The Public Square
Among the most oft-quoted statements on American foreign policy is that of John Quincy Adams in 1821: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” At the same time, as John Lewis Gaddis underscores in his recent book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, the same John Quincy Adams laid the foundation for a lasting policy of unapologetic unilateralism, including preemptive military action, when American interests are at stake. Defenders of the Bush administration’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq point out that these were not instances of going abroad seeking monsters to destroy. On September 11, the monsters came to us, making no secret of their desire to destroy us. No matter who had been President, the response to September 11 would have been dramatic and probably would have included military action on a greater or lesser scale. But that does not settle the arguments over the justice or wisdom of what President Bush decided to do.
In these pages we have published lively—some might say harsh—exchanges on the Bush policy by Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and Jean Bethke Elshtain. George Weigel, writing chiefly in defense of the just war tradition, was also supportive of the direction of administration policy. My own comments in this section, following the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, were critical of religious leaders who had donned the mantle of prophets in predicting a holocaust of civilian casualties and an America bogged down in “another Vietnam.” After the outrages of Abu Ghraib were revealed, I sharply challenged Alan Dershowitz and other writers who advocated the moral legitimation of torture. But as some readers have pointed out, either in praise or complaint, the war on terror has not been center stage in these pages. The editors, of course, are responsible for deciding what subjects have priority in “a journal of religion, culture, and public life.” With respect to the thousands of unsolicited manuscripts received, and in commissioning articles, we regularly ask two questions: Does this fit the distinctive purpose of First Things? Does this advance the discussion of the issue addressed? In considering articles and reviews, we tend to shy away from subjects that are amply, and more or less adequately, addressed in other publications. Editing is an exercise in the art of discretion, and such judgment calls are eminently debatable; as, indeed, they are debated among the editors.
In relation to foreign policy, we have a most particular interest in preserving, clarifying, and refining just war doctrine. That tradition of thought, dating back at least to St. Augustine, is indispensable to avoiding the trap of being caught between various pacifisms, on the one hand, and, on the other, the amoral maxim that, in love and war, “anything goes.” The reasons for going to war (ad bellum) and conduct in war (in bello) must be subject to disciplined moral reflection. Here First Things has a special responsibility, for these questions are generally not addressed with systematic care in publications such as the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, or National Review. In a forthcoming issue we will have a major article on the history and development of just war thinking by James Turner Johnson, who is probably the world’s premier authority on the subject. It is objected that just war doctrine has not prevented wars, in response to which it might be observed that the Sixth Commandment has not prevented people from committing adultery. Questions of war and warfare must not be permitted to escape the orbit of moral scrutiny. Nor is it helpful to view these questions through the prism of partisan politics, which has generally been the norm since September 11.
Yet conflicting visions of America’s role in the world—visions resulting in partisan alignments and realignments—also have a powerful bearing on how we think about questions of war and peace. We are witnessing today what might be described as a conflict of internationalisms. Some writers have claimed that “the conservative movement” is now splitting along the old divide between isolationists and internationalists. Old-fashioned isolationism is associated with the likes of Senator Robert Taft and Charles Lindbergh (the latter being the subject of a new historical fantasy by novelist Philip Roth). Figures such as George F. Will and Pat Buchanan are cited as representing that strain of thought today. In his more intemperate jeremiads about the American republic succumbing to the lust for empire, Buchanan fits the isolationist stereotype, as do publications such as Chronicles and the Southern Partisan. George Will, on the other hand, has been critical of what he views as the overreach of Bush’s war on terrorism but understands the inevitability, for better and worse, of America’s unprecedented dominance in world affairs, and the international and transnational entanglements that dominance necessarily entails. He is an internationalist.
But that internationalism is different from the vision proposed by, for instance, the Weekly Standard or Norman Podhoretz’s recent article in the September issue of Commentary, “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have To Win.” This is the assertive internationalism regularly and somewhat misleadingly attributed to those called “neoconservatives.” Some call it, meaning no compliment, democratic globalism. There is yet a third internationalism, represented by John Kerry and reflecting the consensus within what is described as the “foreign policy establishment.” I am obviously painting with broad strokes, but this third internationalism is strongly committed to international institutions, international law, and coordination with countries similarly committed, in order to ensure that U.S. policies pass “the global test,” to borrow a phrase Senator Kerry used in debate with President Bush. In this view, it is suggested that the war on terror is more accurately described as a defensive police action against criminal activities. The goal is to contain terrorism, if necessary by killing some terrorists, and to do so in a way that does not provoke further anger against America. One important way to do that is to make sure that America acts in concert with other nations, preferably through the United Nations, which bestows “moral legitimacy” on what is to be done.
Of these three internationalisms, the first two are agreed that America must remain the master of its own policies. A new book by Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell University is a great help in sorting out the contending arguments. The book is The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence (AEI Press, 255 pages,, $25
). The book is praised by both George Will and Robert Kagan, contributing editor of the Weekly Standard. Rabkin is especially astute in challenging the legitimacy, never mind the power to bestow moral legitimation, of institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the UN. International law that is not derived from or accountable to a political sovereign is doubtfully law at all, and is certainly not what the Declaration of Independence calls just government derived from the consent of the governed. Since Rabkin wrote the book, the corruption and criminal activity of the UN has become glaringly evident in, for instance, the “Oil for Food” program that was so skillfully manipulated for years by Saddam Hussein. Apart from corruption and crime, however, Rabkin’s argument goes to the heart of the question of how and by whom force can be responsibly used in world affairs. He makes a persuasive case that world peace and human rights are better secured by the judicious exercise of national sovereignty (and not only American sovereignty) than by institutions that speak for and are answerable to an amorphous “international community.”
International affairs continues to be, in the phrase of Hans Morgenthau, “politics among nations.” The Augustinian sensibility of a Reinhold Niebuhr is still required for deflating utopianisms and recognizing interests in conflict, and to do so with a realism that does not succumb to cynicism. Moral judgment is necessary, as is the awareness of different moralities in conflict. Politics among nations may also be politics among cultures, resulting in, as Samuel Huntington put it, a clash of civilizations. In the war on terror, we have been too reticent in acknowledging the challenge posed by Islam’s culture, morality, and very different civilizational aspirations. It is understandable that political leaders are eager not to define the conflict in terms of religious warfare, but that does not require speaking of Islam as a religion of peace that a few fanatics have hijacked for their lethal purposes. We must hope that there are Muslim thinkers of influence who will succeed in setting it right, but there is something terribly wrong with Islam in its inability to get along with the non-Muslim world. Almost everywhere we witness what Huntington calls “the bloody borders of Islam.” Most Muslims, like most people everywhere, may be decent and lovers of peace. But as an Egyptian newspaper, addressing recent events with refreshing candor, told its Muslim readership, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorists are Muslim.” There is perhaps a better phrase than clash of civilizations, but we are in for a very long struggle.
Americans and those on our side of the clash should stop depicting the struggle in terms that Niebuhr described as “the children of light against the children of darkness.” To be sure, there is a conflict between good and evil—as in the deliberate targeting of the innocent and the publicized beheadings of hostages. But, in the larger picture of world affairs, neither good nor evil is as unmixed as we would like to think. We need to abandon the conceit that they hate us only because of how wonderful we are—how free, how productive, how powerful, how rich, and (repeat ten times) how free. No doubt there is ressentiment, but it is ressentiment with a multitude of reasons that we need to understand, if not accept. Islam was for a thousand years a civilization of triumphant conquest, until it was forced into retreat and centuries of being dominated, humiliated, and manipulated by the West, which, it is never forgotten by Muslims, is the Christian West. As for our blessed freedom, it has also brought to the world pornography, abortion, irreligion, and rampant licentiousness in the name of liberty.
On balance and considering the alternatives, America has been and is an influence for good in the world. Among the great and good things about America is our experiment in constitutional democracy that, while severely compromised, has not been ended. That experiment has been an inspiration for many others, but it is doubtful that it should be viewed as a global prescription, and certainly not a prescription we can compel others to accept. I believe that military action in removing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq could be morally justified on the basis of what was known then. Some of what almost all informed people thought they knew then has turned out not to be the case. Saddam Hussein’s presumed possession of and ability to use weapons of mass destruction is the most obvious instance. What is known in retrospect has led to long second thoughts, and not only about the competence of the intelligence services. I am not persuaded that post-war policies in Iraq have been, as so many claim, an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the timetable for post-war transition that was set out more than a year ago appears to be more or less on track. Of course mistakes were made and are being made. That comes with what is aptly called the fog of war. There is no reason why generals and their political superiors should publicly catalogue their mistakes, and many reasons why they shouldn’t, not least being the morale of the troops under their command. Those who condemn the war because soldiers and innocent civilians are killed and maimed are not being serious. That is what happens in war, and is a very good reason for avoiding war. War is always, as John Paul II said on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, a failure for mankind. There ought to be better ways of resolving conflicts and containing evil. But sometimes war is justified and necessary. There is a lively and legitimate argument about whether, knowing what we know now, this war was justified and necessary. That argument should be conducted in the awareness that leaders do not have the convenience of making decisions retrospectively. Wherever one comes down in that argument, it is to be hoped that the U.S. policy in Iraq succeeds, not least because for America to fail in such a momentous undertaking, and to be seen to have failed, would have ominous consequences for the future of world peace and stability.
What does it mean to succeed? Certainly not that next year or ten years from now democracy will be securely achieved in Afghanistan or Iraq. That, I expect, will not happen. Maybe politicians feel it necessary to use the term democracy because of our impoverished vocabulary in which democracy simply means government that is more or less decent. Such usage, however, is gravely misleading. If by democracy we mean liberal, constitutional, representative government, it is a difficult and rare achievement and is not securely achieved even among us who have been at it for a very long time. Talk about establishing democracy in Iraq and then in the greater Middle East can be delusory. Maybe a hundred years from now, but that is beyond the control of today’s decision makers. Equally wrongheaded is the equation of democracy with holding elections. As we discovered in Algeria in 1992 and may yet discover in Afghanistan and Iraq, popular elections can end up putting the fanatics in power. That, for instance, would likely be the result were the royal family of Saudi Arabia to yield to popularly elected government tomorrow.
