(March 2001)

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 2-12.

Peter and Mary Together

In “Evangelicals in the Church of Mary” (December 2000), Daniel P. Moloney addresses the problems involved when evangelicals actively evangelize in Roman Catholic venues. He states that a genuine commitment to Christ is more important than the location of one’s ecclesiastical home. While this view may be surprising to some (both Protestants and Catholics), it is consistent with received Roman Catholic tradition.

Concerning evangelical evangelization among Roman Catholic students, Mr. Moloney says that “I could certainly foresee that some students who were baptized Catholic might decide to convert to evangelical Protestantism.” Further, “I think such conversions could, in some instances, turn out to be a good thing. And I think John Paul II might agree with me.” Let’s turn this situation around: Would I, as an evangelical Protestant, welcome believing Catholics witnessing among nominal Protestants, even if it might lead to those Protestants becoming Roman Catholics? You bet I would. The vision of Catholics such as Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, and Ralph Martin witnessing for Christ among pagan Protestant university students gladdens my heart.

I am involved in an effort, Logos Ministries, which provides a weekly ecumenical Bible study. The classes meet in seven venues in Southern California and Arizona. Logos Ministries Bible classes are sponsored by over two hundred churches representing eighteen Christian denominations. The ministry was begun by Dr. Bill Creasy, a Roman Catholic, who has taught a popular course called “Through the Bible in One Year” in the English Department at UCLA. A few years ago, Dr. Creasy’s priest asked him to teach a class for lay people in his church in Westwood, California, and the rest is history. Each week, over four thousand people are active in the various locations. Creasy is the main teacher and has two colleagues, one Catholic and one evangelical Protestant.

I have been personally involved in these classes for several years. I know of no “sheep–stealing” activities occurring during these classes. All theo­ logical questions are deferred to one’s own denominational setting. I think Mr. Moloney would be pleased.

Ralph E. MacKenzie
Executive Director
San Diego Christian Forum
Mt. Soledad Presbyterian Church
La Jolla, California

Daniel P. Moloney takes a reflection of the Holy Father about the nature of discipleship and how grace can abound outside the Catholic Church and concludes that it’s acceptable “in some instances” to leave the Church and be a good Protestant rather than remain in her bosom as a lukewarm Catholic. Mr. Moloney tries to have it both ways. He can’t say it’s very, very important to be in the Church of Peter, but it’s acceptable if you’re not as long as you’re in the Church of Mary. If Protestants and Catholics shared the same gospel, they would worship in the same church. Most Protestants I know would cringe at the thought of being in Mary’s Church. Why should one even accept Mr. Moloney’s premise that a good Protestant is necessarily better than a bad Catholic? Both states contain serious spiritual dangers according to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This treacle by Mr. Moloney, who apparently is an orthodox Catholic, is another piece of evidence that Catholics (and Protestants) need to reacquire a seriousness about what’s at stake with respect to church membership, namely, their souls. Mr. Moloney’s insouciance about this contains, oddly, a tinge of condescension toward sincere Protestants. The Catholic Church’s nuanced teaching on the condition of souls, whether Catholic or Protestant, can help people be charitable toward those with whom they may disagree, but it was never intended to be a license for religious indifferentism or gentlemanly negotiation of acceptance of some status quo, e.g., “You try to accept the Pope and we’ll work on accepting Jesus into our hearts as our personal Lord and Savior.” If the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of the truth, why, out of charity, would a Catholic encourage evangelicals to lead his fellow Catholics out of the Church? What type of message does this send to Protestants about the seriousness of the Church’s claims? You don’t have to be obsessed with sheep stealing to be concerned about this. Maybe our energies should be channeled toward bringing forth in the Catholic Church what people have found in her for centuries, viz., the total truth about Jesus Christ and the peace and joy that derives therefrom.

David Lancaster
Riverside, Connecticut

I appreciated Daniel P. Moloney’s article regarding the expectations, similarities, and differences between evangelicals and Catholics.

A few thoughts come to mind, based on my own experiences in working with a wide range of Catholics and evangelicals, both because of my experience of being a student in a Catholic graduate school (Loyola University of Chicago) and working primarily with evangelical service groups (such as my current position with the Salvation Army).

In our rehabilitation ministry’s experience with alcoholics, the two largest groups with whom we work are those with Catholic and Southern Baptist backgrounds. We find them to be remarkably similar in their general religious formation, which typically did not incorporate religion as an internalized factor in their daily lives and decisions.

Many evangelicals “grow up in church” in ways that are quite similar to “cradle Catholics.” They learn similar doctrines and parallel, if not identical, approaches to how one can be seen as loyal to the church without committing oneself to a personal relationship with God.

One interesting example of this is a friend of mine, a psychologist, who grew up in an evangelical tradition, but has recently converted to Catholicism because he believes it “more pure and more moral” in its foundational theology. As with many conversions, his was stimulated by a personal experience in which his wife of seven years divorced him, and the evangelical church of which they were a part refused to make a stand against this. He felt that this was a travesty, and began to search for a church that would have a higher moral position concerning the sanctity of marriage and the family. His journey led him to the Roman Catholic Church, where he now feels that he has internalized his religion in a new, more personal, and more dependable fashion.

My experience is that Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals both share many traditions of Christian education and many subdivisions of religious experience, although they may view these through different lenses and historical perspectives. Perhaps it is time that we got more comfortable with the crossing back and forth between evangelical commitments and Catholic commitments. We might even learn a few things from each other, and find out that there are many complementary and even supportive experiences we could provide to each other.

