Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 80–99.
In June the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) formally approved a "Joint Declaration" (JD) on the doctrine of justification that had been worked out over many years of theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. Shortly after that, Rome made its official response in a joint statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (CCU). These developments received considerable play in the general media with stories about an "historic agreement" on the chief doctrine that had separated Lutherans and Catholics for almost five hundred years. The reality is somewhat more complicated than that.
Rome did officially "receive" JD in the sense that it affirmed that very significant progress had been made in removing past misunderstandings, and in moving toward full agreement on what it means to say that the sinner is justified by faith. However, many of the Catholics and Lutherans involved in producing JD are saying—mainly off the record, for the present—that the Roman response is, in the most important respects, a rejection of the declaration. JD proposed that, with the new understandings achieved by the dialogue, the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century no longer apply, and remaining differences over the doctrine of justification are not church-dividing. The Roman statement does not accept that proposal.
It would be an understatement to say that the theologians involved in the dialogue, both Lutheran and Catholic, were taken aback by the Roman response. During the process, Rome had indicated problems with aspects of the declaration and, almost up to the last minute, revisions were made to take those concerns into account. The participants in the dialogue thought they had been assured that JD would be approved by Rome. Certainly that was the understanding that informed the LWF’s approval of the declaration. In the immediate aftermath of the statement by CDF and CCU, the mood among dialogue participants was bitter and despondent. One Lutheran pioneer of the dialogue declared that the theologians, both Lutheran and Catholic, had been "betrayed" by Rome. For decades to come, he predicted, it would be impossible to reestablish confidence in any theological dialogue with the Catholic Church.
Such assertions, and there are many of them, may be excessive. Perhaps when the dust settles, the theologians will go about the task of putting together the pieces and resuming the dialogue in a way more likely to meet with approval from Rome. At present, however, it is not too much to say that they are in a state of shock. Their sharp criticism of the Roman response has several parts. In the first of its eight points, the Roman response says that JD’s treatment of the Lutheran teaching that the Christian believer is "at the same time righteous and sinner" (simul iustus et peccator) is unsatisfactory. On this, says Rome, it would be hard to say that the formulation of JD is not "touched" by the anathemas of the Council of Trent. Here and elsewhere, the theologians complain, the Roman statement gives a less than generous reading of JD, putting the most unfavorable construction on the text.
Moreover, it is said, Rome criticizes JD for what is said in sections of the document specifically written to provide a "Lutheran perspective." That is to say, JD includes several different kinds of statements. There are sections that state what Lutherans and Catholics can affirm together about justification. These sections, presumably, are the heart of JD’s achievement. They state the substantive agreement. Then it is acknowledged that Lutherans and Catholics have different ways of giving theological expression to the truth of justification—ways that are fully in accord with the substantive agreement stated earlier. So there are distinct sections offering, respectively, Lutheran and Catholic perspectives on the substantive truths agreed to. The complaint is that Rome’s response criticizes items contained in the "Lutheran perspective" because they do not employ the distinctively Catholic way of giving expression to the doctrine. The theologians answer, "But of course! That’s why JD provides the different perspectives in the first place." The question that Rome should have addressed, they say, is whether the statements of substantive agreement in JD are acceptable.
Challenging the Enterprise
The same theologians bristle at Rome’s point seven, which says that in the future the dialogue should focus on the entire teaching of the New Testament on justification. "Gratuitous and condescending," says one Lutheran. "As though in the course of the dialogue we had not done book-length studies of what the New Testament says on the subject. We don’t need Rome to tell us we should take the Bible seriously." It is point six, however, that meets with the most vehement reaction. There Rome’s response raises a challenge to the very structure of the dialogue itself, asking who the Lutheran partners really represent, and whether what they say can be trusted as a definitive word that will hold in the future. "This is really bad ecumenical form," says one Lutheran who has over the years risked criticism from fellow Lutherans for his effort to present Catholic positions favorably. Point six, he and others say, should have been raised thirty years ago when the dialogues were getting underway. There are obvious asymmetries between the LWF (and any other institution, for that matter) and the Catholic Church. Everybody has that difficulty in dealing with the Catholic Church. It is also a legitimate problem for Rome to raise, but that can be done in a way that is not insulting and does not undermine existing dialogues. Says one noted Catholic ecumenist: "From both its content and tone, I have the distinct impression that Rome’s statement was written by somebody who is unfamiliar with the ecumenical process, does not understand it, and probably does not like it."
As of this writing, tempers are high. The Lutherans who had been strongly critical of JD, and there are many of them among German theologians in particular, are having a hard time not saying "I told you so." Most of them seem not even to be trying. Catholics and Lutherans who are actually part of the dialogue, while deeply disappointed, are cautiously examining what might be rescued from the Roman mishap. There are exceedingly delicate intra-Roman questions involved here as well, such as the respective roles of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Council for Christian Unity, especially since the latter was party to producing JD and presumably presented it for approval. The complex relationship between offices (called dicasteries) in the Curia is the subject of much speculation and little public knowledge.
Toward the Future
In the presently agitated atmosphere, one should not lose sight of the fact that Rome’s statement does explicitly, strongly, and repeatedly affirm the dialogue itself and leaves no doubt that it should continue. It also affirms that JD is a great, although not entirely satisfactory, achievement. Whatever the disappointment of those who expected more, that should not be overlooked. While they no doubt could have been more felicitously expressed, legitimate concerns are raised in Rome’s response. Especially is this the case with the difference between Rome agreeing to a doctrinal statement and the agreement of an association of churches such as the LWF.
