Catholic All the Way: Michael Novak’s Legacy

Michael Novak was a thinker whose sweep was without peer in his time, or ours. As a public intellectual, his contributions ranged over a staggering list of fields – theology, philosophy, journalism, economics, politics, poetry and fiction – just for starters. His public service included work as an ambassador for human rights, as a professor, as a public speaker in great demand; and his service was recognized by a staggering list of honors: 24 honorary degrees, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, awards from the Central European governments and associations for whom his towering work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, would serve as a providential blueprint during the years in which they clawed up from decades of communist oppression.

Read More

Book Review: What is Social Justice?

What is Social Justice

By George J. Marlin on The Catholic Thing on February 20, 2016

Social-Justice-book-coverThe term “social justice,” a potentially useful term, has – as we well know – been taken hostage by progressives in both the secular world and the Church. They have made it a catchall term to aid them in imposing ideological formulas and newly conceived rights on our common institutions, or to promote their favored causes de jure.

These “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs in digital parlance), who support state-enforced redistribution, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street agendas, also portray their opponents as evil people opposed to all that is good, and often employ tactics designed to silence or repress those who dare to disagree.

Writing about these “dangerous pseudo-progressive authoritarians” in a New York Observer article titled “The Totalitarian Doctrine of ‘Social Justice Warriors’” journalist Cathy Young concluded, “Because SocJus is so focused on changing bad attitudes and ferreting out subtle biases and insensitivities, its hostility to free speech and thought is not an unfortunate by-product of the movement but its very essence.”

In an effort to rescue “social justice” from this fate and to clarify its true meaning, Templeton Prize winner Michael Novak, and Paul Adams, Professor Emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, have co-authored an impressive book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is.

The authors contend that “social justice,” rightly understood, is not a state of public affairs but personal virtue. To explain that premise and “to seek out a fresh statement of the definition of social justice – one that is true to the original understanding, ideologically neutral among political and economic partisans, and applicable to the circumstances of today,” the book is divided into two parts.

The first, “The Theory” of social justice is written by Novak and the second part, by Adams, is devoted to “The Practice.”

Social Justice was introduced as a new virtue by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. He called this form of justice “social” because its aim was to improve the common good of a “free and responsible people” by employing social activities closely related to the basic unit of society: the family. Activities could include the creation of local religious and educational facilities and the administering of essential services.

This virtue is also expected to reach ends that cannot be actualized by the individual alone. People are expected to learn three skills: “the art of forming associations, willingness to take leadership of small groups, and the habit and instinct of cooperation with others.”

Social justice wasn’t meant to be dependent on large, impersonal, domineering, and cumbersome federal and state bureaucracies that tend to smother individual and local initiatives. Rather it is a habit of the heart that brings people together to form associations that provide “social protection against atomistic individualism, while at the other pole it protects considerable civic space from the direct custodianship of the state.”

Novak concludes his portion of the work by stressing:

Both Catholic social teaching and the social-work empowerment tradition reject the individualist hypertrophy of the autonomous unencumbered self no less than the hypertrophy of the state. The space – of civil society or mediating structures – between individual and state is the one in which conscience is shaped and the virtues on which it depends are developed through practice and habituation. The virtue of social justice also requires and develops that space in which citizens join together in pursuit of the common good.

As for Catholic social justice in action, Professor Adams describes it as the pre-eminent virtue of free societies. Social workers are virtue-driven and are called to act with people “to improve the common good of families, a local neighborhood, a city, a whole nation, the whole world.”

Social work, Adams argues, is neither individualist nor collectivist, but is devoted to strengthening the caring and self-regulatory capacity of the family and to reduce dependency on the “bureaucratic-professional state.”

Adams greatest fear is that social workers who adhere to Judeo-Christian teaching on life, death, family, and marriage will be driven from their professions. Conscience exemptions are being eliminated in most medical and counseling fields. Conscience has been redefined as merely “personal values that must be left at the office door when duty calls.”

Today clients or patients are sovereign. Any legal practice they demand, the social profession must provide or participate in providing. The professional’s right and duty, Adams observes, “to use her judgment about what is required or indicated or morally permissible is nullified.” The balance of rights between professional and client no longer exists, however, and client empowerment “radically disempowers, even dehumanizes, the professional.”

All too often social service professionals and healthcare workers must either execute policies or perform procedures they find morally degrading – or find a different line of work.

The war on conscience aims at destroying subsidiary associational life, particularly in Church and family. And if Social Justice Warriors succeed, religious freedom will be reduced to freedom of worship and the Church will have to abandon a prime corporate responsibility of caring for the poor, sick, homeless, and orphans.

Because battles over conscience in the public square are so daunting, Novak and Adams conclude that the most important words of Catholic social justice must become: “Do not be afraid.” They call on us to aspire upward and to “draw strength from the example of so many heroines and heroes who have gone before us, winning small victory after small victory, even in the darkest of times.”

