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Marian Mischief?

I am flattered that Richard John Neuhaus has commented not once but twice (While We’re At It, November and December 1997) on my Newsweek cover story on the Virgin Mary. In that story we reported the international petition campaign, signed by millions of Roman Catholics, asking Pope John Paul II to define as dogma the Marian titles of Co-Redemptrix, Advocate, and Mediatrix of all Graces. And well Father Neuhaus should comment since the story was both newsworthy and ecumenically important, as the more than four hundred letters Newsweek received attest. But of all the letter-writers and commentators, only Fr. Neuhaus managed so thorough a misreading of the story. In his first commentary, Fr. Neuhaus called the story “mischief”; in the second it was a “scare.” The latter comment was especially dubious since he was merely calling his readers’ attention to a comment in a one-man right-wing newsletter, catholic eye , which has a circulation somewhat shorter than my parish prayer chain. When Fr. Neuhaus is wrong, it seems no voice is too weak if it amplifies his error. Essentially, Fr. Neuhaus’ error is of his own manufacture. He claims that Newsweek reported that a papal definition of the new dogma was “imminent.” Nowhere in my article is that word used, nor is the notion implied. I did speculate that the end of the millennium, 1999, would be a likely time for such a dogmatic statement, as part of the Church’s jubilee celebration of the new Christian millennium. That is not “imminent” as most people would understand the word. So why the idiosyncratic fuss? The only reason I can see is that Fr. Neuhaus is worried about the effect such a papal definition would have on his evangelical readers and subscribers, who count on him to know what’s up in the Catholic Church, and especially on Bill Bright and other evangelical spokesmen whom Neuhaus has been courting for his religious version of Common Cause. Were I a courted evangelical leader, I’d be wary of Fr. Neuhaus’ glib assurances that the Pope has no intention of proclaiming the dogma. Why? First, no one at the Vatican has publicly said he won’t. The firmest statement from that quarter is this single sentence faxed to Newsweek , in reply to my query, by Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, director of the Holy See Press Office and received after the Newsweek article was published: “There is no study underway at this moment in time by the Holy Father Pope John Paul II or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the subject of the possibility of a papal definition on this theme” (emphasis added). I note two things: that Navarro-Valls was careful not to suggest that such a study is out of question for this pontificate, and that he did not respond to my full question, which asked whether the Pope, the CDF, or any other organ of the Holy See had undertaken such a study. The Vatican lives by loopholes and for very sound reasons: who can say what might happen tomorrow and, besides, there are more than forty cardinals, including some high officials of the Roman Curia, who have signed the petitions to the Pope in support of the papal definition. Indeed, articles pro and con the proposal continue to be published in Rome, as a careful reading of L’Osservatore Romano shows, indicating that the issue is very much alive. Dr. Navarro-Valls quite rightly did not commit himself to more than he could honestly say, which is what a good press officer should do. It appears that Fr. Neuhaus and I agree that a papal definition would be a very bad idea. I trust he would further agree that the best evidence that a papal definition is not under study is that, as I have since been able to learn, neither the papal Biblical Commission nor the International Theological Commission has been asked to study the matter. But note, these commissions do not make papal requests to them public, nor is the Pope required to sound them out. Were I an ecumenical evangelical who looks to Fr. Neuhaus for my information about the Vatican, I’d have lots of questions. I’d want to know why-if, as Fr. Neuhaus claims, there is no chance this Pope will define the dogma-John Paul II hasn’t done what any good Supreme Pastor would do: namely, tell the good (if misguided) Marifocal Catholics who continue to rain down petitions on the Vatican at the rate of four thousand a month that as far as he is concerned the action they are asking for isn’t going to happen, at least not on his watch. I’d wonder what kind of church organization it is that can’t respond to the faithful but prefers, rather, to keep them guessing . Again, were I an evangelical courted by Fr. Neuhaus, I’d want to know what assurance in canon law there is that this Pope, who has used the Co-Redemptrix language himself on more than one occasion, will not decide-say, next Tuesday-that the Holy Spirit has moved him to define the dogma. I realize that Fr. Neuhaus has friends high at court at Rome (and not all of them are named Ratzinger), but I’d wonder about relying on one American priest’s palsiness with the powers that be, and about an ecclesiastical system that can’t respond to a well-intentioned request. In fact, I’d wonder how such a large and zealous (Marian) subculture in the Catholic Church has gone unnoticed and unremarked upon by such a well-informed journal as First Things . But then Fr. Neuhaus’ game is commentary and opinion-reaction, not reporting. Which is why we have magazines like Newsweek . Finally, I’d wonder why Fr. Neuhaus bothers to reprint such a silly argument as put forward by catholic eye . Newman is definitely not one of this Pope’s theological enthusiasms. Further, petitions to the Vatican have figured in previous Marian dogmas, such as the Assumption, and the idea of Mary as co-redeemer has been around since the Middle Ages. The problem with quoting the catholic eye man is that he doesn’t know his own tradition well. So until the Pope deigns to respond to the petition, concerned evangelicals have every reason to be wary of Fr. Neuhaus’ personal assurances. They should note that after the Marian battles of Vatican Council II, Paul VI unilaterally (as was his prerogative) went ahead and proclaimed (non-infallibly) Mary as Mother of the Church. John Paul II is a different kind of Pope, one who has great confidence in his own theological outlook and formulations, as well as a very high view of Mary and her role in the economy of salvation. On this issue, which John Paul will have the last word? The one who heeds the Mariological reticence of the council fathers, or the one who has not hesitated to invoke her as co-redeemer? Concerned and courted evangelicals should stay tuned. And Fr. Neuhaus might consider doing what New Testament scholar Raymond Brown and others have done: namely, thank Newsweek for doing the Church-and evangelicals as well-a service.

