Our first reaction is a benumbed sadness. Seventeen dead in a Florida school, shot by a disturbed young man. Then we search for explanations. The killer suffers from mental illness. Like so many others, he is from a broken home. Guns are too readily available. The media frenzy makes the shooter into a dark celebrity, encouraging the next deranged teenage boy to seek the same perverse notoriety. Cries go up to do something. Gun control. Better monitoring of online signs of violent impulses. More security at schools. More funding for mental health.
By all means, let us give due consideration to policy changes. But as Michael Hanby has observed, we live in a time preoccupied with solving problems—with doing—so much so that we don’t allow ourselves time to think. That’s something we need to do. We can begin by considering the fact that we live in a paradoxical society. There is far less day-to-day casual violence in middle-class society than when I was a teenager—and there are far more incidents of cold, senseless mass murder.
At my suburban public school, fistfights were not uncommon. Blood flowed on school playgrounds when pick-up basketball games got out of hand. For those a bit older, there were bar fights and alleyway rumbles. I was born in 1959, and a vast majority of men in my cohort have at one time or another thrown punches—and suffered them. It was brutish, in some instances cruel, and often laced with racial animus.
Youthful male preening and bloodlust are pure vice. Yet the punches and kicks also taught lessons. We knew what it was like to inflict pain—and have pain inflicted. The blood, bruises, and broken noses were real. These experiences disciplined us, as realities always do. Teachers at my high school seemed to recognize the pedagogy of hard knocks. They would rush to break up fights in the hallways. They pushed aside the boys crowding around the pugilists, letting a punch or two be thrown before stepping in. “That’s enough,” they’d say. It’s as if they knew that there’s also a danger in “not enough.”
Perhaps my teachers were right, and if they were, we’ve lost something. Today it’s not just unimaginable that a vice principal at a middle-class suburban school like the one I attended would allow two eighteen-year-old seniors to fight it out for a minute or two before intervening—it’s actionable. He’d surely lose his job. A friend recently asked his seventeen- and twenty-year-old sons if they had ever been in a fight. “Never,” they said. Then they asked him about his youth. He laughed, “At least one hundred.”
We call that progress, and by some measures it is. Who could object to a world in which boys fight less? But it has not been pure gain. I did not live in a world saturated with violent images, and I did not need to go through a metal detector to get to my classes. The gritty movies of the 1970s, famous for their hard-edged realism, seem tame in comparison to today’s blast-away films. In my teens, Motown crooner Lionel Richie sang about sweet love and making it with his girl. When my children were teens, rap glorified rape and murder. An eighteen-year-old male these days may have killed tens of thousands of realistic images while playing video games. He has seen movies and TV shows that glory in gore and fix on the most gruesome and senseless acts of violence. But he does not get into fistfights. He does not know what it feels like to draw blood with a punch—or to be hit hard by someone else. There’s no pedagogy of “enough.”
To think is not the same as to explain. I don’t for a moment want to suggest that the Florida shooter (whose name I refuse to write) killed because of violent computer games, any more than his acts can be explained by the ready availability of guns or lack of access to effective mental health treatment. My purpose is more basic: to spotlight a puzzling paradox. To a great degree, we have succeeded in taming the adolescent male’s age-old impulse to battle with his fists. Yet we seem to have created the conditions under which disordered middle-class male minds have an unprecedented mental freedom to do terrible things.
We need permission to kill, not just morally but psychologically. The Muslim terrorists who rampaged through Paris in November 2015, killing more than one hundred people, imagined they had theological permission: Allahu akbar! The Norwegian who killed more than seventy in 2011 had an ideological justification, as did Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols when they killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995. Racist rants gave Dylann Roof permission to kill churchgoers in Charleston. Charles Manson found permission in the perverse imaginings of his own mind. Others hear voices or are beset by thoughts that make their actions seem rational and necessary.
