Rowing Upstream: On Being Catholic in the Modern World


Many years ago I was attending my first faculty reception at my first formal faculty appointment, at Stanford, and was met at the receiving line by the sponsoring dean with a warm handshake and the baffling words, “I want to tell you that I have the greatest admiration for your Church.” The two of us had never met, so I remember looking around to make sure the words were meant for me, and trying to capture the reference. Did I have the template “Catholic” stamped on my brow?

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It was well known, of course, that I was the first Catholic hired in the religion department (then called the Special Program in Humanities). But here I was, over in one of the professional schools, at some remove from my own department. How did he know? I hadn’t thought my being Catholic was that obvious, especially to strangers. I hadn’t thought of being Catholic as a problem about which I needed reassurance. Should I have? One thing I did know is that the dean was a famous man, well-known nationally, and that his eyes had exuded an unmistakable warmth; he meant to express a certain generosity of spirit, and he wanted even to suggest that he knew a little about me and was happy that I was at Stanford and had come to his party.

At Harvard two years before, a fellow graduate student whom I much admired, a very clever fellow and witty writer in the English department, commented that in discussing a recent university wide survey that went around, those of his contacts who were religious and actually went to church fairly regularly said that they were made to feel that being religious at Harvard, and especially being Catholic, was like having green hair. You seemed a little odd, and everyone knew it.

That night at Stanford, I felt I had green hair. It wasn’t altogether a bad feeling. It got you noticed, and that which was noticed was also true, so what the hell? Enjoy it.


The Barking Adjective

Ever since then, it has both amused and annoyed me that that little adjective Catholic keeps getting inserted in front of my name in the press, in the most irrelevant and discriminating of ways: “Sidney Hook, Norman Podhoretz, Robert Nisbet, and Catholic philosopher Michael Novak were among those . . . .” and “according to Catholic writer Michael Novak . . . .”

This adjective keeps barking at my heels, pursuing me, while most of my friends and associates seem to be adjective-free. What can this mean? It is not purely personal to me. I note that it also happens to many other Catholics who write or teach. Does this giveaway adjective tell us something about our society? There is, in this respect, one parallel to keep an eye on. At least four times now I have had to write a letter to the editor, or publisher, of a major newspaper pointing out that the adjective “conservative” keeps creeping into news stories that purport to round up a range of opinions, even in immediate contexts in which no other adjective — such as “liberal,” “leftist,” or “social democrat” — appears. The names of all those to the left of freakish go unadorned, pristine, bathing in the sunshine of reality. The opinions of those to the right are always draped. Like Michelangelo’s cherubs.

One side of me, the idealistic side, would wish that the world were a fairer place, i.e., not the world. I would like to see ideas allowed to join battle on the jousting field without the referees having to do combat on behalf of one side. I would like the referees simply to allow ideas to stand by themselves and render their own account of their strength in open blow and counterblow. I have every confidence that not much more is needed. My friends and I will win some of these battles, maybe even more than our share. For we fight where we do because we were once bested by better ideas, from which we have learned. Another side of my nature finds vindication in fighting on the outside of the conventional wisdom of our secular, liberal, enlightened age. To be a voice of the accepted wisdom would be uncomfortable.


Always to the Contrary

During my second (of nine) years of graduate school, a good friend noted that for many months he had been testing me. First he would take one position, and I would demur, pointing out what was wrong with it. Then, having waited a little while, he would take the point of view he had heard me put forth, only to discover me again demurring and pointing out deficiencies. He had done this several times, he said. “The only consistent thing is that you are an aginner,” he said. “Whatever position I take, even if I borrowed it earlier from you, you will be against.” I had no rebuttal. It’s more or less true. Unless one really knows a lot more than I do, and commands a height that I have not yet climbed, I don’t want to be where others are, even if that is where I have been until now. When everybody is getting the point, it’s time to move on. I would just as soon be at least a little on the outside — more, if I can — ahead of the curve. Every position is a point on a pilgrimage, not a lasting settlement. A journey, a pilgrimage especially, has its own integrity, its own kind of consistency — not the kind that, in the aphorism, is the hobgoblin of unformed minds, but the kind that is like that of the survivor in the wave-tossed lifeboat, who leans first right, then left, and back again, in the ever-threatened struggle for balance and pitch.

