Michael Novak Recalls the Good-Humoured John XXIII and the Polish Pontiff Who Called Him a Friend

Tells ZENIT Why Joint Canonization Made Sense

Published by Deborah Castellano Lubov at Zenit.org (Vatican City) on April 27, 2014.


Michael Novak, former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, theologian, and author of some 30 books, including "The Open Church" and "Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative" spoke with ZENIT in Rome days before this weekend's canonization. 

An eyewitness to Vatican II, who was both given one of the last wedding blessings by John XXIII and who was publicly called a friend by John Paul II, Novak shared with ZENIT his thoughts about the two popes and the canonization.


ZENIT: What is the reason behind having a joint canonization? It's said that Poles are unhappy with JPII being canonized on the same day as John XXIII.

Novak: The linking of the popes makes better sense of them both, than one by one.

At the end of John XXIII's time as pope, his work was left very undone. Some were even speculating about a Vatican III. Once Benedict XVI was asked: "What's the full meaning of Vatican II?" He responded: "We won't know, as the fruits of the council take time to develop."

This is very true and is evidenced by the fact that no other country or great organization has had a re-enactment of the council, in the sense that they took the initiative to reinvent themselves. We cannot name another institution that is or has effectively done this in the same way that the Catholic Church did through Vatican II.

The questions raised by the decisions reached by the decrees were incredibly far reaching and forward looking. It's true that 50 years were needed to come to a common understanding of what happened.


ZENIT: Many say the joint canonization could be seen as a sign of continuity between the Popes and the council. Could you explain your view on this?

Novak: Yes, as I said in my book "The Open Church," John XXIII 'opened the windows of the Church' when he announced there would be a Second Vatican Council. He knew better than to consult with the Roman Curia, which had been described in this way: "Popes come and go, but the Curia lives forever." He just announced the Church needed this council and will be having it, whether the Curia liked it or not.

Vatican II was a tremendous event which advanced the Council of Trent. It announced a new era of the Church which, after John Paul II, Benedict XVI was about to build on in a very scholarly way and Francis would build on in a very populist way.


ZENIT: In what ways did John Paul II himself carry out the fruits of the council?

Novak: John Paul II took the initiatives of John XXIII and 'rounded them out,' completing them and making them international. By 'rounded out,' I mean he did something unimaginable in the way he carried out the council's decrees. No one had any idea what he was thinking.

If someone would have predicted that the wall would come down, they would have locked him up. This is a testament to Wojtyla who, effectively did the impossible, in crumbling communism, in a roughly 11 year time frame.

He changed the contours of the world, traveling, more than any pope ever had. He showed the Church structure is not a pyramid, it's concentric rings, which were visible during his travels, at which he would be on an altar surrounded by bishops of the region and hemisphere. John Paul introduced this to the world.


ZENIT: Tell us about the "The Open Church." With your personal account of being present at Vatican II, could you give some insight to the persons who would like to know more about John XXIII?

Novak: John XXIII was so wonderful. He was known as the smiling pope. He was very easy-going, kind, warm, and friendly. He enjoyed a good joke and laughed often. He had that personal touch that people see in and love about Pope Francis today. He was not all puffed up about himself.


ZENIT: Can you please give an example of this humorous and playful side of the Italian pontiff?

Novak: Yes, once, when walking with a journalist in the Vatican gardens, he was asked whether he knew how many people worked at the Vatican. He joked saying, "about half."


ZENIT: How else were John XXIII and Pope Francis similar?

Novak: They were both pastors of the Church. They possessed that warmth. They fall into the category of someone with whom you would like to have a coffee or cigar with.

John XXIII had "opened the windows of the Church" with Vatican II and brought an "aggiornamento," meaning it brought the Church to today. Yet, he was aware, like how Francis is, that sometimes there are 'winds.' Not everything that comes in through the open window is good. There are noxious fumes. Likewise, not everything of today is good.


ZENIT: What aspect of John XXIII and John Paul II's relationship is important to this canonization?

Novak: The council that John XXIII proposed brought the Church together and nailed down clear, positive statements of faith built around prayers of the Church. This allowed for the evangelization, which John Paul II brought to fruition.


(April 27, 2014) © Innovative Media Inc.




Poland Honors Novak for Fostering Freedom and Polish-American Cooperation

Novak decorated by President Komorowski with the Commodore's Cross with a Star of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (Ave Maria University Press Release)


On the 31st anniversary of the declaration of martial law in Poland, Michael Novak, author, theologian, Ave Maria University professor, and former U.S. ambassador, was decorated by President Bronisław Komorowski with the Commodore’s Cross with a Star of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.

Before the official decoration ceremony, Professor Novak gave a lecture at the Presidential Palace on the meaning of social justice, part of the series of Polish Presidential lectures on the Ideas for the New Century. The lecture was introduced by Paweł Lisiewicz, director of the Polish cabinet, and in it Novak emphasized the importance of the institutions of civil society that properly precede the activity of the state.

The decoration ceremony took place in the historic grand hall of the Presidential Palace, the site of the 1955 signing of the Warsaw Pact. In addition to Professor Novak, who was the only American recognized at the ceremony, also honored were more than forty heroes of the political opposition to Polish martial law in the 1980s, civilians and members of the military, many of whom worked clandestinely for the cause of liberty.

Professor Novak was cited for his “merits in fostering democratic change in Poland as well as developing Polish-American cooperation.” These merits include Novak’s influential masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which was published in an illegal samizdat translation in 1984 under the imprimatur of the anti-communist movement Solidarność. As ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 1986, Novak initiated the international condemnation of martial law in Poland, the first ever U.N. condemnation of a regime behind the Iron Curtain. In his remarks, President Komorowski recalled the aid, both material and moral, that the Polish people received from the West while under martial law. He mentioned in particular the significance of Radio Free Europe, which Novak served as a member of the Board of International Broadcasting.