In these pages, we have adumbrated in a thousand different ways why politics is in largest part dependent upon culture, and why culture is the product of a morality and meaning most deeply grounded in religion. On all these scores, the Islamic world is grievously impoverished. That does not mean Islamic nations are not capable of democracy. It does mean democracy will require deep and difficult transformations not just in politics but, much more importantly, in culture, morality, and religion. That almost certainly will not happen in the foreseeable future, and nobody should suggest that the success of American policy depends upon its happening. Success in Iraq is, in no small part, having removed the regime of Saddam Hussein, thus ending the monstrous rule of a systematic perpetrator of crimes against humanity. Success is in demonstrating that America has the capacity and will to respond when attacked. In that connection, the final report of Charles Duelfer and the Iraq Study Group leaves little doubt in my mind that Saddam had the intention and, if America had dallied or left it to the UN, would have had the weaponry to dominate the Middle East and, in collusion with terrorist networks, inflict massive damage on America and the West. Finally, success will be if, three or thirty years from now, Afghanistan and Iraq have reasonably decent and stable governments, operating under something believably like the rule of law and generally respecting the civil rights of their citizens. If Iraq were, in time, to lead the nations of the region in bringing about a more responsible government in Palestine and making peace with Israel, that would be great success.
Internationalism of Circumstance
With few exceptions, we are all internationalists now. We have little choice in the matter. Jefferson worried whether our form of government could survive expansion on a continental scale. Now, by force of both intention and happenstance, our sphere of power and responsibility has expanded far beyond that. The liberal internationalism of diminished sovereignty is an abdication of responsibility and would be neither in our interest nor in the interest of world peace. The internationalism of global crusading for democracy is a delusion fraught with temptations to the hubris that has been the tragic undoing of men and nations throughout history. We should, rather, think of ours as an internationalism of circumstance, whose obligations we will not shirk. Our first obligation is to repair and keep in good repair our constitutional order and the cultural and moral order on which it depends. That we cannot do unless we are prepared to defend ourselves, not going abroad to seek monsters to destroy but also not fearing to resist and counter those who would destroy us.
An internationalism of circumstance, with its attendant duties, does not provide the thrilling drum rolls of the crusade or the glories of empire. Nor does it indulge dangerous dreams of escape into a new world order on the far side of national sovereignty. The world continues to be a world of politics among nations with, for better and worse, the United States as the preeminent nation for the foreseeable future. We cannot build nations, although we can at times provide encouragement and incentives for those determined to build their own. We cannot bestow democracy, but we can befriend those who aspire to democracy. We can build coalitions or act on our own for the relief of misery and the advancement of human rights, always having done the morally requisite calculation of our capacities and interests, and knowing that it is in our interest to be perceived as doing our duty. We can try to elicit, engage, and nurture constructive voices within Islam, recognizing that the Muslim future will be determined in largest part by those who seek to do what they believe to be God’s will in relation to the infidel, which will always mean us. Above all, we can strive to be a people more worthy of moral emulation, which includes, by no means incidentally, our dependability in rewarding our friends and punishing those who insist upon being our enemies. Finally, given our circumstance of preeminence and the perduring force of envy and resentment in a sinful world, we need not flaunt our power. Whenever possible, we should act in concert with other sovereign nations, and especially other democracies. Often America will have to lead, and sometimes have to act alone. When we do, we should not expect to be thanked, never mind loved. We frequently will be, as in fact we frequently are, but that is to be deemed no more than a bonus for being and doing what we should.
Our December 2001 editorial “In a Time of War” observed: “The statement of a war aim signifies not only a purpose but also a terminal point. When will we know that it is over? President Bush has declared, ‘It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.’ After September 11, we are or should be in a permanent state of heightened vigilance, but we must not resign ourselves to being in a permanent state of war. Not immediately, but in due course, we need a clear statement on how we will know that the war is over and a just peace is reasonably secured. There may never be, and there should never be, a return to the last decade’s delusory holiday from the vicissitudes of history, but it seems probable that a democracy cannot survive and flourish in a permanent state of emergency.” That was three years ago. This is written before the outcome of the presidential election is known. John Kerry apparently believes that we are not, or at least should not be, at war. A Kerry presidency would likely move toward the internationalism of diminished sovereignty described above. If George W. Bush is reelected, we will need a new and more persuasive statement of an internationalism that is compatible with our interests and capacities, and that proposes a believable alternative to an America and a world in a permanent state of war.
Admittedly, this vision is far removed from the Christmas angels’ announcement of peace on earth and good will among men. That promise is sacramentally anticipated in the City of God journeying through time toward the temple of the New Jerusalem by whose light the nations shall walk and to which the kings of the earth shall bring their glory (Revelation 21). Meanwhile, in the lesser but also real world short of that consummation, our responsibility is to attend, in the courage of our uncertainties and with a wisdom not untouched by providential guidance, to the politics among nations—which will seldom provide us with the choices we would prefer.
The Vatican vs. “Americanism”
John Allen has written an exceedingly valuable book. It is titled All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (Doubleday, 392 pages, $24.95
). Never mind that he speaks dismissively of those who write “instabooks” on matters Catholic, while admitting that he pulled this one together in less than a month. John Allen has a lot that is worth pulling together. Never mind that book-size length is achieved by a lot of padding from his earlier reporting from Rome, such as more than a hundred and fifty pages of chronological accounts of the sex abuse crisis and the Vatican’s response to the war in Iraq. It is very useful material to have all in one place. The book also provides a thoughtful summary of what Allen has learned about the Holy See over his years of trying to be assiduously fair while reporting for the decidedly leftist National Catholic Reporter. Had the title not been taken by a recent and less interesting volume, Allen might well have called his book Inside the Vatican.
There are analytically descriptive sections on the structure, psychology, and sociology of the Vatican, along with a treatment of “myths” about the Vatican. The Holy See is of course the see of Peter, and the Vatican is the city-state where Peter presides surrounded by his administrative apparatus, the Curia. Allen offers a brief account of the development of papal governance, as well as an intelligent consideration of the arguments, pro and con, for the “centralization” of Petrine authority. He describes the division of labor, and sometime conflicts, between the curial dicasteries—congregations, pontifical councils, and assorted subordinate offices—and is generally sympathetic toward the people who work in them. The skeptical reader may wonder how much Allen is pulling his punches, since these are the people he needs as sources in order to do his work, but I am inclined to think his expressed respect is genuine. In part because, in my much more limited experience of the Vatican, his evaluations tend to ring true.
The chief “myths” include the notion that the Vatican has a monolithic view on everything. Without slipping into gossip, Allen does a fine job of indicating the ways in which personalities, dispositions, alliances, and turf wars keep many viewpoints in play, all within the bounds of a shared understanding that every person and every office is in the service of the pope. Similarly, the myth of Vatican secrecy is, he suggests, much exaggerated, as his own reporting demonstrates. As with any organization, some things are confidential, and there is of course the sacramental seal, but over lunches and dinners, at diplomatic receptions and in formal interviews, the Curia sometimes seems like a perpetual talk shop. Curial officers are often depicted as grasping careerists, and no doubt some are, but Allen suggests that the norm is that of people making considerable sacrifices, financial and otherwise, to serve the Church. As for the myth of the Vatican’s wealth, he notes that it operates with a regular deficit and, while it owns artistic and other properties that are of inestimable value, none of them can be sold or used as security. In fact, being steward of these properties is a huge financial liability.
The Curial Mind
Under “the psychology of the Vatican,” he proposes words indicative of the operative values: Authority, bella figura, Cosmopolitanism, Loyalty, Objectivity, Populism, Realism, Rule of Law, Time, and Tradition. Most of those may seem self-evident. Objectivity, Time, and Tradition are summed up in the maxim that Rome thinks in terms of centuries. By bella figura is meant that direct confrontations are, whenever possible, avoided; losers are given a chance to save face, and the hope is that everybody comes away from a difficult decision “looking good.” Surprising to many readers will be Allen’s treatment of “populism.” Rome is the final court of appeal for people in the Church who have been treated shabbily, and is generally on the side of the underdogs, notably when they, whether clerical or lay, have suffered at the hands of arbitrary or tyrannical prelates. Moreover, the Curia is populist in the sense that Rome is serious about the faithful having a right to the faith taught and practiced faithfully. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is often called the Church’s doctrinal “enforcer” and depicted as the oppressor of theologians, but Allen helps the reader to understand that he may more accurately be seen as the protector of the Catholic people from the malfeasance of academic elites.
With respect to the “sociology” of the Vatican, Allen says that curial officials, from top to bottom, are shaped by what might be called the constructions of reality within several everyday circles of experience: the Vatican itself, the city of Rome (ecclesiastical and secular), Italy (ecclesiastical and secular), and Europe. Whether an official is from the U.S., Ukraine, Brazil, or Nigeria, he becomes, in due course, curial, Roman, Italian, and European. That formation of thought, priorities, disposition, and personality is, one gathers, pretty much inevitable; and Allen is appropriately skeptical about the success of “reforms,” such as those proposed by retired Archbishop John Quinn, for making the governance of the Church more “representative,” perhaps by having a more or less permanent synod of bishops act as a kind of parliamentary check on executive authority. The Vatican-Roman-Italian-European formation has everything to do with Rome’s response to the American sexual abuse crisis and the Iraq war, to which Allen devotes half of his book.
His chronology of the sex abuse crisis, unfortunately, stops well short of the release of the report of the National Review Board in February 2004. He does provide page upon page of what was actually said by curial officials, sundry cardinals, and other leaders. Only snippets of these texts appeared in news stories, and it is good to have them in context. The fuller documentation is frequently embarrassing, as when it is alleged that sex abuse is a distinctly American problem, or that the firestorm of publicity was motivated simply by anti-Catholicism or was orchestrated by a conspiracy of Masons working together with Jews who control the media and are repaying the Church for its pro-Palestinian sympathies. In Rome, and in Europe more generally, the frequent allusion to the Masons often puzzles Americans, for whom the Masonic Lodge is as sinister as the Rotary Club, although a good deal less influential.
