The Public Square Prejudice gets a very bad press, but one cannot live without it. On numerous questions, we have all made judgments that are “pre” our present encounter with the question. “No, thank you, I do not care for broccoli; and no, I’m not interested in revisiting the question.” Not all such questions are as important as broccoli. It has been brought to my attention that some readers think vegetarianism is so manifestly and self-evidently wrongheaded that, after rejecting it upon first encounter, one would be a moral idiot to give it a second thought. The occasion for such outbursts is my essay in National Review (December 31, 2002) on Matthew Scully’s recent book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Why, I am asked, do I even take the time to read such a book, never mind write an essay on it? Vegetarians, fruitarians, animal rightists, tree huggers. Don’t I know they’re a company of crazies, cranks, and puling adolescents of all ages who major in moral minors in order to divert attention from what in their lives they really should feel guilty about? Well, not quite.
It is true that I’m a paid-up subscriber to the robust and emphatically embodied view of life. With Chesterton, I think it not sacrilegious but persuasive analogy to envision the end of life’s journey in terms of an eternal convivium, with a thick steak, a pint of ale, and a good cigar in a particularly comfortable country inn, and with the best of friends, of course. With due respect to the saints who are, an ascetic like the desert fathers I am not. Moreover, I have to work at containing my impatience with people who are not content with the perpetual monitoring of their moral pulse, but are eager to help me out by monitoring mine as well. More sensitive than thee or me, they can be counted upon to rain their distress upon the threatening appearance of almost any happiness—other than theirs in winning the self-bestowed prize for superior scrupulosity. Such people are simply too sensitive for decent company. I do not say we should go out of our way to offend their sensibilities, but a little tweaking is sometimes in order.
So why, then, did I treat Mr. Scully’s book with such respect? The answer is that it is, for the most part, a book that makes serious arguments. Too many arguments, no doubt. It is unfortunate that his editor was on vacation, leaving the text to go chasing after every forensic hare in excurses that run over the tops and around the bends of subjects sometimes remotely related to the case he wants to make. The best part of the book, which is written from an expressly Christian and conservative way of looking at the world, is his contention that the morality of the humane treatment of animals rests not—as the “animal rights” theorists such as Peter Singer would have it—on animals being equal to human beings but precisely on their being unequal and therefore so very dependent and vulnerable. That’s why the subtitle speaks of “the call to mercy” rather than “the call to justice,” although Scully does, against his better instincts, end up entangling himself in some of the esoterica of the animal rights theorizing. Most pertinent to public policy is his polemic against industrial, or containment, farming. He visited some huge pig plants in North Carolina and what he reports is unpleasant in the extreme. “If you could walk all of humanity through one of these places,” he writes, “90 percent would never touch meat again.” That’s hyperbolic, but in a cause deserving of notice.
Conversations with Sammy
In terms of the egregious infliction of pain, it would seem that present practices in industrial farming constitute cruelty to animals and beg for regulative attention. Scully makes a persuasive case that the same must be said of many laboratory experiments with animals. Egregious means unnecessary, but, in the view of Scully and those of like mind, all raising of animals for food is egregious, since it is not absolutely necessary to eat meat. Most everybody understands what is meant by the infliction of pain. If that is the question, then the discussion turns to if and in what ways animals experience pain, and from there it can move to finding less painful, or even painless, methods of using animals for food. But cruelty is only one part of the argument. Another is the “deprivation” experienced by animals who are denied the living out of their natural propensities. Here the argument gets very wobbly, appealing to sentimentality and anthropomorphisms by which we are asked to imagine how we would feel if people did to us what people do to those pigs and Frank Perdue’s chickens. I, for one, wouldn’t like it at all. But I am inclined to doubt that pigs or chickens or, for that matter, mosquitoes have a life plan that anybody is frustrating.
I take second place to nobody when it comes to sentimentality about animals. Well, about some animals. My dog Sammy the Second, for instance. (Sammy the First died some years ago.) She has a pleasantly inflated view of my virtues, and she gives abundant evidence of sensations for which I cannot help but use words such as pleasure, fear, devotion, guilt, and hunger. Mainly hunger—for food and for affirmation, in that order. I have been caught in the act of discussing with her subjects both mundane and recondite. For example, the consciousness of animals. I am not embarrassed to say that I find these discussions with Sammy very rewarding, although, admittedly, I supply the best lines. I would not think of having her for dinner, and anybody who threatens her harm will have to deal with both of us, although more ominously with her. Neither would I think of extrapolating from my playfully and unabashedly embroidered relationship with Sammy to construct moral imperatives for humanity’s responsibility toward the animal kingdom. There’s not much more to be said about it than that she’s a lucky dog. I’m happy with the arrangement, and, so far as I can tell, she is brimming over with happiness in her doggy mode of being.
There are deeper dimensions worth exploring, of course. It is spiritually salutary to be reminded that we, along with Sammy and all the other animals, are creatures. Which is another way of saying that we are not God. Consider this fine passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions:
“And what is this God?” I asked the earth and it answered: “I am not He,” and all the things that are on the earth confessed the same answer. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things with living souls, and they replied, “We are not your God. Look above us.” I asked the blowing breezes, and the universal air with all its inhabitants answered: “I am not God.” I asked the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, and “No,” they said, “we are not the God for whom you are looking.” And I said to all those things which stand about the gates of my senses: “Tell me something about my God, you who are not He. Tell me something about Him.” And they cried out in a loud voice: “He made us.”
