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Rebuilding Iraq

A talk with foreign correspondent Elizabeth Rubin. Rubin writes for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly. She has reported from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iraq.


Other segments from the episode on October 15, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 15, 2003: Interview with Elizabeth Rubin; Interview with Peter Steinfels.


DATE October 15, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Elizabeth Rubin, journalist, discusses her article
in Times Magazine that profiles an Iraqi architect who
compromised his political beliefs to stay employed in the
Saddam Hussein era and her travels in Iraq

This is FRESH Air. I'm Terry Gross.

You may have noticed that we opened the program announcing the guests who were
actually on yesterday's show. We are punishing the machine that played the
wrong announcement.

My guest today is Elizabeth Rubin. She's reported from Iraq, Iran, the Middle
East, Uganda, Chechnya and Bosnia. She's profiled people and covered stories
that haven't been covered much, if they've been covered at all.

She visited the camp of a militant Iranian opposition group run mostly by
women, women who take vows of celibacy. She profiled an Iraqi boy band that
had to write a song in praise of Saddam Hussein in order to get their own love
song played on Iraqi radio. And she profiled an Hamas military leader who
masterminded suicide bombings and was killed by Israeli soldiers.

Rubin's work is most often published in The Atlantic, The New Republic and The
New York Times Magazine. This week the Times Magazine published her profile
of an Iraqi architect who had to compromise his political beliefs to stay
employed in the Saddam Hussein era. He built palaces and homes for Saddam
Hussein and his circle.

I asked how that architect, Mowfaq al-Taey, came to work for Saddam Hussein's
presidential engineering office.

Ms. ELIZABETH RUBIN (Journalist): After '79 when Saddam came to power, part
of the process of Baathifying the country was to bring the Baath ideology into
the universities. All the professors should be Baathists, and especially in
something like architecture, which Saddam was obsessed by, which a lot of
dictators seem to be. And so to teach architecture and to be encouraging
debate which he did amongst his students was seen as very provocative and very
dangerous for him.

He had a friend who was a dean at another university and was a very
high-ranking Baathist, an old-time Baathist, who suggested to him after a
report was filed against him that he get out of the university before things
go wrong. Many ministers had already been executed at that point. And so he
was offered a job working in the marshes in the south, this was before the
marshes were dried out by Saddam. And the project was to build new homes for
the marsh people in the south. And he said yes. He went down there and he
loved it. But once he did that, he became part of the presidential
engineering offices and one job led to the next.

GROSS: You said that in the early '80s, Iraq was a dream for architects. And
because there was money to build grand buildings, there were architects from
around the world who came there to work on those buildings. Can you talk a
little bit about the '80s and architecture in Iraq?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, as I said, Saddam was quite obsessed by architecture and by
the idea of building what would become the center of the Middle East. He
imagined himself as replacing the Shah of Iran, especially in his relations
with the US. And architecture is a way of refashioning your capital, your
country and your vision. And that meant creating wide boulevards, it meant
building huge buildings. Also there was going to be the Non-Aligned
Conference so all of the non-aligned leaders would be coming to Baghdad in
'82. And so there was just an enormous amount of building going on in
preparation for that: hotels, sky rises, malls, highways, monuments. And
people like Robert Venturi, other architects like Richard England, previously
Le Corbusier and Gropius had been involved in building Baghdad, but that was
in the '60s.

And it was seen as a really great opportunity for a generation of architects.
It was around 1982, Saddam had the idea to build a great mosque that would
rival the great mosque in Morocco and in Kuwait, and he had a competition in
which a lot of international architects took part, one of them being Venturi.

And at that time nobody really saw Saddam as something to be avoided, you
know, that you would be tainted by building in Baghdad. And so for a young
architect like Mowfaq, at the time, you know, he as the opportunity to work
with all these internationally renowned artists. It's a dream of a lifetime.
And I don't think he thought twice about it.

