A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life
Richard John Neuhaus
(c) 1996 First Things 65 (August/September 1996): 64-80.
Farewell to the Overclass
Egalitarian protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, every functional
society has a class composed of those who wield concentrated political
and economic power and who set its manners, or lack thereof. Within that
class, different people do different things, and the most important thing
that is done is the minting and marketing of the ideas by which people
try to make sense of their lives.
Ruling class is the old-fashioned term, and happy the society in which
the members of the ruling class wrap their preeminence in the language
of equality and the goal of universal self-governance. In his last book,
the late Christopher Lasch depicted the unhappy circumstance of our last
several decades as a "betrayal of the elites." The elites, he
said, have come to define democracy not in terms of self-governance but
of upward mobility. In this view, the promise of democracy is the prospect
of rising above the people to join the elites concentrated in government,
the university, and the media.
We now have a quite new phenomenon in the history of the republic: two
radically isolated sectors of the population, the underclass and the overclass.
Both are in an adversarial posture toward the great majority of Americans,
the overclass by virtue of ambition and unbounded self- esteem, the underclass
by virtue of social incompetence and anomie. Between the two there is a
fearful symmetry on many scores, but their service to each other is far
Although it goes back before the 1960s, the pattern then became more
overt by which the overclass exploited the disadvantaged of the underclass
to greatly expand their own rule. To be fair, they did not think they were
exploiting the poor. And, in fact, the civil rights movement from the Montgomery
bus boycott of 1956 through the rise of the black power movement in the
early sixties was a rare instance in which elite advocacy on behalf of
the disenfranchised and against entrenched custom enhanced the measure
of justice in American life. That civil rights movement was, with considerable
right, portrayed as a moment of moral luminosity, and the overclass has
been basking in its afterglow for almost forty years. The principle seemed
established for a time that the elites possessed their power, and were
justly ambitious for more power, by virtue of their moral status as champions
of the oppressed. The luminosity of that moment, however, was not sufficient
to cast the light of moral legitimacy on all the causes that subsequently
would be included in the great cause of all causes called Social Justice.
Upon consideration, most Americans declined the proposal that we should
make permanent peace with communism (a.k.a. coexistence), were decidedly
cool to the idea that marriage and motherhood are forms of slavery, deemed
the drug culture a pathetic addiction, did not agree that religion in the
classroom violated sacred rights, and persisted in viewing homosexuality
as a perversion both pitiable and repugnant. They were unattracted by a
cultural liberation that brought us crack houses, glory holes, and needle
parks; and found themselves unable to follow the logic of replacing, by
means of quotas, racial and sexual discrimination with racial and sexual
discrimination. Most important, and despite the sustained barrage of decades
of propaganda, Americans stubbornly refused to believe that the unlimited
license to kill unborn children constituted a great leap forward in our
understanding of human dignity. As if that were not enough, it had become
evident by the 1970s that the social programs issuing from the civil rights
movement had turned in very nasty ways upon the very people they were intended
to help, resulting in an urban and chiefly black underclass of pathologies
Clearly the moral mandate claimed from that now distant moment of luminosity
had run out. The political notice that its date of expiration had passed
was decisively given in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, although
the notice was evident enough in the rejection of George McGovern eight
years earlier. Mr. Clinton captured the White House, albeit with a minority
of voters, because, like all successful presidential candidates after l964,
he ran as a conservative, and because George Bush apparently stopped running
when apprised of the probability that he was not to be reelected by acclamation.
But let us not be distracted by politics.
The fact is that we now find ourselves with two alienated classes. It
is alienation that distinguishes today's overclass from the ruling classes
of the past. A ruling class that discreetly disguised its role in deference
to democratic sensibilities was by most Americans thought to be bearable
and even admirable, especially as its privileges were thought to be derived
from breeding and achievement. The overclass is something else. As the
word suggests, it is marked by an overbearing quality; it presents itself
as being over and against the American people but is quite unable to give
any good reasons for its pretensions to superiority.
The encouraging thing is that an overclass cannot sustain itself as
a ruling class because it offers no argument for its right to rule. Assumed
superiority is not an argument. The overclass that emerged from the 1960s
deconstructed the moral foundations of its current privilege by its relentless
attack on all traditional justifications of privilege. Proponents of permanent
revolution are hard put to call for a pause in the revolution in order
to allow them to savor their triumph. They cannot recall from the political
culture the passions and prejudices which they employed in overthrowing
the establishment, and by which they are now being overthrown. Today's
moment of populist insurrection is commonly called traditionalist, but
it is in large part a continuation of the revolution of the sixties, now
directed against the revolutionaries of the overclass who seized the commanding
heights of culture.
Their perch on the heights is most precarious. In ways beyond numbering,
Americans are railing at the governmental, media, and university elites,
declaring that they have had enough and are not going to take it anymore.
Rather than perching on the heights, it may be more accurate to say that
these elites have retreated to protective enclaves in search of refuge
against an angry and ungrateful populace. There they find solace among
their own kind. In undisturbed caucus they propound the true socialism
that has been betrayed by every socialism tried; their network anchorpersons
sound nightly alarums against the ascendant fascism of Christian conservatives;
and they churn out unreadable academic deconstructions of elitism, turning
a blind eye to the elite that they are. Or the elite that for one shining
moment-a Camelot, so to speak- they thought themselves to be. But now the
enclaves are shadowed by the suspicion that they are only talking to themselves.
Outside, the barbarians are taking over.
Why America Hates Harvard
The antielitist elite of the overclass finds itself in a galling quandary.
It was no big news that Harvard hated America; the best and the brightest
have always been prone to indulging a measure of contempt for the generality
of mankind. The new twist is that America hates Harvard because Harvard
despises what Harvard is supposed to represent- scholarship, honesty, and
manners worthy of emulation. America is in rebellion against an overclass
that has systematically trashed the values by which a ruling class can
justly claim the right to rule. (Which, of course, does not stop many young
Americans from wanting to join the overclass, also by way of Harvard.)
In addition to the inherent incoherence of anti-elitist elitism, the
overclass attempted something quite new that has not worked and almost
certainly cannot work. Looking back on the ruins of the glory that was
Rome (his Camelot, so to speak), Gibbon, with a grandiloquence equal to
his prodigious bigotry, blamed "the barbarians and religion."
The same combination of barbarians and religion is blamed by today's overclass
for its decline and impending fall. Both history and common sense suggest
that there is no sustainable rule without religion. Not necessarily this
religion or that, but religion in the sense of religare, of ideas
and traditions that bind people together, that evoke the communal adherence
we call loyalty. Being itself loyal to nothing, the overclass cannot evoke
One cannot hold the commanding heights without commanding truths, and
it was by the rejection of commanding truths that the overclass seized
the heights in the first place. In the absence of truths, or even of the
possibility of truth, the overclass, led by such as Richard Rorty, wanly
sings the praises of "ironic liberalism," and tries not to notice
that the choir gets smaller and smaller. They mint and try to market ideas
that no sensible person would want to live by; their cultural coinage is
rejected as being backed by nothing-literally nothing, as the debonair
nihilists who issue it readily confess, indeed, as they incessantly boast.
So this is the new thing about the overclass: it does not so much want
to rule as to be admired for having exposed the fraudulence of rule. At
the same time, of course, it does want to rule. At least, if somebody must
rule-and in the nature of things, somebody must-the members of the overclass,
while denying in principle anything that might be called the nature of
things, has a decided preference for ruling rather than being ruled. Especially
if the alternative is the rule of barbarians and religion, meaning the
Rulers of the past produced various warrants for their rule. There was,
for instance, the divine right of kings. Gibbon and his philosophe friends
contended that the religion of the Enlightenment provided a rationalist
access to truth that superseded the dark ages before their arrival. More
recently, Marxist masters were legitimated by putatively scientific appeal
to the dialectic of history. Here in America, a ruling class that bore
some similarities to the current overclass located its right to rule in
its calling to reeducate the commoners. John Dewey and his acolytes recognized
that Americans could not be weaned from religion except by a more attractive
religion, and so Dewey proposed his Common Faith of Democracy, frankly
presented as the religion of humanism, only to discover that Americans
were incorrigibly attached to the antique truths of Sinai and Calvary.
In bitter disillusionment, the heirs of Dewey resolved that, if they could
not impose their religion, they would expunge religion altogether from
our public life, and especially from the schools.
Whether called the knowledge class, the new class, or the overclass,
today it is tottering, and it knows it. The campaign of liberation from
the traditional meanings that give life meaning met with such popular hostility
that some of the overclass had second thoughts. From out of one defensive
enclave rode a paladin of high spiritual purpose proposing nothing less
than a "politics of meaning." A puzzled populace, not knowing
what was meant by meaning but recognizing the politics, politely declined
the proposal. The politics may be disguised for the nonce, and there may
be another election or two to be won, but the rule of the overclass is
drawing to a close.
