The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus
Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 82
(April 1998): 60-75.
A Tacit Admission of Defeat
As a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous, so the news is what is
declared to be news. And nobody declares with such influence as our local paper, the Times.
People who have tracked the issue over the years will find little that is new in the Times
report, but it is nonetheless significant that this is the lead story one week before the
twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The two-column headline is, "Public
Still Backs Abortion, But Wants Limits, Poll Says. A Notable Shift From General
Acceptance." It may be only a one-time shift for the Times, but it is a
notable shift in that papers reporting of the abortion story.
The Times/CBS poll shows that only 15 percent of Americans say abortion should
be permitted in the second trimester, and that falls to 7 percent support for abortion in
the last three months of pregnancy. The unlimited abortion license established by Roe
is thus supported by only 7 percent of respondents. Moreover, 50 percent say that
"abortion is the same thing as murdering a child," while 38 percent do not say
it is the same thing as murder. One-third of the 50 percent, however, say that
"abortion is sometimes the best course in a bad situation," while many of the 38
percent who are not prepared to say it is murder do think abortion is a bad thing that
should be permitted only in bad situations.
Although not particularly new, such findings have to be very painful to the Times,
which for more than thirty years (going back to the 1960s agitation for
"liberalized" abortion law) has been a relentless advocate of abortion on
demand. The spin that the Times puts on the story is fascinating. The story reports
that 80 percent of respondents support measures such as parental consent and a waiting
period for abortions, but then notes that 60 percent say that "the Government should
stay out of decisions on whether abortion should be legal." So who is going to
determine what is legal if not the government? Making the best of unwelcome news, the gist
of the Times report is another variation on the "personally opposed
but" theme. The point is that while people are personally turning against abortion
they dont want it to be a political issue; ergo, dont change the abortion
regime of Roe v. Wade.
Toward the end of the long account we read, "If advocates on both sides have made
little progress, it could be partly because of their image." This is followed by the
observation that anti-abortionists are widely viewed as extremists while abortion-rights
advocates are thought to be reasonable. The Times story is as incoherent as some of
the opinions it reportssuch as murder being the best course in bad situations. Given
the position of the Times and other extremist proponents of abortion rights over
the last three decades, it is patently false to suggest that "both sides have made
little progress." The position of the reproductive rights advocates has been
thoroughly routed in the arena of public opinion.
Remember that that position aimed at an absolute exclusion of the question of the
unborn child and an acceptance of abortion not just as a regrettable necessity but as a
liberty to be morally affirmed. The new poll asks, "Is abortion more of an issue
involving a womans ability to control her body or an issue involving the life of a
fetus?" Forty-five percent say "life of the fetus" and 44 percent say
"control of her body." Change the question to refer not to "the fetus"
but to "the unborn child" and we know from other polls that the 45 percent would
likely jump to near 70 percent. Substitute "whether the woman wants the baby"
for "a womans ability to control her body" and the disparity is even
For the pro-abortion lobby, the January 16 headline story is a tacit admission of
crushing defeat. Not that the Times editorial board or the other advocates of the
unlimited abortion right are about to give up. As is evident in their
dont-give-an-inch defense of partial-birth abortion, they will fight every step of
the way. The heartening fact is that they are now forced to admit that, despite a quarter
century of all-out effort by almost every opinion-making establishment in the country, the
American people overwhelmingly reject the idea that abortion should be permitted for any
reason (or no reason) throughout the entire course of pregnancyand, in the case of
partial-birth abortion, beyond. Support for the regime established by Roe is so low
as to approach a polls margin of error. Twenty-five years after Roe, the
moral, cultural, and political dynamic is moving, step by difficult step, toward the goal
of "every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life." The prospect of
reversing the monstrous rule of Roe is at long last within sight.
Needed: Another Black Book
Veteran ecumenist Paul Oestreicher of Coventry Cathedral in England recently suggested
that the World Council of Churches (WCC) has an obligation to examine its record during
the Cold War years. This prompted a defensive response from Konrad Raiser, General
Secretary of the WCC: "In retrospect we might have done more publicly. But we would
continue to defend without apology what we did to draw the churches of Eastern Europe into
the ecumenical movement, in full recognition of the limitations of their position, to draw
them out of isolation . . . accepting that this could only be done within certain narrowly
defined limits, but within these limits to do as much as possible." As has been amply
documented over the years, working within those "narrowly defined limits" meant
that for decades the WCC cooperated with the Communist-controlled churches of the Soviet
empire in not protesting, and frequently advancing, the political and ideological purposes
of their masters.
More specifically, the WCC routinely denied or belittled religious persecution in
Eastern Europe. When forced to acknowledge specific instances of persecution, the WCC
claimed it was working on the problem through "quiet diplomacy," and loudly
condemned public protest as anti-Communist hysteria. In almost every crucial conflict of
political or military policy between the Soviets and the Western democracies, the WCC took
the side of the Soviets. In the absence of heroism, the Eastern churches had no choice but
to serve as mouthpieces for Soviet "peace and disarmament" propaganda. The
WCCs collusion was freely chosenin some cases out of a sincere desire to keep
the Eastern churches "engaged in the ecumenical movement." In other cases, one
can only assume that the main players in the WCC agreed with the Soviet position or for
some other reason were willing to play the part of what Lenin called communisms
Among the chief experts on what happened during the Cold War are the dissidents who
have been so thoroughly vindicated. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made no secret of his contempt
for the WCC, but there is hardly a dissident alive who did not at the time view the WCC as
guilty of complicity in the oppression of his people. The WCC never wearied of its
agitation for "coexistence" with the Soviet empire, on the assumption that
communism was a permanent feature of world history. In its public statements and
literature, the WCC repeatedly put the burden of blame for the Cold War on the West,
called for "understanding" of Soviet reactions to alleged Western aggressions,
mocked the idea of "the free world," and frequently championed the moral
superiority of the measure of justice achieved by regimes such as the Soviet Union and
Maoist China. Such is the unhappy record that makes urgent Paul Oestreichers call
for a thorough accounting.
Such an accounting must be undertaken with care. The purpose must not be vindictive or
to score points against a now beleaguered institution. The goal is to learn what happened
and why, to repent of wrongs done in the sure knowledge of forgiveness, and to attain a
measure of wisdom in trying to prevent such evils in the future. The modern ecumenical
movement that began in 1910 and gave birth to the WCC, along with the WCCs notable
achievements in Faith and Order, should, as much as possible, be kept distinct from its
political and ideological role during the Cold War. In the past year, the publication of The
Black Book of Communism has caused an enormous stir in France. Many have been
compelled to reexamine their history as active supporters or apologists for an evil that
took no less than 100 million human lives. Christians should not be the last to engage in
self-examination leading to repentance and newness of life.
To be sure, evangelical Protestants and others who opposed the ecumenical movement will
be tempted to gloat over the sins of the WCC, and some will certainly not resist the
temptation, but that is an embarrassment to be borne. Dr. Raiser says he would welcome an
honest accounting and gives assurances that the archives of the WCC are open to
independent researchers. One hopes that there are responsible scholars who will take him
up on that offer. They will not have to begin from scratch. Over the last half century a
substantial literature has grown up around the WCC and its part in the Cold War. The WCC
and its defenders dismiss much of that literature as polemical, and much of it indeed is.
To be fair, there was a great deal to be polemical about. But honest criticism, although
sometimes hard to take, should not be confused with polemics.
Admittedly, some might think the needed research is a waste of time. Let the dead bury
their dead, it is said, assuming the WCC is either dead or moribund. For all its
institutional difficulties and diminished influence, I believe that assumption is wrong.
The WCC remains the principal organization linking the oldline Protestant churches of the
West with Eastern Orthodoxy. In addition, the WCC is of great importance to Protestant
communions in the poor world, especially in Africa and Asia, where the mainline
denominations are typically more vibrant and orthodox than in Europe or the U.S. We
Americans must resist the inclination to think that the free-fall of the mainline/oldline
bodies in this country is representative of the state of, for instance, Methodism,
Anglicanism, or Presbyterianism around the world.
