The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with about a million members, arises out of the Restoration Movement launched by Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). The body was formed by a merger between Barton W. Stone's "Christians" and Campbell's "Disciples" in 1832, and it was at one time the fastest-growing Protestant denomination in the country. We mention this because the March issue of its magazine, Touchstone, has extensive coverage of agitations occasioned by the 1994 declaration "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT)- agitations that have their parallel in other parts of the myriad worlds of evangelical Protestantism. Frederick W. Norris of the Emmanuel School of Religion in Tennessee suggests that the last time Disciples took such a serious look at Roman Catholicism was when Campbell debated Bishop John Purcell of Cincinnati in 1837.
Touchstone is well aware that some evangelicals are exceedingly unhappy with the declaration. For instance, Dave Hunt, author of best- selling books such as The Seduction of Christianity, writes: "The most significant event in almost five hundred years of church history took place March 29, 1994. . . . I neither impugn the motives nor question the salvation of the evangelical signers. Yet I believe the document represents the most devastating blow against the gospel in at least one thousand years." Professor Norris remembers his grandfather saying, "Roman Catholics are lying liberals. They pervert Scripture, but never acknowledge that they do." "In the 1990s," writes Norris, "there are not only differences in our approaches to Catholics, but also developments within Roman Catholicism itself. The Roman Catholic Church that once regularly burned dissenters now officially finds Christians outside itself to be brothers and sisters in error. Not killing each other is a great gain. . . . 'Evangelicals and Catholics Together' emphasizes much of what we share in faith and many ways in which we may pray and work together for good. Neglecting such opportunities is sinful; seizing them is a mark of those who worship a gracious God."
Touchstone editor Simon J. Dahlman observes that ECT "is little more than the published hopes and dreams of a small group of influential church leaders." "So why did ECT gain so much attention?" he asks. "Why are books and magazines, including this one, devoting thousands of words to the subject of evangelical-Catholic relations? The reason is that this is a grassroots movement, often the most powerful-and, in a way, uncontrollable-kind. Church history is full of names like Francis, Luther, Wesley, Campbell, Stone-people whose monumental contributions began with no official sanction but with faith and thought that inspired thought (or ignited fury) around the world. So even if the current talk about cooperation between Catholics and Protestants is not official, it has the potential of influencing churches and history in years to come." Dahlman's own advice is that of Gamaliel in Acts 5: "If this plan is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them. You might even be found opposing God."
In the past year, many articles, several books, and a number of evangelical radio and television programs have attacked ECT vigorously, and sometimes venomously. Word, the large Texas-based evangelical house, has now published Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission ($14.95 paper), which includes essays by a number of participants in ECT (Charles Colson, Avery Dulles, James Packer, Mark Noll, George Weigel, and this writer). It has not escaped notice that ECT has generated very little controversy among Catholics. That is no doubt because Catholics are long accustomed to ecumenical initiatives, and have no difficulty in acknowledging that non-Catholic Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ who, by virtue of baptism and faith, are "truly but imperfectly in communion with the Catholic Church" (Vatican Council II).
As Packer's essay underscores with particular effectiveness, the situation is very different with evangelical Protestants. For most evangelicals, the Catholic Church has been understood as the enemy of the Gospel and even as the Antichrist. In that view, it is the duty of Protestants to convert Catholics to the true faith and work for the extirpation of "the papal system" from the face of the earth. To many readers such language will sound impossibly antiquated, but that is because they have not paid respectful attention to what many evangelical Christians believe, and believe deeply. Catholics and liberal Protestants, who tend to take ecumenical engagement for granted, are inclined to be condescending toward evangelicals. Such condescension is both unwarranted and fiercely resented by evangelicals. It is not true that evangelicals are simply playing ecumenical catch-up. As I contend in my contribution to the book, they frequently bring to this engagement a biblical and theological urgency that is typically not found among liberal Protestants and is too often missing among Catholics. Catholics, too, have much to learn from this encounter, and one hopes they will be reading and discussing Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
ECT is neither the best nor the worst thing that has happened in the last five hundred years of Christian history, never mind the last one thousand years. But, to judge by the response to it in the past year, it is something of potentially great historic importance. A respected evangelical theologian who wishes to remain anonymous has said: "I pray that what you and your colleagues have done is pleasing to God. I cannot praise or condemn it. I expect that this may change forever what generations of Bible-believing Protestants have thought was their mission in relation to Roman Catholicism. I pray that you are right. I tremble to think that you may be wrong." That ominous sense of what is at stake is not uncommon among evangelicals, and it should be more evident among Catholics, as we reflect together on the Christian mission in the Third Millennium.
When Harold Ross launched the New Yorker in 1925, the line was that it is not edited for the little lady in Dubuque. In fact, it was edited precisely for her, and for myriad other middlebrow Americans who felt themselves to be in exile from New York, from the center of fashion, the arts, and clever opinion. On coffee tables throughout Middle America, the display of the New Yorker was a statement that the people who live here are not defined by the hinterland to which fate has consigned them; they are in touch with the larger world. Is there a bathroom or den in any university town in America that is not graced with Saul Steinberg's New Yorker cover of a map showing Manhattan as the center of the world?
For more than sixty years, the magazine demonstrated a genteel genius for providing the sensation of being safely sophisticated, not entirely removed from cultural and intellectual chic. Then Tina Brown was brought over from Vanity Fair to inaugurate a new era, to lift up the stones and expose another New York, presumably a more real New York of strident leftist partisanship, of polymorphous perversities, of flaunted contempt for those Americans to whom Harold Ross pitched his product. As she had turned Vanity Fair into vanity most foul, Ms. Brown quickly turned the New Yorker into the Village Voice, forcing that rag to find a yet sleazier niche. The editorial goal of the New Yorker, said William Shawn, Ross's hand-picked successor, was to honor the "genuine, authentic, real, and true," and to scorn the "specious, spurious, meretricious, and dishonest." Today the specious, spurious, meretricious, and dishonest pretty well summarizes what Tina Brown is doing with the magazine.
