Public Arguments: The Rediscovery of Our American Catholic Heritage

On October 22, 1994, the Catholic Campaign for America held its first National Leadership Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, on the theme of “Public Catholicism versus Private Catholicism” [see box below]. A series of distinguished speakers presented talks that were unusually well received; among them were Thomas P. Melady, Thomas V. Wykes, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, John M. Haas, William J. Bennett, Gov. Robert P. Casey (PA), George Weigel, Douglas Kmiec, Robert P. George and Thomas S. Monaghan. At the closing banquet, Mary Cunningham Agee spoke on “The Emerging Catholic Voice.” Michael Novak gave the concluding address which follows below. All of the addresses will be published in book form by Our Sunday Visitor Press in 1995.

Almost exactly 105 years ago, in November 1889, our forebears in the Faith met in this city for the first Lay Congress, to celebrate the first 100 years of the nation’s first diocese in America, whose first Archbishop was that great friend of George Washington and lover of this Republic, John Carroll. The mood of that first Lay Congress was ebullient. Proud of what the Catholic people had accomplished in 100 years, they looked forward with enthusiasm to the next 100. They reminded themselves that, in 1776, when John Carroll had accompanied Benjamin Franklin to Canada on a diplomatic mission crucial to the new republic, the nation’s Catholic population numbered 25,000. They recalled that during the Revolutionary War, the armed forces were for the first time open to Catholic officers, and that many had risen rapidly in the ranks. No citizens were more in favor of the new republic. It was said at the time, one speaker reminded them, that “every Catholic was a Whig” — that is, not a Tory, but positively in favor of the truths enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

By 1789, when John Carroll was consecrated America’s first bishop, Catholics numbered 32,000. One hundred years later, they numbered nine million. By 1889, one Archdiocese had grown to be 13, and where there had been one bishop there now were 71, presiding over 8,000 priests, 10,500 churches and chapels, 27 seminaries, 650 colleges and academies of higher education, 3,100 parish schools, and 520 hospitals and asylums.

Pope Leo XIII was delighted with the great events in Baltimore in 1889 — the Lay Congress and the founding of Catholic University — and sent tangible signs of his special love for this country. He had received a beautifully bound copy of the U.S. Constitution from President Grover Cleveland for his 50th anniversary in the priesthood, and on receiving it said to its bearer, Archbishop Ryan:

As an Archbishop you enjoy in America perfect freedom. That freedom, we admit, is highly beneficial to the spread of religion. . . . Toward America I bear a special love . . . Your government is free, your future full of hope. Your President commands my highest admiration.

Leo XIII also wrote to Cardinal Gibbons:

We desire that you should assure the President of our admiration for the Constitution of the United States, not only because it enables industrious and enterprising citizens to attain so high a level of prosperity, but also because under its protection your countrymen have enjoyed a liberty which has so confessedly promoted the astonishing growth of religion in the past and will, we trust, enable it in the future to be of the highest advantage to the civil order as well.

“To be of the highest advantage to the civil order as well”: These words of Leo XIII recall the name of our own organization, “The Catholic Campaign for America.” They point to one of the major themes of the great leaders of the American Catholic people, from Archbishop Carroll to Cardinal Gibbons, from Archbishops Ireland and Ryan and Keane to Bishops such as England and Spalding, from the layman Orestes Brownson to the priest Isaac Hecker. Do not overlook that Greek name “Orestes” and that Judaic name “Isaac;” Americans in those days knew well that they were part of a long and great Tradition, which Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” Such leaders saw something new and special in this blessed country, under the sweet sway of its institutions, something of great importance to the rest of the world and especially the Catholic world.


Civilization of Love

Our forebears believed profoundly that Providence had held back this nation from the stage of history until its appointed time, for a destiny that would change the direction of the entire world. Here would be built, under Providence, by a people building “better than they knew,” a new civilization of love, under the American name Philadelphia, a “city on the hill,” a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, in conformity with the laws of nature and nature’s God. They believed such things as these, in the words of Isaac Hecker:

The more a civilization solicits the exercise of man’s intelligence and enlarges the field for the action of his free will, the broader will be the basis it offers for sanctity. Ignorance and weakness are the negation of life; they are either sinful or the consequences of sin, and to remedy these common evils is the aim of the Christian religion. Enlightened intelligence and true liberty of the will are the essential conditions of all moral action . . .

This “enlightened intelligence and true liberty of he will,” Hecker preached, come to humans in their fullness only through the grace of Christ.

