We may not have seen anything quite like this since Europe in the eighteenth century. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is the by now familiar circumstance where a bishop is charged with mishandling the case of a priest charged with the sexual abuse of minors some ten years ago. The bishop is said to have sent him away for treatment, was assured by experts that he was no longer a danger to minors, and appointed him pastor of a parish. The earlier allegations were not reported to civil authorities. Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma immediately declared himself outraged, saying this is precisely the kind of episcopal misbehavior that the Dallas meeting of bishops last June promised to stop. As governor, Keating is the chief law enforcement officer of the state. As head of the national review board authorized by Dallas, Keating is the chief enforcement officer of the bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy. With respect to episcopal misconduct, Frank Keating is in the curious position of being the chief executive officer of both Church and state. That’s the kind of thing we have not seen for a very long time.
In Austria it was called Josephinism, after Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who, under Enlightenment influence more radical than Gallicanism in France, basically took over the Church in order to correct abuses. The policy in Austria lasted until 1850. For two centuries, and throughout a large part of Europe, the Catholic Church engaged in a turbulent, and finally successful, struggle to secure its freedom to govern itself. That great victory was won under the banner of libertas ecclesiae. America is not Europe, and Frank Keating is not Joseph II. Observers with a sense of history and some grasp of the department of theology called ecclesiology, however, may discern interesting similarities.
The embarrassing pusillanimity of the bishops in Dallas, discussed in the last issue, is likely to produce other troubling consequences. Already lay agitations-directed by familiar dissenters who are now joined by some of the confusedly angry faithful-are newly energized in a campaign to “democratize” the Church along the lines of Protestant denominationalism based on congregational government. While trying to build a national movement, and doing so with some success, the epicenter of this effort is Boston, where leaders are working with the professional agitators (they consider the term a compliment) associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF. (For a reflection on the goals and tactics of IAF, see “The Uses of Confrontation,” Public Square, April.)
While worried about some unanticipated repercussions, many bishops may feel gratified that the Dallas exercise in damage control, choreographed by hired public relations experts, has taken the scandal off the front pages. Not off all the front pages, to be sure. To get your mornings off to a stomach-churning start, you can click on www.poynter.org for a daily listing of scandal-related stories in papers around the country. But after Dallas it is not the story it was. For the time being. According to the count of the Boston Globe, it was the second most heavily reported story of the past year, next only to September 11 and the war on terrorism. It will almost certainly pick up again. Hundreds of civil and criminal cases go to court in the months ahead. They involve some very big defendants, such as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which may soon challenge Massachusetts for the title of trial lawyer’s paradise. It continues to be more than possible that in the next year we will see a bishop or two, or more, in jail.
In the last issue, I described how the bishops, in what can only be called their fearful abdication of responsibility at Dallas, managed to sin against both mercy and justice. One reporter quipped that the headline following the Dallas meeting should have read, “Bishops Do What We Told Them to Do.” That, unfortunately, would have been accurate enough. Under a relentless media assault, they hastily abandoned the native language and practice of the Church of Christ for the alien vocabulary of “zero tolerance” and “one strike and you’re out.” Already more than two hundred priests have reportedly been removed from ministry on the basis of claims, frequently vague and unsubstantiated, about something they did, usually in the distant past. I have received a surprising number of messages from readers protesting my argument for mercy and justice, especially my argument for mercy. Don’t I know that Jesus said such scoundrels should have a millstone put around their neck and be tossed into the sea? Yes, I know. So maybe we should pass a law that anyone charged with the sexual abuse of minors is to be promptly drowned?
Of course there must be zero tolerance of sexual abuse. How many times does that have to be said? As John Paul told the cardinals and bishops in their April meeting in Rome, people who would harm the young have no place in the priesthood or any other ministry of the Church. Period.
Even if a once wayward priest poses no danger to children, it would seem that there are some offenses so heinous, so repugnant to common sensibilities, that if committed only once, and no matter how long ago, they would preclude the exercise of ministry. The priest is an icon who acts “in the person of Christ.” If, for instance, it was publically known that a priest had, no matter how long ago, sodomized a ten-year-old boy, that icon is irreparably shattered in the perception of most of the faithful. Ontologically, of course, he remains “a priest forever.” He may be a forgiven sinner and, transformed by grace, even a saint, and there are many good things he can do in service to Christ and his Church. But the egregiousness of his offense is an insurmountable obstacle to his effectively representing, in the eyes of the faithful, the priesthood of Christ. In the above instance and perhaps in others-homicide, dealing in drugs, or abetting an abortion-the icon is in terms of ministerial effectiveness, although not in sacramental reality, irreparably shattered. One can argue that this should not be the case. Against the Donatists, St. Augustine argued for the continuing ministry of those who had committed the ultimate offense of denying Christ in times of persecution. But then there are times when an argument aimed at magnifying grace results only in magnifying scandal. This is such a time.
My objection, and the objection of many others, is to an ill-considered and hastily enacted policy that violates justice by making a law of retroactive application, by removing the presumption of innocence, and by denying due process to the accused. The same policy, in direct contradiction to the Pope’s direction in the April meeting, violates the fundamental teaching and experience of the Church with respect to forgiveness, conversion, repentance, and amendment of life. The bishops in Dallas called it a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It is that, in part. In larger part, it is a tactic for getting the bishops off the media hook. Temporary escape is purchased at the high price of scapegoating priests to whom the bishops are called to be fathers, and of resigning a large part of their apostolic responsibility for governing the Church. The bishop is charged with the discipline and care of his priests. Abandoning their care cannot be the right answer to having failed in their discipline. At the time, many bishops said they were voting for the Dallas plan with an uneasy conscience. I expect the more reflective among them are now having long and troubled second thoughts.
The Missing Gospel
In all this, there is shame upon shame. I believe future historians will record that the greatest shame of Dallas is that-when it came to the crunch in a time of crisis, when the eyes of the world were upon the Church in a way truly unprecedented-the leaders of the Church failed to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ. The failure was in both words and actions, inviting the inference that, in the real world of public relations and damage control, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not relevant. The great issues before the bishops were sin and grace, justice and mercy, and the call to faithful discipleship. They are issues about which the Church of Jesus Christ presumably has a distinctive way of speaking and acting. They are not issues of great concern to most people in the media, but they are the issues that ought to be of greatest concern to the Church. That did not appear to be the case, and some may pardonably conclude that it did not appear to be the case because it was not the case. The media precipitated Dallas, the media intimidated Dallas, the media controlled Dallas. The bishops did what they were told.
Consider again the definition of sexual abuse that the bishops borrowed from their episcopal brothers in Canada, who in recent years have had even greater troubles over raging sexual malfeasance: “Sexual abuse includes contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult. A child is abused whether or not this activity involves explicit force, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it is initiated by the child, and whether or not there is discernible harmful outcome.”
There are certified experts who claim that one out of four girls and one out of six boys are sexually abused, usually by an adult family member or relative. By the Canadian definition, that seems plausible. There are also experts who agree with radical feminists that a majority of American women have been raped at some point in their lives, whether they know it or not. That, too, is plausible, if one employs an expansive enough definition of rape. The key phrase in the Canadian rule is “sexual gratification.” But who is to say whether sexual gratification is involved, however subliminally? It is a deeply dumbed-down psychology or moral theology that would deny the pervasiveness of the erotic in human interactions. The unlimited elasticity of the Canadian rule is such that a substantial minority, if not a majority, of adults might be deemed guilty of sexual abuse. Almost all the current scandals, however, have to do with sexual acts between adult men and postpubescent or older teenage boys. It should not be necessary to give graphic descriptions of what is meant by sexual acts. They are what sensible people mean by sexual abuse, for which, they rightly insist, there must be zero tolerance.
Consider this application of the Canadian rule. Almost twenty years ago a priest in the midwest was ministering to a family whose father had just died. The fourteen-year-old daughter was utterly distraught, sobbing that God did not care. The priest, with the mother present, held the girl in his arms, assuring her, “It isn’t true. God loves you. The Church loves you. I love you.” I expect every priest or minister has done that more than once. As have doctors, teachers, fathers, uncles, and innumerable others in similar circumstances. They are comforting, they are caring, they are trying to help. The girl in question has subsequently led a most unhappy life, with two divorces, multiple affairs, and a serious drug problem. She has now charged the priest with sexual abuse, citing that embrace of almost twenty years ago. The priest, a beloved parish pastor, has been publicly shamed and removed from ministry, for the rest of his life. The bishop says he acted reluctantly, “But Dallas gave me no choice.” In other words, “Dallas made me do it.” Such is the product of panic.
As of this writing, the report is that more than two hundred of the 46,000 priests in the country have been removed from ministry. It is possible that many, perhaps most, of them should be removed, but the worry about justice grows, and is evident across the usual divides. Well before Dallas, the leftist National Catholic Reporter saw what was coming and editorialized, “Now, under the hot, bright lights of the East Coast media, church authorities look bewildered and panicked as they attempt to show they are dealing with the issue in solid fashion. Where they once shielded priests, they now feel compelled to rush to the other extreme, providing no access to due process for them either in the Church or the courts.” “Why are you so concerned for the abusers rather than the victims?” a reader writes. That quite completely misses the point. There is no “rather than.” Our concern must be for the boys (and, as sometimes happens, the girls) who are abused, for they are the most vulnerable members of the flock. And for the abusers, who continue to be brothers in Christ. And for the innocent who are falsely accused. All of which is to say that our concern must be for the integrity of the Church as it is constituted by, and accountable to, Christ. Admittedly, attending to all these concerns at the same time is no easy task. The dismal failure of Dallas must not be accepted as the last word. The bishops, who are chiefly responsible for the crisis and for its resolution, must find a better way.
Almost unmentioned in the public discussion to date is what will happen with offending priests in religious orders. About one-third of the priests in the U.S. are members of religious orders, many of them working in parishes and other pastoral ministries. The superiors of the orders were not party to the Dallas deal, and it is clear that most of them will not go along with it. It is no secret that some orders have a much higher incidence of homosexual priests, and possibly a higher incidence of sexual abuse, than is the case among diocesan clergy. (The best estimate seems to be that one to two percent of all priests are likely abusers.) Viewed more positively, orders typically have a greater sense of solidarity with, and responsibility for, their weaker brethren. Unlike diocesan clergy, members of orders take a vow of poverty and most of them are totally dependent upon their community, also economically. The superiors will not adopt a rule of “one strike and you’re out,” and they have the opportunity to demonstrate to the bishops that there is a better way-a way that combines justice, mercy, and zero tolerance of abuse.
All Our Children
The eminent lay moral theologian Germain Grisez wrote a long and thoughtful memorandum for the bishops prior to Dallas. If it was read, it had little effect. “The crisis that began in January 2002 is not about sexual abuse,” Grisez wrote. “It is about some bishops’ behavior over many years: they tolerated clerical sexual offenses and even seemed to facilitate them, covered them up, made untruthful statements when cases came to light, and persistently evaded their responsibility for what they had done and failed to do. . . . The degeneration of priestly fraternity into self-serving clerical solidarity and the prevalence of managerial concerns over authentic pastoral charity are systemic evils.”
Grisez notes that lay people expressed puzzlement that bishops did not evidence impassioned outrage when the children of the Church, for whom the bishop is to be a father, were maltreated. He suggests that a false clerical solidarity “blinded bishops to the victims.” “Of course, they were visible, but they were tiny, nebulous, and marginal. Clerical sexual offenders, by contrast, were big, solid, and near the center of the bishops’ field of vision.” This is pathetically illustrated by Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Illinois. A lawyer involved reports that during a deposition in a civil law suit, the bishop was asked, “If you had a child, wouldn’t you be concerned that the priest they were saying Mass with had been convicted of sexually molesting children?” The bishop responded, “I don’t have any children.” But of course they are all his children. (One notes that a 1996 pastoral letter issued by the national bishops conference, which was both celebrated and protested for being “gay-friendly,” was titled Always Our Children.)
In addition to their own national review board, the bishops are now relentlessly monitored by several organizations of “victim/survivors.” (The play on “Holocaust survivor” has struck some observers as unseemly.) Nobody should downplay in any way the real wrongs done many years ago, and their possible long-term consequences. Nor should we ignore the fact that these victim organizations are led by activists following a time-honored American tradition of seizing upon a legitimate grievance in order to advance a cause. Every time the Church addresses the issue of sexual abuse-whether it be an individual bishop or the Pope speaking to the World Youth Day in Toronto-reporters reflexively turn to representatives of these victim organizations and ask if they are satisfied. They are not likely to get the answer, “Yes, we are satisfied. We are laying off our staff, dismantling our websites, returning millions of dollars in contributions, and congratulating ourselves on a job well done.” To say that victim organizations have an institutional interest in keeping the scandal at full boil is not to criticize them. Every such organization has an institutional interest in the grievances that brought it into being. That is as true of the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League as it is of the Catholic League. Moreover, victims are understandably reluctant to surrender their Warhol-apportioned fifteen minutes of fame. Convinced, as many of them are, that what was done to them and others was all-destroying, they feel they have a moral duty to maintain their protest at fever pitch.
