The Public Square
In the May issue I offered my tribute, written as he was dying, to my former bishop, John Cardinal O’Connor. He was one of the truly great men I have been privileged to know, and I owe him a personal debt of gratitude beyond measure. I will not repeat what I have already said in many other venues. May the trumpets sound on the far side of Jordan, and choirs of angels sing him to his eternal home.
The city did itself proud in honoring him at his death. As did the country, although there was deep ambivalence about President Clinton’s appearance at the funeral Mass. It was fitting that the office of the presidency be there, and for the moment the office comes with this office holder, a man whose person and policies clashingly contradict almost everything for which John O’Connor is honored. Then there was the New York Times, which, perhaps not surprisingly, was the exception in the otherwise generous treatment by the media. The big story reporting his death was all about power politics and how he was the Vatican’s enforcer against enlightened opinion, meaning opinion favored by the Times. There was a tribute of sorts by the editors, run at the bottom of the editorial page. O’Connor was depicted as hard-line and orthodox, although it was grudgingly allowed that he was also compassionate to, for instance, victims of AIDS. So there was something good to be said about him. Once again, the Times demonstrated that it is not a class act.
“Just once,” he remarked to me, “I would like to see a news story that doesn’t refer to ‘the controversial Cardinal O’Connor.’“ He was exaggerating, of course, and said it with a smile. He did not choose controversy; he was chosen to deliver a message that many controverted, and then criticized him for being controversial. This is not without its humorous aspects. A long story in the Times on the day before the funeral is titled, “Being Heard in a Church That’s Changed: Personal Style a Big Factor in O’Connor’s Influence.” The substantial continuities in the Church over two millennia notwithstanding, the headline is always that the Church has changed, even when the story is that it has not changed enough. The story speaks of O’Connor’s “outsized personality and in-your-face skills with the New York media.” In this context, in-your-face means that he calmly persisted in teaching what the Church teaches. And he continued to do so, even in the face of the clearly stated disapproval of the New York Times. Clearly, he was, in the view of the Times, outsized, as in too big for his britches.
I have told the story before about the dinner I hosted when O’Connor first came to New York in 1984. The purpose was to introduce the media leadership of the city to the new archbishop. At that time, a New York politician and vice presidential candidate was putting it out that Catholic teaching permitted support for the unlimited abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade. As archbishop, O’Connor thought he had a duty to clarify what is and what is not Catholic teaching, and he had the temerity to do so from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s. There followed an enormous brouhaha about his “meddling in politics” and “violating the separation of church and state.”
At that dinner, a top editor of the Times opined that when John F. Kennedy was elected President “most of us thought that the question of whether you Catholics belong here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled once and for all.” He then added, “But I have to tell you, Archbishop, that in the few months you have been here some of us are beginning to ask those questions again.” Whether you understand how we do things here. This was not, mind you, 1884 but 1984. It was not the voice of the WASP establishment reproaching an Irish immigrant upstart, but an editor with recent immigrant roots laying down the rules of admission to the club, and this to the spiritual leader of a community to which 44 percent of New Yorkers claim to belong. What the Times lacks in class it makes up for in hubris.
But back to the story about the “changing” Church. “Several church historians said Cardinal O’Connor was perhaps the last cardinal archbishop in American history who could take for granted the prominence of the Catholic Church in the public eye, as a leading institution, a shaper of public opinion, and an overwhelming influence on the culture.” This is remarkable to the point of being hard to believe. From being put on notice that it may be expelled by the Times, the Catholic Church is now dominating, as the Marxists used to say, the commanding heights of culture. Who would have dreamed that the Church was so powerful? A paragraph later, however, we learn that it is not; in fact it is in steep decline. “The idea that you have authority because you occupy an office is not very functional in the history of the American church,” says church historian David O’Brien of Holy Cross in Worcester. Authority, he adds, “has to come from personal charisma or from pastoral care. Much of Cardinal O’Connor’s authority came from charisma.” That a bishop’s authority might have something to do with his being a successor of the apostles is apparently irrelevant to this Catholic historian. The picture presented by the Times story is that of an overwhelmingly influential institution that is, at the same time, comatose, but was momentarily revived by the personality of John O’Connor.
This is very confusing. For clarification, the Times reporter goes to Paul Baumann of Commonweal magazine. He says, “It is impossible for bishops to get the kind of loyalty they had unless there is some sign of change on contraception, mandatory celibacy for priests, and the role of women in the church.” But it seems that, at least in large part, O’Connor got the kind of loyalty he had because he upheld the Church’s teaching on contraception, celibacy, and the male priesthood. The report compounds the confusion by explaining that liberals believe that “no archbishop is likely to attain real national influence unless he can somehow close the gap between papal doctrine and the spiritual demands of the laity.” So O’Connor didn’t have real national influence after all, or there is no gap between Church doctrine and the people. Or something.
A Measure of Importance
Of course the story notes that many Catholics do not accept or act according to Church teaching. That is undoubtedly true. For instance, for two thousand years the teaching that we should love one another has met, at best, with a mixed response. Little wonder that the Church is just about finished. R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame observes to the Times that O’Connor’s “great accomplishment was to extend the life of that influential presence by his personal style.” He was the institution’s last gasp, so to speak. One has to wonder why the Times spends so much time and energy battling a dying institution. The story continues: “The kind of archbishop most likely to win a national following . . . is one who plays down divisive issues like abortion and eloquently articulates a Catholic position on larger social questions.” (For a definition of “larger social questions,” see the editorial page of the Times.) The reporter rounds up the usual suspects, including Father Thomas Reese, S.J., editor of America. His advice to the new archbishop: “Our time calls for dialogue, not confrontation.” Right.
The gist of the story is that the Catholic Church is a dominant and threatening institution that is almost dead but was momentarily revived by John O’Connor who earned the admiration and loyalty of millions by following a confrontational course that is alienating just about everybody. This, according to the sustained story line of the Times, is precisely the problem with John Paul II as well. In the report at hand, the aforementioned Dr. O’Brien complains, “It is a very papal church now. It looks like the Pope feels he can appoint anyone he wants.” Fortunately, Dr. O’Brien is right. The happy result is that, without even consulting Dr. O’Brien or the editors of the Times, the Pope has appointed Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The new archbishop, I am pleased to say, has been a good friend over the years. Much more important, he is a man of solid orthodoxy and intellectual accomplishment; he is prayerful, personable, thoroughly pastoral, and persuasively articulate. In sum, he is just the kind of bishop whom I would have recommended for New York. If I had been asked. Which, for reasons no doubt having to do with how the Pope views his prerogatives, I was not. Archbishop Egan also has a firm grasp of history, and therefore has no difficulty in recognizing that the complaints of the Times and its liberal Catholic choir are pretty much the same complaints pressed a hundred years ago by those who contended that Catholics would never really belong here until the Church gave up its claims to authority and agreed to democratize the truth in conformity to those who define how “we” do things here. I expect that when Egan retires as archbishop, sixteen or more years from now, the Times will run long stories on how his term was the last hurrah for the dominant, threatening, and dying institution that is the Catholic Church. A possible headline might be, “Being Heard in a Church That’s Changed: Personal Style a Big Factor in Egan’s Influence.” The likes of Appleby, Baumann, O’Brien, and Reese will confidently declare him the last of his kind. As will be said of the archbishop after that, and after that, and after that, until Our Lord returns in glory.
Along the way there will possibly be one or more archbishops who will be prepared to split the difference between truth and falsehood, and thus earn the acclaim of the Times and its bien pensant constituency for daring to be uncontroversial. They will still say that the Church is on the rocks, having never heard or never heeded the One who spoke of what He would build “on this rock.”
But now my penchant for fairness once again gets the best of me. In the same issue of the Times there is another story: “For Countless People, O’Connor Was a Source of Compassion and Strength.” This and similar reports carry the testimonials of little people whom the Cardinal helped in sundry ways. Often they are marginal people—pro-life activists, and others who admired his moral and doctrinal stands. They are not New York Times people. They are not the people who complain about “the gap between papal doctrine and the spiritual demands of the laity.” They are the laity. And not only the Catholic laity, but Jews, Muslims, and people of no specified religion who are grateful for a public figure who kept alive the rumor that there is such a thing as moral truth.
But what do such little people know? I notice that in the Times and elsewhere, one evidence of Catholicism’s crisis frequently cited is that Hispanics now make up at least one quarter of the Catholic population (it is almost certainly more than that in New York). Imagine a news story asserting that an institution is in trouble because of its growing black membership. It is still polite to say that Hispanics are a problem. There is also the advantage that it gives renewed life to the idea of Catholicism as alien and threatening—i.e., people who do not really belong here, people who do not understand how we do things here.
All this is more cause for bemusement than alarm. On almost every issue of great moral and cultural consequence—abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, parental choice in education, cooperation between church and state, the normative status of marriage and family, the authority of tradition, the arts in service to beauty and the mind in service to truth-the Catholic Church is on one side and the Times, along with most of the media, on the other. There are a few individual exceptions at the Times, but that is the general picture. It has been that way for decades and will likely be that way for a long time. Now the “controversial” John O’Connor has given way to the soon to be declared “controversial” Edward Egan. Early every morning will be delivered, to a relatively small percentage of the population, the latest instructions on how we do things here. Then the Church and the people will get on with their business. This is not to say that the Times is unimportant. There are people, including people of influence, who, in touching docility, accept the daily instruction on how and what to think. It is to say about the Times, as my father frequently said (and, I must confess, sometimes said to me), “If you were half as important as you think you are, you would be twice as important as you are.”
The Devotion of Michael Harrington
Socialism is the religion people get when they lose their religion. Or so it seemed to me when I was a young man on the left, oh, so many years ago. Now the maxim has to be put in the past tense, of course, since there are very few people who still call themselves socialists, although no doubt many are still losing their religion. A few blocks south of where I live, on the Lower East Side (now commonly called the East Village), there are today dozens of little factions called socialist or even Communist with tenement warren headquarters where they grind out pamphlets and hatch plots in anticipation of the revolution. I do not imagine that the FBI or anybody else bothers to keep an eye on them. They are viewed as eccentrics lending color to the neighborhood—a neighborhood from which they will likely soon be evicted by the apparently inexorable course of gentrification.
It was very different in the 1960s when I was deeply immersed in what was then called The Movement, meaning civil rights and the protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam. For many friends and allies then, it was understood that socialism was the goal for which liberalism was the polite word to be used in public. Thirty years later and it is almost the case that liberalism is the love that dare not speak its name. In leftist circles back then, my well-known rejection of Marxist thought and contempt for Marxist practice occasioned suspicions about my “political reliability.” I was sometimes pressed: “But you are a socialist?” The ideologically soft, who really were good liberals, were satisfied with my assurance that I thought there was an awful lot wrong with the world and we should do our best to set things right. That more or less met their definition of socialism. Not so with those who really were socialists.
So much comes back now—so many people, arguments, demonstrations, endless meetings—upon reading Maurice Isserman’s new book, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs Press). I suppose few readers under forty would know his name today, but Michael Harrington, who died in 1989 at age sixty-one, was once a figure to reckon with in American public life, at least if you were anywhere within the many orbits of the politics of the left. We met on a number of occasions, but I did not know him well. I felt I knew him better than I did because of the many stories told by my colleague Jim Finn, who was very close to Harrington both at the University of Chicago and, later, in the bohemian world that congregated in the back room of the White Horse Tavern in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s.
In the mid-1980s, it may have been 1986, Harrington and I debated at Hunter College here in Manhattan. I had long since defected into the ranks of those called neoconservatives, but Michael was keeping the faith, as it used to be said, and still is said, on the left. I do not recall what he or I said in the debate, but I remember well our long and friendly discussion afterward in which he earnestly explained to me that his moving with his family up to Larchmont in Westchester County did not mean that he had sold out (selling out is the mortal sin in the church of radicalism). “You don’t have to be poor to keep faith with the poor,” he insisted. He did not have to persuade me of that, and I doubted if it was me he was trying to persuade.
Harrington’s public prominence came with his 1962 book The Other America, which played a part, maybe a central part, in sparking Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As Isserman notes, the word socialism never appeared in the book. He contends that Harrington could have become a very major political force had he not been obsessed with manipulating factional fights among sundry socialist sects. In Isserman’s account, Harrington was under the powerful influence of Max Shachtman, and the Shachtmanites were the relentless enforcers of socialist orthodoxy as defined by the master. To their credit, Schachtman, Harrington, and others of that company were vigorously anti-Communist, condemning the Soviet Union as “bureaucratic collectivism.” Isserman’s book is loaded with accounts of ideological infighting among the sects, most of which had a membership of less than a few dozen. Unless he has a special interest in this slice of American history, the reader’s eyes glaze over at page upon page studded with acronyms: SDA (Students for Democratic Action), SDF (Social Democratic Federation), SDUSA (Social Democrats, USA), LID (League for Industrial Democracy), SWP (Socialist Workers Party), YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League), and on and on. The late James Luther Adams of Harvard used to say that history is made by people who show up at meetings, stay until the end, and then write the minutes. The history of leftist activism is the history of meetings, caucuses, counter-caucuses, walk-outs, expulsions, and more meetings. In SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), this was called “participatory democracy.” It had a lot more to do with endurance, deviousness, and dogmatism than with democracy.
