On Rereading the Civil War
As long-term readers know, every August at the cottage in Quebec I give myself the assignment of reading or rereading some major chunk of our civilization’s tradition. Last year it was Augustine’s City of God. Among other subjects in earlier years were Thomas’ Summa, the complete plays of Shakespeare, and the Pauline epistles. This past August it was the American Civil War, the main texts being Shelby Foote’s huge three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s more recent Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
As is not the case with Paul, Augustine, Thomas, and Shakespeare, I now think I’ve had enough of the Civil War for this lifetime. In reading about it, I’m not sure I learned much that I didn’t more or less know before. But I was more deeply impressed by the moral impossibility of the Southern cause. George McKenna recently took to task Harry Stout, author of Upon the Altar of the Nation, for indulging conventional musings about the right of the South to secede. That’s an interesting academic question about the nature of the constitutional contract, but, even though Lincoln persisted in saying that the war was not about slavery but about preserving the Union, it was also and inevitably about slavery all along.
Yes, Jefferson Davis and others made eloquent speeches about a government’s legitimacy resting on “the consent of the governed,” but that was made morally incoherent by the denial of the rights of the blacks whom they not only governed but owned as subhuman property. At the end of the day, however, nobody can know what would have happened to the United States of America and the Confederate States of America if the South had been allowed to secede. There might have been later wars between them, but there would not have been more than 600,000 dead between 1861 and 1865, and, as some scholars have argued, the institution of slavery might have disappeared over time—and in a way that did not leave Reconstruction’s bitter legacy of racism. But about such roads not taken we will never know.
Among the most compelling books about that period is Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. He persuasively supports Lincoln’s claim that the question came down to whether the nation would be all slave-holding or all free. That may well be right, but it does not address the alternative of allowing the South peacefully to secede. The great tragedy of the Civil War is haunted by hypotheticals, but history is not composed of hypotheticals. Add to the narrative of what actually did happen the fact that many, if not most, in both the North and the South thought victory would be quick and decisive. The boys would be home by Christmas, they said in 1861. The early expectation of “mission accomplished” is a commonplace in the history of war.
The striking parallels between the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 have often been noted. But, on rereading the bloody narrative of the nineteenth century, I was newly impressed also by the parallels between Stephen Douglas’ advocacy of “popular sovereignty” with respect to slavery and today’s politicians, such as Rudy Giuliani, who say that the overturning of Roe is a matter of indifference and are prepared to accept whatever “the people” decide. Of course, Douglas didn’t personally support slavery, while such politicians do personally support the unlimited abortion license.
Goodwin’s book is a fine read, focusing on Lincoln’s manipulative skills in getting his political rivals to work with him and with one another through extraordinarily trying times. She is uncritically adulatory of our only “poet president,” as she calls him, and her admiration is not reduced but apparently increased by the ways in which he was also a very clever operator. Fair enough. Politics that is indifferent to how things get done may be emotionally satisfying, but that’s about all.
Goodwin trips over her own thesis, however, when she writes that the story of Lincoln “has unequalled power to captivate the imagination and to inspire emotion.” Unequalled? More than Thucydides or Beowulf, not to mention the Bible? And inspiring emotion is hardly their great achievement, or Lincoln’s. Lincoln at his height, as in the Second Inaugural, inspires much more than emotion: Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
That is high poetry, and more than poetry. It is with justice that Lincoln is called the greatest theologian of the American civil religion. The “poet president” could be brutal in his relentlessness. After General Burnside’s loss of thirteen thousand casualties in two days, Lincoln calculated “the awful arithmetic” of the comparative resources of North and South. As he told William Stoddard, “If the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone.” It is a chilling calculation, and there is little doubt that he was prepared to act on it. As it was, the South lost one in four of all men old enough to bear arms.
As a one-term congressman, Lincoln had opposed the Mexican War. Many years later, when running for reelection in 1864, he was opposed by Democrats who were eager to make peace with the Confederacy and with slavery, and he observed that “one fundamental principle of politics is to be always on the side of your country in a war. It kills any party to oppose a war.” Hubert Humphrey, who turned, however belatedly, against the Vietnam War in 1968, and George McGovern, who was laid waste in 1972, might have reason to agree. Nor is the lesson lost on most candidates today.
It was, all in all, a rewarding exercise to spend those many hours at the cottage on the Civil War. Shelby Foote, who figured prominently in Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS series on the Civil War, conveys affectingly the romance, melancholy, and tragedy of the Southern cause. I had not known that Jefferson Davis, shortly before his death more than twenty years after the war, declared in a speech that secession was morally right but “impracticable.” Nonetheless, he said, if he could do it all over again, he would. Such was the romance, such the delusion. He was hardly alone. In New Orleans, there is a Museum of the Confederacy that displays a crown of thorns sent to Davis by Pope Pius IX, who had plaited it with his own hands.
In contrast to Foote, Doris Kearns Goodwin is superficial in her judgments but provides a very readable account of realpolitik in the service of what was perceived as a just cause in a profoundly unjust world. One leaves these and other books on the Civil War with a deep sadness. Robert E. Lee in a moment of triumph surveyed the mounds of the dead strewn over the battlefield and remarked, “It is a good thing that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow to love it too much.” It is a statement frequently invoked by professional soldiers. I think I can understand what he meant and they mean by it, and, were I a professional soldier, I might share the sentiment, but, as it is, I turned the last page in this rereading of the Civil War mainly, almost only, with a sense of the terrible. In the words of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz: “The horror! The horror!” Victims of the “Useful Idiots”
We have been considering the provocative proposals of Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. (For a summary of his argument, see the October and November issues.) Collier is professor of economics at Oxford and former research director of the World Bank, and over the years he has been forced by statistical evidence to conclude that most of our thinking about world poverty is dead wrong—and deadly wrong for the “bottom billion” of the world’s population that is falling ever further behind.
The poor are poor because they are exploited by the rich. That is what Collier once thought, along with many others for whom the answer was revolution of one kind or another against capitalist oppression. “For rebellion, the image is often that of Che Guevara, ubiquitous in my generation as a poster on student walls. The poster did our thinking for us. Our notions about the problems of the poorest countries are saturated with such images: not just of noble rebels but of starving children, heartless businesses, and crooked politicians. You are held prisoner by these images [and] so are our politicians.”
Of course there are starving children, heartless businesses, and crooked politicians. The last are particularly prevalent in the poorest countries, constituting what Collier calls the bad-government or corruption “trap” that impedes development. But the celebrities and politicians who beat the drums for development aid are prone to exploiting the notion that we in the West have somehow caused world poverty and are morally obliged to pay for our guilt. Voting for massive aid programs makes us feel better but, more often than not, is of slight benefit to the really poor.
Widening the Circle
The goal is not to pay for our sins but to encourage economic growth. As Collier notes, the word growth is now routinely encumbered with other Western agendas, as in the environmental movement’s insistence on “sustainable growth.” The phrase sustainable growth has for decades been promoted by groups such as the World Council of Churches and many NGOs. Too often it has meant that the world’s really poor must be given limited access to the circle of productivity and exchange lest they add to the ecological burden that humanity has placed on our fragile planet. Admission to the circle of productivity and exchange is the key concept in John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. Without that, the “bottom billion” will continue to sink. Collier writes: “The problem of the bottom billion has not been that they have had the wrong type of growth; it is that they have not had any growth. The suspicion of growth has inadvertently undermined genuinely strategic thinking.”
Celebrity advocates for the world’s poor talk about finding a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, which usually means socialism. Collier writes:We cannot make poverty history unless the countries of the bottom billion start to grow, and they will not grow by turning them into Cuba. Cuba is a stagnant, low-income, egalitarian country with good social services. If the bottom billion emulated Cuba, would this solve their problems? I think that the vast majority of the people living in the bottom billion—and indeed in Cuba—would see it as continued failure. To my mind, development is about giving hope to ordinary people that their children will live in a society that has caught up with the rest of the world. Take that hope away and the smart people will use their energies not to develop their society but to escape from it—as have a million Cubans.
