Briefly Reviewed: May 1985
Christian Ethics in a Secular Arena
By Josef Fuchs, S.J.
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Price: No price given
Review Author: Michael Kerper
With the seemingly irreversible triumph of secularism among people who shape the culture of the West, many theologians, especially the most prominent ones, are understandably haunted by persistent doubts about the acceptability of their professional credentials to colleagues in the scholarly community. If a secular view of reality is an a priori condition for doing any sort of serious academic work, then theologians, who study a reality denied by many, find themselves in a notably uncomfortable position among academics lucky enough to study phenomena that are amenable to true scientific investigation.
Faced with this embarrassing situation, theologians who hope to be recognized as genuine modern scholars can formulate critiques of Christianity showing that the Christian faith, properly understood, is a completely human phenomenon that has no elements incompatible with the fundamental presuppositions of secularism. Fr. Josef Fuchs, S.J., perhaps one of the most influential moral theologians of the past 30 years or so, has chosen this course.
Fuchs, who has spent his entire teaching career in Europe, has first-hand experience of living in societies where serious religious belief is rare among intellectuals and even difficult to find among the less educated. As Fuchs sees it, Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, has been pushed to the margins of ethical discussions because so often the Christian position has been presented in an unnecessarily simplistic and narrow way. He tries to demonstrate that true Christian morality does not inevitably collide with the positions of nonbelievers. Where there is obvious conflict, say, on abortion and increasingly on euthanasia, the apparent incompatibility can be dissolved by somehow reinterpreting the Christian position. What is more, he asserts that the areas of indisputable agreement are clearly broader and ultimately more significant than the sticky questions that receive so much attention. Always an optimist, Fuchs sees a convergence of secular morality and Christian morality because both are aimed at realizing what is fully human.
Even after the misunderstandings between Christians and secularists are cleared up, one major problem remains — the claim by Christians that somehow God has revealed some moral norms. According to the secular view, such claims are patently absurd because there is no revealer. For the Christian theologian there is the difficulty of explaining why many nonbelievers and adherents of other religions agree on so many moral points.
In attempting to solve these problems, Fuchs puts forth several positions, formerly controversial but now commonplace among revisionist moral theologians. First, he denies that anything like a specifically Christian morality exists. Christian morality is simply “being human.” Second, he rejects the notion of absolute moral norms because he uses the proportionalist method which necessarily rules out absolute statements. Third, he repudiates the idea of “intrinsically evil” acts. And fourth, he asserts that the teaching authority of the Church in the area of specific moral norms has been vastly overstated. In Fuchs’s view, these four positions are essential if Christians are to engage the secular world in ethical discourse, for without these concessions and revisions, Christian moral positions are unintelligible and thus unconvincing for nonbelievers.
In effect, Fuchs tries to “baptize” secular morality by proposing that moral norms ultimately emerge not from revelation but from human reflection, which, of course, is constantly changing. But in his effort to make Christian morality intelligible and attractive to nonbelievers, it becomes so diluted that it is hardly recognizable as Christian. Fuchs, despite his brilliant efforts, seems to be on the wrong track.
Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood
By Kristin Luker
Publisher: University of California Press
Review Author: Dave Andrusko
This is a complex, intriguing addition to the growing ranks of scholarly interpretations of the abortion debate. The attention-grabbing wrinkle in Luker’s book is the thesis that the abortion “war” between pro-choicers and pro-lifers can best be understood not as a battle between civil libertarians and the status-anxious Religious Right, but between women themselves — women with differing “vested interests.”
Luker comes to this conclusion based on a five-year study of 212 abortion-issue activists. Although the study was confined to California, Luker maintains that other case studies demonstrate that her findings hold nationwide.
Luker is evidently aware that her conclusions may be subjected to the charge of reductionism. Thus, in her Introduction she tells us that how people align themselves on the abortion issue is only “in part” based on the “social worlds in which they live.” Yet, what most readers will understandably conclude — that the explanation for the pro-life and pro-choice positions can be found in “vested interests” — flows naturally from the emphases chosen throughout the book.
The typical woman pro-choicer, we discover, works in a prestigious profession, has one child, is highly educated, secular in outlook, and at home with individualistic codes of morality. Her vested interest is in protecting her decision to pursue a career. We learn from Luker that it is an article of faith with these women that if they are not allowed to abort, men will discriminate against them, charging women with “dual loyalties” to career and family. Thus, we should not be surprised if they believe that preborn children occupy an “intermediate” category: “potential personhood.”
Pro-life women have invested everything in their families, Luker explains. Full-time mothers with three or four kids, less educated, and deeply religious, they feel personally threatened by abortion. Abortion, Luker hypothesizes, “strips the veil of sanctity from motherhood.”
No doubt Luker accurately summarizes the socio-economic background of activists. Where we part company is over the interpretative conclusions she draws.
