The Public Square
(October 1997)

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 75-93.

The Approaching Century of Religion

Shortly before he died on November 23, 1976, André Malraux said, "The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all." I’m not sure what Malraux meant by it, but it is one of those oracular pronouncements that have about them the ring of truth. At the threshold of the Third Millennium, it seems that the alternatives to religion have exhausted themselves. That is true of the materialistically cramped rationalisms of the Enlightenment encyclopaedists, which, along with ideological utopianisms, both romantic and allegedly scientific, have been consigned, as Marxists used to say, to the dustbin of history. The perversity of the human mind will no doubt produce other ideological madnesses, but at the moment it seems the historical stage has been swept clean, with only the religious proposition left standing. That is certainly the intuition that informs John Paul II’s repeated exhortation, "Be not afraid!"—an exhortation addressed to the entire human community.

It is an intuition that some condemn as "triumphalistic." But one can make the case that, as a world force, Christianity offers the only coherent, comprehensive, and compelling vision of the human project. Except for the others. The chief other is Islam. Christianity and Islam are the two religions that are large, growing, and universal in their culture-forming ambitions. Not without reason are thinkers in the West paying increasing attention to Islam. Which brings me to a new book that has already received notice in these pages, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude by Bat Ye’or (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 522 pp., $45 cloth, $19.95 paper).

We recently sponsored a meeting to discuss the book with Bat Ye’or, and it has been much on my mind. She is a very impressive scholar, a Jew born in Egypt who now lives in France, where the book was first published in 1991. She thinks the West has not begun to understand the challenge of Islam, that Europe is afraid to understand it, and that the best hope rests with Americans who still sense that they are part of a Christian—i.e., Judeo-Christian—culture.

On the challenge of Islam, the French legal scholar and Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul strongly agrees. He wrote the foreword to the book, one of the last things he wrote before he died. "It is most important to grasp," wrote Ellul, "that the jihad is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society. . . . The world, as Bat Ye’or brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb, the ‘domain of Islam’ and ‘the domain of war.’ The world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, and tribes. Rather, they are all located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world. The earth belongs to Allah and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war." The Koran allows that there are times when war is not advisable, and a momentary pause is called for. "But that," writes Ellul, "changes nothing: war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit."

While grateful for Ellul’s endorsement, Bat Ye’or says he puts the matter somewhat more starkly than she would. In France and in Europe more generally, there is a growing anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Muslim, sentiment, and she wants to carefully distance herself from that, which does her honor. On the substantive questions, however, the book leaves no doubt that she and Ellul are of one mind. In the Islamic view, Jews and Christians are "Peoples of the Book," which distinguishes them from other infidels. Where Jews or Christians are in control, there is dar al-harb, the domain of war. Where Islam has conquered, Jews and Christians are dhimmi, meaning subject people who live under the dhimma, which is the pact or treaty granted by the Prophet Muhammad to the Peoples of the Book whom he conquered.

What Really Happened

The Decline is a big book, sometimes rambling but always informative. For many readers it will be an eye-opener, not because it is revisionist history but because it tells the story straight, thus countering the Islamophile histories that have dominated Western thought for so long. About half the book is given to a telling of the story, and the second half to a fascinating collection of documentary evidence from the beginning of Islam to the present. Most of the standard texts speak about the "rise" of Islam in the seventh century, and relate its spread as millions "embraced the new faith." This is usually joined to positive comment on Islam’s "tolerance" of non-Muslims, especially as contrasted with the atrocities of the Christian powers with their crusades and "expulsion" of minorities from Europe. This, Bat Ye’or persuasively demonstrates, is a radical distortion of what happened. Islam’s spectacular spread was brought about by brutal military conquest, rapine, spoliation, and slavery, joined to a regime of "dhimmitude" that was based on deep contempt for the subject infidels, including the Peoples of the Book.

She begins by reminding us of the Christian civilizations of the Middle East (what Europeans call the Near East) and North Africa—the world of, for instance, St. Augustine. "On the eve of the Islamic conquest, a certain degree of homogeneity emerged from the civilization of the Near East and North Africa, despite the bloody religious conflicts. Heir to Hellenistic culture, it had assimilated the spiritual values of Judaism via Christianity. Although Greek and Pahlavi were the official languages of the Byzantine and Persian empires, respectively, the native inhabitants of Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine spoke and wrote Aramaic. Being a vernacular, liturgical, and literary language, Aramaic was used by the Jews to compile juridical works such as the Talmud and by the Christians to write the historical and theological works of the Nestorian and Monophysite Churches in its Syriac version. In Egypt, the native inhabitants used Coptic, their spoken and written national language." In short, the "rise of Islam" did not happen in a vacuum. Islam violently displaced the vibrant, if internally conflicted, Christian culture of a large part of the then known world.

Nor was Islamic aggression limited to North Africa and the Middle East. "For centuries after its conquest in 712, Spain became the terrain par excellence for the jihad in the West of the dar al-Islam. . . . Breaking out of Arabia and from the conquered regions—Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine—these successive waves of [Muslim] immigrants settled in Spain and terrorized southern France. Reaching as far as Avignon, they plundered the Rhone valley. . . . In 793, the suburbs of Narbonne were burned down and its outskirts raided. Calls to jihad attracted the fanaticized hordes in the ribats (monastery–fortresses) spanning the Islamo-Spanish frontiers. Towns were pillaged and rural areas devastated."

