Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Public Square

Yes, I know. I had promised a commentary on Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict’s apostolic exhortation based on the 2005 synod of bishops on the Eucharist. His exhortation was issued in March, and the reason I have been putting off this reflection is that we have all been waiting for the promised motu proprio (meaning a document on the pope’s own initiative) in which Benedict is presumably going to offer permissions and encouragements with respect to the use of the pre-1969 form of the Roman Rite. I had intended to do a combined commentary on both documents.

We have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Rumors of the motu proprio’s imminent release have been rife for over a year, and now we have it on very high authority that it will be released very soon but, unfortunately, after our deadline for this issue. (Giving the lie to those exaggerated accounts of this magazine’s influence in Rome, we can’t even get the pope to time the release of documents to fit our publication schedule.) So here are points of particular interest in Sacramentum Caritatis, and if, as I expect will be the case, the motu proprio calls for additional commentary, I will, God willing, be ready to answer the call.

I can say now, on the basis of discussions with informed parties, that the motu proprio is not likely to have much immediate effect in the life of the Church at the diocesan and parish levels. There is not a great demand for the Roman Rite in Latin, and relatively few priests have the interest or the facility in Latin to make its use widespread. I expect the issuing of the permission will be a media sensation for a few days, with predictable stories about the pope returning to his “conservative” type.

In fact, the views of Ratzinger-Benedict on liturgy are longstanding and well known to anyone paying even modest attention. He knows that to live is to change, but change in the Church’s ways of worship should be slow, incremental, and organic. That is not the way it happened after the Second Vatican Council. With the motu proprio, it is said, Benedict wants to restore a measure of continuity or, if you will, an evolutionary sensibility in liturgical renewal. As one curial official puts it, this directive will restore the old Roman Rite “not as normative but as normal in the Church’s worship.”

And now back to Sacramentum Caritatis. The title of the 2005 synod was “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” The title of Benedict’s exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, is, of course, very close to his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. In view of Benedict’s repeated focus on love, reporters who over the years generated the image of Ratzinger as “God’s Rottweiler” are now churning out stories about the amazing transformation of the Rottweiler into Papal Teddy Bear. It is all nonsense, of course. Those of us who have known the man over the years know that he is the same gentle, modest, and intellectually acute person he has always been. “Yes,” a reporter persists, “but isn’t the idea that God is love something new?” Well, not really. See John 4:8, among other scriptural passages.

But you won’t get me started on the media’s treatment of the exhortation. Except to note that the New York Times’ headline was “Pope Reaffirms View Opposing Gay Marriage and Abortion.” Marriage is mentioned in the exhortation, but there is no reference, at least not any direct reference, to gay marriage. And only in the rarefied air of 43rd Street would it seem newsworthy that the pope’s “view” is distinctly negative with respect to abortion. More remarkable, even for the Times, the story does not mention that the exhortation is about the Eucharist. The word Eucharist or Mass or liturgy does not appear even once in the Times’ account. But enough of that.

Sacramentum Caritatis (the phrase is from Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the Eucharist in his Summa) is very long. Unavoidably so, I suppose. Synods of bishops go on and on for almost a month, with hundreds of interventions germane and not so germane, and the pope’s task is to somehow catch them all up and frame them into a coherent whole. Those interested in how a synod works might consult my little book Appointment in Rome, based on my experience of being appointed by John Paul II as a delegate to the 1997 synod of bishops on the Americas.

This might be as good a place as any for a little story about which I have not previously written. After my book came out, a very influential cardinal in the Curia wrote me a stiff letter claiming that I had violated the secrecy rules of the synod. As it happened, I had received two days earlier a lovely letter from John Paul II praising the book and thanking me for helping readers understand how deliberations in Rome are conducted. I thanked the cardinal for writing and enclosed a copy of the pope’s letter, respectfully suggesting that he might be interested in a different evaluation of the book. The cardinal did not raise the question again.

But, again, back to Sacramentum Caritatis. The pope writes that “the synod fathers acknowledged and reaffirmed the beneficial influence on the Church’s life of the liturgical renewal which began with the Second Vatican Council.” That being said, he devotes the bulk of the exhortation to urging what some call “the reform of the reform.” “The changes the council called for,” the pope writes, “need to be understood within the overall unity of the historical development of the rite itself, without the introduction of artificial discontinuities.” This has been, as I said, a constant theme in the writings of Ratzinger-Benedict over the years. Authentic liturgical change is not fabricated. Fabrik is German for “factory,” and Ratzinger has suggested that some changes in the past had the feel of being freshly manufactured in a liturgical factory.

There is some lively, dare one say explosive, language. “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission,’ to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28).” “The Church’s ability to ‘make’ the Eucharist is completely rooted in Christ’s self-gift to her. Here we can see more clearly the meaning of St. John’s words: ‘He first loved us.’ We too, at every celebration of the Eucharist, confess the primacy of Christ’s gift.”

One notes that, along the way, Benedict takes up again a public disagreement he had some years ago with Walter Cardinal Kasper, now head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. To put it too briefly, Kasper contended that the particular or local churches were prior to the universal Church, while Ratzinger said it was the other way around. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict writes: “The fact that the one Eucharist is celebrated in each diocese around its own bishops helps us to see how those particular churches subsist in and ex ecclesia. Indeed, ‘the oneness and indivisibility of the Eucharistic body of the Lord implies the oneness of his mystical body, which is the one and indivisible Church.’” (The quotation is from himself when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In a theological argument, it helps to be the pope.)

Source and Summit

Benedict develops at some length the truth that all the sacraments of the Church, from baptism on, are oriented toward and flow from the Eucharist. This is the pervasive reiteration of the theme of Vatican II: The Eucharist is “the source and summit” of the Church’s life. He underscores the significance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and says “it is important that the confessionals in our churches should be clearly visible expressions of the importance of this sacrament.” Which may get some of those confessionals back from the attics where they were dispatched several decades ago, and will be welcomed by Catholics unhappy with “confessions by appointment” in the living room of the rectory.

He has much to say about the priestly “art” of celebrating the Eucharist, including the homily. “Priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the center of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the hands of the Lord.”

A docile instrument; it is a suggestive phrase. In his little book of memoirs, Milestones, Ratzinger recalls his ordination many years ago in Bavaria. The whole village made much of him, with several days of liturgies, processions, and other festivities. It was all quite heady, he writes, and he was tempted to forget that they were celebrating not him but the priesthood and the Church. And so, throughout those days, he whispered to himself again and again, “This is not about you, Joseph.” An excellent thing to remember when a priest is tempted to play emcee at “Father Bill’s Mass.”

Activity and Adoration

With wearying persistence, the suggestion is heard that the Church will or should drop the requirement of priestly celibacy. Not on Benedict’s watch, it is obvious, and he makes rather a point of this not being just his opinion: “In continuity with the great ecclesial tradition, with the Second Vatican Council, and with my predecessors in the papacy, I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church, and to the Kingdom of God, and I therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy, and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society.” Class will please discuss.

There is extended treatment of the shortage of priests. Although the pope does not mention figures, in places in Latin America there is one priest for as many as 20,000 Catholics spread over vast regions, making it impossible for many of the faithful to have the Eucharist or other sacraments with any frequency. Nonetheless, writes Benedict, “on no account should bishops react to real and understandable concerns about the shortage of priests by failing to carry out adequate vocational discernment or by admitting to seminary formation and ordination candidates who lack the necessary qualities for priestly ministry.” That is accompanied by a footnote that refers to, among other documents, the November 2005 instruction on not admitting to seminary or holy orders those with a deep-seated homosexual orientation. So, contrary to some suggestions, the instruction has not been entirely forgotten.

