The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus
(c) 1996 First Things 59 (January 1996): 66-79.
John Paul II Plays "The Capital of the
In a rare departure from the utter originality of these pages, parts
of this commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal and other publications
here and abroad. So you never recycle? - RJN
In an interview with a network news program, I was explaining what the
forthcoming visit of the Holy Father meant for Catholics. "Yes,"
said the interviewer, who was a Protestant, "but why are we so excited
about it? It wasn't like this before." She's right, it wasn't like
this before. I sensed among journalists a new determination to get "the
pope story" right this time. I even ran into reporters who had actually
read encyclicals such as Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth)
and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).
This new attitude among reporters reflected a much more general sense
of heightened expectation as the Pope made his way to New York City, the
city that he has called "the capital of the world." He came,
he was seen, and he conquered. And, of course, he was heard. But was he
really heard? Will the message have any long-term effect? One somewhat
jaded journalist said as the Pope's plane took off for the return trip
to Rome, "John Paul is yesterday's news. Now we turn the page to tomorrow's
Maybe he's right, but most observers disagree. The sense here is that
something unprecedented and astonishing happened. New York City may not
be the capital of the world, but it is certainly the capital of global
communications, and people who have been around for a very long time say
that they cannot remember a time when the press and broadcast media worked
in such concert to capture every word and gesture of a visitor, as well
as the variety of enthusiastic responses to his person and message. As
for how much difference all this will make, Christians trust the promise
of the prophet, "The word will not return void" (Isaiah 55).
But even those who do not take their cue from biblical promise express
the feeling that the papal visit represents a turning point in the American
perception (or at least the New York perception) of this pope, of the Catholic
Church, and maybe of the importance of religion in our common life.
The sin of intellectual sloth is at least as pervasive in journalism
as in any other human enterprise, and reporters in the past have generally
fallen back on two taken-for-granted "story lines" about this
pontificate. The first, in the period immediately following his election,
was that of a young (for a pope), dynamic leader, the first non-Italian
in centuries, confronting the "evil empire" of communism. That
was quickly succeeded by the second story line that has dominated the news
coverage: a conservative, indeed reactionary, pope who is trying to clamp
down on the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council and restore
authoritarian uniformity to a once monolithic Catholicism now badly fractured.
Especially in the United States, the standard picture we have been given
is that of an authoritarian leader who, when it comes to the realities
of the modern world, "just doesn't get it."
In that second story line, Catholics in America are depicted as bright,
independent progressives who are profoundly alienated from the old- fashioned
ways of their antiquated Church. Reporters sometimes express genuine surprise
when they encounter the vibrancy and faithfulness that is also powerfully
evident among Catholics in this country. Thus, in a profile of Mary Ann
Glendon, the Harvard law professor who headed the Holy See's delegation
to the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, the New York Times
noted that she "still attends Mass regularly." That "still"
Among reporters in thrall to the second story line, almost all the questions
are about sex, gender, and politics. Contraception gets a big play, as
do the Church's "rigid" positions on homosexuality and abortion.
And why doesn't the Pope "change the Church's policy" on ordaining
women to the priesthood? For those who interpret the world according to
a political paradigm, it is very difficult to understand that the Pope
is not the leader of a political party but the servant of a tradition that
understands itself to be the bearer of truth revealed by God. Among journalists
who are trained to be skeptical, who are often incapable of being skeptical
about the limits of skepticism, Pilate's question is taken to be the mark
of sophistication: "What is truth?" On this visit, too, there
was reporting that never rose above the American preoccupation (maybe the
human preoccupation) with sex and power. But, in general, the coverage
moved beyond the old story lines.
It Began Earlier
For some reporters, the change began with the World Youth Day in Denver
two years ago. The Denver coverage began with a script straight out of
the second story line, but half-way into the event reporters began to have
second thoughts; a note of puzzlement, of respect, and even of occasional
reverence began to sneak into the evening news. Here were these hundreds
of thousands of intense, well-behaved young people fervently hanging on
every word of a septuagenarian Polish priest who challenged them to settle
for nothing less than spiritual and moral greatness. And then there was
the World Youth Day in Manila, bringing together the largest gathering
of human beings in the history of the planet.
There were other factors. "Everybody knew" that American Catholics
are in wholesale dissent and don't give a fig about the Church's teaching,
but then they rushed out by the millions to buy a huge eight-hundred- page
volume with the decidedly non-sexy title of Catechism of the Catholic
Church. The same happened with a book of papal ponderings, Crossing
the Threshold of Hope, on topics not usually found at the checkout
counter, such as Husserl's phenomenological account of human nature and
the role of Descartes' cogito ergo sum in shaping modern subjectivism.
It was all very puzzling indeed. Suddenly, secular thinkers who were accustomed
to holding forth on "the real world" were beset by the troubling
suspicion that maybe they were the ones who just didn't get it.
But here is what I think is really happening. Beyond the crowds, the
media hype, the book sales, and the fascination with the ever so "colorful"
worlds of Catholicism is the dawning awareness that, at the end of the
twentieth century, at the edge of the Third Millennium, there is simply
nobody else on the stage of world history. The realization grows, also
among the media, that at the end of what has been a slum of a century here
is a man who has a spiritually and morally compelling vision of the human
future, and no other world figure or world movement does.
To be sure, everyday politics entered into much of the coverage of the
Pope's visit. From John Paul's remarks at Newark airport through his farewell
in Baltimore, some reporters declared that they had made a great discovery.
The Pope is a liberal!
Not on internal church matters, of course, and not on abortion and questions
sexual. But on most political questions, the Pope is, we were told again
and again, "on the left of the spectrum." Many reporters went
further, depicting the papal visit as almost a part of the Democratic campaign
strategy. President Clinton, who has alienated Catholic voters on abortion
and other questions, was embarrassingly aggressive in his efforts to be
seen with the Pope in public. Against the Republican ascendancy, reporters
said, the Pope came out foursquare for the United Nations, open immigration,
the welfare state, and people with AIDS. Former governor Mario Cuomo of
New York, with his characteristic delicacy, put it this way: "If you
are a Republican conservative Catholic and your Pope says you are behaving
like this to the poor, you'd have to think twice. That's all you need to
get rid of Newt Gingrich."
In Search of an Imprimatur
The claim that the Vicar of Christ so forcefully injected himself into
the policy particulars of American politics is not very believable. What
is believable, what is undoubtedly the case, is that liberals are desperately
in search of a moral imprimatur to revive their drooping fortunes.
It is true that the Pope called on America to be a "hospitable
society." The phrase is borrowed from the pro-life movement and means
that we are to care for the "stranger in the womb," the handicapped,
the aged, and others against whom we are tempted to harden our hearts,
including the immigrant. So there is some truth to the claim that John
Paul's words on the "hospitable society" support liberals who
are opposing Republican efforts to restrict immigration to the country,
which is now at the level of a little over one million people each year.
As for the UN, however, his speech there might more accurately be described
as a sharp criticism of that body. The Vatican has been a strong supporter
of the UN from its beginnings, but proponents of world government will
find naught for their comfort in the Pope's carefully crafted address.
The Pope called on the UN to rise above its bureaucratic obsessions and
pretensions to global power in order to become a forum of "moral deliberation"
among the nations. Most strikingly, he offered a trenchant argument for
the universality of human rights, a position frequently attacked under
the auspices of the UN, as at the Cairo conference in 1994 and at the September
1995 conference on women in Beijing.
