From the Editor: The New Crisis

Ralph McInerny and I launched this journal in November 1982 with approximately $3,000 of our own money. We weren’t sure we’d last for a second issue, let alone for ten years. Thanks to the more than 300 writers who have appeared in these pages since then, and the thousands of readers who have supported us, we begin a second decade with new energy.

Only some 265 million persons dwelt on earth at the first millennium of the Christian era, the year Anno Domine 1000. Theirs was a far poorer and ruder world. Much blood and sweat, many sufferings, and many agonies went into bringing us from there to here. Even in this bloodiest century, the outcome of two great battles seemed long in doubt—”vigorous” dictatorship versus “decadent” democracy; “idealistic” socialism versus “immoral” capitalism. These two great political and economic questions, at least in large outlines, have now been resolved. But a great cultural question remains: Whether human beings will respect the ecology of liberty, and create a moral culture supportive of liberty. For liberty cannot survive in certain moral climates.

Ralph and I determined that Crisis would be an ecumenical journal with a decidedly Catholic focus. The reason for that focus seemed to us crystal-clear then, and it is even clearer today. The Catholic Church lies at the center of what is called “the West” (which is now in so many places under multicultural attack). By using the name Reformation, Protestant Christianity defines itself with reference to Catholicism. The children of the Enlightenment also define themselves by reference to Catholic faith. (What else do they claim to be enlightened from?)

This blue-green planet is an orb and no place on it is truly “the West.” As this orb turns on its axis, each place on it is in some sense “west” of some other place. On the other hand, Japan does think of itself as “the land of the rising sun,” and calls itself in effect Oriens. And in the Christmas story, the three Wise Men “from the East” rode “westward” in search of the Christ child. But the real point is not geographical at all: “Western civilization” is the civilization that Judaism and Christianity inspired, in the small dynamic patch bounded by Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Athens, and Rome. Not to understand the Catholic part of this story is to fail to grasp a large part of modernity’s energy. Modernity owes a whole host of its dearest concepts—person, will, conscience, compassion, creativity, equality, individuality, and universality—to Catholic (and Jewish) culture.

When there is a crisis in Catholicism, there is a crisis in our culture as a whole.

Culture Wars

At the beginning of the 1980s when this magazine was founded, Catholicism faced internal enemies on both political and economic fronts. Many Christians were willing to identify Christianity with non-democratic regimes, some few with the Right (as in Pinochet’s Chile) and many more with the Left (as with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the guerrillas in El Salvador). On the economic front, both the marxisants and liberation theology had begun to work for a socialist future. Fortunately, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger stood firm on authentic ideas of Christian liberty. They spoke in favor of democratic protections of human rights; political pluralism; religious liberty; and personal economic initiative. Through events of raw and painful history, Providence spoke yet more emphatically. Christianity did not become implicated in non-democratic tyranny and socialist economics. Dictatorship and socialism did not become the face of Christianity. The transcendence of Christianity was saved.

In this context, Cardinal Ratzinger told a small group of Americans in 1987 that Marxism was already dead. Its rather corpulent body might yet thrash around for some years, but its brain had died. And what new enemy did he see threatening both human civilization and the Church? The full exposition of his thought on this question should be left to Cardinal Ratzinger. But the question is a good one.

The evil spirit that gave birth to fascism, nazism, and communism in the twentieth century is certainly not dead. Who can believe that it is? The modern era is an age of many spiritual forces that take up residence first in one form, then another. The modern era is a habitable environment for gnostic spirits. The Enlightenment, after all, described itself as a kind of Gnosis, a way of knowing superior to other ways, a stage of knowing higher than earlier ways, a discipline to be acquired from masters. It implied that it represented a superior vision—superior, certainly, to faith and common sense. Are there still not forms of “consciousness raising” all around us?

A new orthodoxy has even been constructed to protect various forms of “higher consciousness.” It is called “political correctness.” This new orthodoxy has its own Index of Forbidden Books, its own list of proscribed infidels, schismatics, and “separated brothers.” It is a parody of traditionalist Christianity.

If we may judge by its dramatic presentation in Hollywood films, this new orthodoxy (as sketched by Michael Medved) requires adolescent rebellion (expressed through frequent use of the “F” word and the “S” word, so as to shock… whom?); a profound hostility to religion, plus an acute Christophobia; and a commitment to losing vast amounts of money to produce left-wing “message” films that consistently flop. This new gnosticism pretends to be superior, delights in offending the majority, and has a preposterously inflated view of its own historic excellence. It is anti-institutional. This pop culture of our movies, rock music, videos, and print is toxic to liberty. Also to truth. Certainly to faith.