It is not only the French but Europeans more generally who are inclined to think that an inveterately puritanical American culture has a hard time being sensible about sex. That more “sophisticated” European stance was reflected in European bemusement at the brouhaha attending President Clinton’s dalliances, and was not absent from the reaction to the media outrage in the sex abuse crisis. When will these Americans grow up? Things happen.
Roman officials were much and rightly concerned about the norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in their panicked meeting of Dallas 2002, including “zero tolerance” for any cleric who was at any time in his entire life accused of sex abuse—with “sex abuse” being defined so loosely as to make possible the conviction of almost any normal adult. The abovementioned populist dimension of curial culture came into play as Rome modified those norms to ensure that the accused got at least a measure of due process. Allen understands that it is not only the so-called Puritan factor that makes America different. Ours is a more legalistic culture. Some attribute that, too, to Puritanism or, as Francis Cardinal George of Chicago prefers, Calvinism. For most Europeans, and notably for Italians, the law is an ideal, it being understood that all mortals fall short of the ideal. For Americans, the law is there to be enforced. In addition, other countries do not have our system of tort law by which huge financial damages can be exacted from institutions. Finally, in many countries the age of sexual consent is lower—often sixteen or fourteen, and in a few places as low as twelve. In such societies, it is thought that young people bear a greater measure of responsibility for what they do, also sexually. This obviously reflects very different cultural attitudes toward children and childhood.
Early on in the crisis, curial officials learned to express the mandatory outrage at the damage done to victims of sexual abuse but, although Allen does not come out and say so, sometimes it seemed their hearts were not in it. The general attitude seemed to be this: Yes, of course the Pope was right when he said that there is no place in the Church’s ministry for anyone who might harm children. But then, in the Church as elsewhere, we are all sinners, and sometimes even priests do evil things. Surely they should be punished, and strictly so. The Church has centuries of canon law—canon law which the American bishops did not use—specifically designed to deal with such offenses. And surely those who are hurt should be helped as much as possible. But please, perspective is required, and patience, and a sympathetic appreciation of human frailty. Let there be no rush to judgment and, above all, let us not play into the hands of those who wish the Church nothing but ill. Such was and is the widespread, if not dominant, view within the Curia.
Then we come to the Vatican and the Iraq war. Allen offers his considered judgment: “The only possible reading of the record is that John Paul II was strongly opposed to the Iraq war.” I suggest that this is not the only possible reading, but it is the most plausible reading. John Paul never explicitly condemned the war as immoral, but many curial officials did, and John Paul did not publicly distance himself from their remarks. John Paul did say that all war, including this war, represents a failure for humanity, and supporters of the war could readily agree with that, acknowledging that only when other means of resolving conflict have failed is war necessary. Allen supplies page upon page of curial criticisms of U.S. policy from August 2002 through June 2003, some of them quite strident. Curiously, he does not include Renato Cardinal Martino’s assertion that there can be no just war today, an assertion that, so far as I know, has not been retracted. Most of the criticisms focused on predictions of massive civilian casualties (which did not happen); the incompatibility of preemptive and unilateral military action with traditional just war doctrine; the expectation that the action would precipitate religious warfare between Islam and Christianity; and the moral illegitimacy of such actions undertaken without United Nations approval. At least a couple of statements came close to suggesting that Catholics could not in good conscience support or participate in the intervention by the American-led coalition. Surprisingly—some thought scandalously—the Vatican was silent about Saddam Hussein’s mass killings and violation of human rights, perhaps because that might lend some legitimacy to the coalition action. The Vatican had previously approved of humanitarian intervention in, for instance, the case of Kosovo.
Relative to the “most plausible reading” of John Paul’s position, it is not known how many of these curial statements were brought to the Pope’s attention or had his approval. This touches on the very delicate question of the Holy Father’s physical debility and reduced energies. It is known that he did not publicly distance himself from the criticisms nor did he rein in the critics. Some curial officials exulted in the supposed demonstration of papal moral leadership when millions of antiwar demonstrators in Europe and elsewhere cheered John Paul as their champion. When assorted leftists, including pro-abortionists and declared enemies of the Church, take to the streets to cheer the pope, that is an instance not of papal leadership but of papal co-optation. But again, John Paul did not distance himself from, but appeared to welcome, these implausible supporters of papal moral leadership.
A great and necessary concern of the Vatican is Islamic-Christian conflict, and especially the treatment of Catholics and other Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. Vatican officials noted with satisfaction that there was no outbreak of anti-Christian hostility following regime change in Iraq, and they attributed that to the fact that the Pope, the preeminent representative of the Christian world, was perceived as being opposed to the coalition action. There is no doubt much truth to that. Beyond Islamic-Christian relations, which will be a preeminent concern for decades, very basic questions have been raised about the way the Vatican views the U.S. In a world of unipolar hegemony—or, if one prefers, empire—the Holy See may increasingly see itself as a necessary balance, if not antithesis, to the dangers of overweening American power—political, military, economic, and, above all, cultural. This is different from, say, Chirac’s France nominating itself as the center of a new “multipolar” world. The Vatican city-state with its 108 acres and 1,500 residents has no illusions about being a big, little, or even very tiny power among the powers of the world. Yet it must be admitted that “how the Vatican really thinks” is not always that different from how France and other promoters of an anti-American line think. Although curial pronouncements on the Iraq war were usually prefaced by the claim that cardinals and archbishops were speaking as moral leaders and not as politicians, most of what they had to say was little more than an echo of the dominant views in the press and political chambers of what is now called “old Europe.”
At the same time, John Allen is right in saying that the controversy over the Iraq war brought to the fore important issues that will have a long shelf life. Allen thinks one of those issues is the development of just war doctrine. Perhaps so, but the interventions of curial officials on just war in the run-up to the Iraq intervention were generally ad hoc, political, and matters of prudential judgment; they did not have the mark of theological and moral deliberation that one associates with a development of doctrine. At most, there is a development similar to that of John Paul’s well-known opposition to capital punishment. In both cases, the Church’s doctrine is deeply entrenched in the tradition, and the moral and theological questions entailed have not been addressed in a way that rises to the level of magisterial teaching. A preferred position of the Vatican is not the same thing as a doctrine of the Church. This applies as well to Vatican attitudes toward the United Nations, the Kyoto environmental treaty, the International Criminal Court, and international law more generally. The differences between the U.S. and most of Europe on these issues is well known, and the Curia reflects the European position. That may be regrettable, but it is not surprising. The disagreements are political and not doctrinal. In fact, if one wished to press the matter of social doctrine, it would be highly interesting to explore how the curial position on, for instance, the International Criminal Court can be squared with the teaching of the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus on the accountability of governments to their societies.
As for America . . .
Allen raises a more provocative question with respect to the general disposition of Rome to the United States. He writes:
Both the Iraq war and the sex abuse crisis suggested to Vatican observers that the ghost of John Calvin is alive and well in American culture. These reservations are well documented, from Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae, condemning the supposed heresy of “Americanism,” to Pius XII’s opposition to Italy’s entrance into NATO based on fears that the alliance was a Trojan horse for Protestant domination of Catholic Europe. Key Vatican officials, especially Europeans from traditional Catholic cultures, have long worried about aspects of American society—its exaggerated individualism, its hyperconsumer spirit, its relegation of religion to the private sphere, its Calvinist ethos. A fortiori, they worry about a world in which America is in an unfettered position to impose this set of cultural values on everyone else.
These are interesting questions indeed, and John Allen believes they are receiving very definite answers:
At the deepest level of analysis, there is serious doubt in many quarters of the Vatican that American culture is an apt carrier for a Christian vision of the human person and therefore of the just society. . . . Though no pope and no Vatican diplomat will ever come out and say so, the bottom line is that despite great respect for the American people and their democratic traditions, the Holy See simply does not think the United States is fit to run the world. . . . Thus the Holy See’s diplomatic energy in coming years will have as a central aim the construction of a multilateral, multipolar world, which will necessarily imply a limitation on the power and influence of the United States.
On all these scores, Allen may well be right. The result would be that on the world stage the Vatican will be increasingly perceived by Americans and others as anti-American, and it will be precisely that. As documented in George Weigel’s authoritative biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, this has been the most pro-American pontificate in history. This Pope has made numerous and unprecedented statements on the genius of the American political and social order, and that appreciation is clearly reflected in the aforementioned Centesimus Annus on the just and free society. But Allen and others counter that this positive disposition toward America was but a phase, a momentary aberration created chiefly by the cooperation of Rome and the U.S. in bringing an end to “the evil empire.” After the fall of Soviet communism, in this view, the Vatican has reverted to what might be called its default position, that of Leo XIII’s robust suspicion of America and “Americanism.”
Certainly, there are those who agree with and welcome Allen’s prognosis. He cites David Schindler, editor of the English-language edition of Communio, who has written extensively on why—anthropologically, sociologically, and in its tacit theology—the American order is incompatible with Catholic Christianity. Moreover, there are American bishops with influence in Rome and Americans highly placed in the Curia who have been quite thoroughly Europeanized in their critique of their own country. Europeanized, that is, in the image of “old Europe.” In Poland and other countries still newly liberated from Soviet communism, the view of America is quite different. Of course these countries may over time be subsumed into the worldview of the European Union, to which the Vatican may provide a kind of moral chaplaincy, even if the EU will not so much as acknowledge Christianity as part of its cultural heritage.
Murray the Minority
One readily admits that the United States is not a fit bearer of Christian culture in the world. No country or concert of countries is that. But then one must always ask: Compared to what? The European Union? Russia? Latin America? Africa? Or to stretch the point to absurdity, China? Strategic and tactical aspects of the war on terror aside, the argument can be made that American influence is generally on the side of the Church on the big questions: human freedom, democracy, the dignity of the human being at all points on life’s continuum, the indispensable centrality of family and marriage, the economic development of poor nations, and the practice of subsidiarity in civil society. A change in U.S. administrations would likely have a negative impact on all these, but they would nonetheless remain vibrant components of the continuing American experiment.
