Crisis Magazine 1998

Sed Contra: That Privacy Thing

Deal W. Hudson
November 1, 1998

The Bible says that in the last days our sins will be shouted from the rooftops. Well, a millennium of sorts has already arrived for some Washington politicians, both friend, and foe. The brave new world of the media, fed relentlessly by the Internet and 24-hour cable news, has made that scenario almost literally possible.

I suspect that as more and more lives are turned inside out Catholics should be better prepared than most to sort out the resultant confusion. Why? Catholics, I think, have a different view of privacy from other people. The regular practice of confession, the habit of making your sins public, even if it is only to a priest, makes these revelations less of a shock.

This is not to say that Catholics have come to expect less of their leaders, but that their attitudes are informed by a moral realism born in the crucible of penance. Confession breaks down the walls we put up around the self, and eventually destroys the false distinction between public and private life. Character is destiny; this is part of the truth that keeps us going back to the confessional.

This understanding of privacy, however, leads Catholics to expect more, not less, of our leaders. Case in point—a recent swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Charleston, South Carolina. At the oath of allegiance to their commander-in-chief, all six new recruits doubled over in laughter! The academy commandant had to remind them of their proper dignity and ask them to maintain military bearing.

The president has the power of life and death over every man and woman in the U.S. military—they must be prepared to give their lives if he deems it necessary for the common good. When they consider the character of the man who can place their lives in harm’s way, all facile distinctions between private and public judgment appear ridiculous.

More personal revelations are expected the closer we get to impeachment hearings. The White House “scorched earth” policy reinforces the sense of an apocalypse fast approaching. The net effect has been to make us less mindful of last things and more mindful than before of the inevitable tinge of eroticism that attaches itself to power. This addresses another aspect of Catholic moral realism implicit in the wisdom of retaining a celibate clergy. The vow of celibacy provides both priest and layperson the clear sense of boundaries they need in vulnerable situations.

Over and over again, we hear on the talk shows that we shouldn’t hold the president to a “higher standard.” I would argue quite the opposite. Leaders are by definition leaders of people. Leaders, whether they be priests or presidents, have life-changing influence on those who follow them. Our well-being depends upon their judgment and actions. Those who are not willing to bear the burden of these higher standards should not seek office.

In the past few months, the media and their audience—all of us—have conspired to become a nation of voyeurs. What we are seeing and hearing every day, hour after hour, is poisoning the moral imagination of this nation. After we have stripped away all idealism from offices that bind our culture together—president, father, husband—what will be left for us to aspire to? Who will want to sacrifice personal desires for public responsibilities?

For years now the baby boomer generation has tried to lecture the so-called Generation X on the importance of public service. Boomers have been appalled at the lack of respect they have for the adult world and its treasured institutions. We can be sure our best arguments will be met with scoffing by teenagers who can’t see past the spectacle of hypocrisy.

The fabric of the republic has been rent apart by something far worse than a sex scandal at the White House. It has been torn by a man who came into office talking about vision and quoting the Old Testament prophets. There is little doubt that any one of those fire-breathing prophets of old would have to say about the Man who refuses to repent.

Sed Contra: Notes Toward Unity

Deal W. Hudson
October 1, 1998

Crisis has applauded the pope’s efforts to promote unity in the Church, his attempt to overcome divisions in the Body of Christ. To Orthodox, Jews, Protestants, to Catholics on the right and left, he has reached out, and his efforts, while not always successful, have born great fruit. How ironic, it seems, that those who shout the loudest about their loyalty to John Paul have not done more to initiate his commitment to unity among the faithful.

Hundreds of Catholic apostolates now exist throughout the nation, but there is little or no communication between them, making practical collaboration impossible. Even where communication exists there is often a lack of awareness concerning how we can help each other. For example, I receive regular calls from groups seeking to locate financial support. I try to explain that what Crisis can offer is a forum to tell their stories. I also urge these callers to reprint items from Crisis: “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” I tell them. “We’ve spelled out the arguments and provided the facts and analysis. Use them!” Free of charge, of course.

I’m afraid we have a long way to go in learning how to collaborate, how to take advantage of the work being done and the money being spent, and how to avoid duplication where possible.

All of this disarray plays into the hands of our critics and, more to the point, being divided makes us easy pawns to the “principalities and powers” who would subject us. Those who think it is better to work in isolation, that it encourages competition, must be reminded that is not engaged in a zero-sum game.

There is enough work and enough resources for all. Why? Because the work is global evangelization and the resources come from God himself, who will multiply the loaves and fishes to feed those who follow him in the wilderness.

