CONSERVATIVES AGAINST THE STATUS QUO
There are no conservative Catholics. This assertion is intended not to register relief or alarm but is stated simply to make the logical point that no man conserves what he has not inherited. Inheritance in this context refers to the kind of acquisition that requires no effort on the part of the recipient. Now it was possible for our grandparents to be conservative Catholics; simply by going to school and to Mass they inherited the faith of their own grandparents, of Bossuet’s grandparents, of Thomas More’s, of Aquinas’s, of Pope Gregory’s. Unless they made a conscious act of defiance they conserved this inheritance as well. No Catholic, today, conserves the faith of Pius XII, much less Peter I, in this manner. A man might believe what Newman believed, but by God he has to work for it.
In its contemporary polemical use the term “conservative” bears connotations of caution, passivity, intellectual cowardice, inertia, timidity. Of course, when most of a person’s intellectual furniture has been installed from outside, as it were, with little or no curiosity or participation on the part of the recipient, these characteristics will be common. And it must be admitted that, in the days when it was possible to be a passive conservative, the charge of timid conformism was deserved by many Catholics.
There is an interesting thought experiment to be performed based on this conceit. If we were to walk into a sophomore theology classroom at a mainstream Catholic university and switch on the standard set—to interrogate a student, that is, who was wholly passive to his religious instruction, who was monoglot, who had absolutely no intellectual curiosity, who never questioned his instructors or doubted their wisdom, who never read a book outside the syllabus—what would we find in the way of default settings? What would his theological parameters look like? What would be the “built-in” responses to questions on the ordination of women, on the legitimacy of contraception, on communicatio in sacris, on a woman’s right to choose, on the binding authority of the magisterium? Probably we would find that, the more completely unimaginative the student, the further his answers would diverge from the positions popularly designated as “conservative.”
Of course, the fact that an unimaginative man holds a given opinion does not make that opinion wrong. Moreover, if 90 percent of its advocates come to believe in a notion because it is chic, or safe, or profitable to do so, this in no way prevents the remaining 10 percent from embracing it as true after long, thoughtful, and intelligent deliberation. Thus no one is saying the belief that women can be Christian priests is false simply because it is today the utterly predictable conviction of the least nimble intellects, the most fashion-conscious personalities, the imaginations least capable of taking a critical distance from their surroundings. No, the irony lies in the fact that it is impossible in our day to own “conservative” convictions without a certain amount of intellectual aggression, that is, without an unconservative temperament.
In general, an American Catholic who takes sides with, say, Germain Grisez and against, say, Hans Kiing on the major doctrinal issues will exhibit both the virtues and the vices of the maverick. On the one hand, he is likely to be self-motivated, to be skeptical of stances supported by aphorism or sentimentalism, to be unimpressed by academic titles and dignities, to value truth over career advancement, to search for knowledge outside the narrow confines of those educated in the same way as he, to exhibit fortitude in the face of hostility. On the other hand, he is prone to vindictiveness, to impatience, to intellectual exhibitionism, and to the iconoclast’s pleasure in giving pain.
It is common still today for certain theologians to be portrayed as “defenders of orthodoxy”—but the cliché has become almost embarrassingly inapt. Scholars who would vindicate Christian orthodoxy, much as those who value classical aesthetics or the original understanding of the Constitution, are anything but defensive, for the simple reason that the academic fortress is in the hands of their adversaries and has been for many years. It is the feminists and liberationists and deconstructionists who are dozing on the battlements. Orthodoxy is an insurgency movement.
Theologians, who would be included in what Margaret Steinfels has recently termed the “party of change,” are capable of expressing satisfaction in their institutional successes in the academy, but they remain generally reluctant to avert to the defensive posture they have assumed precisely because of their triumph. They are, moreover, reluctant to abandon the habit of speaking of the innovations they propose for the Church as “new ideas,” even though most of the items of their agenda have not been new for a quarter-century or more. It is dismaying, and somewhat embarrassing, to observe the angry young men of the ’60s still trying to pass themselves off as mustangs, when most of their intellectual hardware was acquired while they were yet in bellbottoms. And when we are presented, in 1992, with yet another “blueprint for the church of tomorrow” that calls for doctrine to be decided by parliament and so forth, we can be forgiven if we regard these “fresh ideas” like the ugly elder daughter in Gilbert’s Trial by Jury, assured that a very nice girl we’ll find her:
For she may very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her!
