Managing the dynamo; abortion; anti-Semitism on the prairie

Questionable Accommodations

David O’Brien laments that Andrew Bacevich “has unfortunately accepted from theologian Michael Baxter a version of the American Catholic story that emphasizes ‘accommodation’ to secular America” (Letters, January 13). If this is true, I’m flattered, for I find Bacevich’s assessment of the challenges of modernity to be perceptive, penetrating, and (with the help of Henry Adams) rhetorically powerful. As he notes, the dynamo is everywhere now, on our TVs and computers, in our living rooms and bedrooms, in our purses and pockets, making it difficult, if not impossible, to honor the Virgin and abide by the moral and intellectual vision she represents.

O’Brien is more optimistic. If I understand him correctly, he does not deny that U.S. society faces serious challenges, but for him this makes it more urgent for Catholics to move into the mainstream and transform the life of the nation. This was the task commended by O’Brien’s heroes in U.S. Catholic history: Isaac Hecker, John A. Ryan, and especially John Courtney Murray, all of whom saw a near-perfect fit between an enlightened Catholicism and the best of American democracy. The same was true, I should add, of Michael Williams, founding editor of Commonweal, who wrote in 1921 of the Catholic Church as a time-tested, divinely guided “dynamo” that could harness and direct the modern dynamo that worried Henry Adams.

Without disparaging this sincere hope and the hard work it represents, as I see it, Catholics in the United States who have attempted to manage the dynamics of the market and the state have eventually been managed by them. So when it comes to harnessing and directing the dynamo, I don’t share O’Brien’s optimism.

Nor, however, do I subscribe to Bacevich’s pessimism. He writes of Christianity in the past tense, of the gospel as a dead letter. In this sense, he misses Yoder’s point, and Robert Imbelli’s: that with the Incarnation, God entered history and has begun to transform it in ways we can perceive and place our hope in only insofar as we make our own the life offered us by Christ. The workings of grace are not effective in some managerial (or Niebuhrian) sense, but still, they are irrepressibly, infinitely fruitful. This was the truth on which Dorothy Day based her life. The same is surely true of the Cistercian community to which Bacevich refers. To the extent that we cooperate, it is also true of the rest of us, laity and clergy alike, staff and faculty in higher education, and immigrants of whatever generation. My “Catholic Worker prophecy” notwithstanding, I don’t think any of us are spared the task (noted by Imbelli) of discerning spirits. To this end, Bacevich’s reflections are helpful—for me, by encouraging me to resist the impulse of checking my e-mail first thing in the morning, to reach instead for my breviary, and to ask, in union with the Virgin, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.”

Michael Baxter

Chicago, Ill.

Cooler Head

Thank you to Teresa Mottet. Her remarkable response (Letters, November 18, 2011) to the article “Can We Talk About Abortion?” (September 23, 2011) strikes a much-needed chord of quiet humility and authenticity in the screaming chorus of controversy that is the abortion debate. She writes with unassuming authority, with intelligence and clarity out of her own experience. Her truthfulness and stunningly nonjudgmental attitude are reason enough for her letter to be required reading for everyone engaged in the discussion, no matter what “side” they’re on.

Beth McCormick, OP

Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Category Mistake?

I was moved by Paul Schaefer’s reflection about anti-Semitism on a Wisconsin school bus in 1944 (“Gentiles Only,” November 18, 2011). In no way can the scene he describes compare with “the genocidal hatred of the Holocaust.” Still, why was the young Jewish boy “a natural target” for the Christians on the bus? Jew-baiting and the entire concept of “Jew” as it has evolved in the West for two millennia was a profoundly Christian affair.

By “Jew” I mean an a priori category that came to evoke in Christians a wide gamut of emotions and actions. These included—sometimes simultaneously—veneration and envy, appropriation and rejection, anxiety and remorse, emulation overlaid with incomprehension, guilt projected into scorn, and exploitation that degenerated into full persecution. Christianity appropriated Judaism but simultaneously despised its traditions and Jews themselves. As St. John Chrysostom put it so tellingly: “This is the reason I hate the Jews: because they have the law and the prophets; indeed I hate them more because of them than if they didn’t have them.” Rosemary Radford Ruether pointed all this out in her brilliant Faith and Fratricide, but it bears repeating.

Steven Englund

Paris, France

Liturgical Abuse

Paul Schaefer in his article “Gentiles Only” recalls the anti-Judaism of Midwestern farm children and their parents in the 1940s, and wonders if there was a connection between the “evil portrait of the Jews” read in churches during Passion Week and the cruel treatment of a Jewish boy on his school bus. He thinks there was none, and I believe there may have been no such connection in his mind. But these readings continue yearly in the liturgical churches, Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and doubtless others I don’t know. As one born and raised Jewish, but most of my long life a Christian in the Episcopal Church, I suspect that the “evil portrait” is usually heard as a portrait of the “evil Jews,” meaning the whole people. In the St. John Passion especially, as read on Good Friday, there appears no allusion to the contrary.

“The Jews” is an unqualified phrase of condemnation there. Anyone with any knowledge of church history has learned about the fraternal strife, sometimes violent, between Christian and Rabbinic Jews of the second century when this Gospel was written, but they may also know of the anti-Semitic uses to which it has been put subsequently. In our country full acceptance of Jews is closer than it has been anywhere before, but just one political upheaval in the Middle East might alter the situation gravely. Christians need to be reminded that our sacred liturgy could still have an ugly fallout.

Stan Leavy

Hamden, Conn.

Reformed Protestants, Reform Jews

I enjoyed Paul Schaefer’s article on his youthful collusion with anti-Semitism well enough, though I must say, what I learned in my own white working-class family was that Jews are smarter than everybody else. This turns out to be a caricature too.

Schaefer’s reference to his Army friend Albert being a “Reformed” Jew reminded me of a later experience I had when I was taking a Judaism seminar in graduate school. The professor told us one day, with some intensity, that it was a sign of Christian ignorance to describe liberal Jews as “Reformed.” It’s “Reform,” she told us; Protestants are “Reformed.” Not the sort of error I would expect to see in Commonweal.

Marian Ronan

Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Author Replies:

I am grateful to Marian Ronan for pointing out that “Reformed Jew” is an incorrect usage.

Her letter caused me to look into the beliefs of Reform Jews; I discovered that one of their guiding principles “is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to this particular belief or that particular practice,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library. It struck me that many American Catholics do the same. (I do not mean to imply that this is the practice of Marian Ronan, whom I do not know.) Perhaps we should more formally call this movement Reform Catholicism.

Paul J. Schaefer

Published in the 2012-01-27 issue: 
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