Saved in Hope: Benedict’s Second Encyclical
“Spe salvi facti sumus—in hope we were saved. So says Saint Paul to the Romans, and also to us (Rom. 8:24).” That’s the opening of Pope Benedict’s second encyclical. John Allen, a typically thoughtful reporter on all things Catholic, says the encyclical is a replay of “Ratzinger’s Greatest Hits.” That is both flippant and inaccurate. True, there are themes that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the work of Ratzinger-Benedict over the years, and, as one would expect from a pope, the document draws deeply from Scripture and the Church’s tradition. What would one expect? That the pope would produce an updated version of the gospel to tickle the palate of our neophiliac culture?
I confess, however, that it took several careful readings to appreciate the freshness of this representation of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). But first a word on his choice of the subject of hope. Benedict’s first encyclical was Deus Caritas Est—God is love. Faith, hope, and love are the three “theological virtues,” meaning that they are the gift of grace, in contrast to the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. One might expect that Benedict was working his way backward through the theological virtues, with the first encyclical on love, the second on hope, and a later on faith. But no: His argument is that hope is faith disposed toward the future, and making all the difference in the present.
As one has come to expect of this teacher, the new encyclical is marked by a relentless intellectual acuity joined to a penetrating devotional intensity. I will not attempt to summarize here the entirety of the argument. The encyclical opens with the claim that “a distinguishing mark of Christians is the fact that they have a future.” They do not know the details of that future, but they know that “their life will not end in emptiness.” This truth is both “informative” and “performative.” That is to say, it is life-changing. “The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open.”
Pertinent both to the argument and to current affairs, Benedict refers to St. Josephine Bakhita of Darfur in Sudan, who was canonized by John Paul II. She was enslaved and later discovered a new master in Christ, and so was given the gift of hope. “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me,” she said, “I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Benedict emphasizes redemption as being bought back, and brought back, from slavery. “Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution,” he writes, but a message that “changed society from within.” He cites Paul’s words to Philemon on how Onesimus, the slave, is now his brother. Christians, the pope underscores, are pilgrims who live in the present but understand it is an exile from their true home, which is anticipated in the “new society” that is the Church.
In Colossians 2, Paul contrasts life “according to Christ” with slavery under the “elemental spirits of the universe.” Benedict cites St. Gregory Nazianzen, who said that, when the Magi followed the star to the newborn king, “astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ.” Slavery to the “elemental spirits” has reappeared in our time, however, with the claim that the laws of matter ultimately govern the world. To which Benedict says, “It is not the laws of matter and evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person.”
Hebrews chapter eleven says that faith is the “substance” of things hoped for. The reference, Benedict insists, is to substance, rather than, as in the translation by Luther and a current translation approved by the German bishops, to inner conviction. Faith is not just reaching out for what is now absent but provides a “proof” of what is now unseen. “Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’” “It is the expectation of things to come from the perspective of a present that is already given. It is a looking forward in Christ’s presence, with Christ who is present, to the perfecting of his Body, to his definitive coming.” It is obviously not an accident that this encyclical was issued on the eve of the First Sunday of Advent, with its orientation to the future and the promised coming of Christ in glory.
What is to come is eternal life, but eternal life is not this life continued indefinitely. “To continue living forever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift.” Again and again, Benedict invokes St. Augustine, reflecting how very much he is an Augustinian. (Thomas Aquinas gets only one mention in more than sixty pages of text, and then with a reference to his “using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged.” In a break from the encyclical pattern of recent decades, the Second Vatican Council does not get even one reference, as there is also no reference to earlier papal texts.)
We do not know the eternal life for which we hope, says Benedict. “All we know is that it is not this.” Then this from Augustine: “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance ( docta ignorantia), so to speak.” We do not know this true life, this ultimate happiness, writes Benedict, “and yet we know that there must be something we do not know toward which we feel driven.” “The term ‘eternal life’ is intended to give a name to this known ‘unknown.’” He takes a poetic stab at description: “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists.” Such a moment is “a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed by joy.” Such a hope is responsive to the words of Jesus, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
Here and elsewhere, the pope employs the via negativa—the way of knowing by what we do not know. The encyclical discusses in some detail the tragically unsatisfactory ways in which the world has tried to satisfy the irrepressible hope that belongs to being human, citing Francis Bacon’s proposed conquest of nature and Karl Marx’s utopian goal of the kingdom of freedom. In various forms, “faith in progress” became a new religion. Benedict calls Immanuel Kant, of all people, to the witness stand in making the case that trying to build the “Kingdom of God” without God leads to the “perverse end” of all things. Modernity is based on reason and freedom, both gifts of God, and there has indeed been much incremental progress in the rational and technical mastery of nature. But moral progress, the realm of freedom, is a quite different matter:
“Yet in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation [incremental progress] for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning. Naturally, new generations can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before . . . but they can also reject it, because it can never be self-evident in the same way as material inventions. . . . Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of the good will never be definitively established in this world. . . . If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—i.e., good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.
“Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. . . . It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. . . . In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (cf. Ephesians 2:12).”
“All serious and upright human conduct,” says Benedict, “is hope in action.” Without the great hope inspired by the gospel, efforts to improve the world end up in either despair or fanaticism. Then follows a reflection on the ties between hope, love, and suffering. “To accept the ‘other’ who suffers means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also.” He notes in an aside that “consolation,” from the Latin consolatio, indicates how the solitude of the sufferer is overcome by love. Bernard of Clairvaux is quoted: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis, which is translated as “God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with.” There follows an excursus on the wisdom of the neglected popular piety associated with “offering up” daily hardships.
The latter part of the encyclical is devoted to the question of theodicy, although the word is not used. Christian depictions of the Last Judgment frequently instill dread, but the Last Judgment is also a statement of hope—of hope that justice will prevail. “The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God.” Without God, man must establish justice. This false idea, says Benedict, “has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice.” Then this: “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.”
This leads to an assertion that is striking in its bluntness: “For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope. . . . I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.”
Even were it possible to build a perfectly just social order some time in the future—and all our experience tells us this is a calamitous delusion—it would not be justice for those living now, nor for the countless millions who have suffered unjustly in the past. To retain our humanity, we must not accept the possibility that the injustice of history is the final word. Only the Last Judgment will serve. In this connection, Benedict discusses the inescapability, along with the limits, of our thinking about heaven, hell, and purgatory. Inescapable because justice demands a balancing of the scales; limited because we must express in language what we believe in language, and language falls so far short of the promised reality.
Throughout this reflection runs an intricate dialectic of justice and grace. “If it were only grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were only justice, in the end it could bring only fear to all of us. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two—judgment and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12). Nevertheless, grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustingly to meet the Judge whom we know as our ‘advocate’ or ‘paraclete’ (cf. 1 John 2:1).”
At every step of the way, our hope for salvation is a communal hope, and Benedict quotes John Donne’s “no man is an island, entire of itself.” Toward the end, Mary is invoked, as has become the custom with papal encyclicals. She is the exemplar of hope, and the letter concludes with this: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!”
One may respectfully suggest that the Holy Father could do with a good editor. The encyclical is much longer than it needs to be, which will discourage its being widely read by the faithful. There are scholarly discussions of etymological and other questions that are better suited for the classroom. They could be consigned to footnotes or ignored altogether. There should be someone who could gently but effectively remind the pope that an encyclical is addressed to the universal Church, not to a conference of theologians. That the pope is such a distinguished scholar is a great gift to the Church, but in this, as in the first encyclical, one has to wonder whether the right balance has been struck between the professor and the pastor.
