Copyright (c) 2002 First Things 121 March 2002): 68-88.
I don’t know how many of our subscribers are Orthodox Christians. But from those who are, we get frequent complaints that insufficient attention is paid that very large part of the Christian world. So here goes. The occasion is a remarkable address by Professor John H. Erickson of St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, New York, delivered at the National Workshop on Christian Unity, which met last year in San Diego, California. Erickson reports that in 1990 he opined, “The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and with it, communism. With it also fell ecumenism as we have known it.”
The last decade, he believes, has only reinforced that judgment. The Orthodox churches of Georgia and Bulgaria have withdrawn from the World Council of Churches (WCC), and other churches are under pressure to withdraw. In 1997 at Georgetown University, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of Orthodoxy as being “ontologically different” from other churches. This is sometimes referred to as the “friends, brothers, heretics” speech. Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow remains adamantly opposed to the Pope’s visiting Russia, and his other visits have met with a very mixed reception. At St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai joint prayer was carefully avoided; in Jerusalem Patriarch Diodorus made a point of noting that he had not prayed with the Pope. (But note that, as of this writing, there are signals that the Russian Church may be weakening in its opposition to a papal visit.)
Is it the case, as Samuel (Clash of Civilizations) Huntington has said, that ecumenism was a Cold War phenomenon that has given way to the stark division between the “West” and the “Orthodox” civilization of Russia and the Balkans? Erickson writes: “Some alarming questions arise. If the Orthodox mental world is so radically different from that of the West, what implications does this have for ecumenical relations, whether globally or here in North America? What implications does this have for people like me, who call themselves Orthodox Christians and belong to Orthodox churches, but who certainly are not only in the West but also in many respects of the West? From personal experience, I can tell you that the authenticity of our Orthodoxy increasingly is being questioned, both from abroad and here as well. And another, more far–reaching question also arises: Is ecumenism—like liberal democracy and for that matter communism—in fact simply a product of the West, one of its many ideologies, whose universal claims and aspirations will inevitably fail in the emerging world order, now that Western hegemony can no longer be taken for granted, now that the legitimating myths of the Enlightenment have lost their persuasive power?”
Already in the nineteenth century, some Orthodox reached out ecumenically, mainly to Anglicans and Old Catholics. Orthodox theologians were significantly involved in Faith and Order during the interwar period. When the WCC was formed in 1948, the Soviet regime required Orthodox leaders to condemn it as part of a Western plot, but that changed dramatically in 1961. “At the New Delhi assembly of the WCC in 1961, the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe joined the WCC en masse. Their membership was advantageous for all concerned. In various ways Orthodox membership made the WCC itself more ‘ecumenical,’ more global, more sympathetic to the diversity of situations in which Christians struggle in their witness to the gospel. At the same time, membership gave the Orthodox churches in question an opportunity to be seen in the West and gain contacts in the West, thus also raising their status back home. And the price seemed negligible. The WCC itself from the 1960s onward was becoming ever more concerned about issues like racism, liberation, and economic justice; it was especially sensitive to the strivings of churches and peoples of what was then the ‘third world.’ The Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe could express concern about such issues with little risk of running afoul of the Communist authorities back home—and indeed they might benefit by contributing in this way to building up a good image for the Socialist states, and possibly even a cadre of fellow travelers.”
At Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church became ecumenically assertive; soon mutual anathemas between East and West were consigned to the memory hole and a “dialogue of love” was proclaimed. With both Catholics and the WCC, the Orthodox produced promising ecumenical statements. “But on the Orthodox side at least,” says Erickson, “this ecumenism remained at the level of professional theologians and high Church dignitaries. For the faithful in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, ecumenism brought little more than the occasional photo of the Pope greeting a prominent hierarch, or of a long row of Orthodox bishops, all with their black klobuks and jeweled panaghias and crosses, seated prominently in a WCC assembly.”
Moreover, the dialogue of love had to cope with what the Orthodox call “uniatism.” “Uniate” or “Eastern Catholic” refers, of course, to those Christians in the East who retained their liturgy and other practices while entering into full communion with Rome, beginning with the Union of Brest in 1596. “Uniate” is a term that is eschewed in polite ecumenical discourse today, but the Orthodox have a long history of resentment against what they view as Catholic poachers on their ecclesiastical turf. Erickson: “Given this troubled history, it is understandable why the Orthodox churches have viewed ‘uniatism’ as a sign of Catholic hostility towards them, as an attempt to subvert them by dividing brother from brother, and as implicit denial of their own ecclesial status. And of course it is also understandable why Eastern Catholics have resented the Orthodox for their complacent acquiescence in the suppression of the Eastern Catholic churches following World War II.” He continues: “The term ‘uniate’ itself, once used with pride in the Roman communion, had long since come to be considered as pejorative. ‘Eastern Rite Catholic’ also was no longer in vogue because it might suggest that the Catholics in question differed from Latins only in the externals of worship. The council affirmed rather that Eastern Catholics constituted churches, whose vocation was to provide a bridge to the separated churches of the East. But if, as subsequent dialogue was emphasizing, the Orthodox churches themselves are truly ‘sister churches,’ already nearly at the point of full communion with the Roman Church, what rationale—apart from purely pastoral concern for Christians who might otherwise feel alienated and possibly betrayed—can there be for the continued existence of such ‘bridge churches’?”