So did Michael Harrington waste his life? God only knows. His friend Irving Howe, editor of Dissent, memorably wrote, “Socialism is the name of our dream.” Harrington gave himself to that dream with religious fervor. When it seemed the dream was a delusion, he fell back on the trope from his early days with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, contending that the main thing was to “bear witness.” In speeches toward the end of his life, as he was dying of cancer, Harrington struck a note of eschatological hope in describing what it means to be a socialist: “What we are dealing with is not simply an economic transition, or a political transition. What we are dealing with is the emergence of a new civilization. What we are dealing with are new ways of life for all the people of the Earth.” It was a poignant echo of the eschatology of the Catholic faith that he had abandoned so many years earlier.
Isserman is, all in all, a sympathetic biographer, and the research that went into The Other American throws important light on the history of the left in America. He ends on the elegiac note that many had hoped Harrington would pick up the mantle of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas in leading socialism into a new era. But he notes, regretfully, that that was not to be. “Michael seems to represent the end of the line. . . . An honorable, even heroic, vision, it was also, as Michael reluctantly conceded in the last years of his life, one for which there remained precious little room in American political culture.”
In fact, as Isserman’s account contributes to making indisputably clear, there has always been precious little room in America for a socialist movement defined by Marxist ideology. The high point was eighty years ago, when Debs ran for President in 1920 and received almost a million votes. The socialism to which Michael Harrington gave his life was living off the memory of what might have been, and what, hope against hope, might be again. Nobody outside its immediate circles has much incentive for taking a count, but I would not be entirely surprised if there were on the Lower East Side today as many self-identified socialists as there were when Michael signed up with the cause in the 1950s. A big difference today is that there are not nearly so many sympathizers in high places who are socialists passing as liberals.
The other day on Fourteenth Street I was handed a leaflet issued by, if I remember correctly, NSWOC (New Socialist Workers Organizing Committee). They were getting up a demonstration against the World Trade Organization, or something like that. A few blocks south of here there may at this moment be a young man as bright, personable, and idealistic as the young Michael Harrington making his decision to give his life to the cause. Perhaps he, too, has lost his religion and is looking for another. One must hope that is not the case. One may hope that Isserman is right in suggesting that Michael Harrington was the end of the line. It seems unlikely, however; so powerful is the human need for a dream.
Lord Acton, Cardinal Newman, and How To Be Ahead of Your Time
By the end of the eighteenth century, Christianity in Europe—and therefore, or so many Europeans thought, Christianity in world history—was holding on by its fingertips. To be sure, there was the Wesleyan revival in England, but that was viewed as a matter of tutoring the more base instincts of the great unwashed. Americans could still muster theological enthusiasms, but America was far away, and those Americans with whom the better type of European had contact, men such as Franklin and Jefferson, shared the conviction that the age of faith had given way to the age of reason. And to the age of revolution, most ferociously in France and threatening to overflow everywhere. In the early nineteenth century, it seemed to some that Protestantism in Germany showed signs of catching up with the times, accommodating dogma to reason and biblical tradition to scientific discovery. There Christian thinkers were making the case that the religious sensibility could be harnessed to the best in social and cultural progress. Catholicism, on the other hand, and especially Catholicism that was Roman Catholicism, represented everything that was in reaction to the spirit of the times. It was far from the case that everyone joined in the cry of Voltaire, Écrasez l’infâme, but more temperate souls thought the superstition would be crushed, and probably should be crushed.
Lord Acton (1834-1902) was and was not a man of his times. A personally devout Catholic, he deplored the fact that the Church seemed determined to set itself against the imperatives of a new age. Today Acton is best known, if he is known at all, for his maxim, written in a letter to a friend, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He deserves to be better known, for he is a key figure in the story of Christianity’s erratic efforts to come to terms with modernity. He will be better known if a book just out from Yale University Press, Lord Acton by Roland Hill (533 pages,, $39.95
), receives the attention that it deserves. Acton has always had a prominent part in the telling of modern Catholic history, where he is conventionally depicted as a precursor, even a prophet, of the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Hill, too, follows that convention, although not uncritically. Now that the pontificate of John Paul II has, it is surely safe to say, secured the interpretation of the Council, it is possible to evaluate more fairly the role of Acton in modern Catholic history—especially his vigorous campaign against the 1870 definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council.
Ahead of Their Time
“Everywhere in the late nineteenth century there was a hardening of the ideological fronts,” writes Hill, “of Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, atheists, socialists, conservatives, and so forth. A Catholic scholar like Döllinger (who found good things to say of Luther and who felt that the Pope should not be a temporal ruler) or an English liberal like Acton (who saw through the illiberal partisanship of Continental liberals and nationalists and who sensed the corrupting effects of absolute power in Church or state) seemed like traitors to their side, as well as hopelessly out of tune with their age. But, like Newman, they were really in advance of their century.” That is the conventional telling, and there is a lot packed into it. It would be too much to say, to the contrary, that Ignaz von Döllinger and John Acton were perfectly in tune with their age, for Acton in particular had a personal piety that he held in unreconciled tension with his and his age’s view of scientific reason. But I believe it more accurate to say that, of the three, only John Henry Newman was in advance of his time.
John Acton, writes the distinguished historian Owen Chadwick in his foreword to Hill’s biography, “was only half English.” Born in Naples and buried in Tegernsee, Bavaria, Acton’s most formative education was under Döllinger in Munich. Born into the British aristocracy, he was related by blood or marriage to noble and even royal houses of Europe. Inheriting ample means to indulge his interests, he was very much in the model of the educated European with a mission to enlighten his still benighted age. Having frittered away his fortune, toward the end of his life his purse and status were restored by his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, the Protestant establishment’s reward for services rendered. Acton was less a trained historian than a talented and assiduous amateur in love with archives, from which he accumulated mountains of notes for books that never got written. Were it not for his part at Vatican Council I, he would be more forgotten than he is. Chadwick writes: “Never neglected [in his time], for he was too famous for that, he has sometimes been regarded as a person who did not give the world what he ought to have achieved, and some have considered it a mistake to spend time in the study of a failure.” And yet, says Chadwick, Acton is “one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Victorians,” and his thoughts on politics “still repay the attention of anyone who tries to examine that difficult theme, the nature of human freedom.”
Acton tirelessly declared his devotion to liberty in the Church, and to the liberty of the Church. His devotion to the first liberty, however, ended up by setting him against the historical realization of the second liberty. To understand why this happened is to understand something very important about the tradition of liberal Catholicism up to our present time. Roland Hill writes: “Acton’s experiences in Germany had shown him, in particular, that whereas Protestants had shared the eighteenth-century decline of religion in equal measure, they were also the first to recover from it. They, rather than Catholics, dominated the German literary revival culminating in the work of Goethe. To Acton this movement, though it had no specific religious impulse, seemed comparable to the revival of the Medicean age. It spread to the German universities, producing a renascence of medieval historical studies borne by the new scientific approach.” Religion’s recovery, in this view, meant that religion was catching up with the times, and was even making modest contributions to the best in the culture. This was the course chosen by the leaders of the Kulturprotestantismus of Germany that Lord Acton admired.
For Acton, “the new scientific approach” in history meant that certainty could be achieved by documentation. “By going on from book to manuscript and from library to archive,” he wrote, “we exchange doubt for certainty, and become our own masters. We explore a new Heaven and a new Earth, and at each step forward, the world moves with us.” The scientific study of history, in this view, is not unlike revelation. In Acton’s judgment, historians such as Macaulay and Carlyle had erred in deferring to the past, or to the station of their subjects, or to the interests of the institutions that claimed their allegiance. When that happens, said Acton, “then History ceases to be a Science, an arbiter of controversy. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst cause better than the purest.”
History and Science must be pure, which means untainted by interest, personal perspective, or, above all, institutional authority. At one point in their friendship, Döllinger took exception to Acton’s harsh judgment of a certain historical figure. After a futile exchange on the subject, Döllinger wrote, “We must agree to differ.” Acton was having none of it: “Unfortunately it is not a question on which one can agree to differ. Historical science does not tolerate such differences. . . . As long as history cannot attain to such certainties as compels the assent of honest men, it is worthless as an arbiter of controversy and a teacher of nations.” The reign of History is absolute. Of those holding Acton’s view, Newman wrote, “They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish.”
Acton was not and did not claim to be a theologian. As his personal piety and his quarrels with the actual Church ran on separate tracks, so history and theology went about their separate tasks each undisturbed by the other. Acton’s objections to the definition of infallibility were not dogmatic but historical. With slight reference to the actual wording of the carefully circumscribed proposition debated and finally adopted by Vatican Council I, Acton fought an imagined proposition that everything said by the pope or officially asserted by the Church would henceforth be deemed infallible. It was said, for instance, that the historical, social, and political judgments of the 1864 Syllabus of Errors issued by Pius IX would become infallible if the Council affirmed the dogma. Further, it was feared that infallibility would mean that the authority of the pope would trump the authority of governments with respect to the political obligations of their citizens. This was the argument that William Gladstone, the long-running British Prime Minister, made shortly after the Council, with Acton’s encouragement and assistance. There were indeed papal enthusiasts who contended that not only every word but every thought of the pope is infallible. That the Council decisively rejected such enthusiasms did not deter Acton from putting the most ominous construction on infallibility. He was, after all, a combatant in the heat of battle. As he understood it, he was the champion of liberty against the forces of reaction and outdated obscurantism.
During the Council, Acton set up shop in Rome. “He met bishops and diplomats daily. Leading members of the minority dined frequently at his apartment in the Via della Croce. He attended receptions where he might find out what was going on, afterwards noting down carefully what he had heard. He was always on the go, encouraging and organizing the opposition bishops, bridging national and language barriers among Germans, French, Austrians, Italians, English, Americans. He truly merited the title of ‘Chief Whip’ for the minority. Late at night Acton came home, sitting up till four or five in the morning to write his long letters to Döllinger or Gladstone, to catch the courier in time.”
In addition to being the chief whip of the minority, Acton was the Xavier Rynne of Vatican I. As a century later Rynne, whose real name was Francis X. Murphy, wrote long dispatches for the New Yorker giving the “inside story” on what was happening at Vatican II, so Acton wrote under a pseudonym (“Quirinus”) extensive letters for the Allgemeine Zeitung that were carefully read by participants in Vatican I. A major difference, of course, is that Rynne championed the majority while Acton championed the minority.
Both Acton and Rynne thought they were championing the “liberal” side, which is not self-evidently the case. The actual documents of Vatican II—as distinct from the largely imagined “spirit of the Council”—are firmly grounded in the tradition, and, as authoritatively interpreted by subsequent magisterial teaching, the Council bears little resemblance to what today passes as liberal Catholicism. Similarly, Acton’s liberalism was blind to the concern for the liberty of the Church, which, one might argue, was the great question for Catholicism in the nineteenth century.
Of Acton and Döllinger, Roland Hill perceptively observes, “Neither of them appeared to have any clear theological concept of Infallibility. They, no less than their opponents, the advocates of Infallibility, were victims of traditional concepts of the divine right applied to the temporal order.” It may have been only intuitively understood by most of the bishops at Vatican I, and not understood at all by others, but in retrospect it is clear that infallibility struck a major blow for the liberty of the Church against the claims of temporal powers. What Acton, Döllinger, and even Newman criticized as the “centralizing” of authority in Rome was an assertion of the Church’s authority to govern itself, and a declaration of independence from governments that claimed a right to appoint bishops and otherwise intervene according to their own interests.
Defending the Old Order
On this crucial question of the liberty of the Church, Henry Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, was right. Historians today, including Roland Hill, are much more favorable to Manning than were historians of the past. Newman, it will be remembered, opposed Manning, but did not challenge infallibility as a teaching; he thought it “inopportune” for the Council to define it dogmatically. Acton had little but scorn for Newman and other “inopportunists,” as they were called, declaring inopportunism to be the name of the party of losers.
Manning, on the other hand, recognized, along with others, that the universality of the Church would, in the hostile environment of that century, become easy prey to the fissiparous forces of nationalism and state power unless it was more firmly attached to the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. Lord Acton, by way of sharpest contrast, energetically lobbied Gladstone and the European powers to intervene in the Vatican Council in order to prevent any strengthening of papal authority. It would probably be too much to credit Manning and the majority with the ability to foresee the development of ecclesiology and its relationship to temporal power that came about with Vatican II and has been further clarified by subsequent pontificates. But they intuitively understood that what was at stake was the liberty of the Church to be the Church. In this perspective, and against the conventional wisdom, Lord Acton, far from being ahead of his time, was defending the old order that had subjected the Church to temporal powers.
History presents many occasions for citing Charles Peguy’s aphorism that God writes straight with crooked lines. In the nineteenth century’s dispute over the embattled papal states, it must be said in retrospect that Acton, Newman, and others were right in believing that the papacy would be better off without them. In that dispute, which was raging before and around Vatican I, Manning, Pius IX, and others mistakenly connected temporal power to papal authority. In fact, the loss of the papal states and the Council’s definition of infallibility combined, in ways that nobody at the time could anticipate, to save the universality of the Church by asserting the liberty of the Church. The ways in which God wrote straight with crooked lines in the past is, one is reminded, a salutary caution against excessive certitude as to what God is doing in the present.
