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The general reader of literature can now walk most of the poetic battlefields of the last hundred years with little more emotion than the tourist’s usual wonder that so much blood was spilled to gain so little ground. There”over there, along that low wall”the Georgians made their last, doomed stand. The ridge across the valley, that’s where contemporary modernism was decided, the high mandarins of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound easily crushing the populist, lowbrow rebellion from the likes of Vachel Lindsay and Robinson Jeffers. And across the valley floor, so green now but red once with blood, the Beat berserkers howled their way close to victory before their charge was finally turned back.

Perhaps as a result of this quiet, after-battle calm, recent anthologies have finally begun to agree on something like a canon of twentieth-century American poetry. William Carlos Williams has won, and Stephen Vincent Benét has lost. Hart Crane has surprisingly faded, and Wallace Stevens has unsurprisingly shone. Delmore Schwartz has been washed under by the great wave of the world, while Sylvia Plath has made it safe to shore. Karl Shapiro is being forgotten, and J.V. Cunningham is being remembered. Amy Lowell is out, and Robert Lowell is in.

Time will revisit some of these judgments. Time ought to revisit some of these judgments. But the fading of the general reader’s concern is not just the normal effect of passing time”the sort of thing that lets us put both Milton and Keats in an anthology of English literature, though Keats once moaned that “life to Milton is death to me.”

Not just the poets but poetry itself seems to have faded over the last fifty years. A new poem from Auden or Lowell was an event”a public event, an entry in the great dialogue we have about ourselves. Poetry was a player in the public conversation, and, if you were going to be a public intellectual, you had to read contemporary poetry.

That was then. This is now. Even fiction”the fundamental art form of the West for the last three hundred years, the primary device by which we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves”has taken a beating. You don’t have to read either poetry or fiction to participate in the high public discourse of America these days. You’re welcome to have them as hobbies, of course, the way all real readers have hobby reading they do: Napoleonic naval stories, or hard science fiction, or police-procedural mysteries. But along the way, you can’t expect anyone else to have read that stuff. It’s been a long time since anyone was embarrassed at a dinner party by not having read something in the latest issue of Poetry.

That may be why there has always been an element of “Take Your Medicine” and “Eat Your Spinach” in First Things ’ publication of poetry. When the magazine began, the decision was made that poems should be included, even while most other non-art journals were trimming or even eliminating verse. The founding editors, Richard John Neuhaus and James Nuechterlein, decided that general readers ought to consume poetry if they were concerned about American public life, and if that meant prising open some jaws and forcing poetry down some throats, well, so be it.

The magazine’s first poetry editor was the great literary scholar and Episcopal priest Nathan A. Scott Jr., who had lead the fight against the New Critics by insisting that readers examine the beliefs and the circumstances of the authors while reading poetry. He was followed, for many years, by the poet and scholar Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, professor of English and dean of humanities and theological studies at Wheaton College. I took on the role of part-time poetry editor for a few years, while working full-time as the literary editor of the Weekly Standard. Then the fine Southern poet Anthony Lombardy came on board for an interval before handing the task on to the current poetry editor, the poet and novelist Paul Lake, who teaches at Arkansas Tech University.

Along the way”twenty years and two hundred issues”the magazine has published original work from the Europeans Czes?aw Mi?os and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to the Americans Richard Wilbur and Dana Gioia, and all the way to the Australian Les Murray. Under the long tenure of Jill Baumgaertner, First Things tended toward modern free verse in the burgeoning Christianity and the Arts movement. Under more recent editors, it has tended toward plucking the best of the victors at the end of the bloody fights of the New Formalist movement.

But those are only the broadest trends, and in any particular issue, the reader would encounter any of a variety of schools and styles. We published comic verse”do you remember Julie Stoner’s “Terra Firma,” which achieved the nearly impossible goal of playing the sad and sonorous sapphic stanza for comedy?

Yes, you’re right. I’m sure Armageddon’s coming:
wars, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, locusts,
killer flus, et cetera. Yes, I’m awed by
all the destruction.
I concede your point that the world might end, and
all your puny labors will be as nothing.
Still, you can’t go out with your friends until you’ve
folded the laundry.

We published such serious and affecting verse as A.E. Stallings’ “Aegean Story,” which begins:

Briefly, newspapers recite
The facts about the fisherman
Who for two months, day and night,
Went out fishing for his son,
His only child, aged 23,
Who in a winter squall was drowned”
Washed overboard and out to sea”
And whose body was not found

We’ve indulged some old friends”the ones brought up on the old literary tradition of poetry”when they turned to poetry, as when we printed Joseph Epstein’s moving poem on the death of his friend Edward Shills.

Or when we hosted Avery Cardinal Dulles writing on “John Keats for Today’s Reader,” after he had watched the Green Bay Packers play a snowy game of football:

Saint Agnes Eve”Ah, bitter chill it was,
The coach for all his sweaters was a-cold;
The team limped weakly through the frozen grass,
And bundled were the fans, a woolly fold.
Numb were the passer’s fingers as his hold
Embraced the ball and flung a mighty pass.
It flew like cannon from a warship old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven, without a death,
To the alert receiver, while his prayer he saith.

We’ve printed a great deal of translation, as well, including the extraordinary renditions of John of the Cross by Rhina P. Espaillat:

Where have you fled and vanished,
Beloved, since you left me here to moan?
Deer-like you leaped; then, banished
and wounded by my own,
I followed you with cries, but you had flown.
Shepherds, if you discover,
going about this knoll to tend your sheep,
the dwelling of that lover
whose memory I keep,
tell him I sicken unto death and weep.

