Receiving no attention that we noticed in the general press, and slight attention in the church press, was a statement issued in June that is titled "The Common Good: Old Idea, New Urgency." It deserves some attention. It was issued by the general secretaries of three organizations, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), the National Council of Churches (NCC), and the Synagogue Council of America. The release says that these organizations "represent some 100 million American Christians and Jews." The term "represent" is used very loosely in this connection.
The statement no doubt does represent the thinking of the three executives, in close consultation with their respective staffs. The document comes out of a project of the three organizations to help reform welfare policy, for which the Ford Foundation gave them $152,000 to get started. On the basis of our inquiries, it appears that no invitation was extended to evangelical Protestants to join in this endeavor. It might have been appropriate, for example, to include the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). It would also have been an ecumenical step forward, and the NCC and USCC do profess to be very ecumenical. Indeed, being ecumenical is the reason for the NCC's existence. Obviously, the "inclusivity" so adamantly championed in these circles has its definite limits.
Perhaps it was thought that including the NAE would destroy the conventional symmetry of Protestant-Catholic-Jew by having two Protestant institutions involved. Or maybe the USCC thought that involving the evangelicals would put too much of a strain on the desired consensus-although, as it is, the Catholics agreed to the statement's non-mention of what are, formally at least, top priorities for the USCC, abortion and educational choice. The more probable explanation is that there is what sociologists call an elective affinity between the USCC and NCC. With respect to public policy, and especially social policy, both are left of center on the political spectrum, the NCC somewhat more so than the USCC. As for the Synagogue Council, it is a broad but thin association, making it the logical Jewish partner in the project at hand.
At many points "The Common Good" is unexceptionable, often verging on the vapid. There are also judgments that seem quite sound, on occasion surprisingly so. Admittedly, it is difficult to understand how the USCC believes it can address the common good without reference to the most fevered moral questions in our public life, such as abortion and euthanasia. By issuing what purports to be a comprehensive statement on the common good without mentioning abortion, the USCC invites the inference that abortion is not nearly so central to Catholic social concern as is commonly claimed. Silence does not necessarily connote consent to the pro-abortion sentiments of one's partners in this project, but it surely does indicate the price that one is prepared to pay-the truth one is prepared to neglect-for the sake of consensus.
"We seek," declares the manifesto, "to articulate a fresh and empowering vision of the common good, a vision which inspires public action to meet the basic human needs of all our sisters and brothers." Some readers may find neither the language nor the idea very fresh. The notion that public action, meaning government action, can meet undefined and limitless "basic human needs" will strike most readers as highly improbable. It does seem strange for religious institutions to imply that public action can meet such basic human needs as love, community, and purpose in life. The statement does not exactly say that, but at points it comes pretty close to what Mrs. Clinton has promoted as "the politics of meaning," which some of us take to be the idolatry of politics.
"We judge this moment especially to be filled with great promise for a renewal of the national bond," say the signers, and they speak of this moment being marked by "the return of our national confidence." It is hard to know what such expressions mean, but there is nothing in the track record of the organizations involved and little in the statement itself that discourages the assumption that they are referring to the election of Mr. Clinton. Perhaps not, but one wonders what else has happened recently that might suggest to the liberal mind that we are experiencing "the return of our national confidence." At the risk of mentioning the obvious, most Americans seemed to think that the Reagan- Bush years were, all in all, a time of national confidence. Maybe excessive confidence. At any rate, Reagan and Bush were elected with a much larger share of the vote than the 42.7 percent received by Clinton. The election was hardly the popular mandate for change that President Clinton and, apparently, the signers of the present statement take it to be.
After indicating the general drift of social policy that they favor- based upon "economic and social rights"-the signers declare, "We believe men and women of good will throughout the country share this vision of a holistic approach to social welfare as a matter of human rights as well as human need." Thus are those who disagree put on notice that their disagreement is a moral failing that puts them outside the circle of people of good will. The statement is frequently misleading in its description of our problems. For instance: "At least 10 million adults remain unemployed. In the past decade, 'homelessness' has become the fate of perhaps a million or more Americans, including tens of thousands of families."
