Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 1995

January-February 1995

The New Republic Reader

By Dorothy Wickenden

Publisher: Basic

Pages: 518

Price: $28

Review Author: Paul J. Weithman

The New Republic was founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, an early advisor to Theodore Roosevelt’s third party campaign for the presidency in 1912. Roosevelt’s progressivism was an independent political movement aimed at taming the corporate rich. The New Republic was inaugurated in a time of intellectual ferment, and when American politics presented clear alternatives.

Over the last 80 years, contributors to The New Republic have sometimes been bold and imaginative, and sometimes dead wrong — but it would be almost impossible to guess any of this by reading this collection of articles from The New Republic‘s first eight decades.

The book’s introduction implausibly claims that 20th-century liberalism “has won” — it has “inspired democratic revolutions from the Soviet Union to South Africa, and has yet again disabused this country of its prolonged infatuation with conservatism.” The book purports to provide a brief history of this allegedly triumphant liberalism. Instead, the reader finds a history of what passes for liberalism in American electoral politics late in the 20th century. That liberalism, an unimaginative blend of compassion for the poor and complacency about the existing distribution of wealth and power, has little sense of its own limitations and seems hardly aware of the spiritual vacuity of much of modern life. It shows little understanding of religion, and is, to judge from the recent election results and the current state of the Clinton Administration, capable of inspiring no one.

The tone of liberal politics in contemporary America matches the general tone of The New Republic Reader perfectly. Wickenden apparently combed back issues of the magazine looking for essays that would do nothing to challenge the mainstream of today’s Democratic Party. There is hardly a trace of Croly’s Progressivism. There is little indication that Progressivism’s worries about the concentration of wealth and power deserve a hearing. There is no indication that religion is among the most potent political forces in contemporary America. Nor, with the exception of an essay by Lewis Mumford, do any of the contributions suggest that human beings have spiritual needs which liberal politics does not serve.

The history of The New Republic could have been mined differently, so as to produce a more exciting and challenging book. In 1928, for example, George Soule made a cogent argument for social control over the automobile industry. The magazine’s assessments of 1920 Democratic Party candidate James Cox and 1924 candidate John Davis could also have been included — they are proof that the journal’s founding Progressivism persisted for at least a decade and indicate that early contributors did not take two-party politics for granted. And at least one of Hemingway’s 1938 dispatches from Spain should have been included on grounds of literary merit.

Contributors to The New Republic have sometimes been wrong; The New Republic Reader should have included some essays that show this. The 1938 column concluding that American Catholics could not be counted on in the struggle against fascism is probably best forgotten. But why not reveal Editor Bruce Bliven’s undue and unbounded optimism about the benefits of science and technology? In December 1941 he predicted that the common cold would soon be eradicated by the widespread use of germicidal light bulbs. His article would have made an amusingly self-deprecating entry.

Croly chose the image of an armed galleon under full sail to adorn The New Republic‘s crest. The book under review could have been a reflective and interesting chronicle of the voyage of Croly’s magazine. Unfortunately, the book never ventures far enough from shore.

Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future

By Richard Bernstein

Publisher: Knopf

Pages: 367

Price: $25

Review Author: James Seaton

“Multiculturalism,” according to its proponents, means to go beyond merely avoiding or even combating prejudice to the celebration of “diversity.” Multiculturalism, according to Bernstein, can be seen as “a code word for a political ambition, a yearning for more power.” Bernstein, himself a believer in “the values and practices that emerged from the civil rights movement,” argues that multiculturalism should not be taken as the logical extension of the civil rights crusade. Multiculturahsts insist on “equality of results,” rather than the earlier goal of “equality of opportunity.” Aiming at “the indictment of one group and the exculpation of all the others,” multiculturalism marks “the triumph of the politics of difference over the politics of equality, that great and still-visionary goal of the civil rights movement.”

But Bernstein scarcely notices another difference that may be the most important of all. The civil rights movement was inspired by the Christianity of African Americans in the South. In contrast, multiculturalism is about moral relativism. The civil rights movement countered bigotry by appeal to a deep religious truth. Multiculturalism, identifying intolerance with faith, seeks to delegitimize any religion that cannot be reduced to an unthreatening and purely personal “lifestyle.”

