The Public Square
Born in February 1997, Dolly is two years old now, or maybe eight years old, because the cell used in cloning her was six years old at the time. Since Dr. Ian Wilmut announced Dolly to the world, some scientists have expressed skepticism about whether she really is a clone, though apparently most experts now concede she is. In any event, the announcement set off an enormous uproar in the media, and also occasioned reflection in more serious circles about the prospect of cloning not sheep but human beings. Two of the most notable reflections were by James Q. Wilson, “The Paradox of Cloning” in the Weekly Standard , and by Leon Kass in a long essay in the New Republic , “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” Those articles, with a brief additional exchange between the authors, have now been brought together in an excellent little book, The Ethics of Human Cloning (American Enterprise Institute, 100 pages,, $16.95).
Wilson of UCLA, author of books such as The Moral Sense (see FT review, November 1993), is a social scientist of rare moral attentiveness, and Kass of the University of Chicago, who has written frequently also in these pages, is simply one of the wisest and most morally serious people I have ever known. In his initial essay, Wilson concluded that, all things considered, we should not be alarmed by the prospect of human cloning. He acknowledged some dangers but wrote, “Provided certain conditions are met, the gains will turn out to exceed the risks.” The chief condition is that “Cloning should be permitted only on behalf of two married partners, and the mother should-absent some medical condition that doctors must certify-carry the fertile tissue to birth.” The intention is to make sure that the offspring “belong to the parents” and to prevent various misuses of cloning technology. He recognizes that “many devout Christians or Jews” will disagree: “I would ask of them only that they explain what it is about sexual fertilization that so affects God’s judgment about the child that results.”
Kass’ “The Wisdom of Repugnance” is an article both much longer and more complex in its argument that we should respect and learn from our intuitive recoil at the separation of sex from fertility, and the replacement of procreation with the manufacture of children as a “product.” (Wilson is a Catholic and Kass, by no means incidentally, is a Jew.) Both original essays are very much worth a careful reading, but I will confine myself to the further exchange in the new book. Kass writes that he does not think that the practice of cloning could be limited in the way that Wilson suggests, but his objections go further than that. “I regard cloning to be in itself a form of child abuse, even if no one complains, and a deep violation of our given nature as gendered and engendering beings.”
There is a critical methodological difference between the two thinkers. Kass notes that Wilson has elsewhere written perceptively about the importance of a “prearticulate human moral sense,” but in this case Wilson does not trust “his own sense of moral disquiet and sets out to explain it with reasons.” As any parent knows, the child’s question “Why not?” is often hard to answer. Wilson asks “Why not cloning?” and cannot come up with an answer that he finds convincing. Kass writes: “Whether he intends it or not, that move places the burden of proof on those who object to cloning rather than on the proponents. Worse, it requires that the reasons offered be finally acceptable to utilitarians who measure only in terms of tangible harms and benefits but who are generally blind to the deeper meaning of things.” Kass, too, employs utilitarian-or what might be called consequentialist-arguments, but he wants to keep our attention fixed on “the deeper meaning of things.”
Wilson’s initial essay was impatient with such ponderings, and he was particularly dismissive of theologians who would worry about whether a cloned baby would have a soul. Kass is equally impatient with what he views as Wilson’s “superficial” treatment of philosophical and religious considerations. “No thoughtful theologian,” Kass responds, “objects to assisted reproduction because it limits God’s power to inculcate a human soul; theologians worry not about the impotence of God but about the hubris of man.” He cites Anglican Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made ?, Methodist Paul Ramsey’s Fabricated Man , and the Vatican’s instruction on “The Dignity of Procreation” as representative of the kind of thinking to which Wilson might pay attention.
In favor of cloning, Wilson had noted that in vitro fertilization had also been viewed as “ethically suspect” at first, but is now socially accepted. Kass responds: “Does the growing social acceptability of sodomy or adultery constitute a refutation of Leviticus 18:22 or the Seventh Commandment?” (That’s the sixth for you Catholics and Lutherans.) “The arrival of cloning, far from gaining legitimacy from the precedent of in vitro fertilization,” Kass writes, “should rather awaken those who previously saw no difficulty with starting human life in petri dishes.” It is notoriously difficult these days to make an argument from what is “natural,” but Kass urges that we attend to nature’s “possibly normative pointings.”
Is the Issue Sex or Marriage?
A friend suggested to Kass that the difference between him and Wilson on these matters is that he is chiefly concerned about human sexuality while Wilson’s main concern is with marriage and family. Not quite, responds Kass. “[That] difference is more apparent than real, especially if one understands the generative meaning of sexuality and, even more, if one sees that one will be increasingly incapable of defending the institution of marriage and the two-parent family if one is indifferent to its natural grounding in what I call the ontology of sex. Can we ensure, even in thought, that all children will have two parents if we ignore, in our social arrangements, the natural (hetero) sexual ground of parenthood?”
In his original article, Kass said that a clone, because asexually reproduced and lacking two parents, is a single-parent child. He now writes that “it would be more accurate to say that, since it is the twin rather than the offspring of its ‘source,’ it has no parents, biologically speaking-unless its ‘parents’ are the mother and father of the person from whom it was cloned.” There are other real-world consequences. “Virtually no parent is going to be able to treat a clone of himself or herself as one does a child generated by the lottery of sex. The new life will constantly be scrutinized in relation to that of the older copy. The child is likely to be ever a curiosity, ever a potential source of déjà vu.” And what about the look-alike copy of one parent when there are tensions in the marriage or the parents divorce? “Will mommy still love the clone of daddy?”
Kass does not hesitate to invoke the slippery slope, an image much mocked by those who hold that one thing does not usually follow from another. Prenatal screening, sex selection, the normalization of deviancy, and the eugenic implications of new reproductive technologies-cloning in particular-are all upon us. But Wilson says not to worry, so long as we hold fast to marriage and family. “Given the state of our culture,” observes Kass, “it is rather late in the sexual day for Professor Wilson’s call to rally the family wagons to protect the little beloved clone.”
