Not Bound to It
Please, dear editors of America, rummage around in the newsroom and find your style guide. Insert a blank sheet of paper and write on it, with a big black Sharpie, “Do not use the expression wheelchair-bound to describe individuals who use wheelchairs.”
I had a hard time finishing your encouraging editorial “Dignity of the Disabled” (1/20) after encountering this phrase in the second paragraph. Then, in the lovely article “Take Up Your Cross” (3/3), James Martin, S.J., twice uses the expression “confined to a wheelchair.”
For people who cannot walk, wheelchairs are instruments of freedom and accessibility. They enable people like two of our sons and a daughter-in-law to go to work, to Georgetown basketball games and Nationals’ baseball games and even to march in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. “Bound” does not describe these people and the many others who, as Andre Dubus II said, “sit in a wheelchair on the frighteningly invisible palm of God.”
Our Royal Throne
In “Take Up Your Cross,” the story of Doris was truly insightful. She first viewed her wheelchair as a cross but later as her resurrection. That is precisely how the Gospel of John sees the cross of Jesus: not as a gibbet of torture but as the glorious throne by which in the resurrection Jesus becomes king of the world. This is why so many crosses of the Eastern Church depict Christ on the cross as a royal king.
Doris realized fully what this cross meant. Our suffering becomes our royal throne in and through the resurrection.
A State For All
Re “Tear Down This Wall” (Current Comment, 2/24): When will the U.S. government and the international community make clear to the government of Israel that it has no right to try to turn Israel into an exclusive Jewish state? While it certainly was a goal of the United Nations to create a homeland for the Jews after World War II, the Holy Land was also to be a homeland for Christian and Muslim Arabs.
At one time, Galilee was mostly non-Jewish. The government of Israel did not like that situation and moved a sufficient number of Jewish people there to make them predominant. Is this a government policy that shows respect for its non-Jewish citizens?
Israel certainly needs security, but two wrongs do not make a right. It’s time to speak out against Israeli policies like the wall and the settlements in the occupied area. Peace without justice, charity and reconciliation is no peace at all. Might will never make right.
Re “Our Secular Future,” by R. R. Reno (2/24): As a committed Catholic, I am troubled by the article’s presumed unanimity in moral beliefs among Catholics and an “us versus them” defensiveness of believers against secularists. As a historian of early America, I am even more concerned by the author’s reading of the history of religious liberty.
Professor Reno argues that the right to religious freedom in the First Amendment is only now being “reinterpreted” as freedom of conscience to serve the goals of secularists. Although a diversity of views on religious liberty existed at the time of the founding, it is important to understand that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that religious liberty was identical with freedom of conscience.
Madison’s original proposal to Congress on June 8, 1789, stated: “The Civil Rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed.” Some would say that we are only now realizing the true, full meaning of the First Amendment.
The question most on my mind is: Which religion or religious doctrine does Professor Reno identify as having as its core the moral authority to demand—as its legitimate “religious freedom”—the right to exclude, isolate or overtly marginalize and shun those others whose lives it decrees are too sinful?
Jesus knew that the Samaritan who served the hated victim of highway robbery was more righteous than the ones who walked by him, exercising their “religious freedom” to not violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
I am very glad that I do not share Professor Reno’s bleak views. I am a progressive and have friends with similar views, and yet I am not acquainted with anyone who favors embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia or the mercy-killing of genetically defective babies.
I well recall that episode in Alabama shown in the illustration that accompanied the article (Am. 2/24, p. 13). I remember thinking at the time that if the Ten Commandments were enforced, we would just have to make the whole enormous advertising industry illegal. After all, what does advertising do but make us covet our neighbor’s goods?
My Catholic parish is much too crowded and vibrant for me to share the views of Professor Reno.
Sensible and Balanced
Thank you for “Our Secular Future.” I really never expected to see such a sensible and balanced article in America. How did it get past your liberal editors?
“A View From Abroad,” by Massimo Faggioli (2/24), on the divide among Catholics in the United States, deals with the paramount issue. Professor Faggioli made some good points, but somehow I think he missed a major reason that “the second largest religious group in United States is former Catholics.”
To me, Catholics and perhaps others in the United States are not so much driven by politics as by their need for the church to recognize modifications to its interpretation of revelation in light of modern culture and scientific findings. By holding on to age-old interpretations of Christ’s teaching and not adequately developing newer, more accurate interpretations in light of huge changes in how we live, the church is telling modern people to go away.
Most people leave the church not because of their politics, but because they no longer feel wanted.
The Other Students
Re “Principals, Not Police” (Current Comment, 2/17): While the problem of a “school-to-prison pipeline” does exist, it is wrong to simply insist that those misbehaving students remain in school. If one child is incorrigible, 25 other children cannot learn. It is important to help the “difficult” child. It is even more important to make sure that the other 25 students are in an atmosphere that is safe and conducive to learning.
Parents in our area can use vouchers to send their children to Catholic schools, but difficult children find themselves back in the public schools very quickly once their errant behavior becomes obvious. It seems that Catholics believe in keeping difficult children in school, as long as it isn’t their school.
