The Cross of Gold

It was little more than one hundred years ago that William Jennings Bryan delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic convention in 1896.

The issues of the day revolved around deflation which the United States experienced from 1873 through 1896. The United States had abandoned a policy of bimetallism with the Coinage Act in 1873 and began to operate on a ‘de facto’ gold standard. The Democratic Party wanted to standardize the value of the dollar to silver and opposed a mono metallic gold standard in 1896. The resulting inflation from the silver standard would make it easier for debtors and farmers to pay off their by increasing their revenue dollars. The debate was about sustainability.

What you do and the decisions you make in history, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., wrote, have influence.

Creation. Creation and sustainability. Sustainability is about much more than concern about global warming and one’s carbon footprint. Sustainability was ultimately about a place on the tiny planet traveling through the solar system, and about living in right relationship with both the natural world and a social world. As individuals. In community.

“We all know the ramifications of running out of gas. Through miscalculation or negligence we end up by the side of the road, hoping that with a bit of luck and the kindness of strangers we can continue on our way. Gauges show that our use of the planet’s limited resources is increasing faster and faster. Both science and faith urge us to assess the present situation and make urgent practical changes,” states the webpage of the Siena Center of Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Their lecture series this year looks at the issues of creation and sustainability.

What was called the triple double in the NBA…..the economic, social, and environmental bottom lines. Nuns talking about bottom lines. Oh how the world had changed.

“If there is some end of the things we do…will not knowledge of it, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.” —Aristotle

Religious life among women has undergone a cataclysmic evolutionary change, per a piece written by Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio in this weeks’ America. Unless you worked in the Vatican, it was hard to know what all those initials after her name meant.

Evolutionary change. The “Monkey trial.” When there was belief that evolution was largely to blame for the moral and spiritual decay of the youth of Tennessee. In Dayton, Tennessee.

William Jennings Bryan, after his failed presidential campaign in 1896, became a champion of other causes, speaking out against the repercussion of teaching evolution, with its influences, in public schools. He is portrayed in the movie “Inherit the Wind” as a bit of an old fool, though his campaign in 1896 was noted by the progressive mayor of Cleveland, Tom Loftin Johnson, as “the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes.” In 1900 Harry Truman had served at 16-years old as a page at the Democratic National Convention. In Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, Merle Miller asked about Bryan, and Truman replied that in his opinion, “If it wasn’t for old Bill Bryan there wouldn’t be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going.”

Bryan saw Social Darwinism or neo-Darwinism (emphasizing the struggle of the races) as a great evil force in the world, undermining the foundations of morality, especially promoting hatred and conflicts like the World War I. He had read British social theorist Benjamin Kidd’s The Science of Power (1918) where Kidd attributed the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to German nationalism, materialism, and militarism as outworkings of Social Darwinism. He had read Vernon Kellogg’s 1917 book, Headquarters Nights: A Record of Conversations and Experiences at the Headquarters of the German Army in Belgium and France, which convinced him that neo-Darwinism had undermined morality in Germany. He had read The Belief in God and Immortality, where James H. Leuba showed during four years of college a considerable number of students lost their faith. Bryan’s fear was that the next generation of Americans might have the same degraded sense of morality that had prevailed in Germany and caused World War I. Thus, Bryan launched his anti-evolution campaign.

In 1920, Bryan told the World Brotherhood Congress that Darwin’s theory of evolution was “the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to deal in the last century” and that Nietzsche, in carrying the theory of evolution to its logical conclusion, “promulgated a philosophy that condemned democracy… denounced Christianity… denied the existence of God, overturned all concepts of morality… and endeavored to substitute the worship of the superhuman for the worship of Jehovah.” At the Scopes Trial, Bryan was quoted: “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death… If evolution wins Christianity goes – not suddenly, of course, but gradually – for the two cannot stand together. They are as antagonistic as light and darkness, as good and evil.”

By 1921, Bryan saw Darwin’s theory of evolution making grounds as a major internal American threat not only in the universities but within the church itself. With many colleges still church-affiliated at the time, many clergymen were willing to embrace the theory of evolution and claimed that it was not contradictory with a Christian stance. The developments of 19th century liberal theology had left the door open to the point where this long serving Presbyterian elder decided to run for the position of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. As was the 20th Century theme, he lost. Again.

Evolutionary change. The “Monkey trial.” It all sounded so funny now. Strangely, the case revolved around the personalities of Darrow and Bryan. Bryan got involved with the Scopes trial as an of counsel attorney, accepting the invitation from the Tennessee’s attorney general in the case. The 1925 trial was based upon the assertion that John Scopes had broken the written law of Tennessee. William Jennings Bryan was a man whose theology ran much deeper, based upon his life experience, than those of Clarence Darrow. He was troubled at the time by the fact that 40% of American college students considered themselves to be atheists or agnostics, one webpage states.