Captain John R. Cheydleur
Territorial Social Services Secretary
The Salvation Army
West Nyack, New York

I want to thank Daniel P. Moloney for his article. As a Protestant, I find myself in the quandary of appreciating the wisdom of the Pope and the Catholic Church but being unable to agree ultimately with various Catholic doctrines. To see that the Pope can envision his role as that of a servant to all who submit to Christ, even those outside the Catholic Church, only increases my respect for him. I wish more Christians would be so willing to serve each other.

David Hafvenstein
Valparaiso University
Valparaiso, Indiana

Daniel P. Moloney replies:

I first want to thank all the people, both Catholics and evangelicals, who wrote to me privately to express how much they liked the article. I expected that some people would not understand or would disagree with my argument, but I did not expect the warm and genuinely excited reactions from those whose own experience has led them to see Christ on the other side of the long border between contemporary Catholic and evangelical religious experiences. It’s one thing to discuss evangelical–Catholic relations on the level of theology; it’s another to make it work in practice. To Ralph E. MacKenzie and others engaged in this complicated ministry (on behalf of the Church of Mary, one might say), I certainly wish the best.

“If the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of the truth,” David Lancaster asks, “why, out of charity, would a Catholic encourage evangelicals to lead his fellow Catholics out of the Church?” This question misstates my position slightly—I don’t “encourage evangelicals” to do anything other than minister to other evangelicals—but it does exemplify the conservative Catholic mindset that I most wanted to disturb with my article. As I said numerous times and in different ways, I believe that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, and that a person will be most deeply happy only when he is on fire for Christ within the Catholic Church. But many baptized Christians have a less perfect relationship with Christ, less perfect either in jurisdiction or in charity. The Pope, quite sensibly, thinks that perfection in charity is more important than perfection in jurisdiction, and my article was an attempt to show how this might apply to the question at hand. In doing so, I tried to make it clear that all Christians, including Protestants, need the spiritual direction, pastoral leadership, and nourishing grace that Christ commissioned Peter and his successors to provide. Rather than insouciance, I think this shows a very serious commitment to saving as many souls as possible. The Church has a lot more to offer those who submit to it completely, I agree, because submission to the Catholic Church is submission to Christ’s will that his flock be fed by Peter. But surely those who love Christ passionately though imperfectly are more likely to submit to that will than those who hardly love him at all.

I very much welcome Captain John R. Cheydleur’s point that “growing up in church” can lead to routinized religion and lukewarmness among evangelicals too. Communicating one’s zeal to one’s children is difficult in any religious tradition, and it is not unexpected that children who do not share their parents’ fervor might feel the lack and seek God elsewhere. I’m a little uncomfortable with his phrase “the crossing back and forth between evangelical commitments and Catholic commitments”—to me that sounds too casual for such an important matter—but I think I get his point. Catholics are already copying Protestant techniques for generating enthusiasm in their children (there’s even a growing Catholic niche within Contemporary Christian Music), and evangelicals are tinkering with the model of Catholic education in their own Christian schools. More substantively, many Catholics appreciate the straightforward earnestness of evangelical devotion, while evangelicals are beginning to appropriate the spiritual exercises and theological precision developed in the Catholic tradition. This is possible only because Catholics and evangelicals both have a rich love for Christ, and want it to get richer.

As a Protestant, David Hafvenstein likes the idea of the Pope, and the Church more broadly, as his servant, and I have to confess that as a Cath­ olic, I do too. There aren’t enough good teachers and pastors in the modern world for Protestants to ignore the Catholic Church; there aren’t enough good Christians in the world for the Church not to help all those who wish to follow Christ do so as best they can.

Pro–Life, Anti–Violence

James K. Fitzpatrick’s ingenuously titled “A Pro–Life Loss of Nerve?” (December 2000) utterly fails to address the central matter of the issue he raises, and substitutes instead a lame and self–contradictory thesis.

His first fourteen paragraphs make a chillingly accurate presentation of the arguments of the more articulate pro–life “shooters.” I would congratulate him did I not feel that in doing this much well while doing the rest poorly he is likely to inspire more simple–minded “shooters” to follow through on the logic of the argument. I say this having read a number of the things advocates of “pro–life violence” have published over the years and having corresponded at length with Paul Hill, who is on death row in Florida for a double murder outside an abortion clinic in 1994.

To argue that the principal reason very few of us in the pro–life cause have joined those militant ranks is because we believe “the Round Table has not yet been broken” is a great error. It is an error, first, because the metaphor is imprecise. It is also an error because the logical conclusion is that once we feel the vague attributes of a “broken Round Table” have been reached, it will become acceptable Christian ethics to shoot abortionists. Finally, it is an error because the reason the Christian does not advocate or practice shooting abortionists is grounded in biblical ethics, rather than some finger–in–the–breeze sense of the political or social climate.

Briefly put (and I have put it at book length in a long work on the subject, “Shattering the Image,” accessible at the website www.oakand­, the Christian does not shoot abortionists because to do so fits all the prerequisites by which the Bible defines murder, and allows for none of the biblical exceptions regarding taking human life.