Kass’ conclusion is nothing if not definite: “Even if human cloning is rarely undertaken, a society in which it is tolerated is no longer the same society-any more than is a society that permits (even small-scale) incest or cannibalism or slavery. It is a society that has forgotten how to shudder, that always rationalizes away the abominable. A society that allows cloning has, whether it knows it or not, tacitly said yes to converting procreation into manufacture and to treating our children as pure projects of our will. Indeed, the principles here legitimated could-and will-be used to legitimate the entire humanitarian superhighway to Brave New World . Professor Wilson’s sweet reasonableness of today will come back to haunt him, once he sees what he has unknowingly said yes to. Better he should trust his immediate moral sense.”
Professor Wilson gets the last word in this exchange. The “essential difference” between them, he says, is that Kass views the meaning of children in relation to sexuality while he views it in relation to the family. However the child is brought into being, Wilson’s concern is whether “the child is likely to do well.” “If Dr. Kass thinks that sexuality is more important than families, then he would object to any form of assisted reproduction that does not involve parental coition.” One notes that the choice between sexuality and families is a false one, and Kass has already said that cloning should occasion long second thoughts about assisted reproduction in general. Wilson cites a number of studies indicating that children conceived by artificial means (although not, of course, children who have been cloned) do, in fact, generally do well. And that’s the only thing that matters.
Arguments and Preferences
Well, not quite. In a somewhat marginally relevant discussion of surrogate motherhood and a case where the woman bearing the child refused to give it up to the couple with whom she had contracted, Wilson disagrees with the court that awarded the child to the couple. “The central fact was that she was the baby’s mother . . . . The child belonged to its mother, period.” He continues, “Some critics of my view would say that surrogacy is appropriate if the birth mother receives both egg and sperm from the parents who are to own the child. That mistakes genetic similarity for the birth effect.” These things are asserted but not argued. I agree with the assertions but am impressed that Wilson seems to take them as self-evidently, dare we say “naturally,” true, when in fact the crucial questions in such a dispute are over the meaning of “mother” and connections between genetics, contract, and what Wilson calls “the birth effect.”
Wilson does not argue so much as he simply expresses preferences. To Kass’ concern about the source of the egg in cloning, Wilson responds, “Nor do I much care for the idea of taking eggs from a Nobel Prize-winner.” That establishes that James Q. Wilson does not much care for the practice, but does it tell us anything about what should be done about cloning? Later he writes, “We do not want families planning to have a movie star, basketball player, or high-energy physicist as an offspring.” That “we” do not want it is undoubtedly true, but, just as certainly, many people might want it, and who are “we” to tell them they can’t have it? Wilson goes on to say, “I am not clear as to how those limits might be drawn, and if no one can solve that puzzle, I would join Dr. Kass in banning cloning.” He suggests, however, that the “puzzle” can be solved by allowing selection only for race, ethnicity, and sex. But by what moral reason or principle of justice should people be compelled to abide by such limited choices? If all the parties are agreeable, why should a couple be prevented from having a clone of Michael Jordan, Madonna, or-the preference is imaginable-Bill Clinton?
Wilson says that “Dr. Kass is right to stress the mystery and uncertainty of sexual union.” But he gives no indication of understanding what Kass means by the mystery or its relationship to uncertainty, and he clearly thinks that Kass is wrong to stress these considerations as they might impinge upon the legality of cloning. Matters such as mystery, it appears, are in the private sphere of aesthetics, or maybe even theology. In the real world, cloning, legalized within the limits that Professor Wilson prefers, will remain, he says, “quite rare.” That is because, he concludes on a note of high insouciance, “Sex is more fun than cloning . . . . Procreation is a delight.”
One is reminded of Richard Rorty’s anti-foundational formula for sustaining a decent and democratic society: “We must hope there will continue to be enough ironic liberals like ourselves.” Were the world populated only by eminently decent people such as James Q. Wilson, I am sure Leon Kass would not be as worried as he is. In the real world, however, some people, if not prevented, will do bizarre, destructive, and evil things. Nobody knows for sure what the consequences of human cloning would be, but in his original essay and in his response to Wilson’s original essay, Kass offers a very plausible and sobering description of the probable consequences. To most of Kass’ particulars Wilson does not respond at all. With respect to others, he thinks that very few people would want to do such things, he strongly prefers that they not do such things, and maybe “we” can translate our preferences into legal limits against doing such things. But finally, we are assured, the benefits of cloning human beings outweigh the risks.
The benefits, according to Wilson, are for a very small number of people, namely, couples who cannot conceive a child, either in the uterus or the petri dish, and who choose not to adopt, use a surrogate mother, or receive cells from an unknown donor for in vitro fertilization. Once again, choice is trump. Neither in principle nor in common sense is there any reason to believe that choice could be denied to those who choose what they see as other benefits in human cloning, such as owning the clone of a Nobel Prize physicist. Kass understands this. In his rosy view of the likely consequences of cloning, says Kass, Wilson is “playing Dr. Pangloss,” and Wilson maybe believes that Kass is playing Cassandra. They both may be right, but when choice is trumps, Cassandra wins. The exchange, however, goes beyond who has the more adequate reading of our cultural moment and of cloning’s probable consequences.
It is a matter of the “ontology” of human sexuality. Are marriage, procreation, and family all of a piece within the ontology of sex? The alternative is a bricolage or tinkertoy approach in which these and other aspects of sexuality (e.g., love, pleasure, loyalty, obligation) can be taken apart and reassembled according to diverse desires. Polymorphous perversity is the technical term for the infantile sexual state in which the child is confused about the purpose of genitals and does not understand coitus as the goal of erotic desire. A large part of civilization’s work is the overcoming or containment of polymorphous perversity. In recent decades we have witnessed a vast civilizational undoing; not a sexual revolution but a sexual regression in which millions have been infantilized, encouraged to pretend that they do not know what they do know, and to call the resulting confusion choice.
