The Night Is Far Gone
My deep thanks to Brad East for his piece on doing theology in a divided church (“Theology in Division,” April 2023). The topic is centrally important and rarely taken seriously, as if its obviousness renders the challenge uninteresting. East’s larger points about aiming at a catholic theology oriented to ecclesial fullness, as well as a theology that is characterized by patience, each act marking a “contradiction of that contradiction” of division, are surely right. Woven into his own sense of difficult vocation, his essay, even in its brevity, is moving and pointed. His touchstones of Jenson and Pope Benedict are inspired. Had he had more space—of course, he didn’t!—he might also have mentioned George Lindbeck, whose extended professional ecumenical work arguably provided him with a more socially concrete approach to “theology in division” than the other two offered. Lindbeck’s early reflections on the “sectarian” character of the contemporary church, his later exploration of the Israel-like nature of the Christian body, and finally his willingness to dig back into the Jewish–Christian fracture as perhaps even more fundamental than Christian division, all pressed in new directions. In particular, he was able to consider the current phenomenon of a reconfigured and reconfiguring church as a divine act—not just providential but revelatory—with its own kind of paradoxical grace. He did not live long enough to work this out. But the implications of his thinking point to a reconfigured catholicism and patience—God and God’s gifts actually “look like” this—such that theological work within ecclesial division today must be not only open, waiting, and expectant, but also, in its divinely faithful form, wrenching and oriented to both future resolution and present survival. Indeed, a “theology of survival” is not a misnomer for the calling to which some of us must submit, and its demand is also one that renders division not only a burden to be borne in hope, but a restless prod to a still necessary conversion.
“God’s own good time”—to use East’s coloring of our patience—must always be “now” somehow. And today’s “now” is what God gives us for good.
wycliffe college at
the university of toronto
Brad East raises a number of important points in his essay “Theology in Division.” Not least is his unstated underlying concern that Protestants take church division too lightly, in a manner that tends to default to a concept of nebulous “spiritual unity” that often exists merely to excuse division. I wonder, however, if his theological focus needs to be supplemented with a practical focus as well. The divisions in Protestantism are not simply doctrinal. I can speak only for my own tradition, that of confessional Presbyterianism, but it strikes me as problematic that there are at least four denominations, possibly more, in the United States alone where I could in good conscience take the ordination vows required of ministers of word and sacrament. That disunity is the one that I experience most directly, and yet it is not one rooted in differences over anything approaching central tenets of the faith. Matters of mission organization, fine points of polity, institutional histories that often have more to do with the wider American context than theological principle: All play far more significant roles than doctrine. I suspect that division that is not rooted in theology cannot be solved by theology. This is in no way a criticism of East’s argument, merely a call for it to be practically supplemented. Perhaps the framework for principled ecumenical discussion and for doing theology in division needs first to be established by some denominations voting themselves out of existence. That way at least the only divisions we would be dealing with would be those grounded in theology. I am strongly inclined (along with every other Presbyterian minister, I am sure) to say that it should not be my denomination that takes the initiative in doing so, of course—but in that very inclination lies the problem.
Carl R. Trueman
grove city college
grove city, pennsylvania
Brad East replies:
I’m honored and gratified by the responses of Ephraim Radner and Carl Trueman. I am tempted to limit my reply to “thanks” and “amen.” But let me try to expand a bit more.
I am glad Radner points readers, including me, to the example and thought of George Lindbeck. In a famous essay, Lindbeck once called for an “ecclesiological revolution.” In a later discussion of this, John Webster reflected on what it would take to accomplish it. In particular, he wondered how to “break the spell” of Christian anxiety and loss of nerve regarding the gospel, its message of reconciliation, and its power to bind the wounds of a divided Christendom. He wrote that, at a minimum,
we need to cease giving an account of ourselves as somehow located at a point in the history of human affairs where the usual rules of providence do not apply; we need to be less compliant to the myth that exegetical authority suppresses rather than liberates; we need to learn that conflict about the teaching of the prophets and apostles is not abnormal or necessarily destructive in the Christian community, but may prove a way in which God keeps the church in the truth.