Benedict calls for a renewed understanding of “the rich theological and liturgical category of beauty.” “Like the rest of Christian revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty—it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. . . . This is no mere aestheticism but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us, and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us toward our true vocation, which is love. . . . The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth.” More than is usually the case in Catholic, as distinct from Orthodox, reflections on the Eucharist is the accent of Sacramentum Caritatis on the eschatological dimensions of the liturgy in anticipating the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Vatican Council II called for the “full, active, and fruitful” participation of the laity, and Benedict emphasizes, as he has before, that this does not mean all busyness all the time. One is fully, actively, and fruitfully participating also when engaged in silent contemplation. The sharing of the Sign of Peace is often a time of distracting busyness, and Benedict urges that it be done solemnly, as a liturgical act, with one or two people close at hand, rather than as a boisterous greeting of one and all as though the Eucharist is old home week. Moreover, he says in a footnote that he has authorized a study of moving the Sign of Peace to the point in the liturgy before the presentation of gifts, “taking into account ancient and venerable customs and the wishes expressed by the synod fathers.” That would, I believe, be a distinct improvement. Among its benefits is that it would, as he writes, “serve as a significant reminder of the Lord’s insistence that we be reconciled with others before offering our gifts to God.”

Benedict reiterates his insistence on the importance of Latin and Gregorian chant, emphasizing that priests should be competent in both. In large gatherings, especially international gatherings, the universality of the Church should be underscored by the use of Latin. “I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, that, with the exception of the readings, the homily, and the prayer of the faithful, such liturgies could be celebrated in Latin.” Here a bit of mischief has been alleged by gimlet-eyed observers. The translation published in origins says could be, while linguists tell us that the original is more accurately translated as should be. There is no doubt that should be is more in accord with the tenor of the entire exhortation.

The encouragement of the revival of eucharistic adoration is a strong feature of the document. A few decades ago, liturgical fabricators promoted the objection that the eucharistic bread is not to be looked at but to be eaten. This, says Benedict, is “a false dichotomy.” St. Augustine is quoted: Nemo autem illam carnem manducat, nisi prius adoraverit; peccemus non adorando (“No one eats that flesh without first adoring it”); we should sin were we not to adore it. Benedict adds, “The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the liturgical celebration itself.” “Wherever possible it would be appropriate, especially in densely populated areas, to set aside specific churches or oratories for perpetual adoration.” It is a great pity that, also in some major American cities, there is no place set aside for perpetual adoration. It is not for the lack of devout Catholics who are ready to take their turn in adoration around the clock.

In the now dated liturgical fabrications of the past, the reserved sacrament was moved from its central place behind the altar and consigned to a “eucharistic chapel,” in some churches located down a hallway and requiring a map to find. Benedict says “it is preferable to locate the tabernacle in the sanctuary in a sufficiently elevated place at the center of the apse area or in another place where it will be equally conspicuous.” It is not easy to imagine an area as equally conspicuous as the center of the apse.

The pope does not indicate any intention to rescind the provisions for Saturday-evening Masses anticipating the Sunday, which indeed begins with Evening Prayer on Saturday, but he emphasizes the importance of observing Sunday as Sunday. Quoting John Paul II, he writes that Sunday is “Dies Domini with regard to the work of creation, Dies Christi as the day of the new creation and the risen Lord’s gift of the Holy Spirit, Dies Ecclesiae as the day on which the Christian community gathers for the celebration, and Dies hominis as the day of joy, rest, and fraternal charity.” “We need to remember that it is Sunday itself that is meant to be kept holy, lest it end up as a day ‘empty of God.’”

The aforementioned news reports were not entirely wrong when they said the exhortation pressed some of the usual hot-button issues. Benedict talks about “eucharistic consistency,” meaning that eucharistic communion entails adherence to the teachings of the Church. Eucharistic consistency “demands a public witness to our faith. This is true for all the baptized, but it is especially incumbent on those who, by virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values such as respect for human life, its defense from conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children and the promotion of the common good in all its forms.”

On other aspects of the social implications of the Eucharist, the document concludes with some very general comments that have about them the feel of being added as an afterthought. They no doubt allude to some of the things that were said by bishops at the synod, and I suppose it seemed fitting to mention them in the exhortation, even if they are not coherently related to the eucharistic themes of the document.

That small caveat aside, Sacramentum Caritatis is a tour de force, bringing together the deliberations of the 2005 synod and the insights that Joseph Ratzinger has long advanced with respect to eucharistic and liturgical renewal in a determined effort to reform the reform.

That Decision on Partial-Birth Abortion

I would like to think that the Supreme Court decision on partial-birth abortion is as good as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says it is. She says it is alarming; it reflects manifest hostility to the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe; it supports judicial deference to the legislative branch; it permits moral and ethical considerations to impinge upon law; it treats sympathetically such traditional notions as a mother’s love for her child; and it is a first step toward reversing the abortion regime established by Roe. As I say, I hope she is right, but I expect she may be exaggerating somewhat.

Nonetheless, the Gonzales v. Carhart decision is to be warmly welcomed. Justice Kennedy’s 5-4 majority opinion is notable for accenting society’s legitimate, indeed imperative, interest in protecting innocent human life. That interest had received lip service in Roe and its judicial offspring, but this time it is an operative, albeit not a controlling, concern. President Bush hailed Carhart as bringing us closer to the goal of “a society in which every child is welcomed in life and protected in law.” A very little bit closer to a goal still painfully far away.

In its emphasis on the society’s interest in protecting unborn life, this decision builds on the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002, which was the baby, so to speak, of our own Hadley Arkes. As Hadley has argued in First Things, that act was a crucial wedge in establishing in public law the obvious truth that the unborn child is a child. It is notable that Ginsburg and the other justices in dissent do not even attempt to challenge that truth, although the dissenters grumble about the opinion making so much of it. (A sizeable portion of the dissent is about the language employed by the majority: “child,” “mother,” and “abortion doctor,” for instance, when “fetus,” “woman,” and “physician” would serve just as well—in fact, would serve much better if your purpose is to disguise the obvious.)

It seems to me that there is another question that should be pretty much settled now. Back in the 1990s, there was considerable argument among pro-life leaders about the wisdom of focusing on partial-birth abortion. It was a strategic decision. Pro-lifers opposed to it contended that partial-birth abortions accounted for only a few thousand abortions per year, and getting rid of that procedure would do nothing to protect the million and more other children killed by abortion each year. This was another instance of the familiar disagreement over the advocacy of incremental changes or frontal challenges to the abortion regime of Roe. Obviously, one would prefer a frontal challenge that would result in the overturning of that infamous 1973 decision. But it will not work, at least not now. Quite apart from specific decisions of the Court, the focus on partial-birth abortion has been a great success in educating the public to the reality of unborn life and the horror of abortion. In the dissent, Justice Ginsburg objects that the moral repugnance triggered by partial-birth abortion is true of all abortions. Precisely.

I expect it is in the minds of many, but so far there has been only marginal public comment on the fact that all five in the Carhart majority are Catholics. What can one say? Know-Nothings of the world unite? It is not a peculiarly Catholic perception, but it is an emphatically Catholic perception, that legitimate law cannot be divorced from morality. And in this constitutional order of representative democracy, the relationship between moral judgment and law is best expressed by the legislature. Almost a century ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared that the realm of law should be entirely purged of moral judgment or vocabulary.

That, of course, is itself a moral dictate. But over the past fifty years, the Court has followed that dictate on numerous issues, thus reinforcing what has been called the naked public square. The Ginsburg dissent is right: In previous decisions, especially those dealing with abortion, the Court said there was no place in law for the “imposing” of moral judgments. Carhart, by way of contrast, evidences a respect for moral discernment, especially as expressed by the legislature. Every law of consequence reflects a moral judgment. The abortion license imposed by Roe previously enjoyed a most particular exemption from moral inquiry. Carhart quite clearly says that that exemption is now expiring.