Mr. Fitzpatrick refers to the infernal conspiracy between mother and abortionist. Given the distribution of labor (an unfortunate choice of words) I see between the mother and abortionist, neither of them is in fact a lawbreaker until the moment the procedure begins. The innocent third party cannot live apart from the one coconspirator, nor can he in any way defend himself against the other, yet there is no conceivable situation in which a fourth party could actually defend him without participating in cold–blooded murder—planning, carrying a weapon for the purpose, lying in wait, and carrying out the plan. This violates God’s command that it is not individual citizens, but the civil authority, that is responsible “for the punishment of evildoers” (1 Peter 2).

James H. Trott
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

James K. Fitzpatrick makes a thoughtful point about the tendency of pro–life advocates to treat those who engage in abortion as misinformed, errant neighbors rather than as murderers. There is, I think, another reason for this tendency: an unconscious recognition of the difficulty in empirically proving the claim that life begins precisely at conception. People may generally be unaware of the historical lack of agreement among the fathers of the Church on when the fetus possesses a soul, but they likely sense at some level of their mind that their pro–life stance is personally based more on passionate belief than on demonstrable fact. This underlying awareness possibly also contributes to their disinclination to treat those who participate in abortion as murderers.

William J. Scheick
Austin, Texas

If the various polls and surveys on the subject are even partially correct, there are millions of men and women who would unhesitatingly describe themselves as pro–life who also regularly use the contraceptive pill, which is known to act, at least some of the time, as an abortifacient. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s observation that the conceptus is not “self–evidently” a human person cuts both ways. These same couples know that all contraceptives have a real, albeit small, rate of failure and that the backup to failed contraception is abortion.

The real pro–life loss of nerve lies in our failure to unconditionally accept the gifts God is trying to give us.

Gerard S. Brungardt, M.D.
Wichita, Kansas

If ever a loss of pro–life nerve existed, I detect it at the critical moment where James K. Fitzpatrick, having eloquently laid out the status questionis, begins to justify his answer in the negative. Exactly the opposite answer is called for by his own reasoning. That requires not a resort to violence, but to nonviolent confrontation at the abortuaries. I contend that the best hope for staving off violent confrontation is nonviolent confrontation.

Mr. Fitzpatrick seems to say that the answer to today’s violence in the womb is persuasion and civil discourse leading to the eventual triumph of truth and justice. Is that the best we can do for the next baby being led to slaughter in the neighborhood abortuary? We can opt for ongoing civil discourse, but notice that the abortion industry does not wait to win us over before it starts the suction machines. It does not even regard us as civil and decent persons. We are the abortionists’ enemy and they proceed on that principle. Some discourse! The violence against the unborn is perpetrated by people who show up to kill and is unwittingly abetted by good people who do not show up to save—and rationalize why they need not since civil discourse will, like truth, eventually win out.

Pro–lifers: be at least as dedicated as those who kill. Show up to pray and to support the sidewalk counselors. You will get to see a mom here and there change her mind because of you. Months later when she returns with her newborn, you will get to hold the baby you helped save. There’s nothing to compare with it. You’ll be glad you did. And for those you don’t save, you’ve got friends in high places.

(The Rev.) Francis G. McCloskey
Hudson, New York

I thank James K. Fitzpatrick for his argument and insights. I am a Catholic African–American and pro–life. I believe that abortion and slavery differ only in when the action takes place: abortion in the womb, slavery from the moment of birth. In either case, a fetus or a slave is legally considered a nonperson, a subhuman. I believe doctors and mothers should be imprisoned for abortion. Murder is murder, period. Human life at every stage either carries a supreme value or it does not.

I am persuaded by Mr. Fitzpatrick to accept that violence may be urgent and necessary. However, I believe it is more critical for pro–lifers not to wait until violence becomes the only remedy. Pro–lifers should take action by getting more involved in the lives of young men and women so that they can be more effective in eliminating the relational and economic factors that lead to the resort to abortion.

Armed violence is always an action of war, necessary only when all creative efforts to make peace have failed. I don’t believe that is our situation . . . yet. But then every life is too valuable to wait for peaceful means to be exhausted. My ancestors knew that very well. So what do we do?

Daniel J. Johnson
Hainesville, Illinois

James K. Fitzpatrick argues that we extol as heroes those who tried to free prisoners at Auschwitz through violent means, whether or not they actually saved a life. But if I kill someone who might be trying to kill someone else, yet the third party dies anyway, is this morally equal to someone who tries to save lives through nonlethal means and succeeds? Mr. Fitzpatrick says that “we would not react patiently to a German who excused his reluctance to use force in 1942 to free concentration camp inmates if he argued that he was convinced at the time that he could do more good by working within the system to end Nazi control than by risking his own arrest and imprisonment in an armed strike to free a few dozen inmates scheduled for the gas chambers on a single morning.”

This statement is immorally equivocal. Pope Pius XII did not demand that people rise up in violence to stop the Nazis, yet many regard him as a hero because he and the Church were able to save 800,000 Jews through civil disobedience and cultural resistance. Ask yourself: Do you feel greater respect for a man who tried to free some people at Dachau by launching a suicide attack against several Nazi guards and failed, or for Oskar Schindler, who worked nonviolently to rescue victims of the Nazis? And can one state that the peaceful pro–life activists who have saved hundreds of thousands of children are less effective or morally inferior to a few terrorists who cannot with any certainty say they’ve saved a single life at all?

