The Fragility of Liberty – Part Three

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The Fragility of Liberty – Part Three

By Michael Novak at on June 3, 2015

Whether capitalism or socialism is the better system for dramatically reducing poverty was a well-settled question by the mid-1980s.

As I wrote in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), the most underreported fact of the twentieth century was the death of socialism. It was dead, all right, but that underreported death would take a little more time to become overpoweringly evident to all. The global turn toward capitalism began not long after, in 1989, and within twenty-five years some 2 billion people had begun moving from communism and socialism toward capitalism, and thence out of poverty and into steadily advancing standards of living. These numbers were most notable in China, India, and the former Soviet Union and its captive nations.

By 2008, the world’s population had risen to roughly 7 billion, most living longer than ever before, through the blessing of sophisticated new medicines pioneered in advanced capitalist countries. Today there are still about a billion more persons who need to be raised up out of poverty. This project is the number-one moral priority of our time.

Adam Smith called his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) – nations, not individuals. The task laid out is a social mission, not an individualist one, and it will not be completed until all nations and all persons are included within the upward sweep of the inventive economy.

The Great Seal of the United States (reverse)

I started to write about democratic capitalism in the 1970s in an effort to explain to my overseas friends (and to myself) just what the new order of “the free society” is (i.e., What is this novus ordo seclorum?). One could not learn this simply by reading political philosophers and political scientists who don’t write much about economics or culture. Nor could it be learned by reading only economists who wrote not nearly enough about the polity and the culture: the presence (or absence) of the rule of law, natural rights, and a culture of creativity. Nor did literary figures and humanists explore the new model of society in which it was their privilege to dwell (a society with heretofore “no model on the face of the globe,” as James Madison put it in Federalist No. 14).

Therefore, a lot of work remained to be done to put into words the nature of the tripartite system of a free society: a culture, a polity, an economy – all three in a distinctive framework of checks and balances, obligated to respect the natural rights of every man and woman, as well as the common good.

Here the American founders stressed three highly useful terms of not quite identical meanings: the public interest, the public good, and the general welfare. They also recognized, with sharp originality, the debilitating daily consequences of human sin (often overlooked by utopians) desperately in need of constant, vigilant correction.

The underlying anthropology of the enduring free society is that there is enough sin in humans to put the survival of liberty in doubt, but also enough virtue to give a regime of liberty a chance, albeit a precarious chance. For decades it might be necessary barely to muddle through. We must not be utopian about the degree of virtue in humans.

A society composed of a threefold system of liberties lives always in danger of suicide, always in danger of losing its foundation in the moral virtues of its people. The free society in each of its three systems must be constantly reinvigorated by a sufficient number of virtuous citizens. And its three systems must remain in healthy balance with one another.

These are not easy tasks. The survival of free regimes in this world is never guaranteed.

For Trinity Sunday – A Parable

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For Trinity Sunday – A Parable

A bright and rather contemplative student of mine got herself into a perplexity recently. She had learned that Pope John XXIII had invited the world’s bishops to send in proposals that should be considered at Vatican II (1962-65). The new bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, wrote in that the work of the Council should be organized around two key concepts, “person” and “community.”

Alice saw soon enough that person and communio are also the keystones of the mystery of the Trinity. And also at the foundation of Catholic social teaching.

“One God in three divine persons.” Communio divinarum personarum. Three divine persons in one communion. Consubstantial. From which flows universal solidarity and the assent, the fiat, of each personal conscience. The subjectivity of each person and the subjectivity of each society. The one human community. Out of many grains of wheat, one loaf. The One Body of Christ, the communion of all in Christ.

The themes keep recurring: personhood and communion.

In another course she was taking, however, Alice had learned that the idea of “Trinity” is to Jews blasphemy and to Muslims an abomination. There is one God, one only God, no other God. It shook her that the Christian “three” seemed in flat contradiction to the monotheistic “one.”

She worked on this perplexity in the journal of ideas she kept up every day. In it, she told me, she had worked out three steps but could go no further. The first step was to think awhile about what she meant by “divine.” Alice had a bent for poetry and fiction, so she thought first about what seemed divine in her own experience. The one experience she thought of as most like God, most divine, in all her experiences, was her love for her fiancé, for her parents, for her sister, and for her friends. Without those, she thought, her life would be flat and empty. Oh, she enjoyed many things in life – but nothing so deeply as loving and being loved.

