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Darwin’s Morality

Benjamin Wiker’s attack on me (“Darwin and the Descent of Morality,” November 2001) contains many errors. I will point out only a few.

I have argued that a Darwinian science of the “moral sense” as rooted in human nature supports a conservative view of morality as derived from natural law. Thomas Aquinas indicates the biological basis of natural law when he endorses the claim of the Roman jurist Ulpian that “natural right (ius naturale) is that which nature has taught all animals.”

While I see this as a similarity between Darwin and Aquinas, Professor Wiker asserts that there is no similarity at all because “for Darwin, we don’t just share some aspects of our nature with animals. We are ultimately indistinguishable from other animals.” Prof. Wiker is wrong, because Darwin clearly states that although human beings share social instincts with other animals, the moral sense that combines social emotions and rational reflection is uniquely human. Indeed, Darwin declares, the moral sense is “the greatest of all distinctions” between human beings and lower animals. But like Aquinas, Darwin thinks this uniquely human morality is rooted in natural inclinations (such as sexual mating and
parental care) shared with other animals. Contrary to what Prof. Wiker asserts, Darwin is not a reductionistic materialist who cannot see the moral distinctiveness of human beings.

To make Darwin look like a crude proponent of eugenics, Prof. Wiker selectively quotes Darwin’s remarks about how in civilized societies the weak are protected by compassionate practices so that they can survive, and “this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Prof. Wiker does not quote, however, Darwin’s remark that such care for the weak manifests the “instinct of sympathy,” which is “the noblest part of our nature.”

Prof. Wiker claims that Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins are closer to Darwin’s view of morality than I am. This is strange, because both Pinker and Dawkins explicitly reject Darwin’s explanation of morality as rooted in human nature. Both are ethical transcendentalists of a Kantian variety who assert that human morality shows the ability of human beings as rational creatures to transcend their nature. Both assert a radical dichotomy between natural facts and moral values. Only human beings, Dawkins believes, have the rational power to cultivate “pure, disinterested altruism,” which is “something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the history of the world.” By contrast, I defend Darwin’s view of the moral sense as rooted in human nature.

I believe that Darwin’s ethical naturalism is fully compatible with a theistic view of nature as originally created by God. Prof. Wiker asserts, however, that any notion of God as Creator is incompatible with Darwinian evolution, but he does not explain why this must be so. Doesn’t the Bible teach us that God created the universe at the beginning with all of the natural formative powers necessary for developing into the world as we now see it? Doesn’t God use the secondary causes of the natural world to execute His original plan? Why couldn’t God use the natural secondary causes of evolutionary history to do this?

Is Prof. Wiker implying that God was unable or unwilling to create a fully gifted universe at the beginning that could unfold naturally without any gaps requiring miraculous interventions later? I see no evidence for this in the Bible, unless Wiker is a “young-earth” creationist who interprets the “six days” of Creation as a literal week of twenty-four-hour days. Like Augustine, I find such a literal reading of Genesis 1 to be absurd.

Larry Arnhart
Department of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Illinois 

It is odd to encounter in First Things that vulgar rhetorical device—usual favorite of the left—of reviling a historical figure for his once-unexceptional views on race, sex, etc. It can hardly be surprising that Darwin was a racist, given the prevalent views of his contemporaries. To contextualize his racism is, of course, not to excuse it, but it is not impossible to separate his scientific ideas from his prejudices. Holding a contemporary Darwinist liable for Darwin’s racism makes about as much sense as asking a modern-day Protestant to answer for Martin Luther’s “The Jews and Their Lies.”

Charles Darwin’s books are not read as Holy Writ by any biologists I know of. One can appreciate his ingenious ideas of modification by descent and natural selection without agreeing with his misapplication of those ideas to humankind. In the passages that Benjamin Wiker quotes, in fact, it is obvious that Darwin is relying not on empirical observations—unless Professor Wiker agrees that there is some empirical basis for believing that the races differ in moral or intellectual capacity—but on the blind prejudice of his time. Rather than impugning the theory of evolution per se, these passages stand as a stark reminder to the scientist to confine his or her theorizing to matters empirical. When Prof. Wiker insists that despite their unpalatability, “Darwin’s [racist] conclusions were correctly drawn from his evolutionary principles,” he misses the point that without hard data, those principles exist in a vacuum.

Darwin is right, however, to observe that past societies have permitted behaviors that now seem shockingly immoral, such as infanticide. Is Prof. Wiker contending otherwise? Certainly a glance back at the twentieth century—to say nothing of September 11—confirms William Blake’s opinion that “Cruelty has a Human Heart / And Jealousy a Human Face.” Blake expresses a despair at the human condition that is not hard to square with the Christian idea that humans are mired in sin, unable to escape without the aid of their Redeemer. In this vein, I am stimulated by Edward T. Oakes’ writings in these pages (“Original Sin: A Disputation,” November 1998; “Wrestling with Original Sin,” February 1999) to wonder if there is an important if so far incompletely explored connection between the theory of evolution and the doctrine of original sin.

