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The Public Square

In the course of a “self-interview” in his book Signposts in a Strange Land , Walker Percy discussed his becoming a Catholic Christian. What attracted him, he said, was “Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that the other religions are more or less false.” In our time when “truth” is commonly put in ironic quotes, there is something bracingly contrarian in such a statement. Contrarianism can easily morph into crankiness, however, as witness Christians obsessively disputing and dividing over their supposedly singular grasp of the fine points of truth. The line between faithful insolence and egregious arrogance is not always clear. But the truth is that truth obliges, and sometimes truth divides. That is among the truths underscored in John Paul II’s fourteenth encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church of the Eucharist), issued on Thursday of Holy Week last.

“Can’t we all just get along?” The plaintive question of Rodney King during the 1991 Los Angeles race riots elicited a warm response from millions of Americans. Throughout the fractious history of Christian differences, many have asked the same question, and nowhere is it asked so insistently as at the point of intercommunion in the Eucharist. Many Christian communities, weary of the differences that divide, have answered that there is no reason at all why we can’t all just get along at the altar. I was impressed a while ago by a sign in a college chapel at Oxford that said all Christians were invited to share in Holy Communion”as well as those of other religions and no religion who wish to participate in, if I remember the wording correctly, this “symbolic act of the unity of humankind.” One recalls the response of Flannery O’Connor to Mary McCarthy at that New York dinner party: “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” O’Connor reports the incident in a letter to a friend. Usually unmentioned is what she immediately adds: “That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” That is pretty much what John Paul is saying in Ecclesia de Eucharistia .

Ecclesia de Eucharistia is about many things other than intercommunion. It is, in part, a movingly personal statement of the Pope’s experience of the Eucharist as “the source and summit” (Vatican II) of the Christian life and of his own life as a priest. It is, as is to be expected in an encyclical, a reprise of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, drawing richly on scriptural, patristic, and conciliar sources. I was struck by the way it highlights the chief themes of the Eucharist as set forth in the 1930 classic by the Lutheran theologian and archbishop of Uppsala, Yngve Brilioth, Eucharistic Faith and Practice, Evangelical and Catholic , and then further developed by Father Louis Bouyer and others in writings that informed the great movement for liturgical renewal prior to the Second Vatican Council: the Eucharist is commemoration, thanksgiving, communion, sacrifice, and the mystery of Christ’s abiding presence on the pilgrim way to eschatological fulfillment. Each of these themes is lifted up, and some are freshly explored and expanded in Ecclesia de Eucharistia . The encyclical is at its heart ecclesiological. That is to say, it is about the Church as the Church is formed by the Eucharist. The title is telling: not the Church and the Eucharist, but the Church of the Eucharist. This is the ecclesiological context for the asking of the question, Why can’t we all just get along at the altar?

The subject has an autobiographical dimension. I was reared and ordained a pastor in the Lutheran Church”Missouri Synod (LCMS). That body practiced and, at least officially, still practices “closed communion,” or, as some prefer, “close communion.” Only members of the LCMS or of bodies formally in “pulpit and altar fellowship” with the LCMS were admitted to Holy Communion. Formal fellowship, in turn, was based on “complete doctrinal agreement” with the LCMS. Since propinquity is a common source of tensions, most particular attention was paid to avoiding intercommunion with other Lutherans who professed a seductive approximation of doctrinal agreement. (The stricter Wisconsin Synod did not countenance even prayer at the dinner table with other Lutherans.) A good thing about the LCMS at its best is that it cared about doctrine. To paraphrase Walker Percy, it made the rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that the other Lutheran-isms, never mind non-Lutheran communions, are more or less false.

Of course, the logic of closed communion had ecclesiological implications. When the logic was robustly believed and practiced in the LCMS, a clear distinction was made between the visible and the invisible Church. Only God knows who belongs to the invisible Church. It was allowed that, by a “felicitous inconsistency,” even Roman Catholics might belong to the invisible Church and thus be saved. Things are more transparent when it comes to the visible Church. It was taught that the LCMS, along with bodies in complete doctrinal agreement with the LCMS, was “the true visible Church on earth.” Needless to say, the proposition that God established the true visible Church on earth in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1847 struck other Christians as somewhat counterintuitive. To be fair, some in the LCMS held a more nuanced version of the teaching, and the magisterial authority of Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics is not what it was during the first half of the last century. But the LCMS was right in seeing that the question of communion and intercommunion necessarily entails a doctrine of the Church.

That is the argument made also by Ecclesia de Eucharistia . A great difference is that the LCMS defined the reality of the Church entirely by doctrine. Sola doctrina , so to speak. The true Church is constituted, in effect, by a school of theology and those who adhere to it. The Catholic understanding, by way of sharpest contrast, is that the Church is the People of God through time, identified and sustained by apostolic doctrine and ministry, by the holiness of saints and those called to be saints, and by the faithful doing of the sacramental things”above all the Eucharist”that Jesus commanded his disciples to do. The question of intercommunion as it is addressed by Ecclesia de Eucharistia is, then, the question of ecclesiology: whether the Catholic Church is what she claims to be.

She claims to be the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Or, to use the language of Vatican II, the Church of Jesus Christ uniquely “subsists” in the Catholic Church. She does not claim to be the Church exhaustively or without remainder. Other Christians are, by virtue of baptism and faith, in “real but imperfect communion” with the Catholic Church. As, conversely, Catholics are in real but imperfect communion with other Christians. The Council readily acknowledges that the signs of saving and sanctifying grace, including outstanding marks of holiness, are sometimes more evident among those outside than within the boundaries of the Catholic Church. Why, then, can’t we all just get along at the altar?