In contrast to Leo XIII’s judgment in 1899, John Courtney Murray published in 1960 We Hold These Truths. He made, and those who claim his legacy make, the argument that not only is Catholic faith and life compatible with the American experiment but Catholicism may be essential to preserving the experiment, even as it counters those elements of “Americanism” that are corrosive of the Church’s vision. Murray’s was a minority position then and, if Allen and others are right, it may become more of a minority position in the future. John Paul warmly embraced crucial aspects of the Murray argument, but on the not-so-distant horizon is another pope who will likely be shaped by, in Allen’s phrase, “how the Vatican really thinks.” More than in 1899 and more than in 1960, the world is being reconfigured by divergent attitudes toward America and its global hegemony, which, for better and worse, is likely to continue for a long time. It will be a very great pity if the Vatican becomes the spiritual cheerleader for those Europeans who view America with a measure of respect and even admiration mixed with a much larger measure of envy, resentment, and pitiable pretensions to moral and intellectual superiority.
In the background of that European attitude, and not very far in the background, hovers the fear of huge and restive Muslim populations in countries such as France and Germany. In a global conflict with an enemy motivated by Islamic fanaticism, these Europeans, and perhaps some in the Vatican as well, do not want to be perceived as being on the Christian side. To be sure, the Vatican has a singular responsibility to cultivate dialogue with Islam, but that dialogue will be neither credible nor fruitful if the Vatican is not clearly on the Christian side. That does not mean that in every instance the Vatican should be on the American side. A great deal of delicate diplomacy and careful thought is required. But this much is certain: in the new configuration of world power and influence, the United States is, on balance and considering the alternatives, on the Christian side.
We should all understand why President Bush refuses to speak about a clash of civilizations or to describe our circumstance as one of religio-cultural warfare. But we should all know that that is what, in fact, it is. Or, as the report of the 9/11 Commission prefers, it is an ideological conflict inescapably tied to religion. It would be an exquisite irony of history if, when war is declared on the Christian West by those inspired by a possibly perverse but undeniably Islamic ideology, the Vatican refused to take sides; thus, willy-nilly, taking the other side. The Curia’s cosmopolitanism, sophistication, devotion to dialogue, and long-term perspective shaped by centuries of diplomacy can all be assets. They can also induce a blindness to the fact that an enemy has declared war and sides must be taken. The Europeans who run the Vatican are right in believing that the Vatican must not be a chaplain to American hegemony; a critical distance is required. When that distance becomes disdain, however, the credibility of the Church’s political guidance and the defense of our common civilization are gravely weakened.
As I say, John Allen may well be right in his description of a Vatican reverting to Leo XIII’s animus toward “Americanism.” I am not persuaded that he is right, but it is one of the important arguments we are invited to engage by his valuable book, All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks.
From time to time a writer cuts through confusing debates and polemics to expose the fundamental form of visions in conflict. This is a service that Daniel M. Bell, Jr. attempts to render with his essay “State and Civil Society” in a big book of thirty-five essays, The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, edited by Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Blackwell, 567 pages,, $124.95). The book also includes outstanding essays by Jean Bethke Elshtain on St. Augustine, Bernd Wannenwetsch on the political significance of liturgy, Robert Jenson on eschatology and the hope for the human future, and an excellent introduction for American readers to the thought of the German theological philosopher Carl Schmitt, who it is said early in the last century first used the term “political theology” and employed it to devious ends during the Third Reich.
But it is to Daniel Bell’s suggestive—one might say provocative—argument that I will here attend. Bell is a Methodist who teaches at Lutheran Theology Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, and his subject is the “dominant” and “emergent” modes of political theology today. He locates the present writer and this magazine solidly in the dominant category, while his sympathies are strongly aligned with thinkers of the emergent mode such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Oliver O’Donovan. Both the dominant and emergent are modes of “political theology,” which is to say that they tell the Christian story (Bell calls it the Christian mythos) in a way that is inescapably related to the right ordering of human society. To cut to his conclusion, the dominant mode of political theology has led to “the political captivity of the Church” in service to the modern state, while the emergent mode posits the Church itself as the right ordering of human society. His steps, and missteps, toward that conclusion are instructive.
We must, Bell correctly insists, go back to a time before “state” and “civil society” assumed the modern forms that we tend to take for granted or view as inevitable. He claims that the dominant mode—whether in the form of political theology proper, Latin American liberation theology, or public theology (the last is where we come in)—assumes the givenness of the modern state and civil society. The emergent or “postmodern” mode of political theology, on the other hand, has a keener historical memory, knowing that in medieval Christendom “society was an organic whole, governed by two parallel and universal powers—the Pope and the Prince.” When “the state” appears in political discourse in the fourteenth century, it refers not to a bounded space ruled by princes rather than popes, “but rather to the state or condition of the temporal princes themselves.” In the modern era, “the state” refers to a centralized power with a monopoly on the use of coercive force within a defined territory. According to the conventional telling of the story, the modern state emerged from the “wars of religion” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “Horrified by the excesses of armed religious fervor, Europe developed a political order whereby religion would no longer have access to the weapons with which to work its woe. Henceforth, religion was construed as a private matter and the public, political realm was to be watched over by a sovereign and secular state charged with keeping the peace.”
A Public Church
That modern “settlement” was lucidly and very influentially defined by the German sociologist Max Weber. We inhabit, said Weber, various “life spheres,” each with its own laws and ethical functions, and such spheres, while distinct, interact in a complementary manner. “Weber noted that religion was principally about the task of furnishing ideals, whereas politics was fundamentally about the manipulation of means in order to attain not the ultimate end or ideal, but what was pragmatically possible.” Politics, Weber wrote, is about “the leadership, or the influencing of the leadership, of a political association, hence today, of a state.” The result is that politics is now about “statecraft,” the manipulation of state power. The dominant school of political theology is in basic agreement with Weber, Bell claims. The emergent school, on the other hand, points out that the wars of religion were not most importantly about religion. Catholics and Protestants frequently made alliances to fight other Catholics and Protestants. The phrase “wars of religion” is deeply prejudicial. The conflicts, writes Bell, “were in fact the birth pangs of the modern state as it struggled to break free of the remnants of the medieval order, as it strove to subsume all other social groupings under the sovereign authority.” “In particular, these conflicts were about the replacement of a public Church.” These are broad generalizations, which is to be expected in the kind of typology that Bell is attempting to construct. A problem begins to make its appearance in that I and some others whom he places in the “dominant” tradition have a very long record of opposing the monopolistic ambitions of the modern state and the privatizing of religion, and of adamantly insisting upon the public character of the Church.
Bell’s title is “State and Civil Society,” and the second is also crucial to his argument. We of the dominant school (allowing his term for the moment) are often great promoters of civil society as a force for, as Bell puts it, the “taming” of the Leviathan that is the state. We champion civil society—meaning the family, religious institutions, neighborhoods, and a host of voluntary associations—as a way of preserving spaces of freedom against the totalitarian impulses of the modern state. Peter Berger and I wrote of civil society in terms of “mediating institutions” in To Empower People (1976). The emergent school of political theology, writes Bell, sees these mediating institutions “in a decidedly less benign light.” Rather than being spaces of freedom, they are instruments of “discipline” in which people are trained to serve the modern state. Bell writes, “Through a vast array of disciplines, learned not at the hands of government officials and bureaucrats, but ‘voluntarily’ through the ministrations of experts, managers, and therapists, people ‘freely’ and gently and, for the most part, willingly find their place in the dominant mythos. As such an educative or disciplinary space, civil society is but another species of the power exerted by the state in its victory over the medieval public Church.” The placing of “voluntarily” and “freely” in quotes is telling. Readers of a certain age or literacy may recall Herbert Marcuse on the repressive tolerance of liberalism. In that view, parents who teach their children to be polite, work hard, and be civil to those with whom they disagree are, unwittingly, indoctrinating them into the mythos of the liberal state with its fine-tuned instruments of control.
The political theology associated with the writings of Johann Baptist Metz, Jürgen Moltmann, and Dorothee Solle, beginning in the 1960s, “is forthrightly and enthusiastically a modern movement.” It assumes that the modern state should be the instrument of the changes required by justice, “while the Church’s political presence is reduced to that of a guardian of abstract values.” The idea that the Church should provide a concrete political program “is denounced as a pernicious form of ‘political religion’ from which modernity has rightly liberated us.” Likewise, Latin American liberation theologies “are adamant that there can be no return to the era of Christendom, when the Church directly wielded political power. . . . They, too, recognize the modern desacralization of politics as a victory in the march of freedom through history.” In short, they are good Weberians. As are those of us who espouse an alternative to political theology and liberation theology. “These theologians,” says Bell, “derive from Christianity a ‘public philosophy’ or ‘public theology’ capable of underwriting the moral consensus necessary to sustain the health and vitality of Western liberal society.” (Unlike, for instance, the Reformed theologian Max Stackhouse, whom Bell also criticizes, I have eschewed the term “public theology,” preferring “public philosophy,” believing that the former suggests a too easy move from revealed truth to partisan political application, and poses an unnecessary obstacle for self-consciously secular interlocutors. For much the same reason, and for the sake of the integrity of both theology and politics, I believe the phrase “political theology” should be used with caution.)
Thus, according to Bell, do we arrive at what he calls the political captivity of the Church. Herewith the indictment:
the perspective of the emergent tradition, the embrace of the modern mythos, with its account of politics as statecraft, by the dominant tradition is symptomatic of the political captivity of that tradition. An explanation of this charge begins with the politically reductionist nature of the dominant tradition. To suggest that the dominant tradition is politically reductionist is not to claim, as is frequently done, that political theology reduces faith to temporal, political matters and dismisses the transcendent-spiritual dimension of Christianity. Rather, the charge of political reductionism (ironically) pertains precisely to the ways the dominant tradition attempts to distance itself from the charge of reducing faith to politics. Whether it is Neuhaus’ eschatological prohibition of sanctifying any political order, Gutierrez’s condemnation of “politico-religious messianism,” or Metz’s and Moltmann’s abhorrence of “political religion,” the “general” or “indirect” role accorded the Church as a guardian of values reduces Christian political engagement to the options offered by the world, more specifically, by the regnant liberal order. This is to say, the dominant tradition conceives of Christian political engagement on the world’s terms . . . whether in its conservative or progressive modes.
