From the Publisher: Rome, Spur of Intellectual Freedom

Long ago as a child, in saying the family rosary, I learned to recite the Apostle’s creed, even before fully comprehending its many large and pregnant words. As an altar boy and choir boy, I learned to sing by memory the Nicene Creed at Mass on Sundays, Holy Days, and other occasions.

In those days, it never quite occurred to me that in reciting these creeds, I was taking an oath that should be regarded as oppressive to my liberty of choice. On the contrary, it was my liberty that I tried best to apply to them, so as to shape my soul by them. Maintaining the hard-won “faith of our fathers” did not seem to me a burden, but an inexpressible privilege.

Later, reflecting on my belief in “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” I came to understand that I was also binding myself to the ordinary teaching magisterium of the bishops and the Holy See. Indeed, by the time I was in high school I had already learned that in many ways papal social thought was more advanced, more “liberal,” than that of some American bishops. Accordingly, I came to appreciate the checks and balances inherent in the Catholic scheme, linking the authority of bishops to their communion with the Holy See. We often in those days used appeal to Rome as a protection from any local falling off from full understanding of the faith.

The very substance of Commonweal and America, among other journals for which I began writing during my college days in the mid-1950s, often depended upon appeal to papal authority, over that of some of our local bishops, whose talents in those days seemed so much more administrative than intellectual or doctrinal.

Then, in Vatican II, great appeal was made to the entire “people of God,” and especially to singling out lay persons as a new source of initiative and fresh reflection upon the mission of the Church in the modern world. This impulse, too, came from Rome— from Pope John XXIII and the council fathers —and it was a joy to receive. Nothing in it undermined the authority or the centrality of Rome.

Since those days, the Vatican curia has been thoroughly internationalized. New recruits and tides of invigorated church life reach it from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Thus, it is to a more representative and more various Rome, in human terms, that we turn today in pledging our belief and trust in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The Holy See has also become more visible and understandable through the international appeal of Pope John XXIII and the travels of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

Therefore, in contemplating the new pledge of allegiance to the fullness of Catholic teaching requested of teachers of Catholic theology, I find nothing out of keeping with my childhood commitments.

According to canon law, it seems that only professors of theology on pontifical faculties will be strictly obliged to take the new oath, for reasons amply clear in the cases of Hans Kueng and Charles Curran. Such professors are entitled to speak in a particularly learned and a specially authoritative way for the Holy See; they have a special canonical status.

Years ago, however, it seemed to me, in deciding whether or not to accept ordination as a Catholic priest, that every priest has a distinctive obligation to speak in an official way for the Catholic Church, sharing in the work of his bishops or (in the case of religious congregations) the papacy itself. My own temperament gradually taught me that my own vocation was to go beyond existing boundaries, to explore new territories, and to take intellectual risks in which it would be best not to implicate the Church. My intention was, and is, to understand the faith that has been given me, to be faithful to it in all respects, and to submit my work, however poor, to the proper authorities for their judgment as to whether it actually meets the tests of faith.

To do this, I surmised, would require of me a lay life, with its relatively lower threshold of responsibilities. I wanted to write fiction and to be engaged in cultural, political, and economic investigations and commitments in which it would not be right or fair to implicate the entire Church. I would need room to take intellectual chances and to err. In such circumstances, I would not be in a position to be speaking for the Church. The Church would be free to sift what I was doing, if it so chose, and to separate the good wheat from the chaff. Intellectual (and, even more, artistic) life is full of hazards.

To pursue a set of ideas with rigor and intensity is, by its very nature, to risk fallible judgments, emphasizing some points to the relative neglect of others, and taking positions that —from a more universal point of view —might well need correction.

Intellectuals must love what they are doing, since love is the driving force of intellect, and thus inherent in sustained intellectual work is the temptation of falling in love with one’s own horizon and point of view, to such an extent that one may unwittingly neglect other important horizons. Practically all points of view include within themselves some good; but it is exceedingly easy to include within them many errors, too, which may bring long-term damage to the community of faith. Catholic thinkers, especially, must often recall that they are thinking for an entire community, for a tradition, and not solely for themselves. We are not Lone Rangers. Our task as thinkers is communitarian, not merely individualistic.