Not least of the merits of Roland Hill’s biography is the insight it provides into the complexity of the personalities engaged in these conflicts, and the curious ways in which personal allegiances shifted from issue to issue. There was a great gap between Newman and Acton on many scores, not least because Acton was of the “old Catholic” English aristocracy and, like others of his class, resentful not only of “interference” by Rome, but also of the growing number of Irish immigrants who made Catholicism appear vulgar and alien to the English establishment, and of converts such as Newman who stole the intellectual spotlight. The old Catholic families were “Cisalpine” in their sympathies, meaning that they thought the Church should take its directions from “this side of the Alps,” and in this respect they had much in common with Gallicanism in France and “Josephenism” elsewhere in Europe. The last refers to the policy of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor in the latter part of the eighteenth century, who thought it the duty of the state to regulate religious affairs without reference to Rome. Many of the old Catholic families in England held on to the improbable hope that the “old religion” would be restored, effectively replacing the Church of England as the established church.
Newman, as is well known, also bridled at what he viewed as the heavy hand of Rome in English affairs, especially the fact that the Church was treated as a “mission” under the direction of the office of the Propagation of the Faith. At times he pined nostalgically for the patristic era when bishops and local churches had more flexibility to engage theological and ecclesiastical disputes that only later and when essential to unity were resolved by Rome. On the other hand, Newman in 1845 had converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and he knew that it was the Petrine office that guaranteed its universality. After the years of excitements while leading the Anglo-Catholic cause, Newman frequently felt depressed and out of place as a Catholic. He was not part of Acton’s aristocratic world of recusant families that had refused to accept the schism of the sixteenth century, nor could he readily identify with the newer Irish immigrants.
In 1860, in a tone not untouched by self-pity, he wrote in his spiritual journal: “I am nobody. I have no friend at Rome. I have laboured in England, to be misrepresented, backbitten, and scorned. . . . O my God, I seem to have wasted these years that I have been a Catholic. What I wrote as a Protestant had far greater power, force, meaning, success, than my Catholic works.” And again in 1863: “O how forlorn & dreary has been my course since I have been a Catholic! Here has been the contrast—as a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life—but as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.” Of course, these were his thoughts before the publication of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and the later Grammar of Assent. Especially the former met with sensational success and established Newman as one of the most venerable figures of English life, admired by Catholics and Protestants alike.
Acton turned on Newman with a passion. It was not enough, he insisted, to say that the dogma of infallibility was “inopportune”; it was wrong because it violated Acton’s notion of the Science of History. In his private notes, Acton wrote, “Newman came over for the sake of the pope. That was his purpose and reward.” Newman thought history insufficient; authority was needed. Acton interpreted Newman’s position this way: “Without a supreme authority, skeptics win.” At Newman’s death, Acton wrote to Gladstone: “You know that in this instance I am forced to use the ambiguous word great as I should in speaking of Napoleon or Bismarck, Hegel or Renan. But I should quarrel with every friend I have, in almost every camp or group, if I said all I know, or half of what I think, of that splendid Sophist.” He accused Newman of encouraging “a school of Infidelity” and of being among those who are “advocates of deceit and murder.” The last charge derives from Acton’s confused idea that infallibility means that popes of the past whom he believed were guilty of deceit and murder had, in fact, been infallibly right in what they did. Of Newman and another party with whom he disagreed, Acton wrote that they are “two very able and evil men.”
Acton’s judgments were hard. Those who were not with him were against him, and this applied as well to his Whig politics. He wrote, “Politics come nearer religion with me, a party is more like a Church, error more like heresy, prejudice more like sin.” Over the years, he worked in closest cooperation with the Protestant Gladstone against Catholics such as Manning and Newman, indeed goading Gladstone on in his anti-Catholic polemics, while all the time believing that his private Catholic piety was safely separated from the interests of the Catholic institution. After the Council, his old teacher Döllinger was excommunicated for refusing to accept its decision, and for a time Döllinger flirted with the breakaway Old Catholic Church in which two of his theological professor friends became bishops. Leo XIII, who succeeded Pius IX, made overtures for Döllinger’s reconciliation with the Church, but these met with no success. Unlike Acton, Döllinger knew that his rejection of the authority of the Council had consequences for his ecclesial communion. Acton lived in mortal fear that he would be required to say directly whether he did or did not accept the decision of the Council. If required, he believed he would in conscience have to answer in the negative; the consequence, he expected, would be excommunication and the collapse of his private definition of what it meant to be Catholic.
Although Lord Acton does not explore this dimension, it seems more than possible that Acton’s falling out with Döllinger was related to the latter’s understanding that ecclesial belonging is not a matter of private judgment. The Church determines what she teaches, and the assent required of her members. After the Council, Döllinger was understanding and forgiving toward the bishops who had opposed infallibility but later submitted to the Council’s decision. Not so Acton. In his eyes they were cowards and turncoats, even though he desperately hoped that he, unlike the bishops in question, would never be required to give a straight answer. When the break in their friendship was final, Döllinger observed, “No one in the whole world knows me better than Acton and knows more about me. But the difference between us is that I am tolerant towards people while he is an absolutist in judging them and is totally intolerant.” The illiberality of liberals is, it seems, not a recent phenomenon.
The Cultural Context
A balanced appreciation of Acton requires an understanding of the degree to which anti-Catholicism was dogmatically entrenched among the social, political, and cultural elites of England. As Hill notes, “In England at the time it was hardly possible for Catholics to rise professionally.” The recusant aristocracy was the protector of a besieged minority, maintaining enclaves of educational opportunity in England, typically under Jesuit auspices, for Catholic students, and networks of protection abroad, which explains why Acton was not only by blood but also by education and life experience only “half English.” It is within this virulently anti-Catholic context that one can understand the sensation and scandal caused by Newman’s conversion, and the sacrifice he made in breaking with the establishment of the Church of England and of Oxford, a sacrifice quite incomparable to that made by a convert in, for instance, America today. In our circumstance of denominational, if not religious, pluralism, becoming a Catholic is commonly viewed as an individual matter of continuing one’s “spiritual sojourn.” What Newman did was to strike a blow at the very religious, cultural, and political identity of the nation.
The old Catholics of the recusant families had, until the mid-nineteenth century, been seen as part, albeit an anomalous part, of the English scene. Accustomed understandings were disrupted by converts from the Oxford Movement, Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and by Rome’s decision to restore the English hierarchy in 1850. All this gave rise to a vigorous “no popery” movement in Protestant England. As Hill writes, “English Catholicism had enjoyed a tradition of lay—aristocratic—supremacy for the centuries following the English Reformation. The old Catholic landed families . . . continued to exert their influence over Catholic life well into the nineteenth century. . . . A triumphant Rome now set about to bring the faithful within the clerical discipline and pietistic practices of the Latin aesthetic,” which posed a serious challenge to the Catholic establishment of which Acton was part. The modus vivendi that the Catholic establishment had worked out with the emphatically Protestant national establishment of England was now threatened by what Acton and others called “the Romanization of English Catholicism.” Hostility to Roman “centralization” under Pius IX had everything to do with maintaining the position of the Catholic aristocracy in England.
Enemies of Liberty
In goading Gladstone to intervene and encourage other nations to intervene at the Council, Acton resorted to alarmist depictions of what was at stake. If the Council has its way, he wrote Gladstone, Catholics would be “bound not only by the will of future popes, but by that of former popes, so far as it has been solemnly declared. They will not be at liberty to reject the deposing power [the power of the pope to depose monarchs and other rulers], or the system of the Inquisition, or any other criminal practice or idea which has been established under penalty of excommunication. They at once become irreconcilable enemies of civil and religious liberty. They will have to profess a false system of morality, and to repudiate literary and scientific sincerity. They will be as dangerous to civilized society in the school as in the state.” In sum, Catholics would no longer be capable of being loyal subjects of the crown, which is precisely the charge launched by Gladstone shortly after the Council in a pamphlet that Acton helped to write.
It is not too much to say that Acton, in effect, took the Protestant side in the telling of the English story of liberty in terms of a noble struggle against papal tyranny. Even the very sympathetic Roland Hill acknowledges that English Catholics were “wounded by his cruel way of exposing their historical myths.” Acton’s view of liberty was inextricably tied to the interests of his own position and power as an intimate and influential advisor of Gladstone and a much favored courtier of Queen Victoria. This puts a somewhat different light on Acton’s famous stricture about the corrupting nature of power. To the Anglican historian Mandell Creighton, who suggested that popes and kings should be given the benefit of the doubt, Acton wrote: “If there is any presumption it is the other way, against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
There is, of course, much truth in what Acton says about power and corruption, but it is far from the whole truth. Hill wisely observes, “Richer as the twentieth century is in its experience of the corrupting effects of absolute power, it has become conscious of the dangers threatening also from the opposite extreme. Men in power tend at least to maintain the semblance of probity, if only to maintain their power. But those who lack power and want it often lack even that restraint.” There is an additional factor to be taken into account: “Acton saw himself as a pivotal figure in several areas of Liberal policy development in behind-the-scenes political maneuverings. That Acton relished seeing himself at the center of power is underscored time and again in his letters.”
The problems that puzzled Acton, he once told Mary Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter, were “not in religion or politics so much as along the wavy line between the two.” His personal and institutional loyalties were clearer on the political than on the religious side of that wavy line. Hill writes: “Acton’s regard for Gladstone had almost a mystical quality. That makes it difficult to understand for a later generation tempted to gloss over it as sycophantic adulation, which it was not. It was meant for a statesman with whom he felt at one in fundamentals, both religious and moral—for, as he said, for him the Liberal Party had always had the status of a dogma, even a Church.”
The ironies and complexities in the development of the liberty of the Church were sometimes better understood by the world’s practitioners of Realpolitik. After he was driven into exile following the revolution of 1848, Vienna’s absolutist chancellor, Prince Metternich, noted that Piux IX, who came to the papal office as a liberal, was inadvertently undoing his temporal power by encouraging the forces of change. Metternich wrote, “A liberal Pope is not a possibility. A Gregory VII could become the master of the world, a Piux IX cannot become that. He can destroy but he cannot build. What the Pope has already destroyed by his liberalism is his own temporal power; what he is unable to destroy is his spiritual power; it is that power which will cancel the harm done by his worthless counselors.” The liberty of the Church required a disentanglement from efforts to wield temporal power, and it is that long course of disentanglement that has produced the pontificate of John Paul II and a papacy immeasurably stronger—spiritually, morally, and institutionally—than the papacy of a hundred or two hundred years ago. The First Vatican Council, with its assertion of spiritual authority and of jurisdictional rights against the several states, was key to securing the liberty of the Church. That is what Acton apparently never understood, probably because he was preoccupied not with the liberty of the Church but with his own version of liberty in the Church.
No Place to Stand
Men such as Acton and Döllinger, who understood themselves to be on the cutting edge of progress and enlightenment, might be better described as defenders of the status quo. In Germany, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf was a program of “modernization,” but as Roland Hill notes, his anti-Catholic measures had the result of increasing the loyalty of both bishops and the faithful to Rome and the pope. Where else were Catholics to find a place to stand except by the side of Peter? And by the side of a Peter who became stronger precisely as he had no sword to wield other than the sword of the Spirit. In England, Acton offered Catholics no place to stand. Suspicious of the growing number of converts such as Newman, alienated from the Irish immigrants, in rebellion against the hierarchy at home, and waging war against Rome, Acton offered only the possibility of standing by the old aristocratic Catholic elite guided by the infallibility of the Science of History. That was not a very promising prospect for the future of Catholicism in England.
Acton seems to have suspected, at least at times, that he was working against the course of history, and even that that course might be providentially guided. Besieged by the forces determined to deprive him of his temporal power, Pius IX declared himself to be the “prisoner of the Vatican.” Acton writes to his wife in a tone of puzzlement, “The Pope’s power has grown through the fall of his system.” At another point, when it seemed possible Piux IX would be forced to leave Rome, Acton recognized the source of his power: “The Pope, in his eightieth year, at the close of the longest and most unfortunate pontificate on record, going forth once more to eat the bread of exile and to die in a strange land, would afford a spectacle that would rouse the feelings of many millions of men.” As the papacy became weaker, it became stronger.
For centuries, the papacy had cultivated partnerships with states in order that they might jointly wield power, the one with the spiritual sword and the other with the temporal. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one state after another declined to join in that partnership, declaring themselves thoroughly secular and determined either to eliminate or control the influence of the Church. Although Pius IX and, later, Leo XIII did not see it that way at the time, state hostility to the Church was working the liberation of the Church. As states became more relentlessly secular, spiritual authority gravitated toward the Church, and the local churches under such secularizing states adhered ever more firmly to Rome.
