The Public Square

(March 1993)

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 31 (March 1993): 57-58.


Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the retired pathologist who, as of this writing, has helped put eight women and one man to death, addressed the National Press Club. When it comes to the prudent use of body parts, he suggested, we are a wasteful society. "We use what's around us to do what we have to do. . . . But there's one natural thing we don't use, and that's death. It's so taboo. We fail to see the immorality of that. And my whole thing is aimed at that. But we've got to exploit this natural phenomenon for human betterment, and stop wasting it the way we are-and in the process of wasting it, cause immense human suffering and anguish." Dr. Kevorkian and his colleagues in the "right to die" movement can, it seems, convince themselves (and a good many others) that they are idealists.

Here is Kevorkian on another idealistic proposal: "In October of '58 I came up with a plan. At that time we were executing human beings and I came up with a plan to allow a choice for condemned criminals to die-at that time we didn't have lethal injection although I suggested we should-to die as the law stipulates or instead, at the time set for execution, we would put the prisoner under anesthesia, like we do in a hospital every day so you can't say it's grotesque or bizarre or barbaric-and the patient . . . the person would never wake up. The person gets to choose this. And if he wavers, he doesn't get the choice. And if he refuses or reneges he doesn't get the choice again. Now while he's under, I say we would do experiments on this human being that we can't do on humans today, and try to learn something profound. And the person would never wake up. Well, that was a very premature idea, I learned. I was naive, I was a young resident at the time and full of idealism. The idea was so correct I couldn't drop it and I had to propose it."

In his professional life, Kevorkian did not treat living people. As a pathologist, he studied corpses and body tissues. Death has been his life. The fact that he has been party to killing mainly women in distress does not, to date, seem to have alarmed usually alert feminists. At least in those cases where medical records are available (some of the women specified that their records were to be sealed), none of these women were terminally ill. Nor is there evidence that their pain could not have been relieved by ordinary means. They were in depression. In one instance with which we are familiar, the woman had a congenial spaghetti dinner with friends one night, and the next day called Kevorkian to help her die. Within hours, she was picked up by Kevorkian accomplices, had a taped interview with Kevorkian indicating her desire to die, and was killed.

Is it killing or suicide? The line is not clear. For those determined to take their lives, there is no shortage of ways to do it. For instance, anyone who drives can, with a slight turn of the wheel, go off a bridge, over a high cliff, or into a concrete wall. A lethal dosage of drugs is easily accumulated and self-administered. Why do these women want to go to a doctor in order to die? It seems likely that they want the soothing assurance that what they are doing is morally right, that it is not really suicide, that it is, in some perverse way, "treatment." With Dr. Death, the Dutch doctors, the Hemlock Society, and others, great evil is afoot in the exploitation of the vulnerable and confused.

In Michigan, where Dr. Death has been doing his dirty work, the legislature has now passed laws that may stop him, for a time. But public opinion polls indicate strong support for what he has done. Ever ready to accentuate the sensational, television stations play short clips of his interview with a victim, focusing on the pathos of her request to die. This is followed by Kevorkian saying that his only desire is to be of service to those in need. There then may be a clip of someone who protests that it is wrong to kill and to exploit the deeply distressed. But the protest is-sometimes implicitly, more often explicitly-dismissed on the news program as an attempt to impose personal or religious views on others. After all, there is the tape with Carol saying that her life is not worth living and she wants to die.

The hopeful thing is that, in Washington State and California, recent referendums favoring "assisted suicide" have been firmly defeated. At least so far, thorough public debate has turned the tide against proposals based upon the initially appealing proposition that people should be able to do what they want with their own lives. Assuming that this pattern will continue could be, quite literally, a fatal mistake. An enormous educational task is required to strengthen resistance to the seductive and ever-encroaching culture of death. Toward that end, readers may be interested in Life at Risk, a newsletter that describes itself as "a chronicle of euthanasia trends in America." For more information, write Mr. Richard Doerflinger, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, 3211 4th Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20017.