He made all of us animals, and to us human animals he gave a most particular charge, as we read in the first chapter of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” There are some intriguing discussions among the rabbis and early teachers of the Church as to whether Adam and Eve were vegetarians before the Fall. Or maybe everybody was vegetarian up until Noah and his family came out of the ark and, as we read in Genesis 9, the mandate assumed a darker hue: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”
They all cry out, “He made us.” And we cry in response, “He made us too.” But why and for what? Among other things, for food. Or so it would seem. St. Augustine was not a vegetarian. As was St. Francis of Assisi—who is reputed to have understood most deeply the mysterious connections between ourselves and our fellow animals—not a vegetarian. Many people today are vegetarians, or vegans, as those of the strict observance commonly call themselves. There is no agreement on how many, but it is said the number is growing. If by vegetarian is meant someone who never eats meat or fish or fowl, it’s probably one or two percent of the American population.That number is cut very sharply if vegetarianism includes a prohibition of animal products such as milk, cheese, and eggs. And, of course, leather and fur.
One cannot fault the consistency of those who, determined to escape complicity in the slaughter, put their dogs and cats on a vegetarian diet. There is much debate about this in vegan circles. The conclusion seems to be that it makes some owners feel better about themselves, and their pets very sick. The quest for absolute purity is a relentless master, and the doctrinal disputes and distinctions embroiling the vegan world are like the infightings of a religious sect, which in some ways it is. I see there are also websites run by ex-vegans, apostates as it were, who left the fold chiefly for health reasons. There are even not very good ex-vegan jokes. For instance, Q: How many vegans does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Three; one to do the work and two to anguish over how many animals are killed by the habitat destruction necessary for extracting the minerals required to manufacture a light bulb.
The temptation to mock the hyper-sensitive, while not completely resistible, should be indulged within limits. I would seriously question the moral curiosity, if not intelligence, of anyone who has not given some thought to the rightness of our raising and hunting animals for food. When it came to butchering time on Rud Biesenthal’s farm and Big Jack, the prize hog, was whacked on the head with a sledgehammer and then hung upside down by a chain pulley to have his throat slit and be bled before he was lowered into a boiling cauldron to scald off the hair, this twelve-year-old had deep thoughts about our right to pork chops and bacon. Such reactions are not to be brushed aside as juvenile squeamishness but should be thought through with care. The purpose of thinking something through is to arrive at a judgment. A judgment is subject to change in the face of convincing argument or evidence, but it is a judgment. Which means it is the alternative to crippling and guilt-ridden indecision.
A Testimony to Hope
To be well adjusted to the world as it is not an indication of moral or spiritual health. A friend who agrees that vegan ideology cannot be lived consistently and is not a practicable means for alleviating the sorry state of the world nonetheless follows a fairly rigorous vegetarian diet. It is, she says, a matter of witness to a future promise. Remember the Peaceable Kingdom envisioned by Isaiah:
For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth;
and the former things shall not be
or come to mind. . . .
The wolf and the lamb shall feed
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
and dust shall be the serpent’s
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
My friend’s vegetarianism is not a program of action but a testament of hope and is, I think, to be honored as such. Her purpose is not to lay a guilt trip on others nor to assert her superior sensibilities, but to remind us, and herself first of all, that in a fallen world we are to be yearning for a reality rightly ordered, as in “new heavens and a new earth.” She is not discouraged by the knowledge that her witness runs counter to the way things are. That’s the point of witness. She knows and can appreciate the story about the zookeeper who was famous for having trained a lion and a lamb to live peacefully together. “How do you do it?” asked an admirer. “It’s simple,” said the zookeeper. “Every morning a fresh lamb.”
Vegetarianism in its myriad versions will not, and I think should not, become the rule. Not an inch can be given to the nastier elements in the animal rights movements that employ violence against people to enforce gentleness toward other creatures. We human beings will, to put it bluntly, continue to kill. We will continue to raise and hunt animals for food, and continue to cull deer and Canada geese that invade our living spaces. The Humane Society and the National Audubon Society, the cat people and the bird people, will continue to go to court on opposing sides over what is to be done about the 100 million cats (including strays) who kill billions of birds and other life forms each year. Few will develop qualms about exterminating rats, and even fewer will fret, as did the reviewer of Scully’s book in the New York Times Book Review, about the pain we inflict upon the vegetables we eat. Most people are aware of the ways in which many animals are dependent upon human beings, and the huge role that the domestication of animals, also for food, plays in our history and theirs. There are, I am told, fifty million dogs in America while wolves are numbered in the thousands. If, as some urge, we adopted a more natural approach and let dogs be dogs and wolves be wolves, I expect those numbers would be fairly quickly reversed. It is not evident that this would be to anybody’s benefit, except maybe for the wolves.
Red in Tooth and Claw
If we stopped eating meat, entire species would quickly become extinct. For instance, almost nobody raises pigs for the pleasure of their company. Moreover, if left on their own, millions upon millions of animals would die more brutal deaths at the hands of a nature red in tooth and claw. There is an element of sadness in the death of a deer shot by a hunter. It is not quite the horror of a deer ripped apart by a pack of coyotes. Many hunters—and this may go back to our primordial roots—practice little rituals of respect for the life that is taken. In a similar vein, it is not entirely whimsical that at table we acknowledge with thanks the animal and vegetable life that makes possible our meal. “He made us,” they might well have said, and we readily agree. He made them to be Sunday dinner, and we are grateful.
Consideration should be given also to the countless small field animals that would be killed in order to cultivate enough grain to feed a nation, never mind a world, of vegans. The toll would be, some estimate, much greater than the number of lives now taken for meat. He made those field animals, too. Nor can we dismiss as trivial the part that gastronomy and other social conventions associated with feasting play in the civilizing of the human animal. True, our vegan friends boast of culinary developments with meatless delicacies, but I am inclined to be skeptical. And, because I am unpersuaded by their moral arguments, I feel no need to work at overcoming my skepticism.
There is undoubtedly a shadow of sadness over the complex patterns of cooperation, competition, and conflict in the animal kingdom for which we, of all the animals, have been commissioned to care. We—along with snails, cockroaches, rodents, leopards, cats, tuna, and mosquitoes—are caught up in a web of creaturely life marked by deprivation and bounded by inevitable death. We alone, however, can be, and are called to be, humane. That capacity and that call require, as noted above, a closer look at the practices of industrial farming as described by Scully and many others.
