Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine March-April 2007



So passionate do some people become about politics. Here is the often thoughtful Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on the eve of last November’s elections: “Let Karl [Rove] know that you think this is a critical election, because you know as a citizen that if the Bush team can behave with the level of deadly incompetence it has exhibited in Iraq—and then get away with it by holding on to the House and the Senate—it means our country has become a banana republic. It means our democracy is in tatters because it is so gerrymandered, so polluted by money and so divided by professional political hacks that we can no longer hold the ruling party to account. It means we’re as stupid as Karl thinks we are.” Whew, by the skin of our teeth—by one seat in the Senate—America avoided the fate of becoming a banana republic. It was a close call. And do Democratic victories mean that our democracy is not in tatters, is not so gerrymandered, is not so polluted by money, etc.? I’m not in the business of political analysis, but I really don’t think the choice was between being a banana republic and a constitutional democracy. As an outcome of the elections, it seems likely that pro-life measures will have a more difficult time, good judicial appointments may be stymied and the Bush doctrine of promoting democracy in the Middle East may be abandoned. I am sympathetic to the argument that it was the right doctrine but was dismally executed. In key races, more-conservative Democrats were elected, giving formal congressional control to much-moreliberal Democratsbut quite possibly moving the centre of balance in a conservative direction. But, as I say, I am not in the business of political analysis. My pastoral counsel is that none of us should think that the outcome of an election is the end of the world or even the end of American democracy.


Maybe you, too, have noticed it. I refer to the use of religiosity when people mean religious commitment. Webster’s Third says what every educated person should know: Religiosity is “intense, excessive, or affected religiousness”. This comes to mind upon reading about a conference on young Catholics held at Fordham University, led by Christian Smith and James Davidson, sociologists at Notre Dame and Purdue, respectively. They had some important things to say, but both repeatedly talked about “religiosity” when they meant religious knowledge, commitment and practice. The basic message of their studies is that most young Catholics are uncatechised and disengaged from the Church. Their recommendation is that parents train their children in the faith and set an exampleof Catholic devotion. No doubt a very good idea, if only the parents were not uncatechised as well. We are now into the third generation of Catholics who were never introduced to the basics of the faith. Colouring in butterflies in religion classes and encouraging inflated self-esteem are no substitute for dogma and doctrine. Also speaking at the conference was the director of ministry at an elite Catholic high school in Manhattan. Although she would not put it that way, she is determined that there will be a fourth generation of the uncatechised. “In my experience,” she said, “we risk alienating [young people] when we are motivated by a desire to preserve the Church as we know it. I think the Church is changing. I think our attempts to save the Church from these changes will only fail. Ithink we have to let go of our attachment to the Church as we know it and trust that the outcome won’t be the Church’s death.” I think, I think, I think. We live in exciting times. “I think the Church is changing.” Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, some people, now hoary-headed and broad of beam, are still excited that the Church is changing. Young people, they touchingly believe, are eager to share their excitement about being liberated from the “pre–Vatican II Church”, that is, the olden days of which young people have heard their grandparents speak. A wise observer has said that young people will give their lives for an exclamation point, but they will not give their lives for a question mark. He was speaking about priestly vocations, but the truth has wider application.“The Church is changing.” Oh, goody. What was it before it decided to major in changing? For three generations, the Church became a question mark.

For decades it has been the pattern that priests and religious who are in adolescent rebellion against Catholic faith and life have been put in charge of youth ministries, including those on college campuses. Their cuttingedge views might upset parishes but will be welcomed by the young, or so it was thought. After all these years, the cutting edge is very rusty and a total bore. Some young people enjoy being pandered to. They thrill to being confirmed in the conceit that they are the brightest and best that ever was. In my experience (as the sister might say), most want to be challenged to the high adventure of Christian discipleship. Consider the electric rapport between young people and John Paul the Great at, for instance, the World Youth Days. He found a thousand ways to say, “Settlefor nothing less than moral and spiritual greatness!” The lady at Fordham thinks the Church must change in order to attract today’s young people, while young people yearn for an invitation to play their part in the high adventure that is the long and turbulent history of Christ and his Church. The world of youth is filled with novelties gone stale, while the really new thing is the call to radical fidelity.


