The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 105 (August/September 2000): 73-100.

The Church on the Rocks

In the May issue I offered my tribute, written as he was dying, to my former bishop, John Cardinal O’Connor. He was one of the truly great men I have been privileged to know, and I owe him a personal debt of gratitude beyond measure. I will not repeat what I have already said in many other venues. May the trumpets sound on the far side of Jordan, and choirs of angels sing him to his eternal home.

The city did itself proud in honoring him at his death. As did the country, although there was deep ambivalence about President Clinton’s appearance at the funeral Mass. It was fitting that the office of the presidency be there, and for the moment the office comes with this office holder, a man whose person and policies clashingly contradict almost everything for which John O’Connor is honored. Then there was the New York Times, which, perhaps not surprisingly, was the exception in the otherwise generous treatment by the media. The big story reporting his death was all about power politics and how he was the Vatican’s enforcer against enlightened opinion, meaning opinion favored by the Times. There was a tribute of sorts by the editors, run at the bottom of the editorial page. O’Connor was depicted as hard–line and orthodox, although it was grudgingly allowed that he was also compassionate to, for instance, victims of AIDS. So there was something good to be said about him. Once again, the Times demonstrated that it is not a class act.

“Just once,” he remarked to me, “I would like to see a news story that doesn’t refer to ‘the controversial Cardinal O’Connor.’” He was exaggerating, of course, and said it with a smile. He did not choose controversy; he was chosen to deliver a message that many controverted, and then criticized him for being controversial. This is not without its humorous aspects. A long story in the Times on the day before the funeral is titled, “Being Heard in a Church That’s Changed: Personal Style a Big Factor in O’Connor’s Influence.” The substantial continuities in the Church over two millennia notwithstanding, the headline is always that the Church has changed, even when the story is that it has not changed enough. The story speaks of O’Connor’s “outsized personality and in–your–face skills with the New York media.” In this context, in–your–face means that he calmly persisted in teaching what the Church teaches. And he continued to do so, even in the face of the clearly stated disapproval of the New York Times. Clearly, he was, in the view of the Times, outsized, as in too big for his britches.

I have told the story before about the dinner I hosted when O’Connor first came to New York in 1984. The purpose was to introduce the media leadership of the city to the new archbishop. At that time, a New York politician and vice presidential candidate was putting it out that Catholic teaching permitted support for the unlimited abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade. As archbishop, O’Connor thought he had a duty to clarify what is and what is not Catholic teaching, and he had the temerity to do so from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s. There followed an enormous brouhaha about his “meddling in politics” and “violating the separation of church and state.”

At that dinner, a top editor of the Times opined that when John F. Kennedy was elected President “most of us thought that the question of whether you Catholics belong here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled once and for all.” He then added, “But I have to tell you, Archbishop, that in the few months you have been here some of us are beginning to ask those questions again.” Whether you understand how we do things here. This was not, mind you, 1884 but 1984. It was not the voice of the WASP establishment reproaching an Irish immigrant upstart, but an editor with recent immigrant roots laying down the rules of admission to the club, and this to the spiritual leader of a community to which 44 percent of New Yorkers claim to belong. What the Times lacks in class it makes up for in hubris.

But back to the story about the “changing” Church. “Several church historians said Cardinal O’Connor was perhaps the last cardinal archbishop in American history who could take for granted the prominence of the Catholic Church in the public eye, as a leading institution, a shaper of public opinion, and an overwhelming influence on the culture.” This is remarkable to the point of being hard to believe. From being put on notice that it may be expelled by the Times, the Catholic Church is now dominating, as the Marxists used to say, the commanding heights of culture. Who would have dreamed that the Church was so powerful? A paragraph later, however, we learn that it is not; in fact it is in steep decline. “The idea that you have authority because you occupy an office is not very functional in the history of the American church,” says church historian David O’Brien of Holy Cross in Worcester. Authority, he adds, “has to come from personal charisma or from pastoral care. Much of Cardinal O’Connor’s authority came from charisma.” That a bishop’s authority might have something to do with his being a successor of the apostles is apparently irrelevant to this Catholic historian. The picture presented by the Times story is that of an overwhelmingly influential institution that is, at the same time, comatose, but was momentarily revived by the personality of John O’Connor.

This is very confusing. For clarification, the Times reporter goes to Paul Baumann of Commonweal magazine. He says, “It is impossible for bishops to get the kind of loyalty they had unless there is some sign of change on contraception, mandatory celibacy for priests, and the role of women in the church.” But it seems that, at least in large part, O’Connor got the kind of loyalty he had because he upheld the Church’s teaching on contraception, celibacy, and the male priesthood. The report compounds the confusion by explaining that liberals believe that “no archbishop is likely to attain real national influence unless he can somehow close the gap between papal doctrine and the spiritual demands of the laity.” So O’Connor didn’t have real national influence after all, or there is no gap between Church doctrine and the people. Or something.

A Measure of Importance

Of course the story notes that many Catholics do not accept or act according to Church teaching. That is undoubtedly true. For instance, for two thousand years the teaching that we should love one another has met, at best, with a mixed response. Little wonder that the Church is just about finished. R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame observes to the Times that O’Connor’s “great accomplishment was to extend the life of that influential presence by his personal style.” He was the institution’s last gasp, so to speak. One has to wonder why the Times spends so much time and energy battling a dying institution. The story continues: “The kind of archbishop most likely to win a national following . . . is one who plays down divisive issues like abortion and eloquently articulates a Catholic position on larger social questions.” (For a definition of “larger social questions,” see the editorial page of the Times.) The reporter rounds up the usual suspects, including Father Thomas Reese, S.J., editor of America. His advice to the new archbishop: “Our time calls for dialogue, not confrontation.” Right.

The gist of the story is that the Catholic Church is a dominant and threatening institution that is almost dead but was momentarily revived by John O’Connor who earned the admiration and loyalty of millions by following a confrontational course that is alienating just about everybody. This, according to the sustained story line of the Times, is precisely the problem with John Paul II as well. In the report at hand, the aforementioned Dr. O’Brien complains, “It is a very papal church now. It looks like the Pope feels he can appoint anyone he wants.” Fortunately, Dr. O’Brien is right. The happy result is that, without even consulting Dr. O’Brien or the editors of the Times, the Pope has appointed Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The new archbishop, I am pleased to say, has been a good friend over the years. Much more important, he is a man of solid orthodoxy and intellectual accomplishment; he is prayerful, personable, thoroughly pastoral, and persuasively articulate. In sum, he is just the kind of bishop whom I would have recommended for New York. If I had been asked. Which, for reasons no doubt having to do with how the Pope views his prerogatives, I was not. Archbishop Egan also has a firm grasp of history, and therefore has no difficulty in recognizing that the complaints of the Times and its liberal Catholic choir are pretty much the same complaints pressed a hundred years ago by those who contended that Catholics would never really belong here until the Church gave up its claims to authority and agreed to democratize the truth in conformity to those who define how “we” do things here. I expect that when Egan retires as archbishop, sixteen or more years from now, the Times will run long stories on how his term was the last hurrah for the dominant, threatening, and dying institution that is the Catholic Church. A possible headline might be, “Being Heard in a Church That’s Changed: Personal Style a Big Factor in Egan’s Influence.” The likes of Appleby, Baumann, O’Brien, and Reese will confidently declare him the last of his kind. As will be said of the archbishop after that, and after that, and after that, until Our Lord returns in glory.

