This is our 300th number, marking thirty years of publication. In early 1989, Richard John Neuhaus had no inkling that he was about to found First Things. A Lutheran pastor noted for his incisive religious and political commentaries, he was busy running the Center on Religion and Society. The Center had taken responsibility for This World, an existing quarterly that needed new life. The Rockford Institute, a conservative think tank based in Rockford, Illinois, was behind his efforts. But it was an ill-starred marriage. Rockford also sponsored Chronicles, a monthly magazine with little love for neoconservatives, many of whom were Neuhaus’s friends and served on the newly constituted editorial board of This World.
Chronicles published a particularly vicious attack on Peter Berger, Neuhaus’s close collaborator. Tensions grew. Neuhaus opened up negotiations for a divorce from Rockford’s sponsorship. But events overtook calm planning. On the morning of May 5, 1989, Rockford Institute president Allan Carlson appeared at the Center’s office at 152 Madison Avenue. Backed up by two muscular security guards, he demanded the keys and summarily expelled Neuhaus and his staff. Neuhaus’s assistant, Davida Goldman, had only a moment to grab the office Rolodex, which she stuffed into a box and carried out the door.
The refugees retreated in the drear of that rainy day to Capucine’s Restaurant, a neighborhood fixture on Second Avenue near Neuhaus’s home. Within twenty-four hours, Neuhaus had secured the support he needed to launch a new organization, the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Over the course of the next month, the concept of First Things was sketched out, with Peter Berger counseling a monthly rather than a quarterly, saying the magazine would be more influential if read more regularly. Plans were made to launch it in the coming year. The first issue appeared in March 1990.
First Things reflected Neuhaus’s genius. He had a gift for ecumenical friendship, rooted in his seminary formation, which emphasized the Catholic roots of Lutheranism. In New York, he developed close friendships with Jewish religious leaders and writers. From the outset, First Things was unique in publishing ardent affirmations of orthodoxy, while at the same time giving space in its pages to a wide variety of religious traditions.
We continue to do so. Jews and Christians cannot both be right in all their core theological affirmations, nor can Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers. But to the extent that we all cherish the life of faith and acknowledge the imperative of rendering unto God the duty of worship, we are united against the secular world, which is often hostile to faith and indifferent to transcendence.
Neuhaus was shaped by the dramatic changes in the landscape of American religion over his lifetime. In the 1950s, churches were filled to capacity. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich wrote theological books that reached wide audiences. In the 1960s, religious leaders played central roles in the civil rights movement, and then in the anti-war movement that protested American involvement in Vietnam.
By the early 1970s, however, Neuhaus and others sensed dangerous trends. Mainline Protestantism—Methodism, Presbyterianism, Episcopalianism, and other branches of Protestantism that appealed to middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans—was redefining itself in political and therapeutic terms. Catholicism was in turmoil as radicals claimed to carry forward the “spirit of Vatican II.” Churches and synagogues grappled with feminism and the sexual revolution, often yielding ground on questionable terms.
In modern Protestantism, the theological tradition that justifies accommodation to contemporary sensibilities is called “liberal.” Neuhaus and the writers he gathered around him in the early years of First Things opposed theological liberalism. This opposition did not mean retreat from engagement with contemporary issues. Nor did it mean hostility to the conditions of modern life. Their anti-liberalism was religious, not political: Our souls need to harken to the gracious Word of God—and so does the world.
Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox disagree about how God speaks his Word to us, and about how we are to shape our lives and societies in response. But a consensus held together these men and women: An ever-deeper obedience to God makes our lives more fully human.
The consensus remained unchanged over the decades and continues to this day. First Things rejects liberalism in theology, which holds that we must keep God’s authority at bay, allowing room for the individual to enterprise his own free self-development (thus the label “liberal”).
Many writers for First Things were raised and trained in religious communities deeply influenced by liberal theology. Not a few in the early years were recusant mainline Protestants who resisted the liberal, post-Christian drift of their denominations. (Some continue in that role.) Neuhaus was among them, as was I. This background marks First Things. We know the intellectual history of liberal theology, its arguments, and its seductions. Our goal is to encourage and nurture the faith of First Things readers, and in so doing we seek to inoculate against bad theology.
