Public Arguments


Forty-seven years ago, at the tail end of my thirteenth year, my father reluctantly took me to the train in Pittsburgh that would carry me out to South Bend, Indiana, to Holy Cross Seminary. He thought I was too young to enter the seminary even if I did want to become a priest—which he also thought I wasn’t made for. He said to Uncle Johnny (when he thought I was asleep upstairs) that there was no point telling me no; if he did, I would only become more determined. He said I was mature for my years and would find out for myself.

To me my father said, while we were waiting for the train along the hot and noisy tracks, “If you’re determined to go, try to stay at least one full year, no matter how homesick you get or how much you hate it. Give it your best, and then you’ll never wonder later whether you should have stuck it out.” I had never been on a train before and kept my eyes on the enormous iron wheels.

Then just before I broke free to board the car, he said to me, with his hand on my shoulder and looking me right in the eye, “And remember, son. You’re a Novak.” I don’t remember if I said anything, since there was a lump in my throat. I do remember thinking on the train, amid the excitement of this great adventure, Novak is not exactly the name of the Duke of northern Slovakia. But I knew he had an aristocrat’s pride, and it was my turn to be responsible for the name. Stubbornly, I was going to like Notre Dame, no matter what.

Then, when some ten hours later, my new friends and I were actually driven onto the campus in the lazy August heat and caught first sight of Holy Cross Seminary across the still surface of St. Mary’s Lake, beyond a weeping willow, and wheeled quietly past the shaded grotto and its statue of the Virgin, I knew I was going to love it.

I studied with the Holy Cross Fathers from that day in 1947 until early January 1960. I had virtually completed my theological studies—two years in Rome, one and a half at Catholic University—and had postponed ordination as subdeacon, while reaching a decision that I was not, in fact, chosen for this vocation, love it as I had. An enormous inner resistance had welled up within me against it for virtually two years. By the end I was certain that this was not my vocation. Many more are called than are chosen.

Ironically, my father and mother had just been getting used to the belief that I would actually become a priest and were very happy about it. At Holy Cross College, my classmates were shocked by the news; to diminish the surprise, I asked the Superior if we could have a small party the night before I left, so I could thank everybody and say proper goodbyes. Given the years I had been with the community, he agreed, though a party for such an occasion had never been given before.

It has always seemed to me that each of us has a vocation and we should follow it where it leads, even when the way is dark, as it usually is. My faith had been severely tried in the seminary, not because of anything outward but through inner emptiness. These were good trials, and I was never sorry about them; they seemed to me a kind of privilege, although they are perfectly ordinary. I formed a great love for St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and read all of their works and much about them. They were of great comfort.

Consecrated Victims

Those twelve years in the seminary gave me much time to reflect on the priesthood. What a vocation! I used to love the hours of prayer and study. But the point of all the long years of preparation was, we were often told (and it was obvious): service to the people—and not just the Catholic people, the people of the world, for whom Christ had died. To be “another Christ” is no small burden, One certainly learned to count on God’s mercy. There is, in fact, a little Latin saying that catches perfectly the trust one must put in God in the predicament of being a priest: Ecclesia supplet. The Church supplies, the Church as the Body of Christ makes up for one’s own deficiencies. The priest is consecrated with oil and the laying on of hands to the service of God in and through the Church. God will have to make up for his deficiencies. No one is worthy to be a stand-in for the Son of God.

As a further sign of the priest’s consecration to God, and God alone, there is also the vow of celibacy. This is an enormous sacrifice for a young man to make, not knowing the future. It is not altogether different from the vow of marriage, in the exclusivity and permanence of its commitment, and in its sense of the unknown future. It is a sign of special consecration to God, and of the presence all around us of God’s transcendence—to sacrifice what is in itself good and holy is to give witness to the God whose love is eternal and more glorious than any worldly good, indeed the Fiery Source of all worldly goods, the Light with whose radiance they are suffused.