The Law in Place

It is nonetheless the case that the ban on partial-birth abortion leaves the abortion license itself in place. The only question addressed is whether the ban is an “undue burden” on the exercise of the license. As Ginsburg delicately says of the ban, “The law saves not a single fetus from destruction.” The Kennedy opinion is careful to point out that, even in cases when the child has reached full term, abortionists can avoid violating the ban by giving the baby an injection that kills it and then removing the corpse in pieces. Or abortionists can, as he bluntly puts it, “decapitate” the baby before enough of the body emerges to qualify as a partial-birth abortion. So it is true that the unlimited abortion license, defined as the right to kill a baby at any point before complete live birth, remains unlimited.

It is also true, however, that the majority opinion is careful to say that the unlimited license rests on existing abortion precedents of the Court. Kennedy underscores that the present decision does not overturn those precedents. But Ginsburg is, from her perspective, rightly alarmed that the opinion is very careful not to affirm those precedents. If it had affirmed them, it would not have been a majority opinion, since Justices Thomas and Scalia once again make clear in their concurring opinion that they believe the abortion license is without foundation in the Constitution.

Which raises the question of why Justices Roberts and Alito did not join in the concurring opinion of Thomas and Scalia. The answer, it is reasonable to believe, is that the main purpose of the concurring opinion is to make clear that Thomas and Scalia are not withdrawing their objection to the use of the Commerce Clause to federalize abortion and other laws, and Roberts and Alito have no dog in that fight, as yet. Moreover, if Roberts and Alito do agree that Roe and its offspring were wrongly decided, this case did not require them to say so publicly. And, in fact, if they did say so now, critics would make hay of their not being impartial in considering a future case in which Roe and its judicial offspring are overturned. So I see nothing ominous in the fact that Roberts and Alito did not join the concurring opinion in Carhart. To which it must be added, of course, that we do not know for sure whether they—possibly along with Kennedy and the next justice to be appointed—will support the reversal of Roe when an appropriate case is accepted by the Court, although we may reasonably hope so.

In reporting Carhart, the New York Times headline declared that the Court “reverses course” on abortion. That is true in a limited sense. Justice Ginsburg is correct about the differences between this decision and prior decisions in which the Court upheld pitifully minor regulations in the exercise of the abortion license. To be sure, there are no guarantees, but Carhart gives reason to think that Ginsburg’s fears may be vindicated and the abortion regime may be on its way, a painfully slow way, toward extinction.

While the carnage continues, there is no place for false hopes or counsels of despair. It is not, I believe, a false hope to think that this decision has brought us a little closer to the goal—never to be realized fully within the limits of history—of a society in which every child is welcomed in life and protected in law. There will always be some abortions, as there will always be other forms of homicide, along with rapes, child abuse, and similarly grievous crimes. But the law—in its pedagogical, protective, and punitive functions—can discourage and prevent such great evils. Carhart has made that prospect a little more visible on the still distant horizon.

While We’re At It

• The gospel reading for this morning’s Mass was John 3 with the account of Nicodemus, the member of the Sanhedrin who visited Jesus by night. I have always had a particular affection for Nicodemus. Many of us have known Nicodemuses. They’re the people who, when you’re out front in a controversy, approach you on the sly and say you’re doing a great job. “Keep it up. A lot of us are behind you.” Safely behind. But, to be fair to Nicodemus, he did speak up in protest against that mockery of a trial and joined with Joseph of Arimathea in wrapping Our Lord’s body in linen with rich spices. Legend has it that he later became a disciple and he even has a date, August 1, on the calendar of saints. I like to think the legend is true. There is even an apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” that dates back to the fourth century and elaborates on the trial, giving details also on Christ’s harrowing of hell. Nicodemus is the saint of the timid, the patron of latecomers. They hang around the truth, withholding their commitment until they discover they’ve gone too far to go back. He’s the patron of “seekers” who are only half-seeking and then discover they’ve been found. On the same morning, I read a review of an off-Broadway play, “All the Wrong Reasons,” a one-man show by John Fugelsang. Apparently he is very angry about his life. He is the son of a former priest and former nun and complains, “My parents had promised God I would never happen.” He keeps coming back to the truth that he believes his parents, and he, have abandoned. He has all the conventional things to say about Catholic guilt-mongering and the Church’s expertise in inducing a sense of shame. He also says, “I have come to view Jesus the way I view Elvis. I love the guy, but a lot of the fan clubs freak me out.” I don’t know about Elvis, but Jesus made it clear enough that you can’t put any distance between him and his fan club, also known as the Church. (“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”) The time of decision comes in recognizing that one’s spirituality is not superior to that of the least of his brothers and sisters. John Fugelsang. Saint Nicodemus, pray for him.

• A reader writes to say that he agrees with J.A. Gray’s review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but he thinks that in some other books McCarthy has important things to say. This, for instance, is his narrator in No Country for Old Men: “Here a year or two back me and Loretta went to a conference in Corpus Christi and I got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talking about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m going to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.” It may have ended the conversation but we can hope it planted a seed.

Odium theologicum—the ill-feeling and nasty polemics to which theological controversy can give rise—is in short supply. I don’t mean ordinary nastiness in disagreements over religion. I mean the high panache of distinguished theologians going at one another. Reinhard Hütter of Duke Divinity School offers a robust example in the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is provoked by an attack by John Milbank, prefect of a school of thought self-dubbed Radical Orthodoxy, on a book by Lawrence Feingold in which Feingold defends traditional Thomist teaching on nature and grace. Milbank said Feingold’s argument is “arch-reactionary,” “paleolithic,” and dependent on exegetical methods “much like that of the proof-texting of a Protestant fundamentalist.” This gets Hütter up to speed: “The associations seem to be all too clear to leave any doubt about the purpose of such antecedent rhetorical disqualification. Anyone willing seriously to consider Feingold’s arguments (and for that matter Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s interpretation of Thomas Aquinas), by the sheer dynamic of the connotations entailed, must be a supporter of the Spanish Inquisition, a defender of the Papal States, and an admirer of the Franco, Vichy, and Pinochet regimes in addition to anything else implied by association as arch-reactionary. It is sad to see such an astute and critical mind as Milbank’s submit in such as unnuanced and uncritical way to the thoroughly modern political geography of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in order to situate and prejudice matters doctrinal and theological, a habit, surely by now as widespread in contemporary theology as it is thoughtless, and achieving nothing else than comfortably condemning matters of theological enquiry and discourse to the Procrustean bed of a policing political correctness and hence of the final domestication of matters ecclesial and theological under the extrinsically superimposed rubrics of political liberalism.” Whew, that felt good. In truth, Hütter’s article is substantive, incisive, and persuasive, and I recommend it to the theologically minded. What you will not learn from the article, and what he had no reason to mention, is that Hütter is a former Lutheran who became Catholic a few years ago, and what he does not come right out and say in the article is that the traditional understanding of Thomas Aquinas on nature and grace is essential to what the sixteenth-century Reformers, at their best, meant by sola gratia.

• Since the publication of David Cesarani’s biography, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, it takes a measure of courage to write in praise of the man. Cesarani revealed, and few, if any, have attempted to dispute, that Koestler was a brutal abuser of women and maybe a rapist to boot. Yet there is no doubting that his Darkness at Noon was a work of genius and one of the most influential critiques of the Communist horror ever written, and his edited work, The God That Failed, opened the eyes of many to the gargantuan evil of the evil empire. Theodore Dalrymple writes in City Journal that Koestler should not be forgotten or dismissed, and focuses our attention on some of his novels. There is this, for instance, in The Age of Longing. He is describing the plight of Hydie, a lapsed Catholic. I expect you know someone who fits the description:

Oh, if only she could go back to the infinite comfort of father confessors and mother superiors, of a well-ordered hierarchy which promised punishment and reward, and furnished the world with justice and meaning. If only she could go back! But she was under the curse of reason, which rejected whatever might quench her thirst, without abolishing the urge; which rejected the answer without abolishing the question. For the place of God had become vacant, and there was a draught blowing through the world as in an empty flat before the new tenants have arrived.