Being a Catholic is a voyage like that. Not for nothing is the favorite metaphor for our communion a barque, a wind-thrown barque whose earliest sailor, Peter, from fear sank in the waves until our Lord took pity. No one can be a Catholic in our culture without being battered daily. Practically everyone in our society defines herself, or himself, against the Catholic Church. Most feminists surely seem to. When ACT-UP acts up, as often as not they do it in a Catholic church. Even in a more benign sense, what do Protestants “protest” if not the deformations of Rome, and from what are the Enlightened “enlightened” if not from the Dark Ages of you-know-who?

It has been said that the undoing of the Catholic Church will be its decidedly out-of-fashion teaching on the relation of character to sexuality. We will see.

Here’s the type of paragraph a young Catholic will read a thousand times during university years:

Generally the state of mind of a believer in a revelation is the awful arrogance of saying, “I know, and those who do not agree with my belief are wrong.” In no other field is such arrogance so widespread. . . . It is to me quite disgusting that anybody should feel so superior, so selected and chosen against all the many who differ in their beliefs or unbeliefs. This would be bad enough, but so many believers do their best to propagate their faith, at the very least to their children but often also to others (and historically there are of course plenty of examples of doing this by force and ruthless brutality). . . . Since at most one faith can be true, it follows that human beings are extremely liable to believe firmly and honestly something untrue in the field of revealed religion. One would have expected this obvious fact to lead to some humility, to some thought that however deep one’s faith, one may conceivably be mistaken. Nothing is further from the believer, any believer, than this elementary humility. (Quoted in Paul Davies, God and the New Physics.)

Every reader will see a sliver of truth in that paragraph, perhaps even shudder as parts of it hit home, particularly in reference to materials one has read and even in recalling some narrow-minded believers in one’s own life. One suspects that the author of that paragraph was brought up as a believer, quite possibly a Catholic. In these days, however, it is the secular person who seems so certain of himself, in just the way the author of that paragraph does. For him, it seems clear that religion is a lie.

Many secular persons seem surprised that religion is still taken seriously by anyone they know, and some are amazingly innocent of any intellectual contact with it, and at times hyper-alarmed by the emergence of a politically significant religious movement. Some can hardly believe their eyes concerning the upsurge of religion around them. It frightens them.


A Deeper Sounding

In 1964 there were Christians, Jews, and unbelievers among those who risked their lives in Mississippi in defense of the civil rights of blacks. Their reasons for so acting diverged, but their diverse commitments led all of the above to the same practical conviction about what was demanded of them. This similarity in practical implication suggests a certain often-unexamined overlap in their ultimate commitments as well. My claim is that, at least in the West, at least in the United States, the practical differences between serious believers and serious unbelievers, in certain weighty matters, are not what historic rivalries would lead one to expect. There are very interesting and pregnant convergences, even amid obvious differences. Among all of us, exact consistency between our theoretically stated commitments and our actual actions is seldom what we think it is.

Put otherwise, a thoroughly examined life is exquisitely rare. Stealthily and unself-consciously, we borrow rather a lot from one another. And why not? We share the same planet and many of the same searing experiences, and we often do so as companions in arms, after the battle raising our glasses to one another in genuine admiration for deeds well done.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, a Catholic in the United States today would have to be most insensitive, ox-like, not to recognize that most of his or her beliefs seem preposterous, out-of-date, even immoral, to a preponderance of the professional people with whom we deal. It can hardly help entering into our heads daily that we might be wrong in what we believe. For to maintain one’s faith in the face of unremitting lack of cultural support, not to mention hostility, is to accept a steady diet of criticism, skepticism, and disbelief from others.

That many millions of Catholics have abandoned the faith of their fathers is not, under the circumstances, surprising. What is comforting is the millions who have not, and the steady stream of converts, particularly the acute and critically intelligent converts, who keep swelling the ranks. Comforting, too, are the hard lessons of experience that are forcing many unbelievers among us to come to positions far closer to ours than was common thirty years ago. All in all, our faith seems more in alignment with the cutting-edge forces in international life than has been the case for centuries.

