It is hard to know precisely where we are in the unfolding of the Long Lent of 2002. Elsewhere in this section, I have a comment on Peter Steinfels’ evaluation of media misdoings, and what he thinks about the “reform” agendas that are hitching a ride on the scandals. As of this writing, the whole thing has been off most of the front pages for several months, and some readers say we should be grateful for that and just give the scandals a rest for a while. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m inclined to agree. There is little pleasure in writing about these matters. But now there is the official response from Rome to the “charter” and “norms” adopted by the U.S. bishops at Dallas last June. And then there is the November meeting of the bishops in solemn assembly, where I am told the proposal for a plenary council, which I discussed in the last issue, is likely to get short shrift. (Short shrift : barely time for confession before dispatching the condemned.)
Back in April, when he met with the U.S. cardinals and some bishops, the Pope said that out of this unspeakable mess must come “a holier episcopate, a holier priesthood, a holier Church.” Has that happened? Eight months is a short time, and holiness is usually a slow growth. One gets the impression that there is, all in all, a humbler episcopate, along with a priesthood of greater sobriety, mixed with disillusionment and a measure of anger. As for the faithful who are the Church, they continue to be faithful, more or less. In October I spoke to a large group of Catholics and mentioned in passing “the recent scandals.” There were quizzical looks on a number of faces, and it apparently took a few seconds to make the connection. So ephemeral are the media storms that only a few months earlier created the sense of foundation-shaking crisis. One might at times almost think that we had, as they say, put it all behind us. That is, although not devoid of attractions, a delusion. I expect we will be sorting out the long-term consequences of the Long Lent of 2002 for a long time to come.
Priests—guilty and innocent alike—continue to be dismissed, put on “administrative leave,” and subjected to public humiliation under the rule of the mantras of “zero tolerance” and “one strike and you’re out.” Bishops continue to boast of how much they have learned and how tough they now are as they punish others for their own sins in failing to govern their churches. Not all bishops, to be sure, but too many. I am not unaware that there are bishops—and not only bishops—who think I have been too hard on them. One cannot help but sympathize with men who felt themselves to be between a rock and a hard place at Dallas, and that helps to explain the panicked reaction in approving practices about which many had profound misgivings. But a panicked reaction it was. I also confess to a certain uneasiness that some bishops who have welcomed my critique of Dallas do not themselves have a conspicuous record of upholding what the Pope called “total commitment” to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. There is probably not much to be done about the ways in which this analysis of Dallas and its consequences can be used and misused.
Some bishops—perhaps most—have not, but others have broken understandings of strictest confidentiality and publicly released the names of priests, even of those who are now dead but against whom accusations were once made. Not proved, not investigated and found probable”just made. By somebody, often unnamed. The public has a right to know, don’t you know. And there are bishops who have a need to preen in their newly discovered virtue of “transparency.” The priests, being dead, raise no objections. Their families were so proud of them, their parishioners so loved them. Now, by courtesy of their bishop, they learn from the newspapers that their pride and their love were misplaced.
Here in New York and across the country, priests who still have the good fortune of being alive are raising objections. Some who are organizing and protesting have a long track record of fighting authority, and will use any occasion to take bishops down a notch or two. But most of them are faithful and orthodox priests who sense that something fundamental is happening”in the relationship between priests and bishops, and maybe in the self-understanding of the Church. They are being forced to wonder what was meant by all that solemn language when they were ordained. For instance, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Then they folded their hands in the hands of the bishop and swore to obey him. And the bishop swore that he would be a father to them, and support them in their ministries through every trial. Or did he? Now, it seems, there were hidden clauses. “Except if you become a public embarrassment to me.” “Except if the media heat makes it expedient for me to repudiate you.” It is expedient that one man, or a dozen, should be sacrificed for the public image of the episcopal office (see John 11:50).
One hears frequent reference to the bishop who, in order to avoid a financial settlement, disclaimed responsibility for his priests, asserting that they are “independent contractors.” From being “another Christ” ( alter Christus ) to being an independent contractor is quite a fall. At ordination the language is redolent of the covenantal; now it is riddled with the contractual. A contract is, when all is said and done, just a deal. And to many priests it looks less and less like a good deal. Do not misunderstand: I am not talking about priests who by heinous acts have radically deformed the form of the priesthood of Christ. Nor about priests who pose a credible threat to children and therefore, as the Pope said in April, have no place whatsoever in the priesthood. I am talking about priests who, under intense media pressure, become an embarrassment, who are deemed personally expendable when it is institutionally expedient.
The press wanted to know why a bishop in the West did not include a certain name on his list of those to be publicly shamed. The bishop explained that, at the time of the incident, the woman involved with the priest was of age, “So we didn’t think it was a problem.” It was not a problem that the priest had violated his sacred vows of fidelity to the Church’s teaching and of perfect and perpetual continence. What the bishop apparently meant to say is that, according to the rules established by the media, it was not supposed to be an embarrassment. A bishop who is praised by the press for being very “forthcoming” in destroying the reputations of priests—also of priests long dead—has in his diocese theologians who seem to deny what the Church teaches about the divinity of Jesus, agitate for the ordination of women, and openly repudiate doctrines solemnly defined. He has priests who creatively revise the canon of the Mass, others who are known to cruise gay bars, and yet others who have women on the side. None of these, it appears, is a “problem.” The media are not after them. Indeed, theological dissenters and “nontraditional” liturgical practices are celebrated by the media. As are “gay-friendly” bishops who extend their tolerance to heterosexuals who cannot live with the supposedly oppressive and antiquated rule of celibacy.