Lacrimae rerum. The tears of things. Karl Barth, the most influential Protestant theologian of the past century, wrote that those who dismiss empathy with our fellow animals as childish or sentimental “are themselves subjects for tears.” He went on to say:
The world of animals and plants forms the indispensable living background to the living space divinely allotted to man and placed under his control. As they live, so can he. He is not set up as lord over the earth, but as lord on the earth which is already furnished with these creatures. Animals and plants do not belong to him; they and the whole earth can belong only to God. But he takes precedence over them. They are provided for his use. They are his “means of life.” The meaning of the basis of this distinction consists in the fact that he is the animal creature to whom God reveals, entrusts, and binds Himself within the rest of creation, with whom He makes common cause in the course of a particular history which is neither that of an animal nor a plant, in whose life-activity He expects a conscious and deliberate recognition of His honor, mercy, and power. Hence the higher necessity of his life, and his right to that lordship and control. He can exercise it only in the responsibility thus conferred upon him.
Barth offers this caution, however: “If we try to bring animal and vegetable life too close to human, or even class them together, we can hardly avoid the danger of regarding and treating human life, even when we really want to help, from the aspect of the animal and vegetable, and therefore in a way which is not really apposite.” And, of course, that is exactly what happens with animal rightists such as Peter Singer who condemn as “speciesism” our insistence upon the singular dignity of the human. The hope for a more humane world, including the more humane treatment of animals, is premised upon what is denied by Singer and his like. Barth’s point is nicely caught in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s statement, “Man is both the cantor and the caretaker of the creation.”
Life Feeding on Life
Lacrimae rerum. There is much to weep about. But it is a sin to permit our tears to drown out our song of gratitude and joy in the gift of creation. Yet it is true that—whether at the level of the animal, vegetable, or microbiological—the order of creation is that life feeds on life. That rule is universal and immutable. The most we can do by changing our habits is to decide not to feed on some forms of life, which decisions will always have about them an element of arbitrariness, producing the guilt-tripping and sectarian disputes that mark communities of disordered scrupulosity. Whether life fed on life before that unfortunate afternoon in the Garden of Eden, I do not know, but I cannot imagine how it could have been any other way. The same must be said of whether the universal rule will hold in the New Jerusalem. The revealed indicators are that things will be radically different, so radically different as to elude our wildest imaginings. We will, please God, find out in due course. Meanwhile, we are creatures in a creation caught up in a perpetual dance of life with death, and of death with life.
Vegetarianism and related moral impulses go way back to belief systems very different from ours, most of which have a very different understanding of creation and of what it means to be a creature. And, it follows, very different understandings of the Creator. In the sixth century b.c., Pythagoras and his followers embraced the kinship of all animals, apparently believing in the transmigration of souls or a form of reincarnationalism along the lines affirmed by many Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains to this day. Some eighteenth-century Enlightenment figures, such as Voltaire, praised vegetarianism, as did Shelley, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and George Bernard Shaw. Seventh-day Adventists are strong proponents, as are the people who live in the strange afterglow of Madame Besant and Theosophy. Frequently their cause is joined to the campaign against alcohol and smoking, which is yet another indicator, in my judgment, of moral reasoning gone awry. At the risk of being provocative, one notes that the most prominent vegetarian, and enemy of smoking and drinking, in the twentieth century was Adolf Hitler. As best one can tell from his muddled remarks on the subject, it had to do with not compromising the genetic superiority of his bodily fluids.
According to the admirable eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Racial Improvement” was an important part of the vegetarian movement as typically promoted by, for instance, the Order of the Golden Age at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Encyclopaedia explains: “On the ground that the aim of every prosperous community should be to have a large proportion of hardy country yeomen, and that horticulture and agriculture demand such a high ratio of labor, as compared with feeding and breeding cattle . . . the country population would be greatly increased by the substitution of a fruit and vegetable for an animal dietary.” That seems terribly dated a century later when agricultural technology has made farming anything but labor intensive. On the other hand, authors such as Scully suggest it is a reasonable compromise to eat only animals who are raised in the old-fashioned way, commonly called “free farming,” and, if that practice really caught on, one could imagine a revival of the racial improvement argument. Although it is likely that Mexican immigrants would be the chief beneficiaries of the improvement.
Rebels Against Creaturehood
There are revolutionary rebels against creaturehood who propose utopian schemes for achieving a higher level of existence. There are resigned rebels who stoically endure the unacceptable. Much more numerous are the guilt-ridden rebels, who apparently gain a measure of relief by making others feel guilty as well. To feel guilty about being a creature is a species of pride. All life feeds on life. Creatures have teeth and claws and instruments for grasping at one end and organs of excretion at the other. That, too, is what it means to be embodied. Our creaturely life is marked by sin, but it is no sin to be a creature. Knowing that we are creatures is the cause not of guilt but of gratitude. In Christ, God became one of us. Knowing that we are human creatures is also to know that we alone of all the animals are called to responsibility. We are to exercise dominion, to care and to take care. We will continue to deliberate and debate about what that requires in terms of public policy. For the living of their own lives, different people will make different decisions. And, please God, in our disagreements, both public and personal, over what it means to be humane toward nonhuman animals and other life forms, we will strive to be humane also toward one another.
Israel 55 Years Later
Among the hottest of hot buttons in public discussion is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlikely alliances are formed and friendships broken over the position one takes. It has been that way for more than half a century, and today only more so. The ill-fated Oslo Accords of a decade ago supposedly settled the question of whether Jews are legitimately at home in Israel. But the Palestinians and their supporters continue to insist on the “right of return” for all refugees, which would reduce Jews to being an imperiled minority in Israel and is not, in fact, all that much different from the older Arab call”still heard today”to “drive them into the sea.” It would be the end of Israel, certainly the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
At the same time, Israel’s settlements policy and the threat of permanently taking over Palestinian territory poses the same problems of a non-Jewish majority. If, in that case, Israel remained a democracy with universal franchise, the Jews would soon be swamped. The alternative would be to abandon democracy and establish a regime comparable to apartheid. It is a dreadful and continuing conundrum for which it seems nobody has a convincing answer. Perhaps a year or so from now the aftermath of the Iraqi regime change will vindicate the Bush Administration’s hopes for a democratic insurgency in that part of the world that will make a real peace between Israel and its neighbors possible. Meanwhile, among most non-Jewish intellectuals in this country, and much more so in Europe, sentiment is strongly on the side of the Palestinians.
