Why History Matters

Journalists and historians can — we get it — perform moral outrage well. Consider the Times on Stephen Bannon:

[T]he defining moment for Mr. Bannon came Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council — while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities. It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defense, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.

The quotation comes from John Haines piece on Bannon’s appointment to the NSC in historical perspective:

While Mr. Bannon has sardonically compared himself to “Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors” (perhaps choosing to ignore how that role ended), his national security brief might better analogize to Nelson Rockefeller. As noted earlier, he succeeded C.D. Jackson as Special Assistant to the President for Cold War Planning in the Eisenhower administration. Mr. Rockefeller’s appointment was memorialized in a March 1955 memorandum to President Eisenhower from Rowland Hughes, the director of the Bureau of the Budget (later renames the “Office of Management and Budget”):

b.The appointment of Mr. Nelson Rockefeller as Special Assistant to the President to provide leadership on your behalf in the development of increased understanding and cooperation among all peoples and in reviewing and developing methods and programs by which the various departments and agencies of the Government may effectively contribute to such cooperation and understanding.

c.The assignment to a Special Committee chaired by Mr. Rockefeller of responsibility for coordinating the implementation of the policies contained in NSC 5505/110 and NSC 5502/1.

Mr. Rockefeller assumed a direct role in national security and intelligence operations when President Eisenhower named him chair of the Planning Coordination Group (PCG), which was subordinate to the NSC’s Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). The OCB was established by a September 1953 executive order “to provide for the integrated implementation of national security policies by the several agencies.”[26] According to a letter to Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, “At the time of the issuance of the Executive Order creating the OCB the President designated his Special Assistant for Cold War Planning as his representative on the OCB.”

President Eisenhower authorized the PCG in a 10 March 1955 letter to Mr. Rockefeller. He directed that the PCG was to be advised “in advance of major covert programs initiated by the Central Intelligence Agency;” and furthermore, that the PCG “should be the normal channel for giving policy approval for such programs as well as for securing coordination of support therefor among the Departments of State and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.” The two referenced NSC reports — NSC 5505/1 (“Exploitation of Soviet and European Satellite Vulnerabilities”) and NSC 5502/1 (“U.S. Policy Toward Russian Anti-Soviet Political Activities) — are January 1955 directives for an “active political warfare strategy” against the Soviet Union.

Mr. Rockefeller’s brief was defined in a March 1955 NSC memorandum that discussed “The Foreign Information Program and Psychological Warfare Planning.” Declaring “the principle that propaganda in both peace and war is a continuing mechanism of national policy directed toward the achievement of national aims,” the NSC charged Mr. Rockefeller to conduct:

[A] high level review of the existing arrangements in the light of NSC 59/1 and NSC 127/1 should be undertaken with a view to preparing appropriate recommendations for consideration by the National Security Council. Such a review should be undertaken with a full understanding of the existing arrangements and current plans and programs in this field, as well as the status of planning for the possibility of limited or general war.

The NSC further directed that “responsibility for making such a review and recommendations [was] assigned to Mr. Nelson Rockefeller as Special Assistant to the President:”

[T]o provide leadership in the development of increased understanding and cooperation among all peoples and in reviewing and developing methods and programs by which the various departments and agencies of the Government may effectively contribute to such cooperation and understanding. In this assignment Mr. Rockefeller should be provided with such advice and assistance as he requires from the Bureau of the Budget, the Office of Defense Mobilization and the Operations Coordinating Board as well as the responsible operating departments and agencies.

Never let real historical details get in the way of surreal moral outrage. Do notice that Bannon is not as well dressed or coiffed as the Ivy League’s own, Rockefeller.

Fake News and Phantom Legs

Lots of folks are talking about fake news and how to discern the difference between real and not-so-true reports. Amid all the discussion I can’t stop thinking about Bill Genevose. He is the brother of the deceased Kitty Genovese, the woman whose murder in 1964 turned into a parable of urban life and crime:

Before we had the Internet to blame for everything, news of the brutal murder of 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese went wide as a parable of urban indifference. Genovese was far from the only New Yorker to die on the street in 1964. Nor was she the only woman Winston Moseley, a married father of two, admitted killing. By his own chilling account, Moseley drew no distinction between murder and the routine burglary by which he supplemented his income. The other victims languished in obscurity, while 50 years on, the meaning of Genovese’s murder still fuels a gallery of books, movies and television shows, up to and including a recent episode of Girls. All this — according to a new documentary by Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese with filmmaker James Solomon — because of an influential article in the New York Times that attributed her late-night death on a quiet street in Queens to the inaction of 38 witnesses who heard her screams twice (Moseley returned to stab her a second time) and allegedly failed to call the police or rush to her rescue.