As to moral considerations, pro–lifers believe that taking a human life is wrong. In violating the rule of law by shooting a doctor who provides abortions, you are violating the moral law that you are claiming to uphold. A man is not an “abortionist,” he is a man, endowed by his Creator with inalienable rights and the dignity that we all possess by the simple fact that we are people, that we are created in His image. The doctor’s worth is more than one procedure he may or may not perform on any given day, and to deny him his dignity as a human being is to dehumanize him and trespass against the grace of God that we seek to live under and uphold. We do not have the right to take justice into our own hands: this is Caesar’s domain, and if Caesar’s law is wrong, in an open society we must oppose that law, not those who partake of its liberties.

The law is wrong, let no one be mistaken about that. But the law is wrong because abortion is wrong, and to that extent, we must be seeking to end abortion, not doctors’ lives. We can do this best through cultural resistance. This means prayer, exhortation, encouraging others not to get into compromising situations, and making sure that we ourselves do not either. This means, most importantly, aiding women who find themselves in the position of contemplating abortion.

That’s the front line of cultural resistance and Christian humanism: the response to the culture of death must be charity, love. I defy anyone to find an ounce of love in a bullet. And I defy anyone to explain to a doctor’s family—the next time one is gunned down at an abortion clinic—that the reason their husband or their father is dead is because someone decided that the Round Table was broken.

Roger Zalneraitis, Jr.
Crownsville, Maryland

James K. Fitzpatrick replies:

James H. Trott’s case hinges upon his assertion that “the Christian does not shoot abortionists because to do so fits all the prerequisites by which the Bible defines murder, and allows for none of the biblical exceptions regarding taking human life.” Key to this conclusion is his observation that the abortionist is not “a lawbreaker until the moment the procedure begins.” I do not agree that this qualification is crucial. This is why I used the example of anti–Nazi partisans planning an attack on a concentration camp the night before planned executions. There would be few objections from moral theologians to this use of physical force, meant to prevent murderers from completing their evil deed, even if the guerrillas did everything Mr. Trott objects to—“planning, carrying a weapon for the purpose, lying in wait, and carrying out the plan.” It would be of little consequence that the guards in question were not going to kill anyone until a few hours later than the planned attack against them. This is why I remain convinced that my application of C. S. Lewis’ “Round Table” metaphor is not “lame.” Pro–lifers are not willing to shoot abortionists because they do not see them, their nurses and office staff—and their patients—as comparably villainous to concentration camp guards. They are aware of the cultural forces that have led otherwise virtuous individuals into the pro–choice mentality. This leads to the current forbearance in respect to them.

I agree with William J. Scheik’s observation. It is the point I was trying to make when I wrote that “most pro–life activists would concede that the fetus, especially in the early stages of its development, is not self–evidently (I repeat: not self–evidently) a human person; that there very well may be an element of religious belief that informs their conviction that human life begins at the moment of conception.” It is this understanding that is at the root of their condemnation of the application of lethal force against abortionists.

I suspect that Dr. Brunghardt is correct, though I wish he were not. In fact, I would go farther. I suspect that there may be more “pro–life” Americans than we think who would not vote in private to actually end legalized abortion—that they have grown accustomed to the reality that abortion is there “just in case” something uncomfortable occurs in their lives in regard to an unwanted pregnancy.

I have no disagreement with Father McCloskey, and his disagreement with me centers on something he infers which I did not imply. I am not opposed in any way to nonviolent protests at abortion clinics. My focus was on why lethal violence is not appropriate against abortionists and their staffs, when it would be considered heroic to use force to save, for instance, infants under attack or to free concentration camp inmates.

Daniel J. Johnson writes that he was persuaded by me “to accept that violence may be urgent and necessary” to save the lives of the unborn. That was not my intent. My objective was to demonstrate why violence is not the appropriate response to legal abortions, in spite of the ugly reality of what takes place in an abortion—and in spite of the fact that the Church and society as a whole would approve of necessary violence to save the lives of toddlers facing death at the hands of a murderous assailant.

This is where I take issue with Roger Zalneraitis, Jr. While I agree that violence against abortionists cannot be condoned (for the reasons stated in my article), I cannot shrug off the troublesome paradoxes implicit in that stance as easily as he does. I insist that the Church would not condemn guerrilla action taken to free concentration camp inmates facing Nazi gas chambers, or the use of force by a civilian to stop killings such as those that took place at Columbine High School, or in a situation such as my example of a man killing infants in a nursery. Saying this, of course, does not demean in any way the efforts of Oskar Schindler. But I don’t think Schindler would have condemned a guerrilla strike against a concentration camp. Schindler’s approach and a guerrilla strike would not be mutually exclusive. Why would he think it immoral to try to save dozens of innocent victims—specific individual human beings about to be killed—because he was involved in a separate effort to save thousands of other men and women who were at risk of being rounded up and placed in those concentration camps?

The Jewish Moment

Thanks for Marc Gellman’s sermon, “Joe Lieberman as Rorschach Test” (December 2000). The December issue arrived the day I was scheduled to talk to a Newman Center group about “Catholic reading.” Rabbi Gellman’s idea of the “Judaectomy” that many Jews feel they must perform on themselves in order to participate in civic discourse rang true (mutatis mutandis) for these young Catholics, who understand that a certain unwritten code of etiquette requires them to check their faith at the door in order to be heard as intellectuals.

The aggressive, strangely obsessive secularization of civic discourse is mirrored in these young people’s intellectual formation. They document the phenomenon of the “Catholectomy” when they recall how they have found themselves saying, defensively, “I’m a Catholic, but I don’t think like one.” And their institutions encourage them in this mental self–mutilation.

