The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus
Copyright (c) 1998 First
Things 80 (February 1998): 62-78.
"Venomous diatribe." "Hateful xenophobia." "Doing
the work of Adolf Hitler." "Agitating for a new crusade."
"Obviously mentally ill." Such were among the sentiments expressed
in response to my review in the October 1997 issue of Bat Ye'or's important
new book recently published in this country, The Decline of Eastern
Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Fairleigh Dickinson
University Press). In my comment I indicated the difficulties in establishing
a respectful dialogue with contemporary Islam, but it really need not be
To be fair, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) should
not be taken to represent contemporary Islam. The attack initiated by CAIR
produced dozens and dozens of letters from as far away as Australia, some
of them accompanied by hundreds of signatures of Muslims who claimed to
be deeply offended by the review. The campaign stopped short of issuing
a fatwa against the editors, although there was a little nervous
joking around here about who would get to open the mail. The campaign obviously
had the aim of intimidating into silence anyone who dares to say anything
less than complimentary about things Muslim. Just as obviously, such an
effort is entirely counterproductive.
Many of the protesters made a point of saying that they were converts
to Islam, usually from Christianity, and some had most uncomplimentary
things to say about the religion they had left. The spokesman for CAIR
stressed, in several telephone conversations, that he is an American-born
convert and resents my "instructing" him on how we conduct civil
conversation in this country. For all I know his family came over on the
Mayflower, but the fact remains that issuing press releases and
flooding the internet with condemnations of those with whom one disagrees
is not the best way to nurture a constructive dialogue.
The first press release called on the Catholic Church to investigate,
disown, and otherwise do something about this renegade priest who had written
not nice things about Islam. Amazingly enough, the monsignor who is general
secretary of the bishops conference responded to CAIR by distancing the
conference from the review in FT and offering assurances of the bishops'
exquisite sensitivity and eagerness for dialogue. Quite predictably, CAIR
seized upon his letter as the occasion for another press release trumpeting
that the bishops of the United States had repudiated my review of Bat Ye'or,
which no doubt came as a surprise to the bishops. As it happens, several
bishops had indicated to me their appreciation of the review, and my own
bishop, Cardinal O'Connor, was entirely supportive. Nonetheless, the letter
from the conference secretary created a little flap in the Catholic press.
It's not every day that the office of the bishops conference issues a review
of a book review or, however inadvertently, makes itself party to an attack
on a priest who has editorially displeased a bullying interest group. Of
course I am assured that that is not what was intended, but it is a curious
little episode that should not be entirely forgotten.
As the Bat Ye'or book underscores, there are very important questions
to be engaged in the complicated relationship between Christians, Jews,
and Muslims, and I will return to them in due course. Meanwhile, one hopes
that everyone will learn from this incident a little something about what
is not helpful. For instance, Imam Michael G. Kilpatrick, national president
of the Islamic Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, announces his group's
support for the CAIR initiative: "We call upon people of the Catholic
religion and people of conscience worldwide to condemn Mr. Neuhaus for
his extremist attitude toward the religion of Islam and Muslims here in
the United States." Strong stuff, that. It is manifest that most of
the protesters had not read the item in question, having simply reacted
to the alert sent out on the internet (more than half the protests were
e-mailed), and quite a few are confused about who wrote the offending article.
Some demanded that "Mr. Neuhaus" editorially condemn the author
and never let any such thing appear in FT again.
"Beware and be Forewarned . . . "
Almost all deplored my woeful ignorance of Islam, on which I readily
admit I am no expert, and many charged Bat Ye'or, a distinguished scholar,
of not knowing what she was talking about. "The fact that she says
she is opposed to Muslim-bashing shows that that is what she is doing,"
one writer insists. It is hard to get an acquittal under such rules. Various
parties contributed to my education by sending stacks of books and pamphlets
on Islam, and one suggested that I visit a website devoted to educating
Americans on Islam, which I did. There I found a discussion of terrorism
in which I learned that those who "set themselves up as enemies of
God and the Muslims . . . are themselves at least mild terrorists."
"If they do so then Muslims have a duty to oppose this force--with
force if necessary and if it will be effective and decisive. In this way
only those who are themselves ‘terrorists' have cause to fear the use of
force by Muslims." That was not terribly reassuring.
Mark Bober writes, noting that his Muslim name is Umar Hussam Al Deen
and describing himself as "a white American Muslim and former member
of the ‘Catholic' Church." "I assure you that you are not dealing
with the poor folk duped into trinitarianism every other Sunday. Now beware
and be forewarned that Islam is on the rise in America as well as around
the world." This was typical of many warnings that there is big trouble
ahead if we non-Muslims don't watch our step. Ayman Sokkarie of the Islamic
Center of South Florida declares, "Let me tell Mr. Neuhaus that Islam
will be re-established whether he feared that or not and the world will
see how just Islam is and how false all other ideologies are. It is just
a matter of time."
Most of the writers expressed particular outrage that I had written
that there are probably about two million Muslims in the U.S., half of
them being American-born blacks. "Everybody knows," I was instructed,
that there are eight million, and one writer asserted that it is "well
documented" that there are twelve million. Needless to say, no documentation
was supplied. In their 1993 book, One Nation Under God: Religion in
Contemporary American Society, based on the largest survey of religious
self-identification ever conducted, Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman reported
that there were 1.5 million Muslims, half being American-born blacks. (They
discovered that many people with "Muslim sounding" names turned
out to be Christians who had fled the Middle East.) Taking subsequent Muslim
immigration into account, my guesstimate was "about two million."
Quite possibly there are considerably more. Nobody knows, and the U.S.
census does not ask about religion. A reporter at a national newspaper
tells me, "We usually say four to six million, which has the merit
of warding off protests from Muslim groups. But nobody really knows."
The majority of protests received here claim that Islam is the fastest
growing religion both in the U.S. and the world, a claim that is very doubtful
on both scores. But I am impressed by how important this "triumphalist"
reading of history is to many Muslims.
In the review I alluded in passing to the significance of this discussion
for politics in the Middle East. For the protesters, this factor is of
much more than passing importance. A petition of protest from the Islamic
Center of Long Island includes more than three hundred signatures and declares,
"It is obvious that such anti-Muslim writers [Bat Ye'or and Neuhaus]
want to poison the relations between Muslims and Christians in America
and the world for their racist political agenda in Palestine." The
echo of the infamous UN resolution on Zionism as racism is, to put it gently,
troubling. The reactions to FT are divided between those who present Islam
in America as nothing more problematic than another participant in the
gorgeous mosaic of American religion and those who present it as a world-conquering
force arrayed against everyone else, especially against Jews and their
For some, Islam is the historic champion of liberal tolerance. One almost
expected those letters to be signed by John Stuart Muhammad Mill. For instance,
"Islam completely did away with slavery and treated all human beings
as equal, despite their race, color, creed, or origin, and treated everybody
the same, with respect and brotherhood, from the very beginning, i.e.,
the seventh century, whereas the West could not do so till the nineteenth
century." The key role of Muslims in the African slave trade over
the centuries and slavery today in places such as Sudan are conveniently
overlooked, as of course is the entire history of "dhimmitude"
so carefully documented by Bat Ye'or and others. One may sympathetically
try to understand the reasons for such defensive denials of the undeniable,
but it does not help the discussion of these matters.
A few protests acknowledge that some Muslims have at times done some
bad things, but then quickly add that that has nothing to do with Islam.
This, too, is understandable. Some Christians have done horrible things
over the centuries, and we Christians insist that Christianity should not
be judged by what they did--or by what some still do. The facial symmetry
between Islam and Christianity in this regard does not bear close examination,
however. Contra secularist claims, the liberal democratic tradition is
in largest part the product of Christianity, especially the Christian imperative
of self-criticism and openness to the other. It is no accident, as our
Marxist friends used to say, that liberal democracy and constitutional
government arose in cultures that understood themselves to be Christian.
To date, there have not been similar developments in Islamic societies.
This does not mean that Islam is necessarily incompatible with liberal
democracy, although some who protested what I wrote do not disguise their
contempt for democracy and other alleged diseases of what they view (with
some justification) as the decadent West.
These are excruciatingly difficult questions. We cannot allow our consideration
of Islam to be dominated by much that is today done in the name of Islam.
At the same time, we deceive ourselves and do not help anyone if we join
those Muslims who excuse or deny what is done. An editorial in Strategic
Review of Fall 1997 notes that, of the almost one billion Muslims in
the world, there is a radically politicized faction, and in that faction
there are those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives by suicide in
waging what they believe to be a war of the children of light against the
children of darkness.