In his remarks President Komorowski also noted Ronald Reagan’s slogan “Let Poland be Poland,” and Reagan’s initiative to ask Americans to light candles in the windows of their homes, an expression of solidarity with those suffering in Poland. Today, Komorowski noted, the Polish people have a duty to extend the same solidarity to those still suffering under unjust regimes.

Following the decoration ceremony, Novak visited the recently erected Ronald Reagan monument located outside the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. There President Komorowski, Novak, and others from the embassy lit candles and placed them around the monument.

The Horoscope of Barack Obama

It is entirely possible that this coming election day President Barack Obama will surprise everyone, even those of the current 54% who do NOT want him to win. It is possible that on January 1, 2013, President Obama will be studying drafts of his Second Inaugural Address, for delivery three weeks later. My crystal ball is alternately cloudy and wispy these days. I don’t have an Ouija Board. The signs in the stars are contradictory.

Still, as far as I can see, a year from now Barack Obama will once again be unemployed. Of course, he will still have his luxurious multi-hundred-thousand dollar mansion which certain dubious Chicagoans have bestowed on him, and his dear wife Michelle (who has captured many hearts her husband has not) will go back to her $350,000 job with the hospital she had a contract with before – or perhaps something much more attractive. There will be people offering top-top dollar for the services of her and her husband, too.

The whole country may rejoice that the Obamas have rejoined the top one percent of income-earners in the nation. The very one percent the President has spent the last two years vilifying as the enemies of the people, for not “paying their fair share.” (Actually, that one percent pays more than 20% of all income taxes paid. Obama refuses to say how much more is "fair.")

The President has spent most of the last 12 months campaigning for his reelection. He has not spent it, except occasionally, in presidential leadership -- over the Congress, for instance. There are hundreds of Congressmen of both parties who have never, ever received a phone call from him, let alone been invited to the White House.

Obama loves campaigning, he does not much enjoy governing. Even as a state senator in Illinois and as a U.S. Senator, he seldom cast a vote, and even when he did it was often marked “abstain.” He seems to have an aversion to making commitments. But he does love the overheated rhetoric of campaigning, creating straw-man Republicans "who want dirty water, dirty air, and pushing the elderly on wheelchairs over the cliff." He seems to see himself as a lone hero fending off dreadful monsters who want to prey on old people and the poor.

The two groups that supported the President most heavily in 2008, those ages 21-29 and the independents, now mostly want to see him defeated. Even his approval among blacks is down ten points. That last alone is enough to lose him the electoral votes of some states.

The American electoral system is not “majority vote.” The American system takes precautions against “the tyranny of a majority,” and protects the smaller states from total domination by the states with huge urban populations. In the Republic of the United States, “the people” do not directly elect a president – “the people” do almost nothing directly. Powers are systematically divided against each other, and rendered indirect as much as is feasible. The reason for this is a profound American belief in original sin: Every human being sometimes sins – therefore, trust no one with unchecked power, not even an unchecked national majority.

The impact of this system in 2012 is that it is very hard to see how Obama can win the top ten most hotly contested states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Without them it is all but impossible for him to win the electoral college.

Even in public opinion polls, a year before the election, some 54% of Americans do NOT want Obama elected again. Very few if any can say they are as well off – or the country is as well off – as four years ago. With the dramatic drop in investment values, even the millionaires have seen their fortunes sink by as much as one third. Correspondingly, tax receipts by the governments, state and federal, are also down. Counting those who have given up looking for work – total employment is down about 2.5 million workers under Obama – serious scholars estimate that the real unemployment rate in the country now exceeds 20%.

Thus, some see a certain justice in adding Obama to the ranks of the unemployed. No recent President, inheriting a recession (which ended months after he took office) has ever kept the country as low as he found it – in Obama’s case, lower – by economic fantasies. Not Reagan, not Clinton, not the second Bush. Not since Carter in 1977-80 has the economy lost so much ground under one President.

In addition, it is highly likely this time, as opposed to four years ago, that candidate Obama will not have the endorsement of Osservatore Romano.

Look at the bright side. In the American Midwest there is an apocryphal newpaper which never prints bad news. For example, The Euphoria (Kans.) Gazette never reports "higher unemployment." Instead, it reports “increased leisure time.” For a majority of Americans, it seems today, that however the actual vote may turn out next November 6, it will be just and fitting if, shortly after one year from today, Barack Obama has “increased leisure time.”

Published in the Italian Daily Liberal, January 1, 2012

What, Another Marxist Predicts the Collapse of Capitalism?

Vatican watchers in Italy are getting into a fever about the new “economic encyclical” by Pope Benedict XVI, due out in a month or so. The same thing happened almost twenty years ago, in 1991, just before Pope John Paul II issued his much-proclaimed economic encyclical "100th Year" (Centesimus Annus). Then, too, the beehive of the European Left was feverishly abuzz, fantasizing in print that the Pope would shortly move to the left of Willi Brandt, Neil Kinnock and all the other famous leaders of the European Left. Then John Paul II issued the most pro-enterprise, pro- human capital instruction of any pope ever (“In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources. -- CA #32). The hive fell unforgettably silent.

This time, the newspapers are touting a new diatribe recently released to the Italian press by Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, a German jurist much respected (they say) by the Pope. The main point of this distinguished jurist is that capitalism is now definitively dead. From his autopsy he concludes that the death was due to fundamental flaws in its original "logic."