Development aid from the rich countries is not the answer to world poverty. Conservatives have latched on to books such as William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden with their devastating critique of the ineffectiveness of aid programs and the frequent damage they do. Collier writes: “In recent years [aid] has probably been overemphasized, partly because it is the easiest thing for the Western world to do and partly because it fits so comfortably into a moral universe organized around the principles of sin and expiation. That overemphasis, which comes from the left, has produced a predictable backlash from the right.” Collier’s goal is to move us beyond that exaggeration and backlash.
Globalization has different meanings, and movements that protest against it have different, and sometimes contradictory, agendas. “By posing the problem as that of a grasping rich world imposing its rules on a weak poor world,” Collier says, “the NGOs conjured up a satisfyingly simple moral struggle in which they could campaign. But it was a fantasy world that, sad to say, did a disservice to the very people the NGOs are passionately trying to help. It was the headless heart in action.”
For example, NGOs, including Christian aid organizations, promote maintaining trade barriers for African countries, contending that such barriers are protections from the ravages of globalization. Collier writes: “Seeing everything through the spectrum of rich countries oppressing poor countries, these agencies spend charitable donations opposing the reduction in African trade barriers. Lenin had a phrase for those in the West who supported him without understanding his true intent: ‘useful idiots.’ Today’s useful idiots campaign for trade barriers.”
Thus do we find ourselves in a situation of sloganeering polarization. Collier depicts it this way: “Popular thinking on development is fogged by lazy images and controversies: ‘Globalization will fix it’ versus ‘They need more protection,’ ‘They need more money’ versus ‘Aid feeds corruption,’ ‘They need democracy’ versus ‘They’re locked in ethnic hatreds,’ ‘Go back to empire’ versus ‘Respect their sovereignty,’ ‘Support their armed struggles’ versus ‘Prop up our allies.’” The self-defeating reality is that “the constituency for aid is suspicious of growth, and the constituency for growth is suspicious of aid.” While we throw our slogans back and forth, the really poor fall ever deeper into the traps that diminish hope for a better future.
While he supports aid, and has very definite ideas about how aid can be reformed, the great question, says Collier, is “How can we help to shoe-horn these countries into the international market?” That is the question pressed also by Centesimus Annus and Catholic social doctrine. Collier’s argument for focusing attention on the “bottom billion” meets with various responses. He writes:When I give this message to audiences in aid agencies people shuffle uncomfortably in their seats. Some of them may be thinking, “But what about my career?” for it would no longer be in Rio but in Bangui. And when I give the message to an NGO audience they get uneasy for another reason. Many of them do not want to believe that for the majority of the developing world global capitalism is working. They hate capitalism and do not want it to work. The news that it is not working for the billion at the bottom is not good enough: they want to believe that it does not work anywhere. But we cannot go on sacrificing the bottom billion to either of these self-serving aspirations.
The bottom line, so to speak, of Collier’s argument about the bottom billion is this: “Growth is not a cure-all, but the lack of growth is a kill-all.” How do we expand the circle of productivity and exchange so that it includes everybody? That is the great question posed by Catholic social doctrine. And that is the question addressed with careful argument and massive supporting evidence by Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.
Facing up to the realities of world poverty and what can be done about it requires concern, intelligence, and long-term commitment. Just how long-term our thinking must be is underscored by Michael Clemens, who reviewed The Bottom Billion in Foreign Affairs: Clemens writes: “But we are play-acting if we underestimate the magnitude of the challenge by peddling ‘solutions’ of any sort. The combined GDP of the 58 countries of the bottom billion is about $35
0 billion per year—smaller than the GDP of metropolitan Chicago. It is not at all clear that every slice of such a tiny pie is viable as a future rich country. And even if we could somehow spark two percent growth across the bottom-billion countries (an epochal achievement in a zero-growth area), two generations from now their collective income per capita would hover around $3 a day—about the level of Honduras and Sri Lanka today. Helping the bottom billion will be a very slow job for generations, not the product of media- or summit-friendly plans to end poverty in ten or 20 years. It will require long-term, opportunistic, and humble engagement, much of it through public action—built on a willingness to let ineffective interventions die and on a sophisticated appreciation of the stupendous complexity of functioning economies. The grievous truth is that although a range of public actions can and should help many people, most of the bottom billion will not—and cannot—be freed from poverty in our lifetimes.”
Michael Clemens may well be right. That it will be the work of generations should not intimidate Christians, who think in terms of centuries. Yes, Our Lord may return tomorrow. And yes, we may be the early Church in a twenty-first century that is still in the opening chapter of the human drama. And yes, we are told that the poor we will always have with us. As we are also told that we will be judged by what we do for “the least of these.” The least of these is by no means limited to, but certainly includes, the people whose plight is so persuasively depicted in Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion. Against the delusions of the left and the skepticism of the right, he offers a believable way forward for this generation in the work of generations. Science vs. Religion: Part 3,463,511 (est.)
It has been almost fifty years since C.P. Snow fixed the world’s attention on the way in which there are “two cultures,” with scientists living in one and humanists in the other. Snow’s argument has come in for withering criticism from many quarters, but Ramesh Ponnuru suggests that it really holds in some instances—for instance, Lee M. Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton whose book Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life Ponnuru reviews in the Claremont Review of Books.
In Silver’s view, neither philosophy, morality, aesthetics, history, nor any other considerations should be permitted to get in the way of what he understands to be scientific progress. And that is most emphatically the case if such considerations are tainted by religion or spirituality. Admittedly, Silver might not be happy with that description of his position. He writes: “I do not claim that all expressions of spirituality are harmful or bad. Nor do I think that all biotech applications are inherently good, ethical, or risk-free.” Ponnuru observes that, without that disclaimer, the thoughtful reader would conclude that that is precisely what Lee Silver claims and thinks.
The book, which, not incidentally, is blurbed by the notorious Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, celebrates the “new frontiers” of cloning, embryonic stem cell research, interspecies hybrids, and, it seems, any other tinkering prompted by scientific curiosity. “Human being” is a very pliable concept. Ponnuru describes Silver’s argument: “Evolutionary theory debunks the notion that there are clear boundaries between species. There are only populations with overlapping traits we classify together for convenience. When we start creating human/non-human hybrids, Silver writes, we will have to draw ‘arbitrary’ lines to determine which ones will have rights. He breezily approves the prospect.” On the basis of my limited personal contact with Prof. Silver, breezy is the right word. He reminds one of the undergraduate who, upon reading a little Nietzsche, looks over the abyss into nothingness and exclaims, “Wow. That’s cool.”
Silver is most particularly upset that some people who make scientific-sounding arguments are in fact people of religious conviction. With specific reference to his Princeton colleague Robert P. George, Silver says this is unfair and misleading. “He seems to think,” observes Ponnuru, “that such people are being deceptive whenever they make their arguments without disclosing their religious commitments. Were this standard applied evenhandedly, Silver would be unable to write an op-ed on biotechnological issues without mentioning up front that he is an ‘extremely skeptical agnostic deist’ (as he describes himself), and his arguments could be dismissed as a product of his theology.”
It is one of the less charming oddities of our time that, in many circles, atheism, or at least a declared agnosticism, is assumed to be the default position of disinterested ethical discourse. As though proceeding from the assumption that there is no God is less consequential than assuming that there is. Neither is a neutral position. More to the point, however, is that it is possible to prescind from what John Rawls calls “comprehensive accounts” of reality in advancing philosophical and moral arguments. Christians have various ways of accounting for this possibility, whether in terms of natural law, general revelation, or, quite simply, a capacity for thinking that is possessed by all rational beings.
In the absence of being able to conceive of such a possibility, and in the intellectual habit of assuming that their own comprehensive accounts are neutral, Lee Silver and those of like mind are reduced to name-calling. Those who disagree with them are religious obscurantists, fanatics, or, as Silver says, practitioners of “stealth extremism.” In sum, Christians can readily engage the rational arguments advanced by atheists and agnostics, while atheists and agnostics disallow arguments, no matter how rational, advanced by Christians. That is hardly neutrality.
One quickly adds that this is not true of all atheists and agnostics, but it does seem to be the case with Lee Silver, who gives renewed credibility to C.P. Snow’s depiction of scientists locked into a culture whose hostility to the humanities, and to philosophy in particular, is matched only by their ignorance of ways of thinking that challenge the technological imperative by which they are driven.