As for the welfare state, John Paul's strong criticisms of excessive
state action are spelled out in detail in his 1991 encyclical "Centesimus
Annus" (The Hundredth Year). Everything he said on this visit was
entirely consistent with what he says there. At the Mass in Central Park,
for instance, he said not to the Government but to every one in the huge
crowd, "Christ wants you to go many places in the world, and to enter
many hearts through you. Just as Mary visited Elizabeth, so you too are
called to 'visit' the needs of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those
who are alone or ill; for example, those suffering from AIDS. You are called
to stand up for life."
Judgment and Love
To suggest that the Pope was taking a position one way or the other
on Republican proposals for welfare reform is as unbelievable as the claim
that his compassion for those with AIDS reflects a change in the Church's
censure of the homosexual acts associated with that dread disease. In
Centesimus Annus and elsewhere, John Paul's emphasis is on "the
subjectivity of society," meaning that individuals and the intermediate
institutions-families, churches, voluntary associations-bear the primary
responsibility for helping those in need.
The language of compassion and caring is the vocabulary of the Christian
tradition and it eludes capture by any partisan cause. The parable of the
Good Samaritan did not come out of a Democratic focus group. In the Archdiocese
of New York and elsewhere, for example, the Catholic Church is in the forefront
of those caring for people with AIDS, without in any way compromising the
teaching that homosexuality is "objectively disordered" and homosexual
acts are sinful. Both censure and compassion are grounded in moral truth,
a concept that is alien to many who are steeped in a culture of relativism.
So how to explain this attempted hijacking of the Pope for the liberal
cause? Part of the answer is obvious partisan expediency, an effort to
exploit the popularity and moral credibility of John Paul II. More important
is the disinclination, maybe inability, of many in the media to recognize
that some things cannot be contained within the paradigms of power and
politics. The Pope is not advancing an ideology, never mind a political
program. He sets forth a universal moral teaching by which all ideologies
and programs are to be judged, whether of the left or of the right. At
least that is certainly what he believes he is doing.
In addition to overt partisan exploitation, however, there is among
most reporters an entrenched mindset that associates caring with the left.
Typically, reporters hear the word "love" and think the word
"liberal." They hear the exhortation to help those in need and
think the need for a government program. They perhaps know that conservative
churchgoers rank highest in voluntary service to others, but voluntarism
doesn't count. It does not relieve the itch of the collective "we"
to "do something." The Pope says, "Christ wants you to visit
the poor," and the liberal resolves to make the trip by sending tax
dollars, preferably the tax dollars of "the rich."
The political hijacking of John Paul's message is not necessarily deliberate.
It frequently happens that people are simply not speaking the same language.
This recently came home to me in a network television interview. Asked
about gays, the divorced, and people living together outside marriage,
I assured the interviewer that they were all welcome in the Church, that
the Church is a community of sinners attempting, always with great difficulty,
to live the life of holiness to which we are called. The interviewer protested
that I was giving a very "liberal" version of the Church's teaching,
and I assured her that everything I said is unquestionably orthodox. "Well,
I am sure this will confuse some of our viewers," she opined, "because,
if I understand you right, you're saying that these people can be forgiven."
To her it seemed obvious that forgiving is what liberals do. Behind
that, I suspect, is the assumption that forgiving means excusing. The idea
that one could be so "intolerant" as to hold people morally accountable
for their behavior and still love them was quite beyond her ken. As it
is beyond the ken of others that caring about the poor does not necessarily
require getting rid of Mr. Gingrich.
The Pope is unfazed. He is accustomed to attempted hijackings. Calmly
and clearly, he sets forth the message. For instance, this at the Mass
in Central Park: "Love makes you reach out to others in need, whoever
they are, wherever they are. Every genuine human love is a reflection of
the love that is God Himself, to the point where St. John says, 'The man
without love has known nothing of God, for God is love.'"
Any effort to recruit that message for the purposes of partisan politics
of the left or of the right is dishonest, trivializing, and, if we are
still capable of understanding the word, blasphemous. On the other hand,
it is also understandable. When there is something so big as this papal
visit to the "Big Apple," it is not surprising that everybody,
including politicians, wants to get, as they say, "a piece of the
Where We Are
One must in fairness say that the media coverage generally rose above
that kind of self-interested bias. Like the massive response of people
from every walk of life and every religious persuasion, the tone was one
of listening-intensely, respectfully, even reverently. Here was a man who
represented something hopeful in a world that is running short of hope.
Consider where we are. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Western
civilization was supremely confident that reason, science, and technology,
guided by the god named Progress, was ushering in the long- sought utopia
of perpetual peace and prosperity. Then came 1914 and what was called the
Great War, when, as it was said, the lights went out all over the world.
Then came the Bolshevik putsch of 1917, then came Hitler and the Holocaust,
then came the Cold War and nuclear weaponry that threatened to obliterate
life on the planet. As the century that heaped up mountains of corpses
and loosed rivers of blood now comes to an end, the ideological idols of
humanity's prideful ambition lie scattered in the rubble. Then from the
midst of the rubble there stands forth a man who says to the Church, who
says to the world, "Be not afraid!"
That of course was the theme of his very first homily as pope, back
in October 1978, and it has been repeated again and again throughout this
pontificate. "Be not afraid!" It is not a message of optimism.
This pope is no optimist. It is a message of hope from a man who has looked
long and unblinkingly at all the reasons for giving up hope. He knows all
about what in Evangelium Vitae he calls "the culture of death."
He lived through Nazism, he lived through communism, and he probably has
more knowledge than any person alive of all the horrors around the world
that defy hopefulness about the human future.
He dares to say "Be not afraid!" because it is not his message.
It is the message of the Risen Christ to disciples devastated by the unfathomable
catastrophe of the cross. There is another theme that has been repeated
a thousand times in this pontificate: "Open the doors to Christ!"
In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer),
John Paul invited us to envision the twenty-first century as the century
of the greatest missionary expansion in Christian history. "The Church
imposes nothing," he wrote, "the Church only proposes."
But what a proposal! It is a proposal that includes all Christians, as
he made clear in the encyclical earlier this year, Ut Unum Sint
(That They May All Be One). And it includes not only Christians, for it
has been a constant theme of this pope's teaching that Jesus Christ is
nothing less than the future of humanity.
Do I believe that all this was understood by the reporters and the millions
of people who watched and listened during the Pope's visit to "the
capital of the world"? Not by a long shot. But this visit made it
clear beyond doubt that the story lines of the past are pathetically incapable
of communicating the significance of the person and pontificate of John
After the visit, I talked again with the Protestant reporter who asked
why she and others were so excited about the Pope's coming. "I think
I have the answer now," she said. "You look at the world today,
and you have to ask yourself the question, Who else is there?" That's
not the complete answer, but it is a very important part of the answer.
How Very Episcopalian
Touchy, touchy. That was my first response to a number of letters vigorously
protesting "An Anglo-Catholic Hereafter" (October 1995). On second
thought, however, the protesters have a point, indeed several points. I
have in these pages been joshing Anglicans somewhat out of proportion to
other communions. I have not taken adequate note of the fact that the goings-on
in the Episcopal Church in this country are not necessarily representative
of the Anglican communion, which is in largest part not British-American
and is in places such as Africa vibrantly alive and growing. And I have
seriously overestimated the appetite of at least some Anglicans for what
is intended as humorous comment on their part of the household of faith.
For all that and more, my apologies.
Having gotten that out of the way, I should say that some of the letters
were both gracious and informative. For instance, Fr. W. L. Prehn of San
Antonio, Texas, makes a grammatical point of which I was aware but sometimes
forget. "One last thing: It really is as okay to make fun of Anglicans
or Anglo-Catholics as it is for us to make fun of Papists (and, believe
me, there's a 'seasoning of envy' for us too!). But when doing so, always
remember that 'Episcopalian' is not and can never be an adjective. 'Episcopalian'
is always a noun. Our descriptive adjective is Episcopal, so that a correct
usage would be 'I am Episcopal,' or 'I am an Episcopalian;' but 'I am Episcopalian'
is never correct. ('I am Anglican' is the best way to put it.) Likewise,
our theology and beliefs would be Episcopal and never 'Episcopalian.' This
is not always known, even by Episcopalians who should know better. For
example, one of our far western bishops has spoken and written of 'Episcopalianism.'
