From the Publisher: Aging Progressives

“I’ll tell you what chills the blood of liberals,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) told Juan Williams of the Washington Post. “It was always thought that the old bastards were the conservatives. Now the young people are becoming the conservatives and we are the old bastards.”

The sprightly Senator was, or course, speaking of the Democratic Party, but his observation holds true of the Vatican II “progressives” in the American Catholic Church today. Young Turks, alas, the law of mortality runs, become Old Fogies, and the energies of youthnow running in a new direction—take over. It certainly seemed that way at the second annual conference on “The Future of the American Church” run by the “progressive” promoters Time Consultants in Washington, D.C., the last weekend of September. Most of those in attendance, by far, were on the far side of 40. And rather dispirited.

What went wrong with the once irresistible movement of the progressives? A certain vulnerability undid them. The inner mysticism was exhausted, once it had been institutionalized. Only the reflex to be “open” remained. That reflex was vulnerable to fatal ingestions.

It is one of the proudest claims of “progressives” that they are open-minded. Ironically, however, to be progressive is also to be “committed,” and a progressive commitment, become a reflex, is like a railroad track—you either keep moving down the track and into the future, or you are pushed overboard as a backslider, conservative, or reactionary. Progressives, therefore, live in considerably more fear than normal people. They are always just about to be excommunicated.

Moreover, experience shows that most progressives are, at bottom, very nice people. They hate to give offense (at least to victims and even to fellow progressives; they rather enjoy discomfiting conservatives). They try so very hard to be good. They want, always, to do the right thing. They search eagerly for signs to tell them what the right thing is. They tremendously dread guilt feelings. They enjoy the experience of being shocked by the latest accusations of those lefter than they, but enjoy even more overcoming that shock in the name of enlightenment, and then of administering that same shock to everyone they know who is still benighted. Thus do the tracks of progress get laid, rail by rail, into the distant future.

The fear of being found insufficiently enlightened drives the progressives ever onward. Forward movement is thought to be “growth.” Behind them lie the shed skins of their former selves. Fear drives them onward.

Today, indeed, that fear has specific shapes. For any unwatchfully expressed opinion, they might be called “racist,” or “sexist,” or “homophobic,” or even—if someone really wants to hurt—”neoconservative.” Progressives live in fear of losing their credentials.

The credential every progressive must jealously protect is an immunity from attack by those more progressive than they. To lose that precious immunity is to be lumped with the damned: racists, sexists, homophobics, and other conservative oppressors.

Thus, being a progressive is not an easy lot. Those who have the proper credential must guard it more closely than their virginity. Progressive chastity is a wondrous thing, shiny and bright, without spot, like a pre-Vatican II soul unspotted by a single mortal sin. Indeed, the progressive soul is more wondrous than an unspotted soul. The latter can only be spotted by a carefully deliberate, sufficiently reflected upon, chosen determination to act. But the progressive soul may easily be besmirched solely by a carelessly expressed opinion.

The police of progressive chastity watch the expression of opinion like hawks. They are, in essence, language police. To please them, one must learn subtle arts of euphemism, indirection, formally correct sentiments—and even well-intentioned untruth. What matters is never to utter the wrong words. Woe unto those who carelessly blunder! Entire careers have been ruined by one unguarded, insufficiently correct sentence, or even a fragment thereof. Many and profuse public apologies have had to be uttered by college presidents, deans, department chairmen, and colleagues. Public self-humiliation and penance are sometimes accepted. But strenuous deeds are needed to regain lost ground, and suspicion forever lingers.

To escape from this trap is, however, breathtakingly easy. All that is required is a willingness to pursue—and to express—the truth in charity. No more to it than that. To be sure, one will then be attacked by certain former friends, who, it will be discovered, loved you for your opinions, not for yourself. The phone will not ring as much. Some invitations will stop. Distant friends will report that they have been hearing odd “things” about you. The name “neoconservative” will begin to be attached to yours. Some will affect contempt when they utter it. But you will not be surprised to find that it also brings with it a grudging respect. And perhaps just a little envy that now, at last, you are free. No more rails to run.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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