Looking Ahead: The Next Five Years

Five years ago, when Ralph Mclnerny and I each contributed $1,000 to print the first number of Catholicism in Crisis, several commentators asked: “What crisis?” It wasn’t long, though, before national news magazines splashed the word CRISIS on their covers, linked to “the Catholic Church in America.” By now, many from all points of view — progressives, traditionalists, and centrists — have declared a crisis.

Recently, a seminarian at the North American College in Rome articulated the crisis this way: “Are we the American Catholic Church, or the Roman Catholic Church in America?” That is the question, to which the young lad correctly replied: “The latter.”

What most distinguishes Roman Catholicism from other Christian churches is its faith that the Bishop of Rome has been given a special ministry of service to the Christian church spread around the world, a special authority, a special set of graces for keeping the Catholic body faithful to the revelation that has been entrusted to it. But how, today, are we to understand papal authority?

Before Vatican II, the culture of “non-historical orthodoxy” dampened questioning, legitimate dissent, and experimental inquiry, and kept the Catholic Church from being as “open” to the intellectual world around it as it ought to be. There may be some who want to go back to that, but they are very few in number compared to those who hold different positions entirely.

The “progressives” want to make the national churches more independent of Rome. They seem to want the Catholic Church to function rather as the Protestant churches now function, with final authority being lodged in the individual conscience acting, as they say, with “mature independence and responsibility.”

But a growing body of Catholics, including many of those who have gathered around Crisis, have come to observe that in recent years far more has been written (and acted out) in favor of individual conscience than in favor of the proper role of papal and Episcopal authority within the Church. In order to maintain fidelity to its origins, the authentic Catholic tradition has always required a delicate balance between these two poles, liberty and authority. Where today does that balance lie? (There is an American analogue to this question in the balance between a “loose” and a “strict” construction of the U.S. Constitution.)

On the one hand, without liberty of conscience, there would be nothing for the authority of the pope to appeal to. He does not have armed divisions. In open and pluralistic cultures, there is nothing he can appeal to except consciences (as in a different sort of culture Jesus had to do). The only reason why mature and free women and men are willing to offer a special inner ear to the voice of the Bishop of Rome is their faith that God has raised up this special office to perform a unique ministry. The papal office, in short, is an important datum of their faith.

But this office is not to be conceived of in a simplistic way. Built into it, and surrounding it, there are several sets of checks and balances, and thus its clear reception demands of the people spiritual discernment. The Bishop of Rome is ordained to preach the Gospel, and in modern times the ordinary exercise of his office requires preaching more than once a day, often addressing himself more to the needs of the church around the world than to his diocese in Rome. In ten brief and rapid-fire days in the United States, e.g., Pope John Paul II spoke publicly and on the record more than fifty times. Even on ordinary days, visitors from elsewhere flock to St. Peter’s. Not all these multitudes of words coming from the pope have equal weight. Listeners capable of discernment and exact discrimination must hear him from the heart, and with exact intelligence, in order to discriminate which of his words are meant to take root in their souls, and with what degree of authority.

It has long been understood that the full authority of the Bishop of Rome comes into question only in the domain of “faith and morals,” in those matters closely connected with the revelation entrusted to the church. In novelties and in matters unconnected with the revelation entrusted to the Church, the pope does not speak with especially graced authority. His proper authority must further be undergirded by the consensual teaching of the whole community of bishops around the world and across the ages. These are important checks and balances.

In addition, as Cardinal Newman wrote with guarded care, the circuit of teaching in the church is not complete until the Catholic people around the world “hear” the teaching of the Bishop of Rome, and validate it in their daily belief and practice. Many things said by various popes during the past 200 years, for example, have fallen by the wayside, judged perhaps to have been too much influenced by considerations of time and place. But others have leapt to life in daily practice. As an example of the latter, consider the practice of frequent communion encouraged by Pius X. As an example of the former, consider some of the strictures outlined by Pius IX in the “Syllabus of Errors.”

This magazine hopes little by little to set forth a theological presentation of the full complexity of Catholic thought about liberty and authority within the Church. Apart from fidelity to the teaching given the Church by Christ, there is no point to being Christian. Ours is not a laissez-faire religion; it is a discipline, a way.

Besides the question of authority, there is also the dismaying condition of the contemporary liturgy. There used to be considerable power in the words of the Creed as we used to say it in Latin, when we said: “Credo in unum Deum . . . ” We sang, in other words, “I believe . . .” This first-person singular underlined the crucial role of the individual conscience, in attaching itself to the communal creed articulated ever since the early fourth century. By contrast, the present English version, like so many contemporary renditions of the faith, misses the point: “We believe in one God. . .” Yes, it is true that the community believes. But the contemporary liturgy of community is excessive, and far too “horizontal” in its symbolism. The ancient “Credo” was also a communal statement, but far more direct, and far more “vertical,” placing in stark illumination the drama between God and the individual soul.