Animus is exacerbated by the demand of Eastern Catholics that their property, expropriated by Stalin and given to the Orthodox, be returned. The demand that all property be returned (restitutio in integrum) is, says Erickson, unreasonable, at least in some cases, because of demographic and other changes over the years. Then there is the matter of “proselytism.” Not only Catholics but armies of Protestant evangelizers, mainly backed by the religious groups in the U.S., are, claim the Orthodox, failing to recognize that there is an indigenous Christianity in Russia and Eastern Europe. In what Erickson calls “ecumenism as we knew it,” the Orthodox acknowledged that, while Orthodoxy actualizes the one true Church, there was a possibility of dialogue with other churches aiming at greater unity and fuller communion. Erickson writes: “But not all Orthodox would agree with these assumptions. Some would take Orthodox claims to be the one true Church in an exclusive rather than an inclusive sense, so that outside the canonical limits of the Orthodox Church as we currently perceive them there is simply undifferentiated darkness, in which the Pope is no better than a witch doctor. How are we to evaluate these conflicting views? The exclusive view today claims to represent true Orthodoxy, traditional Orthodoxy. In fact—as I could argue at greater length—this ‘traditionalist’ view is a relatively recent phenomenon, basically an eighteenth–century reaction to the equally exclusive claims advanced by the Roman Catholic Church in that period. Nevertheless this view has gained wide currency over the last decade.”
So who is pushing this very untraditional traditionalism? “What is important to note is that those most committed to the ‘traditionalism’ they preach are not pious old ethnics and émigrés but more often zealous converts to Orthodoxy. Like Western converts to Buddhism and other more or less exotic religions (New Age, Native American . . . ), these converts are attracted by their new faith’s spirituality, which seems so unlike what the West today has to offer. They also are especially quick to adopt those elements which they deem most distinctive, most anti–Western, about their new faith—not just prayer ropes and headcoverings but also an exclusive, sectarian view of the Church that in fact is quite at odds with historic Orthodoxy. Superficially their message, proclaimed on numerous websites, may seem to be at one with that of the established, ‘canonical’ Orthodox churches—at one with some of the statements of Patriarch Bartholomew or the Russian Orthodox Church, which, as we have seen, have been critical of the WCC and the Vatican. But in fact their message is different, even radically different. Their message, in my opinion, is more a product of the late–modern or postmodern West than an expression of historic Eastern Christianity. According to them, any participation in or involvement with the WCC or similar bodies represents a capitulation to the panheresy of ecumenism; Orthodoxy’s claim to be the one true Church is relativized, a ‘branch theory’ of the Church is tacitly accepted, and church canons against prayer with heretics are repeatedly violated in practice and in principle.”
During centuries of polemics, Rome tended to present itself as “the Universal Church,” and the only thing for others to do was to come home to Rome. In an earlier time, East and West recognized one another as “sister churches,” and that understanding, especially on the part of Rome, is making a comeback, most notably with the pontificate of John Paul II. Erickson writes: “Significantly, the expression ‘sister church’ did not cease to be used for the Western Church even after full eucharistic communion ended. For example, in 1948 Patriarch Alexei I of Moscow—certainly no great friend of the Roman Catholic Church—nevertheless could refer to it as a ‘sister church.’ What is remarkable about the use of the expression since 1963, when Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI reintroduced it into modern Orthodox–Roman Catholic dialogue, is not that the Orthodox should use it with reference to the Roman Church but that Rome should use it with reference to the Orthodox churches. While the precise significance and practical implications of the expression have not been fully explored—it is not, after all, a technical term in canon law—it must be acknowledged that its use by modern popes represents a remarkable breakthrough in Orthodox–Catholic relations.”
It is precisely that breakthrough that alarms the untraditional traditionalists in Orthodoxy. Many of them, Erickson notes, are drawing their polemical ammunition from apocalyptic Protestant “Bible prophecy” sources on the Internet and elsewhere. Traditionalist Orthodox employ these sources to depict everything from the New World Order and the use of contraceptives and implanted microchips to the papal “Antichrist” as signs of the final catastrophe from which their version of Orthodoxy is the only refuge. This accent on the Orthodox difference, Erickson says, has undermined ecumenism “as we knew it.” “The modern self–confidence which gave rise to the ecumenical movement in the first place—confidence in the possibility of reaching agreement and achieving unity through dialogue, common reflection, and common action—has given way to postmodern self–doubt. We are in the midst of a radical decentering in which many new voices are clamoring for recognition—and on the religious scene this means not only traditionalists and fundamentalists but also contextual theologies of many sorts. In principle this decentering should help us appreciate diversity and facilitate dialogue. But this does not seem to be happening. Instead we seem to be entering the age of the parallel monologue. What counts are my own people, my own tradition, my own group, my own orientation. Those formed by other contexts may be tolerated or even honored with faint words of praise, but they are, as it were, ‘ontologically different’ (to quote Patriarch Bartholomew’s Georgetown speech once again). They are, for me, spiritually empty. No solid basis exists for dialogue, communication, and communion.”