This connected in her mind to something from her class on key teachings of the Christian faith. The professor had drawn a contrast between the Greek view of God, as in Aristotle and Plato, and the Trinitarian view. The Greeks lived in a culture of polytheism, to be sure, but the greatest thinkers came to see that there must be one God – a supreme God, source of all light and all being, and all beauty and goodness and truth. As a consequence, the Greeks tended to think of the Supreme Good as solitary – solitary in brilliance and outward-flowing beauty, the source of all other beauties of our experience. The one Nous. The one radiant, brilliant intelligence infusing all things.

"Bartolome murillo-sagrada familia-louvre" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo -<>cnt_id=10134198673225756&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673225756&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500811&fromDept=true&baseIndex=166&bmUID=1189640373611&bmLocale=en#. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Now comes along this odd Christian idea: The Father lives in the Son, and both issue in the Holy Spirit of light and love. (John 15-16.) Here arose for Alice an aha! experience. The most divine thing in my life is communion with those I love. Let me try to think of God as a communion of love. She contemplated this insight for some days. She prayed over it. She tried it out to see how it fit with her past experiences of life.

“Yes!” she concluded: My love for others (and theirs for me) is the most beautiful, dearest thing in my life. My whole life is a kind of communio. My loved ones live in me, and I in them – we sustain each other. The best, the deepest, the sweetest part of me is communion. The most divine thing.

The second step Alice took is a little fuzzy, and she is not quite happy with her search at this point. Worse, I wasn’t able to help her much. The second task was to try to think of communio as a singular noun. One communion.

The best I could come up with is this: The difference between a collectivity consisting of many persons gathered, say, in a meeting hall, each thinking independently, versus a communion in which all are present together, their interior concentration one in purpose, understanding, and will.

You can imagine three separate persons, each in his own thoughts. You can imagine another three persons rapt in union of soul. Communio involves an interior dimension, a union of an order different from being physically together. A communion of mind, will, and love approaches something like con-substantiality: a perfect union of persons.

The third step was more practical. To be a better reflection of the Trinity in the real world, she decided to try to multiply in her life the acts of love and kindness she shows to her neighbors, especially the annoying ones, those she currently loves least. Loving those who are already lovable is too easy.


The Fragility of Liberty – Part Two

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The Fragility of Liberty – Part Two

On Libertarianism

One frequently reads in Catholic media judgments like The Catholic faith and libertarianism are incompatible or No one can be both a Catholic and a libertarian at the same time. A figure often presented as libertarian is Ayn Rand. As if Ayn Rand represents the only kind of libertarianism there is.

I would make haste to reject, heartily, Rand’s moral philosophy. Her moral thinking is far too self-centered on one level, and far too will-centered and nihilistic on another. She does not give due attention to a humane view of reason, nor to the debt each of us owes to the communities that nourished us and will be needed to nourish our children in the future. Far more than she recognizes, humans are by nature political animals and social beings. We cannot live together as naked, aggressive, self-centered wills. Liberty itself is a social project. America, at least, could not have been built as an individualistic project. “United we stand, divided we fall.” The project of settling, building up, and defending this land was communitarian.

George III did not have the wit to see the political and cultural fissures among the American colonies. He could have divided them along the banks of the Hudson River, splitting New England off from the rest. He could have separated them along the borders of the Keystone State, for numerous Quakers of Pennsylvania opposed war-fighting even in self-defense. He could have divided them as North and South. Instead, by his clumsy strategy and tactics he failed to separate them. Against the parochial tendencies and biases of some, he united them.

Achieving a culture of human liberty is a social and political project of the most demanding order. Without that difficult achievement, there would not have been, there could not have been, a United States. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln conceived even of that most bloody of wars until that time, the Civil War, as a war “to save the Union.” He could conceive of no other way to defeat slavery, and finally to see it abolished, than to keep the Union together.

In economic policy, Abraham Lincoln would in many ways qualify today as a libertarian. His Homestead Act (1862) protected the independence of farmers from government management of the agricultural sector. The Land-Grant College Act (1862) put in practice the insight that the cause of wealth is ideas, knowledge, invention, especially practical knowledge. Every patent and copyright is awarded (he well knew, he took out two patents himself) for “reducing to practice” what otherwise might just prove no more than a bright idea that doesn’t work. He thereby opened up a path to prosperity, even great wealth, to poor men without landed property or material capital.

There are many brands of libertarians, many different philosophies. One of my favorites is Charles Murray, who stresses families, faith, and cooperative work, and the hard learning of crucial virtues and habits, which undergird free, virtuous, and prosperous societies. Murray does not concentrate on the individual. Instead, he concentrates on concentric communities, and communities of communities.