No Place for Duplicity

Ecclesia de Eucharistia fills in the necessary background to the statement of the U.S. conference of bishops that is to be found in the Mass guides or bulletins of Catholic parishes:

We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us “that they may all be one.”

Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law. Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of Communion by Christians of these Churches.

Ecclesia de Eucharistia underscores that this is not just an institutional rule that defies the high value our culture places on “inclusiveness.” The Pope writes: “The Eucharist, as the supreme sacramental manifestation of communion in the Church, demands to be celebrated in a context where the outward bonds of communion are intact . . . . Christ is the truth, and he bears witness to the truth (cf. John 14:6; 18:37); the sacrament of his body and blood does not permit duplicity ” (emphasis added). The encyclical says that the Church understands “an ecclesiology of communion [to be] the central and fundamental idea of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.” Intercommunion without a shared ecclesiology of communion is the enemy of authentic unity. John Paul puts it this way:

Precisely because the Church’s unity, which the Eucharist brings about through the Lord’s sacrifice and by communion in his body and blood, absolutely requires full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance, it is not possible to celebrate together the same eucharistic liturgy until those bonds are fully reestablished. Any such concelebration would not be a valid means and might well prove instead to be an obstacle to the attainment of full communion by weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal and by introducing or exacerbating ambiguities with regard to one or another truth of the faith. The path toward full unity can only be undertaken in truth. In this area, the prohibitions of church law leave no room for uncertainty. (Emphasis added.)

The encyclical quotes a 1993 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “On Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion”: “Every Eucharist is celebrated in union not only with the proper bishop, but also with the pope, with the episcopal order, with all the clergy, and with the entire people. Every valid celebration of the Eucharist expresses this universal communion with Peter and with the whole Church, or objectively calls for it, as in the case of the Christian churches separated from Rome.” The objective call for such universal communion is evident in the “churches” of the East, as distinct from the “ecclesial communities” resulting from divisions in the West. As I have written elsewhere, the only thing that is lacking for full communion between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West is full communion. That reconciliation between East and West”so that, as John Paul has often said, “the Church can again breathe with both lungs””has not been achieved is undoubtedly the greatest single disappointment of this pontificate.


In the Nicene Creed, Christians profess the Church to be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Ecclesia de Eucharistia stresses in particular the importance of apostolicity. It is to the apostles that Jesus entrusted the Eucharist, and “it is in continuity with the practice of the apostles, in obedience to the Lord’s command, that the Church has celebrated the Eucharist down the centuries.” Apostolic practice is joined to apostolic faith. “With the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the ‘good deposit,’ the salutary words she has heard from the apostles.” “Here too,” says John Paul, “the Eucharist is apostolic, for it is celebrated in conformity with the faith of the apostles. At various times in the 2,000 year history of the people of the new covenant, the Church’s Magisterium has more precisely defined her teaching on the Eucharist . . . precisely in order to safeguard the apostolic faith with regard to this sublime mystery. This faith remains unchanged, and it is essential for the Church that it remain unchanged.”

Then there is the question of apostolic ministry. The encyclical cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church ’s assertion that the Church “continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, assisted by priests, in union with the successor to Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor.” John Paul adds, “Succession to the apostles in the pastoral mission necessarily entails the sacrament of holy orders, that is, the uninterrupted sequence from the very beginning of valid episcopal ordinations. This succession is essential for the Church to exist in a proper and full sense.” Needless to say, not all Christians agree with this understanding of apostolic fidelity. But despite the divisions at the altar that it necessarily entails, the Catholic Church is bound by it. The conviction is that a unity purchased at the price of evasion or duplicity cannot be a unity pleasing to God.

The above-mentioned distinction between the visible and invisible Church also comes into play. The Pope writes:

The celebration of the Eucharist cannot be the starting point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection. The sacrament is an expression of this bond of communion both in its invisible dimension, which in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit unites us to the Father and among ourselves, and in its visible dimension, which entails communion in the teaching of the apostles, in the sacraments, and in the Church’s hierarchical order. The profound relationship between the invisible and the visible elements of ecclesial communion is constitutive of the Church as the sacrament of salvation. Only in this context can there be a legitimate celebration of the Eucharist and true participation in it. Consequently, it is an intrinsic requirement of the Eucharist that it should be celebrated in communion and specifically maintaining the various bonds of that communion intact.

The Uncompromisable Goal

The Church’s commitment to full Christian unity is, as this pope has repeatedly said, irrevocable. Catholics must be in dialogue with Christians who do not share the Catholic understanding of apostolic fidelity, they should develop cooperative relationships in work and witness, and they can engage in common prayer and worship. But they cannot receive communion at other altars lest they “condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and consequently fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth.” Such intercommunion is sometimes seen as a mark of ecumenical progress, but, in fact, the practice “would result in slowing the progress being made toward full visible unity.” On the other hand, common services of prayer, worship, and Bible study may “prepare for the goal of full communion, including eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it.” The uncompromisable goal of ecumenism, in the Catholic understanding, is full communion.

But what about the statement that non-Catholics are “ordinarily” not admitted to Holy Communion? The answer is that exceptions to the rule are indeed extraordinary and made for compelling pastoral reasons. John Paul writes, “In this case, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully reestablished.” He then repeats what he wrote in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One): “It is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able in certain particular cases to administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them, and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments.” Catholics, on the other hand, “may not receive communion in those communities which lack a valid sacrament of orders.” Those churches in communion with Peter and the Orthodox are held to have a valid sacrament of orders.