Whatever its reduced circumstances and influence, the WCC will likely be around for a
long time and it deserves to be taken seriously. Even were it to go out of business
tomorrow, which it wont, a new generation of Christians deserves a thorough, fair,
and scrupulously honest account of an institution and a movement that represented, apart
from the Catholic Church, the most public face of world Christianity during the long
twilight years of one of the most momentous contests in human history.
Unassuming, and All Above Average
Students of American religion have been saying for a hundred years that Lutheranism is
"the sleeping giant" of American Protestantism. It has become something of a
cliché, but that does not deter Robert Benne, no stranger to these pages, from taking up
again the question of why Lutherans, of whom there are more than ten million in this
country, seem to be so underrepresented among our cultural, intellectual, and political
elites. This Benne calls "the Lake Woebegone syndrome" made famous by Garrison
Keillor, who is now himself a Lutheran.
There are exceptions to Lutheran anonymity, to be sure, such as Martin E. Marty of the
University of Chicago and Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale, as well as, according to Benne, this
scribe "in his earlier Lutheran incarnation." Of Neuhaus he writes,
"Indeed, in the field of religion and public life it is difficult to name a more
influential figure in American life." Thats going much too far, but its
nice to know one has not been disowned by his Lutheran friends (not that I ever had
occasion to worry about that). Then too, Benne notes that there is Chief Justice William
Rehnquist and national political figures such as Ernest Hollings, Paul Simon, and Edwin
Meese, but after that one really starts to reach.
Benne thinks Lutheran reticence has to do with justification by grace, from which
follows an aversion to anything flashy in the good works department. And there are other
factors: "Thus, Lutherans are not only receptive in terms of grace; they show a
similar posture in the categories of time and space. They receive with gratitude the
places they have been given. In them they express a marked
dailiness that is often unrecognized by a world that celebrates the unusual
and dramatic. It is in the ordinary times of work, play, love, and worship that the
Christian life is lived. Add together these three elementsjustification by grace,
locatedness, and dailinessand you do not have the formula for world-beaters in the
public sphere. Glory and power are not Lutheran concepts; bearing the cross is a more
likely one. Further, they do not worry overmuch about their election and signs of the
same. They are less likely to think they are glorifying God in their callings than humbly
helping their neighbor. They shun the schemes of works righteousness so heavy in some
forms of Protestantism. They dont even make the decisions for Christ
that some of our more Pelagian brothers and sisters are wont to make. Indeed, the Lutheran
tradition may tend to make them footsoldiers of the Lord rather than his generals or
colonels. Certainly, they may have a few of those elite and perhaps a few more sergeants
and lieutenants. But their piety is more fit for humbler things. They take seriously the
paradoxical nature of life on earth." In any event, Benne is not going to let the low
visibility of Lutherans keep him awake at night. "The most helpful engagement with
the public world might be through faithful husbands and wives, mothers and fathers,
workers and teachers, doctors and lawyers, volunteers, pastors, and laity. Without the
healthy small platoons that these Christians sustain, there wont be any
public life worthy of the name anyway."
A Position Not, or Not Yet, Mandated
Because of the Oklahoma City bombing and other events, there is a new debate (or a
renewed old debate) about the wisdom and morality of capital punishment. Of particular
interest are exchanges between such as John DiIulio (against) and Walter Berns (for) in
the pages of the Wall Street Journal. One of the major protagonists in the debate
writes to ask, "What is the official position of the Catholic Church on capital
punishment?" This is what I wrote him in response, and perhaps it will be of wider
"Ah yes, the official position on the death penalty. The position of
the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is resolutely opposed to its use, full stop.
But theirs is not the official position in the sense of binding doctrine. The present
state of doctrine is suggested in Evangelium Vitae, the teaching of which has been
incorporated also into the Latin text of the Catechism.
"The right of the state in justice to execute criminals is not denied. EV suggests
that the only legitimate reason to do that is if there is no other way to protect society.
In this connection, the encyclical makes no reference to retributive justice, which has
been an important part of the Catholic traditions teaching on the death penalty and
on punishment more generally. EV does not explicitly deny the claims of retributive
justice, but their absence from the argument is undoubtedly significant.
"In addition, the Holy Father is unmistakably clear in stating his judgment that,
at least in advanced societies, circumstances very seldom, if ever, justify the use of
capital punishment. The proponents of capital punishment can and do make the argument that
this is merely the Popes prudential judgment regarding contingent circumstances, and
therefore not normative teaching. They can and do contend that the death penalty is
necessary to protect society. Before EV their position was in the mainstream of
magisterial Catholic doctrine, and it is certainly a position that is still permissible
and within the bounds of the Churchs teaching.
"What we may be witnessing here is what Cardinal Newman called the development of
doctrine. The critical question, I believe, is retributive justice, and the policies that
that entails. I do not expect that question to be definitively addressed during this
pontificate, but I may be wrong about that.
"So where does all this leave us? A conscientious Catholic who supports the use of
the death penalty in anything but the most extraordinary circumstances must give due
consideration to the fact that the bishops conference, and most likely his own bishop,
strongly disagree. He must give most particular consideration to the fact that the Pope
disagrees, and may be declaring as doctrine that extraordinary
circumstances is defined as circumstances in which there is no other way to protect
society. Moreover, such a Catholic must be prepared for the possibility that the Church is
moving toward a definitive moral prohibition of capital punishment, in which case
wholehearted assent to such teaching is required.
"Can a Catholic with rightly formed conscience support the use of the death
penalty? Yes, but reluctantly and in narrowly limited cases. Can a Catholic with rightly
formed conscience support the prohibition of the death penalty? Most certainly yesas
a matter of policy and prudential judgment informed by the Churchs teaching but not,
or not yet, mandated by the Churchs teaching.
"That at least is my understanding of the state of the question. I hope this is
helpful and am following with interest the renewed debate on these matters."
Apologies on the Cheap
Paul Johnson (whose big history of the American people, just published, will be
receiving attention in these pages) has had enough. Paul Johnson specializes in having had
enough of a lot of things. And most of the time he is right. He is right, for instance,
about this growing fashion of apologizing for what people did in the past. I gather that
President Clinton has dropped the idea of an official apology for American slavery, and a
good thing, too. People who did bad things should apologize, and sometimes they do.
"By contrast," writes Johnson, "the modern fashion has not one iota of
genuine sincerity in it." "These are bogus apologies by people who had nothing
to do with the events deplored and lose nothing by saying they were wrong. They are an
attempt to gain moral kudos at the expense of the long dead."
Nor does Johnson approve of some of the moral judgments being made. "The Spanish
Church is said to be pondering an apology for supporting Franco during the civil war. As
Paul Claudel pointed out in a famous poem, the Spanish Reds, under Stalins orders,
murdered and tortured to death twelve thousand priests, monks, and nuns, as well as
burning down hundreds of churches, long before Franco came on the scene. It was his
arrival which prevented the churchs total destruction. It was not only right, it was
imperative that it support him, quite apart from the fact that he kept Spain out of the
war, gave it forty years of peace and a middle class, and laid the foundations of its
If, on the other hand, judgments are to be made, Johnson has some nominations of his
own. For instance, he fondly hopes the French will get around to apologizing for Napoleon,
who was responsible for the deaths of two to four million people, "which, granted the
smaller population of those days, puts him right in the Hitler-Stalin-Mao league as a mass
killer." But, in general, Johnson is against the surrogate confession business
altogether. "There is something repellent, as well as profoundly unhistorical, about
judging the past by the standards or prejudices of another age. Let the dead bury the
dead. Or at least let us not dig them up."
One hates to dash cold water on Mr. Johnsons fine polemic, but he goes a blast
too far when he says John Paul II is implicated in the trend he deplores. "It is a
pity," he writes, "that the Pope, whom in most respects I revere, is taking part
in this charade." He mentions the Popes apologies on anti-Semitism and the
Galileo unpleasantness, and is worried about a rumor that an apology for the St.