Here we touch on delicate ground. Sexuality as bricolage inevitably raises the issue of contraception. Kass touches on it delicately, noting that in the 1960s the Supreme Court ruling that allowed the sale of contraceptives ( Griswold v. Connecticut ) was in support of marital privacy, but it almost immediately became an individual’s right to sexual privacy, married or not ( Eisenstadt v. Baird ). The right to privacy, the right to marry, the right to define marriage, the right to reproduce, the right to the child of one’s choice. The ontology of sexuality lies shattered under a barrage of rights. Such was the prognosis offered with almost eerie (some would say prophetic) exactitude by the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae . The civilizational undoing is a moral undoing, and in the realm of sexuality, said the encyclical, it begins with the separation of the sexual act from its unitive and procreative end. To which the infantilized respond with the cunning appearance of innocence, “ Which sexual act?” Our public debates move smartly along: from the sale of contraceptives to easy divorce to abortion to same-sex marriage to cloning human beings. And all in only thirty years.
The polymorphously perverse blame their confusion on the rapidity of technological change, and there is something to that. Not much, but something. The discovery of buggery and baby-killing did not have to await the dawn of the space age. Cloning is different. It is not the cause of our confusion but the result of our confusion. The source of confusion is in heeding the commandment that thou shalt not resist temptation, and cloning is but one more temptation. The results of the sexual regression, more and more people are coming to recognize, have been disastrous for everyone-except, in a superficial way, for rutting males, who have always known how conveniently detachable is sex from its attendant responsibilities. Women and children, of course, have been the chief victims of the liberation from the ontology of sex. In the discussion of abortion, more and more women are saying what all women must know, that it is a phony liberation that is purchased by the death of their children.
Sex seemed such a pretty tinkertoy, and so maddeningly complex. Telling ourselves that we did not know what it was for, we took it apart to find out how it works, and could be made to work in different and exciting ways. After the deconstruction, this part of the anatomy was stuck into that part, and this kind substituted for that kind, until all memory of design was lost in the immeasurable expanse of desire. “Sex is fun,” it was said ever more insistently, ever more desperately. Of course there were the spoilsports among us. They remembered, and they mumbled about the nature of the thing, and how it was somehow and inseparably tied up with the nature of us. “Ontology” they called it. They were tolerated, so long as they didn’t get in the way of our doing what we wanted to do, even though we had grown tired of wanting to do nothing more than what we wanted to do. Then the prospect of cloning came along, the prospect of making others who would be just like us. The realization dawned that, in talking about clones, we were not talking about them but about ourselves. The debate was not about what we can do or even about what we should do. The debate was about who we are . And it turned out that there was a revolution after all, and, as is the way with things that revolve, it came full circle to an understanding of the way things are, and are meant to be.
Imagine some years from now when people started being happy again, and being happy about being happy. Adults took great pleasure in watching children growing up and saying, “Oh, so that’s how it’s meant to be!” Of course there were also the very young and some slow learners who were always imagining how things could be otherwise and asking, “Why not?” But the adults were neither flustered nor intimidated now. The cloning debate had taught them to do some hard thinking about these things. They spoke confidently, persuasively, and winsomely about how things are and are meant to be. Some of them even talked about ontology. They still had problems of course-coping with temptations, keeping promises, forgiving betrayals of the way things are and are meant to be. But, all in all, they were very happy not to be lost in a world of their own making. Until they began to take things for granted again; until they began to think that that’s just the way things are, and forgot the part about things being meant to be. And after they had been going on that way for a long time, somebody had what seemed like a really bright idea and asked, “Why not?” And the whole thing started all over again.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
A remarkable book that deserves a wider readership than it is likely to get is When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpa of John Paul II by Luigi Accattoli (Alba House, 257 pages,, $16.95 paper). Mary Ann Glendon has in these pages set out both the necessity and the dangers of what John Paul II calls the Church’s “purification of memory” (see “Contrition in the Age of Spin Control,” November 1997). Here an Italian journalist very usefully traces the development of that project, along with the obstacles the Pope encountered in his own curia among church leaders who are more impressed with the dangers than with the necessity. Accattoli understands why it is not theologically possible, in the Catholic view of things, to say that the Church sins, since the Church as the Body of Christ is constitutive of the “total Christ,” and it is not possible to say that Christ has sinned.
Particularly valuable is the book’s inclusion of original documents in which John Paul II has no less than ninety-four times acknowledged that-regarding racism, anti-Semitism, the crusades, war, divisions between Christians, and the treatment of women, among other things-the faithful, including ecclesiastics at the highest level, have been unfaithful. The book includes also the vigorous challenge of Cardinal Biffi of Bologna and others to the entire idea of a purification of memory. Although, of course, he does not directly challenge the Pope, here is a sample of His Eminence expressing his concerns: “Galileo had been generally rejected in favor of the Ptolemaic theory in the universities of his day, and yet no rector or dean in our day has been called on to respond to the behavior of the academic authorities of those days. And who would dream of challenging the mayor of Milan or the president of the Lombard Region for the tragedies caused by the politics of Ludovico il Moro? And so it goes. It goes without saying that the heinous historical crimes committed against the human race are hidden today under a mantle of silence. It seems that all are in agreement in saying that we are no longer responsible. For example, to whom will humanity send the bill for the countless French people sent to the guillotine in 1793, for no other crime than their social standing? To whom will humanity send the bill for the millions of Russian citizens slaughtered by the Bolsheviks? Therefore, as regards the sins of history, would it not be better for all of us to wait for the Last Judgment?”
As he has made clear in Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Nears) and many other statements, John Paul II is convinced that, if Christians are to walk upright in the next millennium, they must cross the threshold of the year 2000 on their knees. One regularly meets people who say, “When is the Pope going to say he is sorry for (whatever grievance is on their mind)?” The answer is that he has probably already said it. Nor did the purification of memory start with John Paul II. Accattoli discusses the self-examination and asking for forgiveness that began with John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, and was strongly continued by Paul VI. He includes some intriguing and admittedly uncertain reports about the plans John Paul I, the Pope of thirty-three days, had in this connection.