In clear contrast to these Weberian theologians of politics as statecraft, Bell contends, is the emergent school of authentically Christian political theology. (Bell says that he does not use “emergent” to imply that they will at some point become dominant; he means only that they are emerging.) “The emergent finds the political correlate of the Christian mythos, not in the secular state and civil society, but in the Church. . . . Christian politics takes form in the distinct witness of the Church to Christ’s redemption of politics as the renewal of the friendship/communion of humanity in God.” The emergents, Bell argues, agree with Augustine’s City of God that human polities, being dominated by the lust for power, are but parodies of genuine community, that the true polity is the life of the Church centered in the eucharistic sacrifice of redemptive reconciliation. This does not mean a wholesale rejection of modernity. Oliver O’Donovan, for example, defends a form of early modernity in which statecraft serves the Church by enabling it to carry out its mission. Bell writes, “One should note that this is an instance, not of erecting the Church within the parameters of the modern mythos as the dominant tradition does, but of positioning the early modern state within the Christian mythos, with the result that social and political space is shared by the Church and a state for the sake of the Church’s mission.”
The aim of the emergent tradition, says Bell, “is not simply the replacement of a sovereign state with a hegemonic Church, but a political rendering of the claim that Christ is Lord.” To say that the Church is the exemplary form of human community “is first and foremost a claim that the meaning of all politics and every community flows from participation in Christ.” Rejecting the statecraft of the dominant tradition, the emergents favor “a distinctly theological politics founded on the conviction that God is active in history now bringing about a new age, the contours of which are discernible not in Western liberalism, democratic socialism, or the Pax Americana but in Christ, in the work of Christ’s Spirit as it gathers Christ’s body, the Church.” All the issues of ecclesiology, eschatology, and soteriology, writes Bell, can be summed up in one question: “What is the proper political correlate of the Christian mythos? Leviathan or the Body of Christ?”
Daniel Bell’s vigorously asserted argument is a valuable contribution. I say that not because I agree with his typology of the “dominant” and “emergent” visions of political theology but because he so sharply depicts the alternatives that many believe to be on offer today. Stanley Hauerwas may not be, as Time magazine declares, America’s “best theologian,” but in seminaries and divinity schools, and more among Protestants than Catholics, he is perhaps the most influential. Hauerwas’ unremitting polemic against “liberalism” and all its works and all its pomps, including its practice in liberal democracy, has provided a generation of theology students with a way of thinking and feeling counterculturally that is respectable within the thoroughly liberal academy. His insistence upon the primacy of the community of the Church apparently does not require, for him or for others, actual membership in an ecclesial community that is in political tension or conflict with the culture of liberalism. Indeed, his countercultural posture is warmly celebrated by the culture he would presumably counter. (See Stephen H. Webb, “The Very American Stanley Hauerwas,” FT June/July 2002.)
To his credit, Hauerwas has sometimes acknowledged a certain “ambiguity” in his ecclesial placement. He speaks admiringly of the Mennonite tradition of his mentor John Howard Yoder, and also of certain communities of radical discipleship in Catholicism, but he remains personally associated with the liberal United Methodist Church while pursuing his eccentric and highly effective vocation as a theological freelancer within his primary community of engagement, the liberal academy. Hauerwas is aware of the seeming incongruity, if not incoherence, of being a tenured radical and prophet with prestige and pension plan secured by the liberal establishment against which he rails. The oddity of his position, it should be noted, does not detract from the contributions he has made to Christian ethics in areas such as medical care and the centrality of the virtues. Contra Daniel Bell, however, these contributions have not been in political theology. As is evident in exchanges with Hauerwas also in these pages, he insists upon a Christianly-mandated position of absolute pacifism while, at the same time, claiming a role as moral instructor in the exercise of what Bell calls “statecraft” when it comes to how the state should employ force. Despite these and other dissonances in his arguments, there is no doubt that Hauerwas is a champion of the “emergent” tradition described by Bell. (Remembering, as Bell specifies, that “emergent” does not mean that it will come to prevail.)
John Milbank’s project of “radical orthodoxy” has caught the imagination of some intellectuals with its pyrotechnic display of erudition and neologistic agility in smiting, hip and thigh, “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “rationality,” and other dragons in league with the Antichrist that is “modernity.” In Theology and Social Theory Milbank interestingly seeks to liberate the “master discourse” of theology from its sociological captivities. But one has to wonder whether he offers anything that is plausibly described as an alternative political theology. His explicitly political assertions are typically ad hoc judgments and rambling obiter dicta, usually in the mode of familiar leftisms. He draws, as many leftists do, on the aforementioned Carl Schmitt to explain why “American neo-Roman imperialism” needs an enemy and has therefore invented a war on terrorism to ward off challenges to its “nakedly capitalist” hegemony. To defend against challenges to U.S. imperialism, George W. Bush has chosen the “terrifying” expedient of declaring “for the first time perhaps since Hitler’s announcement of the Third Reich, a kind of state of perpetual emergency.” Guarding against extremism, Milbank reserves judgment on whether the U.S. had a hand in the September 11 attacks that became a convenient excuse for its desired war on terrorism.
Theocratic propensities, says Milbank, are not limited to Islam. “In many ways theocratic notions are specifically modern in their positivity and formality (as Carl Schmitt indicated). Bush in a crisis has appealed to the supposed divine destiny of America, and it is modern Judaism that has lapsed into a statist, Zionist form.” “At the very center of this strange and multiple conflict stands oil,” Milbank asserts. America’s long history of the “disguised sacralization of violence” goes back to the treatment of Native Americans and the “British loyalists” during the War of Independence. (As a Brit, Milbank seems to have a special sympathy for the loyalists.) “Cumulatively, this reveals the relatively genocidal tendency of specifically Republican imperialism . . . and it amounts to an atrocity almost on the level with the Holocaust and the Gulags.” The “relatively” and “almost” are, I suppose, intended to suggest nuance.
The thoughtful reader, when confronted by such dubious judgments, may think twice about investing much effort in decoding the elusive logic or theologic that produced them. The elements of possible service in “radical orthodoxy” must be patiently mined from a vast deposit of radical posturing. The yield for anything like a political theology will, I expect, be limited to nuggets of “counter-intuitive insights” in dissertations by doctoral students enamored of Chomskyesque enthusiasms displayed under the variegated banners of a postmodernism that is, according to Milbank, a radical critique of the postmodernisms in reaction to postmodernity. It is not that John Milbank does not have a positive vision of an alternative future. He writes:
Such a common vision would eschew all idolizations of formal power, whether in the case of individual “rights” or of absolute state sovereignty. Instead it would trust that human wisdom can intimate, imperfectly but truly, something of an eternal order of justice: the divine rapports of Malebranche and Cudworth. A shared overarching global polity would embody this intimation in continuously revisable structures dedicated to promoting the common good insofar as this can be agreed upon. It would also embody this imperfection through the maximum possible dispersal and deflection of human power.
Ah yes, Malebranche and Cudworth. Of course. It is, I suppose, a kind of United Nations redesigned by philosophers attuned to the seventeenth-century “occasionalism” of Nicolas Malebranche and the insights of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, to whom Ralph Waldo Emerson was indebted for his confidence in the infallibility of his intuition. Sin, Milbank suggests, is our failure to realize our wonderful powers in reconciled community. Were his vision adopted, writes Milbank, “perhaps then we would cease to sacrifice the substantively particular to the generally vacuous, ensuring that there was no need for the particular to incite in response the suicidal sacrifice of everything, forever.” Vacuous is a word that does leap to mind. The interesting thing relative to Daniel Bell’s argument, however, is that Milbank’s proposal is precisely an exercise in “statecraft.” Admittedly it is not serious statecraft, since it is unrelated to any existent or available structures of power with their attendant possibilities and responsibilities. That being noted, I am sure there is much to be said for a world order with the maximum possible dispersal and deflection of human power, especially when power is in the hands of bad guys. Milbank’s proposal, however, is not a very helpful contribution to political thought or practice, never mind to political theology. As for Bell’s idea of the Church as the “political correlate” of the Christian mythos, Milbank’s Church, unless it is in fact the fellowship of academic theologians, remains for the most part invisible. In Milbank’s The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture, the annoyingly unremitting rant against the most obvious visible candidate for the role of a sacramental “contrast community” that signals the world’s redemption, namely, the Catholic Church, seems to be mainly a product of deep-seated personal prejudice.
Facing Up to Disorder
In Bonds of Imperfection, Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (Oliver is her husband) has written incisively about similarities between Milbank and Erasmus. “He, like Erasmus, conceives the redemption of society in terms of communicating participation in the perfections of Jesus Christ who is the final exemplar of the good and the beautiful.” Each in ways pertinent to his times disdains the natural law tradition in its various forms; each fails to distinguish between the goods of human community and their disordered condition; and each neglects the providential structures of political authority with their laws and necessary recourse to coercion. Erasmus and Milbank are both high rhetoricians who suggest that the world will be saved by rhetoric, by what Milbank depicts as the divine-human “poesis” of the Word Incarnate. Joan O’Donovan concludes with the observation that Milbank is a more sophisticated philosopher than Erasmus, but his postmodernist efforts to liberate the christocentric “master discourse” from its captivity to modernity inclines him to “making of poetics yet another philosophical foundation for Christian pedagogy. Succumbing to this temptation would lend an ominous finality to any other theological and methodological weaknesses.” The other weaknesses are, as I have suggested, severe. All that having been said, however, one can appreciate why Milbank’s rhetorically debonair dismissal of every constraint of moral “realism,” combined with the apparent radicality of his ad hoc political and ecclesial judgments, makes an intoxicating brew for graduate students who have been recruited to the total war against the Antichrist that is modernity and its bastard offspring that is liberalism.
