Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I am moved to respond to the opinion piece by Professor Robert Benne (“ Reinventing Sexual Ethics,” March) not only because Prof. Benne refers to me but (more importantly) because he raises some issues concerning homosexuality and the Church that need continuing, reasoned examination on the part of theologians and church leaders. His remarks were directed to developments in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), but, as he notes, the issues and concerns he raises relate to the whole ecumenical scene.

My belief is that the subject of homosexuality is challenging us to transcend the usual ideological stances we bring to this topic, stances which create a “we versus them” mentality that fails to address the substance of the matter. My discontent with Prof. Benne’s analysis is that it reflects too much of this ideological thinking. One sees it in his disparaging description of the ELCA “bureaucracy” and clear hints that the church’s leadership is forming a liberal “juggernaut” designed to overwhelm the conservative opposition. These kinds of observations play well with one’s ideological soul mates, providing a measure of grim satisfaction and perhaps some condescending amusement in ascribing questionable motives and spiteful intent on the part of the opposition—the “enemy.” Unfortunately, this kind of argument helps only in solidifying the lines that divide us rather than inviting the kind of dialogue that is essential if the Church is to genuinely address the issue.

Nor is the subject of homosexuality adequately addressed by claims on the part of conservatives that they are the defenders of Scripture in opposing any change in the Church’s historic stance, in contrast to liberals who are accused of sacrificing the scriptural witness to the shifting views of contemporary experience and the social sciences. Prof. Benne writes that Gilbert Meilaender extracted an admission from me precisely on this point, that I was relying on experience and reason rather than the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. Actually this way of posing the issue simply muddies the water; it assumes simplistically that homosexuality compels one to opt either for Scripture or the Church’s contemporary experience, when in reality the Church’s understanding of Scripture is always an engagement that reflects its ongoing experience. What I was acknowledging to Meilaender was that there is no reason to deny the historical record of the Church’s negative assessment of homosexuality, based on its understanding of Scripture up to the present era . The point, however, is that we are being driven to reconsideration of the biblical witness on this subject because the Church’s contemporary experience is challenging the assumption that we are justified in simply repeating the conclusions from the past.

This is a situation that creates conflict, but the beneficial aspect of that conflict is that it is compelling biblical scholars literally for the first time to give extended attention to those passages that have shaped the Church’s stance on homosexuality. Intense exegetical work on these passages has raised all kinds of questions that never occurred to past generations. What was obvious in the past is no longer so obvious in the present, a development that ought not surprise us, given the history of biblical interpretation in conjunction with the changing experience of the Church. It should be patently clear that the significant advances in our understanding of homosexuality are not irrelevant to what the Church has traditionally thought the Bible says about it. It would not be the first time that changing circumstances have ushered in a reassessment of what the Bible says on any number of topics. To cite but one example, the scientific shift from geocentric to heliocentric thinking constituted a far more significant and potentially devastating threat to Bible—believing Christians than any changes we might anticipate from a more adequate understanding of homosexuality.

The comment Prof. Benne cites from Wolfhart Pannenberg, that a church’s decision to change its stance on homosexuality means that it “would cease to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” is little more than a gratuitous assault on the historic meaning of those terms. Pannenberg is claiming that the wrong view on homosexuality constitutes a denial of the Church’s very identity, an espousal of heresy that pulls the theological rug out from under the Church. To elevate a particular social issue to that status is highly unusual in itself, though
not unheard of. We Lutherans were debating not long ago whether one of the churches in the Lutheran World Federation could maintain its membership as long as it continued a policy of apartheid. Because that policy and the belief underlying it constitute an assault on a particular group of God’s children, in effect denying their creation in God’s image, it had to be repudiated as a denial of the God we worship. In contrast, the traditional stance of the Church on homosexuality has actually constituted another assault on a group of God’s children, not on the grounds of race but of sexual orientation. Certainly one of the more urgent and compelling reasons for changing the Church’s stance is a simple desire for justice, to say nothing of a Christian desire to embrace in love those who have been excluded and persecuted over the centuries.

