I am grateful to Phillip Cary for his admirable review of my book Reading Barth with Charity (April). I have only one demurral. I would simply like to enter a plea for greater historical consciousness. After all, it has not yet been fifty years since Barth’s death. It seems premature to write him off because he supposedly hasn’t had a major impact yet on the world’s Reformed churches.
For one thing, his influence has already been felt. The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., which is its normative document, includes the “Barmen Declaration,” of which Barth was the principal author. He was also a major source for the PCUSA catechisms (which I helped to write), adopted by the 210th General Assembly in 1998.
Besides his own leadership against Hitler through the German Confessing Church, he was a major influence in both South Korea and South Africa in inspiring the Reformed churches to resist, respectively, tyranny and apartheid in those countries, from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s. The World Communion of Reformed Churches has also been greatly influenced by Barth in various ways. The Center for Barth Studies (for which I served as the founding director) at Princeton Theological Seminary gives Barth an ongoing institutional location that is more than merely “academic,” despite Cary’s misperception that Barth has had no significant ecclesial reception.
Let’s not forget the historical fate of Thomas Aquinas, who more or less fell into eclipse until the nineteenth century, and for whom we can say that the twentieth century was his biggest moment by far. It seems reasonable to suggest that reports of Barth’s demise, no matter how much certain parties may wish for it, are greatly exaggerated.
princeton theological seminary
princeton, new jersey
Phillip Cary asks if Barth is the sole rescuer of Protestant theology. Of course not! If we sit under Barth as a teacher, does this mean we have to abandon sola scriptura by replacing Scripture with Barth’s ideas? Absurd! Barth has created an interpretive tradition of the sort that we can even talk about as doing theology After Barth. But again, this is no different from doing theology After Augustine, After Aquinas, After Luther, After Calvin, After Anselm.
Cary goes on to adulate Barth, and notes his thankfulness (in proper context) for him. But it seems to me that Cary, in doing this, is attempting to offset his strong claims made earlier about Barth’s role as the “supplanter.”
Maybe Cary genuinely does want to see Barth included among the other great doctors of the Church. If this is the case, then why turn people away from engaging with the top-notch Barth scholars of our day (Hunsinger, McCormack, et al.), even if these Barth scholars are embroiled in an in-house debate? Won’t this debate prove instructive as we hammer out the finer details and nuances of Barth’s thought?
Instead of running away from engagement with Barth and his foremost interpreters, it would be fruitful to engage with them. Cary somewhat admonishes his readers to avoid the Barth Wars; he writes, “So it is best, even for Protestant theologians, to stay out of this particular teapot and to keep at the kind of work that might make for a Protestant ressourcement.” But I am left wondering: Why?
salmon creek, washington
In his informed and helpful article about the “Barth Wars,” Phillip Cary describes the battle lines between an ecumenical Barth who is right at home with the Church Fathers and a “hyper-Protestant” Barth who speculates needlessly about the eternity of the Incarnation. The ecumenical Barthian troops are led by George Hunsinger, while Bruce McCormack tries to make sense of how Barth, in Cary’s words, “is saying this one human being is present somehow at the beginning and foundation of all things.”
I am on McCormack’s side, but not because I think Barth’s Christocentrism can “rescue Protestantism,” which is how Cary understands Barth’s heroic status in some Protestant circles. Instead, I think Barth’s mantra that “Jesus Christ is the electing God” is a Protestant version of the profound Catholic teaching known as the Primacy of Christ.
The Primacy of Christ precedes Jesus Christ the electing God by at least seven hundred years, so it should be no surprise that it is the richer doctrine. Its exact origin is a subject of debate—Maximus the Confessor anticipates it—but it is most frequently associated with the work of Duns Scotus (1266–1308). In opposition to the view of Thomas Aquinas, Scotus argued that the Incarnation would have happened regardless of the fall. This might sound like a typical bit of scholastic logic-chopping, but there is actually no more direct route to take to the heart of the mystery of Christian faith. The good news is that God is with us in Jesus Christ, but what is Jesus to God? The Primacy of Christ teaches that God created the whole world for this one particular person, and that God made us in his image. Humanity is not at the center of all things, but Jesus is.