Daniel Bell’s third champion of the emergent tradition, Oliver O’Donovan, is of an entirely different order. His work, and especially his The Desire of the Nations, has received extended and respectful attention in these pages (see, for instance, Gilbert Meilaender’s review essay in FT November 1997). We were also pleased to have O’Donovan deliver our Erasmus Lecture of 1998. His is a bracingly bold and comprehensive proposal advanced with careful, even elegant, argumentation, inviting us to rethink the lordship of Christ in the historical form of what is routinely and mistakenly maligned as Christendom. While this is not the place to summarize O’Donovan’s project, the mandate of this journal and my own work are in strong sympathy with O’Donovan’s invitation to rethink Augustine’s two cities, based on two loves, for our time. The promise to Israel and the coming of the Kingdom in Jesus Christ are emphatically public claims, and the efforts of political modernity to relegate that claim to the sphere of the private and “religious” must be sharply challenged. Christian fidelity relentlessly contends against what has been called the naked public square. To this end, says O’Donovan, the state must be kept “humble” and “minimally coercive,” as befits the “desacralization of politics.” These and other arguments pressed by O’Donovan are consonant with the tradition of political liberalism that carefully distinguishes between state and society, with both under the lordship of Christ. Liberal democracy, like all politics, is prone to the temptations of self-aggrandizement, indeed of self-sacralization, which is idolatry. Against such temptations, and in order to propose a more excellent way, the Church faithfully contends, until that time when, in the words of St. Paul, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess the lordship of Jesus Christ, who is “the desire of the nations.”
The First Political Task
In 1981, I wrote the founding statement of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. That statement, “Christianity and Democracy,” has been often reprinted and its opening lines are responsive to the claims of Daniel Bell’s proposed typology of political theologies. The statement begins with this:
Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics. Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all: every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. The Church is the bearer of that claim. Because the Church is pledged to the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, it must maintain a critical distance from all the kingdoms of the world, whether actual or proposed. Christians betray their Lord if, in theory or practice, they equate the Kingdom of God with any political, social, or economic order of this passing time. At best, such orders permit the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom and approximate, in small part, the freedom, peace, and justice for which we hope.
The statement then goes on to affirm that the first political task of the Church is to be the Church, and to suggest what that might mean for the right ordering of the saeculum, the politics of the present time. Although it was written during the Cold War and was in large part a defense of liberal democracy against the communist totalitarianism of the time, there is little in the argument of “Christianity and Democracy” that I would now change. Daniel Bell and others may view the statement as an exercise in “statecraft,” an instance of letting the world define the terms of politics, of subordinating the “master discourse” of the gospel to “the principalities and powers of the present time.” The same charge is made against the other two parties of what Bell calls the dominant tradition: the political theology of Metz, et al., and the liberationist theology of Gutierrez, et al. As unsympathetic as I am to the leftist and frequently Marxist presuppositions of those two parties, they have not, I think, abandoned the lordship of Christ or the priority of allegiance to the society that is the Church. What Bell condemns as engaging in “statecraft” is no more than accepting one’s placement in a particular moment of history and making a decision for political possibilities most approximately congruent with, or least in conflict with, the lordship of Christ. For the ministry of the Church, moreover, this is also a pastoral responsibility in providing support and guidance for her members who are, as is frequently the case, in positions of political responsibility. In making such decisions, one is ever aware that all politics, indeed all history, is encompassed in the certain but not always evident course of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The coming of the Kingdom is, in Robert Jenson’s fine phrase, “the story of the world.”
The final question, writes Bell, is: “What is the proper political correlate of the Christian mythos? Leviathan or the Body of Christ?” That is, I suggest, an unfortunate muddling of the matter. As St. Augustine understood, the Church is not a political correlate of the gospel but a distinct society that is integral to the gospel. The political correlate is the politics by which the Church is confronted in the course of her sojourn through history. As for Bell’s three champions of the emergent tradition, neither Stanley Hauerwas nor John Milbank has or envisions an empirical Church capable of constituting a polity in critical distinction from the polities of the world. Moreover, Hauerwas’ absolute pacifism precludes—his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding—his effective engagement in the moral deliberation about the use of coercion, which is an inescapable component of all earthly polities. Milbank’s political proposals, as distinct from his interesting theoretical and rhetorical contributions, are little more than a grab bag of prejudices, usually of a conventionally leftist sort. By way of sharpest contrast, and despite differences we may have in specific political or ecclesial judgments, Oliver O’Donovan is clearly in the tradition of Augustine, exploring in the midst of the turbulences of history the relationship between the City of God and the city of man most approximately faithful to the sovereignty of Christ, in confident anticipation of the time when that sovereignty is no longer disputed.
Daniel Bell means no compliment when he says that I represent the dominant tradition. The fact is, however, that the exercise of what he pejoratively calls statecraft—and what Stanley Hauerwas, in a nicely honed but fatuous phrase, derides as “doing ethics for Caesar”—is a difficult and distinctly minority enterprise. The liberal democracy that one would defend is so very unsatisfactory. But it is the least unsatisfactory of options on offer. Everything short of the Kingdom is so painfully unsatisfactory. In the eucharistic canon we pray, “Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth.” For those strengthened in faith and love, there is no alternative to that Church on pilgrimage, confusedly and ambiguously engaged with the polities of the saeculum, while, all along the way, celebrating the Real Presence of that city whose temple, according to Revelation 21, is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb, and through whose gates shall be brought the glory and the honor of the nations. That is the political theology entailed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christian history and among Christian thinkers today, that theology is sometimes emergent, frequently obscured, but never securely dominant. Short of the Kingdom, there is and will be too much in the world that contradicts the story of the world. The truth of the story will be vindicated beyond doubt or dispute only in retrospect of the final fulfillment of the promise that it proclaims.
While We’re At It
• ‘Tis the season to once again complain about the season. There is something to be said for classy complaining such as Dell deChant of the University of South Florida provides in “The Economy as Religion: The Dynamics of Consumer Culture.” For instance, there is this: “Santa is not the embodiment of secular commercialism. He is the embodiment of our culture’s greatest religious myth: the myth of success and affluence, right engagement with the economy, and the acquisition and consumption of images and objects. Santa is the incarnation of this myth. For this very reason he functions as a profoundly religious figure in our postmodern cosmological culture. This reason may also account for his seeming immunity to criticism from a religion still following the cultural logic of a previous time. In short, Santa is not secular. He is sacred. To attack him as secular is to attack his shadow.” It is not only Christmas, says deChant. There is also Easter, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl, and, if the designation catches on, September 11 as Patriot Day. All are intensely sacred events, we are told. “As such they reveal not only how thoroughly religious postmodern American culture has become but also just how difficult it may be for Americans to cease being the consumers the Economy demands that they be.” The postmodernist flourishes notwithstanding, deChant’s article is a pretty conventional jeremiad against “consumerism.” There is an important element of truth in such complaints, of course, but they always strike me as being a bit Scrooge-ish. And a bit condescending toward ordinary folk who, we are told, are dumb enough to believe every advertisement. Dr. Johnson observed that a man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is busy making money. And more or less the same obtains with the spending of money, at least when one is spending it on gifts for others. I rather doubt that Santa is the sacred figure deChant claims he is. His cult claims no martyrs. Not that lives are not ruined by excessive consumption, but nobody dies in its name. That being said, it is reassuring that every December the cry is heard in every corner of the land that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas, from which one may infer that the true meaning of Christmas is far from lost. It will be time to really worry when the cry is no longer heard.
• Yes, yes, we know, although we thank you for bringing it our attention. The spine of the October issue read “Octobeer 2004.” As in Oktoberfest? The covers were all printed before the mistake was caught and to correct it would have cost thousands of dollars and a delay in getting the issue into the mail, so we let it be. Speculation that the misprint reflected the German extraction of persons associated with FT is entirely unfounded. There was, however, among copy editors desperate to make light of their egregious oversight, some discussion of making “Octobeer” an annual tradition. Be assured that the idea has been nipped in the Bud.
• A publication of the British Jesuits, Letters and Notices, quotes approvingly from the obituary of Cyril Barrett, S.J. that appeared in the London Times: “Like many Jesuits down the ages Barrett made no attempt to disguise his chafing at the Vatican’s hierarchical politics and social conservatism—going so far as to declare on the day of the attempted assassination of the Pope, in a bellow that filled a London restaurant, that ‘the only thing wrong with that bloody Turk was that he couldn’t shoot straight.’ Yet he could readily assume his priestly guise and, in that capacity, was a compassionate and subtle counselor and eminently practical moralist, ultimately convinced of the intelligence as well as the goodness of the Holy Spirit and able to instill that belief in others.” The use of “disguise” and “guise” is of interest, the latter now suggesting “semblance” or “pretext.” One has to wonder who is meant by those “many Jesuits down the ages.” Surely not the English martyrs of the Society of Jesus who were killed as “papists” and on the gallows prayed for their executioners. One expects they may be surprised at a Jesuit in a London restaurant bellowing his approval of killing the Pope. On the other hand, it was generous of Father Barrett to allow that the Holy Spirit is intelligent and good. The Jesuits are notorious for their high standards.
• He is by no means the first person to say it, but people pay most particular attention when Bernard Lewis speaks about Islam and the West. In an interview with Die Welt, he was asked whether the European Union (EU) could be a counterforce to the hegemony of the United States. He answered with a simple “No.” Pressed on the point, he observed that only three countries pose a potential challenge to the U.S.: China, India, and a restored Russia. By the end of the century, if not before, he said, “Europe will be part of the Arabic West, of the Maghreb.” Bat Y’eor, an Egyptian-French scholar of Islam, has been making this argument for years and has a new book coming out on what she calls “Eurabia.” But Lewis carries more weight in academic and diplomatic circles, and his saying it has given prominent European politicians a permission slip to speak more candidly about a subject previously addressed in public only by those dismissed as extremists. For instance, Frits Bolkestein of the Netherlands, a former EU commissioner, has said, “Current trends allow only one conclusion: the U.S. will remain the only superpower; China is becoming an economic giant; Europe is being Islamicized.” If Lewis is right, said Bokestein, “the liberation of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain.” In 1683, it will be recalled, the West, led by Polish forces, turned back the Turks at the gates of Vienna. Absent that victory, Europe might very well have become an Islamic culture. In view of the birth dearth among Europeans and the swelling number of unassimilated and vigorously reproductive Muslim immigrants, the reconquest of Europe by Islam may be well underway. It is estimated that within a decade several major cities of Europe will be majority Muslim. All this gives new urgency to the question of Turkey’s admission to the EU. For reasons that I do not fully understand, the U.S. has been strongly supportive of Turkey’s application for membership, which EU officialdom has now agreed to negotiate over the next several years. The vestigial national parliaments in the EU have been vocally skeptical about admitting Turkey, and popular opinion is generally opposed. But national parliaments and popular opinion are increasingly trumped by EU administrators. Presently counting seventy million people, Turkey would become the largest country in the EU, and it is, of course, almost totally Muslim. If Turkey is admitted, one might ask, why not countries that are culturally more European, such as Ukraine and Belarus, or even Russia itself? An argument for admitting Turkey is that it represents, under its military guardians, a more moderate form of Islam and would serve as a buffer against or bridge to (take your choice) the larger Muslim world. The proponents of Turkey’s admission seem to have implicitly accepted the prospect of Eurabia, the only question being what kind of Islam will dominate Europe. Despite America’s unrivalled global power, it is too easy for Americans to think we live in splendid isolation, aloof from the momentous religious, cultural, and political reconfigurations of our time. But one cannot help but believe that the reversal, more than three hundred years later, of the victory of Vienna would be very bad for Europe, for America, and for the world.