The ideological flavor of Prof. Benne’s article is further evidenced in his evaluation of several publications of the ELCA relating to sexuality. He regards the study material produced by the task force on sexuality, of which he was a member, as being “heavily biased” toward the “revisionist agenda.” Upon first reading this material, I remember being impressed with its evenhandedness in stating both pro and con viewpoints. I used the primary document in my Sunday School class as the basis of a six-session course, and the class’ general impression was that it was quite impartial.

Prof. Benne’s ideological leanings are dramatically evident in his judgment that “the ELCA has more or less followed the culture on issues of abortion, divorce, and the acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation.” The ELCA’s major statement on sexuality as revised and published in October 1994 clearly affirms the ideal of abstinence before marriage (“Marriage is the context for mature sexual involvement, prior to which this church affirms and encourages sexual abstinence”), while the abortion statement constitutes an impressive attempt both to affirm a bias on behalf of life and to acknowledge in a fragmented world that abortion may at times become the lesser of two evils. This stance, which pro-life absolutists would reject as inadequate in affirming life, reflects the Lutheran ethos in its willingness to hold opposite viewpoints together in tension and to consider the nuances of each individual case in arriving at an ethical judgment.

I suspect a primary element in Prof. Benne’s conservative posture is genuine apprehension over the possible fallout that would ensue should the ELCA and other churches totally dismantle their historic position on homosexuality. He fears a slippery slope effect, describing it in graphic terms in several of his concluding paragraphs. What he envisions—the glorification of gay unions and gay adoptions in church periodicals and Sunday School materials, a growing gay representation in the pew as well as the pulpit, massive defections by disillusioned families—is, unfortunately, the kind of fear-mongering that is intended to scare the Church away from an honest attempt to grapple with this issue.

Let me suggest an alternative vision. The Church demonstrates an increasing maturity on this subject that serves as a model for the larger society. It does not glorify homosexuality but simply recognizes it, encouraging the small minority of gays and lesbians to live their lives responsibly, authentically, and in peace, as the vast majority devoutly want to do. This would mean the encouragement of stable, legalized partnerships or unions, marked by fidelity and commitment—relationships that are already exemplified in countless instances by both Christians and non-Christians in the gay community.

Paul Jersild
Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics
Lutheran Theological Seminary
Columbia, South Carolina

Like Robert Benne, I deplore the way ELCA revisionists dismiss biblical and confessional arguments against the ordination of clergy who are in same“gender relationships. Although some revisionist intellectuals have attempted to confront such arguments (e.g., L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today ), most prefer the intellectual brutality of power politics. They assume that they will never convince the hardened hearts of the conservatives, and, whenever they have the majority of votes, they don’t bother to try.

On the other hand, I have seen the same refusal to discuss the issues, the same tyranny of the majority arising from mental lassitude and moral cowardice, on the part of ELCA conservatives in a local church that ejected its gay pastor. It should be obvious that if we take too lightly our biblical and confessional heritage, we may become neither Lutheran nor Christian. It is perhaps less obvious that we can nevertheless sin with the Law. Remember that Jesus flouted the Law as people understood it when he cured a man’s congenital blindness on the sabbath (John 9:1“16).

The general refusal of both sides to engage in genuine dialogue (Professor Benne and company excepted) reflects the incivility of the larger society in which this debate is embedded. The rejection of civil dialogue in favor of partisan politics on a host of issues endangers not only the Church. It endangers civil society in general, and American democracy in particular.

John A. H. Futterman
Pleasanton, California

Robert Benne is surely correct that the ELCA’s 2001 assembly put a process in motion that “may result in a straightforward decision to ordain gays and lesbians in committed relationships and to bless same-sex unions” at the 2005 ELCA assembly. Indeed, it is almost inevitable.

