Backtalk

HOT UNDER THE COLLAR

Cheryl L. Reed begins her article against Catholicism ("Unfaithful," November/ December) by trotting out Richard Sipe's estimate that only half of all priests are celibate. But Sipe's work is marred precisely because he talks in terms of sexual tendencies, as opposed to behavior. Using his ruler, the real figure is no doubt 100 percent.

Recent scholarship has shown that celibacy is not a major cause in the decline of vocations. More bad news for the anti-celibacy crowd: Those dioceses that have the most orthodox seminaries also have the most seminarians, while those that are the most trendy are virtually empty. In short, we are gaining more committed priests than ever before; similarly, those who have mistaken the priesthood for professional social work are no longer bothering to apply. As for the priests and nuns who remain in the church while conducting their affairs, they are what one politely calls freeloaders. Like welfare kings and queens, they are prepared to make others pay for their profligacy. Had they any decency—or at least courage—they would have quit long ago. But, having no shame, they will stay on the rolls and collect their chips.

WILLIAM A. DONOHUE, PRESIDENT
THE CATHOLIC LEAGUE
NEW YORK, N.Y.


I must take issue with the tone of Cheryl L. Reed's article. I think she misses an important point.

It's true that there is no theological basis for a celibate priesthood. Not only are former Anglican priests who have converted to the Catholic Church allowed to remain married as Catholic priests, but other non-Latin rites of Catholicism, such as the Byzantine rite, allow married priests. The ban on married clergy was a reform to prevent the creation of another branch of landed aristocracy in Europe.

The real issue today is one of honor. Men who receive holy orders make a solemn vow to God and the church hierarchy to be celibate and chaste as a demonstration of faith and sacrifice. Celibacy and chastity are not synonymous. To be celibate is to remain unmarried. If a man breaks his vow to God, and persists in doing so, how can he be trusted to guide his spiritual flock? While it may be sad to lose a pension, it must be remembered that, to Catholics, the priesthood is a calling, not a career with benefits.

I believe the day will come when married men may regularly be ordained as priests. I do not believe that the church is ever likely to allow priests to marry. The distinction is important. The church cannot condone dishonor before God and expect to be able to guide its flock in good conscience.

JAN MICHALSKI
KENOSHA, WIS.


Cheryl L. Reed responds: Donohue refers to "recent scholarship" that disputes my article. My findings come from the Catholic University of America's 1993 National Federation of Priests' Councils study, which found that 58 percent of the priests surveyed believed celibacy should be a personal choice for diocesan priests. The same survey found that maintaining celibacy is a problem for 43 percent of priests, that 76 percent think the policy of mandatory celibacy needs to be openly discussed, and that 88 percent think the psychosexual maturity of priests is an important issue that needs to be dealt with more openly. Furthermore, noted Catholic University sociology professor Dean Hoge, who has conducted numerous studies on the Catholic priesthood, estimates that the number of young men becoming priests would quadruple if the ban on marriage were removed.

The National Federation of Priests' Councils study also suggests that priests disagree with Jan Michalski's argument that "the priesthood is a calling, not a career with benefits." According to the study, 65 percent said that priests need to achieve greater status as competent professionals in the eyes of the Catholic community. These priests rated themselves as equal to doctors, lawyers, or educators in depth of knowledge, skill, and responsibility.

HEAVEN AND HELLRAISERS

I was pleased to see in Mother Jones' November/December issue ("Believe It or Not") an extended acknowledgment of the importance of religion in America today. Your namesake was herself raised and educated as a Roman Catholic, and, while she did not practice the faith during her years as a hellraiser, she received a huge Catholic funeral. Anyone seriously interested in understanding who Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was, and why she did what she did, must reckon with this religious dimension of her identity.

While I disagree with Jeffrey Klein's assertion in his Editor's Note that "progressives and the establishment have ceded public discussion about morality to the religious right" (Americans left, right, and center never stop talking morality, as far as I can see), it is certainly true that contemporary intellectual culture has seriously underestimated the importance of religion as a force in individuals' lives and in society at large. In this regard, I can't help wondering what, if anything, this newfound awareness portends for Mother Jones.

In today's world, the lines of demarcation between sacred and secular ground are increasingly indistinct. To take one example, devolution is now placing substantial responsibility for social services in the hands of private, faith-based nonprofit organizations. These organizations, by their nature, have agendas that differ significantly both from secular government agencies and from one another. Understanding what is going on in post-welfare state America will require not only good old-fashioned investigative reporting, but journalists sensitive to the various kinds of religious impulses at work.

Today, the ability of religion to enlist spiritual needs and aspirations in the service of broad social and cultural ends is growing in ways utterly unanticipated by modern social science. Since the end of the Cold War, religion has displaced economic theory as the primary source of ideology around the world. There is, in short, no end of work to be done exploring how, for better or worse, religious forces are remaking our world. Now that you have established your bona fides, I hope you will go out and do some of that work.