Some Catholics think the present Pope has “gone too far” in asking for forgiveness, while others will apparently not be satisfied until a Pope condemns the Church itself. What is certain is that no other church or religious community, never mind secular institution, has so candidly, repeatedly, and voluntarily accepted responsibility for its failings. It is the kind of thing made possible by an unshakable communal confidence in the gospel of forgiveness.
Blaming the Truth
The experts may be right who say that Protestant clergy are more frequently engaged in varieties of sexual abuse than their Catholic counterparts. It is the latter instances, however, that seem to catch more public attention. Maybe it is because people expect more of the Catholic Church, maybe it is anti-Catholic bias in the media, maybe the perceived hypocrisy factor is increased by celibacy and the Church’s countercultural sexual ethic, maybe attention is drawn by the lawsuits seeking megadamages from an institution thought to be rich and centralized. As discussed by Philip Jenkins in Pedophiles and Priests (1995), there are many factors contributing to an exaggerated and distorted impression of priestly wrongdoing. The rash of cases in the last decade has had a powerfully sobering effect, and church leaders have gained a measure of competence in responding to them, both legally and pastorally.
This spring a bishop in Florida resigned when it came to light that some twenty-five years earlier, when he was a young priest, he had, as the British put it, interfered with young boys in his charge. A bishop from a neighboring diocese who was called in to clean up the mess spoke to the press in words that reflect continuing difficulties in addressing such problems. Admittedly, he did not have an easy task. Perhaps it is inevitable in what Philip Rieff calls our “therapeutic society” that bishops, too, engage in a certain amount of psychobabble, but one wonders if both truth and credibility are not better served if bishops stick to what they presumably know most about-sin, grace, contrition, repentance, and atonement. When the bishop says, for example, that twenty-five years ago people did not know that pedophilia is a “disease” and therefore offenders were let off with a warning and change of assignment, it does sound as though the Church, after two millennia of dealing with the propensities of the human condition, is only now learning the facts of life under the tutelage of Dr. Ruth and contemporary sexology. The faithful might draw the conclusion that, rather than turning to the Church for guidance, they would do better to write Dear Abby.
Asked by the Tampa Tribune how such a scandal could happen in the Catholic Church, the bishop in charge of the clean-up is reported to have said: “We almost have a hang-up about sex. We expect people to live up to such a high ideal of sexual conduct and we don’t allow any failure. And when some do fail, we don’t always handle it right.” It is a response deserving of a moment’s reflection. Is the requirement that priests refrain from, inter alia, sexual recreation with boys really best described as a “high ideal”? It hardly seems like an excessively rigorous rule reflecting a “hang-up about sex.” The overwhelming majority of people view such behavior as perverse and bizarre, something that is prohibited by even the lowest standard of conduct. Moreover, the Church condemns-not as an impossibly high ideal but as a matter of elementary justice-the exploitation of the defenseless by the powerful, which is just what the priest in question was doing. Yet the statement by the clean-up bishop might well give the impression that the problem is with the Church’s teaching rather than with the wrong done.
In the passage where Jesus speaks about the millstone earned by those who cause one of these little ones to sin, he also enjoins us to forgive as generously as we are forgiven (Luke 17:1-4). The bishop who is now repentant and resigned must be forgiven, even as the wrong he did must be condemned. He might well be going through the tortures of deepest remorse, and we have no right to withhold from him whatever sympathy we can muster. Perhaps he was in many respects a very good bishop. What he did was a long time ago and might have remained mercifully forgotten. Whatever wounds he inflicted might have been healed or patiently borne. For better or worse, however, those long ago offenses of a young priest, which were also criminal, became public and had to be addressed publicly. In the face of evil, as John Paul II has said repeatedly, “We must call things by their right names.” We must never call grave sin a consequence of the Church’s witness to moral truth. The problem is not high ideals but low behavior. Which brings us back to sin and grace, the language in which the Church can speak with confidence, with credibility, and, most important, with truth. The Church is a communion of sinners forgiven and called to sainthood. We all have an ultimate, an eternal, stake in maintaining uncompromised each part of that truth.
Lesser Sin or Lesser Danger
At least one reader is distressed when we touch on this subject. “Aren’t you implying,” she asks, “that it’s better to sin safely, and are you not thereby encouraging people to sin?” I think the answer to both questions is in the negative, but I’ll come back to that. The subject is that of “responsible,” even “conservative,” homosexuals who challenge the lethal promiscuity of the gay subculture. Notable examples are Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic , and Bruce Bawer, author of A Place at the Table . This item is prompted by a column sent in by a San Francisco reader. David Dalton writes in the San Francisco Examiner against a group that calls itself Sex Panic. The group advocates unlimited anal sex as the act that constitutes “what it means to be a gay man,” without reference to medical consequences since life after forty is not worth living anyway.
Dalton, who is forty-nine, takes exception. He cites lesbians who are becoming less tolerant of “gay men’s promiscuity and immaturity,” and says the same is true of straight people. “There will be a backlash if Sex Panic prevails. And make no mistake about it: A backlash is exactly what Sex Panic wants, because a backlash would help to keep gay people on the fringes of society, which is where Sex Panic wants us.” Dalton appeals to homosexual men: “A lot of stuff has happened in the world while you were reading nothing but the gay newspapers. We might mention 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. After fifty years of disastrous experiments all over the globe, 1989 was when we knew for sure that leftist ideology is somehow fatally flawed and does not work. So why does the gay movement still have all its eggs in such a basket? And everyone except queer theorists seem to know that Foucault is dead, that he pretty much admitted before he died that he had been a young poseur. As long as we’re deconstructing cultures, why don’t we deconstruct the gay culture we’ve produced since Stonewall? Is it really all that fine? Is the right to public sex really so important to us that Sex Panic’s agenda should become our agenda? Why does the gay elite that claims to speak for us want to keep us marginalized? The gay community in San Francisco is large, secure, mature, and diverse. Many of us-maybe most of us-are in the mainstream because that’s where we want to be. It’s all right to stand up to the brats in Sex Panic and say in a loud, firm voice: Stop claiming to speak for all of us. And above all we should say to young gay people that there are plenty of things that make life worth living after the age of forty, though we have to make our own lists and post them on our refrigerator doors.” He then adds, “Take care of each other. Don’t give your all to anyone unless you like him and trust him. Use a condom.” And he urges his readers to oppose Sex Panic, “the people who are telling you that a sex act-any sex act-is worth more than your life.”
