Open Church, Venitian Blinds

My office is on a top floor, in a corner, with windows south and west, through which the sun can, when it chooses, pour enough solar heat to drench a tropical greenhouse. You could call it “the open office.” Thank God for Venetian blinds.

What is happening to “the open church?” Not a few good and strong spirits are saying openly — it is not their finest moment — that Rome is now conducting a “witch hunt” against the American church. The newspapers say that Archbishop Hunthausen is being investigated, other reports say that so are at least three other bishops; so are the religious communities and the seminaries. The Sisters of Mercy are being squeezed. Many Jesuits still feel rage because the pope took their society out of their hands in 1981, until their recent constitutional process was resumed in Rome. Paranoia is on the rise.

Are we headed backwards to “the closed church” of pre-Vatican 11? Even in 1965, many predicted that the almost completely unobstructed liberties which would take place during the next decades would someday meet a tilted Venetian blind. The point of liberty is not liberty. The church has always opposed total laissez-faire. As markets must be regulated, within reason and for the common good, so must the marketplace of ideas within theology itself. The purpose of liberty is to serve the common good, and though the benefit of doubt should, for the sake of the common good, go to liberty, some restraints are typically in order.

Now it is quite remarkable that some who are democratic socialists in political economy are libertarians in theology. And some who excoriate the “sinful structures” of capitalism and the evils of the unregulated economic market-place are now announcing to the Pope that the American system is healthier than the Vatican system.

We are returning to the discussions of the rights of dissent, authority, freedom and order, of twenty years ago — in a new context. And Pope John Paul II is placing the American Catholic church (among others) squarely in a critical light.

In petulant response, some note that there are 900,000 abortions in Poland every year; why, they ask, does the Pope not attend to that? The average Polish young couple waits nine years for government assignment of an apartment, and meanwhile is crowded into small rooms with the parents of one of them. Couples have to walk outside, or visit in cafes, even to have a marital argument. Mean- while, of course, in an unfree state some Poles are only nominally Catholic, sometimes politically Catholic more than theologically so; and most are deprived of sustained Catholic education outside the family. Still, 900,000 abortions a year represent a tragedy in a very high percentage of Polish couples of childbearing age. It is one among the many agonies of Poland.

On the other hand, reports circulate that in the U.S. one in four coeds at Catholic colleges has an abortion sometime during her college career. Something is awry in Catholic life in the United States today, too — and not because of a governing Party’s control of housing.

The Wanderer has recently described the United States in doleful terms:

Catholic Americans are on the verge of being simply Americanized Catholics, which is to say secularized Catholics, for America is the example par excellence of secularism…. If people are tempted to deny the truth of all of this, I suggest those so tempted ask themselves why Irish Catholics could win a two-to-one vote for constitutional protection of the un-born, while Catholic Americans cannot even get such a proposal approved for presentation to the states, or brought to a national convention.

Commonweal has taken a different tack:

The level of Catholic belief and practice remains much higher in the U.S. than in Europe; weekly church attendance, for example, is two-and- a-half times the European average, double what one finds, say, either in “radicalized” Netherlands or “traditional” Belgium. The ratio of priests to laity is twice as high in the U.S. as in Poland, and even the ratio of seminarians is higher. (Surveys show that Polish Catholics are no different than Americans in rejecting official teachings on sexuality and contraception; and one report estimated that there were more abortions than live births in over-whelmingly Catholic Poland, a statistic that raises some questions about the effectiveness of traditional church structures) … There is no reason for the American church to be put on probation by Rome.

Both these pictures contain some truth. Still, according to Gallup, no people in the world is more religious in belief and in practice than the American people. None goes to church more frequently, reads the Scripture and prays more frequently, and reports opinions closer to Christian orthodoxy. So the people of the U.S. are not nearly so secular — compared to every other people on earth — as The Wanderer thinks. On the other hand, the good news cited by Commonweal has a dark side, especially since Western Europe and the U.S. are freer than Poland to do better.

One of the crucial issues is the authority of the papacy. Many “progressive” Catholics seem nowadays to take the view that the correct interpretation of Catholic faith on any issue belongs to the community of theologians, and that the role of the papacy is to stand back and to allow due process to take its course. Anything beyond that is a show of “muscle.” Let the theologians decide.

So, for example, goes the argument on women priests. If three Catholic learned societies announce that nothing in the Gospels tells against women priests (women deacons, after all, are mentioned in the New Testament), then the pope cannot step in and rule otherwise, despite the long tradition of the church. So we face again, as often before in history, a fundamental question: What sort of organization is the Catholic Church? How does it differ from other organizations?

A great movement seems underway to drive the papacy into an ever smaller role; as if, in effect, the pope’s role were to bestow papal approbation on views settled upon by others. The charism of authority is subtly being shifted into a charism of ratification. There is obviously some truth to this. No pope works in a theological vacuum. Theological intellect does necessary pioneering in every area. Thus is doctrine kept ever fresh; thus are the perplexities and new challenges of every age sifted through; thus does the church as a community of believers maintain its intellectual vigor. But who decides? The theologians of a generation, or the pope?

My own interest in this question has been publicly declared. On one question — the right morality of contraception within marriage, as I have briefly explained in Confession of a Catholic, having remained relatively silent on this issue since Humanae Vitae — I have accepted the theologian’s obligation to report his own findings, while explicitly recognizing that mine fall, alas, outside the bounds of the recent proclamations of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. I recognize the obligation of theologians to affirm the truth as they see it. But I also believe that the Pope has the charism of authority, which claims precedence over my right to dissent. He is charged to interpret the Catholic faith, as a theologian is not.

What happens next? I wish I knew. Were I asked to keep silence on this point, I surely would. My case has been stated; that obligation to the community of faith has been met.

The sun, like liberty, is a very good and open resource; but human life depends on shade and shelter, on order and discipline and common life, as much as on sun and liberty. We need not return to pre-Vatican II theology and practice, to “non-historical orthodoxy,” in order to recognize that after Vatican II the common faith has suffered from excesses of the opposite kind, from “non- historical neodoxy,” the love of the new, under the hot passions of our own unusually ideological age.

Venetian blinds do not destroy the open glass they shield, and open windows are better served than not by screens. Everyone recognized at Vatican II that difficult days would follow the honeymoon. They’re here.

Some traditionalists still seem unnecessarily narrow-minded and vindictive; some progressives now seem unnecessarily triumphal and hostile — but a large body of Catholics, neither conservative nor progressive by rote, seeks a new synthesis of the principles of liberty and of authority. The cranky mood of the present will surely yield to humility, prayer, and the clearest possible thinking.

  • 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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