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Ecumenical Dialogues

Avery Cardinal Dulles’ lucid, if disturbing, analysis of the reasons for the ecumenical project (“Saving Ecumenism from Itself,” December 2007) reminded me of a line from the fifth volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s history of Christian theology, Church Doctrine and Modern Culture (Since 1700) . In the preface, Pelikan admits that the task of the fifth volume will be much more difficult compared to that of the other four: “For the modern period in the history of Christian doctrine may be defined as the time when doctrines that had been assumed more than debated for most of Christian history were themselves called into question: the idea of revelation, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the expectation of life after death, even the very transcendence of God.”

I suspect this is why liberals greeted the ecumenical project so enthusiastically: Since the major doctrines hardly mattered, why make such a big fuss over subordinate doctrines like justification and papal primacy? Correlatively, when groups like Evangelicals and Catholics Together share a common commitment to the core doctrines of Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc., ecumenical discussion does not become easier, but at least it ends up being more productive when consensus, however elusive, is reached.

As to the specific issue of justification, I’ve always thought that topic should be the “easiest” to solve be cause of the common roots of Luther, Calvin, and Trent in St. Augustine’s theology of grace. Then again, if Cardinal Dulles is right in his convictions, maybe the problem won’t be as easy to solve as I had first thought. Perhaps the problem is not reconfessionalization but the Western churches’ shared starting point in Augustine. (Notice how little this debate animates the Eastern churches.) So maybe this issue needs to be rethought by the churches from the ground up. Or to put my point as a counterfactual: If Pelagius had never criticized Augustine’s Confessions , would the Reformation have happened at all?

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

Mundelein, Illinois

Avery Cardinal Dulles’ article is first-rate. He correctly understands that the old ecumenical method of “convergence, which seeks to harmonize the doctrines of each ecclesial tradition on the basis of shared sources and methods,” has run its course. Instead, as he says, “we need a different method, one that invites a deeper conversion.”

Cardinal Dulles’ proposal may not go quite far enough. If we are truly going to learn, then we have to be open to an even stronger challenge to our accustomed ways of thinking and acting. A trip this past summer to Amish Country in Pennsylvania sent me on a quest to deepen my understanding of the Radical Reformation.

Might not mainstream Christians, who by definition manifest the least degree of difference from their surrounding culture, most need to hear the testimony of Anabaptism? But how do we talk with a Christian body that does not engage in ecumenical dialogue? Cardinal Dulles’ suggested approach stresses receptivity and openness to conversion”not talking, negotiating, explaining, agreeing, or disagreeing.

Contemporary theological ethicists from mainstream Christian traditions are not the only modern intellectuals who believe we need to turn to the Anabaptists and appreciate them as far more than a cultural curiosity. Wendell Berry”farmer, poet, fiction writer, essayist, proponent of small farms and wise husbandry”is an eloquent spokesperson for a local economy that values the interconnectedness of life. He appreciates the Amish as stewards of Creation, and many admire the economic self-sufficiency and mutual aid of a community that more than gets by without health insurance or social security.

In October 2006, all of us felt something clutch at our hearts and challenge our souls when we witnessed the Amish of Bart Township, Lancaster County, not only forgive the Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooter, who murdered five Amish girls, but also, without hesitation and of course without fanfare, comfort the killer’s family and offer them support. Without elaborately worked-out statements on forgiveness, justification, or the Body of Christ, the Amish simply enacted their faith. As someone rightly said, the Amish do not have a social ethic; they are a social ethic.

It seems crazy to suggest that my fellow Episcopalians spend time in small-group discussions asking, Why do the Amish not send their children to school past the eighth grade? Might that be a good idea for us? Put that way, yes, it is a silly question, guaranteed to offend an upwardly mobile Episcopal audience. But it is not silly to ask how many Episcopal schools have as their de facto religious creed getting their graduates into name-brand colleges and universities. What do Amish teenagers learn that ours do not?

It seems crazy to ask our young people to weigh the pros and cons of restrictions on a young Amish person’s life. But it isn’t so crazy to talk with young people about the proper balance of freedom and order in a world of tawdry sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse, and a cynical ends-justify-the-means attitude and mode of conduct. Whatever happened to humility, patience, and forbearance?

Ecumenical dialogues with Lu therans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Methodists are all well and good. But in this extreme era, radical ecumenism may be what we really need.