The Painful Particulars

Of course that was a nasty era. Islam did not invent the massacre or enslavement of vanquished peoples. Burning, pillage, spoliation, and the imposing of tribute were practiced by most of the armies of the time, whether Greek, Latin, or Slav. "Only the excess," says Bat Ye’or, "the regular repetition and the systematization of the destruction, codified by theology, distinguishes the jihad from other wars of conquest or depredation." After the first great wave of conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam gained new force with the accession of the Ottoman Turks. "Possessing an intrepid army and remarkable statesmen, the Ottomans were able to take advantage of the lack of unity and economic rivalries in the Christian camp. The final conquest of the Balkan peninsula was undertaken from 1451 by Mehmid II and his successors. Constantinople was encircled and fell in 1453; Serbia was conquered in 1459; then Bosnia and the Empire of Trebizond in 1463, and Herzegovina in 1483. Turkish expansion continued in Europe with the conquest of Wallachia, Moldavia, and eastern Hungary and was finally checked at Vienna in 1683 and in Poland in 1687." The particulars are worth mentioning, for they underscore the continuity of the jihad and its impact on the world of today, as we are reminded by, for instance, the presence of U.S. troops in Bosnia.

Much of the book is a detailing of the practices of dhimmitude, correcting the conventional wisdom about Islamic "tolerance" of religious minorities. The dhimmis were treated variously in different times and places, depending upon what the Islamic rulers thought expedient. Bat Ye’or emphasizes how Christian disunity played into the hands of their conquerors. Not only the conflicts between East and West, but also between Monophysites, Nestorians, Chaldeans, and others led to many instances in which Christians collaborated with their Muslim masters against other Christians. The regime of dhimmitude was marked by a trade in hundreds of thousands of slaves, as well as minute regulations requiring Jews and Christians to wear distinctive clothing, and excluding them from any access to the law whereby they might seek redress against Muslim cruelties and injustices. The entire system was pervaded by a teaching of contempt toward the infidels.

She notes the irony that the Koran and other sacred texts of Islam had no specific rules for treating conquered infidels, so Muslim rulers in many cases simply took over the rules that the now-conquered Christians had previously applied to heretics. This is not the only way in which "Islamic civilization" was derived from the vanquished. "The historical role of these hordes drained off from the dar al-harb by the conquering Muslim armies should not be underestimated. The Christians and Jews driven from the Mediterranean countries and Armenia—scholars, doctors, architects, craftsmen, and peasants, country folk and town dwellers, bishops, monks, and rabbis—belonged to more complex civilizations than those of the Arab or Turkish tribes. The military and economic power of the caliphs was built up and the process of Islamization carried out through the exploitation of this slave manpower."

Islamic Civilization

Bat Ye’or emphasizes how little that is admired in Islamic civilization is original, how much of it is derivative. Even the great Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a design taken from Byzantine Christianity. The dhimmi peoples made available to the culturally underdeveloped Arabs the knowledge that had once made their own cultures great. "Zoroastrians, Jacobites (Copts and Syrians), Nestorians, Melchites, and Jews translated into Arabic treatises on astronomy, medicine, alchemy, and philosophy, as well as literary narratives and stories. This work necessitated the invention of new words and the forging of the Arabic language and grammar into new conceptual molds, not only philosophic, scientific, and literary, but also administrative, economic, political, and diplomatic. . . . The first known scientific work in Arabic was a treatise on medicine, written in Greek by Ahrun, a Christian priest from Alexandria, and translated from Syriac into Arabic in 683 by Masarjawayh, a Jewish doctor from Basra (Iraq)." And so it was with many other "Islamic" cultural and scientific achievements.

The common view is that, during the so-called dark ages of European Christendom, Islam preserved the philosophical, literary, and scientific wisdom of the classical period. Bat Ye’or offers a somewhat different perspective. "And yet dhimmitude reveals another reality. Here are peoples who, having integrated the Hellenistic heritage and biblical spirituality, spread the Judeo-Christian civilization as far as Europe and Russia. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, conquered by nomadic bands, taught their oppressors, with the patience of centuries, the subtle skills of governing empires, the need for law and order, the management of finances, . . . the sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, the organization and transmission of knowledge—in short, the rudiments and foundations of civilization." Later, some of those whose civilizations had been ravaged by the barbarians went into exile. "The elites who fled to Europe took their cultural baggage with them, their scholarship and their knowledge of the classics of antiquity. Thenceforth, in the Christian lands of refuge—Spain, Provence, Sicily, Italy—cultural centers developed where Christians and Jews from Islamized lands taught to the young Europe the knowledge of the old pre-Islamic Orient, formerly translated into Arabic by their ancestors." By this account, then, the classical heritage that was presumably preserved by Islam was in fact rescued from Islam by those who fled its oppression.

Bat Ye’or is at pains not to appear anti-Islamic. At one point she goes so far as to say she refuses to make any "value judgments." But the story she tells speaks for itself. However tortured the historical relationship between Christians and Jews, each community is identified by the same biblical narrative. In addition, common geography and communal interaction make the institutions and values of each inexplicable without reference to the other. Especially from the Christian viewpoint, Judaism and Christianity are in chronological continuity. Not so with Islam.