An Idea With a History
Outrage is both legitimate and necessary, but unbounded outrage lends itself to distortions and hysteria. The understanding of the seriousness of the present crisis should not be muddled by disputes over whether claims of injury are sometimes exaggerated. Of course they are, and not infrequently. Michael Bailey, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has first-hand experience with those abused by priests. The accuser or plaintiff is typically in his thirties or forties and has had a life filled with truancy from school, poor social relations, and erratic employment. “In all these cases,” writes Bailey, “the plaintiff reaches the same conclusion with the help of his therapist or his lawyer: the abuse caused all problems. Healing, he is told, depends on suing. Given the monetary incentives, he complies. But it often turns out that the abuse explanation is filled with holes. The poor school performance predated the abuse. For years before the abuse, he related poorly to his peers. In some cases, the problems the plaintiff attributes to sexual abuse are more plausibly due to nonsexual physical and psychological abuse in his family, or to bad genes. And yet the abuse is singled out as all-explanatory and as a basis for seven-figure awards. This occurs because sexual abuse is sensationalistic, all-explaining, and financially enticing. This itself is a form of exploitation. Unfortunately, the current climate encourages the suspension of any critical scrutiny regarding claims concerning the universal and extreme harmfulness of childhood sexual abuse.”
As he undoubtedly knows, Prof. Bailey is on dangerous ground here, making himself a prime target for the charge of “blaming the victim.” It is a charge that the victim organizations routinely employ. Bailey is trying to counter widespread, and sometimes self-serving, hysteria with a modicum of calm deliberation and simple honesty. In today’s climate, to indicate the slightest skepticism about “the universal and extreme harmfulness of childhood sexual abuse” is also to lay oneself open to the accusation of sympathizing with the homosexual advocates of “man-boy love” and “intergenerational sex.” In the case of Prof. Bailey and others who are trying to restore a measure of clear thinking, that is a vile slander that should be forthrightly condemned.
Clear thinking and honesty also requires a word in defense of the bishops, as unpopular as that may be at present. For all that bishops have done wrong, they are usually not wrong when they say that they acted in accord with the expert opinion available at the time. Dr. Joseph Davis, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, reminds us that ideas about the sexual abuse of children have a social history. In the late 1930s and again in the late 1940s, there was intense outrage over a number of highly publicized sex crimes and states passed draconian and ill-defined “sexual psychopath” laws aimed at predatory sexual offenders. The 1960s brought a campaign against such laws, which was part of a movement against the commitment and forcible treatment of mental patients. In the 1970s, the pendulum was given a swing in the other direction, mainly by feminists leading the “anti-rape” movement, joined by some child protection advocates. In its extreme form, the anti-rape activists contended that heterosexual intercourse is typically a form of rape, and most women are rape victims whether they realize it or not.
In this everybody-is-a-victim (except white and straight males) ideology, it was argued, writes Davis, “that the [1960s] view of the child victim was morally flawed by a victim-blaming approach. Using the model of physical child abuse, which was already established as a social problem, they reframed the victim category as pure victim. . . . Sexual abuse was a thoroughly moral category. It denoted a status of complete ethical innocence for the victim and it indicated injury. To have been sexually abused was to have been psychically harmed as a child, and typically in ways that persist into, and are even magnified in, adulthood. Hence the notion of ‘survivors.’“ This constituted a major change.
In the 1968 case Millard v. Harris, U.S. Judge David Bazelon stated that the confinement of a compulsive exhibitionist was scarcely justified on the grounds of “harm” because the behavior affected only “unusually sensitive women and small children.” As late as the mid-seventies, the standard psychiatric textbooks either scarcely mentioned pedophilia or emphasized that it was typically a one-time activity. The second edition of the authoritative Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry has a short section on pedophilia, including this: “The pedophile is usually visualized as the ‘monster on the corner’ who is ready to pick up innocent children. . . . However, by far the greatest amount of pedophilic behavior is in families or among friends and neighbors. Often it is a one-time activity.” The 1978 Harvard Guide to Modern Psychiatry does not even mention pedophilia. The much respected priest-psychologist Benjamin Groeschel says that, in all the years he studied psychology in the sixties and seventies, he never once heard the word.
But now “everybody knows” that pedophilia is an incurable disease, that the diseased are incorrigible predators, and that there is no such thing as a “one-time” offense. That is where the pendulum of established opinion is this season. With respect to many, if not most, of the scandals that have come to public attention recently, the fact is that bishops were acting reasonably and responsibly on the expert opinion of the time. This is not to say that bishops were not complicit in the various wrongs mentioned by Grisez above, but they should not be blamed for believing the certified experts who denied the “universal and extreme harmfulness” of childhood sexual abuse and the inevitability of recidivism among offenders. In many cases, bishops undoubtedly acted in good faith. (Although, then as now, they acted in uncritical obeisance to psychological expertise. See the discussion of “the triumph of the therapeutic” in the Public Square of the June/July issue.) In many cases the bishops also acted in good faith, if mistakenly, in paying “hush money,” which is more accurately described as conditioning an out of court settlement upon a confidentiality agreement-an everyday practice in the corporate, medical, and other worlds. In many cases, too, they acted in good faith in reassigning priests who, they were expertly assured, had been cured. In many cases.
The Dallas Morning News examined available records on the 194 dioceses of the country and concluded that two-thirds of the bishops heading them have been involved in the practices now, in retrospect, so roundly condemned. That retrospective judgment is, I believe, unfair. It is the case that some bishops have committed heinous acts that are both gravely sinful and seriously criminal. Some of them facilitated or covered up such acts committed by others. A few of these bishops have resigned and I expect more will. It appears that most bishops failed to respond pastorally to those who were abused. It is the case that many, if not most, bishops have been complicit in tolerating or fostering widespread and institutionalized dissent from the Church’s teaching, including the Church’s teaching on sexuality, and especially on homosexuality. The result is an ambiance of moral laxity and infidelity without which the present crisis could not have happened. And it is the case that at Dallas the overwhelming majority of bishops-only thirteen voted no-adopted a course of action that is, I am convinced, incompatible with justice, mercy, and pastoral responsibility, and that has severely confused and crippled the exercise of the apostolic office to which they are ordained.
What the Bishops Have Created
This brings us back to Governor Keating and the National Review Board. It has twelve members with a “core group” of four. The much respected Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard, was asked to serve on the board. She declined, explaining her reasons in a memorandum which I cite with permission. In the memorandum, Prof. Glendon expresses her concern about a number of public and “injudicious” statements by Keating “creating the impression that bishops will be held accountable to lay people and otherwise confusing the distinction between advice and governance.” In fact, Keating has been reported as saying, “Martin Luther was right,” although it is not clear exactly what he thought Luther was right about. He has also said that it is the job of his board to root out “corrupt” bishops. On the very public op-ed page of the New York Times he wrote, “I envision the commission as apart from the conference of bishops, answering first of all to the laity we represent. We will coordinate with local parish and diocesan councils to ensure that the voice of the laity is heard.”
In fact, the National Review Board was created by the bishops and its members are appointed by the bishops, with the mandate to monitor diocesan compliance with the charter adopted at Dallas and report its findings to the conference of bishops. It is from beginning to end, at least on paper, an instrument of the bishops conference, designed to do what the bishops believe they are not trusted to do, and apparently do not trust themselves to do. At least that is how it was in its beginning; how it will end nobody knows. The bishops have put themselves in the bind of creating a board that is to serve them but may well turn against them, and, if they are perceived as trying to control the board, a new media firestorm is a certainty. In any event, and contra Keating, the board is in no way “apart from” the bishops, nor is it to be “the voice of the laity,” competing with activist groups such as “The Voice of the Faithful” whose denominational rallying cry is “Take back our church!”-forgetting that the Church is not ours but Christ’s, and Catholics believe that Christ intended that it be governed by bishops.
Acquiescing in the judgment that they are not morally credible, the bishops cast about for leadership that is held in highest public esteem. As odd as it may seem, they decided that politicians and lawyers fit the bill. In addition to Keating, there is Robert Bennett, champion of Bill Clinton in his battle against charges of low crimes and misdemeanors. As Prof. Glendon notes, Bennett has no conspicuous record of devotion to the Catholic cause. Then there is Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and aggressive defender of abortion on demand, including partial-birth abortion. Other appointments are similarly dubious, along with one or two of real credibility, and a handful of unknowns.
Oh, yes, there is Michael Bland, a psychiatrist, former priest, and victim of childhood abuse. The victim organizations, interestingly, are on record as protesting Bland’s inclusion because, despite his experience of abuse, he is still an observant Catholic. The mark of being authentically concerned about abuse, we are given to understand, is that one is alienated from the Church. Governor Keating says that Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, had suggested a larger board that would include non-Catholics. “We felt it was important that the Catholic Church-and one out of four Americans is a Catholic-heal itself and not call upon outsiders to do so,” said Keating. The members of the board will be Catholic, even if, in some cases, marginally or dissentingly so.
Was it only a few years ago that the bishops issued a forceful statement that public figures who oppose the Church’s teaching on abortion should not be given a platform or positions of responsibility in church institutions? Now prominent pro-abortionists have been elevated by those same bishops to the position of overseeing the episcopal governance of the Church. We should not be surprised that some pro-life Catholics are saying that, come the crunch, the tactics of public relations trumped the bishops’ devotion to the gospel of life.
There are other, and very big, problems. Prof. Glendon writes: “I think you can see from the foregoing why I fear that the bishops may not have informed themselves adequately concerning whether the members of this important board understand and accept the Church’s basic teachings on ecclesiology, the role of the laity, and human sexuality. I also wonder whether they have carefully considered the likely role of the politicians: they are well-known public figures with ready access to the national media and they are intensely concerned with their public images. Thus the risk that they will wish to cast themselves as policing the Church is high, and may affect their ability to be impartial. Indeed, it is hard to imagine them casting themselves, or allowing themselves to be perceived, as defenders of the Church. That being so, even if my participation were not precluded by other commitments, I would be most hesitant to accept the invitation to serve. I would not only fear that I would be part of a very small and ineffective minority, but that my presence might be used to lend an appearance of diversity, or-even worse-that my membership might lead some people to believe that I approve of activities that may turn out to be harmful to the Church.”
At the end of July, the National Review Board met with victim organizations, and that was followed by a press conference with Bishop Gregory. Governor Keating allowed, and Bishop Gregory agreed, that the board was not authorized to discipline or remove bishops directly, but it had other means at its disposal. The board would be making a report on bishops who failed to comply with the Dallas plan, and, as Bishop Gregory put it, “No bishop would want to see his name on that list.” He expressed his confidence that also those bishops who voted against the plan or abstained on the vote (about 15 percent of the bishops did not vote for it) would comply rather than risk public embarrassment. The media, he noted, would make sure that there would be such embarrassment. Such is the threat by which it is proposed the bishops will “rebuild trust” in their leadership. (Webster’s: “blackmail-extortion or coercion by threats esp. of public exposure or criminal prosecution.”) So in a time of crisis, who is in charge of the governance of the Catholic Church in the U.S.? Certainly not, or so it seems, the bishops. The National Review Board-responsive to victim activists and representing “the voice of the laity”-will issue a report card on the bishops, and a bad report will have severe consequences. As with the beginning of the crisis, so now it is structurally entrenched that the final judge and jury are the media. Such is the radical change in status and responsibility of the episcopal office in which the bishops have, knowingly or not, acquiesced. The work of the review board will apparently not be finished when it issues its report card on episcopal behavior. Asked how long the board will stay in business, Gov. Keating indicated that it will be needed as long as it is evident that the bishops are in need of supervision.
In terms of ecclesiastical politics (usually not an edifying subject), the national conference of bishops (USCCB) has much to gain in this arrangement. While it may be surrendering episcopal authority more generally, the conference is gaining a large measure of long-sought power over individual bishops in their dioceses. Going way back to the early years of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, major players in the conference have worked to put it in the position of speaking and legislating for the Church in America. This has been resisted by some bishops who, with the support of Rome, have insisted upon the traditional Catholic teaching that the bishop is the head of “the local Church,” meaning the diocese. Now, operating through the National Review Board, the bishops conference will, like the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, “have a little list” with which to bring recalcitrant bishops into line-on the disciplining of clergy and, in principle, on anything else of consequence. How Rome will respond to these dramatic transformations in Catholic ecclesiology is still to be seen. As I discussed in an earlier installment, if Rome vetoes this or other aspects of the Dallas plan, it is possible that the media criticism will be directed away from the American bishops and toward the Vatican, which might suit some bishops just fine. Bishops who make no secret of wanting greater independence from Rome tend to be those who favor expanding the authority of the USCCB, a goal that would be served by cooperating in the portrayal of Rome as using its heavy hand to prevent the American bishops from doing the right thing. Nonetheless, as of this writing there is reason to believe that the Holy See will not accept the Dallas plan as presented. The intention is to work with the U.S. bishops in crafting a response to the crisis that conforms to the requirements of justice and mercy-and, not incidentally, to the Church’s doctrine and discipline. We shall soon see.