“The ecclesial communion of the eucharistic assembly,” the encyclical states, “is a communion with its own bishop and with the Roman pontiff.” St Ignatius of Antioch is cited: “That Eucharist which is celebrated under the bishop, or under one to whom the bishop has given this charge, may be considered certain.” And Vatican II: “The Roman pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.” From the beginning, the Church understood that fellowship at the eucharistic table defined the boundaries of those who are and those who are not in full communion with one another and with Christ. St. Paul writes, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). John Paul quotes a homily of St. John Chrysostom: “I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg, and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called ‘communion,’ not even were we to touch the Lord’s body a thousand times over, but ‘condemnation,’ ‘torment,’ and ‘increase of punishment.’” St. Augustine is called to witness: “Christ the Lord hallowed at his table the mystery of our peace and unity. Whoever receives the mystery of unity without preserving the bonds of peace receives not a mystery for his benefit but evidence against himself.”

For many Christians, and for not a few Catholics, this teaching on intercommunion is both incomprehensible and offensive. In ecumenical circles, our division at the altar is commonly described as tragic, and it is that. In those communities, however, where the Eucharist is not understood or practiced as “the source and summit” of Christian existence, the use of the word “tragic” is somewhat hyperbolic. When non-Catholics speak of the tragedy of our not being united in eucharistic celebration, the tragedy they often have in mind is the “narrow” and “rigid” position of the Catholic Church. In the Catholic understanding, however, we really cannot do what others, and we, earnestly want to do, and that really is tragic because our “real but imperfect communion” is objectively ordered to, yearns and groans for, its perfection in eucharistic communion. But the Eucharist and other sacraments do not belong to the Church, to do with them as we wish. The Eucharist belongs to Christ, is Christ, and of that mystery we are the ministers and stewards. “The sacrament of his body and blood does not permit duplicity.”

The End of Ecumenism

Consider, too, that, were we now to act on our desire for a common celebration of the Eucharist, that would be the end of ecumenism, of the quest for the unity that Christ intends for his disciples. Eucharistic communion is the consummate expression of our unity in Christ. Were we to pretend that it had already been achieved, we would all be free to return to our several and separate religious communities and associations and go about business as usual. It would be not only the end of ecumenism but the end of faithfulness to the truth, as God has given us to know the truth. Is this bread and wine symbolic of Christ’s spiritual presence, or is this the body and blood of the crucified and risen Lord in the fullness of his humanity and divinity? Never mind. Does Christ intend an apostolically ordered community through time with a teaching authority under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or is belief determined by private judgment or majority vote? Never mind. For that matter, is Jesus true God and true man? Never mind. What matters is that we all call ourselves Christians, and Christians “do this in memory of him,” regardless of our conflicted understandings of what, in fact, we are doing, and of what, in fact, if anything, Christ is doing in our doing of it. This way of thinking is the way of duplicity in which we succeed in deceiving only ourselves. It would signal the end of the quest for unity in truth. A sure way not to reach a destination is to pretend that you have arrived before you get there.

An evangelical reader writes about an earlier comment on the Catholic Church’s commitment to unity being irrevocable. “That’s exactly what worries me,” he says. “The Catholic Church will never give up until all of us return to Rome.” In a recent lecture in England, Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, said, “We do not advocate an ecumenism of return. Ecumenism is not a way back; it is a way ahead into the future. Ecumenism is an expression of a pilgrim Church, of the people of God, which in its journey is guided, inspired, and supported by the Spirit, which guides us in the whole truth” (John 16:13). Of course there is always a necessary return to the sources ( ressourcement ), especially the Scriptures and the fullness of the apostolic tradition. But it is precisely the sources that mandate and inform the spirituality and hard work of ecumenism, which is directed toward the future. That future may be a long way off. Christian unity, like world evangelization and much else to which we are called, must be seen against an eschatological horizon.

When the prayer of Jesus in John 17 is fulfilled, it will not be a matter of Baptists or Presbyterians becoming Roman Catholics. There will be but one Church, and it may well be that distinct traditions of theology and practice, now embodied in separated denominations, will continue, perhaps in the form that such traditions continue in ordered communities such as the Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans today. But this is in the realm of speculation. In truth, nobody knows what the institutional form of visible unity among all Christians would look like. We can know that we will be united in the proclamation of the gospel, in sacramental life, in discernible continuity with apostolic ministry through time, and in communion with Peter. But even communion with Peter, perhaps the major stumbling block at present, will have different forms then. That was the bold proposal of John Paul II in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint , where he invites separated communities to join in exploring how the Petrine ministry might better serve as an instrument of unity. But this we know for certain: the cause of unity cannot be served by duplicity at the altar. If the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life, it must be maintained as the place and moment of uncompromised honesty, or else all hope for unity in truth is abandoned. There is no remedy for the painful absence of full communion other than full communion in the fullness of the truth that Christ intends for his Church.

Ecclesia de Eucharistia is about much more than ecumenism. But because the Church is of the Eucharist, and all Christians are, however imperfectly and confusedly, engaged in the life of the one Church, it is very importantly about ecumenism. The encyclical urges us to recognize that overcoming our differences begins with recognizing that our differences make a difference. In our longing for the eucharistic destination of the unity that is ours, the way forward is the way of prayer, honest dialogue, patience, and disciplined restraint.