I wonder if we could do a better job in the formation of Catholic thinkers—perhaps with Youth Education classes, perhaps in the Newman Centers—in preventing the assumption that the life of faith has to be compartmentalized away from all other mental activity, where it can have no real effect. I know of one program for young Catholics, and I doubt it’s unusual, where the typical activities consist of having them read bits of The Celestine Prophecy or watch a videotape of The Sixth Sense—activities that I now think amount to buying them duck decoys, in Rabbi Gellman’s unforgettable conceit. I suppose we’re working to increase their awareness of alternatives to a faith they’ve never really been encouraged to think of as intellectually challenging. The predictable result is that they conclude there’s something limited and parochial about their own tradition, and never see its rich, complex internal dynamics, or its systematic perspectives on matters outside what they’re accustomed to thinking of as “church.” They cut off an important part of themselves, and deprive the rest of us of what might yet make our public life something more than a scramble for goodies.

Adam Brooke Davis
Department of English
Truman State University
Kirksville, Missouri

Marc Gellman replies:

Thanks to Professor Davis for his letter. When I decided to preach about Joe Lieberman during last fall’s High Holidays, and at the beginning of the real campaign, I had no idea the election would come to such a judicially and socially convulsive end. Let me briefly share some of my own convulsive and random post–election reactions to Joe with post–election clarity.

I respect the cavils of those who thought I was too easy on Joe. To the group who see him as “all yarmulke, no torah” I must say that I too as a pro–life supporter grieve for the spiritual myopia of a man who obviously feels God commanding him not to drive on the Sabbath, but who cannot feel God commanding him to protect unborn life by outlawing late–term abortions that clearly violate Jewish law and values. I tried to give permission to those Jews who wanted to vote against him despite his Jewishness. I may have been too nuanced in this, and I must say that I am still unsure about the motives of those who opposed Joe. Was it truly his politics or was it a lingering anti–Jewishness seeking a more respectable cast?

My intention was not to defend Joe Lieberman’s Jewish shortcomings, but to honor along with all spiritually generous people the historically monumental moment of Joe Lieberman’s selection. In reflecting, I must say that I do not remember any great Catholic outburst of criticism against Jack Kennedy in 1960 because he was not a pure enough representative of Catholic teachings. So, I will not be bound by my political differences with Joe to cast off any pride or joy at his selection. I am happy and proud and it was time to say so. I just don’t know whether the anti–Joe folks who have kindly written to me are as sincerely concerned as they profess about the purity of his orthodoxy or, perhaps, whether they are struggling with a darker, more ignoble, concern.

I was, of course, saddened by the way religion talk virtually disappeared from Joe’s lips after the moving and heroic Nashville and Detroit speeches of the early campaign. Someone obviously muzzled his refreshing and once passionate religio–political passions. I also was dismayed at his financial courting of the very Hollywood moguls whose pornographic and violent products he had been denouncing for years. I was saddened to see him assent to the campaign to void military ballots, while demanding that every vote count. But I was reflecting on Sen. Lieberman, not St. Lieberman. Mostly, I wanted to make a passionate plea to Jews to stop fearing and bashing Christian conservatives when the first Jew on a national ticket was talking just like one of them. I wanted to produce a paean of thanks for a country that has not just let my people in, but has let my people lead.

And, a last note, to those who thought my comments on “duck decoy Jews” were degrading, insulting, and demeaning—I certainly hope so.

Is Social Justice Just?

Michael Novak (“Defining Social Justice,” December 2000) would have us accept a definition of “social justice” that totally disregards common usage. “We must,” he says, “rule out any use of ‘social justice’ that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals.” The notion that government is a means by which moral individuals can act collectively to help disadvantaged people has no place in his concept of “social justice.”

A definition of “social justice” taking common usage into account would include the outcome when government provides shelter for a person whose earning capacity is not sufficient to provide shelter for herself and her children. Mr. Novak can argue that it is unjust to coerce citizens to provide funds so that the mother and her children do not freeze in the street, but he is in lexicographical limbo when he tries to coopt a term that is used to describe programs in parishes and dioceses across the country that encourage governments to assist the disadvantaged.

Novak is overly clever in working his way to a questionable end result. He begins with a process of disassembly focusing on the word “social,” which, if applied generally, would require elimination of many terms of art including one of his favorite bogies, “command economy.” He then draws on his impressive intellect to forge an elaborate definition that suits his politics (and, in its complexity, reminds me of my days working with the Internal Revenue Code).

Exploration of divergent views of what is just and whether those views can be reconciled would have been a more worthy challenge for Mr. Novak.

John Wolf
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Common use of “social justice” may be a residue of Marxism in the same way that flabby nihilism is a residue of Nietzsche, but Catholics and Jews are not blameless in using the term over the years in North and South America in support of a vast range of ill–conceived central government policies. Mr. Novak provides a case to civilize the word and perhaps we cannot escape its use, but its history is not a happy one. Social justice was a favorite term of Latin American politicos of left, right, and center in recent generations and helped foster policies that in practice concentrated wealth, impoverished the countryside, flooded cities with rural immigrants, and retarded political and economic development.

Class war in this country is taking us in an analogous direction, and that term, social justice, is at the center. Would George W. Bush have felt compelled to call himself a compassionate conservative were not central government policies aimed at “social justice” widely perceived as genuine and compassionate? The assumption is that the loss of freedom involved in social policies is justified because such programs actually achieve their social objectives. However, we can say with some confidence that central government schemes aimed at social justice tend to undermine community, retard economic growth, and exacerbate the differences between the poor and the wealthy in this country just as they did in South America.