The politics of the USCCB and Rome’s response aside, the consequence of the Dallas plan is that the bishops have in important respects surrendered their office. They have not the right to do that, and they probably did not intend to do that, but they did it. It would appear that there is not in the American episcopate anyone with the stature-or, if anyone has the stature, then the inclination or courage-to call them back to the exercise of the responsibilities for which they were called by God, ordained by the Church, and respected by the faithful. In their partial but far-reaching abdication, they have opened the way for the laicizing of church leadership under a national review board run amok, for increased defiance of bishops by priests and parishes who no longer trust them, for newly energized agitations to remake the Catholic Church in the image of liberal Protestantism, and for, not inconceivably, schism. Maybe Rome will effectively call the bishops back. Maybe not. Maybe God will spare us the most dire consequences of what was set afoot at Dallas. Maybe not. Meanwhile, we must be braced for a rough ride in the months and years ahead.
The Courage to be Catholic
Just in time, George Weigel, author of the papal biography Witness to Hope and regular contributor to these pages, has come up with a bracing tonic that I most warmly recommend. The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church is now out from Basic Books and available everywhere. Carefully and convincingly, Weigel explains what went right and what went wrong following the still unimplemented Second Vatican Council, which is the necessary background for understanding the present crisis. Why did many thousands of men abandon the priesthood, and how does that connect with the “clericalizing” of the laity by the multiplication of “ministries” that dilute the distinctive identity of the priest? He has some provocative, if painful, answers to that question and many others. He provides a chronological commentary on developments leading to the present crisis, and fresh insight into the “Truce of 1968” when Rome failed to back bishops who were prepared to discipline those who publicly rejected the encyclical Humanae Vitae, thus institutionalizing the “culture of dissent” and creating the myth that rejection is “loyal opposition.”
Weigel surveys the various, and often contradictory, interpretations of Vatican Council II, and casts new light on John Paul II’s efforts to implement the Council-efforts sometimes resisted, but more commonly just ignored, by many of the American bishops, notably by some of the most active in the politics of the national conference. Weigel is a lifelong student of the Catholic Church in this country and elsewhere; he has a firm grasp of the dynamics and players driving the national conference and the episcopal fraternity. He gained unprecedented access in writing the biography of John Paul, and has an intimate knowledge of the papacy and its supporting-and frequently obstructing-Curia. His narrative of Rome’s responses to the current crisis, and especially of events surrounding the April meeting with the Pope, provides a unique and sometimes disturbing insight into how the Church is governed today.
As the subtitle indicates, The Courage to be Catholic is much more than “insider” journalism. Weigel lays out a course of reformation in everything from catechesis and liturgy to the formation of priests and the ways in which bishops are chosen. It is a reformation that, he persuasively argues, was mandated by the Second Vatican Council and has been tirelessly advocated by John Paul II. Out of the evils that created the present crisis, God may be working the great good of an irrepressible sense of urgency in implementing, at long last, the authentic and thoroughly Catholic reformation for which the Second Vatican Council called. A great strength of Weigel’s book is that he understands that the present crisis, and the crisis of the last thirty-five years, is, above all, a crisis of fidelity. For the Church of this time and every time, the question is that of Luke 18: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”
Form and Reform
Which brings us back to Christ, and how Catholics believe he formed his Church, and how, therefore, the Church must be reformed. In that understanding, the bishops are the successors to the apostles, with and under the successor to Peter. That understanding was not reflected, that understanding was gravely compromised, at Dallas. The bishops cannot restore their credibility by abandoning their responsibility. Dallas cannot be the final word. Somehow, the bishops must recover their nerve to be bishops, rather than the frightened CEOs they have made themselves appear to be-scurrying to follow scripts written by public relations experts, lawyers, and related masters of damage control. They must accept, as the bishops that they are, responsibility for what went wrong, and for putting it right. What went wrong is the entrenchment of patterns of infidelity-evident also, but not most importantly, in sexual infidelity and related abuse-and it will not be set right without the courage to be found only in conversion.
The bishops should meet again, and soon. Not under the auspices of the national conference with its built-in bureaucracies and biases, but freely, as heads of the local churches they are called to govern. Not in a posh hotel in order to get through a predetermined agenda on schedule, but in a monastery or retreat in order to pray and deliberate. Not under Robert’s Rules of Order with a few minutes allotted for disjointed interventions terminated by the flashing of a red light, but under the guidance of the Spirit in a way conducive to conversation in depth, and to the making and hearing of arguments. Not to adopt guidelines and procedures, but to wrestle with truth revealed. Not under the glare of the media, but alone with one another, and with God. Not for two or three days, but for as long as it takes. Maybe for a month, and then, later, for another month. Do they have anything more important to do than to recover their credibility and authority as bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ?
The goal would be to act on the invitation, and to follow the example, of John Paul II in fully embracing, fully teaching, and fully implementing the Catholic reformation of the Second Vatican Council. The result of such an extended period of prayer, deliberation, conversion, and resolve might be a renewed confidence that the Church has bishops again. It might instill a measure of courage in contending for the recovery of libertas ecclesiae, the right of the Church to govern itself. It might prepare the bishops to lead in showing the world that there is a distinctively Christian, and Catholic, response to sin and grace, justice and mercy, and the call to holiness. All these are matters not unrelated to the question of whether, when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith on earth.
It lasted but a moment, but while it lasted it was political theater to be relished. The wondrously eccentric U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit-more precisely, two members of a three-member panel thereof-discovered that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. The judges sided with Michael Newdow, who had complained that his daughter is injured when forced to listen in public school to the assertion that there is a God. One story said that, in fact, the daughter regularly joined in the recitation of the pledge and was embarrassed by her father making a big stink about it. Never mind, the judges know the coercive establishment of religion when they see it.
Well, within hours the entire political order, from left to right and from dogcatcher to President, exploded in outrage at the Ninth Circuit’s political blasphemy. In Washington, both houses promptly passed unanimous resolutions condemning the decision, after which our national leaders marched to the capitol steps to sing “God Bless America” and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with voices raised to full-throated patriotic pitch at the words “under God.” It took Jerry Falwell all of thirty minutes after the announcement of the court decision to declare that he was launching a campaign for a million signatures in protest against it. That seemed an exceedingly modest goal. A moral entrepreneur of greater imagination might have set a goal of 100 million signatures, with the assurance that the millions of contributions received would be spent in reaching the 180 million patriotic laggards. Sometimes nothing short of unanimity will do, or at least virtual unanimity, recognizing that the Ninth Circuit, Mr. Newdow, and Paul Kurtz’s American Humanist Society are beyond hope.
Once our leaders had put on the record their wholehearted devotion to the proposition that ours is a nation under God-a proposition to which, judging by the public evidence, most of them had never before given a moment’s thought-they felt much better about themselves and went back to business as usual, confident that the decision of the Ninth Circuit, which has a commanding lead in the judicial silliness sweepstakes, would, one way or another, be promptly negated. Political theater aside, the Ninth Circuit’s provocation obviously struck a central nerve in the body politic, revealing the inchoate but powerful popular conviction that the phrase “under God” says something indispensable about the way Americans want to understand their country.
Above All That
Most Americans, that is. For a different take on the dust-up, representative of a certain sector of elite opinion, one goes-but of course-to the editorial board of the New York Times. Eschewing the vulgar atheism of the Newdow-Kurtz eccentrics, the Times is offended by the Ninth Circuit’s lack of good manners. People of better breeding understand that public expressions such as “under God” are simply not to be taken seriously. They are but scraps of sanctimony tossed out to appease the gullible masses, while their enlightened masters get on with the running of a thoroughly secular society. The editors sniffingly observe that the words were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, “at the height of anti-Communist fervor.” Anything approaching fervor in opposing communism has always been in bad taste at the Times. The editors continue, “It was a petty attempt to link patriotism with religious piety, to distinguish us from the godless Soviets.” How petty can you get. If you’re reading the editorial aloud, remember that “patriotism” is said with a supercilious raising of the eyebrow, and “religious piety” with a slight but sufficiently contemptuous snarl. The editors, or at least some of them, probably know that an officially atheistic totalitarian regime murdered millions of its people because of their religious faith, but that was long ago, and even at the time was no excuse for getting fervent.
“This is a well-meaning ruling,” say the editors, “but it lacks common sense.” Read: The court has been dangerously imprudent in upsetting the natives. “A generic two-word reference to God tucked inside a rote civic exercise is not a prayer.” The grammar gets sticky here, but presumably the editors mean that the God referred to in “under God” is a generic deity. That is not quite the case, of course. Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, do not propose a God whom one would be under in the way the pledge says we are “under God.” Religio-cultural context, plus indisputable legislative intent, indicate that “under God” is meant to refer to the God of biblical religion, meaning Judaism, Christianity, and (although it was probably not in the legislative mind at the time) its latter-day expression in Islam. As interesting is the editorial claim that the phrase is not a prayer. It is, they say, a civic exercise; to which one might respond that any prayer in the public square is a civic exercise, which does not mean it is any less a prayer. But perhaps the key to the editors’ meaning is that the Pledge of Allegiance is “rote” exercise. The word “rote” denotes something done routinely, mechanically, or unthinkingly. Maybe that is the way the editors of the Times say the Pledge of Allegiance, if they say it. They do not explain why they think less extraordinary Americans say it that way.
“We wish the words had not been added back in 1954,” the editorial continues. “But just the way removing a well-lodged foreign body from an organism may sometimes be more damaging than letting it stay put, removing those words would cause more harm than leaving them in.” The phrase “under God” is a foreign body, perhaps like a cancerous tumor, but it is safely contained and does not threaten to metastasize, so let it be. It would be nice to be rid of it, but surgery is dangerous. “The practical impact of the [Ninth Circuit] ruling is inviting a political backlash for a matter that does not rise to a constitutional violation.” And even if it does, the editors want to save their powder. “Most important, the ruling trivializes the critical constitutional issue of separation of church and state. There are important battles to be fought over issues of prayer in school and use of government funds to support religious activities.” The very next day, of course, the Supreme Court handed down the historic Zelman decision, declaring vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional. Now that, in the view of the Times, is a battle worth fighting, and the following day’s editorial opposing Zelman was forceful; one might even say fervent. Fervor in the defense of secularism is no vice; aloofness in the battle for keeping the public square naked is no virtue.
I am glad that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and that they will almost certainly stay there. It is true that civic piety, like every other expression of piety, can be rote and empty. It can also be hypocritical. As I have said before, it used to be that hypocrisy was the tribute that vice paid to virtue, whereas now it is the charge that vice hurls at virtue. To say that ours is a nation under God is both a statement of theological fact and of moral aspiration. As a theological fact, it is true of all nations. As a moral aspiration, it is markedly-although perhaps not singularly-true of the United States of America. To say that we are a nation under God means, first of all, that we are under Divine judgment. It is also a prayer that we may be under Providential care. It is not a statement of patriotic pride, although many may think it is, but of patriotic humility. The reaction to the Ninth Circuit’s decision was a salutary moment of public witness to the irrepressible popular intuition that, in the words of Lincoln, America is “an almost chosen nation.” I do not expect the editors of the Times to understand any of this. To those of a certain mindset, the intolerable idea, the truly insufferable notion, is that they are under anything or anyone, even if that anything or anyone is no more than “a generic two-word reference.”
A History of Their Own
At the suggestion of a friend, I took with me for reading on the flight to Ukraine the popular new novel Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin). It is a clever-at times overly clever-entertainment, and a remarkable achievement for a writer still in his early twenties. The story line is simple enough. A young American Jew with time on his hands is hanging out in various European cities and decides upon visiting the shtetl in Ukraine from which his family escaped, and some who did not escape were killed by the Nazis.
A large part of the book is composed of letters to the young hero, who is also named Jonathan, by a young Ukrainian, Alexander, whom he had engaged as a guide. Written in the aftermath of their ambiguously successful search for the shtetl, these letters are sometimes poignant but mainly humorous, and frequently hilarious, exercises in Alexander’s efforts to master the English language in expressing his unbounded dreams of one day living in America and being rich like his friend Jonathan. Darker themes intervene with Alexander’s grandfather, who accompanies them as driver in their search, and who harbors a terrible secret about what happened during the Nazi era. Interspersed between Alexander’s letters, and moving with cinematic rapidity, are vignettes of the shtetl as it was in the late eighteenth century, in the 1940s, and is no more.
As I say, it is a clever entertainment, and provided a pleasant enough distraction from a long and tedious flight. Foer employs the usual tropes in depicting shtetl life in Eastern Europe-tropes made familiar by Isaac Bashevis Singer and treated more profoundly by the likes of Chaim Grade. One is at home again with God-obsessed and God-denying Jews aligned with rival synagogues of the observant and the skeptical, and consumed by intergenerational quarrels, most of which resolve around who copulated with whom, frequently with grotesque consequences. (Unlike most books in the shtetl genre, copulation keeps returning to center stage in this story. But then, unlike most authors of that genre, Mr. Foer is a very young man.) The historical vignettes include mysterious births, genealogical irregularities, and bizarre coincidences that are variously interpreted as miracles or evidence of ontological absurdity. Not included in Everything Is Illuminated is anything that might illuminate the reality of Ukraine, either past or present.
