The Public Square
(March 1998)

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 81 (March 1998): 63-79.

Critical Realignments

In this space I recently paid tribute to the late Francis Schaeffer, noting, among other things, his singular part in alerting evangelical Protestants to the great evil of abortion. Until the late seventies, I said, the Catholic Church had stood almost alone in publicly protesting the withdrawal of legal protection from the unborn. Objections from evangelical friends notwithstanding, the record is all too clear that evangelicalism was very late out of the starting gate on this question. In fact, it was running in the other direction.

In 1971, for instance, two years before the Roe decision, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for legalized abortion, and that was reaffirmed in 1974, one year after Roe. In October 1973 the Baptist Joint Committee—which then represented also the Southern Baptists—opposed a protective constitutional amendment, and joined the general agitation against Catholic efforts to "impose" their morality on the country. Finally, at the 1980 convention in St. Louis the Southern Baptists turned around, supporting an amendment "prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother."

Reporting on this development, the Boston Globe called it "a major earthquake within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination," and went on to note: "The shock wave itself is important because the strong antiabortion position by the 13.4 million member denomination severely damages the argument that abortion is a ‘Catholic issue,’ and that efforts to end government spending for abortion amount to applying Catholic doctrine for the determination of public policy."

Today, of course, evangelicals join Catholics in the front lines of the battle against what John Paul II has called "the culture of death." Without this experience of "cobelligerency," as Schaeffer called it, in the cause of life, it is difficult to imagine consequent developments such as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." Discovering common cause on abortion also contributed significantly to overcoming Baptist "strict separationism" on other questions, such as parental choice in education, that had historically been driven in large part by anti-Catholic animus. Once again we are reminded that it is difficult to overestimate the part that abortion has played in religious and political realignments of recent decades. The planting of the pro-abortion flag on the liberal side of the great liberal-conservative divide locked liberalism—including the liberal oldline churches—into the ideologically hardened position of the don’t-give-an-inch proponents of "reproductive rights," while making it possible for Catholics and evangelicals to find one another in the formation of a new cultural majority.

More jaded students of evangelicalism might say that evangelicals were forced to choose between distinguishing themselves from the oldline churches or from the Catholic Church. In this view, being on the same side with the liberal churches was a greater threat to their identity as evangelical Protestants than was siding with the Catholics. However that may be, there is no doubt that abortion was and is the question precipitating one of the most important realignments in American religious and cultural history.

What Then Is To Be Done?

What an awful tangle we’re in about race. Forget our serially sincere (Jim Nuechterlein’s fine phrase) President’s ballyhooed dialogue on race. Multicultural effusions about the wonderful new world when there will be no majority or minority and we’ll all be amalgamated into the gorgeous mosaic on the far side of the prescribed therapy of black accusations and white self-denigrations for the sins of slavery and racism—all this demeans a subject about which most Americans are surprisingly ready to get serious. If, that is, it seems believable to them that there is a purpose in raking over these questions again, if it seems there is something to be done.

There are other recent and more important twists in the racial tangle, such as Professor Glenn Loury’s going very public in a number of forums about his disillusionment with conservatives because they basically don’t care about black poor people. Loury of Boston University is a cherished contributor to this journal and has been celebrated as one of the most influential black intellectuals (yes, the adjective is unavoidable in this connection) in America. Predictably, those on the left, both black and white, have been quick to react to Loury’s break with loud chortles of we-told-you-sos. Somewhat earlier, Loury and his friend Robert Woodson, who works with community initiatives in the inner city, very publicly disengaged themselves from the American Enterprise Institute because of its association with Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza, both of whom have written controversial books deemed to be less than sensitive to blacks as victims.

On the right, the editors of National Review do try to be sensitive to what they take to be the need of Loury and others to maintain a remnant of credibility among blacks by continuing to support affirmative action, albeit in a sharply modified form. The editors conclude: "Still, there is no excuse for conservatives to be (unconservatively) rude to Professor Loury—though his references to Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza are less than genial. There is no doubt that Professor Loury and Robert Woodson are indeed conservatives; but they might reflect upon the option of resisting cultural intimidation."

