In the December 1992 issue of Crisis, Michael Novak effectively points out the current malaises both in the Catholic Church and in American society. In the February 1993 issue, he outlines the role of Crisis in addressing these maladies as the magazine launches its second decade. While I join many conservative Catholics in wishing Crisis success in trying to stem the tide of decay in the American Church and society, I fear Crisis cannot effectively address the crises in America unless and until it more critically examines the moral and political premises that have produced them.
In the February issue, Novak expresses “our love” for “the institutions built under Providence by the nation’s Founders.” Our current problem, he explains, is that these great principles have been abandoned; thus, we are sliding into decay.
But this perspective ignores Occam’s razor: rather than consider the possibility that we are experiencing the logical, historically inevitable outcome of the ideals of the American Founding, Novak assumes that the current malaise must represent a fundamental abandonment of those principles. He fears that the “institutions and propositions” of the Founding “are under relentless assault.” The moral and political legitimacy of liberal democracy is never questioned; any failures must be attributed to some foreign element.
But if Crisis is going to be effective in countering the decay in American society, I think it must first be willing to question—nay, perhaps even denounce as incompatible with Catholic Christianity—the very Founding principles of the American regime. Though not among the framers of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, an author of the Declaration of Independence, and twice President, arguably is the most enduringly influential of our forefathers. And he explicitly and malevolently acknowledged that the principles he contributed to the Founding are hostile to Catholicism, and that they are designed to eradicate all versions of Christianity. Jefferson praised John Locke (with Bacon and Newton) as one of the “three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences.” These are the superstructures which, he wrote in his last known letter, have unloosed the chains of “monkish ignorance” under which men were enslaved until his enlightened regime. In an earlier letter (in which he denounced Athanasius and his heirs as “impious dogmatists” and “usurpers of the Christian name”), Jefferson expressed his hope that there was not a “young man now living in the United States who will die a Unitarian.” Yet Novak assumes that “religious people [being] de-legitimated in the public schools, in city halls, in state legislatures, and even in the U.S. Congress” is an assault on Jeffersonian principles. On the contrary, perhaps America is now more Jeffersonian than ever before; perhaps Jefferson’s intention is belatedly being fulfilled
Jefferson deemed the American Founding hostile to Catholicism because he understood its moral and political philosophy to be incompatible with historic orthodox Christianity. If one underlines liberalism’s democratic individualism and its fundamental moral category of rights, Jefferson would seem to be correct. To endorse either is to endorse the Church’s very undoing in America. To endorse Jefferson and his project is to endorse all three.
“We hold these truths,” stated Jefferson in the Declaration, that all men—and therefore all men’s opinions—are equal; which is another way of saying that no man’s opinion can be considered any more true than any other man’s, which is to “assault the very notion of objective truth,” of which Novak accuses “the intellectual leaders of modern culture.” But what objective truth does Jefferson himself believe in, other than the self-refuting one that no man’s opinion may be considered true to the exclusion of another man’s? And what is left but, in the words Novak uses to indict contemporary thinkers, to “interpret truth as an expression of power alone”? What have Jefferson and his band done, then, but to “knock out from under Christianity the essential foundation” on which it rests? (One might even concede that Jefferson believes in objective political truth (however incoherently); but that “truth” is that no moral or religious opinion, by the very nature of such opinions, may be considered to be objectively true.) In short, if Christophobia means a loathing of the declaration that the resurrected Christ transcends, relativizes and, indeed, judges the very political and moral foundations of American society, Thomas Jefferson is the Christophobist extraordinaire.
To endorse the Enlightenment principles of liberal democracy that Jefferson embodied is to deny the scandalous particularity that God calls us to embrace and celebrate, despite the embarrassment of not being politically correct (in this case, I use the phrase without irony). If we assume democratic rights as a moral principle, the Church herself is remiss not to protect them in every sphere of life, including ecclesial life. If democracy is God’s own moral design, the Church sins by not fully incorporating democratic principles into her own polity. To try to escape this consequence by endorsing the moral goodness of liberal democracy because it (allegedly) allows a full range of moral opinions to flourish is to commit the “phantom” Americanist heresy of separating ethics from politics that Leo XIII forcefully condemned in Testem Benevolentiae.
The alternative, of course, is to be truly countercultural; not merely against a culture that has become Christo- and Catholicophobic, but rather against the very moral philosophy and political institutions which canalize these phobias. If Crisis really wants to address the contemporary crisis, it must embrace Saint Augustine’s charge that we truly be a pilgrim Church, however politically incorrect—that is, however un-American—doing so might make us appear. As Crisis begins its second decade of service to the Catholic Church, my hope is that it will address the causes of the modern crises, not merely their effects.