A Continuing Survey
of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 69 (January 1997): 56-70.

In this issue:

Under the Shadow

For my sins, part of my misspent youth was misspent in Texas. I've never regretted the time in Cisco, a depressed and dust-driven town that was kind to me and is perfectly evoked in the film The Last Picture Show. Of West Texas it was said that there is nothing wrong with it that some water and a few good people would not remedy. To which the response was that the same might be said for hell. But that's Texas hyperbole, of course.

We were fifteen and my friend Tyler was thought to be a bit slow. Retarded was the word that people used then. But there was a wondrous calm about him, as though he had a secret world where he really lived. He was devoutly religious; a Baptist, I think. One hot day some of us were swimming in a rural tank, which is what Texans call a man-made pond for watering cattle. The rest of us were impressed by, indeed envious of, Tyler's fearlessness in diving from a huge rock into what must have been no more than five feet of water. He was unruffled and told us-not bragging, but with smiling ingenuousness stating the obvious-"I'm under the shadow." The reference was to Psalm 91: "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. . . . He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust." I don't know whatever became of Tyler, although years ago somebody told me was a drummer with an evangelistic musical group that played the Southwest. More recently, I was told that he had died.

It's a long way from Cisco to Georges Bernanos, but the unlikely connection was made while reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's huge study- among his many huge studies-Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence (617 pp., Ignatius). Best known for Diary of a Country Priest and Dialogue of the Carmelites (the latter turned into a captivating opera by Poulenc), Bernanos also lived "under the shadow," and the passage from Psalm 91 appears again and again in his writings. As is the way with Balthasar, the book is frequently rambling and prolix, but filled with striking allusions that reflect his almost unbelievable literary erudition. Bernanos, who died in 1948, was enraptured by saints and heroes, and obsessed by discerning the real and the counterfeit in the spiritual battle between the Light and the Darkness. The ambiguities are explored with excruciating exactitude in almost all his writings, but especially in Carmelites and the story of Joan of Arc, Joan, Saint and Heretic.

In examining the relationship between freedom and obedience, Bernanos discovered in "ecclesial existence" the luminosity of the shadow. In obedience to the truth borne by the sacramental life of the Church, Bernanos knew himself to be free. Under the darkening shadow of Stalin and Hitler, he raged against the propaganda-induced conformity that was producing "mass man," and against those in the Church who welcomed that counterfeit obedience.

Balthasar describes it this way. "The logical conclusion, for Bernanos, is that nothing could be more devastating than a confusion, or even an approximation, of both phenomena: the drive to produce mass-man and the power of ecclesial obedience; as if the universal malleability and steerability of modern man nicely coincided with the Catholic principle of obedience, indeed, as if the weakening of human freedom and individual power of decision represented an advantage for the Church! The contrary, in fact, must be vigorously affirmed: Whatever weakens the interior powers of the ethical person by the same token deprives the Church of a portion of her efficacy in the world. If each and every Christian is a part and a representative of the Church in the world, then each and every Christian must, by the active engagement of his whole person, make the world realize something of the total freedom from and transcendence above the world that are the Church's."

To compromise that transcendence was, for Bernanos, to let the principalities and powers write the script of the human drama. Of one of his characters, standing in for the culturally corrupted Christians of the time, he wrote disdainfully that "he was more afraid of his wife than of Satan." Such a person lived and partly lived (Eliot) oblivious to the real drama of his life. Bernanos was even more disdainful of les petits cures progressistes-petty progressive priests-who reduced the mystery of the Church to pathetic efforts to make "the Christian legacy" useful to the world. As a faithful layman, Bernanos embraced the Church's social teaching and relentlessly addressed questions of social justice, even as he deeply resented the petty clerics who knew no higher mission than "marching in step with the times." The Church and those who sacramentally represent it, he insisted, have the great task of sustaining the transcendent shadow that is the ambiance necessary for the flourishing of Christian freedom.

The cultural, intellectual, and theological differences between Georges Bernanos and my boyhood friend in Cisco could hardly be greater. I doubt that Tyler would have made much sense of Bernanos' "ecclesial existence." But both lived under the shadow; standing fearlessly on the heights, falling into the bottomless mystery of grace. I should like to think that they have met by now.