Although Bernstein is not particularly interested in religious issues, his narratives reveal the multiculturalist hostility to religion and especially to Catholicism. A New York Times reporter, Bernstein is at his best capturing the mood of “diversity training” seminars, like the one held at Cornell University for prospective dormitory Resident Assistants (RAs). Christian participants were required to miss church in favor of a “gay day” session that included explicit sex movies. While the movies were shown, “two people went around taking pictures of the RAs’ reactions,” presumably “to make sure that nobody was harboring any homophobic squeamishness.” Bernstein’s informant, a Catholic, kept quiet at the session, since he needed the job; he told Bernstein that not only did he have to miss Mass but he had to watch material that is against his religion.

Bernstein, however, provides little assistance in understanding how a movement whose catchword is “diversity” came to insist on conformity. Nonetheless, Bernstein convincingly demonstrates that multiculturalism’s “appropriation of the mantle of the civil rights movement” should be challenged, particularly by those who owe a significant part of their moral education to the earlier movement.

Catholic Universities in Church and Society

By John P. Langan

Publisher: Georgetown University Press

Pages: 261

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Jeffrey Wills

Forty years ago, John Tracy Ellis’s essay “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life” brought Catholic universities under the microscope and found them wanting — in terms of research. Today the investigation has been reopened, but with a difference which reflects the changing times. Then the word in question was “university,” now it is “Catholic.”

The impetus this time comes from the Holy See’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990). Have Catholic institutions of higher learning maintained their Catholic character? Theodore Hesburgh and 29 colleagues from Notre Dame grapple with the issue in The Challenge and Promise. John Langan’s Georgetown volume is the result of a symposium explicitly on Ex Corde.

Both books are filled with many inspiring descriptions of the mission of Catholic colleges, as well as an inevitable number of platitudinous ones. The prickly points at issue are ecclesiological: Are the various participants in the Catholic college contributing to its Catholic character?

The Administration. It was once enough to say that a college was Catholic because it was under the auspices of a religious order or had a cleric as its captain. But life is no longer so simple. Thus, a laity-led college like Thomas Aquinas in California may strike some as more Catholic than the religious-led university in the Midwest now being sued for anti-Catholic bias.

Since Ex Corde sees colleges as participating in the life of the local church (as well as the international scholarly community), it predictably also sees bishops as particularly responsible for them. The mere mention of the episcopate is a source of apprehension to the more defensive contributors to these volumes, but bishops have always been involved in the life of their local colleges.

The Undergraduates. Few voices in these volumes address the fact that Catholic colleges derive much of their religious nature from their intake of Catholic students. Is the college’s faith developing the students’ faith, or vice versa? Where is the Catholic difference in a Catholic education? Several of Notre Dame’s partisans point to significant student Mass attendance. But the same can be pointed to at several secular colleges I know. At Notre Dame and Jesuit colleges there is an undergraduate philosophy and theology requirement. But is that enough?

The Faculty. The most important (and controversiabpissue is the nature of the teaching staff, in particular Ex Corde‘s statement: “In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the university…the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority….” The common sense of this proposition is obvious. Can faculty encourage students to develop a religious sense if they don’t have one themselves? At least three authors in these collections use the word “crucial” to describe faculty hiring.

As someone outside the system (I teach at the University of Wisconsin), I have feared for Catholic universities. I assumed neglect, but reading these volumes encourages me, for people at places like Notre Dame and Georgetown are making the effort to raise the issue of faculty hiring. What is needed to bring in more Catholic faculty of high academic quality is a concerted effort to recruit them.

The most constructive suggestion I read was that for “Catholic accreditation.” Just as secular accreditation by outside authorities had a positive role in raising standards for higher education, so a similar process might certify the religious character of a school. Peer review would keep the certification in the hands of committed Catholic academics and alumni, but might give colleges a stronger and healthier critique than they currently give themselves. Some “consumers” of Catholic education are unhappy with the product they are getting; some alumni donors feel that colleges are not exercising a full fiduciary regard for the intentions of founders and past givers. So, if truth in advertising is a problem, then a more systematic and public assessment of a college’s character might be appropriate.

