Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 75-90.
Since I do not assume that all our readers are also readers of the Weekly Standard, herewith an expanded version of a review that appeared in that esteemed publication. (No, Jody Bottum, who used to be our associate editor and is now the books and culture editor of the Standard, did not have the temerity to cut his former boss’ copy. It is simply that I say some things here that seem more appropriate for this forum.)
John T. Noonan, Jr. is without doubt one of the most distinguished minds in our federal judiciary. Before being appointed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1986, he was professor at Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and authored major studies on the maddeningly complex connections between religion and law. Widely acclaimed books on usury, the slave trade, and other matters demonstrate that he is, above all, a historian, with a particular flair for the history of ideas. That demonstration continues with his new book, The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom (University of California Press, $35). The book is a personal summing up of Noonan’s reflections on what he correctly believes to be America’s most innovative and audacious contribution to world history—the free exercise of religion.
The book’s title is from Noonan’s hero, James Madison (or JM, as he signed himself), for whom, says Noonan, "the whole burden of freedom was carried by the formula of free exercise." The First Amendment’s commitment to the free exercise of religion, Madison wrote, "promised a lustre to our country." There are but sixteen words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But the interpretation of those few words, more than any other aspect of contemporary jurisprudence, has cut to the heart of our understanding of the American experiment. Although his tone is generally irenic, Noonan leaves no doubt that the courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, have made a hash of the Religion Clause under the rubric of "church-state law."
An egregious error entrenched itself beginning in the 1950s, when the courts began speaking not of the Religion Clause but of two Religion Clauses—the no establishment clause and the free exercise clause. Predictably, the error has been compounded again and again as the "two clauses" have been pitted against each other, almost always to the detriment of free exercise. As Noonan notes, there are two prepositional phrases of one clause. "The first phrase assumed that establishments of religion existed as they did in fact exist in several of the states; the amendment restrained the power of Congress to affect them. The second phrase was absolute in its denial of federal legislative power to inhibit religious exercise." Over time, state establishments disappeared and the First Amendment was "incorporated" to apply also to the states, but always it should have been evident that there is one Religion Clause devoted to the end of the free exercise of religion. No establishment is a stipulated means to serve that end. The jurisprudence of the last half century, however, has tended to turn the means into the end, repeatedly declaring that any benign connection between government and religion is a forbidden "establishment." The result is a court-imposed governmental indifference to religion that inevitably results in de facto governmental hostility to religion.
As long-time readers know, I have been pressing for years the question of the one Religion Clause, and it is most gratifying to see more constitutional scholars picking up on it. The Religion Clause is a coherent guarantee of free exercise, not a jerry-built compromise proposing that free exercise needs to be "balanced" against another good called "no establishment." From the earlier Virginia measures supported by Madison and Jefferson through to the First Amendment, it is always clear that the reason there must be no establishment of religion is that establishment would infringe upon the free exercise of religion. A particular merit of Noonan’s discussion is that it highlights how very recent is the practice in which the courts speak of "two religion clauses." It is a practice that has led the courts so far astray as to suggest that balancing the clauses requires the government to be neutral as between religion and irreligion. One can imagine the distress of Mr. Madison if he could see the way recent jurisprudence has turned the First Amendment on its head.
John Noonan has written elsewhere about "the masks of the law." One mask of the law is that of judges pretending that they are neutral when in fact they impose (establish) their own peculiar view of religion. In the present book, Noonan documents the powerful influence of liberal Protestantism and especially William James in the courts’ religion jurisprudence. In James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religion is a radically private experience of the isolated individual. But in the real world, religion has corporate and social dimensions that necessarily include more than private experience and feelings. This reality has been frequently ignored also by the Supreme Court when, for instance in cases dealing with conscientious objection to military service, it equates religion with any sincerely held belief. Madison’s more vibrant understanding of free exercise, by way of contrast, was forged in his encounters with real communities of religious commitment called Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican.
