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Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 2-10.

Blindness on Birth Control?

There is so much openhearted sincerity in James Nuechterlein’s “Catholics, Protestants, and Contraception” (April) thatI feel moved to respond.

He writes, following J. Budziszewski, that natural law consists of those moral laws we “can’t not know.” I do not think this is a right way of conceiving it. It would be truer to say that it consists of those moral laws we could know and ought to know, but perhaps don’t know, because of our obtuseness and lack of devotion.

According to Catholic understanding (my own was formed more by Newman than Aquinas), natural law is made up of moral principles that can be grasped without the aid of Divine Revelation. But it does not follow that these principles can be “readily” grasped by anyone. It is a commonplace of moral experience (and a key theme of Scripture) that certain truths cannot be found except by those who live upright lives. In fact, some moral truth is so precious––so high and so recondite––that it can be attained only after a lifetime of devoted pursuit and an exceptionally high degree of personal holiness.

Mr. Nuechterlein thinks it odd to suppose that “virtually all Protestants (and not a few Catholics) would have their moral faculties so corrupted” that they could be afflicted with blindness in this area. Why should that be so odd? Nothing is more typical of us fallen creatures than the failure to recognize the moral truth before our eyes, coupled with our stubborn refusal to abstain from what we desire unless its evil be incontrovertibly proved to us. Eve did not see what was wrong with eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was centuries before the moral wrongness of slavery dawned on the Christian community. It is a rare teenager of today who sees anything wrong with fornication.

Were it not for God’s grace and mercy, all of us would be completely blind to all moral truth. Were it not for our own sin, each of us would grasp a lot more than we do.

Kate van Schaijik
Haren, The Netherlands

In response to “Catholics, Protestants, and Contraception,” I wonder how James Nuechterlein would explain the prohibition of contraception in the Protestant denominations prior to the 1930s. Did natural law change, or did Protestants become more “enlightened”? Only one church has remained constant in its teaching on contraception, and since natural law does not change, my confidence is in the Catholic Church. Simply because Mr. Nuechterlein and his wife never “felt” betrayed by contraception does not negate its inherent opposition to natural law.

Renee M. Wiesner
Aurora, IL

James Nuechterlein states that he and his wife used right reason in choosing contraception. At the outset of our marriage, my wife and I also chose the road most traveled, (nonabortifacient) contraception. After six months we decided to backtrack and take the road less traveled, natural family planning, and as in Robert Frost’s poem, it has made all the difference. I know we are better people, a better couple, and a better family because of it. If we surrender to God’s will, we change for the better.

In marriage, the Church talks about the two great goods of love and life that each act of sexual intimacy must respect and not act against. Would those who say that marriage should be open to life, but each individual intimate act does not have to be, say that a marriage should be open to love but each individual intimate act does not need to be?

Tom Edwards
Sandusky, OH

It is surprising to see James Nuechterlein persisting in and repeating the allegation that the opposition to contraception by the Catholic Church is based on natural law. He does of course insert a certain caveat––”at least as traditionally formulated.” Nevertheless, he insists that natural law remains the basis of Catholic opposition to contraception.

Actually, the condemnation of contraception, while also using bona fide natural law arguments, is based primarily on the revelation of God in Scripture that men and women are created in the “image and likeness of God.” God, who is love, created men and women to love as He loves. It is in this love that they reflect the image and likeness of God. The persons of God manifest their infinite, eternal, and mutual love by creation, an act of pure generosity. Men and women were endowed with the gift of procreation precisely so that they could thus manifest their love and truly act in the image and likeness of their God by joining with Him in the continuation of the generosity of creation.

To conform to God’s love each and every conjugal act must, at least affectively, be open to procreation and certainly must never deliberately preclude procreation.

Grover T. Odenthal
Watkins Glen, NY

One might well have been tempted to let the symposium on Humanae Vitae (December 1998) pass without further comment, had not James Nuechterlein given in to the urge to probe it further, like a sore tooth, in his April column. His argumentation and attitude on the issue are typical of the contributions to the symposium critical of Catholic teaching on contraception.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the symposium was the general habit of those critical of Catholic teaching to fail to engage with the central element of the teaching. This central element is that an act of sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive is, in essence, a lie in which I treat myself or another as an object, and this is true each and every time I contracept. Not a single critical commentator, including Mr. Nuechterlein, actually addressed that argument with anything more than a dismissive you-can’t-be-serious-it-doesn’t-feel-that-way-to-me. This may be an honest description of one’s emotive state, but it hardly constitutes an argument.