Putting the State in Its Place
The topic of fascism, Nazism, and the churches continues to fascinate, as witness a steady stream of books on the subject. An informative article by Michael Hollerich of Santa Clara University in California suggests why. “The Nazis,” he writes in Pro Ecclesia, “are an inexhaustible trope for evil. . . . Liberal anxieties about religious support for the Bush administration’s agenda at home and abroad” tend to see fascism around every policy corner. But, Hollerich writes, simplistic stories of blind theocratic ambition and complicity won’t do. “We can leave the historical scapegoating,” he says, “to the [John] Cornwells and the [Daniel] Goldhagens.” The real story is both more complicated and more interesting.
Hollerich describes the confused turmoil of the Weimar Republic—and the agony of the Catholic Church’s halting attempts to make sense out of its role in the fevered environment of emerging totalitarianism. “Right up until Hitler came to power,” he writes, “the Catholic hierarchy retained a largely closed front against the Nazis.” Prior to Hitler’s ascendancy, Catholics who joined the Nazi party were frequently denied the sacraments. But there were other Catholic voices as well. Influential Catholic intellectuals were sharply critical of the liberal democracy represented by the “Godless constitution” of the Weimar Republic. They called for the restoration of an “integral” social order that would save Germany from “atomized individualism.”
This concern was hardly limited to old-fashioned conservatives who longed for a restoration of the monarchy. Karl Adam—Hollerich calls him “the best-known Catholic theologian of his generation,” and he was certainly among the best known—championed the Church as an “organic community.” Adam was a supporter of liturgical renewal, a movement most contemporary Catholics think of as shaping the “progressive” atmosphere that led to the Second Vatican Council. One of its leading proponents in the 1930s, Abbot Herwegen of Maria Laach, explicitly allied himself with fascism, observing that “the liturgical movement [has] acted as a counterweight against an ever more unrestrained and lunatic individualism; [now] in the political sphere it is Fascism.”
After Hitler came to power in 1933, the German bishops, putting their hopes in his assurances that the state would respect the independence of the Church and its many educational and social ministries, adopted a cautiously cooperative attitude toward the new regime. As Hollerich notes, some bishops were impressed by Mussolini’s resolution of “the Roman Question” by the 1929 Lateran Treaty with the Vatican. Perhaps it was possible to work with the fascists.
A De-Christianized Culture
This was a fateful turn. In addition to failures of nerve on the part of particular leaders, Hollerich writes, there was a larger problem. “Catholics were misled by their commitment to a conception of the common good that had become hopelessly abstract in the wake of tremendous political, social, and economic changes.” Church leaders, he says, tried to navigate politically in an increasingly de-Christianized world employing instruments developed in an older and more Christian culture. The argument is that bishops and theologians had trouble seeing totalitarianism for what it was because their views of secular authority presupposed the large, embracing, and intrinsically humanizing authority of a Christian culture that no longer existed.
Hollerich aims at providing more than a history lesson. He wants us to learn “from our predecessors’ mistakes.” He talks about “a transcendent understanding of the church” and juxtaposes that with a “hierarchical and institutional mystification.” I think I know what that means, but let it pass. He then goes on to the war in Iraq and President Bush’s foreign policy, warning against “appeals to a distinctive national mission.” No doubt some assertions about America’s mission to advance freedom and democracy are over the top, but somewhat farther over the top is the comparison of such statements with the murderous Nazi eschatology of Arianizing the world.
And, while I admit that there is a great deal that I miss, I am not aware of any Catholic bishops or intellectuals today pushing the line of America’s manifest destiny to advance global transformation. There are a good many who think America does have a responsibility, where possible, to help people enjoy greater economic prosperity, responsive government, and freedom from terror, aims that do not strike one as Nazi-like.
Hollerich says that the history of German Catholics in the Nazi era teaches us that “we need to be shrewd about identifying our political friends and enemies.” No doubt. He seems to think that the American bishops have failed to learn this lesson. He worries that “the militant passions behind today’s equivalent of [the German Catholic] ‘antisecular front’ may burn so hotly that they will . . . blind us to serious, immediate, and otherwise avoidable threats to the concrete common good of the society that we’re actually living in.” If I read him correctly, there is a danger that Catholics, even bishops, may become Republicans.
It is regrettable that a useful and intelligent survey of the history of Catholic political failures in the Nazi era ends up with the petty partisanship of such jejune “lessons to be learned.” Contra Hollerich’s argumentum ad Hitlerum, our circumstance is not that of Germany’s in the 1930s. We don’t face naked political evil. No doubt the Bush administration has made many moral compromises, policy errors, and political misjudgments, as did the Clinton administration and every administration before that. No doubt the Republican party is compromised by the fund-raising game—as are the Democrats. No doubt it is true that our political parties shamelessly remake themselves in order to attract votes. And no doubt much else, none of which, nor all of which in combination, warrants the comparison with the Nazi period.
The pertinent lessons for the present have to do with the misjudgments of Catholic leaders in the 1930s who were shaped by the “corporatist” tradition of political theology they had inherited and, more broadly, with the general presumption that the norms of Christendom would restrain secular power. Over the past six decades, Catholic social doctrine has made very notable advances on these questions. In the same issue of Pro Ecclesia, Victor Lee Austin examines an important part of that story in “John Paul II’s Ironic Legacy in Political Theology.”
As everybody knows, the Catholic Church under the leadership of John Paul gave powerful support to the idea of human rights. The Helsinki Accords (1975) and their adumbration of human rights played a central role in delegitimizing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and, not least, of the pope’s native Poland. As Austin shows, the pope did not ally himself with the human rights movement out of convenience. On the contrary, John Paul viewed the proper role of the state as responding to and serving the deeper truths of our humanity. God does not reform us from the outside. As Austin demonstrates in a close analysis of the pope’s use of scriptural passages, the incarnate God is “with us” rather than “over us.”
From that follows a dramatic reinterpretation of secular authority. The legitimacy of secular authority does not flow directly from God. Instead, the state is legitimate insofar as it serves what is properly human—because that is what God himself chooses to embrace and serve in Christ. “All this stands in some contrast with an older view of the state in political theology,” observes Austin, “in which the state is described as having a privileged and responsible mediation of divine rule over society.”
The magistrate rules, in the older view, just as God reigns: from above. In John Paul’s thought, a principle of solidarity has superseded a principle of sovereignty, both in the understanding of the dynamics of salvation and in the Church’s social teaching. This “sidelines the role of the state,” writes Austin, “giving it the merely instrumental role of promoting and defending human rights.” The state is one institution among other institutions of society, albeit a very important institution. This is a critically important part of the argument of the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which, if I may be permitted to say it once more, is the most comprehensive, coherent, and compelling statement of a Christian understanding of society on offer today.
There are some who raise questions about the usefulness or appropriateness of the concept of human rights in Catholic social teaching. Rights do have a tendency to disengage themselves from duties. And we may well ask whether appeals to human dignity have enough moral specificity to inform political judgments. That specificity often becomes apparent only when the dignity of the human person is directly assaulted. As I recently noted in “The Politics of Bioethics” (November), John Paul did not hesitate to say that the entirety of Catholic social doctrine is based on the dignity of the human person.
These are among the things the Church has learned from the experiences of the mid-twentieth century: not only in Germany in the 1930s but also in Spain, Vichy France, and the parts of Europe under the Soviet empire. The direction in teaching is clear. Instead of making the modern nation-state answerable to God—a Catholic strategy singularly unsuccessful throughout the modern era—the Church has thrown its weight behind the effort to make secular power answerable to the human person. To put it differently, the state’s accountability to God is indirect; it is through persons who hold themselves, or should hold themselves, accountable to God.
This is the logic implicit in what some think is the single most radical document of the Second Vatican Council, the Declaration on Religious Freedom ( Dignitatis Humanae). That document decisively severed the relationship between the authority of the state and the supernatural destiny of its citizens while, at the same time, calling on the state to respect the ways in which citizens conceive and practice their freely chosen understandings of supernatural destiny. Such are the reflections prompted by Victor Austin’s thoughtful article. A ProsecutionIf Austin probes, the Villanova law-school professor Patrick Brennan prosecutes. Like Austin, he identifies the decisive change in Catholic views of state power. The title of his recent Villanova Law Review article says it quite well: “The Decreasing Ontological Density of the State in Catholic Social Doctrine.” The baroque terminology (borrowed from Russell Hittinger) expresses the gist of the argument. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has turned away from an older “integralism” that saw the Christian sovereign as “assisting the Church in making men moral and getting them to Heaven.” In its place there is a “suspicion of the modern state.”
