Culture of Absence

As one who has spent 10 years of his academic life in Germany, I simply could not relate to the essay by James Youniss, I Know It When I See It, (7/4). Such public policies as universal health care, efficient rail transportation, easy access to high culture, Saturday-Sunday closing laws and cradle-to-grave financial security may be compatible with Christian social teaching, but to suggest that they are inspired or motivated today by distinctive Christian commitments ignores public opinion polls and other empirical evidence of contemporary Germany’s loss of faith. Germans today would insist that these and related social programs are rooted in secular values associated with their country’s social democratic tradition.

Christian influences, particularly Catholic natural law teaching, were strongly represented in postwar West Germany, but with increasing secularization these influences have virtually disappeared from the nation’s public life. Two examples may suffice. German constitutional law, like the nation’s intellectual culture, has grown increasingly positivistic over the years. The same is true of German politics. The Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.), founded explicitly on Christian principles in 1946, has lost its raison d’etre, while its main competitor, the Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.), is well known for its history of militant secularism.


During the Weimar Republic and in the early years of the Federal Republic, a vibrant Catholic intellectual tradition, centered on the church’s social teaching, flourished in Germany, but no equivalent of this exists today. Christian scholarship in the social sciences is notable for its relative absence. Religious studies, mainly the products of theological faculties, have little resonance in the larger society. Yet literary attacks on Christian belief and piety, such as The Da Vinci Code, seem never to leave the best-seller lists. Secularthat is, non-Christianvalues seem clearly regnant in Germany, the predominance of which has been extended and deepened by the nation’s reunification.

Pope Benedict XVI, a native of Germany, has often agonized over his country’s loss of faith. In book-length interviews with Peter SeewaldSalt of the Earth (1997) and God and the World (2002)the then-Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly spoke of Germany’s increasingly de-Chistianized society and a public culture characterized by the absence of transcendence. In one of these interviews he observed with regret that only eight percent of the people in Magdeburg [an East German city] are Christians, and that was probably a generous estimate because, as sociological studies have disclosed, even the memory of Christ has almost totally disappeared among East Germans, particularly the young. Finally, and interestingly, Ratzinger makes no mention in these interviews of the connection between Christianity and the comforts, satisfactions or rewards of living in present-day Germany.

Donald P. Kommers
Notre Dame, Ind.

What About Faith?

The article by James Youniss on modern-day Christian Germany is straight out of Charles Dickens’s 19th-century mold, which attempted to reduce Christianity to a set of mere moral principles to live by (7/4). Such humanitarian principles, among which Youniss includes the abolition of capital punishment, risking economic superiority by welcoming back into the family poorer relatives from the East and not rebuilding certain bombed-out buildings so as never to forget the horrors of World War II, are hardly the domain of Christians exclusively. They are certainly within the purview of all others of good will, too. A veneer of Christian morality may still be alive and well in Germany, but what about the Christian faith brought to Germany by St. Boniface and nourished by his successors over so many centuries?

(Rev.) Edward Kolla
Gloucester City, N.J.

Lived Experience

I have no way of knowing whether Germany is de-Christianized or not. However, the evidence James Youniss offers in his article that this de-Christianization is not as real as is widely supposed misses the point (7/4). He offers many policies and characteristics from his experience of Germany that Christianity supports; but these positive things do not mean a nation is not de-Christianized. Professor Youniss’s article fails to realize that a reasonable, justly structured nation is not the same as one that is Christian. The article offers many examples of Christian principles, but Christian religion is not the same as Christian principles. Faith and relationship with God distinguish Christianity, and the motivation and worldview that come with it, from natural virtue and justice.

I would like to think that the positive virtues and policies that James Youniss observes about Germany do, in fact, have roots in the Christianity of its past. But without a living, worshiping community in the present, those roots will become ever more distant and more academic. I suspect James Youniss recognizes the principles as Christian (knows it when he sees it) because he has had the experience of a living Christian church.

Of course we can wish that our many American Christians could find ways to bring their faith principles into public life to structure it more justly. Relationship with God should lead to putting faith in to practice.

Michael McCue, O.S.F.S.
Philadelphia, Pa.

Leftist Ideology

The editorial, The Vanishing Dream (7/4), exemplifies why, after subscribing for 20 years, I have not renewed my subscription. America, along with the Jesuits, has substituted leftist ideology for Catholicism. It appears the new editor will continue in the leftist shoes of his predecessor.