In the same issue of National Review is a long review essay by John J. DiIulio of Princeton University discussing four new books on race and making some of the points he has also made in these pages. Of particular interest is his evaluation of America in Black and White by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom (Simon & Schuster), a recent scholarly work that documents in great detail the progress that blacks have made in recent decades. DiIulio does not deny the progress, but he takes the Thernstroms to task for slighting all that remains to be done, and for ignoring the crucial component in the possible doing of it. He writes of the book that it "makes nary a mention of the religious life of black Americans, rich or poor. But the evidence is growing that the only people who are now doing something to make inner-city blacks part of ‘one nation, indivisible’ [the Thernstroms’ subtitle] are those who seek ‘one nation, under God, indivisible.’" Actually, as I note elsewhere in these pages (While We’re At It), the Thernstrom book does make a passing reference to religion in reporting the growing number of blacks and whites who belong to racially integrated churches, but it is very much in passing.

A Jewish Factor

Passions are running high in these disputes, and I have been caught in the crossfire, trying, irenic soul that I am, to hold friendships together. The circumstance is complicated by what might aptly be called a Jewish factor. It is not coincidence that some of the conservatives whose alleged unconcern most offends Loury and others happen to be Jewish, and are usually called neoconservatives. Jews tend to feel, with considerable justice, that they have historically sided with the black cause, that in recent years they have been singled out as the objects of frequently vicious black hostility, and that, in any case, there is really not much more they can do to be helpful. As is regularly pointed out, it is very dispiriting to be told that the national expenditure over thirty years of five trillion dollars to eliminate poverty and racism has only exacerbated the problem of poverty and racism. Some may conclude, not entirely unreasonably, that enough is enough.

There is another aspect of the Jewish angle, however. It is the ascendancy of the view, ably promoted also by DiIulio, that religion is the key to anything good happening among the black poor. There are relatively few black Jews, and it is understandable that Jews who are not black are inclined to think that, if DiIulio and others are right about the centrality of religion, doing something about the plight of the black underclass is chiefly a job for Christians, both white and black. Of the Thernstrom study DiIulio writes: "The tragedy of the book is that the authors are virtually silent about our moral obligation to do something—not talk, not debate, but do something—about those black Americans—who, to white Christians, are brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ—who have yet to make the climb."

He continues: "When it comes to motivating black and white Americans to respond, up close and personal, to the plight of inner-city blacks, debating ‘racial injustice’ is a sickly, sorry substitute for promoting religious morality and ‘justification,’ the Christian doctrine of the sanctification of the human person through the gift of God’s life, which enjoins us to accept our social and economic fellowship with others, especially those whom Christ commanded His followers to love first, last, and always: society’s poor, its children, its prisoners, its fallen, its feared." Protestants should overlook the muddled treatment of justification and sanctification. DiIulio is a Catholic, and you know how they are. But his point is clear enough. Both the motivation and the means for doing something are emphatically Christian.

The gist of the argument is convincing, I believe, but that doesn’t mean that doing something is entirely up to committed Christians. DiIulio concludes by making very concrete public policy proposals to address the problems of poverty and race, including getting rid of affirmative action based solely on race, releasing nonviolent low-level drug offenders from prison, permitting prayer in the public schools, and changing tax laws to encourage contributions to inner-city community organizations.

Glenn Loury’s anti-conservative blast and the contention over the Thernstrom book are forcing an urgent question. It is not enough to say that what has been tried hasn’t worked as we hoped, and may have made some things worse; nor is it enough to expose liberal fatuities about remedying the "root causes" of poverty and crime. DiIulio writes: "So what if brain-dead liberals continue to make silly arguments about the overall condition of blacks and the state of race relations in America? So what if most young black males who go to prison are justly convicted? What is our endgame here? More debate about race à la President Clinton’s commission on the subject? A continuation of our de facto three-part national urban policy: abortion (favored by liberal elites), incarceration (favored by conservative elites), and suburbanization and gated communities (favored, it seems, by almost everyone who can afford to move)?"

Explicit commandment, moral intuition, and simple self-respect combine in compelling the belief that there must be another way. Just believing that is prelude to doing something. The something in question is centered in religion that is both motive and means, and extends to public policy tasks that should claim the attention of all Americans. Who knows? Even Mr. Clinton’s dialogue on race—if or when it moves beyond the old rancorous mix of invective and utopianism—might contribute to such a happy change.