Islam claims to be anterior to the Peoples of the Book. It is claimed that, through the Koran, the Prophet restored the divine revelation that his Hebrew and Christian predecessors had falsified. The dispute with Christians and Jews is not over the interpretation of a common text; their text is rejected by Islam. Moreover, Islam’s origins in the customs and values of the Arab Bedouins and of nomadic tribes have left it with the jihad as the only way of relating to the non-Islamic world. The spiritual, moral, and sociological commonalities among the three religions should not be underestimated. At the same time, I believe Bat Ye’or and others are right to caution us against delusions; for instance, the delusion that a Muslim-Christian dialogue can be constructed on a basis more or less equivalent to the Jewish-Christian dialogue of recent decades.

Of the two assertive and culture-forming religions in the contemporary world, Christianity has enormous advantages over Islam, quite apart from the question of theological truth. There are approximately twice as many Christians as Muslims (two billion and one billion, respectively). Christianity is growing at least as fast as Islam and has greater evangelizing prospects, notably in Asia, especially if China really opens up. Moreover, today’s world is not hospitable to jihad in the form of conquest, but is increasingly susceptible to the communications technology mastered by the Christian West. Moreover, the Christian movement is on the far side of modernity, having gone through and survived, not without severe damage, its secularizing and explicitly antireligious impulses. Islam, by contrast, has for three centuries been largely left out; it has been the object rather than the subject of world-historical change. As that intrepid scholar Bernard Lewis reminds us, Islam views the dar al-harb of Christendom as the Great Satan, meaning the Great Tempter. Militant Islamism is driven by suspicion and ressentiment. Which can make the world a very dangerous place, as it is already a very dangerous in, for instance, the Middle East.

A great question facing Islam—and for us as we face Islam—is whether there are authentically Islamic sources that can religiously legitimate democracy and religious pluralism. From the beginning, Christianity has had the great asset of what some derisively call its "dualism"—the conceptual resource for distinguishing between spiritual and temporal authority, which has given it enormous flexibility in relating to different political and cultural circumstances from Theodosius to Hildebrand to the religion clause of the U.S. Constitution. Islam is emphatically monistic. That is a great asset when joined to military and political power in the course of conquest, but a disabling weakness under the conditions of postmodernity.

This truth impressed me at a recent conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in which we were examining Islam and the democratic prospect in various parts of the world. As I write, the secular Kemalists (after Kemal Ataturk, who established the republic in 1923) have replaced an Islam-friendly government, and have done so in the name of democracy. The Kemalists control the army, and one Turkish participant at the conference observed with a straight face, "Turkey is in the peculiar circumstance that we may need a military dictatorship in order to preserve democracy." The assumption is that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It is an assumption that is given additional credibility by the Islamist insurgency in many Muslim countries. Of course there are other and very large parts of the Islamic world, such as Indonesia. I expect Bernard Lewis is right, however, in saying that any substantive change in Islamic doctrine must come from the Middle East, the world surrounding Mecca and Islam’s constituting sacred story, a world still steeped in the Arab and Bedouin mindset of the Prophet.

There is yet another important dimension. A while back we held a meeting to discuss Samuel Huntington’s seminal The Clash of Civilizations and the Remarking of World Order. There Wolfhart Pannenberg, the noted German theologian, made a strong argument, contra Huntington, that the Christian West and Christian East should be viewed as one civilization. That they are today viewed as two is largely the fault of European powers, especially Britain, that in the nineteenth century sided with the Ottoman Empire in order to contain Russia. I am impressed by the number of thinkers who, like Pannenberg, hold "perfidious Albion" largely responsible for the dominance of Islamophile and "Arabist" attitudes among foreign policy experts, not least in the U.S. Department of State.

Heightened Christian Consciousness

So we come back to Malraux’s prophecy about the twenty-first century. That it will be religious is not necessarily good news. Religion is as riddled with the possibilities of mischief as any other dimension of the human condition. The biggest problem in sight is Islam. People like Ellul and Bat Ye’or worry about the low-level jihad of Islamic immigration in Europe, which now includes millions of Muslims, and about the establishment of Islam in Bosnia. Unless one dismisses entirely the importance of civilizational clashes, that is something at least worth thinking about very carefully. The situation in the U.S. is very different. There are probably no more than two million Muslims in this country, and half of them are native-born blacks. That could change through massive immigration in the years ahead, but at present Muslims here pose no threat to the Judeo-Christian identity of the culture, or what is left of it.

In the several discussions I have touched on here, one notices a heightening of Christian self-consciousness as we approach the Third Millennium. This is evident in the witness of John Paul II, who carefully cultivates Muslim connections while at the same time repeatedly urging, "Open the door to Christ!" It is evident also in the new stirrings among Christians here in protesting the persecution of Christians elsewhere. Not incidentally, some of the most severe persecution and oppression of Christians is in "elsewheres" dominated by Islam—Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan being prime examples. In all these churnings of religion, culture, and politics, there is also a notable coming together of Christians and Jews. In the forefront of the movement against the persecution of Christians are Jews such as Michael Horowitz and New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal. Nobody denies—and some, such as Bat Ye’or make it quite explicit—that a strengthened sense of Judeo-Christian unity in the face of Islam also has obvious implications for our attitude toward the State of Israel. That consideration is not front stage center, but it is there.