Although there would seem to be unexplored ambiguities here, Rome’s ratification of JD would make it, in some sense, part of the official teaching of the Catholic Church. At least it would be an official statement that JD is consonant with Catholic doctrine. Rome legitimately, although indelicately in this instance, inquires as to the magisterial status, so to speak, of the LWF’s vote to approve JD. It cannot be said that the historic disagreement over justification has been resolved with the "Lutheran communion" since not all Lutheran bodies belong to the LWF. And what is to prevent the LWF from taking a contrary vote at some point in the future? Unlike the Catholic Church, the LWF has no track record of exercising anything like a magisterial teaching authority. And some in Rome may recall that it was not so long ago that the LWF took up the question of justification at one of its assemblies and concluded that there was no consensus among Lutherans as to what it means.
These and other questions must be carefully engaged in the continuing dialogue on the long way toward the hoped-for goal of healing the breach between Rome and the Reformation. There is no blinking the fact that Rome’s response to JD is a setback, but it is in no way the end of the quest for unity. In ways not presently discerned, it may contribute to putting the Lutheran-Catholic and other dialogues on a more solid foundation. As John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) emphatically underscores, ecumenical engagement is not "optional" for the Catholic Church; it is an imperative built into the Church’s very self-understanding as articulated in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The present setback follows upon major disruptions also in the Anglican-RC dialogue. The Lutheran and Anglican cases are different in important respects, but these were viewed as the premier dialogues with the Catholic Church, and now both are dispirited and in a state of disarray. And, of course, the current fractiousness within Orthodoxy has cast a dark shadow over John Paul’s fervent hope for reconciliation between East and West. These are very hard days for ecumenism, and one has to hope that Rome will take the initiative in pointing a more promising way forward to the realization of the Our Lord’s prayer, "Ut unum sint."
Finally, the question is asked what bearing these developments have on the initiative known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), and, in particular, its agreed statement on justification, "The Gift of Salvation." I believe the answer is that ECT is untouched by Rome’s response to the Joint Declaration. Unlike the declaration, "The Gift of Salvation" is not an official statement, although it had and continues to have the strong encouragement of Rome. Moreover, the Lutheran formula of simul iustus et peccator, which was Rome’s chief objection to JD, is no part of "The Gift of Salvation." With some exceptions, that formula and the Lutheran construal of it in JD is as alien to Evangelicals as it is to Catholics. Then too, the questions at the center of the Lutheran-RC dialogue—what is church-dividing disagreement and how might ecclesial reconciliation be effected—are not on the ECT agenda. They might possibly be the questions for another generation of Evangelicals and Catholics. At present and for the foreseeable future, however, ECT is intent upon deepening the understanding of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ called to the common task of evangelization and the renewal of culture. The message of ECT was very warmly received at the special Synod for America convened by the Pope in Rome last year, and in the months ahead will be carried forward in ongoing discussions with Evangelical leaders and Catholic bishops in Latin America. In sum, ECT is a conspicuous exception to the current ecumenical doldrums.
There is no point in arguing with the claim that Jacques Derrida is the most famous philosopher in the world today. The most famous at least among those who set academic fashions and their camp followers in the popular media. He is commonly called "the father of deconstructionism," an ill-defined intellectual disposition that is thought to give carte blanche to the denial of "objective truth" in the service of making up whatever "truths" suit one’s fancy. Deconstructionism has provided a capacious playpen for queer studies, radical feminisms, and a wide range of debonair nihilisms that have taken exuberant advantage of the last several decades’ sabbatical from the tasks of clear thinking. Little wonder that Derrida—along with Nazi-tinged Paul De Man and the late celebrant of the culture of death, Michel Foucault—has become a byword of derision among conservatives. Children of Heidegger all, they are thought to vindicate the truth that evil ideas, too, have consequences.
Over the years, Derrida has returned regularly to Johns Hopkins University where thirty years ago his deconstructionist manifesto first excited the neophiliac professoriate. In between there have been more than thirty books in which Derrida has maintained his reputation for being at the cutting edge, or, in the view of his critics, for taking French intellectual life over the edge into terminal silliness. As so often happens, the master is just a bit embarrassed by what his epigones have done in his name. Just a bit, mind you. He is careful not to jeopardize his celebrity standing, but he does want it understood that he is not responsible for all the bizarre things perpetrated in the name of deconstructionism. This was evident in a recent interview at Johns Hopkins in which he said that those who assert it is not possible to determine what is right and wrong are operating with a "relativistic image of deconstruction." He did not provide a nonrelativistic definition of deconstruction but appeared to suggest that his method, so to speak, was little more than the inculcation of modesty in what we claim to know for sure. There is a long tradition of French intellectuals sending signals through the medium of interviews, and there are no doubt books already in the works deciphering Derrida’s enigmatic allusion to the existence of relativistic and nonrelativistic deconstruction.
