The Public Square
(May 1998)

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 63-79.

And Now for Something Not Very Different: Real Virtuality

It comes in three fat volumes published by Blackwell, The Rise of the Network Society. A thoughtful cardinal friend put me on to it while we were in Rome participating in the Synod for America. The author is sociologist Manuel Castells, a Spaniard now at Berkeley who has over the years taught at universities from Paris to Hong Kong to Hitotsubashi. Virtual reality, according to Castells, is old hat. The new and totally revolutionary thing is real virtuality. The new digitized world, says Castells, segments markets and breaks up the uniformity of a mass audience. "These processes induce the formation of what I call the culture of real virtuality. It is so, and not virtual reality, because when our symbolic environment is, by and large, structured in this inclusive, flexible, diversified hypertext, in which we navigate every day, the virtuality of this text is in fact our reality, the symbols from which we live and communicate."

This is intelligible Marshall McLuhan, he of "the medium is the message" fame. More intelligible, but not necessarily more persuasive. Illustrating what he means by "hypertext," Castells cites Dan Quayle’s 1992 criticism of Murphy Brown’s deciding to have a baby, followed by the next television episode showing Murphy Brown watching Quayle’s criticism and railing against his interference with the choices that women make. Here is what Castells makes of that: "The unsolicited presence of Murphy Brown’s imaginary world in the real life presidential campaign induced the transformation of Quayle (or rather of his ‘real’ television image) into a character of Murphy Brown’s imaginary life: a supertext had been made, blending in the same discourse passionately argued messages emitted from both levels of experience. In this case, virtuality (that is Murphy Brown being in practice what many women were, without being so in the name of any woman) had become real, in the sense that it actually interacted, with some significant impact, with the process of election to the most powerful political office on earth."

This is the kind of thing that helps explain why sociology departments are being shut down in our better universities. The commonsensical telling of the story is that Dan Quayle criticized the Murphy Brown program for encouraging wrongheaded behavior, and the Murphy Brown program attacked Dan Quayle as an oppressive prude. There is no evidence that the episode contributed to the defeat of the Bush-Quayle ticket, and at least one person close to the campaign tells me it helped the Republicans. Whether it helped or hurt, all but the thoroughly unhinged recognized that what happened is as old as the orator who puts an empty chair on the stage and proceeds to make sport of his opponent. It is not helpful to call the imagined opponent in the empty chair a "hypertext" or to say that we are witnessing an instance of real virtuality. We are witnessing an age-old instance of the games people play in order to make (usually unfairly) a point. What Castells also fails to point out is that a few years later almost everybody agreed that Barbara Whitehead was right when she wrote her famous article in the Atlantic Monthly, "Why Dan Quayle Was Right." The supposedly media-sotted public was quite capable of perceiving the difference between reality and the clever games of a television sitcom.

"The inclusion of most cultural expressions within the integrated communication system based on digitized electronic production distribution, and exchange of signals, has major consequences for social forms and processes." Castells goes on to say what all this means for religion. It is true that religion can employ the new communications system, but: "By having to concede the earthly coexistence of transcendental messages, on-demand pornography, soap operas, and chat-lines within the same system, superior spiritual powers still conquer souls but lose their suprahuman status. The final step of secularization of society follows, even if it sometimes takes the paradoxical form of conspicuous consumption of religion, under all kinds of generic and brand names. Societies are finally and truly disenchanted because all wonders are on-line and can be combined into self-constructed image worlds."

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Or so it seems to me. The disenchantment of the world is what worries the cardinal, and was the theme of his eloquent intervention at the Synod. Many years ago Max Weber disseminated the message of a world that had been disenchanted under the pressures of science and specialization, but I would suggest that today we are witnessing the re-enchantment of the world. Certainly this is the case in the hard sciences that are taking an "anthropic" turn in disclosing the "irreducible complexity" of a world wondrously designed for a purpose. These developments are winsomely described in Patrick Glynn’s recent book God: The Evidence—The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World (Prima Publishing). All generalizations creak under too much weight, but "postsecular" captures the tenor of our times much more adequately than "the final step of secularization."

