Letters to the editor

The Year of Two Popes

Paul Elie’s “Year of Two Popes” (January/February Atlantic) was an interesting tour of the rarefied atmosphere of the inner workings of the Holy See, but it scarcely touched on the real situation of the Catholic Church here on Planet Earth.

The Church in Ireland is in free fall in the wake of the Ferns Report on clergy sexual abuse. In Spain, psychologist Pepe Rodriguez has published two major studies on the same problem. In the United States, the clergy abuse scandals have not abated and could end up costing the Church billions, while donations, church attendance, and parochial-school enrollments have plummeted over the past third of a century.

If the Holy See could come down to earth, get over its obsessions with contraception, abortion rights, in vitro fertilization, divorce, homosexuality, and male dominance—obsessions that most First World Catholics do not share—and concentrate on the social-justice and ethical teachings of the Nazarene carpenter, it could make enormous contributions toward helping to solve the myriad real problems facing humankind today.

Edd Doerr
Silver Spring, Md.

Having lived at the Vatican for four years while doing graduate studies and having talked with Vatican “insiders” during recent visits to Rome, I read Paul Elie’s “Year of Two Popes” with interest. While not speculating on Elie’s sources, I am relatively sure that they are not mine.

One particular “conflict moment” seems overblown. If the image of George Carey in an episcopal role at the opening of the Holy Doors at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls was such anathema to Cardinal Ratzinger, why did Benedict XVI appoint Archbishop William Levada to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when said prelate has publicly advocated a review of the question of the validity of Anglican orders? No one who knows Archbishop Levada believes that he would ever do or say anything that would fail to pass CDF muster—that is, Ratzinger’s analysis.

Could it be that Elie and his sources do not really know Benedict’s mind on this matter? Elie’s article is well written, but it also reminds some of us that there are many types of Vatican “insiders.”

Paul E. Cote
Portland, Maine

Paul Elie has hit a home run with his riveting and brilliantly written article. Only toward the end of his piece does he go seriously astray. His claim that Pope Benedict is “unschooled in the American experience,” and at age seventy-nine is too old to catch up, overlooks several trips Ratzinger has made to the United States, uninsulated by the pomp and ceremony of papal visits. What is true is that American pragmatism is alien to Benedict—as it was to his predecessor. A man of ideas, Benedict is a Platonist in philosophy (rather than an Aristotelian). His theological lodestar is Augustine, not Thomas Aquinas. A European theologian who worked closely with Ratzinger for many years reports that although the pope speaks elegant French and Italian, he is uncomfortable in English, and goes so far as to say on occasion that it is impossible to express ideas in our language.

In his frequent meetings with American churchmen over the years, however, Ratzinger has been warm, open, and curious about our problems. Elie cites testimony to this effect by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta confirms it. Gregory has stated publicly that in his twice-yearly visits to Rome as president of the Bishops’ Conference, the meetings with Ratzinger were the easiest and most productive he experienced.

Reverend John Jay Hughes
St. Louis, Mo.

Paul Elie criticizes the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, an era when Catholicism flourished, asserting that the leadership of Pius XII was not a factor in the prosperity of the Catholic Church during that time. Writing that “much of what is best in Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow of an essentially negative papacy,” he draws a parallel to Benedict’s papacy and his hope for positive outcomes. As someone who grew up in the 1950s, during the pontificate of Pius XII, I had firsthand knowledge of the faith and generosity of that era’s Catholics, whose strong identity was rooted in the papacy and the belief that the pope was the successor to Saint Peter and the vicar of Christ to whom was pledged respect, reverence, and obedience.

Elie fears that “the clarity of [Benedict’s] world view will turn some Catholics away.” In today’s culture, those Catholics who reject cafeteria Catholicism, moral relativism, and secularism, and who are faithful to Church teaching, will carry on the tradition of the 1950s Catholics who accomplished so much for the Church. They will not turn away, but uphold the clarity of Benedict’s world view.

Mary Butler
Quincy, Mass.