Social justice is socially unjust. Let’s find a better term.

John H. Penfold
Jackson, Wyoming
The God of the Philosopher

The God of the Philosopher

It is true that, as the theologians say, all things—even Adam’s and our sin—“tend” to God’s glory. That said, are we really going to agree with Edward T. Oakes (“Philosophy in an Old Key,” December 2000) that someone like Bryan Magee who refuses to love God with all his mind is, in the active, volitional sense of the term, giving glory to God? Does God really think that those who refuse to acknowledge His existence are giving Him glory? This sounds much more like the “vain and hollow philosophy” that decidedly does not give God glory but attempts to rob Him of it (Colossians 2:8).

At first blush, an agnostic seems to be more intellectually honest than either the atheist or the theist: the atheist claims to have such all–encompassing knowledge that he can state definitively that God does not exist. The agnostic seems more humble, acknowledging that his knowledge is not so exhaustive, and that God may in fact exist somewhere beyond the limits of his knowledge. But in fact, he is just as certain and committed as the atheist: whereas the atheist is absolutely certain that God does not exist, the agnostic is absolutely certain that God cannot be known with certainty. He has no good reason to believe this (he has to deny the activity of God in history that is recorded in Scripture, as well as the witness of creation); he simply believes it and then tries to justify it intellectually. He is using his agnostic posture to deny the knowledge of God that he in fact already possesses.

Contrary to what Magee states, he is actually very religious: he is religiously committed to God being unknown so that he can comfort himself with the “knowledge” that he might not have to answer to this God who is actually clearly revealed in the things that He has made (Romans 1:19–21).

Whereas the atheist has a firm faith commitment in the ontological/metaphysical realm, i.e., in relation to God’s existence, the agnostic has just as strong a faith commitment in the epistemological one, i.e., in relation to God’s knowability. Trinitarian theists need not fear either of them, and we should not be so humble before them. Instead, we should try to help them by showing them how foolish it is to use their minds to reject God rather than love Him. That would seem to me to be something that would bring glory to God.

Brian D. Nolder
Bangor, Maine

Edward T. Oakes’ delightful and insightful review of Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher makes me wish that Father Oakes will someday write a similar book on his own philosophical autobiography.

Your philosophical readers may be interested in two bits of anecdotal confirmation of items in the article, one about good atheists and one about bad secondary sources.

I too had the good fortune to study under Brand Blanshard at Yale, and I lament the passing of his species: the utterly honest, hard–headed, rationalist atheist. Contrary to his intent, he contributed powerfully to the development of my faith as well as my reason.

I presented a very inadequate and elementary paper on Aquinas’ view of faith and reason, and Blanshard revealed both his ignorance of Aquinas and his honesty when he reacted to it with great interest and even admitted that if what I said was correct he had “perhaps been mistaken all his life” about the impossibility of any synthesis between religious faith and philosophical reason. He was a Hegelian “absolute idealist,” and I still have his 185 careful comments on a 50–page epistemology paper of mine that defended “naïve realism,” the farthest possible position from his. His final comment: “This is a remarkably intelligent defense of a totally unintelligent position. I give it Highest Honors. I would give the same grade to the Charge of the Light Brigade.”

What I found most revealing in Magee’s account was the exposé of the dominance of secondary sources in fashionable scholarship.

The sad thing is not merely the irrelevance but the arrogance; the priority of secondary literature over primary becomes not merely a loss of data but a loss of innocence, even among undergraduates. I once taught a Great Books course to freshmen honor students at Boston College in which I tried to focus the class on exposing common misconceptions about the classics by going back to the data. For example, since they all thought the Middle Ages believed the universe was small and cozy, we read the passage in Ptolemy’s Almagest where he concludes that the universe is unimaginably vast, and calls the whole earth (which Eratosthenes had accurately measured as about 8,000 miles in diameter) a needle prick compared with the universe; and we read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which popularized this idea; and even a typical sermon that used the idea to show how great God was to have created such an enormous universe.

One other example: we read the Tawney–Weber thesis that Calvinism contributed to capitalism and the Puritan work ethic by its doctrine of predestination, since Calvinists were encouraged to work very hard so that their riches, as their just reward, would be evidence that they were the elect. So we went to the source and read Calvin himself. We found that he sounded like many another late–medieval moralist. He quotes Jesus about the dangers of money. The work ethic is there, but not to prove that you’re predestined, and certainly not to get rich. Rather, it’s to keep busy so the Devil doesn’t tempt you (and also so that you don’t become one of those Catholic contemplatives).

Came final exam time, I tested how well these testings of student prejudices by primary sources had taken hold. Unknown to my students, I assigned odd numbers to all the questions about these matters, which we had gone over in class. All even–numbered questions were about material we had not gone over in class but which they were responsible for picking up on their own, which I expected would be more difficult. But the class average on the even–numbered questions was an A. The class average of the odd questions was a D. “True or false: the Middle Ages believed the earth to be flat and the universe to be small.” “True or false: Calvin taught that riches assured you that you had been predestined to salvation.” Almost the entire class blithely marked both questions “true” even though we had exposed them in class. When I confronted them with this fact, they seemed confused. Pressed, a few said they could not believe I had been serious—either the test or the textual exposés in class must have been some kind of trick. One student said, “I went to Harvard for a year and all the books there said the Middle Ages thought the universe was small.” That’s the rubric: Harvard trumps Ptolemy.