David Hein

Hood College

Frederick, Maryland

Avery Cardinal Dulles replies:

Thanks to Edward Oakes and David Hein for their letters. Father Oakes raises the question whether the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine lay behind the Protestant-Catholic disputes about justification. I suppose they were a factor, but in general Lutherans and orthodox Catholics agreed with Augustine’s sola gratia against Pelagius, or what passes for Pelagius. Luther’s sola fide went beyond Augustine and lay at the heart of the dispute. David Hein is correct in pointing out the ecumenical importance of the exemplary conduct of some Christian groups, such as the Amish. By emulating their fidelity to the Sermon on the Mount, we could surely draw closer to Christ. In the words of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, “Let all Christ’s faithful remember that the more purely they strive to live according to the gospel, the more they are fostering and even practicing Christian unity.”

Getting Rudy Right

Hats off to Hadley Arkes (“Abortion Politics 2008,” December 2007) for pointing out the catastrophic consequences for the pro-life cause should Rudy Giuliani be nominated for and elected to the presidency. The bully pulpit of the presidency would fall into the hands of someone who is indifferent to the tragedy of abortion. Not only would a President Giuliani not speak out against it, as Bush currently does at the annual March for Life, he would actively promote the idea that it is not the proper role of government to protect the lives of innocent unborn children. As far as enforcement is concerned, the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act would become a dead letter. And the likelihood of new legislation”banning sex-selective abortion, for example”would shrink to the vanishing point.

As bad as ceding the White House to someone of such sentiments would be, there is a worse prospect in view, namely, that of losing the Republican party as the party of life. The Republican party, it should be recalled, was not always pro-life. It became so only with the nomination of Ronald Reagan, who pushed for a pro-life plank to be added to the party platform drafted and approved at the 1980 Republican convention. The nomination of Rudy Giuliani could very well see this same process unfold in reverse, if not immediately, then at the 2012 presidential election cycle.

Against these grim prospects, Giuliani offers the hope and promise that he will nominate justices in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Previous presidents with far stronger convictions than Giuliani have found it difficult to keep similar pledges”witness the Harriet Miers debacle. Giuliani, whose moral compass points in the wrong direction and who will be surrounded by staffers who reflect and reinforce his indifference to abortion, will, in my view, find it impossible.

Professor Arkes closes by asking which of the other candidates can actually explain the grounds for his pro-life position. He mentions Mitt Romney, a late and partial convert to the pro-life cause. But there is a far more eloquent candidate who has of late surged ahead in the polls, one who has from the beginning been more fully on the side of the life issues than any other candidate. I am speaking, of course, about the only true social conservative in the race”Governor Mike Huckabee.

Steven W. Mosher

Population Research Institute

Front Royal, Virginia

Hadley Arkes compares the Giuliani argument about his position on abortion with the argument that Douglas used about slavery in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Both argue from the basis of circumstance, the reality of the culture at the time. Lincoln, however, argued from the premise of principle. But, if you examine an argument from principle in the present abortion circumstance, you will quickly find that, though a large segment of the population might agree that abortion involves the death of a living child, most people are loath to call it murder or to suggest that it should be prosecuted as a variant of murder. Consequently, the abortion issue in and of itself is sinking as a viable political issue for national politics.

Abortion must be seen from the perspective of the integrity of marriage and the family. A man may marry and with his wife plan to raise children, but, if his wife develops other wishes, our courts will support her decisions in a great variety of ways that underwrite her self-empowerment. The empowerment of women in our culture is accompanied by the lessening of the power of the husband and father in the context of marriage. Further, our culture seems to suggest that it is right to foster and to encourage this independent development of the potential of women in every way possible, without enough consideration for the needs of others in the family. The fostering of this competitiveness within a marriage is an integral part of our culture. Radical individualism as a first principle that drives culture is ultimately destructive.

Denying women the option of abortion in most circumstances probably has limited potential as the basis for a national political strategy. Giuliani is right that it is more important that we have judges that are beholden to the law and to the U.S. Constitution, not to their own political whims. There must begin some more comprehensive political debate about the nature of the family if our culture is to move toward a more stably conservative place”one that includes the regulation of abortion.

John Wickey

Plymouth, Michigan

Like Hadley Arkes, I am very concerned about what a Giuliani nomination would mean for the GOP with regard to life issues. I’m not yet as convinced as Arkes, however, that Giuliani is beyond hope on abortion.

While Arkes prescribes the selection of a pro-life running mate as a means for Giuliani to win the pro-life coalition, I believe he could do better than this while still remaining pro-choice. Giuliani claims that he will appoint strict constructionists such as Scalia and Thomas (or Roberts and Alito), the clear implication being that he would nominate justices who support overruling Roe v. Wade . Assuming he means just that, then all he has to do is say so. And if he did that, then I believe pro-lifers could support him whatever his personal views, and for a few reasons.

