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Virgin Power

I wish to express my profound joy at having read Sarah E. Hinlicky’s article “Subversive Virginity” (October 1998). Not only is it sparklingly written and lucidly argued, but its mere presence in print is a rare statement of moral support for those of us who had begun to fear that we were alone in the cultural universe.

I am a male virgin, two years Ms. Hinlicky’s senior, who has found that his virginity makes him an involuntary participant in the fiercest firefight of the culture war: the sexual counterrevolution. Battered but unbroken, I can attest to the tremendous adversity virgins face. This adversity comes partly from one’s own libido amidst a sex-saturated culture, but largely from the discouragement that comes of wondering whether one’s sacrifice will ever be rewarded in the bonds of a just and enduring marriage.

To Ms. Hinlicky’s elaboration of the adverse consequences abandoned virginity has upon subsequent intimacy, I wish to add that such abandonment has a considerable social impact as well. At its root, of course, to abandon one’s virginity is to surrender to selfish desires and to the spurious logic of empowering self-gratification. Yet such surrender is the compromise that keeps on compromising.

Against this process of moral decay, a virgin stands for the truth about human sexuality by refusing to misuse it. This is, as Ms. Hinlicky notes, a source of great strength for both sexes. It is also the cause of great resentment from those who have been consumed by the need to rationalize their sexual errancy. The corrosive ridicule and malignant example of such individuals can be quite intimidating. Seeing the squalor of their lives, however, strengthens one’s resolve to love better. So, too, does Ms. Hinlicky’s fine article.

Whitney R. Jacobs
Santa Fe, NM

Could you kindly convey to Ms. Hinlicky a marriage proposal from myself?

Well, wait a minute, now. It just occurred to me that I’d better ask my wife about this first.

Actually, my appreciation for Ms. Hinlicky’s intriguing piece lies here: I have two young daughters, and I have a vision. I envision for my daughters, and my son as well, an ethic that rises above the concept that the essence of morality is obeying commandments. That mentality is compelling only to a person who enshrouds the nature of a robot in piety, a person whose virtue extends only to the inflexibility of doing what they’re told to do.

In light of the New Testament, a Christian ethic must be based on doing what makes sense given divine ethical guidelines that we’ve embedded in our inmost being, guidelines that emerge from the full range of scriptural content and that are honed by the full range of human experience and the insights of the Christian community. Ms. Hinlicky has provided such a rationale for virginity”nonsystematic but compelling.

Philip Bitar

Although Sarah E. Hinlicky’s parade of her own virginity surely reached an audience in need of encouragement to follow in her path, it strikingly misinformed a much wider audience.

Ms. Hinlicky flippantly states, “Of course, virginity is a battle against sexual temptation, and popular culture always opts for the easy way out instead of the character-building struggle. The result is superficial women formed by meaningless choices, worthy of stereotype, rather than laudable women of character, worthy of respect.”

Ms. Hinlicky is a twenty-two-year-old virgin, but it does not necessarily follow that she is a laudable woman of character, nor does it automatically make her worthy of respect.

On the other hand, I am a twenty-five-year-old, never-married nonvirgin. When I was twenty-two, I was not a virgin. When I was fifteen, I was not a virgin. It does not necessarily follow that I’m superficial or worthy of stereotype.

Premarital sex does not make you superficial. It does not make you unrespectable. It makes you a sinner. The good news is that everybody you know is a sinner”every Christian you know is a sinner. If we weren’t, Christ would be out of a job. Accept that you are, pray about it, and then go to work on yourself. Jesus didn’t assign labels. He talked to people and listened to them. He didn’t say, “You superficial stereotypical people, you are weak in character and have taken the easy way out.” What he did say time and time again was, “Go and sin no more.”

Anne Botkin
Yellowstone National Park

Kudos to Sarah E. Hinlicky for the confidence and clarity with which she makes the case for abstinence as empowerment. One can’t help wishing this essay had been published in a forum where it would be more likely to make waves among the readership”or more likely to reach the countless young women who will find out the hard way that promiscuity is a game won primarily by eager, callous men. At the least, it may speak to those who have come to believe that “the battle about sex is over” and that the Church should abandon its calls to a more demanding ethical standard. Such a surrender would accept as casualties the women who (like Ms. Hinlicky’s friends and mine) see no way to fulfill their sexuality save through a social system that leaves them vulnerable to male duplicity and appetite.

Joel Hafvenstein
San Diego, CA Theology and Design

In his article Science and Design” (October 1998) William A. Dembski discusses SETI research (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) as an example of the search for design. He makes a good case, but I would like to point out a bit of irony here. It is no secret that most SETI advocates are also anti-theists (not just nontheists); one of the most vocal SETI advocates of recent years was the late Carl Sagan, whose hostility towards Christianity is well known. Other indications of their atheistic leanings can be gleaned from recent literature published by the SETI Institute.