Peter Kreeft
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

In his fine article Edward T. Oakes gives warm praise to Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. He then says that they had appointments at “Harvard, Princeton, and the Universities of Toronto and Chicago.” Alas, Chicago does not deserve to be included in that list. Although Professor Jerome Kerwin invited Maritain to give the Walgreen lectures (subsequently published as Man and the State) at the University, he received no appointment. Nor did Gilson. At that time the philosophy department was content to skip, with a few quick stops in between, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes. It had no sympathy with Thomism. It was left to other departments to impart matters favorable to Catholic philosophy.

Maritain did enjoy a long stay at Princeton, marred only by attacks launched against him and other distinguished faculty members in the mid–fifties by Father Hugh Halton, O.P., the Catholic chaplain. Among other charges, Fr. Halton said that Maritain had an “ability to coexist in a conspiracy of silence with intrinsically evil teaching.” In 1957 the board of trustees of the University withdrew its official recognition of Fr. Halton.

James Finn
New York, New York

Edward T. Oakes replies:

I thank James Finn not just for correcting my error but for the bit of Princeton history he added. My impression that Jacques Maritain had (at least a brief) stint at Chicago came not only from reading Man and the State but also from the enthusiasm for his work expressed by Robert Hutchins, its president at the time, as well as by Mortimer Adler.

I know well whereof Peter Kreeft speaks, and in fact have a rather guilty conscience about purveying some of the errors of the Received Wisdom myself from time to time until my further reading informed me how deceived I (and my hapless students) had been. But perhaps this is a good time to register a demurral against a too vigorous polemic against secondary literature. I say this not only because I have written my own quite secondary and entirely derivative work on Hans Urs von Balthasar (when faced with his greatness I feel no shame in “deriving” what I can), but also because I can recall works on major thinkers that have bracingly changed my outlook on them. I am thinking here of such works as Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness, Peter Berkowitz’s Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist, or for that matter Bryan Magee’s own monograph on Scho­ penhauer. Also, I think some major philosophers (Locke, for example) write prose so dry and sawdust–ridden that undergraduates might risk losing interest in philosophy altogether if primary sources proved to be their only diet. I don’t have a solution to the problem, except to hope that the much–touted “free marketplace of ideas” will drive out the errors (hence my gratitude for Mr. Finn’s correction). Unfortunately, Professor Kreeft’s anecdotes make me suspect that, on the contrary, Gresham’s Law rules—not just in the undergraduate classroom but, as Magee makes clear, in the faculty lounge.

Although Mr. Nolder might be reading more into my closing peroration in praise of Bryan Magee’s book (and life) than I had really intended, his reply raises interesting questions. If a blade of grass can give glory to God by its sheer existence, then the same must apply a fortiori to human beings, irrespective of their beliefs. Of course, those humans who strive in all their actions to do the will of God give, in the language of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “greater” glory to God. But would that also not apply across the board? Does not a philosophy like Plato’s or Aristotle’s give “greater” glory to God than the dreary atomism of Democritus or Lucretius? Of course, such an encomium implies that the theist (for whom such praise is alone meaningful) finds the work of Plato or Aristotle more amenable to his life of belief than the alternative on offer in Greek and Roman antiquity.

What most impressed me about Magee’s book (and life, insofar as it was revealed in the book) was his consistent honesty in pursuing the issues of perennial philosophy as far as his own hesitant agnosticism would take him. Nietzsche speaks in one of his more scathing passages of professors as “smoking heads” who use scholarship as a narcotic: “The proficiency of our finest scholars, their heedless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship—how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself.” I praised Magee’s life precisely because he stands as an exception to that indictment; and for that reason I think he is much more religious, in the proper sense of the word, than Mr. Nolder seems to allow.

The Uses of the Liberal Arts

It is hard to raise sufficient polemical steam over what many may consider a nice distinction, but Peter J. Leithart’s “For Useless Learning” (November 2000) embodies such a peculiarly evangelical (i.e., skewed) approach to the arts and learning that I could not let it pass without comment.

What Professor Leithart attempts in the first half of his article—to demonstrate that the liberal arts are, in essence, useless and that this essential uselessness is the very quality that makes their study and practice worthy—he undermines in the second. Wanting to shun the constraints of popular utilitarianism, that most Protestant of impulses to explain worth in terms of use and use in terms of personal advancement, Prof. Leithart nevertheless succumbs to the very error he wishes to avoid. True, we do not read poetry because it is economically or politically useful, but does it follow that poetry’s worth is that it helps us “to read Psalms and Proverbs with understanding”?

Are science and philosophy truly indulged because they “provoke wonder at God’s creation,” the study of music pursued “so that we can offer a sacrifice of praise,” languages taught “so that students can gain a more accurate grasp of the Word”? This is the utilitarian principle at its evangelical best: evaluating and explaining learning and the arts in terms of their personal usefulness, in particular, in terms of what they do for an individual’s personal piety. This is the liberal arts as a morning quiet time.