Another mask of the law is the courts’ self-deluding view of themselves as Platonic guardians of truth that float above the reality of government. In regulating the activities of government, Noonan notes, the courts frequently pretend that they are not themselves part of government. In fact, they are that part of the government that assumes that "the courts themselves are sacred." Noonan writes, "Performing these tasks that they have determined to be allotted them by the First Amendment, the courts unselfconsciously place themselves above any church or creed." That is precisely what Madison intended free exercise to prevent. He declared that citizens had a "prior obligation" and "natural right" to acknowledge a sovereignty higher than the sovereignty of the state. The genius of his innovation was to insist that, with respect to the exercise of that obligation and right, the government has no legitimate "cognizance." The Founders were keenly aware that the free exercise of religion was qualitatively different from religious tolerance. "Tolerance," writes Noonan, "is a policy, an acceptance of religious difference because it’s more trouble than it’s worth to eliminate it, a prudential stance of wise statesmen. It is something else to inscribe in fundamental law an ideal of freedom for the human activity most potentially subversive of the existing order."
The free exercise of religion is most potentially subversive because it proclaims a sovereignty that "stands against the sovereignty of the state." Noonan writes, "Each individual’s religion ‘wholly exempt’ from social control? No qualifications whatever on the right and duty to pay homage to God as one sees fit? Surely, in the heat of battle, Madison exaggerates! No, his theological premises compel these radical conclusions." The last point touches on a matter central to Noonan’s argument, namely, that the free exercise of religion is, in the main, a religious achievement. This is explicitly proposed against the received wisdom that religious freedom—usually construed as tolerance—is the achievement of the secular Enlightenment against religion. In carrying this point, Noonan the historian is on impressive display.
John Noonan, it must be admitted, evidences a peculiar mix of liberal and conservative sensibilities. He wants to conserve the original understanding of free exercise, at least in large part because religious freedom is an inexpendable lever for challenging the established order. Like the civil libertarians of the ACLU persuasion, he presents himself as being reflexively on the side of the underdog. On the other hand, the underdog today is the social and moral conservatism that seeks to challenge regnant liberalisms, also in the courts. So Noonan’s conservative jurisprudence in the service of liberal ends may be most immediately useful to contemporary forces generally called conservative. Ironies are compounded by the fact that those conservative forces are generally sympathetic to the use of religion to reinforce the established order, or at least to reinforce what they think once was and should be again the established order. Noonan has little but contempt for such use of religion, and is most polemical in his argument against laws prohibiting the "desecration" of the flag. In his view, the idea of the flag as a sacred object is little short of idolatry, and laws to protect it from "desecration" clearly violate the dangerously subversive free exercise guaranteed by the Constitution. Many conservatives will be cheered by Noonan’s respect for the constitutional text and his championing of their right to challenge existing patterns of liberal judicial usurpation, as they will also be unhappy with his hostility to the purposes for which conservatives would employ that challenge. But that is the way it is with a free exercise of religion that testifies to a sovereignty that cannot be captured either by the state or by the parties that would control the state.
The Lustre of Our Country is oddly put together. It begins with an engaging autobiographical sketch of the Catholic author coming of age under the shadow of Puritan Boston. From his early years, especially under the influence of his father, Noonan was what in intra-Catholic discussions is known as a liberal. His father and he never had any use for what was taken to be the official Catholic position of the time, that the American pattern of religious freedom was a "hypothesis" to be tolerated until Catholics became strong enough to establish the "thesis" of a Catholic state in a Catholic society. The auto-biographical sketch is followed by an examination of the limits and contradictions in the Puritan idea of religious freedom, to which he contrasts Madison’s "original insight." A chapter is devoted to a letter "discovered" by Noonan and supposedly written by Tocqueville’s younger sister who argues that her brother was right to view religion as "the foremost institution" of American democracy, but wrong in claiming that the "separation of church and state" is, in fact, the American reality. Employing various literary techniques, sometimes eccentric but always fascinating, Noonan then retells key cases in which the Supreme Court has tied itself into knots by regulating religion, with the result that it ends up in ludicrous efforts to adjudicate the sincerity and truth of religious claims—exactly the claims that Madison declared to be none of the government’s business.