Dick Davis, Tom Disch, David Mason, Ralph McInerny, Samuel Menashe, Natasha Trethewey, Deborah Warren, Christian Wiman”on and on, poet after poet, many of them gathered in Grace Notes , the new anthology of First Things ’ poetry, edited by Paul Lake and Losana Boyd and published to mark the magazine’s twentieth anniversary. (To obtain a copy of Grace Notes , write to 35 East 21st Street, Sixth Floor New York, New York 10010. The $12.95 anthology is, for a short time, available to subscribers for $9.95 by check or money order, shipping included.)

Has First Things succeeded at its great strategic plan to restore the place of new poetry in the public discourse of America? There’s no doubt that our great charge across those poetic fields, led by the poetry editors from Nathan Scott to Paul Lake, has not yet gained the hill at which it aimed. But the battle is not yet over, and the new anthology of poetry from the first twenty years of First Things reveals just how hard we’ve been fighting.

Life Support

In zoology, the limicoles are a class of birds that dwell on the shoreline”on that half-liquid and half-solid place, that jellied world between the water and the land. The word is an old metaphor, coined in French and derived from the Latin limbus . As an adjective, it means occupying the edge”and that is what the best-known Catholic institutions in America have always done: dwelt in that strange middle ground between the Church and the American state.

The Catholic schools, for instance”together with all the health-care facilities and Catholic charities”are not churches, but they operate at the edges of the Church, from which they feed spiritually and financially, all while serving the larger social ecosystem. The closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital this year may mark something: As the well-known chronicler of Catholic New York, Terry Golway, remarked, the loss of St. Vincent’s means that there is no longer a single Catholic hospital on the island of Manhattan. But, generally speaking, the Catholic institutions still populate the American scene, and they are, for the most part, still recognizably Catholic. Despite cultural, financial, and political incentives to secularize, they have not yet entirely done so”which is why the Catholic limicole institutions still provide much of the infrastructure necessary for Catholicism to occupy its current place in American civil religion.

The pressure, however, is building on all Catholic semipublic organizations. Lobbyists and a good number of those in Congress have long sought federal subsidies for abortion and the watering-down of conscience clauses for health-care professionals, which threatens the hospitals. Whether intended or not, the increase in federal regulation aims at a standardization that threatens compromise and outright secularization for Catholic primary and secondary schools. And as for Catholic charities, bishops as orthodox and dynamic as Archbishop Chaput of Denver have expressed well-founded fears that dependence on government funding and secular-minded lay professionals is already making them vulnerable to a loss of religious identity.

No mortal threat yet exists, but, in the long run, how likely is resistance to succeed? No one knows for sure”who can say which way things are certain to break?”but it is worth noting that the catalyst for resistance has been emerging clearly ever since the American bishops began in the 1990s to take a harder line on the life issues.

Indeed, it’s beginning to look as though the leadership will manage to preserve the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions only as followers of the Church at large on the culture-of-life issues”above all, abortion. Although abortion is by no means the only pertinent issue, the question of what to do about it in the public square is by far the most emotional”as it ought to be, given how many babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973.

Hospitalizing the Hospitals

About the Catholic schools, we have written much and will, no doubt, have much more to say. But a word needs to be said about the other limicole institutions, as well. Religious identity remains somewhat stronger in Catholic hospitals than in the universities, but the hospitals have not been immune to secularization.

Since the 1920s they have operated, formally at least, under the “Ethical and Religious Directives” approved by the bishops and reflecting official Catholic doctrine. The most familiar concern is what is now termed “reproductive health” : abortion, contraception, and sterilization. Since the 1960s, cases of Catholic physicians and hospitals providing access to contraceptives have been too numerous to recount; and Catholic hospitals are under significant economic pressure to offer sterilization procedures such as tubal ligation. Many Catholic health-care professionals who would not provide those services themselves quietly refer women to institutions that do.

The situation is no better with respect to the various techniques of artificial procreation developed since the 1970s, in vitro fertilization being the best-known, even though many Catholics are unaware that the Church actually forbids it. Although the directives were updated in 2001 to reflect teaching about artificial procreation, in practice Catholics use such techniques as often as non-Catholics, occasionally in Catholic institutions themselves. As for euthanasia, the fifty-eighth of the Ethical and Religious Directives was revised in 2009 to reflect John Paul II’s more stringent criteria about when artificial nutrition and hydration could be withdrawn. But polls showed that Catholics were as divided about the Terri Schiavo case in 2005 as the general populace, and there is no indication that the revised directive will ensure compliance any more reliable than that in other areas.

Some optimism might be justified by recent polls suggesting that a large majority of Catholics”and a plain majority of all Americans”oppose abortion mandates for health-care institutions receiving federal funds, as well as federal regulations mandating abortion coverage by private health-insurance plans. But the popularity of the pro-life slogan “Abortion is not health care because pregnancy is not a disease” might not suffice to stop what appears, at this writing, to be a legal and political juggernaut.

Increasingly under attack are state regulations that allow health-care professionals to avoid giving care or filling prescriptions that would violate their consciences. Typical of the sentiment behind those attacks was the special-election campaign remark made in January 2010 by Martha Coakley, the candidate for the Massachusetts Senate seat occupied for decades by Ted Kennedy, that Catholic health-care workers who refuse to dispense the “morning-after pill” abortifacient “probably shouldn’t work in emergency rooms.” Coakley was much mocked for the line, but she is hardly alone in holding that, if civil law permits a given medical procedure, then those who find that procedure morally objectionable should either be forced to follow it anyhow or be excluded from the profession.

Put so explicitly, no Catholic hospital would agree. But there has been a slow drift toward implicit agreement, nonetheless, and the cause may be best understood this way: Imperfect compliance with the Ethical and Religious Directives does not reflect theological dissent”at least not visibly and directly”so much as it reflects the professional culture in which all medical practitioners are educated. Since the formal training that Catholic health-care professionals receive is, naturally and in most respects, the same as that received by non-Catholics, the professional self-identity of Catholic health-care providers is shaped more forcefully by an essentially secular ethos than by a distinctively Catholic one.