GROSS: Is this architect now seen as something of an outcast in the new Iraq
because he had worked in the president's, you know, architecture office?

Ms. RUBIN: Actually, no. There are some people, and particularly a certain
segment of the exiles who were radicalized and feel that their lives have been
really destroyed by having to leave the country, by losing a lot of members of
their families, who look at somebody like that as a collaborator. But for the
people who stayed in Iraq and even those who did not partake, you know, didn't
have jobs in the president's office, they understand much more what it meant
to try to survive under that regime and what you had to do. People who've
lived there, never left, really understand those nuances.

GROSS: Now the architect you wrote about managed to work for Saddam's
engineering office without joining Saddam's Baath Party. But one of the
things going on now in Iraq is the de-Baathification of Iraq. Would you
explain what that program's about?

Ms. RUBIN: Sure. The Baath Party was a hierarchical party, and it was
structured on rank. So when Bremer came in, Paul Bremer, the head of the
Coalition Provisional Authority, he decided to fire the top four ranks from
any public office. And if anybody had--let's say a professor was fired, the
professor or his students could submit a petition, and Bremer would review it.
There were several petitions, and I think some of the professors were allowed
to stay in their positions, but in general the top four ranks were fired.

And in a way, it had to be done because you have to show some kind of change,
and you have to show the people who are on the outside of the Baath Party that
there was a recognition of those people who didn't join the Baath Party, that
they are going to become part of the new government and will have a chance to
participate in a way that they couldn't because they were not members. But
what's happened is you've really isolated, alienated and infuriated the
Baathist Party members, many of them whom could easily have been brought in to
the new dispensation, if you like. And you know, as this architect actually
said to me, who knows the Baathists very well, though he was not one of them,
he said it's very simple for them to slip over a very seemingly secular man,
intellectual Baathist, to slip over into the Wahhabist camp now because of
tribal unities between the Sunnis, because of a need for an affiliation and
because of anger.

GROSS: And the Wahhabi branch of Islam is a more extreme branch.

Ms. RUBIN: It is a more extreme branch. And, I mean, it has certain tenets
about it, once of which is evangelizing; another is the sort of pure form of
going back to Islam, you know, in the time of the prophet, which many of these
intellectuals wouldn't do in their own lives. However, that alliance, you
know, a lot of times particularly the Bush administration has talked about the
Baathists being the secular, intellectual group quite distinct from the
religious groups. And in a situation like this when you have a common enemy,
that's going to change and the lines shift.

GROSS: Mowfaq al-Taey, the architect you profiled, is now teaching. What
place does he see for himself in the rebuilding of Iraq?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, as I think he points out in the article, he's kind of
biding his time right now. He doesn't know what this new government's going
to be like. He's not going to get involved with it, you know, hitch himself
to a new government that he may end up not liking. He has enough money right
now that he can support himself; he has orchards. And he will be involved in
a project that Kanan Makiya, who is an Iraqi author and was in exile for a
long time, has started called the Memory Project which is a museum dedicated
to telling the story of Baathist Iraq from '68 to 2003. And that is going to
be on the old parade grounds that Saddam had built called the Crossed Swords
Victory Arch that are these massive swords. I think they're about 40 meters
high, they cross, and the forearms and hands were made out of casts of
Saddam's forearms and hands, and that's where the military parades used to be.

And so somebody like Mowfaq is incredibly useful because he knows a lot about
Saddam's ideas of architecture. And so he'll be involved in that. For
example, he will probably do some private architecture. He may consult with
the engineering offices that the Americans have set up in order to start
reconstructing some of the destroyed palaces and villas. But I think for the
most part, he's happy to be teaching again, he's happy to be with his students
again, to talk freely. He can say whatever he wants for the first time. And
so I think he's just waiting to see what happens.

GROSS: What does Mowfaq al-Taey think of the US occupation?

Ms. RUBIN: That's a good question. He's fuzzy on it. No, there's not a
single Iraqi who likes seeing American tanks in their city. Nobody does.
They don't like seeing American soldiers, they don't like having to stop for
them, and it's really difficult.