The Primacy thesis is often stated negatively, in terms of a critique of positions that reduce the Incarnation to a mere reaction to the contingencies of sin. More positively put, Scotus argued that the highest point of creation is not a divine afterthought. Creation is God’s plan to glorify the human nature of Jesus Christ. The Father’s desire that the Son be accorded all praise and glory is thus indistinguishable from the Son’s embodiment. That is why Jesus Christ is the foundation of the world, a point that Paul never tires of repeating. All things were created by, in, and through Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, John 1:1–3, and Heb. 1:2), and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
The implications of the Primacy doctrine for current debates about everything from evolution to anthropomorphism are fresh and transformative. The flesh of Jesus Christ is what makes the world matter. His body is the blueprint of all creation. Evolution aims at us because we were intended to be his friends. Moreover, we can trust our anthropomorphic language about God because our humanity, in the form of its perfection in the resurrected body of Jesus, is God’s clearest thought about himself—or, if one prefers, God’s most basic act. God’s most decisive self-identification has nothing to do with rectifying evil but everything to do with spreading the joy of the Son.
Like Barth, Scotus used the language of predestination to explain his Christology. For Scotus, the creation of the world, that is, the very stuff of nature, is the object of predestination, since it is the most elementary requirement for the Incarnation. Barth uses the language of predestination not to rethink the relation of matter to spirit but to intervene in debates about Calvinism. His electing God is a brilliant and welcome ploy in subverting misplaced concerns that result from certain Calvinist proclivities. These Reformation skirmishes, however, should not be permitted to limit the impact of Barth’s project. The electing God of Barth cannot save Protestant theology, but it can lead to the revival of Duns Scotus and his grand teaching of the Primacy of Christ.
Phillip Cary replies:
My thanks to George Hunsinger. It’s a happy reviewer who hears the author say his review is “admirable.” About his demurral, I am still hesitant. Perhaps the question can be put like this: What category do we have for the kind of salutary influence we hope Barth will have? He was not a Reformer like Calvin or Luther or Cranmer, intimately shaping the life, institutions, and worship of a whole Christian tradition. And he does not seem to fit the category of Doctor of the Church, which has been bestowed on Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Teresa of Avila, and others in the Catholic tradition. Perhaps in a more unified Church my label, “one great theologian among many,” may prove in the end to be a cipher for that nobler title.
But at present, I think my judgment stands: Barth’s influence on the Church comes to it mainly from outside, from the academy. Perhaps this is even a good thing, as it means the Barth Wars really are a tempest in an academic teapot. When Lutherans fight about Luther, it can fracture the Lutheran church. And the twentieth-century Catholic battle about how to understand Thomas Aquinas and his nature–grace distinction was a real trauma in the life of the Church. When Barth scholars have a fierce debate about who gets Barth right, it cannot do as much harm.
Still, there is harm done. Because of the Barth Wars, Princeton Theological Seminary may not be as healthy a place to study theology as it should be. This is part of what I had in mind when I spoke of the “unedifying energy” of the Barth Wars. I hope Hunsinger and McCormack together can find a way to put an end to the wars, which are surely not good for Barth’s legacy.
Near the end of the review I speculated on what specifically theological motives could have led to the particular fierceness of the Barth Wars, and these speculations are what have attracted Bobby Grow’s attention. I never called Barth a “supplanter,” but I did worry that he was being treated as a “rescuer,” an intellectual hero who might save Protestant theology. The mistake here, if it is being made by anyone, belongs not to Barth but to the Barthians.