During our first decade, John Paul II was ascendant. His encyclicals on faith and reason, the ethics of life, and the authority of truth exemplified the First Things ideal: speaking to issues of urgent importance in the public square with metaphysical gravity and a strong theological voice. He put wind in our sails—not just Catholics’, but Protestants’ and Jews’ as well. He also encouraged morally serious people of no faith who worried (rightly) about the West’s drift toward postmodern nihilism.
Neuhaus became Catholic soon after First Things was launched. He was ordained a priest a year later. Along with the charisma of John Paul II, this change gave First Things a Catholic hue, which has deepened over time. A number of the Protestant writers close to the magazine have swum the Tiber, including the chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life (which publishes First Things) and the current editor.
Many Protestant members of the First Things circle remember fondly the pontificate of John Paul II. His witness gave them spiritual support in their battles against the culture of death and the secular spirit of the age. But the Catholic cast of First Things, which is indisputable, can also lead to misunderstandings. I often need to correct journalists who refer to First Things as a Catholic magazine. We are not a publication of the Catholic Church. Almost half of our board members are non-Catholics. Many of our regular writers are non-Catholics. We do not purport to speak for Catholics or Catholicism. Some who appear in these pages are Catholics who sometimes write about Catholic matters. Some aren’t. And all of us write about many different things.
As I look to the future, I see continuity. First Things readers in mainline Protestantism know in their bones that liberalism in religion will remain a powerful acid eroding religious orthodoxy. Many evangelicals are fighting the inroads it makes in their communities. Rome seems to be dancing to old tunes from the seventies. Until the dawn of an era not animated by the conceits of modernity, liberalism in theology will remain a perennial temptation. We’re here to diagnose the pathologies of bad theology and propose anew the adventure of orthodoxy.
Our Political Role
In 1984, Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square. In it, he made the provocative claim that Jerry Falwell followed in the same tradition as Martin Luther King Jr. Both the religious right and the civil rights movement sought to reform a wayward American society by appeals to biblical truths. Thus, to reject Falwell on the grounds that he was illegitimately injecting his religious beliefs into secular politics requires rejecting the leadership of King.
The argument is persuasive, and First Things insists that religious people should bring their religious convictions to bear on matters of public importance. God does not deliver policy papers from on high. But he is the creator of heaven and earth. Knowing that and having a clear idea of the final end of man provides the religious believer with the proper horizon for exercising sound political judgment (though by no means does it guarantee sound judgment). In most cases, this judgment will neither draw on theological premises nor entail theological conclusions. But faith leavens nonetheless. A religiously informed public philosophy has always been and remains our goal.
The political judgments Neuhaus made changed over the course of his life. He was a man of the left in the 1960s. But a growing anti-Americanism on the left disturbed him. His friendship with Peter Berger (an anti-revolutionary man down to his bones) stimulated him as he rethought his political positions. Along with Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, and others, Neuhaus moved rightward. He always claimed the liberal label, but his became a conservative liberalism.
That was in the 1970s. By the time First Things got going in 1990, the political culture of the United States had settled into stable patterns. Ronald Reagan had stamped a new image and outlook on the Republican party. Conservatism meant a strong American military, free markets, and middle-American social conservatism. First Things was not established to be a Pravda for the Reagan consensus, as a glance at the table of contents of early issues indicates. But Neuhaus and others could take that consensus for granted, criticizing its excesses, grounding it in our philosophical and theological inheritance, and fending off critics, both secular and religious, whose arguments merited rebuttal.
“The End of Democracy?” symposium was a notable political intervention in the early years of First Things. A Ninth Circuit Court decision had discovered a constitutional right to assisted suicide. The culture of death was poised to gain ground, entrenching itself more deeply into American constitutional law. The symposium ventured a wholesale critique of the American regime, suggesting that its legitimacy was in doubt. This meant, of necessity, that resistance to the culture of death would require a more radical politics.
“The End of Democracy?” was widely criticized as an irresponsible dalliance with counterrevolutionary extremism. But the uproar subsided. As the 1990s progressed, Bill Clinton put his own stamp on the Democratic party. Reaganism still defined the right, though it became more libertarian as social conservatism migrated to the sidelines. Perhaps George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism could have stimulated change and readjustment. But the attacks of 9/11 arrested the nation’s attention.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the historic election of America’s first black president seemed harbingers of change. But for the most part, our political culture continued along well-worn paths—which began to merge. The center-right emphasized economic openness and acquiesced to the cultural openness demanded by the left, seeking only to moderate it. The center-left acquiesced to the economic agenda of the right, promising to redistribute its benefits. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to our political class, American society had changed.