Bartholomew Day massacre is under consideration. "Why cant he leave this to the
Guises and the Valois, if their descendants are still around?" asks Johnson. "It
is none of his business." Then, succeeding in his effort to be outrageous, he adds,
"Anyway, there are some of us who believe that massacres of Protestants are not
necessarily, or always, a Bad Thing."
But sins committed by Christians is very much the business of the Pope. It
is the business of all Christians. As Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out in these
pages (see "Contrition in the Age of Spin
Control," FT, November 1997), there is a real danger that others will
unfairly exploit the confession of Christian sins. And Jean Duchesne (see "Letter from Paris," FT,
February 1998) has noted that Catholic bishops in France confess the sins
of Catholics during the Vichy era to God, not to those who demand that the Church
apologize, although the confession is made in their hearing. Johnsons
problem is in confusing the Church with secular institutions such as the nation-state.
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente and elsewhere, John Paul II is saying
that the Church must cross the threshold of the millennium on her knees if she
is to walk upright in the next century. Christianity is a corporate thing. In
the Church, the dead are not dead; in Christ we live in communion with all who
are in Christpast, present, and future. We are implicated in the weakness
of the sinners as, happily, we are implicated in the holiness of the saints.
St. Paul writes, "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is
honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of
it" (1 Corinthians 12:26-27). The Christian cannot say "I" without saying
"we." One of the most compelling prayers of the Mass is spoken by the priest
immediately before the Sign of Peace: "Look not on our sins but on the faith of your
Church." While the Church eschatologically understood as the Bride of Christ is
sinless, it is composed of sinners. We confess the sins of the sinners, beginning with our
own, as we invoke the virtues of the saints, knowing that we are all, by Gods grace,
sinners forgiven. The grace of forgiveness is the nub of the difference between what the
Pope is saying and what is being said by those who "attempt to gain moral kudos at
the expense of the long dead."
In both instances there is an assumption that we today view some things as wrong that
were not viewed in the same way by those who went before us. Any temptation to think that
this makes us morally superior people should be checked by the awareness that they clearly
understood to be wrong much that is today approved or viewed with indifference. On one
side of the ledger are items such as racial segregation and anti-Semitism; on the other
are items such as abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and irreligion. But the fact that
there are both advances and regressions in moral understanding is not the main problem
with Paul Johnsons essay.
What Mr. Johnson is rightly protesting is the sacralization of politics, a subject on
which he has written intelligently in the past. The state or nation commits the fallacy of
misplaced ecclesiology, pretending to be a corporate person comparable to the Church.
Unlike the Church, presidents and other public figures have neither the competence to
judge nor to absolve. Unlike the statements of the Pope, their confession of the sins of
others is a "charade" thinly disguising an assertion of moral superiority. A
nation and state can deal with crime and clemency. Sin and forgiveness are the business of
the Church. It is a distinction that ought not to be lost on someone ordinarily as astute
as Paul Johnson.
I dont think Ive ever run an entire piece from another publication, but
this is no ordinary piece. The following editorial in the January 26 issue of National
Review, reprinted with permission, bids fair to become a classic in the literature of a
dispute that, more than any other, will determine the fortunes of the American experiment.
See if you dont agree.
A quarter century has passed since the Supreme Court struck down the laws of every
state in the nation, in the name of a constitutional right to abortion it had just
discovered. In Roe v. Wade, the Court prohibited any regulation of abortion in the
first trimester, allowed only regulations pertaining to the health of the mother in the
second, and mandated that any regulation in the third make an exception for maternal
health. In the companion case of Doe v. Bolton, the Court insisted on the broadest
definition of healtheconomic, familial, emotional. Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon
describes the result as the most radical pro-abortion policy in the democratic world. It
permits abortion at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason or for no reason. It has
licensed the killing of some thirty-five million members of the human family so far.
The abortion regime was born in lies. In Britain (and in California, pre-Roe),
the abortion lobby deceptively promoted legal revisions to allow "therapeutic"
abortions and then defined every abortion as "therapeutic." The abortion lobby
lied about Jane Roe, claiming her pregnancy resulted from a gang rape. It lied about the
number of back-alley abortions. Justice Blackmun relied on fictitious history to argue, in
Roe, that abortion had never been a common law crime.
The abortion regime is also sustained by lies. Its supporters constantly lie about the
radicalism of Roe: even now, most Americans who "agree with Roe v. Wade"
in polls think that it left third-term abortions illegal and restricted second-term
abortions. They have lied about the frequency and "medical necessity" of
partial-birth abortion. Then there are the euphemisms: "terminating a
pregnancy," abortion "providers," "products of conception."
"The fetus is only a potential human being"as if it might as easily become
an elk. "It should be between a woman and her doctor"the latter an
abortionist who has never met the woman before and who has a financial interest in her
decision. This movement cannot speak the truth.
Roes supporters said at the time that the widespread availability of
abortion would lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies, hence less child abuse; it has not.
They said that fewer women would die from back-alley abortions; the post-1940s decline in
the number of women who died from abortions, the result of antibiotics, actually slowed
after Roeprobably because the total number of abortions rose. They said it
would reduce illegitimacy and child poverty, predictions that now seem like grim jokes.
Pro-lifers were, alas, more prescient. They claimed the West had started down the
slippery slope of a progressive devaluation of human life. After the unborn would come the
elderly and the infirmmore burdens to others; more obstacles to others goals;
probably better off dead, like "unwanted children." And so now we are debating
whether to allow euthanasia, whether to create embryos for experimental purposes, whether
to permit the killing of infants about to leave the womb.
And what greater claim on our protection, after all, does that infant have a moment after
birth? He still lacks the attributes of "personhood"rationality, autonomy,
rich interactionsthat pro-abortion philosophers consider the preconditions of a
right to life. The argument boils down to this assertion: If we want to eliminate you and
you cannot stop us, we are justified in doing it. Might makes right. Among intellectuals,
infanticide is in the first phase of a movement from the unthinkable to the arguable to
the debatable to the acceptable.
Everything abortion touches, it corrupts. It has corrupted family life. In the war
between the sexes, abortion tilts the playing field toward predatory males, giving them
another excuse for abandoning their offspring: She chose to carry the child; let her pay
for her choice. Our law now says, in effect, that fatherhood has no meaning, and we are
shocked that some men have learned that lesson too well. It has corrupted the Supreme
Court, which has protected the abortion license even while tacitly admitting its lack of
constitutional grounding. If the courts can invent such a right, unmoored in the text,
tradition, or logic of the Constitution, then they can do almost anything; and so they
have done. The law on everything from free speech to biotechnology has been distorted to
accommodate abortionism. And abortion has deeply corrupted the practice of medicine,
transforming healers into killers.
Most of all, perhaps, it has corrupted liberalism. For all its flaws, liberalism could
until the early seventies claim a proud history of standing up for the powerless and
downtrodden, of expanding the definition of the community for whom we pledge protection,
of resisting the idea that might makes right. The Democratic Party has casually abandoned
that legacy. Liberals commitment to civil rights, it turns out, ends when the
constituency in question can offer neither votes nor revenues.
Abortion-on-demand has, however, also called into being in America a pro-life movement
comprising millions of ordinary citizens. Their largely unsung efforts to help pregnant
women in distress have prevented countless abortions. And their political witness has
helped maintain a pro-life ethic that has stopped millions more. The conversions of
conscience have almost all been to the pro-life sideBernard Nathanson, Nat Hentoff,
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. The conversions of convenience have mostly gone the other way,
mainly, politicians who wanted to get ahead in the Democratic PartyJesse Jackson,
Dick Gephardt. The fight against abortion has resulted in unprecedented dialogue and
cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, first on moral values and now on
theological ones. It has helped transform the Republican Party from a preserve of elite
WASPs into a populist and conservative party.