And there is this self-description in the first volume of Koestler’s autobiography, Arrow in the Blue: “The youth of sixteen that I was, with the plastered-down hair, and the fatuous smirk, at once arrogant and sheepish, was emotionally seasick: greedy for pleasure, haunted by guilt, torn between feelings of inferiority and superiority, between the need for contemplative solitude and the frustrated urge for gregariousness.” I expect some of us, thinking back to when we were sixteen, may experience a sharp pain of self-recognition.

• When I was researching an eminently forgettable book, Dispensations: The Futures of South Africa, I spent a good deal of time in Rhodesia, then on the edge of becoming Zimbabwe. I have tried to follow closely developments in that unhappy land. Since 1980, the country has been led by the anticolonialist liberationist Robert Mugabe, now eighty-three years old. It has been twenty-seven years of almost unmitigated disaster. Under his government, aptly described as a thugocracy, civil and political freedoms have been crushed, 80 percent of the adult population is unemployed, and he has expelled international aid and food programs because their workers tend to be, understandably, critical of his regime’s pervasive corruption. This Holy Thursday, the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe issued a stiff pastoral letter. “It almost appears,” they said, “as though someone sat down with the Declaration of Human Rights and deliberately scrubbed out each in turn.” Why did things go so terribly wrong? The bishops answer: “Because soon after independence the power and wealth of the tiny white Rhodesian elite was appropriated by an equally exclusive black elite, some of whom have governed the country for the past twenty-seven years through political patronage. Black Zimbabweans today fight for the same basic rights they fought for during the liberation struggle.” The bishops call for a new constitution and free and fair elections that “will offer a chance for economic recovery under genuinely new policies.” It is expected that Robert Mugabe will run for president again this year.

• Here’s a pleasant change of pace. It’s a long editorial in the New York Daily News, “Keeping Faith with New York,” celebrating the bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York. (The archdiocese includes 2.5 million Catholics in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and seven northern counties. Brooklyn and Long Island have their own dioceses.) The editors write: “With the exception, perhaps, of municipal government, no institution has been as enduringly influential in knitting the fabric of the city as the archdiocese. Under its aegis, countless millions of births, marriages and deaths have been marked, as generation after generation was raised in a life-affirming faith. And far many more benefited as the Church aided the poor, treated the sick, and helped assimilate wave upon wave of immigrants. . . . Neighborhoods were anchored by parish churches, and by parochial schools that still serve as models of education.” It’s a handsome tribute and well deserved. In the comparison with city government, the “perhaps” is a nice touch. If the subject is knitting the social fabric, I expect the Church has done a great deal more than city government. Former mayor Ed Koch uses a different metaphor. He is given to saying that the Catholic Church is the “glue” that holds the city together. Gluing, knitting, or whatever, while there are many institutions without which New York would not be New York, there is no denying the indispensability of the Church. I am a self-confessed chauvinist about the city. It is said that, when we arrive at the gates of paradise, there will be a big sign: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, THE NEW JERUSALEM.” What about those who in this life did not like New York City? The answer is that there will be another place to go. Of course that is only a theological opinion and not church doctrine, but there may be a little something to it. In any event, and very seriously: Ad multos annos to the Archdiocese of New York on its first two hundred years!

• The word is out: You will not dissent from the established line on embryonic stem cell research. The word was delivered with particular force to Dr. Maureen Condic, author of “What We Know About Embryonic Stem Cells,” January 2007. It will be remembered that Condic very persuasively challenged the claim that drives the campaign for public funding of human embryonic stem cell research (hESC), namely, that it will provide near-miraculous cures for a wide range of human medical conditions in the near future. An editorial in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience has now attacked the article and author, claiming that Condic is “trying to spin science . . . to fit an anti-scientific purpose.” The editorial refers to “the conservative Roman Catholic magazine First Things.” (We are an ecumenical and interreligious journal of religion, culture, and public life.) It says that Condic “does not mention the fundamental moral arguments that underlie Catholic opposition to hESC research,” implying that she is a devious person disguising her real reasons for criticizing the scientific establishment’s campaign for public funding. Interestingly, the editors do not question Condic’s central claim that, as they put it, “there are formidable hurdles to overcome before hESCs might serve therapeutic purposes.” That is why they want more billions of dollars in addition to all that has already been spent on such research. In fact, the editorial does not challenge any of Condic’s scientific claims. Her crime is that she publicly dissents from the campaign for public funding. “Certainly,” the editors say, “there is no guarantee that hESC research will ever lead to breakthrough therapies, and the ethical argument against destroying embryos deserves respectful consideration in the debate.” Of course, Condic’s article was not about the ethical arguments. Moreover, the editors’ respect for such arguments seems less than wholehearted. Participants in the debate, they say, should “apply the same scientific standards to hESC research as they would to any other field.” Most other fields of research, one notes, do not involve creating and destroying human lives. A curious aspect of this controversy is that the editorial appears in Nature Neuroscience, one of several scientific journals put out by the Nature Publishing Group. One might think an editorial about stem cell biology would be more appropriate in a journal devoted to stem cell biology. As it happens, however, Dr. Condic’s primary field of research is in neuroscience. If you wanted to smear Condic in the eyes of her professional colleagues, to prevent her from getting articles published in scientific journals and from obtaining research grants in her field of specialization, well, Nature Neuroscience is just the place to do it. Moreover, the editors refused to publish Condic’s letter responding to their attack on her. This is intellectual censorship of a low order. We admire Dr. Condic’s courage in speaking the truth, for which she will likely pay a stiff price, and we look forward to her continuing contributions to these pages. Her writings may not be welcome to establishment gatekeepers, but they are an invaluable contribution to informed public discourse. But the word is out from the editors of Nature Neuroscience: We have ways of dealing with those who do not toe the line.

• I never heard of him but it says here that he runs a big network of satellite TV and radio programs, along with three hundred education centers in fifty-two countries. José Luis De Jesús Miranda is based in Miami, and he claims to be both the Antichrist and Christ returned for the second time. This is a man who is covering all bases. But I especially like his self-designation as El Otro—“The Other.” It gives a whole new dimension to the critical-theoretical academic chatter about the otherness of the other.

