J. Budziszewski’s article “The Second Tablet Project” (June/July) is the clearest, most cogent brief examination I have seen of the problem of doing ethics without God. I agree with him that any attempt to justify a system of ethics while denying its metaphysical basis is doomed to ultimate failure. And I agree that the best thing that the people who try to come up with ethics
without God can do is to start believing in God. But as I read Professor Budziszewski’s conclusion, I was disappointed to find that he stopped short of making any truly practical recommendations for Christians, Jews, and other religious believers who want to do something about the state of professional ethics in the modern world.
Perhaps it was not Prof. Budziszewski’s intention to provide guidelines for what believers should do, but to advise us what not to do: namely, to leave out the First Tablet (or more broadly, metaphysics in general) while trying to hang on to the Second. This may be possible in academic departments of government, political science, and philosophy, where a certain amount of discussion of religion is tolerated. But in the hard sciences and my own profession of engineering, the metaphysical naturalism that forms the basis of much scientific and technical education presents a tremendous barrier to the discussion of a metaphysical basis for science or engineering ethics.
An example will help to show the depth and scope of the problem. The book review editor of a publication connected with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recently asked me to review a new textbook on science and engineering ethics. (The IEEE is the largest professional organization of engineers in the world, with some 300,000 members worldwide.) The book was a surprisingly ill-considered brief for an old-style H. G. Wells-type of materialism in which, among other things, the author cursorily dismissed all metaphysics and argued forcefully for widespread human cloning as the next logical step in mankind’s (now self-driven) evolutionary progress.
If I had been reviewing the book for First Things or a similar publication in which discussion of religion is not out of bounds, I would have taken its author to task for his philosophically shoddy and narrow-minded approach to issues that vibrate with metaphysical resonances. But knowing about the readership of IEEE publications, I did not feel free to do much more than point out that large numbers of engineering students profess some sort of belief in God, and to attempt to turn them all into materialists before proceeding with ethics might be a tactical error.
According to Prof. Budziszewski’s criteria, was this an act of intellectual cowardice? Or was it a practical accommodation to circumstances in which I tried to do as much good as possible without violating the ground rules that govern discourse in my profession? The penalty for such violation is generally rejection of one’s review or manuscript. The dilemma is either to base one’s argument on clearly religious principles and face outright rejection and silencing, or to use such principles selectively, perhaps leaving them in the background while nevertheless making arguments that are consistent with them. And this dilemma is one that thousands of believers must deal with in a wide variety of professions, from engineering and the sciences to politics, medicine, and the law.
The issue is especially critical for believers who educate technical professionals, who in turn go on to develop such programs as the abominable human-pig crossing experiment that Prof. Budziszewski cites. I seriously doubt whether many of the individuals who work on those projects read First Things, but I can guarantee you that they hold advanced professional degrees from schools where the ethical dimensions of their profession should have been addressed in more than a cursory way. But the more I learn about the way ethics is typically taught in the various technical professions (if it is taught at all), the less surprised I am at the contributions to our modem chamber of horrors that the biomedical industry comes up with. There are a few signs here and there that some professionals are slowly realizing that things have gone too far, and are beginning to look around for better ways to teach ethics. Educators who are also believers should be prepared to fill that gap.
I once heard the philosopher J. P. Moreland address the question of how Christian academics can integrate their faith into their professional activities. One way, he said, was to focus one’s academic work on a field’s ethical or humanistic aspects. This is easier in some fields than in others. Engineers, in particular, tend to look for fail-safe, air-tight “solutions” to problems, whereas many situations in life simply do not admit of such solutions. Instead, one simply does as much as one can, when and where one can, and continually looks for opportunities (such as my book review) to present a point of view that is explicitly Christian (or religious) when possible, but at least implicitly so if the context of discourse does not permit a forthright appeal to religion. If Prof. Budziszewski believes my approach is just the Second Tablet Project in disguise, I am sorry. But perhaps it will provoke him to write another article in which he will advise believers what to do, as well as what not to do.
