Michael Novak
Michael Novak; drawing by David Levine

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.

Very startling consequences follow if we take these conditions seriously. We can no doubt make a list of classic textbook cases of war that is justified; but the list of unjustified wars will be so much longer that we shall be inclined to think the “just war” doctrine an idle one, for it seems to have no influence even on those who are by reason of their religious profession bound by it. The German attack upon Poland and its partition of the country in partnership with the Soviet Union in 1939 was by the classic standards undoubtedly unjust; but no German Catholic bishop carried out the duty of enlightening the consciences of the faithful in this matter. It is as though what is written in the theology books is preceded by a rubric, legible only to the trained eye: No matter what may be stated in this book, it is to be understood that the maxim “My country, right or wrong” must always prevail.

The “just war” doctrine has had more effect on the conduct of war. It is still commonly accepted that prisoners may not be killed or tortured; that the direct killing of civilians is wrong; that “open towns” are not to be attacked; and so on. When the British government decided, in the Second World War, to pass from its proclaimed policy of bombing only military objectives to a policy of area bombing, Archibald Sinclair was sent to the House of Commons to lie about it, and he denied there had been any change of policy. I mention such matters only to suggest that sound, religious men and leaders of democracies are in the heat of war liable to deceive themselves, to become morally self-indulgent, and to lie.

Defense against enslavement by a foreign power seems a good reason for fighting a war, provided the other conditions can be met. If the foreign power be a brutal totalitarian state, as the Soviet Union is, then we have strong motives for defending ourselves. What complicates the question, and what caused the bishops to write “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,”3 their pastoral letter, is the likelihood that a war between the Soviet Union and NATO would be fought with nuclear weapons; and the belief that the nature of nuclear warfare makes it morally certain that the discrimination required by the “just war” doctrine cannot be made. It is theoretically possible to have a nuclear exchange aimed primarily at the weapons of the opposing powers, though even this would bring about civilian casualties and other horrid consequences on an inadmissible scale. In any case, the ultimate sanction required by the theory of deterrence is the obliteration of enemy cities; this is one reason why the powers have nuclear weapons in submarines, so much less vulnerable to attack than missiles on land.

The Soviet Union is as a society poor and miserable and economically very unsuccessful; and yet, so Novak believes, it is a deadly threat to the rich Western societies. It resembles, he thinks, the Khomeini regime in thinking that American imperialism is the great Satan; whereas for him, of course, it is the Soviet Union that is the great Satan—Tolkien’s Mordor, perhaps—inspired as it is with a fanatical belief in the ultimate victory of communism.

The existence and purposes of the Soviet Union have so altered the way in which we should think about war that, Novak argues, we have to think about intention in a new way; he even says, and I don’t in the least understand what he means by it, “that the complexities of nuclear deterrence change the meaning of intention and threat as these words are usually used in moral discourse.” To say that the meaning of these words is changed is so obscure that without some analysis of examples—and none is offered—it is impossible to know just what Novak has in mind. He certainly doesn’t talk, as he should, about intention (2) in such a way as to distinguish it from mere intention.

In fact, everything he writes seems to require us to understand intention in its common use in the language. As we shall see, he thinks we can have a wicked intention, that is, to use nuclear weapons without discrimination, in order to further another, good intention, never to have to fight a nuclear war. The latter of course isn’t and can’t be an intention. Indeed, what is startling is that Novak’s argument falls to pieces, not through oversubtlety or through some slip in a complex logical chain, but through his failing to make an elementary distinction between what we intend to do and what we foresee as consequences of our doing what we intend to do. That such a distinction has to be made is evident. Unless we can make such a distinction the distinctive doctrine set out in all the Catholic moral theology books, the principle of “double effect,” has no grip.

No doubt if Archbishop Romero of Salvador had kept his mouth shut and stayed in the sacristy he wouldn’t have been assassinated, just as Benigno Aquino wouldn’t have been shot had he stayed in academic life in the United States. But it would be preposterous to argue that, because each of these men foresaw his death as a probable consequence of his action, each man intended his death. A pilot who uses skill and courage to place a bomb as nearly as he can on a military target may foresee that his bomb will kill some civilians; but he doesn’t intend to kill them. But it would be an abuse of the principle of double effect to argue that it is all right to obliterate a great city with a million inhabitants because there are military installations in the city. Such an action has always been held, by Catholic moral theologians, to be wrong without qualification and always impermissible. Killing the innocent as a means to no matter what good end is always wrong.

The following passages illustrate the confusions into which Novak falls in the matter of intention. First:

Those who intend to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by maintaining a system of deterrence in readiness for use do intend to use such weapons, but only in order not to use them, and do threaten to use them, but only in order to deter their use.