Mr. Foer’s story could have been set in any part of Eastern Europe. In this depiction, there are but two realities-the shtetl and the Nazis. Goyim such as Alexander and his grandfather play a part, but only as they are related to the Jews of the shtetl and the Nazis. There is no hint that the gentiles may be part of a culture, a religion, or a people of their own. The non-Jews who make an appearance are, as it were, honorary Jews-until, that is, they betray Jews to the Nazis. I do not wish to make heavy weather of a book that is, after all, no more than a mainly light entertainment, yet it is of a piece with a large literature that distorts Western perceptions of Central and Eastern Europe and troubles many of the people of that part of the world who have lived through the great terrors of the century past.
Reviewing two other novels by Americans who knocked around the region, Adam Goodheart observes in the New York Times Book Review: “Other people’s pasts: that’s the only commodity in generous supply in post-Communist Hungary. . . . The Hungarians are also time-battered specimens, nicotine-stained survivors of wars and uprisings. Among such people, the young Americans seem weightless, almost immaterial. And the present itself has a quality of flimsy provisionality: not history itself but rather an interstice in history, a flickering blankness between movie frames. . . . For all their pretensions to something grander and more picturesque, they are nothing but tourists-not just in Hungary but in their own lives and in the world at large.” “Neither novel,” Goodheart concludes, “is really very European.” And so it is also with Mr. Foer’s book.
A Certain Puzzlement
For the last twelve summers in Krakow, Poland, I have been teaching in a seminar on Catholic social doctrine that brings together university students and junior faculty from America and Central-Eastern Europe. Each year I lecture on the Holocaust and Jewish-Christian relations, and each year the students visit Auschwitz, which is a little over an hour’s drive from Krakow. The Holocaust, as most powerfully represented by Auschwitz, is Western culture’s only available icon of absolute and undisputed evil. One can argue that there have been equal or greater evils in human history, but they are all, to one degree or another, in dispute. On the sane side of the fever swamps where dwell Holocaust deniers and flat earth proponents, nobody disputes or attempts to mitigate the evil of Auschwitz. Each year the students are manifestly shaken by their hours there. Some speak the next day of their nightmares following the visit; others cite the final words of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror! The horror!”
Yet the visit and the discussion of Jewish-Christian relations also provoke questions and objections unfamiliar to most of us in the West. Young Poles in particular deeply resent the widespread notion that Poles were somehow responsible for Auschwitz. They point out that Auschwitz was a Nazi enterprise established on what was then the territory of the Third Reich. They ask, “What about the millions of non-Jewish Poles who were killed in the Holocaust? Why do only Jewish deaths count?” Such objections bear no suggestion of anti-Semitism, which it is readily admitted was common, and is today not uncommon, among Poles and others in Central-Eastern Europe. The objections are marked, rather, by a certain puzzlement, a deep sense of unfairness, and a belief that the truth should be told.
A Polish graduate student spoke of her visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The exhibition’s failure (refusal?) to recognize the millions of non-Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis occasioned feelings of deep complexity. Her sorrow over what happened to Jews, she said, is in no way qualified by her disappointment over the nonrecognition of what happened to so many others. It is readily admitted that there is something unseemly and wrong about competing for victim status. But, these students insist, it is also unseemly and wrong to misrepresent that long night of horror by turning it into a simplistic drama in which the only parties appearing on stage are Jewish victims and Nazi victimizers, with everyone else cast in the role of indifferent onlookers or active, even eager, collaborators in unspeakable evil. What about the Polish dead, and what about the thousands of Poles who, as all scholars of the period recognize, risked their lives and the lives of their families in rescuing Jews?
Beyond an understandable resentment over their own people being slighted and slandered, these students are getting at a deeper problem in the conventional presentation of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is in many ways singular in the historical gallery of horrors, resulting in a tendency to place its inhumanity beyond the pale of humanity. The soul-shaking truth, however, is that such inhumanity is not beyond humanity. We human beings are capable of such horror, as we are capable of indifference to such horror, and as we are capable of heroic resistance to such horror. The engagement of all these capacities must be taken into account if we are to understand the humanness of the inhumanity that was the Holocaust.
“We Do Not Have the Right . . .”
That Jewish survivors and their descendants should tell the story through the prism of their experience is perfectly natural, and for half a century they have done so with an intense productivity that is perhaps unmatched in the chronicling of any other period of history. Yet the resulting literature has by no means “illuminated everything.” Each year I encourage the students in Krakow who feel deprived of a history of their own to write the biographies, novels, and plays that might convey to a world audience the experience of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Ukrainians, and others during the Nazi and Communist periods. This urging consistently meets with resistance. Some say that there are such accounts but they are not read except by a few who speak the language in which they are written. There is a pervasive feeling that the outside world is little interested in the experience of Central-Eastern Europeans. A further reason for reluctance, especially in discussing the Nazi era, is that telling their story would be construed as telling “their side” of the story against the dominant Jewish narrative. There is a widespread, and for the most part healthy, anxiety about doing anything that might be viewed as anti-Semitic. But perhaps the most interesting response to my urgings is the fear of shame, reflected in one student’s summing up the discussion by saying, “We do not have the right to embarrass our families.”
The Jewish story can be told, and typically is told, as a tale of unambiguous conflict between good and evil, with Jews cast as unambiguous victims. Writers such as Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), pay a heavy price in terms of criticism for deviating from the standard account. The Krakow students are painfully aware that any honest rendering of the actions and inactions of their parents and grandparents during the Nazi and Communist periods would, to put it gently, not be entirely edifying. Moreover, the peoples of that part of the world-battered, beaten, crushed, and generally humiliated for centuries, mainly by Russians and Germans-have only in recent years reached a point of modest hope for peace, prosperity, and cultural self-respect. Isn’t it better to forget about the tortured past and move on? One cannot help but have a measure of sympathy for that way of thinking, yet it is a great pity, for theirs is an important part of the universal human drama. It should be understood, and to be understood it must be told.
I write this in Krakow, after the days in Ukraine, and having talked again with our students upon their return from Auschwitz. Mr. Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated is still on my mind, recalling the Holocaust books beyond number that one has read over the years, and bringing home the fact that there is still so much that is unilluminated. The students here are from a half dozen or more countries only recently freed from the evil empire of Soviet communism. They want it to be known that they have a history of their own, but it will not be known unless they make it known. I appreciate the desire to move on, to make the most of this moment of unaccustomed freedom, and the reluctance to embarrass the families and peoples they love is admirable. Yet the countless stories of their story must be told, for, finally, the history of their own is also ours. Unless they tell the stories, the next generation’s understanding will be limited to, and distorted by, the tales of bright young westerners who are, as Adam Goodheart says, just tourists-not just in Central-Eastern Europe but in their own lives and in the world at large.
Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
I know it is a fact, but it is nonetheless hard to picture: had he lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. would now be seventy-three years old. Everybody of a certain age has memories, if only of television images; many were there when he spoke, others marched with him in Selma or Montgomery, and some of us were, albeit intermittently, drawn into his personal orbit. The last I count as one of the many graces of my life, and it no doubt explains why I read, almost compulsively, just about everything published about the man and the time. Now we have Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr., the latest volume in the “Penguin Lives” series. It is a valuable addition to the many accounts we have of the man and the movement he led.
I am in the minority with my admiration for Ralph Abernathy’s 1989 autobiographical account of the movement, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. Abernathy was beyond doubt closer to King than anyone else. After the assassination, he took King’s place as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), although he knew as well as anyone that he was no Martin Luther King. His book was harshly criticized for its candor about King’s sexual vagaries, but other published accounts had been more explicit on that score. What I think got to many reviewers is that Abernathy refused to toe the line on the leftist ideology of the movement and even, in the early eighties, took a conservative turn, offering some favorable words on, of all people, Ronald Reagan.
His gravest violation of conventional tellings is that he declined to see black Americans as a victim class oppressed by white racism, or to depict the movement as a response of revolutionary rage. As he told the story, King was a privileged son of the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta and he, Abernathy, was the heir of a tradition of black dignity in a rural Alabama he describes in almost idyllic terms. Abernathy was daringly “incorrect,” and he paid a steep price for it. “Though slavery as an institution was wicked and foreign to the will of our Lord,” he wrote, “it was not uniformly cruel and abusive. Some slaves, in the midst of their degradation, were treated with a measure of Christian charity, just as some prisoners of war have always been treated better than others. In the worst of circumstances, the human heart is still a mysterious variable.”
His grandparents were slaves, but did not understand themselves to be victims. “In Marengo County during the first half of the twentieth century, the name ‘Abernathy’ meant integrity, responsibility, generosity, and religious commitment-and it came to mean that largely through the life and testimony of the black Abernathys. . . . So I feel no shame in going by a last name to which my father and mother brought such character and dignity. It was their name. They didn’t just borrow it from a long-dead white man. They paid for it with their exemplary lives and therefore owned it outright when they passed it along to me.”
Abernathy says that as a boy he was aware of racial segregation, but to him and other blacks in Alabama it was no big deal if the white folks wanted to have their own drinking fountains and a separate entrance at the post office. What did rankle is that white folk wouldn’t call his father “Mister.” The demand for white courtesy, and respect for the dignity that black folk knew they possessed-that was the issue in what came to be called the civil rights movement. That was the issue when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a refusal that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott to which Abernathy recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., thus launching them both on a tumultuous course that they could neither anticipate nor control.
A Legacy Not Well Served
That is in largest part the story of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: how a modest campaign for basic human decency somehow exploded into an out-of-control movement that, picking up a curious mix of causes and characters along the way, was perceived as a revolutionary challenge to the fundamental institutions and beliefs of the country and the world. Oddly enough, Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King, Jr. tells much of the story in the same way, although Frady tends to be condescending, at best, toward Ralph David Abernathy. Abernathy is described as “a stocky, slow badger of a man with a drowsy-eyed, drooping face but a droll and rollicking earthiness, who in their special comradeship over the years was to serve as something like King’s Falstaff.” At another point: “There was already, of course, the dutiful Abernathy, [King’s] baggy, dolorous-faced, waggish Sancho Panza [who was] totally steadfast.” It was easy to underestimate Abernathy, as I too learned. He did play the clown at times, but at times of crisis there was no one whose intuitive judgment King trusted more.
On the other hand, Frady has a high estimate of Jesse Jackson. In 1996 he published Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, and in the present book he writes: “Jesse Jackson, after founding his own movement organization in Chicago, would eventually convert what was perhaps the largest victory of King’s apostleship-the claiming of the vote for all blacks-into two surprisingly impressive guerrilla presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988: as it turned out, this aide who came latest to King, and was perhaps most mistrusted by him, would come closest to developing into his heir as the single most eloquent symbol of pride and hope for masses of black Americans.” All the worse for masses of black Americans, in the judgment of many. Frady attempts to excuse even Jackson’s smearing of his shirt with King’s blood on April 4, 1968 and then going on television to present himself as the anointed heir.
King mistrusted Jackson with good reason, and the following decades have vindicated that mistrust as Jackson has time and again acted as an opportunist, an ambulance chaser, and a publicity hound, who has skillfully exploited the memory of the movement by turning it into a lucrative extortion racket for shaking down corporate America. With a few honorable exceptions, such as Andrew Young, King’s legacy has not been well served by those closest to him. While excusing Jackson, Frady is appropriately critical of Coretta and the children for their continuing efforts to tightly control and financially milk the relics of the martyr.
Days of Delirium
Frady captures well the exhilaration of the time. “The civil rights movement became the nation’s latest attempt to perform in the South an exorcising of its original sin, and it turned out our most epic moral drama since the Civil War itself.” All of us at the time had a dream of possibilities hitherto unimagined. For this young inner-city pastor in black Brooklyn, as for so many others, a new world was aborning. John XXIII was Pope, John F. Kennedy was President, and Dr. King had sighted the promised land of “the beloved community.” As Wordsworth said of an earlier moment of tragically disappointed hope, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” Frady puts it nicely: “They were days delirious with belief.” I do not want to exaggerate my own delirium. After all, I was a Lutheran, attuned to “two-kingdom” skepticism about social change and steeped in Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of the ironies of history. But, as much as a Niebuhrian Lutheran could be, I too was caught up in the epic moral drama.
