By Fr. George Welzbacher
January 27, 2008
From time to time I have mentioned on this page Father Richard John Neuhaus, a distinguished priest and theologian and a convert from the Lutheran faith. He is the editor of the highly respected monthly journal First Things. I have subscribed to First Things for many years, and while I cannot always find time to read all of the lengthy articles that appear in each issue from the pens (or the computers) of the conservative intelligentsia, I do try to read the book reviews and, above all else, Father Neuhaus' presentation of his own brief but thoughtful comments on a whole range of contemporary events and trends, a presentation that constitutes the regular section of the journal called The Public Square. I thought some of you might be interested in a sample of Father Neuhaus' comments taken from the journal's latest issue (January 2008).
So here goes.
* * * * *In an op-ed in The New York Times Judith Warner complains about the Supreme Court upholding a law against "partial birth" abortion (always in quotes in the Times). The law takes effect, she notes, when "the fetal head or the fetal tnunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother. But once you dilate the cervix, a fetus can start to slip out." If a witness to this ... failure to kill the fetus before it has a chance to slip out has "an axe to grind against a certain physician" (meaning the abortionist), the abortionist could be in real trouble. That's a striking phrase: ' A fetus can start to slip out." And then, my God, you've got a baby on your hands! The problem, if I understand Ms. Warner, is that the Supreme Court does not sufficiently appreciate the tenacity with which the fetus strives to get out .. in order to become, quite suddenly, a baby.
* * * * *Jacqueline Grennan Wexler is eighty-one now and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a celebratory story on her lifetime of notable achievements, beginning in the early 1960's. "She was president of Webster University," we are told, "and had feariessly stood up to the Catholic Church and cut the school's ties to it. What's more, she had taken vows about 20 years earlier to he a nun. She cut those ties too." Sister J, as she was once called, is clearly a woman to be reckoned with. In September, Dr. Wexler received an honorary doctorate from Webster. The current president noted that, under Wexler's leadership, Webster was "the first Catholic institution to cut ties to the church," quickly adding that "others soon followed Webster's lead." Sister J was a pioneer. The paper says: "She was asked to serve on national boards, some at the invitation of U.S. presidents." Sister J had moved beyond the little world that is the Catholic Church. "She was doing things that nuns simply didn't do," an admirer is quoted as saying. The paper reports that, before the bold changes initiated by Sister J, "daily Mass was celebrated at Webster." It is obvious that radical change was called for. Dr. Wexler herself says that she decided she could no longer be "controlled by the hierarchical church." She says she still considers herself a Catholic but "she disagrees with many of the church's teachings, including its stance on abortion." Webster was founded in 1915 by the Sisters of Loretto. The last sister retired from the faculty some years ago. There are still Sisters of Loretto and, despite geriatric problems, a dozen from the remnant managed to get to the Webster celebration. "They stood and held their right palms in the air to bless Wexler. Tears swelled in her eyes at the gesture." It is not as though the sisters have no continuing connection with Webster University. Last year, the remaining sisters "were upset when they found out that Webster had a credit-transfer program with the Western Hemisphere Institutefor Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Georgia." They protested the complicity with U.S. militarism, and the program was cancelled. And so it is that, in a deeper and more meaningful sense, as they might say, the last of the Sisters of Loretto, which was founded in 1812 in Kentucky "to provide education for the poor children of the frontier," have kept faith with their solemn vows to the charism of their order. To be sure, their founder might not see it that way, but they were "reading the signs of the times," as they were told Vatican Council II said they should, and, after all, the founder was part of "the hierarchical church." The vision of post-Vatican II "renewal" marches on, albeit leaning on walkers, across the "newfrontier" of self-liquidation.
* * * * *
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 (I 962-1965) until the mid-eighties, the taken-for-granted assumption was that the forces of liberalism, progressivism, reform, renewal-all marching under the banner of aggiornamento-were in control. Aggiornamento was taken to mean "updating" or "modernization" or "getting in tune with the world" or .'reading the signs of the times," and it was an intoxicating cause. In liberal Catholicism, aggiornamento quite 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 ressourcement as 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 recognizes, the change of the last quarter century 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 programs strongly attuned also to young Catholics. And he is right in recognizing 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 center 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 his proposed application 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 abovementioned 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.
* * * * *That formidable student of Islam, Bernard Lewis, recently gave a wide-ranging lecture on the fourteen hundred years of struggle between Islam and what Muslims, more than Christians, understand as Christendom. Along the way, Lewis notes: "The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of the jihad-an attempt to recover by holy war what had been lost by holy war. It failed, and it was not followed up." Then there is this vignette revealing how radically perceptions have changed. "A striking example of the modern approach comes from France. On October 8, 2002, the then prime minister, Monsieur Jean-Pierre Raffarin, made a speech in the French National Assembly discussing the situation in Iraq. Speaking of Saddam Hussein, he remarked that one of Saddam Hussein's heroes was his compatriot Saladin, who came from the same Iraqi town of Tikrit. In case the members of the Assembly were not aware of Saladin's identity, M. Raffarin explained to them that it was he who was able 'to defeat the Crusaders and liberate Jerusalem.' When a Catholic French prime minister describes Saladin's capture of Jerusalem ftom the largely French Crusaders as an act of liberation, this would seem to indicate a rather extreme case of realignment of loyalties or at least of perceptions. According to the parliamentary record. when M. Raffarin used the word 'liberate,' a member called out, 'Liberer?" The prime minister just went straight on. That was the only interruption, and as far as I know there was no comment afterwards." Muslims liberated the city from Christians who had liberated the city from Muslim conquest. The mind begins to spin at the spinning.
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