The fundamental moral intention in nuclear deterrence is never to have to use the deterrent force… Besides this fundamental intention, however, deterrence requires by its nature a secondary intention. For the physical, material weapon is by itself no deterrent without the engagement of intellect and will on the part of the entire public which called it into being… A people which would be judged incapable of willing to use the deterrent would tempt an adversary to call its bluff. Thus, a secondary intention cannot be separated from deterrence. Without that secondary intention, distinct from the fundamental intention, a deterrent is no longer a deterrent but only an inert weapon backed up by a public lie.


A society which possesses a deterrent also has an organized objective intention [something which shows itself in a society’s military organization]. In the case of the United States, individuals add to this objective intention subjective intentions which are both fundamental—that the deterrent succeed in never being used—and secondary—that the deterrent be held in readiness for use. To say that a nation may possess a deterrent but may not intend to use it is fulfilled by the fundamental intention. Not so by the objective intention and the secondary intention. To condemn weapons held in readiness (and the secondary intention to use them) is to frustrate deterrence and to invite a host of greater evils.

There is here no attempt to justify the contention that intention and threat have changed their meanings. The attribution of intention to a social and material system may be a fanciful Rousseauish kind of thing but doesn’t give intention a new meaning; it is instead a claim that we may apply the predicate “intentional” to happenings that don’t at first look like actions. If they have been given new and unexplained meanings the argument becomes inaccessible. What Novak seems to be saying is that we are involved in a pragmatic paradox. In order to make sure that a nuclear war doesn’t break out we have to be prepared to fight one, and this entails, for example, that the commanders of submarines with nuclear weapons targeted on Russian cities must faithfully enter into a prior engagement to send the missiles on their way if ordered to do so. There is something to be said for the argument, put in this way, though it is not an argument a Catholic moralist can accept.

There cannot be an intention “never to have to use the deterrent force.” Never to have to use this force may be the object of hope or desire, but not of intention. (Compare: I intend never to have to divorce my wife.) “I have no intention ever to use the deterrent” is intelligible as a statement about my not having the intention, and this because using the deterrent does indeed fall under the idea of an intentional action. The only version of the Novak doctrine we can hope to save is: We hope the deterrent will never be used; but this hope is vain unless we here and now have a strong and unwavering intention to use, in certain circumstances, nuclear weapons against the enemy.

The moral question then becomes: Is it right to have a present intention to use nuclear weapons in certain hypothetical circumstances? (I take it to be evident that to intend in hypothetical circumstances to perform an action we think to be wrong is itself wrong.)

Perhaps I should at this point make it plain that I am discussing Novak as one who claims to be a Catholic moralist; that is, I am not here and now discussing how far his position as I have reformulated it has merit or not. It has hitherto been an uncontested Catholic principle that there are some acts that are always wrong, even as means to some good end. One such act is the deliberate, intentional killing of the innocent. (Innocence has nothing to do here with moral innocence. The innocent are those who would be doing what they are doing even if the military-industrial complex were to evaporate.) This is an issue Novak simply will not confront and his juggling argument about intention strikes me as an attempt to avoid the confrontation. For this there is no excuse for someone who writes as a Catholic moralist, for in one of the principal documents of Vatican II, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), we find the following:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

Novak, who calls for “flinty intellectual integrity,” quotes other parts of this document but avoids citing this crucial passage. This goes with his general approach, that of an advocate, not that of a disinterested and objective student. He cites such Protestant thinkers as C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr (whose dark rhetoric, with its talk about tensions and contradictions and unavoidable ambiguities in applying moral principles to political life, is perhaps one of Novak’s models), but not—this really is a reason for eye-rubbing—the contemporary Protestant who has done most work on the morality of war, Paul Ramsey. Since 1961, with the appearance of Nuclear Weapons and Christian Conscience,4 there has been an intense discussion among Catholics on questions of warfare. Novak shows no signs of having followed this discussion. It is extraordinary he shouldn’t feel an obligation to examine the arguments in Professor Elizabeth Anscombe’s papers, “War and Murder” and “Mr. Truman’s Degree.”5 The best modern treatment of the problem of the just war, Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, is never mentioned.6

I hope it isn’t true that Novak’s pamphlet influenced the American bishops. The final version of their pastoral letter does make concessions to the doctrine of deterrence, though not all the concessions Novak would want. Bearing in mind the traditional doctrine about the direct and intentional killing of the innocent; the bishops interrogated government officials about US policy on targeting. They were told by Mr. William Clark, then national security adviser, that “the United States does not target the Soviet civilian population as such”; and he added: “There is no deliberately opaque meaning conveyed in the last two words.” The bishops said they found this communication “particularly helpful.” How far this remark may be ironical I don’t know. But throughout the bishops’ letter we are reminded that the deliberate killing of the innocent as a means to something else is always forbidden, that a refusal of all violence is an honorable option, that nuclear retaliation against enemy cities is immoral—no “secondary intentions” for them! An especially solemn reminder is:

We remind all in authority and in the chain of command that their training and field manuals have long prohibited, and still do prohibit, certain actions in the conduct of war, especially those actions which inflict harm on innocent civilians… To refuse to take such actions is not an act of cowardice or treason but one of courage and patriotism.

