As Long As They Spell Our Names Right
We are incessantly told that we live in a celebrity culture, and it is in large part true. If a celebrity is defined as someone who is well known for being well known, then publicity is the lifeblood of a celebrity culture. Any publicity is good publicity. As it is said, “As long as they spell my name right.”
It is an understandable attitude for movie stars and comics, and politicians spend millions to increase “name recognition.” Even authors and editors have been known to troll the blogosphere, counting how often they are mentioned. Some magazines—not this one, of course—frantically hustle to generate “buzz,” meaning publicity.
While some enterprises cannot succeed without publicity, attitudes toward personal publicity vary. I believe it was Gloria Vanderbilt, a Miss Manners of an earlier time, who said that one should so live one’s life as though whatever one does or says might be on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times. Being on the front page of the paper was deemed a very undesirable thing. An earlier generation believed that the only time upright people—later to be denigrated as uptight people—wanted their names in the paper is when they were born, married, and died. That seems like a long time ago. Think of Greta Garbo’s “I vant to be alone.” Still, today there are no doubt many like J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, who have a passion for privacy.
In addition to comedians and politicians—the latter often inadvertently playing the part of the former—others have no choice but to be in the spell-my-name-right camp. Corporations need to sell their products and usually do so by paying for it in the form of advertising. Other institutions of a maddening variety, from universities to YMCAs, bid for attention and support by publicizing events that they hope the media will judge newsworthy. There is hardly an institution of consequence without a public relations department. I read somewhere that every day, just in America, 37 million press releases are submitted to the mercies of the media in the hope of being noticed. Since I am among the 47.2 percent of Americans who believe that 58.6 percent of statistics are wrong, I’m not vouching for the figure, but it seems plausible enough.
This reflection is in the service of thinking about religion and the news. Why is religion so little and so poorly reported in the media, or is it? These and related questions are hotly debated in circles such as the Religion Newswriters Association. (Note that its members insist that they are religion reporters, not religious reporters. Some of them are not very religious.) But the questions are also of concern to church leaders of all varieties.
Unhappiness with their media coverage is no doubt shared by leaders in business, education, philanthropy, and science. Not to mention lawyers. Even those who avidly seek publicity routinely complain about the publicity they get. We might like to think that churches and church leaders do not, or at least should not, seek publicity. And yet the Church undeniably has the mission of communicating what she believes to be the truth: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” her Master said (Matt. 28:19). From the beginning, she has been trying to do that—through oral proclamation, letters, folio manuscripts, educational institutions, radio, television, and the blogosphere. In 1975, Pope Paul VI said, “The Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means of communication that human skill is daily rendering more perfect.” I don’t know about the “rendering more perfect” part, but the point is beyond dispute.
It is also beyond dispute that the relationship between religion and the media is troubled, and always will be. Writing in Theology Today, Jason Byassee, an editor at Christian Century, touches on some of the reasons why this is so. His article is “Why Religious Journalism Is ‘Boring.’” (Note the religious/religion distinction above.) He cites a 1993 article by Peter Steinfels that claimed there are basically six religion stories that appear in the mainstream media:
• Religious leader reveals feet of clay (or turns out to be a scoundrel).
• Ancient faith struggles to adjust to modern times.
• Scholars challenge long-standing beliefs.
• Interfaith harmony overcomes inherited enmity.
• New translation of Scripture sounds funny.
• Devoted members of a zealous religious group turn out to be warm, ordinary folks.
Steinfels wrote: “Sometimes I think that computer programs could be devised, leaving all the necessary blank spaces. Reporters could simply insert the names of the denomination or clergy, and the specific issue, supply quotes from critics, and fill in splashes of color.” And here I thought that is how it’s done. But then I am one of the people who still read the Times. (I quickly add that the formula was not characteristic of the writing of Peter Steinfels when he was reporting for the paper.)
The fact is, writes Byassee, that religion is slow, while the news is supposed to be fast. “The slow, patient work of faith is crucial to unlearning the excitement of the front page and being drawn into the plodding, patient life of God.” I had never thought of the life of God as plodding, and the front page of the Times is only intermittently exciting, but I take his point. Religion reporters need to slow down and listen to God, says Byassee. “Some time spent in front of the reserved Sacrament would serve every religion writer well. After it, we might be able to notice a detail we would have missed, something gentle and elegant that deserves praise in our writing.” One cannot argue with that, although I wonder what his colleagues at Christian Century, the leading voice of liberal Protestantism, think about Mr. Byassee’s ducking out of the office for eucharistic adoration at the Catholic church around the corner.
And I certainly would not want to argue with his concluding reflection on reporting religion: “My hope is that specifically Christian resources can help us not only to be fair but to pay the sort of attention that closely resembles prayer—to do journalism with a minister’s sense of vocation for the upbuilding of the body of Christ. If you can’t join me in this sort of ‘boring’ work, I at least implore you to see that it can be of value both to the church and the world.”
Of course, Byassee is a Christian. Many religion journalists are not, or believe that journalistic “objectivity” requires their not indicating they are. Quite apart from the beliefs, intentions, or integrity of individual journalists, there are some built-in tensions between the Church and the media. Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote in America some years ago about “points of contrast” between the nature of the Church and the nature of the news media. As one would expect from Cardinal Dulles, he neatly enumerates such points of contrast and comes up with seven of them, including these:
The content of the Church’s message is the holy mystery of God’s presence and redemptive work in Jesus Christ. This is a mystery of faith, to be approached in a posture of reverence. The press is by nature investigative and, one might almost say, iconoclastic. Far from being reverent, it revels in exposing what is pretentious, false, and scandalous. The Catholic Church, with its exalted claims, is a particularly tempting target.
The essential message of the Church is the one and eternal Gospel. Convinced of the permanent validity of God’s revelation in Christ, the Church seeks to maintain continuity with its own past. . . . The press, by contrast, lives off novelty. It thrives on the ephemeral and panders to the “itching ears” of its readers. In reporting, it accents what is new and different, thus giving the impression that the Church is in continual turmoil.
The Church seeks to dispose people to receive interior grace with a view to eternal salvation. . . . The press tends to overlook the spiritual side of the Church’s mission. . . . Doctrinal pronouncements of the Church are of little interest to the popular media unless they have a bearing on the usual fare of the press. Church teaching is very selectively reported, often in such a way as to leave the impression that the pope is chiefly interested in sex, politics, and power.
The press in a democratic society has great difficulty in appreciating a hierarchical society in which leaders hold their authority not from the people but from Christ, by apostolic succession. Any effort by the Church to control the teaching of its own members is regarded as equivalent to censorship of the press by the state.
Well, you get the idea. Dulles recognizes that church leaders are also at fault for the troubled relationship with the media. But he resists the proposal that the tensions can be overcome by developing better communication skills. Recalling Marshall McLuhan’s maxim about the medium being the message, Dulles writes: “Christ, it is often said, was the perfect communicator. In him, as nowhere else, the medium and the message did coincide. He literally was the Gospel that he proclaimed.” Not only was he misunderstood, he ended up on the cross, leaving his disciples with the caution, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
Cardinal Dulles wrote his article several years before the sex abuse scandal broke in Boston in January 2002. The subsequent crisis, now reaching firestorm dimensions in Southern California and the Northwest, will be an understandable focus of media attention for a long time to come. The Church has made “payouts”—to be distinguished, albeit with difficulty, from payoffs—exceeding $2 billion. The $660 million paid by Los Angeles to settle civil cases still leaves Roger Cardinal Mahony and the archdiocese facing a multitude of criminal trials. So it is not only the “exalted claims” of the Catholic Church that makes it a tempting target.
