Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: May 1985

Briefly Reviewed: May 1985

Christian Ethics in a Secular Arena

By Josef Fuchs, S.J.

Publisher: Georgetown University Press

Pages: 154

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

Pages: 324

Price: $14.95

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

Pages: 231

Price: $22.50

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

Publisher: Tarcher

Pages: 252

Price: $13.95

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

Publisher: Orbis

Pages: 198

Price: $8.95

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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