The story line of the drama was challenged early on by young blacks high on the delirium of their own radicalism who derided King as “de Lawd” and had little patience with his devotion to nonviolence. SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, at first worked closely with King, but soon fell into the hands of violence-prone nonstudents incapable of coordinating anything, but masterful in generating rage. The cry of “Black Power” was heard in the land, and later would come the murderous Black Panthers. Stokely Carmichael, whom Frady describes as “the long lean black Robespierre,” hijacked SNCC, declaring, “I’m not gonna beg the white man for anything I deserve. I’m gonna take it!” Frady writes: “Romanticism about the movement in the liberal salons of the North had begun shifting to its incendiaries like Carmichael, with their terminal cynicism about the efficacy of the ethic of nonviolence, their Malcolm [Malcom X] mentality of a final, bitter acceptance of the human condition as one of hopeless racial antagonism. What seemed to be happening everywhere around King, in fact, was something like the tidal ebbing of faith in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach: a withdrawal to naked shingles of anger.” In his devastating depiction of the liberal salons of the North, Tom Wolfe would write of the “radical chic” that has not yet disappeared entirely, and may never disappear, from what are deemed to be the commanding heights of the culture.
In an early (1970) book, King: A Critical Biography, David Lewis argued that King was much more of a radical than was generally believed. Lewis writes, and Frady quotes him approvingly, that in “the nation’s canonization of Martin King . . . we have sought to remember him by forgetting him.” Frady says that King’s message “inexorably evolved into an evangelism against what he saw as the moral coma of the country’s whole corporate, technological order: its loud and vicious void of materialism . . . and the measureless vandalism this new kind of high-tech barbarism was visiting not only on the life of America, but elsewhere in the world, most luridly at that time in Vietnam. In effect, he came to pit himself against his entire age.” I am not persuaded that King ever came to a systematic endorsement of the kind of ideological radicalism that Lewis and Frady attribute to him.
Not So Radical
King was an exuberant rhetorician, and rhetoric has a way of getting out of hand. Frady gives due attention to King’s dependence on Stanley Levison, a wealthy New York lawyer and wheeler-dealer, who dropped his membership in the Communist Party lest it become an embarrassment to King. The Old Left with its ties to communism was an integral part of much of what was viewed as mainstream liberalism in the 1960s. Even the more established liberal organizations that maintained an “exclusionary clause” against Communists did not take seriously the claim that communism posed a domestic threat. The great threat of the time was thought to be anticommunism, as evident in the rambunctiously reckless attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy and the catchall term of opprobrium, “McCarthyism.” King’s refusal to break with Levison, despite pressures from the FBI and others, indicates not that he was a Communist puppet or had embraced Marxist ideology but simply that he was a good liberal, although less scrupulous about-probably because less knowledgeable about-the Old Left with which more establishment liberals were so unhappily familiar.
King, writes Frady, “was to arrive in the end at a kind of Christian socialism of conscience, once professing to a friend, ‘If we are to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.’“ But of course. Almost everybody in the left-liberal orbit of the time professed to be a socialist of one kind or another. King is quoted as saying at a private retreat of movement leaders that “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation . . . something is wrong with capitalism.” The liberals at the time who did not claim to be socialist had no inhibitions in declaring themselves strongly opposed to capitalism. They were typically for a “third way” between socialism and capitalism. In those days, in those circles, actually affirming capitalism was simply beyond the pale. Frady quotes King telling David Halberstam, “You have got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” Of course. What liberal preacher or politician has not said the same, and said it many times? Depending on what unhappy aspect of society is being deplored, conservatives frequently say the same.
In my movement days, I would, when feeling mischievous, observe that I was not and never had been a socialist. This would predictably meet with startled incredulity, and the discussion would inevitably turn to what is meant by socialism. I would usually end up by saying something like this: “If by socialism, you mean reforms in the political economy that help the poor to be more fully included in the opportunities and responsibilities of society, then I admit to being a socialist.” This almost always met with great relief, my faux pas was forgiven, and I was restored to ideological communion. If the above formula is accepted as the definition of socialism, I’m very much a socialist today.
I do not for a moment deny that there were hard-core socialists, ideological Marxists, and, probably, even active collaborators with communism in the leadership of the movement. There is every reason to believe Dr. King knew that and he should have been more concerned about it than he apparently was. He thought he could use them, and he was probably at times used by them. But I am confident that he and his closest associates, such as Abernathy and Young, were not among them. His most radical program for change was the Poor People’s Campaign launched in 1968. It was supposed to bring many thousands of people to encamp on the Washington Mall until the government agreed to expend an annual $30 billion in expunging poverty, committed itself to full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and the building of 300,000 low-income housing units each year. After his assassination in April, a bedraggled and dispirited SCLC tried to go ahead with the plan, ending up a few weeks later with a handful of supporters holding out in mud-besotted tents before federal rangers moved in to clear them out and clean up the mess. It was an inglorious ending to a misbegotten plan.
King’s occasional rhetoric of “revolutionary” change and the proposals of the Poor People’s Campaign do not, I think, support the claims of Lewis, Frady, and others that he was an ideological socialist, never mind a revolutionary in the Marxist vein. That was a time when radical talk seemed to be the mainstream. A few years later, George McGovern’s presidential campaign would embrace most of the proposals of the Poor People’s Campaign. McGovern was wrong, and he may have been dumb, but he was not a revolutionary bent upon overthrowing the constitutional or economic order. He was what was then de rigueur among most liberals-a “radicalized” liberal. So also with Martin Luther King.
By his own admission, Dr. King was by 1968 frustrated, tired, and confused. I recall conversations at the time when some were urging him to launch a presidential “peace campaign,” or to join with Senator Eugene McCarthy in the challenge to Lyndon Johnson. He spoke about his uneasiness with the ambiguities of electoral politics in all its forms, and the need to recapture the uncomplicated moral drama of Birmingham and earlier campaigns in the South. In New York, a few months before his death, we had lunch, together with Young and Al Lowenstein, an activist who would later be murdered by one of his protégés, and King turned philosophical about the limits of political change. It was a leisurely and convivial lunch. The restaurant had been alerted that “the famous Dr. King” was coming, and the waiter assumed that the white man in the clerical collar must be he, and so throughout the lunch addressed me as “Dr. King.” It both astonished and amused that one of the most famous people in the world was not recognized, and King enjoyed it immensely, taking the opportunity to smoke cigarettes throughout lunch, a regular habit that he usually indulged only in private. Among many other things, we talked about the abiding wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr and the need to recognize the distinction between the morally imperative and the historically possible, agreeing also on the moral imperative to press the historically possible. It was the last time I saw him.
I am surprised that the editors of the Penguin Lives chose Marshall Frady to do the book on Dr. King, or maybe it is they who are surprised by the book he wrote. Had this been the received picture of King in the years following his death, it is almost certain that his birthday would not be a national holiday. “The fact is,” writes Frady, “King was always to fail more often than he would succeed.” He rightly notes that the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1956 did not prevail but was rescued by a federal court order. Six years later, “Birmingham had become the first clear, authentic victory, actually won in popular confrontation and struggle, for King’s movement of nonviolent mass protest.” After his emergence from obscurity in Montgomery, King had only twelve years to live, and it is fair to say that Birmingham was the only such victory. The effort to take the movement to the North, to Richard Daley the Elder’s Chicago, was a disaster. King’s courtly Southern ways did not resonate with the slum dwellers of the North. He was not angry enough. As he said, “You just can’t communicate with the ghetto dweller and at the same time not frighten many whites to death.” At that time, Malcolm X was exulting in frightening whites to death, and King looked moderate-i.e., weak-by comparison.
He led marches for housing desegregation through white neighborhoods of Chicago, meeting with outraged anger. At one point he said, “I have never seen so much hatred and hostility on the faces of so many people as I’ve seen here today.” Frady writes, “He had in fact come up against the innermost reality of racism in America.” The larger fact is that King had no plan for the racial integration of Chicago, nor did anyone else. Nor, except for a few mainly upper-income neighborhoods, has anybody come up with a successful plan for integrating housing to this very day. After Montgomery, King had said, “I’m worried to death that people will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of a hat for the rest of my life.” A problem with Frady’s account, it seems to me, is that he is among those who judge King by whether he succeeded in pulling rabbits out of a hat.
In his calculation of success and failure, Frady tends to be dismissive of the inherent worth of King’s preaching, exhortation, inspiration. Every preacher who has been around a while finds consolation in the promise of Isaiah that “the word shall not return void.” To preach well is success. I recall rallies when, in the course of his preaching, King would hold forth on the theological and moral foundations of the movement. The klieg lights and cameras shut down, only to be turned on again when he returned to specifically political or programmatic themes. “Watch the lights,” he commented. “They’re not interested in the most important parts.” But as for the judgment that King finally achieved very little, Mr. Frady might recall his own statement that the chief consequence of King’s legacy was securing the vote for all blacks. No little achievement, that.
Death in Mid-Passage
Frady tends to agree with those who say that King died at the right time and in the right way. “Some have since suggested that it was just at the point where King seemed passing irretrievably into decline that he came by the terrible exaltation of violent martyrdom-a kind of historical editing, before the disillusionment could become total, that spared him from what could well have become a progressive marginality and tiresomeness and bankruptcy of his image. . . . If King had lived, most likely he would, with his increasingly radical gospel, have departed steadily further from the temper and received liberal sophistication of his times, drifting to the outermost fringes of apparent relevancy.”
I am inclined to the view that Dr. King was taken in mid-passage; he was not yet forty and nobody knows what he might have become and might have done. He might have departed further “from the temper and received liberal sophistication of his times,” not because of the radicalism that Frady attributes to him but because of a deeper radicalism grounded in the Christian gospel. I have entertained the hope that King would have confronted the epoch-defining moral crisis posed by what then was called, long before Roe v. Wade, “liberalized abortion law.” That is no more than a hope. I have no idea what he would have done with respect to this crisis of all crises in our time. But recall that Jesse Jackson, to his credit, was a powerful defender of the unborn for several years after 1968. About abortion he declared, “The war on poverty has been replaced by the war on the poor and the most defenseless.” To his great shame, he promptly switched sides when he was bitten by national political ambitions. Had King lived and continued in his aversion to politics, it is reasonable to hope that he would have made the obvious connections between the civil rights struggle and abortion, both being the cause of expanding and defending the community of human dignity. That is, of course, no more than a hope, and we will never know.
Abernathy was severely castigated for writing about King’s deep moral flaws, but he tended to treat them as somehow incidental to his character and work. In Frady’s portrait, they are more central to understanding what he depicts as the tragedy of Martin Luther King. That King plagiarized a large part of his doctoral dissertation at Boston University is now well known. Frady describes this as “an inclination to casual textual appropriation that was to become an unhappy habit of King’s.” That the books that were published under his name were, for the most part, written by others is not so well known. There is no doubt, however, that he really is the author of the classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Yet plagiarism is not the chief sin.
“The Pelvic Issues”
Dr. King was, for all that was great about him, an adulterer, sexual libertine, lecher, and wanton womanizer. In this he set the moral tone for others. Of the movement leaders Frady writes, “They were . . . a raunchy troupe for the most part, some roistering outrageously at times among whatever likely young ladies were at hand-the movement generally, for that matter, was hardly ‘a sour-faced, pietistic’ adventure, one veteran has since attested; ‘everybody was out getting laid.”” King was a celebrity always surrounded by likely young ladies. On his last night on earth-the night of the unforgettable declaration, “I have seen the promised land”-King returned to the motel and “flung himself into a final, all-night release into carnal carousal” with no less than three women in succession. For years the FBI and, through the FBI, political opponents had tapes of King’s nocturnal debauches and attempted to use them for purposes very much like blackmail. Coretta knew, and put on a brave public face of not knowing. The major reporters from newspapers and television networks knew but, Frady writes, “none of this material found its way into their reportage, a restraint virtually inconceivable in these times, meaning, of course, that King would very likely never have survived now as the figure he was then.” It is not possible to disagree.
I did disagree once. When, shortly after his death, the first book appeared detailing this shadowed side of King’s life, The King God Didn’t Save by John A. Williams, I reviewed it very critically in the New York Review of Books. The evidence, I wrote, was hearsay, third-and fourth-hand, circumstantial, unsubstantiated, and highly improbable. I could not write that review today. The book was shoddy and sensationalistic, but thirty years later most of its substantive claims appear to be supported by more reliable witnesses. I had no personal knowledge of Dr. King’s sexual wanderings, and I suppose it is possible that I did not see what others saw because I did not want to see it. To be forced to acknowledge that the stories are probably true-no, almost certainly true-still makes me sick. For the fact is that I admired and loved King, and still do. Then and now, I think it possible and necessary to make a crucial, albeit not unambiguous, distinction between the very broken earthen vessel and the treasure of truth that vessel contained and so powerfully communicated.
This must also be said: from very early on, the rhetoric and habits of the movement evinced a recklessly casual attitude toward sexual morality. It became a cliché in activist circles that there were many more Bible passages condemning inequality of wealth and other injustices than there were condemning sexual misconduct. Conventional religion was routinely assailed for being inordinately preoccupied with “morality from the belly button down.” Among liberals to this day these are derided as “the pelvic issues.” The movement at its best, by which I mean the civil rights movement through the mid-sixties, contained moral ingredients that would later become the libertine “counterculture” of drugs and sexual license. That was the turn, joined most decisively by the agitation for the abortion license, that resulted in my breaking ranks with the left. That turn among left-liberal activists, extending through the 1970s, also has a strong bearing on today’s scandals about miscreant sexual conduct by clergy, Protestant and Catholic, who were formed by, and conformed to, the aberrations of the time.
