The End of Beliefs

Nowhere in the New York Times in 1990, writes Peter Steinfels in his last Beliefs column today, “was there a regular treatment of religion for readers with a special interest in the topic, as there was, obviously, for business and sports, but also for science, art, architecture and many other subjects."

“Beliefs," he hoped, "would be a column that no more had to insert a phrase identifying the Apostles’ Creed, Gnosticism or Ramadan in a sentence than art or music critics had to insert capsule definitions of Romanticism or Expressionism.”


His “regular treatment” was required reading for any serious student of religion for the last 20 years.  For me, what made the column so valuable was not that it was written by an eminent Catholic writer but that it was by an eminent writer with catholic tastes.   You never knew if Mr. Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal magazine, would turn his wide-ranging intellect to the latest papal encyclical, a scholarly new book on Buddhism, the “new atheism,” a little known painter or novelist, the Stations of the Cross, prison libraries or, even as the title of one recent column had it, “Scandinavian nonbelievers.”  With Mr. Steinfels, you also got the idea that, unlike some who report on religion, he had not only read more about the topic than he could possibly fit into the article, or more than you, but also much more than you ever would!

One relatively recent article stands out for me.   A few days after the presidential election last November, Mr. Steinfels was analyzing, with his usual acuity, the involvement of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the last presidential election.  Gallons of ink had been spilled over the topic, and some reporters never seemed to be able to understand fully the complicated interplay between: the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, the U.S. bishops conference, Catholic social teaching, the Catholic opposition to abortion, the Catholic position on other important life issues, the role of the "informed conscience," and so on.  That Saturday I was driving with a Jesuit friend to a meeting.  Reading Mr. Steinfels column I was so taken by the summary of the way that many Catholics had "received" the statements of their bishops, that I read it aloud:

Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil — just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops.

"That's it!" shouted my friend.

Mr. Steinfels says at the end of his column that “time will tell” what he does in the future.   Along with his wife, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, also a former Commonweal editor in chief, he co-directs Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, the provider of invaluable public lectures and forums on religious life.

Certainly Mr. Steinfels’s future will involve some writing.  Here’s hoping that time tells him to do a lot of it.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim McCrea
8 years 4 months ago
This site used to be worth visiting.  However, it seems that the assylum has let out way too many inmates and they all tend to P&M hereon.
If this place is so very bad, there are many that would undoubtedly be more to the liking of the inmates.  May they journey well.
8 years 4 months ago
The end of a Catholic writer's column, so effective in the secular media is something to be sad about. And ought not be aa occasion to hear from the religous grouches.
david power
8 years 4 months ago

Pseudonym and fake name are different.One of my favourite writers who should be known to most who post here. Do you see yourself as a humble liberal and maybe lacking in self-awareness?Besides, the two things are not really connected. Anyway ,good luck in all that you do and keep giving glory to God.

david power
8 years 4 months ago
Fr Martin writes "Unlike some who report on Religion",a typically snide remark and then goes all gooey at the end "I hope time tells him to do a lot of it".Not only Holier-than-thou but also smarter-than-thou and more open-minded-than-thou unless pulling off critical comments by those who do not go gush and swoon while reading liberal attacks on bishops.
You should be arrested for impersonating a jesuit!
david power
8 years 4 months ago
I agree with Ed.You hit the nail on the head.Those religious grouches who disagree with me should be made to shut up.
" We are looking for a more open Church,just so long as it is in our image and we are all for freedom of Speech,just dont disagree with us and we are adamant about the right to life,just so long as it does not clash with our political ideologies"
Attacks on Bishops yes,but less than fawning remarks about a journalist should be anathema.
8 years 4 months ago
Glad to hear you agree with me Oliver. Now let's hear from all the bishops who are 'grouchy' about Steinfels.. many bishops [too many? and none in the secular press]] have columns of their own.
8 years 4 months ago
Archbishop Wuerl of DC had a column in the Washington Post on Nov. 22. Archbishop Aymond of New Orleans had a column in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Christmas Eve. Those are two I've read without even looking for them. Both the Post and the Times-Picayune are prominent secular newspapers.
david power
8 years 4 months ago
I am sure that many bishops such as Archbishop Dolan have tried to parley with the secular press but to little avail.The New York times recently refused to publish an article written by him (Archbishop of New York)pastor of millions of New Yorkers.He made a mistake.He should have given it to Steinfels and known that from him they would have received it from a brother in arms.Nothing to frighten the horses!!But the scandal of the Christian message that Dolan brings and that Steinfels stumbles upon has a pretty long sellby date.
The Bishops are not perfect,but they are a far more human bunch than the scorning elite that sets them up for a fall.