True social justice demands nothing less.


By George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter, and  Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative. His most recent book is Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy.

Remarks at Ave Maria Gala America: Near Its End or a New Beginning?

Delivered by Michael Novak at the Ave Maria Law School Gala and published by The Catholic Thing on Saturday, December 6 2014  

Editor’s Note: These remarks were presented by the author at the Gala Dinner for the Ave Maria Law School in Naples Florida honoring philanthropist Tom Monaghan on December 5. – Robert Royal

In France, when people want to get something done they turn to the State; in Great Britain, to the aristocracy. In the United States, we turn to each other.

To put up schoolhouses all across this land, we used to gather for square dances and auctions (see Oklahoma!), for clambakes and raffles, for bake sales, quilt sales, and (at least we Catholics) – bingo. Tonight we take part in one of the oldest and most solemn of all American public liturgies: A fundraiser! Better than relying on the State is to build what we cherish most by ourselves.

I am deeply, deeply honored to be here to contribute to the Thomas Monaghan Scholarship Fund and the annual auction. For years I used to praise Tom as “my favorite billionaire saint.” Then Ave Maria School of Law – and the University even more – bit into Tom pretty hard. Now I praise him as my favorite “former billionaire saint.”

Why does Mr. Monaghan give so much? He knows the fragility of freedom and of faith. Freedom can be lost in a single generation. Only one generation has to give up on America’s founding laws, switch off the lights, and walk out the door. And then it’s gone, this noble experiment.

I think Tom asked himself: Does this century mark America’s last? Is this nation a short-term meteor that has blazed across the heavens, and is now exhausted? Or rather, is our present fog a transient time of trial, those hours cold and dark, bombs bursting in air, ramparts red-gleaming? Are we nearing our end, or at a new beginning?

Tom Monaghan, who began life as an orphan, and was made a man by the U.S. Marines, knew instantly what he would choose. He chose to make these years a new beginning – for his faith and for his country. And he started with the law. As Blackstone put it, right at the top of his book, the Law of Moses became through Jesus Christ (taking it to the Gentiles) the font and spring of constitutional government among all peoples: “Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws. . . .[N]o human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”

The founders of the United States held that there can be no republic without liberty, and no liberty without morality; and – for most people – no morality without God. Modern lawyers may no longer hold this. But our founders did. George Washington did:

In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens [he spoke of religion and morality]. . . . Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths?

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Given the horrors of the century just passed, who would wish to bet our republic’s continuance on a people who have no inner policemen, no inner conscience?

Where nearly all citizens live by inner policemen, official police forces can be small. Among peoples without inner policemen, no number of policemen on the street will suffice.

Mr. Monaghan expected original intellectual contributions from the Ave Maria School of Law. Did not Tocqueville hint that Catholics would one day become the best articulators of the inner principles of American law? Mr. Monaghan gave us a command: Advance the intellectual inheritance that Catholic faith brings to law. Some of that inheritance includes:


A global institution. The first global institution in human history was the Catholic Church. “Go teach all nations.” Not just one people, nor race, nor tribe, but all humans everywhere. “Catholic” is a more ancient term that “global.”