A generation that was born, nursed, and reared by the overclass, that
never knew anything but the overclass, must finally fall back upon sounding
a final trumpet for the nostrum that first roused it to political consciousness:
The American people want change! The American people warmly agree. And
so it was, future historians will note, that the overclass rode off into
the sunset astride the weary old charger named Change, the very horse on
which it had arrived.
This year's John Courtney Murray Lecture was delivered by John A. Coleman,
S.J., of Berkeley. I have a fondness for that lectureship, since it provided
the occasion for my first setting forth the thesis of "the naked public
square." Father Coleman impressively builds on that argument with
his examination of religiously based activism in the public square. He
looks at groups as diverse as Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World,
and Focus on the Family, noting that even secular analysts acknowledge
that the preponderance of citizen action in this country is rooted in communities
of religious faith.
Coleman's reflection is somewhat weakened by a failure to note all the
ways in which voluntary groups can undermine their own genius. He does
mention the problem of business executives in Habitat for Humanity who
urge that home building might be done more efficiently by depending less
on volunteers. Neglected, however, is the way in which other activist groups
become instruments of governmental expansion. Many years ago, Arthur Simon
and I-both Lutheran pastors at the time-planned the launching of Bread
for the World. During the years that Art was president and I was on the
executive committee, I believe Bread did great good in alerting Christians
to the problems of world hunger. Eventually, however, the organization
became less an instrument of citizen action in response to human need than
yet another liberal pressure group lobbying for increased government spending.
While continuing to respect Art Simon and many others involved, I was reluctantly
forced to the conclusion that, on both domestic and international policies,
Bread had become a part of the problem. Fr. Coleman rightly notes the ways
in which voluntarism can be undone by corporate entanglements, but his
analysis would be strengthened by attention to the equal or even greater
threat of entanglement with government.
The burden of Coleman's lecture, however, is to underscore the continuing
problems of the naked public square. He sharply criticizes theorists such
as Harvard's John Rawls who contend that religious discourse can have no
legitimate place in public debate. Philosopher Robert Audi of the University
of Nebraska has urged that religiously motivated citizens should practice
"epistemic abstinence." Respect for nonbelievers, he contends,
requires that believers who address public policy questions should refrain
from appealing to identifiably religious arguments. Coleman strongly objects
to this "gag rule" on religion in public. He cites Sanford Levinson,
law professor at the University of Texas: "Why doesn't liberal philosophy
give everyone an equal right, without engaging in any version of epistemic
abstinence, to make his or her arguments, subject to the prerogative of
listeners to reject the arguments, should they be unpersuasive-which will
be the case, almost by definition, with arguments that are not widely accessible
or are otherwise marginal."
A critic who attended this year's John Courtney Murray lecture complained
that it offered no theoretical advance on arguments that are now familiar,
but that strikes me as unfair. As Dr. Johnson observed, we have a greater
need to be reminded than to be instructed. John A. Coleman renders an important
service by reminding us of the perduring power of the bigotries that would
exclude religion from public discourse, and by lifting up once again the
importance of voluntarism and mediating institutions to the vitality of
American democracy. It is not a valid complaint to say that it was said
before, even in the forum of the John Courtney Murray lecture. One might
as well complain that Tocqueville said most of it 160 years ago. The point
is that it needs to be said again and again, and we should be grateful
to Fr. Coleman for taking on that necessary, and necessarily modest, task.
What To Do in a Dangerous world
Fifty years after Winston Churchill gave his famous "iron curtain"
speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Lady Thatcher addressed
the state of the world on the same spot. (She noted that the earlier speech
was not well received at the time. "To judge by the critics you would
have imagined that it was not Stalin but Churchill who had drawn down the
iron curtain.") Curiously, the Thatcher speech received almost no
attention in the national press, so here are some important pieces of it.
She compares 1946 and 1996: "Today we are at what could be a similar
watershed. The long twilight struggle of the Cold War ended five years
ago with complete victory for the West and for the subject peoples of the
Communist empire-and I very much include the Russian people in that description.
It ended amid high hopes of a New World Order. But those hopes have been
grievously disappointed. Somalia, Bosnia, and the rise of Islamic militancy
all point to instability and conflict rather than cooperation and harmony."
The aftermath of communism's collapse is, to put it gently, problematic:
"Like a giant refrigerator that had finally broken down after years
of poor maintenance, the Soviet empire in its collapse released all the
ills of ethnic, social, and political backwardness which it had frozen
in suspended animation for so long. . . . The moral vacuum created by communism
in everyday life was filled for some by a revived Orthodox Church, but
for others by the rise in crime, corruption, gambling, and drug addiction-all
contributing to a spreading ethic of luck, a belief that economic life
is a zero-sum game, and an irrational nostalgia for a totalitarian order
without totalitarian methods."
Much of Lady Thatcher's concern was aimed at nuclear proliferation:
"The Soviet collapse has also aggravated the single most awesome threat
of modern times: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These
weapons-and the ability to develop and deliver them-are today acquired
by middle-income countries with modest populations such as Iraq, Iran,
Libya, and Syria-acquired sometimes from other powers like China and North
Korea, but most ominously from former Soviet arsenals, or unemployed scientists,
or from organized criminal rings, all via a growing international black
market." She held up the prospect that, by the end of this decade,
we may see twenty countries with ballistic missiles, nine with nuclear
weapons, ten with biological weapons, and up to thirty with chemical weapons
of mass destruction.
Her view of the Islamic insurgency is grim: "Within the Islamic
world the Soviet collapse undermined the legitimacy of radical secular
regimes and gave an impetus to the rise of radical Islam. Radical Islamist
movements now constitute a major revolutionary threat not only to the Saddams
and Assads but also to conservative Arab regimes, who are allies of the
West. Indeed they challenge the very idea of a Western economic presence.
Hence, the random acts of violence designed to drive American companies
and tourists out of the Islamic world."
With the end of the automatic Soviet veto, some thought the UN ("multilateralism")
would be the way to order the world. "Of course, there was always
a fair amount of hypocrisy embedded in multilateralist doctrine. The Haiti
intervention by U.S. forces acting under a United Nations mandate, for
instance, was defended as an exercise in restoring a Haitian democracy
that had never existed; but it might be better described in the language
of Clausewitz as the continuation of American immigration control by other
means. But honest multilateralism without the spur of national interest
has led to intervention without clear aims."
Star Wars Redux
One reasonable response to the new world disorder, she suggests, is
an effective ballistic missile defense (Reagan's much scorned "star
wars"), which is receiving more respectful attention these days. The
contribution of such a defense is at least five-fold: "First and most
obviously it promises the possibility of protection if deterrence fails;
or if there is a limited and unauthorized use of nuclear missiles. Second,
it would also preserve the capability of the West to project its power
overseas. Third, it would diminish the dangers of one country overturning
the regional balance of power by acquiring these weapons. Fourth, it would
strengthen our existing deterrent against a hostile nuclear superpower
by preserving the West's powers of retaliation. And fifth, it would enhance
diplomacy's power to restrain proliferation by diminishing the utility
of offensive systems." Without that and other constructive measures,
the next century may see a repeat of "1914 played on a somewhat larger
"That need not come to pass if the Atlantic Alliance remains as
it is today: in essence, America as the dominant power surrounded by allies
which generally follow its lead. Such are the realities of population,
resources, technology, and capital that if America remains the dominant
partner in a united West, and militarily engaged in Europe, then the West
can continue to be the dominant power in the world as a whole." NATO,
she believes, should be expanded to include Poland, Hungary, and other
Central European countries, and a new "Atlantic initiative" should
bind Europe and the U.S. diplomatically, militarily, and economically.
On transatlantic economics she says: "I realize that this may
not seem the most propitious moment in American politics to advocate a
new trade agreement. But the arguments against free trade between advanced
industrial countries and poor Third World ones-even if I accepted them,
which I do not-certainly do not apply to a transatlantic free trade deal.
Such a trade bloc would unite countries with similar incomes and levels
of regulation. It would therefore involve much less disruption and temporary
job loss-while still bringing significant gains in efficiency and prosperity.
. . . And it would create a trade bloc of unparalleled wealth (and therefore
influence) in world trade negotiations." Harking back to the days
when people spoke more easily about a "special relationship"
between Britain and the U.S., Lady Thatcher declared: "But it is the
West-above all perhaps, the English- speaking peoples of the West-that
has formed that system of liberal democracy which is politically dominant
and which we all know offers the best hope of global peace and prosperity.
In order to uphold these things, the Atlantic political relationship must
be constantly nurtured and renewed."