That anyone is surprised that we must take seriously each and every human action is itself a surprise. Imagine going into court and suggesting that, because I did not usually commit mail fraud, because the overall pattern of my life did not involve mail fraud, there was nothing wrong with this particular instance of mail fraud. I’d be in the hoosegow for the maximum before I could say “Judge Judy.” If I do not take each and every human act I perform, especially those with such depth as sexual intercourse, with the same moral seriousness as I did the act before and the act following, then I have begun, to borrow Mr. Nuechterlein’s phrase, to treat morality as a metaphor rather than as an expression of the truth about human persons.

It is unlikely that you will find any couples who have turned away from contraception who have not noted a marked improvement in their marriages, who are not grateful for the rediscovered respect for their physical integrity and the accompanying feeling of increased respect for one another. I am certain that our contracepting brethren do have a real measure of respect for one another, and intend no harm to each other. The fact is, though, they are using one another, there is less respect than there ought to be, there is some harm done––and this ought to stop. We are not called to lives that are decent enough; we are called to perfection.

Stephen J. Heaney
Department of Philosophy
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, MN

I wish to briefly address James Nuechterlein’s article “Catholics, Protestants, and Contraception” from the perspective of a clergyman and father of five who 1) is not Roman Catholic, and 2) strongly believes in the tenets set forth in Humanae Vitae. Mr. Nuechterlein is correct in suggesting that the issue of artificial contraception is not one that tends to engage Protestants. My contention is that it needs
to be.

I am not aware of any major Protestant church that permitted contraception prior to 1930. The bishops of the Church of England (over the opposition of the Archbishop of Canterbury) approved the use of artificial contraceptives within the context of marriage; and the 1950s and ’60s saw much of Protestant Christianity follow suit. It must be noted that Eastern Orthodoxy does not permit artificial contraception.

I believe an argument could be made that the prohibition of artificial contraception has been, until the twentieth century, an issue on which different branches of Christianity had achieved a remarkable consensus. Mr. Nuechterlein is correct in his assertion that this issue is currently a major impediment to Christian unity. I submit that historically this has not been the case––and thus question the moral justification for such a radical change in discipline.

(The Rev.) David Zampino
Church of the Blessed Sacrament (Charismatic Episcopal)
Nashotah, WI

When James Nuechterlein notes with assurance that contraception never created a moral or emotional barrier between him and his wife, he seems to assume that any such barrier would be self-evident. However, the only sure way to know would be if the relationship could be lived twice: once with contraception, once without. Marriage is filled with opportunities to develop respect for and selflessness toward a spouse, uncontracepted sex being just one of them. Mr. Nuechterlein seems unwilling to consider that the mutual respect and selflessness of his marriage were achieved in spite of contraception.

His oddest statement is that “Many serious Protestants have by now read and pondered Humanae Vitae.” I can’t even bring myself to say “Many serious Catholics have by now read and pondered Humanae Vitae.” Outside the seminary, it simply has not happened. I’m not sure it has happened inside the seminary.

Doug Tattershall
Lexington, KY

James Nuechterlein’s “Catholics, Protestants, and Contraception” calls for a response.

J. Budziszewski’s phrase to describe natural law truths as those “we can’t not know” is not quite adequate. General principles of the natural law are readily known––e.g., murder and adultery are immoral. Invincible ignorance is impossible in such cases. But the natural law also contains remote conclusions that are known only after close and sometimes complex reasoning––e.g., mercy killing and artificial contraception are not permissible. The Author of natural law tolerates invincible ignorance in regard to these truths. Somehow the human race continues even if euthanasia and the practice of contraception become widespread.

If it is true, as Mr. Nuechterlein says, that “most conservative Protestants take natural law seriously, and see it as an essential element in maintaining public moral standards,” one may ask what norm governs the personal morality of Protestants? Does Sacred Scripture alone provide for every moral ambiguity? Traditional morality claims that the natural law is a guide for our personal as well as our social activity.

Finally, is it correct to classify Catholics and Protestants alike as “orthodox Christians” as Mr. Nuechterlein does? Unfortunately, essential elements separate us, among which is the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.

We Catholics are totally committed to ecumenism. And, needless to say, we love our Protestant coreligionists dearly. But we also concur with the sentiments expressed by Aristotle in regard to his mentor: “I am a friend of Plato, but I am more a friend to truth.”

Kenneth F. Slattery, C.M.
St. John’s University
Jamaica, NY

James Nuechterlein seems quite correct in asserting that for the majority of orthodox Protestants birth control is a nonissue, and that the different perspectives Catholics and Protestants take on the issue reflect very different theological approaches.

A former evangelical myself, I can attest that I never gave birth control a second thought, nor did I ever hear it discussed by evangelicals other than in pragmatic terms (that is, comparisons of various types), the use itself being assumed. For the vast majority of pro-life Protestants, anti-contraceptive moralizing––such as the claim cited by Mr. Nuechterlein that a contracepting woman will feel “used”––does not resonate with their own experience, leading at best to bafflement and at worst to distaste.

