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Nuclear Catholicism

Confession of a Catholic

by Michael Novak
Harper and Row, 221 pp., $12.95

Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age

by Michael Novak, foreword by Billy Graham, introduction by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Thomas Nelson, 144 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Michael Novak proclaims himself a Democrat and is no doubt registered as one; but the policies he defends and advocates, in social and political matters, are largely those of the Reagan administration. One comes across his pieces in such doctrinaire conservative periodicals as Commentary and the National Review. His position is full of interest for those who want to understand the historic shift in the foundations of support for the two American parties; and what he writes as a Catholic may tell us something of what lies behind the recent explosion of anticlericalism among those Catholics the French call les bien pensants—the right-thinking, respectable people who were formerly supporters of the influence of the clergy in public life but have in recent years become increasingly anticlerical. Some things have brought these bien pensants to a pitch of frenzy and the latest of these is the intervention of the American bishops in the debate over the morality of nuclear warfare.

Novak sees himself as having a public role as teacher and stimulator. He thinks he owes his readers a candid account of his beliefs. In telling us Confession of a Catholic is his Orthodoxy, not his Apologia pro Vita Sua, he seems, with the implied references to Chesterton and Newman, to be putting himself intellectually and spiritually into the big leagues. I think this would be to mistake his intention. He is just carried away by the need to make it plain that his Confession is confession, an avowal of where he stands, not the story of his soul. But he does make large claims for his message. He sits in his Resident Scholar’s cathedra at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and surveys the state of the republic and the condition of the Catholic Church, and makes many judgments.

Since I want to concentrate on examining Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age I won’t look at the Confession in detail. The plan of the book is to use the clauses of the Nicene Creed, recited on Sunday and on great feasts in the liturgy of the Roman Church, as material for reflection. His historical approach is out of focus. The custom of reciting the creed at Mass is not so venerable as he thinks it is; the creed as we now recite it is not the one approved at the Council of Nicaea; it was made a part of the Byzantine liturgy very early but was not adopted for liturgical use in Rome until the eleventh century. Novak gets very confused over one of the clauses in the creed as we now have it (in the West), the famous Filioque (that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son“), twice saying that it was used by Nicaea, and then interjecting, without tidying up what he has said, that “the Filioque is a medieval Western insertion.” In fact the Filioque became popular in the West long before the Middle Ages, after the fifth century, and its use was resisted in Rome until the ninth century. I don’t note such things in the spirit of pedantry. Novak is in my view right in what he has to say about the low standards of theological argument and historical information among “progressive” Catholics. But he puts his right to say this in peril when he shows a lack of concern for accuracy in elementary matters.

There is a problem, one that spills over into Moral Clarity, about Novak’s approach to the language of the creed. He begins his reflections with a thesis about language and meaning. It is briefly expressed as follows: “The same Creed is assented to by all, yet each believer utters a different Creed.” This is explained fragmentarily. “The Creed can only be appropriated by individual persons in personal ways.” (This seems vacuous but should be handled with care.) “Words of the Creed…even when spoken, forming decipherable words and grammatical sequences,…are only as intelligible as each hearer makes them.” This thesis on language and meaning is accompanied by a philosophical prejudice that pervades the book. It is represented by: “It is pointless to write about Catholicism without writing first about God. And that means to write about experience, of a sort.”

Those familiar with philosophical discussion will recognize where Novak is. Meaning for him is something conferred on language by individuals and it follows from this that each user or hearer of a sentence means something slightly different from every other user or hearer. But, of course, it doesn’t follow. To the question: How do we know this?—and does this question have a slightly different meaning for each hearer?—Novak replies by asking how else sentences can be intelligible (“only as intelligible as each hearer makes them”). I won’t go into detail on these points. It is enough to say that a language has to be something public and shareable. No doubt words and sentences set up in users and hearers idiosyncratic feelings and associations. But if “The cat is on the mat” reminds one of Tabitha and another of Tiger, this has nothing to do with what makes us able to use the sentence, that is, with what gives it its meaning. I don’t know why Novak wants to tie his exposition to exploded theories, at least not in the Confession. He does have an interest in the theory of language in Moral Clarity, as we shall see.