I can’t begin to describe the changes in detail. My shorthand version: The United States became a divided country. To a great extent, it always has been. When I was young, the divide between labor and capital had been moderated by the New Deal liberalism that Reaganism modified but did not overturn. The conflict between white and black rocked the 1960s, though by the time I was a teenager it was somewhat tamed by affirmative action, an increasing black presence in movies and TV, and educational gains. Both divides remain to some degree, but a third divide has opened up and dwarfs the others. It runs between university-educated winners and high school–educated losers, between the “makers” and the “takers,” between those who compliment themselves for being open-minded and the “deplorables.”
During the 2016 Republican primaries, this divide put an end to the dominance of Reaganism on the right. The rebellion against established leaders and commentators produced a nominee beloved by the base of the party and despised by its elite. At present, the Democratic party is undergoing a similar agony of redefinition. The result is likely to upset the Clinton-era grandees who had imagined they would run the party forever.
The political environment in which First Things seeks to bring religious insights to bear on public life has become unsettled. “Populism” is the vague but indispensable word to describe the disturbing rebellions against the once stable consensus shared by right and left. This populism strongly suggests that the university class, which runs the country, is losing the trust of the non-university class.
Populism and the changing political culture open a new chapter in the history of First Things. Our writers can’t presume that there is a stable political consensus, left or right, to criticize, buttress, and leaven. We are thrust into the maelstrom of debate, not always knowing where we stand on issues that once seemed clear. Economic globalization? Free trade? Technological innovation? American power? Foreign wars? These questions are open now in ways I could not have anticipated a decade or even four years ago.
The core competency of First Things is moral and religious. Our principles remain sound. But how do we assess the moral purpose of a free economy in our time? Sen. Marco Rubio coined the term “common good capitalism,” perhaps drawing on First Things and our call for a common good conservatism. But what will that look like?
And how should we seek to restore the moral foundations of our democratic culture? Is there a properly legislative role in our efforts to renew the family? Should we argue for a conservative jurisprudence based in substantive moral principles, as Hadley Arkes suggests? Should we simply aim to overturn Roe v. Wade? Or should we fight to secure a judicial decision that recognizes that the child in the womb is a person deserving equal protection of the law as required in the 14th amendment? Is our best hope the classical liberalism that protects our religious freedom and other freedoms? Or should we face the tyrannical moralism of today’s progressive culture warriors with a morally serious but capacious (and sane) vision of society?
It’s disorienting to have to question old assumptions. Neuhaus and many of the intellectuals who played such important roles in First Things had to do so in the 1970s. During that decade of questioning and reformulation, polemics were penned. Harsh words were exchanged. Friendships were strained, even broken. History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said. As the third decade of the twenty-first century begins, we too are disoriented, groping our way forward, sometimes exchanging harsh words of our own.
I often travel and meet with First Things readers. I am impressed by their intelligence and civic spirit. But what impresses me most is their freedom. First Things readers have loyalties that transcend politics, which, though important, is not ultimate. This frees them—us—from the dread and hysteria that dominate the public square in these uncertain times. We can question our old political assumptions because politics was never our religion, never the first of first things.
Neuhaus always insisted on the central importance of religious people speaking confidently in the public square, not just about religious matters (though certainly about them), but also about the many other things that matter. First Things was founded to ensure exactly that. Today, politics matters, not ultimately, but acutely. Old political pieties are failing. New positions need to be formulated.
Neuhaus and his merry band of unrepentantly religious public intellectuals launched First Things thirty years ago. They have passed on a living tradition of discussion and debate, the First Things tradition that helps us face the challenges of the twenty-first century with an unbending faithfulness to truths that never change, and the freedom to reformulate the political coalitions and judgments that the world foolishly imagines permanent.
The Way to Capitulation
German Catholicism is on the path to affirming homosexual acts. The trajectory is all too predictable. In recent decades, the pressure to conform to the sexual revolution has been enormous. What began as a leave-us-alone call for freedom quickly became a demand for acceptance, and it didn’t stop there. As the new freedoms gained the upper hand, the sexual revolution hardened into a harsh and punitive regime that silences dissent and compels ritual affirmations of its practices.
