Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code , is reportedly an unassuming and somewhat reclusive fellow who is a bit amused by the furor caused by his tall tales. At the same time, he is not at all ungrateful for the mega-millions in profits. He is currently being sued in a British court by the authors of an earlier book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail , who claim that Brown stole the “architecture” of his story from them.

In the course of the trial, Brown said that, in writing his books, he writes the last chapter first. It is reminiscent of the Queen in Alice : Verdict first, trial later. Come up with a whopper of a conclusion and then invent a yarn by which the conclusion might be reached. As I write in a forthcoming issue of F IRST T HINGS , although Mr. Brown’s approach to his storytelling may be somewhat whimsical, the consequences in terms of religious confusion among millions of readers cannot be lightly dismissed.

And, goodness knows, there is no shortage of defenders of Christian orthodoxy eager to correct Mr. Brown’s fantasies. The number grows, of course, with the impending release of the Da Vinci Code movie on May 19. There is no gainsaying that the Da Vinci Code should be debunked and the seriously confused set straight. In doing so, however, an occasional light touch is in order. I rather like the response of Father Thomas Williams, a Legionary priest in Rome, who was asked in the course of a television interview whether there are factual errors in the Da Vinci Code . He responded with surprised innocence: “You want to know whether there are factual errors in a novel?” Admittedly, it’s a little more complicated than that, since Brown does have the annoying habit of claiming here and there that the story is based, however loosely, on historical facts. If only he would take himself more lightly still.

Phillip Longman is the author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It . The gist of the argument, summarized in the current issue of Foreign Policy , is this: “Across the globe, people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It’s more likely that conservatives will inherit the Earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.”

Longmann is keenly aware that patriarchy is the feminists’ nightmare. He writes:

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents’ investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.

It is not that progressive ideas based upon the autonomous self and gender-equality are without attraction. It is simply that patriarchy is essential to social survival. Longmann writes, “Through a process of cultural evolution, societies that adopted this particular social system¯which involves far more than simple male domination¯maximized their population and therefore their power, whereas those that didn’t were either overrun or absorbed. This cycle in human history may be obnoxious to the enlightened, but it is set to make a comeback.”

Ideas and social practices, no matter how enlightened, cannot be sustained without people who hold those ideas and practice those practices. Longmann observes:

Declining birthrates also change national temperament. In the United States, for example, the percentage of women born in the late 1930s who remained childless was near 10 percent. By comparison, nearly 20 percent of women born in the late 1950s are reaching the end of their reproductive lives without having had children. The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of their parents.

Others pressing a similar argument are the omnipresent and self-described “global content provider” Mark Steyn, and James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web.” Taranto is taken with what he calls “the Roe effect,” namely, that the people enamored of the unlimited abortion license are killing off the progeny who might have carried on their cause. To be sure, things are more complicated than that. An awful lot of people who are otherwise conservative and even think of themselves as pro-life nonetheless obtain abortions at a rate comparable to that of people who champion Roe . These are people who are, in the fine phrase of historian James Hitchock, opposed to abortion, except in the case of “rape, incest, or me.” Then there is the sadness of black Americans who, according to the polls, are social and moral conservatives, also on the question of abortion, but who have an abortion rate several times that of the general population.

Yet the Longman argument is deserving of serious attention. Demography is not destiny. Demography is not even a science, as most demographers readily admit. Birth rates increase and decrease in a most unpredictable fashion over the course of history. But it does seem to be the case that they cannot increase without a re-stabilizing of a family structure that enlists the support of men, who receive in return the respect and recognition that comes with, for lack of a better term, patriarchy.

The folks over at Commonweal have refurbished their website. It’s called DotCommonweal and is very handsome indeed. In an early posting, Peter Nixon reflects on the future of what used to be known as the “Commonweal Catholic.” The liberal Catholic project, he notes, had several stages. At one time there were notable thinkers—Jacques Maritain comes immediately to mind—who were helping Catholics to be faithfully Catholic in negotiating their relationship with an intellectual culture that was largely hostile to Catholicism. In the 1940s and 1950s, prior to the Second Vatican Council, there were movements for reform in liturgy and a sense of the lay vocation. These movements were marked by fidelity to an assumed doctrinal and moral tradition. Later, “liberal Catholic” took on a different connotation. Peter Nixon writes:

Finally, I would say that there is a liberal Catholicism that was inspired both by the Second Vatican Council (or at least a certain reading of it) and by the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, particularly feminism. Of all the liberal Catholic projects, this is the one that remains the most contested within the Church.