As for sighting the definitive "end" and "collapse" of capitalism – well, here at the end of the first week in June, the U.S. economy has not yet reached the low point of 1983. And that low point occurred just before the biggest and longest-lasting economic expansion in the history of the world, from 1983 until 2008. The current downturn is, moreover, still far from being another Depression of 1929 – which did not kill capitalism. If the U.S. economy now collapses further, after the herculean one-trillion-dollar deficit spending of young President Barack Obama, the cause will not have been lack of State action, but death by State action.

* * *

There are three problems with the current ill-tempered attack on "capitalism" by Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, distinguished German jurist.

First, the esteemed jurist argues in terms of abstractions and "logic" and "functional analysis." Good enough for the classroom. But real existing capitalism has been shaped by and is responsive to a world of contingency, happenstance, and constantly shifting roadblocks, and opportunities.

Contrary to Böckenförde’s analysis of its "logic," capitalism succeeds precisely because it is so adaptive to daily reality. Even its own internal reality is concrete, complex – different in different geographies and cultures. Capitalism is not a system of univocal logic and "a very few simple principles." It is rooted not in the speculative mind of the logician, but in the practical order of practical wisdom. Its adaptability to circumstances large and small marks it as a fruit of practical wisdom, not mere logic.

Second, like his mentor Marx, Böckenförde dreadfully misunderstands the "inner principles" of capitalism -- even its main motor force and energy. He is as blind as Marx to its distinctive differences from rival systems (ancient, medieval, traditional, fascist, socialist, Euro-socialist, and third-world agrarian). He does not grasp the secret of its creativity, its ennobling effects upon even small entrepreneurs, and its reliance on many moral principles, such as honesty, hard work, habits of cooperation, and the daily inventiveness of individuals. (Where personal morals are slack, capitalism cannot succeed, and peoples regularly fall prey to authoritarian rulers.)

Third, Böckenförde seems strangely uncritical about his own proposed remedies for the deficiencies which he imputes to capitalism. He recommends as a new point of departure "the" principle of solidarity (is there only one?), guidance and direction by the State, and special State concern for growing "gaps" of inequality. It might be instructive in regard to shifting "gaps" to note the rapidly rising years of average mortality even in the poorest nations, such as Bangladesh, and the quite rapid strides out of poverty for more than half of all nations and billions of people since 1945.

Moreover, we still have vivid memories of ugly regimes in the twentieth century, regimes that proposed to build a New Order precisely upon false conceptions of "solidarity," State guidance, and mirages of "equality." We are well to remember such regimes, full of exaltation and comradely "love."

Such terms as "solidarity," "the common good," “the guardian State," "close regulation," and even "equality" are, as history has painfully taught us, equivocations. Each is, tragically, subject to awful abuse. Unchecked by respect for individual persons and individual initiative, these can be principles of strangulation and death, not of vitality, life, invention and creativity.

That is why John Paul II delineated with such care his own conception of solidarity, as another name for universal love and concern. He was careful to show that genuine solidarity, unlike the false type, must respect the "subjectivity" of persons and the "subjectivity" of smaller communities. The Pope here had in mind, particularly in Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1981), a defense of the intersubjective culture of Polonia against Communist attempts to suffocate it.

This unique emphasis upon what in Anglo-Saxon cultures we call "the communitarian individual" (the individual who is not atomic and alone, but a member of many different, smaller communities) provides two different forms of protection from the State, one for the individual person and the other for what Edmund Burke called "the little platoons" of daily life.

* * *

The distinguished German jurist does, however, make two important observations (which he need not have attributed to Marx, as he did, since many others have empirically made more exact points). He points to two fundamental presuppositions of the twentieth-century welfare state in Europe.

The European welfare state first presupposes the family size of 19th-century families -- about seven young earners to pay (through taxes) for the benefits for each retiree-- and also the shorter average life spans of the 19th century. But the secular welfare states of today, it turns out, discourage large family size, and offer little motivation for the sacrifice entailed in nurturing large families during many long years of married life.

The second presupposition of the European welfare state was that each welfare nation could control its own borders, population flows, labor market, and currency. But today neither human beings nor human capital (ideas, skills, know-how, sound moral habits, etc.) are held prisoner by borders. Contemporary societies are far more open than in the past – and more peaceful, too.

Indeed, Professor Böckenförde wholly neglects to give praise to that particular combination of democratic (or more properly, republican) polity, inventive, adaptive and mind-centered economy, and humanistic culture (of specifically Jewish-Christian, not merely Greek origin) that have brought the last three generations of Europeans the greatest internal peace, easy prosperity, and getmütlich ways of living in many, many centuries. All this is very much a gift of that "capitalism" he so badly misunderstands. Real, existing capitalism is a capitalism properly and organically living in, and from, a specific polity and a culture of ordered liberty. [Do not ignore this trinity: culture, polity, economy.]

The motive force, the engine, of such an embedded and dynamic economic system is rooted in the hearts and minds of all enterprising creative citizens. It issues in the powerful urge to inquire into the nature and the cause of the wealth of nations (nations, not individuals; all nations, not just one nation). Its great systemic purpose is to break the immemorial chains of poverty which had held the human race in serfdom for millennia.

In what way, Montaigne asked ironically in his own time, do our common people live at a higher level than at the time of Christ? What has been done so far to improve the condition of the poor down all the long centuries? Men and women started making such inquiries in earnest. Gradually, they found a way to begin lifting up the poor of many nations, then more. With many successes to learn from, and much new wisdom won through hard experience, we are now closing in upon the ever narrower circle of those still living "outside the circle of development."

Adam Smith pointed out that universal development may not be the conscious intention of every individual economic agent. But given access to the system of natural liberty, he proposed, the various peoples of the world will reap the natural result of the law of our own natures, which presses onward through creativity exercised in liberty.