One may distinguish three different forms of libertarianism: economic, political, and moral. The first stresses the liberation of economic activity from state control. Thomas Jefferson was a major proponent of this view, for example in his First Inaugural. The second, in its Burkean form, seeks to protect “the little platoons” of community life and, in its American form, defends the space of mediating structures (mediating, that is, between the individual and the Leviathan state), federalism, the rule of law, limited government, and rigorous protection of natural rights.Moral libertarianism divides into two schools. One sets individual liberties at the center of its philosophy, and emphasizes that every individual is charged with weighing his own moral principles, and is free to follow them all the way until they trespass on the rights of another. In short form, a serious, well-thought-out, moral laissez-faire. Such individualism faces two lines of serious criticism.

First, it is too narrow in its individualism, which fails to see the nature of each individual as a social animal, a political animal, shaped by an extended family and a long social history, not to mention the “architectonic” character of the polis that has inculcated in him his mores, passions, and longings.

Second, the individualist’s view of morality is simplistic – atomistic, nonhistorical, lacking in requisite self-awareness, un-self-critical, too self-satisfied. What such an individual imagines is unique to himself is often thought by others as boringly true to a type.

The other school of moral libertarians, however, builds on the recognition that the human person is expected to practice self-government over his or her animal instincts, and to direct them into a full, life-enhancing character, as a noble and well-integrated person. A truly free person. What good would it do us over many generations to sacrifice much blood and treasure, in order merely to build a free polity and a free economy, if in the end we live like pigs?

I, for one, reject as morally repulsive the first moral philosophy 0f Nietzschean naked will and narrow individualism.

The second I find compatible with the thought of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, the American founders, and the Catholic Whig tradition of liberty and moral virtue of St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Henry Newman, John Courtney Murray, and St. John Paul the Great.


The Fragility of Liberty – Part One

Patheos Blog

The Fragility of Liberty – Part One

On Disparate Meanings of “Liberty”

I have long noticed a widespread distaste for the phrase “economic liberty,” not least among Catholics in southern Europe, especially in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. In all these nations, of course, there are great champions of economic liberty. But many journalists and religious spokespersons shrink from endorsing it. This is especially seen among those inclined toward socialism, which in this context means a strong trust in the beneficence of government.

One hears phrases such as “untrammeled economic liberty,” “a free rein to self-interest and selfishness,” “an unwillingness to curb the appetites of the rich.” Wealthy people in business are assumed to be grasping, avaricious, dismissive of and cold to the poor – and such humans are in need of very strong government “bridles.”

A part of this distaste for liberty arises from confusion about three different senses of the same term. In a famous essay on liberty, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin distinguishes negative liberty and positive liberty.[1] This duality feels natural to European thinkers, whose gravitational pull seems primarily to point to the state, the North Pole of Continental thought. Negative freedom is, Berlin suggests, freedom from outside coercion, perhaps even release from all “fetters” and laws and regulations. But positive freedom is the action of the state to lift up the poor and the handicapped so that they might enjoy the fruits of freedom. Positive freedom comes from the aid of the state. On the Continent especially, the indispensable duality seems to be individual and state. Continental liberals often picture the state as the great threat to liberty. Continental social democrats, socialists, communists (and the Nazis and Fascists too) have tended to see the state as the great enabler of liberty.

On the American side of the Atlantic, however, the first reflex in thinking of liberty is to differentiate between two inward pulls of the human heart. The first is toward following animal liberties, wherever instinct leads. The second is to aim at human self-government over our animal instincts, so as to give rein to the higher human powers of self-reflection and deliberate choice. On this side of the water, the essential duality seems to be animal liberty (the liberty to give rein to animal instincts) versus human liberty, such as that reflected in the Statue of Liberty: Liberty under the torch of reflection and light, held aloft by the lady’s one arm, and liberty under the book of the law, which is held under the lady’s other arm. Liberty as internalized self-control, as in the lines from the second stanza of “America the Beautiful”:

Confirm thy soul in self-control Thy liberty in law.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed many things that Americans would not do, even though they were permitted in the law, because these were forbidden by a religion more demanding than the civil law.[2] The Americans, he explained, distinguished the liberty of animals from the liberty proper to humans as humans.[3] Humans were expected to master their animal instincts, and to live according to reason and religion, beyond the capacities of the other animals.

The less a people is able to trust the self-government of its own citizens, the tighter it will insist government controls must be – the more it will treat its citizens as animals in need of constant restraint from above. And it will leave its victims tied down under the new soft despotism that Tocqueville dreaded, but could foresee.