True, few politicians of either partywith honorable exceptions like Henry Hyde,
Chris Smith, Jesse Helms, Bob Casey, Charles Canady, and Rick Santorumhave provided
leadership in the struggle. Not because opposition to abortion is
unpopularthroughout the Roe era, 70 percent of the public has supported laws
that would prohibit 90 percent of abortionsbut because politicians, and even more
the consultants and journalists and big-money donors to whom they listen, tend to move in
elite circles where accepting abortion is de rigueur and pro-life advocacy at best an
offense against good taste. Since everyone they know favors legal abortion, they
understandably conclude that everyone does. But there is progress even here. The
pro-abortion intellectual front is crumbling. Supporters of the license increasingly
concede that what they support is, indeed, the taking of human life. Pro-lifers, their
convictions rooted in firmer soil, have not had to make reciprocal concessions.
There can be little doubt that, left to the normal workings of democracy, abortion laws
would generally be protective of infants in the womb. The main obstacle on our path to a
society where every child is welcomed in life and protected in law, then, remains what it
has always been: the Supreme Court. There abortionism is well entrenched; and last year
the Court appeared to slam the door on the legal possibility of a congressional override
of its decisions on abortion or anything else. By defining a practice at odds with our
deep and settled moral convictions as part of the fundamental law of the land, the Supreme
Court has created a slow-motion constitutional crisis. This is what comes of courting
While Were At It
- The President showed up, as did the chairman of the Federal Reserve. A very dapper Rev.
Jesse Jackson, in his best vested pinstripes, told Alan Greenspan he appreciated his
coming to the party. "You raised my stock, thank you very much." That is not all
that was raised. Two brokerage firms gave Mr. Jacksons privately held company,
Rainbow/PUSH, $400,000 to pay for the two-day bash on Wall Street, the ostensible purpose
of which was to promote minority hiring in the financial world. There was, in addition, a
dinner for 450 on the floor of the stock exchange with a charge of $500 per head and
entertainment by singer Roberta Flack. The next day was a lunch at $350 per guest. Asked
what the conference had achieved, Mr. Jackson alluded to the history of slavery: "For
250 years blacks were listed as commodities. There are these definable, quantifiable gaps
in our economy. The investment gap, the education gap, and the trade gap in our economy.
Wall Street stands to gain if it closes the gap." Meanwhile, both Wall Street and Mr.
Jackson do handsomely from the unclosed gap. In return for what is merely money, the
business culture of cool is supplied with sumptuous entertainment delicately seasoned with
a hint of demand for social justice. It all comes down to supply and demand, with Mr.
Jackson supplying the demand for public certification that Wall Street has a conscience,
however undemanding. And to think that there are those who doubt the infinite creativity
- Like many students of Hans Urs von Balthasar, I have never been able to quite understand
his devotion to the thought of Adrienne von Speyr, a friend and mystic to whom he declared
himself so greatly indebted. At times he went so far as to say that the greatest part of
his own work is simply an inadequate attempt to give theological expression to her
insights. What she published on her own is interesting but, frankly, does not seem that
remarkable. An exception is the forty-page appendix to Balthasars book Our Task (Ignatius),
in which he explains their collaboration and the secular institute that they founded
together. The appendix is Balthasars record of her vision of a visit to heaven in
which she came to understand the relationship between Christ and Scripture. "He does
not want to have his life at his own disposal. It was in the will of the Father that he
lived his life; it was the Fathers will that in his life he revealed; and it was
according to the Fathers will that he let himself be resurrected. So he does not
want to be in charge of his life now, like someone who has had some experience and
constantly talks about it. No, it is part of his perfect self-giving that he continues to
be given in heaven, in the sense that he entrusts the story of his self-giving to the
Spirit. It is entrusted to the Spirit, who henceforth does not work on his own but with
the cooperation of Christians. The Spirit has been received by them, with them he blows,
and through them he wants to waft through the whole world. The Scriptures contain no
retractions on the part of the Son. The Son does not say, It was different from
this, more could be said about it, or No human being will ever know what I
went through in the temptations, or I could have told the whole story better
myself, and so on. No, it is an essential part of the Spirits role in the
redemption of the world that this portrayal and exposition and inspiration are his
work." That is a heavy-duty reflection. It strikes me as having the additional merit
of being true. Of course it means that Jesus does not need Norman Mailer to help him tell
the story as it really happened. More important, it suggests that there is something
fundamentally misguided in biblical scholarship that tries to "get behind" the
scriptural account and its reception by the Spirit-guided community of faith. I cannot say
that Adrienne von Speyr received this insight while on a visit to heaven. God and Adrienne
von Speyerand now, I would like to think, Balthasarknow whether that is the
case. But it is an insight very much worth pondering, as is the entire appendix to Our
- Preparing Sunday Without the Eucharist is a new title from the Liturgical Press.
In places where there is no priest to say Mass, the booklet will "help preparation
teams prepare fulfilling celebrations." Uh huh. Contra those who exaggerate the
"priest shortage," often in the service of advocating married and women priests,
there are relatively few places in the U.S. where Mass is no longer said for want of a
priest. Almost everywhere the problem can be overcome by driving a distance comparable to
driving to the mall. It is to be feared that Sundays without Mass are favored by people
who like to make up their own rituals, and by those more attached to their place of
meeting than to the One who meets us in the Eucharist. The need for fulfilling
noncelebrations is virtually nonexistent.
- I gather that versions of the following have been zipping around the Internet for some
time now. For the edification of our readers, the editors submit this synthesis of several
versions. Inevitably, this will inspire further variations. We may consider publication of
the most inspired.
"Why did the chicken cross the road?"
Generic: To get to the other side.
Plato: For the greater good.
Karl Marx: It was a historical inevitability.
Tomás de Torquemada: Give me ten minutes with the chicken and Ill find
Timothy Leary: Because thats the only kind of trip the Establishment would
let it take.
Nietzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the Road, the Road gazes also
Oliver North: National Security was at stake.
Carl Jung: The confluence of events in the cultural gestalt necessitated that
individual chickens cross roads at this historical juncture, and therefore
synchronicitously brought such occurrences into being.
Jean-Paul Sartre: In order to act in good faith and be true to itself, the
chicken found it necessary to cross the road.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The possibility of "crossing" was encoded into
the objects "chicken" and "road," and circumstances came into being
which caused the actualization of this potential occurrence.
Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road crossed the
chicken depends upon your frame of reference.
Aristotle: To actualize its potential.
Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken-nature.
Salvador Dali: The Fish.
Darwin: It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees.
Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death.
Epicurus: For fun.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didnt cross the road; it transcended it.
Johann Friedrich von Goethe: The eternal hen-principle made it do it.
Ernest Hemingway: To die. In the rain.
Werner Heisenberg: We are not sure which side of the road the chicken was on,
but it was moving very fast.
David Hume: Out of custom and habit.
Saddam Hussein: This was an unprovoked act of rebellion and we were quite
justified in dropping fifty tons of nerve gas on it.
Jack Nicholson: Cause it @#%&* wanted to. Thats the @#%&*
Pyrrho the Skeptic: What road?
The Sphinx: You tell me.
Sappho: Due to the loveliness of the hen on the other side, more fair than all
of Hellas fine armies.
Henry David Thoreau: To live deliberately . . . and suck all the marrow out of
Hippocrates: Because of an excess of phlegm in its pancreas.
Machiavelli: So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken
which has the daring and courage to cross the road boldly, but also with fear, for who
among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a
manner is the princely chickens dominion maintained.
McKinsey Consultant: Deregulation of the chickens side of the road was
threatening its dominant market position. The chicken was faced with significant
challenges to create and develop the competencies required for the newly competitive
market. McKinsey, in a partnering relationship with the client, helped the chicken by
rethinking its physical distribution strategy and implementation processes. Using the
Poultry Integration Model (PIM), McKinsey helped the chicken use its skills,
methodologies, knowledge, capital, and experiences to align the chickens people,
processes, and technology in support of its overall strategy within a Program Management
framework. McKinsey convened a diverse cross-spectrum of road analysts and best chickens
along with McKinsey consultants with deep skills in the transportation industry to engage
in a two-day itinerary of meetings in order to leverage their personal knowledge capital,
both tacit and explicit, and to enable them to synergize with each other in order to
achieve the implicit goals of delivering and successfully architecting and implementing an
enterprise-wide value framework across the continuum of poultry cross-median processes.