Thus, the inner energy of the system qua system is entirely moral -- and it has been transformative of the human condition. Freeing every woman and man on the face of the earth from poverty is not only its aim, but its steady, plodding achievement generation after generation. I myself can remember the war-torn brokenness and poverty of Europe even during the 1950s, and rejoice in its incredible prosperity today. Just in the last thirty years, to cite one more instance, more than a half-billion Chinese and Indians have escaped from the prison of poverty. The time is not far distant when all of Asia will also be middle class. Then Africa, next.

No other system takes the universal destination of all the goods of the earth as seriously as does capitalism. None has by dint of imagination and insight created more wealth and spread it more liberally in all directions than the capitalism much-maligned by Euro-socialists.

In our day, as Pope John Paul II so shrewdly noted in Centesimus Annus, the main cause of the wealth of nations is ideas, knowledge, know-how [caput]. That, more than profits, he saw, is the motive, the driving force, of economic action today. Profit, he also wrote, is a necessary measure of how well resources and effort are being used. It is not the main driving force. Economies that burn up a lot of labor and other inputs, only to yield nothing but losses are no boon to the human race. Such systems are immensely wasteful. (Inspect here the histories of European fascism and socialism, as well as third world kleptocracies).

Ask those who think that profits are obscene if they think losses are chaste? And which is better for the human race?

* * *

It would be odd if a creature such as man and woman, made in the image of God to be creative and inventive, and made to be provident over our own earthly good, were unable to discover the natural laws of ordered liberty and fruitful creativity. It would be odd if humans could not find in using these laws of our own souls the secrets to the wealth that the Lord God hid all throughout nature itself. For it is in humble things like tar and hardening crude oil in the desert that the great wealth – the black gold -- from oil refineries is rendered usable (but not until the late 19th century). It is in grains of sand that the silicon so vital to electronic communications lay hid.

Yet it is not only the useful arts, but also the highest forms of artistic creativity and the deepest forms of spiritual liberty that lie open before us – the beneficiaries of modern political economy. If we do not take advantage of the charitable, artistic, and spiritual riches open before us -- we who lack not for food nor drink, nor leisure, nor ample means for discovering and then developing our own talents -- then woe be upon us. We would then be the most unfortunate of all creatures.

Those who wish to destroy capitalism in its present humane forms, flawed as all human things must be (even the Church of Christ), should be terrified that their wish might come true. For what then? What shall happen to the poor then?

Those of us who were born poor, and now are not poor, can scarcely cease being grateful for the system that allowed us to seize our own responsibilities, as free women and men ought to do. If we do not live up to our possibilities, the fault lies not in our system but in ourselves.

Published in Liberal June 17, 2009

Explaining This Election to Italy

On October 15, I found myself depressed by the wide spread – 10 points to 13 points – in the polling of registered voters, favoring Barack Obama over John McCain. Then the next day some of the most reliable of the many polls were carried out, prior to the October 16 night-time presidential debate. These were polls of the best kind: not just of “registered” voters but of “likely” voters (people who have a history of voting regularly, and give other indications of serious plans to vote). Both Gallup and Rasmussen polls showed that in this universe the margin between the two candidates had narrowed to 2 points or 4 points. In other words, a virtual tie. What a shock! Then in the presidential debate that night, which observers mostly rated either a tie or a close win for Obama (he is so fluent, so verbal, so calm, so mellifluous), practically everyone agreed that McCain made his best showing of the three debates. He kept Obama on the defensive from beginning to end. Obama rebutted well, in that clever and calm way of his. But differences kept continually being sharpened. McCain kept using the example of “Joe the plumber” who had accosted Obama in a receiving line in Ohio (all caught on videotape) about the high taxes Obama promised to place on individuals and small businesses that took in more than $250,000 per year.

Joe said he was trying to buy a plumbing business himself, hiring others to work with him, and needed to earn at least that much to succeed in paying all his helpers. If Obama levied the high tax on him, he said, there was no way he could buy the business on his own. Why punish me? he asked Obama. Why deprive my co-workers of their jobs? Why punish them and me as though we were “rich”?

The videotape shows Obama saying that he wanted that tax money to go to people earning less than that -- and then saying that “spreading the wealth around” is good for everyone. That sentiment shocked much of the country, and McCain let all 57 million viewers of the debate dwell on that point. He mentioned “Joe the plumber” nine times in the next forty-five minutes.

Americans hate “class warfare.” They hate the confiscation of income earned by the successful, in order to hand it to those who have not earned it. (They cherish the idea of helping the poor, but not of coercively taking from those who work hardest to give their hard-earned gains away indiscriminately.) Americans consider that kind of equality a “wicked principle,” which undermines personal responsibility and initiative and creativity, and vastly increases the power – and the corruption – of the State.

Thus it looks now as if the last fifteen days of the campaign might be focused around the question of high taxes on some, and “giveaways” to others. A promise of high taxes on a few violates the American sense of justice right down to its roots. There is plenty of opportunity in America, and it is wrong to give special rewards to people who do not earn them, unless through no fault of their own they are ill, or weak, or too young, or too old. Able-bodied people should be treated equally, and win rewards by their own efforts.

“Joe the plumber” has become for a few days the best-known voter in America. Everyone is talking about him, and about the differences between the Obama and the McCain senses of justice. Obama’s seems European, McCain’s seems like classic America. This difference alone, if McCain can make it stick for fifteen days, may be worth at least five percentage points in the final election.

Of course, everything is stacked in favor of a Democratic victory this year. The sudden economic drop in the mortgage sector (caused largely by Government action), poisoning all the most common financial instruments, and the resulting panic helps the Democrats. Weariness with eight years of a Republican presidency – just as with the eight years of the Clinton presidency – also calls for a change of political direction.