No one eagerly anticipates external review, but simply gathering data and asking hard questions has its own rewards. Some may resent the effort to quantify Catholicity (as Ex Corde’s faculty quota seems to do), but colleges do it with everything else. We know the percentage of African-American faculty — do we know the percentage of active Catholic faculty? We know the number of students attending football games — do we know how many attend church? How many converts has a college inspired? Perhaps colleges are idealistic and don’t want to worry. Perhaps they don’t want to tell. Perhaps they don’t care to know. Whatever the reason, the more prophetic voices in these books suggest that Catholic universities need to cease their presumptuous attitude toward Catholicity, just as a generation ago they ceased to be self-congratulatory about their academic standards.

The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University

By Theodore M. Hesburgh

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 381

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Michelle Bobier

“Dying is the most general human event, something we all have to do,” Fr. Nouwen writes. “But do we do it well?”

Nouwen sees his authorial task as twofold: to befriend his own death and to help others befriend theirs. Once we have befriended death, we are able to die well, and once we know we can die well, we can live well, and help others do the same: “When we can face death with hope, we can live life with generosity.”

Acknowledgment of our interrelatedness to each other and to God is what ultimately enables us to befriend death and die well. One of the book’s most thought-provoking sections speaks of the necessity to claim our “second childhood” in preparation for death. Nouwen is careful to point out that he is speaking, not of a “second immaturity” but of dependence — the willingness to depend on others and on God as we grow older. Intimate dependence on God is a gift, and receiving it leads to acknowledgment of our status as children of God. When we claim “the freedom of the children of God,” we can “strip death of any further power over us.” We are able to “walk through the gates of death with the self-confidence of heirs.”

Another challenging point centers around the ability to bear fruit after death. If we are important, it is not because of what we do but because of what we are. “Our doing brings success, but our being bears fruit,” Nouwen notes. “The great paradox of our lives is that we are often concerned about what we do or still can do, but we are most likely to be remembered for who we were.” How many of us realize that as we engage in our daily strivings?

The author also addresses the care of the dying, with which he has a great deal of experience. It is here that he reveals the underlying tough-mindedness that prompted him to undertake this book, as he writes: “dying is…a great struggle to surrender our lives completely.” Helping a dying person achieve that surrender is ultimately our greatest gift to him. “To care for others as they become weaker and closer to death is to allow them to fulfill their deepest vocation, that of becoming ever-more fully what they already are: daughters and sons of God. It is to help them to claim, especially in their dying hours, their divine childhood and to let the Spirit of God cry out from their hearts, ‘Abba, Father.’ To care for the dying is to keep saying, ‘You are the beloved daughter of God, you are the beloved son of God.'”

Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring

By Henri J.M. Nouwen

Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco

Pages: 118

Price: $16

Review Author: Ralph St. Louis

Ironically, Russell Shaw used to be Secretary for Public Affairs for the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, but now he scolds the hierarchy for a “proliferation of sociopolitical judgments of a very specific nature.” Whether the legislative debate involves care for immigrants or concern for the land, the bishops have indeed developed a Catholic perspective. But just who would be better off if these shepherds withdrew from the rough and tumble of the debate that shapes our national policy?

Shaw argues that since the hierarchy has fared poorly in the national policy debate, the laity ought to assume the major responsibility for formulating and enunciating a Catholic position. There is a widely held perception, Shaw claims, that when push comes to shove, the bishops “do not represent the Catholic laity in the political arena — they cannot deliver the votes.” But there is certainly more to social witness than counting votes. And no one knows how much, if anything, could be done by others if our bishops fell silent.

Far more important than the issue of who speaks for American Catholicism is the need for a deep, broad consensus that both informs and supports its messengers. The problem may be spiritual. If we want a Catholic community that speaks with a unified voice, then we ought to pray fervently for it, for pastors and pastored alike, and pray to be of use to them both. Do we? Surely God will honor such requests, if they arise from humble hearts.

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