convention, an Episcopal priest observed, “This church suffers from a theological disease that might be called Anglican Integrity Deficiency Syndrome, and until it is cured we should not be practicing unprotected ecumenism.” Much the same might be said of all the oldline liberal churches, which means that nobody is in danger of being more infected than they already are. But we should not too readily accept such a jaundiced view.
Lutheran theological integrity centered on justification by faith. This, it was declared, is the article of doctrine “by which the Church stands or falls.” Justification, it was said, is the reason why Lutheranism, which started out to be a reforming movement within the Catholic Church, had to become a separated communion. If this is the case, it would seem that the adoption of the Lutheran-RC statement on justification would have momentous consequences. But it seems that was not and is not the case.
Outside the theological fraternity, it is doubtful that the radical teaching of justification by faith alone, as understood by Martin Luther, has been distinctively formative of popular Lutheran piety. Surveys done over the years suggest that Lutherans, pretty much like most other Christians, expect that God will be nice to them at the judgment because, all in all, they are pretty nice people.
W. H. Auden caught this in his 1940 poem, “Luther.” He spoke of Luther’s “conscience cocked to listen for the thunder. . . . The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head. . . . All Works, Great Men, Societies are bad. The Just shall live by Faith . . . he cried in dread.” Then Auden’s conclusion: “And men and women of the world were glad, / Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.”
I write with great ambivalence about the ELCA. It is the body to which I once belonged, and it is no mere commonplace when I say that there remain some of my dearest friends. Most of them call themselves “evangelical catholics,” and they subscribe to an understanding of Lutheranism that was in this century most influentially advanced by Prof. Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-1973) of Concordia Seminary, St Louis, my alma mater. We affectionately called him the Pieps. He believed that Lutheranism is a “corrective,” temporarily separated from Rome until Rome no longer rejected the message of justification by grace through faith.
A friend, a former Lutheran who also became a Roman Catholic, wrote after the ELCA assembly: “As much as I hate to admit it, the hopes and expectations that we received from the Pieps have turned out to be illusory. Lutheranism is not, and does not wish to be, part of the Catholic Church, and as skillful as we may have been in meeting the arguments of our critics, in the end they had a firmer grasp on Lutheran identity. . . . The one thing that is certain that we got from the Pieps is that neither you nor I ever wanted to be Protestant. As you once said, I do not want to be part of a ‘corrective’ but part, quite simply, of the Church. It is hardly surprising that I have not looked back since becoming Catholic. What I have learned is that there is no way to be Catholic without being part of the Catholic Church. Protestantism is something different altogether.”
Such sentiments understandably raise hackles. After all, there are the lower-case catholics of the Anglo-Catholicism launched in the nineteenth century, and distinguished figures such as Philip Schaff (1819-1893) and John Nevin (1803-1886) of the “Mercersburg Theology,” and of course the self-identified evangelical catholics in several Protestant denominations today. Evangelical catholicity has a noble pedigree. Many of its adherents, like John Henry Newman, finally decided that they had been holding on to “a paper church” and entered into full communion with Rome. Yet others soldier on where they believe God has put them.
Then too, there are numerous others for whom being unabashedly Protestant is no problem. Here we encounter a deep difference between ecclesial and nonecclesial ways of being Christian. In the nonecclesial—or perhaps we should say less ecclesial—mode, the chief thing, finally the only thing, is one’s personal relationship to Christ. To the extent the Church is important, it is important to sustain that relationship and provide ways of cooperating with other Christians, and for that the local church will do. For the ecclesial Christian, Christ the head and his body the Church are inseparable; faith in Christ and faith in the Church is one act of faith; the imperative of fidelity is to be in closest communion with the Church most fully and rightly ordered through time.
Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy represent ecclesial Christianity. The Protestant denominations include ecclesial Christians who are engaged in a running argument that their churches are or should be catholic, even upper-case Catholic. Among the most thoughtful of evangelical catholics in the ELCA is Pastor Leonard Klein of Christ Church, York, Pennsylvania, and I will here steal shamelessly from his account of the assembly in Forum Letter.
Although early on there were those who agitated for Lutheranism to accommodate itself to the general Protestantism that German and Scandinavian immigrants found in America, the Lutheranism that prevailed here was mainly “confessional,” meaning that it adhered to the sixteenth-confessions contained in the Book of Concord. That Lutheranism presented a forthright theological position, more or less confidently asserting, “We believe, teach, and confess that . . .” That confessional tradition is not dead, says Pr. Klein, but is succumbing to “the current form of classical liberalism.” By that he means the “experiential-expressivist” position described by Yale’s George Lindbeck (another evangelical catholic among Lutherans) in his influential book The Nature of Doctrine. In this liberalism, individual sensitivity, choice, and experience occupy the throne. As Klein puts it, “The sharpest lines are drawn against the drawing of lines, and thus in times of decision liberalism trumps the remaining confessionalism.”
The refusal to draw lines was reflected in the assembly’s adoption of a sacramental practices statement that permits the use of both wine and grape juice in the Eucharist, communing infants and not communing infants, and in the continuation of the policy whereby the ELCA pays for abortions obtained by its employees. It is, of course, a matter of choice and nothing is imposed on anybody, except of course that all must pay into the central account that funds abortions. Everything must be done to avoid controversy. As Pastor Richard Koenig wrote of the assembly in the Christian Century, “This is a church that wants above all else to stay together.” (Emphasis added.) That controlling imperative explains the response to the three ecumenical proposals, Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Episcopalian.
In the larger world of ecumenical affairs, there has been much talk in recent years about “reconciled diversity.” The idea is that differences once thought to be church-dividing may not be so, that unity does not mean uniformity, and so forth. “What we have achieved with the Reformed,” writes Pr. Klein, “true to the mood of the inclusive church, is unreconciled diversity.”
The narrowly rejected Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopalians was rejected because it contained a hint that something may be imposed. However gingerly, and however slowly, Lutheran ministries would have been brought into “apostolic succession.” The fear of “hierarchy,” and the suggestion that there might be something not entirely in order about Lutheran ministries as they presently are, turned out to be intolerable. On the other hand, the Joint Declaration on justification with the Catholics sailed through almost unanimously. It demanded nothing. In fact, as Klein notes, it perfectly suited the animus against drawing lines since it was thought that “the old lines on the doctrine of justification were too sharp and polemical.”
In his insightful book No Offense, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy wrote of the terminal “niceness” of American Protestantism. Being nice enables us to stay together, and staying together is what is wanted above all else. The old position that Catholics and Lutherans fundamentally disagree on justification was not nice. Agreeing that justification is no longer church-dividing was the nice thing to do. I hasten to add that the Joint Declaration is a superb piece of theological work and it should have been approved. This analysis deals with why it was approved.
