Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine March - April 2008


 It says in this morning’s paper that Sen. Hillary Clinton has laid out a new approach, emphasising the importance of experience and “working within the system” but “without sacrificing important values like preserving Social Security and protecting abortion rights”. She is obviously making a pitch for those “values voters”. She says she is also determined to “reclaim the future for our children”. According to our parish paper, “she wants her presidency to be a means of helping parents raise their children. ‘I want to be able to say to you as your president, “Our children are well,”’ she said”. No doubt many parents will be reassured. It appears that it now takes not only a village but a country to raise a child. Which puts me in mind of an exchange some years ago betweenSen. Phil Gramm and a federal bureaucrat who wanted to expand a programme of government child care. Gramm opined that mothers and fathers are best equipped for child-rearing because they love their children more. The official objected, saying, “I love your children as much as you do, Senator”. To which Gramm responded, “I am very pleased to hear that. What are their names?”


 It’s long past time for liberal Catholics to face the fact that their fifteen minutes – or, more accurately, twenty-five years – are over. So says John Allen in an extended essay in the newspaper of record for liberal Catholicism, the National Catholic Reporter. He is far from the first to say it, but its publication in NCR is of more than passing interest. Francis Cardinal George put it more succinctly several years ago: “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project”. Readers may have noticed that observations in a similar vein have appeared in these pages from time to time. From the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) until the mid-eighties, the taken-for-granted assumption was that the forces of liberalism, progressivism, reform, renewal – all marching under the banner ofaggiornamento– were in control. Aggiornamentowas taken to mean “updating” or “modernisation” or “getting in tune with the world” or “reading the signs of the times”, and it was an intoxicating cause. In liberal Catholicism, aggiornamentoquite swamped the primary theme of the council itself, which was ressourcement, meaning a vibrant reappropriation of the fullness of the Catholic tradition. The subsequent story of the ascendancy of ressourcementas the normative context of aggiornamento, under the leadership of John Paul II, was central to the argument of my 1987 book, The Catholic Moment. Nonetheless, and however belatedly, it is encouraging to see NCR acknowledge the changing dynamics in Catholicism in this country and the world. As Allen recognises, the change of the last quartercentury is not only due to papal leadership under John Paul and Benedict but is joined and reinforced by a resurgence of new publications, renewal movements and catechetical and evangelistic programmes strongly attuned also to young Catholics. And he is right in recognising that the liberalism of the first twenty years after the council is far from dead. It is still dominant, he writes, among “priests, deacons and the academic guild”. He is likely correct about older priests and deacons. But then Allen searches for a name for those who are now centre stage in the Catholic drama, and he settles on “evangelical Catholics”. Like Protestant evangelicals, he says, such Catholics are strong on authority, clarity of message and eagerness to share the faith with others. I doubt whether hisproposed appellation will have staying power. The term “evangelical catholic” (usually lowercase) has for decades designated Protestants with catholic (or Catholic) leanings. I should know; I was for many years one of them. The reality is that liberal Catholics always seemed to want the Catholic Church to be something other than she is. Thus the incessant use of two-church language – the pre-Vatican II Church and the post- Vatican II Church. Those in the ascendancy since the election of John Paul want the Church to be what she is, except more so. Some call themselves “John Paul II Catholics”, and now “Benedict XVI Catholics”. But that can sometimes smack of party spirit. Better is the response of the above mentioned Cardinal George when he became archbishop of Chicago ten years ago.Reporters pressed and pressed to get him to say whether he was a liberal or a conservative. In response, George pointed out that Catholicism is necessarily conservative in preserving the fullness of tradition and necessarily liberal in its generous understanding of human frailty and eagerness to share the faith with others. “If you need a word to describe me,” he said, “just call me Catholic”. That will do nicely.