Professor Benne ponders what those who dissent from such actions will do. He suggests that some will go to Eastern Orthodoxy, some to Rome, and others to conservative Lutheran churches such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. No doubt that will happen. He then notes that “perhaps another group will step forward, but that would take leadership that as yet is nowhere in sight.” Perhaps not “in sight,” but such leadership is already active on the Internet. Yes, there are some of us in the ELCA who are already preparing for a mass exodus out of the ELCA and into a new Lutheran Church that we are terming a “centrist” Lutheran Church—solidly confessional—in between the ELCA on the far left and the Missouri Synod on the far right. We are just beginning to work on a draft of a constitution and bylaws for a new church that would have its constituting convention in the spring of 2006—after the ELCA formalizes sexual revisionism as policy. Many moderate Missourians may wish to be a part of this new church.

Brad Jenson
Duluth, Minnesota

Robert Benne replies:

Mr. Futterman is certainly accurate in his judgment that those in the majority tend to dominate the opposition with power politics rather than engage in genuine dialogue with them. To my mind the ELCA will not engage in the sort of extended theological dialogue that he commends. But the main cause is not simply the use of raw power politics. The use of power is more subtle. Power is wielded through the quota-ized representation schemes to which the ELCA has been wedded since its inception. The shrewd use of those schemes will prevent a fair, serious, and extended theological conversation.

The composition of the just-appointed task force on sexuality indicates as much. There is not one theological ethicist on the task force who will vigorously represent the orthodox teaching on these matters. But all other interest groups are represented, some of whom interpret theology as a tool of oppression. So the dialogue that Mr. Futterman longs for won’t take place there. Rather, it is likely that a tectonic change in the church’s teaching on sexual morality will take place after a week-long assembly in which 40 percent of the delegates will be there for the first time. We will be fortunate if the assembly requires a two-thirds majority vote on this momentous issue rather than a simple majority.

Brad Jenson interprets my reference to “a leadership group stepping forward” to mean a group that is ready to form a new church. My reference was rather to a group that might organize widespread resistance to the general direction of the ELCA on sexuality issues. I cannot be enthused about the formation of yet another church, though what he describes is attractive to me. The exodus he talks about will likely be less than “massive” and we will have one more fragmentation of the Lutheran body. It is too soon to give up the ship. Indeed, there is resistance organizing that may awaken a slumbering laity whose voice might be heeded.

Paul Jersild scolds me for being too “ideological” when in fact he is just as ideological as I, if by “ideological” he means partisan. (In his view, my adherence to the Church’s traditional stance “assaults” a group of God’s children. Is that not an intemperate, ideological allegation?) So let’s drop the word “ideological” and call our stances “theological.” Professor Jersild is clearly a liberal theologian who is willing to revise a near universal, enduring moral tradition of orthodox Christianity in light of a decade or two of contemporary experience of the Church. I am a conservative or orthodox Lutheran who believes that the dramatic revision of such a tradition needs overwhelming arguments against it. When Prof. Jersild can demonstrate with the certainty of the heliocentric worldview (his example) that homosexual relations are God-pleasing I will change my mind. That sort of scientific precision perhaps asks too much of him, but I will ask revisionists for overwhelming biblical, theological, social-scientific, and experiential arguments—in that order of importance. Nothing like that is in sight.

Prof. Jersild is certainly right that the Church’s moral teaching develops in confronting new challenges. But those developments are generally based on the retrieval of some ne­ glected element or theme in the tradition that allows us to reshape contemporary practice. Such is the case with the Church’s changing views on slavery, racism, and women’s role in the Church. But there seems to be nothing in the Bible or tradition to retrieve in order to revise our normative teaching on homosexual relations. Absent such grounds, “development” turns into “accommodation” or even “capitulation.” It should give Prof. Jersild pause that the only religious bodies to accept the revisionist agenda to date are the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, and Reform Judaism.

There is surely one point upon which Prof. Jersild and I agree—Christians are obligated to treat homosexual persons with respect and to include them in the life of the Church, just as it includes all sinners. However, rather than change the normative teaching of the Church, as Prof. Jersild recommends, I would argue that the normative teaching is solidly defensible and that the Church’s primary challenge is a pastoral one demanding both compassion and ingenuity.