"Where the United States is concerned, the cost has already been
unacceptably high. The suicide bombing of the Beirut-American headquarters
in October of 1993--241 U.S. servicemen killed; Pan American Flight #103
at Lockerbie, Scotland, where 250 were killed; the Khobar Towers residence
at Dharan in Saudi Arabia--19 Americans killed and 118 wounded; the World
Trade Center in New York, where 19 were killed and 500 injured. And now,
by sheer good luck, a frightened Middle Easterner led the New York police
to two suicide bombers, complete with five bombs. One was killed while
attempting to detonate his bomb. Their aim was to attack the busiest subway
junction in New York City. It is plain that the terrorism crescendo is
growing. It has reached the United States and we are doing too little to
Of course it is necessary to guard against alarmism, but it would be
foolish to deny the legitimate concern about Islamic terrorism (meaning
terrorism committed by Muslims and claiming to be inspired by Islam) both
here and elsewhere in the world. At this point a discussion that is already
dicey gets dicier. The executive director of CAIR, Mr. Nihad Awad, writes
me: "In view of Mr. Emerson's past history of false and defamatory
attacks on the American Muslim community and on CAIR, we would consider
the irresponsible repetition of his unsupported charges as evidence of
‘actual malice' on your part. Similarly unsubstantiated charges from other
sources, published with reckless disregard for the truth, would be regarded
in the same light."
A Matter of Credibility
I expect the lawyers would tell me that CAIR is threatening to sue if
I mention charges by Mr. Emerson and others. Since I may have already crossed
the line by quoting Mr. Awad's letter, I might as well go ahead--with utmost
responsibility and careful regard for the truth, and certainly without
malice. Steven Emerson has written in the Wall Street Journal and
elsewhere about the entanglement of Muslim groups in this country with
terrorist groups, such as Hamas, in the Middle East. I have read with care
a packet of materials sent by CAIR, attacking Emerson and others who allege
that CAIR is, at least indirectly, supportive of terrorist activities.
I have also read with care the charges against CAIR. Satisfactorily sorting
out all the details would require that I devote the rest of my life to
the study of Middle East politics and the connection with certain Muslim
groups in the U.S., and even then I would surely not get to the bottom
of things. My best judgment is that the critics of CAIR are credible and
that CAIR is less than candid about its connections with the politics of
the Middle East. Confidence in CAIR is not enhanced by its hamfisted efforts
to intimidate and silence its critics.
Turning from CAIR itself to the criticisms generated by its campaign,
one is struck by the importance of the Jewish factor. In some instances,
this is chiefly a matter of animus toward Israel. Others, however, give
expression to a poignant desire for Muslims in this country to be recognized,
along with Christians and Jews, as full partners in America's religious
triumvirate. This, too, is perfectly understandable. Some were upset by
my reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and many were outraged by
my speaking of "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." In fact, it is pointed out, Muslims have
in several parts of the country joined local Jewish-Christian dialogues,
and everyone gets along very nicely. I do not doubt it.
There are dialogues and then there are dialogues. Some Jewish-Christian
dialogues are exercises in niceness, pretending that differences make little
or no difference. To such dialogues Muslims, or for that matter almost
anyone else, can be invited without difficulty. Then there is dialogue
that is in service to the truth, and the truth is that Islam is not to
Christianity what Judaism is to Christianity. For starters, Islam is not,
as Judaism is, an integral part of the Christian understanding of the story
of salvation. In view of the attention given in these pages to Jewish-Christian
relations, I assume readers can readily come up with other differences
that make a big difference. Does this mean there should not or cannot be
Muslim-Christian dialogue? The answer is emphatically in the negative.
Such dialogue becomes increasingly imperative, and we must hope it will
become increasingly possible with Muslims who recognize the wrongheadedness
of reactions such as that orchestrated by CAIR.
An Opening Comment
Among the numerous responses to the internet alert is a letter by AbdulraHman
Lomax, an American convert to Islam in Sonoma, California, and addressed
to other Muslims. "Scholarly and respectful replies to the article
[in FT] would be helpful. Hostile or disrespectful comments would be counterproductive
and harmful to the image of the Muslim community." After responding
to specific assertions in the article, Mr. Lomax notes my statement that
"I am convinced we must do everything we can to nurture constructive
relations with Islam" and he writes, "We are obligated to take
Neuhaus at his word. Perhaps we can take his article as an opening comment
in a dialog which will ultimately clear the air. Before they can develop
a deep communication, friends sometimes must air the grievances and fears
that have been kept hidden, and, in the light of open conversation, these
can be relieved." The people at CAIR forwarded his letter. One wishes
they had followed his counsel.
Not long ago, Prof. David F. Forte of Cleveland-Marshall College of
Law testified before a congressional committee on Islam and human rights.
The subject was what some call Islamic fundamentalism (an unhappy term
that imposes an American Protestant experience on Islam), what others call
Islamism (a term mainly limited to scholars), and what yet others refer
to simply as radical Islam (which, it is objected, is radically un-Islamic).
It is the Islam of terror and despotism, and, whatever it is called, Forte
says it is a heresy. "It has gained the reins of power in Iran and
the Sudan. It threatens Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, even Saudi Arabia.
It cows a timid government in Pakistan to accede to its program. It persecutes
minorities, particularly Christians. But its real objective is to steal
the soul of Islam, to change that great religion's tradition of art, culture,
learning, and toleration into its own image of rigid and tyrannical power."
It is for Muslims to protect "the soul of Islam." We can help
by not equating Islam with the evil done in the name of Islam, while, at
the same time, not letting an "ideal" Islam obscure the Islam
of historical and contemporary fact. We can help by recognizing the diversity
within Islam and the claims made for its more humane social expression
in places such as Indonesia, while not forgetting that country's massacre
of Christians in Timor, and not forgetting the politics of Islam in the
lands mentioned by Prof. Forte. We can help by reaching out to Muslims
here in America, in the hope of engaging within the bonds of civility our
commonalities and differences, always, as St. Paul says, speaking the truth
in love. And we can help by informing ourselves through the reading of
books such as Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under
Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.
Always Our Confusions
To be fair, there is not always confusion about statements issuing from
the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), but confusion is remarkably
frequent. The latest instance is a pastoral letter approved by the administrative
committee of the conference, Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message
to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministries.
It is in many ways a very thoughtful and clearly compassionate effort to
help parents in a most difficult circumstance. But it has also generated
intense controversy, and not without reason.
Father John Harvey is the heroic founder of "Courage," a national
organization of Catholics who are homosexual in orientation but are striving
to live a chaste life in accord with the teaching of the Church. He has
issued a statement sharply critical of Always Our Children, pointing
out, inter alia, that it distorts the teaching of the Church, downplays
the importance of therapeutic help for homosexuals, and offers dangerous
advice. On the last score, he cites the document's counsel to parents that
they adopt a "wait and see" attitude if their child is experimenting
with homosexuality. "Isolated acts do not make someone homosexual,"
says Always Our Children.
Fr. Harvey writes: "This ‘wait and see' attitude is very dangerous.
If someone is attracted to drugs or to alcohol, we do not accept that attraction
as a given, or indicate that it is beyond their power to reject. The truth
is that we are dealing with an objective disorder within the person. The
parent should do everything possible to help the youth to move away from
this particular attraction, and from the surroundings which encourage him
to act out. If pastors are going to advise parents concerning homosexuality,
they should remind parents that their first obligation is to protect the
child from immoral and dangerous behavior."
Before the full meeting of bishops in November, and in response to the
criticism by Fr. Harvey and others, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, chairman
of the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family that produced the statement,
circulated a letter to the bishops defending Always Our Children.
The letter says that the committee "respects Fr. Harvey's work in
pastoral ministry to homosexuals and consulted him during the course of
writing [the document]." It appears that the committee did speak with
Fr. Harvey for about twenty minutes two years ago. Who else the committee
consulted is not a matter of public record, but reliable sources report
that the process involved a number of parties closely associated with homosexual
advocacy and critical of the Church's teaching.
A very serious objection is that AOC twists the teaching of the
Catechism of the Catholic Church in its treatment of sexuality as
"a gift of God." The Catechism says, "Everyone, man and
woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral,
and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods
of marriage and the flourishing of family life" (2333). In AOC
that passage is quoted with a crucial elision: "Everyone . . .
should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity." Bishop O'Brien
says this was not intended to urge an acceptance of homosexual orientation.
The difficulty is, however, that the crippled quote from the Catechism
appears in the context of discussing homosexuality. The quote is immediately
followed by this: "Like all gifts from God, the power and freedom
of sexuality can be channeled toward good or evil. Everyone--the homosexual
and the heterosexual person--is called to personal maturity and responsibility."
It is very hard to imagine that an unbiased reader of AOC would
not conclude that it is the Church's teaching that the homosexual
person "should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity."