And why should a prince of the Church, of all people, fret about the gospel message conceding "the earthly coexistence of transcendental messages"? Christians, and Catholic Christians in particular, have always understood that we live in a world of signs and symbols that do not themselves have a "suprahuman status" but are effective signals of transcendence. They are the sacraments and the words of the Word. And it is hardly new that the gospel must contend against contradictory signs and symbols.

Cassells writes that "the new communication system radically transforms space and time, the fundamental dimensions of human life. Localities become disembodied from their cultural, historical, geographic meaning, and reintegrated into functional networks, or into image collages, inducing a space of flows that substitutes for the space of places." I don’t have quotations readily at hand, but I know I have read in the history books almost exactly the same things being said upon the advent of the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do not doubt for a minute that there are nerds surfing the Internet for whom that is a world more "real" than family, friends, or ingrown toe nails. That, too, is nothing new, as witness Walker Percy’s marvelous novel of a long time ago, The Moviegoer. Nor do I deny that someday the technology of "virtual reality" may be developed to the point where even the less neurotic will have difficulty in differentiating between reality and the images produced. But that day is not now, and our hype about the revolutions being worked by the media can only produce its own sense of unreality. Communicating the truth amidst the cacophony of untruths on sale has never been easy. We will not get any better at it by blaming the media. In fact, the undoubted segmentation of media markets—for instance, the Internet, CD-ROMs, and five hundred channels of television—create stunning opportunities for the concentrated communication of the truth. That the story of salvation is only one mouse click away from designer pornography is but another instance of God’s unlimited condescension in becoming man.

Meanwhile, the ten year old who has watched hours of television every day still turns to her mother and asks, "Is that just television or is that true?" Just as the father in the dark of night picks up the little boy who is having a nightmare and tells him everything is all right. The little boy holds on tight, dries his tears, and is immeasurably grateful to have been returned to "the real world." Whenever things like that happen, they ward off the nightmares of virtual reality and real virtuality, and we know again that the world is enchanted. Castells is wrong to think that religion, at least Christian religion, is about things of "suprahuman status," and that the loss of that status is the opposite of religion, called secularization. The Christian truth is the most secular of things—sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.

It is the world that is charged with the grandeur of God (Hopkins) and man who is the cantor and caretaker of creation (Heschel)—a creation of wonder that evokes and ever transcends all our wondering. The enemies of wonder we will have always with us, and some will come with erudite theories and intimidating jargon to announce, ever so reluctantly, the end of wonder. They should not impress those who know that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only son of the Father."

Remembering the Holocaust

"We Remember," the Vatican statement on the Holocaust published in this issue, is tightly packed and bears very close reading. The New York Times editorial on the subject also bears close reading. "Critics contend," say the editors, "that Pius XII’s silence was a form of collaboration, inspired by anticommunism and the Church’s anti-Jewish traditions." The editors leave no doubt they sympathize with, if they do not entirely agree with, that contention. This despite the fact that numerous Jewish voices, including the Times, praised Pius XII’s outspokenness during World War II. All that changed with Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, The Deputy. The editors now write that the Vatican statement "offers evidence of church efforts to save Jews and recalls the thanks Pius received from Jewish leaders. It is regrettable that the Vatican has not yet found the courage to discard this defensive, incomplete depiction."

The editors find nothing out of the way in the presumption that they are conducting the trial and the Catholic Church is in the dock. They constitute themselves as prosecutor, judge, and jury in a way that is wonderfully insouciant. One might be permitted to ask when the Times will find the courage to acknowledge that its star reporters such as Walter Duranty and Herbert Matthews served as Communist shills in systematically covering up the massive atrocities of Marxist-Leninism. But of course to this very day, after no less than 100 million killings by Communists, "anticommunism" is still a term of opprobrium in the lexicon of the New York Times. One might even ask the Times about its own silences while the Holocaust was happening, and before that when Jews were desperately trying to get into the United States.