Charles Murtaugh
Research Fellow
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Benjamin Wiker replies:

Allow me first to say how pleased I am to have received such well-articulated responses to my article.

Larry Arnhart asserts that, for Darwin, “the moral sense that combines social emotions and rational reflection is uniquely human.” Darwin did indeed say that the “moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals.” (All quotations from Darwin are from his Descent of Man.) As Professor Arnhart points out, Darwin argued that the “moral sense” of human beings is composed of two elements: “social emotions” and “rational reflection.” If the human moral sense is truly distinctive, then we should be able to see its distinctive character arise in its elements.

In regard to “rational reflection,” Darwin argued that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” Since the mental faculties, as all else, arise through natural selection, “the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree.”

This “immense difference in degree” might sound promising for Prof. Arnhart’s argument, but a closer inspection proves otherwise. The “gap” in mental faculties on the evolutionary spectrum is not caused by some sort of leap of natural selection from the ape to man; rather, Darwin asserts that the “breaks in the series are simply the result of many forms having become extinct.” And so, the difference in degree in regard to reason turns out to be merely the result of the intermediate species having become extinct. Therefore, human reason, as a distinctly evolved trait, is distinct only per accidens.

Even more distressing for Prof. Arnhart’s case is that Darwin did not consider reason, as developed in relation to moral sense, to be peculiarly human. For Darwin, “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

But couldn’t Darwin have meant that any creature thus endowed would develop the same moral sense—say, that outlined by St. Thomas in his account of natural law? No. Darwin was quite clear: “I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours.” It is at this point in the argument that Darwin illustrated his assertion by the hypothetical rational hive bees (quoted in full in my original article) who, according to their evolved moral sense, think it a “sacred duty” to commit fratricide and infanticide.

Nor, finally, is “sympathy” distinctively human, but develops in “all those [social] animals which aid and defend each other,” and “will have been increased, through natural selection.”

The social instincts, reason, the moral sense, and sympathy—none are distinctly human, nor does their evolution through natural selection result in a definite, non-changing morality, such as St. Thomas’ natural law.

Next, Prof. Arnhart faults me for quoting Darwin’s very frank eugenic language, but not quoting Darwin’s remarks that sympathy keeps us from destroying the weak, the sickly, and the deformed, even “if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” However noble Darwin’s sentiments here, there are (at least) the following difficulties with his invocation of sympathy.

First, it contradicts the essentially non-teleological nature of his more fundamental principle of natural selection. On evolutionary grounds, natural selection has no goals, and that includes no moral goals. Yet Darwin, in contradiction to his own principle, inserted one, and began waxing poetic about “an advancement in the standard of morality” through an extension of sympathy from the tribe to the nation, then “to the men of all nations and races,” and finally “to the lower animals.”

Second, since natural selection is the fundamental principle, on Darwinian grounds, if sympathy happens to develop by natural selection, and the expression of sympathy contradicts the better survival of the group, then so much the worse for sympathy. As the great nineteenth-century zoologist and avid Darwinian Ernst Haeckel asked, “What good does it do to humanity to maintain artificially and rear the thousands of cripples, deaf-mutes, idiots, etc. who are born every year with an hereditary burden of incurable disease?” Haeckel, reaffirming the “hard reason” of natural selection, declared quite frankly: “Sentiment should never be allowed to usurp the place of reason in these weighty ethical questions.” Haeckel’s conclusions are horrible, but in contrast to Darwin himself, they are consistent with the premises of Darwin’s account of the survival of the fittest, and that is why the eugenics movement flowed forth so swiftly after publication of the Origin.

Third, the embrace of sympathy as the moral principle is opposed to the natural law anyway. Sympathy is rooted in the capacities to feel pleasure or pain, and to recognize them in others. As Darwin points out, the capacities for pleasure, pain, and sympathy are not distinctly human. The difficulties? At least the following two.

In regard to human beings alone, sympathy is a loose cannon on a very large deck. The feeling of sympathy could just as easily bring someone to become an escort at an abortion clinic as it could bring someone to pray outside that same clinic; sympathy could just as surely lead someone to affirm homosexual marriages as to deny them; sympathy could just as quickly lead to the conclusions of the euthanasia movement as to the anti-euthanasia movement. Unlike the natural law, sympathy is morally protean.

Even worse, the elevation of sympathy and its extension to animals means that other animals must be weighed in the moral balance with human beings. As Peter Singer rightly reasons (on Darwinian grounds), the adult gorilla’s capacity to suffer and to empathize are greater than that of a newborn human, and therefore the adult gorilla morally trumps the human newborn.

As for Pinker and Dawkins, all attempts by “ethical transcendentalism” to escape the inevitable results of natural selection determining morality should tell us quite clearly that “natural facts” as defined by Darwinism do in fact lead to pernicious moral results. Why else would Pinker and Dawkins feel compelled to emigrate from the natural world—the world of Darwinian natural selection—to some alleged noumenal, transcendental world and plant the flag of morality there?