The final draft of the letter is weaker than the second draft in that it concedes more to the possible value of deterrence. Novak misconstrues this as saying that the bishops (and the Pope) support and approve of deterrence. What they say, following John Paul II’s remarks on the subject, is that the present reliance on a posture of deterrence is tolerable if, and only if, it is used as a stage in serious negotiations for disarmament. This is understandable. Here is the actual state of the world and from this we must begin. The direction we try to take is a sign of our moral concern. Talk about “prevailing” in a nuclear exchange, discussion of how many million casualties would be “acceptable”: these things just don’t go with a serious attitude to the world’s predicament. The bishops made this clear.

On November 8 the French bishops issued a statement on nuclear arms. It rests upon an argument that is in part like Novak’s. It defends France’s possession of nuclear arms and justifies the posture of deterrence. (It is worth noting that they are concerned only with the relatively modest French nuclear strike power.) They identify the “enemy” as the Soviet Union, and they portray it as a proselytizing power anxious to conquer the world. In a situation such as the present, with an enemy trying to “Finlandize” Western Europe, the state has a duty to defend its citizens and this means to threaten the use of even the most destructive weapons. So far, the argument is bound to please the French government and Michael Novak. But there are passages in the document—I rely upon the long citations from the statement published in Le Monde of November 10, 1983—that suggest that there was some agonizing over the decision; and a part of the argument is different from and opposed to Novak’s.

Novak argues that for the deterrent to be effective there must be a will to use nuclear weapons; if this will is lacking, there is no deterrent. The French bishops argue that there is a moral difference between threatening to use nuclear weapons and actually using them. Does it follow from the evident immorality of their use against cities (they recall the condemnation by the Council of the indiscriminate use of weapons against cities) that it is also immoral to threaten to use them? Their answer is that the immorality of the threat isn’t obvious, even though to go from the threat to the act is hard to justify (“la légitimité morale de ce passage à l’acte est plus problématique“). Two other points testify to their moral uneasiness over the drift of the argument. They emphasize that they don’t wish to strengthen a Manichaean view of the world in which the Soviet Union is evil and the West good; against the theoretical materialism of the East we have to set the practical materialism of the West; both kinds constitute “une maladie mortelle pour l’humanité.” They also consider the question of the efficacy of nonviolent resistance as a technique more suitable for Christians than the use of arms. They admit that those who support this technique may be right in the long run and that it is important now to examine this alternative.

What the French bishops cannot quite bring themselves to do is to consider the question how far states in their relations are subject to the same moral rules as individuals. They seem at times to suggest the doctrine variously expressed by Machiavelli, by Hobbes, by Max Weber, that political leaders are, in virtue of the duties they carry, subject to a different and more elastic set of rules and are perhaps subject only to the rules of a worldly prudence. This is what most rulers have commonly assumed. It has never been the Catholic tradition, a tradition reaffirmed by John XXIII in Pacem in Terris: “The same law of nature [that is, moral law] which regulates the behavior of individual citizens must govern the relationships between states.” He adds that rulers “cannot…abandon the law of nature which binds them personally and is the very rule of right conduct.”

I fear Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age deserves William Buckley’s introduction. This is Buckley at his most offensive and most pompous. He writes that

the suggestion that public policy should proceed on the understanding that no use of nuclear weapons is morally defensible, not even the threat of their use as a deterrent, is nothing less than an eructation in civilized thought, putting, as it does, the protraction of biological life as the fit goal of modern man.

The philistinism of the Catholic right, and its remoteness from the moral tradition of Catholicism, has rarely been so aptly illustrated, at least, not since the days of the Action française, when Maurras rejoiced that the musical settings of the Magnificat were so exquisite that they did something to temper the noxious Hebraism of its text.7

It is sad that a statement so gimcrack as Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age should enjoy some reputation. It is incredible that among the signatures added to it there should be those of some philosophers; they must have known that Novak’s stuff on intention is no good. But if Novak’s work directs readers to the magnificent statement of the American bishops, this will be something.

This Issue

December 22, 1983