Getting Berlin Right

Although George Weigel makes many fine points concerning virtue and freedom in his essay “A Better Concept of Freedom” (March), his argument is flawed because he conflates two completely distinct areas of human life. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Weigel that freedom cannot be viewed as a license for mere willfulness. But it does us no better to couch it in terms such as “freedom for excellence.” Doing so only confuses the issue.

Freedom, as Isaiah Berlin and others (e.g., Karl Popper) have argued, must be defined negatively in order to preserve it from the tyranny of well-intentioned officials in power. History is littered with bloody examples of the terror that is bred from “positive” conceptions of liberty. The USSR is our most recent and prominent example of this. Virtue, and the cultivation of it, should not be clumsily expressed as “freedom for excellence,” but rather should be seen as the effort of the individual with God’s grace to strive for what is good. It is a matter that should not, and cannot, fall under the auspices of legal power; it is a matter solely between the individual, his community, and God.

Of course, in a society that formulates freedom negatively, individuals will fall by the wayside and pursue less-than-virtuous ends. People will do that anyway, as history has amply shown, just as it has shown that a misguided idea of “positive” liberty can do far more damage than that of the lone individual obsessed with his willfulness.

Daniel J. Sisti
Cardiff, California

Although his notion of “freedom for excellence” is attractive, George Weigel’s essay is likely to mislead readers about Isaiah Berlin’s political thought. This is unfortunate, especially because of the historical significance of Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty.”

Mr. Weigel writes of “the perversion of liberty that was at the heart of the totalitarian project,” but he fails even to sketch how this perversion occurred. He refers to positive freedom as the “freedom to realize some greater good in history.” This particular idea may have had currency in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but positive freedom does not generally have such sinister connotations. As Berlin wrote, the longing to be free in the positive sense must be recognized as a valid universal goal. (See the Introduction to Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty , which includes “Two Concepts of Liberty.”)

What did Berlin mean by positive freedom? To speak broadly, it means self-governance, an idea (or ideal) that finds expression in both democratic theory (e.g., Rousseau’s General Will) and moral philosophy (e.g., Kant’s notion of autonomy and the Stoicism of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius).

Because Mr. Weigel discusses positive liberty only in its perverted form, it is easy for him to dismiss both the negative and positive concepts of freedom as inadequate for our age. But on any fair reading of Berlin’s essay, Mr. Weigel’s notion of “freedom for excellence” should be seen as another variant of the positive concept of freedom. Anyone who doubts this should review Berlin’s comments about T. H. Green (1836–1882) in “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1881), Green wrote: “The ideal of true freedom is the maximum of power for all the members of human society alike to make the best of themselves.” Ber­lin considered this one of the classic statements in behalf of freedom in the positive sense. Green’s statement is also no great distance from the idea of “freedom for excellence.”

In my judgment, Mr. Weigel is correct to argue that Berlin’s endorsement of the negative concept of freedom—as ultimately more humane or dignified than the positive concept—has contributed to some unexpected (and undesirable) developments. But perhaps because of his desire to offer a third alternative, Mr. Weigel glosses over some key issues. In any event, his essay contains some glaring errors. It is simply wrong, for example, to say that, in Berlin’s account, both the positive and the negative concept of freedom are “children of the Enlightenment.” And anyone who has ever read “Two Concepts of Liberty” in its entirety will have great difficulty accepting Mr. Weigel’s judgment that Berlin’s philosophical anthropology was “exceedingly thin.”

Since his death in 1997, Berlin’s reputation as a scrupulous scholar and original thinker has remained intact. Accordingly, his celebrated essay deserves a closer and more careful analysis.

David L. Tubbs
Natural Law Institute
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana

George Weigel’s article “A Better Concept of Freedom” is interesting and provocative, but contains two important errors of detail. The author repeatedly refers to Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham as “monks.” As a medieval historian and an admirer of both medieval monasticism and scholastic theology, I must object to this unfortunate confusion.