The Bishops’ Problem

“It’s the Bishops’ Problem” is the title of Tom Bethell’s column in the American Spectator . He’s not talking about the sex-abuse scandals but what he views as episcopal silence or cowardice with respect to Catholic witness in the public square. When Senator Rick Santorum was ferociously attacked for simply stating the Catholic view”and the view of most Americans”on homosexuality, Bethell says “we did not hear from the Catholic bishops.” In fact, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia did publicly support Santorum, and he and other bishops offered to do more, but Santorum’s office asked them to hold off. It would, some thought, be counterproductive to make it “a Catholic issue.”

In 1984, Bethell writes, “the question arose whether John Cardinal O’Connor would dare to excommunicate the pro-abortion vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. For a brief moment, we held our breath. But he did no such thing. Little did we know that O’Connor was a pliant figurehead who was not remotely interested in opposing New York’s Democratic liberal establishment.” That’s a cheap shot, and inaccurate to boot. O’Connor challenged the liberal political establishment on many things”on school aid, the homosexual agenda, the freedom of the Church to run its social programs without government interference, and, again and again and again, on abortion. But it’s true, there were no excommunications.

Bethell makes an important point. He tells about a pro-life journalist who recently managed to corner Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. The journalist pressed them on how they square being Catholic and, at the same time, unqualifiedly pro-abortion. Kennedy said, “I take my beliefs, I take my religion, very seriously. Look, I know who I am and what I believe.” Then, speaking of the bishops, he said, “It’s their problem, not mine.” Kerry responded to the reporter’s question, “If the bishops can’t do and won’t say anything about that, don’t come to me. You know what I’m saying?” Bethell suggestively sets the two statements side by side”“If the bishops can’t or won’t do anything about that, don’t come to me. It’s their problem, not mine””and says the Senators are right. It is the bishops’ problem, he says.

The way to deal with it, he says, is for the bishops of Kennedy, Kerry, and the many others who take the same position to call them in and say: “Look, we just can’t have this. It is causing grave scandal. And your soul is in jeopardy. Either you change your mind, or you will be separated from the Church. Then maybe you will believe that we take our church affairs as seriously as you take your affairs of state.” In short, church discipline and, if it comes to that, excommunication, which is simply the public statement that a person has by grave, knowing, obdurate, and public sin separated himself from the communion of the Church.

Bethell is by no means alone in being puzzled and disappointed by episcopal leadership, or non-leadership, on this score. I have been asked hundreds of times, “Why don’t the bishops do something about ______?” (With Senator Kennedy, not surprisingly, most frequently mentioned.) The question is asked with a mix of poignancy and anger by the most faithful Catholics, and especially those who have sacrificed much for the pro-life cause. I’m afraid I don’t have a very good answer for those who ask, although over the years I’ve talked with many knowledgeable people about it, including many bishops. Some bishops have taken bold initiatives, as, very recently, in the cases of Governor Gray Davis of California and Senator Tom Daschle, but they stop well short of public excommunication.

The Meaning of “Pastoral”

Most bishops are, first of all, managers. That’s not the way it is supposed to be, but it is the way it is. They are burdened and distracted by many things. Anyone who wants to be a bishop these days is either a saint or manifestly disqualified for the job. The latter may not prevent him from getting it. Most bishops are averse to controversy and terrified of confrontation. They see it as their job to keep everybody on board, not to rock the boat, and so forth. This is called being “pastoral,” a rich word much debased. They know that almost every nationally prominent Democratic politician who is a Catholic is also pro-choice, and the same is true of some Republicans. They recognize that it is a problem, even a public scandal. They, too, have been asked the question. In many cases, they are tired of being asked it, probably because they, too, don’t have a very good answer.

Some of them say that efforts are being made behind the scenes. Speaking of one prominent politician, an archbishop tells me, “I can’t tell you how often I’ve wrestled him to the mat on this.” Apparently the politician won every time. He continues to be in the front lines of the pro-abortion cause, and to regularly receive the Eucharist. After more than thirty years, talk about what is being done behind the scenes is not very convincing. In another case, a bishop tells me that the politician claims his spiritual director assures him that his pro-abortion position is perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching. His spiritual director is a Jesuit. The bishop says nobody can expect him to take on the entire Society of Jesus. One might expect that, but, unfortunately, one doesn’t. Yet another bishop says that he is not sure whether an egregiously offending politician is in his diocese or registered in the parish of a different diocese, and is therefore the responsibility of another bishop. I respectfully suggested the question might be clarified by a simple phone call. Yet another bishop friend is very candid in saying that we all know the answer to the question: all hell would break loose. The papers and networks would be down on the heads of the bishops, and we would witness an explosion of anti-Catholicism that would make the sex-abuse scandals of the past year look like a minor rough spot.

It is also pointed out that Rome has not demanded, or given any indication of favoring, more public action by the bishops. Politically prominent pro-abortion Catholics in Italy, France, and Germany, for instance, are not subject to public discipline. Why should America be different? So the bishops have thought about the problem”although I do not know who was thinking what when Mr. Leon Panetta, a proponent even of partial-birth abortion, was appointed to the National Review Board. The bishops have an official policy against putting prominent pro-abortion proponents in situations of trust or honor in Catholic programs and institutions, lest it cause pubic scandal. One may be forgiven for wondering how serious they are about that policy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear enough: “Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted except by the pope, the bishop of the place, or priests authorized by them. In danger of death, any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.” Assuming, of course, that the sinner is penitent.

