Fifth Anniversary Issue: Cinque Anni Fa

What is most vivid in my mind about beginning this journal is the excitement I felt when Michael Novak first brought it up. He was thinking along the lines of a newsletter but almost immediately there formed in my mind visions of Commonweal and America as they once were and as I had long wished they still were. Novak’s notion seemed the obvious solution. If you can’t join ’em, lick ’em.

Well, that is overly feisty, of course, but adrenalin and a dash of madness are necessary to undertake the founding of a new monthly journal. So too my wife and I had only the vaguest notions of what lay ahead — God is merciful — when we married. The only way to approach the future is blindly.

Mike and I decided we would bring out our first number to coincide with the bishops’ draft letter on nuclear weapons. At first, I did my part in my Notre Dame office, aided by Mrs. Alice Osberger, my administrative assistant, while Mike and Terry Hall worked out of the offices of AEI in Washington. It was a cottage industry without a cottage to call its own. In November 1982, at a press conference at the American Free Labor Institute in Washington, we presented Catholicism in Crisis to a waiting world, in this instance a room full of bemused and/or incredulous journalists. Their chief question was: Who is putting up the money? This is a question we still ask ourselves.

Within a year, Terry Hall would come to South Bend. Eventually we moved to offices in the LaSalle Building, lest our enemies think we were unjustly diverting university money to the journal and our friends wonder what our relation was to the theology department. For a year, Phil Lawler held the post of editor, but basically the South Bend operation has been Terry Hall, Marge Studer, an assortment of interns, and your impecunious servant. In Washington, Scott Walter has assisted Mike.

Apart from the sheer fun of doing it, what is the point of putting out this journal? Whether as Catholicism in Crisis or simply Crisis, it may seem to strike a frantic note. Presumably, a crisis obtains when opposing forces have built to a point where something has to give. Among the things that exercised us at the outset was the apparent capturing of the USCC by people holding views with which we disagreed. No crime in disagreeing with us, of course, but we feared the identification of what in our mind was a wrong view with the Catholic view. Of course, we did not aspire to have our view on such matters as the economy and national defense enshrined as the Catholic view. What was going on here, as I would put it, was the politicization of Catholicism.

So seen, the crisis had obvious links with the theological dissent that has been wracking the Church since 1968 when the appearance of Humane Vitae was greeted by a howl of protest. Echoes of it are still heard in the land, most recently when Cardinal Ratzinger issued the Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation. Theological and philosophical reaction to these magisterial documents comes in two basic kinds.

The first is due to intellectual debility, the failure to understand the argument. Needless to say, the position of Humanae Vitae is not self-evident nor is that of Respect for Human Life. That the unity of the marriage act cannot be separated from its fertility is shown in the first, that fertility cannot be separated from unity is shown in the second. The symmetry between the two documents is marvelous. Discussion of these arguments can and should and will go on, but a barrel of discussion does not equal a smidgen of dissent. That the arguments are cogent is clear to me and I offer to defend them anywhere, any place. But even if I did not find them cogent, I would not dissent from them. Their provenance is the Bishop of Rome, Christ’s Vicar on Earth, and what they teach is what has always been taught. The presumption would be that the difficulty lies with me.

The second reaction to magisterial documents attacks the Magisterium itself. This reaction has little to do with contraception or artificial fertilization. It is a universal rejection of doctrinal authority in faith and morals. There is little point in discussing the specific issues with a Charles Curran and, far less, with a Richard McBrien. The issues vary from altar girls to private confession, but the attitude remains the same.  Non serviam. It is the authority of the Magisterium as such that is rejected.

In past ages, rejection of the teaching authority of the Church had a name and people who did the rejecting accepted the consequences. If you rejected Catholic teaching, you insisted that you were no longer Catholic. Nowadays, of course, theological welter-weights have discovered a new logic. If you cease to accept Catholic doctrine, you assert that your dissent is Catholic doctrine, and that the Church is in heresy. The hierarchical Church, that is. The Church itself now becomes the vox populi which in turn has become the result you can get from an opinion poll. Now the dissident theologian claims to be speaking for the masses of Catholics over against the official Church. This is the politicization — and trivialization — of Catholicism.

This politicization of Catholicism has invaded our colleges and universities. One of the crosses I must bear is regularly to read the reported petulancies of a Richard McBrien who is then invariably linked with the University of Notre Dame. Indeed, with his characteristic hubris, he has from time to time asserted what the university would do if Rome did such and such. Presumably the university authorities are unaware of these usurpative pronunciamentos.

The crisis continues and, indeed, deepens because our institutions and, I sometimes fear, our bishops are not fully aware of what is going on. Do the presidents of Catholic universities and colleges understand that they are being enrolled in an anti-papal crusade? Enrolled by whom? By brash and media- savvy dissidents. Do our bishops understand that there are those who would cast them in the role of counterweights to and even opponents of ultramontane authority? Who would? The same brash and media-savvy dissidents. These dissidents are not theologians in any serious sense of the term. I have never heard an argument of Charles Curran’s invoked by any reputable moral theologian. Richard McBrien does not formulate arguments so of course he is not a factor in theological discourse. As for the Rosemary Reuthers and Mary Dalys, in a sane time they would not be listened to. Even now, dissident theologians are listened to mainly by journalists. Their reputations, such as they are, exist in the evanescent world of media attention.

If I were to identify the origin of the crisis in the most fundamental and comprehensive way, I would point to the loss of the Catholic mentality. By that I mean that the Church in this country is experiencing the consequences of the abandonment of our cultural heritage, of our traditional social and political philosophy, of a sense of continuity with the great cultural mainstream of the West and, above all, or in a word, of the loss of Thomistic realism.

What irony is to be seen in the fact that, now that our Catholic colleges and universities are preening themselves on being indistinguishable from their secular counterparts, there is widespread recognition that secular higher education is a disaster. But surely we should not need an Allan Bloom to tell us that the loss of the sense of being measured by reality, rather than the reverse, must have profoundly disruptive consequences. What Bloom and others really long for is epistemological realism and objectivity in morals. When Alasdair Maclntyre in After Virtue dissects the dominant emotivism, he is led inexorably to see that there is available an intellectual measure which permits us to condemn emotivism. It has a name. The name is Thomism.

It is no accident that this Holy Father, like all his modern predecessors and like the Fathers of Vatican II, directs us to Saint Thomas Aquinas as our chief mentor and guide in theology and philosophy. Dissident theologians speak of Thomism as belonging to a surpassed era of the Church, but of course they do not consider the Magisterium to be the voice of the teaching Church. In the modern intellectual debacle, it is even clearer that the reason the Church points us to Thomas is that he teaches what is true. Those truths do not belong to him or to us; they are a common good of mankind. But now, when others might look to Catholics as to custodians of those truths, what do they find?

You could shoot a cannon through most Catholic departments of philosophy — I am not recommending this — and not hit a Thomist. As for departments of theology, maybe I would recommend a cannon — or better a canon. The abandonment of our heritage is not only our loss, it is the world’s loss. That is the fundamental crisis. A rampant relativism goes uncorrected by epistemological and moral realism.

Well, I could go on and doubtless will. Certainly, this journal will. It will do so now under the proximate guiding hand of Michael Novak since I, after five years, want to finish a number of academic projects and shall be, if not absenting, then distancing, myself from felicity awhile. This is not farewell, but simply a move into the background. My monthly Quodlibet will of course continue. The journal is now an established voice in current discussions. That is what we set out to do. With the help of many, and by the grace of God, we have succeeded.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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