Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: June 1987

June 1987

Catholicism vs. Freedom

I read the various essays in the symposium on Roman Catholicism and “American exceptionalism” (March) with a great deal of interest. I am not a Roman Catholic, but have attended instruction classes.

I appreciated Joe Holland’s thoughtful analysis of America as part of a larger Anglo-American culture now dominant in the world. It surely must be difficult for Roman Catholics in America to try to balance life in an Anglo-American democracy with the expectations of a Mediterranean-Latin religious hierarchy that demands subservience and the stifling of dissent as conditions of loyalty. As an outsider, I do take note of this kind of schizoid experience and its concomitant confusions. Many people came to this country to escape the bloody consequences of politico-religious hierarchies and that point is not entirely lost, with the Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran as a late 20th-century example.

Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church in America seems “exceptional” to the rest of the Roman Catholic world because it is so unexceptional in America. In this country it is only one of many religious denominations, enjoying no special privileges for itself; neither does it experience repression. As an outsider, I have never noticed that Roman Catholics in America, as a group, are any more spiritual, any less bigoted, or any more concerned for their fellow man than any other religious group; in fact, I think they do worse than some others. I am not aware of any cultural constraints upon these fundamental religious qualities. If the Roman Catholic Church has not used its freedom to be exceptional within American culture, that is hardly the fault of the culture.

I must disagree strongly with all those, especially L. Brent Bozell, who seem to think there is something intrinsically wrong with our economic system calling for correction in the direction of what most people would call socialism. Our economic system does not operate from any stated principle of overt greed, but rather from the principle that individuals are better able to make economic choices for their own welfare and happiness than are hierarchies of political bureaucrats. I would remind readers that this greedy capitalist country managed to absorb hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken European Catholic immigrants who fled countries that had no room for them, either because of overcrowding and lack of means of subsistence or government policies that created famines and wars. Many of these immigrants did well, once they were established.

True, America does not take care of the poor as well as it should through government programs. But there is nothing whatsoever to prevent the Roman Catholic Church from collecting alms for the poor from all its members who have done well under our system. There is nothing whatsoever to prevent the Church from running free hospitals for the indigent, operating soup kitchens, building low-cost housing, organizing co-operatives, or whatever it chooses to do.

I detect a lot of blaming of America, culturally and economically, for problems inherent within the Church itself. It is one thing to decry what is perceived as wrong in American culture and society. It is, however, quite another thing to imply that the rest of American culture and society ought to support the Roman Catholic vision, while at the same time failing to do as well as possible those positive things that are in no way impeded by American society or government.

The bottom line is that I’m tired of having people who receive practical benefits from American political, economic, and religious freedom turn around and run the rest of the country into the ground because it does not support their own particular political, economic, or religious vision. I, too, do not agree with everything the government proposes; nor do I agree with the seamier aspects of our culture. I, too, sometimes feel it would be so much easier if we all thought alike. Sometimes it’s hard for both individuals and institutions to deal with freedom and that may be the crux of the problem of “American exceptionalism.”

Janet E. Rash

Dept. of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University

Indianapolis, Indiana

Bellah Falters

Robert N. Bellah’s work in his Habits of the Heart contributes to a fresh and constructive assessment of American culture. Both my philosophy students and I have learned much from his vision.

Yet Bellah’s vision falters, and badly, in his comments for the NOR’s symposium on Roman Catholicism and “American exceptionalism” (March). He rightly insists that “the church will begin to overcome the present difficulties only when it sees that there is much more to be done than choosing between irreconcilably opposite positions.” But neither can the Church do less than make the hard choices between such positions.

Now, what about the Church’s teaching that sexual expression must be open to the good of life, and the contemporary (though not unprecedented) doctrine that it is enough if sexual expression promotes a faithful relationship? The Church’s teaching sees sexuality in the context of God’s creative and generative love and so enriches and sacramentalizes our sexuality. The modern alternative? Well, doubtless sexuality is more than an intense kind of recreation. Perhaps it best serves as the ground of a distinctive kind of friendship. To which the Church replies: yes, it does that – but it is still more than that!

For, if we love as God does, then our love is always open to life. But homosexual (and contraceptive) intercourse necessarily rejects this openness. In prohibiting both, the Catholic Church is neither “harsh” nor “peremptory.” Rather it teaches us that to be fully human we must strive to love as God does, with a creative openness to life. We are, after all, made in His very image.

Prof. James G. Hanink

Los Angeles, California

In his discussion of homosexuality (symposium, March), Robert N. Bellah finds that St. Paul meant only adult male sexual relationships with boys is prohibited. He says this even though St. Paul never confined his condemnation of homosexuality to that particular kind of couple, nor was he ever known for obscurity.
Bellah finds hypocrisy in the Church’s willingness to forgive the homosexual who sins spontaneously over and over again. None of us can always keep the moral law, but none of us should promote as acceptable a living arrangement that constitutes a temptation to occasions of sin for the partners in that living arrangement.

Therese Akins

Pasadena, California

How can Robert N. Bellah say (symposium, March) that “the Greeks that Paul was addressing had no notion of stable adult homosexual relationship”? Turn for a moment from the NOR’s symposium to Plato’s Symposium, an account of a drinking party at which Socrates is a guest.

Despite popular misconceptions, the Symposium is not about homosexuality as such, but about love in its various forms. The Symposium cannot tell us what Plato’s ideas on homosexuality were. Nonetheless, homosexual relationships were an important form of “love” to a fifth-century male Athenian. Although Paul’s Hellenistic world is not the same as Plato’s, the two periods are more closely related to each other than ours, and classical writers give us a good idea of the culture Paul faced.

During the party, the guests mention lovers famous for their devotion: Achilles and Patroclus, Harmodius and Aristogiton. Dedicated friendships are approved, unrestricted promiscuity is condemned (and compared to womanizing!) Even if Greco-Roman homosexuality usually meant the exploitation of young boys and male prostitution, the ancients preferred to think of examples of noble lovers: “stable, permanent, and faithful relationships,” to use Bellah’s words.

Christianity challenged this idealized view of homosexuality, as well as its darker reality. In place of “manly love,” Paul and others preached, “In the beginning God created them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one.” This was indeed a concept foreign to the Greco-Roman world: a stable, meaningful relationship between man and wife! In classical thought, marriage satisfied the lowest forms of lust and kept the species going. That was all women were good for. For a real relationship, you turned to other men.

The return to classical ways of thinking that Bellah seems to advocate worries me. The Greeks idealized homosexuality because they despised women. If idealized homosexuality becomes accepted in society and the church, relations between men and women, already bad, will certainly become worse.

Evelyn Whalen

Atlanta, Georgia

In the March symposium, Robert N. Bellah says that the Church’s moving with the world is appropriate if the world is moving in the right direction, and that the Church is failing to do “the hard work of relating the tradition to present reality….” There may be an implication here that the “present reality,” even when it comes to sin, or especially when it comes to sin, is different from past realities. I have some reservations about that; there is a hint of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” about it; but I shan’t argue with the statement, only with his illustration: homosexuality.

My first point has to do with his suggestion that there are realities with respect to homosexuality that neither Cardinal Ratzinger in his recent letter nor the Tradition takes account of. They treat “the issue entirely in terms of sexual acts,” and they do not see that, in so treating it, they make it “the effective prohibition” of loving, committed, faithful relationships between two homosexuals. I would contest that. In an article by me on homosexuality, I stated the Church’s position and concluded by saying: “Although it is a startling thought in this age of unrestrained sex, I have sometimes wondered, thinking of faithful Joseph and Mary ever-virgin, whether two Christian homosexuals, in love but offering up to God the sexual expression of that love, might not live together in perfect chastity with a great love free from sin” (Crisis, April 1986). Later I was told that the New York members of Courage, a homosexual organization that, unlike Dignity, is vowed to chastity and obedience, had spent an evening discussing this, some believing that it could be done. Still later I had a letter from a once-promiscuous homosexual saying that in three different cities he had encountered Christian homosexual couples who lived together vowed to chastity – one such couple had been together in chastity for 25 years. I disagree, therefore, that Cardinal Ratzinger and the Tradition make loving, committed, faithful homosexual relationships impossible. Only difficult, like a monk’s vows. The issue is one of sexual acts.

My second point of disagreement (as one who has long taught Greek and Roman history) is with Bellah’s saying that “the Greeks that Paul was addressing had no notion of stable adult homosexual relationships.” One might conclude surveying the American homosexual scene, at least in the recent past, that Americans had no notion of such relationships either. In fact, there are many hints of such stable relationships in Greek lyric poetry and elsewhere; and 500 years before St. Paul, Plato had spoken of the love of two men as beautiful, almost divine, leading to virtue and wisdom – if kept on a spiritual level without unnatural physical consummation. The Greeks and Romans were as intelligent and sensitive as we are, and it is absurd to suppose that none of them followed the wisdom of Plato. And I think it very unlikely that St. Paul would not have known of them. His point (like Plato’s) was that the physical act was “unnatural” and, further, that those who gave in to it put it ahead of God and God’s law. How many homosexuals today have either left the Church upon discovering their homosexual desires, or, like the members of Dignity, remained in it while defying its teaching authority? Was St. Paul wrong about what they are putting first?

Sheldon Vanauken

Lynchburg, Virginia

The Limits of Socialism

John C. Cort had some trenchant criticisms of Michael Novak’s social thought in his March column, but his attempt to conjoin democratic socialism and Catholic social teaching was unfortunate, and for two reasons. First, it is not a good tactic. If Cort supports (as do I) economic democracy, or greater worker participation in and or ownership of enterprises, why freight that down unnecessarily with a word that will likely be forever associated in the American mind with foreign atheistic ideology?

But the second reason is deeper. If modern democratic socialism at some points (or at one point) approximates the social teachings of the Catholic Church, nevertheless there are palpable differences. Economics cannot be separated from culture, and democratic socialists are not very friendly to the Church and Catholic civilization. Consider how, relatively recently, the Maltese, French, and Spanish socialists have tried to weaken severely Catholic education in their countries. Then, too, democratic socialists have not been, to say the least, supporters of laws to protect the unborn and the indissoluble marriage bond.

Catholic social doctrine is, and has to be, Christocentric. One of the projects of the NOR is to elucidate truly Catholic social doctrine and clarify our understanding of it. To do so, we really must transcend the dialectic of Left and Right, liberal and conservative, socialism and free marketry.

Stuart Gudowitz

Washington, D.C.

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