The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 66-75.

By the Blood of His Cross

There is this odd thing that all the social science data agree that the United States is ever so much more religious, so much less secularized, than Western Europe. Yet I keep bumping into people who say that, when they are there, they are impressed that religion seems to be more publicly present. I expect one reason is that, whatever the different levels of religious belief and practice, the English, French, Germans, and others know that, whatever cultural identity they have, it is inextricably tied to Christian civilization. American identity, by contrast, is tied to abstract principles such as those of the Declaration of Independence which, at least in the last half century, have been publicly divorced from the civilizational matrix that gave them birth and can alone sustain them. The period of the American founding was a brief moment in which leading citizens such as Jefferson and Madison were enamored of what was thought to be the more "universal" language of the Enlightenment. Although with few exceptions the Founders were devoutly Christian, they were persuaded by influential thinkers of the time that biblical particularities could be smoothly translated into the vocabulary of nature and reason. A thought experiment: how would the Declaration of Independence have read had it been written a half century earlier, or later? In any event, herewith an editorial in the London Times published last year while the U.S. and NATO were bombing Serbia. One cannot imagine a similar editorial in any American newspaper of influence.

Making Peace by the Blood of His Cross

A Good Friday in a week of bombings, massacres, and ethnic cleansing is a stark reminder that the Christian gospel is no philosophical theory or mere symbolic story. It is a gospel of salvation that has at its heart the execution by barbaric torture of a particular man in a particular place at a particular point in time. What we remember on Good Friday is all of a piece with Kosovo today—and with the judicial murders and tortures of every century of human history. Golgotha, the place of the skull, where nails smashed through the wrists and feet of Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth in Galilee, can stand for the skulls of every genocide. Betrayal by friends, self–preserving denial, making sport with prisoners, the mockery of crowds, spectators drawn to the spectacle, the soldiers doing their duty and dicing for his clothes, a mother in agony and a knot of women helplessly looking on—it all happens time, and time, and time again.

Jesus was put to death in an occupied nation. His Crucifixion was the direct consequence of his challenge to the religious authorities of his day. It was no less a convenient way for a jittery Roman governor, nervous of trouble at Passover time, to get rid of a potential threat. The context of the Crucifixion of Jesus was a cocktail of religion and politics. Yet although this anchors it in history, we are compelled to look deeper to see why the Cross is the mark of Christian identity and the disclosure of what God is like.

The Gospels mark the ministry of Jesus with predictions of his passion. Sacrifice and suffering are at the very heart of who he is. As Dostoevsky affirmed, "Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it." Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom, or rule, of God, a kingdom that was neither pursued nor established by the ways of violence and power. His kingdom, as he tells Pontius Pilate in St. John’s Gospel, is "not of this world." Only if it were would his servants fight.

And yet there is a fight, a fight of a cosmic order of which he is at the heart. The ministry of Jesus is seen as a wrestling with the powers of evil, an engagement with that engulfing darkness named as sin and death. When Judas goes out to betray Jesus, St. John notes that it was night, and at the Crucifixion, the culmination of this struggle, the Gospels record that there was darkness over the land.

Jesus comes to do his Father’s will, showing that will to be a love going to the uttermost, reaching out into the very darkness of Hell, plumbing the depths of human sin, betrayal, abandonment, and rejection. In a costly work of reconciliation he defeats the powers of darkness and establishes peace. That peace is the reconciliation of a sinful, fallen humanity, caught in a web of the worship of false gods, and driven by selfish desires, with the God who made men and women in the image of His love that they might reflect His likeness. It is called simple "atonement," making one again. So peace is made "by the blood of His Cross."

Good Friday is "good" only because of Easter. The Passion story without the Resurrection would be vastly different. It is the hope kindled by the Easter encounters with the Risen Jesus that makes all things new. In the light of Easter we see that love’s redeeming work was indeed done through the Cross, not apart from the Cross. There the fight was fought and the battle won. The Resurrection is . . . the declaration of a victory won on the Cross, and in the darkness and silence of death, and even in the hell of utter apartness from God. From there Christ rose again in triumph.

And the Easter good news of the Cross and Resurrection has been found to bring hope and life in the most appalling situations, in refugee camps, on battlefields, and in the most abject human misery. On Good Friday and at Easter we know that even if we go down to Hell God is there also, for Christ’s blood does indeed "stream in the firmament," and in that blood, love going to the uttermost, we do indeed find our peace.