Also enigmatic but suggestive of something genuinely interesting in Derrida’s thought is what might be viewed as a theological turn. Asked about his role as the world’s most famous philosopher (a description he does not dispute), Derrida opined: "I have been given this image, and I have to face some responsibility, political and ethical. It is as if I am indebted to—I don’t know to whom—to thinking rigorously, to thinking responsibly. I am in a situation of trying to learn to whom, finally, I am responsible. To discover . . . who is hidden, who gives me orders. It is as if I have a destiny which I have to interpret and decipher." It does sound as though Mr. Derrida is taking the long way around to the Big Question. Perhaps, he seems to be saying, the decipherer is himself a "text" being deciphered. The deconstructionist deconstructed is but a small step from the discovery of the One to whom he is responsible and by whom he is destined. If or when he publicly takes that step, watch for the announcement that Jacques Derrida, once celebrated as the world’s most famous philosopher, has in his old age taken refuge in religious obscurantism.
I will not be surprised if he does take that step toward the truth ever ancient, ever new. Reading the Derridadists, one gets the impression that many of them think they are being terribly innovative and radical in making what is usually the adolescent discovery that there is no "totalist" explanation of the truth about everything. Sophomores of all ages, many of them tenured, declare themselves "liberated" by the realization that there are other ways of viewing almost everything, and then concluding that no one way can be "privileged" as the truth about anything. Their rebellion against the pretentious certitudes of Enlightenment rationalism, often defined as modernity, is in large part warranted, and that is the kernel of truth in "postmodernism." Postmodernism can be a lower-case relativism that is not Relativism but simply a disciplined modesty in search of the way things really are. This is not relativism as a dogma but relativism in the service of truth.
The dismal truth is that generations of moderns were miseducated to think that religion, and Christianity in particular, claims to be "objectively" true in a manner that eliminates the subjectivity of experience and perspective. Regrettably, that miseducation was and is abetted by Christians who confuse orthodoxy with the exclusion of intellectual inquiry. In this habit of mind, the truth is an object, a thing possessed, which must be assiduously protected from any thought that is not certified by Christian copyright. The alternative is to understand that truth is personal, less a matter of our possessing than of our being possessed in service to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, our apprehension of that truth is always partial, something seen through a glass darkly in anticipation of the time when we will know even as we are known.
Few things have contributed so powerfully to the unbelief of the modern and postmodern world as the pretension of Christians to know more than we do. In reaction to unwarranted claims of knowledge certain and complete, modern rationalists constructed their religion of scientism, and postmoderns, in reaction to both, claim to know that nothing can be known. Please do not misunderstand. Christians do know the truth, saying with St. Paul (Romans 8:38-39), "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." As St. Paul goes on to say in Romans 11, "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" Christian thought is the open-ended adventure into searching the unsearchable and scrutinizing the inscrutable. Always, if it is authentically Christian, it ends up in doxology: "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen."
Unthinking Christian polemics against "relativism" play a large part in creating upper case Relativists. The objective truth of revelation is perceived as an alien intrusion (heteronomy is the technical word) that is the enemy rather than the end of honest inquiry. The great thinkers of an earlier era—from Justin Martyr through Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas—understood that all truth is the truth of Christ. "In the beginning was the Word," the Logos who is the universal wisdom in which all wisdom finds its source and end. The thought that any truth can violate that truth is a violation of the law of noncontradiction, which cannot be violated without self-contradiction. Faced with the apparent choice of following Christ or following a truth that we know to be true, the course of fidelity is to follow the truth, for only thus will we be following Christ, if, as we are persuaded, Christ is the truth.
The inquiring subject is not eliminated but encountered by the truth of the Word. Our apprehension of the objective is always relative. This is true in matters both trivial and cosmic. How far is Kansas City? The answer is relative to whether you’re in New York or in Peoria. Each of us apprehends the truth from his own circumstance, which is a standpoint that is not to be confused with the standpoint. Only the one who is both Alpha and Omega occupies the standpoint from which all is known, comprehensively and without remainder. St. Paul again: "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." If Christians exhibited more intellectual patience, modesty, curiosity, and sense of adventure, there would be fewer atheists in the world, both of the modern rationalist and postmodern irrationalist varieties. I have never met an atheist who rejects the God in whom I believe. I have met many who decline to commit intellectual suicide, and maybe spiritual suicide as well, by accepting a God proposed by Christians who claim to know more than they can possibly know.
Which brings me back to Jacques Derrida. I don’t know whether he was just being cute in that interview. He does, unfortunately, have a record of posturing to put his devotees more off balance than they already are. But I would very much like to believe that he is resolved to think rigorously about to whom he is indebted, to whom, finally, he is responsible. That way, pressed honestly enough, lies the encounter with the truth that deciphers our deciphering and deconstructs our deconstructing. And, who knows, perhaps Derrida’s disciples, too, will one day weary of their sophisticated knowingness and be opened to the truth that frees us from our poignantly compulsive liberations.
"Blaming the victim" is a charge all too lightly tossed about in recent decades. Anyone who dares to point out that the actions and attitudes of those in certified victim groups (blacks, women, homosexuals, et al.) might have contributed to their victimization is vulnerable to the charge of blaming the victim. This subject arises in connection with Albert S. Lindemann’s Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews. Lindemann examines the ways in which the behavior of Jewish communities in Europe contributed to the anti-Semitism that produced the Holocaust. The book was assaulted in Commentary as an outrageous calumny, and Cambridge University Press was excoriated for having published it. For the most part, however, the book seems to have been ignored in this country.