On the "subversive" dimension of free exercise, Noonan recalls four "crusades"—the abolition of slavery, the war against Mormon polygamy, the prohibition of alcohol, and the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Curiously, he does not include a fifth crusade, that against the abortion license of Roe v. Wade, on which he has written elsewhere with great persuasive effect. Opposition to the abortion license is usually viewed as a conservative cause, and perhaps Noonan did not want to let the rest of his argument be taken hostage to ideological labeling. Or perhaps he does not think the pro-life movement is a "crusade" comparable to the earlier movements he describes. If that is the case, one wishes that he had argued it. The absence of abortion from his discussion is deeply puzzling, since it is undoubtedly the most fevered question joining religion and religiously grounded morality in legal and political dispute today.
Throughout this and other books, Noonan leaves no doubt that the free exercise of religion is a potentially dangerous idea. Madison and most of the Founders believed that the entire constitutional order, this novus ordo seclorum, was contingent upon taking that risk. Noonan worries that we Americans, with the courts in the lead, may now have lost our nerve for it. Implicit in that loss of nerve, he suggests, is an acceptance of Durkheim’s view that religion is essentially a function of society, something to be used and tolerated to the extent that it serves "the sacred society." He very effectively makes the case that a functional view of religion—the claim that religion is a creation of society and designed to provide moral legitimacy for society—can be maintained only by determinedly ignoring the actual intentions of people who are religious. That willful blindness is another instance of neutrality-as-a-mask, and it is made more objectionable by the fact that judges, operating under the guise of neutrality, routinely smuggle in their own beliefs that are religious in nature if not in name.
Nonetheless, Noonan is by no means ready to give up. For all the missteps along the way, the American commitment to the free exercise of religion is still a "success." Against what he views as the false humility of many Americans, he urges a forthright acknowledgment that religious freedom is this country’s foremost contribution to the world’s understanding of just government. In advancing that claim, he devotes chapters to four contrasting case studies: the French Revolution’s affirmation and betrayal of the American idea of religious freedom, the American imposition of the idea on a defeated Japan, Russia’s current and deeply flawed efforts to incorporate the idea, and the American influence in the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious liberty.
The Lustre of Our Country is erudite and instructive, frequently whimsical and typically wise. I expect other readers will share my frustration with aspects of the argument. At times Noonan seems to conflate freedom of religion with freedom of conscience. There are similarities, to be sure, and there are also big differences. Freedom of conscience is easily reduced to radical individualism, ending up with what Noonan rightly deplores as the courts’ common depiction of religion as a private aberration to be tolerated insofar as it does not interfere with government purposes. The conflation also invites the subsuming of religious freedom into constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and other provisions that ignore religion’s necessarily subversive witness to a higher sovereignty. Noonan is apparently unhappy with the Supreme Court’s recent striking down of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which many view as almost tantamount to repealing the Religion Clause, but he offers no suggestion of other legislative remedies for judicial hostility to religion. This is a matter of some importance, since Congress is at this moment working on another effort to produce such remedial legislation.
Friends of religious freedom have pressed for a restoration of the principle that religious claims should be privileged, and overriding such claims should be dependent upon the government being able to demonstrate that there is both a "compelling" interest and no less intrusive way for that interest to be served. Noonan notes that, in fact, courts have routinely ruled that almost any government interest at all is sufficient to override the free exercise of religion. One wishes he had more directly taken on the arguments of Justice Antonin Scalia, who appears to speak for a majority of the Court on this question. Scalia is frequently depicted as a champion of raw majoritarianism for whom the Religion Clause is little more than a vestigial and inconvenient appendix. I expect his views on religion and law are considerably more interesting than that, and since he is such a dominant voice on these matters, it would have been helpful if Noonan engaged him more directly. On the other hand, it may be less than politic for a judge of a circuit court to challenge so frontally a justice of the Supreme Court.