Therefore, our forebears wished to bring the whole nation to Christ, in God’s good time, and by the example and persuasion of argument rooted in godly lives. As Hecker told the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, just after the carnage of the Civil War (a war that deeply divided this city):

Nowhere is there a promise of a brighter future for the Church than in our own country. Here, thanks to our American Constitution, the Church is free to do her divine work. Here she finds a civilization in harmony with divine teachings. Here Christianity is promised a reception from an intelligent and free people, that she will give forth a development of unprecedented glory. For religion is never so beautiful as when in connection with knowledge and freedom. Let us, therefore, arise and open our eyes to the bright future that is before us! Let us labor with a lively faith, a firm hope, and a charity that knows no bounds, by every good work and good example, for the reign of God’s Kingdom upon the earth.

We meet here today for a “National Leadership Conference.” It ennobles us to recall our American Catholic national leadership of 1789 and 1889. Archbishop Ireland told that first Lay Congress 105 years ago: “The past our fathers wrought; the future will be wrought by us. The next century in the life of the Church will be what we make it.” At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, the bishops of the United States asserted that this country was well-founded, that, under Providence, the Framers had “built better than they knew.” Their attitude toward the nation was open, optimistic, and eager to engage with it and all its citizens.

For they believed, as Tocqueville believed, that the Republic was not adequate to its own defense; that one day the Catholic people would be the surest guarantors of the “truths” that Jefferson had enunciated in the Declaration and on which our Constitution rests: That there is a Creator Who gave us life and at the same time liberty; that there are truths to be held, anchored in the hard evidence of His creation; that the human intellect is made to seek, to know, and to love the truth, and the truth alone; that humans, although sinful, weak, and often erring, are capable of sober reflection, calm deliberation, and a dispassionate openness to evidence and to reason; that God has promised us eternal life, in whose light every single woman and man, made in the image of their loving Creator, is of priceless value, an “immortal diamond,” on which account she and he are endowed with inalienable rights directly by the Creator, and not by any state or any contrivance of human will.

American institutions require all these beliefs. But who can defend these beliefs today? Relativists cannot. Those who appeal merely to the Scriptures cannot, if they renounce the way of reason and intellectual inquiry. In a profound sense, atheists and agnostics cannot, although they may argue on Hobbesian grounds that American institutions are the only practical defense against one another’s uncheckable ferocity of will: homo homini lupus.


Enlightenment Fails

For it is one of the ironies of the end of this century that the carriers of the Enlightenment no longer hold that the intellect has purchase on reality, or can discover intellectual foundations for the “truths we hold.” The heirs of the Enlightenment have retreated to subjective preference

and the will. They do not claim to hold to the American proposition because it is true, well-founded, or even self-evident (other things being held in mind); rather, they “like” American institutions, they “prefer” American institutions.

Under threat, however, will they prefer instead their own survival? Will they buckle under superior force? Many of them now buckle merely under the regime of “political correctness,” at the mere hint of arousing the verbal insults of the feminists on campus. What would they do if they had more to fear than words and names? Preference and will provide no defense of truth. Their highest guide is, and must be, the comfortable survival of the self — with which moral abdication is entirely consistent.

The Enlightenment is dead. It has lost its moral fibre. It has lost the protective underpinning it long pretended not to recognize: the belief that the blooming, buzzing confusion of existence is intelligible, as if from the point of view of a single all-mastering intelligence. This is, after all, the suppressed assumption behind all forms of rationalism, whether logical or empirical.

The Enlightenment always was intellectually dependent on Judaism and Christianity, even when it was trying to destroy Judaism and Christianity. It was a child that wished to murder its parents, while pleading, as in Bertrand Russell’s Mysticism and Logic, that it is a lonely orphan, pathetic in the empty cosmos. The Enlightenment was always rooted in chutzpah, as well as bigotry: Has any other intellectual movement in history had the arrogance to claim, in the name of open-minded reason, to represent “Enlightenment” (with a capital E) while consigning those not in its party to “the Dark Ages”? Into outer Darkness go ye, who dare to disagree. Pure, inflammatory bigotry.

Nietzsche called the bluff of the Enlightenment. If God is dead, so is Reason.

Thus we live today in the ironic circumstance that the philosophers no longer believe either in God or in Reason. Richard Rorty, in Jefferson’s university, smilingly insists: “There is nothing but contingency all the way down.” Dizzying nothingness. Vertigo. The only ground Rorty claims to stand on is that of the bourgeois comfort he experiences, and prefers.

Poll after poll of the opinions of our people today shows that a strong majority believe that the nation “is on the wrong track.” Given the nation’s emergence from recession well before the election of 1992, well in advance of other nations, I do not think the people mean “on the wrong economic track.” Given that the popular criticisms of our nation’s political class always demand greater accountability, I do not think that the people mean “on the wrong political track” — that is, that the democratic republic is a bad idea. The people are saying, rather, that the politicians need to be reined in by the will of the people.