>MARK SILK, DIRECTOR
CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF
RELIGION IN PUBLIC LIFE
TRINITY COLLEGE
HARTFORD, CONN.


I wish to take issue with Jeffrey Klein's observation that "brave mainstream people of faith have made common cause with reformers at key moments in America's past." That statement does not go far enough. Brave mainstream people of faith have themselves been reformers, not only in the past but in our own time. The examples are legion. And this is the point—spirituality should never be an end in itself, but it should always be judged by the fruit it bears.

SCOTT OBILBY
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, ARK.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT

Friedrich Nietzsche, agnostics, and atheists were not well represented in the November/December issue of Mother Jones. Jeffrey Klein's Editor's Note opened with Nietzsche's assertion that God is dead and claimed it to be a miscalculation given the rise in religious and spiritual beliefs. One should not toss the thoughts of great thinkers out in such a glib fashion.

Nietzsche did not claim that people would turn away from religion. In fact, he stated that many would live in the shadows of the fallen gods for another 200 years. His point was that people created gods for their purposes—to rationalize the objectives of the powerful, to soothe their conscience, and to deal with unknowns such as death—rather than the other way around.

In opposition to Huston Smith, there are many more atheists and agnostics than Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre who are morally concerned and politically active. Many everyday people fight for justice without the need for a divine rationale or guidance. When I ask students in my ethics courses if they can claim to know that there is a divine presence, very few answer yes. Yet they desire to study ethics and live good lives.

KEITH A. LAW
INSTRUCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY AND HUMANITIES
MERCED COLLEGE
MERCED, CALIF.

The last paragraph of Jeffrey Klein's Editor's Note reads, in part: "Nietzsche could not conceive the extent to which religion could be a source of human empowerment. And Marx did not recognize that our desire to connect with a transcendent power runs even deeper than our drive for economic satisfaction. Each of us seeks."

What drivel. It is the standard marshmallowspeak intended to evade the fact that man is a frightened, superstitious animal that sees invisible, imaginary gods behind every unanswerable question. "Our desire to connect with a transcendent power" is but the superstitious impulse from which grow our supernatural gods and demons and devils and witches and angels and the spirits of the air. It has always been thus, ever since the first caveman, cowering at the crash of thunder, asked, "What was that?" and someone, desiring to connect to a transcendent power and sensing a chance for control, replied with authority, "It is the voice of God, and he is angry! Here is what you must do to satisfy and worship him." Theology and human sacrifice and misery follow...and it ain't a very transcendent thing to think about.

CECIL W. BLANK
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.

In response to Jeffrey Klein's Editor's Note, I must express my teeth-grinding impatience with the New Age nonsense about science being a "belief system," or even a religion. Science is not a belief system, for this reason: Scientific knowledge is subject to revision pending new real-world evidence. Every week the New York Times comes out with news of some discovery that makes scientists rethink their theories. A recent Newsweek had a cover story about how the observations made with the Hubble telescope have forced astronomers to change their view of the universe. Science is the opposite of faith: It is a perpetual "Show me!"

Religious belief, on the other hand, is not subject to such revision; it is not falsifiable by any real-world evidence. The existence of God cannot be disproved. Religious beliefs are "leakproof"—there's no evidence that will contradict them.

PENNY WILLIS
FLUSHING, N.Y.

SCIENCE AND FAITH

The principal irrational belief among many Americans today is an unquestioning faith in science and technology. Scientists themselves, however, generally attempt a logical justification for their own faith in the scientific enterprise—witness their statements in "Why Einstein Wasn't an Atheist" (November/December).

But scientists should be judged by their actions, not by their words. Their work is potentially destructive, both of our humanity and of democratic society. The philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul alerted the reading public to these dangers more than 40 years ago, arguing, in one series of studies as a believing Christian and in another as a secular social scientist, that science and technology undermine the possibility of politics and of a genuinely human life.

One of the tragedies of our time is the eerie silence of people of faith in the face of ever more grandiose seizures of godlike powers over nature. What religious voice will call people to their senses?

The demythologization begun by Nietzsche needs to be renewed with an even greater passion today to expose the myths, not of a corrupt religiosity, but of an overwhelming scientism cum technological wonderworld. As Huston Smith notes, people of religious faith can call upon their experiences and tradition to question the hubris of Enlightenment progress. Religiously inspired insights are a real source of truth, a transcendental truth powerful enough to unmask the idols of scientific research in its unholy alliances with unfettered greed and feckless self-promotion.

In the meantime, decency and goodwill are not sufficient to strike through the reigning confusions. How else to explain, for example, an editorial decision to allocate the greatest space in the spirituality issue to an article (Cheryl L. Reed's "Unfaithful") one would not be surprised to find among the lurid offerings at the checkout counter?