Nor, one might argue, should reporters resist the temptation. Yes, a lot of innocent people and the Church itself have been unfairly smeared by the sex abuse publicity. And yes, the media have not been comparably exercised about sex abuse in other institutions, such as the public schools. But in media campaigns, as in wars, collateral damage is inevitable, and the public schools do not make the same “exalted claims,” or at least few take them seriously if they do. The reality is that, were it not for the publicity, many bishops would still be shuttling abusing priests from parish to parish, and the sexually deviant would still be given a pass, as was once the case in the wink-and-nudge culture of many seminaries and presbyterates.
This magazine has not been reticent in criticizing the media, as well as the frequently panicked, inept, unjust, and self-serving reactions of the bishops to unwelcome publicity. But the case can be made that, despite all, the Church has been strengthened and purified by the exposure of these wrongs. The same might be said of evangelicalism as a consequence of the scandals associated with prominent figures such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard. No doubt some reporters are hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in its evangelical and Catholic forms in particular. Their hostility notwithstanding, those who care about the Christian cause may, at least in some instances, owe them a debt of gratitude.
These instances are related only to the first of the six stereotypical story lines cited by Peter Steinfels. Other dynamics help explain the generally superficial and, as Jason Byassee would have it, “boring” character of religion reporting. Cardinal Dulles notes some of them. In addition, most reporters are rushing to meet a deadline. They don’t have time for nuance, distinctions, and real research, especially nuance, distinctions, and research that might complicate or confuse what is quite aptly called the story line. Nor should it be forgotten that, while some reporters are marvelously intelligent, journalism schools are near the bottom in ratings of intellectual distinction.
No End in Sight
The relationship between religion and the media will continue to be troubled until Our Lord returns in glory, which, we may be sure, will not be announced at a press conference. With respect to the media, church leaders should be neither naïve nor contemptuous. In an interview some years after his arrival in New York in 1984, John Cardinal O’Connor expressed his regret over what he came to view as his naïveté in thinking he could recruit the media of “the capital of the world” in communicating the teachings of the Church. A great deal of attention was paid John Cardinal O’Connor, he said, and almost none to the teachings of the Church. He discovered that the media are not for recruiting.
I believe he greatly underestimated his effectiveness. While the media cannot be recruited, they can be constructively engaged, and he was masterful in that engagement, especially in the service of “the gospel of life,” advocating the cause of the unborn, the abandoned, and the marginal. One notes, with respect, that his successor, Edward Cardinal Egan, takes a very different tack. He is famously wary of the media. His public nonpresence has led some to suggest that New York is sede vacante, which of course is not the case. It is said that he does not need to work so hard at not being Cardinal O’Connor, but he is my bishop and I would prefer to believe that he knows what he is doing.
Somewhere between naïveté and contempt with respect to the media is the realism, not untouched by both resignation and challenge, of Cardinal Dulles’ concluding observation: “The Church must relate to the public media as best it can, in the full awareness that tensions and oppositions will persist as long as human history lasts.” And after that, all deadlines met and all story spinning stopped, we will not have to worry even about the spelling of our names, their having been indelibly written, please God, in the Book of Life.
Homosexuality and Love’s Duty
Last November the U.S. bishops adopted a thoughtful statement, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.” The statement unambiguously affirmed Catholic teaching on the moral disorder of same-sex desires and the sinfulness of same-sex acts. It just as unambiguously affirmed love for all, understanding that teaching the truth is an obligation of love.
Bishops’ conferences propose collectively; bishops dispose individually. That is the way of Catholic ecclesiology, and rightly so. The recognized risk is that some individual bishops will, in disingenuousness or ignorance, undermine the Church’s teaching. Origins, a publication of the bishops’ conference, features a column by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona. The bishop says he has been listening to people interested in ministry to people with a homosexual inclination, and he has heard many things. “I heard that we need to be clear about the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality.” He also heard “that pastoral leaders must listen carefully to the lived experiences of their people and try to relate the Church’s teaching to those experiences in a convincing way.” But of course, unless the suggestion is that the clarity of the teaching is to be accommodated to what people find convincing.
The bishop also heard that “it would be helpful if there would be a parish where Catholics of same-sex orientation could worship in an accepting environment that would help them in living faithfully as Catholics.” The bishop does not say whether or not he approves of the idea, but the way he puts it is problematic. Designating a parish for those of same-sex orientation is like designating a parish for those who have an orientation to committing heterosexual adultery. The question is not orientation but action; not what people feel a desire to do but what people do.
A parish for those of same-sex orientation would be known as a “gay parish,” as is the fact with LGBT parishes—or, as they are often called, “gay friendly” parishes—in some of our major cities. Perhaps the bishop does not know this because Tucson does not have a gay subculture, but that seems improbable.
Yet more problematic is the formulation that in such a parish “Catholics of same-sex orientation could worship in an accepting environment that would help them in living faithfully as Catholics.” Of course, every parish should be that, and not only for those of a same-sex orientation. But if, in fact, we’re talking about a parish for gays and lesbians who make no secret of their engaging in same-sex acts, who reject the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, and who are part of a subculture defined by such practice and rejection, it is hard to see how such a parish “would help them in living faithfully as Catholics.”
For what other category of sinners, sinful behavior, or desire to engage in sinful behavior should the Church designate sin-specific parishes? The only qualification for admission to the Church is that one knows himself to be a sinner in search of salvation. There is, given the diversity of disordered human propensities and desires, no shortage of possible candidates for sin-specific parishes. Fashionable sins backed by a powerful lobby should not be privileged.
From Bishop Kicansas’ listening sessions in which he learned many things, we return to the thoughtful statement adopted by the bishops last November. They said:
Every person needs training in the virtues. To acquire a virtue—to become temperate, brave, just, or prudent—we must repeatedly perform acts that embody that virtue, acts that we accomplish with the help of the Holy Spirit and with the guidance and encouragement of our teachers in virtue. In our society, chastity is a particular virtue that requires special effort. All people, whether married or single, are called to chaste living. Chaste living overcomes disordered human desires such as lust and results in the expression of one’s sexual desires in harmony with God’s will. . . .
In this effort to train our desires to be in accord with God’s will, as Christians we do not have to rely solely upon our own powers; we have the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts. The New Law of Christ, which is principally the power and life of the Holy Spirit, gives us an ability that does not come from nature itself to fulfill the natural law. The natural law shows what we should do (as does divinely revealed law, such as the Ten Commandments). Sin weakens the will, however, so that we choose to do what we know is wrong. The New Law of grace, the Holy Spirit in our hearts, overcomes the power of sin and enables us to do what we should. We are no longer mastered by sin. . . .
It would not be wise for persons with a homosexual inclination to seek friendship exclusively among persons with the same inclination. . . . Catholics who are living in accord with the Church’s moral teachings are invited and encouraged to participate fully and regularly in the sacramental life of the Church. . . . The Christian life is a progressive journey toward a deepening of one’s discipleship of Christ. People do not all move forward at the same pace, nor do they always proceed in a direct line toward their goal. Those who stumble along the way should be encouraged to remain in the community and to continue to strive for holiness through conversion of life. In this regard, frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is of great importance. . . .
Many virtuous people who experience same-sex attraction are ardently striving to live their faith within the Catholic community so as not to fall into the lifestyle and values of a “gay subculture.” The Church’s ministries are to encourage them to persevere in their efforts through teaching, guidance, and fellowship. . . . Persons with a homosexual inclination should not be encouraged to define themselves primarily in terms of their sexual inclination, however, or to participate in “gay subcultures,” which often tend to promote immoral lifestyles. Rather, they should be encouraged to form relationships with the wider community.