Along the way there will possibly be one or more archbishops who will be prepared to split the difference between truth and falsehood, and thus earn the acclaim of the Times and its bien pensant constituency for daring to be uncontroversial. They will still say that the Church is on the rocks, having never heard or never heeded the One who spoke of what He would build “on this rock.”

But now my penchant for fairness once again gets the best of me. In the same issue of the Times there is another story: “For Countless People, O’Connor Was a Source of Compassion and Strength.” This and similar reports carry the testimonials of little people whom the Cardinal helped in sundry ways. Often they are marginal people—pro–life activists, and others who admired his moral and doctrinal stands. They are not New York Times people. They are not the people who complain about “the gap between papal doctrine and the spiritual demands of the laity.” They are the laity. And not only the Catholic laity, but Jews, Muslims, and people of no specified religion who are grateful for a public figure who kept alive the rumor that there is such a thing as moral truth.

But what do such little people know? I notice that in the Times and elsewhere, one evidence of Catholicism’s crisis frequently cited is that Hispanics now make up at least one quarter of the Catholic population (it is almost certainly more than that in New York). Imagine a news story asserting that an institution is in trouble because of its growing black membership. It is still polite to say that Hispanics are a problem. There is also the advantage that it gives renewed life to the idea of Catholicism as alien and threatening—i.e., people who do not really belong here, people who do not understand how we do things here.

All this is more cause for bemusement than alarm. On almost every issue of great moral and cultural consequence—abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, parental choice in education, cooperation between church and state, the normative status of marriage and family, the authority of tradition, the arts in service to beauty and the mind in service to truth—the Catholic Church is on one side and the Times, along with most of the media, on the other. There are a few individual exceptions at the Times, but that is the general picture. It has been that way for decades and will likely be that way for a long time. Now the “controversial” John O’Connor has given way to the soon to be declared “controversial” Edward Egan. Early every morning will be delivered, to a relatively small percentage of the population, the latest instructions on how we do things here. Then the Church and the people will get on with their business. This is not to say that the Times is unimportant. There are people, including people of influence, who, in touching docility, accept the daily instruction on how and what to think. It is to say about the Times, as my father frequently said (and, I must confess, sometimes said to me), “If you were half as important as you think you are, you would be twice as important as you are.”

The Devotion of Michael Harrington

Socialism is the religion people get when they lose their religion. Or so it seemed to me when I was a young man on the left, oh, so many years ago. Now the maxim has to be put in the past tense, of course, since there are very few people who still call themselves socialists, although no doubt many are still losing their religion. A few blocks south of where I live, on the Lower East Side (now commonly called the East Village), there are today dozens of little factions called socialist or even Communist with tenement warren headquarters where they grind out pamphlets and hatch plots in anticipation of the revolution. I do not imagine that the FBI or anybody else bothers to keep an eye on them. They are viewed as eccentrics lending color to the neighborhood—a neighborhood from which they will likely soon be evicted by the apparently inexorable course of gentrification.

It was very different in the 1960s when I was deeply immersed in what was then called The Movement, meaning civil rights and the protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam. For many friends and allies then, it was understood that socialism was the goal for which liberalism was the polite word to be used in public. Thirty years later and it is almost the case that liberalism is the love that dare not speak its name. In leftist circles back then, my well–known rejection of Marxist thought and contempt for Marxist practice occasioned suspicions about my “political reliability.” I was sometimes pressed: “But you are a socialist?” The ideologically soft, who really were good liberals, were satisfied with my assurance that I thought there was an awful lot wrong with the world and we should do our best to set things right. That more or less met their definition of socialism. Not so with those who really were socialists.

So much comes back now—so many people, arguments, demonstrations, endless meetings—upon reading Maurice Isserman’s new book, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs Press). I suppose few readers under forty would know his name today, but Michael Harrington, who died in 1989 at age sixty–one, was once a figure to reckon with in American public life, at least if you were anywhere within the many orbits of the politics of the left. We met on a number of occasions, but I did not know him well. I felt I knew him better than I did because of the many stories told by my colleague Jim Finn, who was very close to Harrington both at the University of Chicago and, later, in the bohemian world that congregated in the back room of the White Horse Tavern in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s.

In the mid–1980s, it may have been 1986, Harrington and I debated at Hunter College here in Manhattan. I had long since defected into the ranks of those called neoconservatives, but Michael was keeping the faith, as it used to be said, and still is said, on the left. I do not recall what he or I said in the debate, but I remember well our long and friendly discussion afterward in which he earnestly explained to me that his moving with his family up to Larchmont in Westchester County did not mean that he had sold out (selling out is the mortal sin in the church of radicalism). “You don’t have to be poor to keep faith with the poor,” he insisted. He did not have to persuade me of that, and I doubted if it was me he was trying to persuade.

Making History

Harrington’s public prominence came with his 1962 book The Other America, which played a part, maybe a central part, in sparking Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As Isserman notes, the word socialism never appeared in the book. He contends that Harrington could have become a very major political force had he not been obsessed with manipulating factional fights among sundry socialist sects. In Isserman’s account, Harrington was under the powerful influence of Max Shachtman, and the Shachtmanites were the relentless enforcers of socialist orthodoxy as defined by the master. To their credit, Schachtman, Harrington, and others of that company were vigorously anti–Communist, condemning the Soviet Union as “bureaucratic collectivism.” Isserman’s book is loaded with accounts of ideological infighting among the sects, most of which had a membership of less than a few dozen. Unless he has a special interest in this slice of American history, the reader’s eyes glaze over at page upon page studded with acronyms: SDA (Students for Democratic Action), SDF (Social Democratic Federation), SDUSA (Social Democrats, USA), LID (League for Industrial Democracy), SWP (Socialist Workers Party), YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League), and on and on. The late James Luther Adams of Harvard used to say that history is made by people who show up at meetings, stay until the end, and then write the minutes. The history of leftist activism is the history of meetings, caucuses, counter–caucuses, walk–outs, expulsions, and more meetings. In SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), this was called “participatory democracy.” It had a lot more to do with endurance, deviousness, and dogmatism than with democracy.