Many of the poor in this country live better than the wealthy did 400 years ago. That is splendid progress, and that progress is thanks to capitalism in which some get super-rich, but everyone with a work ethic eventually improves his standard of living. There is no systematic, structural or societal impediment to anyone improving his financial situation in the United States. If the rich get richer, it is because they continue to do the things that made them rich in the first place. That is not sinful; that’s intelligent. It is also good, because when the rich have more wealth, they spend more, and more jobs are created, which improves the financial situation of the not-so-wealthy and the poor.

Tony Ensenada
Pocatello, Idaho

Just Socialism?

I am writing to thank America for shining light on the best kept secret in the church, our social teaching, in The Vanishing Dream (7/4). Our society (derived from the Latin word for fellowship, really defined as being in relationship with others) will survive only when we work in concert for the good of all. Many call this socialism, but is that really the correct way to look at it? Jesus spent most of his ministry working with and being one in fellowship with the poor, the outcast and the marginalized. The one-word answer to the infamous question, Am I my brother’s keeper? is shown to be a resounding yes by the example of Christ’s ministry. Is this great universal truth that Christ revealed to us really socialism? Or by labeling something as socialist, do we try to justify our self-centered actions?

Harry Hardin
New Orleans, La.


Thank you for publishing your editorial, The Vanishing Dream (7/4). It reassures me that I am not alone on this issue. Sometimes I think I am bucking my head against a brick wall trying to dialogue with people about raising the minimum wage and providing affordable housing and adequate health care coverage. So many Americans, including good Catholics, are passionate about things like displaying the Ten Commandments, amending the Constitution to prevent gay marriage and keeping under God in the pledge of allegiance, but seem indifferent or defeatist about the social teachings of our church. Some people play the game of name-callingdo-gooder or bleeding-heart liberal. Others just say it can never be done because raising the minimum wage, for example, would cause employers to cut back on jobs or would raise prices so high people could not afford to buy things anyway. But to see your magazine continue to promote the hope that it is possible and can be done is encouraging to me and to many more who want to see changes in our nation and the world that would be more in keeping with all Jesus’ teachings, as well as our church’s brave tradition of social justice.

Gerard Burford
Indianapolis, Ind.

Great and Generous

I read with disappointment your editorial, The Vanishing Dream (7/4). It is too simplistic to keep saying the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. If you mean the man who owns the company I work for when you refer to tax cuts for the rich, then I am definitely not opposed to that. He is very forthcoming about the company’s finances, in good years and in bad, and if a tax cut for him means that I (and the other 80-odd employees of the company) get to keep our jobs for another year, how can I be angry about that? If a tax cut for him means that 80 families are supported by secure, meaningful jobs, and the income derived from those jobs is spread out in the community to other businesses and to charities, how can I be against that?

We are a great and generous nation because we are a wealthy nation, and we are a wealthy nation because of the ability of entrepreneurs to follow their dreams, build corporations and pay far more in taxes than many of us ever will.

While economic disparity does exist in our and every nation, I’ll take our system every time. I would like to see greater depth of thought put into your editorials on this issue.

Linda Meehan
Mendota Heights, Minn.

Electronic Quest

Orthodoxy Online (6/20), by Jeffrey J. Guhin, paints a rather whimsical picture of the variety of Internet Web sites aimed at Catholics, ranging from those that are wrapped in a mantle of (self-perceived) orthodoxy to one that teaches how to bake the Pope’s Valentine Cookies. The article, however, suggests a very important question: What is driving Catholics to the Internet to find information and support for their faith, rather than to the orthodox organs of the church itself?

This question became especially poignant during the months prior to last year’s presidential election. Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, most parishes and pastoral leaders enthusiastically complied with our policy that authorized the distribution of pre-election materials only from the U.S. bishops and the Michigan Catholic Conference. Still, tens of thousands of copies of the Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics, distributed by an independent dot-com based in El Cajón, Calif. and led by a lawyer, found their way into church vestibules and onto the windshields of cars in church parking lots during Sunday Masses. According to diocesan directors who attended the U.S.C.C.B. social ministry gathering last February, this situation was repeated across the nation.

As the director of the Office for Catholic Social Teaching in the Archdiocese of Detroit, I gave nearly 50 presentations on Faithful Citizenship in our parishes in the two months before the election, with the great majority of attendees expressing appreciation for this explanation of the church’s teaching on the political responsibilities of Catholics at election time (and beyond). Soon after my speaking schedule was published in the diocesan newspaper, however, some e-mail messages were forwarded to me, alerting me to the presence of a cadre of self-described pro-life Catholics who planned to monitor my presentations for authentic Catholic teaching. Both during and after my presentations, they waved copies of the Voter’s Guide at the audience, even after I clarified the policy of the archdiocese. Instead of angering me, this show of defiance made me ponder why these fellow Catholics looked to the World Wide Web for guidance on church teaching rather than to a representative of the archbishop of their local church?