Very Selective Compassion

The story is laced with all the spins and counter-spins that one has come to expect from inside-the-beltway journalism, but it is, for all that, a reasonably fair account of one of the big developments in religion and public life. "Washington Discovers Christian Persecution" by Jeffrey Goldberg is the cover story in the New York Times Magazine, and it gives due credit to the heroic work of Nina Shea of Freedom House, a deeply committed Catholic who has been key to putting together a movement largely composed of evangelical Protestants. Goldberg obviously doesn’t like Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, accusing him of being a self-publicist, but he grudgingly acknowledges that the Jewish Horowitz, along with the Jewish columnist Abe Rosenthal, have shamed many Christian leaders into active concern for their persecuted co-believers around the world. "You’re only allowed to sit out one Holocaust each lifetime," Horowitz pithily observes. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council is also acknowledged as indispensable in building support for the cause.

These and many others are the players behind the Wolf-Specter Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which the congressional leadership failed to bring to the floor last session, despite its promises to do so. The opposition is led by the Clinton Administration, which appears to have no goal higher than trade, backed by big business. Neither seems to be much bothered by a little, or even a lot, of religious persecution when there are big dollars to be made in places such as China. Also opposing the focus on religious persecution are some elite human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, whose top man, Kenneth Roth, is worried about any connection with conservative evangelicals and Catholics who are not supportive of "women’s reproductive rights," meaning abortion. Amnesty International, on the other hand, has cautiously welcomed the surge of concern about religious persecution, seeing in it an opportunity to greatly expand the general concern about human rights beyond the upper crust and dominantly liberal human rights establishment.

Working hand in glove with multinational corporations against the Wolf-Specter bill is the liberal National Council of Churches. General secretary of the NCC, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell says: "That’s got some history to it. When Christians act like their faith is preeminent, it can create problems. I hate to use this example because it’s so extreme, but if you look at the Nazi regime, you see in it the philosophy of Christian superiority." Never mind that the coalition backing Wolf-Specter is opposing religious persecution across the board, not just the persecution of Christians, although Christians constitute the overwhelming majority of those persecuted for religious reasons in the world today. The more interesting aspect of the Rev. Campbell’s view is that Nazism was created by an excessive devotion to Christianity. In sheer looniness that competes with her worry about Christians who "act like their faith is preeminent."

Despite the formidable coalition of Clinton’s foreign policy managers, multinational corporations spending millions in lobbying efforts, and the liberal Protestantism of the NCC, Goldberg thinks a very major shift may be underway. He quotes William Schulz of Amnesty International, who says, "In this administration, trade always trumps torture when the two clash, and this causes dissatisfaction on the right and the left." Goldberg observes: "That dissatisfaction may well be a harbinger of a momentous political trend, the creation of a new alliance in which secular liberals and religious conservatives join together to force Washington to worry as much about moral issues as the insatiable demands of turbocharged capitalism."

Also noteworthy is the strong support for Wolf-Specter by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, making this yet another issue on which Catholics and evangelicals are united, leaving the oldline Protestants out in the cold. Some in the NCC and its liberal oldline churches complain that they were not made to feel welcome when the religious persecution initiative was getting underway a couple of years ago, and there may be something to that. The animosity of liberal oldliners toward evangelical conservatives is heartily reciprocated. The fact is, however, that Nina Shea, the National Association of Evangelicals, and others did reach out to the oldline denominations and were, with few exceptions, coldly rebuffed.

And no petty resentments about not having been on the A-list of those invited to the party can justify the bizarre position in which religious liberals—including some liberal Catholic publications—find themselves as apologists for an amoral foreign policy and systematic indifference to the jailing, torture, and killing of innumerable Christians and other believers. When it comes to Chinese oppression, for instance, it may be surprising to see the champions of liberal compassion pushing the line of Boeing and General Motors that trade trumps torture, but then one remembers the leftist aversion to cooperating with conservatives, and Paul Hollander’s insightful observation that some atrocities are more "politically interesting" than others.

Refuse to Obey?

"Scandals to good order and discipline in America’s armed forces, particularly sexual ones, proliferate and deepen with no end in sight. ‘Scandal’ means literally a snare, a trap, a stumbling-block which occasions a fall. At a Pentagon press conference announcing the results of the latest investigation of sexual misconduct, the body language of General Dennis J. Reimer, the Army Chief of Staff, could not have been more apt: there he stood, contrite and confused, with head bowed and shoulders stooped, military bearing brought low indeed. Defenders of America’s national interests will not regain their composure until they identify as their true enemies the cultural priorities of postmodernism."

