The Public Square
September 11. This is written the day after, just under the deadline for this issue. For years to come, I expect, we will speak of “before” and “after” September 11. I was on my way to say the nine o’clock Mass at Immaculate Conception, on 14th Street and First Avenue, when the hijacked airline hit the first tower. There was a small crowd at the corner of 14th and I remarked that there seemed to be a fire at the World Trade Center and we should pray for the people there. But I could not stay or I would be late for Mass. Only after Mass did I discover what had happened. How strange beyond understanding, I thought, that as we were at the altar offering up, as Catholics believe, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, only a little to the south of us was rising, in flames and mountains of smoke, a holocaust of suffering and death. That, too, was subsumed and offered on Calvary. It occurred to me that Friday, only three days away, is the feast called The Triumph of the Cross. Exactly.
The first commentary I heard was from a woman coming out of the church: “That’s what we get for unconditionally supporting Israel.” I wondered how many others would draw that lesson. Watching television during the day, the question was several times asked, “Why do they hate us so much?” And the answer given in one word was “Israel.” The further question implied was, Is our support for Israel worth this? What justice requires us to do in order to punish the perpetrators and ward off even greater evil is done for Israel, of course, but it is done, much more comprehensively, for the civilization that Christians, Jews, and everyone else will now come to see more clearly as it is seen by others: the Christian West.
My part of Manhattan is a long string of hospitals, and I went to be of whatever help I could. After a couple of hours it became obvious that very few of the injured were coming into the hospitals. The doleful conclusion is that, except for the many who were able to get out and away, the people at ground zero are dead. Many thousands they are saying today; no doubt we will find out how many in the days ahead. It will be a city of funerals for weeks to come, as bodies and pieces of bodies are identified. The church, the residence, and our offices are all north of 14th Street. At the house and office, everyone is safe. I am sure the same is not true of all our parishioners. It is weird. We can look down the avenues and see the still billowing smoke, as though watching a foreign country under attack, but of course it is our city, and our country.
Before and after September 11, what difference will it make? That’s the subject of endless chatter and nobody knows. For what it’s worth, I anticipate five major changes. It will inaugurate a time of national unity and sobriety in a society that has been obsessed by fake pluralisms while on a long and hedonistic holiday from history. Second, there will be an understandable passion for retaliation and revenge that could easily veer into reckless bellicosity. That is a danger. The other danger is that fear of that danger will compromise the imperative to protect and punish. Third, a legitimate concern for increased security will spark a legitimate concern for personal freedoms. Many will warn that freedom cannot be protected by denying freedom, and such warnings should not be lightly dismissed, even as we know that the liberty we cherish is not unbridled license but ordered liberty. Without order there can be no liberty; it is for liberty that we surrender license. I expect that many Americans who never understood that will now be having long second thoughts.
Fourth, after some initial sortings out, America will identify itself even more closely with Israel. Disagreements over the justice of how Israel was founded and how it has maintained itself in existence will not disappear. But the diabolical face of the evil that threatens Israel, and us, is now unveiled. Among Americans and all who are part of our civilization, it will be understood that we must never surrender, or appear to be surrendering, to that evil. Finally, the question of “the West and the rest” will be powerfully sharpened, including a greatly heightened awareness of the global threats posed by militant Islam. Innocent Muslims in this country and Europe are undoubtedly in for some nastiness, and we must do our best to communicate the distinction between Islam and Islamism, knowing that the latter is the monistic fanaticism embraced by only a minority of Muslims. But almost inevitably, given the passions aroused and the difficulties of enforcing the law among people who are largely alien in their ways, such distinctions will sometimes get lost. We can only try to do our best by those Muslims who have truly chosen our side in “the clash of civilizations.” It seems likely also that, after September 11, discussion about immigration policy will become more intense, and more candid.
That’s a mixed bag of possible consequences, and, of course, I may be wrong about any or all of them. These are but first thoughts one day after. Only a little south of here thousands are buried under the rubble. So it is now to the tasks at hand. It will be the work of weeks, perhaps months, to give them a proper burial. The consolation of the living is a work without end.
There are many ways of dealing with the “hard sayings” of Jesus. For instance, Luke 14, the gospel for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” The reading ends with, “Anyone who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” One way to deal with such hard sayings and avoid disturbing the comfortable is to say that Jesus did not really mean it. Thus the little devotional comment in the Mass guide, Celebrating the Eucharist, published by Liturgical Press: “Jesus is using pretty radical language (not necessarily to be taken literally!) in order to give us a chance to consider pretty carefully what we do when we say yes to discipleship.” Really? He wants us to “consider pretty carefully” what is entailed in taking up our cross and following him? Well, not a real cross, of course.
What would we do without homiletical guides to tame the “pretty radical language” of Jesus? Yes, he speaks about a devotion that claims all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, but what he means, of course, is that God will be quite pleased with a piece of your heart, soul, and mind that is not previously claimed. Especially if you know that Jesus shares our devotion to “family values” and certainly would not want us to hate father, mother, children, etc. On the Luke 14 passage, the International Bible Commentary (also published by Liturgical Press) offers additional comfort: “Jesus is not literally demanding the ‘hatred’ of family and self. The Semitic mind, and the African as well, can only entertain two extremes: truth and falsehood, love and hate, light and darkness.” That’s a relief, then. We who are not Semites or Africans understand about nuances. We can “consider pretty carefully,” but it’s not as though a decision is called for, certainly not an unequivocal decision of yes or no.
Thus do the facilitators of a comfortable Christianity explain the words of Jesus by explaining them away. W. H. Auden (see Alan Jacobs, “Auden and the Limits of Poetry,” August/September) wrote of his conviction that Jesus is Lord: “I believe because he fulfills none of my dreams, because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image.” But why not another great teacher, such as Buddha or Muhammad? Because, Auden wrote, “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify him.’” Well, really, that is going too far. Jesus did use some “pretty radical language,” but it is not to be taken literally. And, after all, he was a Semite.
At the same time I was preparing my homily for that Sunday, the New York Times (yes, the New York Times) ran what might aptly be called a pro-life story about Jill Stanek. It was a sympathetic story, without a touch of liberal irony. Ms. Stanek was a nurse at Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a presumably Christian hospital where they committed abortions and put babies who survived the procedure in a utility room to die. At first, Ms. Stanek insisted that she at least be permitted to hold the babies until they died. Then she went public about what the hospital was doing. Then she was fired.
“Sitting in her living room,” writes reporter John Fountain, “she has no regrets.” She has “a lot of trouble” understanding why people are not more concerned about God “and someday meeting their maker and having to explain themselves. I have a lot more trouble understanding why people are willing to forgo an eternity for concerns about what their peers think.” “Not that it’s easy,” she adds. “It’s painful.” Maybe Jill Stanek has some Semite or African blood in her. Such a literalist: she can only “entertain two extremes”—killing babies or caring for them.
So what then did I say about the “hard sayings” of Jesus in Luke 14? You don’t want the whole homily, but I said as best I could that Jesus meant, and means, what he said. That the love for which Jesus calls is so intense, so singular, so unqualified that all other loves (and he surely commands us to love others) appear, by comparison, to be not love at all, to be even the opposite of love, to be hatred. Or maybe the point is that even the best of loves (such as love for family) can become evil and hateful when not ordered to the love of God. But finally I did not “explain” the words of Jesus; I don’t know why he said these deeply disturbing words. Perhaps to deeply disturb. In any event, I am sure they are meant to be taken very seriously indeed—as in what most people mean by “literally.” Nobody in the congregation cried out for him to be crucified, but afterwards a woman said she is going to have to think pretty carefully about whether she wants to follow him. I am encouraging her to think about that very carefully.
The Tangled Web
The tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive (Sir Walter Scott) becomes more tangled still with continuing practice. Such reflections are occasioned by reading this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers. Ellis, who has taught for many years at Mount Holyoke College, has been among the most acclaimed of American historians, and the present book would justly enhance his reputation, were it not for what we now know. The book is composed of six chapters, each telling in a most winsome manner the story of decisive encounters between the “founding brothers”—Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, et al. Some of his friends in the guild of historians say that what we now know should not be permitted to detract from Ellis’ stature as a historian, and there is a charitable impulse to agree. It is not easy, however.
Ellis does himself an injustice in comparing his book with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, that effetely sneering exercise in debunking one’s betters. Strachey described his project this way: “He will row out over the great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.” “With this model in mind,” writes Ellis, “I rowed out over the great ocean of material generated in the founding era of American nationhood, lowered my little bucket as far down as my rope could reach, then made sense out of the characteristic specimens I hoisted up with as much storytelling skill as my imagination allowed.” The bucket of Ellis’ scholarship, unlike Strachey’s, is not little. Nor, and again unlike Strachey, is his purpose to expose buried dirt to the light of day. Ellis does not treat his characters as “specimens” to be “examined with a careful [and cruel] curiosity.” In this book, as in his earlier works such as American Sphinx (on Jefferson) and Passionate Sage (on Adams), Ellis is, with exceptions, deeply respectful of the Founders and what they achieved.
Ellis distances himself from today’s academic Stracheys who, employing critical theories represented as radical, tell us that the Founders were not who they seemed to be and were not doing what they thought they were doing. “My own efforts,” Ellis writes, “constitute what I hope is a polite argument against the scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current climate.” He presumes, for instance, that the central players in the drama were not marginal figures driven by previously hidden interests but political leaders at the center of the national story who shaped the arguments and institutions that have, in turn, shaped the American political story to this day. That is the account he offers “with as much storytelling skill as my imagination allowed.” The problem is, and it cannot help but intrude upon one’s reading of his account, that it now appears that Ellis has a very permissive imagination that allows what in a historian, or in anyone else for that matter, should not be allowed.