First, it is Roe that prevents states from enacting meaningful pro-life legislation. In that respect, pace Arkes, Giuliani and his ilk are entirely correct that it is the courts that do the work of dealing with abortion. Thus, overruling Roe is the first, necessary step in changing that paradigm. Second, despite the recent upholding of the federal ban on partial-birth abortion (on a 5-4 vote in Gonzales v. Carhart ), it is not terribly likely, assuming that Roe were overruled, that any more substantive federal pro-life legislation would ever pass muster, because of Commerce Clause objections.

Indeed, Justice Thomas, with Justice Scalia, expressly noted in his Carhart concurrence that the Commerce Clause question was not before the Court because the issue had not been raised or briefed by either party. Third, it therefore follows that, short of amending the Constitution by means of the Human Life Amendment, which seems extremely unlikely anytime soon, or an unprecedented interpretation of the current Constitution that would discover a prohibition on abortion, then any meaningful pro-life action would have to come at the state level. In short, the best gift any president could give pro-lifers is to appoint justices who would overrule Roe .

Thus, going back to Arkes’ slavery analogy, it is well and good to have Lincoln’s moral view as opposed to Douglas’ agnostic view, but, under the Roe regime, it makes little difference. If Giuliani is prepared to fight to change that regime, then it doesn’t bother me much at all that he would otherwise be a “Douglas” on the question. He will have done as much or more than any GOP president has done on this issue, and it would remain for the rest of us to follow Lincoln’s lead in legislatively ensuring that abortion would be on “the course of ultimate extinction.”

Frank T. Pimentel

Herndon, Virginia

Hadley Arkes replies:

Nothing should be said in response to Steve Mosher without sounding first the gratitude that many of us have for his remarkable work over the years in raising alarms about abortion in China as well as at home. On the matter of Mike Huckabee, I just did not consider him a likely nominee, and I’m still dubious. But there is a larger question here that goes back to that main issue I was raising in my piece about preserving a pro-life party in our politics. When groups and interests are brought together in a stable coalition, that represents nothing less than a reconciling of interests. As a party comes to give an account of the principles that explain how those interests hold together, it articulates nothing less than a perspective on the nature of the political regime: It offers an account, that is, of the rightful ends and ordering of political power.

What had come together in the Republican party was a coalition that sought to resist the extension of totalitarian regimes abroad, offer a moral defense of a free society and a free economy, a defense of human life against abortion and euthanasia, and a defense of marriage as the most apt framework of commitment in the begetting and nurturing of human life. That has been a coherent package. And it has offered an account of the political regime that, for many of us, has been summoning.

For years, many of the free- market conservatives have been uncomfortable with this alliance. They would prefer to get away from those moral concerns they regard as so much extraneous baggage, quite peripheral to the real business of politics. But now Mike Huckabee offers a mirror image. He would break that same coalition from the other side, by offering a new populism in economics, which strikes me as bootless and implausible. Neither Huckabee nor Giuliani seems to appreciate the gravity of preserving the coalition that supports a freer economy with lower taxation and seeks to extend, at the same time, the protection of human life.

The late Henry Hyde made at times concessions to the pro-choicers in the Republican party that made me wince. But Henry understood that he could preserve a pro-life Congress only by preserving a Republican majority, and he could preserve a Republican majority only by making occasional concessions to Republicans who were not with us on abortion or the life issues. Hyde was a model of prudence in politics at its highest level.

I appreciate Mr. Wickey’s point but would suggest that he is flying too quickly to a slogan that misses the precise way in which ordinary people in this country have been engaging the issue of abortion even now. If the country were offered a proposal, as he says, of “denying women the option of abortion in most circumstances,” that may indeed sound off-putting to many people”but that is, in fact, where most of the country is. As one seasoned observer remarked a while ago, reading the surveys, about 60 percent of the public would reject 90 percent of the abortions performed under the law crafted by the Supreme Court. Even people who call themselves pro-choice think that some abortions may be unjustified, and therefore should be restricted. As it turns out, most people don’t think that women should have abortions for the sake of easing financial strain, finishing school, or avoiding embarrassment. Most people think it is wrong to kill a child in the womb because he might be deaf”and that it would be wrong to kill a child for that reason at any point in gestation. In other words, we find that ordinary folk are able to talk about the conditions on which abortions may be justified or unjustified and therefore rightly restrained by the law. As Wickey may know, I’ve been associated with a strategy of moving step by step as we return this matter of abortion to the political arena. As people are invited to mull over the matter, they are invited to start deliberating again in public on a matter that has been reserved for years to the courts. As the courts uphold steps of this kind, they are engaging, slowly but surely, in the business of dismantling Roe v. Wade .