In the faces of these starving Somali children we can see the face of the suffering Jesus. The heartrending combination of innocence and suffering can stir in us an inchoate desire to right the wrong that has been done. Recognizing that this suffering cries out to the Almighty, some of us may be prompted by conscience to make amends to God by leading less sinful lives. Perhaps by prayer and fasting we can take upon ourselves a small portion of that suffering voluntarily, and offer it up in expiation.
Many in our secular society cannot accept these thoughts. But conscience is still alive within them. Sin is experienced as “guilt,” and the nebulous desire to make amends finds expression in action—the provision of food aid. Action, of course, not only is an appropriate Christian response to starvation, but it perfectly complements the more private response of prayer and fasting. Some— perhaps many of those who staff the care agencies in Somalia—are able to combine both roles: private prayer and public activism. All to the good.
Still, the Christian may feel that in this mission of mercy there is something missing. At first we may have difficulty in pinpointing it, but we sense that it has something to do with our automatic assent to the bidding of the “international community,” and our own liberal intelligentsia, who imply that we must confine our charity to calories and vitamins. We must not try to reform their society or “impose” our own or any other form of government on these poor people, who lack any form of government. The supreme injunction, which it is not even necessary to mention, because no one would dare suggest it in this day and age, is that Christians cannot even think about converting Somalis, or of baptizing those dying children, in the name of the Father, and of the Son.
NEWTON IN DRAG
Feminists have launched a campaign in the universities which goes beyond calls for hiring more women to reduce “disproportionate representation” of men in physics, chemistry, and biology. Feminists are now criticizing the scientific disciplines themselves as male-oriented and hostile to women. They call for, as Evelyn Fox Keller of Northeastern University puts it in Reflections on Gender and Science, “not a juxtaposition or complementarity of male and female perspectives . . . but the transformation of the very categories of male and female, and correspondingly, of mind and nature”—no short order.
Similar exhortations are proclaimed in other texts of feminist protest, such as Ruth Herschberger’s Adam’s Rib, Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myth of Gender, Ruth Bleier’s Science and Gender, Janet Sayers’ Biological Politics, and Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism. These books have created a good deal of controversy in the scientific community, and working scientists, both male and female, have rejected their arguments as based on a misunderstanding of what science is about.
For Keller it all boils down to the fact that female scientists have adopted a “masculinist” perspective. “The exclusion of values culturally relegated to the female domain,” she writes, “has led to an effective masculinization of science.”
What does this mean? In the American Scholar, Margarita Levin outlines some of the specific feminist grievances against “masculinist science.” Feminists have faulted science for the “master molecule” theory of DNA functioning; for thinking of evolution as a “struggle of survival,” which gives physical strength a significant role in human development; and for advancing the theory of a scarcity of resources that generates “competition” among animals, another perceived male trait. Even the notion that forces act upon objects—which creates an active-passive relationship—is not spared. Levin writes that most scientific notions imply force, violence, or hierarchy, and should be denounced as chauvinist.
A clue to the reason for feminist pique may be seen in a recent study by the Center for Women in Policy Studies, a feminist think tank, which concluded that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is biased against women. Reviewing a recent test, the Center found that most of the questions tended to be about “science, sports, and war,” which were said to be masculine interests, while only a few questions were about “relationships, clothing, and appearances,” which were feminine strengths. The superior performance of men over women on the SAT was explained as a result of the test’s male orientation.
Immediately, the problem with this line of reasoning becomes apparent. For years feminists have argued that the differences between men and women are almost entirely conventional not natural. Apart from the very few fields which require physical strength, feminists have asserted that women can perform as well, if not better, than men, and have spurned the ancient stereotype of females as homemakers. But paradoxically, feminists now attack aptitude tests which treat men and women as equally capable.
The problem, of course, is not the test, which is simply a measure of differences, not a creator of differences. To attack the test seems akin to denouncing the thermometer for registering a disagreeable temperature. It is all very well to denounce Newton as a “white male,” but it is hard to see how his scientific ideas are limited by his cultural status.