And as states cut funding to education in poor, inner-city districts, it is ridiculous to think that schools will provide “mental health interventions.” If Catholics want to help those children, perhaps we should give up our schools as they now exist and make a mission of reaching out to those children on the “school to prison” track.
Not a ‘Belieber’
Re Of Many Things, by Matt Malone, S.J. (2/17): Justin Bieber is celebrated proportionately by about as many America readers as there are women who watch EWTN and are involved in the promotion of abortion and the use of contraception. The all-inclusive “we” is both incorrect and infelicitous.
We cannot avoid hearing about the Justin Biebers of society if we watch TV or read newspapers or periodicals—America, for example. That doesn’t make us fans or followers of such people. Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 100 million copies, but about seven billion people have not read it.
The media publishes what it considers good copy, which both reflects the taste and sets the taste of the public. Bottom line: We are immersed in a culture from which we can hardly escape, but we do not have to participate in the idolatry of the icons, legends and celebrities. We can turn the page or click the remote.
Prayer and Practice
Re “God’s Playbook,” by Luke Hansen, S.J. (2/17): As a Boston Red Sox fan, I certainly believe in supernatural forces at work in sports. But anyone who credits the Virgin Mary for Doug Flutie’s famous Hail Mary pass should know the truth.
At Boston College, my alma mater, it was well known that Doug ended every practice with a Hail Mary pass to his roommate, Gerard Phelan. The great theater that was the 1984 Boston College-Miami game simply ended the way it did in rehearsal.
Perhaps the Gospel parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) might be a more appropriate spiritual frame. God gave Doug a gift for football; he nurtured it, and then did many good works with the fame that well-rehearsed pass brought him. “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Liberty of Religion and of Conscience
Drew Christiansen responds to “Our Secular Future,” by R. R. Reno (2/24)
For the past quarter-century there has been a partisan strain in campaigns for religious liberty, first abroad and now at home. In part, at least, the critical issues involved have been misused by leading proponents in efforts to get the upper hand on whichever administration happens to occupy the White House.
The desire to occupy the unassailable moral high ground seems to be especially the case when the moral issues have become entangled in partisan culture wars. “Our Secular Future,” by R. R. Reno, pits “traditional religious people” against “a progressive consensus,” and it sets religious liberty at odds with a universalistic “libertarian” view of the rights of conscience for everyone.
Mr. Reno’s analysis and even his negative conjectures about problems ahead merit serious consideration. There is a long set of issues on which libertarian jurisprudence challenges religious defenders of traditional values. His assessment that the U.S. legal establishment, save the current Supreme Court with its Catholic majority, is libertarian in its views of conscience is accurate.
As Mr. Reno argues, the Protestant consensus is over; and secularists today show less tolerance for religiously held views than they did in the pluralist age of “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” a half-century ago.
From the perspective of Catholic social theology, Mr. Reno’s easy opposition between individual conscience and religious liberty entails worrisome dangers of its own. For centuries, the primacy of conscience has been at the center of the Catholic moral tradition, and the Second Vatican Council regarded it as foundational to the dignity of the human person. The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (1965) declared, “For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man.”
As if to close a loophole for those who would return to the days of religious coercion, the council added, “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity” (No. 16). As much as correction of an erroneous conscience may be in order and opposition to its claims and proposals in the public order are warranted, not to respect individual conscience is to reject the dignity of the person.
In that spirit, in a series of concordats and other documents, like the apostolic exhortation “Hope for Lebanon,” the Holy See in the 1990s under the leadership of Blessed John Paul II sought to protect the rights of the church by securing the rights of conscience of Catholics as citizens. There was no sense that the rights of conscience and religious liberty were at odds with one another.
Thus, universal respect for individual conscience in liberal jurisprudence finds a parallel in the church’s diplomatic practice as well as in its social teaching. While there have been some voices in the Catholic community for overriding traditional respect for the primacy of conscience out of zeal for the protection of human life, that position is a minority opinion out of line with centuries of tradition.
In addition, after the great miscalculation of the “Syllabus of Errors” the church learned from its opponents in the secular (liberal) political tradition in a new way to esteem the rights of conscience and value human rights.
Vatican II acknowledged the help the church has received from various forms of human culture. These forms of culture included liberal Western political and legal theory. The council went further, admitting it gained even from its adversaries in the public sphere. “Indeed,” it confessed, “the church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or persecute her.” Can we do less?
In the midst of our current public policy struggles and continuing culture wars, Catholics in the United States should not forget Blessed John Paul II’s confession of “sins committed in the service of the truth” during the Day of Pardon service of the Great Jubilee, and his commitment “to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity, in the firm knowledge that truth can prevail only in virtue of truth itself.”
Respect for the consciences of others, including nonbelievers, on something like the universal lines advanced by the liberal political tradition, is integral to the contemporary Catholic understanding of religious liberty. Responding to the host of questions that face the country on sexual, marital, reproductive and end-of-life issues, our endeavor should be to find solutions that show equal respect for the consciences of others, even when we believe they are in error.
The author is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University and a former editor in chief of America.