Finally, I am not a young-earth creationist, and I do believe that God uses secondary causes”but just not secondary causes as defined by Darwinian materialism.

Charles Murtaugh asserts that I used a “vulgar rhetorical device” to tar Darwin with racism. Certainly the question at issue is whether Darwin’s racism was intrinsic to his arguments or extrinsic. If intrinsic, then Darwin was rightly tarred; if extrinsic, I treated him unfairly.

To give an example of an extrinsic relation, suppose I had written an article on Dmitri Mendeleev, who discovered the logical arrangement of chemistry’s Periodic Table of Elements, and my article was chock full of Mendeleev’s racial slurs, all of which were taken from his private letters and none of which had anything to do with the structure of the Periodic Table. Then we might conclude both that Mendeleev’s racism might be an expression of “once-unexceptional views” and that such racism had nothing to do with his scientific theories.

The case of Darwin is clearly different. The racism is intrinsic to his account of natural selection, and that is why it arises in his application of natural selection to human races in the Descent of Man. Since, according to Darwin, the races themselves have arisen through natural selection, and further, since both intelligence and moral capacity are variable heritable traits, then (Darwin rightly concludes) different races will have different intellectual and moral capacities. If I were a Darwinist, I could not think otherwise, however unpalatable for current tastes.

But I am not a Darwinist, and I don’t believe that the races were caused by natural selection. Indeed, I believe that the presence of equivalent intelligence and moral capacities spread equally among all the races is a proof against Darwinism and for natural law, for natural selection could never have spread such capacities so uniformly. Thus, I am not a racist, because I am not a Darwinist. If a Darwinist is not a racist, then he will have to come up with a very good reason for the remarkable convergence of human intelligence and moral capacity among races so long isolated and evolving.

A Suffering God

In almost every regard Thomas G. Weinandy (“Does God Suffer?” November 2001) has effectively brought to a close a trend in theology that has almost become axiomatic in contemporary theology: that God suffers alongside, and in solidarity with, a suffering humanity. As the author shows, such a theology, far from establishing a solidarity between God and the human race, only represents the triumph of that kind of lachrymose sentimentality that has unleashed such havoc on theology and preaching for at least two centuries now.

However, Father Weinandy has unfortunately ignored one problem lurking within the tradition that must be addressed if the deleterious effects of this trend are to be avoided. At one point in his argument the author avers that as “pure act, God possesses the potential to perform acts that are singular to His being pure act” (emphasis added). In other words, although God is pure act, He has at least this potential: whether to create or not (otherwise the gratuity of creation is lost).

This dilemma led Gottfried Leibniz into some notorious antinomies. Since God is pure act, he said, and since creation before the moment of creation is mere potentiality, God is thereby constrained by His pure actuality to create “the best of all possible worlds” out of the infinite array of possibles facing Him, otherwise He diminishes His pure activity by a less-than-perfect choice. Such a position directly and almost inevitably led to the scathing satire of Voltaire’s Candide and to the embarrassed position in which theodicy has been immured ever since.

For that reason the question of act and potentiality inside the Godhead needs reexamining, a project that the greatest theologians of the twentieth century have not shirked from undertaking. Again, for that same reason Fr. Weinandy speaks too schematically when he pigeonholes Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar among such lachrymose advocates of a passible God as Jürgen Moltmann and John Macquarrie. Perhaps I should leave the Barthians to defend Barth, but I must say I found it rather disconcerting to find von Balthasar being corralled with such an exotic herd as Roger Haight and Hans Küng. For what von Balthasar has done in his own reflections and proposals on this knotty issue is to take seriously the dilemmas bequeathed by the tradition. Essentially, these dilemmas are handed down to us by the juxtaposition of the classical position against the antinomies that Leibniz exposed when he naïvely characterized creation as the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps the damage Leibniz did was unintentional, but after Voltaire’s harsh assistance in bringing these antinomies to light, the issue can no longer be avoided.

Thus, although I agree with most of Fr. Weinandy’s article (as well as, a fortiori, with his book of the same title), I must say that the main weakness of both article and book comes from the fact that the author too readily dismissed Barth and Baltha­sar. No doubt the space of his article forbade an extended treatment of these giants, but his book-length monograph managed to dismiss both these men in a footnote (and in the same footnote to boot!). In fact, however, or at least in my opinion, Barth and Balthasar represent a confrontation with the tradition that has to be addressed if Fr. Weinandy is to succeed in challenging, and eventually undermining, the idea of a passible God. (Readers who wish to pursue these issues in Balthasar at a technical level should read G. F. O’Hanlon’s The Immutability of God in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar [Cambridge University Press], and for those who read German there is Thomas Rudolf Krenski’s Passio Caritatis: Trinitarische Passiologie im Werk Hans Urs von Balthasars [Einsiedeln].)

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Regis University
Denver, Colorado

I was shocked to read Thomas G. Weinandy’s article and to realize that while having interesting arguments in favor of his thesis and interpretations, he totally ignored the origin of this preoccupation.