When some months ago the Boston Globe revealed that Ellis had for years been trading on a completely fabricated history of his years in Vietnam, including his serving on the staff of General William Westmoreland and engagement in dangerous missions, the reports met with cries of disbelief and disillusionment. But in fact, Ellis had never been in Vietnam, and spent the war years teaching at West Point. Ellis not only deployed the elaborately detailed fiction for purposes of dinner party chatter but repeated it in interviews with national media, and even made it a chief attraction in his popular course on the Vietnam War in American history. The charges against Ellis are not disputed, although there is disagreement on what to make of the unhappy facts. Of course there is an element of personal tragedy in an eminent historian so exposing himself to shame, contempt, and, from some, pity. Others claim to see more in the Ellis case. It is, they say, but an instance revealing the degree to which the tangled web of deceit has spread through academic culture.
A Few Examples
To cite but a few examples from recent years, there is the infamous case of Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago, who, in the service of gay rights, gave false testimony in court—and it is hard to believe she did not know it was false—about the moral teaching of Plato and other ancients on homosexuality. (Her point being that “homophobia” is a Christian invention. Although some thought she should have been, Professor Nussbaum was not charged with perjury. For an account of the incident, see “In the Case of Martha Nussbaum“ by Gerard V. Bradley, FT, June/July 1994). Then there was the 1989 case of the “historians’ brief” filed with the Supreme Court by hundreds of academic historians in support of the abortion license, falsely claiming that abortion was countenanced by law and custom in the early years of the American experience (see Gerard V. Bradley, “Academic Integrity Betrayed,” FT, August/September 1990). Also, and coming close to the matter of Ellis’ present book, there was the highly acclaimed 1998 study by Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, purporting to prove that the Jefferson had a child by one of his slaves, and entering as evidence a nineteenth-century letter in which words had clearly been changed in order to reverse its original meaning. Many other instances that have come to public knowledge might be cited, and of course there is the frequent fact of plagiarism and trimming the truth to accommodate special pleading in causes beyond number. What is to be expected when the very word truth is fashionably supplied with ironic quotation marks? The question of whether the case of Joseph Ellis has helped to thicken or unravel the tangled web of academic mendacity, however, should not distract our attention from peculiarly interesting aspects of the case itself.
While his friends, and others who are on uneasy terms with historical truth, say that Ellis’ private fictions about Vietnam do not impugn his integrity as a historian, fictions taught as fact in the classroom are not private. Nor is his tangled web of deception confined to the course on Vietnam and American history. In the 1996 book American Sphinx, Ellis agreed with most Jefferson scholars since 1802, when the rumor was first circulated, that the Sally Hemings connection was unsubstantiated and implausible. That is also the conclusion reached this year by a commission of scholars, both pro-and anti-Jefferson, who studied the DNA evidence and related arguments.
But Ellis is now firmly on the other side. In Founding Brothers he writes that “this delectable morsel of scandal [was] confirmed as correct beyond any reasonable doubt by DNA studies done in 1998.” What led him to change his historical judgment? Despite his claims about going “against the scholarly grain” of academic fashion, Ellis wrote last year that Jefferson is “the dead-white-male who matters most,” making him the “most valued trophy in the cultural wars.” Also, and by no means incidentally, the new “evidence” of the DNA study was rushed to press smack in the middle of the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings. Ellis was a leader of the partisan forces defending Clinton. Remember the argument: it’s all about sex; everybody does it; other Presidents did it; even the great Jefferson did it—not with an intern but with a slave, and with the consequence of a baby that left no doubt about what the meaning of “is” is when it comes to having sex.
Secrets Kept from Himself
Of course the bill of impeachment was not about Clinton’s indulgence of his sexual appetites but about his perjuries in the attempted cover-up of what he had done. In explaining Jefferson and exculpating Clinton (and himself?), Ellis is interested in the psychology of mendacity. Thus, it would seem, Ellis offers us Clinton refracted through his construal of Jefferson, and all refracted through his own entanglement in a web of lies. At the time of the impeachment, a Democratic Senator said that Clinton “is a very good liar.” But of course he was not, since a very good liar does not get a reputation for being a very good liar.
Ellis provides expert testimony on the difficulties in lying well. Jefferson, he writes in Founding Brothers, was given to interpreting reality as he wanted it to be. He very much disliked argument and uncomfortable truths because they disturbed “the voices he heard inside himself [which] were all harmonious and agreeable, reliable expressions of the providentially aligned universal laws that governed the world as he knew it.” The “core” of Jefferson’s character, says Ellis, was “elusiveness.” When an opponent published letters incriminating Jefferson in wrongdoing that he had denied, “Jefferson seemed genuinely surprised at the revelation, suggesting that for him the deepest secrets were not the ones he kept from his enemies but the ones he kept from himself.” One cannot help but wonder whether Ellis was surprised by the reports in the Boston Globe.
And surely, barring a capacity for disassociation that would be judged pathological, there must have been at work a measure of personal introspection when Ellis wrote of Jefferson’s “capacity for self-deception that permitted him to deny, and with utter sincerity, the vanities and ambitions lurking in his own soul,” reflecting “the moralistic categories that shaped all his political thinking [and] fit perfectly the romantic formula that history writing seemed to require.” James Nuechterlein memorably wrote of Clinton that he seemed to be “serially sincere,” meaning that he sincerely meant whatever he was saying at the moment. Ellis would appear to agree, and to more than half admire the trait in Clinton even as, in order to excuse it in Clinton, he attributes it to Jefferson. As for himself and his work, Ellis has not to date addressed “the romantic formula that history writing seemed to require.” Perhaps he will offer a public explanation, but then, who will believe him?
The Christian tradition is very definite about the evil of lying, and some have thought that—in the case of St. Augustine, for instance—it is excessively rigorous. Parents teach their children never to tell a lie, and then the “never” is attenuated by the everyday “white lies” that are deemed necessary to getting along, and by exquisitely complicated discussions of “quandary ethics” at the margins of life’s extremities. (For instance: If you were hiding Jews in your house, would you tell the truth to a Nazi Jew-killer who asked if there are any Jews in your house? There is, I believe, a convincing answer, but that is for another day.) I confess to having told my share of fibs, but with each passing year I have become more convinced that to tell a lie, any lie, is to besmirch reality. What is true need not always be told and sometimes, as in the case of confidences, should not be told. But to lie is to soil and make ugly the order of truth, which is beautiful. It is to make the world more unreliable; it is to sin against words, and words bear the structure of trust on which all life depends—penultimately life with one another, and ultimately life with God. One lie, every lie, wounds the world.
The tale of Joseph Ellis is a personal tragedy, but a personal tragedy with large public meaning. What he did and what Clinton did—and maybe what Jefferson did, although I don’t know whether to trust Ellis on that—was egregious, but its egregiousness alerts us to the everyday patterns of mendacity so smoothly, and wrongly, tolerated. And not only in the academy. Scott had it right: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” The thing is not to begin. Once begun, there is no ending, for lies beget the lies by which they are sustained on their inexorable course from the wounding to the killing of trust. Inexorable, that is, apart from repentance and amendment of life. Your parents were right, even if they did not always live the truth they taught: Never, never ever, tell a lie.
While We’re At It
• There are conservatives, and then there are conservatives. The Spectator of London frequently reflects a nutty brand of Tory conservatism, as in an article in support of eugenics by Terence Kealey of Buckingham University. Mr. Kealey is all over the place. He appears to quote favorably Chesterton’s observation that “Eugenicists have discovered how to combine hardening of the heart with softening of the head.” And he terms “horrific” the statements of earlier eugenicists such as the Social Darwinist H. G. Wells, who said in 1901: “The swarms of black, brown, dirty-white, and yellow people have to go. It is their portion to die out.” He also notes that in the early twentieth century, Germans and others admired the forced sterilization of the “unfit” that was widely practiced in the U.S. Then, of course, there was that other unpleasantness: “Eugenics has never recovered from its associations with Hitler and the Nazis. Nor should it.” That being said, Mr. Kealey proceeds to argue for the rehabilitation of eugenics. “It is essential, surely, to winnow out good eugenics from bad eugenics, to separate the science from the abuse.” He is especially enthusiastic about cloning human beings and related efforts to improve the quality of the species. There is, to be sure, the cautionary tale of Nazism. “Where did it go wrong? Why was Nazi science so perverted?” Mr. Kealey asks. “The answer, surely, lies in one man and his odious movement.” And since Hitler is dead and none of us are Nazis, what’s to worry? Surely (as Mr. Kealey is prone to saying) the danger is not with science run amok. “It is usual for historians of science to claim that Hiroshima witnessed the death of innocence for science. Actually, one can make a good case for Hiroshima as a humanitarian solution to the Second World War.” (See above on hardening of the heart and softening of the head.) Based on his reading of Matt Ridley’s Genome, Mr. Kealey assures us that “today’s eugenics is potentially safe.” A nice phrase that, “potentially safe.” He allows that “we are entering a worrying new world where some people will be cloned while others will be rendered immortal and yet others will have their intelligences and appearances tweaked.” “If applied with discretion, these are benign technologies,” he observes, noting the benign benefits of the present practice of aborting unborn babies with disabilities. As to who will be in charge of the department of discretion in his brave new world, Mr. Kealey says it must not be the government. That is what went wrong with Nazism, he says. (So apparently the problem was not just “one man and his odious movement.”) “To guide us through the new world of eugenics, we will need institutions that are independent and disinterested.” What a very good idea: independent and disinterested institutions that will guide us in deciding who gets cloned, who gets tweaked, and who gets killed. Eugenics needs no state funding, he writes. “It needs state vigilance and a separation of powers.” Without funding, control, or regulation of research, the state should nonetheless exercise vigilance. Now what about that don’t you understand? Mr. Kealey concludes by urging that we bypass the Nazi unpleasantness and return to the eugenics project of a century ago. “The possible benefits are huge. As long as we can reserve the scientists their freedom but allow them no power, then we should extract the maximum benefits from the minimum of risks.” So that’s clear now: scientists should be free to do what they want but not have the power to do what they want. The management of this neat trick will be left to unspecified “institutions that are independent and disinterested.” Well, just as long as somebody is in charge. The writer is Terence Kealey, the magazine is the Spectator, the disposition is called conservatism. See above on softening of the head.