LEE HOINACKI
BREMEN, GERMANY

Scientists are very much like everyone else. Thus we should expect to find fundamentalism, conformism, spiritualism, widespread idiosyncratic orthodoxy, and all other forms of religious nonsense to be represented among them.

Richard Dawkins attributes the source of religion's power to Darwinian evolution by natural selection ("Religion Is a Virus," November/December). His claim that built into every child's brain is an instruction to be "fantastically gullible" is probably true, but too facile to explain religion's hold. Dawkins' glib statement needs scholarly explanation:

Only small and effective tribal groups can take down fully grown mammoths. Loyalty to one's tribe (reinforced by circumcision, tribal scars, etc.) assured our ancestors venison, whale blubber, or fish flesh. Only unflinching faith in preposterous beliefs or unswerving allegiances to one's village and its tale- telling silver-haired chief guaranteed the father sufficient nuts and berries from his wifely gatherers and bone marrow from fellow scavengers. Warm, wet mammalian social touching, deep breathing, rhythmic drumming, swaying, and chanting are the utterly necessary physical activities to reinforce "tribematedness"—the joint productive movements assuring survival and procreation of tribe members. Such re-ligio (literally, "binding together again") is as great a physical need as food, sexual coupling, water, and repose. Deny a person the physical togetherness, the steady beat, and seasonal pulse of myth-maintained religious ritual (or attempt to replace it with such spectator inactivity as football-game television-gazing) and classical symptoms of sensory deprivation will ensue. The reassurance of tribal belonging at the base of the spirituality of religion is no more optional for human beings than is water, food, or sleep. For the human animal, religion, in some form or other, is a non-negotiable necessity.

LYNN MARGULIS
PROFESSOR OF GEOSCIENCES
UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS
AMHERST, MASS.

LET THERE BE FIGHT

Ann Monroe sharply and accurately charges that liberals and conservatives read the Bible the same way, "as the manifesto of a God who has a lot of laws and a definite inclination to punish those who don't follow them" ("Does the Bible Tell Me So?" November/December). But she does not explain why Americans embrace this particular viewpoint to the neglect of biblical books, such as Job or Paul, that question or reject it. From the Pilgrims to the present, Americans have responded to problems by starting all over again, seeking to return to the beginning in the naive belief that "this time" we can get it right. A biblical text, a charitable social program, a return to family values—anything simple or primordial will free us from the corruption of the present.

Nothing could be more foreign to the biblical tradition. In book after book, passage after passage, the biblical writers rethought, rewrote, revised, and criticized the thinkers and leaders who had gone before. When modern Christians interpret the Bible, they too need to explore and challenge received views and limited traditions in the light of the whole Bible and its lived interpretation. The accumulated insights and experiences of the biblical tradition and of the modern world, as well as the conflicting voices of the biblical books, contribute to this process.

Monroe laments that the literary critics of the Bible who could help in this process are a small minority, but this is not so. They belong to a growing and diverse movement that has turned the attention of almost everyone in biblical studies to the concrete subtleties of narratives, prophecies, and letters. In fact, her preferred solution, reading the Bible in conversation with others, requires precisely such engagement in the complex literary twists and turns of the texts, especially as the conversation gets more serious. Unless 20th-century readers of the Bible fantasize that they are timeless, inspired visionaries, they will need to immerse themselves in Jewish, Christian, and secular traditions of biblical interpretation so they can recover and revivify America's religious culture rather than shouting condemnations at one another.

ANTHONY SALDARINI
PROFESSOR OF BIBLICAL STUDIES
BOSTON COLLEGE
CHESTNUT HILL, MASS.

SMOKE 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM

For one joyous moment I thought the tide had turned, that the new Puritans were being driven from the headlines, and that respect and civil discourse might again prevail. Right there on page 37 of your November/ December issue was a full-page, wildly retro ad urging America's 55 million smokers to protect their right to smoke at work ("Hello. I'm Calling This Evening to Mislead You").

But no. It was just another nasty attack at the most visible of America's witches—smokers—complaining that 105,000 letters had been sent to OSHA protesting restrictions on smoking in the workplace. Many of us who wrote were not smokers. Many of us had never been contacted by any organization whatsoever. Even if we had been, what would have been wrong about being alerted by a "phony" grassroots lobbying firm? Could it be that "phony" is more a function of your political preferences, a resentment against the outstanding efficiency of the effort itself?

If you don't like Puritans in your bedroom [Thomas Moore's "Sex (American Style)," September/October], keep them out of my work, restaurants, and home.

ANNE FENNELL
AUSTIN, TEXAS

ORDINARY PEOPLE

I must say that I was most pleased to see that your November/December issue's Backtalk contained letters from as many "ordinary" readers as it did from readers with titles. Perhaps my assessment that Mother Jones has turned into another elitist publication was premature. Keep up the good balance, and I may renew my subscription after all.

GUY R. MARSH
PALMDALE, CALIF.

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