Reviewing L’Imparfait du Présent by Alain Finkielkraut, a French intellectual of controversially independent views, in the Times Literary Supplement, Henri Astier says, “The public-spirited citizen of today is at heart a prosecutor: his aim is to punish evildoers. As Finkielkraut observes, his model is Robespierre, the scourge of tyrants.” It is hard to depict Palestinians, and easy to depict Israelis, as the oppressing tyrant. Terrorism, including the horror of suicide bombings, is employed to underscore the desperation of the dominated. There is disagreement about just how, but there is no doubt that the poison of anti-Semitism is a significant part of the anti-Israel line. Astier writes, “Finkielkraut has no sympathy for Israeli hardliners—they too stand in the way of peace by refusing to share the land. He repeatedly laments their barely concealed gloating over the breakdown of the Oslo process. But while European progressives condemn Israeli intransigence, they gloss over Palestinian radicalism. What name, Finkielkraut asks, should be given to this ‘inextinguishable animosity’ against Israel? Here Finkielkraut’s analysis indirectly sheds light on a recent transatlantic misunderstanding. American conservative commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, have pointed to the vilification of Israel across Europe and to recent attacks against synagogues, particularly in France, accusing Europeans of returning to their old, anti-Semitic ways. Is this fair?
“Finkielkraut points out that the new anti-Semitism is very different from the old type. Progressive anti-Semites condemn Israel not in the name of a racist ideology, but in the name of anti-Nazism. In their minds, the Jews have turned into their former oppressors. Finkielkraut quotes a French commentator referring to Israel’s ‘push to the East’—a reference to Hitler’s Drang nach Osten. He could also have quoted the Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate José Saramago, who invoked the ‘spirit of Auschwitz’ in depicting the horrors inflicted by Israel. Finkielkraut is right, Krauthammer wrong: today’s anti-Semitism is not fascist. It speaks the language of the oppressed, not of domination—and it is all the more fervid for it.”
More fervid than Nazi anti-Semitism? That seems doubtful. Moreover, as Krauthammer understands, the old anti-Semitism also exploited the language of the oppressed—e.g., the German majority allegedly oppressed by a relatively small minority of Jews. The Nazi goal was not to dominate but to eliminate the Jews. Finkielkraut and Astier are right about the way in which today’s public citizen understands himself as a Robespierre—like scourge of tyrants, and how that leads to favoring the Palestinians against the Israelis. But Krauthammer is right that the specifically anti-Semitic component of that view is an old and familiar enemy.
The state of Israel was formally established on May 14, 1948. Whatever one may think of the justice or injustice of its establishment fifty-five years ago, there will be no secure peace in the Middle East until its neighbors accept Israel as an irreversible fact. It is possible they never will, or at least will not in the next fifty or seventy-five years. In which case it is possible that a battle-wearied and demoralized Israel will not endure. If that happens, I believe the record will show that those in the West who kept alive the idea of the reversibility of 1948 did so by nurturing and exploiting the anti-Semitism that precipitated the creation of Israel in the first place.
The Catholic Center
At the end of last month’s installment of this continuing rumination on Catholic trials and tribulations, I spoke of the Catholic center, asserting that “The center holds.” Is that more than a rhetorical ploy? After all, people who take a position generally like to claim that their position constitutes the center. Having taken a stand at the center, one then defines the “extremes,” usually described in terms of left and right, liberal and conservative. To be sure, there are minorities who gladly identify themselves as being out of the mainstream and do not blanch at being called extreme. They style themselves revolutionaries or reactionaries, the avant garde or defenders of the ancient régime. But, as I say, they are a minority. For purposes of persuading others, and usually by conviction, most of us are inclined to present our position as considered, thoughtful, and moderate. Our moderation is certified by our making clear beyond doubt that we eschew this extreme, on the one hand, and that extreme, on the other. Le centre c’est moi!
At the same time, we want it understood that ours is not the Laodicean center of Revelation 3. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot . . . . I will spew you out of my mouth.” No, our center is—to borrow Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s phrase with reference to American politics—the vital center. Conservatives insist that their adherence to magisterial teaching is a vibrant orthodoxy, while liberals describe their dissent as being “in the Catholic tradition.” Please, do not describe my position as hot, in the sense of overheated or fanatical. But neither is it cold, in the sense of conventional or unfeeling. It is warm, as in welcoming. It is cool, as in composed and unruffled. Tired of the contentiousness of extremes in conflict? Welcome to the center.
Once upon a time, before the Second Vatican Council, there were “good Catholics” and “bad Catholics,” but everybody knew what it meant to be a Catholic. Now it seems that everything is up for grabs, and in the resulting confusions contesting parties vie for the treasured turf called the center. On the left and on the right, we hear people claiming to be “beyond” the old categories of left and right, liberal and conservative. These are the beyondists. They are usually liberals running away from the sour smell of liberalism far beyond its sell-by date. And beyondists are sometimes conservatives wanting to distance themselves from the stereotypes of conservatism. In either case, they typically represent only more of what they say they are beyond. The language of beyondism has to do not with substance but with salesmanship. Beyondism keeps returning us to where the arguments began.