Aquinas was, as Mr. Weigel correctly points out, a Dominican friar. Ockham was a Franciscan, and as such also a friar. Referring to either as a monk is simply wrong. Friars were not and are not monks, nor are monks friars. The orders of friars, beginning with those of Francis and Dominic, were founded as self-consciously different from orders of monks. The most important difference was that friars, or mendicants, begged for a living in some fashion, did not take vows of stability (one of the Benedictine triad of obedience, stability, and conversion of manners), and in various forms eschewed communal property.

To this day, Benedictines (including Cistercians and Camaldolese), Carthusians, and a few other groups prefer to be called monks; Franciscisans, Dominicans, some Augustinians, and a few others prefer to be called friars.

Patrick J. Nugent
Director, Center for Quaker Thought and Practice
Earlham College
Richmond, Indiana

Redeeming Flaubert?

Rodney Delasanta is too quick in his indictment of Gustave Flaubert (“ Flaubert and the Sin Against the Holy Ghost,” March). At least, I hope this is so; if not, it would be wrong of me to like Madame Bovary quite as much as I do. But I think I have more on my side than mere affection: reflection on Aquinas’ definition of despair reveals that Delasanta has missed a crucial distinction.

Not every instance of despair constitutes a sin, let alone a sin against the Holy Ghost. I might despair of fixing my bicycle tire, of ever learning to play the piano, or of ever becoming really good at chess. Despair constitutes a sin against the Holy Ghost when it is directly contrary to the theological virtue of hope. According to Thomas, a man despairs in this way when he no longer believes that union with God is possible for him: “Despair consists in a man ceasing to hope for a share in God’s goodness” ( ST II–II 20a3). Just as union with God is the focal point of hope, so it must be the object of true despair. This despair leads to other sins insofar as man, having given up hope for true and divine good, turns to sin: “When hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works.”

Properly speaking, despair presupposes a recognition that friendship with God is a desirable end. For to despair is to cease to believe that God could find one lovable. And no one can despair of something he does not first keenly desire. Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have said, towards the end of his life, that although he still prayed for others, he could no longer pray for himself, because he was too far gone to be saved. If this report is true, Hemingway must have struggled with true despair.

Contrast all this with disillusionment. While despair consists in recognizing the true good as good and ceasing to believe that that good is possible for me, disillusionment consists in the shattering of a worldview, namely, what it is that happens when I realize the way in which I have heretofore viewed the world is altogether inadequate. Suppose I am a Stalinist through and through. I pin all my hopes on Stalin and center my life around the Stalinist party. I live Stalinist ideals, I mouth Stalinist slogans as I go about my daily tasks, and I read Stalinist bedtime stories to my children. Now suppose that in my zeal I actually move to (Stalin-era) Russia, and suppose that having done so I begin to see things differently. I see that instead of peace and harmony my ideal leads to unhappiness, not only in isolated aspects of life, but in virtually all of them. My life suddenly has no center, and, consequently, it has no meaning. I begin to see that the ideal I cherished, the very thing that motivated my hatred of religion and the bourgeoisie, proved to be a chimera.

To be disillusioned is to discover that an apparent good is not the true good. To despair is to surrender to the belief that what I rightly recognize as the good is beyond my reach. Unlike despair, disillusionment paves the way for conversion and grace. For it is only by casting off illusions that one can come to see the truth. And if the modern world is peculiarly full of false ideals, it is that much more in need of honest men who, unwilling to be pigs satisfied, voice their own disillusionment. It is the disillusioned men, those who have no hope in the merits of their idols, who are particularly ripe for grace, and I think Flaubert was one of them.

I have no doubt that, as Professor Delasanta tells us, Flaubert disliked priests and felt contempt for religion. In fact, I would go even further. Flaubert seems to despise people of quiet virtue who lead good ordinary lives. (Consider his portrait of Charles, the affable and dreadfully proper husband.) But if Flaubert sees himself as Emma, it is not that he sees such lives as good and despairs of being like them. Instead, from the perspective of a romantic, he cannot see how such a life could be attractive. A similar point must be made about Emma’s “religion.” There is no vice in hating Emma’s religion—it is a false and empty thing. Religion is as unsatisfying to the romantic as his many and varied love affairs: all are born in the shallow soil of sentiment and emotion and quickly fade. Yes, Flaubert is cynical about religion and presents it as one more unsatisfying option. And so it is, for the romantic.