  • International law. Outside the United Nations building in New York City stands the statue of Francisco de Vitoria, O.P., founder of modern international law.
  • Universal human rights. As Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon has shown in her splendid study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both Catholic and Jewish thinkers led the way in inventing a new universal language for human rights, including the family and other institutions more vital than the State.
  • Natural rights. The earliest writings about natural rights in the American hemisphere did not spring from Hobbes, Locke, Hooker or Jefferson, Madison, or Marshall, but rather from Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). Some men are by nature slavish and deserve to be slaves, Aristotle had written. As brilliantly told in Lewis Hanke’s Aristotle and the American Indians, Friar Bartolomé could no longer accept that.
  • How even inequality serves equality. Tocqueville marveled at the delicious irony that Catholic societies even under feudalism, aristocracy, and inequalities of status, dramatized the equality of all humans more vividly than its rivals. The king knelt at the same communion rail as his serfs. The Almighty and Infinite God was not impressed by the wealth or station of any human being, no matter how great in their own eyes. Before God, all humans are as dust. Or embraced warmly and equally as daughters and sons, through the sacrifice of Christ.
  • The primacy of civil society. Closer to our own time, Jacques Maritain’s Man and the State clarified the primacy of civil society over the state in new language, which had earlier proved crucial in persuading some nations to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it protected primary, smaller institutions from the State.
  • The first law of democracy: association. Tocqueville wrote that the first law of democracy is the principle of association. He noted that the Catholic traditions of the Middle Ages went beyond the mere individual, through a multitude of sodalities, fraternities, guilds, and associations. Of necessity, this habit of association was reborn in America, where society was formed small-scale first: from associations of neighbors helping each other, to villages, then to townships, then to states, and only after 150 years to a Union of States, the United Americans aren’t great as individuals; most of our lives have been spent in building communities, from the ground up.
  • From individual to person. Catholic thought also gave rise to the crucial distinction between the individual and the person. This particular yellow pencil [pulls from pocket], our family dog, “Hollow,” the beech tree in our back yard – those are individuals. Persons have far more capacities and responsibilities than individuals, and the higher dignity of choosing their own destiny. Regarding their past, persons can reflect on it, and choose to change their ways. Regarding their future, persons face a dizzying multitude of open paths, and must by themselves choose the one dearest to them. We do not gain dignity from being individuals, but from being persons capable of reflection and choice. Animals do not build republics. Only humans do, from reflection and choice.
  • Where “liberty, fraternity, and equality” come from. The German atheist Jürgen Habermas had the honesty and guts to admit publicly (in debate with Cardinal Ratzinger), that these battle-cries of the Enlightenment, “Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!” derive from Jewish and Christian principles. No pagan thinker held to them. Certainly not to fraternity, and not to the other two, either.
  • What is liberty? Liberty is not the freedom to act as one pleases – that is the freedom only of animals. Human liberty is the freedom to act as one ought to act. Animals know no ought. Human consciences do.
  • A self-evident DUTY grounds the right to religious liberty. As Jefferson and Madison both demonstrate, it is self-evident that a duty of gratitude is owed by any conscious creature to her Creator. Both Madison and Jefferson trace religious liberty to this primordial duty. The duty of a creature to her Creator is so deep no one else dares to interfere with it. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty also grounds religious liberty in this duty.

To present a fully developed Christian philosophy of law is the impulsion given to Ave Maria School of Law by Tom Monaghan. Now is the time, this is the place, to push forward that great work, as no other law school has done before. The duty to achieve greatness has been thrust upon this School. And just at a time when our floundering nation needs it desperately. And the Catholic faith, as well.

I want to conclude tonight with the story of Dr. Joseph Warren, the physician who delivered the babies of Abigail Adams and many other mothers. Dr. Warren stood with the Minutemen at Lexington, even took a bullet through his hair. Two months later, just commissioned a Major General in the Continental Army, he learned that 1,500 patriots had crept up Bunker Hill at night and silently erected earthen walls.

At daylight, battalions of Redcoats put all of Charlestown to the torch, and tongues of flame from 500 houses, businesses, and churches leapt into the sky. Breathless, Abigail Adams watched from a distant hillside, and heard the warships thunder shot and shell on Bunker Hill for five long hours. As they did so, Doctor Warren – now Major General Warren – was galloping to Boston and when he arrived took a position in the lowest ranks on Bunker Hill.

The American irregulars proved their discipline that day. Twice they broke the forward march of 3,500 British troops, with fire so withering they blew away as many as 70 to 90 percent of the foremost companies of Redcoats, who lost that day more than 1,000 dead. Then the ammunition of the Americans ran out.

While the bulk of the Continental Army retreated, the last units stayed in their trenches to hold off the British hand-to-hand. That is where Major General Joseph Warren was last seen fighting, as a close-range bullet felled him. The British officers had him decapitated and bore his head to General Gage.

As Tom Monaghan has recognized, freedom is always the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can throw it all away. Every generation must decide. And what holds for America holds also for the Catholic faith. When the Lord returns, will he find on earth even a single person who is still faithful to Him?

Like Tom Monaghan, Joseph Warren told the men of Massachusetts:

Our country is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves.

Let us go now, with generous hearts, into the auction – to support the high mission of this blessed School. And in honor of – Thomas Monaghan.


Ave Maria Gala 2014 image2 Ave Maria Gala 2014 image1

Pope Francis: call 911, ask for Michael Novak

 I wish I could enter a plea to the Holy Father that the next time he gathers with advisers to wade into the moral domain of political economy, he might also call 911 for Michael Novak. His counsel would be, at once, savvy and reverential.

Francis, the Writer Unbound  Print

Published by Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 

We have recently marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a composition that some us can still summon from memory, and which we cannot speak again without being moved by it again.

The same week brought Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The Holy Father sounded the cymbals and trumpets of joy in the Gospel – he invoked Isaiah: “Shout aloud and sing for joy!” John Paul II had prepared the way; Benedict proclaimed the need to get on more seriously with a new evangelization; and it appears that Francis, with his passion for doing, is bringing that project to a new plane of movement and urgency.

But the Holy Father welcomes candid engagement, and so I am sure he would not take offense if we notice that, in his extended exhortation, running over 200 pages, he did not exactly show the same powers of compression that Lincoln showed at Gettysburg. Nor, regrettably, the same clarity of teaching. Of course, he sought to cover a wider range of subjects. And along the way he had some ringing lines, as on moral relativism, including the relativism to which even pastoral workers may be prone as they recede from casting moral judgments.