We theologians are too often masters at narratives of decline, implying by our genealogies and laments a history—of world and church alike—devoid of God’s providential hand. Webster, Lindbeck, and Radner all rightly remind us that our hope in Christ is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. The “us” there is God’s church. We do well not to forget it.
Trueman draws our attention to the practice of unity and not only to the theory. Theology, we may be sure, will not be the means of reunion. There are more pressing tasks ready to hand. What that means for denominations, pastors, and confessional institutions I cannot say. But I do not doubt that, prior to some new work of the Spirit to breathe life into the divided churches, death will come to many of them. What would it mean for some of them to volunteer for it? To take up their cross and follow the Lord to Golgotha? For just this reason I require my predominantly “non-denom” evangelical students to read Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism. Not to nudge them toward Rome, but to prod their imaginations toward the theological and especially the practical urgency of church unity. The prayer of Jesus is that we might be one as he and the Father are one. If Protestants in America—divided so often over ethnic histories and ecclesial sub-cultures, not matters of the gospel—could lead the way in answering the Lord’s petition, that would be cause for rejoicing indeed.
I read Matthew Schmitz’s article “How Gay Marriage Changed America” (April 2023) concurrently with G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Schmitz’s take on the increasingly contradictory philosophies of LGBTQ activists reminded me of a point about rebellion in the third chapter of Orthodoxy. Schmitz writes, “From ‘Marriage is a human right’ to ‘Marriage is deeply flawed and fundamentally violent’: The sexual left’s long-running dispute about the nature of marriage and its relation to gayness seems to be getting resolved in the direction of the marriage skeptics.” Chesterton wrote of the archetypal over-rebellious man of his time, “In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men.” The habit of some modern revolutionaries to rebel both toward and against standards has emerged today in the matter of marriage.
Perhaps, as Schmitz summarizes this inconsistency, “The queer would be normalized by the queering of the normal.” In that case, the tension between pro-marriage and anti-marriage activists could lead to a great victory for LGBTQ activists. It is more likely, however, that these activists are like Chesterton’s modern rebel, who, “By rebelling against everything . . . has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
grove city, ohio
While many of the points made by Matthew Schmitz in “How Gay Marriage Changed America” are correct, his piece has two glaring omissions: firstly, the conditions that led to this transformation, and secondly, who is to blame other than “cancel culture.”
To the first point, he is too young to recall the horror of the AIDS epidemic. As a surgical resident in the 1980s, I witnessed too many young AIDS patients’ lives end alone, in part because of hospital rules and in part because of family insistence. These families, often good Christian households, had thrown their sinning children into the streets as teens when they discovered their “gayness.” These same families did not hesitate to claim the proceeds of the estates of their dead children and excluded their gay loved ones from what would ordinarily be theirs if they were legally protected. Schmitz lists people who have been fired because of their public and private sentiments against gay marriage, which I believe is a travesty visited upon us by the thought police. But he spends no time articulating any concern for the countless individuals fired from their jobs, imprisoned by the government, or dishonorably discharged from the military because they were discovered to be homosexual. Equal treatment under the law is what gay people sought. Gay marriage was a way to start to achieve that.
Much like the misrepresentation of blacks by the media, gays are often mischaracterized as limp-wristed, flamboyantly dressed individuals. This only accentuates their difference from “us.” The fact of the matter is, with the exception of a few outliers and activists, most gays just want to go about their lives without harassment from the public at large, interact in a neighborly fashion with the people around them, and feel secure in the fact that they will be treated fairly in the workplace, in public accommodation, and in the courts. For centuries that has not been the case. Yet, we call foul when there is a backlash against their perceived oppressors, chief among them, the Christian churches? Almost all the gays of my acquaintance describe themselves as recovering Catholics. It pains me to say it, but can you blame them? As a lifelong Catholic and regular, sometimes daily, Mass attendee, I have heard multiple sermons on the evils of homosexuality with halfhearted phrases about “hate the sin but love the sinner” uttered while assailing their perversion. And never once have I heard a call for prayer to convert the hearts of those that do gay people harm. Never.