What he means of course is 'Episcopal beliefs,' or he ought rather to say,
simply, 'Anglicanism.' 'Anglicanism' is by definition the 'doctrine and
ethos' of the Episcopal Church and the entire Anglican Communion."
To which some reader is saying, "How very Episcopal," and
wondering why that doesn't sound quite right. The reason it does not sound
right, of course, is that "How very episcopal," outside the American
Anglican context, means that it is the kind of thing you might expect from
a bishop. But the reader in question intends to say something about Episcopalianism.
And for that purpose he and others-despite Fr. Prehn's instruction (with
which I would not argue for a moment)-will probably continue to say, "How
very Episcopalian." It would never occur to me, as a Roman Catholic,
to say that having a refined sense of humor is an episcopal characteristic.
It is certainly very Episcopalian, however. Of course matters are clarified
if "episcopal" is upper case, but in everyday usage most people
have difficulty with pronouncing the upper case.
Josef Goebbels is supposed to have said, "When I hear the word
'culture,' I reach for my Luger." Good words are always susceptible
to being coopted and put in service to bad ends. (Although in the case
of Goebbels, he opposed the good ends served by culture.) Spirituality
is such a word these days. When you hear someone mention spirituality,
reach for your Bible. Similarly, in the last five years almost all talk
about angels has been twisted and trivialized to feed the insatiable appetites
of the religiosity market. That loud whooshing sound is the cultural vacuum
sucking up the riches of the Christian tradition. And not only the Christian
tradition. Consider the word "values." There is a bull market
in values. Bill Bennett's publisher wanted him to call it The Book of
Values. Fortunately, he had better sense than that.
We create values. Values are simply what we value. You have yours and
I have mine, and neither can make a claim on the other, except to be tolerant.
Almost thirty years ago, Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation
of The Republic, criticized H. D .P. Lee's translation of Plato's
phrase, "examining the beautiful and the good." Lee translated
that as "discussing moral values." Bloom wrote: "In fact,
'values' in this sense is a usage of German origin popularized by sociologists
in the last seventy-five years. Implicit in this usage is the distinction
between 'facts and values' and the consequence that ends or goals are not
based on facts but are mere individual subjective preferences or, at most,
ideal creations of the human spirit. Whether the translator intends it
or not, the word 'values' conjures up a series of thoughts which are alien
to Plato. Every school child knows that values are relative, and thus that
the Plato who seems to derive them from facts, or treat them as facts themselves,
is unsophisticated. When the case is prejudged for him in this way, how
could the student ever find out that there was once another way of looking
at these things that had some plausibility? The text becomes a mirror in
which he sees only himself. Or, as Nietzsche put it, the scholars dig up
what they themselves buried."
Iain T. Benson of British Columbia, who heads the Centre for Renewal
in Public Policy, has brought to our attention an instance of "values
talk" in a rather surprising context-the writings of John Paul II,
or at least in the English translations of the same. This happens at several
points, for instance, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Thus
the phrase "the fountain and origin of goods" (bonorum fons
et origo) is translated "the source of values." So, too,
in Evangelium Vitae, the English speaks of promoting "values"
in law where the Latin speaks of promoting the good (bonum). This
pattern of mistranslation is particularly unfortunate in view of the fact
that both documents are centrally concerned about combatting "the
ethical relativism which characterizes much of contemporary culture"
(Evangelium Vitae, 70). As Allan Bloom might put it, the text becomes
a mirror of the distortion it intends to counter.
When Tolerance Is No Longer Tolerable
Toward the end of an annus horribilis that has left the Episcopal
Church shaking from top to bottom, the House of Bishops, meeting in Portland,
Oregon, has forced another division by voting overwhelmingly (122 yes,
17 no, 18 abstaining) to mandate the ordination of women in all its dioceses.
Four dioceses and many more parishes had opposed the ordination of women
on theological grounds. The 1976 agreement on ordaining women contained
what were said to be guarantees protecting those who had conscientious
objections to the change. But now the patience of the majority has clearly
run out. The women bishops in the House were vocal in asserting that the
time for debate and tolerance had expired. "The church has made a
decision to end discrimination," said Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod of
Vermont. "I ask you to affirm that."
In the 1970s, when women's ordination was being agitated, it was a running
story on the front pages and the evening news. The Portland decision to
quash dissent on the question rated a few inches on page eighteen of the
New York Times. Maybe because "Episcopal intolerance"
doesn't fit any established story line. Maybe because most reporters think
putting up with dissent for almost twenty years is evidence of Episcopal
tolerance. Maybe because the Episcopal Church, after years of drift and
decline, is no longer news.
In any event, demonstrating its devotion to nondiscrimination, the House
set aside famed Anglican "inclusiveness" and gave dissenting
bishops twenty-seven months to conform or take the consequences. One dissenter,
Donald Parsons, the retired bishop of Quincy, Illinois, declared, with
less than ecumenical sensitivity, "The resolution is entirely un-
Anglican and totally Roman." Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire,
Wisconsin, one of the resisting dioceses, said, "The vote was so one-
sided here that 1997 will probably be the end for a lot of people in the
church." The General Convention of the church is scheduled for 1997,
and Wantland indicated that the liberal tide is now so strong as to make
likely the passage of many other measures, including the formal approval
of homosexual behavior.
Wantland and five other bishops issued a statement asserting that the
action of the House "is a denial of the basic Anglican principle that
the church cannot demand that which cannot be proven from the plain teaching
of Scripture. A Catholic theological position universally held for almost
2,000 years, and still embraced by a majority of the Anglican communion,
will have been banished from the life and practice of this church. . .
. Clearly, this threat and this action create a new level of impaired communion,
subverting the collegiality of the House, and guaranteeing, for the first
time in history, that the Episcopal Church will actively prohibit Catholic
order." They conclude, "We reaffirm our own total commitment
to the Catholic order and faith, even in the face of a coming persecution.
We will not abandon the faithful, no matter the cost."
Shortly before the Church of England approved the ordination of women,
the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that opposition to the proposal was
"heresy." He publicly stepped back from that later, but his remark
reflects the mindset of many who first plead that their disagreement with
established teaching should be tolerated, and then, having gained toleration,
move on to prohibit what had formerly been established teaching and practice.
It is a problem facing any church body in which matters of doctrine cannot
be appealed beyond democratic procedure. Tolerance will not suffice when
deep interests are at stake. The problem is hardly limited to the ordination
of women. Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be
He Who Steals My Words . . .
When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many,
it's research. I wish I had said that, but it was in fact said by the noted
wit Wilson Mizner (d. 1933). Plagiarism in its various forms seems to be
getting renewed attention these days. A writer does a devastating article
on the doleful effects of affirmative action in hiring and promotions at
the Washington Post, and the Post management fires back that
the writer is a charlatan and well-known plagiarist. She did admit to an
error a while back in using some lines she found in her computer that she
thought were hers but in fact had been borrowed from someone else. It is
very doubtful that that qualifies as plagiarism. Since they were not able
to refute the article, the Post editors were desperate to discredit
its author. Among writers the charge of plagiarism is powerful; it is comparable
to the potency in today's social climate of being accused of the sexual
abuse of minors.
I've always been somewhat relaxed about this question of literary borrowings.