Kenneth L. Woodward
Religion Editor, Newsweek
New York, NY

RJN replies:

Ignoring the personal digs, I address a few items in Mr. Woodward’s continued mischief-making: 1) The end of 1999 sounds “imminent” to me. 2) The quest for unity among Christians is not comparable to Common Cause. 3) The sundry causes espoused within a world of a billion Catholics produce innumerable requests for the Pope to do all sorts of things. It is not customary, prudent, or possible for him to announce what he is not going to do. 4) Mr. Woodward claims to know “what any good Supreme Pastor would do,” implying that John Paul II is a bad pastor because he does not tell those who exercise their freedom to petition to go fly a kite. 5) The only thing that was “very much alive” for a while in Rome was irritation with Newsweek ‘s sensationalist story. 6) In response to the Newsweek escapade, L’Osservatore Romano ran articles strongly discouraging the idea of a new definition, and none in favor of it. 7) Mr. Woodward is right that the title of Co-Redemptrix has been around for centuries, as have many other Marian titles in popular devotions. Campaigns for new dogmatic definitions are also nothing new, although Newsweek ‘s exploitation of this one as news is perhaps novel. 8) As an informed Catholic, Mr. Woodward must know that, contrary to the alarums raised in his article, the Second Vatican Council, notably Lumen Gentium, makes emphatically clear that devotion to Mary is entirely subordinate to the worship of Christ, “the one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5). The suggestion that the Pope is not wholeheartedly devoted to the teaching of the Council is nothing more than a gratuitous slur. 9) As for Cardinal Newman, this pontificate has treated as authoritative his argument regarding the development of doctrine, as witness the 1990 instruction The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, explicitly approved by the Pope. 10) To suggest that John Paul II might act on a whim - “say, next Tuesday” - to infallibly define a new dogma is simply, and contemptibly, frivolous. 11) The idea that the Holy See is obliged to respond to a “well-intentioned request” in a manner that satisfies Mr. Woodward’s curiosity betrays an amusing self-importance not uncommon to his profession. But enough. I have known Ken Woodward for many years and have had occasion to take favorable notice of his work in these pages. It is not worthy of him that in this instance he desperately attempts to defend his mischief-making with further mischief .