The evolution of the summer of love into an empire demanding loyalty was to be expected. In his call for personal freedom, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill observes that the social consensus is a far greater threat to “experiments in living” than explicit laws or governmental power. “Thou shalt not,” spoken by a parent, pastor, or teacher, has moral power. It engages our souls and forms our consciences. As a consequence, if we’re to nourish the individual’s freedom to do with his life as he pleases, as Mill wished, we must loosen up the social consensus and weaken moral norms.
And what will be the agent of loosening and weakening? Mill is silent on this question. But force requires counter-force. A powerful moral consensus must be broken up by powerful agents of liberation, a new consensus willing to intimidate and destroy the fuddy-duddies who hang on to old, restrictive moral norms. The agents of liberation must use government power to ensure new rights. Cultural power must be deployed to “raise awareness.”
This is especially true when it comes to sex. It was never realistic to think that gay rights would stop at repealing laws against sodomy. An intimate affair, sex implicates the whole person. Sex is never just about sex. Its emotional power invariably incorporates moral meaning. Its reproductive potential has communal implications. As a consequence, our sexual acts, our very desires, are vulnerable to censure and condemnation. Even those who claim to have rejected the old, “repressive” ethic can be very sensitive to criticism. That’s why places like San Francisco and Greenwich Village were havens for homosexuals. They offered enclaves of affirmation within a culture of censure.
The same can be said of contraception, cohabitation, and other variants of the sexual revolution. Because it is so intimate, people feel acutely their vulnerability to moral judgment in matters of sex. This vulnerability explains the preemptive counter-punching with morally loaded terms. The sexual ethics of nearly every culture before our own is “puritanical,” “patriarchal,” “oppressive,” and “authoritarian.”
Normalizing homosexuality has been at the forefront of the sexual revolution, because the gay claim to sexual freedom has an enduring public character, whether in cruising or in courtship. The young men and women in Golden Gate Park in 1967 could be in advanced stages of undress and engaged in a salacious embraces, but one could hope for a trajectory toward marriage, children, and a return to the old norms. This did happen, at least in part, for many Baby Boomers. Such a hope is not cogent when it comes to public displays of homosexuality. They announce the overturning of a moral consensus built upon the reproductive reality of the sexual complementarity of men and women. This is exactly the ambition of the sexual revolution; hence, the centrality of gay rights.
I was active in the Episcopal Church in the 1990s. I came to see that the relentless pressure to affirm homosexuality dominated church politics because it brought with it a wholesale affirmation of the sexual revolution. If sodomy is a wonderful expression of love between two people who happen to be men, then any moral debate about contraception is ridiculous. And worries about premarital sex, divorce, and other matters can only seem like the peculiar residue of a Neanderthal conscience.
My experience of homosexuality’s role in the Episcopal Church brought me a sigh of familiarity when I learned that the German Catholic Church is “newly assessing” the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. As was the case for Episcopalians a generation ago, church leaders in Germany intuitively recognize that opening up ways to affirm homosexuality is the most efficient path to “newly assessing” marriage and sexual morality more generally.
The theological foundations for the “updating” of sexual morality were laid decades ago. After the Second Vatican Council, many theologians argued for “indigenization,” a barbaric term that means making the essentials of Christian doctrine understandable in non-Western cultures. For example, the Nicene Creed uses the Greek metaphysical concept of substance—the only-begotten Son is “of one substance with the Father.” The idea was to translate this formulation into cognate terms indigenous to Hindu, Confucian, and other cultures. Some also argued that in Asian cultures the Eucharist should be celebrated with rice, not bread, since that grain is more recognizable than wheat as a symbol of sustenance. Others wondered how to accommodate African practices of polygamy to Christian norms.
The notion of indigenization had applications in Western culture. For more than two hundred years, German Protestantism has been dominated by theologians who argue that modernity is a new culture. It is fundamentally different from the ancient world in which classical Christian teaching was first formulated.
In the 1920s, Rudolf Bultmann argued that, because men of his time “use electric light and the wireless,” they cannot accept the miracles of the New Testament. The supernatural must be “de-mythologized” and translated into a modern idiom if Christian proclamation is to be understood aright. The resurrection of Christ may have meant bodily resurrection for those living in pre-modern cultures, but for modern man it means a new “way of being.”