The key is always to learn from the great theologians as they point away from themselves. They point to Christ, and to do so they point also to Scripture and to the theological tradition that finds Christ in Scripture and continues to nourish theology today. So of course Barth scholars will argue about how to get Barth right, but the energy of the argument will be edifying to the extent that they are looking in the same direction Barth is. That is why doing theology after Barth should lead us to ressourcement. It is where Reformation theology led after Luther and after Calvin—an enormous industry of patristic scholarship in the sixteenth century and beyond—and it is where Thomas Aquinas keeps leading Catholic theologians. To do theology after a great theologian always means to join him in looking gratefully at what came before.
Stephen Webb brings up a substantive theological point that gets us to the heart of Barth’s distinctive legacy. One point of saying that Jesus is the electing God is to block access to any Logos asarkos or unincarnate Word, which would be a divine Reason (one of the meanings of the Greek term Logos) that would give rational creatures access to the metaphysical reality of God apart from the incarnate Lord of the Gospel. (To add a necessary qualification: Barth admits that the concept of Logos asarkos has a place in trinitarian theology, as it upholds the freedom of God, who could have elected not to be incarnate. But in the eternal act of election, God freely chose to be a Logos asarkos that is always Logos incarnandus, the word that is to become flesh in Christ.) There is no divine Reason that has ever been other than the Logos that is Christ our Lord, and hence—Barth drives home the point—no “natural theology” that can give us knowledge of the living God apart from Jesus Christ.
I identified this as a part of Barth’s “distinctively Protestant witness” within the Great Tradition because it adheres so closely to what I think of as “Luther’s Rule.” It’s a rule I first learned from Barth, who noted that for Luther it is “a principal rule of all knowledge of God . . . [that] we must seek Him where He Himself has sought us,” which is to say, in the Word of Christ (Church Dogmatics II/i, 18). I love this rule, which has guided my life and thought for as long as I’ve known it, and I think of it as the central Protestant proposal to the Church catholic.
So I think it’s a great thing that the Great Tradition resonated with this rule long before Luther: in Maximus, very likely, and in Duns Scotus, and in many others. There are varieties of the Primacy thesis, however, and I wonder if Webb is taking it in a particular, controversial direction. A bit like Barth, perhaps. But a bit more like Mormonism. This is a discussion that he and I have had before in the pages of First Things (August/September 2012), after I reviewed his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter, in which he proposed a rapprochement between creedal Christianity and Mormon materialism. To say “His body is the blueprint of all creation” moves farther in that Mormon direction than I or most creedal Christians are prepared to go.
STATE OF DEATH
On Tuesday, November 5, 1996, the voters of Oregon countermanded 2,500 years of medical ethical precepts by permitting physicians to write prescriptions for terminally ill patients with the understanding that the prescribed drugs would be used for suicide. The Hippocratic dictum against prescribing a deadly medicine has subsequently been set aside by initiative in the state of Washington, by legislative act in Vermont, and by court edict in Montana and New Mexico.
During the 1996 campaign for Measure 16—subsequently the Oregon Death with Dignity Act—we were assured that people would not be traveling to our state to avail themselves of legalized suicide. Brittany Maynard’s highly publicized recent death confirms the misgivings of those of us who wrote in opposition of the measure. In “Apostolate of Death” (April), Aaron Kheriaty cites the 94 percent of reported assisted suicides not afforded psychiatric consultation as one example of the gaping holes in the Death with Dignity Act’s vaunted “safety net.” Additionally, the two-week waiting period corresponds to the time it takes for most antidepressant medications to start working. Furthermore, establishing a six-month prognosis is fraught with uncertainty even for those making prognostic estimates on a daily basis. “Live discharges” from hospices are generally in the 10–15 percent range.
Unfortunately, the availability of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon has colored the physician–patient relationship with two opposite but equally disruptive misperceptions. First, terminally ill patients and their families may assume that as an Oregon hospice physician I am obligated to provide a prescription for a lethal secobarbital overdose on demand. At worst this will result in hard feelings, but life will go on. Second, terminally ill patients and their families may assume that as an Oregon hospice physician I will attempt to coerce or persuade them toward prematurely ending life. This misperception has kept some from availing themselves of skilled, truly compassionate care at the end of life.