A little under 20 percent of the delegates opposed the Formula of Agreement with the Reformed, and it is likely that they were disproportionately clergy and others who were more familiar with the historic differences between Lutherans and Calvinists. “It was a dire decision,” writes Klein. “The ELCA opted for pluralistic denominationalism over confessionalism. For thirty years the dialogue [with the Reformed] submerged fundamental disagreements in eucharistic faith and practice. People who had to know better trivialized differences in hearings and on the floor, and the assembly cheerfully went along.”
The proponents of fellowship with the Reformed repeatedly cited Calvin over the more radical Zwingli. Yet Calvin consistently stopped short of saying what Lutherans insisted upon, namely, that the bread and wine in the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Writes Klein, “Our confessional assertion [of the Real Presence] puts us on the Catholic side of the great divide, and we just stepped over it as if it were not there. . . . Liberalism won, not ecumenism. The latter seeks genuine agreement in the truth of the Gospel; the former just wants everyone to get along.”
As for the Episcopalians, two years from now the next assembly may accept an amended Concordat. This time around there was almost the two-thirds needed for approval. “Lutherans will find a way to move slowly into the historic episcopate,” says Klein, “but long before they arrive at the fullness of that goal unreconciled diversity and flat-out liberalism will have done their work, and any genuine Lutheran confessionalism, to say nothing of a truly catholic vision of Lutheranism, will have faded.” For some Lutherans, the Episcopal link was supposed to provide a reinforcement for the catholic and orthodox side of Lutheran identity, and perhaps even nudge Lutheranism toward ecclesial reconciliation with Rome, but that supposition seems less than credible in view of the doctrinal and moral disarray of the Episcopal Church.
Klein writes: “The autonomous religious self needs a big tent because it has gnosis. The moral issues slip first, then ‘core doctrine’ and confessions become reference points, not authorities. The autonomous self does not need them. Experience liberates, so there is no authority beyond the self and the collective of selves gathered to vote on ‘the mind of the church.’ But such an assembly cannot teach with clarity, let alone authority. Scripture and confessions are not repudiated (though tradition is) and their authority is nickeled and dimed away. Actually, it’s not nickels and dimes but whole fortunes that Lutheranism has lost in a very short period of time.”
Are Pr. Klein and other evangelical catholics bitter? There is no doubt an element of that. But bitterly disappointed, too, are conservative confessionalists of a strongly Protestant bent who see their church captive to “experiential-expressive” liberalism. A theological argument, an argument about the truth of things, is no longer possible. Now they are in full altar and pulpit fellowship, as the Lutherans put it, with the United Church of Christ, which is insouciant about the denial of baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and is apparently undisturbed by clergy who publicly question the divinity of Christ. That the UCC is proud of its distinction as the only denomination—aside from the small gay-based Metropolitan Community Church—that officially ordains openly gay men and women is but a predictable part of a laissez-faire Christianity where no lines can be drawn. That the ELCA has now definitively foreclosed the possibility of unity with more conservative Lutherans, such as the large Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is apparently a matter unworthy of consideration.
It seems like many years ago when over lunch I told Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, that I was becoming a Catholic. His immediate response was, “But what about Bach?” I do miss Bach and much else in the musical heritage of Lutheranism. But Lutheranism was more than that. At its best, it was, in a world set upon the trivialization of truth, a community that dared to say, “We believe, teach, and confess.” There are and will continue to be enclaves of confessional seriousness and catholic sensibility within the ELCA. And the ELCA as a body is able and will continue to be able to proclaim truths that are central to the Gospel. But not, apparently, when truths are contested, when lines must be drawn, when it becomes necessary to say we believe, teach, and confess this—and not that. The inclusiveness of unreconciled diversity is a relentless mistress. When holding an institution together is valued above all else, it becomes doubtful what else remains.
The somber assessment offered by Pr. Klein and others forces hard decisions for many in the ELCA. But the disappearance of the Lutheranism that was affects other Christians as well, not least Roman Catholics. As the ELCA vanishes into the potpourri of liberal Protestantism and the Missouri Synod is increasingly hardened in its separation from everyone else, the theological Lutheranism that was both the exasperation and envy of others will be missed. At least it should be missed by those who understand that Christianity is, above all else, a matter of truth.
The State of Conservatism
Frankly, it is not the kind of meeting where I am entirely comfortable. In fact, I was uncomfortable. The First International Conservative Congress was held at the Mayflower in Washington, D.C., at the end of September, pulled together chiefly by National Review and the American Enterprise Institute, and starring Lady Thatcher, the former British prime minister, and what seemed like a cast of thousands. So what is a priest doing at an undeniably partisan conference? A good question.
Of course many clergy are uninhibited in cheering on the liberal cause. I did it myself in the 1960s, and was much applauded for supplying what was called “a chaplaincy to the secular city” (remember Harvey Cox’s The Secular City?). I was a delegate to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions, and in 1970, in one of the dumbest moves of my life, even ran for Congress from Brooklyn. That should have cured me of partisan politics, and almost did. Half way through the campaign, which was a very near run thing, I knew I had made a big mistake in thinking I could be a pastor (Lutheran at the time) and a politician at the same time. I have said it before and some dismiss it as sour grapes, but the truth is I have thanked God many times over that I lost that race. I accepted the nomination for the 1972 convention because friends insisted it was the only way to avoid a divisive fight among community groups with which we were working on a host of issues important to Brooklyn. But I was distinctly uncomfortable in Miami, and resolved to steer clear of such things in the future.
Nonetheless, the organizers of the September 27-28 meeting in Washington invited me to speak on the judicial usurpation of politics and I accepted, hanging around to see what others were saying. It was an interesting couple of days, and I thought you might not be bored by a few notes on what happened. The theme was set at the opening session, “Why Conservatism Is Failing.” This reflected the worry of Brits and Europeans that leftist parties are in the ascendancy in Britain, France, and, apparently, Germany. The overwhelming majority of participants, however, were Americans, and few of them were buying into the theme. Most of them seemed to think conservatism is on something of a roll.
Rhetoric and Reality
A point made repeatedly was that leftists, whether in Europe or here with Clinton and the “New Democrats,” had largely adopted the rhetoric—and in some cases the policies—favored by conservatism. This, it was said, should be chalked up as a victory, albeit an ambiguous victory, for conservatives. One British MP strongly dissented, noting that if he played for the Chicago Bulls and all the other teams beat the Bulls by adopting their tactics, it would be silly to call this a victory for “Chicago Bullism.” A nice point nicely made, but he had few takers.
