Counterpoint: Crossing the Line

Editor’s Note: The article that follows is Msgr. George Higgins’ syndicated column, The Yardstick, which appeared in several Catholic newspapers in April. (Copyright 1985 by NC News Service. Reprinted by permission.) Msgr. Higgins criticizes Catholicism in Crisis for taking exception to some statements by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the Chicago Catholic—statements we thought (despite the humane concern evinced therein over gang violence in Chicago) were rather excessively partisan. In a spirit of fraternal disagreement, Michael Novak responds to Msgr. Higgins.

For years I have enjoyed subscribing to some 30 or 40 periodicals covering almost every shade of opinion. And the list continues to grow, one of the most recent additions being Catholicism in Crisis, a journal of lay Catholic opinion published at, but not by, Notre Dame University. Ralph Mclnerny, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame University, is the magazine’s editor and publisher. Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute is a co-founder. The editorial board includes a dozen well-known Catholic journalists and academicians, men and women of intellectual substance.

At first glance, the editorial board represents an improbable mix of people who have been called “liberals,” “conservatives” and “neo-conservatives” or “neo-liberals.” One must assume that they disagree in private on some issues; these days, however, they seldom if ever do so in public. What seems to have united them is a conviction that their viewpoint—which, of course, differs markedly from that of many other equally well-informed lay people—is not being adequately reflected in the Catholic press. It has never been altogether clear to me how they define the “crisis in Catholicism.” From what I know of them individually, I doubt they would all define it in quite the same way. Nonetheless they are convinced that, however defined, the crisis is desperately serious.

I became a charter subscriber in hopes that the magazine would offer a vigorous presentation of the editors’ views on political, socio-economic and church issues—call it the neo-conservative view for want of a better term. I knew I would often disagree, but that was added reason to subscribe. I expected great sophistication and the presentation of a range of contrasting views. But instead of the open-minded pluralism I anticipated, Catholicism in Crisis is beginning to sound more and more like a house organ for a limited group of people. It has become excessively, almost obsessively, preoccupied with keeping the bishops in their place and keeping them humble about matters of public policy. That’s fair enough within limits, and the bishops generally have learned to take their lumps. But Catholicism in Crisis, in my opinion, is running a good thing into the ground.

My main objection is that it is beginning to indulge rather stridently in ad hominem rhetoric. A recent case in point is Ralph Mclnerny’s lead editorial, “Why Kids Are Killing One Another in Chicago” [March 1985], a diatribe against Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Mclnerny violently disagrees with the cardinal on almost every issue. That’s certainly his right. But this article, based on secondhand accounts of a recent speech by the cardinal, was sarcastic and patronizing. Mclnerny also tries to play New York’s Archbishop John O’Connor off against the cardinal, at the latter’s expense. That’s the oldest ploy in the world—divide and conquer. Meanwhile, the archbishop has gone out of his way to dispel the notion that he and Cardinal Bernardin are at odds on the key issues cited in Mclnerny’s editorial. In fact, Archbishop O’Connor has recently joined with Cardinal Bernardin in supporting public policies which are anathema to Mclnerny.

Editorial board members can hardly expect anyone to take Catholicism in Crisis seriously unless they dissociate themselves from such attacks. Churchmen who speak out on public issues should expect criticism, and there is ample room in the Catholic press for aggressive, hard-hitting polemics. There is a fine line, however, between the legitimate give-and-take of vigorous public debate and sarcastic rhetoric. Mclnerny has crossed that line, and it’s time his associates caution him to pull back before he plunges headlong over the editorial cliff and takes the magazine with him.


Michael Novak replies:

Over many years, my good friend Monsignor George Higgins has shown a thick skin, has taken criticism easily, and has been rather candid in outrage against excessive clerical forays into politics (not long ago, he called one archbishop, publicly, “a loose cannon”). Recently, though, some of Monsignor Higgins’ best friends are being criticized for analogous excessive forays, and he is becoming uncharacteristically defensive. I always listen carefully to what Monsignor Higgins says; he tries to be scrupulously fair. In this case, though, I think his heart was softer toward one side.

Cardinal Bernardin’s partisan political statements at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, in a discussion about local gang violence, were reported at considerable length and with not a little flourish in the Chicago Catholic. One assumes the Cardinal’s newspaper quoted him correctly and presented him fairly. Indeed, Monsignor Higgins takes no stand on the substance of what the Cardinal said.