Working outside the home or taking more graduate courses may well be associated with pro-choice activists. But what led them to work outside the home in the first place? Do pro-choice women activists really believe that somehow personhood accumulates over nine months because they want equality in the marketplace? Do pro-life women really weep in anguish over the deaths of 16 million preborn babies principally because they’ve chosen to devote themselves to full-time mothering?
Luker actually presents more substantive clues to the bases of these women’s activism elsewhere in her book. For example, she concludes that what converted many pro-life sympathizers into activists was the lesson they drew from the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision: if an entire class of human beings can have the protection of the law stripped from them in one fell swoop, who’s next? They feared — quite presciently, as it turned out — that other powerless people would be next, such as handicapped newborns.
In other words, they came to their activism because their view of the human community is an inclusive one, with a particular bias in favor of protecting the most defenseless. They could no more stand idly by while millions of preborn children die than they could passively watch as our society began to institutionalize the starvation of handicapped babies.
Luker also senses the horror felt at the gruesome way babies die. If she could have done more with that insight, she would have seen that beyond anything else, what characterizes pro-life people is their rejection of violence as a “solution” to the vicissitudes of life, as Sidney and Daniel Callahan have so perceptively observed.
The Recovery of Political Theory: Limits and Possibilities
By William C. Havard
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
At first glance, William Havard’s The Recovery of Political Theory would appear to belong to that category of books that rarely escapes the ghetto of academia, that cramped and arid world where like speaks to like. Beyond the precincts of the university few people read the publications of scholarly presses, and even within its gates the appearance of a professor’s fugitive essays is unlikely to be greeted with fanfare. Such collections generally serve only to feed the voracious professorial ego and to arm graduate students with a fresh supply of arcana; having exhausted their very brief moment of glory, these books slip off to die in the bowels of the library. At best, the publication of such volumes is an innocuous practice that harms no one and even provides a modicum of pleasure to a few.
Professor Havard’s book deserves a better fate. Although his essays focus on a topic of less than cosmic significance — the conflict of methodologies and ideas within the discipline of political science — he transforms that unprepossessing subject into a springboard for reflections on Western man’s quest to understand himself and order his relations with other men in society. Out of this historic effort has come political philosophy, and for Havard — as for the long line of thinkers that reaches back to Plato — this field of investigation lies at the heart of man’s search for the meaning and purpose of his social existence. This breadth of vision enables Havard to view the recent controversies among political scientists as more than the proverbial tempest in a teapot; at stake is nothing less than man’s grasp of political reality.
For the past 30 years Havard has defended the study of political philosophy against the depredations of behavioralists. Like their intellectual progenitor Auguste Comte, behavioralists exclude all knowledge that cannot be derived from the methods of science. Hard, empirical evidence alone matters; all else is relegated to the realm of opinion and value where “traditionalists” cling to such “outdated” modes of inquiry as theology and metaphysics. For Havard, by contrast, the true study of politics must be founded upon philosophical anthropology. Although behavioralism churns out an ever-mounting stack of studies that bristle with data, it is powerless to illuminate the deepest levels of politics; only a study of politics that “penetrates to the understanding of the nature of man” can accomplish that task. Toward that end, Havard urges a repudiation of neopositivism and a return to the “Christian and classical symbols as the ordering substance or man and society.”
Havard’s call for a recovery of political philosophy rests upon more than fond wishes and fleeting dreams; he discerns genuine reasons for hope. As 20th-century heirs of positivism, behavioralists believe that through the exclusively empirical study of society one can accumulate the requisite knowledge to transform social relations for the better. But the horrors of the 20th century nave vitiated this overweening confidence in instrumental reason, leaving many people disillusioned with the promises of progress and hungering for a wisdom that behavioralism cannot supply.
Architects of Fear
By George Johnson
Review Author: Michael Schwartz
Since as early as 1740, when fears of a secret Jesuit cabal sparked a mass lynching in New York, conspiracy theories have been a recurrent fever in American politics. Journalist George Johnson investigates some half dozen current conspiracy theories and their proponents, from neo-Nazi paramilitary groups to the bizarre followers of Lyndon LaRouche who clutter airports with their “Feed Jane Fonda to the Whales” signs.
Johnson’s account is a fascinating glimpse at the underworld of American politics. Most people encounter conspiracy theories only in bits and snatches: stray, but ominous, references to the Trilateralists; a fundamentalist tract warning that “they” plan to imprint a Universal Products Code symbol on everyone’s forehead as the Mark of Cain; news accounts about far-right “survivalist” military training camps. Johnson’s summaries of the various paranoid systems will be appreciated by anyone who has been accosted by a wild-eyed true believer ready to reveal the astonishing truth about the secret plot that has put us into the fix we are in.