It is not only the relationship between priests and bishops that seems to be changing with unforeseen, but potentially momentous, consequences. Amidst the static of conflicting messages, one picks up signals suggesting a changed understanding of what it means to be the Church. Consider a small instance of possibly large significance. Who would have thought that the New York Times would have occasion to take note of Father Maurice Grammond of Portland, Oregon? He may turn out to be a synecdoche of changes worked by these troubled times. We are told that he spent his ministry in “a handful of rural parish assignments, where he is remembered as aloof and cranky.” That a priest on the other side of the country was aloof and cranky would hardly seem to warrant a half”page story in the Times . No, beginning with lawsuits in 1999, Fr. Grammond was publicly accused of having had a habit of groping boys during a period from the 1950s into the early 1980s. That too, regrettably, would no longer seem to be a national story.
Then, at age eighty-two, Fr. Grammond died. He had been ordained fifty-two years, retired fourteen years, and eleven years ago he was suspended from the priesthood. He died in a home for people with Alzheimer’s. Before his dementia and before accusations became public, he made a will asking for a funeral Mass in Portland’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where he had said his first Mass, and for burial in the section for priests in Mount Calvary cemetery. He received neither. He was not excommunicate. He participated in the sacraments, and received the Last Rites before he died. He therefore was, as Catholic doctrine would have it, a repentant and forgiven sinner. A funeral Mass for a priest is usually in the cathedral, with the bishop presiding. That is a particular sign of honor, and it is understandable that it was denied to one who had so disgraced himself and the priesthood, and had so betrayed those committed to his charge. (I am assuming for present purposes, although I do not know, that he was guilty as charged.)
Fr. Grammond’s sister asked that her brother receive a Christian burial from St. Ignatius. “Some of the people Fr. Grammond had abused are still parishioners here,” explained the pastor. “I made the call that this would be so harmful to those who are still living. I don’t feel great about my response. I’m confused in this whole thing. If any compassion is shown to the priest, does that mean you’re insensitive to the victims? In this climate, I think you are.” The sister, in disgust, had the body cremated and buried the ashes at the grave of his parents. She did not want vandals to find him, so there is no stone for Fr. Grammond. Forty-one years of priesthood, however marred by sins grave and venial, and there is nothing. Except his name in the newspaper and the observation that he was aloof and cranky. In those rural parishes where he undoubtedly presided at hundreds of baptisms and marriages, where he counseled the anguished and comforted the grieving, where he thousands of times brought heaven to earth in the Real Presence, was there no one to say a good word on behalf of Fr. Grammond? Was there not bishop or priest with the wit to seize the occasion for speaking hard and healing words about sin and grace? No, he is beyond the pale. He is an embarrassment. He is not one of ours. He is a sinner. Furtively, on the side so to speak, we slipped him absolution and mumbled words about angels greeting him on the far side of Jordan. Let the angels have him. To us, he was nothing. Fr. Maurice Grammond? We never knew him.
The pastor is right to feel uneasy about his decision, and there is no doubt about his being confused. What is this sentimental drivel about “compassion” and “sensitivity”? This is not about feelings and public relations. This is about the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is about a sinner forgiven, a lost sheep found, a prodigal returned. It is about the radical dependence of all of us on the mercy of God. At least that is what the Church teaches and the sacraments effect” ex opere operato , as it used to be said. That is how it used to be, but then there is, as the pastor says, the present climate. “The present climate made me do it.” That, in effect, is what the bishops said at Dallas, and it is no surprise that the excuse is invoked by others. It is for the good of the institution. It may not be right, but it is expedient.
I have been asked more than once, “So what should we have done at Dallas?” Since I have made bold, although I hope with due deference, to criticize what the bishops did do, I suppose I should have a response to that question. I do not have a detailed answer as to what the bishops should or could have done, but I am convinced that they should not have done what they did, which was to submit to a script of staged self-denigration written by the media and public relations experts, from which they emerged as born-again tough guys sworn to expiate their failures of oversight by the peremptory punishment of priests, guilty or innocent, who might embarrass them. Positively, they should have acted as bishops, as men charged, above all, with the responsibility of teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ as it pertains to human sinfulness—including their own sins of omission and commission—the grace of forgiveness, and the call to holiness. In that April meeting, the Pope spoke of fidelity to the Church’s teaching, of the call to holiness, and of life-transforming grace. These items were not on the agenda at Dallas, and have not been conspicuous in many episcopal statements since Dallas. The sole concern, it is said again and again, is to protect the children. And to be perceived to be protecting the children.
Of course it is imperative to protect the children. But the necessarily scrupulous attention to that imperative neither justifies nor requires what some bishops are doing. It neither requires nor justifies destroying reputations, also of the defenseless dead. It neither requires nor justifies depriving people, without due process, of what they and the Church declared to be a vocation from God. It neither requires nor justifies denying that Maurice Grammond is our brother in Christ. Few are sinners as notorious as he, but notoriety is not the measure of the fault for which we plead and, by the grace of God, receive forgiveness. When the Church begins to distance herself from sinners, she becomes something less than the Church of Christ. She begins to mirror the self-righteousness of many of her critics. I expect the pastor is right in thinking that some might have been offended by our acknowledging Fr. Grammond as one of our own. But we have no choice in the matter. We cannot disown him, for Christ has claimed him as his own. At least that is what the Church”and, we believe, Christ”said when, through the ministry of another unworthy priest, the words of forgiveness were spoken.
On October 18, Rome officially responded to the work of Dallas. The Holy See did not give the approval ( recognitio ) that the U.S. bishops conference wanted, saying that the “norms” and “charter” of Dallas “contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church.” The evident concerns in Rome are those that have received extended comment in these pages, including the impossibly elastic definition of sexual abuse adopted by Dallas, and the bishops’ abdication of leadership by establishing a national review board that raises fundamental questions about the apostolic governance of the Church. Neither Rome nor the U.S. conference has explicitly addressed the disciplining of bishops who are responsible for the scandals that occasioned the current crisis. The conference indirectly addressed that issue by making Governor Frank Keating and his board, in cooperation with the media, the “enforcers” of the Dallas policy. Episkopos means overseer, and the question is, Who will oversee the overseers? Traditionally, Rome claims that responsibility, although many believe that in recent years it has not been effectively exercised. The national conference has sometimes vied with Rome for that and other roles, but the grave missteps at Dallas, joined to the scandals that occasioned the crisis in the first place, have dealt a severe setback to the claim that the American bishops are capable of governing themselves.