There are those who might sit back and enjoy the spectacle of a hundred small organizations struggling against each other for survival, saying, “Let the cream rise to the top.” Yet this attitude overlooks both the legitimate need for these many apostolates and the advantage to be gained through their mutual recognition and cooperation.

This is not to say that Catholic organizations should join together in complicated corporate mergers or disengage from friendly competition. Rather, I submit that leaders of organizations should make time to know one another, learn about each other’s missions, and explore ways of collaboration.

The United States is a big country—we underestimate the impact that geographical size has on our ability to know what’s going on, where, and who’s doing it. I repeatedly hear about groups in one part of the country who assume they must start from scratch to fight a battle—say, the proposed removal of the tabernacle to the far corner of the sanctuary. They have no inkling that the resources and argu¬ments against that proposal already exist; the battle has been fought and won elsewhere.

Those who have studied the Catholic dissident movement come away impressed by one thing: The dissidents are organized, they share resources, they cooperate, and they have systematically targeted key institutions such as RCIA, CCD, schools, colleges, universities, and liturgical translation. Dissidents make effective use of their publications (look at the employment section of the National Catholic Reporter), the Internet, and networking conferences. While dissidents collaborate, the orthodox work in isolation and occasionally bicker over strategy.

It’s time to put an end to this; it’s time for greater unity. Not the enforced unity of a formal merger or the emotional bond formed at the foot of a charismatic leader, but the hard-headed practical ad hoc unity of persons committed to a more effective ministry.

I believe God will bless such an effort. I believe the loaves and fishes are waiting, invisibly, to be multiplied among us. We can best oppose the disintegration of our culture by acting as one body in the Spirit, engaged in a common fight for our nation’s future.

Ted Forstmann: On Philanthropy, Politics, and Religion

Deal W. Hudson
June 1, 1998

In multimillionaire investor Ted Forstmann we meet a man, a Catholic, who has become one of this nation’s leading philanthropists and who may be poised to head an educational revolution. As founding chairman of Empower American, a conservative grassroots organization whose Washington, D.C. offices are home to Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp, Forstmann has already made a substantial contribution to our cultural life. Behind the scenes, Forstmann has been doing for children, for education, and for his country what so many social conservatives only pay lip service to—the transformation of society through private, non-governmental initiatives.

Fortsmann created Empower America as a response to the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 as a place where serious thinking and the dissemination of good ideas, not simply politics, would be the first priority. “It’s a shame that people with more or less the right ideas, who marginally disagree, were taking shots at each other instead of joining together,” said Forstmann.

Forstmann’s public profile increased dramatically last year with the announcement of his three million dollar gift to the Washington Scholarship Fund, an organization that gives scholarship money to inner-city children to attend private and charter schools in Washington, D.C. “D.C. was a test case that worked, we got 7600 applications from poor parents who are tired of living with the state-funded monopoly. Public education is like everything else produced by the state—a bad product at a high price.”

Like other advocates of school choice, Forstmann has become the target of those who fear such programs will kill public education rather than provide its badly needed antidote. Among those are critics are those who claim Forstmann is using his philanthropy as a platform for a future presidential run. Fortsmann laughs at the idea. During a recent interview, Fortsmann recalled that before Steve

Forbes became a candidate for the presidency, he suggested Forstmann give it a try. When Forstmann declined, Forbes decided to run. In the meantime, Forstmann has redoubled his philanthropic energies.

Yet, since the issue of school choice unites a broader base of grass-roots support, it will not be surprising if Forstmann’s efforts make the liberal elites a bit nervous. At a time when the wealthiest, like Ted Turner, give their millions trying to solve children’s problems by pressing for abortion and contraception services, Forstmann stands apart. In spite of all, he must still learn about his Catholic faith, Forstmann is clearly prepared to defend innocent life with the same determination that he fights for equal opportunity in education.

Children First

The list of organizations Forstmann supports is long and impressive. As director of the International Rescue Committee, he has traveled several times to Bosnia, founding a medical program that has provided for thousands of war-injured children. “What has happened to these kids in Bosnia is wrong, to have your life blown up by a landmine. It’s not right.” This comment reveals the common denominator of Forstmann’s efforts on behalf of children—a passionate commitment to equal opportunity. Forstmann cannot shrug off the suffering of the poor—he recognizes that life is often “a vale of tears, not an easy place to live,” and the answer must lie with the fortunate helping the less fortunate.

This community-based vision of welfare stems from his belief that the state inevitably fails at the task of helping the disadvantaged: “The state is not a decent substitute for a father…. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God created the state.” Forstmann believes that welfare programs have evolved into an entrenched, self-interested bureaucracy that creates generational dependency. “The poor, especially the inner city minorities, are being discriminated against by the people who insist that the state must be involved.”