In night hours and in times snatched between the myriad appointments of the day, Benedict sits alone at his desk, writing and writing. He is ever the teacher, a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven . . . who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Hence the first two encyclicals; hence the compellingly erudite lectures at public audiences; hence the first and promised second volume of Jesus of Nazareth. It is said that this pontificate represents a return to the basics of Christian faith and life, and there is truth in that. More strikingly, it represents an appeal for the modern world to recognize that its achievements cannot be sustained apart from the authentic humanism of Christian faith. To date, and with few exceptions, those who control the commanding heights of culture have not engaged, or even deigned to notice, his efforts. Undaunted, he returns to the task again and again, writing and speaking in most intimate communion with St. Paul and St. Augustine, proposing to the world “a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).
American Preeminence, for Better and for Worse
Michael Northcott, professor of ethics at the University of Edinburgh, illustrates the embarrassing silliness of so much of the contemporary professoriate. In New Blackfriars, Northcott tells us that fear is being marketed to us by the Bush and Blair (now Brown) administrations under the brand name “war on terror.” By Northcott’s accounting, the Bush-Cheney cabal promotes a “discourse of fear” in order to “sustain an atmosphere of fear in the United States” so that “corporate sponsors” can reap profits and maintain power. “The brand the ‘war on terror’ creates the illusion,” Northcott writes, “that the United States is engaged in a global war with a range of enemies who include Islamists, anti-globalisation activists, environmental and animal rights activists.”
But we can’t see this, of course, because we have been duped by that “discourse of fear.” We can’t see that all those controversial policies developed by the Bush and Blair administrations were not really put forward in good faith as efforts to protect American and British citizens from repeated terrorist attacks. Quite the contrary, as Northcott’s discourse about discourse asserts, it’s all for the sake of a global imperialism that wants to, well, rape, pillage, destroy, and dominate. The nuance underwhelms.
Sanity does intrude for a moment. Northcott cannot sustain his illusion that our enemies are illusions. It’s difficult to show how the dead bodies in New York and London were produced by “discourse.” Terrorism exists. But silliness returns: The deaths are our fault. “Far from reducing the risk of terrorist attacks,” Northcott writes, “the ‘war on terror’ has actually advanced both the fear and the reality of terror and violence.” So it’s not that discourse creates dead bodies. That’s much too simplistic. Rather, discourse makes people into our enemies, and then they attack us. “Even the Foreign Office,” Northcott informs us, “now believes that the rhetoric of ‘war on terror’ has advanced Islamic hostility toward Britain around the world.” If only we had adopted a less confrontational approach.
The logic seems flawless. If you refuse to call anybody an enemy, then, by golly, you won’t have any enemies. This moral and cultural appeasement has been a longtime strategy of the capitulatory left. Faced with evil, they redefine it as cultural difference. As Patrick Moynihan observed, the left tends to handle social problems by defining deviancy down. Northcott simply applies this Alice-in-Wonderland approach to international affairs.
For centuries, ordinary folks have made fun of bookish dons and abstracted professors. We call the university the Ivory Tower because we sense that an expertise in ideas often has little to do with competence in reality. In the old days, the professors were serene in their splendid isolation. One could admire their brilliance while making gentle fun of their irrelevance. Today we see a much less appealing professorial personality at large: someone who dresses up ill-informed political diatribes in the finery of “discourse analysis” and publishes them in what were formerly thought of as scholarly journals. It’s a double shame. A shame that the academy looks so transparently and unthinkingly partisan. A shame that people who are paid to give patient thought to the genuinely difficult moral questions forgo their intellectual duty and give us breezy speculations about “discourse” and “rhetoric” instead of close analysis of policy intentions, actions, and consequences.
Robert Kagan is no postmodern professor. “Many prefer to believe the world is in turmoil not because it is in turmoil,” he writes in Policy Review, “but because Bush made it so by destroying the new hopeful era.” That pretty much sums up Prof. Northcott’s fantasies. This view has the distinct liability of not being true. From Russia to Iran, from China to Sudan, from the remote reaches of Pakistan to the troubled streets of Cairo, the crooked timber of humanity (Kant) has ensured that new conflicts spring up to replace the old Cold War challenges. As of this writing, the “surge” in Iraq seems to be working, the “intelligence community” that a while back told us that Iran is on the edge of having a nuclear weapon now tells us with the same “high confidence” that it isn’t true, and the New York Philharmonic has agreed to play in North Korea. So there is a period of relative quiet. Be sure it will not last.
Conflict of various levels of intensity in the “politics among nations” (Hans Morgenthau) is the permanent state of affairs. As Kagan points out, the “so-called Bush Doctrine” marks no break with past American policy. “Since 1945,” he writes, “Americans have insisted on acquiring and maintaining military supremacy, a ‘preponderance of power’ in the world rather than a balance of power with other nations.” Presidents from Truman through Clinton “operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory.” Kagan notes that this consensus, which was both militaristic and idealistic, often irritated our European allies in the past. One recalls the long history of French efforts to soften the contrasts between East and West, as well as the German popular resistance to President Reagan’s deployment of Pershing missiles.
In short, all the features of the Bush doctrine— preemptive military action, promotion of democracy, so-called regime change, unilateralism—were much practiced in the decades after World War II, and Kagan seriously doubts that the administration that takes office in 2009 will approach international affairs differently. There is one main reason why: America is very powerful, and it is hard to imagine that the American public will elect a president who does not genuinely believe in the humanizing potential of democracy. Power plus patriotism will ensure a forceful American global presence. All the major powers—China, Russia, and the E.U.—continue to plan and act under the presumption of American dominance. In spite of endless griping and challenges around the edges, writes Kagan, “much of the world continues to tolerate and even lend support to American geopolitical primacy if only as a protection against more worrying foes.” There are dramatically different views on how the Bush administration has handled, or mishandled, that primacy but—moments of crisis, tomorrow’s polls, and this year’s election campaigns notwithstanding—American preeminence, with all the problems attending American preeminence, is a fact of life for as far as anyone can see into the future.
Islam and Christianity: Changing the Subject
After Pope Benedict’s historic address on faith and reason at Regensburg University on September 12, 2006, a group of thirty-eight prominent Muslims from diverse schools of thought wrote him a letter in the hope of arriving at “mutual understanding.” The thirty-eight grew to 138, and this past October 13 they addressed a second letter to the pope and an array of other Christian leaders. The letter is titled “A Common Word Between Us and You” and calls for theological and doctrinal dialogue based on the dual commandment of love for God and neighbor.
The October letter received rave reviews in the mainline media of the West, with John Esposito, a scholar of Islam at Georgetown University, declaring it a “historic event” that puts the ball in the Vatican’s court. A group at Yale Divinity School composed a letter in response, “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” and solicited about three hundred signers for its full-page publication in the New York Times of November 13.
The Yale letter lavishes praise on the initiative of the 138 and is almost gushing in its gratitude for the expression of Muslim goodwill. The 138 had written: “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them, and drive them out of their homes.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers, most of whom are Christian, have waged war against fighters who are Muslim, but not on account of their religion. Unless, of course, the 138 agree with al-Qaeda that the Jihadists are indeed fighting in the cause of Islam.
The response of the Yale letter is very, well, very Christian. Very Christian, that is, in the way that Nietzsche caricatured Christianity as the supine morality of losers. The letter says: “Since Jesus Christ says: ‘First take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye,’ we want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbor. . . . We ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.”