Earth in the Balance, the Vice President's contribution to the literature of ecotastrophe, waxes theological at points. Mr. Gore is exquisitely sensitive to our desperate need to embrace the feminist principle in our relation to the environment. He writes that "a growing number of anthropologists and archaeomythologists argue that the prevailing ideology of belief in prehistoric Europe and much of the world was based on the worship of a single earth goddess, who was assumed to be the fount of all life and who radiated harmony among all living things. . . . [Apparently] a goddess religion was ubiquitous throughout much of the world until the antecedents of today's religions-most of which have a distinctly masculine orientation-swept out of India and the Near East, almost obliterating belief in the goddess. The last vestige of organized goddess worship was eliminated by Christianity as late as the fifteenth century in Lithuania." He does not quite lament Christianity's triumph over the goddess, but there is a wistful tone of what might have been. Of course the claim that there was a "ubiquitous" religion of the goddess is advanced by the "scholarship" of a fringe of feminists who, although relatively small in number, sometimes do seem to be ubiquitous.

In that connection, we came across the observations of one Otter Zell, founder of the Church of All Worlds in Ukiah, California. He rails against the "masculine gods" of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and joins Mr. Gore in his appreciation of the goddess "who radiated harmony among all living things." Zell goes much farther, however, blaming monotheism for everything from sexual discontent to punching the hole in the ozone layer. Christianity is simply impossible. "A number of the churches have refused to ordain women, and those who have ordained women refuse to call them 'priestesses,' calling them 'priests' instead, as if they were somehow just men in drag. Only in pagan religions do priestesses exist." Mr. Zell is a little behind the curve. There are in fact Episcopalian women who are calling themselves priestesses. Of course there are those who would uncharitably say that that does not discredit his last point about such things happening only in pagan religions.


Here is this week's report on the high promise of experimental surgery transplanting fetal tissue in human brains. Abortion is going to turn out to be a real medical bonanza, according to this article in the New England Journal of Medicine. "It's spectacular," says Dr. C. Warren Olanow of the University of South Florida, commenting on Swedish experiments in which infant brain tissue seemed to have helped patients with Parkinson's disease. The experiments, he said, "tell us that we are on the right track." Dr. F. Widner, who is a leader in American experiments, says that there are still problems. For example, "We need to boost the survival rate of transplanted tissue." The survival of baby parts, not the survival of babies, is a matter of urgency.

The New York Times account of the studies goes on: "To obtain enough tissue [Dr. Widner said], multiple abortions must be scheduled for within hours of the five-hour fetal transplant operation. He said he was reluctant to store the fetal cells in the laboratory for fear that they might not survive as well in the patient's brain. The scientists need multiple fetuses because only 10 percent of the implanted fetal cells survive." So much for those who deny that the use of fetal tissues provides a legitimation of abortion. Imagine the conversation with the mother. "We would like you to come in for the procedure at two o'clock on Tuesday, Joan, so that the tissue can be most useful in helping somebody who is sick." The doctor is not likely to say to the multiple candidates: "We want you women to get your abortions at the same time so that we will have a number of fresh baby brains for our transplant experiments." But that is what is really being said, and is really being done.

It is all so very seductive. Here is an editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel: "As for the use of fetal tissue, the arguments against this process can be squelched by strict monitoring of donors to make sure the fetuses are not being supplied on order. But to deny their use in research to help others is like rejecting a gift." Never mind that fetuses are supplied on order. Never mind that this is a most curious use of "gift." If this is a gift, who is the giver? The baby who is not asked before being killed? The mother who owns the baby as chattel property? The last is the only possible answer implicit in the practice now legally established. It is an answer that some students of American history thought was precluded with the end of slavery.


"So what are you going to say about the bishops turning down the women's pastoral?" writes one obviously impatient reader. Believe it or not, we do not comment on everything. But we have followed these events carefully and talked with folk whom we take to be well-informed, and we do have some thoughts. Why did the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reject the fourth (or was it fortieth?) draft of the letter on women's concerns? Spin doctors have been working overtime on the story. According to some on the feminist left, the bishops were, in effect, indicating their unwillingness to support the Church's official position on, among other things, ordaining women to the priesthood. We are convinced that that explanation is entirely implausible.