Forstmann comes across as a realist, someone who has developed genuine street savvy through his years of hands-on philanthropy. He sympathizes with those whom the taste of entitlement leads to value security over freedom, but he quotes Hegel’s line, “a spirit of spiritless conditions,” to describe the dependency fostered by statism, the habit of looking to the state to solve every human problem. “It violates the basic nature of humanity to be bought off by a check that simply arrives from the state every month. You know that you’re not fulfilling your human potential.”

Forstmann’s attempt to harness the dynamics of entrepreneurial capitalism is not welcomed in today’s politically correct environment. “I gave a speech at Harvard a couple of years ago in which I called for the abolishment of capital gains, and I went on to say that the primary beneficiary of that tax cut would be inner-city blacks…. The next day the headline in the Boston paper read, ‘Forstmann issues racist statements at Harvard.’”

Accidental Catholic

The major themes of Catholic social teaching—natural law, subsidiarity, and personalism—infuse Ted Forstmann’s thinking. But Forstmann readily confesses that at least to his own recollection, none of these ideas came to him through his Catholic upbringing. At age fifty-eight, Forstmann is probably like many cradle Catholics who entered adulthood during Vatican II: His knowledge of Catholic teaching is hit and miss. When pressed about the influence of his Catholic upbringing he returns to a deep-rooted sense of the difference between right and wrong. “I had a great deal of trouble, even as a young man, with the idea that ethics were situational, that what was wrong was what you just didn’t feel good about.” Whereas this vagueness left many of his generation confused and lethargic, it led Forstmann on a circuitous journey to the positions in the social Magisterium of the Church.

Forstmann maintains a clear commitment to the sanctity of life. “I don’t see how you can think of abortion in any terms other than killing.” He won’t even argue with people about “choice.” “If choice were understood properly, I would be its biggest supporter.” Those who consider having an abortion, he says, have already made the choice: “The choice was to put yourself in a position where this can happen…. A woman, for example, does not have the right to choose a .38mm handgun to knock off the gardener who she finds to be inconvenient.”

Forstmann laughs at the idea that Planned Parenthood, a favorite philanthropy of the wealthy, is the solution to social problems. “I got over the Malthusian way of thinking a long time ago. Population control approaches these problems backward. The issue is not fewer people, it’s using human creativity to find the solution.” He doesn’t know why some of the country’s wealthiest people—George Soros, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner—give to population control organizations, although he guesses that it may have something to do with the loss of belief in eternal life: “If you begin with the assumption that everything ends when you die, then those who want to control the population are consistent. But if you believe in eternal life, then you see the purpose in every human life, even in suffering.”

Forstmann says he learned much about the hope of eternal life from sick children: “I really think that ninety-nine out of 100 people would have had the same experience, dealing with these kids…. They’ve been dealt such a lousy hand and been given so much to overcome, and by and large they just smile and take it.” A lifelong bachelor, Forstmann has worked long and hard as director of Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund; cofounder of Silver Lining Ranch in Aspen, Colorado; cofounder, with General Nor-man Schwarzkopf and Paul Newman, of Boggy Creek Gang Camp; and director of the Inner City Scholarship Fund, which educates more than 10% of the inner city children in the Catholic schools of New York City.

Moral Businessman

Ted Forstmann, cofounder and senior partner of the private investment firm Forstmann Little & Co., made his millions as a pioneer of the leveraged buyout. He gained an unusual reputation in this rather cutthroat field. As one observer puts it, “Ted was the most ethical of the leveraged buyout guys.” Forstmann remembers, “During the heyday of the buyout, I was critical of the excessive use of debt. Only a few people benefited in huge fees, and lots of people got thrown out of their jobs. The business could not support the debt, and then to make matters worse they would turn around and sell poor securities.” His acquisitions include Gulfstream, General Instrument, Ziff-Davis Publishing, Community Health Systems, Dr. Pepper, and Topps. Forstmann’s firm currently has almost $5 billion in commit-ted capital for future acquisitions.

Forstmann’s mother and sister, the staunch Catholics in the family, brought him up with a strict sense of right and wrong. His Lutheran father converted only when he was older, largely due to the friendship of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a regular visitor in Forstmann’s childhood home in Connecticut. “When he came to dinner my parents felt it necessary to put the nude statues in the closet.” Sheen’s “eyes were so piercing you couldn’t look at them.”

His relationship with the Catholic Church has been strengthened by his relationship with John Cardinal O’Connor. “There’s a guy who knows the difference between right and wrong. He stood there and had these activists throw condoms at him, and he said, ‘I don’t care if the whole city is opposed to me.’ And he forgives them.”

