♦ Katholisch.de is the website for the Catholic Church in Germany. In late November, it featured an ill-considered posting by Björn Odendahl that was critical of Pope Francis. I’m not shy about criticism, but when taking Francis to task for highlighting the achievements of the non-Western Church, he writes, “The Church in Africa is growing because the people in Africa are socially dependent on it and have nothing else other than their faith. She grows because the level of education is very low and people accept simple answers for the difficult questions of the faith. Answers like the ones Cardinal Sarah gives. And the growing number of priests is the result not only of the strength of the missionary presence but also of the fact that it’s one of the few options for employment security there.”
♦ More sensible (but no less severe) was an anonymous criticism of the Francis pontificate written by a former curial official and published by the German magazine Focus. (Available in translation at onepeterfive.com.)
Highlights: The writer takes the Francis pontificate to task for being “emotional and anti-intellectual,” and thus insouciant about doctrine. He expresses worry about the authoritarianism and climate of fear created by this pontificate, something that inevitably comes when papal authority is decoupled from disciplined attention to established doctrine. The way in which Francis has created expectation of change risks turning doctrinal development into a populist enterprise. His personal style reflects an exaggerated simplicity that borders on showmanship, and his off-the-cuff remarks sow confusion. Finally, Francis displays a meta-clericalism, which comes in the form of a criticism of the “clericalism” of most priests and bishops, while gathering to himself a monopoly on authentic Christianity.
I don’t agree with the criticisms of the pope’s simplicity of life, and I find his unfiltered comments refreshing. But some of these criticisms hit the mark. This pontificate does seem anti-intellectual. I’m all for evangelism and an ever deeper encounter with Christ. But Catholic doctrine has a profound rational structure that must be respected and cultivated if the Church’s witness is to shine brightly. The criticism of Francis’s “meta-clericalism” also seems apt. Francis constantly criticizes “legalism” and “rigid” conservatism. Dangers, perhaps, but his rhetoric is often antinomian, and in an antinomian context authority becomes charismatic, which is to say, personalized and unaccountable. Church law and doctrine are constraints on the authority of clergy. A church of 24/7 “discernment” would be the most clericalist church imaginable.
♦ The Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion published a report on the results of a nationwide study of how churches welcome potential new members, “Religion, Race, and Discrimination: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers.” From the abstract: “We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior.”
♦ Years ago, David Yeago told me he saw a sign in front of an Episcopal church: “We accept everybody who accepts everybody.” As David pointed out, this proud announcement of inclusion turns out to be code for “ Join if you’re just like us.”
♦ Tareq Oubrou runs the Great Mosque of Bordeaux. Interviewed by Le Point after the Paris attacks in November, he drew attention to the generation gap among French Muslims. The older generation felt itself part of an ancient culture, Oubrou observes, one that had its own Muslim forms of secularization and compromise. It was not French culture, but it was not adversarial. Not so the younger generation, he says. They’ve rejected the Islamic modes of life that characterize their parents’ generation, gravitating toward Salafism, the rigoristic mode that’s actually more modern than the Algerian or Turkish or Egyptian modes of Islam brought to France by the first wave of postwar immigrants. It is, he says, “an abstract, disembodied” Islam transmitted by websites funded by radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, rather than an Islam received from their parents or from the Muslim leadership in France itself.
Oubrou is right. We tend to think of radical Islam as a rejection of Western culture. It’s that, of course, but it’s also a rejection of almost all historic forms of Islam. ISIS is at war with us, true, but it’s also at war with a great deal of the Muslim world.
♦ Oubrou also makes the passing remark that the radicalized young Muslims are “heirs to the soixante-huitarde education.” In French culture, soixante-huitard (sixty-eighter) serves as a catch-all term for the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. “Ils n’ont pas de repères”—roughly translated, the culture of postmodern France gives the young no landmarks, no orientation, no substantive place to stand with confidence. Given nothing, they are vulnerable to radical Islam, which certainly offers clear orientation. Say what you want about the Paris killers, they knew what they were about. No endless deferral of meaning, no playful irony, no dime-store relativism for them.
This sums up the crisis we face, which is a crisis of the West as much as a crisis of Islam. Our culture of critique dissolves foundations, and those we preserve are often formal, procedural, and disembodied. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, hundreds of thousands gathered to defend free speech. I count myself a defender as well. But free speech crowns our culture’s deeper commitments to the dignity of the human person; it alone cannot serve as the basis for anything thick enough to provide landmarks, or to inspire loyalty. In the United States, the most common experience ordinary people have of our constitutional doctrine of free speech is unlimited pornography. That’s not exactly inspiring.
♦ Rod Dreher has put the challenge facing the West in particularly stark terms: “You can’t fight something with nothing.”