The columnist Charles Krauthammer, a dear friend, made the case for a conservative roll in his typically elegant manner. While he was by no means Pollyanish, he noted the California vote on affirmative action, the congressional elimination of welfare entitlement, and other major changes. Along the way he took a friendly crack at this journal and its editor in chief, contending that we are alarmist about judicial usurpation. His argument was that, on assisted suicide and other issues, the Supreme Court is clearly retreating from judicial activism.
At the session dealing with that subject, I took it upon myself to explain why Charles is wrong. In the suicide decision a majority of Justices could not have been more explicit in saying that the Court and the Court alone will make the final decision on the question, although it was not ready to do so now. In the Boerne decision overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Court told Congress in no uncertain terms that the Court will tolerate no infringement of its claimed monopoly on constitutional interpretation. And so forth. Of course I think our side won the judicial usurpation argument (Lino Graglia of the University of Texas law school was particularly effective), but I am glad to note that a lot of other people thought that too. (The indomitable Harry Jaffa of Claremont was also part of that discussion, once again making his argument that the Declaration of Independence is an organic part of the Constitution, and apparently less worried about judicial usurpation than about judges who don’t judge by the principles of natural law.)
In other sessions, Kate O’Beirne of National Review blistered the Republican congressional majority for being spineless wimps without a purpose. Intimidated by liberals in general and feminists in particular, “in their hearts they know they’re wrong.” Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, was thinking positively. “It is not that conservatism is cracking up; it’s growing up.” He takes heart from congressional action on partial-birth abortion, notes that there is in the House a majority large enough to pass a pro-life amendment, and is hopeful about “rolling back the excesses of the abortion regime.” (“Excesses” is a curious word in that connection.) Congressman Jim Talent was similarly upbeat. That the left steals the right’s rhetoric is no little thing, he declared. Rhetoric is important. “Get a politician to say something in public three times, and he is personally convinced it is true.” In a rhetorical theft from the Marxists, he effectively argued that “the correlation of forces” is moving in a conservative direction.
A surprise for me, and for many others, was a very impressive presentation by Steve Forbes, who is clearly running for the presidential nomination. In both delivery and substance, this was light years away from the Forbes perceived as a millionaire accountant mumbling along on the single theme of the flat tax. Not that he has given up on that issue, but he offered a most effective tour d’horizon on everything from foreign policy to the global influence of American popular culture to the ways in which wars are the catalyst for big government.
Most impressively, however, he addressed the moral state of the culture, with specific reference to abortion and the other life questions. Pro-life politicians typically declare that they are pro-life and assume that is enough, becoming stumbling and tongue-tied in explaining why they are pro-life. By way of contrast, Forbes made a convincing case for why law must be on the side of the weak, and spoke thoughtfully on the necessary interaction of law and culture in achieving the protection of unborn children and others who are vulnerable. Were this not a rigorously nonpartisan journal, I would suggest that Republicans who are looking for a presidential candidate who is ready and able to articulate the most important arguments in the public square should take a very close look at Steve Forbes.
Quotas By Any Other Name
Among the most fascinating sessions was the one that paired Glenn Loury and Ward Connerly on the question of affirmative action. Loury of Boston University is no stranger to these pages, and Connerly is, of course, the hero of California’s Proposition 209 that outlawed quotas. What came through compellingly is that here are two superlatively articulate black men, both deeply devoted to racial reconciliation and sharply disagreeing on how that is to be achieved. Of course, this crowd was overwhelmingly on Connerly’s side. Everybody acknowledged that Loury showed a great deal of courage in even attempting to make to this audience his argument for modified affirmative action. He noted that many black activists call him a tool of reactionaries, while conservatives view him as unreliable. “I have been marginalized in the middle,” he wryly observed.
Connerly’s case is nothing if not clear-cut. Both morally and constitutionally, discrimination on the basis of race is wrong. Period. The best thing for the black underclass and everybody else is to go cold turkey, terminating every program that discriminates in any way on the basis of race, gender, or anything other than merit. Loury, on the other hand, is strongly critical of existing affirmative action programs, but believes there is a legitimate and necessary place for very limited policies that take race into account. Affirmative action, he insists, should be limited to blacks, which was the sole intention of the original Civil Rights Act. A university can and should take race into consideration, just as it legitimately considers geography in admitting students, or whether parents are alumni, or the student’s athletic skills. How can I teach my students that all blacks and all whites do not think the same way, Loury asks, if I don’t have blacks in my class? Must not an urban police department make sure that there are enough blacks on the force to effectively police black areas? And so forth.
Connerly would not give an inch. Discrimination is immoral in principle and therefore must be prohibited. In support of his very modest version of affirmative action, Loury was urging the principle of prudence, a great virtue in public policy. The discussion that followed was, to say the least, lively, with Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, making the telling point that Loury’s modest proposal is precisely what affirmative action started out to be in the sixties. At the time of the bill’s passage, Hubert Humphrey famously said that, if it was ever used to impose quotas, he would eat the paper on which the bill was written. The argument made by Podhoretz and others is that, once we allow even the most modest version of affirmative action, it will, by its own logic and backed by the coercive force of government bureaucracy, turn into the monstrosity that it is today.
On points, I think it must be admitted that the Connerly side won the debate. And yet. There are surely times when we can and should discriminate. Political parties have from time immemorial come up with “balanced tickets” to appeal to ethnic and racial groups. A police department trying to infiltrate a black criminal gang will certainly choose a black officer for the job. But these limited instances are a far way from affirmative action programs in which government discriminates in favor of some—and therefore, necessarily, discriminates against others—in the distribution of opportunities that rightly belong to all.
Loury’s deeper concern, and it seems to me entirely right, is that much of the attack on affirmative action is driven by people who simply want to forget about the plight of the black underclass. A week before the Washington meeting, we had Judge Clarence Thomas give our annual Erasmus Lecture. His opposition to quotas is well established, but in his lecture he gently but pointedly noted that many who today are so enthusiastic about color blindness are the same people who some years ago—and not all that long ago—could see nothing but color. In the attack on affirmative action, he suggested, there is a disagreeable odor of “hypocrisy in the air.”
Both Loury and Thomas, I believe, are on to something very important. The problems of black-white relations, what Gunnar Myrdal a half century ago appropriately called “the American dilemma,” are by no means resolved. Working toward racial reconciliation and justice for all is primarily the task of civil society, and not least of all the churches. Perhaps, in ways not yet tried or even imagined, the government also has a role. But I believe the returns are in: affirmative action, with its inevitable quotas, is not the way to go. It was a policy well-intended but misconceived; it has resulted in massive and grave injustices to those who are not preferred; it demoralizes, degrades, and casts a shadow of suspicion on those who are preferred; it exacerbates the very tensions it was supposed to assuage; it should be entirely dismantled, the sooner the better.