Bishops propose collectively; bishops dispose individually. Mind you, the above reflection is no brief for the authority of episcopal conferences. The U.S. bishops’ conference, for instance, has said some very questionable and a few downright silly things over the years. “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination,” however, is a wise and pastorally sensitive statement fully in accord with the doctrine of the Church. It declines the suggestion that there is a contradiction, or even a tension, between love and truth. Speaking the truth, and inviting all of us to live in the truth, is love’s duty.
The Pope Writes to Chinese Catholics
Pope Benedict’s letter of July 1 to the Catholics of China is a development of potentially historic importance. In reading the letter and talking with people who know the situation in China, the most striking thing is Benedict’s insistence that there is one Catholic Church in China, not an Underground Church and a Patriotic Church. The pope’s letter develops the theological reasons why there is only one Church and underscores the importance of the fact that most “patriotic” bishops—most sources say more than 80 percent of them—are in communion with Rome. He urges these bishops to be more public about that fact so that the faithful will know there is only one Church in China. Although it is not clear how this could happen, he is also urging underground bishops to find a way to become certified by the government—in short, a way to no longer be underground.
The great obstacle to a united and flourishing Catholicism in China is the regime’s Religious Affairs Bureau. Those who run the bureau have a vested interest in maintaining their control over religion. They decide who gets to go abroad, who can speak to party leaders in China, and what is to be done with religious properties. It is noteworthy that the government directed the removal of Benedict’s letter from the Internet shortly after its release, although it is assumed that the letter had already been widely disseminated. Striking, too, is Benedict’s insistence on the importance of forming a united episcopal conference for China. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was frequently critical of episcopal conferences, but he obviously sees it as something essential to achieving ecclesial self-government ( libertas ecclesiae) in the Chinese context.
As he has done on many occasions, Benedict emphasizes that the Church has no political ambitions and can live under various kinds of regimes. She seeks cooperative relations with the government and asks only for the freedom to govern herself. The letter is, perhaps most important, a fervent plea for reconciliation between those Catholics who have suffered persecution, including in numerous instances the shedding of martyr blood, and those Catholics who took the course of collaboration with the regime. The letter can also be seen as a possible step toward official relations between Beijing and Rome, although that is probably a long way off.
Meanwhile, there is an interesting article on Catholicism in China by Adam Minter in the July/August Atlantic, “Keeping Faith.” It is most regrettable that Minter thinks it necessary to take a slap at Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, who is a man of enormous courage and a real hero in the cause of religious and other freedoms. Another China-watcher is concerned that Minter is uncritically admiring of Bishop Jin Luxian of Shanghai, who, while undoubtedly having paid a steep price for “keeping faith,” is viewed by many Chinese Catholics as having compromised himself by frequent cooperation with the regime’s repression of fellow believers. It is reliably reported that Jin handed over priests to prison, and possibly to death, and his own later troubles with the regime were during Mao’s persecution of anyone with Western connections, even those, like Jin, who had closely collaborated with the regime. These and other tangled narratives keep alive the suspicions and bitter memories that make so urgent Benedict’s moving appeal for reconciliation in the one Catholic Church in China.
Policemen of the World
Last month I drew attention to the powerfully persuasive new book by Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford). One billion of the world’s population are rich; four billion are, albeit at varying pace, on the way to becoming rich; the real challenge is the “bottom billion.” They are caught in a number of “traps” that keep them poor and almost guarantee that they will be poorer in the years ahead, a ghetto of misery, disease, and discontent on an otherwise flourishing planet. The bottom billion are the radically marginalized. Seventy percent of them are in Africa. Although Collier does not discuss Catholic social doctrine, his analysis is remarkably similar to that of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus: The really poor are poor not so much because they are exploited but because they are excluded, or exclude themselves, from the global circle of productivity and exchange.
The bottom billion are caught in four traps: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the trap of corrupt government in a small country. Among Collier’s proposed remedies, perhaps the most controversial is the need for limited but firm military interventions, mainly by American and European forces. Collier writes:
Change in the societies at the very bottom must come predominantly from within; we cannot impose it on them. In all these societies there are struggles between brave people wanting change and entrenched interests opposing it. To date, we have largely been bystanders in this struggle. We can do much more to strengthen the hand of reformers. But to do so we will need to draw upon tools—such as military interventions, international standard-setting, and trade policy—that to date have been used for other purposes. The agencies that control these instruments have neither knowledge of nor interest in the problems of the bottom billion.
Like William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden (see First Things, November 2006), Collier is withering in his criticism of international development agencies such as the World Bank whose bureaucrats would much rather work in more pleasant “developing” countries from which they can report on the “success” of projects that are often not needed, since such countries are already moving toward prosperity on their own. As the former director of research at the World Bank, Collier knows whereof he speaks.
It is the bottom billion that is his concern, and should be ours. Collier illustrates the conflict trap and the natural resource trap by reference to the rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who, leading his troops across Zaire to seize the government, explained to a journalist that all you need for a successful coup is $10,000 and a satellite phone. With the money, you can buy yourself an army, and with the phone you can, as Kabila did, arrange $500 million worth of deals with corporations that are willing to bet on your winning. This is what Collier calls the natural resource trap, when a country’s possession of oil or diamonds or gold is a curse rather than a blessing, making corruption and conflict more profitable than development. China, which has few qualms about democratic niceties, is busily buying up whoever can be bought in Africa.
Throughout the continent, the military is an engine of devastation. The infamous Idi Amin of Uganda, chillingly portrayed in the movie The Last King of Scotland, shared a passion for military trappings. Before being deposed and sent into exile, he styled himself “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Brutal buffoonery aside, Collier reports that in Africa around 40 percent of development aid money inadvertently ends up supporting the military and that in some cases only 1 percent of funds designated for health care, for instance, are used for that purpose.
In the shadow of the opposition to the Iraq War, Collier says the “hardest chapter” of the book to write was on the need for military intervention. Nonetheless, he contends, such intervention is needed to restore order, maintain postconflict peace, and prevent coups. Sometimes such interventions work well; as, for example, in liberating Kuwait in the first Gulf War. At other times they are a disaster, as, for example, when eighteen Americans soldiers were killed in Somalia and the Clinton administration beat a hasty retreat. Collier writes:
Don’t get me wrong: it is terrible when peacekeeping troops get killed, and it is magnificent of a nation to send its troops into a dangerous situation. But that is what modern armies are for: to supply the global public good of peace in territories that otherwise have the potential for nightmare. . . . Armies cannot operate at zero risk. . . . [P]ost-Iraq, the fact that the United States pulled out of Somalia as a result of a mere eighteen deaths looks even more bizarre. The consequences for Somalia were miserable: more than twelve years later it still has no functioning national government. By 1991 around 300,000 people had died, and beyond that there are no estimates of the deaths from continuing conflict and the failure of health systems. But the biggest killer consequent upon the withdrawal was not what happened in Somalia but the lesson that was learned: never intervene. . . . Remember that 1994 was the year of Rwanda. We didn’t want a second Somalia, with another eighteen American soldiers killed, so we got Rwanda, in which half a million people were butchered, entirely avoidably, because international intervention was inadequate.
International intervention means intervention mainly by America and Europe. African militaries are the problem, not the solution. As for U.N. peacekeeping forces, various countries are paid a thousand dollars per month for each soldier they send. These soldiers are for their governments a valuable asset to be kept carefully out of harm’s way. They are ineffectual because they and their governments have every interest in not resisting the makers of coups and revolutions, which is the whole point of peacekeeping. In this way, the U.N. contributes to “the conflict trap.” The alternative, Collier says, is for Europe and the United States to develop “rapid reaction forces” that will, in some cases, be required to maintain the peace for years until the dynamics of the rule of law and of economic and social development can gain a measure of traction. Note that Collier is not advocating military intervention to advance grand geopolitical goals—as, for example, in Iraq—but simply to give development a chance among the bottom billion.
