To the Editors
As a design person I want to extend belated congratulations to you for the attractive and distinctive covers you have produced in recent months. My favorite journal of opinion has gone through many stages in my years as a subscriber and sometime contributer, pretty bland when I started back in the early '60s, but now--wow!
Keep up the good work. The content has always been excellent, but now you have covers that rival those of the big-budget guys on the magazine racks!
RUSSELL W. GIBBONS Pittsburgh, Pa.
Where there's smoke...
Your editorial on teenage sexual behavior ("Abstinence, Anyone?" January 26, 2001) treats constant sexual activity as something that's invariably necessary to normal human functioning.
There's another model, however, one well understood in days when clerical celibacy was more universally honored and when, indeed, many lay persons of both sexes chose to remain unmarried. Today, such a model sounds weird, or impossible, or out of touch with the TV-engineered collective consciousness we call "reality." But we should give it a try.
Most of my friends used to smoke constantly and enthusiastically. Then came a change in national consciousness. All have now given up smoking, though if you'd asked them thirty years ago, most would have said they considered it a necessity of life.
I know the objections to the analogy: Sex is an instinctual drive, while smoking is not....Yet the crucial thing is that when it comes to smoking, there has been a remarkable alteration of social attitude. Today, smoking is a choice that is made, if at all, only after long and mature consideration of its possible consequences. This is the perspective, it seems to me, that needs to be brought back into discussions of sexuality. It's a consumerist ideology in which sexual activity seems as "necessary" to existence as eating or breathing.
For the record, Luke Timothy Johnson's article ("A Disembodied 'Theology of the Body,'" same issue) seemed to me an almost pure expression of the "ideology of sex," which has brainwashed most Americans. In terms of my analogy, it makes the pope into something like a nonsmoker in a room filled with people who are happily lighting up. It's all right if the man doesn't want to smoke, but why does he keep bothering us about it?
WILLIAM C. DOWLING Princeton, N.J.
Untrue & unjust
I wasn't in the audience at the Interfaith Center of New York, but a tape of the discussion of Constantine's Sword was broadcast on C-Span 2, making clear how badly Paul Baumann mischaracterizes the event in his column ("Catholicism & Anti-Semitism," Feruary 9, 2001).
Baumann calls the discussion "a smug, liberal caterwauling." Untrue and unjust.
He accuses James Carroll of writing "too often" in "upscale magazines and newspapers like the New Yorker," playing "to the worst suspicions of those who are either wholly ignorant of Catholicism or passionately disaffected from the church." Untrue and unjust.
Mary Gordon was shaking with nerves and speaking in a low hesitant voice, but Baumann claims she "goaded" the audience into "an orgy of anti-Catholic speechifying."
Baumann misquotes Mary Gordon and distorts her comments throughout the article. His rage at her is without "any sense of proportion," and he owes her an apology.
Baumann derides and attempts to discredit efforts to understand the church's long and shameful history of anti-Semitism. His article will surely earn him invitations to more congenial discussions, that is, if Mother Angelica reads Commonweal.
G. H. WEIL Chesterfield, Mo.
The author replies:
G.H. Weil makes serious accusations but presents no evidence to support them. It is possible that I misheard a word or two of Mary Gordon's talk, but I have no doubt that I accurately conveyed the substance and tenor of her remarks. Whatever Weil saw on TV, the audience in the room responded to Gordon's attack on the pope with questions steeped in anti-Catholic stereotypes. As for Carroll's appearance in upscale publications, does Weil think the New Yorker would have published Carroll's essay "The Silence" (April 7, 1997) if it had praised John Paul II's steps toward Catholic-Jewish reconciliation? I have no interest in discrediting efforts to expose the church's history of anti-Semitism. But what is shameful about that history surely does not include John Paul II's recent apology to the Jews and his visit to Israel. Finally, does Weil mean to suggest that the only choice Catholics now have is between Mary Gordon and Mother Angelica?
Mary Gordon's ax
Regarding Mother Church and Holy Father, we could, just for the fun of it, summarize Paul Baumann's report on Mary Gordon:
Mary Gordon took an ax And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done She gave her father forty-one. HENRY FEHREN New York, N.Y.
If James Carroll is "behind the curve" of Catholic revisionism vis-a-vis the Jews, as Robert Wilken claims in his review of Constantine's Sword (January 26, 2001), then Wilken is too far ahead of that curve. Carroll has written a remarkable work; for many intelligent Catholics it is a needed eye-opener. Commonweal does these intelligent Catholics no service to warn them away from Carroll's book on the grounds that John Paul II has already done so much to lay aside "the theological idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism."
Perhaps the pope has taken some giant steps to help us extirpate our almost inborn anti-Semitism, but most Catholics haven't thought as seriously about this question as Carroll has. I suspect that many of us still think Jews need converting, and that, until they are baptized, there is something wrong with them. Carroll's book should help us rid ourselves of that notion. We will be more likely to keep ridding ourselves of wrong notions like this if scholars are encouraged to undertake "fundamental changes in the way history has been written, theology has been taught, and Scripture has been interpreted." In fact, this is the main point of Carroll's book.