I am convinced we must do everything we can to nurture constructive relations with Islam. As an institute and a journal, we have over the years tried to engage Muslims in the conversations of which we are part. It is an embarrassment that in a journal dealing with religion and public life, with a readership far larger than any comparable publication, the Muslim participation is almost nonexistent. I don’t know what to do about it, except to keep trying. We consider articles by Muslim authors, but they are typically so defensive, or so belligerent, or so self-serving—or all three at once—that they would only compound misunderstandings.

As for conferences, it is not hard to get "Muslim spokepersons." There are teams of them flitting from conference to conference all over the world. They are part of the "Davos people" so brilliantly described by Huntington in his book. I have met them in Davos, Switzerland, where top CEOs and heads of state annually gather with select intellectuals to chatter about the state of the world in the esperanto of an internationalese that is not spoken by real people anywhere. The Muslims in such settings are for the most part westernized, secularized, academic intellectuals who are there to "represent the Muslim viewpoint" but have little more connection with living Islam than many Christians and Jews. The unhappy fact is that Muslim thinkers who can speak out of the heart of authentic Islam, and especially of resurgent Islamism, either do not want to talk with us or are prevented from doing so under the threat of very real injury to themselves or their families.

Meanwhile, the Islamic world stews in its resentments and suspicions, alternating with low-grade jihad in the form of the persecution of Christians, international terrorism, and dreams of driving Israel into the sea. This turbulent stand-off, beginning with the repulsion from Vienna in 1683 and embittered by centuries of Western imperialism, cannot last forever. It seems likely that in the new century of clashing civilizations there will be either heightened conflict or a breakthrough to something like the beginnings of a dialogue. Maybe the second can prevent the first. Or maybe the first will be required to precipitate the second. In any event, we in the Judeo-Christian West should be prepared. A good place to start is to understand the history that has brought us to where we are, and to that end I warmly recommend a careful and critical reading of Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.

The Best and the Brightest

Long before the Second Vatican Council, there was a liturgical renewal among Catholics. It was very different from what is called liturgical reform today. In the 1950s, I was attracted to the movement under the auspices of the sainted Monsignor Martin Hellriegel of Holy Cross Church in St. Louis. Father Michael Mathis was another early pioneer, and the Center for Pastoral Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame gives out a Michael Mathis Award, which this year went to Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, the recently retired chairman of the national bishops conference committee for liturgy.

Receiving the award, Bishop Trautman launched a strident attack on critics of the current direction of liturgical reform, such as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Msgr. Klaus Gamber, Fr. Joseph Fessio, and groups called Adoremus and CREDO. The tide is turning, Trautman declares, raising the question, "Is liturgical renewal becoming a dinosaur?" The critics say they want to "reform the reform," but Trautman does not credit their intentions for a moment. The proposals of the critics are "alarming." "They are indicative that the liturgical advances of Vatican II are in trouble—advances which the vast majority of Catholics have received positively." While asserting that the people like the changes, he criticizes liturgists for failing to enlist the support of the people. "We have missed golden opportunities to reach the people in the pews," says the bishop.

On a college campus he recently saw a tee shirt with the message, "Join the resistance—support Vatican II." I have seen the same tee shirt. The bishop took it as a message of support for the changes since Vatican II. The young woman wearing the tee shirt I saw explained that she supports the understanding of Vatican II advanced by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, and urges resistance against those who have wreaked change and confusion in the name of "the spirit of the Council." Obviously, there are major disagreements about the meaning of Vatican II. But it obviously is not obvious to Bishop Trautman, for whom any criticism of his version of the reform is an attack on the Council.

In his speech, Trautman repeatedly calls for "full, conscious, and active participation" in the liturgy. A bishop of like mind announced a while back that, using a stop watch, he calculated that for fifty-two minutes of a Mass the people were not doing anything. Maybe they were praying or reflecting on the Word of God, which he clearly was not. But Bishop Trautman’s particular passion is for "horizontal inclusive language" in Scripture readings and liturgy. Some readers may not be familiar with the terminology. As best I understand it, vertical language goes up and down, and horizontal language goes sideways. The bishops are now adopting "moderate horizontal inclusive language," which sounds like a diagonal compromise.

"I say to you," Trautman said at Notre Dame, "addressing women using male language denies women their own identity." No doubt some women have told him that, although a recent national survey, reinforced by pastoral experience, suggests that there is little popular support for, and considerable opposition to, what is called "inclusive" language. Here, too, it seems that those who presume to speak for "the people in the pews" have not effectively reached them. The bishop has a point with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which in its excessively literal translation ends up with an overuse of "man" and "men" that is simply bad English. He cites a Catechism passage that says priests should "give themselves entirely to God and to men." He comments, "Given homosexual behavior in our society, this is not the appropriate language to promote celibacy." A really keen sensitivity to sexual innuendo, however, might give the bishop pause about his enthusiasm for "horizontal" language regardless of gender.