The present book provokes speculation about the assumptions underlying Noonan’s judicial philosophy. He is clearly a "textualist," as is evident in his insistence upon the one Religion Clause and his opposition to pitting the "two clauses" against each other. And he is an "originalist" in his devotion to the radical intention of Madison and those responsible for the First Amendment. Yet at other times he seems to want the judge to be something like a philosopher king. His epilogue proposes "Ten Commandments" for people dealing with religious freedom, including the admonition that "you shall know that no person, man or woman, historian or law professor or constitutional commentator or judge, is neutral in this matter." Fair enough. He is right to insist that, with respect to religion and much else, but especially with respect to religion, imagination and empathy are required. "Can a judge be a pilgrim?" Noonan asks. He answers in the affirmative, and I agree. But as a judge he should strive to read the law, to be objective, and, yes, neutral. Safety from judicial usurpation rests not so much in having judges who are better philosophers as in having judges who recognize that, as Mr. Madison would say, there are questions not within their cognizance.
Both suggestive and problematic is Noonan’s persistent drawing of parallels between judicial interpretation and John Henry Newman’s theory of "the development of doctrine." In this connection he offers his extended treatment of the development of Catholic teaching on religious freedom at Vatican Council II. Clearly, Noonan has no use for the exponents of a "living Constitution" who declare, in effect, that the Constitution is dead because it means whatever the courts say it means. Just as clearly, there are parallels between what judges do and what church councils do. Both are involved in trying to understand a "sacred text" as it relates to current problems and understandings. A crucial difference, however, and a difference one wishes Judge Noonan addressed more directly, is that church councils—at least in the Catholic understanding of things—are promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Noonan misses important opportunities in his treatment of Catholic teaching. He fully appreciates the immeasurable contribution of Father John Courtney Murray to the Council’s declaration on religious freedom, and he is right to claim that this was a distinctly American contribution to the teaching of the universal Church. But there is no mention at all of the ways in which the understanding of religious freedom—precisely as a religious achievement—has been greatly deepened and elaborated by this pontificate, notably in encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. And this reader at least is not persuaded by Noonan’s tendency to view the "development" of doctrine as a change, or even a reversal, of doctrine.
It is all too easy to compare, for instance, the texts of the nineteenth century "Syllabus of Errors" with current magisterial texts and show the verbal and policy differences, even contradictions. More effort is required to demonstrate the continuity and internal coherence that Newman described as the development of doctrine. As Noonan debunks the Durkheimian sacralization of political society, he also tends to politicize the workings of the sacred society that is the Church. That is certainly not his intention. He has a very effective passage on how the political maneuverings of the Council are consonant with an "incarnational" understanding of the way God works. But in accenting the discontinuities produced by such maneuverings, the affirmation of God’s incarnational ways seems to be a naked act of faith unsupported by historical evidence.
But let me not leave the wrong impression. The questions and arguments provoked by The Lustre of Our Country testify to its great achievement. Judge Noonan understands, as very few judges and constitutional scholars do, the founding genius of the American experiment. He knows and persuasively explains why those sixteen words of the First Amendment continue to be this country’s most innovative, audacious, and promising contribution to the world’s understanding of the right ordering of political society.
I came across it again the other day, the flat assertion that Pope John XXIII was the most widely loved and admired Pope of the modern era, and perhaps of the Church’s entire history. I do not wish to detract from his undeniable stature by entering a modest demurrer. One cannot help but note that such assertions are usually made by Catholics who identify with the "progressive" interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, and usually in the context of an invidious comparison with Paul VI and, especially, John Paul II. Among Catholics of a liberal disposition, who are a relatively small minority, and among folk in the media who follow their lead, it seems to be the case that John XXIII is the most loved and admired of modern Popes. That I think is the more accurate statement. And, it should be added, among such he is typically depicted as a proponent of the radical changes they typically espouse, a depiction that has slight basis in fact.