The editorial’s supercilious conclusion is noteworthy: "It now falls to John Paul and his successors to take the next step toward full acceptance of the Vatican’s failure to stand squarely against the evil that swept across Europe. With its repudiation of anti-Semitism, the new document provides a useful starting point." Now isn’t that nice, the editors pat the Church on the head for taking a first step. To "stand squarely" against Nazism apparently means that the Vatican should have become a belligerent and declared war on Germany. There was, of course, the inconvenient fact of Italy’s alliance with Germany and later occupation by Nazi forces.

The editors are quite explicit in their criticism of Pius XII: "He did not encourage Catholics to defy Nazi orders." And what if he had done what the Times says he should have done? The Hitler government would have correctly declared the Catholic Church, also in Germany, to be an enemy power and faithful Catholics to be guilty of treason. Does anybody in his right mind believe that would have helped save the lives of Jews, or anybody else?

Perhaps Piux XII could and should have done other than he did. We can argue about that, and I assume God has already rendered judgment. But one cannot help but be struck by the contrast between the editorial of the Times, so smug and simplistic, and the Vatican statement’s recognition of the complexity of moral judgment about people caught in the tentacles of great evil. "We Remember" is subject to legitimate criticism, and we will be returning to that in these pages, but it evinces a humility that comes from an awareness of sin and grace, of historical ambiguity, and of both human frailty and grandeur — an awareness entirely missing from the self-righteous carping of the Times and some other, mainly Jewish, critics. Fortunately, other responses, including Jewish responses, to the Vatican statement demonstrate a greater humility and sophistication about the complexities of human action.

The Case of the Uppity Nun

Mother Angelica is, as they say, a piece of work. Her Eternal Word television and radio enterprise (EWTN)has become a veritable empire that is said to reach fifty-four million homes in the U.S. and uncounted others in thirty-four countries. She is a woman of definite views, and last November she definitely did not like a pastoral letter on liturgy issued by Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles. She went on the air to criticize it as a mish-mash of liberal platitudes that sacrificed the mystical to the sociological and came close to denying the real presence of Christ in the Mass, concluding her review with the statement that faithful Catholics owe "zero obedience" to the Archbishop. The Archbishop let it be known that he was not amused, and Mother said she regretted the zero obedience crack but then went on to expand and deepen her critique of the pastoral letter.

Now, according to the spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Father Gregory Coiro, Mahony has taken his unhappiness with EWTN to the Vatican. "The Cardinal wants the Holy See to do something about Mother Angelica’s whole attitude that she is not responsible to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or to any of the individual bishops," says Coiro. "It goes beyond her criticism of the Cardinal—it’s about how the network operates and to whom it is accountable." The phenomenal success of EWTN has long been a sore point with some bishops. Some years ago the bishops conference raised from the faithful millions of dollars to launch a Catholic television network and it turned out a complete cropper. Then up crops from Birmingham, Alabama, this nun with an attitude who, with a secondhand camera and a prayer, builds a media network that sweeps the field. Just who does she think she is?

Cardinal Mahony wrote her last December, "When a network features programs that attack and criticize its own bishops publicly, how can that build up the body of Christ, the Church?" Mother Angelica is of the view that criticizing bishops or anyone else who misrepresents the faith is indeed a service to the Church. While generally opposed to clericalism, Cardinal Mahony apparently tends to the view that it is for bishops and not for upstart nuns to present Catholic truth in public. Fr. Coiro says the Cardinal has invoked canon law, specifically Canon 753, which says that Catholics are forbidden to show disrespect to bishops and specifies that only the Holy See may correct a bishop’s teaching. Canon 1373, he continues, provides for "just penalties" for those who break the rules, including the penalty of imposing an interdict, which could mean denying the sacraments to Mother Angelica and her coconspirators.