That is largely inevitable, and for that reason contributes to the erosion of Catholic identity as much as political and theological influences. And the increasing monetary pressure on Catholic hospitals makes the temptation to offer a “full range” of reproductive-health services all the more pressing. The now entrenched financial slogan is “No Margin, No Mission.”

Of course, much of this simply derives from the transformation of Catholic hospitals, which began as religious missions but now survive as business enterprises. The idea of hospitals originated as an institutionalization of corporal works of mercy, and the typical Catholic hospitals in the United States were run and staffed largely by female religious. Although there’s been a rise in vocations to more conservative female orders of late, the present cultural and political climate makes it highly unlikely that such a development will reverse what has become the laicization of Catholic hospitals. The role of nuns in the recent founding of the Catholic women’s pregnancy center Gianna on Manhattan’s Upper East Side seems a counter-example. But such bright spots show no sign as yet of renewing established health-care institutions from within. They remain at the periphery as witnesses, not at the center as key actors.

The question of whether the Catholic identity of health-care institutions will strengthen or weaken may end up being answered not through any formal battle over doctrine but simply by practical realities. More and more Catholic hospitals are in financial difficulty. In 2009, Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley backed away from a deal with a secular insurance company because of the abortion issue, but he had been forced to seek a corporate alliance because the archdiocese can no longer afford health care for the poor on its own.

In the future there will probably be less Catholic representation in health care generally. But it is at least arguable that the institutions that survive will retain a relatively strong Catholic identity, if only because their survival depends on their serving the niche market of Catholics willing to utilize and staff them.

Professionalizing the Charities

And then there are the Catholic charitable institutions. In 2008, Catholic Charities of Boston was forced out of the adoption business because of a state law forbidding discrimination against same-sex couples as potential adoptive parents. In Colorado and Connecticut, bills were recently proposed forbidding discrimination in hiring on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. Those bills have failed, at least for the time being. But even though such moves have not yet become the norm, Archbishop Chaput has argued that “government interference”in effect, a kind of extortion”is a growing pattern.”

As Chaput notes, the first leverage typically used is financial. Public bureaucrats and lawmakers pressure Catholic agencies by threatening to withdraw funding or to revoke tax exemptions. And, as a result, Catholic Charities in many jurisdictions end up obliged, for both practical and legal reasons, to hire a majority non-Catholic staff.

Of course, that issue is but one aspect of the larger issue of religious liberty. Over the next decade, this is where the battle of religious liberty will be most visibly fought”in the limicole institutions. And particularly in the Catholic ones, as the most visible and, in bulk, significant. Homosexual activity, contraception, and abortion will be the flashpoints. To quote, again, Archbishop Chaput, “Critics rarely dispute the Church’s work fighting injustice, helping community development, or serving persons in need. But that’s no longer enough. Now they demand that the Church must submit her identity and mission to the state’s promotion of these newly alleged rights”despite the constant Catholic teaching that these behaviors are personal moral tragedies that can lead to deep social injustices.”

The Catholic institutions still provide a bulwark against cultural and political encroachments, but they do so at a time when Catholic culture as a whole has suffered a deep erosion. Whether these institutions will continue to provide the needed bulwark will depend on whether Americans generally, and Catholics in particular, become dissatisfied enough to insist on retaining alternatives.

The limicole institutions of the Protestant mainline generally failed to do so; so closely identified with the great currents of America itself, they drifted out to sea and left the land of their churchly origin behind. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, the evangelical movement has strongly resisted the trend but has not yet built a large set of such institutions. At the present moment, the Catholic institutions alone remain on the shore, in the limicole spaces. That’s why they are so important”not for Catholicism, which will survive without them, but for America and its strange experiment in ordered liberty.

While We’re At It

• A notice this winter from the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix: “Celebrate the shortest day of the year with a traditional Irish meal followed by activities that include a solstice ritual performed by the Grove of the Rising Phoenix, a Neopagan Druid group. Warm clothing is suggested.” Yes, well, the Druidical blood sacrifice for winter solstice is something of an Irish cultural tradition, but some other Irish traditions have arisen in the years since. And I worry a little about that traditional Irish meal, as well. Warm clothing suggested.

• News from England: According to the Guardian, Matthew Knight is the administrator of Southwark Cathedral, but he attends a conservative High Church parish in Brighton” “not because he agrees with its vicar but because he likes the music and the liturgy: ‘I don’t care if they disapprove. I don’t believe the church is here to tell me what to do. I like to follow my own conscience. The Anglican church is not my moral compass.’”

Keep that line in mind: “I don’t believe the church is here to tell me what to do.” But the music and liturgy are still good.

• “I suppose I should add that you are a very strong pro-life Democrat,” Greta Van Susteren said to Senator Bob Casey Jr. in an interview about his support for the senate’s health-care bill. Casey, naturally, replied, “No question. But I also believe . . . ”

One does, of course, have to balance conflicting goals and desires in the real life of politics, weighing each against each. Still, there’s something about that phrase “but I also believe.” In the mouth of a politician, that always signals the setting aside of a principle. And, man, did Senator Casey fling aside principle. It’s not just that he voted for the health-care bill, which aimed at funding abortions. He actively worked to seduce others from their pro-life stands, and President Obama brought Casey to the White House to help him find a way for Senator Ben Nelson to allow abortion funding to pass.

In the end, they succeeded”which means that there is not a single pro-life Democrat in the U.S. Senate. Given the divided views of the American public, that’s a dangerous situation for the republic, as the issue becomes the property of parties, rather than the property of principles that appear in both parties.