John was Pope for a relatively short time (1958-1963), while John Paul II will be in the chair of Peter for twenty years come this October. John’s inestimable contribution was to convoke the Council on which subsequent pontificates have built. The idea of a papal popularity contest is unseemly and should not be encouraged, but, just for the sake of accuracy, can there be any reasonable doubt that John Paul II is known, loved, and admired by more people than any other Pope in history? It is not terribly important to say that, and I would not say it at all, were it not that some people think it so important to deny it.
The immediate occasion for this reflection is a fine new book by David Aikman, an evangelical Protestant and former Time magazine correspondent, Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century (Word, $22.95). He offers winsome profiles of six "great souls": Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, and John Paul II. Of the last he writes: "Billy Graham has said of Pope John Paul II, certainly with accuracy, that he will ‘go down in history as the greatest of our modern Popes. He’s the strong conscience of the whole Christian world.’ I respect that judgment, but for me it doesn’t go far enough. I am not a Roman Catholic, and I certainly share many of the Protestant reservations about some aspects of Catholic doctrine and some forms of Catholic devotionalism. Yet it is my view that Pope John Paul II, in his profound spiritual depth, his prayer life, his enormous intellectual universe, his compassion and sympathy for the oppressed, and above all in his vision of how Christians collectively are supposed to live, is the greatest single Christian leader of the twentieth century. When he is gone, he may well be viewed, quite simply, as one of the most exemplary figures in all of Christian history."
Of course, one can disagree with Aikman’s judgment. Or one can agree, as I do. But agree or disagree, one should do so, I believe, without making invidious comparisons between John XXIII and John Paul II, two who are undoubtedly great souls as well as great Popes.
Over the last couple of years there has been a great to- do over the ways in which the Swiss turned their World War II neutrality into a very good thing. The formidable A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times recently wondered out loud whether fifty years from now the same questions might not be raised about U.S. dealings with China. President Clinton, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Council of Churches appear to take the position that what’s good for corporate America is good for the world. Human rights, and religious persecution in particular, must not be permitted to interfere with that new world order. Those who disagree will be interested, and others should be interested, in the following report from the March 28, 1998 issue of the London Tablet, an international Catholic weekly. The author is Cecilia Bromley-Martin, press officer for Aid to the Church in Need. (Reprinted with permission.)
In the bitterest conditions I have ever known, my three colleagues and I waited for our secret contact. Tourists thronged around us, so our Western faces were unlikely to bring any suspicion as we climbed into a jeep and drove away.
After many miles—seven of us crushed into the ancient four-man vehicle—we finally arrived at a poor and remote house. As we were ushered speedily inside, the husband welcomed us. His wife was cooking and their daughter played with a friend in her room—but beyond, behind closed doors, we found a dozen young men, preparing for China’s clandestine priesthood.
These students are just one small group of an "underground" seminary, forced to abandon its own diocese when the persecution there became too severe. They have been dispersed and the groups are anything up to three hundred miles apart. They have one spiritual director, a priest. He is thirty.
After celebrating Mass together in a small, concrete shed with a makeshift altar, decorated with ferns in an old drink can, we crowded into their cold bedroom. Through clouds of breath, drinking boiling water from jam jars to keep us warm, we heard about the life of China’s illegal Catholics.
One young priest, in charge of this group of seminarians, told us that there seems to be a three-year cycle—three years of relative calm, then three years of persecution. All the seminarians we met are wanted by the authorities.
But it is not just priests and nuns who suffer for their faith. Every Catholic who gave us food, a bed, or transport took a great risk. In one diocese, about eight hundred people used to meet in a Christian’s courtyard for Mass, but the police found out and put the owner in prison, where he has become semi-paralyzed. Four houses with crosses on top were confiscated, without compensation; three are now being used as schools, and one is being used by the local government. A recent operation known as "Strike Hard" was specifically devised to reduce and control underground Catholics.