What has happened to Orthodoxy and ecumenism is, of course, taking place within a cultural milieu in which all differences are fundamental, and fundamental differences are assumed to be insurmountable. Erickson reports, “Recently I was speaking to a Serbian Orthodox student from Bosnia Herzegovina. He kept insisting, ‘You here in the West just do not understand our situation.’ He really was saying, ‘You cannot understand our situation—so uniquely painful is it. You—in your very different situation—are incapable of understanding our situation.’ These days many people are saying much the same thing: women, gays, people of color, the poor, those marginalized in various ways, and even white males of the West whose position in the world now seems threatened. We are all tempted to say, ‘I am situated within a unique interpretive community. I have no need for dialogue with you or anyone else. Indeed, no basis exists for dialogue with you.’”
Erickson’s conclusion offers nought for our comfort: “We may still be convinced of the desirability of Christian unity. We may even be convinced of the need for Christian unity. But how convinced are we of the possibility of Christian unity? How many of us really believe that in Christ, crucified and risen, it is possible for us to overcome division, to understand each other’s situation, to make each other’s pain and joy our own? These are the some of the questions that face each of us involved in the ecumenical movement today.”
Erickson’s essay is remarkably candid and more than bracing. It goes a long way to explain the nonresponse, indeed hostility, of the Russian Church and others to the unprecedented initiatives of John Paul II. In the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One), the Pope invited others to join in rethinking the function of the papal office itself, suggesting that reconciliation is more important than questions of jurisdiction. As one Orthodox theologian told me, “We’ve been waiting a thousand years for a pope to say what he is saying. Now this Pope has said it, and we act as though nothing has happened.”
It is safe to say that the dearest hope of this Pope for his pontificate has been ecclesial reconciliation with the Orthodox, so that, as he has often put it, “the Church may again breathe with both lungs, East and West.” It is also safe to say that such reconciliation will not happen on his watch. That is very sad. We must hope, however, that the initiatives taken since the Second Vatican Council (and there have also been constructive initiatives from the Orthodox side), combined with a revival of an authentically traditional ecclesiology among the Orthodox, will in the years to come move us beyond “ecumenism as we have known it,” and beyond “parallel monologues,” to the fulfillment of Our Lord’s prayer, Ut unum sint. For all the reasons that Prof. Erickson discusses, that seems at present to be a wan hope. But then, we Christians were long ago given our instructions, and warned that we would have to walk by faith and not by sight.
“A bioethicist is to ethics what a whore is to sex.” That judgment by a friend who was once viewed as a pioneer of bioethics may seem somewhat harsh, but it is not entirely off the mark. This really happened: Some years ago I was on a panel at the big annual economic conference in Davos, Switzerland. Also on the panel was Nobel Laureate James Watson, then head of the Human Genome Project. I and a few others—well, I think it was one other—were pressing moral questions about the technological manipulation of human nature. Impatient with that line of inquiry, Dr. Watson—who seems not only to subscribe to but to devoutly celebrate what Jacques Ellul called the Technological Imperative—explained that nobody should worry about the morality of what they were doing since the project had allocated millions of additional dollars “to get the best ethicists that money can buy.”
A number of publications have in recent months raised sharp questions about the biotech industry and its connections with the sub–industry of bioethics. For the most part, bioethicists are in the business of issuing permission slips for whatever the technicians want to do. After all, they are in their pay. Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics and perhaps the most quoted bioethicist in the business, thinks that criticism is unfair. He says that possible conflicts of interest can be “managed.” He funnels money from companies such as Pfizer, DuPont, and Celera into his center, and says he is amazed by colleagues who suggest that bioethicists should do pro bono work for wealthy corporations. Why do it free when they’ll pay good money for it? U.S. News & World Report says that the biomedical industry is pouring millions into bioethics centers, and rewarding academic bioethicists with stock options worth many thousands of dollars. The same ethicists are quoted daily in the media, testify in Congress, and generally assure the public that there’s nothing to worry about so long as scientific innovations are accompanied by appropriate expressions of concern by professional handwringers. “It’s an odd development,” says U.S. News, “for a profession that has no formal education or licensing requirements.”
Wesley J. Smith is author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. He writes, “The bioethicists have set themselves up, almost like Napoleon crowning himself emperor, as the arbiters of what is moral and ethical in health care.” Daniel Callahan is cofounder of the Hastings Center, an institution that laid the groundwork for bioethics back in the sixties. “This is a semi–scandalous situation for my field,” he says. “These companies are smart enough to know that there are a variety of views on these subjects, and with a little bit of asking or shopping around you can find a group that will be congenial to what you are doing.” Carl Elliott, who succeeded Arthur Caplan at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, says, “Personally, it seems too much like bribery. If it’s not bribery, it becomes the perception of bribery.” Caplan, on the other hand, says that apparent conflicts of interest are comparable to the problems of magazines that accept paid advertising. The main problem with corporate money in bioethics, he says, is that there’s not enough of it. Eli Lilly stopped funding the Hastings Center when its publication criticized Prozac, a Lilly product.
“There’s a risk that this kind of funding could reduce the critical edge of the field,” says Dartmouth’s Ronald Green, who chairs the ethics board at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). ACT knows all about the cutting edge, having been at the center of recent “breakthroughs” in human cloning. As does Professor Green, who, in his extensive writing, has “redefined” death, birth, life, and the meaning of the universe, among other things. Like Prof. Caplan, he recognizes that there is a risk, but is sure it can be managed. He has, by his lights, managed very successfully. Minnesota’s Carl Elliott says the big danger is not that bioethicists get rich from companies but that they are, whether they know it or not, used. “Bioethics boards look like watchdogs,” he says, “but they are used like show dogs.”