Much else of interest happened at the Mayflower, and I really wasn’t all that uncomfortable. In fact, I rather enjoyed the gathering of the clan. I don’t know how, but it has somehow happened over the years that most of my friends turn out to be conservatives. Not that I wouldn’t accept an invitation to speak at a meeting called by Common Cause or the ACLU. We are, after all, tenaciously nonpartisan.
While We’re At It
• Here is a different take on the much discussed question of “same-sex marriage.” Julie Loesch Wiley writes: “Some Christians say that gay ‘marriage’ is impossible, but I would strongly disagree. I would say that gay marriage is so typical for everybody in this society—no matter what their sexual orientation—that it takes a heroic effort for any couple to enter into anything but a ‘gay marriage.’“ Her point is that what many people mean by marriage today is something that homosexuals can undertake as well as anyone else. Ms. Wiley writes, “If you say that marriage need not be sexually exclusive, nor irrevocable, nor devoted to child rearing, nor a sacred sign of anything beyond the participants’ mutual self-interest—then you have taken away all its essential parts but, obscurely, retained the same label.” The conclusion: “From a Christian point of view it is, of course, impossible for two men or for two women to join each other in holy matrimony. But from a secular, civil point of view, it does make a kind of weird sense that gays would want in on gay marriage. Because from a secular, civil point of view, that’s the only kind of marriage there is.”
• The problem with Pat Robertson’s rhetoric is that it isn’t right enough. At least that’s the view of Pamela Robles, writing in Focus, a magazine of Robertson’s own Regent University. Robertson’s public statements, she says, fit the genre of Puritan jeremiads calling a Christian nation to repentance. This leads to all kinds of unhappy misunderstandings. “To put it bluntly,” says Robles, “if the religious right does not want a theocracy in the United States, then its speakers should adopt a rhetorical strategy that does not continue to give people the impression that they do.” “The Puritan jeremiad has led to much confusion,” she writes. “Perhaps now it should be replaced or at least supplemented with rhetorical approaches that reassure today’s diverse audience that the religious right wants to include them in, rather than exclude them from, the community of Americans. Finally, it’s clear that politically active Christians must struggle to maintain a delicate balance between two difficult and very different duties. They must try to uphold, with their left hand, convictions about what they believe are immutable moral laws while, with their right hand, they must continue to demonstrate the love of God to those who don’t yet believe in Him. The religious right might be able to correct some of the popular misconceptions about its goals by leaning its future rhetoric more towards the right.”
• The Danish-born embryologist, Steen Malte Willadsen, is a maverick (some might say mad) scientist who sells his talents to private companies with big-buck dreams of cloning whatever is salable. According to some reports, he was ahead of Ian Wilmut, the fellow who cloned Dolly the sheep, but he didn’t publicize his activities. He is now doing “interesting” things with human embryos, and says he expects human beings will be cloned, but those who do it will likely try to avoid controversy by using some other term. “It probably will not be called cloning,” Willadsen said. Summing up his own philosophy, he declared, “The role of experimental science is to break the so-called laws of nature.” That puts it succinctly.
• Most all of us who are, however confusedly, connected with the phenomenon called neoconservatism were greatly influenced by Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, first published in 1976. It was and is an impressive book, convincingly making the case that capitalism is not a system that can run of itself but requires cultural and political supports that seemed (and seem) to be collapsing. Echoing T. S. Eliot’s self-description, Bell said that he was “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” I had earlier posited the formula that I am orthodox in religion, conservative in culture, liberal in politics, and pragmatic in economics. What has changed drastically in the last quarter century is the definition of liberal politics. In any event, Cultural Contradictions has recently been reprinted with some updated reflections by Bell. Not very updated, unfortunately. Bell had always distanced himself from neoconservatism, and he now says that he continues to be a socialist, but he seems to be at a loss to explain what that means. He writes, “What is left and what is right and what is liberal and what is conservative have all become jumbled.” The fault, he concludes, lies with politicians themselves. “Especially when looking at public opinion polls, they claim to be responsive to the volatile expressions of voters.” Reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement, Marc Carnegie observes, “Thus everyone is to blame—the shady politicians and the all too unreliable humans who employ them.” Carnegie continues: “In the end Bell has a go at tying up loose ends with a half-hearted pitch for religion-‘not the sphere of God or the gods,’ but rather ‘the sense, a necessary one, of the sacred, of what is beyond us and cannot be transgressed’—but this, too, fails to convince. He might have recognized that socialists who seek refuge in religion may be the greatest cultural contradiction of all.”
• Two articles, side by side, in the Chronicle of Higher Education indicate a little light shining through the cracks of multicultural darkness. Kay Haugaard teaches creative writing at Pasadena City College and says she has for more than twenty years been teaching Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” in which the citizens of a small town ritually stone one of their number to death. Jackson’s story used to shock people into moral judgment, but no longer, according to Ms. Haugaard. After a lengthy discussion, it became apparent that her students thought they were in no position to judge people who followed different traditions. “At this point I gave up. No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.” The second article is by Robert L. Simon, professor of philosophy at Hamilton College. It is titled “The Paralysis of ‘Absolutophobia.’“ Whatever else students may dare to do, they will not risk being thought of as moral absolutists. “Although groups denying the reality of the Holocaust have raised controversies on some college campuses, in more than twenty years of teaching college students, I have yet to meet even one student who has expressed doubts about whether the Holocaust actually happened. However, I have recently seen an increasing number of students who, although well-meaning, hold almost as troubling a view. They accept the reality of the Holocaust, but they believe themselves unable morally to condemn it, or indeed to make any moral judgments whatsoever. Such students typically comment that they themselves deplore the Holocaust and other great evils, but then they wind up by suspending moral judgment.” Mr. Simon doesn’t think that his students are, deep down, complete moral relativists or skeptics, but something has happened, and it is frightening. “By denying themselves the moral authority to condemn such great evils of human history as the Holocaust, slavery, and racial oppression, these students lose the basis for morally condemning wrongdoing anywhere, and so must ultimately abandon the very values that led them to advocate tolerance and respect for diversity in the first place. Isn’t it our responsibility as teachers to show, by directly confronting the confusions underlying absolutophobia, that students need not be inflexible dogmatists in order to have a moral ground on which to stand? If we allow the legitimate desire to avoid moral fanaticism to drive us to the point where even condemnation of the Holocaust is seen as a kind of unwarranted intellectual arrogance, then the truly arrogant and the truly fanatical need not fear moral censure no matter what evil they choose to inflict on us all.” This is pretty elementary stuff, but one welcomes the testimony of Haugaard and Simon and hopes their testimony will prompt other academics to reconsider their back-to-basics-phobia.