So did Michael Harrington waste his life? God only knows. His friend Irving Howe, editor of Dissent, memorably wrote, “Socialism is the name of our dream.” Harrington gave himself to that dream with religious fervor. When it seemed the dream was a delusion, he fell back on the trope from his early days with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, contending that the main thing was to “bear witness.” In speeches toward the end of his life, as he was dying of cancer, Harrington struck a note of eschatological hope in describing what it means to be a socialist: “What we are dealing with is not simply an economic transition, or a political transition. What we are dealing with is the emergence of a new civilization. What we are dealing with are new ways of life for all the people of the Earth.” It was a poignant echo of the eschatology of the Catholic faith that he had abandoned so many years earlier.

Isserman is, all in all, a sympathetic biographer, and the research that went into The Other American throws important light on the history of the left in America. He ends on the elegiac note that many had hoped Harrington would pick up the mantle of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas in leading socialism into a new era. But he notes, regretfully, that that was not to be. “Michael seems to represent the end of the line. . . . An honorable, even heroic, vision, it was also, as Michael reluctantly conceded in the last years of his life, one for which there remained precious little room in American political culture.”

In fact, as Isserman’s account contributes to making indisputably clear, there has always been precious little room in America for a socialist movement defined by Marxist ideology. The high point was eighty years ago, when Debs ran for President in 1920 and received almost a million votes. The socialism to which Michael Harrington gave his life was living off the memory of what might have been, and what, hope against hope, might be again. Nobody outside its immediate circles has much incentive for taking a count, but I would not be entirely surprised if there were on the Lower East Side today as many self–identified socialists as there were when Michael signed up with the cause in the 1950s. A big difference today is that there are not nearly so many sympathizers in high places who are socialists passing as liberals.

The other day on Fourteenth Street I was handed a leaflet issued by, if I remember correctly, NSWOC (New Socialist Workers Organizing Committee). They were getting up a demonstration against the World Trade Organization, or something like that. A few blocks south of here there may at this moment be a young man as bright, personable, and idealistic as the young Michael Harrington making his decision to give his life to the cause. Perhaps he, too, has lost his religion and is looking for another. One must hope that is not the case. One may hope that Isserman is right in suggesting that Michael Harrington was the end of the line. It seems unlikely, however; so powerful is the human need for a dream.

Lord Acton, Cardinal Newman, and How To Be Ahead of Your Time

By the end of the eighteenth century, Christianity in Europe—and therefore, or so many Europeans thought, Christianity in world history—was holding on by its fingertips. To be sure, there was the Wesleyan revival in England, but that was viewed as a matter of tutoring the more base instincts of the great unwashed. Americans could still muster theological enthusiasms, but America was far away, and those Americans with whom the better type of European had contact, men such as Franklin and Jefferson, shared the conviction that the age of faith had given way to the age of reason. And to the age of revolution, most ferociously in France and threatening to overflow everywhere. In the early nineteenth century, it seemed to some that Protestantism in Germany showed signs of catching up with the times, accommodating dogma to reason and biblical tradition to scientific discovery. There Christian thinkers were making the case that the religious sensibility could be harnessed to the best in social and cultural progress. Catholicism, on the other hand, and especially Catholicism that was Roman Catholicism, represented everything that was in reaction to the spirit of the times. It was far from the case that everyone joined in the cry of Voltaire, Écrasez l’infâme, but more temperate souls thought the superstition would be crushed, and probably should be crushed.

Lord Acton (1834–1902) was and was not a man of his times. A personally devout Catholic, he deplored the fact that the Church seemed determined to set itself against the imperatives of a new age. Today Acton is best known, if he is known at all, for his maxim, written in a letter to a friend, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He deserves to be better known, for he is a key figure in the story of Christianity’s erratic efforts to come to terms with modernity. He will be better known if a book just out from Yale University Press, Lord Acton by Roland Hill (533 pp., $39.95), receives the attention that it deserves. Acton has always had a prominent part in the telling of modern Catholic history, where he is conventionally depicted as a precursor, even a prophet, of the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Hill, too, follows that convention, although not uncritically. Now that the pontificate of John Paul II has, it is surely safe to say, secured the interpretation of the Council, it is possible to evaluate more fairly the role of Acton in modern Catholic history—especially his vigorous campaign against the 1870 definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

Ahead of Their Time

“Everywhere in the late nineteenth century there was a hardening of the ideological fronts,” writes Hill, “of Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, atheists, socialists, conservatives, and so forth. A Catholic scholar like Döllinger (who found good things to say of Luther and who felt that the Pope should not be a temporal ruler) or an English liberal like Acton (who saw through the illiberal partisanship of Continental liberals and nationalists and who sensed the corrupting effects of absolute power in Church or state) seemed like traitors to their side, as well as hopelessly out of tune with their age. But, like Newman, they were really in advance of their century.” That is the conventional telling, and there is a lot packed into it. It would be too much to say, to the contrary, that Ignaz von Döllinger and John Acton were perfectly in tune with their age, for Acton in particular had a personal piety that he held in unreconciled tension with his and his age’s view of scientific reason. But I believe it more accurate to say that, of the three, only John Henry Newman was in advance of his time.

John Acton, writes the distinguished historian Owen Chadwick in his foreword to Hill’s biography, “was only half English.” Born in Naples and buried in Tegernsee, Bavaria, Acton’s most formative education was under Döllinger in Munich. Born into the British aristocracy, he was related by blood or marriage to noble and even royal houses of Europe. Inheriting ample means to indulge his interests, he was very much in the model of the educated European with a mission to enlighten his still benighted age. Having frittered away his fortune, toward the end of his life his purse and status were restored by his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, the Protestant establishment’s reward for services rendered. Acton was less a trained historian than a talented and assiduous amateur in love with archives, from which he accumulated mountains of notes for books that never got written. Were it not for his part at Vatican Council I, he would be more forgotten than he is. Chadwick writes: “Never neglected [in his time], for he was too famous for that, he has sometimes been regarded as a person who did not give the world what he ought to have achieved, and some have considered it a mistake to spend time in the study of a failure.” And yet, says Chadwick, Acton is “one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Victorians,” and his thoughts on politics “still repay the attention of anyone who tries to examine that difficult theme, the nature of human freedom.”

Acton tirelessly declared his devotion to liberty in the Church, and to the liberty of the Church. His devotion to the first liberty, however, ended up by setting him against the historical realization of the second liberty. To understand why this happened is to understand something very important about the tradition of liberal Catholicism up to our present time. Roland Hill writes: “Acton’s experiences in Germany had shown him, in particular, that whereas Protestants had shared the eighteenth–century decline of religion in equal measure, they were also the first to recover from it. They, rather than Catholics, dominated the German literary revival culminating in the work of Goethe. To Acton this movement, though it had no specific religious impulse, seemed comparable to the revival of the Medicean age. It spread to the German universities, producing a renascence of medieval historical studies borne by the new scientific approach.” Religion’s recovery, in this view, meant that religion was catching up with the times, and was even making modest contributions to the best in the culture. This was the course chosen by the leaders of the Kulturprotestantismus of Germany that Lord Acton admired.

