Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 73 (May 1997): 2-6.
The Catholic Vote
I respectfully disagree with Bishop James T. McHugh’s diagnosis of and prescription for the Catholic vote in the 1996 elections ("Catholics and the 1996 Election," February). His Excellency has a truncated view of the bishops’ admitted failure, despite great efforts, to influence the political judgment of their congregations. Instead of blaming poor communication, he should realize that the division between the shepherds and their flocks is more profound.
The fact is that the American Catholic hierarchy has little credibility on moral issues, both because of its actions and its omissions. We are all sadly acquainted with the moral scandals involving clergy that regularly erupt on a parish, diocesan, and national level. These afflictions are arguably beyond a bishop’s control. But further eroding the bishops’ moral authority is their temporizing for well nigh thirty years over Catholics who publicly dissent from the Church’s moral teachings. His Excellency singles out Father Robert Drinan, S.J. for particular opprobrium. To my knowledge, Fr. Drinan has suffered no sanctions for his views and continues to function as a priest who regularly publicizes his ideas as a columnist in a Catholic newspaper. There are dozens like him inhabiting Catholic colleges and chancery offices.
Given this background, Bishop McHugh’s plan to repackage episcopal statements on public morality seems doomed to failure. Until the bishops first align the clerical ranks with these pronouncements, the laity will conclude that they may ignore the same statements, whatever form they take. Until the bishops treat Catholic moral teaching as a matter of life and death, heaven and hell, probably no one else will either. . . .
Mitchell S. Ritchie
I agree with Bishop McHugh’s conclusion that for political success the message of the Catholic bishops of America must be "clear, morally compelling, and unyielding." Although most Catholics are not especially well informed about the origins and dilemmas of Catholic social thought, I think perhaps they may have an instinctive understanding that religious authorities may be ignored when they pronounce on a variety of political and social issues without any larger integral Christian social vision. . . .
The bishops are for many reasons understandably reluctant to proclaim the need for a return to a Christian America as it was at the beginning of the Republic, reluctant to proclaim a holy war against the degeneration of American values and mores, but without such a proclamation of what Catholicism seeks, their positions on this or that political issue will probably remain nothing to bother about. It may seem that almost all Catholics oppose abortion, but that is wishful thinking. Many Catholics, laymen and priests alike, avoid the pro-life movement like the plague; thus objectively they really support abortion to one degree or another. The bishops are fearful of losing public support from the liberal media and of being returned to the Catholic ghetto of yesteryear; the laity therefore do not follow their recommendations. It thus falls by default to Patrick Buchanan to lead the Christian peasantry against the chateaux.
I am an "in the political trenches" Catholic who works diligently to promote Catholic moral and social teaching. In his article, Bishop McHugh offers evidence that our great fear of IRS reprisal keeps us from exerting the political muscle we are entitled to. In our immediate area, even handing out pro-life ballots listing those candidates against partial-birth abortions was not allowed anywhere on church property due to that fear.
The bishops should also be careful of sending mixed messages. On the one hand, they took a firm public moral stand against partial-birth abortion and President Clinton’s veto. On the other hand, on the social issue of federal welfare there was strong verbiage urging Catholics to vote for Clinton’s party. The bishops need to consider that the states can adequately care for our needy and do so with compassion and effectiveness. . . .
Kansas City, MO
About Bishop McHugh’s analysis of the failure of Catholic voters to follow the bishops’ recommendations in the 1996 election: I voted for Bill Clinton because he was, in my judgment, more likely to address the real concerns of our country. I was sure that whoever was elected, the abortion evil would not be changed. There are almost no Catholics who support the pro-abortion position, but making anti-abortion the only test for governing is disturbing. The really important question is why are the bishops’ directions ignored? Bishop McHugh suggests some of the reasons, but I believe the issue is much more serious.
When Pope Paul VI told us in 1968 that the Church would not approve birth control other than Vatican roulette, bishops all over the world spoke softly and seemed to ask us to respect this order as best we could. Now, most Catholics think their bishops have deserted them. This sense that the faithful who disagree are unwelcome in "their" Church creates a division that weakens the authority and credibility of our bishops.