Steven Beller, author of Vienna and the Jews: A Cultural History, takes a different (I do not say more balanced) approach in the Times Literary Supplement. He writes: "It is abundantly clear, to anyone with an open mind, that Lindemann’s sympathies in a large sense lie fairly and squarely with the Jews, not only as passive victims, but also as active contributors to the modern world. It is just that he is also trying to understand why Jews were so hated, and also to keep an ‘objective’ sense of how much they were hated. It is one of his more controversial claims, but I think it is a correct one, that most Germans did not want to exterminate all Jews during the Second World War. I think he is also right to point out that most anti-Semitic thinkers and leaders before and after the First World War were not in favor of extermination of the Jewish race, and that anti-Semitism was not some sort of endemic plague which, of itself, led to the Holocaust. Instead, he shows that many European societies were relatively free of anti-Semitism, including Britain, Italy, Hungary (at least before the First World War), and France (except for the relatively brief period of the Dreyfus Affair). His point is that modern Gentile Europe was not one massive ‘vale of tears,’ but rather a place where many Jews could, and did, do remarkably well. He even points out that Germany and Austria, for all the real anti-Semitism in those countries, saw a flourishing of Jewish economic and intellectual endeavor, and that the supposed false optimism of the assimilant communities is perfectly understandable from a pre-Holocaust perspective."
If Lindemann sins, Beller suggests, it is a sin of exaggeration. "In a revealing analogy, Lindemann tries to liken the attacks on Jewish achievement and on Jewish feelings of superiority to recent attacks on ‘Western Civilization’ and the West’s sense of superiority over the rest of the world. The attacks on both, he seems to be saying, are understandable but largely unjustified, even if both—the Jews and the West—have their faults. Lindemann’s book, for all its faults, is a worthy and at times deeply moving attempt to show why this is so, in both cases. If the Jews were not and are not ‘saints’ in his estimation, and if their own thoughts and actions have at times played into the hands of those who would attack them, they are nevertheless, in his opinion, an overwhelmingly positive influence in the modern world. Similarly, even if Western Civilization has deep flaws, one of which, tragically, has been the prejudice against Jews, it too has been a positive force in the history of the world, and its virtues should not be completely and distortedly obscured by the exaggeration of its vices. Lindemann’s own appeal to ‘objectivity’ and the possibility of understanding on a human level is an exercise in precisely those virtues of Western Civilization of which Jews have partaken and to which they have contributed so much. Read in that spirit, Albert Lindemann’s book, while far from perfect, deserves praise and not calumny. It will be interesting to see whether it gets what it deserves."
The claim, inter alia, that "most Germans did not want to exterminate all Jews during the Second World War" is not terribly reassuring. They wanted to exterminate only the more offensive ones? The problem with the book is not that Lindemann tries to understand views that were held back then in a "pre-Holocaust perspective." That is a valuable thing to do. The problem is that Lindemann so enters into those views that he seems at times to be writing from a pre-Holocaust perspective. There is almost no subject today about which there is more moralistic cant than the subject of the Holocaust. For that reason, the friends of clear thinking are inclined to welcome books that go against the grain. Esau’s Tears, however, crosses a line that, admittedly, is hard to draw with any exactness. It is the kind of exercise that gives a measure of respectability to the phrase "blaming the victim."
After the longest tenure in the magazine’s long history, Father George Hunt, S.J., has been replaced as editor of America by Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J. The new editor’s training is in social science and he has written prolifically on what he calls the management style of the Catholic Church. The Jesuit weekly is no longer the influence that it once was, but, along with the lay-edited Commonweal, it has generally tracked a moderate brand of liberalism that wants to be devoted to the Church while making no secret of its unhappiness with the Church’s leadership, and especially with the pontificate of John Paul II. Fr. Reese unveiled his own understanding of the Catholic moment in last year’s John Courtney Murray Lecture, "2001 and Beyond: Preparing the Church for the Next Millennium." The Murray Lecture has over the years been given by many distinguished and not so distinguished figures—proving the latter point, I gave it in 1984—and Fr. Reese’s presentation might be read as a preview of what is to be expected from America in the years ahead.
Although barely attempting to disguise his own partisanship, Fr. Reese clearly wants to appear evenhanded in his treatment of conflicts between "conservatives" and "liberals" as those terms are understood in some circles—"liberal" meaning thoughtfully moderate and "conservative" meaning reactively fearful of change. The lecture concludes on an admirably compelling note: "If we are to be true to our Christian faith, love must be at the root of any strategy we adopt. . . . Jesus did not go to the cross shaking his fist and cursing his opponents. He went peacefully, witnessing to the truth with dignity, asking his Father to forgive those who crucified him. . . . We are called to witness to the world that we are Christians by our love, and not to scandalize the world by showing we are Catholics by our fights."
But fights there are, and Fr. Reese leaves no doubt about which side he is on. He begins by asking, "How do we change the church to make it ready for the next millennium?" He has earlier noted that Christianity is "a community of believers who are organized as a church." The concept of the church (in his text, always lower case) as a religious organization that we human beings create and control dominates this lecture and Reese’s other writings, reflecting the fact that, as he repeatedly says, he speaks as a social scientist and not as a theologian. In response to his question—"How do we change the church to make it ready for the next millennium?"—he says somewhat too modestly, "I do not claim to know the answers." He goes on to say, "I am suspicious of those who do claim certitude, whether they be Vatican officials or members of the U.S. Catholic group known as Call to Action." Call to Action is generally viewed as a far-left advocacy group that agitates for what it views as democracy in the Church, the election of bishops, the ordination of women, homosexual rights, and cognate causes. Fr. Reese’s suggested equivalence of the suspect certitude of Call to Action and of "Vatican officials"—presumably including the Pope and the magisterium—is noteworthy. Perhaps he does not intend to suggest such an equivalence, although the implication is reinforced as the lecture proceeds.