For Acton, “the new scientific approach” in history meant that certainty could be achieved by documentation. “By going on from book to manuscript and from library to archive,” he wrote, “we exchange doubt for certainty, and become our own masters. We explore a new Heaven and a new Earth, and at each step forward, the world moves with us.” The scientific study of history, in this view, is not unlike revelation. In Acton’s judgment, historians such as Macaulay and Carlyle had erred in deferring to the past, or to the station of their subjects, or to the interests of the institutions that claimed their allegiance. When that happens, said Acton, “then History ceases to be a Science, an arbiter of controversy. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst cause better than the purest.”

History and Science must be pure, which means untainted by interest, personal perspective, or, above all, institutional authority. At one point in their friendship, Döllinger took exception to Acton’s harsh judgment of a certain historical figure. After a futile exchange on the subject, Döllinger wrote, “We must agree to differ.” Acton was having none of it: “Unfortunately it is not a question on which one can agree to differ. Historical science does not tolerate such differences. . . . As long as history cannot attain to such certainties as compels the assent of honest men, it is worthless as an arbiter of controversy and a teacher of nations.” The reign of History is absolute. Of those holding Acton’s view, Newman wrote, “They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish.”

Unbridled Infallibility

Acton was not and did not claim to be a theologian. As his personal piety and his quarrels with the actual Church ran on separate tracks, so history and theology went about their separate tasks each undisturbed by the other. Acton’s objections to the definition of infallibility were not dogmatic but historical. With slight reference to the actual wording of the carefully circumscribed proposition debated and finally adopted by Vatican Council I, Acton fought an imagined proposition that everything said by the pope or officially asserted by the Church would henceforth be deemed infallible. It was said, for instance, that the historical, social, and political judgments of the 1864 Syllabus of Errors issued by Pius IX would become infallible if the Council affirmed the dogma. Further, it was feared that infallibility would mean that the authority of the pope would trump the authority of governments with respect to the political obligations of their citizens. This was the argument that William Gladstone, the long–running British Prime Minister, made shortly after the Council, with Acton’s encouragement and assistance. There were indeed papal enthusiasts who contended that not only every word but every thought of the pope is infallible. That the Council decisively rejected such enthusiasms did not deter Acton from putting the most ominous construction on infallibility. He was, after all, a combatant in the heat of battle. As he understood it, he was the champion of liberty against the forces of reaction and outdated obscurantism.

During the Council, Acton set up shop in Rome. “He met bishops and diplomats daily. Leading members of the minority dined frequently at his apartment in the Via della Croce. He attended receptions where he might find out what was going on, afterwards noting down carefully what he had heard. He was always on the go, encouraging and organizing the opposition bishops, bridging national and language barriers among Germans, French, Austrians, Italians, English, Americans. He truly merited the title of ‘Chief Whip’ for the minority. Late at night Acton came home, sitting up till four or five in the morning to write his long letters to Döllinger or Gladstone, to catch the courier in time.”

In addition to being the chief whip of the minority, Acton was the Xavier Rynne of Vatican I. As a century later Rynne, whose real name was Francis X. Murphy, wrote long dispatches for the New Yorker giving the “inside story” on what was happening at Vatican II, so Acton wrote under a pseudonym (“Quirinus”) extensive letters for the Allgemeine Zeitung that were carefully read by participants in Vatican I. A major difference, of course, is that Rynne championed the majority while Acton championed the minority.

Both Acton and Rynne thought they were championing the “liberal” side, which is not self–evidently the case. The actual documents of Vatican II—as distinct from the largely imagined “spirit of the Council”—are firmly grounded in the tradition, and, as authoritatively interpreted by subsequent magisterial teaching, the Council bears little resemblance to what today passes as liberal Catholicism. Similarly, Acton’s liberalism was blind to the concern for the liberty of the Church, which, one might argue, was the great question for Catholicism in the nineteenth century.

Of Acton and Döllinger, Roland Hill perceptively observes, “Neither of them appeared to have any clear theological concept of Infallibility. They, no less than their opponents, the advocates of Infallibility, were victims of traditional concepts of the divine right applied to the temporal order.” It may have been only intuitively understood by most of the bishops at Vatican I, and not understood at all by others, but in retrospect it is clear that infallibility struck a major blow for the liberty of the Church against the claims of temporal powers. What Acton, Döllinger, and even Newman criticized as the “centralizing” of authority in Rome was an assertion of the Church’s authority to govern itself, and a declaration of independence from governments that claimed a right to appoint bishops and otherwise intervene according to their own interests.

Defending the Old Order

On this crucial question of the liberty of the Church, Henry Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, was right. Historians today, including Roland Hill, are much more favorable to Manning than were historians of the past. Newman, it will be remembered, opposed Manning, but did not challenge infallibility as a teaching; he thought it “inopportune” for the Council to define it dogmatically. Acton had little but scorn for Newman and other “inopportunists,” as they were called, declaring inopportunism to be the name of the party of losers.

Manning, on the other hand, recognized, along with others, that the universality of the Church would, in the hostile environment of that century, become easy prey to the fissiparous forces of nationalism and state power unless it was more firmly attached to the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. Lord Acton, by way of sharpest contrast, energetically lobbied Gladstone and the European powers to intervene in the Vatican Council in order to prevent any strengthening of papal authority. It would probably be too much to credit Manning and the majority with the ability to foresee the development of ecclesiology and its relationship to temporal power that came about with Vatican II and has been further clarified by subsequent pontificates. But they intuitively understood that what was at stake was the liberty of the Church to be the Church. In this perspective, and against the conventional wisdom, Lord Acton, far from being ahead of his time, was defending the old order that had subjected the Church to temporal powers.

History presents many occasions for citing Charles Peguy’s aphorism that God writes straight with crooked lines. In the nineteenth century’s dispute over the embattled papal states, it must be said in retrospect that Acton, Newman, and others were right in believing that the papacy would be better off without them. In that dispute, which was raging before and around Vatican I, Manning, Pius IX, and others mistakenly connected temporal power to papal authority. In fact, the loss of the papal states and the Council’s definition of infallibility combined, in ways that nobody at the time could anticipate, to save the universality of the Church by asserting the liberty of the Church. The ways in which God wrote straight with crooked lines in the past is, one is reminded, a salutary caution against excessive certitude as to what God is doing in the present.