Robert C. Wilson
If Bishop McHugh defines moral behavior as voting for candidates of the Republican Party, he will be an unhappy man. Many Republicans are libertarians in disguise, more interested in Second Amendment rights and cutting taxes than in using the resources of government to assist the elderly and poor. Important moral issues include tax cuts that will decrease funding to public schools--there is little interest in providing financial assistance to religiously based schools. Some U.S. Catholics believe that the Church’s social teachings actually find a more receptive home in the Democratic Party. Modern Republicans want the government to waste away, allowing individuals the freedom to live their lives with little interference. Democrats would be more willing, philosophically, to use the resources of all to assist those in need.
I understand that the bishop is located in Camden, New Jersey. I wonder how many Republicans he finds among the poor of that city.
I suggest the bishops court both Democratic and Republican Catholics. Instead of condemning Democrats out of hand, try to exercise a little charm on potential candidates. In the long run the Church will have much more success with those who wish to use the power of government to provide a preferential option to the poor. The natural home of pro-lifers is in the Democratic Party.
sent by e-mail
Bishop James McHugh’s analysis of the Catholic vote for President Clinton (53 percent) contains cogent, relevant comments of the failure of the USCC to emphasize adequately the Church’s position on abortion and suggests that listing it among twenty other social issues of varying import may have diminished its impact. In contact with hundreds of people (as a social worker) I have noticed that a surprisingly high percentage of those who classify themselves as Catholic know little of their faith and do not really practice it in any meaningful sense. Does the bishop really think that the majority read Catholic journals or newspapers? I suspect it is again a case of the remnant, and that this remnant did not vote for President Clinton. . . .
James T. McHugh replies:
The response to my article on "Catholics and the 1996 Election" tells me that a more intensive discussion is needed. In fact, having heard from many bishops, academics, and writers, I am aware that a discussion is already underway and that it will not be limited to election concerns.
I am not asking for "repackaging" of the USCC Statement on Political Responsibility (Mitchell Ritchie). I am urging that any future statements of the bishops "take a tone of moral forcefulness" and distinguish clearly between those issues that have a doctrinal priority--especially the taking of innocent human life in abortion and euthanasia--and issues that derive from the Church’s social teaching on which the bishops have expressed a prudential judgment in terms of public policy.
Norman Ravitch makes a good point that most American Catholics do not understand Catholic social teaching and do not grasp the underlying moral principles on which that teaching rests. Nor do most Catholics fully understand the moral seriousness of permissive abortion laws. The article was addressed to bishops, priests, and laity so that each, in their unique way, might assume the moral leadership to bring about a change in the present amoral and antireligious environment in the U.S. But it was especially addressed to the bishops conference to prompt self-reflection on how we address public issues that have a moral base and far-reaching moral implications.
Jerry Fournier points to the confusion resulting from mixed signals given by various priests or bishops. I do not favor telling people that they sin when they vote for a candidate. I urge that we emphasize the seriousness of a small core of issues--giving priority to the life issues because of their treatment in Evangelium Vitae. I included racism because of the strong magisterial condemnation, especially by John Paul II. I believe that strong, unequivocal statements by the bishops will lead Catholics to the right electoral choices. But we cannot retreat to silence as elections approach, or create an unending and unnuanced list of issues.
Robert Wilson seems to miss my point. I did not ask that "anti-abortion" be the only criterion, but that in light of Evangelium Vitae, it be given the higher moral importance that Catholic teaching requires. I specifically noted the evil of racism as another important moral issue. The article was intended to prompt dialogue--which it has--not to put out an unwelcome mat for those who do not fully agree or, perhaps, do not agree at all. The references to Humanae Vitae need more space in response than is here available.
I agree with Patricia Strecker that Catholics traditionally found a receptive home in the Democratic party. But that day is over and the door of the "natural home" seems effectively closed at this time. Witness the welfare bill and President Clinton’s approval of it, with the support of many in the Democratic Party. Witness also President Clinton and Vice President Gore’s courtship of pro-abortion groups and the self-serving and misleading references to Cardinal Bernardin, implying that he would be less demanding regarding politicians and abortion.