It is estimated that China has twelve million Catholics—roughly 1 per cent of the population. For forty-five years, the Communist regime attempted unsuccessfully to crush the Church—Mass was forbidden, loyalty to the Pope outlawed, and priests imprisoned or executed. Eventually, the authorities compromised and set up the Patriotic Association to monitor a state Catholic Church answerable to China rather than Rome. Many Catholics, exhausted by years of punishment, felt the only way they could practice their faith was to join this official Church; but for countless others, to be Catholic and not remain loyal to the Pope was inconceivable. These went "underground." Yet no foreigner will ever fully comprehend the complexities of China’s divided Church. Two-thirds of the country’s official bishops have been legitimized by the Pope, and whilst in some dioceses the "patriotic" and clandestine bishops do not communicate in any way, we met one underground bishop who shares the home of his official counterpart. It is well known that many future secret priests train in the official seminaries. One bishop told us that the majority of the bishops are good, but "the rest are weak Communist puppets."
Even the official Church is by no means left in peace. The "archangels"—as they facetiously call the officials who watch their every move—stamp their mark on every aspect of church life. Christian cemeteries are illegal, no rank higher than bishop is permitted, male orders are forbidden, and only "useful" female orders are allowed: contemplatives are considered a waste of time.
We met a group of underground novices. So great is the danger of discovery that—enclosed in small, dank farm buildings lent to the thirty-nine-year-old bishop by a brave peasant farmer—the young men are unable to leave the compound during the whole two years they are there. Traveling only under the cover of night, we were able to visit this seminary.
Their day starts in the chapel at 4 a.m. They pray for nine hours a day and can talk to each other for only fifty minutes. Breakfast, a sort of porridge, is at 8:20 a.m., with dinner (vegetables) at 4:10 p.m. On Fridays they miss breakfast, and twice a week they live on just bread and water. They never have meat or eggs. "We think that our standard of life should be lower than that of the average Christian," one told us. "We don’t usually notice the lack of food because the prayer makes us feel closer to God."
Wherever we went, underground priests, nuns, and seminarians smilingly accepted that they would probably serve at least one prison sentence for their vocation. None was frightened. We met another young priest who had been sent alone to one of the poorest areas of China, with scarcely any Christians—now, five years on, there are one thousand. In winter, the temperature plummets, and he has forty-six outstations to visit in an area of 2,500 square miles. He gets around on an old motorbike, but when it’s icy he walks. "Are you happy?" I asked him. His smile was radiant, huge: "I am very happy as a priest. I meet people who have no goal in life, and when they convert and they are blessed, I see how happy and fulfilled they are, and that makes me happy."
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion (Amos 6).
I was speaking at Princeton a while back and had dinner with a group that included a number of Lutherans and one Methodist who had recently become Roman Catholic. They declared themselves utterly convinced of everything the Catholic Church teaches, but where, they wanted to know, does one find the Catholic Church at worship? They had a long list of horror stories from Masses at suburban parishes with wannabe Jay Leno priests, guitar-twanged Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes, and song-leader soloists strutting their stuff. On the train back from Princeton I read Edward Farley of Vanderbilt Divinity School writing in Christian Century on the current state of Protestant worship. It was a continuation of the dinner conversation.
"Though prayers, music, and sermon may treat solemn and sacred themes of grief, suffering, evil, redemption, and hope, these themes arise from and then resubmerge into a stream of comfortable and casual pleasantness. This pleasant mood disengages these things from adoration and neutralizes and tames the Mystery. Most of the things done on Sunday morning do not seem to be directed toward adoration. Judged by the mood and ethos, the primary concern and referent of this hour is something other than the sacred.
"Without wanting to idealize earlier periods of Protestant ritual, I do wonder what has caused worship to become like this. Is it the outcome of a long historical process in which the Protestant movement failed to discover how to relate proclamation to sacramentality, how to retain both iconography and iconoclasm? Is the essence of Protestantism the replacement of adoration with proclamation, where grace comes by listening, not adoring? Is Sunday morning the result of the Protestant opposition between faith and works, an opposition that assigns ritual activities and even the act of adoration to ‘works’? Has the Protestant fascination with the forensic problem of release from guilt edged out acts of adoration? Is Sunday morning the result of the displacement of older pieties by civil religion, the therapeutic, the culture of narcissism, or social protest? Have contemporary churches been infected by the entertainment orientations of the electronic church and the new megachurches created by nondenominational entrepreneurs?