Wilken seems to fear this kind of revisionist approach because he fears the consequences. He asks, simplistically, "If Christians, on the basis of the Scriptures and Christian tradition, cannot confess Jesus as Lord, can the Jews, on the basis of the Scriptures and Jewish tradition, claim that they are the elect people of God?" This is a strange stance for a historian, since the writing of history (when it is done well) almost always helps us revise old misunderstandings. Am I too much of a romantic to prefer that scholars plunge into their investigations to learn the truth, rather than worry about the possible, very remote consequences of what they might discover?
Good scholarship will not stop us from confessing Jesus as Lord, any more than it will prevent Jews from thinking of themselves as God's chosen people. Maybe the question is this: How do Christians and Jews understand their uniqueness in the world and what kind of people can we become if we understand that uniqueness in a way that does not denigrate others?
ROBERT BLAIR KAISER Rome, Italy
Regarding Luke Timothy Johnson's essay on John Paul II's theology of the body (January 26, 2001), a comment, and a question.
The comment: It's about time. It had to be said. Amen.
The question: Would any theologian subject to a mandatum have been willing to risk such a critique?
EDMUND F. KAL Fresno, Calif.
Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary "A Disembodied 'Theology of the Body'" is an insightful and common-sense analysis of what many consider serious deficiencies in Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body." At the heart of the question is theological anthropology.
Papal teaching says that "human love and sexuality can appear in only one approved form, with every other way of being either sexual or loving left out altogether." While the pope speaks eloquently about persons, dignity, and responsibility rather than immutable natural law, the basis of this Thomistic personalism is a neo-Thomistic natural-law approach couched in more contemporary categories. For the pope, the basis of sexual morality and the "one approved form" of expressing one's sexuality is heterosexual, procreative, and under one's rational control as much as possible. Any distortion of this form is judged a result of Original Sin, evidenced by concupiscence affecting human sexual desire and labeled "disorder."
Thomas Aquinas took his anthropological perspective from Aristotle as the best scientific and philosophical reading of human nature available at that time. But both insisted that any interpretation of human nature must take experience into account. Could it not be that faithfulness to Aquinas requires us to consider that if human nature has a history, then new data and experience about human sexuality must be taken into account when we propose approved forms? And would this lead us to further consider that perhaps the evolution of human nature has resulted in more than one form of being either sexual or loving? The questions are at least worth exploring.
(REV.) ROBERT NUGENT, S.D.S. Baltimore, Md.
Luke Timothy Johnson's persuasive article on John Paul II's theology of the body is perhaps the finest article of its kind I have read in forty years. In my congregation there is a man who left his position as an active priest in the wake of Paul VI's Humanae vitae. Each time we gather at the Lord's table, I see in his eyes, lo these many years later, the struggling wisdom that is so evident in Johnson's words.
The entire issue of human sexuality and the gospel tradition is, it seems to me, not so much a matter of church versus individual conscience. Rather, it is about the church learning from the lived wisdom of her members and having the courage to (here is that word!) incorporate it.
(MOST REV.) E. BRIAN CARSTEN Angola, Ind.
The writer is Metropolitan Archbishop of the Orthodox Catholic Church of America.
On different planets
Luke Timothy Johnson's critique of Pope John Paul II's reflections on sexuality was the most theologically cogent and pastorally persuasive commentary I've read in years about Catholic sexual teaching. I must admit, sadly, that in my thirty-six years as a priest, most married persons--and those to be married--with whom I have spoken feel that the church doesn't really address the complex problems couples face today. The documents issuing from Rome and diocesan offices come across as totally abstract and divorced from real life. One wonders in what spatial reality their authors live. Have they ever had any firsthand, practical experience with marriage?
It's exciting to read something like Johnson's refreshing insights. But, alas, people like him who try to introduce fresh ways of looking at such questions, while preserving the deep values of our faith, often find the welcome mat snatched out from under them. Maybe that's why there is such massive apostacy among young people of marrying age, as well as so many who are married. Most of them have long ago put aside church teaching on birth control. How long can we afford to lose this critically important segment of the Catholic church in favor of a moral theology of sexuality that appears so rigid and static? Is anybody listening to them?
(REV.) GEORGE R. FITZGERALD, C.S.P. Vail, Colo.
No red hat
Luke Timothy Johnson's incisive critique of John Paul II's pronouncements on love, sex, and pleasure should be studied and openly discussed in every Catholic college and Newman Club in the nation--together with Paul Baumann's humorous reflections on George Weigel's biography of our pope ("Crossing the Threshold," December 3, 1999). Both of these Commonweal articles are priceless and full of wisdom from men who have actually "been there and done that." Of course, both will be decried by those who believe Catholics should all walk in lock step with any current papal teaching, especially in matters of sexual ethics. Oh well! To be sure, Luke Timothy Johnson will not be joining Avery Dulles at the next consistory.
ANDREW GALLIGAN Tracy, Calif.…
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Publication information: Article title: To the Editors. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: Commonweal. Volume: 128. Issue: 4 Publication date: February 23, 2001. Page number: 2. © 1999 Commonweal Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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