In short, if Flaubert were to recognize the religion and virtue of the abbé and Charles, and yet give up any hope of attaining these goods, he would be guilty of despair. But the novel does not indicate any such recognition. Instead, Flaubert shows that one cannot be a romantic and see these goods as good. In fact, he does even more than this: he shows that one cannot be a romantic at all. We therefore owe Flaubert a debt of gratitude for the honest portrait of his own disillusionment, for we can learn a great deal from it.

Madame Bovary gives us the truth. Not the whole truth, perhaps, but still a necessary part, and a part that Flaubert suffered a great deal to discover. Would it have been a better book if we were offered some words of redemption or hope on the last page, perhaps a nice moral to turn over on our tongues? I doubt it. Flaubert’s genius and great creative gift lie in his honesty. He shows us himself at the moment of disillusionment. We should see such a man as one who, rather than having turned resolutely away from God and truth, is peculiarly ripe for the grace of God, because he sees himself clearly.

Angela McKay
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana

Rodney Delasanta replies:

“Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish” was the neo-Thomist mantra of my undergraduate days, so I am obliged to Angela McKay for insisting on the distinction between despair and disillusionment as a way of reading Flaubert. Perhaps she is the better theologian for having made the distinction: il miglior fabbro, as Eliot said of Pound.

But, notwithstanding the aptness of the distinction in general, it is still difficult for me to tidy up Flaubert by calling his spiritual spite mere disillusionment, particularly if one “reads” Madame Bovary through the lens of Un Coeur Simple . (Surprisingly, Ms. McKay ignores my discussion of the latter work in her letter.) I confess that “disillusionment” is not the word that comes to mind when I observe Flaubert deliberately aiming his contempt at the final moment of Christian consciousness: toying with the Eschaton, as it were. Had he felt only disillusionment, his reaction would more likely have come to him, in one form or another, of “nada,” such as it came to Hemingway in “A Clean, Well“Lighted Place.” There is no God; any hope of an afterlife is misplaced; only this clean, well-lighted cafe offers a momentary stay against chaos.

But Flaubert wanted to drive the nail deeper. Not only did he substitute Nothing for Something, as many writers since the mid-nineteenth century have done, but he also travestied the very iconography of that Something, by whose grace—for believers at least—theological hope is sustained. Remove the dove, therefore, the sacred icon of the Holy Ghost, and stuff a gigantic hovering parrot into the final conscious moments of Felicité’s life. To execrate further, describe the odor of incense from the Corpus Christi censers reaching her dilating nostrils as she expires in parrot hallucination. This is more than disillusionment with institutional religion; it is brilliantly crafted blasphemy directed against the Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem—the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life—and to any who would be so foolish as to find succor in that vain belief.

Other writers have blasphemed, of course. Voltaire probably leads the list with irreverencies directed against biblical figures. James Joyce repeatedly parodies the mass while pronouncing his non serviam , and Samuel Becket targets his own sacral favorites, including the crucified Christ. But I am aware of no other writer who has taken such literary pains to mock Jesus’ admonition in Luke 12:10: “But unto him who blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shallv not be forgiven.” Really? Flaubert seems to be saying, as if in answer to a dare, “Just watch me!”

Ms. McKay is right, of course, in pointing out that “not every instance of despair constitutes a sin, let alone a sin against the Holy Ghost.” Emma Bovary’s adulteries do not constitute such a sin; nor does her refusal to accept the cheap grace of the parish priest, nor her multitude of other sins. But when Flaubert tells his story in such a way as to cut off every avenue of lesser hope and force Emma into ingesting arsenic, he is reminding us that suicide is the sin against the Holy Ghost because it despairs of the mercy of God and rebels against the vivificantem , the giver of life, the I AM of Judeo-Christian revelation. Until recent Kevorkian times, Christians would have identified suicide as the one unforgivable sin. Like Shakespeare and every other writer educated in the Christian tradition, Flau­ bert was quite aware that the Almighty had set his canon ’gainst self-slaughter. What he does in Madame Bovary is to defy the canon that shelters hope and in Un Coeur Simple to pluck out its very feathers.