He places the origin of the discussion on the passibility of God in very recent time with the Anglican theologians Andrew M. Fairbairn and Bertrand B. Brasnett, and considers that the entire Christian Christological tradition maintained the impassibility of God.

However, Cyril of Alexandria’s doctrine on theopaschism is not only well known, but the object of a serious and lasting theological discussion in the fifth century and, later, during the reign of Justinian, engaging the most outstanding theologians of the time.

It is hard for me to understand such an omission in any article that deals with theopaschism.

(The Rev.) Theodor Damian
Romanian Institute of Orthodox Theology and Spirituality
Woodside, New York

Thomas G. Weinandy replies:

I am pleased that Father Edward T. Oakes, S.J., endorsed, on the whole, my article and book, and that he even believes that I have “effectively brought to a close” a wrong-minded view of God and human suffering. I wish I were as confident about the effectiveness of my book in bringing about such a welcomed end. But his confidence does give me hope!

Nonetheless, Fr. Oakes does fault me for not developing the relationship between God being “pure act” and the potential that such an understanding affords Him, thus leaving unresolved all the potential problems raised by Gottfried Leibniz. My lack of attention to such an issue may be problematic, as Fr. Oakes insists, but it is not an issue that I was aware of at the time of writing my book, and even if I had been, I would not have treated it. My book is simply not concerned about the issues Fr. Oakes raises. It seems to me that it is a topic for a book that he should write and not a topic for a book that I should have written.

More to the point, Fr. Oakes believes that I should have given, in the light of the issues he raises, more attention to Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Again, there is some truth to this. Nonetheless, sorting out Barth and von Balthasar on the impassibility and passibility of God in relationship to human suffering would entail, again, another major study. (I note where such studies can already be found.) Fr. Oakes should be happy that I at least lumped them together in one, though quite long, footnote. Moreover, returning to Fr. Oakes’ original point, neither Barth nor von Balthasar grasp the significance of God being “pure act” and because of that they are, in the end, ambiguous in their own understanding of God’s impassibility and passibility, as my long footnote again shows. Von Balthasar states that one must “walk on a knife edge” when attributing properly impassibility and passibility to God, but, in true von Balthasarian fashion, he refuses to articulate exactly what that “knife edge” is. Thus, while he examines in some detail, often quite critically and insightfully, much of the contemporary writing on the subject of a suffering God, one is left frustratingly ambivalent about his own unresolved and so, for the most part, unarticulated position.

As for Fr. Theodor Damian’s point, I presume he does not mean that Cyril of Alexandria held, as do many contemporary theologians, that God as God suffered and so is really the first to propose a suffering God in the contemporary sense. He was not a “modern” theopaschite sixteen hundred years ahead of his time. Cyril did insist against Nestorius, and rightly so, that, because of his incarnate state, the Son of God, who is truly God, really did suffer, but he equally insisted that the Son of God did not suffer as God but as man. Nonetheless, within this understanding Cyril was a theopaschite. This I stated in my article as well as in my book. If Fr. Damian means that Cyril, in insisting that it was truly the Son of God who suffered, was the first to treat the issue of theopaschism, this is true in the sense that he provided the most mature expression and resolution to this issue within patristic Christology. However, while all the Fathers, including Cyril, insisted on God’s impassibility, the concern for protecting God’s impassible nature goes all the way back to at least Ignatius of Antioch (died circa 107 b.c.).

Jesus and the Jews

I read with interest Richard John Neuhaus’ exegetical commentary on John’s remark that “Salvation is from the Jews” (November 2001). His statement merits great interest and respect. While I lack the skill to appraise Father Neuhaus’ deep probing, I was however taken aback by his most unfortunate, indeed offensive, statement that “those Jews for whom ‘Never Again’ means never enough of Christian self-denigration” will always approach the Jewish-Christian dialogue with a sense of grievance.

As Fr. Neuhaus most assuredly knows, the term “Never Again” has to do with the Holocaust—that never again would Jews go into the abyss without struggle and awareness. Those two words have never, to my knowledge, been used to insist upon Christian self-denigration. I would be curious to know one reference he could cite to make such a statement stick. This does not negate the need of coming together that Fr. Neuhaus wishes to advance. But such crudities do not alleviate inherited suspicions.

Irving Louis Horowitz
Hannah Arendt University
Professor, Emeritus
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Richard John Neuhaus tends to minimize the differences between Jewish and Christian religious thought, even to the extent that he seems to deny that we are dealing
with two distinct religions. Although this is still a minority view, it is nevertheless eagerly pursued by some Christian authors, though utterly rejected by the vast majority of Jewish writers.

Father Neuhaus seems to believe that since Jesus was born into a Jewish family he remained Jewish in thought. This is basically the Nazi principle of “once a Jew, always a Jew.” The Nazis did not accept conversion but only genetics. After the war influential Jews adopted this principle and “once a Nazi, always a Nazi” is still regarded as valid by some. I reject this idea because people can see the errors of their previous ways, repent, and become better persons for it thereafter.