The official figure is less than seven million unemployed, a very large part being people who are momentarily not working because they quit a job in order to find a better job. Maybe the statement intends to include young males and single mothers in the urban underclass who are not looking for jobs at all. As for the "homeless," no note is taken of the fact that the overwhelming majority of street people are alcoholics, drug addicts, or mentally ill. Nor does the statement recognize that the "homeless" phenomenon is in very large part the result of government policy that "deinstitutionalized" the mentally ill and put them on the streets. Concern for the people on the streets is certainly in order, but such concern will be disordered in action if it is based upon the misleading analysis offered here.
This country, which hardly seems to be experiencing a return of national confidence, has innumerable problems, many of which are mentioned in the statement. But the partisan diagnosis and prescriptions offered in "The Common Good" are not likely to meet with common assent. There are too many people of good will who are too well-informed on debates about social policy over the last quarter-century. The signers of the statement are no doubt sincere when they assert, "Our agenda derives from the values inherent within our faiths, not from any partisan political positions." People can believe that when they live and work in a world of like-minded folk where shared political prejudices are so taken for granted that they are not recognized as partisan.
As mentioned, there are also welcome surprises. Two in particular should be noted. The document says, "Making common appeal to the biblical foundation of creation, covenant, and community, we offer a provisional public theology of the common good, whose moral core is social justice, human dignity, and human rights." It is a suggestive statement but, unfortunately, it just stands there without any development. Nonetheless, and while it is not new, the idea of a public theology-or, as we would prefer, a theological grounding for a public philosophy-is worthy of attention. Perhaps the Ford Foundation could be interested in funding a project on that, and one hopes such a project would include also Christians and Jews who are not quite so certain about the public policies inherent in a public theology.
Second and most welcome, the statement offers a firm affirmation of the limits of government and the importance of "mediating institutions" in social policy. To be sure, the affirmation does not accord with other parts of the statement, but it is there. "Government must always seek the general welfare of the people and pursue the common good. But government alone cannot address so large a question. . . . Government programs must supplement and undergird but not supplant the efforts of individuals and families to participate fully in the social, cultural, and economic life of our land." The statement calls for a policy of "empowerment" built upon "mediating institutions [that] often exercise far more creativity and effectiveness than distant bureaucracies and impersonal agencies."
That, one risks immodesty in pointing out, is the direction proposed by Peter Berger and this writer in To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy (1977). The proposal was entertained by the Carter administration, praised by the Reagan administration, and officially embraced by the Bush administration. Regrettably, Mr. Bush demonstrated little political energy in acting upon the "thousand points of light" that he rhetorically celebrated. While the "New Democrat" of the Clinton campaign employed "communitarian" language and spoke about the importance of voluntarism and mediating institutions, Mr. Clinton in the White House has to date given no indication that he will advance such a program of empowerment.
On the contrary, his rhetoric, his appointments, and his policy proposals are more consistent with the statist assumption that government programs can and should, in the words of the statement, "meet the basic human needs of all our sisters and brothers." We have severe reservations about political lobbying by religious organizations, but, since they are in the lobbying business, we hope the signers of "The Common Good" will press the administration on empowerment and mediating institutions-assuming that, despite other parts of the statement, they mean what they say on the subject.
The media are frequently and rightly criticized for neglecting religion and the part it plays in our public life. But their ignoring the appearance of "The Common Good" is understandable. With the exceptions noted, it is a restatement of the well- known positions of well-known organizations. To the task of advancing the policies that they propose, the signers say that "the religious community brings strong values. . . . Moreover we bring 100 million adherents who are both people of faith and participants in this democracy." Values surely, but any journalist worth his ink knows that the signers and their organizations do not bring 100 million people to the task that they propose. The organizations that belong to the organizations involved may count 100 million members, but that is entirely another matter. A great many of the "adherents" alluded to have never heard of the USCC, the NCC, or the Synagogue Council, and could not care less about their pronouncements on public policy. This is even more the case with a pronouncement issued in the name of three executives and not formally endorsed by their organizations.
Finally, and this brings us back to the initial point about ecumenism, the statement reflects a most peculiar view of who is "the religious community" in this country. If we count the number of people who say that they believe in God and who go to church or synagogue with some frequency, there are probably 200 million or more members of "the religious community." It is at least unseemly for the signers of this statement to suggest-although perhaps they do so inadvertently-that the religious community is limited to the members of the organizations connected with their organizations.