Of course not everyone will be persuaded by Lady Thatcher's diagnosis
and prescription for world affairs, but she is one of the most lucid and
cant-free political figures on the world stage today, and what she said
at Fulton deserves much more attention than it received. Particularly refreshing
is her unabashed belief that the cause of freedom is, above all, a moral
The Extremity of the Mainstream
In politics it matters a lot who gets described as "mainstream"
and who as "extreme." And, of course, the media do the describing.
Politicians who "defend a woman's right to choose" are mainstream.
Those who would "ban abortion" are extreme. A new national survey
by the Tarrance Group shows that only 13 percent of Americans favor unrestricted
access to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. That is the "mainstream"
position. Fifty-two percent of Americans favor the outlawing of all abortions,
or all abortions except the 1 percent (according to the Alan Guttmacher
Institute) performed for rape/incest/life of mother. That is the "extreme"
position. Go figure.
Almost any Republican who is "pro-choice" is described as
a "moderate." The new thing is that it is now very widely recognized
that, on abortion and much else, the mainstream media are far from the
mainstream. "Moderate" and "mainstream" have become
synonyms for the L-word that very few practicing politicians dare to use
these days. In the last couple of months a number of books by academics
have announced the revival of liberalism, but these volumes have about
them a sweated tone of desperation. Of course such a revival will almost
certainly happen at some point, but not for some years, I expect, and then
liberalism redux may bear slight resemblance to the liberalism we have
Meanwhile, the increasingly marginal mainstream media will continue
to depict as marginal the positions embraced by a majority of Americans.
The consoling thing in all this is that the establishment media are not
anywhere near so powerful as they, and their critics, claim. The next time
you come across inflated claims about the omnipotence of communications
in this "media age," prick the balloon with one word: Abortion.
Twenty-three years ago, the establishment media, joined by almost every
major institution in the country, unanimously declared that Roe had
"settled" the abortion question. In fact, when the history of
this period is rightly written, it will tell that Roe, more than
any other single factor, radically destabilized our politics, with the
result that a surprised and uncomprehending establishment frantically insists
that the views of a small and declining minority really do, all appearances
and election returns to the contrary, represent "the mainstream."
Maybe, they think, saying it often enough will make it so. That, combined
with vesting their hopes in politicians of the left who campaign as conservatives,
may restore the world that was before the "extremists" took over.
What choice do such people have, except to admit that, just maybe, they
got things wrong. Before doing that, the oracles who anchor the establishment
networks and newsrooms will solemnly announce to the world that the American
people have simply gone crazy. Not surprisingly, we are already getting
books and articles reviving the contention that our constitutional order
is in need of a major overhaul. The present system is simply ungovernable.
And of course they're right: It is ungovernable, by them.
While We're At It
- Was it Aristotle who said that friendships are formed by shared delights?
Or maybe our circulation manager was just making it up. In any event, he
has this great idea that you might share your delight in FT by sending
us names of family members, friends, and associates to whom we can send
a sample issue. Mentioning that it was your idea of course. Reading FT
might turn associates into friends, or at least into better- informed associates.
Do send us that list soon. Like maybe today?
- There is a good deal of talk these days about America's possibly being
in the midst of a fourth Great Awakening-and about the social and political
implications of that possibility. Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation
recently addressed the 1994 congressional class on this theme, noting that
the possible meaning of this historical moment "demands not only public
pronouncement, but careful cultivation of our private character and prayerful
attention to our personal spiritual lives, as well." Then an admonition
that might well be inscribed on the walls of every congressional office,
and other offices, too. "This is not to be undertaken lightly, nor
in the spirit of partisanship. We stand in the presence of a power that
is not to be trifled with. We invoke a name not to be taken in vain."
- Mother Jones and National Review have in common that
they both run ads, including classifieds. Tom Kuntz, a New York Times
reporter, did a comparison of ads in "the leading glossy magazines
of the two camps," left and right. In the mean-spirited gag category,
NR offers "The Slick Willie Golf Ball-a good lie guaranteed!"
MJ proposes, "Wipe that smile off Jesse Helms' face with high
quality toilet tissue." In help for the lovelorn, NR has an
"Ivy League of dating" to meet conservatives from prestige colleges,
while MJ has "Le Erotica," a lesbian network. In the smoking
department, NR pushes Rothschilds cigars and MJ has, "The
Whole Hemp Catalog of legal cannabis products to stimulate your mind and
body." With respect to hobbies, NR promotes a program to learn
to read music and play the piano, while MJ invites readers to order
"The Humpback Whale Adoption Kit." As for higher education, NR
offers a Hillsdale College program in free market economics, and MJ
touts the John F. Kennedy University Graduate School for Holistic Studies
that specializes in "interdisciplinary consciousness studies."
I'm not sure it's entirely fair to compare Mother Jones and National
Review. Is National Review to the right what Mother Jones
is to the left? Those on the left might well think so. And I'm not
sure that Mr. Kuntz is entirely fair in the ads he selects, but the picture
he presents is plausible. It does suggest that the left-right divide is
near unbridgeable, and I expect that most Americans are decidedly on the
right of it.
- Don't hold it against Stanley Crouch that he got a MacArthur Foundation
Genius Award. In his case, there really are signs of genius. Crouch, who
recently published All-American Skin Game, has an essay in a book
of many bright essays, Reinventing the American People, edited by
Robert Royal (Eerdmans, 304 pp., $17 paper). He is holding forth in high
style against the multiculturalists and their "inclusivism,"
which is, Crouch knows, just the old separatist arguments shoddily retreaded.
Multiculturalism, of course, is premised upon our all being victims. "The
politics of resentment is based most deeply on a denial of individual responsibility.
The history of groups, or as the vastly over-estimated W. E. B. DuBois
would have it, the history of races, is all. In this regard, the politics
of resentment that lies directly behind 'multiculturalism' is built on
the sense of having been had by some larger external force or by 'society'
in general. If the resentful one is from a racial minority, the culprit
is 'white racism'; if female, one may blame 'political testosterone poisoning.'
All of these are variations on the child abuse defense-a dysfunctional
family as the root of all wrong. As the comedian Dennis Miller recently
observed on his cable show, 'Thanks to the notion of dysfunction, every
zipperhead in this country can tap himself with a Freudian wand and go
from failed frog to misunderstood prince.'" Crouch's advice is that
we not panic in the face of this madness. "Just why has already been
laid down by our best writers, musicians, and filmmakers-by people like
Constance Rourke, John A. Kouwenhoven, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray.
Here is the reality, straight, no chaser: The American is an incontestable
mix of blood, style, and tradition. Part Yankee, part frontiersman, part
Indian, part Negro, part Hispanic, part Asian, part Christian, part Jew.
We hear this in our talk, we see it in the way we walk and the way we laugh,
the gestures we use, the facial expressions we pass over ethnic fences,
the foods we eat, and even the dreams we have. We will continue to reinterpret
our interrelationships, regularly stretching the heroic into the angelic
and turning the vile into the demonic. Yet we will continue to respond
to each other's stylization of sensibility. Some narrative will come our
way that allows us to be lyrically touched to the quick by an individual
superficially unlike us. We will continue to reinvent our diets and make
spiritual searches. We are hopeless experimenters and improvisers, just
as we are hopeless suckers-never given an even break by those who wish
to manipulate us through our curiosity and our willingness to engage in
that good old American self-criticism. Not for very long will we be able
to accept the visions of the separatists because our history, public and
private, has proven to us over and over that we were made for each other.
We will sometimes be knocked down to one knee. But we are too shot through
with shared personal and historical resonances to separate. We are now
and forever Americans, which means that we are in some very specific ways
parts of all other peoples. Our culture and our bloodlines are cosmopolitan.
No matter how hard we might try, we can't have it any other way."
- Philip Jenkins, author of Pedophiles and Priests (Oxford University
Press), has explained in these pages the various ends to which media sensationalism
can be-and, in the case of clergy scandal, has been-employed ("The
Uses of Clerical Scandal," February 1996). Mark Silk reviews Jenkins'
book in the New York Times Book Review and asks if there is something
"we can learn from this cultural episode to help keep future panics
under control." More particularly, Silk asks why the news media were
so ready to accept the ridiculously exaggerated estimates of clerical misconduct
fed them by some experts. His answer: "These days, nothing is more
seductive to reporters than the suggestion of a trend, pathological or
otherwise. Call it the sociology disease; from the daily newspapers to
the newsweeklies to the daytime television talk shows, the search for the
trend du jour has become all-consuming. A good 'social problem' does provide
moral cover for telling lurid stories, but it would be better for journalists
to stick to the stories and take the experts with a grain of salt. They
too have axes to grind, and there are fewer new things under the sun than
are dreamed up in their philosophies."