Now back to the reader who says that, by reporting on the efforts of such as Dalton, Sullivan, and Bawer, we are encouraging people to sin safely, or at least less recklessly. Not at all. Objectively, whatever their intentions, they may be doing that, assuming as they do that people cannot or should not refuse to act upon their unruly desires. For the rest of us, it is important to understand the conflicted state of the homosexual subculture. Although it includes less than 2 percent of the male population, there is no doubt about its powerful influence in our continuing culture wars. Should we be more on the side of David Dalton and Andrew Sullivan than that of Sex Panic? Yes, and for at least two reasons. First, if their counsel prevails, some lives may be saved and those people may live long enough to come to repentance and amendment of life. Second, the position represented by Sex Panic is unqualified abandonment to evil, while the “responsible” homosexuals, by their poignantly futile effort to qualify evil with good, evidence an ambivalence that keeps them in conversation, however tenuous, with moral and spiritual sanity.
The reader mentioned at the start has a counterargument, of course. She might say it is precisely the “responsibles” who pose a threat to the larger society by their attempts to normalize homosexuality, thereby weakening marriage, family, and the rules by which human beings flourish. In that view, it is better that Sex Panic prevail and the deadly subculture be isolated as an object of general abhorrence. But that, I think, is simply not going to happen. As Dalton and others say, there are simply too many already in the “mainstream,” and they are set upon demanding social legitimation. As the Ramsey Colloquium statement on the homosexual movement said (FT, March 1994), this insurgency is not going to disappear any time soon; it must be engaged and countered by every means available to us. Meanwhile, in the argument between the “responsibles” and the sexual nihilists, is it better that someone who is determined to play Russian roulette puts one bullet in the chamber rather than, say, four? I expect one must say yes, while more firmly saying that playing Russian roulette at all is morally wrong.
My colleague Jim Nuechterlein once said that his brand of conservatism is summed up in the simple motto, “Change is bad.” When Bill Buckley launched National Review , he declared as its purpose to stand athwart history and shout “Stop!” Both, I take it, were intended tongue in cheek. Although their critics commonly say that conservatives are opposed to change, being against change makes as much sense as wanting tomorrow to be today all over again. I do recall a professor in college describing someone as being so conservative that, had he been present at creation, he would have argued in favor of chaos. But that is not any conservatism that I know about. Closer to truth is the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The question is not change but change from what and to what-and why and how.
I got to thinking about this while I was being introduced at a university a while ago and the introducer alluded to my infamous days as a radical back in the 1960s. “Once noted as a champion of change,” she said, “he is now more noted as its opponent. Maybe he will explain his change.” It is a question frequently raised, and I’ve written about it from time to time, most extensively I suppose in “Remembering the Movement” in America Against Itself (University of Notre Dame Press). Now I’ve been pondering the question in connection with a book that I’m late in getting around to, Mitchell K. Hall’s Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War (Columbia University Press). It is a fair and carefully researched work, being mainly an institutional history of most particular interest to those involved in that history.
The “CALCAV” in question was Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, probably the largest sustained antiwar organization of that period. It started in 1965, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Father Daniel Berrigan, and I, then age twenty-nine, were the first cochairmen. Later Martin Luther King, Jr. became a cochairman, which reflects the way in which the civil rights movement seemed to flow so naturally into the antiwar cause. As Hall writes, “The inequities of American society exposed by the civil rights movement prompted the religious community to reevaluate its acceptance of Cold War attitudes.” At first I thought Hall was exaggerating the “moderate” and establishment character of CALCAV’s beginnings, but he is probably right. It seemed pretty radical to me and others at the time, and I was certainly not part of the country’s religious establishment. But compared with most other parts of what was then simply called “The Movement,” CALCAV was in the first years very moderate indeed. I belonged then to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which was not, as he says, “fundamentalist,” but just as surely was not part of the establishment. The error for which I can just manage to forgive Mr. Hall is that he puts the inner-city parish of which I was pastor in the Bronx rather than, as was the case, in my beloved Brooklyn.
There is a rush of half-forgotten events and people as I read the book. I am wearied by recalling the incessant pace of meetings, manifestos, demonstrations, and nonstop crises. I remember fondly Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta, one of the first Catholic bishops to lend his support. And Bishop James Shannon, auxiliary of St. Paul, Minnesota, who was the first. Father John Sheerin, then editor of Catholic World , said of Shannon that he enjoyed “a unique prestige in the Catholic Church in America. It can be said of him, in a way that it cannot be said of any other American bishop, that he is the hope of the future.” A few years later Shannon became the first American to resign from the episcopate, going off to study law, get married, and rear a family. So many things did not turn out as people hoped they would.
I have long since lost touch with most of the friends and associates from those days. William Sloane Coffin, Richard Fernandez, Joan Baez, Dan Berrigan, Balfour Brickner, Robert McAfee Brown, Harvey Cox, Robert Drinan, Gerhard Elston, Sandy Gottlieb, George Webber, Barbara Fuller, Cora Weiss, Charles West-all names that loomed large then. There were grand moments. Others have gone on to glory, or so I hope: Heschel, John Bennett, Ben Spock, Al Lowenstein, Norman Cousins, Phil Scharper. Yet others I still count as friends, such as Michael Novak, James Finn, and Peter Berger. They were not as intensely involved in CALCAV as I, but we walked the same path, and eventually walked away together. Hall writes that the organization lost the support of “Neuhaus, Novak, and Berger, who had come out of conservative traditions to oppose the war.” Conservative traditions is part of it, but the larger reasons had to do with the organization taking a bitterly anti-American and countercultural turn as it sniffed around for sundry causes that could keep the excitements of “The Movement” alive.