Forstmann’s first meeting with the Cardinal was as welcome as a summons. “I had been dragged in to see him. I had no interest in seeing the guy at all. He says to me, ‘I’m a priest. A priest is a shepherd and you, my friend, are in need of a shepherd. And so,’ he said, ‘I am going to offer myself to you.’ It was really quite something. And I replied, ‘You and I should talk every once in a while.’ So we did, and it was great. He’s a great guy.”

Leaders Who Count

Though he has considered a presidential run, Forstmann has given little thought to recent attempts to rally the Catholic vote through organizations like the Catholic Campaign for America and the Catholic Alliance. Forstmann had never thought about there being a Catholic vote, especially since the U.S. bishops on economic matters are “to the left of Bill Clinton.” But he agrees with the intention of the bishops’ teaching—a “plea to people to pay attention to their fellow man.”

The subject intrigues him. “You need a candidate, a candidate to rally the Catholics.” He talks about the track record of important Catholic political leaders. He asks, “Who is the most notable Catholic politician of the last ten or twenty years?” Congressman Henry Hyde and former Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey are mentioned. “Henry Hyde is one of the greatest politicians we have, but he never has attracted the kind of national attention Cuomo has. Mario could have been the Democratic nominee for president.” Cuomo’s position on abortion, he adds, is a “total fraud.”

When asked whether he would run for president, Forstmann predicts that he will end up spending more money on The School Bank than he would ever spend running for public office. “When people have asked me to run I have always come to the conclusion that I could really do more of the thing I want to do outside the ‘sewer process’ than I can inside it. On the other hand, as a result of what we are doing in education, lots of people are coming together under this issue, from many different back-grounds—black ministers, cardinals, rabbis, traditional liberals—they are all tired of seeing children sacrificed for the benefit of political power.”

Sed Contra: Il Papa!

Deal W. Hudson
April 1, 1998

I never thought I would be part of a cheering, waving crowd. After all, I was too old, too sophisticated. Then John Paul II walked out on the stage. It was his Wednesday public audience, and together with my family and six friends, I sat only a few rows from the stage of an enormous room that holds up to eight thousand. As he walked slowly toward his chair, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was seeing Christ, and I couldn’t hold back anything.

Most people would think that an audience with the pope and thousands of other people wouldn’t be very satisfying. Only the lucky few on the prima fila, the first row, get to shake his hand afterward. But sitting there among Catholic groups from around the world, hearing them sing to the pope in over a dozen languages, offers nothing less than a revelation of the Church universal. There, addressing itself to every sense of the body was a living witness to why the Church has one man at its head, one man to represent the one Christ of its Body. I knew I would never again have to explain to my daughter why the pope is called the “Holy Father.”

As I watched John Paul II, I kept noticing the sheer size of his shoulders. Here was a philosopher with the shoulders of a stevedore! How heavy the burden is that he carries for all of us, I thought. His body, the way his head bends forward, almost looks crucified already. But as he prayed I could see how he was able to carry it—Christ carries it for him: “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11.28)

The joy abounding in that gigantic room—the trumpets, the accordions, the pope-cheers, and giant banners—refutes, in a moment, all the whining one hears in America about “chill winds from Rome.” How it must rankle his critics that a pontiff who believes so strongly in Humanae Vitae and evinces such deep Marian devotion, can elicit such love from across the spectrum of humanity.

The Mexican group in front of us kept breaking into a chant that always brought a smile to the pope’s face. “They’ve got this thing right,” I said to my wife. I thought of all the contemporary jazz-it-up programs in this country intended to ignite the kind of spiritual fire that was sweeping through this very room. Guess what: All the rows faced directly toward the stage—there wasn’t a circular line in the place! The thousands didn’t come to look at each other but to look at one man, a man whose emergent holiness is palpable. But in looking at him we somehow saw one another, and we were united by his Body, in spite of all the differences between us.

Commentators are always pointing out, correctly, the American penchant for individualism. Later on, as our Crisis group shared notes, we were all grateful to have the wave of that great love for the Holy Father, and for Christ, wash over us. Later that day, we descended into the excavations under St. Peter’s altar. A young seminarian from the North American College, a member of my own parish in Northern Virginia, led us through the layers of churches and mausoleums leading down to what experts believe are the bones of St. Peter.