Mother, it should be noted, has a record of not being intimidated by clericalist threats. At a conference a couple of years ago, she is said to have refused to interview several bishops on EWTN and they questioned her authority to turn them down. "I own the network," she explained. The bishops said she wouldn’t always be around to call the plays. "Well," she offered in further explanation, "I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get it." As to what Cardinal Mahony expects from the Vatican, Fr. Coiro says, "Is he looking for Rome to slap an interdict on EWTN, which technically would be justified under the circumstances? Probably not, though I wouldn’t rule it out. But what other options are being explored, I don’t know."

This is somewhat surprising since the Los Angeles Archdiocese under Cardinal Mahony is famed for its hospitality to dissenters from magisterial teaching and its seemingly unlimited devotion to nonjudgmental dialogue with a wide diversity, indeed a glorious mosaic, of views espoused by Catholics. Surely this openness might be extended also to Mother Angelica. His official spokesman notwithstanding, it is simply not credible that a cardinal who is so very tolerant of theologians who call for zero obedience to the Pope wants Rome to slap an interdict on a nun who presumes to criticize him. That could, no doubt unfairly, expose him to the charge of being, among other things, inconsistent.

Confession Time

Le Livre Noir du Communisme (The Black Book of Communism) is, as we have noted before, causing quite a storm among French intellectuals, who love nothing more than storms. Put Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the Communist bunch together and they killed, by conservative estimate, at least 100 million people. Everybody knew that, or should have known that. The Black Book has raised hackles by insisting that the murderous intent was there from the beginning, that the evil is inseparable from the ideology. For instance, by March 1918, when it had been only five months in power, Lenin’s Bolshevik regime had deliberately killed more of its political opponents than Czarist Russia killed in the entire preceding century.

But fur really began to fly over the Black Book’s claim that the evil of communism was equal to, and in some ways greater than, that of Nazism. The Nazis, admittedly in a much shorter time, killed some twenty-five million, if one includes a war against the democracies that were allied with the Soviet Communists.

Prof. Tony Judt of New York University tries to sort matters out in the Times. "Nazis applied ‘special treatment’ to the useless people they murdered, Communists ‘liquidated’ those whom history, in their eyes, had already condemned," he writes. "The road to Communist hell," he continues, "was undoubtedly paved with good (Marxist) intentions. But so what? In the words of the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, revolutions—like trees—are known by their fruits." (Jesus said something similar about trees and fruits.) Good intentions? Really? Even with the qualifying parenthesis? One doubts Mr. Judt would say that the road to Hitler’s hell was undoubtedly paved with good (Nazi) intentions.

Even generally sensible people have a hard time shaking the leftist virus that leads them to insist that there was something "idealistic" about the Communist catastrophe. "Liberals in a hurry," and all that. Mr. Judt finally cannot abide the Black Book’s conclusion that Communist sympathizers are as guilty as Nazi sympathizers. He does say that "in the sorry story of our century, communism and Nazism are, and always were, morally indistinguishable." But he cannot leave it at that. He then introduces an "analytical" factor that cannot help but bear on the moral judgment. "But if we are not to wallow in helpless despair when it comes to explaining why it came to this, we must keep in view a crucial analytical contrast: there is a difference between regimes that exterminate people in the inhuman pursuit of an arbitrary objective and those whose objective is extermination itself."

First, who is it that is in danger of wallowing in helpless despair? Presumably those who, in one way or another, sympathized with or supported communism. For them, as for those who were favorably disposed to Nazism, there is an alternative to wallowing in despair: contrition, confession, and repentance. Second, is the "difference" between Nazism and communism that the former killed for the sake of killing while the latter killed to achieve "an arbitrary objective"? However arbitrary (meaning mad), the Nazis, too, had an objective: a racially and ideologically pure super-nation that would dominate world history in a Thousand Year Reich. Mr. Judt, like so many others, cannot recognize that as an objective, no matter how "arbitrary." On the other hand, his argument betrays a still lingering sympathy for the Marxist objective of a dictatorship of the proletariat ushering in the utopian dream of a classless and stateless society. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists believed that their objective was "extermination itself." Their mass murders were not, as is commonly said, senseless. The actions of both made "sense" in the context of the objectives they were pursuing. Their objectives, and the means employed to achieve those objectives, were equally evil.