After all, is it not said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?
I assiduously make a point of attributing to the source anything I'm aware
of borrowing, but mainly because I would be embarrassed to have somebody
find me out. When people tell me that they've "stolen" something
from me for a speech or newsletter, my response is that they're welcome
to steal anything worth stealing. Not so with Dennis Prager, editor of
Ultimate Issues. When people tell him that they stole something he
wrote, he responds, "That makes you a thief, and you should repent."
That seems a bit heavy, but Mr. Prager and others have prompted me to rethink
the merits of their view.
There is the moral question of, among other things, property rights.
The formidable Florence King has convincingly demonstrated that another
Southern writer, Molly Ivins, has lifted her material without attribution,
and changed material that she does attribute to Miss King. "If we
had the right kind of laws in this country," said Miss King, "I'd
challenge her to a duel over this." Miss Ivins, to her credit, has
fessed up and apologized. Miss King is not entirely mollified. (It is a
distinguishing mark of her writing that she is seldom mollified about anything.)
In a letter to Miss Ivins published in the American Enterprise,
Miss King notes that the Washington Post's story on their little
scrap talks about the Ivins "side" and the King "side"
of the unpleasantness. Miss King writes, "How can there be a 'side'
in this when everyone involved is either a writer or an editor? All of
us, by definition, are on the same side-the word side. Every word I write
is a piece of my heart, and I presume you feel the same way."
That is putting it too strongly. In my case it would mean that I have,
after more than twenty books and probably two thousand published articles
and reviews, quite lost my heart, for I cannot remember most of the words
I have written. But there is that question of property rights. At a recent
conference in Oxford, I ran across a fellow who has been giving his attention
to plagiarism in the writings of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. GKC said some
brilliant things about plagiarism, as he did about almost everything, but
he seems to have been rather casual about his borrowings, and got through
a stunningly prolific life without the bother of even one footnote. If
one reveres GKC as much as I do, the Oxford don's research might seem to
be a quibbling not untouched by sacrilege. Knowing that there's nothing
new under the sun, it seems probable that few of us have ever written anything
that is genuinely original, so why not celebrate someone like Chesterton
who repackaged so very originally? On the other hand . . .
A Careless Corruption
King, Prager, and others are right: there is something corrupting in
careless borrowing. Words are the only property that writers, qua writers,
possess. And property is an integral part of personal identity and responsibility.
While writers who write a great deal may not remember all their words,
there are what might be called signature phrases that signal their public
identity. Of course one is more aware of this in connection with writers
with whom one is closely associated. "A rumor of angels," for
example, is a signature phrase for Peter Berger. Similarly, "rights
talk" signals Mary Ann Glendon. There are numerous other examples.
Yet in books and articles I have run across authors using these phrases
as though they had cooked them up themselves. That is not right for many
reasons, and not least because, in the mind of attentive readers, it discredits
writers who do it.
If one pays attention to the writing of one's friends, it is as nothing
compared to the attention one pays one's own writing. I, perhaps immodestly,
assume that I have a signature phrase or two. For instance, "the Catholic
moment," "the naked public square," "politics is in
largest part a function of culture . . ." (long-time readers can fill
in the rest of the formula from memory), and so forth. One sees these phrases
appearing without attribution, and it is not always amusing. In the book
of a distinguished political philosopher, we are offered an extended discussion
of religion and the First Amendment, and it concludes with this: "I
would go so far as to describe this exclusion of religion from our common
discourse as the creation of a naked public square." He did not have
to go very far at all-only to the book of that title, which is not cited
in his notes, and from which he also lifted, almost without change, entire
paragraphs. I am not inclined to sue and, unlike Miss King, I'm not up
to dueling, but, if it weren't for the flattery implied, I would just as
soon people didn't do that sort of thing.
The embarrassment factor gets awfully convoluted. In a recent book,
an author attributes one of my signature phrases to another writer, and
then conscientiously notes in his critical apparatus that "the phrase
is sometimes attributed to Richard John Neuhaus," even though the
writer he is quoting, in the notes to the very text under discussion, attributes
the phrase to me. So is there an element of sinful pride in my being a
mite irritated? Of course. But beyond that, for people who write about
ideas and their consequences, there is the not unimportant matter of getting
the story right.
One more example and I'll get off this kick. A few years ago, a reporter
for the New York Times made the interesting observation that, in
the abortion controversy, pro-choice people talk about "rights and
laws" while pro-lifers talk about "rights and wrongs." I
thought that suggestive and developed it, with attribution, in these pages.
Later, another writer whom I will call Smith used my developed version,
without citing his source, after which yet another writer told me that
the original Times reporter was plagiarizing from Smith. All this
may seem trivial to more normal folk, but writers and editors cannot help
but follow the fortunes and misfortunes of their words. And it happens
that we sometimes lose track. The words and signature phrases of others
end up in our own heads and seem so very at home that we come to believe
they were born there.
It happens also that words insinuate themselves into everyday discourse
in such a way that it never occurs to people that there is a source to
be cited. When, for instance, presidents and other public figures go on
about the naked public square, I confess to a slight twitch of proprietorial
pride. Writers, poor souls, must take their satisfactions where they can.
It's different when other writers do it, however. As Florence King says,
we're on the same side-the words and ideas side-and there are rules to
be observed. Unlike Dennis Prager, I am disinclined to call anyone a thief.
But neither do I now say so insouciantly that, if it's worth stealing,
go ahead and steal it. I have come to understand how important it is for
people to publicly say thank you.
That assumes, of course, that you know that there is a source to be
thanked. I fear I may be letting down the side when I entertain the suspicion
that there really is nothing new under the sun, and some obscure nineteenth-century
essayist may have written brilliantly about, for example, "the naked
public square." It is even possible that years ago I read such a hypothetical
essay and have quite forgotten where I got the phrase. So, just to be safe,
to everybody on our side, to all the forgotten, misquoted, and unquoted
scribblers in glory (and elsewhere): Thank you!
While We're At It
- A correction. In the November 1995 issue we commented on the discussion
of the treatment of anencephalic babies at St. Louis University Medical
Center. We mistakenly cited informed sources to the effect that abortions
and other procedures contravening Catholic teaching were done at the Center.
We misunderstood the information supplied us. Our sincere apologies.
- Following a rash of incidents in which teachers, physicians, and others
in authority have taken advantage of their position to have sex with minors,
the New York Times has this story on the need to reconsider the
age of consent. Having studied thirty-seven cultures and queried all kinds
of people, David Buss, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan,
proposes (The Evolution of Desire, Basic Books) that in all cultures
people have tried to "interfere" with each other's sexuality
primarily because women are competing for desirable men while men are competing
for desirable women. In the U.S., he says, where "socially imposed
monogamy" pits the fourteen-year-old girl against the thirty-year-old
woman, it is in the adult's interest to maintain that adult-adolescent
liaisons are immoral. "Sexual morality becomes fascinating from this
perspective," he says, "since what is moral depends on whose
interests are being served." Strange how morality as will-to-power
keeps getting rediscovered. Also very convenient, of course, for those
with power. That a moral rule protects thirty-year-old women from being
discarded and fourteen-year-old girls from being exploited might, one dares
to think, suggest that the rule makes sense; maybe that it is even, well,
true. But those in charge of what is laughably called higher education
would not likely find that perspective so "fascinating."
- Commenting on the 1992 Casey decision of the Supreme Court,
we wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "lawless law is an
invitation to lawlessness." David Smolin takes up that theme in an
intriguing article in the Baylor Law Review. "Rev. Neuhaus
represents the mainstream, rather than the fringes, of American theologically
conservative theism. . . . Calling Roe and Casey and the
Supreme Court 'lawless' is mainstream, rather than radical, among the one-third
or more of Americans within the worlds of theologically conservative theism."