The teenage school shooters are different. They seem to find no need for permission—or perhaps feel it automatically. There were angry, frustrated, and mentally unbalanced young men at my high school in the late 1970s. As seniors in 1978, any of my classmates who had passed his eighteenth birthday could have bought a shotgun or hunting rifle on Monday morning and gone to school in the afternoon to kill teachers and fellow students. None did, because they couldn’t imagine it as a real possibility.
Why were we constrained in this way? Why were we hemmed in, fighting in the hallways, perhaps, while not even the most troubled among us was thinking of slaughtering whomever crossed his path? Was it the still living legacy of a biblical view of life, which prizes human dignity? Was it the background of domestic stability that, though shaken by the divorce revolution, had not yet vanished? Was it our experience of less-than-lethal violence, an experience that is sobering? Was it the fact that our therapeutic mentality, which tells us that the greatest evil is repressed desire, had not yet become all-powerful?
I’m in favor of prudent gun control, better mental health services, and more vigilant policing. But we need to face reality. Our world has changed. The Florida shooter’s interior freedom, his sense that he had a general, undifferentiated permission to kill, is new, not the ready availability of guns, something that’s been a feature of American life for generations. The man on the thirty-second floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas felt the same permission, as have so many other mass murderers in recent years. This unsettles us, and it should.
“What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me,” warns Jesus. In my youth, there were vulnerable, disordered, and unbalanced boys. What kind of society have we created that they are now abandoned to perverse, inhumane desires that were once beyond the imagination of adolescents?
A Late-Night Rerun
Karl Marx observed that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” That describes some of the current goings-on in the Catholic Church, at least in the rich world, which is our world. Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago now calls us away from our “merely doctrinal” approach so we can harken to the new revelations of what “the God of mercy is doing in our time.” Moral theologians organize conferences to accompany bishops who are eager to accompany us on our “sacramental journeys” toward the promised land in which the disordered sexual lives of sensitive, respectable people are accepted. It’s a therapeutic heaven in which all sins are structural and none are personal.
I’ve seen this movie before. After World War II, mainline Protestantism faced a changing sexual culture. There have always been transgressions, but beginning in the 1950s, elite opinion shifted from censure to permission. Divorce was a leading indicator. In 1962, Nelson Rockefeller divorced his wife of thirty-one years to marry Happy, who also divorced her husband, with whom she left her children. Respectable society was scandalized, and his political career suffered. By the time Richard Nixon resigned a decade later, the new president, Gerald Ford, appointed Rockefeller vice president without controversy. The stigma had dissipated. In the dissolute 1970s, divorce became part of the normal life cycle of upper-middle-class men and women. Mainline Protestantism offered no resistance. In fact, clergy embraced divorce.
The same held true for abortion, contraception, and cohabitation. The society matrons who served lemonade after church were on the boards of local chapters of Planned Parenthood. By the mid-sixties, the daughters of these society matrons were living with their boyfriends after college. Mom and Dad reconciled themselves to the new mores, as did the leadership of mainline Protestantism. Sexual ethics, if mentioned at all, emphasized “healthy relationships” and “responsible sex.” Books were published proclaiming “the new morality.”
By the time I was active in the Episcopal Church, the LGBT agenda had become central, crowding out concerns about race, class, and economic justice. That was not surprising. The Episcopal Church was, in those years, intractably white and well-to-do. It was inconvenient and potentially disruptive to emphasize racial and economic issues. Sexual liberation, by contrast, serves the interests of the bourgeois. It has tremendous symbolic significance, casting a broad blanket of permission over us all, allowing proper Episcopalians to remove the threat of censure of their own intimate lives. I came to see that for mainline Protestants, gay liberation promises an irresistible combination of moral crusade (“We must fight for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters!”) and general relaxation of moral judgment. It allowed us to imagine ourselves on the forefront of a great, transformative cause—and at the same time accommodate ourselves to the spirit of the age. One could be righteous and respectable, prophetic and entirely in sync with the editorial page of the New York Times.