There are former priests, such as Dan Maguire of Marquette University, who, presenting themselves as Catholic theologians, have laboured mightily in the pro-abortion cause. But there is no priest who has had an influence comparable to that of Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., in providing a moral rationalisation for Catholic politicians’ support of what Pope John Paul II taught the Church and the world to recognise as “the culture of death”. Fr. Drinan served five terms (1971–1981) as a US representative from Massachusetts, until the Pope declared that priests should not hold elective office. Among the pro-abortion politicians who have expressed their indebtedness to Fr. Drinan are Senator Edward Kennedy and former governor Mario Cuomo. I confess to a small measure of culpability. In1970, I ran for Congress in what was then the fourteenth congressional district in Brooklyn. Fr. Drinan told me he had been asked by people in Massachusetts to run for Congress and he wanted my counsel. I encouraged him to run. By the grace of God, I lost, and, by the support of pro-abortionists in Massachusetts, Fr. Drinan won. Now the Georgetown University Law Centre has established a Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights. John Paul II wrote in the apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici: “The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is notdefended with maximum determination.” With maximum determination, Fr. Drinan worked to defy, and encourage others to defy, that elementary truth of moral reason. Georgetown University is an institution “in the Jesuit tradition”.


Although formally a statement of the president of the conference, the bishops at their November meeting also approved a statement on Iraq. “We call upon all Catholics to pray daily for the safety of those who honourably serve our nation and for their families. We especially offer our support and solidarity to those who have lost loved ones in Iraq. Our prayers and solidarity must also include the Iraqi people, who have suffered so greatly under a brutal dictator and now face continuing violence, instability and deprivation.” Particular concern is expressed for Christians in Iraq, and the bishops are to be commended for drawing attention to this problem which is neglected by almost everybody else. “As bishops and defenders of the human rights and religious freedom of all, weare alarmed by the deteriorating situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq... Christians in particular are caught in the middle of civil strife between Sunnis and Shiites... We are deeply impressed by the courage of many Christians who remain in the land of their birth.”

As for US policy, the bishops deplore the “shrill and shallow” rhetoric that has marked debate over Iraq. Their recommendation: “Our nation’s military forces should remain in Iraq only as long as their presence contributes to a responsible transition. Our nation should look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal.” Of course, one can argue about what is included in a “responsible transition”, but that strikes me as a wisely restrained statement well within the competence of the Church’s bishops.


If ten years ago, or even five years ago, you had been told that the Catholic bishops were going to issue three major statements on the much controverted questions of artificial contraception, homosexuality and the disposition required to receive Holy Communion, and that all three would be vibrantly orthodox, persuasively pastoral and unequivocally clear, you would have been permitted a measure of scepticism. But that is precisely what the bishops did at their meeting last November. Of course, there were disagreements, but the statements, adopted overwhelmingly, are: “Married Life and the Gift of Love”, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination” and “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”. All are available from the National Conference of CatholicBishops.


“Comedy Comes Clean” was a story in the Wall Street Journal a while back. It seems comedians are discovering that young people respond positively to non-scatological shticks. It’s so avant-garde. Overhearing conversations, while walking the streets of New York, it struck me a few years ago that I couldn’t get to the office or back without hearing, usually several times, the F-word used as noun, adjective, adverb, and ways grammatically unspecifiable. And then suddenly last spring, as I remember, it stopped. I’m still eavesdropping, but I don’t think I’ve heard it in the last several months. Something important is happening, maybe. Columnist Daniel Henninger read the same story about clean comedy but is not convinced. Apparently, he watches HBO and other cablechannels. That is a mistake. Reality is on the streets of New York. Possibly it applies to decency too. If it can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere. It’s a happy thought.

Faith Magazine