The Present Crisis, Revisited

This month we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Crisis Magazine, and I thought it would be fitting to take a look at the original editorial from the first issue that laid out the purpose of the journal. How have things changed, and how have they stayed the same since those fall days in 1982? Let’s find out.

THOSE OF US who planned this new journal did so under the working title Catholicism in Crisis. We did so with the example of Reinhold Niebuhr vividly in mind, who on February 10, 1941, under analogous circumstances, finding existing periodicals inhospitable, launched Christianity and Crisis. There were many crises in 1941, Niebuhr wrote, but only one the crisis the intention of Hitler’s armies in extinguish Christian civilization in Europe. “Our civilization was built by faith and prayers and hard work,” he wrote “—and it was also built by fighting.”

At the beginning, Ralph McInerny and Michael Novak—the founders of Catholicism in Crisis—lay out the stakes, and they are significant: our very Christian-based civilization is under attack. Forty years later, who would say they are wrong? I’m sure neither McInerny nor Novak imagined a day where a Catholic would be attacked for simply affirming that a man is a man and a woman is a woman, yet here we are. If anything, the attack on our civilization has only intensified.

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Is there a Christian minister who believes that the rights which he daily enjoys and which he takes for granted, like the air he breathes, would be his to enjoy unless these rights had been fought for by Cromwell, by William of Orange and by Washington? Are Protestants in the United States to live off the liberties which others are maintaining for them and then express complete indifference to the fate of those whose sacrifice makes the tranquil and serene life of American Christians possible? Should this become the American Protestant attitude toward the world, it would inscribe one of the darkest pages of the annals of the Church.

No one would ever accuse Crisis of quietism, that’s for sure. One of the most common criticisms of Crisis—although it’s heard less and less these days— is that we focus too much on the problems in the Church and the world. But as McInerny and Novak point out, we are in a serious fight, and one does not win a fight by pretending it doesn’t exist. 

Of course, if we only focused only the “bad news” without giving the “good news” (i.e., the Gospel of Jesus Christ), then our fight would be in vain. We must both point out the dangerous path many are on, as well as the path that leads to God. 

In 1941, the Christian Church was threatened with extinction in the North Atlantic. Today the crisis which threatens Catholicism is worldwide and far more formidable in military and police power than the juggernaut built by Adolph Hitler. While that crisis can never be far from our thoughts, it is not the crisis we have most in mind in launching this journal in 1982.

In a lesser sense, our crisis is literary. We are dissatisfied with existing Catholic journals and with — as we see it — the deteriorating quality of Catholic intellectual life. As Alasdair Maclntyre describes it in another context, too much moral “debate” has been reduced to shouting slogans at one another across partisan lines.

“Today the crisis which threatens Catholicism is worldwide and far more formidable in military and police power than the juggernaut built by Adolph Hitler.” Strong words, but what serious Catholic would deny it today? Hitler was a monster, but he was a monster we could see, resist, and ultimately defeat. Today’s enemies are often hidden in our rectories, chanceries, and even in curial offices. They seek to undermine the very foundations of our civilization and our faith, all while claiming to speak in Christ’s name. 

The Editors believe that what used to be called “the liberal Catholic tradition” has virtually disappeared in the United States. Moreover, the intellectual divisions of twenty years ago between “progressives” and “conservatives” are now out of date. Many who used to be liberal have moved decisively to the left, both in substance and in style of argument. Many, formerly conservatives, have become inventive, socially conscious and politically concerned. A new Catholic spirit is being born. It calls for a new voice.

Political terms are always shifting. Today’s progressive is tomorrow’s conservative. When Crisis was founded, most progressives were adamantly anti-war. Now they are in bed with the military-industrial complex. Conservativism has changed as well—who in 1982 would have thought that there would be leading conservatives who support “gay marriage?” 

Crisis has always been known as a “conservative” magazine, and that’s relatively accurate. At one time, it was the Catholic standard-bearer for the Republican party. But in today’s era of political disintegration, that’s no longer true. Ultimately, Crisis stands with Catholicism, as understood in the long tradition of the Church. So even if conservatives today now advocate for yesterday’s liberal causes, Crisis will have no hesitation in opposing such capitulations to the culture. 

Moreover, the crisis in which we find ourselves is one of faith and theology, especially concerning questions of the temporal order and the role of the laity.

Stated precisely, the crisis is that clerical power — not only in the bishops and in their administrative stalls — has become overweening. This is a direct consequence of so-called “Vatican II theology.” This “new theology” has four parts. Each of them weakens laymen and laywomen in their proper vocation.

Here McInerny and Novak really pinpoint the roots of the crisis in the Church: Clerics have become political instead of spiritual voices, trading in their prophetic role for a seat at the latest DC cocktail party.

First is the misuse of the “collegiality” of bishops. In itself, linked to the pre-eminent authority of the Pope, such collegiality is good. But certain institutional developments seem to us quite errant. National conferences of bishops are bringing political divisions into the church.

From the beginning Crisis has been wholly opposed to the national conferences of bishops which have always been political arms of the progressive establishment. Sadly, bishops today still often exchange their divinely-ordered roles as successors to the apostles to instead be middle-managers and social workers.  

Second is the diminishment of the clergy. Many younger clergymen stress “the priesthood of the laity” in a false way, so as to diminish the distinctiveness of their own priestly role and, in effect, merely to patronize the laity. We who are laymen and laywomen are not, and do not aspire to be, priests. We do not want priests usurping lay roles. We need, and desire, a sharper theology of differentiation.

Third is the aggrandizement of the clergy. Even as the distinction between vocations (manifested even in dress) is being fudged, clergymen are everywhere preempting lay roles. There is a manifest and tangible clericalization of the Catholic church, worse now than before the Council. More and more often, priests and bishops make political, economic and social pronouncements about the temporal order, to which the laity is expected solely to react. This is an inversion of vocations and roles. It thwarts the normal workings of grace and personal vocation. It compounds mutual weaknesses. It invites hubris.

It is a paradox that we live in a time both of clericalism and anticlerical sentiment within the Church. On the one hand, the clergy try to tell the laity what to do in areas that should be under lay authority (such as politics and economics). On the other hand, any sacramental aspects of the clergy are diminished, leading to a blurring between clergy and lay in the average parish.

Fourth is the diminishment of words of faith and holiness of life. Words like “prophecy,” “witness,” and “charism” are more and more used for strictly partisan political opinions, less and less used of authentic faith and practice. This is a species of theological imperialism, the coercion of false labeling.

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.

This is also the crisis in the Catholic Church in 2022: Catholics don’t know their own identity. Many parishes have become little more than social clubs, and many Catholics do not realize the beauty and power of the Catholic Faith, thinking it but one of many political or social viewpoints.

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 are neither socialists nor traditionalists.” A lot has happened in the past few decades to make “traditionalists” less of a boogey-man than they were back in 1982. Here we see perhaps too much acceptance of the progressive doctrine of “social progress.” Catholic tradition, while it does develop, ultimately is anchored to the timeless truths of the Faith, truths which do not progress but instead call every age to conform to them.

We dread the “great, climactic battle” which Solzhenitsyn predicts on the horizon. We resist the flirtation of so many in the 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.

We are clearly in the “great, climactic battle” today, and sadly that “new spring” in which McInerny and Novak yearned for has not yet come. Most, in fact, would argue that the crisis has only increased since 1982. Yet we still should be filled with hope, not because a new spring will soon come here on earth in our lifetimes, but because we know the end of the story when all crises will end and Our Lord Jesus Christ will reign as King over all. That is what the founders of Crisis wanted, and what we still want today.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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