Not least of the merits of Roland Hill’s biography is the insight it provides into the complexity of the personalities engaged in these conflicts, and the curious ways in which personal allegiances shifted from issue to issue. There was a great gap between Newman and Acton on many scores, not least because Acton was of the “old Catholic” English aristocracy and, like others of his class, resentful not only of “interference” by Rome, but also of the growing number of Irish immigrants who made Catholicism appear vulgar and alien to the English establishment, and of converts such as Newman who stole the intellectual spotlight. The old Catholic families were “Cisalpine” in their sympathies, meaning that they thought the Church should take its directions from “this side of the Alps,” and in this respect they had much in common with Gallicanism in France and “Josephenism” elsewhere in Europe. The last refers to the policy of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor in the latter part of the eighteenth century, who thought it the duty of the state to regulate religious affairs without reference to Rome. Many of the old Catholic families in England held on to the improbable hope that the “old religion” would be restored, effectively replacing the Church of England as the established church.

Newman’s Discontents

Newman, as is well known, also bridled at what he viewed as the heavy hand of Rome in English affairs, especially the fact that the Church was treated as a “mission” under the direction of the office of the Propagation of the Faith. At times he pined nostalgically for the patristic era when bishops and local churches had more flexibility to engage theological and ecclesiastical disputes that only later and when essential to unity were resolved by Rome. On the other hand, Newman in 1845 had converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and he knew that it was the Petrine office that guaranteed its universality. After the years of excitements while leading the Anglo–Catholic cause, Newman frequently felt depressed and out of place as a Catholic. He was not part of Acton’s aristocratic world of recusant families that had refused to accept the schism of the sixteenth century, nor could he readily identify with the newer Irish immigrants.

In 1860, in a tone not untouched by self–pity, he wrote in his spiritual journal: “I am nobody. I have no friend at Rome. I have laboured in England, to be misrepresented, backbitten, and scorned. . . . O my God, I seem to have wasted these years that I have been a Catholic. What I wrote as a Protestant had far greater power, force, meaning, success, than my Catholic works.” And again in 1863: “O how forlorn & dreary has been my course since I have been a Catholic! Here has been the contrast—as a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life—but as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.” Of course, these were his thoughts before the publication of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and the later Grammar of Assent. Especially the former met with sensational success and established Newman as one of the most venerable figures of English life, admired by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Acton turned on Newman with a passion. It was not enough, he insisted, to say that the dogma of infallibility was “inopportune”; it was wrong because it violated Acton’s notion of the Science of History. In his private notes, Acton wrote, “Newman came over for the sake of the pope. That was his purpose and reward.” Newman thought history insufficient; authority was needed. Acton interpreted Newman’s position this way: “Without a supreme authority, skeptics win.” At Newman’s death, Acton wrote to Gladstone: “You know that in this instance I am forced to use the ambiguous word great as I should in speaking of Napoleon or Bismarck, Hegel or Renan. But I should quarrel with every friend I have, in almost every camp or group, if I said all I know, or half of what I think, of that splendid Sophist.” He accused Newman of encouraging “a school of Infidelity” and of being among those who are “advocates of deceit and murder.” The last charge derives from Acton’s confused idea that infallibility means that popes of the past whom he believed were guilty of deceit and murder had, in fact, been infallibly right in what they did. Of Newman and another party with whom he disagreed, Acton wrote that they are “two very able and evil men.”

Acton’s judgments were hard. Those who were not with him were against him, and this applied as well to his Whig politics. He wrote, “Politics come nearer religion with me, a party is more like a Church, error more like heresy, prejudice more like sin.” Over the years, he worked in closest cooperation with the Protestant Gladstone against Catholics such as Manning and Newman, indeed goading Gladstone on in his anti–Catholic polemics, while all the time believing that his private Catholic piety was safely separated from the interests of the Catholic institution. After the Council, his old teacher Döllinger was excommunicated for refusing to accept its decision, and for a time Döllinger flirted with the breakaway Old Catholic Church in which two of his theological professor friends became bishops. Leo XIII, who succeeded Pius IX, made overtures for Döllinger’s reconciliation with the Church, but these met with no success. Unlike Acton, Döllinger knew that his rejection of the authority of the Council had consequences for his ecclesial communion. Acton lived in mortal fear that he would be required to say directly whether he did or did not accept the decision of the Council. If required, he believed he would in conscience have to answer in the negative; the consequence, he expected, would be excommunication and the collapse of his private definition of what it meant to be Catholic.

Although Lord Acton does not explore this dimension, it seems more than possible that Acton’s falling out with Döllinger was related to the latter’s understanding that ecclesial belonging is not a matter of private judgment. The Church determines what she teaches, and the assent required of her members. After the Council, Döllinger was understanding and forgiving toward the bishops who had opposed infallibility but later submitted to the Council’s decision. Not so Acton. In his eyes they were cowards and turncoats, even though he desperately hoped that he, unlike the bishops in question, would never be required to give a straight answer. When the break in their friendship was final, Döllinger observed, “No one in the whole world knows me better than Acton and knows more about me. But the difference between us is that I am tolerant towards people while he is an absolutist in judging them and is totally intolerant.” The illiberality of liberals is, it seems, not a recent phenomenon.

The Cultural Context

A balanced appreciation of Acton requires an understanding of the degree to which anti–Catholicism was dogmatically entrenched among the social, political, and cultural elites of England. As Hill notes, “In England at the time it was hardly possible for Catholics to rise professionally.” The recusant aristocracy was the protector of a besieged minority, maintaining enclaves of educational opportunity in England, typically under Jesuit auspices, for Catholic students, and networks of protection abroad, which explains why Acton was not only by blood but also by education and life experience only “half English.” It is within this virulently anti–Catholic context that one can understand the sensation and scandal caused by Newman’s conversion, and the sacrifice he made in breaking with the establishment of the Church of England and of Oxford, a sacrifice quite incomparable to that made by a convert in, for instance, America today. In our circumstance of denominational, if not religious, pluralism, becoming a Catholic is commonly viewed as an individual matter of continuing one’s “spiritual sojourn.” What Newman did was to strike a blow at the very religious, cultural, and political identity of the nation.

The old Catholics of the recusant families had, until the mid–nineteenth century, been seen as part, albeit an anomalous part, of the English scene. Accustomed understandings were disrupted by converts from the Oxford Movement, Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and by Rome’s decision to restore the English hierarchy in 1850. All this gave rise to a vigorous “no popery” movement in Protestant England. As Hill writes, “English Catholicism had enjoyed a tradition of lay—aristocratic—supremacy for the centuries following the English Reformation. The old Catholic landed families . . . continued to exert their influence over Catholic life well into the nineteenth century. . . . A triumphant Rome now set about to bring the faithful within the clerical discipline and pietistic practices of the Latin aesthetic,” which posed a serious challenge to the Catholic establishment of which Acton was part. The modus vivendi that the Catholic establishment had worked out with the emphatically Protestant national establishment of England was now threatened by what Acton and others called “the Romanization of English Catholicism.” Hostility to Roman “centralization” under Pius IX had everything to do with maintaining the position of the Catholic aristocracy in England.