The aspect of the priesthood that is most neglected, it then seemed to me (and still does), is that in becoming a Christ the priest must be done to as a victim, Victimae Paschali, a burnt offering. He must expect to be much burdened, exhausted, used up—not in bitterness, weariness, or acedia (that dreadful boredom of soul into which the medievals had superior insight), but if taken in good spirit, in joy and even exultation. The point is for the candle to be used up, all of it turned (by God’s alchemy) to light. This, of course, is also the layman’s vocation, not only the priest’s, so that for all Christians at the end there is nothing more left, all has been given, all has been put to good use. No talents are to be buried. No time is to have been wasted. Everything is to be given.

Still, the priest, especially, has been set aside for God, and if God gave His Son over to be crucified so also must the priest be prepared to be. If anyone imagines that Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, for example, do not feel the sting of the way they are spoken of and written about (in Time magazine recently, e.g.), their imagination is weak. Indeed, every insult to the Church is a stab to the heart, for those who live in her and love her as flesh of their flesh.

Liturgical Decline

The Church is not just an organization or voluntary association; it is a communion with God. God’s life suffuses her, despite the fact that like Jesus himself she appears abject among men, despised, rejected (in those great words from Isaiah that Handel so brilliantly scores in The Messiah). Priests, especially when they appear in public in clerical collar, feel that rejection; or at least those do who venture often among the cultured despisers of Catholicism, or catch whiffs of the foul breath of self-hatred that afflicts many believers today.

Then, too, among many priests there seems to be a loss of morale since Vatican II. Emphasis on the role of the lay person seems to have led to neglect of the special nobility of the priesthood. Liturgically, the priest seems to have lost his presidency at worship. Centuries-long emphasis on the miracle of the Eucharist has now been dissipated, ritually, into a rather vulgar emphasis on sentimental good feeling among those gathered together—as if the celebration concerns their coming together rather than the adoration of God-among-us Emmanuel. Before, the priest was the doorway through whom God became present on the altar, under the form of bread. Now, ritually, at least as commonly practiced and understood, the priest is more like a facilitator at a company social. (That it does not have to be this way, even in the new liturgy, I have experienced in liturgies in Poland and even, occasionally, here in America).

The theology—at least the popular theology—of the priesthood has changed dramatically in our lifetime, and less by the preplanning of the liturgical reformers than by unanticipated consequences of informality and moody experimentation. Many a freelancing priest preens himself during his improvisations; the less spiritually profound they are, it seems, the more of themselves they feel bound to reveal. The liturgy has gradually sunk into a sea of mediocrity and, with it, the healthy pride of the priesthood. Ironically, there is a redemptive side to this: attending today’s liturgy is often a crucifixion, a test of faith.

The Glory of Celibacy

Attacking the self-confidence of the priest today is also an incessant bombardment upon the ideal of celibacy, along two lines; viz., that this discipline might one day change and that there is something wrong with it. Celibacy is hard enough to bring off when everywhere around it are clarity, confidence, and high social morale. Instead of finding social reinforcement for his sacrifice on behalf of the community, many a priest senses public disapproval, if not suspicion.

Here is one issue on which public opinion, in the church at least, is gravely mistaken and needs to be turned around. The monks of the early centuries did not convert all of Europe and the shores of the Mediterranean other than by their witness to the love of God, even to the sacrifice of wholesome earthly love. Celibacy is a tremendous triumph over natural instinct; it is awe-inspiring and it is capable of igniting millions with the love of God.

The civilization of Christian Europe was conspicuously seeded and nourished by and around the monasteries and monastic schools. Europe’s appetite for the world-defying, the adventurous and the transcendent, expressed in the great gothic cathedrals, was sharpened by its capacities for chastity, for self-mastery and self-denial. Such discipline was not undertaken for pride’s sake but for love of the chaste and celibate Christ. Men and women hungered to be like Him, in the knowledge that the highest model of love is not, after all, sexual union, even in holy marriage, but loving union with God. Even among the knights, even among warriors, celibacy played an unusually honored role, as among religious orders such as the Knights of Malta. (From the military fury of the latter, the Sultans conceived the idea of eunuch-janissaries not tied down by any earthly bond.)