Ms. Brown and those she has brought on board to create the new New Yorker are of the arrested adolescent school of journalism in which "creativity" never gets beyond self-congratulatory daring in defying putative taboos. It is a difficult enterprise to maintain in a time when taboos lie strewn across the cultural battlefield, but Ms. Brown, being British, knows that there is still a giggle to be milked from an audience that only vaguely remembers what was supposed to be sacred about the institutions and ideas now so casually mocked. Witness the former Church of England as an object of British humor, or television's Bennie Hill dropping his pants, which is always good for a hearty har- har from a people once held up to Americans as the embodiment of sophistication.
Quickly into her tenure as editor, a New Yorker cover pictured a Hasidic Jew making out with a sexy black lady. That occasioned much comment in the local press, and at the dinner tables of the chattering classes Ms. Brown was remarked as a lady of great daring. Soon, an acquaintance observed a while ago, the New Yorker would have cartoons (the magazine insists upon calling them "drawings") with naked people in bed. Sure enough, that very week such a cartoon appeared, the subject being, if we recall, impotence. Look for the appearance of more New Yorker cartoons in men's washrooms. Also outstanding in the trash department have been long articles by David Remnick, who had earlier written a fine book about the collapse of Soviet Communism in which he evidenced great insight and respect for Jews and Judaism. In his more recent efforts, Remnick has deployed his talents in bashing the Pope and celebrating Elaine Pagel's polemical outbursts against Christian hangups about good and evil.
Among the other instances of "creativity" at the new New Yorker, the cover of the issue coinciding with Holy Week this year was notable. It was a crude cartoon of an Easter bunny crucified on an IRS return. Unlike the cover with the amorous Hasid, this occasioned little comment locally. One might think that has something to do with the Jewish presence in New York publishing, but it possibly has more to do with people having become accustomed to Ms. Brown's juvenile delinquencies. It's just Tina being daring again, don't you know. The cover was titled "The Theology of the Tax Cut," and the editors explained that it is "a pointed allegory about faith, fantasy, and the politics of the moment." Uh huh.
Of course the Catholic League protested, as well it should have, but not much attention was paid to such "special interests" that object to the trashing of the most sacred symbol of the faith of the great majority of Americans. Can't those people take a joke? The cartoonist, Art Spiegelman, said he didn't know why the Catholic League was upset, since all he was trying to do was criticize Republican proposals for a tax cut that would "crucify" the average American. Ah well, that's different. We thought it was an egregious trashing of the cross of Christ but, now that Mr. Spiegelman explains that it was all in the good cause of scoring a partisan point against those dreadful Republicans, that puts it in a quite different light. A press release issued by the magazine further explained the significance of the Spiegelman cover: "The image suggests that a collision of secular and religious ideologies has come to dominate the national conversation of the moment." It does not say which is crucifying which.
For the Christmas issue, Mr. Spiegelman had done a cover of a urinating Santa Claus, but Ms. Brown killed it. Some things are still sacred, after all. As for the crucified rabbit, the highfalutin' talk about "a pointed allegory" was undermined when the New York Observer noted that Hustler magazine had published a similar cover in 1978 showing a plush bunny nailed to the cross. After overtaking the Village Voice, Ms. Brown, it seems, is now aspiring to compete with Hustler. Toward that end, the April 1 issue featured Annie Leibovitz photos of the crowd around the O. J. Simpson trial, including a shirtless Kato Kaelin blowdrying his hair, and a bare-bottomed Paula Barbieri. How far will the daring Tina Brown dare to go?
Ms. Brown may know what she is doing, however. Dubuque isn't what it used to be either. While I was lecturing recently at a college in that vicinity, my hostess mentioned Ms. Brown's magazine and allowed that, "spiritually speaking," she really lived in New York. The house did have that cretinous air about it. On the other hand, the circulation of the New Yorker is no evidence that people care for it very much. The subscription price of sixteen dollars per year is a little less than thirty cents per issue, which is considerably under production and mailing costs. They are in fact paying people to let the thing into their homes in order to maintain a circulation that attracts advertisements that are as sumptuously vulgar as is the content of the magazine plain vulgar. Specious, spurious, meretricious, and dishonest. That is what Messrs. Ross and Shawn said the New Yorker must never be, and what, under Tina Brown, it has become. The more contemporary term is tacky.
What a delight to have something to recommend unreservedly. Pro Ecclesia is far and away the best journal of theology published in this country today. It is a scholarly journal, of course, but for its type it is refreshingly accessible to the nonspecialist. Published under mainly Lutheran auspices, it is ecumenical and bills itself as "a journal of catholic and evangelical theology." We've said good things about Pro Ecclesia before, but then out comes a new quarterly issue and it seems necessary to say them again.
In the Spring 1995 issue we have Mark Noll and Lyman Kellstedt on the future of evangelicalism. They use David Bebbington's scheme of marks that identify evangelicalism: conversionism (an emphasis on the new birth as a life-changing experience), biblicism (reliance on the Bible as ultimate authority), activism (a commitment to evangelizing), and crucicentrism (a focus on Christ's redeeming work on the cross, usually pictured as the only way of salvation). Noll and Kellstedt may overestimate the size of evangelicalism, including as they do millions of Lutherans and others who may not be comfortable in that camp. They rightly underscore, however, the role that a relatively small group of Dutch Calvinists have played in modern evangelicalism, providing it with "a heritage of serious academic work and experienced philosophical reasoning," as well as producing some of the major publishers (Baker, Eerdmans, Zondervan) who enabled evangelicals to communicate after they had been shut out of the New York publishing world in the 1920s. The more polemical side of the Calvinist heritage has also played a big part in criticism of irenic initiatives such as the declaration "Evangelicals and Catholics Together."