It is only when contraception is understood as one element in a larger theology, rather than as an isolated “issue,” that the reasons the Roman Catholic Church opposes it become comprehensible. Catholic teaching is integrated, and the teaching on contraception relates to its other components.

There is, for example, the “pro-woman/pro-couple” component. Abstaining from contraception and practicing Natural Family Planning (NFP) is nothing if not empowering to a woman: to know and work with her physiological cycle, rather than ignore it or treat it as an intrusion, is exhilarating, especially to those for whom such knowledge is completely new. “Why didn’t they tell me about this in school?” was the question that recurred to me continually during NFP classes.

The classes were striking in another way: those present were all couples rather than individuals. The knowledge that NFP cannot be practiced alone but demands at all times the complete cooperation of both the man and the woman only reinforced the true nature of the marriage upon which my fiancé and I were about to embark. Catholics believe that sanctity is a seamless garment and that decisions about contraception thus cannot be isolated from the calls to solidarity, reverence for life, and respect for personal and familial dignity that all help compose the universal call to holiness.

While my decision to become Catholic originally had nothing to do with contraception––if anything, I viewed it as a potential nuisance––the actual attempt to practice NFP has opened up the integrity, beauty, and profundity of Catholic theology to me in a way that I can only describe as liberating.

Pamela Schwartz
Wheaton, IL

James Nuechterlein suggests that the Roman Catholic stricture against contraception is something that Protestants––contrary to the implied claim of Humanae Vitae––”can ‘not know.’” Being Protestant myself (of the so-called “Radical Reformation” strain), I would like to submit a defense and clarification of the Roman Catholic claim.

My defense begins with the argument that Mr. Nuechterlein has misunderstood what it means to say that there are certain laws one “‘can’t not know.’” According to Aquinas (if I read him correctly), natural laws are known through the rational participation by humans in God’s eternal law. That means that we must unpack two claims: What does it mean to say that there is an eternal law? And what does it mean to say that some of these eternal laws are known through rational participation?

I think the answer to the first question is something that the readers of this journal would agree on: the cosmos has a fundamental structure. To live in accordance with this structure––whether the law of gravity, the law by which a bird flies south for the winter, or the law against adultery––is to abide in the only order that can make existence meaningful.

The answer to the second question lies in understanding what makes the third law in the previous paragraph (against adultery) different from the first two laws. The law of gravity is discerned through empirical study of the universe, of what is. The law of flying south for the winter is discerned... we know not how. All we know is that the bird “knows it.” As C. S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, to say that the bird knows it “by instinct” is to say that we simply can’t get inside the bird’s head to know how it knows to fly south for the winter.

The law against adultery (and stealing, covetousness, dishonoring one’s parents) is not like either of the previous two laws. Again borrowing from Lewis ( Mere Christianity ), moral laws are not known because they “automatically” happen (e.g., the law of gravity: Newton’s apple will fall to the ground). They are known because they ought to happen, but very often do not. We know we ought not commit adultery, but often do so. And how do we know the “ought” in this case? We know it, not as a matter of empirical fact, nor by “instinct,” but as we rationally reflect on the nature of life and action that brings the fullest measure of meaning, purpose, and spiritual vitality.

It does not take much study of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions to recognize that there is near universal agreement on these basic laws. For the Jewish and Christian traditions, those laws are enshrined in the second tablet of the Ten Commandments. Does it then follow that these laws have “always, everywhere” been known and recognized? Can we say that since some amoral primitive tribe practices cannibalism, that therefore the law against murder is not part of natural law? Not at all. It only means, quite precisely, that that tribe has not rationally and morally matured to the point to recognize that the law against murder is rationally necessary to a fully human society. In sum, just because natural law is something “we can’t not know” doesn’t contradict the possibility of development in natural law.

Now to the matter at hand: contraception. Let us begin where most readers of this journal agree: the promiscuous taking of an infant’s life, for the sake of personal advantage, is immoral. That claim of natural law has itself developed. The Romans differed from the Carthaginians on the matter of child sacrifice (a nod to G. K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man). Yet Roman law allowed a father to expose an infant he did not want. The Roman position was a moral development on the Carthaginian position, but itself has been superseded. We now know that both positions are rationally contrary to the law of the Creator.

I submit the possibility that as we more fully and rationally reflect on the moral standards by which we make the case against abortion, the clearer it will become that most, if not all, forms of “artificial birth control” violate those same standards. That many Protestants fail to recognize that putative reality does not disprove it. It is attributable to the fact that the moral sensibility on which their practices are based developed prior to the full realization of the philosophical ([ir-] rational) underpinnings of the “abortion culture.” Put in transcendentalist language, rejection of contraception (other than natural family planning) may very well be “the condition of the possibility” of the rejection of the abortion culture.