But the melancholy point is that Francis showed his powers of compression mainly on those matters at the core of the “culture war” that has been tearing apart our politics and our lives. Robert George was grateful to see the pope sound the case again for orthodoxy on marriage, but in a papal document composed of 286 numbered paragraphs, “marriage” was given no more than one paragraph. And it was a paragraph notably holding back from explaining the moral argument that has not been sounded in the courts, or heard more than rarely in the pulpits.

On abortion, the pope aptly warned that the “defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.” For one cannot treat flippantly the standing of this “human person” in the womb without diminishing in the same way the standing, and rights, of any other human person.

But then the Holy Father quickly turns to note that:

 it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations? 

Nothing the Pope says here offers permission for aborting the child in these circumstances. But given what he has famously said about holding back from casting judgments, will we be surprised if people read his silence here as offering a tacit forgiveness in advance for the abortions that would dissolve the problem?

Francis surely knows that these cases have caused the most strain in explaining the position of the Church. This is the place where teaching is needed. He might have called back his earlier words and said, “I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.”  But he chose to remain silent on the matter, even after he had raised the question.

We have been told this year that the pope’s positions are far more “nuanced” than they appear in the interviews, relayed through reporters. But here he wrote in his own name at length, where he had ample room to be as nuanced as the subject required. What he produced was a hefty document, regrettably wanting in nuance on these matters of marriage and abortion.

In some quarters, what has also caused the real gnashing of teeth in response to Evangelii Gaudium has been the sections on economics. And yet the pope was careful to note that “the option for the poor” is “primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, or philosophical one.” His case for the poor is for truly engaging with them, for they are anchored in the world with things to tell us. They may be closer, he thought, to “the suffering of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”

And yet he swept past his own cautions as he inveighed against the “autonomy of markets” and the “invisible hand” – as though the grand exponents of a free economy had ever detached the “market” from the moral restraints of the law. The law would ever be in place to mark off the limits to what a decent people could demand and supply in the market.

Francis celebrates the capacity of the gospels to make all things new. But what he sees now with a fresh charm, is the romance of pursuing a “better distribution of income,” shorn of its moral fallacies, and the mischief it licenses. He runs the risk then of bringing back the apostles of liberation theology with their gospel of redistribution. That is not the Second Coming for which we have been waiting.

A decent society will tax itself to protect the destitute and disabled from perishing. That is quite different from claiming to know what the “rightful income” should be of a doctor, a ballplayer, or a plumber.

I wish I could enter a plea to the Holy Father that the next time he gathers with advisers to wade into the moral domain of political economy, he might also call 911 for Michael Novak. His counsel would be, at once, savvy and reverential.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download

A Different Priestly Scandal

Burning injustices rest on our consciences, and will continue to burn us until we correct them. I had dinner the other night with a marvelous priest, who started out our dinner by having the little children who were with us recite together (partly in song) the blessing before meals. They loved doing it. Loved the sound of it. Loved the solemnity. Loved the fun.

I did not know until well along in the meal, almost at the very end, that this good priest – so well informed about so many matters of faith, so genial, and so patently good-hearted and faithful – had been falsely accused of sexual molestation eight years ago. He was forced to leave the ministry (an accusation these days is enough to do this – a horrible scandal in itself). His accuser died of a cocaine overdose in his mother’s house, but not before exonerating the priest by admitting the falsity of his accusation.

But all that notwithstanding, the bishop in his diocese has not moved – dared? – to reinstate this good man and return him to his proper standing in the priesthood, or even to give a public apology for his unjust treatment. Nor has the press that stirred up the atmosphere of high-tech lynchings revisited his case (and hundreds if not thousands of others) to clear them of this horrible wrong.

Very few raw accusations that have emerged since the priestly abuse crisis erupted were ever subject to due process and full discovery and an open trial.

In America, citizens have a right to their innocence until proven guilty. This good man was never given a hearing. He is still being punished – to the very the core of his being and in his very reason for existence – because of a false accusation and that alone. Further, it is an accusation that has been withdrawn by the accuser, and apologized for by his family: “Billy [name changed] would never have made the accusation if he had been sober.”

To have been treated as non-persons, as non-citizens, is an injustice that cries out to heaven for justice. Yet in addition to the truly evil predators that have been identified and weeded out, this is the fate of a considerable number of innocent Catholic priests in this country today.

I do not understand why the Catholic Church has not fought for a civil process that gives these good men, innocent until proven guilty, fair trials. I do not understand why the American courts do not do this. I do not understand why the American press is not fighting mad about that. I do not understand why the ACLU is not leading this charge – they have a reputation for defending the unpopular victims, the publicly vilified victims.

