♦ During the late summer fuss over bikinis, burkinis, and the clash of civilizations on French beaches, I came across some interesting data. A recent Pew Global Research survey reports that 29 percent of French who were polled have a negative view of Islam, while 35 percent of those in the Netherlands and Sweden have a negative view. That’s quite striking, because France has suffered significant terrorist attacks, which is not true in the Netherlands or Sweden. Past French governments have also made symbolic attacks on traditional expressions of Islam, banning veils and other outward forms of religious expression in schools and other public institutions. By contrast, the Netherlands and Sweden have adopted affirmative multicultural strategies. The Dutch, for example, provide state funding of Islamic schools and for two decades have promoted affirmative action policies to provide Muslim immigrants with economic opportunities. And yet anti-Muslim sentiment is more, not less prevalent than in France.
Perhaps the French are less negative about Islam because the leadership of their society is more honest about the cultural challenges posed by Islamic immigration—and more willing to defend French identity. On the other hand, multiculturalism, which is sold as the great solution to cultural conflict, suppresses social realities, creates an artificial atmosphere in which the hard work of genuine social interaction doesn’t take place, discourages assimilation, and breeds resentment.
♦ An early September New York Times article drew attention to a Department of the Treasury study. It analyzed the financial characteristics of same-sex married couples who file joint tax returns (“Working Paper 108,” August 2016). The results are forthright. Male-male married couples are rich, much richer than female-female married couples, who are slightly richer than male-female married couples. In 2014, male-male joint returns reported an average adjusted gross income of $176,000 (female-female couples reported an average of $124,000, and male-female couples $113,000).
Male-male joint returns that included deductions for at least one dependent child are very rich indeed. They reported an average income of more than $275,000 as compared to female-female couples with dependent children averaging $131,000, with male-female couples with children bringing up the rear with an average of $104,000.
As I have often said, gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich. The Treasury Department does not discuss the decline in marriage among the bottom half of society, which is where the true cost of the dismantling of a traditional culture of marriage by today’s progressives is being paid. But the study shows how gay marriage, especially between men who adopt children, is a rich man’s game. This epitomizes our cultural moment: We have organized our society around the needs of the well-educated and wealthy.
♦ Robert Royal, writing in The Catholic Thing, expressed well my own reaction to the ongoing confusions about divorce, remarriage, and reception of Holy Communion emanating from Rome: “This whole affair is bizarre. No other word will do.” Pope Francis superintended over two Synods on the Family, both of which rejected what’s known as the Kasper Proposal, an argument for why divorced and remarried couples should receive Holy Communion in some circumstances. It was obvious that Francis did not like the outcomes, and so we got Amoris Laetitia and “the notorious footnote 351,” which endorsed and did not endorse the Kasper Proposal. This summer a group of bishops in Argentina issued an interpretation of this ambiguity, one that effectively endorsed the Kasper Proposal. Francis wrote to them, endorsing their endorsement, saying, “there are no other interpretations.” This letter was leaked. There was confusion. The Vatican confirmed the authenticity of the letter from Francis, who nevertheless has not endorsed what he seems to have endorsed. “Even now that Francis has said yes, we keep hearing that there are qualifications and nuances and limits.” Francis tells us he wants to avoid, in his words, “a simplistic answer,” something Royal points out the Holy Father readily resorts to in other circumstances.
As Royal explains, amidst all the confusion, the general direction of things is pretty clear. (Bergoglio’s nickname as rector of the Jesuit seminary in Argentina was “the eel,” one who wiggles this way and that to get to his destination.) Royal writes, “Catholics have a new teaching now, not only on divorce and remarriage. We have a new vision of the Eucharist. It’s worth recalling that in January the pope, coyly, not ruling it out, suggested to a group of Lutherans in Rome that they, too, should ‘talk with the Lord’ and ‘go forward.’ Indeed, they later took Communion at Mass in the Vatican. In a way, that was even more significant. A Catholic couple, divorced and remarried, are sinners, but—at least in principle—still Catholic. Has intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians also been decided now without any consultation—almost as if such a momentous step in understanding the Sacrament of Unity hardly matters?”
♦ What’s at stake is the objectivity of grace. Following the logic of the Old Testament and the covenant with Israel, Catholicism claims that, in Christ, God stakes out territory in the here and now. This is what is meant by transubstantiation. God takes up real residence in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Catholic sacramental theology and theology of the church flow from this basic claim. The supernatural is real, not merely ideal or “spiritual” in the sense of residing in thoughts, feelings, or sentiments. This is why Catholicism sees marriage as indissoluble. The nuptial bond is a reality that participates in the infinite. Catholicism also regards the unity of the Church as real, not “spiritual.” The Catholic Church thus sees those who reject the episcopal oversight of the local bishop—the personal instrument of unity at work in the church from its earliest decades—as objectively “outside,” as they obviously are. For exactly this reason, they ought not receive the Eucharist, with is the real, not “symbolic,” sacrament of unity.