The Battle Is Over
In surveying the Catholic circumstance, Fr. Reese first takes up the challenge of sexual morality, and his conclusion is stark: "The real story here is that in the Catholic Church the battle about sex is over." Remember that he is speaking as a social scientist. "I do not deny the spiritual and theological character of the church," he says. It is simply that, as a social scientist, the question of whether the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is true or not is not within his field of expertise. He is by no means enthusiastic about what has happened, but facts are facts. "That the church has not had a clear, convincing, and pastoral message to help people through the sexual revolution is tragic for both the church and the world. On sex, however, the battle is over; and there are no winners." Fr. Reese’s declaration of surrender—for that is surely what it is—with respect to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality includes no mention of abortion, a question on which the Church has been both firm and, considering the opposition, remarkably effective. It is not too much to say that there would be no pro-life movement in America or the world were it not for the Catholic Church. But any reference to the Church’s role in the conflict between "the culture of life" and "the culture of death" is conspicuously absent from Fr. Reese’s analysis of the Church at the edge of the millennium.
Fr. Reese offers a detailed and most doleful picture of the shortage of priests in support of his argument for dropping the requirement of celibacy. Because of the lack of priests, the great majority of Catholics will soon be deprived of both priests and sacraments, he says. "The celibacy rule may very well do what the Reformation could not—namely, declericalize and desacramentalize the Catholic Church." He does not mention recent, albeit modest, increases in the number of priestly vocations worldwide, nor American dioceses that are producing more than an ample number of priests. One might think that the latter phenomenon would be of particular interest to a social scientist. Nor, in this connection or any other, is there a mention of renewal movements such as the Legionaries of Christ and the Neocatechumenal Way that are attracting hundreds of priestly vocations. That, too, is a phenomenon of possible social scientific interest.
But such considerations would not serve Fr. Reese’s argument. In his unremittingly bleak depiction of the alleged crisis, he lifts up a somewhat unusual factor premised upon the assumption of what might be called the episcopal will to power. "The hierarchy," he says, "is ignoring its own self-interest by refusing to ordain married men [because] married priests would tremendously increase the power of the bishops. . . . As every employer knows, the larger the labor pool, the easier it is to hire and fire employees." Moreover, "an employee with a family to support is more docile than one without." To the objection that this suggests a less than elevated view of the priesthood and episcopacy, Fr. Reese would no doubt remind us again that he speaks only as a social scientist.
On the subject of the ordination of women, he is, as they say, more nuanced. He notes what he believes is the strong support for ordaining women among Catholics in Europe and America, and anticipates that support will increase elsewhere "as women in other parts of the world become better educated." Of course, the magisterium has said that the Church is not authorized to ordain women and therefore cannot do it. Reese comments: "I believe that the only reason the Pope has not declared this teaching infallible is that the Vatican realizes that to do so would put the whole question of infallibility up for debate. As long as infallibility is kept in the closet and not used, Catholics don’t worry about it. If it were used to define a teaching opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, then the doctrine of papal infallibility would be put at risk."
That is a passage of considerable interest. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fr. Reese fails to mention that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has said that the teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood is infallible. The coy response offered by some is that CDF is not infallible, as though the CDF statement did not have the Pope’s explicit approval. The fair-minded reader of Fr. Reese’s lecture is invited to infer that the Church can and should ordain women. Nor would such a reader be unwarranted in wondering whether Fr. Reese intends to question whether the Church, in fact, possesses infallible teaching authority. But of course he is speaking as a social scientist, not as a theologian. The inference and the wonder are made unavoidable, however, by the fact that women’s ordination (which is a matter of doctrine) immediately follows the discussion of the ordination of married men (which is not a matter of doctrine) in his response to the problem of a shortage of priests. Following immediately upon women’s ordination and infallibility, we are told that a "growing number of American women" see the Church as "riddled with sexism" and are alienated by her position not only on ordination but on birth control, lay preaching, inclusive language, and other issues. Because it stands "with the status quo against the inevitable movement of history," we are told that there is "a serious risk that the church will lose women in the next century the way it lost European working-class men in the last."
To be sure, Fr. Reese is speaking as a social scientist. He is presumably not saying what he thinks as a theologian or, for that matter, as a Catholic. It is a peculiar way of speaking for one who is, after all, a priest of the Church and is, in the same breath, sharply criticizing the Church for not persuasively communicating her teaching. I am sure it is not what Fr. Reese intends, but it looks very much like encouraging people to disagree with the Church’s teaching and then demanding that the Church change her teaching because—as a social scientist, of course—you have discovered that people don’t accept the Church’s teaching. It is more than a little annoying when a person taunts authority and then teases readers to guess at what he is really saying. Some might think it just a touch adolescent. I am reminded of the childhood game "Dare You," which turned on whether or not one had crossed the line chalked on the sidewalk. "Did!" "Did not!" "Did!" And so forth. It was great fun, but it is not a game for grown-ups.