In the way of full disclosure, I was schooled by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. I happened to find their website for the first time showing a photo of the class of 1954 marking the 55th anniversary of what was called their profession, which I took to be profession of vows. When I left the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, the nuns in my life were still wearing habits. Modified habits. (One thing you did learn from Dominican Sisters was that the word “nun” was not synonymous with “sister.” This piece is replete with mistakes.) Here could be some of my teachers but who had returned to using there regular names. Sisters who were regular people. Ruth Mary, Anna Maria, Mary Louise, Catherine, Marilyn, Joann, Martha, Ellie, Marian, Christiane, Clara, Catherine, Mary, Janette, Mary Catherine, Shirley, Liana, Denisia, Jeremiah, Juliana, Liz, and Anne. Only Sister Mary Marie had stuck with her Dominican name. The choice, like any woman getting married these days, was left to the sister to decide as a women religious risking their lives in services.

Dealing with change. With suffering and sacrifice a part of the evolutionary process. Evolution. Suffering. And the William Jennings Bryans of the world fighting against change. With sound reasoning.

Evolution undermining the foundations of morality? The Vatican now subscribes to the evolution theory. Any conflict along the way predates my education.

The Vatican had a current study underway to establish exactly what it meant to be a nun in American in 2009. The fact that there is an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious would indicate Rome is unhappy with the evolution of post-Vatican II nuns who have donned secular clothes and abandoned traditional community life. To be fair, the issues seem to be larger than that. But every order of religious was under study, not so unlike the assertion that John Scopes had broken the written law of Tennessee. Only when a lot of Women Religious whose communities were dying out. Not surviving.

Evolutionary change. That Siena Center of Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois was established to engage the critical issues of church and society in the light of faith and scholarship. Of ongoing creation. Perhaps even the critical issue of man’s relationship with woman.

Evolutionary change. Change. Evolutionary change and the “why” question. Evolutionary change, with the identity question. Enforcing discipline. In studies. In curriculum. To help form a new identity. Of a new generation. Teaching in Tennessee. When the experience of young people forms their ideas. In schools where they share experiences with strangers and become bound. When ideas nourish and sustain an identity. When some did not survive with evolutionary change. The denial stage? The anger stage?

Evolutionary change. What an evolutionary process had been going on since 1965 for those sisters in the class of 1954. Or those priests in a minor or major seminary in 1954. As noted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.,suffering and sacrifice are part of the evolutionary process.

In the post-Vatican II world, what difference does religious life make to the world? “Women religious have risked their lives in the pursuit of authentic truth that Catholic nuns believe was born in the Incarnation. Women religious have proclaimed prophetically that the love of God cannot be exterminated or suppressed.” Even amidst an evolution of evil, of selfishness, of sin. “They continue to fight for systemic change on behalf of oppressed people. Congregations may die out, but the paths inscribed in history by the women religious of Vatican II are nothing less than the evolutionary shoots of a new future,” wrote Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio.

“For many years,” writes Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, “I wondered whether women religious had misread the signs of the time. Yet as I have pondered the mystery of God, I have come to believe that the evolutionary universe is moving forward in part because women religious are working in the trenches of humanity among those who are poor, oppressed and forgotten. Women religious are playing a greater role in the synthesis of a new religious consciousness, with all of the world religions. That is the evolutionary process.”

What was the price of all of this Truth? The projected budget of a three-year study of women religious congregations in the United States is $1.1 million.

The gold standard. The Monkey Trial. Evolution theory versus the Creation Theory. Another Monkey Trial? According to a July 14, 2009 letter obtained by the National Catholic Reporter, the head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in the Vatican, Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, has asked the bishops of the United States to provide funds to offset these expenses. (The last Vatican investigation of American seminaries in 2006 had concluded, “It was also noted that, in some academic centers run by religious, there is a certain reticence, on the part of both students and teachers, to discuss the priestly ministry. Instead, there is a preference for discussing simply ‘ministry’ — in the broad sense, including also the various apostolates of the laity — in part, perhaps, as a mistaken attempt not to offend those who judge the reservation of the Sacrament of Orders to men alone as discriminatory.” Anyone want to bet that a different conclusion will be arrived at here? But only after spending one million dollars.)

Creation. The Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin brought light to the creation question by understanding Christianity in an evolutionary universe.

Sustainability was ultimately about a place on the tiny planet traveling through the solar system, and about living in right relationship with both the natural world and a social world. These were the important, the critical issues, of church and society. And wanting to standardize the nuns engaged in the struggle of all people…with their diminishing number, like the diminishing number of priests, in an ever increasing world population, with suffering and sacrifice a part of the evolutionary process. People who elected not to procreate, to increase their numbers. What would be this evolution of Christianity, in such a growing hostile world to religions?

There was a lot of visible pain in religious life, on the shores of North America. Only the pain was suffered in a lot less silence. About living in right relationship. It was hard for the young to watch. For people who did not feel related. For the people who did, it felt a lot like divorce. Endings. The denial. The anger. People arguing over custody rights to God. With choices like one hundred years ago. About the use of the limited resources on this earth. Whether to follow a a de facto gold standard. Or silver. It all seemed a part of the evolutionary process. The evolutionary process and the “why” question. With this aging. And with change. With both science and faith urging that the present situation be assessed now, in order to make urgent practical changes.


1 comment so far

  1. paperlessworld on

    Pepperdine historian Edward Larson on the Scopes’ Monkey Trial.

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