The meeting was held in a park-like setting, enabling and creating an impactful
environment which was strategically based, industry-focused, and built upon a consistent,
clear, and unified market message and aligned with the chickens mission, vision, and
core values. This was conducive towards the creation of a total business integration
solution. McKinsey helped the chicken change to become more successful.
- There is so much money and bother to be saved. For instance, Forum Letter (Lutheran)
notes that two seminaries recently offered a continuing education course that promised to
explore "subjects such as understanding the relationship between racism, sexism, and
heterosexism." Editor Russ Saltzman comments: "Thats a no-brainer. Who
wouldnt understand the relationship? All sexist racists are heterosexuals. Easy,
wasnt it? And think of the money we saved on tuition, travel, registration, and
ideologically mandated mental adjustments." Obviously, Pastor Saltzman does not
appreciate the havoc that would be inflicted on contemporary seminary education by such
reckless application of Dr. Johnsons advice to clear the mind of cant.
- Canadians are very nice. That proposition meets with almost universal agreement, and
Canadians are typically nice enough to ignore the slight hint of condescension that
accompanies it. This is a question taken up by Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical
Experience (McGill-Queens University Press, 1997) which is reviewed by Preston
Jones. Evangelical Protestants in Canada tend to maintain a low profile, and one reason
for that is that they dont want to come across as "Americans." Those
American evangelicals are so awfully aggressive, individualistic, and rowdy, and the
Canadians are determined that evangelicalism there not be viewed as an American export. On
all this Preston offers an astute observation: "A tough dilemma indeed; a dilemma I
wont pursue any further except to raise this point: American evangelicals have been
rightly criticized for acting as though American individualism is the stuff of Christian
orthodoxy. What Canadas evangelical intellectuals might do well to consider is if
their own community of faith has comparably misconstrued Canadian conformism as a
- A billion here and a billion there, as the late Senator Dirksen said, and pretty soon
youre talking real money. If Ted Turner ever coughs up the billion dollars he so
grandiosely pledged, that might soon be the case also with the United Nations, but for the
moment its a million here and a million there. General Karl Paschke, a Germany
foreign service officer, has the thankless task of heading up the anti-corruption office
at the UN. Questionable expenditures in catering, food purchases, and air charter
services, plus the widespread putting of no-show relatives in posh jobs, are widespread
practices, and the general acknowledges that his office is able to cope with only a
fraction of the monetary infractions, but he is pleased to report that last year he was
able to recoup $30 million, which may send the message that there are, after all, some
limits to what the organization will tolerate. In addition, there are too many instances
of sexual abuse and violence, but such problems do not lend themselves to easy definition.
The report said, "In the multicultural environment of the United Nations, beliefs and
practices often clash, and officials are wary of wading into cases in areas murkier than
stealing money." Multiculturalists are in a bind. They cant very well claim the
UN is a school for the forging of a universal ethic, but neither do they want to take the
public position that embezzlement, rape, and nepotism is a small price to pay for the
multicultural world they champion. Apparently General Paschke is of the old school, but
for the foreseeable future his office is not prepared to go any further than suggesting,
with due respect for the culturally constructed ethics of "the other," that it
really is not appropriate, as they say, to steal money. Dont knock it. Its a
- On any list of really great books on American history, one must put Eugene
Genoveses Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974). Genovese was
a hard-core Marxist who stuck with that quasi-religion until the bitter end. In an essay,
"The Question," in the 1994 issue of the leftist Dissent, it was evident
that the break was coming. There he wrote: "No one should be surprised that none of
our leading historical associations have thought it intellectually challenging to devote
sessions at their enormous annual meetings to frank discussions of the socialist debacle.
. . . The pezzonovanti of our profession have more important things on their minds.
When they can take time away from their primary concern (the distribution of jobs, prizes,
and other forms of patronage), they are immersed in grave condemnations of the appalling
violations of human rights by Christopher Columbus. I know that it is in bad taste to
laugh, but I laugh anyway. I would rather be judged boorish than be seen throwing up. Our
whole project of human liberation has rested on a series of gigantic
illusions. The catastrophic consequences of our failure during this centurynot
merely the body count but the monotonous recurrence of despotism and wanton
crueltycannot be dismissed as aberrations. Slimmed down to a technologically
appropriate scale, they have followed in the wake of victories by radical egalitarian
movements throughout history. We have yet to answer our right-wing critics claims,
which are regrettably well documented, that throughout history from ancient times to the
peasant wars of the sixteenth century to the Reign of Terror and beyond, social movements
that have espoused radical egalitarianism and participatory democracy have begun with mass
murder and ended in despotism." In 1995, his scholar wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,
entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, and shortly thereafter Eugene
Genovese, who had left the Church at age fifteen, returned home.
- "Francis Schaeffer represents that part of evangelical Christianity that has always
been ill at ease with the world in which it finds itself. One can no more imagine Francis
Schaeffer playing golf with the high and mighty than one can imagine Mother Teresa
shopping for furs in I. Magnin." Thats from an issue of Christianity Today featuring
"Our Saint Francis." Fourteen years after his death, the influence of Schaeffer
through the "graduates" of his LAbri ("The Shelter") community
in Switzerland seems to be flourishing everywhere. Many thought his son Frank would be
heir to the ministry, but he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy some years ago, and seems to
have turned very bitter toward his fathers legacy. Nonetheless, the work continues.
A while back I lectured at the Schaeffer Institute that is attached to Covenant Seminary
(Presbyterian Church of America) in St. Louis. It was a long-delayed occasion to pay
public tribute to Schaeffer. He was in many ways an autodidact, with some of the
intellectual eccentricities that come with that, but for a generation of evangelical
Protestants he championed the redemption of the mind as well as the heart. In this cause,
his influence among evangelicals is probably second only to C. S. Lewis. Through his films
and lectures, Schaeffer dramatically posed the question of what was becoming of the human
race and almost single-handedly alerted evangelicals to the significance of the abortion
debate. He did not use the language of John Paul II about "the culture of death"
versus "the culture of life," but that was the gist of his message, and his
effective delivery of that message was a critical factor in bringing about the
ever-growing alliance between evangelicals and Catholics in the great cultural tasks of
our time. As our evangelical friends do not usually say, Requiescat in pace.
- Whatever is going to happen to the Catholic Church when it runs out of priests? The
answer, according to Robert G. Kennedy, professor of management at the University of St.
Thomas in Minnesota, is that the "priest shortage" is greatly exaggerated. The
absolute number of priests in the U.S. peaked in 1966 at about 60,000, compared with
48,100 today, but the more important figure is the number of priests relative to the
Catholic population. In 1966 there were 780 Catholics per priest, today there are 1,272
per priest. The perceived priest shortage is in large part a result of the enormous growth
in the number of Catholics. In 1966 there were many times more seminarians, but that was
under an older seminary structure when the great majority dropped out before ordination.
Plus, many who were ordained left active ministry after a few years. The
"defection" rate twenty-five years ago was more than three times what it is
today. Although data from back then are somewhat shaky, Kennedy thinks the number of
Catholics per priest in 1900 was about the same as today. Although there are signs that
the number of ordinations are now on the increase, in order to reduce significantly the
number of Catholics per priest over the next decade, there would need to be three times
the number of ordinations there are at present. The chief reason for that is not the
declining number of priests but the increasing number of Catholics. Much of the slack has
been taken up in recent years by the ordination of more than twelve thousand permanent
deacons, so that the number of clergy (priests and deacons) is now higher than it was in
1966. Kennedy ends on this hopeful note: "Moved by concern over the declining number
of priests, people often wonder what is to become of the Church. The answer may be that it
is becoming more like the Church envisioned by [the Second Vatican Council], a Church less
directly dependent upon priests to do its work but more strongly animated by their
leadership." At the same time, he recognizes the obvious: "We may never really
have enough priests for everything we might find worth doing."