Evolution and Faith

Skeptics of evolution will find Stephen M. Barr’s “Untangling Evolution” (December 1997) disappointing, for he appears to adopt the usual agenda of the theistic evolutionists, namely, untangling evolution from theological objections. The real untangling that needs to be accomplished consists in separating pseudoscience, the “blind watchmaker thesis” of evolution, from genuine or falsifiable science. Professor Barr admits that “historically evolution has been harmful to religious faith,” contributing to “undermining confidence in Scripture and promoting a naturalistic view of man.” The moral of this story for the Church ought to be: Don’t play with fire, i.e., evolution, lest we get burnt badly as we have been burnt badly in the past. Father Brian Harrison relates a relevant anecdote (“Bomb Shelter Theology,” Living Tradition , May 1994):

During the days of the worker-priest movement in France after World War II, one of its leaders, the Abbé Michonneau, reported that he had had to revise one of his presuppositions when confronted with social reality. The movement started largely under the influence of a fashionable left-leaning theology. The workers have become alienated from Christianity mainly because they see the Church as standing on the side of capitalist exploiters, right? Wrong. Michonneau found, when talking to real workers, that a much more common reason given for unbelief was the conviction that modern science had demolished the Book of Genesis.
Prof. Barr says that “if we can set aside the historical effect of the theory of evolution” we will find that evolution “raises questions for faith, but not difficulties.” But we cannot set aside the historical effect. We live not in a Platonic realm of abstract intellectual ideas, but in a real world unfolding in history, where ideas have consequences and some ideas, like evolution, have devastating consequences. The loss of the French workers is a difficulty for the Church, not a mere question for faith . . . . The danger of the blind watchmaker thesis is that it destroys the necessity of God. And if the necessity of God disappears, God is reduced to a subjective projection of prescientific minds. What Prof. Barr fails to appreciate is that evolution and creation are mutually exclusive theories about the necessary being . In Richard Dawkins’ blind watchmaker thesis the necessary being is mutation and natural selection. Dawkins assures us that this blind watchmaker has made God superfluous, and that Darwin has made it possible for us to be intellectually fulfilled atheists . On the other hand, if God is real, there is no necessity for a blind watchmaker mechanism. If we can explain the complexification of the universe by invoking an Intelligent Designer, the evolution story is redundant. The stakes in the naturalism vs. theism debate are higher than Prof. Barr seems to realize. As the case of the French workers reminds us, when people become convinced that the necessary being in the universe is a blind watchmaker mechanism of evolution, the Church is soon confronted with a death of God movement accompanied by widespread apostasy from the Faith.

(The Rev.) David R. Becker
Saint Mary’s Catholic Church
Shade Gap, PA

Stephen M. Barr’s “Untangling Evolution” struck a particularly responsive chord, probably because I am, like him, a physicist. This is one of the rare essays in which I could find nothing to disagree with. I should like to suggest possible answers to Dr. Barr’s enigma of dragon-fly copulation. Firstly, as a scientist I have long thought of God as a master experimenter trying out various ideas in evolution. Secondly, when contemplating such oddities as the platypus, echidna, armadillo, and many fossil reptiles, I see examples of God’s sense of humor.

Robert C. Tompkins
Towson, MD

Stephen M. Barr replies:

I think that if Father Becker were to take another look at my article he would find answered there many of the points he raises in his letter. I thank Mr. Tompkins for his letter.