Dawson and the Daunting Questions

We owe a debt to the Catholic University of America Press and to editor Gerald J. Russello for Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (262 pp., $24.95 paper). The appropriate way to pay that debt is to go get the book and read it. Dawson (1889–1970) was once a very big item, although in recent decades he has been sadly neglected. One hopes this excellent selection will help introduce him to another generation, for the questions he addressed become ever more urgent at the beginning of a new millennium. In the 1930s, T. S. Eliot, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, called Dawson the most powerful intellectual influence in Britain. He was also an important contributor to Eliot’s journal, the Criterion.

As the essays collected here demonstrate, Dawson dared to risk historical and intellectual generalizations—his critics called them sweeping generalizations—and thereby provoked the displeasure of pedants who raised endless quibbles. He was not a professional historian in the academically respectable sense, but a layman of vast and deep learning who wrote history for the educated public. He was from 1958 to 1962 the first holder of Harvard’s Charles Chauncey Stillman Chair in Catholic Studies (a chair that, one may note in passing, has since fallen prey to parties alien to the vision of both Dawson and Stillman), which gained him considerable recognition in this country, and in 1946–47 Dawson gave the distinguished Gifford lectures, which issued in two books, Religion and Culture and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.

The titles indicate his abiding interest, and his determination to persuade us that we cannot understand where we are as a civilization, or how we lost our way, or where we go from here without understanding religion as the primary variable in the constituting and sustaining of culture. His arguments had a great influence upon me in my formative years, and I would like to think that, were he alive today, Christopher Dawson would be a regular contributor to this journal. If I have a quibble about the present selection of essays, it is that the title should refer to Western culture rather than European culture. Of course there are those who contend that the terms are synonymous, with America being at present the most important location of European culture, but I do not agree with that, and neither did Dawson. In his comprehensive concepts of "the six ages of the Church" and the "seven stages of Western Civilization," he recognized that something new and important is happening in America. His intuition that there would be in the not distant future a positive reaction to modernity’s relentless secularization was linked, in important part, to the American prospect.

Scholars of a more secular bent frequently dismissed Dawson as a "medievalist," meaning not his field of study but his disposition. Dawson did not take it as an insult. Unlike some Christian romantics, however, Dawson had no use for the idea that the way forward is to go back to, say, the thirteenth century. He did much of his work at a time when many of the brightest and best thought liberal democracy was moribund. The wave of the future, it was said, is the comprehensively planned, indeed totalitarian society, whether of the National Socialist or Marxist variety. Dawson did not believe that, or at least he was not prepared to surrender to it without putting up a fight. What is best in the liberal tradition of Western culture, he contended, can be protected and revitalized only by reasserting the soul of that culture, which is Christianity. This means that in the academy and in popular consciousness, the successes and failures of Christendom—the period roughly from Constantine to the sixteenth century—should be given equal status with Greco–Roman classicism and the achievements of modernity. This, he insisted, is who we are; and we cannot possibly give a convincing reason for the defense of who we are unless we know who we are.

After World War II, Europe was divided between Western and Soviet spheres. "This frontier, which passes through the heart of Central Europe," Dawson wrote, "is not merely a political boundary; it is a line of division between two alien worlds which excludes the possibility of social intercourse and cultural communication, so that the man who wishes to pass from one part of Europe to the other is forced to abandon his citizenship and become a fugitive and an exile." Like John Paul II and others, Dawson had no truck with the dominant idea at the time that Communist rule was a permanent feature and the best we could hope for was "peaceful coexistence" or, in the long term, some kind of "convergence." He wrote that "the present division of Europe is so recent and so artificial that it is difficult to believe in its final character." After the end of the evil empire, Dawson’s reflections on the meaning of Europe and its importance for the world should be required reading for the current builders of the European Union.

The essays from the 1930s are haunted by the fears that all modern states, including those called democratic, are driven by a totalitarian impulse, that "the machine" would increasingly be the master of its maker, and that education and culture–formation would be increasingly centralized and conformist. They are warranted fears, then and now. Yet I expect Dawson would be encouraged by today’s ascendancy of liberal democracy as the normative political order; surprised by the machine that turned into a digital revolution whose dynamic, it is reasonable to think, is more decentralizing than centralizing; and greatly heartened by current trends, notably in this country, toward dismantling the state monopoly in education.