I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
W. S. Gilbert didn’t have it quite right. We may not be born one way or the other, but having reached the point of taking sides, few of us get beyond it. Yes, it is true that in the 1960s I was viewed as a liberal, but I was a liberal for conservative reasons. When over a long period of time it was made clear to me that my position was untenable (I will not bore you with the details, but it had to do most importantly with the division of the house over abortion), I did not move beyond liberal and conservative. I became a conservative, or at least what some persist in calling a neoconservative. If someone proposes to you a position that is beyond left and right, you can be almost certain he’s peddling a gussied-up liberalism or conservatism. Beyondism is a shell game.
Parties in Conflict
Disputes in the Church are different from disputes in the arena of secular politics, although not so different as one might like to think. I venture the suggestion, however, that, in trying to understand the intra-Catholic disputes of the forty years since the Council, it is more helpful to think in terms of two parties: the party of discontinuity and the party of continuity. The party of discontinuity has both right-wing and left-wing branches, but they are united in their agreement that the Council represented a decisive break in the story of the Catholic Church. The one sees the Council as deviation or even apostasy; the other sees the Council as liberation or even revolution. Both see the Council as a break from what had gone before; both speak of a pre-Vatican II Church and a post-Vatican II Church, as though there are two churches; both are highly critical of the Church’s leadership, and of this pontificate in particular—the one because John Paul II has failed to restore what was, and the other because it thinks he is trying to do just that. Such are the two branches of the party of discontinuity. We might call them the discontinuants.
The rightists in the party of discontinuity are most graphically represented by the late Marcel Lefebvre and his followers. Having participated in the Council as a bishop, Lefebvre came to the conviction that the Council was heretical and he went into schism, being excommunicated by Rome, after the Holy See’s most arduous efforts to avoid a final break, in 1988. Lefebvrists in the Society of St. Pius X are to be found around the world, and have their American headquarters in Kansas City. Some on the right of the party of discontinuity are “sedevacantists”—from sede vacante, meaning “the see is vacant.” They believe John Paul II is an imposter, as was Paul VI before him. They have photos showing that the left ear lobe of Giovanni Battista Montini is very different from the left ear lobe shown in photos of Paul VI, or something like that. In the twilight zones of the Internet, sedevacantism is conveniently linked to websites about Elvis sightings.
Discontinuants of a rightist bent are usually not so radical in their views. They include people who say, sotto voce, that Vatican II was a mistake; some thinking it was a catastrophe, others a wrong turn, and yet others a severe bump in the road. They say such things sotto voce because the Catholicism they want to repristinate provides no doctrinal resources to justify the claim that Vatican II was simply illegitimate. In their view, the Council was, at the very least, unnecessary. Two councils were quite enough: Trent to definitively rebut the Protestant heretics, and Vatican I to declare papal infallibility, which would then be sufficient for dealing with all future contingencies. John XXIII’s decision to call a council, they believe, was not an inspiration but a wild impulse that a wiser man would have stifled. Discontinuants of the right generally stay in the Church—there being nowhere to go except into the Lefebvre Land of schism—but not without a steady rumble of grumbling.
The Catholic Moment That Was
Representative is a recent column by Pat Buchanan, for whom Vatican II was somewhere between catastrophe and wrong turn. He lists all the things that have gone wrong in the Church since the Council, and it is an impressive list indeed. When in 1987 I published The Catholic Moment, Mr. Buchanan sent me a copy of a book he had just published with the inscription, “I too believe in the Catholic moment. It was forty years ago and is not likely to happen again.” That earlier Catholic moment, as his column says, was one of full seminaries and full convents, of a burgeoning system of health care and schools, of colleges and universities intellectually committed to Catholic truth, of crowded pews, big families, and a church celebrated by Hollywood and the world to the ringing of The Bells of St. Mary’s. Witness now a church dispirited and divided, riddled by scandal and led by bishops who, if they are not on the edge of resigning in disgrace, are sheepishly employed in giving depositions, trying to explain why they didn’t do what they should have done about their clerical buddies who couldn’t keep their pants zipped around little boys.
Buchanan’s depiction is very grim, so grim as to be a caricature. As also, many will protest, is his depiction of the good old days too glowing. But caricatures that carry weight with many thoughtful people are not woven out of whole cloth. In his critique of the Council, Buchanan and many others commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc—it happened after the Council, therefore it happened because of the Council. But the Council was not responsible for John F. Kennedy and the doctrine, approved by the Houston council of Baptist ministers, that a Catholic in public life should be indifferent to the teachings of the Church. The Council did not produce the sixties, although it did “open the Church’s windows to the world” just when the world was going crazy. An intriguing “what if” exercise is to ask what would have happened if the Council had been held ten years earlier. In any event, I am convinced that the discontinuants of the right are wrong to blame the Council. To say that a council is infallible, which it is, is not to say that a council is omniscient, which it isn’t. There are a good many Council fathers who, in subsequent years, have made no secret of their wish that some documents had been worded differently in order to avoid misunderstanding and deliberate misconstrual. But the responsibility for what has gone wrong—and much has gone wrong, along with much that has gone right—rests solidly with the discontinuants of the left.
Think about it. For almost forty years, the leftist branch of the party of discontinuity has been agitating the same old issues, all of which come down to sex, power, and freedom understood as license. They have been at it so long that their cause has the stature of a tradition, of which they are the traditionalists. Originally fired by memories of the real or imagined oppressions and constrictions of the “pre-Vatican II Church,” in their senescence they grumble about “conservative” younger Catholics, including younger priests, who are excited by John Paul II and the challenge of living the high adventure of a Catholicism freshly discovered and two generations removed from the bitter quarrels between the Pat Buchanans and Richard McBriens over whether the years before the Council were the good old days or the bad old days. The traditionalists of the discontinuant left keep scratching the same old sores.