Therefore I am also unable to accept the statement that in the Eucharist we consume “Jewish flesh.” This thoroughly materialistic concept runs counter, I believe, to Jesus’ intent to be remembered for what he did, in the name of the Father, rather than for having been born and raised as a Jew. He saw himself as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy (therefore salvation is of the Jews, rather than the Samaritans) and as a messenger of universal truth. He openly confronted the hypocrisy of the then ruling classes of the Jewish religion and this is why he was killed. He was neither a Pharisee nor a patriotic Zealot as some authors would now want to have it, because his kingdom was not of this world.

The idea that Christianity still needs Judaism and that it would disappear if, for some reason or other, Judaism no longer existed also seems flawed. Although this need was present in the first three centuries of our era, the reasoning is no longer valid. On the contrary, one could argue that the persistence of Judaism is actually due to the Christian religion, which kept the Hebrew Bible alive and dispersed it far and wide. The prophet Muhammad also accepted the validity of Hebrew scriptures, and I believe that no one would say today that the Muslim religion would disappear if some Arabs succeeded in eliminating Jews the world over.

Ernst Rodin, M.D.
Sandy, Utah

Richard John Neuhaus makes a valuable contribution to the Jewish-Christian dialogue with his article “Salvation Is from the Jews.” His rejection of traditional Christian supersessionism is refreshing, as is his willingness to tackle head-on the difficult issue of witness. To believe, as so many do, that genuine dialogue can occur without honest discussion of theological differences is patently absurd. Father Neuhaus rightly points out we are “locked in argument by which conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship is deepened.”

Yet there is one glaring omission from his article and from the Jewish-Christian dialogue in general. In Romans 11:5 Paul comments, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace.” Paul is making reference to those who, like himself, were Jewish believers in Jesus. That remnant is alive and well at this present time too, though often ignored by the Church and despised by Jewish community leaders. There are tens of thousands of Jews here in the United States and all around the world who embrace Jesus as their Messiah and continue to live as Jews. We are a growing number who long for a place at the table. I once pleaded with a friend who is a Christian leader in the dialogue to include Jewish believers in Jesus in his plans for an upcoming meeting. He told me, “David, Jewish Christians add more heat than light to the discussion.”

How sad. I contend that by ignoring us both sides are happily avoiding the crux of the theological debate, thereby obviating the genuineness of the dialogue. If it is true, as Fr. Neuhaus says, that there is no plural to the people of God, why insist on excluding us? Jewish believers in Jesus stand as a bridge community between the two faith traditions. Why insist on yelling across that valley to one another when you can walk across the bridge to meet in the middle? That would make for an interesting dialogue indeed.

David Brickner
Executive Director
Jews for Jesus
San Francisco, California

RJN replies:

I regret that Irving Louis Horowitz was offended. The reference was to a statement, several times cited in these pages, by a rabbi friend who said that some Jews now have two controlling mottoes, “Never Again” and “Never Enough,” the latter referring to the insatiable demand for Christian apologies. I agree with Professor Horowitz that the conflation of the Holocaust with any real or imagined slight against Jewish sensibilities is deeply offensive—to Christians as well as Jews.

As to who is a Jew, Ernst Rodin’s disagreement is with the position taken by almost all, if not all, Jewish authorities. Another word for “materialistic” is incarnational. Finally, the reasons why Christianity needs Judaism were, I believe, spelled out in the article.

David Brickner is correct in pointing out the small but important phenomenon of Messianic Judaism, but that would be the subject of another article. “Salvation Is from the Jews” dealt with Jews who are certain that they are not Christians.

Kant and Christian Politics

Thank you for publishing Damon Linker’s review of my book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (November 2001). It presents an insightful analysis of my argument and clearly indicates what is most controversial in the book—namely, my criticism of the prevailing view that Christianity necessarily requires liberal democracy as the only form of government consistent with its conception of human dignity.

While Mr. Linker seems to share some of my reservations about the prevailing view, he disagrees sharply with my explanation of what caused the Christian tradition to change from its long-standing support for kingship, theocracy, and hierarchical institutions and to gradually embrace liberal democracy over the last several centuries. I cite several causes of change—including the Protestant Reformation and the totalitarian experience of the twentieth century—but I give most attention to the influence of Kant’s philosophy of freedom on Christian theology.

Mr. Linker finds my emphasis on Kant a bit odd, and his initial reaction is understandable. I seem to be exaggerating the influence of one German philosopher whom many Christians have never heard of or read. At one point, I even seem to be saying, in Mr. Linker’s words, that the Catholic Church “has been taken over by Kantians.”

Actually, I am saying something like that. I argue that the social teaching of most Christian churches today comes from a theology called Christian “personalism”
which upholds a notion of the human person as a spiritual and social being who is also a bearer of inalienable human rights. Many Christians today also understand Christian charity as a duty to respect the rights of others and to treat them as “persons” or ends in themselves rather than as “things” or means to profit or pleasure. These ideas are more readily traced to Kantian ethics than to developments in Thomistic natural law or to medieval canon law, as scholars such as John Finnis and Brian Tierney have argued.