We confess it is a discomforting experience to be called mainstream, even
if mainstream of a one-third minority. But the more interesting part of
Smolin's article is his view of the probable future facing what he calls
the religious patriotism of the pro-life movement, and of "the religious
right" in general. We are by no means prepared to say that he is right,
but his conclusion bears pondering: "The difficulty with the religious
right is that it cannot succeed. The religious right may succeed in preventing
abortion from being mainstreamed as a social good; it may succeed in pushing
America in a more libertarian, less regulatory, direction. The religious
right cannot make America Christian or virtuous; at most, it can give individuals
and groups more room to choose to be Christian or virtuous. The American
people live within the cultural revolution as a fish lives in water; to
expect politics to undo the cultural revolution is like expecting a baseball
team to win the Presidential election. The cultural revolution is imbedded
in the cultural forces of family breakdown, mass media, and 'secular' education,
and therefore will not give way merely because of legislative decree or
political leadership. The religious right lacks, at present, an adequate
cultural strategy for combatting the cultural revolution. Thus, the time
will come when the Christian Coalition, like the Moral Majority before
it, will have to face up to its failure to achieve the goal of 'reclaiming'
America. The frustrated religious patriotism of traditionalist theists
therefore must stem into other branches besides murder and impossible political
dreams. In the end, there seem to be two primary options: either the religion
will accommodate itself to the patriotism, or the patriotism will give
way to the religion. Some will drift away from traditionalist theism to
a religion that can accept Roe and still be proud of America. It
may be enough, in the end, for many in the Christian Coalition to maintain
a libertarian, rather than a moral, America. Few in the religious right
seemed to notice that the country became, during the Reagan-Bush era, less,
rather than more, moral, according to traditionalist Christian standards.
Some may be satisfied to see politically conservative 'Christians,' or
at least Republicans, in power and giving voice to virtue and God, even
as the culture sinks deeper into moral depravity. In this way Christian
patriotism will be tamed, as conservative Christians discover that America
can be a great nation even with a 30 percent abortion rate and 50 percent
divorce rate. Others, however, will cling to traditionalist theism; ultimately,
they will have to reject patriotism. These traditionalists will look beyond
the politics and even the laws of America, to the behavior of Americans:
to our rates of abortion, divorce, murder, rape, theft, and illegitimacy;
to the glorification of violence and sexual immorality in our media; to
the constantly shrinking evidence of virtues such as patience, humility,
generosity, faithfulness, honesty, kindness, and selfless love. If a significant
portion of traditionalist theists reject patriotism, then traditionalist
theists will join the underclass, and tribal Americans, as the newest of
America's growing class of permanent political exiles. Once they accept
that they are exiles, they will be peaceful; but they will no longer, as
in years past, be willing to sacrifice for the country. Anti-abortion lawlessness
is ugly, whatever one's position on abortion. It is but a passing thorn
on a broad branch of disenchantment; no one can yet see what other thorns,
leaves, or flowers that branch will grow."
- At this recent conference, a theologian-he happened to be Methodist
but the comment is denominationally generic-remarked that evangelization
today requires addressing "the modern mind" with a message stripped
of its primitive origins. On the flight back, I came across this by Gilbert
Keith Chesterton, and wished I had had it in hand when responding to said
theologian. It is from "The Doubts of Democracy" (1904): "If
there really are some other and higher beings than ourselves, and if they,
in some strange way, at some emotional crisis, really revealed themselves
to rude poets or dreamers in very simple times, that these rude people
should regard the revelation as local, and connect it with the particular
hill or river where it happened, seems to me exactly what any reasonable
human being would expect. It has a far more credible look than if they
had talked cosmic philosophy from the beginning. If they had, I would have
suspected 'priestcraft' and forgeries and third-century Gnosticism. If
there be such a being as God, and He can speak to a child, and if God spoke
to a child in the garden, the child would, of course, say that God lived
in the garden. I should not think it any less likely to be true for that.
If the child had said: 'God is everywhere; an impalpable essence pervading
and supporting all constituents of the Cosmos alike'-if, I say, the infant
addressed me in the above terms, I should think he was much more likely
to have been with the governess than with God. So if Moses had said God
was an Infinite Energy, I should be certain he had seen nothing extraordinary.
As he said He was a Burning Bush, I think it very likely that he did see
something extraordinary. For whatever be the Divine Secret, or whether
or no it has (as all peoples have believed) sometimes broken bounds and
surged into our world, at least it lies on the side furthest away from
pedants and their definitions, and nearest to the silver souls of quiet
people, to the beauty of bushes, and the love of one's native place. .
. . When the learned sceptic says: 'The visions of the Old Testament were
local, and rustic, and grotesque,' we shall answer, 'Of course. They were
- Pop spirituality is flourishing in America, says J. Budziszewski, a
frequent contributor to these pages, but it is run by the ABC rule: "Anything
but Christianity." Reviewing two new books, one by Robert Fulghum
and the other by M. Scott Peck, he notes that they reflect the condition
of folk who hang around the vestibule of Christianity, not quite in and
not quite out. Budziszewski says he has passed through the portal both
leaving and returning, and he worries about Fulghum, a Unitarian minister,
who is clearly on his way out, and Peck who is, just maybe, thinking about
going in. "So it is that two such different authors, one a refugee
from fundamentalism and the other just arrived from Zen, converge at the
gate and pause. Contemporary American pop spirituality is a theology of
lingering, of loitering, of hesitation, a religion of the vestibule. It
wants connectedness without commitment, reconciliation without repentance,
and sacredness without sanctity. It wants to sing the songs of Zion in
the temples of Ishtar and Brahman. God help us to know what we want and
to want what we ought. God make haste to help us; God make speed to save
- Writing in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress,
Gerald Early of Washington University, St. Louis, has an interesting take
on Afrocentrism. "The tragedy is that black people fail to see their
'Americanization' as one of the great human triumphs of the past five hundred
years. The United States is virtually the only country where the ex-masters
and the ex-slaves try to live together as equals, not only by consent of
the ex-masters but by the demand of the ex- slaves. Ironically, what the
Afrocentrist can best hope for is precisely what multiculturalism offers:
the idea that American culture is a blend of many white and nonwhite cultures.
In the end, although many Afrocentrists claim they want this blending,
multiculturalism will not satisfy. For if the Euro-American is reminded
through this that he is not European or wholly white, the African-American
will surely be reminded that he is not African or wholly black. The Afrocentrist
does not wish to be a mongrel. He wants, like the Southerner, to be pure."
Early seems to want to defend the liberal idea of individualism at least
in a tempered form, but ends up with the reflection, "Black folk know,
and rightly so, that their individual identities are tied to the strength
of their community. The struggle over black identity in the United States
has been the struggle over the creation of a true black community here."
What a true black community (or a true Jewish community or a true Irish
community, for that matter) might be he does not tell us, but it would
seem to be at least as problematic as the Afrocentric yearning "to
- "The Brief Statement" is a document that is more or less
subscribed to by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Christian
News, which has included raw anti-Catholicism on its menu of causes
championed, recently surprised us with this: "Lutherans, who want
the LCMS to draw closer to the Roman Catholic Church, oppose the Brief
Statement when it says that 'we subscribe to the statement of our Confessions
that the Pope is "the very Antichrist." ' " Is Christian
News saying that Lutherans want the LCMS to draw closer to the Roman
Catholic Church and therefore oppose the nasty things Lutherans have said
about the Pope? That would be a welcome change of mind. The more probable
reading, unfortunately, is that the editor's fondness for commas has him
saying precisely the opposite of what he intended to say. Proofreaders
- Psychologists, never mind psychiatrists, have fallen upon hard times.