First there was contraception, and with the orchestrated assault on the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae they won A Famous Victory. Not a victory in changing the Church’s teaching, of course, but a victory in persuading many, perhaps most, Catholics that they can ignore such teaching with spiritual impunity. In this they were greatly aided by supine prelates who learned to turn a blind eye to dissent and deviance more generally, one of the consequences of which is detailed in the files of your local prosecutor. After contraception, there was agitation for married priests, then for priestesses, then for the moral approval of buggery. And, all along, the demand for the “democratizing” of church government, sometimes called power-sharing, which, being translated, means the quest for power. Sex, power, and license drove the discontinuant cause of the left, which no doubt still inspires some as, toddling about the nursing home garden, they reminisce about grand battles past.
In lucid moments, they know they have lost on the issues. The discipline of celibacy is precisely that, a discipline and not a doctrine. It conceivably could be made optional, in which case I believe it would be very exceptional and under the shadow of suspicion of sexual deviance. In the wake of the scandals the determination of the Church’s leadership, both here and in Rome, is to strengthen, not weaken, the discipline of celibacy understood as perfect and perpetual continence. On ordaining women, twenty centuries of tradition, reaffirmed by this pontificate in a manner that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith terms infallible, says that the Church is simply not authorized to do it. Even were there a doubt, the Church cannot ordain in doubt without jeopardizing the entire sacramental economy. And it would be the end of any hope for reconciliation with Orthodoxy, for, if there is anything certain in history, it is certain that the Orthodox will never ordain women. Likewise, to declare that homosexual acts are rightly ordered according to law both natural and divine would be a reversal of millennia of unanimous teaching. It will not happen. One says that with the same confidence that one says two plus two will never equal five, or that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the Catholic Church will continue to be the Catholic Church, or that the promise of Jesus that he will send the Spirit to lead and keep the Church in the truth can be trusted.
So the leftist party of discontinuity has lost on its chosen issues. There is still power-sharing, however, and it is evident that over the centuries there have been varying rules and patterns of government in the Church. Bishops have been elected by popular acclaim. Remember Ambrose in Milan. But that was a very long time ago. I see that in a recent column Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame writes, “Those who advocate for a more accountable and responsible pastoral leadership are not innovators. For various reasons, this element got lost in the ecclesiastical shuffle during the Second Christian Millennium when the Catholic Church became more deliberately monarchical in structure.” Now there is the voice of a true traditionalist. You do remember “the ecclesiastical shuffle” of the second millennium, don’t you? One is reminded of unreconstructed Southerners who speak of the Civil War as “the recent unpleasantness.”
Of course one must agree that bishops should be more accountable and responsible. That is to say they should be better leaders, and the most important part of that is that they should lead with the zeal of the apostles whose successors they are. In the wake of the scandals the enhanced awareness is that the bishops should be more, not less, the bishops that they are ordained to be. The problem was timorous shepherds who failed to protect the flock, and especially the lambs, fearing to confront the wolves admitted to the sheepfold. But power-sharing understood as lay participation in decision making is not an issue to sustain a cause or stir the soul. “Honey, remember tomorrow night you got the vicariat subcommittee on education finance.” As Oscar Wilde said of socialism, the problem with power-sharing is that it leaves one with no free evenings.
“The Church of Tomorrow”
How can it be that—with issues so doomed or dull and with a hoary-headed leadership that has to dredge up grievances from a distant past unknown to anyone born in the last fifty years—the discontinuants of the left can still present themselves as the vanguard of change? That’s a very good question. Here, speaking just last month, is a bishop who belongs to the shrinking liberal caucus that was led by Rembert Weakland before he went down in flames: “As priests in the Church we have a golden opportunity to become involved at the heart of this reawakening, of being forerunners of the Church of tomorrow, of being molders and builders of new theological language and ecclesial structures which speak to our contemporary society and which ensure a fresh hearing for the Christian message.”
Bracing stuff, that. Some apparently still think so. Never mind that a bishop presides over a dispirited diocese of zero vocations, declining Mass attendance, closed schools, and an epidemic of scandals. Never mind that a bishop hasn’t read a serious book of theology for twenty years or that his statement of the Christian message contains no reference to Christ. Never mind all that and much else; he is building “the Church of tomorrow.” Having made a shambles of the Church of past and present, he has no choice but to bet on tomorrow. He is loyal to the Church, meaning the Church of tomorrow. He is obedient to the pope, meaning the next pope or maybe the one after that. So how, in the midst of the ruins of its own making, does the cause of leftist discontinuity maintain its status as the vanguard? In large part, simply by repeating, until reiteration overwhelms powers of reflection, that it is the vanguard.
Relentless futurism provides unlimited escapes from the counterevidence of the present. This works in all kinds of wondrous ways. Remember, for instance, how the Jesuits were once noted for their fierce loyalty to the papacy. They are still loyal, but with a futurist twist of discontinuant devising. Thus the very influential Karl Rahner, in one of his less judicious moments, told his fellow Jesuits: “You must remain loyal to the papacy in theology and in practice, because that is part of your heritage to a special degree, but because the actual form of the papacy remains subject, in the future too, to an historical process of change, your theology and ecclesiastical law has above all to serve the papacy as it will be in the future.” Jesuit Paul Shaughnessy comments: “Jesuits are all loyal to the papacy, but to the future papacy”that of Pope Chelsea XII, perhaps—and their support for contraception, gay sex, and divorce proceeds from humble obedience to this conveniently protean pontiff.” Shaughnessy goes too far, of course. There are still some admirably loyal Jesuits. But you see the move. As with the above-mentioned bishop, all things are permitted when one is a “forerunner of the Church of tomorrow.” Being a faithful Catholic is becoming now what Catholic will mean when faithfulness is redefined. Liberated by “the spirit of Vatican II” from past and present, discontinuants of the left hold themselves rigorously accountable to a future of their own desiring.
A New Yorker cartoon has executives sitting around the board room table on which is a box of soap 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.” For almost forty long, weary years, the left has managed to sell itself as the Church of the future by incessantly announcing that it is the Church of the future. And the pitch does sell, in part because it appears to be news. It is pseudo-news, of course, but it is welcome news to those who dislike the Church of the past and the present. This is crucial to understanding the success of the leftist party of discontinuity. From the beginning, from John XXIII’s announcement of a council, the story line was established that there must be something very wrong with the Church of the past and present or else the Pope would not have called a council to set things right.