Do not construe my attitudes toward gay people as a call to punish people, such as cake bakers, for their beliefs, or to support the use of the considerable resources of government to force people to violate their long-held beliefs. I do not. Nor do the purveyors of so-called cancel culture have my support. Rail against the results of gay marriage and its consequences if you like, but I think we all must look in the mirror and ask the question, do I really treat my fellow gay humanity as myself, as Christ called me to do? How many gay people do you count among your friends? Invite to your home? Have you ever talked to anyone about his or her gayness? Do you cringe at the thought of doing so? People who we believe are sinners should not be treated as less than and inferior, since they are the very people Christ told us to love and that he came to save. If we had only actually practiced that lesson, we might not be in the situation Matthew Schmitz details for us.
What a delight to find “My Gideon Bible” (April 2023) in my favorite Christian journal. While I was on a visit to a Black Church to present a Gideon talk, the pastor invited me to first hear his own experience with a Gideon Bible. As a young man his life had fallen apart, his wife had left him, and in depression he had been ready to give things up. One night he noted a Gideon Bible on the table and started to read. For three days he read, and then he gave his life to Christ. He didn’t know where the Bible had come from, but more than likely it had been lifted from a hotel. He had recently given the Bible to a young friend who was on his way to prison, and he said, “From the letter I received from my friend, I think the Bible is already working again.”
John D. Freeman
Timothy Jacobson replies:
My thanks to John Freeman for his response to “My Gideon Bible.” The story he tells of a pastor who at a dark time in his life stumbled on a Gideon Bible, and of the pastor’s prison-bound friend who now finds that same Bible “working again,” makes me wonder if I should return my takeaway Gideon Bible to the Vanderbilt Marriott after all. Or should I too pass it on?
Reading the Bible can be (as for many of us it is, each morning and evening) a solitary experience, and Freeman’s examples of the Word’s quiet power to convert should not be doubted. None of us sinners can read it enough. But Christianity is not a solitary faith. Read the Bible faithfully over and over again for sure, but then go to church faithfully over and over again for sure. There, in company of other sojourners—some still approaching, some falling away, some just showing up—find the Lord living among us now.
Freeman’s letter also prompts me to think of how the work of the Gideons mingles with the work of this journal: to fight for the place of religion in the public square. Is the hotel public or private? The prison? The shelter? The soldier’s kit? The school? Is there any place where the Word should not go? There is not, I think the Gideons would answer. Yet they never raise their voice about it, even in convulsive times like these. They just press on to get the job done, to sow the seed that only the rain and sunshine from on high can bring to fruit.
Whether I return my latest takeaway Gideon to Mr. Marriott or pass it on like Freeman’s pastor-friend so admirably has done, I am now more determined than ever to locate my first Gideon: a “Pocket Psalms and New Testament” from 1950s schooldays, when so much was so very different. But not the Gideons.
Men and Women
I very much enjoyed reading (and rereading) Erika Bachiochi’s “Sex-Realist Feminism” in the April 2023 issue. I found her identification of dualism as the source of feminism’s past and present errors to be analytically powerful and quite convincing. It seems the best heresies never die.
I find something missing, however, in her prescriptions for a sex-realist feminism: a formulation of the meaning of the male body. While she rightly rejects any understanding of the female person that savors of her being a defective male, I fear that a failure to explicate the uniqueness of the masculine sex risks treating man as defective woman, as he is incapable of nurturing and bearing new life.
Indeed, our current cultural and legal regime seems at times to have already adopted this attitude. Culturally, we have been awash for the entirety of my lifetime with messages and images, from the academic to the artistic, informing us that women as a class are as capable as men in all fields; of course, the converse is demonstrably false. Legally, the childbearing discrepancy seems to be the only male–female difference worthy of note. Thus, men have no need for the maternal protections afforded by law. Nor is any reason specific to the male body given for military conscription; rather, something specific to the female body provides exemption from the same.