After Vatican II, this understanding of modernity—that it inaugurates something fundamentally new in the West—became popular among Catholic theologians. Karl Rahner was widely influential. He assumed, as did many others, that modern historical consciousness disenchants biblical language. He also assumed that the “turn to the subject” in modern culture means that metaphysical concepts no longer have currency. Though Rahner did not follow Bultmann’s program of de-mythologization, he too adopted a program of translation. His theology recast church teaching in accord with a “transcendental method.”
Rahner’s particular theological program has faded, as has Bultmann’s. But their belief in the uniqueness of modernity is still widely held. From that belief follows the presumed need to translate Christian teaching into terms that “modern man” can grasp and accept. Traditional Christian doctrine must be contextualized (“indigenized”) in Western modernity.
Over the last year, the German Bishops Conference sponsored a consultation on “Human Sexuality.” The consultation was part of der Synodale Weg, the synodal pathway that the German Church has established, claiming the sanction of Pope Francis, based on his commendation of “synodality.” The Germans assume that synodality licenses each region of the Church to contextualize church teaching in terms of local realities. The character of the recent synod for the Amazon in Rome gives a great deal of credence to this assumption.
In the consultation’s final report, we learn that the chairman, Archbishop Heiner Koch, believes that der Synodale Weg should “begin impartially and without fixed positions.” It’s a telling formulation, one that shoulders the authority of the Church’s tradition to the side so that, as diversity consultants say, “all voices can be heard.” Of course, as anyone who has attended diversity training sessions knows, some positions remain fixed. The “Human Sexuality” consultation seems to have proceeded in exactly this way.
In one way or another, Jewish and Christian traditions have described the desire to have sexual relations with someone of one’s own sex as disordered. In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul turns to homosexuality as the most fitting moral analogy to idolatry, the disordered human act of worship. But Archbishop Koch knows better. He appeals to today’s Einverständnis, the consensus that sexual orientation is an essential feature of the human person “expressed in puberty.” That orientation can be heterosexual or homosexual. Both “are normal forms of sexual predisposition that cannot and should not be changed by any specific socialization.” The dogma of intrinsic and unchangeable sexual orientation is exempt from the probation against fixed positions, as is the LGBT battle against conversion therapy.
Germans are methodical. The “Human Sexuality” consultation does not propose changes in church teaching on homosexuality. Its purpose is to lay the foundations for the next consultation, “Life in Successful Relationship—Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership,” to begin in February 2020.
One does not need inside information to know where the synodal path is leading, however. Once homosexual orientation is deemed intrinsic and “normal,” the way is open to an affirmation of gay rights across the board, not just as a permissible perspective, but as the only legitimate Catholic one. Archbishop Koch foreshadowed this desired outcome when he offered observations meant to alleviate concerns that such an affirmation might run afoul of the Church’s magisterium. The recent papal teaching in Amoris Laetitia, he said, shows how new insights and circumstances can allow the Church to restate her discipline on sexual relationships after divorce and remarriage. What was once a serious sin is no longer necessarily so serious. Presumably, those who maintain the older view are now thinking against, rather than with, the Church.
Given “what we know” about homosexuality—the consensus that has been shaped by the sexual revolution—I’m confident der Synodale Weg will discern a way to ally the German Church with the sexual revolution. We know the basic moves.
- Modern science has delivered us from an archaic view of sex and sexual orientation.
- Historical study has shown that negative attitudes toward homosexuality stem from ancient (mostly Jewish) mores that are no longer intelligible to men and women formed by today’s more inclusive and open culture.
- Jesus teaches a redemptive love that transcends Pharisaic preoccupation with legalistic norms.
- There can be misuses of human sexuality, of course, but the full significance and gravity of transgression must be determined in the “internal forum” with one’s pastor.
- Defending human dignity means the Church must join with men and women of goodwill to denounce discrimination against gays, lesbians, and the transgendered, combatting homophobia and rejecting negative images rooted in an oppressive past.
The German Church is not alone. More than 90 percent of Catholic universities in the United States are functionally in accord with the sexual revolution. Most are overtly affirmative; the rest acquiesce quietly. The synodal path toward capitulation has been clearly marked by moral theologians. The majority of those in the West who have earned PhDs in Catholic moral theology during the last fifty years almost certainly agree with the fundamental claims of the sexual revolution and endorse the direction the German Church appears to be taking.