The rich countries need to be similarly assertive in imposing international standards on everything from human rights to trade policy. “The international community has so much at stake in these situations that it has to learn to be comfortable with infringing upon sovereignty.” Africans who have a stake in perpetuating the conflict trap will complain about this new “colonialism,” but we will just have to learn to live with that, says Collier. “If Iraq is allowed to become another Somalia, with the cry ‘Never intervene,’ the consequences will be as bad as Rwanda.”
The phrase “policeman of the world” was presumably discredited during the Vietnam era. And Americans are understandably very nervous about military interventions of any sort. But even the best neighborhoods have policemen, and the worst cannot survive without them. Policemen operate under the law to prevent the depredations of the lawless. The really poor live in a large and lawless neighborhood, and, if the United States, Britain, and France—and, increasingly, Germany and Japan—do not police the neighborhood, who will? This is among the questions raised and arguments advanced by one of the most important books on world poverty in a very long time, Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.
While We’re At It
• The publisher is obviously nervous. The book carries a prefatory “Note from the Publisher” making it perfectly clear, lest there be any doubt, that the stories told in no way excuse the terrible things done. The book is Broken Trust: Stories of Pain, Hope, and Healing from Clerical Abuse Survivors and Abusers by Patrick Fleming et al., and it is published by Crossroad. The stories of the five priests who abused and of the three victims who were abused are indeed frequently affecting and might elicit a large measure of sympathy all around. But, contrary to the authors’ no doubt sincere intentions, the book contributes little to our understanding of the sex abuse scandal that broke in January 2002. Of course some boys have emotionally cold fathers; and of course there are consequences of homosexuality and other maladjustments; and of course those charged with training priests were sometimes negligent or complicit; and of course bishops were misguided or complicit in responding to instances of sexual exploitation. Anybody who has been paying attention already knew all that. Broken Trust effusively layers it all, almost drowns it all, in the sentimentalized psychological argot of the obvious. I have said, and have been criticized for saying, that the sex abuse crisis is about three things: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. The criticism is that that doesn’t say anything worth saying. It merely says that, had priests been faithful to their vows, they would have been faithful to their vows and there would have been no sex abuse crisis. As you might expect, I disagree. To say it is about fidelity is to say where the focus of attention must be. The issue is not teaching about “boundaries” between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” touching, nor is it, at least not in the first instance, about “sexual maturity.” The great question is fidelity and, one hopes, fidelity on the way to holiness, as in wholeness. When we fall short of holiness, we can at least be faithful, and, please God, holiness will come in time. Broken Trust means well, but it is finally a disservice to understanding what has happened. There are gestures toward sin, forgiveness, and sacramental grace, but they are sharply subordinated to the vocabulary of the psychological. Were he still with us, Philip Rieff might have chosen Broken Trust as a prime exhibit in his indictment of “the triumph of the therapeutic.”
• The name doesn’t matter. Almost all of them do it. This political candidate is saying that it doesn’t matter what faith you have, just so long as you have faith. Which, of course, is supposed to enhance your faith in the candidate. I’m not making an argumentum ad Hitlerum here, but it’s worth noting that faith and politics is a perilous mix. The great question is faith in what or faith in whom. Communism, the other great tyranny of the last century, did not talk much about faith. It was presumably rational and scientific, although it required a leap of faith in the party and its interpretation and implementation of the science of class struggle. These remarks are an excuse for quoting a fine passage from Michael Burleigh’s recent book Sacred Causes: “Hitler was a lazy, dilettantish autodidact rather than a systematic thinker, so one should not strain to discover coherence or consistency in his views on religion or much else. . . . ‘Hitler brings nothing to mind,’ as Karl Kraus memorably said. . . . Hitler thought that belief in higher powers was a value in itself, for without that capacity for belief, mankind would be unable to believe in nation, race, or the Führer. The young Goebbels, another lapsed Catholic, came to the same conclusion when he wrote, ‘It is almost immaterial what we believe in, so long as we believe in something.’ Of the Christian injunction to faith, hope, and charity, only faith was all-important. . . . Hitler thought that people needed a common faith, whether religious or otherwise. He argued that the political parties of the Weimar Republic were uninspiring, lacking as they did ‘the fanatically religious’ factor of ‘blind faith.’ Belief was a dormant constant; the trick was how to activate it through a compelling political creed, like putting a match to a trail of dry straw.”
• Readers who have been around a while know that I have a tick about quotations and their sources. I don’t know where he got it, but Clive James claims that it was not Goering but Hanns Johst, “a mediocre man of letters who ranked as a big noise among the Nazi literati,” who made the crack about reaching for his revolver when he heard the word culture. James describes this as “an instructive example of a clever remark gloating upwards until it attaches itself to someone sufficiently famous.” That puts the matter nicely. Think about all those clever things that Churchill or Reagan or John XXIII supposedly said. No doubt they did say some of them. But the need for a clever saying to perpetuate itself by attachment to a famous name—or, in the case of Goering, an infamous name—leaves such historical figures no time to be dull.
• The New American Bible (NAB), an unhappy translation episcopally imposed upon Catholics for readings at Mass, has prompted earlier comment in this section (see The Public Square, May 2001 and January 2006). The problem keeps coming back, not least in pastoral counseling. Take the woman who had had it with her husband’s lying to her. I mentioned to her Our Lord’s admonition to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). That’s the way it reads in every widely used English translation, including the Douay-Rheims, an earlier English translation used by Catholics. It is generally assumed that Jesus intended hyperbole, indicating that forgiveness is open-ended. Keep on forgiving as you are forgiven by God, for God’s forgiving is beyond measure or counting. But this woman had been reading her NAB, according to which Jesus said we should forgive not “seventy times seven,” but “seventy times.” She had been keeping count, and her husband was well over his quota. Then there is Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, where in both passages Jesus says, “But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress.” In other widely used English translations, it is “unfaithfulness” or “marital unfaithfulness.” The Douay-Rheims says “excepting in the case of fornication.” In both passages, the NAB puts it this way: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery.” Meaning a previous marriage had not been annulled by the diocesan marriage tribunal? Whatever. Now to be perfectly fair, in the three passages mentioned there are ancient authorities that lend some support for the NAB translation. For instance, some ancient texts of Matthew 19 read “he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” which is closer to the NAB version. But in the tradition of translation, scholars have overwhelmingly decided that the manuscripts referring to unchastity or unfaithfulness are to be preferred. Again and again, when manuscript authorities differ from one another, the NAB chooses against the scholarly consensus and the centuries-old tradition of English translation. Why is that? Is the purpose to deliberately destabilize the faithful’s already shaky familiarity with biblical texts? Maybe the idea is just to be different. What’s the point of a new translation if it isn’t very different from other translations? The NAB is a banal, linguistically inept, and misleading translation. Why did the bishops force it upon the Catholic people, demanding that it and it alone be used in the readings of the Mass? Various answers are given: Because it was produced by the guild of Catholic biblical scholars and, while it may not be very good, at least it is ours. Because the bishops hold the copyright, and charges for using the NAB in Mass guides and elsewhere is a cash cow for the financially strapped bishops’ conference. Because the bishops really don’t care whether Catholics use a worthy and reliable translation of the Bible. Whatever the reason, it is a continuing scandal that the bishops do not permit the use of other translations that are more reliable, readable, intelligible, and worthy of the written word of God. The best of them is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), but there are others. (For personal and group Bible study, the Catholic edition of the RSV, published by Ignatius Press, is recommended.) It is worth noting that the NAB, unlike a number of other translations, is used only by Catholics in America and used only by them because they are required to use it in the liturgy. In their own writings, Catholic biblical scholars and other writers generally avoid the NAB. Not surprisingly, the NAB is defended by those who are responsible for producing it, and people who choose to do so are free to use it. It is quite another thing for the bishops to impose the exclusive use of a grievously flawed Bible translation upon the Catholic faithful at Mass. Yet, on this and other matters of greater moment, one prays for endurance, taking comfort from Saint Paul’s memorable and bracing words to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.” One hopes to be able to say at the end of one’s days, “I have fought the good fight.” Or, as the NAB puts it,
“I have competed well.”