Examining the demography and cultural influence of evangelicals, Noll and Kellstedt observe that "there may be a grain of truth to at least the first two-thirds of Michael Weisskopf's assertion in the Washington Post that the grassroots supporters of the Religious Right are 'largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.'" In their view, the foreseeable passing of Billy Graham from the scene hangs like a huge cloud over American evangelicalism. His has been an inestimably powerful influence containing the centrifugal forces within an evangelicalism that, they believe, is not nearly so unified as either its friends or critics have usually assumed.
Conclusion: "In the end, it is difficult to characterize periods when cultures or movements experience escalating centrifugal force. North American evangelicalism seems, at the end of the twentieth century, to be living in such an era. Such times have often disoriented religious believers (as during the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, or the First World War). But such times have also, on occasion, witnessed evangelical renewal, as in the ninth- and thirteenth-century revivals of Roman Catholic monasticism. Historians of evangelicalism may be excused hope for the future, since to study evangelical history is to be regularly reminded that great social, economic, political, and religious confusion characterized the era when John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield first brought evangelicalism into the world." When evangelicalism is construed so broadly, even to include medieval monasticism, the prospects for its staying power seem considerably improved.
In the same issue, George Weigel writes on "The Neoconservative Difference: A Proposal for the Renewal of Church and Society." It is in largest part about the work of Michael Novak, Weigel, and this scribe, who has to fess up and say that we considered publishing the Weigel article but it seemed too self-referential for these pages. It is, nonetheless, an admirable summation and analysis of "neoconservatism," mainly in the Catholic context but with critically important connections to sectors of Protestantism and American Judaism. Weigel's conclusion: "That the 'neo-conservative difference' in American Catholicism has been deeply influenced by John Paul II should be plain. For we have seen in the Holy Father's ministry and teaching a model of the Catholicism to whose development we would wish to contribute our best intellectual energies. God willing, there will be many more years of direct inspiration from John Paul. But the mark that this pope has left on the Church seems likely to be an enduring one. And thus the effort to develop the distinctive neoconservative approach to the renewal of church and society will continue . . . for some time to come."
One might respond that the term neoconservative will only be useful so long as other labels-liberal, progressive, traditionalist, restorationist-stay more or less in place. There is always talk about how such labels are no longer meaningful, but such talk, one fears, is usually wishful thinking. Ask people to respond to a list of typically disputed questions, and, with distressing predictability, most everybody ends up in the ideational category where you expected them to end up. Maybe we should not think it distressing. After all, people who pride themselves on being unpredictable in their views usually haven't thought about things very carefully. Transcending categories, like obsessive open-mindedness, is itself a category that is, more often than not, easily placeable on the left of the ideational spectrum. To be sure, the people who are predictable often haven't thought about things very carefully, either, although those who have thought about things very carefully usually are, more or less, predictable. In any event, an inclination to rebel against the categories is probably a healthy thing- unless the category in question is so very reflective and persuasive as George Weigel's description of neoconservatism.
In the same issue, "Crossing the Threshold of Rome" by Jeffrey Silleck is a Lutheran pondering Protestant dilemmas in the face of the surprising vitality of Catholicism. Silleck doesn't indicate that he's thinking about crossing the threshold into full communion with Rome, but the suggestion is that there's not much "there" there to a Protestantism that is living in reaction to where Rome was. He writes: "There is a profound symbiotic relationship between Roman Catholicism and the Reformation tradition. The caricatures which each has of the other, and of their own position, do not do justice to the dependence which all of Christianity has upon Rome and the gift which the Reformation offers that church. . . . So it should be of some note, if not alarm, to the Reformation tradition that there is real change, movement, and momentum of direction in Roman Catholicism. The symbiosis between these two bodies is disrupted by the change in either. If one is redefined, the other must do the same to survive. The Reformation tradition is in danger of living in response to a tradition that simply is not there any longer. The Second Vatican Council signalled a change so enormous and so profound and so different than either liberal Catholics or conservative Catholics portray it to be, that all of Christianity is shaken to the roots. The Reformation tradition since the Council has cast about in the areas of pastoral theology, praxis/justice/political theology, fundamentalism and unitive/ecumenical theology searching for that defining niche and role in the greater Christian church. With the Council, Rome was moving and everybody else was left searching to find the direction of that movement. This pope has probably answered that question of direction for the foreseeable future."
One may very much wonder whether, in order to survive, Catholicism must redefine itself in response to what Silleck depicts as the flounderings of Protestantism. That would seem to be a self-destructive course, and certainly not the direction pointed by this pope. But Silleck's ruminations do underscore the way in which Catholicism is the doctrinal and ecclesial baseline for other Christians (not so much, it should be noted, for the Orthodox). A baseline-the known measure by which others are measured and measure themselves-is required if "Christianity" is to be a determinate reality through time. The baseline may be viewed with respect or resentment, with admiration or hostility, or a mix of all these and other sentiments, but it cannot be ignored. Protestantism is defined in distinction from Catholicism in a way that Catholicism is not defined in distinction from Protestantism. It follows that Protestantism requires a much weightier defining distinction. The relationship between the two, one might suggest to Silleck, is not so much "symbiotic" as it is based upon the difference, ecclesially speaking, between the constitutive and the derivative. In the absence of a defining difference that compels separation from the baseline, people can invent a defining difference (anti-Catholics are adept at doing that) or they can explore the various alternative meanings of "crossing the threshold of Rome." But those responsible for this excellent "journal of catholic and evangelical theology" already know that. Christians of a catholic sensibility cannot be content with belonging to an ecclesial "niche." (Pro Ecclesia, Box 327, Delhi, NY 13753. $25 per year.)