Moral Fragility

In the Via Tasso is the Museum of the Liberation of Rome. Felicity O'Brien, an historian at King's College, London, recently visited the museum and got to thinking about the many attacks of the past thirty years on Pius XII for his alleged indifference to the plight of the Jews under Hitler. Writing in the Tablet, she notes that stretching across one wall of the museum is a framed list of 155 religious houses, parishes, and church institutions that sheltered thousands of Jews during the Nazi occupation. She goes on to relate how many and how effusive were the statements of gratitude to Pius XII by organizations such as the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York, the United Jewish Appeal, and the American Jewish Committee.

At the Pope's death in 1958, the Committee described him as "one of the greatest spiritual guides of our time. His Holiness raised his voice in an eloquent appeal for the basic principles of justice, charity, and hospitality for refugees of whatever religion or race, thrust from their countries by shameful persecution." Dr. O'Brien concludes that the "unbridled criticism" of Pius XII not only does a disservice to him "but also can be said to cast at best a shadow, at worst a slur, on the integrity of those Jews-leaders and ordinary people-who said thank you to him. They, and he, deserve better."

Of course the many Jewish expressions of gratitude were before 1963. That was when Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy, changed everything with its searing indictment of Pius XII for being not only indifferent to but, at least indirectly, implicated in the persecution of the Jews. Hochhuth, together with Peter Weiss and Heinard Kipphardt, was a founder of the "Theater of Fact," aimed at exposing the guilt of Germans and, more generally, of what would come to be called "the establishment" for unlimited crimes against humanity. The Deputy stirred enormous controversy at the time, but its line on Pius XII and the Holocaust has become the conventional wisdom in most circles.

Recently these questions have been agitated again in discussions of a draft for an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism that, according to some, Pius XI was preparing to issue shortly before his death in 1939. While condemning anti-Semitism, the draft contained sharp criticisms of Jews and Judaism that are, at least in tone, inconsistent with subsequent developments in Catholic teaching. So there are those who think it just as well that Pius XII put the draft encyclical on a back shelf, while others see it as another proof of his indifference to what was happening to the Jews.

Felicity O'Brien is among those who are rightly disturbed by the injustice done Pius XII and, more inclusively, the Catholic Church in many accounts of the Holocaust. The Deputy and, more recently, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, which condemns the German people tout court, are exercises in scapegoating that only obscure the intricate patterns of good and evil in human behavior. While it is necessary to reject the simplistic claims of such as Hochhuth and Goldhagen, that is hardly sufficient. As long as human beings are capable of moral judgment we will be sorting through what people, including Pius XII, could have done and should have done in a time when the lights of decency were largely extinguished. Always, of course, in painful awareness of our own moral fragility in a time and circumstance not entirely dissimilar.

The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy

I'll presume to call it Neuhaus' Law, or at least one of his several laws: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy's good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.

A well-mannered church can put up with a few orthodox eccentrics, and can even take pride in being so very inclusive. "Oh, poor Johnson thinks we're all heretics," says the bishop, chuckling between sips of his sherry. The bishop is manifestly pleased that there is somebody, even if it is only poor old Johnson, who thinks he is so adventuresome as to be a heretic. And he is pleased with himself for keeping Johnson around to make him pleased with himself. If, however, Johnson's views had the slightest chance of prevailing and thereby threatening the bishop's general sense of security and well-being, well, then it would be an entirely different matter.

So it was that some church bodies muddled through for a long time with leaderships that trimmed doctrine to the dictates of academic fashion and popular prejudice (the two, more often than not, being the same) while permitting the orthodox option as a kindness to those so inclined, and as testimony to the "balance" so cherished by placeholders radically devoted to the middle way. It was not always an entirely unattractive accommodation. In religion, too, sensible people prefer to be neither fanatic nor wimp. Considering the alternatives, and if one has the choice, it is nice to try to be nice.