Readers who are simply trying to understand what Fr. Reese is saying are, one fears, likely to be dismissed by him as conservatives who, he says, "opt for an ecclesiology inspired by Joe McCarthy" and are given to denouncing people who disagree with them. Not, apparently, that Fr. Reese is seriously worried about those conservatives. "The conservative wing of the Catholic community is in fact very small, though very vocal," he insouciantly observes. "The serious division is not within the community as a whole but between the people and the hierarchy"—except for figures in the hierarchy such as the late Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and the former John Quinn of San Francisco who, he notes approvingly, "listened sensitively."
The Intellectual Life
Fr. Reese is also concerned about what he takes to be the suppression of intellectual life by imposed conformity. "The Catholic Church spends a smaller percentage of its budget on research and development than any other multinational corporation in the world," he declares. It would not occur to many to think of the intellectual life as research and development, or of the Church as a multinational corporation, or of its mission as product marketing. But, then, Fr. Reese speaks as a social scientist. The future of what he simply calls "the reform" is, according to him, not encouraging in view of the corporation’s present and prospective CEO. John Paul II has appointed almost all the voting cardinals, so Fr. Reese regretfully says that "the next pope may differ in style, but not in substance." Lest there be any doubt about his regretting this prospect, he adds, "We may even get a pope who will make his immediate predecessor look like a liberal." He does not say what it might mean for a pope to differ "in substance." In any event, we are told, the Church’s intellectual product is not up to market standards. It has wasted its capital in fighting "a rearguard battle defending Scholasticism." "That battle has been lost, although you would never know it from reading the official Catechism of the Catholic Church." The Catechism clearly does not pass muster—speaking only from the viewpoint of social science and market research, mind you.
It finally comes down to a matter of management. "The Catholic Church, like IBM, was too big, with too many bureaucratic rules, to respond well to a changing environment." IBM blamed the personal computer and some Catholics blame the Second Vatican Council but "the problem [is] the inability of IBM and the Vatican to adapt their management styles to a new and rapidly changing environment." The Church, he says, "must be committed to the task of continuous critical renewal." In explaining what that means, he makes explicit the ecclesiology or theology of the Church that underlies his argument. "This is a dynamic process of deliberate self-constitution in which the church holds itself to its ideals and interacts with the world by responding to the needs of the times." Self-constitution. Perhaps that says it all. Constituted not by Christ or the Holy Spirit but by us. Accountable not to the revealed will of God but to our ideals and the needs of the times, presumably as those needs are defined by the world. This is the light in which we can understand Fr. Reese’s opening question, "How do we change the church to make it ready for the next millennium?"
A Familiar Ecclesiology
It is a very odd way of putting the matter. The church (lower case) is our religious association to change as we will or, more precisely, to change in ways that will make it more attractive in the cultural marketplace. One might suggest that the question is how, as we prepare for the new millennium, do we discern and act upon the will of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit in more effectively communicating to the world its salvation in Christ? That is the way the question is addressed in John Paul’s Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Nears), which stands in sharpest contrast to Fr. Reese’s reflection. Of course he would likely protest that the Pope is speaking theologically while he is speaking only as a social scientist. I would suggest, however, that what Fr. Reese proposes is also bad social science. I believe he seriously misreads the cultural circumstance to which he would have the Church accommodate herself. More important, good social science begins with the self-understanding of the phenomenon being studied. The Church understands herself not as a corporation in the religion business but as the Body of Christ and pilgrim People of God bearing the mystery of the world’s salvation. It is not possible to separate so neatly the sociological and theological. Social science that does not begin with that self-understanding is bad social science and, to the extent it has influence in the Church, will produce bad theology.
"2001 and Beyond: Preparing the Church for the Next Millennium" brings to mind the motto of that hapless institution, the World Council of Churches: "The world sets the agenda for the church." Every change that Fr. Reese advocates as part of "the reform" has been undertaken, in spades, by the oldline Protestant denominations now in such disheartening decline. Married clergy, women clergy, theological pluralism, participatory governance, management studies galore—and all done in response to what Fr. Reese so touchingly calls "the inevitable movement of history." Of course he might say that the Protestant experience is not relevant because the Catholic Church is different. But it is precisely at the point of his ecclesiology—which is, disclaimers to the contrary, a theology of sorts—that the liberal Protestant parallel is most exact. They, too, believe that their churches are self-constituting communities accountable only to their own ideals, the market, and "the needs of the times."
Being editor of America is a position of considerable responsibility. I do not subscribe to the view that the magazine and the Society of Jesus that publishes it are on a course of unstoppable drift toward marginality. The Jesuits represent an enormous store of devotion, talent, and tradition that was, after the Council, largely invested in a version of "the reform" that was not to be. But the continuing power of the Ignatian charism is evident in the fact that more recent and more constructive reform movements admit, at least sotto voce, that their hope is to be "the new Jesuits." One can wish them well in that aspiration while, at the same time, not despairing of the possibility that the old Jesuits and their various enterprises such as America still have an invaluable contribution to make to the renewal for which the Council continues to call. Toward that end, one hopes that Fr. Reese’s John Courtney Murray Lecture is not a preview of what may be expected from America in the years ahead.
Following protests by the Catholic League and others, the Manhattan Theater Club said it was withdrawing its plan to stage Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi. A week later, after intense pressure from "the arts community," the theater reversed itself and announced it is going ahead with the production. The theater is partly financed by tax money. By the time this comment sees print the play may be up and running, or already closed.