Paul Elie replies:

My article was grounded in the testimony of my sources, even when they weren’t quoted directly, and I’ll base my reply here on what I was told in Rome. Was Ratzinger troubled by John Paul’s seeming endorsement of Anglican orders during the Jubilee year? As I made clear in the article, Cardinal Avery Dulles told me he thought so, and others did so, too; Archbishop Levada, in conversation in Rome, spoke of Anglican orders—namely the ordination of openly homosexual men as the dividing issue in Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Is the new pope unschooled in the American experience? This insight was volunteered by a crucial source—one personally acquainted with both the new pope and the Catholic Church in North America—speaking after the conclave. Will American Catholics turn away from Benedict’s clarity? Many probably will, in part because his clarity (as Mr. Doerr suggests) often seems like an indifference to the struggles of ordinary Catholics on the ground. Even so, it is likely that both those who leave and those who stay (as Ms. Butler suggests) will have had their own beliefs clarified through their consideration of Benedict’s. I made this point in the conclusion of the article.

Teen Sexuality

In the middle of Caitlin Flanagan’s lengthy article (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica,” January/February Atlantic), she takes a swipe at Frontline’s 1999 documentary “The Lost Children of Rockdale County,” accusing it of birthing the “oral-sex hysteria” in the media and criticizing it for depicting “isolated teen depravity.” She is wrong.

In reviewing the program, Dr. Richard Blum, professor and director of the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, noted, “What is so disturbing about the program is not that we are witnessing a rare event in the United States, but rather an event that is quite common.” Indeed, our producers, who interviewed more than 100 middle- and upper-middle-class kids, found that these experiences were not those of an isolated cadre of “bad kids”; minimizing the experiences of these kids by calling them “hysterical” is exactly the kind of abdication of adult responsibility that led to these behaviors in the first place. It’s a shame that Flanagan never spoke with Frontline. Had she done so, she would have learned that we have received dozens of letters from teachers and mental-health professionals who found a resonance in this story with their own experiences with teens, and have used the program in their work to address issues of teen sexuality.

Louis Wiley
Executive Editor
Boston, Mass.

I found Caitlin Flanagan’s criticism of Planned Parenthood disturbing and grossly negligent. After reading her article, I visited Planned Parenthood’s Web site and found the advice given there frank and extraordinarily beneficial. The “teenwire.com” page to which Flanagan refers also provides specific, optimistic, and constructive information, answering questions that teens have about sex, and have had for generations, whether we want them to or not. Flanagan conveniently and deceitfully omits teenwire.com’s sound advice contained in the same answer that she quotes, which continues, “No one should ever do something sexually that they are not comfortable doing, and no one should ever feel pressured into engaging in any kind of sex act.” She also ignores responses like, “No one should feel pressured into or have to do something sexually that they don’t like doing—or doing something that is not reciprocated,” for instance, and others that recommend using a condom during oral sex.

If I thought parents, schools, and religious organizations were providing information as beneficial, expansive, and necessary as Planned Parenthood, perhaps I would agree with Flanagan’s rather sophomoric conclusion. However, it is only through straightforward education, self-awareness, and a balance of power between the sexes that humanity can move past the primitive, adolescent stage of sexuality to a mature stage that views this glorious aspect of human nature as a gift rather than a curse.

Debra Di Blasi
Kansas City, Mo.

Caitlin Flanagan’s probing review of the culture of girls and oral sex was marred by her telling and gratuitous insult of Laura Bush. It is precisely because role models like Ms. Flanagan denigrate women known to be monogamous, committed, and polite that young girls feel they must service every boy who comes along. Ms. Flanagan’s assumption that a good woman like Laura Bush neither enjoys nor gets good sex (and that everyone agrees on this) really says it all.

Joseph R. Egan
McLean, Va.

A seeming critique of alarmism, Caitlin Flanagan’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica” is itself a hysterical response to a hysterical “epidemic,” and hysterical is something nice girls become when they’re bored. It was true in 1900 and 1950, and it’s still true now. Eager to place the blame on external sources—pornographers, rappers, horndog adolescent boys—Flanagan casually neglects to mention that nice girls have, in a way, been forced to their knees by their own parents—the same parents whom Flanagan cites as the last bastion against obscenity.

Flanagan claims that American culture has become increasingly brazen. It has. But this upsurge in immodesty applies to child rearing as well. Child-centered discipline has somehow become a feasible method of raising kids. Potty training is postponed until age five. Children are regularly praised to the heavens for picking up their dirty laundry or for coming in eleventh place in a spelling bee. Backchat is exalted as self-expression. Even the requisite stint in rehab is considered a chance to regroup as a family. The bar for what counts as achievement has never before been set so low, which means that in the era of the overappreciated child, scandalizing one’s parents has become notoriously difficult. Is it therefore any surprise that nice girls have had to resort to train parties in order to rebel against their folks?

