It was not so easy for a Catholic in the early 1980s to advocate for a free society. While much of the nation welcomed the conservative shift President Reagan brought to U.S. policy, the American Catholic bishops were not among them. Those Catholics whose common-sense politics leaned right found themselves isolated in their larger faith community and were frequently treated like dissenters from doctrine, with the kind of episcopal enthusiasm one would have liked to see aimed at real dissenters.
Catholic philosopher Ralph McInerny and theologian Michael Novak would have none of it. In November 1982, from a small office on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, they released the 16-page first issue of Catholicism in Crisis: A Journal of Lay Catholic Opinion.
In the opening editorial, signed by “Acton,” they wrote:
The crisis in the Catholic church of 1982 is that the church seems in danger of losing its true, original, and profound identity, in order to become what it is not, an instrument of temporal power. Nearly always today, this temporal assertion of the church is leftward in its force, as in former times it was often rightward. Yet whether tilting to the left or to the right, the fundamental theological error is the same.
We do not wish merely to mourn the passing of the liberal Catholic tradition; we wish to breathe life back into it. Many battles must be fought, both to our left and to our right. We are, first of all, Catholic — our faith is dear to us. To be “Catholic” means to have a sense of community, of tradition, of faith and prayer and contemplation, and perhaps of tragedy (as in the crucifixion and death) not common to those who are “liberal” in other ways.
But we are also “liberal” in the sense that not all Catholics are. We are neither socialists nor traditionalists. Our vision of the temporal order is rather like that of Jacques Maritain, from whose Center we publish. We believe that history has a narrative form; that social progress, though difficult and reversible, lies within human possibility; and that the liberal society is an authentic, although imperfect, expression of the Gospels in political economy, made possible by the long leavening of human cultures with the faith of Judaism and Christianity.
We dread the “great, climactic battle” which Solzhenitsyn predicts on the horizon. We resist the flirtation of so many in Church with ideas of political economy certain to diminish both liberty and productivity. We look for a return of American laymen and laywomen to their full responsibilities in the Church. We expect a “new spring,” after the present critical years.
The American Catholic Church in 2011 is in better shape — and is better led — than the one Ralph and Michael contended with in 1982. Theological sanity returned through the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the temporal assertions of the Church are no longer reliably leftward. The liberal Catholic tradition they helped foster has grown vibrant, in no small part due to the influence of their upstart journal. Two decades later, the magazine — through the leadership of Deal W. Hudson — would be credited (or blamed, depending on the source) with the election of a U.S. president.
But not everything has changed. In the name of Catholic Social Thought, many in the Church continue to promote ideas of political economy that would hurt the very people they intend to help, and often do so with the suggestion that their policies are required of the faithful. With the economy as it is, and Americans looking for the cause, this effort has only increased — as has its effectiveness.
And that’s why we’ve returned. In the days and months ahead, we will lay out a cumulative case that the principles of Catholic Social Teaching are best achieved through democratic capitalism, and that the rapid growth of the state is their greatest obstacle. Our government has achieved a size and power that would have horrified most Americans thirty years ago, Catholic or not. The rise of the Tea Party movement and the popular revival of the ideas of liberty stand as two hopeful responses. With the return of Crisis Magazine, we offer another.
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