The struggle for cultural survival has just begun. Having fought battles chiefly on the political and economic fronts during our first decade, Crisis expects to be in the forefront of the cultural wars during “the gay ’90s.”

We made history in the 1980s with our publication of the “lay letter” on nuclear policy in 1983, and our prolonged role in the debate before and after the bishops pastoral on the U.S. economy in 1984. To their credit, the American bishops asked for vigorous public discussion of their preparatory drafts on these subjects. Still, never before had a group of a nation’s lay Catholics published anything so formal, and the deed made international news (and awakened similar efforts by lay persons in other nations). Vigorous critics even asserted that the lay letters had significant effect on the bishops’ own final drafts. Without Crisis in any case, the lay letters might never have taken shape.

But that was then, and this is now. And now the battlefront is different. We hope we can work with many fellow editors of other journals, who were in the ’80s on opposite sides of many arguments. We hope we can work with all persons of good will who worship the One God, who value the Jewish and Christian faiths, who respect the power of truth, and who cherish the religious humanism that is the distinctive gift of the West to the world—a humanism that respects liberty of conscience because it respects the truth sought by conscience, because it respects the moral dignity of those free to pursue, choose, and assert to the truth. Truth is, in the end, the work of love—quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur—and friendship in its pursuit is one of life’s sweetest pleasures. Crisis is as much a gesture of friendship, an evidence of community, as a journal of opinion.

Biblical Realism

So what is the mission of Crisis during its next ten years? From the beginning, this journal has been dedicated to a recovery, in an ecumenical spirit, of orthodoxy (true teaching) in the practice of Christian faith, and in the worldly order, of “biblical realism”—i.e., an awareness of the nobility and sinfulness of humans. Our efforts in this respect owe much to Reinhold Niebuhr, as began our first number by reprinting Niebuhr’s first editorial in Christianity and Crisis in 1941. We have been inspired by the ideals of Christian humanism sketched by Jacques Maritain, from whose Center at Notre Dame this journal was first launched. Desiring an American Catholic layman as our model, we named our Institute for a penetrating observer of American life, the indefatigable publicist Orestes Brownson.

Crisis is a defender of the papacy as a keystone in the system of checks and balances necessary to the institutional life of Christianity. Evidence in our own time shows that among the countervailing forces that constitute the concrete workings of Christian authority, the papacy stands sometimes as a check against national blocs of bishops; at other times against a passionate popular will; and at still other times against powerful state authorities, such as those of communist governments in the dark years 1917-1989. The papacy is the rock on which the church is founded, and when it is weak (as historically it has sometimes been) faith itself urges the faithful to rush to strengthen it. In our own time, we consider it a privilege to work with one of the greatest popes of modern times, John Paul II, a cheerful if often embattled shepherd.

In our own country, we love the institutions built under Providence by the nation’s Founders, building (as the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore wrote) “better than they knew.” We fear that those institutions and the propositions on which they were constructed—those truths held to be self-evident by the Founders—are under relentless assault (as several quotations in George Marlin’s article shows, later in this issue). This assault is not only moral and intellectual; it is also impassioned and backed by immense cultural power. Increasingly, religious people are being de-legitimated in the public schools, in city halls, in state legislatures, and even in the U.S. Congress. The free exercise of religion outside of church precincts is being inhibited. Religious beliefs are ridiculed. Sacrilege is committed by protesters entering even into cathedrals at worship—and without public outcry. The cultural air is, to say the least, heavily polluted; many begin to choke and gasp.

And yet to fight for truth beyond relativism, for the freedom to exercise religion in any public forum, for the dignity of persons, for the Mosaic and the Christian laws, and for a culture of character and republican virtue is neither to fight alone nor in vain. This Republic (especially in its non-establishment of religion) is one of the loveliest fruits of Jewish and Christian faith. To resist the diseases of our current culture is, simultaneously, to draw on this faith and to save the republic from ruin.

In This Issue

One judges a magazine both by its aims and by the stream of articles it actually publishes; by its aims, because in a journal trying to improve, one must allow it constantly to be looking for writers and articles that come ever closer to its ideals; and by its actual menu of articles because these say far more concretely what it is trying to be than abstract statements can convey.

In this perspective, the editors consider the two lead articles of this issue especially satisfying. Rocco Buttiglione is one of the most influential young philosophers in the Catholic world; his work has even been cited by name in a papal discourse, a rare achievement for a living writer, especially one so young. Learned and wise beyond his years, Professor Buttiglione, who holds teaching positions both at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and at the University of Rome, has long been a counselor to Pope John Paul II (He studied philosophy in Poland before Karol Wojtyla became pope.) He has also been an informal advisor to many among the reformers of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, and writes regularly in the Italian press.