8 years 4 months ago
"Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts."
This statement is simply false - Catholics and the Church leaders are involved in thousands of activities that advance the common good (i.e. health care, schools, social services). 
That said, when millions of human lives are sacraficed each year in the name of expediency and narrow self interest via the federally supported abortion industry the bishops are right to speak out forcefully and give the topic priority.
Martin shouts "that's it!" not because the statement is true but because it give him, and other liberals, rhetorial cover to support their favored political ideology while ignoring its support and legitimization of an absolutely evil practice.
8 years 4 months ago
Jim, you should consider picking up the beliefs column in the Times. It would be best if it didn't go unwritten, and you may very well be what's needed.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
8 years 4 months ago
As it happens, it was 1990 when I returned to the Roman Catholic church after a rather long absence. I distinctly remember finding publications such as America and Commonweal, that have sustained me all these years. Also of distinct memory is Steinfels' Beliefs column.
His presence will be mourned by me. This morning I read something that was a reminder that wisdom is found not in answers but in the questions. Steinfels understood that and I think it was all the good questions, Catholic and catholic questions, that were his gift. Well - let me rephrase that, the gift of the questions and the subsequent gift to write well about them.
Catholicity - despite the viewpoint of many - is about being immersed in the world and not withdrawn from it. That was another light shining from Beliefs each week, it was about this immersion in the world and not disdainful withdrawl from it.  This is why the questions are so essential in my opinion, as Catholics we should never fear the answers. However when we start with answers that fly like bullets from some semi-automatic weapon, much is lost.
Two closing thoughts... One is that I continue to seek, but have I missed the line of Scripture in which we are reminded that ''blessed are the vitriolic?'' The other is is... Fr. Jim, Matt Nannery in comment 9 may be onto something. Please consider it!
Thank you to Peter Steinfels. He will be missed!
david power
8 years 4 months ago
Blessed are the Vitriolic.Why is is that whenever people on here of a certain persuasion speak of others they always attach to themselves the virtues that others lack?.When liberals attack somebody it is a righteous anger and when others do it they are departing from the Christian message. A little Q&A ,it is not enough to pat yourself on the back for being a questioner and say anybody who is different is simply rushing to answers. "Catholicism is about being immersed in the world",do you think that we live on another planet?.Every catholic is faced with the same reality and just because our values may differ from others does not mean that we are withdrawn but maybe just not intoxicated with the passing fads. I wish there was a course in self-awareness for the humble liberal.We all have failings,but the worst is to turn every virtue into our own armour.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 4 months ago
Mr. Gogarty, why don't you want to use your real name?  I'm just wondering because I use my real name when I leave comments and am wondering what the downside to this is?  I notice that many people do not.  I have an unusual name, and I'm sure someone could find me if they wanted to ... but is this something I should be worried about?  I've never gotten any unwanted email or harrassment because of expressing my views publicly.
david power
8 years 4 months ago
No Beth,
I have never had any problems using my real name.I get some junk mail but I am sure that can never be really avoided.I think there is nothing to worry about using your name on a blog.I only do it out of a sense playfullness.I could have written Wallace Stevens and I am sure people would understand I am taking on a pseudonym.I like the old tradition of the Cistercians who when they wrote a book would sign it "a cistercian",so that people focus on the content of the book and not the name of the Author.In the Imitation of Christ the Writer urges us to do this.It was regular reading for the Jesuits.