[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[2] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1 (1835), chap. 17, pt. 2: “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?”

[3] Ibid., chap. 2, pt. 2: “There is a liberty of a corrupt nature which is effected both by men and beasts to do what they list, and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint; by this liberty ‘sumus omnes deteriores’: ‘tis the grand enemy of truth and peace, and all the ordinances of God are bent against it. But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good.”



Turnabout: Questions for Atheists

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Turnabout: Questions for Atheists

In my experience, atheists usually assume that atheism (or its approximations) is the only reasonable position. They demand that Christians give an explanation of their beliefs. Thus, all the questions are directed to Christians: Why do you believe A? Why do you believe B? The assumption is that A and B are irrational positions.

But honesty demands equal turnabout. Jürgen Habermas, a well-known and highly respected atheist thinker, reports that when he began examining his own beliefs, he had to admit that he daily uses convictions that actually have deeply Christian, not atheist, sources.

For instance, the belief that science is capable of unlimited progress. This belief assumes that the universe is rational and understandable, so that human intelligence can keep penetrating to and uncovering its secrets. But, we need to ask ourselves, where does that belief in the intelligibility of the universe come from? As with other beliefs we had taken to be atheist, its actual basis is the view that an all-seeing, rational force governs the inner life of the cosmos. Intelligibility suffuses the universe through and through. It is in all its parts intelligible and able to yield up its secrets to science little by little, progressively.

This conviction is not itself based on science; rather, it is a belief, with obviously some after-the-fact evidence in its favor (namely, the progress of science until now). At the same time, an optimistic account of human intelligence faces immense obstacles: the immense folly, evil, and sustained irrationality humans are prone to, in almost every age. The death camps of Nazi Germany and the vast human cruelty practiced in the gulag of the Soviet Union, for example.

Other atheists have been willing to face the fact that two systematically atheistic regimes of our time, Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism, laid down a record as two of the cruelest, most murderous, and most smothering of free thought in history. How do atheists defend the role of atheism in these regimes?

"Apocalypse V: Second Horseman of the Apocalypse - War" by Karen Laub-Novak. Used with permission.

The great American Tom Paine, scourge of the contradictions he found in the bible and protagonist par excellence of reason, begged the leaders of the Revolution not to take up atheism. He begged them, because with atheism as a starting point they would lose all rational ground for defending human rights. The French could choose a declaration of rights for themselves, but without God any such declaration was but a set of subjective preferences, without any objective grounding in human nature – or the Creator. Look what happened: They embraced atheism. Vast bloodshed ensued.

Nietzsche similarlywarned Europeans not to gloat about the “death of God,” for if there is no God, then there is no justification for holding that reason rules this (often mad) world. Without God, what are human rights? Just the preferences of some people in some places at some times? Wow! Not much protection there.

Further, unless I am mistaken, many Darwinists are forced to explain the rationality of the world in terms of chance. Whence reason? By evolution through mutation and natural selection, yes, if that is what the evidence suggests. But by eons of pure happenstance and chance? Now there’s a foundation for believing in the power of human reason and the progress of science. Reason based on chance. Yikes!

In 1991 Irving Kristol marked the death of secular humanism, by which he meant a view of the world from which God is absent. He noted two fundamental defects in secular humanism. First, it has no way of proposing a moral code, for such codes come only from the long experience of human communities, and these affect moral behavior only if individuals “are reared to look respectfully, even reverently, on the moral traditions of their forefathers.” They depend “on the faith that one’s ancestors, over the generations, were not fools – and that they have much to teach us.”

Secondly, “no community can survive if it is persuaded – or even suspects – that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”

I would add that attentive experience in the twentieth century taught many that when thugs hold life to be meaningless, no argument moves them to desist from unimaginable cruelties. You tell them, “That’s wrong!” They reply, “Says you.

You tell them their claims are not true. They laugh.

True, many atheists live good and noble lives, like the hero of Albert Camus’ The Plague,Dr. Rieux. But when Rieux explains why he acts so selflessly, he talks like a Christian. Nearly all the atheists I know believe in solidarity with the poor and compassion. They didn’t get any of that from pagan philosophers – or from science.

Besides, when you listen carefully to what those who call themselves atheists actually hold, you discover that three-quarters of them say they are actually agnostics. They can’t prove that God does not exist. They just don’t yet see any evidence that He does.