- There is a letterhead organization that is given millions of dollars by big foundations
such as Ford and Rockefeller to do only one thing, attack the Catholic Church for its
teaching on human sexuality. If letterhead organizations can have subsidiaries, a
subsidiary of Catholics for a Free Choice is Catholics for Contraception. In the name of
the latter a big ad appears on the op-ed page of the New York Times criticizing the
bishops opposition to the Clinton Administrations promotion of abortion and
contraception in foreign aid programs. The ad features the picture of a bishops
mitre under the heading, "Worn correctly, it can prevent unintended pregnancy, AIDS,
and abortion." The depiction of a bishops mitre as a condom is typical of the
meretricious tactics of Catholics for a Free Choice. I wish I could say it is a new low
for the New York Times.
- From across the political spectrum comes high praise for a 136-minute video,
Waco: The Rules of Engagement. The documentary is very deliberately
low key, and all the more disturbing as a consequence. The 1993 killing of
the eighty-six men, women, and children at Waco must be indelibly imprinted
upon the national memory. Some would dismiss the event as a bizarre aberration,
and there were no doubt elements of the bizarre and aberrant. But in a larger
sense, Waco was a moment of truth, revealing, admittedly in an extreme form,
the consequences of a pervasively perverse understanding of government power
and religious freedom. The most accurate and accessible account of the Waco
tragedy is still Dean Kelleys "Waco: A Tragedy and Its Aftermath"
(FT, May 1995). But I warmly
recommend for personal viewing and group discussions Waco: The Rules of
Engagement, which is available for $25 from Somford Entertainment, 8778
Sunset Blvd., 2nd floor, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
- The Supreme Court let stand a ruling of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that a
person can be fired for incorrect views on homosexuality. The Rev. Eugene Lumpkin was
fired from the San Francisco human rights commission when he refused to retract this
statement made in an interview: "Its sad that people have AIDS and what have
you, but it says right here in the Scripture that the homosexual lifestyle is an
abomination against God." Lumpkin sued, claiming that "The right to religious
belief and profession is absolute." The Circuit Court disagreed, saying he had a
right to state his views but that the First Amendment does not "assure him job
security when he preached homophobia while serving as a city official." Apparently
the judgment would be the same were he a Catholic who publicly affirmed the Churchs
position that homosexual desire is "objectively disordered." Writers in these
pages such as Hadley Arkes of Amherst have been criticized for suggesting that the day is
coming when serious Christians and Jews who do not conform to court-imposed opinions will
be excluded from public and private employment. It is happening.
- "Brazil: A Gracious People in a Heartless System" is a new mission study
published by the National Council of Churches. It attributes Brazils miseries to
"the world capitalist system" and urges the liberating embrace of animist cults
derived from Africa and of "ecclesial base communities" devoted to revolutionary
change. The Christian gospel proclaimed in Brazils churches is, the study
reproachfully notes, a "foreign import." Indeed it is that for all of us, except
for the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land.
- If you think we have problems in the U.S., spend some time in Canada. At least
thats the view of Iain Benson, who heads up the Centre for Renewal in Public Policy.
(I believe it was David Frum who said that Canada is to American liberalism what Cuba is
to the American automobile industrya place where ideas are kept running decades
after they should have been scrapped.) Benson notes that the "Peoples Republic
of British Columbia" recently rammed through a marriage law that changes the
definition of "spouse" to include same-sex couples, and he looks enviously
toward Hawaii, "where they still have a functioning (if chaotic) democracy" and
the people will get a chance to vote on a similar change later this year. The center is
producing some first-rate materials on education, family policy, and religion in public.
You might want to check them out by writing Mr. Benson at the Centre for Renewal in Public
Policy, 130 Albert St., Suite 510, Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5G4.
- The question was whether homosexual couples could hold "commitment services"
in the chapels of Emory University, a school connected with the United Methodist Church.
(Some years ago, a president of Emory said, "I can get away with calling Emory a
Methodist university, but all hell would break loose if I said it was a Christian
university.") After "four months of prayer, discussion, and research" (it
says here), the answer is yes, but only if an ordained campus minister from one of the
schools approved twenty-four religious groups presides at the ceremony. At present
only the Reform Jewish and United Church of Christ chaplains allow such same-sex
ceremonies. So after months of study and soul-searching the trustees of Emory have made a
clear moral judgment: Same-sex commitment ceremonies without the benefit of
university-certified clergy are wrong. Who says were losing our grip on moral
- He was a nominal Catholic and she a nominal Jew. After the divorce, she turned toward
Orthodoxy and he joined up with an evangelical Protestant church. She is trying to raise
their ten-year-old daughter Jewishly but on his weekends he takes the girl to Sunday
School. She brought suit and the State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ordered
him to cease and desist. The conflict between the parents religious commitments is
an excessive burden on the child, the court ruled. The denial of the fathers and the
childs free exercise of religion is not an inconsiderable matter, but some obviously
think it a reasonable price to pay for judicial rescue from the messiness of life.
Attorneys are pondering an appeal.
- The defeat and marginalization of American fundamentalism during the 1920sthe
presumed end of fundamentalism is most indelibly imprinted in our cultural chronicles by
the debacle of the Scopes trialis taken for granted by almost all scholars of
American history. In recent years the standard account has been usefully complexified by
writers such as George Marsden, and that revisionism is now strengthened by Joel
Carpenters Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford
University Press). An essential part of that revival was the rediscovery of the missionary
imperative during the 1920s and 1930s, a rediscovery later intensified by the experience
of World War II. This is an aspect of evangelical-fundamentalist history that seems to
have been ignored. Carpenter writes: "Especially for North American evangelicals, the
triumph of the Allied forces arrayed around the world excited the missionary imagination,
and so did the technological mastery that made these operations possible. Furthermore, the
experience of tens of thousands of born-again soldiers and sailors, trained and
transported at government expense to serve in faraway lands, led them quite naturally to a
greater missions awareness. And thanks to veterans educational benefits and the
abundance of surplus war goods, government spending provided additional support for a
missions surge." We will be giving more attention to Revive Us Again in these
pages. It is a book that should not be missed by those who want to understand our
contemporary religious situation, which has been shaped and is being shaped in large part
by the creative evangelical use of a culture based on a market economy that lends itself
to the success of para-church enthusiasms that work around, and frequently against, the
denominational structures that were once the bulwark of American Protestantism.
- So it turns out that Forrest Carter, author of the best-selling The Education of
Little Tree, was really Asa Carter, segregationist, Ku Kluxer, and speechwriter for
former Gov. George Wallace. This is something of an embarrassment to Hollywood, which has
just turned the book into a movie. Little Tree, one gathers, is an exquisitely
correct story about the superiority of Cherokee ways in contrast to our stiflingly
oppressive society. Richard Friedenberg, the director, says the late Mr. Carter has more
than made amends for the sins of his earlier life. He notes that the story deals
"with the strength of the family and not necessarily with traditional families."
In addition, "the handful of blacks and Jews in Carters books are depicted
sympathetically." "The bad guys are, almost without fail, rich whites,
politicians, and phony preachers," says Friedenberg. So lay off this Carter guy; he
was clearly on the side of the angels.
- Actress Susan Sarandon won an Oscar, and fifteen years ago she won an alumni achievement
award from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She has given the second
award back because CUA declined to give an alumni award to her friend, the actor-director
Joseph Sicari. The university cited the fact that Sicari is a founding member of Act-Up,
the homosexual activist group that, among other things, trashed a Mass at St.
Patricks Cathedral in New York. Ever alert to the freedoms on which this great
republic is founded, Sicari accused the school of conducting "a Catholic witch
hunt," according to the Washington Post. Returning her award, Sarandon told
the university, "If you are following the tenets of the Catholic Church, you should
have mine back, too." During her years there as a student, it apparently had not been
brought to her attention that an institution named Catholic University might have some
connection with the tenets of the Catholic Church. Or perhaps her comments simply reflect
a Hollywood mindset that cannot distinguish between a witch hunt and strong disapproval of
the disruption of divine services. To that mental incapacity Catholics used to more
commonly apply the marvelously apt term, invincible ignorance.