That is from an editorial in Strategic Review, the quarterly of the United States Strategic Institute. The subordination of the military to civilian authority, the editorial continues, is basic to our constitutional order, but that does not mean the abdication of moral responsibility. "The implication of this false notion of dutifulness is that soldiers are not also citizens, when in fact they are citizenship’s noblest expression, prepared as they are to make the supreme sacrifice on behalf of the common good. The civilian architects of postmodernism thus insist on unhesitating enforcement of the tendentious rights of universal democracy, such as are now found in a decadent Western civilian society, while simultaneously demanding the total adjuration by citizen soldiers of the freedom of consent and informed debate. That is what is known as a logical contradiction, or if you prefer, tyranny, and it should come as no surprise that morale, good order, and discipline are at an historic nadir."

"The hour is late," we are told. "To face the adversary squarely, members of Congress and the military must begin by dispatching once and for all the practice of allowing women into combat forces." Secretary of the Army Togo West is criticized for suggesting that equal opportunity to serve must be put on a par with—or even given priority over—the military’s capacity to fight and win the nation’s wars. It is noted that ideologists view the military as a "perfect laboratory for social experimentation" in gender equality and other causes, but their biggest reason for undermining the armed forces is that they "represent the best concrete and only remaining example of the classical concept of the common good." If the military caves, the game is over.

There is considerable wisdom and an appropriate sense of urgency in the position of Strategic Review. At the same time, even those who strongly oppose the radical feminist assault on the military as recklessly imprudent and in violation of natural law may be given pause by this suggestion: "If Congress and the Pentagon will not act, officers en masse should simply refuse to implement integration further." If we read this correctly, this would seem to be advocacy of a refusal to obey orders. There are undoubtedly occasions when soldiers must in conscience refuse to obey orders. That is clearly recognized also in the code of the U.S. armed forces. But it is a morally momentous decision, fraught with consequences both for the ethos of the military and the well-being of the republic. The editors of Strategic Review undoubtedly know a great deal more about the military than I do. I am not prepared to say that the editorial is wrong. One cannot help but be impressed that in such circles the sense of crisis is so acute. At the same time, very careful thought must be given to whether the question of women in combat is a terribly wrongheaded policy that should be protested or a categorical evil that warrants, or even mandates, the refusal to obey orders.

An Enclave of Conformity

A month in Rome, even when crowded with mostly tedious meetings, puts a person on aesthetic alert. I am frequently accused of optimism, a charge I vigorously reject since optimism is just a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. Hope is an entirely different thing, and I am strongly inclined to debunking the claims of those who seem to wallow in exaggerated claims about the singularity of our cultural decline. Admittedly, if one wants to hunt for indications of decline, we live in a target-rich environment. For many years I have found most particularly depressing the state of music and contemporary architecture. It may be true that "classical" music needs time to be recognized as classical, but does anybody really believe that much of anything composed in the twentieth century will a hundred years from now be thought to belong in the ranks of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or comparable worthies?

St. Peter’s Basilica is not the greatest architecture in the world; it is far from being the greatest architecture in Rome. But it is great. Taken as a whole or in its many parts, you want to spend time with it, pondering why this was done this way rather than that, marveling at the sheer craftsmanship. Then one goes just next door to the huge Paul VI Audience Hall, built only a few years ago, and about the only thing to be said about it is that it is huge. It is true, as art historians remind us, that the great churches of five hundred and fifteen hundred years ago borrowed from the more ambitious "secular" buildings of the time. But we also see in those churches adventuresome things that had never been done before.

Not so with the audience hall. There is no notable feature there that might not be found in a bank building, except for the big sculpture of the risen Christ surrounded by the detritus of a dead world and with the hair on the left of his head sticking way out as though he had had an accident with a can of hair spray. Other than that, there is nothing in the building to occasion a moment’s wonder, except perhaps to a structural engineer. What is true of the audience hall is, with few exceptions, generally true of contemporary religious architecture.

I was staying at the North American College with, among many others, Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, and he was waxing enthusiastic about the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that they are building out there and hope to dedicate in the year 2000. I wanted to be impressed by what they are doing but I’m afraid I could not manage it. (Details on the cathedral are accessible at Of course one can’t tell everything from architectural drawings and models, but from the outside the proposed cathedral looks like a very big barge that somehow got beached in downtown Los Angeles, and the inside looks for all the world like a well-lighted warehouse. Maybe the inside will look very different with the furnishings in place, and crowds of people doing the liturgy for which the building is presumably designed. I sincerely hope so.

