Politics & Policy

Michael Novak Says …

This appeared on National Review Online on March 17, 2000

Michael Novak is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author, with his daughter Jana Novak, of Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God.

NR: Did the pope really apologize last weekend for the Crusades and the Inquisition?

Michael Novak: The New York Times editorial page and at least one of the op-ed pieces were outrageously wrong. The pope made an act of contrition before God , not an apology to groups. It was the same sort of apology that Catholics, including popes, bishops, priests and lay people, make before God when they go to confession. The pope goes to confession. The pope is a sinner as well as anybody else — and bishops and priests too. The act of sorrow for sins and the firm purpose of not doing them again is a classical tradition. It is especially appropriate at a jubilee, because a jubilee is a time of a new beginning. It’s as if one tries to wipe the slate clean and try again. You can only wipe the slate clean if you face what you did wrong, accept your responsibility for it, and determine not to do it again. Otherwise, you haven’t turned over a new leaf. “Contrition before God” is a better description than “apology.”

The second thing that has been missed by a lot of the press is that the pope includes bishops, popes, himself, and all the rest of us, in his act of contrition. It is not as if he exempts the leaders from sin–not at all. Several newspapers said that he blames the sons and daughters of the Church and not the leaders. That’s not true. He’s a son of the Church. The greatest saints are sons and daughters of the Church. All human beings who are members of the church are sons and daughters of the church. No one is exempted.

NR: Is this an instance when the press did no reporting? Few stories mentioned that this was part of a larger Jubilee year, or that it was part of the Mass. By some accounts, the reader might get the impression that the Pope issued a statement at a press conference.

Novak: The ignorance of the press about the one-fifth of the world that is Catholic is depthless. It’s laziness. Perhaps the need of journalists to report on so many different sorts of things in a day, that they don’t have time to study any one of them, may account for the superficiality. But there is a confession of sins at every mass. It perfectly fit in the tradition format of the mass. What was different is that it covered such a wide range of history and spoke in the name of the whole Church, which is the task of the pope, not just him personally.

NR: In USA Today, there’s a cartoon that depicts the pope being asked by “women”: “Thanks for the apology. Now, when can we become priests?” The New York Times wants to know when the pope will change his mind on abortion and birth control. Is there something else going on, besides ignorance and laziness?

Novak: The hostile commentators don’t seem to want to understand that the teaching on abortion and the teaching on who can become priests comes from God, whether you’re Jewish or Catholic. This is not something the pope is free to choose. The pope too is under obedience. Even if it would lead him to get better editorials in the New York Times and USA Today, he couldn’t do it. You would think that they would learn to respect that and believe in true diversity.

The pope also didn’t boast in this statement of contrition. But an objective critic might point out that no organization-neither Greek nor Roman — nor, for that matter, any religion, did as much to put women in positions of authority. St. Teresa of Avila ran scores of convents all over Spain and increasingly over the rest of Europe. Women are directors of the largest hospital system in the world. In the United States, they are directors in the largest single school system — since the others are under state and local control — in the world. And they’re presidents of hundreds of colleges and universities. No other organization has put so many women in such high positions of leadership and responsibility. So to fault the Church for its attitude toward women is historically preposterous.

Before the modern age, in what other organization could women direct so many institutions and take as much responsibility for them? None. And that’s why there are so many great women in the Catholic Church, more than in any other tradition, including secular traditions.

I repeat, it’s not the point of the literary form of an act of contrition to balance the books by calling attention to the good things done and the achievements. It simply concentrates on sins and failures. We didn’t live up to what we stand for here, and the world has the right to know that that our behavior didn’t live up to our standards. That our standards are more important than our behavior, because they come from God.

[Daughter Jana Novak, adds (relayed by her father)]: About women: Yes, Christ didn’t pick them to be priests and with some deliberation, apparently, because women were so faithful to Jesus, when men weren’t. But he picked only men to be priests, as if to choose the weaker things. Which is the great Jewish and Christian tradition: that God always works with the weaker, not the stronger.

Novak: But, in addition to that, in history there are so many women-St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, right back to St. Scholastica, St. Clare, all the way back to the 4th century. There have always been so many great women in the imagination of Catholics. In some ways, in the imagination, they almost outnumber men, as great figures. So that young Catholics have an extremely high image of woman and the possibilities of women.