We all know, of course, that many accused priests have been proven guilty. No doubt, still more deserve to be given their due punishments. The years 1965-1985, give or take, were in clerical dereliction the worst in my memory (including historical memory, going back to the beginning of this Republic). They terribly shamed me and many millions of other Catholics.

But I also know that thousands of the accused have never been given due process. They have been discarded as non-persons. They can hardly comprehend the sudden injustice they have suffered in the Church they love and the country they love. Since birth they have thought themselves safe from that – the kinds of injustices usually thought of as only occurring elsewhere, not in our America. They have been horribly betrayed.

I beg those who have reached the same conclusions I have to act to change the present injustice, to rectify it, to erase it, and to restore to their full standing as human beings, citizens, and men committed to their faith, those who, after due process, are judged not guilty.

They loved that faith in part because of its traditional defense of individual persons from birth to natural death. They loved this country because of its protection of individual rights. They cannot understand how they have been stripped of those basic rights – suddenly, without an outcry on their behalf by the Church, the state, and the public defenders of basic human rights.

Look into it, America. Look into it, Catholic Church. Examine the facts. Punish the proven guilty. But give the innocent the honor that is due them.

They have suffered so much, for so many years. It is a marvel that some still maintain their morale and their hope. Even if we humans do not fulfill our duty to protect them from mendacious accusations, may God bless them and be faithful to them forever.

Published in The Catholic Thing on May 13, 2012


Professor, Artist, Editor, Publisher, Translator, Holy Man, Gentleman, Friend to a Multitude, and a Helluva Companion for Laughter and Story

Our friend Ralph has slipped behind the clouds, out where the Sun is brightest. He will still be with us. I can't think of any man in our time who accomplished more in one lifetime, in more different spheres, with a wider array of talents. He seemed to be laughing all the time. No one was so steady a gusher of puns, not least in the titles of his novels: On This Rockne, Frigor Mortis, The Emerald Aisle ... even in his introduction to the philosophy of St.Thomas Aquinas, his guide for “Peeping Thomists.”

A dinner with Ralph was a feast of stories. Also, probes by him to follow up on his curiosities. Also, seeking your opinions. Tales of the latest “progressive” outrages, followed by kind words for the particular persons being singled out. New projects he was thinking of, and what do you think of this? Puns, of course, and an endless appetite for new funny stories and the telling of the latest of his own.

One always left Ralph warmed by his love for the Church. That love may have been his most distinguishing characteristic. It surely fed his zest for the comedic sense of the Divine. It won his gratitude for the great intellectual patrimony it brought him.

He had great patience for me when I was swinging left, both politically and theologically. Nor did he gloat when experience brought me back toward love for orthodoxy (not passive, but inquisitive and pioneering) and political realism. He wryly smiled at the proposed title for my intellectual journey: Writing from Left to Right.

Ralph’s course was always steadier. He let people pass him by on left and right, and observed the wreckage as he later passed them by. He changed a lot himself, of course. But often he was just remaining constant as the world veered left and right, to extremes. He watched his hereditary Democratic Party adopt old Republican tendencies such as isolationism, while Republicans (mirabile dictu) became pro-life and rather more Catholic all the time. Ralph did not think social justice, the common good, and subsidiarity pointed to ever larger government. He had a mid-western habit of common sense and a steady observation of results, rather than self-admiring motives.

There is a largeness about the American Middle West, and the sky there is very tall above the silos, water tanks, and trees. What counts there is feet on the ground, and not getting too big for thine own britches. There is a contemplative spirit there, and the steadiness of the rich soil all around. There is a distinctive Catholic spirituality of the middle part of the United States. Ralph lived it.

He suffered a lot from his wife Connie’s death. She was always so matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, and a wifely puncturer of dreams too rosy to be true. He missed her terribly, although (so far as I could see) without complaint.

I loved and envied the boldness of Ralph’s writing travels: two months here or there to write another novel, eat well, and laugh a lot – in Sicily, on Capri, even in Sarasota, Florida.

Ralph lit my life, kept my compass true, ate well with me (mostly I with him), and made me laugh a lot. Not a few times I kept him from working at his desk, with long telephone calls.

I will never forget founding Crisis with him (at first it was Catholicism in Crisis). We each put in $2000 to get the first issue out, and trusted in Providence to bring us enough in the mail to let us put out another one, and another. It always came.

Ralph, dear friend, I cannot say that I will miss you, or grieve for you. I know you are with us, even closer than before. I know that you are laughing at our blunders. And pulling for us.

Thanks, good friend.

Published in The Catholic Thing February 1, 2010

Michael and Karen: A Love Story

By Hadley Arkes Michael Novak, after considerable strain, decided to leave the seminary in Rome; he would head back home to America and to graduate work at Harvard. In time he would draw a worldwide audience for his writings in theology, philosophy, economics, politics, even sports. But he would arrive at Harvard to begin his graduate studies, in his late twenties, with an accomplishment rare for graduate students: a novel already published. The Tiber Was Silver was the story of a young seminarian, written with all of the color and the authenticity of one writing from within the experience actually lived.