The sheer civilizing power of celibacy is a theme far too absent from standard histories of the West. The role of the monks and mendicants fanning northward from Italy and westward from Ireland and England into the heartlands of Europe is mostly neglected in Protestant and secular accounts. Christian celibacy was earthy, body-affirming, family-cherishing, and resistant to Gnosticism. Its intellectual root was not a denial of the worth of the flesh but, on the contrary, a ringing affirmation of it; only that glorious affirmation could make the sacrifice so worthy. Celibacy is not the foregoing of evil but of good, a great good, a good through which most Christians work out their salvation (as even the Messiah, when at last He came, chose to come in a family). Celibacy is an affirmation of marriage, which is perhaps why families often feel so close to priests, and priests to them, and the truer this is the truer the sacrifice.

Celibacy is not necessary to the priesthood; there have been married priests in the history of the Roman communion as in some other communions today. But it is a potent and clarifying seal to the priesthood, a charism that altogether suits it and adds to its glories and the disarming power of its witness. It symbolizes a selflessness and depth of commitment that are not usual, that are, in an ordinary sense, heroic—heroic and ordinary at the same time, as when a mother would plunge into a burning building at risk to herself to save her infant.

For a higher purpose, all men are chaste and self-denying part of the time; a priest commits himself to being so always, thus opening himself to the service of God’s love at all times. Virtually all his public words and gestures are taken by others as signs of God; like it or not, outbursts of irritation or selfishness or thoughtlessness on his part may well turn others not merely from him but from God.

In such ways, the priest even independently of his personal life (like Graham Greene’s whiskey priest) is an exemplar of the Christian life: another Christ, he is called to the self-sacrifice of the way of the cross as way of love and affirmation and thanksgiving. By his very status as priest he is a servant of the people of God (which includes all serious, self-sacrificing seekers of truth) and witness to the glory of God. For God our Creator is beautiful beyond the sum of all created beauties and infinitely worthy of our lifting all things to Him in love and adoration; and God our Redeemer is merciful and died for our sins. This is what being a priest—not necessarily even a good priest—says to the world. And the priest needs mercy, being quite conscious of not being as good as his station requires. In this, too, his need of mercy, the priest is an exemplar for the rest of us.

A Time to Give Thanks

Few ranks of men have contributed so much during the past twenty centuries to the civilization and learning of the West (which is to say, today, of the whole world) as the Catholic priesthood. Few have been so often totally banned as a caste, or forced into exile, by various types of leaders in various periods of history. Few are so often called upon, even today, to say to the great ones of the world, to their face and in public: “No!” Few are so often sought out to give their blessing, or even by their presence to confer an aura of acceptability. Few are today so much derided in the universities, even the ones that priests founded and nourished for centuries. Few receive so much abuse in the media. Few today so madden the extreme pro-abortion feminists, or the intemperate among the militant gays and lesbians. Few are so loved by peoples, and by elites so feared and hated. The power that they represent is not their own. They serve the God of Truth, Love, and Justice—and the Liberty anchored in Him.

All of us know many truly good priests, human and with human faults, to whom nonetheless we owe profoundest gratitude for words of counsel, for encouragement in bad times, for blessings administered year in and year out, for confessions patiently heard, for piety at the altar, for bringing the miracle of the Eucharist among us so often, for baptizing our children, for bringing the last rites to our parents. The sacraments are like food, needed all through life, and the priests feed us through the sacrifices they have made to be available to us. Often we take them for granted. Too seldom do we voice our thanks for what they are. Although Crisis is self-described as a lay journal—no, perhaps because we are a lay journal—its editors wish to give thanks to our priests and to speak a word of admiration for them. We honor their vocation. It is the highest vocation to which men could be drawn. We pray often that many more young men from the present generation will be drawn into their extraordinary ranks, these men who do so much not only for our community but for the cause of civilization itself, these men so close to the mysteries that lie at the very heart of creation, and of human destiny as well.