On the other hand, the smell of victory in Iraq (the rapid drop in violence and the return of economic and civic vitality) takes that weapon away from Obama. The sudden drop in oil prices (from $140 per barrel to under $70) takes away that Obama complaint, too.

Never forget that American Independence was founded upon a rebellion against unfair taxes imposed by the British King. Americans ever since have regarded high taxes as the royal road to excessive State power and corruption. They prefer their personal independence.

Balanced judgment still insists that Obama is likely to win, and maybe even win by a high electoral vote total. But the signs of a stunning upset are beginning to gather in the night air. McCain is a fighter. (He is also a national hero whose five-and-a-half years of undergoing torture and near-starvation in a Vietnamese hell-hole of a prison are legendary.)

Once again, McCain has had to pilot his campaign through flak to the left and to the right, just as he did when he flew his fighter-bomber over Vietnam. Once again he is maneuvering for precise aim before firing his best shots. He is trying now to lock in on the targets of high taxes and big government spending, and to get there just before Election Day on November 4.

It just might be a very close race, after all, right up to the end. Europeans, I am sure, will be thoroughly stunned if McCain wins. But (some of us think) that would be a perfectly American ending.

To be sure, the election of Obama would also be a great victory for America, not least in helping to heal its long failings and struggles concerning race. It would be wonderful to see a black man as President.

On the other side, it is a form of racism to elect a man solely for his color. What matters most are the principles a man stands for, the policies he ties his fate to, his character, and the wisdom of those who surround him in his awesome task.

The election of 2008 will be a watershed.

Prepared for Liberal, October 16, 2008

Defining Marriage Down

A question laid down by one of the most prominent television commentators in America (Bill O’Reilly) has been nagging at me for a couple of weeks: What is wrong with gay marriage? The people Mr. O’Reilly has had on the air did not persuade Mr. O’Reilly—and probably not many others, either. They did not offer reasons. Meanwhile, in America, the Courts are “defining marriage down.” The battle has to be addressed in the courts because very few legislative bodies throughout the land would be able to gain enough popular votes to sustain “same-sex marriage.” An American dictionary defines “marriage” as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.” But in 2003, the high court of Massachusetts imposed a more flexible meaning: “a voluntary union,” “the commitment of two individuals to each other.”

In other words, the courts are trimming marriage down. The courts are hacking away the centuries-old meaning of marriage and transmuting it into a mere contract of friendship and sexual relation between any two persons who seek it.

Why do some homosexuals (not all, not even most) seek this ceremony? A public ceremony gives public vindication and public recognition. It elevates the relationship into a public (not merely a private) reality. It is true that there are practical motives in addition, the legal warrant for sharing in health, pension, and other benefits that now belong solely to traditional marriage. Actually speaking, these two aims could be kept separate from one another, but the real emotional force in the discussion is the seeking of public approval and recognition.

But if we water down the legal concept of “marriage” to include a mere contract between two individuals of whatever sex, we will not in principle be able to stop with same-sex unions. Under the same principle two spinster sisters should also qualify for similar benefits. Maybe, even, two elderly neighbors. Or any small band of needy people (not limited to two) who wish to enter into contract with one another.

If the main aim of “marriage” is reduced to “benefit-sharing,” why stop at husbands and wives, or same-sex couples. Are there not many sorts of companionships whose members might be far more needy?

What our common law has heretofore supported was a lifelong exchange of vows (not just a contract, but more than that, a covenant) between two persons (but not just any two persons). They needed to be man and woman. They needed to be able in principle to have children through their marital union, even though it is not the business of the state to check up to see if they are actually doing so. Because of the central importance of this “marriage act” suited to having children, traditionally a marital covenant is not even official until that act has occurred. The marriage covenant is not merely a matter of words.

In actual fact, of course, some gays and lesbians do rear children, even though not children conceived in the “marriage act,” and children who share in the blessings of having both a mother and a father, with all the benefits that provides. Yet these parents often provide a good upbringing, and that is to their credit.

Nonetheless, the state has its reasons for treating husband-wife marriages and same-sex marriages unequally. Virtually all children (excepting only test-tube babies) are born from man-woman unions. It is in the high interest of the state to regulate these unions carefully, and with special privileges. From the point of view of the state, not all sexual acts have the same public impact.

States that suffer a decline in childbearing and childrearing begin to wither in many other aspects of national life, such as prosperity, defense, and a financially well-undergirded future. Thus, states have long developed policies that encourage the married life of husbands and wives, who have the potential of rearing children in a safe and loving environment. They do this in the historically warranted expectation that such households will far more frequently raise accomplished human beings and good citizens. The extension of privileged (therefore unequal) benefits to this unique human relationship, defined not solely by sexual acts but by the probabilities of fecundity and the sound education of children, is a state’s investment in its own future.

The state has no comparable interest in the friendships or sexual relationships of its other citizens, however good, however noble. For sound reasons, it has heavily invested its ceremonies, formal recognition, and legal benefits in that single matrimonial form aimed at the transmission of valuable qualities, through the sexual intercourse of a man and a woman committed to a lifetime of rearing good children, who will become free responsible citizens, fit for maintaining a free republic long into the future.

A particularly fruitful activity of the state is to reinforce and to support the public recognition of the special beauty and utility of the permanent love of a mother and father. Such a love by its daily workings engenders between the parents a sense of unconditional trust. It engenders among their children the confidence of being unconditionally loved, the capability to give love to their fellow citizens, and a powerful example to emulate in their own commitment to a future generation.