Karl D. Stephan
Southwest Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas
J. Budziszewski replies:
Thank Professor Stephan for his thoughtful letter. He considers antitheism a straitjacket, and I agree. He thinks that it ought to be challenged, and so do I. He supposes it more entrenched in fields like his than in fields like mine. I wouldn’t say that. Not as many of the people on my side of the tracks think that only the physical is real; then again, not as many of the people on his side think that reality isn’t real in the first place. Still, his question is right on the mark: How can believing scholars challenge the antitheism of the disciplines? Although this question is too big to answer in less than another article, perhaps I can tackle his hypothetical case.
A professional journal asks a man of faith to review an H. G. Wells-style textbook of engineering ethics. The book is a materialist hatchet job that disses God, pushes materialism, and plumps for the abolition of man. The reviewer would like to take the author to task for his shoddy arguments, but the journal discourages discussion of religion. He is in a tight spot. What can he say?
Quite a bit, I think. The journal may discourage discussion of religion, but the textbook itself discusses religion. To diss is to discuss. The journal’s readers may not be interested in metaphysics, but the textbook itself discusses metaphysics. “Matter is all there is” is a metaphysical commitment. A good opening wedge is to point these things out. Besides, we never know what people will find interesting until we try them.
Tautologies say nothing new, but they remind us of things we know already.
In that spirit I suggest a starting point. The only way to challenge the antitheism
of the disciplines is to challenge it.
I object to Richard John Neuhaus’ characterization of Bernard Cardinal Law in “Scandal Time Continued” (Public Square, June/July) as “more part of the problem than of the solution.” This is a very inaccurate statement that reflects the secular media’s position rather than objective reality.
The main question concerning both critics and supporters of Cardinal Law is whether he is capable of leading the Archdiocese of Boston through this current crisis. The Cardinal was open to submitting his resignation in mid-April, but Pope John Paul II refused it and urged the Cardinal to clean up the mess. I suspect that the Pope’s judgment is far more trustworthy than that of the press.
One case in particular that has not been reported is the 1993 case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in which the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church caught the parochial vicar in the act of raping a twelve-year-old boy. The pastor immediately reported the incident to Cardinal Law, who advised the pastor to report it immediately to the police. The pastor did so and of course it was covered by the press. Everything was done in exactly the manner in which the press is now calling on the Church to handle these cases. Unfortunately, the end result wasn’t as neat as many would like. The parochial vicar was very popular in the parish, and the parents of the twelve-year-old refused to let the boy testify. The parochial vicar was acquitted in the criminal case, and the pastor became so unpopular in the parish that it was necessary to transfer him. The Cardinal, however, eventually laicized the parochial vicar, despite the acquittal in court. That doesn’t sound like the action of a man who is callously indifferent to the suffering of his flock.
I truly believe that Cardinal Law is very serious about addressing this issue as a real problem and not just as a public relations fiasco. I believe that the Cardinal will be successful in leading us out of this mess, and that when it is all over the Church will be much stronger for it.
Daniel R. Guilderson
Richard John Neuhaus says that Protestants have just as many clergy sexual scandals as do Catholics. I haven’t been able to find any reliable figures on the matter myself, but I have no doubt that his claim is accurate. Father Neuhaus suggests that the Catholic scandals get so much more media attention because of anti-Catholic prejudice and because the Catholic Church is much bigger and more visible than any Protestant group.
But the biggest reason for the discrepancy is that the Protestant scandals lack the element of a closely knit hierarchy committed to covering up the scandals and protecting the perpetrators at all costs. Cardinal Law is at the epicenter of the situation not because anyone has accused him of inappropriate acts with children, but because of his attempts to provide cover (and more opportunity) to those who he knew were committing such acts. It appears to this outsider (and to many Catholics) that Cardinal Law’s behavior has been the rule among bishops, and not the exception. Hence the attention.
I am happy to commend Richard John Neuhaus for recognizing that the sexual scandal in the Church is about homosexuality and not pedophilia.
However, I cannot commend his claim that the problem is not mandatory celibacy. Celibacy, as everyone knows but not everyone will admit, encourages many of the wrong people to enter the priesthood. Catholics have always been suspicious of celibate men, believing them either secretly lustful heterosexuals or secret homosexuals. A married priesthood would not guarantee virtue, but it would greatly lessen the likelihood of gay rape and molestation of teenage boys. I wish that Catholic priests would finallª tell it like it is. The laity has long since given up its ghetto mentality where everything traditionally Catholic had to be defended against the enemies of the faith.