It is as though the contemporary liturgy had been designed by atheists, who might celebrate the togetherness of the human community, without any commitment to the transcendence of the Almighty, felt in silence and in solitude. The contemporary liturgy has been flattened out. It gives more symbolic weight to the togetherness of the people who happen to be present at a particular service at a particular time than to communion with the unseen legions of the angels, saints, and ordinary persons down the ages and yet to come, under the judgment of a jealous God. It resonates too little with what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” One experiences today’s liturgy as one experiences a meeting of the Lions Club, the Rotary, or Kiwanis.

There is much work, then, for intelligent Catholics to do if we are to bring about the true and profound reformation of the faith that Vatican II called for. What has been accomplished until now, in several key areas, is very much more like a trivialization of the faith. We must start again. Ecclesia Semper Reformanda. (“The Church must always be reformed.” Especially now.)

Another problem is the “politicalization” of Church teaching. Catholic social teaching has relevance for social and political structures. Indeed, without the Jewish and Christian doctrines of the Creator and of humans created in His image, contemporary notions of human creativity and inalienable rights endowed in humans by their Creator would not have been available to ground the modern experiment in the free society. Nonetheless, the theory of many modern liberals has often been too blind to the spiritual origins and communitarian nature of human polities and economies. Here, Catholic social teaching has offered a necessary corrective — and a deeper philosophical basis — for liberal theory. But the institutions of the liberal society have often blazed a path for the practical embodiment of Catholic social thought. This is shown in the institutions protecting religious liberty and the other liberties of the human spirit, in the arts, sciences, and communications; in the institutions of human rights and democracy; and in the institutions of what Wilhelm Roepke called “the humane economy.” Thus, liberal institutions have often offered to the Catholic Church a practical way of incarnating its teachings as a praxis that actually works for “the Christian liberation” of peoples.

How to join transcendent social teachings with practical, working institutions embodied in the habits of sinful human beings is no easy matter. Too often, theologians and even bishops seem simply to be clothing their own political preferences in theological language. On these matters, astute discernment is necessary to distinguish prudential judgments (in which pluralism and respect for diversity are necessary) and declarations of moral principle. Separating what is Caesar’s from what is God’s, what is of moral force from what is prudential, is far from easy. This process is often being shortcircuited today. Vigilance is the enduring price both of fidelity and liberty.

Thus, the range of issues that Crisis must confront reaches far beyond the confines of the Church. In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated, there were only 67 nations on this planet. By now there have come to be something above 165. Much of the world is in the process of “nation building.” This means the building of new orders, new systems, new forms of political economy. As the three-fold structure of Gaudium et Spes suggests, it entails three distinct, although related, liberations: liberation from torture and tyranny through a sound political system; liberation from poverty through a creative economic system; and the liberation of mind, conscience, and information through a system of free and pluralistic institutions. These include the many diverse institutions of intellectual life, of the universities, of the churches, and of the press.

Experience since the Second World War has taught us that this process is far more difficult than those who gave their lives in that war dreamed. Ideas have consequences, and many of the ideas upon which new nations have been founded have proved to be devastating to the peoples on whom they were inflicted. Most often, intellectual “vanguards” imposed these new systems. Alas, intellectuals are particularly vulnerable to utopianism. The “utopic theorists” against whom Madison protested in The Federalist have appeared in history far more often than biblical realists, such as those who devised our own novus ordo.

What is this “new order”? What is “new” about it? What is the significance of the American system on the international scene? Many of our “progressives” who dare to say that Pope John Paul II is not “American” enough, almost never themselves have a good word to say about America. They give no evidence of insight into the originality of the American system. In practically everything they write, they denigrate America. Then they ask the pope to become more “American.” Why on earth should he follow their definition of that task, seeing that they themselves so often blame America first?

Curiously, as George Weigel showed in an essay in these pages some months ago (“Is America Bourgeois?” October 1986), both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger have at times shown great uneasiness about “progressive bourgeois cultures” and the theology to which they give rise. In this country, the same writers who (properly) oppose laissez-faire in economic matters praise it in the realm of theology. They pretend to be offended by an alleged “consumerist culture,” while recommending “cafeteria Catholicism.”

But the American tradition is laissez-faire neither in economics nor in politics nor in the need for self-mastery, self-control, character, public virtue, and natural law. As models of virtue, indeed, the Framers turned to Cicero especially, as the public turned to George Washington.