The very next lines in AOC propose what some might view as a
novel understanding of chastity: "Chastity means integrating one's
thoughts, feelings, and actions, in the area of human sexuality, in a way
that values and respects one's own dignity and that of others." By
that measure, homogenitally active same-sex relationships that are, as
it is said, meaningful and loving would appear also to be chaste. To be
sure, the document does say that it adheres to Catholic moral doctrine.
What some think is a problem is that it does not explain the connection
between that claim and statements that would seem to be at variance with
Catholic teaching, such as the new way of defining chastity.
As to the controversial "wait and see" passage, Bishop O'Brien
writes: "References to early experimentation between a child and another
of one's own sex are primarily to psychological and emotional dependencies.
They are not references to being sexually active." This is intended
to be reassuring, but it may also be exegetically puzzling to those who
actually read the "wait and see" passage. It reads this way:
"If your son or daughter is an adolescent, it is possible that he
or she may be experimenting with some homosexual behaviors as part of the
process of coming to terms with sexual identity. Isolated acts do not make
someone homosexual." With all respect to Bishop O'Brien, the words
would seem to have reference to "being sexually active."
News reports and commentaries on AOC, often approving, suggested
that the Church was changing its position on homosexuality. The document
is strongly supported by New Ways Ministry, an organization advocating
such change. This from a memo widely circulated by its executive director,
Francis DeBernardo: "The pastoral letter Always Our Children needs
your help! This document is one of the strongest calls by Catholic leaders
for inclusion and acceptance of lesbian and gay people in our Church. Yet,
critics are voicing their opposition and calling for its revision and retraction."
The memo urges letters to the NCCB and individual bishops: "Tell him
what the letter means to you: any personal story or reactions you or your
loved ones had to the news of the letter. Write as who you are: a gay or
lesbian person, a parent, a pastoral minister, a counselor, a youth worker,
a chaplain--whatever your role is."
It seems possible that bishops, too, like to be praised, and some, speaking
in defense of AOC, have reported with pleasure that their mail has
been nine to one in favor of the document. The word "gospel"
does mean good news, which can too easily be confused with telling people
what they want to hear. Especially people who are well organized, very
vocal, and ever so progressive. It is fair to say that, in general, bishops
do not receive all that many plaudits from the self-certified specialists
in caring, compassion, and progressive thought. In addition, personal stories
can be very affecting, and there is today prominent precedent for a nonjudgmental
leadership style keyed to feeling the pain of others.
Nonetheless, one may be permitted to wonder whether such factors should
have much bearing on the responsibility of bishops to articulate clearly
the Church's teaching and the pastoral tasks entailed by that teaching.
There is beyond doubt much to approve in AOC. The appeal that parents
should always love and never reject their children is movingly stated,
even if relatively few parents need to be persuaded of that. It seems all
too likely, however, that confusions in the document will mislead many
parents and will discourage Catholics who struggle to be faithful to what
they were taught, praying for the grace to resist temptation and overcome
their homosexual desires. The alternative--an alternative that many call
liberation--is to surrender to temptation and affirm one's homosexual "identity."
New Ways Ministry is understandably enthusiastic about AOC. Equally
understandable is the fervent hope of others that it will be revised or
A Selective Darwinian
Here's an item that almost fell through the cracks, but is very much
worth rescuing. Roger Kimball of the New Criterion discovers David
Stove, and hopes that many others will as well. Stove, who has taught at
the University of Sydney, Australia, most of his life, wrote Popper
and After: Four Modern Irrationalists and a book on Darwinian theory
that both admires and debunks Darwin. Stove's approach is quite different
from that of many who write on these subjects. Let Roger Kimball take it
"Stove's demolition of certain aspects of Darwinian theory, in
Darwinian Fairytales and related essays, is equally thorough and
convincing. Stove is unusual among anti-Darwinians. He is not a creationist;
indeed, as he points out, he is ‘of no religion.' Moreover, he admires
Darwin greatly as a thinker, placing him at the top of his personal pantheon,
along with Shakespeare, Purcell, Newton, and Hume. Finally, Stove believes
that it is ‘overwhelmingly probable' that our species evolved from some
other and that ‘natural selection is probably the cause which is principally
responsible for the coming into existence of new species from old ones.'
At the same time, Stove maintains that ‘Darwinism says many things, especially
about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by an educated
person; or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity at all
for critical thought.' Some examples: that ‘every single organic being
around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase its numbers';
that ‘of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born,
but a small number can survive'; that it is to a mother's ‘advantage' that
her child should be adopted by another woman; that ‘no one is prepared
to sacrifice his life for any single person, but . . . everyone will sacrifice
it for more than two brothers, or four half-brothers or eight first cousins';
that ‘any variation in the least degree injurious [to a species] would
be rigidly destroyed.'
"These quotations are from Darwin and his orthodox disciples. A
moment's reflection shows that none is even remotely true, at least of
human beings. Take the last named: that anything in the least injurious
to a species would be ‘rigidly destroyed' by natural selection. What about
abortion, adoption, fondness for alcohol, and altruism, just to start with
the A's? As Stove notes, ‘each of these characteristics [tends] to shorten
our lives, or to lessen the number of children we have, or both.' Are any
on the way to being rigidly destroyed? Again, if Darwin's theory of evolution
were true, ‘there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition
to survive: a competition in which only a few in any generation can be
winners. But it is perfectly obvious that human life is not like that,
however it may be with other species.' Priests, hospitals, governments,
old-age homes, charities, police: these are a few of the things whose existence
contradicts Darwin's theories.
"Stove shows in unremitting detail that, despite its enormous explanatory
power regarding ‘cods, pines, flies,' etc., Darwin's theory of evolution
is ‘a ridiculous slander on human beings.' He is particularly good at exposing
the ‘amazingly arrogant habit of Darwinians' of ‘blaming the fact, instead
of blaming their theory' when they encounter contrary biological facts.
Does it regularly happen that increasing prosperity leads to lower birth
rates? And does this directly contradict Darwinian theory? No problem,
just announce that the birth rates in such cases are somehow ‘inverted.'
Indeed, Stove's analysis shows that, when it comes to our species, Darwinism
‘is a mere festering mass of errors.' It can tell you ‘lots of truths about
plants, flies, fish, etc., and interesting truths, too. . . . [But] if
it is human life that you would most like to know about and to understand,
then a good library can be begun by leaving out Darwinism, from 1859 [when
On the Origin of Species was published] to the present hour.' It
is not a pretty picture that Stove paints; but then the exhibition of gross
error widely accepted is never a comely sight."
More Than Mere Coincidence
A Lutheran pastor writes me that he has been wrestling again with Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, that most worthy theologian who was martyred during the last
days of the Nazi horror. Pondering Bonhoeffer's Life Together, he
says, "I almost feel I am in the world of the Church fathers. The
mix of the perennial and the contextual is striking. Reading through the
umpteenth time, I am especially struck with Bonhoeffer's bracing severity
about ‘community'--a kind of ascesis of spiritual relationships."
This pastor, like so many others these days, is heavily burdened by
the question of where he belongs in the larger Christian community. "I've
been thinking sobering thoughts about how the unraveling of Lutheranism
may have been quite predictable, given the conceptual habit of relegating
morals to a ‘second order' somehow incidental to salvation. . . . Doctrinal
agreement turns out to be sheer abstraction apart from a common vision
about the concrete shape of the Life we are saved to live. It's revealing
that in ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together' you were able to begin with
actual issues of Christian obedience."
I had not thought of it quite like that, but of course he is right.
To be sure, there is an important sense in which the 1997 statement, "The
Gift of Salvation," is more significant than the original ECT statement
of 1994. "The Gift of Salvation" does not say everything that
Catholics, and many Protestants, would want to say about salvation, but
it does put clearly and unmistakably on the record that Catholics can say
with full integrity what evangelical Protestants believe must be said about
At the same time, however, my Lutheran friend is right about the significance
of the 1994 statement's underscoring of how Christians are to live, how
they understand their duties to one another and to the world of which they
are part. In the very early Church, before Christianity was called Christianity
it was called, quite simply, the Way. It was the communal way of living
for those who followed the one who called himself the way, the truth, and
the life. This is not to downplay the importance of doctrine. Doctrine
or teaching is necessarily engaged in answering the question why one should
follow Jesus the Christ. Who is he that I should acknowledge his claim
on my life? The answers to this and other questions are inescapably doctrinal.
But a moment's reflection on these things quickly runs into ironies.
The old liberalism that claims it is "deeds not creeds" that
matter has again and again demonstrated that it can speak clearly about
neither deeds nor creeds. My Lutheran friend is pleased that Catholics
and Lutherans can approve a common statement on justification by faith,
but "doctrinal agreement turns out to be sheer abstraction apart from
a concrete vision of the shape of the Life we are saved to live."
I am reminded again of the emphatic way in which the encyclical Veritatis
Splendor argues that moral theology is theology. The Christian
faith is a way of thinking and speaking together, but it is equally a way
of living together, and living is much more than thinking and speaking.
