The 20th Anniversary of Crisis

Ever since I was in grade school and first saw how a dittograph pad could be used for multiple copies, I have been launching modest magazines. In eighth grade, it was a “yearbook” for our class at Pius V Elementary School in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (known around the world as Andy Warhol’s hometown). There was another one at the “little sem” at Notre Dame during my high school years (1947-1951) and of course another during my theology studies in Rome, an international quarterly for the Holy Cross religious that we christened Colloquium. I used to love the sentence I once read in a biography of the young Lenin: “If you want to start a revolution, start a magazine.”

So it was a fairly natural reflex that led me, in 1981, to circulate a letter to many of my liberal Catholic friends who were becoming more and more restless about the increasingly leftward drift, theologically and politically, of the liberal Catholic magazines for which we had been writing—the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, and others—asking whether they would write for and support a new magazine critical of that trend, trying to restore an accurate understanding of Vatican II and supporting Pope John Paul II. The response was almost unanimously favorable.

Rather than waiting until we could raise money and rather than making a big deal of the project, I called Ralph Mclnerny, whom I had come to recognize as a doer rather than a talker, and suggested that we each put up a thousand dollars or two and publish a sort of broadsheet on a few pages. We’d mail it to the people on whatever lists we could lay our hands on and see if enough money would come in to send out another issue a month or so later. We’d keep it small and provocative. Our model was the first issue of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity & Crisis, which had also been launched to promote “neoorthodoxy” and to combat the leftward drift both in theology and in politics of liberal Protestantism circa 1940. We even called the magazine Catholicism in Crisis.

There were not a few critics who asked us, “What the heck is the crisis?” Of course, that was the complacence we were trying to correct. We saw a very dangerous drift toward theological and moral slackness in the Church, and toward flabby and complacent thinking about defense issues and the welfare state. American “liberals” were drifting toward socialist mental categories under the pressure of Marxified liberation theology and toward social democracy in economics. They were not troubled by our growing international weakness under Jimmy Carter, or by Soviet advances in Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America, or by the new Soviet intermediate-range missile systems. They did not see the moral insupportibility of deterrence based on Mutual Assured Destruction or the moral advantage of a defensive shield.

Still, our worst fears were about the growing schism in Catholic life in the United States. The forces appealing to “the spirit of Vatican II” were, it seemed to us, increasingly abandoning the moral teaching of the Church, in area after area, and losing sight of the grounding of Trinitarian and incarnational theology—and, therefore, of ecclesiology itself—in the theology of the body. The U.S. Catholic bishops were themselves a source of the problem. We saw a real crisis developing.

What we said to those who did not quite see all this is that “crisis” comes from the Greek word for “decision” and that as every generation chooses which direction to take, it meets a “crisis,” a kind of fork in the road. And we saw enormous stakes in the decisions to be made in the 1980s, both within the Church and in U.S. politics.

Suffice it to say that the existence of Crisis allowed those of us who believed it a key lay responsibility to reflect on our lay vocations in the political world to have a place to publish our own letter on U.S. nuclear policy in 1983. Bill Buckley somehow got a copy of our second draft, not quite our finished product, and without waiting for permission stopped the presses at National Review and replaced the entire issue with our draft. That issue of National Review was a great success; it sold out, and another 25,000 or so copies had to be reprinted to meet the demand. A little later, we were able to print the final, fully corrected version in Crisis. The German and French bishops later told us that our draft had been of great help to them in drafting their own letters, and the Vatican, too, used our draft in drawing up a set of questions for the U.S. bishops regarding their own first draft, which they had bravely offered for public critique and discussion. I stayed in close contact with Cardinals Bernardin and O’Connor and the apostolic nuncio throughout.

It had never been our intention to do that again, but in 1984, the existence of Crisis again gave a lay committee, this time formed by Bill Simon, a guaranteed outlet for a similar letter by laypersons on the lay vocation in the economy. When we were at last nearly ready to publish, we asked Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who was in charge of the bishops’ first draft of their own letter on the economy, then being prepared out of public view, whether he preferred us to publish our draft before or after the appearance of the bishops’ draft. He thought for a moment, then said, “Before.” We thought that was wise, too, because then our letter could not be construed as a dissent or criticism, since we had not yet seen what was in the bishops’ draft.

Our hope was that in the future no one would be able to accuse the laity of not having fulfilled our responsibility to reflect publicly on the meaning of the gospels for our vocations in the world. Laypeople are expected to have different, distinctive points of view on worldly matters, and we were going to present ours and hope that other laypersons would present theirs if they wanted to. According to Catholic teaching about the lay vocation even before Vatican II—but certainly so afterward—these matters should not be left solely to bishops.

In these two ventures, Crisis made history. Never before had a group of laypersons, under their own initiative, addressed a public letter on such significant matters regarding the lay vocation to their fellow Catholics and fellow citizens—not in any country, I think, nor in any time. Our example has since led to imitation by other lay groups in other lands. The side-by-side appearance of a lay letter and an episcopal letter on the same subject seemed to have been worth several million dollars of free exposure, discussion, and argument about the issues the bishops wanted to bring to public attention. Incidentally, I believe it was to the bishops’ credit that the final drafts of the bishops’ two letters—they submitted two earlier drafts of each for public debate—were far richer and more exact because of these earlier discussions.

In many ways, Crisis was a pioneer. Crisis anticipated the collapse of liberation theology in Latin America once socialism fell behind the Iron Curtain. It also anticipated the collapse of the missile threat once the politics of the Soviet Union collapsed. (In their respective letters, the bishops had emphasized particular missile systems; the lay letter had stressed the need to change the politics of the USSR.) Crisis anticipated the major welfare reform of the 1990s. It anticipated the Reagan boom, which lasted on through the Clinton boom by means of all the new technologies that sprang from the venture capital released in the early 1980s when tax laws changed. Above all, it anticipated the current debate in the Church about the failed legacy of post—Vatican II progressive Catholicism.

I’ve gone on too long. But let me conclude by congratulating the new board and new editors who have taken over since 1995, under Deal Hudson, and brought the circulation of Crisis up to levels we could only dream about but never remotely approach in those earlier years. I needn’t add that the magazine looks a whole lot better than it did in those far leaner years.

Crisis has always represented a cause, a movement, not just a magazine. An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to those who have supported that cause all these years, through thick and thin, seldom with great outlays but always with that sufficiency that kept us going. There were times when the purse was almost empty, but some grant or other always got us through another issue—then another one. Believe it or not, 20 years have passed like the blink of an eye, and thanks be to God, the magazine is still going strong.

Michael Novak


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.