Moreover, many modern Christian theologians explicitly acknowledge their debt to Kant in their writings. Pope John Paul II says in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that his development of “the personalistic principle . . . is an attempt to translate the commandment of love into . . . Kantian ethics . . . [though] Kant did not fully interpret the commandment of love.” Among Protestants, I cite The Theology of the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch as an explicit attempt to equate the biblical kingdom of God with Kant’s vision of perpetual peace and the kingdom of ends. I also cite Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an appeal to a higher moral law that combines natural law with a command to treat human beings as “persons” rather than as “things.”

My main point is that modern Christianity has been influenced by Kant directly as well as indirectly in the whole climate of opinion created by modern liberalism, which is today essentially neo-Kantian in grounding human rights in the dignity of persons as rational and moral agents and in viewing democracy as the sole legitimate form of government. To highlight the new consensus in Christian politics, I venture the sweeping generalization that Christian theology has gone through three major periods of development, each influenced by a great philosopher: 1) the Platonic or Neoplatonic Christianity of the early Church Fathers; 2) the Aristotelian Christianity of the Middle Ages; and 3) the Kantian or neo-Kantian Christianity of the modern period.

If this generalization is not plausible to Mr. Linker or to other scholars, then I would like to hear their explanations for the dramatic changes in Christian attitudes toward democracy and human rights and for the precise formulations that Christians now employ in speaking about justice. (It is all about “dignity,” “worth,” “respect,” and “the rights of persons” rather than “law,” “virtue,” “the common good,” and the “hierarchy of ends.”) If this generalization about Kant’s influence is plausible, as I think it is, then the crucial question is whether modern Christians have been wise to incorporate so much of Kant’s philosophy of freedom into Christian theology.

While the best modern theologians are very careful about controlling Kant so that his notion of autonomy does not replace the commands of divine law and natural law, I wonder if the whole strategy is workable or if it is not the cause of our present confusion. Do modern Christians truly understand that freedom must serve an objective hierarchy of ends in order to be legitimate, or do they basically equate freedom with the formation of a personal identity that reflects one’s individual conscience? In most cases, they favor personal identity and the right to be one’s authentic self. To avoid this confusion, I propose a recovery of Augustinian Christianity as an alternative to Kantian Christianity, and I attempt to develop a prudential approach to politics in place of the moral imperatives of human rights and “the gospel of democracy.”

Robert P. Kraynak
Department of Political Science
Colgate University
Hamilton, New York

Damon Linker replies:

Robert P. Kraynak’s letter, no less than his book, raises important questions. Specifically, he asks: Has the Church been taken over by Kantians? And if so, is this a bad thing? Professor Kraynak answers both of these questions in the affirmative. I, however, am less certain.

In my review, I did not deny that ideas derived from Kant have exercised an influence on the Church. On the contrary, I believe they clearly have. What I object to is the sweeping way in which Prof. Kraynak portrays that influence. The story is, I would argue, considerably more complicated.

There is no doubt that the great majority of Catholic theologians and intellectuals writing today speak a language of personalism that ultimately derives from Kant. But have they thereby committed themselves to a philosophical position that can justifiably be described as Kantian? I think not. No serious theologian accepts, for instance, Kant’s notion that God is a postulate that the human subject posits in order to satisfy the needs of his practical reason. Contrary to what Prof. Kraynak implies when he writes of the need to “control” Kant, accepting a handful of a philosopher’s ideas does not necessitate that one accept them all. That many theologians today speak of “persons,” “rights,” “dignity,” and “respect” does not imply that they are Kantians any more than John Paul II’s fondness for phenomenology makes him a Heideggerian.

But Prof. Kraynak ultimately means to make a much broader claim-namely, that Kant has exercised an even greater “indirect” influence on the Church through the “whole climate of opinion created by modern liberalism, which is today essentially neo-Kantian.” Here, it seems to me, Prof. Kraynak is led astray by a pair of highly questionable assumptions that distort the true character of social life within liberal democracies. First, following Aristotle’s analysis of the ancient polis, he assumes that a political regime (in this case, modern liberalism) has the power to stamp the “whole climate of opinion” within a deeply pluralistic nation like the United States. Second, and even more contentiously, he assumes that the regime of modern liberalism is thoroughly Kantian in character. It is these two assumptions that enable him to conclude that, in effect, we’re all Kant­ians now.

This is not the place to evaluate the adequacy of using Aristotelian regime analysis to understand a modern commercial republic. Suffice it to say that in such political systems, unlike the ancient polis, numerous nonpolitical influences compete with politics to produce the “climate of opinion” that reigns within them. It is therefore at least arguable that the political regime no longer acts as the primary causal variable in explaining human life, if it ever did.