Of course, the only thing atheists count as evidence is what their senses can grasp. But serious religious traditions, thinking ones, stipulate from the beginning that God cannot be seen. Nor tasted, heard, touched, or smelled. No one sees God. God is spirit and truth. Looking for God by looking for sensory evidence is doomed to failure. God is not a bodily thing.

You can’t find God by looking for another body in the universe, like a planet.

To Ave Maria’s Class of 2015

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To Ave Maria’s Class of 2015

By Michael Novak at on April 29, 2015

Last Sunday, April 26th, Ave Maria University’s Shakespeare troupe completed its 12-performance run of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I never liked this play, but producer and director Travis Curtright introduced a rapid change of mood and constant flow of appropriate contemporary music between scenes and acts, in a steady course of merriment. I have liked every Ave Maria Shakespeare production for the last five years, as I have written before; but this year’s may have been the best ever. It is wonderful to see young actors play characters their own age, with young innocence and wonderment.

Why did I like this production so? In the past individual stars have lifted the whole level up. But this year each member of the cast, from the noble but bewitched lovers to the “rude mechanicals” of Athens, played his or her part to perfection. I have never seen a more balanced production, a fuller cast (in fact, two casts, A and B) so full of talent, and also love for one another. One could tangibly feel them boost each other, and at each performance raise their level above its predecessor. I have never seen a cast grow so much, from top to bottom, as this troupe did.

Their opening night was a joy, but from there to the final two performances was a wondrous bound. The audience was laughing from the beginning to the end, and ever harder.

The conclusion of Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me that graduation is now only a few days away, and gave me pause to reflect on my last six years at Ave.

After my first semester here early in 2010, I wrote that Ave Maria was the most openly Catholic place that I had ever experienced. We have now grown to over 1,000 students, but even with this swollen number it retains its powerful Catholic identity. True enough, the outward form of the Catholic culture may have shifted somewhat, from a more liturgical and tradition-centered culture to one emphasizing evangelization, service to the poor, and a personal dedication to Our Lady of the Annunciation: “Be it done to me according to Thy will.”

Sunday night, the class of 2015 assembled to hear the results of their voting for the ten Senior Awards, and to watch a hilarious documentary (made during Senior Wine Night) of student nominations for about twenty “Senior Superlatives”: the one most likely to set up a successful business after Ave Maria, most likely to sleep through graduation, couple most likely to be next engaged, etc. (which caused some laughter and some embarrassment).

But recently what struck me most, about both the Ave students who spoke during Senior Night and those from the Shakespeare troupe at a party after their final performance, was this: How often they gave thanks to the Lord or praised Ave Maria for its nourishment in a deeper Catholic faith.

Hot-blooded faith is not the only thing I cherish among Ave students. The high academic quality of the top third or so is also striking. I taught as a graduate instructor at Harvard for two years, and as assistant professor at Stanford for three. My estimate is that the top quarter of Ave students are every bit as good as the Harvard and Stanford students I taught. The proof is that we are getting so many of our students into really good graduate schools – at Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen in the UK, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. So far, those I have recommended for internships and jobs in Washington – at one institution after another – have done so well that when I check back with those who hired them, I hear reports that our students are leading the pack and they want more of them. The same goes for those I have recommended for programs abroad in Germany, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia.

And no wonder: few students in the country get as solid a picture of the best in the Western tradition, from the Greeks and early Hebrews onward. While Ave’s core curriculum does not require Greek or Latin, enough of our students excel in these languages to outdo all but a few schools in the nation.

Not many universities in America can put on a 24-hour continuous reading of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, as Ave Maria has done in its “Homerathon.” That’s also what Stanley Lombardo, the premier English translator of Homer, said of Ave after his 2013 performance at the Homerathon.

I could say a lot about the spiritual depth of many Ave Maria students. Many do much spiritual reading on their own. Many go on weekend retreats during the school year. Perhaps the clause most frequently used among Ave students is “I need to discern.” By this they mean they need to pray over the matter to reach a calm and considered decision in the eyes of God. As they file out of the Oratory each Sunday after Mass, many local parishioners have marveled, many students are still kneeling in the pews, praying.

I will miss this senior class very much!





Emily’s Next Question

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Emily’s Next Question

By Michael Novak at on April 22, 2015


EMILY: Some people read Jesus’ comment “to turn the other cheek” to mean that people should forgive their oppressors. Others take it to be a sign of revolution and defiance. How do you read the passage? 