- "The dissolution of the modern world has come down to the core
of the Church." When the noted historian John Lukacs wakes up in the
middle of the night, that's the kind of thought he thinks. In his powerful
memoir Confessions of an Original Sinner, he goes on to reflect
that there is a kind of logic, both divine and human, to the corruptio
optimi pessima. It would be puzzling to Lukacs if the best were not
embroiled in the general decay. "Had the Church remained largely unaffected
by the awful crisis of the modern world, this would have meant: a) that
the crisis was not really that profound, or b) that the Church would have
become ossified, superficially powerful, but only like the ancient monarchies
before their fall." Those of a disposition different from that of
Professor Lukacs might welcome evidence that the crisis is not really that
profound. But then he discerns something that appears almost hopeful in
the midst of the encroaching disaster. The great nineteenth-century historian
Jakob Burckhardt, he says, "was probably quite right when he wrote
that the Christian feelings of sinfulness and humility were feelings of
which the ancient world had not been capable. This was a mutation of consciousness
more important, and more profound, than the two great changes of the Modern
Age: the development of the scientific method and the evolution of historical
consciousness. I often feel that we are on the threshold of another great
mutation, for all superficial and dreadful evidences to the contrary notwithstanding,
sentiments of sinfulness and humility have not disappeared from the Western
world. What has happened is that they have come far from being the near-monopoly
of Christians. There exist many animae naturaliter christianae in
this world now-whether they are aware of this or not. Perhaps that does
not matter. What matters is that they are part and parcel of the evolving
Christianization of the world, which includes the movement of mankind toward
the end of the world." That prospect, however, is one of apocalypse
more than consummation, for at the end of history, at the Second Coming,
"mankind will again be divided between the camps of the Antichrist
and the minority belonging to Christ." All this Professor Lukacs thinks
when he wakes up in the middle of the night. Maybe it is what wakes him
up. His is a vision of corruption and apocalypse shared by many Christians.
He is also a Catholic, and his sense of things rings true to much that
John Paul II, for instance, says in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae
and elsewhere about the reign of "the culture of death."
But the Lukacs view of history seems incapable of accommodating what John
Paul says about "the culture of life," about the Third Millennium
as a "springtime of hope," about why we should live by the injunction,
"Be not afraid." So is the Pope a cockeyed optimist? I think
not. Few people alive have looked so unblinkingly into the face of evil,
of all that this century has thrown up in defiance of hope. It is that
irrepressible hope, grounded not in personal disposition but in divine
promise, that protects against the disposition of world-weariness that
wants the crisis to be as irredeemably profound as in our nightmares it
appears to be.
- From the Revelations Department. According to Catholic Trends,
Father Joseph Fitzmyer of St. Patrick's College in Maynooth, Ireland, gave
a paper listing the great benefits the Church has reaped from modern biblical
studies. "Third," he said, "we learn that God's word did
not drop from heaven, in King James English to boot, but that it has come
to us from a venerable Jewish and Christian heritage." I hope you're
ready for that.
- I did that little whimsical (I thought) comment on plagiarism, "He
Who Steals My Words . . . ," and the letters are still pouring in.
One reader accused me of whining. Several clergy wrote guilt-ridden admissions
that they had been "stealing" from the magazine without citing
the source, and promised never to do it again. At least two readers sent
gotcha missives, noting that I violated my own rules by not giving Shakespeare
credit for the title. My response to that is that anybody who didn't immediately
recognize the reference to Shakespeare shouldn't be reading First Things.
That's a category I failed to mention: citations so familiar that to cite
the source is to insult the reader. And one reader supplied this pertinent
bon mot from Pascal, for which you might find a use: "Words are like
tennis balls-not only were they made to be volleyed back and forth, but
the return is often defter than the serve." And now I promise never
to mention plagiarism again, unless unduly provoked.
- "St. Mugg" they called him. I met Malcolm Muggeridge only
once, shortly after the appearance of the second volume of his magnificent
memoirs, Chronicles of Wasted Time. He was as completely charming
as his reputation led one to believe. I told him how much I was looking
forward to the third volume, and he assured me it was in the works, which
is what he told everyone, but it never appeared. According to Richard Ingrams'
Muggeridge (HarperCollins, 264 pp., $27.95), he never did seriously
work on the third volume, and that may be just as well. Ingrams was a friend
of Muggeridge, but his biography does not disguise his dislike of the memoir,
which, he says, gives the false impression of great continuity in Muggeridge's
thinking over the years. From the early years on, says Ingrams, there was
only one very big idea that Muggeridge got right and stayed with-the horror
of communism and the hypocrisy of its Western apologists. When, later in
life, Muggeridge became a Christian and entered the Catholic Church, he
was much celebrated as an apologist for the faith. Some even claimed he
was a greater apologist than C. S. Lewis. In a manner friendly but firm,
Ingrams insists that Muggeridge was essentially a publicist who lived on
his inexhaustible charm, frequently and deliberately giving the impression
that he had read and thought about matters a great deal more than was the
case. Only those who knew Muggeridge intimately (he died November 14, 1990)
can judge the merits of Ingrams' claim. The undeniable fact is that Muggeridge
wrote like an angel, and he had a divine gift for eliciting from others
second thoughts about the things that matter most. Now I see that another
and much larger biography by Gregory Wolfe is out in England. It will undoubtedly
be published here soon, and I will undoubtedly be turning my mind again
to the irresistible "St. Mugg." We old contrarians have to stick
together, and those of us blessed with less charm and talent will long
be drawing on the master, remembering his maxim that "Only dead fish
swim with the tide."
- The baroque period in Catholicism is past. That announcement, however
belated, is made by Father Thomas O'Meara of the University of Notre Dame
in America, the Jesuit magazine. "Protestant discerners of
a 'Catholic moment,'" says O'Meara, do not have "much idea about
where the Catholic Church stands now in history." Later on he criticizes
"a Lutheran convert who admires the trappings and autocracy of the
Vatican bureaucracy of the late nineteenth century." I wonder who
he could be talking about. Just in case, and for the record, I despise
autocracy of any century and have a very selective admiration for trappings.
Fr. O'Meara begins his article with the wise observation of C. S. Lewis
that the period people consider to be full of antiquity is usually the
one just before their own. He might have balanced that with the observation
that the period people consider to be full of novelty is usually the one
that is in its death throes. For instance, Fr. O'Meara's claim: "A
journey from the immediate past alongside modernity into what is new-that
is the Catholic destiny." One may be permitted to suggest that discerners
of a "Catholic destiny" that is linked to the fate of modernity
do not "have much idea about where the Catholic Church (or the world)
stands now in history."
- Christians have been wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount for almost
two millennia and nobody's likely to get the definitive resolution of its
moral challenges any time soon. Some proposed resolutions are less believable
than others, however. The writer of the homily helper in America,
for instance, is a strong opponent of capital punishment and of Christians
who support even what he calls "just wars." He says he was made
uneasy about his "facile arguments against capital punishment"
when the daughter of a friend of his was murdered in a particularly terrible
manner. Great was his relief when his friend told him the family was "trying
to convince the prosecutors that we want life imprisonment without parole
and not the death penalty. He doesn't understand that we follow Christ
in all this." The America writer comments that his friend "really
aspired to a love made perfect in the Crucified who asked forgiveness for
enemies." As Jesus presumably said on the mount, "If anyone kills
your daughter, put him in prison and keep him there for the rest of his
life, even if he begs to be killed rather than to suffer such a fate."
There are good arguments against capital punishment. Among them is not
the claim that sentencing someone to life imprisonment without parole is
the fulfillment of what the Sermon on the Mount says about forgiving enemies.
- I haven't had a chance to get to Walter Wangerin's The Book of God:
The Bible as a Novel (Zondervan), but was struck by the brief review
in Publishers Weekly. It said some people will really like what
Wangerin has done; "for others, however, the novel will feel like
an ornate but pale imitation of a great book." Envision a Bible publisher
putting the blurb on the cover: "A great book-Publishers Weekly."
- "It is perfectly legitimate and even admirable for Americans to
promote their personal beliefs through either religious or political processes."
That generous sentiment is offered by former President Jimmy Carter in
a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But Mr. Carter does
insist that we must draw the line somewhere, and he thinks he knows just
where. "I have in mind more emotional issues: abortion and homosexuality."
Mr. Carter says that "leaders of the highly organized Christian right
have injected into America's political debate some divisive religious questions."
Divisive questions, it seems, tend to generate controversy. "The most
vivid examples," the former President continues, "involve sexual
preferences, which obviously have highly personal and emotional overtones."
Obviously. Carter says, "Pressures from the more extreme religious
activists have pushed almost every candidate to demagoguery, emphasizing
vicious attacks on gay men and women, ostensibly based on the teachings
of Jesus Christ." If we understand him, almost every candidate in
this political season-or just Republican candidates? or just Republican
presidential candidates?-have advocated vicious attacks on gays in the
name of Jesus Christ. We try to stay informed, but clearly we've missed
something. "We must make it clear," concludes Mr. Carter, "that
a platform of 'I hate gay men and women' is not a way to become President
of the United States of America." It is good to have that cleared
up, as it is good to be reminded of the apt fit between Mr. Carter's insightfulness
and the office of former President.