As to whether our regime is thoroughly Kantian, I can only say that to make such an assertion is to push the case for the influence of academic political theory-and one school of political theory in particular-very far. I would propose, instead, that we understand the political principles that order our public life to be the product of (to quote from my review) “a complex combination of philosophic intentions with religious, political, social, and scientific ideas and events beyond the control of any one man or group of philosophers.”

When it comes to the question of whether the influence of personalism-with its emphasis on dignity, rights, and democracy-has been bad for the Church, I must venture a tentative No. Can democracy be taken too far? Can it become an end in itself, transgressing the political sphere to refashion social and even religious relationships in its own image? Absolutely. And when it does, it needs to be put back in its place using just the sort of arguments that Prof. Kraynak so skillfully wields in his book. But at the same time, we should not allow ourselves to forget that aristocracy is subject to the same overweening tendencies.

The danger of Prof. Kraynak’s critique of personalism is that it will generate nostalgia for premodern forms of social life and modes of theological reflection that had grave problems of their own-problems for which modern ways of living and thinking, however flawed, are a necessary corrective. I thus conclude, as I did in my review, by invoking Tocque­ ville, who suggested that democracy has triumphed in the modern world, not because it is the telos of human history, and not because it is the only legitimate form of government, but rather because it is more just than the aristocratic order that preceded it. The Church cannot be harmed by placing itself in greater harmony with justice.

Is Natural Law Universal?

Richard John Neuhaus takes me to task (While We’re At It, November 2001) for some remarks I offered at a colloquium sponsored by Commonweal. While I presented a formal paper on that occasion, the remarks to which Father Neuhaus takes exception represent impromptu oral comments and lack the kind of elaboration and supporting evidence that a writer can provide. I hope that the following will clarify the issue I tried to raise.

When I spoke of Catholics “reasoning within the premises of their own community,” I had in mind an excellent piece by David Novak chronicling his intellectual encounter with John Courtney Murray. Novak quotes Murray as declaring:

“It is sometimes said that one cannot accept the doctrine of natural law unless one has antecedently accepted ‘its Roman Catholic presuppositions.’ This, of course, is quite wrong. The doctrine of natural law has no Roman Catholic presuppositions. Its only presupposition is threefold: that man is intelligent; that reality is intelligible; and that reality, as grasped by intelligence, imposes on the will the obligation that it be obeyed in its demands for action or abstention.”

While inspired by Murray’s vision, Novak offers a searching metaphysical and theological critique of Murray’s argument. He concludes that the specifics of Murray’s position do not meet Murray’s universalistic aspirations. To quote Novak: “The Thom­istic version of natural law as presented by a theologian like Murray cannot have enough plausibility to be convincing in a social discourse outside the Catholic world in which it has been traditionally developed.” If I am an “exclusionary liberal,” so is Novak.

If Novak is right about Murray (and his argument is strong), there would seem to be two possibilities: 1) every form of natural law argument, like Murray’s, rests on presuppositions that command assent within specific communities but not across communal bounds; 2) there is at least one form of natural law that is truly universal in a way that Murray’s is not.

Novak argues for the latter alternative. If he is right, the question then becomes, What are the grounds and the content of the natural law that can make good its claims to universality? Is Fr. Neuhaus comfortable with the (Noahidic) version of natural law, rooted in the Jewish tradition, to which Novak ascribes universal standing? And does that version of natural law lead to the specific conclusions about social ethics that Fr. Neuhaus would urge on our society?

William A. Galston
Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

RJN replies:

Yes and yes. Although I am not persuaded that Novak’s version of natural law conflicts with Murray’s as much as Galston-and Novak-suggest.

Jesus’ Difficult Words

Regarding Richard John Neuhaus’ “Hard Sayings” (Public Square, November 2001), I would generally agree that Jesus’ hard sayings are too often soft-boiled and served up so one doesn’t have to chew. But on the specific saying (“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”), I think the difficulty caused by the word “hate” is entirely due to translation of Jesus’ original Hebrew (or Aramaic) teaching.

Jesus, in all likelihood, taught in Aramaic or Hebrew. His sayings were transmitted faithfully but ultimately translated into Greek-and at that point some of the sayings only appeared to become mysterious or hard. As the late scholar David Flusser points out in his book Jesus (1998): “[This] is one more pertinent saying that does not sound so inhuman in Hebrew as in translation. In Hebrew the verbs ‘hate and love’ can be juxtaposed to suggest preference (e.g., Genesis 29:31). The Apostle Paul was also familiar with this idiomatic usage, ‘As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13, Malachi 1:2-3).’”

Flusser’s goal was not necessarily to soften, but to clarify. In fact, two of his students, David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, have produced a book entitled Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebraic Perspective. I’m sure your readers would find it informative.

Todd E. Voss
Downers Grove, Illinois

Richard John Neuhaus is, of course, correct to caution us against softening the hard sayings of Jesus. Commenting on his homily on the subject, he writes: “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.”