A Century of Horrors by Alain Besançon is a little book of great wisdom. Besançon is director of studies at L’école des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and in this book of barely a hundred pages, published by ISI Books, he explores the connections between Communism and Nazism, helping the reader to understand why, unfortunately, the former is in the Western mind not the icon of absolute evil to which the latter has been elevated. He also examines the rival victimologies that mark narratives of the twentieth century, with particular attention to the uniqueness of the Holocaust. There are many insights deserving of comment, but I was especially struck by this: “In effect, what appears to Christians as a moment of agony in the long labor of redemption obviously appears to Jews as a pure scandal. Certain Jews rejected the word ‘holocaust’ because it indicated a sacrifice: they thought it was not appropriate for naming this senseless paroxysm of evil and preferred the neutral term ‘Shoah,’ or ‘catastrophe,’ instead. Christians could accept the term Holocaust because it had been lived and recapitulated by their Messiah precisely as a sacrifice. The mutual misunderstanding on this subject, therefore, is based neither on a simple mistake nor on ill will; it arises instead from the very roots of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Christians believe they possess a key to understanding within the limits of what is knowable. But this key functions only within the limits of their faith. It is rejected by Jews, and Christians fail to understand this rejection. Thus, the problem of the uniqueness of the Shoah admits of no universal solution. We are left simply to understand this unresolved problem clearly, and to accept it.” These factors were very much in play, it may be remembered, in the 1990 controversy over the convent at Auschwitz. The nuns were there to pray for the victims of Auschwitz, both Jewish and Christian, but there were vocal Jewish protests against what was called the “Christianizing” of the Holocaust. In this view, Auschwitz represents a part of history and of the world that is beyond the reach of redemption. Besançon is right in saying that this question reflects a characteristic difference between Jews and Christians, but the difference is not so uniform as he suggests. We need not resign ourselves to simply “accept” an unresolvable difference. In the vision of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Earth Is the Lord’s, no part of the creation will be forever in the possession of the Enemy. It’s been five years since the crisis meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas and the adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” This past March, Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, chairman of the committee on the charter’s implementation, spoke at Georgetown University, offering a thoughtful reflection on what has been learned. In his extended reflection, he spoke movingly about the victims of sex abuse, the terrible damage done to them, and the betrayal of their trust by ministers of the Church. And he spoke about the pain experienced by those who love the Church. The word pain recurs in almost every second sentence. But he spoke also of repentance and healing, and of the growing acceptance of workshops and background checks required to provide a “safe environment” for children. Yet there is the troubling statement that “we must continue the education or our bishops, priests, and deacons regarding boundaries in healthy, celibate, and chaste lives.” The language about “boundaries,” many have suggested, is part of the problem. It is suggestive of teenage sex talk about “how far can you go.” The problem is not boundaries but the entire disposition of the minister to be faithful to his solemn vows. Also, among the things that have been learned, there is no mention of a draconian zero-tolerance policy in which hundreds of priests (nobody knows for sure how many) have been peremptorily dismissed from ministry on the basis of charges, or even one charge, without proof or even substantial evidence of guilt. It has not escaped notice that the bishops did not apply the zero-tolerance policy to themselves. In addition to honest mistakes and dishonest cover-ups by bishops, great sums have been spent in defending bishops accused of sex abuse. Striking, too, in Bishop Aymond’s account is the complete absence of any reference to homosexuality in the priesthood. The research commissioned by the National Review Board indicates that more than 80 percent of all abuse cases were between priests and teenage boys or young men. No doubt the bishop intends that his references to healthy seminary formation include the problem of homosexuality, but it is not mentioned explicitly. This is in sharpest contrast to the November 2005 instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, about which very little has been heard since. As I say, there is much that is painful, candid, and wise in Bishop Aymond’s reflection on what has been learned over these five years. There is also much that is not said and, it is to be feared, much that has not been learned.

• It is not true that Americans have not awakened to the threat of terrorism. In public schools around the country, “hostage drills” are conducted to prepare children for a terrorist attack. For instance, in Burlington Township High School in New Jersey, police played mock gunmen described as “members of a right-wing fundamentalist group called the ‘New Crusaders’ who don’t believe in the separation of church and state.” The mock terrorists were said to have been “seeking justice because the daughter of one [member] had been expelled for praying before class.” From watching all-American entertainment such as The Sopranos, one might get the impression that New Jersey is part of the U.S.A. Or maybe it’s just Burlington Township that is being terrorized by Christians.

• The New York Times thinks you should know. There is a big study by the University of Arkansas, and another by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and yet another by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. They all lead to the conclusion that birth defects account for more than $2.5 billion in hospital costs. The studies involve not only the cost of caring for newborn babies but also of adults suffering from birth defects. I don’t know why these studies were undertaken. Maybe it was no more than an interest in medical bookkeeping. But the results are reported as revealing a problem. A problem calls for a solution, and, for the life of me, I can think of only one practical solution implicit in these findings.

• Novelist Cynthia Ozick says that, at age twenty-four, she was a mystic and an antinomian, in thrall to Blake and Shelley. Then she read Romantic Religion by Leo Baeck. Baeck was a rabbi and philosopher who died in 1956, and Ozick generously acknowledges her debt to him. “I, pursuing passage after passage of Baeck’s reprise of the incantatory romantic—its transports and exultations, its voluptuously nurtured sorrows, its illusory beauty anchored in nothing but vapor—I came to see it all as loathsome. . . . What did it lead to? The self. What did it mean? Self-pride. What did it achieve? Self-delusion and delirium. That way lay Dionysius. I chose Rabbi Baeck.” Now, many years later, Ozick says she has assimilated deeply, also from many other sources, the wisdom first encountered in Baeck. “Romantic Religion, with its emphasis upon humane conduct over the perils of the loosened imagination, remains an essay to live by. It is not an essay to write stories by; stories crave the wilderness of untethered feeling. But once—even though I wanted then more than anything to write stories—it left me dazzled and undone.” Dazzled and undone does not seem quite right, suggesting as it does Dionysius more than Baeck. But I think she may be getting at what Paul Ricouer called a “second naïveté”—midlife’s capacity to see again what the process of growing up taught one to see through. As C.S. Lewis remarked, a window is for seeing something through it; to see through everything is to see nothing. Of course, for Ricouer, and certainly for Lewis, a second naïveté was not only to write stories by.

• The capture of fifteen British sailors and marines by Iran, what they did in captivity, and the circumstances of their release combined in making for one of the more depressing vignettes in the continuing humiliation of the West. Much was made of the fact that one of the captured was a woman. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mocked a nation that sends women—in this case a woman with a three-year-old child—to fight its wars. He had a point. The leader of an Islamic state instructing the West on respect for women is a nice twist. The troops were in international waters when captured. I think this used to be called piracy, but Iran nevertheless succeeded in seizing the moral high ground. The prisoners effusively apologized on world television for what they had done and expressed gratitude for their good treatment. After their release, they explained that they were under severe psychological pressure. No doubt. We are a long way from volunteering no more than “name, rank, and serial number.” Most of us may not know what we would have done under the same circumstances. At issue, however, is the ethos of the military and the virtue called honor, a word that sounds increasingly quaint. According to the laws of the European Union, the troops were also citizens of the E.U., which did not raise a finger to help them. The E.U. does mega-billions in business with Iran, and the prospect of Iran with nuclear weapons capable of reaching the continent is also conducive to docility. The “international community” as represented by the U.N. declined to “deplore” Iran’s piracy, but the Security Council did express concern. To give credit where due, the Security Council expressed “grave concern.” The embarrassing episode ended when Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was generously releasing the prisoners as a “gift” to the West and a token of his country’s devotion to peace. It is not the case, however, that everybody lost their moral bearings during the incident. On Iranian television, the woman hostage had smoked a cigarette. British cabinet member Patricia Hewitt issued a firm and uncompromising statement: “It was deplorable that the woman hostage should be shown smoking. This sends completely the wrong message to our young people.”

• “The renewed debate over how many Jews there are in America,” writes Hillel Halkin, “is about as meaningful as the mythical medieval argument over how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.” The reason the argument is mythical is because the answer is obvious: All of them. Halkin makes a more serious point in expressing his skepticism about telephone polls aimed at determining the number of Jews. “The same pollster can ask you whether you eat cornflakes, and you can answer ‘yes’ to that, too, without intending to convey that cornflakes are central to your life or that you would even exert yourself to buy a box of them if your neighborhood supermarket ran out.” Such polls suggest that there are 5.2 million to 6.4 million Jews in America. A few generations ago, says Halkin, there were “ethnic Jews”—they did not go to synagogue or participate in Jewish organizational life, but they “ate like Jews, spoke like Jews, thought like Jews, socialized with Jews, and married Jews.” That is less and less the case as Jews assimilate into the general culture. As Irving Kristol has observed, “Our problem is not that Christians hate us. Our problem is that they want to marry us.” Halkin writes: “The American Jewish community is rapidly polarizing into more and more assimilated Jews, on the one hand, and more and more Jewish Jews, on the other. The broad ethnic middle has fallen out of it.” Which, although he does not say so, raises a question about whether there is, in any meaningful sense, an American Jewish community. Halkin emphasizes that only the Orthodox are more than holding their own. They are 10 percent of American Jewry, 20 percent of Jews under 18, and barely 1 percent of them intermarry. Halkin writes, “As bitter as the divide between [the Orthodox] and Reform and Conservative Jews may be over cultural issues, the intense allegiance of Orthodox Jews to a Jewish way of life is a model that Reform and Conservatism will increasingly have to follow if they are to survive.” That will strike many observers as a wan hope. Most Jews have no connection with Reform or Conservative Judaism, and the “cultural issues” are frequently the same moral issues that divide non-Jewish America. On these issues, Reform and Conservative Judaism are drifting ever farther from Orthodoxy. The sobering prospect is that, for the great majority of Jews in America, Jewish identity will soon be as tenuous as allegiance to cornflakes.