"I cannot say. I have no villains in mind. Ministers, music directors, worship and congregational leaders have not deliberately conspired to bring about this state of affairs. Protestant congregations have become devoid of worship as various features of contemporary culture have formed congregational life. The casual, happy, amused, and chatty Sunday morning has crept up on us unawares. If it is here to stay, at least for a while, perhaps congregations face the difficult task of creating another time or event in their ritual life when people gather to adore."
That about sums it up: "Casual, happy, amused, and chatty." I told my Princeton friends that I have witnessed some of what they deplore, but my general experience, beginning with my own parish in Manhattan, Immaculate Conception, is that of the Mass done with great dignity and reverence for the eucharistic mystery. And I do get around to parishes in other parts of the country. They countered that the parishes that would invite me are probably pretty good to start with, or clean up their liturgical act when I’m around, and there may be something to that. A former Lutheran in Virginia who became a Catholic a couple of years ago says, "I thought I was joining the Catholic Church, and then discovered I had joined the Diocese of Richmond."
In truth, he and the Princeton folk all say they have found places where the Mass is done as one might expect Catholics to do it, but, they insist, it isn’t easy. One found an ethnic inner-city parish, another goes to a nearby monastery, and yet another attends an Eastern rite parish. One says she has even found a large suburban parish where the people actually kneel during the canon, the priest refrains from ad-libbing the prayers, and there is regular exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. But that, all declare, is the great exception. These people, be it noted, are not "traditionalists" or fans of the Tridentine Rite. They are simply looking for the Mass to be celebrated in a way consonant with what the Church teaches and not disdainful of the liturgical and musical treasures of the Catholic tradition. That doesn’t seem like too much to expect, and, for all the banality of the English texts, it can be done eminently well with the Order of Mass in common use.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when people were attracted to the Catholic Church by the mystery, splendor, and fervent devotion of its worship. I count myself among the many who were formed by the liturgical renewal pioneered by leaders such as Monsignor Martin Hellriegel and embraced by the Second Vatican Council. What happened to that renewal is by now a familiar story, involving liturgists who confused the discovery of the human in worship with the worship of the human, ecumenists who felt obliged to love all traditions but their own, and episcopal bureaucracies that became establishment enforcers of perpetual change.
These developments were and are very profitably exploited by publishing empires in places such as Chicago and Portland that peddle to parishes an uninterrupted flow of musical tackiness premised upon the equation of progress with vulgarity, and all designed to put God’s people at ease in Zion. It is called pandering, but it is by no means evident that the pandering is appreciated by those being pandered to. The Mass as entertainment is, well, mildly entertaining. One may wonder if there is anything so sure to induce passivity in most of the people as the exhortations to hyper-activity in Father Bob’s performance liturgy. Not, mind you, that the Mass was done so well thirty years ago. That’s why the Council called for renewal. More than thirty years later, the call would seem to be more pertinent than ever. (The best and hilariously devastating sendup of the current state of Catholic worship is Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. It ought to be mandatory reading for all priests, seminarians, and music directors.)
In the last several years there has been a dramatic but little-remarked increase in the number of converts coming into the Church, and I am in regular conversation with Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others who are contemplating that momentous step. As one might expect, many have reasons for hesitation. I have never encountered anyone who has problems with the Church’s moral teachings or with issues such as women’s ordination. The Church’s position on such questions is generally a definite attraction. There are two common obstacles. One is papal infallibility. That is a good problem to have, for thinking it through leads to a deeper understanding of ecclesial authority, the development of doctrine, and Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit will lead his Church into all truth (John 16). But an obstacle as common, if not more common, is the state of Catholic worship. That ought not to be.