Taki, that irreverent chronicler of the low life of high society, has observed that in recent years American men have been unpleasantly surprising their friends by coming out of the closet in mid-life, while the Brits had the much more sensible approach of getting pederasty out of their system at public school and then getting on with life. That seems to be changing now as OutRage, the British edition of our ACT-UP, has started "outing" prominent public figures. Peter Tatchell, head of OutRage, was himself "outed" after a failed Labor campaign for Parliament, and has since been getting even by outing others. Apparently under pressure from OutRage, David Hope, Anglican Bishop of London, has publicly declared his "ambiguous sexuality," while averring that he has lived a life of chaste celibacy. The development generated public outrage at OutRage and a great deal of sympathy for Hope, who has subsequently been named Archbishop of York.
Without knowing the details of Hope's circumstance, it is regrettable that his public statement seems to lend credence to the simplistic straight/gay bipolarity that is the stock in rage of gay activism and by which Hope declares himself "ambiguous." Sexual desires and stimuli, one might suggest, have always been an ambiguous affair, and people should not be put in the position of publicly rating themselves on a Kinsey- like scale of one to six. Nobody, apart from the prurient, should care about the bishop's nocturnal fantasies. They are nobody's business but God's and, possibly, his spiritual director's. Prurience is from prurire, meaning to itch, and pandering to the prurient can only magnify the irritation. But we may be naive in thinking that it is still possible to maintain the distinction between public and private upon which discretion, and decency, depend.
Basil Cardinal Hume of Westminster also got caught in the crossfire generated by OutRage's guerilla warfare. Mr. Tatchell had been demanding that Hume back down from Rome's definition of homosexual acts as "objectively disordered." The demanding became violent at times, including the disruption of the Palm Sunday procession at Westminster Cathedral. In what was perceived to be response to the pressure, the Cardinal issued a letter that said homosexual friendship can be "a way of loving," and declared that "homophobia should have no place among Catholics." The papers predictably headlined the Cardinal's "capitulation" to gay pressure groups. Even the conservative Telegraph put on the front page, "Cardinal Hume gives Church blessing to homosexual love." Mr. Tatchell declared, perhaps with justification, "We are setting the agenda." In fact, the Cardinal explicitly reaffirmed the Church's teaching on homosexuality. But the reaffirmation was surrounded by language of such painful "sensitivity" that, despite the Cardinal's intention, the statement was easily exploited by those who wanted to interpret it as a wink and nudge toward homosexual license.
Gay activists and the tabloid press were not the only ones prone to exploit the statement. The Tablet, a liberal Catholic weekly, editorialized, "Homosexual Catholics have a difficult path to tread, and as they make their way along it they are entitled to the Church's spiritual support. That is what the Cardinal has supplied them with, in abundance." Nothing at all wrong with that, it would seem, but the Tablet went on. It noted that "among men and women of a heterosexual disposition" (disposition?) friendship can have a natural destiny in marriage, but this is denied to "couples of the same sex." They may take comfort, however, from "the humane tone and tolerant content of the Cardinal's statement." The traditional advice, the editor notes, is to avoid "occasions of sin," but all human loving is capable of flawed and sinful expression. Then this: "Those homosexuals who are over-fearful of sexual sin will shun human intimacy altogether, which is a course fraught with the risk of spiritual and psychological harm. That too would be an occasion of sin, of a different kind."
Others may be able to parse that differently, but it appears to say that being "over-fearful of sexual sin" is at least as great a danger as sexual sin, the avoidance of which may itself be an occasion of sin. Given the choice between one kind of sin or another, one can hardly blame people for going with the more immediately attractive. As the editor says, "Homosexual Catholics have a difficult path to tread," and it is made more difficult by the Tablet's confused construal of the Cardinal's statement, according to which the path is primrose all the way. What is applauded as humane tone and tolerant content can, despite best intentions, result in the kindness that kills. A century later, in a time of plague, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson assume a different connotation: "Life is over, life was gay: We have come the primrose way."
Churchmen are understandably anxious that they not be perceived to be condoning hypocrisy. They rightly fear coming under an indictment such as Shakespeare's in Hamlet: "Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, / And recks not his own rede." One way to escape that indictment is to reck our own rede, to follow the counsel we give to others. Better yet, since we all fail in various ways to reck our own rede, is to proclaim ever more clearly that the Church is a community of forgiven sinners. In response to accusations-whether about sexual or other sins- the most curious and contradictory thing for Christians to do is to become embroiled in redefining sin. There is no need for it. There is no logic to it. Worse, we end up confirming people in the error of believing that, if so many otherwise nice people do something, it cannot be wrong. Worst of all, we end up denying the need for forgiveness, and therefore the need for the One who forgives. The primrose path is a course of denial, and it is a cruel kindness that blesses anyone's going that way.
"There will always be some conflict between the worlds of religion and art, a world that cherishes unquestioned faith in fundamental beliefs and a world that is bound only by individual creativity." Such is the editorial wisdom proffered by the Free Press of Mankato, Minn. It was prompted by the refusal of Bethany Lutheran College to exhibit a woodcut that depicted a baby with a halo alongside the message, "The New Messiah Will Be a Girl." Said college president Marvin Meyer, "I would consider this blatant blaspheming. The artist is saying, in my opinion, that there's a need for a new messiah because Christ is either dead or inadequate." According to the paper, the artist, a senior at Mankato State, said the piece was inspired by the birth of his daughter, Jayla, and expresses the idea of unlimited opportunities for her. The use of the messiah theme, he said, was "for impact." Of course.
A faculty member at Bethany explains the decision not to show the woodcut this way: "The issue for some, of course, is censorship. However, there are other pieces in the show which demonstrate that our objections were not victorian prudery. For us it is clear that the issue is theological. Had the artist not interpreted the painting for us, but simply depicted a girl-baby, fish, angel, and halo, we could have interpreted it to be a depiction of, for instance, the immaculate conception, which we do not accept, but which can hardly be considered blasphemous. Not long before the gallery displayed a marvelous collection of Byzantine icons, much of which is hardly consistent with Lutheran theology. We do not insist that everything displayed be fully compatible with our theology. But the artist interpreted the picture for us, and we therefore had to judge on those grounds."