Professor Emeritus of History
University of California at Riverside
Thank you for Richard John Neuhaus’ essay on the Catholic Church scandals. It is rare to find conservative-leaning commentary on matters of sexuality, especially homosexuality, that is not a grotesque caricature of moral reasoning. While I disagree with many of Father Neuhaus’ views, I’m grateful that his position is (mostly) carefully reasoned and comes from deep spiritual conviction.
I agree with Fr. Neuhaus about the bishops’ dereliction of duty, and I mostly agree with him about fidelity being at the root of the scandal. But we disagree on the nature of fidelity. I would maintain that a body of the faithful without the freedom to dissent against, and to disobey, flawed moral teaching is a body without the freedom to be faithful. I consider the traditional church teaching on homosexuality to be flawed in a way that demands a response.
One flaw among many is that this teaching breeds among heterosexuals misunderstanding and false compassion toward homosexuals. This is bad enough in personal relationships, but it has also led to a whole host of theories about the current crisis that don’t take into account crucial realities about the gay community.
The “lavender mafia,” for instance: anyone who has spent much time in the gay community is familiar with the mix of irreverence and rebelliousness that seems to characterize this clerical cadre. It’s a constant in gay culture, going back at least a century.
These qualities come in part from anger about the negative messages about gays we hear all around us. We survive by mocking the conventional wisdom that would enslave us and by seeing how much we can get away with. The image of priests openly dishing with each other about who’s the cutest novice, while a serious breach of faith and trust, is a reflection of this element of gay culture.
We gay people understand that we have our enemies, who do not disguise their hatred; our friends, who understand and love us as we are and are concerned for our well-being; and false friends, whose superficial “respect” and “love” masks a deeper contempt. These false friends don’t understand our history. They don’t understand the wounds we have suffered over the millennia, and how those wounds have shaped the beautiful—flawed, but beautiful—community that we are today. They are so busy looking for evidence of our sinfulness that they don’t see the extraordinary creativity, compassion, and joy in life of which we are capable. At best, they see these, our charismata, as being irredeemably tainted by our sexuality.
If Fr. Neuhaus’ article accurately reflects his views on homosexuality, then he is one of these false friends. He repeatedly invokes “virility” as a characteristic of an ideal candidate for the priesthood, which in context is a none-too-veiled rehearsal of the cliché that gay men lack masculine power. (Further, the fact that the word connotes the ability to procreate makes it a strange choice of terms for a celibate caste.) Fr. Neuhaus also comments with disgust on the “pornograph[ic]” nature of the gay press, without noting that heterosexual advertising is often no better. Throughout, his view of gay people lacks charity. He finds and emphasizes our worst while overlooking our best, and by example encourages others to do the same.
Is this what Fr. Neuhaus means by “loving the sinner”? Most of the time, when Christians say they hate the “sin of homosexuality” but love the sinners, their actions show that they hate the sin and condescend to the sinners. That is not the love that Christ taught.
It is true that much is not right in the gay community. We have a lot of growing up to do. We need criticism whose intent is to help us grow. We do not need simply to be told how much worse gay people are than straight. Such criticism reinforces the critic’s sense of moral superiority without embodying the grace of Christ. We know when someone’s criticism of us is self-serving. We are not fooled.
Gay priests, bishops, and abbots are not fooled by Rome’s failure to trust the depth of their spirituality as gay men. They are right to be disappointed, even angry, about it. If the Church is the Holy Mother, then I must ask what kind of mother tells some of her children that their very presence is suspect?
Where gay clergy are not right is to act out their frustration by sabotaging the system. Acting out, while understandable, is the antithesis of deep spiritual practice and compromises their ability to be spiritual leaders. If clergy are not being taught to approach their feelings in a way that moves beyond the desire to act out, then this is part of the problem.
The “lavender mafia” represents, in part, a backlash against the idea that sexuality is an enemy to be conquered. As with many backlashes, it swings too far in the other direction. Rome can help to restore the balance by understanding sexuality not merely as a procreative force, but as a wellspring of creative energy that can be channeled through contemplation. This will create ministers who are celibate and whole, and help put to rest the idea that celibacy is an unnatural, dangerous state.