His article in this issue, based on a new English translation from his influential study of the philosophy of Pope John Paul II, goes to the heart of Wojtyla’s thought: a conception of the person in which moral agency (hence, liberty of conscience) is of the essence. Employing this contemporary philosophical deepening of the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas—and wielding it with a philosophical precision that cuts considerably deeper than the analysis of religious liberty offered by John Courtney Murray, S.J.—even at the Vatican Council Bishop Wojtyla was able to offer a substantive interpretation of religious liberty. Together with his testimony that a declaration of religious liberty was if anything even more important in the East than in the West, this interpretation was decisive with more than one Council Father in persuading them to vote “placet” on its behalf. In addition, this concept of the person as agent ran like a gold thread through many other Council documents, particularly those on the church, ecumenism, and other religions. It is, as the young Wojtyla quickly saw, not only evidence of the Council’s originality but a key to its underlying vision. It is likewise an interpretive key to Pope John Paul II’s papal teachings. The editors firmly hope that the appearance of this article in English will prompt the speedy American publication of the whole book of which it is a part.

Meanwhile, George Marlin’s on-the-scene report from a battle for liberty of conscience in the neighborhoods of New York City is an example of the sort of investigative reporting Crisis hopes to provide readers more often. Our youngest contributor, Kimberly Gustin Bright, describes with her usual brio the joys of entering the ranks of the newly married—hostile campus feminists be damned. And many voters in the United States were no doubt sharing over Inauguration Day the sentiments of hope described by contributing editor Robert Spaeth; we ourselves saw reason to worry deeply. The editors are also glad to welcome back a feature for which readers’ demand has remained high, USCC Watch, and this time with very good news indeed.

With this issue, too, Derek Cross assumes his new duties as Book Review Editor. For several years the managing editor of The Review of Metaphysics at the Catholic University of America, we expect great things from him in the future.

Social Democrats and Capitalism

Social Democrats USA held a day-long conference at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., from January 8 until the start of the late-afternoon championship game between the Washington Redskins and San Francisco, January 9. Despite cold, sleet, and snow, the participants were in the mood for a little celebrating of the Clinton victory and a comeback for social democracy.

The collapse of communism, many said, freed social democracy from the burden of confusion with the planned economy, nationalization, the abolition of private property, and the other heavy burdens of the ill-fated socialist experiment of the former USSR. Social democrats have always resented the confusion of their own brand of democratic socialism with the so-called “real existing socialism” of the former USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies.

After a long 12 years in the “desert” of Republican administrations, there was exaltation about the imminent return of the Left to power. It seemed significant to many that Clinton’s slogan was “People First,” an approach (they thought) typical of social democracy. There was much lavish praise of the spread of democracy around the world during the last decade.

Considerable praise of capitalism ensued, and also of markets, of mind and invention and incentives and entrepreneurship, Democracy plus capitalism—sounded familiar.

At the same time, the bete noire of democratic socialists remains “liberal capitalism” of the type celebrated by Milton Friedman and the Cato Institute. One speaker took pains to point out that social democracy is a far more conservative movement than heedless, reckless, unchecked capitalism. Social democrats are committed, he said, to protecting those whose jobs are vulnerable to technological change, the unwitting victims of sudden new currents of international trade, and those unexpectedly made to suffer by the downside rhythms of business cycles. “We are in this sense,” he said, “protectionists—not in the sense that we are opposed to free trade, but in the sense that we want to protect the vulnerable.” Others suggested that technological developments, more open international free trade, and fierce competition must inevitably be accepted, while vigorous efforts are applied to adaptation rather than resistance.

Again, those who favor fidelity to the earlier European traditions of social democracy—including such. European words as “solidarity,” “class struggle,” and the proto-socialist analysis of “capitalism as a system”—debated those who recommend throwing off such usage in favor of more accessible American equivalents, rooted in the traditions of Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and others. “One reason socialism never caught on in America,” one speaker offered, “is that Americanism already embodied the socialist ideal in indigenous terms.”

This last debate also took another form. Paul Starr, following up on his much-discussed article, “Liberalism After Socialism,” in American Prospect (Fall 1991) argued that social democrats now represent one strain within mainline liberalism. With the worldwide triumph of democracy and capitalism, and with the demise of Soviet socialism, social democrats ought simply to join the liberal mainstream. Virtually every line in the draft manifesto for social democracy being discussed at the conference, he said, is already part of the general liberal agenda. Liberals are already fighting for these things; social democrats are not alone; and besides, the mainstream language of liberalism is available for making all the important points, without recourse to the special language of social democracy.