We may not need a string of highly publicized excommunications, but the Catholic people certainly deserve a more adequate explanation of what appears to be episcopal indifference to prominent Catholics who, in explicit and persistent defiance of the Church’s teaching, promote and abet the “abominable crime” (Vatican II) of abortion. Canon law states, “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae [automatically] by the very commission of the offense.” Why is a frightened young woman who procures an abortion excommunicate while a politician who encourages her by telling her it is her right to do so, and works to secure her liberty to do so, welcomed at the altar? Why are prominent Catholics who persistently and publicly promote what the Church calls the culture of death apparently immune from public discipline? The Catholic people have waited a very long time for convincing answers to these questions.

Until such answers are forthcoming, it would seem that Senators Kennedy and Kerry are right. “If the bishops can’t or won’t do anything about that, don’t come to me. It’s their problem, not mine.” Call it taunting, or call it throwing down the gauntlet, but Kennedy and Kerry have rendered an important service by clarifying that it is up to the bishops to make their problem the problem also of Kennedy, Kerry, and a host of others who count on bishops not having the nerve to be bishops. That, at least, is how many faithful Catholics see the matter. If they’re wrong, maybe the bishops, or at least some bishops, will explain why they’re wrong. Publicly.

While We’re At It

• It is very perceptive of you to have noticed. Yes, there are some style changes with this issue. The main text is just a bit larger and, we hope, easier to read. We aimed at a cleaner, less cluttered, cover design, and the hairlines here and there should offset the frequent massiveness of unbroken text on the page. There are a few other changes. I hope you like the new look. If not, please be patient and we’ll probably do another redesign in five years or so. If you do not like it because you think that FT had already reached perfection in every respect, I can only say that that is highly improbable.

• I remember visiting Goree Island in Senegal. It was thirty years ago, and I braced myself against the emotional impact that it evoked. Goree Island is the place where captured Africans were collected and shipped off to slavery in the New World. Your local paper reported that President Bush was there in July, but it likely did not report much of what he said there, which is a pity. Was JFK the last President whose moments of eloquence were widely celebrated and declared to be historic? School children learned them as the words of Kennedy, not of Ted Sorenson or other gifted speechwriters. We’re a long way from Lincoln’s scribbling the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Although, more recently, we’ve learned about those legal pads of Ronald Reagan, and how he wrote out some of his best lines. But we’ve grown more sophisticated, perhaps more jaded, about presidential speeches. Of course, with Bush there is the factor of partisan prejudice in the media, and the belief that he is illegitimately President. Add to that the assumption that he is dumb and inarticulate. Such biases have blocked much attention being paid the remarkable presidential rhetoric”in the noblest meaning of that term”of the last nearly three years. So Mike Gerson drafted the speech; the fact is that the President of the United States approved it, delivered it, and, for all I know, rewrote it. His words at Goree Island deserve to be called historic. He said: “For 250 years the captives endured an assault on their culture and their dignity. The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith, and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions. And yet in the words of the African proverb, ‘No fist is big enough to hide the sky.’ All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God. In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the Exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found he was more like themselves than their masters. Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence”and asked the self-evident question, ‘Then why not me?’” Then Bush mentioned William Wilberforce and others who early on recognized the evil of slavery and agitated against it. “These men and women, black and white, burned with a zeal for freedom, and they left behind a different and better nation. Their moral vision caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race. By a plan known only to Providence, the stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free.” He concluded with this: “The evils of slavery were accepted and unchanged for centuries. Yet, eventually, the human heart would not abide them. There is a voice of conscience and hope in every man and woman that will not be silenced”what Martin Luther King called ‘a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.’ That flame could not be extinguished at the Birmingham jail . . . . It was seen in the darkness here at Goree Island, where no chain could bind the soul. This untamed fire of justice continues to burn in the affairs of man, and it lights the way before us.” Powerful stuff, that. School children could learn, and no doubt are learning, a great deal that is less worthy of their attention.

• There was a minor kerfuffle in July when champions of an open and more transparent Church convened under a cloak of secrecy in Washington for a day-long discussion of “The Church in America: The Way Forward in the Twenty-first Century.” (Yes, I know a kerfuffle is minor by definition, but some are more minor than others.) The meeting was organized by Geoffrey T. Boisi, former chairman of the Boston College board of trustees and vice chairman of JPMorganChase, and was hosted by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington. Bishop Wilton Gregory and a couple of other episcopal officials of the bishops’ conference were invited, as were a slew of well-known and not so well-known academics and pundits. Despite being pledged to secrecy, some participants spoke to reporters. Monika K. Hellwig, head of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, who has led the fight against John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae effort to strengthen Catholic identity in higher education, described the participants and purpose: “These were very important people getting together and thinking about how we can shape the Church for the future. There are some things that will not move without Rome. But we can make some efforts to move Rome, and there is a whole range of other affairs that are really internal to the North American Church, and they can reshape the way things are done.” Among a couple of dozen other very important people involved in exploring how to pressure Rome to adapt to the progressive ways of what was called the American Catholic Church were Peter and Margaret Steinfels of Commonweal , Father Thomas Reese of America , Fr. Bryan Hehir of Catholic Charities, and the ever affable R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame. There is nothing remarkable about big donors from the corporate world getting a bishop to host a meeting, or about a cardinal archbishop getting other bishops to attend. More striking is the fact that not one of the academics, editors, and other consultants invited has a record of championing the leadership of John Paul II, and several are longstanding and outspoken dissidents from magisterial doctrine and opponents of what they view as this authoritarian and reactionary pontificate. If the subject is the way forward for the Church in the twenty-first century, one might expect bishops and other Catholics to be attentive to the ways in which this pope has for twenty-five years addressed that question in great detail. Through encyclicals, pastoral exhortations, and other instruments he has laid out an ambitious and comprehensive program of renewal”in Christian unity, evangelization, moral theology, solidarity with the poor, political responsibility, priestly formation, episcopal leadership, intellectual and artistic pursuits, and much else. In 1994, he issued Tertio Millenio Adveniente , a challenging agenda precisely designed for a discussion of “The Way Forward in the Twenty-first Century.” It is not a great surprise but it should not go unnoticed that in July 2003, reeling from the greatest scandal in the history of American Catholicism, leaders called together very important people who are indifferent or overtly hostile to the Pope’s understanding of the subject under discussion, the future of the Church. Peter Steinfels has just published a book on the Catholic circumstance in America, A People Adrift . I’m no expert when it comes to sailing, but I’m told a boat is adrift when it fails to tack to the wind, is overloaded on one side (in this case, portside), or is untethered from its anchor. Not to worry, however. As Monika Hellwig says, the very important people of the American Catholic Church can force Rome to mend its ways. It should also be noted that reports on the meeting are incomplete since some of the staunchest proponents of an open Church of greater transparency insisted on deepest secrecy.