• A dubious achievement of much “family values” activism is that it makes marriage appear to be a dull and dreary business to which people understandably seek alternatives. And the contemporary academy is awash in alternatives, writes Daniel Cere of McGill University in the Public Interest. In fact, courses and studies in courtship and marriage are notable by their absence in the academy, as is also noted in Amy and Leon Kass’ splendid book in the everyday ethics series, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. The hot thing today is “close-relationship theory,” and it comes in many wrappings. There are various economic “exchange theory” explanations of why people “hook up.” Then there is sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology, as it is sometimes called. Cere writes: “Sociobiology offers a rollicking comic spoof on the world of romance and power. In the world of sociobiology, lovers are bustling about, stumbling through their relationships, deceiving one another, wooing and warring with one another from very different, even contradictory, scripts of love—and yet, somehow, when all is said and done, these mismatched lovers land in bed together, men on top, cunningly trapped by the inexorable logic of reproductive success. Meanwhile, in the public sphere, men exhaust themselves to succeed in the worlds of high finance and global politics in order to be ‘attractive to the next pretty blond that happens to pass by.’“ Cere says of his essay: “This is not a plea for homespun ‘family values’ and virtues. ‘Family values’ discourse may actually contribute to our cultural apathy about marriage by obscuring the more radical, startling, and unsettling characteristics of monogamous marriage. Marriage is an erotic bond that bridges the fundamental sexual divide within the human species. It is an intersexual coupling, but it is not just about self-enhancing satisfaction; it is a procreative bond that generates human life. It resonates through the poetry, religion, art, myth, and symbols of the human spirit. Marriage embraces the life, the passions, the beauty, the journeys, the betrayals, the dreams, and, ultimately, the death of the other. A symptom of the curious flatness of our postmodern sexual culture is its growing inability to perceive the elemental depths and power of this primordial human bond.”
• A bishop in the Southwest writes a pastoral letter on the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation. “Some of you may have had a bad experience going to confession and don’t want to go anymore. Don’t let that hold you back! Our priests have grown in pastoral sensitivity and kindness, and want to help you be reconciled with the Lord.” They’re better at forgiving sins now? What ever happened to ex opere operato? Some might go so far as to claim that it was the insensitive and uncaring priests who used to test, and thereby strengthen, faith. A friend who is a nationally prominent public figure decided after many years away that it was time to get right with Christ and the Church. He called the local parish to find out when confessions are scheduled, and was told that it isn’t regularly scheduled and it isn’t called confession anymore, but “the sacrament of reconciliation is celebrated by appointment.” Not a good sign. He showed up at the appointed hour and the priest, inviting him to take an easy chair in the rectory living room, began with, “How do you feel about yourself, Bob?” Bob (not his name) fled the scene as gracefully as he could and for some months forgot about being reconciled. He tells me that he later popped into a downtown church that posted hours for confessions, went into the confessional, knelt, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” said what needed to be said, received some sensible words of advice, was absolved, did his penance, and walked out a free man. He didn’t say whether the priest was sensitive or kind.
• At first it was going to be called the Office on Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. John DiIulio insisted that Faith-Based come first in the title, and so it was. Perhaps that was a mistake. Perhaps it was a mistake to put Faith-Based in the title at all. Why not just Community Initiatives, it being made clear that there would be no discrimination against community initiatives that are faith-based? Many such questions have been raised about President Bush’s historic proposal to recognize and support the role of “mediating institutions” in meeting social needs. Extreme church-state separationists, as well as figures such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, worry out loud about the dangers of religious nuts (e.g., Nation of Islam, Scientology) using public funds to promote their doctrines. Joel Belz of World magazine contends that such worries are the result of a deep conceptual confusion. Everything in life is faith-based, he says; everybody puts his faith in something or the other and is prone to proselytize on behalf of his decision. “The question isn’t whether you have faith. The question is where you have put it.” Belz continues: “Nor is it just evangelists and missionaries who try to ‘proselytize.’ That’s the work of every teacher in America (even those in state schools), the calling of every public radio or TV commentator, and the task of every politician. All of them are regularly asking you to adjust your worldview, to shift your point of reference, and to put your confidence somewhere besides where you have regularly placed it. They do this with abandon, and with no fear at all that Uncle Sam might swoop in and threaten to take away their funding unless they adjust their message. So why do they get federal funds to do exactly what others are prohibited from doing?” There is an attractiveness to that familiar argument. The great constitutional scholar Philip Kurland proposed a “neutrality doctrine” that aimed at cutting through all the agitations about the religion clause of the First Amendment. A version of that doctrine is powerfully advanced by Justice Antonin Scalia. In this view, an organization, belief, or action that is religious in nature is neither privileged nor penalized when it comes to laws of general applicability. For most purposes of public policy, that is a useful view. In effect, it makes nugatory the religion clause, which, it can be argued on a strictly historical reading, had no purpose but to assure the states that the federal government would neither establish a national religion nor interfere with those established by states. Some of us contend, however, that the original understanding included more than that. The religion clause, with its no-establishment and free exercise provisions, implicitly acknowledges an authority higher than the state, and, correlatively, privileges an appeal to that Higher Authority. This is the rationale evident in, for instance, Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance. These are, admittedly, tangled questions on which mountains of books have been written, and about which we will likely never reach a satisfactory resolution. President Bush’s initiative represents a moment of historic importance in thinking and policy relative to religion and public life. If it goes down to defeat, the loss will be severe, and the radically secularist proponents of the naked public square will be strengthened. Right now, it seems to me, our job is to support the initiative. Later we can argue about whether it should have been called the Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and we have the rest of our lives to argue about the correct understanding of the First Amendment.
• The ELCA Lutherans met in August, if not august, assembly and narrowly elected Mark Hanson, who had been bishop of the St. Paul Area (Minnesota), as its presiding bishop. He was widely perceived as the liberal candidate, although he made a strong pitch for evangelism, and the assembly approved a task force to come up with a comprehensive evangelism strategy in the next two years. The initiative is called Toward a Vision for Evangelism in the ELCA, which sounds a little like a task force to develop an approach to foreplay. One notes, in addition, that it is usually thought that evangelism is “in the world.” But apparently the idea is to start where they are, and there’s no doubt much to be said for that. Meanwhile, the ELCA speaks of its continuing decline in membership as “virtual stability.” The assembly also approved ordinations under “unusual circumstances,” meaning that, in violation of the recent agreement with the Episcopal Church, some pastors will be ordained without bishops claiming episcopal succession. The Episcopalians have already made clear their unhappiness with that. The gay and lesbian agenda was a big presence at the assembly and made significant gains. A motion to simply go ahead and ordain sexually active gays and lesbians failed, but another official study of the matter was approved and its recommendations will be brought to the 2005 assembly. At present there is a de facto “local option” on the matter, and such ordinations are happening, more or less with impunity. Support for gay advocacy grows, writes Russell Saltzman, Editor of Forum Letter. “That sympathy will only increase because the gay lobby is organized, financed, and politically clever. [Its members] confront no organized opposition. They are determined to press their agenda. More, they are the only interest group willing to break the ELCA—an estimated loss of one to two million members—in order to have their way.” For those who care about the theological heritage of Lutheranism, Christian witness in culture, and the unity of Christians, it was, all in all, a disappointing assembly. But not, one must add, surprising. At its convention held a few weeks earlier, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) declared the ELCA not to be an orthodox Lutheran body. That the Missouri Lutherans thought that is no surprise; that they said it, officially and overwhelmingly, struck some as being not very nice. The Missouri Synod rather prides itself on being an exception to what John Murray Cuddihy memorably described in No Offense as the “Protestant etiquette of niceness.”
• The Catholic Health Association (CHA) says that it combines “the strength of two thousand Catholic health care sponsors, systems, facilities, and related organizations.” CHA president, Father Michael Place, has announced that they have hired Fr. Kevin O’Rourke, who is described as a “distinguished ethicist,” as consultant with specific responsibility to assist members “with ethics and canon law issues, particularly as they relate to arrangements with other-than-Catholic organizations.” (What happened to simple “non-Catholic”?) Fr. O’Rourke has distinguished himself as an advocate of, inter alia, withdrawing food, water, and other support from patients who are severely brain-injured. In the controversy over one much-publicized case, Fr. O’Rourke questioned the obligation even to spoon-feed the patient. In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, he asked, “What would be the sense, if she’s not going to recover?” and went on to define recovery as the ability “to know, love, relate to people.” It seems that other-than-Catholic, non-Catholic, and anti-Catholic institutions might find in Fr. O’Rourke an amenable interlocutor.
• Megachurches, as they are called, require mega-solutions. When it was communion Sunday at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, it took seven volunteers thirty hours to fill the 350 trays of individual shot glasses, as they are somewhat irreverently called, with grape juice. Until, that is, inventor Wilfred Greenlee joined the church and cut the preparation time down to an hour and a half. I quote: “The Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine is made of a stainless steel bucket with forty plastic tubes that run through a sheet of Plexiglas into the cups of a communion tray. A push of a lever on the side allows just enough juice to fill each cup half full.” A communion dispensing machine. The phrase has possibilities. Mr. Greenlee’s invention, however, takes second place to a news story from Denmark a couple of years ago reporting that a church was mailing communion in little plastic containers, thus both dispensing communion and dispensing with the troublesome community of believers that is the Church. In two thousand years we have learned a thing or two about efficiency.
• This from the Seattle Times: “Seattle has the smallest percentage of children of any big city in the country except for San Francisco.” Seattle is truly Bobo paradise, “a sanctuary for professionals too busy to raise families.” The report says that otherwise thriving neighborhoods “have become virtual child-free zones where kids make up less than 10 percent of the population.” San Francisco at least has an excuse, of sorts.
