Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: December 1983

Briefly Reviewed: December 1983

The Pill, John Rock, and the Church: The Biography of a Revolution

By Loretta McLaughlin

Publisher: Little, Brown

Pages: 243

Price: $15.95

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

Publisher: Knopf

Pages: 244

Price: $11.95

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

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 152

Price: $5.95

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

Publisher: Seabury

Pages: 128

Price: $4.95

Review Author: Karl Keating

Also reviewed:

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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