The Catholic Church is suffering mightily today from two self-inflicted wounds. The first is the clerical sex abuse scandal, involving the gross violation of the most vulnerable members of the community by some priests and the countenancing or enabling of this crime by some bishops. This outrage has been the perfect storm. Not only has it deeply wounded young people; it has also compromised the work of the church in almost every way, since it has undermined so thoroughly the credibility that the church requires in order to teach, preach, catechize, and evangelize. If you had asked me twenty years ago what the worst moment in American Catholic history was, I would have identified the mid nineteenth century, when anti-Catholic bigots were burning down convents, attacking priests, and organizing political parties whose purpose was the elimination of Catholicism on these shores. But now I would say that we are living, right now, through the worst moment in American Catholic history.
Lord Kenneth Clark is one of my intellectual heroes. Clark, who died in 1983, was for many years the director of the National Gallery in London and was generally recognized as one of the most insightful and influential art critics of the twentieth century. He burst into the popular consciousness in 1969 when his television program “Civilisation: A Personal View” became an unexpected international sensation. I watched this ten part series (and devoured the accompanying book) when I was a teen-ager, and Clark’s perspectives massively shaped my own thinking about history, aesthetics, and philosophy. When, a few years ago, I embarked on the production of a ten part documentary about Catholicism, emphasizing both the truth and the artistic beauty of the church, Kenneth Clark was my model and inspiration.
I had the privilege just a few nights ago to address the annual Iftar Dinner which was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in Niles. This event—at the heart of which is a festive meal signaling the end of the daily Ramadan fast—brings Christians and Muslims together for fellowship, prayer, and conversation. I had been asked to reflect briefly on the topic of the future of religion in America. Given my religiously mixed audience, I decided to speak on the responsibility that all people of faith have in the presence of the growing threat of ideological secularism in our society. A 2008 Pew Forum study showed that the fastest-growing “religious” denomination in American is the “nones,” those who claim no formal religious affiliation. It furthermore showed that there is no substantial difference in the attitudes of believers and non-believers in regard to a wide range of moral and political issues. What both of these data indicate is that secularism—the conviction that God, even if he exists, doesn’t much matter—is on the rise.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Christopher Hitchens. He is a British writer and cultural commentator who lives and works in Washington, D.C. For decades now, he has been observing the political/societal scene and writing about it in a particularly insightful, witty, and acerbic manner. Early in his career, he was something of a Trotskyite, but in the years following September 11th, he emerged as a strong advocate of the Iraq war and, much to the chagrin of his colleagues on the left, a supporter of George W. Bush. He is best known, certainly, for his recent contributions as a critic of religion. His book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything appeared a couple of years ago and proved to be a bestseller. Since the publication of this text, Hitchens has travelled the country debating a series of religious thinkers—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—meeting them with an extremely swift mind and wickedly barbed tongue. Along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, he is one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism, the movement that advocates an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the claims of faith. I think it’s fair to say that Hitchens is playing today the role that another brilliant Englishman, Bertrand Russell, played nearly a century ago, namely, that of religion’s public enemy number one.
I’ve written often about Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most prominent atheist. Most recently, I did a piece on the CNN blog, urging Christians to pray for Hitchens as he battles a very serious form of cancer—and to my astonishment, this benign recommendation was met with an extraordinarily negative reaction from atheists. But that’s a story for another day. On my recent vacation, I took two books with me, Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, which I had begun and wanted to finish, and his brother Peter Hitchens’s The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, a stunning account of the younger Hitchens’s journey through militant Trotskyite atheism to a robust Christianity. It was a fascinating, and I must admit rather unnerving, experience to overhear, as it were, the brothers Hitchens debating with one another in my own head. Things got so intense that Christopher Hitchens actually appeared in one of my dreams during the vacation!