The Catholic Church gladly acknowledges the grace of God to be found outside its boundaries. With equal clarity, it teaches: "Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved." (Lumen Gentium, 14) That poses the crucial point of decision. I regularly remind inquirers of Flannery O’Connor’s remark that one is called to suffer ever so much more from the Church than for the Church. That will likely continue to be the case. And a reminder is always in order that some of the tales of liturgical horribles are probably exaggerated for effect. Nonetheless, as the prophet Amos might say: Woe to those who create an obstacle to the fullness of Catholic communion by the liturgical kitsch of Masses that are "casual, happy, amused, and chatty."
I have heard the objection that this is merely a matter of aesthetics, to which one answer is that aesthetics is not mere. Another answer is that a cultivated indifference to bad taste should not be a price exacted for becoming a Catholic. The most important answer, however, goes beyond taste to belief. A former Lutheran pastor tells me, "I had read the Catechism and Balthasar and the great doctors of the Church and was completely convinced by what they said about the Mass." Then she visited the neighboring Catholic parish. "From the way the Mass was celebrated, I just couldn’t believe that they believed what they said they believed. That was the biggest stumbling block in the way of my becoming a Catholic." She overcame it. But why did she have to?
One of the most influential Protestant biblical scholars of the century, Ernst Käsemann, died this past February at age ninety-one. There was no notice in the press here, which is not right. I asked Paul F. M. Zahl, Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal) in Birmingham, Alabama, to pen a brief tribute. He was both a student and personal friend of Professor Käsemann.
Ernst Käsemann was born July 12, 1906 in Dahlhausen near Bochum. He said that his childhood was "alone and joyless." Having studied theology at Bonn, where he was influenced by Erik Peterson (whose conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 jarred him deeply), Käsemann met Rudolf Bultmann at Marburg in 1925. Bultmann was his teacher and colleague until 1965, when Käsemann broke with Bultmann over the "anthropological," i.e., subjective, tilt of Bultmann’s thought. From 1959 to 1971 Käsemann was Professor of New Testament at Tübingen.
He served in parish ministry from 1933 to 1946. In 1937 his preaching against the Nazi ideology drew the wrath of the Gestapo and he was imprisoned. He was the last of his generation of German Church resisters to Hitler, a generation of whom, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, almost nothing is ever said in the United States.
Käsemann considered himself a revolutionary "partisan," campaigning against idolatry on every front. His confrontation with the Gestapo in 1937; his conflict in the 1970s with the "Pietists," who believed that he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus; his public sympathy with student radicals in 1968; the fact that his daughter Elizabeth became a political revolutionary in Argentina and was killed by the junta there in 1977: these and other important moments in a life that can be properly described as almost "world-historical" were all shaped by the metaphor of struggle against the principalities and powers.
On the scholarly side, Käsemann was a founder of the "second quest" for the historical Jesus and was a leading theologian of St. Paul. The inner core of all his written work was a highly individual reception of justification by faith. If Käsemann was a partisan of the partisans, he was also a Reformation theologian par excellence. He did not mind being called a Gnesio-Lutheraner (a "purist of the Lutherans"), although he really wasn’t. He was too combative to be held to any single school of thought.
Käsemann’s last letter to this writer was dated Reformation Day 1996. The next-to-penultimate paragraph stands as a moving testament to his understanding of what it means to be an authentic warrior for Christ:
Whoever took part in the German Church struggle [i.e., of 1933-1939] was a very individual partisan. I was one, too. I stood in the pulpit and right in front of me, in the gallery and below in the chancel, sat the Gestapo and the Nazis. You won’t believe how much of an individual I felt then! To preach Heaven and to have Hell right before your eyes in the person of its legates. . . . A thousand listeners were asked, at the highest pitch of individuality, to what end they were listening. . . . We represented our Lord and we risked His cross. We were called revolutionaries and were dealt with accordingly. But the Kingdom of God is revolutionary!