To give glory to God is a glorious vocation. So it will be a sign of God’s favor for this nation when the number of men who hear His call begins again to rise. The nation is in crisis, a deeply disturbing crisis of the soul, for which no form of politics or statecraft is a cure. The cure of souls is the work of priests. May God raise many more of them among us!

A Personal Note

With special pleasure, your Editor welcomes Monsignor Linford Greinader to these pages. For many years the principal of Johnstown Catholic (later, Bishop McCort) High School, Monsignor Greinader taught my brothers Dick, Jim, and Ben, and for some three decades was associated with Our Mother of Sorrows parish, first as Associate Pastor and then as Pastor, where Dick said his first Mass and the family has received the sacraments since 1939. Monsignor Greinader was a great pastor, dignified, learned, well-spoken, solicitous, and he was an excellent preacher and solemn presider over a well-conducted liturgy. The famed liturgist Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel of St. Louis was a longtime friend of the parish and its founding pastor, Monsignor Stephen A. Ward, and once called the parish church one of the two or three most beautiful examples of English Gothic in the United States. Monsignor Greinader’s sermons were little jewels of substantive learning. To be able to publish Monsignor Greinader’s reflections on his fifty years as a priest is an honor.

My father died in March 1992, and my mother this past September. Our family has been blessed in the pastors we knew during the 80-plus years of our parents’ lives. All their children are scattered now—Dick (a priest himself) lies buried in Bangladesh, the country he so loved. In Washington, my sister and I have been blessed under the pastorates of Monsignor William J. Awalt at St. Ann’s and Monsignor Thomas M. Duffy at Blessed Sacrament. From the past, Father (now Monsignor) Philip P. Saylor of Johnstown and Monsignor Shinar of McKeesport particularly stand out.

As nearly as we can tell, our families in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia have been Catholic since at least the twelfth century, perhaps longer. Many generations of priestly life have nourished us. In my family’s name, I would like to offer public thanks for all those who have touched our lives and fed us the daily bread of the sacraments.

The Matter of Abortion

(The following is adapted from my lecture for the American Experiment in Minneapolis last spring, and published in Society under the title, “The Conservative Mood.”)

In the American system today, the weakest of its three parts is its moral and cultural system. Politically and economically, the nation is the strongest on earth. Culturally, it is without question suffering from precipitous decline. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in his new book, Out of Control, that the moral culture of the United States is so repulsive to people in several other cultures that it is gravely weakening us in our international role. The assault on traditional morality and basic standards of decency conducted in our movies, television shows, and video rock is, to much of the world, a scandal. Moreover, when combined with the crime statistics, drug usage, and other decadent habits so abundantly reported in our newspapers, this assault on traditional decencies disgraces us. Our people are losing virtue. That is why we have been losing self-government.

Increasingly, religion and those who take religion seriously are made subjects of ridicule by sophisticated elites. People who take their faith seriously, especially Catholics, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews, are being driven to the margins of public life, abused, and made to seem outcast. The small portion of our population that says it does not believe in God, and does not hold to the classical religious standards of Judaism and Christianity, has become increasingly aggressive and hostile and arrogant and powerful. Aggressive secularists insist on teaching students whose SAT scores are falling how to put condoms on bananas. In matters of civil liberties, even our courts of law now give public pornography more respect than public religion.