• Since the Holocaust is as close as our culture has to an undisputed image of evil, it is not surprising that aggrieved parties try to hitch a ride on it. Remember Pastor Martin Niemöller’s much quoted statement about how he didn’t speak up for others and therefore when the Nazis came there was nobody to speak up for him. Niemöller was reportedly irritated when, years later, people smuggled Catholics, social democrats, gays, gypsies, and even skinheads into the quotation. He was especially unhappy about the inclusion of Catholics, first, because the Nazis came for the Protestants first, and, second, because he in fact did speak up for persecuted Catholics. Asked in 1971 about the correct version of the quote, Niemöller said he was not quite sure when he had said the famous words but, if people insist upon citing them, he preferred this version:
In Germany, they came first for the
Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
• The Daily Telegraph takes it as good news that more than a third of Britons believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. The story is based on a poll done by a magazine that specializes in the paranormal and holds that Jesus was only in a drugged state. The poll asked a thousand people if they thought “Jesus literally rose from the dead exactly as explained in the Bible” or if “there could have been another explanation.” In fact, the Bible does not “explain” how Jesus rose from the dead, and one may be forgiven for not knowing how to respond to the ill-posed question. There are reports of his appearances, of the empty tomb, and then Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15. The more remarkable finding to be reasonably inferred from the muddled British poll is that more than 80 percent believe that there was a Jesus, that he was crucified, and that he later appeared to the disciples. The interesting disconnect is that so few who claim to believe that gather to celebrate the event with his contemporary disciples. This past Holy Week, the Spectator also asked the forty-three diocesan bishops of the Church of England whether they believed in Christ’s physical resurrection. Most answered a simple “yes,” while the bishops of Bradford, Oxford, and Southwell did not answer at all. Bishop Richard Lewis of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich responded through his press secretary, “It is immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit.” In the second case, it is very immaterial indeed.
• This, I suppose, comes under the heading of closing loopholes. After the Netherlands became the first nation to legalize the killing of the old and not so old who would—in their judgment or in the judgment of a properly authorized party—be better off dead, the minister of health, Mrs. Els Borst-Eilers, has a further proposal. There are some people, she notes, who would prefer to kill themselves rather than depend upon a doctor. She suggests that such people should be provided with a suicide pill. She adds that the provision of the pill should be carefully regulated to ensure that those asking for it really are “tired of life and desperate to die.” So how tired are you of life, really? Perhaps some kind of measuring instrument could be devised. One imagines the health minister, eager to share death benefits as equitably as possible, asking herself, “Now, let’s see. Have we left anyone out?”
• Here is an advertisement for what sounds like a good work. “On the coast of Maine, under the supervision of Brother Curry, S.J., students with disabilities bake specialty breads in the Jesuit tradition to support the work of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped.” I have remarked on institutions of higher education that advertise themselves as being “in the Jesuit tradition.” We may have a clue to the mysterious meaning of that phrase in the breads mentioned in the ad: Irish Soda Bread, Lemon Poppy Bread, Blueberry Ginger Loaf, and Pumpkin Bread. Or maybe it is not that the breads are in the Jesuit tradition but that they are baked in the Jesuit tradition. Or maybe this exegetical exercise is in the Jesuit tradition. In any event, whether it’s Pumpkin Bread or higher education, the meaning of “in the Jesuit tradition” remains maddeningly elusive. “A university in the Jesuit tradition.” “Pumpkin Bread in the Jesuit tradition.” Surely it could be nothing so obvious as simply trading on a name?
• What do you do if you’re an observant Jew and know what God said about graven images, but you still love art? Anthony Julius has come up with an unusual answer in Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art (Thames & Hudson, 120 pages,, $16.95
paper). If your art is transgressive enough, if it aims at toppling what others respect and revere (what they “idolize”), then your creative bent is not only permitted; it is very much like a performance of a religious duty. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Judith Flanders, who also is Jewish, is not persuaded. Julius’ argument, she suggests, is self-serving and too clever by half. Moreover, what he calls dissident or iconoclastic art is very much the mainstream today. Julius describes an exhibit that he celebrates and declares it to be “totally dissident art.” To which Flanders responds: “Yes indeed, and sponsored by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the Goldsen Fund: Images and Society, the NY State Council for the Humanities, the Ithaca Times, the Nation Institute, the Alternative Museum, and the Cornell Art Department. Iconoclasts every one.”
• William Galston of the University of Maryland, a “New Democrat” and one-time domestic advisor to President Clinton, is a thoughtful fellow. He spoke recently to a Commonweal-sponsored colloquium on Catholics and liberalism. He was supportive of parental rights in education and the right of Catholic hospitals to follow their own moral norms, and said he was “horrified” by the Democratic Party’s treatment of the pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey at the party’s 1992 convention. “I protested against it to no avail. I believe the Democratic Party has made a serious and indeed historic mistake in turning Roe v. Wade into a litmus test for party leadership. I can’t say it any more flatly than that. Regrettably, I do not expect this to change any time soon. But there are people in positions of leadership in the party who believe it was a mistake.” While Galston thinks pro-lifers should be tolerated in the Democratic Party, it seems they should not work to achieve their goals. “It is one thing for Catholics, reasoning within the premises of their community, to reach conclusions about abortion, assisted suicide, and homosexuality that are held to be binding on the faithful; quite another to impose those views on others. Catholics may be affronted by a legal code that permits acts they view as abominable. But in circumstances of deep moral diversity, the alternative to enduring these affronts is even worse.” Catholic reasoning about the commonweal is, as Professor Galston should know, not based on premises limited to the Catholic community. And why is protecting the unborn, forbidding euthanasia, and not putting homosexuality on a moral par with marriage and family worse than the alternative? Unless, of course, one favors the alternative supported by those who impose their views on others? Galston to Catholics: we welcome you, on our terms. Elsewhere in his talk, William Galston has some thoughtful things to say about the vices of what he aptly calls “exclusionary liberalism.” For example, Galston’s understanding of who and what is excluded in a circumstance of “deep moral diversity.”
• Correlation? Cause? Coincidence? Distinctions are in order. For instance, there would seem to be a clear causal connection between having an abortion and the incidence of breast cancer. But a pro-life newsletter suggests such a connection also between abortion and the incidence of suicide. Research does indicate that the rate of suicide among women who have had abortions is 7.8 per 100,000, compared with 5.2 for all women aged fifteen to forty-four, and only 3.0 for women who have given birth. It is also true that women who obtain an abortion are much more likely to turn to drug abuse and die in car accidents. But in asking whether the connections are to be explained in terms of correlation, cause, or coincidence, it is well to keep in mind another factor: character. It may be that the kind of woman who is party to the killing of her baby is also prone to drug abuse, reckless driving, and suicide. And it may be that guilt and related inner conflicts connected with abortion lead to the other pathologies. Since a sense of guilt over wrong is a sign of character, it may be that character, in the absence of forgiveness, can also lead to other great wrongs. The connections are, as “experts” inevitably say, complex. What is all too clear is that the many facets of the culture of death are of a piece.
• On the commanding heights of literary culture, Anne Tyler is not much celebrated. Too bad for the commanding heights of literary culture, says Katherine Whittemore, reviewing Tyler’s new book, Back When We Were Grownups, in the Atlantic. In the Village Voice, another writer, Vivian Gornick, criticizes Tyler, claiming that she “mythicizes the inability to give up the family, and because she does her novels do not achieve depth. . . . She allows the middle-brow, middle class to love itself for all its poignant insufficiency.” Whittemore thinks that unforgivably smug, writing: “In short, it’s a class thing. Not lower class or upper class but wrong class. Tyler doesn’t write yuppie fiction or proletariat fiction or confessional fiction. Her characters aren’t hip. They struggle, but out of earshot. They are the last people one would see on talk shows, the last people who would go into therapy—no matter how much they might need it. Some of us know such people very well, and to see them explained, even a little, in American literature makes us glad. There’s something (I’ll just say it) so wonderfully Quaker about Anne Tyler’s work, her beautiful but muslin prose, her profound tolerance for her characters, the small-d democracy of her vantage point. As Edward Hoagland said, in a review of Breathing Lessons, she is someone ‘you would want on your jury if you ever had to stand trial.’“ Asked about contemporary writing, Tyler once said in an interview, “There aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel.” Which leads Whittemore to understanding why she so loves the work of Anne Tyler: “Because no one cares more enduringly about those who, in the end, endure.”
• As you probably know, the British historian David Irving lost his libel suit in a British court against Deborah Lipstadt, who, in her book Denying the Holocaust, accuses Irving of doing just that. Now D. D. Guttenplan has published The Holocaust on Trial, a detailed account of those proceedings. Writing in the New Yorker, Ian Buruma agrees with Guttenplan that organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League make a mistake in demanding that everybody toe the line on Holocaust history. Guttenplan contends that, by turning Holocaust history into a sacred text and equating challenges with blasphemy, by “describing a Holocaust outside politics, by reducing it to good Jews and bad Germans,” such people have “made the deniers’ task easier.” While some distinguished historians respect much of Irving’s work, Buruma thinks he is a self-aggrandizing buffoon and liar, but adds that that is no reason to prevent him from making his case, such as it is, in public. That strikes me as precisely right, and precisely because it deprives deniers of their claim that challenges to the received account are not permitted.