• Much deserved attention has been paid the decision of Leonard Klein, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, to enter the Catholic Church and prepare for the priesthood in the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. Klein was among the more prominent “evangelical catholics” in Lutheranism and a former editor of Lutheran Forum . That magazine and its sister publication, Forum Letter , which was for many years edited by your scribe, are produced by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (ALPB). Pastor Russ Saltzman, the current editor of the Letter , reflects on whether ALPB is becoming “a nursery for ex-Lutheran Catholic priests.” Of Klein he writes: “He appreciates the teaching clarity of the Catholic Magisterium”authoritative (as in genuine) teaching always possesses great appeal, I suspect, to ex-Missourians. (Though saying that probably grants Leonard too little in his decision.)” I’m not sure I get that. Missouri Synod Lutherans have this odd thing about genuine (as in authoritative) teaching, and Klein’s concern on that score detracts from his decision? In any event, writes Saltzman, “Lutheran confessionalism”whether from the ‘protestant’ or the ‘evangelical catholic’ side of things”is very much a going concern. Lutheran denominationalism, both the LCMS and ELCA varieties, however, is not faring very well.” The point would seem to be that Lutheran confessionalism”meaning adherence to the doctrinal documents of the sixteenth century”would be even more of a going concern if it had an ecclesial home. As for his own future, Saltzman says that the possible (probable?) ELCA decision in favor of gay ordination and blessing same-sex unions would be “anti-gospel, and I will not remain in such a denomination.” He does not know where he will go, but says that Rome and Orthodoxy “hold no special appeal.” Are we to assume that, since he was not raised in the Missouri Synod, he is not afflicted with that odd concern for genuine/authoritative teaching? Knowing Russ Saltzman as I do, I am sure that is not what he means. Speaking of his fellow Lutherans, he says, “There are others, many others, in the same fix.” About that he is undoubtedly right. It would be as unseemly as it is unnecessary for me to observe that there is a home”which the Lutheran Reformation at its best sought to serve”for refugees from the ruins of the theological deconstruction of Lutheranism. So I will keep the observation to myself.

• In Tarbaek, Denmark, Pastor Thorkild Grosboll is a very popular fellow, at least with some of his people and with the Danish press. “I do not believe in a physical God, in the afterlife, in the resurrection, in the Virgin Mary,” he says. “I believe that Jesus was a nice guy who figured out what man wanted. He embodied what he believed was needed to upgrade the human being.” Nobody should doubt that humanity could use an upgrade, but Pr. Grosboll appears to doubt even more than the Lutheran church of Denmark can put up with. His bishop is Lise-Lotte Rebel, and she tells a reporter that Grosboll is “creating doubts and confusions about the church’s values.” In the absence of a creed, he cannot qualify as a heretic, but he can be found guilty of not minding his manners about the church’s values. The bishop explains, “A pastor is an employee of the state who has obligations, and he cannot say everything publicly just by claiming that his freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Danish constitution.” By a “physical God” Pr. Grosboll could mean God incarnate in Christ, I suppose. But in a church maintained by the government for the preservation of Danish culture, he might be referring to Odin or Thor. To paraphrase Chesterton, the problem with a church that doesn’t believe anything is that it will believe anything. But the bishop’s position seems reasonable enough: Pastor Grosboll is being paid, and, while he is entitled to his private doubts, confusions, and adolescent platitudes, he should refrain from rattling the church’s values in public.