Enemies of Liberty

In goading Gladstone to intervene and encourage other nations to intervene at the Council, Acton resorted to alarmist depictions of what was at stake. If the Council has its way, he wrote Gladstone, Catholics would be “bound not only by the will of future popes, but by that of former popes, so far as it has been solemnly declared. They will not be at liberty to reject the deposing power [the power of the pope to depose monarchs and other rulers], or the system of the Inquisition, or any other criminal practice or idea which has been established under penalty of excommunication. They at once become irreconcilable enemies of civil and religious liberty. They will have to profess a false system of morality, and to repudiate literary and scientific sincerity. They will be as dangerous to civilized society in the school as in the state.” In sum, Catholics would no longer be capable of being loyal subjects of the crown, which is precisely the charge launched by Gladstone shortly after the Council in a pamphlet that Acton helped to write.

It is not too much to say that Acton, in effect, took the Protestant side in the telling of the English story of liberty in terms of a noble struggle against papal tyranny. Even the very sympathetic Roland Hill acknowledges that English Catholics were “wounded by his cruel way of exposing their historical myths.” Acton’s view of liberty was inextricably tied to the interests of his own position and power as an intimate and influential advisor of Gladstone and a much favored courtier of Queen Victoria. This puts a somewhat different light on Acton’s famous stricture about the corrupting nature of power. To the Anglican historian Mandell Creighton, who suggested that popes and kings should be given the benefit of the doubt, Acton wrote: “If there is any presumption it is the other way, against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”

There is, of course, much truth in what Acton says about power and corruption, but it is far from the whole truth. Hill wisely observes, “Richer as the twentieth century is in its experience of the corrupting effects of absolute power, it has become conscious of the dangers threatening also from the opposite extreme. Men in power tend at least to maintain the semblance of probity, if only to maintain their power. But those who lack power and want it often lack even that restraint.” There is an additional factor to be taken into account: “Acton saw himself as a pivotal figure in several areas of Liberal policy development in behind–the–scenes political maneuverings. That Acton relished seeing himself at the center of power is underscored time and again in his letters.”

The problems that puzzled Acton, he once told Mary Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter, were “not in religion or politics so much as along the wavy line between the two.” His personal and institutional loyalties were clearer on the political than on the religious side of that wavy line. Hill writes: “Acton’s regard for Gladstone had almost a mystical quality. That makes it difficult to understand for a later generation tempted to gloss over it as sycophantic adulation, which it was not. It was meant for a statesman with whom he felt at one in fundamentals, both religious and moral—for, as he said, for him the Liberal Party had always had the status of a dogma, even a Church.”

The ironies and complexities in the development of the liberty of the Church were sometimes better understood by the world’s practitioners of Realpolitik. After he was driven into exile following the revolution of 1848, Vienna’s absolutist chancellor, Prince Metternich, noted that Piux IX, who came to the papal office as a liberal, was inadvertently undoing his temporal power by encouraging the forces of change. Metternich wrote, “A liberal Pope is not a possibility. A Gregory VII could become the master of the world, a Piux IX cannot become that. He can destroy but he cannot build. What the Pope has already destroyed by his liberalism is his own temporal power; what he is unable to destroy is his spiritual power; it is that power which will cancel the harm done by his worthless counselors.” The liberty of the Church required a disentanglement from efforts to wield temporal power, and it is that long course of disentanglement that has produced the pontificate of John Paul II and a papacy immeasurably stronger—spiritually, morally, and institutionally—than the papacy of a hundred or two hundred years ago. The First Vatican Council, with its assertion of spiritual authority and of jurisdictional rights against the several states, was key to securing the liberty of the Church. That is what Acton apparently never understood, probably because he was preoccupied not with the liberty of the Church but with his own version of liberty in the Church.

No Place to Stand

Men such as Acton and Döllinger, who understood themselves to be on the cutting edge of progress and enlightenment, might be better described as defenders of the status quo. In Germany, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf was a program of “modernization,” but as Roland Hill notes, his anti–Catholic measures had the result of increasing the loyalty of both bishops and the faithful to Rome and the pope. Where else were Catholics to find a place to stand except by the side of Peter? And by the side of a Peter who became stronger precisely as he had no sword to wield other than the sword of the Spirit. In England, Acton offered Catholics no place to stand. Suspicious of the growing number of converts such as Newman, alienated from the Irish immigrants, in rebellion against the hierarchy at home, and waging war against Rome, Acton offered only the possibility of standing by the old aristocratic Catholic elite guided by the infallibility of the Science of History. That was not a very promising prospect for the future of Catholicism in England.

Acton seems to have suspected, at least at times, that he was working against the course of history, and even that that course might be providentially guided. Besieged by the forces determined to deprive him of his temporal power, Pius IX declared himself to be the “prisoner of the Vatican.” Acton writes to his wife in a tone of puzzlement, “The Pope’s power has grown through the fall of his system.” At another point, when it seemed possible Piux IX would be forced to leave Rome, Acton recognized the source of his power: “The Pope, in his eightieth year, at the close of the longest and most unfortunate pontificate on record, going forth once more to eat the bread of exile and to die in a strange land, would afford a spectacle that would rouse the feelings of many millions of men.” As the papacy became weaker, it became stronger.

For centuries, the papacy had cultivated partnerships with states in order that they might jointly wield power, the one with the spiritual sword and the other with the temporal. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one state after another declined to join in that partnership, declaring themselves thoroughly secular and determined either to eliminate or control the influence of the Church. Although Pius IX and, later, Leo XIII did not see it that way at the time, state hostility to the Church was working the liberation of the Church. As states became more relentlessly secular, spiritual authority gravitated toward the Church, and the local churches under such secularizing states adhered ever more firmly to Rome.