In the meantime, Wickey has given us a version, from the other side, of the argument made by some feminists, that men reason about principles but women about “relationships.” And so, as Professor Carol Gilligan once explained, a woman pondering an abortion would consider how this abortion would affect the relationship with her mother-in-law as well as her husband. What was thoroughly screened from consideration, though, was the other person, the one being dismantled or poisoned in the surgery of abortion. “Relationship” with that person did not come into view because that baby just did not count as a person or a presence.

From the other side, I’m afraid, Wickey accomplishes something similar: He puts the accent on the preservation of the family, but he suggests that we can carry on the public argument on this question with far more effect if we simply put out of the picture the question of whether there is a small, innocent human being killed” about 1.3 million of them every year. That could hardly be a peripheral matter, could it, put decorously to the side, beyond our notice, as we get on with argument?

I’d thank Mr. Pimentel for his letter, but I’d point out first that Roe v. Wade does not have to be overruled before legislators and the political class can act. The Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act and the Partial-Birth Abortion Act were critical first steps, planting premises in the law. As I’ve argued in these pages, the Supreme Court would signal the end of the regime of Roe v. Wade as it simply starts upholding measures of this kind, for it conveys the point that we are in the business now of sustaining all kinds of measures that put restrictions on abortion. And once that point is made, the measures will come in a stream from the states. The decision in Gonzales v. Carhart sustaining the federal bill may have been that first step, and now in fact we are seeing legislators in the states replicating the federal bill, for those acts too will be sustained. What Pimentel and others have been missing is what has been called the “art of overruling”: A major holding is slowly cut back, step by step, and at a certain point it is but a short step to overruling the main holding. My own hunch is that if Roe v. Wade were overturned overnight, in a single stroke, it would trigger a mild panic in the land, with some people convinced that they were being dispossessed of what they had come to regard as an anchor of their personal freedom. And judges in the separate states would start finding the right to abortion in the constitutions of their states. But that panic may be arrested if people”and judges”are given the practice of deliberating again about the conditions under which abortions could rightly be restricted, and, in a series of cases, come to understand again what the law used to teach. Then, at a certain point, it will beget no surprise or stir much panic in the land if the last step is taken, and Roe v. Wade is, mercifully, put away.

Founding Principles

Mark Noll’s article “America’s Two Foundings” (December 2007) was pretty much on target and deserves wide readership. Our “two foundings” were/are compatible and complementary. And we can be thankful that it was Madison and Jefferson who won the argument over how best to protect religious freedom and not Patrick Henry, who would have pushed our country back in the direction of the Old World. We can thank Noll for reminding us that a church’s accepting Caesar’s shekels can lead to shackles that are sure to harm both religion and the voluntary principle behind religious freedom.

Edd Doerr

Silver Spring, Maryland

The Second Coming of Advent

I was gratified to read Joseph Bottum’s account of how Christmas has swallowed up Advent (“The End of Advent,” December 2007). He offers more than the conventional hand-wringing about the invasion of Advent (and Christmas) by secular consumerist practices, and he rightly notes that Advent, properly celebrated, prepares the way”in sobriety and discipline”for a true celebration of Christmas.

But there is more to be said about how Advent “looks forward.” It is, in fact, not simply a preparation for Christmas, as so many seem to think. It is also the season when the Church recalls with intensity the second coming of Christ. If one looks at the structure of the readings and prayers of the liturgy, especially for the first and second Sundays of Advent, it becomes clear that the second coming is in the foreground. This attention to the second coming then gradually recedes in the third and fourth Sundays, while preparation for celebrating the first coming (the Incarnation of Christ) begins to occupy center stage. Remarkably, this is rarely noticed, and we go on assuming that Advent is only about a healthy and spiritual celebration of Christmas.

If Advent is to have its full effect of “looking forward,” we need to recapture the expectancy of what we still wait and hope for”the second coming of Christ. John Henry Newman, for one, understood this well. In his sermon entitled “Watching,” he neatly sums up the spirit proper to the celebration of Advent: “This then is to watch; to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again; to desire His second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of His first.”

Daniel A. Keating

Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Detroit, Michigan

Art and Hypocrisy

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Matthew J. Milliner’s “The Art of Transgression” (December 2007). Milliner conveys with accuracy the hypocrisy of the art world in its selective admission of religious themes only when these are conditioned by disdain, mockery, and even blasphemy of religion. The self- proclaimed cultural elites admit religion only when religious belief is somehow revealed as decapitated, an apt example being Gober’s headless Christ.

