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A Day of Salvation that Wasn’t: On Reading Catholic Writers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 31, 2013

I read two rather strange articles in the February 2013 issue of First Things last night, and all I can say is that I am grateful to the authors for stimulating thought. That’s an important function of a magazine which explores religion and public life in an ecumenical setting. Very often, probably most often, one learns from each article. But sometimes all one can say is that the authors have stimulated thought. So be it, then. This, unvarnished, is what I thought.

On Trust in America

The first article was a commentary column by Michael Novak, recently retired from the American Enterprise Institute, once a famous liberal dissenter but long since a faithful Catholic who is also a vigorous defender of democratic capitalism. In “Constitutionally Catholic”, Novak argues (probably rightly) that the notion of rights which animated the founders of the American experiment is far more consonant with the Catholic tradition than the idea of rights which currently reigns in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in America now. It is the difference between rights that are rooted in one’s duties, the fountainhead of which is one’s duty to the Creator and Author of all life and rights, and a more secular notion of rights as entitlements, based merely on human perception, which must be implemented by government for the perfection of the human community.

Now Novak also argues (again, probably rightly) that in the United States there is no longer any check on the appetite of progressive government for greater revenues at the expense of future generations, that there is no longer any check on a system of courts and law schools that believe themselves bound by nothing other than current “progressive” ideas, that our economic system is full of structural flaws, and above all that “the greatest of our national weaknesses lies now in the decadence of our moral and cultural institutions, even our religious institutions.”

As I told you, he is probably right. But then he concludes that he is still hopeful. One of the signs of hope, he says, is that “strong Catholic minds are offering a fresh articulation of the American founding principles in the new and richer context of the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Really? Is this what occupies “strong Catholic minds”—the importance of finding value in American founding principles, as if these principles hold the key to the conversion of culture?

And then he says this:

It pains me to be so sanguine, coming from an ancestral central European tradition of pessimism. But then what is the point of moving a central European family to America, if one does not learn to trust at least a little in the America our founders gave us?

Ah, trust in the America our founders gave us! The virtue of hope at its finest! Yes indeed, this does stimulate thought—but hopefully better thoughts, thoughts more firmly grounded in ultimate reality.

On Reliving Our Spiritual Past

Now let us come at the same problem from another direction. Perhaps the whole problem is that I read two articles in the same largely Catholic magazine with the same peculiar flaw. The second, a major essay, was “Reflections on the Revolution in Rome” by Kenneth L. Woodward, who was the religion editor of Newsweek from 1964 until 2002. As a younger man, Woodward was recruited as a Catholic editor by Newsweek to ride the wave of coverage of the Second Vatican Council. He did not know it at the time, but he was really riding a wave of secular euphoria.

Woodward too has become more deeply Catholic over the years, and he clearly knows the incredible damage the wave of secular euphoria did both inside and outside of the Church. He became over time a keen observer of American religion and culture, which he is old enough to remember since about 1950, and his current First Things article is adapted from a book he is writing on this topic. But the title “Reflections on the Revolution in Rome” is extremely misleading, as Woodward largely recounts the faulty implementation of the Council which has done so much damage to the Church, and which “Rome” in the Catholic sense did not intend.

Woodward paints a grim picture of the destruction of huge sectors of the Church in America between 1964 and the early 1970s. The same could have been chronicled in Europe. I think he now understands that the Church suffered a severe infection, a kind of Modernist virus which attacked its very identity. I really do not think he has many illusions. But that is not clear from this article. There are limits to keen observation without a deeper analysis. It is true, but grossly inadequate, to conclude his memoir with this simple statement: “I was in my early thirties at the time, but already I could sense that these forces would affect not only the Catholicism of my children but of my children’s children as well.”