The larger reality is that there is, of course, no such thing as "the religious community." There are hundreds of thousands of local communities related to other local communities (all community being local) in ways as diverse as the informal connections between independent Baptists, the ecclesial communion shared by Roman Catholics, and the network of associations commanded by Orthodox rebbes. They almost all no doubt contribute to the common good in their way, maybe even in God's way. That is a truth affirmed, when it is not undermined, by "The Common Good: Old Idea, New Urgency."
There is little disputing the fact that this, above all others, has been the century of Christian martyrdom. Yet that reality receives curiously little attention among contemporary Christians. Presbyterian writer Herbert Schlossberg has recently discussed this phenomenon in A Fragrance of Oppression: The Church and Its Persecutors, and offers some suggestive ideas about this strange neglect. Additional dynamics, one suspects, are in play. For instance, in theologies of past decades the prophetic, the radical, and the liberationist all came in for great attention. Priests and nuns killed for their involvement in various social justice struggles in Latin America have received a great deal of attention. But there seems to be an ideological test for the veneration of martyrs.
Those killed under Hitler, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are celebrated. It is respectable, indeed required, to be anti-Nazi. But for forty-plus years anticommunism was suspect, and of course many more Christians were killed by the Communists for being Christians than by the Nazis. The undeniable fact is that during the Cold War those in the West who raised the question of the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain were viewed as reactionary. Unlike, say, the Jesuits of El Salvador who were struggling for a revolutionary new order, the Christians massacred by the Communists were resisting what presented itself as the revolutionary new order. They failed the test of being progressive martyrs. The twentieth-century martyrology, such as it is, is a canon of the politically correct. There are martyrs, and then there are "politically interesting" martyrs.
There is a certain sniffing condescension toward those who simply died for the faith, without some further and redeeming political merit. The innumerable martyrs buried under the snows of Siberia have gone largely unremarked, at least among Christians in the West. And today not much notice is paid the brutally persecuted Christians in the south of the Sudan, or the Copts in Egypt. Millions of Christians are involved in just these two instances, and they are under attack because they are Christians. Scholars who attend to the statistics of world Christianity tell us that some 300,000 Christians each year are killed for being Christians. We are not quite sure how they arrive at that figure, but there is no doubt that attention to martyrdom in this century has been and continues to be highly selective.
China is a case in point. Since the Maoist revolution, thousands upon thousands of Christians-including unnumbered priests, ministers, and bishops-have been executed or died in concentration camps. Among Catholics, there is today an official church and an underground church, with the latter insisting upon its communion with Peter, the bishop of Rome. The aforementioned sniffing condescension is evident in a paper recently delivered by Father Robert J. Schreiter in which it is suggested that the Catholic martyrs of China died for "a secondary truth," namely, communion with Rome. The implication is that they were impossibly reactionary pre-Vatican II style Catholics who, had they not been so inflexible, might not have had such a hard time of it.
That contention is sharply challenged by Father Joseph Zen Er-jwun, a Hong Kong theologian now teaching in Shanghai. Fr. Er-jwun argues that it is not for us to judge, by the criteria of theologies now fashionable, the martyrs' quality of faith. "For them," he says, "the question of loyalty to the Roman pontiff was not a question of understanding the church [according to current ecclesiologies] but of believing in the church according to the only understanding available to them."
Fr. Er-jwun writes: "The primacy of the pope is such an integral part of our faith. When that was being attacked there was no question of whether this was a primary or secondary truth. It was the choice between giving to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, or giving in completely to Caesar. Remember John the Baptist. He said, 'It is not allowed,' and paid with his head. Yet you may say that he was overreacting on something which might be qualified as a minor matter of private morality in an Oriental palace. Please don't tell the underground faithful that they made a big fuss about a secondary truth: Bishops and priests died in prison for a secondary truth, religious men and women suffered every kind of persecution and humiliation for a secondary truth, young Catholic lay men and women entered prison and labor camps in their twenties and come out in their fifties only as second-class citizens-and this for secondary truth."
