The Public Square
The word-mavens—William Safire, for instance—routinely complain about the use of “intriguing” when “engaging,” “fascinating,” or just plain “interesting” would do as well. The complaint is justified. But intriguing is the right word to describe current discussions about the relationships between brain, mind, knowing, and consciousness. These discussions engage one’s attention to a marked degree, and edge into the realm of mystery. At least they engage my attention and open my mind (using that word in the ordinary sense) to wonder. On these questions there are two new books that are to be warmly welcomed: John R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (Basic) and Edward Pols, Mind Regained (Cornell University Press). There are basic agreements between them but equally basic disagreements, making the two in combination an excellent introduction to a set of questions of considerable significance for philosophy, ethics, religion, and theology. Both are written in a manner accessible to the educated reader with no specialized training in those several fields.
John Searle of the University of California at Berkeley is surely among the most respected philosophers of our time and writes regularly on science and philosophy in the New York Review of Books. Against the academically trendy postmodernists and deconstructionists, he declares himself to be a philosophical “realist.” “Just to put my cards on the table at the beginning,” he writes, “I accept the Enlightenment vision. I think that the universe exists quite independently of our minds and that, within the limits set by our evolutionary endowments, we can come to comprehend its nature.” On the major philosophical issues, he subscribes to what he calls, borrowing a computer metaphor, “the default position,” meaning by that the views we hold so naturally (“pre-reflectively”) that it takes mind-bending effort to let oneself be argued out of them. The default position includes the belief that we have direct perceptual access to the world that exists independently of us; that words such as tree and rabbit typically have clear meanings that make it possible to talk about real objects in the world; that statements are typically true or false, depending on whether they correspond to determinable “facts in the world”; and that there are real relations in which one phenomenon, called the cause, accounts for another, called the effect.
Such views may seem pretty obvious, indeed commonsensical, to the sane reader. Searle, however, doesn’t like the word commonsense, in part, it seems, because he doesn’t want to insult those who disagree with him by suggesting they don’t have it. But I’m not sure it helps to speak of the “default position,” since the computer metaphor may suggest that there is something very wrong with their mental hardware. In any event, Searle’s defense of human reason—what he calls the Enlightenment vision—is a salutary antidote to the fashionable irrationalities of Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and a host of others who in various and implausibly ingenious ways contend that “reality” (in quotes) is something that we are making up as we go along. Most of Mind, Language, and Society is devoted to exposing the incoherence and frequent fatuities of the enemies of the Enlightenment vision.
Why does the “default position” of realism have so many enemies? “I do not believe that the various challenges to realism are motivated by the arguments actually presented,” Searle writes. “I believe they are motivated by something much deeper and less intellectual.” People resent being “subject to and answerable to a dumb, stupid, inert material world. Why shouldn’t we think of the ‘real world’ as something we create, and therefore something that is answerable to us? If all of reality is a ‘social construction,’ then it is we who are in power, not the world.”
Upon Closer Examination
Searle’s is an interesting suggestion, but I am not sure it bears close examination. If the will to power is present in almost everything, and it is, it may help to explain the antirealist impulse. It probably does, at least in part, but a little further thought leads to the recognition that such power is itself a delusion and pretense—my fiction with which I contend against the fictions of others. If my supposed power has no relation to a real world independent of myself, I am totally powerless. What I call my socially constructed power is just whistling in the dark, and all my contentions with the constructions of others are finally no more than a whistling contest.
But in proposing this further consideration I may be assuming that the postmodernists are more self-critical than Searle thinks they are. He may have the more realistic assessment of their capacity for clear thinking. In any event, Searle recognizes that his psychological explanation of antirealism is not sufficient. “Pointing out the psychological origins of antirealism is not a refutation of antirealism. It would be a genetic fallacy to suppose that by exposing the illegitimate origins of the arguments against realism, we somehow refute the arguments.”
Searle makes a bracing case for philosophical realism understood as the “Enlightenment vision.” But like many, perhaps most, of those whom he calls “the educated members of our civilization at the turn of the millennium,” intellectual inquiry stops at the edge of certain dogmatic boundaries. When it comes to some truths about “how things really are in the world” (emphasis his), we “are no longer dealing with matters of philosophical analysis” but with “the results of modern science.” “As far as we know anything at all about how the world works, there are two propositions of modern science that are not, so to speak, up for grabs. They are not optional. . . . These are the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology.” He does not make an argument for these propositions or dogmas; they are simply assumed by “the educated members of our civilization at the turn of the millennium.” But of course these propositions have everything to do with “philosophical analysis,” as we shall see in discussing Edward Pols’ Mind Regained. The two dogmas as asserted by Searle determine his philosophical materialism, his understanding of cause and effect, and his atheism.
On these questions, Searle’s is an engaging but thoroughly unconvincing instance of “beyondism.” He says we are beyond the conflict between materialism and what he calls dualism, and then he opts for the default position of materialism. He says we are beyond the debate between atheism and theism, and then he opts for the default position of atheism. He even has a section titled “Beyond Atheism” in which he notes that earlier philosophers of his disposition, such as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, thought it necessary to mount “polemical and eloquent attacks on traditional religion.” That was then, this is now. “Nowadays nobody bothers, and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the question of God’s existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: They are not to be discussed in public and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores.”
What the “Educated” Can Believe
Impatience with abstract questions might be viewed as a deficiency in a philosopher, especially one who proposes to explain how things really are in the world. The fact that Searle dismisses abstract questions about God as boring no doubt explains why he has not given serious attention to such questions, which he manifestly has not. The smugness and insularity of a world of discourse in which the following passage is presumably thought to be intellectually coherent would be cause for astonishment, were its kind not so frequently encountered. Searle writes:
For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified. Or rather, to put the point more precisely, we no longer take the mysteries we see in the world as expressions of supernatural meaning. We no longer think of odd occurrences as cases of God performing speech acts in the language of miracles. Odd occurrences are just occurrences we do not understand. The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to a point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations. For us, if it should turn out that God exists, that would have to be a fact of nature like any other. To the four basic forces in the universe—gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces—we would add a fifth, the divine force. Or more likely, we would see the other forces as forms of the divine force. But it would still be all physics, albeit divine physics. If the supernatural existed, it too would have to be natural.
“For us, the educated members of society.” What a fine ring of invincible complacency that has. It is a phrase that Schleiermacher used almost two hundred years ago in describing “the cultured despisers of religion.” Note also Searle’s assertion that, no matter what turns out to be the case, it “would have to be a fact of nature like any other.” That certitude has already been determined by the aforementioned dogmas that, as he says, are not up for grabs, and indeed are not subject to intellectual challenge or inquiry. The word “God” in Searle’s discussion, needless to say, has nothing to do with what serious thinkers from Plato to Aquinas to Balthasar have meant by “God.” But then, Searle has told us that those who think seriously about such questions are bores. Which presumably gives him license to be supremely unserious, as in the above paragraph that may kindly be described as non-sense.
I know nothing about John Searle’s history, but there is a deep and evident animus at work here. Religion is no more than superstition and deserving of unbridled derision. His tone is that of the village atheist of yesteryear, now, one might have thought, almost an extinct species. For us, the educated members of society (if I may borrow a phrase), the vulgar exhibition of ignorance and hostility is an embarrassment. It is disconcerting to watch a distinguished professor of philosophy at a leading university as he thinks he is clinching an argument by pointing out that human credulity has played a part in religion. In Italy he lived near a church where a statue of Mary was found buried in a garden, and people used to believe (hee-hee) that it had fallen from heaven. That was then, this is now.
“Even if the statue were found in the gardens of the Vatican,” Searle writes, “the church authorities would not claim it had fallen out of heaven. That is not a possible thought for us because, in a sense, we know too much.” The “in a sense” is a nice qualifier, but it does not seem to qualify anything. Obviously, the statue’s falling from heaven is “a possible thought” because John Searle thought it—not seriously, of course—in order to reject it. But his real clincher is the Shroud of Turin, the dating of which, according to radioactive tests, is still disputed. Whatever the right date, Searle concludes with this: “But, and this is the point, why do we assume the tests are more to be believed than the miracle? Why should God’s miracle be answerable to carbon 14?” Simply at the level of Logic 101, it seems not to occur to Mr. Searle that the point of the tests is to determine whether it is a miracle, for if it is not a miracle there is no miracle to believe in or not believe in. Of course, we could have an interesting discussion about what is meant by a miracle. But we have already been told that people who discuss such things are bores, except, presumably, when Mr. Searle discusses them. If I understand him correctly, he believes he has the advantage in understanding such matters because he knows they are undeserving of serious thought. I think I mentioned that he is professor of philosophy at Berkeley, a school of no little renown.
Thinking About Our Thoughts
But I do not take back what I said earlier. Mind, Language, and Society is an intelligent argument for philosophical realism and a telling polemic against the antirealists, crippled only by an “Enlightenment vision” of a relentlessly dogmatic and reductionist force. The reductionist belief system within which Searle is constrained could not be more explicitly stated. In an intellectual world far removed from Searle’s, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote witheringly about a “God of the gaps” in which the word “God” is no more than a placeholder until we get a better explanation. John Searle subscribes to what we might call “philosophy of the gaps.” Philosophy, he says, “is concerned with questions that we do not yet have an agreed-on method of answering.” When science provides an answer, we will no longer need philosophy. “A good example of this is the problem of the nature of life. This was once a philosophical problem, but it ceased to be so when advances in molecular biology enabled us to break down what seemed a large mystery into a series of smaller, manageable, specific biological questions and answers. I hope that something similar will happen to the problem of consciousness.”
For all the interesting things that John Searle has written about mind and consciousness, both here and elsewhere, his dogma so cripples his thought that, in principle, he cannot explore possibilities other than those with which he begins. His “Enlightenment vision” is, in fact, an iron cage. It would seem that his demystification has to end up in the mystification that all our thinking can in fact be broken down into something less than thought, which means we only think we think, or, more precisely, we have neither mind nor consciousness. There are neural firings in the brain that we call thoughts, but, if there are only neural firings, it becomes exceedingly difficult to know who or what are the “we” who call them thoughts. As Stephen M. Barr recently wrote in these pages, we should pay close attention to the best minds of our time, but we may be permitted to ignore them when they tell us they have no minds. It would seem that it is only by virtue of his inconsistencies—inconsistencies that, for the sake of his sanity, we may deem felicitous inconsistencies—that John Searle does not explicitly say that he has no mind at all. When, as he hopes, the mystery of mind and consciousness is broken down by science into a series of smaller, manageable, specific biological questions and answers, how would we know whether they are the right questions and answers, and what in this context would “knowing” mean? Mr. Searle’s well-intended defense of realism finally evaporates into the mists of unreality.
A very different treatment of these questions is offered by Edward Pols, longtime professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, in Mind Regained. His essay is marked by a breadth of vision, clarity of expression, and unembarrassed humility before what we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand. Against postmodernist fashions, Pols, too, is a determined realist. His previous book was Radical Realism: Direct Knowing in Science and Philosophy. His realism, however, is not confined by the iron cage of dogmatic reductionism. He urges us to pay close attention to the phenomenon of the mind as we actually experience it in discerning and thinking about reality. The mind as experienced should be admitted as evidence in our thinking about the mind. For Searle and many others, the story of philosophy really begins with Descartes and systematic skepticism about the relationship between mind and reality. Everything prior to and counter to the Cartesian starting point is, with varying degrees of insouciance, dismissed as obfuscation—or more simply, as boring.
Pols takes very seriously the moment in human thought that began with Descartes in the seventeenth century and reached its climax in the exchange between Hume and Kant at the end of the eighteenth. But he views it only as that, a moment in the much longer and larger history of human reflection on the nature of the world and our part in it. Pols treats Descartes with great respect, even reverence, and in Mind Regained offers a marvelously lucid exposition of the Meditations, making the point that moderns who take their Descartes without what he had to say about God and infinity are simply not taking Descartes seriously. Descartes, Pols suggests, would not recognize his thought in what many contemporary textbooks present as the Cartesian turning point.
Pols begins his story at the beginning. “For the West, the conceptual shape of this study of mind was formed by such great philosophical doctrines as those of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Thomas Aquinas. That doctrinal tradition culminates in the medieval notion of the mind of a creative God, a notion whose power in the West is hard to overstate. For a long time the notion was as important in science as in religion and morals; and although its importance for science gradually diminished after the eighteenth century, it remained a vital force for our culture in general all through the nineteenth century.” The perception of the human mind as participating in the mind of an “other” is deeply entrenched in our culture, and careful reflection upon that perception leads to a consideration of “causes”—material, efficient, formal, and final—that cannot reduce the mind to something less than we “know” it to be. “From antiquity until the present,” Pols writes, “certain highly complex entities have seemed so impressive that their functions do not seem to be adequately accounted for if they are regarded as mere assemblages of more basic entities.” That perception undergirds and is essential to the idea of human beings as rational and moral agents.
Playing Billiards with Mozart
I cannot do justice to the elegance of Pols’ argument in this space, but he contends that reason compels the conclusion that “there is an ordering power intrinsic to nature that cannot be adequately explained in scientific terms“ and that “the ordering power intrinsic to nature works also in human purpose“ (emphasis his). These are, admittedly, bold assertions, but they are derived from close attention to the mind itself. By the mind itself, Pols writes, “I mean the full concreteness, the full actuality, the wholeness of mind, the lived reality of mind.” He illustrates his point by an imaginative but convincing reconstruction of what was happening when Mozart was playing billiards and taking time out from the game to write down musical passages he was composing in his head, and what is happening in our minds when we read about Mozart doing that. One can abstract what is undeniably a piece of what is happening, such as the central nervous system or neural synapses in the brain, but one has not thereby captured what is happening. “Although the central nervous system is a thing of flesh and blood and so concrete enough, it is then being considered in abstraction from the full concreteness of mind itself.” It is simply arbitrary to declare that this piece, separated from all the other pieces of what is happening, is the explanation of the whole.
Much of modern philosophy, says Pols, has made a “negative judgment” about the mind. But there is a curious incoherence in this judgment. “In short,” he writes, “the negative philosophical judgment about the powers of the human mind was reached by the study of mind itself—a study conducted of course by mind itself. I call the judgment negative because its most profound claim is that the mind cannot get at reality, at what is the case, at what is independent of mind’s own capacity to believe or to construct. It needs to be emphasized that the negative judgment still hovers over science itself, even as it did in the days of Hume and Kant. If that judgment is taken seriously, science cannot be exempt from it. An incapacity on the part of the mind to know what is real in independence of the mind’s own construction is a general incapacity. It is thus a paradox that the negative judgment has turned attention away from the study of the mind itself to the scientific study of the infrastructure of mind.” Pols’ contention is that the mind’s study of the mind must pay attention to the mind itself. The alternative, although he does not put it quite this way, is that we tell ourselves we are studying the mind while determinedly ignoring, or even denying, the mind that is being studied and, most important, the mind that is doing the studying.
Pols is deeply respectful of science, and of the scientific method as conventionally defined, and he is also keenly aware of its limitations. In one section he spells out the eight steps, or principles, in the received scientific doctrine of causality, concluding with these: “ 6. Causality has no telic [purposeful] feature, although human beings tend to attribute teleology (final causality) to nature. 7. Causality has no form-creating feature, other than that expressed in the laws of nature. 8. Agency as such, whether divine or human, forms no part of a scientific causal explanation: although human agency is often appealed to in commonsense causal explanations, agency itself is subject to causal explanation in the sense of the preceding principles. Agency is thus something to be explained, not something that is in itself explanatory.” The last point is crucial. What agent is to explain that there is no agency? Which brings us back to some of the best minds of our day telling us they have no mind.
The Knower and the Known
With respect to the “negative judgment of the mind,” Pols sums up his case with the observation that it is futile and incoherent to try to achieve an absolute separation of the knower from the known:
With this phase of our reflective turn we overcome the negative philosophical judgment about the power of our minds which has gradually developed in the course of the epistemological era that is coincidental with modernity—including that last jaded period of modernity which now masquerades as postmodernity. The negative judgment led to the dismal conviction that we can know neither other beings nor ourselves directly and so cannot know any causal significance they may have. It contributed to the gradual discrediting of a complex and nuanced doctrine of causality which, whatever its limitations, left some explanatory room for morality, art, and religion. It left us with a scientific doctrine of causality for which it is impossible to provide a satisfactory philosophical justification. To speak more precisely, it condemned us to oscillate between the conviction that the scientific doctrine is a thoroughly adequate replacement for all the older views of causality and the suspicion that it is a useful pragmatic device whose writ must be carefully circumscribed. It is time to set aside the negative philosophical judgment once and for all.
Between the arguments of Searle and Pols a decision must be made. Pols’ is the more aesthetically and intellectually attractive, in that it is marked by modesty, a seriousness that eschews flippancy, a readiness to engage alternative explanations, and a refusal to take refuge in fundamentalist dogma—whether religious or scientific—that is finally a form of fideism. The subtitle of Searle’s book is “philosophy in the real world,” but it is Pols who attends to the mind as we actually experience it in the real world. He is the uncompromising realist in refusing to accept less than a conclusive argument that that experience is delusory. (And it is impossible to imagine what such an argument might look like.) Most important, Pols can understand and explain the intellectual moves made by Searle, while Searle steadfastly ignores the moves made by Pols.
Thus Pols’ argument is able to give an account of Searle’s argument, whereas Searle refuses to engage the argument of Pols—and of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and a good many contemporary philosophers. What Mozart thought he was doing as he played billiards and what you think you are doing as you read these words has, for Searle, no explanatory force. Your thinking is the object to be explained, but there appears to be no explaining subject. Put differently, the explaining subject, the rational agent, disappears into the fundament of the (as yet to be scientifically determined) explanation. Those who think that this poses metaphysical puzzles deserving of careful exploration are for John Searle and “the educated members of our civilization at the turn of the millennium” to be dismissed as “bores.”
Three final points. I do not know what religious conclusions, if any, Edward Pols draws from his argument. He does not say. His essay is, at most, a prolegomenon to theological reflection, just as Searle’s is intended to preclude such reflection. Second, it is not adequate to say, as Pols does, that the realism he champions leaves “some explanatory room for morality, art, and religion.” This sounds once again like morality, art, and religion that is “of the gaps”—for the time being, until we achieve a fuller explanation. Pols’ argument, it seems to me, not only invites but demands the explanatory employment of morality, art, and religion—in short, attentiveness to the mind as experienced in the real world. Morality, art, and religion are not short-term expedients until some better explanation of the real world comes along. They are irreplaceable and irreducible in the real world as experienced, as well as in any world we can imagine, recognizing that our imagining is part of the real world as experienced. I am not sure whether Pols would disagree with that. Third, one should not leave this subject without noting that the caricature of religion and theology offered by thinkers such as John Searle is too often a caricature handed them by religious thinkers who, as we are reminded by the recent encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), do not respect the imperatives of thinking clearly. But that is another big subject, also aptly described as intriguing.
The Magisterial “We”
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza is getting off to a rocky start as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). Brows were furrowed by the speech in which he criticized anyone who suggests that some bishops are more fervent in their devotion to the Magisterium than others. It’s hard to know what to make of that. Bishops frequently express their views on many subjects, as they surely should, and presumably they speak with the intention of being heard. Are people to pretend that they do not hear what they hear, or to refrain from drawing conclusions from what they hear? Is it disrespect toward the episcopal office to think, for example, that John Cardinal O’Connor might be somewhat more favorably disposed toward the teaching and pastoral initiatives of this pontificate than, say, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee? I can’t imagine that either of them would think so.
Bishop Fiorenza goes on to insist that the bishops must speak with “one voice.” On the deposit of the faith, to be sure, but bishops are first of all teachers in the local church that is their diocese, and teachers do not all teach in the same way. Surely he does not suggest that bishops should remain silent and let the NCCB or its president speak for them.
Then there was Bishop Fiorenza’s speech at the Los Angeles “Gathering for Jubilee Justice.” He strongly and rightly stated, “Racism is a sin—a sin that divides the human family and violates the fundamental dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.” But he then went on to say: “We were dismayed when Proposition 209 abolished affirmative action in California a few years ago, and we are alarmed as other states consider similar legislation.” Who, as Tonto might put it, is the magisterial “we” here? The bishop continued: “We hear the sound of racism among those who suggest too much is being given to racial minorities by way of affirmative action programs. At times, protestations claiming that all persons should be treated equally reflect the desire to maintain a status quo that favors one race and social group at the expense of the poor and nonwhite.” I can imagine that some might hear the sound of spiritual pride and judgmentalism in that characterization of support for Proposition 209.
Among the millions of California voters there are no doubt some racists, but are a majority of Californians, including substantial numbers of blacks and Hispanics who voted for 209, fairly described as racists or as people desiring to maintain their own advantage against the poor and nonwhite? Does the bishop, who insists upon the importance of sensitivity and listening to others, really not know that many people of all races, ethnicities, and classes oppose quota systems because, inter alia, they believe they are demeaning to those whom they aim to help, are in conflict with the constituting principles of the American order, are inevitably incoherent and impossible to administer fairly, are unjust to disadvantaged Americans who do not qualify by virtue of their bloodline or skin color, and are a divisive distraction from policies that might better bring the marginal into the mainstream of opportunity and responsibility?