JPII formulated an alternative path, one that engages elements of the modern moral sensibility, in the theology of the body and other writings. Benedict XVI urged the Church in the West to maintain a countercultural witness. But they did not succeed in unifying the Church around their visions. For example, John Paul II sought to restore a connection between Catholic higher education and magisterial teaching. If he had succeeded, the institutional conditions for a strong intellectual culture of resistance to the sexual revolution might have emerged. But he failed. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the document mandating this restoration, was always a dead letter. Veritatis Splendor, the encyclical affirming the authority of moral truth, was greeted with hostility by major sectors of the Church, especially in Northern Europe. Benedict XVI identified the peril of the “dictatorship of relativism.” I’m sure many Catholic leaders in the West still agree with his formulation, but for the most part they cower and find ways to conform to the regime of diversity and inclusion.
As I outlined five years ago (“A New Concordat?,” January 2015), ever since the furor over Humanae Vitae in 1968, the Church has been in retreat, yielding ground to the sexual revolution. This has been done mostly by making a great show of concern for the human dignity of all people, including homosexuals, while going silent when it comes to specific norms of sexual morality. This has been the way to signal acquiescence, conceding to the sexual revolution its control over the formation of consciences. Fr. James Martin is expert in this tactic.
Germans disdain the Mediterranean hypocrisy that affirms norms while winking at transgression. Eager for consistency, der Synodale Weg is likely to make the widespread acquiescence to the sexual revolution into a somber public affirmation. Over time, this affirmation will become obligatory. Restatements of traditional judgments about sodomy will be derided as homophobic assaults on human dignity. As Richard John Neuhaus often observed, where orthodoxy becomes optional, it eventually becomes proscribed.
My experience in Germany is limited. I know the United States better. It is my impression that a majority of American priests, and perhaps bishops as well, intuit that an open capitulation to the sexual revolution, however qualified, will have disastrous effects on the Church’s morale.
They are correct. We are living in societies defined by the sexual revolution, so much so that affirmations of progressive attitudes toward sex, sexual orientation, and transgenderism serve as the single most decisive test of whether or not a person is decent and worthy of assuming positions of responsibility. I could see it coming, but the open eagerness of the German Catholic hierarchy to demonstrate their loyalty to the sexual revolution shocks me nonetheless. The cultural-religious symbolism is so obviously one of betrayal. In our time, the society-wide effort to get everyone to say that sodomy is perfectly normal is the sociological equivalent of the ancient Roman demand that everyone sacrifice to the city’s gods. It is the regime’s way of destroying resistance and redirecting the loyalty of citizens to its authority.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ James Chappel’s review of George Weigel’s account of the last two centuries of Catholicism, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, is a familiar brand of academic partisanship. He derides Weigel as a shill for “clerical conservatism” and “libertarian economics,” and pronounces that Weigel’s is a “narrow Christianity that has enormous political power.”
“Narrow” and with “enormous power”? Perhaps the insular environment of academia makes it seem so. (Chappel is an assistant professor at Duke University.) George Weigel’s views are anything but narrow. They are mainstream within the Catholic Church, which is why he is so influential. One can only laugh at the notion that Caesar bows to the John Paul II Catholicism for which Weigel is a leading spokesman. Last I checked, no Silicon Valley billionaires, Ivy League presidents, Hollywood executives, New York Times editors, or Wall Street moguls were patrons of evangelical Catholicism.
Chappel makes much of Weigel’s connections to the Napa Institute and its founder, Timothy Busch. I estimate that the people who gather at Napa events represent less than 1 percent of the One Percent, the vast majority of whom support establishment institutions that serve as patrons for progressives. Those who hold the views expressed by Weigel (or First Things more broadly) cannot get jobs in academia at this point—and academia spends annually more than 300 billion dollars in endowment income, government grants, and tuition revenue. For every conservative foundation, there are ten progressive foundations, each having twice as much money. It is a sociological fact that twenty-first-century progressivism provides ideological cover for the neo-liberal status quo, which is why it is so richly funded by the One Percent.