Much of feminist criticism comes down to semantic quibblings. Keller, knowing no irony, triumphantly produces quotations from Francis Bacon, the founder of empiricism and thus the scientific method. Bacon said that the new knowledge required a “virile” mind, indeed “a chaste and lawful marriage between Mind and Nature.” All this proves is that our ancestors did not speak in what today is called a “gender inclusive” vocabulary; it does not affect their inventions and scientific theories.
In America, we think of the sciences as protected from the rough-and-tumble of special interest manipulation. Feminists, who are already well-established in other disciplines, are now laying siege to the citadel of scientific truth, with consequences that are unhappy for scientific progress, and for the men and women who bring it about.
POPE MATTHEW FOX
In a recent essay titled, “If I Were Pope,” creation spiritualist Matthew Fox outlines his vision for the Catholic Church. We offer a few choice nuggets from the November-December issue of Creation Spirituality:
• I would welcome a proliferation of new communities, new forms of religious life, base communities and whatever other forms of life that the Spirit and imagination propose.
• I would . . . apologize to Native Peoples, women, artists, homosexuals, scientists, witches and others persecuted in religion’s name over the centuries.
• I would declare christofascism in all its forms, including Opus Dei, a heresy.
• I would close down all seminaries and open up Institutes in Creation Spirituality instead, thus shifting emphasis from theology as head-work to spirituality as both heart and head work.
• I would require all priests, bishops and cardinals to take a one year sabbatical. . . . In this sabbatical all would be required to study Creation Spirituality in theory and praxis; lots of body prayer, Sufi dancing, art as meditation, sweat lodges, vision quests, the new Creation story (not the ascetic theology tradition) of the West. All would have to pass an exam at the end of the year. Those who flunked could either take another year to learn or would be retired.
• I would dismantle the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith(formerly known as the Holy Inquisition) and replace it with a circle of grandmothers who would comment on the healthy or unhealthy spirit behind theological ideas.
Actor Robert Duvall got what he found to be a revealing dose of Hollywood logic recently. He remarked in passing to an English actress, on the occasion of his starring in the HBO movie Stalin, “It’s hard for us to understand what it was like to live under a guy like Stalin.” To which the actress replied, “Yeah? Try living under Margaret Thatcher.”
A RANK-AND-FILE PLEA
The following “Petition to Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton,” circulating among rank-and-file servicemen, shows how ordinary citizens can address public controversies with more cogency and less irrational passion than the average editorial writer at our leading newspapers: “With great respect, we the undersigned, active duty men and women of the armed forces of the United States, most strongly urge you to maintain the current national policy banning avowed homosexuals from the armed services and their reserve components. While we do not question the patriotism of these individuals, we believe their lifestyle to be absolutely incompatible with military service for the following reasons: (1) sexual liaisons and tensions have no place in the already tense combat environment; (2) private sleeping, bathing, and living conditions cannot be guaranteed in field tents, aboard ship, or in other deployed environments; (3) the fighting effectiveness, camaraderie, and esprit de corps of operational units will be seriously undermined; (4) the unsanitary sexual practices of some homosexuals will jeopardize the health of individuals, the integrity of the military blood supply, and the safety of combat first aid; (5) homosexual practices are offensive to many military members and their families who adhere to traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious beliefs. We are privileged to make many sacrifices in the service of our nation. Please do not subjugate the proven fighting effectiveness of our armed forces to the demands of a small minority!”
Are reporters biased? This question was raised by the Bush administration during the recent election campaign, to angry snorts from journalists. But a new study by the Freedom Forum, a non-partisan group that examines media issues, confirms the harshest views of the press and embarrasses those like Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, who deny that reporters can be crusaders.
Sponsored by researchers David Weaver and Cleveland Wilhoit of the Indiana University School of Journalism, the study shows that reporters who identify themselves as Democrats outnumber reporters who identify themselves as Republicans by three to one. Moreover, the ideological gap between media Democrats and Republicans has increased dramatically since the early 1970s, and is even substantially greater than in 1983.