Apart from the experience of such unwavering, outward-going love, the capacities of children to appropriate the habits of fraternity and equality with their fellow citizens are deeply deprived. What they have not received, how can they give? They are likely later to reveal certain emotional dependencies, which may also wound their capacities to act as freely and independently as free citizens must.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, Americans were prepared to trust their lives to the fellow citizens of their free republic by the marital fidelity experienced in a vast majority of their families. By contrast, he noted the ill effects of the widespread institution of the mistress:

In Europe almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth and not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men come to feel scorn for natural ties and legitimate pleasures and develop a taste for disorder, restlessness of spirit, and instability of desires. Shaken by the tumultuous passions which have often troubled his own house, the European finds it hard to submit to the authority of the state's legislators.

In some of the more radical courts of law in America (such as the Supreme Courts of California and Massachusetts) the word “marriage” is being devalued. The seeds of this devaluation lie in cultural shifts outside the activities of the state. The Sexual Revolution brought “free love,” the severance of sex from procreation, and the desire for easy divorce. These developments did much to weaken monogamous marriage between husband and wife over the next three generations.

Thus, today’s devalued marriages have eroded the trust of men and women in one another, and of their children in them. This lack of trust in marriage has spread throughout the whole of society and now weakens even the joy of young people about to be married, and makes singles less likely to commit to this uncertain bond. (Even so, in America today, two out of every three couples that pledge to marry “until death do them part” do stay married until death.)

Maintaining the full faith and credit of the marital bond which gives birth to a nation’s families is a more serious responsibility of governments than protecting the full faith and credit of the nation’s currency. A strong currency is extremely beneficial to nations. Strong and faithful families, oriented toward the rearing of highly skilled, virtuous, creative, and responsible children are necessary to them.

One of the ways in which the state encourages actions crucial to its own health is by honoring such faithful married persons and rewarding them with benefits. It would seem difficult to argue plausibly that gay ‘marriages,’ however love-filled and satisfying they may be, give as much added value to the future of a nation as marriages that are able to bear, nourish, and give rich and complex example to the coming generations.

Published in Liberal, September 10, 2008

Sarah! A New Star is Born

I don’t know if the word has reached Europe yet, but Americans have been in a swoon about the authentic voice of most of America, whose favorite sport is hunting, shooting, and dressing moose and caribou in the Alaska wilds. She is a woman of the American West. She is confident and fearless. And she is so down to earth she seems like someone out of your own parents’ home. This is the kind of woman we all grew up with, the kind that have been the strength of America since the West was opened in the 1850’s. She introduced herself as a “hockey mom” (not soccer, in Alaska), and asked the crowd if they knew the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull. Hardly taking a pause, and with a defiant smile, she added: “Lipstick.”

Sarah, the Governor with an 80% popularity rating, has become the single most admired of the four running mates, more popular than Obama and Biden and McCain.

The Republican center and right regards her as a heroine, and are now wildly enthusiastic about their presidential ticket. Further, the Democrats made a bad mistake in making fun of small towns like Sarah’s Wasilla, Alaska. There are only 262 cities in the U.S. larger than 100,000, but almost 100,000 towns of 10,000 or fewer, such as Wasilla.

The millions of Americans who have disabled children in their extended family had tears in their eyes when Sarah raised her baby who has Down syndrome high above her shoulders, proud of him in front of the convention and the whole world.

New polls say that a majority of Americans regard the press attacks on Sarah as unfair. The sympathy vote has shifted to the Republicans – especially against the oh!-so-sophisticated journalists. The bitter, low-road attacks by the media and some of Obama’s supporters had the wonderful result of drawing an enormous television audience – one of the biggest in political history – to give the Republicans a good look.

Nearly as many Americans watched Sarah’s acceptance speech on television as Barack Obama’s. (Then McCain topped Obama’s total, the next night.)

This is a different country today than a week ago. This is a different election. You can see it on the stunned faces of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Both their confidence and their amour-propre have been wounded by the good-humored needles Sarah (and the other Republicans) have jabbed into them day by day. The presidency, Sarah said, is not a journey of self-discovery. Obama has written two memoirs, she pointed out, but not a single piece of legislation, in the US Senate or in the Illinois State Assembly. Speaking in her perfectly pitched Midwestern/Western twang, with sparkling feminine mischief, she had the audience rolling with laughter, almost as much as Rudy Giuliani before her.

The Democrats attacked Republicans last week with sneers. The Republicans replied with wit and humor and happy laughter.

Wise and intelligent observers of politics are beginning to say aloud that McCain and Palin will win on November 4th. But those who like to be sure they are not being carried away by momentary enthusiasm say the election is likely to be won by small margins in the last few days of the campaign. There are many hurdles for each of the candidates to jump before then. The good news is that Barack does so well in the big urban areas that the best way for him to add to his totals in the most highly contested states is to increase his vote in small towns. He may have lost that chance by the nature of his supporters’ attacks on Americans who live in small towns.

John McCain has never been a great orator. His arms are still stiff from almost six years of harsh physical torture. But his closely-watched speech was immensely touching, as he described how “America saved me” from that foreign prison, and how while he was in prison, he learned how not to put himself first, but forevermore to put his country first. Taking advantage of Governor Palin’s record as a reformer, he told professionals in Washington to “Watch out! Change is coming.”

With Sarah Palin standing beside him, he stole Obama’s campaign theme right out from under him. McCain is now the champion of change.

Which man’s words can you believe in, Obama’s or McCain’s?

Published in Liberal September 7, 2008 

Who is Governor Palin?