David Wayne Layman
Elizabethtown, PA

James Nuechterlein replies:

As with our December 1998 symposium on the subject, my column on contraception has brought a flood of mail. The letters printed above represent perhaps one-third of the total correspondence received. I have in addition received a number of personal letters and comments. The personal responses came overwhelmingly from Protestants and were overwhelmingly positive. The letters for publication came 95 percent from Catholics and were universally critical. The disparity in response indicates, once again, that on this issue a yawning gulf separates Protestants and Catholics (though polling data suggests that Catholics are clearly more divided on the subject than are Protestants). I suspect, therefore, that my responses to my critics will be no more persuasive to them than their original criticisms were to me. But, lest silence be taken for agreement, I respond, as briefly as possible, for the record.

Like several correspondents, Kate van Schaijik quarrels with my view of natural law. As indicated in my column, I recognize that we can be blinded to natural law principles, but again my point: why this particular blindness? Why is it that on contraception our sinful powers of rationalization take on such peculiar force? And does Ms. Schaijik really want to equate contraception with slavery or even fornication?

Renee M. Wiesner and David Zampino both note that Protestants, until well into this century, agreed with Catholics that contraception was wrong. That’s a fair point, but it does not, in itself, resolve the issue. There have been other issues––usury, for example––on which the Christian church held to a position for a long time but later changed its mind. Should Rome have followed the Protestant lead on contraception in 1968, when Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae ? There is no self-evidently right answer to that, but it is worth noting that a majority of the ethicists that the Pope consulted at the time recommended that the Church should at least modify its opposition.

Tom Edwards indicates that natural family planning has been a blessing to him and his wife, and I do not doubt that for a moment. The question is whether the rest of us are morally required to follow in the Edwards’ footsteps. Like most Protestants, I remain to be persuaded. Mr. Edwards asks rhetorically, “Would those who say that marriage should be open to life, but each individual intimate act does not have to be, say that a marriage should be open to love but each individual intimate act does not need to be?” Of course not, and apples are not oranges. The act of love requires love: that’s why it’s called lovemaking.

Grover T. Odenthal says that Catholic opposition to contraception is based primarily not on natural law but on revelation. That’s eminently debatable, I think, but I’m willing to grant the point for reasons of argument. Still, it seems to me a far reach indeed to read into the creation of humanity in the “image and likeness of God” the requirement that “each and every conjugal act must... be open to procreation.” That is a not impossible inference, but it is hardly a necessary one.

Stephen J. Heaney criticizes critics of the Catholic position, myself included, for failing to make arguments that engage the “central element” of the Church’s position, which is, he says, “that an act of sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive is, in essence, a lie in which I treat myself or another as an object, and this is true each and every time I contracept.” But if he will reread what he has written, he will see that it is itself not an argument but a declamatory statement, the truth of which needs to be demonstrated, not simply asserted. Similarly, his comparison of contraception with mail fraud does not hold. We all agree that mail fraud is always wrong; we do not so agree on contraception.

Doug Tattershall offers the interesting conjecture that even though my wife and I found that contraception did not create a barrier between us, we might have respected and cared for each other even more if we hadn’t practiced contraception. Possibly so, of course––who could know, either way?––but I don’t see that his thought experiment takes us very far toward deciding whether contraception is permissible. As for his questioning of my statement that “many serious Protestants have by now read and pondered Humanae Vitae,” that all depends, to paraphrase our President, on what the meaning of “many” and “serious” is.

When I wrote that “most conservative Protestants... see [natural law] as an essential element in maintaining public moral standards,” I did not mean, as Kenneth F. Slattery supposes, that they disregard natural law on issues of personal morality. This is a case of both/and, not either/or. Father Slattery goes on to suggest––if I read him right––that to qualify as “orthodox Christians” Protestants must accept every teaching of the Catholic Church. That would seem to set the ecumenical bar very high indeed.

I appreciate Pamela Schwartz’s thoughtful and irenic letter. It is obvious that the practice of natural family planning has been a spiritual blessing to her and countless others. The point at issue is whether that admirable practice must be seen as the only licit method of regulating fertility.

Finally, I do not quite know what to make of David Wayne Layman’s discursive argument. He offers a number of considered and plausible observations on the development of natural law––only to reach a most arbitrary and implausible conclusion. It simply is not the case that rejection of abortion requires, either in morality or logic, rejection of contraception. There are non-abortifacient methods of contraception. It is true that virtually all who oppose contraception oppose abortion as well. But the relation does not hold in reverse, and to suggest that it does or should seems to me to weaken the ecumenical argument against abortion without advancing the case against contraception.

Still Controversial

Michael Novak, in recounting the continuities and discontinuities of his intellectual journey ( “Controversial Engagements,” April ), omits what may be the most crucial of his turnarounds: a realization late in life that contraception is intrinsically evil after all.