I disagree with Strecker’s "courtship" strategy because that concept implies the possible setting aside of one’s convictions in the interest of fragile harmony for unity. It is too weak a model. I believe Catholics should forcefully assert their moral convictions to every candidate and party right down to the local level, not as political aspirations but as unqualified moral imperatives for the common good.
Gene Lutz is probably right that few Catholics know about bishops’ statements. We need to find a way to change that, but the voting returns show that a significant proportion of Catholics did vote for Clinton, including, presumably, many of the leadership elite.
All the writers share a common belief, as do I, that the Church, and especially its leadership, must find new ways to communicate the Church’s moral teaching, which includes its social teaching. The teaching should be directed primarily to Catholics so that they will see its relevance for personal behavior as well as a criterion for the development of public policy. And most importantly, they will come to understand that they can be effective as responsible citizens only to the degree that they elect as their representatives persons who respect their moral concerns and take them seriously on all issues, but especially the critical issues of abortion, euthanasia, and the protection of innocent human life.
I found Alan Jacobs’ "In on the Kill" (February) thought-provoking, but upon reflection I disagree with him. The "current rage . . . for documentaries showing animals eating other animals" deplored by Mr. Jacobs seems to me no more prevalent than that for documentaries showing monkeys being reared in family groups. The killing scenes are in fact in the same documentaries as the nurturing scenes. . . .
To state the obvious, we human beings are animals too, and we want to know about other species and all aspects of their lives: family, sex, survival, cooperation, fighting, the rearing of offspring, killing, and death. These are fascinating subjects to us as we struggle to understand ourselves and our own nature.
Mr. Jacobs encourages us not to watch "nature’s pornography." What a phrase! God the pornographer? Or is it only certain editing Mr. Jacobs deplores? Would we have to watch an unedited twenty-four-hour day of a lion’s life to gain Mr. Jacobs’ approval?
I disagree that these documentaries are "the modern equivalent of bear-baiting, or the educated middle-class counterpart to cock-fighting." Bear-baiting and cock-fighting are base and cruel human-generated activities. I do not believe that the scenes of animals killing one another (even in slow motion) that are included in balanced documentaries desensitize us, debase us, or encourage human cruelty. There will always be some people who have an excessive fascination with death and cruelty, but such people are (I hope) a small minority. For my part, I found Mr. Jacobs’ analogies strained and his theology and philosophy interesting but unpersuasive. I intend to continue enjoying PBS, the Discovery Channel, and Alan Jacobs guilt-free.
Alan Jacobs should have followed his intuition and sworn off animal meat before submitting his essay, for he too is "in on the kill," and in the same way--another is doing it "for him," so he is a captive eater. That some animals kill other animals is an unsettling zoological given. That some humans kill animals is a repugnant voluntary indulgence. Animals are "sacrificed" to the human god. Meat eating is advanced by quarantining the imagination. The American hamburger is a gentle, heaving bovine cropping grass while it dumbly blesses the land. . . .
The only admissible reason for killing animals would be that their food value is essential for human health, which is a flat-out fiction. Animal flesh is an acquired taste whose acquisition involves dealing death. As carnivores, we humans are more civilized than our savage soul (Latin, anima) kin: we wait until the flesh begins to decompose before we eat it.
That Robert Royal would call Thomas Merton a "great spiritual master of our century" ("The Several-Storied Thomas Merton," February) shows his lack of insight into monasticism as well as Christianity. Total self-absorption is not exactly what Jesus had in mind.
Merton is not exactly what St. Benedict had in mind, either, and one suspects his nonconformity to the rule was financially worth tolerating. He made big bucks for the Trappists and they still sell a lot of his books.
Despite the fact he was literally struck dead during his dialogues with the Buddhists (from which one might conclude that God was not enthusiastic about the project) his confreres continued with it. So today, self-seeking and escapism contaminate Christian meditation in many religious communities.