The one thing he said about it that was definitive was, `Thank God this
internal war has also ended.' And he meant that that psychic split between
knowing that what you're doing is morally wrong and not being able to stop
because of all the practicalities of surviving in life. And for that, he is
just glad it's over.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Elizabeth Rubin. Her article about the Iraqi
architect was published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Elizabeth Rubin. She's reported from Iraq,
Iran, the Middle East and Chechnya for such publications as The Atlantic, The
New Republic and The New York Times Magazine.

Do you think it's much different for a woman war correspondent than it is for
a man?

Ms. RUBIN: Yeah. It has to be. I mean, people react to you differently,
people ask you different questions, treat you differently. In many cases, men
who might be a little bit threatened by a male correspondent will be a little
bit, you know, more softer and even want to show off in front of women and
will tell them things that maybe they wouldn't tell a male correspondent.

On the other hand, with men there's a bonding that sometimes happens that
doesn't happen with a woman because, you know, there's a fear of stepping over
a line. And so in some ways I think women have an advantage, especially in
Islamic countries where, for example, you can go and stay in the women's side
of the house and really see a completely different side of life that you don't
see on the streets, and men can't do that.

GROSS: Can you tell us something that you learned by being able to stay on
the women's side of the house?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, for example, in Afghanistan, in a place just north of
Kabul, during the war I was sleeping with the women and a couple of the male
cousins. And they all stay in the same room. And you know, there's a lot
more talk about sex than you think. Because of the burqa, you know, you think
everything is so repressed. And they make a lot of sexual jokes. There's a
lot of incredible bonding and closeness between male and female members of the
same family. They'll literally sleep almost on top of each other. And
sometimes they're up through the night making jokes.

And you see a wedding which you can't see outside. And these weddings are
very surreal. I mean, the women wear every color makeup you could find, they
put on their face. Some of them color their hair green, they wear yellow
dresses. And the two have to sit--the bridesmaid and the bride will sit still
on these chairs; they don't move. And the other women come up and dance for
them. They have, like, a tambourine-type drum and there'll be one woman who
sings, one who dances and one plays the drum. And they're sort of seducing
the bride. And it's really quite beautiful and very, very different. And you
know, you just never would see that if you were a man. In fact, I was with a
male reporter who couldn't come. He had to stay on the men's side of the

GROSS: Did you hear any discussion about women's rights or any expressions of
discontent about their lack of equality?

Ms. RUBIN: Of course. I mean, you know, it varies greatly, depending on the
level of education. A lot of women in southern Afghanistan, in some of the
Pashtun areas, they don't want to work, they don't want to leave the house.
They're shy, they prefer life the way it is. But you know, I met this woman
who was just incredibly courageous. She was a Tajik from Kabul. That means
from the Farsi-speaking part of Afghanistan, and it means they were hated by
the people in the south who were the Pashtun and the Taliban, right? The
Taliban came out of the Pashtun. She was teaching in a school in the south,
in the desert, and this was right after the Taliban fell. She started up
a school again. It was getting threats, grenades. The Taliban were telling
her husband they were going to kill her, so she closed the school. And then
the day that I met her, she said, `You know, but I just decided yesterday, I
mean, they're fighting for what they believe in, so why don't we fight for
what we believe in, you know? And if we get killed, well, we're fighting for
what we believe in. Otherwise they've already won', you know. So she went
back the next day and opened up the school. And there are women like that all
over the country that are just so courageous, and they don't want to let this
opportunity go. It's really difficult, though, obviously.

GROSS: Well, what's it been like for you to work in countries where women are
truly `the other,' you know, where women don't have equality, where women
aren't even expected to go out of the house without a man escorting them? And
you often, you know, have to follow some of those rules. I'm sure you often
have to, you know, cover your head, cover your body when you're working, say,
in Iran. Has it really made you think a lot about being a woman in a way that
you hadn't thought about it before?

