Briefly Reviewed: December 1983
The Pill, John Rock, and the Church: The Biography of a Revolution
By Loretta McLaughlin
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Author: Annette Varani
On May 11, 1960, the FDA licensed Searle’s Enovid for use as a contraceptive. In her book, Loretta McLaughlin details the development of the drug which, in various forms and under various names, came to be known as “the Pill,” sketching, as she goes, the political climate and personal histories of its benefactors and scientific contributors.
McLaughlin writes with feeling about a “fundamentally good man,” gynecologist John Rock, who developed the Pill as a way to, as he put it, “preserve the family.”
But the author has a tendency to patronize anyone who takes exception to the Pill on physical or moral grounds. “There are so many idiots in the United States, they keep harping on the pill’s risk,” she emphasizes by quoting Dr. DeFelice, the man who approved the Pill for the FDA. Interestingly, McLaughlin treats the matter of the Pill’s side effects with cursory dismissal, asserting that their proportions are miniscule. It is indeed easy to argue that 20,000 fatalities in the first 15 years of Pill usage by from as many as six to eight million women is only a tiny percentage. The difficulty with these statistics arises when one considers that they represent formerly healthy women, not some small percentage of failed crops or comparable economic quantity, but mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters all intact before being prescribed a medication designed to interfere with their natural processes. Instead of being wearied by the risks of blood clotting or any of the real and extensively documented dangers of the Pill, the author prefers to contrast these dangers with the dangers of pregnancy and abortion, ranking unplanned pregnancy in evil with abortion, and advancing contraception as the solution for both. Moreover, McLaughlin never addresses the fact that the Pill can behave as an abortifacient drug.
Whatever the risks of the Pill are, and the full results will be a long time coming, there are still moral questions involved with its use. McLaughlin’s vehement advocacy of the Pill rests in part on her view of its allegedly good consequences: “Sex, indeed, would be set free, not only for the married but for any woman, anywhere, anytime, with anyone.
In response to the birth control question, the Roman Catholic Church put forth the encyclical Humanae Vitae. McLaughlin gives a paragraph to that document, while never confronting any of its arguments, even though many of the fears voiced by the encyclical at the time of its writing in 1968 have since been evidenced. For example, the encyclical says: “consider…how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” (One might contend that such has been the case, the divorce rate having increased in this country 96 percent between 1970 and 1979.) Predictably, McLaughlin comes to a surprised and outraged conclusion that the Catholic stance is not “democratic.”
The Pill, John Rock, and the Church is a championing of the drug and the doctor, and a thorough smutting of the Church. But a casual glance at relevant statistics is enough to convince even the most devout optimist that the family is not better off now than it was 23 years ago. If one could blame the Pill for human choices, one might say that John Rock’s attempts at preserving the family have failed.
The Fate of the Earth
By Jonathan Schell
Review Author: Juli Loesch
Jonathan Schell has written a moral essay on the implications of End Time weaponry. His assembling and retelling of the physical consequences of nuclear war — a kind of Environmental Impact Statement for Apocalypse — is clear eyed and sobering. Even more interesting are his meditations on the spiritual significance of species self-termination.
People deprived of a past — amnesia victims — exhibit disturbed mental states: depression, anxiety, seemingly motiveless anger; and the amnesiac’s mental anguish often leads to erratic behavior as well. Less well recognized, perhaps, is the disorientation suffered by people — and whole societies — deprived of a conceivable future.
Here Schell does not speak of the consciousness of personal mortality, for this is nothing new. But he does speak of a new consciousness of collective mortality. One person’s awareness each morning that he or she may not live till evening, is but wisdom; but that we and most of our world may perish fairly simultaneously (say, within hours of each other) — that is something else. The individual memento mori can be tonic to our lives; but the sheer anticipation of collective annihilation — says Schell — can be toxic.
Schell argues that the most noble human projects are those that span generations. We plant trees, build dams, formulate energy policies, and try to make our law codes just because we want to pass on something good to those who come after us. Though we build, plan, and struggle for ourselves too — our generation — the awareness that our works will live on after us sustains our motivation, gives our efforts depth and vigor.
This covenant between generations is even more poignant in our private lives: marrying, having families, seeing our grandparents’ features in the children we bear and rear. Amidst the sacrifices and struggles of family living, we find satisfaction in knowing that life is not something given by us, or even held by us, but something transmitted through us in a chain extending from the far past to (we hope) the far future.