• Sam Roberts of the New York Times has been studying the 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States. Among his findings, there is this: “Americans spent more of their lives than ever—about eight and a half hours a day—watching television, using computers, listening to the radio, going to the movies or reading.” This is presumably a problem. I’m not so sure. How many are “watching television” when the television set is on? And I expect most people are doing something else when listening to radio. As for “using computers,” that is extremely vague. They might be trolling through pornography, writing the great American novel, or trying to balance the family budget. And then he tosses in reading. We are to be concerned that people spend hours a day reading? Maybe if they’re reading the Statistical Abstract of the United States. People with better judgment will read on with untroubled conscience.

• The reviews are in and everyone is mightily impressed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has pulled out all the stops in staging “Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797,” an exhibition that runs until July 8. Venice was the center of world trade, and the Venetians had a bottomless appetite for the curiosities and achievements of other worlds. Nor were their feats untouched by piety, as evident in the theft of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria in a.d. 828 The exhibit includes numerous paintings of Islamic scenes and personages done by Venetian artists. Gentile Bellini did a portrait of Sultan Mehmet II in 1480 and also gave him a picture of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, for which the sultan did not much care. The sultan found the painting wanting in naturalism and ordered a headsman to decapitate a slave. “This,” he said to Bellini, “is how a freshly severed head should look.” The reviewer in the Sun writes: “The exhibit covers nearly ever facet—including trading, artistic influence, printing, politics, science, and philosophy—of the relationship between the Serene Republic and the Mamluk, Ottoman, and Safavid empires. Although there was some cross-pollination (evidence suggests that the sultans adored Italian Parmesan cheese), the Islamic world, it appears, took Venice captive.” Quite the opposite, one might suggest. Venice took captive everything worth taking from the Islamic world. Islam received little in return. Unless you count Parmesan cheese. As many scholars have noted, it is the West that has always been avidly interested in learning from other cultures. In his review of the exhibit, Holland Cotter of the Times misses the point quite as completely. Displaying an exquisite multicultural sensibility, he writes: “It’s important to acknowledge the superficiality of the interaction, to remember that one culture never really becomes the other. The Met exhibit is a European, not an Islamic, show. . . . Some future exhibition will flip this perspective around. That is a show we need, and I look forward to it.” Mr. Cotter is likely to have a very long wait.

• The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, the flagship seminary of the Conservative branch of Judaism, has announced that it will accept openly gay students for the rabbinate. David Gelertner of Yale, who is writing a book on Jewish theology, does not want to read gays or lesbians (women were admitted to the rabbinate a few years ago) out of Judaism, but he notes that not every Jew is qualified to be a rabbi. “Do what you can. God understands. That is Judaism’s view—the view of normative, rabbinic, ‘orthodox’ Judaism. But consider the case of a Jew who openly refuses to keep kosher, and loves ham sandwiches. In this respect he is not a good Jew—but he might be a good human being. . . . A rabbi is a teacher and must do his best to show us how a Jew should live. We don’t expect our rabbis to be perfect, but we do expect them to do their best to show the way. A rabbi is like an officer in the Israeli army—he is expected to lead his men into battle and to say, ‘Follow me!’” The openly gay rabbinical candidate, writes Gelertner, is saying, “I have an urge to commit homosexual acts, which I can’t or won’t suppress.” Like a married candidate who says the same about his urge to commit adultery, such a student should be told “to find another line of work.” In the Talmud, writes Gelertner, there are only three sins for which a Jew must be prepared to pay the price of martyrdom rather than commit: idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relations. In view of the decision of JTS, says Gelertner, “we learn, at last, what it means to live in a world where nothing is sacred.” It is perhaps more accurate to say that we live in a world where, for many Jews and non-Jews, nothing is more sacred than the expression of one’s “authentic self” as defined by one’s chosen identity and desires, including sexual desires. Which, of course, abrogates both the prohibition of illicit sexual relations and of idolatry, in this case the idolatry of the authentic self. Moreover, I expect JTS still excludes murderers from the rabbinate. And so, with respect to JTS and distinguished non-Jewish divinity schools, it is not as though everything is lost. We are simply in the midst of a cultural redefinition of the sacred. “God understands.” He had a very good run and undoubtedly knew it wouldn’t last forever.

• Talk about America as a “Christian nation” is definitely not in good taste. It may be true in some important respects, but to acknowledge that in public is to give aid and comfort to the theocrats who want to force you back to Sunday school for remedial education. One therefore welcomes “Is America a Christian Nation?”—the lead article in the current issue of Political Science Quarterly, by Hugh Heclo of George Mason University. Heclo thoughtfully proposes to answer the question from several perspectives, and I will be coming back to his argument when the book comes out on which his article is based. In terms of demography and self-identification, yes, America is a Christian nation. In terms of its political ethos and of some of its political institutions, America is a “sort of” Christian nation. But Heclo has five other criteria by which he determines that America is doubtfully or definitely not a Christian nation. One of them is that Americans manifestly do not live the moral code associated with Christianity. I am reminded of Edward Banfield’s classic 1970 book, The Unheavenly City, in which he notes that in the early eighteenth century there were in Boston more brothels per capita than there are today. Yet Boston had no doubt that it was a Christian city. Christianity majors in sin and forgiveness. Incidentally, and while his article is admirable in many ways, Heclo does what many social critics do in Googling for evidence. He notes that Google produces 407 million results for “sex” and only 363 million for “God,” suggesting that Americans are more interested in pornography than religion. So I thought I would try a little research by Googling: Counting in millions, the results are 544 for children, 626 for food, 868 for love, and 870 for health. From which one might conclude that Americans are devoted to children, eating well, very loving, and extremely healthy. Which, in addition to their being religious and sexy, adds up to an attractive, if not entirely plausible, national profile. But, as I say, and googling diversions aside, Hugo Heclo makes a thoughtful argument, and I look forward to engaging it when the book comes out.

• Marriage is an expression of love and commitment between two people. But of course. Who would want to disagree with that. Well, David Blankenhorn, for one. He has written an important book, The Future of Marriage (Encounter), in which he powerfully argues for the institution of marriage and backs up his argument with a comprehensive grasp of the pertinent scholarship in sociology and other disciplines—leavened with a winsome appeal to common sense. The idea that marriage is any loving relationship between two people has a history. Blankenhorn writes: “The gay marriage debate did not produce this idea. It’s been around for decades, used primarily by people seeking to explain or justify the spread of divorce, unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation, and other manifestations of marriage’s declining institutional authority. But if today’s national discussion of same-sex marriage did not originate the notion of marriage as essentially a private love relationship, that discussion certainly has reinforced and enshrined the idea to an extent that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years ago. Proponents of gay marriage repeat it endlessly. Courts adopt it routinely. Most people who use it regularly seem to understand—correctly, in my view—that it is a debate-shaping idea. They typically say it first because they regard it as the most important thing they can say, since everything else follows from it.” And, of course, the “everything else” that follows includes the manifesto recently signed by prominent academics, “Beyond Gay Marriage,” which advocates, ironically enough, the institutionalizing of “polyamorous” relationships of every imaginable and barely imaginable sort. Those who ask “What difference does it make to you and your marriage if gays can get married, too?” are among the many who would benefit by reading The Future of Marriage.