The oversight of the overseers and other questions will now be addressed by a “mixed commission” of four U.S. bishops and four representatives of the pertinent departments of the Curia (called congregations or dicasteries), which will presumably come up with resolutions in time for the November meeting of the national conference. The response of the Holy See is, I believe, both necessary and hopeful. It should be possible to devise policies that, unlike those of Dallas, are not incompatible with either justice or love. Such policies will not be incompatible with bishops being shepherds who protect the flock from preying wolves, and also fathers to priests whom they hold to the course of fidelity. They will not be incompatible with the saving truth that the Church is a community of forgiven sinners called to be, but typically failing to be, saints. In short, such policies should not be incompatible with bishops daring to depart from the script in order to give clear witness to a gospel that, by worldly standards, is something of an embarrassment. St. Paul called it a scandal. And the greatest scandal is to turn it into something other than that.
“Here we go again. The December war of religion is among our most cherished traditions. Somebody is always angry or hurt over something.” That’s from a last December column by John Leo, but get ready: here we go again. Last year’s campaign for the utterly naked public square was notably virulent. It is no longer over crèches or signs explicitly mentioning Christmas. Under attack now is any display of Santa Claus, Rudolph, Christmas trees, poinsettias, holiday lights, and even the colors red and green—all of which are condemned for being “religious,” and the very worst kind of religion, meaning Christian.
Leo again: “The word ‘inclusion’ comes up all the time as a term used by those who wish to obliterate rather than include. This is certainly so in Plainfield, Ill., where elementary school principal Sandy Niemiera made a startling announcement: because of diversity concerns, students will no longer be allowed to celebrate any holidays at all. So goodbye Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving as well as Christmas and Hanukkah, because the school needs to ‘respect each individual’s uniqueness but also to help us look for and celebrate those things we have in common.’ What the students will have in common, of course, is a sterile, tradition-free public environment. And the school-induced sense that religion and ritual are inherently dangerous.
“In plain English, the term ‘inclusion’ has come to mean ‘exclusion.’ In New York’s Central Park, we have a Christian nativity scene, a Jewish menorah, and a Muslim star and crescent, all privately paid for and displayed on public property. That’s inclusion. Banning all signs of religion from schools and public property (neither of which is called for by the Constitution or the Supreme Court) is exclusion posturing as inclusiveness. There’s another new wrinkle in inclusiveness ideology. Call it the sensitive person’s veto. Last year, the city of Eugene, Ore., barred Christmas trees from public property, then backed down a bit and allowed firefighters to put up a tree on Christmas Eve and Christmas. But the city manager said that if one person objects, the tree must come down. This allows the most sensitive person in town to set policy. Kensington, Md., banned Santa Claus from this year’s tree-lighting ceremony because of two complaints.
“The sensitive person’s veto was born in the antismoking campaign and spread to other fields. Now it’s showing up in the wars over Christmas and Hanukkah. Those who want to keep those traditions alive in the public square had better push back. The sensitive person’s veto requires only one vote to topple any norm. And that vote will always be easy to find.”
The Right to be Different
Pushing back has nothing to do with “insensitivity” and everything to do with devotion to a free and democratic society. Majority rule, with protections for minorities, is not the whole of democracy, but it is at the heart of democracy. Minorities do not have a constitutional right to be protected from public expressions that remind them that they are in the minority. To be different from the majority does not mean one is, as it is commonly put, a second-class citizen. On the contrary, it is precisely as a first-class citizen that one has a right to be different. What one does not have the right to do is to force others to deny that there is a difference between the majority and the minority.
A complicating factor, of course, is that the most assertive minority when it comes to opposing the public celebration of Christmas is, more often than not, Jewish. Christians are, with very good reason, painfully sensitive on this score. The late Jakob J. Petuchowski of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati wrote wisely about “A Rabbi’s Christmas” (FT, December 1991). He was nothing if not Jewish, and he relished the carols, festivities, and pageantry of Christmas. He never missed watching on television the papal Midnight Mass from Rome. “Still all of that is a matter of mere externals,” he wrote. “What really intrigues [me] is the fact that millions of [my] non-Jewish fellow human beings are celebrating the birthday of a Jewish child. And they are doing so by extolling the values of peace and good will. All the more misplaced . . . are the efforts by some supposedly Jewish organizations to arouse, through their battles against Christmas symbols in public places, the ill will and resentment of Christians—at the very time when the Christian religion, more than at other times of the year, inspires its followers with irenic and philanthropic sentiments.”
Rabbi Petuchowski notes that it is the Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who may have the most bitter memories of living in a “Christian society.” But they are not the ones leading the charge against the public observance of Christmas. “In other words, what we are really dealing with in this annual battle against public Christian observance is not so much a ‘Jewish’ attack on that observance as it is a secularist one”with some of the prominent secularists identifying themselves as Jews. They are the same people who fight nondenominational prayers in public schools, the use of public school facilities for meetings of high school religious-interest groups, and state support of private schools. They fight with equal vigor the attempts by other Jewish groups to have Jewish religious symbols exhibited alongside the Christian ones, such as the efforts of the Chabad (Lubavitch) group of Orthodox Jews to place a Hanukkah candelabrum on the public square when a Christmas tree is put there, which would be a fitting demonstration of America’s religious pluralism. They are, in other words, not singling out Christianity. They are against the public manifestation of religion per se”even (or perhaps particularly) against the public manifestation of the religion of their own ancestors.”