American society is now awash in myriad psychotherapies, many of which
"work" for people much more effectively, and much more cheaply,
than those proffered by the high-priced experts who were once able to define
psychotherapy. This is discussed by Lewis M. Andrews in "Religion's
Challenge to Psychology" (Public Interest, Summer 1995). Andrews
observes, "If there is any intellectual issue at stake for the conventional
secular therapists, it is their growing lament that economic and religious
forces may be combining to undercut certain schools of thought, especially
psychoanalytic and other in-depth approaches, which they believe have made
a positive and dynamic contribution to American culture. 'I worry especially,'
says Jeremy Lazarus, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's
Committee on Managed Care, 'that we may have lost our ability to help those
people in intellectual, artistic, and other creative fields.' Karen Stone,
a Long Island psychologist who cochairs the Coalition of Mental Health
Professionals and Consumers, a group opposed to managed care for mental
health, expressed the fear of her colleagues when she recently told a
New York Times reporter that current trends are 'destroying this field.'
She went on to add parenthetically that 'nobody wants their kid to be a
psychologist any more.'" The other and more disturbing side of that
is that many become priests, ministers, and rabbis in order to be psychologists.
- The Coalition for Pagan Religious Rights held a big fund-raiser at
Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. According to the
Washington Post, the event attracted witches, priests, and priestesses
galore, along with a crowd of the curious. Curses were cast, blessings
were invoked, shamans mediated supernatural spookiness, and apparently
almost everyone had a good time. Not everyone. According to the Post,
"Some critics inside and outside the congregation have complained
that playing host to pagan groups could reflect poorly on the church. .
. . Dick Meyer, Christ Congregational's property administrator, said the
church has provided space for community groups, including various pagan
groups, but does not necessarily support their views." Not necessarily.
- Back in the early sixties when I was an eager young Lutheran pastor
in black Brooklyn, inner city ministry was all the thing. That has changed
drastically in the last three decades. Today, as Edward Marciniak and William
Droel write in an important article in Chicago Studies, an assignment
to an inner city parish is frequently viewed as exile to a Third World
country. Based on recent studies by the urban center of Loyola University,
they argue ("The Future of Catholic Churches in the Inner City")
that inner city churches, both Protestant and Catholic, may be coming back,
and that is because, in Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, and elsewhere, urban
centers are making a comeback. Among advocates of the urban poor, this
is sometimes dismissively referred to as "gentrification," but
Marciniak and Droel know that the very best thing for the poor is that
they break out of their "radical isolation" (William Julius Wilson)
to live in communities populated by people who represent an economic, educational,
and professional mix. The article is one of the most suggestive statements
on the future of the inner city church that I've seen in many a year, and
I expect the authors would be glad to send you a copy if you enclose a
dollar with your request to The National Center for the Laity, 205 West
Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60606.
- A correction. In the August/September issue we reported on an extended
discussion of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" that, we
said, appeared in Touchstone. Several readers have pointed out that
it appeared in the Lookout, an independent weekly in the Campbell-Stone
tradition of the Churches of Christ. They're right, and we're sorry for
any confusion caused.
- It's not a secret, but I don't recall mentioning it before in print.
In 1970, when a pastor in Brooklyn, I made the potentially disastrous decision
to run for Congress. Actually, it was for the Democratic nomination, which
in that district was tantamount to election. It was a very near thing.
I've never seen anyone look incredulous, but I suspect some are, when I
say that I've thanked God almost every day-well, almost every week-that
I lost. Only weeks into the campaign, which was going frighteningly well,
I knew that this was not where I belonged. Politics, and especially Washington
politics, has for many years seemed to me oppressively dehumanizing, verging
on the demonic. It's the all-pervasive corruption of self-importance. And
yes, some of my best friends are deeply entangled in it and seem, mirabile
dictu, still in possession of their souls. These reflections are prompted
by a marvelous article by Diane Ravitch, "Adventures in Wonderland"
(American Scholar, Autumn 1995). It's worth a trip to the library.
Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Education under Lamar Alexander, and,
while not in Congress, discovered that life in Washington is all about
the power games "on the Hill." I will not attempt to summarize
the article, but only say that it is not an unrelenting series of horror
stories. Ravitch, an author of distinguished books on education, tells
of her experience with considerable humor and graciousness. She ends on
this note: "Two week after the 1992 election, I attended a gala dinner
at the New York Public Library, where I was among a group of writers who
were honored as 'Literary Lions.' I was still a government official and
felt slightly illegitimate since the intensity of government work leaves
little time for any writing other than speeches or an occasional article
(which, so long as one is in a political job, has at least a strain of
boilerplate). As I looked at the other writers, I reflected that we were
being honored for what we had done on our own, without politics, without
negotiation, without compromise, without pre-clearance, without deference
to committees, commissions, or tethered minds. And I knew that night in
which world I belonged." And so, with immeasurable relief, did I know
that autumn night of 1970 when I learned that the late John Rooney would
continue to represent Brooklyn's Fourteenth Congressional District on the
- "Hume Backs Weakland's Speech" is the headline in the National
Catholic Reporter. Some British cousins had protested to Cardinal Hume
remarks made by Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee at a conference
in Birmingham. Weakland said, as he has said so many times before, that
the shortage of priests constitutes a crisis, and suggested once again
that an answer may be to ordain married men and women. In response to the
protesters, Hume issued a prepared statement: "The Cardinal would
not wish to prevent from speaking a bishop whose continuing ministry as
a bishop was supported by Rome." Some backing.
- Quite a few sensible people are having difficulties with what Dinesh
D'Souza says about race in his new book, The End of Racism. Glenn
Loury of Boston University and Bob Woodson of the American Enterprise Institute,
for instance. The former scorched it in a review in the new Weekly Standard,
and the latter cut his ties with AEI for having sponsored the book. Both
are black thinkers for whom we have great respect (Loury has contributed
several splendid pieces to these pages). We will be returning to D'Souza's
argument here. Meanwhile, the book is also being attacked by people who,
it seems all unknowingly, confirm central parts of D'Souza's thesis. For
instance, his suggestion that many white liberals who support the old civil
rights establishment and failed welfare policies really believe that blacks
are not capable of getting their own lives in order-or, put differently,
that blacks are inferior. Here, for example, is that reliable lefty Joe
Conason in the New York Observer railing against D'Souza's "heartless
hypocrisy in promoting the notion that blacks should become 'unhyphenated
Americans' who 'embrace mainstream cultural norms,' while proclaiming in
the same breath that they will have to heal their devastated communities
on their own. Does anyone truly believe they possess the necessary resources
without government or private help?" A reader who did not know that
Mr. Conason is a celebrated foe of racism might make the mistake of thinking
the question betrays more than a hint of racism.
- Here's a news release announcing that a Robert Gross, former Jesuit,
has decided to "transfer his clergy credentials" from the Roman
Catholic Church to the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), an outfit started
some years ago to promote the Christian acceptance of homosexuality. Gross
is the author of Jesus ACTED UP (HarperCollins). Have credentials,
- The noted critic Frank Kermode discussed in the New York Times Book
Review a study by a Harvard type of lesbianism, cross- dressing, and
related antics in the history of Western culture. Kermode opined that it
was all a decided bore and he wondered why people would devote their academic
careers to such trash. Of course that provoked a rash of letters from outraged
academics protesting that the editors should not have asked someone to
review a subject in which he was not interested. It is an interesting question.