Rome does not need to change its stance on homosexuality to do this (although I still think it should). A broadening of perspective will suffice. I wish I could hope to see it in my lifetime. In the meantime, gay and straight people whose lives don’t fit Rome’s acceptable model will continue to have beautiful, nourishing contact with the Divine, with or without the Vatican’s acknowledgment. This is what gives me hope.
H. James Harkins
Durham, North Carolina
I welcome what I take to be Dr. Harkins’ agreement with the Church’s rule of “perfect and perpetual continence,” also for priests who experience same-sex desires. His use of “gay people” and “gay community” is, in my judgment, highly problematic. My own view on these questions, which I am persuaded is neither condescending nor uncharitable, is that of the Ramsey Colloquium—composed of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish theologians and ethicists—set forth in the statement, “The Homosexual Movement” (FT, March 1994).
Richard John Neuhaus’ observations in While We’re At It (June/July) that the real battle over “the naked public square” is not the display there of “various public symbols, often of a vestigial nature,” but “the exclusion of religion and religiously grounded arguments” could not be more pertinent. This is precisely the point brought home to us by the latest Ninth Circuit Court holding striking down as unconstitutional the “under God” section of the Pledge of Allegiance.
While kooky, the decision of the Ninth Circuit panel actually is totally in line with some of the main strands of our Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The Ninth Circuit judges bottomed their reasoning squarely on the Supreme Court’s “no endorsement of religion test” (as well as the “no coercion” and “no religious purpose and effect” test) which, in the words of its creator Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, reasons thus: “What is crucial is that a government practice not have the effect of communicating a message of government endorsement or disapproval of religion.”
But this test, when rigorously and consistently applied, eradicates religion from the public square. What, for instance, happens to Christmas crèches and legislative prayers? Justice O’Connor thought these were fine as long as they were sufficiently sanitized of any serious religion, writing: “Practices such as legislative prayers or opening Court sessions with ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ serve the secular purpose of ‘solemnizing public occasions’ and expressing confidence in the future—‘examples of ceremonial deism.’” To make perfectly clear what he meant by “ceremonial deism,” Justice William Brennan, the first one to use this awful phrase, explained back in 1984: “I would suggest that such practices as the designation of ‘In God We Trust’ as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance . . . can best be understood, in [Eugene] Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form of ‘ceremonial deism,’ protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
In other words, to the degree that prayer is not really prayer, and that these religious utterances are empty of vital religious significance (serving, in Father Neuhaus’ words, merely as “public symbols . . . of a vestigial nature”), they are constitutional. That is the position of the United States Supreme Court, and that is why the Ninth Circuit panel ruled as it did.
If this non-endorsement test continues in its development, it cannot be too long before presidential proclamations of days of prayer are struck down, especially if the President, in proclaiming them, indicates that prayer serves a purpose beyond sanctimonious solemnizing.
Of course, the non-endorsement rationale and test fits only awkwardly, if at all, with other tests the Court occasionally uses, tests such as the “historical precedent” test or the “accommodation test.” This is precisely why our Establishment Clause jurisprudence is in such confusion, and it is precisely why one is not surprised to see kooky decisions made by such extremely bright people as those who sit on the Ninth Circuit.
Paul M. Miller
I agree with approximately 96 percent of what I read in First Things. However, I must take issue with Richard John Neuhaus’ item (While We’re At It, May) regarding the twenty-one-year-old drinking age. I do so based on personal experience. I graduated from high school in 1975, when in Massachusetts the drinking age was eighteen, based partly on the argument advanced
by Father Neuhaus that “if they’re old enough to defend our country . . . they’re old enough to drink responsibly.” Those words resound in AA meeting halls around the country. I’m not a prohibitionist, and I like to take a drink once in a while. But from my current pastoral observation, our high-school-aged youths drink a lot less than my generation. Yes, many flout the law, but many don’t, and the country is better off for it, just as we would be better off if abortion were illegal, even while knowing in advance that some would violate such a statute.
(The Rev.) Joseph M. Hennessey
Blessed Sacrament Parish