The naked public square, Petuchowski observed, is not good for Jews or anyone else. Jews should recognize in the Christian observance of Christmas “one of the factors that help maintain the religious character of our society—in which Jews, too, with their own beliefs and practices, and with their very lives, have a considerable stake.” He concludes: “That is why this writer will continue to wish his Christian friends a ‘Merry Christmas’ at Yuletide, and rejoice in the fact that those friends join the angelic choir in proclaiming glory to God in the highest, and peace among humankind on earth. He will most certainly not object at all to the public display of his friends’ symbols of religious faith. Indeed, he will continue to be moved by awe and wonder that, through the influence of one of his own remote cousins, some of the words of Judaism’s Torah have spread to the far corners of the earth.”
It is objected that the distinction between “them” and “us” is a threat to social cohesion. The distinction between Jews and Christians is but one of many important distinctions. Among Americans there are, in fact, many distinctions, that are differences of greater or lesser degree, between “us” and “them”—economic, racial, educational, political, cultural, religious. Such distinctions and differences are cross-cutting, sometimes putting one with “us” and sometimes with “them.” For the umpteenth time it needs to be said that it is a pseudo-pluralism that requires us to pretend that significant differences make no difference. Genuine pluralism is living with our differences, especially our deepest differences, within the bond of civility. When e pluribus unum is misconstrued to deny the pluribus , it is the end of pluralism. Both those in the minority and those in the majority should push back against those who would impose a naked public square. Push back, not because it is your right (although it is that, too) but because it is your democratic duty. The denial of cultural expression, which almost inevitably includes religious expression, in public is the death of democracy. That is true for Central Park, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Salt Lake City, Louisville, or anywhere else in the—if I may borrow a phrase—gorgeous mosaic that is America. Do your democratic duty. Push back.
What Should Pius XII Have Done?
“During the discussion about the possible beatification/canonization of Pope Pius XII the major critique of Pius has been his failure to speak out against the Nazi Holocaust with sufficient specificity. He did issue brief generic condemnations, but no specific condemnations. An example of a generic condemnation would be: one cannot deprive persons or peoples of property and life because of race and religion. A specific condemnation might read: we condemn the Nazi mass gassing of Jews at Auschwitz.”
That’s the opening paragraph of an article that throws new light, as unlikely as that may seem, on the dispute over Pius XII and the Holocaust. The article is by Father Kilian McDonnell and was published in Rome in the journal Gregorianum (vol. 83, no. 2, 2002). The rule that a pope should only issue “generic condemnations,” stating the moral principles and leaving specific application to others, goes back way before Pius XII. McDonnell details instances such as the Turkish atrocities against Armenians, the Italian aggression against Abyssinia, and offers particularly interesting insights into the way the Vatican, contrary to the conventional witness, was assiduously neutral between Franco and the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. All the instances are heartbreaking, especially Pius XII’s restraint as the Nazis were brutally crushing the Church in Poland.
Pius could be bold, as in 1939 when he had been pope only a few months and against the adamant counsel of all his advisors, he risked Vatican neutrality by alerting the British to the plan of the German generals to overthrow Hitler. In that case and a few others when the Holy See bent its rule of limiting itself to generic condemnations, the reason was always that the pope hoped to play a part in brokering a peace between nations. As McDonnell also notes, in some instances, including that of Jews during the Nazi era, Vatican reticence was supported by some of the victim groups who feared that more specific condemnations would provoke even greater horrors.
Prophecy and Communion
McDonnell’s purpose is not to “excuse” what Pius XII did or did not do, but to try to understand. He writes: “Pius XII was fully convinced that, given the actual conditions of the war, he had denounced all of the Nazi war crimes in these generic condemnations, while at the same time remaining technically neutral. Precisely because he was neutral and condemned in generic terms what was worthy of reprobation, applicable to both sides, he did not expose Catholics and Jews under German dominion to danger. He thus left open the possibility of providing a climate in which either side might approach him to act as a mediator, thus bringing the war to an end.
“Prophecy is a function of the Church, and it should be manifest in all its members, including the pope. But not in the same way in all. The papal Petrine ministry embraces both charismatic/prophetic and institutional roles.
“As the successor of Peter, Pius XII had the special function of maintaining the unity of the Church, keeping the Church together. His role in the prophetic function was to see that there was a climate in the Church for exercising charismatic freedom and challenge, welcoming and encouraging prophetic protest. Pius XII did welcome prophetic protest in encouraging local bishops in Germany to speak out. He preferred the prophetic advice of Bishop Conrad von Presying to that of the Nuncio to Germany, Cesare Orsenigo, because the latter was too accommodating to the Nazis. Given his concern in a period of great danger to protect both Catholic worship and the Jewish population, Pius in his public acts inclined more to prudence than to prophecy. But if he might end the war (apprising England of the German general’s plot), he acted boldly and prophetically.
“If it is true that the place of a true prophet during these years was on the road to Auschwitz, did that prophet have the right to utter a specific public condemnation of specific atrocities, thus causing Catholics and Jews, who looked to him for help, to walk before him into the gas chambers? Some would say, ‘yes,’ the pope, by reason of his office, should be prophetic also in this case, whoever’s blood is spilled.
“The restriction to generic condemnations is apparently still a papal policy. Pope John Paul II admonished Archbishop Oscar Romero with regard to the brutalities in El Salvador to have ‘courage and boldness,’ but cautioned him to maintain unity with the bishops, and not to condemn specific atrocities, lest he be mistaken in details. Rather he should announce general principles. In a word, balance prophecy with prudence. Romero was not in total accord with this policy.”
Returning to World War II, McDonnell says it is hard not to envy the freedom of religious leaders such as William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Willem Visser’t Hooft, who would later head the World Council of Churches, to speak out forcefully and in very specific terms. “But,” he observes, “neither Temple nor Visser’t Hooft had the kind of direct international jurisdiction over local churches which the Pope possessed, with all the risk entailed.” What we do know beyond doubt, because they said so again and again, is that Hitler and his regime had no doubt that the Pope’s “generic” statements applied very specifically to them. The public statements of Pius XII reflect the ambiguous burden that comes with being an institution that is Catholic, as in “universal.” What should, what could, the papacy have done in response to the victimization of the Armenians, the Abyssinians, the Catholics of Spain, the Poles, the Jews? Presumably Pius and his predecessors now know and, God willing, we will one day know. No doubt they intended to do the right thing, and we should be more than open to the possibility that they did it. Fr. McDonnell helps us to think about these questions within the larger historical context of the papacy’s self-understanding as universal pastor, moral teacher, and peacemaker among the nations.