It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Xavier Rynne (aka Fr. Francis X. Murphy) in establishing that story line. Almost all Catholics get their news about the Church from the general media, and all the media followed the story line set by Rynne in his voluminous reports in the New Yorker. The first piece of the story line to be put into place is that the Church is an institution like any other, with a self-protective power structure dominated by conservatives and challenged by courageous liberals. Theological language about the Church—as in “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”—is, in this view, a smokescreen employed to hide the real questions, which are questions of privilege and power. To be sure, the Church is a thoroughly, but not exhaustively, human and social institution. But if she is not what she claims to be in language inescapably theological and sacramental, she is no more than another institutional “it” among many institutional “its,” albeit a very big and old and venerable “it.”
This de-theologizing and de-sacramentalizing of our understanding of the Church is now very widespread. Consider a small but telling incident. An archbishop in the Northeast is addressing lay leaders on the years of scandal and wants to end on an upbeat note. With a warm and winning smile, he declares, “I’m here to tell you we got a great church!” This is a bishop of the Catholic Church. Imagine, if you can, Ambrose or Aquinas or John Paul II saying, “We got a great church.” I know, you can’t. Neither can I. What kind of operative ecclesiology is in the archbishop’s mind and heart? Maybe “The Catholic Church, Inc.” Or the voluntary association with the biggest and best niche in the religious marketplace. Like a basketball coach during a losing streak: “I’m here to tell you we got a great team!” Yes, it’s a little incident, but implicit in it are the ravages wreaked by the construal of Vatican II in discontinuity from the story of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
But I hear someone raise the objection that, while I started out saying there is a party of continuity (the Catholic center) and a party of discontinuity, with the latter having left and right branches, I have so far been speaking mainly about the left branch of the party of discontinuity. There is a good reason for that. From the very first session of the Council, beginning October 11, 1962, the perception of the Council was controlled by Rynne and other reporters, and they soon imposed upon it the master template that there were only two parties in play”the liberals and the conservatives. The right-wing discontinuants were simply “conservative extremists” who were beyond the pale and unworthy of notice, except when it was convenient to depict all conservatives as extremists. This was a masterful move, and it continues to be the dominant story line in explaining the Second Vatican Council. Leftist discontinuants constituted the force of “progress” that prevailed against the party of continuity and against rightists deploring discontinuity, both of the latter being portrayed as the party of conservative resistance.
By the second session, everybody “knew” that the Council was about an archconservative Catholic Church set against the modern world belatedly and reluctantly being dragged into the twentieth century. Indeed—wonder of wonders—Catholicism was becoming the champion of liberalism’s tale of historical progress. Popularizing theologians who fit this master template were made the experts on the Council. Those who disagreed were routinely dismissed as the conservative resistance. A priest friend recalls going to a press conference at the Gregorian University where the great Fr. John Courtney Murray, who had a major influence on the Council’s teaching on religious freedom, was trying to explain to the media the complexities of what had happened at the Council that day. He was followed by Fr. Charles Davis, then a leftist popularizer who later had the integrity to leave the Church when he recognized that he was no longer a Catholic. Fr. Davis began, “Well, it’s really quite simple. The conservatives . . . ” My friend looked over at Murray who was sadly shaking his head in disagreement. But the progressive vs. conservative story line was by then set in media concrete.
And so it has been ever since. The great leaders of the theological, liturgical, ecumenical, and pastoral movements of renewal affirmed by the Council are, I expect, still—if sadness is permitted in heaven—sadly shaking their heads in disagreement. One hears them saying, “That is not what the Council said. That is not what it said at all.” While they were still with us, Hans Küng, later officially decertified as a Catholic theologian, rejected Karl Rahner’s criticism of his ecclesiology as being essentially Protestant. Leslie Dewart, later associated with “death of God” theology, rejected Bernard Lonergan’s criticism of his work as a false de-hellenization of doctrine. The Jesuit provincials rejected the pleas of Murray and Lonergan to maintain the tradition of serious intellectual formation. In the name of “the spirit of the Council,” liberal French theologians, following the revolutionary ritual of turning against the fathers, dismissed as impossibly outdated the giants who had prepared the way for the Council: Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and Jacques Maritain. It was a clean sweep for the discontinuants of the left.
Bishops and religious superiors turned to the popularizers to implement the Council, with the mostly sorry results still with us today in theology, liturgy, catechesis, and much else. As mentioned earlier, Humanae Vitae’s attempted exercise of papal teaching authority in 1968 was handily turned back. The media portrayed that initiative of Paul VI as an effort to break the master template, to return to the bad old days of what was by then called “the pre-Vatican II Church.” Even today, after almost twenty-five years of the pontificate of John Paul II, who is preeminently “a man of the Council,” the template is in place. But it is cracking.
It was at a conference in the mid-eighties that I listened to Hans Küng hold forth in triumphalist tones on the victory of the progressives. “We” control, he announced, the seminaries, the academic departments of theology, the catechetical and liturgical institutions, the publishing houses, the magazines that matter, and the chanceries. Most of the bishops, he said, are now on “our” side, and those who aren’t have been neutralized. Anyone who wants a future in the hierarchy or the Catholic academy has no choice but to cooperate, he observed. It was a clean sweep; all that was left were a few details; the disgruntled band of risibly reactionary dissidents from the new order didn’t understand what had happened and couldn’t do much about it.
It was an impressive speech. Almost nobody on the left is talking that way today. They are still largely in control of major institutions, notably the academy and some religious orders, but the more astute among them know that they are increasingly on the defensive. (See my “The Persistence of the Catholic Moment,” FT, February). Their most reliable allies today, as in 1962, are people in the media who continue to see the Catholic Church as a reactionary and threatening institution, the great and not-to-be-tolerated dissenter from the gospel of liberal progress. For such people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. The anti-Catholic media need the discontinuant left, and it needs them. Without this alliance of mutual need, the master template is shattered.