Fr. Er-jwun notes that some years ago at an ecumenical gathering in Montreal the official delegates from China were congratulated by Western Christians for collaborating with the regime by breaking their connection with Rome. Here was a bizarre instance of Westerners not only not supporting the martyrs but cheering on those who had surrendered to Caesar. Fr. Er-jwun's argument is applicable to Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike. Those who choose death and suffering rather than compromising the faith as they understand it are to be revered. We must not impose an ideological test or judge them by what Fr. Er-jwun calls "our sophisticated theological categories, our advanced way of understanding the faith." The timidity of Western Christians in resisting the idols of our time gives little ground for assuming our spiritual superiority. To the contrary, this century's millions of martyrs put to shame our conceits. And that probably goes a long way toward explaining our embarrassed silence about the martyrs.
Canards that have been around for a long time begin to smell. Particularly malodorous is the issue of Response, the publication of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that repeats the outrageous charge that Pope Pius XII was indifferent to the crimes of Hitler, notably the extermination of Jews. "From the outset of the conflict," says Response, "Pope Pius XII sat on the throne of St. Peter in stony silence, as the trains carrying millions of unsuspecting victims criss-crossed Europe en route to the gas chambers." You get the general tone. It is basically a replay of Rolf Hochhuth's discredited allegations in his 1963 play The Deputy. The article's point is to protest the fact that Pius XII, along with thousands of others, is being considered for canonization as a saint.
The article claims that its allegations against Pius XII are supported by "the overwhelming body of scholarly evidence from Jewish and non- Jewish sources." That, too, is nonsense. Numerous scholarly studies, recently that of Anglican priest and Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick (Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War), have demonstrated that Pius was intensively involved in opposing Hitler and all he represented, going so far as to encourage tyrannicide. Whether Pius did everything he might have done or should have done during World War II we do not know, and we certainly do not know whether he was a saint. But that these stale and discredited charges come from a source such as the Simon Weisenthal Center is, to put it delicately, disappointing.
Also disappointing is that Response enlists a Catholic theologian, Harry James Cargas, to support the claim that the possible canonization of Pius is part of a Vatican plot "to appropriate the Holocaust to itself." Cited as supportive evidence is the canonization of Father Maximilian Kolbe and the beatification of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who was also killed in the Holocaust. The implication is that the Holocaust has not horror enough to be shared, and Catholics are butting into a uniquely Jewish act. The Response article and its implications are somewhere between unseemly and obscene. Relations between Jews and Christians are enhanced by a measure of mutual respect that allows each community to honor its dead as it deems fit. Happily, such mutual respect is increasingly the pattern today. The Response article is noteworthy for being an exception.
Kenneth Offner works with Intervarsity Christian fellowship at Harvard. He has his work cut out for him. But recently he's been wondering whether evangelicalism is up to the task. In his newsletter he says he finds himself enjoying First Things ever so much more than Christianity Today, and is intensely interested in books from Ignatius Press while having zero interest in the Top Ten Evangelical Books of the Month. Is Offner on his way to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy? Not necessarily, but he thinks American evangelicalism is in deep detritus. "We are drifting so far from our Reformational roots that were Luther or Calvin to appear today they might see more things they recognized in Catholicism than in evangelicalism. (Which is not to imply that they would become Catholics!)"
Offner includes his own taxonomy of what is meant by evangelicalism today. It is a question often asked. Most students of the subject come up with at least three criteria that define evangelicalism: belief in absolute authority of Scripture, a born again experience, an eagerness to evangelize others. But Offner says there are twelve different evangelicalisms, although not all of them have a brand name. Here they are, followed by the themes that characterize them. (1) Reformed Evangelicalism-thinking Christianly, transforming culture, changing institutions, opposed to dualism. (2) Anabaptist Evangelicalism- community, countercultural, pacifist, servanthood vs. authority. (3) Neo-Orthodox Evangelicalism-knowing God vs. knowing about God, narrative theology vs. propositional theology. (4) Charismatic Evangelicalism- expecting Signs and Wonders, personal experience, God speaks afresh today. (5) Theonomist Evangelicalism-God's unchanging law, salvation as God's lordship, postmillennial, America as Christian country. (6) Fundamentalist Evangelicalism-antiliberal, biblicist, seriousness of (external) sin, everything is black and white. (7) Dispensationalist Evangelicalism-nondenominational, pro-Israel, grace vs. works. (8) Pro- American Pietist Evangelicalism-America as Christian country, civil religion, personal piety, power of politics. (9) Anti-American and Anti- Pietist Evangelicalism-sinfulness of capitalism, anti-rules, anti-Right, anti-Fundamentalist, freedom is what counts. (10) Therapeutic Evangelicalism-inner healing, sin as sickness, evil as dysfunction, self-knowledge. (11) Social Action Evangelicalism-priority of the poor, physical-spiritual unity, works vs. faith. (12) Liturgical/Sacramental Evangelicalism-tradition, sacraments, ordered worship, respect for the mystical.