Just the same, sustained inquiry in such matters as most interest me —the proper articulation of Catholic faith in the tissue and fiber of the distinctive culture of the United States (and similar political economies) — must necessarily be highly personal work. It is here that the hazards enter. Every single person needs the correction of many others, for such a task is communitarian in its intention. Work like mine is that of an explorer or a scout. I like best territories yet unexplored. Practically every one of my books is a foray into unmapped territories.

But scouts are not generals. Scouts write reports, but legitimate leaders, charged with guiding the entire pilgrim body, must make decisions about which paths are safest and most fruitful for the community at large. Thus it is important for scouts, advocates though they be, not to fall too much in love with their own intuitions and reports. We are not decisionmakers.

If scouts err, let it not be from ill will; nor from lack of fidelity to the laws of true and honest inquiry. Integrity of mind and largeness of sympathy to opposing viewpoints are indispensable. Yet errors may occur. It is precisely such a sense of limited responsibilities that gives one courage to overcome obstacles and opposition, criticism and even worse. It allows one to await with equanimity the judgment of the community, of proper authorities, and of history itself. One’s task is to inquire relentlessly, to report findings truthfully, and to wait with patience the necessary verdicts.

Are there dangers in committing important matters to a public oath? Yes. If too many are obliged to take it; if the obligation is undertaken pro forma (in order to protect one’s job); and if it leads some to a kind of sustained dishonesty, hiding what they really think. In all such cases, an oath taken by obligation, and not offered willingly, can have undesirable effects. Nonetheless, there is nothing in the oath that should not be as natural as breathing: an expression of trust in the Holy Spirit working through the humble, sometimes clumsy, always human instrument of those charged with the offices of the Magisterium. It goes no further than their legitimate authority, beyond which there is not only liberty to go, but an obligation of the inquirer to truth.

The anomaly today is that many Christians seem to argue that the Holy Spirit works everywhere— among the people, in revolution, in socialism, in capitalism, among the poor —except in the Magisterium. They regard the Magisterium as an oppressor to be overturned, a stone to be rejected by the builders of “the new church.” They reject it and despise it.

For simple believers, however, it is as natural to hold the Magisterium in respect (obsequium) as to be arrested by wonder. What the magisterium teaches does not halt questioning; it prompts further probing. When the magisterium offers “hard teachings,” and asks, “Will you, too, go away?” those who may at first disagree, or be surprised, or have further questions, are forced to stop and ponder. This is especially true when the magisterium goes against the “spirit of the age,” especially on matters that arouse passion and commitment (things like sex, economics, politics, etc.). It is not altogether bad to have one’s own tendencies checked and balanced, and to be obliged to think again. It is a gain for inner freedom.

Publicly, when I thought the issue of Catholic teaching on birth control still open, I did dissent from the strict interpretation of Humanae Vitae in one crucial respect. I thought that its principles applied over a lifetime, but not in every single act of marital love. I thought that married couples ought to be open to having children (not to mention desiring to have children) as a consequence of marital lovemaking, but not necessarily in every single act. It is now plain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Holy See finds this construction too loose, inadequate, and erroneous.

I accept the right of the Holy See to pronounce on the correct interpretation of Catholic principles, in this as in other matters of faith and morals. Were anyone to ask the reasons for my earlier views, I would be glad to spell them out; they were not without substance. But I can no longer (as I noted in Confession of a Catholic, 1982) present them as other than at variance with Catholic teaching. It is my task as a philosopher and theologian to spell out such reasonings as derive from serious investigation into matters of natural law. It is for the Church to render authoritative verdict. My obligation to candid investigation and truthful articulation has now been accomplished. That done, now my obligation to the Holy See is to trust the Holy Spirit speaking through His legitimate voice. On this matter Rome has spoken; causa finita est.

In recent years, much has been hidden in fog. Personal opinion has sometimes been presented as the true teaching of the Church. Opinion and true teaching have often gone undistinguished, as if each person were a private pope. Some theologians have suggested that they, not bishops and popes, speak with the more authoritative voice. The new oath will force us out of the mists to declare ourselves.

Nothing clears the air so much as a sic aut non. In the face of a need to make a decision yes or no, even a yes, but casts a brilliant light. Thus, the fog of mere opinion —you with yours, I with mine, who cares? —will begin to lift. We shall see soon, then, the opening of the American Catholic mind, as the clash of intellectual affirmation and denial flashes forth.


  • 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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