♦ Early in July, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued a set of guidelines for implementing Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and family, Amoris Laetitia. The document urges the Church’s pastors to recognize that Catholics today are often profoundly misled by the prevailing culture, making it very difficult for them to accept the truth of the Church’s teaching on the permanence of marriage and the moral meaning of sexual acts.
It’s not uncommon for Catholics to think divorce and remarriage are fine, and that gay unions should be blessed. These people should not be pushed away, but instead drawn into a closer engagement with the Church’s teaching and communal life. This means pastors must be willing to be present to them to explain what the Church actually teaches. The greatest work of mercy, therefore, isn’t to bend rules. It is to form consciences according to the truth.
Which, as the guidelines state with exemplary clarity, is why it’s not merciful to tell a divorced and remarried couple who live as husband and wife that it’s fine for them to receive Communion. Nor is it merciful for a pastor preparing a couple for marriage to act as if their cohabitation presents no serious impediment. And it’s certainly not merciful to pretend that same-sex couples who insist on public affirmation of their sexual union can simply become normal members of a parish community.
Thoughtful and sensible—and, in this political climate, courageous.
♦ A few days later, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney offered his commentary on Twitter: “Jesus gave us the gift of Holy Communion because he so loved us. All of us. Chaput’s actions are not Christian.” The mayor demonstrates theological illiteracy. His logic leads to the conclusion that the unbaptized should receive Communion. To deny it to them would be unchristian. But let’s leave that aside. More striking is the abuse of public office. It’s chilling to see a person exercising secular authority pronounce on the theological legitimacy of an archbishop’s statements and policies. It appears that liberals insist on the separation of Church and state—except when they don’t.
♦ The pattern is common. Liberals insist on tolerance—except when political correctness dictates otherwise. They champion inclusion—except when they ruthlessly exclude anyone who dissents from their “inclusive” views. They chastise those who are judgmental, a self-contradiction that would be amusing were it not so punitive. Thus Kenney: Jesus loves all of us—except for Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput, who holds supposedly unchristian views.
♦ California SB-1146 follows this same pattern. At issue is “discrimination” against LGBT students at faith-based institutions of higher education. An early version of the bill sought to narrow religious exemptions to California’s extensive non-discrimination statutes as they apply to religiously affiliated schools, limiting them only to those schools training people for the ministry. Revisions dropped this draconian approach. But the later drafts stipulated that even institutions that gain religious exemption must provide housing to same-sex married couples as “married” if they provide married-couple housing at all. The same goes for facilities specifically for men and women. They must be available to transgendered individuals. In effect, LGBT ideology rules without exception, even when there are exemptions.
♦ Fortunately, the sponsor of SB-1146 responded to political pressure and withdrew the sections of the bill that offended against religious freedom. It is good to know that our genuinely liberal traditions retain some of their potency.
♦ In an incisive essay in Mosaic, Richard Samuelson draws attention to a 1962 lecture by Leo Strauss, “Why We Remain Jews.” The topic remains salient. To remain Jewish (or Christian or Muslim or a practitioner of any other thick form of life) sins against the utopian dream of universal acceptance and plenary affirmation, for affirming particularity invariably entails “discrimination”—this way of life, this code of conduct, this God, and not others. As Strauss observes, a general campaign against “discrimination” may begin because of liberal convictions but will invariably end up illiberal. “The prohibition against every ‘discrimination’ would mean the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, in a word, the destruction of liberal society.”
♦ Today we’re in the grip of a utopian dream, one in which everybody is “included,” everybody feels at home and accepted—always and in all circumstances. In some ways, this reflects the influence of Christianity on our culture. As St. Paul teaches, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, which means that the offer of friendship with God in Christ is open to all, and in that friendship we “come home” and rest in the Eternal. But St. Paul was describing a supernatural future made possible by God’s redemptive power, not a political program. When it becomes a political program, political power replaces divine grace as the engine of redemption, which is what is happening today. And when political power assumes the ambitions of God’s grace, we head toward totalitarianism.
♦ In the last issue, I noted the progressive outcry over the decision by George Mason University to name its law school after Antonin Scalia. A friend on the law faculty wrote recently to draw my attention to the fact that the law faculty at George Mason unanimously approved a resolution in support of the new name—and chastised George Mason’s faculty senate for its “baseless criticisms” of the donations that precipitated the decision to honor the late justice, criticisms the nature of which “suggests ideological bias.”
♦ In early August, Vice President Joe Biden officiated at the civil marriage of two men, Brian Mosteller and Joe Mahshie, both White House staffers. In order to do so, Biden had to go out of his way to obtain a temporary certificate of civil authority to perform weddings from a D.C. courthouse. So there we have it: The highest-ranking Catholic politician in America flouts the Church’s teaching on marriage.
♦ The Church’s response was less than vigorous. The current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, along with Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida, posted a statement on the USCCB website. It was a good statement of principle, but avoided mentioning Biden by name. Here’s the strongest section: “When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics. What we see is a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth.”