Offner goes on to say that only the last is Trinitarian, the others focusing almost exclusively on the Father or the Son (with the Reformed including both Father and Son). And now we expect cries of protest from our many evangelical readers who will say-and they are probably right- that they don't find themselves described in any one of the above. In truth, Offner paints with broad strokes, and much of contemporary evangelicalism laps over into two or more of the categories suggested. Yet there is undeniable utility in trying to get somewhat more specific about what is meant by evangelical. The inevitable price to be paid is that it becomes less possible to speak univocally about "American evangelicalism."
As one who recently lay gravely ill on the sick bed for months, this writer has become adept at distinguishing between those who are really comfortable around sick people and those who aren't. We were for years among those who were not, but the hunch is that that has changed as a result of the recent illness. In any case, this is but a way of introducing the point that it is again time for us to visit our sick friend, the National Council of Churches.
The prognosis is grim. General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell puts a brave face on things. She says the NCC is "not coming apart at the seams," but it is "groaning" and there is a chance of recovery. Recovery in this instance is called "transformation," and the NCC has decided to appoint a committee charged with presenting "models for transformation" by next May. A new committee is the medicine of choice in such cases. Meanwhile, says Campbell, the NCC must immediately get to work on urgent tasks. "They include shedding unnecessary bureaucracy, improving relations among member churches, being more responsive to the needs of local congregations, nurturing ecumenical leadership, and improving communication skills." In sum, the NCC must begin to combat the diseases with which it is afflicted.
Already, one of the council's four major program units-the Unity and Relationship Unit-has eliminated its top administrative position. That unit was in charge of interfaith dialogue, networking churches, and ecumenical education. In short, it was responsible for advancing the constituting purpose of the "ecumenical" council. Not depending alone on the "transformation" committee, the NCC brought in a financial consulting firm, Cambridge Associates. They concluded that the council is in need of, wouldn't you know it, "fundamental transformation." The main recommendation is for "downsizing" at all levels of the organization. One council official also suggested that it may be necessary to draw on the faith experiences of groups "outside our normal formulations of 'church'"-meaning groups outside the oldline churches. That may mean reaching out to evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, although it will be hard to persuade them that there is any good reason for climbing into the NCC sick bed, which may soon become a death bed.
Not surprisingly, money, or the lack of it, has everything to do with the illness. Decreased contributions from member churches required the NCC to cut $1.1 million from its approved $51.7 million budget. The latter figure is a bit misleading, however: $44 million of it, mainly in government relief money, goes to Church World Service (CWS). So it's really $1.1 million out of $7.7 million, and further cuts are almost certainly on the way. An additional complication is that the director of CWS has resigned, and the question is once again raised whether NCC and CWS should go their separate ways. Cutting off the $44 million received through intravenous feeding tubes will leave the NCC looking even more moribund than it does at present.
We expect that many readers do not enjoy visiting the gravely ill. Some ethicists say that when treatment becomes excessively burdensome or counterproductive our obligation is to assist the patient in killing himself. That is euthanasia, an unspeakable crime to which we ought to be uncompromisingly opposed. Institutions are very different from persons, however. The time may have come to pull the plug on the National Council of Churches. Whatever the good intentions that launched it, and whatever good things it may have done along the way of its forty-plus years, the NCC became an anger factory of politically correct and divisive agitations. In no way does it plausibly represent in American life the forty million members that belong to its member organizations. Most important, it has become an anti-ecumenical organization, increasing and hardening the divides between dispirited liberalism and the rest of the Christian community. When an institution founded to advance ecumenism turns against ecumenism, the disease is too far gone for treatment and it is time to say our goodbyes.