Ms. RUBIN: You know, it's funny. Iran is different than is Afghanistan,
Pakistan, because Iran is really--yes, you have to wear a scarf on your head,
but you know, you should see what people are wearing now. They're wearing
pink rain jackets just above their knee. They're, you know, really pushing
the limit of the veil and all of this. So Iran is a very different story.

But in these other countries, in Afghanistan, you know, one time I was with
some commander and some of his men in the mountains, and we came across this
nomad family. And this woman was looking at me and she was slightly afraid.
And she was looking at me very strangely. And so she asked the commander, his
name was Rohani(ph), you know, what is this? Is she a witch? What kind of
woman is that with men in these parts, you know? What is she doing with you?'
And he said, `No, don't worry, Auntie, she is just like us, she's a Western
woman, she's like a man.' And that's really how they view us. We are these
weird, sort of hermaphrodites or I don't know what to call it, but we don't
fit into their categories, so we are this other thing that is part man, part
woman. And that's how they explain it to themselves, and that's how we get
away with being able to, you know, pass back and forth between the men's world
and the women's world. So there's a privilege there. As a Western woman, you
are not treated the same way.

GROSS: What was your riskiest moment reporting from a war zone?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, let's just take Iraq, which shouldn't have been particularly
risky because I was in northern Iraq, in Kurdistan, and the war didn't really
happen there, except it sort of did. There was a group called Ansar Islam,
which is an extremist group up in the north near the border with Iran. And
the Americans had sent missiles into the bases of a more moderate Islamic
group in Kurdistan and killed many, many people, 70 people in one house. And
they were just furious. They were, you know, ready for revenge. They were
stunned, and so we went to visit them but not going into their village. We
were on the outskirts at the crossroads where they were coming out of the
village to flee, afraid of another night of bombing.

And at this crossroads we were talking to people who were describing what had
happened, and there was a real sense of like something's wrong; something
feels funny. People were in a frantic rush. Some Al-Jazeera reporter came
out and said to a photographer I was with, you know, `Get out of here.' And
so there were some other journalists there as well, and they got in their cars
and left. And me and my photographer, we were always kind of a bit
disorganized, and we weren't sure where we were going to go next. We were
sitting and just got in the car, and this huge explosion went off behind us.
And it had been a suicide bomber who came in a car and blew himself up right
at the crossroads where the Kurdish fighters were gathered. And our driver
just went tearing off.

Ms. RUBIN: And then there were numerous cars passing us with people who'd
been--you know, their heads were open and people had lost limbs. I mean, it
was just awful. And at the end of this--We were at the hospital which was
down the road, and all these people were being brought in. At the very end,
this Australian guy comes in covered in blood. He's shaking and looking
around for a foreigner who might have a satellite phone. So I gave him my
phone, and he called his friend's wife. At this point, I didn't know what had
happened, and he got an answering machine. He couldn't leave a message. He
found another friend and he said, `Paul's dead.' And we were trying to figure
out what had happened because we didn't see any other journalists there. And
then this taxi comes up to the door of the hospital, opens up the truck and
there's just completely unidentifiable body. And it was this Australian
journalist, and it was really awful. He had a wife and little kid, and it was
incredibly sad.

GROSS: Now that doesn't make you, like, second-guess your work?

Ms. RUBIN: Of course it does. You think every day, `What am I doing?' You
know, until Afghanistan, things had been in--I had been going to places where
the war wasn't that immediate. You know, sometimes it would be post-conflict
or, you know, a place that's in a kind of permanent state of conflict, where
it's not that intense. And so, yeah, in Iraq, I certainly felt at times like,
`All right. This is enough.'

GROSS: Journalist Elizabeth Rubin will be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with journalist Elizabeth Rubin. She's reported from some of the more
dangerous places in the world, including Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Chechnya
and Uganda. Her articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine,
The New Republic and The Atlantic.

