From the Publisher: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Next month, this journal begins its tenth year. It hardly seems possible, so fast has the time flown. In November, 1982, Ralph Mclnerny and I contributed $2,000 to put out the first, thin issue (14 pages) of what was then called Catholicism in Crisis. We chose for our first editorial several quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr’s first editorial in Christianity and Crisis (February 10, 1941), since the circumstances of the founding of these two journals, 40 years apart, seemed to us analogous. Like Niebuhr, we found the existing journals unsatisfactory, both in their articulation of the faith and in their vision of political economy. In that editorial, we also wrote: “We face with some dread the ‘great, climactic battle’ which Solzhenitsyn predicts on the horizon.” In the 1980s, that battle unfolded before our eyes.

Nine years later, that battle has been won. Communism, still strong and expanding in 1982, lies before us defeated. In September, I visited with joy the former Leningrad, USSR, now St. Petersburg, Russia, above whose City Hall the white, blue, and red banner of the Republic of Russia snapped against the pale blue sky that Dostoevsky had often described; nowhere in sight was the red banner of the Communist USSR. City officials are eager to build democracy and capitalism.

Not only in the USSR, but from Sweden to Israel, the once “progressive” socialist ideal lies in tatters. Liberation theologians in Latin America, who in 1982 were blaming all their continent’s woes on “dependency,” by 1991 were worrying aloud that the attention of the “North” would turn to the “East” and leave the “South” without anyone on whom to depend.

How much the world has changed in the few years of this journal’s brief existence! Pope John Paul II has called the Catholic people back to the biblical realism that is our orthodox and life-giving treasure. The tide of politics, after much bloodshed, has turned away from simplistic “Socialist Revolution” to the more complex path of democracy, as well as to the dynamics of markets, invention, and enterprise. The brave young Chinese students in Tiananmen Square fashioned a large replica of the Statue of Liberty (with Western eyes!), saying that the liberty they sought has a particular history, with which they intended to identify. Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia speak unashamedly of American ideals. The “American moment” in world history has arrived in the arena of practicable international ideals.

At this journal, too, in these first nine years we made some history of our own. We published two precedent- shattering “lay letters,” Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (1983) and Toward the Future: Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy (1984). Thanks to the extraordinary openness of the U.S. Catholic bishops, both letters had decisive effects on the final wording of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letters on the same subjects—and, incidentally, brought the bishops’ efforts millions of dollars worth of publicity by enlarging the public and international debate. Without the existence of this journal, those two lay efforts would not have been practical.

We have been ardent supporters of Pope John Paul II’s heroic efforts not only to reform the Catholic Church internally, but to advance liberty in Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, and throughout the world. His battles were our battles. We did our best to stand with him, against much criticism. We welcomed Centesimus Annus as papal approval of moderate and proven forms of democracy and free-market creativity, combined with a trenchant critique of contemporary liberal culture from a Christian standpoint.

We have delighted in the steady growth of democratic and free market experiments in Latin America and cheered the passing away of the military dictatorships of right and left. (In this hemisphere, only Cuba still stands athwart history yelling, “Stop!”) We worked for, and rejoiced in, the electoral defeat of the fraudulent Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. We have supported the building of a new democratic and free market “center” between the two minority extremes of left and right in El Salvador. We celebrated the liberation of the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe (never having been embarrassed to refer to them as captive nations).

We said in our reflections on nuclear policy that the first drafts of the bishops’ letter paid too much attention to weaponry, which is not the Church’s forte, and too little to the moral reformation of politics, which is. The great moral/political overthrow of Communist power in 1989 and 1991 has vindicated our judgment about the fundamental priority of political change. And in Eastern Europe, the Reagan military build-up, which in the name of peace we supported, is universally given credit for having forced the Communists to turn in new directions.

We thought the early drafts of the bishops’ letter on economic policy yielded too much to socialist methods of “positive” welfare rights (rights to a job, to income, to welfare, etc.); gave too little attention to the corruption of individual and family morals which invariably follow in the wake of socialist methods; and did not sufficiently stress moral formation, personal initiative, and civil society (as distinguished from the state). We take the critique of the welfare state in Centesimus Annus, as well as the severe dislocations of Swedish social democracy and its now-recognized corruption of the once-admirable Swedish character, as ample vindications of our point.

Not often has it been given to warriors in the heat of battle to see so many victories so swiftly won. We stand in humble recognition of the power of God’s grace. We fought vigorously for our convictions, but could not hope to see so many dreams come true.