The "population bomb" alarmists are building up steam for the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development. Which is good reason to be thankful for a recent Vatican paper on the subject. In Europe, North America, and elsewhere, the paper notes, the big problem is a decline of birth rates well below the population replacement level. This results in an aging population and severe strains on pension and medical care systems that must be supported by a shrinking work force. There is also a cultural and psychological impact. The paper asks: "What are the long- term social, cultural, economic, and ethical consequences for a society which does not replace itself? How can one assure the rejuvenation of a society which seems to have lost its desire to transmit its identity and values through a flourishing new generation? To what extent are the aging of society and a certain resistance toward encouraging childbearing mutually interrelated? To what extent do they together contribute to the evolution of a pessimistic vision of life?"
The failure of a population to reproduce itself cannot be made up for by immigration alone. In addition, says the Holy See, the "push factor" is stronger than the "pull factor" in migration patterns. "The assumption is that most people would not move if they could enjoy decent living conditions at home," the statement declares. So development, including trade liberalization, is the effective answer to frequently disruptive migrations of large numbers of people. In addition, the paper strongly condemns the promotion of sterilization in programs that are typically directed at the poor and ignorant, and it underscores the freedom of spouses in planning their families. The document states once again the irrefutable truth, albeit a truth often denied by the population controllers, that reduced population growth is tied to social development. As people achieve a measure of economic stability and prosperity, they tend to exercise greater planning in the number of children they have. The name of effective population control is development. That is the lesson to be learned about poor countries. As for Europe and North America, reduced population growth is no longer a goal but an increasingly serious problem.
We took note a while back of Aaron Wildavsky and Max Singer who together wrote The Real World Order (Chatham House). They offer a rather hopeful, even cheery, view of the next seventy-five years in which almost all the countries of the world will achieve a tolerable level of prosperity and democracy. Of course we have reason to hope that they're right. But there are, as you might expect, very different views. Consider, for instance, John Gray, distinguished political philosopher and Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. Writing in Social Philosophy & Policy, he concludes his survey of the post-Communist world with this:
"The geopolitical circumstances in which the post-Communist states struggle toward civil society and the market economy are not propitious. If present trends are any guide, the coming century augurs, not the end of history, but a tragic epoch in which history is resumed on traditional lines, but on a yet vaster scale-an epoch of Malthusian wars and religious convulsions, of ecological catastrophes and mass deaths of a magnitude far greater even than those of our century, an epoch in which the Occidental supremacy of the past few hundred years is at length eclipsed. The challenge facing the post-Communist states is that of effecting a transition to civil society that presupposes a Hobbesian peace at a time when in most of them ancient enmities augur civil disorder and war, and when on the global scale the passing of the postwar settlement has issued not in a new world order but in a chaos of nations."
That was just in case you were having a nice day so far. Taking on the same subject from a different view is Gertrude Himmelfarb, writing on "Religion and Nationalism" in The National Interest. She criticizes a "liberal imagination" that is so enlightened, progressive, and finally narrow that it is incapable of recognizing the perduring force of inconvenient phenomena such as religion and nationalism. Progressives are inclined to take "the long view," but she agrees with Lionel Trilling that "'the long view' is the falsest historical view of all." Seen from a sufficient distance, wrote Trilling, "the corpses and hacked limbs are not so very terrible, and eventually they even begin to compose themselves into a 'meaningful pattern.'"
In the long view, it is said, religion and nationalism will somehow, but surely, wither away. Himmelfarb considers Francis Fukuyama, he of end- of-history fame. Fukuyama is confident that "the desire for recognition based on nationality or race is not a rational one." After the wars of religion in Europe, religion was tamed and consigned to the purely private sphere, says Fukuyama. As he puts it, "liberalism vanquished religion in Europe." The same will happen to nationalism. "Nationalism can be defanged and modernized like religion." Of course some people will continue to embrace nationalism as a matter of personal taste. "The French can continue to savor their wines and the Germans their sausages, but this will all be done within the sphere of private life alone."