Excuse me if this is presumptuous, but because your last name is Rubin, I'm
assuming there's a good chance that you're Jewish. If that is the case, has
it been difficult for you ever to work in certain countries that don't look
kindly on Jews, that see Jews, as often part of, like, you know, international
conspiracies and so on?

Ms. RUBIN: Yes. Yeah. Of course, it's difficult. Ironically, it's much
easier in Palestine because they have so much experience with the Israelis,
and so there's a familiarity whereas in a place like Pakistan, to give you an
example, where for them Jews have horns, you know and tails. Many of them
have never seen or met a Jew. As far as they're concerned, all Jews are
hasidim, you know, with the long curls and the black hats.

And one time I was meeting with a Kashmirian militant in January of 2002.
This was just shortly before Danny Pearl went missing. And we were having a
conversation about religion, and he was a Shia. He was a very educated guy,
and he asked me if I believed in God. And, you know, I had just come from
Afghanistan, and I was very, kind of--you never know what you're going to
answer; I don't have a pat answer for these things--and asked me what my
religion was. And for some reason, I just decided that day I'm not going to
hide it. I just don't feel like it today, and so I said, `Well, I'm Jewish,'
and he froze. He said nothing for literally a minute. And he said, `I've
always wanted to meet an extremist Jew, and I've always wanted to have e-mail
correspondence with an extremist Jew and talk about all these issues and talk
about how many Jews were in Israel in 1948 and, you know, about the Zionism,
and would you do that?' And, you know, he started to ask some questions. I
said, `Look, we'd have to start really from scratch,' and it was so clear from
the questions he was asking that he was starting from a place of fantasy.

But then he said to me, `Look, you're about to go to Kashmir.' I was going to
Kashmir on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, and he said, `Please, promise me you
will never tell another soul in this country that you are Jewish because we
are trained in the jihadi camps to kill Jews. You are the enemy.' And he was
very serious and he called a friend of mine who had set up the meeting,
telling him to tell me. And, of course, I never did again.

GROSS: You never told anybody you were Jewish again?

Ms. RUBIN: Not in Pakistan, no. No. And in a way, it was probably foolish
to have done it with him.

GROSS: So if you stopped telling people in Pakistan that were Jewish...

Ms. RUBIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...what would you tell people who asked what your religion is?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, at one time, I was in a women's madrassa and this young
woman who's very, very religious--we were sitting on her bed in her room in
the back, and her sister taught at the madrassa, and she was showing me some
of her books, and she said, `What is your religion?' And I said, `Oh, you
know, it's mixed. I'm just a little bit of everything. There's some Islam,
Christianity, Judaism, you know, that's what happens in America. There's a
lot of intermarriage, but I don't really have religion.' And she looked at me
and she said, `You don't have religion? Don't you feel like a rolling stone?'
And I said, `Yes, of course you feel like a rolling stone. That's what we
are, you know?' And it was just such a beautiful way of phrasing what religion
did for her, you know?

And so, you know, it often provoked interesting responses from people, and so
I started to just say, you know, `I don't follow organized religion. I
believe in a sort of personal god.'

GROSS: You know, I've heard some people say that extremists, you know, like,
religious extremists, will often have more respect for someone of another
faith than they will for someone who says that they don't have faith even if
it's a faith that they oppose, because at least there's faith there. Have you
found that not to be true?

Ms. RUBIN: Yes, in the case of this Kashmirian militant, it was absolutely
true. He said that I was the first journalist that he'd encountered who'd
talked about God, that most of them that he'd met--you know, he hadn't met
that many--were sort of avowed atheists and that, therefore, there was a place
to begin a conversation for him. And they will talk about people of the book,
you know, and that in the Koran it says to respect people of the book, to be
hospitable to people of the book. They are not this way, for example, with
Hindus. And so it depends on the faith.

GROSS: Do you think it's riskier for you as a freelance writer because as a
freelancer, you don't have, like, one organization who's absolutely looking
out for you and willing to pull strings and go to bat for you if, you know,
God forbid, you were kidnapped or something happened. You might not even get
health benefits. You're a freelancer.