Catholicism did not take this path. Aside from a clear witness against the evil of abortion, when it came to the sexual revolution, the Church took “the Fifth,” saying relatively little. By and large, bishops and priests were anxious not to be seen as publicly capitulating, but also anxious not to be regarded as antediluvian. St. John Paul II made heroic efforts to rearticulate a rigorous sexual ethic in his Theology of the Body, but he was exceptional. In the main, clergy adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In most major cities one could find “gay-friendly” parishes, something widely known but not advertised.
Now the pope wants Catholicism to shift from discreet accommodation to “accompaniment,” or at least he’s empowering surrogates who push in this direction. They’ve branded their message: the New Paradigm™. As was the case with mainline Protestantism, divorce and contraception lead the way. Recently, an Italian priest who is part of the Francis team said that there are times when Catholic principles of responsible parenthood positively require the use of artificial means of contraception. The New Paradigm™ allows us to see that the true meaning of Humanae Vitae is exactly the opposite of what we once thought. This follows the old script. Paul Tillich was the master of dialectics that allowed him to say that rejecting “moralism” is true obedience, and doubt is true faith.
Gay liberation is not far behind in the New Paradigm™, and for the same reasons it rotated to the center of mainline Protestantism. Affirming homosexuality is the direct route to “mercification,” the public proclamation of a therapeutic Christianity of plenary permission. Soon enough, I predict, Fr. James Martin will argue that anal sex is in fact the truest fulfillment of Catholic teaching on sexuality, because it involves a selfless sacrifice of the fertility of the sexual act for the sake of love’s transcendent aim. The New Paradigm™, like the old new morality, allows for marvelous theological inversions. The arguments were pioneered by liberal Protestants. In some circumstances, a genuine respect for life requires euthanasia, and a genuine respect for the rights of children requires abortion.
In the 1950s and 1960s, mainline Protestant debates about sexual morality were serious. Even rich Episcopalians felt the force of divine authority in those days, or at least some of them did. It was a shock—and for many, a relief—to hear ministers pronounce the old prohibitions outdated. Seminary professors worked hard to show that the gospel calls us to lives of authentic love, not conformity to mere rules. Earnest parish groups met in the evenings to read Paul Tillich and Joseph Fletcher. All of this took place during a time of dramatic cultural change, a time filled with utopian dreams about new, higher, more expansive ways of living. There was bad faith, to be sure, as well as a great deal of self-deception. But one could be a sincere Christian revisionist, imagining the Age of Aquarius was a time of new revelations about sex—its meaning and promise.
That’s not true in 2018. The sexual revolution long ago lost its youthful allure. It retains public authority. The #MeToo movement can’t bring itself to express any reservations about sexual liberty. But many, perhaps most, experience our dominant culture of sexual permission as toxic. (See Mary Eberstadt’s counting of the costs in “The Prophetic Power of Humanae Vitae.”) Moreover, when it comes to LGBT rights, the sexual revolution has reached a Jacobin stage, demanding the re-education of those who dissent, and if they resist, public execution. Free love has turned into a ruthless political project.
In these circumstances, which are our circumstances, those leading the effort to revise Catholic sexual morality are comical figures. They recycle tired arguments and urge us to embrace a sexual culture that more and more people find unappealing. The New York Times recently reported declines in fertility among younger women. These declines are not matched by reductions in the number of children young women desire. The same can be seen in marriage rates, where declines do not match what women actually want. You know it’s not 1969 when a high-achieving mother writes an open letter to high-achieving young women, urging them to find husbands while they are undergraduates at Princeton. Her advice is defensive. Find your mate while in college, she warns, because the sexual marketplace gets ruthless as you get older, making it difficult for women to find domestic happiness.