Non-optional Orthodoxy

But then what used to be called orthodoxy came up against a new orthodoxy. The new liberal orthodoxy of recent decades is hard and nasty; compared to it, the old orthodoxy was merely quaint. The old orthodoxy was like a dotty old uncle in the front parlor; the new orthodoxy is a rampaging harridan in the family room. The old orthodoxy claimed to speak for the past, which seemed harmless enough. The new orthodoxy claims to speak for the future and is therefore the bearer of imperatives that brook no opposition. The choice of a few to live in the past could be indulged when the future was thought to be open and undetermined. Tolerating the orthodox was also a way of playing it safe. You never know: maybe the ways of the past would come around again. But the old orthodoxy that is optional is proscribed by the new orthodoxy, which is never optional.

The easy-going liberal tolerance that long prevailed was at home with accommodating preferences but uneasy about the question of truth. Not that it denied that there is a truth about this or that, but, then, who was to say what that truth might be? When the question of truth is bracketed-that is, when it is denied in practice-one can choose to be tolerant of a splendid array of "truths." Or one might decide that there really is no truth that makes tolerance necessary, and choose another course. The alternative to the course of tolerance is the course of power. Tolerance suspends judgment; the will to power acknowledges no reason for restraint.

In some churches, the new orthodoxy is most aggressively manifest in feminist and homosexual (or, as it is said, "lesbigay") agitations. These, however, are but the more conspicuous eruptions that follow upon a determined denial of the normative truths espoused by an older orthodoxy. Proponents of the new orthodoxy will protest, with some justice, that they, too, are committed to normative truths. These truths, however, are not embodied in propositions, precedent, ecclesial authority, or, goodness knows, revelation. They are experiential truths expressing the truth of who we truly are-"we" being defined by sex, race, class, tribe, or identifying desire ("orientation").

Identity is Trumps

With the older orthodoxy it is possible to disagree, as in having an argument. Evidence, reason, and logic count, in principle at least. Not so with the new orthodoxy. Here disagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, "My Identity." Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps. An appeal to what St. Paul or Aquinas or Catherine of Sienna or a church council said cannot withstand the undeniable retort, "Yes, but they are not me!" People pack their truths into what Peter Berger has called group identity kits. The chief item in the kit, of course, is the claim to being oppressed.

Nobody denies that there are, for instance, women, blacks, American Indians, and homosexuals beyond number who do not subscribe to the identities assigned their respective groups. This, however, does not faze those in charge of packing and distributing identity kits. They explain that identity dissidents, people who do not accept the identities assigned them, are doubly victimized-victims of their oppressors and victims of a false consciousness that blinds them to the reality of their being oppressed. Alternatively, identity dissidents are declared to be traitors who have been suborned into collaboration with the deniers of who they are. The proponents of truth-as-identity catch the dissidents coming and going. They say their demand is only for "acceptance," leaving no doubt that acceptance means assent to what they know (as nobody else can know!) is essential to being true to their authentic selves. Not to assent is not to disagree; it is to deny their humanity, which, especially in churches credally committed to being nice, is not a nice thing to do.

This helps explain why questions such as quota-ized representation, women's ordination, and homosexuality are so intractable. There is no common ground outside the experiential circles of identity by which truth is circularly defined. Conservatives huff and puff about the authority of Scripture and tradition, while moderates appeal to the way differences used to be accommodated in the early church (before ca. 1968), but all to no avail. Whatever the issue, the new orthodoxy will not give an inch, demanding acceptance and inclusiveness, which means rejection and exclusion of whatever or whomever questions their identity, meaning their right to believe, speak, and act as they will, for what they will do is what they must do if they are to be who they most truly are. "So you want me to agree with you in denying who I am?" By such reasoning, so to speak, the spineless are easily intimidated.

An Instructive Tale

Contentions between rival orthodoxies is an old story in the Church, and the battles that have been fought are riddled with ironies. An earlier round of the difficulties encountered by optional orthodoxy is nicely recounted by John Shelton Reed in a new book, Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism (Vanderbilt University Press). The Oxford Movement associated with John Henry Newman set out to restore to the Church of England an orthodox and catholic substance that it had presumably once possessed. By the middle of the 1840s, Newman and others came to the conclusion that the via media they had championed as an Anglican alternative to both Rome and Protestantism was in fact a "paper church," quite devoid of apostolic reality. After Newman and his companions left, the work of orthodox restoration was continued under the banner of "Ritualism" or "Anglo-Catholicism." It enjoyed the impressive leadership of such as John Keble and Edward Pusey, but in the public mind was more closely connected with sundry aesthetes and eccentrics for whom Anglo- Catholicism was, says Reed, a "countercultural" assault on the Victorian establishment.