♦ Responding to my observations about the unique taboo against Nazism, a reader wrote to inform me of George Orwell’s perceptive review of Mein Kampf. Orwell observed that Hitler better understood human nature than did so many modern figures who assume that people want bread, circuses, and economic goodies. “He grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude toward life.” Orwell goes on to say, “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” Orwell observes, “We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
♦ David P. Goldman, also known by his pen name, Spengler, has never been someone to mince his words about the dangers of radical Islam. Here’s what he has to say about the Trump-inspired idea of stopping Muslim immigration. “I never thought the day would come when I would admonish Americans to show understanding and forbearance towards Islam. In fact, Islam is neither a religion of violence nor a religion of peace: it is an ambiguous set of doctrines from which Muslims may choose peace or violence as they will. To penalize all Muslims for the actions of those Muslims who choose violence is as morally misguided as it is strategically stupid.”
I’ve known David for many years and we’ve quarreled over what I’ve thought to be his too negative views of Islam. But in this instance I think he gets it exactly right.
♦ Fr. Robert Imbelli, commenting at thecatholicthing.org about an oft-quoted affirmation made by Irenaeus, the great second-century bishop of Lyon:
In the 1960s and 70s, words quoted from Irenaeus often appeared anonymously on felt banners in churches. The intent seemed to be to coax those attending Mass to “feel good” about themselves. Hence the banners proclaimed: “The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive!” (Gloria enim Dei vivens homo.) You may still come upon the sentiment today, rendered now, of course, in appropriately inclusive language.
In those less than halcyon years, however, I don’t recall ever having seen the second part of Irenaeus’s sentence. Perhaps it did not fit the flimsy banners or the anthropocentric Zeitgeist. In any case, the second part, the climax of the affirmation, reads: “but the life of man is the vision of God” (“Vita autem hominis visio Dei”). The human person can only find true fulfillment in union with its Creator and Redeemer.
♦ In Great Britain, David Cameron endorsed proposals to monitor religious groups to prevent radicalization. This will require thousands of religious and civic programs that provide six or more hours a week of “tuition, training or instruction” to register with the government. Each program’s commitment to “British values” will be assessed. Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon offered an unvarnished (and accurate) assessment of this remarkable expansion of government supervision of civil society. “It is a car crash of an idea that results from our government’s unwillingness to admit that the danger we face is not from religious extremism in general, but a strand of Islamic theology in particular.”
♦ There’s been a lot of smoke but not much light when it comes to recent political grandstanding about Islam and immigration. Donald Trump has proposed pausing Muslim immigration across the board. President Obama responded by denouncing any idea of a “religious test” as “shameful” and “not American.” Michael McConnell clarifies nicely:
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which governs these issues, defines “refugee” as someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of “religion”—as well as race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. This certainly doesn’t let us use a religious test to filter otherwise-eligible immigrants out. But it does mean that when we’re deciding who to admit as refugees, religion matters.
So, when we think about religious refugees from the war-torn parts of the Middle East, who are we talking about? Right now, Christians who are being singled out for religious persecution—beheadings, beatings, rape, forced conversions, enslavement. So also Yazidis, Mandaeans, and a few other smaller groups. Many Muslims are also displaced and suffering, but the Islamic State is not systematically targeting them for being Islamic. Our refugee policy should take that into consideration. This is not a “religious test.” It
is a persecution test.
No doubt some Muslims are targeted for persecution. One thinks of the groups the U.S. has tried to train to prevail over Assad, an increasingly unlikely outcome that will certainly put these fighters and families in peril. But on the whole, if our government isn’t imposing an artificial “diversity” quota (which it may well be doing), the admitted refugees ought to be largely Middle Eastern Christians who are enduring an unprecedented effort of ethnic cleansing in that region.
♦ As I’ve observed before, the contemporary university is the secular progressive church. A recent Pew survey, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, concerned itself mainly with attitudes toward our political institutions. But it also produced results supporting my claim. Only 41 percent of liberal Democrats say that churches and religious organizations have a positive effect on society, and 69 percent say colleges and universities are good influences. Not surprisingly, conservatives are wise to the ideological role the universities now play, and only 48 percent of them say these institutions play a positive role. The same group gives churches high marks. Seventy-five percent say religious institutions have a positive effect on society.
♦ For the last four years, John Silvis has coordinated numerous art shows in our office, making an invaluable contribution to our mission. We can only vote for what we can imagine, and in the always-contested arena of public life, the politics of the imagination is therefore more fundamental than the politics of politics. The politics of the imagination is one of conversation, contemplation, and discovery. Thanks, John, for promoting exactly that. Fr. Paul Anel is taking over for John as the First Things curator. He’ll be putting together a show that will open on the evening of January 28.
♦ I’d like to thank all the readers who contributed to our year-end campaign. It is a great blessing to be the editor of a magazine with readers so loyal and generous.
While we’re at it sources: Germans on Africa: katholisch.de, November 25, 2015. Open letter to Francis: onepeterfive.com, December 9, 2015. Race and religion: onlinelibrary.wiley.com, September 22, 2015. Tareq Oubrouz:franceinter.frfranceinter.fr, September 29, 2015. Orwell on Hitler: openculture.com, August 19, 2014. Spengler on Trump: atimes.com, December 11, 2015. Ireneaus: thecatholicthing.org, December 13, 2015. British values: telegraph.co.uk, December 11, 2015. Religion test: politico.com, November 25, 2015. Pew survey: people-press.org, November 23, 2015.