When I read Cardinal Cupich or other epigones of this pontificate of “accompaniment,” I am bemused. The arguments echo those made by mainline Protestants two generations ago. This is especially true for the persistent denigration of “doctors of the law,” who supposedly promote an infantile, rule-based approach to the moral life. In a “world come of age” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s unfortunate formulation), Christians need no longer cling to their guns and religion, er, the authority of Scripture and the apostolic tradition. And so on and so forth, until everything has been made conveniently plastic and malleable. It’s more than a little entertaining to see this pontificate inveighing against the “throwaway culture” and our technocratic mentality while adopting the same techniques to clear the way for re-engineering the Church’s sexual ethic.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church’s diplomatic corps promoted an Ostpolitik, a strategy of accommodation to Eastern Bloc Communist governments. They were convinced that the Church had to make its peace with the Soviet Union, which they assumed would be a permanent, irreversible force of world history. Today, we’re seeing something similar with respect to the sexual revolution. Just as it’s losing its allure, church officials are formulating an Erospolitik. It’s an endeavor worthy of Eugène Ionesco.
Carmy on Life
I’m grateful to Shalom Carmy for illuminating the theme of fertility in the Book of Job. Some years ago I wrote a commentary on Genesis. I was struck by the long genealogy that takes up all of chapter 5. It comes after the dead end of Adam and Eve’s first venture of life, Cain and Abel, which is swallowed by evil. Historical critics parse this material into different sources that have been combined to form the canonical text. But there is nonetheless a theological point. In the narrative flow of Genesis, the long chain of “begats” tells us that death and transgression do not have the final say. In a literal sense, Adam and Eve do as Moses urges the Israelites in Deuteronomy: They choose life. Seth is born. In spite of sin’s disintegrating power, life tumbles forward.
Something similar is at work in the Book of Job. Carmy draws out the ways in which Job seems remote from his role in the forward-moving chain of life. Job does not speak of his parents. His children seem lifeless to him, and this is true even before they lose their lives as part of the afflictions God permits to be visited upon him. He is isolated from his flesh and blood. As the colloquies with his friends come to an end, Job ends up solitary, speechless—lifeless.
As Carmy points out, “God’s answer to Job (chapters 38–41) contains little or nothing that would count as an argument on theodicy.” Instead, God draws attention to his creative power and “celebrates the sheer fecundity of the world.” The logic is similar to Genesis 5. The dead end of evil is not argued away. It is answered by an upsurge of life’s greater power, the relentless flow of generation and the profligate abundance of reality.
This is not a “solution” to the problem of evil. But it is a way forward. Many of us have experienced the loss of a parent, or even a spouse or child. In the face of this loss, there is nothing that can be said. We offer condolences and make gestures of solidarity. We know intuitively that death and loss—evil—isolate. Emotional pain, like physical pain, draws us down into the pit.
C. S. Lewis depicts those most fully in evil’s grip as isolated in hell, living as remotely from other humans as distant stars. For this reason, we intuitively know that for those undone by the death of those whom they love, it is a consolation simply to be with others as they suffer in their grief.
From time immemorial, men have raised monuments to dam up the eroding currents of time. The pyramids at Giza are exercises in theodicy, the piling up of stones to assert an enduring existence against the power of death. This is not the biblical pattern. When a young mother brings her infant to the funeral, we feel the power of God’s fecundity. “Choose life!” It can be hard. The grip of grief can feel like cold, unbreakable iron. Yet in a child’s urgent cries, calling for his mother’s breast and oblivious to the bitter tears shed by grown-ups around him, life chooses us. These moments are natural foretastes of the supernatural mystery of election, the reality of being chosen by the author of life.
while we’re at it
♦ In response to Romanus Cessario’s review of The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara (February), a number of commentators expressed anxious concern about what Kevin J. Madigan calls the “troublingly reactionary turn” at First Things (Commonweal, January 25, 2018). He charges us with “nostalgia” for pre–Vatican II Catholicism. Making sure his readers get the meaning of that “nostalgia,” he suggests that I’m running a magazine that gives a nihil obstat to anti-Semitism.
I’m unimpressed. In his review, Cessario points out that Jews do not recognize baptism as a transformative, identity-changing sacrament. One would think this non-controversial. My Jewish friends respect my pious observances. In our present, secular context, they are grateful for the Catholics who take their tradition seriously. But they don’t share my theological convictions. Madigan latches on to Cessario’s observation, however, telling us that it veers “dangerously close to the hoary slur that blindness prevented Jews from acknowledging the truth of Christianity.” Hoary slur? I suggest Madigan consult St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 11, verses 7–10.