It is a mark of the restorationists' success that they were soon perceived as a serious threat by the bishops at their sherry, and by Englishmen of consequence (their wives tended to be more sympathetic) who resented any departure from the unapologetic Protestantism of the national religion. In 1874, unhappiness led to parliament passing the Public Worship Regulation Act, which landed a number of Anglo-Catholic clerics in jail for short stays. Checked by this establishment opposition, Reed notes that the ritualists did an about-face.

In their earlier restorationist mode, they had insisted that the entire church should conform to the normative orthodoxy that they claimed was constitutive of the Anglican tradition. By the 1870s, however, it had become evident that any steps toward uniformity would be at the expense of the Anglo-Catholics. Whereupon Anglo-Catholics became the foremost opponents of uniformity and enthusiastically championed ecclesiastical pluralism. All they were asking for, they said, was "tolerance and forbearance" for their way of being Anglican. In 1867, the Rev. Charles Walker was urging upon the Royal Commission on Ritual that peace could be found in the agreement "that the National Establishment embraces in its bosom two separate religions." Of course that appeal failed to carry the day, as is almost inevitably the case when previously tolerated options threaten the establishment.

Reed, an Episcopalian who teaches at the University of North Carolina, sums up the irony of Anglo-Catholicism: "A movement that originally championed orthodoxy had come to defend freedom; begun in opposition to religious liberalism, the movement now appealed to liberal values for its survival. Cardinal Manning, once an Anglo-Catholic clergyman himself, saw the irony, and maintained that 'Ritualism is private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colors.' He declared that 'every fringe in an elaborate cope worn without authority is only a distinct and separate act of private judgment; the more elaborate, the less Catholic; the nearer the imitation, the further from the submission of faith.'" Reed adds, "Although some denied it, Manning had a point."

Defending Enclaves

It took a long time for Anglo-Catholicism to be thoroughly routed, but the job seems now almost complete. Among Anglo-Catholics in this country, many have left for Rome or Constantinople, some have joined up with groups of "continuing Anglicanism," and a few are determined to make yet another valiant last stand, despite a long and depressing record of failed last stands. In England there is the peculiar spectacle of "flying bishops," a kind of parallel episcopate ministering to parishes that are no longer in communion with their own bishops. That is generally conceded to be a transient arrangement.

Within the Episcopal and other liberal church bodies, it is still possible, here and there, to defend parochial enclaves of orthodox teaching and catholic sensibility. But those who seek safe haven in such enclaves frequently suspect that Cardinal Manning was right: there is something deeply incoherent about sectarian catholicity. There are numerous groups in this country-Baptist, Missouri Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostalist-that maintain their version of orthodoxy in a way that is not optional. Setting aside the theological merits of their orthodoxies, such groups are sociologically secure; in their world, they are the establishment, and to that world the new and nasty orthodoxy of truth- as-identity is not admitted. Some of us may think such immunity comes at too high a price. But for those to whom sectarianism is no vice, and may even be a virtue, such withdrawal and disengagement seems like no price at all.

The circumstance is very different for those Christians to whom it matters to be part of the Great Tradition. One thinks especially of Lutherans, Anglicans, and those Reformed who claim the heritage of John Nevin and Philip Schaff; all think of themselves as "evangelical catholics" in ecclesial bodies temporarily separated from upper case Catholicism and upper case Orthodoxy. Anglo-Catholicism was the most impressively institutionalized form of this self-understanding. But, whether in its Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican expressions, movements of normative restoration were compelled to settle for being tolerated options, and now it seems even that is denied them.

Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media. The realization grows that orthodoxy and catholicity can be underwritten only by Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the influence of Anglo-Catholicism among Protestants obscured this reality for a long time. It is a considerable merit of John Shelton Reed's Glorious Battle that it contributes to our understanding of why movements of catholic restoration, posited against the self- understanding of the communities they would renew, turn into an optional orthodoxy. A century later, an illiberal liberalism, much more unrelenting than the Victorian establishment, will no longer tolerate the option. It is very much like a law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.