Nigel Cameron, a bioethicist working with Charles Colson’s Wilberforce Forum, notes that bioethics is not what one would ordinarily call a discipline or profession. “Most bioethicists don’t train in bioethics. They move sideways from other disciplines—law, theology, medicine, philosophy.” The field is “perfectly designed to be the midwife for the birth of a whole posthuman future.” He notes that ethics as ordinarily understood—classical ethics, if you will—works from rules or principles to guide moral judgment. “Bioethics doesn’t like being locked into any kind of framework that would involve predictability. From a Christian or traditional perspective, it isn’t ethics at all, but uses items from the ethics toolbox so it can do what it wants in any situation.” William Saletan, a writer for the online magazine Slate, sums it up: “The slickest way to make yourself look ethical is to narrow the definition of ethics so that it won’t interfere with what you want to do. But that won’t make you ethical. It’ll just make you an ethicist.”
So what is to be done? Certainly biomedicine and biotechnology call for the most careful moral scrutiny. But whose scrutiny is to be trusted? Nobody comes to these questions, or any questions of importance, with a value–free or value–neutral perspective. But some are free of clear conflicts of interest, unlike the ethical pipers who sing the tunes of the companies that pay them. Their promiscuously issued permission slips would license almost anything, and the slips are typically accompanied by promissory notes that this innovation or that will lead to a cure for everything from Alzheimer’s and cancer to the heartbreak of psoriasis. Such promises are powerfully appealing, including, as proposed at a recent University of Pennsylvania conference, the promise of immortality.
Never mind that extravagant promissory notes have been issued for decades and are almost never redeemed. Those at the cutting edge assure us that the decisive breakthrough is just on the other side of the line that it was previously forbidden to cross. The biotech industry is driven by scientific curiosity, no doubt, but most importantly by the prospect of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. How many people of great means would be willing to pay how much for an extra ten, twenty, maybe fifty years of life? How much for the promise of immortality? And what moral lines would they, and those who make such promises, not be prepared to cross?
In real ethics, there are some things that must never be done. Bioethics is “procedural.” Where it can, it leaps ahead, and where it cannot, it inches ahead, enticed onward by the question, Why not? If it can be done it should be done, or in any event it will be done, and, if it will be done, why not by us rather than by the competition? This is ethical reasoning of a very low order. There is no sure way of protecting society against it. But we might begin by asking the experts who advocate the crossing of the next moral line, What’s in it for you? (See While We’re At It, p. 80, for related news about the President’s Council on Bioethics.)
It has been a while since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus) in September 2000, but the ecumenical bruises still show. In the general media, most of the headlines were variations on “Rome Says Catholicism is Only True Church.” I discussed and defended Dominus Iesus in these pages (see “To Say Jesus is Lord,” November 2000), and also noted that it was welcomed by some Protestants as a clear affirmation of core Christian doctrines. At the same time, and in retrospect, it is evident that some misunderstandings might have been avoided. Father Jared Wicks of the Gregorian University in Rome writes in Ecumenical Trends that the document needs to be read alongside the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One). “It is not the case,” says the encyclical, “that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is an ecclesial vacuum.” Elements of God’s justifying and sanctifying grace are to be found there, and “To the extent that these elements are found in the other Christian Communities, the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them.” There can be only one Church of Christ because there is only one Christ, and the Church is, according to the New Testament, his body. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council is that that one Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church does not exhaust the reality of the one Church of Christ.
Fr. Wicks puts the crucial point this way: “In order to be heard more clearly by members of the other Christian Churches and communities, Catholic ecumenists can well make explicit something not said in Dominus Iesus. This is that being or not being ‘Church in the proper sense’ stands in the realm of the sacramental and structural expression of ecclesiality and mediation of salvation in the world. Here, the others know well our Catholic convictions, both those concerning fullness of mediatory means in our Church, however imperfectly we are actually formed and sanctified by them, and those about the defectus (flaws, lacks) found in their mediatory structures and sacraments. But the mediations of sanctification in Christ which the ecclesial communities do cherish and actualize, as in baptism, proclamation of the gospel of salvation, etc., do not mediate to them a defective justification and salvation. Using sacramental terminology, the res tantum is given whole and entire, namely, union with Christ, life in the Spirit, and access to the Father.”
I am regularly asked why, if the Catholic Church teaches that it is not necessary to salvation, one should become a Catholic. There are many possible responses to that question. The Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations), says that if one believes that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, then one is bound in conscience to enter into and remain in full communion with her. In other words, it is then a matter of salvation. The Catholic Church may be defined as the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Since to be a Christian means living in obedience to Christ, and since Christ instituted the apostolic ordering of his Church as it is to be found uniquely in the Catholic Church, it follows that obedience to Christ entails being and remaining in full communion with the Catholic Church. It also follows that not being in full communion is disobedience to Christ. If, that is, one believes that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be.