A Christian (non-denominational Protestant) and mother of five, Governor of Alaska, Commander of the Alaska National Guard, political reformer who has shaken the “old boy network” of corrupt government in Alaska, long ago a star of her secondary school State Championship basketball team, ardent fisherman and hunter, a long-time manual worker and co-president of a small family business, toughminded and no-nonsense campaigner, Sarah Palin’s nickname in basketball was “Barracuda.” Do not sell her short. I loved the comment of one man: “More valuable than a pearl is a wife who loves to hunt and fish.” And whose favorite food is Moose stew. A woman who hunts Moose and Caribou is not to be trifled with. Turn to see another facet: Behind her horn-rim glasses, Sarah as a young woman finished second in the “Miss Alaska” beauty pageant – take a look at her photo. She might well become the first Vice President who earlier worked as a journalist and, for a time, as a sportscaster. She has not yet been overawed by any journalist.

First thing she did as Governor was sell the gubernatorial jet plane. Next, she sold the governor’s limousine fleet. “Don’t need ‘em,” she said. She has bent the oil companies of Alaska to her will. She has fired incompetent and dishonest appointees in government, even though they were part of the Republican establishment. She has been a Governor of the people, by the people, for the people. Her approval rating among the people of Alaska is 80%. Governor Palin knows more about oil and natural gas than any other major candidate– it is Alaska’s main industry, treasure, and potential. She knows more about the military than Barack and Joe Biden multiplied by two. Her state lies fifty miles from Russia across the Bering Strait. She deals with international companies from all around the world. Her oldest son enlisted in the army on September 11, 2007, and will depart for Iraq on September 11, 2008. She is enormously proud of him – and is very grateful that John McCain will soon be his Commander-in-chief.

Her youngest son, born this past April, was diagnosed early with Downs syndrome. She insisted on bringing “this beautiful child” to birth. Her husband, who is part Eskimo, is a tall, handsome member of the Steelworker’s Union, in his capacity as a worker in the offshore oilfields. His other main business is commercial fishing, a family occupation for generations. This is a couple that both work with their hands (she helps work their commercial fishing vessel on weekends). They love sports. He is the World Champion Snowmobile Driver.

The nomination of Governor Palin sent shockwaves of joy throughout the social conservative half of the Republican Party, the pro-life voters most of all, and a great many ordinary Republican, Independent, and even Democratic women. Immediately money in support of the campaign and offers to volunteer poured in. Nothing has energized the Republican “base” like this choice. This campaign is now a very different contest. If Governor Palin makes no other contribution to the McCain campaign, this is an enormous one. A sine qua non. The day before where there was gloom, the day of her nomination brought joy and commitment. In 2004, some 65% of voters who were regular churchgoers voted Republican, whereas about the same percentage of those who seldom or never go to church voted Democratic. In America, the churchgoers outnumber the latter by a significant margin. Not long ago, most religious people – evangelical Protestants, Catholics and Jews – were the backbone of the Democratic Party. No longer.

To be sure, on Thursday August 28, Senator Obama did put on a convention “Spectacular.” He scheduled its last night in Denver’s huge football stadium, and designed it as for the most part a rock concert. He gave his usual star-quality eloquent speech. However, this time it was not unitive but highly partisan, a standard Democratic speech (promising to spend tens of billlions of dollars with every minute that passed). At its end, bathed in rapturous applause, before and afterwards surrounded by famous rock stars and singers, his program delivered a gigantic fireworks display above the Denver skyline, outlined against the dark Rockies just at the western edge of the city. The next two days showed a significant jump in the polls to a 48-42 lead. That sort of lead is a little lower than many recent Democrats at this stage in presidential elections. The reason national polls do not mean much this early is that most Democrats are bunched together in the large urban states. The Republican vote is scattered across the rest of the map. Thus, the large Democratic vote in a few places does not add up to a lead in electoral votes, which are apportioned among all the states. Still, Obama is expected to win this election – seldom or never have Republicans been so low, or Democrats so high in expectation.

On Monday, September 1, the Republicans begin their much more modest convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, usually a Democratic state (home of two Democratic presidential candidates in recent years, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale). At the same time, a huge, dangerous Hurricane Gustav is bearing down awesomely on New Orleans, Louisiana, just as Katrina did three years ago. The Republicans may have to delay the start of their convention by at least a day, for Gustav is predicted to hit land on Monday morning. Some Democrats are gleefully praising God for their “luck” – not such a good thing to speak of while many Louisianans (a usually Democratic state) are in harm’s way. Maybe, though, the local government in Louisiana – city and state – along with federal assistance will do a much better a job in 2008 than during Katrina. In that case, that difference might redound to Republican credit. However the politics turn out, many Americans are thinking of relatives and friends in that region, and praying that they will come through the danger happily.

One should never forget that John McCain in his youth was a fighter pilot, and in many ways he still thinks like one. A fighter pilot must struggle for concealment in sun and clouds, hoping for surprise until the very last moment before swooping down on his prey. McCain loves surprise. He hates to be part of a herd. That is what “maverick” means, isn’t it? McCain showed his love for surprise in picking a woman of the people, a passionate and no-nonsense reformer, a tough and experienced executive for the past ten years (as mayor of her small town, now as governor) – a governor with a popular rating in Alaska about 65% higher than the U.S. Democratic Congress (now at 14 %).

Wednesday night September 3 will be a night of high drama. Governor Palin is scheduled to give her acceptance address to the excited Republican convention - and to the nation and the whole watching world.

The choice of this tough western governor was a high-risk sortie that candidate McCain took. It has tremendously excited Republicans, and added bold new lines to the profile of what is now the McCain-Palin ticket.

And every time Democrats complain that McCain’s new running mate is too inexperienced to be Vice President, they call attention to the even more grievous inexperience of their own choice for President.

Published in Liberal, September 2, 2008

The USA in 2012 Under President Obama

One of the wisest American former officials I know asked me two nights ago: “Michael, put on your thinking cap, and tell me where the United States will be four years from now, it Barack Obama is President.” I had been trying to avoid that question in my own mind. I have tried to tell myself the old proverb (told me by my father) “God takes care of children, drunks and the United States of America.” I have tried to imagine that Obama will NOT be President.