The attack on Weigel casts an unflattering light on Catholic Modern, Chappel’s historical monograph about mid-twentieth-century Catholic political engagement, which I review in this issue (“Fierce Loyalties”). The book gives a responsible account of paternal Catholicism, while also carefully documenting the anti-Semitism and complicity with fascists of some of its proponents in the 1930s. About fraternal Catholicism, the progressive tradition he favors, no sins are mentioned. Many fraternal Catholics were active in the French Resistance, allied with communists and others who, after the war, carried out extra-judicial executions of those deemed collaborators. Did these fraternal Catholics take a public stance against these violations of the basic norms of justice? Or were they silent, as so many progressives today are silent about the character assassination of those deemed “bigoted” and “racist”? Did Chappel rise to the defense of the young men from Covington, Kentucky, who were targeted and slated for reputational execution last year?
George Weigel encourages a renewal of the Catholic Church. He wishes to sustain the best accomplishments of the modern era, while rejecting its excesses and failures. It is shameful that Chappel ascribes to Weigel “bad faith” and suggests base motives, even terming his book “dangerous,” thus casting himself as a noble warrior against evil. But this, sadly, is the progressive modus operandi.
♦ GLAAD is an LGBT activist group. Among other things, it pressures the TV industry to put more LGBT characters in primetime broadcasts. GLAAD set the goal of 10 percent of all characters and recently announced that the networks had achieved that goal during the most recent season. The next goal: 20 percent of all primetime TV characters must be LGBT.
♦ The leading pro-gay research center, the Williams Institute at UCLA, puts the LGBT portion of the general population at 4.5 percent. Those who identify as LGBT on a persistent, lifelong basis likely represent half that amount. We are systematically reorganizing our society around the valorization of statistically marginal and often dysfunctional people. This will not end well.
♦ In a New York Times op-ed in advance of the British election, Times of London columnist Jenni Russell wrote:
This is the dejection election. Not in my lifetime has Britain faced such a miserable choice. Two vain, incompetent, mediocre charlatans are competing to become prime minister. For the Conservatives, we have the blustering, lying, oafish puffball Boris Johnson. In the Labour corner is the querulous, wooden, sanctimonious Jeremy Corbyn.
Why doesn’t Russell stop to ask herself how this doleful state of affairs came about? It’s not as though Johnson and Corbyn emerged out of a vacuum. Haven’t the good and responsible people like Jenni Russell been running things for the last thirty years? Her haughty dismissal of Johnson and Corbyn amounts to a Pontius Pilate moment of elite hand-washing.
♦ British politician Arthur Balfour commenting on the political scientism of Herbert Spencer, an early representative of the recently evolved species of technocrat:
Mr. Spencer, who pierces the future with a surer gaze than I can make the least pretence to, looks confidently forward to a time when the relation of man to his surroundings will be so happily contrived that the reign of absolute righteousness will prevail; conscience, grown unnecessary, will be dispensed with; the path of least resistance will be the path of virtue; and not the “broad,” but the “narrow way,” will lead to destruction.
♦ I recently finished In the Presence of My Enemies by Fr. John W. Clifford, S.J., an American missionary to communist China in the 1950s. Clifford provides a practical guide to maintaining moral integrity under conditions of intense psychological pressure. He counsels a careful strategy of silence. Do not allow yourself to be drawn into defending yourself against accusations that have no basis in justice. When you engage, as at times you must, do so with forceful repudiation of falsehoods. Make it clear to those who wish to suborn you that you will not capitulate. When demoralized and weakened by the constant bombardment of propaganda, turn your mind to past experiences of joy and delight. We are not imprisoned under brutal conditions, as Clifford was. But we live in a society increasingly determined to force us to make public affirmations of the latest progressive dogmas of race, sexual orientation, and gender. Clifford’s advice has useful applications.
♦ A friend who tutors at a private high school told me about a video shown in the science class next to the room she uses. Optimistic Nihilism is the title. It opens with reasons why our lives amount to next to nothing in the cosmic scheme of things. Midway through, the narrator turns to the bright side. He observes that “So what?” can be liberating. If nothing matters, then, hey, we can decide what matters! If this is our one shot at life—and nothing beyond us can give it direction or purpose—we might as well have fun. As my friend mused, “Little wonder most of the students are on medication.”
♦ R. J. Snell observes that free speech will not cure today’s university culture, which is degraded by political correctness (“Free Speech Cannot Save Us,” Public Discourse, December 16, 2019). As he points out, fruitful discussion requires more than unhindered speech; it takes place only when those discussing and debating aren’t under the dominion of intellectual laziness, vanity, or bullheadedness. Drawing on Eric Voegelin, Snell identifies a “foolishness” resting in the “higher stupidity” that often impedes debates: that of ideology, which is all the more dangerous because elaborated with intellectually sophisticated tools. Someone advances an interpretation of Henry James, only to hear the response: “Yes, fine, but what you say ignores the role of race and gender.” This is a sign, observes Snell, of the lack of a “readiness to discuss.”