Creeds without deeds are abstractions, while the moral imperative of deeds
loses all its force without creeds. What we are to do and how we are to
be (deeds) cannot be sustained apart from an answer to the question why
Perhaps there was, then, more than mere coincidence in ECT's beginning
with what my friend calls "actual issues of Christian obedience."
There is a sense in which we found ourselves in the Way before we addressed
in detail the heart of the why. All of us involved in ECT have repeatedly
spoken of our strong sense of the Spirit's guidance in this initiative.
The French have a saying: "Coincidence is an event in which God wishes
to remain anonymous."
Young, Jewish, and Conservative
"Scratch an American Jew," writes Earl Raab, one of the most
respected analysts of American Jewish life, "and you find a democratic
voter, but, if you scratch deeper, you will not find a liberal." That
is quoted in an article by Murray Friedman of the American Jewish Committee
in Moment magazine. Friedman thinks a major change may be under
way, citing the large number of younger Jewish intellectuals and writers
who identify themselves as conservative. Some of those he cites are closely
associated with this journal. "There are indications that younger
Jews are voting differently from their parents and especially from their
grandparents. It's a ‘generation that knows not FDR or JFK; it is three
generations removed from the ferment of the Jewish labor union movement.
For this generation, even the civil rights and student anti-Vietnam movements
of the 1960s coincide with their birth and infancy but not with their political
experience,' writes political scientist Alan Fisher."
There is another generational difference of potentially great consequence:
"Unlike their elders, who fought the bitter and wounding battles of
the Cold War, this younger generation seems less intense. And religion
is often more important in their personal lives. For their elders, Judaism
was seen as preventing intermarriage and ‘good' for maintaining order and
decent values rather than as a force that shaped their lives. Irving Kristol
told an interviewer that he did not join a synagogue until the '80s. In
contrast, most of the younger Jewish intellectuals are either traditional
or Orthodox Jews. Many are active in their synagogues and attend services
regularly." Old worries, however, have by no means been dissipated:
"Having said this, I must also acknowledge that the emergence of a
full-bodied Jewish conservatism faces serious obstacles. The term itself
turns off most Jews. It connotes a body of reactionary and bigoted ideas.
Despite greater affluence and broader acceptance, Jews remain anxious.
Recent surveys show that while most Americans feel that anti-Semitism has
declined, Jews are convinced it is very much alive and rising."
Despite the best efforts of people such as Ralph Reed, Jewish fears
of "the religious right" remain powerful. Not so, however, with
the Jews who will likely be a larger part of the American Jewish future.
"And the proportion of Orthodox Jewish voters will grow because of
their high birthrate. Their political activism has already been felt. At
the close of the '80s, Agudath Israel opened an office in Washington, D.C.,
where once Reform's Social Action Center and secular Jewish agencies had
this turf to themselves. On issues like tuition vouchers for families to
send their children to private and parochial schools, Orthodox Jews have
effectively allied themselves with Catholic and Evangelical Christian conservatives
and have gained the support of senators like Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.),
who is an Orthodox Jew, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.)." Friedman
notes Irving Kristol's observation that "In America all successful
politics is the politics of hope," and ends on a guardedly hopeful
note that the younger generation of conservative--or at least more conservative--Jews
has learned that lesson.
Standing in the Schoolhouse Door
The student rebellion redux, but this time opinion leaders are not applauding.
It's happening in Alabama, after all, and this time the students are demanding
the right to--would you believe it?--pray. They aren't yet at the
point of taking over administration buildings, but hundreds of them are
walking out of classrooms and holding rallies in protest against a ruling
by federal judge Ira DeMent.
The judge issued a detailed injunction that prohibits the governor,
the attorney general, the state board of education, and everyone else from
permitting religious activity in classrooms, including vocal prayer, readings
of the Bible, devotional discussions, and distribution of religious materials.
It also bans publicly broadcast prayers and invocations at commencement
exercises, assemblies, and sporting events. In addition, the ruling appoints
monitors to patrol the schools in search of violations. Imagine a report
to the authorities: "This monitor did see four students in Room 203
in discussion and did hear the word ‘God' spoken four times in a tone suspiciously
devotional. Moreover, one student read from what appeared to be a New Testament
she was carrying on her person."
It should be obvious to all that Judge DeMent's order is doing precisely
what the federal government is constitutionally forbidden to do, namely,
interfering with the free exercise of religion. "Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof." Nor shall the federal courts, or so it was thought
until Everson (1947) and its judicial progeny. In addition, as parents
and others in authority should know, there's nothing better to spark youthful
enthusiasm for something than to forbid it.
The country has been heading toward a DeMent-like showdown for years.
Something has to give. The courts, led by the Supreme Court, may relax
their entrenched hostility to religion. Or the open defiance of court orders
may become more commonplace. Or, as is already happening, many more parents
may decide that the only way they can get an acceptable education for their
children is outside the government school system.
There is nice irony in the showdown coming in Alabama. Governor Fob
James, Jr. says he will defy the order from the federal court. Pamela L.
Summers, the ACLU lawyer defending the prohibition of religion, says, "For
the governor of a state to do this is exactly like George Wallace standing
in the schoolhouse door." Well, not exactly. There is no doubt a formal
similarity, but the substantive difference from the Wallace confrontation
is that racial segregation had been declared unconstitutional and was deemed
an evil by most Americans. That is not the case with religion. Not yet,
and not, I think, in any foreseeable future. It may be the fate of Judge
DeMent to go down in history as the fellow who pushed a fatal step too
far an interpretation of church-state law that is, if you will permit me,
While We're At It
- After three months of cruel interrogation and torture of approximately seven
hundred people arrested in connection with the July 20, 1944 plot on Hitler's
life, the Gestapo concluded in its final report: "The entire inner alienation
from the ideas of National Socialism which characterized the men of the reactionary
conspiratorial circle expresses itself above all in their position on the
Jewish question. They stubbornly take the liberal position of granting to
the Jews in principle the same status as to every German." That is from
an essay by Peter Hoffman, professor of history at McGill University, in a
new book, Hyping the Holocaust: Scholars Answer Goldhagen. Daniel Goldhagen,
it will be remembered, slandered all Germans, including resisters who rescued
Jews, as anti-Semites in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners (see
"Daniel Goldhagen's Holocaust," FT, August/September 1996).
Hyping the Holocaust is edited by Franklin Littell, president of the
Center on the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights in Philadelphia and one
of the early pioneers of Jewish-Christian dialogue. The contributors to the
book are Jewish and Christian, American and European. What they have in common
is a sense of outrage at Goldhagen's arrogance, self-righteousness, and exploitation
of popular stereotypes. Against Goldhagen, Littell wants to defend "senior
scholars" who have spent decades pressing the case for serious research
of the Holocaust "long before any young writer or eager publisher could
capitalize on the brute fact that today ‘there's no business like Shoah business.'"
That's blunt, but not without reason. (Hyping the Holocaust is available
at $20 + $3 postage [checks only] from Center on the Holocaust, P.O. Box 10,
Merion Station, PA 19066.)
- Let us now, following the counsel of Ecclesiasticus, praise famous
men, or at least praise one another. The Tablet of London has a
laudatory story on a new booklet praising the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
(CND), an organization that, beginning with brilliantly wrongheaded Bertrand
Russell, agitated on the wrong side of practically every question of consequence
during the Cold War. After celebrating the putative heroes and heroines
of CND, the story gets to Bruce Kent, "who, forced to choose between
the Catholic priesthood and his peace work, chose the latter. Later he
married the booklet's author, Valerie Flessati." That closes the circle
- The mills grind slowly, but they grind. For more than twenty years
now, some of us have been writing about the apparent free fall of mainline/oldline
Protestantism. Sociological studies of the phenomenon can be stacked higher
than the steeples of largely abandoned churches. But the problem, I persist
in believing, is theological. Churches that have nothing definite to say
about revealed truth as it informs holiness of life and hope eternal, that
offer no indispensable means to both, are churches that can give no convincing
reason for their existence and have no claim upon the attention of the
culture. So where within those liberal worlds is there evidence that the
mills of reform are beginning to grind? There are many answers to that
question, but the occasion of this little note is a new series of books,
"The Abingdon Press Studies in Christian Ethics and Economic Life."
Max Stackhouse of Princeton Theological Seminary is the general editor
and three volumes are already out. Christian Social Ethics in a Global
Era, Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism, and The
Business Corporation and Productive Justice. Admittedly, social ethics
is not the most important dimension of Christian theology, but the argument
can be made that it was with social ethics that the oldline went so wrong
several decades ago, and it may be the point, or at least a point, at which
the correction can begin. In any event, Prof. Stackhouse and his colleagues
are attempting to turn the oldline toward a more biblical and self-critical
understanding of what it means to be Christian in the world, and you may
want to find out more about the series by writing to Abingdon Press, 201
Eighth Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203.