♦ Some commentators have observed that the Church rightly leaves questions of particular actions and appropriate ecclesiastical responses to the bishops, who have jurisdiction where such things occur, and they say that’s why the USCCB statement avoided naming names. In Biden’s case, that would be Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C. To date he has made no statement.
♦ More than a year ago, I wrote that the Catholic Church is likely to seek to accommodate herself to the current stage of the sexual revolution, following the pattern established after the uproar about Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church’s prohibition of the use of artificial means of birth control. That pattern is one of silence. Tepid statements are made, but on the whole, church leaders avert their eyes and pretend there aren’t any problems. Cardinal Wuerl is particularly adept at this, but he’s by no means the only one. Many American bishops are hiding in whatever bunkers they can find, hoping the storm will pass.
♦ They have their reasons, of course, for lacking what my wife calls “testicular fortitude.” As we all know, the gay rights movement is extremely punitive. Dissent from the sexual revolution gets punished, swiftly and severely. And then there’s Rome. Pope Francis sends mixed messages, at best—so much so that it’s not at all clear that a bishop who speaks forthrightly and forcefully about sex and marriage won’t get punished by Rome as well. The danger, often unnoticed, is that by staying silent, the Church becomes complicit with a revolution that’s sure to leave many victims in its wake.
♦ I’ve written about the post-Protestant WASP culture before. Frustration with its self-deceptive and self-serving self-congratulation for its “diversity” isn’t limited to people like me. Thomas Frank, writing in The Guardian, zeroes in on the “confident, complacent mood of the country’s ruling class” and their penchant for “globaloney.” President Obama’s remarks at the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit exhibited these qualities. As Frank reports, “Keywords included ‘innovation,’ ‘interconnection,’ and of course ‘Zuckerberg,’ the Facebook CEO, who has appeared with Obama on so many occasions and whose company is often used as shorthand by Democrats to signify everything that is wonderful about our era.”
♦ Frank recounts other instances of “this Democratic infatuation with the triumphant young global professional,” but the dart that hits the bull’s-eye comes when he reminds readers of a New York Times article by Sarah Lyall. The piece presented itself as a diagnosis of the deeper meaning of the surprising Brexit vote. It was, Lyall opines, the consequence of an incestuous English elite that’s become a self-involved clique—a system “very different from the American kind.” To drive her point home, Lyall observes that the English elite is so narrow and smug that “it’s as if President Obama’s inner circle consisted almost entirely of his friends, neighbors and fellow Harvard graduates.”
I had to read that passage over and over again to understand it, so great was the cognitive dissonance. President Obama’s inner circle does consist of his fellow Harvard graduates; encouraging Obama to appoint such people and documenting their adventures in government has been a pundit obsession for years. Applauding Bill Clinton for doing the same with his Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law friends was also once a standard journalistic trope.
The self-deception about just how insular our post-Protestant elite has become galls him. “In Britain, maybe, they have an ‘establishment’; but what we have in America, we think, are talented people who deserve to be on top.”
♦ It seems the sexual revolution is killing sex, or at least making it less appealing. In early August, the Washington Post reported on a new study of the sex lives of millennials (those born between the early 1980s and 2000). It turns out they are twice as likely to be sexually inactive as the previous generation was at the same age. Fifteen percent of young people twenty to twenty-four years old say they have not had sex since turning eighteen. That’s up from 6 percent in the early 1990s. The trend is so strong that it turns up within the millennial generation itself, with younger millennials less likely to have sex than were older members of their generation at the same stage of life. Other recent research also shows that millennials have fewer sexual partners than baby boomers and generation Xers did at their age. The percentage of high school students who report having had sexual intercourse has declined over the last twenty-five years.
The experts search for explanation. One opines that women are more empowered, and thus are able to say “no.” Many point to smartphones and the way in which young people live virtual lives. Others suggest that careerism has become so intense that the rising generation won’t make time for sex. “How’s that going to improve my résumé?” And then there’s the fact that millennials have been raised in an atmosphere of neurotic anxiety about safety—car seats, helmets, and now “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Sex is many things, but emotionally safe? Not so much.
In recent years, Japan has seen the growth of “celibacy syndrome.” A 2015 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association reported that 49 percent of respondents did not have sex in the past month. Twenty percent of men aged twenty-five to twenty-nine said they have no interest in having sex. Correlation does not prove causation, but I can’t resist observing that Japan is also often described as the world’s most secular country. Millennials, similarly, are the generation most likely to be “nones,” those without any religious affiliation. Perhaps it’s secularism, not Christianity, that’s anti-body, anti-pleasure, and anti-sex.
♦ In late August, I attended the Center for European Renewal’s annual Vanenburg Meeting, held in Cirencester, England. It’s an intensive, two-day gathering of European conservatives, a rather open-ended category in Europe. Better, perhaps, to describe the participants as dissidents—dissidents from the technocratic center-right/center-left establishment that dominates European politics today. It was delightful, very much in the First Things mold, a combination of intellectual discussion for its own sake and serious debate about matters of public importance.
