From the Publisher: You’ll Love the Nineties

For some years now, it is no secret, the ideas that Crisis stands for have taken quite a beating in the National Catholic Reporter, the New Oxford Review, and elsewhere. For some of this, we have been grateful; it has forced us to go more deeply. Much of it, however, has persuaded us that the mainstream religious left of the Christian churches is far out of touch with the main realities of social justice today.

Many on the left understand the cause of the poor and the oppressed of the world to be the cause of socialism. They are profoundly anti-capitalist. They are skeptical about “bourgeois democracy.” Their moral heroes are the Sandinistas, the guerrillas in El Salvador, and (for some of them) even Fidel Castro. They scoffed when President Reagan called the USSR “an evil empire.”

When Ronald Reagan heeded the pleas of Europeans to install in Europe an intermediate nuclear missile force to deter the massive Soviet buildup of intermediate nuclear missiles, they insisted on a “nuclear freeze.” The Catholic bishops of the U.S., addressing U.S. nuclear policy, focused on weapons systems, while President Reagan was focusing on the need for changes in the political structure of the USSR and its captive nations.

It is important to ask today who had the more radical program in that bitterly disputed period? As George Weigel demonstrated in Tranquillitas Ordinis, the Catholic tradition since St. Augustine has held that the radical basis of peace lies in political structures, not in weapons agreements. As Ronald Reagan said time and again: “Nations do not mistrust one another because they have weapons; they have weapons because they mistrust one another.” This was, even in Catholic terms, the more radically orthodox approach. Events have borne it out. As the political structures within the USSR have changed, prospects of peace have grown.

Similarly, in their pastoral letter on economics, the Catholic bishops offered no advice at all to a tumultuous world about how, on the ruins of socialist economies, free and prosperous economies might be erected. They misread the signs of the times. They failed to grasp the systemic conditions which make the world’s poor suffer. They offered (in suitably moderated form) the same doctrine of “economic rights” that has led the socialist world to misery and mendacity.

Focusing on the bankrupt Marxist analysis of poverty and oppression in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the religious left has rejected democratic and capitalist ideas about how to liberate the poor, in favor of socialist ideas. All this would be understandable, if it at least represented what the poor of the world actually want. It does not.

Despite Fr. Leonardo Boff’s glowing judgment, after touring the Soviet Union in 1988, that he found there the culture in which the Holy Spirit is most successfully at work in our time, creating “community,” that is not the way the turmoil-stricken people of the USSR describe their system today.

In Latin America, given a chance at democratic elections, the people regularly choose against the extreme right and the extreme left both. They want a dynamic economic system that will deliver for their benefit the same material goods that have dramatically reduced the poverty of the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, and others, who in 1945 were far poorer than any people in Latin America.

Democracy is a very fragile work of art, composed of many complex parts. It does not consist solely of elections. It requires, e.g., a truly independent judiciary and an impartial administration of justice. It requires an effective balancing of factions. It is not an easy system to put in working order. But no real alternative exists in our time for the securing of rights and the achievement of justice. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Furthermore, democracy alone is not enough. True liberation has both an economic and a political component. Unless a growing, creative economy opens up opportunity and prosperity for those at the bottom, democracy cannot survive. The first is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the survival of the second; and conversely.

As the sadly betrayed students of Shanghai briefly demonstrated, the symbol of liberation around the world is still the Statue of Liberty—the American ideal. Pope John Paul II has named it “ordered liberty,” liberty under the lamp of reason and the book of the laws. So stated, the American Proposition now animates the worldwide struggle for universal liberation. The beauty of this proposition is that it allows for a wide pluralism of forms. It is not a univocal, but an analogous, proposition. Its essence is to allow to the children of God the liberties—political, economic, and moral—that God has inalienably endowed in them. It is the system of natural liberty, written into the inner being of our species, creatures fashioned in the image of God.

As the world enters the 1990s, then, it enters with higher hopes for liberty, justice, and peace than it has known for any of the last six decades. Depression, World War II, the Socialist Experiment, and the Cold War have by now—as if with repeated hammer blows—inculcated a certain realism. The key to the 1990s will be institution-building.

For human rights are not protected by parchment barriers. They do not subsist in elegant words. Rather, to secure these rights, governments based on the consent of the governed must be established. These must be limited governments, hemmed in and held in check by a large and vital civil society, which in turn is animated by many vigorous and strong institutions independent of the state. Dependence on the state is much to be feared. The rights to personal economic initiative and to integrity of conscience have no material heft unless the right to own and to dispose of private property is secure. A humble right, the right to private property is required by our embodied nature, as creatures of flesh and blood in a world of space and time. One of its main functions is to confine the power of government; alternatively, to protect abundant space for the exercise of religious, moral, political, and economic liberties.

The end of socialism, which is now in sight, suggests the new possibility of a world of enhanced institutional liberties. The 1990s will be the decade in which building such institutions—and making them work—will be the most consuming challenge. If you liked the 1980s, as Crisis assuredly did (especially the glorious democratic revolutions of 1989), you should love the ’90s.


  • 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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