• When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton answered that that’s where the money is. When asked why she stayed in a Catholic Church that she thought so awful, Rosemary Radford Ruether is supposed to have answered that that’s where the copy machines are, and you can’t have a revolution without copy machines. When asked why gay activists are so determined to be Scoutmasters, one possible answer is that that’s where the boys are. That answer may be simplistic or unfair, but Leon J. Podles, writing in Touchstone, notes that predatory pedophiles have been a chronic problem in Scouting and that, while there is a necessary distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia, the problem is almost always with men who are homosexual. “The age of puberty is falling, and most boys involved in Scouts are sexually mature physically but not emotionally.” This makes for a good deal of nervousness. “At one scout camp, we adult leaders noticed that the younger scouts had not bathed for several days, and we herded them to the showers. They insisted on wearing their jeans in the communal shower—while showering! . . . The presence of homosexuals in these situations would make it almost impossible to develop the trust that is necessary for group cohesiveness,” Podles writes. “Boys would always be on the lookout for innocent gestures that someone might interpret sexually. Almost all men and boys see any indication of homosexuality as a threat to masculinity, and masculinity is the center of identity for almost all men. Becoming a man and staying a man is not simply a matter of physical growth: a boy must face physical, mental, and moral challenges before he can become a man, a father, and a community leader. Homosexual activists hate the Scouts because the Scouts are the biggest organization dedicated to turning boys into men, and this organization rejects homosexuality because it is incompatible with masculinity. Almost all men, including homosexuals, react violently to having their masculinity impugned, and the mere existence of the Scouts’ policy impugns the masculinity of homosexuals.” Yet homosexual activists will continue to press, and have already dissuaded some school boards, corporations, and churches from supporting the Boy Scouts because the organization “discriminates” against gays. And the Boy Scouts will no doubt continue to resist the pressure. For the reasons that Podles gives, but also because almost all parents want the assurance that nobody is going to mess around with their sons. For reasons that have nothing to do with bigotry, they do not want their sons messed with, and they do not want their sons to be homosexual. If they turn out to be that way, most parents will still love them, but they pray and do what they can in the hope of being spared that duty. And that is why the Boy Scouts and the homosexual movement, each operating by its own values and its own interests, are locked in an uncompromisable standoff.
• Perhaps we should not be surprised that so many people, and not only Lutherans, are so very interested in claiming that the Joint Declaration on Justification reflects no real agreement between Lutherans and Catholics. Writing in the Tablet, Bruce Marshall of Southern Methodist reflects on that claim. (The kicker is in the last sentence, but don’t skip the rest.): “The declaration’s detractors assume that such differences matter enough to override any agreement which both traditions might accept. On assumptions like these, it seems as though Lutherans and Catholics could reach consensus on justification only by wholly adopting the views of one or another school of Lutheran theology. Given the requirements imposed by some of the declaration’s opponents, it is not clear that an American who observed that the temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit and a Frenchman who observed that it was O degrees Celsius could claim to have achieved a consensus. Consensus could only result if the American dropped his own way of measuring temperatures and agreed henceforth to do it the French way. The document declared that there is unanimity between Lutherans and Catholics on the most basic elements of the doctrine of justification. Regarding a number of specific points traditionally in dispute, it argues that while a substantial overlap obtains between the two traditions (often unnoticed in historical polemics), noteworthy differences of outlook and theological formulation also remain. In at least one case it grants that the two traditions may simply disagree. Because they are limited by a wider and more basic agreement, these differences and even disagreements are ‘acceptable’: they need not divide the Church. On every doctrinal matter (think of the Trinity or the Incarnation), different and sometimes conflicting schools of thought and interpretation have generally flourished within the Christian community, and the Church has seen little need to resolve these differences where there was basic doctrinal agreement. The joint declaration poses to us Lutherans a challenge unlike any we have confronted since the sixteenth century. Then Rome’s rejection of our predecessors’ teaching on justification forced them to decide whether they must live in separation from the rest of the Western Church. Now, Rome’s acceptance of that teaching forces us to decide whether we will go on seeking new ways to disagree about justification, so that this separation may endure, or whether we will do our part to end it.”
• Seeing what we want to see, and vice versa, is wonderfully convenient, and human beings are wonderfully good at it. The Collapse of Communism, edited by Lee Edwards and published by Hoover Press, includes essays on Western intellectuals and religious figures who, when it came to the Soviet Union, were especially skilled in selective perception. Paul Hollander quotes this fine passage by Malcolm Muggeridge: “There were earnest advocates of the humane killing of cattle who looked up at the massive headquarters of the OGPU [the political police] with tears of gratitude in their eyes, earnest advocates of proportional representation who eagerly assented when the necessity of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was explained to them, earnest clergymen who walked reverently through anti-God museums . . . earnest pacifists who watched delightedly tanks rattle across Red Square . . . earnest town-planning specialists who stood outside overcrowded ramshackle tenements and muttered: ‘If only we had something like this in England!’“
• Historian Christopher Dawson is among those who have described how Western civilization was formed by Christianity and, more specifically, Christian liturgy. The forming and transforming of culture was also the concern of the Catholic liturgical renewal in the early twentieth century. Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, editor of Antiphon, the excellent journal of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, reflects on why that vision has borne so little fruit: “This was, I believe, the vision with which those who prepared for Vatican II approached the task of liturgical reform. But something changed radically after the Second Vatican Council. With the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Church began to regard modern cultural conditions and patterns much more optimistically. The ability to read and serve the ‘signs of the times’ provided a new openness to modernity. Now the Church began to regard itself as the servant of the world. This was and continues to be a legitimate evangelical stance of the Church. But it has severe downsides that have become apparent only in recent times. Instead of ecclesial and liturgical institutions serving to transform society, the reverse occurred: the culture overwhelmed the structures of Catholicism. The dynamics of individualism, secularization, and ideology took hold in the latter. The vision of the liturgy generating and forging social renewal was buried under the power of modern culture. While there continues to be much energetic discussion today about the commitment to justice in the Church, this discussion does not appear to be matched with effective results. Notably absent in such discussion is the vision of the social and cultural power of the liturgy proposed by Dawson and embodied in the key figures of the modern liturgical movement. Nowadays, when issues of justice and social renewal are raised in Catholic liturgical life, they are less about the need for the intrinsically transforming dynamics of the Mass and the sacraments being released and prophetically enacted in society than about ‘progressive’ social agendas being imposed on and given a forum in the liturgy. Not surprisingly, there is today little that is distinctive in the popular Catholic liturgical ‘voice’ on the ills that plague the present-day social and cultural arenas.” Both “conservatives” and “progressives,” Mannion believes, have been excessively preoccupied with fiddling with this liturgical change or that. “The obsession with internal ritual reform,” he concludes, “must of necessity give way to what was the most compelling ideal of over a century of liturgical reform: the restoration of all things in Christ.”
• “It’s clear that a profession that fails to capture the imagination of a younger generation is in great danger,” writes David J. Wood in the Christian Century. The number of ordained clergy in mainline/oldline denominations who are under age thirty-five is disturbingly low. In the United Church of Christ it is 4 percent, Disciples of Christ, 3.7; Episcopal Church, 3.9; ELCA Lutheran, 6.1; and for United Methodists it is 6.7 percent. “Clearly,” writes Wood, “something is going on in church and society to make pastoral ministry an unappealing profession to many young people.” Wood concludes that “younger pastors are not the future of the Church—they are the present by which its future will be shaped.” According to a study by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, the average age of those entering seminary is 39.7 for Catholics, 37.8 for mainline Protestants, 33.3 for evangelical Protestants, and 29.8 for Jewish seminaries. That compares with an average age of 26 for entering law school students and 24.3 for medical students. In mainline Protestant schools, half the students are women and of all students 80 percent say they are preparing for a “religious profession” but only 60 percent plan to be ordained. Across the board, the “clergy shortage” is much more severe for mainline Protestants than for Catholics, in part because Catholics tend to belong to larger parishes, while more Protestants belong to small churches that cannot attract or support a minister. Such comparative data do not jibe with the claim of some Catholics that the priest shortage can be resolved by ordaining married candidates and, were it possible, women. For all Christians, the challenge is to help young people discern a vocation to lifelong ministry.
• The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is a matter of simple justice but, yes, the pro-abortionists are right in thinking that it is also intended as a step toward legal recognition of the humanity of the unborn child. The inherent mendacity of the pro-abortion position seeps into everything its proponents touch, and among the consequences is hopelessly confused and dishonest language. Thus an editorial in the New York Times, “Reproductive Rights Under Attack,” allows that “violence against women that results in compromising a pregnancy is a terrible crime.” Compromising a pregnancy? As when a mother smokes a cigarette or takes that second glass of wine? No, the Act is aimed at people whose violence against women kills their babies. But, entangled as it is in the mendacity of its position, the Times can say nothing straight out. So we get this: “In essence, the bill would elevate the status of a fetus, embryo, or other so-called ‘unborn’ to that of a ‘person’ by amending the federal criminal code to add a separate offense for causing death or bodily injury to a ‘child’ who is ‘in utero.’“ The Times stylebook proscribes using “so-called” before a phrase in quotes, but abortion is the exception to all the rules, whether of style or sanity. Or perhaps that should be “style” or “sanity.”
• Debate continues to rage over President Bush’s program for faith-based organizations (FBOs). That rigidly Calvinist voice, Nicotine Theological Journal, joins in with the argument that what the government wants to assist churches in doing they shouldn’t be doing in the first place. (Note that “rigidly” is not intended as an insult. In those Calvinist circles, rigidity is deemed a virtue.) Allen E. Rich writes: “In the end, FBOs are misnamed because they are premised more on works than on faith. After all, the services the government wants from churches are not forgiveness of sins, perseverance in adversity, or acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty—services that nurture a recognition of human inability to overcome the deep residue of sin that still exists in the world. Instead, what the government wants from the churches is not simply a message of uplift but also the skills to make that elevation possible. It’s as if the old Protestant distinction between justification and sanctification has been washed away because the government likes the sanctification part and wants to encourage holiness in all citizens. This may explain why Roman Catholics are as encouraged as they are over the Bush Administration’s initiative.” Forget the anti-Catholic slap. In fact, Catholics have, all in all, been less enthusiastic than evangelical Protestants about the Bush initiative, in part because their parish structures less readily lend themselves to the kinds of programs for which it is designed. Allen concludes: “The genuinely compassionate program to support, then, is one that requires churches to continue to forgive the sins of those who truly repent and believe. In fact, making sinners right with God is an initiative that makes cleaning up cities, winning the war on drugs, or bringing a halt to high school shootings look like a piece of cake.” It is good to be reminded that the Church’s primary mission is gospel word and sacrament, and everyone knows that there are problems to be sorted out in connection with the third part of Bush’s initiative, the direct funding of services under religious auspices. But the first two parts—eliminating discrimination against religious organizations and changing the tax code to encourage voluntary support for them—are long overdue reforms deserving of wholehearted support. Even the curmudgeonly virtuous editors of Nicotine Journal should recognize that. (And yes, they also think curmudgeonliness is a virtue.)