The question of whether the Christian effort to reconquer the Holy Land after it had been conquered by Muslims was sinful is, to say the least, debatable and much debated. Placing the war on terror between quotes is telling. That murderous Jihadists have, in the name of Islam, declared a terrorist war on the West is a subject delicately evaded in both the letter of the 138 and the Yale response.
Certainly every opportunity for dialogue is to be nurtured, but dialogue that makes for peace is dialogue in truth that does not indulge sentimentality and wishful thinking at the expense of honesty and justice. The great majority of those who signed the Yale letter are, as one might expect, from the mainstream of liberal Protestantism. There are a few Catholics: the aforementioned John Esposito; Thomas Rausch, S.J., of Loyola Marymount; and Donald Senior of the Chicago Theological Union. There are a surprising number of evangelicals, some of whom have a reputation for thoughtfulness: Richard Cizik, Timothy George, Bill Hybels, Duane Litfin, Richard Mouw, David Neff, Robert Schuller, John Stackhouse, Glenn Stassen, John Stott, Jim Wallis, Rick Warren, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.
A prominent evangelical who declined to sign the letter told me, “I’m telling our guys to wait and see how the Vatican responds. Rome has guys who know this stuff and has been dealing with Muslims for centuries. Our guys don’t know from squat and are jumping on a train run by liberals who have been wrong on just about everything you can name.” Thereby hangs a tale.
Rome’s response to this letter from Muslims, as to the letter of 2006, has been both calm and cool. The reason is that Muslim leaders have been persistently changing the subject. The subject is not theological dialogue about how or whether Christianity and Islam teach the love of God and neighbor. The subject, Benedict has said at Regensburg and elsewhere, is the relationship between faith and reason, between violence and persuasion, between coercion and religious freedom.
Pope Benedict said in his Christmas 2006 address to the Roman Curia: “In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church. . . . On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations. . . . On the other hand, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion. . . . Also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions to these problems. . . . We Christians feel ourselves in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom.”
These are the questions that need to be engaged in an honest and constructive dialogue with Islam. As Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has explained, what we in the West mean by theological dialogue is exceedingly difficult with Islam. “Muslims,” he says, “do not accept discussion about the Koran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God. With such an absolutist interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of the faith.” The questions posed by Benedict about reason and faith, religion and freedom, entail an understanding of reciprocity. “In dialogue between believers,” says Tauran, “it is understood that what is good for one is good for the other. It should be explained to Muslims, for example, that, if they are allowed to have mosques in Europe, it is normal for churches to be allowed in their countries.” Rome has indeed had centuries of experience in these matters.
On November 29, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, secretary of state, wrote to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, the chief organizer of the letter of the 138, on behalf of the pope: “Common ground allows us to base dialogue on effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion of the other, on the sharing of religious experience, and, finally, on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation. The Pope is confident that, once this is achieved, it will be possible to cooperate in a productive way in the areas of culture and society, and for the promotion of justice and peace in society and throughout the world.”
The letter concludes: “With a view to encouraging your praiseworthy initiative, I am pleased to communicate that His Holiness would be most willing to receive Your Royal Highness and a restricted group of signatories of the open letter, chosen by you. At the same time, a working meeting could be organized between your delegation and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with the cooperation of some specialized Pontifical Institutes (such as the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and the Pontifical Gregorian University). The precise details of these meetings could be decided later, should this proposal prove acceptable to you in principle.”
In sharpest contrast to the embarrassing effusions of the Yale letter, the response of the Holy See represents, I believe, just the right mix of cordiality, clarity, candor, and caution. Of most particular importance, it keeps the focus on the sources of terrorism and oppression perpetrated in the name of Islam. That, after all, is what prompted these exchanges in the first place, and it serves neither peace nor understanding to acquiesce in the efforts of Muslim leaders to change the subject. As of this writing, the response of Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, if any, has not been made public.
While We’re At It
• Five-point Calvinism, as many readers will know, refers to TULIP. TULIP, in turn, refers to Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. Put too briefly, total depravity means that, as a consequence of original sin, there is absolutely nothing we are capable of doing in order to be saved. Unconditional election means that God predestines who will be saved and who will be damned. Limited atonement means that Christ died only for the elect. Irresistible grace means, in the case of the elect, just what it says. And the perseverance of the saints is often expressed as “once saved, always saved.” Since the seventeenth century, most Baptists in this country have not been five-point Calvinists. The Baptist tradition, as shaped by American revivalism in the Great Awakenings, has generally leaned toward Arminianism, a modified version of predestination proposed by Jacob Arminius (d. 1609) that allowed a greater role for human cooperation in salvation. I bring this up because a 2006 study found that about 10 percent of ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are five-pointers. A new study of the most recent SBC seminary graduates, however, reports that 27 percent “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that they are five-point Calvinists. For instance, 67 percent affirm that “God’s grace is irresistible,” and 58 percent say they believe that “people do not choose to become Christians; God chooses and calls people who respond to him.” That last affirmation strikes me as ambiguous. I expect many non-Calvinists, including informed Catholics, might affirm it. After all, Jesus says, “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you” (John 15:16). Most Baptists in America have been free-will (Arminian) Baptists rather than hard-shell (five-point). A moment’s reflection will suggest why the former tend to be more committed to the evangelization of others, while many of the five-pointers don’t see the point of trying to win those whom God has not elected and are therefore lost no matter what we do. The new study, however, says that the more Calvinistic recent graduates report that they are somewhat more committed to personal evangelism than their peers. Go figure. The SBC, with about fifteen million members, is the largest Protestant ecclesial community in this country. One Baptist friend says it augurs ill for the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project if, in fact, there is a dramatic increase in five-point Calvinism, since most of the evangelical opposition to that initiative has come from Calvinists. But another tells me just the opposite. Calvinists, he notes, have a richer theological and intellectual tradition that equips them to be more effective ecumenical interlocutors. Frankly, I don’t know who is right. But it is the case that if, twenty or thirty years from now, the predominant Baptist leadership is committed to five-point Calvinism, it would be a major change in the American religious circumstance, and a change with unpredictable consequences.
• In news reports and commentary, First Things is often referred to as a Catholic magazine. In fact, we are ecumenically Christian and interreligious, with a particular interest in Jewish-Christian relations. But it is true that things Catholic receive what some view as disproportionate attention. Several factors may explain that, not least the fact that most of the editorial staff is Catholic. We might fairly be described as an ecumenical and interreligious magazine of religion, culture, and public life informed by a predominantly Catholic perspective. The foregoing is prelude to a word on the demise of the print form of Crisis, an indisputably Catholic magazine. After twenty-five years of publication, Crisis is now available only on the Internet. Some may view this as another sign of the end of print culture and the triumph of the digital revolution. I don’t think so. While magazines, and especially magazines not aimed at a mass market, are struggling—and have recently been hit by another large and, I believe, unfair hike in postal rates—they, along with books, will continue to be the chief form in which serious ideas are engaged. I am sorry that Crisis is no longer in print. Founded by Michael Novak and Notre Dame philosopher Ralph McInerny, Crisis rendered invaluable service in the 1980s and 1990s by challenging with intellectual force the hegemony then enjoyed by liberal proponents of the “post-Vatican II Church” as represented by, inter alia, lay-edited Commonweal and Jesuit-edited America. There is a barely disguised schadenfreude in Commonweal’s editorial on problems experienced by Crisis. The editors say that, after Novak and McInerny handed over control of the magazine in 1995, it “became less intellectual and even more partisan.” That is true enough, but the nub of the editorial is that the decline of Crisis disproves the claim that liberal Catholicism is a spent force. Francis Cardinal George said some years ago that liberal Catholicism is “an exhausted project.” Crisis pushed that claim with relish. To which the editors respond, in effect: Crisis is dead! Commonweal lives!