Woodward vividly portrays a destructive energy at its worst, but he makes no effort to separate wheat from chaff, no effort to separate the Council from the world which received the Council, no effort to suggest what went wrong. His defense might be that in the early 1970s, where his memoir ends, significant efforts to find a way out had not gotten very far. As a snapshot in time, this is true. But some of us, significantly younger than Woodward, were working on the way out even then, and some of us knew exactly what we were looking at while it happened—as I gather Woodward himself did not. Instead, the last significant comment he makes takes the form of a quotation from the 1971 Newsweek cover story he wrote, entitled “Has the Church Lost Its Soul”:

When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and Church laws fade in importance.

But Woodward should have pointed out that, in 1971, almost nobody was reaching those spiritual depths. They hadn’t internalized doctrine and law in the freedom of Christ. They were throwing them out because they refused to follow Christ.

On Hopelessness

I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am explaining how my thought was “stimulated” by two articles. Both Novak and Woodward are serious about their Faith. Novak is on the First Things Advisory Council, with many fine essays and interesting books to his credit, and I can still remember with gratitude Woodward’s 2002 essay on “The Last Acceptable Prejudice”. But surely that is an essay which reminds us that this is no time to get all smarmy about the American past, as does Novak, or to leave the American Catholic past unanalyzed, as does Woodward. Coherent spiritual principles, especially coherent understandings of both the ecclesiastical and the civil orders, have always been hard to come by in America, though the country was helped along in earlier days, at least in some respects, by the Christian faith and virtue of the vast majority of its citizens.

But if Woodward’s portrayal of the late 1960s in America is accurate (as it certainly is), it was a period in which an increasingly dominant secular culture co-opted much of the Catholic Church. A great deal of the salt very definitely lost its savor, though this loss began much earlier. And though the salt is now recovering its potency, there is proportionately far less of it to go around. Certainly the cultural drift has continued largely unabated over the past fifty years. It is not primarily because of holiness that doctrine and law have faded from importance across our culture (as Woodward surely knows now, but seemed so reluctant to say). And putting one’s trust in the secular vision of a bygone age (as Novak seems to do) is rather like voting for political candidates who can talk the talk. Such things sound good, but without holiness and virtue they are doomed to be wrong where they should be right, and doomed to be weak where, even by their own principles, they should be strong.

These two articles, by two Catholic intellectual leaders, simply do not offer a shred of hope. That is what caught my attention most of all. Having made this clear, it is only fair to mention that any number of similar articles might have had the same result. This is not an attack on Novak and Woodward; it is a response to what I regard as a serious deficiency in most essays and commentary today. The deficiency appears far less in First Things than most other places. But it was all the more obvious for that reason. So let us agree that I am duly stimulated. And let me tell you exactly what I am thereby stimulated to think and say.

On Conversion

At some point we need to recognize frankly that our culture is at a point of no return, and that it can be fixed only by the conversion of the men and women through whom that culture is formed. I do not mean conversion to a particular moment in the American experience, such as the age of Thomas Jefferson, who could articulate an abstract vision of human rights in God’s name while owning slaves and deliberately revising God’s own self-disclosure in Scripture. I don’t mean conversion to a spiritual vision which revels in an unspecified Divine transcendence found in the rhythms of life. There lies an alliance of the rationalist and the witch. There lies the Transcendentalist, and I for one hope he will rest in peace.

Why should we think, at this late hour, that we can more easily convince our countrymen of the relevance of George Washington than we can of the relevance of Jesus Christ? It may be true that nobody cares about Christ, but it is certainly true that nobody cares about George Washington. And in just the same way, why should we think, at this late hour, that we can more easily interest people in the spiritual upheavals of the 1960s than in the need for their own spiritual upheaval now? Why should we think, at this late hour, that it is more effective to show the relevance of the Church to the Declaration of Independence than to show the relevance of the Church to bills drafted in 2013? Why should we think, at this late hour, that our grandchildren will be more interested in the sins of their grandfathers than in the salvation of their souls?