• The largest single cohort of subscribers to First Things is composed of academics of various sorts. Therefore there might be a risk of canceled subscriptions in joshing the academy, were it not for the fact that a First Things subscription is a reliable indicator of being critically distanced from the conceits of the academy. So I will go ahead with the observation of Clive James that there was one benefit in Jews being excluded from the university in Germany and Austria prior to World War II. “Whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral theses. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation, and the necessity to entertain. The necessity to entertain could sometimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results except a faculty supervisor who owed his post to the same exemption.” (In response to an anticipated please-cancel-my-subscription protest from a humorless academic: Cancel your own subscription.)
• “Jews now have more to fear from anti-Christians than from Christians, and from the Christian Left than from the Christian Right.” So wrote Milton Himmelfarb in a justly famed 1984 essay, “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” Himmelfarb, who died in 2006, was for many years director of research of the American Jewish Committee and he published regularly in Commentary. Now some of his most memorable essays have been collected by his sister, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in Jews and Gentiles, published by Encounter. Large stacks of books have been written on the alleged causes or sources of the Holocaust. Most of them trace the source to anti-Semitism and, more specifically, Christian anti-Semitism. Against which Milton Himmelfarb argued: “Hitler made the Holocaust because he wanted to make it. Anti-Semitism did not make him make it.” Expanding on the above comment about the Christian left, Himmelfarb wrote: “Perhaps we should think of such people rather as Christian leftists than as leftist Christians, because the common element in anti-Israel/anti-Jewish animus has long been not Christianity but leftism. As in the 1930s, when the farcical Red Dean of Canterbury [Hewlett Johnson] flabbergasted even the cynic who was the Soviet ambassador in London by asking him to convey to Moscow the Dean’s felicitations on Stalin’s splendid victory at the polls, so today, Christian leftists—and Jewish ones—are fellow travelers of anti-Christian leftists, [and are] far more powerful and numerous.” So it was in the 1930s and 1980s, and so it generally is today. And were one to ask why that is the case, one answer is that leftisms of all varieties are driven by a universalistic vision to which the particularity of Jews and Judaism is a grave offense. On that, too, Milton Himmelfarb has instructive reflections in Jews and Gentiles. (He was wrong, however, in believing that a mark of the centrality of Jews in history is that Gentiles are only called Gentiles in contrast to Jews. Note, for instance, Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, referring to the infidels who are neither Jews nor Christians. Admittedly, that is a little point, but for some reason he thought it a big one.)
• In his eighteenth-century New Science, the theorist from Naples, Giambattista Vico, set out to recover the earliest modes of thought of the “gentile people.” “This,” wrote Vico, “was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.” That quote serves as the epigraph to Robert Pogue Harrison’s erudite and intellectually haunting study, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Harrison, who teaches French and Italian literature at Stanford, writes: “However broadly or narrowly one wishes to define it, Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests. A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain: but also the extravagance of its imagination. . . . The governing institutions of the West—religion, law, family, city—originally established themselves in opposition to the forests.” His book aims to tell the “elusive story of the role forests have played in the cultural imagination of the West.” It remains an elusive story. Forests is one of those big studies of cultural history that, after you’ve read it, you’re not sure exactly what you’ve learned, but you know you’ll think of important things in an importantly different way.
• Harrison concludes with this: “Precisely because finitude is given over to us in language, we lose the instinctive knowledge of dying. Nature knows how to die, but human beings know mostly how to kill as a way of failing to become their ecology. Because we alone inhabit the logos, we alone must learn the lesson of dying time and time again. Yet we alone fail in the learning. And in the final analysis only this much seems certain: that when we do not speak our death to the world we speak death to the world. And when we speak death to the world, the forest’s legend falls silent.” All right, so I don’t know exactly what that means either. As it happens, I was reading Forests at about the same time I watched, at the urging of a friend, Werner Herzog’s remarkable and deeply troubling documentary film Grizzly Man. As you probably know, the film is about Timothy Treadwell, a disturbed and disturbing young man who lived with grizzly bears in Alaska and was, finally and quite literally, consumed by them. Grizzly Man, for all its other fascinations, is a powerful cinematic argument for natural law, underscoring the unbridgeable distinction between rational and nonrational animal life. It can also be understood as a parable against distorted environmentalisms that privilege nature over humanity. Treadwell desperately wanted to escape from being human, or, in Harrison’s phrase, to no longer “inhabit the logos.” Fleeing civilization, fleeing himself, he surrendered to the shadow of the forest.
• “His personal style, praised often even by his critics, remains pastoral and gentle. But the more contentious views, less publicly visible when he first began as leader of the world’s billion Roman Catholics, seem to be coming more to the fore.” That’s the New York Times on a recent speech by Pope Benedict. “Contentious views” are, of course, those with which reporters disagree. Reading on: “In the speech, for example, he railed against abortion and contraception. . . . He also raged with equal fire against Marxism and capitalism.” Benedict? Raged? Railed? Who would have thought it? But there it is in this rant, er, report by the New York Times, and I need not remind you that the Times is our newspaper of record. The story does include some of what the quietly erudite pope actually did say in his characteristically measured manner. Cautioning against liberation theology’s politicizing of the faith, he said, “This political task is not the immediate competence of the Church. Respect for a healthy secularity—including the pluralism of political opinions—is essential in the authentic Christian tradition. If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political agent, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice.” Between the ranting and the raging, there were apparently moments of marvelously calm lucidity.
• A book that did not get the attention it deserved this past year is Stephen Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark. Morton Smith was a distinguished professor at Columbia University and a not-so-closeted homosexual. You remember the young man who, in the gospel account of the arrest of Jesus in the garden, ran away naked. To those of a certain bent, that is a titillation hard to resist. In a 1960 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Smith announced that he had found in a monastic library near Jerusalem the text of a secret gospel of Mark in which Jesus spent the night with this young man and “taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.” The homoerotic significance was relished by Smith, and the academic heads of SBL nodded in grave appropriation of his alleged discovery. Helmut Koester of Harvard opined that “Secret Mark” was an earlier version of the Gospel According to Mark, and, of course, Princeton’s Elaine Pagels wrote a glowing foreword to the published text. Morton Smith died in 1991 and, as Carlson documents, there is now a scholarly consensus that “Secret Mark” is a clever forgery. There is some dispute over whether Smith concocted it himself or was simply taken in by it. “Secret Mark” played an important part in the fantasizings of the notorious and now defunct “Jesus Seminar” and is still cited by neo-gnostics who delight in the discovery of novel accounts of Christian origins in texts such as “The Gospel of Thomas,” “The Gospel of Philip,” “The Gospel of Mary,” and, more recently, “The Gospel of Judas.” In reviewing The Gospel Hoax, Bruce Chilton of Bard College writes: “The pattern of public discussions of [secret gospels] is all too familiar: a discovery is claimed and trumpeted in the press, only to be discredited by scholarly discussion which is then ignored. . . . No literature has suffered more from this problem than that of the second century of Christianity.” The fact that the hoax of “Secret Mark” was credited for such a long time, says Chilton, “stands as an indictment of American scholarship, which prides itself on skepticism in regard to the canonical gospels, but then turns credulous when non-canonical texts are concerned.” Chesterton said that it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. An alternative for those who find Christianity difficult is to invent new Christianities that are, as Elaine Pagels tells us, ever so much more meaningful. Meaningful is ever so much easier than demanding.