I am not sure what he would think now about the big question of secularization and the possibility of a Christian culture. At one point he writes, "It is clear that contemporary culture can no longer be regarded as Christian, since it is probably the most completely secularized form of culture that has ever existed." But later: "There can, I think, be little doubt that the present phase of intense secularization is a temporary one, and that it will be followed by a far–reaching reaction. I would even go so far as to suggest that the return to religion promises to be one of the dominant characteristics of the coming age."

In another essay he quotes Eliot, who wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society: "A society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else. It is my contention that we have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which insofar as it is positive, is still Christian." In that essay, Dawson suggests that Eliot underestimates the degree to which secularism "has become positively something else." On this point, I find myself more on Eliot’s side, and we should note that Dawson is elsewhere more ambivalent. As I have urged in these pages, ours is still a Christian society—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly so. The other things—consumerism, hedonism, radical individualism, gnostic spiritualities, and so forth—are declensions from Christianity. They are not "positively something else." My point is that it is misleading and all too easy to speak about ours as a "post–Christian" society. It is contrary to social fact, and it lets Christians off the hook, giving us a neat excuse for not accepting responsibility for the cultural and moral crises of our country.

As I say, Christopher Dawson takes on the daunting questions of his time and ours. Christianity and European Culture is a good place to get acquainted, or to revisit an old acquaintance. He was convinced that Christianity is necessary to the West, but rejected the idea—advanced by some who have an instrumental view of religion—that Christianity should be embraced to shore up Western culture. "Nothing could be more fatal to the spirit of Christianity than a return to Christianity for political reasons," he wrote. Or, as it was said upon the launching of this journal, "The first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing." I am rather sure that Christopher Dawson would agree.

Always a Priest, Always Present

John Cardinal O’Connor had a reception at his residence to celebrate the publication of my most recent book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic). It was a quite splendid occasion, although His Eminence could not be there. He was confined to his bed, having taken a turn for the worse. The day before he could not say the Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an event he never misses if at all possible. He asked Bishop Patrick Sheridan to stand in for him at the reception, and the bishop did a most able job of hosting the affair. On such occasions the author is expected to say a little something, and I took the opportunity for a brief tribute to my friend who was now into his final days as Archbishop of New York.

Thank you, Bishop Sheridan, for your gracious introduction. You said something about this handsome residence, and it is that. I have to tell you, though, that a prelate friend in Rome was recently taking me through his truly palatial quarters, by comparison to which this handsome residence is in the low–rent district. Murals in the bathroom by Raphael, drawing room decor by Bernini, and baroque splendor for days. "It isn’t home," says my friend, "but it’s much."

This reception is one more item on a very long list of debts I owe Cardinal O’Connor. In fact, the debt is beyond calculation. I first came to know the Cardinal when he arrived here as Archbishop in 1984, and our institute was able to be of some little help in his settling in to New York. Of course, some have thought him a most unsettling presence over these sixteen years, but that, not to put too fine a point on it, is their problem.

I think I can fairly say that we hit it off from the beginning, and he made it a point that I should call him my friend. Thus has he been for all these years "my dear and eminent friend." On September 8, 1990, on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, he received me into full communion with the Catholic Church, and a year later, on the same day, ordained me a priest of the Catholic Church. It was, in his understanding and mine, the sacramental completion of a ministry undertaken many years earlier as a Lutheran pastor.

In 1989 the Cardinal issued a pastoral letter on the priesthood, also dated September 8, the Nativity of Our Lady. The letter is titled, "Always a Priest, Always Present." There he wrote, "I believe that suffering is of the essence of the priesthood. The priest is preeminently a man of sacrifice." This I have noted about the Cardinal over the years, that for him the priesthood and the Mass are always under the sign of sacrifice. The Eucharist, as you know, is many things: a meal in memory of Him; a communion of the living and dead in Christ; an anticipation of the eschatological Feast of the Lamb. But in the preaching and piety of John Cardinal O’Connor, it is preeminently the sacrifice of the Mass.

Perhaps some of you, too, have been impressed by the homiletical specificity and force with which he portrays the action of the Liturgy as the reenactment of the suffering, death, and glorious resurrection of Christ. At the epicenter is always the Cross. It is the sacrifice of the Mass not as the repetition of Calvary, to be sure, but as re–presentation to the Father and to us. "Always a Priest, Always Present." Always a priest as one is present at and in the sacrifice of Christ, our high priest.