- "The natural progress of things," warned Thomas Jefferson,
"is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield."
That is very much what is happening with church and other voluntary agencies
that get in bed with the government, according to Joe Loconte in Seducing
the Samaritans: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services.
Foreword by Peter Berger. For more information on this important 140-page
study, write the Pioneer Institute, 85 Devonshire St., Boston, MA 02109.
- Michael Ignatieff is thinking about martyrs, and he observes that the
"incorrigibly bourgeois character of modern moral evaluations"
has little place for them. "We have turned tame values into a synonym
for values tout court. So to us the martyrs' willingness to sacrifice
hearth and home to the demand of truth looks like pathological selfishness."
Jesus' words about hating father, mother, wife, and children in order to
be his disciple are a distinct embarrassment, he says. The occasion for
his reflection is a book by Lacey Baldwin Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors:
The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World (Knopf). Baldwin tends
to think that the martyrs are mainly pathological, with the notable exceptions
of the more "ironic" among them, such as Thomas More and Gandhi.
Ignatieff notes that Gandhi's threats to fast to the death were chiefly
effective because of a British Raj that was uncertain of its own moral
ground. Martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he notes, had no moral leverage
with the truly ruthless regimes of the modern world. His final reflection
is very much worth pondering: "If truth has become relative, if family
values have triumphed, and if the modern state has become too cunning and
too ruthless to allow martyrs to trouble its hegemony, the end of the martyr
tradition in our culture may be at hand. And yet such a conclusion seems
both premature and pessimistic. Smith's account may have been intended
to strip away the haloes around our martyrs' heads, but the effect is simply
to make them more human. And since they seem more human, the tradition
that they represent seems less like an austere and impossible exercise
in fanaticism and more like something the rest of us could admire and,
if we had to, emulate. The noble few who value their lives so little continue
to inspire the rest of us, even when they make us suspect that we may value
our own lives too much."
- Among the more massive betrayals of trust in American life is the long
and doleful history of legacies used for purposes at war with the reasons
they were originally given. One need mention only Ivy League universities
and philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation. The years immediately ahead
will, we are told, witness the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth
in the history of the world as people who made big money in the 1980s and
1990s try to figure out what to do with it. A significant help is "Giving
Better, Giving Smarter: Renewing Philanthropy in America," a 120-page
report of the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. It
is available from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation at P.O. Box 92848,
Milwaukee, WI 53202. Of course, an excellent way of making sure that your
intentions will be honored is a bequest to the Institute on Religion and
Public Life, publisher of FT. If that sounds self-interested, it is also
that, but the chief interest is in seeing that this enterprise flourishes
long after we are gone to where we no longer see through a journal dimly.
- I noted earlier this fine piece of research on college textbooks dealing
with marriage and family. Sponsored by the Institute for American Values
and directed by Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, the study documents
that, with few exceptions, the textbooks focus on the negative--divorce,
domestic violence, child abuse, and so forth. "Both by what they say
and sometimes, even more importantly, by the information they omit these
books repeatedly suggest that marriage is more a problem than a solution,"
says the report. Writing for the New York Times, Tamar Lewin notes
that the sponsor of the study "is described as somewhere between centrist
and conservative." In further explanation, there is this: "Some
members, including Ray Marshall and William Galston, have strong Democratic
ties, while others, including Judith Wallerstein and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead,
are known solely for their writing on family policy." The implication
would seem to be that excessive concern for family policy is conservative
and therefore suspect. It appears that Ms. Lewin offers further confirmation
of Prof. Glenn's findings.
- Antiphon is the publication of the Society for Catholic Liturgy,
a fine organization founded by Monsignor Francis Mannion. The current issue,
however, seems to be stretching in order to distinguish the society from
similar efforts of a more forthrightly conservative nature. In his editorial,
Msgr. Mannion takes note of reflections by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in
an autobiographical work that has not yet appeared in English. Mannion
writes: "In the cardinal's view, the fundamental problem following
Vatican II was that the reformed liturgy was ‘presented as a new structure,
in opposition to the one which had been formed through history.' The old
structure was ‘dismantled, and its pieces were used to construct another'
to the detriment of liturgical tradition. This made it appear that liturgical
development is not a ‘vital process,' but a product of ‘specialist knowledge
and juridical competence.' The impression developed that ‘the liturgy is
"manufactured," that it is not something which preceded us, something
"given," but that it depends on our decisions.' The cardinal
concludes: ‘For the life of the church, it is dramatically urgent to have
a renewal of liturgical awareness, a liturgical reconciliation, which goes
back to recognizing the unity in the history of the liturgy and understands
Vatican II not as a break, but as a developing moment." Mannion juxtaposes
Ratzinger's views with those of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee,
who, in an article in America, staunchly defends the liturgical
changes of recent decades and blames any confusions on Pope John Paul's
indult of 1984, allowing the use of the Tridentine rite at the discretion
of the bishop. "The one point of agreement between Cardinal Ratzinger
and Archbishop Weakland," writes Mannion, "is that the liturgical
life of the church today is in crisis. Beyond that, it would be difficult
to reconcile their positions. The tendency to take sides is tempting but,
in my opinion, it should be suspended. . . . The alternative is continued
fruitless polarization and ecclesiastical tribalism." One can appreciate
Msgr. Mannion's desire to position his society in the center, which is
often taken to be the high ground, but his irenicism is a reach too far.
Ratzinger is describing a liturgical circumstance that is pervasive and
is overwhelmingly supported by the liturgical establishments that brought
the circumstance about. Weakland uncritically endorses the status quo--which
he calls "the product of the finest thinking within the whole of the
Catholic tradition"--and heaps blame for any problems on John Paul
II's pastoral generosity to a relatively small handful of Catholics who
prefer the Tridentine rite. Mannion is right that the future should not
mean going back to conditions before Vatican II, and Ratzinger is certainly
not suggesting that. The point is that Ratzinger's argument about the sources
of our current problems is substantive, while Weakland's complaint is,
to put it kindly, superficial. Taking Ratzinger's "side" in his
analysis of what has gone wrong still leaves plenty of room for honest
disagreement about what should be done about it. The high ground in this
discussion is not to be found mid-way between the substantive and the silly.
- In speaking to pro-life gatherings, I have over the years referred
to the New York Times' claim in January 1973 that the Supreme Court
had "settled" the abortion question. I then follow that with
the observation that twenty-five years later it remains the most unsettled
question in our public life. Questioned about this, I asked Richard Doerflinger
of the bishops' pro-life office to get the exact quote. On January 23,
the day after the 7-2 Roe v. Wade decision, the Times story
called the decision "an historic resolution of a fiercely controversial
issue." The editorial the next day said: "The Court's verdict
on abortions provides a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution
of a debate that has divided America too long. As with the division over
Vietnam, the country will be healthier with that division ended."
The word "settled" does not appear. I stand corrected. Twenty-five
years later, abortion remains the most unresolved question in our public
- The compassion that kills. Elisabeth Ohlenberg writes in RN (Registered
Nurse) about the case of one she calls John Levine at the Veterans Hospital
in Brooklyn, New York. At age seventy-three, a cerebral hemorrhage "left
him in a persistent vegetative state (PVS)," she writes. At the family's
request, food and hydration were withdrawn. "It took twenty days for
Mr. Levine to die--an unusually long time." Despite being in PVS, "We
would talk to him and sometimes he would smile. I'm almost sure he understood
what we were saying. When you came near the bed his eyes would look at
you as if he knew you were there." Presumably the nurses did not tell
him they were killing him, although ever so caringly. Most of the article
is about the emotional stress experienced by nurses, and it offers suggestions
on how to handle that. The conclusion: "Clearly, caring for Mr. Levine
required a lot from everyone involved. Although there were many bumps along
the way, we're proud of the fact that we were able to provide compassionate
and quality nursing care. We're also confident that we'll be able to meet
whatever challenges future Mr. Levines may bring." No doubt.
- A vibrantly orthodox Presbyterian, John H. Leith is professor of theology
emeritus at Union Theology Seminary in Richmond and has recently published
Crisis in the Church: The Plight of Theological Education (Westminster/John
Knox). The notice in Christian Century is generally positive, but
with caveats. "There is some nostalgia, some romanticism about irretrievable
good old days, and perhaps more gloom than necessary about the mixed present."
The reviewer does not say how much gloom is necessary.
- "When Christians Fight Christians" is a generally thoughtful
article by Tim Stafford in Christianity Today. His subtitle is "The
Spirit unites, but the American church divides. A field guide for discerning
how to handle Christian controversy." A prime case study, Stafford
says, is "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT), the statement
on convergence and cooperation between Catholics and evangelical Protestants
that was issued in the spring of 1994 (FT, May 1994).