• This September, D. James Kennedy died at age 76. He was among the more impressive of evangelical “empire builders.” There are the 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Knox Theological Seminary, a K-12 school, radio and television programs reaching millions, along with more than fifty books and the Center for Reclaiming America. The New York Times obituary opined that the idea of reclaiming America for Christ suggests that Kennedy was something of a theocrat. Don’t tell them that we Christians, fanatics that we are, believe the whole world, and the universes beyond this world, is the realm of Christ the King. Truth to tell, Dr. Kennedy did seem to have more than a leaning toward what is variously called “Reconstructionist” or “Dominionist” or “Theonomist” thought, a strain of Calvinism associated with the late R.J. Rushdoony that contends Christians must “claim the crown rights of Jesus” in establishing a rule by the righteous. He was also a vigorous opponent of the project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which he believed was selling out the Reformation heritage to the Catholic Church, aka the Whore of Babylon. But perhaps his most lasting contribution is Evangelism Explosion, a program used by thousands of local churches in teaching laypeople to be confident and competent in witnessing to the gospel. The lead question in reaching your neighbor, the program taught, is this: “If God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” I know he thought you shouldn’t pray for the departed, but pray for D. James Kennedy. Please God, he knows better now. And, while I’m reasonably confident that he had a passable answer to the question of why he should be allowed in, there were, no doubt among other things, those prejudices requiring purgative attention before being admitted to the Beatific Vision.
• “You mentioned the Cold War. Could you say a word on what that was all about?” That came during the Q&A after a lecture at a prestigious university. My talk was on a “big think” topic: tragedy and hope in human history etc., etc. And yes, I could say a word about the Cold War, and more than a word. It is not unusual to find students at the best of schools for whom the Cold War is as distant as the American Civil War, and it is not entirely unprecedented to encounter students who are uncertain about which came first. I again had occasion to think about this while reading Robert Service’s Comrades! A History of World Communism, just out from Harvard University Press. The first thing to say about the Cold War is that it was about communism. To be sure, there are still those who say it was about capitalism. We might agree that it was about the conflict between communism and capitalism, even though that is more than a little misleading. It is misleading because communism is a total system (as in “totalitarian”), while capitalism refers only to the economic dimension of constitutional democracy (as in “the free world”). It might be thought that it’s not so bad that students don’t know about communism. After all, the free world won and communism is dead. What’s the point of perpetuating the postmortem? The point, Robert Service understands, is that the ideas that drove communism are anything but dead. In a splendid early chapter, “Communism Before Marxism,” he describes how socialists of many varieties (including Marx and Engels) generally declined to use the term communism, though most were agreed that that is what they had in mind. Among the many virtues of Comrades! is the depiction of the relentlessness with which Marx and Engels propagated their ideas, with the result that, in the century after their deaths, almost all the many socialist factions would claim to be Marxists of one sort or another, except for those who eschewed the label while allowing that they employ “Marxist analysis.” Marxist revisionism and Marxist analysis, along with those who proudly declare themselves to be Marxists, are still very much with us, and not only in the backwaters of the academy.
• Of the energy of the nineteenth-century fathers, Marx and Engels, Mr. Service writes: “Their whole careers were devoted to assimilating fresh evidence and adjusting their analysis and recommendations to take account of it. They enjoyed themselves. Research for both was a pleasure, and they delighted in the tasks of politicking and propaganda. Their partnership brought out the intellectual best in both of them. They lived in an age when it was easy to denounce the political and economic status quo. Yet Marx and Engels as Victorian intellectuals had little presentiment of the uses which would be made of their extraordinary doctrines. Marxism encoded their dangerous brilliance.”
• But why yet another book on communism? Playing Google games, I discover that there are 35.9 million entries for “Hitler,” 12.7 million for “Stalin,” 12.2 million for “Lenin,” and 39.8 million for “Mao.” My impression is that none of the Hitler entries have a good word to say for the man, except for blogs generated in the anti-Semitic loony bin. Stalin doesn’t get much better treatment. He is accused of betraying the authentic Marxism represented by Lenin, who is frequently treated with sympathy. As is Chairman Mao. He killed more people than Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin combined, but the radicality of his cultural revolution continues to titillate the utopian mind. Confronted by change, some people ask, Why? while others ask, Why not? For the Why-notters of the world, Marxism in general and Maoism in particular provide a frisson of imaginative possibilities. Economic oppression and societal rot call for a clean sweep, not incremental change. Every ill is an evil and every evil is systemic. Nothing but revolution will do.
• From the nineteenth century to the present, in countries as various as Russia, China, Cambodia, and Cuba, as well as sundry movements in the West, Robert Service judiciously recounts the fortunes of communism that a little more than twenty years ago controlled more than a fifth of the world’s population and appeared to be on a victorious march of unstoppable conquest. Many of the “best and brightest” in the West thought the best we could hope for was an accommodation, called coexistence, with a permanent force of history that might, in time, temper its terror. Even so intelligent a man as Henry Kissinger spoke of the Sparta of communism vs. the Athens of freedom. If we could not stop them, perhaps we could tame them. In all its varieties, communism appealed to the powerfully felt truism that there is something powerfully wrong with the world, which is a truism because it is true. Marxism revealed what had gone wrong and proposed a way to set it right. Its proposal is what people really want, whether they know it or not. Thus was democracy redefined as what is good for the people, even if it means eliminating millions who disagree and therefore are “enemies of the people.” The idea, albeit not the practice, can be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a century before Marx and Engels. What matters, wrote Rousseau, is not what individual persons may want but the General Will. The General Will is always right and should be unquestioningly obeyed. Of course, that may make some people unhappy, but the people need to be trained, wrote Rousseau, to “bear with docility the yoke of public happiness.” Marx and Engels claimed to supply the intellectual engineering—an eminently “scientific” engineering—for that road toward public happiness.
• Robert Service, a fellow of the British Academy and professor of history at Oxford, surveys all the historical instantiations of communism and sums up what, for all their differences, they had in common. “They eliminated or emasculated rival political parties. They attacked religion, culture, and civil society. They trampled on every version of nationhood except the one approved by communist rulers. They abolished the autonomy of the courts and the press. They centralized power. They turned over dissenters to forced-labor camps. They set up networks of security police and informers. They claimed infallibility in doctrine and paraded themselves as faultless scientists of human affairs. They insulated societies against alien influences in politics and culture. They fiercely barricaded their frontiers. They treated every aspect of social life as in need of penetration by the authorities. They handled people as a resource to be mobilized. They showed little respect for ecology, charity, or custom. These commonalities make it sensible to speak of a communist order.” Some of these measures characterized and still characterize strongly anticommunist orders. But all of them, without exception, characterize communism, which today, as in the nineteenth century, is often the socialism that dare not speak its name. The core error of such “real-world socialism,” as distinct from the imaginings of classroom revolutionaries, is, as John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (A Hundred Years), the denial of the sovereignty of God and, consequently, of the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. That is the truth that receives slight attention in Robert Service’s Comrades! A History of World Communism. It is, nonetheless, a book very much worth reading and to be recommended to students such as the young man who wanted to know what the Cold War was about.
• Who is intimidating whom? The New England Journal of Medicine is alarmed by the Supreme Court decision Gonzales vs. Carhart. “The Partial Death of Abortion Rights,” “The Intimidation of American Physicians,” are among the alarums raised. A reader writes: “I was surprised at the notion that physicians who support abortion are intimidated. As a young physician who is pro-life, I know about intimidation. We carry our convictions quietly within the established medical community. Biding our time, we wait to act or speak out when necessary to protect unborn life.” Ask Dr. Maureen Condic about intimidation. Deviating from the establishment position, she wrote about embryonic stem cell research in these pages (“What We Know About Embryonic Stem Cells,” January) and for her effrontery was attacked by the scientific establishment. No doubt some abortionists are intimidated. More generally they are despised. It is the specialty that dare not speak its name. A doctor once introduced himself to me saying, “I work in the field of reproductive health.” I’m sure I did not intimidate him. Contempt for what a person does is not intimidation.
• In the news business, the imperative is that a story have “impact.” As the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Every problem is turned into a “crisis,” every criticism into an “attack,” and every loss into a “catastrophe.” The journalist’s great fear is that he will miss out, that someone else will get the story first. “The fear of missing out means that today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.” So said Tony Blair in a speech shortly before retiring as prime minister. It is a thoughtful reflection. “This speech,” he said, “is not a complaint. It is an argument.” He took care to say all the right things about the indispensability of a free press. But, as he recognizes, his is an old argument. The new thing that has “radically altered” the media, he says, is the proliferation of sources in television and the Internet and the subsequent decline in newspaper circulation. “Newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market” and become ever more shrill and partisan in order to get attention. What he says about the British press applies, mutatis mutandis, here as well. Yet Blair’s speech proposes little in the way of remedy, aside from some vague references to changing government regulation of the media. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I find myself very sympathetic to John Sommerville’s argument in “Why the News Makes Us Dumb” (First Things, October 1991). Just stop paying attention, he says. For the last couple of years, I’ve had in my computer a file with the draft of an item that is titled “The End of the Affair.” It is a quasi-poetic reflection on why, after all these years, I finally quit reading the New York Times. But of course I haven’t, and probably won’t. And when I’m in other parts of the country and subjected to what passes for the daily newspaper, I know why I probably won’t. The Times is pitiful, becoming ever more smug in its ideological narrowness and unprofessional habits. But then, compared to what? It gets the adrenaline pumping over the morning cup of coffee and provides frequent occasions for comment in this space. And its pernicious influence is readily countered by the Wall Street Journal and numerous other sources of information. So I expect “The End of the Affair” will continue to languish in that file. “I am going to say something,” says Mr. Blair, “that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today—outside the really major decisions, as big as anything else—is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight, and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.” No doubt, but it does sound as though the man is tired. Surely even so public a figure has some control over hyperactivity in dancing to the tune of the hyperactive media. Lincoln maintained a large measure of equanimity in a time when the yellow press was every bit as vile and feral as it is today. President Bush obviously enjoys outraging reporters by saying he spends little time on newspapers and television. Journalism is, for the most part, dirty work, but somebody has to do it. And even if they don’t have to do it, they will. Almost everyone who, on matters momentous or trivial, has been the object of media attention has horror stories about being misrepresented or otherwise abused. Mr. Blair is right: Journalism is in large part a blood sport. For those of us who, unlike Mr. Blair and other high-profile public figures, are mainly on the consuming end of the news, it is perhaps sufficient to keep our appetite under control and to cultivate a robust skepticism about what we do read and watch. Mind you, more radical measures may become necessary. But, for the foreseeable future, I’m not deleting from the aforementioned file “The End of the Affair.”
• There is an office called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Social Development and World Peace. As you can tell from the name, the office has weighty responsibilities. John Carr is the head of the office, and he recently testified before another institution with weighty responsibilities, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, also testified, as did the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church, and a group of evangelical Protestants who signed a statement warning against global warming. Speaking for the bishops, John Carr said, “The U.S. Catholic bishops seek to offer a constructive, distinctive, and authentic contribution based on our religious and moral teaching and our pastoral service.” He went on to say, “Our Creator has given us the gift of creation: the air we breathe, the water that sustains life, the climate and environment we share.” Further, he said, “Global climate change is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family.” In addition, he said, “This is an essential time to build up the common ground for common action to pursue the common good.” The representatives of the other groups also made these “constructive, distinctive, and authentic” contributions presumably based upon Catholic teaching and pastoral experience. Mr. Carr said, “Pope John Paul II insisted that climate is a good that must be protected.” I don’t know what statement of the pope Mr. Carr has in mind, but it is true that we would be in a fine fix without climate. He refers to meetings his office has held with global warming groups and says “such gatherings can create an environment of dialogue and common ground for common action on climate change,” and he urged that such gatherings be expanded. So at least one environment is being not only protected but expanded. In one meeting, he learned that parts of Alaska are “already being destroyed by erosion, flooding, and other forces.” Much of Mr. Carr’s statement is devoted to the poor and to “sustainable development.” Sustainable development is an idea developed in World Council of Churches circles in the 1970s and 1980s, and focuses attention on how much poor countries should be allowed to develop before they jeopardize the environment on which we all depend, although Mr. Carr does not put it quite that way. In any event, we can all agree that there is climate, and there is, as always, climate change. The U.S. bishops, according to John Carr, believe that these constitute “problems” that “require taking bold action weighing available policy alternatives and moral goods and taking considered and decisive steps before the problems grow worse.” Such is the “constructive, distinctive, and authentic contribution” of Catholic social doctrine. Where would the senators or, for that matter, all of us be without it? The national bishops’ conference recently underwent across-the-board cutbacks due to financial difficulties. One may be permitted to wonder whether cutbacks, or even eliminations, might not be more carefully targeted, with an eye toward, for instance, the Department of Social Development and World Peace. (For a crisp, informed, and cliché-free reflection on climate change, see Thomas Derr’s “The Politics of Global Warming” in the August/September issue.)
• William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke and now a United Methodist bishop, tells about the time he invited Jerry Falwell to speak. He did it on a dare, not expecting Falwell to accept. But Falwell showed up with bells on, so to speak. The Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered Alliance demanded Willimon be fired for inviting a man infamous for his “closed-minded, racist, homophobic, self-righteous, incendiary rhetoric.” On the appointed evening, the student crowd was baited for bear. One of the first questions was, “How many African Americans do you have at your Liberty University?” “Young lady,” said Falwell, you could not have asked a question that hurts me more deeply.” He went on about how hard he had worked over the years to recruit minority students and how he regularly discussed the matter with Coretta Scott King. “She told me not to be so consumed with this problem. But I can’t help myself.” He finally allowed that only 12 percent of the students at Liberty are African Americans. Then he asked, “Do you know, by the way, how many African Americans are enrolled at Duke?” No response. Falwell said, “I’ll tell you. Six percent. Six percent! Your endowment is 50 times bigger than ours. You have had years to work on this issue (though admittedly you spent half of your life as a racially segregated school). In fact, I struggled with whether the Lord wanted me to come here tonight to a school that, though you have been given great gifts, has such a poor record of minority enrollment. I pray that you will let the Lord help you do better in this area.” Willimon writes of the students, “They were putty in this Baptist’s hands. When Jerry finally finished his avuncular banter, he received a warm ovation. ‘This man’s no fool,’ I thought to myself.”
• The Fremont district of Seattle proclaims itself to be the “Center of the Universe.” One should not begrudge the folks who live there whatever consolations they can contrive. Fremont is also the sharpest edge of edgy, as in avant-garde. After the people of Poprad, Slovakia, pulled down a seven-ton statue of Vladimir Ilych Lenin in 1989 and threw it into the town dump, it was discovered by an American who had it transported to Seattle and it was placed in the town center of Fremont. This report says, “The statue was controversial and remains so—especially to Russian immigrants.” Those touchy Russians. The report continues: “Lenin the Man was a violent sociopath, catalyst for wholesale slaughter across half the world. But Lenin the Public Artwork is a beautifully crafted sculpture, and a catalyst for healthy discourse.” Now if only they could find an artistically worthy statue for Hitler the Public Artwork, one can imagine the catalytic effect on public discourse in Fremont.