As I say, there are many other possible, and important, answers to the question why one should be a Catholic, but that is the one that goes to the heart of the matter. Let me anticipate another frequently asked question, Why not Orthodoxy? The communion between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church is so close that it might be said that the only thing that is lacking for full communion is full communion. But, if one believes that Christ’s institution of his one Church includes the Petrine Ministry, then it follows that it is necessary to be in full communion with the bishops, the successors of the apostles, who are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter. If one believes none of these things, there may be other good reasons for becoming a Catholic, but it would seem that they are not binding in conscience. Of course, one is bound in conscience to try to discern whether these things are true, and to act on the truth that one is able to discern.
Now I have gone quite beyond Fr. Wicks’ helpful clarification of Dominus Iesus. And the twists and turns, the eccentric starts and stops, the dead–ends and disturbing discoveries in following the Spirit’s lead are not so neatly logical or doctrinally deductive as my brief response may suggest. As with any life–defining decision, it is also the case that the heart has its reasons of which reason does not know. But this is intended as no more than a brief response to questions often asked—questions that are not, you will perhaps agree, unrelated to Dominus Iesus, to what it means to say that Jesus is Lord.
It hardly seems possible that I have been reading Anthony Lewis for thirty–two years. In fact, I haven’t been. I stopped reading him regularly about twenty years ago. True, doing my morning penance with the New York Times, I would glance at his column to see what had set off today’s snit, and sometimes I would even read the column, merely to confirm that, once you knew the occasion for his unhappiness, you knew what he would say without reading the column. But here is the final column, “Hail and Farewell,” and I felt I owed the man a last read. “As I look back at those turbulent decades,” he writes, “I see a time of challenge to a basic tenet of modern society: faith in reason.” Tony Lewis, we are given to understand, has been, over all these years, the champion of faith in reason.
Now the challenge to his faith, he says, comes from religious “fundamentalism”—not only of the Muslim variety but also in the form of “fundamentalist Christians, believing that the Bible’s story of creation is the literal truth.” Drop the Muslim reference, and the column might almost have been written in the 1920s at the height of the modernist–fundamentalist controversy. In terms of ideas, not much has happened in Tony Lewis’ world. He seems quite unaware of postmodernism’s perspectivisms, historicisms, and anti–foundationalisms that are today’s chief intellectual challengers to his understanding of reason. Those whom Lewis calls fundamentalists even question “the scientific method that has made contemporary civilization possible.” Richard Rorty, call your office.
Lewis then shifts to the American Founders, who, he says, “put their faith not in men but in law, the law of the Constitution.” So it is not men who had faith in reason but “law and the Constitution [that] have kept America whole and free.” Except, of course, for the Sedition Act of 1798, the internment of Japanese–Americans in World War II, and the “fear of communism [that] brought the abuses of McCarthyism.” Tony Lewis, let it be said, never suffered from the fear of communism. For him, the Great Terror has always been the threat of American fascism, against which he postured himself and his corporate employer, the Times, as brave dissidents in the fight for intellectual freedom. He concludes his farewell with this: “In the end I believe that faith in reason will prevail. But it will not happen automatically. Freedom under law is hard work,” and so forth. Well, you can see why, over all those years, one felt no qualms about skipping the column.
In the following Sunday’s issue there was an extended interview with Lewis on what he had learned during his thirty–two years of explaining the world to the readers of the Times. The gist of it is that way back then he had thought that, after the Holocaust, people had learned that evil was a very bad thing, but very bad things are still happening, and it has shaken his faith that history is the story of human progress. With such hard–earned wisdom, and a little more attentiveness to ideas that have appeared on the scene since his discovery of the dangers of those who “question Darwin,” it seems that Tony Lewis might at long last be prepared to write a column for a paper so influential as the Times. Yet Lewis is not sure. His, we are given to understand, is the mode of honest and therefore tentative inquiry. He says in the interview, “Certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.” Presumably he is not sure that he is right about the exactness of the moral equivalence between the terrorist murderer and the attorney general.
The Times is distinctive, although not necessarily in the way its editors may think. The editorials and op–ed page of the Times are monothematically left–liberal. Among its columnists, there is not one centrist or conservative. Yes, William Safire is sometimes called a conservative, but he is a self–described libertarian. On the social and moral questions that most importantly define our politics, the voices of the Times are univocally on the left. The Washington Post, by way of contrast, is editorially much less strident, and has regular columnists such as George F. Will, Michael Kelly, and Charles Krauthammer. This makes the opinion pages of the Post considerably more interesting. It is a liberal paper that knows it must engage opposing arguments. The Times, on the other hand, is a smug and self–contained world, run by people who seem truly to believe that not only do they publish all the news fit to print but also all the views fit to print, and that what they publish defines what is fit.
“In the end I believe that faith in reason will prevail,” writes Tony Lewis in his farewell column. As with the paper of which he was quintessentially part, almost never in all those years was there a hint of intellectual curiosity about whether there might be a difference—or even an at least theoretical distinction—between his habits of opinion and the conclusions mandated by reason. To a reflexively left–liberal readership, Mr. Lewis provided a regular checklist of what reasonable people thought. For them, it must have made his column a comfort, a kind of intellectual security blanket, during what he calls those turbulent decades. For others of us, it was a good enough reason for skipping his part of the daily penance that is reading the Times.