Novak’s characteristic approach is shown by his use of the clause about God’s paternity (“I believe in one God, the Father almighty”) to discuss questions about feminist theology. Against the drift of this theology he claims that: “The same words said by a woman and by a man often have quite different symbolic meanings.” Often have? Quite different? What words can these be? The words for colors? Words expressing concepts of number and shape? Sentences ascribing emotions to subjects? All this is very cloudy, and we are from time to time given a lot of pious waffle. For example, just after telling us that we “are not privy to the purposes or ways of God,” he writes: “The Creator sees all creation as a seamless garment made real in one act of life and love.” It would perhaps be all right for Novak to tell us that this is how creation seems to him; but to say that this is how God sees creation seems to get us nowhere. What would it be to claim that God sees creation under a particular description? In any case, if we are to be poetic about creation, it is safer to repeat what the masters have said.

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and end- less light,
   All calm, as it was bright

Vaughan is too wise to attempt an account of how the world looks to God.

Most of the public issues that exercise Americans are ingeniously brought into Novak’s meditations on the Creed. Some good points are made. In particular, I have to think well of his argument that Christianity is ravaged by a new Gnosticism which minimizes the importance of bodily life; for he repeats my own arguments, set out long ago in these pages.1 But it is depressing to note how much the attitudes of the paranoid right have taken over. About the Vietnam War he writes:

Good people were asked to choose between siding with the oppressors or siding with the oppressed. (Inexcusably too late, one learned that siding with North Vietnam might also be siding with an oppressor, less technically powerful but more politically ruthless, of whom the “boat people” were to be the victims.)

Novak should know better than to put the dilemma in this way, for he knows—he is a student, and says he is an adherent, of the doctrine of the “just war”—that refusing on the ground of conscience to join in a particular war has no necessary relation to the character of the enemy. It is as though an opponent of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to be taxed with supporting the Mikado.

On two points Novak has something unexpected to say. He opposes the current Catholic teaching on contraception, though, perhaps out of deference to the Roman authorities, he doesn’t deploy his arguments con brio. And he advances shrewd criticisms of what he calls “Latin” Catholicism, something expressed in many Roman documents in which there is criticism of liberal capitalism and an implied undervaluing of the American political tradition.

Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age has made a stir in the world. It is a criticism, in the form of an open letter, of the second draft of the American bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear war. (In the present volume Novak has added further reflections.) It first appeared in a new periodical Catholicism in Crisis and was seized upon by William Buckley who devoted an entire issue of the National Review to reprinting it. As an open letter it has subsequently been signed by a multitude of supporters. The list here printed is something of a curiosity. It includes nine Republican congressmen, three Jesuits, four Buckleys, and Mrs. Clare Boothe Luce. It seems to have been smiled upon by some people in Rome and in West Germany and it may have made a difference to the final revision of the bishops’ letter. It uses very strong language about the positions taken by the bishops. It professes to be a reaffirmation, adapted to our time, of the “just war” doctrine. It is not this. It is an attack on the traditional principles of Catholic morality and its central argument, which applies the concept of intention to the analysis of deterrence, is either a confusion or a sophistry.

Novak gives a reasonable account of the “just war” doctrine as it was first roughed out by Augustine and developed by such later thinkers as Aquinas and Vittoria. Most of those who are not pacifists give at least lip service to the theory, certainly as it bears upon the limits within which war can properly be fought, sometimes—but more rarely—as it bears upon what justifies a country in going to war. It isn’t often realized how stringent a doctrine it is. St. Thomas’s presumption that war is more likely than not to be sinful is shown by the title of the first article in his chapter on the question, “Whether or not war is always sinful.”2 The answer is: not if it complies with certain conditions and not if in the course of waging the war the conditions continue to be respected.

According to Aquinas and the later commentators, for a war to be just it must comply with these conditions: it must be declared by a competent authority; there must be a just cause; there must be a right intention in waging the war (that is, the original just cause must be kept in mind—the desire for more territory or the desire to humiliate would corrupt a right intention); violence must always be a last resort after alternative means, e.g., negotiations, have been exhausted; there must be good reason to think a victory is possible; it must seem reasonable and probable that the good to be effected will outweigh the bad consequences of the war; and the means employed must be such as to distinguish between combatants and civilians and between combatants and those who yield to their opponents and stop fighting.

  1. 1

    Sex in the Head,” The New York Review, May 13, 1976.

  2. 2

    Summa Theologica IIa-IIae, Q.40.

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