Merton was a damaged person and he caused a lot of harm. Unlike Luther and Henry VIII who tore the physical church apart, Merton injured the soul of the Mystical Body. Only God in His mercy knows how culpable he is. Requiescat in pace.
Nancy E. Hanel
When I came upon the following comments by Father Avery Dulles in the February "Public Square," all nicely set down without editorial moan or murmur--well, you’ll forgive me for a tiny bit of hyperbole, but I could have sworn I heard the same rattle of departing chariots that was heard on the eve of the downfall of the Temple in Jerusalem.
While many of the conciliar and postconciliar reforms were no doubt prudent and necessary accommodations to the times, they did not all strike me as improvements. It was difficult for me to accept the virtual banishment of Latin from the liturgy and the substitution of new popular tunes for the imposing Gregorian chant or the mellifluous Renaissance polyphony. The depreciation of devotion to the saints and the removal of shrines and statues from the churches struck me as impoverishments that had to be regretfully endured. It might be necessary, I concluded, to live through a barren season of slovenly improvisation until the Church could experience some kind of cultural revival.
Since the unconscious horror and hilarity of this seems to have escaped you, let me ask what your reaction would have been had Fr. Dulles similarly expressed himself on an analogous subject:
It was difficult for me to accept the virtual banishment of Shakespeare from the curriculum and the substitution of Rod McKeon for the imposing Keats and the mellifluous Shelley. The depreciation of devotion to the greats and the removal of classics and masterpieces from the libraries struck me as impoverishments that had to be regretfully endured. It might be necessary, I concluded, to live through a season of Ebonics improvisation and slovenly feminism until the University could experience some kind of cultural revival.
Pangloss, thou shouldst be living at this hour!
Avery Dulles replies:
One would not have to be a Pangloss to imagine that God might permit members of the Church to be periodically weaned from excessive attachment to styles of worship they have legitimately come to cherish. They must be taught not to confuse the substance of Christianity with even its finest cultural expressions. If Catholics were being deprived of revealed truth or of the sacraments, Mr. Martin might be justified in speaking of the rattle of departing chariots. But let him look deeper. The true treasure of the Church is not its rhetoric or its music.
I respond, as a fellow Episcopalian, to the letter on "Anglican Bashing" by Christopher Holleman in the February issue.
The protestation that there is virtue in the Episcopal Church because traditionalists "still fight the good fight" inevitably reminds me of one of Abraham’s negotiations with God to save Sodom. While Abraham persuaded God to reduce the number of righteous men from fifty to ten, no one contended that Sodom was a model of how to run a city. Before commending our "Catholic and Reformed" church as a model to others, we might spend some time reexamining whether it has really worked for us. It may be, in fact, that the problems Mr. Holleman discusses have actually been fostered by this very combination.
The concession that the Church should be both Catholic and Re-formed is the initial push-off on a very slippery slope indeed. For how is such a church to retain its unity at some identifiable point on the "Cath-olic to Reformed" continuum? One might theoretically argue that a church’s bishops choose the appropriate point on the continuum, and provide the necessary unity for the church, but, as a matter of historical fact, the Anglican Church rejected this option, and purposefully chose to combine contradictory views in a sort of colloidal suspension. These contradictions--the contradictions between Catholic and Reformed--remain deeply imbedded in our Prayer Book and in our church. It was almost inevitable that such a church would ultimately foment a proliferation of still more contrary and antithetical views.
And so people of diametrically opposite views can still honestly call themselves "Anglican." While our bishops now tell us that there is "grace" in our "diversity," what does this do to our belief that we are members of a church? When we say we espouse the traditional Anglican beliefs to which Mr. Holleman refers, we are usually affirming the views of our parish, or perhaps a group within our diocese, but somewhere deep down inside, we know that these are not the views of our church. And if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that we have no more "authentic" a claim to represent the views of our church than any other group within it, precisely because our church was built upon a foundation of "Catholic and Reformed."
We are certainly confused and conflicted. Yet the cure offered by Mr. Holleman—to dismiss our bishops as "corrupt and decadent leaders"—is no better than the disease. We now add disobedience to our confusion, a disobedience that further undermines our church. We disavow the Apostolic Tradition. We are shepherdless. . . .