Not very significant, maybe, but as a straw in the wind consider the high reputation in which Catholic schools are held, especially those in inner-city neighborhoods. Consider also the reasons for this high reputation, as advanced by quite secular, Protestant, and Jewish observers: a sense of discipline, order, faith, family, hard and exact work, care, respect, service to others.

Consider the fact that when I was young observers mocked the uniforms in Catholic schools as a sign of conformism and crypto-fascism, whereas today even a Baptist former-president of the United States, along with many secular liberals, sees positive gains in putting young and disadvantaged children in school uniforms. How is it, editorialists ask, that with vastly less funding, Catholic school systems deliver results superior to those demonstrated in tax-supported public schools? Discussions of “intangibles” regularly note the full and raw palpability of their consequences.

On an utterly different level, consider the shock received by many modern rationalists, believers in the enlightenment, reason, and science, when, under attack by postmodernists who describe science as a phallic attack upon the earth’s fragile ecology, reason as nonholistic delusion and right-brained distortion of humanism, and the enlightenment as a mythic celebration of male arrogance and a naive mask of illicit power, they discover in the pope of Rome the world’s most prominent voice of reason and its prerogatives.

Jewish and Christian faith require a robust confidence in the power and validity of human inquiry; the thirst of the human mind for understanding, light, and truth; and the hunger of the intellect to set aside false gods, falsehood, and false assumptions while trying to home in faithfully on the true. If these drives of the human soul are in vain, then Judaism and Christianity are pointless. They are addressing the wrong animal.


Lacking Foundations

Again, those thinkers today, unbelievers as well as believers, who see that systematic relativism makes it strictly impossible for human beings to condemn Nazism and its abominations, therefore consider it a moral obligation, and a kind of debt owed to the millions of Nazism’s suffering victims, to attack moral relativism, root and branch, and to defend a nonarbitrary, nonsubjective standard of right and wrong, a kind of rudimentary set of universal rights — or, at least, universal wrongs. For it is sometimes easier, clearer, and more economical to proceed in such matters by a kind of universal via negativa: Thou shalt not commit genocide, practice torture, rape, enslave other human beings, impose harsh labor upon children, violate the conscience of individuals, etc.

One does not have to be a believing Jew or Christian to hold to such a via negativa or to uphold a universal declaration of human rights. On the contrary, some of the most eloquent voices in formulating such responses, theoretical and practical, to the relativism and nihilism of the early twentieth century — to Nietzsche, De Man, Sartre, and others — were unbelievers, atheists, and agnostics who described themselves as secular humanists. Albert Camus described one of them in his novel The Plague as a secular saint.

In circles known to me, I held Sidney Hook (for all his faults) as one such, but there are many. Are not such persons and such defenses of reason and universal principles in human affairs signs of what once was called “the laws of nature and nature’s God”? As a penultimate illustration, consider the news from physics, biology, and genetics. Taking the last first: Whereas circa 1972, a journalist could write that what is aborted in a human abortion is “only a mess of matter from a woman’s body,” not much more than the menstrual flow or an unwanted appendix, genetics has by now made clear that, on the contrary, whatever else it is, the aborted has a genetic code altogether different from the woman’s, a code that is unique and individual. This genetic datum, scientists may make haste to note, does not settle what legal status ought to be assigned to the aborted.

But at least three things about it are clear: It is a unique individual being, it is human both by genetic analysis and (from just a few days on) by resemblance, and it is engendered, more frequently female than male. To those who placed upon the infant in the womb the value that Catholics did in 1972, this news is not hard to take. Comfort of this sort comes frequently to Catholics in our time. We hold the view that if there seems to be a conflict between the findings of science and the findings of Catholic theology, it must be based either upon bad science or bad theology, or both, for one and the same Creator is the source of truth in both, and there are not two truths. The bad news is that it may take generations to sort out what the truth is, and who went wrong and why.

Meanwhile, of course, the side likely to be ridiculed in our time, and deemed heterodox by the right-thinking, is not the side of science. Those who hold that creation is as strewn with signs of design as the night sky with the Milky Way may find much more echo of their religious beliefs in the physics of the late twentieth century than they did in the physics promulgated with the arrogance of youth in the nineteenth.