Inclusive Fundamentalists

Panicked at the prospect of his cause becoming a "dinosaur," the bishop seizes upon any argument at hand. The possibility that people may think the Catechism is promoting homosexuality "is an example of why exclusive language is unacceptable." He also makes much of the fact that Tyndale publishers recently put out an inclusive translation of the Bible. "If Bible scholars from the fundamentalist tradition . . . employ gender-inclusive language and our revised edition of the lectionary offers only a tokenism, there is a serious loss to God’s people," says Bishop Trautman. "It is no secret that many Roman Catholics are entering fundamentalist churches today. How can the Roman Catholic tradition fail to keep pace even with the evangelical tradition in offering inclusive language?"

Even with those fundamentalists and evangelicals. How backward can we Catholics be? In his grasping for an argument, however, the bishop gets quite muddled. I do not want to believe for a minute that he believes that Catholics are becoming fundamentalists because they want gender-inclusive language. Fundamentalists are as enthusiastic about gender-inclusive language as Bishop Trautman is about the Tridentine Mass. The Tyndale experiment is a nonevent. The big development on the Bible translation front is that the publishers of the New International Version (NIV)—which is by far the most widely used translation among Protestants—recently announced that they are definitively shelving any plans to dabble, even ever so cautiously, with inclusive language. The earlier suggestion that they might do so met with massive protests. If Catholics are becoming fundamentalists, it is more likely in order to escape the "reforms" promoted by Trautman & Co.

He laments that the "reformers of the reform" now have the upper hand in the Church. "There is a dismantling of the renewal taking place before our very eyes," he declares. But then he offers the consolation that the reformers of an earlier day were also given a hard time, only to be vindicated later. "Why do we hurt our best and brightest?" he plaintively asks. Speaking of the best and brightest, he immediately adds, "By God’s providence there are similarities between Father Mathis and myself." Ah, the lot of the unappreciated. A prophet is not without honor . . .

In fact, there is much to approve in changes made since the Council. Although there are no doubt some who would like to, Catholics cannot and should not simply go back to the way things were. In his undiscriminating defense of the liturgical establishment, however, Bishop Trautman dismisses critics as reactionaries. There is a big difference, however, between antiquarianism and respect for tradition, continuity, and patterns of popular devotion. That earlier liturgical renewal was one of ressourcement, of reappropriating the fullness of the tradition in order to complement and, where necessary, to correct liturgical practice ossified by mistaking mystification for mystery. That was the renewal embraced by Vatican II. Then came the agitations of those who mistook reform for perpetual innovation.

In the 1960s, I was the token Protestant on the board of the National Liturgical Conference. It used to attract ten thousand or more participants to its annual liturgical weeks. By the end of the sixties, the liturgical week (it may have been the last one) attracted a ragtag crowd of hippies manqué under the slogan of e. e. cummings’ "damn everything but the circus." What passed for the avant garde of liturgical reform had in fact become a disheveled and depressing circus of preening self-indulgence and uncritical celebration of everything in the cultural marketplace that presented itself as liberation from putatively stifling tradition.

Bishop Trautman cites the great liturgical scholar Josef Jungman in his support, but there is a great disjunction between Jungman’s work and the liturgical establishment of today. Many of the pioneers, such as Martin Hellriegel, became vocal critics of the liturgical revolution, and for their troubles were derisively dismissed as old-timers who had lost touch with "the spirit of the Council." In fact, and although they did not use the phrase, they were the first advocates of the "reform of the reform." After thirty years of changes big and small, why are some so panicked by the suggestion that it is time to reevaluate what has happened and where we ought to go from here? Of course there are on the margins a few people who think Vatican II was a mistake and would repeal everything, both legitimate and illegitimate, done in its name. But they are just that, on the margins and certain to stay there. They in no way represent what is meant by a reform of the reform.

So many good things have been done since the Council, and so much that is doubtful or wrongheaded. The reform of the reform is nothing more than a proposal that we try to sort them out. Bishop Trautman is right in sensing a widespread and growing uneasiness with the direction of liturgical change. But his strident depiction of those who disagree as enemies of the Council and persecutors of the "best and brightest" can lead only to sterile polarization, and a deepening of the suspicion that the liturgical establishment holds in contempt both the tradition of the Church and the sensibilities of the faithful who, despite all, persist in their faithfulness.

Witch Hunt

Here’s one dictionary definition of "witch-hunt": "the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (as political opponents) with unpopular views." The charge of witch-hunting is often overused, but from time to time one comes across a textbook case. For instance, the Upstate New York Coalition for Democracy. The members of the coalition include the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, American Association of University Women, Anti-Defamation League, Humanist Society, National Education Association, People for the American Way, and Planned Parenthood.

An April 14, 1997 letter accompanies a questionnaire sent to public school administrators and teachers expressing "our concern over the growth of the Radical Right in upstate New York." The letter means by the Radical Right "activity intended to break down the constitutional separation between church and state." Then this: "Please be aware that we have no interest in characterizing or labeling groups or individuals." Of course not. There is no "characterizing or labeling" implicit in the list provided of thirty-four organizations of the Radical Right. The list bundles together, inter alia, American Center for Law and Justice, Aryan Nation, Becket Fund, Christian Coalition, Coalition for Educational Choice, Feminists for Life, Focus on the Family, John Birch Society, Ku Klux Klan, Militia groups, National Rifle Association, Neo-Nazis, and Promise Keepers.