A very small handful of bishops have publicly said that they think women's ordination should be considered "an open question." But at the November conference, bishops were lined up at the microphones to make it clear beyond doubt that they backed the official teaching. The best explanation of the vote, we believe, is that the bishops were saying that they had enough. They had had enough of a nine-year process that was misgotten in concept, mishandled in execution, and demeaning of their office. They sensed, rightly, that they were increasingly being viewed as poll-takers, deal-makers, and pacifiers of factions, rather than as teachers. Tilting first this way, then that way, and then back this way again, the process precluded serious deliberation, and the bishops weren't going to take it anymore. With the bungled pastoral out of the way, everyone might welcome a period of relative calm in which the questions that the pastoral was to address-and, more important, the question of how bishops best exercise their teaching office-can receive more careful (i.e., less politicized) consideration.


For the last decade or so it was commonly said that there are more Muslims in America than Episcopalians. It is the kind of statement that can bring audiences to attention. But it apparently has the disadvantage of not being true. A few years ago, a national study conducted by the City University of New York reported that there are probably less than half-a-million Muslims, with perhaps half of them being black Americans. Now George Gallup confirms that, indicating that only two-tenths of one percent identify themselves as Muslims (there are somewhat over two million Episcopalians). Three-tenths of one percent of the population say they are Hindus. In recent decades, a steady 2 percent describe themselves as Jewish, although Gallup notes that in 1947 that figure was 6 percent.

As a result of new anxiety-mongering about the "religious right," the impression is spread that religion is a danger to public life. The proposition is that, the more deeply religious people are, the more likely they are to be bigoted, closed-minded, and, in general, a threat to civic peace. That, too, says Gallup, has the disadvantage of being untrue. His organization has developed a twelve-item scale to measure the segment of the population that is "highly spiritually committed." Gallup reports: "While representing only 13 percent of the populace, these persons are a 'breed apart' from the rest of society. We find that these people, who have what might be described as a 'transforming faith,' are more tolerant of others, more inclined to perform charitable acts, more concerned about the betterment of society, and far happier. (These findings, in my view, are among the most exciting and significant that we have recorded in more than a half-century of polling.)" Another study by Gallup shows that 83 percent of Americans say that their religious beliefs require them to respect people of other religions. Put differently, religion is the foundation of religious tolerance. Be prepared to take cover when you try that out on the secular bigots who rail against the bigotry of religion.


In response to those who have asked: No, we do not know how to explain the strange behavior of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. None of the possible explanations that come to mind are very edifying. There were, for instance, those much-publicized "listening sessions" with women, which he used to criticize what he viewed as the excessive zeal of women who work to protect the unborn. Then there was the two-part profile in The New Yorker in which he held his fellow bishops up to ridicule and opined that the price of his boldness is that he would never go any higher than Milwaukee. (One wonders how the Catholics of Milwaukee feel about their bishop thinking he is stuck with them.) Then this op-ed article in the New York Times that does not lend itself to any plausible interpretation other than advocating the ordination of women.

"The church has two options," he writes. "The first is to close the doors to all discussion on the ordination issue and accept the consequences. . . . The other is to keep the doors open to further discussion and continue the important, even if painful, dialogue between the church's tradition and modern insights." He appears to leave no doubt that the question should be open so that it can be closed in the direction that he favors. He envisions masignora with real power in the Holy See, and women diplomats representing the church in national capitals.

The Times op-ed page seems like a strange place for an archbishop to dissent from church teaching. But then, he would likely say this is not theological dissent. And, indeed, there is not a word of theology in the article. Christ is not mentioned once, nor is the sacramental nature of priesthood, nor is the Gospel. The article is entirely devoted to power relationships and the claim that "many women and men would say goodbye to a church they feel is out of touch with the world." The archbishop, it is to be feared, is very much in touch with the world, or at least with that part of the world that is indifferent or hostile to the Church. (The article, titled "Out of the Kitchen, Into the Vatican," is accompanied by a photograph of a priest at Mass elevating the species, with a superimposed cartoon of a woman standing on the consecrated host.)