Now liberal Catholics of this third school often look back to the first for inspiration. In the same way that the Church had to come to terms with the political liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries¯so the argument goes¯it is suggested that it must eventually come to terms with the social liberalism of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I think this thesis is subject to challenge on a few points. The first is that Christian denominations that have taken this form of liberalism most to heart are also those that seem to be experiencing a serious crisis of confidence, as evidenced by declining membership, intra-denominational splits over issues like homosexuality, and¯in some cases¯increasing discomfort with core Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ and the Trinity. I find it difficult in the face of this evidence to argue that the embrace of this kind of liberalism is a strategy for Christian renewal. It may be justifiable on other grounds, but this is probably not one of them.

Secondly, a specifically liberal vision of Catholicism no longer seems to motivate large numbers of Catholics to consider vocations to the priesthood or religious life. The reasons for this are complex, and have at least something to do with Vatican II’s efforts to re-valorize the lay state as a path to holiness. But the fact that "liberal Catholicism" does not seem to inspire many of those called to states of life the Church has always highly valued should, I think, cause its advocates some concern.

Finally, I think the sociological conditions are radically different than those that obtained when liberal Catholicism (of the first type) was in the ascendancy. The leading figures of liberal Catholicism were people deeply and permanently rooted in the Catholic tradition who were, nevertheless, also deeply at home in cultures shaped by the Enlightenment. This tension¯a tension that many felt had to be resolved¯was felt both by academic theologians like John Courtney Murray and the blue-collar Catholics who insisted they were as American as their Protestant "betters." I think this widely shared sense of a need for reconciliation between Catholicism and modernity gave the liberal Catholic project an enormous amount of intellectual energy and popular appeal that it seems to lack today.

It’s not that the tension between Catholicism and contemporary culture doesn’t still exist. But the emerging generation of Catholics has weaker roots in the Church and is generally comfortable "following their conscience" when confronted with difficult doctrines. Most American Catholics can generally find a parish where they won’t be confronted with the teachings they find objectionable. When such "local" accommodation is possible, the pressure to demand more global change is reduced.

This could change, of course, if large numbers of the newly ordained insist on preaching sermons on contraception every Sunday. But my guess is that if "local" accommodation becomes impossible, Catholics unhappy with this state of affairs will simply leave the Church (few believe that this would put their salvation at risk). What they are certainly much less likely than Catholics of the past to do is to invest in journals like Commonweal . When the costs of "exit" are reduced, the need for "voice" is diminished.

I wish I could be more hopeful. If I didn’t have some sympathy for elements of the liberal Catholic project, I wouldn’t be a Commonweal subscriber and contributor and I wouldn’t be posting here. But since I’m professionally a management consultant, telling people they are living on a "burning platform" is more or less what I do for a living.

For the most part, that strikes me as spot-on. There is not much danger—others might say much hope—of priests preaching on contraception every Sunday. The occasional and thoughtful homily on human sexuality, including openness to new life in the context of marriage, would be a welcome change. But Nixon is right in suggesting that the liberal Catholic project, framed along the lines of what has happened in mainline/oldline Protestantism, is exhausted. And he is right about the way in which many Catholics have come to accept a de facto congregationalist polity in which one chooses a parish to match one’s theological-moral-liturgical taste.

In my new book, Catholic Matters: Conflict, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth , I address these questions by distinguishing between “American Catholics” and “Catholic Americans,” suggesting that the adjective largely controls the noun. I argue against traditionalists who say that there are not 66 million Catholics in the U.S. but only ten or twenty million, or fewer, who qualify as being really Catholic. On the other hand, the liberal project that has been preoccupied for decades with defining “American Catholic”—with “American” regularly trumping “Catholic”—has almost no power of adherence at all. It is simply too easy to be American without the complications of having to explain why one is Catholic, too.

In addition to which :

Rodney Stark’s latest book— The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success —has been getting a lot of attention. Our editor-in-chief even has a blurb on the dustjacket commending Stark for reframing old questions in fresh and provocative ways. That may well be, but Algis Valiunas writes in the April issue of F IRST T HINGS that Stark also succumbs to a profoundly wrongheaded and “philistine” reading of Christianity. Those who prefer their criticism with no holds barred will relish this provocative critique of a provocative book. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?

Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal says this about Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :

"This is the story of how one priest discovered the way of grace and glory that is being Catholic. Writing with eloquence, deep intelligence and wit, Father Neuhaus guides us past all the confusion and controversy and lets the splendor of truth shine through. If you’re a serious Catholic, if you want to be a serious Catholic, if you want to know what it means to be a serious Catholic, read this book."

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles