Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: September 1987

September 1987

Nouwen, Si; Sontag, No

I have only been one of your readers since the beginning of this year, but I have come to await eagerly your monthly issues because they have been the source of refreshing Catholic thought for me.

Unfortunately, however, I want to take serious issue with the ideas that are below the surface in the June guest column, “Celibacy for Career Women?” by Frederick Sontag. Would a loving Creator put women at a “disadvantage” due to childbirth? I believe God’s ideal plan for childbearing is a glory of womanhood. It is for us to celebrate and live out that glory, rather than rejecting it because it limits competitiveness in the marketplace.

The basic fault with Sontag’s essay is not the suggestion of celibacy for career women, but the acceptance of a system that fully rewards aggressive competition and even holds it up as the ideal. I would suggest that Sontag’s “male competitors” are the real disadvantaged ones. They are denied what it takes to be human. So why should women clamor to join their ranks?

I would ask Sontag to use his philosophical skills to suggest ways we can change the system so men and women alike can be fully human, co-operating with the way God has made us. The Church holds up servant sainthood as our model, not aggressive careerism. Let me point out the sharp contrast between Henri J.M. Nouwen’s article and Sontag’s column in the June issue. How can both speak the truth?

Curtis Treska

Director, The Center on Religion & Society

Cleveland, Ohio

Sacrificial Giving

John C. Cort’s statement in his May column on redistributing wealth, that “only government funded by our taxes… can do, the job,” ignores the reality that government is notoriously inefficient in implementing welfare — 70 percent of the funds are consumed in administration. To ask for more of the same is absurd.

The burden is on us individually and as a church to care for the poor. In fact, it is not so much a burden as an opportunity. Christ, in observing the widow donating her two mites, remarked, “this poor widow contributed more than all those who donated to the treasury” (Mk. 12:44). We can only conclude that the gift is more for the benefit of the giver than of the recipient. When government mandates charity, a valuable source of grace is lost to the giver.

As a member of the Sacrificial Giving team for the Archdiocese of Boston, I know first-hand the resources that are available, if we simply inform parishioners of their responsibility for giving. After a single weekend of 15-minute talks at all the Masses, the typical parish income is doubled, and the change is permanent. The system works well, and there is still more that can be done.

Greg Shinskey

Foxboro, Massachusetts

Model Issue

Congratulations on a fine June issue! It is something of a model issue, given the superior editorial “The End of an Era.” Indeed, the NOR has courageously stuck it out through the recent conservative era, and stands, to me at least, vindicated. It has stood its ground — but only because that ground is not its own ideological possession (as is the case with so many other religious periodicals), but rather a clear fidelity to the full, seamless range of Catholic doctrine.

Most of the articles are so representative of this vision: Gordon Zahn’s assessment of the Catholic peace movement with the badly needed invitation that it remain truly Catholic; John Cort’s defense of Catholic sexual morality, which combats the triumph of lust just as Catholic social doctrine (his usual topic) combats lust of a different kind; Frederick Sontag’s uncompromising statement of the incompatibility of genuine motherhood with “top career performance” (though we all know that his proposed solution — celibacy — will be ignored due to the cultural conviction that, to use Cort’s words, it just isn’t right to deprive anyone of his or her fair share of orgasms). All of this made it easier than usual to tolerate Fr. Nouwen telling us about himself.

I do have one comment on Zahn’s article. He nicely outlines the benefits for Catholic peacemakers of “abiding by the rules” of the Church, but those benefits come across, at least to me, as only pragmatic ones. One cannot neglect to mention — and I am sure Zahn would agree — that the ultimate benefit of the Catholic peace movement is that it is rooted in the Eucharist, our only real source of life.

I had been trying to convince someone to give the vision of the NOR a chance, and was about to dig through some old copies to find a representative issue. Thanks to your June issue, I didn’t have to.

Mark Lowery

Waukesha, Wisconsin

The State of Labor Unions

In the letters section of the Nov. 1985 NOR I reported that I had changed careers to become a labor union business agent, in part because of a sort of enlightenment arising from studying early drafts of the bishops’ pastoral letter on the U.S. economy.

Twenty-five years of “blue-collar” work experience plus my current post lead me to say this: “Fellow Catholics, we unionists need help!” Although we’ve had a full century of papal encyclicals on labor and some outstanding Catholic labor leaders, there’s room for more Catholic support and encouragement for our unions.

The decline of our unions in recent decades is common knowledge. Scholars, critics, and labor types themselves offer explanations: a pendulum swing away from the post-World War II boom, loss of unionized jobs because of foreign competition from newly industrialized Third World nations, and union malfeasance and unresponsiveness, etc. But there’s more to it than this.

The simple fact is that a significant portion of corporate America and our government have never fully accepted the principle of free trade unions. The earliest unions were initially outlawed, and when this failed there was no restraint in the brutality by which unions were suppressed. The hostility behind such business aggression hasn’t changed. Our civilities today simply dress the union-busting thugs in pinstripe suits and arm them with law degrees and sympathetic courts instead of brass knuckles. The unions fought back and still do today.

If there ever was such a thing as “Big Labor,” it had its brief moment in the post-World War II era, which stands as a short boom in an otherwise long history of heroic struggle. Unfair treatment at the hands of the National Labor Relations Board and the courts has effectively prevented our unions from fulfilling their rightful role as worker representational organizations and as a check against an otherwise unrestrained capitalist system.

The public has also played a role in the decline of our free labor unions. The public pays a price for this decline because the gains of unions tend to spread to nonunion workers. Studies have shown that the great majority of unions are honest democratic organizations, yet a hostile press is repeatedly able to push consumer buttons about corrupt unions. The public is often unwilling to undergo the smallest inconvenience or disruption in its supply of pleasurable consumer goods or “freedoms,” which might be occasioned by a sympathetic response to a picket line or labor boycott. The public generally presumes vastly greater union protection and power from the National Labor Relations Act than actually exist.

Catholic social teaching on labor unions is solid and clear. Unions are legitimate and necessary vehicles for economic and work place democracy; and they are to be supported and encouraged. As front line institutions which can affect workers’ daily lives in terms of dignity, wages, benefits, and humanization of work, our unions represent a most critical area for implementation of the bishops’ guidelines.

Catholics are now found at every level of American society, and so, there are no limits to the ways in which they can help foster the growth of free trade unions: from honoring picket lines and boycotts to fair treatment by business and government officials to education by our scholars and teachers.

Ed. Note: Michael Ayres has formed the Northern California Catholic Labor Committee for Catholic union members and union sympathizers. It is “intended to serve as a link between our Catholic faith and our daily labors for the union movement, to help bring our faith and moral heritage into our working lives through the Sacraments and Christ’s spiritual strength.”

Michael Ayres

San Francisco, California

Religious Freedom

I am in complete agreement with much of the June editorial “The End of an Era.” My chief problem with it is that the editor seems to be under the impression that the views he is attacking are mine.

To be sure, there are a few other things I do not like about the editorial. I do not like being called a “conservative court theologian,” or being suspected of having “cut a deal…with the principalities and powers of this world.” Such invective is really not worthy of the NOR, a journal I try hard to respect, and frequently succeed in the effort.

The gravamen of the editorial is that I have sold out to the conservative Zeitgeist by asserting a necessary connection between religious freedom and capitalism. I did say in the talk that the editor attended in San Francisco that freedom is the highest political good in the rightly ordered society, and that religious freedom is the foundation of all other freedoms. In making this claim, I am quite consciously agreeing with John Paul II. The Pope has repeatedly asserted as the premier political good “respect for the dignity of the human person in free assent to the absolute,” and has regularly referred to religious freedom as the “source and safeguard” of all human rights. The two Vatican instructions on liberation theology, especially that of 1986, insist upon the same truth. As the 1986 instruction declares, there can be no justice without respect for “the human aspiration to the infinite.”For a more detailed treatment of my understanding of Roman Catholic teaching in these connections, the editor may want to consult The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. Considering the measure of misunderstanding he has mined from a few sentences in a talk, however, I tremble at the potential for misunderstanding in his reading of an entire book.

In any event, I did not say and I do not say that there is a necessary connection between religious freedom and capitalism. Rather, I set forth propositions: one that is theologically grounded, a second that is purely descriptive, and a third that is speculative. The first has to do with the imperative nature of religious freedom, the second with the empirically demonstrable relationship between the security of religious freedom and a democratic polity, and the third which notes the consistent correlation between democratic polity and a predominantly market-oriented economy. The third gives rise to the speculation as to whether the correlation might in fact be a causal relationship, thus justifying the claim that capitalism (meaning a predominantly market-oriented economy) is “necessary to religious freedom.”

The editor assures us that he too thinks religious freedom is “valuable,” although — I expect significantly — the assurance is placed within parentheses. He tells us that, far from requiring democracy, religious freedom is in pretty good shape in places such as communist Hungary, Yugoslavia, and East Germany; but then he adds, “as compared with other communist countries.” That seems a rather weighty qualification. He then instructs us in the truism that religious freedom has been and is abused, and invites us to believe that it therefore is not all that it is cracked up to be. This leads him to an excursus in praise of persecution, since hard times remind us to put our trust in God; furthermore, Our Lord said we are blessed when persecuted for His sake. Of course every good is subject to abuse, and, deo gratia, the Lord does see us through persecution, sickness, want, and death. Good health, prosperity, and physical life are nonetheless very great temporal goods, as is religious freedom. My argument is about seeking the good of the neighbor in the public order. I do not think that the thousands of Christians who are at this moment jailed and tortured for the faith, nor the millions who are hindered in professing it and prohibited from sharing it, are much helped by, or would be much impressed by, our suggestion that maybe they have overrated the importance of religious freedom.

Richard John Neuhaus

New York, New York


The editorial made no judgment as to whether religious freedom is the premier political good.

The words we quoted were not from your eloquent San Francisco speech, but from your piece in the Jan. 30 National Review. There you said: “The most important of freedoms…is freedom of religion…. Freedom is the highest good in the ordering of society; the political correlate of freedom is democracy; the economic correlate of democracy is capitalism. The evidence, and the logic, suggest that there is a necessary relationship among the three.” Is this tangled assertion a “descriptive” or a “speculative” one? Even trained logicians would be baffled. But if you insist it is speculative, because of the word “suggest,” the editorial consciously accommodated that possible shade of meaning when we said: “There is a ‘necessary relationship’ he [Neuhaus] suggests, between American-style capitalism and freedom of religion” (emphasis added). But this hairsplitting is inconsequential.

The point of the editorial was this: We doubt if Pope John Paul II would be the steeled and unintimidated man of faith he is if he had hailed from Paris or Tubingen or Amsterdam, where “the imperative nature of religious freedom” is recognized, instead of from the crucible which is communist Poland. This was not to cheer when persecution is visited upon ourselves or our neighbors, but to warn against regarding religious freedom as an imperative, not for a just political order, but for the spiritual health of Christians. It so happens that it is a warning numerous Christians in and from communist lands have corroborated (e.g., see the review of Tatiana Goricheva’s Talking About God is Dangerous: The Diary of a Russian Dissident in the same June issue).

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