• I expect that Commonweal will continue to publish for many years. It has been around almost eighty years and, like America and the main voice of liberal Protestantism, Christian Century, it has an entrenched base in library and other institutional subscriptions established over generations. Such publications can survive with relatively few individual subscribers. Newer magazines such as Crisis, Catholic World Report, and the evangelically oriented Books & Culture do not have that advantage. They have to get new subscribers or die. Of greater interest, however, is how Commonweal understands its mission. The editors say that “claims about the death of liberal Catholicism are premature.” Contra the position pressed by Crisis, liberals are not unfaithful. “Assimilating what is of undeniable value in secular modernity’s embrace of religious pluralism, freedom of conscience, individual autonomy, and the equal dignity of men and women requires genuine discernment. . . . Yet ‘faithful Catholics’ do in fact disagree about church teaching regarding contraception, the ordination of women, and the nature of the papacy, among other things. History, especially the history of the Second Vatican Council, tells us that disagreement is often the work of the Holy Spirit.” That is a bundle of assumptions that needs careful unpacking. I’m not sure what is meant by “the nature of the papacy,” but it is hard to know how a “faithful” Catholic can reject the Magisterium’s consistent and emphatically repeated teaching on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage or the Church’s inability to ordain women to the priesthood. (I will not speculate on what is meant by “among other things,” although positions espoused by Commonweal over the years provide suggestive leads.) A faithful Catholic may have difficulty understanding or living the Church’s teaching. He may think a teaching is inadequately presented. But he cannot disagree with, in the sense of rejecting, a teaching on faith and morals that is authoritatively, consistently, and certainly taught and remain a faithful Catholic. One recalls Cardinal Newman’s maxim that ten thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt. Commonweal objects to the following statement in Crisis: “A call for dialogue on settled issues is itself a symptom of dissent.” It is a statement subject to quite different interpretations. If by dialogue one means that a settled question is, in fact, an open question and that the Magisterium’s answer can be rejected without consequences for one’s communion with the Church, the statement is correct. If, however, by dialogue one means honest engagement with the difficulties in understanding and living a teaching, and perhaps making suggestions for a more persuasive presentation of a teaching—all with a view toward thinking with the Church ( sentire cum ecclesia)—then dialogue is just the thing. Unfortunately, Commonweal leaves little doubt that it has the first and not the second kind of dialogue in mind.
• Misleading, too, is the statement that “history, especially the history of the Second Vatican Council, tells us that disagreement is often the work of the Holy Spirit.” It is true that the theologians who greatly influenced the Council—for example, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Karol Wojtyla— disagreed among themselves and with others on how best to present the Church’s faith and life, but none of them disagreed with, in the sense of rejecting, the authoritative teaching of the Church. All of them were assiduous in underscoring their fidelity to that author ity and that teaching. But Commonweal is right in saying that liberal Catholicism is not dead. There will always be people who are sincerely insistent that they are Catholic and are, as Cole Porter might say, true to the Church in their fashion. Or, perhaps more accurately, true to the Church of their refashioning. But it is, at best, a liberal idiosyncrasy to describe them as “faithful Catholics.” With respect to the future of the Church in this country and the world, Cardinal George is right: Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project.
• Unlike the case of Mark Twain, the frequently announced death of the National Council of Churches (NCC) was not greatly exaggerated, but it was exaggerated. The last time we had occasion to comment on the NCC, it had to do with the organization’s being maintained on life support by liberal foundations and special-interest groups. It has been a long time since it could rely on financial support from the thirty-five denominations that are its nominal members. This fall the NCC announced that fourteen of its forty staff positions would be terminated. The Reverend Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman, led the organization from 2000 to 2007, when he left to head Common Cause, a liberal lobbying group in Washington. Nominated as his replacement is the Reverend Michael Kinnamon of the Disciples of Christ, who once ran for the top office of his liberal denomination but was rejected, according to observers, for being excessively liberal. Contrary to reports, the NCC lives. Sort of.
• “Those unremarkable Lutherans,” as Matthew Rose, then our assistant editor and then a Lutheran, called them in a whimsical essay (February 2001), do not very often make the front page. A brief exception was the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a body of 2.5 million members, when in the 1970s it went through explosive disputes and divisions over doctrine. All that has changed now, says Pastor Peter Speckhard in his Forum Letter report on the latest national convention of the LCMS. The big division is between the “evangelical” and the “confessional” parties. Are Lutherans “evangelical catholics” (the confessional position) or just evangelicals more or less like other evangelicals? The differences involve whether or not to worship according to the liturgical tradition Lutherans adapted from the history of Western Christianity, whether or not to admit non-Lutherans to Holy Communion, and related practices. But that is just the point, says Speckhard. At the Houston convention, the insistence was that these are differences in practice, not in doctrine, thereby allowing the LCMS to be free of doctrinal disputes. It is a neat resolution, if you can believe it. On moral and social doctrine, however, it seems the LCMS has achieved something very close to unanimity. For instance, a strong resolution opposing embryonic stem cell research, which destroys human lives, passed with 97 percent support. “How to account for even the handful of negative votes?” asks Speckhard. He suggests the negative votes came from four groups: people who reflexively vote “no” on everything; people who didn’t like the “controversial” fellow chairing that session; people who accidentally pushed the wrong button; “and perhaps one or two who are secretly pro-choice.” When one considers the controversies that roil many church conventions, maybe the Lutherans, or at least the LCMS Lutherans, are not so unremarkable after all.
• The Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement on a book by Fr. Peter Phan, chairman of the department of theology at Georgetown. The book is Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, and the bishops have found it to be gravely flawed. Regrettably, Fr. Phan did not respond to the bishops’ invitation to discuss their concerns. The statement says that the book is incompatible with Catholic doctrine on three crucial scores: Jesus Christ as the unique and universal Savior of all; the salvific character of non-Christian religions; and the Church as the ordinary means of salvation. The purpose of the fifteen-page statement is to “identify problematic aspects of the book and provide a positive restatement of Catholic teaching on the relevant points.” In a manner both lucid and judicious, it achieves both purposes admirably and is further evidence of the renewed attentiveness of the Committee on Doctrine, chaired by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to the responsibility of bishops as teachers of the faith.
• There is in this issue a comment on the letter from 138 Muslim leaders, the unfortunate response initiated by the Yale Divinity School, and the very different response by the Holy See. Since September 11, 2001, many in the West have been taking a crash course in Islam, with particular reference to Islamic terrorism’s declared war against Christians and Jews. The publication by Doubleday of a new book by George Weigel could hardly be more timely. Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism brings together in a little more than two hundred pages a treasure of information and perspectives on what may well be the defining conflict of the twenty-first century. Readers of First Things are familiar with Weigel’s tough-minded analyses, and will be intrigued by his reevaluation of the meaning of “realism” in foreign policy when it comes to responding to the jihadist challenge. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the new book, however, is its demonstration of the ways in which—though many other dynamics are engaged—Jihadism is at its core a religiously driven phenomenon. Whether your crash course is just getting underway or is well advanced, I suggest for your consideration Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism.