“It’s not my fault”—the plea is expected from youngsters but becomes distressing when it sounds from a national leader, as it did when Senator Robert Packwood (R., Ore.) attributed his confessed incidents of sexual harassment to his status as a victim of alcohol abuse. It seems that to say everyone is a victim would actually be an understatement these days; by Aaron Wildaysky’s calculations, the members of “oppressed minorities” in America total 374 percent of the population. Of course, assuring every American his right to oppression requires broadening the definition of “victim.” (Fortunately, we have 70 percent of the world’s lawyers at our disposal to aid us in this task.) For example, a Philadelphia school district employee who was fired for repeated tardiness has sued for reinstatement on the grounds that he is a victim of “chronic lateness syndrome.” A Midwestern professor has claimed minority status because, riding a bicycle, he is a victim of “motorism.” And a Virginia teacher who failed the national educator’s test on eight occasions now claims to be a victim of “slowness in understanding syndrome.”
In his recent book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, Charles Sykes argues that this phenomenon of victimization is linked to the decline of traditional religion in America. The Jewish and Christian traditions, he notes, recognize that this world is necessarily imperfect and will always contain suffering. Man must struggle against present adversity but ultimately places his hope in a world to come. In recent times, however, this understanding has largely given way to the modern, secular notion—beginning with the Enlightenment’s faith in Progress—that this world is perfectible, that all men are thus entitled to unlimited happiness here and now, and that any deficit, however trivial, in an individual’s happiness establishes him as a victim.
The religious and secular views also differ over the nature of man. Jews and Christians recognize that man naturally inclines towards evil, but may resist this inclination through effort and discipline, though he ultimately requires God’s grace to achieve salvation. The exponents of “victimism,” by contrast, view man as inherently good, but somehow lacking the free will to resist certain vices. The religious perspective thus emphasizes self-restraint, while the secular account cannot demand or even solicit personal restraint because it recognizes in man no such capacity.
Particularly paradoxical is the tendency of “victimists” to blame their woes on “society.” Somehow society, constituted solely of blameless citizens, is itself corrupt. The British comedy troupe Monty Python once lampooned this untenable attitude in a sketch where a murderer, caught red-handed by the police, explains, “It’s a fair cop, but society is to blame.” To which the forward-thinking constable replies, “All right, we’ll arrest them instead,” and sets out to do so.
The laughable ironies surrounding victimization should not obscure its genuine threat. A stark reflection of the nation’s moral decline, it bids fare to exacerbate that decline. If people believe they are not responsible for their actions, they will have no reason to control their behavior in any circumstances. Given that dispensation, we would quickly re-learn the true meaning of victim.
Writing in Q W, a homosexual rights magazine, activist Charles Kaiser places most of the responsibility for the spread of AIDS not on researchers who have failed so far to find a cure, or on government which does not spend enough, but on gay promiscuity, which is the agent of transmission. “Until now,” he writes, “openly gay men and lesbians have often had to define ourselves through extremism. . . . But now we need to embrace less fashionable virtues, including maturity and restraint.”
LET’S HOLD OUR BREATH
Moms all over the world are shuddering. First they tell us that we must eat a big breakfast every day—bacon and eggs and toast with butter. Next thing you know, eggs are high in cholesterol and bacon is all fat and will make your arteries as sluggish as downtown streets at rush hour. Oh, and butter is bad for you, too.
Well, science is always right; forget the rest of tradition, says Mom, and just have a big, frosty glass of milk (but don’t drink out of the carton). Yet before you’ve even quenched your thirst, Dr. Spock and other experts loudly proclaim the evils of the dairy. What to do now? Stop and take a deep breath.
Although that refreshing gulp of air may have cleared your head for a moment, according to Dr. Bruce Ames you have just bombarded your DNA with countless toxins, forced hemoglobin cells to grapple with a fusillade of unstable oxygen molecules, and generally increased your chance for cancer. But how could that be? You only eat organically-grown fruits and vegetables and drink only bottled spring water. No matter, despite conventional wisdom, the best way to avoid cancer is not to shun the many man-made chemicals that have been terrorizing consumers, but quite simply to stop smoking and eat lots of vegetables and, if possible, cut down on what Dr. Ames says is one of your most cancer-inducing activities—breathing. Dr. Ames points to the recent scare over Alar, a chemical that had been found in disturbingly large amounts in many shipments of apples. He declares that drinking a six-ounce glass of this toxin straight is less dangerous than an equivalent cup of coffee.