Michael W. Hovey
Detroit, Mich.

Whole Page

Who could not notice the Table of Contents of the June 20-27 issue, redesigned and striking - or should we say garish?

Is it needed for newsstand sales to take up a whole page of the magazine that could be devoted to occasional contributors? The previous modest listings of one column seemed to be adequate for mail subscribers.

John Ehmann
South Bend, Ind.

Confident Church

Little Gray Cells by James J. DiGiacomo, S.J., (5/30) highlights the sad state into which the church’s intellectual life has sunk. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the church was confident enough in its doctrine to engage the world on issues like the meaning of Scripture, freedom of conscience and past mistakes of the church. Now it seems the church’s leaders are resorting to the doomed tactics of thought-suppression and prohibition of discussion. Have they accepted that their doctrinal positions will not stand up to scrutiny?

When the church’s official position was that Galileo was heretical, that torturing dissidents was justifiable, that reading books on the Index was cause for excommunication and that freedom of conscience and religion were Modernist errors, wasn’t the church helped to return to its Christian mission by members within who convinced the leaders that their official positions were perversions of what Christianity is all about?

Does today’s hierarchy prefer to continue appearing intellectually shallow and out of touch with human experience rather than allowing educated and dedicated Catholics to discuss controversial issues?

Eugene Gerard
Santa Rosa, Calif.


I loved the article No Deaths Under My Signature, by José Luis S. Salazar, S.J., (7/4). I put an extract from it on my Web log, where I often write about the practice of spirituality in the workplace. It is reassuring to see someone else write that discernment of the next right thing on the job is largely a matter of intuition and trust.

Herbert Ely
Charlottesville, Va.

In Danger

The column on jaywalkers in Manhattan by George M. Anderson, S.J., (7/18), recalled to me that from childhood, I heard the never-changing shibboleth for condoning jaywalking: Aw, nobody’s going to hit you; no one wants blood on the hood of his car! Buffered with this false bravado, I was unprepared for my first experience of the Midwestern sense of orderliness. I had moved to Milwaukee, settled by Germans and Poles, both nationalities preferring a modicum of regularity and orderliness in their civic life.

On the afternoon of my first Christmas Eve in Milwaukee, hurrying about to do some last-minute shopping, I jaywalked in front of the old Marshall Field on Wisconsin Avenue. Suddenly, I heard a whistle. There were few cars on Wisconsin Avenue at this point, and I looked around to see what the traffic violation might be. While looking to my left, I felt a firm tap on my right shoulder. One of Milwaukee’s finest stood next to me, writingyou guessed ita ticket for jaywalking. It was then that I realized there actually were places in this world that insisted on regularity and orderliness. The $10 ticket was well worth the many laughs I have had over this story through the years.

While I don’t predict that you will be in danger of such a civil infraction, you might want to remind your fellow Jesuits that jaywalking across from Gesu Church at Marquette can still result in their getting pinched. Heaven only knows what the fine is these days.

Jane P. McNally
Brookline, Mass.

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11 years 11 months ago
I am flabbergasted by this statement in Tony Ensenada’s letter (8/1): “There is no systematic, structural or societal impediment to anyone improving his financial situation in the United States.” I have assisted former prison inmates who have gone through more than 100 job applications before landing even a minimum-wage position. I have seen solidly middle class and upper-middle class people in their late 40’s or early 50’s lose their good jobs because of a business closing or moving or consolidating and struggle for up to a year to get a job at much less than they made before—not to mention people and their families who suffer serious physical or mental health problems. With their best efforts, people not only go up economically, they also go down. Bad things still happen to good people. Capitalism has always been a chancy economic system, more so in recent times. That’s why we will always need a social safety net of some kind in order to provide for a measure of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

11 years 11 months ago
As I read the responses in the Letters column (8/1) to the essay by James Youniss, “I Know It When I See It” (7/4), I was reminded of the parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32). The German people as described by Youniss and confirmed by several letter writers can be likened to the first son who refused his father’s request to go out and work in the vineyard, but did his father’s bidding out in the vineyard. He didn’t talk the talk, but he walked the walk. The second son, who said “Yes, sir” to his father’s request, but did nothing can be likened to many Christians in our own country who ignore the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the marginalized in our own communities, our country and the world. They talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.

I wonder.


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