By cushioning their children’s precious self-esteem at every turn, parents have forced their daughters to lash back with the most “adult” means at the girls’ disposal. Sick to death of the empty praise that they rightly recognize as vapid, they’re turning to irresponsible oral sex in order to infuriate their parents, in order to be made responsible for something—anything. Scandal offers nice girls the promise of having to explain themselves, something they are very seldom asked or expected to do, especially by those who love them best.

There isn’t anything shocking about blasé blowjobs performed by tweeners in a land where too much of everything is too cheaply and too easily had. It is shocking that in a nation rife with amateur shrinks who presumably understand the through-the-looking-glass mechanics of the subconscious, the nice girls’ bad behavior is being read straight. If a cough is never just a cough, why is a blowjob just a blowjob?

Daria Jaremko
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Caitlin Flanagan wonders why we are so quick to accept uncritically the fellatio epidemic among young teens. The fact is, the girls of the particular social class about whom she eloquently writes have been programmed to be pleasers from the day they were required to interview for a coveted spot in the right kindergarten. Eight years later, they begin the grueling college-application process, wherein they are told that, even though they are still in middle school, they need to start thinking about being passionate about something—actually, several things: a couple of sports, a musical instrument, and the plight of the hungry make up a good short list. Who the hell has time for a sexual awakening—or anything else, for that matter? If it can’t be scheduled in a forty-five-minute block on a BlackBerry, it won’t happen. Flanagan worries that “girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel.” As disturbing as Flanagan may find this behavior, it’s only a grimly logical extension of these girls’ nonsexual lives: they simply have never made a substantive decision about what pleases them, because the opportunity to do so has never arisen. Why should they approach sex any differently? Flanagan laments that our girls are on their knees. I suppose we ought to be glad they’re not completely down for the count.

David Lasson
Santa Monica, Calif.

As an eighteen-year-old male with a younger sister, I felt that Caitlin Flanagan’s review was misguided and out of touch. Substitute “oral sex” for “free love” and “rap music” for “Johnny Cash’s lyrics,” and you have what Baby Boomers must have heard from their parents. Ms. Flanagan’s fear is no different from what parents might have felt in the 1960s, as sexual conventions loosened and children listened to Mr. Cash sing about snorting cocaine and shooting his woman down.

If casual oral sex or misogynistic song lyrics really are as bad as Ms. Flanagan fears, my generation is headed for deep psychological trauma and abusive marriages. Somehow, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if we turn out all right. You don’t have to worry about me or my sister, Ms. Flanagan. We’ll grow up to be normal, well-adjusted parents who disapprove of our children’s music and sexual mores.

Daniel Svirsky
Cambridge, Mass.

When Caitlin Flanagan writes that she is “old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls,” I wonder if she isn’t missing the whole point.

Perhaps these young girls who offer themselves so nonchalantly are actually demonstrating that feminism has reached that long-sought point where girls have become equal to boys and really aren’t wounded by early sexual experience. Perhaps that isn’t really what feminism was aiming for, but those lurking unintended consequences will get you every time.

Richard S. Blake
East Falmouth, Mass.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

The notorious Frontline documentary depicted two phenomena: an isolated outbreak of teen depravity and a less alarming but far more widespread change in the sexual habits of suburban teenagers. Louis Wiley’s inability to distinguish between these two phenomena—even in the space of a short letter—reveals the fuzzy thinking I discussed in my essay.

I hope that readers will take a few minutes to log on to Planned Parenthood’s Web site to learn more about the information the organization makes available to teenagers. Perhaps they will decide that the organization is restoring “a balance of power between the sexes,” as Debra Di Blasi believes. Or perhaps they will wonder, as I did, whether they want federal dollars being spent to instruct minors on the function of dildos, on how to engage in “cyber sex,” and on answering such questions as, “What happens to semen when it is ejaculated into the anus/rectum?” (Answer: “Most of it will spill out the anus… Hope this information helps! Take care, teenwire.com.”)

Joseph Egan is concerned that my comment about Laura Bush constituted an attack on her instead of a bit of fun had at Planned Parenthood’s expense. As it happens, I am an admirer of Laura Bush. She has shown grace and forbearance in a tough job, she reads good books, she has occasioned zero scandals during her time in the White House, and she seems courageous. Our politics are different, but I am proud to have her as the first lady.