• Much like almost everything else in life, literacy is a mixed bag. During the cold war, Communist regimes boasted of the high literacy rate they had achieved, but, even if true, it was a limited good since people could not read anything deviating from the party line. It may also be that more Americans are reading books, but then consider what they choose to read. According to Publishers Weekly, here are the authors of books that were on the top ten best-sellers list during the 1940s (asterisk indicates several times): Ernest Hemingway,* John Steinbeck,* Van Wyck Brooks, William L. Shirer, John Gunther,* Winston Churchill, Pearl S. Buck, William Saroyan, W. Somerset Maugham, John Hersey,* Sinclair Lewis, James Hilton, Richard Wright, James Thurber, Daphne du Maurier, Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, John O’Hara. Here is the list for the 1970s: Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, John Updike, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Chaim Potok, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, Saul Bellow, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Le Carré,* Anaïs Nin, William Styron. As for the years 1990-1998? Here are the best-selling authors: John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark. Of the fifty best-selling books of the decade, forty-one were written by these six authors. No, of course I’m not against literacy, but much like everything else in life . . .
• Gara LaMarche, who works for the Open Society Institute funded by George Soros, takes out after publications of the conservative Manhattan Institute. “In the end,” she writes in the Nation, “what [these books] demonstrate is just how bereft of ideas—that is, beyond trashing public institutions and blaming the poor for their poverty—the right is at this moment. That’s the good news. The bad news is: they’re running the country.” Along the way, LaMarche writes: “It’s hard to take seriously intellectuals who, in their ideological zeal to discredit government, ignore all contrary evidence: rural electrification programs that transformed the lives of Southern farm families from their medieval rhythms; the Social Security system, which put an end to the grinding poverty that darkened the final years of millions of elderly citizens; the GI Bill, which subsidized education for a generation of veterans, propelling them into the middle class.” TVA, Social Security, GI Bill. It all seems like it was just yesterday. Who is it that has run out of ideas?
• In 1967, Father Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame led the heads of Catholic universities and colleges in issuing the Land O’Lakes statement, a declaration of institutional (and intellectual?) independence from the Church. More than twenty years later, John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), calling upon Catholic schools of higher education to be vibrantly Catholic. After a decade of toing and froing, the U.S. bishops have finally come up with guidelines for implementing Ex Corde, including a way to ensure that those who claim to be teaching Catholic theology are, as advertised, teaching what the Church teaches. There is skepticism, bordering on cynicism, on all sides. Supporters of Ex Corde say the guidelines are loaded with loopholes that virtually invite bishops to do nothing about determined dissent, while opponents decry the threatened destruction of academic freedom and call for resistance to the death. Kenneth D. Whitehead, who has followed these disputes over the years, offers in the quarterly of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars what I think is a well-balanced judgment: “The thing is now an accomplished fact. The future policy and plans for Catholic higher education in the United States henceforth amount to the policy and plans which the bishops themselves have now put in place. Contrary to what the academics have tried to maintain all along, the principle has been established and affirmed that the Catholic Church in the United States does exercise oversight responsibilities over Catholic colleges and universities and over the teaching of theology. In the long term this is going to be a hard fact to ignore. Nobody can any longer credibly invoke the Land O’Lakes Statement as the model for Catholic universities, for example. This has been almost ritually done for more than thirty years. But now, Land O’Lakes has been officially laid to rest. By itself this is no mean accomplishment.”
• Recall Ronald Reagan’s formula for negotiating arms agreements with the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.” In similar vein is a new book by Arlene G. Dubin, Prenups for Lovers: A Romantic Guide to Prenuptial Agreements (Villard). It’s described this way: “This step-by-step handbook shows how to create a fair, balanced, and loving prenuptial agreement. Legal, financial, and psychological sources contribute to the discussion of finances, future goals, and what each partner should expect from marriage.” Building a house of romance on a foundation of suspicion.
• There are nice things to be said about Father Andrew Greeley, and I recently said some of them (“That Loud-Mouthed Irish Priest,” Public Square, April). But he doesn’t make it easy. Fr. Greeley makes much of the fact that he is a sociologist, or, as he prefers, social scientist. But consider the science of this argument in his column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Once again, we are told that the encyclical Humanae Vitae on sexuality and reproduction was the great turning point of the last century. Among its consequences, according to Greeley, is that Catholics stopped confessing their sexual sins, because they no longer thought they were sins, and pretty much stopped going to confession altogether. Greeley writes: “The Vatican always has blamed this change on dissident theologians. However, neither the laity or the clergy read theologians. The change welled up out of a dramatic shift in the attitude toward sin and sex and marriage at the grass roots of the Church and gradually spread to attitudes toward other aspects of Catholic sexual teaching. Catholics were and are now making up their own minds on what is sinful in sexual behavior and what is not.” Now it is true that relatively few lay people or clergy read theologians, but a social scientist should know that ideas do not come out of nowhere. The same lay people and clergy do read what the media say that theologians (and even sociologists) say. Some sociologists (and even theologians) write columns in the popular press, urging Catholics to make up their own minds about what is and what is not moral and to resist, as Fr. Greeley puts it, the magisterium’s “effort to reassert Church control over the intimate lives of the laity.” In sum, Fr. Greeley has published countless—well, he may keep count—books, articles, and columns explaining why Catholics should ignore the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and then reports that alienation from that teaching somehow “welled up” at “the grassroots.” This is excessive modesty on his part. It is also implausible as social science. Some might go so far as to say it is disingenuous.
• The Barna Research Group out in Ventura, California, regularly sends out these releases with semi-zany headlines. Recently there was “More Americans Are Seeking Net-Based Faith Experiences.” Their study “projects that within this decade as many as fifty million individuals may rely solely upon the Internet to provide all of their faith-based experiences.” Net-based, faith-based, whatever. I suppose President Bush’s initiative has stuck us with this “faith-based” language, chosen in place of “religion-based,” which, it is thought, would have pushed too many secularist buttons. But the Internet providing faith-based experiences is something else. I recall from many years ago a television ad in which a very proper fellow with a British accent was promoting an LP record that cost $19.95
and contained, he said, “all the classical music your family will ever need.” The Internet: all the faith-based experiences you will ever need.
• Documents newly released by the U.S. State Department reveal that Pope Paul VI wanted to make a pastoral visit to Vietnam at Christmas of 1968. The idea was to visit both Saigon and Hanoi, but the Communists in the North rejected the proposal, and the Pope, understandably, did not want to appear to be taking sides by visiting only the South. Who knows what difference such a visit might have made? Possibly none, but then . . .
• Livers, kidneys, hearts, and other parts are all in fierce demand. Secretary Tommy Thompson of Health and Human Services is launching a program to boost organ donations. The problem is that the demand is encouraging the health industry and its paid ethicists to loosen the definition of death in order to get more organs and get them earlier. Potential donors who are seriously ill may discover that getting the care they need is trumped by hastening their gift. There is, for instance, a Pittsburgh medical center operating with guidelines that permit disabled people who are not terminally ill or catastrophically brain-damaged to become organ donors if they need a ventilator for survival. Diane Coleman, founder of a disability rights organization Not Dead Yet, says, “Allowing disabled people to believe they are being altruistic by consenting to organ donation will only increase the pressure on disabled people to choose to die in the belief that by giving up their organs their lives can have some meaning. The danger is especially acute for people who are newly disabled, many of whom believe falsely that their lives can never again be worth living.” Promoting organ donations is fine, writes Wesley J. Smith in the Weekly Standard, but the public must be assured that the protocols for procuring organs do not involve the hastening of death. Without that solid assurance, fewer and fewer people will sign up as donors.
• “Banned in Melbourne!” It doesn’t have quite the cache of being banned in Boston, but Crossroad Publishing, a progressive font of books promoting the Catholic revolution that was not to be, has to make do with what they have. And what they have is a book, Is Jesus God?, by Michael Morwood, a former priest whose earlier book, Tomorrow’s Catholic, was, we are told, “banned by the Archbishop of Melbourne.” I’ll admit that Archbishop George Pell (now of Sydney) is a formidable figure, but I very much doubt that he has the power to prevent any misguided souls in Melbourne who want to get Mr. Morwood’s book from doing so. What Archbishop Pell did was to point out that Mr. Morwood’s views do not reflect the teaching of the Church. Which is precisely what Mr. Morwood says is the case. The Archbishop was simply agreeing with him. Why can’t these people take yes for an answer?
A cry rises up from the world: a new cry among all the old human cries . . .
Who is crying?
They tell us it is the “working class,” the “proletariat,”
We are looking for the person who is crying.
And they point to a universal idea.
Ideas don’t cry. . . .
The cry of death and the cry of love will never come to
an end. But we know too that there exist cries that
can be cured, cries for which our actions and
omissions are responsible.
Is this new cry one of those that can be healed?
Someone is crying in the night—how can we go on
Madeleine Delbrel was a poet and militant atheist who was converted at age twenty and in 1933 founded a “gospel community” in the French village of Ivry, which was a center of Communist hostility to the Church. Her devotion to the poor and Catholic piety brings Dorothy Day to mind, but her reflections are more allusive and her aversion to engagement in partisan politics more intense. We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Eerdmans) brings together poetry and other writings not previously published, making a book that, as Hans Urs von Balthasar says in his brief preface, requires and rewards slow reading and a readiness for adventurous thought.
• “The Great Mystery of Existence, as I said, glared in upon him; with its terrors, with its splendors; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’“ Thus did Carlyle describe Allah’s revelation to Muhammad. Reviewing current books on the birth of Islam and its terrifying conquests, Robert Irwin writes: “It is noticeable that several of the deconstructive academics . . . have got rid of the exciting battles and miracles and, in their place, have proposed an early history of Islam whose development seems to be modeled on academic life. In that version, the religion seems to have evolved very slowly as the product of interfaith seminars and colloquia largely conducted between intelligent textual critics and exegetes, and ‘the great Mystery of Existence,’ which was so evident to Carlyle, has been conjured away.”