As is typical of modern Jesuits, Pope Francis takes the sacramental reality of the Church for granted, giving priority to our ongoing need to enter into an ever-deeper interior appropriation of divine grace. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the subjective reinforces rather than resists the Gnostic tendencies of late modernity. As Michael Hanby explains (“A More Perfect Absolutism,” October 2016), the technological mindset sees reality as raw material to manipulate in accord with internal desires, choices, and self-constructed projects. This is exactly what Pope Francis does with the sacramental reality of the Church. He turns it into raw material for spiritual virtuosos to use as they see fit. All of this is painfully ironic in light of Pope Francis’s polemics against the technological mindset in Laudato Si. He’s edging toward a mentality that turns the sacramental life of the Church into a “throwaway” set of inherited forms. My impression is that his instincts are pastoral and political. This is again ironic, since both modes tend to treat institutional realities, including the Church, as means rather than ends-in-themselves, which is exactly the instrumentalizing mindset of late-modernity.
♦ College senior Ashton Katherine Carrick describes the undergraduate culture of binge drinking. In an op-ed in the New York Times, she tells of her experiences at “a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere that boasts a 10 to 1 student-to-faculty ratio and uses the word community in every pamphlet.” Students are ambitious, hard-working, and very competitive. They apply themselves to drinking with the same calculating zeal, aspiring to achieve “blackout,” the condition of mind-numbing inebriation.
What’s behind the drive toward unconsciousness? Carrick: “I think it’s the stress. It permeates everything we do as college students. Many small, elite colleges are insanely competitive to get into in the first place and they remain competitive as students try to outdo one another with grades, scholarships, extracurricular activities and internships. Having been one of those hypercompetitive students, I can tell you that it never feels like enough.” The binge drinking and resulting “blackout” offer a momentary escape from the grind of meritocratic competition. High achieving students share “a tacit understanding that blacking out works as a kind of ‘get out of jail free card.’ A person can say or do any number of hurtful or embarrassing things and be granted immunity with the simple excuse that they [sic] were ‘blackout’ that night.”
♦ Carrick cites a sobering statistic: The American College Health Association reports, “suicide rates in young adults have tripled since the 1950s.”
♦ The world of relentless competition, binge drinking, and rising suicide rates was not constructed and overseen by evangelical pastors from Texas. The tony colleges and prep schools that feed it promote the worldview of our secular and progressive elite. Although she doesn’t recognize the larger context, Carrick is warning us about the human costs of that worldview.
♦ Aurora Griffin, a Rhodes Scholar, recently completed her master’s degree at Oxford. She writes of her experience as a Catholic, “I got the sense from studying with a Dominican that the purpose of theology is to get to know God better, and to love him more.”
♦ Griffin also reports that the common room at Blackfriars, the Dominican hall that, while not one of Oxford’s 38 colleges, participates in the academic life of the university, features a stern notice to those who dine there: “Wash your own dishes. Unlike the Jesuits, we don’t have the money to pay a maid to clean them for you.”
♦ Which reminds me of something a wise, experienced estate lawyer once told me: “Where there’s a will, there’s a Jesuit.”
♦ Paul Krugman is one of our best comedy writers. He began his column in National Lampoon, er, the New York Times, in advance of the first debate, “Here’s what we can be fairly sure will happen in Monday’s presidential debate: Donald Trump will lie repeatedly and grotesquely on a variety of subjects. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton might say a couple of untrue things. Or she might not.”
♦ “The Cold War Is Over” by Peter Hitchens (October) stirred things up. Lots of folks have written, worried that First Things is adopting a pro-Russia editorial policy. Hardly. Readers might remember “A Church of Empire” by Sergei Chapnin (November 2015) and “The Church in the Bloodlands” by Cyril Hovorun (October 2014). Both were severe in their criticisms of contemporary Russian imperialism and the Russian Orthodox Church’s complicity.
I am convinced, however, that American foreign policy since 1989 has reached a number of dead-ends, one of them Russia. The country seems doomed to misrule, something Hitchens believes stems, at least in part, from an overriding concern about security. Hitchens warns that our self-congratulatory political high-mindedness may be a luxury of America’s unique geography and history. We cannot remake the world in our own image, and certainly not a nation as proud and enduring as Russia. We’ll have to deal with Russia as she is, not as we wish her to become. That was the essential thrust of “The Cold War Is Over.”