But I wonder if a different principle is at work among ordinary people who visit countless museums and art exhibits around the world and who encounter masterpieces of Christian art that fuse religious impulse and some of the world’s greatest artistic talent. Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, and Caravaggio continue to attract and inspire millions.

As a docent of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., I have observed a somewhat interesting phenomenon with the daily round of visitors who arrive at the museum. While the museum’s modern and French Impressionist collections bring in a good number of visitors each day, it is the gallery’s medieval and Renaissance collections that seem consistently to attract the most attention, both in numbers and levels of interest. The subject matter of these collections is religious in general and Christian in particular.

So while the cultural elites mock religion in private “invitation only” galleries over wine and brie, the ordinary museum-goer stands in awe of the religious masterpieces of Fra Angelico, Raphael, and Rembrandt.

Milliner ends his essay by raising the question of the challenge posed to artists of faith by the strident antireligious bias of the cultural elite. I know personally the uphill challenge of artists of faith, such as my husband, Scott, who struggle within this cultural milieu.

I am reminded of Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” in which he offered this stirring advice: “Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.”

Jem Sullivan

Pontifical Faculty of the

Immaculate Conception at the

Dominican House of Studies

Washington, D.C.

I wrote the book The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art , which Matthew Milliner quotes in his essay, partly because I noticed that art students who make work with religious or spiritual significance often can’t get constructive criticism. Their instructors shy away from religious or spiritual themes and talk instead about such safe things as color and form. At the professional level, if artists make work that is infused with religious themes, they typically cannot get shows in the main art galleries or places in biennales or art fairs. But if their work is critical of religion, they often can participate in the international art market.

Chris Ofili, Andres Serrano, and Maurizio Cattelan are only the most famous of a large number of artists whose work is seen as openly critical or skeptical of organized religion and therefore nominally acceptable in the art world. In general, if an artist practices a non-Western religion, or a tribal religion, or if the religion is private or otherwise hidden, it can be acceptable; otherwise, the work has to be critical of religion. So I was concerned that the very large number of student artists who are exploring religious or spiritual themes are cut off from serious, engaged criticism; and when they become professional artists, they are marginalized by an art world intent on skepticism, hermeticism, ambiguity, and many other things”but not the direct expression of faith.

The other main purpose of the book was to bridge a gulf of misunderstanding between two groups of scholars. One group I’ll call the “religionists,” using the word that academics tend to use to identify religious people. They would include not only scholars of religion but also scholars who write about religious themes in relation to art, such as Mark C. Taylor. They would also include art historians who work in religion departments or theological unions, and they would definitely include art critics engaged with contemporary religion, spirituality, or NRM (New Religious Movement) art. The common ground of this first group is the sense that religion or spirituality has always been part of modernism and that modern art is, in many ways, a site of the partial recuperation of such themes. The second group includes art historians who believe more or less the opposite: that modernism is predicated on a secularism that often springs from political convictions and often expresses itself in various formalisms. In that second point of view, an artist like Kandinsky is an exception, and an artist like Rothko who speaks openly about religious issues is fundamentally misguided about his own work (which is valued for any number of nonreligious reasons).

Matthew Milliner very rightly points to the odd fact that some contemporary art (such as Robert Gober’s) can be accepted in places of worship even though it hints at nondoctrinal ideas, and even though few “faithful Catholic artists” would be content to have their own work exhibited alongside it.

The only correction I would like to make is that Milliner’s excerpts imply that I am “laying down the law,” saying religious art should never have a place in the art world. I do not take either side on that question: I am interested in trying to start a conversation between groups of people who seldom talk. It seems tremendously important to find ways for nonreligious scholars of art to talk to people of faith, and to create learning contexts in which art students interested in religion can receive balanced, engaged critiques. The “law” that religion and art don’t mix isn’t mine. I’m a reporter, not a proselytizer.

James Elkins

School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Matthew J. Milliner replies:

I thank Ms. Sullivan for highlighting the fact that, when the art world refuses artists of faith, it both ignores the art of the past and alienates a sizable audience of the present. Her citing John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” in light of this refusal recalls his encouragement of Soviet-bloc Christians, who”like artists of faith today”also were not permitted to exist.