It is a delicious little dispute joining questions of great moment. The aforementioned editorial is dead wrong, of course. There has not always been, nor need there be, conflicts between the worlds of religion and art, nor is religion (meaning Christianity in this case) a matter of unquestioned faith. The conflict arises-with religion and much else-when art is understood exclusively in terms of "individual creativity," meaning self-expression. That is a relatively recent, and decadent, understanding of art. And the editorial is wrong in suggesting that the regional Arts Council, because it is public, should no longer exhibit at religious schools. That is a prescription for public funds being used only for secular, or even explicitly antireligious, art. Had the very same woodcut borne the legend "Jesus is the Messiah," one may be fairly sure it would have been rejected by the Arts Council. Were such a rejection challenged, it would no doubt have been defended by invoking the separation of church and state.
What lovely complications arise from small squabbles. The newspaper loved it. The headline shouts, "Banned at Bethany." It's not quite "Banned in Boston," but then these kinds of things don't happen that often in Mankato, Minnesota. So was Bethany right in refusing to hang the woodcut? We don't know, but it was certainly within its rights. And it should certainly not be excluded from the benefits of a public arts program because it exercised its rights. The students, faculty, and staff of Bethany are, after all, part of the public, too. The regional Arts Council may propose what they think the public should look at, but in a democracy the people and institutions that are the public will finally decide for themselves. To paraphrase the Free Press, there will always be some conflict between the worlds of elite opinion and democracy, a world that cherishes unquestioned subservience to expertise and fashion and a world that is marked by the freedom to say no thanks.
"Moral Theology at Its Pique" was way back in the January issue, and all these months we've been intending to remedy a weakness in that analysis. You may recall that ours was a somewhat critical treatment of Father Richard McCormick's slash-and-burn attack on all and sundry who disagree with his interpretation of John Paul II's encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. Fr. McCormick thought that our discussion of his Theological Studies article was a parody of his position, but then Fr. McCormick lives under the burden of believing that everybody, or almost everybody, who criticizes his position has "caricatured" or "distorted" his position. He has not to date given any sign of recognizing that he might possibly find some relief from his burden by stating his position more clearly. In any event, the comment in these pages left us exposed to being misunderstood on how "intention" figures in defining the moral "object" of an act. So we'll try again, with a little help from Martin Rhonheimer of the Athenaeum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
The question at stake is whether there are acts that are intrinsically- always and everywhere-morally wrong. McCormick suggests that it all depends. "The intention makes the act what it is," he declares. He gives a homely example: "For instance, handing money to another can be a variety of different things: payment of a debt, a loan, a gift, an alms, a bribe, etc. It is not possible to determine the morality of an action prior to determining what is objectively willed in it." Our mistake was in discussing the question on the grounds given in McCormick's example. Rhonheimer usefully points out that you cannot just hand money to another. A more sophisticated "action theory" makes clear that any act is accompanied by a "why" or "what for." An essential part of any definition of what one is doing is the why or what for in the doing of it. In other words, the intentionality of the act is included under the description of the act.
Rhonheimer, writing in the Thomist, has his own homely example: raising your arm. You might be raising your arm to greet someone, to give a starting signal, or to relieve a cramp. But what if somebody objects that you could simply be raising your arm without any intention at all? Rhonheimer: "Well, I would answer, just try to do it! It is true that it might just 'happen' (involuntarily, as a reflex, while sleeping), but this is not a human act. If, however, somebody wanted 'simply' to raise his arm, he again would do more than simply 'raise his arm.' If we subtracted from his doing this action the fact that his arm goes up, we would have left over, e.g., 'Wanting to show the author of this paper that he is wrong.' What would be left over is a 'why,' the intentional content or the 'form' of this act of 'raising one's arm.'"
Contra the revisionists among moral theologians, we do not have neutral "acts" that are then to be judged good or evil depending upon the intention involved (or, according to others, depending upon the consequences involved). Rhonheimer persuasively argues that "every human action is an intentional action. And this is why it is something that does not simply 'happen,' but something willingly pursued and as such formed or shaped by reason." In making his case, Rhonheimer's theory of action draws on John Paul's writings over the years about the "acting person." What is conventionally viewed as a subjective factor of intention defines the "object" of the act. That seems to be what McCormick & Co. are saying, until it is further noted that the intention is intrinsic to the act, that there is no way of accurately describing the act apart from the "why" and "what for" of the act.
In theories of "moral norms" or "moral rules," the questions of intention and consequence sometimes get conflated. According to some theorists, there are particular "occurrences" (called "actions"), on the one hand, and the consequences brought about by them, on the other. If a person intends the best consequences, then it is these that come to be designated as the "object" of his act. Rhonheimer writes: "But this does not correspond to our ordinary experience as acting subjects and to the way we arrive at moral decisions; it rather has about it the air of casuistry. From the viewpoint of the acting subject we always encounter at least two intentionalities to be distinguished. If I break the promise of repaying somebody a determinate amount of money, causing by this his economic ruin because I, simultaneously, intend to prevent by this action the ruin of many others, I have chosen to break the promise given to my creditor for the sake of realizing an intention which is very laudable in itself. But here the object of choice ('breaking the promise') is not less intentionally 'taking a position' than the further intention ('benefitting others'). The same applies to killing or lying with good further intentions."
One should not expect the revisionists to do an overnight turnaround. Many of them have had very long and distinguished careers, and have enjoyed the acclaim of the majority of their academic peers. In a recent story in the New York Times, McCormick is referred to, almost as though it were self evident, as "the dean of moral theologians" in America, and that is no doubt what many consider him to be. There is also no reason to doubt that most of the revisionists earnestly believe they are serving the Church by helping to develop its moral teaching. At the same time, they are surely right in thinking that they are the object of sharp criticism in Veritatis Splendor. It is understandable that their first reaction is one of injury, of claiming that their work has been caricatured and distorted. But, upon reflection, they must recognize that that reaction, left unamended, invites the impression that they think the Pope is not only wrong but perhaps malicious, or just doesn't know what he's talking about. That, we have to assume, is not what they intend to say. Which brings us back to the question of intentions, and to the arguments of Martin Rhonheimer and others that Richard McCormick might want to address in a more balanced manner.