Ms. RUBIN: Yeah, although I had gone on contract for The New Republic and
they were very much behind me, and The New York Times also, because of the
scale of the war and everything, they also had wanted to send me to, you know,
a chemical weapons training course in case of a chemical attack. And in fact,
you know, those sorts organizations really did rally and were very
safety-conscious, and I didn't feel kind of like a, you know, rolling stone.

GROSS: Do you have health benefits?

Ms. RUBIN: Yes, I do. There is a war coverage you can get that's actually
not that expensive called SOS.

GROSS: Oh, so you have, like, special war coverage health benefits.

Ms. RUBIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And in the States, are you covered?

Ms. RUBIN: In the States, I have regular health insurance like other people

GROSS: But I mean, as a freelancer, do you have to pay for it yourself?

Ms. RUBIN: Yes. How that works is I belong to the National Writers Union,
and so they have an insurance policy.

GROSS: Now one other thing about your writing. You tend to profile people or
to just write about one group. You're looking for very specific individual
stories within the larger story of the war that you're covering. Now you're
not a daily journalist where you have to cover, like, a day-to-day unfolding
story. Why do you prefer this approach to, you know, profiling a group or a

Ms. RUBIN: I guess I feel like you can get deeper into questions of
character, questions of psychology, of motivation, of why we do the things we
do, how we do them. I also feel that for readers it's very important that you
can really identify or think about a character in a situation, and it brings
them much closer to the comforts which are often, you know, very far away and
they don't really care about. And up until September 11th, people didn't
really care about these places. So you had to draw them in in some other way.
And I just felt, you know, my temperament isn't really much of a daily
reporter just 'cause I'm not that fast, but I just find that the experience
for the reader is more gratifying as well.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. RUBIN: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Journalist Elizabeth Rubin has written for the Sunday New York Times
Magazine, The New Republic and The Atlantic.

Coming up, Peter Steinfels, author of the new book "A People Adrift: The
Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Peter Steinfels discusses his book, "A People Adrift"

The Catholic church is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the office of Pope
John Paul II. My guest, Peter Steinfels, has written a new book about the
American Catholic Church. He says it's in crisis. That's the subject of his
new book, "A People Adrift." Steinfels is the former senior religion
correspondent for The New York Times. He now writes The Times religion column

You write in your book that today the church is on the verge of either an
irreversible decline or a thorough transformation. Why do you think one or
the other is inevitable?

Mr. PETER STEINFELS ("A People Adrift"): Well, I think a transformation is
under way already, and whether that transformation will be a success or
whether it won't be will depend on the, if you will, thoroughness with which
the leadership of the church can deal with this. The transformation that's
already under way is a transformation, first of all, in leadership. It's a
change from leadership primarily by priests and sisters or nuns, women in
religious orders, to lay people. The second transformation that's already
under way is a transformation in generations. It's a change from Catholics
who grew up in an often, very highly defined, ethnically rooted Catholicism
from before the days of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s to Catholics
who grew up in the post-conciliar era, which was an era of often free-ranging,
wide-open, sometimes poorly defined or uncertain Catholicism.

Those are two changes. That second-generation group is moving into leadership
positions now in all kinds of Catholic institutions from parishes right up to
Catholic higher education and health care and so on. And those two changes
are coming together, and they're coming together at a time when, in my view,
the church also has to face two massive historical changes which are outside
the church, and they have to do with human sexuality and the role of women.

So all these things are converging, and therefore, what I'm writing about is
really the kind of issues and decisions that Catholics and Catholic leadership
have to make in the next 10, 12 years or so if they're going to successfully
negotiate the maelstrom, if you will, of all this coming together.

GROSS: So you're afraid the sex abuse scandal might actually distract the
church from addressing the most serious things it needs to address, not that
this sex abuse scandal isn't serious. Let me say that again.