♦ Fifteen years ago, I was on sabbatical at Princeton. I joined the local climbing gym, where I befriended a Russian immigrant my age. He had left after the fall of communism. His son, then a high school student, climbed with us. I asked him what he wanted to do. His answer: become a poet. His father, who worked with computers, rolled his eyes. I asked him what he did in his earlier life in Russia. He replied, “I was a concert violinist.” I’ll admit myself charmed. If I have to choose between relentless pragmatism (an American vice) and dreamy idealism (a Russian vice), I think I’ll take the latter, at least on weekends.
♦ The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report: “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” The overall thrust: “Religious exemptions to the protection of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights.” Thus, “overly-broad religious exemptions unduly burden nondiscrimination laws and policies. Federal and state courts, lawmakers, and policy-makers at every level must tailor religious exemptions to civil liberties and civil rights as narrowly as applicable law requires.” Put simply, religious freedom is not as important as nondiscrimination, and must be as circumscribed as possible.
♦ The Report included this statement by the Civil Rights Commission Chairman, Martin R. Castro. “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance.
“Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see ‘religious liberty’ arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans. This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion is never again twisted to deny others the full promise of America.”
♦ Let’s be clear. This is really only about gay and transgender rights and the insistence that everyone must affirm the sexual revolution in all its phases. Apparently, this imperative has veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others, especially religious believers.
♦ On September 13, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia hosted an evening debate about immigration. Peter Casarella, a professor at Notre Dame and a former roommate of mine from grad school days, argued for a liberal policy that errs on the side of welcoming more of those who wish to come. I made a case for a “preferential option for our fellow citizens,” urging a cautious policy that errs on the side of moderate, sustainable immigration consistent with effective assimilation. Peter had the strong statements of recent popes on his side. I’d like to think I had political prudence and a proper theology of the nation on mine. This is not a debate that is going away.
♦ Helen Andrews gave a talk at our offices on September 22 as part of our regular series of evening book talks and lectures. Her provocative title: “How to Spot a Dictator.” She’s been researching the Roosevelt era and had a lot to say about the four-term president’s imperious style. But more important was the fact that Roosevelt oversaw the construction of the administrative state. The Tennessee Valley Authority was unprecedented: a government business venture. It epitomized the era. The 1930s gave rise to the notion that the federal government has responsibility for ensuring economic prosperity.
We’re at a similar juncture today, though with respect to culture, not economics. Progressives believe that the federal government must ensure “inclusion” and “equality.” The Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage is akin to nationalization of industries. It’s a government takeover of a traditional institution.
I’m more and more convinced that a planned culture, engineered by political correctness, is as likely to fail as a planned economy. Rising illegitimacy, suicide rates, drug overdose deaths, and racial tension, combined with fatherless households, declining labor participation, and middle class anxiety—these are indicators that it’s already failing.
♦ I was recently at Biola University for their annual Table Conference. This year the topic was love and humility in politics. When Ron Sider was asked how a Christian should vote in the upcoming election, he made a wise observation. We should assess the candidates’ positions, yes, but we should also weigh what we think they will actually do, which as we know is often quite different from their platforms.
♦ Frequent First Things contributor Robert T. Miller’s essay, “To Make Their Interests Coincide with Their Duty: How the Constitution Leads Public Officials to Make Good Decisions,” serves as the prompt for an essay contest sponsored by Roots of Liberty (rootsofliberty.org). $5,000 prize for the best high school student essay. $1,000 for the best essay by a high school teacher.
♦ Readers in middle Tennessee who would like to get together monthly as part of a ROFTERs group should contact Steven Odom (firstname.lastname@example.org). John Pummell of Las Cruces, New Mexico would like to form a ROFTERs group there. Get in touch if you’d like to join (email@example.com).
♦ There’s a newly formed ROFTERs group in Washtenaw County, Michigan that meets on the second Tuesday of each month from 5:30–7:30pm at Grand Traverse Pie Co., which is located in the strip mall on Zeeb Road just north of I-94. Get in touch with James Davis if you want more encouragement to join (firstname.lastname@example.org).
♦ A First Things reader in Japan? Martin Triggs would like to form a ROFTERs group in Tokyo, to meet monthly at the Tokyo American Club. You can contact him at email@example.com.
♦ I made a mistake last month. It is true that Greg Mahr is starting a ROFTERs group in the Detroit area. But I messed up his e-mail address. The correct way to get in touch and join the group is to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While we’re at it sources: Islam in Europe: pewglobal.org, July 11, 2016. Treasury Department: nytimes.com, September 12, 2016. Robert Royal: thecatholicthing.org, September 14, 2016. College benders: nytimes.com, September 19, 2016. Blackfriars: catholicworldreport.com, September 15, 2016. Paul Krugman: nytimes.com, September 23, 2016. Civil rights report: usccr.gov, September 7, 2016. Essay contest: rootsofliberty.org, September 16, 2016.