The archbishop declares that his positions are in accord with "the vision of Vatican Council II." It is the conventional claim when advocating what is alien to the Council. Again, we do not know why the archbishop seems to be inviting the perception that he is the number one rogue elephant of the American episcopacy. Most probably, he really believes what he is saying and wants to say it as loudly as possible, perhaps to force a confrontation with Rome. In that event, his media-hyped "martyrdom" would presumably lend authenticity to his rebel posture. Only he and God know what he is up to, and only God knows for sure. But it seems very sad, contrived, and reduplicative of the many ecclesiastical minidramas staged over the last two decades. The media would love to play it again-"Modern Bishop Confronts Cranky Church"-and there is a shrinking audience of Catholic liberals and traditionalists who can never get enough of it, but one hopes that the archbishop recognizes that there are much better things to do with his undoubted talents than to star in the tired theater of Catholic delinquency of which thoughtful people have long since wearied.


The culture war is not between the moral and the immoral parties. Rather, there are moralities in bitter conflict. The one is a morality, typically shaped by biblical faith, based on moral truth, aspiration, and forgiveness. The other, typically irreligious or antireligious, assumes "moral truth" is an oxymoron and presses ideological claims with unforgiving rigidity. It is more aptly described as moralistic. This was brought to mind by a file of items from last fall. Readers may recall the media explosion when, in an interview, Dan Quayle said that he would still love his daughter even if she did the terribly wrong thing of having an abortion. Headlines declared that Quayle was "waffling" and "backtracking" on his pro-life commitment. What did the reporters expect Quayle to say? That he would disown his daughter, throw her out of the house, and never speak to her again? Yes, it was implied, that would be the appropriate reaction if he were "morally consistent." At about the same time, gay activists "ousted" John Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly. His mother declared, "I love my son," and the gay press, joined by what styles itself as the mainstream press, chortled over the exposure of Phyllis Schlafly's "hypocrisy." Presumably, if she were really sincere in her criticism of homosexuality, she would hate her son.

The culture war is in large part a conflict between morality and moralism. The former evidences a sense of humor, an awareness of the fragility of the human condition, a readiness to bear with one another in our imperfections, and the heart to aspire anew to the excellence of which we are capable. The moralism of the politically correct, on the other hand, is humorless, relentless, demanding, deadly. It is a glaring anomaly of our time that such moralism claims a monopoly on the term "compassion," a disposition that it cannot understand and so angrily scorns. The explanation, as the wise have been observing for centuries, is the failure to acknowledge the reality of original sin, the only Christian doctrine that is verifiable beyond the possibility of reasonable doubt. Moralistic consistency is, if we may paraphrase, the hobgoblin of little souls. The sadness is that such people cannot accept for themselves or others the forgiveness without which life is the living hell of moralistic correctness.

The conformist wisdom in our elite culture is that religion is the source of moral oppression, and much religion can be faulted on that score. The alternative often proposed is liberation from moralism that turns out to be liberation from morality. Typically, those who leave religious moralism behind are most vulnerable to the fevers of ideological moralism. None of us has perfect immunity from the infections of moralism, religious or otherwise. The only moral consistency that is not lethal begins and ends in grace. As in, for example, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." As in Quayle forgives his daughter, Schlafly forgives her son, and both, we expect, forgive those who accuse them of being morally inconsistent.


We note, with regret, that the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) have joined with the utterly predictable Americans United for Separation of Church and State in calling upon President Clinton not to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican. This is a weary dispute that goes back to the days of FDR and, many of us hoped, was finally settled by Ronald Reagan. Perhaps evangelical leaders are resuscitating it in order to demonstrate to their old-guard constituencies that the ecumenical spirit has not entirely overcome their vestigial adherence to a requisite measure of anti-Catholicism.