By mid-1970 I had pretty well withdrawn from day-to-day involvement. The withdrawal was not entirely voluntary. In 1967 I had begun to speak and write in opposition to what was then called “liberalized” abortion law. That was not received well, for already the liberal flag had, with tragic consequences, been planted on the pro-abortion side of that great conflict. By 1975, when I helped lead an effort to protest the brutal violation of human rights by the Communist victors in Vietnam, I had long been a pariah to many in “The Movement,” having clearly gone over to the side of that then new thing called neoconservatism. I am far from being as convinced as my neocon friend Norman Podhoretz that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was ever just or wise. But he makes an argument very much worth engaging in his 1982 book Why We Were In Vietnam . There is considerable dispute among historians as to whether the antiwar movement shortened or prolonged the war. I am inclined to agree with Charles DeBenedetti who writes, “The dissidents did not stop the war. But they made it stoppable.” It must only be added that it should not have been stopped the way it was.
Those are now hoary and interminable arguments. In the final assize we will learn for certain what we ought to have done and not done. Something was broken and we thought to fix it. Whether we made it worse or not I don’t know for sure, but I think not. I know that we had to try. In any event, these were thoughts going through my mind when she said, “Maybe he will explain his change.” And as I read Because of Their Faith . It’s not a book for everyone, but you might want to take a look at it. Especially if you were there.
Grasping for Gold
“No settlement can possibly be defended if it allows the Holocaust to stand as a profit-making enterprise for American Jewish lawyers.” Change the last three words to “the Swiss banks” and you have the concluding sentence of an op-ed article by Burt Neuborne of New York University Law School. One of the more unseemly of current melodramas is the trafficking in the Holocaust aimed at getting big bucks out of the Swiss and others who remained neutral during World War II. History, it is said, is written by the victors, and at least some people among the victors have now decided that being neutral was a crime. That is the message of a recent State Department report indicting Switzerland, Sweden, and other neutrals. I don’t know what options these countries had at the time, and it is hardly surprising that some banking and business interests made money out of trading with our enemy. One doesn’t have to make heroes out of the neutrals to find repugnant the current mix of self-righteousness and greed with which they are being attacked.
If someone set out to create a scenario to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes, he could hardly do better than the World Jewish Congress and its passel of lawyers. The Swiss banks offered to put $600 to $700 million in a fund for Holocaust survivors and their descendants. “It is insulting,” spits Neuborne in response. With the rise of Hitler, many Europeans, including Jews, put their savings into Swiss banks. Neuborne writes that 90 percent of these deposits “cannot be accounted for, the banks say, because the records were destroyed in the ordinary course of business.” He then says, “A fair settlement must include the return of all Holocaust deposits, not merely those few for which records have survived.” If there are no records, presumably Mr. Neuborne and his friends will decide how much is fair. During the war, Swiss banks loaned money to German companies that were building slave labor plants. “The banks say that at the time they were not aware they were financing slave labor,” Neuborne notes. “But again, the victims argue, the Swiss knew or should have known.” The victims argue? Not unless the lawyers who are engaged in what looks very much like extortion are victims.
Preserving the Holocaust as an icon of unspeakable evil is viewed by many, and rightly so, as a sacred cause. Its desecration by those involved in the shakedown of World War II neutrals is repugnant. It is also legally and morally incoherent to declare, a half century later, that neutrality was a crime for which reparations must be made. Swiss dealings with Germany, writes Neuborne, “enabled the Nazis to prolong the war for two years, according to estimates by American intelligence.” Maybe so, maybe not. In view of the enthusiastic response of German-speaking peoples in other places (e.g., Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland) the determined resistance of predominantly German-speaking Switzerland is remarkable. We might agree that Winston Churchill is something of an authority on who contributed what to whom in World War II. He wrote: “Of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. She has been a democratic state, standing for freedom in self-defense among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side.” (Quoted in a book exceedingly pertinent to present disputes, Stephen P. Halbrook’s Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II , published by Sarpedon.) In any event, if we want to talk about holding nations historically accountable, how about the U.S. and other allies who refused to accept the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who might have fled Hitler’s grasp? If we want to do a retrospective of bad things done by nations during World War II, the list is very long.
The anti-neutrals campaign recalls the “Black Reparations” movement of thirty years ago, in which it was demanded that whites pay blacks for the sufferings inflicted by slavery. Such efforts to settle historical scores are a throwback to primitive patterns of vengeance. Moreover, they are impossible to implement with anything approximating a reasonable calculus of justice. If specific crimes were committed, and no statute of limitations applies, penalties are in order. Otherwise, the Swiss gold caper is a mischievous formula for endless recriminations, a prospect made even less attractive by smarmy claims to be seeking recompense for the victims of the Holocaust. The World Jewish Congress and Mr. Neuborne, as they are given to saying about others, should know that.
Norway is a prosperous country for whom $60 million is neither here nor there. But it is being let off easy because it is only one of sixteen countries that are under investigation for not behaving during World War II in a way that the WJC has decided they ought to have behaved. So the WJC is using Norway as leverage to get at the really big money. Norway’s Justice Minister Aud-Inger Aure says of the sixty million, “I see it as our duty to seek a broad moral reconciliation and to let this be expressed economically.” Elan Steinberg, executive director of WJC, accommodatingly declared Norway’s offer “a shining example of moral decency.”
During the German occupation, about 750 Norwegian Jews were deported to Nazi camps, where all but a handful died. So Norway has expiated what Mr. Aure calls its “collective responsibility” at the rate of approximately $80 thousand per dead Jew. More precisely, the figure is considerably less than that, since the money is supposed to repay the two thousand Jews who fled the country (to neutral Sweden) for the property they lost. More precisely yet, since few of those people are still alive, most of the money, the New York Times reports, will go to Jewish organizations and to fund further agitations under the title of “Holocaust Studies.” If the children of those who lost property during the war can prove their claims, they will be eligible to receive up to $27 thousand each.