In the ecology of our culture, the moral ecology, who could possibly say that the air is fresh and clean? Even at the primary levels of the public schools, textbooks are increasingly filled with scurrilous materials being forced upon unwilling or reluctant parents. Even the most innocent forms of religious observance in the schools—ecumenical and generous and open-minded—are rejected by the courts as “unconstitutional.” Moviemakers compete with one another to see how often they can insult their audiences by repetitive use of the “F” word, at least one movie being clocked at once every 39 seconds. Manners deteriorate. So does respect for ordinary decencies. So, also, does respect for life.

Abortion is the most difficult sort of test a republic like ours ever confronts. Factions may be dealt with, Madison pointed out, when they can be arrayed against one another and put in a position of seeking compromise. Over material things, it is relatively easy to cut a deal; they can simply be divided up. But it is not easy to have a nation that is half slave and half free, and it is not easy to have a law that allows half an abortion. On matters of moral principle, compromise at first seems impossible. Great political skill and moral courage, both are necessary.

The Republican Party was born in such a moment, in a confrontation over bedrock principle, in the matter of slavery. Stephen Douglas argued the pro-choice position; Abraham Lincoln pointed out that some choices, in principle, may be used against the chooser. If you agree that some men can choose slavery, you agree in principle that one day you might be legitimately enslaved. Liberty then has no principled defense.

Similarly in our own time, if you agree that acts of violence that kill off a developing human life can be surrendered into the hands of private persons, who may have an interest of their own to protect, then you have violated the social contract. For the social contract described by Hobbes and Locke grants to the state a monopoly on the use of deadly force. And one day, when you are old, weak and vulnerable, you will have in principle surrendered the decision to terminate your own life to some other party claiming a “pro-choice” position. The protection of human life from the private employment of force is a non-negotiable principle. All the liberties that Americans hold dear are predicated on life. If one is deprived of life, liberty is empty.

We often read that the battle concerning abortion has been “lost.” President Clinton, it is said, will change the courts. Democratic majorities in House and Senate will override pro-life legislation. The legal battle has been lost, they tell us; the political battle has been lost. We must retreat to the cultural sector, in order to work solely through moral persuasion. There is some merit in this analysis. In a free society, we must always rely upon persuasion. Civilization is constituted by reasoned persuasion, as Thomas Aquinas once noted. Barbarians coerce one another with clubs; civilized peoples persuade one another through the employment of reason. We must be civil. We must go by way of persuasion and the way of reason. All that is true. But, at the same time, we cannot surrender the political and the legal battle.

We cannot surrender these, most of all because a matter of fundamental principle is at stake. Lincoln did not at first declare that the purpose of the civil war was to end slavery; he fought first to protect the Union. For without the Union, slavery could not be ended. That was the heart of the matter then. It is the heart of the matter today. Unless we form a union, a substantial majority, around the pro-life principle, we cannot end the violent taking of human life that is now occurring all around us. But the only practical way in which a democracy can conduct such business of practical persuasion is through the proposal of laws and public argument over policies. The legal and political struggle must continue, at least to protect the principle. Moral persuasion in a democracy can only go forward via public, reasoned, civil argument concerning the law and in the political forum.

Here the most fervent activists in the anti-abortion movement need to face an important choice about their tactics. Is it their aim to change the culture of America, and thus to change the practices of America through changing minds? Or is their aim to satisfy their own conscience by doing whatever they feel compelled to do, no matter what its effect upon the population as a whole? In this sense, the anti-abortion movement must focus less on changing the law than on better addressing the arguments that might move people to face honestly what they are doing.

For one of the greatest victims in the floodtide of abortions that the nation has witnessed since 1973 is the truth. Although journalists pride themselves on showing the horrors of war, we virtually never see the way in which actual abortions are conducted, thousands of them, in every city throughout the land. We never see the methods used. We never learn about the botched abortions. Recent studies show that, while a large majority of Americans would like some abortions to remain legal (in cases of incest or rape, for example) such cases account for barely one percent of all the abortions currently committed in the United States.

Please pause to reflect upon this point: Seventy-six percent of all abortions are for purposes merely of convenience. Yet nearly 80 percent of Americans disapprove of abortions merely for reasons of convenience.