Although I’ve tried to get a copy, I haven’t seen the script of Corpus Christi. But both the London Guardian and the New York Times say they have seen it. According to the Guardian, the play opens with a woman screaming, "F--- me, f--- me!" again and again. Joseph somehow got his testicles shot off, which explains Mary’s virginity. After Joshua (the Jesus figure) is unable to get an erection with his girlfriend, he discovers his gay "sexual identity" in a liaison with Judas Iscariot. Joshua proceeds to have sex with the other apostles, and it turns out that his magic "healing touch" is masturbation. At the Last Supper he says that the disciple who will betray him is someone who has "lain" with him, to which they all respond that that could be any of them. And so forth.
My apologies for bringing such swill to your attention, but there are questions of some interest engaged here. Once again the Catholic League is leading the protest, and once again the League and its allies are criticized by the usual suspects for trying to impose censorship. Also some Catholic voices say they are embarrassed by the League and its president, Dr. William Donohue, for allegedly ham-fisted protest that revives the outdated stereotype of immigrant Catholics as anti-intellectual and anti-artistic philistines. That criticism, too, is not new. More interesting is the argument that Corpus Christi can be viewed as an effort by homosexuals to "inculturate" the gospel. In the play, the Jesus-figure is crucified as "King of the Queers." While many, it is said, may think that an insult, in a play that champions being queer it should be taken as a gesture of approbation. What should one make of such an argument? Is it but a perverse twist upon perversity?
The public statement of the Catholic League is nothing if not straightforward: "The Manhattan Theatre Club has a legal right to offend Christians, but it has no moral right to do so. Hate speech is hate speech; it does not become something less if dressed in artistic clothing. Moreover, to flagrantly offend the sensibilities of any religious group is outrageous and can only fan the flames of bigotry. . . . We call upon the goodwill of all Americans to join with us in condemning this blasphemy."
Is the play an instance of "hate speech"? Is it "blasphemy"? Again, I have not seen the play, but the Times report gives some insight into the intention of the playwright. The script ends with the statement, "If we have offended, so be it. He belongs to us as well as you." It seems beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. McNally expects and intends to offend those Christians, which is almost all Christians, who are offended by the portrayal of Jesus as a sodomite. He intends to offend them, as the League puts it, "flagrantly." The most obvious reason one would want to do that, apart from earning plaudits from one’s peers for being terribly brave, is that one hates those people, or at least hates their views regarding homosexuality and the gay subculture. So yes, the play is "hate speech." But is it "blasphemy"? One definition of blasphemy is "irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable." For those of us who consider the sinlessness, including sexual purity, of Jesus to be sacred and inviolable, the play is blasphemy. Another definition of blasphemy is "the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God." Mr. McNally would apparently claim that, far from being blasphemy, the play is an act of devotion to "The King of the Queers." As the play says, "He belongs to us as well as you." The play is, says the Manhattan Theatre Club, McNally’s "own unique view of ‘the greatest story ever told.’"
Were there a play of moral and spiritual seriousness attempting to "inculturate" Jesus and the gospel in the homosexual subculture, one’s response might be quite different. One might criticize such a play as heretical and pathetically, even poignantly, wrongheaded. But, from everything we know, Corpus Christi is not such a play. It is a deliberate and hateful exercise in offending people who it is assumed, even hoped, will view it as blasphemy. The public protest against it is entirely warranted. The protocols of civility in our society are much battered, but one would like to think that enough decency remains to rule this exercise in calculated hate beyond the pale. Those Christian sophisticates manqué who are inclined to take outrages in stride and who claim that protest only draws attention to what is protested are, it is to be feared, quite blind to both the protocols and the decency that such protocols indispensably serve.
"Win a few, lose a few." To which Charlie Brown of "Peanuts" fame responds, "That would be nice." Given the general state of the world, "Lose a few, lose a few" sometimes seems the safer motto. But we should remain open to surprises. Such as the June ruling of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in favor of school vouchers. The ruling is the more remarkable because the court found that Milwaukee’s plan to help fifteen thousand poor children go to better schools not only passed muster with the state constitution but also with the religion clause of the federal constitution. Only a few years ago, parental choice in education was viewed as a very good idea whose time would come—someday. The best single article on the subject, to my mind, is still John Coons’ "School Choice as Simple Justice" (FT, April 1992). With the Wisconsin decision, it seems that someday may be now.
Many people have prepared the way for this. Along with those who have done the hard thinking, writing, and persuading on the justice and practicability of this change, there were people such as Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee who teamed up with organizers in poor communities, put programs into place, and fought for them against legal challenges from the government school defenders of the status quo. Similar movements have been launched around the country. There are now more than fifty private scholarship programs, and in Washington, D.C., almost eight thousand poor children applied for one thousand scholarships. Financier Ted Forstmann and others are raising more than $200 million for such scholarships nationwide. This is philanthropy that gives people money to help them help themselves, rather than, as with most of the big foundations, continuing to fund social engineers and pour vast resources into the sinkholes of their own designing.