- William Kristol and Robert Kagan can take great satisfaction from the lively response to
the debate they launched in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article, "Toward a
Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." In contending for a new vision of American greatness,
they criticized, inter alia, John Quincy Adams caution that America ought not
"go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Why not? they asked. "The
alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their
hearts content, as Americans stand by and watch." Walter McDougall, editor of
the foreign policy journal Orbis, is not buying. Writing in a newsletter of the
Foreign Policy Research Institute, McDougall says: "I cannot let any slap at John
Quincy Adams go unavenged. Why not? ask the authors rhetorically. Heres
why not: because if you go abroad in search of monsters, you will invariably find
them even if you have to create them. You will then fight them, whether or not you need
to, and you will either come home defeated, or else so bloodied that the American people
will lose their tolerance for engagement altogether, or else so victorious and full of
yourself that the rest of the world will hate you and fear that youll name them the
next monster. And by the way, was it not Ronald Reagan who reminded America in such moving
cadences of its calling to be an exemplary City on a Hill? Kristol and Kagan also fail to
quote the sentences that immediately follow Adams go not abroad in search of
monsters. The reason not to is that to do so would involve the United States
beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, avarice, envy,
and ambition. . . . America might become the dictatress of the world, but she would no
longer be the ruler of her own spirit. The road to hell, that is, is paved with good
intentions, as we Vietnam veterans know. I bear no grudge against Kristol or Kagan. I even
agree with them that the U.S. must play a leading role in the world, affirm its values
without apology, and recommend them to all mankind. But I believe that the American people
and Congress are already, to their credit, on board for an engaged foreign policy, that
the quarter of a trillion dollars in our annual Pentagon budget is no trifling sum, and
that premature, imprudent crusades are the best way to play into the hands of real
isolationists. Above all, I fear that the sins of commission that excessive
zeal may provoke are more dangerous in our present era than any sins of omission borne of
- Reviewing Steven Pinkers How the Mind Works, Daniel Robinson of Georgetown
finds wisdom in Matthew Arnolds response to Darwins claim that our ancestor
was "a hairy quadruped, with pointed ears and a tail, probably arboreal in his
habits." Possibly true, said Arnold, but "there must have been something in him
that inclined him to Greek."
- No rest for the wicked. The ACLU is ever busy in its effort to turn the public square
into a religion-free zone. Suit has been filed against the city of Stow, Ohio, because the
city seal depicts a Bible and a cross. And against the State of Ohio for its motto
"With God All Things Are Possible." The ACLU says the phrase is "distinctly
religious in meaning and philosophy and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of
the U.S. Constitution and Article 1 of the Ohio Constitution." For many years extreme
strict separationists said they were willing to put up with things such as "In God We
Trust" on our coins, or "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of
Allegiance. Going after such vestiges of religion would cause too much of a political
ruckus, and, anyway, nobody really thinks they represent serious statements of religious
belief. But now that seems to be changing. Perhaps because the ACLU perceives that many
people do take such symbols seriously, or perhaps because it is more confident of winning
in the courts.
- The headline is somewhat misleading, "Canada Church Leader Admits Doubts."
Actually, it seems that the Rev. Bill Phipps, elected last August as Moderator of the
United Church of Canada, is a devout traditionalist of a tradition that has almost reached
its well-deserved extinction. Nonetheless, he disturbed some of the Christians in the UCC
by announcing in a newspaper interview, "I dont believe Christ was God."
Jesus, he opines, is a "window to God." Like Rudolf Bultmann of mixed memory, it
appears that Mr. Phipps came across an electric light switch and therefore concluded that
Jesus did not actually rise from the dead "but had a profound spiritual impact upon
his followers and for centuries since." According to the AP story, his remarks met
with considerable opposition in some quarters but were welcomed by "lapsed Christians
and followers of other faiths who welcome Phipps views as an opportunity to
reconsider Christs significance in an increasingly multicultural society."
Phipps, who is an anti-poverty lawyer and proponent of the "social gospel," does
not claim to be a theologian but thinks the controversy a very good thing. "Im
willing to bet that in Canada there will be more talk about who Jesus is than for many
decades. I think thats wonderful," he declared. The UCC began in the 1920s as a
merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Some more Presbyterian
Presbyterians did not go along, and it is common to find separate Presbyterian churches in
Canadian towns. Since its founding, the UCC is proud of being in the avant garde, having
first ordained women in 1936 and deciding in 1988 that homosexuality is no impediment to
ordination to its ministry. The Rev. Peter Wyatt is the guardian of doctrine, so to speak,
for the UCC, being secretary of theology, faith, and ecumenism. Unfazed by the Phipps
fracas, he says the UCCs "commitment to diverse interpretation of Christs
message is a valuable alternative to the divisions unleashed by fundamentalist passions
worldwide." Seldom, for instance, does one hear of Unitarians killing one another
over fine points of dogma. Seldom, come to think of it, does one hear of Unitarians at
all. Of course the atheists have been rather bloody this century. The UCC avoids such
extremism by keeping a window open to the God question for those who might be interested.
As for Mr. Phipps, his interest is in turning attention away from his theological views
and toward "the social implications of Jesus teaching." This year the UCC
is launching a program titled "Christ and the Moral Economy." Apparently, Christ
shares Phipps outrage that Canadians still have the poor among them. "Its
an absolute obscenity that there are homeless people in the city of Calgaryone of
the most booming economies in the world," says Phipps, thereby demonstrating that he
has not lost his hold on moral absolutes. The program will attend to the needs of the
homeless of Calgary by, as it says here, challenging "the worldwide emphasis on
market competition and focusing on reducing the gap between rich and poor." Ever on
the cutting edge, the UCC is rumored to be thinking of calling its bold new approach to
economics "socialism." One wishes the Rev. Bill Phipps and those of like mind
long life. They are valuable historical artifacts, and a useful reminder that everything
changes except the avant garde.
- For many years Gallup and others have been collecting data on church attendance, and the
more or less steady report is that 50 percent of self-identified Catholics and 40 percent
of self-identified Protestants go to church in any given week. Then Mark Chaves of the
University of Illinois hit on the idea of checking out how Catholic dioceses and other
church institutions reported attendance, and claimed to find that the standard figures are
greatly inflated. Chaves says the figures for Catholics and Protestants are more like 27
percent and 20 percent respectively. After looking at the numbers-crunching details and
discussing comparative methodologies with George Gallup, my own view is that the standard
figures are much more reliable. For an exchange on this question, especially as it touches
on Catholic attendance, readers might want to consult the September 12 and November 21,
1997 issues of Commonweal.
- In a 1990 book on religion in Russia, Michael Bordeaux, the formidable founder
of Keston College, tells of a central committee meeting of the World Council
of Churches (WCC), which had been given the names of 200 Soviet Christians
imprisoned for their faith. The committee declined to take up their cause.
As one member explained, "What are 200 people in a country of 200 million?"
The WCC finds itself in a similarly, shall we say, ambiguous posture toward
religious freedom in the post-Communist era. According to Keston News Service,
a forthcoming visit to Russia by general secretary Konrad Raiser will focus
on "ecumenical relations" rather than the restriction of freedom
imposed by the new law on religious organizations signed by President Boris
Yeltsin in September 1997 (see Lawrence
A. Uzzell, "Letter from Moscow," FT, January 1998).
The new law strongly favors and is strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox
Church. Catholics and others remain under tight control by the state. At the
same time, the Russians, along with other Orthodox churches, are increasingly
unhappy with the Protestant-dominated WCC. The Georgian Orthodox Church has
already withdrawn from the WCC and Dr. Raiser is understandably eager to stem
any Russian moves to follow suit. He reportedly will not raise embarrassing
questions about the laws discrimination against non-Orthodox Christians.
With the end of Soviet communism so much has changed. One constant would seem
to be the WCCs indifference to religious freedom.