The story is told of St. Philip Neri (1515–1595) that he gave a most unusual penance to a novice who was guilty of spreading malicious gossip. He told him to take a feather pillow to the top of a church tower on a blustery day and there release all the feathers to the wind. Then he was to come down from the tower, collect all the feathers dispersed over the far countryside, and put them back into the pillow. Of course the poor novice couldn’t do it, and that was precisely Philip’s point about the great evil of tale bearing. Slander and calumny have a way of spreading to the four winds and, once released, can never be completely recalled. Even when accusations are firmly nailed as false, the reputations of those falsely accused bear a lingering taint. “Oh yes,” it is vaguely said, “wasn’t he once accused of . . . ”
The words of the Bard that you learned in grade school are entirely to the point:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something,
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
This reflection is occasioned by an attack on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the eighty–two–year–old and much revered founder of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the more vibrant and successful renewal movements in contemporary Catholicism. The attack, alleging sexual offenses with seminarians some forty years earlier, first appeared in a 1997 story in the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut paper, and the story has recently been repeated in the National Catholic Reporter, a left–wing tabloid. The story was coauthored by Jason Berry, a freelance writer in New Orleans, who briefly gained national attention with a 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, and by Gerald Renner, who was until recently religion writer for the Connecticut paper.
I hesitate to write about this, lest I be responsible for further disseminating what I heartily deplore. But the purpose is to collect and properly dispose of these feathers of scandal. I admit to being surprised that some of them have found their way into quarters usually averse to vicious gossip. Also, this reflection might be helpful in evaluating other stories of clerical sexual scandal, stories that reached a crescendo with what everybody came to recognize as the slanderous charges against the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and that have since then been on the wane.
We should have no illusion that such scandal is a thing of the past, however, as witness the recent court proceedings against a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston. Such incidents are grist for the mills of liberals pressing for married priests and of others demanding that bishops exercise a stricter discipline. And, of course, they feed the media mill that, as Philip Jenkins has explained, is not deterred by the fact that the incidence of sexual abuse is probably higher among Protestant clergy and other professionals working with children (see “The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” FT, February 1996). Stories about Catholic priests have a certain cachet—and, for trial lawyers, a promise of cash—that is usually lacking in other cases. It is, I think, unseemly for Catholics to complain about that. Catholics should expect more of their leaders. Even one instance of abuse constitutes an intolerable offense against the victim and a breaking of most solemn vows freely undertaken.
Having said that, I expect that most readers, and especially those who, with good reason, admire the Legionaries, instinctively recoil from the story about Fr. Maciel, finding it both repugnant and implausible. There is something to be said for consigning it to the trash bin and forgetting about it. Nobody should feel obliged to read on, for the subject is decidedly distasteful. At the same time, the story is out there, and—as Berry and Renner and the complicit publications surely intended—it has no doubt done some damage. Forty and fifty years after the alleged misdeeds, there is no question of criminal action. Even were there any merit to the charges, which I am convinced there is not, the statute of limitations has long since run out. And what can you do to an eighty–two–year–old priest who has been so successful in building a movement of renewal and is strongly supported and repeatedly praised by, among many others, Pope John Paul II? What you can try to do is to filch from him his good name. And by destroying the reputation of the order’s founder you can try to discredit what Catholics call the founding “charism” of the movement, thus undermining support for the Legionaries of Christ.
Berry and Renner do not even try to hide their hostility to the Legion. Their story introduces the movement as “a wealthy religious order known for its theological conservatism and loyalty to the Pope.” In the world of Berry, Renner, the National Catholic Reporter, and the Courant (at least when Renner was writing for it), that is another way of saying that the Legion is the enemy. Nobody would dispute that Legionaries are theologically orthodox and loyal to the Pope. Some of us take the perhaps eccentric view that that is a virtue. As for the order being wealthy, that hardly seems the right word. The Legion has been very successful in eliciting the support of admirers for its many enterprises. Its most notable success has been in vocations to the priesthood. There are now about five hundred priests and twenty–five hundred seminarians, and the order is active in twenty countries on four continents, with schools in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. In Latin America, the order is doing pioneering work in running schools and microeconomic development projects among the poor. Regnum Christi, a lay movement associated with the Legion, is also vibrant and growing.
There is no doubt that the many works of the movement require major resources, and that it is effective in raising money. But wealthy? One might as well say that the financially strapped Archdiocese of New York is wealthy because it could, after all, get untold millions by demolishing St. Patrick’s Cathedral and selling the property to developers. Or the Society of Jesus is wealthy because it could sell off Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College, and twenty–plus other Jesuit schools in this country alone. The fact is that the Legionaries of Christ are strikingly successful at a time when many other orders are languishing or even dying out. Also in the Church, alas, it is unwise to underestimate the power of envy. Slanderous attacks on new and vibrant religious orders are nothing new in the history of the Church. See St. Francis and the Franciscans, Dominic and the Dominicans, or Ignatius and the early Jesuits. Love, says St. Paul, “is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” The unedifying but unsurprising truth is that, also in the Church, love is sometimes in short supply, and there is rejoicing at wrongs, and at alleged wrongs.
I am not neutral about the Legionaries. I have spent time with Fr. Maciel, and he impresses me as a man who combines uncomplicated faith, gentle kindness, military self–discipline, and a relentless determination to do what he believes God has called him to do. They are the qualities one would expect of someone who at age twenty–one in Mexico vowed to do something great for Christ and his Church, and has been allowed to do it. In the language of the tradition, they are qualities associated with holiness; in his case a virile holiness of tenacious resolve that has been refined in the fires of frequent opposition and misunderstanding.