Why does someone as thoughtful as Tony Judt say that these causes were morally indistinguishable and then feel the need to quickly vitiate that judgment by saying they were analytically different? Sloppy thinking is one answer. The more important answer is that—in France, the U.S., and elsewhere—it is simply intolerable to acknowledge that Communist sympathizers are as guilty of complicity in mass murder as are Nazi sympathizers. Anyone who is exposed as having sympathized with Hitler is, understandably, a pariah excluded from any position of influence. By way of sharpest contrast, those who throughout their careers urged sympathy and understanding for Lenin, Stalin, and Mao occupy endowed chairs in our most distinguished universities and positions of highest influence in the media, think tanks, and churches of our nation.

That apologists for communism are as morally culpable as apologists for Nazism is a truth that, if honestly acknowledged, would exact too high a price from our several establishments. That is the truth convincingly set forth by Le Livre Noir du Communisme, and it is as unacceptable to intellectuals here as in France. Indeed the truth is harsher than that. Nazism was in power for twelve years. Until 1941 and even later, almost nobody, including the great majority of Jews in Germany and elsewhere, thought that Hitler was really set upon a course of mass extermination. In the 1930s there was a widespread disillusionment with the decadence of the democracies. The German economy and national self-confidence were revived; in Italy the trains ran on time, or so it was claimed; and Mussolini and Hitler looked like the wave of the future. Although much more was known by people who seriously wanted to know, the Holocaust, when it did happen, was largely hidden by the exigencies of world war.

Communism, on the other hand, conducted a reign of terror that spanned seventy years. The concentration camps, the purges, the politically perpetrated mass starvations by famine—all were on the public record. Some denied their existence; many more explained their necessity. The means are regrettable, they said, but the end is noble; you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and so forth. That was the anti-anti-Communist line that dominated mainstream intellectual discourse in the West. Those who carefully and candidly spoke the truth about communism—and there were many, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Conquest, Whittaker Chambers, and Midge Decter—were scornfully dismissed as anti-Communists, meaning troglodyte reactionaries. They threatened "peaceful coexistence" with communism, which was declared to be a permanent fact of life.

Yes, there are distinctions to be made, but when it comes to moral judgment they are mostly distinctions without a difference. During the long years of communism’s evil empire, more of the brightest and the best belonged to the anti-anti-Communist camp than were ever supportive of Hitler in the 1930s, at least outside Germany. But what does that suggest? That moral responsibility is mitigated by a head count of the like-minded? It also overlooks the now easily forgettable fact that many decent and intelligent people looked with hope to fascism’s answer to democracy’s apparently terminal illness. It is true that Marxism attracted powerful intellectuals who arrayed it with elaborate and sophisticated theories, and that was not generally the case with National Socialism, which had a strong populist and anti-intellectual element. That demonstrates only that many people are intimidated by intellectuals, while intellectuals are charmed by one another’s company. It needs to be added that many felt themselves pushed toward anti-anti-communism by thoroughly obnoxious forms of anti-communism. As for Christians, it is true that the discerning saw the anti-Christian character of Nazism, while Marxism’s apologists often presented it as a fulfillment of Christian ideals. But what is to be said of Christians who excused, or even actively embraced, an atheistic attack against Christianity and against millions of fellow Christians for the sake of realizing putatively Christian ideals? Of the making of distinctions there is no end. Whether they make a difference is another matter.