• In 1998 James Burtchaell published The Dying of the Light , his detailed study of how a number of once Christian colleges and universities had gradually lost (or, sadly, eagerly relinquished) their distinctively Christian identity. Valparaiso University was not among the three Lutheran colleges examined by Burtchaell, but, clearly, Valpo is making an effort to qualify for an updated revision.

Case in point: a recent report from a task force charged to recommend changes in the university’s opening convocation. “To reinforce the VU spirit and to be more inclusive for the increasingly diverse student body, the community should sing the Valparaiso Alma Mater in lieu of the Valparaiso Hymn.” Themes of “welcoming” and “hospitality” should be central to the convocation. (In passing, doesn’t the word hospitality win the prize for most overused word in recent years?) The convocation should avoid Scripture readings linked to the historic lectionary and should use instead “a reading in keeping with the spirit of the convocation or in harmony with academic or campus wide themes.”

We’re not quite sure what this means, but we’re pretty sure they won’t be reading Galatians 1:6“9. In general, care is required to “avoid the kind of overt religiosity that can be misperceived as exclusionary.” Reading between the lines, one discerns a hidden agenda: Please don’t think we’re evangelicals. Nevertheless, “VU can continue to robustly celebrate its rich Lutheran / Christian tradition while remaining sensitive to the feelings of those who belong to different faith communities.” Of course, as is always the case when liberal Protestantism appears on the scene, it’ll be a little hard to say what those others are being “welcomed” into. Nothing very distinctive, to be sure. But no matter. One can keep on repeating the university’s motto from Psalm 36:9: “In thy light we see light.” Another notch on Burtchaell’s belt.

• One more thought: That Diversity Concerns Committee at Valparaiso, responding to a request from the university’s president, also committed the university to embracing diversity”so that members of the university community can learn “how the world is knit together by threads of mutual dependence.” Shouldn’t a truly welcoming university be hospitable even to confused and incoherent ideas?

In order that Valpo may become a more pluralistic, welcoming, and inclusive community, the statement recommends that the university focus its strategic priorities on certain groups that are underrepresented in American higher education. Among them are “people of different sexual orientation and gender identities.”

Clearly, this is a bold new marketing strategy. Valparaiso will carve out its special niche in American higher education by aiming to talk and look like almost every other college and university. But if this is what amounts to robust Lutheranism in higher education, we suspect we can get it in considerably more academically high-powered form at institutions that make no claim to be Lutheran but which are deeply committed to welcoming all forms of diversity, including gender identities of all sorts.

• In Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly , Robin L. West of Georgetown’s law school attempts to describe “The Harms of Homeschooling.” As she notes, regulatory oversight is minimal; in most states, public-school officials do little or nothing to ensure that homeschooled children actually learn something. All this is quite a change from as late as the 1970s, when throughout the country “it was a crime to keep one’s children home from school, and it did not matter in the slightest whether it was religion or some other felt conviction” that motivated parents to do so. Yet “there is indeed no credible evidence that homeschoolers as a group do worse on standardized tests.” So what’s the problem?

West concisely reviews a litany of harms posited in the literature she cites in her bibliography. No doubt a few really are difficulties. It stands to reason, for instance, that there’s a greater risk of unreported child abuse in homeschool households, given that most cases of abuse are first reported by public-school teachers. West also alleges a public-health risk entailed by homeschoolers’ de facto “exemption from immunizations,” which sounds plausible indeed, even though she presents no evidence that public health is actually affected. But then the list goes ideological.

We hear, for instance, of the risk of “ethical servility” ”a term of art among psychologists”in “authoritarian” households. That seems a risk only from the viewpoint of those who want school-age children to question every authority other than the dominant culture’s. Such questioning might well be good sometimes, especially for adolescents, but it can hardly be argued that it’s the state’s business to ensure it occurs, unless one sees the state as morally bound to promote itself at the expense of “fundamentalist” religion.

That such is West’s stance seems likely when she complains of the political influence of fundamentalist Christian families, who homeschool in disproportionate numbers. She also argues that children benefit in educational settings where they are valued not primarily for being their parents’ children but for being students, and where, as such, they all receive “equal respect.” And so, “ideally,” at least, the public classroom “and the relations within it model some of the core aspects of citizenship.” But one finds no actual argument that educating children in a setting where they are loved more than other children inhibits the development of such qualities. That is just tacitly assumed. In context, such an unargued premise is a sure mark of ideology that needn’t color the American experiment.

To her credit, West does not advocate suppression of homeschooling, and she may well be right to advocate greater regulation, both to ensure that children actually learn and to protect them from the undeniable risks. But one shouldn’t have to work to disentangle good sense from liberal ideology, as one so often must with positions adopted at places like Georgetown.

• In that same issue of the Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly , University of Colorado philosopher Scott Wisor takes up the question “Is There a Moral Obligation to Limit Family Size?” Wisor’s main conclusion seems unexceptionable”though some may take exception: “Although parents certainly do have obligations to consider the environmental impact of their families as producers, consumers, and citizens, it is not true that individuals ought to have smaller families for strictly environmental reasons.”

The arguments for that are strong. Malthusian doomsday scenarios have repeatedly turned out false, and the concrete evidence “suggests that in some cases, increased population sizes have actually led to increases in environmental stewardship.” And then there’s the curious fact that “acceptance of the argument for limiting family size might actually weaken the environmental movement.” If the most environmentally concerned families end up being the smallest, the ratio of the environmentally concerned to the general population will shrink, weakening their political impact.

Wisor’s most satisfying argument, however, represents a sounder moral vision: “Our love for our existing family members, our love for our future children, and the desire to have a large, fun, supportive family are more morally appropriate ways to think about our future children.” Wisor sets forth reasons to think so, but he shouldn’t have to. That he has to at all is attributable to the same liberal orthodoxy in academia signified by Robin West’s more dubious assertions about homeschooling.