• In my critical but sympathetic discussion of Samuel Huntington’s new book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (“To Be American,” FT August/September), I suggested that his argument would be derided and dismissed by many as a revival of “nativism.” (A charge that Huntington should have more adroitly anticipated.) Sure enough, the New Republic has Paul Starr of Princeton do a long hatchet job under the title “The Return of the Nativist.” Starr is most particularly exercised by the claim that America is in any serious sense a Christian society, and he is totally unimpressed by the argument that the culture is falling apart. He writes, “And America’s cultural integrity is scarcely in jeopardy. From one end of the country to the other, Americans shop at the same stores, listen to the same music, follow the same sports, read about and watch the same celebrities—and largely honor the same ideals.” Well, that is a relief. E pluribus unum, thanks to Oprah, Wal-Mart, hip-hop, and Donald Trump. As to the same ideals, what Justice Scalia calls the “sweet mystery of life” passage in recent Supreme Court decisions, constitutionalizing the sovereignty of the unbridled individual will with respect to abortion and sodomy, is not what Huntington has in mind when he speaks of the “core culture” bequeathed us by the first settlers and the founders of the Republic. In the same issue of TNR there is, by way of contrast, a second discussion of Huntington’s book by Enrique Krauze, editor of Letras Libres, written “in defense of Mexican-Americans,” to whom, I agree, Huntington is less than fair. Krauze argues that, while there are also significant differences, Mexican immigration is more like than unlike great immigration flows of the past. “‘Mexico’ does not stand for a fundamentalist religion. ‘Mexicans’ are not a group of racialist or nationalist militants. California is not Bosnia. Mexican culture is not a threat to American culture. Mexicans will seek to become part of American culture (and American cultures: Korean, African, European, South American, Jewish, Anglo-Saxon), and to assimilate in the essential areas: language, business, politics, respect for the law, and, in the middle term, marriage. They will certainly maintain their differences in other areas: they will stick to their families, if they can bring them; they will opt for citizenship, if they are allowed; they will miss the land they came from for a generation or two; they will cling quite wisely to their cuisine; they will continue to be Catholics and to celebrate the holidays of the civic and religious calendar. They will be like and unlike their fellow citizens. They will show that one can live a richer life with multiple identities, and in this way they will contribute to new cultural models. So what’s the problem? France and Germany can only dream of such immigrants.” A neglected factor in this debate that was underscored by Philip Jenkins in these pages (“A New Religious America,” FT August/September 2002), and a factor that I suppose would only further disturb Paul Starr, is that immigration from Latin America, and Mexico in particular, will have the effect of reinforcing the social and cultural reality of “Christian America.” For all the scores on which it can be fairly faulted, Huntington’s book is helping to mainstream an argument that should be in the mainstream. For any society, asking “Who Are We?” can be an indication of cultural vitality. It is a question that should not be left to the xenophobic denizens of the intellectual fever swamps.
• I haven’t seen all the reviews but have the impression that Mario Cuomo’s book Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever is being almost unanimously panned, with criticism divided between the former New York governor’s risible ignorance of Lincoln scholarship and his forced recruitment of Lincoln to today’s Democratic Party. Not, however, in Commonweal, where Alan Wolfe of Boston College effusively praises the book and its author. It is really two books, he writes. “The one that appreciates Lincoln is as good as the one that lambasts Bush.” As for the author, Wolfe writes that we should be grateful for anything that comes “from a man as admirable and thoughtful as this one.” Then there is the final pitch: “Lincoln matters to us, among other reasons, because he matters to Mario Cuomo, and we should be indebted to the governor for bringing him once again to our attention.” Ah yes, Lincoln. We had almost forgotten him. Thank you, Governor, for bringing him once again to our attention. And, by the way, a nice job on Bush. But then, we expect nothing less from a man as admirable and thoughtful as you.
• “According to Webster’s,” some opponents of same-sex marriage like to say, “marriage is ‘the state of, or relation between, a man and a woman who have become husband wife.’” Not any more. The eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, as well as the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, all now include a union between two persons of the same sex under the definition of marriage. And, in a few years, there will likely be an allowance for “two or more.” Arthur Bicknell of Merriam-Webster says they don’t take sides on controverted questions. “Our primary job as lexicographers is to create a painstakingly accurate and comprehensive record of the English language.” In other words, their job is description, not prescription, and there is an argument to be made for that. The more important point is that defenders of marriage need to appeal to a higher authority than Webster’s, such as natural law, clear reason, the common good, and—dare one say it?—the Word of God.
• As Polonius said, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” It is commonly forgotten that Shakespeare portrays Polonius as the fool of Hamlet. The Bishop of Memphis, J. Terry Steib, addresses the abortion and Communion question and starts off on a fairly firm footing. “I believe that the Church is a hospital for sinners; it is not a museum of saints.” (Although I don’t know why we should think of the saints being in a museum.) He goes on to say that in receiving the Eucharist “none of us is worthy of so great a gift. This is why we pray: ‘Oh Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.’” But finally, says the bishop, it is a matter of conscience. “When individuals try to make up their mind about a moral dilemma, they consult their own inner being, their families, their colleagues. If they are Christians, they will wisely look to see what theologians have said about the issue. They will consult the Scriptures. When the person is Catholic, she or he must also pay attention to the teachings of the Church.” “Consult” the Scriptures, “pay attention to” the Church. Nothing here about obedience to the truth, indeed nothing about truth. Nothing about the obligation to have a conscience rightly formed. Says the bishop, “The person chooses what is true to him or her self. And we are judged by God according to what is in our hearts.” Just as St. Polonius said. There is more: “The person asking for the Eucharist is following his/her conscience and that conscience tells each that he/she is worthy to receive the sign of our union with Christ.” So now it is “Oh Lord, I am worthy to receive you”? The bishop is to be commended for trying to address a difficult question, but the result is sadly muddled and would seem to directly contradict the statement of the bishops last June, “Catholics in Political Life.” Bishop Steib writes, “Our role as Catholics is to be as deeply involved in our society as possible so that we can be leaven to that society, so that we can add to the common good.” But what if the leaven has gone flat, and the hospital offers no remedy but only the lie that the desperately ill patient is just fine?
• “The Pledge of Allegiance and the Limited State” is a judicially, historically, and theologically informed essay by law professor Thomas Berg of St. Thomas University, Houston, in the Texas Review of Law & Politics. He writes, “‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is a means for the state to declare that it is a limited institution that is subject to, and does not interfere with, higher commitments and norms. In a religiously pluralistic society, however, ‘under God’ is an imperfect way of making that declaration. But if ‘under God’ is removed from the Pledge, the state must . . . make other efforts to declare and respect its own limits.” The “other effort” that Berg chiefly discusses is school vouchers, which would permit parents to choose, with government financial support, the schools they want their children to attend. That is, of course, a very good idea and is, at least in principle, permissible under the Supreme Court’s Zelman decision of 2002. While it is true that the Pledge question, like most cases in church-state jurisprudence, is related to the government school monopoly on public funding, even if or when that monopoly is decisively broken the need for the state to declare its limited nature would remain. And it seems that one good, albeit imperfect, way of meeting that need in terms of symbolic public action is the simple saying of the words “one nation under God.” Another good way would be for all schools to teach that the truths of the Declaration of Independence are still in force.
• You can bank on it: when the party of change succeeds and becomes the establishment enforcing its rigorous rule, what had been the party of reaction to change will become the party of change, urging flexibility. A case in point: although the Second Vatican Council did not mandate it, the liturgical establishment, composed of certified academic liturgists who play hardball, was adamant in insisting that the rules required that priests celebrate Mass versus populum, facing the people. The old way, now scorned as the priest “turning his back on the people,” was traditionally called ad orientem, priest and people together facing East. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has been sympathetic to the old way and, in an introduction to a new book on liturgy, he comments on a clarification issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship which underscores that versus populum is not mandatory: “This is an important clarification. It sheds light on what is relative in the external symbolic forms of the liturgy and resists the fanaticisms that, unfortunately, have not been uncommon in the controversies of the last forty years. At the same time it highlights the internal direction of liturgical action, which can never be expressed in its totality by external forms. This internal direction is the same for priest and people, towards the Lord—towards the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Congregation’s response should thus make for a new, more relaxed discussion, in which we can search for the best ways of putting into practice the mystery of salvation. The quest is to be achieved not by condemning one another, but by carefully listening to each other and, even more importantly, listening to the internal guidance of the liturgy itself. The labeling of positions as ‘preconciliar,’ ‘reactionary,’ and ‘conservative,’ or as ‘progressive’ and ‘alien to the faith’ achieves nothing; what is needed is a new mutual openness in the search for the best realization of the memorial of Christ.” Against the rigorists, I am inclined to agree with Cardinal Ratzinger that a measure of flexibility and openness is in order.