In the thought of the Cardinal, and in the testimony of his life, sacrifice is fulfillment, and the immeasurable joy of participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ, which embraces all the sufferings of the world. In the Cardinal’s present weakness he knows yet more deeply that fulfillment and that joy. Redemptive suffering leaves its mark. In the pastoral letter on the priesthood he wrote, "It has always impressed me that even his risen body was scarred with the wounds of the Crucifixion. I cannot imagine an unscarred priest, a priest without wounds, because I cannot imagine an unscarred Christ." Those of you who have already read Death on a Friday Afternoon know that the last chapter, on the last word from the Cross, is titled "The Scars of God." About that, too, I have learned from my dear and eminent friend.

In recent weeks there have been a number of public events in tribute to the Cardinal. At one of them, the President of the City Council said that, in the more than three hundred years of New York City, no public figure has left as great a mark for the good. I haven’t been here for three hundred years, but I’m not inclined to argue with that.

The Cardinal speaks often of his father, who was a highly skilled craftsman in Philadelphia. He was a gold–leafer, meaning that he applied gold to buildings and works of art. The Cardinal has followed in his father’s steps. It is a different kind of gold, of course: a human gold not untouched by the divine; the gold of kindness, of generosity, of uncompromised witness to the truth, of devoted service to the end.

For years and years to come, people will be discovering in this often tarnished city the gold of my friend’s craftsmanship. And when they see the signs of its shining, they will say, "Cardinal O’Connor was here. He was always a priest. He is always present."

While We’re At It

If the nuclear family is to be revived, we must restore the cultural importance of voluntary lifelong monogamy. Here are the three most important focal points for such efforts:
1. Counter the Sexual Revolution.
Promote sexual abstinence at least through the high school years. Most parents certainly favor this and probably most high school students do as well.
Encourage women and men to lead their premarital sex lives with eventual marriage more strongly in mind. For example, what our grandmothers supposedly knew might well be true: if a woman wants a man to marry her, wisdom dictates a measure of playing hard to get.
Rein in the organized entertainment industry. At one time the entertainment industry did have a moral conscience, so we know it is possible. The main levers today are mass protests and boycotts.
2. Promote Marriage.
Spread the word about the emotional, economic, and health benefits of lifelong monogamy, and about how it is superior to other family forms. This can be done by high schools and universities, churches, voluntary associations, and even by federal and state governments.
Educate people about the nature of modern marriage—that it is not merely finding the perfect mate and living a life of passion and romance. It is a long–term friendship between a man and a woman that requires constant effort and care plus a strong moral commitment to the institution, in addition to special communication skills.
Widely promulgate the findings about how marriage failure damages children.
Continue to privilege marriage through public policy and at the same time discourage the formation of alternative lifestyles.
3. Renew a Cultural Focus on Children.
Parents want to do what is best for their children. So do most adults. We should not let the age–old cultural priority on childrearing—the sentiment that children are our future—slip from our grasp, as now seems to be happening. A serious problem is that less than one–third of households today contain children, down from more than three–quarters in prior centuries. The task will not be easy.

Of course the last sentence is a cliché. More often than not, clichés become clichés because they are true. (And let’s hope we can do better than moderate "premarital sex lives.")

Sources: "Making Peace by the Blood of His Cross," London Times, April 2, 1999.

While We’re At It: On Chesterton, Orwell, etc., and use of paradox, Quote/Unquote Newsletter, October 4, 1999. On most recent Lambeth Conference, personal correspondence with Canon Conger. A. N. Wilson on Christ, London Express, October 21, 1999. Richard Gid Powers on Arthur Koestler, National Review, December 20, 1999. Statistics on religion and abortion from Alan Guttmacher Institute and used by Peter Brimelow, Forbes, October 18, 1999. "Can the Nuclear Family Be Revived?" by David Popenoe, Society, July/August 1999. On misquotation of Dostoevsky, Our Sunday Visitor, December 12, 1999. B. A. Gerrish on liberal theology, Christian Century, October 13, 1999. On the "vertuous Mediocrity," Quote/Unquote Newsletter, October 4, 1999. Brian C. Anderson on "How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul," City Journal, Winter 2000. Jean Bethke Elshtain on Cassie Bernall, New Republic, January 17, 2000. Brother Jeffrey Gros on Catholic ecumenism, Ecumenical Trends, January 2000. On abortion as anti–feminist, History Today, August 1999, and American Feminist, Winter 1999/2000. Hilton Kramer on the Tilman Riemenschneider exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Observer, February 21, 2000. Vincent Crapanzano on fundamentalism and literalism, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 11, 2000. Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger’s Re–forming the Center reviewed by Milton J. Coalter, Christian Century, October 27, 1999.