God writes straight with crooked lines, and not least of all with the crooked line that was the career of Lord Acton. Much of what Acton wrote—for instance, The History of Freedom, recently republished by the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan—is still very much worth reading. But when it came to the big picture, Acton got it wrong. It is John Henry Newman, with his much more sophisticated understanding of reason, history and ecclesial development, who is vindicated by the Second Vatican Council and subsequent pontificates. Lord Acton—for all his energy, influence and occasional genius—pitted liberty in the Church against the liberty of the Church, with the result that he defended the subordination of the Church to the cultural and political establishment of his time. In this respect he was more than “half English,” being as Erastian as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
As Lord Acton makes clear, whatever the author’s intention, its subject was not a precursor of the Second Vatican Council but of a now much diminished Catholic liberalism that, in the name of “the spirit of the Council” and in subservience to a cultural establishment, opposes the liberty of the Church to be the Church. It must be said in all fairness that the questions in Acton’s day were not seen so clearly as they are in retrospect. One can, albeit with some difficulty, put oneself in Acton’s position, where the question seemed to be a simple one of liberty vs. tyranny. As we have seen, Newman was not entirely unsympathetic to that perspective. His “inopportunism” was informed by, inter alia, a worry about the heavy-handedness of Rome. But he understood that there is such a thing as “the mind of the Church” and was able to think with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) while also, like Acton, thinking with the best ideas of his time. Newman’s greatness was in the humility of recognizing that his reason and grasp of history were not infallible.
I would not be surprised if today Acton recognizes that Newman chose the wiser course. Indeed, I strongly expect that is the case. As I also expect that Acton rejoices that the Church today, her liberty secured in communion with Rome, is the world’s premier champion of the idea of freedom for which he contended. Even if he understood that idea imperfectly, it is probable that, in ways that surpass our understanding, God used also his efforts to bring about a result that was not, and could not have been, anticipated by his Science of History.
Speak Up for the Persecuted
Religious persecution and, more specifically, the persecution of Christians seems to be eluding the radar screen of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). That, at least, has been the impression of those who follow these questions in the human rights community. This has become something of an embarrassment, since various evangelical and oldline Protestant denominations, strongly supported by Jewish leaders such as Rabbi David Saperstein and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, have been pressing this issue in recent years. Last November, more than a hundred thousand local churches participated in the annual “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church,” and an even larger participation is expected this year. But, for some reason, the Catholic leadership has been largely silent. Last August, the East African Catholic Bishops Conference appealed to the West to protest the “genocidal conflict” in southern Sudan, but for months there was no public response from the U.S. bishops.
Until recently, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark served as chairman of the USCC’s International Justice and Peace Committee. In many forums, he has urged “quiet diplomacy” rather than public protest. He served as part of a religious delegation to China, an arrangement negotiated by Beijing and the Clinton Administration. The international press and human rights groups sharply criticized the delegation for letting itself be manipulated by the Chinese government. (“U.S. Religious Leaders Tread Softly in China,” Washington Post, February 19, 1998; “China May Manipulate Clerics,” Associated Press, February 21, 1998.) McCarrick also serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent panel established by Congress to make recommendations for U.S. policy. The Chinese persecution of Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and Muslims has received close attention by the commission.
To the extent there is a muted Catholic voice on religious persecution, the problem is likely with the USCC, which is inevitably a bureaucracy and, as is the way with bureaucracies, tends to assume a knowing attitude of possessing inside information not available to mere mortals. The USCC, regrettably, has a history of relative silence on the persecution of Christians, whether by the Soviet empire or by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Rightly or wrongly—and I expect more rightly than wrongly—Protestants and Jews who have been at the forefront of the fight against religious persecution bridle at what they view as the condescension and indifference of the staff at USCC. In his letter on the Great Jubilee, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (The Coming of the Third Millennium), John Paul II called on Christians to remember the martyrs of today, and a special commemoration to that effect was held at the Coliseum in Rome on May 7. As the Pope noted, the first-century martyrs such as Agnes and Stephen are better known than the many thousands of martyrs of our own time, and that urgently needs to be remedied. An important step toward that end would be for the USCC to join in publicly honoring the martyrs and to at last take its place alongside Protestants, Jews, and others in contending for an end to religious persecution around the world. China and Sudan are most particular cases in point.
In view of this unfortunate history, one welcomes the more warmly the recent statement on the Sudan by Bernard Cardinal Law, the new chairman of the USCC’s International Policy Committee. After reviewing the sordid facts of Khartoum’s killing and enslavement of Christians and others, Cardinal Law declares: “The violence and repression in Sudan cannot, indeed, must not continue. The people of Sudan yearn for a just peace. They cry for an end to the enslavement of their women and children. They yearn to be free from indiscriminate violence and the constant threat of famine. They long for equal rights for Muslims, Christians, and practitioners of traditional African religions. They search for an opportunity to build a just and prosperous society that is a valued member of the family of nations. It is long past time for the international community to overcome its indifference toward the humanitarian nightmare in Sudan. It is long past time to do what can be done to help the people of Sudan realize their yearning for a just peace. Peace is not easy, but it is possible, and it is the only way forward.”
How Christianity Coopts Its Contradictions
One problem with secularization theories that tend to view modernity as a juggernaut that keeps religion always on the defensive is that studies frequently contrast what people say they believe with what they actually do. This is an inherent difficulty in discussions of religion, and especially of biblical religion. The normative statements of Christian faith and life, for instance, are so very elevated, while the people who are Christians are so very ordinary. There is typically a glaring gap between what people profess to believe and what they actually do and appear to be in their everyday lives. The gap widens when religion is defined chiefly in terms of morality. Few lives can withstand, for instance, a close examination of the claim to love others as we love ourselves. The gap invites charges, at the vulgar level, of hypocrisy, while more sophisticated critics speak of religion as “epiphenomenal” or as “false consciousness.” In this way of thinking, the phenomenon—what is really happening—is secularization, with religion being little more than a wan protest against, or self-deceiving denial of, that reality.
Of course, Christianity co-opts the criticism of those who accent the gap by accenting that we are all sinners. That being the case, the gap between what we say and what we do is hardly surprising. As a preacher friend says, “My mission is to get the hypocrites off the streets and into the church where they belong.” Thus is the alleged contradiction between professed faith and actual practice turned into a confirmation of what Christians say they believe. Some secularization theories to the contrary, sociology and psychology have little access to what people really believe. People beyond numbering gathered at the altar and attending to the Word of God say that this moment defines “the real world.” Critics may choose to believe that what these people do elsewhere and at other times is the real world, but that is simply what the critics choose to believe.
There is no way to “scientifically” adjudicate these conflicting claims. Most believers, I expect, intuitively understand them not as conflicting claims but as claims to be held in tension, with the real world of the everyday held accountable to, and somehow mysteriously comprehended by, the real world defined in the moment of proclamation and worship. The essential point to be made about this infinitely complex subject is that those who contend that secularization is the basic reality to which religion is in a position of accommodating itself are, in the final analysis, making a somewhat arbitrary decision. In addition, their explanation comes up against religious explanations that are quite capable of giving an account of the very process of secularization that supposedly discredits religious explanations.
From the Beginning
Those scholars who see religion surviving defensively in “sheltered enclaves” that are surrounded by a disenchanted, desacralized, and essentially hostile modern world have an important point, of course. That is exactly how many Christians view themselves and their communities of faith. In this understanding, America is post-Christian, perhaps even anti-Christian, and the Christian faithful are therefore subcultural or even countercultural. A measure of such tension has been part of Christianity from the beginning.
Put differently, the sense of living in tension with the surrounding world is not dependent upon a particular reading of our historical moment but is inherent in the Christian understanding of reality. Jesus said of his disciples that they are in but not of the world, and in the early Church that is sharpened by statements such as 1 John 2:16: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” Much of the monastic tradition—flourishing not in a time of secularization but in a time called “the age of faith”—was intended to accent that tension, as it is also accented by groups such as the Amish and Mennonites who emerged from the “left wing” of the Protestant Reformation.
The tension is not peculiar to such groups; rather, they are simply more sharply emblematic of a core truth about Christianity. Christians are not really at home in the world because they understand themselves to be on the way to the heavenly Jerusalem, or, in the words of the Book of Revelation, “a new heaven and a new earth.” Call it a sheltered enclave or call it a pilgrim band on the march, the tension with the surrounding world experienced by the community of the faithful is a permanent feature of Christianity, and has more to do with eschatology (teachings about the final end of history) than with theories of secularization.
In this respect, too, Christianity is formed by Judaism. Languishing in exile, the children of Israel cried out in Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion. On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
This keen, even painful, sense of being in exile, of not being entirely at home in the surrounding world, is evident in the second century “Letter to Diognetus.” The anonymous author is responding to pagan curiosity about this curious cult of Christians who “set little store by this world, and even make light of death itself.” It is, he says, a marvelous paradox: “Though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland is a foreign country.”
“Alien citizens.” The phrase perfectly captures a necessary dimension of the Christian reality that is too easily confused and trivialized in contemporary discussions of secularization. For alien citizens, sometimes the emphasis is on the “alien” and sometimes on the “citizen.” In circumstances of intense anti-Christian persecution, they may understand their existence almost exclusively in terms of being aliens. I say “almost” because even then they still understand this to be their Father’s world and the kingdom of his Christ. The persecuting enemy is a usurper and his rule is only for a time. In circumstances where it seems almost everybody is a Christian, and Christianity itself is formally established, Christians may understand their existence almost exclusively in terms of being citizens. That neat fit between Christianity and culture was evident, for instance, in the nineteenth-century Protestant view of moral progress that we considered in the last issue. And yet Christians never belong so securely, they are never so comfortably at home, that they can forget that they belong to a community of pilgrim faith that confesses, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” To put it more accurately, Christians can forget that and often have forgotten it, but when they do so they are neglecting an essential aspect of being Christian in a world that is not yet fully redeemed.
So at times Christians will look like an embattled remnant hunkering down in sheltered enclaves, desperately trying to keep up one another’s spirits in the face of the encroaching threat of a hostile world. At other times, they are in martial formation, fully armed and on triumphant march. “Onward, Christian Soldiers!” And a good deal of the time, maybe most of the time, they understand themselves to be in both modes, and simultaneously so. In other words, the secularization theories that were once so dominant played on one of several cross-cutting themes that are permanent features in the way Christianity understands our present circumstance short of the Kingdom of God.
Christians who, for whatever reason, accent the “alien” mode of being Christian in the world tend to reinforce the notion that secularization is on the march, driven by the ideology of secularism, and resulting in a post-Christian America. Yet, as often as not, the very same people can, with remarkable facility, move into the mode of high confidence about winning America and the world for Christ. We ought not to be surprised by this, nor to view the apparent contradiction with scorn. This is not necessarily a contradiction but a reflection of cross-cutting themes that are part and parcel of the Christian teaching that the vindication of the truth is both “now” and “not yet.” The theories of secularization that were so dominant over the last half century had less to do with “social science” than with a proclivity to capitalize on one side of Christian self-understanding. In the name of secularization, they compounded the “not yet” that has never been with the never-to-be-again of Matthew Arnold’s sea of faith:
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
In this view, the modern world is disenchanted and desacralized. Religion—the source and song of sacred enchantment—is, at best, in a holding action. It is a zero-sum proposition; as modernity advances, religion must retreat. But there is an element of the tautological here; what appear to be two factors are really the same. It is not so much that secularization is the result of modernity as that secularization is insinuated into the definition of modernity, in which case it is obvious that religion and modernity cannot coexist. But in America, in this most modern of societies, religion flourishes. It is said that religion “accommodates” itself to modernity, and accommodation is understood as compromise, as surrender on the installment plan. And it is true that different ways of understanding reality jockey with one another for advantage in a complicated give and take. But accommodation can also be understood as creative adaptation. Under the stress of new circumstances that were once seen as threatening, religion may propose a reenchantment and resacralization of the world, and the sea of faith is again
at the full, and round
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
The protean capacity for adaptation and renewal is the very story of Christianity from its beginnings. This is hardly surprising in a religion that is premised upon the promise that its adherents will be led into an ever fuller understanding of the truth. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman refined the notion of “the development of doctrine” that is now officially part of Catholic teaching, but in the very first centuries theologians acted on the same intuition. The early Church Fathers spoke of “the spoils of Egypt.” Just as the children of Israel took with them on their journey the riches of Egypt, so, it is said, the Church appropriates the wisdom of Greece and Rome and turns it to the service of the gospel. Similarly, in the thirteenth century when many feared the rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, in one of the greatest careers of creative adaptation, recruited “the philosopher” to the illumination of Christian truth. So too, the stark antithesis between religion and science that excited so many in the nineteenth century is increasingly an historical curiosity as Christian thinkers have not only appropriated the insights of science but today are frequently the champions of scientific reason against its postmodernist and anti-foundationalist detractors.
From the beginning of the Christian story, conflicts and battles give way to accommodation, adaptation, and co-optation. The process is often dragged out and disorderly, a matter of fits and starts, of apparent advances and retreats—which is advance and which is retreat becomes evident only over time. Within the Christian community itself, in all its maddening diversity, there are running disputes over what is authentic development and what is illegitimate compromise, over what is unfolding orthodoxy and what is heretically deviant. Short of the Kingdom of God, when we shall, in the words of Paul, “know even as we are known,” Christians live with a large measure of “cognitive dissonance.” It is the normal state of Christian existence in the “now” and “not yet” of the world as it is. Spirit-guided discernment and testing is the constant task. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is doubtful that the job of sorting out rival truth claims and prophecies is any more difficult in the twenty-first century than it was in the first. In fact, it is even possible that, having had much more practice than the early Church, Christians are getting better at it.