Mr. STEINFELS: Right. I think you're right. No, I think you've got it
right actually. I'm very concerned that the church address that.

GROSS: Let me say that again anyways. It's going to sound weird. So you
think that the sex abuse scandal might actually distract the church from
addressing larger issues that it faces, not that the sex abuse scandal isn't,
you know, very large and very important.

Mr. STEINFELS: I think you've stated that correctly. I think that that has
to be faced and dealt with. That has to be related to the larger questions in
the church, but there are some larger questions that I think would be
unsuccessfully dealt with if they were done through this filter.

Just let me give you an example. The new archbishop of Boston, Archbishop
O'Malley, who seems to be having some success in dealing with the overhang of
the sex abuse scandals there, which were really the center of certainly the
media attention--but we have to remember, he's going to be archbishop and
probably cardinal of Boston for a long, long time with the role and the
leadership of American church facing all sorts of other theological and church
issues. And he'll be an elector for the pope until he's 80 years old and he's
a man in his mid- to late-50s right now. So we could be in trouble if we
looked at everything through the filter of this one admittedly very serious

GROSS: What are some of the questions that you think the church needs to be
addressing beyond sexual abuse?

Mr. STEINFELS: Oh, well, it certainly has to address above all the question
of leadership. As I suggested, you have this replacement of priests and
sisters throughout Catholic institutions by lay people. There are currently
some 30,000 lay-pastoral ministers who are working in parishes and dioceses
doing the kind of thing that priests and sisters used to do. Now that's more
than actually the number of active priests in the approximately 19,000
American parishes. Those people are doing that, from studies that have been
made, out of a sense of commitment. It's not just, you know, a neighborhood
job for them. It's a sense that they have of a calling from God and they want
to do this lifelong.

Well, in a sense, their status in the church is still undetermined. Who looks
at their training, their credentials? Who, if you will, exercises quality
control? Who will make sure that they are the best people and not kind of
middle-range people? Who is choosing them for roles in the parishes? How are
they going to be collaborated with? Where do they fit in? This is a major
development which is kind of happening under the radar.

And that's one example of the sort of thing that has to be looked, and it will
have implications for two areas that I stress a lot. One is the quality of
worship on Sunday which, quite frankly, I think may be more significant for
the future of American Catholicism than the issues of what happens in the
bedroom which are so focused upon, and the other is the quality of religious
education. How will the faith be passed on to younger generations?

GROSS: The Catholic service was changed a lot after Vatican II in the late
'60s. Do you think it's time to change the service again?

Mr. STEINFELS: The liturgy on Sunday went through major changes which, as I
suggest in the book, are not a fundamental break with the past, but they do
alter, they nuance, they affect the way we think about God and we think about
the church. Just having the alter turned around and the priests facing the
people has a much more communal sense that, you know, God is within the
congregation as well as above and beyond it. And this is all very important.

Now I think there's general agreement that some serious course correction or
fine tuning was needed. A lot of the translations of the Mass and of the
prayers that were all in Latin were made rather quickly in the years after the
Second Vatican Council, and the church has already been in the process of
redoing that, but this has become an area unfortunately of very polarized
reactions. So that's another theme I'm trying to develop. Let's stop the
polarization which is creating a kind of ecclesiastical church gridlock and
focus on some of these empirical, impractical, grassroots questions. And the
same goes for religious education.

GROSS: Several of the big controversies within the Catholic Church revolve
around issues of sex, celibacy and gender, and you connect several of those
relevant issues to the 1968 papal document, the Humanae Vitae.

Mr. STEINFELS: Humanae Vitae, yes.

GROSS: Explain what that document was.