At journey’s end, standing together directly below Bernini’s altar, this young deacon reminded us that this was the same Peter who had denied Christ three times, who had seen him crucified, who had been entrusted the keys to the entire Church. Talk about real presence! When we learned that John Paul II had taken a relic of St. Peter to help him recover from the bullet wound of 1981, our experience of the mysterious unity was now complete. From the first pope to this one, John Paul the Great, spanning over nearly two thousand years, God’s grace to his Body, through the mediation of his earthly Vicar, has been shed without interruption through time and space and across the world.

Yet, the undeniable principle that informs this work of grace is that it begins at the head and passes through the rest of the body. We can only pray that the millions of pilgrims that pass through the Vatican between now and the Jubilee year will reaffirm the fundamental form of Catholic Christianity, nowhere more powerfully seen than in the haggard, luminous pope from Poland.

Sed Contra: Hard Questions from the Playground

Deal W. Hudson
March 1, 1998

I had just ventured into the Caribbean with ninety Crisis readers when the Clinton sex scandal hit the headlines. Even at a far distance, it was clear that the story was steering the media discussion into vulgar waters. I hoped my nine-year-old daughter would avoid hearing about Oval Office assignations, stained dresses, and the like. But, upon my return, I had barely set down my bags when Hannah asked me if I had heard about the “sex between the president and his secretary.”

Our culture has robbed our children of their childhood, and all the impeachment proceedings in the world will not return their innocence. One thing that a happy childhood requires is confidence in the trustworthiness of adults. I can’t recall a time when I thought my mother and father, my pastor, my teacher, and my president wouldn’t be able to fulfill their grown-up responsibilities to myself, my Church, my class, or my country.

A recent survey of college freshmen traces their growing indifference to classwork to the fact that nearly 50% of them come from broken families. College-age students who experience their parents’ failure to keep their most important promises are hardly going to trust the adults who control the first place they reside after leaving home—the college campus. Why should they listen to the “wisdom” of a generation that brought them unprecedented rates of abortion, divorce, and illegitimacy?

My daughter did not hear the news from the television but from her fellow third graders at our parish school. I trod as lightly as I could, asking what she thought about the story. She, thankfully, has only the vaguest ideas about sex. Hannah then asked a question that startled me: “What does sex have to do with his being president?” Already her nine-year-old mind is infected by that pernicious distinction, popularized decades ago by Governor Mario Cuomo, between private sexual behavior and public leadership. Little did I know that the playground has already become a breeding ground for cynicism and bad politics.

In my daughter’s reaction, I was facing the head and tail of the moral breakdown we are presently witnessing in such stark detail. Culture, it must be agreed, is like the air we breathe. Because it pervades our senses, there is no way of avoiding its influence. No matter how you close the windows and doors of your home to media, its messages will seep in. The polluted air has reached my daughter’s playground— deep inside of her the seeds of distrust toward adult authority had been sown. Who knows how deeply they will take root? And simultaneously she is being imbued with the lie that a person’s private conduct makes no difference to the execution of their public responsibilities. It’s this lie, alive in our culture of death, that has shaped the character of Bill Clinton and encouraged the moral softness in all of us.

The downfall of Bill Clinton’s presidency cumulatively reflects all the breakdowns in leadership—in families, schools, churches—over the past fifty years, the years of his life. He is undoubtedly the president cast in the dominant cultural mode, and for that, he deserves both our prayers and our sympathy.

Rather than being an occasion for partisan rejoicing, this scandal should be our definitive wake-up call, a moment for national repentance. For the president to move beyond his denials would be a great opportunity for spiritual renewal of the nation: It could mark the end of an era already neck deep, and nearly drowning, in betrayal. Where the president leads, many would undoubtedly follow. Is it too much to imagine a repentant Bill Clinton at the head of some future Promise Keepers rally?

But the president received no encouragement in this direction, as far as we know. In fact, on Sunday after the scandal broke, the Clintons attended a Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., where they heard the pastor intone a message of love and forgiveness based upon 1 Corinthians 13. The pastor offered forgiveness in advance of any admission of sin. The first couple reported feeling “comforted.” Comfort confirms the status quo, it helps to set character in concrete. One can only guess at St. Paul’s reaction to his encomium to love being used as a spiritual analgesic.

Cheap comfort, shorn of admission of sin and repentance of wrongdoing, only exacerbates the drift toward cynicism that has marked American public life in the past three decades. Much has been made of the apathy of youth in our nation. We can expect little more of them, however, when our highest office holders use their privilege as a means for exploitation, making our playgrounds buzz with vulgar talk of infidelity.

Millennial Danger

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 1998

In the winter of 1980, I faced my first class at Mercer University in Atlanta, an “Introduction to Religion” course for ten students in the evening program. The brightest of them was already well-established as the financial controller of a hotel on Peachtree Street. Two decades later, she teaches philosophy and humanities at The University of Notre Dame, having written her doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant at Emory University. She told me later that one of the reasons she changed careers was something I said that first night: “It’s good to think about God.”