Brennan worries that the contemporary magisterial suspicion of the state leaves the Church vulnerable to the modern liberal tendency to see social authority as nothing more than a reflection of the collective will of citizens. Has state sovereignty become so detached from our supernatural destiny, Brennan asks, that the notorious “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life,” as the Supreme Court put it in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, is actually implied by Catholic doctrine? It’s an important question. Brennan contends that the personalism of John Paul II and the Augustinianism of Benedict XVI are not sufficiently Thomist. “John Paul’s ontologico-legal halfway house proved not habitable,” he writes, and Benedict “leaves untouched the question of the legal basis of the state’s authority to make law.”
As Brennan sees it, current magisterial teaching could slide down the slippery slope to the “amazing mystery passage” of Casey. With this article, Brennan is entering the scholastic jousts that are the glory of Catholic intellectual culture. A fine spectacle they are, but, for the moment and recalling the story told by Michael Hollerich of Germany in the 1930s, it is sufficient to note that the Church has learned from the misjudgments of the past in her relationship with the instruments of secular power. The state is not the society. It is a distinct and limited institution in society. This makes possible the exercise of the Christian imperative to form the society and its culture while, at the same time, to recognize the wisdom of keeping the formal instruments of secular power (courts, legislatures, executive and regulatory authorities) religiously neutral.
In this circumstance, political sovereignty has become much more impersonal. It is invested in institutions rather than persons or collectivities such as a nation. A king can be baptized, even all the people in a nation can be baptized; a constitution cannot be baptized. Hollerich, Austin, and Brennan, each in his own way, help us to understand this momentous change, and Brennan in particular raises important questions about its possible implications. As I say, Centesimus Annus is the best account of these developments to date, but it is reported that Pope Benedict is working on an encyclical on social doctrine. It’s an exciting time for Catholic social thought, making it quite possible that what Brennan calls an “ontologico-legal halfway house” will be turned into a permanent residence. While We’re At It
• A megachurch in Redmond, Washington, has come on hard times. Overlake Christian Church was booming a decade ago and put up a $37
million building. Now attendance is down by half, it has a mortgage of $9.2 million, and income is way below budget. But it was this that caught my eye: “The church plans to cut back the number of Sunday services. Currently it has four services: two with a contemporary worship style, called Celebration, and two with an edgier, hipper style to appeal to younger churchgoers, called Illuminate.” The choice is between the contemporary and the edgy. And you thought you were bearing your cross by putting up with the guitar at the five o’clock Mass.
• Witness to a Generation, edited by Richard Baepler, is a tribute to John Strietelmeier, who for many years edited The Cresset, a magazine of opinion published by Valparaiso University. Later he was succeeded by James Nuechterlein, who then became editor of First Things until 2004. Strietelmeier’s sharp mind was matched by a fine pen, and the book includes selected writings, including this 1962 editorial titled “On Soaking the Rich.” “We object, on moral grounds,” he wrote, “to denying any man the right to profit from his ingenuity and his industry. . . . The idea of an economically egalitarian society in which no one is very rich and no one is very poor is not at all our idea of Utopia. It seems to us merely a mean manifestation of envy. . . . The good society does not let any considerable proportion of its citizenry subsist on sub-human standards of food, clothing, or shelter. If necessary, it will ‘soak the rich’ to ensure the poor a minimally decent standard of living.
. . . The productive capacity of the United States is so great that we do not need to rob the rich to pay the poor. There are other parts of the world, notably Latin America, where it would seem that there is not enough to go around, and that the concentration of wealth in a few families while millions starve cannot be justified on any moral grounds. If we lived in Brazil, for instance, we would be a socialist, and make no apologies for it. But we live in the United States, where it is not necessary that everybody be poor so that no one need be desperately poor. Socialism in the United States, it seems to us, is not grounded in necessity but ideology, with more than a tinge of envy mixed up in it. Capitalism, too, is shot through with envy, but at least in this country it allows man the moral choice between being generous and being selfish—a choice which socialism makes for him, and thus removes from the sphere of morality.” As Irving Kristol contended fifteen years later in Two Cheers for Capitalism, a book that, I expect, John Strietelmeier, who died in 2004, heartily approved.
• I’ve commented before on those alarmist reports about polls showing that Muslims in this country think of themselves as Muslims, not Americans, first. But of course. The same should be true of any Christian who has thought about the matter. Mohammed Ali Salih, an American journalist working with an Arabic newspaper, puts the matter this way: “I am Muslim first, Arab second, and American third. My relation to God is the core of my identity. It supersedes my relations to nations and peoples and is separate from my citizenship. Before I became a U.S. citizen, pledged allegiance to the Constitution, and carried a U.S. passport, I was a citizen of Sudan, obeyed its rules, and carried its passport. If I become a citizen of, say, China, and follow its rules and carry its passport, my relation to God will still be paramount. I am an Arab second because Arabic is my native tongue and the core of my culture; I think, talk, write, and dream mostly in Arabic. I have a foreign accent (and get tired of people asking me where I came from or to repeat myself, or praising me for speaking ‘good’ English). I don’t know how many innings are in a baseball game, I never played golf, I don’t understand most of Chris Rock’s jokes, and I can’t follow New Yorker-type fast talkers. To me, America inspires love first, allegiance second. My love for America started long before I came here, when I was reading, writing, thinking, and dreaming about America—in Arabic. My religion was never an obstacle; it was, rather, an incentive: dreaming of worshiping God in America the way I wanted, with no restrictions from the oppressive Islamic governments and medieval Shariah scholars. When I speak the words of the Pledge of Allegiance—‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God’—I say to myself, ‘God is paramount here, too.”’ Some eyebrows might be raised about his being Arab second, but that may be a first-generation autobiographical factor. Think of Polish, Italian, German, and other immigrants of former generations. Also, on the adaptation of Muslims to America, it is gratifying to note that the membership of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) is reported to have plummeted from around thirty thousand to a little more than one thousand. CAIR attacked anyone critical of Islam or “excessively” concerned about Jihadism, including this magazine, as being Islamophobic. It is also alleged to have ties with terrorist organizations. CAIR is an organization that will not be missed.
• That invaluable quarterly The Human Life Review has in its current issue an article by James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, about strange doings among exotic varieties of conservatives. “Abortion and the ‘Catholic Right’” puts Catholic Right in quotation marks because, says Hitchcock, it is sometimes hard to distinguish from the far left, both Catholic and other. He focuses on The Wanderer and its breakaway offspring, The Remnant, with particular attention to writers such as Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan, Howard Phillips, and Paul Likoudis. In their virulent detestation of George W. Bush and their condemnation of the Iraq War, these people are, writes Hitchcock, peddling an apocalyptic vision of a capitalist-neoconservative conspiracy that matches the rantings of Marxist and other leftist ideologues. And all this with more than a whiff of the anti-Semitism associated with Fr. Charles Coughlin, who they frequently extol as a hero. Hitchcock notes that a new “conservative” publishing house has brought out a book attacking neoconservatives and containing essays by Buchanan, Sobran, and Likoudis, along with, of all people, Noam Chomsky. The book carries one endorsement by far-left historian Howard Zinn and another by Richard Williamson of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, better known as the Lefebvrists. This may not be a record for strange bedfellowship, but it’s in contention. Moreover, and most pertinent to the mission of Human Life Review (a magazine that once featured prominently the writings of Sobran), this curious coterie on the “Catholic right” has largely given up on the question of abortion and related life issues. For those of sufficiently raised consciousness, it is understood that the Republican party is merely using pro-lifers to perpetuate the neocon-capitalist oppression and is as bad as, if not worse than, the Democrats. Weighing the economic and ideological questions against abortion, writes Hitchcock, they come up with their own version of the “seamless garment” argument employed by many liberal Catholics in order to make abortion a nonissue. And all this, of course, in defense of “authentic” Catholic social doctrine before it was muddled by the likes of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II. Howard Zinn and Joe Sobran locked in common cause. Who would have thought it? Answer: Anyone who understands how extreme alienation desperately seeks company, and any company will do. Sociologists might call it the elective affinity of extremisms. Others might call it bizarre.