Atheists strongly believe they must support SETI, because the discovery of other intelligent beings in the Milky Way would show once and for all that we are not special in any way”it would be the crowning capstone on the Principle of Mediocrity. It is only a small step, then, to discredit the Judeo-Christian worldview (so they believe). Furthermore, extraterrestrials are the perfect God-substitute: they will cure all our diseases with their advanced medical knowledge, they will solve all our social problems as they have presumably done on their worlds, and they are super-intelligent and apparently omnipotent”clearly qualities worthy of worship. So it is ironic that SETI research is one of the best examples of the search for design by scientists. Just replace the word extraterrestrial with God, and the SETI goals would read the same: the search for evidence of purposeful communication from a being capable of abstract thought.

Guillermo Gonzalez
Seattle, WA

The writer is a postdoctoral research astronomer at the University of Washington.

What disturbs me about articles like “Science and Design” is what we get when we accept such contentions: an ingenious deity who concocted intricate protein-creating machinery long ago, and then took a hike and has never been heard from since. Maybe I’ve missed the subtleties, but this seems worse than no god at all.

J. G. Owen
Huntington, NY

Proponents of design for science may be prepared to consider that many a self-proclaimed agnostic (or atheist) can be quite cognizant that the universe indeed exhibits signs easily interpreted as evidence for design. Believers even purport to know the Designer (Psalm 19:8) with Christian credal formulas proclaiming God’s creating and sustaining presence, concerned for an unfolding future. In this sense, God is properly acknowledged as the explanation of everything.

In sharp contrast, any attempt to utilize God as a scientific explanation of anything only provokes serious consequences for theology and science. Theology: Trying to identify God as Designer violates His kinetic presence while presuming, idolatrously, to set bounds to His activity in conformity with scientific knowledge. Cheap faith is more serious still. Interposing science to validate the Designer behind the design converts blessed assurance into an assurance merely from the human side in mockery of costly faith (Hebrews 11:3, John 20:29).

Science: Natural science eschews using ad hoc hypotheses masquerading as explanatory principles. A possible post ad hoc agenda is far more serious. One particularly virulent alternative to natural science, advocated under the benign appellation “theistic science,” would seek to replace the operational and alleged metaphysical foundations of science, assessed as irremediably hard-core atheism, in favor of theism. Without due caution the design hypothesis offered by William A. Dembski could be misused as a stalking horse for radically subverting the legitimate realm of natural science. If successful, any “theistic science” of this nature would a fortiori be subject to the theological consequences above. The ensuing serious rupture within the scientific community would tragically highlight the gulf between belief and unbelief. No further court of appeal could adjudicate terms of legitimization for this pitiful zero-sum conflict. Sadly many a scientist would be deprived of the special “head start” which science can providentially provide, disposing minds and hearts to “see.”

In contrast, absent such intrusive theistic spin, nonbelievers are left to ponder the signs of design anew in freedom to accept the gift of faith.

Thaddeus J. Trenn
Victoria College
University of Toronto

William A. Dembski replies:

In response to Guillermo Gonzalez: The SETI program illustrates how scientists look for design. Design could conceivably be evident in the radio signals from outer space. No conclusive signals pointing to an extraterrestrial intelligence, however, have yet to be observed. On the other hand, design is overwhelmingly evident in complex information-rich biological systems. Professor Gonzalez’ concern that design might bolster an anti-theistic SETI program is therefore unfounded. The SETI program has thus far failed to find conclusive evidence of design. Moreover, even if it succeeds in discovering intelligent extraterrestrials, it will do so using the same methodology we use to discover design in biology”and biological design certainly has theistic implications.

To J. G. Owen, I would respond by asking: How does “an ingenious deity who concocted intricate protein-creating machinery long ago” preclude that same deity from (1) still creating today, (2) sustaining the world continually, (3) acting in the world today, and (4) sending His Son to redeem humanity? There is absolutely nothing in the intelligent design program that requires a deistic conception of God.

Finally, to Thaddeus J. Trenn: Intelligent design is first of all a scientific research program. Whether intelligent design has theological implications and whether those implications are inimical to certain strands of theology are secondary considerations. Mr. Trenn supposes that reinstating design within science would force us to make unacceptable claims about God. But if that is a danger, then deliberately refusing design from science would similarly force us to make unacceptable claims about God (e.g., in the absence of design, God appears a ruthless deity who uses natural selection to root out the weak and reward the strong). Reinstating design and refusing design both have theological implications that will be acceptable to some and not to others.

Intelligent design has no business trying to please the theological community. Its business is uncovering the design in nature. If that design is present and empirically verifiable, then theologians will have to make their peace with it (much as they’ve made their peace with Darwinism). Mr. Trenn worries that reinstating design within science will incur dangerous pitfalls. The far bigger pitfall is to exclude design from science because of theological worries.