ECT immediately came under attack from prominent evangelicals such as R.
C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and D. James Kennedy, who claimed that the evangelicals
had sold out the Reformation heritage. Stafford has sage advice on how
controversies should be handled, and on the ways that personal fiefdoms
in evangelicalism can encourage the propensity for conflict. He notes that
the controversy "had little or no intersection with the institutional
church. . . . Compare this with previous doctrinal disputes of American
Christianity, fought in church councils and denominational publications.
Church splits occurred regularly, but they led to the establishment of
new churches and new denominations. Churches have members.
Parachurch organizations have donors." For all the peace-seeking wisdom
in Stafford's discussion, one cannot help but notice that references to
"American Christians" and "the church" are limited
exclusively to evangelical Protestants. While the intention is undoubtedly
irenic, the underlying assumption betrays the sectarian habit of mind challenged
by ECT, namely, that Catholics are not fellow Christians. The most vocal
evangelical critics of ECT have been largely isolated, but old habits die
hard. Perhaps it is fair to paraphrase Mr. Stafford: Churches have members.
Parachurch magazines have subscribers.
- One might think he would learn. Father Robert Drinan, S.J., last year
wrote a column supporting President Clinton's veto of the bill banning
partial-birth abortion. Later, prompted by ecclesiastical pressure, he
issued a statement saying he did not understand the procedure and supported
the Church's efforts to protect the unborn. Now he writes a column in the
National Catholic Reporter puffing a book filled with apocalyptic
warnings about the global "population explosion." Once again,
Fr. Drinan apparently fails to understand. According to the latest UN estimates,
population growth is dramatically slowing. The annual increase in world
population peaked in 1985-90 at eighty-seven million, and has been dropping
since. The annual increase is expected to be down to forty-one million
in 2050. As Bishop James McHugh of Camden, New Jersey, points out, the
book puffed by Fr. Drinan promotes population control by any means so long
as they are "respectful of human freedom." Bishop McHugh observes,
"Abortion clearly is not respectful of the freedom of the unborn,
and recent reports from Sweden and Japan about government-promoted sterilization
of people with disabilities was in fact coercive and dehumanizing."
More pointedly, the bishop adds: "Fr. Drinan claims that Catholics
are not supportive of efforts to promote family planning and are noticeably
absent from groups trying to control ‘overpopulation.' He laments the fact
that Catholics are unaware of the continual decline in U.S. dollars for
birth control programs in foreign nations. One might reasonably presume
that Fr. Drinan does not understand the Church's teaching on responsible
parenthood and its link to social development. That teaching was clearly
set forth at Cairo, at the International Conference on Woman in Beijing
(1995), and at the Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen (1996). It
may even be that Father Drinan is unhappy with the Church's teaching on
birth control. If so, he should be more forthright in saying so, rather
than hiding behind a misrepresentation of the demographic data."
- Concern about judicial usurpation doesn't preclude recognizing that
judges can sometimes get it right. Trinity Western University of Langley,
British Columbia, applied for accreditation of its teacher training program
by the British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) so that its students
would not have to take their last year at a secular university. (Trinity
Western is sponsored by the Evangelical Free Church.) Apparently everything
was in order until BCCT discovered that Trinity requires that its students
abstain from premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual activity while enrolled
as students. This, said BCCT, represents "discriminatory practices
which are contrary to the public interest and public policy and [may lead]
graduates to be biased against homosexual students in the classroom."
Accreditation denied. Nonsense, answered BC Supreme Court Justice W. H.
Davies, noting that "since large numbers of TWU graduates are teaching
in the public school system, it would have been possible to determine if
there had been any incidents of intolerance." There was no such evidence,
Davies concluded, and he ordered BCCT to certify the school. BCCT has appealed
the decision, and there things stand for the moment. Imagine, requiring
students at a Christian university to behave like Christians. The price
of tolerance doesn't come cheap.
- As a young man, I was greatly affected by the writings of O. P. Kretzmann,
a clergyman of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod and long-time president
of Valparaiso University, Indiana. The literary tone was always autumnal,
with leaves falling and Bach's St. Matthew Passion accompanying his deep
reflections, aided by a very dry martini. I was reminded of O. P. in reading
the opening passage of a newly translated essay by Hans Urs von Balthasar,
"The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves." He writes, in
a fine translation by Father Ed Oakes: "We are living in a time when
the images of gods and idols are crashing all about us. The spiritual and
cultural traditions of vast regions of the West are increasingly being
called into question; indeed, we can go even further and say they are being
liquidated, quickly and relatively painlessly. Just as a tree in autumn
drops its leaves without pain or regret, in order to gather once more new
strength from within, to renew its powers in hibernal peace, so too the
tree of culture is now being stripped of its leaves. Of course, in this,
the late autumn of our times, the leaves lie thickly under our feet--and
the books thickly in the bookstores; but we aren't deceived for a moment
about that. This colorful yellow and red swarm of leaves is animated no
longer by life but, if at all, only by the wind. A small regret might well
be permitted us here, just as autumn is the time of the elegiac lyric,
but who would want on that account to huddle up under the blankets of an
eschatological pathos! We trust the powers of nature, her wise economy,
and the laws of her renewal." The gist of this remarkable essay, however,
is not a nostalgic looking back but the development of Christian thought
and life according to the "laws of renewal." Balthasar has rendered
the invaluable service of leading many contemporary Christians to a new
appreciation of the early church fathers, but in this essay--more than in
much of his writing--he makes unmistakably clear that there cannot be any
simple "return to the fathers." The fathers were "the first
time out" in Christianity's engagement with worldly philosophy, notably
with Platonism, but scholasticism, especially Thomas, was necessary to
bring Christian thought, through Aristotle, to a fuller understanding of
the good of creation. Always keeping in mind, as many Thomists have not,
that the understanding of nature is emphatically theological; the accent
on creation is never at the expense of the Creator. Most surprising to
some readers will be Balthasar's stress on why modernity is in continuity
with the development of Christian thought--lifting up the particular, the
individual, and, in a word, history as the locus of God's creating
and redeeming work in Christ. It is altogether a remarkable essay and is
to be found in the Summer 1997 issue of Communio (number 24). For
the theologically interested, it is worth a trip to the library.
- "Collective Spirituality Behind Youth Crowds for Pope?" asks
the headline of a story in Religion Watch. We don't usually use
the word "collective," but some Christians, the Apostle Paul
included, do think Christianity is a corporate thing, as, for example,
in "Church." The report is based on a sniffishly dismissive article
in the Tablet (London) on how the Pope manages to attract crowds
of hundreds of thousands and even millions all over the world. "The
Pope believes in a powerful, visible, and obedient Church. The large assemblies
of Catholics who congregate during his pastoral visits are the best expression
of this muscular Christianity. . . . It is interesting to note that those
who organize the youth days are the trusted ‘Pope's legions': Opus Dei,
the Focolare, Communione e Liberazione, charismatics, and the rest, while
those who attend are often the vast mass of drifters, of semi-believers,
those who seek the warmth and emotion of a mass meeting, whether it be
Woodstock, a Billy Graham rally, or St. Peter's Square." In fact,
events such as the recent world youth gathering in Paris are organized
by the local church, but more interesting is the reassurance that properly
liberal Tablet types would not be caught dead attending, never mind
helping to organize, such gatherings of the great unwashed. "Charismatics
and the rest" is a particularly nice touch. It has even been rumored
that this pope has approved of eating with tax collectors and sinners.
The more decorous Catholics of England cannot help but be nervous about
what their Anglican friends will think of them.
- Once again, the New York Times editorially criticizes Pope John
Paul II for not apologizing for "the silence of Pope Pius XII"
during the Nazi horror. This is an old story and I will not repeat what
has been said here before about the Times' editorial praise of Pius
XII during and after the war for speaking out on behalf of the victims
of Nazism. Nor will I repeat the well known--except perhaps to the current
editors of the Times--facts about his role in saving thousands of
Jewish lives in Italy and about the hundreds of thousands of Jews rescued
by Catholics throughout Europe. I mention the tedious little editorial
dig only because it prompted Dimitri Cavalli of the Bronx to write us with
an interesting suggestion. Since the Times is so big on apologies,
he wonders whether it is not time for Mr. Sulzberger to return the Pulitzer
Prize awarded for the systematic lying of its star reporter Walter Duranty,
who denied Stalin's mass murders, and for an editorial apologizing to Ukrainians
for the Times' cover-up of the politically contrived famine that
took ten million or more lives. The question is not one of the silence
of the Times but of its active prevarication, when accurate reporting
might have prompted Western relief to the victims and discouraged the Soviet
regime from continuing on its murderous course. Mr. Cavalli doesn't want
to seem judgmental, but he can't help wondering. Perhaps he does not appreciate
that, as Paul Hollander has explained so well, some mass murders are more
"politically interesting" than others.
