Commentary Magazine

Confession of a Catholic, by Michael Novak

Redrawing the Line

Confession of a Catholic.
by Michael Novak.
Harper & Row. 221 pp. $12.95.

For most of this century, the Roman Catholic Church was regarded as among the most reactionary of American institutions, blindly anti-Communist and a hidebound defender of traditional mores. Discrimination against Catholics at the hands of such nativist groups as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan seems only to have hardened Catholic patriotism. By the end of the 1950’s, many ethnic Catholics had become more American than the Americans, heavily represented in police forces, local and state legislatures, and the armed services. They were also on the verge of what just a few years earlier had seemed impossible: the election of a Catholic President.

In the more than two decades since then, much has changed. For one thing, there is great dissension in the ranks. Over 11,000 priests and 35,000 nuns in the United States have abandoned their religious vows. Attendance at Mass is at a low ebb. Church teachings on sexuality are virtually ignored. In matters of peace and war, the same Church that one generation ago debated seriously the morality of a “preemptive first strike” now has a large sector of its hierarchy in favor of unilateral disarmament and a clergy seemingly ready to endorse any Third World guerrilla movement that calls itself liberationist.

No one has been more acutely aware of, or more involved in, this massive shifting of attitudes than the well-known neoconservative Catholic thinker Michael Novak. As a young man, Novak spent twelve years preparing for the priesthood. Although in the end he declined to be ordained, he has devoted a great deal of his life to writing about the Church, in almost two dozen books and in innumerable articles. These once appeared in such left-leaning periodicals as the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, and Christianity and Crisis. Today, however, Michael Novak’s name is more likely to turn up in COMMENTARY, the National Catholic Register, or the National Review, to which he contributes a regular column on religion. He has also been instrumental in the recent launching of two new journals, This World and Catholicism in Crisis, both decidedly more traditional than his former homes.

What happened is that, like many of his fellow neoconservatives, Novak discovered that his erstwhile colleagues, unable to draw the line between an open Church and a libertine Church, had moved so far Left that he appeared to be on the Right. With Confession of a Catholic, his latest book, Novak hopes to redraw the line, to restore the “coherent vision” that was once the badge of the Church.



Less an autobiography than a personal definition of faith, Confession has for its ostensible subject the Nicean Creed: what the Creed says about God, what it says about the Trinity, and what they together imply about our lives in this world. To Novak, religious ideas have consequences no less significant than do secular ones. “I have seen many individual lives ravaged by novel interpretations in faith and morals,” he writes.

Echoing Cardinal Newman, Novak emphasizes that the faith embodied in the Creed is one of “real” (i.e., particular), not “notional” (abstract) assents. Indeed, it is by forgetting the realism embodied in the Creed that many of the faithful have lost themselves in the extremes. In the rush to embrace everything and anything “new,” a long intellectual tradition that had been tempered by centuries of experience was left behind for vague and abstract concepts.

This turn from analysis to abstraction led to the reemergence of a perennially threatening form of spirituality—gnosticism—which Novak calls the “new idealism.” Once practical limits like original sin are forgotten, all sorts of utopian visions pop up:

When it is no longer channelled within the banks of biblical realism, religion often pours into visionary politics. What believers no longer hope for from God and church, they hope for from political revolution. No longer believing in hell after death, they work for the arrival of hell on earth, as though it were heaven itself.

Thus Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil urges that the Church replace Aquinas with Marx.

The hallmark of the “new idealism” is rage; against the body, against the earth, against even elementary distinctions like those between man and woman. In the absence of a firm understanding of history and reality, all differences appear highly arbitrary and unjust, and the promise of things not seen takes on a new urgency. Injustice and sin, no longer acknowledged as constants in the human soul, are instead located in outside structures. If only we could begin anew, the idealists say, we could erect “sinless structures.” One such model in recent years has been Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.

Practically speaking, the fruit of such agitation has been the division of the Church along quasi-political lines. This helps account for the highly charged emotions that characterize the current atmosphere, in which politics has become no longer a matter of reasonable choice but a lining up of moral versus immoral. Needless to say, given the predominance of “new idealists” among Catholic opinion leaders, it is those like Michael Novak who are dubbed immoral. Thus, the Reverend Andrew Greeley has referred to Novak as a “turncoat,” and Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels, in an unusually vitriolic two-part series, depicted Novak as a sort of anti-Christ. As Novak himself has noted, his critics are most annoyed at his political, not his theological, deviations.



Yet Confession of a Catholic cannot be understood as a call to return to the status quo ante, to the Church before Vatican Council II. Novak hopes, rather, for a return to the “practical wisdom” of the Church by which he means the sense of realism embodied in the Nicean Creed as he reads it. Emphasizing the classic Augustinian distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, Novak writes that “an institution that has maintained itself intact through the long night of history has given evidence of realism.” Any organization that looks clearly at man’s nature is bound to be anti-utopian; it is bound to accept humans as humans. In this, Novak argues, lies the only true hope for progress.

“For myself,” writes Novak, “the central insight of Catholicism is that God works through humble, much despised ways, fleshly ways, tailored to the sinfulness of us all.” In Confession of a Catholic, Novak brings this point to life, in a tone remarkably free of rancor or bitterness. To Catholics hungry for meaning this book will come as a great joy; to non-Catholics, who have a considerable stake in what fifty million of their fellow citizens are thinking and being taught, it may help show that things are not quite as lost as they sometimes seem.

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