God bless
8 years 4 months ago
This debate is not about pseudonyms - it is about national catholic commentators - such as Jim Martin - using rhetorical tricks and apologetics in an attempt to diminish the evil policies that are activley promoted by this administration - the most extreme pro abortion administration in history.
How about a quick look at the facts: 
President Obama has over turned the Mexico agreement and now uses US tax dollars to fund NGOs that promote and provide abortions overseas.  He has also undone restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in the name of "objective science."
He also supports the Freedom of Choice Act that is currently in congress that will abolish ALL restrictions on abortion in all 50 states.  This includes partial birth abortion.
Finally, in the last election he was the nomination of NARAL - a nomination he own over the extrememly pro abortion candiate Hiliary Clinton.
What does Jim Martin have to say about this?  Why no blog posts on this reality of Democratic politics in general and this president in particular?
I suppose he will not proclaim "that's it!" because these facts reflect negatively on his favored political ideology.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
8 years 4 months ago
I took a step too far it seems, with my remark about blessed are the vitriolic. That said, I am so sorry to see yet another good blog post about a remarkable Catholic, disintegrate into this kind of thread.
It makes me feel very sad. That said, I still say thank you to Peter Steinfels for what he did for the world with his work, I say thank you to Jim Martin and others on this blog. They come to post with all the curiosity and wisdom that I have come to expect from America and the Ignatian spirituality that they represent.
As for not blogging or commenting under your own name, I find that a sorry practice. Once again, Catholicity is about being who we are in the world. Be that person openly.
8 years 4 months ago
Again, the names used on this blog have nothing to due with the content or logic presented in various why not address the issues instead of personal identity - we are not spammers.
As for the issue of this particular post, that of catholic commentary and politics - it was raised by Mr. Martin in the original post and is therefore relevant to the discussion.
Finally, if you think that going against the dominant modern liberal doctrines of this country and defending tradition is risk-free then you are ignoring current events.  Those who finiancially supported prop 8 in California had their identities and home addresses posted on the web and many were harassed at home and in the work place (some lost their jobs or businesses).  Churches (Mormon and Catholic) were also vandalized.
Also, ask Catholic Charities in Boston or Washington DC or Connecticut if supporting traditional values and culture is risk free as many have been vilified and shut out of public funding or closed down due to new laws regarding "tolerance."
It is sad to say, but publicly opposing the liberal doctrines of our day can be personally and professionally detrimental - esp. if you live in a major city and work for a national corporation or the government.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 4 months ago
Thank you, Oliver, Fran, and Brett, for your comments regarding using pseudonymns with blog comments.  Personally, I think I would only use a fake name if I were posting something that I didn't want my friends or my mother-in-law to see and associate with me, so that leaves me a bit suspicious of the comments left by people who do not use their real names.
Brett, I commend you for your zeal in opposiing values that do not ring true to you.  It is important to publicly speak out against the delusions and sins of our culture.  But "liberal doctrines" are not the enemy anymore than conservative doctrines are the answer.
We live in a pluralistic society, which means that there are a lot of different perspectives, none of them fully wrong and none of them fully right.  Like a family.  The glory is that together we can find our way, but we have to be able to listen to each other and acknowledge each others truths.
In our culture there are many people who do not believe that the organization of cells of beginning life constitute a being with the full rights of humanity.  They believe that at this stage of development, it is the right of the woman to determine whether or not the life can continue.  Even St. Augustine believed that an unborn life did not receive a soul until around the 3rd month of development.
Making abortion illegal will not end abortion, especially since so many people (roughly half) of the people in this country believe that the choice lies with the mother.
This being the case, there are many of us who sincerely believe that life begins at conception, but feel that focusing only on the legality of abortion will not instill the value - the sacredness of life - that will eventually end abortion in our culture.
Your focus upon the actions of President Obama (in comment #16) is not valid.  There have been several Republican Presidents since Roe v. Wade passed, none of whom have done anything that has reduced the number of abortions performed in the USA.  So the "political ideology" that you accuse Fr. Martin of seems to infect your own writing as well.
david power
8 years 4 months ago

I think that your last words are wonderful.Be that person openly.I used the name Olver Gogarty as a way to break the monotony of always writing my own name.It has cuased scandal to many here on the Blog.I will now conform to their views.I agree with you about the openness.I am proud to be a Catholic.I think it is a beautiful gift to receive the Faith.I am not a "Why I remain a catholic" Catholic.There are many of them around and they think that the Church is privilieged to have them instead of them being privileged to be with the Church. Maybe the reason people continue to ask questions is becuase they dont like the answers they get,and will not stop asking questions till they get the answer that suits their ears.It does not always have to be a noble exercise.If you read my other posts you will see that I have often said that Fr Jim Martin is not open.He uses a sly ruse to get his opinions across becuase he does not have the courage to state clearly where he is right and the Church is wrong.That said ,we all can change and I include myself.Curiosity and Wisdom are signs that God is working in us and hope that all who write here continue to feel that.
Anne Danielson
8 years 4 months ago
How can one argue that protecting the Right to Life of every Human Being is a "single issue"? The Right to Life of an individual is the fundamental Right upon which every Right for that individual depends. I pray that Peter Steinfels will use his talent as a writer to be a Witness to The Truth.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A woman religious casts her ballot May 25 in Dublin as Ireland holds a referendum on its law on abortion. Voters went to the polls May 25 to decide whether to liberalize the country's abortion laws. (CNS photo/Alex Fraser, Reuters)
The repeal of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, is passing by a 2-1 margin with most of the votes counted.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.