• Catholic social doctrine from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, Bernard Laurent relentlessly argues, is one of relentless “intransigence” against the Enlightenment, modernity, liberalism, and all their pomps and works. That is an argument we are accustomed to hearing from ultra- traditionalists and some thinkers associated with the English edition of the conservative theological journal Communio. But this article, “Catholicism and Liberalism: Two Ideologies in Confrontation,” appears in the Jesuit-edited Theological Studies, a journal that bravely resists the pronouncement that “liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project” (Francis Cardinal George). So what is this article by Laurent, a French economist, doing in Theological Studies? I don’t know, but I’ll risk a guess that the editors thought it worth a momentary suspension of their liberal propensities to have someone take on with gusto, which Laurent certainly does, those terrible Catholic neoconservatives who construe Catholic social doctrine in a way supportive of a market economy and liberal polity. Or maybe the editors, coming from the left, agree with ultra-traditionalists, coming from the right, that intransigent Catholic doctrine is locked in unremitting warfare with all things modern. From the left, that is reason to jettison Catholic doctrine. From the right, that is reason to cling to it all the more firmly. As I say, I don’t know the reason for this essay’s appearance in Theological Studies. But there is ample precedent for those besieged at opposite margins to agree that the enemy of their enemy is their friend.
• The quest for Christian unity was the subject of Walter Cardinal Kasper’s address to the cardinals at the November consistory. It is a useful tour d’horizon, highlighting developments discussed also in Avery Cardinal Dulles’ “Saving Ecumenism from Itself” in our December 2007 issue. Turning first to the churches of the first millennium, Kasper notes significant advances with the Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) churches and is hopeful about relations with the Orthodox, seeing a “thaw” also in relations with the Moscow patriarchate. The explosion of charismatic, Pentecostal, and indigenous communities, especially in Africa, poses all kinds of problems, but here, too, the observation applies that “the most significant—and most gratifying—result of ecumenism over the past few decades is not the various documents [of agreements and convergences] but the recovery of fraternity, the fact that we have rediscovered that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.” Perhaps most interesting is Kasper’s view of relations with the communities issuing from the sixteenth-century Reformation, often called the classic or mainline Protestant traditions. Here “divergences are emerging in the ethical field,” particularly on “questions related to the defense of life, to marriage, to the family, and to human sexuality.” “The crisis taking place within [these communities] is clearly exemplified by the situation that has arisen in the Anglican Communion, which is not an isolated case.” The crisis is precipitated by a theological collapse. “Protestant theology, marked during the first years of dialogue by the ‘Luther Renaissance’ and by Karl Barth’s theology of the Word of God, has now returned to the motifs of liberal theology. As a result, we are seeing that, on the Protestant side, the Christological and Trinitarian foundations that were until now common presuppositions are sometimes diluted. What we held to be our common heritage has begun to melt here and there like the glaciers in the Alps.” With communities usually called evangelical, Kasper notes, there is agreement on “fundamental dogmatic questions” along with continuing divergence on ecclesiology, sacraments, and ministry. As for the Orthodox, “Pope Benedict emphasizes that we are already in nearly full ecclesial communion with these churches.” And with the “third wave” of Pentecostal and indigenous groups, Rome is eager to establish constructive relations. The great setback has been with the oldline Protestant communities, with which the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century began. Nonetheless, Kasper affirms that “the unsparing effort for the restoration of the full and visible unity of all of Christ’s followers” is, for the Catholic Church, “not an optional choice but a sacred obligation.”
• It must now be acknowledged that, since he became archbishop of Canterbury almost six years ago, Rowan Williams has been something of a disappointment. All who know him can testify that he is a devout Christian and a most amiable man. He is also a theologian of distinction. But he seems to be in over his head as leader of the Anglican Communion, which on his watch gives every appearance of shattering beyond repair. Perhaps the shattering was inevitable, but those who follow these developments closely argue persuasively that his firm intervention at a number of points might have made a big difference. Be that as it may, it is his frequent political pronouncements that range from the disappointing to outrageous. Most recently (as of this writing) he is pushing the weary line of petulant British resentment that goes on about how much more sophisticated we Brits are than those cowboy Americans. Even more distastefully, he does so in an interview with a popular Muslim magazine published in the U.K., thus mixing petulance with pandering. Williams: “It is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources into administering it and normalizing it. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what the British Empire did—in India, for example. It is another thing to go in on the assumption that a quick burst of violent action will somehow clear the decks and that you can move on and other people will put it back together—Iraq, for example.” Really? Expending trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in a long-term program of reconstruction, as America is doing, is a very odd way to be clearing the decks and moving on. And who are these “other people” who are putting Iraq back together? The Brits under Tony Blair helped, with no thanks to Dr. Williams. And, come to think of it, which wise empire gave the world artificial countries like Iraq in the first place? As for the British military campaigns in India, the corpses are beyond numbering. Then there is the ever so prudent way in which the sophisticated Brits exited India. Dr. Williams has perhaps heard of the five hundred thousand to one million deaths in the violence that attended their brilliant plan for the partition of India, never mind a couple of million more dead in the war between Pakistan and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Some normalization. Ever the diplomat, Dr. Williams did not bring up with his Muslim interlocutors the murderous Jihadism that is at the heart of the conflict in Iraq. Nor did he mention indelicate subjects such as the status of women or the practice of polygamy in the Islamic world. And, of course, it would have been unspeakably provocative, especially for a religious leader, to touch on the question of religious freedom in Islamic countries. Perhaps the archbishop is hoping to visit Mecca on his next tour of peace and goodwill. As I say, Dr. Williams has turned out to be something of a disappointment.
• If you want to get into the intellectual thick of things related to advancing the culture of life, the annual conference of the University Faculty for Life is the place to go. The proceedings of the sixteenth conference, held at Villanova University, is just out—606 pages of papers chock-full of thoughtful articles on law, philosophy, ethics, culture, and politics. There is also an illuminating section devoted to the personal experiences of “Pro-Life Academics in a Pro-Choice Academy.” The whole thing is edited by Fr. Joseph Koterski of Fordham University. For more about this collection and the University Faculty for Life, go to www.uffl.org.
• “A Catholic Call to Civility in Public Life” is issued by a distinguished list of Catholic laity, led by Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Civility is always in short supply and one can readily agree that “we need to keep in mind the common humanity that we share with those with whom we disagree,” and that “we should never lose faith in the power of reason,” and that the Church should never be used “as a partisan political tool.” Yes to that and much else in the statement. But then there is this: “Others, for political and even ecclesiastical reasons, seek the public embarrassment of politicians whose public positions differ from church teachings through the public refusal of the sacrament of Holy Communion or public admonition by the bishops.” And there is this: “An individual’s fitness to receive Communion is his or her personal responsibility. And it is a bishop’s responsibility to set for his diocese the guidelines for administering Communion.” The responsibility of bishops is and always has been, as Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and other bishops have explained in great detail, to protect the integrity of the sacrament, to prevent public scandal that creates confusion about the Church’s teaching, and to avoid the danger of people receiving the sacrament, as St. Paul puts it, to their damnation. Fitness to receive Communion is both a personal and ecclesial responsibility. Much is made of the lay statement’s bipartisanship, and bipartisanship can be a very good thing. The Church, however, has consistently taught over the centuries that the direct and intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion, is a grave and intrinsic evil. It is not the Church that has turned that teaching into a partisan issue in American politics.