In the novel, the young seminarian, Richard McKay struggles with the question of whether he is truly fitted for the priestly life. He responds to the doubts registered by his superior, Padre Bracciano, and he admits that: “He was worldly. He did love art, love the cities, love people: everything captivated him! Governments, reforms, proposals, everything about the earthly city.” The young seminarian meets an attractive young woman, an artist, and he is evidently drawn. The challenge facing the writer was to convey just how much Richard, the seminarian, was attracted and yet how plausible was his decision not “to go over the wall” and turn away from the priesthood to the world of marriage.

But Michael did himself go over that wall. And just a few years later he met that young artist in Cambridge. They met for lunch, as she was seeking advice from a young Catholic as earnest as she was, and she was indeed, as the novel anticipated, arrestingly attractive. This was Karen Laub, sprung from Iowa. She had been schooled at Carleton College, and she was returning from Europe, where she had studied painting with Oscar Kokoschka in Vienna. The lunch extended into dinner, and into a conversation that would go on until the hours of the morning.

Michael was evidently smitten. Over the seminary he could strain in pondering, but on the question of a lifelong marriage with Karen he suffered no indecision. He was taken aback when he proposed and she said, “not yet.” There were so many things she wanted to do in exploring her craft and the world before she settled down. But she too was smitten, and they settled down ... to explore the world. She would be with Michael as he was drawn again to Rome and Venice, and other places even more exotic in Europe and Asia.

I used to wonder that she could suspend her own notable projects as she joined Michael in these outings, when the children were grown and her own career had been launched. But of course nothing was ever suspended. She would absorb everything in her own appetite to know more about the world and to explore the mysteries and the truths that formed the central thread in both of their works.

Fr. Kurt Pritzl, the dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University, caught something so right about her work: She would put the accent on “’strong things,’ not always easy things or pleasant things, but real things of life that we all face.” Her figures would at times jar us because she would strip away the skin to uncover the tendons, the nerves, and one could feel the tension in the body. As Fr. Pritzl observed, she would start with the “word given” – the word that was at the Beginning. She would draw on T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, Rilke’s Elegies, or the Book of Revelation. But then, as Pritzl said, she “gave [the word] body, shape, texture, color, concreteness, physicality.”

For Michael and Karen, this was a marriage sustained by Two Wings, by faith and reason, nature and art – by the relentless wit and energy of Michael and the genius, and deepening sainthood, of Karen. Fr. Pritzl’s words were spoken as a homily at Karen’s funeral Mass two weeks ago. She had an earlier bout of breast cancer, but later on the cancer spread. For over a year the prospect of losing her hovered overhead as she undertook therapy with a remarkable spirit. She was determined to make every day account, to remain upbeat, joyous, to appreciate everything, and she lifted us in turn: we wanted to share as many moments as we could with her in the same way.

With that sense of things, she and Michael decided to take a National Review cruise this summer, along with children and grandchildren. They would stop in Rome but also in Ephesus (now in Turkey) where they could visit the house thought to have been the home of Mary. The trip was risky, and Karen noted in her jaunty way that if she died on the trip, they could simply bury her at sea. But it was a trip that provided an apt culminating moment in life. Back from abroad, she took a turn for the worse, and suddenly – to the rest of us – she was in her last moments. We had long expected it, but for the friends it was still numbing.

And yet ... The day after she died, I had the feeling – the most vivid I’ve experienced after the death of a friend – that Karen was still there, that that lovely soul is still with us, and will be with us.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and is one of the architects of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own. © 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

Published by Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing September 2, 2009

'Caritas in Veritate' Symposium

Just after Vatican Council II, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) joined others in founding a school of thought called "Communio Theology." The inner life of the Revealed God is a Trinity, a Communion of Persons. So should be the inner life of every image of God, every human person. Thus, the four main ideas in the new Encyclical Caritas in Veritate are communion, gift, caritas, and truth. Undoubtedly, this is the most theological, most specifically Catholic, of all social encyclicals since 1891. Its aim is to show the divine context of political economy and the drama of its upward-leaping tongues of fire: its inspiration, its aspiration.

As Abraham Lincoln pointed out, slavery in the United States could not be overcome by a Lockean fear or self-interest alone, but must be married to a larger and more generous grasp of the reality of the other. Progress and human development always depend upon an upward pull.

Benedict XVI sees political economy today caught in a worldwide updraft, whose possibilities we must read accurately. The world's peoples are becoming ever more pushed together, misunderstanding each other, rubbing against each other. They are called to be one. More and more often, they learn from each other ideas of human rights, protest, free association, free speech, justice, fairness.