To this, Penn Kemble and others made a useful rejoinder. “Over the last 20 years I have often found that the special language of social democracy, with its vivid recollection of earlier arguments, served those of us who knew this language and its history in good stead,” he said. “Liberals who didn’t know these special distinctions were often fuzzy headed and fell into terrible errors: and that’s why liberalism has been driven into exile in so many key elections. Ours is an intellectual tradition worth keeping. I believe it even has special relevance for the near future, given the possibilities of democracy worldwide and the need to tame and humanize capitalism, despite the latter’s obvious merits.”

As a participant-observer (I was asked to serve on one of the Saturday morning panels), I occasionally wondered at the many changes blowing in the ideological breezes these days, after the End of the Cold War. But as Gilbert and Sullivan once observed, little children do seem to be born with either a leftward or rightward tendency—either toward the market and the private sector or toward the use of the federal government.

In this new climate, to much that the social democrats said that day, one might give assent. Social democrats do care about truth, empirical fact, and careful pragmatic analysis. They respect history and tradition, and they see the need for a common culture and an active civic society. They are strong on mediating institutions, and promote a sense of community consistent with an expression of strong personality and vigorous individuality. They see the need for incentives, enterprise, and invention. They oppose totalitarianism in all forms and, while they respect a certain solidarity (voluntary and democratic) against real dangers and real threats, they oppose solidarity based on authoritarianism. Perhaps most distinctively, they are strongly in favor of labor unions, workers, and all those to whom a Jewish, Christian, and humanistic society properly owes compassion.

On the other hand, social democrats have not yet sufficiently disengaged themselves from some of the errors of Marxist analysis (a way of looking at labor; the labor theory of value; the analysis of capitalism as a system; a tilt toward Hegelian “contradictions”; etc.) Some of the appeals that they make to equality are not yet sufficiently thought through. And although they now praise capitalism with a certain unaccustomed enthusiasm, and emphatically denounce the failures of socialism, there is still a certain ambivalence in their analysis of capitalism. They are torn between their real experience of it, good and bad, and the conceptual apparatus by which they first learned to talk about it. That apparatus, even the dictionary definition of capitalism, derives from Marx. It is in serious conflict with experience.

Finally, their optimism about the Clinton administration, which we should all hope will be borne out to the maximum, was not sufficiently guarded (I thought) against the ironies and tragedies in which presidents are unfailingly implicated.

Perhaps all this is but another way of saying that, although I once tried hard to be a devoted social democrat in the manner of my early hero Michael Harrington, and while I retain both admiration and affection for the social democratic tradition (as well as the hope that it will not perish in some melting-pot liberalism), I now judge that the neoconservative critique of social democracy represents a truer and profounder analysis.

Vatican Library Comes to Jefferson

The splendidly renovated Great Hall of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is a living testimonial to the influence of the Italian Renaissance, just as Thomas Jefferson, in establishing the Library of Congress by a grant of his personal library, was from a distance imitating Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455), first papal patron of the Vatican Library, by a grant of 1,160 of his own books. Both men had great faith in the power of books, scholarship, inquiry, and the humanistic arts to inspire great civilizations, and to serve as the foundation of governance. There is also a practical link between these two libraries, each of them among the greatest libraries in the world: during the 1920s, when the Vatican Library was emerging from the hard times it had experienced during the preceding 150 years, the Library of Congress, under the sponsorship of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contributed mightily to the modern reorganization of the Vatican Library through training its personnel and lending assistance in the cataloging of its holdings on the Library of Congress system.

Partly in order to repay this debt, the Vatican Library has allowed some of its most delightful and invaluable holdings to be displayed in the Jefferson Building until April 30 of this year in a magnificent and revolutionary exhibition, thanks to the splendid cooperation of the two remarkable heads of the Libraries, James H. Billington (whose idea the exhibition was) and Father Leonard Boyle. Called “Rome Reborn,” the new exhibition displays a contemporaneous drawing of Rome c. 1320, when its demoralized population numbered a scant 20,000 clustered in two forlorn neighborhoods; the ancient city (which at its peak numbered a million inhabitants) had returned to marshy meadow and brush, and most of its once majestic ruins were buried out of sight. It then tells in lavish drawings and manuscript the story of Rome’s rebirth—renaissance—after the return of the popes from captivity in Avignon, and after their reawakening to the possibilities of a full-blown Christian humanism.