But the nuclear age has administered a severe shock to this once steadying confidence. This shock has crippled our motivation, undercut our joie de vivre. Facing the nuclear predicament unflinchingly, we expose ourselves to despair; refusing to face it, we become trifling or cynical: “Isn’t life stupid? Let’s go get stoned.”
Schell’s strongest sections are those that show how deranged we become — hedonistic, shallow, sexually anarchic, bloated — when we live only for ourselves, there being, thanks to the Bomb, no conceivable future. He shows how, for our own sanity, we need to transcend ourselves for the sake of those future people whom Schell calls “the unborn.”
Actually, he is speaking of “the unconceived” — generations yet to come — but his use of the term “unborn” makes his writing resonate with intriguing “right to life” implications. “If we let the unborn into life, they will have abundant opportunity to be glad they were born instead of being prenatally severed from existence by us,” he insists. Again: “If we turn our backs on the unborn, and deny them life, then [our] own lives become progressively more twisted, empty, and despairing.”
One surprising deficiency in this book is its almost total ignorance of religious eschatology. The dust cover proclaims that, “Because mankind has never before come face to face with the prospect [of human extinction] Schell’s inspired discourse…is without precedent.”
Actually, the End of the World has a rich and varied past! The End Time is nothing new. New Testament ethics is End Time ethics. The Apostles prayed their “Maranatha” with the expectation of a triumphant denouement, and we are called to do the same. Schell is peculiarly unaware of the collected sanity of Jewish and Christian eschatology.
Though “Eschaton” is not to be found in Schell’s index, “Edmund Burke” is. Schell quotes this great 18th-century conservative almost as much in The Fate of the Earth as George Will does in Statecraft as Soulcraft, a convergence which I find pleasing.
Certainly a defense policy based on genocidal deterrents is the most anticonservative kind of ideology. Perhaps nuclear strategists are the Jacobins of a revolutionary process far more radical than the French Reign of Terror which anguished Burke so deeply. Burke was angered that we would hack the past to pieces; Schell that we may dismember the future.
The Priority of Labor: A Commentary on Laborem Exercens, Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II
By Gregory Baum
Review Author: Dale Vree
It is one of the ironies of the current Roman Catholic scene that those most loyal to the theological and ethical dimensions of the Magisterium often display scant fidelity to the Magisterium’s social dimension. Likewise, those most inclined to dissent from the theological and ethical aspects of the Magisterium are often ardently loyal to the social aspects of that Magisterium.
Gregory Baum is not one of my favorite Catholic theologians, but when it comes to the social teachings of the Church, I find his views to be perceptive, sensitive, and reflective of a spirit of loyal assent.
Unlike European Catholics, most American Catholics refuse to acknowledge that the social doctrine of the Church has, over the decades, become increasingly supportive of non-ideological and democratic forms of socialism. The secular American experience has historically been hostile to the very word “socialism,” and many American Catholics have been shaped, more than they realize, by a domestic Zeitgeist that enshrines the freedom of capital and dog-eat-dog competition, and seeks to justify gross inequalities of income and wealth. But the Church Catholic does not bow down before any Zeitgeist — which is why being a Catholic can often be an unpleasant and demanding proposition.
Baum points out that Pope Pius XI, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, acknowledged the right of society to socialize private enterprises and financial institutions, and that Pope John XXIII stressed, especially in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, that socialism can evolve beyond its erroneous materialist and atheist presuppositions and become a meaningful partner in dialogue for Catholics. And in 1971 Paul VI went further by acknowledging socialism as, in Baum’s words, “a rational option for Catholics.”
Baum demonstrates that Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens follows in this tradition, while developing Catholic social doctrine to “an unprecedented height.”
As we all know, socialism has historically been associated with working-class aspirations for social justice. In this connection, it is most significant that Baum (properly) identifies John Paul’s central message as “the priority of labor over capital” — which according to John Paul, can only be achieved when the international economy is planned (following, here, John XXIII’s emphasis on “socialization”) and when workers participate in industrial decision making and ownership (following, here, the venerable Catholic principle of “subsidiarity”). Only with the creative interplay of these two criteria can proximate justice be attained without the loss of human freedom and dignity.