Certainly he must know that. And certainly he must know that the vicious misrepresentation of the views of others—as is also the case with racism—“divides the human family and violates the fundamental dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.” Bishop Fiorenza has been president of the NCCB for only a short time. His election indicates that most of his peers have confidence in him. His is an important voice, among several hundred others. We (that’s the editorial “we”) share the hope that that confidence will be vindicated as he learns to speak more carefully, accurately, and charitably of those with whom he—although not necessarily the “we” of the NCCB—is in disagreement. It is a matter of sensitivity and listening. Or, as used to be understood, a matter of simple honesty.
Evangelicals and Catholics to the South of Us
Latin America was very much on the minds of those who gathered here in New York in 1992 to initiate the project that became known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Nowhere in the world is the confrontation between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics so intense, and typically hostile, as in the countries of Central and South America, including the Caribbean. As discussed in my book Appointment in Rome, the ECT vision was vigorously proposed at the 1997 Synod for America convened by Pope John Paul II. Prior to the synod we in ECT had organized meetings with Latin American bishops both here and in Bogota, Colombia, which is the headquarters of the council of Latin American bishops conferences (CELAM). Every step of the way we had the strong encouragement and personal participation of Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. To the great gratification of all concerned, the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, which was issued last January and sums up the work of the synod, strongly endorsed the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics working together for the evangelization and reevangelization of Latin America.
The past year has witnessed unprecedented progress in advancing that vision. CELAM has established a working relationship with the various Protestant associations in Latin America, and they have together projected an ambitious program to advance reconciliation among Christians. One early result of this effort is “A Message to the Churches,” issued on May 14, 1999, from a meeting in Quito, Ecuador, of thirty Catholic and Pentecostal leaders (evangelicalism in Latin America tends to be strongly Pentecostal), plus ten representatives from what are called the “historic churches” (e.g., Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian). Herewith a few excerpts from the statement signed by participants from sixteen Latin American countries:
Here in the heart of the City of Quito, built upon a mountain (Matthew 45:14), we have lived, as on a new Tabor, the experience of the meeting with the transfigured Lord. His presence in our midst (Matthew 18:20) has caused the curtains (Matthew 27:51) and the walls of separation to fall, which for many years prevented us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Gathered together in one house, we have met face to face and we have placed in each and every heart and mind our story, our personal encounter with the Risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit who calls us day after day to a more evangelical and committed life. With great surprise, we have discovered the beauty of our distinct ecclesial traditions which have the same root in the one Lord (Ephesians 4:4-6), present and living, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
In a genuine climate of love and brotherhood, marked by frequent and intense moments of prayer, as was found in the first community in Jerusalem, our sorrows which are the result of a long history of prejudices, misunderstandings, mutual rejections, including experiences of aggression or mutual exclusion, have been brought to light. We have agreed furthermore that there are doctrinal differences which are not easy to overcome, but we are deeply convinced that we have to continue walking in search of unity in diversity.
We promise to search together for new and lasting roads of convergence, with the conviction that we have been called by Jesus Christ to interpret the Latin American kairos, and with the power of the Spirit to share in mission and to be faithful to the prayer of Jesus that “all may be one so that the world might believe.”
That language will sound conventional to many readers, but in the context of Latin America it is without precedent and utterly startling. The Quito declaration will almost certainly stir controversy, as ECT has also been controversial, notably among Evangelicals, in this country. There much more than here, evangelization has in the past meant evangelization against rather than with the other side of the Catholic/Protestant divide. Moreover, Quito is not a one-shot event. As is the case with ECT here, CELAM and the various Protestant groups involved have committed themselves to a long-term program that will address not only practical cooperation but also the outstanding doctrinal differences, underscoring that the unity we seek is not unity at the price of truth but unity in the truth. In terms of the Christian mission, there are few more heartening developments at the beginning of a new millennium.
Chesterton and the Thereness of It
I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing. These thoughts are brought to mind by Joseph Pearce’s great big new biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius). Mr. Pearce is clearly in love with his subject, so there is nothing here aimed at deflating Chesterton’s reputation, which will no doubt disappoint bien pensant readers for whom a worthy biography must expose the unworthiness of the life examined. Biography as pathography is all the rage. The same critics might also complain that there is an inordinate amount of direct quotation of Chesterton, but I am inclined to the view that it is perfectly in order when it is Chesterton who is quoted—especially when much of the material is culled from private letters and other sources previously unpublished.
Pearce’s Chesterton is very much the Catholic Chesterton. And, as the title indicates, so is another recent biographical study by David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are frequently compared as Christian apologists, and one meets people beyond numbering who were decisively influenced by these writers in their course of conversion. In the case of Chesterton, however, the conversion is, more often than not it seems, not just to Christianity but to the Catholic Church. The phrase “just to Christianity,” of course, puts one in mind of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College has suggested (“The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis,” FT, November 1994) that there was a certain guile in the “mereness” of Lewis’ Christianity. Lewis combined the intellectual panache of Oxford and Cambridge with a one-size-fits-all Christianity that required no uncomfortably specific decisions about church, sacraments, and the sometimes embarrassing baggage of the Christian community through time, also known as tradition. I think there is considerable merit in Jacobs’ argument, and it has a great deal to do with why Lewis, unlike Chesterton, is so very popular with Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants.
Chesterton exulted in the specific, the particular, the thus and soness and thereness of things. What others viewed as embarrassments of the Catholic tradition he embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate that something manifestly wrong was, upon closer examination, but the shadow side of something greatly right. From childhood on, it seems that Chesterton had a keen appreciation that almost everything could be perceived as being otherwise. That is to say, the way we perceive reality is not abstractly universal but dramatically contingent. The key thing is to see what is there. This understanding is at the heart of his Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, a book that the distinguished Thomist, Etienne Gilson, called one of the greatest ever written on the Angelic Doctor. (I had long been familiar with Gilson’s praise of the book but thought it was in the nature of a courteous aside or maybe a book blurb. Pearce provides the full text of what Gilson said, and his praise of Chesterton’s treatment of Thomas obviously reflects his very considered judgment.)
To say that Chesterton’s reality was dramatically contingent is in no way to suggest that he would have any sympathy for the fashions of postmodernity in which reality is “socially constructed.” Quite the opposite is the case. For Chesterton, the “truth” was never in quotation marks. It was more like Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical construction of reality. Although in Chesterton’s case it was a matter of being kicked by the stone, by the very thereness of things. From early on, he was aware of the seductive possibilities of being deceived by worlds of our own imaginative creation. Although it is not the point that Pearce is making, this is evident in a passage on Chesterton and homosexuality.
As a schoolboy, Chesterton encountered the usual homoerotic undercurrents, and was fascinated for a time by a fellow who played at being a diabolist. GKC later wrote, “I have since heard that he died; it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known or even dared to think what was that place at which he stopped and [so I] refrained.” We can play at being devils or the Devil’s playmates. It can even be exciting. But it is false and therefore it is deadly. Long before John Paul II and Vaclav Havel popularized the phrase, Chesterton’s was a passion to “live in the truth.” The phrase is but a riff on the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The alternative to being free is to be dead. Chesterton was exuberantly free. And, he would quickly add, he was free because he was bound to be free, being bound by the truth.
The Master of Paradox
To speak of being bound to be free is to indulge a trope that, let it be admitted, Chesterton sometimes overindulged, his beloved paradox. It is no disrespect to note that frequently the Chestertonian paradox does not bear close logical examination, being more verbal sleight of hand than substance. On the other hand, a man standing on his head and waving his legs, which is Chesterton’s image for a paradox, doesn’t bear close logical examination either. The spectacle, if it means anything at all, is to point to something in the vicinity of the spectacle. But the paradoxical phrase “bound to be free” does stand up to the most rigorous examination, if it is understood that the binding is to the truth. For Chesterton, Christianity, by which he means Catholic Christianity, frees because it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.
Paradox, Chesterton insisted, does not obfuscate but illuminates. When praised for his mastery of the paradoxical trope, Chesterton responded that God, not he, is the master of paradox. His friend Maisie Ward explained it this way: “What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God’s infinity and the limitations of the world and of man’s mind. To us limited human beings God can express His idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a greater truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden or incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we will not do it we shall miss a great deal of truth.” Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.”
A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world. But to pull this off you have to actually live in the trysting place, which means to live in the truth, which means to live in Christ, which means to live in the Church that is the presence of Christ through time. The Church, he asserted, is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. To the modern mind and its notion of freedom, becoming a Catholic was to enter into an obedience that narrowed one’s horizons. Chesterton contended that precisely the opposite is the case. Obedience (from the Latin obedire) means responsive listening, and the invitation of the Church is an invitation to the high road of freedom. How could there be anything confining about listening and responding to an invitation to dance with all the truths in the world? Obedience, for Chesterton, is not a matter of closing down one’s critical faculties but of putting them in proper order. Doctrine and dogma provide a framework for intellectual inquiry that is otherwise random, impulsive, and idiosyncratic. “To become a Catholic,” he wrote, “is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.”
David Fagerberg treats insightfully the ways in which those who resist entering into the trysting place of Christ and his Church often seem to be fearful of a closed and confining space. One might say they are claustrophobic. Fagerberg agrees with Chesterton, however, in suggesting that the more common phenomenon is that people resist because they are agoraphobic. They are afraid of the wide-open public spaces that freedom calls home. The Catholic Church does not so much provide a refuge and resting place as it launches one into all the worlds—spiritual, mystical, intellectual, historical—that are engaged by all the truths in the world. Faith as adventure is at the heart of Chesterton’s exuberance. Chesterton surely understood that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, but his characteristic accent was on the wildness in God’s mercy. If you are living in the truth, you can with defiant, almost swashbuckling, confidence take on all comers. James Joyce, not the most orthodox of Catholics, said the Catholic Church is Here Comes Everybody. I don’t know if Chesterton ever commented on that way of putting it, but my hunch is that he would have rather liked it. A church that is not marked by paradox, that trims history and the excesses of life and thought to fit its preferences—in short, a church that is not wild—could not be the trysting place of all the truths in the world.
The Chief Idea
Even as a boy, Chesterton says, he had this intuition that any theory or attitude that deadened the experienced wildness of things must, to that extent, be false. “I had a strong inward impulse to revolt. . . . But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.”
That was Chesterton the schoolboy. As an old man, shortly before he died in 1936, he wrote about what “I hope is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. I will not say the doctrine I have always taught, but the doctrine I should always have liked to teach. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.” Perhaps it is more a sensibility than a doctrine, but anyone who has read much Chesterton knows he taught it, and continues to teach it, with powerful effect. A life lived well is a life lived in response to grace, and from gratitude flows the wildness of wonder enough for an eternity.