 Paying people to do what they should do on their own seems a dubious policy. Unwise parents do it with their children. And Michael Bloomberg has adopted it as an antipoverty tactic in New York. A pilot programme will pay participants up to $5,000 per year for doing things such as attending parent-teacher meetings, going to a doctor and opening bank accounts. “What we are trying to do here,” says the mayor, “is to use capitalism to encourage behaviour“. This is capitalism? One wonders what poor but sensible people think about their neighbours getting paid to do what they have been doing all along out of a sense of responsibility. One might ask whether the city is acting like those unwise parents in infantilising citizens by bribing them to be good. It’s a small programme sofar, with only three thousand families enrolled in a city that has more than two million people living below the official poverty line – a line above what was called middle-class sixty years ago. Bloomberg is a billionaire several times over, and he undoubtedly means well. He evidences a paternal attitude toward the city, and not only toward the poor, as witness his draconian ban on smoking. And of course – despite the efforts of Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani – New York continues to be a very liberal place. Who knows? Maybe those who are bribed will get into the habit of doing the right thing. But what will the poor and hardworking mother think when she discovers at the parent-teacher conference that the woman seated next to her was paid $100 to show up? Responsibility is for suckers?


 “That’s pretty good, for government work“. One used to hear that a lot during the Reagan years, before Republicans became big-government enthusiasts. Pretty good, for government work, applies to the Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the Justice Department. After September 11, concerns were raised about books in prison libraries that might incite violence. Of course, specifying, as was the case, that the concerns had to do with Muslim books would raise questions of discrimination and “religious profiling”. So the bureau set up a task force to deal with all the books in prison libraries, or at least all the books that are “religious” in nature. There were hundreds of thousands of them, most of them having been donated by individuals or placed by religious groups over manyyears. The task force has now come up with what might be described as an Index of Approved Books. There are 150 books on the list for every religion: 150 for Christians, 150 for Jews, 150 for Muslims, 150 for Hindus, on down to 150 each for Yorubans and Bahais. Never mind that 75 percent of prisoners are Christian and maybe .0001 percent, if any, are Bahai. Unlike the Catholic Church’s old Index of Forbidden Books, which specified a relatively small number of offenders, the Index of Approved Books forbids all books that are not explicitly approved. The New York Times story notes that A New World of Faith by Avery Cardinal Dulles has been yanked from the shelves. We may heave a sigh of relief that prisoners will be protected from Cardinal Dulles, a man notorious for inciting terrorism.Also being tossed are books by televangelist Robert Schuller, perhaps because prisoners get violently angry when faced with their inability to change their circumstance through the power of positive thinking. There may be wisdom, too, in forbidding Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good Peopleand Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society – prisoners so often refuse to repent of their evil ways, claiming that they are innocent and blaming society for their troubled lives. So, if you think about it deeply enough, there may just be an element of method in the madness of the Index of Approved Books. More likely the saying applies, “Pretty good, for government work”. Lawsuits are underway aimed at restoring the right of prisoners to read Cardinal Dulles et al., and it appearsthat the prison system is rescinding its ill-considered plan. The cardinal had no comment on his achieving, at last, the distinction of being on a de facto Index of Forbidden Books.


 It was a gathering of pro-life directors in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and Justin Cardinal Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, was the featured speaker. Noting that some have grown weary, he accented “reasons for hope” in the pro-life cause. The number of abortions in America continues to decline, and fewer teenagers are engaging in sexual activity. Whatever the reasons, says Rigali, this is an encouragement. “To be free of disease, to be free of the fear of an ill-timed pregnancy, to be free of a broken heart – this is the freedom that we want for our young people, and we rejoice that it is unfolding”. He cites data showing that support for the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe v. Wade is also declining, as more and more Americans identify themselves aspro-life. The Supreme Court’s decision upholding a ban on partialbirth abortions, Gonzales v. Carhart, “is a significant step in the right direction – moving away from the infamous ‘abortion distortion’ in Supreme Court jurisprudence and bringing their interpretation of abortion law more in line with other fields of law”. The cardinal also issued a “gentle reminder” that some have made an “idol” of the pro-life cause, letting it displace the indispensable life and sacramental grace of the Church. “Because the ‘Evil One’ wants us to fail, there is a temptation to claim this territory as our own and guard it – not as a gift from God but as the work of our own hands”. Rigali underscored also the importance of unity among Christians. “People will come to know Christ and the hope of salvationif they recognise us by our love for each other”. In sum, the prolife cause is God’s cause before it is ours.

 Be not afraid.  

Faith Magazine