And I am impressed by the words of Jesus that “by their fruits you shall know them.” I have known the Legion for some years now, speaking at their institutions in this country and, most recently, teaching a crash course on Catholic social doctrine at their new university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum. There were about sixty students in the course, almost all priests or seminarians, and I have never encountered anywhere a group of students more eager, articulate, or intellectually astute. And yes, they are orthodox and excited by the truth of the Church’s teaching. Critics who depict Legionaries as pious brainwashed zombies walking in lockstep under an authoritarian regime are, in my experience, preposterously wrong. As you might expect, given the name of the order, they do have a soldierly bearing, as though recruited to a great cause, which they have been. The single most striking characteristic of Legionaries, as I have encountered them in this country and elsewhere, is their palpable sense of joy and high adventure in their calling to be faithful priests.
It is said that the Legion is elitist. And I suppose there is something to that, keeping in mind that elitism is too often employed as a term of opprobrium by those offended by the violation of the mediocre. There is no doubt that Legionaries think they are part of something very special—as do all young people who surrender themselves to a great vision that is attended by demanding discipline. It was once true of those who entered the Society of Jesus, and still is true of some who, in the radically reduced number entering that order, are determined to revive the Ignatian charism. The leaders of the Legion strongly discourage comparisons with the earlier Society of Jesus, precisely because they know that such comparisons are so frequently made and have excited Jesuit hostility from the early days in Mexico to the present. But yes, there is a tone of elitism among Legionaries. At least as I read it, it is not a sense of sinful pride but of being privileged to be part of something so great in its challenge and promise. For them, to be a Legionary priest has a distinct panache, but it is panache in the service of achieving the pinnacle, which is to be—radically and without remainder—a priest of Christ and his Church.
In any course so demanding, it is inevitable that many do not make it. Others, having become priests, fall by the wayside or are found wanting. The result—and this is true of any community that does not fudge the distinction between success and failure—is that there are some who are disappointed, disgruntled, aggrieved, and bitter. And that brings us to the Berry/Renner story about Fr. Maciel. You don’t want to know the specifics of the charges, although Berry/Renner go into salacious detail about rude things allegedly done with young men, things that have become all too familiar from sex abuse stories of recent decades. Nine now elderly men who were once part of the Legion—two Spaniards and seven Mexicans—claim that in the 1950s Fr. Maciel more or less regularly abused them, and that this was a pattern pervasive throughout the order. Berry/Renner acknowledge that one of the accusers has recanted his story under oath, testifying that he was put up to telling tales by ringleaders who had for many years been trying to get other disaffected Legionaries to join in “showing up” Fr. Maciel. The fact that he has recanted his original charges does not prevent Berry/Renner from repeating them with what appears to be prurient relish. It is not the kind of stuff you would find in any mainstream media, but then Berry and Renner are not practitioners of what is ordinarily meant by responsible journalism. Berry’s business is Catholic scandal and sensationalism. That is what he does. Renner’s tour at the Courant was marked by an animus against things Catholic, an animus by no means limited to the Legion.
Nonetheless, because I care about the Legion and because I was outraged by what I suspected was a gross injustice, I decided to go through endless pages of testimony, counter–testimony, legal documents, and other materials related to the Berry/Renner attack on Fr. Maciel. It was not an edifying experience. For Berry/Renner, it is worth noting, the case of Fr. Maciel is not all that important in itself, but it serves another purpose. “To many,” they write in the recent NCR article, “the case against Maciel is important because it tests the Vatican’s resolve to pursue charges related to sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the Church.” The “many” includes, first of all, Berry and Renner. That is clearly the reason for the latest re–raking of the muck of their 1997 article. They report nothing substantively new in the allegations themselves; the only new thing is that the Vatican has again considered the charges and found them without merit. A cardinal in whom I have unbounded confidence and who has been involved in the case tells me that the charges are “pure invention, without the slightest foundation.”
For Berry/Renner, however, the Vatican is a sinister and oppressive institution. Its stated concerns for confidentiality and fairness are, in their view, code language for secretiveness and evasion. Statements of church officials are never to be taken at face value, and certainly never to be given the benefit of the doubt. Let it be said that there have been instances in which church authorities have been less than straightforward, to put it gently. But for Berry/Renner, systematic mendacity is assumed. That the Pope consistently and strongly supports Fr. Maciel and the Legion is only evidence that he has been duped—or, the reader is invited to infer, that he is party to a cover–up. Nothing will satisfy them but that the Church comply with their prescribed procedures of investigation and, not incidentally, vindicate their sensationalist reporting. So much for the prejudices and purposes of Berry and Renner. In sum, they are in the scandal business.
So what is a person who does not share their prejudices and purposes to believe? I can only say why, after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counterclaims, I have arrived at moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious. I cannot know with cognitive certainty what did or did not happen forty, fifty, or sixty years ago. No means are available to reach legal certainty (beyond a reasonable doubt). Moral certainty, on the other hand, is achieved by considering the evidence in light of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” On that basis, I believe the charges against Fr. Maciel and the Legion are false and malicious and should be given no credence whatsoever.