Christians have a great deal to repent of in our history of mistreatment of Jews. But Madigan is typical of those who fail to reckon with the realities of our faith. He says that Vatican II and “several popes” have rejected what he calls “classical Christian supersessionism.” That’s not true. Those conciliar documents and decrees rejected the crude and popular versions of supersessionism that led to teachings of contempt and licensed anti-Semitic persecution and violence. They did not set aside fundamental New Testament teaching about Christ fulfilling the law and the Church assuming the eschatological role of the holy people of God. These remain points of tension in theological discussions with Jews.
Madigan is misleading in his characterizations of Catholicism’s current uncertain and diverse efforts to formulate a theology of Judaism. “For six decades now,” he writes, “many authoritative Catholic theologians have insisted that the New Covenant by no means abrogated the first.” This sounds generous and ecumenical. But if we look more closely, it means that the Catholic Church now teaches that Jews who are baptized must maintain Torah-observance. But of course the Church teaches no such thing. In fact, the Church teaches the contrary. Catholicism denies (along with St. Paul) that Jewish converts to Christianity must continue to observe the dietary, ceremonial, and ritual laws that are so central to Jewish life. If that’s not “abrogation,” then I don’t know what is.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Cessario’s defense of Pius IX. But Madigan indulges in theo-political posturing rather than grappling with the hard reality that the real, important, and welcome changes in Catholicism’s attitudes toward Judaism have not coalesced into a coherent development of doctrine. After Auschwitz, the Catholic Church (and Christianity in the West more broadly) could not continue with a simplistic theology of Judaism, one that regarded the Jewish people as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, scandalous and enemies of faith. The negations of this old, pernicious theology of Judaism are clear in the documents Madigan cites. But no post–Vatican II theology of Judaism has taken its place. Catholicism continues to struggle with St. Paul’s dual affirmation: “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29), and “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). In this matter, I strongly recommend that Madigan cultivate a spirit of humility about how to understand the role of Judaism in today’s Catholic theology and practice rather than adopting the tone of moral superiority that runs through his dismissal of Romanus Cessario. He should consult the final verses of Romans 11.
♦ Is it harmful and “reactionary” to cultivate nostalgia for pre–Vatican II Catholicism? Too often, nostalgia gets a bad rap. It shouldn’t. Nostalgia is an important moral emotion, one that regrets that which has been lost. I have friends who warmly remember the ethnic communities they grew up in. They’re capable of distinguishing neighborly solidarity from the insular mentality they no longer endorse. The nostalgia does not want to bring back what was bad. Instead, it’s an act of moral imagination that reminds us of what has been lost—of the things we ought to seek to recover in our own way for our own time.
There is a proper nostalgia for the rigorous theological culture of the pre–Vatican II Church. Peter Steinfels has written about how 1950s Catholicism gave him an integral and confident intellectual formation. He does not want to go back to that era, but he regrets that today’s Church cannot give young Catholics a similar formation. It’s a regret I share, and I’m grateful to Steinfels for illuminating the loss.
As Mark Henrie points out in his classic article “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,” looking back on the past with sympathy, even longing, is part of any fully developed moral sensibility. This sympathy can fail to account adequately for the evil intermixed with the good, but this does not vitiate its value. “Although it may be true that nostalgia views the past through rose-colored glasses, such a criticism misses the point. To see the good while blinkered against evils is, nevertheless, to see the good.”
♦ In this issue, Patrick Carey reviews the republication of some old scholastic treatises by Joseph Clifford Fenton, who flourished in the mid-twentieth century (“Fenton Returns”). In his foreword, Scott Hahn expresses envy for the Catholic education Steinfels received. Yes, he tells us, the Church is capable of great things in our time. (I count his leadership in encouraging a vital biblical theology among the positive new developments.) “But in private—late into a long night’s conversation, after a glass of wine or maybe two—many Catholics of my generation or younger will confess to a secret envy. We strongly suspect that we didn’t get the same quality or quantity of intellectual and spiritual formation that Catholics generally received in the middle of the last century.”