• According to the Washington Post, the National Organization for Women has filed a complaint against the Department of Health and Human Services for funding a program called Promoting Responsible Fatherhood. It seems that fathers tend to be men and this, says NOW, violates the Title IX law against sex discrimination. Says a HHS official, “If a woman says she wants to apply and it’s not happening, we want to know about it.” In that declaration there is no doubt the potential for another HHS program to help women who want to participate in fatherhood programs.

• There’s an old New Yorker cartoon that has Adam and Eve leaving the garden after their expulsion. The angel with the flaming sword guards against their reentry. As they walk away, Adam turns to Eve and says, “My dear, we live in a time of transition.” Social transitions and transformations are the stuff of the daily news, and no tracking of such changes is more respected than the General Social Survey (GSS) run by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which each year or every other year since the early 1970s has been doing in-depth interviews with thousands of Americans. Of course there is skepticism about such surveys. So much depends on how questions are asked and how people think they should answer the questions that are asked. Little wonder that, as I read somewhere, 53.7 percent of the population is inclined to agree with one jokester’s finding that 62.3 percent of opinion statistics are wrong. Nonetheless, by comparing the findings over more than thirty-five years, the GSS does come up with a pattern of lying or truth-telling that is not without interest. At a minimum, we learn about the continuities and discontinuities in what people think they should tell interviewers. Some of the most recent findings have been released, and one is, with few exceptions, impressed by the continuities, despite the constant chatter about our living in a time of rapid transition.

• Since 1972, the percent of people who believe that premarital sex is “always wrong” has fallen from 34 to 25. The percent who believe that “generally speaking, people can be trusted” has fallen from 46 to 32, although in 1984 it jumped to almost 50. Those who pray more than once a day is steady at about 25, while the percent who pray less than weekly or never is up a few points to 28. The percent who say that life in general is “exciting” is up three points to a little above 50. Those believing in “life after death” is steady at a little above 70. Those who say that sometimes a child needs a “hard spanking” is very slightly down to about 75. “Taken all together, how happy would you say you are?” There has been no change. Ten percent say “not very happy,” 30 percent say “very happy,” and the rest are in between at “pretty happy.” There is a big change in those who agree with the statement that men are more suited to politics than women, from close to 50 percent down to 23 percent. Then and now, 25 percent say they have watched an X-rated movie in the past year, although for some reason that figure had dropped to 15 percent in the late seventies. The percent who describe their marriage as “very happy” was 67 then and is 62 now. The percent who support legal abortion “for any reason,” the existing law under Roe v. Wade, is steady at a little under 40. (Other respected surveys have noted a marked decline in support for the unlimited abortion license.) In 1972, only 48 percent said that homosexuals should be allowed to teach in colleges and universities, while the current figure is 71. (This report doesn’t say whether the question was asked about teaching in elementary and high schools. I expect the figure would be considerably lower.) A major change is in the percent who read a newspaper every day, falling from 70 to 32. That is very bad news for a business that depends on persuading us that we live in a time of rapid transition. But of course there are other media, such as the blogosphere, that are taking up the slack in feeding the appetites of neophiliacs.

• In sum, the GSS suggests that Americans are much more like than unlike they were thirty-five years ago. That should not surprise. Were it otherwise, we would be in a state of societal meltdown. To be sure, some people think we are, pointing in particular to the increase in sexual permissiveness. One remembers, too, that, when the total population is taken into account, every 1 percent of change represents three million people. I don’t say we should be entirely indifferent to such survey research, but neither should we be unduly elated or discouraged by its findings. In terms of making the arguments about how we ought to order personal and public life, they are rather beside the point. Certainly the mission of the Church, which is to seek and save every lost sheep, is steady work, quite apart from bumps and dips in GSS and similar research. For what it’s worth, my hunch is that the claim that 62.3 percent of opinion survey statistics are wrong is rather on the high side.

• Tony Judt, professor of modern European history at New York University, has been making himself somewhat controversial. In October 2003, he published a long article in the New York Review of Books arguing that the idea of a state defined by ethnicity or religion is impossibly outdated and unsustainable. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he wrote, does not need a “two- state solution,” which is the proposal supported by the United States. Rather, Israel and Palestine should be combined in one state. His critics contend that, since there are more Arabs in Palestine than there are Jews in Israel, and since their birth rate is much higher, Judt’s proposal is tantamount to urging the elimination of Israel and, in all probability, the removal, violently or otherwise, of Jews from the Middle East. The controversy over his article was further inflamed by his joining other recent critics of Israel by attacking the allegedly inordinate influence of “the Israel lobby” on American policy. As a consequence, Judt has been attacked as a self-hating Jew and accused of giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites. Some of the attacks are no doubt unfair, but Tony Judt’s obsessions do have a way of getting him into trouble. Most recently, he trashed in the New York Times Book Review Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes, a book on modern European history that has received rave reviews in major publications here and in the U.K., including the review by William Doino in these pages (April). Judt described it as, among other things, a “depressing and unpleasant book” that “seeks to write Christianity back into European political history.” In a letter to the Times, Doino pointed to a conflict of interest, in that Burleigh had published in The Tablet a very critical review of Judt’s 2005 book on the same period of European history. In response to Doino, Judt wrote, “I don’t read The Tablet . . . and didn’t know that Burleigh had reviewed my book there.” Then, more remarkably, Judt said of The Tablet, “I was unaware of its existence.” A scholar of modern European history who writes extensively, and very negatively, about the Catholic Church was not aware of the existence of The Tablet? That magazine, established in 1840 and the publisher of such distinguished writers as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, was, during the very period of Judt’s putative expertise, the primary source in the English-speaking world, and in much of Europe, for news and commentary on the policies and actions of the Catholic Church about which Judt writes so extensively. That Judt was not aware of Burleigh’s review of his book is remarkable; that he was not aware of the existence of The Tablet stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. Especially since, in the text and not only in the footnotes of Sacred Causes, Burleigh quotes The Tablet at length, and Judt presumably read with care the book he so dislikes. Nonetheless, the editors of the Times Book Review say there was no conflict of interest in asking Judt to review Burleigh. They apparently did not bother to Google the many commentaries on the disagreements between the two writers. Judt’s attack in the Book Review was run under a picture of Pius XII and the sardonic title “Defender of the Faith.” Judt and, it seems, the Book Review are still captive to the discredited slanders about the “silence” of Pius XII during the Holocaust and other horrors of the Hitler period. On Israel and on the Catholic Church, Tony Judt is a man obsessed. His views would be considered marginal and eccentric were they not given such generous exposure in publications such as the Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. As it is, thoughtful readers may have additional cause to wonder at the marginality of publications that presume to define the mainstream.

• Last month, in “The Much Exaggerated Death of Europe,” I indicated my frustrated desire to believe the hopeful prognosis offered by Philip Jenkins in his new book, God’s Continent. On March 24, a few days after we went to press, Pope Benedict addressed European leaders on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the agreement that led to the formation of the European Union. He spoke of the end of Soviet Communism and the reconciliation of the “two lungs” of Europe, meaning East and West. That is the phrase that John Paul II frequently used in connection with the reconciliation of the churches of the East and West. It is worth noting that in this instance—as he usually does when dealing with Islam—Benedict stressed cultural rather than religious reconciliation. In his March 24 address, Benedict observed that demographic realities suggest that “Europe seems to be traveling along a road that could lead to its disappearance from history.” He also criticizes undemocratic aspects of the E.U., creating “the widespread impression that various ‘chapters’ of the European project have been ‘written’ without adequately keeping in mind the expectations of the citizens.”