This illustrates the truth of Kierkegaard’s remark about life: we live it forwards but understand it backwards. Hence the younger we are the wiser we would be to respect authority and tradition. Those Catholics who placed more trust in the traditional, authoritative teaching of the Church than in their own intellectual prowess found their faith rewarded. That is far from saying that the arguments against contraception were weak and inconclusive.

Still, Mr. Novak gives himself too little credit. He had been an outspoken opponent of the traditional condemnation of contraception, and a leader––complete with press conference––in opposing the encyclical that reaffirmed the tradition, Humanae Vitae.To tell the world he had been wrong on contraception took a lot more guts than abandoning a moribund socialism.

Patrick G. D. Riley
Wauwatosa, WI

I was distressed by Mr. Novak’s article. I confess I am not privy to the subtleties of Mr. Novak’s spiritual quest, but I am appalled that he sees fit to include capitalism as an enabling agent in the search for Christian fulfillment. Lost in his musings are the numerous papal warnings that highlight the predatory, degrading excesses of the capitalistic system. Capitalism, in its purest sense, is jungle economics. It is driven by a primordial vanity––the lust for profit. It is, at hard core, as materialistic as atheistic communism. When all the pieties are spent, it is just another methodology that defines and distributes goods and services.

There is no St. Paul or St. Francis attendant to its beginnings nor a gentle Jesus to bless its fledgling entrepreneurs. It was bred by the Industrial Revolution, an implacably secular process that had as much to do with religious sensitivity as Freudian psychology does. Still, capitalism remains a marvelous beast, a superb engine to create material wealth, but unchecked and untamed it provides its own hells: the industrial slum, the bedlam, the poor house, the debtor’s prison, and the dehumanization of urban populations who lived in disease and destitution amid enormous wealth.

Mr. Novak, in his attempt to sanctify capitalism, blinds himself to its beginnings and to the awesome wars waged in its defense and propagation. Nor does he view the “free market” for what it really is: a metaphysical horror, a random playground for the happy few, a construct of disorder that violates social justice and metes out recessions, bull markets, and hard times blindly and senselessly at the whim of greed. What Mr. Novak fails to understand is that modern capitalism is a half-breed, shot through and through with socialist palliatives, shaped and enriched by Christian concerns for the welfare of God’s children, and given a human face despite its mantra that business is business.

Mr. Novak and the rest of us must see capitalism for what it is; like socialism, it is an economic system, secular, disembodied, immune to God’s grace and dependent on men to flower into tyranny or freedom, into the city of Moloch or the city of God.

John McDonnell
Port Angeles, WA

Michael Novak says that some Catholics commit themselves to an “eschatological witness” (Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day), and some to an “incarnational witness.” He favors the latter, and writes: “Those who choose the incarnational witness try to see in every moment of history, in every culture, and in every place and time the workings of divine grace, often in ways that are hidden like the workings of yeast buried in dough. And they lend their energies to altering that world in its basic institutions, even if ever so slightly, in the direction of caritas.

What about seeing “the workings of divine grace”? Certainly we “eschatologists” have also discerned God’s actions in unexpected ways and places in history (e.g., in God’s use of Assyria and Babylonia in the Old Testament) and in our times. We believe we have to note, however, that “incarnationalists” have historically tended to justify the status quo, to justify whatever is as God’s will for humankind.

What about “altering the world in its basic institutions”? We would like to ask incarnationalists to reflect further with us on what we can all learn from the sixteen-plus centuries of the Constantinian era. We are deeply aware of a church history in which incarnationalists who were lending their energies to altering the world in its basic institutions typically tried to use those institutions to force their beliefs and practices on others and martyred our forebears.

Let us be very practical. Last summer the Presbyterian Church General Assembly made the front page of the New York Times and papers around the country when it asked all Presbyterians to remove handguns and assault weapons from their own homes and communities. The Presbyterians and other churches had asked for government restrictions on weapons for years. The big news last summer was that the Presbyterians were moving beyond lending their energies to altering the world in its basic institutions to modeling what they were asking the government to force others to do. Nothing wrong with encouraging governmental officials to maintain order, but there is something wrong with focusing energies on altering the world in its basic institutions when the Church is not actually marching to a different drummer and engaging in “eschatological” leading by example.

We are thankful there are Dorothy Day Catholics.

Albert J. Meyer
Goshen, IN

Michael Novak replies:

Patrick G. D. Riley is kind to note that I saved the discussion of my change of mind on contraception for another day. Still, perhaps I should note here that some of the articles in the December 1998 First Things symposium articulated well the strictly philosophical dimensions of my difficulty with Humanae Vitae in 1969. The Pope was more accurate than I, however, in predicting the social consequences of contraceptive practices; I was too optimistic. Eventually, I learned from Karol Wojtyla to think more theologically about sexuality, a fuller and deeper perspective than philosophy alone proffers.

