♦ Michael Novak died in February. He was a pillar of First Things for more than two decades. Like our founder, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael had been an ardent proponent of a number of progressive causes. Some of his early books about post–Vatican II Catholicism can make you blush. But in the 1970s, he saw that a progressivism that was pro-abortion rather than pro-worker had lost its way.
His most famous book—one that influenced me a great deal—was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Unmoved by the practical efficiency of capitalism as compared to socialism, Michael focused on the moral contributions a free economy makes to a good society. This upended the widespread assumption (one I made, along with so many others) that capitalism may produce more wealth, but socialism is the morally superior system.
Michael’s intellectual gifts were intuitive. His training in theology gave him insight into the spiritual dynamics that move us far more deeply and powerfully than the material interests that preoccupy technocratic experts. His mobility of mind allowed him to think his way out of progressive utopianism. It also protected him from becoming a tediously pro-capitalist ideologue. He did not think we can deregulate our way to the Kingdom of God. A healthy society needs a strong moral and religious culture, as well as sturdy democratic institutions. He was a First Things conservative, not a Milton Friedman conservative, and certainly not an Ayn Rand conservative.
Again, like RJN, Michael had a zest for political and social engagement. He was very much part of the tumult of the 1960s. He said and supported a lot of silly, even destructive things. But he kept his moral compass and his faith. This was no mean thing, and it’s far more important than getting things right all the time, which isn’t possible for anyone who risks serious political, moral, and theological judgments in times of upheaval and transformation, as Michael did. We seem to be entering another season of tumult and change in our politics and culture. I wish Michael were here to give us his good counsel. We’re going to need it. May he rest in peace.
♦ When it comes to illegal immigration, I fear many Christians confuse their religious duties with their civic responsibilities. We are called to aid the stranger and sojourner in our midst. As Christians, therefore, we ought not to check immigration papers before helping those in need. But as citizens, we share an obligation to uphold the law, which includes immigration law. It’s not inconsistent to help illegal immigrants find decent housing or work to prevent their exploitation and at the same time to endorse proper enforcement of immigration laws. We see the same thing daily with those who participate in prison ministry and simultaneously support effective law enforcement.
♦ There’s still further confusion. Many Christian leaders have announced that it’s wrong to give preference to Christian refugees. To be sure, there are many good liberal arguments to be made against religious preferences in our immigration and refugee policies. But the New Testament doesn’t express the sentiments of a modern liberal. Jesus founds a new community, one bound together in love and mutual support. St. Paul exhorts Christians in Asia Minor to send money to support their brothers in faith in Jerusalem. At every turn, we’re encouraged to offer special prayers for the well-being of those who share our faith. The Church is called to exemplify the love of God in Christ. This is not visible to the world through a spirit of universal philanthropy. Rather, as the Gospel of John puts it, “By this all men shall know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This does not mean Christians should seek to use the power of the United States government to secure preferences for our fellow Christians. As I said, there are good, secular arguments against such preferences. But we need to avoid sloppy (and bad) arguments that suggest it’s un-Christian to do so. The opposite is the case. As anyone who studies the history of Christian thought knows, what is theologically controversial and needs clear justification is the liberal view that we should adopt a religiously neutral approach to public policy, including immigration and refugee policy.
♦ Shalom Carmy reflects on our responses to immigrants in his editor’s column for the spring number of Tradition, the Orthodox Jewish journal published by the Rabbinical Council of America. He draws upon the episode in Genesis 23 when Abraham, a stranger and sojourner, petitions the Hittites for permission to buy a burial plot. Carmy’s analysis draws on traditional rabbinic sources—and Bob Dylan. He wonders about the sharp, derogatory words in Dylan’s mid-1960s song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” With these sources, Carmy offers a subtle account of the difference between the stranger and the immigrant. The former comes, but then goes. The latter “is one who is here today and will be here tomorrow if allowed to stay.” One who stays becomes like Abraham, a petitioner for a place in society, and we pity those who must plead for something so fundamental.
There’s something to this. I was equally struck, however, by Carmy’s wicked satire of biblical scholars. The hostility toward immigrants expressed in Dylan’s song
sounds incredible in the mouth of a troubadour adored by the left and does not fit well with the rest of the album John Wesley Harding, in which it was recorded, in the mid-1960s, when American immigration law was liberalized without vocal opposition. If academics studied Dylan as they have their way with the Bible we would be authoritatively taught to attribute it to Deutero-Dylan—a racist, reactionary, fill-in-the-epithet, living in the anti-immigrant 21st century, who adopted the master’s style to convey a perverted message.