The Case Against Anger

Habits acquired in graduate school are hard to break. A few years of term papers, cooked up under pressure of menacing deadlines, and the formula is down pat: state your case and choose weighty authorities to support it.

Damon Linker’s piece on “The Uses of Anger” (March) shows that he wrote many a term paper. By marshaling Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul, and Christ—may the Prince of Peace forgive him—he deemed his case for anger airtight and printed it. No doubt, he slept better afterwards.

Anger is “in.” I drove this morning behind a truck that sported in the back a big sticker proclaiming, next to a picture of the American flag, “Bin Laden Can Kiss My American A**.” Crude, perhaps, but genuinely patriotic. And, as for concision, the truck driver wins over Mr. Linker.

As a Catholic, I would point out to both angry men that wrath is a capital sin, called “capital” because it engenders other sins, other vices. I would adduce in support of my case not only the authority of St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great, but also the oceans of pain, fully known to God alone, that the meek have always suffered at the hands of the wrathful.

Maria J. Cirurgião
Endicott, New York

An Ominous Omission?

In his review of C. S. Lewis Then and Now by Wesley Kort (March), Alan Jacobs remarks about The Abolition of Man that Lewis—ends his book with several pages of quotations from the world’s great religious and moral traditions to show that they all speak with a single voice on key moral issues—and so I also thought until, on September 12, 2001, I went back and checked. Then I noticed for the first time that there is not a single quotation there from the Qur’an. Is this void to be explained by the limits Lewis confesses (“The following illustrations of the Natural Law are collected from such sources as come readily to the hand of one who is not a professional historian”)? Or was it intended to tell us something?

Brian Barbour
Professor of English
Providence College
Providence, Rhode Island

Curious Sentences

Thomas Stransky’s review of Bernard Wasserstein’s book Divided Jerusalem (March) contains some curious sentences: “Jerusalem today includes the Old City and East Jerusalem, formerly held by Jordan and annexed by Israel in 1967.” “Held by Jordan” but “annexed by Israel.” Jordan took “hold” of it in 1948 in a war intended to obliterate the newborn Jewish state and which did completely ethnically cleanse the Old City of its Jewish population. And “ . . . Al“Haram al“Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), which the Jews call the Temple Mount.” It seems that to Stransky it is the Haram al-Sharif but the Jews call it the Temple Mount. Might not it be more historically accurate to say that it is the Temple Mount, and the mosque complex is built on it? Perhaps we should be grateful that the reviewer’s bias is so clearly signaled.

Peter Borregard
Berkeley, California

Orthodoxy and Rome

In Richard John Neuhaus’ comments on Eastern Orthodoxy (“Orthodoxy and ‘Parallel Monologues,” Public Square , March) I miss, as almost invariably bin such discussions, the most fundamental stumbling block to Orthodox-Roman relations, which is the radical transformation of the liturgy of the Latin Church after the Second Vatican Council. The bitter struggles over the liturgy that continue today are largely internecine, and so a crucial historical fact is overlooked: that the reforms of the Pauline missal aligned the Roman Mass in stylistic terms (note that I am careful not to say doctrinal terms) definitively towards the ideology of Protestant communities, with whom the Catholic Church does not share the apostolic succession, and against the heritage of the East, with which it does.