I recall taking the position in 1969 that the Pope had full authority to teach as he did in Humanae Vitae. (Perhaps, though, my memory is playing tricks on me. If so, I was even more at fault than I remember.) Nonetheless, having taken a public position to the contrary for some years, I felt an obligation to admit publicly that I was not then persuaded by the argument offered in that letter, and that this was the only point of Catholic teaching on which I found myself not in intellectual consent. Indeed, I thought that over time the papacy would slowly change its appreciation of the underlying evidence. Of course, the reverse happened: the papal position came to seem stronger, and mine weaker.

John McDonnell’s current views of capitalism are not much more negative than those I used to repeat in public prior to about 1977, when I began to examine the empirical evidence more closely. Peter Berger’s Pyramids of Sacrifice and later sociological studies helped me greatly. I have presented an account of these reevaluations in several books since that time, especially in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). As Mr. McDonnell’s multiple objections suggest, anti capitalism has as many heads as Hydra.

I really find it hard to believe with Albert Meyer that a position against gun ownership, defiantly paraded by Bill and Hillary Clinton and the entire breadth of liberal opinion makers, is countercultural. When Presbyterians take positions contrary to those championed by the hosts of the Today Show, I will suspect them of eschatological tendencies; not until then. Like Mr. Meyer, though, I am immensely grateful to “Dorothy Day Catholics”––Notre Dame’s Father Michael Baxter, for example––even when I find their arguments more inspiring and invigorating than fully satisfying.

Schooling and Civic Involvement

I wish to respond to the article “Is Private Schooling Privatizing?” by Christian Smith and David Sikkink (April). When analyzing controversial social issues such as private schooling versus
public schooling, it is helpful for researchers to consider claims made by proponents  of each ideological camp and to refute such claims as can be refuted. This is precisely what Messrs. Smith and Sikkink do in their article. Their results indicate that private schooling families “are consistently more involved in all of the civic activities examined than are families with children in public schools.”

However, it would be helpful to know the specific nature of these involvements in civic activities. A group of highly motivated and concerned parents who undertake the challenges of private schooling may be inherently more likely to get involved in civic activities that may be designed to lessen their challenges. If the respondents in the study were indeed involved in these civic activities largely as a means to improve or promote their private schooling initiative, then the survey may have a built-in bias. Parents of public schooled children who are satisfied with public schooling may not be as inherently predisposed to such civic activities.

Before we can lay to rest the claim that private schooling leads to privatization, the possibility of such a built-in bias must be eradicated.

R. DeBacco
Greensburg, PA

Christian Smith and David Sikkink demonstrate that families who choose private and/or home schooling for their children are not likely to be isolating themselves from the rest of society. It is, however, a fallacy of division to conclude that because these families are not isolating themselves from society as a whole, they must, therefore, not be isolating themselves from particular individuals or groups of individuals within society.

In public schools, families are engaged in a civic activity with members of a broad group from within society. They are interacting with a fair representation of all particular members of society. When families choose private/home schooling, they may indeed continue to engage in supplemental civic activity; however, there is no guarantee that they will continue to be interacting with the particular population they would have had public school been chosen.

Jonathan A. Davenport
Wilmore, KY

Christian Smith replies:

Regarding bias: We have no good reason to believe that private and home schooling families are likely to be civically engaged primarily to “lessen the challenges” of private and home schooling. People’s interests and commitments are much more complicated than that. Nor should we assume, for that matter, that public schoolers are actually satisfied with public schools, or that their civic activities are any less self-interested than those of private schoolers. In any case, we argue that even such “interested” involvements are crucial in activating people in ways that ultimately benefit civic life and democracy.

Regarding isolation: Jonathan A. Davenport’s key assumption that public schoolers interact with a diverse group representing the larger society is a widespread myth lacking empirical support. Public schools assign students by geographic neighborhoods––which are highly segregated by class and race––and so reproduce the class and race divisions of the broader society (government attempts at integration not withstanding). What family buys a house in a new area, for example, without asking the realtor where “the good schools” are? Furthermore, segregation happens within (seemingly diverse) schools. For example, research by University of Texas professor Jay Greene on who sits with whom in school lunchrooms suggests that private schools actually offer more racially integrated environments than do public schools. Finally, Mr. Davenport suggests that doing public school itself is a core civic activity, while voting, volunteering, community service, political involvement, and so on are mere “supplemental civic activities.” The public school industry has indeed profoundly shaped our categories and consciousness.

How or Whether?