Mr. STEINFELS: Well, at the time of the Second Vatican Council and actually
starting a little bit before, partly because of the development of the birth
control pill, there was a revisiting of the church's prohibition and
condemnation of the use of contraception, and this revisioning--revisiting,
rather, was pretty significant. There was a papal commission set up. It was
expanded and this went on for years, and that papal commission really did
reach a majority decision which was submitted to the pope, in this case, Pope
Paul VI, arguing that the church should really revise its teaching and should
no longer have the kind of blanket condemnation of contraception that it had

And in 1968 after prolonged consideration of the commission's work, Pope Paul
VI reaffirmed the condemnation of contraception in this encyclical Humanae
Vitae. And I say in my book that this has really proved to be the kind of
Vietnam War of the Catholic Church. It has gone on and on and on.
Ultimately, what's happened is, the biggest issue is that it's undermined the
authority of the church because people unconvinced by the arguments in this
area tend to think that, you know, a lot of wisdom that I think the church has
in that area just is dismissed, and that's made the church's ability to make
its case regarding abortion much harder. It's had an effect overall I think
of kind of privatizing Catholics' judgments about moral issues rather than
really trying certainly to make up their own mind but to do that in serious
consultation with the tradition and informing themselves.

I think, more and more Catholics in more and more areas just kind of say,
`Well, you know, I do my own thing and I don't take the teaching of the church
even to be seriously examined and considered.'

GROSS: My guest is Pete Steinfels, author of the new book, "A People Adrift:
The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Peter Steinfels, writes The New York Times religion column
Beliefs. His new book is called "A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman
Catholic Church in America."

I'm always interested in people's reasons for staying within their religion
when they have deep differences with the way the religion is practiced at the
moment or with the hierarchy of the religion. Why do you stay in the Catholic
Church in spite of your many disagreements with it?

Mr. STEINFELS: Well, I think I stay in the Catholic Church, first of all,
because I believe it's true, and I don't think you can get around that. I
don't believe it's true in the sense that I think there's no religious truth
outside the Catholic Church. There clearly is, and one of the great things
about the years I spent as a religion reporter at The New York Times was the
ability to have firsthand contact with a lot of different faith groups, but I
do think that the Catholic Church has a fullness of truth which I don't find
elsewhere and that those focus both in doctrine and especially in the
sacramental life of the church in its cycles of worship, of prayer and
especially in the Sunday Eucharist.

And so I think those are the two things. I think, you know, a part that some
Catholic stress is the role of the pope, and it is a distinctive element and I
do, you know, include what gets called as the Petrine ministry, the ministry
of Peter and his successors as something that unifies the church and does keep
it on some kind of a common course. I do find that a valuable thing, although
I don't quite find it the absolute center that some of my fellow Catholics do.

GROSS: Do you go to church every Sunday?


GROSS: What do you find most valuable to you about participating in the

Mr. STEINFELS: I think it's the mixture of encountering God through Jesus in
both the readings and Scripture and then particularly in the Eucharistic
celebration, the reception of the transformed bread and wine together with the
whole mixture of people that come together, that are all types and sinners and
saints and so on.

GROSS: And what would you most like to change as you sit in church every
Sunday about the service itself?

Mr. STEINFELS: I think that I would like to have a stronger sense of
congregational unity in our singing together, and I think I would
like--sometimes I find other things to do during the homilies or the sermons,
and I know I'm going to be in big trouble with my pastor for saying that.

GROSS: And when you talk about the singing, do you think the songs need to be

Mr. STEINFELS: I think that singing was never recognized and music as
essential to the Catholic worship. It was kind of an add-on. And we do have
great music in our parish and we have a choir that draws on the heritage of
sacred music, but sometimes the congregational singing, quite frankly, I have
my views on what I like and don't like, but I wish people would just worry
more about, you know, what works, what makes people open their mouths and join
with their neighbors. As St. Augustine said, you know, `The person who's
praying in song prays twice,' and I think we ought to be very much more
practical about that.

GROSS: Peter Steinfels, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. STEINFELS: Thank you.

GROSS: Peter Steinfels' new book is called "A People Adrift: The Crisis of
the Roman Catholic Church in America." He writes The New York Times religion
column called Beliefs.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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