Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine May-June 2008s




The comedian Bill Maher recently delivered himself of some rather decided views on religion in general and Catholicism in particular. On a late-night talk show he said, “You can’t be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you’re drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god. That doesn’t make you a person of faith. That makes you schizophrenic.” He added that anyone who is religious is schizophrenic, “sort of”. As might be expected, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League blasted Maher for his “twisted mind” and “hatred of Christians”. That’s Dr. Donohue’s job. He likes to describe himself as a street fighter with a Ph.D., and the Catholic League is as inevitable as it isuseful. Those of us with different vocations, however, might ask whether the Mahers, at least at times, do not, however inadvertently, render a service in pointing up the astonishing nature of Christian truth claims. Astonishing if they are not true, and more astonishing if they are. We are not schizophrenic, but we are keenly aware of the tension and, at times, the conflict between the gospel and culturally conventional understandings of reality. Christianity is indefatigably dialogical but never without an edge. Matthew Lickona puts it nicely in his memoir of a young Catholic, Swimming with Scapulars: “Let’s be open and clean. Let’s drag this out into the light and discuss. Let’s not be shocked and resentful; let’s love the lonely. Perhaps, coming from a fanatic, the message ofGod’s love will regain some of its wonderful outrageousness. ‘Listen. I have a secret. I eat God, and I have His life in me. It’s the best thing in the world; it leads to everlasting life. But first, you have to die to yourself.’”


Here is a report on a new study of Americans that finds “very low levels of religiosity in terms of actual behaviour”. The researchers, using time-use data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, found that the average American spends a total of three minutes on “religious and spiritual activities” in the normal weekday. In ranking activities, “personal care, including sleeping, was first, while religious and spiritual activities were last”. Oh dear. Leaving aside whether sleeping is an activity, the finding does not surprise. Apart from Catholics who attend daily Mass, and others who set aside a period of the day for Bible reading or some other discipline of meditation, it is not entirely discouraging that the average American spends three minutes a day in what they identify as “religiousand spiritual activities”. I suppose that most of the respondents mean by that time devoted to prayer. And I expect a very large percentage of them would say that the entirety of their “actual behaviour” is religiously informed or inspired. You know there is something deeply suspect about a study that claims to measure “the consumption of religion”. How much religion did you consume today? I hope that whoever paid for this study gets their money back.


It comes too late for Terri Schiavo, who died in March 2005, but the timing is not bad for a Church that thinks in terms of centuries. In fact, Catholic teaching was firm and clear, but some Catholic academics and a few bishops shamelessly waffled on, and a few expressed support for the decision to kill Terri Schiavo by starvation and dehydration. So the American bishops’ conference asked for guidance from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Question: “Is the administration of food and water (whether by natural or artificial means)

to a patient in a ‘vegetative state’ morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by the patient’s body or cannot be administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort?” The CDF’s answer, explicitly approved by the pope: “Yes. The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper end, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient.” The bishops asked if such support might be discontinued “when competent physicians judge with moral certainty that the patient will never recover consciousness?” The answer: “No. A patient in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ is aperson with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means.” William Cardinal Levada, prefect of the CDF, added, “The provision of water and food, even by artificial means, always represents a ‘natural means’ for preserving life and is not a ‘therapeutic treatment.’” The CDF response says nothing new, but, as Dr. Johnson observed, we – including also bishops and moral theologians – have a greater need to be reminded than to be instructed.


Perhaps you can put up with one more word on a subject that has been beaten to death. The headline in Religion Watch reads: “What’s New About the ‘New Athiesm’?” Well, the spelling of atheism for one thing. Typo aside, this is a thoughtful reflection on the significance of the spate of militantly atheistic books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others. The article quotes George Weigel, who notes that the new atheism is so very angry. Dawkins, for instance, argues that early religious formation is a form of “child abuse”. Says Weigel, “In the early 19th century, it was thought that an atheist could not be a gentleman; today the atheists argue that religious conviction is for slobs and morons.” The RW article opines that atheists (who often preferred tobe called freethinkers or secular humanists) are frustrated by “the failure of progressive secularism” and are now seeking a niche for themselves among the unchurched and “secular seekers” in order to build a new community of support. They are also becoming more overtly “evangelistic”, in admitted imitation of assertive Christian witness. And they are into “identity politics”, increasingly presenting themselves as a minority whose rights are threatened and making an explicit connection with the women’s and gay-rights movements. For instance, atheists frequently speak about “coming out of the closet”. The article concludes that “the anger, energy and new strategies of the new atheists” may turn out to do more for their cause “than the older and faded dream of building a secularistsociety”. I expect that there is more than a little to that analysis. Contrast Harris, Dawkins, et al. with the “Humanist Manifesto” of 1933, in which distinguished intellectual and cultural leaders, with the venerable John Dewey at their head, confidently predicting the demise of religion and the triumph of what was frankly described as secular humanism. So which is the oppressed minority atheists or believers? Activists in both camps lay claim to the title. Among the asymmetries, however, is that there is a constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, while the free exercise of atheism consists chiefly in attacking the free exercise of religion. Proving that you canfight something with nothing. Winning is another matter.


Contempt for the tradition that one would renew is lethal. Clergy and lay leaders do well to keep in mind an observation of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Whom you would change you must first love, and they must know you love them.” It is an encouragement that the many youthful renewal movements in the Church today, although sometimes marked by elitism in the pejorative sense of that term, are typically devoted to the Church’s tradition in faith and morals, and respectful of popular devotions. More or less self-consciously rebelling, as youth will rebel, against two generations that equated progress with the jettisoning of the past, they want the Church to be morenot less Catholic. Of even greater importance, they refuse to conform to the notion that rebellion is the normalmode of being
young. One might say that they are rebelling against the imposed disposition of rebellion. (This phenomenon is insightfully addressed by Joseph Bottum in “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” First Things, October 2006.) These young people know that there is much they do not know and they are not embarrassed to acknowledge that their disposition is that of learning. Perhaps some of them have even read the words of Goethe:

What you have as heritage
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own.

I do not want to exaggerate, but such is my impression from the young Catholics I encounter on campuses around the country, in our international summer seminar in Poland, and, not least, on our staff at FIRST THINGS. You may object that they are not representative, that they are the elite. Yes, I suppose so. Which means they are the leaders who are redefining the meaning of renewal and reform. Which means they are very much unlike the elitists of, say, Catholic Action in Quebec and their counterparts here in decades past who, in their no doubt well-intended efforts, precipitated spiritual and institutional devastation.


Can you get a divorce without a marriage? The Supreme Court of Rhode Island says not. Cassandra Ormiston and Margaret Chambers live in Rhode Island but were wed in Massachusetts in a same-sex ceremony that the Bay State calls marriage. A year later, citing irreconcilable differences, they applied for a divorce in Rhode Island. That state has this odd law that says you have to be legally married to get legally divorced, and a marriage is between a man and a woman. Moreover, because of a residency requirement, they can’t get divorced in Massachusetts either. They’re not interested in living together in Massachusetts, or anywhere else. So it seems they’re in a fine pickle of their own making. Cassandra in Greek means “she who entangles men”. Homer might not believe what Cassandra isup to today.

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