Science and Wonder

Evangelical Christians today, likely as others to have a graduate degree in the sciences, will tell you freely that a day in Genesis is not twenty-four hours, and that the point of the biblical narrative is not to add to physics, but rather to make a theological claim about the dependence of all things upon the Creator — and not only in the beginning but at each successive instant of time.

Science is not faith, but in both there is today a shared wonder and sense of awe; in both, too, there is engagement, by different methods, in analogous problems of order and chaos, randomness and design, determinism and freedom, and mind and matter. But what’s missing is the intuition of — and judgment on — existence, a content that is not graspable as a scientific concept but is implicit in scientific judgments of fact.

A touch of metaphysics here may be more than some readers can bear, but for those who can follow me, let me note that a philosophy of existence is of a different order from a philosophy of being, in which being is understood as part of the Great Chain of Being, a set of linked gradated concepts.

The fact of existence is recognized neither as a concept is grasped nor (in that respect) in an intuition or act of insight, but rather through a reflection — a sort of backward glance — on what is occurring in a particular act of judgment, that is, a judgment that something is a fact, is existing.

The jump from being a mere concept, a possibility, a bright idea, to being in fact true, to existing among other existents, to standing out from the nothingness of mere possibilities and being thrust into actuality is the great, and most decisive, jump. The act of judgment in which one decides whether in a particular case this jump has, in fact, occurred is no simple act, but complex and searching and deeply demanding of the subject who exercises it.


Love and Sanctity

To be Catholic is to share in being Jewish, and thus to have a heritage going back to Genesis. To be Catholic is also to inherit as one’s own the history of Greece and Rome. In a polemical piece from some years ago, for example, a secular liberal writer observed that several prominent writers who stressed the idea of “character” are all Catholics, and suggested in this confluence some nefarious gunpowder plot. He might just as well have noted that Catholics learn the concepts of “character” and “virtue” by studying Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and Cicero — just as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington did. A classical education is the proud inheritance of Catholic youth, even in these dark times.

It has been said that the undoing of the Catholic Church will be its decidedly out-of-fashion teaching on the relation of character to sexuality. We will see.

The chances seem higher that a grand reductio ad absurdum is even now being enacted, before our eyes, in the sexual habits of enlightened. The modern ethic, Albert Camus wrote, will be chiseled on a million tombstones: He fornicated and he read the papers.

Better yet, as Peggy Noonan wrote: An American liberal is a woman who believes that, as a nonnegotiable bottom line, she has a right to screw anyone or anything anytime or any place she wishes to. In terms a bit more judicious and genteel, Judge Bork explicates the premises that make such an entitlement seem plausible to those long lines of Americans slouching over the horizon toward Gomorrah. The only tragedy, for a Catholic, is not to have been a saint. That will be the tragedy of nearly all of us. That is why our favorite prayer, throwing ourselves upon Our Lady, sounded over and over like the beating of a billion hearts, is “pray for us sinners.” At the heart of our faith lies the sinner, and deeper yet the mercy of God.

There is no higher position in the Church than saint. A pope who is no saint is just a failed Christian, maybe worse for the scandal of the thing. A priest, the same. These are hard vocations; we should pray for those called to them, a kind of crucifixion.

Sainthood has from the first moments been open to women, and women have raced with men to go further in the love of God and the service of human beings, especially the neediest and most neglected. For the enlightened of our generation, of course, sainthood is not enough. They would rather have the honors and preferments and, as they think, the powers.

I like the age we live in very much. It is a wonderful time to be alive. But it is not in all respects a sane world, and some of the least participants in commonsense seem to be the talking classes, who in the world of symbols and communication and culture have unequaled power. Against the attraction of such principalities, the Catholic people and the Catholic faith — and the sacramental life by which we are admitted into communion with our Creator and Redeemer — exert a balance.

Dante described this gravitational field in the last lines of Il Paradiso: “The Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.” And so it is. An inheritance that has no price. And in case you do not know it, here is the most beautiful line in all the hymnody of the West, and perhaps all humanity. It is for this line that we designate millennia from his birthday: “Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Christus est!” [Wherever love is found, Christ is there.] Perhaps you need to hear it, hanging on the cold morning air high in the Gothic arches of a stone monastery, in the echoes of Gregorian chant, when its sound seems to mingle in the sunlight, and spring and Easter come. But the most important thing is when it changes your life.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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