While We’re At It
• In an informative and generally balanced article on Holocaust denial and revisionism, D.D. Guttenplan writes in the Atlantic Monthly about the British trial of journalist-historian David Irving, who sued an American scholar for libel. Irving claimed that he lost a book contract and otherwise suffered injury from an orchestrated campaign to discredit him because of his long-standing assertions that the conventional telling of the Holocaust “myth” is greatly exaggerated. Irving lost in court, but Guttenplan recognizes that there is legitimate scholarly dispute about the number of Jews killed and the number of survivors living today, and agrees that much survivor testimony is historically unreliable. Such matters, he says, are legitimate subjects for study by historians. He writes, “And when they are prevented from doing it, either by Jewish groups who feel that the Holocaust belongs to them alone or by Zionists seeking to preserve Israel’s ‘moral capital,’ the result is a blurring of distinctions between memory and propaganda that serves only the interests of the Nazi perpetrators and their political legatees.” He ends his long article by recounting a visit with Raul Hilberg, whose monumental 1962 study, The Destruction of the European Jews, undergirds much of subsequent Holocaust scholarship. At his house in Vermont, Hilberg says of Irving and other revisionists, “If these people want to speak, let them. I am not for taboos and I am not for repression.” What Hilberg is for is facts. Insisting that he is an atheist, Hilberg says, “These numbers do matter . . . call it religious, if you like.” Guttenplan concludes that “Hilberg’s passion for detail, his police-reporter’s faith in getting it down right, stayed with me longer than any of the conflicting sympathies aroused by my inquiries. The sanctity of facts. It isn’t much. It may not be enough. But it is all we have.” Not the sanctity of life nor the sanctity of the lives but the sanctity of the facts about the numbers. Surely whatever sanctity is possessed by the facts and numbers is derived from the sanctity of persons, which is derived from. . . . Ah, but then there is that little matter of atheism.
• The redoubtable David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values does his necessary bit in cursing the darkness, but takes a break to note some encouraging signs: “In Wisconsin, the new state budget provides for a full-time position in the Department of Health and Family Services that will have the responsibility of working with clergy and civic leaders across the state to develop community-wide marriage policies. Pioneered by Mike McManus, the founder and president of Marriage Savers, based in Maryland, these policies bring together local clergy to develop shared standards for marriage preparation and education. When implemented, one main result of the policy is that all engaged couples, as a condition of getting married in a local church or synagogue, participate in a cooperatively developed program of premarital counseling and education. In Florida, the organization Family First recently released a study of state marriage trends, Marriage Matters: A Social Analysis of the State of the Union. Family First is one of several state organizations around the country—others include the Michigan Family Forum and the Washington Family Council—that increasingly focus on marriage, including marriage law reform and/or marriage education. In Oklahoma last year, Governor Frank Keating made cutting the state’s divorce rate by one-third an explicit goal of his Administration. Keating’s speech was the first time that any U.S. governor every formally proposed such an objective. Shortly thereafter in Arkansas, Governor Mike Huckabee sponsored a state conference on the family, focusing especially on marriage. ‘It’s time to declare a marital emergency in Arkansas,’ declared the Governor. He called for cutting the state’s divorce rate by half. In New Mexico, a Governor’s conference on marriage is currently in the planning stages. In Utah, Governor Michael Leavitt has created a thirteen-member Commission on Marriage to ‘recommend and, where possible, help implement ways to promote, strengthen, and increase awareness of the importance of marriage.’“ Now I hear some libertarians in the peanut gallery objecting, “Nanny state!” And it is true that there are distinct limits to what government can or should do to discourage vice and encourage virtue. But political leaders do have pulpits, bully or otherwise, from which they can point directions. And, for better and worse, there are numerous government programs that have an impact on what people decide about marriage and family life. Since such programs will likely be with us for the duration, the least we can do is to try to tilt them toward virtue.
• Condoms, according to the British medical journal Lancet, are viewed as “seat belts for sex.” A problem revealed in the article’s detailed statistical analysis is that seat belts seem to have almost no relation to the incidence of automobile injuries or deaths. As, the same article says, is also the case with condoms and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The authors conclude, “We should ask whether we have the right balance between messages about condom promotion and partner reduction or selection.” That, I take it, is academese for self-discipline, abstinence, and maybe even fidelity.
• “Marxism is humanism to the highest degree,” writes Charles C. West, emeritus professor of ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary. Charles West is an honorable man, and during the Cold War demonstrated courage in opposing the compromise of Christianity with Soviet-sponsored “peace” movements. “In its Communist form the vision failed,” he acknowledges, but it is obvious that, for him, the Marxist vision lives on. Writing in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, West, who was himself a missionary in China before Mao’s triumph, describes at length the failures of Marxism “in its Communist form” (in the real world it had no other) without mentioning the estimated 150 million people it killed. He concludes, “What is the form of a just, equal, and caring society that could take the place of Marxism? What is the vision of common humanity that can transcend the savage tribal wars that now divide us? No such vision is out there today.” Really? For a vision of authentic humanism that provides a coherent, comprehensive, and compelling picture of a possible human future, he might read George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. John Paul is among those who recognize that Marxism, in both theory and practice, radically dehumanized the human project. It is a great sadness that a learned, honorable, and devoutly Christian thinker such as Charles West should so miss it.
• The New Republic calls it “a new argument on abortion.” It’s not exactly new, but neither is it uninteresting, especially in view of its source. The author of the article, Gregg Easterbrook, makes his position clear: “Women are right to fear that political factions are working to efface their rights. Late-term abortion is simply not the ground on which to stage the defense—because, unless the mother’s life is at stake, late-term abortion is wrong.” Brain activity at the point of Roe v. Wade‘s “third-trimester” approximates what is ordinarily meant by consciousness, according to the medical authorities consulted by Easterbrook, and there is no doubt that in being aborted “the fetus will feel the pain of death and may even, in some sense, be aware that it is being killed.” In a decent society, he says, trade-offs are recognized as necessary and people should be able to reach a compromise. His proposed compromise is this: “It is time to admit what everyone knows and what the new science makes clear: the third-trimester abortion should be very tightly restricted. The hopelessly confusing viability standard should be dropped in favor of a bright line at the start of the third trimester, when complex fetal brain activity begins. Restricting abortion after that point would not undermine the rights granted by Roe, because there is no complex brain activity before the third trimester and thus no slippery slope to start down. Scientifically based late-term abortion restrictions would not enter into law poignant but unprovable spiritual assumptions about the spark of life but would simply protect lives whose humanity is now known.” Easterbrook also makes much of the fact that science has now discovered that as many as two-thirds of all conceptions (fertilizations) perish by “natural” causes and do not result in a baby. The discovery is hardly new, and would seem to be somewhat beside the point. Abortion is at every point in time aimed at destroying the life that might become what everybody would recognize as a baby. Easterbrook’s third-trimester proposal, however, would in some respects be a significant advance. It could save thousands of lives. (Perhaps to appease pro-choicers, Easterbrook seriously underestimates the number of late abortions at present.) It would represent a change of direction away from the culture of death. But of course he is dead wrong about those “poignant but unprovable spiritual assumptions about the spark of life” at the very earliest point of pregnancy. It is an indisputable scientific fact that this life, barring natural catastrophe or intervention to terminate it, will become what is indisputably a human baby. At even one-week old it is what a one-week-old baby looks like. It is what you and I looked like when we were one-week old. It is possible the movement in law and public policy will turn toward something like Easterbrook’s proposed compromise. Such a provisional compromise might be welcomed by pro-lifers, so long as it understood that it is not a settlement. A morally and politically satisfactory settlement of the abortion question may never be possible. The only satisfactory settlement is “Every child, born and unborn, protected in law and welcomed in life.” That is the goal made imperative by moral reasoning and scientific evidence. Whether it is politically or legally attainable will be determined by the relentless contention for the culture of life in the years to come. In the context of that contention, the New Republic article is, as I say, not uninteresting.
• As noted before, there is much cheering but also a more than moderate measure of carping about the new Ave Maria Law School that is being launched with funding from Thomas Monaghan’s sale of Domino’s Pizza. This from a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “‘They’re implying that the other twenty-six Catholic law schools aren’t Catholic enough, so they have to take their pizza money and put it elsewhere,’ grumbles Father [Robert F.] Drinan, a former dean at Boston College Law School.” Monika K. Hellwig, Director of the Association of Catholic College and Universities, agrees with Fr. Drinan: “Catholic law schools, and the Jesuit schools in particular . . . pride themselves on being extremely Catholic.” While news of that development is most welcome, one does hope that they will manage to keep their extremism in check.
• In poor countries around the world, AIDS is the fastest growing cause of adult deaths. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 22.5 million people are infected. In Botswana, 50 percent of the adult population has the disease, lowering life expectancy from 65.2 years in 1996 to 47.4 years today. Every day 4,900 Africans are dying of AIDS. According to Debbie Dortzbach, a public health professional working in Africa since 1973, the reasons for the catastrophe are several. First, the spread from the West of the sexual revolution that overwhelmed cultural restraints against promiscuity. Second, urbanization of employment, resulting in men being separated from their families for many months at a time. Third, population displacement because of wars, with the accompanying patterns of rape and promiscuity among soldiers. Fourth, the lack of health care, which multiplies the incidence of HIV. Is the situation very different among Christians? “That’s a tragic part of much of the church in Africa,” says Dortzbach. “There has been revival, but I don’t believe there’s adequate teaching or discipleship or mentoring or strengthening of husband-and-wife relationships.” Both Protestants and Catholics report enormous missionary growth in Africa, but sometimes it seems that evangelization and death are racing neck and neck. Says a Pentecostal pastor in Zambia, “When you invest in people and spend your life with the poor, God has a way of rewarding you. Your life has been worthwhile.” Small comfort, some may say, but they do not begin to understand.
• No good deed goes unpunished. The Jewish Discovery of Islam (Syracuse University Press) is a tribute to Bernard Lewis, the distinguished scholar of the Middle East who in 1976 was attacked by Edward Said of Columbia University as the chief of the “Orientalists” who have, according to Said, promulgated a hatred of Islam. The book, edited by Martin Kramer and reviewed by Daniel Pipes in Commentary, documents the ways in which Jewish scholars, beginning in the nineteenth century, frequently took the side of Islam against Christian scholars—and, sometimes, against Christianity. Now, notes Pipes, the romantic image of Islam propagated by Jewish scholars has been largely embraced by Muslims who employ it against Jews and the State of Israel. Pipes writes, “It is an old story, this story of good will rewarded with enmity, but seldom has it been illuminated with such bitter clarity.”
• Ancient truths are ever in need of fresh and winsome restatement. That need is met in several short pamphlets sent our way and published under Lutheran auspices. “When New Life Is an Unwelcome Gift” addresses women considering an abortion and women who have had an abortion. “Is This the Way God Made Me?” and “Can Homosexual Love Be Blessed?” sympathetically engage the vexed and vexing question of sexual orientation. Clergy and local churches of all denominations may want to keep a supply of these on hand. For samples, write American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, P.O. Box 327, Delhi, New York 13573 (please include return postage).
• So what’s wrong with libertarianism? Possible answers come along at a reliable pace. Here, for instance, is a new book put out by that libertarian stronghold, the Cato Institute. Written by Stephen Moore and the late Julian Simon, it is titled The Greatest Century That Ever Was: 25 Miraculous Trends of the Past 100 Years. The book argues that “The latter part of the nineteenth century was an era of tuberculosis, typhoid, sanitariums, child labor, horses, horse manure, candles, twelve-hour work days, Jim Crow laws, tenements, slaughterhouses, and outhouses. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, life expectancy has increased by thirty years, infant mortality rates have fallen ten-fold, the number of cases of deadly disease (tuberculosis, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, and pneumonia) has fallen to fewer than fifty per 100,000, air quality has improved by 30 percent in major cities (since 1977), agricultural productivity has risen five-to-ten fold, the average annual per capita output has risen seven-fold, and real wages have nearly quadrupled.” All the many examples given in support of that argument are material in nature. Not a word about culture, not a word about personal or public virtue; not a word about its being the bloodiest century in human history, with wars, genocides, and ideological crusades resulting in close to 200 million killings. For all the undoubted advances chronicled by Moore and Simon, the twentieth century, like all time short of the Kingdom of God, was a continuation of the libido dominandi of Augustine’s terrestrial city, with the passions of vice unleashed in unprecedented horror. The greatest century that ever was? Only a mind controlled by libertarianism could think so.
• Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has issued a report, “Curious Courtship: Why the Christian Coalition is Wooing Women.” The report explains that on “reproductive freedom” and other issues “the Coalition’s views conflict with what women want.” Freud asked, “What do women want?” Barry Lynn knows. But if he is right, he has no reason to worry about his opponents’ wooing.
• Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School says nothing new when he notes that oldline Protestant denominations “have been declining numerically, losing social influence, and undergoing an identity crisis.” At the same time, evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic groups are experiencing explosive growth around the world. It took thirty years for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to reach agreement on justification by faith in the “Joint Declaration” signed last fall. Volf writes: “In the time it takes for ecumenical agreement to be reached on just one doctrine, dozens of new denominations and thousands of loosely associated congregations will emerge worldwide with a multimillion membership. All the ecumenical running notwithstanding, we will continue to fall behind.” An older ecumenical movement believed that theology is important, but many today do not share that conviction. “Doctrines matter,” says Volf, “and one major theological task is to help churches understand why.” Without that conviction, ecumenism faces a very iffy future. “We can neither abandon an ecumenism of dialogues nor rest satisfied with it. How to get past this quandary is the most important problem facing the ecumenical movement today. The crisis of ecumenical institutions is real (as in debates about the survival and shape of the National Council of Churches), and it demands our attention. But we will hardly be able to create healthy institutions if we are unclear about the very nature of the ecumenical work that will be required in the future.”
• When I commented on Mark Hulsether’s Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941-1993, I was not able to find much to commend it. Now, in the Christian Century, former C&C editors and others have taken issue with the book. Hulsether writes to the editors: “I wish that the crossfire involving former C&C constituents would consist less in us sniping at each other and more in responding to the fire directed at us from neoconservatives.” Close ranks, guys. Don’t you know who the enemy is?
• Now let’s see if I get this straight. Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame comments on a new report on Catholic seminarians and sees some very real problems. First, many of them “feel quite free to defy the faculty.” Second, “approximately half are either converts to Catholicism or Catholics who had not practiced their faith since childhood.” Third, “for a growing proportion of seminarians (25 percent), English is their second language.” In other words, they think for themselves, their vocations emerge not from “the system” but from personal conversion and decision, and they are multicultural. One might think that this would cheer the cockles of Fr. McBrien’s heart, for he is the most liberal of liberals. Not at all. The problem is that these seminarians are “conservative.” Or, as Fr. McBrien puts it, they are “resistant to the renewal brought about by Vatican II [and] distract faculty and other students from the work at hand.” In short, they disrupt business as usual. So says Fr. McBrien, the most establishment of establishmentarians.
• I recently spoke at the University of Pennsylvania at a conference titled “Extended Life, Eternal Life” and funded by the Templeton Foundation. It was, all in all, a chilling experience, with the “humanists” being greatly outnumbered by the “hard scientists” who made no secret of their enthusiasm for the revived eugenics project and the supposed inevitability of the eventual “conquest of mortality.” The conference featured a debate between that font of moral wisdom, Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, and Lee Silver, a Princeton professor of molecular biology who is a leading propagandist for the manipulation of the genetic code in which venture capitalists and biologists have invested hopes of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. It was a wondrous thing at the conference to listen to academics with life histories of support for leftist causes insouciantly proclaiming that decisions about the reconstruction of the humanum should be left to the forces of the free market. At a later date, I will return to that conference and the larger questions about the return of eugenics. Meanwhile, I note that a few days after the conference, Prof. Silver had an op-ed piece in the Times that concludes with this: “The public is understandably nervous about the idea of companies profiting from our genetic code. But if the goal is to make this genetic information useful as soon as possible, the debate should be focused on fair business practices and regulatory issues, not on ethics.” Forget ethics. That at least has the merit of candor.
• The Orthodox Reader describes itself as a newsletter on “issues of interest to Orthodox Christians.” But not only to the Orthodox, one might add. A recent issue praises Paul Marshall’s important book on religious persecution, Their Blood Cries Out, which documents in painful detail the persecution of Christians in Sudan, Nigeria, China, Egypt, and elsewhere. But then the editor writes: “Unlike many Westerners, Marshall is well informed as to the history and place of Orthodoxy. But concepts of freedom of religion clash with older concepts inherent to Orthodox doctrine.” The Orthodox Reader follows that up with this: “When the Soviet Union collapsed, nearly every religious group on the planet looked on the newly freed peoples of the vanquished empire as fair game for proselytization. To the Protestant mind, faith has become a matter of market competition. In this milieu, it is not transcendent truth that should prevail but marketing. The shameful truth of evangelical Christianity is that it is more likely to seek conversion of other Christians than to address the hard work of making ‘disciples of all the nations.’“ The criticism is undoubtedly just in the case of some evangelicals, but surely the appropriate response of Russian Orthodoxy should be one of renewed evangelization of its own people rather than pressing the government to limit religious freedom. The claim that “concepts of freedom of religion clash with older concepts inherent to Orthodox doctrine” has its parallels in claims made by, for instance, Islamic countries. Call it marketing or call it evangelization, in the world that is now upon us selective support for religious freedom will not wash.
• “For the first time the Southern Baptist Convention reports a loss rather than a gain in membership,” says Eileen Lindner, editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. “The percentage of membership loss for the convention is virtually identical to that of the Presbyterian Church (USA), raising increasing doubts about the adequacy of a conservative-church growth as opposed to a progressive-church decline scenario.” While evangelical Protestants sometimes dismiss oldline Protestantism as moribund or dead, it is good to be reminded that approximately one third of the Christians in the country belong to oldline communions where local churches are often more vibrantly orthodox and missionary than the national or regional bodies of which they are part. The reminder also underscores the continuing importance of movements for theological and moral renewal within bodies such as the United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, and Presbyterian Church (USA). On a related subject, the National Association of Evangelicals has dropped its rule that members cannot belong also to the National Council of Churches. Albert Mohler, a Southern Baptist of influence, indicates his displeasure in World: “The evangelical movement now embraces a vast assortment of theological positions and the NAE represents considerable diversity. Is this now to include bodies that identify with the NCC and its liberal agenda? The NAE motto has been ‘cooperation without compromise.’ If admitting NCC members to the NAE is not compromise, what is?” Give me a minute and I’ll come up with a list. Moreover, the NAE has a rather stiff statement of faith to which member organizations must subscribe. If NCC members signed on, some might take that as good news.
• You have likely seen stories in the press about “fanatical” Orthodox Jews in Israel who allegedly jeer, harass, and even throw human feces at the non-Orthodox who pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in ways that violate traditional rules. “Open Season on the Orthodox” is a useful exposé of false and misleading stories published in recent years, including the tale that the Orthodox have declared the non-Orthodox to be “non-Jews.” Writing in Moment, the largest circulation independent Jewish magazine in this country, Avi Shafran offers an interesting take on the agitated question of what counts as a valid conversion. “But perhaps nowhere is the media bias against Orthodoxy more evident than in the reporting of internal political matters in Israel. It is routine to read that the Orthodox seek to disenfranchise other Jews in the Jewish state when all that is really happening (and has happened for the more than fifty years of Israel’s existence) is that attempts are being made to maintain conversion standards accepted by all religious Jews for millennia. The rather straightforward and reasonable notion that multiple standards for conversion will yield multiple Jewish peoples in Israel is seldom given expression in news reports; only the ‘Orthodox monopoly’—with evil and unfair undertones—is blamed. The United States government maintains standards, too, for everything from food labeling to immigration. Seldom, though, does one find either the Food and Drug Administration or the Immigration and Naturalization Service condemned as a monopoly. Is it outrageous for the Jewish state to have a standard—not to mention one with the weight of history and Jewish religious tradition behind it—for conversion?” Shafran concludes that “the way the Orthodox are portrayed and projected today is painfully reminiscent of the way all Jews have been portrayed by their enemies. Tragically, the Orthodox have become the Jews’ own Jews.”
• Commenting on Vermont’s judicial edict that the legislators create something equivalent to marriage for gays and lesbians, Mark Steyn observes that forty years of experiments in “redefining” marriage and family, and forty years of studies of those experiments, lead to the clear conclusion that redefining is disastrous, especially for children. The evidence is in and the general rule is that single parent children and children of divorce are much more likely to end up out of school, or on drugs, or in jail, or all three. And of course academic research is not fine-tuned to register the other unhappinesses they experience. But, as Steyn notes, one thing leads to another. “Given that heterosexuals redefined marriage to provide easier opt-out clauses, it’s no surprise that others have used that wedge to create opt-in clauses.” His description of the upshot of all this may be slightly exaggerated: “Meanwhile, a generation of American children has learned to keep its suitcase packed and a bundle of change-of-address cards on hand. . . . On Sunday Junior’s with Mommy and her lesbian wife, Monday with Grammy and Grampa from Mommy’s first, non-gay marriage, Tuesday with Mommy’s gay biological sperm donor, Wednesday with Mommy’s lesbian’s egg donor’s boyfriend, Thursday with his turkey baster’s manufacturer’s ex-wife, Friday with his shrink. And, if the shrink’s not enough, he can join the rest of the most medicated generation of children in U.S. history on his daily dose of Prozac and/or Ritalin, which seems to work pretty well, at least until the day the kid forgets to take it and guns down his schoolyard.”
• On the website of the United Ministry at Harvard and Radcliffe there is posted a warning to new students about “certain destructive religious groups” that are not part of the United Ministry. Such groups are proselytizing, sometimes claim “a special relationship to God,” and lead to “ego destruction, mind control, manipulation of a member’s relationships with family and friends.” “All the members of the United Ministry,” on the other hand, “are committed to mutual respect and non-proselytization. We affirm the roles of personal freedom, doubt, and open critical reflection in healthy spiritual growth. . . . We’re here to help you have a healthy, happy experience of your own spiritual journey while you’re here at Harvard.” And Jesus said, “I have come to help you have a healthy, happy experience of your own spiritual journey.”
• In 1988 the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America joined to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ALC had a “low church” and pietistic tradition that has now come to the fore with a group called Word Alone that is opposing full communion with the Episcopal Church. The chief sticking point is that full communion would mean Lutherans accepting ordination in an “episcopal succession” received from the Episcopalians. Pastors Leonard Klein and Russell Saltzman write in Forum Letter, an independent Lutheran publication edited by Saltzman, that the resolution of this question “will mark the real end of the merger process” begun in the 1970s. Alternatively, the authors say, it will result in a schism in the ELCA. This is not your usual liberal/conservative split, they note. The Word Alone folk include proponents of gay/lesbian ordination, the abortion license, quota systems, and other items usually termed liberal. It is rather a split between Lutherans who understand ministry in terms of “Word and Sacrament” and those who think the Lutheran Reformation signaled liberation from the Great Tradition. The authors write: “What emerges from Word Alone is what also explains other misfires by the ELCA, the misunderstanding of Lutheranism as the bearer of a bare Protestant Principle that descends to antinomian freedom. Protestant Principle in the hands of Word Alone looks like a high school textbook definition of the Reformation. The Reformation replaced the Magisterium of the Church with the private interpretation of Scripture by the individual. Luther becomes the first modern man, overturning authority for the sake of individual conscience. The hierarchy is scuttled for local autonomy. The believer now has unmediated access to God in a church without saints, sacraments, or clergy. Such Protestantism becomes, as in the light-hearted verse of one northern Irish song, ‘the old cause which gave us our freedom, religion and laws.’“ At the end of the day, however, Klein and Saltzman do not think there will be a major schism. “The ELCA leadership should hold its course, keep talking, keep interpreting, and let the [Word Alone] movement collapse of its own weightlessness.” As a former editor of Forum Letter, I am inclined to think that Klein and Saltzman are right in their prognosis. At the same time, it is questionable whether, by entering into full communion with the Episcopalians, the ELCA would be moving closer to reconciliation with Rome, as some “evangelical catholics” in the ELCA believe. There is the matter of Rome’s not recognizing the validity of Anglican ministerial orders, and, perhaps more important, the increasingly indeterminate nature of the Episcopal Church’s doctrinal commitment. In dialogues of recent decades, Rome has come to appreciate the theological substance and seriousness of Lutherans, a substance and seriousness that some think might be diluted by full communion with Episcopalians. On the other hand, if Lutheran theology takes the viscerally anti-Catholic turn of Word Alone, any hope for reconciliation with Rome is almost certainly doomed. History, it has been observed, is distressingly reluctant to give us the options we prefer.
• The Canadian Parliament has passed Bill C-23, which changes about seventy federal laws in order to put same-sex marriages on the same legal basis as common-law marriages. It was fought by the Centre for Cultural Renewal and other groups who pointed out, inter alia, that the best research indicates that common law has come a cropper and is a flimsy foundation for the attempted legitimation of homosexual unions. But it was pushed through with almost no debate by the very illiberal Liberal government that demanded a party-line vote. The name of the new law is apt: An Act to Modernize Obligations and Benefits. “But you promised!” she protested. “Forget it, baby. Promises have been modernized.”
• Another reality check on evangelical Protestants. Well, at least a statistical check, which is not necessarily the same thing as reality. A national survey of 475 “evangelical leaders” has only 9 percent thinking that evangelical political involvement has been nonproductive and that evangelicals should withdraw from the arena. Then there is this item on immigration, a subject on which evangelicals, who tend to be conservative, are thought to be a touch xenophobic. To the statement “Immigrants harm society by bringing strange customs and beliefs,” 68 percent disagree, 23 percent aren’t sure, and only 9 percent agree. Is nothing stereotypical any more?