It is undeniable that asymmetry exists between men and women as sexed beings. A failure to understand what is uniquely feminine alongside what is uniquely masculine treats this asymmetry as synonymous with inequality. I would very much appreciate Bachiochi’s opinions not only regarding women qua women, but also men qua men.
albuquerque, new mexico
Erika Bachiochi replies:
I am grateful for Luke Wyatt’s letter, as it allows me to say more of what I would like to have said in my essay. Concerning “the meaning of the male body,” a sex-realist account notices what every other generation before has understood and that science now confirms: On average and relative to the adult female, the fully developed male—sexually matured by testosterone—is bigger, stronger, faster, enjoys more stamina, and is more aggressive, sexually desirous, and prone to risk-taking. It follows, I think, that just as women are biologically privileged and burdened by the feminine capacity for childbearing, men are likewise privileged and burdened by the masculine capacity for physical dominance and aggression. How these sexed privileges and burdens are expressed, channeled, supported and/or discouraged are civilization-shaping questions.
In my view, the flourishing of men, women, and children—and therefore of civilizations—requires the personal integration of each human being as the sexually dimorphic rational creature he or she is, and that requires formation in virtue. A man of virtue is one who disciplines and directs this (generally) greater penchant for risk-taking and capacity for aggression for the sake of the common good, first and foremost, for whom he is most responsible. As I wrote in “Embodied Caregiving” for First Things in 2016, such virtue is beautifully manifest in the self-sacrificing and formational work of engaged and attentive fatherhood, just as it is manifest, if distinctively, in motherhood. Yet a man who is not a father can embody mature manliness—a paternal character—just as a woman who is not a mother can, by maturity, embody a maternal character: each offering himself and herself, with their peculiar capacities and gifts, for the good of vulnerable others.
Cultivating intellectual and moral excellence in boys and girls, in all their dignity and difference, is a key purpose of the formative institutions of a civilization: families, schools, churches, boys’ and girls’ clubs, etc. Should we forget that this formative work is necessary—and must therefore be legally protected, culturally celebrated, and economically supported in every generation—we will cease to be a civilization. As Wollstonecraft well saw, “freedom” without virtue reduces men (and women) to beasts.
While most letters to the editor address an essay, I wish rather to single out for praise the poem “Bethany” by Joseph Mirra in the April 2023 issue. The author has worked two minor miracles: Firstly, he has written in a demanding form, the Shakespearean sonnet, and produced a result that is seemingly effortless, casual. Secondly, he has taken a Gospel story that, in its original rendering, is only too familiar, and turned it into a delightful and light-filled version of the old. It is as close as one—a poet—can come to perfection.
Thomas H. Hubert
cary, north carolina
Joseph Mirra replies:
Words of Praise
Was this high praise composed on April Fools’?
This gentleman’s remarks are much too kind.
Quite limited are my poetic tools;
Much better work than mine you’ll quickly find.
They say for something everybody’s good,
But this appeared not to apply to me.
That I was useless, friends all understood;
The one thing left for me was poetry.
Compared to many well-known works of art,
I must admit my paltry poems pale.
And yet I say, though so crass on my part:
If you enjoy them, I have books for sale.
How humbling are the heartfelt words of praise;
They lift our spirits through the darkest days.
Hard to Kill
In the April 2023 edition, James Keating asked “Who Killed the Catholic University?” From the perspective of the Catholic University of America, we are very much alive and fulfilling the vision of Ex Corde. The university provides students with an education that is rooted in the Church’s teachings and guided by reason. This is why we were disappointed not to have been included in Keating’s thoughtful piece that thoroughly examines how Catholic higher education has changed over the years.
Pope Leo XIII founded Catholic University in 1887 with the charge that the school graduate students who serve the nation and the Church. Our mission remains the same 136 years later as we educate men and women to live their faith through their different vocations. And in doing so, these graduates of the university will rise to the challenges St. John Paul II set out in Ex Corde as they seek the truth, search for meaning, and endeavor “to acquire or, if they have already done so, to deepen a Christian way of life that is authentic.”
Daniel F. Drummond
the catholic university of america
I’m grateful to James Keating for his reminder of the weakening state of Catholic higher education and the need for special vigilance at this time. His article raises many questions, but I will focus on the most important.
Is the mission of Catholic higher education really “to form young adults in the faith,” as Keating asserts? Ex Corde Ecclesiae states that “each Catholic university makes an important contribution to the Church’s work of evangelization,” but it never states that the mission of a Catholic university is the formation of its students in the faith. It seems more accurate to say that its mission is to promote and ensure free pursuit of the truth and to insist that faith questions be raised and given serious consideration in every discipline.
Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that a Catholic university is both Catholic and a university. As we seek to take our Catholic identity seriously, we need to wrestle with the fact that our institutions are universities as well. Keating does well to refer to a passage in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that speaks to the challenge of sustaining “an educational tradition that unites features of the intellectual life commonly thought antithetical: on the one hand, reason’s unencumbered search for truth; on the other, faith’s ‘certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.’” If medieval monks labored to copy the pagan classics and later founded the schools that gave rise to the university as we know it, it was because they were captivated by the Truth that is Christ and spent themselves in the effort to understand it in all its depth and mystery. Is our first goal to convert our students, products of a secular age, or rather to enable them to reflect on fundamental questions in view of approaching that Truth, which we as believers know to be God’s Son and Eternal Word? With that goal, we can be a welcoming and diverse intellectual community, a truly Catholic university seeking to do the hard work of being in dialogue with a world often distant from the faith.
Rev. Richard E. Lamoureux, A.A.
James Keating’s excellent essay regarding the demise of the Catholic university brought back lots of memories. Having spent almost my entire career in Catholic education, particularly higher education, I experienced much of what he describes.
In fact, I was dismissed from the presidency after seventeen years for trying to make that Catholic college “too Catholic.” That experience helps me appreciate the difficulty colleges face as (or if) they try to be truly Catholic. I especially appreciate places like Ave Maria and the others Keating cites as getting it right.
However, there is another dimension to this history that deserves some notice: the whole accreditation process in the United States. Regional accrediting agencies and those who controlled them played a large role in the push toward blandness.
Smaller colleges across the country were busy trying to establish themselves as credible and legitimate players in higher education, but if they clung too closely to their religious heritage, they were in for a difficult time. This was a problem not only for Catholic colleges, but for the many evangelical institutions as well. Those that remained religious were viewed as less than free in their pursuit of truth.
Accreditation is the essential key for simple things like credit transfer, but also for foundation grants, government support, and the like. Hence the assurance “that while we embrace our Benedictine or Franciscan or whatever heritage (wink, wink) we aren’t controlled by our Church and we’re a ‘real’ institution of higher education.” I was a consultant and evaluator for one of the regional accrediting associations, so I know this firsthand.
In the fifties and sixties, the Council for the Advancement of Small Colleges (mostly smaller vanilla Catholic and evangelical schools) existed to help member institutions attain regional accreditation. I spent five years as a vice president of that organization, and it was painful to watch institutions that really wanted to be true to their heritage take whatever steps were necessary to ensure a flow of students and funds. In other words, the damage we see now had been done as early as the mid-twentieth century.
It wasn’t that the religious congregations and church groups that founded the colleges in question were evil. They were just trying as best they could to survive as competition increased for students and funds. In the most idealistic world they probably should have said that it’s better to go out of business than to sell their souls. But institutions are hard to kill!
The sad predicament of many smaller, more or less church-related colleges that Keating describes is true. Until there are more Tom Monaghans (the bankroll behind Ave Maria) to stand behind colleges that want to do the right thing, we are going to continue to see more of the blandness, if not apostasy, that we see now. And as tuition increases and there is more competition for students, there will be fewer of those little colleges. They will have survived as long as they could, but without strong and principled backing, their days are numbered even if they have sold their souls.