• James Kelley, a writer in Washington, D.C., doesn’t believe in God, the resurrection, miracles, or any of it. He is neither a Christian nor a theist, but he is a very happy Episcopalian, a member of St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill where he has taught Sunday School and served on the vestry. He took a poll of parishioners and discovered there are many more like him. According to this news story, “The least satisfied members were the few who hold any traditional Christian beliefs. It is the orthodox who are the heretics. Kelley said he hopes that they choose to stay, but he will understand if they choose to leave.” He is pro-choice all the way. Regular readers will recognize Neuhaus’ Law at work: Where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.
• Back in the second century, Marcion decided that the bloody-minded Yhwh of the Old Testament could in no way be the God whom Jesus taught us to address as Father. Ever since, with drearily familiar variations, others have been declaring the same “discovery.” Most recently Professor Regina Schwartz of Northwestern University, whose The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism has been receiving considerable attention (see review by James Alison, page 48 in this issue). Unlike Marcion and other discoverers, however, Ms. Schwartz doesn’t claim that her interpretation is made imperative by the text. It is simply her preferred reading of the text. Christopher Shea, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, catches the postmodernist twist. “Any one story line can be read in contradictory ways. In the final pages of her book, she invites her readers to write their own variants of the Bible, with new creation stories, new exoduses. She has crossed the line, she says, ‘from truth and reason to truths and pluralism.’ For mainstream Bible scholars, that line may be a battle line. There may not be much room for compromise, after all, between the poststructuralists, with their infinite readings, and those who find in the Old Testament one Truth and one sacred deity. No more room, in fact, than there was for peace between the Israelites and the Canaanites. The continuing fight between the postmodernists and the believers in Truth may turn out, after all, to be academe’s version of the curse of Cain.” The violent legacy, one might say, of the abandonment of truth and reason.
• “Truth in advertising” is the phrase that comes to mind. Crossroad publishers has brought out The von Balthasar Reader, edited by Medard Kehl, S.J. and Werner Löser, S.J., and translated by Robert J. Daly, S.J. and Fred Lawrence. It’s a thick paperback of 437 pages and costs $24.95
. There is the problem that it carries two copyrights, 1997 and 1982, but a Balthasar scholar of our acquaintance points out that it is entirely a reprint of the 1982 edition. Then there is the problem that eight sections in the original reader are omitted because, it says here, they will soon be translated into English in another volume. In fact, translations—and much more able translations—of almost everything in this book are now available elsewhere. Crossroad’s reader helps one understand why, toward the end of his life, Balthasar transferred to Ignatius Press all rights to English translations of his work.
• Their liberal allies tell the folks at the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) that they’ll lose their credibility if they accept the support of people such as Pat Robertson, William Bennett, and Gary Bauer. Charles Jacobs, research director of AASG, has given that some thought but he notes that the establishment black leadership here—e.g., Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus—doesn’t seem very interested in black slavery in Africa. All the human rights groups agree that chattel slavery is thriving in places such as Sudan and Mauritania. Writing in the Boston Globe, Jacobs reports that Jesse Jackson says he doesn’t want to get involved because it sounds “anti-Arab” (AASG has three Muslims on its board). Some such as Minister Farrakhan have strong political and, perhaps, financial ties to the African slavers, while former U.S. Representative Myrvin Dymally gets $120,000 per year as a lobbyist for Mauritania. Pat Robertson, on the other hand, shows scenes of slave trading in Sudan on the 700 Club and calls upon viewers to battle “for our Christian brethren in bondage.” But friends say AASG will lose credibility with liberals if it gets mixed up with the religious right. Credibility with friends like that is not much of a loss, so AASG has decided to take its support where it can get it. Slavery, writes Jacobs, “is not a question of right or left, just right or wrong.”
• What is the conflict over women’s ordination really about? Well, obviously it’s about women’s ordination, but it’s also about much more than that, according to an article by Mark Chaves in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Religion. “The Symbolic Significance of Women’s Ordination” contends that the conflict is over how churches want to situate themselves in relation to what might be called the modernity project. “Part of the 1970s conflict within the Episcopal Church, for example, was about whether or not this denomination would draw its organizational models from Rome and the sacramental environment or from the American liberal environment,” Chaves writes. In ordaining women, Episcopalians were, consciously or not, shifting from one ecclesiastical environment to another, “a shift with nontrivial ecumenical consequences.” After the Civil War, Chaves says, “gender equality became one part of a broader liberal agenda associated with ‘progressive human society,’ with ‘human improvement,’ and with ‘modern tendencies.’“ In fact, since the Reformation, what is called “cultural Protestantism” has had a deep proprietorial interest in the general culture, and in presenting itself as attuned to the modernity project. “From this perspective,” writes Chaves, “a denomination’s formal policy about the status of women is less an indicator of women’s literal status within the denomination and more a ritual enactment of its position vis-à-vis the liberal and modern agenda of institutionalizing gender equality.” The conflict over women’s ordination, then, is about many things. In terms of the sociology of religion, it is chiefly about how groups evaluate the currently dominant liberal interpretation of social progress.
• We have to turn down most requests to make announcements in this space, but Father Edwin Okon of St. Joseph’s Church in Nigeria writes such an affecting letter about the parish’s need for Catholic books and devotional literature that it is hard to resist. You may send such matter to him at P.O. Box 529, UYO, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, West Africa.
• “Here I am, Bill Bright, a very sinful, depraved person. Christ comes to live within me, he died on the cross for my sins—past, present, and future. I’m promised that if I walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin. Not to live in the joy of the resurrection is to dishonor our Lord, because he gave us the power. It is like pushing your car around instead of driving it.” Bill Bright is a piece of work. He’s a big, ebullient man, seventy-seven years old and looks less than sixty. Back in the 1950s, Bright, a Presbyterian by confession, founded Campus Crusade for Christ, which now has a staff of more than fourteen thousand all over the world, and a budget of nearly $30
0 million. I recently met him for the first time at a theological conversation under the auspices of our “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) initiative. He has been a strong supporter of ECT from the start and, like some other evangelical leaders, has taken flak for allegedly “selling out the Reformation” to popery. He has no interest other than reaching everyone in the world with “the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Campus Crusade’s film, Jesus, which is remarkably well done, has reportedly been seen by almost two billion people to date. Bright’s hope, and the hope of other evangelicals backing ECT, is that in the next century their endeavor to evangelize the world will be done with, not against, the Catholic Church. Campus Crusade has been much criticized over the years, especially by liberal Protestant and Catholic campus ministers, for being “simplistic” in its presentation of the Gospel. “True,” says J. I. Packer, perhaps the most widely respected of evangelical theologians and a major participant in ECT. “But that is the penalty for being a broadscale entrepreneur. The Model T couldn’t satisfy tastes for sports cars and Cadillacs.” Many Christians are put off by the entrepreneurial style of such as Bill Bright, and I think I can understand that. The fullness of the Christian tradition—its intellectual and sacramental life, together with diverse ways of discipleship—cannot be reduced to “four spiritual laws” that lead to “accepting Jesus as my Savior and Lord.” But accepting Jesus is a good place to begin, and there is little doubt that, through the work of Campus Crusade, hundreds of thousands have made that beginning. Those who criticize the methods of Bright and Campus Crusade would do better to emulate their zeal in sharing the good news of salvation. As for Bill Bright, I have no doubt that his life has been taken captive to the Gospel, and am grateful to know him as a brother in Christ. (For an informative profile of Bill and his wife Vonette, and of Campus Crusade, see the cover story in the July 14, 1997 issue of Christianity Today.)