GRANDPA: You and I have both known people who are exceedingly touchy. If they think you are criticizing them in any way, they snap back. To protect their own pride is foremost in their minds. In fact, I find myself snapping back or wanting to snap back at some comment or other almost every day. Having learned from Jesus, I now reflect on how much this reaction sours the moment, injures the other person, and diminishes myself. So I take the comment of Jesus in a practical sense. If you don’t take offense easily, if you don’t react strongly (even when an accusation about you is actually unfair), that often has a calming effect. For one thing, the other person probably did not want to be unfair, and probably did not mean to pick a fight. So your calm is usually a relief to him.

The main point is that your calmness is proof that protecting your own ego is not your main concern. Your main concern is keeping an open and peaceful bond between friends. In a way, you are putting the other person first. This is in a small way “dying to self,” so that a new turn in life can be born. In other words, the advice of Jesus is aimed at replacing a potentially combative and deteriorating situation with one that is more loving and creative. You can test it in practice. You can see for yourself.

The trouble with raising this story up to a level of collectives and social groups – for instance, “class struggle” – is that the level of group conflict involves many more complexities. Once a group conflict breaks out, events frequently get out of control, and do not end up as anybody intended. Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution, notes that of the 200-plus revolutions that have occurred since 1776, in only one of them – the War of Independence of the United States – have the revolutionaries been considered by later generations true benefactors and models for their nation or group.

In judging the morality of collective conflict, one must note in how many ways such conflicts typically become impersonal, impulsive, and blind. When people in one collective think of people in the other, they do not imagine them as family members, unique in their personality, humane, and fair-minded. No, across the no man’s land, rival groups imagine the worst in each other. They create mythical monsters who must be destroyed. Group passions speedily become involved. Respect for the integrity of other persons, which plays such a creative role in exchanges between individuals, hardly appears at all when one group attacks another. A kind of savagery seems permitted, even legitimized.

As St. Augustine remarks in The City of God, when a powerful nation makes war on a weak one for unjust and unreasonable purposes, it may be that other powerful states must go to war to protect the weaker nation. Just war theory does not propose that war is inherently wrong and must never be fought. Rather, recognizing that there will always be threats of wars, just war theory seeks ways to restore justice, which is a mighty contributor to the good order and international tranquility.

In other words, “turn the other cheek” does not apply so directly and simply to the conduct of collectives as it applies to individual persons, in family and other familiar settings. Still, the leaders of nations can learn paths of wisdom that might enable them to walk humbly with their Lord, and refuse to be baited into rash action by provocateurs.

In short, I would not look to the words of Jesus about turning the other cheek for total guidance in the handling of disputes among nations and other collective groups, but I will not deny that some crucial lessons can be learned from them. I absolutely do agree that “turn the other cheek” works well in many, though not all, personal encounters.


An International Hero, An International Treasure

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An International Hero, An International Treasure

By Michael Novak at on April 15, 2015

Coming down to earth in Washington, DC, is being hit on a regular basis with mean media takedowns of leaders you deeply admire and would like to emulate. In this case, I write of the great Librarian of Congress of our generation, James Billington, who has invented something wonderfully new for the distinguished Library of Congress, founded by Thomas Jefferson, and designed to be, eventually, as close a peer of the Vatican Library as can be brought into being.

Out of the vast records and documents accumulated by the Vatican Library over many, many centuries – records from myriad cultures, ancient and new – were constructed something close to ten new modern sciences, from astronomy to botany to zoology. Nowhere else were there so many records of specimens on which to conduct systematic inquiry.

To the great early work of the Library of Congress from 1800 until 1987, when Billington was made the thirteenth Librarian of Congress, Billington has brought an entirely new dimension. He began a huge, visionary project – to digitalize as many of the works of the LOC as possible, and to make the U.S. Library of Congress the international hub of a vast new digital network of human knowledge.

As a book person, I didn’t in Billington’s early days grasp what this would mean. Then, just watching the first photographic archives of American history the LOC put online (to be made available in classrooms all around the nation), I was stunned to be able to look up contemporaneous photos of some great events of American history of personal interest to me. I was carried away by photos, for example, of the wreckage from the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and of the humble, almost rural, appearance of the city of Atlanta in 1864 just before Sherman marched in. Atlanta looked more like a sleepy village in those photos than like the great modern city of today.

Librarian of Congress Billington and son James. Photo used with permission.

I was blown away by the capacities of the internet. And by the power of old photos and letters to evoke concrete detail worth thousands of words. Librarian of Congress Billington had grasped this new potency immediately. Many of us had not.

Now, thirty years later, the Librarian of Congress has linked the Library of Congress to national libraries in Russia, Egypt, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and the Vatican Library.