Daniel H. Pilon
vero beach, florida
James F. Keating replies:
Let me begin with an apology. I owe the Catholic University of America one for not including it on my “rough” list of schools obviously trying to follow Ex Corde. My ninety-year-old dad advised me not to make a list since you always leave someone off. He was right, I did. Beginning with the presidency of John Garvey, CUA has provided a model for what is possible at a medium-sized school with respect to undergraduate education and campus life. May the creativity and courage he showed continue. Richard E. Lamoureux challenges the idea that Catholic colleges exist primarily to convert their students. I would not, and did not, put it that way, although conversions are a happy outcome! Our schools are schools, and their essential tasks are teaching, scholarship, and student formation. They are Catholic schools to the extent they do all three in the unity of faith and reason. Such uniting is, of course, an ideal and a very difficult one to accomplish in a world grown increasingly hostile to faith. Yet, apart from the effort, what possible reason would there be for Catholic colleges and universities to exist? We keep trying to think of other reasons, but there are none. Daniel H. Pilon points out the survival mechanism operative in all institutions—our mission is to continue. Accreditation has most certainly played a role in the secularization of our schools. My own, more recent experience with the process indicates, perhaps, a slightly better environment. Schools clear about their mission tend to do okay. Things, however, might change again if the adoption of transgender ideology becomes required for accreditation. In the end, nothing substitutes for desire. Schools with leaders who truly desire Catholic education will have it, those without them won’t. It helps to have money, courage, episcopal support, and a vibrant sponsoring religious order. But desire decides. It always does.
Sir Roger’s Faith
It is hard to quarrel with most of what Carl R. Trueman has to say in his gracious review (“Scruton’s Castle,” April 2023) of Against the Tide, the collection of Roger Scruton’s occasional “columns, commentaries and criticism” so thoughtfully edited by Scruton’s friend and literary executor, the Irish philosopher Mark Dooley.
Trueman rightly admires what is admirable in Scruton’s defense of beauty, home, place, and the precious inheritance that is Western civilization. He lays this out with intelligence and sympathy. Trueman’s admiration for Scruton (his self-described “hero”) is undoubtedly sincere.
But the last page of Trueman’s review goes awry. In questioning the Christian bona fides of Scruton’s thought and work, he strangely passes over the evidence provided in perhaps the most powerful section of Against the Tide, “Intimations of Infinity.” Even after Scruton left his “apprenticeship in atheism,” as he once called it, he never became or wished to become a theologian or a metaphysician. His approach remained eminently phenomenological, defending those intimations of the transcendent that come to sight in the “life world” of lived experience and mutual moral accountability. Trueman suggests that this approach, eschewing traditional metaphysics, likely veils the “conservative expression of nihilism,” defending a “religious instinct” that ultimately points to nothing beyond itself.
But there is one problem with this suggestion: Nearly everything Scruton wrote throughout his life took pointed aim at nihilism. A serious engagement with the aforementioned “Intimations of Infinity” would have made that evident. In that section, Scruton takes fulsome aim at theoretical and practical materialism and every form of scientistic materialism. He vigorously defends the proposition that human beings are embodied souls, freely acting, and thinking and judging persons. And he took particularly eloquent (and effective) aim at the reductive “nothing buttery” (a Mary Midgley phrase) that tried to explain away the human person, lived experience, and truth as well as beauty.
As Mark Dooley suggested in a truly authoritative piece (“Roger Scruton was no atheist”) published in The Critic on January 12, 2021, the first anniversary of the English philosopher’s death, there is a persisting “urban legend” (my term) that insists that Scruton was at best a cultural Christian and a barely concealed atheist at that. One thing we know with apodictic certitude: Scruton was the sworn enemy of every form of nihilism—philosophical, political, and ideological. And his return to the Church of England was built on that rejection of nihilism. As Scruton told a Hungarian journal shortly before his death, “The experience of Holy Communion force[d] me to be humble and to recognize my faults.”
Daniel J. Mahoney
Carl R. Trueman replies:
Daniel Mahoney’s criticism is significant. I suspect the point at issue between us might well lie in how we define Christianity and belief in God, one that cannot be adequately explored in a brief letter of response. But I am not persuaded that Scruton’s commitments are sufficiently robust to provide foundations for his world of beauty, mutual moral accountability, etc. Does that make him a nihilist? Certainly not by intention, nor by the common definition of nihilism as seeing the world as meaningless or pointless. But the question of whether his overall philosophical assumptions can prevent the decay and self-destruction of the highest values (the ones that he himself maintained)—which is an aspect of Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism—is therefore a pertinent one that is worth exploring. As I said, though, I am a huge fan of the late Sir Roger’s thought and writing. Thus, while it might seem odd, I actually hope Mahoney is correct and I am wrong. But I have yet to be persuaded.