As we were taught in medical school, and as Kheriaty states, association does not prove causation. Oregon’s rising suicide rate and passage of the Death with Dignity Act may be coincidental. But our recommendations of high-fiber diets, regular exercise, and smoking cessation may be said to rest largely on evidence of consistent associations. Are Washington, New Mexico, Vermont, and Montana embarking on social experiments potentially lethal to at least some of their residents? Would an institutional review board for research ever approve a similar study design?
Dr. Sobel finds assisting a suicide exhausting. Attending to the terminally ill is taxing for professional and volunteer caregivers, even more so for families and friends. There are times when suffering appears unnecessarily prolonged, and we may pray that the end comes soon. However, we firmly believe that there is no such thing as a life no longer meaningful, and we will sit with the sufferer for the duration.
st. charles hospice
Aaron Kheriaty replies:
I thank Michael Knower for his insightful “on-the-ground” report as a palliative care physician in Oregon, which affords him firsthand experience with the adverse effects of the law permitting assisted suicide. He correctly points to several additional holes in the supposed “safeguards” of Oregon’s law. The cultural shift he describes is particularly alarming: The doctor–patient relationship is now under the cloud of assisted suicide in Oregon, which raises suspicions among patients and prevents some from seeking out the kind of quality end-of-life and palliative care that compassionate physicians can provide. From the ancient Hippocratic Oath to modern codes like the AMA Principles of Medical Ethics, physicians have understood that the doctor–patient relationship must be founded on trust, which is the reason that physicians publicly promise to use their knowledge and skills only for purposes of healing, and never for taking life.
To the list of problems with assisted suicide in Oregon, we can add several more by looking to specific cases. Consider the cases of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup from Oregon: Both received letters from their health-insurance plans denying coverage for cancer treatments that their physicians had recommended. In both cases, the Oregon Health Plan offered instead to pay for an assisted-suicide prescription. Consider also the first person to die by assisted suicide under the Oregon law, a woman who had been battling breast cancer for twenty-two years. Her request for the deadly drug was initially refused by her own physician and by a consulting psychiatrist, since both thought her request was motivated by clinical depression. She contacted the assisted-suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices, who referred her to a doctor that provided the deadly drug.
Consider also the case of Kate Cheney: A psychiatrist deemed her incompetent due to dementia, and ascertained that the patient’s daughter seemed to be coaching her to request assisted suicide. Her personal physician likewise declined to provide the lethal drug, yet her managed-care insurance company found her a doctor who did provide it.
Finally, consider the case of Michael Freeland, who had a forty-three-year history of depression and suicide attempts, and yet the physician who prescribed for him the deadly drug did not deem it necessary to refer him for psychiatric evaluation.
The experience in Oregon confirms that laws permitting physician-assisted suicide corrode the practice of medicine and place vulnerable patients at risk.
Might not the end of the university be the liberty of its students? Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that liberty is preserved under democratic conditions by democratic and aristocratic means alike. I know of no better attempts at a right combination than St. John’s College, which Roger Scruton mentions in “The End of the University” (April), and Thomas Aquinas College, which he does not.
Scruton speaks of civilization, culture, free inquiry, and inheritance. I wish he had spoken of liberty and liberal education, and more clearly connected those underground seminars behind the Iron Curtain to the seminars that are the beating heart of colleges such as St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas—and that have inspired seminar programs at other institutions in North America, Europe, and Israel. At both the institutions I have mentioned, the seminar form is inseparable from the subject matter; these colleges fruitfully combine the traditional and the radical, the conservative and the postmodern, the authority of great texts and the egalitarianism of discussion.