♦ Anthony Esolen recently observed: “The true faith has its mysteries that transcend reason. Politics, the false faith, has its confusions that do not rise to the level of reason.”
♦ Sylvie Kauffmann writes in the opinion pages of the New York Times about the surprising emergence of Catholicism in France as a political force. (First Things readers will have already learned this from Samuel Gregg: “France’s Catholic Moment,” February.) She notices that Islam’s problematic presence has aroused in French voters a new interest in affirming the Catholic character of their nation. It’s a sensible observation, but I was struck by the way she put it. “One important factor is obviously the rise of Islam, now the second religion in France, and the wave of terrorist attacks carried out by groups claiming to be Islamist fundamentalists.” Claiming to be?
♦ Writing about growing up in Chicago, Hadley Arkes recalls the civility of the city. It was a bustling place in which an eight-year-old could take the El downtown. A lot has changed since then, not least the standards of decorum. In the 1960s and 1970s, we decided it was “uptight” and oppressive to ask people to live up to standards. “The Supreme Court concluded that it was altogether illiberal, inconsistent with the First Amendment, to expect people to restrain themselves, in their expression and demeanor, out of respect for the sensibilities of others in a public place.” In a free speech decision having to do with obscenity, Justice Harlan opined in 1971, “The Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.” The upshot, Arkes points out in the fall 2016 issue of City Journal,
was that those who are offended should simply avert their eyes or ears, cultivate tougher skin, or forego the public life of being abroad in the city. The urbanists will spin out theories that encourage people to leave their private cars in favor of public transportation—to choose, at every turn, the arrangements in which strangers encounter one another in public spaces, whether in parks or benches or subways. But at the same time, the courts, for the past 40 years, have removed the moral framework that supported the civility of those encounters with strangers in public places.
♦ A friend was visiting his family in San Francisco recently. On a city bus, the man next to him set about to inject heroin into his arm. Nobody said anything. To object is to sin against nonjudgmentalism.
♦ Nonjudgmentalism flows quite naturally from Pope Francis’s regime of mercification. (I owe the term to the late Arthur Fishkin, my former colleague at Creighton University, who once explained the lack of consistent academic standards as stemming from the consistent Jesuit policy of mercification.) The nonjudgmentalism is manifesting itself clearly up north. The Canadian high court recently discovered a right to doctor-assisted suicide. Enabling legislation was forthcoming. The Church ministers to the sick and dying, and various Canadian episcopal conferences have issued guidelines for pastoral responses to the dying who schedule their lethal injections. The bishops of Alberta offered solid guidelines that do not fudge on the truth that suicide is a mortal sin. The bishops of the Canadian Maritime provinces, however, published particularly egregious guidelines. I wrote a fierce critique on our website: “Chaplains of Death.”
The bishops of Saskatchewan are neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. They paddle around with therapeutic language and make the inevitable turn toward “accompaniment.” The bishops do not allow that doctor-assisted suicide can ever be right. But “wrong” is a word they scrupulously avoid. They talk as though rejecting suicide is a quirky Catholic belief. “As people of faith and hope, this is not something we can support nor is it something we can participate in.” This indirect acknowledgement of the Church’s teaching on suicide leads to opaque guidelines about the sacraments. The bishops allow that in “very rare circumstances” a priest may deny extreme unction to someone who insists on scheduling his lethal injection or refuse such a person a Christian funeral. But “non-sacramental rituals can and should be offered with reverence for freedom and integrity.” This seems to imply that such rituals are to be affirmative, not affirmative of choosing to end one’s life—that would be contrary to two thousand years of Christian witness to the sanctity of life—but affirmative of freedom, which may be exercised in choosing to end one’s life. I’m sure you see the distinction.
The muddle is deliberate. It’s designed to avoid any hint of moral judgment, which protects the bishops from being criticized as judgmental. It also provides maximal latitude, thus relieving the bishops of responsibility for what goes on in their dioceses. The Saskatchewan bishops are signaling that they’ll back up a priest who holds the line “in very rare circumstances.” And they’ll back up those who don’t. After all, such circumstances are very rare, and “we must never infringe on another’s freedom.” Welcome to post-truth Catholicism.
♦ Thomas W. Carroll has been around the educational policy block many times. He followed the testy confirmation hearings for Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of the Department of Education, whose strong support of school choice made her a target of teachers’ unions. Her confirmation provides an opportunity, Carroll argues, but the way forward should be through tax law, not educational policy. Instead of trying to strong-arm recalcitrant states to adopt charter schools and other mechanisms for expanding options, the Trump administration should encourage Congress to include a scholarship tax credit in the proposed tax reform bill. A few states have experimented with this approach. It allows individuals to take a tax credit for funds donated to scholarship funds. For those unschooled in tax law, a tax credit differs from a tax deduction. The credit reduces total tax owed, while a deduction reduces the amount of income subject to tax. Thus, the credit scheme offers a much more substantial incentive for donors to scholarship funds, and it rewards the generosity of middle-class donors more than the wealthy.