I welcome R. R. Reno’s thoughts in “Peace in Ukraine” (April 2023) about just-war concepts being used to promote a possible peace agreement based on current realities. But certain statements in his article could have been better founded—for example, “Russian forces have been driven out of most of Ukraine” and “Moscow has been humbled by its failure to do more than make small gains in eastern Ukraine.” In reality, Russian forces now occupy about 20 percent of Ukraine, including a large swath of eastern Ukraine, and Russia might be ready to settle for that in a peace agreement, since ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population in those areas.
“The notion of a peace settlement that falls short of restoring all territory to Ukraine may seem unjust, given Russia’s aggression,” “Russians . . . swept into Crimea in 2014,” and “Russia bears responsibility for beginning the hostilities in Ukraine.” Statements like these fail to take into account the increasing, unjustified expansion of NATO ever closer to Russia’s borders, which began in 1998, when there was no more Soviet Union and no more Warsaw Pact. Russia warned many times about the threat it felt from these enlargements. The most serious provocation was in 2014, with the violent Maidan overthrow of a democratically elected president who was leaning toward Russia rather than the EU. This endangered Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and it angered the vast majority of Crimea’s population by removing Russian as an official language of Ukraine. When I told a woman from Sevastopol who was taking care of my father that Russia had taken over Crimea, she sat down, crossed herself, and said “Thank God!” I have no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the subsequent Crimean referendum about joining Russia, since Crimea was never a part of Ukraine until 1954, when it was “gifted” to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Khrushchev. At that time, this did not make any difference, since the Ukrainian Socialist Republic was part of the USSR. After Ukraine’s independence in 1991, it made a very big difference.
The annexation of Crimea by Russia also created an incentive for the primarily Russian population of eastern Ukraine to stand up for their rights, and this precipitated the war in eastern Ukraine shortly thereafter.
What would a just end to the war look like? Letting the various regions of Ukraine vote for which country they would want to belong to. But the Ukrainian government would never permit this. Opposition parties are now banned there. So much for the preservation of democracy for which we are supposedly fighting.
silver spring, maryland
I agree with the conclusion in R. R. Reno’s perceptive piece on Russia’s Ukrainian invasion that, apart from a nuclear-risky NATO incursion, it’s hard to see Ukraine expelling the Russians or Russia conceding defeat. Reno therefore rightly advises Americans “to think in a disciplined way about the moral justifications for American war-making.” Below are my own “moral justifications” for continued military support of Ukraine.
It is a sad truth that the Russian-inflicted suffering of Ukraine pales in comparison to the multi-million deaths and urban obliteration of World Wars I and II. In 1945, to preclude future such horrors, nearly every nation, including Russia and Ukraine, signed onto the United Nations Charter, which forbids “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
Since 1945, a number of members stand accused of Charter violations (for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq); however, not one member nation has successfully seized and incorporated the territory of another member, the cardinal World War sin. The single attempt, Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait, was reversed by a UN intervention. In my view, viewing Ukraine as merely a territorial dispute overlooks the necessity of sustaining Peace Charter principles. Nevertheless, given the UN’s inability to counter an invasion by a Security Council member, this war will not end without compromise.
Here’s how: Ukraine is divided into twenty-four provinces (oblasts), each including around three to ten districts (raions), plus the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Forces deployed by the UN would monitor a ceasefire and supervise a plebiscite in Crimea and each of the Luhansk/Donetsk raions on whether more than 50 percent of residents choose incorporation into Russia. (Crimeans, mostly of Russian ethnicity but perhaps averse to rule by Putin, might also be allowed to choose independence.) To the extent a group of pro-Russian raions could be aggregated without encircling a pro-Ukrainian raion, that group would be recognized by the UN as Russian. In return, Russia would firstly recognize all remaining districts as Ukrainian and secondly allow Ukraine to enter NATO in return for NATO’s commitment to preclude Ukrainian intervention in the ceded territories.
Russia should think twice before rejecting such a compromise. If it remains a European nemesis rather than a European collaborator, it will perforce depend increasingly on China and rogue states like Iran in economic and military matters, which countries care not a whit about the fate of Russia’s people.
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?