Here is the painful reality to be faced: This century has witnessed a treason of the intellectuals immeasurably greater than that described in Julien Benda’s 1927 La Trahison des Clercs. Soon, I am told, The Black Book of Communism will be published in this country. Perhaps it will stir the necessary debate that is taking place in France. One fears that will not happen, however, among those who agree with Prof. Judt that facing the truth will leave people with no alternative but "to wallow in helpless despair." There is another alternative: self-knowledge, the painful acquisition of wisdom, confession, forgiveness, and amendment of life. Admittedly, that alternative rests upon a biblical view of reality. For those who have convinced themselves that that view is not available to them, perhaps there is no future other than that of continuing self-deception or helpless despair.

Getting Ready

There are few things more gratifying than to witness a capable generation of young people eager to carry on what you have tried to do. This business of getting older is of course as old as the human story, but each of us has to experience it for himself. I distinctly remember that as a young man of twenty-five I looked at those who were ten years older as the generation that had failed. My job and that of my friends was to set right what they had, for the most part, so badly bungled. I was viewed, and was inclined to view myself, as something of a wunderkind. In any project or committee, I was accustomed to being the youngest member, and I well remember the shock of the day when in a meeting someone younger than I included me in his somewhat dismissive reference to what was done by "your generation." Or the day I was walking by the police academy around the corner on East 20th Street and was struck by the fact that the city was hiring kids to be cops.

At the same time, I have always had an intuitive reverence for really old people, and have frequently remarked over the years that I rather look forward to playing the role of the wise old man. At age sixty-two that time has come. At least to the young I am the old man. Whether I am wise or not is quite another matter. I expect and even rather hope that the brightest of them think it their task to set right the projects that, for all my limited achievements, I have badly bungled. Such aspirations, or delusions as the case may be, are necessary to keep history moving. Young academics are writing dissertations about me. One asks in an interview if I have any "final thoughts as you look back at your life’s work." That’s sobering. Now that I’m more than five years beyond that nasty cancer business and am feeling great, I think it quite possible that I’ll have another twenty productive years, but I play along with those who are preparing the obituary. It’s flattering in its fashion.

And they do sometimes ask interesting questions. For instance, twice in the last few weeks I’ve been asked about my work routine, and whether there is anything I do to get ready when I sit down to a serious bout of writing. The answer is yes, and that is the excuse for this little reflection on getting older. I begin by praying a prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, "Ante Studium." Perhaps others might find it of benefit. Here it is, first in Latin, and then in English:

Creator ineffabilis,
qui de thesauris sapientiae tuae
tres Angelorum hierarchias designasti,
et eas super caelum empyreum
miro ordine collocasti,
atque universi partes

tu inquam qui
verus fons
luminis et sapientiae diceris
atque supereminens principium

infundere digneris
super intellectus mei tenebras
tuae radium claritatis,
duplices in quibus natus sum
a me removens tenebras,
peccatum scilicet et ignorantiam.

Tu, qui linguas infantium facis disertas,
linguam meam erudias
atque in labiis meis gratiam
tuae benedictionis infundas.
Da mihi
intelligendi acumen,
retinendi capacitatem,
addiscendi modum et facilitatem,
interpretandi subtilitatem,
loquendi gratiam copiosam.

Ingressum instruas,
progressum dirigas,
egressum compleas.

Tu qui es verus Deus et homo,
qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum.


Ineffable Creator,
From the treasures of your wisdom, you
have established three hierarchies of angels,
have arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens,
and have marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the true origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of your blessing.

Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity of remembering,
skill in learning,
subtlety in interpreting,
and eloquence in speaking.

May you
guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.

You are true God and true Man, and you
live and reign, world without end.


I should add that the prayer is always answered, although, alas, I do not always act on the answer, as the readers of these pages know too well. I should also add that this and other jewels, in both Latin and English, are available in Devoutly I Adore Thee: The Prayers and Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, published by Sophia Institute Press in Manchester, New Hampshire. As for that young woman who wanted my "last words," I will leave that to Him who alone knows what it means to bring a work to completion. For that last word, all of life is a getting ready.

While We’re At It