This exhibition will oblige North American scholars to study the contributions of the Renaissance popes to the birth of several of the modern arts and sciences. Of these, the scientific contributions are perhaps the most striking, because less known. Astronomy, geometry, geography, archeology, architecture, mathematics, botany, biology, medicine, anatomy, Far Eastern studies, Arabic studies, philology, music, and many other fields received their modern beginnings in the massive works of recovery, translation, analysis, and commentary that the patrons of the Vatican Library and its teams of scholars and visitors assembled.

The richly illustrated book of essays assembled to accompany this exhibit, edited by Princeton’s Anthony Grafton under the title Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture (Library of Congress, 1993), belongs in every humanistic or scientific library worthy of its name. It offers a staggeringly rich agenda of research yet to be undertaken. The full-colored reproductions of the drawings and manuscripts on display are breathtaking. The text is beautifully written, judicious, fair, and unfailingly stimulating. I defy anyone to taste a page or two without losing an hour or more in enrapt contemplation, wonder, and stimulation. If you ever wondered: What is so great about Western civilization? (to borrow a title-in-progress from my esteemed colleague, Dinesh D’Souza), a touch of its burning eros for beauty and truth will here leap across to your own soul. Moreover, you will remain in awe of the long generation-spanning community of scholars bound together by this eros, whose tireless efforts brought this transmission into our hands. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth” would be a new generation’s ingratitude.

Few things in my lifetime have so humbled me about the twin inheritance of being Catholic and American. We owe deepest gratitude to the Librarian of Congress for conceiving of this project and to all (down the ages) who made it possible and today make it accessible to us.

The Holocaust Museum

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is not due to open until April, but courtesy of Albert “Sonny” Abramson, chairman of its building committee, your editor was given a tour of the construction site on a clear, cold January 17. Situated between the old Bureau of Engraving and Department of Agriculture Buildings, in the block between 15th and 14th Streets off Independence Avenue (and, therefore, just off the Mall, in sight of the Washington Monument) the new building seems from outside rather small and unimposing. Inside, however, even unfinished and unadorned, the building seems huge, open, full of light from a skylight three storeys up and, still above that, glass-bottomed crosswalks connecting the topmost floors.

Immediately, the building induces a hush, one senses sacred space. There is a gentle sense of lines and angles awry, as if the universe is out of joint. Exposed iron and red brick convey simplicity and honesty. On the ground floor, quietly off to itself, is a large Room of Meditation, light pouring through from above and from long slits down stone sides, decorous, as if it were a non-denominational chapel, with places for visitors to sit, to light candles of Remembrance, and to be lost in thought before the Eternal Flame that will later be burning before the far wall. On a lower level, the Meyerhoff Auditorium (still without its seats and adornments) sweeps downward seemingly toward infinity between slowly curving walls.

At the 15th Street entrance will be the Eisenhower Plaza, for taking in the sun and air, with inscriptions on the two surrounding outer walls from General Eisenhower (on discovering the concentration camps in World War II), and the recent Presidents (Carter, Reagan, and Bush) who supported the Museum. Inside the 14th Street entrance will be the battle flags of the 18 U.S. divisions that liberated the camps. The Museum will host a library, computer bank, and video bank on the history both of World War II and of the Holocaust. Film theaters, classrooms, study places, workshops and computer rooms (in which visitors can call up historical materials, ask questions and receive printed replies) are arranged along both sides of the great central spaces, like chancels off a large monastery church.

One’s feet feel at places metal plates underneath, and at other places actual cobblestones from the ghetto of Warsaw. The building materials used throughout the museum are so basic they speak for themselves. Along the interior walls, photographic displays are not yet hung, although the places where they will go are sometimes visible and a few displays have begun arriving. One of the train cars used to take the unsuspecting to Treblinka is along the way, also (still covered with plastic) one of the barracks from Auschwitz.

Stacks of marble facing and steel beams and wood and cables and wires of many sorts are everywhere; it would seem to require a miracle for things to be ready in the short time remaining. But that is the modern method of building. “It will be ready,” Sonny says with his usual smile. “On time.” Sonny knows the building industry well. He knows many things well. His board has had to raise $175 million in private funds. His dream is to serve America with this institution, to make the Museum a national resource.

Even before the exhibits are hung, the building as building is an original. It generates a sense of the sacred. It stirs contemplation about the mysterious time through which we have lived, a time of unimaginable evils, a time never to forget. It seems also to inspire thanks, because over evil, liberty and good (too slowly) finally triumphed, and the flame did not go out.


  • 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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