The letters of Daria Jaremko and David Lasson provide a study in contrasts: one believes that our nation’s girls are mollycoddled underachievers, the other that they are a master race in the making, dashing from sports practice to music lessons to community-service activities. What both might agree upon is that our nation’s girls are stepping into new and untested roles. The most interesting responses to my essay have come from very young women. They have approached it not as a critique of feminism or as a volley in the culture wars but as a piece of writing that comments on the way they live now. “I’ve been pretty cavalier about my sexual life,” one of them wrote me, “because I thought I was being this independent, strong woman who went after what she wanted when she wanted it. But then I realized that it was great for the short term, but left me with total dissatisfaction in the long run.”

What girls are discovering, to their infinite heartbreak, is that boys will happily agree to any form of sexual experimentation a girl cares to offer, but will reserve certain honors for the girls who build power in the ancient ways. If you want a boy to invite you to the prom, or to treat you well, or to speak highly of you to his friends, or to spend long hours thinking about how he can work his way into your heart—if what you want from him is courtship, romance, and respect—the very last thing you should do is ambush him with a sexual favor. That girls no longer know this to the marrow of their bones—that this knowledge comes to them in a slow awakening of misery and shame—is testament to how badly our culture has failed them.

Veterans in Politics

Joshua Green (“Company, Left,” January/February Atlantic) writes that “World War II yielded a bountiful crop of politicians,” including future President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, Johnson was already a politician before the war, having been elected to Congress in 1936 (more than five years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor). Furthermore, as Robert Caro demonstrates in his multi-volume Johnson biography, Johnson’s combat service—which consisted of “observing” a single bombing mission—was little more than a publicity stunt.

Dan Marcus
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Joshua Green wouldn’t be so surprised by the political participation of Vietnam veterans relative to today’s returning Iraq vets and those from World War II if he considered some basic facts. The average age of a combat soldier in the Vietnam War was nineteen. The average age of a combat soldier in World War II was twenty-six. The average age of today’s active-duty soldier is twenty-eight, and the average age of today’s reservist is thirty-eight.

Returning to civilian life, the youthful Vietnam veteran still had years of work ahead of him to gain or complete an education and establish a career before he could seriously consider running for office. Plus, he had to do so in competition with a great many service-avoiding contemporaries who were already steps ahead of him (and who dominate our politics today).

Beyond that, Green’s assertion that the Vietnam-era Democratic Party was “anti-soldier” is totally unsupported. The party’s most outspoken liberal critics of that war were veterans, and those vets who did eventually enter politics were as likely, if not more likely, to do so as Democrats.

Was there anti-soldier feeling among some small number of the most extreme youthful anti-war contemporaries of that war’s veterans? Sure. But those movement extremists weren’t fans of the Democratic Party, either. More significant but mostly overlooked by all but the veterans who experienced it themselves, anti-soldier feeling wasn’t limited to opponents of that war.

Many war supporters disdained the young men who fought in Vietnam and blamed them personally for America’s humiliating loss. The “we won our war” sneers of older vets that greeted returning vets like my brother were much more deeply wounding than any criticisms from the political fringe.

That lack of respect for the soldiers of Vietnam sadly still persists—and is not limited or defined by political ideology. In fact, one of the most common arguments that conservatives make today against the reinstatement of the draft is the—in their estimation—“poor quality” of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. And, as recent political campaigns demonstrate, it is the Republican Party that has perfected and found great advantage in exploiting lingering disappointment and doubts about the character and ability of that war’s soldiers.

Mary Schumacher
Seattle, Wash.

Joshua Green replies:

Ms. Schumacher raises the interesting point that Vietnam veterans were, on average, younger than today’s veterans, which she suggests explains their weak showing in Congress. Early on, it might have. Yet as my article stated, even seven years after the war’s end, when those veterans were older, only four had been elected to Congress. As for her claim that the Democratic Party of that era was supportive of veterans, I did not find anyone—Democrat or Republican, veteran or nonveteran—who did not feel that today’s party is more veteran-friendly.

The Border

Ross Douthat and Jenny Woodson’s article “The Border” (January/February Atlantic) mischaracterizes the Minutemen as “a group of civilian vigilantes.” The term “vigilante” connotes someone prepared to violate the law. I am a Minuteman, and in the course of three periods of service (one on the Arizona border, two on the California border), and several others at local protest demonstrations, I never encountered a single Minuteman volunteer who remotely resembled a “vigilante.” Most of them were middle-aged or older, and all of them were decent, ordinary Americans who respect our laws and who are deeply concerned about the loss of our sovereignty and the destruction of our middle class. In my opinion, you owe us and your readers an apology.