• Commentators who fear and loathe evangelical Protestants, and there are not a few who fit that description, oscillate between, on the one hand, warning us about the theocracy that the “religious right” is determined to impose and, on the other, reporting that the evangelical enemy is a spent force. In sharpest contrast to such partisan excitements is D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford). Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University, and he examines with care the ascendancy of evangelicals in four sectors of the American elite: politics, the academy, arts and entertainment, and corporate leadership. Lindsay is aware that having a place at the table, as it is said, does not necessarily mean that you’re making a difference. Many of the evangelicals who have made it to “the halls of power” seem indistinguishable from the people who have long been at home there. But, to a striking extent, the story of the past thirty years is that of people who, as Lindsay puts it, “because their religious identities are so important to them, have brought faith to bear on their leadership, changing the very institutions they lead in the process.” Although some observers are still stuck there, we are in fact a very long way from Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the flood of media puzzlements under the generic title “Where did these people called evangelicals come from?” Faith in the Halls of Power avoids both boosterism and debunking in its straightforward description of the ways in which evangelicals are redefining leadership in America.
• Now this rather surprises me. I refer to a number of messages expressing concern that I am going soft on the bishops. The concern is apparently prompted by my favorable comment on “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a statement adopted by the bishops conference (USCCB) at their November meeting in Baltimore. I also thought the statement on the Iraq War, issued by outgoing president Bishop William Skylstad and approved by the conference, was a thoughtful teaching exercise in which, as I put it on the First Things website, the bishops “neither exceed their competence nor shirk their responsibility.” But, it is protested, “Faithful Citizenship” does not unequivocally address the scandal of politicians and other public figures who persistently reject the Church’s teaching on the gospel of life and yet continue to receive Communion. True enough, but that is not what “Faithful Citizenship” is about. It is a very helpful guide to the formation of conscience with respect to questions raised in voting and other political activity if, in fidelity to the Church’s teaching, one recognizes the “intrinsic evil” of taking innocent human life in abortion. Yes, the statement discusses difficult situations in which one might in good conscience support a pro-abortion candidate despite his being pro-abortion. There are such situations. It is understandable that some pro-lifers want bishops to say unequivocally that it is always and in every circumstance a sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. But a bishop cannot say that because it is not true. As “Faithful Citizenship” clearly says, it is a sinful cooperation with evil to vote for someone because he is pro-abortion. The statement leaves no doubt that abortion is not just one issue among others. Unintimidated by the opprobrium associated with “single issue” politics, it explains why one may well support or oppose a candidate on the single issue of abortion. But in instances when all the available candidates are pro-abortion, or when the pro-life candidate embraces other positions that are intrinsically evil, it might be permissible to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. It is firm Catholic teaching that one must act according to conscience, making sure conscience is informed by moral truth. Admittedly, there is a great risk in issuing a statement such as “Faithful Citizenship.” Those who are disposed to looking for “loopholes” or “exceptions” with respect to the Church’s teaching on abortion will predictably exploit such a statement. In a manner familiar by now, they construe the teaching on conscience as a “conscience clause” exempting them from moral responsibility. Conscience is not to be confused with a strongly and sincerely held preference. It frequently opposes and corrects our preferences. Conscience, said John Henry Newman in a statement quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is a messenger of him, who both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
• It is seldom enough that there is a development that—upon examining it closely, turning it upside down and shaking it, walking all around it and probing it for weak spots—appears to be an honest-to-goodness no-doubt-about-it unqualified good. But such seems to be the case with the scientific breakthrough announced the day before Thanksgiving. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto, Japan, discovered a way to produce embryonic stem cells directly from adult cells. No embryos are destroyed. There seems to be general agreement that this is possibly one of the most important scientific advances of the past quarter century. Many commentators have heaved a sigh of relief that the stem cell wars are over. As is to be expected, much of the commentary focused on the importance of a big hot-button issue being removed from the presidential race. Some of our colleagues in the pro-life cause say this is a win-win development and we must not gloat. While outright gloating is unseemly, we may risk indelicacy in pointing out that those who in recent years insisted that science accommodate itself to moral principle, rather than the other way around, have been vindicated. And it would be churlish—as, unfortunately, much commentary has been churlish—not to acknowledge the vindication of President George W. Bush, who in August 2001 drew the line against embryo-destructive stem cell research. And one may, without being unpleasant about it, note that the mainstream media and the scientific establishment who beat the drums for the necessity of killing embryos in order, they said, to find cures for all kinds of illnesses, along with politicians who agitated for multibillion-dollar referendums in California, Missouri, and New Jersey, were, not to put too fine a point on it, dead wrong. Gently alluding to the indisputably obvious is not gloating.
• My colleague Joseph Bottum notes that, during the stem cell wars, the left routinely accused their opponents of being anti-science. This, he observes, is in contrast to the left in Europe, which has for years, in the higher consciousness of its keenly attuned environmental sensibilities, cultivated a deep antagonism to scientific advances in areas such as genetically altered foods, which they refer to as “Frankenfood.” The difference, he says, is that the left in this country has a deep stake in the story line that pits enlightened secularists against Bible-thumping theocrats. But now, in the stem cell controversy, it is precisely the cause espoused by the much reviled religious right that has been scientifically vindicated. Bottum opines that we should prepare ourselves for the next chapter in the culture wars, in which the left here will get into step with its European compatriots, espousing a militant skepticism toward science while maintaining their polemic against the religious right, but this time for its uncritical embrace of scientific progress. He may be right about that. In a world that gets curiouser and curiouser, strange things happen. But my ponderations explore a different phenomenon.
• Remember when, many years ago, the pro-life leadership decided to make a very big issue about partial-birth abortion? Not all pro-lifers agreed. Dissenters said it would distract attention from the main and massive reality of abortions in the early weeks and months of pregnancy, and a ban on partial-birth abortions would save very few, if any, lives. They had a point. But the intense focus on partial-birth abortion had a different purpose. It was a campaign to educate people about the horror of abortion and to illuminate the patent absurdity of claiming that a fetus with no rights suddenly became a baby with rights when it got its navel through the birth canal. It also educated the public to the fact that the unlimited abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade was, in fact, unlimited all the way through infanticide. The campaign against partial-birth abortion was in these ways a great success and contributed immeasurably to creating the circumstance in which a majority of citizens now identify themselves as pro-life. Consider what has now happened with respect to embryonic stem cell research. As a result of the Thomson/Yamanaka breakthroughs, it is, all of a sudden, respectable to speak about the humanity not only of fetuses on the verge of becoming babies but of the embryo at the very beginning of life. This is an astonishing advance. No longer is it just those pro-life fanatics talking about the humanity of the embryo. James Thomson is respectfully quoted about his moral uneasiness in destroying embryonic life. The accounts of the pre-Thanksgiving breakthrough in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere evidenced a palpable sigh of relief that a great moral problem had been resolved. For years they had adamantly insisted that there was no moral problem. Now the conventional wisdom is that the moral problem that never was has disappeared. This is a development of inestimable importance. Yes, some commentators were simply relieved that a difficult issue had been removed from the presidential debate. And yes, some proponents of embryo-destructive stem cell research insisted that it must go ahead, alongside the research path charted by Thomson and Yamanaka. But the great and encouraging consequence of this breakthrough is that the humanity of the unborn child, even at the earliest embryonic stage of development, is now a subject of polite conversation even in the circles that so fanatically resisted acknowledging the facts of life.