Like most inexperienced teachers, I wasn’t quite sure how to get the class started, much less address the topic of religion in general, which even then I considered problematic. I wanted to discuss religion without demeaning the great traditions of faith by making facile comparisons with ancient “myths and legends.” To me, the core of religion was about something—God. Reducing religion to mere anthropology or ruminations about human projections fundamentally distorted the subject.

I required the students to read three texts, one by a Jew, one by a Protestant, and one by a Catholic—Martin Buber’s I-Thou, Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Heart of the World. These books dared the students to think about God without apology or qualification, to engage the mind in the act of “theo-logia,” thinking about the God who is.

As I stood in front of the class that night, talking about God, I was unsure of myself. I almost changed course: I worried about “offending” the students in the class, “turning them off” both to me and the class. We were approaching the heyday of teaching as therapy, and, being a young professor eager to please, I considered taking a gentler approach. Somehow I resisted the temptation.

Thinking about God, especially aloud, should be frightening. Yes, all who try to be faithful end up knowing the humiliation of being ridiculed as God’s fool, but the risk of addressing God goes far beyond possible embarrassment. When we think about God, the real risk is that God will seize that opportunity to change our lives in a radical way. Looking back at my markings in the margins of Von Balthasar’s The Heart of The World, I found this passage with a bombshell beside it:

God is dangerous. God is a consuming fire…. He begins with a small love, a small flame, and before you realize it he has gotten total hold of you and you are caught. If you let yourself be caught you are lost, for heavenwards there are no limits. He is God—accustomed to infinity. He sucks you upwards like a cyclone, whirls you up and away like a waterspout. Look out. Man is made for measure and limits, and only in the finite does he find rest and happiness. But this God knows nothing of measure. He is a seducer of hearts.

Yes, the real millennial danger is not the end of the world; it is that God will conquer our hearts. What makes thinking about God so dangerous? No doubt God Himself supplies the danger. We can already see from the many cases of “millennial jitters” that people are willing to reset their spiritual gyroscopes. They are willing to put aside, for the moment, their own grudges and cherished cynicism and to consider falling in love again, with God.

The year 2000 is a second chance for all of us. It should remind us that time is always on God’s side. Time, like life itself, is a gift because it is His way of offering Himself once more. Every morning we live is a second chance.

The Holy Father anticipated at the beginning of his pontificate that the next two years would be a unprecedented opportunity for evangelization. With this in mind, he has asked us to celebrate the approach of the Third Millennium with a series of yearlong reflections on God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and, in the coming year, God the Father. About the meaning of the coming year, John Paul II has written in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that:

The whole of the Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father, whose unconditional love for every human creature, and in particular for the “prodigal son” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), we discover each day. This pilgrimage takes place in the heart of each person, extends to the believing community and then reaches to the whole of humanity.

From youth to age, our attitude toward time changes with our circumstances, making it easy to forget the gift of each day. When I started teaching, I was approaching the midpoint of a contemplative period of life: Fifteen years of teaching lay ahead of me, after eleven years of college and graduate school. The benefits of thinking about God were obvious, but that was nothing to brag about: The habits of my day-to-day life were organized around the necessity of gaining and imparting knowledge. My major concern between waking and sleeping was reading books and teaching them.

Now my desk is littered with bills from vendors, letters to the editor, unedited manuscripts, and rough drafts of grant requests. After 26 years in the ivory tower, I live what the ancients would call an active rather than a contemplative life. Though Crisis serves to promulgate the truths approached in contemplation, producing Crisis month after month is a business that leaves little room for the leisure that once characterized my daily life.

No need to feel sorry for me. My learning curve in things practical and financial has made me, I hope, a better and wiser man.

If I once jousted in the realm of abstraction about the strict distinction between active and contemplative lives, and their impact on human happiness, I no longer do. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Josef Pieper are exactly right: The hurriedness of daily work gets in the way of the contemplative route to God, whether through prayer, reflection, or even conversation. The busy man has to set aside the time to go back to the well and drink the only drink that will quench his thirst. “Be still and know that I am God.”

Some people wonder what to think about, if they slow down, and think about God. Ask the question at another level and one might as well ask why anyone thinks about his parents, spouse, children, and beloved friends, or why these thoughts provide a happy reorientation in the midst of life’s troubles. We think about the people we love, and who love us, because we seek to understand them and help them understand us. The only way our love can seek what is good for others is by its rootedness in reality, in knowing the truth about ourselves and other persons.