Israel and the Body Of Christ

Without doubt, one of the most important Jewish theologians of our time is Michael Wyschogrod, now teaching at the University of Houston. At a theological conference in Germany, where he encountered considerable hostility from some Christian theologians, he read his paper "A Jewish Perspective on Incarnation." The great disagreement between Jews and Christians, said Wyschogrod, is over the Christian claim that Jesus is God. Many Jews, following Maimonides, say that claim is decisively precluded because God is pure spirit and cannot be incarnate in space and time. Wyschogrod disagrees. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is no doubt that God "dwells" in Jerusalem in a way that he does not dwell in Berlin; as he dwells also in his elect, albeit sinful, people, and in the Temple of Solomon.

"Judaism is therefore incarnational if by this term we mean the notion that God enters the world of humanity, that he appears at certain places and dwells in them which thereby become holy. Christianity somewhat concretized this tendency, pushing it toward a specific incarnation so that the Jewish tendency toward spatiality takes on a corporeal form. While in Judaism the dialectic between transcendence and immanence is always kept alive rather sharply, in Christianity the aspect of immanence receives perhaps somewhat stronger expression even though it must be remembered that trinitarian thinking complements the incarnate son with a transcendent father. In any case, it must be emphasized that the Jewish objection to an incarnational theology cannot be based on a priori grounds, as if something in the nature of the Jewish concept of God made his appearance in the form of humanity a rational impossibility. Very often, Jewish opposition to the incarnation is based on just such grounds without realization of the implications of such a posture. If we can determine a priori that God could not appear in the form of a man or, to put it in more Docetistic terms, that there could not be a being who is both fully God and fully human, then we are substituting a philosophical scheme for the sovereignty of God. No biblically oriented, responsible Jewish theology can accept such a substitution of an ontological structure for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whose actions humanity cannot predict and whose actions are not subject to an overreaching logical necessity to which they must conform. It is for this reason that I consider clarification of the reason for Jewish opposition to the incarnation so important."

This Jewish Flesh

Wyschogrod is taken with the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that when Pope John XXIII saw the pictures of bulldozers pushing Jewish corpses into mass graves at the newly liberated Nazi murder camps, he exclaimed: "There is the body of Christ." Wyschogrod urges Christians and Jews to reflect on the possible implications: "Somehow, in some way which is perhaps still not altogether clear, the church decided that in Jesus there was God, more so than in other people who are also created in God's image. This man, this Jew, this servant, this despised, crucified Jew, was not just human but in him could be detected the presence of God. The church held fast to this belief because it held fast to this Jew, to his flesh and not only to his spirit, to his Jewish flesh on the cross, to a flesh in which God was present, incarnated, penetrating the world of humanity, becoming human. The church found God in this Jewish flesh. Perhaps this was possible because God is in all Jewish flesh, because it is the flesh of the covenant, the flesh of a people to whom God has attached himself, by whose name he is known in the world as the God of Israel. Perhaps for some mysterious reason, the church, the gathering of Gentiles drawn to the God of Israel, could not see this incarnation in the Jewish people but could see it in this one Jew who stood, without the church realizing it, for his people. Perhaps the crucifixion of Jesus can only be understood in the context of the crucifixion of the people of Israel, whose physical presence challenges those who hate God because in this people they see the God they hate. Perhaps the bond between Jesus and his people is much closer than has been thought."

Wyschogrod is not certain that the word "incarnation" is the best way to describe God's relation to the Jewish people, but he is sure of the scriptural witness that God dwells in the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, and in the Holy Land. More important, more holy, than these is the people. "The holiness of the land of Israel is not equal to that of the people of Israel who enter it as a holy people and who leave it as such. God's covenant is with the people and when the Temple is destroyed, the rabbis tell us, God goes into exile together with his people. And now, wherever a congregation gathers, wherever there are Jews, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) gathers. Is this incarnation in a people? It is a movement in that direction. It is not identical with Christian incarnation. It is a less concentrated incarnation, an incarnation into a people spread out in time and place, with its saints and sinners, its moments of obedience and disobedience. But I do think that he who touches this people, touches God, and perhaps not altogether symbolically."

While We're At It