The Soul of Steven Pinker
It is not entirely a straw man that he is attacking. For a long time now, especially among educators, there has, in fact, been an influential school of thought at war with the very idea of human nature. Everything is determined by nurture, environment, and social conditioning, they say. Then there is the reaction launched by Edward O. Wilson with his 1975 book Sociobiology , arguing along with such as Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene , that nature is trump. Pushed out of the argument because it is so impossibly incorrect is The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that IQ and other factors crucial to social success are genetically determined and are unequally distributed among racial groups. But the opponents of natural determinism lump Wilson, Dawkins, and Herrnstein and Murray together as the enemies of equality and the commitment to make the world a much better place by the achievement of social justice.
Now comes along Steven Pinker, a psychologist of language at M.I.T., with a new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking). Pinker is telegenic and articulate-some say facile—and Maclean’s , the magazine of Canadian identity, describes him as “endearingly Canadian; polite, soft-spoken, attentive to what others say.” Pinker, who comes down on the side of Wilson and Co., says, quite rightly, that proponents of the blank slate approach are sometimes prone to implicitly totalitarian plans of social engineering aimed at imposing equality. Equality, he says, is a moral and political idea, not a scientific reality, and again he is right about that. Human beings, and especially human minds, are not equal; they come with innate, genetically formed abilities and behavioral tendencies. The conclusion drawn by Professor Pinker is that a child’s life is shaped by natural endowments (genes), family experience, peer groups, and chance happenings. That seems a rather modest payoff for so much ratiocination and scientific huffing and puffing.
What all the major parties to this academic contest have in common is that they are thoroughgoing materialists. Prof. Pinker, for instance, may be “polite, soft-spoken, and attentive to what others say,” except when it comes to others—from Plato to Aquinas and from Kierkegaard to Polanyi—who think that human beings are more than matter. The suggestion of anything beyond the reach of his neuroscience”the soul, for instance”is derisively dismissed as the myth of “the Ghost in the machine,” a myth abandoned by all but “the religious right.” It is, in fact, such dogmatic and vulgar materialism that requires a blind leap of faith. Both the blank slatists and the nature determinists typically assume that those unwilling to make that leap are beyond the pale of rational discourse.
A Different Fundamentalism
Of course, they do not really believe that their ideas are exhaustively explained either by neurological synapses or by environmental conditioning. They write books, give lectures, and appear on talk shows contending that they really do have ideas that are, well, true—just as though there is reason, or soul, or even a ghost in the machine. When asked why we should take their ideas seriously if they are no more than the predetermined products of genes or conditioning, they are inclined to respond, “It is an interesting paradox, isn’t it?” No, it isn’t. It is simply the incoherent nonsense that follows from a fundamentalist leap of faith into dogmatic materialism.
This does not mean there is nothing to learn from reading books such as The Blank Slate . There is much that is useful to know about both natural endowments and environmental influences. We are, after all, embodied souls or, as some prefer, ensouled bodies, and are created for society. We may be instructed by a skilled anatomist who dissects the sexual organs or the brain, while politely declining to believe him when he asserts that that is all there is to sex or to thinking. Likewise, we may be grateful for insights into environmental influences without believing that they adequately explain our lives as we know our lives by living.
To understand ourselves as creatures rather than products, as persons possessed of reason and related to the infinite, simply makes more sense of more things that we cannot help but know are true. Among the problems with materialist fundamentalism, apart from its implausibility, is that it is so very boring. That being said, prepare to see Steven Pinker on a forthcoming talk show, responding when challenged (if he is challenged) with, “It is an interesting paradox, isn’t it?” At which point you may say to the screen, ever so politely, “No, Prof. Pinker. It is neither interesting nor a paradox.” You might want to follow that with a prayer for the soul that his belief system prevents him from recognizing that he has.
“Sorry, Jesus . . . ”
A first among ELCA Lutherans is the action of the Delaware-Maryland Synod to rescind its membership in Reconciled in Christ and sever all affiliation with Lutherans Concerned, two gay advocacy organizations pushing the ELCA—with apparent effectiveness—to ordain active homosexuals and bless same-sex unions. The bishop emeritus of the synod, George P. Mocko, led off the debate. “There will be schism, and it will be large. Legal documents are in process, if not completed, by more than one group. The schism will be so large as to leave the ELCA crippled financially and administratively, occupied with budget and staff cuts. Ecumenically, we will have abandoned our position between the Roman and Orthodox churches on one side and Protestantism on the other, to take a great leap to the left, to join the United Church of Christ (UCC) in ordaining and blessing active homosexuals. I had hoped we could teach the UCC about biblical theology. Instead we will have learned from them how to brush Scripture aside when it gets in the way of an agenda. Learn that skill, and what is next?
“This question gets us into profound matters of faith. If those proposals are adopted, we will be removing what has been the cornerstone of our theology on sexuality for our entire history. That cornerstone has been the words of Jesus, ‘Have you not read, that He which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, and said, “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? What therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder.’ That has always summarized God’s intent in creating us as sexual beings—creating us for monogamous, heterosexual, lifelong relationships of commitment and love, and anything other than that is less than that, and part of a fallen creation.