Doubtless, every such college will approach liberal education and the tradition in its own fashion, a diversity that reflects the religious (and irreligious) landscape of the population. But, pace Scruton, neither St. John’s nor Thomas Aquinas practices “the old curriculum” nor takes a simply “traditional” approach to education; they are distinctly American institutions, and therefore democratic. All this and more has been said, at greater length and with greater eloquence than I possess, by Eva Brann, Christopher B. Nelson, John W. Neumayr, and others.
More problematically, and most fundamentally, Scruton does not overcome—rather, he does not consider that perhaps we must overcome—the Baconian distinction of the humanities from the sciences that is at the root of the modern university. The marriage of form and content at the abovementioned colleges, which neither specialize nor departmentalize nor ignore mathematics and science any more than literature and philosophy, is a promising alternative to the research university.
Perhaps the university is dead, and perhaps it will be reborn; in any case, long live liberal education, and let it comprehend all things human.
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos
Roger Scruton replies:
I am sure Pavlos Papadopoulos is right to emphasize the place of liberty and liberal education in his defence of the American institutions to which he refers. My emphasis on culture, knowledge, and the inheritance of critical reflection reflects my own experience, as a product of postwar Cambridge, in which literary criticism had a central place in the life of the university.
I don’t think, however, that Papadopoulos really disagrees with me over essentials. For when we advocate liberty, we must always ask ourselves exactly what we mean by the term, why liberty is distinct from a libertarian free-for-all, and why it promotes the expansion rather than the narrowing of the personality. In my view the curriculum matters because there is real cultural knowledge, handed down by a process of natural selection.
A course in music that leaves the student free to study nothing but hip-hop is more liberal, in one sense, than a course that insists on harmony, counterpoint, and a study of the classics. But there is another sense in which it is less liberal. For there is a liberty of the spirit that comes through humility and discipline. You hear this liberty in the music of Bach, and you learn from it that the world of hip-hop is, in comparison, a prison.
In general, I appreciate any effort to consider how Christians (and specifically, Catholics) ought to challenge the practices of our criminal-justice systems. The problems of our prisons and the difficulties facing the people we choose to incarcerate too often have been ignored, despite the instruction of Jesus that we see him in the prisoner (Matthew 25). I hope that Catholics will join efforts to address our current crisis of criminal justice in the United States. Public discussion of this crisis, and its roots in social injustice, is an important aspect in generating a just and loving response. With that in mind, I commend Stephen Webb for entering the conversation in his April article, “Saving Punishment.”
Unfortunately, I find that Webb oversimplifies not only my argument in Redeeming a Prison Society, but also our criminal-justice crisis. He argues for the need to redeem punishment—and, indeed, prisons—from the likes of me, who deem the pursuit of retribution antithetical to the Gospel. He maintains, “Those in prison are on the front line of spiritual warfare, and their victories can be marvelously sweet. It is to prisons, then, that we should look for the resources to develop a sound account of punishment.” How strange that a Catholic theologian appeals to prisons, and not to Catholic theology, to discern how to respond to people who commit crime and harm themselves, their families, and their neighbors.
I find it troubling that Webb does not situate his defense of punishment (even if it is “saved”) within the broader context of mass incarceration in the United States. Attention to this context might reveal the ways in which our increasing dependence on the prison over the past forty years has harmed individuals, families, communities, and—as I argue in my book—our society as a whole. A defense of punishment and prisons without confronting the realities of mass incarceration is, at best, myopic. I tend to see it as irresponsible. I agree with Webb that we need to examine how and why we punish people in the United States. To do so without reconsideration of our punitive turn to the prison will inevitably prove inadequate.
university of st. thomas
st. paul, minnesota
I turned intentionally to a life of crime at age twelve and found myself facing the death penalty at age twenty for offenses including conspiracies to commit bank robberies, hijackings, and homicide, and then, after a merciful and undeserved reprieve from God, spent ten years in America’s worst prison trying to figure out, among other things, the nature of punishment—and “Saving Punishment” by Stephen Webb is certainly the best meditation I’ve come across on the subject.