Respondents are asked whether they have come across code words that indicate the infiltration of the Radical Right such as "dumbing down of our schools," "the moral decline of America," and "the need to return to family values." They are also asked about "any attempts to reduce or curtail public funding of the arts," and about anyone who has opposed school budgets in recent elections. There are other sure evidences of the influence of the antidemocratic Radical Right, such as challenges to "multicultural programs, self-esteem programs, drug awareness education, AIDS curriculum, sex education." And you know the Radical Right is on your school board if there are members who espouse "back to basics," "‘abstinence-only’ sex education," "private school vouchers," "injecting the ‘free market’ into the school," or "parental rights." When there are subversives advocating parental rights, you know it is time to take alarm. The price of the government school monopoly is eternal vigilance.

The questionnaire wants to know if any teachers or administrators have received communications from such radical organizations as the Rutherford Institute, American Catholic Lawyers Association, or Heritage Foundation threatening action "because the religious freedom of a student has been violated." The defense of religious freedom, we are given to understand, is a hallmark of the Radical Right. Respondents are asked not only about their own experience but also to inquire about the views, letters, and experiences of their colleagues. "The searching out and deliberate harassment of those (as political opponents) with unpopular views." That pretty well sums up the very illiberal activities of this very impressive coalition of what today passes for liberalism.

Love, No Matter What

It was altogether a remarkable three-day conference, "Homosexuality and American Public Life," held at Georgetown University this summer and sponsored by the American Public Philosophy Institute, a splendid organization with a particular interest in public life and natural law. Among the thirty-four speakers were Michael Medved, Jeffrey Satinover, Maggie Gallagher, Robert George, and Hadley Arkes. The usual suspects, you might think, and you wouldn’t be far off, but hardly a usual meeting. More than 350 people gathered from all over the country to break the silence on what for many has become a taboo subject, and they did so in an admirably calm and reasonable manner. To their credit, a number of homosexual advocates stayed for the whole conference, including Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic. To be sure, there were also about fifty demonstrators outside decrying the conference’s promotion of "homophobia," but Robert George remarked that the demonstration was so unimpressive that he suspected it was organized by the Republican Party.

I was asked to address the closing session on "Where Do We Go From Here?" Herewith, for your possible interest, what I had to say.

The question "Where do we go from here?" should not be taken to imply that there is a clear path, or even an unclear path, toward a "solution" of the problems addressed by this conference. The unruly passions of sexuality are a permanent feature of the human condition. Individually and in our several communities, we can try to cope with them better than we have in the past. Toward that end we should leave this meeting with prayer for an increased measure of all four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. These must inform where we go from here.

Prudence is the wisdom to understand the nature of the homosexual impulse and its organized insurgency in our public life. Temperance is the refusal to panic, and the tempering of any illusion that either the impulse or the insurgency will disappear. Fortitude—also known by the name of that fine organization, Courage—means we decline to be intimidated by opponents and brace ourselves for the duration, which will likely be a very long time.

Then there is justice. It must be unmistakably clear that ours is a concern for justice. Justice for people, especially young people, caught in sexual perplexity and assailed from within and without by pressures to consign themselves to a way of life that is marked by compulsion, loneliness, depression, and disease. Justice also for the integrity of our public life, which requires that truth be spoken with candor and disagreements be engaged with civility. Justice, finally, for millions of Americans—mothers, fathers, and children—who need all the support they can get to sustain in the present and transmit to the future the "little platoon" of love and fidelity that the family is meant to be.

Prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. The subject of "Homosexuality and American Public Life" has many dimensions—dimensions of politics, public policy, medicine, and education. But without these virtues all our efforts will end up in frustration, despair, or never-ending polemics. In that event, it is not so important that we would lose. The real losers would be the sexually perplexed whom we would help, the democracy that we cherish, and the families that claim our support.

In preparing for today, I looked again at the statement of the Ramsey Colloquium, "The Homosexual Movement," published in the March 1994 issue of First Things. It still strikes me as a singularly coherent and persuasive account of the task ahead, and I warmly recommend it to your consideration. Make no mistake about it: the task is daunting, and we must brace ourselves for a work of many years. This long-term view may be discouraging to some. John Maynard Keynes famously said that in the long run we’re all dead. Not so incidentally, he was homosexual, and the remark reflects the history-limiting horizon of a sterile worldview divorced from the promise and peril of successor generations.

It is said that we who challenge the homosexual insurgency are traditionalists clinging to the past. And it is true that we would respect those who came before us, as we hope to be respected by those who come after us. But our cause is for the future; the future of our children and children’s children, and the future of the human project itself. Next only to religious communities of ultimate promise, the ever-fragile community that we call family is the primary bearer of hope for the future.

It is in families that ordinary people participate as procreators in the continuing creation of life. It is in families that ordinary people make history, and do so much more palpably and believably than do the movers and shakers who presumably make the history of this or any other time. Family is a synonym for history, of continuity through time, and for most people family is their most audacious and sacrificial commitment to the communal hope that in the long run we will not all be dead. The history-limiting horizon of a sexual revolution that is captive to the immediacies of desire is in the service of what Pope John Paul II has aptly called "the culture of death." In the great contest that has now been joined, ours is the party of "the culture of life."