• “None of this is by accident. For a couple of decades now, there has been a systematic attempt to dilute the sacred message of Christmas while elevating the prominence of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa (the latter a recent secular invention).” Conspiracy theory, anyone? The quote is from a Catholic League press release reporting on their careful counting of the seasonal cards produced by the major greeting card companies. There were 443 Christmas cards, with only nine featuring the religious significance of Christmas. That’s two percent. Of the thirty-three Hanukkah cards, twenty-six, or 79 percent, feature a Star of David or Menorah. The Kwanzaa cards are all areligiously ethnic. In the Christmas cards department, there is also a “Risqué” line and a “Rude” line on offer. These feature, inter alia, S&M gear and a near-naked female angel asking, “Ever make an angel in the snow?” You get the idea. There are no “Rude” or “Risqué” Hanukkah or Kwanzaa cards. It is not plausible that this circumstance reflects simply a business decision on the part of the card companies. In a country where nearly 90 percent of the people claim to be Christian and, curiously enough, even more say that Jesus was born of a virgin, the predominance of “Christmas” cards mocking or blaspheming the meaning of the day—or simply ignoring it—cannot be explained by market dynamics. I don’t know if conspiracy is the right word. Conspiracy implies a measure of collusion. Maybe the major greeting card companies, for some unknown reason, employ an inordinate number of people who are Christophobes, people who have hatred or contempt for Christ and Christianity. I am open to more convincing explanations.
• It is as it was. It had been years since I last read J. F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban. Published in 1956, it is critically acclaimed for its delicate evocation of the everyday “feel” of American Catholicism prior to Vatican II. On an impulse, I took the dog-eared paperback on a flight to New Orleans. More than I had expected, it is as it was. Father Urban, the traveling star of a fictional Order of St. Clement, finds himself in the unaccustomed position of running a parish in Minnesota.
Father Urban was familiar with the classic view of the parish as a natural unit of society, second in importance only to the family, but he had seldom found this view held by clergy and laity in the same parish. If the pastor tried to get his people to think of themselves not as Jaycees or trade unionists, not as Republicans or Democrats, but primarily as parishioners, the chances were they’d resist him, and Father Urban didn’t really blame them. Such a thesis made small appeal to anybody who’d arrived at a greater, or clearer, station in life than that commonly designated by the term parishioner—and who hadn’t? If, on the other hand, the people tried to raise the status of parishioners, the chances were their pastor would resist them—and wisely—for wherever you found people trying to make a lot of their parishionership, you’d find agitators at work. Invariably they were the products of higher Catholic education, or converts, whose real object was to assume unto themselves all but the strictly sacerdotal activity and to see that this was in accord with their understanding of it and the latest word from Rome. They’d had a field day under Pius XII.
After the Council, the field day became a permanent picnic of everybody getting in on the priestly action, with parishes declaring themselves to be “prophetic communities” and everyone designated a minister. Even the ushers are now “ministers of hospitality.” It is no longer sufficient to attend Mass. “You vill participate—fully, actively, and enthusiastically.” Pity the poor soul who shows up just to be quietly touched by grace. At a recent Mass in a fair-sized parish, the pastor proudly announced that the parish had 247 volunteers and to them he declared, “You are all ministers. You are what this parish is about. You make this community happen.” And here I thought it had something to do with the Real Presence of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; parishes do need volunteers, and lots of them. But lending a hand does not require “trying to make a lot of their parishionership” by ratcheting up the status of helping out by turning it into a quasi-ordained junior “ministry.” J. F. Powers is right: that approach has little appeal for anybody who has “arrived at a greater, or clearer, station in life.” It is in that station in life that one is called to holiness. Parochial dignities and influence are no substitute for discipleship in the world. God bless all 247 parish volunteers. I don’t know what we would do without them, or at least a good many of them. But, with respect, they do not make the Church happen. Christ does that when, through the apostolic ministry he instituted, he gathers two or three in his name to “do this” in remembrance of him. Now, however, I may have given the impression that Morte D’Urban is a critique of Catholic foibles. It is also that, in passing. But mainly it is a poignantly funny story about the oddities and glories of The Catholic Thing in the 1950s and, for the most part, today. It is very much worth reading and, as I discovered on my way to New Orleans, very much worth rereading.
• As the Anglican communion appears to be on the verge of breaking up, wise men and women of the Church of England are unflagging in the cause of reform. The General Synod meeting in London has agreed to more prayer book revisions, including dropping any reference to the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus. They will now be referred to simply as Magi. The committee submitting the change said, “While it seems very unlikely that these Persian court officials were female, the possibility that one or more of the Magi were female cannot be excluded completely. . . . The visitors were not necessarily wise and not necessarily men.” This was presumably a pastoral response to people suffering a crisis of faith over the matter. On the grounds that the unlikely cannot be excluded completely, some years ago the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in New York put up “Christa,” a crucifix bearing an unbared woman. Despite rumored threats of its imminent dissolution, the progress of the Church of It Ain’t Necessarily So continues apace.
• As this goes to the printer, the report of the Eames Commission, called the Windsor Report, has been released. Addressing the crisis created in the Anglican communion by the consecration as bishop of a New Hampshire man who left his wife and children to live with his male partner, the Windsor Report, to judge by initial responses, seems unlikely to satisfy any of the several sides in this controversy. We hope to have a more detailed evaluation in the next issue.
• Holiday greetings or Christmas greetings? Every year about this time, the arguments begin anew. William Devlin, the founder of the Urban Family Council in Philadelphia, has come up with a notice that might be posted in public places in order to preempt the contentious and litigious: “Legal Disclaimer: ‘Merry Christmas’ (hereafter ‘The Greeting’) . . . this announcement is not intended to offend, alienate, foster hate, or be a precursor for any egregious acts (legal or illegal), thoughts, words, or deeds. ‘The Greeting’ is made only in the context in which it may be legally received, if in fact, it is received at all. It is not intended to be nor should it be, in any way, connected to any other type of greeting, real or imagined, past, present or future. No references to any persons, things, or substances, animate or inanimate, real, fictional, or otherwise should be assumed by the reader or receiver of the greeting (hereafter, ‘the greetee’). The greeting is not being made to (nor will tenders be accepted from or on behalf of) nonbelievers in ‘The Greeting’ in any jurisdiction in which making and/or accepting the greeting would violate that jurisdiction’s laws or feelings (also refer to local statutes and ordinances related to ‘The Greeting’). In any jurisdiction in which perceived ‘greeting’ is not welcomed nor agreed upon by all ‘greetees,’ then the ‘greetor’ of ‘The Greeting’ will be held harmless in this life and the next, including all issuing posterity both now and forever. ‘The Greeting’ may be made by a licensed ‘greetor’ and any liability assumed or created by the ‘greetee’ shall be the sole responsibility of said ‘greetor.’ If you have been aggrieved, offended, waylaid, parlayed, filleted, or delayed in any way, either real, imagined, or perceived by said ‘Greeting’ and/or by ‘greetor’ as the result of receiving said ‘greeting’ you can call toll free 1-800-CHRISTMAS to speak with legal counsel.”
• Although she once attended one and, later, would occasionally accept the hospitality of others, Flannery O’Connor took a distinctly dim view of creative writing schools. The problem, she said, is that they encouraged writing by people who should be strongly discouraged. The hundreds upon hundreds of books for review incessantly pouring into this office cannot help but create, at least at times, a measure of sympathy for O’Connor’s view of people who should not be encouraged to write. And yet, what we persist in thinking of as the intellectual conversation cannot continue without the making of books; and what the Preacher viewed with despondency—the making of books without end—may also be viewed as an inevitability not untouched by hopefulness. Be that as it may, I generally try to encourage aspiring writers, unless their manifest unsuitability for the task defeats my most strenuous efforts to be charitable. A great difficulty experienced by many in writing a book or article is simply getting on with it. This is not so much writer’s block as commonly understood; it is more a matter of the conscientious writer’s awareness that he does not command all the material pertinent to the subject he wishes to address. In this connection, I have come across nothing wiser than Dr. Johnson’s 1755 preface to volume one of his monumental dictionary. After discussing his original ambitions for the project, he writes:
But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. I soon found that it is too late to look for instruments, when the work calls for execution, and that whatever abilities I had brought to my task, with those I must finally perform it. To deliberate whenever I doubted, to enquire whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by my first experiments that what I had not of my own was easily to be obtained: I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them. I then contracted my design, determining to confide in myself, and no longer to solicit auxiliaries, which produced more encumbrance than assistance; by this I obtained at least one advantage, that I set limits to my work, which would in time be ended, though not completed.
In sum, get on with it. Not all bad writers will become good writers by writing more. Many will only add to the already superabundant store of bad writing. But writers become writers by writing. And even the best, who will almost certainly fall short of the standard set by Dr. Johnson, can be emboldened by the certainty that their task will in time be ended, though not completed. In writing, as in every other human endeavor, completion is not our business.
• The phenomenon of the growing number of meetings of ROFTERS (Readers of First Things) is, well, phenomenal. Talking with people here and there, I gather that some meet in the evening and others on weekend afternoons, some at homes with potluck dinners or snacks and others at restaurants. In some meetings, the convener selects an article or two from the current issue for discussion, in others people volunteer to lead a discussion of particular articles, and in yet others it is a free-for-all left open to whatever in an issue people want to talk about. Wishy-washy latitudinarians that we are, the editors emphasize that each group is independent and works out whatever works best for participants. To see if there is a meeting near you that you might join, check out the website, old.firstthings.com. If you are interested in launching a group, write Erik Ross at email@example.com.
• We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people who you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, New York 10010 (or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll free 1-877-905-9920, or visit old.firstthings.com.
Santa as Symbol, Civic Arts Review, Summer-Fall 2003. Anti-papal Jesuit, Letters and Notices, Spring 2004. Islamic Europe, drawn in part from a report by Christopher Caldwell, Weekly Standard, October 4, 2004. Paul Starr on Huntington, New Republic, June 21, 2004. The admirable Cuomo on Lincoln and Bush, Commonweal, September 10, 2004. Webster on marriage, Washington Times, May 24, 2004. Berg on the Pledge of Allegiance, Texas Review of Law & Politics, Fall 2003. Anti-Christmas cards, Catholic League press release, December 11, 2003. Anglican wise men, Reuters, February 10, 2004.