• In late July, a year after its first meeting, the National Review Board set up by the bishops issued a progress report. As readers know, I shared and continue to share the misgivings that many have about the board. While the media questioned whether it would be independent and impartial, others worried whether it would compromise the episcopal governance of the Church”more than it had already been compromised by the incompetence, and worse, of some bishops”or be used as an instrument of the draconian “one strike and you’re out” policy adopted at the panicked meeting of bishops in Dallas last year. The progress report, addressed “to our fellow Catholics and others of good will,” is reassuring on a number of scores. Most members of the board are taking their work very seriously, with some highly paid professionals letting it become virtually a full-time job. The scandals are about crime and sin, but the board is heavily loaded on the crime side. The director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection was a top FBI official, as was her deputy, as was the head of the organization chosen to monitor compliance with the Dallas charter, as were many of the auditors doing the diocese-by-diocese investigations. Moreover, the job of compiling a report on the “nature and scope” of the crisis has been contracted to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is part of the New York university sysem. So cops are on the job everywhere, lending a measure of credibility to Governor Frank Keating’s injudicious remarks, precipitating his resignation as chairman of the board, in which he compared the bishops to the Cosa Nostra. Yet board members themselves have organized extensive conversations with a wide array of pertinent parties: victims and their representatives, priest perpetrators, medical authorities, seminary leaders and recent seminarians, and even a few theologians. So it seems the sin in these sins and crimes will not be entirely overlooked, and the board might even address the infidelity that is the “root cause” many would prefer not to talk about. By December the board hopes to issue a report on which dioceses have or have not complied with the Dallas charter. Early next year there is to be a “nature and scope” report from the John Jay team, which is to provide hard data on what has been going on since 1950: how many children have been abused and by whom, the nature of the abuse, what was or was not done to stop the abusers, and so forth. That report is eagerly awaited since, until now, people have been relying on newspaper summaries feeding off their own distorted reports, or on such as the over-heated charges of the Massachusetts attorney general and runaway grand juries manipulated by politically ambitious prosecutors. Then there will be a two-phase “causes and context” study by sundry academics, and that is expected to take several years. Such an exercise in what may turn out to be academic complexifying to obscure the obvious is probably inevitable. The board is looking for $4 million to fund it. Before the last reports, analyses, and monographs are consigned to the archives, the Long Lent that began in January 2002 may be largely forgotten. It is clear that the bishops have been painfully sobered about the consequences of sex abuse, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there have been few instances of abuse in the last ten years. With the implementation of the review board’s “safe environment standards,” it may well be that two or five years from now the Catholic Church will be seen as the squeaky-clean institutional model for protecting minors. That is a prospect devoutly to be hoped for. Then those who have led the assault on the Church will be able to turn their attention to sex abuse in, say, the public schools”if they are not preoccupied by then with lowering the age of sexual consent and challenging the taboo against what is called intergenerational erotic expression. Whether out of the Long Lent will come that resurrection renewal of the Church in fidelity and holiness for which the Pope called in his April 23, 2002 meeting with American prelates, one can only say that, as of this writing, the evidence of it is not overwhelming. But then, the Spirit is not captive to our programs and schedules, and out of exercises in institutional damage control may yet burst a springtime of fidelity.

• There were several earlier films on Dietrich Bon-hoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed on the direct orders of Hitler on April 9, 1945, only weeks before the end of the war. One anodyne rendition shown on PBS was so politically correct that it left the viewer with the impression that Bonhoeffer was a very nice man who loved African-American gospel music, opposed Hitler and anti-Semitism, and was somehow motivated by what he called, er, Christian faith. Very different is Bonhoeffer, a 90-minute documentary produced by Martin Doblmeier for Journey Films. Here is displayed the vibrantly radical faith of the author of The Cost of Discipleship , with a remarkably nuanced presentation of the theology that informed his actions, done in a way that never slows the drama. I have a few objections. Bonhoeffer was not so dismissive of the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr as the film suggests. The Bonhoeffer of the Ethics was not that committed to pacifism, and he was not so central to the plot on Hitler’s life, although his involvement is what got him killed. These caveats aside, Bonhoeffer is a magnificent achievement. It has been shown in churches, and more recently in select theaters in metropolitan areas, and has been highly and deservedly praised by critics. For more information, write Journey Films at 1413 King St., Alexandria, Virginia 22314, or visit

• “It’s never too late to say you’re sorry,” said Dr. Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. This summer, thousands of “messengers” at the SBC meeting in Phoenix officially repudiated pro-abortion resolutions of earlier years. Foy Valentine, Land’s predecessor, was a member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights and supported the argument “that abortion in some instances may be the most loving act possible.” In 1973, the SBC welcomed the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, declaring that it protected “religious freedom” against the efforts of the Catholic Church to impose its morality on the nation. This June, the convention voted to “lament and renounce statements and actions by previous conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture.” In the late 1970s, the SBC and most other evangelical Protestants were turned around on the abortion question under the leadership of Francis Schaeffer, the Swiss philosopher-theologian, and C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General. Since then, evangelicals have been indispensable allies in the contention for the culture of life. Dr. Land is right. Short of the final judgment, it’s never too late.

• Law professor Michael A. Scaperlanda takes a close look at one overlooked arena of change in “Kulturkampf in the Backwaters: Homosexuality and Immigration Law” ( Widener Journal of Public Law , Vol. 11, No. 3). Immigration is viewed as the “backwaters” of public policy, but changes being pressed there are viewed as the wave of the future by some partisans. As recently as twelve years ago, homosexuality was grounds for excluding immigrants. Now immigration provisions for uniting “married” couples are being applied to homosexuals and their partners. This is a change at the edges that, if entrenched, could have large ramifications elsewhere. Prof. Scaperlanda’s carefully argued article will be of interest to those who are tracking the progress of what is aptly described as the gay agenda.