President Clinton says he is in favor of abortions that are “legal, safe, and rare.” They are certainly legal, right up until the moment of birth; and they are certainly not rare. But they are, plainly, not safe. More women are today injured by botched abortions than in the years before 1973, when abortions were illegal. Former Mayor Koch of New York has said that, in his view, after the sixth month an abortion is infanticide. In Ohio, President Clinton described the unborn after that time, while still in the womb, as “a child.”

One of the consequences of an evil principle is that good people are forced to be dishonest about what they are doing. They cannot bear to witness directly what their own hands are doing. The current widespread practice of abortion is corrupting our nation. It is corrupting our honesty. It is corrupting our politics. It is corrupting our media of communication. It is corrupting our political discourse. We are not telling the truth.

That is why it is important for one political party, let it be the Democratic Party under Governor Robert P. Casey, or the Republican Party, to discern the underlying principle and to speak for it as clearly as Abraham Lincoln did.

It is no doubt impossible in the short term to stem the tide in favor of laws widening the scope for abortion and increasing the number of aborted ones. But we can still protect the principle. Bill Clinton has already expanded the number of abortions beyond all previous bounds, and he is even now insisting that people who conscientiously oppose abortions must also pay for them through public taxes. This is morally intolerable.

At the very least, we should work for a law prohibiting “double jeopardy.” In the case of Ana Rosa Rodriguez in New York, an abortionist botched the abortion by slicing off the baby’s arm in the womb and injuring the mother. Ana Rosa was born in a hospital the next day, armless, but otherwise thriving. But what if the abortionist had delivered her and then finished the task of killing her? That should be expressly forbidden by law.

Similarly, we should work for a law to prohibit abortions merely for purposes of gender selection (in which, almost always, females are killed).

Again, it seems entirely repulsive, that a nanny in the Washington area was indicted for first-degree murder because she suffocated her newborn infant within an hour or two of its birth, whereas if she had had an abortion only twelve hours before, she would have been treated as innocent.

Finally, perhaps we could achieve national consensus concerning a law that sets limits on what can be done with the remains of the aborted unborn. As human individuals, each with a genetic code entirely its own, and a human shape, each aborted one should at least be treated with a respect beyond that due to any other creature. If the law cannot at present protect them while they are living, it should at least command a certain respect for them at death. Injury should not be heaped upon injury. We are speaking here of human beings. To compact fetal remains into high-protein foodstuffs for feeding the poor would be cannibalism.

I do not see how we can escape the moral challenge of abortion. It cannot simply be evaded. All sides in this debate need to show a greater degree of honesty with themselves, and greater civility toward one another. We will have to live according to the popular consensus enshrined in our laws. But it is precisely the function of practical reason and political discourse to argue about changes in the law, until the public reaches the essence of the matter, and human law conforms with the nature of things and with the respect due to God. Even Antigone in pagan Greece once inspired the West to believe such things.

Politics begins in the human spirit, and the human spirit always expresses itself in politics. One cannot duck the responsibilities of being human. The political party that best discerns ways of respecting the human spirit—in its liberty and in its responsibilities—is more likely than any other to be built upon bedrock reality, and to have the vivacity and flexibility to grow and change. Where we are today is not where we will be a decade hence.

It is the function of political leadership to figure out where it is exactly we want to be ten years from now, and to point out the paths for getting from here to there. My proposal is that we must devolve the many functions now gathered up into the underachieving hands of the Mommy State back to the institutions of civil society—the family, the neighborhood, the local school (private whenever possible), the local church, and local associations of many sorts. We must restore the practices of self-government and the public ideal of civil republican virtues. And we must restore truth, honesty, and principle to the debate over abortion. All this requires political wisdom, economic practicality and moral discernment. But so do the system of natural liberty, everything the nation stands for, and everything we want to be.


  • 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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