Jennifer L. Van Tuyl
Hopewell Junction, NY
I found Father Neuhaus’ appropriation of G. K. Chesterton’s dismissal of the idea of the "Bible as Literature" (Public Square, February) a little unnerving.
Perhaps this is only because my copy of First Things arrived literally a week before I began to teach another semester of my course in "The Bible as Literature." But I do think that a few observations about that ongoing experience—more specifically, teaching the course at a state university—could add another perspective.
A distinction that might clarify the discussion is that the phrase "Bible as Literature" can mean two entirely different things, and by using one definition we are already begging a crucial question: it can mean (and this is the sense in which GKC and Fr. Neuhaus seem to use the phrase) studying the Bible by bracketing serious engagement with religious issues and religious belief. This is, as I say to my students, sort of like studying the films of Sharon Stone and bracketing sex. . . . The second meaning of the phrase in no way assumes that religious issues will not be engaged, but only that such engagement will come through learning together how to read the text.
How does one engage these issues in the (secular) classroom? After a decade and a half teaching the course, and of reading folks like Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas (who, in my mind’s ear, tells me from time to time in a high-pitched Texas twang that what I am doing is largely a crock), George Marsden, and Fr. Neuhaus, I have more questions than answers. The course is more problematic for me than when I began to teach it.
But also more interesting. The first day of class this semester a student asked me if I was a Christian. When I first started teaching this course my answer would have been the standard, "I’ll be happy to discuss that question with you after class." This year my answer was, "Yes." And the past couple of times that I have taught the course I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying in various ways and with varying degrees of success to make the crucial point that one’s very ability to see what is in this text can’t meaningfully be separated from those traditions of belief that provide the framework for knowing what to look for. Dealing with that point in a sustained way with students who come in many varieties—more or less fundamentalist Christians, more or less Catholic Christians, more or less agnostics, and the occasional Hindu—is one of the things that makes the course very interesting as a teaching and (for me) learning experience.
It also seems relevant that, while I surely don’t do the same things in my Bible as Lit class as I do when I teach an RCIA class on the Bible, or speak to a Bible study group or a church group (as students of mine have asked me to do), there is nevertheless an enormous amount of overlap, a much greater amount than GKC’s alternatives would seem to allow for. Should I or would I teach my course differently if I were teaching it at a religiously committed college, at Calvin College, or at Steubenville, or at Wheaton College, or at Boston College? I simply don’t know the answer to that one.
If Fr. Neuhaus (or, more interestingly, Mr. Chesterton) were to show up in my class, he would see students who emphatically do not leave their beliefs at the door when they engage in what is not only lively but sometimes passionate discussion. Those teaching the Bible as Literature do not have to assume that the public classroom is naked. There can be more to it—my experience tells me a lot more to it—than the either/or dichotomy Chesterton posits.
Ronald B. Herzman
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English
Richard J. Neuhaus replies:
It would certainly be much more interesting if Mr. Chesterton showed up. And I expect he, like me, would take a very different view of teaching the Bible as Literature if Professor Herzman were the teacher.
Re "When the Church ‘Interferes,’" (Public Square, February): Catholic colleges and universities could use theological accrediting boards to certify theology teachers to receive mandates to teach or to judge complaints against a teacher’s orthodoxy. U.S. schools and hospitals are regularly subject to such accrediting agencies. Regional theological accrediting boards could be made up of experts appointed by the bishops and universities of a given region. The judgment of the board would be subject to the ratification of the individual bishop of the relevant diocese.
A theology teacher could appeal a negative judgment to a doctrinal commission of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Final appeal could be made to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In this system a local bishop’s theological ignorance or bias could be avoided, a fairer judgment given, local responsibility by subsidiarity encouraged, and Vatican authorities not unnecessarily burdened. The genuinely Catholic character of theology teaching in Catholic colleges and universities could be more effectively assured.
(The Rev.) Jerome F. Tracy, S.J.