The obvious benefit of this approach will be increased funds available for nongovernmental schools, funds subsidized by a tax credit rather than dispersed in federal grants. This indirect subsidy attenuates the ability of bureaucrats to attach regulatory strings to funds, as the federal government often does. But there’s an equally important benefit to civil society. A scholarship tax credit encourages grassroots action to expand school choice. Scholarship funds need to be set up. Donations need to be solicited. Applications for scholarships need to be assessed. All this will be done by private citizens at the local level. The scholarship tax credit—a very good idea.
♦ Two years ago, I kicked Maureen Mullarkey off the First Things website. She’s a talented writer and has important things to say about art, culture, and theology. I admire her work, especially its pungency and verve. But she insisted on writing about Pope Francis in narrowly political terms, denouncing him as a “communist.” I judged that this is an overly political approach that undermines the mission of First Things. We should not reduce the often complex theological, moral, and political judgments of church leaders to narrow ideological terms, for to do so implies that they are deliberately perverting the apostolic faith to serve political ends.
That’s exactly what Villanova theology professor Massimo Faggioli does in a recent posting on the Commonweal website. He strings together a long series of vaguely related observations that insinuate that Raymond Cardinal Burke corrupts the Catholic faith by using the Church to promote political ends. His post is full of innuendo. He talks about fascism, Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and Cardinal Burke, all in close proximity, implying close connections. He associates the Society of St. Pius X with Burke, implying that Burke is a schismatic who rejects Vatican II. Burke is never cited or quoted, but Putin is mentioned. He speaks of “Burke-and-Bannon Catholicism,” a formulation meant to insinuate the reduction of the faith to political ideology.
Political upheavals are shaking the West. It’s easy to get disoriented, which makes it all the more important to maintain the integrity of First Things. There are important, complicated connections between theology and politics. Church leaders can get this wrong, very wrong. Sharp criticism is sometimes warranted. But we won’t publish material that speaks of Pope-Francis-and-Fidel-Castro Catholicism or Walter-Kasper-and-E.U.-technocrat Catholicism.
♦ “If you drive out explicit theology from public education, you get not no theology, but only bad theology, theology never properly examined as such.” So writes Rachel Fulton Brown, professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago. She makes the point in order to explain why former Breitbart senior editor and conservative bad boy Milo Yiannopoulos arouses such passionate opposition from students and faculty when he’s invited to speak at colleges and universities. Brown observes that students are being taught ersatz theologies that deny being theologies. “Multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism” have “become their faith.” Without any training in what it means to have a faith—how to assess it, what to make of challenges and doubts, how to distinguish between core commitments and less crucial convictions—these students are unable to face Yiannopoulos’s challenge to their progressive faith. Thus the juvenile responses of outrage and protest, as well as darker, more troubling reactions. “The violent response to Milo’s tour of our college campuses, culminating in the riot at Berkeley, is evidence of a deep crisis in religious thinking.”
I find Brown persuasive about the secular theologies of our time, but I’m not enthusiastic about Yiannopoulos. She cites his comments for an interview: “[Western civilization] has created a religion in which love and self-sacrifice and giving are the highest possible values. . . . That’s a good thing.” We ought not to parse interviews too closely. I’ve made more than my share of sloppy formulations over the years. But the notion of the West giving rise to Christianity gets things backwards. As a simple historical matter, to a great extent, Christianity gave rise to Western civilization. There’s a theological problem as well. No culture “created” Christianity. Our faith is founded on God’s revelation, not Western civilization, or any other civilization.
♦ Two new ROFTERS groups are trying to form. Michael Whitten is organizing a group in Austin, Texas. You can get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. In Greenville, North Carolina, Andrew Votipka is forming a group. His contact is email@example.com.
while we’re at it sources: Michael Novak: nytimes.com, February 19, 2017. Favoring Christians: nytimes.com, January 29, 2017. Pity the immigrant: Tradition, Spring 2017. Esolen: thecatholicthing.org, November 29, 2016. Catholicism and Islam in France: nytimes.com, January 26, 2017. Arkes and the city: city-journal.org, Autumn 2016. Death by mercification: padiocese.ca. Scholarship Tax Credits: townhall.com, February 8, 2017. Faggioli’s confusion: commonwealmagazine.org, February 14, 2017. Bad theology: divinity.uchicago.edu, February 16, 2017.