• ENDA is back. In reality it never went away. Since 1994 its supporters have been trying, unsuccessfully, to make it the law. ENDA is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 2015). This time around, it prohibits, in addition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, discrimination on the basis of “gender identity.” It also prohibits religious institutions from discriminating on these grounds, exempting only churches, seminaries, and other institutions that have a “primary purpose” of worship and teaching or spreading the faith. Not exempt are a host of religious organizations that are involved in education, health work, and social services—all of which involve important dimensions of worship and evangelization (see Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est on the nature of Christian charity). The first freedom of the First Amendment is the “free exercise of religion.” ENDA would give to the state the power to define the mission of religious organizations. Although with this Congress the measure has more support than it has had in the past, it probably will not become law. Not, at least, if attention is paid.
• Commencement addresses—including, no doubt, some I have given—are often quite forgettable. I would like to think that those who heard Fr. Thomas Hopko’s address at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary this year will not soon forget it. “The first and most important thing,” said Fr. Hopko, “is that we are boundlessly loved by God who blesses us to love Him boundlessly in return.” We know the love of God by the word of the cross ( ho logos tou stavrou), and therefore “theology is stavrology.” We bear the cross, we live the cross, in life together. “The Church—the communion of faith and love (as St. Ignatius of Antioch defined it: henosis agapis kai pisteos), the community of saints who are Christ’s own very ‘members’ as his body and bride—is essential to our human being and life. We cannot be human beings—still less, Christians and saints—by ourselves. We need God and his wise and faithful servants. We need God’s commandments and living examples of their fulfillment. We need the Church’s scriptures, sacraments, services and saints. And we need one another. As Tertullian said centuries ago, ‘One Christian is no Christian.’ And as the Russian proverb puts it, ‘The only thing that a person can do alone is perish.’ Like it or not, we are ‘members of one another’ in God. If we like it, it is life and paradise. If we reject it, it is death and hell.” From which it follows: “Thus, if we have become convinced of anything at all as Orthodox Christians, we are convinced that human beings are not autonomous. The proclamation and defense of human autonomy is the most insidious lie of our day, especially here in North America, and in the Western and Westernized worlds generally. Human beings are by nature heteronomous. Another law ( heteros nomos) is always working in our minds and members. This ‘other law’ is either the law of God, the law of Christ, the law of the Holy Spirit, the law of liberty and life that can only be recognized, received, and realized by holy humility, or it is the law of sin and death (cf. Romans 7-8). When the law within us is God’s law, then we are who we really are, and we are sane and free. But when that law is the law of sin and death, then we are not ourselves, and we are insane, enslaved and sold to sin.” Moving toward his conclusion, Fr. Hopko urges us to read C.S. Lewis’ little book The Abolition of Man. “I am convinced that what Lewis foresaw has happened, and is still happening with ever more catastrophic consequences, in our Western and Westernized worlds. It happens that men and women who once were human are simply no longer so. They have become nothing but minds and matter, brains and bodies, computers and consumers, calculators and copulators, constructers and cloners, who believe that they are free and powerful but who are in fact being destroyed by the very ‘Nature’ that they wish to conquer as they are enslaved to an oligarchy of ‘Conditioners’ who are themselves enslaved and destroyed by their insane strivings to define, design, manage, and manipulate a world and a humanity bereft of the God who boundlessly loves them.” Were the word not so overused, I would say that Fr. Hopko’s commencement address is prophetic. All right, I’ll go ahead and say it: It is prophetic.
• The caste system in India has long been viewed as a moral scandal. An appeal of Christianity in that country, which draws heavily from the lower castes, is its opposition to such blatant discrimination. But the system is deeply entrenched, not least by the politics of victimhood and subsequent entitlement. In regions of northern India this summer, many people have been injured and more than thirty left dead in riots sparked by the Gujjars—a class of farmers and shepherds—who demand that they be consigned to the lowest rung of the hereditary caste system so they can get a larger share of government jobs and university spots “reserved” for such groups. The Gujjar demands are vehemently opposed by the Meena, who are already classified at the bottom and don’t want more competition for the benefits set aside in India’s quota system. In such a circumstance, the social attraction of St. Paul’s promise that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, etc. becomes somewhat more ambiguous.
• You may remember that famous November 1996 symposium on the judicial usurpation of politics, “The End of Democracy?” Many who thought it alarmist at the time, I am glad to say, have come around. But not everybody, by a long shot. In a new book from Princeton University Press, The Judge in Democracy, Aharon Barak writes that “wild and unrestrained criticism of judgments, attacks on the very legitimacy of the judicial decision, recommendations (that are sometimes enacted) to narrow the scope of the courts’ jurisdiction . . . This is the beginning of the end of democracy.” So which is it, the judicial usurpation of politics or efforts to remedy the judicial usurpation of politics that threatens the end of democracy? At least one can agree with Prof. Barak that democracy is a fragile construction and that pondering the prospect of its demise is not alarmist.
• Intellectual stocks rise and fall in ways sometimes as inexplicable as the dizzying gyrations of Wall Street. Jean-Paul Sartre is now remembered, if remembered at all, as something of an embarrassment. His once marmoreal stature, writes Irving Louis Horowitz, was dependent on Soviet power and student protests. Both passed, he passed, and we are left wondering why he mattered so much to so many. It is very different with Raymond Aron. Horowitz’s reflection appears in Political Reason in the Age of Ideology, essays in honor of Aron edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Daniel J. Mahoney and published by Transaction. Horowitz writes: “At the end of the day, better yet, into the dark long night that awaits us all, Aron deserves the last word—both on his friendly rival Sartre, and on what defines the core distinction between the political ideologue and the social philosopher. ‘If we must judge societies according to what they are and not according to what they pretend to be, why should the Communist enterprise be defined by its alleged goal rather than by the regimes to which, temporarily at least, it has given birth?’ He is unsparing in his assault on Sartre and in so doing makes it clear what distinguishes a liberal, democratic society from an illiberal, anarchistic collection. ‘The Sartrian consciousness is solitary, self-translucid, and alienated in matter, and as a result of scarcity, each man becomes the enemy of every other.’ It bears notice that this critical analysis of an anarchist subtext of existentialism was made when Sartre was still at the height of his reputation. Time may not heal all wounds, but it does reveal what is living and what is dead in the carcass of the twentieth-century remnants, a century that bore witness to British principles without corresponding feasible policies and, no less, an American pragmatism too often lacking a firm set of principles. But such dilemmas also opened the way to a facile concept of a ‘New Europe’ that offered less a chance of success than it did open a wedge between Western culture and its enemies.” One may agree on the debilitation of the British lion and on the pernicious role of the “New Europe” while doubting that America’s problem is the trumping of principle by pragmatism. America’s problems in Iraq, to cite the most obvious example, are not believably attributed to a lack of principle. It may be an instance of principle wrongly acted on, but there is principle aplenty. I expect that Aron, were he still with us, would agree.
• Remember the Kosovo War of 1996-1999? It turns out that, in the Albanian-dominated areas of the Balkans that had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire, there were, going back to the seventeenth century, thousands of Catholic Christians who nominally “converted” to Islam but continued to practice their faith surreptitiously. Now these crypto-Catholics, as they are called, are out in the open and building, or rebuilding, the churches in their villages. For a long time, people visited priests secretly, and their baptisms were recorded in closely guarded registries, since there were severe penalties for Muslims receiving Christian sacraments. This resurgence of Christianity is probably not what Sandy Berger, the national security adviser at the time, had in mind when, on May 7, 1996, he spoke to the American Muslim Council, assuring them that President Clinton’s policy in Kosovo was in support of building “a bridge between the United States and the Muslim world.” In the same speech, he said that international terrorism “is a problem many Americans mistakenly link to Islam.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Berger is still baffled by how many Americans continue to make that mistake. As recently reported, Mr. Berger, having put behind him the legal difficulties occasioned by his stealing classified documents, is foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
• When in the late 1980s the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America merged to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), their publishing houses, Augsburg and Fortress respectively, were combined into Augsburg Fortress. It’s been pretty much down hill from there, with many pastors complaining they no longer have confidence in the doctrinal and moral content of AF’s congregational materials, and with the house having a list of some of the flakiest of theological books. Here is an AF press release with the heading “Who Was Jesus, Really?” A really great question. It may launch a whole new scholarly enterprise that perhaps could be called “the quest for the historical Jesus.” The subject of the release is collected essays by James M. Robinson, billed as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Gospel of Q, which is the gospel nobody has read except, presumably, the writers of the other gospels, or maybe just a couple of them. But the Robinson book is standard fare for AF. The reason I mention AF is that the same week there was another release, beginning with, “Today’s New York Times featured an article about Catholic Bishops criticizing the writings of Catholic theologian and ethicist Daniel C. Maguire.” Jumping with alacrity into a little corner of a little spotlight, AF lets us know that they publish Dan Maguire, drawing particular attention to his Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions and listing blurbs praising the book, the first being from Planned Parenthood. The release trumpets Maguire as a “controversial theologian” who has been “denounced” by the Catholic Church. Another Hans Küng! (Hans Küng, it may be remembered, is a Swiss theologian of the latter half of the twentieth century who achieved celebrity by jousting with the Vatican.) You would not believe some of the fine statements the ELCA has adopted on Christian unity, with specific reference to the Catholic Church. Neither do I.