Recall the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in explanation of the Eighth Commandment:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s fault and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
It counts as evidence that Fr. Maciel unqualifiedly and totally denies the charges. It counts as evidence that priests in the Legion whom I know very well and who, over many years, have a detailed knowledge of Fr. Maciel and the Legion say that the charges are diametrically opposed to everything they know for certain. It counts as evidence that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and others who have looked into the matter say that the charges are completely without merit. It counts as evidence that Pope John Paul II, who almost certainly is aware of the charges, has strongly, consistently, and publicly praised Fr. Maciel and the Legion. Much of what we know we take on trust. I trust these people. The suggestion that they are either deliberately deceiving or are duped is totally implausible.
It counts as evidence that opponents of Fr. Maciel and his work succeeded in having him removed from the governance of the Legion for more than two years in the 1950s. At that time he was charged with drug addiction and misrule of the order. The Vatican appointed four impartial “visitators” who lived with the Legionaries and interviewed every one of them privately and under oath. They were asked to state anything they knew to the detriment of Fr. Maciel’s leadership. Not once, not even once, was there any mention of sex abuse or anything related to it. Fr. Maciel was completely exonerated and, with high praise, restored to the leadership of the order by the Holy See.
The accusers say they did not mention sex abuse at the time because it was a “taboo” subject and they were afraid of Fr. Maciel. The ringleaders who organized the 1990s campaign against Fr. Maciel, however, were not afraid to make other grave charges. Some had long–standing grievances arising from being removed from positions of trust in the order; all left the order under unhappy circumstances. The question of sex only came up later, when sexual abuse by priests was a topic of frenzied interest in the media and such a charge was viewed as lethal to a priestly reputation. The motives of the accusers are the subject of speculation, but the purpose of the accusations is, beyond doubt, to do grave damage to Fr. Maciel and the Legion. Although solicited by the ringleaders to join in the charges, others who were members of the order at the time in question have refused and have emphatically denied the claims of the accusers. They were there at the time. They would have known.
Common sense is also entered into evidence. Is it believable that, as alleged, a pathological, drug–addicted child molester could have founded a religious order in the 1940s that was approved by the Church and flourished for decades, while all the time casual sodomy and other heinous sexual abuses reigned in its houses? And this without a word of concern from thousands of parents or any claim of such wrongdoing in civil, criminal, or ecclesiastical courts? It is not believable. Is it believable that men who are now accusers, who were then adult members of the order, would have testified under oath to Fr. Maciel’s uprightness, thus lying to their highest superiors in the Holy See and refusing to mention years of abuse by a drug–addicted molester who had been removed as head of the order? It is not believable. The accusations are odious, as are the actions of those who continue to peddle them.
The accusers may say that they are seeking justice or, in the psychobabble of our time, looking for “closure.” I cannot plumb their motives. I do not know what grievances, grudges, or vendettas are in play here, or what memories or “recovered memories” are reflected in the accusations. The accusers are not going to court to seek damages of any sort. That is not a possibility. The sole end served by the charges is the attempt to gravely damage the Legionaries of Christ by discrediting their founder.
I am confident they will not succeed in that attempt. Because the accusations are false, and will be recognized as such by any fair–minded person who bothers to look into them. And because the Legionaries are so manifestly, capably, and joyfully determined to pursue their apostolate, undistracted by the opposition that is predictably encountered by any young and vigorous movement of renewal. To be sure, there are still those feathers of scandal scattered about. St. Philip Neri was right, it is probably impossible to collect all of them. But if you come across one, just pick it up and put it in the trash where it belongs.
Pope: Anti–terror fight is moral (Associated Press)
Pope, not mentioning U.S., urges military restraint (New York Times)
Pope says forgiveness leads to peace (Chicago Tribune)
Pope ambiguous on U.S. campaign (Los Angeles Times)
Blunt force wrong, pontiff says ([Toronto] Globe and Mail)
Pope calls for an end to Iraqi sanctions (CNN)
Plight of innocents worries pontiff (Reuters/Toronto Star)
Actually, the Pope said that terrorism must be unequivocally condemned, that military action against terrorism is justified, that such action should be discriminate and proportionate, and that whatever measure of justice is achieved must be secured by forgiveness if there is to be lasting peace. Now you might want to try writing your own headline.
Sources: On ethicists for sale, Christianity Today, October 1, 2001; U.S. News & World Report, July 30, 2001; ZENIT, August 8, 2001. On Dominus Iesus, Ecumenical Trends, December 2001. On Anthony Lewis, New York Times, December 15, 2001.
While We’re At It: Pastor ratings, Barna Research, January 7, 2002. Michael Kelly on Alison Hornstein, Washington Post, December 19, 2001. Randy Cohen and pudenda, New York Times Magazine, November 18, 2001. Simi Valley United Church of Christ, Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2001. Larry D. Kramer on judicial politics, Harvard Law Review, November 2001. Judith Shulevitz’s ethnocentricity, New York Times, December 2, 2001. Anne Roiphe on Hanukkah and Christmas, New York Observer, December 17, 2001. On Fr. Rodger Charles, (London) Daily Telegraph, December 15, 2001. Muslim poll numbers, Religion News Service, December 20, 2001. Russell Hittinger on David Kertzer, Journal of the Historical Society, Spring/Summer 2002. Jonah Goldberg on Andrew Sullivan, National Review Online, December 12, 2001. Berkeley’s conscientious objectors, Associated Press, December 13, 2001. The Pope’s headlines, Christianity Today, December 14, 2001.