Suspicions are justifiably raised when it is said of an author that he "cannot be pigeonholed," or that he "moves us beyond sterile partisan disputes," or that he "transcends categories such as liberal and conservative." Such an author, one may think, is probably a mugwump or, given the liberal tilt of our intellectual culture, probably peddling the doctrines of the left while pretending to be above it all. We would be less than candid if we did not acknowledge that such suspicions have been directed at our friend, and frequent FT contributor, Jean Bethke Elshtain. Teaching now at the University of Chicago, after a long spell at Vanderbilt, Elshtain has recently come out with Democracy on Trial (Basic Books, 153 pp., $20).
The fact is that Elshtain is by no means above it all, nor does she want to be. She cares passionately about the democratic experiment, and she wants to engage as many people as possible in reflecting on its trials. It is true that she does not unfurl an ideological banner proclaiming her allegiance to "Liberalism" or "Conservatism" or some other party. But neither does she shy from addressing hard truths, for she knows that democracy, far from being a machine that runs of itself, is contingent upon truth and truths-about human nature, the dynamics of power, and what we can reasonably expect from history. Democracy on Trial is not yet another book attempting to redefine liberalism. Such books have been appearing since the late 1940s, and the last several years have witnessed torrents of them. When the chief demonstrated capacity of an ideology is to produce endless redefinitions of itself, that ideology is dead.
But Elshtain knows that there is a richer and much more comprehensive understanding of liberalism, an understanding that was largely responsible for producing, and may be necessary for sustaining, the democratic experiment. In that understanding, democracy is not sheer procedure but a moral undertaking. Democratic procedure must not be turned into an end in itself. As John Paul II contends in his most recent encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, we must not "idolize" democracy by "democratizing" the truth on which democracy depends. That is the argument even more forcefully developed in Veritatis Splendor, an earlier encyclical that makes the case that, when freedom is untethered from truth, the very foundation of freedom is destroyed. For all the undoubted benefits of the free market, truth is not among the commodities to be traded.
Here Elshtain joins in John Paul II's critique of "consumerism," in which lives are consumed by consuming. She writes: "The 'sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism,' John Paul stated, are a combination of materialism and restless dissatisfaction as the 'more one possesses the more one wants.' Aspirations that cut deeper, that speak to human dignity within a world of others, are stifled. John Paul's name for this alternative aspiration is 'solidarity,' not 'a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people' but a determination to 'commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are really responsible for all.' Through solidarity, John Paul said, we see 'the "other" . . . not just as some kind of instrument . . . but as our "neighbor," a "helper" . . . to be made a sharer on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.'" Elshtain offers the solemn warning: "To the extent that John Paul's words strike us as utopian or naive, we have lost civil society."
Democracy on Trial is by no means resigned to such a loss. With a passion touched by poignancy, Elshtain offers this concluding reflection: "The task of the democratic political imagination is possible if civility is not utterly destroyed, if room remains for playful experimentation from deep seriousness of purpose free from totalistic intrusion and ideological control. For even when equality and justice seem far-off ideals, freedom preserves the human discourse necessary to work toward the realization of both. One day, as our children or their children or their children's children stroll in gardens, debate in public places, or poke through the ashes of a wrecked civilization, they may not be moved to call us blessed. But neither will they curse our memory, because we will not, through our silence, have permitted democracy to pass away as in a dream." It is only to be added that, to the extent that Elshtain's words strike us as utopian or naive, democracy has failed its trial.
Three days after Bill Clinton's inauguration, this oracle announced to visitors at his hospital bedside, "We are watching a man stumbling through the rubble of a ruined presidency." I was under medication, of course, and the judgment, not entirely untouched by partisanship, may have been premature, but there has been little since then to compel a reassessment. Within days of taking office, he was promoting the compatibility of soldiery and sodomy, and gleefully reversing very modest limitations on the abortion license-the latter on the very day of the annual pro-life march, and without the slightest acknowledgment that the great majority of Americans have deep moral anxieties about abortion on demand. This and much more while invoking a "mandate" from less than 43 percent of the voters. It struck us as unbelievably heavy-handed and politically dumb.
If we were perhaps excessively underwhelmed from the beginning, we continue to be impressed by those who have a seemingly infinite capacity to see castles rising from the rubble. Imagine an editorial titled, "Mrs. Clinton on Target Again." That's the lead in a recent issue of America, the Jesuit magazine. The editors declare that "even her sharpest critics should admit that the causes she chooses to promote are ones that really matter." The editors acknowledge that the health care scheme went down in flames. "All the same, historians in the twenty-first century may give President Clinton and his wife considerable credit for having sparked the first truly national debate on a thorough reform of health care." Imagine that, a man in possession of the office of President of the United States and a wife with unprecedented executive authority were able to spark a national debate. Some achievement. The fact is that almost the entire political culture recoiled in aversion from a half-baked proposal to socialize an additional 15 percent of the economy, thus making it impossible to discuss health care reform for years, if not decades, to come.
Nothing daunted, the editors of America cannot refrain from gushing over Mrs. Clinton's new campaign. "She has now taken up another cause of prime importance-the securing of the rights of women and children both at home and abroad." Mrs. Clinton has been making speeches on women's rights, joining in the general drumbeat for the UN conference on women in Beijing. Of course she says nothing about her husband's policy of overlooking human rights violations by China, including the slave labor of uncounted thousands and forced abortions for pregnant women with more than one child. Nor do the editors of America mention that Mrs. Clinton and her allies insist that the unlimited abortion license, "at home and abroad," is a nonnegotiable part of their understanding of women's rights.