• N. John Hall, a professor of English literature in New York, describes himself as a “contented and cheerful nonbeliever.” One would not know it from his book, Belief: A Memoir, in which he bitterly describes the awfulness of the Catholic Church in which, many years ago, he served as a priest. He hopes that Catholics and other Christians will “leave off superstition and wishful thinking” and join him in his unbelief, and he expresses regret that the Index of Prohibited Books has been eliminated, because he would like to think that “this book would have made the list.” I don’t know why it would have, since it is entirely in keeping with the very sensible teaching of the Church that somebody who does not believe in God should not be a priest.
• A more comprehensive reflection on the current state of the jihadist challenge is in the works, but permit me a word about Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism and responses to it. As I have explained here, I don’t think Islamofascism is the best term to describe the enemy (November 2006). Of course there are, going back to the middle of the last century, fascist influences in the formation of today’s radicalized Islam, but Jihadism is better as a term derived from the terrorists’ own vocabulary and self-understanding. To be sure, there are Muslims, no doubt the great majority of Muslims, who mean by jihad a peaceful and spiritual struggle, but they are not the ones we have to be worried about. And I’m not sure that it is helpful to call this struggle World War IV. In part because, and not without reason, most people do not think of the Cold War as World War III, and, in larger part, because both the Cold War and the present struggle are wars very different from the two world wars. That having been said, World War IV is a valuable contribution for several reasons. It is a convincing and sobering argument that a formidable enemy is at war with us, and therefore we are at war. This is the point made also by the former commander in Iraq, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, in a much-publicized speech in October. The media picked up on his describing the war as “catastrophic” but mainly ignored his indictment of the media for refusing to recognize that we are, in fact, at war. World War IV is also valuable for its naming of the names and quoting of the quotes of those who seem determined to deny that reality or undermine America’s response to it. Of course the book is polemical. Podhoretz is a master polemicist, and as such he exposes the fatuities, dishonesties, and wishful thinking that obscure a clear understanding of the present conflict. World War IV is a tract for the times that should not be dismissed as alarmist, as some reviewers are manifestly eager to do. Norman Podhoretz is surely right that we are in for a “long struggle.” This is not Bush’s war. It is America’s war, and the war of all whom the Jihadists have targeted as Christian and Jewish infidels. I hope that Podhoretz’s depiction of the struggle is excessively grim, but hoping does not make it so.
• The subheading of the essay in Boston College Magazine (Winter 2007) reads: “Boston College used to be called a Jesuit University. Why should we now call it Jesuit and Catholic?” The most obvious answer is that, once upon a time, everybody knew that Jesuit meant Catholic. But, that aside, it is a thoughtful essay by Fr. Michael J. Buckley, S.J., based on an address to the board of trustees of Boston College. Before the Second Vatican Council, Buckley says, Catholic colleges and universities were “custodial” institutions. The goal was “the formation of faithful, catechetically orthodox Catholics who were good Americans.” Buckley does not despise what was done then. “The Church in the United States,” he writes, “stands deeply indebted to those early institutions. At their best, they transmitted the books, tradition, spirit, and culture of generations richer than their own.” Then the troubles began. “A fatal internal contradiction eventually emerged in many of the custodial universities. Dogmatic commitments were read as if in tension with the defining orientation of the university toward open, free discussion and unhampered research and argument in a setting where all forms of human knowledge and serious opinion have a place. It is this tension that Catholic educators have attempted to negotiate over the past fifty years—sometimes at great personal cost and misunderstanding.” The cost was made much steeper by those institutions that resolved the “tension” by declaring their independence from accountability to the Church. “I would contend,” writes Buckley, “that the Catholic university is part of the universal Church, one of the manifest subcommunities in which the Church visibly exists.” That is a suggestive statement deserving of further development. The Catholic university, he says, is different because it very determinedly includes what other universities exclude—those questions called “religious” and engaging metaphysics, the history of ideas, and theology in order to “integrate what it means to hear the great promise of the Gospel: ‘I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’” After decades of confusion about what it means to be a Catholic university, with many institutions no longer even seriously asking the question, many may read Fr. Buckley’s essay with a strong dose of skepticism. But it represents, I believe, a hopeful, if tentative, effort to make the case—as I discussed in “A University of a Particular Kind” (April)—that a Christian university need not choose between being a university and being Christian. Or, for that matter, being Jesuit.
• A priest on Long Island tells me that, when he was newly ordained, he had the chance to visit with the legendary Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was famed for, among other things, winning many converts to the Catholic Church. Sheen was in the hospital and, as it turned out, on his deathbed. “Archbishop Sheen,” my friend said, “I have come for your counsel. I want to be a convert-making priest like you. I’ve already won fifteen people to the faith. What is your advice?” Sheen painfully pushed himself up on his elbows from his reclining position and looked my friend in the eye. “The first thing to do,” he said, “is to stop counting.”
• Robert L. Millet is a very thoughtful and engaging ambassador for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He’s not an official ambassador, to be sure, but he has taken it on himself to initiate conversations with diverse Christian leaders and communities in order to advance a better understanding of Mormonism. He has recently published a book of considerable interest, The Vision of Mormonism: Pressing the Boundaries of Christianity (Paragon). Millet was a longtime dean at Brigham Young University, and, while he doesn’t speak officially for the LDS, he is at pains to represent accurately the beliefs and practices of that community. In the March 2000 issue, I wrote a reflection titled “Is Mormonism Christian?” meaning by Christian the traditions that adhere to, for instance, the Nicene Creed. I answer the question in the negative, while affirming that individual Mormons can be Christians. Mormonism is undoubtedly, as Millet says, on “the boundaries of Christianity.” Whether it is on the boundaries attacking Christianity, subverting Christianity, attempting to displace Christianity, or accommodating itself to Christianity is the subject of continuing dispute. Quite apart from the candidacy of Mitt Romney, Mormonism is rightly receiving more attention. To those who are looking for an irenic presentation of Mormon faith and life, I recommend Robert Millet’s The Vision of Mormonism.
• Brothers and sisters in Christ, as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” declares us to be, might together be saddened by the dramatic decline in Christian faith and practice in Ireland. Not at all, says a story in Christianity Today. On the contrary, the fact that twenty years ago eight of ten people attended Mass every week in Ireland and now less than half do has created “an opportunity for evangelicals.” The Evangelical Alliance of Ireland reports that the number of evangelical Protestants has tripled, from 10,000 in 1980 to 30,000 in 2006, although they’re still less than 1 percent of the population. Says an evangelical spokesman: “In general, the deep Catholic-Protestant divisions that shaped recent Irish history have become less important in an increasingly secular, post-Christendom, consumerist society. The virtual collapse of old Ireland has given much more space. Everyone has a voice and a place, and this is a good time to be an evangelical in Ireland.” No doubt the old divisions were sometimes pretty nasty, made nastier by Protestantism’s connection with the English. But it is a perverse notion of both Christian unity and evangelization that leads evangelicals to hail as a great opportunity the picking of the bones of Catholic Ireland. (The Christianity Today story is titled “Ireland’s Evangelical Moment.”)