Interestingly, the Prime Minister of Norway is a Lutheran minister and he probably knows something about expiation “economically expressed.” He is undoubtedly familiar with the little jingle attributed to the sixteenth-century salesman of indulgences, John Tetzel: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / The soul from purgatory springs.” Like Tetzel, Mr. Steinberg has a great appreciation of the pecuniary factor in penitential practice. Pronouncing absolution, he says, “Norway has confronted its past honestly, so that it can have an honorable future.” For Norway, the pay-off is a bargain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian martyred by the Nazis, didn’t know the half of it when he complained about “cheap grace.” The Holocaust racketeers have made it clear that they will not let other countries off so easily.
It should be added that the World Jewish Congress, which is the chief sponsor of this unseemly business, is in no way what its name suggests. It is the creature of Edgar Bronfman, the Seagrams whisky heir, and, contrary to frequent press reports, not representative of the Jewish community, either in this country or the world. But, with a name like that and millions of dollars available for self-promotion, misunderstandings on this score are almost inevitable.
How to Spend Heaven
My discussion of an excommunicate theologian who has been reconciled with Rome provoked a strong response from a reader who describes himself as an “uncompromising Baptist.” “The fact is,” he says, “that in the Catholic Church you can believe and teach whatever you want so long as you don’t openly defy the authority of Rome.” Well, not quite, but he has an important piece of a point. The Catholic Church is wondrously capacious, being hospitable to strikingly various traditions of theological reflection, spirituality, and patterns of discipleship. Differences that in Protestantism produce myriad denominational divisions are accommodated by Catholicism within an expansive understanding of the rule of faith ( regula fidei ) and ecclesial communion, with the latter anchored in the bishops who are in communion with the bishop of Rome. This is evident in the genius of religious orders wherein, for instance, Franciscans can break with Franciscans and Jesuits can condemn Dominicans without the question ever arising as to whether they are all members of the one Church. Of course they are.
The result sometimes looks like a bit of a hodgepodge, but one does not expect neatness in a Church that was aptly described by James Joyce as “Here comes everybody.” It takes considerable effort to get booted out. In modern times, the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was one of the few to succeed, and then only after he condemned the Second Vatican Council as heretical, declared the Pope to be an impostor, and ordained bishops in defiance of Rome. After years of long-suffering pleas and negotiations, Rome finally acknowledged in 1988, with painful reluctance, that Lefebvre had indeed made himself excommunicate. Similarly, for years the famous German dissident theologian Hans Küng taunted Rome with innumerable books, declarations, and interviews, adamantly insisting that he is right and the Church is wrong on a wide range of doctrinal questions. Finally, in 1979, Rome came around to formally agreeing with Küng that he does not teach what the Catholic Church teaches and therefore is not, in that official sense, a Catholic theologian. Küng and his friends did their best to depict this as an instance of heavy-handed ecclesiastical oppression, when it was really a matter of their refusing to take yes for an answer.
“In my Father’s house are many rooms,” said the Lord, and so it is also with the Church that is the prolepsis of that happy destination. The Catholic Church is a very big house, extending to every corner of the earth and containing more than a billion people. Not only that, but she claims to be the gravitational center of the entire Christian reality, with all other baptized Christians being in “true but imperfect communion” with her ( Lumen Gentium ). That means there is an awful lot to put up with. It also means there is an astonishing diversity to explore. As the magnificent Chesterton observed, the Church is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. As someone who was not always in full communion, I confess that this discovery is one of the inexhaustible joys of being a Catholic. Not only are there the religious orders and sundry institutes and renewal movements with their distinctive “charisms” for living out the Christian life, but there is the splendid array of devotions surrounding saints who represent what are sometimes maddeningly diverse patterns of discipleship. Apart from the Mother of Our Lord, no one saint in Catholicism takes up so much spiritual space as, say, Luther does in Lutheranism, John Wesley in Methodism, or C. S. Lewis in much of evangelical Protestantism.
The Story of a Love
Such are thoughts occasioned upon reading an exquisite little book by Bishop Patrick Ahern, just out from Doubleday. Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love (284 pages,, $19.95
) is an account of the twenty-one letters exchanged between St. Thérèse of Lisieux and a struggling young missionary priest, Maurice Belliere, in the months prior to her death in 1897 at age twenty-four. The author, who is auxiliary bishop of New York, has long had a most particular devotion to Thérèse, known also as the Little Flower, and my only reluctance in recommending his book was that some readers might not be familiar with her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul , a book that has been translated into more than sixty languages and is established as an indubitable classic of the entire Christian tradition. But then it occurred to me that such familiarity is not necessary. There is no more effective enticement to reading that great work than Bishop Ahern’s book. Were I a betting man, I would bet almost any amount that nobody will read Maurice and Thérèse without being inspired to read for the first time, or reread with deeper understanding, The Story of a Soul .
In 1997, John Paul II declared Thérèse to be a Doctor of the Church, in which august company there are only thirty-one others, beginning with such as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Athanasius, and including two other women, Teresa of Ávila and Catherine of Sienna. The Little Flower is certainly no theologian in the academic sense of that term. At age fifteen she joined the Carmelites at Lisieux, and in her short nine years wrote only, in addition to the spiritual autobiography, a few little plays, many letters, and a bundle of poems. No Systematic Theology I, II, III, here. Yet minds as various as Dorothy Day, Georges Bernanos, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson, and Hans Urs von Balthasar have declared Thérèse to be one of the spiritual geniuses of Christian history. Mother Teresa of Calcutta regularly insisted that she took her name not from the Great Teresa of Ávila but from the Little Thérèse of Lisieux.
