Two of the most influential theologians of the last century, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, shared the distinction of not having earned doctorates. Niebuhr was a mite uneasy about that and at times turned it into the virtue of not being an academic. In a new book by Martin Halliwell, professor of American studies in Leicester, England, the effort is to situate Niebuhr within the larger context of American intellectual life. ( The Constant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr and American Intellectual Culture . Rowman & Littlefield.)
Even though he was proud of his academic life at the Eden seminary and Yale, and often stressed the value of formal education, in the mid-1920s Niebuhr characterized himself as an “academic vagabond.” This role did not permit him to offer authoritative views “but only to speak with the modesty becoming to a novice of the benefits to be derived from academic hoboism.” Niebuhr did not always carry the mantle of a novice but remained wary of provincial thinkers who spoke firmly on issues but could not detect their own prejudices. And he was also skeptical about “academic intellectuals” who speak within the walls of institutions rather than participating in public dialogue.
The walls separating the academy from effective public dialogue are today much higher and thicker. George Will remarked a while back that, not since the beginning of the twentieth century, has the university been so marginalized in American life, and I expect he is right.
The Halliwell book is a long and workmanlike survey of just about everything that has been written about Niebuhr, but finally ends up adding little to our knowledge of that remarkable figure. There is also the silliness of measuring him by today’s criteria of correctness, which includes his slowness in picking up on the feminist agenda. (Niebuhr died in 1971 at 79 years of age.) Halliwell complains that the only woman he really engaged intellectually was his formidable wife Ursula. Those who knew Ursula could explain why that was engagement of heroic dimensions.
There is no end to the discussion of what is liberalism and what is conservatism. That discussion is not my shtick. Although the use of the terms is inevitable, I am always pleased when an entire issue of F IRST T HINGS can avoid the use of “liberal” or “conservative.”
But other people have other tasks. In conservative circles, William F. Buckley has been for decades the monitor of what is included and what is excluded in the “conservative movement.” But he is by no means alone.
The other week I had the privilege of baptizing Ed Feulner’s grandchild at St. Thomas More here in Manhattan, and at brunch afterwards he gave me a copy of his new book, written with Doug Wilson, Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today (Crown). It is a remarkable book, although I don’t know if I would go so far as Newt Gingrich in his foreword who says, “This remarkable book is one of the most important to be published in this or any other year.” Right up there with, say, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations ? Please.
But it is a very interesting book. Edwin Feulner is, of course, the president of the Heritage Foundation, one of the two or three most influential think tanks in Washington. The “true conservative values” of the subtitle are defined by asking six questions about any public policy, and a chapter is devoted to each question. The questions are: Is it the government’s business? Does it promote self-reliance? Is it responsible? Does it make America more prosperous? Does it make us safer? Does it unify us?
Commonsensical questions, you might well say, and you would be right. As are most of the answers offered. Those answers mainly come down to the free market, self-reliance, opposition to government regulation, and a strong defense. Very scant attention is paid the cultural and social issues that are usually associated with talk about “values”—abortion and related “life” questions being the most obvious. This rather surprised me, since people and programs associated with Heritage are often prominent on those fronts. But I suppose there is a difference, and perhaps a tension, between the official platform of Heritage—set forth in this book—and the interests of some associated with the organization. That happens with institutions of all sorts.
But for one thoughtful take on what “the conservative movement” means today, I recommend Getting America Right .
It’s a mistake I’ve made before, so I should have known better. National Public Radio wanted to do a live interview and we set a time for that. Then there was a schedule problem and I agreed to do a taped interview from which they would excerpt. That was a mistake. What was broadcast last week led some readers to think I was offering unqualified moral support for the concept of “preemptive war.” What was lost was a series of distinctions that I emphasized between preemptive war and response to threatened aggression, and, most important, between moral principle and prudential judgments. I should have stuck with what I had learned from earlier experiences with NPR: The interview is either live or not at all.
There was a rush of excited speculation when, on Ash Wednesday, it was reported that the latest edition of the Annuario Pontificio , the Vatican’s official yearbook, did not include among the pope’s titles “Patriarch of the West.” What’s going on here? One wag suggested it was Benedict’s response to the complaint that the Church is a patriarchy. That’s pretty farfetched. Others saw it as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, which is possible but by no means evident.
It took a couple of weeks for an official explanation to appear, and it came from Walter Cardinal Kasper of the council for Christian unity. It is noted that the ancient Patriarchates of the East, were set by the Councils of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451), and were related to a territory already clearly understood, while the geography of the See of Rome was somewhat uncertain. In the East, under the imperial ecclesiastical system of Justinian (527-65), the four ancient Oriental Patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) were acknowledged, and the Pope was designated as Patriarch of the West.
In the West, Rome took very seriously the three Petrine sees, meaning the sees associated with St. Peter: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Without employing the title “Patriarch of the West,” the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-70), the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), and the Council of Florence (1439) had the pope as the first of the five patriarchs.
Before that, in 642, Pope Theodore I adopted the title “Patriarch of the West.” It did not seem to be a big deal. But in the 16th and 17th centuries when papal authority was much contested, not least as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, papal titles and dignities multiplied. It was in 1863 that “Patriarch of the West” first made it into the Annuario Pontificio.
Did you really want to know that much about this? Well, having started, I might as well finish up. The pontificial council noted that there was and continues to be considerable ambiguity about what is meant by the “West.” Obviously the term does not refer to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, since the pope’s authority is understood to be universal. Although, interestingly, the explanation refers to “the particular jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome for the Latin Church.” In any event, “the title ‘Patriach of the West,’ lacked clarity from the beginning and in its development through history became obsolete and of no practical use.” The understanding of the Petrine ministry is today one that is exercised in conjunction with episcopal conferences around the world. The dropping of the title could, the statement concludes, benefit ecumenical dialogue, meaning, of course, dialogue with the East.
It was not explained what that benefit might be. A prominent Russian Orthodox hierarch complained that dropping the title “Patriarch of the West” might mean that Benedict is asserting the fulness of his jurisdiction over the East as well. Those Russians are so very suspicious.
In addition to which :
“I always start at the back with ‘The Public Square.’” We hear that times beyond numbering, and it will likely be the case also with the April issue of F IRST T HINGS . This time Father Neuhaus takes on, inter alia: The New York Times skewed reporting on the Intelligent Design debates; how the Air Force Academy came to terms with religion; Pope Benedict’s appreciation of American evangelicals; Stanley Fish’s curious views on religion and tolerance; the remarkable rehabilitation of Pius XII by his intrepid defenders; Danish cartoons of Muhammed and the caving of the West; Todd Gitlin and “keeping faith” with a superannuated Left; the end of The Vagina Monologues on Catholic campuses; Commonweal and liberal pretensions to magisterial authority; the Vatican’s tougher line on Islam; why the Wall Street Journal trashes the Legionaries of Christ; how the late Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation changed the world; and the beauty of the life and person of Jacques Maritain. Whether you begin at the back or the front, isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :
"When it comes to ‘Catholic matters,’ Father Richard Neuhaus’ thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."
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?