He was impatient with the prissy, the proper, the excessively neat. Which no doubt explains in part his affinity for Hilaire Belloc. Pearce tells the delightful story of novelist Henry James paying a visit to GKC, which is interrupted by the arrival of Hilaire Belloc, just back from tramping through Europe and in a typically raucous mood: “Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-paneled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.”
Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were regular and friendly sparring partners in diverse forums, and one encounter produced this from Chesterton: “Shaw’s misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see the truth; the latter is often content that truth is there.” Chesterton was much impressed by the thereness of things, and it had everything to do with his becoming a Catholic. Before his conversion, he wrote to an Anglican friend: “As you may possibly guess, I want to consider my position about the biggest thing of all, whether I am to be inside it or outside it. I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks so silly, standing all by itself in a field.”
Later, he would write his mother to explain his conversion: “I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honor and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals; but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think . . . that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity.” Immediately after Chesterton’s reception into the Church, Belloc wrote him about his own reasons for being Catholic. The words of Belloc are, in tone and substance, surely Chestertonian: “And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood, not a conclusion. My conclusion-and that of all men who have ever once seen it—is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”
A Good Argument
Today such sentiments might grate against ecumenical sensibilities. As a faithful son of the Church, Chesterton, and I suppose Belloc, would have gone along with the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council which recognizes that, while the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, there are many beyond its boundaries who are, whether they know it or not, “truly but imperfectly in communion” with the Catholic Church. At the same time, I expect he would be impatient with styles of ecumenism that are reduced to niceness and take the edge off “the one fighting form of Christianity.” Not that Chesterton was a quarrelsome person. On the contrary, all testify to his civility and affability in the many disputes he relished. The trouble with a quarrel, he said, is that it interrupts a good argument.
A good argument must be about truth, and ecumenism that is more about negotiating differences than about discovering the truth is not very interesting. I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who writes that our disputing ancestors “were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.” Also, the alternatives to Catholicism that Chesterton knew were the Church of England and the Methodist chapel, anodyne forms of the faith unsuited to his spirited mind and soul. Were he an American, he might have found his fighting form of the faith in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Missouri Synod Lutheranism. But there the fights are about such a small and selective part of all the truths in the world. So still today it would likely be the case that Chesterton could settle for nothing less than the capacious trysting place and company of combat that is the Catholic Church.
While he said that tradition is the democracy of the dead, he did not have any use for democratic governance in the Church. The Church is about truth, and truth is necessarily hierarchical. It is a very different matter in the civil realm. There Chesterton was a great democrat, but he didn’t think much of the way democracy worked in aristocracy-ridden England. The problem, he said, is that, while the people get to vote, they don’t get to pose the questions to be voted on. If things continue as they are, “There will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing them blindfold—and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.”
As the chief voice of the Distributist League, GKC advocated, with wavering energies throughout his life, an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He understood himself to be in line with Catholic social teaching, specifically the teaching of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and tried to be definite about the kind of capitalism that must be opposed. “When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.’“ He recognized that “capitalism” can mean many different things. “Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas Aquinas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless.”
The ideas of economic distributism were never thoroughly developed, and perhaps could not be. But he relentlessly insisted that there had to be a better way in which ordinary people could take charge of their life and property, or, in the language of contemporary Catholic social teaching, be “the artisans of their own destiny.” The impulse of distributism, one might suggest, is to work out more fully the economic implications of the doctrine of subsidiarity-or as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus puts it, “the subjectivity of society.” Today’s admirers of Chesterton who are also proponents of democratic capitalism tend to forgive him his economic views. In fact, those views may not be so distant as many think from what is rightly affirmed in today’s capitalism, which is notably distant from what Chesterton meant by the term.
No League of Tribes
Another and more serious obstacle to the appreciation of Chesterton is his alleged anti-Semitism. Joseph Pearce’s forthright treatment of that charge should put it to rest once and for all. Chesterton shared conventional English prejudices about Jewish influence, prejudices which today would be called anti-Semitic. This was exacerbated early on in life when a Jewish financier brought a lawsuit that entangled his family and friends in considerable unpleasantness. But, as a prominent rabbi wrote upon Chesterton’s death, “When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!”
Long before anyone could know the unspeakable horror to which it would lead, GKC was appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, and particularly by their anti-Semitism. In 1933 he wrote that a measure of nationalism, understood as patriotism, can be a good thing. “But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood. . . . You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues—not to mention frontiers.” He was among the first to perceive the connections between racial theory, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the tribal impulse toward Lebensraum. He did not live to see his perception confirmed by World War II and the Holocaust.
Today it is often forgotten how very respectable were eugenics and related racial theories at the beginning of the century. In 1913, Chesterton vigorously attacked the Mental Deficiency Act, which had the strong support of the Church of England. The public committee advocating its passage was headed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a spokesman on behalf of the Christian case for eugenics, and he proposed: “Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society. . . . When religious people realize that, in preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish.” Chesterton recoiled with all his being from the notion of a eugenic society, spiritual or otherwise.
On these questions, too, his Catholic spirit was brought to bear. He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the Protestant and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“ Near the end of his life, he responded to a letter writer who brought a long list of charges against the Catholic Church, including its tolerance of a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other disreputable types who hang on to its fringes. True enough, says Chesterton, and an interesting fact it is. “They cannot get the Church’s Sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by. . . . If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them Absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or Pagan . . . that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.”
David Fagerberg and I were both Lutherans who later entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Unlike Fagerberg, I was not conscious of Chesterton being a major influence in that decision, but perhaps he was by my side on the journey more than I realized. Certainly I look forward to good conversation with him in that inn at the end of the road, over a steak, a pint of ale, and a fine cigar. But, for the purposes of this preliminary reflection, let me leave it to Mr. Fagerberg: “Chesterton said saints are medicines because they are antidotes, claiming the saint restores the world to sanity by exaggerating what the world neglects. Chesterton was this author’s antidote: the one who exaggerated things which had been neglected. . . . He can feel like a walking overstatement to someone who does not need the elixir, but to someone who does, he is an exact dosage. I have not written this for the purpose that it necessarily have the same effect on anyone else, only to repay my own debt by honoring a friend.” Chesterton is a very good friend to have in the communion of sinners made saints.
Proposing Democracy Anew—Part Two
Last month I discussed what I called the first proposition in rethinking and renewing democracy for the century ahead: The sovereignty of the democratic state is answerable to a higher sovereignty. A second proposition is this: In a democratic society, we live under several, and sometimes conflicting, sovereignties. In a democratic society there is an ongoing debate over the truths about the human person and human community on which democracy rests. These include the “self-evident truths” alluded to in the Declaration of Independence, truths about persons created equal and endowed by God with certain inalienable rights. The rich Christologically-based anthropology contained in, for instance, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus can make an invaluable contribution in fleshing out and giving a more secure foundation to the constituting truths of the democratic order. That anthropology is not just for the “domestic consumption” of Christians. As with all Christian truth, it is genuinely public in character, and we must work at communicating it in ways not confined to the sphere marked “religion.” In the century ahead, that is an imperative task for those who have confidently internalized the teaching of the Church.
Abraham Kuyper, an early-twentieth-century Dutch Calvinist theologian and politician, wrote insightfully about “spheres of sovereignty.” Closely connected to certain understandings of natural law, the concept of spheres of sovereignty derives from an awareness that there is inherent in the nature of human beings and societies certain functions that have their own integrity, and that integrity—or sovereignty—must be respected. Thus, for example, family, economic life, politics, and of course the life of faith have their own “spheres,” and the course of justice is to coordinate these spheres in the service of the common good. As a good Calvinist, Kuyper insisted that what is true of nature is reinforced also by the mandates of revelation. Also as a good Calvinist, he had a keen appreciation of the catastrophe of the world’s fall into sin, and the consequences of that for what we call nature. One consequence is that spheres intended to be coordinated are all too often in conflict with one another. Although it seems that John Paul II never read Abraham Kuyper, there is a striking similarity—allowing for Calvinist and Catholic differences on the consequences of sin—between Kuyper’s “spheres of sovereignty” and the argument that Centesimus Annus makes about “the subjectivity of society.” I will come back to that.
A third proposition: The problems of democracy are inherent in democracy. In the “new democracies” of post-Communist Europe, many express discouragement and disillusionment that, after a decade and more, they are still wrestling with the problems of democracy. In America, we are wrestling with those problems after more than two centuries of our constitutional order. The difficult relationship between moral truth and democratic politics is built into democracy. The difficulties are not necessarily the result of ill-will on the part of any parties or institutions. The modern democratic state, like all modern states, has an insatiable appetite to encompass the whole of social reality, including religion. What we might call the totalitarian impulse did not die with Nazism or communism. The state, often driven by good intentions, is always tempted to turn itself, in effect, into a church, with the result that it views the claims of religion as an intolerable limit upon its effectiveness. This may be particularly the case in America.
Many observers have noted that America is a profoundly “moralistic” nation. As we have frequently had occasion to note, the incidence of religious belief and action in the United States is much higher than in other developed democratic societies. There is always the danger that this moralistic and religious dynamic can be captured by a “civil religion” that is in service to the state. Against that danger, religious communities must cultivate their own life in a way that is relentlessly independent of both a generalized “civil religion” and the ambitions of the state.
Making Do Short of the Kingdom
A fourth proposition is this: Democracy is and always will be unsatisfactory. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying that “democracy is the worst system of government known to man, except for all the others that have been tried.” That is not everything that can be said for democracy, but it is a not unimportant thing to be said. For the Christian, and indeed for every human being who aspires to live in the truth, the only satisfactory order is the Kingdom of God promised in the eschatological consummation of history. All our politics, including democratic politics, is, at most, penultimate. The state functions in the sphere of the penultimate. The church points to and anticipates the ultimate, the Kingdom of God. Christians live in both spheres and therefore are, in the words of the second century Letter to Diognetus, “resident aliens” in any earthly city.
Although all are unsatisfactory, all orderings of the earthly city are not equal. Democracy is a relative good, but it is superior to other orders because: 1) it is the form of government that, under the conditions of modernity, best accommodates the Christian understanding of human dignity; 2) it best fosters and protects the exercise of basic human rights; 3) it provides an enlarged sphere for the exercise of personal responsibility and the pursuit of the common good; 4) in its economic dimension, it best accords with human creativity and approximate justice; and, most important, 5) it is institutionally open to the future, including the ultimate future that is the Kingdom of God. On the last point, there is a great advantage in a political system that is transparently conducted by, and held accountable to, distinctly ungodlike human beings who freely avail themselves of their freedom to air their discontents with the system. This is a valuable prophylactic against the temptation to deify democracy or mistake it for the Kingdom of God.
The fifth proposition: Democracy is more than democratic institutions. Institutions—such as elections, representative legislatures, a disinterested judiciary, and a free press—are necessary but not sufficient conditions of democracy. Recall again Aristotle’s understanding of politics as free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? For Aristotle, politics and ethics are not separate subjects. The word “ought” in the definition indicates that politics is necessarily a moral enterprise. Morality is not an intrusion upon democratic politics, it is the very heart of democratic politics. The controlling terms of politics—e.g., justice, equal respect, fairness, the common good—are all moral terms.
For the people to freely deliberate the ordering of their lives together, there must be different communities of deliberation, some determinedly independent from the political order itself. Chief among the latter is the church. This is why Alexis de Tocqueville said that, in American democracy, religion is “the first political institution.” It is in the communities of religion that people learn the habits and arts of life together. Even those who do not go to church draw their moral categories and sensibilities, whether they know it or not, from religion. It is the church that bears, transmits, and publicly disseminates what might be called “the commanding moral truths” by which public deliberation is conducted. As Centesimus Annus insists, this does not mean that the Christian message is an ideology, nor that the church becomes one political player among others. The church’s part is to provide the independent space that is the moral ambiance within which the commanding truths are nurtured and transmitted, and from which its members can give those truths effective public expression. Sometimes this requires the uncompromising assertion of moral truths which the state violates at the peril of calling into question its own legitimacy. (On the last score, questions such as abortion and euthanasia are urgently pertinent.)
Majorities, Minorities, and What Makes Real Law
The sixth proposition: Democracy is more than majority rule. Of course democracy is majority rule, through representative means and within constitutional limits. In the United States it is commonly said that the purpose of the Constitution is to prevent the majority from violating the rights of the minority, and there is truth in that. The prior truth is that the Constitution is to facilitate the rule of the majority, which is an indispensable part of democracy. These two truths are not in conflict. The rights protected by, for instance, the first ten amendments to the Constitution which we call the Bill of Rights belong to both the majority and the minority. If the majority does not support such rights, they become, in the fine phrase of James Madison, no more than “parchment barriers” against tyranny. In American political discourse, we have fallen into the sloppy habit of pitting the Constitution against the will of a majority of the people. It is also a dangerous habit, since it undermines the support of the majority for the constitutional order. Majority rule does not mean that everything is up for a vote. Things that are not up for a vote include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other basic civil rights that make democratic politics possible and morally worthy. On the other hand, it is possible that a people could democratically vote to repeal the protection of basic rights. At that point a democracy would cease to be a democracy.
The possibility of democracy’s democratic self-destruction reminds us again that democracy requires more than the institutions of democracy. One might argue that Weimar Germany possessed elegantly constructed democratic institutions. What it lacked was a public moral culture that held politics accountable to the higher standards, and ultimately to the higher sovereignty, without which freedom cannot be sustained. I would suggest this as a maxim: Politics is in largest part the function of culture, and at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion. When this maxim is forgotten, democracy understood as majority rule results in the death of democracy.
The seventh proposition: Democracy presupposes that the legitimacy of positive law depends upon its compatibility with moral law. This is an argument set forth with great persuasive force in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). In contemporary democracies, very much including the U.S., it is commonly said that “morality cannot be legislated.” In fact, the opposite is the case. Morality is the only thing that can be legislated. All political questions of importance are moral questions. We prohibit murder, theft, defamation of character, and false advertising; we regulate employment practices and other matters in the interest of the common good. Whatever vocabulary is used in explaining such measures, we undertake them because they are deemed to be right and in order to prevent what we deem to be wrong. “Right” and “wrong” are inescapably moral categories. The question is not whether but how we legislate morality. In this representative democracy, we legislate morality democratically. At least that is the way it is supposed to work.
(Next month the third and final part of “Democracy Proposed Anew” takes up what is meant by “the limited state,” why Christians should not want a “confessional state,” and the ways in which “tolerance” is and is not a virtue.)
While We’re At It
• “Forty-five minutes is really not much time to explore the religious convictions of a man who wants to be the leader of the world’s most powerful nation—and who is also as publicly reserved as Vice President Al Gore. But the seven religion reporters who met with Mr. Gore yesterday at the White House did their best.” So writes Peter Steinfels of the New York Times, who was impressed that in the course of the exchange Gore mentioned thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “To hear the name ‘Merleau-Ponty’ trip off the tongue of a major American politician is surely extraordinary,” observes Steinfels. “Whether it is a qualification to be President is an entirely different matter.” Gore told the reporters that leaders have been trapped in a “dead-end debate” on church-state questions, faced with the false choice between “hollow secularism or right-wing religion.” Steinfels asks, “Is it worth noting what has been frequently noted before—that the private Mr. Gore, unlike the public image, was animated, intellectually serious but not solemn, and more than occasionally spontaneous?” Why not? His boosters apparently believe it cannot be said too often. Steinfels does not say whether the reporters explored why Southern Baptist Gore, like the Southern Baptist he hopes to succeed, is totally at odds with his church on, for instance, protecting the unborn and school choice. Nor is there reference to the theo-philosophical flights of ecological fancy in Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance. But Mr. Steinfels may be right in saying that the reporters did their best.
• Cynthia Weber, professor of political science at Purdue, is at the forefront of “queer theory,” which presents itself as among the hottest of hot new academic disciplines. Her latest book is called Faking It: U.S. Hegemony in a “Post-Phallic” Era (University of Minnesota Press). She writes: “This is the United States as I see it today—a white headless body of indecipherable sex and gender cloaked in the flag and daggered with a queer dildo harnessed to its midsection.” Given the fix she thinks the country’s in, faking it is no little achievement.
• Steven D. Smith’s pungent and persuasive book on the Religion Clause of the First Amendment is now out in paperback. Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (Oxford University Press) makes the argument that the quest for a “principle” of religious freedom or religious nonestablishment was the farthest thing from the minds of the Framers. The purpose of the Religion Clause, says Smith, was entirely jurisdictional, to assure the states that the national government would not interfere with whatever they did or didn’t do with respect to religion. That, I believe, overstates (or understates) the matter. The writings of the Framers make clear that at least some of them definitely had principles in mind. In addition, Smith, professor of law at Notre Dame and contributor to these pages, contends that religious freedom today would likely flourish more fully if the courts stepped back from the subject and let the political process work as the Constitution intended. Here too, the judicial usurpation of politics has wreaked havoc over the last forty years, as judges have repeatedly and arrogantly assumed that the people and their elected representatives are incapable of self-government. The arrogance is not in believing that the political process will sometimes make a mess of things, which it certainly does, but in the assumption of judges that they have the right and the competence to replace that process. The Constitution leaves no doubt that they do not have the right, and forty years of conflicted and contradictory church-state jurisprudence demonstrates that they do not have the competence. Foreordained Failure is required reading for those who would understand the legal and political questions swirling about religious freedom in America.
• Writing books and reviews about humor is often a humorless business. That is not true of Peter Berger’s Redeeming Laughter which was discussed in this space (December 1997), but there does seem to be a humorless snag in the review of the book by Wesley Kort of Duke University in Theology Today. Or maybe I just don’t get it. Kort complains, “Berger is deliberate in his use of ‘man’ to indicate human beings. Such a usage implies one of two things: either the user asks to be included among those who for so long used that term as inclusive of both genders, or the user is excluding women. I chose to read ‘man’ in the second way, as not including women.” Maybe the humorous jujitsu is that Berger is being inclusive by using exclusive language, meaning that he wants to be included among those who use “man” in an inclusive way. In addition, Kort’s choosing is put in the past tense, indicating perhaps that this is his long-standing position, or simply that he read Berger’s intention to be the exclusion of women, which is an ungenerous reading of Berger. Or maybe there is a joke hiding in Mr. Kort’s curious locution. I’m thinking about it.
• The formidable Thomas Sowell has now completed his “international history” with the publication of Conquests and Cultures (Basic, 493 pages,, $35
), the first two volumes being Race and Culture (1994) and Migrations and Cultures (1996). It is an astonishing achievement. Some are amazed at how much Sowell is able to write; I am amazed at how much he is able to read. The copious footnotes in this volume, as in the earlier volumes, provide a bibliography of almost everything that has been written about the human condition, or so it seems. “Clear your mind of cant,” enjoined the great Dr. Johnson, and Sowell helps the reader do just that. Which means that in our cant-sated culture Thomas Sowell has no choice but to be something of a contrarian. Every self-serving slogan and amiable cliché is challenged by his clear-headed and unsentimental attentiveness to what actually happened in history: Who did what to whom and why, and with what consequences. Sowell’s reach encompasses all continents and cultures, and, far from shying away from the hot questions, he positively relishes taking on the controversial matters of race, ethnicity, colonialism, and the dynamics that give some peoples an advantage over others. Those who are devoted to multiculturalism, rightly understood, should be champions of Thomas Sowell. Regrettably, what usually passes for multiculturalism today is anything but. While the idea of culture is key to Sowell’s ambitious enterprise, the idea itself is not clearly defined. I suspect the reason for that is related to his weak treatment of religion, the chief and defining component of culture (as in “cultus”). Sowell is respectful of religion, and one gets the impression that he knows it is more important than he makes explicit. The references to religion are sporadic and in passing, almost suggesting at times that it is epiphenomenal among the forces that shape history. As a result, Conquests and Cultures, like the earlier volumes, seldom “gets into the mind” of the peoples discussed; we are given little help in seeing how they understood themselves and others, their obligations, aspirations, and hopes beyond mortality. Sowell sticks to what can be known most clearly from written texts and other evidences, preferably of the kind that can be counted. His disinclination to speculate is both strength and weakness in this project. Center stage are the economic, technological, and, to a lesser extent, political indicators of rise and fall, progress and regress. So this trilogy is not the final word on how the world got to be in the shape it is. Such a final word is an eschatological concept. Meanwhile, Sowell has provided a marvelously bracing, informative, and lucid account of world history, for which we should be grateful. (Interested readers might well begin with the third volume, which includes a helpful summary of, and invitation to, the earlier volumes.)
• A while back, a study by the Institute for American Values on the presentation of marriage and sexuality in high school textbooks was mentioned in this space. One of the principal findings of the study was a dull fixation on health rather than moral content. Perhaps not remarkably, a study by the American Textbook Council on the presentation of religion in high school textbooks has found the exact same problem. The study, called Learning About Religion, Learning From Religion, comments that the texts “reflect a modern, hygienic view of spiritual welfare, an ontological outlook vested in support groups and stress reduction, whereby religion is reduced to a ‘support group,’ perhaps one of use for young people who are trying to ‘cope with the stressors in their lives.’ Such advice is more than vulgar: it is diminishing to the human spirit and morally corrosive in its vision.” The study offers suggestions for the improvement of the curriculum, including specific lists of books to read and themes to study. To obtain a copy of the study, write to the American Textbook Council, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 448, New York, New York 10115 ($10 each).
• “Should Clergy Hold the Priest-Penitent Privilege?” is a very persuasive article in the Marquette Law Review by Michael J. Mazza. He takes off from the 1996 case in which Father Timothy Mockaitis of Portland, Oregon, discovered that his hearing the confession of suspected murderer Conan Hale had been secretly taped by prison authorities. The Archdiocese of Portland, joined by other religious groups, petitioned to have the tape destroyed and to get a guarantee that sacramental confessions would not be recorded in the future. Turned down by a state court, they were vindicated by a federal court of appeals. Mazza argues that the court of appeals was on target with its church-state jurisprudence and concludes with this: “The contrary argument is, no doubt, often motivated by a desire to garner as much evidence as possible in order to help solve heinous crimes like the ones in Mockaitis v. Harcleroad. Nevertheless, the sanctity of the confessional or other place of religious counsel is worthy of constitutional protection. This is true not only because spiritual communications have therapeutic value, or even because wise counsel offered by caring ministers often can lead to criminals turning themselves in, but because the opportunity for confidential and cathartic confession may represent one of the last strongholds of privacy against the ever-encroaching police power of the state. It may also serve as a fitting reminder to all ministers of justice in our society that they did not author justice, and will one day be responsible for the way in which they have administered it themselves.”
• “First and foremost, we are women of faith and principle whose Christianity is founded, not on human invention, but on divinely revealed truth.” That is the promising beginning to A Christian Women’s Declaration and Study Guide, published jointly by the Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society, the Renew Network, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Prefaced by the text of the Christian Women’s Declaration itself, the booklet provides a six-session study, examining the challenges faced by American Christian women through the lens of biblical and doctrinal faithfulness. To purchase, call (202) 986-1440 or (706) 778-4812 ($6 for individual copies.)
• This year in Boca Raton, the twenty young scholars pursuing a Ph.D. in the new Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University will be breathing a little easier than their doctoral colleagues elsewhere when they think about their futures. A Ph.D. in being a public intellectual? It may not be as goofy as it sounds, reports Tom Scocca in Lingua Franca. “The goal of the program is not to accredit a new generation of George Will-style pundits; rather . . . it aims to train intellectually oriented people to go out into public life.” Sounds good, if a little fuzzy. “But beyond elevated notions of service and progress,” Scocca continues, “there is another good reason for sending Ph.D.’s out into public life: It may help get rid of them. With academic prospects in the humanities resembling dinner prospects during the great potato famine, even some skeptics are willing to give Florida Atlantic’s plans the benefit of the doubt. At best, FAU might draw doctoral candidates away from glutted disciplinary programs elsewhere; even if it doesn’t, it could provide other schools with a blueprint for workfare for budding scholars. Pointing Ph.D.’s toward the larger world may or may not help the world, but at least it will give them somewhere to go.” It has long been said that a celebrity is someone who is well known for being well known. Now an intellectual is someone with a degree that says he is an intellectual. As for its public purchase, if I understand the FAU program, it is training more for a hobby than for an occupation. That is more private than public, which may be the best way to be an intellectual.
• Readers in the market for the latest kinks in gay autobiography or what we are told is the definitive account of the U.S. government’s oppression of Chicanos might take note of this catalog from the University of Wisconsin Press. In an academic world where almost nothing surprises, the catalog is noteworthy for its pages upon pages of books without even one that a reasonable person might call a scholarly contribution to a subject of general interest. There is, for instance, Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Dahmer, it may be remembered, was “into” having sex with young men whom he then killed and had for dinner. In a blurb for the book, Chris Bull of the Washington Post says it “takes aim at the unsettling disparity of attention between murderer and murdered.” Maybe so, although it might be suggested that Dahmer’s behavior was somewhat more out of the way than that of his victims. We are further told that “Jeffrey Dahmer is not a page in the history of true crime but a Monster who serves many rhetorical and cultural functions.” He tried to do his bit.
• A new report coauthored by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the National Marriage Project notes a significant increase in the practice and public acceptance of cohabitation since the 1960s. “Today, more than four million unmarried couples in America live together, versus less than half a million in 1960. More than half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation, and a national survey of high school seniors found nearly 60 percent felt that it was a good idea to live together before marriage to ‘find out whether they really get along.’“ But does cohabitation really work to a couple’s advantage? This study found that, contrary to common opinion (but not, perhaps, to common sense), living together before marriage 1) increases the risk of divorce after marriage, 2) increases the risk of domestic violence for women and physical and sexual abuse for children, and 3) leads to lower levels of happiness and well-being than can be found among couples who did not cohabit. Because young people who have grown up in the midst of divorce want to avoid it themselves, their first instinct is not to marry at all. The irony is that living together before marriage leads to the very sorts of problems that result, in the long run, in divorce—the very outcome it was supposed to help couples avoid. For a copy of the Popenoe/Whitehead report, contact the National Marriage Project at (732) 932-2722, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• One can hardly avoid seeing the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets that sell for $9.95. The WWJD entrepreneurs have now expanded to a board game, youth leader’s kit, WWJD-CD with the top fifteen Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) artists, and much else. The Presbyterian rigorists who edit the oft-mentioned (here) Nicotine Theological Journal have had enough: “The one hopeful outcome in this latest example of evangelical profanity (after all, the Third Commandment requires the holy and reverent, not commercial, use of God’s name, title, attributes, ordinances, word, and works), is the recent word of how teens in Southern California have adapted the WWJD slogan for their own ends. Instead of using the bracelet to show that they are loyal followers of Christ, some adolescents have changed WWJD from a question into the assertion, ‘We Want Jack Daniels.’ Don’t get us wrong. Our delight in this practice does not mean that we endorse teenage drinking apart from parental supervision. The encouragement we derive from this news only extends to the humorous irony of using evangelical kitsch for something as anti-evangelical as drinking Tennessee sour mash whiskey. It also confirms our suspicion that evangelicals hardly ever understand the dynamics of the market—it giveth large numbers, but it also taketh away larger truths.”
• The link between abortion and breast cancer is one that most abortionists don’t like to discuss in public. But now they may have to. In a recent publication of the Wisconsin Law Review, law student John Kindley demonstrates that the medical evidence of the link is strong enough now to create some sticky legal problems for those reticent abortionists. Kindley writes, “The purpose of this comment is to show that the current level of scientific evidence linking induced abortion with increased breast cancer risk is sufficient to support an ethical and legal duty to disclose fully the risk to women who are considering pregnancy termination.” For a copy of the article, write to Clarke D. Forsythe, Esq., Americans United for Life, 310 S. Peoria Street, Suite 300, Chicago, Illinois 60607-3534.
• In both the ditzy and malicious departments, Maureen Dowd of the Times is proving herself a worthy successor to Anna Quindlen. (The latter, incidentally, has replaced the more serious Meg Greenfield as regular columnist for Newsweek.) During the impeachment squalor, Dowd earned the top Bottom Feeder Award with a column alleging that Kenneth Starr—who, she noted, sings hymns while jogging and “still reads the Bible”—gathered details on Ms. Lewinsky’s servicing of the President for reasons of his own sexual titillation. Now in “The God Squad” she goes after politicians, led by Congressman Tom DeLay (“the Torquemada from Texas”), who say religion should not be excluded from the classroom. “Faith is an intensely personal matter,” writes Dowd. “It should not be treated as a credential or reduced to a sound bite. History teaches that when religion is injected into politics—the Crusades, Henry VIII, Salem, Father Coughlin, Hitler, Kosovo—disaster follows.” That sound bite on what history teaches raises questions about who taught her history. The inclusion of Hitler is a nice touch, and one might have thought that-if one must use such simplistic formulas-with Henry VIII, who declared himself the supreme head of the Church, it was more a matter of injecting politics into religion. “Politicians,” she writes, “are rushing to take God’s name in vain (thereby violating commandment No. 3).” Without making too much of it, one notes the curiosity that Ms. Dowd, a Catholic, employs the Protestant numbering of the commandments. On much more serious scores, she appears to be unhinged from both her faith and the protocols of decency as, aided by blithe ignorance, she vies for the title of nastiest pundit in today’s prestige media. (One may be sure that Frank Rich will not give it up without a fierce snit.) It is very sad, for Ms. Dowd is manifestly not without a certain talent.
• Little slips by gimlet-eyed Father Robert F. Drinan of Georgetown University Law Center. It has come to his attention that Thomas Monaghan of Domino’s Pizza fame is launching a new law school called Ave Maria. Monaghan sent out press releases to announce the fact. Writing for the National Catholic Reporter in the highest tradition of investigative reporting, Fr. Drinan says: “I spoke also with Monaghan’s top aide. He was sanguine but not willing to expand on the objectives of the school beyond the flattering press release. When I suggested that the announcement hinted at criticism of existing Catholic schools, he backed away without disputing my assertion.” Note that the press release was “flattering.” Sinister fellow that he is, Monaghan is clearly trying to put a positive spin on this new venture. But of particular interest is the way in which the “top aide” backed away from Drinan’s suggestion that turns out to be an assertion. Clearly, the fellow is trying to hide something, but the relentless Fr. Drinan is not going to let him get away with it. The new school will, he writes, “be self-righteous.” “It will mock other law schools as too secularized and, in essence, unfaithful to the Magisterium.” He continues: “At the risk of rising to the bait in a premature way, let me talk about Catholicism at Georgetown University Law Center.” He could have waited to rise to the bait, but that’s not Fr. Drinan’s way. Georgetown, he notes, has Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplaincies and “has three full-time Jesuit lawyers on its faculty.” You can hardly get more Catholic than that. Yet there is more: there is “a beautiful chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is preserved.” “Preserved” from where or when Fr. Drinan does not say. “It would be nice,” he observes, “if Catholic legal educators could welcome Ave Maria to their ranks. That will not happen.” He will help to make sure that doesn’t happen. He notes the new school will have to get accreditation, and adds, “It will not be easy.” If it sounds like he is being excessively prejudgmental, it is only because he knows what is going to happen. “Ave Maria will be a ‘holier than thou’ institution that will deride the competition and seek to buy talent with money from its billionaire patron.” Fr. Drinan does not distract the reader from his point by mentioning that the $50 million Mr. Monaghan put up is but a pittance compared with the funds available to, for instance, Georgetown. Tough though he is, Fr. Drinan allows that there may be another side to the story: “On the other hand, perhaps we can hope that the Ave Maria School of Law will be a reminder to all persons engaged in Catholic higher education that a heavier emphasis on religious values can always be useful.” It is not very likely, but perhaps we can hope that. Anyway, religious values can always be useful. For something. That may seem like a somewhat limp admission, but it is in fact a trumpet-blast of daringly undaunted Catholic fidelity when it comes from one who is a champion of higher education in, as they say, “the Jesuit tradition.”