That something is not interesting, that it is really beneath notice, is
itself a legitimate critical judgment. But then why review the book at
all? One answer is: Some people think the subject terribly important and
they should be set straight. So I'm with Kermode and the editors on this
one. Anything can be deconstructed, as clever adolescents have always known.
Grownups should try to be patient with juvenile cleverness, but when the
kids keep clamoring for attention and take over whole departments for their
exhibitionist games, a line must be drawn. They should be told, nicely
if possible, that what they are doing is not terribly interesting, and,
if they don't get themselves under control, they might do some serious
damage, not least to their own minds and souls. The damage is not the main
point, however. The main point is that what they're doing is pretty dumb
and quite unworthy of their own gifts. Frederick Turner of the University
of Texas makes the point in the American Arts Quarterly (Spring
1995): "If indeed the disciplines of culture have been discredited
(as postmodern aesthetics claims), so that there is no apprenticeship,
no growing mastery in a difficult technique or craft, and therefore none
of the self-respect that comes of such training, no amount of 'self-esteem'
flummery will make up for the loss." He illustrates the point this
way: "Suppose sports were in the same condition as the postmodern
arts and humanities. There would be a whole corpus of theory that attacked
sports as traditional ways of suppressing and buying off the legitimate
aspirations of the oppressed, that denigrated winning as a patriarchal
and implicitly racist goal, that interpreted physical training as a sort
of brainwashing of the body so as to enable the power elite to control
individuals, that ridiculed the grace and the beauty of the human body
in athletic activity, and undermined the aesthetic assumptions that make
us value the agony and perfection of a close-fought game. The language
of sport would be deconstructed, the structure of the game rules would
be shown to be self-contradictory, the historical origins of sports would
be shown to be bound up with slavery and colonialism. The viewing of sport
would be interpreted as an act of sado-masturbatory violence, and its use
of the human body as reification of the authentic free individual. Sports
events would become deliberate exercises in clumsiness and chaos; players
would be chosen for their hideous deformities, poor physical condition,
and lack of coordination; the rules would be changed from moment to moment,
and the crowd would be bombarded with excrement by the players and referees.
The public would soon learn to shun such events, sports would get a reputation
for being difficult to appreciate, and a National Endowment for Sports
would be created in order to preserve our precious athletic heritage."
- Reviewing the autobiography of postmodernist hero Paul Feyerabend in
the New Republic, the prince of apostles among postmodernists, Richard
Rorty, restates his position that there is no neutral or objective way
of adjudicating disputes, "whether the issue is scientific truth or
moral agency." It is a matter of disposition, of sensibility, and
finally of faith. "Philosophers on the one side want something to
rely on, something that is not subject to chance. Philosophers on the other
side try to find ways of preserving most of common sense while keeping
faith with Darwin: with the realization that our species, its faculties
and its current scientific and moral languages, are as much products of
chance as are tectonic plates and mutated viruses. They try to explain
how social democrats can be better than Nazis, modern medicine better than
voodoo, and Galileo better than the Inquisition, even though there are
no neutral, transcultural, ahistorical criteria that dictate these rankings."
It is really very touching. Mr. Rorty has found something to rely on, something
that is not subject to chance, i.e., "keeping faith with Darwin."
- "Experimenting with tradition since
1898." That's the entire message of an advertisement soliciting vocations
to the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison, N.Y. Why would anyone
want to give his life to experimenting with tradition? One might want to
live tradition, transmit tradition, teach tradition, be faithful to tradition-but
experiment with tradition? It says a great deal about the religious culture
of our time when it is suggested that the most interesting thing to do
with tradition is to experiment with it. Anyway, what kind of tradition
can it be after only ninety-seven years, especially when all that time
has been spent fiddling around with it? Not surprisingly, the friars are
not overwhelmed by new vocations. On the other hand, religious communities
that are not in a perpetual state of wondering who they are demonstrate
a powerful capacity to attract the commitment of others. Jesus did not
say, "Come follow me, and we'll try to figure out where we're going."
The invitation to join the Atonement Friars in experimenting with tradition
is not likely to appeal to people who have something better to do with
their lives. And yet endowment funds elicited in the days when the community
knew it had a tradition to serve will likely keep the advertisements running
until the last friar to leave turns out the lights and the experiment is
formally concluded. It's been going on for centuries. Inspirations bring
communities into being, they grow uncertain, tentative, and experimental,
and then they evaporate and die, while new communities are born by the
rediscovery of traditions worthy of being lived. There is even precedent
for communities only ninety-seven years old experiencing such rediscovery
- According to the Times (London), Cardinal Maurice Otunga, Archbishop
of Nairobi, has banned "Clinton" as a Christian name for Kenyans.
"We cannot allow hero worship with no Christian significance to creep
into our faith," he said. It seems improbable that any bishop or pastor
in this country has felt the need to issue such a ban.
- Chalk up another one for the Rutherford Institute. Several years ago
we mentioned here the case of Beverly Schnell of Milwaukee, a fifty- year-old
woman taking care of her ailing mother who advertised an apartment for
rent in her house. She committed the great crime of saying she was looking
for a "mature Christian handyman." The Milwaukee Fair Housing
Council pounced on this blatant act of discrimination against women and
non-Christians. Mrs. Schnell protested to no avail that she simply wanted
someone who could help out with the maintenance of the house, and to her
mind (also according to her dictionary) a Christian is a person of good
character. Determined to see justice done, the state of Wisconsin found
her guilty of discrimination and imposed fines and fees of almost $10,000,
which Mrs. Schnell, who works only part time, could in no way pay. The
Rutherford Institute found a pro bono lawyer to defend her, the case attracted
considerable publicity, Wisconsin got nervous and tried to get out of going
to trial. They would drop the case if Mrs. Schnell went to sensitivity
training and agreed not to discuss the case publicly. Mrs. Schnell, however,
is eager to talk about the case and thinks a trial might be just the platform
she needs. Obviously, it is the correctness constabulary of the state of
Wisconsin that needs to be sent to sensitivity training, meaning a course
in common decency.
- Once upon a time, ever so long ago, Father Andrew Greeley, social scientist,
did a study of the priesthood in the U.S. that was rejected by the American
bishops. Fr. Greeley does not forget. In a recent column in the National
Catholic Reporter, Greeley writes, "With unrelenting consistency
in recent years, the Vatican has appointed to the American hierarchy men
who are mean-spirited careerists-inept, incompetent, insensitive bureaucrats
who are utterly indifferent to their clergy and laity. In all its two hundred-year
history, the American hierarchy has never been in worse shape." Which
is what Andrew Greeley has been saying for forty of those two hundred years.
- The World Council of Churches was present at the Beijing conference
on women. Many readers will no doubt remember the WCC. Among the speakers
was Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanaian Methodist theologian, who said, "The
Christianity in Africa today is 'bad news' because it brings us patriarchal
structures and a European economic system of greed." Even if the product
of that system, in the hands of religious bureaucrats who despise it, provides
free trips to international conferences for angry Africans trained to condemn
the benevolence by which they are oppressed. Included on the program also
was Ada Maria Isasi, a Hispanic Catholic who teaches theology at Drew University.
She declared, "We construct our own reality, what role we will play,
what values we will live by." Also in the construction business is
Delores Williams of Union Theological Seminary, New York, who expatiated
on her "African-American women's resistance culture." She stated
her belief that "God is now saying, 'Upon you women I will build my
church.'" When all the talk is about liberation, that seems like an
awful burden to assume.
- Noteworthy statements and events are noted by catholic trends, a publication
of the Catholic News Service. For instance, Father Michael Crosby,
"a lecturer and author on biblical spirituality," spoke to a
meeting titled "A Look at Prejudice," sponsored by the Dubuque
Franciscan Lifelong Formation Team. Referring to the O. J. Simpson trial,
he said, "It isn't O. J. on trial. It isn't Mark Fuhrman on trial.