Yet as Martin H. Franzmann, a professor we both had at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, was wont to say about sin and self-mutilation in Matthew 5:29-30: “There is no order of ‘One-Eyed’ or ‘One-Armed’ Saints in the Church.” And the last time I saw Father Neuhaus, he still had both eyes, both hands, and both feet.

Franzmann comments on the Matthew passage as follows: “Jesus is demanding something more persistent and therefore more agonizing than physical mutilation” (Follow Me, Concordia, 1961). Following Franzmann’s lead, I suggest that we avoid the temptation to soften Jesus’ hard sayings not by taking them literally, as Fr. Neuhaus suggests, but by interpreting them as being “more than literal.”

(The Rev.) Philip J. Secker
Hope Lutheran Church
Storrs, Connecticut

I am grateful for Richard John Neuhaus’ comments in the November 2001 issue on Jesus’ “hard saying” in Luke 14 about hating one’s parents, siblings, et al. In fact, I recently heard a sermon in which a priest, sounding a bit embarrassed, attempted to explain away these words in just the way Father Neuhaus described, and then moved on in his sermon to something else.

While I am strongly pro-family, I think that these hard words of Jesus can be heard today as rejecting a phenomenon that still plagues many middle- and upper-middle-class parishes: a pattern of church life that works to exclude those who do not have, or have not had, two children in Sunday School and a spouse sharing the pew. A church that thinks it is merely “family-oriented” can unwittingly practice something more akin to family-olatry. A surprisingly small number of mainline congregations, for example, sponsor clubs or gatherings for their singles who are over the age of thirty.

Jesus’ words jolt us into keeping our faith and families theocentric, not familiocentric, and thereby help families themselves to live more abundantly as they risk widening the circle of their loving regard.

David Hein
Professor of Religion and Philosophy
Hood College
Frederick, Maryland

Prejudicial Behavior

Richard John Neuhaus quotes approvingly Pastor Ronald Marshall’s clear and careful statements about homosexuality (While We’re At It, November 2001), ending with the question “What about that don’t you understand?”

Yet it seems questionable that Father Neuhaus understands it when two pages later he makes no distinction between orientation and behavior in his approval of the Boy Scouts of America. Pr. Marshall carefully describes behavior throughout. The Boy Scouts require no infraction in behavior in their exclusion of homosexual persons. They are committed to exclude Scouts and Scout leaders for being truthful about homosexual orientation, and this when they do not exclude recovering alcoholics, heterosexuals struggling with lust, or any other disordered condition not showing itself in sinful behavior. “On my honor I will do my best to . . . keep myself morally straight” is a commitment of the Scout Oath made by all Scouts and Scout leaders. Do these words mean something? Is it not sufficient to hold behavior accountable to them?

Since when is “the mainstream” a test for righteousness? The Scouts may well succeed in their prejudicial behavior, but it directly contradicts the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2358, “Every sign of unjust discrimination in [homosexuals’] regard should be avoided.” Fr. Neuhaus’ statement about the “right of the Boy Scouts to exclude leaders who, on the basis of their public statements and actions, raise a question about their possible interest in doing rude things with little boys” approves dispensing with due process and assuming guilt based on “raised questions about possible interest.” So much for justice.

The presumption of the guilt of homosexual behavior or anything else on the part of homosexual men and women is on its face unjust prejudice and a slap at those brothers and sisters who struggle valiantly and successfully to “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they encounter from their condition” (CCC 2358). The Church teaches that such people “can and should . . . approach Christian perfection” (CCC 2359). The Boy Scouts prejudge them to be incapable of self-mastery.

(The Rev.) Joseph Rinderknecht (Eagle Scout)
The Lutheran Church of the Covenant
Maple Heights, Ohio

A Theory on the Priest Shortage

Re: While We’re At It, November 2001, concerning the shortage of younger priests and pastors.

Our pastor made the following observation about a Roman Catholic church that he plays the organ at every Sunday: aside from the priest, all of the people assisting at the altar are women. Thus, assisting the priest is seen, by the young men of the parish, as woman’s work (or at the very least, as something which isn’t distinctly, or even predominantly, man’s work). And as long as assisting the priest is seen as predominantly woman’s work, young men won’t be too interested in doing it. And that misses an opportunity to introduce young men to the priesthood.

People can criticize such thinking as “sexist,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Don Hansen
Upland, California

A Clarification

Daniel Callahan suggests (Correspondence, December 2001) that in my review of Wesley J. Smith’s Culture of Death (August/September 2001) I unfairly accused him of taking an anti­ religious position on issues related to bioethics.

I had no intention of implying that Dr. Callahan endorses the trend he described-nor, I think, did Wesley Smith in the passage I cited from his book. I apologize if I created any impression to the contrary. I thought it was worth noting that this deficiency in much modern bioethics has been acknowledged by a respected expert in the field itself.

Richard Doerflinger
Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Washington, D.C.


In a letter to the editor in the December 2001 issue, Daniel J. Cassidy was identified as an employee of the Children’s Scholarship Fund. He is in fact President of the New Jersey Scholarship Fund. We regret the error.