A Second Spring?

Thanks in good measure to our bishops, the world of the Catholic laymen and laywomen in the United States is astir. Argument seems to be alive on every side.

It is a good moment to take stock, even to dream. Of the fifty million American Catholics (there are, of course, an estimated twenty million others who, while not practicing, are of Catholic culture), there must be almost ten million who have had at least some college education. The exact numbers of Catholics who are professionals — lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, military officers, men or women of commerce and industry, journalists and the like — is not at all clear; surely, though, the number is in the millions. A vast amount of talent, intelligence, and vigorous faith is clearly in evidence as one visits parishes and local meetings around the nation.

of only is much talent available. Everywhere laymen and laywomen are remarkably thoughtful and highly developed in their convictions. They have learned much from living, studying, travelling, conversing. And their convictions are of staggering diversity. One finds among them activists of the Left as of the Right. For every James Douglass there is a William O’Brien, for every Phyllis Schlafly a Barbara Mikulski, for every Thomas Aquinas Murphy a Dick Celeste. Catholics today are eminent in every profession (even, alas, the oldest).

The diversity of conviction among the laity, at least in matters of political economy, would seem to be rather more spacious than that of the hierarchy. After all, the latter come chiefly from one professional background. This is not to say that the bishops are all of one mind; far from it. It is only to say that the varied professional training, life experiences, and indeed raw numbers of the laity suggest yet a more impressive range of conviction.

On matters of political economy, then, the church in America is wildly diverse in conviction. One imagines that virtually all feel a sense of gratitude for the political economy of this nation, which has patently and tangibly granted so many blessings still recalled vividly in our many family histories. More than eighty percent of Catholic families have been in the United States one hundred years or less, most having arrived in dire poverty. Even those who are most sharply critical, perhaps from a democratic socialist tradition or even from the conservative pre-capitalist European tradition (like Thomas Molnar), evince implicit gratefulness.

But where can all this diversity find expression today? In order to be recognized, public opinion must be expressed. Since regular polling of Catholics has still not been institutionalized, such expression is, for want of a substitute, best gathered from the Catholic press. But here, in matters of political economy, the editors at least —according to a brief and imperfect but useful poll conducted for the National Catholic Register — are disproportionately on the Democratic side. 67 percent say they normally vote Democratic, only 18 percent Republican. One infers from their answers to one to two other questions that majorities side with the left wing of the Democratic party, although the poll’s brevity does not afford certainty in that respect.

To its credit, especially in recent months, The Commonweal has tried to publish articles reflecting some of this diversity. America, too, has been rediscovering the need to be many-sized. Bitten by the prophet motive, the National Catholic Reporter, by contrast, seems to be more and more drawn into a sort of sectarian vision of the Church, especially on questions of pacifism, even while mildly resisting its own tendencies. The materials published in Our Sunday Visitor, on Nicaragua especially, are so blatantly leftist that the editors have gone to unusual lengths to side with the Sandinista junta against Pope John Paul II.

One cannot help noting, further, that a disproportionate amount of the writing which appears in national Catholic publications comes from social activists, academics, and (naturally enough) journalists. The entire sweep of the professions in which so many thoughtful Catholics live out their vocations is scarcely represented. One too seldom hears from practicing lawyers and doctors, engineers and agriculturalists, career military officers and industrialists, scientists and industrialists, men and women of science and commerce. One often hears such persons explain that they “can’t bear” to read the Catholic periodicals that occasionally come their way; they stick to their own professional journals.

It is not at all clear that this widespread sense of professional alienation can be healed, but Catholicism in Crisis intends to take a shot at doing so. In future issues, we hope to run many features representing the concerns of professionals in many fields. We hope to break out of the circle of the academy and journalism proper, although it stands to reason that we academicians, journalists and activists so abundantly write; that, after all, is our profession. Public opinion, however, is more than the opinion of professional writers. We hope to tap the opinions of those who do not write for a living.

Whether we can continue, with any coherence, to publish the views of progressives and conservatives, left and right, depends very much on our readers and contributors. It is our aim to create a sort of new center, a new forum in which writers with widely different approaches can articulate their views without being able to take for granted that their audience will agree with them. Inevitably, of course, subscribers create a magazine. Will you support this approach?

Catholicism in Crisis is an experiment. Its presupposition is that many Catholics are internally divided, agreeing partially with one argument and partially with another, and eager to learn why other persons hold convictions so diametrically opposed to their own. The Catholic community in the United States is immensely diverse. We hope to reflect some of that diversity. Whether our readers enjoy this sort of argument will measure our success or failure. Whether writers will enjoy argument with those with whom they passionately disagree will determine whether we will receive the sort of articles we would like most to publish.

So far, at least, the experiment has been great fun, and our correspondence indicates immense passions among our readers. Indeed, the editors themselves rather passionately disagree with some of the arguments we publish; and that, too, affords satisfaction. Such passions are like March winds and April storms. They, too, are signs of spring. We thank those writers and readers who have made the first six issues so vigorous.


  • 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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