The theme of this year’s meeting was “the sacred and the profane.” The political realities shaping many discussions were the migrant crisis and Islamic terrorism. Here are some of the thoughts the many presentations and seminars stimulated in my mind.
♦ Europe’s populist parties are growing because of concerns about immigration and the lack of Muslim assimilation. At a deeper level, citizens still regard the nation as sacred, which means the rising unease concerns the possibility of a shared civil religion, not just particular policies. But post–World War II political culture in Europe shies away from any rhetoric evoking the sacred in politics, fearing its nationalistic connotations. Only human rights are charged with sacred meaning, but they concern the individual and protect him from the common culture and its collective purposes. Therefore, the establishment leadership in Europe cannot do justice to the sensibilities driving populism, sensibilities that ache for a renewal of solidarity. Something similar is happening in the United States, though for different reasons and perhaps in a less advanced stage.
♦ There’s a more pungent way to put the source of turmoil in European politics. Migration without the intent to assimilate is colonization. Increasing numbers of European voters worry that their leaders are allowing colonization, which is a kind of treason. This is an explosive worry.
♦ The post-war era has been characterized by the hope that more mundane concerns about economic well-being, health, security, and expanded personal freedom, leavened by the moral mission of human rights, will domesticate our political passions, allowing for peace and cooperation. (This project is less visible in America but very evident in Europe.) This era is ending. Dissidents (and I count myself among them) need to shift away from criticism and toward the more difficult task of articulating a governing vision for the future to replace the failing, post-war vision. How do we restore the sacred to politics without falsely (and dangerously) sacralizing politics?
♦ Conservatism is a uniquely modern stance. It arises from the need to defend the proper authority of the given against the liberal presumption that everything must be tried before the bar of reason. In these circumstances, conservatism illuminates and commends the given, showing its fittingness and convenience rather than adopting strictly rational strategies of justification. For this reason, liberals regard conservatism as a kind of irrationalism, a slavish subordination of free humanity to arbitrary authority. There is no syllogism that will allow us to escape from this charge. It can be countered only by suasion, which is why, at root, conservatism is a public rhetoric, not a philosophical system. The given requires a public poetry that draws attention to the way it humanizes and ennobles. Conservatism is a secular faith, one that is partial and revisable, to be sure, but like a supernatural faith also seeks understanding rather than proceeds from it.
♦ Last year, Roger Scruton published The Disappeared, a novel set in the context of the Rotherham sex-trafficking scandal, a sordid episode in England in which official multiculturalism created the conditions under which poor white girls could be preyed upon by Muslim criminal organizations. It is not a political or moralistic tract masquerading as literature. Characters come alive as human beings caught in degraded cultures, both Islamic and Western, and Scruton writes with sympathy about the way in which we struggle to salvage our humanity in a fallen world. Warmly recommended.
♦ We have many of our readers who want to form Readers of First Things groups (ROFTERS) to discuss the latest articles in First Things:
Wayne Sheridan of Earlton, New York. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or give him a call, 207-350-6098.
Justin Baker would like to form a Houston group. Contact him at email@example.com or 281-546-9801.
If you’re living north of Houston, join the group Ryan Terry wants to get started in Bryan/College Station, Texas. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give him a call at 214-202-3439.
Brian R. Smith of Chicago. Drop him a line if you’re interested in joining: smith.brianr@gmail or 202-340-0710.
Greg Mahr is starting a group in the Detroit area. He can be reached at email@example.com.
♦ As I mentioned in this month’s “Public Square,” my new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, has been published. I hope my regular readers find it a helpful gathering together of threads I’ve been spinning in these pages during the last few years.
♦ In August our new junior fellows, Connor Grubaugh and Veery Huleatt, joined the staff. They join Alexi Sargeant, now assistant editor, in what I call the “boiler room,” where they keep the First Things machine humming by proofreading, fact-checking, and uploading articles onto firstthings.com, among many other important tasks.
♦ We also have temporary residents in the “boiler room.” This year, Br. Jordan Zajac was on loan from the Dominican Province of St. Joseph during the months of June and July. This August and September, Br. Michael Baggot of the Legionaries of Christ has been stoking the fires that keep things humming. I’m grateful to both for their good work.
while we’re at it sources: Archdiocese of Philadelphia: archphila.org, July 1, 2016. Jim Kenney: twitter.com/JimFKenney, July 6, 2016. SB-1146: christianitytoday.com, July 5, 2016. Richard Samuelson: mosaicmagazine.com, August 1, 2016. GMU: law.gmu.edu, 2016. Joe Biden: abcnews.go.com, August 2, 2016. USCCB: usccbmedia.blogspot.com, August 5, 2016. Thomas Frank: theguardian.com, July 19, 2016. Millenial sex: washingtonpost.com, August 2, 2016. Celibacy Syndrome: japantimes.co.jp, January 19, 2015.
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