• The headline from the press release read “Lutheran Bishops Offer Ideas to White House to Stir Economy.” The bishops’ group, described as a caucus, all with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), presented a letter to President Obama in which they outlined their views on energizing a so-far jobless recovery.

Actually, they gave the letter to Martha Coven, a special assistant to the president who works on “mobility and opportunity policy.” While the press release doesn’t say so, we gather Ms. Coven rushed it immediately to the Oval Office. In any case, the bishops sought out the president to “discuss the status of hunger and economic insecurity in the United States” and offer their “propositions for job creation such as small business development, job retraining, green jobs for low-income people, and expanding public service programs.”

Unfortunately, no details of their specific propositions have emerged, but we can certainly imagine how glad Ms. Coven was for their counsel. The caucus of bishops could not have been talking to a more appropriate administration official than Martha Coven. You get assistants and counsels galore at the Executive Office Building”ordinary run-of-the-mill White House hamsters in a maze of executive cubicles. But special assistants are, well, special. Admittedly, Ms. Coven’s niche sounds something like a “special assistant to the assistant to the secretary of the deputy general counsel” sort of thing, but no doubt, reflecting the value and level of expertise their advice merited, the bishops were directed to exactly the right person. It is nice to see that ordination in an old-line Protestant denomination does still confer on some bishops not only adeptness in formulating economic policy, but also, and equally, special access to important public officials”even if they are made to negotiate narrow hallways to find the right office for that particular special assistant.

According to her financial disclosure form, by the way, Ms. Coven is paid $120,000 a year as a special assistant. That would stimulate someone’s economy. To be entirely fair, however, that is about $9,000 less than her previous salary, prior to joining Team Obama, as a lobbyist (actually a “senior legislative associate” ) with the D.C.“based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The ELCA does not require financial disclosure forms from bishops, nor even the publication of their salaries, but by one estimate a typical bishop receives roughly twice the salary of an average parish pastor.

In our estimation, then, this meeting was mostly money talking to money”on behalf of the poor and unemployed to be sure, which makes it important enough to generate a press release. As newspaper social notices once reported, “A good time was had by all.”

• “Deranged cannibals terrorize reality-TV contestants” was a recent program-guide description of a SyFy Channel movie. The only thing better might have been “deranged vampires.” Either one works for us, as long as they took care of those reality-television contestants.

• Martin E. Marty’s analysis of religion in American is mostly wrong most of the time. That is because he fails to ask the right questions before moving ahead to offer the wrong conclusions. This is only our opinion, of course, and likely subject to some refinement at a later date. But, meanwhile, in his recent conclusions about the slight decline of conservative Christianity in America, he is surely mistaken. Citing some figures here and there, he comments that Catholics declined by almost 1?percent, and “the formerly swaggering and fail-proof Southern Baptist Convention” reported a loss of 40,000 members. (That’s 0.24 percent, to put it in perspective.) Dr. Marty’s own former denomination, the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod, “lost 45,735 members, or 1.44 percent of the formerly faithful.” And, quoting a Religion News Service press release, “Similarly, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ‘lost numbers for the last year for the first time in its 37-year history.’”

If this portends a great démarche, it is only because conservative Christians brought it on themselves, Marty seems to think. They deserve it, in other words. The trend in conservative growth and the readiness of conservatives “to battle for ‘values’” has not proved durable, because conservatives were rather ungracious about their previous success. They became “gloaters and bashers,” deriding “‘mainline,’ ‘moderate,’ and ‘liberal’ churches as they suffered losses.” They “rejoiced in the missteps or misfortunes of others.” And now, given the losses recorded, Marty wonders whether conservative Christianity really has an enduring formula for growth.

He does say it would be a pity if “moderates” and “liberal” Christians now turned around to dish out what they have received. After all, both conservatives and liberals “are all in the same culture, battling its trends, some perhaps wise enough to get serious, neither boasting or whining.” We cannot help but think that if the Protestant mainline suddenly jumped 0.24 percent in membership, the news of it would not become a bannered headline from denominational press offices”at least from those mainline denominations that can still afford a press office.

As for durable formulas for growth, there are numerous negative demographics confronting both liberal and conservative denominations in America. A friend points out to us that a 40 percent illegitimacy rate could be regarded as a significant demographic disincentive for churches of any stripe. Our guess, though, is that those churches most inclined toward defending the American family from dissolution will be the ones best able to defend it and ultimately benefit from it.

• Meanwhile, Episcopalians”sometimes unkindly called the Gene Robinson branch of U.S. Anglicanism”dropped 3 percent in 2008. That doesn’t sound like much, admits Warren Cole Smith at the website of World magazine, but apparently it is the largest membership drop any major denomination has experienced in a single year. For those keeping a running total, the Episcopal Church now has slightly fewer than 2 million members in 7,000 parishes. That’s down from about 3.5 million in 1965”a bit more than a 40 percent decline. Following Martin Marty’s admonition above, though, we are not “rejoicing in the missteps or misfortunes of others,” just marking them out.

Smith, however, is somewhat . . . well, gleeful is not the word. Perhaps “resigned but not grieving” does the trick. “Don’t grieve the demise of the Episcopal Church,” he says. “God has preserved a remnant. And the coming together of the various ‘continuing Anglican’ churches under the [Anglican Church in North America] organizational structure is one of the major religious developments of this year, a development that will likely resonate for many years to come.”

While that may be true, we do, nonetheless, grieve. The great decline of a once-vibrant Protestant mainline church is one of the saddest stories of the last generation, period.