In reading again the statement "The Homosexual Movement," I wondered about the course of the contest over these last several years. This meeting testifies to the failure of the homosexual insurgency to silence its critics. Thoughtful people with a moderately healthy backbone are no longer intimidated by the charge of "homophobia." Along with the epithets of "racism" and "sexism," the charge has lost its force by promiscuous overuse. Not everywhere, to be sure. In most colleges and universities thirty years ago, a faculty member who publicly announced that he thought homosexuality a good thing would have invited suspicion and censure. In the same schools today, he is likely in deep trouble if he offers less than unqualified approval of the homosexual movement. So there is no doubt that the insurgency has made advances. But we would be making a very big mistake if we measured cultural change by fashions in the academy. The academy today is in large part a reservation for the lost tribes of radicalisms past.

The homosexual movement is usually dated from the "Stonewall Riot" of 1969. That is almost thirty years ago. As with the racialism of an ossified civil rights establishment, and with the splintered leaderships of the several feminisms, the direction of the homosexual movement has become uncertain. The advantage of novelty is wearing thin. In the entertainment politics of contemporary America, thirty years is a long time to play the role of the avant garde. After a while, people come to recognize that everything changes except the avant garde.

I am inclined to the view that 1993, proclaimed as the Year of the Gays, was the high point of the effort to persuade the American people that homosexuality is, all in all, a good thing. President Clinton called for gays in the military. A huge gay pride march on Washington declared definitive cultural victory. In movies, theater, and television, on the cover of almost every popular magazine, the homosexual insurgency was exultantly championed that year. One may wonder whether it made much difference where making a difference really counts, namely, whether parents are any more welcoming of the prospect that their children may be homosexual.

Between gay advocates who present the movement as one of radical cultural change and those who want to "mainstream" homosexuality into existing social patterns, there seems to be something of a stand-off. Groups such as ACT-UP are in disarray, and the Mass at St. Patrick’s has not been disrupted for some time. It is true that there are still the gay pride parades here and there, but they no longer have the shock of novelty and most people, including many homosexuals, decorously avert their eyes in embarrassment for the paraders. The advocates of "mainstreaming," such as Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer, sometimes seem to be doing no more than endorsing the attitude of the Victorian lady who said they can do what they want so long as they don’t frighten the horses. Of course their modesty of language and demeanor is misleading, as is evident in their demand for same-sex marriage.

My point is that the homosexual movement is not the unstoppable countercultural juggernaut that its champions and many of its opponents once thought it to be. The movement has suffered severe setbacks. It is, for instance, hard to overestimate the significance of the shattering of the myth of Kinsey’s 10 percent. Although those of us who live in places such as New York and Washington may find it hard to believe, we are dealing with a deviancy from the heterosexual norm that probably involves no more than 2 percent of the male population, and it seems that half of them do not want to make a public issue of it.

Consider, too, that after three decades of strenuous effort and high confidence of victory, the demand for the formal approval of homosexuality has been turned back again and again even in the liberal oldline Protestant churches. Only the small and rapidly disappearing United Church of Christ has officially approved the ordination of the homogenitally active.

Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that the movement has been stopped. Not by a long shot. But it is not in unchallenged ascendancy, as witness the challenge of this very conference. The strategy of the movement was caught most precisely in the lines of Alexander Pope:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

To endure, that is the goal of tolerance. To pity, that is the goal of compassion. To embrace, that is the goal of affirmation. Those are the three strategic steps. Despite the overwhelming support of what presume to be the major culture-forming institutions of our society, and most particularly the support of the media, the American people have not been induced to take the fateful step of affirming homosexuality as a good thing.

Yes, it may be objected, but what about the first step of tolerance? Well, what about it? I hope it is agreed that we neither could nor should put consenting adults in jail for homosexual acts. In addition, we do well to remember that there has always been—in major cities and in certain lines of work—a substantial homosexual subculture. Sophisticated heterosexual New Yorkers of, say, the 1920s were probably less troubled by the homosexual phenomenon than their counterparts are today. It was not then demanded that they commit themselves to homosexuality as an ideological crusade. Homosexuality was then viewed as a deviance to be socially tolerated, but not morally approved.

It was once called the love that dare not speak its name, and many have observed that it has now become the neurosis that doesn’t know when to shut up. But there is more to it than that. There was and there is a gay world and a straight world, and both the terms and the borders are set mainly by the gay world. Within the subcultural world of its own making, the name of the desire was not only spoken but exuberantly celebrated. In more recent years, the borders were declared abolished, and gays, or at least some gays, set out to remake the world.

Of course, those who oppose the homosexualizing of the world—which means redefining human sexuality as the servicing of desire—will be accused of saying that people should go back into the closet. They may call that world a closet if they choose. What we are saying is that a small minority that is at odds—whether by choice or circumstance or a combination of both—with the constituting institution of society and the right ordering of human sexuality have not the right to remake the world in the image of their dissent. We are saying that, so long as this is an approximately free and democratic society, they cannot push into the closet those who would defend the world we have received and pass it on to coming generations.