• It arrived the day before I was scheduled to debate Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU, at Baruch College, and it came in very handy indeed. “The Growing Impact of Charitable Choice” is a ninety-page study by Dr. Amy L. Sherman on what is happening in nine states since the 1996 welfare reform opened the way to closer collaboration between government and “faith-based organizations.” The study is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice, which is doing the important job of staying on top of these developments. The debate went very well, or so my friends said. (Mr. Glasser’s friends probably told him the same.) A curious thing is that Mr. Glasser seemed to concede that public policy thinking and the courts are fast making the old “strict separationist” arguments about church and state obsolete. He focused almost entirely on contraception and abortion, claiming that religiously connected social services and hospitals “impose their morality” by denying people the choices that are their right. Thus did he reinforce the plausibility of the claim that the agenda of the ACLU on church-state questions is driven most importantly by its commitment to the unlimited abortion license. When pressed, he allowed that the abortion “right” is hotly disputed politically and may not be settled in law. “But I cannot imagine,” he said, “any circumstance in which the right to abortion, at least in the first trimester and perhaps with some restrictions, will be overturned.” In view of the don’t-give-an-inch intransigence of the ACLU on abortion, including its extremist defense of partial-birth abortion, that is a notable concession on the fragility of Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny. But, as I said, the slated subject of the debate was government cooperation with faith-based institutions, and for authoritative information on that subject one can do no better than the Sherman and other studies produced by the Center for Public Justice (P.O. Box 48368, Washington, D.C. 20002).
• A perverse side of supply-side economics, according to critics of the welfare state, is that, if you supply things free, it increases the demand for free things. Not always, however. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch runs a lengthy story on the problem of high school students who are too “proud” to apply for free lunch programs. They don’t want to admit that their families are poor and dependent. The problem is that the grading of schools and the level of state aid for students is keyed to the number of students who are certified as poor. So schools are enticing students not to feed themselves by offering five instead of three entrees in the cafeterias and giving away free video games and CD players to students who file a school-lunch application. Students who buy their own food are disrupting a system of dependency on which the schools have become dependent. Uppity students who refuse to think of themselves as poor are rocking the boat. For the system, it’s a matter of following a novel spin on the words of Jesus, “The poor we need to have always with us.”
• There is environmentalism that is a capacious blanket for sundry leftisms that would otherwise be left shivering in the cold, and then there is environmentalism premised upon the sound biblical premise that we are stewards of the creation. The second environmentalism has received an important boost by the formation of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, which has issued the “Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship,” which, it says here, is “signed by hundreds of America’s most influential religious leaders.” They also let me sign it. The Council will soon be bringing out a book, Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, on which more later. For further information, write the Acton Institute, 161 Ottawa Avenue NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503 or click on www.acton.org/ environment.
• I mentioned earlier that, on the day that John Paul II was ordaining twelve bishops in Rome, the Beijing regime ordered the ordination of five bishops in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. That was viewed as a very direct slap in the face of the Pope. But, according to the South China Morning Post, the occasion may have been more of an embarrassment to the regime. The plan was for twelve men to be ordained bishops, but only five showed up, the others refusing to be ordained without papal permission. Moreover, according to those present at the ceremony, the five publicly and loudly swore allegiance to the Pope, despite a choir that attempted to drown out what they were saying. If that was not embarrassment enough, the 130 seminarians at the state-run National Seminary in Beijing refused to attend the ceremony, although they had earlier participated in rehearsals for it. Pray for the faithful Christians of China, Catholic and Protestant, who every day are teaching us the cost of discipleship. On the encouraging side of the ledger, a few months later the regime permitted the ordination of two bishops who publicly declare their full communion with Rome. Go figure.
• Notably dirty in the Dirty Tricks Dept. of the current presidential campaign to date was the effort of the Democratic leadership to tar Republicans with anti-Catholicism. (Remember Bob Jones University and the House chaplaincy?) Now the Gallup people have done a national survey in which they find that Democrats and Independents are somewhat more likely than Republicans to view Catholicism unfavorably. (“Whereas 55 percent of liberals in this country dissociate themselves from a church, only 35 percent of conservatives fall into the same category.”) Among evangelical and born-again Protestants—that hotbed of anti-Catholic and other prejudices—29 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Catholicism. Among oldline/mainline Protestants the figure is 30 percent. Among those who never go to church or synagogue, fully 54 percent have a negative opinion of the Catholic Church. Upon reflection, there should be no surprise in these findings, but they are worth noting as another item in a long list of things that everybody knows but are not so.
• Pro-abortionists were frustrated at the recent Beijing+5 meeting at the UN when hundreds of young pro-lifers showed up in a well-coordinated effort to demonstrate that the “voice of the people” is somewhat more diverse than the planners claimed. Planned Parenthood and others took steps to exclude such inconvenient diversity at the next gathering, a special meeting described as “intersessional.” Intercession was in order, and at the June meeting it seemed to work, as an even larger contingent of activists prevented the NGO establishment from further expanding the list of anti-life, anti-marriage, and anti-family “rights.”
• That astute cultural critic Gertrude Himmelfarb reads large lessons from John McCain’s campaign going down in flames after he was perceived to be attacking religious conservatives as “forces of evil.” That was hardly the only thing in the primaries that highlighted the continuing force of what are aptly called the culture wars, but it was an important moment underscoring the fact that, despite remarkable prosperity and the appearance of general contentment, this election will likely be decided by deeper currents in our public life. Writing in Commentary, Himmelfarb says, “This, in short, has been a more instructive primary season than most, for it has obliged us once again to take the measure of our country. What we have witnessed is not a political war in the usual sense—a war waged first among the several factions within each party and then between the two parties. Nor is it, more ominously, a Kulturkampf, a religious war that threatens to alter the longstanding relations of church and state. It is something more than the first and less than the second—a new episode in the culture wars that, contrary to the predictions of some, continue to engage us as they have for almost a half century. True, these wars have subsided in recent years, but—unlike the Cold War—they have not gone away. True, too, Americans have never been more prosperous than they are today, and they have sound reason to be contented and optimistic. But good times and good feelings have not dulled their moral and religious sensibilities. The Gilded Age, it is evident, does not satisfy all human needs or solve all social problems. Nor do Good Feelings nullify or transcend deeply held values and beliefs.”
• There was that marvelous moment at Cardinal O’Connor’s funeral when Bernard Cardinal Law declared from the pulpit that “the Church must always be unambiguously pro-life.” This was met by three minutes of standing applause by the thousands in the cathedral, while the Clintons and Gores squirmed. Reporting the event in the next day’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney wrote, “In politics, the phrase ‘pro-life’ is shorthand for opposition to abortion.” Really? In most other venues, such an explanation would seem condescending and unnecessary, but the Times never uses the term “pro-life,” and the self-importance of the Times is such that it is assumed that, if a term is not used by the Times, it is unknown. Thus, for instance, the paper has run hundreds of stories on the controversy over partial-birth abortion, each time explaining that “partial-birth abortion is a term employed by abortion opponents in referring to” etc. Many years ago I remarked in passing to a Times reporter that they should change their style in an item of ecclesiastical nomenclature. It was a minor point and I had quite forgotten about it until I received a three-page letter from the then managing editor that the suggestion had been relayed to him and, after thorough research, they had decided I was right and would change their style book. The last line of the letter explains it all: “And so, Pastor Neuhaus [I was then a Lutheran], you may have the satisfaction of knowing that, in some small way, you have changed history.”
• This from the AP wire: “Lawrenceburg, Ky.—Flames shot fifty feet into the air Tuesday as a blaze consumed a seven-story warehouse full of Wild Turkey bourbon and reduced it to rubble, threatening the city’s water supply.” One man’s threat is another’s opportunity.
• At Gonzaga University, the president, Father Robert Spitzer, disinvited a speaker representing Planned Parenthood because that organization is the country’s leading institutional perpetrator of what the Catholic Church teaches is the “unspeakable crime” of abortion. Fr. Thomas Reese, editor of America, told a Spokane newspaper, “To ban people from coming on campus is an admission that you have not been able to convince your students of the truth . . . and you don’t want people who could lead them astray.” Were he pressed on the matter, I have little doubt that Fr. Reese would come up with a list of people who should not be invited to speak on Catholic campuses. It is simply that his list does not include proponents and practitioners of abortion. “This is a fight I thought we went through in the sixties,” Fr. Reese adds. Ah yes, the good old days of thirty years ago when things seemed so clearly defined. For a certain stripe of progressive, change is painfully unsettling.
• John Leo of U.S. News & World Report says that forty students at the State University of New York, Albany, protested the use of the word “picnic” to describe an event honoring baseball’s great Jackie Robinson. The students charged racism, claiming that “picnic” originally referred to lynchings of blacks. Leo points out that it is a seventeenth-century French word for a gathering in which people bring their own food. The university’s affirmative action director, Zaheer Mustafa, agreed with the students, and the posters for the event were changed to call it an “outing.” After homosexual students objected to that, the event was publicized without a noun indicating what was going on. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not just for the military any more.
• The argument has been called clever, and it is that, but it is also more than that. In his new book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster), David Brooks proves himself an acute analyst of society and culture. The Bobos (bourgeois bohemians) in question are the people who are sometimes called “the new class”—well-educated, hard-working, and achievement-oriented folk who more or less live by bourgeois values but do so with an ironic lacing of self-consciously sophisticated bohemianism. Brooks recognizes that he is himself a Bobo, and he offers in a humorous and sometimes self-deprecating vein a mass of details on the jargon, eating habits, dress, musical tastes, distinctive consumption, and domestic habits of the elite to which he belongs. This new upper class, he says, is probably secure for as far as we can see into the future because it is an intensely meritocratic elite that is self-critical and morally flexible enough to co-opt whatever might challenge its rule. All in all, says Brooks, this is a fairly happy state of affairs. The morality of Bobos “doesn’t try to perch atop the high ground of divine revelation.” They are interested in spirituality but “cautious of moral crusades and religious enthusiasms. . . . They tolerate a little lifestyle experimentation, so long as it is done safely and moderately. They are offended by concrete wrongs, like cruelty and racial injustice, but are relatively unmoved by lies or transgressions that don’t seem to do anyone obvious harm.” Mr. Brooks’ conclusion is that “This is a good morality for building a decent society.” Brooks writes regularly for the Weekly Standard and is usually thought to be a conservative. There is, in fact, something deeply conservative about not expecting too much from people, about recognizing the value of quotidian niceness. At the same time, in his depiction, Bobos are preciously self-referential beings, apparently attuned to the bargain basement utilitarianism of a pleasure/pain calculus that is hardly up to providing a reason for bearing the burdens of others, or even to coping with the inevitabilities of their own serious self-doubt, failure, fragility, and death. Like the denizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, there are few intensities among these people amply supplied with the soma of their smugly mutual approbation. It is difficult to know what the phrase “decent society” means in this case, absent the awareness of evil or transcendent good. Brooks provides a clever and sometimes insightful analysis, but we have to hope that, as a generalization about our new ruling class, it is wrong. In his telling, the Bobos are philistines. Affluent, talented, and fashionably ironic philistines, to be sure, but philistines nonetheless. Their “paradise” is purchased at too high a cost to their humanity.
• Fear of Christianity, writes Yossi Klein Halevi of the Jerusalem Report, is one of the few emotions shared by secular and religious Israelis. “And so watching the Israeli media’s coverage of the Pope’s visit felt almost illicit. Never before had Israelis been exposed so intensively and so positively to Christianity. The government TV channel’s logo for the visit featured a cross. News segments described the Sermon on the Mount, newscasters quoted from the New Testament, and the Hebrew press discovered that monks and nuns actually live among us. Suddenly Christianity became part of the Israeli landscape. The Vatican recognized Israel in 1993, but only last week did the Israeli public reciprocate. Like the rapprochement with Germany in the 1950s and the peace process with the Arab world in the 1990s, the normalization of relations with Christianity is easing the traumas of exile and making Israel a healthier society.” Watching the papal Mass on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Halevi unexpectedly found himself feeling grateful to Jesus. “Jews traditionally blamed Jesus for their woes; but, as an Israeli, I could appreciate him for connecting the Christian world to my country, enhancing this land with prayer. I thought of the secular Zionist pioneers who’d founded the first kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee; little did they realize that welcoming Jesus home would be Zionism’s final gift of healing to the Jews.” Watching the Mass held on the Mount of Beatitudes, Martin Peretz of the New Republic was impressed that “Jewish-Catholic relations will never be the same again.” At the same time, he had a more doleful thought: “But this stunning achievement comes also in the dark dusk of Christianity’s own immemorial existence in the Holy Land. Palestine’s Christian diaspora, like that of the rest of the Middle East, is now scattered from Sydney to Buenos Aires to Detroit—scattered, mostly, by political Islam. The Pope’s Mass on the Mount of the Beatitudes was peopled not with 100,000 local Christians but with pilgrims who wanted to follow the Holy Father in the footsteps of Jesus. One more reason for this towering man to weep.”
• The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a “dramatic comedy” that featured a dog receiving communion at a Catholic Mass. In response to viewer protests, the CBC sent out a form letter. “It is true that a scene from the film depicts a parishioner having communion with her dog, but by no means is this event or other religious rites portrayed in the film done in a disrespectful manner.” Oh well, that’s okay then. So long as sacrilege is depicted in a respectful manner.