- Mother Jones describes itself as a political investigative magazine,
so the editor thought a word of explanation was in order when the December
issue was devoted to, of all things, religion. Editor Jeffrey Klein protects
his backside by reaffirming the conventional lefty orthodoxies, but he
is worried that the right is getting all the political advantage from what
appears to be a religious resurgence in the country. He concludes his reflection
with this: "Nietzsche could not conceive the extent to which religion
could be a source of human empowerment. And Marx did not recognize that
our desire to connect with a transcendent power runs even deeper than our
drive for economic satisfaction. Each of us seeks. How we honor each other's
search will tell the tale of the next millennium." The cover of the
special issue bears the subtitle, "Spirituality is the new religion,"
which is exactly right. Religious freedom is important, says Klein, because
then "the freer we are to forge our own faiths." The issue of
Mother Jones exemplifies the soulset of those whom our megachurch
friends like to call "seekers." We wish our friends all the best
in reaching these folk with the gospel of Christ, but in trying to do so
it is good to remember that they understand themselves to be not so much
seeking the truth as ultimately committed to the truth of seeking. The
goal is not to find the truth but to forge a truth, or, as they say, to
"connect." In sum, Mother Jones' spirituality is another
religion, just as the cover says. Which, of course, is all the more reason
for those who have found, and have been found, by the truth to try to reach
out to the adherents of this not-so-new religion.
- The metaphor of the "wall of separation" has been used incessantly,
and often perniciously, in arguments about church-state relations. Of particular
interest is an article by Daniel L. Dreisbach in the Summer 1997 issue
of the Journal of Church and State, "‘Sowing Useful Truths
and Principles': The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the ‘Wall
of Separation.'" Dreisbach, professor of law at American University,
Washington, D.C., makes the case that Jefferson's "wall" was
intended to separate state and nation in religious matters, not to separate
the institutions of religion and all civil government. The conclusion is
that, in discussions of church and state, the wall metaphor has long outlived
its usefulness, except for those who want to separate the deepest convictions
of the people from the conduct of our public life.
- When Monsignor Ronald Knox published his translation of the New Testament
in 1945, it received rave reviews. Of course that was long before the zillion
translations that have succeeded it. Templegate Publishers of Springfield,
Illinois, are now bringing it back into print, which was the occasion for
looking again at an achievement that impressed me greatly many years ago,
and that I have too much neglected. It is still very impressive indeed.
For information on this handsome paperback, write the publishers at 302
E. Adams St., Box 5152, Springfield, IL 62705.
- The titans clash. Jonathan Kwitny has written an interestingly awful
book on Pope John Paul II, Man of the Century. Father Andrew Greeley
trashed it in Book World, the review of the Washington Post.
Kwitny publishes a long letter there protesting that he and Greeley have
had very sharp personal disagreements, that Greeley was manifestly biased,
and that his review is riddled with errors. Greeley responds defending
his review but not denying the personal animosity to Kwitny. Finally, the
editor of Book World writes, "I do see a potential conflict
of interest in anyone's reviewing a book in which he [i.e., Greeley] is
mentioned fifteen times and with whose author he has quarreled." She
notes that Greeley did sign the standard reviewer contract that stipulates,
"If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author
of this book . . . please let Book World know immediately."
Apparently Fr. Greeley did not read the fine print. But then, some things
- At least for most of us mere mortals, admitting that we're wrong is
not easy. No, this item is not to commend my humility but that of the board
of the National Association of Biology Teachers. Their October meeting
had before it a "Statement on Teaching Evolution" that included
this: "The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution:
an unsupervised, impersonal, and unpredictable and natural process of temporal
descent from genetic modification that is affected by natural selection,
chance, historical contingencies, and changing environments." Prof.
Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame and Prof. Huston Smith, emeritus of Syracuse
University, wrote asking the board to drop the words "unsupervised"
and "impersonal." After a ten-minute discussion, the board unanimously
resolved not to do so. At dinner that evening, the board members got to
discussing the question and the next day unanimously reversed themselves.
It goes to show what giving a little thought to a matter can do. "We
decided that we had construed a meaning we had not intended," said
executive director Wayne W. Carley. "The statement was interpreted
to mean we were saying there is no God. We did not mean to imply that.
That's beyond the purview of science." There's a bit of grammatical
confusion there about who intended the construing of whose implied interpretation,
or whatever, but the point is clear enough. Professors Plantinga and Smith
are pleased, as they should be. Now they might take on other aspects of
the statement, such as the exclusion of alternative or complementary explanations
for the diversity of life on earth.
- Several years ago there was an enormous ruckus in New York City about
introducing into the public schools books such as Heather Has Two Mommies
and Daddy's Roommate. The effort was turned back, for the most
part, in New York, but now these and other readers are being used in Seattle.
Not surprisingly, some parents are unhappy and a few have withdrawn their
children from the public schools. The school board is not entirely of one
mind, and one member, Ellen Roe, has some sympathy for the protesting parents.
"We have to present both sides of the story," she says. It was
not that long ago that presenting both sides of the story meant pointing
out that, however odd it may seem, some people think homosexuality is not
a bad thing. Now it means pointing out that, however odd it undoubtedly
is, some people think homosexuality is not a good thing. Yes, indeed, let's
make sure both sides of the story are presented, so long as it doesn't
interrupt the progress of the story line.
- The nepotism is disturbing enough, but the real pity is the parasitic
cabal scrambling for shards of the great public moment that was the civil
rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. The New
York Times reports the election of Martin Luther King III as president
of "that eminent civil rights group," the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference. Hardly eminent any more, and not likely to become
so again under the direction of the great man's thirty-nine-year-old son,
whose chief distinction to date is to lose a county commissioner's race
when it was found that he owed $201,000 in back taxes. He did have a moment
when he was bold enough to suggest that there might be something wrong
with homosexuality, but promptly apologized under pressure, calling his
remarks "uninformed and insensitive." The claustrophobic world
of a superannuated civil rights leadership is underscored by noting the
other leading contenders for the job that went to Mr. King: Ralph David
Abernathy III, son of the great man's second in command, who was, unlike
some others of that company, a man without guile; Walter E. Fauntroy, who
for more than thirty years has been dining out on his having marched in
the 1960s; and Adam Clayton Powell IV, former New York City councilman
and heir to the Harlem legend. It is all yesteryear. All feeding off the
past. The visionary Mr. King says the great challenge for the future is
restoring welfare entitlements and protecting affirmative action. It is
all unspeakably sad.
- The bad news, according to Associated Press, is that America's trade
deficit with China widened by another ten billion dollars this past fall
because of the flood of imported toys and Christmas decorations. The really
bad news is that millions of Christians in China are persecuted for their
faithfulness to Christ. China is very enthusiastic about Christianity elsewhere.
- There is a strong student movement at Georgetown University--supported
also by non-Catholic Christians, Jews, and Muslims--to have crucifixes put
up in all the classrooms. They think a university "in the Jesuit tradition"
should also say something about being Catholic, and the student newspaper,
the Hoya, agrees. The administration is putting off a response until
a new study, "Centered Pluralism," is completed. Jesuit faculty
member Father Thomas Reese says the movement is a "tempest in a teapot."
He also says, "It's rearranging chairs on the Titanic."
Some people are born phrase makers. He does not explain the parallels between
Georgetown and the Titanic, but it sounds as though there may be
more grave problems than the lack of crosses on classroom walls. Fr. Reese
does go on to say: "What we're trying to deal with at a Catholic university
is how you intelligently have a dialogue from Christian tradition with
a pluralistic culture and how you inspire students who come through this
institution in a way that will help them live lives as Christians and make
a difference in making the world a better place." And, he might have
added, to be nice people who don't impose their values on others. The diatalk
of dialogue goes on and on like that. It is said that Georgetown is very
big on not imposing Catholic values. It will not even impose them on itself.
That is possibly unfair.
- It was no big deal according to the White House. The President gave
a major speech at the Human Rights Campaign dinner. With 200,000 claimed
members, it is the largest gay and lesbian organization in the world and
contributed $1.2 million in the last election campaign. Until now, no President
had ever addressed a homosexual advocacy group and the White House is usually
eager to trumpet "breakthroughs" by this administration. Not
this time. Press secretary Michael D. McCurry said, "The President
has done literally dozens of community outreach events this year. He was
just at the National Italian-American Foundation dinner last week."
And you know how controversial is the lifestyle of those Italian Americans.