“That cornerstone would be removed, and erected in its place would be a cornerstone that would now read, ‘God has made a variety of sexualities, all to be equally affirmed and celebrated.’ There is no biblical basis for such a theology. None. There is no way that anyone can read the books of our Scripture and conclude, ‘That is what is here taught.’ Efforts to make Scriptures say that have been going on for over a decade. There is no biblical basis for such a view. If Jesus is our Lord, his words must remain central. We cannot say to him, ‘Sorry, Jesus, but we find your words narrow and embarrassing. We must lay them aside. We have become much more enlightened in this blessed age of ours. So your words must pass away. We can no longer use them; they do not fit our new understandings. You must excuse me now, I have much work to do rewriting Sunday school material so that our children are sure to be as enlightened as we are.’ We cannot do that.”
If the gay agenda is successful, Mocko said, “it will mean the effective end of the ELCA, because it means that we will have exchanged our loyalty to our Lord and his words for another. Such a church would lose the loyalty of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of its people.” The ELCA is conducting a million dollar study on homosexuality in church doctrine and practice, and the governing assembly will be asked to make decisions in 2003.
On Modernity and Train Wrecks
Our Jody Bottum—I say “our” because I’ve never quite accepted his defection to the Weekly Standard—gets into deep pondering, occasioned by the deep pondering of Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future. He applauds the book’s warnings about the biotechnological threats confronting us, but suggests that these developments are only the logical next thing in the project of modernity and liberalism, the two being pretty much the same thing. Conservatives of different stripes, he says, are disillusioned with the liberalism/modernity train ride, and get off at different points. “Thus the economic libertarians wish to hold their position in the 1890s, the evangelicals in the 1920s, the Southern agrarians in the 1940s, and the National Review conservatives in the 1950s. For a century and a half after the French Revolution, Catholicism stood as the only major force opposed to modernity, and even after the great rush of Vatican II aggiornamento , Catholics essentially froze the modernity they were willing to accept at 1964. A variety of factors drew off the neoconservatives around 1972.”
The conservatives and neocons who rallied around Reagan tended to share a yearning for something like a religious renewal, but theirs was, for the most part, a pretty thin and instrumental view of religion. “And yet, lacking a coherent unmodern philosophy, we can offer no compelling reasons for modernity to stop where we wish it to. The economic and political battles against communism, by returning liberalism to its original course, certainly changed the direction of modernity. But they did nothing to slow modernity down. Over the last few decades, for example, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of the American Founding have all pointed out that a smidgen of religious belief seems necessary to prevent modern liberalism from devouring its own political and economic gains. But this insight hasn’t brought us much, for a culture’s religious belief doesn’t derive from the desire that the culture have a religious belief. Meanwhile, since its Enlightenment beginning, modernity has conceived of religion as its great enemy, and the antireligious impulse of the modern world is still steaming on and on”unchecked by our recognition that it ought not to, that it ought to have stopped somewhere before this.”
I am pleased to count myself as one of the “liberal writers” of the time who hoped the train could be stopped at another point described by Bottum. He writes, “Or, for another example, consider the question of whether we could have had a liberalism that was against abortion. We did manage to find an anti-Communist liberalism, after all—however much the Communists insisted that the future was theirs and that they were merely liberals in a hurry. And, hard as it is to remember, there was a moment around 1969 when several liberal writers were insisting that care for the poor and the weak demanded the rejection of abortion. But the liberationist impulse was simply too strong, and the sexual revolution too much fun. And so abortion came, despite opposition from those who wanted a modernity without it. Having bought a ticket this far, what means—what right, for that matter—did they have to stop the [train] from going further?”
He appreciates Fukuyama’s respectful references to religious and philosophical arguments, including those offered by John Paul II, but: “Fukuyama, however, mistrusts thick accounts. He is too modern to think he can persuade us with the Pope’s religious claim, too current to imagine he can restore us to Aristotle’s philosophical view, and too scientific to rely on Aldous Huxley’s literary understanding. But without some such support present generally in the culture, the government regulations for which he calls are doomed. The political pressure from activist groups will be too great. The moral confusion of politicians will be too massive. And, most of all, the internal motor of science will be too powerful.” That’s a pretty grim outlook, and he may be right. What we need, Bottum says, is someone who can “gather up the premodern elements necessary to maintain the political advances of modernity—and to build them into a new and coherent philosophical vehicle” that will prevent the threatening biotechnological train wreck. I am very sympathetic to Bottum’s forebodings, especially about the dynamics propelling what presents itself as, and often is, scientific progress. At the same time, it seems highly improbable that we will be rescued by a “philosophical vehicle,” no matter how new or coherent. Unless philosophy is stretched to mean the Word that was in the beginning, and will see us through to the promised end. On days when I am tempted to resign myself to the inexorable triumph of the modernism/liberalism nexus that Bottum describes, I wonder if it might not take a catastrophic wreck, after which, with heroic labor, a chastened world repairs the damage and lays tracks in a different direction. On better days, I hold to the promise of the ever ancient, ever new, and only coherent truth that the human project cannot fail, not finally. And that because the Word became us, and by his victory we already participate in the life of the One who, by definition, cannot fail. Our circumstance is too hopeless for any lesser hope.
Media Abused and Abusing
“Abused by the Media,” while not without its own problems, is a valuable article by Peter Steinfels, religion columnist for the New York Times . Writing not in the Times but in the London-based Tablet , Steinfels’ incisive critique of the media’s coverage—and exploitation—of priestly sex scandals could give comfort to those who claim, wrongly, that the excitements and alarms of the past year are the creation of sensationalistic media driven by anti-Catholic animus. That is not Steinfels’ claim. Whatever the intentions involved, the media brought to public attention, and not least to the attention of Catholics, some things that have gone very wrong in the governance of the Church. As I have said before, a scandal as great as any scandal exposed by the media was the scandal of the bishops’ panicked reaction to the media storm at their Dallas meeting in June.