Whatever the reason, the appeal to Clinton is misguided in substance and form. As Catholic thinker George Weigel observes: "The Holy See occupies a distinctive place in international public life-and has done so for centuries. The historical roots of the present position of the Holy See in international law and diplomatic practice date, of course, from the days of the Papal States when the pope was a temporal ruler. Those days are happily no more. But even after the incorporation of the Papal States into a reunified Italy, the Holy See continued to exchange embassies with states, and was recognized to have a kind of sui generis status in international public life. That status is embodied, for example, in the representation that the Holy See maintains at a host of international organizations and agencies. It is embodied in the fact that the Holy See was a full signatory of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and has been a vigorous participant-especially on behalf of religious freedom-in CSCE forums ever since. And it is embodied in the fact that virtually every state of any consequence whatsoever in world affairs (with the sole exception of the remaining Communist powers) maintains representation at the Holy See, and receives a representative of the Holy See in turn. This exchange of embassies, by the way, has been waxing, not waning, over the past fifty years. It involves states with an established church; it involves states with no established church; it involves states that are, officially, Muslim. To view this distinctive history through the lenses of American denominationalism seems, candidly, rather shortsighted. The United States, in exchanging embassies with the Holy See, is not giving 'special recognition to the Catholic Church.' It is acknowledging the centuries-old fact that the Holy See is a reality in the world of international public life, recognized as such in customary international law."

The Baptist letter to Clinton urges that he reverse existing policy "in light of your Baptist heritage." One can imagine the public outcry-not least of all from Baptists-were Catholic bishops to urge a Catholic president to make policy "in light of your Catholic heritage." In addition, the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has on other questions rightly challenged the notion that the separation of church and state requires the separation of religion from public life. It is troubling that, when it comes to U.S. representation at the Holy See, evangelicals talk about "the wall of separation" in language usually associated with groups such as People for the American Way and the ACLU. We expect that President Clinton will, like the last three administrations, appoint an ambassador. We suspect that evangelical leaders who urge otherwise expect as much. We wish they had not reopened a question that reopens wounds from the days when evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics did not understand that the great public tasks of our day must be addressed together.


Sorry, we know that some of you are tired of the subject, but in this kind of world anti-Semitism is a question of continuing importance. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has once again taken a survey that it first used in 1964 and reports that at present 20 percent of Americans are anti-Semitic. How do they arrive at that conclusion? Anti-Semitism is measured by the response to eleven propositions. Those who say "probably true" to six or more are counted as anti-Semitic.

The eleven propositions are: (1) Jews stick together more than other Americans; (2) Jews always like to be at the head of things; (3) Jews are more loyal to Israel than America; (4) Jews have too much power in the U.S. today; (5) Jews have too much control and influence on Wall Street; (6) Jews have too much power in the business world; (7) Jews have a lot of irritating faults; (8) Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want; (9) Jewish businessmen are so shrewd that others don't have a fair chance in competition; (10) Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind; (11) Jews are not as honest as other businessmen.

The measurement is questionable on several scores. Seven of the assertions are undoubtedly negative. Assertions 4, 5, and 6, however, are very close to being redundant. Number 7, the assertion that Jews have a lot of irritating faults, strikes us as true of any group of people we know, including Jews. Moreover, three of the other propositions might be construed as positive characteristics by many, if not most, Americans. That Jews stick together, are ambitious, and are exceedingly shrewd in business might well be said admiringly. In our experience with Jews and non-Jews, these things frequently are said admiringly-and, by non-Jews, with a touch of envy. Were such things said of Italians, would anyone think it defamation? People who belong to some other ethnic or racial groups can only wish that the same could be said of them. Of course those assertions are also amenable to a negative construction, and maybe that is what most respondents had in mind. But they are very doubtful criteria by which to measure anti-Semitism.