♦ A subscriber wrote after reading my reflections on Gilbert Meilaender’s recent book about adoption, Not by Nature but by Grace. “This morning, as I write this, it is the day of the March for Life. Those of us who are adoptive parents have a vested interest in this event and what it stands for. We would not be parents at all if the birth mother had had an abortion. It is astounding and appalling that the government of the United States has been in the business of funding Planned (un)Parenthood.”
♦ University of Texas at Austin president Gregory L. Fenves did the right thing. He promoted sociologist Mark Regnerus to the rank of full professor. This should have been no-news news. Regnerus is an accomplished scholar. But in 2012, he published a detailed study of parenting outcomes for gay couples. He found that children raised in same-sex households are at greater risk for bad life outcomes such as poverty, unemployment, and poor education.
The study’s publication triggered outrage among social scientists. The discipline takes it is as settled dogma that gay liberation is always for the best. Regnerus was subjected to relentless attacks, which have continued. Every effort has been made to ruin his career. But unlike those who attack him, Mark is not an academic mediocrity. He has published three widely read books, most recently, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. He has shed more light on the social changes wrought by the sexual revolution than anyone else in his field. Yet, all too predictably, his own department at the University of Texas recommended against his promotion, as did the deans of some of the schools there.
If you live in the great state of Texas, please write President Gregory L. Fenves to thank him for standing up to political correctness and academic dishonesty. He needs to hear from loyal Texans who care about the integrity of their state’s institutions. Mailing address: 110 Inner Campus Drive, Stop G3400, Austin, TX 78712. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ A clerical friend passed along a newly composed Prayer for the Tranquility of a Pope: Almighty and Everlasting Father, Forasmuch as Thou hast established Thy Holy Church upon the Rock that is Peter, Grant to Thy humble servant n.______, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, a spirit of reserve both in what is said in speech and wrought in words, vouchsafing the silent witness of the saints. Grant to him peace and courage to rejoice in solitude, thus securing tranquility of thought and temperance of expression, both on the earth and in the air. And amidst the sundry and manifold tumults of our age, may he be strengthened in living the Gospel without words. We ask this through Christ the Living Word. Amen.
♦ Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, William Voegli recounts a telling episode.
In 2015, a developer proposed plans to build 224 affordable housing units in Marin County—California’s most affluent—where the median home price is $1.25 million. Newly formed civic groups argued that their opposition to “high density development” was necessary to “protect and preserve the character of the area.” In 2017, these efforts succeeded when a Democratic state legislator from Marin County secured passage of a bill that, as described by the Los Angeles Times, “lets Marin’s largest cities and incorporated areas maintain extra restrictions on how many homes developers can build.” Hillary Clinton won 79% of the vote in Marin County, compared to 16% for Donald Trump.
♦ A devoted reader was perusing the March issue of this fine magazine while relaxing on the Acela train from New York to Boston. He noticed that some of the folks sitting nearby were frowning and glaring in his direction. Someone said, “How can you read that?” It’s a small episode, but perhaps a significant one. Social norms seem to be breaking down. It’s the opposite of civil when well-heeled strangers on trains (the Acela tends to be filled with people from the professional class) feel free to deliver ideological spankings to nearby passengers. It lends credence to Ryszard Legutko’s analysis of today’s secular liberalism as a conformist echo of the defunct communism of an earlier generation.
♦ I admit I am pleased that liberals on Amtrak’s Acela know enough about First Things to identify us as “bad.” It’s a sign that we’re gaining influence, which of course secular liberals regard as regrettable. After all, isn’t history on their side? Aren’t we supposed to decline into irrelevance and then disappear? The opposite is the case. Subscriptions are up. First Things is expanding its reach.
♦ Bob Moran, organizer of the New York City ROFTERS group, passed away on January 30. He was a brave and generous man. May he rest in peace. The new contact for the group is Nona Aguilar: Nona2000@aol.com or 212-532-5129.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?