In Defense of World Relief

Richard John Neuhaus’ comment on World magazine’s March 28, 1998 article about World Relief (While We’re At It, October 1998) transmitted a misleading implication and, in the process, turned it (inadvertently of course) into a positive libel. The key passage is this sentence: “More than 60 percent of the agency’s overseas funding comes from Washington, and it is very much part of the Clinton Administration’s policy of supporting the coercive sterilization of hundreds of thousands of women in Latin America and elsewhere, says World .”

In fact, World doesn’t quite say that World Relief supports forced sterilization. It merely leaves that to be inferred. The article draws a series of links, most of them dubious or utterly imaginary, between World Relief and agencies or governments that do support forced sterilization. It is a “Six Degrees of Separation” game, by which any organization can be proved guilty by association (however distant an association) with some other pernicious organization. For instance, the Ministry of Health in Honduras apparently does encourage some women to have their tubes tied (though there is no evidence of coercion, as far as I know). It is also true that World Relief, in its Child Survival program, works with the Honduran Ministry of Health. Indeed, it would be absurd for them to refuse to cooperate with the Ministry, and thereby allow more children to get sick or die, because of disagreement over the issue of voluntary tubal ligations. Yet World uses that very cooperation as a stick with which to beat an agency that has done untold good for poor and sick people all over the world, and done it through the Church and in the name of Jesus Christ.

The same kind of game could be played in order to discredit First Things or Wheaton College. It is a foul and unethical game, but one regularly played by World , a magazine that ceaselessly congratulates itself on its commitment to “prophetic journalism.” What, pray tell, is prophetic journalism? Apparently it is the belief that journalists who claim to speak in the name of Christ need not bother with such tiresome procedures as, say, conforming their claims to the available evidence or checking the reliability of their sources. I agree with most of the editorial positions taken by World , but the journal’s ethics are those of the tabloids rather than the Gospels.

I know quite a lot about World Relief because my wife has worked for the agency for more than a decade, and I can assure you that if anyone at World Relief supported coerced sterilizations, or even recommended or encouraged sterilization to poor women, she would have resigned in protest long ago. That goes for everyone I know who works at the agency. And my wife’s convictions on this point are buttressed by her visits to World Relief program sites in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Alan Jacobs
Department of English
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL

Christians, Atheists, and Truth

Regarding “Encountered by the Truth” (Public Square, October 1998), I read with chagrin the statement, “If Christians exhibited more intellectual patience, modesty, curiosity, and sense of adventure, there would be fewer atheists in the world.” Really. Sounds like we’ve now granted victim status to all the unbelievers whose encounter with truth is spoiled by “the pretension of Christians to know more than we do.”

Certainly we must guard against putting God in a box. We all have “ a standpoint” while we grope toward “ the standpoint.” Indeed, our knowledge is partial (1 Corinthians 13:9). But I wonder how St. Paul would have reacted had he been advised to be modest in his affirmations of truth, stay curious, and always approach theology with a sense of adventure, being careful never to offend his listeners, lest he turn them into atheists.

Even though truth is not entirely objective, Christian truth, mediated by the Word, the Sacraments, and the teachings of the Church, is objective enough to bite into and will take a chunk out of your soul, if you’re serious about it. Oh, to be an atheist and do nothing but deconstruct!

(The Rev.) Brad McIntyre
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Suamico, WI Pro-Life or Pro-Death?

Regarding Richard John Neuhaus’ description of Governor George W. Bush as not being “the new Pro-Life Hope” (While We’re At It, October 1998), the good Father could not be more on point. Right now, the man described by some as “the new Pro-Life Hope” has approved the construction of a larger death chamber that will apparently include stadium-style seating so that executions can be viewed in all the unobstructed comfort of a modern movie theater. Governor Bush may be anti-abortion but he is not pro-life. Instead, he is just another politician pandering to the American culture of death and obsession with revenge.

Mark L. Chance
Houston, TX

Corruption, Large and Small

In the October 1998 issue (While We’re At It), Richard John Neuhaus again picks up on Monsignor George Higgins and uses the technique known as “damning with faint praise.” I hope it is not true that Msgr. Higgins is the last of a long line of labor priests. But to inflict on him a reproach about the corruption in the unions reveals a deficient understanding of Christian teaching. Which particular human institution does Father Neuhaus propose as one that is not corrupt?

The millions of dollars that he notes as diverted from union funds is chicken feed compared to the billions with which entrepreneurial capitalism has bribed its way around the world. It preaches the sanctity of the bottom line and the inviolability of executive salaries. It includes in this concoction a nasty combination of low wages for stupefying work, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. The lure of mere money has corrupted the quality of our manufactures and the standards of our professions. What is the median income of doctors? Does anyone know a poor lawyer? An impoverished landlord? A starving CEO? Would a lawyer do a garbageman’s work for a lawyer’s salary? Would he do his lawyering for a garbageman’s salary?