The world, in short, groans for inner communion. And some of the most important secrets of human communion spring from the realities of Person and Communion in the free, gratuitous Creator of all. Persons, even in communion with one another, subsist in their uniqueness.

In the distinctively Catholic view of the cosmos, everything begins in the inner personal, communal life of the Godhead. This tallies with our own personal experience that the two most "divine" experiences in our lives, the two that are most God-like, are the kind of love that is perfect communion with another, and the sweet sense of self-control and personal responsibility in moments of great stress. ("Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.")

From this, the Catholic vision concludes that "Everything we look upon is gift." Creation itself flows from a superabundant gift. A shopkeeper who moves into a neighborhood to bake fresh bread and sweets in the morning brings a great gift to one's life. Those who spend their lives bringing such goods to one another bear gifts, especially if their human manner in so doing is kind and considerate. The pope asks us to look at economic life in the light of gift-giving, even when it is conducted according to conventions of exchange and price. It is the human generosity of the thing – the human dimension of commerce – that should not be lost sight of, if the world is to remain (or to become) more human.

Read the rest of the Caritas in Veritate Symposium here. Other commentators include James V. Schall, S.J., Joseph Wood, and Robert Royal.

Published in The Catholic Thing Online July 8, 2009

Why Did God Command Evil Deeds?

Two different persons have told me recently that they cannot accept a God who commanded Moses and others to do evil. One challenge came by email, and the other came from my fifteen-year old granddaughter. They asked me to explain how I can accept a God who commanded Moses and others in the Old Testament – good people – to do bad things? Among many examples, God ordered Moses and his army to execute the Midianites, not only the men, but the women and male children. The virgin girls they are to keep for themselves. Initially, the Israelites resisted this command, and Moses had to give the harsh order again. Does this mean that following this God forces me to abandon compassion and reason, respect for human rights and the value of every human life? Both my correspondent and my granddaughter abhor the implied glorification of lawless will. My correspondent wrote: “I take this episode as expressing the idea that God’s authority is absolutely without limit, that there are no values apart from God’s will, thus man has no dignity or rights on his own account. If he wishes us to slaughter one another, we are in no position to question or to disagree.” To follow this God, he implies, is to abandon one’s humanity.

I am no specialist in biblical studies. I do not know how Jewish rabbis have explained these texts down the centuries. Still, I have always read the stories of the Jewish testament – from the polygamy of Abraham to the commands of Yahweh to bash the heads of captured infants against stones – as a description of the way things once were on earth, everywhere, whereas in the Bible there was a slow unfolding of humane, even godly, values. This unfolding was slow, although not nearly so slow as the eons of Darwinian evolution so many enlightened people today find acceptable.

As I recall, even the wisest of the Greek philosophers allowed for the killing and/or enslavement of captured populations. They killed so that threatening peoples would not soon again be a threat. They enslaved, to free up more Athenian and Spartan warriors for battle. They approved of infanticide among their own people. Further, both Plato and Aristotle thought slavery a natural institution, and held that most humans have the souls of slaves, and deserve to be slaves. They did not believe in human equality; quite the contrary. Some men are made of bronze, some of silver, only a few of gold.

What my email correspondent described as compassion, reason, human rights and human dignity entered slowly into human history as yeast into dough. It took a long time for a new way of viewing human individuals to emerge; even today, compassion and respect for the dignity of every human being (in the womb, in helpless old age) are hardly established in universal practice.

Certain characteristics that we now hold to mark a fully “humane” person emerged only slowly through time. (In fact there are still parts of the human race that have not heard of them, or appropriated them as their own.) Forgiveness, compassion, and a sense of all humans as equals in the sight of God are in historical perspective late blooms. Another relatively recent and important characteristic is the responsibility of the human individual to follow his own conscience (and the inner Light that illumines his conscience).

As I read the Old Testament, it consists of books that tell the history of the education of a privileged part of the human race in the Creator’s high standards for all of humanity. Not all is revealed at once. Many existing evils are not immediately uprooted. Slowly and spiraling up and down through the centuries, though on a slightly upward tendency, Israel is taught that God wishes to be approached not in subservience but in friendship, and that our proper approach to him is not self-abasement but love.

Israel is also commanded that humans should love one another. God’s commandments outline the basic social code – not to dishonor one’s parents, kill another human, steal, bear false witness, lie, commit adultery or fornication, covet, etc. This code turns out to be very close to what the natural law of human experience also teaches disparate peoples outside the circle of God’s Covenant with Israel – it teaches by painful trial and error. Peoples that violate this basic social code slowly destroy themselves. People who follow this code prosper, and establish mutual trust and cooperation.

My sincere and respectful questioner has helped me catch sight of a profound irony. Now that he has learned from the Bible a very high standard of virtue, conscience, judgment and aspiration, he rejects the Author Who taught him those moral advantages. Why? Because that Author did not reveal everything at once.