• James Lord is an art historian and was a friend of Pablo Picasso until breaking with him in 1956 when Picasso refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He reviews Gertje Utley’s Picasso: The Communist Years (Yale), and is sharply critical of the author’s failure to even attempt to explain the artist’s allegiance to the most brutal regime in human history. In 1944, after the liberation, Paris held a monster exhibition of Picasso’s work, and a day before it opened Picasso announced he had joined the Communist Party. As Lord notes, this caused an enormous stir, greatly increasing interest in the exhibition. From then until his death in 1973, Picasso remained loyal to communism—despite the show trials, the murder of five million kulaks, the death of as many as forty million in the Gulag, and the bloody repressions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Weeks after the Soviet repression of the forlorn insurgents of Hungary, while the summary executions were still going on, Picasso told a journalist, “Communism represents a certain ideal in which I believe. I think that communism works toward the realization of that ideal.” Lord comments: “What he believed this ideal to be he never troubled to define. That he actually swallowed the vicious lie of the Soviet utopia is inconceivable. But he would not renounce it. The ideal, all in all, was the ideal of the self; the infallible, immaculate, supreme quintessence of Picassian mythology by which he had lived for so long that he could not repudiate it without disowning himself, since everything pertaining to that self had become indispensable to it.” If we care about art, says Lord, if we care about the culture of the century past, we have to wonder about Picasso and his influence. “And we are interested, because Picasso’s work is more absolutely inseparable from his life than that of any artist we can readily call to mind. Thus, we have no choice but to take serious account of his personal beliefs and their meaning. The integrity of Picasso as a man as well as an artist is ineluctably at stake in any consideration of his political commitment, because he went very far out of his way to leave his worldwide public no choice in the matter. Since the climactic years of his life were devoted without dissent to the cause of a brutally repressive regime which obliterated not only the freedom but the very lives of men and women of genius, not to speak of millions of others, we cannot absolve him of gross guilt. The man hailed as champion of victims of totalitarian aggression became, in fact, a callous, cynical, hypocrite, an impostor and a traitor to his own supreme talent. He made a truly Faustian bargain but was not rewarded with the innocent beauty of youth or the refreshed vigor of authentic genius. On the contrary, as he grew old, his work became weak and meretricious. His so-called ‘Temple of Peace’ is a huge and vapid cartoon, the Picassian ‘versions’ of great works by great masters of the past are sloppy demonstrations of frustration, and the scores of etchings executed in his final years are pseudo-Goyaesque images of rage, bitterness, and dread of death. And yet, he is still with us. His museum in Paris attracts crowds of tourists. Automobiles manufactured yesterday bear reproductions of his signature as trademarks. Images from his work decorate neckties, ashtrays, matchboxes, jewelry, and assorted knick-knacks, not to mention zillions of postcards. Picasso’s cash never ceases to multiply itself. The mortal man may be dead, but the Midas touch lives on. Not long ago a painting of the Blue Period, and not a very fine one, sold at auction for $55 million (twice the price of a fine Rembrandt); Picasso would have been ecstatic. Money is love, money is fame, and all his life he cherished both.”
• Recall that election 2000 map that showed the country split 50-50 with the Democrat blue sections along the coasts, with a few blue patches in the Midwest, and the rest of the nation in Republican red. Not since the Civil War have Americans been so dramatically divided along the lines of parties that are themselves divided by moral-cultural differences. In such a circumstance, it is hard to speak of what “the American people” or “the public” want. Our parish newsletter, however, is blithely indifferent to the problem. Here is a Times editorial titled “The GOP’s Unsung Centrists.” Never mind that the editors never cease to sing the praises of Republican liberals, who are, of course, always referred to as “moderates” or “centrists,” as distinct from the “conservatives,” “right-wingers,” and “ideologues” who control the party. The interesting thing here is what the editors take to be “the public.” The point of the editorial is that Bush is wrong and the Republican “moderates” are right on campaign finance reform (a.k.a. giving politicians and the media control of political speech) and the environment. The editors conclude with this: “In both cases, a cluster of moderate Republicans is likely to be at odds with the White House. In both cases, however, the moderates are likely to have the public, including a large slice of the GOP voters, on their side.” So there you have it. Is the public divided 50-50 between the reds and the blues? Nonsense. The blues are “the public.” And, with the help of Republican liberals, it may be possible to get some reds to join “the public.” What are they drinking over there on West 43rd Street? You may well ask.
• Thomas Winning, Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow, Scotland, has died. A friend once described him to me as “the UK’s John O’Connor.” Like the late Archbishop of New York, Winning was in some ways a man of the left, deeply rooted in the culture of working people and instinctively on the side of labor against management. He had the common touch and cherished the tribute of a worker who said, “Whit I like about you is that you hae nae dignity.” Also like O’Connor, he was first of all a man of the Church who bore uncompromising witness to Christian teaching and, as a consequence, was regularly referred to as “controversial.” Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, described him as “a man of principle and moral courage who never bent his messages to the wind of political correctness.” John Haldane, philosopher at the University of St. Andrews, writes in the Tablet that Winning was always “attentive to the distinction between objective values and principles and subjective circumstances, recognizing this as essential to sound moral theology and to pastoral practice.” In season and out, Haldane writes, Winning “challenged new orthodoxies as well as old heresies, and Scotland is a better country for his life.” Thomas Joseph Winning. Requiescat in pace.
• You perhaps know the haunting lamentation of Mary at the cross in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, a painfully beautiful piece of music. The New York City Ballet took it on with, in the words of New York Times reviewer Jack Anderson, “choreography that avoids overtly religious references.” The Stabat Mater without mother or son or crucifixion. This is creativity of a high order. Instead, the ballet has three couples, including the dancer Darci Kistler, gathering at a countryside ruin where they wonder about the sadness of the place. Mr. Anderson writes, “Before the ballet ended, Ms. Kistler seemed to have been seized by deep and inexplicable feelings of grief.” Her grief would be more explicable, and Pergolesi’s undoubted grief reduced, if the bowdlerized production did not suppress the offending content of Stabat Mater. Add to the naked public square the naked City Ballet.
• There has been a slew of books this past year honoring that doyen of twentieth-century anthropology, Clifford Geertz. Admittedly, some thank him for services rendered in the distant past, but leave no doubt that they have left him far behind. For sundry radicals of a feminist and deconstructionist stripe, Geertz has long since been displaced by the likes of Foucault who claim that culture is not about meaning but about power. In this view, the task is to decode the symbols of hegemony, oppression, and victimization, and so forth. The very word “culture” has, of course, been used as a pointer to anything and everything, with the result that it sometimes seems to mean nothing. In his enormously influential 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz settled on the argument that “culture” should be used to refer to the meaningful symbols that people in society use to make their lives intelligible to themselves, and said that the anthropologist’s task is to interpret these symbols, much as a literary critic’s task is to interpret literature. The great influence of Geertz, says T. M. Luhrmann writing in the Times Literary Supplement, is in part because he writes so well. He quotes this example: “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.” Luhrmann observes that the anthropologist must cultivate a certain detachment, which is neither the scientistic abandonment of moral vision nor the subjectivist triumph of a sense of moral superiority. Geertz wrote, “Detachment comes not from a failure to care, but from a kind of caring resilient enough to withstand an enormous tension between moral reaction and scientific observation.” Geertz, refracted through and tempered by the sociologist Peter Berger, has been formative in my own thinking. It is almost a mantra of this journal: Politics is in largest part a function of culture; at the heart of culture is morality; and at the heart of morality are the commanding truths we call religion. In addition to Geertz and Berger, Paul Tillich contributed significantly to my understanding of that formula. But I have to mention also Russell Kirk, following T. S. Eliot, following Christopher Dawson, who persistently returned to the insight that “culture” is derived from “cult.” To know a people is to know what they worship. The ensemble of texts is finally liturgical, whether or not it is designated as such. We read over the shoulders of people kneeling to that which provides ultimate meaning, which is meaning in the face of death—death otherwise being the obliteration of meaning. Ethnologists typically stop short of that insight. Berger says somewhere, perhaps in The Rumor of Angels, that culture is all the little flags we wave in defiance of death. In the same book he suggests that, just maybe, the flags are not entirely of our own invention, that the rumor of angels, of meaning greater than death, is true. Geertz and others are not indifferent to cult, but it is treated entirely as a social artifact. It is the human effort to make sense of the senseless. The thought is not entertained that cult may be a response to the reality of things knowable by reason and revelation. That, it is said, would be to move into the realm of metaphysics and theology. But not to make that move, to remain scientifically “neutral,” is inevitably reductionist; it is to translate (i.e., misread) the ensemble of texts into a meaning other than their own. Even with that misreading, the above-mentioned mantra remains serviceable for many purposes of social analysis. But it is an analysis that falls far short of culture as it is lived.
• Those who refuse the necessary clamor for the superfluous. That is the insight of the twelfth-century Bernard of Clairvaux. A puff for a new book came across my desk today. It offers a program for “total well-being”—physical, mental, spiritual—along with elaborate guidelines for workout routines, diets, and “totally there” sex. It sounds utterly exhausting in its reach for the superfluous and neglect of the necessary, and the possible. Admittedly, there is a gap between the monks of Clairvaux and how we’ve ended up today, but Bernard’s counsel about the temptations of what he calls the mid-day devil still rings true. The following is from the recently published The First Cistercian Spiritual Writers by M.-Andrew Fracheboud (Xlibris):
How often has he [the devil] suggested to a monk that he should shorten his sleep, in order to make fun of him later, when he saw him sleeping at vigils? How often has the devil inspired a monk to prolong his fasting, in order to make the one whom he had thus weakened all the more useless to the service of God? Out of envy for those who were doing well in the community, how often has he persuaded them to go off into the desert under the pretext that they will thus obtain greater purity? And the wretches have finally seen how true is the saying that they had read in vain: “Woe to him who is alone. If he should fall, he will have no one to lift him up again.” How often has the devil urged monks to undertake more manual labor than was necessary and thus made unfit for the exercise of the Rule a man who was exhausted by fatigue? How many monks has he led to participate excessively in corporal practices—which, according to the Apostle, serve no great purpose—in order to frustrate them in their piety? We see among us those who previously and obstinately refused what is necessary . . . now clamouring for the superfluous.
