Confession of a Catholic
Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.