America insists that it does not dissent from the Church's teaching on abortion, and we have no reason to doubt that. It simply seems that that teaching is not very important. When it comes to abortion, those who are fearful of being criticized as one-issue thinkers tend to turn it into a nonissue. What really matters, we are told, is "to accelerate a basic change in the way both women and men look at the traditional division of labor between the sexes." And of that basic change Mrs. Clinton, who made the smart decision to marry a man who was going places, thus freeing her to volunteer for general do- goodism, is presumably the avatar. And if from a Jesuit viewpoint she does not quite grasp all the complexities regarding, er, reproductive rights, well, nobody's perfect. The recently completed worldwide meeting of Jesuits called upon them to demonstrate "the courage to listen to women." To some women, of course. Those women who hand out the coveted prizes for carefully nuancing the inconveniences of Catholic teaching will no doubt agree that America is, as its editors might say, on target again.
At the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, some old lions of peace movements past gathered to protest the "Contract with America" and to support the United Nations. Speakers included William Sloane Coffin, former head of SANE; Bryan Hehir, former policy guru at the U.S. Catholic Conference; Daniel Ellsberg, former celebrity leaker of the "Pentagon Papers"; and Alan Geyer, former editor of Christian Century. In February the House of Representatives passed legislation that curtails the President's authority to deploy U.S. troops in UN operations and reduces the U.S. share of the UN's peacekeeping budget. If the legislation passes the Senate, "peacekeeping could be mortally wounded in this UN anniversary year," said Geyer.
Other speakers deplored what they perceived to be similarities between the current political mood and that of the 1920s, when the U.S. refused to join the League of Nations. Coffin set the tone of the conference in his opening address: "Religious people particularly are called on to moderate national sovereignty and to increase global loyalty and so help the United Nations." Religious people are indeed called on to do that, by folk such as Mr. Coffin. But it is doubtful, to say the least, that there is any religious reason to reduce national sovereignty in favor of the political apparatus of the UN. Rhetoric that pits the universal against the particular, the international against the national, and the national against the local would seem to be increasingly counterproductive. That is not necessarily because Americans are in a reactive or isolationist mood-although many certainly are-but because they are disillusioned with political schemes and schemers.
The grander the scheme, the more robust the skepticism. Bigness no longer defines the moral high ground. What is viewed as the right has come around to embracing what used to be a slogan of the left, "Small is beautiful." It is far from self-evident that "global loyalty" is morally superior to national loyalty or, for that matter, local loyalty. Caring for the global family can be a great deal easier than taking care of one's own family. It is true that isolationism is a danger, but it will not be countered effectively by old lions whose rhetoric and track records make isolationism so appealing to so many. What is needed is a doctrine of national interest that encompasses international responsibility. Neither the White House nor the Congress seems interested in, or capable of, articulating such a doctrine, and it is not likely to come from a forum of formers who are reading from scripts that in the present political culture are, if intelligible at all, thoroughly implausible.
From 1990 to 1993, this scribe served on the commission established by the White House and Congress to study American policy toward the UN, and it was a generally discouraging experience. I strongly disagree with those who say we should withdraw from the UN, but, the more one learns about the corruptions and confusions that dominate that hapless organization, the more difficult it is to make the case for maintaining, never mind increasing, the present level of U.S. participation. I'm not sure what is meant by "global loyalty"-perhaps it would become a virtue in the event of invasion from other planets-but I am sure that such jargon contributes little to understanding why so many thoughtful Americans are coming to a jaundiced view of the UN and other institutions created in support of an internationalism that is now unsupported by clear doctrine, or any doctrine at all.
It's chiefly a Roman Catholic phenomenon at present, this discovery of Hans Urs von Balthasar, but in time it will almost certainly engage Protestants, Jews, and everybody else interested in the possibilities of theology at the edge of the Third Millennium. More than thirty volumes have appeared to date in English (mostly from Ignatius Press), and more are on the way. It seems implausible that one man could have written so much about so much so brilliantly. At his Requiem Mass (he died in 1988 at age eighty-three), Cardinal Ratzinger declared von Balthasar the most learned man in Europe, and it would be as believable if he had said the most learned man in the world.
Shortly before he died, von Balthasar was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II-a high level imprimatur on his life's work. This despite the fact that some thought von Balthasar stepped across the line of orthodoxy on a few subjects. For instance, his Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? (with a brief discourse on hell) is a daring reflection on universal redemption. His answer is yes, we dare so hope and should so hope, while maintaining the orthodox understanding that the final judgment is, of course, God's alone. Similarly, in Mysterium Paschale, one of his more difficult books, von Balthasar contends that Christ's descent into hell should be understood in terms not of his triumph but of his final abandonment by God. That is a break from the interpretation of the received tradition, but is considered by Catholic authorities to be a theological opinion that can legitimately be held and explored.
Von Balthasar was a strange case in a number of ways. He never held a conventional academic appointment, for example. Born in Lucerne and studying all over Europe, he started out as a Jesuit. Then he met Adrienne von Speyr, a medical doctor and mystic whom he received into the Church. He reluctantly left the Jesuits in 1950 to found with von Speyr a secular institute, a kind of religious order whose members continue their work in the world. They also established a house to publish his many books as well as her writings. Von Balthasar repeatedly and extravagantly (or so it seems) declared his indebtedness to the thought of Adrienne von Speyr. She, he said, was his chief inspiration, and he sometimes went so far as to suggest that his work was but a footnote to hers. This is something of a puzzlement to many, including this writer, who have read von Speyr in search of what von Balthasar found so remarkable. But we have to take him at his word, and the sufficient tribute to von Speyr's achievement is that she inspired von Balthasar.