The famous “Ottaviani Intervention,” which criticized elements of the new missal before its publication, addressed the issue head-on in a section titled “The Alienation of the Orthodox”: “The Apostolic Constitution makes explicit reference to a wealth of piety and teaching in the ‘Novus Ordo’ borrowed from Eastern Churches. The result—utterly remote from and even opposed to the inspiration of the oriental liturgies—can only repel the faithful of the Eastern rites. . . . Against this, the ‘Novus Ordo’ would appear to have been deliberately shorn of everything which in the liturgy of Rome came close to those of the East.” This is a very canny historical observation on the medieval Gallican additions to the Roman rite, generally thought by scholars to be of Eastern origin, and marked out by the Consilium for ruthless elimination in the reforms.

Cardinal Ottaviani does indeed appear to have been a kind of liturgical Cassandra. One reads, for example, on the website of the Orthodox Diocese of Berkeley the following in a review of a book on Dom Prosper Gueranger and his work at Solesmes: “Unfortunately [the book] completely prescinds from any consideration of the fact that the great work of Solesmes and the liturgical movement it led has come totally to ruin in the era of Vatican II. What many Eastern Orthodox hoped would be a permanent reorientation of the Catholic world towards the patristic and iconographic traditions that define the lineaments of Orthodoxy Herself has been subverted by the very forces of liberalism and relativism against which Solesmes established itself as a bastion of pure faith and good taste.”

Father Neuhaus hopes for a revival of “an authentically traditional ecclesiology” that will bring East and West together. It will take more than that. Father Bob, together with his altar girls, his harem of eucharistic ministers, and his repertoire of Pelagian hymnody, represents the real, and so far as I can see, insurmountable contemporary barrier to any significant improvement in relations.

David P. Kubiak
Professor of Classics
Wabash College
Crawfordsville, Indiana

I thought that Richard John Neuhaus’ analysis on the state of Orthodoxy was overly pessimistic. I am a Roman Catholic priest currently enrolled in a Master’s program at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. In my experience there I have never felt any rejection due to my being non“Orthodox. All of the students and professors I have had contact with have been most welcoming and seem to have a genuine desire that our churches may one day overcome their differences. In my contacts with the future clergy of the OCA I have hope that we are not entering an ecumenical winter.

On a more pragmatic note, I think that we cannot expect to overcome nearly a millennium of separation in the short period of time that has passed since the Second Vatican Council. Any eventual reunion must be based on true love for Christ and not on any sentimental feelings of the goodness of fellowship.

(The Rev.) Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
Our Lady Queen of Peace
Catholic Church
Maywood, New Jersey

RJN replies:

On the last point Father O’Donoghue and I are agreed. As to the pessimism, I was but reporting on the overview offered by John Erikson, Dean of St. Vladimir’s, and what he said is, I would suggest, not pessimistic but bracingly straightforward.

Worse than Imprudent

One wonders what curious logic may have informed Richard John Neuhaus’ assertion in the March “While We’re At It” that George Bush’s August 9, 2001 decision to fund research on certain stem-cell lines was “morally defensible but gravely imprudent.”

The heart of this question has been and always will be whether or not it is moral to treat human beings as mere means; the morality of any related question regarding consequent loss of life is wholly subsidiary. Erudite discussion of President Bush’s complicity in the murder of these innocents, whether formally or materially, is, therefore, at best, marginally relevant and hopelessly abstract. It is sufficient to locate the immorality of the Bush decision in the undeniable fact that it set in motion a series of events that ultimately will result in making tools of these littlest of children. It is said by some, sadly even by some Catholic ethicists, that no moral principle is violated here, that as dead stem-cells, there is no reality worth the name to abuse. Apart from its suitability as an apologetic for those harvesting the organs of executed Chinese criminals,
such thinking ignores Catholic teaching on the Eschaton and its assertion that although unspecified, at least some relation between the person and materiality survives the grave.

So it is hardly some protocol that Bush has failed to observe with this decision, or some unfortunate precedent-setting that we’ll all live to regret, although regret it we will. Rather, he has done something quite epochal here: he has made possible for the first time government support for research that relies on the destruction of defenseless human life, something he specifically promised not to do when campaigning for office, and he has disgraced himself and the people of the United States in the bargain.

John H. Lowell
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Image by Wonderlane licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.