- In January of 1997, Sri Lankan theologian Father Tissa Balasuriya was lionized in
sectors of the Catholic press when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)
notified him that he had incurred automatic excommunication for espousing heresy in his
writings. As noted in these pages, he was much celebrated at the time for his defiance of
Church authority. Almost exactly a year later, on January 15, Father Balasuriya was
reconciled with the Church in a ceremony conducted by Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando
of Colombo. He said, "I realize that serious ambiguities and doctrinal errors were
perceived in my writings and therefore provoked negative reactions from other parties,
affected relationships, and led to an unfortunate polarization in the ecclesial community.
I truly regret the harm this has caused." Those of a suspicious bent might parse that
statement as being something less than a clear admission of error. They should stifle
their suspicion. The important thing is that a prodigal has returned, which is the
pastoral purpose of CDF. Celebrity is for fifteen minutes. Salvation is forever. Nor is
there any evidence that Fr. Balasuriya enjoyed his celebrity status. "This entire
episode has been very painful for me," he said upon his reconciliation. "It has
caused pain to the Christian community and to many others who have been directly or
indirectly involved in this situation." He said that he assumed CDF was acting
according to the rules, "even though I was hoping for a more direct and personal
dialogue [about my writings]." To the extent that hope was justified and
disappointed, CDF, too, might draw lessons from this unhappy episode now happily resolved.
- Published in Britain, William Oddies The Roman Option (HarperCollins)
received a very hostile review in the Tablet by a party who was sharply criticized
in the book. More interesting than the ethics of choosing reviewers, the RC bishops
conference of England and Wales issued a statement criticizing the book, specifically the
claim that Cardinal Hume and Cardinal Ratzinger favored allowing Church of England
parishes that entered into communion with Rome to retain a large measure of liturgical and
other customs. Oddie claims that the majority of English and Welsh bishops opposed Hume
and Rome, but the conference statement says the bishops were unanimous in taking the
course they did. In support of his interpretation, Oddie quotes Cardinal Hume in a 1993
interview: "This could be a big moment of grace, it could be the conversion of
England for which we have prayed all these years. I am terrified now we are going to turn
round and say we do not want these newcomers."
- Lawrence Cunningham reviews Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnows The Crisis in
the Churches (Oxford University Press), which is about, mainly, the failure of people
to give enough money to support all that churches want to do. Cunningham writes: "For
all of the research that Wuthnow put into this book, it is amazing to me that most of what
he found, at least from my perspective as an observer of the Catholic scene, could have
been deduced from personal observation, conversation, and an eye toward Catholic
publications. . . . I was somewhat unfairly reminded of a quip of the late Eric Sevareid:
sociology is sometimes just slow journalism."
- My Lutheran theologian friend Robert Jenson says he tries to go to meetings of the
Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) to stay abreast of liberal Protestant
theology. CTSA got some attention last year when it issued a report challenging the
Churchs teaching that it has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Now
Father Matthew Lamb of Boston College has published an article suggesting that we should
not confuse CTSA with Catholic theology. While claiming to have as many as 1,500 members,
only about 20 percent attend meetings at which their vote is the voice of the entire CTSA.
At the last meeting Sister Margaret Farley, whom Crisis magazine reports is a
supporter of the pro-abortion group "Catholics for a Free Choice," was elected
president with 10 percent of the vote of the CTSA membership. Fr. Lamb offers some other
findings of interest: "More than 80 percent of the 1,385 dissertation titles in the
1996 CTSA focus on theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among the
twentieth-century Catholic theologians, studies on Karl Rahner exceed those on Bernard
Lonergan, Edward Schillebeeckx, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, M. D. Chenu, and
Henri de Lubac put together. There are more studies on Paul Ricoeur and Paul Tillich than
on Marcel, Gilson, Maritain, and Congar put together. There are more studies listed of
Barth than of Balthasar; more on the Reformation than on the Council of Trent. More
members list themselves as students of process theology than of Thomism; more listings
cite Wolfhart Pannenberg than Ignatius of Loyola; more are concerned with human or civil
rights than natural law. There are more listings on feminism and womens studies than
on Christology or the Trinity; many more on spirituality (over four hundred) than on the
Holy Spirit (fewer than forty). Themes associated with liberation or world religions far
outweigh those dealing with the priesthood or the Magisterium." All of which leads
Fr. Lamb to ask some pertinent questions about the CTSA and the state of Catholic theology
in the presumably Catholic academy: "How many of its members have an adequate
formation in Catholic theological traditions? For example, how many have studied monastic
and patristic theologians, medieval and Counter-Reformation theologians? How many members
know the differences between Catholic and Protestant theological and doctrinal traditions?
Indeed, how many of its members have studied the new Catechism of the Catholic Church?
These are not antiecumenical questions. One of the major concerns of ecumenically engaged
theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, is the need for the coming generation of
theologians to know their own ecclesial traditions well."
- "I write this in desperation, having no idea where the next sentence will come
from. But its the night before press day and I cant put it off any
longer." So begins Michael Farrell, the new editor of the National Catholic
Reporter. Its not an easy job, but you can see that the next sentence did come,
and the next, and the next. "At NCR," he continues, "we start with
blank pages every week, and everyone knows the doubts a blank page can sow in the human
head. Is there anything worth saying? Even if there is, what do you know about?
Cant you for once write it elegantly and with clarity?" Excellent questions
all. He concludes by reflecting that maybe the answers dont really make any
difference, but "In the meantime, we are putting out NCR for ourselves and for
you, all of us sort of holding hands and standing on what we think is a stretch of high,
dry ground and saying to the world that were here, actually alive, at this time, and
that we count." Do not despair. We see you, left high and dry, sort of holding hands.
You are there. Actually alive. At this time. Message received, Michael. (I hope somebody
out in Kansas City is keeping a pastoral eye on this guy.)
- Late-breaking news is not our shtick in these pages. Thus, apart from this mention, the
absence of any reference to the all-sleaze-all-the-time reports on the Presidents
zipper problems. If, as almost all informed parties seem to believe, Mr. Clinton has
during his term of office had sex with one or more women other than his wife, and if he
has directly looked the American people in the eye and lied through his teeth in denying
it, and if the American people know this and still allow him to continue in office, I
promise critics who say I have an excessively hopeful view of the American character that
I will engage in an agonizing reappraisal of my position. Enough said. I will not be
surprised if events have overtaken this comment before it appears in print.
- Germain Grisez of Mount St. Mary Seminary in Maryland is without doubt one of the most
impressive moral thinkers working today. I am inclined to say one of the most influential
as well, but resistance to his work among non-Catholic and dissenting Catholic thinkers is
still strong. Everybody in moral theology, however, has to have at least a passing
acquaintance with his two volume The Way of the Lord Jesus (vol. 1 is Christian
Moral Principles and vol. 2 is Living a Christian Life, with a third volume
soon to appear, all published by Franciscan Press, Quincy, Ill.). The immediate reason for
mentioning all this is a book forthcoming from Georgetown University Press and edited by
Robert George of Princeton, Natural Law and Moral Inquiry: Ethics, Metaphysics, and
Politics in the Work of Germain Grisez. The book is composed of heavy-duty scholarly
exchanges between Grisez and his critics (and admirers), but I thought you might like a
little personal note that Grisez appends to his response: "Whenever I come back to my
favorite airport, Baltimore-Washington International, I pass under an official message of
the State of Maryland: Welcome to Maryland! Enjoy your visit! and my heart is
warmed by the reminder that, though Jeannette and I reside permanently in Maryland, we
will not live there forever. Despite the danger that the U.S. Supreme Court will find
Marylands welcome inconsistent with the First Amendment, this state, at least,
officially reminds its returning citizens that Maryland is not their real home, that we
are only visiting and can look forward to a better, a heavenly home. I have tried to keep
this thought at the center of my theology, and have striven to tie my treatment of
specific issues tightly to hope for heaven. My ultimate criticism of alternative
approaches to moral theology is that they do not do this very well, if at all, and so are
not helpful in guiding and encouraging people to seek Gods kingdom. But in the end
nothing else matters for theology or, what is more important, for any of us struggling
through this vale of tears." The only philosopher or theologian who can finally be
trusted is one who knows where home is.