More than that, our national Librarian has persuaded UNESCO to adopt as its goal the linking of all the national libraries of the world in one international network of global archives and global knowledge. [See the World Digital Library at] This site features materials from all 193 countries in UNESCO.

A modest man, James Billington never sought recognition for opening up these previously unimagined possibilities. In fact, no leader of any department of government has managed its IT capacities with the same far-seeing and large-visioned advancement as our own national Librarian. No one has matched the LOC’s unprecedented links to all the other libraries of the world. Thanks to James Billington, the LOC is a now more than ever the greatest library of the world.

* * *

There is another achievement of James Billington that deserves the esteem of the whole American people: Over the past forty years, no one in America has shown more perspicacity in grasping what was happening on the ground in Russia, not only in the former Soviet government, but also in the Russian Orthodox church and its vast institutions and local parishes and, most astonishing, within the Soviet Politburo itself and the growing number of spiritual and religious conversions occurring among its own sons and daughters even in the 1980s. Ever since his great book on the origins of socialism, Fire in the Minds of Men, only James Billington has had such deep insight into the mind and soul of the Soviet Union as it approached its collapse, and in today’s Russia such a profound network of information.

Ask any congressman who took one of the many fact-finding trips into the old Soviet Union and now Russia today – ask them – who had a deeper view of life in the Soviet Union than their Librarian, who accompanied them as their chosen sherpa. Ask the staff of any president of the United States since 1987 how valuable to them were the insights and wisdom of Librarian Billington, who often briefed them about out-of-sight changes in Soviet society. Briefed them down to the names and characteristics of individuals with whom he had been in contact for a lifetime.

Is this the time to attack one of the best and most locally grounded scholars of Russia of the last forty years?

Ask yourself, too, who benefits by concerted attacks on Dr. Billington in the press recently. If President Obama were to get his hands of the opportunity to put his own typical nominee into that job – which has lifetime tenure – imagine what a hold he would gain for decades to come on the world’s premier source of knowledge about human cultures on earth.

Today, the business of the United States with Russia is far from done. So imagine, too, the loss of the fingertip knowledge of Librarian of Congress Billington concerning life on the ground in Russia today, and the torments of the Russian soul during this decade. The fate of Russia and America is not less important today than a decade ago, but far more important – and dangerous – and in need of delicate guidance. This is no time to lose James Billington.

Coming down to earth in DC means watching the political ambition of lesser men snaking around to bring down those of high nobility of character and great historic achievement.



A Third Question from Emily

Patheos Blog

A Third Question from Emily

By Michael Novak at on April 1, 2015


EMILY: Some churches still sing Gregorian chant and perform the entire Mass in Latin, while others are singing new age music with the pop edge and giving more casual homilies in order to attract younger parishioners. Where does one draw the line between upholding tradition and changing to keep pace with the rest of the world?

GRANDPA: One imperative of the Catholic faith is to remember and be faithful to the past, and the other imperative is to look forward until the gradual unfolding of the Kingdom of God on earth moves forward another step or two; and also to look forward to the ultimate moment when “He comes again in glory.” “Do this in remembrance of me,” the Lord commends at the breaking of His body and the drinking of His blood. That’s actually what He said it was. Holding the bread, “this is my body,” He said. And “this is my blood.” On hearing those words at the Last Supper, which we commemorate on Holy Thursday tomorrow, Jesus’ closest followers took Him seriously, and they believed.

“Jouvenet Last Supper” by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Looking backward and looking forward are two good and strong human attitudes. Jesus also used two other metaphors to express what He knew would happen to the Church. The one metaphor is of the mustard seed and the large tree that it would grow into, spreading its branches up into the sky, and getting fuller and bushier over time. The other was the small cutting from which a grapevine would grow and perhaps crawl along the ground or climb up a trellis higher and higher. He counseled cherishing the littleness of their origins, but also looking forward to their continuing and great growth and multiplication.

One other point. If a tradition is not to wither and die, it must constantly be growing. When Jesus lived and prayed, there was as yet nothing quite like Gregorian music. Only by learning from the most beautiful achievements of each generation can the Catholic tradition live and grow and fructify. To survive, a tradition must keep growing. To prosper, it must keep probing each edge for the most beautiful and enduring achievements in it.

I don’t think the issue is so much “to keep pace with the rest of the world,” as to seek out the best of what is being done in each age and to graft it onto the living vine. That is how the haunting loveliness of Gregorian chant slowly came into the patrimony of the Church, and then later polyphony, multiple voices.