God writes straight with crooked lines, and not least of all with the crooked line that was the career of Lord Acton. Much of what Acton wrote—for instance, The History of Freedom, recently republished by the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan—is still very much worth reading. But when it came to the big picture, Acton got it wrong. It is John Henry Newman, with his much more sophisticated understanding of reason, history, and ecclesial development, who is vindicated by the Second Vatican Council and subsequent pontificates. Lord Acton—for all his energy, influence, and occasional genius—pitted liberty in the Church against the liberty of the Church, with the result that he defended the subordination of the Church to the cultural and political establishment of his time. In this respect he was more than “half English,” being as Erastian as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

As Lord Acton makes clear, whatever the author’s intention, its subject was not a precursor of the Second Vatican Council but of a now much diminished Catholic liberalism that, in the name of “the spirit of the Council” and in subservience to a cultural establishment, opposes the liberty of the Church to be the Church. It must be said in all fairness that the questions in Acton’s day were not seen so clearly as they are in retrospect. One can, albeit with some difficulty, put oneself in Acton’s position, where the question seemed to be a simple one of liberty vs. tyranny. As we have seen, Newman was not entirely unsympathetic to that perspective. His “inopportunism” was informed by, inter alia, a worry about the heavy–handedness of Rome. But he understood that there is such a thing as “the mind of the Church” and was able to think with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) while also, like Acton, thinking with the best ideas of his time. Newman’s greatness was in the humility of recognizing that his reason and grasp of history were not infallible.

I would not be surprised if today Acton recognizes that Newman chose the wiser course. Indeed, I strongly expect that is the case. As I also expect that Acton rejoices that the Church today, her liberty secured in communion with Rome, is the world’s premier champion of the idea of freedom for which he contended. Even if he understood that idea imperfectly, it is probable that, in ways that surpass our understanding, God used also his efforts to bring about a result that was not, and could not have been, anticipated by his Science of History.

Speak Up for the Persecuted

Religious persecution and, more specifically, the persecution of Christians seems to be eluding the radar screen of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). That, at least, has been the impression of those who follow these questions in the human rights community. This has become something of an embarrassment, since various evangelical and oldline Protestant denominations, strongly supported by Jewish leaders such as Rabbi David Saperstein and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, have been pressing this issue in recent years. Last November, more than a hundred thousand local churches participated in the annual “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church,” and an even larger participation is expected this year. But, for some reason, the Catholic leadership has been largely silent. Last August, the East African Catholic Bishops Conference appealed to the West to protest the “genocidal conflict” in southern Sudan, but for months there was no public response from the U.S. bishops.

Until recently, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark served as chairman of the USCC’s International Justice and Peace Committee. In many forums, he has urged “quiet diplomacy” rather than public protest. He served as part of a religious delegation to China, an arrangement negotiated by Beijing and the Clinton Administration. The international press and human rights groups sharply criticized the delegation for letting itself be manipulated by the Chinese government. (“U.S. Religious Leaders Tread Softly in China,” Washington Post, February 19, 1998; “China May Manipulate Clerics,” Associated Press, February 21, 1998.) McCarrick also serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent panel established by Congress to make recommendations for U.S. policy. The Chinese persecution of Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and Muslims has received close attention by the commission.

To the extent there is a muted Catholic voice on religious persecution, the problem is likely with the USCC, which is inevitably a bureaucracy and, as is the way with bureaucracies, tends to assume a knowing attitude of possessing inside information not available to mere mortals. The USCC, regrettably, has a history of relative silence on the persecution of Christians, whether by the Soviet empire or by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Rightly or wrongly—and I expect more rightly than wrongly—Protestants and Jews who have been at the forefront of the fight against religious persecution bridle at what they view as the condescension and indifference of the staff at USCC. In his letter on the Great Jubilee, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (The Coming of the Third Millennium), John Paul II called on Christians to remember the martyrs of today, and a special commemoration to that effect was held at the Coliseum in Rome on May 7. As the Pope noted, the first–century martyrs such as Agnes and Stephen are better known than the many thousands of martyrs of our own time, and that urgently needs to be remedied. An important step toward that end would be for the USCC to join in publicly honoring the martyrs and to at last take its place alongside Protestants, Jews, and others in contending for an end to religious persecution around the world. China and Sudan are most particular cases in point.

In view of this unfortunate history, one welcomes the more warmly the recent statement on the Sudan by Bernard Cardinal Law, the new chairman of the USCC’s International Policy Committee. After reviewing the sordid facts of Khartoum’s killing and enslavement of Christians and others, Cardinal Law declares: “The violence and repression in Sudan cannot, indeed, must not continue. The people of Sudan yearn for a just peace. They cry for an end to the enslavement of their women and children. They yearn to be free from indiscriminate violence and the constant threat of famine. They long for equal rights for Muslims, Christians, and practitioners of traditional African religions. They search for an opportunity to build a just and prosperous society that is a valued member of the family of nations. It is long past time for the international community to overcome its indifference toward the humanitarian nightmare in Sudan. It is long past time to do what can be done to help the people of Sudan realize their yearning for a just peace. Peace is not easy, but it is possible, and it is the only way forward.”

How Christianity Coopts Its Contradictions

One problem with secularization theories that tend to view modernity as a juggernaut that keeps religion always on the defensive is that studies frequently contrast what people say they believe with what they actually do. This is an inherent difficulty in discussions of religion, and especially of biblical religion. The normative statements of Christian faith and life, for instance, are so very elevated, while the people who are Christians are so very ordinary. There is typically a glaring gap between what people profess to believe and what they actually do and appear to be in their everyday lives. The gap widens when religion is defined chiefly in terms of morality. Few lives can withstand, for instance, a close examination of the claim to love others as we love ourselves. The gap invites charges, at the vulgar level, of hypocrisy, while more sophisticated critics speak of religion as “epiphenomenal” or as “false consciousness.” In this way of thinking, the phenomenon—what is really happening—is secularization, with religion being little more than a wan protest against, or self–deceiving denial of, that reality.

Of course, Christianity co–opts the criticism of those who accent the gap by accenting that we are all sinners. That being the case, the gap between what we say and what we do is hardly surprising. As a preacher friend says, “My mission is to get the hypocrites off the streets and into the church where they belong.” Thus is the alleged contradiction between professed faith and actual practice turned into a confirmation of what Christians say they believe. Some secularization theories to the contrary, sociology and psychology have little access to what people really believe. People beyond numbering gathered at the altar and attending to the Word of God say that this moment defines “the real world.” Critics may choose to believe that what these people do elsewhere and at other times is the real world, but that is simply what the critics choose to believe.

There is no way to “scientifically” adjudicate these conflicting claims. Most believers, I expect, intuitively understand them not as conflicting claims but as claims to be held in tension, with the real world of the everyday held accountable to, and somehow mysteriously comprehended by, the real world defined in the moment of proclamation and worship. The essential point to be made about this infinitely complex subject is that those who contend that secularization is the basic reality to which religion is in a position of accommodating itself are, in the final analysis, making a somewhat arbitrary decision. In addition, their explanation comes up against religious explanations that are quite capable of giving an account of the very process of secularization that supposedly discredits religious explanations.