• The images of unborn babies play a powerful role in winning people to the pro-life cause, notes Jon Shields of Cornell in a symposium on embryonic stem cells in Society. But in the stem cell debate, it is the other side that increasingly relies on images rather than arguments. He writes: “In addition, the argument that embryos are merely ‘clumps of cells’ also tends to obscure scientific truth itself. This characterization suggests that an embryo is not biologically different than what we might find under our fingernails if we were to gouge a bit of skin from our arms. It is to imply erroneously that they lack coherence, integrity, and self-direction as organisms. An embryo is a ‘clump’ or ‘mass’ of cells only in the same sense that the author or readers of this essay are; that is, we are all ‘bunches’ of cells that interact with our environment and communicate internally as distinct and unified organisms. The many-celled blastocyst distinguishes its top from its bottom based on the point at which the sperm entered the egg. A live and healthy embryo will continue its self-directed development by replicating its own cells and arranging these in increasingly complex structures. Unfortunately, however, these scientific facts are almost always obscured when scientists and bioethicists describe the embryo as merely a clump of cells.” Never mind that the proponents of creating and destroying human embryos claim the scientific high ground. “At a tactical level as well, abortion rights advocates have long insisted that images of aborted fetuses have no place in a larger debate about bioethics. In the stem cell fight, however, the bioethical Left has relied heavily on images of embryos, which have appeared in the Washington Post and New England Journal of Medicine. Missing from the Left’s embrace of these images is some account as to why it is acceptable to build an ethical case on pictures of 14-day old embryos, but not ones that are more developed.” Shields concludes: “Whatever the implications for the larger fight over abortion, we should all be troubled by a bioethics regime that claims to be acting [in an] eminently rational and scientific [way] but that turns almost entirely on our own feelings and sentiments.”
• Everything was going just right for Christian Wiman. He writes in American Scholar that he had found a reliable publisher for his poetry, moved into a good teaching position, and then moved on from that to assume the prestigious post of editor of Poetry. “But there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.” For reasons he did not understand, he had given up the writing of poetry, or maybe, as he says, it had been taken from him. And with that loss was a loss of being alive. “I think most writers live at some strange adjacency to experience, that they feel life most intensely in their reaction to it.” He recalls Simone Weil’s description of two prisoners in solitary confinement, separated by a stone wall. In time they found a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall separates and unites them. “It is the same with us and God,” writes Weil. “Every separation is a link.” But Christian Wiman was quite unlinked. Then he fell in love. Then he was married. And then he found out he had a mysterious cancer of the blood for which there was neither cure nor certain prognosis. “In those early days after the diagnosis, when we mostly just sat on the couch and cried, I alone was dying, but we were mourning very much together. And what we
were mourning was not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.” “Then one morning we found ourselves going to church. Found ourselves. That’s exactly what it felt like, in both senses of the phrase, as if some impulse in each of us had finally been catalyzed into action, so that we were casting aside the Sunday paper and moving toward the door with barely a word between us; and as if, once inside the church, we were discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be.” What began that Sunday morning continues: “So now I bow my head and try to pray in the mornings, not because I don’t doubt the reality of what I have experienced, but because I do, and with an intensity that, because to once feel the presence of God is to feel His absence all the more acutely, is actually more anguishing and difficult than any ‘existential anxiety’ I have ever known. I go to church on Sundays, not to dispel this doubt but to expend its energy, because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world. How charged this one hour of the week is for me, and how I cherish it, though not one whit more than the hours I have with my wife, with friends, or in solitude, trying to learn how to inhabit time so completely that there might be no distinction between life and belief, attention and devotion. And out of all these efforts at faith and love, out of my own inevitable failures at both, I have begun to write poems again. But the language I have now to call on God is not only language, and the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is no longer a cell but this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone. As I approach the first anniversary of my diagnosis, as I approach whatever pain is ahead of me, I am trying to get as close to this wall as possible. And I am listening with all I am.”
• We are all uncertain about what God wants us to do. That is to say, we do not know for sure. Of course it seems silly, when you’re well past middle age and have spent your life doing what you believe you’ve been given to do, to always be getting up in the morning or suddenly stopping in the middle of the day’s work to ask, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” I mentioned this to a young man who is discerning whether he has a call to the priesthood, and he was shocked, perhaps scandalized. He said, in effect, “You mean after all these years of being a priest, of writing books, of editing and lecturing, of organizing so many projects, you still aren’t sure you’re doing what God called you to do? How am I ever to know that God is calling me to the priesthood?” The answer is that we act in the courage of our uncertainties. I am fond of pointing out that the word decide comes from the Latin decidere, “to cut off.” You face choices—whether to be a priest, whether to go to this school or that, whether to marry a certain person, whether to pursue this line of work or another—and then you decide. And, in deciding, you have cut off the alternatives and pray you have decided rightly. But you do not know for sure. Or else you are trapped in the tangled web of indecision. In this connection, I have had frequent recourse, both homiletically and personally, to one of the most liberating passages from Saint Paul—1 Corinthians 4. He has been trying to explain himself and his apostolate to the Christians in Corinth. He doesn’t know whether he has succeeded, and then he says this: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. . . . Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” Do not judge before the time! I do not even judge myself! These are the words of a life set free from the tangled web of introspection and indecision.
• I was thinking about the above while reading a recent and splendid book by John Peter Kenney on Augustine’s Confessions. The book is The Mysticism of Saint Augustine, and, in Kenney’s “rereading” of Augustine’s classic text, the emphasis is on the inescapably Christocentric character of Augustine’s experience. This is against the frequent reading of the Confessions as a psychological thriller, which downplays the specifically Christian and theological in Augustine’s story. He was, as everybody knows, a Neoplatonist, but a Neoplatonist with very important differences. In Neoplatonism, the ascending soul discovers its intelligible and “undescended” self in the eternal world of being as it moves from dialectical reasoning in time into pure intellect. Kenney writes: “After this transformative discovery, embodiment has no charm [for Plotinus]. But Augustine countenances no such direct access to an unfallen self. His helplessness, his habituation to sins, his tears of self-betrayal have taught him otherwise. And so have the importunity of divine grace and the providential emergence of Christ in his life, whose power effects the conversion of his wholly fallen soul. Thus the contemplative soul cannot discover its real self within eternal wisdom, for there is no eternal self there to be recovered. Contemplation can only be an exercise in hope, the discernment of where the self may one day rest, if it should achieve its salvation. Thus, for Augustine, contemplation is inherently eschatological and, unlike in Plotinus, that eschatological hope is never realized by the embodied soul. It can only be actualized after death.” Precisely. Let no one judge before the time!
First Things gift subscriptions to students—perhaps a son, daughter, niece or nephew?—have been known to change lives. Think about it. And if you know someone who is a likely subscriber—student, senior, or somewhere in between—we will gladly send a sample issue and mention that you’re the one who thinks so highly of their intelligence. Just send us names and addresses.
Jason Byassee, Theology Today, October 2007; Dulles in America, October 1994; Benedict XVI and the Times, New York Times, May 14; Chilton review of Carlson in New York Sun, October 26, 2006: Blair speech, June 12; Falwell at Duke, Christian Century, June 12; Dover, Pennsylvania, Christian Century, June 12; Lenin statue, roadsideamerica.com; Meilaender in The Cresset, June 2007; New atheism, Religion Watch, March 2007.