The catastrophe of government schools for the urban poor is difficult to exaggerate. The Wall Street Journal reports: "Only 15 percent of Washington, D.C., children read ‘below basic’ on the Stanford 9 test in first grade. By 10th grade, 53 percent test below basic. In 10th-grade math, an incredible 89 percent score below basic. In other words, kids do worse the longer they’re in schools that spend more than $9,000 a year per student." Many years ago I was on a university platform with the late Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and I said that in New York City only one out of five children entering first grade would end up with an employment-relevant high school diploma. Afterwards he told me privately that he thought it was more like one out of ten. Shanker knew that the status quo could not be sustained, although he was not sure what to do about it. The teachers union leadership of today appears to be in terminal denial.
Ten years ago, parental choice was understood to be a "conservative" idea. Now it is being embraced also by liberal thinkers and politicians. Not by President Clinton, however, and not by Vice President Al Gore, who has been aptly described as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Education Association. And certainly not by the New York Times, whose reaction to the Wisconsin decision was a lead editorial titled "Breaching the Church-State Wall." The language and logic of the reaction betray the pathetic bankruptcy of education’s ancien régime. The editors have apparently not been told that the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court has in recent years abandoned Jefferson’s "wall of separation" as the controlling paradigm for understanding the religion clause of the First Amendment. The new concept is "equal regard," and it requires that government not discriminate against institutions or programs simply because they are religious. There is solid reason to hope that the Court will uphold the Wisconsin decision.
The editors write that "this veneer of choice does not change the fact that taxpayer dollars would flow into sectarian institutions in contravention of the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion. Many church schools that would be tax-funded have religious indoctrination as a core purpose." Let’s hope that they do. As for what the editors call tax-funded religion, it struck me many years ago that St. John the Evangelist, my parish in a black and poor section of Brooklyn, was almost entirely funded by the government. Vestments, bread, wine, and hymnals were purchased, the heat bill and salaries were paid, by the contributions of people whose chief income was the government welfare system. There is no difference in principle between government giving people money to purchase food and clothing or giving them money to purchase educational opportunity for their children. If the Times had its way, maybe people on welfare could buy food and clothing only in government stores. The editorial reaction reflects two fears: the fear of poor people having the freedom to decide what is best for them and theirs, and the fear of religion.
The Wisconsin decision, the editors continue, "fails to foresee the patronage bonanza that would result among politicians competing to funnel tax revenues to the institutions favored by their constituents, whether they be urban Catholics in Northern cities or suburban Protestants in the Sun Belt." Politicians would try to please their constituents? Horrors! Or maybe it is only horrible when the constituents are Northern Catholics or Southern Protestants. Instead, it is suggested, politicians should continue to funnel tax revenues only into the government school system that is run by the constituents of the New York Times.
The editors are not finished. "Parents will essentially be left to choose between a state-supported private education system and the old public school system. As more families opt out of the public schools, those schools will starve." The Times apparently has no confidence that the government schools can successfully compete by reforming themselves; therefore the children of poor people must be forced to go to them. The editorial ends on the low note of hypocrisy that has become standard in this debate, with a ringing affirmation of "the common schools that are essential institutions for a democratic society." And how many editors at the Times, do you suppose, send their children to public schools in New York City? In all fairness, there may be one or two, for the city has wisely maintained a few elite enclaves within the system. But you can bet the family fortune that nobody at the Times, nor anyone else who can afford an alternative, sends their children to the schools to which the editors would forcibly consign the children of the poor. What is true of New York is true of other urban areas in America. As Jack Coons said, school choice is a matter of simple justice. Its time has come.
Sources: Interview with Jacques Derrida, New York Times, May 30, 1998. Albert Lindemann’s Vienna and the Jews reviewed by Steven Beller in Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 1998. On Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi: Catholic League press release, July 1, 1998; Guardian, June 5, 1998; New York Times, May 29, 1998. Editorials on school choice, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, June 12, 1998. While We’re At It: Michael Walzer on political mobilization against inequality, The New Republic, February 2, 1998. On Francis Cardinal Arinze and "reparation theology," catholic trends, January 24, 1998. Hadley Arkes on his priest friend and Governor George W. Bush, Crisis, July/August 1998. On Catholic deacons in the Netherlands, Religion Watch, March 1998. Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch reviewed by J. Budziszewski, National Review, March 23, 1998. "A View of Religious Vocations" by Fr. Albert DiIanni, America, February 28, 1998. On the lordship of Christ, Nicotine Theological Journal, January 1998. James Q. Wilson on "Two Nations," 1997 Francis Boyer Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, delivered December 4, 1997. On World Relief, World, March 28, 1998. Sister Pascal Conforti quoted on Jesus and AIDS patients, Long Island Catholic, March 25, 1998. Stephen Carter’s Civility reviewed by Alan Wolfe, Wall Street Journal, April 28, 1998. Reflections on Thucydides, New York Times, April 21, 1998. Jacob Neusner quoted on Orthodox Jewish students at Yale, Context, May 1, 1998. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz on obedience, New Oxford Review, May 1998. A Mother’s Place by Susan Chira reviewed by Marily Nissenson, New York Times, May 15, 1998. On Judge Raymond Novak and case of pro-life activist Joan Andrews Bell, personal correspondence. Monsignor George Higgins on labor, Catholic New York, June 18, 1998. Charles Krauthammer on religion and public life, Time, June 15, 1998. On Catholic Theological Society of America, catholic trends, June 27, 1998. Cardinal Ratzinger on truth and dialogue between religions, Communio, Spring 1998.