• Ready or not, there is this new word: webzine. A webzine is something like a magazine, except, not surprisingly, it only appears in digital form on the World Wide Web, not on paper. A fine example of this new phenomenon is Boundless Webzine, a publication of Focus on the Family dedicated to illuminating the boundless possibilities for Christian college students. Its weekly articles cover everything from pop culture and relationships to the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the faith, featuring such notable writers as FT’s J. Budziszewski and Sarah E. Hinlicky. To see the webzine, visit the site at www.boundless.org.
• Reviewing two new books on the Balkans in the Times Literary Supplement, Professor Charles King of Georgetown University arrives at a grim conclusion: “Despite the rhetoric from Washington, Yugoslavia is not, or at least was not, a totalitarian state. The massive street demonstrations in the winter of 1996-7, organized by the opposition Zajedno coalition, were an impressive call for genuine democracy, but they failed as much because of the lukewarm response from the West as because of infighting among the coalition’s constituents. It is not only immoral but also simply wrong to think of the struggling pro-democracy groups in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Podgorica, and elsewhere as stooges of the Milosevic regime or, as recent editorials in the United States have suggested, Serb versions of Hitler’s willing executioners. After being ignored by the international community, bullied by Milosevic, and now bombed by NATO, it is a wonder that the forces of democratic change in Yugoslavia have managed to survive at all. Milosevic’s Yugoslavia is now closer than ever to becoming in reality the kleptocratic dictatorship that American observers long assumed it was. The problem with writing poetry, Dr. Johnson said, is to know when you have done it well. The same could be said of the West’s interventions in the former Yugoslavia. For nearly a decade now, the outcomes of international policy in the region have consistently been at odds with the professed goals of involvement. By ignoring the complexities of internal politics in both Bosnia and Serbia, Western governments continue to craft policies, both wildly ill-informed and, increasingly, profoundly perverse—partitioning Bosnia in order to preserve it, destroying the Yugoslav economy in order to build democracy, and now, killing Albanians in order to save them.”
• I was teaching in Krakow, Poland, at the time, but CNN and BBC immediately went into nonstop low treacly mode about a nation in mourning, and on and on. When I got back I learned that it had been even worse than I thought, with the media emetic applied full force to produce an American version of Britain’s emotional breakdown over Princess Di. “He was our closest equivalent to Princess Diana, a comparison that his sudden loss will now make inescapable,” wrote Kenneth Auchincloss in Newsweek. It was hardly inescapable; just irresistible to unimaginative journalists who have been ideologically milking the Kennedy myth for decades. Now, said Today’s cohost Katie Couric, “Caroline remains our only link to those golden years.” Perhaps the headline over the eight-page cover story in Time wins the mawkishness prize: “He Was America’s Prince. An Icon of Both Magic and Grief Who Flew His Own Course to the Lost Horizon.” Then there were the endless sobshots of people laying flowers at the New York apartment, turning it into what looked much like a Hindu-American shrine to celebrityhood. “I felt like he was a brother to me,” said one devotee after another. Don’t these people have brothers? Don’t they have a life of their own? My apologies if I sound curmudgeonly, but there’s something deeply wrong here. Only once did I really meet John F. Kennedy, Jr. That was over a lunch at the Century Club arranged by a mutual friend. We talked at great length about politics, culture, publishing, and what it means to be a Catholic Christian, among other things. Everybody remarked his striking good looks, and there was that, but I was greatly impressed by his gentleness, and by the grace with which he was trying to understand his part in an extraordinarily complex mix of family history and public expectations. I liked him very much. As E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post sensibly observed, part of the sadness of his death is that he did not live long enough to demonstrate that he was more than an object to be exploited by political partisans and the celebrity-mongering media. He was not, and I do not think he wanted to be, “America’s Prince.” He was a personable and moderately gifted young man caught in a life circumstance where it was hard to tell the difference between advantage and burden. The appropriate response is to pray for the families in their loss, and to let John F. Kennedy, Jr. go, in the hope that he is now where he need not prove to anyone who he is.
• The Houston Catholic Worker runs pages of letters of the keep-up-the-good-work kind. Or, as a priest from Connecticut puts it, “Thanks for all your wonderful work and BEING!” The editors seem wondrously unembarrassed in amplifying the singing of their praises. I really liked the letter from a reader who says, “I had never heard of Michael Novak before I read your article. His ideas show what could happen to gospel truths when they are used to serve the interests of large multinational corporations.” Thus is the reader spared the trouble of reading Michael Novak. Who, by the way, writes a most irenic letter to the editors, pleading with them to consider whether they have been entirely fair to his arguments. To which the editors respond—in a spirit most unlike that of Dorothy Day whom they routinely invoke: “We pray that we might find something in common with you besides loathing communism. We are still searching.” How about Christ? The Church? An interest in truthful discourse? No, scratch the last one.
• In the August/September issue I said that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had removed pedophilia from its official list of disorders. A number of readers have noted that that is not quite accurate. Pedophilia has not been removed but redefined. It is now only a disorder if the pedophile is distressed by his condition or disabled in his work or social relationships. It is not a disorder in the case of the “psychologically normal” (even if immoral and criminal) child molester. It is possible that some readers may be reassured by this correction. (A short article, “The Problem of Pedophilia,” is a fine overview of this question and is available from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, 16633 Ventura Blvd., Suite 1340, Encino, California 91436, or their website, www.narth.com.)
• The bill may eventually make it out of committee and get passed, but already the Defense of Marriage Act—condemned by opponents as maliciously “homophobic”—has sent shock waves through Massachusetts where it is supported by a remarkably broad array of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, including the black ministerial alliance, brought together by Matt Daniels of the Massachusetts Family Institute. Writing in the Weekly Standard, David Orgon Coolidge comments on the testimony of Jan Platner, head of the state ACLU, at committee hearings: “‘The Defense of Marriage Act,’ Platner asserted, is an ‘inappropriate, ill-advised, and gratuitous’ invasion of that ‘most sacred space where we exercise our choice of partner and family.’ This seemed a slightly odd claim, since marriage is a public status, not a private act. And I was struck by the term ‘sacred space.’ It was then that I began to catch on. What we do with our bodies—this is the ‘sacred space’ to which she referred. In this sacred space, not only must we be allowed to act privately, but our private choices must be publicly affirmed. Otherwise, what we do in private is merely private—and thereby ‘marginalized’ or ‘stigmatized.’ Our sacred choices must receive public endorsement. Liberty becomes the right to do whatever one wants with one’s body. Equality becomes the imperative to treat all sacred choices as equally valuable.”
• Of course columnists tend to be partisan. Nothing wrong with that. But most keep at least a loose leash on the propensity for fawning. Not David Nyhan of the Boston Globe, who used the occasion of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. for an effusion on “Ted Kennedy’s Big Shoulders.” After supporting the family through another ordeal, we are told, the Senator will “be back at the same old stand. Put it all together, and that’s how Teddy copes: faith, family, and fighting the good fight for the underdog.” A different canine metaphor is evoked by Mr. Nyhan’s adulation. Of particular interest is this: “Frequent Mass, personal relationships with forward-looking clerics, constant alignment of political goals with religious teaching, all these anchor Teddy firmly in the safe harbor first constructed for the little boy by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a Catholic to the core.” “Frequent” does not quite catch the Mass obligation freely assumed by Catholics. “Forward-looking clerics,” being translated, means clerics looking back to the “revolution of Vatican II” that was not to be. And as for the Senator’s politics being aligned with “religious teaching,” perhaps so, if Mr. Nyhan has in mind some religion other than Catholicism. The Massachusetts congressional delegation, led by Senator Kennedy, has ten Catholics, eight of whom are consistent supporters of the unlimited abortion license. In implementing the 1998 statement of the U.S. bishops, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” the bishops of Massachusetts have an unenviable task. With persistence and courage enough, perhaps one day the unborn child will in the politics of Massachusetts be elevated to the status of underdog.
• “From the Hunter’s Net” is a remarkable fifty-six-page Jewish-Christian dialogue on partial-birth abortion between Dr. Mary Nicholas and novelist and playwright Sandi Merle. The answer to the question of whether anything new can be said on this subject and its necessary connection with the larger issue of the Roe v. Wade abortion license is definitely yes. $5 ($3 each for ten or more), postage and handling included, from the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, 215 Lexington Avenue, Fourth Floor, New York, New York 10016.
• Peter Steinfels, whose journalism typically brings a touch of distinction to an undistinguished profession, writes about the recent meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America at which Father Avery Dulles, no stranger to our readers, engaged in an exchange with Fr. Richard McCormick, a sometime dissenter, on what is meant by the development of doctrine. The touch of distinction is diminished, unfortunately, by the cheap shot that “Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s custodian of doctrinal orthodoxy, has practically declared war on the Church’s theologians for some years now.” Really? Ratzinger, a distinguished theologian in his own right, is prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job it is to assure that what is advertised as Catholic teaching is in fact Catholic teaching. In the almost twenty years that he has been prefect, the number of theologians who have been even mildly censured can be counted on one’s fingers. This in a church of more than a billion members with tens of thousands of theologians publishing as many books and articles every year. Some war. Steinfels asks, “But what does it mean for a church when high officials perceive those trained to explicate the faith as, in fact, prime threats to it?” And he answers his own question, “It is rather like an airline that accuses its pilots of deliberately trying to crash the planes.” One might venture the response that what it means for a church to be concerned about heresy is that it is a church concerned about orthodoxy. As for the pilot metaphor, what should an airline do when a good many of its pilots publicly announce their intention to crash the plane, as a good many theologians publicly announce their opposition to aspects of the faith as authoritatively taught by the Church? But of course pilots and airplanes are the wrong metaphor. The more venerable metaphor, although it may rub against current sensibilities, is that of the flock and the shepherd. The shepherds, who are sacramentally charged and graced to “explicate the faith,” are the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Theologians are “trained” to assist the bishops in that task. To be sure, faithful theologians may sometimes offer assistance that is not welcome, when, for instance, they engage in scholarly exploration of questions that some bishops would prefer not to think about. A great deal of patience and forbearance is required all around. But when, as in Mr. Steinfels’ depiction, academic training and expertise are separated from sacramental order and charism, when bishops are reduced to the role of company management with academic theologians in the pilot’s seat, something very important in our understanding of church and theology has already crashed.
• Monique Dostie, a Catholic, runs the Jaricot Foster Home for mentally retarded adults in Lewiston, Maine. The state Department of Human Services is revoking her license because she does not allow pornography or sexual activity in the home. The guardians of the three residents chose the home because they agree with the policy. The residents have not asked for sex or pornography. According to what it says here, a representative of an association of group homes who supports revoking her license explains that Ms. Dostie’s policy “could lead to an increase in deviant behavior as her residents seek ways to increase gratification.” If I understand the argument, it is necessary to allow pornography and fornication in order to discourage pornography and fornication. Now that is deviant.