• “In sum, these textbooks are a national embarrassment.” Another one? The statement is from Closed Hearts, Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage, a valuable new study done by Norval Glenn of the University of Texas for the Institute for American Values. Glenn and colleagues studied twenty textbooks widely used in college courses on marriage and family. If students believe what they are apparently being taught, the more sensible will steer clear of this archaic and oppressive institution called marriage. As for family, children receive short shrift in these textbooks, and one might conclude that, if one wants children, it makes more sense to have them without the encumbrances of marriage and family commitment. In sum, the textbook story of marriage is largely in the service of finishing off an institution already badly battered by knowledge—class elites and popular hedonism. For more information on the study, write Institute for American Values, 1841 Broadway, Suite 211, New York, New York 10023.
• Pundits have had good fun with the proposal to rescind a federal mandate that all new toilets not exceed 1.6 gallons and let states set toilet standards. If it passes, the proposal would violate equality in flushing, says Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift. “I don’t think the people of one state should be allowed to flush three times at whim while the people of California have to conserve water.” It’s heartening to see someone stand up for principle.
• When one considers the best of what has been thought and said over the centuries, even the most erudite among us must at times feel like an illiterate. So each summer on vacation in the Ottawa Valley I take with me some classic tomes that I have never read seriously, or never read at all. This summer included St. Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms. For those familiar with contemporary biblical scholarship, St. Augustine is a wild and often exhilarating ride. His confident assumption that the entire Old Testament, and the Psalms in particular, are of a piece with God’s saving purposes in Christ and the Church, combined with his imaginative flights based on a flawed Latin text that is in turn based on the Greek of the Septuagint, is light years removed from modern historical-critical efforts to determine the original meaning behind the texts. The contemporary alternative is perfectly represented by the remarks of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee in the discussion of a new lectionary at a meeting of the bishops conference. Weakland is, of course, a bully supporter of inclusive language and, along with a minority of other bishops, derisively dismissive of what in the jargon is called the “moderately horizontal inclusive language” of the proposed lectionary. Wherever possible, they believe, he/him/his must be replaced by their/you/anyone/everyone. The insistence is that the English of today—meaning what some hope will be the English of tomorrow—is without generic masculine pronouns. But at the bishops meeting Weakland wanted also to make a theological point. “We have never really gotten an analysis of what texts are Christological,” he complained. “There is a creeping Christologicism going on among us.” It is an observation worth a moment’s thought. Psalm 1, for instance, says, “Blessed is the man. . .” Presumably Weakland wants biblical scholars to give us an analysis that will determine whether the original author(s) of the text intended by “the man” to refer to Jesus the Christ. Obviously, there is no conceivable way in which scholars could make such a determination. What Weakland calls “creeping Christologicism” is what Augustine and the tradition of Christian orthodoxy meant by saying that the Psalms are “the prayer book of the Church.” If the Psalms are not—in various voices and tones—singing the Gospel of salvation proclaimed by the Church, they are, for Christians, no more than religious poetry of mixed literary merit and chiefly antiquarian interest. Subsequent scholarship has given us a better text than Augustine had, but he understood better than many of our contemporaries why and how Christians pray the Psalms. Nonetheless—although not in the way he apparently thinks—Archbishop Weakland is right: Beyond culture wars and gender politics, the debate over the text of the lectionary does engage very big theological questions.
• What is commonly called the vocation crisis in the Catholic priesthood and religious orders may be something else, according to Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha. He thinks the “crisis” is largely “artificial and contrived.” He writes: “It seems to me that the vocation ‘crisis’ is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church’s agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines the ministries. I am personally aware of certain vocation directors, vocation teams, and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordaining women or who defend the Church’s teaching about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the Rosary. When there is a determined effort to discourage orthodox candidates from priesthood and religious life, then the vocation shortage which results is caused not by a lack of vocations but by deliberate attitudes and policies that deter certain viable candidates. And the same people who precipitate a decline in vocations by their negative actions call for the ordination of married men and women to replace the vocations they have discouraged. They have a death wish for ordained priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines them. They undermine the vocation ministry they are supposed to champion.” In fact, after the precipitous declines of the seventies and eighties, priestly vocations are now edging upwards, and in some dioceses are flourishing. The line on the left is that these new seminarians and priests are “rigid” and “authoritarian,” and that may be true in some cases. But rigidity is often subject to an ideological definition that would exclude from the priesthood a young John O’Connor or Francis George, not to mention Karol Wojtyla. The problem as described by Archbishop Curtiss would seem to deserve careful examination by the bishops, individually and collectively. Who is being encouraged and who discouraged? How do vocation directors understand their own vocation? And who is evaluating the evaluation boards?
• If Charles, heir to the British throne, remarries, it would “create a crisis for the church,” says Dr. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury. Well maybe, writes John Gummer in the Spectator, but it is a crisis very different from the one that Dr. Carey has in mind. It is not likely a crisis over the church’s teaching about divorce and remarriage. After all, says Gummer, “the undeniable reason for the existence of the Church of England was to facilitate Henry’s marriages and to legitimize his daughter Elizabeth.” True, by the nineteenth century the C of E had retrieved a more orthodox teaching about marriage, and there really was a crisis in 1936 over Edward VIII’s marrying a divorced woman. But that was a long time ago. Today bishops, deans, and innumerable priests are divorced and remarried, Gummer notes. “What sort of crisis is it when C of E is endangered because a divorced layman marries a divorcee, but not when a bishop marries a divorcee? It can’t be a theological crisis. . . . The issue is therefore entirely secular. What the Archbishop is asserting is that the Church of England sees the role of the heir to the throne as more significant in setting standards than that of a bishop. This may be a perfectly accurate contemporary observation, but it can hardly stand up theologically. . . . In fact, Dr. Carey is returning the Church of England to its roots. It is a Church which is about kings rather than bishops. In the sixteenth century, it was thought good for the state if the king could have his divorce and remarry. In the late twentieth century, the Church of England’s view is that it would be better for the state if the future king did not remarry.” The difference is that in the sixteenth century the Church in England really mattered. “The Archbishop’s crisis is therefore a crisis about the very nature of the Church of England. What is the basis of its claim to teach on matters of faith and morals? A church which allowed Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell to decide its doctrines and direct its polity can hardly claim to be in a position to recall a prince to his duty.” Whatever Charles does, Mr. Gummer thinks the monarchy will survive. He is not at all sure about the C of E.