• Apparently Hallmark does not provide greetings to send a woman upon having an abortion. The felt need for such is being met by Exhale, a San Francisco-based postabortion talk line. Aspen Baker, founder of Exhale, explains that abortion is a “stigmatized issue.” She notes that there are greeting cards for marking divorce, successful potty-training, and “half birthdays,” but there are none for abortion. Exhale’s electronic greeting cards range from the general—for instance, “As you grieve, remember that you are loved”—to the more explicitly religious: “God will never leave you nor forsake you.” In addition, Exhale is planning a magazine that will have stories, poems, letters, and rituals by and for women who have had abortions. Thirty years ago, prominent pro-abortionists predicted the disappearance of stigma and the acceptance of abortion as being no more morally problematic than fingernail clipping. Some things in human nature are irrepressible, you might well say, but there are also deep cultural differences. In Japan, for instance, things are done differently. Thousands of Japanese women visit temples every year to bring baby clothes, cookies, toys, and other offerings to their mizugo. The mizugo is a baby removed from the watery warmth of the womb by miscarriage or abortion. It is a “water baby,” and mizugo ni suru means to have an abortion. In temples there are thousands upon thousands of little statues representing water babies. Whole families, including siblings of the dead child, make visits, often pinning notes to the statues, signed by all the family members and expressing gratitude to the water baby. Many homes also have a shrine honoring the missing. Buddhists, believing in reincarnation, think the baby will have another chance, or many chances, at a better life. They do not have to work at convincing themselves that the baby was not a baby. The government agency that certifies abortionists in Japan is called the Motherhood Protection Association. In America it is very different. Thanks to Exhale, you can send an electronic greeting card: “As you grieve, remember that you are loved.” It is always in order to assure people that they are loved. That it is now assumed, also by some pro-abortion advocates, that there is a someone to grieve over is a fact not untouched by reasons for hope.
• That splendid quarterly published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the New Atlantis, asked David Hart, no stranger to these pages, to reflect on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Those who have read Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite will not be surprised that his essay is something of a tour de force. There is, for instance, this on what is meant when we speak about the soul: “It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul—whether we believe in the soul or not—as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may ‘enter’ the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the ‘living soul’ of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul II makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the ‘form of the body’: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a ‘mere’ physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.”
• In the most recent statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “That They May Have Life,” we do our best to establish a common discourse with those who reject the biblical understanding of the human. It is important for the sake of our public life to try to do that. But in the abovementioned essay by David Hart we are reminded that the attempt can be carried only so far. At some point we come up against an opposed understanding of the human that is patently false and, therefore, evil. Hart writes: “The materialist who wishes to see modern humanity’s Baconian mastery over cosmic nature expanded to encompass human nature as well—granting us absolute power over the flesh and what is born from it, banishing all fortuity and uncertainty from the future of the race—is someone who seeks to reach the divine by ceasing to be human, by surpassing the human, by destroying the human. It is a desire both fantastic and depraved: a diseased titanism, the dream of an infinite passage through monstrosity, a perpetual and ruthless sacrifice of every present good to the featureless, abysmal, and insatiable god who is to come. For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise. To the one, a Down-syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed. It may well be that the human is an epoch, in some sense. The idea of the infinite value of every particular life does not accord with instinct, as far as one can tell, but rather has a history. The ancient triumph of the religion of divine incarnation inaugurated a new vision of man, however fitfully and failingly that vision was obeyed in subsequent centuries. Perhaps this notion of an absolute dignity indwelling every person—this Christian invention or discovery or convention—is now slowly fading from our consciences and will finally be replaced by something more ‘realistic’ (which is to say, something more nihilistic). Whatever the case, John Paul’s theology of the body will never, as I have said, be ‘relevant’ to the understanding of the human that lies ‘beyond’ Christian faith. Between these two orders of vision there can be no fruitful commerce, no modification of perspectives, no debate, indeed no ‘conversation.’ All that can ever span the divide between them is the occasional miraculous movement of conversion or the occasional tragic movement of apostasy. Thus the legacy of that theology will be to remain, for Christians, a monument to the grandeur and fullness of their faith’s ‘total humanism,’ so to speak, to remind them how vast the Christian understanding of humanity’s nature and destiny is, and to inspire them—whenever they are confronted by any philosophy, ethics, or science that would reduce any human life to an instrumental moment within some larger design—to a perfect and unremitting enmity.”
• In the April 2005 issue, I expressed reasons for concern about David Gelernter’s argument in a Commentary essay that “Americanism” is a religion that we Americans, and the whole world, should embrace. Now Gelernter has expanded his argument into a book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (Doubleday). How do I like the book? Let me count the ways. Gelernter is a vigorous writer with a finely honed polemical edge. He is rightly determined to counter the secularist revisionists who have for decades been trying to airbrush religion out of the portrait of our national experience. He accents the incorrigibility of America’s sense of providential purpose. He makes suggestive links between styles of presidential leadership, from Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Truman, Reagan, and George W. Bush. And he offers his own revisionist schematization of modern history, including the intriguing suggestion that Vietnam was for America what World War I was for Europe. These are among the things that make Americanism an interesting read. But I regret to say that the book is finally the victim of its hyperbole and definitional confusions. Americanism is patriotism on crack.
• Gelernter is insistent that Americanism really is a religion. It is never made entirely clear why it is the fourth great Western religion. There is Judaism and Christianity, of course. Then he discusses at length Puritanism, a form of “Old Testament Christianity,” which transmogrified into Americanism under the genius of Abraham Lincoln. So maybe Puritanism is the third great religion. But at other points it is suggested that the appeasement, pacifism, and moral nihilism of Europe is a rival religion, although Gelernter certainly does not think it is “great.” Never mind, the point he drives home again and again is that Americanism is a religion, and it is the greatest of religions. It is a world religion that is believed in by innumerable people who are not themselves Americans. It is not simply the “civic religion” of America but a “biblical religion” with its own “new scriptures,” such as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Of this new religion, Gelernter writes, “Most did not believe in America as if it were God, but did believe as if America had chosen a divine mission and had the means to carry it out.” Atheists may not believe in God, but they believe in Americanism. At several points the author takes a stab at defining the new religion. “The idea that liberty, equality, and democracy were ordained by God for all mankind, and that America is a new promised land richly blessed by and deeply indebted to God—that is Americanism.” Elsewhere we come across a more modest definition: “The American Religion is traditional religion’s response to modern political reality. It is an extension to the structure of Judaism or Christianity, an extra room out back.” But then, reading on, we are told, “The American Creed combined with American Zionism yielded a full-blown American belief system.” American Zionism is Gelernter’s phrase for the Hebraic character of American Puritanism, and Protestantism more generally. That Hebraic character of the American founding is described in greater detail and with greater nuance by Michael Novak in On Two Wings. One has to wonder how Americanism is a “full-blown belief system.” At points Gelernter seems to be saying it is a further development of a very Jewish form of Christianity under the guidance of Lincoln (“the greatest religious figure of modern centuries”), and at other times it appears as a displacement of Christianity. “America emerged as something to believe in, a spiritual concept to have faith in just as you might believe in Christianity.” “When you speak of Americanism, the church is the nation; the congregation is every citizen.” There is little to object to in the claim that “the American Religion is traditional religion’s response to modern political reality”—except for the author’s insistence that the response constitutes a new religion. A response is just that, a response. Americanism concludes with this: “The next great American religious revival will start, my guess is, on college campuses—and it will start fairly soon.” The prospect of young people embracing the high promise and responsibility that attends the American experiment is to be warmly welcomed. The prospect of their embracing Americanism as their religion is idolatry, as Jews and Christians who have a religion should have no difficulty in recognizing.