Thus, the most likely interpretation of “on the wrong track” is neither economic nor political. It is moral: Our people hold that the nation is on the wrong moral track. They have come to fear that we may not be as good a people as our grandparents were. We do not have their morals. We do not have their virtues. We do not have their character. We are a morally emptier people.


The Broken Covenant

This nation has faced many deadly crises that might have brought an end to our national experiment in self-government: The Revolution could have failed. The Civil War could have split the country, eventually, into at least as many nations as Europe today. The First World War, the Second, or the Cold War might have ended in our defeat. The Depression might have blown the country asunder in bitter class war. During these great struggles, even if the threats they faced threatened to be overwhelming, our people had confidence in their own character — they knew they would give it their best shot, you could count on it.

Today, however, for the first time in American history, no great threats from outside are in evidence: We are afraid of our own moral weaknesses. We are no longer sure that we can rely upon our own character, or even upon the help of a favorable God, whose eye could look upon us with pleasure. We do not fear that God has broken His covenant with us. We have reason to fear that we have broken ours with Him.

No one ever guaranteed that America’s national experiment will endure forever. It might cross through the skies like a comet that lasted a little over 200 years, and then went out. “The price of liberty,” our founders used to say, “is everlasting vigilance.” A regime based on Liberty is the most fragile form of regime. The problem with an experiment in liberty is that a single generation, finding it too difficult, might decide one day to give up on it. Last one out, turn out the lights.

I do not think we have the optimism of our forebears in 1889. One hundred and five years after that Lay Congress, we have reason to fear for the future of this Republic. And, fear for it, precisely, on moral and intellectual grounds. Intellectually, morally, our nation is on the wrong track. On our campuses, in our movie industry, on our television talk shows and sitcoms, in our law schools, in our courts, in our newspapers and newsweeklies, in our gay bars and our frenetically busy abortion clinics (slicing to death or killing with acid 1.5 million helpless citizens per year), we have witnessed an aggressive hostility to Judaism and Christianity — to any source of transcendent judgment — a hostility unprecedented in our national experience.

What is dismaying in America today is not the private striving and private virtue of ordinary mothers and fathers of families, grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. It is the corrupt public ethos — the public ecology — that is poisoning our public spaces. This invisible poisonous gas emanates from television sets in our private homes, it enters through virtually all the media. The moral air we breathe these days is foul. The moral ecology of our nation is more polluted, than our cities. Our physical environment is cleaner.

We have barely learned how to think about such things. We are going to have to learn how to think about them. More than once in our history, our nation has experienced a Great Awakening. Today, too, it needs one.



Institutions of Liberty cannot survive in any moral ecology at all. And neither can our Faith. Here, private life and public life need one another. Every time we strike a blow for conversion in our private lives, we make more credible a larger conversion in our public life. Every small act of charity is connected to every other by a billion tiny threads. Acts of love circle the globe with the speed of light. A smile offered to another person circles the planet in less than a day. Our task is to work at knitting together this network of charity, these glowing filaments of love and generosity, through scores of random acts of generosity a day. Our task is to insist publicly upon a recognition of the deepest bases of our lives together: a dispassionate commitment to the evidence of truth, since only truth makes us free; a respect for the “immortal diamond” of every person, since our immortality is the ground of the infinite value and inalienable rights of each; and a joyful love of choosing to do what we ought to do, that is, the joy of obeying freely the law that our Creator wrote into our nature.

For, as our forebears saw, human beings are the only creatures who do not obey the law of their own nature by instinct, but by choice. The American idea of liberty was always twofold, as Tocqueville pointed out in the first 20 pages of Democracy in America: Human liberty is not the same as animal liberty. Animals cannot help obeying the law of their own natures. Animals do what they do by instinct. Humans alone have the choice of doing what they ought to do — or not. Human liberty is not doing what we wish, it is doing what we ought.

All this the French liberal party caught in their design of the Lady of New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty. In her right hand they put the torch of Reason, against the mists of passion, bigotry, and ignorance. In her left hand, they put the Book of the Law. This Lady symbolizes what Pope John Paul II, in his first visit to these shores, called the great American contribution to world civilization, the conception of “ordered liberty.” Liberty under Reason. Liberty under the Law. This concept is reflected in a great patriotic hymn:

Confirm thy soul in self-control

Thy liberty in law.

To be a citizen of this nation — and even more, to be a Catholic — is to have received much. In another verse, that hymn conveys a classical Catholic conception — that everything we have has been received:

America, America

God shed His grace on thee.

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.

It is wonderful to belong to a country that appeals not only to Reason, and not only to Law, but to God’s all-encompassing love. Sinners that we are, unworthy of that love, we need often to give thanks. For our country. Above all, for our Faith.

And, as we have learned today, there is a lot for us to do. The past, our fathers made. The future, we must make.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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