The NPR story about Genovese’s death goes on to make the astute point that all news comes with spin that takes truth in the direction of fake:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. Genovese likens his sister’s death to a Rorschach test, and at its sharpest, The Witness is a careful inquiry into the tricks memory plays, and into how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives that fit individual and collective needs. Almost everyone Genovese interviewed — from surviving witnesses and their children, the prosecutor and judge in the case, police, journalists, and A.M. Rosenthal, the Times editor who handled the story in 1964 and wrote the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses about the case — has, however unconsciously, polished their own version of the truth. Some of the testimonies are sober and corrective, some defensive, others wacky or poignant or both. One witness’ son argues that most of the neighbors were Holocaust survivors and “therefore” would be reluctant to contact authorities. Moseley himself, who died in prison in March of this year, would not allow Genovese to visit him in prison, but wrote him a rambling, outlandish account. The film shows commendable compassion for Moseley’s anguished son, the Rev. Steven Moseley, whose pitifully bizarre contextualization of the murder shows that the damage it did went far beyond Kitty and her family.

The documentary that Bill Genovese made about his sister complicates the legend that this murder created. The mainstream media had a narrative and they kept telling it. It became so convincing about the indifference of Americans to crime that Bill Genovese himself volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He wasn’t going to be guilty of the sort of social character than abandoned his sister. And what happened? On a patrol Bill stepped on a mine and lost both his legs.

Which brings us to Bill Genovese, who as executive producer and narrator is both the film’s subject and its chief interpreter. Having lost both his legs in Vietnam, the handsome Italian-American is a visually dramatic figure, a sleuth in a wheelchair as he follows leads. Kitty’s death moved him, he says, to enlist in the Marines, and his continuing obsession with her murder (his siblings appear briefly, cooperative but baffled by a mystery they no longer seek to solve) stems from a desire to know that he “didn’t lose [his] legs for nothing.” There’s little reason to doubt their brother’s sincerity, yet his declared motives and his quest for “closure” — a glib buzzword that’s overdue for retirement — seem at once too tidy and a causal stretch.

Fake news or not, you should always take even the real news with a grain or two of salt.

Terry Mattingly is Tightening My Jaws

Mr. Mattingly’s point, as someone with journalistic credibility, is to point out how journalists get religion stories wrong. I get it. Reporters make mistakes. Worse, they have bias. But what if Mr. Mattingly gets journalists wrong?

Case in point. He pits the New York Times’ and Boston Globe’s (via Crux) coverage of Pope Francis’ refusal to meet with the chief Italian bishop as an indication of the pope’s refusal to identify publicly with a pro-family, anti-gay marriage parade sponsored by the Italian episcopate. Here is a crucial passage from the Crux:

Pope Francis abruptly canceled a meeting last Wednesday with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and a vocal proponent of Family Day. Many took that as a snub, suggesting that Francis wants to keep his distance from the fight.

Two days later, however, Francis reversed course and stepped directly into the debate.

In an annual speech to a Vatican court, Francis issued a blunt warning that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken by Italians as a criticism of the Cirinnà bill and, at least indirectly, an endorsement of Family Day.

Mattingly thinks this shows that the Times’ report — which indicated a papal slap down of pro-family Italians — was wrong.

Why isn’t the papal speech on Aug. 22 – the one stating “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and every other type of union” – relevant to the Times report that was published on Aug. 24?

Hello.

Saying something to the Vatican court is not meeting with the head Italian bishop. Nor is it an endorsement of the pro-family rally. Even Roman Catholic theologians know this:

[Pope Francis] has not directly endorsed the upcoming Family Day; he has not appealed to Italian politicians or to Italian Catholics; and he has emphasized repeatedly that this is something in the hands of the Catholic laity. His speech to the Rota Romana last week was clear in drawing a distinction between Catholic marriage and other unions, but it was a speech in no way similar to those given by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was a strong defense of traditional Catholic marriage, but made no references to Italian politics or “non-negotiable values.”

It’s clear that the Vatican has a strong preference for a same-sex union law over one for gay marriage; further, it views the section of the bill that would legalize gestational surrogacy as alarming and rushed through by the government of Matteo Renzi, a Catholic whose strongest suit is surprising allies and enemies alike with the rapidity of his actions. Francis has remained largely disengaged from the politics of the bill, and his main effort seems to be protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it—especially when that attempt comes from Italian bishops. Interestingly, an audience scheduled with Cardinal Bagnasco was canceled the day before it was supposed to take place, on January 20.

We do not know yet what kind of popular support Family Day 2016 will have, but it is clear that Pope Francis has reset the role of the papacy not only in Italian domestic politics, but also in Italian ecclesiastical politics.