• Dear old Anthony Lewis, like the Energizer bunny, keeps going and going. Although I confess that I haven’t read his columns for some time, even though they come free with the paper that, for some inexplicable reason of sentimental attachment, still accompanies my breakfast. But a reader kindly sends a column memorializing the late Justice William J. Brennan. Along the way in the column, Lewis notes that “the Supreme Court has the last word in our system” and quotes, approvingly, the statement of Justice Robert H. Jackson, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” Compare Vatican Council I and its excruciatingly modest definition of infallibility. On his main subject Lewis writes, “Justice Brennan spoke to our better angels. Sometimes the country was out of tune, and he failed.” No, no, Tony, we failed him! Which, of course, is what Mr. Lewis means. Once it was that the government was accountable to the people; now the people are accountable to the government. As in the 1992 Casey decision where the Court announced that the nation was being “tested” by whether or not it agrees with the Court that the killing of unborn children is a constitutional right. One Supreme Court Justice, who is of a very different philosophy, told me that he doesn’t read the New York Times, the Washington Post, or like publications. “Once you know that a clock is telling the wrong time, you don’t keep looking at it,” he said. I thank the reader for sending the column. Anthony Lewis lives.
• Michael Kelly, former editor of The New Republic, has an appropriately strong piece excoriating the New York Times for continuing to portray the thugs and murderers of the Black Panthers as freedom fighters who were no more than, as it used to be said, liberals in a hurry. The Times’ treatment of the Panthers is of a piece with a larger cultural phenomenon, Kelly writes. “As the aging sandalistas have accrued power and raised children, their values have become the values of the age. The result is a corollary to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s theory of defining deviancy down. Call it defining radicalism in. What was once radical is now normal. What was once left is now establishmentarian center.” While the Times’ ignoring of the lethal crimes of the Panthers is indeed to be criticized, Kelly’s piece would have been further strengthened by a mention of the most searing indictment of the Panthers, David Horowitz’s autobiography, Radical Son. Nonetheless, Kelly’s contribution is most welcome. He concludes, “Nearly three decades later, the myth of the Panthers has not been exposed by the Times. It has been institutionalized. Pass the Cherry Garcia.”
• Here’s a big story in the Times by Steven A. Holmes, “G.O.P. Leaders Back Bill on Religious Persecution.” The gist of the story is that those awful evangelicals of “the religious right” are now flexing their muscles also in foreign policy. Presumably Jews, Catholics, and good liberals are in a heightened tizzy. The story is accompanied by a big picture of Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Trent Lott, and myself, with Lott shaking hands with Cheryl Halpern of the National Jewish Coalition. The other identifiable participant in the background is Bill Bennett. So that’s two Catholics and one Jew. Apparently the picture editor didn’t check with Mr. Holmes on his story line that religious persecution pits evangelical Protestants against everyone else. Or maybe those evangelicals have become so sneaky—dare we say Jesuitical?—that they are coopting Catholics and Jews to front for them. (A word to younger readers: “Jesuitical” refers to a religious order once suspected of excessive craftiness in its loyal service to the pope.)
• More on Newsweek’s scare about the Pope possibly defining a new dogma that declares Mary Co-Redemptrix, etc. The very conservative catholic eye says Newsweek’s Ken Woodward has done some good things in the past: “But that hardly absolves him for writing the bogus ‘new Marian dogma’ pope-opera: Surely Woodward knows that this Pope has paid public homage to the great Cardinal John Henry Newman, which he’d not do if he thought Newman’s famous ‘rules’ for the development of doctrine were wrong? As any ‘Catholic intellectual’ ought to know, Newman thought that a ‘new’ dogma must in effect be what the Church had always believed—it must reflect the sensus fidelium, as was true of the Immaculate Conception—and that the Faithful ‘ought to be consulted’ especially [he wrote] ‘in the case of doctrines which bear directly upon devotional sentiments’ which is precisely the point re Marian doctrines. Political-style petitions from a fraction of the now-billion Faithful is hardly ‘consultation’? Call it ‘Paparazzi Journalism’ and trust a great Pope to consult Newman, not Newsweek!”
• Please see the box on page 60 about putting First Thingsin your will. Please think about it.
• This from the Times’ report of the annual conference of the Christian Coalition: “Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that attacks the Christian Coalition, said that despite the ruminations over the leadership shift, Mr. Robertson was still clearly in command. ‘I think you could literally appoint to the Christian Coalition’s board of directors Jesus, Moses, and Muhammad,’ he said, ‘and Pat Robertson would still call the shots.’“ Those literalists, they’re always going over the top. The mission statement of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is marvelously succinct, however—“a group that attacks the Christian Coalition.”
• As all the interested world has good reason to believe, Martin Peretz, owner of The New Republic, fired Michael Kelly as editor because he thought Kelly was being too hard on the Clinton Administration and, more particularly, too hard on Mr. Peretz’s close friend, Al Gore. Kelly was editor less than a year, having taken over from Andrew Sullivan. Kelly, in turn, has been replaced by Charles Lane, who came up from within the magazine’s ranks and is apparently less likely to rankle Mr. Peretz’s partisan proclivities. In the issue after Kelly’s firing, Mr. Peretz has this to say: “So Lane represents continuity with the deepest traditions of this journal: political independence, intellectual seriousness, good writing, and decency toward those with whom one disagrees.” Political independence? What cheek. What gall. What nerve. What brass. I believe there is also a Yiddish word for it that escapes me at the moment.