Mr. Elkin’s letter displays his talent”from which I have long profited”for mapping the bewildering world of contemporary art. I am most encouraged to hear that the rejection of traditional religion by that world is not something he endorses or enforces but merely reports on. Have I shot the messenger of such unhappy news? I did sense a measure of detachment and reluctant reporting in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art . Elkins expresses dismay”not approval”when a nun’s art was disqualified from a competition on his fellow jurors’ discovery that she was a nun. Yet, when Elkins relates how he told a student point blank, “You can’t make religious art, at least not art that is really obviously religious like this,” consigned that art in his book to a “moribund strain of visual art that is cut off from what is interesting about current practice,” and then invoked Hegel (“It is no help to adopt again . . . past world views”) to close a chapter entitled “The End of Religious Art,” I wasn’t so sure. Was this reporting or enforcing?

Fortunately, his reply affords welcome clarification. If Elkins indeed wants to “create learning contexts in which art students interested in religion can receive balanced, engaged critiques,” then the situation where he refused such criticism to just such a student must have been a rare slip. The next time a student dares to show him sincerely religious art (often in desperate need of serious criticism), perhaps the student will be encouraged to explore it further and no longer be told it is ipso facto uninteresting. It may be, but few things become interesting without feedback from those trained and paid to provide it.

Perhaps Elkins might also diver-sify his curriculum by sending such students not only to Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida (or, for that matter, to that secularist in reli- gionist clothing, the self-proclaimed a/theologian Mark C. Taylor), but also to scholars like the University of Cambridge’s Jeremy Begbie, whose Voicing Creation’s Praise is as rigorous an example of art theory as any produced by those named above. Furthermore, seeing that Elkins does not take sides on this matter, perhaps in his next treatment of it”if only to balance the scales”he will close with a different Hegel quote: “As the most perfect subject for painting I have already specified love . . . the object of which is not a purely spiritual ‘beyond’ but is present. The supreme and unique form of this love is Mary’s love for the Christ-child, the love of the mother who has borne the Savior of the world” ( Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. II ).

Evangelical Ireland

Father Neuhaus, observing the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland’s (EAI) view that Catholicism’s shrinkage on the green isle is an “opportunity” for evangelicalism, comments that “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” (While We’re At It, December 2007). I, as an evangelical, can agree, if by “perverse” Father Neuhaus wants simply to register the sad and regrettable state of affairs on our planet. I cannot agree, however, if he means that the EAI is somehow less than fully Christian in its response. (And I say that as someone who agrees with and knows some of the signatories of Ireland’s 1988 “What Is an Evangelical Catholic””which is regarded as an oxymoron by many on both sides.)

After all, the EAI’s view is only the flip side of Catholicism’s own take, which is equally unflattering about evangelical churches, dismissing them as not even churches but rather as religious clubs that, as Cardinal Dulles reminds us in the same issue of First Things, possess “only elements or true fragments of the true Church.” So Catholics rejoice when their church (the true Church) grows and are saddened, as the pope made clear in his May 2007 visit to Brazil, when the evangelical churches (the almost church) grow at Catholics’ expense.

Should we call on the pope to rejoice with Christian charity that probably nominal Catholics are coming alive in their faith in Christ (my own experience after eighteen years growing up within American Catholicism) in Brazil’s evangelical or Pentecostal churches”then ac cuse the pope of “perversity” when he fails to do so? That is probably unrealistic. To object to Irish evangelicals’ seeking ecumenical linkages, even while seeing opportunity for people to come to a fuller faith in Christ, is unrealistic. Some would even say perverse. But not I.

Paul Miller

Bellevue, Washington

RJN replies:

I agree that, human nature being as it is and real differences making a difference as they do, there will be competition between Christian communities. The accurate analogy with the EAI stance, however, would be Catholics’ exulting in the collapse of Christian faith in an overwhelmingly Protestant country, thus providing a niche-market opportunity for Catholicism. That is the perversity to which I refer. It is not an insult but a simple observation that Protestant ecclesial communities are not fully Church in the sense that the Catholic Church understands itself to be Church. For instance, a universal community led by bishops who are the successors of the apostles in communion with Peter, the bishop of Rome. No Protestant community claims to be that, and therefore Protestants should not be offended when Catholics take note of the fact that Protestants do not mean by Church all that Catholics mean by Church.

Mary Contrarians

In “True Devotion to Mary” (December 2007), Father Neuhaus stated the following: “Catholic bishops and other leaders must strive to correct the widespread idea that Mary or one of the other saints has a particular power over God or Christ to obtain benefits.”

This statement flies in the face of the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine.” Jesus replies, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” But this is the part I love the most: Mary completely ignores Jesus’ reply and says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” That is exactly what my mother and many mothers I know would have done. In other words: “I don’t care when your hour is coming, you have to help this wedding couple.” And, of course, Jesus, the dutiful son, fulfills her request.