• Whenever the subject of religion in public life is discussed these days, you hear certain descriptive terms used quite often. As you can guess, these terms have changed their meaning over time. For our readers’ benefit, First Things is proud to unveil its first contemporary theological dictionary:

angry : Displeased with liberal changes in a church

reactionary : Openly criticizing liberal changes in a church

misogynist : Objecting to legal abortion and possibly female clergy

homophobic : Objecting to openly homosexual clergy and believing that homosexual conduct is still sinful.

Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, New York, managed to use all four terms in one sentence when he commented on the Vatican’s outreach to disaffected Episcopalians: “At the heart of all of this is the reality that the Roman Church is willing to welcome angry, reactionary, misogynistic, homophobic people.”

• Speaking of those angry, reactionary, misogynistic, homophobic people, did you know the Catholic Church has the power to stop movie sequels from being made? So claims actor Sam Elliott, in an interview with the London Evening Standard . Elliott starred in the film The Golden Compass , which was adapted from the first book of a fantasy trilogy written by British atheist Philip Pullman.

To broaden its appeal, the film toned down the book’s antireligious elements. Nevertheless, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League blasted the film and announced a boycott. New Line Cinema eventually scrapped plans to adapt Pullman’s other two books into sequels. “The Catholic Church happened to The Golden Compass , as far as I’m concerned,” Elliott said. “I think it scared New Line off.”

Elliott also cited what he called the film’s “incredible” box-office success as proof that sequels would have been successful. The facts tell a different story. When it opened in December 2007, The Golden Compass received mixed reviews. A number of critics found it boring. According to the Internet Movie Database, The Golden Compass cost about $180 million to make but grossed only $70 million in the crucial U.S. market. Thus, while it did well financially overseas, The Golden Compass bombed in the United States, where it was heavily marketed and expected to be a big hit with both audiences and critics. It was nominated for two Oscars”for visual effects and art direction”and won the former, but it was passed over in the major categories.

Since The Golden Compass didn’t meet expectations, why would New Line Cinema expect sequels to do any better? If the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films had received mixed reviews and failed to catch on with American audiences, the studios that made them probably wouldn’t have bothered making sequels, either.

• In December, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree recognizing that his much-maligned predecessor, Pope Pius XII, displayed “heroic virtues” during his lifetime. The decree, which now makes Pius XII eligible for canonization, pending the verification of two miracles, drew protests from such Jewish organizations as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Recalling the oft-repeated allegations that Pius XII was silent during the Holocaust and didn’t do much to help the Jews, these organizations believe that the Vatican should open its wartime archives to scholars.

In fact, the Vatican’s World War II“era archives are in the process of being catalogued and should be open to scholars within five years. But in an op-ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer , Professor Deborah Dwork”the director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts”and Rabbi Eric Greenberg, the interfaith director of the ADL, attempt to raise the stakes. “Benedict’s decree on behalf of Pius XII may serve the church, but it does not serve history,” they assert. “Indeed, it is a denial of history. And it is an act of aggression against the Jewish people.”

Two prominent Jews have offered different opinions of Pius XII. In an interview with the French weekly news magazine Le Point , Serge Klarsfeld, a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, says he sees no reason why Pius XII should not become a saint. “Pius XII played a leading role in the struggle against Hitler and against communism in eastern Europe,” Klarsfeld says. “He inspired Karol Wojtyla [Pope John Paul II] to resist communism. Pius XII’s role was both diplomatic and ideological. He was the principal author of his predecessor’s 1937 encyclical condemning Nazism.” Klarsfeld also credits Pius XII with having Rome’s convents and monasteries shelter thousands of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation. Although Klarsfeld believes that a fiery public protest by Pius XII would have served to enhance his reputation today, it would not have stopped the Nazis from murdering Jews throughout Europe or many Catholics in Poland.

Meanwhile, in an article posted on the Huffington Post website, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French celebrity philosopher and Jewish atheist, recalls that the “silent pope” did speak out in his 1941 and 1942 Christmas addresses, which were viewed at the time as attacks against Nazism. Lévy is puzzled by the fact that Pius XII is often condemned for his actions during the Holocaust. “And, as yet,” Lévy writes, “it’s especially surprising that we place the entire weight of responsibility for the deafening silence concerning the Shoah that echoed throughout the world, or nearly all, upon the shoulders of a Sovereign of the time who had neither cannons nor aircraft at his disposal; . . . [and] who in fact saved a great many of those he was morally responsible for, in Rome, but elsewhere as well.”

• Fr. Francis Canavan, S.J., professor emeritus of political science at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, and an occasional contributor to these pages, left us over a year ago, on February 26, 2009, at age 91. Father Canavan was widely known as an Edmund Burke scholar, but he also wrote on many other subjects as well, among them the right to life.

The Human Life Review , a journal to which Fr. Canavan contributed many articles over the decades, paid tribute to him in its Winter edition. The issue also reprinted one of Father Canavan’s best articles, a 1985 critique of Mario Cuomo’s famous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame. In that speech Cuomo claimed that Catholic elected officials take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the teachings of their faith. This is certainly true, but in his critique Father Canavan asks whether the oath to uphold the Constitution has historically meant complete agreement with the rulings of the Supreme Court and, by extension, Roe v. Wade . Fr. Canavan noted: “First, to clear away one little piece of sophistry, the officeholder’s oath to uphold the Constitution is not an oath to agree with the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. If that were not so, we should have to accuse a long line of distinguished Democratic presidents, from Thomas Jefferson through Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, of violating their oaths of office. We should have to say the same of that greatest of Republican presidents, Abraham Lincoln, not to mention a good number of justices on the Supreme Court itself.”

In his State of the Union Address this year, for example, President Obama strongly criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , which overturns restrictions on the amount of money corporations and unions can spend to influence elections. No one argued that Obama violated his oath of office by criticizing the Supreme Court.