My correspondent rejects God by the standards that God – and God alone – taught us to observe: not only the Ten Commandments (which all may learn), but also the Love of God and Neighbor, Compassion, Forgiveness, the Dignity of every single conscience, the immortal Worth of everyone (we alone made in the image of the Creator), and the human rights that follow therefrom.

Somehow, my correspondent’s path does not seem right to me.

I think it admirable that God has been patient in schooling us, and in schooling us still.

Published in The Catholic Thing May 4, 2009

Mushy Christianity

One of the greatest of recent seductions by that wily devil Screwtape – perfectly fitted to the times – is to puff a tiny sugar crystal of Christianity into sweetish airy cotton candy. “IN-clusiveness!” he will insist. “Christianity is about nothing if not IN-clusiveness.” That is how Screwtape sweet-talks you into affirming that some abomination (divorce, abortion, euthanasia, adultery, gay marriage) is, actually, included within the broad reach of Christian love. It would be positively un-Christian to think ill of that “abomination.” You should be ashamed you ever thought it was wrong. Are you a bigot or something?

“Strange!” I would have thought, “Christianity is about EX-clusion.” On the last day the Judge shall divide the world into sheep and goats, you over on the left, you over on the right. A few of you will be chosen to enter with me into Paradise. The rest will descend, as you have chosen, into everlasting punishment. I have come not to bring peace, but the sword. He who is not with me is against me. God sent His light into the darkness, and the darkness received it not. The gate is narrow, and the way is strait. Only a tiny remnant will be saved. There was much weeping, and tears, and gnashing of teeth.

You can look it up.

Take half an hour, skim through the gospels of Matthew and Mark. (Even more “un-Christian” are some of the Epistles of St. Paul.)

Screwtape has it all wrong. The moment you encounter someone stressing how IN-clusive Christianity is, walk away from him quickly, for the truth is not in him.

Conspicuously was this true of the infamous Newsweek article putting homosexual liaisons in paradise, and picturing marriage (in the Christian view) as a kind of hell. This article appeared at Christmastime – Christmastime! And it was later defended by the usually clear-eyed editor of Newsweek, John Meacham. That is the shrewdest sign of how skillful Screwtape is. He picks none but the best.


But another case: Much that passes today for “environmentalism” is exceedingly vulnerable to sudden and unexpected factual disproof. Old-fashioned preachments of hellfire and brimstone (in certain types of Christian churches in generations past) seem to have become a template for today’s dire depictions of the way the world will end all too soon.

If twenty years from now, however, world climate seems to have become dramatically colder year after year (temperatures have been flat or slightly cooler since 1997), and if more discoveries are made about the effect of activities within the Sun, which affect Ice Ages and Warming Ages on Earth, current panic may seem to have been exceedingly naive. Our children and grandchildren may look back at our gullibility with embarrassment. Or maybe not. The point is, to become careful and empirical and fact-oriented, not cause-oriented.

For myself (no scientist), I calculate that global cooling is more likely than global warming.


Mushy Christianity also results in obscurantist thinking about abortion. Some people think it is more “tolerant,” “broadminded”— more inclusive - to accept abortion as a new social reality. In fact, until 1973, nearly all jurisdictions in the United States regarded abortion as a disgusting violation of natural right. Alas, what our new abortion regime has done is narrow the circle of life and liberty.

This is liberal? This is Christian?

President Lincoln not only opposed slavery but also opposed the rights of states to have a “choice” in whether to permit slavery or not. His purpose in opposing both slavery and “choice” was to expand the circle of life and liberty. (No one can choose to put himself in slavery; no one can choose to abort himself; therefore, no one has the right to enslave or to abort anyone else.) The dismantling of the institution of slavery was, indeed, a liberal purpose, and a Christian one.

Again, on January 23, our new president reinstated the culture of death in American overseas programs and foreign aid. American tax money will again be used to pay for abortions overseas. “What is the solution,” I have often heard people overseas ask, “that the richest country on earth brings to the poorest peoples on this planet? Surely a wealthy and caring United States has something better to offer than to pay women of the neediest nations to kill their own children.” And to do so during the very months when the children are most defenseless, in their mother’s womb. Many here and abroad find this strategy disgusting.

Moreover, this crude procedure deprives poor peoples (colored peoples mostly) of the full talents and beauties these not-yet-born human individuals are poised to contribute to the world. Children are the greatest natural resource any nation inherits. Human capital is the greatest and most irreplaceable of all forms of capital. It is the chief cause of the wealth of nations.

Each of the discarded little boys and (mostly) girls possesses an utterly individual DNA. No other is quite like any one of them. Abortion deprives Earth of their creative gifts.

Christianity came into the world to relieve us from, not add to, these and many other forms of human mush.

Michael Novak’s website is and his wife’s is

Published in The Catholic Thing February 10, 2009