Washington Notebook

March 3, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 9

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

A clever lawyer might argue that public placement of the stone tablets was done "for a clearly secular purpose of promoting the movie."

-- Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the conservative American Center for Law and Justice,
making a humorous reference to Cecil B. De Mille's underwriting efforts of the Fraternal Order of Eagles to display replicas of the Ten Commandments in court houses, parks, and state capitols to promotion his movie, "The Ten Commandments." Sekulow spoke Feb. 24 at a symposium sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

 

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Comforting myths

By Joe Feuerherd

Displays of the Ten Commandments on government property, the constitutionality of which was a topic before the Supreme Court March 2, date back to the earliest days of the republic as a symbol the founding fathers' respect for the ultimate lawgiver.

Right?

Well, not really. Instead of Washington and Jefferson, think Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.

Many of the 4,000-plus Decalogue monuments scattered throughout the country date back to the mid-1950s when Hollywood filmmaker Cecil B. De Mille saw a promotion opportunity for his movie, "The Ten Commandments," and agreed to underwrite ongoing efforts of the Fraternal Order of Eagles to display the stone tablets in court houses, parks, and state capitols. (The Fraternal Order of Eagles gained additional fame about a decade later when Milwaukee activist priest James Groppi, having discovered that a number of that city's judges belonged to the all-white organization, led protests against the group.)

The irony of a Hollywood huckster playing a lead role in a seminal case about the First Amendment's Establishment Clause was not lost on attorney Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the conservative American Center for Law and Justice. Sekulow jokingly told a Feb. 24 symposium sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that a clever lawyer might argue that public placement of the stone tablets was done "for a clearly secular purpose of promoting the movie."

Washington, like De Mille's Hollywood, is a city of myths, both sacred and secular.

Some are relatively harmless, like the one in the Washington archdiocese's recent John Carroll Society essay contest. High school students were asked to consider the impact of the priest shortage on Eucharistic practice. Good topic. And then this question, the premise of which is a real whopper: "Why do you think the number of vocations has declined in the United States even as vocations in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World are abundant?"

According to the Vatican, between 1961 and 2001, the number of priests on the African continent rose from 16,541 to 27,988, an increase of nearly 60 percent. So far so good. But given the increase in the overall Catholic population, the number of priests per 10,000 Catholic Africans fell from five-and-a-half to fewer than two-and-a-half. Hardly an "abundance." In the priest-needy United State, there are about seven priests for every 10,000 Catholics.

But don't place all the blame on Washington's John Carroll Society. On the vocations section of its Web site, the Detroit archdiocese makes this claim: "In the world as a whole, vocations to the priesthood and religious life have dramatically increased in the last 30 years." Really? In fact, since 1975 the number of Catholics worldwide has doubled, while the number of priests has remained constant.

"In Africa," continued the Detroit archdiocese, priestly vocations "increased by 394 percent." Huh?

"It is only in the U. S. and in Western Europe that they dropped by 60 percent and 13 percent respectively." And then a clue to the ideology that might be driving the bad math: "The problem is not the requirement of celibacy. There is something else going on in our nation and in Western Europe."

There is indeed "something else going on in our nation," and that, according to some Catholic writers is a revitalized "orthodoxy" among the Catholic young. Papal biographer George Weigel says they are at the forefront of an "authentic Catholic renewal" and author Colleen Carroll (The New Faithful) writes that "orthodoxy's appeal seems to be growing among young adults who have a disproportionate amount of cultural influence -- those who set trends and lead others in academic, artistic, and political circles."

A case of wishful thinking? At a Feb. 18 presentation on "Commitments and Concerns of Young Adult Catholics," Catholic University of America sociologist Dean Hoge painted a picture of 18-to-39-year-old American Catholics that shattered the myth of growing conservatism among this group. Not surprisingly, perhaps, only 22 percent of this age group agreed that it is "always morally wrong" to "engage in premarital sex," though nearly two-thirds of their elders (63 and older) said so. Only 10 percent of younger Catholics agreed that artificial birth control is always wrong. But even outside temptations of the flesh (opportunities for which are presumably greater among the younger population), the overwhelming majority (80 percent) of the generation called to lead this "authentic Catholic renewal" agreed that "individuals should seek out religious truth for themselves and not automatically conform to the doctrines of any church." Eighty-eight percent said, "if you believe in God, it doesn't really matter which religion you belong to." Most didn't even know the Second Vatican Council took place, much less what it taught.

Another myth: Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion a constitutional right, is on the brink of extinction. This legend is promoted by both left and right -- pro-choice advocates have learned that their constituency is more effective (and financially generous) when it's scared, while pro-life proponents must hold out some hope to the millions of Americans who want to make abortion illegal.

"It would take an especially precise sequence of events to bring about a full reversal of Roe v. Wade," wrote Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, in the Feb. 28 New York Times. She continued, "Two pro-Roe justices would have to leave the court (in other words, two besides the reliably anti-Roe Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is expected to retire at the end of this term). Their two replacements would have to be sure votes against the principle of a constitutional abortion right. An appropriate case would have to work its way up the appellate system to be accepted for review. And all of this would have to conclude before a Democrat could become president and get a chance at realigning the Supreme Court all over again."

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A long shot, at best.

Meanwhile, many of the same people who would like to see Roe overturned turned out March 1 to hear President Bush position himself as a general in "the army of compassion." He's ready, he told supporters of his faith-based initiative to combat a bureaucracy poised to stifle the good works of can-do faith-based social service providers.

"And so today, after four years of work, we continue to confront this culture of process instead of results head on," said Bush. "And the goal is, over the next four years, to change the culture permanently so faith- and community-based organizations will be welcomed into the grant-making process of government."

But, as it happens, "faith- and community-based organizations" have been "welcomed into the grant-making process" of the federal government for decades, if not longer.

Take, for example, Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota -- a grateful recipient of a $50,000 grant from the faith-based initiative's "Compassion Capital Fund." Lutheran Social Services, with an $11 million budget, is the largest nonprofit social service agency in the state, provides a host of services to low-income South Dakotans, from refugee resettlement and daycare to family counseling and legal services.

"We've had 30 to 40 years of partnering with the government," said Joanne Negstad, the agency's president. Nothing new or particularly controversial there. Her real concern, Negstad told me, is that so-called faith-based funding will replace, at considerably lower levels, existing government partnerships with nonprofits, including church-related organizations. "We hope the future isn't letting go of other funding in larger amounts and focusing on 'faith-based initiatives,' " said Negstad.

Use the language of faith to camouflage cuts in programs for the poor? Nah, that's got to be a myth.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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