In short, the American idea itself is a bone of contention in the self-understanding of the Catholic Church here and abroad. An exact, impartial understanding of the American experiment has now become a crucial datum in both secular and theological discourse.

What, then, is the meaning of America? That is one question that Crisis in the future must explore.

Indeed, we changed our name from Catholicism in Crisis to Crisis not long ago, precisely to call attention to the fact that the crisis to whose full investigation we have dedicated ourselves is occurring not only in the Catholic Church but in the entire Western world. Confronted with the Soviet Union, with China, and with the many different worlds linked together under the inappropriate name “the Third World,” what precisely is the meaning of the universal, inner vision of “Western civilization”?

The most important theme of the papacy of John Paul II is “the primacy of spirit,” combined with a strong earthy sense of this world, its limits and its needs. It is a theme beloved of Jacques Maritain, and therefore of this journal, whose first home was in the Maritain Center at Notre Dame. Well, what is at stake for the human spirit in the West today? What is the meaning of the West for the human spirit? Has it not opened up “natural liberty,” that is, the liberty of all humans everywhere? Its vision of “ordered liberty” is certainly not a parochial liberty.

The present crisis is visible in popular culture and the media, in the ideas regnant among the world’s intellectual classes, and in forms and systems of political economy around the planet. It has become a cliché to say that the world (excluding, of course, its walled-off Communist part) is one and interdependent. It is less noted that economic dynamism made it so. Interdependence has been achieved economically, long before it has been achieved politically or culturally. Our self-knowledge is very weak, indeed.

Again, the Ayatollah calls America “Satan,” and the Sandinistas call America “the enemy of mankind.” Certain illiberal Catholic moralists hold that a “capitalist culture” is inimical to the Gospels (oblivious to the fact that, without the yeast of the biblical vision, modern capitalism could not two hundred years ago have made its first appearance in history in Christian lands). Many leftists have scorn for the liberal tradition, just as many aristocratic traditionalists attack it from the right.

What is the meaning of the American experiment — this novus ordo seclorum — for the rest of the world, including the Catholic Church? Is American social thought — in The Federalist, in Tocqueville, in Lincoln and in others — less highly developed than Catholic social thought? Is it inferior? In breadth, depth, and workability, the best of it may well be blazing a new trail for Catholic social thought. American social thought does not take the form of a creed; it is pluralistic. But it has had no peers (Tocqueville observed in 1836) either in its practical wisdom or in its grasp of the general principles of the “new science of politics”: principles, e.g., about human nature, human rights, human frailty and sin, the public good, and a diagnosis both of the diseases associated with democracies and the remedies thereto.

We have been called a “neo-conservative” journal, the first and only neo-conservative Catholic publication in the country. The name does not entirely please us, but it does distinguish us from all others, far right and far left alike. We intend to keep stretching the center, expanding its circle. (If Lord Acton properly called Thomas Aquinas “the first Whig,” for holding that civilization is constituted by mutually respectful argument among creatures of reflection and choice, and that government accordingly must be based upon the consent of the governed, the tradition in which we work has a noble lineage and a more ancient name.)

For the first five years, we have given much space to specifically Catholic matters. We will continue to do so. But as the change in our name signaled many months ago, you can count on our expanding our secular coverage during the next five years. The crisis is everywhere around us. It is, succinctly put, a disease in the immune system of the soul (of which AIDS is only a corporeal symbol). We intend not only to devote more pages to the lay world of work and culture that is the proper focus of lay activities, but also to do more reporting on actual people and events. The prejudices and foibles of the Catholic left have had a free ride in most of the Catholic press. Simply to report on many of them is to puncture them. To bring such views to light is to oblige their bearers to offer for them a reasoned defense — an exercise to which many, lacking competition, have become unaccustomed.

To Ralph Mclnerny, who has served as publisher for its first five years, Crisis owes an enormous debt. Without Ralph Mclnerny, there would have been no Crisis. Ralph will continue his service to the journal, but without bearing alone so much of the burden. And Terry Hall, thank God, will continue the hard work of getting Crisis out, with the good help of the very small staff in South Bend. We are seeking a new editor for the front of the book, who will help the publisher in Washington. We will need many prayers and much assistance to expand the magazine and its role in the future. In that, we are in the hands of our readers. Theirs have in the past been very good hands, indeed, and have offered indispensable support, for which we shall be eternally thankful.

The agenda of Crisis is, in sum, a large one. It is both deep and broad. With the generous support of our many writers, readers and friends, we hope this humble journal may not only last another five years but prosper, and (God willing) move from strength to strength.


  • 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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