It’s clear that a whole new paradigm for dealing with criminal behavior has to be developed, a development that can begin with what Amy Levad offers in Redeeming a Prison Society. But we must simultaneously keep in mind what Jim experiences at the deepest level: He does not want his cross taken from him. That cross is what joins Jim most honestly and profoundly with our Lord, like the justified tax collector on his knees pounding his breast and asking for forgiveness, and our Lord insisting that the tax collector, the “criminal” most despised by “the justified ones,” is the one justified.
What Christians can do is what Webb is doing: helping prisoners find a way to Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. After their release, prisoners need to be led into a Christian community for ongoing spiritual support, something we all need. If we don’t do this, we refuse to acknowledge that ex-prisoners need such support more than anything, for often they have been damaged beyond their ability to stand on their own spiritually.
Tragically, these necessary communities for ex-prisoners are absent in many churches in America. What Jim innately understands is that he needs the sacrament of penance. Many Christians view the sacrament of confession as hocus-pocus and, instead, try to annihilate guilt through the therapeutic process. Sadly, they do not in any way recognize the sacrament’s value in transforming the wayward soul. More than anything else, Jim needs someone and some church community to guide him to that sacrament of our Lord’s forgiveness in particular, and to the entire sacramental life in general.
Stephen Webb replies:
If prisons are the problem, then Amy Levad is right to focus on reducing the number of people we incarcerate, the length of their sentences, and the range of crimes we prosecute. If punishment is meaningless, then she is also right to work on reversing what she calls the “punitive turn” to the prison. Unfortunately, telling the incarcerated that they are victims of social retribution does them no good, no matter how good it makes some reformers feel.
One reason I like spending time with men behind bars is that moral platitudes have no place there. Time and again I see offenders reach a fork in the road: Either they sink into bitterness and resentment or they begin seeking the good in the punishment they have been given. All Christians know what it is like to be imprisoned by sin. Members of churches behind bars, in my experience, are less likely than most Christians to pretend that God’s mercy never hurts.
The Catholic Church has always taught that punishment justly rendered is a good in itself, precisely because it has two good ends: the restoration of social order and the redemption of the offender. These ends should provide the guidelines for what form punishment takes, but they are not meant to put an end to punishment itself. They are truly ends, in the sense that they are the ends of a process—not ends that can function as substitutes for the means. Remorse cannot be coerced, but it does need to be nurtured, and such nurturing requires a context; for individuals convicted of serious crimes, that context is prison. The sentences of the incarcerated can seem too long and their conditions too harsh, but we help them best by sharing their crosses, as Gil Costello understands, not by taking them away.
If Christians were more confident in the moral ends of punishment, then perhaps churches could do a better job of providing support for prisoners after their release. Many prisons release inmates soon after midnight on the day of their discharge, a perversely legalistic practice (legally, some prison officials say, they do not have the authority to hold prisoners any longer than it takes to process their release). It is a fitting image of how insecure we are about punishment. An offender’s first glimpse of freedom is obscured by the dark, and nobody has to witness his homecoming.
Costello inspires me to imagine what a wonderful sign of the Kingdom it would be if Christian volunteers in every city in America got up in the middle of the night to welcome convicts home with a warm bed and some of the scraps from a fatted calf.
Patricia Snow’s conclusion in “Dismantling the Cross” (April)—that the entire supernatural orientation of the Church is declining in favor of merely natural horizons—is simply not supported by her premise (the denigration of priestly and religious celibacy). With due respect to Snow, this position ignores history and the nature of the universal Church.
It is well known that celibacy is a Western tradition, and was not always demanded from the beginning of the Church (St. Peter was married, though, of course, when and for how long we don’t know for certain). As is also well known, the Eastern-rite traditions have a different perspective, in some circumstances allowing married priests. I say this not to advocate for an end to the Roman discipline of celibacy (I hope it endures, actually), but only to emphasize that if Snow’s argument is correct, then it has been a problem from the beginning of the Church and in the East. But if this is so, then the Church was doomed from the beginning (except for that brief period of Tridentine perfection, I assume). And as Snow surely knows, priestly celibacy has always been understood as a discipline—not a dogmatic pillar of the faith.