Mind you, I don’t claim to be an expert on these matters. The architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times thinks the design is terrific. But then, his counterpart at the Washington Post gave a rave review to the design of the John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C., which evokes a sense of sacred mystery comparable to that evoked by a Russian nuclear power station. Of Our Lady of the Angels, the critic enthused that the design represents what the Italian Communist theorist, Gramsci, called "an enclave of resistance." What it is supposed to be resisting, I have no idea. Certainly not the spirit of an age that seems to be doing its best to squelch the rumor that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. I am more than open to the possibility, I fervently hope, that the building when finished will compel a change of mind. But at the moment it offers no relief from those depressing thoughts about the state of contemporary music and architecture.

A Prospect Postponed

Bartholomew came and went, and left in his wake a deeply dispirited company of those who pray for reconciliation between East and West. It seems only a little while ago, when Paul VI was Pope, that the mutual anathemas between Rome and Constantinople were lifted. And it was a very little while ago that John Paul II issued the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, with its bracing hope that, as the second millennium has been the millennium of Christian division, so the third millennium must be the millennium of Christian unity. The hope was reinforced by the ascendancy of Bartholomew to Constantinople as His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch. He had lived in the West and had been actively participant in the ecumenical movement. His devotion to unity was well known.

But now everything has been put on hold, or worse. During his October visit he was to make a major statement at Georgetown University. The text of his speech was so virulently polemical that, at the urging of advisors, revisions were being made up until the last minute. But even then the final text offered naught for the comfort of those who were looking for a step forward. Bartholomew suggested that Orthodoxy and Rome are farther apart than ever. More than that, we are moving in different directions, for there is an "ontological" difference between East and West in the understanding of the Christian reality. His Western hearers were stunned, while the revanchist opponents of East-West reconciliation among the Orthodox were exultant.

A few days later, as the guest of William Cardinal Keeler in Baltimore, the word was that Bartholomew would undo some of the damage done at Georgetown. In Baltimore he did have magnificently cordial words for his Catholic hosts, but substantively the message was the same, if not more discouraging. "The members of the committee for theological dialogue between our churches have gathered here again. They have boldly reaffirmed their sadness that the dialogue has not yet borne the perfect fruit upon which all of us would, as brothers, share at the Lord’s banquet. Still, we congratulate you for your good efforts and look forward to the day when we shall dwell as brothers in the House of the Lord." Which being translated would seem to mean: Nice try, fellows. Maybe we can get together in the Kingdom of God.

"We wish to reaffirm," said Bartholomew, "that this great work has not yet succeeded, not for lack of love between us." There is love aplenty, like "a light whose flame cannot be extinguished, not even by disagreement over organization nor jurisdiction." Why then has the dialogue failed? "It is by reason of an essential difference of how the mystery of the Church and salvation in her is realized," answers the Patriarch. Friends of unity point out that he said the work "has not yet succeeded"; he did not say it has definitively and irretrievably failed. They also note that terms such as "ontological" and "essential difference" do not necessarily mean the same in the East as in the West, but this has the appearance of grasping at straws. On the other hand, in view of what is at stake, no straw should go ungrasped.

Expectations Dashed

It is no secret that John Paul II’s highest hope for his pontificate was the healing of the thousand-year division between East and West. With the dramatic steps that had been taken under Paul VI and then the collapse of the evil empire that had held captive so much of Orthodoxy, everything seemed possible. This is the sense of heightened expectations that pervades Ut Unum Sint. In that encyclical, the Pope went so far as to put on the table the question of papal jurisdiction, suggesting that it might be exercised as it was in the first millennium. When influential sectors in Orthodoxy saw how intent Rome was upon reunion, they took fright. The monks of Mt. Athos, who, while lacking formal jurisdiction have enormous influence, delivered a blistering salvo against any and all efforts at rapprochement with the West. Alexis II of Russia, reportedly under pressure from his synod, repeatedly snubbed John Paul II by calling off scheduled meetings. And it has been going downhill from there, as is evident in the chilling statements during Bartholomew’s visit.