It is said that Thérèse’s field (to use a totally inappropriate term) is “mystical” theology, but that suggests something esoteric and the precise opposite of the “Little Way” that she lived and recommended to others. Ahern calls her “the democrat of mysticism, who uncovers and appeals to the mystic that lies within every human being.” The utter simplicity of her formulations disguises for some readers the breathtaking depth of her insights. Her letters to Maurice were written as she was dying of consumption and going through a “dark night of the soul,” about which she learned from the great Carmelite master St. John of the Cross. (If I have one small quarrel with Bishop Ahern, it is his repeated reference to her “blind faith.” I understand what is meant by the phrase, but it is better described, I think, as indomitable faith with eyes wide open to all the reasons for unfaith.)
Thérèse’s writing and conversation reflect her profound immersion in Scripture, all turning around an unlimited unfolding of St. John’s assertion that “God is love.” The entirety of her existence, she said, is “To love Him and to make Him loved,” and thus “to give pleasure to others.” Her devotion is radically centered in Christ, and especially in his suffering; her yearning is to “console” him. She puzzled over St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the role of different members of the body until she came to the end of First Corinthians 12 with his reference to the “more excellent way,” the way of love. “Love gave me the key to my vocation. I understood it was love alone that made the Church’s members act. I HAVE FOUND MY PLACE IN THE CHURCH. In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love.” Ahern comments, “She aspired to be love, even as God himself is Love. No other saint we know of ever entertained such an aspiration.” Later he observes, “It was crystal clear to Thérèse that God not only wants our love but needs it. The reason He created us was that we should love Him. We are the only ones in the universe who can love Him, because we are the only ones who are free.”
Her physical and spiritual pain was unspeakable, but that is necessary to love. She writes Maurice: “Ah, if you could only look into my soul for a few moments, how surprised you would be! The thought of heavenly happiness not only doesn’t cause me one bit of joy, I even wonder sometimes how it will be possible to be happy without suffering. No doubt Jesus will change my nature, otherwise I would regret leaving suffering and this valley of tears behind me. It is only the thought of doing God’s will that fills me with joy.” In a French spiritual climate influenced by Jansenism’s emphasis upon sin and divine judgment, Thérèse asserted a reckless, some might say presumptuous, trust in God’s mercy. To be weak is not only not an obstacle to the spiritual life, it is an asset. “To love Jesus, the more one is weak, without desires and without virtues, the more one is suitable for the operations of God’s consuming and transforming love. It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to love.”
To Maurice’s obsessive worries about his sins and failings, Thérèse responds: “Ah, dear little brother, since it has been given to me too to understand the love in the Heart of Jesus, I assure you that it has banished all fear from my own heart. The memory of my faults humiliates me and prompts me never to rely on my own strength, which is nothing but weakness, but this memory speaks to me even more of mercy and love. When we cast our faults into the devouring fire of Love with total childlike trust, how would they not be consumed, so that nothing is left of them?” She did not dispute the ascetic rigors and penances of other Carmelites who struggled to make reparation for their sins, but it was not her way. She writes Maurice, “‘There are many mansions in the House of my Heavenly Father.’ Jesus said that, and that’s why I follow the way He is tracing out for me. Anymore I try not to worry about myself at all. I leave it to Him to do in my soul whatever He wants. I did not choose a hard life to make up for my own faults. I chose it to make up for the faults of others.”
She promised Maurice that, when she left the “exile” of this life, which she soon would, she would accompany him on his priestly mission to Africa. They had never met in this life except by correspondence, but then, she wrote, theirs “will be the conversation of a brother and sister which will charm the angels.” The luminous simplicity of Thérèse’s awareness of the worlds of which this world is part is simply astonishing. In her understanding, heaven is a very busy, even bustling, affair. “Let me assure you,” she wrote Maurice, “the only thing I desire is God’s will, and I want you to know that if in heaven I would no longer be able to work for His glory, then I would far prefer the exile to the homeland.” In this light one understands one of Thérèse’s best known affirmations, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”
Father Maurice Belliere ended up with a very checkered vocation. His work in Africa was marred by disappointment and he died a broken man at age thirty-three. He was an exceedingly ordinary specimen of the ordinariness for which Thérèse proposed her “Little Way” to be a Christian. His greatness was in his neediness that elicited these letters of amazing grace. As for Thérèse of Lisieux, she continues to spend her heaven doing good on earth, not least through Patrick Ahern’s Maurice and Thérèse .
While We’re At It
My friend Joseph Epstein, the distinguished former editor of American Scholar , is pleased to note that under his editorship the journal could go for years without one mention of the current President, or any other politician for that matter. I respect his indifference to the chattering commentariat of what passes for current affairs, while also noting that this journal, and especially this section of the journal, does not cultivate quite that degree of aloofness. Nonetheless, the reader will note that there is nothing in this issue (until now) about the unspeakable but endlessly talked about shame that Bill Clinton has brought upon himself, his family, the presidency, and the nation. It is not that we do not have definite views on the subject. It is simply that this is chiefly a journal of ideas, not of politics, and we expect readers are already inundated with commentary on the subject. In addition, we have a long lead time between written word and final publication; anything on the particulars of this sad and fast-moving story would likely be dated by the time readers received the journal. Having said that, and speaking only for myself, I believe President Clinton has violated his oath of office to faithfully execute the laws of this Republic and has grievously betrayed the trust of the American people. It is vitally important to the moral and political health of the country that he resign or be constitutionally removed from office. When this sordid episode is past, we will undoubtedly have articles and other commentary examining what it means for our moral culture and what it portends for the future. Meanwhile we have confidence in the resilience of the American political order, and believe that the emetic of Mr. Clinton’s departure will be a salutary relief from the severe disorders inflicted by him and his presidency.
A friend passes this on from a friend of his who doesn’t let what she calls her “Protestant atheism” get in the way of having opinions on matters religious, including women priests: “Paganism could afford to have priestesses because the religions were so inherently masculine that women could do them no harm, but Christianity is so feminine to begin with that female celebrants can but deliver the coup de grâce. No woman could make a dent in Mars or Thor or sadistic Druids, but when it’s a case of turning the other cheek, the meek inheriting the earth, and doing unto others, you don’t dare let women get h