• While the E.U. is in many ways an economic success, the outlook for “the soul of the continent” is grim. The governments of the E.U. say they want to “get closer” to their citizens, but they cannot do so, says Benedict, if “they exclude an element of European identity as essential as Christianity,” with which the “vast majority” of Europeans still identify. The new Europe claims to be “a community of values,” while at the same time rejecting the idea that there are universal and absolute values. The pope asks, “Does not this remarkable form of ‘apostasy’ from itself, even before apostasy from God, perhaps induce it to doubt its very identity?” A deep problem with the E.U. is that it wants to be a community of values while also acting as though “the common good is synonymous with compromise.” The definition of values is up for grabs. “A community that constructs itself without respect for the authentic dignity of the human person, forgetting that every person is created in the image of God, ends up by not being good for anyone,” Benedict says. Compromising the dignity of the human person is described as pragmatism, a term, one notes, usually associated more with Americans than with Europeans. Benedict says, “Such pragmatism, which is presented as balanced and realistic, is not that deep down, precisely because it denies the dimension of values and ideas that is inherent in human nature.” The reign of pragmatism, secularism, and relativism ends up in the consequence that “Christians are denied the right to intervene as Christians in public debate, or at the very least their contribution is discounted with the accusation that they want to safeguard unjustified privileges.” What Christians most want to safeguard, however, is “the certain existence of a stable and permanent human nature, which is the source of rights common to all persons, including those who deny them.” Perhaps most striking in Benedict’s account is the idea of Europe’s apostasy from itself, including apostasy from its modern belief—as expressed, for instance, in the French Revolution—that commitment to human rights and dignity can survive apostasy from God. In this respect, too, “Europe seems to be traveling along a road that could lead to its disappearance from history.”

• A while back I gently took to task the New York Sun reviewer of Arthur Kirsch’s recent book, Auden and Christianity. Contra Kirsch, the reviewer was adamant that W.H. Auden’s poetry began to deteriorate with his coming to America and seriously engaging Christian faith. He concluded with manifest satisfaction that Auden “ended in darkness.” That seemed to suit the reviewer just fine. He later wrote that I had misunderstood his intention, which may well be, but I had only what he had written about the Kirsch book to go by. Now Adam Kirsch (no relation), chief book editor of the Sun, revisits Auden upon the appearance of his Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson. Adam Kirsch is closer to Arthur Kirsch in believing that Auden’s coming to America and turn toward Christian faith represented an abandonment of the 1930s belief in history as a “benevolent master.” Philip Larkin, reviewing “Homage to Clio” in 1960, regretted that “Auden, never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one.” Adam Kirsch strongly disagrees: “Rather, Auden’s breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of twentieth-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision—with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice—was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.” He cites this from “Homage to Clio”:

Muse of the unique
Historical fact, defending with silence
Some world of your beholding, a silence
No explosion can conquer but a lover’s Yes
Has been known to fill. So few of the Big
Ever listen: that is why you have a great host
Of superfluous screams to care for. . . .

Kirsch observes: “Few poets before Auden cared to listen to those ‘superfluous screams.’ No major poet after him—from Milosz to Brodsky to Heaney—could ignore them. For the part he played in this humanizing of poetry, Auden remains, one hundred years after his birth, one of the most justly beloved of modern poets.” It seems to me that Adam Kirsch, and Arthur Kirsch, got it just about right.

• I have from time to time taken note of the agitations of Daniel Maguire of Marquette University, Milwaukee, who has over the years gotten a lot of mileage out of presenting himself as a Catholic theologian. For reasons that surpass understanding, Maguire has now sent two pamphlets he has written to all the bishops in the United States, one on contraception and abortion, the other on same-sex marriage, explaining why support for all three is in accord with authentic Catholic doctrine. What on earth did the man have in mind? I am reminded of a shirttail relative who keeps writing to the pope explaining why Luther was right about the papacy being the Antichrist and complaining that he never gets a response. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee dutifully issued a statement rejecting Maguire’s opinions, and now the Committee on Doctrine of the national bishops conference has adopted an official statement declaring that “despite his claims to authority as a Catholic theologian, the views of Professor Maguire on contraception, abortion, and same-sex ‘marriage’ are not those of the Catholic Church and indeed are contrary to the Church’s faith.” Which, I expect, will not deter Prof. Maguire from continuing to serve as the hired gun of pro-abortion organizations that have over the years embraced him as their favorite Catholic theologian. In his pamphlets, Maguire explains to the bishops that they are not the authentic teachers of the Church because there is not just one Magisterium but three magisteria—the hierarchy, the theologians, and the wisdom of the laity. Since he is both a theologian and a layman, he gets two votes to their one. Any other questions? Marquette University doesn’t want to get into an expensive lawsuit over tenure, but the president offers assurances that they do their best to keep Daniel Maguire away from students.

• In the March 2007 issue, I discussed in some detail Rodney Stark’s argument in The Rise of Mormonism that the LDS church is the first major world religion since Islam and will quite likely have as many as 265 million adherents before this century is out. Gerald McDermott, professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Virginia, draws my attention to his extended critique of Stark’s argument, “Saints Rising,” published in the January 1, 2006, issue of Books & Culture. Unfortunately, I had missed his fine article. Otherwise, I would certainly have included it in the discussion. All too briefly: McDermott asks whether Mormonism is a “new religion” or is a variant or heresy of Christianity. There is also considerable confusion about what constitutes a “world religion.” In any event, True Pure Land Buddhism, Japan’s Soka Gakkai, Baha’i, and Sufism all have as many or more, in some cases many more, adherents than Mormonism and have all arisen since the seventh century. Each is a dramatic departure from its parent religion and can therefore qualify as much as Mormonism as a “new world religion.” Moreover, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have slightly more members than the Mormons (thirteen million compared to eleven million) and, according to Stark’s criteria of projected growth, are as well or better positioned for rapid expansion. McDermott also emphasizes that Mormonism is handicapped by being so emphatically American at a time when esteem for things American is in steep decline. Christianity is wondrously “translatable,” making Africans, for instance, feel more African. “Will Mormon theology enable them to do the same, when they learn that Christ came to North and South America but not to Africa?” McDermott is also impressed by data suggesting that Mormonism has very low retention rates among its converts in other countries. In sum, his article “Saints Rising” should be read alongside Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Mormonism, which does not mean that the latter is not very much worth reading.

• It’s been several years since we have done a scientific—well, approximately scientific—survey of our readership. Age, occupation, religious adherence, income levels, what they most like and dislike in the magazine—that sort of thing. We plan to do another such survey this fall. The questionnaires will be sent out by random selection and, if you receive one, we would much appreciate your responding. (Yes, I know, “random selection” is an oxymoron, but that is the term that is used.) My hunch is that more and more young people are reading First Things and I’m eager to see whether the survey bears that out. In any event, the number of subscribers has grown very nicely in recent years and is now at an all-time high. If there are people, young or not so young, who you think would likely become subscribers, we will be pleased to send them a sample issue in your name. Just drop us a note or send an email to


Fugelsang on Catholicism, New York Sun, April 16. Hütter on Milbank, Nova et Vetera, Winter 2007. Dalrymple on Koestler, City Journal, Spring 2007. Mugabe and the Catholic bishops, origins, April 12. Archdiocese of New York bicentennial, New York Daily News, April 15. Stem cell censorship, Nature Neuroscience, April. El Otro, Religion Watch, April. Bishop Aymond on priesthood scandals, origins, April 5. New Jersey hostage drill, American Values, April 3. Expensive birth defects, New York Times, January 19. Ozick on romantic religion, New York Times, December 10. British hostages, Telegraph, April 2. Halkin on Jewish identity, New York Sun, December 27. Roberts on U.S. statistics, New York Times, December 15. Islam and Venice at the Met, New York Times, March 30. Gelertner on Jewish Theological Seminary, New York Sun, March 30. NOW and fatherhood, Washington Post, March 29. GSS statistics, New York Times, February 25. Judt on Burleigh, New York Times, March 11. Kirsch on Auden, New York Sun, February 21.