There is no need to deny that the liberal arts may have these uses—I believe they do—but such uses do not define, as Prof. Leithart asserts, an authentic Christian education. Mark Noll once observed that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn’t any, and it is my conviction, as one who grew up in the evangelical world, that such a scandal exists primarily because evangelicals have defined learning and the arts by the same utilitarian purposes outlined by Prof. Leithart. Now the scandal will not be erased by retreating to a philosophy of art for art’s sake, learning for the sake of learning, a uselessness sufficient unto itself. At best this is intellectual misdirection, at worst it’s idolatry. But a true Christian education must begin with the understanding that the objects of liberal studies are worthy in themselves, in their unique being; worthy, not as an end in themselves, but because they fill their proper place in God’s cosmos.

The goal of Christian education should be to bring the student into an encounter with the incarnational truth and power of the poem, the novel, the painting, the sonata, the scientific treatise. These human artifacts do not just tell us about our situation, they mediate it. They are forms of knowing and of participation and, as such, never ceasing to be what they are and because of what they are, they carry the possibility of mediating the Divine, sacramentally manifesting and communicating God’s presence—or not, which also is a form of knowing.

Lee A. Steven
Fredericksburg, Virginia

Peter J. Leithart replies:

If I read him right, Mr. Steven disagrees with me less than he thinks. Nowhere in my article do I say or imply that the liberal arts are to be evaluated by “what they do for an individual’s personal piety.” I certainly do not believe in any sort of dichotomy of nature and supernature, and the inspiration behind the article was less evangelical than Augustinian (“plundering the Egyptians” and all that). My list of the “uses” of liberal studies was not intended as exhaustive, but was a set of gestures, clumsy ones perhaps, toward the conclusion (explicitly stated in the article) that “liberal studies can be shaped into instruments of worship.” This does not seem too distant from Mr. Steven’s sacramental understanding of the liberal arts as means for “communicating God’s Presence.”

The Better Part of Valor

In While We’re At It (December 2000), Richard John Neuhaus criticizes the Bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana, for giving in to pressure from black parents to remove the writings of Flannery O’Connor from a high school reading list because of the use of the “n” word. I don’t know any bishops, but from what I’ve read their problems are mostly administrative, not spiritual. As one who once made his living as an administrator, I empathize with them.

The Bishop of Lafayette seems to have been thrust into a situation wherein his choice was to be accused either of being a “racist” or of “un–Christian cowardice.” The man was responsible for a diocese, not just a school, and he did the right thing. The Bishop could have tried explaining to the “ballistic” parents why they were wrong to feel offended. But that’s the problem: their anger reflected feelings, not thinking.

That the students will not be introduced to Flannery O’Connor (or Mark Twain or Harper Lee or Stephen Benet or Joseph Conrad, or anybody else who ever used the “n” word) is a culture war casualty.

John N. Buckley
West Des Moines, Iowa

A Charitable Misreading?

Richard John Neuhaus asks after reading Jacques Barzun’s new book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, “Where does Jacques Barzun stand?” (“What Jacques Barzun Believes, Maybe,” Public Square, December 2000) He finds no personal credo in Barzun’s new book. “Answers are elusive,” says Father Neuhaus, “for Barzun is sometimes coy, and he tries always to describe sympathetically intellectual and cultural movements of the most maddening diversity.”

Fr. Neuhaus wants to know what Barzun’s “anchor” is as he sorts through the “maddening diversity” of ideas presented in his new book. He finds a clue in Barzun’s comment that “the current submission to the absurd is a taking within life, not outside it.” Fr. Neuhaus wonders if Barzun’s appeal to what is “outside life” might be a belief in some incipient form of monotheism. He hopes Barzun will tell us if this is so “in his next book.”

Well, we need not wait. In his popular book A Stroll With William James (1983), Barzun movingly confesses his polytheistic creed:

In my time of crisis (if that is the right name for the devastation of a child’s richly peopled world during the war of 1914) death superabundant and the rest of life endlessly disordered induced at last a suicidal state and swept away all but the verbalisms of the creed trustingly learned earlier. But having become “twice born” in the James­ ian sense and gained self–acceptance “through altered powers of action,” I found with it the germ of an affinity with a multiple, unorganized transcendence. I am to this extent a Nietzsche–Shaw–James kind of believer; that is, persuaded of the manifold divine. I feel myself obedient to “spirit,” knowing that from it alone come the things that justify life—things, in Nietzsche’s words, “transfiguring, exquisite, mad, and divine.” Polytheism (which this is) has always been, as James points out, “the real religion of common people”; it was also that of the heads of the old church when they were not theologians. . . . By contrast, the single, all–powerful God, founder and efficient executive of the universe, has for me the thinness of abstraction. And when its faint outline is partly filled with liturgy and prayer, it seems to me the mirror–image of monarchy, calling for servility and praise too fulsome to be sincere, which . . . is coupled with the unedifying morality of a stockbroker, who denies himself on earth so as to invest in heavenly options.

It seems that Fr. Neuhaus was misled by those lingering verbalisms from Barzun’s childhood faith that still are around in even his latest masterpiece. Fr. Neuhaus apparently also erred in supposing that the diversity of Barzun’s hefty new volume was maddening. Being a polytheist, Barzun apparently found that buzzing multiplicity rather to be salutary. So he concludes that “the mystery in things remains overwhelming enough without extending it to what is offered as explanation,” viz., “that divinity is ineffable Being.”

(The Rev.) Ronald F. Marshall
First Lutheran Church
of West Seattle
Seattle, Washington

RJN replies:

Pastor Marshall may be right. But that was 1983 and maybe Mr. Barzun has given these matters better thought since then. That is what I tentatively inferred from his latest book, but then my besetting fault is to err on the side of charity.