As for the problems the Church faces in the postmodern world, they are no doubt real. To lay nearly the entirety of it on the decline of respect for priestly and religious celibacy, however, is a clear case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Does the Church stand or fall on the discipline of celibacy?
Let’s not forget that in the beginning, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” Male and female he created them—and this was before the Fall. This means that in the beginning, there was no need for a sacramental priesthood, and God still made Man and Woman and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Is the Church, then, really overemphasizing the importance of marriage, as Snow contends?
Finally, I can’t imagine Pope St. John Paul II being so pessimistic as Snow. Her almost snide remark regarding Theology of the Body is illuminating. Catholics must press forward with courage and optimism and not be afraid to put out into the deep. Snow sounds like she would prefer to turn the boat around and head back to safer shores.
Arman J. Partamian
st. joseph, missouri
I appreciated Patricia’s Snow’s essay about the high and holy vocation of celibacy. Also, her emphasis that marriage is “never an absolute good” is a salutary reminder, and needed correction, to a culture that increasingly romanticizes marriage.
But the solution to the problem is not to err in the opposite direction by romanticizing celibacy. Celibacy is not an “absolute good,” either. Like marriage, the religious life is an “intermediate vocation.” Both vocations, rightly ordered, propose the greater truth that all loves and lovers are sublimated forms of love for God (and God’s love for us). Eventually, there will be a wedding. To say that celibacy orients life vertically and marriage horizontally oversimplifies and is misleading. The true orientation of both vocations is not horizontal or vertical, but eschatological. Lacking an eschatological orientation, the horizons of both are low and unsatisfying.
There are many good practical reasons for clergy to be celibate. Unmarried clergy have more time to devote themselves to “religious” life. As a married pastor, husband, and father of three, I have often found it hard to balance these three vocations. Paul understood this and advised celibacy for those who have the gift so that they would be “free from anxieties” (1 Cor. 7:32). However, he also thought that celibacy was preferred because “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor. 7:29). The eschatological horizon was very close. His advice on marriage reflects his eschatology.
Unfortunately, the article drifts away from eschatology into a strong current of ideology. The statement that the celibate clergy alone “hand down to those below what they have received from above” is fawningly idealistic. Do married clergy, like deacons, or, for that matter, married laity, have nothing from above to give? Is supernatural potency restricted to the ordained celibate? If marriage is a sacrament, then there is another kind of supernatural potency required. Both vocations depend on a “supernatural potency” if they are to be lived faithfully. One is not “better” than the other. It is “different” from the other.
The truly unfortunate part of Snow’s essay is when she likens honoring those who have, often heroically, weathered the joys and sorrows of marriage for fifty or more years to honoring a Sun Myung Moon wedding. Here she passes from idealistic rhetoric to ideological rant. In a series of unfortunate turns, we’re told that it is inappropriate for the pastor on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of married laypeople. Rather, he should wash the feet of religiously vowed people who have “left everything to follow” Jesus. It’s good to remember that Peter and “the other apostles and brothers of the Lord” were accompanied by believing wives (1 Cor. 9:5). If we’re not careful, canonizing married people will be next.
Finally, Snow reveals the “real” reason for marriage. It is a “seedbed for [celibate] vocations.” If this truth is not taught, then the “Gospel message itself is compromised.” This is because marriage makes natural relationships superior to a supernatural relationship with God. This is a false dichotomy and bad theology. Again, marriage and celibacy, rightly understood, are both eschatologically oriented. Without this truth, the Gospel message is compromised.