The ADL report says that "the number of Americans within the 'most anti-Semitic' segment has declined slowly-down only 9 percentage points in twenty-eight years-from 29 percent in 1964 to 20 percent in 1992." In addition to the doubtfulness of the measuring instrument, one may be permitted to wonder whether, in the larger scheme of historical change, a one-third decline in less than thirty years is all that slow. Further, the report notes that most of those counted as anti-Semitic are older-over 65 years of age-and have a high school education or less. Nonetheless, the head of ADL declares, "It boggles the mind that in 1992 a significant segment of American society has bought into the classical canards and stereotypes that allege Jewish power. It is distressing that the stereotypes so alive in the 1930s, which led to horrific consequences, did not die in the ashes of Europe, but have found a rebirth in America today. We find it to be sinister and dangerous."

More careful reflection might conduce to an unboggling of the mind. The power and influence of Jews in American life is not merely "alleged." The observation that Jews, who are 2 percent of the population, exercise an influence vastly disproportionate to their numbers is not based upon canards and stereotypes but on a reasonable awareness of the success of Jews in academe, the media, entertainment, business, science, and other centers of societal potency. Whether one thinks that that power is "too much" may indeed have something to do with anti-Semitism, but to deny its existence is to insult the intelligence of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and to invite suspicion of those who do the denying.

Anti-Semitism is not finding "a rebirth" in America today. By ADL's own, and almost certainly inflated, figures, anti-Semitism is declining, and dramatically so. Most of those counted as anti-Semitic are old people hanging on to vestigial prejudices. However doubtful the survey's methodology, ADL may be justified in worrying that black Americans are more than twice as likely to show up in the "most anti-Semitic" category than whites-37 percent to 17 percent. But even if we credit the accuracy of the data, that is clearly a deviation from the pattern. There will always be a certain number of people who really don't like Jews, just as there will be those (often the same people) who have a generalized dislike of other groups. But the reality is that, far from being reborn, anti-Semitism is dying in America. And none too soon.


Sources: Otter Zell's criticism of "masculine gods," quoted in Insight, November 2, 1992. On transplants of fetal tissue, New York Times, November 26, 1992 and Milwaukee Sentinel, November 21, 1992. Dr. Kevorkian quoted in the newsletter Life at Risk, November 1992. George Gallup figures reported in emerging trends, November 1992. Archbishop Weakland on the ordination of women, New York Times, December 6, 1992. George Weigel on Vatican diplomacy in unpublished letter. Anti-Defamation League report on anti-Semitism dated November 16, 1992.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT: Alan Wolfe on race, The New Republic, April 13, 1992. On Dutch doctors, Family Practice: An International Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1992). Story of David Nelson reported in the San Francisco Foghorn, October 22, 1992. Jane Gross on St. Philip's RC Church, New York Times, October 3, 1992. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt on Darwinism, New York Times, October 1, 1992. Photographer Sally Mann quoted in the New York Times Magazine, September 27, 1992. Hilton Kramer on Daniel Boorstin, New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992. Nathan Glazer on William F. Buckley's book In Search of Anti-Semitism, in New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992. On the church's alleged depiction of perfect priests, America, November 28, 1992. Peter Verity on bringing disaffected Anglicans into the Catholic Church, Ecumenical Press Service, November 17, 1992. General Secretary of WCC on Anglican ordination of women, Ecumenical Press Service, November 17, 1992. On class origins of Vietnam-era soldiers, Washington Times, November 1, 1992, and Wall Street Journal November 4, 1992. On the Westminster School in Atlanta, Harvard Crimson, December 3, 1992. Jodie Cooper and David Vanderveen on humankind, Surfer, October and December 1992. Article by Michael Cromartie in Christianity Today, April 27, 1922, and reply by Jim Wallis, November 23, 1992. Dorothy Rabinowitz on "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible," Wall Street Journal, December 14, 1992. Beheading of Saudi blasphemer reported in National and International Religion Report, December 14, 1992. Duprea on the humanities, Christian Century, April 29, 1992.

As many readers know, Father Neuhaus underwent emergency surgery for colon cancer in January. He had prepared beforehand the items in this installment of The Public Square. He is making a strong recovery from the surgery and he, his friends, and his doctors expect that he will be fully back to work in the relatively near future.