Tradition is, in a sense, like a rolling snowman. Yet actually that is too inert a metaphor. New forms, new melodies, new instruments come into acts of worship steadily, are tested by a generation or two, and the best winnowed out to live for a generation, or two, or three. It is not always easy to listen to the new (and to put up with its faults and limitations when compared with the achievements of the past), but if the tradition is to be kept alive and to grow, each generation must be open to its own genius.


The Dark Night of the Soul

Patheos Blog

The Dark Night of the Soul

By Michael Novak at on March 27, 2015


Yesterday evening I delivered the Newman Lecture at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, VA. The following is an excerpt adapted from those remarks. 

Have you ever tried to pray for an hour or more, or even gone for a weekend of silence and prayer on a retreat, and found your mind buzzing with distractions, and your heart barren and dry? Do you then have the disquieting sense that no one is there – neither to listen nor to hear?

This experience marks a crucial step in one’s own maturity. It shows – inflicting pain – that God is not within the range of any of our senses. As St. John the Evangelist tells us more than once: “No one sees God.” We cannot see Him, or hear Him, either. Nor touch Him, nor catch scent of Him, nor taste Him. He is too vast.

Human experience teaches us – taught Plato, taught Aristotle – that although the pursuit of truth drives us, and the pursuit of the source of all good powerfully attracts us, and although the Divine insistently beckons to us, our natural equipment cannot take us to what we long for. Our aspirations go higher than our natural equipment will bear.

This is partly what we mean when we say that our human nature, left to itself, has limits it cannot go beyond. And yet it has longings that point beyond itself. For example, our endless drive to ask questions, our unrestricted desire to understand and to know, which is our first intimation of the infinity of the Source of all knowing. Beyond every answer to the question why? rushes in another why?

The streaks of dryness in our prayers, the emptiness we often find within (especially as we grow older), are caused by the poverty of our natural equipment, on the one hand. Then, secondly, they are caused by the disproportion of the infinite intelligence, will, and love of God to ours, even when we are gifted by His grace. We are given sight, and yet we see through a glass darkly – not directly, not fully, but just enough to sharpen our longing for the full vision.

“Grief” by Karen Laub-Novak. Used with permission.

We work in darkness, and often the more so, the further in faith we advance. In the desert, the dark valleys, the impenetrable swamps, it is best for us to seek out guides.

That is why when we seek to be in the presence of God, to converse with Him, to pray, to allow our minds and hearts to rest in Him, we find ourselves internally so empty. That is why St. John of the Cross (1524-1591), that splendid priest, scholar, poet, confessor, and spiritual mentor to thousands of souls, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel wrote so much about “The Dark Night of the Senses and Imagination and Memory.” And then on a still deeper level, The Dark Night of the Soul.

The world of the Spirit does break in on us, though. We catch sight of a glorious dawn, or a silent sunset radiant with peace and tranquility. “Our hearts are lifted,” we say. We seem to catch sight of an infinite light trying to break through, as if it were a Beauty more beautiful than the dawn and the sunset that we do see. We feel that Beauty is teasing us on, giving us hints, drawing us to itself. And when we sit in peace in its presence, yes, we sometimes feel overwhelmed with sweetness – and sometimes we are also almost painfully drawn toward Somewhere we cannot quite go. Yet at other times we sit in silence, feeling nothing but aridity, nothing but a taunting darkness. We crawl in a barren desert, windswept, empty. We are drawn powerfully to Something or Someone, and yet when we climb the stairs  to the top – No one is there (to use an image of St. John’s).

How can these two things happen? The sweetness, the attraction sometimes – but also the emptiness, the absence, the desert?

St. John learned from this experience in his own life. When he was a beginner in acquiring knowledge of God, God seemed to treat him as one treats a child – encourages the young striver with sweets, attention, affection. But when it is time for the child to become an adult, the mother begins to withdraw. As our faith becomes more mature, we need to learn that our God is not fully found in the sweet world of the senses. Rather, He dwells beyond sense experience.

Human experience itself suffices to teach us about this nothingness experienced by the voyager in pursuit of God. The literature of virtually every part of the world tells of the nothingness, the emptiness, the aridity. And the necessity of voyaging through it.

In addition, the New Testament teaches us that the Savior surprisingly, startlingly, comes not as the Powerful One but as the weak, abject, rejected, outcast one. Take up your cross. Go out into the desert. Pray. Fast! . . . Christian faith throws a deeper, more challenging light upon the darkness and aridity on this side of the human experience. It teaches us that in a certain emptiness is where alone the True God can be found. That is where our Savior bids us follow.