When they are criticized, many pro-choice politicians often insist that they have to uphold the law, including Roe v. Wade. But where is it written that people and their elected officials can’t propose changes to the law or to any existing policy? If we are obligated to uphold the existing law and can’t make changes to it, shouldn’t liberal politicians stop trying to push through gay marriage, strict gun control, a ban on the death penalty, and universal health care?

• “It’s not an obsession,” Fr. Neuhaus said, “simply an attentiveness to important cultural indicators.” And so without further ado, First Things ’ annual note on newborn names. New York City’s Health Department released its list of the most-chosen baby names in 2008 on December 2, 2009. Among the 62,070 girls born in the city in 2008, Sophia edged into first place after having tied for first with Isabella in 2007. And, after a year off the list, Madison made it back into the top ten for girls. (A more daring parent might choose one of our more obscure presidents; why not Taft or Van Buren? Or, for that matter, why not Park or Lexington?) Among New York’s 65,610 boys, Jayden moved to the top of the list, bumping Daniel into second place.

Jayden? Ah, well. Overall, boys continued to be named after biblical figures and saints: Joshua, Michael, Matthew, and Christopher all made the top ten. Interestingly, there appears to be a growing trend toward traditional names for New York’s daughters, too: Emma (as in Emma Woodhouse) has replaced Kayla (as in . . . well, no one comes to mind, but I’ve heard there was a character named Kayla on television’s Days of Our Lives ). Ashley continues to fall in the rankings for girls.

One final thought: John has not made it into the top ten boys’ names for over a decade. What’s wrong with John?

• In the February issue of First Things , we noted that the British Parliament was on the verge of passing an “Equality Bill” that could, quite conceivably, have subjected Britain’s Catholic bishops to civil penalties for refusing to ordain women, married men, or men living openly homosexual lives. The same also would have held, nominally, for non-Catholic religious bodies, although one might doubt whether such a law would have been enforced against Islamic clerics.

Then, on February 1, in the course of confirming his upcoming visit to the United Kingdom, the pope denounced the pertinent provisions of the bill as “unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and thus as violations of “natural law.” Despite the usual loud denunciations of popery, Equality Minister

Harriet Harman softened her effort to push the provisions through. And”according to the Church Times , the newspaper of the Church of England’s hierarchy”the House of Lords has voted not to approve the provisions.

That would not have occurred without the support of the majority of Anglican bishops, who are heavily represented among the Lords. Said John Sentamu, the archbishop of York and a lord, “Noble Lords may believe that Roman Catholics should allow priests to be married; they may think that the Church of England should hurry up and allow women to become bishops; they may feel that many churches and other religious organizations are wrong on matters of sexual ethics. But if religious freedom means anything, it must mean that those are matters for the churches and other religious organizations to determine in accordance with their own convictions. They are not matters for the law to impose.”

• A Spanish organization called Professionals for Ethics is protesting the fact that third-grade students in the Spanish city of Cordoba are using course material that reads: “Nature has given us sex so we can use it with another girl, with a boy, or with an animal.” Parents’ groups say the material “indoctrinates children and camouflages an agenda that is prohomosexual and critical of moral norms and values.” As of this writing, “in the region of Castille and Leon, some 500 students have been excused from participating in the course for reasons of conscience, while hundreds in Madrid and Valencia are awaiting a ruling from the courts on whether or not they are required to attend.” So it’s up to the courts to determine whether parents should be required to let their children be taught that bestiality is normal.

• When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee in January”ruling that the government may not prevent corporations from spending money to support or attack candidates in political elections”a great number of commentators began shouting. Most were those who feared the decision would result in something akin to the end of American democracy. President Obama even addressed the topic during his State of the Union Address, arguing”with “all due deference to separation of powers,” of course”that American elections should not be “bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”

Chief Justice Roberts, however, in his separate opinion for the majority, was more concerned about the damage done to the Constitution by deferring to the stare decisis of a constitutionally inconsistent precedent: “If adherence to a precedent actually impedes the stable and orderly adjudication of future cases, its stare decisis effect is also diminished. This can happen in a number of circumstances, such as when the precedent’s validity is so hotly contested that it cannot reliably function as a basis for decision in future cases, when its rationale threatens to upend our settled jurisprudence in related areas of law, and when the precedent’s underlying concurring reasoning has become so discredited that the Court cannot keep the precedent alive without jury-rigging new and different justifications to shore up the original mistake.”

What this bodes for future jurisprudence on abortion will certainly be interesting.

• Klaas Hendrikse has for some time been known as the Netherlands’ “atheist pastor.” After twenty years of ministry, Hendrikse says his unbelief has grown stronger with time. As he puts it, God is “not a being but a word for what can happen between people.” In 2007 Hendrikse wrote a book called Believing in a God Who Does Not Exist: Manifesto of an Atheist Pastor .

Some might say it was too little and too late, but Hendrikse’s church, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, proposed a motion to discipline him. The church cited, in particular, his apostasy from the fundamentals of Christianity. We have recently learned, however, that the charges against Hendrikse have been dropped. The regional supervisory panel of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands said, among other things, that Hendrikse’s statements “are not of sufficient weight to damage the foundations of the church,” and his ideas “are theologically not new, and are in keeping with the liberal tradition that is an integral part of our church.”

In an unshocking twist, research published in 2006 by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one in six of the clergy members of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands either were unsure of God’s existence or were self-identifying atheists. Besides the perk of a church salary financed by a socialist state, it’s just hard to see the point.