Himmelfarb is not buying. She writes that "we should be inspired to seek a nationalist remedy for the diseases most incident to nationalism-not the denial of nationalism in the name of synthetic internationalism, but the affirmation of nationalism 'rightly understood,' as Tocqueville might have said: a Western-type, civic-minded nationalism, complete with checks and balances, representative government, civic liberties, the rule of law (all of which happen to be the republican remedies for the diseases of republicanism). And among these remedies (as both Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers recognized) is religion itself-or rather, a plurality of religions, religions that tolerate each other and that are themselves not merely tolerated but respected, and not merely as a private affair but as an integral part of public life."
Himmelfarb concludes: "The bloody spectacle of nationalism at its worst, a nationalism that degrades religion as well as itself, may teach us to appreciate nationalism at its best, a nationalism tempered and elevated by religion as well as by all the other resources of civilization." It is a conclusion that, in our judgment, is elevated, elevating, and eminently reasonable. We would only add that religion not only tempers and elevates human passions that can get nasty, but, as Tocqueville well understood, religion-meaning the Judeo-Christian forms of religion-is the foundation of the liberal democratic order. The refusal to recognize this fact is one of the most stubborn failures of intellectuals in our time. This refusal is close to being unanimous in large sectors of our culture-the university, the philanthropies, the communications media, and the courts. In American religion itself there is slight recognition of the ways in which the presuppositions of our constitutional order were originally, and are necessarily, religious in character.
Himmelfarb is not saying, and she is right not to say, that we can count on religion to come to the rescue of a nation and world set upon its way to bloody chaos. Religion is as riddled with human frailties as any other reality. Far from tempering and elevating passions, it can also inflame them. But that is a truism that most intellectuals have learned all too well. In their minds, religion is either withering away or to be contained within the sphere of privacy. In either case it is viewed almost exclusively as a threat to the public order. Given current trends, it is hard to imagine a widespread revival of Tocqueville's understanding of the connections between religion and democracy. Yet we have no choice but to work for such a revival if we are to fend off the doleful future depicted by John Gray and others.
The growth of religious sects in putatively Catholic Latin America has come in for a great deal of attention in recent years. Latin America has the largest concentration of Catholic population in the world, and it is understandable that developments there are of utmost concern to the Holy See. Father Frank Rode, secretary of the Council for Dialogue with Non- Believers, has recently delivered a background paper on the phenomenon and it is getting high-level attention.
It is necessary, says Rode, to make clear distinctions "between historical Protestant churches, Pentecostal movements, and non-Christian sects." The term "sect" should not be used for the Protestant churches. He acknowledges that "this distinction is very important and is not always respected in official declarations and documents. It must be understood that the great denominations and Christian churches must be united in their struggle against sects, which constitute a common threat for them." A quite different phenomenon, he indicates, is the long- standing existence of syncretistic groups in which people practice cults from Africa and elsewhere while, at the same time, having their children baptized and considering themselves good Catholics. This is a result, says the author, of Hispano-Portuguese evangelization being "much more tolerant than the Anglo-Saxon."
Rode believes that the inroads made by the sects have often been exaggerated, and he discusses in some detail what he sees as their weaknesses. At the same time, he emphasizes that the situation cannot be remedied without a massive renewal of Catholic evangelization and catechesis that focuses on the distinctive beliefs and claims of the Catholic Church. As for the weaknesses of the sects, however, he says this: "A characteristic that weakens sects is lack of respect for truth. Their forcing and twisting of Holy Scripture to their fancy is well- known. Thus they lack intellectual legitimacy. And it is no accident that there are practically no intellectuals of merit in their ranks. This should limit their future spread, since an historical movement spreads in proportion to the truth it contains."
Much talk about the spread of sects is also misinformed, he indicates. "When we talk about sects, we generally insist on their continually increasing numbers and on their proliferation. But we forget that sects do not have a long life. They appear and disappear in the course of history, like those very prolific insects which last a few days or hours. How many sects are in the cemeteries of history! The same is true of their members. Many enter and leave. The difference is that they go in amidst great flurry-when they leave no one says anything. This gives the impression of continuous growth and invincible triumph. The truth is more discreet and sometimes more humiliating for them." With unabashed schadenfreude, he adds, "It is good to know it."