What Jesus Promised
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian. Despite all. As we are all, in the final analysis, Christians despite all. Many of his biographers, and the public school texts, tend to downplay that. Much is made of his having been enlightened by reading Gandhi, and he is frequently depicted as a forerunner of New Ageish spirituality. But King was emphatic in asserting, “This business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.” Frady and others have recounted his telling of the time in Montgomery when he was first receiving death threats and wanted out. Frady tells it this way:
He was overwhelmed with woe over his own unworthiness, his life of bourgeois privilege even during this ordeal into which he had led the city’s black community, and finally about the superficiality of his “inherited” call into the ministry, although he “had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must . . . if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life.” As he later recalled that late night hour of desolation, “I couldn’t take it any longer” and “tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” Dropping his head into his hands, he suddenly realized he was praying aloud in the midnight hush of the kitchen: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. . . . But Lord, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this. . . . But I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” And at that moment, as King would tell it, he seemed to hear “an inner voice . . . the voice of Jesus,” answering him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” That voice of Jesus, King recounted, “promised never to leave me, no, never to leave me alone.”
A few days after the assassination, I took part in a huge memorial service in Harlem. The service was reported on the evening news. The reporter, microphone in hand, stood in front of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and said, as I recall his words, “And so today there was a memorial service for the slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a religious service, and appropriately so, for, after all, he was the son of a minister.” That rather totally missed the point, as the point has been missed so often in the years since then.
Marshall Frady depicts a man desperately riven and driven. “In King’s lapses into that ‘lower self’ he so often decried, one sensed an extraordinarily harrowed man-caught in the almost insupportable strain of having to sustain the high spirituality of his mass moral struggle, while living increasingly in a daily expectation of death-intermittently resorting to releases into sweetly obliterating riots of the flesh. He seemed thus to move through some endlessly recycling alternation between the transcendently spiritual and the convulsively carnal.” At a later point he writes: “In the widening beleaguerment of his latter years, it would sometimes seem as if he were, as in the Keats ode, ‘half in love with easeful death,’ almost wishful for its surcease from all travail, proposing once that he just might withdraw into a fast ‘unto death.’“
I have no doubt there were times when that was the case. He was, after all, for twelve years and almost daily on the receiving end of death threats, thought he had come close to being killed several times, and was finally gunned down. Of course he thought about death more than most people have occasion to think about death. But it was in those latter years, especially the last two years, that I came to know him personally. Not on a day by day basis, to be sure, but enough to form a firm judgment of the man. From the first day I met him, I was impressed not by any morbid preoccupation with failure and mortality but by what appeared to be his inner peace, an almost triumphant tranquillity. Surrounded as world-class celebrities are by groupies and sycophants, he seemed not to be taken in by it all. I most clearly remember thinking, “Here is a man who has his ego under control. He knows who he is, and who he is not.” I admired, and I envied, that. And that, despite all, is the way I remember him to this day.
Marshall Frady and others are right: if everything was known then that is known now, Dr. King would early have been brought to public ruin, and there would almost certainly be no national holiday in his honor. But God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called “the America dilemma,” racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.
(The following report is submitted by our ubiquitous correspondent George Weigel.)
Outraged commentary quickly followed Bishop Timothy M. Dolan’s June 25 remark that his first priority as the tenth Archbishop of Milwaukee would be to talk with those “meat-and-potato Catholics” who are “the strength of any diocese.” Bishop Dolan, whose fondness for the table is not entirely disguised by clerical black, made the comment at a press conference introducing him to his new archdiocese, where he was to be installed on August 28.
Meeting in emergency session, the executive committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America adopted a resolution condemning Dolan’s “insensitivity to our animal companions” and asserting that vegetarianism was “the more excellent way of Christian nutrition.” The Society noted that it had banned steaks from its banquet menus for decades, substituting tofu salads as “more responsive to the moral demands of sustainable development,” a point argued in the Society’s study of eco-ethics, “People Are the Problem.”
In a signed editorial in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonwealth, editor Margaret McGillicuddy Steinflyte claimed that Bishop Dolan’s statement of priorities was “redolent of the boys’ locker-room ambiance of this pontificate.” A “preferential option for ‘meat-and-potato Catholics,’“ Ms. Steinflyte claimed, would “disenfranchise” those hundreds of “brie-and-chardonnay, spirit-of-Vatican II Catholics” who form the core of her magazine’s regular readership. In a separate article in the same issue, Commonwealth columnist Paul Bauhaus suggested that the “extravagant carnality” of “Bishop Dolan’s gustatory imagery” and its “attempt to sacramentalize a body function, eating” was in fact a “sly strategy” for “sneaking John Paul II’s theology of the body” into an archdiocese where it was hitherto unknown-”which has certainly been a blessing for Milwaukee.”
A close student of the American hierarchy, Father Thomas Reach, S.J., told the Washington Post that, while it was customary for a “hefty bishop” to follow a “lean bishop” in Milwaukee, he was concerned that Bishop Dolan’s reference to “meat-and-potato Catholics” would “reinforce Milwaukee’s image as a stolid, bowling-alley town-an image my colleagues at Marquette, a university in the Jesuit tradition, have worked so hard to erase.” Moreover, Fr. Reach noted, to “lay such stress on meat and potatoes” was “pastorally insensitive,” given Milwaukee’s “longstanding commitment to frozen custard as the signature local dish.” “Bishop Dolan’s claim to be a man of tradition is somewhat questionable, given his failure to even mention frozen custard at his inaugural press conference,” said Fr. Reach.
Criticism was also heard from Catholic commentators in the secular press. In a bitter attack on Bishop Dolan, James Careall, the Boston Globe columnist, argued that “meat-and-potatoes Catholicism” is inherently anti-Semitic, “as John Chrysostom made unmistakably clear in his fourth-century sermon on Acts 9:9-16.” Veteran Washington Post columnist Mary McGrouchy wrote in a more elegiac mode. “With John XXIII and the Kennedy White House, we thought, we prayed, that we had put ‘meat-and-potatoes Catholicism’ behind us,” Ms. McGrouchy reminisced. “When will Catholicism in America develop even a surface level of sophistication?”
Maureen Dowdy was in a less gentle mood on the New York Times op-ed page. “Bishop Dolan’s adolescent wisecrack is of a piece with President Bush’s fondness for cowboy boots. When are these guys going to grow up?” Following a pattern established in the first months of 2002 on the Times‘ op-ed page, Bill Killerbee took Ms. Dowdy one better, with a biting critique of Dolan’s “slash-and-burn ecclesiastical style, reminiscent of such scoundrels of Catholic history as Torquemada and Pope John Paul II.”
This firestorm of deprecation was challenged by Stanislaw Miesozerny, a cattle and dairy farmer in Dodge County, northwest of Milwaukee. “I think what Bishop Dolan said is great,” Mr. Miesozerny, a 1962 Marquette University philosophy major, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Everyone who studies the Summa understands that beef cattle achieve the ‘final end’ of their existence as New York Strips at the Outback. That’s just good Thomism.”
“Besides,” he continued, “these vegans want us to abstain from all milk products. And you know what that means for Wisconsin. I’m looking forward to Archbishop Dolan endorsing our campaign to change Wisconsin’s license-plate slogan. ‘America’s Dairyland’ is a little lame. My meat-and-potatoes Catholic friends think it ought to be ‘Eat Cheese or Die.’“
While We’re At It
• There will of course be more in these pages on the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision handed down by the Supreme Court this term. As is not infrequently the case, it was a close vote (5-4) but that in no way diminishes its potential, and indeed almost certain, implications for the future. Of course Zelman is an enormous boost for the proponents of parental choice in education and especially for poor families such as those in Cleveland who had previously been confined to the thoroughly rotten system of government schooling. The approval of vouchers that parents can use in any available school, including religious schools, does not mean that the battle for parental choice is won. In every state the formidable forces defending the status quo, notably the teachers’ unions, can be counted upon to obstruct educational freedom every step of the way. But with Zelman the long and dreary history of antireligious (mainly anti-Catholic) discrimination in education, based on a twisted reading of the no-establishment provision of the Religion Clause, has been, at least in principle, rejected. Therein lies the historic significance of the decision, a significance that reaches far beyond education, as important as educational freedom undoubtedly is. But, as I say, more on these matters later.
• This will come as something of a surprise to people who have known Norman Podhoretz as a writer of sharp-edged political and cultural criticism. In his thirty-five years as editor of Commentary, through hundreds of articles and a shelf of books, he has been both acclaimed and derided as a champion of polemics without apology. Now he has produced a big (almost four hundred pages) and remarkable book of a very different genre, The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are (Free Press). Not that the book is devoid of polemics, but it is more importantly a work of love that puts one in mind of what Alan Jacobs in a recent book calls the hermeneutics of love (see Public Square, June/July). In writing as an “amateur,” a lover of the Hebrew Bible, Podhoretz resumes an affair of his youth when he studied Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, later, was a protégé of literary giants such as F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. Podhoretz has immersed himself in the vast literature, both Jewish and Christian, on the prophets, but wears his learning lightly as he speaks about the prophets in his own voice and with a sense of fresh discovery that carries the reader along on a journey through the history of Israel that combines narrative force, literary appreciation, and a bracing application of the prophetic message to our own time. Informed but not intimidated by the academic experts, Podhoretz frames the story around several arguments that some will consider controversial. First, he says that all the prophets, and indeed all the writers of the Hebrew Bible, must be understood as engaged in a war against idolatry. This he says against scholars who contend that the later (he prefers “classical”) prophets invented a monotheism unknown to the likes of Abraham and Moses. Second, he persuasively argues-against a long history of liberal interpretation-that the prophets did not pit morality against ritual or the prophetic against the priestly. Third-and this against the same liberal interpretation-the prophets do not represent a breakthrough from tribal “particularism” to “universalism.” Rather, the reality and promise of the universal is to be discovered in the particular of the Jewish people. The book concludes with a convincing description of the revival of pagan idolatries in our time, underscoring the abiding pertinence of the prophets. Regrettable in my view is the cursory dismissal of the continuing entanglement of Judaism and Christianity that has engaged the attention of both Jewish and Christian thinkers in the last hundred years (see my “Salvation Is from the Jews,’ FT, November 2001). For Podhoretz-as for many Christian thinkers in the liberal tradition he criticizes-Christianity is simply another religion based on Paul’s rejection of the law. That position raises questions of monumental complexity and importance for the identity of both Judaism and Christianity, and for the relationship between Christians and Jews, that deserve better than Podhoretz’s abrupt and apodictic rejectionism. With respect to the unbridgeable chasm between Judaism and Christianity, Podhoretz is a Jewish Schleiermacher. Nonetheless, The Prophets is a notable achievement that can be read, also by Christians, with great benefit and enjoyment. I do not remember a telling of the story that so gripped my attention since as a young seminarian I read John Bright’s A History of Israel. Incidentally, but of relevance to endless debates about translations, Podhoretz makes a strong case for the King James Version as best representing in English the nuances of Hebrew prose and poetry. Although, in light of more recent discoveries, he departs from the KJV on occasion, he comes close to suggesting that the king’s men were inspired. Of such are the many instructive charms and provocative contentions of The Prophets.
• Many subscribers say they read every word of every issue, but I expect that even the most zealous sometimes skip the masthead. In that event, they will have missed the news that Dr. Timothy George has joined the editorial board. Dr. George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, did both his masters and doctorate at Harvard University and is a church historian of distinction who has held important positions with the Southern Baptist Convention. He is also an invaluable partner in the ongoing project “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” He and his wife Denise have two children. We are privileged to have him on our editorial board.
• Whatever happened to the mandatum? I recognize the possibility that you have not asked that question lately, what with all the other problems afflicting the Catholic Church, but it’s a question worth asking. Recall that in 1990 John Paul II set forth a vision for the renewal of Catholic higher education in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church), and it took ten years for Rome and the American bishops to agree on how that vision was to be implemented. Part of the agreement was that people teaching Catholic theology should receive a mandatum (or mandate) from their bishop, certifying that what they say is Catholic theology is what the Church teaches. A simple matter of truth in advertising, one might think. Of course, liberal bishops balked and liberal academics railed against the alleged threat to academic freedom. This past June was the deadline set for obtaining a mandatum, but by then the bishops were caught up in the vortex of more pressing concerns. Between theologians’ objections and bishops’ reluctance to force the issue, “the mandatum will be one more thing that will disappear in the dustbin of history,” Peter C. Phan of Catholic University of America and outgoing president of the dissident Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) happily observes. It is by no means evident that, even without the scandals that have embroiled them, the bishops were very serious about the mandatum. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati headed the committee in charge of “enforcement,” and he says, “This was thought to be, ‘Wow, the guillotine was set up in the public square, and heads will roll.’ That was never the intent.” Of course not. Compared with the moral deviations toward which many bishops have shown such tolerance, what is the academic misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine? John McCarthy, chairman of theology at Loyola University, Chicago, has even refused the repeated request of Francis Cardinal George to send him the names of theologians teaching there so that he can meet with them. “Even at the point of interviewing for faculty hiring, it’s illegal to ask a person’s religion,” says McCarthy. If you’re looking for someone to teach Catholic theology, it’s illegal to ask a candidate if he would teach Catholic theology? It would appear that Loyola Chicago is among the many schools that really do not care one way or the other, which was the reason for Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the first place. Stephen E. Fowl, chairman of theology at Loyola College in Maryland, says his department has no problem with the mandatum. “As we understand it,” he says, “what you are committing to doing is only teaching as Catholic doctrine what is Catholic doctrine, which seems to us to be primarily a matter of intellectual integrity.” He is right, but the dominant and rather odd position in the academic world of CTSA appears to be that one must choose between freedom and integrity. The bishops are not required to make public who has or has not received a mandatum, so nobody knows. The end result, it would seem, is that Ex Corde Ecclesiae is one more of the many magnificent visions set forth by John Paul II to which the American bishops, with relatively few exceptions, have turned a blind eye. It is a great and continuing sadness.