“Our universities exhibit the symptoms of foolishness—a lack of readiness to discuss—but the cure is not more freedom. So long as universities suffer from the higher stupidity, freedom will not bring about reasonableness.” The remedy is found instead in openness to transcendence, a disposition of wonder that welcomes something more, something higher than what we already know. Ideology rejects this kind of openness, because it provides answers in advance. A higher stupidity always already knows how things “really” work: by power, patriarchy, interests, selfish genes, and so forth.
“Proceduralism” is not sufficient. It “cannot safeguard the debaters’ willingness or ability to debate, no matter how free the debate may appear. One is willing and able to debate only insofar as one has knowledge of—or at least a searching wonder about—transcendence.”
♦ Snell’s reflections sent me back to Philip Rieff’s eccentric reflections on the debasement of university culture, Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Second Death. Writing in the early 1970s, Rieff identified an emerging “counter-enlightenment.” Its great consensus is that nothing is sacred, which means there are no legitimate authorities that properly command our souls. What, then, is the university for, if it is no longer the place where teachers are dedicated to discerning the truth that legitimately commands our assent? It serves as a reservoir of small truths—facts, technocracy, and wonkish policy debates. And it becomes a theater of liberation.
♦ I recently visited a special exhibition of William Blake’s work at the Tate Britain in London. The late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century English poet and illustrator had a keen eye for anguish, suffering, and evil. Elohim Creating Adam depicts God’s face in agony; The Good and Evil Angels does likewise to the face of the good angel. In many illustrations, the faces of figures are hidden, buried behind doleful figures. Necks are often twisted back in painful positions. The seven-headed Beast of the Book of Revelation is alive with menace.
Blake is able to conjure grandeur. Christ in the Sepulchre Guarded by Angels can compete with Albert Speer’s architecture and Leni Riefensthal’s films. He artfully evokes anxiety as well. A late illustration, the frontispiece to Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, depicts a figure with his back turned. He is opening the door of time, looking to his right as if he fears he is being watched. Blake’s vivid sense of suffering allows him to depict pity with tenderness. But joy and happiness seem to elude him. His illustration of Mary’s assumption is anodyne, as are his various scenes of peace and repose.
Blake is often thought to be a prophet of modernity. Perhaps he was. The modern moral and political imagination seems to thrill to apocalypse (class warfare, nuclear annihilation, climate catastrophe) and feed on images of suffering, anguish, and injustice.
♦ I also visited the Wallace Collection on Manchester Square. I soaked in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s delightful paintings, which combine frivolity and beauty in ways that put one at ease with the world. Were Fragonard to paint God giving Adam the gift of life, the divine would be a plump French aristocrat who took neither himself nor the recipient of his benevolence too seriously. Perhaps this, too, reflects a moral and political imagination, one more inclined to rest in what is good than to be roused to activism against evil and injustice. Surely there is in this disposition a temptation to complacency and indifference. One senses these vices in Fragonard—just as one senses the opposite vices in Blake.
♦ The details of a Vatican investment in a London luxury property remain obscure, as is so often the case with anything that concerns Vatican finances. There is a rich irony in the details reported by Ed Condon and Matthew O’Brien in an article for the Catholic News Agency (“Vatican funds were vehicles for Italian bank fraud”). Pope Francis has been unsparing in his criticism of financial engineering, at one point announcing that “finance kills.” Yet it appears that the Vatican bank directed funds to entities providing option-trading platforms, trusts domiciled in tax-havens, highly leveraged investments, and perhaps fraud. That does not make Francis’s criticisms invalid. But it does cast a useful light on his persistent tendency to deride his critics as Pharisees, the New Testament prototype of hypocrites.
♦ Jim Severance would like to start a ROFTERS group in the Reedsburg–Spring Green, Wisconsin, area. If you would like to meet monthly to discuss the latest issue of First Things, contact him at 608-727-2190.
♦ The final days of our year-end fundraiser remain ahead as I write, so I cannot report our final tally. However, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our readers. First Things is blessed to have many generous supporters.