Most of the variations Johnson deals with identify the source of the problem as the Bavarian llluminati, a short-lived utopian humanist society of the 1780s founded by Adam Weishaupt, whose meager talents and accomplishments have been rewarded — by some perversity of history — with an inordinate degree of fame in later generations. Conspiracy-minded opponents of the French Revolution, positing that that cataclysmic event could not have been brought about by historic trends and fortuitous events, credited this clique with covertly inspiring the deeds of Danton, Robespierre, et al. From that time to this, the Illuminati have been said to maintain their shadowy existence as the secret power behind the communists, Masons, Jesuits, Jews, or whatever group functions as the overt agent of evil in the minds of particular conspiracy theorists.
Conspiracy theories provide easy answers to complex problems and offer easy scapegoats for all social ills.
On the other hand, conspiracy theories raise some insoluble problems for their adherents. Why, for instance, if the conspirators are so fiendishly clever, has it taken them hundreds (in some versions, thousands) of years to reach the brink of success, while never completing their conquest of the world? Why has their cover not been blown in all these years? Are there not more credible explanations for the events conspiracy theories seek to explain?
If we look at the actual history of successful political conspiracies we find that the conspirators themselves have been notoriously wrong in their own predictions of how they would gain power. They succeeded not through clever plots, but through historical accidents, crass opportunism, and sheer luck. Conspiracy theories are not reliable predictors of future events; they are rationalizations of past events and current prejudices.
Johnson’s account of current conspiracy theories is as entertaining as it is informative. While his reporting is rather superficial, it does shed some light on social paranoia. What is most interesting in Architects of Fear, however, is the way in which the author’s own biases operate.
Johnson is a self-described “secular humanist.” He tries not to be one-sided in his discussion of conspiracy theories, and each chapter outlining one of the major theories has a postscript offering a countervailing conspiracy. For instance, his chapter on the anti-Catholic rantings of Jack Chick and Alberto Rivera (Vatican computers listing every Protestant who will be executed in the coming Inquisition, etc.) closes with a postscript on the Lefebvrite movement. But there are dozens of “left-wing” conspiracy theories to which Johnson appears oblivious.
For every prototypical little old lady in tennis shoes convinced that Nelson Rockefeller secretly controlled the Kremlin, there is another one of opposite persuasion who will swear that the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover had JFK killed. In short, even though he tries to be evenhanded, Johnson is able to find dangerous paranoia only on the so-called “right” but not on the so-called “left.”
Moreover, Johnson’s bias against the “right” is so strong that he sees a conspiracy theory even where none exists. He claims, without substantiating his belief, that the pro-life movement is an example of conspiracy-motivated paranoia. Yet anyone who has read the absurdly alarmist “exposes” of the right-to-life movement or pro-abortion fund-raising letters about the nefarious designs of the Catholic hierarchy has had a taste of vintage paranoia.
Finally, in a revealing concluding chapter, Johnson perceives a common spirit between his own secular humanism and the Illuminism and gnosticism decried by right-wing conspiracy theorists. Curiously, he pledges his own faith to the ideals espoused by the heretics and Illuminists.
Gospel Radicalism: The Hard Sayings of Jesus
By Thadee Mature
Review Author: Stuart Gudowitz
This book is not without interest and Matura is not without his insights, yet ultimately I found the book a disappointment. Matura’s purpose is to discuss various headings: anger, lust, divorce, forgiveness, etc. But Matura assumes that the New Testament is a compilation both of the actual sayings of Jesus and additions to or extrapolations from these original sayings. As he admits, he never sets out to prove this premise in this book. This assumption nevertheless causes Matura to speculate constantly that this verse goes back to the original teaching of Jesus while that verse has been added by His followers.
Thank goodness, Matura shows respect for even those verses not considered authentic, since he thinks they accurately extend the teachings of our Lord. Thus we have in this book no opposition between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, or between the preaching of Jesus and the teachings of His Church. Still, such speculations, which suffuse the book, are irritating and distracting, and may (though this would be, I take it, far from the author’s intention) cause the average reader to be tempted to doubt the veracity of the New Testament.
A second major weakness of this book is that Matura barely touches upon how the hard sayings of our Lord are to be lived. He strongly affirms that — with the exception of the call to be eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven — these sayings are addressed to all the followers of Jesus. Matura apparently has little use for the traditional distinction between precepts and evangelical counsels. At one point Matura points out that a certain literary exaggeration may play a part in the hardness of the hard sayings of Jesus (e.g., our Lord does not want us actually to gouge out our eyes), though he quickly and rightly adds that noting such literary style should not be used as an excuse to empty the hard sayings of Jesus of their radical nature in order to reduce them to merely conventional maxims of worldly “common sense.” But about how the Christian is to live concretely the sayings of Jesus on, say, possessions, Matura gives us not a clue. Obviously much may depend upon one’s state of life, but surely, after spending so much time analyzing the various hard sayings of Jesus, the author should be able to give Christians some guidance.
Thus, what can at best be called Matura’s speculations concerning the origin of the various hard sayings of our Lord and Matura’s disinclination to offer the barest outline of how these hard sayings are to affect our daily lives, both conspire to make this book much less valuable than it might have been. The book’s topic is certainly important, even vital. It deserves better treatment.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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