• Here’s a fine little book by the late Basil Cardinal Hume, The Mystery of Love (Paraclete). Publishers Weekly likes it, too: “Although the Cardinal’s perspective is clearly Catholic, his references to his church do not obscure the universality of his message.” Some persist in thinking it is His Church, and that catholic means universal.
• Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge historian who is the author of the marvelous book on what is euphemistically called the English Reformation, Stripping of the Altars, takes on James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword in the New York Review of Books. Most of what needs to be said about that pretentiously wrongheaded polemic was said in these pages (see Thomas F. X. Noble’s review, FT, May), but Duffy puts very nicely what is wrong with Carroll’s reconstruction of the New Testament accounts by eliminating the centrality of the cross and proposing that Jesus’ “resurrection” was the product of wishful thinking on the part of the disciples. Duffy writes: “All of this may well be perfectly true; it is an account that would be endorsed by many liberal Christians. The thing to note here, however, is that under the guise of commenting on the Christian story, it actually offers a counternarrative, rooted not in Jesus’ teaching or in biblical categories at all, but in the language of popular psychotherapy and in a post-Enlightenment conception of what is probable or possible in a world sealed against the supernatural. Carroll feels entirely at ease about proposing a drastic rewriting of the New Testament story. Catholics, after all, he says, reject the absolute authority of Scripture and believe that ‘the community has authority over its normative literature,’ a formulation which on his account of things appears to mean that the foundation documents of Christianity are infinitely plastic, and ultimately can be dispensed with, whenever they cut across modern understanding of what is decent or likely.” Duffy offers a sampling of almost grotesque historical errors in the book and concludes, “In the end, Carroll, for all his intelligence and sensitivity, does not possess the learning or intuition to underpin the wholesale revision of Christian tradition advocated in his book,” with the result that Constantine’s Sword is yet another version of the Christian liberalism repudiated in W. H. Auden’s lines:
Nothing can save us that is
We who must die demand a miracle.
• It would be a very good thing, writes Bruce Bawer in the New York Times Book Review, were there a revival of interest in Sigrid Undset, and I warmly agree. Undset was a Norwegian convert to Catholicism who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928. If you have not read the saga Kristen Lavransdatter (be sure to get the T. Nunnally translation), yours is the prospect of delight in a great discovery. Unfortunately, Bawer, author of A Place at the Table and apologist for a “conservative” version of the homosexual movement, has to get in some swipes at Undset’s alleged views on sexual differences. Already at age nineteen, she wrote to a friend that “most marriages run aground because the two people have tried to know each other too well.” Those who have had to deal with marriages running aground may think that an acute observation. But not Bawer, who writes, “What to make of this trailblazing contrarian who, recoiling from what she saw as groupthink, expressed her fierce individuality by sneering at women’s rights and preaching the gospel of male as protector?” He thinks the answer may be in one biographer’s judgment that Undset was “nearly filled with hate for her own sex.” As any reader of Kristen or The Master of Hestviken will recognize, that is preposterous. I confess that I am influenced on this by no less an authority than my late mother. Undset was probably the last major reading project she undertook a few years before her death at age ninety-four. Never, she declared, had she met an author who so perfectly understood women, marriage, and sex. Of these subjects my mother was no mean student, being married for almost fifty years to a greatly difficult man and rearing eight children. But others with more literary credentials, if not more life credentials, have recognized Undset’s courage in clearing her mind of the cant that has, for more than a hundred years, confused the discussion of the sexes. Bawer notes in a parenthesis that Undset became a Catholic in 1924, but her Catholicism was anything but parenthetical. This has been underscored in more recent books, such as J. C. Whitehouse’s Vertical Man: The Human Being in the Catholic Novels of Graham Greene, Sigrid Undset, and Georges Bernanos (St. Augustine’s Press), and Sigrid Undset: On Saints and Sinners, edited by Deal Hudson (Ignatius). The place to start, however, is with Kristen Lavransdatter. Let the Sigrid Undset revival begin.
• “That was Larkin’s problem.” So James Fenton, writing in the New York Review of Books, concludes a long and condescending essay on Philip Larkin, one of the twentieth century’s most noteworthy poets. And what was Larkin’s problem? He had, according to Fenton, an exaggerated sense of the transience of things. Fenton invokes the wisdom of Freud, who wrote about two friends who were saddened by the thought that the beauty of the world would one day pass away. “But since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives,” Freud wrote, “it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.” Narcissism, anyone? Freud goes on: “What spoiled their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning. The idea that all this beauty was transient was giving these two sensitive minds a foretaste of mourning over its decease; and, since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful, they felt their enjoyment of beauty interfered with by thoughts of its transience.” Like so much that Freud wrote, this falls apart upon careful reading. If it is not the transience of things but the thought of the transience of things that causes pain, then the obvious solution is not to think about it. Which is precisely what Fenton says was wrong with Larkin. “It was the looking ahead that was doing the damage.” You and all that you value will one day pass away? Don’t think about it, says Fenton. That’s great counsel from a man who has just published a book titled The Strength of Poetry.
• I remarked on the British regulations that forbid doing anything to make bats feel uncomfortable in church, there often being more bats than people. Some clergy are content simply to grumble about the new rules, but a friend tells me he spoke to one vicar who has found a solution: “I baptize them and then confirm them, and they never come back.”
• A while back I reported the note appended by a scribe to a medieval manuscript, Nunc Scripsi Totum, Pro Christo Da Mihi Potum. “Now I have finished writing, for Christ’s sake give me a drink.” Carl P. Olson of Towson University alerts me to the fact that there are numerous such personal notes, many of them to be found in a book by Marc Drogin, Anathema: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. Father Leonard Kennedy of Toronto has a favorite, found on the last page of a fifteenth-century commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. It reads, Detur scriptori pro penna pulchra puella. “May there be given the scribe for his pen [his work] a beautiful girl.” Fr. Kennedy adds that we must of course assume that the scribe was not a cleric. Of course.
• At his suggestion, Jim Nuechterlein’s editorial column, “This Time,” will be opened also to other editors. This time “This Time” is by associate editor, Damon Linker. We had thought of renaming the column “Taking Turns,” but I have insisted that “This Time” is still Jim Nuechterlein’s column, any time.
• “We do carry it, but it sells out fast.” That’s the answer that more than one reader has received upon asking why a bookstore doesn’t carry FT. The trick is not to appear snide or condescending when you make the obvious response that they should order more copies. And, of course, we count on you to know the best way to approach your local public (or university or college or parish) librarian in order to suggest that they subscribe. Many thanks for your help.
• A reader survey indicates, among other things, that in the last three years the average age of subscribers has increased by one year. Our circulation manager suggested that we should advertise that our subscribers age at one-third the rate of the general population. Anyone who would believe that is not a potential subscriber to FT. To those who you think might be, however, we would be glad to send a sample issue. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, New York, 10010 (or e-mail to email@example.com). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll free 1-877-905-9920, or visit old.firstthings.com.
: New York Times on Jill Stanek, September 8, 2001.
While We’re At It: Terence Kealey on eugenics, Spectator, March 17, 2001. Daniel Cere on relationship theories, Public Interest, Spring 2001. Confession and “kind” priests, Catholic Trends, March 17, 2001. On “faith-based” and community initiatives, World, April 21, 2001. The ELCA’s “vision,” Forum Letter, October 2001. On the hiring of Fr. Kevin O’Rourke, CHA press release and Our Sunday Visitor, May 19, 1991. On the Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine, Cincinnati Enquirer, March 31, 2001. On child-free Seattle, Seattle Times, April 8, 2001. Britons’ belief in the resurrection, Daily Telegraph, April 12, 2001. Closing legal loopholes in the Netherlands, SPUC Information, April 17, 2001. Baking bread in the Jesuit tradition, America, April 16, 2001. Judith Flanders on iconoclasm, Times Literary Supplement, April 13, 2001. William Galston on “exclusionary liberalism,” Commonweal, April 6, 2001. Statistics on abortion and suicide, SPUC Information, April 19, 2001. On Anne Tyler, Atlantic, May 2001. D. D. Guttenplan on the Holocaust, New Yorker, April 16, 2001. Leon Podles on the Boy Scouts, Touchstone, April 2001. Bruce Marshall on the Joint Declaration on Justification, Tablet, April 2001. M. Francis Mannion on liturgical reform, Antiphon, Vol. 5, No. 3. Mainline ordination numbers, Christian Century, April 11, 2001. On the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, New York Times, April 26, 2001. Nicotine Theo logical Journal on FBOs, April 2001. Gara LaMarche on running out of ideas, Nation, May 7, 2001. On Land O’Lakes statement, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Winter 2001. On Andrew Greeley, Chicago Sun-Times, April 29, 2001. On Paul VI visiting Vietnam, Catholic Trends, April 28, 2001. The ethics of organ donation, Weekly Standard, May 28, 2001. Islam and the “great Mystery of Existence,” Times Literary Supplement, January 26, 2001. The GOP and “the public,” New York Times, July 22, 2001. On the death of Thomas Winning, Tablet, June 23, 2001. New York City Ballet’s Stabat Mater, New York Times, June 14, 2001. T. M. Luhrmann on Clifford Geertz, Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 2001. On Catholic universality, Publishers Weekly, August 13, 2001. Eamon Duffy on James Carroll, New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001. Bruce Bawer on Sigrid Undset, New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2001. James Fenton on Philip Larkin, New York Review of Books, April 12, 2001.