If the above does not show that Jesus’ mother has a particular power over her son, as any strong-willed mother has power over her grown children, I don’t know what does.

David C. Bayer

Cudahy, Wisconsin

Father Neuhaus seems to be saying that the intercession of the saints is hogwash. Mary’s “twisting of Jesus’ arm” at the wedding of Cana seems to me that Mary has a bit of pull with the Lord, thus making her a wonderful advocate for prayers. I think it was Paul who wrote that “the prayers of a righteous man availeth much.” What could be better than requesting the Lord’s mother to pray for a person’s intentions? My understanding of Catholic tradition is that certain saints have particular callings to intervene with the Lord: St. Gerard and conception (worked for me multiple times), St. Anthony and finding lost items (works for me and a Lutheran colleague of mine), et al.

Am I missing the point? Please help me to understand.

Mark Szejbach

Bay City, Michigan

The article “True Devotion to Mary” drew my interest because it was exactly the title of a work of
St. Louis de Montfort that illustrated not only what true devotion should not be but what it should be. The current effort seems to be a little too much a description of what it should not be. I wish there were a method of describing more aptly what devotion to Mary is in order to enhance ecumenical understanding. Instead, it seems that most attempts to discuss Catholic perceptions of Mary within a diverse religious environment generally center on admissions of excessiveness, without describing what we believe. Many articles and talks instead border on “A Testimony of Embarrassment Over Excesses in Devotion Particularly to Mary and Only Among Catholics””as though excesses in religious fervor were applicable only to Marian devotion and only within Catholicism.

Why an excess in a devotion makes the principle of that devotion negligible does not make sense. Were that true, then the world would be devoid of most belief systems.

Kathy Pendracky

Avella, Pennsylvania

The title of “True Devotion to Mary,” is misleading. Father Neuhaus is selling a stark ecumenical version of Catholic Marian devotion deemed acceptable by our Lutheran and evangelical brethren. He repeatedly equates Mary with the other saints and emphasizes again and again the Church’s struggles with abuses and excesses of Marian piety. He points out that Mary has no “power over” or “leverage with” God. Father Neuhaus may as well try to fit the Cathedral of Chartres into a shoe box.

Leaving aside all the private revelations and devotions that we are not required to accept, as Father Neuhaus carefully points out, the Catholic Church’s theology and dogma regarding Mary clearly elevate her above all the other saints and place her in a unique relationship to God that cannot be ignored to placate our Protestant friends. Mary is the Immaculate Conception, alone of all humans save her son conceived without original sin, the pure receptacle prepared by the Father to be the mother of his Son. God’s plan for our salvation was predicated on her “fiat.” She is the bride of the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos, the Mother of God, as formally defined by the Church. As such, she stands in unique relationship to the Holy Trinity and far above all the other saints. Mary has no power over God, but God, in his love for her and his desire to honor her, chooses to show forth his tenderest, most merciful, and most approachable aspect through her.

Through Our Lady, God continues to tell us: “Can a mother forget her child? See, I have carved you on the palm of my hand.” Witness both the abundant verified miracles attributed to her intercession and also the many saints whose devotion to Mary drew them to intimacy with God. Would Father Neuhaus have us ignore all this for the sake of unity with our Protestant friends now? Better to draw them into the richness of devotion to Mary”patiently, no matter how long it takes.

Cherie J. Guelker

Marthasville, Missouri

Mary has become more popular than Jesus in Catholic popular piety. There are more apparitions attributed to Mary than to Jesus. It seems that, after the Ascension, Jesus has become socially and spatially remote to men, even though he promised, “I will be with you always” (Matt. 28:20). Mary has become the substitute for the human but withdrawn Jesus. The mother has eclipsed the Son and the Holy Spirit in status and importance.

The honor imputed to Mary in popular piety has drawn people away from Jesus and diminished the significance of Christ’s Incarnation. There are more prayers addressed to Mary than to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, even though in Scripture we find no explicit command from Mary urging Christians to pray to or through her and no promise that she will hear our prayers. We find no mandate from God directing the living to course their prayers through her. Yet, in the rosary, Mary is invoked more times than God. In contrast, Jesus promised: “I will do whatever you ask in my name . . . . You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14, 16:23-24).