As Henry Adams points out, there was a time in history when Catholic women dominated every throne in Europe. It was queen this and queen that. All Europe was being run by women, men were at the Crusades. Henry Adams is the great Protestant witness to the strength of the female principle in Catholic Christianity and the loss of it in Protestant Christianity. It’s what he most missed. That the severe plainness of the Puritan tradition was really far more masculine.

NR: In the wake of a week’s worth of news stories and commentary about the papal “apology,” has this had any reaction, either real or perceived-in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations? Does it help heal any wounds, even in terms of public opinion?

Novak: I’m not sure how public opinion has digested it yet, but when one party admits in general, I know I have been wrong, it makes conversations about specifics much easier.

NR: Getting really political — and somewhat parochial — does this have any bearing on relations between Catholic and evangelicals on Cap Hill, in a row about the House chaplain? Does it make a difference in the presidential race, in the wake of the Bob Jones business?

Novak: I have been researching the House chaplaincy arguments and I believe those are false charges., I think they reflect an anti-evangelical bigotry. The assumption is that evangelicals in Congress don’t want a catholic chaplain. I think that is plain false. There is not a shred of evidence for that. I’ve looked through the details of the nomination procedure and by everyone’s account, the selection committee appointed by Speaker Hastert was wonderfully balanced and achieved such a warm bipartisan sympathy that at the end they stood and shook hands and congratulated one another and said it was the best bipartisan experience they ever had in Congress and couldn’t they do more of it. They were tasked with presenting three candidates — unranked — to the Speaker, the minority leader, and the majority leader. That slate included a Catholic priest. How could the committee have been anti-Catholic if a Catholic priest made it through 50-some candidates at the beginning, to 38 who were actually interviewed, to only three candidates? I think they did very well. So the accusation becomes that after that, the Speaker, the House majority leader, and minority leader must be bigoted and anti-Catholic.

I think the charges are false and depend on innuendo and a pernicious misreading of small details. And all of this on the assumption-the insinuation-that evangelicals are anti-Catholic. I think it’s a false charge that should be repudiated. Any honest investigation will show that.

This is another case where the journalists are not doing the work, they are not reading through the record, they are not doing the details.

NR: What about the Catholic issues in the presidential race — Bob Jones?

Novak: When Bill Bradley went to teach at Notre Dame for a semester, nobody asked Bill Bradley whether he accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church, which are part of the mission of the University of Notre Dame. It’s just not something you do at a university. I’ve spoken at every kind of university. Universities open the forum to people who don’t agree. I think it’s a good step for them to invite in people who they know don’t agree. I would like to see Bob Jones University have a Catholic scholar on the faculty, who would teach what the Catholic church actually does hold, because it may be that Bob Jones trustees are mistaken about what the Catholic Church actually teaches.

But there is no doubt that it is a great sin to bring disunity into the Christian church. And so, the original Baptists would not have started a new church, a new reformed tradition, if they hadn’t thought that the Catholic Church had corrupted the Gospel. In other words, the whole reason for the Protestant churches is a judgment that the Catholic Church failed in its task of keeping doctrine pure. The ecumenical movement has to start with taking that for granted. Many Protestants believe that the Catholic Church is not the correct vehicle for understanding Christ and Christianity; Catholics, of course, think it is. That’s the nature of the case. That’s not a scandal. That’s what the ecumenical movement needs to address. That we share much together, but the reason we have different traditions is the judgment that the other side is missing a very important part of the truth.

I don’t expect Bob Jones University to change that view, they should be faithful to the inspiration of their church. I would hope that as a university they would have a chair of Catholic studies, out of fairness.

NR: Do you think that this being made a scandal shows some kind of religious bias?

Novak: Yes, in a way. It’s a failure to take religion seriously, and really to inquire in any depth. The main motivation of it is anti-Repubican, anti-conservative. The press will always go with the more progressive of two candidates. When the Democratic governor of South Carolina and other Democratic politicians go to Bob Jones University, nothing is made of it. How could a Catholic candidate not go to Notre Dame? How could a Baptist, Democrat or Republican, not go to Bob Jones? And, major figures would go to a major university. There are not that many. Bob Jones is a major university in South Carolina. And so, I think it’s purely a partisan feeling for journalists to notice when Republicans go there and not when Democrats do.

Another thing I really resent in the press is letting their partisan feelings run so high that they even risk inciting religious war and religious bad feelings, between Catholics and evangelicals or between any two groups. I think that’s outrageously bad. That’s Northern Ireland.


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