It is said that in private conversations Bartholomew urges his Western interlocutors to be patient and not give up hope. The role of the Patriarch is not comparable to that of the Pope, and it is explained that Bartholomew was perceived as getting too far out ahead. The notoriously fractious Orthodox churches were threatening to revolt unless he took their hard line during his U.S. visit. An additional explanation is that the end of communism has produced bitterly ironic results. Orthodoxy in Russia and elsewhere was deeply corrupted under the evil empire. It is generally acknowledged that no bishops were appointed without the approval of the regime, and not a few of them were active agents of the KGB.

At the same time, the Communists were great supporters of ecumenism, or so it seemed. For decades they controlled the useful prelates who were so actively involved in the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other ecumenical activities. It is ironic but perhaps not surprising that reformers in the Eastern churches who are bent upon purification and a return to authentic Orthodoxy view ecumenism as one of the evils that must be purged. Now among several Orthodox churches there is a strong movement not only to pull back from rapprochement with Rome but also to withdraw from agencies such as the WCC. This is joined to an attitude aptly described as xenophobic, in which "the West" is perceived as the source of spiritual, moral, and political corruptions beyond measure.

Rehabilitated Bridges

During the short time when reconciliation seemed to be on the horizon, the eastern rite churches that are in communion with Rome were given to understand that they were no longer the future. These churches (sometimes, and often pejoratively, called Uniate) have for centuries been viewed either as bridges to the East or as obstacles to reconciliation with the majority of Orthodoxy that is not in communion with Rome. Ut Unum Sint held out the prospect that Rome could treat directly with the separated Orthodox churches, but now some leaders of the eastern rite churches do not disguise their satisfaction in the apparent setback that has been dealt that prospect. So "Uniatism" may, for a time, have been given a new lease on life, but that is almost certainly more apparent than real. Constantinople, Russia, Greece, Ukraine, Albania—these and others constitute the center of Orthodoxy and it would seem that reconciliation, if it is to happen at all, must happen at the center.

The great Orthodox theologian and my dear friend, the late Alexander Schmemann, said East-West reconciliation awaits a pan-Orthodox council, and, he quickly added, a pan-Orthodox council is an eschatological concept. Another Orthodox theologian, who must remain anonymous, tells me that may be a slight exaggeration, but he says he has never been so discouraged by the leadership of Orthodoxy. "We have not one leader with the vision or courage or generosity to even begin to respond to the initiatives of John Paul II," he says. "For centuries we have demanded that Rome make the moves he has made, and now that he has made them we react like spoiled, suspicious, squabbling children." That may be too harsh, but it reflects the sense of bitter disappointment that is palpable also among some Orthodox.

Although, God willing, he has years to go, it seems John Paul II will not live to see the reconciliation between East and West for which he so earnestly yearns. Also among leading figures in the Roman curia, there are those who say his hopes were naive. The accusation of naiveté is a small price to pay for acting on the possibility of what might be, in accord with divine imperative and promise. John Paul II has laid the foundation for the time when, as he has repeatedly said, "the Church will again breathe with both lungs, the East and the West." We must pray that one day the Orthodox will be prepared to join in building on that foundation. Meanwhile the prospect so boldly set forth in Ut Unum Sint has not been abandoned, only postponed.

Ungenuine and Gratuitous

The Evangelical-Catholic statement "The Gift of Salvation," published in the January issue, is receiving careful and, for the most part, positive reception. Christianity Today, the most influential evangelical publication, published it in full with a fine introduction by Dr. Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School. Some Baptists, however, have taken the position that, while the statement is splendid on justification by faith, it is also self-contradictory because it mentions unresolved questions such as baptismal regeneration, it being assumed by these critics that baptismal regeneration is incompatible with justification by faith.

Clearly, the Catholic participants in the discussion do not think the two doctrines incompatible, and it is the purpose of serious theological conversation to understand why that is so, rather than prejudging the question before engaging it. This Baptist criticism would also include Lutherans, Calvinists, and others who affirm baptismal regeneration and therefore, if the criticism is right, cannot consistently affirm justification by faith. Some Baptist opponents of "The Gift of Salvation" would seem to be elevating baptismal generation to the status of the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, in which case one might suggest that Baptists are decidedly outside the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy. And of course such an elevation would quite thoroughly shatter the community that is today called evangelical Protestantism.