Protestants believe that the Blessed Virgin and all the saints do not have the divine attributes of omnipresence and omniscience. They cannot be everywhere to hear the simultaneous prayers of the Christians here on earth. Nor are they omniscient, able to understand prayers uttered by Christians in various languages. Vatican II, in the document Lumen Gentium , teaches that Mary is without the divine attributes of her divine son. As a former Roman Catholic, I don’t remember the Church teaching that the Virgin and the saints are omnipresent and omniscient! Yet such plethora of adoration to the Blessed Virgin Mary remained unquestioned and unchallenged by the hierarchy in the Church.

Jose B. Fuliga

Chula Vista, California

I am an evangelical Christian, mother of toddler twins, part-time worship director who has a deep interest in theology, and I truly enjoy reading First Things.

I had to write, though, regarding this article. It was very informative, and I appreciated gaining your particular perspective. Still, I was left wondering many things. My ultimate question is, Where do you find a precedent to pray to anyone but Jesus? In my reading and study of Scripture, I find no evidence of Jesus praying to anyone but the Father or anyone else praying in any other manner. And the maxim you shared was rather disturbing to me: “If you would draw close to Jesus, draw close to Mary; if you would draw close to Mary, draw close to Jesus.” This implies that we can get spiritually close to Mary, as if she is a deity and our spirits can talk to one another. Mary is like us, a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, chosen, though, for an extraordinary role. Truly she is “blessed” among women”but she is not superhuman, divine, or in any way the receiver of people’s prayers. From my reading of Scripture, the saints are waiting for us in heaven, “the cloud of witnesses,” as Hebrews labels them. Their example is further encouragement to keep the faith, though they have no ability to hear our prayers. Please know I say this humbly, and I do so as a sister in Christ, not as a professor or as someone with many formal letters behind my name.

Amy Gerak

Buckeye, Arizona

Father Neuhaus implies that the only alternative to “control” of Marian excesses is laissez-faire”as if the Church did not have a variety of means to encourage obedience to her teachings. In business terms, the Church lacks quality assurance. The business world has learned the value of avoiding “scrap and rework,” while the Church allows irregularities to thrive.

Ralph Gillmann

Burke, Virginia

RJN replies:

I wrote: “What is to be unequivocally opposed and corrected is the idea that Mary or other saints have a certain ‘leverage’ to move an otherwise inaccessible or uncaring God ” (emphasis added). To the letters, much too briefly and in order: (1) Pious imagination should be guided by doctrinal truth that it is Mary’s obedience that marks her as first disciple and icon of the Church. (2) God allows the saints to participate in the dispensing of his gifts, but, as I quoted John Paul II, devotion to the saints “should not sink to the level of a mere search for protection or for material goods or for bodily health. Rather, the saints should be presented to the faithful as models of life in imitation of Christ as the sure way that leads to him.” (3) The use of St. Louis de Montfort’s title was deliberate. The maxim is true that abusus non tollit usum . The essay happened to be about abuses. (4) Agreed that true unity is unity in the truth. As Benedict XVI has explained, the “dignities” of Mary are not to elevate her above other saints, in heaven or on earth, but to exemplify her anticipation of the fullness of salvation for which we hope. (5) The saints are not limited by bodily existence and the time-space continuum. It is very easy to caricature Catholic devotion. As documented in the article, it is not true that the teaching Church is indifferent to abuses. (6) We should pray to be opened to the full implications of the truth that with God all things are possible. In this life we experience that we are drawn closer to Christ by drawing closer to those who are closer to Christ, and so it is in relation to the saints in heaven who are, with us, “in Christ.” (7) Unlike decisions in the business world, the Church is respectful of “irregularities” that may be hard to separate from the work of the Holy Spirit. See Jesus on not uprooting the wheat with the tares. (8) I thank the several correspondents. I have done no more than touch on possible responses to the concerns raised. The magazine will revisit these questions in the future.


Due to a printing error, the following text was cut off from the conclusion of Avery Cardinal Dulles’ article “Who Can Be Saved?” in the February 2008 issue:

We cannot take it for granted that everyone is seeking the truth and is prepared to submit to it when found. Some, perhaps many, resist the grace of God and reject the signs given to them. They are not on the road to salvation at all. In such cases, the fault is not God’s but theirs. The references to future punishment in the gospels cannot be written off as empty threats. As Paul says, God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).

We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:7). If non-Christians are praying to an unknown God, it may be for us to help them find the one they worship in ignorance. God wants everyone to come to the truth. Perhaps some will reach the goal of their searching only at the moment of death. Who knows what transpires secretly in their consciousness at that solemn moment? We have no evidence that death is a moment of revelation, but it could be, especially for those in pursuit of the truth of God.

Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the obligation to share it with others. Christian faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

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