While these “discoveries” are all quite interesting, what do they mean to those of us who really crave a morning cup of coffee, or who really do not like broccoli? It means the same thing these announcements always mean, that they should not be ignored but should also not create a panic. A recent book by Lynn Payer, Disease Mongers, makes a strong case that doctors, health officials, and drug companies frighten the public into believing that they are sicker than they are. A fitting example is cholesterol: Everyone from doctors to oat bran producers want the public to believe that cholesterol is a disease in itself and is not merely a risk factor for heart disease. Ames concludes that “the result is millions of Americans who are not at risk of heart disease moaning about their cholesterol, taking potent drugs, looking at their food as poison, and perhaps assuming real risks to their health through unbalanced nutrition.”
What is really demonstrated by this circus is that too many people are obsessed exclusively with their bodily salvation at the expense of their mind and soul, and they cannot even get their worldly salvation right. Whole lives are spent in the search for the perfect body, but the fact that the body is temporary is too often ignored. A scientific education in nutrition is less important than a spiritual education in death, a disease that no one escapes. In short, if breathing is indeed the most dangerous of human activities, then we should recognize that there are concerns more fundamental to us than the dire consequences of that last cup of coffee.
PHYSICIANS FOR SELF-PRESERVATION
The Cold War is over, but Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a left-wing disarmament lobby from the 1970s and ’80s, refuses to close up shop. Indeed, Bernard Lown, president of the American wing of the group, insists that there is more need for the organization now than even before. “You will need sentinels,” the hopeful Lown told the Washington Post, “who will eternally guard the nuclear flame. It is a lie that we won the Cold War. The American people lost the Cold War. There is no victory.”
WHY DO WOMEN ABORT?
Despite overwhelming sympathy towards the “pro-choice” position in the extreme cases of rape, incest, and danger to the health of the mother, most Americans oppose most of the abortions performed in the United States today. A recent Boston Globe survey indicates that half or more of those polled did not think abortion should be legal when the mother is a minor (50 to 35 percent); when she thinks it the wrong time in her life to have a child (82 to 12); when the mother cannot afford a child (75 to 16); when the father is absent (81 to 11).
If these statistics are compared to an account of the reasons women actually have abortions, it becomes clear that the majority of abortions performed today occur in the very cases to which Americans are most opposed. The Alan Guttmacher Institute’s survey of 1,900 women who have had abortions indicates that only one percent of those women were victims of rape or incest—that is, the situation in which most Americans support the right of a woman to have an abortion. On the other hand, 51 percent of the women surveyed wanted “to avoid single parenthood” or had “problems with a relationship”; 68 percent said they could not afford a baby; 76 percent were “concerned about how having a baby could change her life.” (Multiple answers were permitted).
The last reason—concern about how having a baby could affect one’s life—is particularly telling. According to Mary Cunningham Agee, whose pro-life Nurturing Network helps women through crisis pregnancies, “Our experience shows that the most likely candidate for an abortion [in 1990] was between 20 and 26 years old, white, middle-class, with at last a high-school diploma.” These are the women who feel that their lives would be profoundly disrupted by having a child. And, ultimately, these are the women whose choice to have an abortion the majority of Americans oppose.
For a long time, I have routinely spoken and written of the Church as “it.” I considered calling the Church “she” to be another instance of the fussy ecclesiastical rhetoric we’d be better off without.
Lately, though, it has dawned on me that “she” is precisely the correct pronoun to use in referring to the Church. The reasons touch on Christology, the eucharistic identity of priests, women’s ordination, and much else. And they directly concern our understanding of the Church herself.
Consider what is implied by calling the Church it. “It” suggests something abstract and impersonal, entities of an institutional and bureaucratic nature. IBM and the Pentagon obviously are it—no one would dream of calling them she or he. Is the Church in the same category? Calling the Church it suggests that she is.
But there are other, deeper reasons for speaking of the Church as she. A familiar text in Ephesians (5:22-32) is crucial here—I mean the one likening Christ’s relationship to the Church to the relationship of husband and wife in marriage. Whether or not it makes unacceptable, culturally conditioned assumptions about husbands and wives (“Wives, be subject to your husbands”) is beside the point; for, as the writer carefully notes, this passage mainly concerns “a great mystery . . . in reference to Christ and the church.”