Fr. Edward Oakes, long familiar to the readers of this journal, is among the puzzled, and the von Speyr connection is one of the few questions that he does not attempt to resolve in his remarkable new book Pattern of Redemption (Continuum, 334 pp, $29.50). To bring together in one volume the astonishing achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar is, to say the least, a daunting task, but Pattern of Redemption does just that. Robert L. Wilken, also familiar to our readers, says, "Hans Urs von Balthasar is a thrilling writer and Edward Oakes has written a thrilling book about him. . . . Whether one is seeking an introduction to von Balthasar's vast literary oeuvre or an interpretation of the whole, this is the book to read." Book blurbs are notoriously unreliable, but Wilken says no more than the truth.
About a life's work so comprehensive and so complex, one hesitates to pinpoint where the gist of the project is to be found, but one ventures to suggest that it is in Herrlichkeit. That is a seven-volume work translated in English under the title, The Glory of the Lord. This von Balthasar describes as a "theological aesthetics." (Not, he insists, an aesthetic theology!) The point is that God reveals himself not only as truth and goodness but also as beauty. Christian theology is reflection on the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. If von Balthasar is one day formally recognized as a Doctor of the Church (Doctores Ecclesiae), he might well bear the title of the Glorious Doctor. Of the three "transcendentals" (the good, the true, and the beautiful), von Balthasar writes:
"The beautiful guards the other transcendentals and sets the seal on them: there is nothing true or good, in the long term, without the light of grace of that which is freely bestowed. And a Christianity which went along with modernity and subscribed merely to the true (faith as a system of correct propositions) or merely to the good (faith as that which is most useful and healthy for the subject) would be a Christianity knocked down from its own heights. When the saints interpreted their existence in the light of God's greater glory, they were always the guardians of the beautiful."
It is really quite impossible in this brief comment to indicate the range of von Balthasar's work, or how, in a manner profoundly and pervasively Trinitarian, he incorporates the entirety of human thought and experience in the work of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Reading von Balthasar is frequently as much an experience of contemplation as of analysis or argument, which is no doubt to be expected in a theology of aesthetics that relentlessly orients the reader to the glory of God. But there is also argument and analysis in abundance. There is, for instance, The Theology of Karl Barth (newly translated by Oakes and published by Ignatius) in which von Balthasar addresses some classic Protestant-Catholic disagreements over the nature of grace and the analogy of being (analogia entis). Von Balthasar greatly appreciates Barth's view of biblical theology as God's unique witness to himself, but contends also that the Bible is the fulfillment of all human efforts to apprehend the mystery of being.
Where to begin reading von Balthasar? Perhaps with one of the easier, but deceptively simple, little works, such as Credo (Crossroad), an explanation of the Apostles' Creed written toward the end of his life, or Heart of the World (Ignatius), an intimate theological poem on what it means to believe. Or readers with some theological training may want to take a deep breath and dive into the first volume of The Glory of the Lord, being forewarned that von Balthasar is known to become a habit that is hard to break, and that there is a long, long shelf of von Balthasar ahead once they get hooked. In any event, those who are looking for an introduction to von Balthasar as well as those who have read him and want to see how all the pieces fit together will warmly welcome Edward Oakes' Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. It is an achievement worthy of its subject.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays (or is it Wednesdays and Mondays?), I am inclined to embrace the motto: Lose a few, lose a few. It really is in large part a matter of mood that determines how one rates gains and defeats. But, for what it's worth, at the annual meeting of the Institute Council a while back, a few of us sat around playing the inevitable (at least for me) game of Keeping Score. On some of the issues that matter most to us, are we better off now than we were at this time last year? Here, in briefest summary, is how part of the game turned out.
And that, in an all too cursory manner, is an overview of a few of the changes in the past year. All in all, and given the evils to which fallen humankind is prone, the indicators in the political and intellectual culture provide reason for carefully restrained hopefulness. Of course the above represents no more than impressions gained from a rambling Friday afternoon conversation with friends and colleagues, and a year from now it may look pretty dumb. But for what it's worth . . .
Sources: On the New Yorker, see Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty, page 35; Art Spiegelman in Catholic New York, April 13, 1995; and Maureen Dowd in New York Times, April 20, 1995. On British group OutRage, catholic eye, March 24, 1995 and the Tablet, March 11, 1995. On artistic freedom and freedom, the Free Press (of Mankato, Minn.), April 4 and 5, 1995. Martin Rhonheimer article, " 'Intrinsically Evil Acts' and the Moral Viewpoint: Clarifying a Central Teaching of Veritatis Splendor," in the Thomist, January 1994. Editorial on Mrs. Clinton in America, May 6, 1995. On meeting of peace activists at the National Cathedral, Christian Century, March 22-29, 1995. While We're At It: Clark Morphew on the religious right, Saint Paul Pioneer, February 18, 1995. On Pope and contraception ban, Catholic World Report, March 1995. Articles on RFRA, Thomas C. Berg in Villanova Law Review, vol. 39/no. 1 (1994), and Scott Idleman in Texas Law Review, December 1994. Vladmir Pozner quoted in New York Times, April 6, 1995. On Alexis II, Patriarch of Moscow, 30 Days, No. 1, 1995. On NCC finances, Ecumenical News International, March 28, 1995. Alan Keyes quoted in Life Insight, March 1995. On The Priest and the Vatican, New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1995. Episcopalians' General Convention resolutions on abortion reported in Care and Community, April 1995. Paul Baumann letter and report on Jean Harris, America, March 11, 1995 and March 18, 1995. On Jesuit General Congregation, New York Times, March 23, 1995. Gloria Steinem quoted in New York Times, February 9, 1995. On cannibalism of aborted fetuses in China, Focus on the Family, April 21, 1995. Fr. Ernesto Cardenal quoted in the Tablet, November 5, 1994. On Dr. Kevorkian, the Lutheran, July 1994. On Tony Campolo, Christian Century, February 22, 1995.