It is no secret that the initiative today is with the center. For younger clergy and seminarians, the so-called bad old days are the olden days that their grandparents talked about. They are inspired by John Paul II, the only pope they have ever known, as are the many renewal movements that feed into and draw from the millions of young people gathered by, for instance, the World Youth Days. Chancel dancers in leotards and Clown Masses are increasingly a thing of the past. The silly season is almost over, although elements of the discontinuant right find it useful to generate outrage by pretending that it is still in full swing. For its annual trips down the memory lane of radicalisms past, Call to Action will soon be convening in Florida. True, what passes for theology in many nominally Catholic colleges is a tiresome deconstruction of orthodoxy, but that, I expect, leads many students to want to explore an orthodoxy that they never learned and is deemed worthy of such intense attack. In Washington, D.C., in New York, in Boston, and elsewhere, there are growing and vibrant networks of young professionals excited about being Catholic. Many are discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. In the marvelous phrase of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, young people will give their lives for a mystery but not for a question mark. By way of sharpest contrast, the discontinuant left is dying because there is no successor generation. It cannot replicate the bad old days, which to protest is its only reason for being.
Consider the absurdities to which some are reduced. In Commonweal and the London Tablet, reviewers of George Weigel’s bracing book The Courage To Be Catholic try to argue that “the center” is somewhere between Weigel and Garry Wills. Among discontinuant leftists, Wills is a radical. He’s not waiting for Vatican III or the next pope. His position is that Vatican II dismantled once and for all the Magisterium and, with it, the teaching authority of the Church. (See my “Mr. Wills for the Prosecution,” Public Square, November 2002). To save him embarrassment, I will call the Commonweal reviewer Mr. B. He has a carefully cultivated reputation as a “moderate” liberal. Mr. B says that his position is “the broad middle” between Weigel and Wills. What can this possibly mean?
Weigel stands foursquare with millennia of tradition as set forth by the Council and interpreted by a pope whom he calls John Paul the Great. Wills says that that tradition is a “structure of deceit” and John Paul is an authoritarian throwback who is attempting “a coup against the Council.” Where does that leave Mr. B and his broad middle? The successor of Peter, who is certainly not the successor of Peter, is using a liberal council for reactionary purposes, but, despite the deceit, has a winning personality and is, all in all, John Paul the Not All Bad? Weigel, to cite another example, greatly admires John Paul’s “theology of the body.” Wills says magisterial teaching on sexuality is “just silly,” and he approves of contraception, gay rights, and a woman’s right to choose. I will leave it to Mr. B to explain the “broad middle” between Weigel and Wills on those and other questions.
It is said a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. Mr. B does not even have a side, or, if he does, it is an imagined space between clashing contradictions. To such nonsense the master template of liberal vs. conservative reduces differences of momentous consequence. Mr. B and many others are moderate members of the party of discontinuity of which Garry Wills is a radical member. They have in common that, for them, the center (i.e., the Magisterium) is the right. They are not on speaking terms with, they hardly deign to recognize the existence of, their ideological cousins in the rightist branch of the party of discontinuity, for whom the center (i.e., the Magisterium) is the left. Yet the cousins are in agreement that a choice must be made between the pre-Vatican II Church and the post-Vatican II Church, differing only in the choices they have made. Both insist that the Council was a radical break with the tradition, the difference being that the right deplores and the left celebrates the putative break.
The party of continuity is the center. From the Council of Jerusalem to Vatican II, from Peter to John Paul II, there is—the variations, deviations, and ambiguities of history notwithstanding—a continuing and identifiable community that is the Catholic Church. There have over the centuries been much more powerful parties of discontinuity than we have experienced these past forty years. But it is to the continuing community that Jesus promised he would send the Spirit to lead us into and keep us in the truth. Even if one does not believe that promise, can anyone really believe that the likes of Garry Wills or the Society of St. Pius X are the future of the Catholic Church? The extreme discontinuants of the left are angry because their understanding of Vatican II’s promise of a preferred future, a promise that was never made, has been broken. The extreme discontinuants of the right are angry because they believe Vatican II broke a promise with a preferred past. Both live off their anger; both live off the Church that they condemn. As for the Laodicean moderates such as Mr. B and his counterparts on the right, they will, in their broadly middle way, continue to grumble incoherently about this and that. But I expect they are secretly grateful for the people who”inspired by the Second Vatican Council and in continuing communion with Peter”see visions and dream dreams for the renewal of the one Church that was, is, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory. Parties of discontinuity we will have with us always, but the center holds.
• The Chicago Sun Times prompted something of an ecumenical kerfuffle with a long story under the headline, “Are Lutherans Pretending to be Catholic to Lure Hispanics?” Some Catholic priests think so. Pastor Keith Forni of a congregation that goes by the name of Iglesia Santa Cruz Church protests. Yes, he writes in a Lutheran publication, some Lutheran parishes reaching out to Latinos have holy water at the door, display pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, call the pastor “Father,” celebrate a liturgy very much like the Catholic Mass, and downplay the name “Lutheran.” But for Lutherans, or at least for Lutherans who understand themselves to be “evangelical catholics,” such practices can be justified by appeal to the original intention of the Lutheran Reformation. Pr. Forni notes that Luther himself did not intend a church called Lutheran. Yet, as he acknowledges, there is the question of “truth in packaging.” In response to the criticism that it is deceptive for Lutherans—and he mentions Episcopalians as well”working among Hispanics not to prominently display their denominational affiliation, he says, “My nearest Roman Catholic parish is commonly known as ‘Mount Carmel Church’”—without any mention of Catholic or Roman Catholic. Well, yes, but for almost all Hispanics the default position is Catholic. That is to say, a church that does the aforementioned things is ass