• Oh, but aren’t we wicked? Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times Book Review, discusses a really nasty novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck). It’s called Platform and apparently (I have no intention of reading it) is about people who try to turn the world into a whorehouse. Shulevitz writes, “Like the dirty-minded oppositionalists who preceded him-the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Celine-Houellebecq skillfully transforms pornographic excess into social critique, and the return to normalcy into a capitulation to hypocrisy and spiritual death.” Oh, dear. Normalcy is hypocritical and stifling. There’s a fresh theme holding high promise for the revival of literature and the intellectual life, as every rebellious adolescent of the last 150 years has excitedly discovered. The New Statesman declares that Houellebecq is “the great chronicler of the moral and cultural emptiness of modern France.” Ms. Shulevitz is not about to take a back seat to France. Speaking on behalf of the moral and cultural emptiness of modern America, or at least of the New York Times, she declares that we, too, want novelists “to plumb our depths, to dredge up our excesses, to startle us into recognizing ourselves for the confused and desperate characters we have become.” Confused I’ll give her.
• “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” So says a character in Philip Pullman’s latest fantasy, The Amber Spyglass. One might note that if one is convinced Christianity is a mistake one could not find it convincing. Setting aside such quibbles, the popularity of Pullman’s overtly atheistic enterprise is worth noting and was brilliantly discussed in these pages by Sarah E. Hinlicky (“The End of Magic,” February 2002) and Daniel P. Moloney (Books in Review, May 2001). Writing in World, Gene Edward Veith notes that Pullman fans are being driven back to reading John Milton, and Paradise Lost in particular, to pick up the clues that Pullman inverts in his books. Veith expresses the hope that such readers, following in the steps of C. S. Lewis, may, despite themselves, be led to see with Milton that “Satan, for all his deceptions, turns out to be the real tyrant.” Inverting the inversion, so to speak.
• There has long been a more than modest coincidence, reaching legendary proportions in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, between aestheticism and a certain sexual bent. As with other lines of work such as hairdressing and fashion designing, those with an intense interest in liturgical niceties are thought, fairly or not, to tend toward the effete. Which is why it is-in addition to being scandalous-puzzling that the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC) finds itself embarrassed by both its executive director and immediate past chairman being accused of doing wicked things with little boys. One hardly associates FDLC with aestheticism. On the contrary, much of what liturgical experts have done to Catholic liturgy in recent decades seems to represent a determined campaign best described as uglification. Or is a counter-aesthetic just another form of aestheticism? I’m trying to figure this one out.
• The truth is that many Catholics have stopped going to confession altogether. The attempt to change the name to the sacrament of penance and reconciliation probably didn’t help. Mothers used to say, “You’d better go to confession.” I wonder if a mother ever says, “You’d better go to the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.” But that’s probably a small factor in the neglect of the sacrament, which has been a matter of continuing concern to Rome. This May, John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, “Misericordia Dei,” stressing the significance of confession and underscoring the importance of the individual relationship between penitent and confessor. General confession and absolution, he pointed out, is reserved for cases of grave necessity, such as an imminent plane crash or troops going into battle, when individual confession is not possible. Another factor in the declining use of the sacrament, however, may seem small but I expect is very big in its effect, and I’m puzzled that I’ve never seen it mentioned in print. It is the present form of the preparatory or penitential rite at the beginning of Mass. The priest says we are to call to mind our sins and then all join in saying, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault,” etc. In some Mass guides, the rubric then reads, “The priest says the absolution.” Then follows a prayer that God will have mercy, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life. Is that sacramental absolution? Of course not. Not as in “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” But for many people the preparatory rite sure looks like confession and absolution, indeed like general confession and general absolution. How odd it must seem to someone who has just gone to the sacrament of confession in preparation for receiving the Eucharist to then be invited at the beginning of Mass to confess his sins and receive what appears to be absolution all over again. I have read learned articles on the cultural, psychological, and catechetical reasons for the dramatic decline in confessions. My hunch is that a factor as big as any is that people who never go to confession mistakenly think they go to confession every time they go to Mass.
• It’s hard pickings for national identity if you’re a Canadian. In a big national survey, respondents were asked to name the most significant events in Canadian history. Forty-six percent named the creation of national health care, 29 percent chose the 1982 adoption of Pierre Trudeau’s “Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” and eight percent favored the 1972 hockey series between Canada and Russia. The most admired Canadians, past or present? The late prime minister Pierre Trudeau rates 31 percent, with three other recent politicians and hockey player Wayne Gretzky coming in at under five percent. Despite the fact that not much happens in Canada, people do feel a need to relax and they were asked about their favorite ways of doing that. Twenty percent named reading, 14 percent named watching sports, and nine percent said hanging out with family and friends. But what caught the headline in the Toronto Star was this: “Just one percent listed sex as their favorite leisure activity.” That invites a measure of skepticism. First, a book or magazine is always there for the picking up. Second, “leisure activity” connotes something that takes a lot of time. On the other hand, maybe the one percent should be taken at face value. For a people in whose history the most significant thing that has happened is the establishment of the right to get in line to see a doctor, sex may seem an imprudent excitement.
• As you might imagine, thousands of books come through this shop, and relatively few can be considered for serious treatment, or any treatment at all. Birdwatching in Vermont, for example, didn’t stand a chance, and when the postman spotted Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Shamanism and wanted to borrow it, nobody objected. We come up with little games in making necessarily quick judgments about books. There is, for instance, the best “focus-group title.” That’s when in every part, and taken as a whole, the title reflects keen market testing. The winner this season is Martin E. P. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Bingo. “Happiness” is, of course, the original happy word. The qualifying “authentic” signifies that the author is aware of phony happinesses on offer. “Using” appeals to the pragmatic assumption of what ideas are for. “New” resonates with a neophiliac culture. “Positive,” of course. Who wants anything negative? “Psychology” may have only a niche appeal, but accompanied by such an armory of qualifiers, it is hoped that any skepticism will be overwhelmed. “Realize” and “Potential” may seem redundant, except that the latter is needed for the inclusion of the crucial “Your,” assuring the reader that Seligman is not going to impose anything. He only wants to help you be the wonderful person you are. “Lasting” is an implied guarantee that you will never have to buy another book like this again. As for “Fulfillment,” see above on “happiness.” Seligman and Free Press have come up with the generic title for the entire genre of self-help books, meaning books that pander to the delusion that the simply marvelous “real me” is just waiting to be released from the me of life so far. And now I expect I will hear from a reader or two who will say their lives were turned around by the book. To which I can only say, Congratulations. But you might want to give the “Lasting” a bit more time
• I suppose I must plead guilty. Jody Bottum, that incorrigibly pedantic nitpicker at the Weekly Standard, charges me with carelessness in attributing to James Joyce the statement that the Catholic Church is “Here Comes Everybody.” He notes that in Finnegans Wake Joyce does play on the initials of H. C. Earwicker-HCE-employing the phrase, “Here Comes Everybody,” but nowhere can Mr. Bottum find the phrase applied to the Church. I can’t either. Mr. Bottum complains that my apparent mistake is now being replicated “everywhere on the Internet,” which is probably something of an exaggeration. Barring a kind reader’s supplying a vindicating reference, I assume that somewhere along the line, probably years ago, I found the formulation attributed to Joyce and took the attribution at face value. So, pending further clarification, please do not use it. I am trying to be grateful to my friend Jody Bottum for depriving me of a great line.
• “We are still in the middle of the story of Roe, and no one can predict the ending.” So say N. E. H. Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer, authors of the informative Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History (University Press of Kansas). Professors of law and history, respectively, Hull and Hoffer are keenly sensitive to the cultural, religious, and rhetorical dimensions of the struggle, and note the effectiveness but also the possible perils in the pro-abortionists’ decision to bet everything on the single theme of “choice.” Roe is generally depicted as a climactic victory in the long struggle for women’s rights, but the authors note the crucial difference from other victories-the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote and the Civil Rights Act of 1964-that “brought women more fully and equally into a world that had been the preserve of men.” Roe, on the other hand, “gave to women a legal right to be different.” Abortion, by its very nature, distinguishes between men and women. “Under an old regime of law and politics exclusively male, supported by a worldview that regarded women as the inferior sex and praised the ideal woman as wife and mother, men played a major role in the abortion story. Men made laws against abortion, enforced them, then argued against them and repealed them, dictating women’s access to legal abortion. But when women got the right to abortion, men play a diminished role in the tale. Thus the abortion story, despite the absence of gender in the constitutional language on which abortion rights rest, differs from the many other stories we can tell about women’s rights in the twentieth century.” The question posed by Hull and Hoffer, although they don’t put it quite so bluntly, is whether, in the cultural churnings of coming years, women will see it as being in their interest to so radically assert their independence from men. Because that is at least doubtful, it is the case that “we are still in the middle of the story of Roe, and no one can predict the ending.”
• It is simply not true that I have a position on everything. For instance, the endless wars among Lewisians waged by the partisans of Kathryn Lindskoog and Walter Hooper. It is true that I think Hooper, who presents himself as the guardian of the C. S. Lewis literary legacy, has been unseemly in exaggerating his relationship with the great man, inflating a few weeks with him in 1963, the summer before Lewis died, into what sometimes appears to be a lifetime of bosom fellowship. So I guess I have something like a position on that. And it is true that Lindskoog’s relentless pursuit of Hooper’s alleged fiddling with texts, and even forgeries, continued in her recent book Sleuthing C. S. Lewis: More Light in the Shadowlands (Mercer University Press), seems to have an edge of fanaticism about it. But that’s just an impression, not a position. I do take the position that the Chronicle of Higher Education is right to conclude its discussion of the Lewisian contretemps with the suggestion that Lewis himself would not be surprised. In a conversation with two other writers, Lewis remarked, “Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics. All literature becomes a sacred text. And a sacred text is always exposed to the most monstrous exegesis. . . . It’s the discovery of the mare’s nest by the pursuit of the red herring.” The other writers laughed, and Lewis added, “This is going to go on long after my lifetime. You may be able to see the end of it. I shan’t.” He probably did not know that the battle over his own texts would so spectacularly confirm his prophecy.
• Neophiliacs, lovers of the new. That’s what much of our elite culture would seduce us into becoming. Chesterton called tradition the democracy of the dead. In a living tradition-whether philosophical, religious, or aesthetic-the dead are not really dead; we are aware of our living in them and they in us. Neophiliacs do not understand that. To sustain the delusion that only the new matters, they have to fake it. A cartoon pictures executives sitting around the board room table on which is a box of breakfast cereal emblazoned with the word “New!!” The chairman is saying, “What do you mean what’s new about it? The ‘New!!’ on the box is new.” Here is a news story about the Locrian Chamber Players in New York. They were established in 1994 with the guiding principle that they would never play works more than ten years old. Now they’re coming up on their tenth anniversary and panic is setting in. Works that were hot off the press in their first season are now, according to their guiding principle, slipping into the mists of antiquity. There is, for instance, Pauline Oliveros’ 1992 Sound Fishes, in which the instrumentalists wander around the room pulling sundry sounds out of the air like a fisherman catching fish. Then there is Heart Chant, an audience participation piece in which listeners are asked to feel their heartbeats and send out good vibrations. There are other “compositions” in a similar vein, but soon they will all be to no avail. They will soon be more than ten years old. “Sorry. Been there, done that.” The Locrian Chamber Players are very much like “creative” liturgical experts who encourage-no, demand-spontaneity in worship. There is no more imperious demand than the demand to be spontaneous. The most effective protection against the neophiliacs is the Church’s historic liturgy, offered “with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven,” from eternity to eternity. Augustine said of Christian truth that it is “ever ancient, ever new.” Between the ancient and the new, no decision is required. Whether in chamber music or in worship, the exclusivism of neophilia is countered by living tradition, the democracy of the dead.