• The usually astute and frequently courageous Maureen Dowd of the Times—the newly painted paper formerly known as the Gray Lady—couldn’t quite bring herself to go against the tide in commenting on ABC’s Nothing Sacred. She sympathetically notes her mother’s displeasure with the unimaginative sendup of things Catholic, and she cites Alan Keyes’ observation that the program is “propaganda dressed up as entertainment,” but she finally says the series “stands out as intelligent television, especially in the mush pit of ABC’s fall schedule.” Perhaps so, given that huge qualifier. But what really seems to impress her is that the program’s cocreator is “Paul Leland,” a pseudonym for a Jesuit priest, and that Michael Breault, a Jesuit brother, is a consultant. She writes, “Jesuits are the flyboys of the Church, the teaching intelligentsia most likely to be found drinking pricey wine and traveling abroad and devising interpretations of Church dogma.” Devising interpretations—that rings true, although she apparently means it as a compliment. In the series, “Father Ray” tells a woman in the confessional who says she is going to have an abortion, “You’re an adult with your own conscience. I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you what the Church teaches.” Which, of course, he proceeds not to do. The bifurcation between what he thinks and what the Church teaches raises the question of by whose authority he is hearing confessions, and is of a piece with the cocreating Jesuit priest who is afraid or ashamed to work under his own name. Given the apparently unlimited tolerance of hijinks by Jesuit “flyboys,” it cannot be fear, at least not fear of his Jesuit superiors (who, it is reasonable to assume, approve of his involvement with “intelligent television”). Where there is shame there is hope. Ms. Dowd, too, one would like to think, may have second thoughts about her fashionably insouciant response to pseudonymous priests creating pseudo-priests who mouth the weary clichés of yesteryear’s progressivisms. Unlike “Paul Leland,” she does have a reputation to maintain.
• The McCain-Feingold bill was but an instance of perennial agitation for “campaign finance reform.” One thing wrong with such agitation is that it plays into the everybody-does-it line that obscures, and is intended to obscure, the fact that not everybody does the sleazy and sometimes criminal things that some people do to raise political money. Moreover, such “reforms” greatly strengthen government’s regulatory control over political speech. Columnist George Will calls this a “regime level” question, and he’s right, meaning that it drives to the heart of this constitutional republic. Campaign finance reform sounds like a motherhood issue, and it is no surprise that groups sign on to it without much thought. The September meeting of the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) had before it a staff-drafted statement that claimed to be nonpartisan but would surely have been exploited as an endorsement of McCain-Feingold. The National Right to Life Committee, among others, strongly protested the statement, a number of bishops effectively challenged its adoption, and the statement was withdrawn. A good piece of work, or at least a bad piece of work avoided.
• Another item for the Oops Department: We ran a rave review of the new edition of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and had some fine things to say about editor E. A. Livingstone and “his” colleagues. Elizabeth Livingstone is most decidedly a woman. In Oxford she is to be seen most mornings pedaling her bicycle to morning prayer and Mass at Christ Church Cathedral. She has devoted most of her life to the dictionary and the quadrennial international patristics conference in Oxford. We are told that she does not suffer fools at all and, if we know what is good for us, we will apologize profusely, which we hereby do. The editor responsible has been sternly rebuked. It doesn’t matter that the English have this annoying thing about not using their proper names. You’re supposed to know.
• Hard-core fans of Peter Berger—of whom there are, with great justice, many—will welcome his new book, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (Walter de Gruyter, 215 pages,, $23.95). Asked to name their favorite Berger, his readers are hard pressed, but I expect that A Rumor of Angels might take first place. The new work is in many ways an extended development of that earlier book’s contention that the comic is a “signal of transcendence” that suggests (but hardly “proves”) that behind the apparent absurdity of what we call reality is an ultimate order grounded in the transcendent reality that is God. Berger is keenly aware that writing about humor can be, and usually is, a humorless undertaking, so he tries to keep the tone light and laces the text with marvelous comic stories, a.k.a. jokes (almost all of which I remember our telling one another). There are short chapters on Jewish humor and why it is so notable, on “the comic as diversion,” “the comic as consolation,” “the comic as game of intellect,” and “the comic as weapon.” The more explicitly religious and theological sections toward the end are prefaced by Berger’s eccentric (read that as a compliment) interpretation of Tertullian’s Credo quia absurdum. “It is not so much that one should believe because something is absurd, but rather that one is led toward faith by the perception of absurdity. Needless to say, there is nothing inevitable about this progression. . . . In other words (and never mind what Tertullian actually meant): it is not the object of faith that is absurd. The world is absurd. And, therefore, faith is possible.” This theme of debunking what is taken for reality has, albeit in quite different ways, run through Berger’s writing for four decades. It appears in his very early and immensely popular Invitation to Sociology, in his skeptical treatment of religious pretensions in The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, and in more academic works such as The Social Construction of Reality. The superficial critic might conclude that Berger was from the beginning what today is called a postmodernist. Quite the opposite is the case. Truth, for Berger, is never in quotation marks. While he lustily deflates the claims of sundry rationalisms, he does so with great respect for reason. In sum, for Berger, debunking is in the service of clearing away the brush of what is taken for reality in order to disclose the tremendous mystery (Rudolf Otto) that is, however elusive, the truth about everything. He and I have had many friendly arguments about the theological implications of that disclosure. He makes rather a point of being less than an entirely orthodox Christian. But I am among the many who are in his debt for delineating the ways in which the world examined seriously—which is to say also comically—is opened to the worlds of which it is part.
• The French have not stopped talking about the Pope’s visit in August for the World Youth Day (which is actually six days). When more than a million people, mainly young people, turned out for the final Mass, the suspicion took root that something very strange was happening. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, columnist William Pfaff says it was “a cry for faith, rather than of faith.” “What was clearly demonstrated was that just as the generation shaped by the 1960s rejected the certainties of those who were formed by the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the early Cold War, a new generation now has arrived to demand an account from its own parents. This new generation is saying: You failed to transmit to us positive values in which you believed. We now must look for them elsewhere. A striking and even mysterious sign held up in the crowd on Sunday said to the Pope: ‘You are our youth.’“
• The government parks people have gotten out of the head-counting business, and “Coach” Bill McCartney has said they’re not going to issue any figures, but nobody challenges the claim that the Promise Keepers in Washington was not just big but the biggest Washington gathering in American history. Yet it received comparatively little attention in the media, especially as compared with much, much smaller pro-abortion and gay marches of recent years. Our parish paper, the Times, had several long and reasonably fair stories, but nothing like the pages and pages of tie-in stories devoted to those other events. On network television, Promise Keepers hardly happened. Walter Goodman, the Times media critic, says it was because the sight of hundreds of thousands of men praying and praising Jesus would put viewers to sleep, which is another way of saying that Walter Goodman isn’t interested in that sort of thing. The subject of liberal media bias does put a lot of readers to sleep, so I won’t dwell on it, but simply note that there is no plausible explanation of the cold shoulder given Promise Keepers other than that it had two strikes against it: It was perceived as religious and as conservative. (They’re against abortion, aren’t they?) Either one is, of course, tantamount to three strikes. With both, you’re out of the media game (except for commentaries on the sinister religion-conservative connection that got you thrown out).
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• The Word became flesh and nothing can ever be the same again. May the coming holy days be filled with grace and glory for you and yours.