While I appreciate Richard John Neuhaus’ concern for the authentic Catholicity of U.S. Catholic universities and colleges ( “The Dying of the Academic Light,” Public Square, April )––a concern which I share passionately––I find that he does less than justice to the article by J. Donald Monan and Edward A. Malloy in America and to the current and past responses of the colleges to the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

We are all concerned about how, and not whether, the Apostolic Constitution will be applied. Since its promulgation in 1990 the Catholic campuses have been engaged in study, reflection, discussion, and (yes!) implementation of the wise and thorough philosophy of Catholic higher education embodied in that document. There has never been opposition to the Apostolic Constitution itself, neither to its whole philosophy of education and scholarship nor to its injunction that the general norms enunciated be adapted to the varying contexts of universities of varying types in various geographical settings around the world.

What has been at issue is the particular formulation of the adaptation in the United States as elsewhere. (To date no norms have been accepted for any country or region.) There has been a process of drafting, critique, redrafting, explanations to and fro, negotiations over language, in which the colleges and the U.S. bishops have worked together amicably. At the heart of the process is the ad hoc National Conference of Catholic Bishops Ex Corde Ecclesiae Implementation Committee consisting of seven bishops, seven college presidents and, ex officio, four staff persons and three resource persons (of whom I am currently one). Through the mediation of this committee there has been extensive consultation at the initiative of the bishops with college presidents and the learned societies most immediately involved. The Monan-Malloy article refers to the current phase of that consultation; it does not pit the presidents against the bishops, because the subcommittee draft to which it refers is just that––a subcommittee draft offered for discussion and critique.

There have been some unhelpful and grotesquely sensational accounts in the press and media that have badly distorted public perception of the process of crafting an implementation proposal. Rome has not sent a proposal but asked for such a proposal to be made by each bishops’ conference and submitted for Roman approval. A first attempt by canonists to draft such a proposal for U.S. implementation was rejected by the bishops after consultation in 1993. A second attempt submitted by the bishops’ own implementation committee, which received enthusiastic endorsement from the presidents, was passed by the bishops in a vote of 224 to 6 in November 1996. This was sent back by the Congregation for Catholic Education in the summer of 1997, not by way of rejection but with the requirement to add to it more specifically juridical norms. The draft of the subcommittee is a proposal for this but awaits the implementation committee’s process of consultation, collation of responses, and subsequent further work.

Under these circumstances it is not appropriate to describe argument over the subcommittee draft as opposition to “the bishops’ provisions for implementing the 1990 constitution.” Such a statement misrepresents the current status of the draft and of the consultation process.

Monika K. Hellwig
Executive Director
Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities

RJN replies:

It is good to know that there is no opposition to the Apostolic Constitution “itself.” By itself, however, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, while setting forth a compelling vision, doesn’t do anything. Whether people agree or disagree with it is tested by their disposition to its implementation. The proposals toward that end developed by Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua and others and to be considered by the bishops in November are not, I think, adequately described as merely a “subcommittee draft.” A key provision in those proposals is that teachers of Catholic theology should obtain a mandate from ecclesiastical authority. It is both appropriate and accurate to note that the Monan-Malloy article opposes that and other aspects of the implementation plan proposed to the bishops.

In Defense of CCHD

In two places in his April 1999 While We’re At It column, Richard John Neuhaus goes after the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). CCHD is the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) anti-poverty campaign and is, as such, an integral and visionary part of the Gospel of Life that our Holy Father has called the Church to in Evangelium Vitae. CCHD’s approach, to assist grassroots organizations that are seeking to overcome various root causes of poverty, is exactly the kind of work that addresses what the Holy Father repeatedly refers to as “structural sin.” CCHD is widely recognized and praised by all kinds of antipoverty groups across this country. In performing its gospel service, CCHD also brings great credit to the U.S. Catholic Church in the eyes of many people throughout this country.

The barbs and insinuations thrown at CCHD are unworthy of First Things, or at least unworthy of the mission First Things sets for itself. To give the kind of status to Patrick Reilly of the Capital Research Center by saying that he has a “side” that should be heard in contrast to that of CCHD’s chairman, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, is analogous to saying that Catholics for a Free Choice’s Frances Kissling has a “side” that should be heard in contrast to the NCCB’s pro-life secretariat’s chairman, William Cardinal Keeler.

As for CCHD’s ethical guidelines, a new set has recently been approved, and I was a member of the committee that drafted them. The original guidelines, which served CCHD very well for close to thirty years, had been written by John Cardinal Krol. Objections to those guidelines should be taken up with him or his successor. The new guidelines, which, I may add, are excellent, have been drafted not to see “funding more tightly controlled,” but to address issues that were not posed thirty years ago, including the morality of involvement in certain kinds of coalitions.