• The United Methodist Church (UMC), with 8.4 million members, is sometimes called the mainline of the Protestant mainline. The recent General Conference, which is the church’s highest decision-making body, gave evidence of mainly heartening redirections. Perhaps most significant was a 70 percent vote putting the UMC on record as opposing partial-birth abortion. Before this, UM agencies have relentlessly and without exception opposed any limits on the abortion license. Reaffirmed was the position that homosexual acts are incompatible with Christian ethics and admission to Christian ministry. Overwhelmingly passed was an addition to the church’s Social Principles stating that “the state should not prohibit the free exercise of voluntary prayer in public schools or at other public occasions.” This, too, was a change, in that UM agencies in the past opposed school prayer initiatives. The Social Principles flatly condemned all war and UM agencies opposed almost all U.S. military initiatives, but now it is officially acknowledged that “most Christians” believe war is justified in some circumstances, such as “unchecked aggression, tyranny, and genocide.” Moreover, the church’s credal affirmation was firmed up with the assertion that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all.” Finally, in a message to Pope John Paul II and in response to his confession of the use of force against Protestants, the General Conference said, “In the instance of misunderstandings, insensitivities, and harm brought about by the United Methodist Church and its predecessors in faith to the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholics, we, in turn, ask forgiveness for our deeds of commission and omission.” Oh yes, and more than 30 percent of voting delegates voted to dismantle the Board of Church and Society, the leftist Washington lobby of the denomination. The majority were not willing to go that far but clearly wanted to send a message that the “silent majority” in the UMC is silent no more. Some describe this General Conference in terms of a conservative ascendancy, and there may be something to that. What seems to be beyond doubt is that the membership is less and less inclined to uncritically acquiesce in the line imposed by the denominational bureaucracy, and that is surely a sign of vitality.
• I don’t have the exact figures, but it may be that most Catholic bishops do not permit pro-choice politicians to speak under auspices they control. The pro-choice governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, was recently the featured speaker at the annual dinner of the Foundation for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. The bishop explained in his diocesan newspaper: “No doubt, it is difficult to be the chief. I can empathize with that. Nevertheless, in order to be faithful to the living out of Christ’s mission within us, we must witness to the totality of his teachings, no matter what our office and no matter what the ‘fallout.’ That is why he, as Governor, should seriously consider changing his position to a pro-life posture. That is why I, as Bishop, allowed the Governor to speak.” Any other questions?
• “The American Assembly.” The very name bespeaks the super-establishment status of this project that was launched in 1950 by Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University. Its board of trustees includes venerable names of American finance, industry, and diplomacy, and it is amply funded by a long list of leading foundations and corporations. Meeting at Arden House, an elegant home given to Columbia by W. Averell Harriman, the Ninety-Sixth American Assembly, as part of a larger project titled “Uniting America: Toward Common Purpose,” recently addressed “Matters of Faith: Religion in American Public Life,” the ubiquitous Martin E. Marty moderating the discussion among fifty-seven participants. I mean no disrespect when I say that, given the above profile, one might have limited expectations. The predictable product would be composed either of establishment banalities or politically correct clichés, the two frequently being indistinguishable. In fact, that did not happen. The final report is, all in all, a remarkably intelligent, balanced, and useful reflection on religion and public life. The report’s epigraph cites the Declaration on “unalienable rights,” plus Article VI of the Constitution against religious tests and the Religion Clause of the First Amendment. “We, the participants in the Religion in Public Life American Assembly, in recognition of our religiously diverse American union, reaffirm the intrinsic worth and dignity of each human being and our commitment to the principle of religious freedom.” That’s the opening line. Note “human being,” not “person,” as in Roe v. Wade‘s dicta about who counts as a person. The statement affirms “the right of individuals and faith communities to bring their beliefs into the arena of public discourse. . . . Religious voices are a vital component of our national conversation, and should be heard in the public square. . . . Every local school district should work with parents and community leaders to develop clear religious liberty policies on student religious expression that reflect the new consensus under current law. . . . This Assembly generally supports the concept of cooperation between government and faith-based organizations in the provision of social services. The religious character of their efforts often can be integral to their programs. . . . This Assembly’s work together has reminded us that religious liberty is a bedrock value that animates our republic, undergirds our civic morality, and defines us as a people.” Those are but a few highlights from a twenty-three-page statement that deserves to become an important point of reference in ongoing public discussion. Among the fifty-seven participants are names familiar to the readers of this journal, including: Hadley Arkes, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert P. George, Diane Knippers, David Novak, and William L. Saunders. There are many things that they and we might want said that are not said here, but if one is looking for a consensus statement reflecting what Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others of various ethnic, racial, and ideological backgrounds can say together on these questions at the beginning of a new century, there is nothing comparable to Matters of Faith: Religion in American Public Life. The statement is available from The American Assembly, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, New York 10115 or at www.americanassembly.org.
• Those of a certain age will remember when Woody Allen was considered, with considerable justice, a great comic talent. Subsequent years have not been kind to him, or he to them. Now there is his Cinemax TV movie, Picking Up the Pieces. Allen has said, “I’m Jewish, but I’m not religious in any significant way; I don’t have any respect for any of the major religions.” He has a most particular thing about Catholicism, however. The plot of the film turns around a butcher (Allen) who carves up his wife and buries the parts in a desert, where one of the hands (with a stiff middle finger) is discovered by a blind woman who is promptly cured and declares it to be the hand of the Virgin Mary. She goes to a money-grubbing priest (who is having sex with a prostitute) and he advertises the hand as a miracle-working relic that has produced such wonders as enlarged breasts for a woman and a big penis for a dwarf. Along the way, we are informed that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ whore and Mother Teresa had “sex slaves.” Sometimes the kindest thing is simply to avert one’s eyes and remember people for the gift that once was theirs.
• How one doctor got into deep trouble with the medical establishment when he refused to cooperate with the abortion regime of Roe v. Wade is the story told in I’ll Bet My Life On It: One Doctor’s Experience in American Medicine by Ronald G. Connolly (361 pages,, plus appendices. Available through Amazon.com, list price $21).
• “Dr. Laura [Schlessinger] is one of America’s most forceful and persuasive advocates for traditional marriage and family. She opposes the radical project of gay activists, and the secular left in general, to eliminate religious values from public life. That is why these intolerant extremists are determined to silence her.” So says Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, and I have no doubt he is right about that. A small downside about living in Manhattan and not having an automobile is that I have few occasions to listen to talk radio. I have heard Dr. Schlessinger a couple of times and that, together with what friends tell me, makes me think she’s on the side of the angels, if a bit peremptory in her judgments—perhaps necessarily so, given the format of the program. Those who want to censure or, if possible, silence her are apparently upset by her assertions that homosexuality is a deviation from the heterosexual norm, a proposition that would seem to be beyond reasonable debate. A reader says this journal should be in the forefront of shaming her enemies into giving up their persecution of her. A good idea perhaps, but our pitifully limited forces are already deployed on many fronts, and, in any event, the shameless are not easily shamed. The culture wars provide a target-rich environment, and many do not receive the attention they deserve. We try to do our little bit, however, and I am grateful that, in this instance, Rabbi Lapin and many others are able to do more.
• In the culture wars, writes Brigham Young University professor of law Frederick Mark Gedicks, Mormons occupy something of a “no man’s land.” Members of the LDS share with the left “the sensitivity to minorities,” but that is not enough of a bond “to overcome the broad range of issues on which our views are unquestionably conservative.” At the same time, however, “It is far from clear that Latter-day Saint interests are better served by a public morality defined by a majoritarian religious movement little concerned about minority rights, instead of a secular morality which disdains religion as anachronistic and irrelevant but which nevertheless is committed to protecting the rights of religious minorities.” The gist of his argument is that, while Mormons and conservative Christians are allied on many issues in the culture wars, the alliance is more strategic—perhaps even tactical—than substantive and should by no means be taken for granted.
• Yes, I saw the article by Franklin Foer in the New Republic (“Is Bush Catholic?”) alleging that my friends and I, in league with certain evangelical Protestant coconspirators, have captured the Bush campaign to advance Catholic social doctrine. Although my influence is much exaggerated by Mr. Foer, there is considerable truth in the claim that Governor Bush has embraced, at least in part, the concept of “subsidiarity” and the role of “mediating institutions” in society, as is evident in, for example, his proposals for parental choice in education, the importance of faith-based institutions in meeting social needs, and the devolution of decision making to those most affected by the decisions made. While good liberals at TNR may think there is something sinister in this, I, not surprisingly, find it quite heartening. And, of course, I would be glad to discuss subsidiarity with Mr. Gore as well, but so far he has not invited me.
• Here’s another release from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. “The Faith Factor in Election 2000: Christians Could be a Swing Vote.” About 90 percent of Americans claim to be Christians, and Barna’s definition of “born-again Christians” includes eighty-three million adults, of whom sixty million are regular voters. A swing vote? It sounds more like an absolute majority. It is a little like news reporters ominously observing that a candidate is dependent upon “the religious right,” which means voters who are both Christian and conservative. The suggestion is that democracy is threatened by upwards of a hundred million citizens injecting themselves into the political process. Who let them in?
• We will have more on this later, but you should know about a most heartening development. You may have seen news reports on The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles. I was pleased to sign it, along with an astonishing array of public figures across the political and ideological spectrum who have come to recognize the urgency of a cultural, moral, and public policy effort in support of the institution of marriage. This important initiative is sponsored by the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Institute for American Values. For more information, write the Institute at 1841 Broadway, New York, New York 10023 or visit the website, www.marriagemovement.org.
• In the tenth anniversary issue I had some remarks on how we came up with the name of the journal. The Ur-source, so to speak, is Origen’s Peri Archon, which may be roughly translated as “first things.” Along the way, I denied that we had stolen the name from Hadley Arkes’ fine book by the same title, and certainly not from a 1924 book, First Things, which is a collection of exhortative essays by one Cheesman Herrick. An alert reader, Christian Mikkelson, writes to report that in the stacks of McCabe Library at Swarthmore College there is another book by Mr. Herrick, published in 1936 and titled, wouldn’t you know it, More First Things. Mr. Mikkelson goes on to say that he had always assumed that the title of the journal was inspired by the reflections of C. S. Lewis in God in the Dock. There Lewis wrote, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. . . . What things are first? . . . The only reply I can offer here is that if we do not know, then the first and only truly practical thing is to set about finding out.” I had read God in the Dock many years ago—in fact, it is an expression I employ in my new book, Death on a Friday Afternoon—and it may very well be that I had forgotten that that is how “first things” got into my head in the first place. Origen or Lewis? I can live with either.
• We really do not make a point of being provocative. But we receive more than enough letters from readers who say they are provoked, not meaning that in a complimentary sense. Our purpose is to present ideas clearly, honestly, fairly, and engagingly. And it is gratifying in the extreme that we hear from many more readers saying that that is why FT is their favorite publication. 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.
New York Times articles on Cardinal O’Connor, May 7, 2000.
While We’re At It: D. D. Guttenplan on David Irving, Atlantic Monthly, February 2000. David Blankenhorn on marriage and public policy, Propositions, Winter 2000. On condoms and seat belts, Lancet, January 29, 2000. Charles C. West on Marxism, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2000. Gregg Easterbrook on late-term abortions, New Republic, January 31, 2000. On Thomas Monaghan and Ave Maria Law School, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2000. On AIDS in Africa, Christianity Today, February 7, 2000. The Jewish Discovery of Islam reviewed by Daniel Pipes, Commentary, March 2000. On book The Greatest Century That Ever Was, Cato Institute press release, December 15, 1999. Miroslav Volf on ecumenism, Christian Century, March 1, 2000. Mark Hulsether letter to Christian Century, March 1, 2000. Richard McBrien on Catholic seminarians, National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000. Lee Silver op-ed on genetic engineering, New York Times, March 16, 2000. On Their Blood Cries Out by Paul Marshall, Orthodox Reader, April 2000. Statistics on Southern Baptist and mainline churches, Christian Century, March 8, 2000, and World, March 25, 2000. On untruthful media reports about Orthodox Jews in Israel, Moment, February 2000. Mark Steyn on the redefinition of marriage, Spectator, January 15, 2000. On the ALC, LCA, and ELCA, Forum Letter, April 2000. On Canada’s Bill C-23, personal correspondence. National Association of Evangelicals survey question on immigration, Insight, April 2000. On free school lunches and dependency, World, February 12, 2000. On ordination of Chinese bishops, South China Morning Post, March 2, 2000. Comparative anti-Catholicism, Catholic New York. April 13, 2000. Gertrude Himmelfarb on “The Election and the Culture War,” Commentary, May 2000. AP story on fire at Wild Turkey bourbon warehouse, May 9, 2000. Fr. Thomas Reese on banning campus speakers, quoted in Cardinal Newman Society press release, May 8, 2000. On the Jackie Robinson event at SUNY-Albany, Family Research Council press release, May 16, 2000. Yossi Klein Halevi on the Pope in Israel and Martin Peretz on the Christian diaspora, New Republic, April 10, 2000. On Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program showing a dog receiving communion at a Catholic Mass, National Post, May 16, 2000. On the United Methodist Church, IRD press release, May 17, 2000; Catholic Trends, May 13, 2000. Woody Allen quoted in Catholic League press release, May 24, 2000. On Dr. Laura, press release from Toward Tradition, May 30, 2000. Frederick Mark Gedicks on the Mormons, BYU Studies, vol. 38, no. 3 (1999). Franklin Foer on George W. Bush and “subsidiarity,” New Republic, June 5, 2000. “The Faith Factor in Election 2000,” Barna Research Group report, February 19, 2000.