True Seaborn
Los Alamitos, Calif.

Please remind me not to take driving directions from your graphic artist. The map of the southwestern United States on page 55 of your January/February issue gave me quite a start. The true location of El Paso is adjacent to the Texas-Mexico border. That half-inch shift north into New Mexico represents about three hours by car.

Nancy McGuire
Silver Spring, Md.

Ross Douthat and Jenny Woodson reply:

While the term “vigilante” isn’t as pejorative as True Seaborn suggests, we did misapply it in our article. The Minutemen are fulfilling a law-enforcement function, in a sense, by patrolling the border and reporting violations, but the group specifically enjoins its members not to enforce the laws on their own. We regret the error.

Regarding Nancy McGuire’s confusion: as the map key indicated, the “El Paso” label referred to the U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso sector (which covers 125,000 square miles in New Mexico and west Texas), not the city itself.

A. Q. Khan

In investigating the developments treated at length by William Langewiesche in “The Point of No Return” (January/February Atlantic), I have benefited from the contributions and advice of many individuals, as well as from the intellectual and economic freedom provided by the McGraw-Hill Companies and its Platts energy-information group. Editors Margaret Ryan, Michael Knapik, and Ann Maclachlan consistently backed up my judgment when I obtained important new data on secret programs in Brazil, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa.

Some of the work that appeared in Nucleonics Week on September 1, 2005, under the headline “Pakistan Says Its Role in Probing Khan’s Proliferation Is Finished,” was done by Shahid-ur-Rehman Khan, our man in Islamabad and the author of a history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Long Road to Chagai.

From 1989 until 1993, my probe of Iraq’s uranium-enrichment program involved collaboration with David Albright, now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C. Much of the background of Mazhar Malik was unearthed by a superb U.K. Arabist, Alan George. My work on German nuclear trade was aided by Thomas Scheuer, now at Focus magazine and perhaps the best European reporter on economic crime, and by Robert Windrem, a producer at NBC and co-author of the book Critical Mass, published by Simon & Schuster.

Mark Hibbs
Editor Europe, Asia-Pacific
The McGraw-Hill Companies

Advice & Consent

The January/February issue contains a notice that reads, “Beginning with the March issue, the Atlantic Puzzler will be available online only.” No further explanation or reason is given. I’ve been subscribing for many years now, even when the Canadian dollar was worth a measly 62 cents American. A major reason for this allegiance has been the excellence of the puzzles created by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.

If you are indeed removing The Puzzler from the printed page, where it belongs, I must ask you to cancel my subscription and refund the cost of all remaining issues. Please do not say that you will be providing a dumbed-down Sudoku puzzle instead. It’s frightening enough to see you comparing Garrison Keillor to Mark Twain.

W. O. Kummer
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Whence your decision to purge The Puzzler from the printed page and relegate it solely to the realm of cyberspace? Your choice to veil the puzzle from your full readership, as if it were a dotty aunt sequestered in the attic, strikes me as wrongheaded. Future solvers will no longer have the opportunity, as I did, to go to the local library, find back issues of the magazine, and discover the joy that Cox and Rathvon have provided us for three decades, and for which I offer my profuse thanks.

Surely you can spare one page out of 150 to continue this worthwhile tradition. In keeping with the spirit of the cryptic crossword, I beg you: “Think again!” cries drone, upset (10).

Ron Schaumburg
Teaneck, N.J.

The infographic accompanying Steven Waldman and John C. Green’s article (“Tribal Relations,” January/February Atlantic) was misleading. Compare the circle representing Jews (1.9 percent of the electorate, according to the text) with the adjacent circle representing seculars (10.7 percent). Does the chart give the impression that there are nearly six times as many seculars? No. Instead of depicting the areas of the circles proportional to the relevant data, the authors make the diameters of the circles proportional. Indeed, the picture leaves us with the idea that the latter group is thirty times as numerous as the former because the ratio of the colored areas shown is about thirty to one. The fact that this misuse of two- dimensional figures is such a common error (see the classic How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff) does not make it any less deceptive.

Andrew Rich
North Manchester, Ind.

The editors reply:

Andrew Rich is absolutely right. We apologize for the error, which was our own, not that of Steven Waldman or John C. Green.