There is also expressed Baptist unhappiness with the fear that "The Gift of Salvation" and similar unofficial initiatives have upstaged the official conversations taking place between Baptists and Catholics. Such unhappiness is thoroughly unwarranted. As Cardinal Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity has publicly stated—and all the participants in "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" agree—this unofficial initiative is complementary to other conversations and, by virtue of being unofficial, has the freedom to help those conversations by scouting out questions in advance. One prominent Southern Baptist declares, "Justification by faith alone, if genuinely affirmed by Catholics and Evangelicals, would require repudiation of baptismal regeneration, purgatory, indulgences, and many other issues presently affirmed by Roman Catholic doctrine." The implication would seem to be unavoidable that the Catholics who signed "The Gift of Salvation" are not genuine Catholics, are dishonest, or are just plain dumb.

If that is the case, and if believable affirmation of the heart of the Gospel requires the Catholic repudiation of doctrines that Baptists think incompatible with the heart of the Gospel, there is obviously no point to further theological conversation. There is then no brotherly obligation to find out why Catholics who affirm what "The Gift of Salvation" describes as justification by faith alone is perfectly compatible with the other doctrines in question. With truly remarkable self-confidence, these Baptists just know in advance that they are not compatible. The course of greater honesty, not to mention humility, would be to say to Catholics, "It seems to me that you affirm doctrines that are incompatible with what you affirm in ‘The Gift of Salvation.’ Please explain why you believe that is not the case." Putting the question that way, one may not be persuaded by the explanation but one may at least learn something. That assumes, of course, that we all have much to learn.

Then there is another Southern Baptist official, also miffed at unofficial activities outside the orbit of hierarchical control (so much for the vaunted Baptist devotion to independence), who goes on to say that he has learned from official talks with Catholics that "unless one of the ecumenical councils decreed it or unless the Pope decreed it to be official dogma, no other Catholic signatures on a document make any difference and hence are gratuitous." So "The Gift of Salvation" simply doesn’t matter. I don’t know what Catholics he’s been talking to, but by that measure, except for one infallible definition in 1950 and the Second Vatican Council, every Catholic book, episcopal statement, and papal document of this century is gratuitous and makes no difference. It seems all of us Catholics who are in any way involved in the theological project might as well pack up and take a permanent vacation.

The initial response to "The Gift of Salvation" by a handful of Southern Baptist officials is very disappointing. Fortunately, they do not reflect the positive reception of the statement among both Evangelicals and Catholics. This is connected also to the constructive rethinking that took place in the recent Synod for America convoked by John Paul II, where Latin American bishops took a giant stride in recognizing evangelical Protestants in their country as brothers and sisters in Christ. But that is part of a bigger story to which I will return at another time.

Absolutely Free

In a forthcoming issue there will be an extensive review of Rocco Buttiglione’s outstanding book, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became John Paul II, just out from Eerdmans ($35). For the moment, a few thoughts on the afterword by those who so capably translated it from the Italian, Paolo Guietti and Francesca Murphy. There is the tricky question of the relationship between the writings of Karol Wojtyla, the philosopher, and John Paul II, the Pope. As the translators note: "Becoming Pope is not the best way to acquire fame as a thinker; it is more common, and generally easier, to achieve a (sometimes justified) philosophical respectability by getting into trouble with Popes and other powerless authorities." A still more serious factor is noted by Buttiglione: "The criteria and the hermeneutical methods of philosophical thought differ from those which can be used to interpret the Pope’s teaching, which have as their immediate antecedents not the thinking of the philosopher Wojtyla, but the acts of his predecessors and the entire Magisterium of the Church in its historical development."

Yet a connection between the philosopher and the Pope there certainly is. Guietti and Murphy comment on a much earlier work by George Hunston Williams, The Mind of John Paul II, with its suggestion that, because Wojtyla was a Pole writing under a totalitarian regime, he did not understand the American mind and the principles of the free society. The translators think the opposite may be the case. "It appears after reading Buttiglione," they remark, "that Wojtyla does not understand anything but freedom and its relationship with the truth, which can be presented freely only to a person." The reference, of course, is to The Acting Person, Wojtyla’s seminal work written during the years of Vatican Council II.