Sure, the theologian in question, Massimo Faggioli, is sympathetic to the Times except when Ross Douthat is the author. Still, its not as if Mattingly’s take on matters Roman Catholic is such an obvious one.

By Whose Authority?

Rod Dreher was the first (from where I sit) to break the news of a letter written by Roman Catholics who disagree with Ross Douthat (can’t call them liberal, I guess) to the New York Times to protest Douthat’s views on Roman Catholicism. In my estimation, this is hitting below the belt. You don’t mess with someone’s livelihood, which is how this feels — tattling to the teacher about an objectionable classmate. Here’s the letter:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

Signatures followed by a number of historians whom I respect. They disappointed me because their scholarship had always suggested to me a breadth of outlook, not one that connoted the old days of parochial Roman Catholic history.

One of the letter’s authors, Massimo Faggioli, has his own perspective on what Roman Catholicism is. It is not John Paul II but it is Francis. (How you pick and choose among popes is anyone’s guess, since that would appear not to be a professor of theology’s paygrade):

The style of John Paul II was very different from a ‘conciliar’ style – consider, for example, the absence of episcopal collegiality in his style of governing the Church, especially in how he treated the synod of bishops and the national bishops conferences … Clearly John Paul II lacked interest in reforming structures of the Church’s central government, which in his 27-year pontificate became more centred on the person of the pope and the papal apartment and its far-from-transparent entourage.

[Francis’s] decision in October 2013 to celebrate an extraordinary synod in October 2014 and an ordinary synod in 2015 (both on the topic of family), signaled a change in the hierarchy of institutions of church government: pope, curia, episcopate. In the April 2014 message to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary general of the synod, Francis spoke about the synod in terms of collegiality that is both ‘affective’ and ‘effective’ – with a significant shift in the use of these two adjectives referring to collegiality when compared with previous decades.

Nor is it clear why Dr. Faggioli (aside from being Italian) has any more right to his views of the papacy than Ross Douthat. Both men I believe are lay Roman Catholics, though I think the New York Times trumps St. Thomas University on the list of gatekeepers in American society. Call me a Northeast corridor snob.

One of the letter’s signers explained why she did and addressed the elitism that lurked behind the challenge to Douthat’s credenitials (or lack thereof):

I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility. When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor. When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists. One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect? In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology. These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.

So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?

This is downright baffling. Do people who teach theology and church history have no clue about journalism? Do they not know the meaning of “op-ed”? Lots of people have access to op-ed pages and have never had training in a discipline. H. L. Mencken didn’t. Walter Lippmann was not an academic. Thomas Friedman apparently only has an M.Phil. in Middle Eastern Studies. So the New York Times is supposed to hire only Ph.D.’s as columnists? And did the letter writers and signers ever consider that the Times’ editors hired Douthat not so much for his writing on religion as his pieces on public policy, conservatism, and the Republican Party? Do Roman Catholics who oppose Douthat read anything other than his columns about Roman Catholicism? If not, how parochial.

The one element that stands out in this clash of professional authority — journalism vs. academics — is the letter’s appeal to Roman Catholicism. The way that most of the apologists have it, Rome’s authority rests not on the basis of academics or circulation and advertising but with the bishops and those whom they appoint. And yet, those who oppose Douthat make no reference to the authority of bishops, priests, and especially the pope.

If the papacy’s authority rested on “professional credentials” where would infallibility be?

But there’s hope for Douthat, not so much for the church’s apologists. It is that the church is wide and tolerant and in need of a conversation just like the United States:

Pope Francis represents the tiniest, most incremental steps toward shifts in doctrine that could have happened years ago, but he too is bombarded by vitriol from Catholics who see the church as a calcified, immobile monument.

Douthat is likely one of those Catholics who would prefer the altar to be turned around, the pews shoved back into rigid rows, women kicked out of the sanctuary and Latin Mass brought back to a country where Latin is rarely taught in schools. Or perhaps that’s what his supporters think he prefers. And they can defend that choice to see the church as incapable of evolution with vitriol, anger and rage. It doesn’t mean they should, and it doesn’t mean they’re right.

But the Catholic Church isn’t just the church of Douthat, Latin Mass traditionalists, or the theologians who signed the letter. It’s also the church of a billion people around the world, each experiencing it in different ways, each living out their faith individually and collectively. And each of those people is qualified to talk about how they live that faith, whether they do so in the op-ed column of the Times, at a potluck, in the middle of the desert, on CNN, or here on RD. It’s when either side tells the other to shut up that the problem starts.

The Pope has asked us to try to listen to one another. Maybe we can start there.

Americanism anyone?