God the Father is like our human father; just as we think instinctively about one father we will think about the other. But in thinking about the Heavenly Father, we need to understand more than be understood. His understanding of us is never in question; He “numbers the hairs on our heads.” Yet, our understanding of Him provides the ground of all our loves—or as the pope says again and again in Fides et Ratio, knowledge of God is the “horizon” against which all our earthly loves can be understood for what they truly are.

It’s good to think about God because in knowing Him you learn who you are. Modern times have been characterized by precisely the opposite gesture—remove God from our vision and faith from our hearts and only then will we face the harsh reality of human existence! Where has the anthropomorphic turn gotten us? To study man without the vast horizon that surrounds him, and surpasses him, is to reduce his stature and encourage him to live as nothing more than an animal who happens to think. In this final year before 2000, as the Holy Father says,

[I]t will be fitting to broach the vast subject of the crisis of civilization, which has become apparent especially in the West, which is highly developed from the standpoint of technology but is interiorly impoverished by its tendency to forget God or keep him at a distance.

How can we keep God at a distance, when He is always close, closer even than our own lives? In midst of our indifference, our rebellion, our denials, He is there. Because without God there would be no denials, no indifference, no turning away from Him. Without God, nothing, including ourselves, would exist. When God uttered His name to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He said: “I am who I am.” This means that God is present wherever there is existence—in the midst of life we find the Living God. God the Father is the God who shares His existence with all of creation, but in a special way with man, who was made in His image and likeness.

God the Father is as close as your own life. Look in the mirror: What you see, at that very moment, is from the Father. Your existence is being caused, being upheld, at that very moment by Him whose very being is to exist and to love us by sharing His being.

Moments like this are usually elicited by some crisis or other. How often do we see, in the face of death, people who become intensely aware of their existence—aware that they don’t necessarily exist, that they can cease existing in the wink of an eye.

The gift of life from God the Father is filled with His love. He upholds our being—our fragile contingency is no punishment, but a gift. Without His will we cannot exist.

We still wish to be God, to be grateful for life only if we can be totally in control of it. No, we did not ask to exist; we cannot be both the Creator and the created. Nothing could be more contrary to reason than assuming that the task of human existence is gaining control over our life and death.

If at the heart of our being, and the being of all created things, there is a distinction not found in God, a distinction between who we are and that we are, then what else is there left to do but give up all pretensions to control—”May I decrease while you increase.”

The basic metaphysical insight contained in the words of God to Moses—”I am who I am”—leads to an awareness of God as Father and God as Person. One so obviously implies the other that it makes you wonder at those theologians who belittle the existential metaphysics of the great 20th-century Thomists. Jacques Maritain explains the intimate connection between God’s being and His love in his Preface to Metaphysics:

We do not love possibles, we love that which exists or is destined to exist. And in the last analysis it is because God is the Act of Existing Itself, in His ocean of all perfection, that the love of that which is better than all goodness is that through which man attains the perfection of his being. That perfection … consists in loving, in going through all that is unpredictable, dangerous, dark, demanding, and insensate in love; it consists in the plenitude and refinement of dialogue and union of person with person to the point of transfiguration.

Of course, philosophy, even as enriched by faith as Maritain’s, can only go so far: Compared to the sacred deposit of God’s revelation these reflections on God are like baby steps. Yet in the midst of millennial danger, these are steps we should all be reviewing. People are already starting to think about God in all kinds of wild ways. Catholics should be uniquely suited to keep the spiritual temperature from rising too high, too fast.

Catholics used to be well-versed in what was called “natural theology.” Talk theology with a Catholic over 50 and you often find a reservoir of knowledge, a facility in handling theological terms, usually missing from the younger faithful.

These two generations did not receive the same education or the same spiritual formation. A common complaint is the loss of metaphysics and natural theology from Catholic educational curricula. Fides et Ratio, the most recent encyclical, challenges Catholic educational institutions to recover that intellectual legacy.

Long before it was released, Fides et Ratio was rumored to be a critique of New Age spirituality. New Age is mentioned by the Holy Father, but only in passing. Why talk about the problem ad nauseum when the solution has been known for centuries? We all know that New Age fads are catching on everywhere, especially among this generation of uncatechized Catholics.

Catholics, I think, are particularly vulnerable, because they belong to a tradition in which talking about God isn’t as strictly tied to Scripture as it is among Protestants. What I think the Holy Father is trying to tell us is that we are responsible for the victories of New Age. Catholics have had all the tools at their disposal to train young minds in sound and sensible ways of thinking about God, but we have ignored them.