The Rode document is important and well-informed, but it is not without its problems. It does not deal with the social, moral, and economic transformations that so frequently attend belonging to a sect-the kind of transformations so well documented by David Martin in his Tongues of Fire. In addition, despite the insistence upon clear distinctions, it remains unclear as to just what differentiates churches from sects from syncretistic religions. If by classic Reformation churches one means only such as the Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian, they are hardly a significant factor in Latin America (apart from certain large Lutheran immigrant groups). How about, say, Southern Baptists or Assemblies of God? Are they sects in the meaning of this document? One remains uncertain about the answer to that.
Rode says that theological dialogue with the sects is almost impossible because they are so hostile, so ignorant, and so afraid of being intellectually embarrassed. The ecumenical imperative is no doubt exceedingly challenging in such cases, but it is nonetheless the imperative to which the Catholic Church is pledged. In Latin America, only the Catholic Church bears an ecclesiology that makes work for Christian unity an integral part of the life and mission of the Church. If in its relationship to rival movements the Catholic Church descends into religious warfare, it risks losing the seriousness with which it holds to its singular claims of being Church. It risks being perceived, and in some ways becoming, a church among the churches, even a sect among the sects. We know it is too easy to offer advice from afar. But for the sake of all Christians in Latin America, present and future, the Catholic Church has the peculiar responsibility to keep alive and credible the work for Christian unity. The Rode document helps in that connection, but much more needs to be said and done.
The German Constitutional Court, the highest in the country, has reaffirmed that "from the beginning of pregnancy a right to life belongs to unborn human life, on the strength of its human dignity." Although the makeup of the court has changed, this is the same principle adopted by the court in a 1975 ruling that said Germans had a particular obligation to guard against the Nazi atrocities derived from the logic of abortion. The present ruling strikes down an abortion compromise reached with the former East Germany, where the Communist regime did not recognize a right to life.
That compromise law was much more protective of the unborn than is U.S. law, but, said the high court, it was not protective enough. The state, said the court, "has a duty to place itself protectively before unborn life, shielding this life from unlawful attacks by others." Abortion cannot be included in a national health insurance scheme, for that would make the "act of killing" seem normal, said the court. Not all abortions that are unlawful (rechtswidrig) will be criminally punished. Criminal punishment may be applicable in the later periods of pregnancy, but the goal of the court is to encourage the mother to bring her child to birth. To advance that goal, there must be a waiting period, informational counseling with a pro-life purpose, and a wide array of prenatal and postnatal social support systems.
The wisdom of the German court is of several parts. It recognizes that the debate about abortion is not just about abortion; it presumes basic beliefs about human life and community responsibility. It recognizes also that the criminalization of abortion is not enough. The goal of government and other social institutions is to reduce the number of abortions as much as possible, declaring it "unlawful" even if it is unpunished in some cases, while providing maximum incentives and helps for women to bring their children to birth. As we work to move beyond the madness of American law from Roe through Casey, we can take a lesson from the Germans. It may be the most important lesson we have to learn from the former enemies of life whom we defeated in World War II. They are now teaching us what we fought for then.
Sources: "The Common Good: Old Idea, New Urgency" reprinted
in Origins, June 24, 1993. Father Zen Er-jwun on Catholic martyrs
in China, Origins, March 25, 1993. Article against the canonization
of Pius XII, Response, Spring 1993. Kenneth Offner newsletter, March
29, 1993. Joan Brown Campbell on the recovery of the NCC, Christian
Century, June 2-9, 1993. On the "population bomb," Origins,
April 15, 1993. John Gray on a post-Communist world, Social Philosophy
& Policy, Summer 1993; Gertrude Himmelfarb on "Religion and
Nationalism" in National Interest, Summer 1993. On the proliferation
of religious sects in Latin America, Catholic International, June
1993. For information on the German abortion decision, thanks to Richard
Stith of Valparaiso Law School.
While We're At It: Malcolm Gladwell on AIDS, New Republic, June 21, 1993. On shaman priest Thomas Berry, National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1993. On Vanderbilt Chapel, Vanderbilt Today, Spring 1993. On Bible-reading Russian generals, National and International Religion Report, May 3, 1993. Dr. Joycelyn Elders on condoms, Orlando Sentinel, January 31, 1993. David Kelley on TV show "Picket Fences," Life at Risk, January 1993. The big mistake of the pro-life movement according to New Oxford Review, March 1993. Bruce Chapman on National Service program, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1993. On prayer at Vista, California school board meeting, National & International Religion Report, June 14, 1993.