Catholic Contrition

As a Catholic psychologist, I share the concerns of Mary Ann Glendon in her article “Contrition in the Age of Spin Control” (November 1997). I emphatically agree that Pope John Paul II’s gracious expression of sorrow for errors made by members of the Catholic Church may provide enemies of the Church with ammunition for attack . . . . I also share Ms. Glendon’s apprehensions about Catholics, ex-Catholics, and many writers, reporters, and owners of the news media who will abuse their power over public opinion by presenting biased reports about the Catholic Church and its members . . . . Nevertheless, as a scientist/practitioner with a specific interest in conflict management, I believe that the Pope’s declarations of regret can be most beneficial for the Church in the long run . . . . In psychotherapy, if people don’t examine their mistakes, or if they deny making any errors, they “stay stuck in the problem.” All the research and practice literature on conflict resolution emphasizes dialogue, mutual understanding, acknow ledgment of the merits of the position of one’s adversary, admission of one’s own mistakes, efforts to make amends, willingness to compromise, reciprocal behavior, planning, and follow-up. This is, I believe, a very good model to follow as well in dealing with the danger described in Ms. Glendon’s article . . . . I was delighted to read Ms. Glendon’s quote from Flannery O’Connor, who wrote in the 1950s in response to the detractors of the Church: “What you actually seem to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now.” Well, we all would like a magic wand to abolish all the inequities, fallibilities, and frustrations of this all too imperfect world. It is obvious to me, and I believe to Ms. Glendon, and hopefully to many others as well, that of all the flawed institutions in this world, the Church and other religious groups have come closest to achieving this exalted goal of a just and caring structure . . . . I believe the Pope is taking a healthy risk by his actions. Because the public forums are often dominated by people with anti-Catholic tendencies, articulate enemies of the Church will definitely be heard by many people. Lucid arguments by Catholics will probably be received less favorably by the popular media. One of the answers to this disappointing state of affairs is political, social, economic, and intellectual activism. Energetic and courageous speech and behavior have had long traditions in Catholicism. Journals like First Things provide a useful forum and support network for those of us who would like religion to have a stronger impact on public life . . . .

Eleanor Cole
New York, NY In regard to “Contrition in the Age of Spin Control”: Who would have thought that one short article could contain so much irony! A man of courage and strong convictions, Pope John Paul II is no stranger to slurs, slams, and misunderstandings from the media and even his own people. In the past, no matter how controversial the issue, his staunchest supporters stood by his side, cheered him on and valiantly beat off any attacks that might come his way. Suddenly, and quite inexplicably, these same supporters seem to be cowering in fear, whimpering about the anxiety they’re experiencing over the possible negative fallout that might result from Pope John Paul II’s “plan for a premillennial public expression of sorrow .” Decrying this whole notion of public contrition, Mary Ann Glendon quotes her friend from Boston who facetiously commented, “It’s getting to be tough times for the dead.” In point of fact, however, he was citing one of the traditional tenets of our faith. Yes, the Church remains mindful of the sinfulness of her members even after death. Designated as a time for the final purification of our souls, Purgatory is meant to be “tough times.” Moreover, if Ms. Glendon’s friend is genuinely concerned about the souls of the departed, he might be interested to know that he can help alleviate their suffering through personal acts of penance, prayer, and almsgiving . With smug self-righteousness, Ms. Glendon then directs her anger towards those women of our Church who have refused to accept all of the Pope’s teachings as outlined in his Apostolic Letter to Women . Apparently, she is in a complete state of denial about her own opposition to the Pope. Yes, she pays some obligatory lip service to the Pope’s teachings in Tertio Millenio Adveniente , but it is patently clear that she believes not a word of it. While the Pope would beseech us to understand that “acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage which helps to strengthen our faith,” Ms. Glendon feels compelled to remind us that there are “persons for whom no apology will ever be enough,” and that “expressions of sorrow over past shortcomings do not require abasing ourselves before others, and certainly not before persons who are unwilling to admit any misdeeds of their own.” Beneath these irrational, mean-spirited, and racist remarks lies yet another irony. Ms. Glendon seems to find it impossible to forgive people who refuse to accept apologies, yet she expects others to find it ever so easy to forgive people whom they feel bear some responsibility for the loss of their loved ones. Perhaps the most offensive irony of all is the one concerning “collective guilt.” Although primarily rooted in the sin of envy, anti-Semitism has also been fueled throughout the centuries by our Church’s past teaching on the collective guilt of the Jews for the death of Jesus. With callous disregard for facts or feelings, Ms. Glendon exhorts her readers to “join with our sisters and brothers of other faiths to resist all those who peddle the poison of collective guilt.” There is nothing intrinsically evil about collective guilt. In fact-when self-imposed, following a careful examination of the collective conscience-collective guilt can be a very uplifting and edifying means of spiritual growth for the entire community. Collective guilt becomes “poisonous” only when it is imposed on one group by another and then used to justify the hatred and destruction of that group. Finally, in its instructions relating to the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Penance requires the sinner to endure all things willingly; be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.” How proud we should be that our Holy Father has the courage and integrity to remain faithful to this great tradition. What a beautiful way to give glory to God and make holy the Mystical Body of Christ.