Steinfels tells the story of an upstate New York newspaper editor who was obsessed with people killed by lightning. Every time, anywhere in the country or the world, the wire services had a story about a death by lightning, the editor splashed it on the front page. “I imagine,” writes Steinfels, “a local population cowering indoors at the first drops of rain, their sense of the odds of death-by-lightning-bolt completely skewed. Yet not a single word in the stories they read need have been untrue. The problem would have arisen from the dramatic character of the news, the construction of the central category (victims of lightning anywhere in the U.S. and sometimes elsewhere), the prominent play the stories received, and the absence of explanatory stories that would have placed these stories into the context of population figures, comparative risks from driving, boating, hunting, or catching cold, and the specific causes for lightning strikes.” Something similar happened, Steinfels suggests, in the case of priests and sexual abuse.
“What was involved in the American clerical sex abuse crisis was the behavior of some 1.5 percent of the roughly 150,000 priests who served under hundreds of bishops in the course of half a century,” Steinfels writes. “During that time psychological understanding, social attitudes, and legal expectations and practices regarding molestation of minors changed markedly. So did the Church’s attitudes and policies—although often with a distressing lag. The reasons for that lag, which in some respects I consider morally culpable, deserve investigation. It is quite another matter, however, implicitly to measure bishops’ decisions as though the bishops possessed—and deliberately and perversely ignored—knowledge and attitudes that were decades later in coming.”
Referring to Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church (Little, Brown), which is a synthesis of the Boston Globe ‘s coverage, Steinfels notes that the media appear to be very pleased with their work. “I sense journalists already preparing acceptance speeches for next year’s Pulitzer Prizes,” he writes. I recently spoke to hundreds of reporters at the convention of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), meeting in Nashville. The lead reporter of the Globe ‘s coverage was also on the program, and he spoke with self-congratulatory glee about that paper’s exposés, sprinkling his remarks with mocking references to Cardinal Law. At the end of his presentation, the applause was, at best, perfunctory.
Much more warmly received was the presentation by David Briggs of the Cleveland Plain Dealer , who is also president of RNA. He spoke movingly of how he had first had to come to terms with these questions when reporting on sexual abuse of minors in a Protestant missionary agency, and how the past year’s reporting on the Catholic situation had posed for him painful ethical dilemmas with respect to issues of confidentiality, perspective, and the dangers of playing to stereotypes. In talking privately with other reporters, I was struck by how many gave evidence of an uneasy, if not guilty, conscience about their part in the treatment of the scandals. Again and again, one heard that they had to do what their editors wanted. “My editor made me do it” is, of course, an old line among reporters, but in this case, at least with some, it seemed to be more than a convenient evasion of responsibility.
Steinfels notes that some journalists justify themselves by appealing to polls showing that Catholics are furious at the bishops and do not think the media have been anti-Catholic. “Obviously,” he writes, “this is a circular demonstration, since the reaction of Catholics has been based precisely on what they read, heard, and saw in the media. No one, certainly not the team assembling the Globe ‘s account, has gone beyond the familiar studied naiveté that assumes journalists merely expose the ‘facts’ and do nothing to define their meaning.” As someone familiar with the journalistic arts, he then goes on to detail the ways in which the media are adept at skewing a story by choosing the “experts” they interview, by determining what constitutes “balance,” by selective quotation, and by deciding which “side” gets the first and last word.
“In this case,” says Steinfels, “the news media tended to bestow credibility heavily on a rather narrow set of experts—lawyers, therapists, and leaders of victims’ groups, who had long been locked in legal battles with the bishops.” But then there is also distortion that it is hard to believe is not deliberate. He notes, for instance, that R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame felt obliged to put on his website a letter to an ABC producer detailing how a taped interview with him was edited, sentence after sentence, to remove all nuance. I can testify, as can almost anyone who deals regularly with the media, to similar experiences. Yet protesting is usually futile, for, as Steinfels notes, “not a single word in the stories need have been untrue.” It is the way the story is framed, and the purpose to which true words are put, that is untrue.
All that having been said, we should not attack the messengers just because we don’t like the message. I agree with Steinfels that some messengers (and their editors) should be attacked, and we should be alert to the systemic distortions of the big business that is “the news.” At the same time, I know—and this was evident again at the RNA convention—how many reporters are devoutly religious (notably evangelical Protestant and Catholic), view their work as a vocation, genuinely want to be fair, and worry about purchasing journalistic plaudits at the price of truth. But the news is a corrupt and corrupting business in ways that go beyond the integrity or intentions of those who are in the business. And, of course, much the same is true of almost any other human enterprise, including religion, when it becomes a business.
A Perspective on “Perspective”
Yet there is a potential danger in Mr. Steinfels’ way of putting things into perspective. Some may conclude that 1.5 percent of 150,000 priests over the course of half a century is not such a big deal. I suppose it depends, in part, upon how serious an offense one thinks the sexual abuse of minors to be. If we knew that 2,250 priests had committed murder or had been guilty of drug dealing in the past fifty years, I expect we would think it a very big deal indeed. I expect we would take it as an indication that something had gone very wrong. There is a necessary distinction between our judgment of the evil of an act and the incidence of an act. Much less than 1.5 percent of the general population commits murder or deals in drugs. Much more than 1.5 percent engages in sexual abuse”and much, much more than 1.5 percent if we use the loose definitions of sexual abuse current today (and adopted by the bishops in Dallas). The difference here, of course, is that we are talking about priests, who presumably are a moral notch above the general population.
What, in fact, appears to be the case is that somewhere around seven hundred priests have been accused or found guilty of sexual abuse in cases concentrated in the period from the late sixties to the early eighties. We are told that close to a billion dollars has been paid in settlements. By almost anybody’s reckoning, that’s real money. The overwhelming majority of cases involve adult men having sex in one form or another with postpubescent and older teenage boys. These relationships are ordinarily called homosexual. Common sense, reinforced by social scientific research of the obvious, tells us that homosexuals are more likely to engage in homosexual relations than heterosexuals. I don’t wish to belabor the self-evident here, but it does seem that a discernible pattern begins to emerge.
