Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic


Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine July-August 2007


“If we really wanted to, we could...” Complete the sentence with your favoured cause: end war, eliminate poverty, achieve educational equality, eradicate racial and ethnic prejudice, or whatever. No, we can’t. We can often contain evils and sometimes reduce evils, but we cannot abolish evil. Nor is it a Christian virtue to think we can. To think we can is a prideful and thoroughly un-Christian idea that becomes particularly odious when joined to self-flattering but empty gestures. This observation is occasioned by a press release from the government office of the ELCA Lutherans. “More than 1,500 members of the ELCA were among the 110,332 U.S. citizens and 23.5 million people worldwide who stood up during worship on October 15 to fight global poverty. The ‘STAND UP’ event seta national and global record in the Guinness World Records for the largest number of people to stand up for a cause... Lutherans across the U.S. participated in the event organised as part of ‘ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History’, in cooperation with the United Nations’ Millennium Campaign.” Better than half of the Lutheran stand-ups were in three congregations. In one Minnesota church, “52 people stood for a moment during worship, 14 of whom participated in a house party later that day” to discuss and act on global hunger and poverty. Were I in the congregation that Sunday, I would not have stood up. Not because I don’t care about world poverty but because one should not contribute to the delusion that saying you’re against an evil discharges your duty, or even partly dischargesyour duty, to deal with the evil, and because it is unseemly to trumpet your moral superiority to the people who didn’t stand up and therefore are, in this peculiar way of thinking, not as caring as you. (In whispered tones: “Emma, don’t just sit there. Don’t you want to end poverty?”) Now if one were challenged to give, say, a thousand dollars to programs that actually feed the hungry, one might, with the help of friends, try to come up with the money. But, rather than stand up to be counted among the righteous, one might also follow Our Lord’s counsel not to let the left hand know what the right is doing. And one certainly would not tie one’s effort to a United Nations program with the pretentious title ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History. There are numerous programs, most of themchurch-related, in which thousands of people are selflessly working to help the poor around the world. It’s steady work, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory. They are deserving of our constant prayers and generous support. Better cough up than STAND UP. I’m all for a little guilt-mongering in a good cause. Moral preening, however, is always in bad taste, and it is damaging to the soul. The editor of Forum Letter, who brought the ELCA release to my attention, adds a wry observation on the claim of Guinness World Records: How many people, do you suppose, stood up that Sunday to profess the Creed in the cause of the faith?


Here’s a pleasant change of pace. It’s a long editorial in the New York Daily News, “Keeping Faith with New York”, celebrating the bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York. (The archdiocese includes 2.5 million Catholics in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and seven northern counties. Brooklyn and Long Island have their own dioceses.) The editors write: “With the exception, perhaps, of municipal government, no institution has been as enduringly influential in knitting the fabric of the city as the archdiocese. Under its aegis, countless millions of births, marriages and deaths have been marked, as generation after generation was raised in a lifeaffirming faith. And far many more benefited as the Church aided the poor, treated the sick and helped assimilate wave uponwave of immigrants... Neighborhoods were anchored by parish churches, and by parochial schools that still serve as models of education.” It’s a handsome tribute and well deserved. In the comparison with city government, the “perhaps” is a nice touch. If the subject is knitting the social fabric, I expect the Church has done a great deal more than city government. Former mayor Ed Koch uses a different metaphor. He is given to saying that the Catholic Church is the “glue” that holds the city together. Gluing, knitting or whatever, while there are many institutions without which New York would not be New York, there is no denying the indispensability of the Church. I am a self-confessed chauvinist about the city. It is said that, when we arrive at the gates of paradise, there will be a bigsign: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, THE NEW JERUSALEM.” What about those who in this life did not like New York City? The answer is that there will be another place to go. Of course that is only a theological opinion and not church doctrine, but there may be a little something to it. In any event, and very seriously: Ad multos annos to the Archdiocese of New York on its first two hundred years!


The New York Timesthinks you should know. There is a big study by the University of Arkansas, and another by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and yet another by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. They all lead to the conclusion that birth defects account for more than $2.5 billion in hospital costs. The studies involve not only the cost of caring for newborn babies but also of adults suffering from birth defects. I don’t know why these studies were undertaken. Maybe it was no more than an interest in medical bookkeeping. But the results are ¬reported as revealing a problem. A problem calls for a solution, and, for the life of me, I can think of only one practical solution implicit in these findings.


Sam Roberts of the New York Timeshas been studying the 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States. Among his findings, there is this: “Americans spent more of their lives than ever – about eight and a half hours a day – watching television, using computers, listening to the radio, going to the movies or reading.” This is presumably a problem. I’m not so sure. How many are “watching television” when the television set is on? And I expect most people are doing something else when listening to radio. As for “using computers”, that is extremely vague. They might be trolling through pornography, writing the great American novel or trying to balance the family budget. And then he tosses in reading. We are to be concerned that people spend hours a day reading? Maybe if they’rereading the Statistical Abstract of the United States. People with better judgment will read on with untroubled conscience.

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