What is this “mystery”—this truth—about Christ and the Church? A great more than we can grasp, no doubt. But at least the following.
Ephesians calls attention to the fact that Christ stands in a certain relation to the Church and the Church to him. It resembles that of husband and wife. In this covenantal situation, Christ embodies the masculine principle and the Church the feminine. Complementary commitments and obligations of fidelity and love pertain to both.
The metaphor should not be pressed too hard. Christ is ineffably superior to the Church, whereas superiority and inferiority are not (or at least should not be) at issue in marriage. The common element in both situations, however, is the differentiated complementarity of the parties. That common element makes the metaphor work.
A great deal follows.
For one thing, the situation described in Ephesians calls attention to a central fact about the Incarnation. The Son of God became Man in two senses: he became a human being and he became a particular human being of the masculine gender. The Incarnation means that Christ not only took on generic human nature—he also became an individual, Jesus of Nazareth. He was not only homo but vir: a male.
That also suggests something about the priesthood. In the Eucharist the priest represents Christ. But this is not simply a symbolic representation. It is more correctly described as sacramental. This is expressed by saying that the priest acts in persona Christi—in the person of Christ. His action is “his” only in a secondary way and is primarily the action of Christ. The incarnational principle is at work here, too.
Sometimes it is said—for example, in a recent editorial on women priests in The Tablet of London—that the priest at Mass actually represents the congregation, not Christ, since he addresses prayers to Christ on the congregation’s behalf. This is quite true; the priest does so in his role as presider.
But it is also true that the priest represents Christ as a kind of sacrament of Christ. He “stands in” for Christ, as it were, as mediator between humankind and the Father and as the one who confects the Sacred Species. These latter two representational actions of the priest at Mass constitute the essence of his eucharistic identity—the essence of his action in the person of Christ.
That in turn sheds light on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. In the Eucharist, the priest is in relation to the community as Christ in relation to the Church. He is, to repeat, a kind of sacrament of Christ. The situation is expressed metaphorically in Ephesians: Christ-Church, husband-wife, masculine-feminine.
Evidently this is not a trivial metaphor. It expresses the incarnational principle at work in yet another context. And it is difficult—to say the least—to square it with the idea of female priests.
It may be, then, that the Christological confusions of the present day have something to do with the growing practice of ordaining women in other Christian denominations as well as with the controversy over the same matter within the Catholic church. Someone who does not think that Christ became man—in both senses, homo vir—is unlikely to find much sustenance in the “incarnational principle” as it is operative elsewhere in the divine economy. Indeed, such a person is likely to view it as a meaningless form of words and an excuse for excluding women from something to which they have a right.
Finally, then, there is the Church, the community of faith. To pursue the nuptial metaphor further: Christ’s spousal activity vis-a-vis the Church can be expressed by saying that he impregnates the Church with his life-giving spirit, while the Church conceives and nurtures Christians in her womb by sacraments and the word, until they grow up to the fullness of resurrected life in heaven. “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (I Peter 1:23).
None of this adds up to a rational argument for anything in particular. Specifically, it does not prove that women cannot be ordained as priests. But it does point to a severe tension which, along with the Church’s traditional belief and practice in this matter, places the burden of proof upon those who advocate the ordination of women. They have not satisfied this requirement up to now.
There is, it should be noted, nothing strange about a situation in which one knows reality apart from arguments. A great deal of reality is not accessible to rational argument or only imperfectly so. Typically, we speak of seeing the truth, not of reasoning to what is true. Reality more often is grasped by experience and reflection than it is by syllogisms. That is especially so where realities of the spiritual order are concerned.
Finally, it also must be said that there is nothing profoundly wrong with calling the Church it. This is not an error requiring delation to Rome. In fact, there may well be times when it is appropriate to stress the Church’s institutional aspect in this way.
Yet “she” expresses the truth more perfectly: it is a richer, fuller way of pointing to the nature of the Church and her relationship to Christ on the one hand and to Christians on the other. The Church is the bride of Christ and our mother in the order of grace. The Church is she.