Nonetheless, the tasks we set ourselves in 1982 have not been completed. Too many writers of the “progressive” left, Catholic and main-stream, still “blame America first.” Their social/political ideals are still in thrall to socialist economics—the economics of envy, dependency, and social control. They place excessive confidence in the supposedly “disinterested” bureaucratic elites that administer the “social assistance state,” the weaknesses of which Pope John Paul II has so well exposed, and have not taken sufficient account of the corruption of the family inherent in it. Sweden’s illegitimacy rate, for example, is three times higher than that of the United States. The problem with the welfare state is structural and moral. Care for the poor is a moral imperative; but how that care is achieved is also a moral issue, in need of moral scrutiny.

Our “progressives” accuse Rome of being insufficiently American—but then, when Centesimus Annus lavishly borrows American ideals, from “the rule of law” and “ordered liberty” to free markets, enterprise, and invention, many are reluctant to honor their own national experiment. Some even say (with Gregory Baum and David Hollenbach, S.J.) that what the pope really has in mind is Germany’s “social market economy.” Well, the concept of the social market economy is in any case a cousin of the American concept of democratic capitalism. Clearly, of these two cousins, Centesimus Annus singled out ideas of creativity, invention, and enterprise that are more indigenous to American social dynamism than to the German welfare state. “Americanists,” one would think, would be quick to note that. But the ideal cherished by many Catholic “progressives” is actually European in derivation. Many do prefer Germany.

However, it is most of all in matters of culture—of faith and morals and liturgy and catechetics—that this journal now anticipates many sharp battles ahead. Can anyone today doubt the “staggering ignorance” of the faith evident in Catholics educated since 1965, compared to the generations that immediately preceded them, as B.F. Smith reports in this issue? Can anyone doubt that “the new liturgy” has produced far less good fruit than prophets such as Virgil Michel expected, and that through it “happy talk” has often been substituted for the basics of Christian faith? Or that the ordinary Catholic culture of our parishes and religious communities is far less vital than it once was, and in the future will have to be? Where are the vocations to priestly and religious life? Where is the culture—small but intense—that would today support a Thomas Merton, a Jacques Maritain, or a Flannery O’Connor?

Sin, grace, the transcendence of God, life lived sub specie cetemitatis, the sense of communion with all the saints of ages past, a healthy fear of the judgment of God to come—all these seem to have been amputated, as if Vatican II had meant (absurdly) to detach us from all that went before. “Tradition,” this journal has learned from G.K. Chesterton, “is the democracy of the dead.” We hope that tomorrow’s liturgy will witness not to a self-congratulatory “community,” shaking each other’s hands like members of the Lion’s Club, but to the awesome God who is our Beginning and our End. And could it not also be a liturgy of quiet adoration, contrition, and love?

Much has gone wrong in the American Catholic Church since Vatican II. Not all the great experiments there begun have worked as promised. Daniel Callahan once wrote in The Commonweal that in the period of Vatican II we were confronting, not exactly a crisis of reform, as so many said, but a crisis of faith, which many were refusing to see. How right he was.

The crisis of American culture is also profound. Surely, the political and economic liberties which our forebears wrested with so much blood and sweat from the sorrows of history were expected to produce better than the tawdry cultural atmosphere of today. Surely, our forebears held higher hopes of us. To be worthy of our liberties, we must use them far more wisely than we do.

Who watching television or going to the movies can doubt that our media elite is in need of a vigorous religious awakening, rooted in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity? Our democracy desperately needs a shaking-up of our elites. American social life is riven with poverty-inducing and crime-multiplying pathologies. Neither democracy nor capitalism can survive the moral breakdown into which these elites have so blithely been conducting us.

In the 1980s, we lived through the death of socialism. In the 1990s, we witness the inadequacy of moral relativism. For example, Richard Rorty’s “contingency all the way down” is a cheerful nihilism, providing no ground on which one can “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The culture of our universities and media elites is sick unto death.

Yet there are many signs that God, Who is always faithful, does not desert us in our present necessities. Grace in our midst seems almost palpable. Witness the steady stream of accessions to full Catholic communion in recent years—not least by many key contributors to this magazine. As we said in our first editorial: “We expect a ‘new spring,’ after the present critical years.” That second spring is already arriving: you can smell it in the wind.

Our magazine limps along on small budgets, a tiny staff, and a circulation amounting to about a thousand new readers for each of our first nine years. We have trusted in the goodness of Providence to make up for our deficiencies, which are many. After the battles of our first nine years, we prepare for our second decade with exhilaration.


  • 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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