• In 1995 there was Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and now Ron Sider has come out with The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. His point is that most evangelicals are not living up to the faith they profess. John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver, is not as scandalized as Sider thinks he should be. Writing in Books & Culture, Stackhouse notes the definitional problems in deciding who counts as an evangelical and how Sider’s use of the term would include many who do not ordinarily think of themselves as evangelicals, such as Catholics. “Such a set of criteria,” Stackhouse writes, “ought to speed things up for the [evangelical] beatification of John Paul II.” Yes, says Stackhouse, many who say they are evangelicals are selfish and racist and prone to fornicate and get divorced much like non-evangelicals. But then he asks: “What is it, then, that Sider and his sources have actually found? I think they have found that American evangelicalism is a victim of its own success. Evangelicalism spread far and wide across the American landscape in the 19th century. And this spread has meant a twofold problem for any Siderian comparison of ‘evangelicals’ and ‘society.’ First, American society has been largely shaped by evangelical, or at least by broadly Christian, values, from the time of the Puritans. So we should expect at least a rough similarity in values between even token believers and the most observant—which scale takes in the vast majority of Americans. It is not as if we were comparing evangelicals in a society with, say, nominal communists (as in China) or quasi-Shintoist, quasi-Buddhist secularists (as in Japan), or so-called animists (as in much of Africa). Second, because evangelicalism is, in fact, the ‘mainline’ in the South and is common in many other parts of the country, we should expect quite a range of degrees of adherence. That is, we’re not living in a binary situation: ‘in’ or ‘out,’ ‘us versus them,’ first-generation evangelicals boldly striking out in a new religious direction versus a religiously hollow society, but in a multigenerational sedimentation such that evangelicalism is the inherited ‘default’ religion of many millions. The mere fact that someone tells a pollster that she is an ‘evangelical,’ or answers correctly a few questions of generic evangelical confession, doesn’t say much about how authentically evangelical is her piety—in intensity, clarity, or extent.” Christians in general don’t live the way they should, but, says Stackhouse, this is not a peculiarly evangelical problem. “It’s the same problem that faced pastors in medieval Europe or that faces them in Latin America today: so much nominal Christianity, so little educated and observant Christianity.” But, in response to Sider’s call for a church of super-saints, Stackhouse concludes with this: “So by all means let us, with Brother Sider, ‘Lift High the Cross.’ And let us invite everyone to come, drawing them closer as best we can.” The title of Stackhouse’s latest book (Oxford 2008) does not come as a complete surprise: Making the Best of It: Christian Discipleship in the Real World.
• Fr. George Tavard has died, stricken at age eighty-five while waiting for a flight at a Paris airport. He was a remarkable man. I first got to know him at the 1975 meeting that produced “The Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation.” Perhaps the last thing he wrote was the foreword to the third volume of the selected writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, my revered teacher at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Tavard was, along with Piepkorn, in on the Lutheran-Roman Catholic theological dialogue from the beginning, and he continued in that role until his death on August 13. He never held a major academic post but was the model of irenic orthodoxy in helping to shape the best of the ecumenical endeavor mandated by the Second Vatican Council. May choirs of angels sing him to that place where unity in truth is finally and perfectly achieved.
• I haven’t gone back to count, but I don’t think there have been many times when I have claimed that a publication simply must be in every Catholic library—parish, high school, college, and university. One such book is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2004 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. And now there is the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy, edited by Michael L. Coulter et al., and published in two volumes by Scarecrow Press and pegged at the admittedly steep price of $150. (It’s less on Amazon.) Its almost two thousand pages are chock-full of entries on almost every aspect imaginable of the subjects promised by the title, all written in a manner that is faithful to, but not limited to, magisterial teaching. The Compendium aims to present the doctrine itself; the Encyclopedia, on the other hand, illuminates the ways in which the doctrine is being applied, debated, and developed. While the first is by its nature universal, the Encyclopedia is particularly attentive to schools of thought, persons, and controversies pertinent to North America. I have not, to be sure, read the entire two volumes, but I have done some extended fishing about in it and am impressed by its scholarly diligence, fairness, and lucidity. The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy should be warmly welcomed by Catholics and others who want to understand both what the Church teaches and how that teaching is being interpreted and applied.
• Albert C. Outler, who died in 1989 at age eighty-one, personified the best that is associated with the word gentleman. He was also a splendid scholar, teacher, preacher, and interlocutor in ecumenical discussion. Teaching for many years at Southern Methodist University, he was surely the foremost Methodist theologian of his time. I regret that I knew him but slightly, but a little time with him left a deep impression. Which is good reason to welcome the publication of Albert C. Outler: The Gifted Dilettante by Bob W. Parrott (Bristol Books). I spoke at an event at SMU many years ago, and Outler offered the invocation. He prayed, “Keep us, Lord, from the love that deceives and from the candor that wounds.” I have not always lived up to those words, but I have never forgotten them.
• “In this unconvincing book . . .” With those sniffingly dismissive opening words, Publishers Weekly reviews the forthcoming Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (Doubleday). We are informed that the authors “argue that the embryo has the capacity to develop into a rational being.” These questions, says the reviewer, “continue to provoke controversy in relation to abortion as well as embryo research.” I doubt there is much controversy about whether the reviewer was once an embryo and is now a rational, albeit misguided, being. The resistance to clear thinking about these questions no longer astonishes. The historian of American religion, Martin E. Marty, is impressed by Garry Wills’ discussion in his new book Head and Heart: American Christianities. (At the risk of spoiling the suspense, Mr. Wills’ Christianity, in contrast to that of his conservative opponents, is one in which the heart is informed by the head.) Wills triumphantly points out that the Bible does not mention abortion and Thomas Aquinas “denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen.” Thomas hadn’t mastered modern biology and obstetrics? This is deeply disillusioning. People who claim to be pro-life are inconsistent, says Wills. “My hair is human life,” he notes, yet nobody wants to protect it from the barber. Now why didn’t I think of that? From such fatuities one turns with appreciation to Embryo by George and Tollefsen. The persuasiveness of their carefully, even scrupulously, reasoned case is enhanced by the generosity with which they engage counterarguments. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard has said that, after long thought, he has arrived at the conclusion that “everybody’s position on abortion is the right position.” Presumably, Mr. Dershowitz, who is known as a very smart lawyer, does not believe in the law of noncontradiction. The great difficulty is in getting people to really think about abortion. There is, for instance, this dreadful muddle about “consciousness.” If only people would think through the fact, and the unavoidable implications of the fact, that the I that thinks and says I is the same I that once could not think and say I. George and Tollefsen are models of rational exactitude in debunking every form of mind-body, soul-body dualism. They write: “So animalism—the view that we are, essentially, human beings, members of the species Homo sapiens—is not only true, but not really in tension with the view that we are also persons. The persons that we are, are not entities separated from our animal bodies; we are neither independent minds, spirits, nor brains. Rather these particular individuals . . . are themselves persons, have always been persons, and will cease being persons only when we cease to be, by dying.” The authors assiduously avoid invoking explicitly theological or religious arguments. While their brief is informed by the history of philosophical reflection, their argument rests on the rational capacity of human beings to think clearly. Embryo: A Defense of Human Life is a luminous achievement. Not that it will persuade Garry Wills, Allan Dershowitz, and others whose certitudes are protected by an insouciant relativism that excuses them from engaging in rational argument.
• The “Christmas wars” go international, and interreligious. In the Turkish Daily News, Mustafa Akyol writes that “Turkey’s secular class adopted Christmas long ago simply because it was, for them, something western and thus cool.” Their observance, however, is devoid of religious significance, consisting of “crazy parties” with heavy drinking, gambling, belly dancing, and strip shows. This is much deplored by Islamists. In the publication of the Saadet party, which organized the public protests against Pope Benedict’s visit last year, Santa Claus is depicted as a demonic agent bent on corrupting the purity of Islam. Then there is Niyazi Oktem, president of the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, who sees no problem with “the real Christmas.” After all, he says, “Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and that’s fine because Jesus is a revered prophet in Islam.” Perhaps Mr. Oktem could have a word with the ACLU.
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Indian castes, AP, June 7; Salih in Baltimore Sun, June 13/CAIR in Washington Times June 12; Kosovo Christians in Religion Watch, March 2007; Megachurch in Seattle Times, March 25; Maguire in AF release, March 23; evangelicals in Ireland, Christianity Today, March 14; David Hart in the New Atlantis, Summer 2005; Stackhouse in Books & Culture, July/August 2007; Marty and Wills on University of Chicago webpage, October 10; Turkey and Christmas in Turkish Daily News, December 15, 2006; “The ?Antisecular Front Revisited: Reflections on Catholics and Politics in Hitler’s Germany,” Pro Ecclesia 16, no. 2: 141-64, Villanova Law Review, vol. 52 (2007): 253-79.