• Permit me to take this a step further. Actually, several steps further, into the realm of the metaphysical and theological. One cannot help but be intrigued by the implications of the fact that these adult stem cells can be induced to “reprogram” themselves back to their beginning—all the way back to their embryonic beginning. In my little book As I Lay Dying, I reflected on the unity of body and soul and wrote, “The body remembers.” I intended that in a somewhat poetic mode, but what if, in fact, the body can do something very much like remembering? We all learned in high school that all the molecules of the body are replaced about every seven years. Molecules are coming and going all the time with dizzying rapidity. Upon arrival they immediately become part of the DNA that provides genetic instructions for their development. But, or so it now seems, the information runs backward as well as forward. It is not exactly memory, since the stem cells do not recall what they were but reconstitute themselves as what they were. It is as though there is an operative form holding in potentiality the past, present, and future. The form of the body, as in soul. Please, I’m not making a scientific argument here. That’s not my field. Nor a theological argument, for that matter. But the discovery announced the day before Thanksgiving is metaphysically suggestive. Upon reading the reports, the words of Psalm 139 came to mind. We are learning ever more of the ways in which we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
• A giant has fallen. When I am asked about early influences on my thinking about religion and public life, I regularly cite Harold J. Berman’s The Interaction of Law and Religion, a little book published in 1974. The argument of that book was expanded in Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion in 1993. Berman wrote many books, both big and little, perhaps the most influential being Law and Revolution (1983), which made the case that modern legal systems have their roots less in the Renaissance and Reformation than in the Church’s canon law of the late Middle Ages. Harold Berman was great company, and I cherish the memory of many hours together at conferences and other events. He was the Ames Professor of Law at Harvard and taught there for more than thirty years before moving, in the late 1980s, to the Emory University law school, where he helped establish the Center on Law and Religion. He was also acclaimed as an authority on Soviet law and spent much time in Russia during and after the Soviet Union. His work has been mentioned frequently in these pages, but I am sorry we never published him. We discussed a couple of pieces, but, for various reasons, they didn’t seem to work for First Things. One can say with confidence that, in the last several decades, there is nobody who has done serious work on the fascinating connections between law and religion, and the ways in which worldviews inform the res publica, who is not deeply indebted to this man. Harold J. Berman died at age eighty-nine on November 13, 2007. Requiescat in pace.
• Last fall the school-voucher referendum went down to a crushing defeat in Utah. It was a very ambitious proposal, covering absolutely everyone. Some supporters thought it too ambitious. In any event, the state and national teachers’ unions, plus other public-employee unions, predictably poured tons of money into a media blitzkrieg to defeat the measure. It was an off-year election when fewer voters turn out, giving a huge advantage to the teachers’ unions and their labor allies that can organize turnout to protect their pocketbook and power. The best single article I’ve seen on the moral case for parental choice in education is “School Choice as Simple Justice,” published in First Things (April 1992) and written by Prof. John Coons of the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. But the moral case standing on its own is not enough to persuade the majority of voters. The moral case is focused on the plight of the disadvantaged, especially the urban underclass, mainly black and Latino, in our larger cities. Here in New York, as in other major cities, expenditure per student in the government schools has multiplied many times over, and still less than half the young people end up with a high school diploma they can read. A third of all black young men in the country will spend some time in jail. In the inner cities, that figure is well over half. The reality is that most parents in America are, wisely or not, more or less satisfied with the government schools that their children attend. They may have a twinge of conscience about their selfishness, but the teachers’-union propaganda about vouchers taking money away from their own schools is powerfully effective. And they understandably ask whether caring about your own first is really selfishness or the exercise of parental responsibility. The brutal fact is that twinges of conscience can be easily stifled when they come up against self-interest. In any event, Utah is not a state in which the plight of the urban underclass is a pressing issue. Now some advocates of parental choice, notably Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute, are arguing that the way to get to parental choice in education is through tax credits rather than vouchers. Maybe they’re right, but there are a lot of questions to be answered. However this discussion develops, the way to get the moral questions into clear focus begins with a careful reading of John Coons’ “School Choice as Simple Justice.”
• “Evangelical and Catholic,” writes a Baptist minister who is a skeptic about the project Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “are two radically different and incompatible ways of being Christian.” In some ways, and with respect to some evangelicals, he may be right. Faith in Action is a program sponsored by three leading evangelical organizations, World Vision, Outreach, and Zondervan publishers. It proposes that churches cancel their services on what it calls “outreach Sunday” and urge their members to use the time to engage in some form of community service instead. “A church that puts its faith into action focuses not on themselves but on Christ’s teaching and his divine example of compassion,” says Zondervan’s director of church engagement. “Our hope is that churches across the country will unite and show their community a true servant’s heart.” To be sure, there are sabbatarians and other evangelicals who have a quite different understanding of the imperative of communal worship on the Lord’s Day. For the informed Catholic, the proposal of Faith in Action will be simply incomprehensible. The Church’s understanding of Sunday, from the apostolic era to the present, is comprehensively set forth in John Paul II’s 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini (the Lord’s Day). It is precisely in the community gathered for worship, and most expressly in the Eucharist, that the Church “puts its faith into action,” “focuses on Christ’s teaching,” including the command to “do this” in remembrance of him, and offers its chief service (Greek: leitourgia) to God and to the world. The Eucharist is, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “the source and summit” of the Church’s life. The observance of Dies Domini is not optional but constitutive. It is the supreme expression of “faith in action,” as is Christ’s presence with the gathered community the source of all other faithful actions. I expect the misguided proposal of Faith in Action will have relatively few takers among evangelicals. But the fact that it is even proposed lends a measure of credibility to my Baptist correspondent’s claim that evangelical and Catholic are two radically different and incompatible ways of being Christian.
• One may as a general rule oppose quota systems, in the academy and elsewhere. They introduce invidious discriminations and encourage sleight of hand in creating sundry forms of “diversity” other than diversity of thought. Fr. Wilson Miscamble, a distinguished professor of history at Notre Dame, proposes what some might call a quota system if that school is to remain Catholic in anything more than name. “Notre Dame must hire at least two-thirds Catholic faculty,” he writes, “simply to arrest the decline that ultimately puts at risk its identity as a Catholic school.” Writing in America, he quotes the statement of Ex Corde Ecclesiae that the “Catholic identity of the University depends upon . . . the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. As of 2006, 53 percent of the Notre Dame faculty answered “Catholic” on a faculty questionnaire. But for many who checked the Catholic box on the questionnaire, says Miscamble, “the practice of the faith appears nominal at best.” Noting that the theology department and law school “are notable and honorable exceptions,” he cites instances in which candidates for faculty positions have been rejected because they were thought to be too Catholic. On the other hand, Jill Mann was appointed to an endowed chair in the English department although she is an outspoken atheist. “Hiring an individual who might undermine the school’s true mission took a backseat to the payoffs in terms of academic prestige and reputation. Appointments like Mann’s suggest that prestige trumps Catholic mission in the hiring process.” Notre Dame and other schools, says Miscamble, “need to engage in what might be termed strategic hiring or hiring for mission.” That certainly sounds better than calling it a quota system. In truth, a university, like any other enterprise, should hire people who believe in the enterprise. In this case, the purpose of the enterprise is to be a Catholic university. More important than having a “predominant number” of Catholics is having a predominant number of faculty, Catholic or not, who understand and are committed to that purpose. One notes, for instance, that when Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist, and Robert Louis Wilken, then a Lutheran, were at Notre Dame, they did much more to advance that purpose than did many of their box-checking Catholic colleagues.