Polly Goldberg
West Lafayette, IN

Mary Ann Glendon replies:

Many thanks to Dr. Cole for illuminating the problem of “contrition in the age of spin control” with her insights from the field of psychology. Thanks, too, to Ms. Goldberg for a letter that illustrates the problem to which my article was addressed. Alas, a person who does not balk at ascribing collective guilt is not apt to flinch at misrepresenting an argument or hurling intemperate epithets. Dr. Cole understood me correctly: the Pope has adopted a wise and humane course, and it is chiefly up to us laypeople to prevent his statements from being misused by persons who will never be satisfied until Catholics apologize for their very existence.

Thanks for the Memories

Thanks to First Things and to Andy Bacevich for his reflections on our high school experience in the early sixties (“Memories of a Catholic Boyhood,” December 1997). We were fortunate to catch a Benedictine education at just the right moment, in the years before and during Vatican II. The postwar generation that had crowded into religious life possessed a remarkable blend of talent, self-confidence, and dedication. We rode the crest of the wave. Too many years earlier, and the education they provided might have been insufferably parochial; not long afterwards, it had moved much closer to the American secondary school norm. As it was, we benefited from the best that Benedictine tradition could provide, before the dilution and experimentation of the next two decades had set in . . . .

Michael J. Hollerich
(St. Bede Academy, ‘65)
St. Paul, MN

When Pastors Were Pastors

Thanks to James Nuechterlein for his essay on “Pastoral Concerns” (November 1997). We have come a long way with respect to the pastoral office since I attended a midwestern Lutheran college. The college was located in a town overwhelmingly Lutheran. The single Lutheran church dominated the social fabric of the entire community. The pastor, a German immigrant, was never accused of doubting his pastoral authority. In the 1950s the college enrolled its first black student. When the townspeople caught wind of this, elders of the church called a special meeting to determine whether that student would be able to receive Communion in their church. It was, of course, understood that the Eucharist was an absolutely essential element of Lutheran life, but these leaders no doubt wished for some way the student might go to a larger city where there were congregations for black Lutherans. After considerable discussion, all pointing to not admitting the student, the congregation was ready to vote. Then the pastor got up to speak. He simply stated that if this black student could not receive Communion in the church, there would be no more Communion for anyone since they would all be going to hell anyway. That was that. No vote. The student came to church and Communion. Life went back to normal for the town and the college.

John R. Hannah
Bronx, NY

Smoke and Substance

I would like to thank Joop Koopman for his generally positive review of my book, The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism , which appeared in the December 1997 issue. I must confess, however, that Mr. Koopman caught me a bit off guard. In previous reviews by conservative Catholics, I have been denounced as a quisling and an idolater, my intellectual integrity has been called into question, and, best of all, I’ve been accused of trying to argue that conservative Catholics are somehow satanic. (What else, after all, could my book’s title possibly mean?) In a refreshing departure, Mr. Koopman refrains from attacking my moral character. But still intent on hurting my feelings, he attacks my writing instead: “The surfeit of detail in Cuneo’s descriptions of characters and movements, a good bit of it not terribly compelling and rather repetitive, threatens to deter all but the most diehard readers.” Here is a swipe that I didn’t anticipate. To this point, reviewers in the secular media, and even my harshest critics in the Catholic media, have agreed that The Smoke of Satan is nothing if not entertaining. I wonder which descriptive details in particular Mr. Koopman has in mind. The photograph of Jimmy Durante prominently displayed in the reception room of a traditionalist monastery in New Jersey? The Janis Joplin song played on a jukebox by a leading proponent of the Cardinal-Siri-as-real-Pope-in-exile conspiracy theory? The prison love letters composed by Pope Gregory XVII of the Infinite Love community? Or could it be those fifty blue-and-white-habited nuns of the Mount St. Michael’s community in Spokane? It may well be the case that none of this is compelling. But repetitive? Descriptive detail aside, Mr. Koopman’s main complaint with The Smoke of Satan is that it shortchanges James Hitchcock (“a man of genuine substance”) and his wife Helen Hull Hitchcock by paying undue attention to Catholics of a decidedly more exotic stripe. I quite agree that James Hitchcock is a man of substance; and in a longer or differently focused book, I would have enjoyed treating him at greater length. The same can also be said of the talented polemicist E. Michael Jones, pro-life activists Monica Migliorino Miller and John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, and a dozen other individuals who make little more than cameo appearances in The Smoke of Satan. What disturbs me, however, is Mr. Koopman’s cavalier dismissal of so many of the other individuals and groups that Smoke takes trouble to discuss. How does he know that they are merely “eccentric” or merely of “fleeting interest”? As the history of religion amply attests, today’s fringe player might very well turn out to be tomorrow’s prophet, today’s dead-end sect tomorrow’s religio-political juggernaut. This doesn’t mean that I’m personally placing any bets on the various separatist and apocalyptic groups that are dealt with in The Smoke of Satan. I am, however, open to being surprised. So, what to make of all this? Less descriptive detail? Heavier on the Hitchcocks and lighter on the extremists? I think I get it. Mr. Koopman is the former editor of the National Catholic Register, and he appears to have wanted me to write a book that the National Catholic Register would have been proud of. I wrote The Smoke of Satan instead.