• In November the National Council of Churches observes its fiftieth anniversary in Cleveland where it held its founding convention. The event is called a celebration but it is as muted and ambiguous a celebration as that of NATO’s fiftieth in the midst of its deadly miscalculation in Yugoslavia. Since the late seventies, the NCC has fallen on very hard times. For one thing, it has long since ceased to be ecumenical, the purpose for which it was established, since it became an institutionalized enclave for hard-shell Protestant liberalism. That is no doubt a consequence of its enfeebled affirmation of the core truths that constitute gospel and Church. That enfeeblement is evident in the priorities of the Cleveland meeting. In the program, fifteen forums are devoted to “sustaining the environment,” “transforming our society,” and “shaping our culture,” while only one (theology and ecumenism) is listed under “equipping the saints.” Justice for women, racism, inclusiveness, and what is called “the crisis in health care” compose an agenda that some might find hard to distinguish from that of a left-wing caucus of the Democratic Party. I was struck also by a forum on “Ending Poverty as We Know It at Home and Around the World.” One finds less than compelling the prospect of poverty as we have not known it. At Cleveland former UN ambassador, former Congressman, former mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young will be installed as NCC president. Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Capetown, and Louis Stokes, former Ohio Congressman, will speak. The former NCC of, say, forty years ago was not so very former. Heading the list of “distinguished guests,” however, is Marian Wright Edelman, who is presently the president of the Children’s Defense Fund. While the program includes a time slot for “denominational dinners,” notably absent from the announced program are denominational leaders. That may reflect the continuing disengagement of oldline churches from the NCC or simply that today, unlike 1950, there is a name-recognition problem with their leaders. While the ecumenical gathering excludes evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics are not entirely neglected. It says here that Mr. Young will be installed at the Catholic cathedral. That will be followed by a “festive banquet” with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is anything but former, as the featured speaker. It does not say whether he will address the theme of the Cleveland meeting, “Unity in Christ: Gift and Calling.” The announcement points out that the Cleveland gathering is “coinciding with a global millennial moment.” With respect to the great challenge of Christian mission and unity in the next millennium, one might observe that it is very coincidental. Nonetheless, one wishes the NCC the best, or at least better than the NCC as we know it.
• Since the fourth century, the Holy See (commonly, if somewhat inaccurately, called the Vatican) has had formal diplomatic relations with many nations. Today it is a Permanent Observer in the United Nations, a status it shares with Switzerland. This means it can participate and vote in international conferences and can participate, but not vote, in the General Assembly. In April, Catholics for a Free Choice, a letterhead organization funded by Ford and other foundations to oppose the Catholic Church on population questions, initiated an appeal to Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, to rescind the status of the Holy See. The British Broadcasting Corporation is supporting the campaign by asking its listeners to respond to the question, “Do you think the Vatican should be ousted for voicing its religious views on contraception?” Much of the response, sometimes fiercely anti-Catholic in tone, has been in the affirmative. There is little chance that the campaign will succeed, since 170 member states of the UN have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, which means they recognize it as a state entitled to its place in the UN. The obvious purpose of Catholics for a Free Choice and its allies such as Planned Parenthood is to intimidate the Holy See into muting its vigorous opposition to abortion and coercive population control. Which is an indication of how much they know about the Holy See.
• In response to a questioning reader, no, we do not intend to run an extended response to an article in the New Republic by one Michael Sean Winters, who is identified as a person who has committed other articles in the New Republic. The article is a five-page attack on neoconservatives in the guise of a review of David Schindler’s Heart of the World, Center of the Church, which book is, in turn, an attack on neoconservatives in the name of the great Hans Urs von Balthasar. “Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel are probably the three best-known Catholic intellectuals in America,” writes Mr. Winters, and they are dangerous because “the disposition to unite [Throne and Altar] burns with Metternich-like ferocity in the neoconservative breast.” He allows that “the throne of their desire happens to be a democratic polity and a capitalist economy; but theologically speaking, a state is a state, a throne is a throne, worldly power is worldly power.” Monarchy or republic, despotism or freedom, what’s the difference? According to Winters, the neocons believe that all the theological questions have been settled “and the only challenge that remains is the challenge of politics.” Never mind that the first sentence in the editorial launching the premier issue of this journal forcefully rejects such a view, asserting that the first thing to be said about religion and public life is that public life is not the first thing. Few themes in these pages have been so sustained and emphatically asserted over the years as the relativizing of politics. Apparently you don’t have to attend to what authors say when you know what burns in their breast. As for Professor Schindler’s book, Winters says it is “the most important Catholic text to be published in the United States for some time.” And it is that because it “introduces Balthasar to an American audience.” Balthasar in this reading is everything the neoconservatives are not. Again, never mind the appreciative treatment of Balthasar in these pages. Apart from its “introducing” Balthasar, however, Mr. Winters, it turns out, does not think much of the Schindler book. It is hard to read, suffers from an “inalertness to history,” and perpetuates a “crude and hoary” concept of the masculinity of men with which Mr. Winters expresses strong disagreement. (For Balthasar, Winters says, Christianity is not a moral code but “a stupendous claim about the supernatural.” He does not say why one should exclude the other, and in fact Balthasar wrote extensively on the moral life as the way of Christ.) There is perverse amusement in Mr. Winters’ cockeyed eccentricity, but his very long essay finally disserves almost every subject it touches. David Schindler’s arguments are deserving of more serious treatment. It is hardly accurate, however, to say that his recent book “introduces Balthasar to an American audience.” That tribute might fit Edward Oakes’ justly acclaimed 1994 introduction to Balthasar, Pattern of Redemption, but the truth is that a number of publishers, chiefly Ignatius Press, have been bringing out Balthasar volumes by the dozens for many years, and his influence is now comparable to that of John Paul II among those who have sensed the possibility of what one neoconservative author has called “the Catholic moment.” But enough, or else this will turn into that extended response I said we would not run. One is only left to wonder why Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of TNR, served his readers this farrago of nonsense and misinformation laced with ad hominem nastiness. There is no reason why Mr. Wieseltier, too, should be seeking attention by attacking the neoconservatives. They are, after all, not that well known.
• A new document from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) bears the title “The Gift of Authority.” The persuasively developed argument that authority in the Church should be viewed not as a problem but as a gift is itself a welcome gift. Catholic commentators, including Father Avery Dulles, have pointed out that, while the document goes a long way, it does not bite the bullet on papal authority, papal jurisdiction, and the ways in which teaching is acknowledged as authoritative (the question of the Magisterium). Some Anglicans, including Episcopalians in this country, share the view of Stephen Hampton, chaplain of Exeter College, Oxford, who claims the document is “proposing the wholesale abandoning of the Reformation.” He writes, “‘The Gift of Authority’ is incompatible with the mind of most evangelical Anglicans today. It shows an almost complete neglect of Anglicanism’s Protestant inheritance. It has serious consequences for Anglican relations with other Protestant denominations, at a time when ecumenism in that direction seems to have borne more fruit.” I believe “The Gift of Authority” is a theologically careful and spiritually rich statement that builds on the best work of the ecumenical movement, such as Faith and Order’s 1982 document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. In ecumenical dialogues, however, there is frequently a disconnect between the theologians in conversation and the doctrinal situation that prevails in the communions that they represent. Nonetheless, one cannot help but believe that statements such as “The Gift of Authority,” manifesting such intelligence, care, and devotion to the fullness of Christian truth, will one day, in ways we cannot now foresee, contribute to the reconciliation that Christ wills for his entire Church.
• The cover-up of government responsibility for the Waco killings in 1993 is rapidly unraveling, which makes this a good time to reread the groundbreaking article by the late Dean Kelley, “Waco: A Massacre and Its Aftermath,” in the May 1995 issue. Many at the time declared it the best account of those tragic events, and that judgment is now being vindicated with historical vengeance. The entire issue is available for $4.50 from FT Reader Services, 129 Phelps Avenue, Suite 312, Rockford, Illinois 61108, or may be accessed on the First Things website at old.firstthings.com.
• Hardly an issue goes by without one or more complaints that I failed to mention where a quoted item first appeared. That is why there is a “Sources” box at the end of this section.
• Now here’s something you don’t run across every day: the Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League. Founder Matt Wallace calls himself a Secular Humanist and a “Compleat Heretic,” but nonetheless has the good sense to be opposed to “the life-denying horror of abortion.” His reason? “Because life is all there is and all that matters, and abortion destroys the life of an innocent human being.” He hopes other nontheists will see the light of, well, whatever, and invites those who fit the following requirements to join the League: 1) being an avowed atheist, agnostic, or other nontheist, 2) opposing abortion and desiring its abolition, with or without exceptions, and 3) supporting nonviolence as the sole legitimate means of achieving the goals of the pro-life movement. So far, he has eight members, including himself.
We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010 (or e-mail to email@example.com). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll-free 1-800-783-4903. Sources
: Bishop Fiorenza quoted in Catholic Trends, July 24, 1999.
While We’re At It: Peter Steinfels on Al Gore and religion, New York Times, May 29, 1999. “Should Clergy Hold the Priest-Penitent Privilege?” by Michael J. Mazza in Marquette Law Review, Fall 1998. On the public intellectual Ph.D., Tom Scocca, “Going Public,” Lingua Franca, March 12, 1999. On Jeffrey Dahmer, University of Wisconsin Press, Spring 1999 catalog. On cohabitation, Rutgers News press release, January 29, 1999. On WWJD, Nicotine Journal, April 1999. Maureen Dowd on religion and politics, New York Times, June 20, 1999. Robert F. Drinan on Ave Maria Law School, National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999. Charles King on Yugoslavia, Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 1999. On JFK, Jr.: Newsweek and Time, July 26, 1999; E. J. Dionne in Washington Post, July 23, 1999; Today show, July 19, 1999. Houston Catholic Worker on Michael Novak, June/July 1999. David Orgon Coolidge on the Defense of Marriage Act, Weekly Standard, June 7, 1999. “Ted Kennedy’s Big Shoulders” by David Nyhan, Boston Globe, July 23, 1999. Peter Steinfels on the Catholic Theological Society of America, New York Times, June 19, 1999. On not having pornography, etc., in home for mentally retarded, Catholic World News, June 3, 1999. On the Holy See, contraception, and the United Nations, ZENIT news agency, June 10, 1999. David Schindler’s Heart of the World, Center of the Church reviewed by Michael Sean Winters, The New Republic, August 30, 1999. Stephen Hampton on “The Gift of Authority,” Tablet, May 22, 1999.