In many ways, every one of us is on trial." Come to think of it, it
did turn out that way didn't it?
- "Haydn? Schubert? Chopin? Schumann? Strauss? Mahler? Grieg? Sibelius?
Puccini? Holst? Ralph Vaughan Williams? Dvorak? Poulenc? Barber?"
The foregoing is the response of Robert Wilken of the University of Virginia
to my comment here that little great music has been written since Bach,
Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Some guys sure have a way with words.
- Many years ago, Karol Wojtyla wrote a play called The Jeweler's
Shop, and when he was here in New York as John Paul II a small company
was going to produce it but then ran out of funds. A theater critic of
the New York Times wrote that this proved that New York "can
be one tough town." What he did not mention is that another company
has been very successfully doing The Jeweler's Shop here and in
major centers around the country. The Times report left readers
assuming that it had closed. To get information about that ongoing and
very popular production, write The Polish Theater Group of New York, 261
Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222. (The Times has to date not corrected
- Readers who are fiftysomething and more may remember when the avuncular
Walter Cronkite was taken to be the rock-solid center of American common
sense. Recall the ending of the evening news, "And that's the way
it is, February 21, 1967" (or whatever the date happened to be), and
I do think the majority of Americans pretty much believed him. Uncle Walter
showed up on Larry King the other night. Caller: "You've been quoted
as saying that you felt that most journalists were liberal, in fact that
a good journalist was by nature a liberal." Uncle Walter: "I
define liberal as a person who is not doctrinaire. That is a dictionary
definition of liberal. That's opposed to 'liberal' as part of the political
spectrum . . . open to change, constantly, not committed to any particular
creed or doctrine, or whatnot, and in that respect I think that news people
should be liberal." If we got him right, a liberal is someone who
is doctrinaire about being relentlessly committed to noncommitment. The
interesting thing, however, is not that Mr. Cronkite is confused but that
he is so very desperate. Already back in 1988, addressing a dinner for
People for the American Way (the people who brought "un-American activities"
back to our political vocabulary), Cronkite declared: "I know liberalism
isn't dead in this country. It simply has, temporarily we hope, lost its
voice. . . . We know that Star Wars means uncontrollable escalation of
the arms race. We know that the real threat to democracy is the half of
the nation in poverty. . . . We know that no one should tell a woman she
has to bear an unwanted child. . . . God Almighty, we've got to shout these
truths in which we believe from the housetops. Like that scene in the movie
Network, we've got to throw open our windows and shout these truths
to the streets and the heavens." As Mr. Cronkite says, a good journalist
is "open to change, constantly, not committed to any particular creed
or doctrine, or whatnot." "And that," as Walter Cronkite
might say were he still doing the evening news, "is the way it is
and was and ever will be. Amen."
- Name this voice. "While intimate relationships have always been
problematic, it seems in recent years we are witnessing a great deal of
breakdown in our society. . . . But we must realize that now, more than
ever, it is crucial to the overall health and well-being of all people
that we be open to expanding our understanding and educating ourselves
so we can eventually reach the goal of finding healthy solutions to our
societal and physical ills." Give up? It's Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former
Surgeon General, in her foreword to Love Does No Harm (Continuum)
by the Rev. Marie M. Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister. The book
promotes a sexual ethics of eroticized justice in relationships of mutual
equality beyond patriarchal structures of exploitation in the hope that,
as Dr. Elders puts it so strikingly, "we can eventually reach the
goal of finding healthy solutions to our societal and physical ills."
To ponder the loss that our public discourse has suffered as a consequence
of Dr. Elders' dismissal is to be, well, grateful. (How on earth, do you
suppose, are we managing to get along without a Surgeon General?)
- While the media's coverage of the Pope's October visit was generally
fair, there were, of course, exceptions. For instance, reporter Henry Allen
in the Washington Post: "There are sixty million Catholics
in America, and for many of them he also speaks with the voice of a conservative
crank when he stonewalls on abortion, birth control, married priests, women
priests, and so on." Our dictionary says that to "stonewall"
is "to be uncooperative, obstructive, or evasive." On the causes
favored by Mr. Allen and others, John Paul has certainly been uncooperative
and is understandably charged with obstruction, but he has hardly been
evasive. As for what one suspects is included in "and so on,"
the appropriate response is, Conservative Cranks of the World Unite!
- It bears repeating. Ecumenism is not aimed at creating Christian unity
where it does not exist but at giving fuller expression to the unity in
which all Christians share. The following came to me after reading another
attack on the claim of Evangelicals and Catholics Together that
we are "brothers and sisters in Christ." In North Africa in the
third century, the Donatists claimed to possess the authentic form of Christianity
and refused to recognize others as Christian brothers and sisters. In his
First Discourse on Psalm 33, St. Augustine had this to say: "They,
by refusing to recognize our baptism, deny that we are their brethren;
we, on the other hand, by not repeating theirs but recognizing it for our
own, say to them: Ye are our brethren. They may say: 'Why are you looking
for us, what do you want with us?' Let us reply: Ye are our brethren. They
may say: 'Go away, we have no connection with you.' But we have an undoubted
connection with you: we make confession of one and the same Christ, we
ought to be in one Body, under one Head. 'Why are you seeking me,' he asks,
'if I am lost?' Gross absurdity, gross madness! Why are you seeking me,
if I am lost? Why should I seek you except you are lost? 'Well then, if
I am lost,' says he, 'how am I your brother?' Exactly as I may be told
of you: Thy brother was dead, and is come to life again; he was lost, and
is found. I adjure you, therefore, brethren, through the very heart of
charity, by whose milk we are nourished, by whose bread we are strengthened,
through Christ our Lord, through His meekness-for it is time for us to
pour forth upon them great charity and abundant mercy, beseeching God on
their behalf that now at last He may give them sound understanding, to
come to their senses again and see themselves, and realize that they have
no argument whatsoever against the truth; nothing is left to them but sickly
spite, all the more feeble in proportion as it fancies itself formidable."
Sources: On Episcopal ordinations, news releases. Florence King
on Molly Ivins and plagiarism, American Enterprise, November/December
1995. While We're At It: On age for consent to have sex, New York Times,
June 11, 1995. David Smolin on "lawless law," Baylor Law Review,
Volume 47:119 (1995). J. Budziszewski on pop spirituality, New Republic,
July 10, 1995. Gerald Early on Afrocentrism, Civilization, July/August
1995. "The Brief Statement" in Christian News, May 8,
1995. On the Coalition for Pagan Religious Rights, Washington Post,
July 9, 1995. Cardinal Hume quoted, National Catholic Reporter,
September 15, 1995. Joe Conason on Dinesh D'Souza, New York Observer,
October 2, 1995. On Robert Gross, August 7, 1995 news release from The
Strongheart Group. Frank Kermode on boring academics, New York Times
Book Review, July 30, 1995. Richard Rorty on truth and moral agency,
New Republic, July 31, 1995. The name "Clinton" banned in Nairobi,
London Times, July 4, 1995. On Beverly Schnell's struggle against
the state of Wisconsin, Wall Street Journal, September 19, 1995.
Andrew Greeley on Catholic hierarchy in America, National Catholic Reporter,
September 15, 1995. Quotations from WCC speakers at Beijing conference,
Ecumenical News International, September 20, 1995. Michael Crosby
on O. J. Simpson trial, catholic trends, October 21, 1995. Walter Cronkite
quoted in Media Research Center newsletter, October 9, 1995. Washington
Post comment on the Pope as conservative crank, cited in Media Research
Center newsletter, October 9, 1995.