From the Beginning

Those scholars who see religion surviving defensively in “sheltered enclaves” that are surrounded by a disenchanted, desacralized, and essentially hostile modern world have an important point, of course. That is exactly how many Christians view themselves and their communities of faith. In this understanding, America is post–Christian, perhaps even anti–Christian, and the Christian faithful are therefore subcultural or even countercultural. A measure of such tension has been part of Christianity from the beginning.

Put differently, the sense of living in tension with the surrounding world is not dependent upon a particular reading of our historical moment but is inherent in the Christian understanding of reality. Jesus said of his disciples that they are in but not of the world, and in the early Church that is sharpened by statements such as 1 John 2:16: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” Much of the monastic tradition—flourishing not in a time of secularization but in a time called “the age of faith”—was intended to accent that tension, as it is also accented by groups such as the Amish and Mennonites who emerged from the “left wing” of the Protestant Reformation.

The tension is not peculiar to such groups; rather, they are simply more sharply emblematic of a core truth about Christianity. Christians are not really at home in the world because they understand themselves to be on the way to the heavenly Jerusalem, or, in the words of the Book of Revelation, “a new heaven and a new earth.” Call it a sheltered enclave or call it a pilgrim band on the march, the tension with the surrounding world experienced by the community of the faithful is a permanent feature of Christianity, and has more to do with eschatology (teachings about the final end of history) than with theories of secularization.

In this respect, too, Christianity is formed by Judaism. Languishing in exile, the children of Israel cried out in Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon,
     there we sat down and wept,
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
     we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
     required of us songs,
     and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
     in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
     let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
     if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest

Alien Citizens

This keen, even painful, sense of being in exile, of not being entirely at home in the surrounding world, is evident in the second century “Letter to Diognetus.” The anonymous author is responding to pagan curiosity about this curious cult of Christians who “set little store by this world, and even make light of death itself.” It is, he says, a marvelous paradox: “Though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland is a foreign country.”

“Alien citizens.” The phrase perfectly captures a necessary dimension of the Christian reality that is too easily confused and trivialized in contemporary discussions of secularization. For alien citizens, sometimes the emphasis is on the “alien” and sometimes on the “citizen.” In circumstances of intense anti–Christian persecution, they may understand their existence almost exclusively in terms of being aliens. I say “almost” because even then they still understand this to be their Father’s world and the kingdom of his Christ. The persecuting enemy is a usurper and his rule is only for a time. In circumstances where it seems almost everybody is a Christian, and Christianity itself is formally established, Christians may understand their existence almost exclusively in terms of being citizens. That neat fit between Christianity and culture was evident, for instance, in the nineteenth–century Protestant view of moral progress that we considered in the last issue. And yet Christians never belong so securely, they are never so comfortably at home, that they can forget that they belong to a community of pilgrim faith that confesses, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” To put it more accurately, Christians can forget that and often have forgotten it, but when they do so they are neglecting an essential aspect of being Christian in a world that is not yet fully redeemed.

So at times Christians will look like an embattled remnant hunkering down in sheltered enclaves, desperately trying to keep up one another’s spirits in the face of the encroaching threat of a hostile world. At other times, they are in martial formation, fully armed and on triumphant march. “Onward, Christian Soldiers!” And a good deal of the time, maybe most of the time, they understand themselves to be in both modes, and simultaneously so. In other words, the secularization theories that were once so dominant played on one of several cross–cutting themes that are permanent features in the way Christianity understands our present circumstance short of the Kingdom of God.

Christians who, for whatever reason, accent the “alien” mode of being Christian in the world tend to reinforce the notion that secularization is on the march, driven by the ideology of secularism, and resulting in a post–Christian America. Yet, as often as not, the very same people can, with remarkable facility, move into the mode of high confidence about winning America and the world for Christ. We ought not to be surprised by this, nor to view the apparent contradiction with scorn. This is not necessarily a contradiction but a reflection of cross–cutting themes that are part and parcel of the Christian teaching that the vindication of the truth is both “now” and “not yet.” The theories of secularization that were so dominant over the last half century had less to do with “social science” than with a proclivity to capitalize on one side of Christian self–understanding. In the name of secularization, they compounded the “not yet” that has never been with the never–to–be–again of Matthew Arnold’s sea of faith:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind down the vast edges
And naked shingles of the world.

In this view, the modern world is disenchanted and desacralized. Religion—the source and song of sacred enchantment—is, at best, in a holding action. It is a zero–sum proposition; as modernity advances, religion must retreat. But there is an element of the tautological here; what appear to be two factors are really the same. It is not so much that secularization is the result of modernity as that secularization is insinuated into the definition of modernity, in which case it is obvious that religion and modernity cannot coexist. But in America, in this most modern of societies, religion flourishes. It is said that religion “accommodates” itself to modernity, and accommodation is understood as compromise, as surrender on the installment plan. And it is true that different ways of understanding reality jockey with one another for advantage in a complicated give and take. But accommodation can also be understood as creative adaptation. Under the stress of new circumstances that were once seen as threatening, religion may propose a reenchantment and resacralization of the world, and the sea of faith is again

at the full, and round
     earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle

The protean capacity for adaptation and renewal is the very story of Christianity from its beginnings. This is hardly surprising in a religion that is premised upon the promise that its adherents will be led into an ever fuller understanding of the truth. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman refined the notion of “the development of doctrine” that is now officially part of Catholic teaching, but in the very first centuries theologians acted on the same intuition. The early Church Fathers spoke of “the spoils of Egypt.” Just as the children of Israel took with them on their journey the riches of Egypt, so, it is said, the Church appropriates the wisdom of Greece and Rome and turns it to the service of the gospel. Similarly, in the thirteenth century when many feared the rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, in one of the greatest careers of creative adaptation, recruited “the philosopher” to the illumination of Christian truth. So too, the stark antithesis between religion and science that excited so many in the nineteenth century is increasingly an historical curiosity as Christian thinkers have not only appropriated the insights of science but today are frequently the champions of scientific reason against its postmodernist and anti–foundationalist detractors.

From the beginning of the Christian story, conflicts and battles give way to accommodation, adaptation, and co–optation. The process is often dragged out and disorderly, a matter of fits and starts, of apparent advances and retreats—which is advance and which is retreat becomes evident only over time. Within the Christian community itself, in all its maddening diversity, there are running disputes over what is authentic development and what is illegitimate compromise, over what is unfolding orthodoxy and what is heretically deviant. Short of the Kingdom of God, when we shall, in the words of Paul, “know even as we are known,” Christians live with a large measure of “cognitive dissonance.” It is the normal state of Christian existence in the “now” and “not yet” of the world as it is. Spirit–guided discernment and testing is the constant task. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is doubtful that the job of sorting out rival truth claims and prophecies is any more difficult in the twenty–first century than it was in the first. In fact, it is even possible that, having had much more practice than the early Church, Christians are getting better at it.

While We’re At It