• I don’t know whether I’m being suckered here or not. Pastor Russ Saltzman, editor of the Forum Letter from which I sometimes quote, is coordinating a conference on Christian sexuality to be held October 24-26 at Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, 1081 Ruskin Way, Kansas City, Missouri 64134. He’s lined up an impressive group of Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic speakers. He tells me that people who say they learned about the conference from FT get a reduced registration fee, thereby suggesting that I owe it to our readers to let them know. So now you know. If you want to take this up with Pr. Saltzman, he can be reached at 816-761-6815.
• You know about Father Mychal Judge, the gay priest who was killed giving the last rites to fallen firefighters at the World Trade Center? No you don’t. Fr. Mychal was not homosexual, never mind, as has been endlessly repeated in the media, “openly gay.” He was a faithful celibate priest noted for his heroic service to all in need. The story of his being gay is a total fabrication of homosexual activists and their friends in the press. So says Dennis Lynch, a lawyer who was a close friend and collaborator of Fr. Mychal’s who knew him for ten years and has gone to the trouble of interviewing scores of others who worked with him closely. All of them agree that the legend of “the gay priest” is nothing but propaganda. As you might expect, there are those who persist in claiming that they know Fr. Judge was gay. I don’t know what to believe, but I have talked with Mr. Lynch and find his argument persuasive. For further information, he can be reached at email@example.com.
• As you probably know by now, I think Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is one of the really important books of our time. Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Nobel Prize-winner in economics, often has very interesting things to say, but his trashing of Huntington in the New Republic is a deep disappointment. He accuses Huntington of promoting “civilizational imprisonments” that deny individual freedom. It is true that Huntington generalizes about “the Western world,” “the Islamic world,” the “Buddhist world,” and so forth, and the important question to ask about generalizations is whether they are generally true. A generalization, by definition, does not cover every individual instance, and may allow for many instances to the contrary, as Huntington’s generalizations surely do. But, in a nice piece of writing in the service of a wrongheaded criticism, Sen complains: “In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups: we belong to all of them. The same person can be an American citizen of Malaysian origin with Chinese racial characteristics, a Christian, a libertarian, a political activist, a woman, a poet, a vegetarian, an asthmatic, a historian, a schoolteacher, a bird-watcher, a baseball fan, a lover of jazz, a heterosexual, a supporter of gay and lesbian rights, and a person deeply committed to the view that creatures from outer space regularly visit Earth in colorful vehicles and sing tantalizing songs. Each of these collectivities, to all of which this individual belongs, gives her a particular identity, which-depending on the context-can be quite important; but none of them has a unique and pre-ordained role in defining this person.” All that is undoubtedly true in “our normal lives”-meaning the lives of those of us in the Western, and mainly American, world. But for an eighteen-year-old woman in Saudi Arabia? We must resist Huntington’s “civilizational imprisonment,” writes Sen. “We must insist upon the liberty to see ourselves as we would choose to see ourselves, deciding on the relative importance that we would like to attach to our membership in the different groups to which we belong.” That is an admirably representative generalization by a member of an individualistic, emotivist, Western culture, and it very nicely demonstrates the argument that Sen intends to refute. Huntington is writing about the worlds that clash against the world that Sen describes.
• What next? That was the question when the wire services moved a hot story that two Austrian bishops had agreed to ordain seven women to the priesthood. The reality fell somewhat short of the news. On July 1, on a ship moored in the Danube near Passau in southern Germany, three hundred people gathered for the ordination, so to speak, of seven women of German, Austrian, and U.S. nationality. The presiding bishop, to stretch a point, was Romulo Braschi, an Argentine priest who was excommunicated in the 1960s and went on to establish the Charismatic Apostolic Catholic Church of Jesus King, which claims thirteen thousand members worldwide. Braschi styles himself the Archbishop of Munich, Zurich, Buenos Aires, and Salvador da Bahia. The phenomenon of episcopi vagantes, or wandering bishops, is nothing new. In the nineteenth century a number of Anglicans and excommunicated Catholics received what they claimed to be episcopal orders through the “Old Catholics” of Utrecht, and promptly began ordaining with abandon. In almost any major city in the U.S. there are little ecclesiastical covens claiming to be the true Catholic Church. Back in my Lutheran days at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, we were for a while visited by a Patriarch Michael who claimed to preside over the Catholic Church east of the Mississippi and in all of Asia. I thought that somewhat amusing until a young fellow who did janitorial work at the parish announced one day that Patriarch Michael had just consecrated him as Archbishop of New York, and he wanted a big raise. There is something pathetic about the ceremony on the Danube and its being proclaimed a “breakthrough” toward the ordination of women. Whatever the arguments for ordaining women, John Paul II has reiterated that the Church just can’t do it. The sacraments, including the sacrament of holy orders, belong to Christ, not to the Church, and Christ has not authorized the Church to ordain women. That is a statement of modesty and obedience, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said it is infallible. It is not infallible by virtue of what this Pope has done, but because what he has done is in continuity with the Catholic tradition from the apostolic era to the present. Moreover-and although this is not given as a reason for the teaching-opening the door to ordaining women would almost certainly doom any prospect of reunion with Orthodoxy, which has to be the premier ecumenical concern of Rome. Perhaps the poignant attempt on the Danube will help people to understand that, however sympathetic they are to women who believe they are called to the priesthood, agitation toward that end is no more than a distraction from the movement for authentic renewal that is so urgently needed. To the credit of what used to be called the Women’s Ordination Conference in this country, most of its members seem to have given up on such agitation. Not, unfortunately, because they agree with the Church’s teaching but because they have been “radicalized” into rejecting the entire structure of the Church, priesthood and all. That is to their credit in the limited sense that it is straightforward, in contrast to the farcical fudging presided over by the putative Archbishop of Munich, Zurich, Buenos Aires, and Salvador da Bahia.
• Oops Department. In the August/September issue I said the Cardinal Bernardin Award, which was supposed to have been given to the embarrassingly resigned Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, is closely associated with Commonweal magazine. I am informed that the award is, in fact, sponsored by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative launched by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. On the other hand, Commonweal is very closely associated with the Common Ground Initiative.
• Political commentator Mark Shields notes that in the 2000 presidential election 14 percent of the electorate-which translates into 14.7 million voters-named abortion as the most important issue in deciding their vote. That sector of voters chose Bush over Gore by 58 to 41 percent, meaning that Bush had an advantage on the abortion issue of 2.5 million votes in an election in which Gore won the national vote by 540,000. Catholics figure very prominently in that 14 percent. Shields thinks that maybe this would give Democrats pause. Nothing doing. He writes, “In a deliberate act of political bigotry, the Democratic National Committee is daily telling Catholic voters to get lost. Do you think I exaggerate? Then go to the Democratic National Committee website. There you will find ‘links of interest from the Democratic National Committee.’ If your interests include the environment or veterans or Gay and Lesbian or Jewish-American or pro-choice or African-American, the DNC will happily suggest dozens of places for you to spend time. There is under ‘Catholic’ only one Democratic Party-endorsed site to visit: the absolutely unflinching champions of abortion on demand, Catholics for a Free Choice.”
• I’ve had my public differences with Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die, which is in many respects an admirable book. (I quote it favorably in my own As I Lay Dying.) I therefore read with particular interest his review essay in the New Republic of another admirable book, The Case Against Assisted Suicide, edited by Kathleen Foley and Herbert Hendlin (Johns Hopkins University Press). Nuland rightly praises the book for, inter alia, its devastating information on legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands and its critique of official evasiveness and mendacity with respect to Oregon’s assisted suicide program. The contributors to the book, Nuland acknowledges, make a convincing case that the real moral and medical crisis in end-of-life care is the cruel neglect of palliative measures. Yet, he says, there will always be a small number of cases in which direct killing or euthanasia (which he defines as “easy death”) will be warranted. He writes, “If that is so, then society should affirm each and every such decision. And here I offer a suggestion that may seem odd, superfluous, and even antiquated. It is that final consent should be in the hands of a kind of council of elders, people in a community or institution known for their probity, wisdom, and sense of civic responsibility.” The suggestion is odd; not because it is superfluous or antiquated but because it assumes that “society” can act through a council that would, by definition, exclude those who believe that it is always and in every instance wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. At present and, please God, in the future such people are the great majority in American society. Dr. Nuland’s opposition to what is happening in the Netherlands and Oregon, and his demolition of the arguments advanced by such as the Hemlock Society, are most welcome. Regrettably, he is still hanging on to the hope for a rule that will allow “rare exceptions,” a rule that, once adopted, will smooth the way for the regime of death that he abhors.
• When I was at seminary in St. Louis, I did some graduate work in philosophy at Washington University. The fellow who chiefly captured my attention, and, whatever his intentions, dissuaded me from viewing academic philosophy as a possible future, was a terribly clever young Ph.D. fresh out of Harvard, who, as an analyst of ordinary language, rejoiced in demonstrating that words do not mean what they purport to mean. He was very good at this. I had not thought about him in a long time until coming across this in Terry Eagleton’s memoir The Gatekeeper. In his chapter on “Dons,” he describes a “Dr. Greenway” who disillusioned him of the assumption that there is a connection between erudition and intelligence. Eagleton writes, “Greenway was certainly intelligent, but he had no more ideas in his head than a hamster. Indeed, he was not only bereft of ideas but passionately opposed to them, which struck me as a little odd for a doctor of philosophy. He did not see the need for them, any more than he saw the need for wrapping his feet in asbestos or wearing a tutu. I soon discovered that his role as a teacher was to relieve me of my ideas, as the role of a burglar is to rifle your bedroom. I would stagger into a supervision clutching a huge, unwieldy armful of them, and he would cut them briskly down to size, toss them dismissively to each side, and pack me off poor but honest.” To think of the dreary life of doing that to students year after year. I’ve long since lost contact with my Washington U. prof, but I hope he found a more honorable line of work.
• Medical doctors are under growing pressure to see more patients in less time, for less pay, and with more paperwork required. Nonetheless, the amount of charity work performed by physicians is on the increase. The number of charity hours per doctor per week rose from 6.6 to 8.8 between 1988 and 1999, according to a study done by the American Medical Association. The pro bono work takes various forms-in nursing homes, with sports teams, helping church groups, etc. Chiefly, it’s a matter of waiving or drastically reducing fees for patients who cannot pay and do not have insurance. (Not included in the hours counted is “bad debt” care, meaning when the doctor expected to be paid but wasn’t.) What does this have to do with religion, culture, and public life? I’ll think of something, but meanwhile thought you might welcome a bit of good news.
• It was a beautiful little brouhaha. A front-page story in the Times reported that the New York Board of Regents had been bowdlerizing literary excerpts on standardized tests, removing words that might be thought “insensitive.” You can’t be too careful when it comes to race, class, gender, religion, handicap, or lifestyle; somebody is sure to be offended. Writers such as Frank Conroy and Annie Dillard led the charge as Manhattan rose up in outrage against the censors in Albany. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal was only mildly amused. Those outraged by the state’s fiddling with their prose, he notes, are the very people who over the last three decades have imposed the stifling regime of political correctness. Huck Finn must go, but how dare you touch what I have written! Henninger writes: “The Regents’ goofy censorship is such a flyspeck compared to the larger ruin this movement has brought. Substituting ‘thin’ for ‘skinny’ and ‘heavy’ for ‘fat’ is merely the work of people whose minds work like almost everyone else’s now; we all carry in our heads an informal list of imagined verbal offenses. They don’t want teen testers to feel uncomfortable; we don’t want our dinner partners to feel uncomfortable. We don’t need censors; we do it to ourselves. Welcome to the East Germany of the soul.”
• We don’t want to pick on Tacoma, Washington. But a subscriber complains that the public library there does not carry FT. She thinks the citizens of that fair city are being unfairly deprived, and she is right. In Tacoma, Abilene, Braintree, and San Diego, the thing to do is to very politely point out this grave injustice. And please don’t forget college, university, and parish libraries as well. Thank you.
Sources: Adam Goodheart on travelers in Eastern Europe, New York Times Book Review, July 21, 2002.
While We’re At It: On the mandatum, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 14, 2002. Judith Shulevitz on Michel Houellebecq, New York Times Book Review, June 2, 2002. Philip Pullman on Christianity, World, June 22, 2002. Aestheticism in the liturgy, Adoremus, June 2002. Canadian national identity, Toronto Star, June 20, 2002. The story of Roe, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2, 2001. The battle for C. S. Lewis, Chronicles, July 20, 2001. Locrian Chamber Players’ neophilia, New York Times, June 11, 2002. On Fr. Mychal Judge, Culture and Family Institute, July 2, 2002. Amartya Sen on Samuel Huntington, New Republic, June 10, 2002. Austrians ordaining women, ZENIT, July 2, 2002. Mark Shields on Catholics in the electorate, ZENIT, July 24, 2002. Sherwin Nuland on euthanasia, New Republic, June 18, 2002. On “Dr. Greenway,” Times Literary Supplement, January 25, 2002. Pro bono doctors, American Medical News, June 17, 2002. New York Board of Regents’ bowdlerizing, Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2002.