We become so easily captivated by the easy proprieties of presenting our perspectives to a broad audience that we continually run the danger of turning occasional strategies into strong habits. We seem almost to forget our better portion, which is to sit at the feet of Christ (Lk 10:42); or our most important focus, which is Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2); or our greatest gift, which is the one name under Heaven by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12).

It is not, of course, that we can really think and speak of nothing but Christ. But in whatever we do think and speak about, we must not be content with useless tangents and half-measures; we must have the perception and the courage to draw the right conclusions. The present age must be linked to Christ and His Church. Everything men and women of the present age think about, discuss and aspire to must be linked to Christ and His Church. Even Catholic doctrine and law must be linked with Christ and His Church, so that they can become once again what they were always meant to be: The bones that enable us to walk upright; the shorthand of our salvation.

What is the point of upholding the American Constitution as a grand solution when it is a mere political construct which, like all political constructs, cannot work without Christ? I would rather have a nation in love with Christ than a nation committed to upholding the Constitution. Nobody knows what the Constitution means; but the Church knows what Christ means. And what is the point of reminiscing about the Western Catholic fall from grace if we will not explain what went wrong and call for repentance and return? I would rather have a nation in the pews than one that knows the story of the upending of the pews; or of the race for the doors.

All of us, but especially we who write, must constantly face this truth: If Christ is absent, it is because we have all left him and fled (Mk 14:50). Surely it is time to return. Surely it is the acceptable time (2 Cor 6:2) to give up our vain reminiscences and our vain systems, to live in Christ, and to call our neighbors from death to life. In all we undertake, in whatever aspect of reality we explore with others, we must be ever mindful of leading back to this. Yet this is just what Novak and Woodward failed to do, though they had ample opportunity in First Things to do it. When is the day of salvation, if it is not now?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 10, 2013 8:44 AM ET USA

    It is grossly unfair to set up the "Founding Fathers" and the Catholic Church or any other Church for that matter as antagonistic. It would seem to me that anyone who has found their "niche" within the Catholic Church would tend not to want to subject the Church to the same scrutiny as that of our government. But our form of government is strictly dependent on the morality of the Church and its members for its proper functioning. If the Church is dysfunctional the government cannot work.

  • Posted by: benroodhouse9184 - Feb. 09, 2013 11:13 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, the new Chesterton?? Thanks for the great commentary.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Feb. 02, 2013 6:02 PM ET USA

    "Nobody knows what the Constitution means; but the Church knows what Christ means. And what is the point of reminiscing about the Western fall from grace if we will not explain what went wrong and call for repentance and return?" Alleluia! Amen.

  • Posted by: amber3287 - Feb. 01, 2013 11:58 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent commentary. As I keep reminding my children, "there is no earthly salvation!" We can't look to anything on this earth - the Constitution, political leaders, what have you - to save us.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 01, 2013 11:10 PM ET USA

    Recently in the Church there has been an undeniably irresistable and persistent -albeit ponderous- impetus for "return." The idea of a return does violence to the modern psyche; it is anathema. If we hope for a return to order in our Church and in our world we must return to reality. "But in whatever we do think and speak about, we must not be content with useless tangents and half-measures; we must have the perception and the courage to draw the right conclusions." Yes, we must. In Christ.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 01, 2013 11:17 AM ET USA

    Nearly three years ago, family celebration brought me to Joliet, Illinois. Folks there told me of the rapine of the beautiful Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, defaced in the telltale orange and green of the 1960's. It ought to be kept in that condition as a memorial and a warning to Catholics about riding the waves of the times. What a sad time!

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jan. 31, 2013 10:25 PM ET USA

    This is excellent commentary by Dr. Mirus who always returns us to the fundamentals. Woodward made a good point: before Vatican 2 the Catholic lay people had never been polled for their opinions on the Church. The first poll by Newsweek enabled it to create a narrative of progressive and reactionary factions and provided a weapon for the secular press. Dr. Mirus reminds us "“Everything men and women of the present age think about, discuss and aspire to must be linked to Christ and His Church"