• “Jews against Lieberman?” In a column by that title, Rich Lowry, a conservative pundit who is not Jewish takes note of apparently reliable reports that many Jews are reluctant to give to the presidential bid of Joseph Lieberman. He thinks this is crazy: “The question that an embattled Jewish community used to ask of any development in American public life was: ‘Yes, but is it good for the Jews?’ Any Jew who doubts the answer to that question when it comes to the prospect of a Lieberman presidency is living in another century, and perhaps on another planet.” Well, maybe. Lowry cites a poll indicating that “more than 90 percent of people say they are willing to vote for a Jewish candidate.” That is plausible, meaning that it is plausible that less than ten percent of Americans are prepared to be suspected of anti-Semitism by telling a pollster that they wouldn’t vote for a Jew. Lowry even thinks that Lieberman may have an advantage because he has a “southern strategy,” meaning that in the South “they care more that Lieberman is a man of faith than that he is Jewish.” I believe it, but most people in those states plan to vote for Bush in any case. They can afford to say nice things about Lieberman and his religious observance since it has no bearing on their politics. Jews who ask whether a Lieberman nomination or presidency would be good for the Jews may be excessively anxious but they are not living in another century or on another planet. I may be wrong, I hope I am wrong, but I expect a lot of ugliness of the anti-Jewish kind would come to the surface. Leaving aside the 2004 election, I think it would be a very good thing to have a religiously serious Jew as President. It would further underscore the reality of what is rightly called the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that would be good both for our public life and for helping Christians better understand their spiritual connection with Judaism of both the past and present. I have gotten myself into a good deal of trouble over the years for criticizing Jewish organizations that scream “anti-Semitism!” at every real or imagined slight. One of the most welcome developments in America of the last half century has been the dramatic decline of anything that can credibly be termed anti-Semitism. But it has not disappeared, despite the fact that “90 percent of people say they are willing to vote for a Jewish candidate.” Those Jews who are worried about putting to the electoral test the question of just how much anti-Jewish sentiment is out there may be wrong. I hope they are wrong. But they are not irrational. They are living in this century, on this planet, in this America.

• Senator Joseph Lieberman is not the man for the job, and, yes, it has everything to do with being Jewish. So says Hillel Halkin, author of Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel , and a frequent contributor to publications in Israel and this country. American and Israeli interests, he says, are usually in harmony, but there have been conflicts in the past and there will likely be in the future. Halkin writes: “When such an Israeli-American confrontation takes place, it is perfectly legitimate for Jewishly conscious American Jews to support Israel. They can do so while rejecting the charge that they are being disloyal to America because it is no more their responsibility as ordinary citizens, or even as politicians, to weigh every aspect of an American foreign policy decision regarding Israel than it is the responsibility of human rights activists, say, to weigh every aspect of an American foreign policy decision regarding China. Rather, they can say to themselves: ‘The welfare of Israel is supremely important to me, and I will do all I can to fight for it in the understanding that what I do is but one of numerous factors that will determine the final outcome”which will be decided by the President . . . . Since it is his job to see all sides of the question, I can concentrate on promoting one side.’” When the interests of America and Israel collide, Halkin notes, President Lieberman would no doubt say, as he does now, that he will always put the interests of America first. To which Halkin responds, “No doubt he will. And be inwardly torn as the Jew and the American in him clash as they have never before clashed in his public career. Is this a fair position to put him in, even if he chooses to be in it? Is it one that American Jews or Israelis would want an American President to be in? How could they permit themselves to exert the kinds of pressure on such a President to make pro-Israeli decisions that they could exert on other Presidents? How could they defend themselves or him against the charge of dual loyalty if he listened to them? Mr. Lieberman would probably make an excellent President. It is not his fault that the Israeli-Arab conflict will occupy much of his time if he is elected. But it is a conflict that could prove to be psychologically, emotionally, and politically ravaging for him. It would be better if he spared himself that ordeal.” Mr. Halkin’s argument is clear and candid, and many”although not, I expect, Mr. Lieberman”will find it persuasive. It rubs against the principle that there must be no “religious test” for public office, but, at the same time, it must be admitted that the conflict envisioned by Halkin would likely be a painful ordeal not only for Lieberman but for the country. I want to think that Mr. Halkin is wrong, especially because he claims that Mr. Lieberman’s candidacy would not be such a problem if he were not so serious about being a Jew. Halkin says, “It might be different if Mr. Lieberman were a marginal Jew”one of the millions of American Jews whose links with Judaism and the Jewish community are tenuous. Marginal Jews, like France’s Pierre Mendes-France and Austria’s Bruno Kreisky, have been the leaders of democracies less tolerant than America without their Jewishness being a major issue. But Mr. Lieberman is not a marginal Jew. He is a traditionally observant one, one with the highest possible awareness of his Jewish responsibilities.”

• It’s a European thing. The distinguished French writer, Jean-François Revel, said, “If you remove anti-Americanism, nothing remains of French political thought today, either on the left or on the right.” James Ceaser adds, “Revel might just as well have said the same thing about German political thought or the thought of almost any Western European country, where anti-Americanism reigns as the lingua franca of the intellectual class.” A few years ago, Ceaser, an historian at the University of Virginia, insightfully addressed this question in Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought . He revisits the question in an article in the Public Interest in the light of the recent explosion of anti-Americanism in connection with the Iraq war and, it seems, almost everything else. European anti-Americanism goes way back. “Some of the greatest European minds of the past two centuries have contributed to its making. The concept of America was built in such a way as to make it almost impervious to refutation by mere facts,” Ceaser writes. It was charged that 1) climatic and natural conditions made the New World degenerate; 2) the founding intellectual ideas of America are absurd and delusory; 3) America is racially impure (although now the complaint is that the races are not amalgamating quickly enough); 4) the dominance of technology and obsession with work makes America soulless; 5) Americans are consumed by consumerism. These, says Ceasar, are the “five layers” of anti-Americanism over the years. Nietzsche complained about American exporting her spiritual emptiness: “The faith of the Americans is becoming the faith of the European as well.” Some say America is too modern, others that it is not modern enough (Americans are still religious!). In 1935, Martin Heidegger wrote: “Europe lies today in a great pincer, squeezed between Russia on the one side and America on the other. From a metaphysical point of view, Russia and America are the same, with the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man.” Of course, Heidegger thought Hitler offered a way out of the painful pincer. After the w