- But would you want to live with one? Gallup asked teenagers getting
ready for college what kind of person they might want to room with. Asked
about people belonging to various groups, most teenagers said it would
make no difference to them. But 3 percent say they would not want to room
with a Christian, 9 percent don't want a Jewish roommate, 10 percent nix
a born-again Christian, 14 percent would be uncomfortable with a member
of the religious right, 19 percent say no to a Muslim, and 29 percent prefer
not to live with an atheist or agnostic. You figure it out, we just report
these things. The teens were also asked, "Have you heard or read anything
about the 'religious right,' which is sometimes called the 'Christian right'?"
Then they were asked whether they themselves are members of the religious
right. It turns out that 42 percent are aware of the religious right and
16 percent say they are members. Now we would like to know whether the
14 percent who would not want to room with a member of the religious right
are drawn from the 42 percent who are aware of the religious right. If
16 percent belong to the religious right, that would seem to account for
the 12 percent who would like a religious right roommate. And are to we
to infer that 4 percent of the religious right do not really like religious
righters? Another interesting twist: 16 percent of teenagers who identify
themselves as Republican say they are members of the religious right, compared
with 24 percent of Democrats. In the same numbers bundle from Gallup, it
is noted that church attendance continues to edge upwards. In 1995, 43
percent of adults said they attended church or synagogue in the last seven
days. That's up from 40 percent in 1993. The high, since such figures were
kept, was 49 percent in 1958, and the low was 37 percent in 1940. So now
- Why not? Some things are unthinkable until much public attention and
chatter make them almost commonplace. For instance, suicide was on the
decrease from the 1940s until 1980. Then "death with dignity"
became a hot topic and suicides increased. According to the Centers for
Disease Control, suicides among elderly Americans jumped 9 percent from
1980 to 1992. Of course there are more elderly Americans now, but we're
talking about the rate of suicide. Barbara Haight, an expert on
elderly suicide, says the rise of the right-to-die movement and people
such as Jack Kevorkian has made suicide acceptable to many: "They
see it as a solution to their problems." The rise in suicides also
affects young people. Oregon's state health division reports an all-time
record number of suicides since 1994, the year the Hemlock Society successfully
lobbied for an assisted-suicide initiative. The increase, boosted by a
26 percent increase in suicides among 15- to 24-year-olds, gave Oregon
a suicide rate 37 percent higher than the national average. Some things
are unthinkable until, on second thought and many thoughts after that,
we are led to ask, Why not?
- Herds of independent academic minds congregate at the annual convention
of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and we thought you might be interested
in some of the offerings at the 1996 assembly of the faithful in Washington.
There is a panel on "Queering the Renaissance: Comparative Continental
Perspectives," and three panels on "Victorian Sexual Dissidence,"
which will address "male-male sexual dissidence," "female-feminist
aestheticism," and then a subject of particular interest to those
who are weary of the conventional, "revisionary decadence." The
thousands of MLA believers will be treated to the usual fare, such as "The
Novel, Queer Theory, and Narrativity," plus "Androgyny and Absolutism:
The figure of the androgyne, especially in courtly society, as well as
theories of same-sex gender paradigms and their relations to forms of power."
There are hundreds of such items on the program, covering all the things
that parents send their children to college to learn. One panel reflects
a candor bordering on incorrectness and might be real fun: "Famous
Books You Have Not Read. Famous texts you have discussed, evaluated, cited,
taught, or bought but have not read. Blurb, acknowledgments, or bibliography
scanning as reading. Strong versus weak not reading. General theories,
dissimulation strategies, confessions." Confessions yet. The mandarins
of the MLA would be well advised to nip such honesty in the bud before
it panics the herd. Dissimulation strategies, once exposed, lose much of
their utility, and the idea that teachers should read the texts they teach
would put a serious dent in time available for academic conventions. Such
radical ideas have no place in an academic association famously devoted
to radical ideas.
- The Chinese, and Asians more generally, are widely criticized for the
overtness of their preference for boy babies over girl babies. But one
wonders if that's so unusual. If, God forbid, we like China had a one-baby-per-couple
law, I expect there would be a steep rise in female infanticide. Already,
abortion for sex selection in this country results in many more girls than
boys being killed in the womb. Long-term readers know that I keep my feminist
sympathies in close check, but for years I've been following reports on
the names people give their children. With the new reports from New York
City, San Francisco, Texas, and Florida, the pattern continues. As reflected
by the names chosen, people obviously take boys more seriously than girls.
In all four places, people give boys-white, black, and Hispanic-names of
clear biblical or religious significance. For instance, Michael, Christopher,
Anthony, Jonathan, Daniel, John, Joseph, Matthew, David, and Joshua. (In
Florida- and oddly enough not in Texas-Tyler and Austin make the top ten.)
Girls, on the other hand, get cute, toy-like names, names of jewelry stores
and soap stars: Ashley, Jessica, Samantha, Amanda, Nicole, Tiffany, Taylor,
Jennifer, and Brittany. Sarah and Rachel make the top ten for white girls.
Black girls have it worst, with names such as Jasmine, Brianna, Diamond,
Crystal, Amber, and Chelsea (the last is big in Texas). Maria makes the
top ten for Hispanic girls, although not in New York City, and not at the
very top anywhere, which seems surprising given the Marian devotion in
Spanish culture. Think of the great names not chosen: Naomi, Rebecca, Ruth,
Anne, Elizabeth, Judith, Teresa, Faith, Hope, and on and on. One need not
be a raving feminist to get the message: girls are cute, boys are for real.
Of course it is true, girls are cute. But in bestowing a name on a child
we say something about heritage and aspiration. We say something about
what we hope the child will grow up to be. What is a child to think her
parents thought of her when she has to go through life with the name of
Crystal, Amber, or Tiffany? So all right, maybe it's not among the top
ten problems in American society, but I can't squelch the suspicion that
it's not unimportant.
- A couple of issues back I wrote this item, "Against Christian
Politics," which touched on the interpretation of the Sermon on the
Mount. A reader of Mennonite persuasion complains that I "postpone
the demands of the Sermon until the eschaton." That's not quite right,
but I do think the eschatological dimension is essential to understanding
the Sermon on the Mount, in both its Matthew and Luke versions. In the
Christian Century, Garrett E. Paul of Gustavus Adolphus College
in Minnesota comes up with a typology of readings of these endlessly discussed
texts. There are four categories of interpretation: "1) The demands
are attainable by some and required only of those who can attain them (the
Roman Catholic interpretation). 2) The demands are attainable by none but
required of all (the Lutheran interpretation). 3) The demands are attainable
by and required of all believers (the sectarian interpretation). 4) The
demands are identical with the best in all cultures and attainable by the
best people in all cultures (the cultural-liberal interpretation)."
That's both interesting and helpful, although he's wrong to say that the
Catholic view is that the demands are "attainable only by priests,
monks, and nuns." Were that the case, there would be no lay saints,
when in fact there are thousands officially recognized and innumerable
others not recognized. What he calls the Lutheran interpretation, of course,
underscores the foundation of Christian existence in the sola fides.
Another Catholic way of putting it is that the Sermon presents a way of
life that is to be aspired to by all, that by divine grace is attained
by some within the limits of a fallen creation, and that will be fully
realized in the Kingdom of God. This view takes into account those who
aspire to whatever of the good, true, and beautiful is available to them,
thus including an aspect of what Garrett Paul calls the "cultural-liberal
interpretation." For all the usefulness of typologies and models in
helping us to get alternatives fixed in our minds, they almost inevitably
cut corners on the complexity of things. In any event, when Christians
stop arguing with one another over the interpretation of the Sermon on
the Mount, we will be in worse trouble than we are.
- When Nathan Glazer wrote American Judaism in 1957, he did not
invoke the term "Holocaust" even once. One of the great surprises
of recent years, says Elliott Abrams, who is soon to publish his own book
on the state of American Jewry, is that the Holocaust has become more important
to Jewish identity than the Torah, God, or the state of Israel. Abrams,
who has succeeded George Weigel as president of the Ethics and Public Policy
Center in Washington, D.C., is reviewing a book by Michael Goldberg, Why
Should Jews Survive? (Oxford University Press) in which Goldberg deplores
the fact that community after community is investing in Holocaust museums
and monuments, "flagrantly disregarding the Jewish tradition of avoiding
shrines to the dead." (In his own forthcoming book, Abrams notes some
ironies of assimilationism in the monument-building business. For instance,
the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is open on Yom Kippur but closed
on Christmas Day.) According to Goldberg, the linchpin of Jewish identity
must be the covenant with the God of Israel "who sees to the survival
of His people." Why does He do so? Because Jews "are the linchpin
in His redemption of the world." Abrams has considerable sympathy
for this more theological understanding of Judaism, and one notes that
Goldberg's essential point has been powerfully made by others, including
Michael Wyschogrod, David Novak, and Jacob Neusner. Abrams has little or
no sympathy, however, for Goldberg's anti-Zionism and his suggestion that
Jews have forfeited their right to the land of Israel because they have
failed to observe the laws of Leviticus regarding the proper treatment
of strangers, meaning the Palestinians. American Jewry is in numerical
and moral decline, according to Abrams and others, because Jews in America
have so largely abandoned any distinctively Jewish reason for being. To
the extent that most Jews have anything like a "faith," it is
faith in survivalism and secularism. Goldberg, says Abrams, addresses "questions
of some importance that provide material for a wise and thoughtful book."