The reasons are obvious even to the casual observer: In their attempt to incorporate psychology and politics, Catholic educators and catechists all but abandoned sound theology and metaphysics. All these attempts to make God more personal have backfired. The road to recovery, as outlined in Fides et Ratio, will take time, effort, and the gradual conversion of the Catholic establishment.

First of all, the teachers themselves, unless they are from a select group of Catholic institutions, are not familiar with the categories or vocabulary of natural theology. Secondly, the need for reasoning about God as outlined by the Holy Father in his encyclical is barely felt by those who control Catholic education. Finally, the culture itself has become antagonistic to those who would reason at all, much less in “His name.”

Yet, if we hope to embrace the millennial danger, as we should, we must be willing to think and speak boldly. Let’s pray that when we find ourselves in the company of those who want a “second chance” with God we will not be ashamed to speak His name.

Books for Thinking About God:

Joseph Pieper: Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Etienne Gilson: God and Philosophy

Jacques Maritain: Approaches to God

Romano Guardini: The Living God

John Courtney Murray: The Problem of God

Mortimer J. Adler: How to Think About God

The Truth of Truth

Published December 1, 1998

In his previous encyclicals, the Holy Father has shown how truth has a moral beauty that shines through the lives of the saints. Now, in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), our philosopher-pope explains why that light no longer shines through the work of most philosophers, as well as the corrosive effects of that darkness on our culture. Moving beyond the destructive moral and political consequences of bad ideas, John Paul II takes on the state of philosophy itself: its loss of true metaphysical inquiry and its lack of confidence in, of all things, intelligence.

Parents in recent decades have become increasingly concerned about the effect of post-secondary education on their children’s core beliefs—and perhaps for better reason than they know. The pervasive mentality of today’s academy encourages, whether intentionally or not, precisely the nihilism that John Paul II finds at the heart of postmodern philosophy and all its scholarly corollaries.

Of course some academics will defend themselves by claiming that they are taking the Socratic high road of questioning and fostering dialogue. The trouble is that the postmodern technique of deconstruction—the radical denial of intelligible order in reality—goes far beyond challenging a youthful mind with reasonable doubt. Even Descartes employed his method of doubt to reaffirm the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. In the hands of its postmodern practitioners, Socratic questioning has become an endless array of objections leading to the removal of all foundations for knowledge, except politics. It is as if Aquinas’s articles started with the objections and ended with the front page of the New York Times.

The student deserves more than to be persuaded to adopt an attitude of permanent alienation and perfect docility to the pressures of public opinion. As the Holy Father writes, “Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth that confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.”

The meanings of all these crucial terms—finality, truth, and certitude—have no place in postmodernism except as evidence of unenlightened prejudice. Such old-fashioned attitudes have to be removed so that human action can be judged, not from the vantage point of natural law, but from the perspective of the dominant ideology and the media establishment it controls.

Fides et Ratio reminds the Catholic world that the Magisterium still reveres the capacity of the human mind to achieve a fundamental “consonance” with objective reality. The stirring passages of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris (1879) sound strongly through the pages of the present encyclical. Yet we hear not only the Thomistic harmonies of faith and reason, but also those perpetually pertinent Augustinian chords reminding us of the necessity of releasing intelligence from its bondage to the bad habits of the flesh: “The coming of Christ was the saving event which [set reason] free from the shackles in which it has imprisoned itself.”

Because truth itself is passed on between parents and children, teachers and students, priest and parishioner, the divorce between character and truth-telling cannot be accepted. Truth and sanctity demand one another. Thus the pope suggests that if our arguments have failed to transform the culture we should begin by examining ourselves

Looking at the authentic witness of the martyrs, he recalls how their words continue to inspire us because “from the moment they speak to us of what we perceive deep down as the truth we have sought for so long, the martyrs provide evidence of a love that has no need of lengthy arguments in order to convince.”

Although aimed at those who control Catholic education in schools, universities, and seminaries, the lessons of Fides et Ratio are far from abstract. Truth is handed on through the traditions of family and community as much, or more, than it is through formal learning. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of postmodernism is its attack on the instinctive and intuitive learning that results from the relationships of love and trust in the natural hierarchies existing through our social fabric.

Our culture, by its apparent acceptance of the divorce between private behavior and public trust, has revealed its postmodern character. Not only can we not know the truth, we cannot live it—we are only capable of advocating politically correct policies. And, even then, a pro-feminist president is not expected to avoid sexually harassing his staff. Social standards have fallen so far that even seasoned Beltway pundits are shocked. Once again, however, it is John Paul II alone among world leaders who stands at the threshold of hope.