But I should try to do the responsible thing: Apply Obama’s announced principles and policies to their probable effects, based upon how we have learned that the world actually works.

The number one issue, orders of magnitude greater than others, is what will happen in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other sources of worldwide terrorism – suicide bombers, haters of Israel, and would-be destroyers of the United States and her allies. What will happen in Iraq? What will happen in Iran? What will happen in Pakistan?

Our Democratic Party ever since George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 has wished and wished, like an undisciplined child, for a benevolent world of peace, in which we could “talk to” and “reason with” those leaders whom earlier Administrations had learned they could neither trust, nor deal with as rational, benevolent partners. Earlier Administrations had also hoped that other leaders of nations respected us, and meant us well. Events like the bombing of the World Trade Center, the attack on the USS Cole, and September 11, 2001, plus the subsequent fury and irrational cruelty of jihadists around the world disillusioned them. But not, apparently, Obama and not all of the left-wing generation he represents.

The partisans of the welfare state demand peace, in order to pay for its insatiable needs to keep handing out more and more benefits. That is why left-wing statists take peace as their natural inheritance. They cannot go on without it. They do not intend to pay any price for it, there are no funds left for that.

Given the historical record of the last two hundred years (and more), what can we expect from this nursery room fantasy? An untypical, even unprecedented era of peace? – Or, on the contrary, the salivating determination of enemies to celebrate our visible moral weakness, and to slay their hated enemy while we bow our heads, standing there as weak and frightened supplicants? When a head is lowered from weakness, they strike it off.

In my experience, unwillingness to fight earns one contempt, further furies of terror, and truly bitter war. But perhaps other observers trust human nature more than I.

If the United States shows signs of weakness, surrender, and a one-sided departure from Iraq, the rejoicing of those who predicted that they would in the end defeat us will profoundly strengthen their resolve for the next battle. Further, without an offensive thrust in Iraq, solely sheltered in a defensive enclave, any airfields of ours or military forts would announce to those who hate us that they should keep killing two or more Americans every day, drip, drip, drip, until the American people cannot stand it any more. Weakness once shown invites fiercer aggression.

Iran will thus have its nuclear weapon by 2012, secure in the knowledge that Americans have no heart to do battle to prevent it.

In Pakistan, forces of economic and political development will know that they can no longer count on the Americans as a last resort. They would soon – to save their families – begin to yield more and more space to jihadists, terrorists, and promoters of Sharia Law. Free nations by 2016 will be far weaker than now, with far less space in which to alter the direction of terrorism.

Domestic Policy

Meanwhile, if Obama keeps his pledge to raise taxes on the top ten percent of income-earners (or even on the top two percent), he will give them enormous imperatives to alter their behavior, so as to show lower income. Since this tiny proportion of income earners pay something like 25 percent [check] of all income taxes paid by all Americans, any declines in their income mean steep declines in tax revenues. Obama seems to have no comprehension that raising tax rates at the top dramatically lowers revenue coming in. He will learn the hard way.

His policies on quasi-universal health care will change all the incentives in our current health system – and for the worse. Studies show that a high proportion of demands for health care are the result of personal behaviors – eating or drinking too much, not exercising enough, leading a dissipated life, not taking advantage of preventive care, spending health dollars heedlessly (because they are paid by the State, not the responsible individual).

Many older doctors will leave medical practice rather than become employees of the State, constantly regulated, badgered, and demeaned. The idea of medicine as a proud, independent, inventive profession will be profoundly wounded. In hospitals, paying benefits for patients (even if they practice irresponsible behaviors) will demand ever more dollars, which must necessarily be pulled out of research and invention. Long bureaucratic lists of those needing particular operations will force even the neediest patients to wait long months before they can get care.

Neither Obama nor his party seem to understand how incentives motivate human behavior – not force, not coercion, not mockery, not nursery-school regulation, but real possibilities of good fruits up ahead for free and responsible actions,. They do not understand the wellsprings of a virtuous, free and prosperous society. They are still entangled in the fantasies of the European left of a hundred and fifty years ago.

Thus, Obama is now the creature and the prisoner of the American far left, which has learned nothing from the failures of socialist and statist and anti-capitalist ideas during the past hundred years. Many leftists learn nothing, know nothing, and propel themselves not with practical wisdom, but with outrage and contempt and a desire to punish those who not agree with them.

My friend himself thought, he finally revealed, that the West has come to an epochal axial point in history. From now on, economic and political progress would grow far less quickly than ever before, and a long-lasting, precipitous decline was about to begin. Overseas, and also at home.

Morally, too, virtue and character and responsibility for oneself would be mocked and discouraged. The State would take over more and more of life. Although licentiousness would be glorified on big screen and small screen (the Democrats favor the Hollywood view of the world, and vice versa), neither self-directed liberty nor self-mastery nor responsibility for the consequences of one’s own behavior would be encouraged. These would be treated as retrograde ideas. All virtue would be attributed to the motherly caring State – and to its political managers. Woe to the “right-wing” dissenters!

Well, maybe I am wrong. But that is how I see things, admittedly through a cloudy glass.

My only two suppositions are (1) that Obama will do exactly what he now says he will do; and (2) that we may dimly discern the consequences likely to flow from his words and actions, based upon what we have seen happen in other decades and other generations.

My most hopeful moments derive from imagining that Obama, as President, will be dissuaded from acting as he now says that he will. In that way, God will once again take care of those who are drunk on statist illusions, and He will once again take care of the United States, despite itself. It is when I take Obama at his word that pessimism floods over my heart. Published in Liberal May 14, 2008