The Catholic Church continues to make common cause on some issues with organizations that it profoundly disagrees with on other issues. The Catholic Church has guidelines, and invokes those along with a healthy dose of the virtue of prudence in making judgments about such coalitions; so too with CCHD. CCHD does not support any organization whose mission contradicts the teaching of the Church. Since organizations sometimes change, it is occasionally necessary to withdraw funding from a particular organization. Every year CCHD funds hundreds of grassroots antipoverty organizations, and it is vigilant about not funding, or revoking funding to, any group that advocates positions contrary to Church teaching.

John Berkman
Department of Theology
Catholic University of America

RJN replies:

It greatly disserves the truth to compare Mr. Reilly with Ms. Kissling. The latter is a declared opponent of, and the former a firm adherent to, the Church’s teaching. As I noted in my comment, Bishop Ramirez has not been responsive to inquiries about CCHD. On the ideological direction of CCHD, see the discussion of the influence of Saul Alinsky by Lawrence J. Engel in Theological Studies (FT, April). I hope the new guidelines that Dr. Berkman helped prepare will contribute to restoring badly battered confidence in CCHD.

Not a Bad Man, Not a Saint

As a Roman Catholic, I would like to express my support for the government of Israel’s opposition to the proposed canonization of Pius XII (as reported in While We’re At It, March ).

Two issues need to be addressed in connection with this opposition. The first is whether it is right for Pius XII to be canonized, and the second is whether it is right for the State of Israel to oppose such a canonization. The second issue depends on the first. When a saint is canonized by the Church, he is officially claimed to have displayed heroic virtue. If Pius XII was culpable in failing to explicitly condemn the Holocaust, the Church, in canonizing him, will be proclaiming that heroic virtue is compatible with a grave offense against the Jews that was never repented of. (The grave offense, of course, is failing to condemn the Holocaust, not cooperating with it.) The State of Israel would be quite entitled to oppose such an event. If Pius XII’s failure to explicitly condemn the Holocaust was not culpable, however, the State of Israel has no business opposing his canonization.

The culpability of Pius XII depends on the answer to the following question: “Did he, as supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, have an unconditional duty to publicly condemn the Holocaust?” It seems to me that this question, when posed, answers itself. Part of the duty of a pastor is to tell sinners that they must not sin. This duty is not confined to denunciations of sin in the abstract, but requires that particular sins, when serious and public, must be denounced. The Holocaust was one of the greatest crimes in human history, so the Pope, as supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, was undoubtedly obliged to condemn it explicitly. This obligation was not just towards the Jews, but also towards the people (many of them Catholic) who were committing the crime, and towards whom he had a pastoral duty. Since it was an obligation, the fact that Pius XII made many efforts to help persecuted Jews does not excuse his failure to live up to it.

Many Catholics have defended Pius XII by claiming that his refusal to condemn the Holocaust (we know that he was asked to do so) was prompted by a fear of reprisals against Jews that the Germans threatened to carry out if he made such a condemnation. Why the threat of reprisals would have carried any weight when the Germans were known to be bent upon the complete extermination of the Jewish people is not explained. But even if Pius XII was in fact influenced by threats of this nature, this would not excuse his failure to speak out against the Holocaust. Consequentialism and proportionalism are false; if a duty is unconditional, as Pius XII’s was, there is nothing, even a warmhearted sentiment, that can excuse not fulfilling it.

This criticism of Pius XII should not be misunderstood. He was in a desperately difficult situation, he was an enemy of the Nazis, he made considerable efforts to help many Jews, and his failure to condemn the Holocaust does not necessarily mean that he was a bad man; in fact I do not think that he was a bad man. You can do bad things, when under great pressure, and still not be a bad man. But you cannot be a saint and do bad things, and the question at issue is not whether Pius XII was a bad man, but whether he was a saint.

The reaction of Catholics towards Jewish criticisms of Pius XII, and of the Church generally, is something that calls for self-examination. It usually consists of attempts to show that these criticisms are groundless or exaggerated, and that the Church wasn’t that bad after all. The recent Vatican document on the history of relations between Catholics and Jews unfortunately succumbs to this self-excusing tendency in several places, most notably in its discussion of Pius XII and the Holocaust. The past of the Catholic Church is often unfairly and untruly criticized. But when it comes to the Jews, the Church really was that bad, and Catholics need to admit this and atone for it.

John Lamont
Queens College
Oxford, England


• In the Briefly Noted section of the May issue, we credited the wrong publisher with reprinting Heinrich Rommen’s The Natural Law. If you would like to order that book, please contact the actual publisher, Liberty Fund, at (800) 955-8335.

• In the June/July Public Square we recommended a fine new book called A Celebration of the Thought of John Paul II, just out from St. Louis University Press. Unfortunately the phone number we received from the publisher contained an error that we subsequently reprinted. If you would like to order a copy of this book, the correct phone number is (314) 977-2244.

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