Add to this that it is generally admitted that some seminaries and houses of formation did not, over an extended period of time, teach what the Church teaches about sexual morality, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Some seminaries do not just admit it; they boast of it. Such seminaries, and not just a few bishops, are known as being “gay-friendly.” Many priests, over a long period of time, were taught that, the “official” teaching of the Church notwithstanding, sexual relations are inevitable and excusable, or even necessary to psychological and spiritual well-being. Priests who had sex with one another, or with teenage boys, told themselves, and perhaps believed, that it was not a sin. Some priests, and at least a couple of bishops, say that they believe they were involved in a “loving relationship” aimed at helping young men to “come to terms with their sexuality.” Regardless of how sincere these people are, one might say that what they have done is a sign of, for lack of a better term, infidelity. These factors provide a bit more specificity and precision to the more innocuous—sounding proposition that 1.5 percent of 150,000 priests under hundreds of bishops engaged in sexual abuse over the course of half a century.
These factors also make somewhat unsatisfying the conclusion to Mr. Steinfels’ otherwise valuable article. He writes that the scandal has also been exploited by people who have different agendas for church reform. “From the left these include demands for more democratic church governance involving the laity and for reexamining priestly celibacy. From the right these include stamping out the ‘culture of dissent’ and scrutinizing homosexuals in seminaries. The danger is that these proposed reforms, instead of being debated on their own merits, may now be driven by seriously distorted media-generated assumptions about priests, bishops, and sexual abuse.”
One wonders if that is not a fine example of the kind of journalistic balancing act that Mr. Steinfels elsewhere criticizes in his article. It provides the appearance of symmetry—“from the left, from the right”—where no symmetry exists. If the scandal is chiefly about priests fiddling with boys, why would more democracy in church government be the solution? So lay people decide whether the church roof is replaced this year or next, or have a say in electing the bishop. So what? As for celibacy, if instances of clerical sexual abuse, including homosexual abuse, are as frequent in churches where the clergy can marry”and the evidence is that they are”celibacy would seem to be, at most, marginally related to the problems that produced the scandals.
The second agenda of reform—the one “from the right”—would seem to be somewhat more pertinent to the problems at hand. I don’t insist on the phrase “culture of dissent,” and “stamping out” sounds awfully heavy handed, but perhaps Mr. Steinfels would agree that homosexual priests who reject the teaching that fiddling with boys is gravely sinful are, all things being equal, more likely to fiddle with boys. As for “scrutinizing” homosexuals in seminaries, as Mr. Steinfels knows, some people think they shouldn’t be in seminaries to begin with. If there are identified or self-identified homosexuals in the seminary—never mind men who declare themselves to be gay—surely he would agree that it would be advisable, as a matter of prudence, to keep an eye on them. Especially if they, as a matter of prurience, are keeping an eye on their fellow seminarians. Unless, of course, as I do not think is the case, Mr. Steinfels thinks that men who intend to do, and approve of doing, things that the Church teaches are gravely sinful should be allowed to take solemn vows of perfect and perpetual chastity.
“Abused by the Media” is, as I say, a useful article. More the pity that the conclusion at which Mr. Steinfels arrives exemplifies the journalistic practices he so incisively criticizes.
Why Israel Matters
The subject of Jews and Christians in “Christian America” is riddled with difficulties, and we should have no illusions about their being soon resolved. The contradictory legacy of the twentieth century—which witnessed the Holocaust in Europe as well as the birth of the State of Israel and the dramatic advance of Jewish security and success in America—does not exhaust the ways in which we can think about the Jewish-Christian relationship in the century ahead. At present and for the foreseeable future, one important factor is that most American Jews are not religiously Jewish. This is a factor addressed by many Jewish thinkers; for instance, by Elliott Abrams in his book Faith or Fear , which bears a subtitle very much to the point of our discussion, How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America. (Although I would like to think the subject is not survival but flourishing.) Abrams vigorously makes the case that the commitment of Jews to Jewishness, rather than to Judaism, is neither faithful to Jewish history nor capable of sustaining the Jewish community in the future.
The dominantly secular character of American Jewry is closely related to Jewish anxieties about the new assertiveness of religion in American public life. If most Jews do not see barbed wire, they are nonetheless made exceedingly nervous about any reference to “Christian America.” Moreover, there is a curious conflation of developments in this country and developments in Israel. Both there and here, secular Jews worry about the political ascendancy in Israel of those who are routinely described as “the ultra-Orthodox.” In public discussions, the analogy is frequently drawn with “the religious right” in this country. The argument is made that in both instances religion is a threat to secular democracy—with the adjective “secular” inseparable from “democracy.” In the Israeli circumstance, the argument cannot be lightly discounted.
The Orthodox in Israel—and the more rigorously Orthodox in this country, such as the Hasidim—seem to have little experience or appreciation of democracy. One reason for this is that, before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Judaism had never had the experience of being the religio-cultural establishment in a modern state. Since the Roman occupation and the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70, Jews have not borne the chief responsibility of building and maintaining a nation. This is in sharpest contrast to the Christian experience, which since the Emperor Constantine has had seventeen centuries of wildly diverse experiments, both successful and spectacularly flawed, in relating its theology, moral teaching, and religious institutions to civil society and the political order. The more seriously religious forms of Judaism, especially the Orthodox, have yet to demonstrate that there are authentically religious warrants by which publicly assertive Judaism supports, rather than threatens, modern democracy. In the vast span of history, the short fifty-four years of the State of Israel have provided the only laboratory for that demonstration, and at present the outcome of that experiment is uncertain.
In Christian America, most Jews believed, at least in the latter half of the twentieth century, that the more secular the society the safer it is for Jews. Some of us have argued to the contrary that the naked public square is a very dangerous place for Jews and other minorities. Where there are in public no transcendent aspirations to the good, there are also no transcendent inhibitions against evil, including the evil of anti-Semitism. This argument has been advanced also by Jewish thinkers such as Irving Kristol, Midge
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