1993, I am suggesting, may have been the high point of the insurgency’s effort to win, as it is said, the hearts and minds of the American people. That effort has had only modest success. It is true that there are data indicating a greater "acceptance" of homosexuals and homosexuality. Acceptance is an ambiguous term, and I am sure it applies more to homosexual persons than to homosexuality. Nor is such acceptance necessarily a bad thing. On the part of parents in particular, it is often acceptance with a broken heart—acceptance of a son or daughter with foreboding about what is in store for them, acceptance despite shattered dreams of the grandchildren that will not be. Such acceptance is not untouched by those three other virtues, commonly called the theological virtues, of faith, hope, and charity. Keeping faith with those for whom we care, despite all. Holding on to hope for change, refusing to believe that the youthful announcement of homosexual identity is the final word. And above all charity, which simply means love. Love, no matter what.

If this is what is meant by a popular increase in "acceptance," then I say we should be thankful for it. What has not happened is a broad public persuasion that homosexuality is a good or even a morally neutral thing. Many have been momentarily intimidated into not expressing their objections and misgivings, but they have not been persuaded, and I do not believe they will be persuaded. On the contrary, they were frontally assaulted by a proposition that most of them had never had occasion to think about, and didn’t want to think about. They had good reason not to think about it. The philosopher Sidney Hook, late in life, asked a friend, "But what do they actually do?" When told, he recoiled in disbelief and declared, "But that’s disgusting!"

Sidney Hook’s response—reinforced by habit, moral teaching, and devotion to marriage and family—is the response of most people. It is a response that is largely intuitive and pre-articulate. People were told, and many came to believe, that they should be ashamed of themselves for their irrational prejudice. Many intellectuals—those who belong to what has aptly been described as the herd of independent minds—readily believed it and eagerly performed the appropriate rituals of self-denigration to expiate their sin of homophobia. But for others, what was intuitive and pre-articulate is increasingly being thought through and articulated. They will no longer be silenced, as witness this conference.

"Can’t we talk about it?" That seemingly innocent question is a mantra of the homosexual movement. The assumption is that, the more people talk and think about it, the more affirmative they will be. The leaders of the movement may come to rue the day that they invited the American people to think long hard thoughts about homosexuality. Examining the way of life that is captive to the immediacies of homoerotic desire—a way of dissolution, deception, despair, and early death—more and more people will find the reasons and the words for a response that was at first intuitive and pre-articulate.

To be sure, the advocates of the movement say that the pathologies of the gay subculture—which at least some readily acknowledge—would be remedied by the general acceptance of homosexuality. The opponents say that such acceptance would only guarantee the spread of the pathologies. I do not think the American people are prepared to gamble on who is right. Certainly there is nothing in historical experience or common sense to suggest that pathologies are remedied by integrating them into society, while there is abundant reason to believe that such pathologies will further debase a society that has lost its capacity to censure. Already in our society it is too often the case that moral judgment is the duty that dare not speak its name.

Having failed in the arena of politics where we democratically deliberate how we ought to order our life together, the homosexual movement has no choice but to vest its hopes in courts, government regulations, professional organizations, and the bureaucracies of the public school system. In these arenas their victories have been substantial, and they aspire to much more. In all these arenas, the movement must be challenged at every step—fearlessly, calmly, reasonably, relentlessly. The good of innumerable individuals, and the common good, depend on it. The outcome of that challenge is uncertain. We cannot know what the future holds. We must do what we can. Eliot said it in "East Coker": "For us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business."

Finally, we will not understand what is happening or be able to do much about it unless we recognize the cultural erosion of what can only be called a spiritual sensibility—a sensibility that we are all flawed creatures living in a fragile world that cannot survive without forbearance and forgiveness. A young man to whom I was explaining the Church’s teaching about disordered sexual desire responded with the plaintive cry, "But the Church is still saying there is something wrong with me!" Well, yes—and with me, and with all of us. But we must never define ourselves—not entirely, not most importantly—by what is wrong with us. Who we are, our identity, is more than that, much more than that. We are defined not by the disorder of our desires but by the right ordering of our loves and loyalties, and at the end of the day we must all ask forgiveness for loves and loyalties betrayed. Without forbearance and forgiveness, we are all hopelessly lost.

Perhaps you saw it too, the story about this new organization of physically disabled people who criticize the movie actor Christopher Reeves because he wants to be cured. The group wants to promote what it calls disability pride. "I can’t walk and I’m glad I can’t walk," declared one young woman. "I don’t want to walk. Disability is good!" We must hope that she does not really believe that. While being sensitive to the poignancy of her defiance, we must refuse her demand that we believe that. Her disability is not good, it is very sad; but she is more than her disability. We support her in her struggle, and help her not at all by pretending that it is not a struggle. Of that truth we must also persuade our homosexual brothers and sisters. We must do so in a way that carefully distinguishes between affirmation of the homosexual person and opposition to the homosexual movement. We must do so humbly, in painful awareness of our different but often more severe disabilities. But we must also do so firmly, knowing that homosexuals are not helped and many lives are ruined by their effort to impose upon others their defiant denial of the troubling truth.

"Can’t we talk about it?" they ask. Well, yes, we are talking about it, and we will continue to talk about it. Although some seem determined to view us as their enemies, we will refuse to view them as our enemies. We will talk about it with them, and with whoever else is willing to talk. We will talk about it, God willing, in a manner that is informed by the classical virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. And we will talk about it in a manner that is graced by the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Love above all. Love, no matter what.

While We’re At It