• It is hard to know what to make of the Russian walk-out from the Catholic-Orthodox meeting in Ravenna, Italy, last October. Rome says it is an intra-Orthodox dispute that must be resolved by them. And it does seem to be a dispute between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow, the latter exercising jurisdiction over more than half the Orthodox Christians in the world. The immediate issue was the presence of the Estonian Apostolic Church at the Ravenna meeting. That church is recognized by Constantinople but not by Moscow. Bishop Hilarion, who is the Orthodox bishop of Vienna and Austria, says he had no choice but to leave the meeting because Moscow has a firm policy of not participating in meetings with the Estonian church. He notes that there are other autonomous and autocephalous churches not recognized by Moscow and that these disputes will have to be “resolved by a Pan-Orthodox Council.” (The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann observed that a Pan-Orthodox Council is an eschatological concept.) Whether or not there will be a next meeting of the Mixed Commission of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, says Hilarion, “will largely depend on the position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.” He underscores the importance of continuing bilateral relations between Rome and Moscow. Tensions between Constantinople and Moscow go way back, and in the Orthodox mind a thousand years are but as yesterday. It is an admirable historical perspective that, when it comes to harboring suspicions and remembering slights, is not without its downside. In any event, and as mentioned elsewhere in this issue, Cardinal Kasper and the Holy See do not seem to be discouraged by the Ravenna spat.
• Rabbi Byron Sherwin of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, in Chicago, is a man of views both definite and informed. See, for instance, his “Jews and the World to Come” in the June/July 2006 issue of First Things. Writing in Judaism, the journal of the American Jewish Congress, he addresses a “category mistake” that confuses Judaism with a liberal assimilationism that threatens the continuity of the Jewish people. He cites a statement by his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel: “When I think of what our people have accumulated over the centuries that nobody will ever know about, it seems like a second holocaust. Hitler destroyed our people. Now we let their spirit die.” And he cites Steven Cohen who wrote that, by the early 1980s, most “American Jews had been raised with the understanding that liberalism or political radicalism constituted the very essence of Judaism, that all the rest—the rituals, liturgy, communal organizations—were outdated, vestigial trappings for a religion with a great moral message embodied in liberalism.” This is called “prophetic Judaism,” an idea that, as Sherwin and others note, mimics Enlightenment- driven reconstructions of liberal Protestantism. Key to that reconstruction is the idea of “the sovereign self.” For Immanuel Kant, ethical axioms must be universal and categorical, premised on individual will and autonomy. Judaism with its ethnic particularism and eccentric laws do not qualify, and it is therefore not surprising that Kant called for the “euthanasia of Judaism.” The Kantian approach led in circuitous ways to the notion of a “Judeo-Christian ethic.” Sherwin writes: “The problem, however, is that there is ‘Jewish ethics’ and there is ‘Christian ethics,’ but they are not the same. There is no Judeo-Christian ethics.” That claim deserves more attention than Sherwin gives it. He is no doubt right that, in authoritative Jewish tradition, tikkun olam refers to the right ordering of the Jewish community, and not, as the very leftward magazine called Tikkun would have it, to a generalized command to “build a better world.” The history of the phrase Judeo-Christian ethic is a mix of Christian politesse, Enlightenment rationalism, and Jewish assimilationism, among other things. Despite its dubious provenance, however, it refers to an understanding of history, human purpose, and justice that has informed the dominant ethical presuppositions of the West and is indisputably grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures as redacted and disseminated by Christianity. In any event, Rabbi Sherwin’s conclusion is worthy of note: “Recent demographic studies predict that if current trends are maintained or accelerate, within a few generations, most American Jews will be practicing a religion other than Judaism or no religion at all. Many of those who believe themselves to be practicing Judaism will actually be practicing and affirming something very different; they will be in a state of spiritual exile and alienation, but will not even be aware of it.” This is the “category mistake” that he believes imperils the survival of the Jewish people and profoundly distorts the meaning of Judaism.
• You’re possibly not familiar with this earlier version of the Cole Porter song:
You’re the top!
You’re the Great Houdini!
You’re the top!
You are Mussolini!That’s the way it was when Benito Mussolini was a hero of the left in this country and much of the world. Thereby hangs a tale vigorously, and often humorously, told by Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, published by Doubleday this month. Goldberg is a political journalist, not a historian, and readers more familiar with the ideological twists and turns of the modern era will be familiar with his thesis: While the left has long depicted the right as fascist, it is in fact the left—from Hegel to Hitler to Hillary and, yes, the politics of meaning, too—that follows the fascist formula most influentially articulated by Mussolini: “Everything within the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.” Here you will find the ways in which the left embraced eugenics, “scientific” racialism, the campaign to ban Christianity from the public square, and utopian politics, all resulting in the great human catastrophes of the century past. The label fascist got pinned on the right by Western communists obedient to the Soviet Union under Stalin, who found it convenient to distance his fascism from that of Hitler’s. I expect Goldberg’s argument will be quite new and fascinating to many readers. He frequently paints with a broad brush, and his polemic is sometimes over the top. He has to step back from time to time, assuring the reader that he is not really saying that Hillary, Hitler, and the Holocaust are more or less indistinguishable. Some readers may understandably resist the suggestion that Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all succumbed to the totalitarian temptation. But Goldberg’s essential argument is, I believe, correct. It is the left, not the right, that in the past and at present more closely resembles the revolutionary and utopian statism that gave fascism its definition under the auspices of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and their imitators. Liberal Fascism is worth reading as a provocative and frequently instructive romp through modern political history, and as an antidote to stereotypes that have long befuddled popular understandings of what is left and what is right.
• Manhattan is rich in architectural monuments to expired faith. On the Upper East Side, neighbors are unhappy that a handsome Christian Science Church has given up on religion altogether and rented the building out for the entertainments of the city that never sleeps. St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral up on Morningside Heights, is used for rock concerts and sundry social events. Now I see that Washington’s National Cathedral (Episcopal) is getting into the act. The setting for the celebration of its hundredth anniversary is described in the Washington Post: “The soaring nave of the Gothic-style cathedral, pews replaced by sumptuous tables, giant plasma screens, a light show.” There were a thousand guests at $1,000 each, including celebrities such as Colin Powell, Bob Schieffer, John Grisham, and Patrick Leahy. The cathedral’s dean, Samuel Lloyd, told the guests: “Having a formal dinner here has caused a few raised eyebrows. There’s a touch of scandal in the evening.” Ah, the frisson of violating stale conventions. The honoree of the evening was Bishop Desmond Tutu, who said, “Wow! This is what heaven is going to be like!” A sadly minimalized form of realized eschatology, one might observe. Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” comes to mind:
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
But what did Philip Larkin know about $1,000-per-person dinners and giant plasma screens and light shows and entertainment by the likes of Aaron Neville and, as the Post notes, an open bar? Wow! Who knows what will succeed in raising eyebrows in the next hundred years? It is reasonable to expect that it will be more difficult.
Michael Northcott, New Blackfriars, September 2007; Robert Kagan, Policy Review, August/September 2007; Bernard Laurent, Theological Studies, 68 (2007); Kasper address, Nov. 23, 2007, Zenit; Catholic lay statement, origins, Nov. 15, 2007; Faith in Action, Zondervan press release, Sept. 6, 2007; Notre Dame faculty, America, Sept. 10, 2007; Russian Orthodox, Inside the Vatican, Oct. 18, 2007; Rabbi Sherwin, Judaism, Fall/Winter 2006; National Cathedral, Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2007