Michael W. Cuneo
Fordham University
Bronx, NY

Joop Koopman replies:

It seems highly unlikely that any of the members of the extreme Catholic right described in Michael Cuneo’s book-indeed, it is hard to speak of the majority as actual members of the Church-would actually end up as “tomorrow’s prophets” or be harbingers of “tomorrow’s religio-political juggernaut.” Their views and paranoias are simply too far gone. What I meant to say in arguing that the catalogue of bizarre characters ends up being “repetitive” is this: There are lots of bizarre (and amusing) details and twists and turns to the personalities and their papal conspiracy theories, etc., but there is little or no genuine substance to be found in most of the groups, which end up blurring together. As to Professor Cuneo’s conclusion that I would have preferred a more pro-Hitchcock, et al., approach, that is not the case. It is just that there is more to individuals like Hitchock, more substance that is worth analyzing and reading about, whether or not you agree with the man’s basic outlook.

Delusions About the Environment?

Richard John Neuhaus’ “Christ and Creation’s Longing” (December 1997) asserts that environmentalists (they’re all clearly radical “counterculturists”) need to grow up and “develop an environmental theology and piety that is coherent, comprehensive, compelling, and true to the revelation of God in Christ.” It can easily be inferred from the polemics of this diatribe that someone who cares about animals and trees doesn’t care about humans (they’re anti-anthropocentric, even). Father Neuhaus further suggests that rather than work together, we should do some intellectual exploration “within a community and tradition that provide necessary correctives by reference to the rule of faith and teaching authority.” We may infer that the environment will take care of itself once the “people problem” has been solved. Of course, there may be a short wait until this occurs. This article leads me to better understand how Baruch Spinoza must have felt while bombarded with epithets by virtually everyone for daring to think that there was some relationship between God and nature. Fortunately, those who think like the deluded Fr. Neuhaus are becoming rarer . . . .

Henry Schultz
Santa Clarita, CA

A Monopoly in the Public Square?

Richard John Neuhaus is disturbed that Christianity does not enjoy a monopoly in the public square (“Gridlock in the Public Square,” December 1997). He apparently believes that non-Christian religions should not merely accept minority status, they should be invisible as well. If the choice non-Christians face is between a naked public square and one in which the only voice heard is a Christian one, is it any wonder that so many, particularly Jews, prefer the former over the latter?

Howard A. Gootkin
New York, NY

RJN replies:

It is a tribute, of sorts, either to Mr. Gootkin or to my writing, that he takes me to be saying precisely the opposite of what I intended to say. The point of the author of the piece on Christmas in the public square, and of my comment on his piece, is that it might be helpful to remember that Christmas is a Christian thing. It is certainly of interest to ask why some, including some Jews, find that suggestion offensive.