They continue: "From a political point of view Wojtyla knows that relativism, the dismissal of truth, leads to the primacy of power and political tyranny. We could say that he defends truth in order to save freedom. In other words, it seems that he values freedom more than truth, and is ready to subordinate the rights of truth to freedom, which is the most basic truth of the dignity of the person. The most important truth for him seems to be a person’s freedom. . . . It is with regard to religious freedom, or freedom of religion or freedom of conscience, that traditionalists may find Wojtyla’s understanding to be far too American. The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre described in words and pictures the victory of freedom (liberalism) over truth as the defeat of true European and good French traditions by the American way of life. To an integrist mind ‘religious freedom’ triumphed over the last of its opponents with Vatican II. Wojtyla’s thesis on religious freedom would therefore be the obsession of a brilliant young philosophical mind which was prematurely exposed to the revolutionary spirit of Vatican II."

More Polish than Jeffersonian

So it may seem, but there is much more to it than that. Those who have lived under regimes of unfreedom may understand freedom much better than those who take freedom for granted. There may appear to be a smooth fit between Jefferson’s idea of religious freedom and the declaration on religious freedom adopted by the Council, Dignitatis Humanae. "The two doctrines may coincide materialiter, as an Aristotelian scholastic would put it, but not formaliter. The American and Polish bishops may both have voted for Dignitatis Humanae, but they did so for different reasons." The American Founders, and Jefferson in particular, were motivated by the desire to liberate politics from religion, while Wojtyla and the Council Fathers wanted to liberate religion from political power. That puts it too simply, I think, but there is an important kernel of truth there.

Wojtyla understood (and understands) that religion is a public reality with political implications. That is why, as John Paul II, he has spoken so often of the insidious connection between a thoroughly secularized democracy and "a thinly disguised totalitarianism" (the last phrase from his encyclical Centesimus Annus). As Guietti and Murphy put it, "The disappearance of religion is the ultimate victory of totalitarianism, a victory which is more powerful than a military conquest because it subjugates a nation from within. . . . When absolute truths, even moral and religious absolutes, are lost, then even a hierarchy of relative values is relative. Relativism consumes itself; where there are no absolutes, nothing can be said to be ‘better than,’ not even the good of the majority against a scratch on a tyrant’s finger. Someone needs to be the guardian of absolute truth, in order to save relative values and the importance of their relativity, so that the relative needs of the most powerful members of society do not become absolute by virtue of their power, but are still kept in their apparent and real relativeness."

Relativism, of course, is a danger much lamented. But the assertion of the absolute is not to displace relativity. On the contrary, by asserting the absolute, which is the role of religion, the relativity of truths that are less than absolute is protected. As in, for instance, one nation "under God." This, the translators observe, "is the meaning of Wojtyla’s antitotalitarian philosophy of freedom developed in the context of the Vatican II declaration On Human Dignity. While religion is too powerful to allow politicians to control it, the alternate of lack of religion is an illusion. Political agnosticism, the belief that the politician deals with relative things, is possible only where people kneel to something higher than political power." The alternative to political agnosticism is politics as religion, which is the error appearing in this century on both the left and the right, as in National Socialism and Communism. It is the error still perpetuated today by various movements subscribing to the maxim that the personal is the political, and vice versa. Posited against that is the free person (the acting person) in the freedom of his relationship to the absolute, which means, ultimately, in his relationship with God.

Among the most insightful discussions in Buttiglione’s book is Karol Wojtyla’s wrestling with the existentialism of the young Sartre. The earlier Sartre arrived at the point where the "I" could only be sustained in the face of nihilism (thus his famous "hell is other people"). Sartre had reached a dead-end, and many Christian thinkers at the time thought that he would have to move in the direction of religion to achieve a higher synthesis. But of course, as it turned out, Sartre sought that synthesis in Marxism. It remained for Wojtyla to take the path that Sartre rejected, moving existential personalism toward its fulfillment in Christian faith.

Guietti and Murphy put it this way: "Sartre maintains that if there is a God there cannot be freedom; therefore, since it is evident that we are free, there must be no God. Wojtyla contends that if there is a God there is freedom, and the history of this century demonstrates the factual connection between atheism and maximal oppression of freedom. Wojtyla’s anthropology of freedom is as modern as Sartre’s. For Sartre, being religious is the opposite of being free; for Wojtyla, just as for Pico della Mirandola, being religious and being free are one and the same." I assume our reviewer will concentrate on Rocco Buttiglione’s most persuasive analysis in Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became John Paul II, but the suggestive afterword by the translators is also something not to be missed in this remarkable book. For the philosophically and theologically minded, it will remain indispensable, even after we are blessed with what promises to be the definitive biography of John Paul II and history of this pontificate by George Weigel, which is scheduled for 1999.

While We’re At It