The Big C[elebr]ity Pastor Effect

Michelle Cottle (thanks against to Michael Sean Winters) notices the effect that Pope Francis is having on political discussions in the U.S.:

In his first pastoral visit last July, the pope journeyed to Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily through which more than 200,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe since 1999. Lamenting “global indifference” to the plight of migrants and refugees, Francis threw a wreath into the Mediterranean in remembrance of those who had lost their lives there.

Such acts send a powerful signal, says Kevin Appleby, head of migration policy for the USCCB. This, in turn, inspires like-minded advocates to “lead the charge” on the issue, as when a contingent of U.S. bishops traveled to Nogales on April 1 to celebrate Mass across the U.S.-Mexican border, conduct their own wreath-laying ceremony, and, while they were at it, call on Congress to quit dorking around and do something about our nation’s dysfunctional immigration system.

Five days later came Jeb Bush’s “act of love” moment, which Carr found “stunning,” and Appleby found encouraging. “When someone like Jeb Bush comes out and makes a comment that humanizes immigrants, I think it is in part inspired by the Holy Father,” says Appleby, who has been working on this issue with the USCCB for about 15 years. “In some ways, the Holy Father is providing some cover. Not intentionally. But for those who are sympathetic to his message, he provides cover to be more courageous and to speak about the issue from the human side.”

Conversely, the pope makes it awkward for political leaders of faith to ignore the human costs of poverty or the need for immigration reform, asserts Winters. “It’s really hard to justify, say, your opposition to immigration as coherent with your religious principles when you have the pope and the bishops out front saying otherwise.”

But how do we know that Rick Warren isn’t responsible in a much more direct way for the faith-based Republican’s opposition to Affordable Care Act than Pope Francis’ indirect influence on immigration reform? Here’s part of Warren’s social teaching looks like:

The administration argues that because Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation, the company has no religious rights under the First Amendment. In fact, the government says that exempting Hobby Lobby from paying for drugs and devices to which the Greens object would amount to an imposition of the Greens’ faith on their employees.

The first people who came to America from Europe were devout pilgrims seeking the freedom to practice their faith. That’s why the first phrase of the first sentence of the First Amendment is about freedom of religion — preceding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Why? Because if you don’t have the freedom to live and practice what you believe, the other freedoms are irrelevant. Religious liberty is America’s First Freedom.

In this case, the administration is insisting that those who form and operate a family business based on religious beliefs must disobey what they believe is God’s standard in order to obey the government’s program. The administration wants everyone to render unto Caesar not only what is Caesar’s but also what is God’s. If it wins, the first purpose on which the United States was founded would be severely damaged.

Maybe the takeaway is that the American people are receiving conflicting messages from pastors who have no more business weighing in on political and legal matters than Tim Robbins does.

Imagine how frustrating it must be when you are only a pastor in a small Scottish city and have no obvious celebrity:

I’m a vicar – or at least a clergyman – in an inner city charge. I accept that there are of course differences between being the vicar of a declining church of England in central London, and being a Presbyterian minister in a thriving church in the metropolis of Dundee! But there are also a great deal of similarities. Not least in how we as the church impact an increasingly secular society. So forgive me for pointing out a few lessons that we can learn from Rev.

So how do we judge the relative influence of pastors like Tim Keller, Rick Warren, Pope Francis, and David Robertson? Some mathematician out there has to have an equation for calculating a city’s size, antiquity, and media saturation along side a pastor’s ability to write books that ascend the New York Times’ bestseller list or how many times a pastor appears on the cover of Time. Then again, why does New York City’s newspaper carry more weight than Rome’s or Orange County’s? Does Keller have an unfair advantage?

Fair and Balanced

From our Canadian correspondent comes word of a 1926 New York Times headline that reported on one of J. Gresham Machen’s sermons about the condition of American Protestantism.

Church Teaching Scored–Professor Machen Says the World Is Full of
Quack Remedies For Sin–Calls for More Pessimism

Not many people — believers or not — find pessimism inspiring. But at Old Life pessimism is our bread and butter because, as Machen observed, Christianity is the religion of the broken heart. Maybe the sentimentalists over at the Gospel Coalition would have a better read on angry Calvinism if they understood better the depressing disposition that animates Protestants who belong to Reformed churches.

Is Tony Soprano in Hell?

That is the question that Ross Douthat uses to respond to Rob Bell’s query about whether Christians must believe that Ghandi is in hell for being Hindu (probably not the best way of putting it since the eternal destiny of any human, aside from Christ, has not been part of Protestant church dogma).

Here is part of Douthat’s reasoning:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

The entire piece is worth reading not only for its explicit point but also to show that as supposedly debased and secular as American society is, it still permits arguments like Douthat’s – at the New York Times no less. Way to go, Ross. Way to go, light of nature.