He reluctantly concludes, "This is not it."
- A great favorite of journalists who do not like the Catholic Church
is Bishop Jacques Gaillot, formerly of the French diocese of Evreux. Formerly,
because the Pope finally removed him after a long career of highly publicized
dissent from Catholic teaching. So here's a story about him in the New
Yorker by Adam Gopnik. The bishop got in trouble, we are told, because
he took an interest in helping homeless people in Paris. Of course. "Bishop
Gaillot is an extraordinarily low-key and gentle man whose parishioners
find it hard to picture him in a mitre. He often dresses in mufti-black
turtleneck and suit-with a small silver cross in his lapel the only sign
of his vocation." Of course again. But the only reason he is a celebrity
among French anticlericalists, and the only reason he is profiled in the
New Yorker, is that he is a bishop of the Catholic Church who properly
wears a mitre. Otherwise, he would be just another low-key and gentle man
who is sorry for poor people, and of no conceivable interest to the likes
of Adam Gopnik. His interest is entirely derivative from the office that
he appears to scorn and that those who celebrate him make no secret of
scorning. This is sometimes called the sterility of dissent, although it
has a wondrous way of reproducing itself, and probably always will so long
as there is the foil of faithfulness on which it parasitically feeds. I
don't know Bishop Gaillot, and he may be a fine man. But this profile is
simply another in a long and tedious succession of confirmations that,
to a certain media mindset, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.
- Across the political spectrum, there is increasing discontent with
an "imperial court"-meaning the Supreme Court but also the judiciary
more generally-that short circuits the democratic process by arrogating
to itself the moral judgments that are the appropriate province of the
legislature. Following the maxim that the best defense is an offense, Ronald
Dworkin, mandarin of law at Oxford and New York University, says that the
Court is the final political arbiter. That truth is now entrenched in "unchallengeable
precedent" and alternatives to it "long excluded" by history.
So we had better just get used to it. In a new book, Freedom's Law:
The Moral Reading of the Constitution (Harvard University Press), Dworkin
challenges those who say that the Court is operating in an "absolutist"
or dictatorial fashion, noting that there are social, political, and legal
limits on what it can do-at least for the time being. And he is again dismissive
of the "originalists," such as Judge Robert Bork, who say judges
are to stick with what the Constitution actually says, and is equally dismissive
of revered figures such as Judge Learned Hand who contend that judges should
not negate legislative acts with their own reading of "moral principles"
they find in the Constitution. Dworkin's own view is that judges are, quite
literally, making it up as they go along, and that is the way it should
be. As he puts it, "Judges are like authors jointly creating a chain
novel in which each writes a chapter that makes sense as part of the story
as a whole." What is the moral authority of such "moral readings"
of the Constitution? What is the constitutional authority for such readings?
Isn't this an antidemocratic denial of "majoritarian political processes"?
Those are all very interesting questions, says Dworkin, but quite beside
the point. "There is no genuine alternative" to the judge as
novelist, he says. Or, if there are alternatives, they have been excluded
by "unchallengeable precedent" and "history." In so
boldly throwing down the gauntlet against the foundational presuppositions
of democratic governance and republican legitimacy, Ronald Dworkin may
elicit a more effective challenge against the imperial judiciary. It is
not the service that he intended to render, but it is a service nonetheless.
- The superiority of human beings over other animal life is much exaggerated,
according to those on the cutting edge, so to speak, of environmental philosophy.
Curtis Hancock, professor of philosophy at Rockhurst College, discovered
this when invited to participate in a panel at a distinguished university.
He soon found himself isolated and besieged. In desperation, he tried an
illustration he had learned from Russell Hittinger. "Suppose you're
walking down the street and you discover a house on fire. You rush inside
to rescue the inhabitants. You discover there are only two: a human infant
and a caged squirrel. Surely, if you could only save one, the infant would
be the moral choice." Not so fast, responded the other panelists.
Is the infant healthy? Is the squirrel a member of an endangered species?
The qualifications came hot and heavy, leading Professor Hancock to something
akin to despair. "If you hold that humans are superior to squirrels
in nature and moral consideration, you are likely to be dismissed as a
kook; if you declare that animal lives might be more valuable than disabled
humans, you're applauded as a sage." It is perhaps noteworthy that
only human animals of the academic type were invited to participate on
the panel, despite the evidence that their superiority is greatly exaggerated.
(This is as good an occasion as any to congratulate Russell Hittinger,
a frequent contributor, on his appointment to a newly established chair
in Catholic studies at the University of Tulsa. Or, more accurately, to
congratulate Tulsa, a non- Catholic university, on establishing the chair
and filling it with a philosopher of such distinction.)
- "Brother Bob Smith, a Capuchin monk and former parole officer,
never imagined he'd be the subject of a modern-day inquisition. His purported
crime was heresy, but not heresy against the church. Smith had run afoul
of an agency far more powerful in the modern world-the school bureaucracy."
Brother Bob is principal of Messmer High School on Milwaukee's Near North
Side. It is a very good school, most of whose students are not Catholic.
Writing in the American Spectator, Daniel McGroarty notes that in
the same neighborhood, public school students walk through metal detectors
and the majority never get diplomas. In the same world of gangs, drugs,
and guns, Messmer graduates 98 percent and sends 79 percent of its students
on to college. But, of course, it is Messmer that is on trial. The trial
was precipitated by Messmer's application to participate in an innovative
program of education vouchers for poor children. The teachers unions that
run Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction (DPI) are fanatically
opposed to parental school choice in principle, and drew a firm line against
Messmer, claiming that it is "pervasively religious." DPI sent
sleuths to the school to search for suspicious signs of "sectarianism."
After hours of investigation, they failed to find any evidence that Messmer
is in the proselytizing business, although they did come across sports
trophies indicating that Messmer students played in the local Catholic
conference. And extended hearings conducted by DPI counsel Robert Paul
turned up other damaging evidence. For instance, the head of the Capuchins
in Rome is answerable to the Pope, thereby establishing to DPI's satisfaction
that there is a "direct line between the Pope and Brother Bob."
As though that were not bad enough, Messmer has a small chapel where a
private Mass is occasionally celebrated. DPI attorney Paul asked whether
consecrated hosts are kept there and Brother Bob said not. Nothing daunted,
Mr. Paul moved in for the kill. Here is the transcript: "Mr. Paul:
Let me get a clarification regarding the consecrated hosts . . . not being
resident on the premises in the chapel. But . . . it's true that at any
of the masses that occur throughout the year, hosts are consecrated at
those masses. Brother Bob: Yes. Mr. Paul: And in the Catholic faith, that's
the conversion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ
Jesus. Brother Bob: That's correct. Mr. Paul: And that takes place at the
mass, and then those articles of bread and wine are consumed. Brother Bob:
Yes. Mr. Paul: Then they are no longer on the premises. Brother Bob: That's
correct. Mr. Paul: Then-in the time between consecration and consumption-then
the consecrated host of the blessed sacrament is present. Brother Bob:
That's correct. Mr. Paul: With that clarification, that ends my cross [examination]."
Mr. McGroarty comments: "Paul's persistence paid off. Brother Bob
may have testified that Messmer's chapel was not a church; yet, however
fleetingly, Jesus had been placed at the scene. And that was too much for
the bureaucrats. There were the Catholic Conference trophies, the Capuchin
monk-principal, the specter of the Pope, the nondenominational prayers
over the school PA, the funds from a philanthropic organization that was
not itself tied to the church but targeted much of its giving to religious
organizations-and now the body of Jesus Christ. Months later, in a passage
near the end of its brief on the case, the DPI refused to identify Messmer
as a school at all-they called it a church." That is not the end of
the story. On July 26, 1995, Governor Tommy Thompson signed legislation
expanding the parental choice program to include religious schools. The
signing took place in Messmer's gymnasium. The teachers union and the ACLU
immediately sued to keep Messmer and a hundred other religious schools
out of the voucher program. The court enjoined the program, forcing thousands
of low-income families to scramble for tuition, or return their children
to public schools. It is expected that the Wisconsin State Supreme Court
will render a decision soon. Especially piquant, we thought, is a militantly
secularist agency of the state attending with such care to the niceties
of the metaphysical status of the host in the time between consecration
and consumption. Even the ACLU might think it a little odd that the state
of Wisconsin implicitly endorses the doctrine of transubstantiation in
order to demonstrate a violation of the separation of church and state.
- Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), took
some flack when he declared that "no law which legitimizes the direct
killing of innocent human beings through abortion can be just." And
some more flack when he insisted that heterosexuality and marriage ought
to be the social norm. The occasion was a meeting of the "Call to
Action" alliance led by Sider and Jim Wallis of Sojourners
that wants to counter the influence of the Christian Coalition and similar
groups in the 1996 election. The meeting left some with the impression
that the alliance is held together chiefly by its dislike for the religious
right. "It's unclear what their goals and objectives are," said
Mike Russell, communications director for the Christian Coalition. "They're
making the same mistake Jerry Falwell did in the seventies, parading in
front of cameras without any real substance or grassroots momentum."
Keith Pavlischek, who directs the policy department of ESA, said, "This
is unlikely to go anywhere unless they make a very clear statement on the
sanctity of unborn human life and clear statement on Christian marriage.
The equivocation by some key leaders in the Call on these issues is a call
for concern." Sider is somewhat, but just somewhat, more hopeful:
"I remain uncertain whether it will be possible to develop a common
agenda that is truly pro-life, pro-family, and pro-poor. But I wouldn't
bet all my pension that it can't be done." Nor that it can.
- It is one of President Clinton's better ideas, a "National Campaign
to Reduce Teen Pregnancy." Appointed by Mr. Clinton to head up the
campaign are Dr. Henry Foster, failed nominee for Surgeon General, Whoopi
Goldberg, and Judy McGrath, president of MTV. All are strong proponents
of "abortion rights." In her autobiography, Ms. Goldberg says
she had five or six abortions (she does not remember precisely) before
age twenty-five. Another source puts her total number of abortions at eleven.
MTV's contribution to reducing teen pregnancy has been mostly soft porn
with intermittent "public service" ads promoting condoms. At
his nomination hearings, Dr. Foster, who had difficulty remembering whether
he had performed twenty or two hundred abortions, was praised for the abstinence
component of his "I Have a Future" (IHAF) program in Nashville.
Then it was revealed that the abstinence part had been slipped into the
program after the announcement of his nomination. IHAF was in fact just
another sex ed/condom handout program with, says the Family Research Council,
predictable results: "Participants in the program actually showed
higher rates of sexual activity than those outside the program,
according to a Carnegie Corporation evaluation." Commenting on President
Clinton's teen pregnancy initiative, Life Insight asks: "What
next? Beavis and Butthead as cochairs of a National Literacy Campaign?
Howard Stern in charge of a crusade to curb broadcast smut? Smith &
Wesson funding a national drive to ban handguns, with Clint Eastwood as
its celebrity spokesperson?" Actually, rumor has it that Don Imus
was scheduled to head up the smut crusade, until that media dinner last
March at which the President and First Lady were not amused.
- Sometimes the separation of religion from public life is necessary
for decency's sake. Ruth Westheimer, who as "Dr. Ruth" has gotten
impressive mileage out of talking dirty in public under the guise of being
a sexologist, says that there's no mention of sex at the Passover seder
in her home. "I'm keeping all of that life of mine separate from my
family," she said. Chalk up another convert to the pro-family cause.
She has had notable guests at her seder, including Episcopal Bishop John
Shelby Spong of Newark. One would not be surprised if he was disappointed
with the table talk.
- Gustav Niebuhr, grandson of the noted Reinhold, is a religion reporter
for the New York Times, and he has this story on the strange people
the FBI has holed up in Montana. It seems that some of them subscribe to
the bizarre "Christian Identity" doctrine that God created Aryans
but Jews are descended from hanky panky between Eve and Satan. The Rev.
Helen Young, who serves Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Jordan, Montana,
is quoted as saying that Christian Identity teaching is "disgusting."
But then comes a much more potent anathema as Mr. Niebuhr reports that
it is "a belief system condemned by the National Council of Churches."
That Christian Identity is incoherent, unbiblical, contrary to two millennia
of Church teaching, and plain nutty certainly raises serious questions
about it. But condemned by the National Council of Churches! That settles
- Surely not another book on abortion. The Silent Subject: Reflections
on the Unborn in American Culture, edited by Brad Stetson (Praeger),
is not just another book. These thirteen essays, written from a pro-life
perspective, bring together the arguments of some of the wisest minds who
have been contemplating the abortion catastrophe over the years. I was
pleased to be asked to contribute the foreword. Herewith my final paragraph:
"Essays in this volume make the compelling case that women, too, are
often 'the silent subject' in abortion. As this controversy has developed
it has become increasingly obvious that the dispute is not between men
and women. We must also hope that it will become more evident that the
dispute is not simply between those who call themselves pro-life and those
who call themselves pro- choice. Nor is it a dispute between the religious
and the secular. All those divides are pertinent to the dispute, but finally
the questions facing all of us have to do with the definition of humanity,
the criteria for membership in the political community, the basis of our
civilization's claims about human rights, and our responsibility to those
who cannot protect themselves. When, God willing, the abortion controversy
is behind us, partisans of the pro-life and pro-choice positions are going
to have to live together in this society. That is why, while sloganeering
and passionate polemics are inevitable, civil conversation is essential.
And that is why The Silent Subject is such a gift to all of us at
this point in the controversy."
- A court in Hawaii will be trying the question of whether the state
has a "compelling interest" in forbidding the legal recognition
of same- sex "marriages." The result could be binding on all
the states under the Constitution's provision that the acts of one state
be accorded "full faith and credit" by the others. As of this
writing, public opinion in Hawaii is turning strongly against the same-sex
proposal, but then courts have long since moved beyond the old idea that,
in a democracy, the people should make the laws. Richard Brookhiser comments:
"Social conservatives have already begun piling up legal sandbags
in Hawaii and other states, and at the Federal level. A flugelman for the
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund characterized these efforts as
'shut[ting] down the nation's discussion . . . before most Americans have
even had a chance to think about it.' That must be why Lambda decided to
make its case in the Supreme Court of Hawaii, because that's where most
Americans do their thinking."
- From Pepperdine University Ron Highfield sends a Los Angeles Times
cartoon by Conrad, published a few days after Easter. The legend underneath
the cartoon reads, "If Michelangelo were to paint God today . . ."
The picture is of skeletons surrounding the shrouded image of Death, who
is reaching out his hand to man. Inscribed on the clouds are the words
"Lebanon, Bosnia, Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria." The unmistakable
message is that, if there is a God, he is undoubtedly evil. This is the
paper that refused to publish Johnny Hart's "B.C." comic strip
for Easter because it alluded to Christian hope and the Los Angeles
Times said it did not want to offend its religiously pluralistic readership,
- This is a first. One of the less pleasant of editorial tasks is rejecting
manuscripts, and of course we have to reject many times more than we accept.
Sometimes they are good articles but we can't use them for various reasons,
frequently because we have other pieces on the same topic. "I wonder
if you know how it feels to be rejected," writes one disappointed
author. Now we do. A New York agent sent us a chapter from a forthcoming
book on Edith Stein, and we thought it was great. But then the agent, being
unfamiliar with FT, had second thoughts. Told that the journal was edited
by a Catholic priest, she responded very negatively. Our associate editor
opined that, after all, the Pope is a pretty good guy. "Oh please,"
said the agent, "the Pope hates women." The upshot is that she
withdrew the article and now we know how it feels to be rejected. One expects
that Edith Stein, who was killed as a Jew and died as a Catholic at Auschwitz,
would be distressed by the perdurance of vulgar prejudice.
- Episcopal Bishop John W. Howe of Florida spoke for many Episcopalians
after a group of bishops decided in May that ordaining an openly non-celibate
homosexual person violates neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the
Episcopal Church. Bishop Howe wrote to the members of his diocese: "As
your bishop, I said in my Address to our Convention back in January that
I believed a finding by the Court that the Episcopal Church has no ('Core')
doctrine vis-a-vis human sexuality would be tantamount to abandoning orthodoxy
and embracing apostasy-on this particular point, at least, I reiterate
that conviction now. That is an extremely serious charge to make, and I
do not make it lightly. I have also said that I personally cannot and will
not support an apostate Church. I reiterate that commitment as well. I
take no pleasure in doing so. There are those who will see these issues
as peripheral-matters about which we can agree to disagree. Please be aware
that the other side does not see them that way. Bishop Spong of Newark
has recently said that the Episcopal Church is engaged in a battle to the
death over these issues. On this point, at least, he and I are in complete
agreement." Other bishops have made similarly strong statements. It
would seem that one cannot return to bishoping as usual in a church that
one believes to be apostate. It is not extreme to think that the Episcopal
Church may indeed be battling itself to death.