Baum is very good at showing how John Paul’s “socialism” is at odds with orthodox Marxist doctrine and current communist practice (both of which violate the fundamental principle of the priority of labor over capital by making man subservient to, respectively, deterministic economic “laws” and a dictatorial bureaucracy). The priority of labor over capital means that the Church sides with the worker against any structures that dehumanize him, whether a multinational corporation or a state bureaucracy. This sense of priorities is rooted, for John Paul and the Church, in the fact that God has a special love for the poor (or relatively poor) — and so should we.
Baum’s interpretation of Laborem Exercens is not impeccable, but it does provide American Roman Catholics with a message we need to hear.
The Story of Taize
By J.L.G. Balado
Review Author: Karl Keating
Life We Never Dared Hope For. By Brother Roger. Seabury. 78 pages. $3.95.
Living Today for God. By Brother Roger. Seabury. 80 pages. $3.95.
On a hill a few miles north of Cluny lies the village of Taize. Roger Schutz first came across it in 1940, and he returned when he had undergone a spiritual maturation which led him from a childhood home filled with reverence for the lost glories of Port Royal to a university thesis on St. Benedict’s Rule. In 1949 he and six others took vows, forming an independent religious community, and today there are more than 80 men under vows, with Brother Roger still their prior.
For half a lifetime Taize has been an anomaly. The men under Brother Roger have been viewed suspiciously by both Catholics, who wonder about the apparent lack of any creed, and Protestants, who balk at the celibacy, the monkish attire, and the high regard for the papacy. In the 1960s, Taize became known for its enthusiasm for ecumenism and youth.
J.L.G. Balado tells The Story of Taize, which is largely the story of Brother Roger, and tells us that at Taize dogmas are not the liberating things Chesterton found them to be. There is such a singlemindedness in the pursuit of unity at Taize that into the discussion is allowed nothing that might prolong divisions, even if the resultant unity can be only of the most superficial sort. Balado assures us that “the community has always insisted that it has no specific theological or spiritual standpoint to promote or defend. Taize is search.”
The other books are by Brother Roger himself. A Life We Never Dared Hope For is taken from his diaries for 1972-1974. It is a paean to youth, exhorting us “to listen, and not condemn”; to “grasp the creative intuitions alive within them”; to see how they are “invent[ing] means of communion uniting believers and non-believers.” True courage is waiting for history to burst wide open, and the hope that it will “produces surging creativity, which overturns all the determinism of injustice, hatred, and oppression.”
This celebration of youth is a little embarrassing. The woes of the world are not going to be solved by the sentimental gushings of teenagers, and energy as such is useless unless directed to a proper good.
In Living Today for God, Brother Roger tells us that “the masses without God are intent on finding new ways of really living together as brothers and sisters, fully open to all that is human.” They are on a “quest,” but they can’t take any of the churches seriously because of the obvious divisions. Taize transcends these divisions by the simple expedient of ignoring them. Indeed, Brother Roger tells us that we can have more time to adore God if we spend less time trying to define Him. Many young people agree — but not all.
In 1974 Joanna Nash wrote of her visit to Taize. The Roman Catholic nuns at her London girls’ school thought it would be the ideal place for a pilgrimage. What she found were soggy, unkempt grounds, fleas in the cots in the tents, a bare, concrete barn of a church, curio sellers with cheap souvenirs, and “absolutely nothing to do.” Her final judgment was harsh, but not altogether unjust. “Let us be frank that the whole situation of our being at Taize was absurd anyhow. Here we were in France, a land rich in the heritage of Christianity, the land of Lourdes and of Chartres Cathedral, of Joan of Arc and the Cure d’Ars, rich in faith, a shelter of refuge for English Catholics during the Reformation and a training ground for our priests. And we, a group of young Catholics from…England, had come to Catholic France to make a pilgrimage to a group of Protestant monks.
Where will Taize go from here? If it does no more than “search,” it will not long outlive its founders. If it satisfies itself only with trendy things like the cult of youth and indiscriminate irenicism, it will find itself in the dustbin of history.
What Taize needs to survive is rigor — not just the rigor of evangelical poverty, which it already has, but intellectual rigor. The monks under Brother Roger must come to stand for something definite, even at the risk of alienating many of the people who now flock to them. It is no favor to the world to be indifferent to truth. If the “search” conducted at Taize has no rational end, then it will reduce itself to the mere motion Bernanos wrote about, the motion that is needed to keep the dust of boredom from settling on one’s shoulders. But if the “search” is for truth which, when found, is proudly proclaimed, then Taize can make a real contribution to healing the wounds that divide people.
©1983 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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