Eric M. Riesen
Patricia Snow replies:
I am puzzled as to why Arman Partamian concludes that I blame all the problems of the postmodern world on the decline of celibate vocations in the Catholic Church, when, at various points in my essay, I describe the influence as running the other way. Also, in response to a comment by Eric Riesen: I didn’t in fact say that it was “inappropriate” for a pastor to wash the feet of laypeople on Holy Thursday. After all, in how many parishes today could a pastor round up enough priests and religious to fill twelve chairs?
Instead, I tried to describe, more or less objectively, a shift that has taken place in one particular parish in less than a generation. Many of the new rituals and emphases have merit. But we need to be careful not to emphasize certain truths of faith at the expense of others, a perennial temptation in the Church that I discuss in more detail in the original version of the essay, forthcoming in Nova et Vetera. For Catholics, Holy Thursday isn’t only about mutual charity. It is also about the beginnings of the ministerial priesthood and the Eucharist.
In any event, there is much on which Partamian, Riesen, and I can agree. Celibacy and the priesthood have not always or everywhere been perfectly aligned. Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Roman Church and not a dogma. Catholic and Orthodox priests who for whatever reason are not required to be celibate nevertheless have fruitful, sacramental ministries. Marriage is a beautiful, often heroic vocation. All Christians receive graces from God that they can share with the Church and the world. Yes, there is going to be a nuptial celebration in heaven, but remember that some among us have formally professed vows to the heavenly bridegroom in advance. I agree, too, that my use of the horizontal and vertical axes of the cross simplifies a complex situation, but I think there is enough truth in the simplification to render it useful.
So where do we seriously disagree? Riesen writes at one point, “One [vocation] is not ‘better’ than the other. It is ‘different’ from the other.” Here, we part company. Following Scripture and tradition, and bearing in mind the example of Christ himself, the early witness of the virgin martyrs, and all the holy celibates since, I hold to the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church that celibacy chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a vocation not only different from but higher than marriage. (Better is a tricky word. Christ himself uses it to describe Mary of Bethany’s “better” part, but celibacy wouldn’t be better for you if you weren’t called to it. In the Church’s view, celibacy is objectively “better” or higher than marriage, for the reasons I indicated in the essay.) I also affirm that from this radical gift of self, second only to the gift of martyrdom, greater graces flow than from lesser sacrifices, because God cannot be outdone in generosity.
I am aware that statements like these give offense in certain quarters. There is a great leveling impulse at work in the world, an abhorrence for value distinctions and an obsession with equality. In a wonderful essay in these pages, Roger Scruton described a culture in which we are “no longer permitted to believe that there are real and inherent distinctions between people,” and where the goal is “to replace distinction with equality in every sphere where distinction has been part of the inherited culture.” Scruton was speaking of the culture of the university, but he might have been speaking of contemporary culture as a whole.
The Church, however, has never been a democracy, because God’s methods have never been democratic. God’s method in history, or “God’s elective preference,” in Luigi Giussani’s phrase, has been to choose certain groups, individuals, and elements in his creation (for example, the Jews, Mary, the apostles, bread and wine) and then place them in his service in a definitive way, for the good of the whole world. This has always been God’s method in salvation history, to work through chosen intermediaries. Yet nothing, again in Giussani’s formulation, is a greater stumbling block to the modern, secular, democratic mind than this chosen method of God’s.
When I became a Catholic twenty years ago, I was profoundly affected by the men and women I met who had taken up the challenge of celibacy, individuals whose affirmative response to God’s call, like Mary’s yes, redounded to my benefit. Celibacy is a prophetic vocation in the Church, its sacrifices attesting to the reality of greater joys. In our sex-saturated world, it is the greatest sign of contradiction possible, greater even than the sign of faithful marriage. Who could deny this?
In the aftermath of the sexual-abuse revelations, anyone who romanticizes the vocation to celibacy is clearly foolish. But foolish and stubborn, too, I fear, is the one who denies celibacy’s surpassing witness and its fruitful power.