Neither does Monsignor Higgins take any stand on the substance of the critique Mr. Mclnerny makes of what the Cardinal said. Quite carefully, in fact, Mr. Mclnerny protects the office of archbishop; he wanted the Archbishop to be Archbishop; what he would have wished to hear were “a few appropriate pastoral things.” Mclnerny was specifically angered by partisan political comments that received, according to the Chicago Catholic, “the longest applause of the evening.” In Chicago, an explicit attack upon a Republican administration by the Archbishop, in the presence of the Democratic mayor and his political machine, is big news.

Monsignor Higgins accuses Mclnerny of erring not in substance, but in tone. The Monsignor refers to the column as “sarcastic and patronizing.” The Monsignor agrees that there is “ample room in the Catholic press for aggressive, hard-hitting polemics.” But he has in mind “a fine line… between the legitimate give-and-take of vigorous public debate and sarcastic rhetoric.” He thinks “Mclnerny has crossed that line.” A poor Slovak knows better than to step between two Irishmen arguing over “the fine line” between “aggressive, hard-hitting polemics” and “sarcastic rhetoric.”

But there is a larger issue here. When an Archbishop crosses “the fine line” of partisan politics, those Catholics who passionately disagree with him on the partisan issues face a dilemma. Should they respond with the respect due an Archbishop in his priestly and episcopal office? Or should they respond with the passion appropriate to partisan political debate? The appropriate literary form for partisan politics includes considerable passion and loud applause. Cardinal Bernardin stirred that passion. If Mclnerny is at fault, is not the Cardinal as well?

In proportion as the Catholic bishops of the U.S. are engaging in a policy of political activism, taking sides on highly partisan issues of the day, they are stirring up the wholly foreseeable partisan political passions typical of that realm of discourse. And that is, indeed, “a crisis in Catholicism.” Monsignor Higgins is responding to its symptoms.

Monsignor Higgins also asserts that Mclnerny “tries to play New York’s Archbishop John O’Connor off against the Cardinal.” What Mclnerny actually wrote was as follows: “Imagine what St. Paul would have said to those distressed seven hundred [gathered in St. Aloysius Church in the pain brought on by teenage gang murders]. Or John Paul II. Or Mother Teresa. Or Archbishop O’Connor.”

If Archbishop O’Connor does, in fact, approve of the insertion of partisan political judgments into such occasions, then the same criticism would be applicable to Archbishop O’Connor. That, too, would be a crisis.

I recognize that the U.S. Catholic bishops have publicly defended the upside of their deliberate, increasing activism in partisan politics; it does bear some good fruits. (In this context “partisan” does not only mean “endorsing candidates by name”; it also means endorsing highly contingent prudential judgments already defined along partisan lines.) I don’t see much evidence yet that the bishops have fully faced the downside. Partisan political leaders—let me mention Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan as examples—often stir immense passions, including hatred. (“LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) Do the U.S. Catholic bishops really intend to stir such passions? If so, the pressure it puts upon those clergy and laity who wish to respond to their episcopal authority in full, but who do not share—and may, in some cases, abhor—their partisan prudential judgments is both immense and cruel.

This is the larger issue. Monsignor Higgins has shown himself in the past fully aware of it. Moreover, he himself strives manfully to conduct his own “aggressive, hardhitting polemics” within the bounds of charity. I think on this one he felt unnecessarily protective of Cardinal Bernardin.

In my own experience, well-meaning people hardly ever recognize that they themselves are being ideological or partisan. From their point of view, they are only seeing reality as it is; to them, all the others seem ideological. Possibly, this is what happened to Cardinal Bernardin at St. Aloysius. It is important for each of us to learn, by quick and often passionate feedback, when it is that what we think is reality seems to others like partisan ideology. This was the gift Mclnerny, than whom a more loyal and serious Catholic is hard to find, offered Cardinal Bernardin. Since I myself am a frequent butt of sarcasm and worse, let me say that Cardinal Bernardin in Mclnerny’s hands received loyal and gentle treatment, compared with what many of us must learn to live with. The territory of partisan politics is hot; it is a kind of Purgatory.

Let us hope that in the crisis in our Church, our treatments of one another grow gentler.

  • Michael Novak

    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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