- There was the vaulting presumption of "We Are the World"
some years ago, an international rock concert raising consciousness about
whales and the such. Then Catholics in Germany and Austria started "We
Are Church," a petition drive to get the Church in tune with their
presumably refined moral sensibilities about contraception, women priests,
married clergy, democratic decision making, and so forth. I have never
figured out the significance of the dropping of the definite article, but
it is possibly part of the oceanic sensation of immersion in the All that
is such a marked feature of current spiritualities. In any event, here
in the U.S. "We Are Church" was going to get a million signatures
(from sixty million Catholics) protesting the wicked patriarchy, but fell
far, far short of that, even though its promoters resorted to bribing school
children to get their parents and friends to sign. Now Catholic Trends
reports that 2.5 million signatures, collected in twenty countries,
have been presented to the Vatican. That represents about one in four hundred
Catholics, if the signatures are authentic and if the signers are Catholic,
neither of which is verified. Considering the effort put into the campaign
and the favorable media attention, the outcome would seem to be a resounding
vote of confidence in the Church's leadership. The signatures were received
by a kindly low-level priest at the office of the Vatican Secretary of
State. It is the pastorally responsible thing to meet with anybody, even
with funny, albeit humorless, people who go around announcing, "We
- Once a year my inner onomastician is allowed out to comment on the
names they're giving boys and girls these days. As it happens, things haven't
changed much in the last thirty years. Gravitas for the boys and glitter
for the girls. The top names for girls in New York City (which doesn't
differ that much from the nation in this respect): Ashley, Jessica, Samantha,
Stephanie, Nicole, Amanda, Jennifer, Sarah, Michelle, Emily. For boys:
Michael, Christopher, Anthony, Kevin, Daniel, Joseph, Matthew, Justin,
Jonathan, David. Solid citizens all, and mostly biblical. Kevin is number
one for Asian boys, suggesting that Asians eager to assimilate think the
Irish are the real Americans. Malik has this year replaced Michael as number
one for black boys. (Malik means "angel" in Arabic.) A lot of
girls are being named Randy, Kelly, Shannon, and Dana, all being traditionally
male names--as, of course, are Ashley, Stephanie, and Michelle. Traditional
female names do not transfer to the male column in the same way. It would
seem that a boy with a girl's name is in deep trouble on the school playground,
while there is a certain panache for a girl with a boy's name. Onomasticians
say parents choose names because they are popular and then stop choosing
them when they become too popular. Robert, John, and William were at the
top until the 1950s, along with Mary for girls. Now none of them is even
in the top ten, unless you count Jonathan for John. I know that readers
wait breathlessly for this annual report on names. Year after year the
conclusion is the same: to judge by name giving, it's still a boy's world.
We do our bit to remedy this by reminding parents of girls that there is
Sarah (which does make the list), Mary (in all its variations), Esther,
Rebecca, Ruth, Faith, Hope, Charity, and a host of others. It is pleasant
to think that, after all the media attention upon her death last September,
there are now a lot of little Teresas out there. I fear, however, that
there are many more Dianas.
- The Long Term View is a journal published by the Massachusetts
School of Law and the current issue is devoted to judicial misconduct.
Among the authors is David J. Owsiany of the Federalist Society, who writes:
"If the First Things symposium shows anything, it is that if
runaway federal courts continue to usurp authority from the political branches,
reasonable people may question the legitimacy of the government. At the
present stage, those questioning our government's legitimacy are relatively
few, but if courts intrude into taxation, criminal justice, education,
and employment, those numbers could grow. A national debate regarding the
appropriate role of the judiciary must take place. The American public
must know that the stakes are high. As James Madison wrote in Federalist
51, ‘In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by
the people is first divided between two distinct governments (federal and
state), and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct
and separate departments (separation of powers). Hence a double security
arises to the rights of the people.' When a federal court strikes down
a state law merely because it disagrees with the law's provisions, the
court does more than just eliminate a statute. The court upsets the balance
between federal and state powers, and crosses the boundaries of the separation
of powers established in the Constitution. The consent of the people is
- The Economist ran a fittingly admiring obituary on Viktor Frankl which
quoted "First Things, an American journal of philosophy."
Kristen Haas of Grand Rapids, Michigan, dropped the editors a note pointing
out that we are a journal of religion, to which she received the reply: "Dr.
Frankl was reluctant to allow religion to creep into articles about him, so
we respected his wishes." That religion creeps is interesting. That quoting
a journal of philosophy rather than a journal of religion is thought more
suited to the Economist's upmarket self-image seems probable.
Most fascinating, however, is the implication that the editors consulted Viktor
Frankl about his obituary. Before he died, presumably. In fact, Dr. Frankl
was quite prepared to speak about religion, as witness Matthew Scully's "Viktor
Frankl at Ninety: An Interview" (FT,
- When concern for persecuted Christians around the world really began
to build up steam, some of the more established human rights groups were
thrown into a tizzy. They certainly didn't like being accused of having
ignored the persecution of Christians in the past. Some responded initially
by belittling the persecution. Bill Schulz, executive director of Amnesty
International USA, says the reaction of some human rights leaders has been
"defensive." He wants to make it clear to his constituency that
"my credentials as a political and religious left-winger are pretty
solid." And he does not fail to ask, with some justice, "Where,
after all, has the evangelical community been for the past thirty years
when it comes to human rights?" Having reassured his liberal friends
that he's not switching sides, Schulz goes on to say, "I frankly welcome
to the human rights struggle all those who genuinely care about human suffering,
no matter what their views of God or the state. As I have said often, I
think the public constituency for human rights in this country is shockingly
small. The only way we will ever build it is by reaching out to those of
all political and religious stripes (to say nothing of cultural and racial
backgrounds) to enlist them in our cause. . . . No, it is not enough to
be concerned about any one group, Christians or otherwise. And no, religious
freedom cannot be separated from political freedom; we must care about
it all. But blood flows red, regardless of your color, politics, or faith,
and perhaps lamenting the treatment of your coreligionists overseas may
motivate you to feel similarly about the plight of others. If human rights
mean anything, they mean treating people as individuals and not stereotypes.
The struggle for a civil world is not solely the prerogative of liberals.
. . . So as we plunge into a new Amnesty year, let's welcome everyone who
comes our way, and let's assume that they are (at least) as pure in heart
as we." Purity of heart yet. It is a real challenge to have to live
up to the standards of contemporary liberalism.
- Some people persist in saying "Saint" Valentine's Day, so
the school board in Hillsborough, New Jersey, changed it to Special Person
Day. The children are still permitted to give cards, so long as there is
no suggestion that they have a special person in mind. There must be a
card for everyone in the class. As for Christmas ("December season"),
gift giving is out, since the board "considered gift giving a religious
activity." They may have a point there. From the potlatch to the magi,
giving gifts is dangerously entangled with obligation, gratitude, and other
sensibilities that, pushed far enough, inevitably raise the You Know Who
question. And surely we must protect the greedy little tikes from that
sort of thing.
- It is true that students in journalism school rank near the bottom
of the academic heap, but they have the perverse consolation of looking
down at those in education. Item: the Teachers College Record of
Columbia Teachers College. The lead article in this issue is by David C.
Berliner of Arizona State University, "Educational Psychology Meets
the Christian Right." The Christian Right does not come off at all
well. Its members "are among the most unrelenting contemporary critics
of public schools [and] some seek the destruction of public education."
It seems that many seek to destroy the public schools by taking their children
out of them. "They emphasize physical punishment, the breaking of
children's will, and obedience to authority. Such theories cannot be supported
by modern psychology." That sounds bad enough but it is not the worst
of it. "Furthermore, these child-rearing practices are totally incompatible
with the constructivist models of learning that form the basis for educational
reforms." And we all know what a great success those models have been.
"The antagonism of the Christian Right to these programs is based
on a fear of losing control over their children's thinking, rather than
any compelling empirical data." There you have it, uppity parents
challenging the experts for control over their children's thinking. The
conclusion of the article is that "many among the Christian Right
are unable to engage in politics that make a common school possible. They
may be unable to compromise and live with educational decisions reflecting
a pluralistic democracy keeping separate church and state." Oh dear.
But if that's the case, maybe it's better for everyone that they not have
their children in the public schools. Perhaps that's the point Prof. Berliner
is making, but I don't think so. He seems to hope that those millions of
parents will simply disappear, or maybe he has some unnamed plan for getting
rid of them. But no, he indicates that we'll have to put up with them,
at least for a while. "It is one of the great paradoxes of democracy
that in the interest of pluralism we must tolerate a group out to destroy
a public institution dedicated to the preservation of pluralism,"
he writes. On the contrary, it is not a paradox but a paradigm of democracy
that people exercise their democratic freedoms in ways with which we disagree.
Be that as it may, those Christians who presume to take responsibility
for their children's thinking have been given fair notice that the tolerance
of Prof. Berliner and Columbia Teachers College is wearing thin.
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