• Hundreds of relief aircraft sought clearance to land at Port-au-Prince’s crowded airport in the days that followed Haiti’s devastating earthquake. One of those planes could boast not only a cargo of food and medical supplies, but also celebrity appeal. Actor and devoted Scientologist John Travolta personally piloted his private jet to Haiti to aid in the relief effort. He ferried, among other things, a contingent of yellow-shirted Scientology aid workers of the kind whose presence was widely noted in the media in New York after September 11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In Haiti, it is reported, these “volunteer ministers” of Scientology employed a practice known as “touch assist”: a series of light touches and verbal cues that, according to the Scientology website, aims to “reestablish communication with injured or ill body parts” because “every single physical illness stems from a failure of the being to communicate with the thing or area that is ill.”

Even when faced with criticisms of quackery and fraud, Scientology volunteers seem to take their efforts quite seriously. One volunteer in Haiti explained, “all the patients are happy with the technique, . . . but some doctors don’t like the yellow T-shirts. It’s a color thing.” We suspect it may be more than a color thing.

Why Scientologists seem inclined to peddle all this to the recently traumatized is one important question to answer. But perhaps the Scientologists would do better simply to break out their more commonly known E-meter stress tests, to see whether”just maybe”Haitian earthquake victims are something other than serene.

• It has become something of a cliché to call modern environmentalism a religion. Somewhat less common are efforts to identify exactly what kind of religion environmentalism is. A case can be made that environmentalism bears a family resemblance to liberal church movements and New Age belief systems. According to one take on environmentalism’s practitioners, however, the cult of the earth seems to resemble the scruples of puritans more than anything so modern as to be called liberal.

The New York Times reports that the moralizing made possible by environmentalist zeal can do a number on marriages and families. Therapists, the Times says, have reported an increase in the number of “green disputes” in which family members clash over how closely to conform to the tenets of environmentalism. And the chiding isn’t limited to the heedless drivers of Suburbans. One hapless victim says he no longer can take his girlfriend out for sushi, lest she lecture the waiters for serving unsustainable varieties of fish. Others describe tension at family gatherings between grandparents who grill hot dogs and vegans who, with evangelical fervor, register their dismay at seeing throwaway plates in the trash bin. One family therapist noted that when one spouse has an environmental “waking up” before the other, it can create a sudden “values gap” between the spouses that sometimes can lead to separation.

One curious group mentioned in the article is the EcoMom Alliance, an organization that helps women direct their families toward environmentally sensitive practices. Apparently eschewing the trap of political correctness, the group has found that “disputes over how green is green enough often divide along predictable lines by sex.” Women, a representative said, “often see men as not paying sufficient attention to the home.” Instead, men “want to make a large impact and aren’t interested in a small impact.”

Men seem to be striking back, protesting against sudden switches to vegetarian family diets and expensive “green” home upgrades. Beyond the shock of witnessing an environmentalist group acknowledge gender differences, all we can say is that, as in most puritanical sects, the weight of environmentalist guilt on the home front seems to be carried on the backs of stern, puritanical women”women who, in this case, are keen to give men a healthy fear of Gaia.

• Because the baby is dependent on the mother and is part of her body, the logic goes, the mother has total control over whether her child lives or dies at any point in the pregnancy. Take, for example, this case from Lynchburg, Virginia. A local paper reports that the police received a call one morning saying that a woman in her early twenties was in labor. They arrived to discover that the child had been born ten hours earlier and was dead; its airway had been blocked. The child’s airway was blocked because “the baby was under bedding and had been suffocated by her mother.”

So, could the police charge the mother with infanticide? No, they decided: “Investigators said because the mother and baby were still connected by the umbilical cord and placenta, state law does not consider the baby to be a separate life.”

Apparently this is not the first time that something like this has happened in Campbell County, Virginia. The Lynchburg News & Advance notes that the county sheriff’s office and the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney’s office have worked unsuccessfully to get the law changed. Two delegates and one state senator refused to take the issue up in the General Assembly “because they felt the issue was too close to the abortion issue.”

So, a baby becomes a baby and gains the rights of a human being at the moment when its connection to its mother is severed, and no sooner. In a twisted, illogical sense, it does form a kind of logic. A lethal kind of logic that works itself out all too well.

• The teachings and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been co-opted for a variety of causes over the last few decades. Most recently, Planned Parenthood has used King as a purported supporter of its mission. There is conflicting evidence about the civil rights leader’s view of legalized abortion; it ranges from his acceptance of a 1966 Margaret Sanger Award that seems to show his support for the organization’s goals to the 2008 statement of King’s niece, Alveda King, that “there is no way he would want his name or image associated today with Planned Parenthood, the group most responsible for denying civil rights to the over 45 million American babies killed by abortion, one-third of them African-American.”

In honor of King’s birthday this year, Planned Parenthood of North and West Michigan decided to take up donations for the domestic violence shelters it maintains at its health centers. Supporters who wished to “make a difference” could drop off feminine hygiene products at their local Planned Parenthood clinic. According to the manager of the Brighton, Michigan, clinic, “Our efforts build on Dr. King’s mission by transforming the federal holiday honoring Dr. King into a national day of community service grounded in his teachings of social justice and nonviolence.”

As Planned Parenthood works to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a time to promote “social justice and nonviolence,” we should hope and pray that the organization also manages to stumble onto what social justice and nonviolence actually are.

• In late November, by a twelve-to-three vote, the Baltimore city council passed a measure that requires the city’s four pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs stating that they do not provide abortion services or birth control. The signage and advertisements of the city’s abortion providers are unaffected. When council president Stephanie Rawlings-Blake introduced the bill in October, she acknowledged that pro-choice lobbying groups had asked her to sponsor the measure, but she argued that she was simply seeking to promote “truth in advertising.” If the bill passes”it first has to be signed by Mayor Sheila Dixon”pregnancy centers in the city could face daily fines of up to a $150 for failing to post the signs.

While the Baltimore measure is believed to be

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