Fr. Neuhaus notes the growth in the unions of government employees. Might it be that these employees, observing the goings-on among the wealthy, are simply emulating those organizations? What is the moral difference between a union and a bar association or medical association? Which, in our times, is more corrupt?

Dorothy L. Sayers noted that a man whose work is not closely tied to physical labor, not closely tied to the physical things of the created world in which he has been placed, quickly goes corrupt. We are not equally honest and dishonest. We were created honest. It’s the temptation to dishonesty that we have to fight against. As between the little dishonesty in the unions and the greater dishonesty in corporate organizations with their bought lawyers ever at hand to find excuses, surely the unions have the edge. Leastways, that’s what it says in our handy guidebook: it is better for us to be poor than rich.

Gabriel Austin
New York, NY

RJN replies:

While readily allowing that corruption is generously distributed through all human institutions, I was only suggesting that Msgr. Higgins might be somewhat more evenhanded in his criticism. If by “our handy guidebook” Mr. Austin means the Bible, I’m not sure it says anything about unions, but information from other sources suggests that government employee unions generally have little to do with physical labor, and makes it hard to believe that there is much of a resemblance between union leadership and “the poor.” With what may be left of Mr. Austin’s point, I warmly agree.

About Equality

Richard John Neuhaus takes Michael Walzer to task for lamenting the growing economic inequality in America (While We’re At It, October 1998). Walzer, he says, is guilty of “an ideological fixation on equality,” which implies the “political mobilization of the vice of envy.” Such a glib dismissal of the claims of social justice”ignoring Catholic teaching in Laborem Exercens and Solicitudo Rei Socialis and truncating Centesimus Annus ”demands a response.

That a growing gap between rich and poor is a social danger is not a modern egalitarian doctrine; it was well known to both Plato and Aristotle. Walzer himself is no simple-minded egalitarian, but an advocate of a doctrine of “complex equality” respectful of the requirements of communal life. And, in an item on the very next page, Fr. Neuhaus aptly criticizes the fallacy involved in arguing that inequality is not “per se” the cause of the woes of the poor. In any case, equality is part of the American political tradition First Things affirms”however we handle the resulting trade-off with liberty and community.

Political mobilization for equality can bring unpleasant things to the surface; but so can mobilization against abortion, for school choice, and for many other causes favored by First Things . The same is true of the theologico-political warfare (or “struggle for orthodoxy”) waged by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and his allies”to which First Things is prepared to give a benign reading. Nonetheless, some fights need to be fought, and the politics of rich and poor smells better than the pornographic politics that now reigns in Washington.

Philip E. Devine
Department of Philosophy
Providence College
Providence, RI

RJN replies:

First, economic equality is entrenched in the tradition of the left in America (and elsewhere), and I am not aware that FT affirms that. Second, it is the declared purpose of some ideologists to agitate discontent over an alleged “growing gap between rich and poor,” turning it into a “social danger” that can be exploited for political purposes. In thinking about the problem of poverty, “doctrine” should be checked by facts. The claim of Mr. Walzer and many others that in America “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is simply not true. The great majority of the thirty million Americans who are said to be “living in poverty” are in fact much better housed and fed and own more personal property than did “average” Americans twenty-five years ago. Removing ideological blinders enables us to see more clearly the problem of a relatively small population that is truly poor, not because of inequality but because they are not, in the language of Centesimus Annus , included in the circle of productivity and exchange. Third, we should not have to choose between the malodorous qualities of the politics of envy and resentment and the politics of pornography and perjury, although we may note that the occasion for the latter is at least not an ideological fabrication.


I note Richard John Neuhaus’ discussion (While We’re At It, October 1998) of Governor George Bush and “other possible [pro-life] candidates such as Steve Forbes and John Ashbrook.” Boy, does that take me back. The first presidential vote I ever cast was for Ashbrook in the Tennessee Republican primary of 1972. (Alas, I was one of the gallant few who did so.) Somewhere in a desk drawer, my Ashbrook button (with its bold no-left-turn design) still rests.

Among his other virtues, Congressman Ashbrook was indeed a redoubtable champion of the unborn. As a presidential candidate in 1972, he had the disadvantage of opposing a popular incumbent President with the unqualified support of the party organization. As a presidential candidate in 2000, he would have the somewhat greater disadvantage of having died in 1982.

Now I readily admit that, dead or alive, John Ashbrook would be far better than what we have now. But I can’t help suspecting that maybe, just maybe, you were thinking of Senator John Ashcroft.

C. H. Ross
Nashville, TN

RJN replies:

Would you believe that we have at least five pairs of eyes go over every line, every word? At times like this, I wonder.

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