- He's heard from people all over the world, and we're told that the
response has been overwhelmingly favorable. The global newsboard lit up
when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, told his people that
membership in some organizations is incompatible with being in communion
with the Catholic Church. "Contumacious persistence in such membership"
beyond a date certain would mean automatic (ipso facto latae sententiae)
excommunication. Proscribed organizations include Planned Parenthood, the
Hemlock Society, and Masonic groups, as well as ultratraditionalist Catholic
movements that reject the Second Vatican Council as heretical. But the
big fuss has been over the proscription of Call to Action, a national group
that advocates, inter alia, the ordination of women and artificial contraception.
Apparently the bishop's action was precipitated by the organizing of a
Nebraska chapter of Call to Action. He was not amused by the "creed"
recited in the Mass for the founding meeting, which began with "I
believe in people and in a world in which it is good to live for all humankind."
Dogmatic nitpicker that he is, the bishop complained about the omission
of any mention of God. Nor did he think the conclusion of the creed passes
theological muster: "And I believe in the resurrection-whatever it
may mean. Amen." Lincoln is a small but flourishing diocese of somewhat
less than ninety thousand Catholics that has, through forceful episcopal
leadership, largely escaped the theological, liturgical, and moral commotions
experienced by Catholicism elsewhere. Bruskewitz says his priests back
his action "100 percent." He does not think it would have worked
had he not attached penalties to the prohibition of membership in the organizations.
"A mere prohibition would simply be relegated to 'his opinion vs.
ours' with no hope of success," he said. The prospect of being excommunicated
in a month wonderfully concentrates the Catholic mind. While it is generally
agreed that Bishop Bruskewitz acted within canon law, there is much dispute
about whether such a pastoral measure would be wise or effective in other
and less cohesive dioceses. It might be especially problematic in those
dioceses with bishops who belong to Call to Action.
- Origins is a publication of the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops (NCCB), and the same issue that gives a half-page to events in
Lincoln devotes eleven full pages to an address by Bishop Howard Hubbard
of Albany, New York, "A Vision for Parish Planning and Restructuring."
"We must develop communities," he says, "which witness to
the fact that we are concerned about persons and personal values, and the
signs of that concern will be acts of warmth, kindness, and presence among
the members." We do not credit the rumor that Bishop Hubbard authored
the above-mentioned "creed" of Call to Action, since in his eleven
close-printed pages there are at least three references to God. The bishop
thinks parishes should reach out to Catholics alienated by the rigidity
of the Church's teaching and suggests that some parishes "can most
effectively fulfill their mission only by working in concert with neighboring
parish communities or working on an ecumenical or interfaith basis."
This does not mean backing off from Catholic particularities, but is rather
an opportunity for "sharing our Catholic values, beliefs, and traditions
with others." Bishop Hubbard concludes with a stirringly vapid vision
of the "golden opportunity of being forerunners of the church of tomorrow,
of being molders and builders of new theological language and ecclesial
structures which speak to our contemporary society and which ensure a fresh
hearing for the Christian message." It is very important to communicate
the Christian message. Whatever that is-as they are no longer permitted
to say in Lincoln.
- "What I really like about the Public Square," says one reader,
"is that it is never polemical." Well, I wouldn't go that far.
One does try to be kind, however, and, when that's not always possible,
at least civil. If that intention is not always evident in what is said
here, it is perhaps because the reader does not see what I refrained from
saying. So what is all this leading up to? There is this news clipping
about Episcopal Bishop William Swing of San Francisco, who has come up
with the idea of launching an organization called United Religions. Based
in San Francisco and modeled on the United Nations, it will create a permanent
assembly with the purpose of "eliminating violence" in the world.
He says the idea came to him after a sleepless night "musing about
how little religions have done for world peace." (Now watch the kindness
swing into play.) This is a really dumb idea. I would say spectacularly
dumb, but that would imply that there is something innovative about it.
We already have the World Conference on Religion and Peace, perennial world
parliaments of religion, the World Council of Churches, and efforts such
as Father Hans Kung's scheme for global reconciliation through raised consciousness
in communion with spotted owls. One way to be kind is to be condescending
and say such initiatives are "idealistic." A proposal such as
Bishop Swing's United Religions is not idealistic. It is self-indulgent
sentimentality, and dangerous sentimentality at that. I have no doubt that
the bishop is sincere. More's the pity. But it's utter rot (that's the
phrase that got through the kindness filter) to suggest that, in a fallen
world, good intentions of the religious kind can be substituted for the
economic, political, and military factors that make for what St. Augustine
called "the peace of order" (tranquillitas ordinis). It
is the dangerous sentimentality that earlier in this century had to be
challenged so sharply by Christian thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr. Today,
after the Cold War and all that, it might be argued that we can afford
to be more indulgent toward self-indulgent sentimentality, but that is
wishful thinking in a world that remains a dangerous place. In addition
to confusing people about what is required to maintain a modicum of order
in a disordered world, conceits such as United Religions reflect an unseemly
assumption on the part of religious leaders that they possess a measure
of wisdom and righteousness denied to lesser breeds. I will not even mention
the idea's provenance in San Francisco, that sceptered isle of swinging
silliness, lest the reader mentioned at the outset think this outburst
has crossed the line into the polemical.
- When the Utne Reader published the list of finalists in its
"Eighth Annual Alternative Press Awards," FT was among them.
Alternative press? And here we thought we were the mainstream. They had
these different categories, such as "Investigative Reporting,"
"Service," and "Cultural Issues." FT was in the category
of "Emerging Issues." Emerging issues? And here we thought the
whole point of first things is that they've been around from the beginning.
It would make more sense to put us in the category of of "Reemerging
Issues." Still, it's nice to be mentioned.
- For several years we have had good things to say about various things
said by Dennis Prager, the radio commentator, journalist, and author. His
reflections on the benefits (and drawbacks) of a traditional religious
upbringing (Jewish, in his case) were recounted in "What Dennis Prager
Did, and Didn't, Learn in Yeshiva" (Public Square, October 1995).
His sympathetic regard for public religious displays at Christmastime will
appear in the December issue. Now Prager is replacing his quarterly newsletter,
Ultimate Issues, with a biweekly commentary called The Prager
Perspective. It promises to loose upon the world an unaccustomed measure
of sanity. ($48 per year for twenty-four issues. 10573 W. Pico Boulevard
#167, Los Angeles, CA 90064. Toll-free order number: 1-800-225-8584.)
- "I once stayed in a remote Scottish Highland community called
Applecross, on the far side of a huge range of high mountains on the West
Coast of Scotland. It is accessible only by sea or a perilous mountain
road, and the form of Presbyterianism practised there is ultra- austere.
Even in this small community there are different divisions of the Calvinist
Church, and separate chapels, and each year when Easter approaches, the
only time at which Communion is taken, the elders of the most austere chapel
decide which of the congregation is worthy to receive it there. If judged
unworthy, a man or woman must then retreat to the next most austere chapel,
and attend and take Communion there. I asked what happened if a sinner
gradually dropped through all the grades and was finally found unworthy
to take Communion even in the fifth or lowest. My informant scratched his
head and eventually answered: "I suppose there would be nothing but
for him to become a Roman Catholic." That's from Paul Johnson's
new book, The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage (HarperCollins).
Those who know and admire Johnson's earlier work, including major books
such as Modern Times and A History of the Jews, will want
to take a look at this engaging volume. It is very personal, very much
like a long after-dinner conversation in which friends have pressed Johnson
to tell them what he really believes about all the really big questions-human
nature, virtue, death, judgment, heaven, hell. Professional theologians
will quibble at many points, and much of the book is more assertion than
argumentation, but it is altogether winsome. Johnson manages to keep pietistic
excesses at bay, but there is no doubt that the book is written out of
a deep piety and eagerness to share his faith, which he confesses is the
most important thing in his life. Of the book he writes in the preface,
"I pray it will provide a degree of comfort for those, like me, who
wish to move from obscurity to daylight, from doubt to certitude, from
infidelity to faith-or from faith to greater faith-and from apprehension,
even despair, to hope." I have no doubt that, on the basis of their
reading The Quest for God, many will discover that Paul Johnson's
prayer has been answered. The self-consciously orthodox are alerted to
the fact that, while Johnson professes the greatest respect for the teaching
authority of the Catholic Church, his views on some disputed questions
are, well, a mite eccentric. But, for many people who are puzzled about
the possibility of Christian faith and about answers to the mega-questions
of human existence, The Quest for God will both delight and instruct.
- Jim Nuechterlein wants to know when we might expect your list of people
to whom to send these sample copies. I told him I would ask.